A is for Asimov

I finished up Hamlet a little early for reasons mentioned below, but also in order to spend some quality time with secondary sources — knowing full well that Hamlet’s reach extends way, way beyond my paygrade.

The goal of this blog is to read Shakespeare for myself, and to encourage others who may have dreamt of doing likewise (but got intimidated by the size and scope of the project and have put it off).

Because he looms so large in the cultural pantheon, Shakespeare can seem utterly overwhelming if you stop and look down for even a moment to consider what you’re attempting, the sheer audaciousness of the mental feat. Shelves of books will remind you of how much you’re missing by trusting your own two eyes and ears. It may seem as if the reaches of the Academy are designed to make you feel stupid at every turn.

But you have to do it anyway.

I am reminded along these lines of Bono during Rattle & Hum: “This is a song Charles Manson stole from The Beatles. Were stealing it back.”

You can’t be afraid to take all that accumulated scholarship and flush it down the toilet, if only temporarily, to allow yourself the freedom to misread in a state of benevolent grace. Do not be willfully ignorant, mind. But for the span of a play, do like Luther and profess your ignorance boldly. (For me that’s an easy one. I’m the biggest idiot on the planet.)

It’s not that secondary sources do not have much to offer. They have tons, literally and metaphorically. But it can get in the way of your own appreciation of the subject. We already have too many experts in every subject known to mankind.

How easily we forget that Shakespeare is damn good as well as great — that he’s moving and maddening as much as he is marvelous. We can’t sit back and allow him to become the private property of the symphony-going set. He’s public domain, damn it. Which is why it’s great that films like Ten Things I Hate About You and Romeo & Juliet keep manifesting.

That said, I have to make a HUGE exception for the heartbreaking work of staggering genius that Isaac Asimov created for the world in his Guide to Shakespeare. I don’t know how anybody found the time to do what he did, and so well. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Asimov)

It’s sadly out of print, for reasons I can’t possibly fathom. A have to give kudos to the younger version of me who picked it up whenever it was available, probably at a B. Dalton Bookstore back when they still existed.

What makes Asimov’s guide so special is that it reads like a Discovery Network episode on each play, as much about the historical background as it is literary interpretation. We get to find out reasons for the settings to each of the plays, the details of ordinary life that ground the works in a particular time and place.

It can get fussy, I’ll admit. Published in two volumes (or two-in-one, like mine), it stretches out to over 800 pages including index and will serve as a great doorstop between readings. That is, if you are able to put it down.

Minds like Asimov’s are a benefit to the whole human race. They do not erect unnecessary barriers to knowledge, but hoist ladders and ropes by which we all may climb a little higher. Standing on his shoulders, you see farther and you feel safer — snugly perched on the mast of a man who wants to protect and guide you rather than strip you down and flog you and make you walk the plank for what you do not know.

Call him a populist, call him a dabbler in a field outside his specialty, call him whatever you like. Just call him (if you can find him). The world needs more men like him, espcially as knowledge becomes so diffuse and wisdom that much harder to come by.

God bless you, Mr. Asimov. Rest in peace, wherever you are. Or light up the night sky, as you did when you were here among us.

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3 Responses to “A is for Asimov”

  1. Linda OReilly Says:

    I started reading Asimov when I was fourteen. I loved the Sci Fi and I loved him as a scientist but until you cooked this Shakespeare Year up I didn’t know about his love and knowledge of the Bard.
    I had to order the book from the bowels of the Tacoma Library system and it came today. Pages browned and curled and dog-eared–all 800 of them.
    I’m going to read his thoughts on Twelfth Night–tonight.
    Because I just can’t wait.

    • He’s plain awesome. Backtrack to his notes on Hamlet for proof (if’n you need any). Twelfth Night comes in a whole lot shorter for obvious reasons. But the intro alone is illuminating and well worthwhile. I’ll be posting it verbatim in a moment.

  2. Wendy Says:

    So is this blog plain awesome! I ‘did’ Hamlet way back in the 50’s, well before Asimov’s book. And even the books we did have as reference were already old. I shall check out my local library. Alas – when will I get any work done? Oh the meals and the cobwebs!!

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