Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Better Yourself: Read This Blog

I recently added a link to the blogroll without explanation, waiting for permission to post what's below before I made the big introduction. The blog is called The List of Betterment, and it's maintained (sporadically, but brilliantly) by Andy Miller, a British writer and former book editor who has been reading classics (both ancient and modern) and sharing his opinions. His quest to catch up on these books -- many of which he's falsely claimed to have read (at cocktail parties, etc.) -- will be chronicled in his own book, out next year. I was to be the book's U.S. editor, and leaving it behind caused me no small amount of grief. It's going to be a must-read.

Miller has graciously allowed me to share the following post with you. It's about The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the first known works of literature. It predates the Iliad by a millennium. (What's the opposite of "anxiety of influence"?)

Here's Miller. Check out his blog for lots more:
Its historical significance is undeniable but The Epic of Gilgamesh was also the favourite book of a man I used to work with at a bookshop in the early 1990s. His name was David and he was, and still is, an artist – I heard him on Radio 4 a few months ago, discussing a new piece of his work, a collaborative project with old people suffering from senile dementia, and utilizing the same lifelike politeness he used to practise on customers. When I knew him he bought the art books and laboured in the shop’s unpacking room. He was both charismatic and rather intimidating. In addition to Gilgamesh, he was also a fan of, variously: high-quality black t-shirts from boutiques (as opposed to crappy ones from Camden market, as worn by me); pilfered medical slides, showing real hermaphrodites, amputees etc., which he would giggle over during tea-breaks; Laurie Anderson’s concept albums; the art of Joel-Peter Witkin, whose photographic portraits were comprised of severed body parts, fat women knocking nails into their own heads etc.; occasional recreational drug use; Polaroid photographs of ironing boards, in use or propped up in repose, which he intended to publish in a book, a high quality cloth-bound limited edition of one (I hope he did it); and Moby-Dick.

David liked Moby-Dick a lot. Did I first try to read it to get in with him? Probably. Our bookshop co-worker Mike read it at around the same time. Mike was the singer in a band called the Becketts. Whereas I couldn’t get past the first hundred pages, Mike was so bowled over by Moby-Dick he wrote a song about it called ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’, which the Becketts recorded for their second album Myth – 600 pages condensed to three indie-rock minutes. It was quite catchy. The chorus went:

“Ship to shore!
What Ahab saw
Before it drooowned him!”

Short but ingenious.

Anyway, Gilgamesh. I don’t remember exactly what it was David – never Dave – liked so much about the story, but I know it was the first time I had ever heard of it; reading the tale fifteen years later is probably another belated attempt to get in with him. Well, David, this time I’ve actually read it. And if I were to condense it in song, the chorus would go like this:

God or flesh
You’re only huuuuman!

(Which, if you know what happens in the book, is really clever, trust me...)

In his introduction, the translator-poet Stephen Mitchell hammers the parallels between the ancient text and the current situation in Iraq (Gilgamesh = Bush), but he’s got a book to sell, so let’s ignore him. This is a great big rollicking story of gods and superheroes, with plenty of sex, violence, tests and quests, a Noah-like flood, a clever, textually-aware ending and a suitable comeuppance for the order-defying hero. It easily survives the translation from clay tablet to page, and from the second millennium BC to the 21st century AD.

For the lesson of Gilgamesh is this. It teaches us not just that power corrupts (yes, Stephen Mitchell, WE GET IT!) but more importantly it shows us that, whether in ancient Mesopotamia, historic Earls Court or contemporary Kent, people will always want to read about acts of insane bravery, sexually rapacious priestesses and men chopping the heads off monsters. But only a few people want to read about ironing boards. And those are the ones I like.


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