Okay, so I need to think of a better name for this series. Sadly, there aren’t any days of the week that begin with A, so alliteration isn’t going to work. I guess I could shift it to the weekend and have a Studious Sunday or something, but the point was, I wanted something that would fill that midweek gap left by inability to write enough reviews to post three a week, so we’re stuck with this.
If you have better name suggestions, please leave them in the comments. Your help will be gratefully received.
Anyway. I came to the conclusion recently that I read a lot of books which I never talk about on here. Well, books and articles and chapters. I spend hours of my time reading, but not in a way that I can write about on a book blog, because it’s academic stuff that I’m reading for uni and reviews wouldn’t be all that interesting.
Some of it is interesting, though, and I have opinions on it, so I thought maybe on Wednesdays I’d list a few of the academic books (or articles) that I’ve read recently, and what I thought of them, especially those that might be of interest to the general reader.
This may be a massive flop, and you should probably tell me if it’s extremely boring so that I can stop doing it before my small readership gets even smaller, but I just thought it was strange that so much of my reading goes unremarked by the blog where I specifically talk about reading. It’ll only last until June in any case, since I’m due to graduate at that point, but no point dragging it out if it doesn’t interest anyone!
So, without further ado….
Academic Wednesday #1: Lent Term, Week 0.
Wait, we need a little more ado, because if I’m going to use Cambridge terminology, I need to explain it.
Lent Term = the second term in a Cambridge academic year, which others might call spring term, Epiphany term, or maybe semester 2 or something. Runs from mid January to mid March.
Week 0 = term hasn’t fully started yet, because Cambridge starts weeks on a Thursday, no I have no idea why. Today is the last day of week 0, since it’s a Wednesday, and tomorrow will be week 1. It’s a ridiculous system.
Okay. Now we can get on with it.
During the vacation (it’s not a holiday because we have to do work, but we’re supposed to ‘vacate’ Cambridge, so they call it the vacation, ugh), I’ve been mostly focused on my dissertation, and on pre-reading for a Middle English paper (module) I’m taking this term.
Táin Bó Cuailnge is the medieval Irish text I’m writing my dissertation on. I’ve read four different versions in recent weeks: two translations intended for general readership (Thomas Kinsella and Ciaran Carson), and two academic editions of the two different recensions (versions) by Cecile O’Rahilly.
Of the general-purpose translations, I definitely prefer Ciaran Carson’s. It was my first introduction to medieval Irish literature in the form of original texts rather than retellings, and it’s surprisingly readable. Kinsella’s version makes more sense, in some ways, because he includes some of the explanatory ‘fore-tales’ at the beginning, but Carson’s is just more stylistically accessible. Plus, he makes the verse parts rhyme, which has the effect of making you feel like you’re reading a medieval Irish rap battle.
If someone asked me where they should start with reading the Táin, I would probably recommend Carson’s translation, especially as it’s available in Penguin Classics and so isn’t hard to get hold of. Kinsella’s may be a classic, but it’s just not the same without the rhyme.
(Amazon UK link for Carson’s translation of the Táin: only £1.99 on Kindle at the moment!)
Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, And The Middle Ages by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen was a book I read for my Middle English paper, ‘Medieval Supernatural’. This is a typological study of giants in any number of different texts, and I actually found it surprisingly engaging and interesting for an academic book — even though at times the language is pretty hardgoing.
Literary criticism, in my experience, likes to say things in as complicated a fashion as possible, and where Cohen quotes Judith Butler, she doesn’t look out of place — which should give you some impression of the style of this book. Nevertheless, I found if I just sat back and let the meaning wash over me without focusing too much on the words themselves, it wasn’t difficult to understand.
The least interesting parts of the book where when Cohen discussed texts I wasn’t familiar with, as I couldn’t tell how meaningful the argument was. I also felt in places it would’ve been greatly improved by reference to some comparative Irish literature, because there were a few points where Irish texts would have been extremely relevant. But basically everyone ignores medieval Irish literature unless it’s specifically Their Thing, so I’m used to that.
Cohen also used the word ‘transgendered’ at one point, which isn’t ideal, but it was published in 1999 and terminology has moved on, so I’m going to let it slide on this occasion.
The book finished by discussing Lancelot and Galehaut — so of course made me want to cry, because apparently I’m still not over my feelings about Galehaut (a man who died for love of Lancelot, in true queer medieval fashion).
Finally, I recently reread The Lais of Marie de France (translated by Joan Ferrante and Robert Hanning).
I read these for my Medieval French paper last year, but it looks like they’re also going to come up in this Middle English paper — gotta love that Anglo-Norman approach. These are short, verse tales on any number of subjects, from knights and their fairy lovers to werewolves and their scheming wives, and while I don’t love them all equally, I’m very fond of Bisclavret in particular.
Mostly because it’s 100% queer, let’s be honest. I mean, I’m not sure why werewolves are always the gay metaphor, but I wrote an entire essay on queer readings of Marie de France, and Bisclavret featured heavily.
In my opinion, Marie de France is a fairly accessible place to start with medieval literature about the supernatural — in part because of how short the stories are. This edition comes with some explanatory notes for each lai, even if I don’t entirely agree with all of them, which makes it even easier to just pick up and read without too much background knowledge.
So that’s it for this week’s Academic Wednesday (improved name suggestions hugely welcome). Let me know if this is a feature that would interest you on a more regular basis!