Literary Links

Is ‘devouring’ books a sign of superficiality in a reader?

Louise Adams discusses the history of the metaphor of eating as applied to reading. While the historical applications of the metaphor are informative, I’d like to focus on this point:

This metaphor, however, hasn’t always seemed so benign. Two hundred years ago, describing someone as ‘devouring’ a book would have been an act of moral censure. The long, turbulent relationship between reading and eating is invisible to modern eyes, yet in our media-soaked culture, it is more pertinent than ever. The unexamined language of ‘devouring’ idealises one kind of reading at the expense of others, leaving readers impoverished.

At the end of the article Adams comes back around to this same point:

The reading language of the past contains something precious that needs to be preserved, indeed celebrated, in the present. For centuries the rich contrasts of the reading-eating spectrum expressed a conviction that different kinds of reading mattered, and this conviction would serve us well in our media-fraught world. ‘Just reading’ is not good enough: we need to revive reading’s diversity. The language of digestion encourages slowed-down reading habits (along Slow Food lines). It reminds us to be more attentive to the subtle ways in which texts have been put together by their creators – to think before just bingeing upon pages.

In other words, she’s advocating that we slow down and consider while we’re reading. 

I’m a big fan of the slow reading movement. Although I never thought about the literal application of eating as a metaphor of reading, I do understand the distinction between devouring a novel (consuming it whole, quickly) and digesting it (reading deliberately, slowly enough to appreciate and analyze how it works).

And I admit that I always think of this distinction when people brag about reading 100-150 books a year. I’m retired, and I still can’t read anywhere near that number. And sometimes I can tell from comments on sites like Goodreads and Amazon that commenters have merely skimmed the book because they criticize the author for leaving out points that are in fact in the text. 

And see the next article for the latest research on “speed reading.”

Can People Really Learn to ‘Speed Read’?

“true speed reading — a boost in reading speed by at least three times without any loss in comprehension — isn’t supported by the science.”

Marcus Woo reports for Live Science. 

What happened when schools used science to revamp how reading is taught

Katherine Long reports in The Seattle Times on new methods of reading instruction showing promise in Pennsylvania.

Ralph Ellison’s Slow-Burning Art

Kevin Young, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library, discusses the recent publication by Random House of Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison. In 1967 a fire at Ellison’s country house destroyed the manuscript he was working on, “the much anticipated and already belated follow-up to his 1952 début, ‘Invisible Man.’” 

Young sees the publication of Selected Letters, which covers 60 years, “as another Ellisonian magnum opus, one necessarily unfinished.”

How Chinese Sci-Fi Conquered America

The publication of Ken Liu’s translation of The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin in 2014 “opened the floodgates for new translations of Chinese science fiction. This, in turn, has made Ken Liu a critical conduit for Chinese writers seeking Western audiences, a literary brand as sought-after as the best-selling authors he translates.” Often Ken Liu has to proceed carefully because:

Some of the writers Liu translates use the framework of science fiction to explore the dystopian consequences of China’s rapid economic and technological transformation, setting a story in the distant future or on another planet in order to tackle taboo issues like the lack of social freedoms, the exploitation of migrant workers, government land seizures, economic inequality and environmental destruction. In an odd inversion, some of the stories he has translated into English have not been officially published in China, at times because of their politically sensitive nature.

Here Alexandra Alter interviews Ken Liu about his life and translation work for The New York Times.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Literary Links

The first fairytales were feminist critiques of patriarchy. We need to revive their legacy

Melissa Ashley finds the origin of fairytales to “a coterie of 17th century French female writers known as the conteuses, or storytellers.” Fairytales “crystallised as a genre” in this time when women, sometimes as young as 15, were married off—often to men many years older than themselves—to protect family property. Women could not divorce, work, or control their inheritances. The conteuses’ stories “invited women to imagine greater freedom in their lives, to be their own authors of the most fundamental of all human endeavours – to be able to choose whom to love.”

THE LAST UNPROBLEMATIC OLD WHITE MALE AUTHORS (WE THINK)

In this age of #MeToo and disparagement of the Western literary canon as outmoded products from the minds of dead white guys, Dylan Brown argues that “there are, by my count, at least three old white guys (all of whom are alive!) who are still ‘safe’ to read.” Read why he finds the work of these three men “stands the test of time — even in these times. It is, in other words, enlightened despite their era”: Charles Portis (True Grit), Nicholson Baker (A Box of Matches), and Steven Millhauser (Martin Dressler).

WHEN YOU WRITE YOUR WORST FEARS IN YOUR NOVEL—AND THEN THEY COME TRUE

Six days before the publication of her first novel, Amber Cowie’s brother died. When she visited the room he had last inhabited, she sickeningly realized “the space was nearly identical to a scene I had written in my book.” Cowie found help in understanding her situation by examining the lives of writers Lois Duncan, who wrote about her daughter’s murder, and Shirley Jackson, whose last diary entries before her sudden death suggest she felt “a portending sense of loss and mystery.” 

Jackson, Duncan and I created stories that both reflected and predicted the things that scared us the most.

From Iliad to Inspiration: How Homer’s Epic Inspired My Debut Novel

Probably the question writers hear most often is “Where do you get your ideas?” Here Shannon Price describes how Homer’s Iliad, required reading in a required college course, inspired her first novel.

How Literary Translation Can Shift the Tides of Power

Whether it came from a news report, travel blog, film or work of fiction, our understanding of these far-flung countries [China, Japan, Korea] is limited by what gets translated into our language. But who and what determines which voices and whose stories we get to hear? Whose voices are we not hearing?

Jen Wei Ting explains the responsibilities she feels as a translator.

The Disappearance of John M. Ford

When a friend insisted he read The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford, Isaac Butler was dazzled by the book:

The Dragon Waiting is an unfolding cabinet of wonders. Over a decade before George R.R. Martin wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, Ford created an alternate-history retelling of the Wars of the Roses, filled with palace intrigue, dark magic, and more Shakespeare references than are dreamt of in our philosophy. The Dragon Waiting provokes that rare thrill that one gets from the work of Gene Wolfe, or John Crowley, or Ursula Le Guin. A dazzling intellect ensorcells the reader, entertaining with one hand, opening new doors with another.

Yet when Butler tried to buy more of Ford’s works, he found they were out of print and mostly not available even in used copies. He set out to discover how Ford had written such amazing books and why he was so unknown today. Butler’s investigation into Ford and his works makes for fascinating reading. Best of all, his work resulted in an agreement to republish Ford’s work, beginning in 2020.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Literary Links

These are some of the literature-related articles from around the web that caught my eye over the past week.

Quartzy    HALF OF ALL TRANSLATED BOOKS IN THE US COME FROM JUST NINE COUNTRIES

This one caught my eye because I’m trying to read more books translated from other languages this year. 

The good news: “In 2018, 632 never-before-translated books of fiction and poetry were published in the United States. It’s the fifth straight year the US has published more than 600 translations, quite the feat for a country that has long been accused of having an insular book culture.”

The bad news: “Of the nearly 5,800 books of fiction and poetry translated from 2008 to 2018, more than half were from just nine countries, seven of which are in Europe (the exceptions are Japan and China).”

These statistics are significant if one’s aim in reading more translated works is to learn about new cultures. European books, even though from other countries, are still western-civilization centric. Yes, they will teach us about other cultures, but not about the other cultures that are most different from out own, specifically eastern and African. This article points out that “only one book each was translated from Benin, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, Mali, and Myanmar.”

The New York Times   A Glimpse of Virginia Woolf’s Original Manuscript for ‘Mrs. Dalloway’

A look at how “the ‘big’ book she [Virginia Woolf] thought she should write was not really the book she wanted to write. The transition for her was understanding that a book about an outwardly ordinary woman on an ordinary day in London could be every bit as ‘big’ as the books about wars and revolutions.”

The Guardian   Nell Freudenberger: ‘Like many women I believed I didn’t have the right kind of brain for science’

The author of the recently released novel Lost and Wanted laments “the way girls and women are still so often held back from studying science.”

The New York Times    When the World’s Most Famous Mystery Writer Vanished

It was like a plot from one of her own novels: On the evening of Dec. 4, Agatha Christie, carrying nothing but an attaché case, kissed her daughter good night and sped away from the home in England that she shared with her husband, Col. Archibald Christie. (He was having an affair with a younger woman; the public did not know this, but his wife definitely did.) No one knew where Christie was for almost two weeks.

Literary Hub   What the 39,933 Items on Peter Matthiessen’s Computer Mean for the Art of Biography

Lance Richardson, currently working on a biography of writer Peter Matthiessen (1927-2014) discusses the challenges of what he calls “a bifurcated archive” comprising both physical items and digital files. The differences between these two types of materials “will have inevitable effects on the shape and form of tomorrow’s histories” and biographies.

The Seattle Times   ‘No-No Boy’ went from unknown book to classic thanks to UW Press and Asian American writers. Now, it’s at the center of a controversy

This is a local story for me, but it has wider interest because of its tie to copyright law and the David-and-Goliath issue of a small academic (University of Washington) press vs.the publishing giant Penguin Random House. The book in question also keeps alive the story of the internment of Japanese U.S. citizens during World War II. The author, John Okada, was “a Seattle native and University of Washington graduate who served in the U.S. Army during the war, even as his family was forced to relocate to an internment camp.”

The New York Times   Naomi Wolf’s Publisher Delays Release of Her Book

The recent controversy over “Outrages” highlights the perils that publishers face in a competitive market where juicy nonfiction books that feature explosive claims can command the highest sales but are sometimes not vigorously fact-checked or vetted in advance of publication.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown