And So I Poured the Milk

Last night I was treadmilling at the gym and my individual controls were stuck on the local Fox news station which was showing the 6:00 news. The news of the day was the untimely death of Heath Ledger, not the fact that I actually managed 30 seconds of jogging. (Which I did!) From my vantage point, I could see the other five TVs that were showing the local news, which eventually switched from breaking Heath Ledger news to other stories relevant to those in the New York Metro area. Not Fox, though. They took up every drop of their half-hour broadcast to repeat the same scant facts that were known at the time. Case in point:

“We can’t speculate about what caused this death yet, but we can tell you that there are reports many pills were found at the scene. Now let’s go to this TMZ guy who has cobbled a report together based on random words overheard at the corner of Broome and Broadway.”

shakespeare.jpgAnd just now when I was commenting on another blog, this story made me think of the book Shakespeare: The World as a Stage by Bill Bryson, which I just finished listening to on CD. Bryson is one of my favorite authors, which is a bit of a genetic trait. When his autobiography came out last year, my mother wrote a blurb for it which was featured in the BookSense monthly picks, and distributed and displayed in indie bookstores around the country. When our family took a trip to Australia, we all read In a Sunburned Country, and everywhere we went we marveled at how perfectly Bryson captured the soul of the people and the place.

As soon as I was allowed to drive my car again, one of the first things I wanted to do was to pop in the CD of his new book, which I had acquired during the first week of ankle breakage. The book is read by the author in his fun “I grew up in Iowa but have lived in England for decades” accent. Normally a travel writer, this is his first book that didn’t include “Bill Bryson” as a character. This compact (only 6 hours reading time) story is a compendium of all of the things that we know about Shakespeare and the time in which he lived. And those things add up to a remarkably small amount of raw data.

Much like the news reporters taking the two known facts about Heath Ledger’s death and stretching it out to thirty minutes of reporting, Shakespeare scholars have only a handful of business documents and second-hand accounts to create a library’s worth of biography for the most revered writer of all time. What Bryson does in this book is take the scant facts and put them into context by creating a timeline full of the rich details about Elizabethian and Jacobean life and the people who brought those facts by poring through documents looking for any mention of Shakespeare. What makes that scholarship so amazing is that the surviving documents aren’t just pre-Google. They were some of the first written documents, created at a time when paper was too expensive to waste on things like paragraph breaks, indexes and chapters. The heroes of this story are the people who took it upon themselves to spend years reading every line of documented legalese, written in sprawling cursive with haphazard spelling, just so they could deduce that Shakespeare was in London at a certain time, giving a deposition on a neighbor’s family. Knowing when and where he was lets other scholars conjecture about what he was doing and who he was doing it with.

It is the way Bryson takes the time to give us biographical facts about these scholars that makes this such a fun read (or listen). This is one of the characteristics that makes all his books my personal favorites. He finds so much joy in the quirks of humanity and fascination with the things people do. Even the final chapter, when Bryson summarily dismisses the anti-Stratford school (people who claim that Shakespeare was written by someone else) he so endearingly describes the characters who have tried to assign authorship of the plays to someone else, you almost forget he completely disagrees with them. But the fact remains that just because very little evidence remains of Shakespeare’s life, very little evidence remains of the biography of virtually anyone else of that period. In the way that some thought Heath Ledger was in Mary Kate Olson’s apartment, some claimed Francis Bacon penned “As You Like It,” because it seemed like such a good story. Even if there’s nothing more than rumor to go on, once the story starts, it spreads in perpetuity because even the best scholar can’t prove a negative.

So if you’re looking to learn some light history, and you love a good story, I recommend this read (or listen). Even the guy* who looked at my bookshelves the other day and asked me “what does a play look like when it’s written out?” can appreciate this book and marvel that one playwright could change the course of history, and that we are lucky enough to have even the few documents that have made it to modern day.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about the subject, it’s because I’ve had “Tom’s Diner” stuck in my head since watching the news last night, and wondering if there were people who hadn’t heard of Heath Ledger that were curious when the news would start reporting on something new.

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16 responses to this post.

  1. I’m distracted by the asterisk at “the guy” that doesn’t seem to lead to a corresponding asterisk. πŸ™‚

    It corresponds to the asterisk from January 17.

  2. me too! we are typical women πŸ™‚

    I would have been, too. Sorry, I was being too coy.

  3. but ps. I’ve only read A Walk in the Woods, loved it, and have had his other books on my to read list for some time. This Shakespeare one sounds great.

    I loved Walk in the Woods. He hikes the trail so you don’t have to.

  4. I was wondering about the asterisk, too, but figured you probably meant to attribute it to the same footnote as last week.

    Do you go to one of those gyms where you get your own personal TV on each machine? If so, I am extremely jealous. Free pizza AND your own TV?? My gym sucks by comparison.

    I’ll have to check if the library has that book on tape. It’s been a while since I used my commute time for anything productive.

    Man, I have got to be more clear with my details. There is a row of 12 TVs for all the cardio folk, but you get your own audio feed. It’s still a good gym.

  5. The news media is really irritating in how they can stretch almost no information into hours of coverage. That’s why I hate 24-hour news networks — although Fox is definitely the worst.

    Repeating the same thing over and over is not the same thing as new news.

  6. Posted by EvilKate on January 23, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    This blog reminds me of Reading Rainbow. Where they tell you about a good book and then say, “But you don’t have to take my word for it!”

    I’m intrigued by the CD, I love books on tape. And Shakespeare. And travel. This man might be my new fav.

    That might be because as a kid I watched HOURS and HOURS of Reading Rainbow.

  7. I bet I could get a book on CD and put it on my iPod for my commute, right? Why have I not thought of this idea before?

    I love most of Bill Bryson’s stuff too! I just finished the one where he drove around a lot of the US, and didn’t like that one as much, but I really loved A Walk in the Woods and In A Sunburned Country.

    Did that guy not have to ever read a play in school? That is strange.

    I have done the CD to iPod thing before. It works pretty well. And yeah, I was hoping the guy was humoring me, but he might not have actually read a play before.

  8. I LOVE Bill Bryson and I’ll definitely be checking out the Shakespeare book. I am excited about it now!

    I’d read anything he wrote, and this one does not disappoint.

  9. A Walk in the Woods was good right up until they gave up on the thru-hike. I was so disappointed I gave up on the book.

    Maybe I’ll give Bill (Bryson, not Shakespeare) another shot, but he better stick to the plan.

    That Shakespeare fella’s alright.

    That part annoyed me, too, until I started to think about the fact that not just anyone can hike that trail, and that makes it kind of special. Also, if you read “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid,” his trail-hiking friend makes a cameo.

  10. Not to get sidetracked from your actual post, but Kate’s comment just reminded me about the looong convo I had with Mara the other night about PBS shows we grew up on, the highlight of which, I think, was me singing the theme from Reading Rainbow. I still remember watching the very first episode; damn I loved that show.

    I was shocked, shocked when I found out Lavar Burton was actually famous for being in “Roots” and “Star Trek.”

  11. Oh I loved Reading Rainbow! PBS makes the world a better place.

    I haven’t read any Bill Bryson. I’ll have to put him on my list.

    Thanks for the review!

    Start off with “A Walk in the Woods.” It will kindle all your naturalist tendencies.

  12. Thanks for sharing – I need some new reading material. Bill Bryson is now high on my list.

  13. Great post…. my favorite bryson is “notes from a big country” aka “i’m a stranger here myself.” “notes from a small island” is pretty damn good too. ever read “round ireland with a fridge?” (hawks, i think?) man, i should get back into books again.

  14. I loved In A Sun Burnt Country and A Walk in the Woods and A Short History of Nearly Everything. Conclusion: I love Bill Bryson. I had a brief moment while reading A Walk in the Woods where I contemplated driving up to Hanover, NH to stalk… err, INVITE… Bill Bryson to hike the Appalachian Trail with me.

    Because, you know, I am a woman of leisure. I could definitely five months or so to go on a hike.

  15. Great post. I may have to check out Bryson.

  16. Posted by EvilKate on January 25, 2008 at 9:11 am

    Love the new header picture. Mmm…conversation hearts

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