Staff Picks: Books

Staff-recommended reading from the KPL catalog.

Love Part 13: Chaucer

Nobody can escape love, says Chaucer in Troilus and Criseyde; nature forces it onto people as she sees fit. The universe calls us to love: "God loves, and grants that love shall be eternal / All creatures in the world through love exists." Love "saves mankind from wickedness and shame" and "converted thee from all wickedness." And if we don't love, Nature tries to change our mind, it will stike back, come to you, well up:

And loveless hearts, let them by Love be bent
To learn to love, and thus in pity grow,
But faithful hearts may Love keep ever so!

But much of Chaucer's poem, about a knight falling in love with the beautful Criseyde, is not about how great and beautiful love is, but how horrible and stressful it is. Like Cupid, God shoots an arrow of love-at-first-sight disease at the independent knight, "though he thought that nothing had the might / To curb the heart of such a one as he / Yet with a look, no longer was he free, / And he who stood but now in pride above / All men, at once was subject most to Love.” But, Chaucer replies, “scorn not Love…For still the common fate on you must fall / That love, at nature’s very heart indwelling, / Shall bind all things by nature’s might compelling / …men of greatest worth have deepest loved / …For wisest men have most with love been pleased.”

For for the woman especially, love is bondage. At one point she has a "cloudy thought," “Alas, since I am free, / Should I now love and risk my happy state / And maybe put in bonds my liberty?...who loveth not, no cause hath to complain.” She does not fall in love with him on appearances: "No, moral virtue, firmly set and true, / That was the reason why I first loved you." And another knight bases his choice (a "burden") on her "goodness." So we have a mix of the Plato-Aristotle love for virtue's sake theme, and the medieval love-at-first-sight as well.

The Clerk's Tale is a ghastly story about a rich knight marrying a poor woman, testing her loyalty in a Job-like way by taking away her new born children, only to find out at the very end that the story is not about sexist attitude towards women. It's not about that, says the author directly: “This story’s told here, not that all wives should / Follow Griselda in humility, / For this would be unbearable / But just that everyone, in his degree, / Should be as constant in adversity." And then he gives women a battle cry: “Strong-minded women, stand at your defense, / …suffer no man to do to you offense." And to the controlling men:

For one thing, sirs, I safely dare to say,
That friends each one the other must obey
If they’d be friends and long keep company.
Love will not be constrained by mastery;
When mastery comes, the god of love anon
…Love is a thing as any spirit free;
Women by nature love their liberty
And not to be constrained like any thrall,
And so do men, if say the truth I shall.

Free Bird!

Yes, just like the song, women who are treated badly will leave. They will choose "worms" over a "golden cage":

Take any bird and put it in a cage
And do your best affection to engage
…although its cage of gold be never so gay,
Yet would this bird, by twenty thousand-fold,
Rather, within a forest dark and cold,
Go to eat worms and all such wretchedness.
…above all things his freedom he desires.

Related Posts
Love Part 1: Platonic Love
Love Part 2: Aristotle
Love Part 3: Epictetus and stoic love 
Love Part 4: Marcus Aurelius
Love Part 5: Plotinus 
Love Part 6: the Buddha
Love Part 7: Christian Love
Love Part 8: Augustine
Love Part 9: Martin Luther King, Jr
Love Part 10: Aquinas 
Love Part 11: Dante
Love Part 12: a Real Love Letter


Geoffrey Chaucer

Love Part 11: Dante says Love is a Circle

Like Johnny Cash, Dante thinks love is a ring, a circle, a sphere. He depicts love literally as a circle turning the cosmos, powering the world; it's at the center; love makes the world go 'round:

“The nature of the universe which holds the centre quiet, and moves all the rest around it, begins here as from its starting-point. And this heaven has no otherwhere than the Divine Mind, wherein is kindled the love that revolves it, and the virtue which it rains down. Light and love enclose it with one circle, even as it does the others, and of that cincture He who girds it is the sole Intelligence.” And “On that Point Heaven and all nature are dependent. Look on that circle…its motion is so swift because of the burning love whereby it is spurred.”

And, talking about love and the Virgin Mary:

“And when the brightness and the magnitude of the living star, which up there conquers as it conqured here below, were depicted in both my eyes, from within the mid heavens a torch, formed in a circle in fashion of a crown, descended and engirt her [Virgin Mary], and revolved around her.Whatever melody sounds sweetest here below…would seem a cloud.” “I am Angelic Love, and I circle round the lofty joy which breathes from out the womb which was the hostelry of our Desire…Thus the circling melody sealed itself.”

And at end of his creeping and crawling through hell and heaven, Dante concludes:

“O abundant Grace, whereby I presumed to fix my look through Eternal Light…I saw that in its depth is enclosed, bound up with love in one volume, that which is dispersed in leaves through the universe…that of which I speak is one simple Light” and “the lofty Light appeared to me three circles of three colors” and “my desire and my will were revolved, like a wheel which is moved evenly, by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars.”

The Divine Comedy has been called the “summa in verse,” i.e. Aquinas in epic poetry, for good reason. The actual ideas are not original, but the portrayal--the story, the images, the symbolism--is new. Literature is great for this. Aquinas’s doctrine is oozing at the cracks; but it is filled with Aristotle, and the bible, and Saints, Achilles, and various history political figures—all which makes me really appreciate anew how the history of Western thought is connected even more than I thought. This really is a "great conversation." The Divine Comedy has also been called an encyclopedia, which back then meant “circle of knowledge.” Like an encyclopedia, the narrative was meant to be educational on the topics of science (Aristotle), metaphysics and theology, politics (he was writing it as a political exile, which reminds me of Machiavelli), and ethics. Also, like a circle, the narrative begins at one point, goes through hell-purgatory-heaven, and ends at the same point with a new perspective.

Loving well and loving the right things is an art that requires wisdom; this has come up many times. Love is like wax, says God to Dante in purgatory--"the wax be good," "but not every seal is good although the wax is good." The wax is love, which is naturally perfect. The seal is how we use that love, what we attach it to. But Dante responds that, if love does not come from us, how can we be free? “For if love be offered to us from without, and if the soul go not with other foot, it is not her own [the soul’s] merit if she go strait or crooked.” Are we pulled around by love desires, slaves of passion, as Hume would say? God responds no, there is “free will,” an “innate liberty;” the “virtue that counsels,” which “gathers in and windows good and evil loves”—“in you exists the power to restrain it.”

Remember that for Plato, Aristotle and Epictetus, love was a matter of wisdom and knowledge first and foremost—you have to figure out what to love before you can love. Dante says “for the good, inasmuch as it is good, so soon as it is understood, kindles love.” First comes understanding, then comes love. This is very different from simply having a disposition to love everything, whether good or not. This is a picky and choosy love, one that says “this is good” but “that’s not good.” However, we could wonder, how many times are we wrong about what is good? How many times are we wrong about what we should not love?  And what if our “philosophical arguments” and our “authority” figures (Dantes’ sources) are wrong? How does our love suffer? And how should we correct it now, before it's too late?

Related Posts
Love Part 1: Platonic Love
Love Part 2: Aristotle
Love Part 3: Epictetus and stoic love 
Love Part 4: Marcus Aurelius
Love Part 5: Plotinus 
Love Part 6: the Buddha
Love Part 7: Christian Love
Love Part 8: Augustine
Love Part 9: Martin Luther King, Jr
Love Part 10: Aquinas 


The Divine Comedy

Love Part 1: Platonic Love

I'm embarking on a whole new reading journey. Before I get married this Fall, I wanted to read and think about what some of the greatest thinkers have written about love. Where to start? (well, the library of course). There is a set of books called Great Books of the Western World, a collection of the knowledge and wisdom in fiction, philosophy, science, history, poetry, religion, and more. And it comes with an index (called the "synopticon") that allows you to read through these great thinkers by subject. I'm using this reading list as my foundation, but will probably supplement it with other writers (Eastern thinkers, for example!). This blog will be the chalkboard of my reading experience. I hope you comment, add your wisdom and experience, suggest other books, and join me!

We begin with Plato, the father of philosophy. On my first reading, I must admit I was not impressed with what Plato had to say. It seemed like an eccentric philosopher talking about something he had no clue about, over-intellectualizing it, making jokes about it, and talking a lot about the Greek practice of old men "loving" young boys. But I dug deeper. Someone once said that all of western philosophy is merely a footnote to what Plato already said. I don't know about that, but this is what he says [in Plato's dialogues, Socrates is his mouthpiece] about love:

Love is “young and tender” and “of all the gods he is the best friend of men, the helper and the healer of the ills which are the great impediment to the happiness of the race." “He walks not upon the hard but upon the soft…in the hearts and souls of both gods and men…in them he walks and dwells and makes his home…and also he is of flexile form; for if he were hard and without flexure he could not enfold all things, or wind his way into and out of every soul of man undiscovered.”

Socrates sees love as a sort of mediator between God and man:

“he is the mediator who spans the chasm which divides them, and therefore in him all is bound together…For God mingles not with man; but through Love all the intercourse and converse of god with man…is carried on. The wisdom which understands this is spiritual; all other wisdom…is mean and vulgar.”

This has parallels with Christianity, and there is no wonder that future Christian thinkers will take a lot from Plato.

The goal of Platonic love is to increase virtue and wisdom, “communicating wisdom and virtue...seeking to acquire them with a view to education and wisdom.” “Thus noble in every case is the acceptance of another for the sake of virtue. This is that love which is the love of the heavenly goddess, and is heavenly, and of great price to individuals and cities, making the lover and the beloved alike eager in the work of their own improvement."

In contrast, loving for the sake of temporary things like physical beauty, is unwise:

“Evil is the vulgar lover who loves the body rather than the soul, insasmuch as he is not even stable, because he loves a thing which is in itself unstable, and therefore when the bloom of youth which he was desiring is over, he takes wing and flies away.”

On a more practical note, Plato talks about what makes two people compatible for marriage. In Lysis, the conclusion is that totally different people cannot be friends or lovers, but also that the same nature will gain nothing from the other; thus, lovers should be similar but different.

Related posts



The Symposium

“Reading, Rhyming, and ‘Rithmetic”

Reading, Rhyming, and ‘Rithmetic,” poems by Dave Crawley, c.2010, is a fun, entertaining book of school-themed poetry for elementary age children and on up through any age. The poems focus on every day events in a typical school day as perceived by a somewhat mischievous student. The illustrations are comical and bright.

Here are the first several lines from two favorites:

“Sub Fun: A substitute teacher! This will be fun! She won’t even ask if our homework is done! We can goof off now and play silly games! Best part of all, she won’t know our names!” (p. 26)

“Saw My Teacher on a Saturday! I can’t believe it’s true! I saw her buying groceries, like normal people do!” (p. 22)

There are many fantastic poetry books for children at KPL in the J811 section of the library. Do yourself a little favor and read a children’s poetry book. You’re in for a smile all the while!


Reading, Rhyming, and ‘Rithmetic

More Good Books

I like book lists. I like to see what others have particularly enjoyed and recommend. I check off the ones I have read, add some to my list-of-books-to-read-sometime.

One of my favorite lists has just been released: Notable Books 2011. This list is compiled by librarians who work with adult literature, are familiar with the opinion of book reviewers, and probably read tens and tens of books a year themselves. They select fiction, nonfiction, and poetry titles.

Once again, I have several titles to add to my list. I need more reading time!


Notable Books

Rosh Hashanah

In recognition of this week marking the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah, allow me to point to several Jewish writers who have inspired and educated me with their engaging works of fiction, poetry and scholarly nonfiction.





Ill fares the land

Just Kids

“Life is an adventure of our own design, intersected by faith, and a series of lucky and unlucky accidents” (Patti Smith).

Most of us probably recognize Patti Smith as the rock icon who helped pioneer the CBGB’s era New York underground scene of the 1970s that brought us bands like Talking Heads, Television and Sonic Youth. Her 1975 album, Horses, was named by Rolling Stone as one of the top 50 rock albums of all time.

Still others might recognize her as an activist, artist and poet, who was highly influenced by the works of William Blake, Arthur Rimbaud and Jim Morrison. The Velvet Underground influence might seem obvious – John Cale produced her first record – but she says that wasn’t a conscious effort. 

Regardless, her use of words, be they her own or interpretations of others’, is a craft that few others have equaled. Her take on Teen Spirit is quite amazing... if not articulate.

After decades of publishing her poetry in influential works like Babel and Auguries of Innocence, Patti’s latest book, Just Kids: from Brooklyn to the Chelsea Hotel: a life of art and friendship, is her first foray into prose.

Using stark, simple imagery, much as she does in her music, Smith tells of her relationship with Robert Maplethorp, her lifelong friend, lover, and the genius behind the lens in many of her early photographs. (It’s Maplethorp’s image of Patti that adorns the cover of her first album, Horses.) Described as “a beautiful love letter to her friend,” Just Kids tells of their days exploring (or creating) the New York underground scene of the late 60s until Maplethorp’s untimely death in 1989. A worthy and interesting exploration.


Just Kids

Sweethearts of Rhythm

Take-Off: American All-Girl Bands During WWII  is a book with a CD that tells a story seldom heard. Take-Off is a great introduction to swing music and features recordings of some of the all-women swing bands that came into their own during the war. More than half of the tracks on the CD included with the book Take-Off were performed by The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a sixteen piece band that was integrated at a time when, in many locales in the Jim Crow Deep South, it was actually illegal for black and white musicians to play together. The Sweethearts toured there, but not much. For the most part, they played sold out shows in New York, Chicago, Washington, and other cities in the North. In 1945 they traveled to Europe with the USO. 

Check out the book Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World, illustrated by 2010 Caldecott Medal winner Jerry Pinkney. Marilyn Nelson’s poems speak in the voices of some of the instruments in the band: Tiny Davis’s trumpet, Ina Bell Byrd’s trombone, Roz Cron’s tenor saxophone, or bandleader Anna Mae Winburn’s baton reminiscing from the shelves of a New Orleans pawnshop about struggles and glory gone by. The Sweethearts, and the other swing bands featured in Take-Off, played music based in the blues and filled with driving energy and joy. Why not place a hold on the books right now?


Sweethearths of Rhythm


Swoosh  Crackle  Chug  Beep --

These are a few of the onomatopoeia words that imitate sounds associated with the objects or actions referred to in this children's book called Snow Sounds (An Onomatopoeic Story) by author & illustrator David A. Johnson. I was pleased to find he adds this definition to the outside back cover. This is one of those delightful random picks that I spotted based on the eye-catching artwork. The 30 pages of watercolor art take us on a journey starting with the hush of snowfall as child and cat snore and purr sleepily the morning of December 23. The story goes back and forth from inside the house to what’s happening outside the house. As the first county plow clears a main road it is still very dark outside and the artist depicts the quiet early morning with muted and speckled blues and grays. It is his use of white as with the headlights, house windows, the tree with lights in the front yard and, of course, the snow that makes the scenes and the progression of morning come alive. Eventually the paths are all cleared and it’s time to get on the bus for school. Mom rushes out to her son getting on the bus as he’s forgotten to take a little gift to school with him. A big smile on his face, it looks like it's going to be a good day. The last page reveals the gift but I think the gift is really for us. Grin grin.


Snow Sounds

The life of Zora Neale Hurston

In Jump at the Sun on Audiobook Kathleen McGhee-Anderson does an excellent job of conveying the vitality, power and pride of Zora Neale Hurston’s personality. By listening to the audio version I made more of a connection with Zora Neale Hurston. Through Ms. Anderson’s voice I could almost see Zora’s eagerness and determination to live her life her way. But Zora was ahead of her time. The heartbreaks and failures did not seem to dim the light in Ms. Anderson’s voice as she communicated Zora’s spunkiness regardless of her adversities. Listening to Zora Neale Hurston’s story it is hard to understand how someone with her talents, gifts and ambitions died broke and unappreciated. A. P. Porter in the book Jump at the Sun said “Being needy didn’t make her humble.” 


Jump at the Sun
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