I’ve been doing some post-grad school cleaning of my computer and recently came across a response I wrote for one of my literature classes. The question, I believe, was “Why do we read novels?” and it was posed by my friend Holli after a lively (read: tension filled) class discussion on how we should be approaching the assigned books—as academics or as writers. Of course, this class took place in an MFA program, so more than half the students believed we should be discussing the books we were reading to understand the authors’ styles and voices and narrative structures in a way to instruct our own writing endeavors (as was the protocol in the writing seminars we all took). However, there were also students who argued for the value of discussing the novels in a more academic setting (this was, after all, a literature class). I found myself torn. I sympathized with my fellow writers—we were in graduate school to write and to learn from the techniques of other writers. But, I also love engaging in literary analysis and, this wasn’t a writing seminar, it was a literature class (which seem to be distinct in our program). Of course, both approaches have value, and there didn’t seem to be a reason why we couldn’t explore both methods. After all, the weekly classes met for three hours and forty-five minutes—there was plenty of time.

My professor liked Holli’s question so much that he assigned it to us as part of a quiz. Below, is my response to “Why do you read novels?” (the work referenced in the second part of the answer is Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, which we were reading at the time). I am grateful that I saved it because I found it at a time when my burnt-out-from-grad-school brain has been consuming more reality t.v. and Buzzfeed articles than can possibly be good for it. Sometimes you need to be reminded of the reason for why you love the things you love.

 

“I read novels for a few reasons, which often overlap. I read for enjoyment, for escape, for inspiration, to challenge myself and to learn (both about another person’s ideas regarding the world or humanity, and also how to become a better writer). Aesthetically, I seek beautiful language full of detail and observation (I love when fiction is filled with poetry) and vivid settings that allow me to enter another reality, if only for a little while. Good novels speak to most of these aspects; great novels embody all of them. Plot is important, but well-formed and interesting characters are more important. Most vital to a novel’s success, however, is the quality of writing—it doesn’t matter how striking or important an idea might be, if the prose is unreadable, I will put it down. My literary tastes range from Jane Austen to James Joyce, from Jhumpa Lahiri to Stephen King, from Flaubert to Saul Bellow to J.K. Rolling. All of these authors hit at least two of the marks I mentioned above and all have afforded me some kind of pleasure. Pleasure is probably the most important element—it exists in reading a beautiful sentence, meeting an intriguing character and conquering a difficult idea.

White Teeth is a good novel. It overflows with interesting ideas, yet focuses on a few important ones, such as family, destiny and culture. Smith’s prose is fluid, compelling and often funny and it weaves a complex and interesting plot. It does fail in some aspects: the characters often seem like metaphors or devices (for example, the twins Magid and Millat), and I did not fully empathize with any of the protagonists, only with their situations. However, I enjoyed the writing, was challenged by Smith’s ideas and felt inspired to tackle more controversial ideas in my own future writing. I think the elements that make White Teeth a good novel outweigh the aspects that fall short.

Lastly, White Teeth, like all good novels, deserves to be discussed. We cannot necessarily isolate the good elements from the bad, but we can learn from all of them. To do a good novel justice, it is important to talk about all of its elements—what it teaches us as readers and writers, and most importantly as humans. To disregard any aspect would do the novel (any novel) injustice.”

Advertisements

Just a little disclaimer: this post is about why you shouldn’t lend books to writers. But you should definitely recommend books to them, and by all means give them books. Just not anything you expect to get back. Ever.

Anyone who has ever considered themselves a writer–to the extent where they would talk about it to other people–has been lent a book. Well, anyone who has ever had a conversation about reading has been lent a book. I’m willing to bet that almost everyone, at some point in their lives, has been lent a book. But what I’m getting at is that most people will delightedly accept said book, read it within a reasonable amount of time, and returned it to its owner, relatively unscathed. But not writers. We will destroy yours books, and then, maybe, years later, we’ll give them back.

I know, this seems counterintuitive because writers love books. But, this is precisely why we treat them the way we do. Still not making sense? Here are a few reasons why you shouldn’t lend your books to writers (or, at least, this writer):

 

1. We will never read them. Well, that’s not entirely true. We will read them. Eventually. On every writer’s desk is a pile of books waiting to be read. Books that we bought on a whim. Books that were bought for us. Often, books that we have to read for a class. And yes, books that were lent to us. There are very similar piles on our coffee tables, in our closets, and yes, even on our bookshelves. And then there are the books we want to read again. It’s not that we don’t want to read the book that you lent us, we really do. And we will. Some day. 

 

2. We will write in them. We can’t help it. We’ll forget that we are reading someone else’s book, and we will underline, and check-mark, and draw exclamation points. Sometimes we’ll pose questions, knowing they won’t necessarily be answered. When we’re feeling particularly writerly, or academic or just plain obnoxious, we’ll note subtle connections to classical literature, or the Bible, or a contemporary philosophical movement. ‘It’s called marginalia,’ we’ll exclaim, and we’ll fancy ourselves the next Blake. And then you probably won’t want to be our friend anymore.

 

3. We will destroy them. Not on purpose, of course. But we will. We love books, and we will smother them with our love. They will be shoved into purses and back pockets, thrown to the bottoms of backpacks, tucked inside jackets. They will go everywhere we go, and they will have full, rich lives. But they will die young. Or, at the very least, they will age prematurely.

Want some examples? Certainly! I have destroyed many a book. In junior high, I borrowed my father’s copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. I carried it around with me everywhere, and eventually its spine broke and its cover tore off. I had left it out on the counter one night and he asked me why I had borrowed the book from the library, when he had a copy for me…I did eventually replace it, years later, when I saw the exact same edition in a used book store. In high school, I read Catch-22 until it broke apart into three pieces. I joked about how I could carry it around in volumes. My best friend, whose books were always in pristine condition, looked at me in horror. And for some reason, this same friend lent me her copy of Brave New World and I read it holding the book half open, in fear. That’s no way to live. In college I borrowed a wonderful guilty pleasure from my friend’s mom. I took care of it as best I could, not creasing the pages or breaking the spine, only to pull it out of my bag one day to find an over-ripe pair stuck to the corner. I replaced that one, too. 

 

Hmm, maybe you just shouldn’t lend books to me. Unless, I guess, you want a brand new copy a year or so later.

Seriously

…ok, maybe not all the books. I’m looking at you, Adam Bede. And you, too, As I Lay Dying. And, you, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, you’re not off the hook either. Maybe not even most of the books. Probably not most of the books, because most of the books seem to be this:

 

ugh.

 

But what I’m trying to say is that, as a reader, my taste tends to reach across genres and styles, as well as levels of “brow.” I hold many books near to my heart, and owe countless moments of insight and reflection to the likes of Jane Austen, Flannery O’Connor, Billy Collins, Virginia Wolf, Mitch Albom, Alice Munro, Chaucer, George Saunders, Stephen King, and Catullus. (The list, of course, goes on). How could a person pick just one?

Which is why I absolutely hate when I’m asked about my favorite book or favorite author. I could (and have) come up with a polite answer in the moment (and there are some books and authors that appear in my responses more than others) but that answer could very easily change from one day (or hour, or minute) to the next. So I was vigorously nodding at my computer when I read David Mitchell’s response to the New York Times’ rather boring question:

 

And if you were forced to name your one favorite author?

I’d have to say, “I’m sorry, but books just don’t work like that, and neither does music, Amen” and take the consequences.

 

The rest of his answers are just as good and refreshing. You can read the entire interview here and some other really great “By the Book” interviews here.

And to contradict myself, if forced, I would name Mitchell as one of my favorite authors. (I’m allowed. I have multitudes. Walt Whitman said so.).  You should read Cloud Atlas and then go see the movie, WHICH COMES OUT THIS WEEK! Have I hit you over the head enough about this? Good. Because I am more excited than Jessie Spano on caffeine pills.

I’m already a big fan of J. K. Rowling, but this interview in the New York Times  just gave me two more reasons:

 

Did you have a favorite character or hero as a child? Do you have a literary hero as an adult?

My favorite literary heroine is Jo March. It is hard to overstate what she meant to a small, plain girl called Jo, who had a hot temper and a burning ambition to be a writer.

If you could be any character from literature, who would it be? 

Elizabeth Bennet, naturally.

 

I’m not sure I would have answered either of those questions any differently.

 

In memory of the lives lost eleven years ago, in support of the loved ones left behind, and in awe of the spirit of my city (and country), I wanted to post this picture I took at the World Trade Center Memorial last Christmas. This tree is the only plant life from the site that survived the terrorist attacks on the towers. After the area was cleared out, it was up-rooted to a park outside the city, and replanted as part of the memorial. It has become a symbol of hope and survival. Despite the trauma it experienced, it continues to bloom today. You can see places where limbs were lost, as well as new growth, sprouting from the trunk.

 

 

I visited the site with family a few days before Christmas this year, and was surprised at how overwhelming the memorial site was. After a long and drawn out process of deciding how to commemorate the victims, the result is a beautiful, peaceful space that is both incredibly sad and hopeful.

I was lucky enough to not have lost any loved ones that day, and was far enough uptown that I did not witness firsthand any of the carnage (aside from the black cloud that covered the city). But the devastation was palpable everywhere, and it lingered.

Eleven years later, another Tuesday with another beautiful blue sky, the city thrives, its people strong, still resilient, still healing.

 

I’m not really sure what I was looking for on Google this morning, but I came across this great excerpt from Kay Thompson’s Eloise:

…because getting bored is not allowed.

 

I’m in the middle of revising a story for my thesis, so of course all my laundry is done, my kitchen floor is sparkling and I have been spending a lot of time on the internet. But, I am glad I found this, because in addition to simply lifting my spirits (who doesn’t feel better when they randomly encounter a good childhood friend, even if she is fictional?!), it also inspired me as I was struggling to reinvent a character in one of my pieces. Sometimes, we just need to be reminded of our own inner resources. And, sometimes, you just absolutely need to make that face.

 

P.S. There is an Eloise suite in The Plaza Hotel and Pete (the bf) said that we can stay there…some day. But I think “some day” really means this January.

I think I finally understand all those people who just couldn’t wait for the next Nolan Batman trailer. Don’t get me wrong, I really like the movies, and the previews got me excited for each new film, but I just never really felt that anticipation right before the teasers and trailers slowly leaked out. But now, people of Gotham, I get it.

Last week, one of my friends and grad school classmates posted the trailer for Cloud Atlas, an adaptation of the brilliant novel by David Mitchell, which we had read in class last year. It has become one of my favorite books–it’s beautifully written, masterfully constructed and full of really great ideas. While researching a paper for my class last spring, I discovered that there would be a movie, but IMDB could offer little more than the title. Every month or so, I would check in, looking for the trailer. At first I found nothing, but in the last few weeks, there’d occasionally be some film from the set on Youtube, probably taken from someone’s iPhone, showing the backs of the heads of the camera crew. But now, finally, the trailer is here and it’s every bit as awesome as I had been hoping:

 

 

I. CAN’T. WAIT.

The trailer doesn’t really give much explanation in the way of plot, but the novel’s sentiment is there. If you have time between now and the film’s projected October release, read the book! If you don’t have time, read the book. It’s a good book.

I just wanted to take a moment to reflect on what a class act Craig Ferguson is. Last week, he decided to cut the Batman-themed monlogue from the beginning of his show and instead spoke to the audience, explaining why he felt it would have been inappopriate to run the bit.

Take a look below:

 

 

I think one of the most poignant points that Craig makes here is that the late night television business is what it is–“a bit of fun.” People mostly tune in to wind down before going to bed. Often–as is understandable for shows that run new material 4-5 days a week–late night t.v. is mildy funny, full of easy jokes with a few great comedic moments every now and then. Craig’s approach is often on the more absurd end of comedy, which makes him stand out from the rest of the late night hosts (although Conan is similar in this vein), and usually makes him much funnier. But what really makes Craig Ferguson stand out is his ability to gauge when a joke is appropriate, and when addressing certain topics requires something more.

This is not the first time Craig has made this decision on the Late Late Show. His remarks on the human pastime of enjoying the failure of others stood out sharply from the ways in which late night t.v. handled the downward spiral of Britney Spears. He spoke candidly about his own history of drug abuse, and instead of making fun of the troubled performer, he gave some perspective:

 

 

I have always been a fan of Craig’s–he’s funny and honest in a way that not  many comedians are. (Also, he’s pretty damn handsome). And he’s one of the few people with an entertainment or late night t.v. platform that says things that matter and resonate.

He’s also one of the proudest Americans you’ll ever meet. Check out his book.  It’s an excellent read.

Ok, I know it’s not Wednesday, and it’s been a while, but look at it this way-it’s Thursday, which means we are even closer to that three-day weekend!
This wonderful poem by Lucille Clifton is one for the ladies:
wishes for sons

i wish them cramps.

i wish them a strange town

and the last tampon.

I wish them no 7-11. /

i wish them one week early

and wearing a white skirt.

i wish them one week late. /

later i wish them hot flashes

and clots like you

wouldn’t believe. let the

flashes come when they

meet someone special.

let the clots come

when they want to. /

let them think they have accepted

arrogance in the universe,

then bring them to gynecologists

not unlike themselves.

Lucille Clifton

My friends and I were supposed to see the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s rendition of All’s Well That Ends Well on the Boston Common last night, but it poured so we holed ouselves up in a bar instead. So, I thought I would share a little bit of the Bard with you tonight. I will admit, I’m not really a huge Shakespeare fan (don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy quite a few of his plays, and I thought his Ten Things I Hate About You was just inspired). But I do love his sonnets. Number 55 has always been one of my favorites. Here it is for your enjoyment:

 

Sonnet LV

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear’d with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword, nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
‘Gainst death, and all oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.

Billy Shakes, himself

If you are also a fan of Shakespeare’s 14-liners, check out Shakespeare’s Sonnets for a complete collection of these poems, along with the works of some other sonnet writers. It also offers helpful interpretations for the lazy reader. Although I’m pretty sure all of Billy’s sonnets can be pared down to “you’re pretty, but not quite as pretty as the verse I write, we’re gonna die someday, are you dtf?, I’m famous and my words make me immortal,” but that’s just me.

I've been to Shakespeare's birthplace!

 

* Photo of Shakespeare portrait from guardian.co.uk