Tuesday, March 20, 2012

On Rereading

Ever notice how rereading can reveal how much you've changed since the first time you experienced a book or story? Ellen over at Fat Books inadvertently reminded me I've been meaning to write a bit about this. I might even posit that rereads reveal more about yourself than first-time reads. (Later viewings of films/movies can have the same effect, though to a lesser degree.) Many have theories on how much or how little we change over time, but the differences can be both subtle and drastic at the same time. Subtle shifts in perspective and attitudes can lead to a drastically different experience of exactly the same words - but not necessarily exactly the same story, since as readers we insert aspects of ourselves into what we read.

I noticed this most acutely when I reread The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy last fall, previously one of my all-time favorite books, but no more. I still love the writing and the language - and even the story to a point. But it's an overwhelmingly tragic and sad story, jumping about through time to slowly reveal why the twins are possibly irreparably  damaged, wandering aimlessly through the ruins of their lives. Are the young, or at least those fortunate enough to have never had to experience true strife up to that point, more drawn to tragedy? Do they find it more romantic, more appealing somehow? I must have, but I definitely don't anymore.

Roy paints a story in which almost all of the 'adults' during the twins' childhood have very few redeemable qualities, and the twins suffer the consequences of their actions within a prejudiced society built around the caste system. Their adult selves are basically ghosts, hollowed-out husks of what they could have been. It's still a beautiful novel and definitely worth reading, revolving around a rich, colorful culture but also a strikingly rigid society based on strict interpretations of class. Just don't expect to come away feeling all happy-gooey about humanity (not that I ever do, really, but it's nice to at least find elements of redemption, or even just the possibility of redemption).

The first time I read this, on the very strong you-have-to-read-this-Right-Now recommendation of a friend, I believe I was a fresh-faced new college graduate, newly supplanted to New York City, wandering anonymously through the bustling, gritty humdrum of the city. (Or it was my last spring break during which I visited NYC - either way, for some reason I associate my first reading with the city.) I was fairly naive and extraordinarily trusting, though also painfully shy. I'm not really many of those things anymore, at least not nearly to the degree I was then. Still fiercely introverted but not so much shy, still occasionally clueless but the awfulness of which humanity is capable no longer shocks me to the same degree. Tragedy is just tragic; it's not romantic, it's usually not enlightening, and it's always always unnecessary, and, apart from natural disasters, always completely avoidable. Perhaps that was the ultimate point of the novel, one that touched me then in a way that seems obvious to me now.

Other rereads have produced similar results, not always that I enjoy the novel less - sometimes I like it much more. Vonnegut's fatalism seems much more smack-you-in-the-face now than it did 15 years ago. And it's not just specific books but even types of stories. Forbidden love, especially when it's forbidden because one or both the parties are married, is just eye-rollingly tiresome, and not romantic.  Have you had this experience? Have you noticed your tastes changing over time to the point that rereads are completely different experiences?

Sunday, March 11, 2012


What's up with this guy? 

He seems to be morally opposed to Twitter. Apparently he thinks people are trying to tweet their entire dissertations or well-researched and supported arguments in 140 characters or less:

Twitter is unspeakably irritating. Twitter stands for everything I oppose ... It's hard to cite facts or create an argument in 140 characters … It's like if Kafka had decided to make a video semaphoring The Metamorphosis. Or it's like writing a novel without the letter 'P'… It's the ultimate irresponsible medium. People I care about are readers … particularly serious readers and writers, these are my people. And we do not like to yak about ourselves.

Um, yes, it's very hard to create an entire argument replete with citations and support in 140 characters or less. It's also hard to call something 140 characters long a novel, or a book, or a run-on sentence. Which is why no one uses Twitter to do that. Twitter is not supposed to replace novels or essays or long-form. It's just a tool to help discover long-form arguments and articles, to share them with those that might be interested. It's there to help disseminate information and events and opinions. Is that what he's against? Sharing information and opinions? You don't get twitter,  or you do and you don't like it, so... don't use it. Simple. It is not the scurge of society. It is a tool that's only as good as the people that wield it, like any other.

That he's "opposed" to Twitter is no surprise. Last year he bemoaned the evils of Facebook, seeming to think it turns us all into narcissistic attention monsters:

Our lives look a lot more interesting when they're filtered through the sexy Facebook interface. We star in our own movies, we photograph ourselves incessantly, we click the mouse and a machine confirms our sense of mastery.

And, since our technology is really just an extension of ourselves, we don't have to have contempt for its manipulability in the way we might with actual people. It's all one big endless loop. We like the mirror and the mirror likes us. To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors.

First, "sexy Facebook interface" - really? And this was before the timeline, which is at least an improvement in the look of the profile. Clearly this dude's got low standards when it comes to "sexy interfaces." Second, "private hall of flattering mirrors"? I wish. It's more like being trapped in the private hell of high schooly cliquishness. Nothing like learning about births and engagements and marriages of friends formerly considered close via Facebook. But hey, at least I'm in "the loop," or something. 

But I digress regressively into my childhood wall flowered self (Franzen, are you wearing off on me?). I'm clearly not Facebook's biggest fan, but I don't think all its 800M+ account holders are hopeless narcissistic automatons addictively clicking every "like" button they happen across. Sure, I have some pictures on there, and I'm even in some of them, and I've "liked" some stuff too, oh my, but I mostly use the service to stay in touch with certain people with whom I otherwise wouldn't be in touch and to share interesting or ridiculous or infuriating articles. Goodreads automatically lets everyone know what I'm reading (not seriously, if it's an ebook, obviously), mostly because I am under the delusion that all of my "friends" are precariously balanced on their seats' edges, waiting to see what I'll read next. And much as I hate to admit it, (but in the spirit of giving credit where credit is due), my now spouse and I reconnected across a couple thousand miles on the site almost 5 years ago, before it had become the monolith it is today. And... that's about it for me and the old FB. 

This particular piece is obviously not entirely about Facebook, and is well written and makes some valid points about our growing and disturbing obsession with technology, and about the dangers of mistaking the more sterile online connections for real-life connections. And he admits to his crankiness. 

But when coupled with his recent denigration of ebooks (and those unserious readers that read them) and his unspeakable irritation with Twitter of which he miraculously managed to speak, it just makes him sound like an ungrateful, clueless curmudgeon who refuses to admit the value and usefulness of some of these new technologies. 

I've already spoken of my distaste for snooty formatists, but let me reiterate. Get over yourselves. You prefer "real" books, fine, then don't buy an ereader and read only "real" books. That's your prerogative, and I have nothing against you for making your own personal reading choice. I myself embrace all formats. Franzen, clearly, does not

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...Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do. When I read a book, I'm handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing - that's reassuring. Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it's just not permanent enough.

Okay, he's OCD, and he never feels finished with his work, and needs the physicality of printed text on paper to convince him that it's over, the book is done, so stop futzing with it. That's fine, but his lamentation of the "impermanence" of ebooks verses the "permanence" of paper books is just plain silly - look around! Nothing at all in life is permanent, buddy. Printed books are not permanent. Permanent implies unalterable, indestructible, will never not be there, etc. But "permanent" is just long-term temporary. But that's a philosophical discussion, to be saved for another time. Still: let's say my house burns down. (House, this is not an invitation to burn down. Please stay standing. I've knocked on wood and everything. I would thank you to remain a house.) All my physical books are destroyed, and so is my ereader. But hey look! I can get another ereader, and all my ebooks are still readily available! I'd even be convinced that the text hadn't changed. 

I'm really not dissing physical books - I love them. I have too many of them. But I also love the convenience of reading ebooks. (See former post for why.) I'm only saying that "permanence" is in the beholder's eye, and Franzen should allow for the existence of alternative preferences that are not ipso facto inferior to his own.

I can only conclude that Franzen is "opposed" to people like me, since he basically has deemed me a narcissist, a non-serious reader, and ultimately irresponsible, by virtue of the fact that I use Facebook, read ebooks, and tweet. So. I can't say I'm rushing out to read his novels, or to write about them, or tweet about them, or share that I'm reading them on Facebook. I'm sure he's a smart guy and all, but he should be a little more careful with his snobbery and insults. 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Literary Blog Hop: Who's got time to read? And why's reading important anyway?

Literary Blog Hop

It's Literary Blog Hop time again, hosted by The Blue Bookcase. This month's question:
How do you find time to read, what's your reading style and where do you think reading literature should rank in society's priorities? 
Finding time to read: It's not so much about finding time but making time. Last year I managed to plan a wedding and to read more books than I had in years, and twice as much as I'd read the year before. I usually have a book with me, so I not only read at home before sleeping and on weekends, but whenever I have downtime or free time. Long line at the supermarket? Pull out the book. Computer crashing and rebooting? Let's read a couple pages. I have to admit, this method doesn't work so well with short stories, so I tend to stick to novels and full length books. I also listen to audiobooks occasionally, though I haven't been able to utilize that method as well as others. Oh, how I miss passive commuting.

Ebooks make it very easy - especially when you can sync across devices. (I'm totally with C-C here.) Then I can just look like I'm casually checking something on my phone instead of blatantly reading a book because I'm that bored with everything going on around me. Still rude, sure, but for some ridiculous reason it's somewhat socially tolerable (I can't go so far as to say acceptable) to pay attention to your phone but not so much a book. I figure if people I'm with have no problem constantly texting or checking their email or blogging or whatever, then I can certainly read. I am by no means a fast reader, so making time to read is important.

Reading style: I'm not a terribly big annotator - but I highlight/underline a lot. With library books, I use those little post-it flags for marking passages and actual post-its for writing comments. Blogging has changed how I read, making me pay more attention like I might have back at college, but hopefully I'm just so engaged in the text that I'm not constantly stopping to mark things. It really depends on the book.

Literature's priority in society: Reading actual literature should rank pretty highly in society's priorities, though it certainly doesn't. I find reading incredibly important and enjoyable, on a level that television just can't quite reach. Sure you can be engaged in a show or a film, but you're usually not required to do much of the work. Reading is more active than watching - you have to use your imagination to fill in the visuals. In the case of non-fiction, you are hopefully learning something new or coming to understand a new perspective, or adding to your knowledge base.

With all the new technology bombarding us, we have to learn to prioritize, to use the new mediums at our disposal effectively and efficiently (but let's not dismiss them entirely). Prioritizing reading, getting people to engage with the written word in this age of 24 hour news, dozens of social media options, the drive to disconnectedly stay connected - it's a major challenge. It's part of the reason I signed up for World Book Night (though, really, how I'm going to approach random strangers and try to convince them to take a book from me is still a mystery - we shall see!) - reading can be such an enriching experience that it's almost sinful that so many are missing out.

I could go on and on, but that would be silly. I'm most likely preaching to a bored choir. But what do you think? Any tricks for making time to read? How do you rate reading in your own priorities? Where should it fall, generally?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Rook by Daniel O'Malley: Impressions

To say I enjoyed The Rook by Daniel O'Malley* would be a painful understatement. This was the most fun I've had reading in quite some time. Now, if you are not into books or stories that have anything to do with the supernatural, don't get too excited; this book is most definitely not up your alley. However, if you are, and you've just been waiting for something like the x-men running an MI-5-type secret branch of the government, complete with a secluded boarding school, dangerous conspiracies, campy humor and an amnesiac superhero protagonist, well, you should read this. Right now.

The book opens with Myfanwy (I keep having to check the spelling - it's a Welsh name, the novel explains, and is pronounced like Tiffany with an M, it says, although later it seems that might not be accurate after all, but it's ok, because most of us do not have Welsh alter-egos monitoring our inner mispronunciation of Welsh names and words) Thomas standing in the rain surrounded by dead bodies wearing latex gloves, and she has absolutely no idea who she is or what's going on. She reaches into her pocket and finds a letter from her former self who had been warned something like this could happen & was uberprepared for just such a thing.

And so we are introduced to the former Myfanwy Thomas, whom we learn about through her series of meticulously written letters describing who she was and as much as she knows about the conspiracy that lead to her amnesia. We learn about her job as a "Rook" (yes, after the chess pieces) with the super secret super powered Chequy, the supernaturally-inclined version of the MI-5. In order to determine who has stolen her memories and who is out to destroy her, amnesiac Myfanwy must fake her way through her role as a high-level executive with the aid of the letters and a binder chock full of histories of the organization and the high-leveled people with in it. She must come to grips with 4 bodies that share one brain, a woman who can enter her dreams, a house covered in what I couldn't help but picture as pink poltergeist goo absorbing all the inhabitants into a hive mind of some kind, and a weird conspiracy replete with mutants that were built instead of born.

That's the basic premise, and I don't want to say too much more for fear of giving anything away. I'm not saying this is a literary masterpiece, but it's a fantastic, imaginative, highly engaging, smartly ridiculous and cleverly wrought story. If you happen to have enjoyed Joss Whedon & The Bourne Identity, I think you'll really like this book.

*I received this book courtesy of Little, Brown and Company through NetGalley.
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