Books for Fall 2011

Instead of a list of foods I made this week (mostly grilled cheese) or a list of random events that happened to me, I thought I could confirm my nerd status by making a list of things that have been going on in my brain parts. Here are some books I've been reading. As you'll see, they obviously relate to each other in a logical and inevitable way.*

1. Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and T. W. Adorno (originally published 1944).

Adorno and Horkheimer (or "Hork," as I call him in my notes) were 20th-century critical theorists. My advisor put the first chapter, "The Concept of Enlightenment," on my fall reading list, since I'm studying Rameau, the 18th-century music theorist (and the two obviously go together...*sarcasm*). In a way it was a really obvious thing for me to read in regards to Rameau, since they deal with the Enlightenment values that effected his theories - and I'd argue, as others would, that we still practice and teach music theory in a very Rameauian way. He's stuck with us like not many else have. So I've decided to take a social/cultural angle and study him, specifically the idea of Nature as something Enlightenment scholars wanted to master through rationalism. Dialectic of Enlightenment deals more with the idea that Enlightenment is a totalitarian phenomenon that commodifies our thoughts and our sense of self, and that enlightenment culture eventually led to the Holocaust. The more radical aspects of their theory aren't what interest me so much, but I am intrigued by their idea (similar to Foucault's) that when we "know" a thing, such as Nature, we dominate it. You could say Rameau did something similar, since he was obsessed with finding a natural source for tonality as we know it - the corps sonore.
The Dialectic is among the hardest things I've ever tried to read, but I would say that this translation by Edmund Jephcott is more readable than others. I'd recommend it, if this is the kind of thing that floats your boat.

Enough. I'm sure you're thinking, "Save it for the diss."

2. The Nutcraker and the Mouse King, E. T. A. Hoffman (1819-21).

After I looked into the Nutcracker performances in Toronto, I learned that E. T. A. Hoffman wrote the original story. That kind of blew me away, since most of what I know about him I learned from IU's trippy production of Tales of Hoffman a few years ago (could you do a non-trippy version of that opera? Maybe, but it'd be boring). But then I realized that it makes total sense for him to written the Nutcracker, since it's plenty weird itself.
If you're into reading Christmassy things this time of year (as I'm wont to do), I would recommend this story. It's not very long, maybe 10 short chapters, and it was readily available to me through the UWO catalogue. The story is stranger than the ballet, though the book jacket and wiki tell me that the ballet is actually based on Alexander Dumas's "watered down" version of the story. Clara in the original story is named Marie and she's only 7 - which I know doesn't conflict with every production, since sometimes Clara is pretty young and not en pointe. But the story is really a coming of age, and little Marie definitely has some adult feelings for the Nutcracker doll when she realizes there's a prince trapped in there. I won't give everything away, but some highlights:
  • there are actually multiple battles, and Marie cuts the bejeezus out of her arm in the first one, so everyone thinks her fever made her hallucinate the whole thing.
  • there's a crazy story-in-the-story that explains how a princess is the one who originally gets turned into a nutcracker by the Mouse Queen; Drosselmeier and an astrologer travel all over trying to find a cure for her condition. Then they meet his cousin, whose son is involved in breaking the curse. Through a series of events, we learn that the younger Drosselmeier (son of his cousin) is the one trapped inside the little Nutcracker that Marie wants to save. Eventually, as in the ballet, they do make it to a land of sweets even more elaborate than any ballet production (obviously), including a sea of rosewater that has sparkly gold dolphins in it. Crazy.
  • All the romantic weirdness between Marie and the Nutcracker/Prince does explain the way some productions portray their weird relationship, since he's her Godfather, but he's sometimes in an awkward competition with the Prince for her affection.
Short and sweet, and I'd definitely recommend reading it if you've only ever seen the ballet, like I had.

3. Christmas Customs and Traditions, Frank Muir (1975).

I'm one of those obnoxious people who have to restrain their Christmas spirit until it's almost seasonally appropriate. This year I decided to temper my outward enthusiasm for Christmas by by reading a book about its history, and a brief search on the UWO catalog led me to this one. I don't know much about Frank Muir, but in preparation for this post I stumbled onto a blog dedicated to Muir fandom, so check that out if you'd like to know more.
I realized recently that this book combines a lot of my favorite topics: history, early Christian rituals, the Church's appropriation/adaptation of pagan rituals, all combined to be Christmas-specific. Muir covers a lot of the figures that you may associate with Christmas, like St. Nicholas and St. Stephen (you know him from the Good King Wenceslas carol), as well as Wenceslas, traditions like wassail, the boar's head, and the Yule log. He also describes lesser-known traditions like the Lord of Misrule, whose job it was in the Middle Ages to keep the party going from Halloween to New Year's, lest winter depress everyone, or the Mummer's Play that involved Santa Claus narrating a dual between a Knight and a Turk during the Crusades. I'm only about half way through it so far, but it's great for bedtime reading.

I'll spare you the other stuff I'm reading, since it's mostly for my proposal preparation and not for fun. These three are the most memorable of the semester so far.
What about you? Anything you'd like to suggest for my reading list? Or anything that shocked you when you read it? Or was wildly different than your expectations?

*spoiler - they don't.

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