Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Community Ecology and George Eliot

So I'm now approximately 5.63 months into my project of reading the 105 top books I need to read before I die.  It's been loads of fun, and that's not just the rye whiskey talking.  Not only has the reading been awesome, but blogging itself has been an unforseen pleasure.  It's nice to read and think and read and think and then spew out my gin-soaked ravings into the interweb, to be read by God-only-knows-who.  What I've also discovered, much to my delight and surprise, is that others out there seem to be doing the same sort of thing, and by that I mean the whole reading "the classics" and then blogging about them thing (but why do most of them never mention booze?).  I've enjoyed reading these blogs, and perhaps I'll soon figure out how to list my favorites over on the side panel of this blog.  But that will have to wait.  Because first, I want to respond to a thread posted on one of the blogs I've been reading.  Over at Novel Readings there was a recent thread, which itself was commenting on a thread from another blog (this whole blog world seems a bit incestuous) discussing why people blog about the classics.  One commenter suggested, more or less, that people shouldn't blog about the classics unless they're adding something original to the great volume of scholarly work and literary criticism, and since they're probably not doing this they should just "bugger off" (as your typical Victorian novelist might have put it).  To which I respond, "Chill out dude.  Drink  4 or 5 margaritas (on the rocks, not frozen) and get over it".  Allow me to explain, in three different, and unconnected, points (and brace yourself, for the first one's long):

Point #1:  I am a scientist by training and profession.  When I was a senior in college I took a class called "Community Ecology and Field Botany".  In this class we not only learned the names of a hell of a lot of plants, but we went out into "the field" and studied the ecology of these plants, in a highly scientific manner.  One study I remember was on a common weed called the Curly Dock (Rumex crispus).  We went to a local meadow that was lousy with Curly Docks.  It was a large grassy field, with scattered dandelions and daisies, nestled in the local mountains.  And everywhere you looked in this meadow were Curly Docks.  Curly Docks are an odd looking weed when full grown, as they turn brown and have long stems covered with seed pods.  They're ugly, in a way, yet also beautiful, in a way.  In this verdant field, they looked dead, in their seedy brownness, but trust me, they were very much alive.  The object of our study, as best as I remember, was to determine the distribution of Curly Docks in the field.  We had to measure the location of each plant, and then determine if they were randomly distributed or not, and if not, were there any clues that might describe why they were not distributed randomly...did they prefer to grow on a certain type of soil, or in the shade as opposed to the sun, or near to another particular species of plant?  So we carefully mapped out the field and the precise location of each Curly Dock within it, using highly scientific instruments such as tape measures.  I can't remember what we found, but my point is, we were really digging deep into the secrets of Rumex crispus, in order to help understand why that meadow was the way it was.  I'm sure if I looked through the scientific literature I could find lots of information on Rumex crispus...biochemical studies of its metabolism, gene sequences perhaps, things of that ilk.  All of that would be quite interesting to me, as a biologist.  And it would no doubt help me to understand even more why that meadow looked the way it did, and why the Curly Docks were spread out across that field the way they were.  Now, if a professor of English Literature were to come across that field, he or she is probably not going to be able to tell me anything about the Curly Dock, or about the genetics of the plants in that field, which will enlighten me scientifically.  As a biologist who's studied this shit for years and years, I'm naturally way ahead of them.  That professor might look at that field and say something like "Wow.  This is beautiful.  Look at the way the setting sun lights up the seed pods on those brown plants from behind.  It almost looks like a painting by Monet."  Am I to scoff at the professor and say "Hey, shut the f*#% up.  You're not adding to the scientific literature with that comment, therefore it is irrelevant and inconsequential".  No, I would be a complete jerk if I did that, and more importantly, I would be missing the point.  That professor of literature could certainly not get their views on that meadow published in a scientific journal.  Yet there is a truth there, and frankly it's part of the reason I started to study biology in the first place...because I had a naive and innocent sense of the beauty of nature, and I wanted to get closer to it by studying it.  But it's all to easy to do the opposite.  It's too easy to lose the joy and beauty in what we are studying simply by studying it too hard.  The scientist in me must never forget that.  And the literature professor must not lose sight of the simple beauties of the works they study by scoffing at those people, like myself, who read George Eliot and can only add to the world of literary criticism something like "I loved Silas Marner.  It was so wistful and poignant.  I thought I would never stop bawling my eyes out when Silas mistakes Eppie's golden hair for his lost money."

Point #2:  One of the great joys of reading other lit bloggers on a regular basis, is that you get to know their personalities, or at least their online personalities.  I really enjoy reading how they react to each book, especially if it's one I've read so I can compare their reaction to my own.

Point #3:  I'm not blogging the canon for my career.  If I wanted to boost my career, my blog would be entirely different.  I would not mention literature or booze, for starters.  My blog would be much less fun.

So there you have it.  A bit of random ranting.  Hmm, do you think I can get that published in some literary journal?


Justin Hamm said...

Glad to see I'm not the only one who feels this way!

Rohan Maitzen said...

I really appreciated your interdisciplinary comparison here...and the pictures of the Curly Dock...I also agree that one thing blog criticism restores is personality, something that academic criticism tends to offer very little of. As for the booze question, well, scotch makes some of us sleepy and then we don't follow those long, complex sentences as well! On the other hand, some things would probably become much funnier (like the fellow in Bleak House whose name I have somehow forgotten who needs to be plumped up regularly by his granddaughter).