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Thursday, Apr 26, 2007

Have you ever lied about reading a book? Christopher Andreae of the Christian Science Monitor has an opinion piece in the Gulf News on the subject, that reveals 40 per cent of 4,000 people surveyed recently have lied about reading the classics in order to discuss those classics with others. Andreae testifies never having stretched the truth as to his reading habits, though he does reveal the arduousness of ticking off Tolstoy on his reading list, and the damage done by lit classes at college that made reading the likes of Eliot and James a grade-driven chore.

I’m with Andreae—I think—that I’ve, too, not lied about having read certain books, although I must admit a slightly superior feeling at seeing the classics on my bookshelf, even though most of them remain unread. Is it lying to situate The Mill on the Floss in plain sight in the office and not rightly remind anyone impressed by the highlights of my collection that they haven’t each been digested? That they don’t inform my every literary opinion? Probably, but I figure it’s okay. I’ll read it one day. Why else do I have it, right?

Tom Roper, a Sussex librarian with an outstanding Typepad blog, saw the survey, too. He makes a great point that while the survey claims to have discovered a list of books most English “readers” lie about having read, it doesn’t point out whether or not these people openly admit they’ve read books they have not, or whether they simply don’t deny having read them when involved in conversation. See, now, while I don’t think I’ve lied about not having read a book, I may very well have simply quietened down, blended into the walls, when Wuthering Heights was the topic of the moment. Would anyone judge me for never having picked that one up (and, yep, I have it)? Would I seem less important? Less educated? Less, god-forbid, interesting?

Well, get this: Roper goes on to reveals those of the top 10 he’s made it through. And while I’m in awe of his tackling Tolstoy, I’m shocked he has little interest in Anne Frank’s diary. Tom! Why? And he’s read Harry Potter! I can judge him, right? Not only does he admit not having read Frank, he admits he likely will not. Damn—now I have to respect, at least, his honesty. I could never admit that—especially in company.

There are, though, lots of thing on this topic to lie about. I’ve lied about my response to a book so as not to offend another reader. I’ve certainly lied about having seen movies I’ve either never gotten around to or have no interest in. I’ve lied about thoroughly understanding a book. And I’ve often made out I know all about, say, the Lindbergh kidnapping based on extensive research than by reading a tiny chapter in Martin Fido’s veritable flipbook, The Chronicle of True Crime.

Still, with my transgressions now on the table, Emily Barton at Telecommuter Talk might chalk me up as a big fat liar, as she believes lying about books we’ve read is something we’ve all done. She writes: “I just love these organizations that spend lots of time and money doing research in order to tell us such things as all humans giving birth these days are female.” Wow, maybe I have lied about this? Maybe I have admitted to having read The Da Vinci Code in order to back up my assumptions that lovers of that book are nuts? Would anyone blame me, really? Wait ... I just did the same thing with Harry Potter. So, I’m a snob. That doesn’t make me a liar!

In part, though, because of this survey, not only do I plan to be more honest with my reading back catalogue (i.e., to not blend into any walls), I plan, too, to get to some of those books I’ve longed wished I’d read. Then, next time someone comments on my Eliot selections, I might proudly express either my loving or loathing of the Mill and its Floss. Or, at least, I’ll know what those words actually mean.

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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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Wednesday, Apr 25, 2007
by Simon Williamson

I’ve reviewed a lot of books, films, and albums, but never my favourites. I’ve always felt unequal to that task.

For the most part, I’ve reviewed works of “art” that I loathe, not love. It’s safer that way. So what if my review reveals Babel sucks? Maybe, due to unfairness or incapacity, I didn’t do it justice. Well, no harm done—it was godawful anyway. Its self-harm dwarfs any injury committed by my review.

But when you love a book, a film, or an album, justice must be done. If you do review it, you must capture the many shades, shapes, and textures of its glory. And if you can’t do that, shut the hell up. Because it’s better to say nothing than something wholly inadequate. Such, I guess, is the chilling effect of great art on reviewing. That’s why, when it comes to my faves, I keep quiet.

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Monday, Apr 23, 2007

This is, in part, just a quick note to echo Nikki’s official welcome-to-the-blog post.  Like Nikki, I’m largely convinced sites like PopMatters can deliver on the “long tail” and to make possible new conversations about books (and other formats with interesting writing), and Re:Print is a part of that.

And while there are a lot of fine literary blogs already out there, let me just point quickly to two recent discussions that suggest now is an auspicious time for a new one:

  • In the wake of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s decision to drop the position of book review editor, the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) has launched a Campaign to Save Book Reviews.  (You can read more about it at Critical Mass, the NBCC’s blog.) 
  • And over at TNR’s Open University blog, Jeffrey Herf recently issued a call for a new American review of books, noting that book reviews in the major papers are largely ignoring the intellectual work going on at university presses and other venues for serious nonfiction.

As a complement to PopMatters’s book review section, Re:Print can help do this work, for all the reasons Nikki outlined this morning.  This should be interesting!

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Monday, Apr 23, 2007

There’s a question I find myself forced to answer more of late than ever before. It’s about books, and why I cram my living space with so many. Why do I buy books? The answer seems clear: because I like to read. But again they say, why? Usually, I mumble something about using books for research, or reading to cure boredom—not purely a lie. Because, really, I don’t know why I read. I just do. It’s the way it’s always been. Eat, go to school, hug mum, read: life’s essentials.

Perhaps, I figure, I read to be informed. Although the first book I ever memorized was a book of Christmas Carols that’s never really helped me in later life, and no amount of explanation would suffice for Jeffrey Goddin’s Blood of the Wolf being on my nightstand for educational purposes. I read Erica Jong to be educated, Woody Allen to be entertained, Norman Mailer to be enlightened. Be it Hamlet, The Stand, Night of the Iguana, a pocket-sized Kama Sutra nicked from beneath the parents’ bed, a Neil Young biography—whatever was there had a purpose. It existed to inform, in some way. Intimately, casually, jokingly, junkily beautifully.

I got this question the other day at work: Doesn’t reading the book first ruin the movie? That was a question I couldn’t answer. I tried my best to fashion an answer in my head before simply sputtering and splurting and looking decidedly unread. The question was in relation to Children of Men, a fascinating film, but an exquisite novel.

‘Cause why would we read when we have the movies, the Internet, everything else fighting to grab our attention? Well, because although the readers’ life has altered, it’s yet to completely change. We’ve got the eBook option, but we’ve never had to re-buy our collections or risk never being able to read them again. We don’t have to worry about HDs and Blu-Rays and MP3 or AVI compatibility, but we continue to have more choice than ever before. Logging onto eBooks, eBay, or Amazon gives us access to brand new novels from Asia, Argentina, or the Ukraine simply by keying in a credit card number.

We can read interviews with authors, peruse a writer’s back catalogue, or check out pictures of Margaret Mitchell’s frocks. We can communicate with authors, join their websites, buy their CafePress mugs. We can check out an author’s favorite books. We can even download the music an author composed their bestseller to as if it were a Broadway soundtrack. And here’s a little secret—with Amazon’s excellent Search Inside tool, wide reading for a post-grad degree has never been easier. Book technology might ruffle some feathers, but most eager readers have to admit it’s a better world for the bibliophile.

Re:Print aims to step into that world, to dissect and discuss a large range of book-related topics. Will reading the book ruin the movie? If it does, our diverse, dutiful contributors will let you know. Re:Print is our place (and yours) to discuss everything books, from what’s on the bestseller list, to who’s making writerly waves across the globe. We’ll be chatting with authors and exploring new technologies. We’ll be looking at forgotten books that deserve fresh eyes, book art, industry gossip, and provide short reviews of genre fiction from large and small publishers. Re:Print will incorporate PopMatters’ Bookmarks, featuring short reviews of new and noteworthy titles. The Reading Room will appear here, too, providing excerpts of upcoming books.

So, why do we read? Jesse Lee Bennett might have the best answer: “Books are the compasses and telescopes and sextants and charts which other men have prepared to help us navigate the dangerous seas of human life.” So, let’s go…

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