Hey, guys! Welcome to Boozy Books, where we get ya drunk and expand your minds at the same time! How many other things do that? Drinking and reading is the best sort of combination you can have. If more people drank and read, this world would be a better place. So…in case you haven’t made a resolution yet, maybe think about swearing to read a book whenever you drink. You’re a hell of a lot more likely to keep that one than ever use the gym membership, and you know it.
Anyway. Since it is the beginning of the year (I am aware New Year’s Day was a Friday, but this is *my* first Boozy Books of the year, so I’m doing what I want), I thought I’d start out with something challenging. We’re all in the haze of that resolution to read while we drink, determined to get some reading done and finish all that holiday-time wine, so why not impress your friends with that huge brain of yours? Seriously, it’s way more impressive than some biceps or abs…and infinitely more useful.
The Decameron, folks. It even sounds smart. Say it real slow, now…The De-ca-mer-on. Oh man, you must be super into philosophy and art. You must win all the pub trivia. I want to be friends with that kinda smart. Super cool.
OK, let’s get started. The Decameron is a group of stories (novellas) written by Giovanni Boccaccio in the years following an outbreak of plague in Florence. These novellas encompass 100 stories on various themes, all of which contribute to a sort-of mosaic reflecting life at that time. It is also written in the vernacular, one of the earliest major pieces to be written as such. (The Divine Comedy being one of the others, just for a “Now You Know” moment.) Even we historians get to read it, which is great because sometimes you really want a break from old dudes trying to determine if the Pope puts on his right sock first or his left. (You know, I could see historians arguing about that, with a sort of Catholic v Protestant spin. If the Pope puts on his right sock first, he is correct and good and, well, right. If, however, the Pope puts on his left sock first, he is secretly a servant of the Devil and not the real authority. Seriously, guys, historians do this shit all the time. It’s kind of annoying.)
Anyway. Moving on. The Decameron begins with seven young women and three young men fleeing to the countryside outside of Florence in order to escape the plague. They decide to each take turns telling stories every night, with the exception of one day a week for chores and the Sabbath. Thus, there are ten days of ten stories, equaling 100. Each night, one person is selected King or Queen of that session and gets to choose the theme, and everyone (with the exception of Dioneo, who goes last, and is exempted by dint of his wit) has to tell a story around that theme. These include love that ends well, love that ends tragically, stories where wit saves the day, stories of virtue, etc. A great many of the stories are notably filthy (Chaucer was undoubtedly influenced), funny, and thought-provoking. These stories also often end up referencing one another, building into a narrative that makes a great deal of sense as a whole. It is for this reason that The Decameron is not considered a collection of stories, but a single whole.
The themes on display in T.D. (I’m tired of typing it) are of great import beyond the literary crowd. Boccaccio enjoys a place within the historiography of urbanization and the end of Feudalism (yes, the two are connected) because so many of the stories contained within T.D. are based within a society that is increasingly urban. Italy at this time (mid-1300s) is moving away from Feudalism and toward urbanization and a monetized economic system (it is at this point that great families like the Medici are beginning to rise in influence due to their place in banking). Thus, the virtues of wit, sophistication, and intelligence–associated with the urban movement–are espoused within T.D., while the Church and its methods are often lampooned. (It must be noted that the plague brought about widespread discontent with the Church. It’s almost as if prayer and sin had nothing to do with whether someone got sick, or something.) Oh, yeah, and Boccaccio was totes cool with sex; none of this, “oh, I am not worthy…these base desires” nonsense here.
Seriously, guys. The book is great. A lot of the themes contained are as timeless as they are a period of their time, and the stories are both entertaining and meaningful. You’ll enjoy reading it AND impress your friends with how super smart you are. Not to mention, it’ll make reading Shakespeare a lot more fun, and you know how we here at Nerd Cactus feel about Shakespeare. There’s a translation from 2013 by Wayne Rebhorn that is remarkably accessible, so there won’t be any difficulty in understanding and enjoying the stories. GO. DO IT.
What to drink? Well…if you’re anything like me, there’s some leftover booze from the holidays (mostly because I don’t drink much). But, in case you aren’t thisclose to teetotalism, I’m recommending a Chianti (liver and fava beans optional). Chianti is sort of the “signature” wine of the region…well, actually, it *is* the signature wine of the region, as all Chiantis must come from the Chianti region in Tuscany. Chiantis are a bold, flavorful red wine with typically fruity flavors, and they pair well with complex palates (or, again, liver and fava beans. Seriously, does anyone NOT immediately go there when they hear the word Chianti). Given the rich complexity and depth of The Decameron, I think it is a perfect match.
OK, that’s it for me today! We’ll see you tomorrow with the Shakespeare Update.