Literature & Psychology

On Active Reading


If you watch HBO’s drama The Newsroom, you’ve seen the introductory clip in which an editor scans a printed story by running her hand quickly down the page. While this is an appropriate, even necessary, reading method for keeping up with a daunting amount of news updated by the second, it’s not the way to read fiction. Artistic appreciation of a literary text requires a more active approach to reading than such a passive absorption of facts.

Actively reading fiction requires slowing the reading process way down. In The medium is not the message Leah Price, who teaches English at Harvard, looks at the slow reading movement. Most proponents of this movement, she notes, are literary critics, who “care as much about form as about content.” She notes:

Ever since modern literatures were first taught at university a couple of centuries ago, their average professor has read at the same pace as her seven-year-old.

Reading slowly allows us to savor the words, to see and appreciate how the author has used techniques such as imagery and sentence structure to construct a story that resonates on several levels. When we read literature simply for its narrative sequence—first this happened, then that happened, and then the next thing happened—we miss all the artistic effort that the best writers put into crafting their tales. (For ideas on how to do such close reading, see How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster, Harper/Collins, 2003).

Tim Parks, novelist and Associate Professor of Literature and Translation at IULM University in Milan, laments how much his students seem to miss when reading literature in A Weapon for Readers. He writes that we approach literature with too much reverence and therefore treat it uncritically:

If a piece of writing manifests the stigmata of literature—symbols, metaphors, unreliable narrators, multiple points of view, structural ambiguities—we afford it unlimited credit. With occasional exceptions, the only “criticism” brought to such writing is the kind that seeks to elaborate its brilliance, its cleverness, its creativity.

This reverence toward the written word, he says, came of age in the second half of the twentieth century and “is reflected in the treatment of the book itself. The spine must not be bent back and broken, the pages must not be marked with dog ears, there must be no underlining, no writing in the margins.”

Parks particularly noticed this attitude toward the sanctity of the written word when working with students studying translation:

I would give them the same text in English and Italian and ask them to tell me which was the original text. Or I would give them a text without saying whether it was a translation or not and ask them to comment on it. Again and again, the authority conveyed by the printed word and an aura of literariness, or the excitement of dramatic action, or the persuasive drift of an argument, would prevent them from noticing the most obvious absurdities.

Be sure to look at his examples of such absurdities, which make his point readily evident.

In wondering how to help his students become better readers,

I began to think about the way I read myself, about the activity of reading, what you put into it rather than what was simply on the page. Try this experiment, I eventually told them: from now on always read with a pen in your hands, not beside you on the table, but actually in your hand, ready, armed. And always make three or four comments on every page, at least one critical, even aggressive.

The result? “[I]t was remarkable how many students improved their performance with this simple stratagem”:

There is something predatory, cruel even, about a pen suspended over a text. Like a hawk over a field, it is on the lookout for something vulnerable. Then it is a pleasure to swoop and skewer the victim with the nib’s sharp point. The mere fact of holding the hand poised for action changes our attitude to the text. We are no longer passive consumers of a monologue but active participants in a dialogue. Students would report that their reading slowed down when they had a pen in their hand, but at the same time the text became more dense, more interesting, if only because a certain pleasure could now be taken in their own response to the writing when they didn’t feel it was up to scratch, or worthy only of being scratched.

This transformation from “passive consumers of a monologue” into “active participants in a dialogue” describes the interaction between a reader and a literary text that is the basis of reader-response criticism. In The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (1978), Louise M. Rosenblatt calls this interaction “the reader’s contribution in the two-way, ‘transactional’ relationship with the text” (p. ix). In Rosenblatt’s terminology, the text is the written work and the poem is the meaning that the reader creates in interaction with the written words.

Arming ourselves with a pen and approaching a work of literature as our partner in an active exchange will allow us to focus on reading fiction as both an artistic and a pleasurable experience—also as a necessary experience, according to Parks:

For the mindless, passive acceptance of other people’s representations of the world can only enchain us and hamper our personal growth, hamper the possibility of positive action. Sometimes it seems the whole of society languishes in the stupor of the fictions it has swallowed.

© 2014 by Mary Daniels Brown

Best Books 2014

Jonathan Yardley’s favorite books

This is not a “best books of the year” list:

As longtime Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley retires this week, he lists some of the books he’s cherished most during his 33-year tenure with Book World. Some of the titles here he reviewed for The Post, and others he read for the first time over those years.

Yardley chooses his favorites of both fiction and nonfiction.

Sound Off: What book influenced you the most?

This also is not a best books of the year list:

The holiday season is when many books are given as gifts. We asked member of the Times-Union/ Email Interactive Group which book, besides the Bible or other essential religious work, has had the most influence on them and why?

Our picks for the best books of 2014

From the book reviewers of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The best crime and thrillers of 2014

From the U. K.’s The Guardian:

Louise Welsh’s dystopian tale of plague in London and Tom Rob Smith’s Swedish family chiller are among the highlights in this year’s roundup

Best fiction of 2014

From The Boston Globe. There’s also a link to the newspaper’s complete list of the year’s “top picks for children, teens, and adults, for fans of fiction and nonfiction, lovers of sports and thrillers, devotees of poetry and all things New England.”

The Best Fiction for Christmas: Literary novels of 2014

John Boland on a dozen literary novels that made this year special

The best biographies of 2014

The Guardian strikes again.

Best Books 2014

The best biographies and memoirs of 2014 

From the U. K.’s The Guardian: “ this year’s roundup of life writing.”

The best poetry books of 2014

Also from the U. K.’s The Guardian

Best Books 2014: Slate Staff Picks

Slate’s columnists, editors, and bloggers pick their favorite books of the year.

Our Favorite Books of 2014: Newsweek Staff Picks

Though far from exhaustive (our apologies, Monsieur Piketty), this 20-book list is meant as a small glimpse at the books we read and loved in 2014. It’s an eclectic grouping, ranging from scholarly tomes about tax policy to National Book Award winner Phil Klay’s war vignettes to blog-to-book offerings from The Toast’s Mallory Ortberg and Pitchfork Reviews Reviews’ David Shapiro.

Books of the year 2014: Literary memoirs

From another U. K. publication, The Independent. This article includes a link to the publication’s other Best Books of 2014 lists.

Page turners

The Economist offers its list of the years best books in politics and current affairs; history; economics and business; science and technology; culture, society, and travel; and fiction.

Best books of 2014

Newsday’s books editor and regular reviewers highlight their 10 favorite books of 2014.

Ayelet Waldman Rages Against the New York Times Notable Books List. Here’s How the Sausage Gets Made.

Not everyone is happy about these “best books of 2014” lists:

The New York Times unveiled its annual roundup of “100 Notable Books” Tuesday, throwing a flattering light on 2014’s top fiction and nonfiction offerings. But one author did not come off in a flattering light: Ayelet Waldman stormed Twitter to complain that her novel Love and Treasure wasn’t on the list, despite a favorable review from the Times back in May. (For what it’s worth, Waldman’s skin seems to have unique, flattering-light-repellant properties. She’s a provocateur who has detailed the trials of perhaps not loving her children enough and of being the only mother in her social circle to enjoy a passionate, consuming sex life.)

Waldman’s opening shot:

”I am really not dealing well with having failed to make the @nytimes notable book list. Love & Treasure is a fucking great novel IISSM.”

According to this article, Waldman has deleted her tweets, but there’s a link to a site that displays them.

Why shouldn’t Ayelet Waldman complain?

Rom Charles of the Washington Post offers his take on the Waldman affair.

Best Books 2014

The “best books of the year” lists will be coming thick and fast. I’ll try to keep up with them here.

Writers pick the best books of 2014: part one

It’s been a year of calls to action. Naomi Klein tackled climate change, Owen Jones got to grips with class politics, and Russell Brand preached revolution. Writers from Hilary Mantel to Lena Dunham recommend the titles that leaped out at them this year.

From the U. K.’s The Guardian.

Writers pick the best books of 2014: part 2

From Britain’s brilliantly inventive Ali Smith to America’s master storyteller Richard Ford, from Michael Lewis’s cautionary tale of Wall Street renegades to Henry Marsh’s candid account of neurosurgery, writers, our critics and others pick their favourite reads of 2014. Plus, what they hope to find under the Christmas tree.

A companion piece to the one above.

Goodreads: Best Books of 2014

The Amazon-owned site says that 3,317,504 votes were cast in this compilation of readers’ favorite books in 20 categories.

The Best Books Of 2014

Editors at Huffington Post discuss their choices.

100 Notable Books of 2014

The year’s notable fiction, poetry and nonfiction, selected by the editors of The New York Times Book Review.

Literature & Psychology

“I Am Lazarus,” Anna Kavan

Cover: The World WithinKavan, Anna. “I Am Lazarus” (1940)
In The World Within: Fiction Illuminating Neuroses of Our Time
Edited by Mary Louise Aswell
Notes and Introduction by Frederic Wertham, M.D.
New York: Whittlesey House, 1947

Related Posts:

The story’s opening paragraph introduces an English doctor who distrusts “anything he did not understand,” particularly “this insulin shock treatment there had been such a fuss about” (p.270).

Polish neurophysiologist and psychiatrist Manfred J. Sakel introduced insulin-shock therapy:

Sakel had used insulin to tranquilize morphine addicts undergoing withdrawal, and in 1927 one addict accidentally received an overdose of insulin and went into a coma. After the patient recovered from the overdose, Sakel noted an improvement in his mental state. Sakel hypothesized that inducing convulsions with insulin could have similar effects in schizophrenics. His initial studies found the treatment effective in 88 percent of his patients, and the method was applied widely for a brief period. Follow-up studies showed the long-term results to be less satisfactory, and insulin-shock treatment was replaced by other methods of treatment. [1]

Until the discovery of the tranquilizing drugs, variations of insulin-shock therapy (also called insulin-coma therapy) were commonly used in the treatment of schizophrenia and other psychotic conditions. With insulin-shock treatment, the patient is given increasingly large doses of insulin, which reduce the sugar content of the blood and bring on a state of coma. Usually the comatose condition is allowed to persist for about an hour, at which time it is terminated by administering warm salt solution via stomach tube or by intravenous injection of glucose. Insulin shock had its greatest effectiveness with schizophrenic patients whose illness had lasted less than two years. [2]

Two large studies carried out in the USA in 1939 and 1942 gave him fame and helped his technique to rapidly spread out around the world… . [However], Initial enthusiasm was followed by a decrease in the use of insulin coma therapy, after further controlled studies showed that real cure was not achieved and that improvements were many times temporary. [3]

The opening four paragraphs of Anna Kavan’s story introduce us to the unnamed English doctor who lives in a village near the wealthy Mrs. Bow. When the doctor plans a motor trip to Europe, Mrs. Bow asks him to stop in and see her son at the clinic where he’s being treated for dementia praecox, an outmoded term for what we now call schizophrenia. Readers are guided not to think highly of this doctor: “The English doctor was not a very good doctor. He was middle-aged and frustrated and undistinguished” (p. 270). When Mrs. Bow had told him of her plan a year earlier to send her son to the clinic for treatment, the doctor had opposed the idea. “It was a useless expense. It couldn’t possibly do any good” (p. 271).

Not wishing to offend the rich Mrs. Bow, the doctor stops by the European clinic:

He glanced at the beautifully kept gardens. The grounds were really magnificent, the watered lawns green in spite of the dry summer, every tree pruned to perfection, the borders brilliant with flowers. (p. 271)

The clinic superintendent, who “had exactly estimated the unimportance of his companion” (p. 272), describes Mr. Bow’s prognosis:

“We’re very proud of Mr. Bow,” he said. “He’s an outstanding example of the success of the treatment. He responded wonderfully well from the start and I consider him a quite remarkable cure. In a few months he should be well enough to go home.” (p. 272)

Apparently the mediocre doctor from England who had dismissed the possibility of a cure was wrong about the treatment given at this clinic with the perfectly manicured grounds.

The superintendent takes the doctor into a workroom where some patients, including Mr. Bow, are working with leather: “The different pairs of hands, large and small, rose and fell over the table… . The Englishman looked uneasily at the faces and at the hands which seemed to be rising and falling of their own volition in the banded sunshine above the table” (pp. 272–273). Mr. Bow, with his “flat, hazel eyes,” “sat stiffly correct in his place at the sunny table” (p. 273). This opening section of the story ends with the doctor’s reflection on what he has seen:

“I should never have believed it possible,” the Englishman said with emphasis and repressed indignation. “Never.”

He felt disapproving and indignant and uncomfortable without quite knowing why. Of course, the boy looks normal enough, he said to himself. He seems quiet and self-controlled. But there must be a catch in it somewhere. You can’t go against nature like that. It just isn’t possible. He thought uneasily of the young inexpressive face and the curious flat look of the eyes. (p. 274)

Then the focus of the story abruptly switches to Mr. Bow:

He spoke to no one and nobody spoke to him. He methodically went on sewing the pigskin belt with steady, regular movements of his soft hands… All around the table were different colored shapes whose mouths opened and closed and emitted sounds that meant nothing to him. He did not mind either the shapes or the sounds. They were part of the familiar atmosphere of the workroom, where he felt comfortable and at ease. (p. 274)

And suddenly the reader begins to see what the English doctor vaguely sensed but was unable to understand: that the outside viewer’s perception of Mr. Bow’s existence is vastly different from Mr. Bow’s own. On his way to lunch Mr. Bow walks “rather stiffly” through grasses that respond felinely to his touch: “like thin sensitive cats they arched themselves to receive the caress of his fingertips” (p. 275). Daisies growing in the field “had yellow eyes that squinted craftily through the grass” (p. 275). In the washroom

Several coats hung on the wall. Thomas Bow avoided the washbasins nearest the coats. The hanging shapes filled him with deep suspicion. He watched them out of the ends of his eyes to make sure they did not get up to anything while he was washing his hands. (pp. 276–277)

And when Mr. Bow enters the dining room

The young man looked round cautiously. The pretty dresses of the women gave him pleasure but he was not at ease. At any moment something might pounce on him, something for which he did not have the formula. He waited tensely, on enemy ground… . The waiters, like well-trained sheep dogs, skillfully maneuvered the patients toward their chairs. (p. 278)

Now we realize that the perfectly ordered and manicured grounds of the fancy clinic represent the perfectly ordered and regimented existence of the patients, who have been trained to respond like robots. The irony of the situation is that the undistinguished, “not very good” English doctor was correct in his evaluation of how well Mr. Bow’s treatment has worked.

The story’s title provides a final stroke of irony:

“He doesn’t know how lucky he is,” said the dark doctor. “We’ve pulled him back literally from a living death. That’s the sort of thing that encourages one in this work.”

Mr. Bow walked carefully in the sunshine. He did not know how lucky he was and perhaps that was rather lucky as well. (p. 281)


[1] “Manfred J. Sakel”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 02 Nov. 2014

[2] “Shock therapy”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 02 Nov. 2014

[3] Renato M.E. Sabbatini. The History of Shock Therapy in Psychiatry .

On Novels and Novelists

On Novels and Novelists

Stephen King: The Rolling Stone Interview

According to interviewer Andy Greene, this interview in Rolling Stone is the first in-depth one Stephen King has given since a van accident nearly killed him 15 years ago.

Known as the master of horror, King has long wished to be known as “a writer,” not “a horror writer.” Greene asks King about the genre question early in their discussion:

I have to say this: To a degree, I have elevated the horror genre.

Few would argue with that.

It’s more respected now. I’ve spoken out my whole life against the idea of simply dismissing whole areas of fiction by saying it’s “genre” and therefore can’t be seen as literature. I’m not trying to be conceited or anything. Raymond Chandler elevated the detective genre. People who have done wonderful work really blur the line.

In this same vein, King speaks out against elitist “gray eminences in literary criticism” who, he says, don’t want to understand works that have popular appeal.

He also offers his views on life’s big issues, such as religion, God, heaven, the afterlife, and the future of humanity. And here’s what he has to say about evil: “Evil is inside us. The older I get, the less I think there’s some sort of outside devilish influence; it comes from people.”

King talks a bit here about the public reception of his books and how he feels about the movie adaptations of his novels. Here’s his answer to the question of which book he thinks is his best:

Lisey’s Story. That one felt like an important book to me because it was about marriage, and I’d never written about that. I wanted to talk about two things: One is the secret world that people build inside a marriage, and the other was that even in that intimate world, there’s still things that we don’t know about each other.

This is a long interview, and King touches on lots of other topics: politics, money, television shows, his writing process, and his drug and alcohol addiction.

And now I know why I hated The Tommyknockers so much: “The Tommyknockers  is an awful book,” says Stephen King.

Fuminori writes noir, but not as we know it

Fuminori Nakamura has won many of the major literary prizes in Japan and is quickly making the same kind of impact in the English-speaking world. His third novel to be translated into English, “Last Winter, We Parted,” is out now. It’s a tense, layered story centered around a young writer commissioned by his editor to write about photographer Yudai Kiharazaka, in prison for murdering two women.

According to this article in The Japan Times, Fuminori’s newly translated novel:

is full of stylistic flourishes and structural experimentation. There are textual games throughout the book, as it switches from archived letters to internal monologue to reported speech to notes from a diary and chains of tweets. It’s a book that keeps its secrets until the last page, playing games with the reader. Structurally it’s a Mobius strip.

His characters seldom have a backstory because, as the author explains, “My characters are often people who are adrift in the world.” He’s interested both in characters who separate themselves from the world and in what happens when those characters come together.

“I think of myself as writing pure literature,” he says. “I’m interested in the secret depths of humanity. I focus much more on describing the psychological state. I think that by writing from the side of human darkness, I might be able to write about those secret depths.”

This novel also explores the nature of creativity, art, and literature because “art does have a terrible side,” he says.

Elena Ferrante: the global literary sensation nobody knows

Elena Ferrante is an Italian novelist who was born in or near Naples. She seems once to have been married; she may have lived in Greece; she appears to be a mother. Or so we think. In our self-promoting, Twitter-saturated age, Ferrante is an outlier, an author who wishes to remain totally private. She refuses face-to-face interviews, has only given a handful of written ones (a few of her letters have been published), and makes no personal appearances; no photographs of her have been published. In 1991, shortly before the publication of her style-defining first book, Troubling Love, Ferrante sent a letter to her editor, explaining that she would not be promoting it: “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.” Anonymity, she thought, would preserve “a space of absolute creative freedom”, a freedom all the more necessary because her books stick “a finger in certain wounds I have that are still infected”.

Even though I don’t have to feel guilty about not having heard of this writer, I do begin to feel guilty about all the titles I must put on my ever-growing list of books-to-be-read.

The Neapolitan series, which is Ferrante’s most ambitious project to date, represents an evolution in her work. Three of the expected four novels have been published in English: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and, now, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. Taken together, the novels span some 50 years, chronicling the life-long friendship between Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco. With them, Ferrante has written both a capacious story of Elena’s coming of age – Elena, who has become a novelist, is the narrator – and a social novel explicitly dealing with Italian politics and history where the earlier work confined itself to internal psychic dramas.

Novels That Feature a Character’s Diary or Journal

In Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl, Amy creates a fake diary to cast suspicion about her disappearance on her husband. Although Amy’s diary is only one piece in this novel’s central puzzle, some other works of fiction feature a diary format as their primary structure.

writingHere are some fictional works that incorporate a character’s diary or journal. Please suggest additions to this list in the comments.


  • One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus
  • No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club by Virginia Ironside
  • The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nichole Bernier
  • I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  • The Diary of a Madman by Nikolai Gogol
  • A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
  • Rustication by Charles Palliser
  • The Diaries of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend
  • Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid (and sequels) by Jeff Kinney

Phil Klay wins National Book Award for fiction

Phil Klay’s “Redeployment,” a debut collection of searching, satiric and often agonized stories by an Iraq war veteran, has won the National Book Award for fiction.

Klay was chosen Wednesday night over such high-profile finalists as Marilynne Robinson’s “Lila” and Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven.” His book was the first debut release to win in fiction since Julia Glass’ “The Three Junes” in 2002, the first story collection to win since Andrea Barrett’s “Ship Fever” in 1996 and the first fiction win for an Iraq veteran.

via Phil Klay wins National Book Award for fiction | Entertainment | The Seattle Times.

This article also includes news of the other National Book Awards. Best Books of 2014

2014 Best Books of the Year: The Top 100 in Print Format

via Best Books of 2014.

Yes, the Best Books of 2014 lists are beginning already.

The link here features Everything I Never Told You: A Novel by Celeste Ng as top book of the year.

If you click around this page a bit, you’ll find Amazon’s other lists (e.g., best cookbooks, best mysteries & thrillers).

Literary News and Notes