Category Archives: Literature

Reading Makes You A Better Person

Scientists have finally learned what book lovers have known for some time — reading fiction makes you a better person.

From Readers Digest:

Anyone who reads understands the bittersweet feeling of finishing a good book. It’s as if a beloved friend has suddenly packed her things and parted, the back cover swinging closed like a taxicab door. Farewell, friend. See you on the shelf.

If you’ve ever felt weird for considering fictional characters your friends or fictional places your home, science says you no longer have to. A new body of research is emerging to explain how books have such a powerful emotional pull on us, and the answer du jour is surprising—when we step into a fictional world, we treat the experiences as if they were real. Adding to the endless list of reading benefits is this: Reading fiction literally makes you more empathetic in real life.

Not all fiction is created equal, though—and reading a single chapter of Harry Potter isn’t an instant emotion-enhancer. Here are a few key caveats from the nerdy scientists trying to figure out why reading rules.

Rule #1: The story has to “take you somewhere.”

How many times have you heard someone declare that a good book “transports” you? That immersive power that allows readers to happily inhabit other people, places, and points of view for hours at a time is precisely what a team of researchers in the Netherlands credit for the results of a 2013 study in which students asked to read an Arthur Conan Doyle mystery showed a marked increase in empathy one week later, while students tasked with reading a sampling of news articles showed a decline.

Read the entire article here.

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Computational Folkloristics

hca_by_thora_hallager_1869What do you get when you set AI (artificial intelligence) the task of reading through 30,000 Danish folk and fairy tales? Well, you get a host of fascinating, newly discovered insights into Scandinavian witches and trolls.

More importantly, you hammer another nail into the coffin of literary criticism and set AI on a collision course with yet another preserve of once exclusive human endeavor. It’s probably safe to assume that creative writing will fall to intelligent machines in the not too distant future (as well) — certainly human-powered investigative journalism seemed to became extinct in 2016; replaced by algorithmic aggregation, social bots and fake-mongers.

From aeon:

Where do witches come from, and what do those places have in common? While browsing a large collection of traditional Danish folktales, the folklorist Timothy Tangherlini and his colleague Peter Broadwell, both at the University of California, Los Angeles, decided to find out. Armed with a geographical index and some 30,000 stories, they developed WitchHunter, an interactive ‘geo-semantic’ map of Denmark that highlights the hotspots for witchcraft.

The system used artificial intelligence (AI) techniques to unearth a trove of surprising insights. For example, they found that evil sorcery often took place close to Catholic monasteries. This made a certain amount of sense, since Catholic sites in Denmark were tarred with diabolical associations after the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. By plotting the distance and direction of witchcraft relative to the storyteller’s location, WitchHunter also showed that enchantresses tend to be found within the local community, much closer to home than other kinds of threats. ‘Witches and robbers are human threats to the economic stability of the community,’ the researchers write. ‘Yet, while witches threaten from within, robbers are generally situated at a remove from the well-described village, often living in woods, forests, or the heath … it seems that no matter how far one goes, nor where one turns, one is in danger of encountering a witch.’

Such ‘computational folkloristics’ raise a big question: what can algorithms tell us about the stories we love to read? Any proposed answer seems to point to as many uncertainties as it resolves, especially as AI technologies grow in power. Can literature really be sliced up into computable bits of ‘information’, or is there something about the experience of reading that is irreducible? Could AI enhance literary interpretation, or will it alter the field of literary criticism beyond recognition? And could algorithms ever derive meaning from books in the way humans do, or even produce literature themselves?

Author and computational linguist Inderjeet Mani concludes his essay thus:

Computational analysis and ‘traditional’ literary interpretation need not be a winner-takes-all scenario. Digital technology has already started to blur the line between creators and critics. In a similar way, literary critics should start combining their deep expertise with ingenuity in their use of AI tools, as Broadwell and Tangherlini did with WitchHunter. Without algorithmic assistance, researchers would be hard-pressed to make such supernaturally intriguing findings, especially as the quantity and diversity of writing proliferates online.

In the future, scholars who lean on digital helpmates are likely to dominate the rest, enriching our literary culture and changing the kinds of questions that can be explored. Those who resist the temptation to unleash the capabilities of machines will have to content themselves with the pleasures afforded by smaller-scale, and fewer, discoveries. While critics and book reviewers may continue to be an essential part of public cultural life, literary theorists who do not embrace AI will be at risk of becoming an exotic species – like the librarians who once used index cards to search for information.

Read the entire tale here.

Image: Portrait of the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen. Courtesy: Thora Hallager, 10/16 October 1869. Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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Wound Man

wound-man-wellcome-library-ms-49

No, the image is not a still from a forthcoming episode of Law & Order or Criminal Minds. Nor is it a nightmarish Hieronymus Bosch artwork.

Rather, “Wound Man”, as he was known, is a visual table of contents to a medieval manuscript of medical cures, treatments and surgeries. Wound Man first appeared in German surgical texts in the early 15th century. Arranged around each of his various wounds and ailments are references to further details on appropriate treatments. For instance, reference number 38 alongside an arrow penetrating Wound Man’s thigh, “An arrow whose shaft is still in place”, leads to details on how to address the wound — presumably a relatively common occurrence in the Middle Ages.

From Public Domain Review:

Staring impassively out of the page, he bears a multitude of graphic wounds. His skin is covered in bleeding cuts and lesions, stabbed and sliced by knives, spears and swords of varying sizes, many of which remain in the skin, protruding porcupine-like from his body. Another dagger pierces his side, and through his strangely transparent chest we see its tip puncture his heart. His thighs are pierced with arrows, some intact, some snapped down to just their heads or shafts. A club slams into his shoulder, another into the side of his face.

His neck, armpits and groin sport rounded blue buboes, swollen glands suggesting that the figure has contracted plague. His shins and feet are pockmarked with clustered lacerations and thorn scratches, and he is beset by rabid animals. A dog, snake and scorpion bite at his ankles, a bee stings his elbow, and even inside the cavity of his stomach a toad aggravates his innards.

Despite this horrendous cumulative barrage of injuries, however, the Wound Man is very much alive. For the purpose of this image was not to threaten or inspire fear, but to herald potential cures for all of the depicted maladies. He contrarily represented something altogether more hopeful than his battered body: an arresting reminder of the powerful knowledge that could be channelled and dispensed in the practice of late medieval medicine.

The earliest known versions of the Wound Man appeared at the turn of the fifteenth century in books on the surgical craft, particularly works from southern Germany associated with the renowned Würzburg surgeon Ortolf von Baierland (died before 1339). Accompanying a text known as the “Wundarznei” (The Surgery), these first Wound Men effectively functioned as a human table of contents for the cures contained within the relevant treatise. Look closely at the remarkable Wound Man shown above from the Wellcome Library’s MS. 49 – a miscellany including medical material produced in Germany in about 1420 – and you see that the figure is penetrated not only by weapons but also by text.

Read the entire article here.

Image: The Wound Man. Courtesy: Wellcome Library’s MS. 49 — Source (CC BY 4.0). Public Domain Review.

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Times Continue to Change

A thoroughly well-deserved Nobel Prize in Literature to America’s unofficial poet laureate — Bob Dylan. Some good news that we can all cheer during these troubled, changing times. In the Nobel committee’s words,

For having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.

Video: TV Movie, The Times They are a Changing’ (1964), directed by Daryl Duke and starring Bob Dylan.

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Adieu! Death of the Circumflex

je-suis-circonflexeThe French have a formal language police.

The Académie Française (French Academy) is the country’s foremost national watchdog of the French language. It’s been working to protect and preserve the language for over 380 years — mostly, I suspect, from the unceasing onslaught of English, think words like “le week-end”.

Interestingly enough members of the Académie Française proposed and accepted over 2,500 changes to the language — mostly spelling revisions — back in 1990. Now with mainstream French newspapers and TV networks having taken up the story, social media is abuzz with commentary; the French public is weighing in on the proposals, and many traditionalists and language purists don’t like what they see.

Exhibit A: the proposed loss of the circumflex accent (ˆ) that hovers above certain vowels. So, maîtresse becomes maitresse (mistress or female teacher); coût becomes cout (cost).

Exhibit B: oignon is to become ognon (onion).

Sacre bleu, I don’t like it either!

From the Guardian:

French linguistic purists have voiced online anger at the loss of one of their favourite accents – the pointy little circumflex hat (ˆ) that sits on top of certain vowels.

Changes to around 2,400 French words to simplify them for schoolchildren, such as allowing the word for onion to be spelled ognon as well as the traditional oignon, have brought accusations the country’s Socialist government is dumbing down the language.

Nothing provokes a Gallic row than changes to the language of Molière, but the storm took officials by surprise as the spelling revisions had been suggested by the Académie Française, watchdogs of the French language, and unanimously accepted by its members as long ago as 1990.

The aim was to standardise and simplify certain quirks in the written language making it easier to learn (among them chariot to charriot to harmonise with charrette, both words for a type of cart and the regrouping of compound nouns like porte-monnaie/portemonnaie (purse), extra-terrestres/extraterrestres and week-end/weekend, to do away with the hyphen.

While the “revised spelling list” was not obligatory, dictionaries were advised to carry both old and new spellings, and schools were instructed to use the new versions but accept both as correct.

The reforms provoked a #JeSuisCirconflexe campaign (derived from the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag) on Twitter. As the row spread across the internet and social networks, some wondered why the reforms, decided 26 years ago, had suddenly become such an issue.

In 2008, advice from the education ministry suggested the new spelling rules were “the reference” to be used, but it appears few people took notice. Last November, the changes were mentioned again in another ministry document about “texts following the spelling changes … approved by the Académie Française and published in the French Republic Official Journal on 6 December 1990”. Again, the news went unremarked.

It was only when a report by television channel TF1 appeared on Wednesday this week that the ognon went pear-shaped.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of BBC / Twitter.

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Documenting the Self

Samuel_PepysIs Nicolas Felton the Samuel Pepys of our digital age?

They both chronicled their observations over a period of 10 years, but separated by 345 years. However, that’s where the similarity between the two men ends.

Samuel Pepys was a 17th century member of British Parliament and naval bureaucrat, famous for the decade-long private diary. Pepys kept detailed personal notes from 1660 to 1669. The diary was subsequently published in the 19th century, and is now regarded as one of the principal sources of information of the Restoration period (return of the monarchy under Charles II). Many a British school kid [myself included] has been exposed to Pepys’ observations of momentous events, including his tales of the plague and the Great Fire of London.

Nicolas Felton a graphic designer and ex-Facebook employee cataloged his life from 2005 to 2015. Based in New York, Felton began obsessively recording the minutiae of his life in 2005. He first tracked his locations and time spent in each followed by his music-listening habits. Then he began counting his emails, correspondence, calendar entries, photos. Felton eventually compiled his detailed digital tracks into a visually fascinating annual Feltron Report.

So, Felton is certainly no Pepys, but his data trove remains interesting nonetheless — for different reasons. Pepys recorded history during a tumultuous time in England; his very rare, detailed first-person account across an entire decade has no parallel. His diary is now an invaluable literary chronicle for scholars and history buffs.

Our world is rather different today. Our technologies now enable institutions and individuals to record and relate their observations ad nauseam. Thus Felton’s data is not unique per se, though his decade-long obsession certainly provides us with a quantitative trove of data, which is not necessarily useful to us for historical reasons, but more so for those who study our tracks and needs, and market to us.

Read Samuel Pepys diary here. Read more about Nicolas Felton here.

Image: Samuel Pepys by John Hayls, oil on canvas, 1666. National Portrait Gallery. Public Domain.

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A Bookstore Opens!

Google-search-bookstore

Much has been said about the demise of reading, literature, books and bookstores. In the US alone between 2000 and 2007 around 1,000 independent bookstores shuttered their doors. The national chain Borders went bankrupt in 2011, closing over 600 locations. Electronic forms of entertainment, e-readers, and Amazon.com have all been highlighted as villains in the destruction of physical print and brick-and-mortar bookstores.

Yet, over the last few years a somewhat surprising trend seems to have emerged. It’s not an exponential curve, such as new members flocking to social media in their gazillions, but it’s encouraging nonetheless. According to the American Booksellers Association, the number of member independent bookstores has increased more than 20 percent during the five year period from 2009 to 2014. And, to add icing to the cake Amazon recently declared open a real, physical bookstore! Yes, you read the last sentence correctly — the bookstore is located in Seattle, and carries around 5,000 titles.

So, what’s going on?

From ars technica:

Literary fans in Seattle will no longer need their MacBooks to procure the latest bestselling book: they just need to stroll down to the local Amazon Books store. Today, the online retailer is opening its flagship physical outlet in Seattle’s University Village. According to a press release, the selection of available titles is based on Amazon.com customer ratings, pre-orders, sales, popularity on Goodreads, and curator assessments. If you need further convincing, Amazon Books is also stocking “review cards” so as to ensure you know exactly what everyone else thought about your potential purchase.

Interestingly, the books will all be displayed “face-out,” meaning that customers will be able to see the covers instead of merely the spine. The reason for this, explains Amazon Books vice president Jennifer Cast, is that the company wants to showcase the authors and their work rather than cramming as many things on a shelf as possible. The first Amazon Books store is fairly large at 5,500 square feet (510 square meters) of retail space and 2,000 square feet (185 square meters) of storage.

Read the entire ars techica article here.

From Slate:

The recent news of the opening of an independent bookstore on Manhattan’s Upper West Side was greeted with surprise and delight, since a neighborhood once flush with such stores had become a retail book desert. The opening coincides with the relocation of the Bank Street Bookstore near Columbia University, leading the New York Times to declare, “Print is not dead yet — at least not on the Upper West Side.”

Two stores don’t constitute a trend, but they do point to a quiet revival of independent bookselling in the United States. They also underscore the shifting sands of physical bookselling, where the biggest losers are not—as was once assumed—the independent booksellers, but rather the large book chains.

Only a few years ago, observers projected that the rise of chain stores and Amazon would lead to the vast shrinkage of independent bookstores. According to the American Booksellers Association, the number of member independent bookstores has increased more than 20 percent since the depths of the recession, from 1,651 in 2009 to 2,094 in 2014. Meanwhile, Borders went bankrupt in 2011, and the fate of Barnes & Noble, which failed to make the Nook into a viable e-reader competitor with Amazon’s Kindle, appears murky. What happened?

The short answer is that by listing their shares as public companies, both Borders and Barnes & Noble were drawn into a negative vortex that destroyed the former and has crippled the latter. Not only did they become public companies, but they positioned themselves as high-growth companies, focused on innovation and disruption. That forced them to compete with the growth company par excellence in their space: Amazon. It also forced them to pursue high sales volume at the expense of inventories. Those strategies, as it turned out, were precisely wrong for the actual business they were in: selling books to a selective audience. Which is precisely what independent bookstores are good at.

Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-A-Million, and even Costco looked to be squeezing the life out of indies in the 1990s and into the aughts. Borders alone went from 21 stores in 1992 to 256 superstores in 1999. Barnes & Noble saw even greater growth. Those stores offered more choices, cafes, magazines, and for a while, music. Many independents, already operating with razor-thin margins, couldn’t compete. Between 2000 and 2007, some 1,000 independent bookstores closed.

But even as they were expanding, the chains were beset by questionable management decisions pressured by the demands of public markets to grow, grow, grow. Facing the need for expensive investment in technology, Borders sold its online distribution to Amazon in 2001 and threw its efforts into more stores and bigger stores, using its share price to finance massive debt. Barnes & Noble opened more superstores as well, but it also decided to challenge Amazon by developing the Nook at a cost of more than $1 billion.

The results were disastrous. Barnes & Noble bled money; it just announced earnings with yet another quarter of losses and declining revenue. Amazon dominated because it could spend far more money on technology than the chains, and because its core competency was in the disruptive technologies of e-readers, distribution, and inventory management. Amazon was never seen primarily as a retailer, and hence it could carry massive inventories that were a drag on its earnings and then spend billions on research and development because investors accepted Amazon’s narrative that it was a disruptive technology company redefining how everything is sold, not just books.

The chains, however, were valued as retailers, which meant that they had to have higher sales, more stores, and lower inventory to justify their stock prices. Because investors viewed the chains as retailers, they had to move product. That is what clothing stores do: Old inventory gets put on sale and then off-loaded to discount stores. Unsold inventory shows up on income statements as a negative against sales. To demonstrate higher profitability, retail stores have an incentive to turn over their inventories quickly.

For clothing and electronics and automobiles, that workflow is in sync with consumer behavior. Consumers want new fashion, the newest flat-screen, the latest model car. Book consumers aren’t the same. Yes, new titles can drive sales, but book buyers also look for forgotten classics and hidden gems. That means poring over shelves, and that requires old inventory. The chains and their management could have tried to set investors’ expectations for higher unsold inventories as a healthy part of the specific business of buying and selling books. But they didn’t. They treated old inventory as a drag rather than an asset and began to trim their shelves of titles. (Alternatively, they could have tried to position themselves as larger, better-stocked versions of the independents, focusing on the particular desires of book customers.)

Independent bookstores never had to answer to the dictates of public markets. Many of their proprietors understood, intuitively and from conversations with customers, that a well-curated selection—an inventory of old and new books—was their primary and maybe only competitive advantage. In the words of Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, “The indie bookselling amalgam of knowledge, innovation, passion, and business sophistication has created a unique shopping experience.”

Read the entire Slate article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Dune At Fifty

USA_Oregon_Dunes

Quite coincidentally, and with no prescience at work, I had a half-read Dune Messiah (the second installment of the Dune chronicles) at my side when this article spun its way across the ether. So, it made me put digital pen to digital paper. It’s hard to believe that this master work is now well into middle age. And like a fine wine maturing over time, rather than bursting into our collective consciousness when first published, Dune and its successors took decades to reach a critical mass of appeal.

In crafting this epic work of imagination Frank Herbert takes us on a voyage that goes beyond the narrow genres much-needed by our literary establishment. Is Dune science fiction? Is Dune space opera? Is Dune Fantasy or literary fiction? Is Dune thriller or romance? Or is Dune a treatise on politics and religion. The answer is yes.

But rather than seek to pigeonhole the work and thus limit its initial appeal to a new audience, I think it would be wise to took at Dune in an entirely different way. Dune is an evolutionary tale, and at many levels — it tells us of the evolution of ecological philosophy; the evolution of the self and of the state; the evolution of ideas and religion; the evolution of consciousness and culture.

I have to hope that younger generations, evolving fifty years from now and beyond, will be reading and contemplating Herbert’s work with as much awe.

From the Guardian:

In 1959, if you were walking the sand dunes near Florence, Oregon, you might have encountered a burly, bearded extrovert, striding about in Ray-Ban Aviators and practical army surplus clothing. Frank Herbert, a freelance writer with a feeling for ecology, was researching a magazine story about a US Department of Agriculture programme to stabilise the shifting sands by introducing European beach grass. Pushed by strong winds off the Pacific, the dunes moved eastwards, burying everything in their path. Herbert hired a Cessna light aircraft to survey the scene from the air. “These waves [of sand] can be every bit as devastating as a tidal wave … they’ve even caused deaths,” he wrote in a pitch to his agent. Above all he was intrigued by the idea that it might be possible to engineer an ecosystem, to green a hostile desert landscape.

About to turn 40, Herbert had been a working writer since the age of 19, and his fortunes had always been patchy. After a hard childhood in a small coastal community near Tacoma, Washington, where his pleasures had been fishing and messing about in boats, he’d worked for various regional newspapers in the Pacific northwest and sold short stories to magazines. He’d had a relatively easy war, serving eight months as a naval photographer before receiving a medical discharge. More recently he’d spent a weird interlude in Washington as a speechwriter for a Republican senator. There (his only significant time living on the east coast) he attended the daily Army-McCarthy hearings, watching his distant relative senator Joseph McCarthy root out communism. Herbert was a quintessential product of the libertarian culture of the Pacific coast, self-reliant and distrustful of centralised authority, yet with a mile-wide streak of utopian futurism and a concomitant willingness to experiment. He was also chronically broke. During the period he wrote Dune, his wife Beverly Ann was the main bread-winner, her own writing career sidelined by a job producing advertising copy for department stores.

Soon, Herbert’s research into dunes became research into deserts and desert cultures. It overpowered his article about the heroism of the men of the USDA (proposed title “They Stopped the Moving Sands”) and became two short SF novels, serialised in Analog Science Fact & Fiction, one of the more prestigious genre magazines. Unsatisfied, Herbert industriously reworked his two stories into a single, giant epic. The prevailing publishing wisdom of the time had it that SF readers liked their stories short. Dune (400 pages in its first hardcover edition, almost 900 in the paperback on my desk) was rejected by more than 20 houses before being accepted by Chilton, a Philadelphia operation known for trade and hobby magazines such as Motor Age, Jewelers’ Circular and the no-doubt-diverting Dry Goods Economist.

Though Dune won the Nebula and Hugo awards, the two most prestigious science fiction prizes, it was not an overnight commercial success. Its fanbase built through the 60s and 70s, circulating in squats, communes, labs and studios, anywhere where the idea of global transformation seemed attractive. Fifty years later it is considered by many to be the greatest novel in the SF canon, and has sold in millions around the world.

***

Dune is set in a far future, where warring noble houses are kept in line by a ruthless galactic emperor. As part of a Byzantine political intrigue, the noble duke Leto, head of the Homerically named House Atreides, is forced to move his household from their paradisiacal home planet of Caladan to the desert planet Arrakis, colloquially known as Dune. The climate on Dune is frighteningly hostile. Water is so scarce that whenever its inhabitants go outside, they must wear stillsuits, close-fitting garments that capture body moisture and recycle it for drinking.

The great enemy of House Atreides is House Harkonnen, a bunch of sybaritic no-goods who torture people for fun, and whose head, Baron Vladimir, is so obese that he has to use little anti-gravity “suspensors” as he moves around. The Harkonnens used to control Dune, which despite its awful climate and grubby desert nomad people, has incalculable strategic significance: its great southern desert is the only place in the galaxy where a fantastically valuable commodity called “melange” or “spice” is mined. Spice is a drug whose many useful properties include the induction of a kind of enhanced space-time perception in pilots of interstellar spacecraft. Without it, the entire communication and transport system of the Imperium will collapse. It is highly addictive, and has the side effect of turning the eye of the user a deep blue. Spice mining is dangerous, not just because of sandstorms and nomad attacks, but because the noise attracts giant sandworms, behemoths many hundreds of metres in length that travel through the dunes like whales through the ocean.

Have the Harkonnens really given up Dune, this source of fabulous riches? Of course not. Treachery and tragedy duly ensue, and young Paul survives a general bloodbath to go on the run in the hostile open desert, accompanied, unusually for an adventure story, by his mum. Paul is already showing signs of a kind of cosmic precociousness, and people suspect that he may even be the messiah figure foretold in ancient prophecies. His mother, Jessica, is an initiate of the great female powerbase in an otherwise patriarchal galactic order, a religious sisterhood called the Bene Gesserit. Witchy and psychically powerful, the sisters have engaged in millennia of eugenic programming, of which Paul may be the culmination.

This setup owes something to the Mars stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books, as well as the tales written by Idaho-born food chemist Elmer Edward “Doc” Smith, creator of the popular Lensman space operas of the 1940s and 50s, in which eugenically bred heroes are initiated into a “galactic patrol” of psychically enhanced supercops. For Smith, altered states of consciousness were mainly tools for the whiteous and righteous to vaporise whole solar systems of subversives, aliens and others with undesirable traits. Herbert, by contrast, was no friend of big government. He had also taken peyote and read Jung. In 1960, a sailing buddy introduced him to the Zen thinker Alan Watts, who was living on a houseboat in Sausalito. Long conversations with Watts, the main conduit by which Zen was permeating the west-coast counterculture, helped turn Herbert’s pacy adventure story into an exploration of temporality, the limits of personal identity and the mind’s relationship to the body.

Every fantasy reflects the place and time that produced it. If The Lord of the Rings is about the rise of fascism and the trauma of the second world war, and Game of Thrones, with its cynical realpolitik and cast of precarious, entrepreneurial characters is a fairytale of neoliberalism, then Dune is the paradigmatic fantasy of the Age of Aquarius. Its concerns – environmental stress, human potential, altered states of consciousness and the developing countries’ revolution against imperialism – are blended together into an era-defining vision of personal and cosmic transformation.

Read the entire article here.

Image: The Oregon Dunes, near Florence, Oregon, served as an inspiration for the Dune saga. Courtesy of Rebecca Kennison. Creative Commons.

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The Damned Embuggerance

Google-search-terry-pratchett-books

Sadly, genre-busting author Sir Terry Pratchett succumbed to DEATH on March 12, 2015. Luckily, for those of us still fending off the clutches of Reaper Man we have seventy-plus works of his to keep us company in the darkness.

So now that our world contains a little less magic it’s important to remind ourselves of a few choice words of his:

A man is not truly dead while his name is still spoken.

Stories of imagination tend to upset those without one.

It’s not worth doing something unless someone, somewhere, would much rather you weren’t doing it.

The truth may be out there, but the lies are inside your head.

Goodness is about what you do. Not who you pray to.

From the Guardian:

Neil Gaiman led tributes from the literary, entertainment and fantasy worlds to Terry Pratchett after the author’s death on Thursday, aged 66.

The author of the Discworld novels, which sold in the tens of millions worldwide, had been afflicted with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Gaiman, who collaborated with Pratchett on the huge hit Good Omens, tweeted: “I will miss you, Terry, so much,” pointing to “the last thing I wrote about you”, on the Guardian.

“Terry Pratchett is not a jolly old elf at all,” wrote Gaiman last September. “Not even close. He’s so much more than that. As Terry walks into the darkness much too soon, I find myself raging too: at the injustice that deprives us of – what? Another 20 or 30 books? Another shelf-full of ideas and glorious phrases and old friends and new, of stories in which people do what they really do best, which is use their heads to get themselves out of the trouble they got into by not thinking? … I rage at the imminent loss of my friend. And I think, ‘What would Terry do with this anger?’ Then I pick up my pen, and I start to write.”

Appealing to readers to donate to Alzheimer’s research, Gaiman added on his blog: “Thirty years and a month ago, a beginning author met a young journalist in a Chinese Restaurant, and the two men became friends, and they wrote a book, and they managed to stay friends despite everything. Last night, the author died.

“There was nobody like him. I was fortunate to have written a book with him, when we were younger, which taught me so much.

“I knew his death was coming and it made it no easier.”

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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The Rise of McLiterature

Will-Self-2007A sad symptom of our expanding media binge culture and the fragmentation of our shortening attention spans is the demise of literary fiction. Author Will Self believes the novel, and narrative prose in general, is on a slow, but accelerating, death-spiral. His eloquent views presented in a May 6, 2014 lecture are excerpted below.

From the Guardian:

If you happen to be a writer, one of the great benisons of having children is that your personal culture-mine is equipped with its own canaries. As you tunnel on relentlessly into the future, these little harbingers either choke on the noxious gases released by the extraction of decadence, or they thrive in the clean air of what we might call progress. A few months ago, one of my canaries, who’s in his mid-teens and harbours a laudable ambition to be the world’s greatest ever rock musician, was messing about on his electric guitar. Breaking off from a particularly jagged and angry riff, he launched into an equally jagged diatribe, the gist of which was already familiar to me: everything in popular music had been done before, and usually those who’d done it first had done it best. Besides, the instant availability of almost everything that had ever been done stifled his creativity, and made him feel it was all hopeless.

A miner, if he has any sense, treats his canary well, so I began gently remonstrating with him. Yes, I said, it’s true that the web and the internet have created a permanent Now, eliminating our sense of musical eras; it’s also the case that the queered demographics of our longer-living, lower-birthing population means that the middle-aged squat on top of the pyramid of endeavour, crushing the young with our nostalgic tastes. What’s more, the decimation of the revenue streams once generated by analogues of recorded music have put paid to many a musician’s income. But my canary had to appreciate this: if you took the long view, the advent of the 78rpm shellac disc had also been a disaster for musicians who in the teens and 20s of the last century made their daily bread by live performance. I repeated one of my favourite anecdotes: when the first wax cylinder recording of Feodor Chaliapin singing “The Song of the Volga Boatmen was played, its listeners, despite a lowness of fidelity that would seem laughable to us (imagine a man holding forth from a giant bowl of snapping, crackling and popping Rice Krispies), were nonetheless convinced the portly Russian must be in the room, and searched behind drapes and underneath chaise longues for him.

So recorded sound blew away the nimbus of authenticity surrounding live performers – but it did worse things. My canaries have often heard me tell how back in the 1970s heyday of the pop charts, all you needed was a writing credit on some loathsome chirpy-chirpy-cheep-cheeping ditty in order to spend the rest of your born days lying by a guitar-shaped pool in the Hollywood Hills hoovering up cocaine. Surely if there’s one thing we have to be grateful for it’s that the web has put paid to such an egregious financial multiplier being applied to raw talentlessness. Put paid to it, and also returned musicians to the domain of live performance and, arguably, reinvigorated musicianship in the process. Anyway, I was saying all of this to my canary when I was suddenly overtaken by a great wave of noxiousness only I could smell. I faltered, I fell silent, then I said: sod you and your creative anxieties, what about me? How do you think it feels to have dedicated your entire adult life to an art form only to see the bloody thing dying before your eyes?

My canary is a perceptive songbird – he immediately ceased his own cheeping, except to chirrup: I see what you mean. The literary novel as an art work and a narrative art form central to our culture is indeed dying before our eyes. Let me refine my terms: I do not mean narrative prose fiction tout court is dying – the kidult boywizardsroman and the soft sadomasochistic porn fantasy are clearly in rude good health. And nor do I mean that serious novels will either cease to be written or read. But what is already no longer the case is the situation that obtained when I was a young man. In the early 1980s, and I would argue throughout the second half of the last century, the literary novel was perceived to be the prince of art forms, the cultural capstone and the apogee of creative endeavour. The capability words have when arranged sequentially to both mimic the free flow of human thought and investigate the physical expressions and interactions of thinking subjects; the way they may be shaped into a believable simulacrum of either the commonsensical world, or any number of invented ones; and the capability of the extended prose form itself, which, unlike any other art form, is able to enact self-analysis, to describe other aesthetic modes and even mimic them. All this led to a general acknowledgment: the novel was the true Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk.

This is not to say that everyone walked the streets with their head buried in Ulysses or To the Lighthouse, or that popular culture in all its forms didn’t hold sway over the psyches and imaginations of the great majority. Nor do I mean to suggest that in our culture perennial John Bull-headed philistinism wasn’t alive and snorting: “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” However, what didn’t obtain is the current dispensation, wherein those who reject the high arts feel not merely entitled to their opinion, but wholly justified in it. It goes further: the hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestations, accompanied by a sense of grievance that conflates it with political elitism. Indeed, it’s arguable that tilting at this papery windmill of artistic superiority actively prevents a great many people from confronting the very real economic inequality and political disenfranchisement they’re subject to, exactly as being compelled to chant the mantra “choice” drowns out the harsh background Muzak telling them they have none.

Just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. Simply because you’ve remarked a number of times on the concealed fox gnawing its way into your vitals, it doesn’t mean it hasn’t at this moment swallowed your gall bladder. Ours is an age in which omnipresent threats of imminent extinction are also part of the background noise – nuclear annihilation, terrorism, climate change. So we can be blinkered when it comes to tectonic cultural shifts. The omnipresent and deadly threat to the novel has been imminent now for a long time – getting on, I would say, for a century – and so it’s become part of culture. During that century, more books of all kinds have been printed and read by far than in the entire preceding half millennium since the invention of movable-type printing. If this was death it had a weird, pullulating way of expressing itself. The saying is that there are no second acts in American lives; the novel, I think, has led a very American sort of life: swaggering, confident, brash even – and ever aware of its world-conquering manifest destiny. But unlike Ernest Hemingway or F Scott Fitzgerald, the novel has also had a second life. The form should have been laid to rest at about the time of Finnegans Wake, but in fact it has continued to stalk the corridors of our minds for a further three-quarters of a century. Many fine novels have been written during this period, but I would contend that these were, taking the long view, zombie novels, instances of an undead art form that yet wouldn’t lie down.

Literary critics – themselves a dying breed, a cause for considerable schadenfreude on the part of novelists – make all sorts of mistakes, but some of the most egregious ones result from an inability to think outside of the papery prison within which they conduct their lives’ work. They consider the codex. They are – in Marshall McLuhan’s memorable phrase – the possessors of Gutenberg minds.

There is now an almost ceaseless murmuring about the future of narrative prose. Most of it is at once Panglossian and melioristic: yes, experts assert, there’s no disputing the impact of digitised text on the whole culture of the codex; fewer paper books are being sold, newspapers fold, bookshops continue to close, libraries as well. But … but, well, there’s still no substitute for the experience of close reading as we’ve come to understand and appreciate it – the capacity to imagine entire worlds from parsing a few lines of text; the ability to achieve deep and meditative levels of absorption in others’ psyches. This circling of the wagons comes with a number of public-spirited campaigns: children are given free books; book bags are distributed with slogans on them urging readers to put books in them; books are hymned for their physical attributes – their heft, their appearance, their smell – as if they were the bodily correlates of all those Gutenberg minds, which, of  course, they are.

The seeming realists among the Gutenbergers say such things as: well, clearly, books are going to become a minority technology, but the beau livre will survive. The populist Gutenbergers prate on about how digital texts linked to social media will allow readers to take part in a public conversation. What none of the Gutenbergers are able to countenance, because it is quite literally – for once the intensifier is justified – out of their minds, is that the advent of digital media is not simply destructive of the codex, but of the Gutenberg mind itself. There is one question alone that you must ask yourself in order to establish whether the serious novel will still retain cultural primacy and centrality in another 20 years. This is the question: if you accept that by then the vast majority of text will be read in digital form on devices linked to the web, do you also believe that those readers will voluntarily choose to disable that connectivity? If your answer to this is no, then the death of the novel is sealed out of your own mouth.

Read the entire excerpt here.

Image: Will Self, 2007. Courtesy of Wikipedia / Creative Commons.

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Paper is the Next Big Thing

Da-Vinci-Hammer-Codex

Luddites and technophobes rejoice, paper-bound books may be with us for quite some time. And, there may be some genuinely scientific reasons why physical books will remain. Recent research shows that people learn more effectively when reading from paper versus its digital offspring.

From Wired:

Paper books were supposed to be dead by now. For years, information theorists, marketers, and early adopters have told us their demise was imminent. Ikea even redesigned a bookshelf to hold something other than books. Yet in a world of screen ubiquity, many people still prefer to do their serious reading on paper.

Count me among them. When I need to read deeply—when I want to lose myself in a story or an intellectual journey, when focus and comprehension are paramount—I still turn to paper. Something just feels fundamentally richer about reading on it. And researchers are starting to think there’s something to this feeling.

To those who see dead tree editions as successors to scrolls and clay tablets in history’s remainder bin, this might seem like literary Luddism. But I e-read often: when I need to copy text for research or don’t want to carry a small library with me. There’s something especially delicious about late-night sci-fi by the light of a Kindle Paperwhite.

What I’ve read on screen seems slippery, though. When I later recall it, the text is slightly translucent in my mind’s eye. It’s as if my brain better absorbs what’s presented on paper. Pixels just don’t seem to stick. And often I’ve found myself wondering, why might that be?

The usual explanation is that internet devices foster distraction, or that my late-thirty-something brain isn’t that of a true digital native, accustomed to screens since infancy. But I have the same feeling when I am reading a screen that’s not connected to the internet and Twitter or online Boggle can’t get in the way. And research finds that kids these days consistently prefer their textbooks in print rather than pixels. Whatever the answer, it’s not just about habit.

Another explanation, expressed in a recent Washington Post article on the decline of deep reading, blames a sweeping change in our lifestyles: We’re all so multitasked and attention-fragmented that our brains are losing the ability to focus on long, linear texts. I certainly feel this way, but if I don’t read deeply as often or easily as I used to, it does still happen. It just doesn’t happen on screen, and not even on devices designed specifically for that experience.

Maybe it’s time to start thinking of paper and screens another way: not as an old technology and its inevitable replacement, but as different and complementary interfaces, each stimulating particular modes of thinking. Maybe paper is a technology uniquely suited for imbibing novels and essays and complex narratives, just as screens are for browsing and scanning.

“Reading is human-technology interaction,” says literacy professor Anne Mangen of Norway’s University of Stavenger. “Perhaps the tactility and physical permanence of paper yields a different cognitive and emotional experience.” This is especially true, she says, for “reading that can’t be done in snippets, scanning here and there, but requires sustained attention.”

Mangen is among a small group of researchers who study how people read on different media. It’s a field that goes back several decades, but yields no easy conclusions. People tended to read slowly and somewhat inaccurately on early screens. The technology, particularly e-paper, has improved dramatically, to the point where speed and accuracy aren’t now problems, but deeper issues of memory and comprehension are not yet well-characterized.

Complicating the scientific story further, there are many types of reading. Most experiments involve short passages read by students in an academic setting, and for this sort of reading, some studies have found no obvious differences between screens and paper. Those don’t necessarily capture the dynamics of deep reading, though, and nobody’s yet run the sort of experiment, involving thousands of readers in real-world conditions who are tracked for years on a battery of cognitive and psychological measures, that might fully illuminate the matter.

In the meantime, other research does suggest possible differences. A 2004 study found that students more fully remembered what they’d read on paper. Those results were echoed by an experiment that looked specifically at e-books, and another by psychologist Erik Wästlund at Sweden’s Karlstad University, who found that students learned better when reading from paper.

Wästlund followed up that study with one designed to investigate screen reading dynamics in more detail. He presented students with a variety of on-screen document formats. The most influential factor, he found, was whether they could see pages in their entirety. When they had to scroll, their performance suffered.

According to Wästlund, scrolling had two impacts, the most basic being distraction. Even the slight effort required to drag a mouse or swipe a finger requires a small but significant investment of attention, one that’s higher than flipping a page. Text flowing up and down a page also disrupts a reader’s visual attention, forcing eyes to search for a new starting point and re-focus.

Mangen is among a small group of researchers who study how people read on different media. It’s a field that goes back several decades, but yields no easy conclusions. People tended to read slowly and somewhat inaccurately on early screens. The technology, particularly e-paper, has improved dramatically, to the point where speed and accuracy aren’t now problems, but deeper issues of memory and comprehension are not yet well-characterized.

Complicating the scientific story further, there are many types of reading. Most experiments involve short passages read by students in an academic setting, and for this sort of reading, some studies have found no obvious differences between screens and paper. Those don’t necessarily capture the dynamics of deep reading, though, and nobody’s yet run the sort of experiment, involving thousands of readers in real-world conditions who are tracked for years on a battery of cognitive and psychological measures, that might fully illuminate the matter.

In the meantime, other research does suggest possible differences. A 2004 study found that students more fully remembered what they’d read on paper. Those results were echoed by an experiment that looked specifically at e-books, and another by psychologist Erik Wästlund at Sweden’s Karlstad University, who found that students learned better when reading from paper.

Wästlund followed up that study with one designed to investigate screen reading dynamics in more detail. He presented students with a variety of on-screen document formats. The most influential factor, he found, was whether they could see pages in their entirety. When they had to scroll, their performance suffered.

According to Wästlund, scrolling had two impacts, the most basic being distraction. Even the slight effort required to drag a mouse or swipe a finger requires a small but significant investment of attention, one that’s higher than flipping a page. Text flowing up and down a page also disrupts a reader’s visual attention, forcing eyes to search for a new starting point and re-focus.

Read the entire electronic article here.

Image: Leicester or Hammer Codex, by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). Courtesy of Wikipedia / Public domain.

 

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Literally? Literally!

In everyday conversation the word “literally” is now as overused as the word “like” or the pause “um”. But, it’s also thoroughly abused (figuratively) and misused (literally). Unfortunately for pedants and linguistic purists, the word has become an intensifier of sorts. So, while you’ll still have to resort to cringing and correcting — if you are that inclined — your conversational partners next time they exclaim “… he was literally dying from laughter”, you have help online. A new web browser extension scans the page you’re on and replaces the word “literally” with “figuratively”. Now that’s really mind-blowing, literally.

From Slate:

If you’re a cool-headed, fair-minded, forward-thinking descriptivist like my colleague David Haglund, it doesn’t bother you one bit that people often use the word “literally” when describing things figuratively.

If, on the other hand, you’re a cranky language bully like me, it figuratively bugs the crap out of you every time.

We pedants are waging a losing battle, of course. Even major dictionaries now recognize the use of “literally” as an intensifier for statements that are not literally true.

Fortunately, Yahoo Tech‘s Alyssa Bereznak has run across a simple remedy for this galling inversion of the term’s original meaning. Built by a programmer named Mike Walker, it’s an extension for Google’s Chrome browser that replaces the word “literally” with “figuratively” on sites and articles across the Web, with deeply gratifying results.

It doesn’t work in every instance—tweets, for example, are immune to the extension’s magic, as are illustrations. But it works widely enough to put you in metaphorical stitches when you see some of the results. For instance, a quick Google News search for “literally” turns up the following headlines, modified by the browser extension to a state of unintentional accuracy:

  • The 2014 MTV Movie Awards Were Figuratively on Fire
  • 10 Things You Figuratively Do Not Have Time For
  • Momentum Is Figuratively the Next Starting Pitcher for LSU

Be warned, though: Walker’s widget does not distinguish between the literal and figurative uses of “literally.” So if you install it, you’ll also start seeing the word “figuratively” to describe things that are literally true, as in, “White Sox Rookie Abreu Figuratively Destroys a Baseball.” (The baseball was in fact destroyed.)

But hey, that’s no worse than the current state of affairs. Come to think of it, by the anti-prescriptivists’ logic, there’s nothing wrong with using “figuratively” to mean “literally,” as long as enough people do it. Anything can mean anything, literally—I mean figuratively!

If you’re signed into the Chrome browser, you can install the extension here. For those who want a browser extension that zaps hyperbole more broadly, try Alison Dianotto’s Downworthy tool, which performs similar operations on phrases like “will blow your mind” and “you won’t believe.”

Read the entire article here.

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MondayPoem: Lines: The Cold Earth Slept Below

Percy_Bysshe_Shelley_by_Alfred_ClintIt’s been rather cold across much of the United States recently — even in areas of the South that rarely see below zero on a thermometer. So, how better to honor the cold than to soak in Shelley’s chillingly beautiful Lines.

By Percy Bysshe Shelley:

 Lines: The cold earth slept below

The cold earth slept below;
         Above the cold sky shone;
                And all around,
                With a chilling sound,
From caves of ice and fields of snow
The breath of night like death did flow
                Beneath the sinking moon.

The wintry hedge was black;
         The green grass was not seen;
                The birds did rest
                On the bare thorn’s breast,
Whose roots, beside the pathway track,
Had bound their folds o’er many a crack
                Which the frost had made between.

Thine eyes glow’d in the glare
         Of the moon’s dying light;
                As a fen-fire’s beam
                On a sluggish stream
Gleams dimly—so the moon shone there,
And it yellow’d the strings of thy tangled hair,
                That shook in the wind of night.

The moon made thy lips pale, beloved;
         The wind made thy bosom chill;
                The night did shed
                On thy dear head
Its frozen dew, and thou didst lie
Where the bitter breath of the naked sky
                Might visit thee at will.

Poem courtesy of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Image: Percy Bysshe Shelley, portrait by Alfred Clint (1819).

Percy Bysshe Shelley

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When Is a Novel Not a Novel?

Persepolis-books1and2-covers

In the eyes of many teachers and parents, a novel is not a novel when it is graphic — as in, graphic novel, with illustrations and images, not necessarily explicit in content (when did “graphic” come to connote negativity anyway?) Educators who tell their students to put the graphic novel back on the shelf — in favor of a more wordy tome — still tend to perceive this form of literature as nothing more than a bound, cartoonish comic strip aimed at childish readers or nerdy boys. Not so! Graphic novels are not your father’s Dandy or Beano (though, in themselves are entertaining too).

Some critically acclaimed and riveting works have recently debuted in graphic form, and the genre is holding its own and slowly proving its worth. The stories both true and imagined are rich and moving, and the illustrations, far from detracting the eye, add gravitas and depth. And, the subjects now go far beyond the realm of superheroes, zombies and robots — they walk us through all that is to be human: tragedy, atrocity, love, angst, guilt, loss, joy.

A few recent classics come to mind: Persepolis, a French-language, autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi; Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, a graphic novel about the quest for logic and reason in mathematics, by Apostolos Doxiadis; Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel; Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History, by Art Spiegelman; Blankets an autobiographical graphic novel by Craig Thompson.

From Washington Post:

A Young girl, a primary grade-schooler with a well-worn library card, was enthusiastically reading a riveting memoir when a stern tone descended upon her.

“What is that?” the teacher asked/accused.

“It’s a graphic novel,” came the girl’s reply.

Such works, the girl was told, were unacceptable for classroom “reading time,” let alone for a book report. The teacher’s sharp ruling boiled down to a four-word excuse for banishment:

“Graphic. Novels. Aren’t. Books.”

Sigh.

Here we go again…

Really? Two decades after Art Spiegelman’s landmark Holocaust graphic novel “Maus” won the Pulitzer Prize and helped stake a fresh claim for comics as literature — paving the way for the appreciation of such works as “Persepolis” and “Blankets” and “American Born Chinese” — do a significant number of teachers and administrators remain mired in such backward thinking?

Unfortunately, my rhetoric is rhetorical. These curricular “world-is-flat’ers” are still thick on our school grounds. But it’s time for the culture’s tectonic plates to more rapidly force a shift in academic thought.

As we step into 2014, this lingering bias in curriculum needs to cease. We fervently urge the least enlightened of our educators to catch up with the rest of the class. And to make our case, let us present Exhibit A:

The young girl who faced that rebuke of illustrated books was a relative of mine. And that book (a-hem) in question was “Stitches: A Memoir,” acclaimed author David Small’s poignant personal story of a dysfunctional childhood home — including his adolescent battle with throat cancer, which may have been caused by his doctor-father’s early over-embrace of X-ray radiation. In Small’s masterful prose and liquid pictures, we vividly experience the voiceless boy-patient’s raw emotions.

Even four years ago, quite a few people would have begged to differ with that grade-school teacher. “Stitches” climbed the bestseller list of the New York Times, which deemed the book worthy of review; was named one of the best books of the year by such outlets as Publishers Weekly; and was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. No less than Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist/author/playwright/screenwriter Jules Feiffer said aptly of Small’s masterpiece: “It left me speechless.”

Of the teacher’s wrong-headed thinking, I was left speechless. Her decision was not a mere judgment against one book, but an ignorant indictment of all graphic novels. As blanket criticism, it was unabashedly threadbare.

Consider my commentary here, then, to be a criticism of that criticism. Because what the larger academic problem calls for is not damnation, but persuasion. A struck match. Into Plato’s cave, let us bring truer illumination.

What follows is not some broad indictment of modern American education. I was born into a brood of teachers — the family crest might as well be a chalkboard — and I deeply value what too often is one of the nation’s more thankless and underpaid cornerstone careers. Plus, as an artist who has spoken to thousands of impressive educators — many of whom appreciated my history-themed syndicated comic strip — I applaud those who thoughtfully and passionately help inform and shape young minds, while keeping an open mind themselves. On this front, so many of them “get” it.

What this essay is, at heart, is an extended hand in the name of better understanding — especially as our schools are filled with so-called “reluctant readers” and other struggling learners. We face an educational imperative: Why not use every effective teaching tool at our disposal? Decades of studies have shown the power of visual learning as an effective scholastic technique. Author Neil Gaiman (winner of the Newbery and Carnegie medals for children’s lit) recently noted that comics were once falsely accused of fostering illiteracy. We now know that comics — the marriage of word and picture in a dynamic relationship that fires synapses across the brain — can be a bridge to literacy and a path to learning. Armed with that knowledge, the last thing we need blocking that footbridge is the Reluctant Teacher.

Fortunately, 2013 rises to aid our cause. It was a banner year for graphic novels; top authors ranged from a young hip-hop fan to a heroic septuagenarian congressman writing his first comic — and in between were a couple of world-class cartoonists who also happen to be widely recognized educators.

Great works help beget great change. So here, then, is our examination of 10 stellar graphic novels and illustrated books from the year past (all equally fit for adult consumption, to boot). Because the writing is on the classroom wall. As generations are weaned on the Internet, our culture grows ever more visual. And the take-home lesson is this:

Let us meet our young minds where they live.

Let us smartly employ the resources of visual learning.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Persepolis 1 and Persepolis 2, book covers by Marjane Satrapi. Courtesy of Marjane Satrapi / Wikipedia.

 

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The Global Detective Story of Little Red Riding Hood

Intrepid literary detective work spanning Europe, China, Japan and Africa uncovers the roots of a famous children’s tale.

From the Independent:

Little Red Riding Hood’s closest relative may have been her ill-fated grandmother, but academics have discovered she has long-lost cousins as far away as China and Japan.

Employing scientific analysis commonly used by biologists, anthropologist Jamshid Tehrani has mapped the emergence of the story to an earlier tale from the first century AD – and found it has numerous links to similar stories across the globe.

The Durham University academic traced the roots of Little Red Riding Hood to a folk tale called The Wolf and the Kids, which subsequently “evolved twice”, he claims in his paper, published this week in scientific journal Plos One.

Dr Tehrani, who has previously studied cultural change over generations in areas such as textiles, debunked theories that the tale emerged in China, arriving via the Silk Route. Instead, he traced the origins to European oral traditions, which then spread east.

“The Chinese version is derived from European oral traditions and not vice versa,” he said.

The Chinese took Little Red Riding Hood and The Wolf and the Kids and blended it with local tales, he argued. Often the wolf is replaced with an ogre or a tiger.

The research analysed 58 variants of the tales and looked at 72 plot variables.

The scientific process used was called phylogenetic analysis, used by biologists to group closely-related organisms to map out branches of evolution. Dr Tehrani used maths to model the similarities of the plots and score them on the probability that they have the same origin.

Little Red Riding Hood and The Wolf and the Kids, which concerns a wolf impersonating a goat to trick her kids and eat them, remain as distinct stories. Dr Tehrani described it “like a biologist showing that humans and other apes share a common ancestor but have evolved into distinct species”.

The Wolf and the Kids originated in the 1st century AD, with Little Red Riding Hood branching off 1,000 years later.

The story was immortalised by the Brothers Grimm in the 19th century, based on a tale written by Charles Perrault 200 years earlier. That derived from oral storytelling in France, Austria and northern Italy. Variants of Little Red Riding Hood can be found across Africa and Asia, including The Tiger Grandmother in Japan, China and Korea.

Dr Tehrani said: “My research cracks a long-standing mystery. The African tales turn out to be descended from The Wolf and the Kids but over time, they have evolved to become like Little Red Riding Hood, which is also likely to be descended from The Wolf and the Kids.”

The academic, who is now studying a range of other fairy tales, said: “This exemplifies a process biologists call convergent evolution, in which species independently evolve similar adaptations.”

Read the entire article here.

Image: Old father Wolf eyes up Little Red Riding Hood. Illustration courtesy of Tyler Garrison / Guardian.

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MondayPoem: Death of a Naturalist

Seamus Heaney, poet, Nobel Laureate and above all observer of the Irish condition passed away last week.

He is widely recognized as one of the 20th century’s greatest poets; and was famous both for his critical acclaim and for being so widely read. He will be missed. Luckily for the rest of us, Heaney left behind a wonderful swathe of work, which current and future generations will come to cherish.

By Seamus Heaney

– Death of A Naturalist

All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.
Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

Read more about Seamus Heaney here.

Image: Seamus Heaney. Courtesy: Murdo Macleod / Guardian.

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Seamus Haney, Come Back

Enough is enough! Our favorite wordsmiths must call a halt right now. First we lost Chris Hitchens, soon followed by Iain Banks. And now, poet extraordinaire, Seamus Heaney.

So, we mourn and celebrate with an excerpt from his 1995 Nobel acceptance speech. You can find more on Heaney’s remarkable life in words, here, at Poetry Foundation.

From the Independent:

When I first encountered the name of the city of Stockholm, I little thought that I would ever visit it, never mind end up being welcomed to it as a guest of the Swedish Academy and the Nobel Foundation.

At the time I am thinking of, such an outcome was not just beyond expectation: it was simply beyond conception. In the nineteen forties, when I was the eldest child of an ever-growing family in rural Co. Derry, we crowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead and lived a kind of den-life which was more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world. It was an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other. We took in everything that was going on, of course – rain in the trees, mice on the ceiling, a steam train rumbling along the railway line one field back from the house – but we took it in as if we were in the doze of hibernation. Ahistorical, pre-sexual, in suspension between the archaic and the modern, we were as susceptible and impressionable as the drinking water that stood in a bucket in our scullery: every time a passing train made the earth shake, the surface of that water used to ripple delicately, concentrically, and in utter silence.

But it was not only the earth that shook for us: the air around and above us was alive and signalling too. When a wind stirred in the beeches, it also stirred an aerial wire attached to the topmost branch of the chestnut tree. Down it swept, in through a hole bored in the corner of the kitchen window, right on into the innards of our wireless set where a little pandemonium of burbles and squeaks would suddenly give way to the voice of a BBC newsreader speaking out of the unexpected like a deus ex machina. And that voice too we could hear in our bedroom, transmitting from beyond and behind the voices of the adults in the kitchen; just as we could often hear, behind and beyond every voice, the frantic, piercing signalling of morse code.

We could pick up the names of neighbours being spoken in the local accents of our parents, and in the resonant English tones of the newsreader the names of bombers and of cities bombed, of war fronts and army divisions, the numbers of planes lost and of prisoners taken, of casualties suffered and advances made; and always, of course, we would pick up too those other, solemn and oddly bracing words, “the enemy” and “the allies”. But even so, none of the news of these world-spasms entered me as terror. If there was something ominous in the newscaster’s tones, there was something torpid about our understanding of what was at stake; and if there was something culpable about such political ignorance in that time and place, there was something positive about the security I inhabited as a result of it.

The wartime, in other words, was pre-reflective time for me. Pre-literate too. Pre-historical in its way. Then as the years went on and my listening became more deliberate, I would climb up on an arm of our big sofa to get my ear closer to the wireless speaker. But it was still not the news that interested me; what I was after was the thrill of story, such as a detective serial about a British special agent called Dick Barton or perhaps a radio adaptation of one of Capt. W.E. Johns’s adventure tales about an RAF flying ace called Biggles. Now that the other children were older and there was so much going on in the kitchen, I had to get close to the actual radio set in order to concentrate my hearing, and in that intent proximity to the dial I grew familiar with the names of foreign stations, with Leipzig and Oslo and Stuttgart and Warsaw and, of course, with Stockholm.

I also got used to hearing short bursts of foreign languages as the dial hand swept round from BBC to Radio Eireann, from the intonations of London to those of Dublin, and even though I did not understand what was being said in those first encounters with the gutturals and sibilants of European speech, I had already begun a journey into the wideness of the world beyond. This in turn became a journey into the wideness of language, a journey where each point of arrival – whether in one’s poetry or one’s life turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination, and it is that journey which has brought me now to this honoured spot. And yet the platform here feels more like a space station than a stepping stone, so that is why, for once in my life, I am permitting myself the luxury of walking on air.

*

I credit poetry for making this space-walk possible. I credit it immediately because of a line I wrote fairly recently instructing myself (and whoever else might be listening) to “walk on air against your better judgement”. But I credit it ultimately because poetry can make an order as true to the impact of external reality and as sensitive to the inner laws of the poet’s being as the ripples that rippled in and rippled out across the water in that scullery bucket fifty years ago. An order where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew. An order which satisfies all that is appetitive in the intelligence and prehensile in the affections. I credit poetry, in other words, both for being itself and for being a help, for making possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind’s centre and its circumference, between the child gazing at the word “Stockholm” on the face of the radio dial and the man facing the faces that he meets in Stockholm at this most privileged moment. I credit it because credit is due to it, in our time and in all time, for its truth to life, in every sense of that phrase.

*

To begin with, I wanted that truth to life to possess a concrete reliability, and rejoiced most when the poem seemed most direct, an upfront representation of the world it stood in for or stood up for or stood its ground against. Even as a schoolboy, I loved John Keats’s ode “To Autumn” for being an ark of the covenant between language and sensation; as an adolescent, I loved Gerard Manley Hopkins for the intensity of his exclamations which were also equations for a rapture and an ache I didn’t fully know I knew until I read him; I loved Robert Frost for his farmer’s accuracy and his wily down-to-earthness; and Chaucer too for much the same reasons. Later on I would find a different kind of accuracy, a moral down-to-earthness to which I responded deeply and always will, in the war poetry of Wilfred Owen, a poetry where a New Testament sensibility suffers and absorbs the shock of the new century’s barbarism. Then later again, in the pure consequence of Elizabeth Bishop’s style, in the sheer obduracy of Robert Lowell’s and in the barefaced confrontation of Patrick Kavanagh’s, I encountered further reasons for believing in poetry’s ability – and responsibility – to say what happens, to “pity the planet,” to be “not concerned with Poetry.”

This temperamental disposition towards an art that was earnest and devoted to things as they are was corroborated by the experience of having been born and brought up in Northern Ireland and of having lived with that place even though I have lived out of it for the past quarter of a century. No place in the world prides itself more on its vigilance and realism, no place considers itself more qualified to censure any flourish of rhetoric or extravagance of aspiration. So, partly as a result of having internalized these attitudes through growing up with them, and partly as a result of growing a skin to protect myself against them, I went for years half-avoiding and half- resisting the opulence and extensiveness of poets as different as Wallace Stevens and Rainer Maria Rilke; crediting insufficiently the crystalline inwardness of Emily Dickinson, all those forked lightnings and fissures of association; and missing the visionary strangeness of Eliot. And these more or less costive attitudes were fortified by a refusal to grant the poet any more license than any other citizen; and they were further induced by having to conduct oneself as a poet in a situation of ongoing political violence and public expectation. A public expectation, it has to be said, not of poetry as such but of political positions variously approvable by mutually disapproving groups.

In such circumstances, the mind still longs to repose in what Samuel Johnson once called with superb confidence “the stability of truth”, even as it recognizes the destabilizing nature of its own operations and enquiries. Without needing to be theoretically instructed, consciousness quickly realizes that it is the site of variously contending discourses. The child in the bedroom, listening simultaneously to the domestic idiom of his Irish home and the official idioms of the British broadcaster while picking up from behind both the signals of some other distress, that child was already being schooled for the complexities of his adult predicament, a future where he would have to adjudicate among promptings variously ethical, aesthetical, moral, political, metrical, sceptical, cultural, topical, typical, post-colonial and, taken all together, simply impossible. So it was that I found myself in the mid-nineteen seventies in another small house, this time in Co. Wicklow south of Dublin, with a young family of my own and a slightly less imposing radio set, listening to the rain in the trees and to the news of bombings closer to home-not only those by the Provisional IRA in Belfast but equally atrocious assaults in Dublin by loyalist paramilitaries from the north. Feeling puny in my predicaments as I read about the tragic logic of Osip Mandelstam’s fate in the 1930s, feeling challenged yet steadfast in my noncombatant status when I heard, for example, that one particularly sweetnatured school friend had been interned without trial because he was suspected of having been involved in a political killing. What I was longing for was not quite stability but an active escape from the quicksand of relativism, a way of crediting poetry without anxiety or apology. In a poem called “Exposure” I wrote then:

If I could come on meteorite!
Instead, I walk through damp leaves,
Husks, the spent flukes of autumn,

Imagining a hero
On some muddy compound,
His gift like a slingstone
Whirled for the desperate.

How did I end up like this?
I often think of my friends’
Beautiful prismatic counselling
And the anvil brains of some who hate me

As I sit weighing and weighing
My responsible tristia.
For what? For the ear? For the people?
For what is said behind-backs?

Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conducive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls

The diamond absolutes.
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner émigré, a grown long-haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne

Escaped from the massacre,
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows;

Who, blowing up these sparks
For their meagre heat, have missed
The once in a lifetime portent,
The comet’s pulsing rose.
(from North)

Read the entire article here.

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Highbrow or Lowbrow?

Do you prefer the Beatles to Beethoven? Do you prefer Rembrandt over the Sunday comics or the latest Marvel? Do you read Patterson or Proust? Gary Gutting professor of philosophy argues that the distinguishing value of aesthetics must drive us to appreciate fine art over popular work. So, you had better dust off those volumes of Shakespeare.

From the New York Times:

Our democratic society is uneasy with the idea that traditional “high culture” (symphonies, Shakespeare, Picasso) is superior to popular culture (rap music, TV dramas, Norman Rockwell). Our media often make a point of blurring the distinction: newspapers and magazines review rock concerts alongside the Met’s operas and “Batman” sequels next to Chekhov plays. Sophisticated academic critics apply the same methods of analysis and appreciation to Proust and to comic books. And at all levels, claims of objective artistic superiority are likely to be met with smug assertions that all such claims are merely relative to subjective individual preferences.

Our democratic unease is understandable, since the alleged superiority of high culture has often supported the pretensions of an aristocratic class claiming to have privileged access to it. For example, Virginia Woolf’s classic essay — arch, snobbish, and very funny — reserved the appreciation of great art to “highbrows”: those “thoroughbreds of the mind” who combine innate taste with sufficient inherited wealth to sustain a life entirely dedicated to art. Lowbrows were working-class people who had neither the taste nor the time for the artistic life. Woolf claimed to admire lowbrows, who did the work highbrows like herself could not and accepted their cultural inferiority. But she expresses only disdain for a third class — the “middlebrows”— who have earned (probably through trade) enough money to purchase the marks of a high culture that they could never properly appreciate. Middlebrows pursue “no single object, neither art itself nor life itself, but both mixed indistinguishably, and rather nastily, with money, fame, power, or prestige.”

There is, however, no need to tie a defense of high art to Woolf’s “snobocracy.” We can define the high/popular distinction directly in terms of aesthetic quality, without tendentious connections to social status or wealth. Moreover, we can appropriate Woolf’s term “middlebrow,” using it to refer to those, not “to the manner born,” who, admirably, employ the opportunities of a democratic society to reach a level of culture they were not born into.

At this point, however, we can no longer avoid the hovering relativist objection: How do we know that there are any objective criteria that authorize claims that one kind of art is better than another?

Centuries of unresolved philosophical debate show that there is, in fact, little hope of refuting someone who insists on a thoroughly relativist view of art. We should not expect, for example, to provide a definition of beauty (or some other criterion of artistic excellence) that we can use to prove to all doubters that, say, Mozart’s 40th Symphony is objectively superior as art to “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” But in practice there is no need for such a proof, since hardly anyone really holds the relativist view. We may say, “You can’t argue about taste,” but when it comes to art we care about, we almost always do.

For example, fans of popular music may respond to the elitist claims of classical music with a facile relativism. But they abandon this relativism when arguing, say, the comparative merits of the early Beatles and the Rolling Stones. You may, for example, maintain that the Stones were superior to the Beatles (or vice versa) because their music is more complex, less derivative, and has greater emotional range and deeper intellectual content. Here you are putting forward objective standards from which you argue for a band’s superiority. Arguing from such criteria implicitly rejects the view that artistic evaluations are simply matters of personal taste. You are giving reasons for your view that you think others ought to accept.

Further, given the standards fans use to show that their favorites are superior, we can typically show by those same standards that works of high art are overall superior to works of popular art. If the Beatles are better than the Stones in complexity, originality, emotional impact, and intellectual content, then Mozart’s operas are, by those standards, superior to the Beatles’ songs. Similarly, a case for the superiority of one blockbuster movie over another would most likely invoke standards of dramatic power, penetration into character, and quality of dialogue by which almost all blockbuster movies would pale in comparison to Sophocles or Shakespeare.

On reflection, it’s not hard to see why — keeping to the example of music —classical works are in general capable of much higher levels of aesthetic value than popular ones. Compared to a classical composer, someone writing a popular song can utilize only a very small range of musical possibilities: a shorter time span, fewer kinds of instruments, a lower level of virtuosity and a greatly restricted range of compositional techniques. Correspondingly, classical performers are able to supply whatever the composers need for a given piece; popular performers seriously restrict what composers can ask for. Of course, there are sublime works that make minimal performance demands. But constant restriction of resources reduces the opportunities for greater achievement.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Detail of the face of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Cropped version of the painting where Mozart is seen with Anna Maria (Mozart’s sister) and father, Leopold, on the wall a portrait of his deceased mother, Anna Maria. By Johann Nepomuk della Croce (1736-1819). Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Asteroid 5099

Iain (M.) Banks is now where he rightfully belongs — hurtling through space. Though, we fear that he may well not be traveling as fast as he would have wished.

From the Minor Planet Center:

In early April of this year we learnt from Iain Banks himself that he was sick, very sick. Cancer that started in the gall bladder spread quickly and precluded any cure, though he still hoped to be around for a while and see his upcoming novel, The Quarry, hit store shelves in late June. He never did—Iain Banks died on June 9th.

I was introduced to Iain M. Banks’s Sci-Fi novels in graduate school by a good friend who also enjoyed Sci-Fi; he couldn’t believe I’d never even heard of him and remedied what he saw as a huge lapse in my Sci-Fi culture by lending me a couple of his novels. After that I read a few more novels of my own volition because Mr Banks truly was a gifted story teller.

When I heard of his sickness I immediately asked myself what I could do for Mr Banks, and the answer was obvious: Give him an asteroid!

The Minor Planet Center only has the authority to designate new asteroid discoveries (e.g., ’1971 TD1?) and assign numbers to those whose orbits are of a high enough accuracy (e.g., ’5099?), but names for numbered asteroids must be submitted to, and approved by, the Committee for Small Body Nomenclature (CSBN) of the IAU (International Astronomical Union). With the help of Dr Gareth Williams, the MPC’s representative on the CSBN, we submitted a request to name an asteroid after Iain Banks with the hope that it would be approved soon enough for Mr Banks to enjoy it. Sadly, that has not been possible. Nevertheless, I am here to announce that on June 23rd, 2013, asteroid (5099) was officially named Iainbanks by the IAU, and will be referred to as such for as long as Earth Culture may endure.

The official citation for the asteroid reads:

Iain M. Banks (1954-2013) was a Scottish writer best known for the Culture series of science ?ction novels; he also wrote ?ction as Iain Banks. An evangelical atheist and lover of whisky, he scorned social media and enjoyed writing music. He was an extra in Monty Python & The Holy Grail.

Asteroid Iainbanks resides in the Main Asteroid Belt of the Sol system; with a size of 6.1 km (3.8 miles), it takes 3.94 years to complete a revolution around the Sun. It is most likely of a stony composition. Here is an interactive 3D orbit diagram.

The Culture is an advanced society in whose midst most of Mr Banks’s Sci-Fi novels take place. Thanks to their technology they are able to hollow out asteroids and use them as ships capable of faster-than-light travel while providing a living habitat with centrifugally-generated gravity for their thousands of denizens. I’d like to think Mr Banks would have been amused to have his own rock.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Orbit Diagram of asteroid (5099) Iainbanks. Cyan ellipses represent the orbits of the planets (from closer to further from the Sun) Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars and Jupiter. The black ellipse represents the orbit of asteroid Iainbanks. The shaded region lies below the ecliptic plane, the non shaded, above. Courtesy of Minor Planet Center.

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Great Literature and Human Progress

Professor of Philosophy Gregory Currie tackles a thorny issue in his latest article. The question he seeks to answer is, “does great literature make us better?” It’s highly likely that a poll of most nations would show the majority of people  believe that literature does in fact propel us in a forward direction, intellectually, morally, emotionally and culturally. It seem like a no-brainer. But where is the hard evidence?

From the New York Times:

You agree with me, I expect, that exposure to challenging works of literary fiction is good for us. That’s one reason we deplore the dumbing-down of the school curriculum and the rise of the Internet and its hyperlink culture. Perhaps we don’t all read very much that we would count as great literature, but we’re apt to feel guilty about not doing so, seeing it as one of the ways we fall short of excellence. Wouldn’t reading about Anna Karenina, the good folk of Middlemarch and Marcel and his friends expand our imaginations and refine our moral and social sensibilities?

If someone now asks you for evidence for this view, I expect you will have one or both of the following reactions. First, why would anyone need evidence for something so obviously right? Second, what kind of evidence would he want? Answering the first question is easy: if there’s no evidence – even indirect evidence – for the civilizing value of literary fiction, we ought not to assume that it does civilize. Perhaps you think there are questions we can sensibly settle in ways other than by appeal to evidence: by faith, for instance. But even if there are such questions, surely no one thinks this is one of them.

What sort of evidence could we present? Well, we can point to specific examples of our fellows who have become more caring, wiser people through encounters with literature. Indeed, we are such people ourselves, aren’t we?

I hope no one is going to push this line very hard. Everything we know about our understanding of ourselves suggests that we are not very good at knowing how we got to be the kind of people we are. In fact we don’t really know, very often, what sorts of people we are. We regularly attribute our own failures to circumstance and the failures of others to bad character. But we can’t all be exceptions to the rule (supposing it is a rule) that people do bad things because they are bad people.

We are poor at knowing why we make the choices we do, and we fail to recognize the tiny changes in circumstances that can shift us from one choice to another. When it comes to other people, can you be confident that your intelligent, socially attuned and generous friend who reads Proust got that way partly because of the reading? Might it not be the other way around: that bright, socially competent and empathic people are more likely than others to find pleasure in the complex representations of human interaction we find in literature?

There’s an argument we often hear on the other side, illustrated earlier this year by a piece on The New Yorker’s Web site. Reminding us of all those cultured Nazis, Teju Cole notes the willingness of a president who reads novels and poetry to sign weekly drone strike permissions. What, he asks, became of “literature’s vaunted power to inspire empathy?” I find this a hard argument to like, and not merely because I am not yet persuaded by the moral case against drones. No one should be claiming that exposure to literature protects one against moral temptation absolutely, or that it can reform the truly evil among us. We measure the effectiveness of drugs and other medical interventions by thin margins of success that would not be visible without sophisticated statistical techniques; why assume literature’s effectiveness should be any different?

We need to go beyond the appeal to common experience and into the territory of psychological research, which is sophisticated enough these days to make a start in testing our proposition.

Psychologists have started to do some work in this area, and we have learned a few things so far. We know that if you get people to read a short, lowering story about a child murder they will afterward report feeling worse about the world than they otherwise would. Such changes, which are likely to be very short-term, show that fictions press our buttons; they don’t show that they refine us emotionally or in any other way.

We have learned that people are apt to pick up (purportedly) factual information stated or implied as part of a fictional story’s background. Oddly, people are more prone to do that when the story is set away from home: in a study conducted by Deborah Prentice and colleagues and published in 1997, Princeton undergraduates retained more from a story when it was set at Yale than when it was set on their own campus (don’t worry Princetonians, Yalies are just as bad when you do the test the other way around). Television, with its serial programming, is good for certain kinds of learning; according to a study from 2001 undertaken for the Kaiser Foundation, people who regularly watched the show “E.R.” picked up a good bit of medical information on which they sometimes acted. What we don’t have is compelling evidence that suggests that people are morally or socially better for reading Tolstoy.

Not nearly enough research has been conducted; nor, I think, is the relevant psychological evidence just around the corner. Most of the studies undertaken so far don’t draw on serious literature but on short snatches of fiction devised especially for experimental purposes. Very few of them address questions about the effects of literature on moral and social development, far too few for us to conclude that literature either does or doesn’t have positive moral effects.

There is a puzzling mismatch between the strength of opinion on this topic and the state of the evidence. In fact I suspect it is worse than that; advocates of the view that literature educates and civilizes don’t overrate the evidence — they don’t even think that evidence comes into it. While the value of literature ought not to be a matter of faith, it looks as if, for many of us, that is exactly what it is.

Read the entire article here.

Image: The Odyssey, Homer. Book cover. Courtesy of Goodreads.com

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Iain (M.) Banks

On June 9, 2013 we lost Iain Banks to cancer. He was a passionate human(ist) and a literary great.

Luckily he left us with a startling collection of resonant and complex works. Most notably his series of Culture novels that prophesied a distant future, which one day will surely bear his name as a founding member. Mr.Banks, you will be greatly missed.

From the Guardian

The writer Iain Banks, who has died aged 59, had already prepared his many admirers for his death. On 3 April he announced on his website that he had inoperable gall bladder cancer, giving him, at most, a year to live. The announcement was typically candid and rueful. It was also characteristic in another way: Banks had a large web-attentive readership who liked to follow his latest reflections as well as his writings. Particularly in his later years, he frequently projected his thoughts via the internet. There can have been few novelists of recent years who were more aware of what their readers thought of their books; there is a frequent sense in his novels of an author teasing, testing and replying to a readership with which he was pretty familiar.

His first published novel, The Wasp Factory, appeared in 1984, when he was 30 years old, though it had been rejected by six publishers before being accepted by Macmillan. It was an immediate succès de scandale. The narrator is the 16-year-old Frank Cauldhame, who lives with his taciturn father in an isolated house on the north-east coast of Scotland. Frank lives in a world of private rituals, some of which involve torturing animals, and has committed several murders. The explanation of his isolation and his obsessiveness is shockingly revealed in one of the culminating plot twists for which Banks was to become renowned.

It was followed by Walking on Glass (1985), composed of three separate narratives whose connections are deliberately made obscure until near the end of the novel. One of these seems to be a science fiction narrative and points the way to Banks’s strong interest in this genre. Equally, multiple narration would continue to feature in his work.

The next year’s novel, The Bridge, featured three separate stories told in different styles: one a realist narrative about Alex, a manager in an engineering company, who crashes his car on the Forth road bridge; another the story of John Orr, an amnesiac living on a city-sized version of the bridge; and a third, the first-person narrative of the Barbarian, retelling myths and legends in colloquial Scots. In combining fantasy and allegory with minutely located naturalistic narrative, it was clearly influenced by Alasdair Gray’s Lanark (1981). It remained the author’s own avowed favourite.

His first science fiction novel, Consider Phlebas, was published in 1987, though he had drafted it soon after completing The Wasp Factory. In it he created The Culture, a galaxy-hopping society run by powerful but benevolent machines and possessed of what its inventor called “well-armed liberal niceness”. It would feature in most of his subsequent sci-fi novels. Its enemies are the Idirans, a religious, humanoid race who resent the benign powers of the Culture. In this conflict, good and ill are not simply apportioned. Banks provided a heady mix of, on the one hand, action and intrigue on a cosmic scale (his books were often called “space operas”), and, on the other, ruminations on the clash of ideas and ideologies.

For the rest of his career literary novels would alternate with works of science fiction, the latter appearing under the name “Iain M Banks” (the “M” standing for Menzies). Banks sometimes spoke of his science fiction books as a writerly vacation from the demands of literary fiction, where he could “pull out the stops”, as he himself put it. Player of Games (1988) was followed by Use of Weapons (1990). The science fiction employed some of the narrative trickery that characterised his literary fiction: Use of Weapons, for instance, featured two interleaved narratives, one of which moved forward in time and the other backwards. Their connectedness only became clear with a final, somewhat outrageous, twist of the narrative. His many fans came to relish these tricks.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Iain Banks. Courtesy of BBC.

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Violence to the English Language

If you are an English speaker and are over the age of 39 you may be pondering the fate of the English language. As the younger generations fill cyberspace with terabytes of misspelled texts and tweets do you not wonder if gorgeous grammatical language will survive? Are the technophobes and anti-Twitterites doomed to a future world of #hashtag-driven conversation and ADHD-like literature? Those of us who care are reminded of George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”, in which he decried the swelling ugliness of the language at the time.

Orwell opens his essay thus,

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

My, how Orwell would squirm in his Oxfordshire grave were he to be exposed to his mother tongue, as tweeted, in 2013.

From the Guardian:

Some while ago, with reference to Orwell’s essay on “Politics and the English language”, I addressed the language of the internet, an issue that stubbornly refuses to go away. Perhaps now, more than ever, we need to consider afresh what’s happening to English prose in cyberspace.

To paraphrase Orwell, the English of the world wide web – loose, informal, and distressingly dyspeptic – is not really the kind people want to read in a book, a magazine, or even a newspaper. But there’s an assumption that that, because it’s part of the all-conquering internet, we cannot do a thing about it. Twenty-first century civilisation has been transformed in a way without precedent since the invention of moveable type. English prose, so one argument runs, must adapt to the new lexicon with all its grammatical violations and banality. Language is normative; it has – some will say – no choice. The violence the internet does to the English language is simply the cost of doing business in the digital age.

From this, any struggle against the abuse and impoverishment of English online (notably, in blogs and emails) becomes what Orwell called “a sentimental archaism”. Behind this belief lies the recognition that language is a natural growth and not an instrument we can police for better self-expression. To argue differently is to line up behind Jonathan Swift and the prescriptivists (see Swift’s essay “A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue”).

If you refer to “Politics and the English Language” (a famous essay actually commissioned for in-house consumption by Orwell’s boss, the Observer editor David Astor) you will find that I have basically adapted his more general concerns about language to the machinations of cyberspace and the ebb and flow of language on the internet.

And why not? First, he puts it very well. Second, among Orwell’s heirs (the writers, bloggers and journalists of today), there’s still a subconscious, half-admitted anxiety about what’s happening to English prose in the unpoliced cyber-wilderness. This, too, is a recurrent theme with deep roots. As long ago as 1946, Orwell said that English was “in a bad way”. Look it up: the examples he cited are both amusingly archaic, but also appropriately gruesome.

Sixty-something years on, in 2013, quite a lot of people would probably concede a similar anxiety: or at least some mild dismay at the overall crassness of English prose in the age of global communications.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Politics and the English language, book cover. Courtesy of George Orwell estate / Apple.

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The Filter Bubble Eats the Book World

Last week Amazon purchased Goodreads the online book review site. Since 2007 Goodreads has grown to become home to over 16 million members who share a passion for discovering and sharing great literature. Now, with Amazon’s acquisition many are concerned that this represents another step towards a monolithic and monopolistic enterprise that controls vast swathes of the market. While Amazon’s innovation has upended the bricks-and-mortar worlds of publishing and retailing, its increasingly dominant market power raises serious concerns over access, distribution and choice. This is another worrying example of the so-called filter bubble — where increasingly edited selections and personalized recommendations act to limit and dumb-down content.

From the Guardian:

“Truly devastating” for some authors but “like finding out my mom is marrying that cool dude next door that I’ve been palling around with” for another, Amazon’s announcement late last week that it was buying the hugely popular reader review site Goodreads has sent shockwaves through the book industry.

The acquisition, terms of which Amazon.com did not reveal, will close in the second quarter of this year. Goodreads, founded in 2007, has more than 16m members, who have added more than four books per second to their “want to read” shelves over the past 90 days, according to Amazon. The internet retailer’s vice president of Kindle content, Russ Grandinetti, said the two sites “share a passion for reinventing reading”.

“Goodreads has helped change how we discover and discuss books and, with Kindle, Amazon has helped expand reading around the world. In addition, both Amazon and Goodreads have helped thousands of authors reach a wider audience and make a better living at their craft. Together we intend to build many new ways to delight readers and authors alike,” said Grandinetti, announcing the buy. Goodreads co-founder Otis Chandler said the deal with Amazon meant “we’re now going to be able to move faster in bringing the Goodreads experience to millions of readers around the world”, adding on his blog that “we have no plans to change the Goodreads experience and Goodreads will continue to be the wonderful community we all cherish”.

But despite Chandler’s reassurances, many readers and authors reacted negatively to the news. American writers’ organisation the Authors’ Guild called the acquisition a “truly devastating act of vertical integration” which meant that “Amazon’s control of online bookselling approaches the insurmountable”. Bestselling legal thriller author Scott Turow, president of the Guild, said it was “a textbook example of how modern internet monopolies can be built”.

“The key is to eliminate or absorb competitors before they pose a serious threat,” said Turow. “With its 16 million subscribers, Goodreads could easily have become a competing online bookseller, or played a role in directing buyers to a site other than Amazon. Instead, Amazon has scuttled that potential and also squelched what was fast becoming the go-to venue for online reviews, attracting far more attention than Amazon for those seeking independent assessment and discussion of books. As those in advertising have long known, the key to driving sales is controlling information.”

Turow was joined in his concerns by members of Goodreads, many of whom expressed their fears about what the deal would mean on Chandler’s blog. “I have to admit I’m not entirely thrilled by this development,” wrote one of the more level-headed commenters. “As a general rule I like Amazon, but unless they take an entirely 100% hands-off attitude toward Goodreads I find it hard to believe this will be in the best interest for the readers. There are simply too many ways they can interfere with the neutral Goodreads experience and/or try to profit from the strictly volunteer efforts of Goodreads users.”

But not all authors were against the move. Hugh Howey, author of the smash hit dystopian thriller Wool – which took off after he self-published it via Amazon – said it was “like finding out my mom is marrying that cool dude next door that I’ve been palling around with”. While Howey predicted “a lot of hand-wringing over the acquisition”, he said there were “so many ways this can be good for all involved. I’m still trying to think of a way it could suck.”

Read the entire article following the jump.

Image: Amazon.com screen. Courtesy of New York Times.

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Iain (M.) Banks

Where is the technology of the Culture when it’s most needed? Nothing more to add.

From the Guardian:

In Iain M Banks’s finest creation, the universe of the Culture, death is largely optional. It’s an option most people take in the end: they take it after three or four centuries, after living on a suitably wide variety of planets and in a suitably wide variety of bodies, and after a life of hedonism appropriate to the anarcho-communist Age of Plenty galactic civilisation in which they live; they take it in partial, reversible forms. But they take it. It’s an option.

Sadly, and obviously, that’s not true for us. Banks himself has released a statement on his website, saying that he has terminal cancer. He tells us as much with his usual eye for technical detail and stark impact:

I have cancer. It started in my gall bladder, has infected both lobes of my liver and probably also my pancreas and some lymph nodes, plus one tumour is massed around a group of major blood vessels in the same volume, effectively ruling out any chance of surgery to remove the tumours… The bottom line, now, I’m afraid, is that as a late stage gall bladder cancer patient, I’m expected to live for ‘several months’ and it’s extremely unlikely I’ll live beyond a year.

So there you have it.

Anything I write about Banks and his work, both as Iain Banks and Iain M Banks (for the uninitiated, Iain Banks is the name he publishes his non-genre novels under; Iain M Banks is for his sci-fi stuff), will ultimately be about me, I realise. I can’t pretend to say What His Work Meant for Literature or for Sci-Fi, because I don’t know what it meant; I can’t speak about him as a human being, beyond what I thought I could detect of his personality through his work (humane and witty and fascinated by the new, for the record), because I haven’t met him.

With that in mind, I just wanted to talk a bit about why I love his books, why I think he is one – or two, really – of our finest living writers, and how his work has had probably more impact on me than any other fiction writer.

I first read The Wasp Factory in about 1996, when my mum, keen to get me reading pretty much anything that wasn’t Terry Pratchett, heard of this “enfant explosif” of Scottish literature. It’s a slightly tricky admission to make in a hagiographical piece like this one, but I wasn’t all that taken with it: it felt a little bleak and soulless, and the literary pyrotechnics and grand gothic sequences didn’t rescue it. But then I read Excession, one of his M Banks sci-fi novels, set in the Culture; and then I read The Crow Road, his hilarious and moving madcap family-history-murder-mystery set in the Scottish wilds; and I was hooked.

Since then I’ve read literally everything he’s published under M Banks, and most of the stuff under Banks. There are hits and misses, but the misses are never bad and the hits are spectacular. He creates vivid characters; he paints scenes in sparkling detail; he has plots that rollick along like Dan Brown’s are supposed to, but don’t.

And what’s most brilliant, at least for me as a lifelong fan of both sci-fi and “proper” literature, is that he takes the same simple but vital skills – well-drawn characters, clever writing, believable dialogue – from his non-genre novels and applies them to his sci-fi, allied to dizzying imagination and serious knowledge.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image: Iain Banks. Courtesy of the Guardian.

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Two Nations Divided by Book Covers

“England and America are two countries separated by the same language”. This oft used quote is usually attributed to Oscar Wilde or GBS (George Bernard Shaw). Regardless of who originated the phrase both authors would not be surprised to see that book covers are divided by the Atlantic Ocean as well. The Millions continues its fascinating annual comparative analysis.

American book covers on the left, British book covers on the right.

From The Millions:

As we’ve done for several years now, we thought it might be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books contenders. Book cover art is an interesting element of the literary world — sometimes fixated upon, sometimes ignored — but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the cover of every book we read. And, while many of us no longer do most of our reading on physical books with physical covers, those same cover images now beckon us from their grids in the various online bookstores. From my days as a bookseller, when import titles would sometimes find their way into our store, I’ve always found it especially interesting that the U.K. and U.S. covers often differ from one another. This would seem to suggest that certain layouts and imagery will better appeal to readers on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other. These differences are especially striking when we look at the covers side by side. The American covers are on the left, and the UK are on the right. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.

Read the entire article and see more book covers after the jump.

Book cover images courtesy of The Millions and their respective authors and publishers.

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MondayPoem: Wild Nights – Wild Nights!

Emily Dickinson has been much written about, but still remains enigmatic. Many of her peers thought her to be eccentric and withdrawn. Only after her death did the full extent of her prolific writing become apparent. To this day, her unique poetry is regarded as having ushered in a new era of personal observation and expression.

By Emily Dickinson

– Wild Nights – Wild Nights!

Wild nights – Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile – the winds –
To a Heart in port –
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden –
Ah – the Sea!
Might I but moor – tonight –
In thee!

Image: Daguerreotype of the poet Emily Dickinson, taken circa 1848. Courtesy of the Todd-Bingham Picture Collection and Family Papers, Yale University.

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Orwell Lives On

George Orwell passed away on January 21, 1950 — an untimely death. He was only 46 years old. The anniversary of his death leads some to wonder what the great author would be doing if he were still alive. Some believe that he would be a food / restaurant critic. Or perhaps he would still, at the age of 109, be writing about injustice, falsehood and hypocrisy. One suspects that he might still be speaking truth to power as he did back in the 1940s, the difference being that this time power is in private hands versus the public sector. Corporate Big Brother is now watching you.

From the Guardian:

What if George Orwell hadn’t died of tuberculosis in 1950? What if, instead of expiring aged 46 in University College hospital, he had climbed from his sick-bed, taken the fishing rod a friend had brought him for his convalescence and checked out? What if today he was alive and well (perhaps after a period in cryogenic storage – the details aren’t important now)? What would he think of 2013? What, if anything, would he be writing about?

In many respects Orwell is ubiquitous and more relevant than ever. His once-visionary keywords have grotesque afterlives: Big Brother is a TV franchise to make celebrities of nobodies and Room 101 a light-entertainment show on BBC2 currently hosted by Frank Skinner for celebrities to witter about stuff that gets their goat. Meanwhile, Orwellian is the second-most-overused literary-generated adjective (after Kafkaesque). And now St Vince of Cable has been busted down from visionary analyst of recession to turncoat enabler of George Osborne’s austerity measures. Orwell is the go-to thinker to account for our present woes – even though he is 63 years dead. Which, in the Newspeak of 1984, is doubleplusgood.

As we celebrate the first Orwell Day this week, it’s irresistible to play the game of “what if”? If Orwell was fighting in a war akin to the Spanish civil war in 2012, where would he be – Syria? Would he write Homage to Aleppo, perhaps? Or would he have written Homage to Zuccotti Park or Tottenham? If he was writing Down and Out in Paris and London today would it be very different – and, if so, how? If he took a journey to Wigan pier in 2013, what would he find that would resemble the original trip and what would be different? Would there still be a full chamber pot under his hosts’ breakfast table? Let’s hope not.

Would he be working in a call centre rather than going down a mine? Would he feel as patriotic as he did in some of his essays? Would the man born Eric Arthur Blair have spent much of the past decade tilting at the man born Anthony Charles Lynton Blair? The answers to the last three questions are, you’d hope: yes, probably not, and oh, please God, yes.

“It’s almost impossible to imagine,” says Orwell’s biographer, the novelist and critic DJ Taylor. “One of his closest friends, the novelist Anthony Powell, suggested in his journals that Orwell’s politics would have drifted rightwards. He would have been anti-CND, in favour of the Falklands war, disapproved of the miners’ strikes. Powell was a high Tory right winger, but he was very close to Orwell and so those possibilities of what he would have been like had he lived on shouldn’t be dismissed.”

Adam Stock, an Orwell scholar at Newcastle University who did his PhD on mid-20th-century dystopian fiction and political thought, says: “If he were alive today, then Orwell would surely be writing about many of the sorts of areas you identify, bringing to light inequalities, injustices and arguing for what he termed ‘democratic socialism’, and I would like to think – though this may be projection on my part – that at this moment he would be writing specifically in defence of the welfare state.”

You’d hope. But Stock reckons that in 2013 Orwell would also be writing about the politics of food. “Orwell’s novels are marked by their rich detailing of taste, touch and especially smell. Tinned and processed food is a recurring image in his fiction, and it often represents a smoothing out of difference and individuality, a process which mirrors political attempts to make people conform to certain ideological visions of the world in the 1930s and 1940s,” says Stock.

Indeed, during last week’s horsemeat scandal, Stock says a passage from Orwell’s 1939 novel Coming Up for Air came to mind. The character George Bowling bites into a frankfurter he has bought in an milk bar decorated in chrome and mirrors: “The thing burst in my mouth like a rotten pear. A sort of horrible soft stuff was oozing all over my tongue. But the taste! For a moment I just couldn’t believe it. Then I rolled my tongue round it again and had another try. It was fish! A sausage, a thing calling itself a frankfurter, filled with fish! I got up and walked straight out without touching my coffee. God knows what that might have tasted of.”

What’s the present-day significance of that? “The point, I think, is that appearances mask quite different realities in the milk-bar modernity of mirrors in which the character is sitting, trapped between endless reflections,” says Stock. “Orwell had an abiding interest in the countryside, rural life and growing his own food. One thing I suspect he would be campaigning vociferously about in our time is issues surrounding big agribusiness and the provenance of our food, the biological commons, and particularly the patenting of GM crops.”

Read more after the jump.

Image: George Orwell. Courtesy of the BBC.

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Atwood on Orwell

One great writer reflects on the influences of another.

From the Guardian:

I grew up with George Orwell. I was born in 1939, and Animal Farm was published in 1945. I read it at age nine. It was lying around the house, and I mistook it for a book about talking animals. I knew nothing about the kind of politics in the book – the child’s version of politics then, just after the war, consisted of the simple notion that Hitler was bad but dead. To say that I was horrified by this book would be an understatement. The fate of the farm animals was so grim, the pigs were so mean and mendacious and treacherous, the sheep were so stupid. Children have a keen sense of injustice, and this was the thing that upset me the most: the pigs were so unjust.

The whole experience was deeply disturbing, but I am forever grateful to Orwell for alerting me early to the danger flags I’ve tried to watch out for since. As Orwell taught, it isn’t the labels – Christianity, socialism, Islam, democracy, two legs bad, four legs good, the works – that are definitive, but the acts done in their names.

Animal Farm is one of the most spectacular emperor-has-no-clothes books of the 20th century, and it got Orwell into trouble accordingly. People who run counter to the current popular wisdom, who point out the uncomfortably obvious, are likely to be strenuously baa-ed at by herds of angry sheep. I didn’t have all that figured out at the age of nine, of course – not in any conscious way. But we learn the patterns of stories before we learn their meanings, and Animal Farm has a very clear pattern.

Then along came Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was published in 1949. I read it in paperback (the copy of which is pictured here) a couple of years later, when I was in high school. Then I read it again, and again. It struck me as more realistic, probably because Winston Smith was more like me, a skinny person who got tired a lot and was subjected to physical education under chilly conditions – a feature of my school – and who was silently at odds with the ideas and the manner of life proposed for him. (This may be one of the reasons Nineteen Eighty-Four is best read when you are an adolescent; most adolescents feel like that.) I sympathised particularly with his desire to write his forbidden thoughts down in a secret blank book. I had not yet started to write, but I could see the attractions of it. I could also see the dangers, because it’s this scribbling of his – along with illicit sex, another item with considerable allure for a teenager of the 1950s – that gets Winston into such a mess.

Orwell became a direct model for me much later in my life – in the real 1984, the year in which I began writing a somewhat different dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale. By that time I was 44, and I’d learned enough about real despotisms that I didn’t need to rely on Orwell alone.

Read the entire article following the jump.

First edition cover of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and first edition cover of Nineteen-Eighty-Four by George Orwell. Courtesy of Wikipedia and respective publishers.

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MondayPoem: End of Summer

A month in to fall and it really does now seem like Autumn — leaves are turning and falling, jackets have reappeared, brisk morning walks are now shrouded in darkness.

So, we turn to the first Poet Laureate of the United States of the new millenium — Stanley Kunitz, to remind us of Summer’s end. Kunitz was anointed Laureate at the age of ninety-five, and died six years later. His published works span almost eight decades of thoughtful creativity.

By Stanley Kunitz

– End of Summer

An agitation of the air,
A perturbation of the light
Admonished me the unloved year
Would turn on its hinge that night.

I stood in the disenchanted field
Amid the stubble and the stones,
Amazed, while a small worm lisped to me
The song of my marrow-bones.

Blue poured into summer blue,
A hawk broke from his cloudless tower,
The roof of the silo blazed, and I knew
That part of my life was over.

Already the iron door of the north
Clangs open: birds, leaves, snows
Order their populations forth,
And a cruel wind blows.

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LBPD – Love of Books Personality Disorder

Author Joe Queenan explains why reading over 6,000 books may be because, as he puts it, he “find[s] ‘reality’ a bit of a disappointment”.

From the Wall Street Journal:

I started borrowing books from a roving Quaker City bookmobile when I was 7 years old. Things quickly got out of hand. Before I knew it I was borrowing every book about the Romans, every book about the Apaches, every book about the spindly third-string quarterback who comes off the bench in the fourth quarter to bail out his team. I had no way of knowing it at the time, but what started out as a harmless juvenile pastime soon turned into a lifelong personality disorder.

Fifty-five years later, with at least 6,128 books under my belt, I still organize my daily life—such as it is—around reading. As a result, decades go by without my windows getting washed.

My reading habits sometimes get a bit loopy. I often read dozens of books simultaneously. I start a book in 1978 and finish it 34 years later, without enjoying a single minute of the enterprise. I absolutely refuse to read books that critics describe as “luminous” or “incandescent.” I never read books in which the hero went to private school or roots for the New York Yankees. I once spent a year reading nothing but short books. I spent another year vowing to read nothing but books I picked off the library shelves with my eyes closed. The results were not pretty.

I even tried to spend an entire year reading books I had always suspected I would hate: “Middlemarch,” “Look Homeward, Angel,” “Babbitt.” Luckily, that project ran out of gas quickly, if only because I already had a 14-year-old daughter when I took a crack at “Lolita.”

Six thousand books is a lot of reading, true, but the trash like “Hell’s Belles” and “Kid Colt and the Legend of the Lost Arroyo” and even “Part-Time Harlot, Full-Time Tramp” that I devoured during my misspent teens really puff up the numbers. And in any case, it is nowhere near a record. Winston Churchill supposedly read a book every day of his life, even while he was saving Western Civilization from the Nazis. This is quite an accomplishment, because by some accounts Winston Churchill spent all of World War II completely hammered.

A case can be made that people who read a preposterous number of books are not playing with a full deck. I prefer to think of us as dissatisfied customers. If you have read 6,000 books in your lifetime, or even 600, it’s probably because at some level you find “reality” a bit of a disappointment. People in the 19th century fell in love with “Ivanhoe” and “The Count of Monte Cristo” because they loathed the age they were living through. Women in our own era read “Pride and Prejudice” and “Jane Eyre” and even “The Bridges of Madison County”—a dimwit, hayseed reworking of “Madame Bovary”—because they imagine how much happier they would be if their husbands did not spend quite so much time with their drunken, illiterate golf buddies down at Myrtle Beach. A blind bigamist nobleman with a ruined castle and an insane, incinerated first wife beats those losers any day of the week. Blind, two-timing noblemen never wear belted shorts.

Similarly, finding oneself at the epicenter of a vast, global conspiracy involving both the Knights Templar and the Vatican would be a huge improvement over slaving away at the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the rest of your life or being married to someone who is drowning in dunning notices from Williams-Sonoma. No matter what they may tell themselves, book lovers do not read primarily to obtain information or to while away the time. They read to escape to a more exciting, more rewarding world. A world where they do not hate their jobs, their spouses, their governments, their lives. A world where women do not constantly say things like “Have a good one!” and “Sounds like a plan!” A world where men do not wear belted shorts. Certainly not the Knights Templar.

I read books—mostly fiction—for at least two hours a day, but I also spend two hours a day reading newspapers and magazines, gathering material for my work, which consists of ridiculing idiots or, when they are not available, morons. I read books in all the obvious places—in my house and office, on trains and buses and planes—but I’ve also read them at plays and concerts and prizefights, and not just during the intermissions. I’ve read books while waiting for friends to get sprung from the drunk tank, while waiting for people to emerge from comas, while waiting for the Iceman to cometh.

Read the entire article following the jump.

Image courtesy of Southern Illinois University.

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