Thursday, August 09, 2012 4:03 PM
This article originally appeared at Chronicle.com.
It begins when you read a piece of literature that reminds you why we
read literature: an essay with sentences you wish you had written, a
poem you receive like a gift, a novel that self-helps you better than
any self-help book. You find yourself writing in the margin, using
symbols that embarrass you (exclamation points!), scribbling YES!, and
making stars, asterisks, and vertical lines to mark passages that you
read and reread and read again aloud. With urgency and heat, you
underline and highlight.
You elbow room for the work in the syllabus. You adjust the whole
course to accommodate that one piece of writing. You can't wait to
assign it to students. It will change their lives. They will love you
Then comes the day. You wait for the class to weigh in. You wait to
hear from the student who always get it, the one you count on to point
out what others have missed, who serves as a proxy for you and often
leads the class. You wait to hear from the passionate reader whose mind,
free from the itchy constraints of critical analysis, always finds
something to like about a piece. You wait to hear from the student whose
spoken language is tortured by notions of what he thinks sounds smart;
usually you can barely figure out what he is trying to say, but that
doesn't stop him from going on about how much he got out of the reading.
And you wait for the slacker who comes to class having no more than
skimmed the assignment, yet who manages to say something, often funny, sometimes intentionally.
Then you notice they are all looking at their notebooks, fondling
their iPads, doing anything else they can think of to avoid looking at
you, with your face all kid-happy. Because they know that they are going
to disappoint you. And then they do.
It was OK, one of them says.
It was too long.
I didn't get it.
I thought it was boring, the slacker says.
The class leader claims it was sentimental, flawed.
The sentimental girl—the one who always finds something to love in a
piece of writing—checks that her pen is still healthy and won't make eye
The work that induced that reaction six times, in graduate and
undergraduate courses, at two universities and one medium-security
prison, was an essay by the late A. Bartlett Giamatti, Red Sox fan,
Renaissance scholar, president of Yale University, president of the
National League, commissioner of baseball, firer of Pete Rose, swarthy
smoker of cigarettes, and eloquent reader of texts, who died of a heart
attack at age 51. Written when he was 40, the essay, called "The Green
Fields of the Mind," begins: "It breaks your heart. It was designed to
break your heart."
He continued: "There comes a time when every summer will have
something of autumn about it. Whatever the reason, it seemed to me that I
was investing more and more in baseball, making the game do more of the
work that keeps time fat and slow and lazy. I was counting on the
game's deep patterns, three strikes, three outs, three times three
innings, and its deepest impulse, to go out and back, to leave and to
return home, to set the order of the day and to organize the daylight."
In class I ask: What is the essay about? Students understand that
it's about the ways that baseball helps us to live, the immersion in the
immediate, the appeal of illusions of something everlasting. It is not
that they do not get it. They get it. This is not like when I ask them
to read something challenging and complex, and their distaste comes from
intimidation. With difficult texts, after we discuss them in class,
they often see what they had missed and, in retrospect, come not only to
admire but to like the work.
At first I thought the problem was that the students were too young,
or that they hated sports, or that they were plain stupid. But no. My
students just tend not to cotton to Giamatti's flavor of sweetness. He
ends the essay with this comment on those who were born with the wisdom
to know that nothing lasts: "These are the truly tough among us, the
ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of
illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature,
tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something
lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a
game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun."
I love this essay. My students do not.
Read the rest at Chronicle.com.
Image by Abraham Pisarek, 1948, licensed under Creative Commons by Deutsche Fotothek.
Monday, May 23, 2011 12:34 PM
As a former English major, I’ve slashed my way through tons (literally) of books. The aggregate weight of your literary explorations becomes a sort of status symbol on campus, with extra-shiny merit badges awarded for the really heavy tomes—the Ulysseses and Infinite Jests and David Copperfields and The Count of Monte Cristos. From a semi-serious academic perspective, this logorrheaic one-upmanship makes a sort of professional sense, but that doesn’t explain why thousands of non-scholarly types cart along dense snoozers like War and Peace or Les Misérables or Anna Karenina on their sandy vacations when they could actually be having fun. Mark Oconnell has a theory: Readers have Stockholm syndrome.
Oconnell chronicles his conversion from reading thinner, second-tier literature to hulking beasts of literary burden over at The Millions.
At some point towards the end of [The Recognitions, by William Gaddis,] it occurred to me that what I was experiencing could be looked at as a kind of literary variant of the Stockholm syndrome phenomenon, whereby hostages experience a perverse devotion to their captors, interpreting any abstention from violence and cruelty, however brief or arbitrary, as acts of kindness and even love. Psychologically, this is understood as a defense mechanism in which the victim fabricates a “good” side of the aggressor in order to avoid confronting the overwhelming terror of his or her situation. Perhaps I’m stretching the bonds of credulity by implicitly comparing William Gaddis to a FARC guerilla commander, but I’m convinced there’s something that happens when we get into a captive situation with a long and difficult book that is roughly analogous to the Stockholm syndrome scenario.
Are we to pity such bibliophilic prisoners? Not if the twisted devotion helps sail them through literature’s masterpieces. “Ulysses might treat us like crap for seemingly interminable stretches of time,” continues Oconnell,
but it extends just enough in the way of writerly benevolence to keep us onside. And this kindness is the key to Stockholm syndrome. You don’t know when it’s going to come, or what form it’s going to take, but you get enough of it to keep you from despising your captor, or mounting a brave escape attempt by flinging the wretched thing across the room.
Source: The Millions
Friday, April 08, 2011 1:25 PM
Hey you gloomy skateboarding adolescent, are you feelin’ down? Maybe you should turn off the Joy Division album and pick up some Emily Dickinson. The chances of being a happy, well-adjusted teenager, reports The Independent, are much greater if you keep your nose in the crease of a book. The Independent summarized the findings of a new study by Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine:
Announced April 4, the US study compared six types of media—television and movies, music, video games, internet, magazines and newspapers, and books—and reported that the music-loving teens were 8.3 times more likely to be depressed that teens who spent the most time using the other types of media. The book lovers, on the other hand, were far less likely to be depressed than all the other groups, researchers said.
Just be careful with Edgar Allen Poe and the like.
Source: The Independent
Image by ckaroli, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, September 16, 2010 10:23 AM
The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “My Daily Read” feature, in which various professors “describe their media diets” is reliably snooty good fun. Turns out neither the University of Chicago’s Martha Nussbaum nor Northwestern’s Laura Kipnis has much time for blogs (Kipnis: “I’m not a fan….I like to read prose that’s edited, frankly.”) or Twitter (Nussbaum: “Never.” Kipnis: “That would be the last straw!”).
Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education
Photo Credit: Image by schani / Mark Probst, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, July 16, 2010 9:07 AM
The latest issue of The Iowa Review has a fascinating interview with Michael Silverblatt, host of the nationally syndicated radio program Bookworm. Silverblatt talks about his reading habits and how he’s trained himself to plow through the complete works of the guests on his show. Here’s a great slice:
Sarah Fay: So, have you been teaching yourself to read more deeply over the years?
Michael Silverblatt: I’ve been teaching myself how to have the stamina to sit still. When I’m starting a book, I try not to read in bed. I read a hundred pages at a time and don’t get up. At the end of a hundred pages, I’ll go and have lunch. But I feel that it takes a hundred pages to be gripped by a book, so I try to read them in one sitting.
SF: How did you discover that?
MS: Trial and error. I didn’t know anything about it….I left graduate school before I had to take an oral exam, so I never had to find out if I could do concentrated stints of more-reading-than-is-humanly-possible. It wasn’t until I had the show that I read voluminously, and that was how I trained myself. First, a hundred pages at a time. Then I would see if I could read two hundred pages a t a time. Then I’d see if I could read War and Peace in four or five days, because wouldn’t that give me a really thrilling and unusual aerial view of the whole of the book, a book that many people stretch over an entire summer vacation or two or three months? I thought that would really give me a sense of the shape of the novel. I’m aware that my experience as a reader is not like other people’s. I don’t know how someone carries a book in his or her mind over the period of several weeks to a month. I get too hungry and excited.
The Believer also has what appears to be part of the same interview by Sarah Fay at the University of Iowa if you’re dying for more.
Sources: The Iowa Review(article not available online), The Believer
Image by wrestlingentropy, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, May 27, 2010 12:39 PM
The good people at The Rumpus have come up with a new way of doing the book club, and it's awesome. I'll let them explain:
Here’s how it’s going to work. You pay $25 a month and every month you get a book in the mail that hasn’t been released yet. You’re invited to a moderated online discussion with the author at the end of the month which we’ll edit and run on The Rumpus as a feature article. You can also write a review of the book and we’ll run the best written review on the website. You don’t have to participate in the discussion or review the book, you could just subscribe to receive a new, unpublished book every month.
We’re going to try to only read good books. We’ll fail sometimes. Some books that are out now we would have liked to include are Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, Emily Gould’s And The Heart Says Whatever, and David Goodwillie’s American Subversive. The books will often be hardcover, but not always. Sometimes they’ll be galleys, also known as ARCs, Advance Reader Copies, pre-printed paperbacks. It’s neat because we’re going to have a discussion about new books, rather than waiting to be told what books are approved for cultural consumption. It used to be that only people in the media got advance copies of books but that wall has come down quite a bit. Now everybody’s a reviewer.
It’ll be easy to unsubscribe from the book club at any time.
Source: The Rumpus
Image by ckaroli, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, May 13, 2010 10:02 AM
“An unread book exists only in the primordial soup of your imagination, and there it can evolve into any story you like. An unread book—any unread book—could change your life.” So begins Kristy Logan’s essay for The Millions, Confined by Pages: The Joy of Unread Books.
It’s a beautifully expressed sentiment. And for Logan, it’s justification for the 800 unread books on her shelves. “Some would find this excessive, and they would probably be right,” she writes. “But I take comfort in knowing that I will have appropriate reading material whatever my mood, that I will be spoiled for choice whenever I want a book, and that I will never, ever run out of new stories.”
I'm reminded of something the essayist Gabriel Zaid once wrote: “The truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or their desire for more.” Responding to Zaid, the British writer Nick Hornby wrote: “That's me! And you, probably! That's us! … With each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not.”
What about you? Is there joy in the unread books on your shelves? Or is it all just noise?
Source: The Millions
Image by gadl, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, May 04, 2010 2:31 PM
The fabulous book blogger Maud Newton is celebrating eight years of book blogging by toasting her favorite book blogs. It's a fun roundup. Here's a taste:
Surely by now anyone who’s even occasionally dipped into book and culture sites over the past decade knows about Bookslut, The Elegant Variation, The Literary Saloon, About Last Night, and the other early blogs that tend to be driven by one (or two, or three) perspectives. I know all of the people behind these sites — some are good friends — but I followed them daily long before I met them in person, and I still do.
Among the many smart, independent group sites that have sprung up more recently, I suggest updating your RSS feeds to include one or more of: The Second Pass (run by John Williams; I’m a contributor alongside Emma Garman, Alexander Nazaryan, Daniel Menaker, Carlene Bauer, Jessica Ferri, and others), The Millions (run by C. Max Magee, and featuring Emily St. John Mandel and Sonya Chung, and most recently Lizzie Skurnick), The Rumpus (run by Stephen Elliott, and featuring Seth Fischer, Rozalia Jovanovic, and Elissa Bassist), HTML Giant (run by Justin Taylor and featuring Nick Antosca, Jimmy Chen, and Blake Butler), Words Without Borders (whose blog is edited by the inimitable Bud Parr), and Open Letters Monthly.
What are your favorite book blogs? Me, I don't know what I'd do without The Rumpus.
(Thanks, The Rumpus.)
Source: Maude Newton
Image by gualtiero, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, April 21, 2010 2:53 PM
NExt time you decide to thin out your bookshelves, be sure to hang on to at least a few hundred books. There’s a fascinating piece over at Miller-McCune on the effects of home libraries on child development:
After examining statistics from 27 nations, a group of researchers found the presence of book-lined shelves in the home — and the intellectual environment those volumes reflect — gives children an enormous advantage in school.
“Home library size has a very substantial effect on educational attainment, even adjusting for parents’ education, father’s occupational status and other family background characteristics,” reports the study, recently published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility. “Growing up in a home with 500 books would propel a child 3.2 years further in education, on average, than would growing up in a similar home with few or no books."
is a 2010 Utne Independent Press Award nominee in the category of science and technology.
Wednesday, April 21, 2010 2:19 PM
There’s a great post on Chicago’s Book Bike over at Shareable. Paul M. Davis profiles Gabriel Levinson, who , since 2008, has ridden “his custom-built Book Bike into public parks across Chicago every weekend, weather permitting. Heading from park to park, Levinson distributes books donated by publishers to anyone interested.”
Here’s some more:
Levinson only appears at public parks and free events, ensuring that there is no barrier to entry. As he explains, “the mission is to build and cherish a private library regardless of class or economic state, which is why the Book Bike is only at public parks. It’s a place where every single person, whether you have a roof over your head or don't, has the right and privilege to be.”
“I believe that one of the greatest gifts of being alive, of being human, is that of literacy. If you can read, your world suddenly becomes wide open, all knowledge is at your fingertips and there is no telling where that can lead someone in life. ‘Teach a man to fish’ is such a tired maxim. Why can’t the common phrase be ‘teach a person to read’?”
Levinson has two goals: to create more readers and more consumers for beleaguered publishers. “The idea is that I’ll put a book in your hand,” he says. “Maybe you’ll want to buy a book next time around. My hope has been, in addition to that, people will be inspired to go buy more books.”
Tuesday, March 16, 2010 3:29 PM
Considering memory loss in the new issue of Urbanite, Richard O’Mara stumbles upon a surprising way to drum up long-buried memories: Re-read a book (in his case, by accident), and uncover a vivid impression of your life at the time of the initial reading.
For O’Mara, it’s The Black Obelisk, a book published in 1956 by the German author Erich Maria Remarque (best known in the States for All Quiet on the Western Front). O’Mara picks it up a bookstore: “I loved it for the first sixty pages—at which point I realized that I had loved it before, forty-odd years ago.”
It was in 1964; I was seated at a café by a beach in Argentina, hearing Vaughn Monroe’s voice pour out of a scratchy loudspeaker, singing “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” A wild storm broke over the town of Miramar that night, where we were staying, my wife and I and our new daughter. I recalled hearing the waves crump like mortar shells on the beach.
Why, I asked myself, had I not retrieved these memories before? Why had I let them lie there, darkened by the decades that had fallen over them like soot? My mind, or the office within it responsible for organizing and filing memories, apparently decided to lock away those recollections for good. It took the late Herr Remarque to spring them. That these memories had nothing to do with the book itself suggests that anything buried deep in the brain, when dredged up, can have clinging to it things that have nothing to do with the object recovered.
Image by Gibson Claire McGuire Regester, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, November 03, 2009 4:12 PM
According to a post on the Guardian's digital technology blog, "news sites average around 450 links on their homes pages, whereas 10 years ago they averaged just 12 links per home page." And you're probably clicking on those links. What does it all mean? The New York Times interface specialist and lead researcher, Nick Bilton, spells it out:
If you pick up a US or UK newspaper you'll see four to six stories on the front page and maybe eight to 10 refers to other stories, that's an average total of 12 headlines on one page. In contrast, the average news website has 335 story or section links on their homepage. So we're showing people online 300 more options on one page than we show them in print. And we wonder why people have information overload of content.
…It is a fascinating fact is that if you go online and visit 200 web pages in one day—which is a simple task when you could email, blogs, Youtube, etc.—you'll see on average 490,000 words; War & Peace was only 460,000 words.
(Thanks, A Photo Editor.)
Thursday, October 15, 2009 12:34 PM
Nearly everyone knows the adage don’t kiss and tell—but what if we ought to apply the humble ethos to books? Writing for The Walrus, Adam Sternbergh argues that reading is a supremely intimate act, singular among the arts in the way that writers “hijack” our minds.
“Consider something even as silly and modest as this article,” Sternbergh writes. “I’m in your head right now. You have graciously allowed me to slip inside the private sphere of your consciousness, if only for a few minutes. . . . This is very different from how we experience any other kind of art: No matter how much you enjoy a painting or revel in a symphony, there’s not a sense that the painter has hijacked your eyes or the composer has hijacked your ears.”
Thus, Sternbergh concludes: “So if reading—in this sense of pleasurable invasion—is a sexual experience, then the book club is the equivalent of a locker room. It’s the place where we gather to swap and compare notes after the fact, clumsily recounting the deed in a way that can’t help but undermine and cheapen the very experience we’ve gathered to celebrate.”
Is it a sign of how far solitude has fled from our socially-networked culture that reading a book, adoring it, and not trying to explain why to anyone . . . sounds like quite a clandestine thrill?
Source: The Walrus
Image by Stephen Brace, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, February 13, 2009 2:00 PM
“I was never an avid reader until I was 11 or 12,” writes Alastair Harper on the Guardian Books Blog. "Before I started reading," he remembers, "I was a rather subservient, slow little boy who never really did anything wrong, but never did much right either. Books inspired me to be very naughty indeed; and, with the simple moral logic of youth, I perceived them to be on my side, not authority's, which was what made me want to read them.
Harper is responding to a flurry of public projects aimed at getting more kids to read. These initiatives tend to assume that reading is edifying, producing well-behaved, wholesome citizens, a logic Harper doesn’t really understand.
"Perhaps a little bit of literature does make you well-mannered," he concedes sarcasticly. "A sprinkling of Austen will probably be fine. But the government should point out that an excess of reading can be very dangerous indeed. Acknowledge that many books are far more horrifying, perverse and immoral than anything in Grand Theft Auto. Perhaps print warning labels on dust jackets. Now, if that happened, a real children's reading revolution would begin!"
Image by Pedro Simões, licensed under Creative Commons.
The Guardian Books Blog
Monday, December 29, 2008 7:58 PM
In December, literary critics get reflective. It’s their chance to breathe, look back on the past eleven months, and tell a story about the year in books. Many ruminate in bullet points, favoring the best-of model to organize their thoughts. Literary blog The Millions likes the celebratory spirit of these year-end lists, but finds them “woefully incompatible with the habits of most readers.”
In particular, Millions contributors find fault with the lists’ exclusive focus on new books. After all, they argue, we’re “as likely to be moved by a book written 200 years ago as we are by one written two months ago.” It’s a deceptively simple observation that informs their deceptively simple answer to typical top-ten fodder.
Each day for the past month, the blog invited a different author or editor to reflect on their year in reading and spotlight books that resonated with them in 2008. The posts resist “the tyranny of the new” in different ways: Dustin Long recommends books spanning two centuries, Joseph O’Neill trumpets the joys of re-reading old favorites, and Tim W. Brown finds contemporary insights in another era. The lists also gathers an impressive range of genres—from self-help tomes to horror novellas—and a fascinating spread of subjects—from 18th century Russian jokes to Wikipedia.
While The Millions presents their blurbs as an alternative to the best-of form, they might also be treated as a companion to more traditional lists. It strikes me that each examines a year’s literary climate through a different lens: best-ofs judge a year by its writing, while lists like The Millions’ explore a year through its reading. We gain, in the combination of these perspectives, a refreshingly multi-layered way to define the value and relevance of our books.
Image by austinevan, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, December 23, 2008 12:53 PM
It’s one of the beauties of reading used books: Sometimes, you stumble across tangible evidence of the reader that preceded you. Maybe you find their old bookmark, a dedication from a friend, a note they made to themselves in the margins of a page. These scribblings are my favorite. They register, if only briefly, what someone else was thinking while they were reading, offering a window into the normally private interface between a person and their book.
The Bounty Farmer found another reader’s musings in an old copy of Flaubert’s Parrot, but they’re not particularly illuminating. The notes match page numbers with the themes that interested this particular reader:
...101. Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed.
...150. That he was obsessed with style.
...193. Art & Life.
...208. do-it-yourself enema pump.
I’m not sure how to make sense of this chain of associations, and I wonder if the author of the list would be able to remember, either. But the cryptic annotations might give us something else. As The Bounty Farmer observes, they dovetail serendipitously with the tenor of the book, which follows a particularly fanatical reader of Flaubert. This narrator finds fault in overly critical approaches to books, and speaks up in favor of the casual reader's tack:
My reading might be pointless in terms of the history of literary criticism; but it’s not pointless in terms of pleasure. I can’t prove that lay readers enjoy books more than professional critics; but I can tell you one advantage we have over them. We can forget.
The list testifies to a more universal pleasure of reading—the joy of meandering through a text, guided only by the passages that capture your fancy in the moment. It’s a nice reminder that reading doesn’t need a goal; the act carries its own rewards.
Image by Alexandre Duret-Lutz
, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, February 27, 2008 9:30 AM
Don’t have time to read for fun? Me either, yet I spend a couple hours each day sifting though dry e-mails at work. If you’re in the same boat, check out DailyLit, a website that will send you daily installments of books via e-mail or RSS feed. There are over 750 books available for free, but even the copyrighted titles usually cost well under $10.
(Thanks, Poets & Writers)
Image by Jannis Andrija Schnitzer
, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, January 04, 2008 5:17 PM
Have u heard? Mobile phone novels are selling phenomenally well in Japan. According to a recent story in the Sydney Morning Herald, five of the country’s top 10 bestselling novels in the first half of 2007 were written on mobile phones, selling an average of 400,000 copies apiece. These novels, known as keitai shosetsu, may be edited when transferred to the printed page, but they circulate on cell phones via the orthographic luxuries of a small, digital screen: Abbreviations and emoticons abound in each installment of the narrative. And not surprisingly, terse dialogue supplants scene and character development.
Both Gizmodo and ReadWriteWeb—two blogs that have chimed in on the subject—emphasize the lurid melodrama that characterizes these stories. For instance, take Koizora (“Love Sky”), which recounts the travails of a teenage girl who is gang-raped, becomes pregnant, and then miscarries. The cinematic adaptation is already something of a success in Japan.
Regardless of content, I think this is a promising trend. I now have a market for the epic poem I composed as an art project on 37 BlackBerries and 3 upside-down calculators. (If you’d rather have the clean version, you don’t have to read the calculators—I only used them to write the word “hell,” which, as we all know, is “1134” flipped on its head.)
Monday, October 29, 2007 11:33 AM
It's book awards season again, and C. Max Magee, contributor to the book blog the Millions, laments that U.S. book awards like the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize do little to excite the reading public the way the Booker Prize does in the United Kingdom. In the U.K., the Booker shortlist furnishes an instant reading list and creates enough buzz that bookies take bets on the winners. U.S. awards, on the other hand, measure up to little more than promotional stickers on book covers.
If U.S. book awards better marketed their winners—or if the Pulitzer adopted a shortlist, as Magee suggests—would it rouse Americans out of their literary coma?—Eric Kelsey
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