Almost done reading Chaucer

Hello friends, life continues to be good. Rachel has a grant due, so I spent a lot of the weekend taking care of the world’s most adorable baby. I will say one thing you’ve got to get used to once you’re a baby-haver is that you don’t get much writing done on the weekend. I used to be like, there is no difference between weekend and week–I’d sit down to write just the same. It’s not like that anymore.

Work continues apace. We have childcare, so I get a lot done during the work week–probably as much or more as I got done before there was a baby. But one does miss the sense of luxury–of being like, wow, I have ALL this time to do ALL the things that need doing.

Like now it’s Monday, and I know that there are forty hours (plus maybe three or four in the evening every day after Leni goes to bed), to do all the stuff, including finishing my book that’s under contract and doing every other thing that needs doing in the household.

Reading remains a big priority for me. I think one of my biggest worries about baby-having was that there would be no time to read. It wasn’t an unreasonable worry. Last year I read half as many books as I did the year before. But this year I have already exceeded last year’s total, so I’ll probably end up somewhere between the two years.

I’m finishing Chaucer. I finally decided to cut bait on the appallingly boring prose tale in the middle–the tale of Melibee–and I’ll probably not read the prose Parson’s tale at the end. I already skipped the Knight’s tale, because it’s the longest, and a previous attempt to read the Canterbury tales foundered on its length. Nonetheless, I am proud of me for making it through like seventy percent of the book, in the original spelling, too. It’s probably been the most difficult reading experience of my life, but also the most rewarding. My comprehension is much higher now than when I began, and it’s nice to feel like you’re working with the author rather than struggling against him (as I did with Ulysses).

If I had the money, I’d make an abridged middle-english version of the book that cuts out all the really boring parts, but if you ever want to know what to skip, you should basically skip any part that deals with honor or chivalry. So skip: The Knight’s Tale, The Man of Law’s Tale, the Tale of Melibee, and possibly the Prioress’s Tale (which is interesting but really antisemitic). There are lots of good tales in there though! The Miller, Reeve, Clerk, Wife of Bath, Summoner, and Friar form a suite early on that’s gold. Chaucer is really at his best when he tells tales of contemporary society. My favorite was the Wife of Bath, who is incredible. She is just so special. I want to meet her and be her friend. You can feel her just coming to life.

The Friar’s tale (about a corrupt venal summoner who tries to befriend the devil) is also gold.

I’ve been reading Xenophon’s Socratic Dialogues too. I have to say, people who are like, these are not the equal of Plato, are really missing the point. Plato was a philosopher. He used the character of Socrates to expound a bunch of ideas that in some cases built on Socrates’ ideas but in other cases were Plato’s own. Xenophon was, if anything, a historian (although I’d say he was more like a proto-novelist). He just wanted to tell some stories about Socrates! That’s why his stories are much more anchored in concrete detail and in a sense of place and time and overall milieu. That’s also why his Socrates is at times less witty and sure-footed. It’s precisely that quality that makes him feel more alive. I’ve read many of Plato’s Dialogues, but it was only after reading Xenophon’s that I actually believed Socrates might’ve once existed.

Finally, I’ve gotten really into Central Asian history. There aren’t many books on this subject (at least on audible), but the ones that do exist are really good! By far the best have been Peter Frankopan’s Silk Roads, which essentially tells the history of Eurasia as a history of trade between East and West, and the one I’m reading now, Lost Enlightment by S. Frederick Starr, which talks about the Central Asian renaissance that gave us Avicenna, Al-Biruni, Ferdawsi, and scores of other renowned thinkers. I have to say, after listening to this book, I was like…I had no idea Afghanistan was such a historically important place! For like two thousand years, Afghanistan was a center of learning and civilization. Uzbekistan too! I’ll never take Central Asia for granted again.

I also liked A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy, but that book overlaps with the other two a bit, and I think it’s mostly just good because the subject matter–Iran itself–is so rich.

Oh, and finally I’ve been writing my trans YA novel (already sold, coming out under the title JUST HAPPY TO BE HERE in Summer 23 probably). It’s going really well. You know how when you’re feeling burned out people are like, "You should just take a break", and then you’re like, "Wait I’m supposed to just not work for an indeterminate period of time?" Well, writing this book is like taking that break.

I’ve had ups and downs. As soon as I post this blog, I need to go downstairs to my office (I’ve created an office in the guest room where my mother in law was until recently staying) and delete three or four chapters, but I’ve just felt so much less pressure about it. I think having sold the book, far from adding to my pressure, actually feels good! Because I know the industry enough now to know that I can definitely deliver on what I’ve promised, which means that the details, the execution, feel totally at my own discretion. I also have gotten a let better at storytelling, and now that I’ve written my literary novel, I’m feeling less precious about my work for kids, which has, I think, been to its benefit! But I guess you’ll find out when the final product comes out–if it comes out (something could always happen to derail the process) in two years.

Lost Enlightenment | Princeton University Press

2 thoughts on “Almost done reading Chaucer

  1. Rich Horton

    I read the Canterbury Tales a year or two ago (in Middle English). Totally agree about the Tale of Melibee. And the Parson’s tale/sermon. Also, the Tale of Sir Thopas is not really a tale (and not finished) but a joke on Chaucer himself (sort of) and while I didn’t hate it I’m not sure I’d miss it. I like The Knight’s Tale, despite its length. I also struggle with the Prioress’ Tale because of the really vile anti-Semitism. I’d add the Franklin’s Tale to the list of the best …

    And, while I have no doubt Leni is almost the world’s most adorable baby, that title has been claimed by my granddaughter Addy! 🙂

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      DAHA yes. The Franklin’s tale is so unique!

      And yes the prioress’s tale stood out for its bad faith. Very different from the rest of the book! Of course she was also the character whose main descriptor is that she has little annoying dogs

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