On Reading

I Read Only Books by Women For a Year: Here’s What Happened

A constant topic of literary criticism (in both senses of criticism) is that the Western canon is populated by an over-abundance of dead White guys and that we don’t read or even hear about enough authors from the margins of society (e.g., women, people—especially women—of color, LGBT people, non-Western people). Here Dallas Taylor talks about his year (from November 2013 to the end of 2014) of reading books only by women (with a couple of exceptions for which you can check his footnote): “for a solid year I read almost exclusively women, from a wide range of backgrounds.”

Taylor says he undertook this project as a writer, because he was working on a novel with three female characters and he wanted to make them as realistic as possible. Yet his year of reading women authors affected him most as a reader and as, well, a human being:

So, how did it change me as a reader? It’s subtle, but it’s there. I find myself more attuned to characters now, whether they feel like real people or just vessels caught in a narrative tide. I’m more interested in narratives whose conflicts don’t revolve around violence. I’m less willing to suspend disbelief for the rule of cool. To some extent this is just a natural extension of my evolution as a reader and writer, but I can definitely feel the influence of my year of reading women.

And while Taylor is quick to say that you don’t have to change your reading habits if you don’t want to, he advises you to examine your motivations if the thought of reading only women authors for a while makes you angry. He hits the nail on the head when he says that what makes us the angriest is probably the very thing we fear most.

But if you do decide to devote some time to reading books by women, he’s got you covered with quite a substantial list of recommendations.

Male Science-Fiction Authors Discuss The Women Writers Who Influenced Them

“The most important political problem in the modern world is the position of women. I think all of the other oppressions, whether it be homophobia, whether it be racism, or what have you, are all modeled on the oppression of women.”

That’s acclaimed author Samuel R. Delany, speaking about the role women have played in the genres of science-fiction and fantasy

Rafi Schwartz introduces a video created by HeForShe, a project of the United Nations’ UN Women division, which focuses on engaging men and boys around issues of gender inequality. Schwartz writes:

With its frequent bent toward the aspirational— by describing worlds that should be rather than the one that is (in this case, the one that is inherently biased against women)–the genres of science-fiction and fantasy make a natural home for authors whose voices might otherwise be marginalized.

He concludes that highlighting the foundational roles of women in science fiction and fantasy can provide a beginning toward addressing issues of gender equality that continue to affect society.

What Not to Worry About in Teaching Young Children to Read

We’ve all heard about the importance of reading to young children, but are there other approaches we should be taking to raise eager readers? Here Jessica Lahey talks with Daniel T. Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, about his new book Raising Kids Who Read.

Here are some of Willingham’s key points:

  • For young children, learning speech sounds is more important than learning to recognize letters. Books that use a lot of alliteration and rhyme, such as Dr. Suess and Mother Goose, are good for this.
  • Starting to read at early doesn’t give a child a later advantage in reading comprehension.
  • As children grow, make sure they know that leisure reading is different from reading for school.
  • Most important, parents should model good reading habits for their children.

At the end of the article is a link to a free excerpt of Dr. Willingham’s book.

War of words sidelines Seattle’s ‘City of Literature’ bid

What a sad story this is. The city of Seattle, WA, had applied for designation as a City of Literature. “The UNESCO City of Literature program is an international designation awarded to cities that show a fervent interest in literature, publishing and other forms of written expression.”

Seattle writer Ryan Boudinot has lead the effort as executive director of the nonprofit organization Seattle City of Literature. But Boudinot recently published an opinion piece titled Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One. In that piece he made several controversial remarks:

  • “Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don’t.”
  • “If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.”
  • “If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.”

But the remark that got Boudinot into the most trouble was this one:

“For the most part, MFA students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy. They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their reflective essay excuses its technical faults. Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable.”

Attacking graduate writing programs is one of those topics among writers and critics that just won’t go away. Boudinot should have expected the ****storm that has descended upon him because of his remarks.

But the saddest result is that the rest of the Seattle City of Literature board has resigned, leaving the city’s application for City of Literature designation hanging. If you’re dying to know how this whole situation worked itself out, follow the links in this article.

The Perils of Re-Reading

Whenever I get to feeling a bit down on humanity, I reread Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and get my faith in my fellow man restored.

In this article on BookRiot, Susie Rodarme explains that she used to reread her favorite books a lot, until a few years ago when she started to notice flaws on rereading her favorite series, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. Then the same thing happened with Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris.

Here’s what she’s learned from all this:

I’m happy to report that my re-read of All the Pretty Horses went swimmingly, while a re-read of Prodigal Summer left me a bit wanting. What I’ve learned is that re-reading comes with responsibility if you want to continue enjoying your favorite books. You can overdo it. You can see them in a less flattering light.

I guess I probably don’t reread as much as Rodarme does. The only book I’ve read lots and lots of times is the aforementioned Mockingbird. Recently I joined The Classics Club  not only to fill in the gaps in my lifelong reading list, but also to reread some of the books from my earlier years, such as “Anne of Green Gables”. For me, the key to enjoying a reread is to allow enough time between reads that I remember the general outlines of the story but not the details of how it was written. In this way I get to experience the local pleasures of how the book is written while at the same time noticing new clues that contribute to the overall story.

What about you? Do you reread books, or does rereading spoil them for you?

Reading in Flow

Related Posts:

Flow and the Reading Process

If you’ve ever had the experience of getting lost in a good book, you’ve experienced flow. Csikszentmihalyi’s general characteristics of flow describe this experience. The key to flow is complete absorption in an activity. For readers, the flow experience means that they enter a new reality, the world they create from the text.

woman readingOne characteristic of reading in flow is that we gradually enter the fictive world we’re reading about. All sense of awareness of the real world around us slips away as we enter a new dimension. In other words, reading in flow occurs outside of our conscious awareness. As soon as we start to think about what is happening, we are bounced out of the fictive world back into our real world. For this reason the process of reading in flow is difficult to talk about and even more difficult to study. Nevertheless, researchers continue to try to devise ways of studying how we read. Here’s a summary of their hypotheses about how the reading process works.

Gerrig has extensively studied the cognitive processes involved in the reading process. He uses the phrase narrative world to refer to the situation model readers create while reading. Like Rosenblatt, Gerrig sees reading as a transactional process: The reader interacts with the text to construct the narrative world, and the narrative world completes the transaction by reconstructing the reader. This mutual exchange becomes a continual process through which the reader creates and revises the situation model as long as the flow experience continues. This process takes place outside of conscious awareness.

In creating the narrative world, the reader interacts with verbal clues provided by the text. These textual clues focus and direct the reader’s attention by activating some of the “magnetic fields,” what Csikszentmihalyi calls the “bits of information” stored in the brain. The textual clues forge associations between these various mental constructs, and from these associations the reader continuously constructs the narrative world through what Copland calls cognitive mobility. These processes move both backward and forward in the sense that readers are able to hold in abeyance contrary or ambiguous suggestions of meaning that later details may either confirm or preclude.

One means by which textual clues focus and direct the reader’s attention is foregrounding, the use of “unusual linguistic features … to place emphasis on the form of the text, prompting a fresh perspective on the meaning of the text (Emmott, Sanford, & Dawydiak, p. 206). Aspects of foregrounding include direct juxtaposition of concepts, linguistic techniques such as simile and oxymoron, and stylistic techniques such as rhythm, rhyme, sentence length, sentence structure, and paragraph length.

The field of psycholinguistics attempts to study foregrounding by examining depth of processing as a way to determine the amount and kind of detail readers notice while reading. The main method for examining depth of processing is anomaly testing, which presents readers with questions such as this one: “After an aircrash, where should the survivors be buried?” Most readers, according to Emmott and colleagues, will consider the question of where burial should occur without noticing that survivors would not be buried at all. This is an example of shallow processing.

A newer experimental technique for studying depth of processing, the text change detection method, presents study participants with a textual passage, withdraws the passage for an interval of 100 to 500 milliseconds, then presents a text passage again. In some cases the second passage of text is identical to the first (control condition), while in other cases the second passage differs from the first by one word. Participants are asked whether the second passage is the same as or different from the first. Using this technique, the researchers found that stylistic devices (such as sentence structure and paragraph formatting) often used to foreground details did increase readers’ depth of processing. However, the researchers also found that, contrary to their expectation, narratological cues (such as an announcement that upcoming events were important or surprising) decreased rather than increased the amount of detail that readers noticed.

Another method that literary texts use for focusing the reader’s attention is conceptual blending, described by Copland and by Freeman. In conceptual blending, elements from two different domains are brought together in a way that highlights both their similarities and their differences; in creating the blend, readers construct a third entity that incorporates both the similarities and the differences. Through this “typically unconscious process” (Copland, p. 140) readers constantly build and rebuild their situation model of the narrative world: “the theory of conceptual blending is particularly powerful in revealing the ways in which the embodied mind articulates the many dimensions of human experience … through language” (Freeman, p. 107).

Both of these textual techniques for focusing readers’ attention—foregrounding and conceptual blending—work through defamiliarization and refamiliarization. Both techniques present readers with two items, A and B. By associating A with B, the text leads readers to see A in a new and different way. In other words, the text causes readers to defamiliarize themselves with their usual, or automatic, concept of A and then to construct a revised concept for A that includes the new element acquired from the comparison with B; this latter process is called refamiliarization. Through these interlocking processes of defamiliarization and refamiliarization, readers continuously create and re-create meaning from the text. Such cognitive processes produce the intentional ordering of consciousness that Csikszentmihalyi says constitutes flow.

In general, the cognitive processes at work during reading in flow probably are similar in all people. However, as reader-response literary theory hypothesizes, all individuals bring their own personal history of experiences to their reading. (Also see Rosenblatt ). Miall proposes that what directs each person’s unique transaction with a given literary text is affect, or emotion. He defines affect broadly:

For the purpose of this article I will understand affect to denote the subjective experience of emotions and feelings, including (necessarily for my argument) feelings that have little or no cognitive content but which operate immediately as judgements, preferences, and the like. (Beyond the Schema Given)

He further describes three characteristics of affect: (1) it is self-referential; that is, it allows readers to apply experiential and evaluative aspects of their self-concept to the task of reading; (2) it enables cross-domain categorization of text elements in processes such as foregrounding and conceptual blending; and (3) it is anticipatory and prestructures a reader’s understanding of the meaning of a text early in the reading process.

Other researchers also point out the role that affect plays in reading. For example, van Peer reports that studies have shown that an accumulation of foregrounding devices has an affective impact on the reader. Freeman says that any theory about how the reading process works must account for both intentionality and feeling. Gold writes that literature allows our brains to combine memory, language, and emotion: “The defining characteristic of fiction and poetry, the power of literature to influence, entertain, help and illuminate, resides in its ability to call forth feeling along with thought in the reader” (p. 19). Affect works, according to Miall, by activating in the reader “vectors of concern” that resonate with the reader’s current concerns about the self.

Another condition that Csikszentmihalyi identifies as necessary for flow is a balance between the demands of the task and a person’s skill level. Both Csikszentmihalyi and Gerrig suggest that all people without some form of brain impairment (organic brain disorder or attentional deficits) have the cognitive processes necessary for experiencing narrative worlds—or reading in flow. Many people read in flow naturally, without any special training beyond the rudiments of learning to read. However, it is possible to court flow and to become more proficient at it by studying techniques of literary criticism and, perhaps more important, by reading widely.

The example of a reader who finds a rose in a fictive world may explain how the flow process of reading functions and can be enhanced. The rose has become a common literary symbol for love because its beautiful appearance and pleasant aroma suggest the positive attributes of the human emotion of love. But the same stem that supports the beautiful flower also bears, lower down, thorns meant to protect the flower from being picked. The beautiful flower thus becomes associated with the potential pain involved in trying to obtain it. Logically, this new attribute contradicts the previous pleasant associations of the rose, but affectively most readers comprehend the aptness of this symbol for the mixture of pleasure and pain involved in love. In addition, a rose eventually opens too wide and surpasses its point of fullest beauty; the petals of the full-blown rose soon begin to die and fall off, further suggesting that, like all living things, the perfect rose contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Moreover, readers who know other literary works that present a rose as a symbol of love—such as Robert Burns’s famous poem “My love is like a red, red rose” or William Faulkner’s story “A Rose for Emily”—will make associations between the rose imagery in those works and the current image. In this way the current appearance of the rose will acquire additional layers of symbolic resonance for readers whose previous exposure to literature provides them with many available concepts for rose.

Benefits of Reading in Flow

Although Csikszentmihalyi believes that achieving the flow state is its own reward, there are, nevertheless, benefits of reading in flow. Some researchers look to brain functioning to explain how reading enhances readers’ lives. Miall, for example, says that because the brain’s right hemisphere appears to play an important role in mediating one’s self concept and also in literary response, “literature may offer one of the most significant vehicles for development and change in the self.”

Joseph Gold, who is both a licensed therapist and a professor of literature, believes that reading narrative fiction contributes to personal development in two ways: (1) by activating the pre-frontal cortex and the temporal lobes, the major language centers of the brain, and (2) by assisting in the building of personal identity in narrative form. It is fiction’s ability to engage both cognition and affect that gives it its power to help us “reorganize and rethink our ways of seeing and thinking about things” (p. 36). Such reorganizing and rethinking is called reframing, and it allows us to imagine alternative contexts. As Copland explains, the mental processing that occurs during reading acts as “a mental gymnasium in which through reading, we can exercise new modes of being in the world and new modes of world-making” (p. 158).

Reading can especially help readers in dealing with negative feelings and negative self-concept issues by placing such feelings in a critical context with other feelings and ideas; this new context allows readers to better understand those negative feelings. By taking readers outside of immediate experience, fiction can give them the distance necessary to understand and control a situation. On a more concrete level, Nell writes that reading can provide the opportunity for “the covert rehearsal of real-life coping strategies” (p. 245). The extent to which a work of literature can transform a reader’s concept of self depends upon the concerns that result from that reader’s prior experience.

Bibliography

Copland, S. (2008). Reading in the blend: Collaborative conceptual blending in the Silent Traveller narratives. Narrative, 16(2), 140–162. Retrieved June 28, 2008, from Academic Search Elite database.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: Basic Books.

Emmott, C., Sanford, A. J., & Dawydiak, E. J. (2007). Stylistics meets cognitive science: Studying style in fiction and readers’ attention from an interdisciplinary perspective. Style, 41(2), 204–224. Retrieved June 29, 2008, from Academic Search Elite database.

Freeman, M. H. (2006). Blending: A response. Language and Literature, 15(1), 107–117. Retrieved February 6, 2007, from Sage Publications Online database.

Gerrig, R. J. (1998). Experiencing narrative worlds: On the psychological activities of reading. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. (Original work published 1993)

Gold, J. (2001). Read for your life: Literature as a life support system. Markham, Ontario, Canada: Fitzhenry & Whiteside. (Original work published 1990)

Miall, D. S. (1989). Beyond the schema given: Affective comprehension of literary narratives. Cognition and Emotion, 3(1), 55–78. Retrieved October 20, 2007, from http://cogprints.org/688/0/Beyond_s.htm

Miall, D. S. (1995). Anticipation and feeling in literary response: A neuropsychological perspective. Poetics, 23, 275–298. Retrieved October 20, 2007, from http://cogprints.org/40/0/NEUROLIT.htm

Nell, V. (1988). Lost in a book: The psychology of reading for pleasure. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Rosenblatt, L. M. (1978). The reader, the text, the poem: The transactional theory of the literary work. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

van Peer, W. (2007). Introduction to foregrounding: A state of the art. Language and Literature, 16(2), 99–104. Retrieved May 4, 2007, from Sage Publications Online database.

 

© 2015 by Mary Daniels Brown

On Reading

Being a Better Online Reader

Maria Konnikova collects evidence and hypotheses about how the shift from print to online texts has changed the experience of reading. She begins with reference to Maryanne Wolf, whose book Proust and the Squid examines the history of the science and development of the reading brain from antiquity to the twenty-first century. Konnikova writes that after her book was published, she received hundreds of letters from readers: “a theme began to emerge: the more reading moved online, the less students seemed to understand.” Wolf decided that another book was necessary to investigate why use of online texts resulted in superficial reading.

Konnikova cites experts and research into how online reading changes the reading process:

  • Anne Mangen, a professor at the National Centre for Reading Education and Research at Norway’s University of Stavanger, believes that the reading device, whether a printed book or electronic screen, affects reading. With electronic devices, the intangibility, the layout of words, the scrolling screen (as opposed to the turning of printed pages), and the ability to click on hyperlinks makes the physiology of the reading experience different from that of a printed book. She also studies “how the format of reading material may affect not just eye movement or reading strategy but broader processing abilities.” She hypothesizes that people prefer printed books “because the nature of the object itself has deeper repercussions for reading and comprehension.”
  • KindleZiming Liu, professor at San Jose State University, researches digital reading and the use of e-books. A review of earlier studies that compared print and digital reading combined with his own research revealed several changes in the reading process. When reading on screen, people tend to browse and scan for keywords, whereas on printed pages they concentrate more on following the text more linearly: “Skimming, Liu concluded, had become the new reading.” When skimming, readers do not stop to think about what they’re reading. Further, we tire more easily when reading on a computer screen because of the constant effort to filter out distractions like hyperlinks, and our eyes may fatigue easily because of the need to readjust to frequently changing layouts, colors, and contrasts.
  • Mary Dyson, a psychologist at the University of Reading who studies how we perceive and interact with typography and design, has found that the layout of a text can significantly affect the reading process. When lines of text on a screen are too long, moving the eyes from one line to the next becomes more difficult. We read more efficiently when text is arranged in a single column rather than in multiple columns or section. Even the font, color, and size of text all affect the reading experience. All of these parameters can change more quickly on a screen than in print, and the mental and physical effort of adjusting to these changes can make electronic reading harder than print reading.

One of Wolf’s concerns is that digital formats negatively affect the “sophisticated comprehension processes” of what she calls deep reading:

“Reading is a bridge to thought,” she says. “And it’s that process that I think is the real endangered aspect of reading. In the young, what happens to the formation of the complete reading circuitry? Will it be short-circuited and have less time to develop the deep-reading processes? And in already developed readers like you and me, will those processes atrophy?”

However, it’s possible that the ability to focus attention rather than reading ability is what suffers in digital reading. Some research has found that people who read on devices not connected to the Internet achieve the same comprehension and retention of material as people who read printed books.

Why reading and writing on paper can be better for your brain

This article complements the previous one nicely. Here Tom Chatfield reports in The Guardian on research into how writing by hand—with pen or pencil on paper—differs from typing on a computer.

Since writing and reading are necessarily intimately related, Chatfield begins with some recent research into digital reading:

  • writingIn her new book Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, linguistics professor Naomi Baron presents results of a survey of reading preferences conducted among 300 university students in the U.S., Japan, Slovakia, and Germany: “92% of respondents replied that it was hard copy that best allowed them to concentrate.”
  • Researchers Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer compared the effectiveness among students of writing longhand notes vs. typing on a laptop: “Their conclusion: the relative slowness of writing by hand demands heavier ‘mental lifting,’ forcing students to summarise rather than to quote verbatim – in turn tending to increase conceptual understanding, application and retention.”
  • At Indiana University, psychologist Karin James conducted a study with five-year-old children who did not yet know how to read or write. She asked the children to reproduce a letter or shape by typing into a computer, drawing onto a blank sheet of paper, and tracing over a dotted outline. “ When the children were drawing freehand, an MRI scan during the test showed activation across areas of the brain associated in adults with reading and writing. The other two methods showed no such activation.”

Yet, as Chatfield points out, while writing on paper may have benefits over typing, computers offer us the ability to conduct research and to gather and collate information. He concludes:

Above all, it seems to me, we must abandon the notion that there is only one way of reading, or that technology and paper are engaged in some implacable war.

Reading Addict: The Scientific Effects Of A Damn Good Book On Your Brain

In this recent article Lauren Martin refers to a 2012 article, Your Brain on Fiction, in The New York Times by Annie Murphy Paul that reports on neuroscience research into how reading fiction affects the brain.

What I like about Martin’s article is that she offers a great description of what getting lost in a good book feels like. As Martin explains:

Reading about the struggles and triumphs of fictional characters has the power to make us understand our own struggles and the struggles of those around us better.

Through reading, we develop a strong “theory of mind,” which enables us to understand and comprehend the emotional cues of others as if we were experiencing the emotions ourselves.

If you’ve ever gotten lost in a good book, you know what Martin means:

Only reading can change your brain so much you literally feel like you’re in another world. Only fiction has the power to physically change your state of mind.

Only a good book can change your life and make you believe you’re experiencing life in another dimension.

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

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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.

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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.

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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

 

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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.”