Archive for January, 2012

Magic Books

Magic all by themselves

The idea of a magic book is well-established in our culture.  It starts way, way back with Judaism and the reliqueries for the Torah…maybe even the Ark of the Covenant which should have housed the tablets of the Ten Comandments written by the ultimate author:  The Ultimate Magic Book.  Before that there were books of magic in Egypt and Babylonia.  We can keep looking in the past, and as long as there was a written language, there was a magic book.

I do want to blur the lines between a holy book and a magic book.  The words have different connotations, but the meaning is the same.  Somehow the book will transcend the ordinary world of men and women and by its words or its influence,  change the ordinary to extraordinary.

Some may suggest that books in general have a magical quality and I certainly will not deny that.  The act of reading is magical in itself.  If you try to deconstruct the process of reading you will find just how magical that is.  Everyone who has ever read a good book will remember the times when the reading was so effortless that one became “lost” in the story.  Where did the story play out?  In your brain, of course.  Surging waves. frigid winds, burning sands…they were all far away from the comfy chair.  Yet you felt you were there, and many characters in literature have become more real to subsequent generations than “real” people we know.  Robinson Crusoe, d’Artagnan and Elizabeth Bennet come to mind.

This is magic.

Van Gogh knew of this magic.  He had few friends growing up.  His disability made him different, and people throughout his life avoided him.  He suffered an acute loneliness that few of us can imagine.  He was a great reader.

To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.  ~W. Somerset Maugham


He painted this:

THE BIBLE and Vincent's novel

If I tell you that is his father’s bible, and Vincent’s novel, you get the picture.  I see that the candles have gone out.

Books are a uniquely portable magic.  ~Stephen King

I often derive a peculiar satisfaction in conversing with the ancient and modern dead, – who yet live and speak excellently in their works.  My neighbors think me often alone, – and yet at such times I am in company with more than five hundred mutes – each of whom, at my pleasure, communicates his ideas to me by dumb signs – quite as intelligently as any person living can do by uttering of words.  ~Laurence Sterne

If you think about it. the act of reading a book puts one in contact with the thoughts and ideas of other human beings who may thousand miles away or a thousand years ago.  What else in our daily life can do such a thing?

Books don’t have to come from Snape’s library to be magic.



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Not Kemaleddin, but his nephew, Piri

As happens when one writes historical fiction, sometimes the lines blur.  I am in a blurry area now in The Necromancer’s Grimoire, the sequel to The Hermetica of Elysium.  I have introduced a character who was a real man in 1495, Ahmed Kemaleddin Reis, newly appointed admiral of the Ottoman fleet.  So I must do my research to make sure I do not dishonor him by keeping him alive when he was dead, or killing him while he was alive.

I have found precious little about this man.  This is good and bad.  It is good because it gives me a lot of room to write about him.  It is bad because the more I learn, the more I wish there was more.  Kemal Reis was widely respected in his day for his seamanship and his honor.  He was one of the first to arm his fleet with cannon.  He was sent by his sultan to Spain to  rescue and evacuate more than a thousand Jews from Cadiz after Ferdinand and Isabella made it lethal to be a Jew in that country.  He was known for his encyclopedic memory of the coastlines of the Mediterranean and of the waves and the wind.  He was a dreaded privateer in his youth, and men fought to be members of his crew on his ships.

Which brings up issues about historical fiction in the first place.  The Reis lived long enough ago and in such as faded area of history that if I keep the known facts correct, I can probably enjoy some freedom with his personal life.  But because he was such a magnificent man, part of me feels guilty messing with him.  In my imagination, his much more famous nephew, Piri Reis, looks down on me from history with a stern no-nonsense expression.  Piri became his uncle’s shadow at the age of 13.  Most likely they were rarely separated and everything Piri knew he learned from his father’s brother.

As I researched Kemal Reis,  I found a eulogy written by Piri by way of the introduction to his magnum opus, the Kitab-ı Bahriye This poem was so lovingly contructed that even in translation one can hear his grief.  When I read this the first time, I said to myself, I must put this man Kemaleddin in the novel and resurrect him.  He cannot just be a slight mention or a chance meeting in Istanbul.  Kemal must come alive again.

And so he will.  You will meet him up close and very very personal.

Here is the eulogy:

Good friend, I want you                                        

To remember us in your prayers,

And remember Kemal Reis, our master,

May his soul be content!

He had perfect knowledge of the seas

And knew the science of navigation.

He knew innumerable seas;

No one could stop him…

We sailed the Mediterranean together

And saw all its great cities.

We went to Frankish lands

And defeated the infidel.

One day an order from

Sultan Bayezid arrived.

“Tell Kemal Reis to come to me,”

It said, “and advise me on affairs of the sea.”

So in 1495, the year of this command,

We returned to our country.

By the sultan’s command we set out

And won many victories…

Kemal Reis sailed hoping to come back,

But was lost at sea.

Everyone once spoke of him;

Now even his name is forgotten…

The angel of death caught him

While he was serving Sultan Bayezid.

May God give peace to those

Who remember Kemal Reis with a prayer.

Kemal died and went to the next world

And we found ourselves alone in this.


Kemal drowned in 1510 around the age of 60, 15 years after that letter from the sultan asking for his advice.  His ship went down with several others during a violent storm in the Mediteranean.  He was commanding a fleet of 35 ships and protected a shipment of iron, wood, arrows, guns, gunpowder, and copper from Istanbul to Alexandria.  His loss was a severe blow to the Ottoman navy.

(Piri has been brought to life again in Assassin’s Creed, though the game description of him that I read took great liberties with history.  I love the costume, however.)

Piri Reis as video game character

Piri Reis’ beautiful maps

The wonders of unknown history

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I took a calculus class when I was 18 years old.  It was hard.  I remember studying what I was taught on Monday then being scandalized that something new was being taught on Tuesday before I was really sure I knew how to do Monday’s problems.  I finally figured out how to work Monday’s problems on Friday, but that meant I didn’t catch any of Tuesday – Thursday’s lessons.  Then came the Friday exam.  I got 25% correct.  Monday’s lesson.  This was what the whole semester was like for me.  I had to take Calculus again.

The second time through, I was able to keep up a little better (after all, I knew all the Monday lessons).  But what I remember the most about that course, and what flashes before my eyes every time I hear the word “calculus” after 30 years … is what happened one evening while doing homework in a little cold dorm room at midnight.

The homework that night was one question.  I was already 3 pages into solving that one question.  It had to do with a huge cylinder of water.  Some water was flowing in, but the cylinder had a leak that got bigger as more and more water leaked out of it.  The question was about the volume of water left in the cylinder after a specific period of time.

My pages of work looked something like the illustration above.  At the end was an answer to three decimal places.  Anyone who has done this work knows you are only half done at this point.  I turned back to the beginning and started going over my work to check all the steps and all the math.

As I was doing this, something magical happened.  My brain stopped looking at little numbers and symbols and started to read the math.  The comprehension had nothing to do with the squiggles on the page…and everything to do with it.  My brain was not thinking in words.  It was thinking in numbers and the concepts behind the formulae.  I grokked calculus fully.  *angelic choir sound*

The best analogy will be trying to remember being a child and sounding out each letter of the alphabet in order to read your first word.  Can you remember that transition from a phonetic reading to sight reading?

I was deep deep into that cylinder and that flowing water when my roommate came in and broke the spell.  I was never able to go back there again.  I know that scientists and mathematicians do this every day.  It is not special to them.  It was to me, though.  Very special.  A whole world opened up to me that night.  I got a glimpse of magic that came and went.

I think this happens to artists and musicians as well.  I have found myself lost in that world when painting, when listening to Wagner and Beethoven, and when writing.  There is a creative part of the brain that takes your consciousness and puts it in a timeless place where language only gets in the way of meaning.

Plato called this place the world of forms.  I have been there.


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Libraries are more important than we think.

I liked saying that because it was sort of a pun.

Until the advent of the internets and LOLcats, people could only know what other people knew through listening to a lecture, being part of a lively conversation, or reading a book, a newspaper, or a magazine.

Young people have no memory of those times.    When I see an image like this:

Canada's Parliament Library

I remember that feeling of wishing I could read every book.  I wanted to know everything.  Now I realize even given more than one lifetime, I could not read every book.  Gah.  I remember that scene in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast  when he “gives” her his library.  I was like, “I’m done.  Movie is over.  Time to start on the left and go around…wait…is there a card catalogue?”

Look at this one from Brazil:

Oh no! they are all in Portuguese!

I think of all the time and money that went into building libraries like these.  Do you think, in the future, that humans will be building sacred monuments like these libraries to house and protect video games?  iPods?  A single Nook? (don’t forget the power source).

Nowadays your information will disappear and never come back when the battery dies or the power goes out.

In the old days it was lack of literacy or the death of a language that made the pages go dark. Ancient Egyptian history, poetry and science were lost in hieroglyphs for centuries, and would have been forever, if the Rosetta stone had not been uncovered.  I do think about an entire library like the one above, written in a language I cannot read.  *shivers*  It is beautiful, but silent.

This looks like chickens walked across some mud..,

In a straight line, mind you, but imagine trying to read what the chickens wrote.

Everything we are as human beings since we first started thinking and talking must be preserved for the next generation, or else every generation will start over again from scratch.  Without accumulated knowledge there could never have been the explosion in technology we enjoy today.   Future discoveries are built upon today’s knowledge.

First we read books on clay tablets, then papyrus. vellum, paper and now light.

We used to worry about fire and water, the great enemies of books (and ipods) and war (the greatest enemy of the book).

(We still worry about war.  Here is a story about the library at Sarajevo.)

(And the Library of Alexandria)

What happens when there is no electricity?  We used to just need the sun and a book to discover what was in the minds of the other humans who came before us.

The sun will be around for another few billion years.  Will the book? Will we?

“These are not books, lumps of lifeless paper, but minds alive on the shelves”   –Gilbert Highet

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Yeah...it could happen

Magical Realism.

Sounds like an oxymoron.  How can anything magical be real?  Did the idea of magic come from the wishful thinking thousands of years ago?  Was it born of coincidence, as when a hungry Neanderthal wished that charging mammoth would just drop dead…and then watched as lightning struck it?

Perhaps the concept of magic grew from enthusiastic explanations for the unexplainable.  Lightning was a mystery until just a few hundred years ago.  Thunder had various explanations in every culture before science made it less fun with diagrams of super-heated air and sound waves.  I prefer the bowling trolls, myself.

Other common events like illness and decay have been blamed on sorcery for as long as they have existed, and still do in cultures that have not embraced the scientific method of explaining the world around us.

Aleister Crowley defined magic as the “science and art of causing change to occur in conformity of will.” (He spelled his magick with a k).

There you have it.

Is it possible to cause change to occur in conformity with your will-power?  If you cannot do it, the answer is “no”.  If you can do it, the answer is, “of course”.

How does one learn to use magick to get what they want in the real world?  Crowley has written many step-by-step guides.  What I have found is that he teases the reader with allegory. At the dawn of the twentieth century when he was writing about magick, there was no good vocabulary in English for what he wanted to describe.  He was a student of yoga, yet even the Sanskrit words he uses to describe what he means are difficult for Westerners to really understand.  He turns to classical metaphors and allusions to mythology to try to convey what is essentially impossible to do with words.  If the reader does not know Greek and Latin, and is not familiar with all the literature Crowley absorbed while at Cambridge, it is easy to get lost.

There are other, more accessible teachers, but the aspirant must eventually make his own path.  All paths will eventually lead to enlightenment, and there is a teacher on each one.  It is the realization that you must abandon them all and move toward the Abyss on your own that brings the magic to you.

This is what Nadira discovers in the sequel to The Hermetica of Elysium.   The Necromancer’s Grimoire explores the next step in her journey to understand the nature of reality: controlling it.

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