Mary Ann Lund, associate professor in Renaissance English literature at the University of Leicester in the UK, discusses Robert Burton (1577-1640) and his The Anatomy of Melancholy, “the most pervasive and elusive of Renaissance diseases.”
“One of the great achievements of The Anatomy of Melancholy is to draw together the collective wisdom of nearly two millennia on a condition that was alluring and dangerous in equal measure.” Lund writes “melancholy came to be seen as a European epidemic” during the 16th and 17th centuries.
2018 was “a rough year” for college professor and academician Carole Bell. She made several significant life changes during 2019 to help herself overcome isolation, depression, and anxiety, and one of those changes involved “reading intentionally and reading as self-medicating and self-soothing.”
In the end, I read 403 books in 2019, not counting the few I abandoned or partial reads of the academic books I read select chapters from for research. I also wrote 50 book reviews, sent one to a popular blog and had it accepted it for publication. The bottom line: I had been in a funk, and I read my way out. Reading is no substitute for therapy. And I did some other things along the way like find a critique partner and a writing coach, train for a half marathon, and run my best time. But as it had on other occasions before, the biggest internal change began with books.
“The coronavirus outbreak feels like something out of a science fiction — or horror — novel. Indeed, novelists have been imagining scenarios like this for centuries,” write Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Lavie Tidhar in The Washington Post. Read their discussion of several pandemic novels that may offer readers “a fascinating what-if thought experiment.”
I don’t emphasize often enough the importance of close reading for fully understanding and appreciating works of fiction. Here Yash Raaj explains how he uses outside resources to understand fully a novel’s setting—both time and place—and how the setting “interacts with characters.” This approach to reading literature allowed him to see “how literature branched into history, sociology, etc., connecting these disciplines in one text.”
Moreover, this habit has brought out a new side to me as a reader. I have learned how to arm myself with information, which is highly necessary in an era of social media activism. Careful reading certainly adds an edge and displays a streak of awareness accumulated through literature.
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.
In its most basic meaning, setting in fiction refers to the time and place in which the action of a novel or short story occurs. In some works the setting isn’t much more than a few simple references to time and place in order to ground the work in reality. In other instances setting takes on more importance and plays a major role in how the work affects the reader.
For ease of explanation I’ve labeled some ways in which setting functions in the following fictional works. You may come up with other labels that you prefer. But whatever terminology you use, the important aspect to remember is to notice how the setting contributes to the novel or story’s meaning.
In some novels the setting is so integral to the story’s effectiveness that it becomes a character in its own right. In this book 85-year-old Lillian Boxfish walks all over Manhattan on New Year’s Eve, 1984. Lillian worked in the advertising department of R.H. Macy’s department store and ascended to the top of this emerging profession. She was also a published poet with a modest amount of fame. As she walks all over her beloved Manhattan, she remembers both her own life experiences and the city in which they occurred. By the time she arrives back home, she has narrated not only her life story but also a tribute to the city that never sleeps in all its historic grandeur.
This novel is set in San Francisco—but not the charming city by the Bay with its quaint cable cars and magnificent vistas. No, in this city, soon-to-be-divorced Dr. Eldon Chance lives a life “wherein each day seemed at risk of being even more dimly lit than the one before it” (p. 7). A recent fire in the East Bay hills has left the area covered in ash: “Cars were made to appear uniform in color. It lay thick in the corners of things like drifts of dirty snow” (p. 9).
Much of the novel’s action takes place at night, in a dark world of deceit and criminal activity. This is the San Francisco of fog, mist, and nighttime crime, where thoughts and desires scuttle off down the darkest paths and then emerge from the depths to bite us. By inverting the typical postcard image of San Francisco, Nunn underscores the dark bleakness of the life Eldon Chance chooses to live.
Setting as Metaphor
“The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe 1839
In this gothic masterpiece an unnamed first-person narrator approaches the decaying family mansion of his childhood friend Roderick Usher. The narrator has been summoned there by a letter from Roderick, whom he has not seen for many years, to help allay a mental malady.
The narrator reads with Roderick in an attempt to lighten Roderick’s gloom. The body of Roderick’s twin sister has been placed in the family vault, but Roderick believes she is still alive. When the sister appears before Roderick and the narrator in her bloodstained shroud, brother and sister fall dead together.
The narrator quickly leaves. As he rides away on his horse, he turns for a final look at the family mansion:
The radiance was that of the full, setting, and blood-red moon, which now shone vividly through that once barely discernible fissure, of which I have spoken as extending from the roof of the building, in a zigzag direction, to the base. While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened—there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind—the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight—my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder—there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters—and the deep and dank tarn at my feel closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the “House of Usher.”
In his comprehensive analysis of Poe’s works, Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (Doubleday, 1972), Daniel Hoffman calls the House of Usher (not the story, but the building) “no house at all but a profound and intricate metaphor of the self” (p. 302). Hoffman describes the story as a compendium “of nearly all of Poe’s obsessional motifs, here joined together in a dazzling, garish, and intricately consistent pattern of concentric meanings” (p. 303).
However, one need not examine all of Poe’s writing to understand the point of this story, in which the house is a metaphor of dark family secrets and signifies the disintegration of the individuals who live there as well as of the family line and its dwelling.
The personification of a creepy old mansion or castle is a common characteristic of gothic novels such as Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.
Setting as Plot Necessity
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier 1951
Philip Ashley, age 24, narrates this first-person story of obsession. Philip was raised from early childhood by his older cousin, Ambrose, as heir to the Ashley estate. After Ambrose travels to Italy to check on some property, Philip receives a letter from Ambrose telling of his marriage to a woman named Rachel. As communication from Ambrose becomes less frequent and more mysterious, Philip decides that he must go to Italy to check on Ambrose himself.
Philip has lived his entire life on the Ashley estate, near a small village on the isolated coast of Cornwall in England. His experience of the world outside his home has been limited, and this novel amounts to his own telling of his coming-of-age story. Philip’s isolated living situation is a necessary part of the setting because his naiveté is central to the story.
The time of the setting is just as important as the location. Nowhere does the novel specify a year, but as Philip weighs the decision of whether to travel to Italy to check up on Ambrose, he notes that going himself will be more expedient than sending a letter. Although the trip to Italy by ship will take three weeks, sending a letter, which would travel on the same ship, would require three weeks plus another three weeks for a reply to arrive back in Cornwall. This setting before the arrival of any type of quick communication is crucial to the story because in Italy Philip learns a bit about Rachel, even though he doesn’t meet her. This information about Rachel feeds his speculation about her and her possible motivation for marrying Ambrose.
To say any more would spoil the pleasure of reading this novel. I love a good first-person narrator, and Daphne du Maurier is one of the best writers at creating such a character. Philip’s story requires the isolating setting of both time and place that contributes to his initiation into adulthood.
The best historical fiction aims to recreate the feel of both the time and place in which the action occurs. In works of historical fiction, setting takes center stage to communicate not only the physical artifacts but also the social and cultural milieu in which the characters live their stories.
In Cold Sassy Tree, Olive Ann Burns recreates life in a small town in rural Georgia at the beginning of the twentieth century. The main character is Will Tweedy, age 14, grandson of E. Rucker Blakeslee, proprietor of the town’s general store. As the novel opens, Grandfather Blakeslee, whose wife died only three weeks earlier, shocks the townsfolk by marrying one of his employees, Miss Love Simpson. His failure to live out the expected year of mourning offends his neighbors and shames his family. Furthermore, Miss Simpson is only half his age and—heaven forbid!—a Yankee.
In claiming the right to live his life as he sees fit, Grandfather Blakeslee becomes a spokesperson for the social changes beginning to chip away at the density of long-held Southern traditions in 1906. A concrete representation of the same phenomenon is the arrival of the automobile, which is about to expand the town’s world and drive it out of the old isolated world of the Confederacy into modern times. Cold Sassy Tree is a coming-of-age novel in which young Will Tweedy enters adulthood just as his hometown grows into the expanding world of a new century.
Setting in Speculative Fiction
The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
The term speculative fiction encompasses fantasy and science fiction, works of literature that take place in an imagined world. In a process called world building, authors of speculative fiction create a world whose setting contributes to the work’s meaning. As in historical fiction, setting takes center stage in speculative fiction.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is a good example of how setting functions in speculative fiction. In these works the author must build a complete world and communicate the details of that world to the reader as necessary throughout the book (or series). Before writing the series Rowling had created a complete and detailed outline of how the wizarding world worked, but if she had started out by explaining that world, she never would have gotten around to the story at the novels’ heart—and readers wouldn’t have kept reading. Rowling skillfully develops the reader’s understanding of the world at Hogwart’s by incorporating details as the story progresses, giving us tidbits as we need them to understand the significance of the characters’ actions and decisions.
It would be fair to say that Harry Potter’s world is so crucial to the series that the setting becomes a character in its own right, as it does in Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk. However, both of these examples illustrate how setting exists not just for its own sake, but rather in service to the human story at the novel’s center.