what i'm watching: spellbound, word wars

I hope you've all seen the excellent movie Spellbound. I'm referring not to the 1945 Hitchcock classic, but to the 2002 film about the Spelling Bee. This terrific little movie follows eight regional spelling champions, all under fifteen years old, as they compete in a crazy American phenomenon called the National Spelling Bee. If you haven't seen Spellbound, you must! You won't believe how a spelling bee can generate edge-of-your-seat suspense.

Having seen and enjoyed Spellbound when it came out, last night we saw a movie in a similar vein: Word Wars, about the National Scrabble Championships. Word Wars is about obsession and obsessive people more than anything else. It follows the "tiles and tribulations" (groan!) of four people who live, breathe and sleep Scrabble. They've memorized tens of thousands of words (not their meanings, just their existence), studied strategy, explored the upwards limit of mental endurance - and have given their lives over to the pursuit of the Championship. It's a window into a bizarre world, and a nice little movie. (It owes much to the book Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis.)

The Word Wars movie also introduces you to another subculture: the Scrabble players of Washington Square Park, in New York City's Greenwich Village. Washington Square Park is home to a community of highly competitive chess, backgammon and Scrabble players, who play the "street" version of their respective games. Here are some good photos of the famous Washington Square Park chess players.

It was a great surprise to see this part of my beloved city. Like the news of the transit strike, it made me a little homesick - not in the sense of wishing I still lived there, just in a sweet, wistful way, a piece of my life I'll always treasure.

* * * *

Here's a great story for me, a lover of words, books, history and Canada.

It's been discovered that a Bible in the University of Manitoba's archives is in fact an extremely rare first edition, first printing of the King James Bible. I have a thing for very old books, and I especially love this collection of Christian mythology as a piece of Renaissance literature. The language is beautiful and evocative, and stands alongside its contemporary Shakespeare as some of the greatest writing in the English language.

How cool that a first edition has surfaced in Canada. Here are some pictures.


Echomouse said...

Wow! See, that extreme cold weather preserves some pretty cool things ;)

This was news to me. Thanks for sharing. I wonder how a first edition ended up in Manitoba? And that nobody knew it was there until now??? lol

James Redekop said...

Here are some good photos of the famous Washington Square Park chess players.

While we don't have anything like the famous Washington Square Park chess players, we do have some public chess boards in Toronto. Probably the best known are the ones beside Sam the Record Man at Yonge and Gould, north of Dundas.

Here's a photo of some of the tables. There's a move to have a chess park set up in Nathan Philip's Square (outside City Hall).

laura k said...

While we don't have anything like the famous Washington Square Park chess players, we do have some public chess boards in Toronto.

Neat! I'm glad. It's such a great public community phenom. I love the idea of urban public space being used this way.

barefoot hiker said...

Yes, isn't it fascinating that a rare book printed in 1611 would end up in the archives of a city that wouldn't even be founded for another two centuries?

Wrye said...

University Archives and Rare Books Collections accumulate amazing stuff--and because of the constant underfunding and understaffing of University Archives and Rare Books Collections, some of any given collection will be lost treasures like this one. We should just be bloody grateful as a species that it didn't wind up gettiung eaten by mold or stayed forgotten in a box somewhere for another several decades.

I liked my brief time working as a rare books workstudy at UBC, but it made me sad and angry. (As opposed to just angry, which was more common). But I don't believe there's nothing unusual about UBC in this regard.

See also,

The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime. Research libraries are far more vulnerable would be generally supposed--if the average person thought about it at all.

Wrye said...

nothing = anything, sorry...

laura k said...

We should just be bloody grateful as a species that it didn't wind up gettiung eaten by mold or stayed forgotten in a box somewhere for another several decades.

Hell yeah. In my research for the kids' encyclopedia series, I'm often amazed at how structures from the ancient world survived into modern times. A huge number did not, of course, but given the history of wars and conquest, it's amazing that anything did.

Sometimes it was just a quirk of nature - the great Mayan cities, for example, had already been abandoned when the Spanish got there. The cities were completely covered in jungle growth, so the Conquistadors never found them - and so couldn't destroy them.

Other ancient sites we can only guess at. Alexander destroyed the great Persian city of Persepolis down to the door jambs.

Anyway... given how fragile books are, it is a wonder.

barefoot hiker said...

I've always been haunted by Carl Sagan's discussion of the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. When I was younger, I just felt sad that all those people lost that head start they had and ended up living in ignorance. It was only as I grew older I came to understand that a lot of the information there was unique... the opinions of famous people we've heard of but otherwise don't really know; discoveries, observations, cultural depictions. And the terrible notion that there may have been... probably were... things that knew that we still haven't redisovered; things that, turned in the right way under the right light, might yield glories of illumination on some question perplexing us. I feel the destruction of that library was among the most truly monstrous crimes against humanity in history. Who can possible know what suffering it's caused, then and ever since?

laura k said...

That's very poignant, Lone Primate.

I have similar thoughts about all the people who could never reach their potential. I think first of people with disabilities who were kept locked up and shut away, whose minds wasted away because, for example, they couldn't walk.

That leads me to think of severely abused children, or children living in abject poverty. Beyond that they were denied their own lives as individuals, what did society miss that, what might they have contibuted?

It's a mind-boggling road to go down. I just have to shake the images out of my mind.

barefoot hiker said...

Like Laura, I've always prized the KJV for the beauty of its language. Our language has never really had an official academy to administer it... and I'd just as soon we didn't even if we could. But the works of Shakespeare and the King James Version underpin the basis of modern English. We can back to the well there anytime we want to maintain the cohesiveness of our language, no matter how far apart we dwell; it's our common heritage.

You don't have to be Christian or devout to find profound and elegant truths in Scriptures. One of my favourite passages comes from the Book of Wisdom, also called the Wisdom of Solomon. In Jewish and Protestant bibles, it's in the Apocrypha (usually omitted from the KJV since about the turn of the last century), but it's canonical in Catholic bible. Oddly enough, the version I find most beautiful is in the New American Bible, the official Catholic Bible in for North American English-speakers, whose tranlation from the original texts was only completed in 1970. The words are from Wisdom 7:1-6, and purport to be the words of King Solomon:

I too am a mortal man, the same as all the rest, and a descendant of the first man formed on earth. And in my mother's womb I was molded into flesh in a ten-months' period-body and blood, from the seed of man, and the pleasure that accompanies marriage. And I too, when born, inhaled the common air, and fell upon the kindred earth; wailing, I uttered that first sound common to all. In swaddling clothes and with constant care I was nurtured. For no king has any different origin or birth, but one is the entry into life for all; and in one same way they leave it.

...A certain king on the Potomac would do well to reflect on these words. Alas, he's Protestant; he's probably never read them.

laura k said...

That, and he's illiterate.


That passage is beautiful. I particularly love the Psalms.

I never knew about the KJV until I was in college (university). When reading Faulkner, I wanted to find the passage that gives Absalom, Absalom its title. I couldn't believe how beautiful it was.

I ended up taking a course in "The Bible As Literature" - very good for an English major anyway, to know the references. It used a book called "The Reader's Bible," edited by the Roland Frye, who taught the course. A very useful book for literary hounds.