Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker muses on the discovery in a cave in Indonesia of “the oldest pictorial record of storytelling and the earliest figurative artwork in the world”:
Our oldest stories are like our newest; we look for explanation and hope for a happy ending. People, then and now, tell tales about the brave things they are about to do, or just did, or are thinking of doing, or thought they might do, if they were not the people they are but had the superpowers we all wish we had. Our enterprises vary; our entertainments do not.
When I was younger, I felt that I had to finish every book I started. But some time around my 40th birthday I realized that I had probably completed about half my life and no longer had the luxury of time to waste on books I wasn’t enjoying or learning from. I was therefore glad to come across this article by Sarah Shaffi, who writes:
It’s taken me decades to get to the point where I can start a book, realise I’m not liking it, and then just stop reading it. The first time I put DNF – Did Not Finish in book geek parlance – on my book spreadsheet (what? I read a lot for work and a spreadsheet is a good way to keep track), I felt relieved, freed, and a little rebellious.
Life is too short, and there are too many books to carry on reading one you’re not enjoying. Think of it less as quitting one book, and more as making room in your life for another that you could potentially love.
And while I completely agree with her here, I also think there’s a certain etiquette for discussing books that you DNF. First, when you discuss the book, you don’t have the right to simply declare it a “bad” or “badly written” book or a book that you simply “didn’t like.” You DO have the right to say that you didn’t finish it and then explain why it didn’t work for you or what, specifically, you didn’t like about it. The keywords here are specifically and why.
Second, if you belong to a book club and for some reason can’t finish the book by the meeting time, please resist the urge to say, “Don’t talk about the ending. I haven’t finished it yet.” Sure, life happens, and sometimes you won’t be able to finish on time. But the ending is a major aspect of any book, particularly novels, and often a meaningful discussion requires analysis of the ending.
There’s still a bit of summer left, and if you’re still looking for that perfect “beach read,” Alison Fields has suggestions. After pondering the various definitions of that term, she settles on this one: “Books about beaches, seas, sand, and coastal destinations to accompany the end of the summer season and the first stirrings of the fall.
We learn a lot about life from literature, including how to process various kinds of traumas. But I was surprised to find this article by Kate McQuade, who has for more than 10 years taught a high school class on trauma literature.
By now I’ve accumulated a lot of answers, particularly for those skeptical that young people should be exposed to literature about war, genocide, and violence. I tell them that learning about trauma is not the same thing as experiencing trauma; I tell them that even though the literature we cover is difficult intellectually and emotionally, my course is less about mourning traumatic events than exploring what it means to depict them in art; and I tell them that shielding teenagers from the world’s historical truths not only fails to protect them, but does them a disservice as young people about to inherit that world.
And here’s why, McQuade says, she teaches such a course:
Most people think trauma literature is about trauma. In fact, trauma literature is at least as much about the problematics of storytelling as it is about actual traumatic events. It’s about the difficulty of representing the truth of an experience so horribly extraordinary that it cannot be contained within the human mind, let alone within the borders of a page. It’s about, in the words of trauma scholar Dori Laub, the simultaneous “imperative to tell” and “impossibility of telling.”
Read about seven of the literary works she uses to demonstrate the paradox “of how to represent the unrepresentable.”
Why should I be reading when there are children and adults in “detention centers” with horrific conditions? Why should I be flipping through pages when people are being murdered for being themselves? How can I justify a few hours of contentment with a book when the so-called leader of my country is, at a minimum, a blatant racist?
(If you doubt the accuracy of the assertions in these questions, Harreaves provides links to supporting material in the article.)
“The thing is, resistance fatigue is a real thing,” she writes. “If reading is how you recharge, it is well within the realm of morals to read.”
There is one form of power that has fascinated me ever since I was a girl, even though it has been widely colonized by men: the power of storytelling. Telling stories really is a kind of power, and not an insignificant one. Stories give shape to experience, sometimes by accommodating traditional literary forms, sometimes by turning them upside down, sometimes by reorganizing them. Stories draw readers into their web, and engage them by putting them to work, body and soul, so that they can transform the black thread of writing into people, ideas, feelings, actions, cities, worlds, humanity, life. Storytelling, in other words, gives us the power to bring order to the chaos of the real under our own sign, and in this it isn’t very far from political power.
Loosely translated as the practice of piling up books you might never read, the Japanese word tsundoku seems to be everywhere right now. In recent months, The New York Times, the BBC, Forbes, and plenty of others have reported on the phenomenon.
Here’s the feature’s subtitle: “We want to see your shameful stacks of unread books.”
Well, I, for one, see absolutely no shame in my collection, seen at the top of this post. I do have to admit, though, that this isn’t my entire collection of not-yet-read books. There’s no way I could fit all of them into one photograph.
How about you? Are you willing to share your tsundoku photos in the comments?
Every time we travel to another country, I’m amazed at how fluent the local people are in languages other than their native language. Many people even speak two or more languages in addition to their language of origin. When I ask them at what age they started learning foreign languages, they often give an age between 8 and 12 years. And the reason they most often give is that they are required to choose another language in school.
We U.S. residents could learn a second language, too, if it were an academic requirement. In this article Daniel Everett, dean of arts and sciences, professor of global studies, and professor of sociology at Bentley University in Massachusetts, explains why he believes:
Now, after spending most of my adult life in higher education, researching languages, cultures and cognition, I have become more convinced than ever that nothing teaches us about the world and how to think more effectively better than learning new languages. That is why I advocate for fluency in foreign languages. But for this to happen, language-learning needs to make a comeback as a requirement of both primary and secondary education in the United States. Learning another language benefits each learner in at least three ways – pragmatically, neurologically and culturally.
He has some interesting reasons for urging us all to become polyglots.
Fiona Gartland, a journalist with The Irish Times for 13 years and newly published novelist, addresses the issue of ageism in publishing. Most publishers, she says, expect writers to have published a book by about the age of 40.
English author Joanna Walsh, who runs @Read_Women, has argued that ageism in publishing silences minorities and women in particular because women are more likely to be the ones who spend part of their lives caring for children, which makes finding time to write more difficult. She says “older women are already told every day in ways ranging from the subtle to the blatant, that they are irrelevant and should shut up”. Placing age barriers, for example for writing awards, is arbitrary and “a particularly cruel irony” for those unable to write in their youth, she says.
But “Not everyone finds a voice in their youth,” Gartland argues, and that “doesn’t mean what they have to say is any less valuable or any less worthy of hearing.”
A consistent outsider in the bookies’ odds, Anna Burns’s Milkman is the sort of boldly experimental – and frankly brain-kneading – novel that is usually let in at longlist stage and gently dropped as the competition narrows. And for that reason alone it is a smartly provocative choice – one that has been waiting to be made as the publishing industry searches for the soul of its next generation.
Claire Armitstead writes in The Guardian that Anna Burns’s novel Milkman, winner of the Booker Prize, will challenge both bookstores and readers. Set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, the novel features an 18-year-old narrator with a “relentlessly internalised” narrative that portrays “a social dysfunction that is both gothic and comically Kafkaesque.”
Milkman, Armitstead writes, is a novel that speaks “to political anxieties over hard borders in Ireland and around the more recently troubled world.”
Kate Morton’s latest novel, The Clockmaker’s Daughter, involves an old house and a secret hidden away there for 150 years. “Goodreads asked Morton to recommend her favorite novels where a house is nearly a central character in the story.” (See 6 Illustrations of How Setting Works in Literature.)
The use of place as an integral part of a story can add psychological depth to a novel. See what five novels Morton includes on her list.
Caleb Crain, in a follow-up to a decade-old report on Americans’ reading habits, reports that the time Americans spend reading continues to decline. “Television, rather than the Internet, likely remains the primary force distracting Americans from books.”
And, he points out, “The nation, after all, is now led by a man who doesn’t read.”
Salman Rushdie ponders the role of truth in our disputatious time of unsupported pronouncements and declarations of fake news. How can literature help support current notions of what’s real and what isn’t?
when we read a book we like, or even love, we find ourselves in agreement with its portrait of human life. Yes, we say, this is how we are, this is what we do to one another, this is true. That, perhaps, is where literature can help most. We can make people agree, in this time of radical disagreement, on the truths of the great constant, which is human nature. Let’s start from there.
You know the story of Cinderella. She’s a princess, dearly loved by her father, the king. When her mother dies, her father eventually marries a widow with daughters of her own. But nothing much changes for Cinderella as long as her father lives and continues to protect her and treat her like the princess she was born to be.
But then the king dies, and Cinderella’s stepmother, the new queen, gains control of the kingdom and the palace. She banishes Cinderella to a life of servitude in the kitchen and presents her own daughters as the princesses of the land.
Yes, we know how the story turns out: the fake princesses are unmasked, Cinderella shines like the true princess she is, and then marries the prince and lives happily ever after. But what I want to focus on here is the stepmother, the one who usurps power and raises her own daughters’ station above that of the true princess, whom she treats like a servant.
Fables and fairy tales supply many examples of the archetype of the wicked stepmother. Often she appears as a witch, such as the one who is jealous of Snow White’s beauty. But there is no male counterpart to this villainess. Why?
The reason arises from the medieval system of laws and customs that gave rise to many of our enduring literary tropes, such as the wicked stepmother archetype. At that time women had very few rights and were dependent on a man to protect them and provide for them. A widow left with children to support—particularly daughters who would need substantial dowries to obtain powerful husbands of their own—would need to remarry. The widow in the Cinderella story would have considered herself quite fortunate to marry a widowed king.
Once a woman was married, she and her children became her husband’s property. A man could treat his wife and children however he pleased. No matter how badly he treated them, he would not be thought of as wicked. He would simply be exercising his rights as a man to use his personal property in whatever way he wished.
No wonder women like Cinderella’s stepmother were so quick to seize power and use it to their own advantage if the opportunity, such as the death of the king, arose. The stories that develop from a particular culture not only describe that culture’s values and beliefs, they also prescribe how people should live their lives. Cinderella’s stepmother would probably have gladly accepted the epithet wicked to describe her actions, as long as she could get what she wanted for herself and her daughters. But she also would have learned, along with everyone who heard this fairy tale, what happens when someone tries to dethrone the rightful heir. She gets her comeuppance in the end, when the glass slipper will fit only the dainty little foot of Cinderella, the real princess. The king may be dead, but his interests prevail in the end.
We have patriarchy to thank for the lack of a wicked stepfather archetype. Those who hold the power control the kingdom, including the cultural narratives. The king is dead. Long live the king!
Writer Diane Ackerman looks at the relationship between writers and their readers:
Nearly every author I know imagines one or more readers while writing a book. It’s a bloom of creative telepathy. The reader is a part of yourself, held at a distance, and becomes an important sounding board for the tone and language of the pages, an intimate ally.
And how do readers react when meeting authors, for example at a book signing? “Having read your books, readers know you far better than you know them — except that authors aren’t always their books.” She continues, “And just as the author romanticizes the reader, so does the reader romanticize the author.”
In the end, both the writer and the reader—and the interaction between the two—are necessary for a book to be successful:
As an author and reader, I like the idea of reading as an indelible spice that transforms a book while the book transforms you.
In conjunction with the recent Los Angeles Festival of Books, the Los Angeles Times asked five participants to comment on the writers who had influenced them. Here author Amelia Gray pays tribute to Shirley Jackson:
The loners in her books appealed to me, the fragile and friendless women in worlds built to appear ordinary that always revealed a more sinister nature.
This article contains links to lots of related coverage of the Festival of Books.
Writers and artists have long been fascinated by the idea of an English eerie – ‘the skull beneath the skin of the countryside’. But for a new generation this has nothing to do with hokey supernaturalism – it’s a cultural and political response to contemporary crises and fears
Robert Macfarlane has written a fascinating look at how the English landscape continues to be used artistically to represent the eerie:
that form of fear that is felt first as unease, then as dread, and which is incited by glimpses and tremors rather than outright attack. Horror specialises in confrontation and aggression; the eerie in intimation and aggregation. Its physical consequences tend to be gradual and compound: swarming in the stomach’s pit, the tell-tale prickle of the skin. I find the eerie far more alarming than the horrific…
He finds evidence of this eerie use of landscape in many artistic areas:
In music, literature, art, music, film and photography, as well as in new and hybrid forms and media, the English eerie is on the rise. A loose but substantial body of work is emerging that explores the English landscape in terms of its anomalies rather than its continuities, that is sceptical of comfortable notions of “dwelling” and “belonging”, and of the packagings of the past as “heritage”, and that locates itself within a spectred rather than a sceptred isle.
Although some of his references may be lost on those unfamiliar with both the English countryside and English history, his explanations make his meaning clear. He cites examples of such eerie works across literature, film, and art. Many of the current works call up earlier art and artists, from the 19th century forward. Many of these earlier works employed ghosts and corpses as symbolic of the decay underlying the seemingly tranquil pastoral landscape.
But engaging with the eerie emphatically doesn’t mean believing in ghosts. Few of the practitioners named here would endorse earth mysteries or ectoplasm. What is under way, across a broad spectrum of culture, is an attempt to account for the turbulence of England in the era of late capitalism. The supernatural and paranormal have always been means of figuring powers that cannot otherwise find visible expression. Contemporary anxieties and dissents are here being reassembled and re-presented as spectres, shadows or monsters…
Heather K. Gerken, the J. Skelly Wright professor of law at Yale Law School, has written eight novels, and is working on the ninth, that only one person will read:
My daughter is growing up, which means I’m losing her. Anna is 12, all eyes, cheekbones and imagination. Every now and then I catch a glimpse of the glorious 17-year-old just around the corner, and it makes my heart ache with the anticipation of loss.
Gerken started writing the books for her daughter because
I hope to encase Anna in the only form of armor that I trust — stories. I have written Anna as a heroine in the hope that she will feel the tug of her own heroism inside her.
Even though Anna hasn’t yet grown up, she’s now writing her own story, which Gerken takes as a good sign.
You may have never heard of Julie Strauss-Gabel, but you’ve almost certainly heard of one example of her work, the novel The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Strauss-Gabel is publisher of Dutton Children’s Books.
Amidst all the chest-thumping about the decline of the publishing industry, children’s books have been the bright exception: “In 2014, revenue from young adult and children’s books rose by 21 percent over the previous year, while adult fiction and nonfiction fell by 1.4 percent, according to the Association of American Publishers.”
Strauss-Gable has contributed significantly to the rise of YA (young adult) literature:
Ms. Strauss-Gabel’s unconventional taste and eye for idiosyncratic literary voices have helped her identify and build up some of young adult fiction’s biggest breakout stars.
Many adults now buy and read YA literature:
Adults aged 18 to 44 made up 65 percent of young adult book buyers in 2014, according to a recent Nielsen Books & Consumer survey, and men accounted for 44 percent of young adult book buyers in 2014, up from 31 percent in 2012. And 65 percent of adults buying young adult books reported that they were purchasing the books for themselves rather than for children.
My major life activities are reading (usually fiction) and writing (always nonfiction). So I’m delighted when I come across something that combines the two: something like Marcy McKay’s writing challenge What Your Favorite Books Tell You About Your Writing. Marcy runs The Write Practice, a web site and newsletter aimed at fiction writers, but even though I write nonfiction, I often find her insights helpful. But this one I just have to try. I’ve been saving it, and today is the day.
Here’s Marcy’s four-stop process and my responses.
1. List your five favorite books. Write them down as fast as possible. Don’t overthink this. Just trust your instincts and write. If need be, make two separate lists: one for fiction and the other for nonfiction.
2. Find the common themes on your list. Are you drawn to redemption, self-discovery, forgiveness, good versus evil, transformation, love conquers all or triumph of the human spirit? It doesn’t have to be something boiled down to one word or even one theme. Just look for the common denominators between your books.
the search for family
the search for personal identity
enduring and learning from painful personal experience
making meaning in one’s life
the meaning of love
3. Reflect on the stories from your childhood. What are the most important moments of your formative years, growing up? Happy or sad, think back on them all, then write them down.
I do not feel comfortable publicizing the events of my formative years here, but I do incorporate them, in a general way, in the next section.
4. Study the overlapping links between your lists. It is where your most powerful inner stories reside. These are the stories of your heart. If your lists do not connect and you’re struggling with your writing, this may explain the problem… . You should be telling stories you fell compelled to write. That’s where your passion lies.
My childhood included disrupted family life fraught with much verbal and emotional abuse. There were, however, spots of light that showed me other possibilities did exist.
People talk about “finding themselves,” but this exercise has made me realize that we don’t find or discover our self as much as we create it. Many years ago I realized that I had lived much of my life in an attempt to define myself in negatives, in saying what I am NOT—such as “I am not a victim.” When I realized this, I thought it was, well, a very negative thing to do, a negative way to live my life.
But doing this exercise has made me realize that such concentration on negatives—what I am not—is not truly a negative approach to life because understanding what I did not want to be helped me to become, or create, the self and the life I wanted. Acknowledging who I did not want to be enabled me to create the identity I wanted, one that embodies the values and beliefs I’ve come to hold dear because of the knowledge I’ve gained from my personal experiences.
In my recent focus on improving my writing I’ve frequently come across the concept of “finding one’s writing voice.” This phrase always bothered me in some vague way because it suggests that we’ve somehow lost our writer’s voice. But I now realize why I dislike the whole notion of “finding our voice.” We don’t find our voice, we create it, just as we don’t find or discover our self but rather create it.
Marcy says that this exercise helps us look at our inside stories vs. our outside stories. Our inside stories are the ones we carry internally, whether we’re aware of them or not. These stories often come from our childhood experiences and influence both how we think of ourselves now and how we behave in the future as we attempt to conform to the internal notion we have of ourself. Some children grow up feeling loved, accepted, and encouraged; those children move forward with confidence and a sense of self-worth and potential achievement. But other children grow up being told that they’re bad and that they’ll never become any better or accomplish anything; those children tend to live out their lives fulfilling this self-concept that they’ve incorporated into their sense of identity.
It is possible, however, to transform and transcend the identity story that our previous experiences have given us. One way to do this, the way that I have pursued all my life without even knowing why, is to read. These outside stories can show us other life possibilities and can thereby encourage us to edit our inner story.
My great thanks to Marcy for this exercise that can help us understand ourselves better and appreciate ourselves more. Doing this exercise can change your life.
I finally got around to watching the film Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2012), based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel of the same title. Our book group read the novel several years ago and loved it, so I’ve been looking forward to seeing the film adaptation.
The story involves 10-year-old Oskar Schell, whose father died a year earlier in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. The precocious Oskar finds an envelope, labeled “black,” containing a strange key among his father’s things. Oskar decides that black must be a name, so he sets off to interview everyone named Black who lives in the five burroughs of New York City to find the lock that the mysterious key will open.
I have to admit that my memory of the details of the novel is sketchy. But one aspect of the film that I don’t remember specifically from the book is the emphasis on storytelling. Oskar’s grandmother, who lives in an apartment building across the street from Oskar’s building, has rented out a room in her apartment to an old man. When Oskar finally meets The Renter, played by Max von Sydow, he finds that the old man does not speak. The Renter carries a small notebook and pen with him and communicates only by writing short notes on the little pages—except for the words yes and no, one of which is written on the palm of each hand.
When Oskar realizes that he’s not going to get the man to break his silence, he asks, “Then how will you tell me your story?” The old man shrugs, and Oskar continues, “Then I’ll just have to tell you my story.” He then pours out the story—frantically, non-stop, and with great agitation—of his search to find the lock that the fits the key that his father left behind. But what he’s really pouring out is all the grief, fear, anger, and guilt he’s been trying to deal with since his father’s death.
As Oskar visits each person or family named Black, he takes photos and pastes them all in a scrapbook. And he remembers the details of each person’s life story. At the end of the film he writes a letter to everyone he has visited that includes references to those personal details.
And finally, it seems, Oskar’s experiences on his quest to find the lock that fits the key become the key for a fitting ending to this chapter of his own story.