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June 25, 2006


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My high school doesn't do reunions for specific graduation years. Instead, it has reunions for anniversaries for the whole school. Since the school will be 50 yrs old next year, there is a big party. April something or other. I do plan to attend. I went to the 40th and had fun.

If the school did have reunions for specific years, it would be my 30th this year. Yikes. Can't be that long. No way.

Not sure about any "standard" reading. I'll have to see if my sons read any of the books I had to read in high school.


No, I'm not talking "standard" reading. Siddharta especially is certainly not required reading at German schools but it's widely read but adolescents. Books that are traded and talked about outside of school, or outside of the classroom, anyhow. "Rebel" reading. You know?


Putting on one of my day-job hats -- curriculum development, this one -- American high school teachers are so desperate to get their students to discuss books that anything well-written which does not depict explicit controversial criminal or sexual content (beyond local standards) can make it into the classroom.

So yeah, books about junkies, hustlers, pimps, serial killers, Satanists, and carnival mutants.


Dear Claudia:

Thanks for reminding me...but how did I ever find the time to read and absorb and enjoy, The Glass Bead Game, (Magister Ludi)? This truly was Hesse's masterpiece and the reason he won the Nobel Prize.

And yet, the perception of time being my principal concern now, I just don't know how I found the time in my youth to enjoy this so.

It is and was a massive read...in any case, thanks for reminding me.

Best Wishes, Traveller


Oh, I must have been 17 or 18 when I read Siddharta. It can, and did make a lasting impression at that age. I made a point of never returning to it again.

In fact, my Siddharta was a Russian translation. I got it as a gift from a good acquaintance who was teaching himself to play a transverse flute at the time. But I wouldn't say that it accounted for much Prägung among the people I grew up with (Russians have tried very hard but didn't quite manage to make a calque of that fine word). There was a certain extracurricular "good family" canon that stretched from early childhood to middle adolescence, which is not quite the same. The first book of the kind you mean that springs to mind is certainly Master i Margarita. I'm still at loss to articulate the singular kind of spell it cast on its readers back in the day -- almost obvious, but nevertheless surprisingly elusive. Moskva-Petushki by Erofeev, the two novels by Ilf & Petrov, and Hašek's Good Soldier Švejk were among others. Although not of comparable stature, and not necessarily read by the same people, they were a popular source of quotations in conversation. Carlos' executive summary seems very much on the right track.

Here's something I have long wanted to ask. How much poetry do Germans force their kids to memorize in school? The Russian habit seemed like such a momentous waste when I was on the receiving end. And yet, it gives rise to something that you don't begin to appreciate until you find yourself in a culture where it's largely missing. A people subjected to the indignities of classroom recitation acquire an additional level of folk culture and are able to make passing humorous allusions to a line from Pushkin without showing off, much as one would to a proverb or an anekdot. We all know only a handful of these lines, but they're the same ones. It has even given rise to the often virtuosic and hillarious genre of allusive versification by Igor Irteniev et al, which is but a small consolation for the demise of Russian poetry. I keep wondering if this custom was borrowed from classical education, or just maybe -- like much else in Russian culture -- imported directly from Germany. German, after all, like Russian (and unlike, most strikingly, English) is a language that readily supports truly popular poetry.


Dearest Michael, it is the Russian soul that supports popular poetry, (raised eyebrows...lol). The idea of Mother Russia that so premeats all Russian thought, (imho), also lends itself to naturally to a lyrical poetry.

But...and I've run upstairs to get it...It was your reference to The Master and Margerita that caught my real attention. Long ago I lost my Signet translation of this wonderful book and for the longest time, maybe 20 years, the only translation you could get in English was the one by Mirra Ginsburg.

Which made the book unreadable. Truly this was a tragedy that went on for more than two decades!

However, there was published a new translation by Diana Burgin and Katherine O'Connor brought out in...well, crap, now I feel like the fool!

Hummm...I've been looking for this for years, really, and yet, looking on the face plate I see that the Vintage International Copyright is dated 1996!

Still, I half-way feel certain that this did not exist in the United States until 2005 when it came out in a Re-Print...when I saw a new review and immediately bought it. This is, BTW, a good translation....not that I would know from the original Russian.

But this English version is very good and it was a Fabjous day, Oh joy, when I had this back in my collection again in a readable form.

I think I understand that The Master and Margarita grabbed and infulenced when you first read it in Russian...does it still hold some sway over you, as it does me? Or, has it paled over time?

God, I love that book.

(maybe I was just busy from 1996 to 2005...lol)

Best Wishes, Traveller



Every German over, hm, sixty, had to memorize Schiller's "Glocke". It's a darn long thing, it is. We had to memorize the "Ring of Polykrates" and I can still rattle it down today -- but that seemed to have been a quirk of my German teacher.

In my mind, memorizing poems is an excellent training for the brain but in these enlightened days, we don't do it much anymore.

To my surprise, my kids learn little rhymes and verses in kindergarten/pre-school and I'm very much in favor of that.

Oh, poetry. It's a lost art in Germany these days, I'm afraid.


Well, Bulgakov's main secret is good writing, and that gimmick still works. But it's clear to me there was something beyond that to the text, even in the late 80s when I first read it, which I can access only in memory.

With regard to the Russian soul. Popular poetry isn't necessarily lyrical. When irony rules the day, as it does, the most popular verse is anything but. However, it does have to be catchy. You know, like a tune. English possesses a very unusual immunity to cheap poetic effects, which I never cease to find fascinating. As in any language, you can do many things if you try hard enough. You can write Persian poetry in German (In tausend Formen magst du dich verstecken...), and you can write French poetry in English (e.g., Where are now the warring kings..., which really ought to remind the reader of a certain not entirely obscure ballade< by Villon, although thanks to the wonders of modern national literature curricula it apparently does not, and now I digress). But one must go to great pains to tap into cheap poetic effects of another language. You don't have to be esoteric to find analogies. For example, Jamaican creole allows a certain kind of catchiness that is very difficult to reproduce in standard English. It just does. The same goes for whatever they call Black English these days, although in a less idiosyncratic way. People have tried to get at something like that in the past using languages that are less well suited for the task. Like Sprechgesang. The artistic achievements are considerable. But, you know. Not quite as popular.


I should note that the U.S. doesn't have a national reading curriculum (and given the way it would be politicized, this is a very good thing).

There are classrooms in the U.S. which cheerfully put The Glass Bead Game and The Master and Margarita on their "read x of these" lists. But you see the problem: it becomes a task instead of a delight.

(And then the report which the student must write, turning the book into a traffic accident: what themes, what characters, what do you think the author intended, etc. Why would anyone want to do that to a book they liked?)

It's no surprise that rebellious students with a talent for words now go to extraliterary or paraliterary materials -- rap and hip-hop, movie scripts, comic books, zines, manga -- or books whose treatment of controversial subject matter does not allow them to be discussed in the classroom.

(This varies from district to district. E.g., Jim Carroll's The Basketball Diaries is probably acceptable in most places by now; but Donald Goines' Pimp isn't. Francesca Lia Block, Poppy Z. Brite? Case by case, classroom by classroom. And what does a high school English teacher do with a student who has just discovered Laurell K. Hamilton? Addictive bad writing about the ultraviolent supernatural with an incredible amount of non-vanilla sex -- but they're going to read every single book in that series.)

Anyway. Gosh, it would be so cool if young adults in the U.S. read Little Golden America or Moscow to the End of the Line. But I think that the same nutrients are provided via The Blues Brothers or The Big Lebowski.

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