Patrick Ward words, code, and music

Sunday Surfeit #1 - The Beginning

A surfeit can be generally described as an excess of something, usually in terms of eating or drinking. In other words: a gluttonous meal. Which is what I feel I’ve eaten at the end of the week, when I’ve collected too much reading material, too many thoughts, and a general distemper for any more mental gymnastics — be they technical or literary in nature. I overindulge in my zeal toward subjects I’m interested in.

But these informative meals can be a glorious celebration of excess as well. And, since I collect a seemingly random surfeit of fascinating links, readings, and thoughts throughout the week, I thought it would be fun to collect them into a post each Sunday and share them with the world.

And thus is born the Sunday Surfeit for your general humor or dislike; your choice.

Reading

The reading selections for the first few weeks of 2011 have been according to a rather ambitious plan I have for the year. I’m starting way back in the 17th century and moving forward in time, with a few dips farther back when the schedule permits and some necessary distractions with more modern novels as well. The bulk of it is English and American literature, some of which I’ve read before. But, I am coming back to them with a more experienced mind. When I first studied literature at college, 20 years ago, I found it fascinating. But, I’m not sure I fully understood the impact it had on me then or the insights into the human experience that it seems to afford me. Regardless, it’s become my new passion, and so I’m jumping into this literary pool head first.

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders (1683) by Daniel Defoe

Written in the picaresque tradition of rogues and scoundrels, Moll Flanders is the story of a woman who on the surface seems to have no morals. It’s a truly contemptible life described by Mrs. Flanders herself. And yet, beneath the surface of this scandalous life of harlotry, adultery, thievery, and lying is a message about our own hidden lives. It seems to ask the question: do we really know the other people in our lives? And do they really know us? For a novel written in 1683, it’s surprisingly existential. And, in contrast to other novels of it’s time, it has a disturbingly honest look at the ordinary lives of people. It asks the question: how morally scrupulous is any life?

It took me some time to get into the novel given the elevated, seventeenth century language used. However, once I became accustomed to it, I found myself engaged and excited to see what new misfortune this woman would find herself in next.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1791) by Benjamin Franklin

Ben Franklin needs no introduction as one of our most beloved founding fathers in America. I had heard about and read about this book for years, but never sat down and actually read it until this month. Again, the language is not modern, so it took some time to get myself acclimated to the phrasing. But, it’s far more modern in tone than Defoe’s work.

In general, it’s the story of the self-made man. And, in deep contrast to other more Puritan works of its time, the book can be described as naturalistic, secular, diplomatic, enterprising and pointing forward towards a very American sense of self-reliance.

Throughout it, are peppered various anecdotes about life that are worth the read alone. Some, I believe, are written almost tongue-in-cheek, such as his admission to stopping his vegetarian diet with a slightly flawed sense of logic and a taste for the fish he so desired: “So convenient it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”

I was disappointed, though, to find that the book only chronicles his time up to around 1760 and doesn’t cover the events of the Revolutionary War or the birth of our new country. But, I can see in it the ideas of a time that led to the concept of a new country. Franklin was truly an industrious and brilliant man for his time (or any time for that matter). His earnest desire to be a virtuous man and right the errors of his youth as well as create a wonderful place for people to live is inspiring.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) by Washington Irving

Sleepy Hollow is one of those stories whose reputation is larger than the story itself. It’s a wonderful story, though. And, when looked at through the prism of a new country, you can see how the town of Sleepy Hollow and it’s grotesque, intellectual, and comical protagonist Ichabod Crane stands in stark contrast to the brash, roughneck, and strong nature of his antagonist Bram Bones. And though we are rooting for Crane, I can’t help but think that he’s representative of the past in contrast to the roughneck like nature of the “new” America that Bones represents. Such a fun story; I smiled when the pumpkin was thrown.

Rip Van Winkle (1819) by Washington Irving

I hadn’t read this story in ages, and I had forgotten what it was really about. If you know the story, it’s obviously about a man who slept through his life. But, there are details inside this story that describe the events he actually slept through: The American Revolution! So that, when he awakes, the scenes are drastically different from the past: the feel of the country is different with it’s business and bustle in the streets; the discussions are about “rights of citizens”, “elections”, and “liberty” — topics unknown to him twenty years earlier; the sights have changed — King George’s red coat is painted over with Blue and made into George Washington. In his slumber, Rip Van Winkle slept through the single, most important events of the new America.

But beyond these incredible scenes are some fascinating Freudian and existential insights as well. At some point he asks, “Does no one here know Rip Van Winkle?” before seeing his double, his son, but a younger version of himself. Couple this with themes of escape, memory, sleeping through your life, and male menopause and you come away with an amazing amount of detail in such a short story. Well worth the read again.

Next up

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759 - 1769) by Laurence Sterne

I’ve just started this book and it’s truly one of the most zany, rambling, and humorous books of it’s period that I’ve ever read. It’s almost maddening to read; a very odd book written by a clergyman with a very keen sense of wit.

Several essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson

It’s been twenty years since I cracked open an Emerson essay and I’m looking forward to it again. On deck are Nature, History, The Poet, The Over-Soul, Self-Reliance, and Experience.

Writing

The writing efforts have been in my private journal only, and this is a serious problem. Because, writing for yourself is vastly different from writing for other people, which requires a different kind of thought process. It’s less of a mental dialog to myself (which is rambling and incoherent at times) and more of a sustained conversation with an imaginary friend I’m writing to. There is obviously a mental shift that I haven’t made yet, and that’s holding me back. However, I have a new goal for the coming week that I hope to give a favorable report on next week. So, let’s keep our collective fingers crossed that the gremlins inside allow me some modicum of public creativity over the next seven days.

Even though my reading schedule is fairly busy in the evenings, I do find the time to peruse some interesting articles on the internet. Some of these aren’t very new, but they are worth your reading pleasure in my opinion.

New Huckleberry Finn edition censors ‘n-word’

It irks me when a classic text is edited for modern sensibilities. And in this case, it’s just wrong. The irony is that Huckleberry Finn is one of the most anti-racist books of it’s time; the n-word itself is used to further that message.

The Iron by Henry Rollins

“When the Iron doesn’t want to come off the mat, it’s the kindest thing it can do for you.”

A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace
by John Perry Barlow

Old and still not realized, but always fun to read.

7 Reasons the 21st Century is Making You Miserable
by David Wong (Senior Editor of Cracked.com)

A humorous, and yet, insightful take on modern day life.

Five Things of 2010
by Felicia Day

Some excellent advice for creative types here.

Kevin Kelly on the next 5,000 days of the web

This was recorded in 2007, but I think we can already see some of what he’s talking about in this TED talk.

Ok, I’ve bored you long enough. Till next time…