Friday, September 5, 2008

September Reading

Don't you just love the first day of school?!

It's the biggest thrill of my life.

Now that it's back-to-school time, the scholars among us are opening our wallets and dumping the contents of our bank accounts at the bookstores. And all of a sudden, we have about 84,000 hours a week more of reading to do than we did in the summer (a typical week only contains 168 hours, so you can imagine how distressing this is).

Those among us who are not scholars are laughing. Scholars, take heart. We'll SEE who's laughing at tax time.

My little sis is partaking of higher education for the very first time this September. And, knowing full well (but perhaps not realizing) that she would be doing much, much more reading than she is used to in the coming months, she asked me, her older, wiser, English-major sister, for books. That's right, she wanted to carve out some time to read the classics. In an attempt not to scare her off right away, I picked out two easy ones for her: Dracula and The Great Gatsby. Also, they were on sale, which in my opinion made them even better choices.

Couldn't we each carve out a little time to make ourselves a little better-read? It might not improve our chances of getting a job or make us any healthier, but it might make us slightly more interesting at parties, thereby increasing our chances of getting laid. So, I present to you my recommendation for your September reading list.

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

You may have heard things about the Canterbury Tales which have scared you off. You may have even had a look at the original, which scared you so off that you've never considered reading it in its entirety. The thing about the Canterbury Tales is that it was written in Middle English (which bears no relation to Middle Earth). Some people mistakenly think that The Canterbury Tales is "Old English". Other people mistakenly think Shakespeare is Old English. What is actually Old English is Beowulf, and Old English is in fact so far removed from Modern English that it probably bears a closer resemblance to German, with a little Scottish thrown in. Shakespeare is Modern English. The Canterbury Tales is Middle English. Now you know.

Middle English, while still vaguely comprehensible to the Modern English reader, is rather hard to read through comfortably -- not unlike Trainspotting. For example:

When that Aprille with his showres swoot
The drought of Marche hath percèd to the root,
And bathèd every veyn in suche licoúr,
From which vertu engendred is the flour;
When Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Enspirèd hath in every holte and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe course runne,
And smale fowles maken melodie,
That slepen al the night with open eye,
So pricketh them natúre in their coráges:—
Thenne longen folk to go on pilgrimàges,
And palmers for to seeken strange strandes,
To distant seintes, known in sondry landes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Canturbury they wende,
The holy blisful martir for to seeke,
That them hath holpen when that they were weeke.
- The General Prologue

As you may have noticed, this was in the 1380s, before Webster or the Oxford University Press, and people were not particularly concerned with standardized spelling. Also, pronunciation was a little different from what it is today. All this is enough to discourage the casual classics reader who is just trying to get laid. I mean, what the heck are "swoot showres"? Where is Engelond, anyway? And who is this blissful martyr fellow, if that's what he really is? (He's Thomas à Beckett. Look it up on Wikipedia.)

Modern-day Chaucer lovers feel your pain. And for that reason, translated versions of the Canterbury Tales are available! I just picked up a sweet illustrated hardcover copy at Chapters on sale for $20, but if you aren't quite as lucky, or aren't sure you'll like it $20 worth, you can find it in numerous places online, including here: And of course, like any true classic, you can always check it out on Wikipedia or Sparknotes.

I should point out that I am kind of an expert on the Canterbury Tales, having written no less than three academic essays on the topic. Well, okay, two essays and a short paper. On the Wife of Bath. Well, how many papers have YOU written dealing with the Canterbury Tales, hmm?

The Canterbury Tales is a classic, even despite the fact that Chaucer never actually got around to finishing it before he died. And here's something people rarely think of when they think of the Canterbury Tales: this stuff is comedy. It has all the sex, toilet humour, clever satire, witticisms, petty sqaubbles, and masterful storytelling of anything you'll see on TV this fall (and likely a great deal more of the masterful storytelling). Popular favourites are the toilet-humour Miller's Tale, the awesomely-unironically-racist Prioress's Tale, and the feministic Wife of Bath's Tale. But there are a few lesser-known gems, such as the epic Knight's Tale and the suprise-ending Shipman's Tale, of which Caryl Churchill must have been thinking when she said "You can't separate fucking and economics."

I say that the Prioress's Tale is "awesomely-unironically-racist" in the same way that Uncle Remus singing "Zip-a-dee-do-dah" in the Disney "classic" Song of the South is awesomely-unironically racist (see what I'm talking about here - number 2). It's so bad it's good. It's completely unaware of its own over-the-top hilarity, kind of like Micheal on The Office. As for the Wife of Bath's tale being feminist, well, most people will agree with me - but don't tell my TA from ENGL 2300 I said that, because she wrote a long-ass comment about calling a Chaucer character a "feminist" being an anarchronism on my first paper. If you're into the whole 1380s Chaucer-led feminism thing, you'll also enjoy the Franklin's Tale, as well as the Merchant's Tale if you're also into sublte satire. Hooray for January-May romances!

In summary, think of the Canterbury Tales as Aesop's Fabels meets South Park, except written during the reign of Henry IV. Before Joan of Arc. If nothing else, read it to illustrate the point that people have had basically the exact same sense of humour since forever.

1 comment:

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