Some books are a pleasure to read

Some books are a real pleasure to read. Hopefully most fiction is a pleasure to someone; but all too often, it seems like “readability” is not so much the second priority for academic work, but a long way down the list, after “contains enough made-up words to make me sound smart”.

Today, I am a very happy little Vegemite, because my own personal copy of Simon Gaunt’s Gender and Genre in Medieval French Literature arrived by parcel post! Firstly, it’s PRETTY – the original cover is lovely, much more appealing than the beat-up orange cover the library have on their copy. Secondly, I obtained it for $20 AUS from a second-handbookshop who obviously didn’t realise that places like Amazon sell it for fifty-something US secondhand.

Thirdly, it’s a VERY USEFUL BOOK for my  scholarly purposes. And many others! I have now added “monologic masculinity” to my list of bewildering terms to pull out in pop-culture analysis. I have determined, just for example, that in Star Trek (XI), the opposition between Kirk and Spock could be considered a “monologic of masculinity” – defining or representing masculine behavior by creating an opposition between two fundamentally similar characters; this opposition will eventually be overcome and the audience will understand the character’s common purpose and identity. Granted, the opposition between Kirk and Spock is rather more pronounced than that between, say, Olivier and Roland, and they don’t start from a position of friendship and loyalty – but the parallel childhood scenes at the beginning of the movie establish common traits of aggression, isolation, and Serious Freudian Issues. As Gaunt argues w/r/t to the Chanson de Geste, women *exist* in Star Trek (XI). The female characters are even pretty interesting! But neither Kirk nor Spock’s masculinity is developed in relation to Uhura, or even their omipresent Mummy Issues. It’s all about the m/m conflict, its eventual resolution and the discovery of basic commonality.

Conversely, I would say Whip It was interesting in that it attempted to create a monologic of femininity,  or perhaps womanhood. This was not really a possibility raised by Simon Gaunt (so far – I’m only up to the hagiography chapter), and given that the function of femininity in medieval narrative is usually (as Gaunt argues) to complement and define masculinity, that’s not surprising. It’s quite surprising that so few narratives today construct female characters primarily in relation to other female characters, but that is an essay for another day! Point is, Simon Gaunt is useful like that. If you ever wanted to compare Star Trek to the Chanson de Roland, that’s where I suggest you start!

Fourthly, this is a beautifully written book. Gaunt’s prose is smooth, he juggles complex theory without resorting to jargon, and you don’t find yourself sitting back and scratching your head thinking “what on earth? How did this relate to anything?” I would read this book for fun (and then apply it to Star Trek, as you can tell)! I consider myself rather lucky that I get to read it for Serious Purposes.

Another thing making me happy this week is that I’m reunited with an old friend, Geoffrey Barraclough’s The Medieval Papacy. I know this book is horribly out-of-date, but it’s still one of my favourites. I’m also very fond of Barraclough’s history of the early medieval Europe. Big, sweeping histories like that could be incredibly dull, but Barraclough manages to recount facts simply and tell stories well: so he’s the first place I turn when I need to know something obscure (in this case, 12th century marriage law) but have forgotten all the surrounding context as well.

The third thing that’s making me happy is that I own this t-shirt in a lovely shade of red. I was going to take a photo of it and my copy of Gender and Genre, and show off my incredibly geeky materialism. But, since the t-shirt is a man’s shirt (either all the women’s shirts were sold out, or Geoffrey Chaucer foolishly thought that women wouldn’t buy a t-shirt saying “I’m impossible to date… like Beowulf”), the writing is positioned in a really unfortunate latitude, and there’s no way to take webcam photos that actually show all the text.

So: tell me about your favourite academic authors who also write pleasurable prose? Or, possibly, help me decide which Chaucer blogger shirt I need next (John/Eleanor Rykener, or No I Do Not Know the Truth About King Arthur?)

~

*Possibly because of the memorable occasion in first year, upon which I was book-hunting at 9.30 pm in the evening, having taken a nine-floor drop in an antiquated elevator and accordingly lost all my balance, and security found me staggering about on the first floor of Fisher, bumping into shelves in a zig-zag pattern and clutching my good friend Barraclough. I’m fairly sure they weren’t thinking “sleep-deprived and lift-sick”, but they did leave me alone to stagger my way back up to the loans desk.

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8 Responses to “Some books are a pleasure to read”

  1. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    Points of agreement, 1, I have seen Simon Gaunt present research and he is extremely entertaining, and this was at a point when I was much more anti-literary-turn than I am now; 2, there is little better than Barraclough’s book for its subject in English, which is both a commendation of him and an indictment of the field since. 3, the King Arthur one, people will ask you, you may as well be ready.

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      1. Simon Gaunt is awesome. This are trufax.

      2. Huh. I knew *I* hadn’t found anything better, but sometimes that’s because my bibliographic skills go walkies; or because my lecturers at the genderalist stage, while *absolutely wonderful men and brilliant at transmitting their knowledge* were kind of fossilised after 1990, unless the topic at hand specifically related to the size and proportions of crusader ships; or because Fisher library is bizarrely lacking in crucial things sometimes. (Seriously. ONLY UNIVERSITY IN THE COUNTRY TEACHING ANGLO-SAXON, and we don’t have the new companion to AElfric! I had to ILL it from Macquarie, who don’t even teach the damn subject.)

      3. People keep telling me about the fantasy novels of dubious quality that they plan to write. One or two I have some faith in, but the dude who wants to set Arthurian legend in Meringovian france and somehow combine it with superhero comics? NOT SO MUCH.

  2. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    Points of agreement, 1, I have seen Simon Gaunt present research and he is extremely entertaining, and this was at a point when I was much more anti-literary-turn than I am now; 2, there is little better than Barraclough’s book for its subject in English, which is both a commendation of him and an indictment of the field since. 3, the King Arthur one, people will ask you, you may as well be ready.

  3. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    Sorry about the double post there; I clicked Stop but obviously not quick enough. Arthur ought, of course, in the biggest version of the cycle, to go and kick Clovis’s rear on his way to Rome, just somehow Geoffrey forgot that. Superheroism, however, as you say, NSM. Late Antiquity knows no spandex.

    Isn’t there some early medievalist type at Macquarrie who basically explains their library? I think I’ve met such a person at a conference.

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      There is! Her name is Antonina, and I am eternally grateful to her for ordering said books in!

      • Jonathan Jarrett Says:

        Aha, yes. That’s not whom I meant, not that I know whom I did mean but he was more boy-historical than that. And may have been at Sydney. About twelve years ago. Or maybe somewhere else. Anyway, hurrah for people who stock libraries for others!


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