Friday, April 25, 2008

The Soloist

Nathaniel Ayers is a classically trained musician. He's also schizophrenic and was living on the street, playing a two-string violin, when LA Times columnist Steve Lopez met and began writing about him three years ago. The resulting friendship changed both Ayers' and Lopez' lives.

Lopez' book about Ayers, "The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music," was released this month, and is being made into a movie staring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx. Lopez recently spoke about Nathaniel on NPR's Fresh Air, and the podcast is, to put it mildly, devastating.

Our culture treats the mentally ill as though they were a lower caste, invisible and unimportant. As Lopez asks, would we treat someone with cancer the same way? The answer, of course, is no - and Ayers' story, his illness and his music, his passion and his ability to inspire others, is heartbreaking evidence that American society's overall relationship to the mentally ill is sick and wrong, and discriminating, hurtful and limiting in so many ways. Not just for the ill, who suffer greatly, but for the more fortunate of us who not only have the choice of paying attention, helping, and learning from the mentally ill, but also the choice to not pay attention at all, and suffer and wither and let beautiful people pass away into ignorance, pain, and finally, death. We must, as a culture, do better. We must, as individuals, follow our passions. Nathaniel Ayers follows his every day through the fog and fear of schizophrenia, and by doing so enriches himself and others around him. That's what we expect from "normal" people in our society. Ayers and others like him deserve better. We all deserve better.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Bedouin Architecture and Victorian Squabbles

Several years ago I was in the library at Portland State University and found a copy of a strange little book lying on a table. The book was about a hundred years old. The pages were yellowed and the binding was beginning to come apart, but the subject matter was unique and the author was someone I’d felt familiar with, as though I’d heard the name but couldn’t remember the context. I flipped through the book, figuring I’d never see it again, and forgot about it until the other day, when I found another copy at work: "Bedouin Architecture," by S.M. McCauley. I immediately bought it.

The used copy we had was in even rougher shape than the one at Portland State, with pages falling out and chipped boards. The illustrations – intaglio lithographs on heavier glossy paper – were almost all missing, and the remaining few were topical and non-specific. Nevertheless, I’ve been carefully reading it, and the style, while clearly Victorian, is quite readable and delights in anecdote and name-dropping: Egyptologist E.A. Wallis Budge, the historian Andrew Lang, anthropologist James Ellington Smythe, writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, architect Lancelot Pym – even the noted American parapsychologist Samuel Stanton – it seems everyone and anyone was consulted for this study, the only one of it’s kind I can locate. The wonders of the internet don’t provide much additional information, although a closer reading of the works of those mentioned above might.

Published in 1901 by Glasgow, Greene and Hamish, Ltd, Bedouin Architecture provides a brief but informative history of the subject followed by an analysis of forms and a critical assessment of present day techniques. Most impressive, however, is the contextual foundation laid down by McCauley that presages the development, and subsequent decline, of the field. All in all, this slim volume is required reading for historians and architects alike, and even casual connoisseurs of exotic tomes will find something to admire in the unique binding arrangement and the fine embossing on the boards.

"Bedouin Architecture" is quite a rare book, although it's listed on Amazon. Strangely, there were two customer comments on, which disappeared after I purchased the book and the site updated the listing to "Notify me." Luckily, I copied the comments, which shed some light on the book itself as well as provide a bit of humor and shed light on interdisciplinary Victorian-era squabbling:

"Ineffable twaddle. I have been among the Bedouin and I assure you their architecture - if you wish to call it that - is nothing like what McCauley describes. The author is a hack."
Thomas E. Lawrence

"I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. McCauley in Prague sometime around the beginning of the First World War. He was an old man then, while I was still young and impressionable enough to believe in him. His writing is superior to that of his contemporaries, however, and I shall never forget the intelligence that danced in his eyes. Some men need more than an obscure tome to mark their passage into history; it is a shame that the scholarly work of this giant among men has not been more widely recognized within the architectural and historical fields. I recommend this book, for the unique and acute perspective it offers, as well as for the pure clarity of vision and style that mark its meanderings through the desert lands."
Franklin St. Germain

Well said. I recommend you pick this up if you find it, no matter what the cost.