Books Under the Tree

Christmas is over, the new year begun, and it’s time to put the ornaments away, time to take away the tree. But before I do I wanted to share a few things I found under the tree on Christmas morning.

A Middle Earth Traveler (John Howe)
Lord of the Rings Sketchbook (Alan Lee)

When I was not yet a teenager I would go with my Dad to the grocery store. I wasn’t eager to go and as a divorced father with four kids in the house I guess my Dad wasn’t eager to go, either. Every Sunday it would be up to me to accompany him on the trip—my other siblings were even less eager than I—and to bribe me to go along my dad would let me pick out any of the books in the little book and magazine section at the store.

I read best-sellers and books wholly inappropriate for my age but my dad didn’t read much and was unaware. On one trip there were four books on the rack, all part of a series it seemed, and after puzzling over them for some time trying to understand if they all went together and which one was first, I chose The Hobbit as my book of the week. The others quickly followed.

None of my friends had heard of Lord of the Rings and for a long while it was my book, something that I had that others didn’t. But soon everyone knew of it, and later the local university had a showing of the Lord of the Rings film, the one by Ralph Bakshi. We were all playing Dungeons and Dragons by then, a gift for my sixteenth birthday that grew into a major life experience for me and all of my close friends, and so we had a carfull going to the show.

There is a lot to like about Bakshi’s effort. The orcs are wonderfully sinister and the work put into the film is apparent. But, despite wanting to love it I didn’t. The film is slow and boring, adhering to the storyline of the books far too much at times and at other times drifting away willy nilly. The film abruptly ends during the middle of the battle of Helms Deep—halfway into the story—with Gandalf throwing his sword into the air, like man-ape in 2001: A Space Odyssey. We had no idea what was going on.

When my daughter was born I read to her at night as soon as she was old enough to listen and I skipped over the baby literature and by three-years-of-age I had begun the 1008 pages of Tolkien’s trilogy (actually one book but published as three, abbreviated as “LotR“). We read many books together, Watership Down has stayed in my mind, me profoundly moved by the death at the end of the book, but it was LotR that became our family story.

The Jackson films soon followed and we had all the fast food toys, the lighted glass goblets, the Barbie-sized action figures, my oldest daughter especially fond of Legolas and dressing up as him for Halloween. When I came across an unopened set of LotR PEZ dispensers at a thrift store I couldn’t resist.

Somewhere I picked up an action-figure of Sauron from the Second Age, seen in the intro to Fellowship. The doll is very cool and it’s on my bookshelf now.

All during this time there came into being a sort of alternative art world, based on Tolkien’s books. There were posters and magazines and calendars, especially calendars. The two best known of these artists were John Howe and Alan Lee, and both were contracted by Peter Jackson to work on the film versions. Tolkien himself had painted the images on the cover of my paperbacks but it would be Howe and Lee who would create the visual world of the hobbits and the wizard and the Dark Lord and their work formed the visual bedrock of the films.

Both Howe’s book and Lee’s are from the same publisher and are the same size. They don’t have exactly the same cover style but they are close enough in coloration and in aesthetic spirit to be a matched set. Both are books of sketches with an occasional fully realized illustration. In Howe’s book, text accompanies each spread of drawings, quoting LotR and offering background information from Tolkien’s invented history. Lee’s offers anecdotes and vignettes of his experiences working on the Jackson films.

The Poetic Edda

I recently finished reading Neil Price’s extraordinary history of the Vikings, Children of Ash and Elm, where every chapter offered new and unexpected astonishments. The field of Viking history is alive and well and important new finds seem to be happening with great frequency, giving historians and anthropologists rich new opportunities to understand these caricatured peoples. I’m not the only one who found the book deeply illuminating of a key period in history—for a week or two in early December the book was unavailable anywhere online—it had apparently sold through its entire print run only a few weeks after being published.

At the end of the book Price asks one thing: Read The Poetic Edda.

Much of what is known of the Vikings is based on a few surviving written accounts and those are comprised mostly of sagas, poems, and this is the key collection of them.

The connection to Lord of the Rings is accidental. Norse history and Norse languages are the stew from which Tolkien—a professor of languages—drew much of his inspiration but my interest in languages is almost zero and in Vikings, until Price’s book, not much more. I had come across a first-hand account of a Viking funeral (the only such account) while working on my book, Computational Photography, and found it fascinating, including a version of that story as one of the essays in the book.

That must have sensitized me to Vikings and when I saw Price’s book mentioned somewhere I ordered it. And given how wonderful Children of Ash and Elm turned out to be I put The Poetic Edda, as hoped for by Price, on my Christmas list.

The Babur Nama (Translated by Susannah Beveridge)

There’s a magic in reading first-hand accounts from long ago. Some are difficult to read and of little interest except to the specialist. Others are fast-paced and amazingly modern. I’m almost finished reading the works of Julis Caesar—he writes with such clarity in the letters he sent back to Rome from the field that no scholarly background whatsoever is needed to thrill to his accounts of battle and intrigue. Likewise with the story told by Bernal Díaz del Castillo in his History of the Conquest of New Spain. Diaz was a Spanish soldier in the 1500s who participated in the accidental discovery of the mainland of Central America and then went back again with Cortés’s expedition. He saw everything that happened and wrote about it in unadorned detail. I’m about two thirds through it and read a little every day.

The Babur Nama is a daunting volume, written by Ẓahīr-ud-Dīn Muhammad Bābur, who founded the Mughal Empire, and in the Everyman’s Library edition it runs 716 dense-looking pages. There is a 109-page “Index of Person’s” at the back, which suggests the book is even more daunting than I thought. I’ll never keep anything straight.

A review of the book in the New York Times caught my eye—the intriguing combination of emotional sensitivity and viciousness. Here’s a quote from the review:

Babur was liberal and tolerant for his time. There are many moments of forgiveness in “The Babur Nama,” of generosity and fellow feeling. But woe to those who crossed him.

After barely surviving an attempted poisoning, he pounced on the culprits and detailed the wet stuff of his retaliation. “That taster I had cut in pieces, that cook skinned alive,” he wrote. “One of those women I had thrown under an elephant, the other shot with a matchlock.”

O.K., I’m sold. Another book on my Christmas list.

Toward Antarctica (by Elizabeth Bradfield)

Last year—2019—I was on the road for fifteen weeks, wandering the country, making photographs, and I had planned in 2020 to break that record. The key date for me was May, when my second daughter would graduate from college.

I have been lucky. I am close to both of my daughters and as college approached I hoped Facetime and texting and a few visits throughout the year would keep us close. Both were interested in biology and both ended up at Berkeley, about an hour from here. The situation was unexpectedly perfect. They could have their own lives but if they wanted to see us they could bop right down and we could come up once a month or so for dinner. Ideal. After college they would go to grad school somewhere further away, no doubt, but how nice it was to have that transition period. And we took advantage of it, planning for more extensive travel after my youngest daughter’s graduation when she, like my older daughter, would be traveling on their own elsewhere and then at grad school, probably somewhere on the East Coast.

I was counting the months until May 2020, finishing up projects, downsizing my photographic gear to make it more mobile. It was going to be a new life of sorts, new adventures, just so new.

Of course, I’m still here, at home and will be here until May 2021, a year lost. But when I do go I want to go big. One place I’ve always wanted to see is Antarctica and despite my travel ambitions I’m not sure if I ever will. There are tours, of course, where I can sail around for a week with doctors and lawyers, taking shore excursions from our Lindblad mothership. But I think I need more than that, more than that if I want to react to Antarctica, to do something with it, photographically. In my first three days of my four-week artist-in-residence at the Mojave National Preserve I drove all over the place playing tourist, shooting whatever caught my fancy, getting it all out of my system so I could start to really see and feel the place. On a small eco-cruise ship I’d only just be getting going and we would be docking back at port.

Elizabeth Bradfield had a chance to do a little more, working on one of those eco-cruise ships, maybe a Lindblad (she calls it the unnamed ship), in Antarctica. She writes of her experiences and observations in her book Toward Antarctica and maybe she will inspire me to find a way.

The Oxford Illustrated History of the Book (Edited by James Raven)

At some point, when your bookshelves are full, you get a book about books. This was a gift from my sister-in-law—we give each other photobooks every year. This year I gave her Accidentally Wes Anderson and she gave me The Oxford Illustrated History of the Book. It’s a book full of essays but for me I think it will be a “skimmer”—a book where I look at the illustrations and read the captions and dip in and out. Books can be extraordinarily rewarding that way, the reader stumbling across new ideas and new directions on old ones. I hope so.

[Update] After looking again at the book I realize that the essays are written by serious scholars and the topics look to be interesting ones. Maybe I will do more than skim.

100 Techniques

Cooking used to be an art, now it’s a science. One of the leaders of bringing a more scientific approach to cooking is America’s Test Kitchen. It’s not science of the test-tube variety, it’s science of the “it helps to know what is going on in the chemical reaction called cooking” variety combined with a taste for empirical testing of cooking techniques and equipment.

This volume, 100 Techniques, is one of many they publish, and it picks out one hundred points of knowledge that should prove useful to the home chef. The first item is how to salt. I know how to salt food, of course, this must be merely introductory stuff, but I read the page and learn something new. I skim through the book and toward the end come to a page on dry-aging beef. O.K., I’m ready to learn and ready to cook.

Van Eyk

When I was in graduate school I spent an entire summer as an intern at the Office of Technology Policy, in the huge Commerce Department building in Washington, DC, just across from the White House. I was a student at Harvard and that was very impressive to the people where I was interning. When I arrived I was given my own desk and started working with senior staff on a report to Congress, mandated by law, due that fall. I thought I was the only intern in OTP but about a week later I ran into others—they were all crammed into a single room, sharing two desks, working on who knows what. That’s the power of a brand name, and I was impressed.

Sometimes I would go over to the National Gallery of Art and it was on one of those trips that I discovered Jan Van Eyck. I knew of Van Eyck’s work already, I had read Janson’s History of Art cover to cover, and knew his importance. But those crappy color illustrations and those little black and white ones were no preparation at all for seeing the real thing.

The Annunciation just hung there, unheralded, the rainbow wings of the angel, the detail upon detail in everything, you have to look around to make sure a guard isn’t watching so you can lean in very close. I went there many times and visited Van Eyck’s painting on each visit.

There aren’t many of his works in existence so a show of many of his works, most of his works, would be a major event. And that event happened, an exhibition in Belgium that opened in the face of great anticipation and closed shortly after in the face of the pandemic, as lockdowns descended upon Europe. It’s the show that sort-of was.

All the remains is this heavy book. Glancing through it I wish for better illustrations—the colors are detailed and clear but the pages unvarnished and dull. The first picture in the first essay is a full-page Annunciation, better than that in Janson’s but capturing nothing of the magic. The text, some of the text, looks promising, though, in a series of essays collectively entitled An Optical Revolution.

The year is over but our difficulties are not. We’ve not yet reached the darkest day of the virus nor the darkest day of our politics. Books and dreams of travel are a welcome distraction but more than that they offer a foundation for a renewed sense of purpose, which is a gift you can give yourself.

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