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Thursday, Apr 26, 2007

The first two in a series of book-related media items that must stop:


  • How much longer can we possibly be plagued with stories about how the internet is destroying the ‘serendipitous discovery’ in bookstores?  For readers in most locations—that is, locations not blessed with great bookstores and plentiful used-book stores—this sort of noodling is just pointless.  But the notion that one can’t find serendipity online is pretty ridiculous.  Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguoro allow themselves to be quoted in the article as implying that the only form of serendipitous discovery is Amazon’s “you may also like . . .” feature.  That’s not even especially true as a description of Amazon: One might also find user-created lists of related texts; at the bottom of the screen there are links to cataloging-type descriptors that you can click on to bring up related books; you can see what others who bought a particular book have viewed or bought, etc.  The most important limitation of the argument, though, is that one doesn’t shop at Amazon or any other online bookseller the way one shops at a bookstore.  It’s true that I usually know what I want to buy when I start shopping at Amazon, but that’s because I’ve usually spent hours trawling other sites for things to read.  This sort of trend piece was all very well 5 years ago . . . but it’s done.
  • Likewise, it’s time for so-called conservative groups to recognize that reports like “Vanishing Shakespeare,” commissioned by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni manage simultaneously to be false as a description of higher education (as The Little Professor demonstrates easily) and clichéd as a salvo in the culture wars.    I will promise to take such reports seriously when they suggest how to craft a 36-hour major in such a way that it also satisfies the various accrediting agencies, offers needed support to general education requirements, and meets all the other extrinsic pressures brought to bear on the curriculum (including demands for accountability,  transparency in assessment, and responsiveness to employer demands for skills training).  Further, such reports should explain how on earth we would staff such a curriculum.  (My department, which has no Shakespeare requirement, teaches 6 or 7 sections devoted exclusively to Shakespeare every semester.  That’s more than a full-time professor’s teaching load, and doesn’t even take into account that that person would also need to teach 1 or 2 sections of composition, as well as any other courses in general education or in the graduate program.)

Besides, we don’t need to teach Shakespeare any longer.  The University of Guelph has it all sorted:


Reading Shakespeare can be a daunting and even dreaded task for kids. That is, until a University of Guelph English professor added a futuristic spaceship and an outer-space mission into the mix.


Daniel Fischlin has found an innovative way to use Shakespeare’s language to teach literacy skills through a fast-paced computer game called, ’Speare. It was officially launched today on campus and could soon become commonplace in the classroom.


The first of its kind, ’Speare raises the bar on Flash technology and is a pioneer in educational gaming. It was designed to teach students about literacy within a familiar arcade environment, using cutting-edge technology to create a highly interactive educational tool.


“‘Kids love this game, and when we tested it, we found that literacy scores increased by an amazing 72 per cent after just one hour of game play,” said Fishlin, who created the video game with the Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project (CASP) team.


You can play the game for free online here (registration required).


Between ‘Speare and Dickens World, the times are cushy for English-professor types. 


 


 


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Thursday, Apr 26, 2007

When I used to study novels, one of the things that annoyed me most was the idea that I was supposed to take moral instruction from them, as though the writers has somehow seen deeply into the nature of human life and had a wealth of profound wisdom to impart in the form of a story about men marrying their servants or discovering their true aristocratic heritage. I had a hard time believing that artists magically secure some special insight into the way ordinary people get along in society or that they were in anyway morally superior and were in a position to dispense lessons about what it means to be human. The humanistic mumbo jumbo about exposing oneself to the great works and getting in touch with the extent of human possibility seemed like self-serving bullshit meant to allow the instructor teaching the “great works” to shine in the halo of the nominated geniuses. Sometimes, if the writers themselves and their works weren’t held up as moral exemplars, the art of novel reading would be put forward as a morally edifying activity, one that taught readers how to be empathetic or more tolerant or more aware of the universal nature of suffering and joy and our potential as a species—another convenient and flattering trope for literature instructors, who can dress up close reading as a kind of casuistry that improves students’ moral calculation while setting teachers up as arbiters of what is most human. (Some of the ideas Hermione Lee surveys in this NYRB review of recent books about the grand enterprise of novel-reading echoes this theme, which is what suggested this topic to me.)


As much as I liked to have believe it was true, and as many insights about human life as I’ve been able to glean from novels, I remain skeptical of novel reading as an inherently moral activity. It seems to me that if you want to learn to be tolerant and empathetic, you probably need to actually spend time with other people learning about their ways firsthand and listening to what they have to say. Conducting a social life is a much more humanistic project than reading or writing novels—novel consumption seems a way to escape social life if the prospect of it frightens you. Novel reading seems a convenient substitute for conversation, a hassle-free way to indulge in the pleasures of society without having to actually listen when you don’t feel like it or come up with anything interesting to say yourself. When I was younger, I started reading novels out of loneliness and shyness, and if anything I tried to mask that fact from myself by dressing it up with the promise of edification. I read novels looking for those ideal interlocutors I was too tentative to search for in the real world.


The conclusion of Lee’s review seems to suggest something similar about writers, that they write in order to conjure up the perfect listener, to fulfill a social need. Far from being a crusade, novel writing is better considered an inward, compensatory discipline. Lee quotes a passage from Edith Wharton’s the Buccaneers to illustrate her point, setting it up thus:


The passage (in Chapter 28 of The Buccaneers, one of the last things she wrote) could also suggest the old novelist’s sense of having been on a long road of storytelling, a road stretching on beyond the last unfinished page of her books, speaking as if to the faithful reader of the novel, who will continue to exist after her own journey is over:


  In this great lonely desert of life stretching out before her she had a friend—a friend who understood not only all she said, but everything she could not say. At the end of the long road on which the regular tap of the horses’ feet was beating out the hours, she saw him standing, waiting for her, watching for her through the night.


 


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Thursday, Apr 26, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Elk City
Cherries in the Snow [MP3]
     


Los Cruzados [MP3]
     


You Got Me [MP3]
     


Buy at iTunes Music Store


“Lead-singer of Elk City and firebrand, Renée LoBue brings you on what feels like a free-wheeling make-out session right after your worst break-up.”—Friendly Fire Recordings


CéU
ave cruz [MP3]
     


Buy at Six Degrees Records


“Just when you think that Brazil must surely have exhausted its supply of irresistibly jazzy, funky, sexy, soulful electro-pop singer-songwriters, someone like CéU comes along and irresistibly mixes samba, reggae, dub, electronica and soul music and makes you think that maybe that particular well is bottomless after all.”—Six Degrees Records


Elliott Smith
Between the Bars [MP3]
     


Buy at iTunes Music Store


“Drink up baby / Stay up all night / With the things you could do / You won’t but you might / The potential you’ll be / That you’ll never see / The promises you’ll only make”. So starts “Between The Bars”, from Elliott Smith’s third solo album either/or. It’s as good a statement as any to describe the mood of this collection of songs about drug abuse, failed relationships and the pitfalls of stardom. Not that Elliott Smith the songwriter or performer isn’t making the most of his own potential here. It’s the downfall of his characters. Over the course of his first two solo outings, Roman Candle (Cavity Search) and his self-titled second effort (Kill Rock Stars), his fans are left to wonder if he isn’t writing entirely autobiographically. It would be hard to imagine that the majority of his lyrics, so sincere and detailed, could be a work of fiction. With his admitted past drug use and problems with relationships (both family and otherwise), it seems clear these songs are him, raw and unedited. >> read full PopMatters review


Dungen
Familj [e-card with downloadable MP3]


Shearwater
Red Sea, Black Sea [MP3]
     


Rock Plaza Central
My Children, Be Joyful [MP3]
     



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Thursday, Apr 26, 2007

The Reverend Al Sharpton held the annual conference for his National Action Network last week in New York. The event, affectionately dubbed the Sharpton Primary by the press, addressed many issues including a panel discussion on the media and racial issues. It was the presence of the three major Democratic candidates, however, which brought this conference into the national spotlight. John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama all spoke at the convention; each eagerly vying for the Reverend Al’s endorsement.


Dismissed by those on the right as a fringe player, Sharpton’s career as an activist has been mired in controversy. But his presence and significance has increased dramatically since his 2004 Presidential race when his blunt approach and rough assessment of the Bush Administration resonated with a lot of Democratic voters. The Reverend Al has built on this visibility and has become a dominant figure in today’s civil rights movement. This did not, however, stop the attacks from the right when the Democrats announced their visit to the Sharpton Primary. (Rush Limbaugh likened Sharpton to the left wing equivalent of David Duke when speaking of this years NAN conference during his nationally syndicated radio show.) The criticism did not deter the Democrats, who understand the importance of Sharpton’s clout. The staggering amount of support they receive from the African American community makes the Reverend Al’s endorsement a valuable asset.


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Thursday, Apr 26, 2007

Don Imus’ sexist/racist remarks are the controversy that just won’t go away but maybe that’s not a bad thing because we do need an open, frank dialog about these issues.  Not surprisingly, as I noted in another blog entry, this has inspired sage words and stupid acts.


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