(Un)common Knowledge

Over Thanksgiving Break, I was talking to my dad about the courses I was taking this semester and summarizing what we had done in Arabian Nights during semester. Then, he asked the question, which, at this point in the semester, seems almost incomprehensible but was definitely one I walked into the course with, “How can you have an entire course on one book?” I started answering with the fact that the Nights is everywhere: music, books, comics, movies, etc., and then jumped into to trying to explain how the Nights isn’t actually one book, but many books because it was translated in largely different ways by different people and there isn’t really an original manuscript anyway and furthermore the whole thing is probably a revamped version of an old Indian series of tales. It was a mouthful to be sure. I’m not sure I did a great job of explaining in a few minutes what we’ve been talking about for an entire semester, but it was an interesting throwback to my thoughts when I signed up for the course and walked in the door the first day.

Originally, I signed up for this course because I knew the Nights existed via Patrick Rothfuss’s top 25 or so list of must-read fantasy books and was vaguely familiar of its content because of Neil Gaiman. However, when I went to put the Nights on reserve on the library sometime back in high school, I couldn’t tell the difference between all the editions that came up when I looked up “Arabian Nights” or whatever search term I put into the online library catalog. Instead of picking a version of the Nights at random, I gave up and decided to read it another time. In retrospect, I’m glad that I didn’t just pick an edition  of the Nights read it on my own, because I probably wouldn’t have understood the significance of all the translations or the variety in adaptions or all the information we learned in the course.

The thought that the English department had to be convinced to count this course as part of the English major requirement seems absurd to me now, but maybe not so much to me at the beginning of the semester when I didn’t know the first thing about the Nights. As this class and the semester quickly draws to a close, I’m going to be thinking not about the numerous successes of the Nights in spreading around the world, but about the failures. How is it that a work so important in terms of adaptions and influence is largely unknown in both common knowledge and in academic? (i.e. How is it that the Nights doesn’t get a passing mention in Brit Lit?) I would guess it partly has something to do with the sprawling, perpetually unfinished nature of the Nights, the inability to contain the Nights in a single book as I think I mentioned in a previous blog post, but I think there’s more there. To badly paraphrase Borges from memory, the Nights is truly the most famous book you never need to have read to know. This is the conundrum.

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