On Reading

An old-school book lover in praise of the audiobook

Brian Howe admits, “I don’t always take easily to new technology.” He still doesn’t use an e-reader—not, he explains, as an ethical matter but because texts for his obscure reading tastes, like small-press poetry, are generally not available as e-books.

But, Howe says, he has become a fan of audiobooks. He started when a new job required a long commute. He started with genre fiction and with books he’d already read in print. Gillian Flynn’s “_Gone Girl_ was the turning point when audiobooks began to shed their guilty pleasure status.” He found the actors who read the parts of Nick and Amy so captivating that when he saw what he calls “the horridly miscast movie, I hated it, because those voice actors were Nick and Amy to me.”

I had a similar concern with the Harry Potter series. I’ve never read any of the books in print. I came to all of them through the captivating audio versions narrated by Jim Dale. Although Dale read the whole book himself, he used several voices for the various characters. When the first Harry Potter movie was set to debut, I wondered if Jim Dale’s reading would spoil the experience of hearing different voices by the actors in the movie. But it didn’t, even though I loved Dale’s reading.

For Howe, “The best audiobooks transcend mere recitations to become dramatic productions, somewhere between novels and plays.” Although I loved Jim Dale’s variety of voices, I prefer that approach of a single reader to more dramatic audio representations in which different actors voice the various characters. I find such representations slightly annoying because they break for me the feeling that I’m still “reading” a work of literature. Plays are good things, but I also love the fact of having a novel’s world build up in my head as I read. Audiobooks with multiple readers break that illusion for me by making a book seem more like a theatrical presentation than a novel.

But I am glad to read Howe’s admission that “Audiobooks will never replace reading for me, but they have become a unique, enriching annex of it.” I’ve never understood why many readers are so eager to think in dichotomies, forcing us to choose between print and e-books, and between reading and listening. Why do we have to choose just one? I have room in my own life for print books, e-books, and audiobooks. One isn’t inherently better than the others. They’re just different choices available to allow us to experience literature under different circumstances.

Is Literary Adaptation Better on Film or on Television?

M. King Adkins addresses a different question: Which is better, a film or a television adaptation of a book? Adkins cites the statistic that “between 1994 and 2013, 58 percent of the top grossing movies produced were some sort of adaptation (Novels into Films: The Metamorphosis of Fiction into Cinema, George Bluestone, 2003).”

When we read a novel, Adkins writes, we know the end is coming as the stack of pages under our right hand becomes thinner and thinner.

Television series, on the other hand just don’t resolve, at least not until they must. Instead, they actively avoid resolution, delaying it to the last possible moment: the finalé (and how many of those have turned out to be satisfying?)

And, Adkins continues, video games go television even one better by allowing us to participate in the acting out, and thereby the writing, of the narrative. This brings him to the following conclusion:

I doubt very much we will stop pushing the generic boundaries until it’s possible to plug our brains directly into the computer and live out an alternative existence. Mark my words: one of these days, you’ll notice, in fine print at the bottom of your vision, “This life is based on the book by…”

‘Writing America’ identifies our literary landmarks

In “Writing America,” Stanford professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin surveys the literary landscape, exploring the ways American writers have influenced, and been influenced by, their surroundings. Published on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Historic Preservation Act, the book traces the footsteps of William Faulkner, Allen Ginsberg, Zora Neale Hurston, Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe and many others.

4 Steps to Read Like a Writer

The Write Practice is a web site aimed at helping fiction writers get better at their craft. To be a good writer one must also be a good reader, and in this article Ruthanne Reid explains how to read like a writer. But even if you don’t aspire to write fiction, you can become a better reader.

According to Reid, there are four steps to reading like a writer:

(1) Marking passages that you find particularly moving while reading. You can’t analyze effective passages unless you can find them. For this Reid recommends—no surprise here—the use of sticky notes.

(2) Asking three big questions:

  • What was powerful?
  • Why was it powerful?
  • How did it achieve that power?

(3) Mimicking your favorite books. Practice writing in other writers’ styles so that you can discover your own.

(4) Practicing.

Read Reid’s explanations of how to perform these four steps to help you read like a writer.

Related material: Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. See especially the first chapter, entitled “Close Reading.”

Monday Miscellany

Ranking Cormac McCarthy’s Greatest Books

child of godI’m a week behind with this, but I include it here because Cormac McCarthy is an author I haven’t yet worked on, and I’m glad to have the suggestions offered here:

Trailing Philip Roth by a few months and Toni Morrison by two years, Cormac McCarthy (who turns 81 this weekend) is one of America’s greatest and most decorated writers. His cultural stock has risen immeasurably in the last decade — whether it’s the Coen brothers adapting No Country for Old Men and winning Best Picture at the Oscars for it, or his recent (disappointing) original screenplay for the Ridley Scott-directed film The Counselor, McCarthy has made the transition from great novelist to phenomenon. He’s continuously successful, but he’s never changed, and doesn’t show any signs of letting his advanced age soften him. His entire body of work includes screenplays, plays, and short fiction — but it’s his novels that remain his greatest achievement, so to celebrate his birthday, we rank the five McCarthy novels you must read (and if it helps, the order in which you should do it.)

Man Booker Prize longlist revealed with U.S. writers included for the first time

This was perhaps the biggest literary news of the past week:

The Man Booker prize longlist was revealed today with American authors in the running for one of literature’s top honours for the first time.

Organisers of the UK’s best-known fiction award – worth £50,000 to the winner – announced last year they were opening up the 46-year-old prize to writers of any nationality writing in English.

The American writers on the list include David Mitchell, David Nicholls, and Howard Jacobson.

The best literary hashtags on Twitter

Michele Filgate tells us, “some of the most interesting and useful hashtags on Twitter are designed to build community in the far-flung literary world.”

To join the community, take a look at these seven hashtags she explains.

Don’t read this book: A history of literary censorship

Banned Books Week pinLeo Robson takes a look at censorship through the lens of three recent books:

  • The Zhivago Affair: the Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée
  • The Most Dangerous Book: the Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham
  • The Rushdie Fatwa and After: a Lesson to the Circumspect by Brian Winston

13 Ways To Fit More Reading Into Your Day

Chances are that, if you’re reading this blog, you probably already know some of the tricks listed here.

However, I bet you’ll find something new in these suggestions by Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. If nothing else, you’ll get permission to stop reading a book that doesn’t grab you instead of soldiering through to the bitter end.

Our 8 favourite literary references on The Simpsons

Cable network FXX will run a non-stop marathon of all 552 episodes of The Simpsons from August 21 through September 1.

If you need a literary reason to justify watching or recording, here it is:

To mark the ultimate Simpsons marathon, we’re highlighting our favourite hilarious literary references that made their way onto the show in past years.

Celebrate International Women’s Day

International Women's Day
via internationalwomensday.com

Today is International Women’s Day.

And here, once again courtesy of the folks at The Scout Report, are some informative sites.

WomenWatch: UN Information and Resources on Gender Equality and Empowerment

The WomenWatch website is dedicated to providing “information and resources on gender equality and empowerment of women.” It is an initiative of the United Nations Inter-Agency Network on Women and Gender Equality (IANWGE) and the site is a veritable cornucopia of information on this vast and timely subject. In the Quick Links and Features, visitors can view the UN Gender Equality News Feed, which is a great way to get a sense of the main issues affecting women around the world. Moving on, the Documents and Publications area contains seminal reports such as “Seeing Beyond the State: Grassroots Women’s Perspectives on Corruption and Anti-Corruption.” Also, the News and Highlight s area contains links to partner organizations, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. These links include radio clips, news releases, and other key pieces of information.

From The Scout Report, Copyright Internet Scout 1994-2013. https://www.scout.wisc.edu/

Gifts of Speech: Women’s Speeches from Around the World

The Gifts of Speech site brings together speeches given by women from all around the world. The site is under the direction of Liz Linton Kent Leon, who is the electronic resources librarian at Sweet Briar College. First-time users may wish to click on the How To… area to learn how to navigate the site. Of course, the FAQ area is a great way to learn about the site as well, and it should not be missed as it tells about the origin story for the site. In the Collections area, visitors can listen in to all of the Nobel Lectures delivered by female recipients and look at a list of the top 100 speeches in American history as determined by a group of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Texas A & M Univ ersity. Users will also want to use the Browse area to look over talks by women from Robin Abrams to Begum Kahaleda Zia, the former prime minster of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.

From The Scout Report, Copyright Internet Scout 1994-2013. https://www.scout.wisc.edu/

International Museum of Women

This wonderful website provides information about and links to the exhibits curated by the International Museum of Women (IMOW). The goal of the Museum is “to inspire creativity, awareness and action on vital global issues for women.” The Museum, which exists online only, has a global council that includes prominent women like Zainab Salbi and Eve Ensler. First-time visitors should browse the Exhibition area, as it features rotating exhibits like “Curating Change.” This display features a wonderful set of women like Mahnaz Afkhami and Tiffany Dufu talking about leadership, community, and other pertinent topics. Users shouldn’t miss the Events area, as it contains information about the IMOW’s special events, along with information on past events and a community calendar. Educators, activists, and others will want to give the Community area close consideration. Here they will find ways to connect with other interesting people and powerful ideas from around the world. The site is rounded out by an in-house blog, “Her Blueprint.”

From The Scout Report, Copyright Internet Scout 1994-2013. https://www.scout.wisc.edu/

Harlan Coben in St. Louis: Part I

If you ever get a chance to see Harlan Coben in person, go for it. He was in St. Louis last weekend for Boucheron 2011.  As part of the book tour promoting his new book, Shelter, the introductory volume for his YA series featuring Mickey Bolitar, Coben spoke at St. Louis County Library.

He began by saying that the first question people always ask when they see him is, “How tall are you?” Answer: 6’ 4”.

With that issue out of the way, Coben turned to discussing his writing. He calls the kind of books he writes novels of immersion: the book you take on vacation, then stay in your hotel room to read; the book that you cannot put down. He doesn’t outline, but when he begins writing a book he knows the beginning and the end. He has two favorite quotations about writing:

  1. Elmore Leonard: I try to cut out all the parts you’d normally skip.
  2. E. L. Doctorow: Writing is like driving at night in the fog with your headlights on. You can only see a little bit ahead of you, but you can make the whole journey that way.

His writing process involves a lot of rewriting. “I don’t know any writer who gets it right the first time,” he said. When he sits down to write, he goes over everything he wrote the day before and polishes it. Then, when he has about 50 pages done, he prints out those pages and revises them. He estimates that, by the time he’s finished the first draft of the whole book, he’s probably rewritten the first chapter 10 times. During his revisions he focuses on Elmore Leonard’s notion of cutting out all the parts a reader might skip. “Every page, every paragraph, every sentence, every word, I ask myself, ‘Is this compelling? Is this gripping? Is this moving the story forward?’ And if it’s not, I have to get rid of it. I write as if there’s a knife at my throat and, if I bore you, I’m dead.”

Asked what writers he admires, he hesitated to answer for fear of leaving somebody’s name off the list. But he said that, on the Today show, he was recently asked to name four books or authors he likes that most people wouldn’t know about. He named these four:

  • Jeff Abbott’s Adrenaline
  • Steve Hamilton’s Alex McKnight series
  • Tana French, especially Faithful Place
  • Ann Packer, whose new book [Swim Back to Me] is a series of inter-connected stories and novellas

Coben concluded his talk with his philosophy of writing. Writing is about communication. A writer without a reader is like a man who claps with one hand. “Shelter was not  a book when I finished it. It’s a book when you read it. When one of you reads this book, a whole new universe comes to life—different from everybody else’s.”

I was pleased to hear him articulate reader-response theory like this. (He’s such a down-to-earth guy that he’d probably laugh off the word theory, but that’s what it is.) And this philosophy about his work isn’t just something he says. He also acted on it in the book signing session that followed his talk. He greeted each person who presented a book for signing, shook hands, and then came out from behind his table to pose for a quick photo with everyone who had a camera. You gotta love a writer who genuinely appreciates his readers like this.

Stay tuned for Part II on more of his writing process.

Book Review: Three new novels extend the beloved stories of Jane Austen

Book Review: Three new novels extend the beloved stories of Jane Austen – washingtonpost.com:

Fifteen years ago the name Jane Austen resonated mainly with earnest high school students and any of their elders who remembered the 1940 black-and-white ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ adapted by Aldous Huxley and starring Laurence Olivier. Then the literary tectonic plates shifted. Suddenly, Colin Firth and Hugh Grant, dressed in very tight britches and ruffled shirts, were pursuing Elizabeth Bennet (Jennifer Ehle) and Elinor Dashwood (Emma Thompson). The movies did more than please viewers; they inspired novelists to pursue the lead characters beyond the farewell kiss. Since that Jane hit the screen, dozens of sequels, prequels and alternative plots have been written for fans who could not bear to lose sight of Austen’s characters.

The shift continues. Novelists are now focusing on the effect that Jane has on readers and writers in the 21st century.

Brigitte Weeks discusses modern takes on the characters of Jane Austen in the Washington Post.

Book review: ‘This Book Is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All’

Book review: ‘This Book Is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All,’ by Marilyn Johnson – washingtonpost.com:

In researching her previous book, ‘The Dead Beat,’ which celebrates the pleasures of obituaries, Marilyn Johnson discovered that, with few exceptions, ‘the most engaging obit subjects were librarians.’ Motivated by ‘the idea that libraries were where it was happening — wide-open territory for innovators, activists, and pioneers,’ Johnson has now turned her attention to librarians, whom she refers to variously as ‘natural intelligence operatives’ and ‘enablers,’ with the good ones possessing ‘all of the skills and characteristics required for that work: curiosity, wide-ranging knowledge, good memories, organizational and analytical aptitude, and discretion.’

Each of the 12 chapters in ‘This Book Is Overdue’ highlights some dimension of contemporary librarianship in an information-overloaded world, including libraries on the digital frontier, library-related blogs, the riches of the New York Public Library and archivists working to preserve ‘what’s worth saving.’

From the Washington Post, a review of a book that will surely intrigue us all.

Most Literate Cities in the U. S.

Central Connecticut State University (CCSU): AMLC Home:

This study focuses on six key indicators of literacy: newspaper circulation, number of bookstores, library resources, periodical publishing resources, educational attainment, and Internet resources.

Seattle, Washington DC, and Minneapolis head the list. My hometown of nearly 40 years, St. Louis, came in at #11.

The year’s best mystery books

Books | The year’s best mystery books | Seattle Times Newspaper:

Seattle Times crime-fiction columnist Adam Woog’s picks for best mysteries of 2008 include works by Tana French, Alan Furst, P.D. James, John le Carré, Richard Price and other authors whose books will keep readers turning the pages well into 2009.