This Week In My Classes: Letting Go

scaffoldingWe are rapidly nearing the end of term, which means a lot of time and thought on all sides is going into final assignments. In my Intro to Lit class, I’m particularly conscious of this phase of the course as a time in which I pull back and see if the scaffolding I have tried to build for the students, starting on the first day of classes, supports them now that they have to do their biggest independent project. Last week I gave them a self-assessment exercise that, among other things, asked them to let me know what they thought the teaching staff could do to help them succeed — what else, I should say, since it’s not as if my TAs and I have been passive so far. It was useful to see what they identified as their own strengths and weaknesses. Their anxiety pretty clearly centers on building a viable and interesting argument out of the details they notice while reading. A number of students said that they wished we would “explain” the readings to them more clearly: as I discussed with the class, if this means “tell them the answer to the readings,” tell them what to argue about them, then they aren’t going to get their wish, since learning to develop and support their own interpretations is really the primary course objective. I’ve been stressing the process that leads to a good interpretation, which is what we model and practice in every class, but I’m not going to offer them a “nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of [their] notebooks and keep on the mantel-piece forever,” even if (as Woolf ironically observes) this is “the first duty of a lecturer.”

escher12Still, I can see that it’s stressful working towards a goal that maybe you can’t quite picture, not having seen a strong thesis before, or not having seen details from a close reading integrated into an essay’s overall argument. So I devised a couple of exercises that I hope have helped bring that desired result into better focus, including a handout with a sample paragraph drawing on an example we’d worked on together in class, and in today’s tutorial we’re working with a sample thesis statement for a text they aren’t writing on for their final essays (as I told them, I don’t want 61 essays all arguing for my interpretation of Unless!) and, again, a process-oriented worksheet focusing on choosing good evidence and organizing it into an interpretive argument. I hope this boosts their confidence about what to do — what steps to take — and makes them feel better about the fact that they need to do it in service of their best reading and thinking about the novel. I have said since day 1 that there aren’t “right answers” to the kind of work a critic does. There can be wrong ones (if you just flat out misunderstand the words on the page, for instance), but after that there are just better, more convincing ones or weaker, less persuasive ones. Next week they have drafts due and tutorials will be spent on peer editing, so that gives them one more chance to run their plans past another reader before they commit fully.

mylifeinmiddlemarchMy graduate students too are facing end-of-term hurdles. Here my scaffolding has been somewhat less meticulous or overt, but I hope our directed conversations all term have given them lots of ideas to work with as well as a good sense of how to talk about them. They also wrote proposals for their final essays last week, which I have returned to them with comments and suggestions. For the next two weeks, our class time will be dedicated to their presentations. In previous years I’ve integrated presentations into the term’s work, but this year I wanted to use them to extend our class discussions beyond the assigned readings, so I have two students presenting on works by George Eliot that weren’t otherwise on our syllabus, and three presenting on contemporary interpretations of Eliot’s work — Diana Souhami’s Gwendolen, Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, and the BBC adaptation of Daniel Deronda. (These were the students’ choices from a menu of options I gave them.) I’m looking forward to these! I have kept my own reviews of Souhami and Mead a bit under wraps (though I suppose the students might turn them up during their research) as I didn’t want to preempt what might be very different responses.

In terms of my own teaching chores, I’m in a bit of a lull at this point. There are still classes to prep on Unless, but I’ve got notes to work with, and I’ve drafted both the quiz I still need to give in Intro and the peer editing worksheet they’ll use. It will all come crashing upon me at once as soon as classes actually end, though, with both sets of papers coming in and the final exam for Intro scheduled the very first day of the exam period. I’m taking advantage of this week’s lighter demands by getting a start on the syllabi for next term. I’m also digging in to Portrait of a Lady, which I had been making only slow progress on. It really isn’t that irritating, it turns out — or maybe I’m just acclimatizing.

Update: As Stacey requested in the comments, here are the handouts I drew up for my Intro class to model and them help them practice moving from close reading details to using those details to support an interpretation: English 1010 Worksheets Close Reading in Context.

Spenser and Susan and Not Minding

fortunesmilesIt has continued to be a busy and fairly miscellaneous period at work — meaning both at my “day job” (since when was being a teacher of any kind ever a job that got done during the day?) and at Open Letters. After a particularly good couple of days, though, I’m feeling on top of things. Not 100% “caught up” (since when was either teaching or writing a job at which you could ever be completely caught up?), but as if the welter of tasks is under control. Probably my biggest single recent accomplishment is that I finally got the draft of my Fortune Smiles review off to my co-editors for their input: I actually started reading and thinking about the book before I even considered writing up Big Magic, so it was starting to feel burdensome not having gotten the project done. The book is superb (it just won the National Book Award, so clearly my admiration is widely shared); it’s also creepy and sad and, sometimes, uncomfortably funny. I read a lot more long than short fiction, so I’m used to working on a review that’s unified by the entirety of the book: figuring out how to manage the material in Fortune Smiles, as well as how to frame it so the review itself cohered, was an interesting new challenge. In less than a week, you’ll see how it turned out!

But this post is actually about the reading I’ve been doing in between all the real work and required reading: a rash of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels. I’ve said more than once that someday I’d like to write a piece on the whole series along the lines of what I did with Dick Francis — not that it would lead me to anything like the same conclusions, but that these books too, considered as a totality, offer patterns worth thinking about. I know that Parker has already attracted more critical attention than Francis: that in itself is thought-provoking. I expect it’s because Parker so deliberately positions himself in the hard-boiled tradition of Hammett and Chandler, and because his novels are so conspicuously clever, even cheeky, about both gender and racial politics. Practically every conversation between Spenser and Hawk is as much about being black and being white in America as it is about whatever their ostensible topic is — though what precisely Parker is saying to us, through them, about race is something I wouldn’t want to pronounce on (yet, anyway), maybe because I’m afraid that if I think hard and carefully about it, I’ll discover that there are good reasons their banter shouldn’t delight me as much as it does. I’m sure that when I go looking, I will find that this is one aspect of the series that critics have already examined in some detail.

valedictionThe books are particularly interested in a chivalric version of masculinity which is at once idealized and warned against. One of the things Susan Silverman notes most often about Spenser is that he has found a vocation that allows him to use his moral absolutism and propensity for violence in the service of good; one of the things Spenser broods about, when a pause in the action allows, is whether he is drawing the right lines between what he can and can’t (or, should and shouldn’t) do with his strength. The few times he gets it wrong are among the most interesting for the development of his character: I just reread Valediction (#11), for instance, in which he is led astray and nearly killed by a young woman who takes advantage of his do-gooder instincts — a familiar enough hard-boiled trope, but one that feels more surprising in Parker’s world than in Chandler’s because Parker’s women characters do not typically fit into the angel / femme fatale dichotomy, and many of them are as strong in their own ways as the League of Spenser’s Super Friends are in their excessively manly ones. Parker’s heroic males are actually more limited as character types: to a man, they are tough, uncommunicative, resolute, and (of course) 100% devoted to Susan. (I also just reread A Catskill Eagle, in which they all band together to get her out of trouble.)

The other thing Parker’s manly men all are, though, is voyeuristic, sometimes offensively so, and I’ve been wondering why that hardly bothers me at all. It’s not that I have no misgivings about their whole manly-man thing in a more general way, but overall I enjoy the artifice and the self-consciousness of it: they enact a fantasy, in every novel, in which good triumphs over evil, and given how hard it is sometimes to believe in that possibility, I quite like living vicariously in a world in which it’s a sure thing. I like it so much, in fact, that I basically give them a pass for all their ogling. (It never crosses over into catcalling or any more active interference, or I would be far less sanguine about it.) If I think about this aspect of the novels harder and more carefully, will I discover layers of irony that excuse both their behavior and my indulgence of it, or will I conclude that I’ve let myself down as a feminist by not letting it undermine my admiration of their moral clarity and firmness of purpose? There’s a third option, of course, in which I just don’t take the novels that seriously and so what does it matter, anyway, if the heroes are also, intermittently, sexist pigs? I think we all know in our hearts that this is a bit of a cop-out. But if novels had to pass a Purity of Principle test to be beloved, I’d have to give up a lot of my own favorites — so if there’s no way out for Spenser and his buddies, that doesn’t mean I’ll toss my copies of the books. This flaw in Parker’s worldview would just become one more thing I know about the series.

catskillThe other thing I don’t mind but suspect maybe I should is Susan herself. There’s a lot I like about her as a character, including the way Parker uses her strengths, especially of psychological insight, to complement Spenser’s much less articulate moral instincts. She isn’t quite the brain to his brawn, but there’s a bit of that: at her best, she helps him resolve cases by the way she thinks about them and helps him understand them. But why must she eat and drink so very little, so very slowly? To Spenser, her quirks (she can’t cook! she scatters her clothes around!) are part of her perfection, but sometimes I worry that they trivialize her. What is it about her that inspires such absolute loyalty among all these manly men, too? We’re told incessantly how beautiful she is, in Spenser’s eyes anyway, but she never actually does anything that seems worthy of all the devotion. OK, it turns out there are quite a few things about her that I do mind — maybe because in A Catskill Eagle she is pretty much a drip from start to finish — but overall, I accept her as part of the Parker universe, even as its lodestar.

I asked once before whether I was making excuses for Gaudy Night — sidelining its faults (ideological and otherwise) because I love it so. In that case, I had a lot of answers ready to explain why my reading of the novel is, if not definitive, at least defensible. In this case I don’t even have excuses, or alternative interpretations, to settle my own reservations. I’m almost certainly going to keep on enjoying the Spenser novels, but I wonder how much of my tolerance is just loyalty, or familiarity: I’ve been reading them for decades, after all.

Are there books you can tell have problems, of this kind or some other, but for whatever reason, you don’t really mind? What makes the difference for you between books you can and books you can’t let off the hook?

Happy Birthday, Marian Evans!

Durade GEThe woman we now refer to almost exclusively as ‘George Eliot’ was born on this day in 1819. Imagine the bicentennial celebrations we’ll be having in a few years! I hope so, anyway. Remember all the hoopla for the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice? Surely the author of Middlemarch deserves at least as much fanfare — even if her books almost never leave us feeling altogether like celebrating.

I’ve written so much about George Eliot here over the years (and here — more than once — and here, and here) that it almost feels redundant to say anything more. And yet there always turns out to be more I want to say, which is one of the reasons I admire and appreciate her novels so much. Little did I know when I plucked a random edition of Middlemarch off the bookstore shelf for reading on the train during a youthful odyssey across Europe that the book would end up making more difference to my life than anything else I read or saw or did during those eventful six months. “Destiny stands by sarcastic,” as she said herself, “with our dramatis personae folded in her hand.” (Whatever your experience, she always turns out to have anticipated it in a wise, witty, or tender saying.)

I don’t know a more apt or moving tribute to George Eliot than Virginia Woolf’s:

Triumphant was the issue for her, whatever it may have been for her creations, and as we recollect all that she dared and achieved, how with every obstacle against her – sex and health and convention – she sought more knowledge and more freedom till the body, weighted with its double burden, sank worn out, we must lay upon her grave whatever we have it in our power to bestow of laurel and rose.

I’ve never had the opportunity to lay a literal bouquet on her grave. The next time I travel to England, I hope finally to make it to Highgate Cemetery — my own modest pilgrimage in honor of a brave and brilliant woman whose work has been an inspiration, a provocation, and a comfort to me for almost three decades. Until then, my own writing — thin and inadequate as it inevitably is by comparison — is the best tribute I can offer.

Henry James Writes Irritating Sentences

henryjamesWe interrupt our regular programming (specifically, a pending but dispensable installment of ‘This Week In My Classes,’ featuring more moping about how badly Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own always seems to go over with my first-year students, plus some rueful ruminations on my own inability to shut up and let the students in my graduate seminar talk more) for this important preliminary observation about rereading The Portrait of a Lady:

Henry James writes irritating sentences.

Why is that? Or should I say, why do his sentences irritate me so often? Is this (like my tepid response to The Good Soldier) “some sort of Victorianist glitch”? But isn’t James sort of a Victorian? Portrait was originally published in 1880-81, and Daniel Deronda (which started me down this road) was published in 1876. That said, I see that the text of the Norton Critical Edition of Portrait which I’m reading is that of the 1908 New York edition, for which he made, my editor reports, “more than five thousand substantive revisions.” The blame for my annoyance may lie with the nearly thirty years his style had to evolve (or perhaps devolve) beyond its preliminary Victorianism. And in fact the first sentence in the volume that really irked me was from the 1908 Preface to the New York edition:

Trying to recover here, for recognition, the germ of my idea, I see that it must have consisted not at all in any conceit of a “plot,” nefarious name, in any flash, upon the fancy, of a set of relations, or in any one of those situations that, by a logic of their own, immediately fall, for the fabulist, into movement, into a march or a rush, a patter of quick steps; but altogether in the sense of a single character, the character and aspect of a particular engaging young woman, to which all the usual elements of a “subject,” certainly of a setting, were to need to be super-added.

Is it just me, or do you too feel the urge to yell “just spit it out, Henry!” about half-way along? It doesn’t get any better with the next sentence, either:

Quite as interesting as the young woman herself, at her best, do I find, I must again repeat, this projection of memory upon the whole matter of the growth, in one’s imagination, of some such apology for a motive.

Well, you get the idea. For people who like that sort of sentence, that is of course just the kind of sentence that they like — and usually they really really like it. In my long-ago essay on The Golden Bowl, I quoted critic Robert Reilla’s somewhat sarcastic description of the “Jamesian” point of view:

For the Jamesian, the work of James is really above and beyond most other fiction; it is a high palace of art which he enters with genuine reverence, by virtue of those qualities which James himself required of the ideal critic—perception at the pitch of passion, insight that is only once removed from the original creative act.  In James’s work the Jamesian perceives the quintessence of conscious art; he learns to delight in the process of total artistic consciousness presenting, or projecting, vessels of consciousness nearly as full as its own.  And after Bach, who can descend to Strauss, or even Wagner?  For the Jamesian, only James is really satisfactory—other fiction seems fumbling and accidental, or easy and obvious, or simply gross.  The Jamesian nearly always speaks from heights; it is impossible for him not to judge by Jamesian standards, because in order to become a Jamesian he has had to ascend to these standards

It’s true that there’s nothing “easy and obvious” about the sentences I’ve quoted, though whether they are “fumbling” might be in the eye of the beholder.

nortonportraitSo far (a mere 75 pages into this edition’s 490) the prose of Portrait itself is only occasionally as baroque as the Preface, but the sentences do often have a similar halting quality (“he was not romantically, he was much rather obscurely, handsome”). More frequently, they oblige me to start them over because I’ve lost track along the way of exactly what the subject and main verb are:

Altogether, with her meager knowledge, her inflated ideals, her confidence at once innocent and dogmatic, her temper at once exacting and indulgent, her mixture of curiosity and fastidiousness, of vivacity and indifference, her desire to look very well and to be if possible even better, her determination to see, to try, to know, her combination of the delicate, desultory, flame-like spirit and the eager and personal creature of conditions: she would be an easy victim of scientific criticism if she were not intended to awaken on the reader’s part an impulse more tender and more purely expectant.

Actually, that one seemed much clearer as I typed it out than it had when I read it on the page: is there a lesson in that? James exemplifies the “writerly” writer, after all: he has little interest in engaging his reader in that chummy Victorian way.

Still, compared to The Golden Bowl, Portrait is already infinitely simpler — at times, it’s almost epigrammatic in its directness. And yet it somehow radiates artifice, particularly in the dialogue, which sometimes seems almost unbearably stagey:

“Isabel will enjoy puzzling a lord,” Mrs. Touchett remarked.

Her son frowned a little. “What does she know about lords?”

“Nothing at all: that will puzzle him all the more.”

Aren’t they clever? Isn’t he, their author, clever? Now I’m irritated again.

portraitOUPI’m not irritated at Isabel, though. In the Preface James quotes a line from Daniel Deronda that captures the inspiration for his own novel: “In these frail vessels is borne onward through the ages the treasure of human affection.” “How absolutely, how inordinately,” he says, these frail vessels “insist on mattering”: what he wanted was to write a novel in which, despite that fragility, the “vessel” would bear the whole weight, without “having [her] inadequacy eked out with comic relief and underplots,” as he notes George Eliot did with Hetty and Maggie and Rosamond and Gwendolen. “Place the centre of the subject in the young woman’s own consciousness,” as he puts it, “and you get as interesting and as beautiful a difficulty as you could wish. . . . So far I reasoned,

and it took nothing less than that technical rigour, I now easily see, to inspire me with the right confidence for erecting on such a plot of ground the neat and careful and proportioned pile of bricks that arches over it and that was thus to form, constructionally speaking, a literary monument.

“Constructionally speaking”? Whatever you say, Henry! But there’s no doubt that it’s an interesting, perhaps even a monumental undertaking, and despite my intermittent aggravation I’m already enjoying both reading and thinking about the novel. At times Isabel does sound very like Gwendolen: “she only had a general idea that people were right when they treated her as if she were rather superior.” She seems much kinder and more open-hearted (and open-minded) than Gwendolen, though: she is accustomed to having her own way and her own opinions, but she shows no hunger for mastery; she would not strangle her sister’s canary bird for interrupting her singing! In fact, she has an almost Dorothea-like desire “to feel the continuity between the movements of her own soul and the agitations of the world.” The brief exchange that seems, more than any other moment, to define Isabel’s character is not irritating but thrilling: “I always want to know the things one shouldn’t do,” she tells her aunt.

“So as to do them?” asked her aunt.

“So as to choose,” said Isabel.

#Sigh: Another Miscellaneous Week

hunt7Has it really been a week since my last post? I wish I had more to show for it, but it has not been that kind of week. For one thing, I came down with a cold — not a bad one, but bad enough to sap my energy, disrupt my sleep, and generally make it harder to get through the demands of an ordinary day. Colds are such undignified ailments, aren’t they? And precisely because they are both minor and common, you can’t really justify taking any actual sick days.

Luckily for me, though, last week included not just Remembrance Day, which is a statutory holiday, but Dalhousie’s Study Day — plus, on the theory that attendance was likely to be terrible on the one day in between those two days off and the weekend, I had preemptively cancelled the Friday tutorials for my Intro class and replaced them with extra office hours. So I did get a break from the parts of the job that are hardest to manage when you can’t breathe very well: instead of lecturing or leading discussion, I marked quizzes and essays and reread the first half of Daniel Deronda.

It would be nice if the change in schedule had allowed me to concentrate on some good reading that I could then have blogged about. It didn’t work out that way, though. For one thing, I got very preoccupied with a work issue that took both a lot of emotional energy and a lot of actual time to deal with. On top of that, we had some serious technical problems on the larger Open Letters Monthly site, in which this blog is embedded, that literally blocked me from Novel Readings for some time. Also, the most interesting reading I’ve done recently is Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles, but I’m working on a formal review of that for OLM so I don’t want to go into detail about it here. Then on Friday the terrible events in Paris unfolded, and that made it hard to imagine writing about something else for a while.

So, here I am again, at the end of another week that has left Novel Readings a bit neglected. That’s how blogging goes, though, or at least how this blog has always gone for me: it ebbs and flows with the rhythms of my life, rather than being coerced into a regular schedule. I don’t feel guilty when I don’t blog better or more often: why would I? It wouldn’t make any sense, since I’m not answerable to anyone about it. I just feel disappointed, because I really like writing here, especially about books that have stimulated, moved, or provoked me, and when I’m not doing that kind of writing here, it’s often a sign that I’m not quite living the life I want. Well, to everything there is a season, right? And I’m feeling perkier and looking forward to next week in my classes: we’re wrapping up A Room of One’s Own in Intro and then starting Unless, and we’re starting Daniel Deronda in the George Eliot seminar.

Amis and Spenser and Scandal, Oh My!

amisIt seems like too long since I wrote a detailed, thoughtful book post. Sadly, that’s not about to change! My activities for the past week or so have just been too miscellaneous, including my reading. I can’t really blame Joseph Anton, as I mostly turn to that late in the evening when I might otherwise be watching TV. I am starting to wonder how much longer I will persist with it, though, because I’m starting to feel a bit bogged down in it. After all these hours we’re barely a year past the fatwa: much as the whole situation engages and enrages me, there’s a fair bit of repetition in the day-to-day details, and I’m not sure if there are any more big twists to come. (I feel petty for saying that! I don’t mean to underestimate the outrage and personal devastation involved. But there’s definitely a blow-by-blow quality to the account of it all at this point.)

The slump in my extra-curricular reading is really more a function of being generally busy, though. It’s a point in the term when a lot is going on at once, and when marking essays takes over what would otherwise be class prep time, which in turn moves class prep into what would be reading time. We also had some things to do for family and fun last week: a chamber music concert on Wednesday, the fundraising “Coffee House” and auction at Maddie’s school on Friday, and then the Christmas craft fair on Saturday, which Maddie now accompanies me to. Considering what hermits we mostly are, this seemed like a lot of social activity in a hurry!

To top it all off, my book group met yesterday to discuss Kingsley Amis’s Ending Up. What a nasty little book it is! But it’s pretty funny, which is of course a particularly uncomfortable combination. We had chosen it as our follow-up to Elegy for Iris but for me at least Elegy for Iris (though infinitely sadder, because, after all, it’s not fiction) was a much more humane book. Ending Up did prompt some intense discussion, but less of the book (which none of us particularly liked) and more of the general topics of aging and death. Ending Up certainly does not indulge in any sentiment about either!

I was startled to realize that as of this month my book club has been meeting for five years! Our membership has shifted around a bit since our first session on Morley Callaghan’s Such Is My Beloved, but not by much, and I think we have developed a good personal rapport as well as a satisfying standard of discussion. A lot of my initial skepticism about book clubs has been worn away by the experience, mostly because we are all enthusiastic readers and everyone is committed to actually talking about the books: our meetings have never been just excuses for socializing. I have come to really enjoy hearing such a range of opinions and observations about everything we read. I do still feel frustrated sometimes by the scattershot nature of the discussion. I’m reminded every time, in fact, just how much managerial work goes into even the most wide-ranging seminar discussion, where questions are usually pursued to specific examples and at least provisional conclusions before a change of topics. Nobody’s in charge at our book club meetings, and it would be terrible for the overall dynamic if anybody were. For me in particular, too, it’s been a good thing to practice not being in control and going with the flow! We just have to give each other room, and bring things up again if we are still puzzling over them. I often write the books up here, too, which gives me a chance to put my own thoughts in better order.

15dogsNobody wanted to read more Kingsley Amis, and in fact none of the threads we followed from Ending Up (our usual method for picking our next book) took us to a choice we could agree on. (I’m a bit sorry nobody seconded me on Elizabeth Jane Howard — I might try her on my own anyway.) So we’re taking a bit of a leap outside the box and reading Andre Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs for our next meeting. It strikes me as the kind of book that could go horribly wrong if the philosophy is too facile — plus I’ve always been more of a cat person! But what’s a book club for if not to push me outside my comfort zone sometimes.

I also managed to read two Spenser novels this weekend. They go so fast! The first was Cheap Shot — the first I’ve read by Ace Atkins, who took over the series when Robert B. Parker died. I was dubious going into it, and once in a while I thought there was a line that lacked the usual Parker pith, but generally I was impressed at how smoothly it went, and at how little difference I detected when I followed it up with Sixkill, one of Parker’s own last offerings. I can’t decide if that reflects well or badly on either author. To be so imitable suggests, perhaps, that Parker was more style than substance, and there’s no doubt that both his plots and his prose are extremely … consistent. I have always thought his formula supports a lot of really interesting and subversive ideas, though. I’ve written about him once or twice here before and have often been tempted to give him the full Dick Francis treatment. One of these days …

Finally, I have been watching Scandal, which is really very bad but addictive in the way that high melodrama and ridiculous conspiracies can be. The overacting! The gratuitous blood-splattering torture scenes with drill bits! The astonishingly cynical perspective on politics and politicians! It makes me yearn for The West Wing, which I may have to watch all over again just to counteract the horrors of Scandal with some fast-talking (if slick) idealism. I miss Josh and Toby! I miss MI-5 too, which was similarly absurd in many respects but both tidier in its plots and much better acted. Compared to ScandalMI-5 looks almost subtle! But Scandal is a perfect treadmill show, and it’s not bad for Friday nights, either, when I’ve had enough of taking things seriously.

Things may be picking up on the bookish front. Ending Up reminded me of Amsterdam, which I read way back in the days Before Blogging and so barely remember — so I’ve started rereading that. It’s quick enough, but also smart enough, that there may well be a proper blog post in it. In the meantime, it feels good to clear away all these miscellaneous pieces that have been cluttering up my head.

Listening to Joseph Anton

josephantonI’ve been continuing my audio book experiment, with mixed success. People were right to caution me to sample a lot, because a narrator you don’t like can really turn you off even a book you’re otherwise quite interested in. Finding books that I can follow easily enough by ear is also not as straightforward as I expected: the book has to be engaging enough to keep me attending but not so intricate that the slightest wavering of my attention is fatal.

But the biggest challenge so far, and one I somehow hadn’t anticipated, is just how long it takes to listen to, instead of read, a book. This is a practical issue, in the sense that the books I borrow from the library keep expiring before I’ve finished with them. And it is also a commitment issue: how many hours of my life am I prepared to spend on a single book, especially when — I’ve realized — I’m not going to retain its details well enough to write about it here? (I miss the tactile engagement with paper pages most when I come across a line I’d like to come back to and have no simple way to bookmark it or jot down a useful reference.)

mastercommanderaudioOne book I thought was going to be a big success was Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander. I read it years ago and enjoyed it; I have always expected that eventually I would make my way through the whole series. When I found that all the books were available from the library as audio books narrated by the highly-recommended Simon Vance, I was excited! I spent several hours listening happily enough to Master and Commander, and Vance is indeed excellent. I became increasingly certain, though, that when I read the book in paper, I had skimmed (not to put to fine a point on it!) over a lot of the details about riggings and fo’castles and 18-pounders — which is not a small proportion of the book. Much as I like Jack Aubrey and his reserved sidekick Stephen Maturin, I just wasn’t up for 13 hours of that.

I am currently listening to Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton, and it has been going very well: I was gripped immediately by his account of the initial effects of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa, and then drawn into the backstory of Rushdie’s early life and development as a writer. I’ve now made it back to The Satanic Verses and a few months into his life in hiding, and I’m keen to keep going. I am daunted, however, to realize that the unabridged audio book is twenty-six hours! With only a couple of hours a week in which I’m likely to sit and listen, it might be January or February 2016 before I make it to the end — and my library only allows so many renewals. In the 5 or 6 six hours I’ve already listened, too, I could probably have read one or two other books. By comparison, for instance, I read all of my book club’s latest pick, Kingsley Amis’s Ending Up, in just a couple of hours over yesterday and today. So what is the opportunity cost of the 20 or so hours remaining on Joseph Anton?

josephantonbookA compromise that occurred to me is to switch to the hard copy, and I might yet make that move. I would like to get to the end one way or another: I’m genuinely interested in what seems to me a story of continuing relevance to our struggle between religious tolerance and expressive freedom. I wonder, though, if in this case I would miss hearing the book: I’m not sure how much Sam Daston’s expressive narration accounts for how much I like it. It seems to me the kind of book that might strike a reader quite differently depending on the tone they think it has. At times Daston conveys a lot of anger and frustration, and also some arrogance, but at other times he sounds profoundly grateful, sincerely puzzled, or engagingly passionate, especially about his (that is, Rushdie’s) ideas and hopes for his novels. What could seem like special pleading, self-pity, or rationalization sounds in Daston’s voice like someone trying hard to tell his own side of a difficult story in which (as he has experienced it) he has had to live with a lot of misrepresentation, not to mention outright hatred. There are certainly some aspects of the book I’m not entirely comfortable with, but some of them come with the territory in a memoir: his reports about his wife Marianne Wiggins’s behavior during their time together in hiding, for instance, or the frequent name-dropping about literary celebrities (but if your friends are Margaret Drabble and Ian McEwan, should you not be able to mention them?).

Anyway, while in this case listening to the book might be making it more appealing, or might have brought out the best in it (which is what any writer should hope for from a narrator), at the same time, in other ways, it has rather hobbled me as a reader. This might mean, in turn, that I would be better off listening to books I won’t end up wanting to write about, especially if they take up so much time that a lot of other books end up unread.

As a side note, I have actually never read any of Rushdie’s novels — only some short fiction. (I don’t suppose this is a ‘Humiliation’ winner?) Listening to Joseph Anton has motivated me to give Midnight’s Children another try: I bought and began it a few years ago and got stuck. Rushdie’s account of his own literary education and influences in his memoir was, for me, among the most interesting parts so far. Maybe when I finish Joseph Anton … so, sometime next March, maybe. :-)

Open Letters Monthly, November 2015

BigMagicFinalDidn’t we only just do this? And yet here we are again, at the beginning of a new month with a brand new issue of Open Letters Monthly up and ready for your enlightenment and enjoyment! A few highlights:

Greg Waldmann reads Exceptional, by Dick and Liz Cheney, and finds it exceptionally (though unsurprisingly) bad.

Steve Donoghue reports on an outstanding history of the Battle of the Bulge, which (if Hitler had had his way) would have been a pivotal Nazi victory known as the Battle of Antwerp.

Victoria Olsen follows up her fascinating piece on Jane Avril from last month with a thoughtful essay on the pilgrimages we make to places like Paris’s Père Lachaise cemetery.

My Dalhousie colleague Jerry White writes with his usual brio and a fair amount of annoyance about a new collection of essays from The New Republic.

And that’s not all: we’ve got JC Sutcliffe (known to bloggers as Slightly Bookist) on Timur Vermes’s risky comic novel Look Who’s Back; John Cotter looks at Jay Parini’s new biography of Gore Vidal; I take on Elizabeth Gilbert’s feel-good self-help book Big Magic; and even that’s not all! So do head on over to Open Letters Monthly and have a look, while the OLM team basks for a few days in pride and relief — and gratitude, also, for all the writers who contributed.

This Week In My Classes: Being Beginners

woman-writing-1934My previous post on struggling to appreciate Persepolis (like the one not long before it on reading Maus badly) exemplifies one difference between the writing I do here and most of the writing I do elsewhere (especially but not exclusively writing for academic publications). Here I’m allowed — or perhaps I should say, here I’m not afraid — to be openly imperfect: hesitant, confused, even flat-out wrong. Here, it’s OK for me to be new to something and struggling with it … and to say so.

I can imagine someone reading those posts (and the other ones like them) and wondering what’s the point. Why bother writing about something I know I don’t fully understand? Why not do the research first and then write, from a position of informed confidence? Why not earn some authority before opining? Why opine at all, really, when with the right preparation I could pronounce instead?

Some of the license I enjoy here stems from the format and ethos of blogging. Though some blog posts are highly polished and, on their own terms, complete, the set-up of a blog is always potentially conversational, and good conversations flow from provisional statements, not definitive declarations. When we’re not quite certain, not really experts, not authoritative, we leave room for other people to join the discussion, whether by sharing their own confusion or, as with most of the comments on my Persepolis post, by trying to help us reach a better understanding.

That reciprocity is something I cherish about blogging. But I think there’s also intrinsic value in writing occasionally from weakness rather than strength. The truth is, after all, that we all start out as beginners in everything we do, and that’s not something we should forget, especially if we’re teachers. Doing things, reading things, that are new to me and thus puzzling for me gives me a healthy lesson in humility. It’s also a useful reminder for me about the process of learning, and it’s an opportunity to model that process, which is one that inevitably includes at least some confusion, frustration, and wrong turns.

fordTime, context, and need typically determine how far we go in learning about something new: if there is no obligation, we might set limits based on our current personal preferences, and not get much beyond that initial stumbling phase. That certainly happens for me with my reading: if my curiosity is strong enough, I might persist past an initial bad experience, but sometimes I will just let something go, knowing that my understanding remains superficial. When there’s a need, though — for scholarship or teaching especially — I put in the effort. For example, I still wouldn’t pick Hammett or Chandler to read for fun, but I knew I couldn’t responsibly teach classes on detective fiction without them. So I have done some research and a lot of rereading, and though I still don’t necessarily love The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep, I get them. (And as a result, I like them much better than I used to, which is often the case.) If for some reason The Good Soldier or Persepolis became an obligation for me, I’d try again, and try harder, and, at the very least, fail better.

My point is that there is a rhythm, a pattern, to learning, and it helps to be self-conscious about it, and not to render it invisible, as if understanding isn’t something we’ve always had to work for, to earn. What does this have to do with my classes? Well, for one thing, thinking about what it’s like for me to be a beginner gives me, I hope, some insight and sympathy into what it is like for my students. I’ve talked before here about my efforts to demystify the process of literary analysis and to encourage students to think about the process of their work as much as the product. It should reassure them to know that confusion and frustration are normal parts of learning. My students are not likely to read these posts about my own struggles, but my work here helps me think of how to talk to them about and guide them through their own. One good thing about taking a class for credit is that it provides a strong incentive to get further than that initial stumbling phase: not to throw your hands up and say “not for me” (or “not now,” which is where I am with graphic novels) — and the result is that you will learn to do and learn about things you might otherwise turn away from. That pressure to stick with something unfamiliar and thus difficult is at once one of the best and one of the hardest things about being a student.

penguinMy first-year students are beginners in some obvious ways. All term I have been trying to work with them in a way that recognizes that for most of them, not just the readings but the kind of writing they’re being asked for is more or less unfamiliar, and I’ve tried hard to provide steps and supports and suggestions that will help them get better at it all. This careful scaffolding comes with the territory for introductory classes. What I hadn’t quite anticipated, or thought as much about, is that in some ways my graduate students are also beginners. For instance, most of them have read very little, if any, George Eliot before. I’m finding this situation trickier to address pedagogically, because the strategies I would usually use to lead undergraduate students towards greater expertise seem out of place (not just more lecturing but also things like worksheets, exercises, or tests). Even for readers who are already quite sophisticated, four George Eliot novels in a relatively short time is a lot to wrap your head around, and the specialized academic articles we’re reading alongside the novels are not that helpful for just getting oriented. I feel rather as if I threw them right in the deep end, and though they are staying afloat, that is almost as much as I ought to expect from them. (I’m not sure how to finish that thought using the same metaphor – they won’t be doing any fancy diving? they’re not about to swim laps?) This is a criticism of me and my preparations for the class, not of my students. When (if) I teach another graduate seminar, I may structure it somewhat differently — though at this point I’m not really sure how. This time around, all I can do is be as explicit and helpful as possible. I will be their flotation device! (I can’t help it: “We all of us … get our thoughts entangled in metaphors, and act fatally on the strength of them.”)

Painting: Woman Writing (Picasso, 1934)

Reading Persepolis: Comically Inept?

persepolisMe, not Persepolis, of course. Because Persepolis is highly acclaimed (from the cover blurbs: “brilliant and unusual,” “superb,” “a mighty achievement,” “a dazzlingly singular achievement”) and widely considered an outstanding example of its kind. So the truth must be that if I read Maus badly, I read Persepolis very badly — despite having dutifully read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics in the meantime.

I enjoyed Understanding Comics. I always like the feeling of starting off down a path that’s new to me while being guided by someone smart and, in this case, also fun. I think I got a lot out of it, too — not just some basic vocabulary for talking about the art and craft of comics (terms like “closure,” “gutters,” and “motion lines,” for instance) but a better, if obviously still superficial and preliminary, appreciation of comics as part of the broader landscape of both pictorial and textual art. I was intrigued and largely convinced by the argument that comics are a form that requires a high degree of audience participation to make meaning, and by the theory that “by de-emphasizing the appearance of the physical world in favor of the idea of form, the cartoon places itself in the world of concepts” — in other words, something that might seem from a different perspective to be a flaw in comics (their more or less iconographic rather than realistic style of representation) is better understood as a feature of the form (not unlike the formulaic plot structure of the classic mystery). I was interested in the histories McCloud provided of various comic-like forms, and in the connections he made between developments in other theories and practices of art and things comics do and don’t do. I was both engaged and amused by the ecstatic tone of the book’s final chapter, which rises to a crescendo of enthusiasm about how one day “the truth [about comics] will shine through!” It’s a long way from reading my first book about comics to claiming any expertise, but by the time I finished Understanding Comics I thought I would at least read my next graphic novel with more appreciation.

04-persepolisBut I didn’t! If anything, I found Persepolis less satisfying to read than Maus. From start to finish I felt as if I were reading a child’s picture book about Iran: an illustrated oversimplification, rather than a sophisticated verbal-visual synthesis, which is what the euphoric conclusion of Understanding Comics holds up as the form’s highest potential. Satrapi’s decision to tell the story strictly from her childish point of view is one obvious reason for that: the book does effectively convey the frustration and confusion she felt, not just at events themselves but at people’s often puzzling and contradictory responses to them. I really missed the kind of framing perspective we get in Maus from both Art and his father, though; compared to Marjane the character, Marjane Satrapi the author certainly knows much more about, or understands much differently, the world of her childhood, but I struggled to find evidence of that in the book. Maybe it’s in the drawings — but if it is, I wasn’t able to perceive it. The art was often dramatic and sometimes beautiful, or disturbing, but it also seemed incongruously cartoonish to me, and it distanced me from the emotion and action of the story as a result. McCloud proposes that more generic drawings allow us to identify with characters rather than being preoccupied with their specificity, their difference from us, but since in this case the characters are highly specific, the degree to which they looked similar was frustrating and seemed to flatten out the narrative. I could see at times that the effect was appropriate: stamping out individuality in favor of conformity was clearly a goal of the Islamic regime, for instance, and being unable to tell which veiled girl in the group was Marjane played into that. Overall, though, I couldn’t shake off the desire to have a more rich and complex written text; for me, even the most complex of the pictures were not sufficient compensation for what I felt was missing.

understanding-comicsI think what I may be running into here is a limitation created by my own love of words. Though I can tell even from one reading of Understanding Comics that there is a grammar to the art work and a language and style (or rather, many languages and styles) to the combination of words and images in comics, I am by both training and inclination a different kind of reader, a long-time devoted reader of a different kind of texts. Right now it seems unlikely I’ll ever become an avid reader of comics, partly because so far I haven’t enjoyed them that much and partly because there is so much else I want to read (so many novels that aren’t ‘graphic’) that I can’t really see putting in a concerted effort to get better at reading them. If I did end up choosing to teach an example of the form, I’d have to put my personal preferences aside, of course, and do the work. I’ve done that often enough with other texts I have felt obligated to teach that I know I’m often led by obligation to appreciation and then to genuine liking. I’m done with comics for now, though, as I have to write up some notes on Middlemarch for tomorrow’s seminar … no shortage of words there! And on no occasion have I ever wished the novel had pictures, either.

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