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Monday Miscellany

The Best Births In Literature

In honor of the birth last week of Britain’s Royal Heir, The Atlantic compiled this list of the five best birth scenes in literature.

Are there any others you’d add to this list?

Literature’s Fight Club

Cover: The Violet HourKatherine Hill, author of the recently published novel The Violet Hour, admits:

I have a thing for lovers’ quarrels—literary ones that is. There’s just nothing quite so dynamic, so conversant in so many emotional and moral registers, as a face-off between sworn intimates doing whatever it takes to win. It’s the proverbial car wreck, the horrific conflagration we can’t look away from, because the fire is actually kind of grand.

In college, I took a seminar called “Doomed Love in the Western World,” on troubled affairs throughout the ages: “Troilus and Criseyde,” “Antony and Cleopatra,” “Madame Bovary,” “Anna Karenina,” “Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” “The House of Mirth,” “The Satanic Verses,” “The Human Stain.” For years after, everything I read seemed to extend the conversation of that class. Social worlds might change, but love would always find agonizing new ways to die.

So when I set out to write my first novel, I had a tradition in mind. How does doomed love look in today’s affluent America, which wants to have its cake and eat it, too? Lavish weddings and gender equity, marching side by side.

Read her account of lovers’ quarrels in works of literature such as D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and of how she incorporated this theme into her own novel.

The Quirky World of E-Reading Apps

Dismayed by the recent news that Barnes & Noble will no longer manufacture its ereader, the Nook, Nook owner Greg Zimmerman began:

looking at and experimenting with the various e-reader apps available for iPad, Android, and Windows tablets. What I discovered is that they are mostly similar — text and background are all customizable, and they all offer the ability to bookmark, highlight text, and take notes. But none of them is perfect. Each has a quirk or two that would prevent it from being my new go-to e-reading app.

Read his report on the following alternatives to the Nook:

  • Nook and Kindle reading apps
  • iBooks
  • Overdrive
  • Bluefire

Resurrected from the archives: timeless women’s fiction

For decades, the label “women’s fiction” has unfairly cubbyholed worthy books. Seattle Public Library librarian David Wright rounds up recent reprints by Penelope Mortimer, E.M. Delafield and Shirley Jackson that showcase the nuance and insight of these novels.

Wright discusses the following books:

  • Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater
  • E.M. Delafield’s The Way Things Are
  • D.E. Stevenson’s Miss Buncle’s Book and Miss Buncle Married
  • Shirley Jackson’s The Road Through the Wall and Life among the Savages

All have been recently reissued and therefore shouldn’t be difficult to find.

My Favorite Fictional Detectives

Author Martin Walker writes:

It is striking how closely literary fiction echoes real events. The trenches of the First World War gave us the anti-war novel. The Cold War gave us the golden age of spy stories, on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The West had James Bond and John le Carre’s Smiley while the Russians had their Julian Semyonov. More recent events have given us the terrorist novel, with Tom Clancy straddling the sub-genres of terrorist nukes and terrorist bio-weapons.

But of all the genres, the detective story seems the most durable, perhaps because the tales are less about crime, more about character. For every cunning murder we recall, from death by icicle which melts to leave no traces to tea being stirred with an oleander twig, it is the detectives and the killers who stick in the mind.

From Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty to Hannibal Lecter and Clarice, the dance of detection is part of a dynamic that goes back to the dawn of humanity. The killer starts by being the hunter and then becomes the hunted.

His appreciation of detective fiction also incorporates the importance of setting. Check out his list of favorite fictional detectives, which includes most of the usual suspects as well as some lesser known ones.

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Actors Today Don’t Just Read for the Part. Reading IS the Part.

The digital revolution has contributed to the dramatic rise in audiobooks:

Once a small backwater of the publishing industry, in part because of the cumbersome nature of tapes, audiobooks are now flourishing. Sales have been rising by double digits annually in recent years. A recent survey by industry groups showed that audiobook revenue climbed 22 percent in 2012 compared with 2011.

And the increased popularity in audiobooks has, in turn, created a need for readers. Here’s the story of how actors are filling this need. Some even make this reading work their primary employment.

Can games change minds?

new research suggests that thinking about stereotypical and nonstereotypical trait pairings increases social identity complexity, a psychological construct linked to “tolerance of outgroup members.” In other words, the more often we are reminded that not all computer scientists are male, that an insurance underwriter can also be a legendary game designer, and that artists can also be tennis players, the more we internalize the degree to which people belong to multiple, nonconvergent social groups, and the closer we feel to those who are members of social groups that differ from our own.

This article describes how playing games can battle stereotypical thinking, but reading literature can produce the same effect.

Five science fiction novels for people who hate SF

Like any enduring cultural experiment, science fiction has evolved its own codes, its own logic. Some of the genre’s most intense and visionary work talks in a shared language of concepts that can be hard for the uninitiated to penetrate – works Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren or James Tiptree Jr’s Ten Thousand Light Years From Home, for instance, would be a forbidding place to start. But if you want to catch up with the literature of our shared future then where can you begin?

I didn’t grow up reading science fiction, as many people I know did. But recently I’ve realized that good science fiction isn’t really about the futuristic stuff, but rather about the state of contemporary culture. Nonetheless, learning to appreciate the background and tropes of this type of literature can be daunting.

Read why Damien Walter recommends these novels as good places to start:

  • The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
  • Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin
  • The Player of Games by Iain M Banks
  • China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F McHugh

To  Walter’s list I’d add a couple of other books that illustrate how science fiction explores social and cultural issues:

  • Kindred by Octavia Butler
  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Do you have others titles to add to this list?

What Makes a Work of Art Seem Dated?

Tom Vanderbilt turns to a science fiction movie in answering the following questions:

What actually makes a work of art—a film, a novel, architecture, fashion—seem “dated”? The Web site of Merriam-Webster defines dated as “outmoded, old-fashioned.” And yet, this lacks explanatory power; every historical artifact (not to mention some that are new and “already dated”) could fall under that rubric. Why do some things seamlessly slip from their temporal context? When does something cross from historically appropriate to “dated”? And is there a time window for datedness, a kind of reverse statute of limitations, beyond which things are doomed by their historical patina?

Vanderbilt says that after a recent viewing of the 1979 film Mad Max he found the movie “remarkably fresh,” as if it could have been made last week:

the movie is not moored to any time. It opens with the vague phrase “A few years from now,” and, rather than any trappings of the fetishized future, “Mad Max” looks backward. At the end of the day, with its lone frontier rider trying to preserve order, it is a Western, with muscle cars. The costumes, the soundtrack, the peculiar mutterings of the outlaws (“Joviality is a game of children”) are at once familiar and slightly out of joint.

Vanderbilt goes on to define datedness as “a sort of overdetermined reliance on the tropes, whether of subject or style, of the day—a kind of historical narcissism.”  He discusses how director Alfred Hitchcock went out of his way to avoid including things that would make his films seem dated; perhaps this is one reason why Hitchcock’s films remain so effective today.

And the best way for science fiction to avoid becoming dated? “As [writer William] Gibson has written, the best way to write about the future is to write about the present.”

Younger Americans’ Library Habits and Expectations

The Pew Research Center offers some encouraging findings about library use among younger Americans:

Younger Americans—those ages 16-29—exhibit a fascinating mix of habits and preferences when it comes to reading, libraries, and technology. Almost all Americans under age 30 are online, and they are more likely than older patrons to use libraries’ computer and internet connections; however, they are also still closely bound to print, as three-quarters (75%) of younger Americans say they have read at least one book in print in the past year, compared with 64% of adults ages 30 and older.

I was particularly interested in these statistics:

  • Younger Americans are also more likely than older adults to have read a printed book in the past year: 75% of younger Americans have done so, compared with 64% of older adults.
  • Younger adults are also more likely than their elders to use libraries as quiet study spaces. Moreover, they are just as likely as older adults to have visited libraries, borrowed printed books, and browsed the stacks of books.


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Ann Aguirre Speaks Out on Sexism in Science Fiction


A couple days ago, Ann Aguirre wrote a stirring blog exposing the ugly beast that resides in the science fiction field.  According to Ann’s blog:

I’ve held my silence when I probably shouldn’t have. But I was in the minority, a woman writing SF, and I was afraid of career backlash. I was afraid of being excluded or losing opportunities if I didn’t play nice.

I don’t care about that anymore.

And she takes this issue very seriously, folks. You go, girl!

Author Guterson heckled for gloomy speech at Roosevelt graduation

The Seattle Times reports that David Guterson ruffled some feathers with his graduation speech at Seattle’s Roosevelt High School, his alma mater (class of 1974).

The speech, which most people who were asked said “was far from uplifting,” produced heckling from some parents and one student.

Awesome Bookish Flooring

For a welcome change of mood, Bookriot offers photos of some literally literary floors.

They really are awesome.

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Learning to learn: the heart of reading

woman readingAlly of (the curation service that I use for Literature & Psychology) describes how she went about learning to read for deep meaning. She based her strategy on an article by Maryanne Wolf, the John DiBiaggio Professor in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts, and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.

Although Ally focused on reading nonfiction, the process would be similar for someone wanting to explore a particular topic in literary texts—for example, fiction that deals with the relationships between mothers and daughters.

Do We Need to Be Told How to Read? 

cover: How to Read LiteratureAlso in the category of learning how to read, academic cultural critic Terry Eagleton has a new book out, How to Read Literature.

I haven’t read Eagleton’s book yet, though I have bought it and look forward to finding out what he has to say. But novelist William Giraldi has read How to Read Literature, and in this article he offers an unsympathetic evaluation. In their symbiotic relationship, such clashes between practitioners (writers) and theorists (critics) are often more informative than anything either alone has to say.

Can books make us better people?

And why do we want to read, anyway? One reason might be that literature makes us better people. Or does it?

This question has been another hot topic of debate recently in the literary world. In this article in the Christian Science Monitor Husna Haq recaps the argument and provides links to many of the articles she discusses. She concludes:

Nonetheless, the question remains – does literature make us better?

If we turn to literature itself and the nuanced messages it conveys, we may find that the answer, unlike the question, is not nearly so clear-cut and precise. Literature, after all, deals with the messy, the ambiguous, the muddled, and, we suspect, that’s just what we have on our hands with that deceivingly straightforward question.

Empathy-Free Entertainment

Noah Berlatsky tackles the same issue over at The Atlantic:

Art, we’re often told, encourages empathy. By watching or reading about different people, or different situations, we become able to understand and sympathize with a broader range of perspectives. Fiction connects you to other people—or as Chuck Klosterman said, “Art and love are the same thing: It’s the process of seeing yourself in things that are not you.” There was even a study last year that found that “experience-taking changes us by allowing us to merge our own lives with those of the characters we read about, which can lead to good outcomes.” Literature broadens you; science says so.

But he bases his argument on recent movies (and, in some cases, on the comics that inspired those movies) rather than on just literary texts. And in those works he finds a bleak message:

What matters are these soulless, hollow, fungible icons, and the assurance that they will continue forever as around them all the mere humans effervesce like ghosts. This art isn’t about empathy or love. Instead, it’s about worship, about pledging fealty to our invented, charismatically uncaring, gods. Our corporate fictions offer the blank joy of not caring, whether about creators, actors, strangers, or ourselves.

Book Domino World Record: Seattle Public Library Launches Summer Reading In Style (VIDEO)

On a much happier note:

Seattle Public Library just set an unusual world record in its incredible flagship building: the world’s longest book domino chain.

Created to launch its summer reading program, 2,131 books were used in the service of this magical video that you can watch above, filmed on May 31st. Our favorite part? The silent summer readers sitting among the books as they quietly fell around them.


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Books —> Film

The latest adaptation of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is garnering most of the attention in this category right now, but there’s other news as well. Here’s some news on upcoming films:

Will Baz Luhrmann’s noise dampen ‘Great Gatsby’s’ joys?

“Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald revisits the book’s melancholy beauty prior to the movie’s release.”

The Confidence Index: What Maisie Knew

Henry James’s What Maisie Knew (1897/1898) is one of my favorite novels. Jennifer Paull has news about the upcoming film version.

Frances McDormand and Director Lisa Cholodenko Team Up for HBO’s Olive Kitteridge Adaptation

Before it became a Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller, McDormand fell hard for Elizabeth Strout’s interwoven collection of vignettes set in a backwater town along the coast of Maine connected by the titular plainspoken protagonist who reveals deep reserves of humanity and empathy (even for the most jagged and broken characters) as the novel unfolds.

Salman Rushdie bequeaths ‘Midnight’s Children’ to film

This article provides an overview of Rushdie’s life and career along with news about the film adaptation of his most famous novel.

Parents, Children, and Libraries

The Pew Internet and American Life Project studies many aspects of American life, including attitudes toward and uses of books and libraries. Here are some of the latest research findings:

Research in the Digital Age: It’s More Than Finding Information…

Two middle school teachers offer advice on how to teach students to evaluate information they find on the internet. This information may seem elementary, but it’s advice all of us can use.

Gillian Flynn on her bestseller Gone Girl and accusations of misogyny

Gone Girl has taken the publishing world by storm with its disturbing portrayal of a relationship gone badly wrong. Author Gillian Flynn talks about how she portrays women, her childhood love of horror – and how her marriage inspired the book

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Feeling Bookish?

The big book event of the last week was the arrival of Bookish. “We know books,” the site declares. Its announced purpose is to allow readers to search, discover, read, and share information about books. Created by publishing giants Penguin, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster, the site will work with USA Today to integrate its content into the paper’s book coverage.

I haven’t had much time to check out the site myself, but others in the publishing world have. Here’s some coverage:

  • Bookish Goes Live: Publishers Weekly’s coverage of the launch.
  • Review of Book Riot’s Jeff O’Neal concludes “Bookish is an attractive online bookstore with an above-average recommendation engine and the promise of compelling supporting editorial content. I think many book buyers will prefer the experience of browsing Bookish to Amazon or Barnes & Noble, but I’m not sure that is enough to change readers’ buying habits.”
  • Bookish, New Book Recommendation Website, Gets Mixed Reviews : HuffPost Books aggregates the critical response

Have you registered as a Bookish user? What do you think of the new site?

English literature’s 50 key moments from Marlowe to JK Rowling

In other book-related news, U. K. newspaper The Guardian announced its list of “the hinge points in the evolution of Anglo-American literature.” The list covers the death of Christopher Marlowe (1593) through JK Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997).

The list concludes:

This catalogue, in conclusion, is highly partisan and impressionistic. It makes no claim to be comprehensive (how could it?). Rather, it aims to stimulate a discussion about the turning-points in the world of books and letters from the King James Bible to the present day.

Over to you.

Read on to see how two writers have picked up the gauntlet.

50 Great Women Writers — how many have you heard of?

Dear Guardian newspaper,

We note that your books editor, Robert McCrum, has published a ‘partisan list’ of 50 turning points in literature, and that comments have remarked on the low numbers of women (7).

To begin redressing the gender balance, here is another list – even more partisan, in that it consists entirely of influential women writers. (McCrum’s original choices are in red.)

Here are those 50 great, pioneering women.


Kathleen Taylor (science writer) & Gillian Wright (senior lecturer in English literature)

Their list covers Julian of Norwich: Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love (c. 1393; thought to be the first book written in English by a woman) through Hilary Mantel: Bring up the Bodies (2012; women can win prizes. Even the Booker. Twice.).

There are only seven entries common to both lists, which Taylor and Wright highlight in red.

The Author Himself Was a Cat in the Hat

All over Dr. Seuss’s beloved children’s books, his characters sport distinctive, colorful headwear — unless they are the kinds of creatures that have it sprouting naturally from their heads in tufted, multitiered and majestically flowing formations.

So it’s no surprise that the real Dr. Seuss, Theodor Seuss Geisel, was a hat lover himself. He collected hundreds of them, plumed, beribboned and spiked, and kept them in a closet hidden behind a bookcase in his home in the La Jolla section of San Diego. He incorporated them into his personal paintings, his advertising work and his books. He even insisted that guests to his home don the most elaborate ones he could find.

To keep the Seuss brand current, the Dr. Seuss publisher, Random House Children’s Books, has mounted an exhibit that will for the first time display some of his hats in public:

The show, timed to the 75th anniversary of his book “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins,” will open Monday at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street and then travel to 15 other locations over the course of the year.

What really made Mary Ingalls go blind?

Dr. Beth Tarini has finished a project that began 10 years ago, when she was a medical student:

“I was in my pediatric rotation, and we were talking about scarlet fever,” says Tarini. She remembers commenting that scarlet fever can make you go blind. “The professor said, ‘No …,’ and I said, ‘But Mary Ingalls went blind!’ … So I got on a detective mission of sorts.”

Now an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan, Tarini and coauthors have published an article in the journal Pediatrics claiming that not scarlet fever, but viral meningoencephalitis, an inflammatory disease that attacks the brain, caused Mary Ingalls’s blindness.

Besides settling a 10-year score with a med school professor, Tarini says the purpose of the paper is to remind physicians that their perception of a disease is often very different from their patients’ perception. Even today, Tarini says, if she tells parents their child has scarlet fever, they get really worried: “They look aghast! And in my head, I’m thinking, scarlet fever today is no different than strep throat with a rash. But they say, ‘Oh, scarlet fever! That’s deadly!’ And I’m like, it’s the 21st century!'”

Prison and Libraries: Public Service Inside and Out

Library Journal reports on how libraries are moving to serve the 1.6 million people in federal or state prisons in 2011 (according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics):

What is changing is a growing realization that more public, prison, and jail libraries can better identify and serve the often significant needs of inmates or those prisoners who are returning to their communities. Not only are some libraries providing books, they are providing innovative programs and services, helping inmates and returnees to learn about work and employment opportunities, the arts (see sidebar, “Arts on the Inside“), and to develop job-seeking skills.

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Hogwarts Is in Your Head, Harry: Conspiracy Theories About Literature

Harry Potter
Warner Bros.

Emily Temple weighs in over at The Atlantic:

Sherlock Holmes and Watson are lovers, Winnie the Pooh is a mental-illness allegory, and other theories that might forever alter your favorite books.

There was a pretty fascinating article over at Salon earlier this month, in which Greg Olear argues that Nick Carraway, the narrator of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, was gay and in love with the novel’s eponymous character. Though a Google search indicates that Olear’s not exactly the first person to think of this, I admit I’d never considered the idea before, and his arguments are pretty persuasive. The article got me thinking about the other theories and alternate interpretations that are floating around about classic literary characters. Below, an investigation, and perhaps a few sides of characters you’ve never seen before.

Now we all know that I’m a student of the intersections between literature and psychology, but, well, it’s just too easy to get carried away with this kind of thing once you get started.

Writers writing about writing: ‘Why We Write’

Joan Didion had it right. In her 1976 essay “Why I Write,” originally published in the New York Times Book Review, she lays out the template in no uncertain terms: “In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions — with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating — but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”

David L. Ulin, book critic for the Los Angeles Times, describes the newly released Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Writers on How and Why They Do What They Do, edited by Meredith Maran.

See what writers including Mary Karr, Sara Gruen, James Frey, Susan Orlean, Rick Moody, Jane Smiley, Walter Mosley and Armistead Maupin have to say about their craft.

The Art of Marginalia

I, of course, could not pass up an article about the act of writing notes in the margins of books.

In addition to a neat photo of a well marked-up book, Jocelyn Kelley includes links to two other articles from the New Yorker and the New York Times.

16 Great Library Scenes in Film

When news broke last week that Dan Brown’s new novel will center on some sort of mystery surrounding Dante’s Inferno, I immediately began hoping that there is a nutty, fun scene of Robert Langdon racing around a library just like he raced around the Louvre in The Da Vinci Code.

And because I am who I am, it got me thinking about great movie library scenes that already exist. At first, I thought the list would be pretty short, but you know what? Hollywood loves a library. Some combination of ambiance, seclusion, hidden knowledge, and the sheer beauty of shelves upon shelves of books make libraries a fantastic film setting.

Jeff O’Neal, the editor of Book Riot, was surprised to find 16—SIXTEEN!—noteworthy library scenes in films.

Can you think of any that he left out?

The Best Coffee Mugs for Book Lovers

banned books mug

With Valentine’s Day coming up fast, here’s a whole cupboard full of gift suggestions.

This one is my favorite.

Silent reading isn’t so silent, at least, not to your brain

The blogger at Neurotic Physiology, who says she has a Ph. D. in physiology, discusses some recent research into whether “silent reading” is truly silent to our brains. The study she’s describing involved only four participants (but there are good reasons for the small sample size, as NP explains) and is therefore quite limited. But the results are interesting:

What’s particularly new about this study is that it not only shows that silent reading causes high-frequency electrical activity in auditory areas, but it shows that these areas as specific to voices speaking a language. This activity was only present when the person was paying attention to the task. The authors believe that these results back up the hypothesis that we all produce an “inner voice” when reading silently. And it is enhanced by attention, suggesting that it’s probably not an automatic process, but something that occurs when we attentively process what we are reading. And the next time you read silently, remember that it’s not quite to silent to your brain.

Be sure to read the comments. They’ll have you contemplating the reading voice in your own head.

The Nuclear Monsters That Terrorized the 1950s

What would a visiting alien learn from Them!, Godzilla, and Attack of the 50-Foot Woman?

People who want to talk about the jumpy, kitschy, gloriously lurid movie genre we now know as 1950s sci-fi usually start with Susan Sontag. This is not because Sontag is a bug-eyed alien or 50 feet tall but because she wrote, in 1965, the definitive essay on Cold War dystopian fantasy: “The Imagination of Disaster.” “We live,” she claimed in that piece, “under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror.” The job of science fiction was at once to “lift us out of the unbearably humdrum … by an escape into dangerous situations which have last-minute happy endings” and to “normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it.”

In other words, a good horror/fantasy/sci-fi flick provides a healthy dose of escapism, but it also keeps one eye fastened on what we wish to escape from.

Katy Waldman examines some of these classic movies and lists some conclusions we might draw from them:

  1. That science is amoral.
  2. That the universe exists in black-and-white.
  3. That women are scary. And sexy, too, just like the bomb itself.
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Athena’s Library, The Quirky Pillar Of Providence

NPR offers a look at the Providence Athenaeum in Providence, RI, USA:

With a bit of reverence, librarians carefully wind an antique library clock near the circulation desk in a temple of learning called the Providence Athenaeum.

This is one of the oldest libraries in the United States, a 19th-century library with the soul of a 21st-century rave party. In fact, the Rhode Island institution has been called a national model for civic engagement.

Opened in 1838, the Athenaeum sits upon a plinth that gives the building the appearance of a temple. Inside, a bust of the goddess Athena overlooks visitors.

A hundred and 50 years ago, social libraries like the Athenaeum were all the rage. The concept of the Athenaeum, a member-supported library dedicated to social improvement, predated the modern public library as we know it. The Athenaeum is one of 17 remaining membership libraries.

The Athenaeum offers free programs every Friday night. Anyone, member or not, can browse through the building or attend a program. The institution has retained its original ambiance as a gathering place for families interested in literature and cultural events. It even still features a real card catalog.

How To Cure Reading Forgetfulness

How much do you remember about the books you read? I read a lot of mysteries, particularly series mysteries, and I usually can’t remember exactly what happened in each particular one. All the stories featuring the same character tend to coalesce.

Gabe Habash realized that he had the same problem:

when I think back to most of the books that I read last year, I come up with patches of the story (and, if I liked the book, usually patches of inner character workings), and a whole lot of fog.

Aside from putting an insidious terror in me, my memory’s failure made me consider how we pay attention and what we choose to pay attention to when we read. I’m not sure how much of a problem memory is for you out there, but it made me think, with my rickety brain, if tweaking a few reading variables might put a little grease in the old mental clockwork.

Analyzing his approach to reading led him to several realizations:

  1. The time it takes to read a book: He used to set a goal of a particular number of books to read in a given period of time. To achieve the goal he often read books too quickly to absorb them. Now he takes as much time as necessary with each book and doesn’t worry about the numbers.
  2. Reading more than one book at a time: Habash thinks that switching between a couple of different books keeps his mind fresh and allows him to concentrate more effectively on what he reads. The question of reading more than one book at a time periodically comes up in each of the book groups I’m involved in. The closest I’ve ever come to reading two books at once is reading one print book while having an audiobook that I listen to in the car and while doing household chores or exercising. Perhaps I should rethink this reading strategy.
  3. Keeping up with your “Favorite Lines” document:

In 2008, I was reading Blood Meridian and I got to the long passage in chapter 11 in which the Judge tells a story about the harnessmaker welcoming a traveler into his home, seeming to repent and becoming a brother to his fellow men, and then killing that man out by the road and stealing his money. I opened a new Word document and copied out the whole little story. Since then, I have a never-ending document in which I retype passages and lines that I like whenever I come upon them. I underline in books I read, so I save the document for only the best of the best. A lot of lines from A Sport and a Pastime are in that document, as is the entirety of “The Symphony” chapter from Moby-Dick, that perfect self-contained piece of writing that is one of the very best things I’ve ever read.

I don’t have a “favorite lines” document, but I have been keeping track of my reading in a database since 1991. (And I’ve been able to maintain that database through software updates and changes over the years. I even weathered the switch from Windows PC to Mac.) I find that when I take the time to write some notes and copy favorite passages, I remember more about the book later on. But I must admit I don’t always take the time necessary to do this. Sometimes I just record the book’s publication information and the date on which I finished reading it so that I can dive right into my next book.

Be sure to look through the comments beneath this article. I particularly liked this one:

Why would you want to remember everything that you read? I’m a re-reader. Often I find a book is better the second (third, fourth) time around. Because I don’t remember everything, I’m free to enjoy the unfolding of the narrative again. And when I run across one of those Favorite Lines, I stop and savor.

How about you? Do you suffer from reading forgetfulness? And if you do, do you do anything to counteract it?

America’s Major Magazines Still Aren’t Publishing Stories By Women

Vida, an organization devoted to examination and discussion of the roles women play in literature, has released its latest survey of the articles and reviews published by women in major magazines in 2011, and the results aren’t encouraging.

On AlterNet Alyssa Rosenberg comments on this survey, which analyzed work published by the following magazines:

  • The Atlantic
  • Boston Review
  • Harper’s
  • London Review of Books
  • The New Republic
  • New York Review of Books
  • New Yorker
  • New York Times Book Review
  • The Nation

“Granta’s the only publication that’s close to parity—in fact, it published slightly more pieces by women than by men, 34 to 30.”

Here’s Rosenberg’s response to the situation:

the only answer here is not that these publications can’t find women. It’s that they don’t really care if they do or not. These numbers, and the annual discussion of them, seem to have succeeded in making a lot of female journalists and readers angry and frustrated, but they don’t appear to have made editors feel ashamed, much less called to action. And I’m not quite sure what it would take to persuade them to shake off their lethargy and acceptance of the status quo, which really means accepting sexism. Do we really have to educate editors that women can bring new perspectives on major stories, and not just to stories about living as a single woman or going through a divorce?

Life of a ‘Salesman’: An Online Discussion

The New York Times‘s Charles Isherwood will be paying attention to a Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s play about Willy Loman:

For the next few weeks I’ll be leading an online discussion here about the high hopes and hard life of one of the American theater’s most famous characters. Willy Loman, and the play that immortalized him, Arthur Miller’s 1949 classic “Death of a Salesman,” are returning to Broadway in a new production starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.

And Isherwood is asking readers to chime in on the discussion:

As is often the case with classic plays or novels we’ve lived with for most of our lives, “Death of a Salesman” can seem entirely different each time we renew our acquaintance with it. If your first exposure came in high school and you haven’t read or seen it since, you may be surprised at stylistic innovations that barely registered at the time. Pick it up and see if the same thing happens for you.

I last saw the play in 1999 when the touring company featuring Brian Dennehy as Willy Loman came to St. Louis. Since that time I’ve wondered if anyone could portray Willy any better than Dennehy did, but Philip Seymour Hoffman in the lead role is a tantalizing prospect. I can only hope that the company will go on tour and land here in my city.

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Monday Miscellany

Print Books vs. Ebooks Debate (cont., ad nauseam)

Never one to shy away from controversy, Jonathan Franzen recently condemned ebooks as the harbingers of the fall of civilization:

“I think, for serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience. Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change.

“Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don’t have a crystal ball.

“But I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.”

After the news coverage of Franzen’s press conference the Huffington Post, never one to shy away from an opportunity to add its two cents, chimed in with Jonathan Franzen Hates EBooks. This article reminds us:

This isn’t new territory for Frazen – back in 2007, when the first Kindle appeared on the scene, he told the LA Times that “the difference between Shakespeare on a BlackBerry and Shakespeare in the Arden Edition is like the difference between vows taken in a shoe store and vows taken in a cathedral,” adding “Am I fetishizing ink and paper? Sure, and I’m fetishizing truth and integrity too.”

HuffPost then provides a list of other personages who have spoken out against ebooks:

  • Maurice Sendak
  • Ursula Le Guin
  • Sherman Alexie
  • Penelope Lively
  • Ray Bradbury
  • Stephen Colbert

I really don’t see what all the hub-bub is about. Why do we have to be for one type of book and against the other? I love print books, audiobooks, and my Kindle. I just see these as different forms of basically the same thing, a work of literature. Audiobooks allow me to consume the written word in situations when I couldn’t read a printed book, such as when driving, exercising, or doing chores around the house. And my Kindle is a lot easier to carry around than printed books, especially books the size of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Freedom. The Kindle makes it possible for me to read when I’m in waiting rooms and to take lots of books on vacation. These three versions of literature are not inherently different. They are not mutually exclusive. And the increasing use of ereaders is not going to result in the collapse of modern civilization.

Thank goodness at least one other person in the world understands this, NPR’s Jonathan Segura. In No More E-Books Vs. Print Books Arguments, OK? he very sensibly points out:

Here’s the thing: you don’t have to be a print book person or an e-book person. It’s not an either/or proposition. You can choose to have your text delivered on paper with a pretty cover, or you can choose to have it delivered over the air to your sleek little device. You can even play it way loose and read in both formats! Crazy, right? To have choice. Neither is better or worse — for you, for the economy, for the sake of “responsible self-government.” We should worry less about how people get their books and — say it with me now! — just be glad that people are reading.

The Greatest Books of All Time, as Voted by 125 Famous Authors

“Reading is the nourishment that lets you do interesting work,” Jennifer Egan once said. This intersection of reading and writing is both a necessary bi-directional life skill for us mere mortals and a secret of iconic writers’ success, as bespoken by their personal libraries. The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books asks 125 of modernity’s greatest British and American writers—including Norman Mailer, Ann Patchett, Jonathan Franzen, Claire Messud, and Joyce Carol Oates—”to provide a list, ranked, in order, of what [they] consider the ten greatest works of fiction of all time- novels, story collections, plays, or poems.”

While admitting that respondents’ first task was to figure out their own definition of great, this article nonetheless proceeds to ask the question and tabulate the answers. You’ll find lists of the top vote getters in the following categories:

  • Top Ten Works of the 20th Century
  • Top Ten Works of the 19th Century
  • Top Ten Authors by Number of Books Selected
  • Top Ten Authors by Points Earned

And, because I know the suspense is killing you, I’ll tell you that Tolstoy beat out Shakespeare as the top author by points earned.

Seattle libraries: No sleeping or eating allowed, but porn-watching OK

The Seattle Public Library has a long list of rules of things you can’t do in the library, to ensure “comfort and safety” of staff and patrons. You can’t eat, sleep, look like you’re sleeping, be barefoot, be too stinky or talk too loudly.

But you can watch graphic porn on a public computer in front of kids. Despite repeated complaints from female patrons about men watching porn in full view of their children, the library has held fast to its policy of unfettered online access for grown-ups.

The reason: It’s not in the business of censorship.

The issue of censorship in libraries is more complex than this article’s set up suggests, as the rest of the piece does, in fact, admit.

The Big Reasons Indie Authors Aren’t Taken Seriously

With the publishing industry in turmoil, more and more authors are bypassing the traditional route to publication by publishing their books themselves. Yet, with no editorial staff to insist on writing standards, the quality of such books is often—though not always—quite low. And Melissa Foster and Amy Edelman know why:

  • Big Reason #1: Bad Editing
  • Big Reason #2: Quantity Over Quality
  • Big Reason #3 – The Lack of Gatekeepers
  • Big Reason #4 – Crappy Covers

They have a lot to say about each reason, so click through and read their explanations.

Personally, I’m not too concerned about the covers. But I am concerned about the lack of gatekeepers, or those editors who insist that authors write well and make sense. How about you?

7 Child Protagonists That Adults Can Relate To

Sharon Heath thinks that most of us probably didn’t enjoy our childhood all that much. “Which is where the catharsis of fiction written for adults with child protagonists comes in–offering us a chance to revisit our early years with imagination and wisdom and see the world and our own lives with new eyes.”

Whether the heroes and heroines of these books are precocious or tentative, suicidal or resourceful, disconnected or endearing, each of them bumbles along as we all did–as we all do!–without a handbook. Almost all of them suffer the mixed blessings of uniqueness and otherness, and a number of the current crop view life through the lens of autism–an apt metaphor in this age of preoccupation with iEverythings, where researchers are telling us our kids are losing the capacity to read facial expressions and social cues.

She offers the following books as examples of child protagonists whom adult readers can relate to:

  • A Wrinkle in Time
  • Ordinary People
  • The Little Prince
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
  • The Lovely Bones
  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
  • The Elegance of the Hedgehog

To Heath’s list I would add the following child protagonists that I found endearing:

What child characters would you add to the list? Let us know in the comments.


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Monday Miscellany

How the literary female detective has changed

In The Christian Science Monitor Randy Dotinga says of Scottish mystery writer Denise Mina:

[she] has become one of the finest mystery writers of the 21st century. Her deeply perceptive grasp on the inner lives of crooks, cops, journalists, and their families has allowed her books to transcend the detective genre.

Asked how fictional female detectives have changed over the past 20 years or so, Mina replied:

At first, they had to act like men, carry guns and punch people – be able to beat people up and engage in fisticuffs. In the mid-1990s, their gender is talked about a lot, and they experienced prejudice. Now you’ve reached the point where a woman is just a different type of detective. You’re not getting information just because you’re a woman; it’s not your superpower anymore. It’s just a fact about who you are.

Document: The Symbolism Survey

In 1963, a sixteen-year-old San Diego high school student named Bruce McAllister sent a four-question mimeographed survey to 150 well-known authors of literary, commercial, and science fiction. Did they consciously plant symbols in their work? he asked. Who noticed symbols appearing from their subconscious, and who saw them arrive in their text, unbidden, created in the minds of their readers? When this happened, did the authors mind?

McAllister had just published his first story, “The Faces Outside,” in both IF magazine and Simon and Schuster’s 1964 roundup of the best science fiction of the year. Confident, if not downright cocky, he thought the surveys could settle a conflict with his English teacher by proving that symbols weren’t lying beneath the texts they read like buried treasure awaiting discovery.

What’s remarkable about this survey, writes Sarah Funke Butler, is that 75 authors responded. This was, of course, in the days before email and the internet. McAllister still has the replies from 65, the other 10 having been lost to “a kleptomaniacal friend.”

This article reproduces the original pages of replies by Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, Ayn Rand, John Updike, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, and Ray Bradbury.

The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress

Starting in 1984, the Center for the Book in the Library began to establish affiliate centers in the 50 states. Today, there is a State Center for the Book in all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. These Center for the Book affiliates carry out the national Center’s mission in their local areas, sponsor programs that highlight their area’s literary heritage and call attention to the importance of books, reading, literacy and libraries. Affiliates must submit an application to become part of — and retain — their Center for the Book status, which is renewable for a three-year period. The Center for the Book has established Guidelines for establishing affiliates and for programming activities. The State Centers gather annually at the Library of Congress for an Idea Exchange Day.

Self-published authors find e-success

USA Today offers yet another testament to the growing popularity of ebooks and to the sea change in the publishing industry that ebooks represent.

Today, authors . . . can bypass traditional publishers. They can digitally format their own manuscript, set a price and sell it to readers through a variety of online retailers and devices. Amazon sells e-books via its Kindle device and on its Kindle app for smartphones and computers. Barnes & Noble sells e-books through its Nook electronic reader device and app. There is also the Sony eReader, Apple’s iPad and Kobo, while Overdrive provides e-books to libraries.

Almost every day brings more digital modes for readers to obtain books in non-print forms, creating more choices for readers, opportunities for self-published writers, and challenges for traditional publishers.

Here are the eye-opening statistics:

According to the Association of American Publishers, e-books grew from 0.6% of the total trade market share in 2008 to 6.4% in 2010, the most recent figures available. Total net revenue for 2010: $878 million with 114 million e-books sold. In adult fiction, e-books are now 13.6% of the market.

Yet, in some cases, the success of ebooks can be a benefit to traditional publishers. Publishers are taking less of a chance if they accept a book that has already proven itself popular through ebook sales.