misce stultitiam consiliis brevem

Tolkien academia for a popular audience

This Washington Post article discusses the story of a Tolkien scholar whose strategy of producing podcasts about Tolkien’s novels for public consumption seems to have won him some success in academia, not to mention a large online following.

The hub of his online activities is a website called The Tolkien Professor, which includes the aforementioned podcast lectures, links to both primary sources and criticism, and information about skype-in office hours.

Aside from the content of his work, Corey Olsen’s career trajectory strikes me as interesting in several respects. It reflects a more-or-less successful bid to make a career of studying genre literature in the academy. It reflects what I view as a commendable effort to reach out of the academy and engage a popular audience with academic research–I would love to see this happen more often, and to be rewarded rather than (at best) tolerated. Finally, of course, it raises the question of college classes being made available free and online–a trend which is extremely exciting, but which is not uncomplicated by questions about the future of academic institutions in a world where higher education costs are skyrocketing. Are universities going to go the way of the newspaper? How should we feel about that if they do?

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Boring Objects Used Creatively

Carl Warner’s art gallery is quite entertaining to peruse. His work is fairly wide-ranging, but the common theme seems to be the idea that ordinary things, once removed from the contexts in which we’re accustomed to seeing them, can surprise us: by their beauty, their hilarity, and their resemblance to other things with which we don’t often associate them.  It’s unfortunately not possible to link to specific images within the gallery, but I’d like to point your way to a couple.

Under the second page of “still life”, you can view a genuine “cook’s brain-pan”. I don’t know what Warner was thinking, but my immediate association with that image was the uncharacteristically Carollian, and never solved, conundrum from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Yeoman of the Guard:

JACK POINT: But before proceeding to a more serious topic, can you tell me, sir, why a cook’s brain-pain is like an overwound clock?

LIEUTENANT: A truce to this fooling–follow me.

JACK POINT: Just my luck; my best conundrum wasted!

The other objects on this page are equally interesting, if perhaps less evocative of light opera: a goldfish swimming in a blender, two fish in a toaster, and what appears to be a zinc-coated strawberry.

But these images pale beside Warner’s most singular achievement (found on page 1 of Fotographics): intricate landscapes crafted entirely out of food. They’re really something. When you load the page, you see a bucolic scene that is, if obviously not a photographic reproduction, a convincingly stylized interpretation–in terms of style, they remind me of nothing more than J.R.R. Tolkien’s drawings of Middle Earth (I can’t find an online collection, but see e.g. these). A few familiar things pop out: potatoes for rocks; broccoli for trees. And then you look again and see more: the gravel is made out of rice! And is that house carved out of cheese? Are the awnings peppers? You look again. The sky is made of lettuce! And the river of salmon!  The glorious moment you get from an optical illusion is the one where you look at something and suddenly see something else. I’ve only been looking at these pictures for a few minutes, but I haven’t stopped seeing another “something else” every time I look, and I don’t think I’m anywhere close.

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