Just in case. . .
In an earlier post I reviewed the novel Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, one of the books on my Classics Club list. The book contained some passages that presented Frank Wheeler as a melodramatically theatrical man always concerned about how he appears to others:
He let the fingers of one hand splay out across the pocket of his shirt to show what a simple, physical thing the heart was (p. 4).
all afternoon in the city, stultified at what he liked to call “the dullest job you can possibly imagine,” he had drawn strength from a mental projection of scenes to unfold tonight (p. 16).
Since these are examples of the author telling readers about a character, I wondered if this characteristic would come across in the 2008 film version of the novel, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as Frank and April Wheeler.
The film did not suggest this characteristic of Frank, but the visual nature of film did allow for some dramatic emphases of other themes in the novel. The book describes the Wheelers’ house on Revolutionary Road as on a hill. In the scene of the film in which the real estate agent, Mrs. Givings (played by Kathy Bates), first shows Frank and April the house, a low camera angle makes the house appear high on the hill. This visual effect presents the house as a castle high on a hill and suggests the Wheelers are a royal couple who will live there, an echo of the Wheelers’ feeling of their own superiority or specialness.
Even more dramatic is the visual effects early in the film to suggest the isolation and loneliness of the Wheelers’ current lives. Wide scenes show Frank dressed like all the other men waiting on the platform of the local station to take the train into the city for work. Then a shot of Frank inside the train isolates him among all the other similarly dressed men. The series culminates with another wide shot of a horde of suburban men in their suits and hats, all carrying their briefcases, pouring out of Grand Central Station and marching off to work. Even among such a crowd, Frank is isolated and alone.
Juxtaposed with that sequence is a scene of April, a suburban housewife in her apron, dragging her metal garbage can to the end of the driveway for pickup. She pauses to look around, and the camera reveals a road lined with identical driveways and garbage cans, but no other human being. Just as Frank is isolated among all his fellow workers who commute every day between their homes in the suburbs and their jobs in the city, April is also isolated in the suburbs. Several more scenes showing April peering outside from behind her living room picture window heighten her isolation into a feeling of entrapment.
Yates’s novel presents Mrs. Givings’s mentally ill son, John, as a kind of Greek chorus who comments on the action. Ironically, this disturbed character is the one who speaks the truth. Although the character’s role is clear in the novel, it stands out even more in the film thanks to the dramatic presence of veteran stage and film actor Michael Shannon.
In one of the bonus features on the film DVD, either director Mendes or screenplay writer Justin Haythe (I can’t remember which) calls Revolutionary Road “the grandfather of suburban novels.” The film version explores the layers of meaning that include not just the mundane realities of suburban existence but the tragic interlocking of a couple who use each other to explore their own individual pain and shortcomings. April says, “We thought we would be wonderful in the world.” But finally she has to admit, “We were never special.”
You’ll find a lot of recommended reading on last month’s “Best Books of 2014” round-ups, but if you’re looking for more theme-related material, here are a few lists:
From the New York Times:
We took the opportunity to ask a few writers to recommend novels with religious themes, preferably lesser known. (If you don’t already know you should read Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead,” well, you should.)
Reviews of four books, also from the New York Times.
These titles are brought to you by Business Insider.
The Goodreads blog features five book-related quotations to end the year and asks, “Which one speaks to you?”
The one that most directly speaks to me is the first one:
“Books fall open, you fall in.” —David McCord
David McCord wrote poetry for children. This quotation is from one of those poems and is a favorite amongst librarians:
Books Fall Open
Books fall open, you fall in,
delighted where you’ve never been;
hear voices not once heard before,
reach world on world through door on door;
find unexpected keys to things locked up beyond imaginings.
What might you be, perhaps become,
because one book is somewhere?
Some wise delver into wisdom, wit,
and wherewithal has written it.
True books will venture, dare you out,
whisper secrets, maybe shout
across the gloom to you in need,
who hanker for a book to read.
A list by Rebecca Mead, author of The Road to Middlemarch:
I wasn’t aware of the term “bibliomemoir” until the novelist Joyce Carol Oates used it – or perhaps coined it? – in reviewing my book, The Road to Middlemarch, earlier this year. But it’s a fitting enough label for the extended family my book belongs to: books that explicitly consider reading as a crucial dimension of living, or that explore the post-publication life that a significant book has led.
Read why these books make her list:
- U and I by Nicholson Baker
- To the River by Olivia Laing
- Portrait of A Novel by Michael Gorra
- The Possessed by Elif Batuman
- How to Live by Sarah Bakewell
- How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton
- Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer
- Parallel Lives by Phyllis Rose
- The Magician’s Book by Laura Miller
- A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter by William Deresiewicz
Lecia Bushak reports for Medical Daily on “Why We Should All Start Reading Paper Books Again.” She cites research in support of these three assertions:
- You’re missing out on important information.
- E-books get in the way of sleepytime.
- Screens = stress.
I have a big concern about this article: Bushak cites scientific research against the use of readers, but her statements about why reading a print book is better are often unreferenced. I suspect we’re getting only one side of the ereader story here. In fact, she admits:
It’s hard to put my finger on what exactly draws me to paper books, and makes me avoid electronic ones … it’s likely that reading allows me to rely on a singular focus to transport me to a new world, leaving all my stresses and personal problems behind.
And in the comments several people point out that some ereaders are front lit, so light shines off them just as it does off a paper page.
This handy guide from University of Victoria English professors G. Kim Blank and Magdalena Kay, provides a well-composed and insightful rubric for reading poetry. While the introduction points out that there is no single way to read a poem, the rest of the entry provides some important tips. For instance, when interpreting, it’s important to continually reference the poem as it stands. The authors expound on ten themes: Title, Key Words & Tone, Word Order, Figurative Language: Imagery, Sound: Rhythm & Rhyme, Speaker & Voice, Time & Setting, Symbol, Form, and Ideas & Theme. The site is especially suited for late high school and early college students, but it can also help clarify the interpretation of poetry for anyone who loves to read.
From The Scout Report, Copyright Internet Scout 1994–2014. https://www.scout.wisc.edu
For your reading enjoyment.
This article begins with one of my favorite beliefs about reading: “The experience itself has just as much to offer as the end result.”
In a world of information overload, we see lots of praise for improving our reading speed. But speed reading is the enemy of both comprehension and the sheer pleasure of reading and learning. That’s why I like this article, which offers suggestions that “should help you concentrate better, process what you’re reading more effectively, and get more out of each book.” Please read all about them:
- Don’t read in bed.
- Read alone.
- Read in print if possible.
- Take notes.
- Reread for clarity.
- Read aloud, or mouth along.
This short article looks as reasons why people either do or do not finish reading books they’ve started. Most of the information here is based on statistics compiled by GoodReads.
The most cited reason why we have the urge to put a book down without finishing it, according to GoodReads.com users, is a slow beginning or a non-engaging writing style. Not liking the main character, and books that have a weak plot, are two other popular reasons cited in comments on the site.
I used to think that I had to finish every book I started. But sometime around my 40th birthday I decided that I didn’t have unlimited time left and didn’t want to waste any of it trudging through to the end of books I didn’t like. I do try to give books a fair shot, though, so I do sometimes continue a bit beyond where I initially wanted to jettison that particular book.
What about you? Do you finish every book you start? If you don’t, how far into a book do you have to get before making the decision to quit?
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life
Basic Books, 1997
Athletes talk about being “in the zone.” For musicians, it’s being “in the groove.” Even if you’re not an athlete or a musician, you’ve probably shared the experience of being in an alternate state of consciousness in which the outside world falls away and leaves you completely absorbed in the activity you’re focusing on.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced chick-SENT-me-hi) popularized discussion of this human experience as flow. He describes flow as follows:
When goals are clear, feedback relevant, and challenges and skills are in balance, attention becomes ordered and fully invested. Because of the total demand on psychic energy, a person in flow is completely focused. There is no space in consciousness for distracting thoughts, irrelevant feelings. (1997, p. 31)
He identifies clear goals, relevant feedback, and a balance between the demands of the task and a person’s skill level as the three necessary conditions for flow to occur. The balance between the challenge and one’s skill level is important; if the task is too easy, one becomes bored, whereas if the task is too difficult, one becomes anxious and frustrated and finally gives up. But when these three conditions are met, the flow state of absorbed consciousness often occurs.
The key to flow is the complete focus on or absorption in an activity. Csikszentmihalyi says that such focus produces order in consciousness. He explains that information enters consciousness for one of two reasons: (1) because of our intention to focus attention on it, or (2) because of attentional habits based on biological or social instructions. We can choose what to focus our attention on through our intentions:
We may call intentions the force that keeps information in consciousness ordered. Intentions arise in consciousness whenever a person is aware of desiring something or wanting to accomplish something. Intentions are also bits of information, shaped either by biological needs or by internalized social goals. They act as magnetic fields, moving attention toward some objects and away from others, keeping our mind focused on some stimuli in preference to others. (1990, p. 27)
Accordingly, when we intend to focus our attention by concentrating on one activity or task, our consciousness will filter out unrelated stimuli that are potential distractions. This filtering results in the completely focused attention necessary for flow. This is why people in flow lose track of time and don’t notice that it’s time to turn the lights on or cook dinner.
Once flow begins, the “magnetic fields” of our intentions will direct consciousness toward information stored in our brains that might help perform the task we are concentrating on. Ironically, then, we must actively focus attention on a particular area to begin flow, but we must then give up control and allow internal intentions, those “bits of information” stored within us, to direct consciousness in making related associations in order for flow to continue and produce results. When this happens, people often feel that they are not in control of their actions, that some force is working through them.
An important characteristic of flow is that it is pleasurable for the person experiencing it. Csikszentmihalyi argues that, because flow is so enjoyable, people will seek out activities that produce flow. “The key element of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself” (1990, p. 67), he says. He calls an activity that produces such optimal experiences autotelic; that is, it is an activity that people perform not because of what they will gain or produce by it, but for its own sake, for the sheer pleasure of doing it.
Another important characteristic of flow is that a person’s sense of self-consciousness disappears. As Csikszentmihalyi explains:
loss of self-consciousness does not involve a loss of self, and certainly not a loss of consciousness, but rather, only a loss of consciousness of the self. What slips below the threshold of awareness is the concept of self, the information we use to represent to ourselves who we are… . Loss of self-consciousness can lead to self-transcendence, to a feeling that the boundaries of our being have been pushed forward. (1990, p. 64)
The flow state is different from ordinary waking consciousness: “Self-consciousness disappears, yet one feels stronger than usual. The sense of time is distorted: hours seem to pass by in minutes” (1997, p. 31). In his studies of flow activity Csikszentmihalyi found that it uniformly “provided a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. It pushed the person to higher levels of performance, and led to previously undreamed of states of consciousness” (1990, p. 74). In other words, flow is an alternate state of consciousness that facilitates creativity.
For this reason flow can be an important component of problem solving. People who are self-conscious about appearing silly or ignorant to others won’t volunteer suggestions to attempt to solve the problem at hand. But when flow occurs and self-consciousness falls away, people will try one possible solution after another until they arrive at one that works. This is why allowing individuals to work alone rather than in group brainstorming sessions often produces better results.
In developing the concept of flow Csikszentmihalyi used “a phenomenological model of consciousness based on information theory” (1990, p. 25). He explains that, according to this theory, “to be conscious … simply means that certain specific conscious events (sensations, feelings, thoughts, intentions) are occurring, and that we are able to direct their course” (1990, p. 26); therefore, consciousness is intentionally ordered information, and consciousness corresponds to subjectively experienced reality.
Furthermore, the nervous system is limited in how much information it can process at one time. We can hold only about seven pieces of information in consciousness simultaneously; beyond that limit, a new piece of information can enter consciousness only if one piece already there leaves consciousness. This process causes us to experience conscious events serially, one after another. Through our intentions, Csikszentmihalyi says, we can focus our attention on a particular activity. Such focusing of attention allows consciousness to select relevant bits of information, from the billions of bits stored in memory, that pertain to the activity we are focusing attention on. When this complete focusing of attention occurs, flow sets in. From the biological perspective, then, flow occurs when consciousness begins connecting separate bits of information stored within our brains.
Flow is a pleasurable alternate state of consciousness that individuals may experience when engaged in an activity that offers definite goals and relevant feedback and that provides a challenge commensurate to their ability. People in flow are completely absorbed in the activity at hand. Their perception of time is often distorted, feelings of self-consciousness disappear, and creativity is enhanced. If we believe the stories, Einstein was obviously in flow while working; he would forget to eat the meals left for him on a tray outside his workroom door. Authors who say “The book just wrote itself” are also describing the flow experience, in which they seem to lose control as a force larger than themselves takes over.
© 2015 by Mary Daniels Brown
Goodreads has just asked me to declare my personal reading challenge for 2015.
Last year I chose 40 books as my goal and managed to read 43. Yet I see other people who plan—and in past years have managed—to read 100 books or more in a year.
What’s wrong with me?
I could give up other areas of my life to devote more time to reading, but I enjoy lots of the other things I do: making new friends since moving to a new city, learning about the history and local attractions of my new home town, traveling and spending more time with my husband now that he has retired.
And, oh yes: my writing. I’ve vowed to devote more time and effort to my own writing this year, including a personal challenge to write a blog post a day.
As much as I’d like to read more books, I’m not willing to give up these other activities.
Special thanks to Jeremy Anderberg for backing me up on this:
It mostly comes down to me wanting to accomplish more with my free time than just reading. I want to write more, I want to craft more, I want to do more woodworking, hell, I even want to just socialize more and spend more time catching up with friends on the phone or over coffee. I don’t want my default activity for free time to be to grab a book and go lay down on the couch in my basement.
I’ve also discovered how reading slowly can in fact help me to become a better writer:
Become A Slow Reader
Learning to write sound, interesting, sometimes elegant prose is the work of a lifetime. The only way I know to do it is to read a vast deal of the best writing available, prose and poetry, with keen attention, and find a way to make use of this reading in one’s own writing. The first step is to become a slow reader. No good writer is a fast reader, at least not of work with the standing of literature. Writers perforce read differently from everyone else. Most people ask three questions of what they read: (1) What is being said? (2) Does it interest me? (3) Is it well constructed? Writers also ask these questions, but two others along with them: (4) How did the author achieve the effects he has? And (5) What can I steal, properly camouflaged of course, from the best of what I am reading for my own writing? This can slow things down a good bit.
via Jon Winokur, Advice to Writers
I think I’ll continue to read, slowly but proudly, and to consider the answers to these questions. I’ve set my reading challenge at 40 books again for 2015. I won’t be reading less, like Jeremy Anderberg, but I won’t be knocking myself out by trying to read more, either.
What about you? Do you have a personal reading challenge for 2015?
Preparing this list is my least favorite task of the year. Here are the people from the writing and publishing worlds whom we lost during 2014, including, where available, a link to an obituary and date of death.
Amiri Baraka 1/9
Juan Gelman 1/14
Leslie Lee 1/20
Richard Grossman 1/27
Maxine Kumin 1/6
Mavis Gallant 2/18
William F. Thomas 2/23
Bill Adler 2/28
Justin Kaplan 3/2
Sherwin Nuland 3/3
Ned O’Gorman 3/7
Donald Michael Kraig 3/17
Patrick McGovern 3/19
Lois Wallace 4/4
Mary Cheever 4/7
Sue Townsend 4/10
Alistair MacLeod 4/20
Tadeusz Rozewicz 4/24
Farley Mowat 5/6
Leslie Thomas 5/6
Mary Stewart 5/9
Sam Greenlee 5/19
Arthur Gelb 5/20
Maya Angelou 5/28
Marilyn Beck 5/31
Mary Soames 5/31
Eric Hill 6/6
Daniel Keyes 6/15
Lloyd Garrison 6/21
Felix Dennis 6/22
Nancy Garden 6/23
Ana María Matute 6/25
Dermot Healy 6/29
Curt Gentry 7/10
Nadine Gordimer 7/13
Thomas Berger 7/13
Bel Kaufman 7/25
Louise Shivers 7/26
Margot Adler 7/28
Billie Letts 8/2
Jeremiah Healy 8/14
William Greaves 8/25
Wendi Harris Kaufman 8/27
Herbert R. Lottman 8/27
Penelope Niven 8/28
Charles Bowden 8/30
Tony Auth 9/14
J. California Cooper 9/20
Alastair Reid 9/21
John Mack Carter 9/26
Park Honan 9/27
Siegfried Lenz 10/7
Carolyn Kizer 10/9
Ben Bradlee 10/21
Raleigh Trevelyan 10/23
Galway Kinnell 10/28
R. A. Montgomery 11/9
Charles Champlin 11/16
P. D. James 11/27
Mark Strand 11/29
Radwa Ashour 11/30
Vicente Leñero 12/3
Claudia Emerson 12/4
Norman Bridwell 12/12
If you despair over working your way through all these lists, just take a look at Hayley Munguia’s distillation:
I set about compiling lists of the best books, movies and TV shows of 2014 in prominent national publications.1 My colleague Andrew Flowers helped me run the numbers to see how much critics agreed. Here are the top 20 most frequently cited titles in each category2:
Here you’ll find all the information you need in digestible form.
The incredible Maria Popova (how does she find so much time to read?) of Brain Pickings offers her selections:
How to be alone, wake up from illusion, master the art of asking, fathom your place in the universe, and more.
The opening paragraph contains links to her lists in other categories as well.
In this special year-end edition of Bookends, all 15 columnists share their favorite reading experience of 2014.
Here’s something a bit different:
responses to the annual Bloomberg News survey, which asked CEOs, investors, current and former policy makers, economists and academics to name their favorite reads in 2014.
_ The A.V. Club_ invited our regular books writers to pick their favorite titles released in 2014. Since very few of our contributors read the same list of books each year, a ballot system doesn’t work as well. Here is a list of our 2014 book recommendations, from reviewed favorites to unsung gems.
From the Kansas City Star.
NON-FICTION is at its finest when it shows how diverse it can be. Stuart Kelly picks out some of this year’s books that stayed truest to that principle.
Because there aren’t enough lists devoted exclusively to nonfiction.
From Adam Woog of The Seattle Times, because I’m a big mystery fan.
Includes lists of both fiction and nonfiction.
From The Guardian.
From GrrlScientist, via The Guardian.
From The Atlantic:
In the holiday spirit, now is a moment to mention an array of 2014 books across the non-fiction and fiction spectrum I wish we hadn’t missed—and to ask their authors to pay it forward, and single out a few books themselves. What recent work has caught their expert eye? What book, however old, helped them write the one they’ve been busy promoting?
From Mother Jones:
In what’s become an annual tradition, we invited Mother Jones staffers to write up their favorite books published this year, the ones they’d recommend to friends and relations, and so here they are.
There are also links here for “Best Food Books of 2014” and “The 10 Best Albums of 2014.”
From the book critic for NPR (National Public Radio)
At year’s end, The New York Times’s three daily book critics explain what goes into making our year-end lists. It’s an explanation liable to make heads spin, but it’s born of necessity. We can’t make trustworthy “10 best” lists because none of us reads everything, even though each of us reads quite a lot. So each critic’s list includes only books that the critic reviewed during 2014.
I know we’ve heard a lot from the New York Times, but their explanation of how they compile their best books lists seems relevant.
And how could we not feature the personal favorites of Michiko Kakutani?
Which books took off and which failed to sell? Publishers choose their books of the year, and the ones that slipped through the net
From Britain’s The Guardian.
From the book critic of the Los Angeles Times.
From GrrlScientist, for The Guardian:
Today’s list of “best of” are my choices of books published in 2014 that focus on the topics of human biology, psychology and medicine. This genre always produces a large and (mostly) excellent collection of books, so it was difficult to limit my choices to just “a dozen or so” titles that I think you will enjoy.
At the end of this list you’ll also find links to her other lists: Best Birds Books, Best Nature Books, Best Popular Science Books (Biological sciences) and Best Popular Science Books (Physical sciences).
From James Wood, for The New Yorker.
Both fiction and nonfiction recommendations from the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
These are the voices in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that kept our eyes glued to the page.
From Arianna Rebolini, for BuzzFeed
Need new book ideas now that your Asian-American Literature class is over? Check out some of the books published by Asian-American authors in 2014. From food to family, comedy to color, these books will be next on your must-read list.
By FRANCES KAI-HWA WANG.
Compiled by Daniel Dalton for BuzzFeed:
Poetry, fiction, and nonfiction that killed it this year. Ranked in no particular order.
And finally, because 2014 is now so passe:
In books by soldiers and reporters about Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s the details that slam home a sense of what the wars were like on the front lines: a suicide bomber’s head pulled from the rubble of the mosque he’d bombed; the sonogram of an unborn child found among a soldier’s remains; a bomb technician writing NKA (No Known Allergies) and his blood type on his boots in permanent marker “because feet survive detonations.”
War cracks people’s lives apart, unmasks the most extreme emotions, fuels the deepest existential questions. Even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan morph into shapeless struggles with no clear ends in sight, they have given birth to an extraordinary outpouring of writing that tries to make sense of it all: journalism that has unraveled the back story of how and why America went to war, and also a profusion of stories, novels, memoirs and poems that testify to the day-to-day realities and to the wars’ ever-unspooling human costs.