25 June 2009

"Boone: A Biography" by Robert Morgan

Boone: A Biography
Robert Morgan
Date of Publication: 21 September 2007
Cover Price: $29.95
538 pages

I have a DVD Talk community member to thank for reading Boone: A Biography. I have seen, time and again, that Lateralus is an avid reader of history and so when he declared this work on one of my childhood heroes the best book he'd read in two years I knew I had to read it. The moment I fell in love with this book came when I pictured Boone, the only living soul living in Kentucky, camped out at night reading Gulliver's Travels and the Holy Bible. What wondrous times those must have been, for a singular man to have an entire territory to himself! Certainly, it was not without danger, but then, as Boone himself once declared, "I wouldn't give a tinker's damn for a man who isn't sometimes afraid. Fear's the spice that makes it interesting to go ahead" (page 69).

The subtitle is A Biography, but it should probably have been A Historiography, which is to say, Morgan has provided a history of the history of Daniel Boone. What Morgan brings to this volume is not just research; he contributes his own voice to the discussion of the implications of Boone's legacy and rather than outright discount all the anomalous claims of the pioneer scattered throughout the various historians who have chronicled his exploits, Morgan regularly pauses to explore the possible validity of each claim. Some he can debunk outright--for instance, noting that Boone could not have met with James Audobon in Kentucky at the time the famed ornithologist claimed, for he had yet to arrive in America during the time that Boone may have returned to his former home state. Rather, Morgan supposes that they met in Missouri and that Audobon relocated the discussions to Kentucky for the sake of his European audience, who would likely have been disappointed had they not been left with the image of Boone in the state he all but literally put on the map.

Morgan is, by trade, a poet and prose writer and so his narrative of Boone's exploits go beyond the typically cut-and-dried approach of historians divorcing themselves from emotion for the sake of objectivity. When Boone arrives and takes his first look out onto the Appalachian Mountains, Morgan fills the account with awe and wonder; when Boone lays to rest loved ones, it is as much Morgan's sadness as Boone's that permeates the page.

This is a very personal exploration of a man who, in many regards, existed as a self-contradiction. The explorer whose enthusiasm led directly to the destruction of the wilderness he loved, the hero hounded more by creditors than enemies, the devoted family man who once spent two entire years hunting in isolation during which his wife gave birth to what was likely the daughter of one of his own brothers; the list goes on. Now, in 2009 as we look with uncertainty toward our own present and future, it is with great comfort to recall the adventures of a man threatened with bankruptcy and external incursions and to know that the American spirit has, since before it was even American, endured such events. And, perhaps, we can learn from Boone's mistakes as well.

If I had two complaints, it would be these. Firstly, I sincerely wish Morgan had employed footnotes, rather than endnotes. Not only that, but there are no markers in the text pointing the reader to a particular endnote; rather, one must consult the endnotes and see which chapter, page number and sentence originated with which text. This may have made for a cleaner page to look at, but it did hamper some of my reading as I wished to know, frequently, where Morgan had found a particular quote.

Secondly, Morgan refers to events before discussing them several times. This is common in historical writing and the only reason I mention it in this instance is that this more prose-conscious work brought me much closer to Boone than my previous studies of the man. It "took me out of the book" to read a reference in one chapter that would not actually occur chronologically for another few chapters.

Still and all, this is an impressive work and obviously a labor of genuine love for Morgan. Beyond being a fascinating read about one of my personal favorite historical figures, Boone is also a beautiful physical book. You can click the above thumbnail for a much larger look at the gorgeous cover art, but only by hefting the tome in your own hand can you appreciate the quality that Chapel Hill put into its publication. The pages undulate, the font is pleasing to the eye...this precisely the kind of work that one prominently displays among a library. Despite having read it, this is going direct to the top of my Books Wishlist.

18 June 2009

f(x), Where x = 30

When you're young, each age milestone is a stopping point marking your ascent to adulthood. Remember the fuss over turning five? Ten? How about thirteen, when you officially became a teenager? Then it was sixteen, eighteen, twenty one; driving, voting and drinking, respectively. After twenty one came twenty five, because that's a nice, round number. Somewhere along the line, someone told you to fear or resent turning thirty, that it's a negative experience. Ridiculous, you say. Every milestone so far has been great. Besides, even if turning thirty lacks the sense of celebration that its predecessors have brought, surely it's just a number, right?

There is something palpable about turning 30 that has not set well with me. I was born in December, and because of the birth month cut-off plan of schools, I was a bit older than most of my classmates. Several of them are just now turning 30, or approaching it, and their anxiety comes at a time when I have been grappling for half a year over what this age means for me. I still don't know, honestly, other than to confess that I have found it emotionally disturbing.

Surely, it's all in my head, though? I'd like to say it is, that I'll just get over this when I turn 31, but I don't think so. I have remarked in a previous post about how turning 30 has excluded me from participating in very many online surveys. I've moved out of the meaningful age demographic, and every time my surveys end right after admitting my age I am reminded that I am no longer a young guy. If society expects me to have a different perspective and different lifestyle, then shouldn't I? And what does it say about me that I don't?

I find this time of year particularly trying, with Father's Day approaching. I have never had a particularly great relationship with my own dad, so I've never really enjoyed being surrounded by all the cards and banners everywhere I go. It seems even more aggressive this year, though it may easily be I'm just more sensitive to it. In 2005, we lost twins to a miscarriage and that was, without doubt, the single most painful experience of my life to date. Even now, four years later, I can scarcely discuss the subject and only even type this because I don't know that I'll even publish this blog. Seeing Up vividly brought back to mind every excruciating moment of that anguish, and maybe that's why I'm so resentful this year. Turning 30 and having no children is a reminder that I have, through no fault of my own, zigged when society expected me to zag.

So, if I'm not nearly-middle-aged dad by now, what am I? I'm apparently the same person I was in my 20s. Isn't that good enough? Shouldn't it be? I don't know. We're supposed to keep growing as people, progressing toward a point of achievement that will mark our legacy when we're gone. Maybe that's why turning 30 bothers me so much, and why Father's Day is so discouraging this year; I have no sense of what my legacy would be, should I die today. I can point to nothing in which anyone would, or should, take any sense of pride or accomplishment. Of course, family and friends would argue that I've left each of them with something and maybe that should be good enough but for some reason it just isn't. It seems hollow to think that the only thing left behind would be fond memories left in the fading recesses of the minds of a handful of people.

Reading Boone: A Biography by Robert Morgan has simultaneously exacerbated and abated my anxiety. Morgan describes Boone's two year exploration of Kentucky as his moment of destiny, believing that Boone must have felt and comprehended how special was his undertaking. Boone by this time had a family and was in his 30s; ergo, even having that which I lack was insufficient to fulfill the pioneer. And yet, I cannot help but wonder what should, or will, be my Kentucky? Have I already missed that opportunity, squandered like all the rest? Perhaps I should be contented to view the future as a wide open frontier, waiting to be explored and settled. And maybe when I turn 31, that's how I'll view it. For now, though, I suppose I'm trapped in my own 29 year old mind of the past.

17 June 2009

The Merits of Children's Literature

Originally posted on The Classic Tales Message Board.

Somewhere along the line, with the rise of a cultural emphasis on childhood, literature changed. I am 30, so I grew up in a world of Dr. Seuss, Beverly Cleary and Scholastic Book sales. It never occurred to me as a child to read things like the stories that have comprised The Classic Tales. Those were full books that grown-ups read, not kids.

Looking at my cousins, niece and nephew, though, I cannot help but wonder the effect of children's literature on our young. It seems to me that the idea behind the genre is to present short, easy-to-read stories to young readers so as not to overwhelm them. Let them start with
On Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and work their way up to Ralph and the Motorcycle, and it is assumed that, from there, they will eventually find their way to Great Expectations.

Yet, it seems to me that instead, what has happened is that from
One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish they have graduated to watching an adaptation of Ralph and the Motorcycle and then they are lost to a world of movies and video games. Even when something like the Harry Potter or Twilight series comes along, as profitable and as popular as those have been, it seems too many young ones are content to wait for the movies than to ever explore the literary source material.

Has literature done itself a disservice by dumbing down things so much to appeal to children? By eliminating much of the "controversial" elements, have children's books been made so toothless that they repel our youth rather than entice them?

I personally developed my passion for reading through comic books based on
G.I. Joe, A Real American Hero and The Transformers and what always attracted me to those was that the writing was more sophisticated than that of the animated series, especially the former. The animated series might have introduced me to Snake Eyes, but it was Larry Hama's comic book series that made me care about him.

Your thoughts?

06 June 2009

Summer Movie Series - Oldham County Public Library

The free summer movie series continue to roll out! The brand-spanking-new Main Library branch of the Oldham County Public Library will screen the following films on the following dates:
6/9 The Tale of Despereaux
6/16 To Be Announced
6/24 Bedtime Stories
6/30 Bolt
7/7 Kung Fu Panda
7/14 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
7/21 High School Musical 3: Senior Year
This series was crafted for young viewers (obviously) and all movies start playing at 2:00.

01 June 2009

How Well Do You Know Your Friends?

There's an app running through Facebook lately in which people make up quizzes about themselves and then challenge their friends to see how well they actually know one another. It sounds fun and light, right? Well, it's not and I'm about to tell you why that is.

First of all, the quizzes are made up entirely by each person. Unless this is the sort of thing that you craft in your spare time, you'd be surprised how much pressure there is to form a question about yourself with up to five multiple choice responses. The screen just sits in front of you, not saying a word as you struggle to think of something to ask.

Favorite movie? Yeah, that's an easy one. Isn't it? I mean, mine would be Lawrence of Arabia. Except, of course, that I've loved Batman even longer and can quote it verbatim. Although, come to think of it, I've loved The Transformers: The Movie even longer than that and can not only quote it verbatim, I don't even need the movie to be playing to prove it! So, I modified the question to see if anyone knew which movie I wanted to see in widescreen badly enough that I bought my first DVD player (the answer, in case you care, is Tombstone, which was only available on VHS in pan & scan).

Looking back over my questions, I am surprised--and disappointed--that most of them have to do with material things. Aside from the aforementioned DVD player purchase, I asked which Cincinnati Reds player did not sign a baseball I own and what is the name of my childhood stuffed animal? These are things that hardly matter to anyone other than me, so why would they be relevant questions to ask? Oh, sure, I asked if anyone knew which of five choices was a phobia of mine (water at night), but even that's hardly the kind of thing that testifies to any particular quality of friendship.

The most shocking thing about my quiz (for me, anyway) is how many answers have come when asked to place me on the political spectrum. I gave options from Far Left, Left, Moderate, Right and Far Right. I have always seen myself on the Left, though not too far. My personal choices and decision making probably favor more of a Right orientation, but I believe in principles that offer more leniency to society at large than just what I would ask for myself, hence my leftist identity. I thought for sure this would be a "gimme" question, but I've been placed on the Far Left and on the Right!

It gets even worse when you take the quiz of someone else's. So far, the best I've done is 30%, I think. Maybe there was a 40% somewhere, but I haven't even managed to hit 50% of questions on any of my friends. Now, in fairness, I've only taken a few and about half of those are people I know exclusively through the Internet (other Crohnies I've met via wearecrohns.org). Still, when you lived in an apartment building with someone for more than a year and you can't quite recall what kind of car she drove--even though you saw it every freaking day--it makes you feel a bit self-absorbed.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to try to craft a more meaningful quiz about myself.