Monday, March 18, 2019

"A Book About Nothing"

Reading books – rather than habitually binge-watching TV – is not always an upward trajectory to “Hooray!”

It was no boost to my incipient “Reading Project” to slog through Bill Bryson’s biography of Shakespeare.  (A book, on whose cover, as previously mentioned, Bryson’s name is larger than Shakespeare’s.)

Before I dive into the specifics…

Okay, this is petty.

I have read a lot of books that, I do not care why, I just appreciatively say “Thank you”, do not start on “Page 1.”  They start on “Page 7”, “Page 13” – not, like, “Page 126”; otherwise, I’d be thinking, “What happened to the beginning?” – but they give you a couple of “Free Pages.”  It’s nice.  You sense they are somehow on your side.

“Enjoy the book.  You are already on ‘Page 7’.”

BILL BRYSON Shakespeare begins on “Page 1.”

Okay, fine.  His assignment – a short biography of Shakespeare – does not afford the luxury of “Free Pages.”  With a 195-page total, I can live with “Page 1.”  

But would have killed him to start on “Page 3”?

Anyway… that’s too much about too little.

Which I can also apply to BILL BRYSON Shakespeare.

Talk about “a book about nothing.”

It’s not his fault.  A guy writes a biography of a man, the details of whose life are maddeningly sparse and frustratingly contradictory?  Bryson’s lucky he didn’t write a standard-length biography.  That’s just a thicker book of “Not much to tell.”

I don’t know, can a book be considered “informative” if it reveals it knows almost nothing about the subject matter at hand?  There is an easier way to learn nothing about a subject a book purports to illuminate:

Don’t read the book.

Listen to this discouraging statement (on “Page 15”, no less, where you need hope the book’ll be good): 

"'Every Shakespeare biography is 5 percent fact and 95 percent conjecture,’ one Shakespearean scholar told me, probably in jest”, Bryson relates.

He then offers 180 more pages proving the scholar was not pulling his leg.

Here’s what BILL BRYSON Shakespeare tells us.

Among a plethora of other things we don’t know about Shakespeare, we do not know how many plays he wrote, nor in what order he wrote them.  We do not know his exact whereabouts during his prolific writing years.  We do not know the nature of his relationship with his wife (though there are hints in his will, which bequeaths her “the second-best bed.”) 

Then there’s,

“We are not sure how best to spell his name – but then neither, it appears, was he, for the name is never spelled the same way twice in any of the signatures that survive.”

That’s how perplexing this book is.  We do not even know who the guy isn’t.  We have a variety of validated signatures to choose from, none of which are, ironically, “William Shakespeare.”

Seemingly aware the book leaves something to be desired in the “informational” arena, Bryson pads his Shakespeare biography with “Cultural Tidbits of the Day”, mentioning the popularity of beer even with Puritans – “The ship that took Puritan leader John Winthrop to New England carried him, ten thousand gallons of beer and not much else” – and the fact that English King James I “had a disconcerting habit, indulged in more or less constantly, of playing with his codpiece.”

KING JAMES I:  “It didn’t fit right!  And that’s me, for ‘Posterity.’”

Acknowledging the paucity of available information about the greatest playwright in the English language, Bryson takes to task scholars who claim to know things but their information is wrong, the erring “Shakespeare-ologists” losing the distinction between “may have” and “did.” 

“Even the most careful biographers sometimes take a supposition – that Shakespeare was Catholic or happily married or fond of the countryside or happily disposed towards animals – and convert it within a page or two to something like a certainty.”

It’s like, “Who told me that?” and then forgetting it was you.

The plays’ actual dialogue is even in doubt, based, as it is, on “memorial reconstruction” by “bootleg” transcribers (possibly drunk on beer at the time), and revisionist re-writers like Pope, who thought, “No, this word is better.”  Not to mention the undecipherable “illegibilities.”

Imagine, learning Shakespeare in high school, committing misprints to memory.

Then there are the debunkers.

There are apparently more than 5 thousand books claiming the works of Shakespeare were written by somebody else – a famous playwright using a pseudonym, a team of writers under the “Shakespeare” umbrella, a more sophisticated nobleman, a woman.

I don’t know if there is a name for a debunker of debunkers – a “debunker-debunker” – but that’s Bill Bryson, passionately asserting “I may not know everything, but those other guys are crazy.”  (An inferred, rather than actual perspective.)

Okay.  Thanks. 

The thing is, to the degree that I thought about it – which was never – to me, Shakespeare was Shakespeare.  Is it really valuable to learn I was, according to Bryson, retroactively correct? 

Anyway, I finally finished it.  Learning virtually nothing along the way. 

Making Bryson’s work, now that I think of it, an accurate biography.

There is, in fact, virtually nothing to learn.  

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