Category Archives: Reading

On Reading

I love Mark Zuckerberg’s book club: Unpacking his quest for literary meaning

I had seen references to Mark Zuckerberg’s book club but, despite being a fan of both books and book clubs, I wasn’t much interested in learning about it. But Laura Miller, senior writer for Salon and a self-described “book-recommender,” was. Most of the hype about the book club came from the publishing industry, she says, and compared Zuckerberg to Oprah Winfrey as a celebrity whose promotion of a title can sell a lot of books.

But Miller’s true interest in Zuckerberg’s book club, at least in this article, lies elsewhere:

But far more intriguing is the emerging portrait of Mark Zuckerberg as a reader. He is diligent, even driven, setting himself the challenge of reading and discussing a new book every two weeks, despite what must be a pretty full schedule as the CEO of the most popular social networking site on the planet.

Despite the fact that Zuckerberg’s own review of Naím’s book “reads like an uninspired term paper,” Miller writes, “personally I find his quest for meaning kind of touching.” She looks at Zuckerberg’s first selection, Moisés Naím’s The End of Power, alongside his recently announced choice for the second book, Steven Pinker’s 830-page tome The Better Angels of Our Nature. They are both hefty works of nonfiction that she thinks appeal primarily to middle-age men. Since women are the primary buyers and readers of novels, Miller hopes “he’ll expand the books he reads beyond nonfiction.”

If you’re interested in digging deeper into Zuckerberg’s book club, this article ends with links to several related pieces.

Popular TV Series and Movies Maintain Relevance as Novels

Alexandra Alter looks at:

a flourishing but often unappreciated pocket of the publishing world: tie-in novels. Writers have produced novels based on the terrorism drama “Homeland,” the British crime series “Broadchurch” and J.J. Abrams’s sci-fi series “Fringe,” and more titles are coming soon.

Tie-in novels continue to produce revenue related to long defunct television series such as like Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Murder, She Wrote. Yet, despite the ability of these novels to make money, “ in literary circles, these books have often been ignored or sneered at as mere merchandise rather than art.” But that attitude is changing:

Lately, however, this long-maligned subgenre has taken on a patina of respectability. New writers are flocking to the form as television, in its new golden age, becomes an increasingly significant cultural medium. Rather than summarizing familiar stories, many tie-ins deliver original plot lines and subtle character development that go beyond what fans already know.

Writers of tie-in novels even have their own professional organization, the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers, which has about 250 members. Most of the writers say that they are not afraid to change some aspects of the television show or movie because their aim is to write a good novel rather than simply to produce a memento of the source material. Nonetheless, Alter reports, the job of writing tie-in novels “still has its drawbacks. The writers often labor under impossible deadlines; the pay is modest; and writers typically have no claim to the intellectual property rights.”

What Happened to Experimental Writing?

Even though the title mentions writing, I’m including this article here because I think the writer is really talking about experimental literature, a topic that readers are just as interested in as writers.

In a piece with an experimental structure (numbered paragraphs), Susan Steinberg riffs on experimental writing:

4. I am often asked what makes writing experimental, how one knows to classify work as such. In graduate school, now aware that all of my work would be funneled into this category, I accepted the difference and armored myself with a few rules. Experimental writing a) had to be inventive or had to bend or advance or subvert preexisting approaches to writing, b) had to seriously take into account the possibilities of form and/or structure and/or syntax and/or language, and not just content, and c) could not just look different on the page.

Be sure to read the whole essay on how and why Steinberg undertakes to experiment with her writing. Or take a look at her recent book, Spectacle.

15 Things Only Contemporary Literature Lovers Know, Other Than The Fact That Rules Don’t Matter

Laura I. Miller admits that, as an undergraduate literature student, she was originally committed to reading the traditional canon, those hidebound works by “dead white guys”: “These were the kinds of authors who earned respect in the literary world.” Then, in a graduate creative writing class, she discovered contemporary literature: “I learned that everything I’d been taught about writing wasn’t even close to gospel.”

For some good reading recommendations, see the 15 lessons that reading contemporary has taught her:

  1. [No] Subject Is Taboo.
  2. Point of View Is Flexible.
  3. All Voices Are Valid.
  4. Structure Knows No Limits.
  5. Apocalypses Are Hot!.
  6. You Might Not “Get It,” and That’s Okay.
  7. Mixed Media Is All the Rage.
  8. Time Is Not Linear.
  9. Slang Is All Good.
  10. Non-Human Perspectives? Why Not?!.
  11. Genre Tropes Are Up For Grabs.
  12. There Will Be Depth.
  13. Gender Roles Suck.
  14. Print Is Alive and Well.
  15. Small Presses Rock.

Of Miller’s 15 points, these three resonate the most with me because they all relate to structure as an important characteristic in contemporary literature:

2. Point of View Is Flexible.
One of the dicta of classical literature was that a work must have unity, and one area that demanded such unity was point of view. This meant that whatever point of view opened a book must continue throughout the entire work. But now we know that there’s more than one way to look at an event or an idea, and that realization has led to the frequent necessity of multiple points of view, because …

3. All Voices Are Valid.
There are as many sides to any story as there are participants; therefore, to understand a story fully we must look at all sides. This realization has lead to some fascinating books employing multiple points of view (e.g., An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Possession by A. S. Byatt, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins).

8. Time Is Not Linear.
Because multiple narrators cannot all tell their stories simultaneously, contemporary authors interested in multiple points of view often experiment with structure to incorporate the all. A good example of this is David Mitchell’s brilliant novel Cloud Atlas. Many contemporary thrillers and mysteries also play with structure as their narration switches between the stories of the hunter and the hunted.

Three thousand reasons to choose your reading carefully

Beulah Maud Devaney muses in The Guardian on finishing her 1,000th book:

Assuming I live into my 90s (which my penchant for pasties and panic attacks suggests is unlikely), I will read just over 3,000 books in my lifetime – which doesn’t seem like an especially high number.

Noting that her aunt died of cancer at age 50, Devaney realizes that the reading time left to her is not unlimited and asks:

But what is a worthwhile read? If we can calculate how many books we will read in an uninterrupted lifetime, at what point should we draw the line? Life is short and books are long. We don’t get to read many of them and I’m starting to realise that some books don’t deserve to be among my theoretical 3,000. Life is too short for Martin Amis. Life is too short for Ayn Rand. Life is too short for 1,000-plus pages of Infinite Jest and life is too short to give Philip Roth another chance. I’m beginning to suspect that life might be too short for Virginia Woolf and John Updike. I’m undecided on whether life is long enough for George Eliot, but it’s definitely too short to miss out on Octavia Butler’s work because of being busy trying to like Joseph Heller.

Here’s part of her answer:

The books that deserve a place among my remaining 2,000 reads are those with an idea that excites me… . I’m going to spend more time reading authors I enjoy and relate to, either because of their use of language (Jackie Kay, Toni Morrison, Monique Roffey, Andrea Levy and Orhan Pamuk) or their subject matter (Jenni Fagan, Jhumpa Lahiri, HG Wells and Kazuo Ishiguro). In short; I’m going to demand more from the books I read. I’ve got 2,000 books left to read, at best, and I intend to be ruthless in choosing them.

I used to think that I had to finish every book I started. But sometime around my 40th birthday I, too, realized that the reading time left to me was not unlimited, since I had reached the midpoint of my expected lifespan. It was time to make my reading count, a commitment that has intensified since I’ve reached retirement age.

This is a main reason why I joined The Classics Club.

What about you? At what point in your reading life are you now? And what personal guidelines do you have for choosing which books to read and which ones to pass over? Do you finish every book you start? If not, how much do you have to read before you make the decision to stop? Please let us know in the comments.

“Books fall open, you fall in.” —David McCord

Related Post:

5 Inspiring Quotes to Wrap Up the Year

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

 

"Books fall open, you fall in"

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.

On Reading

The top 10 books about reading

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

E-Books Are Damaging Your Health

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:

  1. You’re missing out on important information.
  2. E-books get in the way of sleepytime.
  3. 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.

Related Post:

The Close Reading of Poetry

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

51 Of The Most Beautiful Sentences In Literature

For your reading enjoyment.

7 Reading Hacks To Improve Your Literary Skills

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:

  1. Don’t read in bed.
  2. Read alone.
  3. Read in print if possible.
  4. Underline.
  5. Take notes.
  6. Reread for clarity.
  7. Read aloud, or mouth along.

Related Posts:

The Psychology of Reading Affects How – and What – We Read

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?

Getting Lost in a Good Book

Getting Lost in a Good Book: Scientific Research on Reading

Have you ever gotten so absorbed in reading a novel that you lost track of time and of what was happening around you—-even, in fact, that there was a world around you outside of the one you were reading about? Most serious readers have had this experience, and science is trying to learn exactly how and why it happens.

Here’s the Scientific Reason Why You Get Lost in a Book describes recent research on the fiction feeling hypothesis. Scientists used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to study the brains of people who had read particular passages from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Some participants read “narratives with emotional contents,” which the study abstract describes as “fear-inducing … descriptions of protagonists’ pain or personal distress.”

The experiment found that readers of fear-inducing passages exhibited more “involvement of the core structure of pain and affective empathy” in the brain than did readers of neutral passages. The researchers concluded “the immersive experience was particularly facilitated by the motor component of affective empathy.”

The Bustle article, which says that the study report does not specify what passages from Harry Potter books were used in the research, offers a couple of passages from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that it thinks illustrate the difference between the two kinds of writing. The article goes on to say that this research “does showcase how books not only teach empathy, but the types of writing that can boost empathy even more.”

A novel look at how stories may change the brain reports on a 2013 study from Emory University:

“Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” says neuroscientist Gregory Berns, lead author of the study and the director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy. “We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.”

The study focused on changes in the brain that linger after people read a narrative. Participants read Pompeii, a 2003 novel by Robert Harris chosen because “It depicts true events in a fictional and dramatic way.” Over nine days participants read a passage from the novel in the evening, then underwent a fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) brain scan the following morning:

The results showed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, on the mornings following the reading assignments. “Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity,” Berns says. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.”

The researchers also noticed increased connectivity in areas of the brain associated with making representations of sensation for the body. (This is a phenomenon long recognized in sports: that visualizing an activity such as running, skiing, or swimming activates the neurons associated with that physical action.)

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” Berns says. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

This study showed that the neural effects of reading persisted for five days. Further research is necessary to determine exactly how long these neural effects last. But, Berns says, these results suggest that “your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain.”

A 2012 study (“Losing Yourself” in a Fictional Character Can Affect Your Real Life) found: “When you ‘lose yourself’ inside the world of a fictional character while reading a story, you may actually end up changing your own behavior and thoughts to match that of the character”:

Researchers at Ohio State University examined what happened to people who, while reading a fictional story, found themselves feeling the emotions, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses of one of the characters as if they were their own – a phenomenon the researchers call “experience-taking.”

According to Geoff Kaufman, who led the study as a graduate student at Ohio State, “Experience-taking changes us by allowing us to merge our own lives with those of the characters we read about.” But experience-taking can only occur when people are able “to forget about themselves and their own self-concept and self-identity while reading”—in other words, when they get lost in a book.

Not unexpectedly, one part of this research found that participants identified most strongly with protagonists in a story narrated in first person by a character the participants consider to be similar to themselves. The researchers then wondered what would happen if readers didn’t learn that a character was not similar to themselves until late in the story. To find out, they divided 70 heterosexual male students into three groups. Each group read one of three versions of the same story: “one in which the character was revealed to be gay early in the story, one in which the student was identified as gay late in the story, and one in which the character was heterosexual.” Students who learned early in the story that the character was gay reported little or no experience-taking. But students who had read the version of the story that reveals the character as gay late in the narrative reported the same level of experience-taking as students who had read about a heterosexual character.

The research revealed a more significant finding:

Those who read the gay-late narrative also relied less on stereotypes of homosexuals – they rated the gay character as less feminine and less emotional than did the readers of the gay-early story.

“If people identified with the character before they knew he was gay, if they went through experience-taking, they had more positive views – the readers accepted that this character was like them,” Kaufman said.

Lisa Libby, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University, says that experience-taking is different from perspective-taking, in which people try to imagine another person’s thoughts without losing sight of themselves: “Experience-taking is much more immersive – you’ve replaced yourself with the other.”

The other important aspect of such immersive experience-taking is that it’s spontaneous: it happens naturally under the right circumstance. And it’s a process that happens outside of our conscious awareness, which is exactly why we call it getting lost in a good book.

In a 2013 article (How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation) researchers from The Netherlands reported on studies exploring what they call transportation theory. They hypothesized that when people read fiction and are emotionally transported into the story, they become more empathic. Their results supported this hypothesis: “Two experiments showed that empathy was influenced over a period of one week for people who read a fictional story, but only when they were emotionally transported into the story.” People who were not emotionally transported into the story and others who read nonfiction instead of fiction did not exhibit increased empathy.

So what does all this research on the phenomenon of getting lost in a good book mean? What Hephzibah Anderson says in a recent article for the BBC (Bibliotherapy: Can you read yourself happy?) seems to sum it all up: “We think of novels as places in which to lose ourselves, but when we emerge, we take with us inspiration from our favourite characters.” Our experiences reading fiction can change both our attitude and our behavior toward people who are different from ourselves.

Why I’ll Continue to be a Slow Reader

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.

JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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?

On Active Reading

Related Post:

 

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

Literary Life Stories: The Character Biography

 

Related Posts:

Although the concept of life story originated in the field of psychology, where it pertains to real people, every major fictional character also has a life story. Good writers create memorable characters by building a character’s full life story before beginning to write their novel or short story. The character’s life story then becomes the back story against which the novel unfolds. By looking at some guidelines for writers about how to create characters, readers can learn how to evaluate and appreciate the writer’s craft.

Mia Botha instructs writers on creating their work’s main character, or protagonist, in an article appropriate entitled The Character Biography:

All authors start with an idea. It could be plot first or character first. It doesn’t matter. But, if something happened, it happened to someone. And this is where my character biography begins. I start out with perhaps a paragraph of the things I know about this person. I add details as my first draft progresses.

The character biography, Botha writes, contains three parts:

  1. the physical.
  2. the sociological.
  3. the psychological.

She says that she writes down the character’s biography before starting her novel, then rereads and, if necessary, rewrites it every few thousand words as her manuscript progresses.

Every protagonist needs an antagonist to provide the conflict necessary for a story to develop. Nancy Fulda advises writers on the types of possible antagonists, commonly known as villains, in Variations of Villainy:

Villains have their own priorities, goals, fears and aspirations. The more effectively you demonstrate these differences to the reader, the more compelling and believable your villains will become. The old adage, “Everyone’s the Hero of His Own Story” applies here.

Fulda describes five “basic personality types which frequently appear in villainous characters.” But while it’s useful for writers to know these basic types, Fulda points out, the types often overlap. It’s the writer’s job to flesh out these types with enough details to create a fully developed character. Readers will look for such details when evaluating whether a character is credible within the context of the novel.

When creating villains, it’s helpful to ask the same questions one asks when creating protagonists. What does this person yearn for? What does she fear? What is the best thing that could possibly happen to her? What can she least afford to lose?

For story purposes, a villain exists to oppose the protagonist. But for believability purposes, the villain exists as a being in his own right. Take time to discover who he is, and your stories will be richer for it.

Of course, not every detail of the character’s back story will find its way into the novel, but the writer must know those details in order to choose which ones to include. Great authors, says Botha, “know what is important for the reader and the story.”

Monday Miscellany

SEPTEMBER 2014’S BEST BOOKS: 12 FICTION MUST-READS FOR YOUR IMAGINATION TO RUN WILD THIS FALL

Cover: The Bone ClocksIt’s fall—the start of a new school year and the time for a new reading list. Morgan Ribera’s got you covered with a list of a dozen books to be published during September that will keep you reading at least until winter break.

My own copy of one of the books on her list, The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, just arrived yesterday. I’m also looking forward to another of her recommendations, The Secret Place by Tana French.

Celebrity writers pack the shelves as shops predict an autumn bonanza

The Guardian offers the U.K. outlook on this fall’s bonanza of novel publications.

A back-to-school reading list of classic literature

I expected a simple list of books from the folks at Oxford University Press, publisher of the Oxford World’s Classic series.

But they surprised me by using an “If you liked …, you might like …” Format. See what works of classic literature they recommend if you liked these books:

  • Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
  • Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
  • Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

N.Y.C. Chancellor Pushes for Schools to Reinstate Independent-Reading Time

Education Week, the go-to source for information about teaching, reports that “Carmen Fariña, the new schools chancellor in New York City, is bringing the specifics of classroom reading instruction back into the public eye.”

At issue is the inclusion of independent reading, also known as sustained silent reading (SSR), in the school day. Writer Liana Heitin here reports that there has been little research into and little media attention on the question of whether SSR is effective in improving reading achievement since a 2000 report by a national panel. This article includes a short history of the issue and links to other online resources.

The Inspiring Stories Behind 15 Classic Novels

According to Jack London, “You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.” London himself took the inspiration for The Call of the Wild (1903) from his time spent living in Canada and Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush when high-quality sled dogs – like those that feature in the book – were in impossibly high demand. The stories and inspirations behind fifteen more of literature’s most memorable titles are explained here:

An interesting list, ranging from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to Daphne Du Maurier’s The Birds.

46 Brilliant Short Novels You Can Read In A Day

The end of the year is approaching. If you’re worried about meeting your GoodReads challenge, BuzzFeed has a list of books that weigh in at around 200 or fewer pages each that will allow you to pad your stats.

Cut it out, Ian McEwan: there are plenty of great long novels

Author Ian McEwan caused some consternation with a recent statement that “”very few really long novels earn their length.” In The Guardian Alison Flood points out:

It’s the Americans McEwan appears mainly to be blaming for this – our friends on the other side of the Atlantic “still pursue the notion of a great American novel and it has to be a real brick of an object”, he says …

Flood disagrees with McEwan and offers her list of “novels that might weigh as much as a brick, but to which I’d never take a blue pencil”:

  • The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber. 864 page
  • The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. 656 pages
  • A Dance with Dragons by George RR Martin. 1016 pages
  • The Stand by Stephen King. 1,200 pages
  • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, 992 pages
  • The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. 608 pages

Here are some I’d add to her list:

  • Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. 514 pages (paperback)
  • Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. 514 pages
  • Middlemarch by George Eliot. 794 pages (paperback)
  • Ulysses by James Joyce. 732 pages (paperback)
  • The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. 568 pages
  • The Brothers K by David James Duncan. 645 pages (paperback)
  • Underworld by Don DeLillo. 827 pages

I don’t mind a long book just because it’s long, but I do get annoyed by a book that’s longer than it needs to be. Moo by Jane Smiley is my illustration of this category. The hardcover weighted in at only 414 pages, but it should have been cut by about one-third.

Monday Miscellany

Tragic fiction may leave you emotionally upset

Woman with KindleIt might seem logical that reading a sad fictional story would be less upsetting than reading a less sad but true story. But new research suggests this is not the case:

“Consumers may choose to read a tragic fictional story because they assume that knowing it was fictional would make them less sad than reading a less dramatic but true story,” said study authors Jane E.J. Ebert from Massachusetts based Brandeis University and Tom Meyvis from New York University.

This result makes perfect sense, though, to anyone who has ever been fully transported into the world of a well written novel.

”Our results suggest that while emphasising realism may increase sales, it does not necessarily increase satisfaction,” the authors concluded in a paper appearing in the Journal of Consumer Research.

THE 6 REACTIONS BOOK-LOVERS HAVE TO PEOPLE WHO DON’T READ

You know the scenario: You’re chatting with someone you’ve just met, and you naturally ask what the other person likes to read. And he or she replies, “I don’t read.”

Fortunately, it doesn’t happen too often. But when it does happen, here are some animated GIFs that illustrate your possible reactions to someone who doesn’t engage in an activity that you consider second only to breathing.

Marine Turned Novelist Brings Brutal, Everyday Work Of War Into Focus

“Every inch of that place, every grain of sand, wanted desperately to kill us.”

That’s a line from a compelling new novel about the Iraq War, written by former Marine Michael Pitre.

Pitre was a history and creative writing major at Louisiana State when he joined the Marines after Sept. 11. He became an officer and served two tours in Iraq’s Anbar province working in logistics and communications.

NPR interviews the author of the new novel Fives and Twenty-Fives, which follows an American road repair crew and bomb disposal team in Iraq.

Oldest Public Library in the Nation in Danger of Closing

For more than two centuries, the Darby Free Library has remained both a vital part of its community as well as a historical landmark. Built in 1743 by Quakers, it remains the oldest public library in the nation. But a financial crisis has left it in danger of shutting down by the end of the year.

10 Books You Should Read Before Graduating College

Note:
The former English teacher in me cannot refrain from commenting: You don’t “graduate college”; you “graduate FROM college.”

When I was in college, I didn’t have time to read much of anything that wasn’t required for one of my classes. But Radhika Sanghani, author of the novel Virgin, did: “I have a few books I’d recommend. All of them helped me through the student-to-adult transition when I left college a few years ago, and I still re-read them for pleasure, comfort and some good old-fashioned perspective.”

Why does she recommend these books?

Because, college is a bubble. Whichever one you choose to study at, chances are your entire life becomes based around the same people, lecture halls and bars. For me, reading was the best way to get out of that bubble and remember there was a wider world out there that I was just about to enter and should probably know a little bit about.

So check out her list, which she describes as “a mixture of good classics, contemporary reads, and a little bit of self-help for a time when you really need it.”

Monday Miscellany

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Harry Potter boxed setSure, Harry Potter destroyed the evil Lord Voldemort. But, aside from making lots of money for book publishers and film studio/theme-park conglomerates, what has the wizard done for us lately?

In fact, he has been helping to reduce prejudice.

That’s the conclusion of research just published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. It finds that, among young people, reading J.K. Rowling’s book series—and, crucially, identifying with the lead character—can reduce bias toward stigmatized minority groups.

We’ve seen a lot of studies about how reading fiction can increase self-understanding and empathy, but now there’s scientific evidence that it can also reduce prejudice.

Tom Jacobs does a good job here of explaining this research and comparing it with earlier research on whether reading literature can reduce racism.

The Scourge of “Relatability”

What do people mean when they say that they relate to a character in a literary work? Rebecca Mead tackles that question in The New Yorker:

Whence comes relatability? A hundred years ago, if someone said something was “relatable,” she meant that it could be told—the Shakespearean sense of “relate”—or that it could be connected to some other thing. As recently as a decade ago, even as “relatable” began to accrue its current meaning, the word remained uncommon. The contemporary meaning of “relatable”—to describe a character or a situation in which an ordinary person might see himself reflected—first was popularized by the television industry.

With bold insight Mead differentiates between identification with a character—an active process in which the reader engages with the artistic work—and relating to a character—a response in which the “reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play.” Relatability is a mere self-reflection, while identification requires “the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy.”

Send Yourself Flying: 3 Books For An Out Of Body Experience

Characters don’t need to become better people by the final page of a book, but I do hope they change. I read to experience another world, and characters are often most tangible when they undergo transitions.

In some books, that change is an actual physical transformation. Characters stop being human, and become transfigured. If the writer is successful, they pull the audience into that metamorphosis. Here are three books about characters not bound by their bodies.

See what books Nick Ripatrazone recommends for a transformative experience.

Book Buzz: ‘Ulysses’ to become virtual reality game

James Joyce’s Ulysses is one of the greatest books in literature, and it is also one of the hardest to read. Irish filmmaker Eoghan Kidney is crowdfunding a creative solution to this problem: A virtual reality video game that allows the reader to experience the book as the protagonist.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry over this. I really don’t.

10 of the Most Depressing Places in Literature

“here are a selection of other depressing places and the writers they inspired,” including Dickens’s London, Orhan Pamuk’s Turkey, and Truman Capote’s Holcomb, Kansas.

The Goldfinch: who should direct and star in the movie?

The excitement surrounding The Goldfinch seems to have no end in sight. When it’s not it being lauded with the Pulitzer prize, it’s crowds flocking to see the original artwork by which Donna Tartt’s novel was inspired, or articles praising the book as one of the best of the year. Now the inevitable movie version is on its way – it doesn’t even have a director, a screenwriter or a cast yet, but at this rate it’s becoming one of the most hyped movies-to-be of the year.

Check the comments section to see answers from U.K. readers to The Guardian’s questions.