Showing posts with label books about books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label books about books. Show all posts

8.19.2017

what i'm reading: maximum security book club

I have an abiding interest in prison librarianship, and try to learn about it wherever I can. Whenever the OLA Superconference features a session on prison libraries, I attend. I'm always pleased to see how popular and well attended these sessions are.

Perhaps that should not surprise. In a sense, prison libraries epitomize librarian values -- the inherent value of reading, the power of self-education, the importance of finding the right reading material, the solace and companionship that reading can offer, the democratizing and liberating power of the library. And perhaps above all, the desire to bring resources to people who are marginalized and under-served.

Whether I'll ever work as a prison librarian or volunteer in a prison library remains to be seen. Prison libraries have been decimated by austerity budgets, and few people advocate for them.

In recent years a few narrative nonfiction books about prison libraries have been published. This is the first of a series of reviews about them. (The series will be very spread out!)

Mikita Brottman's Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men's Prison -- unlike most of the titles in her club's syllabus -- reads lightly and quickly. The reader also learns a bit about literature.

Those are the only positive things I can say about this book.

I don't usually write unfavourable reviews, in acknowledgement of how difficult it is to write a book, and in deference to varying tastes. Every book is not for every reader, and my opinion shouldn't stand in anyone else's way.

Occasionally, though, something must be said.

Brottman ran a book club in a prison in the US state of Maryland. She is not a librarian; she is a scholar and professor of literature. Perhaps this explains my frequent confusion, dismay, incredulity, and sometimes disgust at some of her choices. Librarians are all about matching readers with books. When we run book clubs, the members choose the books -- likely from a list of possible choices, but always with their full and active participation. Brottman came into the prison with a list of titles.

And what a list it was! First Brottman tells the story of the first time she read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, as a student at Oxford University. She found it indecipherable. Completely unreadable. Only after one of her distinguished professors helped her -- and even then, after several readings -- did she understand and appreciate the book. And yet she chose Heart of Darkness for a group of men with limited reading skills, little reading experience, and no formal education -- and for their first meeting together!

Brottman never explains why she did this. I'm not sure if the reader is meant to laugh with her at her missteps and foibles? I just cringed.

After that disastrous first session, Brottman next assigns Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener. This absolutely boggles my mind.

The men's reactions to their reading continually confounds and frustrates Brottman. She wants to teach literature as she is accustomed, with a deep analysis of language and themes. But the men view the stories and characters in terms of their own experiences. Like many readers, they expect books to be, in a sense, about themselves -- to offer insight or reflection or lessons. To be, as I frequently hear from teen readers, "relatable". But Brottman wants to teach "the text," as literary scholars are so fond of calling it. She fights a losing battle to try to make the men talk about the book in her own purist terms, repeatedly trying to get them to stop talking about their own lives. Only slowly and partially does she adjust her teaching methods to their needs.

Brottman comes off as spectacularly tone-deaf. When the men react to her book choices with either boredom or confusion, she lectures them. She dismisses their points of view, she makes jokes that mock and offend. She makes the men read Lolita and defends the book's central relationship as a love story! The men recognize Humbert Humbert for what he is -- and she tries to talk them out of it! Did this woman come into a men's prison with so little preparation that she doesn't know the prison status of child sexual abusers? Perhaps, because she also breaks a cardinal rule of all prison volunteering: after the book club ends, she continues her relationship with some of the men on the outside.

Before I read this book, I wondered if it would include some exaggerated claims of how the book club transformed lives. Reading can be a transformative experience, but participation in a book club is not going to repair the conditions or reverse the behaviour that gave rise to the men's incarceration.

I needn't have worried. The Maximum Security Book Club is not about prison life, and it's not about incarcerated men. It's not about the relationships that form through a book club, nor the effects of reading. It's about the author -- her thoughts, her reactions, her knowledge. Although Brottman holds up her working-class upbringing like a trophy for the reader to admire, she still comes off as a privileged white saviour looking for a novel experience at someone else's expense. She's slumming.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn that their book club experience turned these men off from reading for the rest of their lives.

6.10.2017

what i'm reading: words on the move by john mcwhorter

John McWhorter is changing my mind about language. And that is no easy thing to do.

I'm a grammarphile. Word nerd, language junkie, spelling nut, stickler -- whatever you want to call it. I appreciate proper spelling and good grammar, and I cringe at all the bad grammar all around us. Apostrophe abuse drives me insane. Same for unnecessary quotation marks. Misspelled words on websites, signs, flyers, and official documents... don't get me started.

Yet I also part ways with some of my fellow grammar-lovers. I believe grammar is important for writing, but not necessarily for speech -- and certainly not for casual speech. I hate seeing knowledge of grammar used to shame or exclude, or worse, as an excuse to not listen. Wmtc comment guidelines warn readers not to correct another commenter's grammar or spelling.

Even further, I believe it's perfectly all right to relax certain writing rules for casual writing. It's not necessary, in my view, to use awkward phrasing in order to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition in a casual email. It's all right to use sentence fragments, or to start a sentence with but. I don't think the English language is being killed off by texting; in fact, I know it's not. And most importantly, I don't think I'm better or smarter than anyone else because I use apostrophes correctly and they don't. But those unnecessary apostrophes still drive me insane!

So perhaps I was pre-disposed to enjoy John Whorter's enlightening and entertaining book, Words on the Move: Why English Won't -- and Can't -- Sit Still (Like Literally). But I do think that anyone who enjoys thinking about language would like this book.

McWhorter's most important message is in the title: language is never still. The meanings of words always change. Meanings have always changed, they are changing now, and they will continue to change in the future.
It isn't that a certain curiosity cabinet of a few dozen words happened to have different meanings hundreds of years ago. Just about all words in any language have different meanings now than they did in the past. Some words' meanings hold on longer than others. Some few even hold on to the same meaning for thousands of years. However, it is they...that are the oddities.
The book presents some illustrations of every day objects such as bread, fruit, meat, and fuel, and the words that have been used to convey those meanings over centuries. Then, the author writes,
Picture this process happening across tens of thousands of words all the time. That is the essence of what words are, and why the dictionary can qualify only as a snapshot of how the film was situated on the grid at one particular point in time.
McWhorter, a professor of English and comparative literature, says this throughout the book, in many different, entertaining ways. One of his strengths is creating lovely little analogies to illustrate his meaning. He's also very adept at shooting holes in the corrections most beloved by correcters, by showing us how inconsistent we all are.

If there's an expression that drives you crazy because it's usually used "wrong," chances are, it meant your particular version of "correct" only for a period of time in between its other meanings and uses. Most likely, the meaning has changed and you need to update your personal lexicon. Whatever your favourite bugaboo -- decimate, irregardless, sink down, used to, literally -- McWhorter has a slew of examples to prove that your objections are inconsistent at best, and might even be ridiculous. Those of us who hate the overuse of literally to mean its opposite may be surprised at how many words now mean their opposite that we never bother to complain about -- because those words changed in a different time and bothered different people. And it's not just English. It's all languages, all the time. Change, change, change.

Some of McWhorter's ideas are controversial. He explains speech tics such as "like" and "you know," and why we shouldn't care about them. He maintains that slang, including shorthands we use online and in text messages, are as old as language itself, and don't hurt the language. He counsels us to embrace "the euphemism treadmill" -- from Colored to Negro to Black to African American -- and explains why cultures make these shifts.

Perhaps most controversially, McWhorter argues that Shakespeare should be cautiously and judiciously translated, to make the plays more accessible to contemporary audiences.

If you love Shakespeare as I do, let me elaborate before your blood pressure elevates. About 10 percent of the words Shakespeare used now mean something completely different than they did when he wrote them. If we read Shakespeare, we can use footnotes, but when we watch a play or film adaptation -- and the words were meant to be performed, after all -- we can often follow the action through context and prior knowledge, and we might get the gist of the language, but we miss a good deal of the meaning. We miss more than we think, something the author illustrates very well. McWhorter believes that Shakespearean scholars should tweak the language for greater understanding.
Yes, I have been one of those people, and have experienced resistance (and even dribbles of vitriol) in response. However, most of this resistance has been based on the idea that the difference between our language and Shakespeare's is only one of poetry, density, or elevation.

The reason Shakespeare's prose sounds so "poetic" is partly because it is. But it is also partly for the more mundane reasons that his language is not, to a larger extent than we might prefer to know, inaccessible to us without careful study on the page.

Many assume that the translation I refer to would have to be into slang. I suspect this is because it can be hard to perceive that the very meanings of even the most mundane of words have often changed so much -- if one thinks the difficulty of the language is merely a matter of "poetry," then it's easy to think that no translation in neutral current English could be at issue, and hence the notion of "Yo, whaddup, Calpurnia?" as a serious literary suggestion.
He gives a few elegant examples, which are "hardly a desecration" -- the language is still "challenging and even beautiful, especially since most of it is the original." I must agree. He explains that he's not suggesting the original plays be withdrawn and never read.
However a world where the usual experience of a Shakespeare play outside universities was in today's English would be one where, quite simply, more people were capable of truly understanding and enjoying the Bard's work rather than genuflecting to it. Seeing Shakespeare shouldn't be like eating your vegetables -- even tasty vegetables. Nor is it much more inspiring for us to treat Shakespeare as a kind of verbal wallpaper or scent that we sit back and allow to "wash over" us. . . . Shakespeare translated into today's English wouldn't be exactly Shakespeare, no. But given a choice between Shakespeare as an elite taste and Shakespeare engaged the way Russians engage Chekhov and Americans engage Scorsese films and "Arrested Development", some may judge Shakespeare that isn't always exactly what Shakespeare wrote as less than a tragedy.
Like the novel, theatre, and baseball, language is something people often claim is dying or already dead. But if no one ever writes or reads another novel, and the great game of baseball is never played again, we will still have language -- because we are human. And language will still be changing, because that's what it does.

11.16.2011

who wrote shakespeare? eric idle knows.

A while back, wmtc had a discussion about the supposed controversy of the authorship of Shakespeare's plays, after I read the book Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare, by James Shapiro.

Now a movie is out, telling a fictional, imaginative story of how Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford, wrote the plays. For those of us who care about literature and history, this is frustrating, as much of the movie-going public is likely to receive the movie's story as fact.

Here's a better take on the whole thing, by none other than Eric Idle. Or maybe Michael Palin.
Who Wrote Shakespeare
by Eric Idle*

While it is perfectly obvious to everyone that Ben Jonson wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays, it is less known that Ben Jonson’s plays were written by a teen-age girl in Sunderland, who mysteriously disappeared, leaving no trace of her existence, which is clear proof that she wrote them. The plays of Marlowe were actually written by a chambermaid named Marlene, who faked her own orgasm, and then her own death in a Deptford tavern brawl. Queen Elizabeth, who was obviously a man, conspired to have Shakespeare named as the author of his plays, because how could a man who had only a grammar-school education and spoke Latin and a little Greek possibly have written something as bad as “All’s Well That Ends Well”? It makes no sense. It was obviously an upper-class twit who wished to disguise his identity so that Vanessa Redgrave could get a job in her old age.

Many people believe that Richard III not only was a good man who would never hurt a fly but actually wrote “She Stoops to Conquer,” and that the so-called author, Oliver Goldsmith, found the play under a tree in 1773 while visiting Bosworth Field, now a multistory car park (clearly an attempt to cover up the evidence of the ruse).

. . .

Mere lack of evidence, of course, is no reason to denounce a theory. Look at intelligent design. The fact that it is bollocks hasn’t stopped a good many people from believing in it. Darwinism itself is only supported by tons of evidence, which is a clear indication that Darwin didn’t write his books himself. They were most likely written by Jack the Ripper, who was probably King Edward VII, since all evidence concerning this has been destroyed. . . . [More here.]

11.13.2011

nyc reflections part 4: know the past, find the future, nypl centennial free book

Roy Blount contemplates the original Winnie-the-Pooh


I have one last snippet to share from our recent, brief trip to New York City. My friend NN, who writes this blog, surprised me with a wonderful gift.

To celebrate its centennial, the New York Public Library has published a free book, Know the Past, Find the Future. A few thousand paper copies were distributed, and NN snagged one for me. (Lucky me!) The book is also available here, also free, in ebook form.

Know the Past, Find the Future features people in all different fields writing about, and photographed with, their favourite item from the NYPL collection. As much as I enjoy "famous people choose a book" lists, this list takes the concept further, because the NYPL collection is so multifaceted and extensive. Maps, manuscripts, musical scores, first editions, photographs, letters - a massive amount of history lives in the NYPL vaults.

Zadie Smith gazes at the first folio edition of Mr. William Shakespeare, Histories & Tragedies. Stephen Colbert holds J.D. Salinger's letters, and says as a young man he felt the Glass family stories had been written specifically for him. Mark Morris cradles photographs of Gertrude Stein, Lou Reed displays a manuscript page by Edgar Allen Poe. Frank Rich, who made his name as a very young chief theatre critic for the New York Times, chooses a set model for Follies, a theatre collaboration among composer Stephen Sondheim, choreographer Michael Bennett, and director Harold Prince.

Every page is a gem. One that brought me special joy was novelist Philip Roth's choice of Saul Bellow's notebooks, manuscripts, typescripts and galley proofs for Mr. Sammler's Planet. Other people and their choices are bound to strike a chord with you, too.

From the book's page at the NYPL:
From Laurie Anderson to Vampire Weekend, Roy Blount Jr. to Renée Fleming, Stephen Colbert to Bill T. Jones — more than 100 luminaries reflect on the treasures of America’s favorite public library. Marking the Centennial of The New York Public Library’s Beaux-Arts landmark at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, now called the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Know the Past, Find the Future harnesses the thoughts of an eclectic assortment of icons as they ponder an even more eclectic assortment of objects. From among the Library’s vast collections, these writers, artists, philosophers, scientists, musicians, athletes, architects, choreographers, and journalists — not to mention some of the curators who have preserved these riches — selected an item and describe what it means to them. The result, in words and photographs, is a glimpse of what a great library can be.
A list of the people in the book is also on that page, scroll down to "Who's in the Book". Definitely worth a download.

6.09.2011

books on books, part 3: reading matters: what the research reveals about reading, libraries and community

Nobody reads anymore, or nobody reads anything worth reading.

At least that's what we're supposed to believe. These days everyone is too busy playing video games, watching YouTube and texting. Before that, everyone was too busy listening to loud music that corrupted their morals. Or was it watching TV that rotted their brains? One hundred years before that, the same moral degeneration took place in music halls and pool halls. And of course, when "they" do read - they being other people, for what "we" read is vastly superior - they read vampire stories or Harlequin romances or books recommended by - gasp! - a celebrity talk-show host. Oh, the humanity.

The chicken-little view of The Decline of Culture is as old as culture itself. In the literature of every era, you can find a shelf full of cultural critics wringing their hands over the sorry state of literacy today, blaming technology, popular music, feminism, liberalism, alcohol, immigrants, what have you.

But are people actually reading less than they used to? Who reads and what is being read? Why do people choose to read or not read? What might encourage people to read more? I just finished reading a wonderful book that seeks to answer these questions.

* * * *

This is the third installment of my "what i'm reading" series of books on books or reading about reading. In part 1, I wrote about The Case for Books, by Robert Darnton. In part 2, I looked at Contested Will, by James Shapiro. In this post, I tackle Reading Matters: What the Research Reveals about Reading, Libraries and Community by Catherine Sheldrick Ross, Lynne McKechnie and Paulette M. Rothbauer.

Last term, I took my required Introduction to Reference course, and I loved it! Reference seems to me the heart of librarianship, the irreplaceable connection between library users and library resources. Within Reference, there was a unit called "Readers' Advisory", which is the library term for librarians helping readers find books for pleasure reading. This got me super excited. Helping people find a good book - what an awesome job! I realized that I do readers' advisory all the time on a personal, informal basis, matching books to people. Professional readers' advisory is about matching books you have not read with people you don't know. This is what I want to do!

As part of this unit, we read "Finding Without Seeking", in which Ross reports on her research into heavy readers: why people read, how they feel about reading, what they derive from it. I absolutely loved this article, and shared it with a few people in my life who are also voracious readers and serious lovers of books. It must be a good sign that I was moved enough to learn more.

Although the intended audience for Reading Matters is librarians and library students, I'm sure others who love reading and literacy would find it fascinating. The authors have studied an enormous body of research, and straightforwardly present the most important findings, building a picture of reading in our society. It's written in plain, non-jargony language, and organized so that any chapter can be read as a stand-alone. Excerpts from in-depth interviews with readers are interspersed throughout, and each chapter ends with "What Librarians Can Do" and/or "What Parents Can Do".

* * * *

The first part of the book, "The Company of Readers," looks at histories of reading, and at the myths and reality of readers and reading. Contrary to the literacy doomsayers, we actually live in an extremely literate society, probably the most literate society in world history. In 21st Century North America, more people read and have access to reading materials than at any time or place in history. (This doesn't mean we shouldn't be concerned about illiteracy, however, especially since decent employment is increasingly linked to language skills, and illiteracy is often perpetuated within families.) Also contrary to popular myth, the internet seems to be helping people read and write more, not less, and there's no evidence that rapid, text-style communication has degraded literacy skills.

The stereotypical image of the heavy reader as introspective bookworm, cloistered from the world with her nose in a book, also does not appear to be based in fact. Studies show that habitual readers tend to be more engaged with the world, more active in their communities, and involved in more activities than people who do not read. The book is packed with that sort of wonderful myth-busting.

The first part of Reading Matters fleshes out a theme I've encountered in several library courses so far - the history of public libraries in relation to reading. These days, the shelves of your local library are likely to be well stocked with fiction, as libraries embrace and support the value of recreational reading. The central branch of the Mississauga Library System employs a librarian specifically for readers' advisory, called "Readers' Den". (I want that job!) But this is actually a relatively recent development in librarianship.

In the earliest and even not-so-earliest days of public libraries, librarians decried "the fiction problem". Patrons simply refused to read what was good for them and insisted on reading fiction! Excerpts from early library-science literature can be both hilarious and scary. In 1880, M. F. Sweetser described the dangers of "story papers", which offered serialized fiction in newspaper format. These eight-page, weekly papers sold for a nickel or six cents, and they were enormously popular.
The titles of the stories are viciously sensational and the situations are of the most impossible character, with spice of hair-breadth adventure, prurient description and scandalous suggestion. . . . And what is the result of all this mighty flood of unsavory literature/ Evil, and evil, and evil again. . . . Appetites depraved by heredity are pampered and glutted in their unnatural tastes during the most tender and formative years, and the broad road to perdition is opened before the myriads of little feet. . . . The instructors in some of our public schools keep a watch on the reading of their pupils, and report that the most unruly and rebellious boys are those who are addicted to the study of these fictions.
The librarians' constant mission and burden was to dissuade library patrons from wasting their time with the trivial, the lewd, the morally debased, and to force them to read the high-minded, the righteous, the library-sanctioned books that would set them on the road to self-improvement.

Librarians took this job very seriously. They banished fiction from their shelves. They hid fiction. They refused to order it. They devised regulations so that patrons could borrow one novel of their own choosing only after reading four non-fiction books that the librarian foisted on them. Yet try as librarians might - and they tried, they tried! - patrons insisted on reading what they wanted! Imagine that!

Not coincidentally, popular novels were often written by and for women, so of course they were considered foolish and superficial. But men, too, wanted to read "trash" - westerns, adventures, detective novels, whodunits. Librarians worked hard to stem the tide of such amusements that could turn hardy minds to mush. As you can see in the above quote, the whole enterprise was saturated in class prejudice, which itself was overlaid with racism and xenophobia, as so many of those "depraved by heredity" were immigrants.

Thankfully those days are gone. Fiction is now featured prominently in the stacks and on readers' advisory tables. Many libraries host book clubs and other means of encouraging recreational reading. But I see a hangover from those "fiction problem" days every time I hear someone scoff at Oprah's Book Club readers, genre fiction, self-help books, novelizations or graphic novels. Even the often-heard concession "...at least they're reading something" is condescending and judgemental.

I maintain that all reading has intrinsic value. No matter what people choose to read, reading is valuable for what it brings to that reader. Ross, McKechnie and Rothbauer take a similar view. They advise libraries to "have a generous and inclusive view of what counts as a reader" and "to avoid fetishizing a particular format as the only one to be associated with 'real reading'". Graphic novels, serial fiction, e-books, and all manner of popular fiction deserve space in a public library's collection.

The authors of Reading Matters argue effectively for librarians to reject judgments of what people want to read, and indeed to reject distinctions between supposedly "high" and "low" culture. Most of us could learn a thing or two from that.

* * * *

The book's second part, "Becoming a Reader, Childhood Years" looks at what factors help children become readers, if there are gender differences in reading acquisition (it appears so), if the present generation of young people has lower reading skills than previous generations (no!), why reading skills are often associated with class differences (it's not about inherent ability), and what adults can do to help children become proficient and comfortable readers (number one: read to them!).

Consider this: by age three, there is already a 30-million-word disparity between the words that children in families on social assistance have heard and the words that children of professional families have heard. In a long-term study of children across a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds, children from welfare families had received half as much language experience (616 words per hour) as working-class children (1,251 words per hour) and one-third as much language experience as the children of professionals (2,153 words per hour).

Researchers also found a huge difference in the nature of this language: on average, welfare children received five encouragements and 11 prohibitions per hour, whereas the children of professionals thirty-two encouragements and five prohibitions per hour. In my experience teaching inner-city young adults, I saw the effects of those statistics, on both my students and their own children, who were being raised in the same encouragement-deprived way. Impoverishment of language is an aspect of poverty seldom acknowledged.

I found this portion of the book very rich and thought-provoking. Librarians, teachers, parents, grandparents or anyone involved in a child's literacy may find it fascinating and useful.

* * * *

The third section of Reading Matters, "Young Adults and Reading," was of particular interest to me. I used to write for young adults, I tutored and taught teens for many years, and I want eventually to work as a YA librarian. It's wonderful to read professional literature that takes teens seriously, is not condescending or moralizing, and wants to meet young people where they are, rather than force them into some place where some adults think they should be.

Contrary to what the chicken-littles would have you believe, young people do read. In fact, they are reading more than ever. As you may remember from your own teen years, reading often holds a special place in a young adult's life, validating their feelings, helping them feel less alone, helping them to form their identities. The authors also emphasize the connection between reading and writing, and how important writing is to many teens. Unfortunately, many libraries are still hostile, or at least unwelcoming, to youth culture. The "What Librarians and Parents Can Do" tips for this section were particularly insightful.

* * * *

The final part of Reading Matters, on adult readers, is a paean to readers and reading. This was the part of the book - and the subject of the paper that I shared with friends - that I found most personally meaningful: "What role does reading play in the life of a reader?" Many of you would probably recognize yourself in the excerpts from interviews with avid readers.
Avid readers say that reading gives them something that can't be experienced any other way. This value goes beyond the instrumental. Certainly they agree that by reading a lot they improve their level of literacy, increase their vocabulary, become better writers, and, as a result, do better at school and in their careers. But all this seems incidental. Committed readers are apt to say that reading is part of their identity. In answer to a question about the importance of pleasure reading in their lives, different readers in Ross's study said the following:

- For me to read is to live.

- Reading is almost a necessity.

- If I were stuck on a desert island without books, I would go crazy.

- My freedom to read is absolutely sacred.

- Reading becomes like eating and sleeping - I have to do it. I'd go nuts if I couldn't do it.

- It's a passion. I can't deny it.

- I can't live without reading. Blindness probably scares me more than anything.
The responses to the question, "What would it be like if for some reason or another you were unable to read?" were telling - and touching. People expressed shock and horror; they didn't want to even contemplate the idea. When pushed, they said that life without reading would be boring, empty, suffocating, a prison, that being unable to read would be unimaginably horrible, devastating.

Again and again, when asked what they derive from reading, readers listed the same themes. Comfort, validation, reassurance of one's normality, because characters in books have similar feelings. A respite from pressure. A way of clarifying opinions, getting a new perspective on the world. A way of learning about different places and cultures, developing empathy. Help in making decisions. Inspiration, courage and hope.

There are also beautiful descriptions of the unique pleasures of reading: the joy of being lost in a book, of being transported into a different world, enjoying a book so much that you can't wait to get back to it, being sad when you reach the end of a book, the delight of knowing you have a block of uninterrupted reading time, the experience of relishing the beauty of language. The way avid readers talk about reading, Ross, McKechnie and Rothbauer say, is a bit like old ads for "snake oil" medicine: reading will do anything you want it to do.

5.18.2011

books on books, part 2: contested will by james shapiro

The second of the three "books on books" on my spring-summer reading list was Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare, by James Shapiro.

Contested Will is not an examination of who wrote Shakespeare's plays and poems, but rather of the Shakespeare authorship controversy itself. Shapiro looks at why, about 230 years after the death of William Shakespeare, a belief arose that he was not, in fact, the author of the plays and poems that bear his name – and why that belief persists to this day, supported by a thriving cottage industry. Contested Will is not so much about what people think – although some of the claims are necessarily woven in – as why they think it.

James Shapiro casts a keen, critical, and always skeptical eye at all claims both for and against Shakespeare's authorship. A Shakespeare scholar, he dislikes that the authorship question has been "walled off from serious study", as he puts it, within the scholarly community. In the excellent introduction – worth reading whether or not you read the whole book – Shapiro writes of an experience in his graduate school days that "taught me the value of revisiting truths universally acknowledged".

Shapiro also believes that the refusal of most Shakespeare scholars to even engage with the authorship question has been a mistake.
I became interested in why this subject remains virtually taboo in academic circles, as well as the consequences of this collective silence. One thing is certain: the decision by professors to all but ignore the authorship question hasn't made it disappear. If anything, more people are drawn to it than ever. And because prominent Shakespeareans [with some exceptions] have all but surrendered the field, general readers curious about the subject typically learn about it through books and websites of those convinced that Shakespeare could never have written the plays.
Although I don't doubt this, I may understand why Shakespeare scholars have preferred to close their eyes and stop up their ears. When one knows something to be true, it can be incredibly frustrating to be forced to defend facts, and to debate people who are heavily invested in fantasy. More power to people who can debate evolution with creationists, or who methodically prove that the Holocaust did indeed occur. I couldn't do it, and perhaps Shakespearean scholars have similar feelings.

The authorship question began in around 1850, about 230 years after William Shakespeare died. By 1884, there were 255 published works on the subject. By 1949, there were 4,500. At this point, Shapiro tells us, a running count would be impossible. It seems whole forests have been downed in attempts to disprove Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. Famous adherents have included Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Derek Jacobi, Orson Welles, Sigmund Freud, Malcolm X and Charlie Chaplin.

As the number of works on the subject have multiplied, so has the number of candidates proposed as the true author of the plays and poems. Shapiro writes in the introduction: "A complete list is pointless, as it would soon be outdated. During the time I've been working on this book, four more names have been put forward." He focuses on Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (usually referred to as Oxford), not because he thinks those cases are stronger, but because "they can be taken as representative".

* * * *

Several factors gave rise to the Shakespeare authorship question. It's not a coincidence that the controversy appeared at the same literary moment as the detective novel. Also at that time, "Higher Criticism" biblical studies were rocking received literary wisdom. Philology scholars, painstakingly studying manuscripts, had proven that the Christian Bible was written hundreds of years after the death of Jesus. Similar study had demonstrated that the epics attributed to Homer were the "the products of different hands and different historical moments".

By Victorian times, Shakespeare had been deified nearly to the same degree as the writers of the Gospels, and many skeptics wanted to see a third literary god toppled. But authorship of the Scriptures and Homer had been proven through meticulous and extensive historical analysis. With Shakespeare, Shapiro writes, people were "content to insist, rather than demonstrate, that Shakespeare was as much a myth as Homer or Jesus".

Once set in motion, the authorship question has been fueled by two engines. One is anachronistic thinking – an ignorance of historical context – that projects modern modes of thought onto the past. Despite popular sayings such as "the more things change, the more they stay the same", other eras were radically different from our own. People had different expectations and so behaved differently; they asked different questions of their world and accepted different answers. This is not to say there are no historical parallels, or that we cannot empathize with people from earlier eras. But history can only be properly understood in context. (More about anachronistic thinking in a bit.)

The other fuel that feeds the authorship question are lies transmitted as fact. Shapiro writes, "More than any subject I've ever studied, the history of the authorship question is rife with forgeries and deceptions." He relates an early episode in the history of the controversy that illustrates this pattern, retracing a path that is seen again and again, full of "fabricated documents, embellished lives, concealed identity, pseudonymous authorship, contested evidence, bald-faced deception, and a failure to grasp what could not be imagined".

* * * *

The belief that Shakespeare of Stratford didn't write the plays and poems that bear his name hinges on three inter-related, incorrect assumptions.

Assumption #1: The autobiographical nature of authorship: the belief that all fiction is actually disguised autobiography, an idea that was born in Victorian times, but did not exist in Shakespeare's time.

Assumption #2: Since all fiction is autobiographical, authors can only write about what they themselves have personally experienced.

Assumption #3: Since authors can only write from personal experience, only a man of "good breeding", one with an aristocratic background and a high-quality formal education, could have produced works of such genius.

For me, this last assumption is particularly telling. Again and again, the authorship question makes assumptions about class. How could a commoner, a mere "glover's son" – as if genius is inherited through social status – have penned these works? Clearly only a member of the aristocracy could have done so. I find the assumption about fiction as autobiography bizarre, but the classist assumptions are downright offensive.

Shakespeare's sonnets, too, are read as autobiography:
The lists of Elizabethan Dark Ladies, Young Men and those with the initials W.H., H.W., W.S., or some similar combination. . . would take pages to list them all, the equivalent of an Elizabethan census. The most innocent and metaphorical utterances of the fictive speakers of Shakespeare's poems were interpreted as biographical fact.
Again and again, the same pattern appears. Mark Twain, who said his own work was always autobiographical, assumed all other writers' work was, too. Twain was also fascinated with themes of concealed and dual identities; his work is full of examples, including his own pseudonym. He was very keen to apply these fascinations to the Shakespeare plays and poems – if only someone would find the evidence. Referring to Twain, Shapiro writes:
Underlying his reasoning here was the presumption that Shakespeare could only write about what he had felt or done rather than heard about, read about, borrowed from other writers, or imagined.
Shapiro points out the sad irony of Helen Keller – often accused of merely lending her name to a ghostwriter's work, since a woman with her disabilities could not have authored best-selling books – joining a
movement committed to the belief that literature was ultimately confessional. Yet Keller was living evidence that a great writer didn't need to see or hear things herself to write about them. Though she knew this, she remained unable to accept that it was Shakespeare's ability to imagine things that mattered - and that what he found in books, as much as or more than what he experienced firsthand, stimulated his imagination, as it had hers.
The view that fiction was always autobiographical led authorship detectives on some bizarre trails. People pored through the plays, seizing on characters' actions as "clues" to who wrote them.
When desire outpaced what scholars could turn up, there remained only a few ways forward: forgery, reliance on anecdote, or turning to the works for fresh evidence about the author's life.
Yes, they turned to the work for evidence of the life. For example, if a character in a play had knowledge of falconry, it was assumed that the playwright had direct, personal experience with falconry. Therefore, only a gentleman who was a falconer could have written the play. But these techniques were only applied to certain elements of the plays. (For some reason, after seeing Macbeth, nobody claimed the playwright was a murderer.)

For decades – beginning, not coincidentally, around the time Morse code was invented – authorship detectives believed there were codes embedded in the plays, which, if properly deciphered, would prove the plays were written by [insert candidate's name here]. Untold hours and energy were consumed trying to "crack the Shakespeare code". Usually these imagined codes were the kind that can be made to reveal whatever one wants to discover. What's more, they would have been impossible to implant using Elizabethan typesetting practices.

* * * *

As far as I have seen, all the authorship claims follow a similar recipe. Begin with the premise that Shakespeare of Stratford couldn't have written the plays, because his "common" background precludes it. This premise is supported by a variety of falsehoods and aided by ignorance of Jacobean and Elizabethan England.

Add a second incorrect premise: that all the characters in the plays were based on actual historical individuals, who the playwright knew and disguised, a dramatic roman à clef.

Next, decide who each character represents. And since Shakespeare couldn't personally have known those people, therefore he couldn't have written the plays. (Never mind that there's no evidence to support any of this.)

Now that you've decided – not established or determined, just decided – that Shakespeare didn't write the plays, look for someone who more closely fits your idea of who could have written them – someone with the proper background, education, interests and personal history.

And finally, after you've settled on someone as the true author of the plays, search for scraps of information that you can claim as evidence.

You will need to massage – squeeze, pinch, pull and twist – the facts in order to make them fit your theory. Don't be shy about ignoring historical evidence and explaining away facts.

For example, Oxford, one of the most popular authorship candidates, died in 1604, before many of the plays were written; the plays contain topical references and allusions to events that took place after his death. These inconvenient details do not deter Oxfordians. They simply say that Oxford either wrote the plays before he died to be released posthumously (a claim for which they have no evidence), or the plays have been dated wrong (also no evidence), or that later writers added posthumous references to purposely plant false clues (also no evidence).

Shapiro quotes an exchange between Shakespearean scholar James Boyle and the writer James Lardner, who was covering the controversy for The New Yorker:
"The Oxfordians have constructed an interpretative framework that has an infinite capacity to explain away information. . . . All the evidence that fits the theory is accepted, and the rest rejected." When Boyle added that it was "impossible to imagine a piece of evidence that could disprove the theory to its adherents", Lardner asked, "What about a letter in Oxford's hand...congratulating William Shakespeare of Stratford on his achievements as a playwright?" Boyle didn't skip a beat, mimicking an Oxfordian response: "What an unlikely communication between an earl and a common player! Obviously, something designed to carry on the conspiracy of concealment. The very fact that he wrote such a letter presents the strongest proof we could possibly have!"
Two of the most commonly heard arguments against Shakespeare are perfect examples of the anachronistic thinking that permeates the debate. It is said that William Shakespeare of Stratford could not have written the plays and poems because he was illiterate. Supposed evidence for this is twofold: Shakespeare "couldn't even spell his own name" and he owned no books, as no books were mentioned in his will. However, during Shakespeare's lifetime, English spelling had not yet been standardized. I read the Diary of Samuel Pepys online, a work written by an educated bibliophile a half-century after Shakespeare's death. Pepys' spelling, especially of proper names, varies widely, even within the same entry. In fact, Oxford and Bacon both spelled their names several different ways. Regarding the absence of books in the Shakespeare will, Elizabethan wills didn't enumerate most household possessions. Those were found an "inventory of the testator's household effects," that is, a list of possessions. (Shakespeare's inventory has not been found, although it is referenced as having existed.) The wills of many other Elizabethans who were highly literate also contain no mention of books.

I also think the popularity of this phony "controversy" is yet another example of widespread confusion about the difference between fact and belief. Not all ideas are facts. Everyone should have equal access to ideas – but not all ideas are of equal value. This is the confusion that leads people to believe that creationism should be taught in school, or that Holocaust denial deserves serious scholarly debate. Obviously there are other motivations at work by the proponents of those ideas – religious fundamentalism, bigotry – but many people without those motivations will listen to "both sides" and weigh anything as potential evidence.

* * * *

After unpacking the themes of the authorship detectives, Shapiro makes an elegant and, to my mind, unassailable case for Shakespeare the playwright. This includes a wealth of references to Shakespeare and his work by his contemporaries, memorial tributes and other written historical evidence.

It's now known that Shakespeare co-authored five plays with other playwrights, a fairly common practice at the time. (This was brand new to me, and very interesting.) It's even known with some degree of certainty who wrote which parts. This fairly demolishes the Oxfordian theory; Shapiro notes that the Oxford crew has been silent on this topic.

In addition, the theories on how such a massive hoax - 36 plays, 154 sonnets, a hugely popular theatre company, fierce competition, thousands of copies of the work circulated, and more than 230 years without a single mention - could have been perpetrated simply do not hold up.

Finally, in a brilliant epilogue, Shapiro discusses many modern readers' tendency to assume that fiction is autobiographical. He feels that many Shakespeare scholars unwittingly feed the authorship debate by going the same route. In Shakespeare's time, Shapiro writes,
The evidence strongly suggests that imaginative literature in general and plays in particular . . . were rarely if ever a vehicle for self-revelation. . . . Even if Shakespeare occasionally drew in his poems and plays on personal experiences, and I don't doubt that he did, I don't see how anyone can known with any confidence if or when or where he does so. Surely he was too accomplished a writer to recycle them in the often clumsy and undigested way that critics in search of autobiographical traces – advocates and skeptics of his authorship alike – would have us believe. . . .

You would think that the endless alternatives proposed by those reading his life out of the works – good husband or bad, crypto-Catholic or committed Protestants, gay or straight, misogynist or feminist, or, for that matter, that the works were really written by Bacon, Oxford, Marlowe and so on – would cancel each other out and lead to the conclusion that the plays and poems are not transparently autobiographical. . . .

What I find most disheartening about the claim that Shakespeare of Stratford lacked the life experience to have written the plays is that it diminishes the very thing that makes him so exceptional: his imagination.
Shapiro paints a picture of an imaginative, curious man, a gifted poet and playwright, living in multi-ethnic, polyglot London, reading voraciously, and absorbing a wealth of information about all sorts of things for which he had no personal experience. Examples from our own times are everywhere. One of my favourite novels is Roddy Doyle's The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. The narrator is an abused woman; Doyle was neither. I wrote a novel in the voice of a teenage girl who uses a wheelchair. Of the various criticisms of that book, no one – including all the wheelchair users who read it – ever thought the narrator's voice was inauthentic.

It is said that the person who wrote the Shakespeare plays must have travelled to Italy, and needed an intimate knowledge of falconry. Does that mean the playwright was also a murderer? A thief? A witch? Here's a candidate for King Lear authorship because he had three daughters! Was he also a king? Did he go insane?
The plays are not an a la carte menu, from which we pick characters who will satisfy our appetite for Shakespeare's personality while passing over less appetizing choices. He imagined them all.

5.04.2011

books on books, part 1: robert darnton, the case for books

This is the first in a trio of "what i'm reading" posts falling under the general category of books about books, or reading about reading. After Roddy Doyle, these books are the top three books on my spring-summer to-read list. I started with The Case for Books: Past, Present and Future by Robert Darnton.

I was introduced to the work of Robert Darnton in an elective course, "The History of Books and Printing," then encountered him again in my Foundations of Library and Information Science course. Darnton's long career is impressive indeed. He's one of the leading scholars in the field called History of the Book. He taught history at Princeton University for nearly 40 years, he's a past president of the American Historical Association, he's worked as a journalist and in publishing, has been a trustee of the New York Public Library, and is the founder of two innovative digital publishing programs, the Electronic Enlightenment and Gutenberg-e. Most recently, Darnton is the head librarian of Harvard University.

What's most interesting to me about Darnton is that he is both eminently scholarly and erudite, yet practical and down-to-earth. He has a consistently progressive perspective, never forgetting that the world he and his readers inhabit is one of privilege, and always striving for greater access and the democratization of learning. His writing is clean and elegant, free of academic jargon and obfuscation - a joy to read.

"The Case for Books" is a collection of essays that have been previously published in the New York Review of Books and other venues. It's divided into three sections: Future - thoughts on where books fit in to the digital age, and especially on the Google Book Settlement, Present - tales from the transition to digitization, and Past - concerning the study of writing, reading and the History of the Book. I suspect most general, non-specialist readers will be most interested in the first part, but the whole book is worth reading. There are gems throughout.

As Librarian of Harvard, Darnton's dream was a national digital library, and eventually a global digital library, accessible to everyone with internet access, free of charge. To pave the way, he pioneered a program of digitization and openness at Harvard, one that both respected copyright and promoted access. This was enthusiastically embraced by the faculty.

Darnton proposed a national program to invest in digitization - an enormous digital Library of Congress. But somewhere along the way, Darnton's dream was co-opted, and morphed into Google Books. It's not the same thing. As Darnton explains, the primary purpose of libraries is to bring information to users. Google's primary purpose is profit. The two goals may sometimes dovetail, but they are essentially different. As it stands, a private, for-profit, proprietary (non-transparent) enterprise controls access to an enormous amount of information, and for various legal reasons, is poised to have exclusive control of even more information for the foreseeable future and beyond.

Darnton is not anti-Google. But he is concerned - as we all should be - about a private company having what amounts to monopoly control over so much information. His conclusions about the current state of digital access leave me saddened, because our profit-driven society missed a unique opportunity for public access to education on a grand scale.

On the subject of e-books, I notice that many readers' opinions tend towards the simplistic. "E-books are great because they take up less space and use less paper, and have lots of fun features." "E-books are less satisfying than print. Who wants to curl up with a Kindle?" And so on. Darnton shows the issues to be much more complex; his essays offer a much fuller, more nuanced understanding of the differences between the two.

The Case for Books makes a very strong argument for why e-books cannot and should not replace paper, even as it fully embraces the possibilities and wonder of the digital age. Even if think you understand all the implications of e-books, chances are you will learn something from Darnton. At the very least, he will challenge your perspectives and assumptions.

Darnton places the digital era in the context of the three previous major shifts in information technology - the invention of writing, the movement from scroll to codex (that is, book form), and the advent of printing. When I wrote about Elizabeth Eisenstein (for the course I mentioned above) - arguing that the shift from manuscript to print was a greater change than the shift from print to digital - I read some of Darnton's critiques of Eisenstein's work. His assertion that the movement from scroll to codex was an even greater change than the advent of printing surprised and fascinated me.

Darnton believes - and I agreed, long before I read this book - that, despite the name given our present time, every age has been an "information age".
When I try to foresee the future, I look into the past. Here, for example, is a futuristic fantasy published in 1771 by Louse Sébastien Mercier in his best-selling utopian tract, The Year 2440. Mercier falls asleep and wakes up in the Paris that will exist seven centuries after his birth in 1740. He finds himself in a society purged of all the evils from the ancient régime. In the climactic chapter of volume one, he visits the national library, expecting to see thousands of volumes splendidly arrayed as in the Bibliothèque du roi

Mercier was a militant advocate of enlightenment and a true believer in the printed word as an agent of progress. He did not favor book burning. But his fantasy expressed a sentiment that was already strong in the eighteenth century and has now become an obsession - the sense of being overwhelmed with information and of helplessness before the need to find relevant material amidst a mountain of ephemera.
As all of human history is a vast Information Age, Darnton expresses his awe of the sum of human knowledge, his humbleness in how little any of us can really know, and our urgent need to preserve - and make accessible - all we can.
Any author knows how much must be eliminated before a text is ready for printing, and any researcher knows how little can be studied in the archives before the text is written. The manuscripts seem to stretch into infinity. You open a box, take out a folder, open the folder, take out a letter, read the letter, and wonder what connects it with all the other letters in all the other folders in all the boxes, not just in this repository but in all the archives everywhere. The overwhelming majority have never been read by researchers. And most people never wrote letters. Most human beings have vanished into the past without leaving a trace of their existence. To write history from the archives is to piece together what little we can grasp in as meaningful a picture as we can compose. But the result, the form of a history book, can no more capture the infinity of experience than [St.] Augustine could comprehend the mind of God.
Darnton makes a strong case for extreme skepticism of all sources, be they digital or print: "In short, the traditional media have no greater claim than the electronic media to mastery of the past." "News is not what happened but a story about what happened." He describes his days as a young journalist, and how stories were chosen and composed, then concludes:
Having learned to write news, I now distrust newspapers as a source of information, and I am often surprised by historians who take them as primary sources for knowing what really happened. I think newspapers should be read for information about how contemporaries construed events, rather than for reliable knowledge of events themselves.
The later essays in The Case for Books are more specific and somewhat more academic. I didn't understand all the references, and many readers may glaze over a bit. But even when the specific topic is a bit esoteric, there are lovely, interesting tidbits. For example, in "The Mysteries of Reading," Darnton reviews some studies of "commonplace books". These were notebooks kept by readers, especially in the 17th and 18th Centuries. When a reader came upon a passage that particularly resonated for him (these were usually kept by men), he would copy it into the notebook and add his own observations and annotations. I had never heard of the commonplace book, but it gave historical context to my own books of quotations, in which I copied song lyrics and passages from novels. I added to them for decades, and have saved them all, a kind of running record of what I found meaningful and beautiful at various times of my life.

The introduction to commonplace books also revealed that 17th and 18th Century readers, in some respects, had more in common than with readers in the early 20th Century.
Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end . . . early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they re-read the copies and re-arranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities.
In other words: proto-web 2.0 and 17th Century mashups.

This in turn reminded me of what I learned from reading Elizabeth Eisenstein: that the essential nature of reading has changed many times in history, with the advent of different information technology, or changing social and cultural context.
...reading by turning the leaves of a codex as opposed to reading by unrolling a volume, reading printed texts in contrast to reading manuscripts, silent reading as distinct from reading aloud, reading alone rather than reading in groups, reading extensively by racing through different kinds of material vs reading intensively by perusing a few books many times. Now that the research has shifted to commonplace books, we may add segmental vs sequential reading to the list.
The Case for Books ends with the essay that introduced me to Darnton's work, in which he describes the field of History of the Book, and offers a model for future study. I had never heard of History of the Book, and I found it a difficult concept to grasp. Darnton says:
It might even be called the social and cultural history of communication by print, if that were not such a mouthful, because its purpose is to understand how ideas were transmitted through print and how exposure to the printed word affected the thought and behaviour of mankind during the last five hundred years.
In a time when people are preparing funeral rites for the printed word, reflecting on the importance of print and of reading is a very valuable exercise.

Darnton online sampler:

Google & the Future of Books, New York Review of Books

A Digital Library Better Than Google's, New York Times Op-Ed

What didn't happen: An Interview with Robert Darnton on the Digital Public Library of America, The Historical Society, and companion videos, part one and part two (about 10 minutes each)

IT Panel: Information Overload in a Digitized World, video (9:44)

9.03.2010

what i'm reading double-header, part two: this book is overdue!

Another fun book I read this summer is This Book Is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Will Save Us All, by Marilyn Johnson.

Are librarians still necessary in the age of Google? When so much information streams directly into our homes, do we still need public libraries? Marilyn Johnson answers these questions with a resounding yes, and yes, more than ever.

Johnson brushes away dusty stereotypes of shush-ing schoolmarms in sensible shoes, and introduces readers to the new breed of librarian. Apparently they're all much younger than me and have tattoos, but the age differences won't matter. Contemporary public librarians are technologically savvy, networked to databases and online communities around the globe, fiercely dedicated to intellectual freedom, and committed to the public library as a free, public information resource and community centre.

In this book, you'll learn some library history, meet a sampling of the zillions of blogging librarians, peek inside the updated New York Public Library, meet radical librarians enabling public protest, and discover how librarians are protecting your intellectual freedom every day. Pack-rats everywhere will appreciate the chapter on archivists - how they find, protect and preserve the raw materials of history.

What happens when librarians and civilian Googlers face off - who can collect more and better information? You'll have to read to find out. Johnson has a breezy, accessible writing style, and her deep appreciation for her subject material infuses every page.

My only issue with this book was much of the material wasn't new to me - but that's only because I've been thinking, reading and analyzing the role of librarians in our society for at least a year now. If you love libraries and ever find yourself defending our need for them, you'll want to read this book.

7.19.2009

what i'm reading: mr pip, and others to follow

I'm in the middle of a surprise novel, something not plucked from my endless To-Read List, but that Allan included in my birthday loot: Mister Pip, by New Zealand author Lloyd Jones. The story is told by a 13-year-old narrator and involves Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. Teenage narrator? Dickens? Good call.

Mister Pip won the Commonwealth Prize in 2006, and was nominated for the Booker Prize the following year. In my experience, both those awards mean excellent books. I'll read any book that won either a Commonwealth or a Booker, and I've never been disappointed.

This is no exception: an excellent book. The main story involves a girl discovering the power of fiction - for solace, for escape, and to understand her world. Matilda also discovers an unexpected teacher and a father-figure, and her relationship with her mother begins to change. Those are standard elements for a teenage-narrated book, but Jones is subtle and skillful, and his young narrator's voice rings true for me. (I'm very tough that way. If it doesn't really feel like a teenager is narrating, I can't read the book.)

The coming-of-age story is set against a backdrop of war and terror. Most of that is hidden from Matilda and the other young people on their South Pacific island, but what seeps through - what their parents can't protect them from - sears their memories, and it sears the readers' mind, too. A few images go a long way.

* * * *

As Matilda discovers Charles Dickens, I find myself compelled to re-read Great Expectations.

In university, I was an English major (of course) and 19th Century British was my strongest area of interest, especially Dickens. Later on, out of school, I made an interesting observation. If I read something by Dickens in a public place - on a bus, or in a park - or was just walking around carrying a Dickens novel, people would ask if I was in school. "What are you reading? Oh, is that for a class?"

After seeing a PBS production of Martin Chuzzlewit, I wanted to read the novel. I was teaching at the time, and all my colleagues made the same assumption. "Why are you reading that, are you school?"

Dickens is the only author this has ever happened with. Interesting.

Recently, one night after work, I caught a bit of a Masterpiece Theatre production of Little Dorrit, a Dickens novel I've never read. I only saw one episode but I was instantly hooked, and bought a copy.

So now I feel a Dickens binge coming on: I want to read both Great Expectations and Little Dorrit. The start of grad school and a big schedule change looms in September, so I'm not sure how realistic this is, but after Mister Pip, I'll start and see how it goes.

I picked up a used copy of Great Expectations in Stratford, only to discover I already owned a copy at home. The copy I bought was nicer, and only five bucks, so I'll donate the extra copy to the Mississauga Library for one of their many book sales.

* * * *

A couple of years before we moved to Canada, I discovered these wonderful little editions of Shakespeare plays published by Pelican.



I love the cover designs, each play with a different abstract painting, and a similar icon on the spine. There's an excellent series introduction and the intro for the specific play is usually very solid. And they're $5 each! I usually buy them in the US, but even in Canada, they're not more than $7.

Finding these books in 2003, I decided to use them as an excuse to collect and read all 36* plays - to re-read the ones I've already read, and read the rest for the first time. (I have a Complete Shakespeare, but that tome is hardly conducive to a pleasurable reading experience.)

It's a project I forget about for huge periods of time, but then come back to and read another one or two. I've only read nine plays since making this decision, which isn't much. But on the other hand, that's a quarter of the full 36, and a lot more than I would have read without the project.

In Stratford we saw a bunch of Pelican Shakespeare editions, used and in good shape, and scooped up a handful. I used to keep a list of what I already owned on my iPAQ, for just this reason. Now I see I'd better add that to my Blackberry, because one of the four we bought was already on our shelf. So the Mississauga Library will get another Winter's Tale along with Great Expectations.


* I'm not counting the "lost plays," Pericles and Two Noble Kinsmen, but I might get to those, too.

11.01.2008

what i'm reading: committing journalism

I'm finishing up Committing Journalism: The Prison Writings of Red Hog, co-authored by Dannie Martin and Peter Sussman. My earlier post about the book is here.

It's a very good book, illuminating both important First Amendment issues and conditions in the massive domestic prison gulag that exists in the United States.

The First Amendment battle arose when the US Bureau of Prisons' attempted to silence convict-writer Dannie Martin, both by trying to make it physically impossible for him to write (which failed only because of publicity and support from outside the prison), and by trying to restrain the newspaper from publishing his writing.

It was a classic case of an agency trying to control what the public knows about it. The court's job was to balance the prison's need to control its population with the public's right to know, a newspaper's right to control what it publishes, and a citizen's right to expression, despite his incarceration. I think the legal questions would be interesting to anyone concerned with free speech issues.

But what makes the book absorbing is the insight into prison life and the prison system. Some of the prison essays are humourous tales of folkways or bureaucracy run amok. But much of it involves the unseen fallout of the US's obsessive so-called "war on drugs," which gave rise to bizarrely long prison sentences - so first-time drug offenses are often punished more harshly than rapes and murders - and massively overcrowded prisons. There are revelations of conditions so inhumane as to amount to torture, such as the use of solitary confinement and forced psychotropic drugs.

The "tough on crime" crowd says that criminals get what they deserve, and insist on the myth that prisoners are "coddled" in country-club-like conditions. But first, who is locked up? What actions are deemed criminal, while other crimes go unpunished or barely punished? (Enron? Mountaintop removal? Iraq?) And should a conviction of any offence mean the suspension of all rights? Does a drug deal or a bank robbery nullify all humanity?

From a purely utilitarian perspective, overcrowded and inhumane prison conditions breed criminality. People crowded into inhumane conditions for most of their lifetimes will later be released. And they'll be dangerous.

I'll post two excerpts from the book, both Dannie Martin columns that ran in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Meanwhile, here's a bit you might enjoy. It comes after Dannie is put in "the hole" - solitary confinement - as punishment for writing a column critical of prison policy.
When Dannie was finally able to communicate with the outside world, he revealed that the detention order he had been handed on his second day in the hole informed him that "Inmate Martin is under investigation for possible attempts at encouraging a group demonstration" — a charge that had not been announced to inquiring reporters. The detention order added as an afterthought that "he is also under investigation that there may be a threat to his safety if left in open population."

The "possible" group demonstration charge remained baffling, because there never was such a demonstration and the prison spokesman told the Chronicle's reporter on June 22 that "there is no indication that there is any riot in the offing" at Lompoc.

Dannie later told me that among prisoners, to be locked in protective custody is "a real shame on your name" — a signal that the convict is a snitch, a child molester, a homosexual, or someone who won't pay his debts. Those are the people who generally need protecting in a prison. Dannie said that prison officials know this and sometimes apply the "protective custody" label to besmirch a convict's reputation among his buddies.

Usually, before placing a convict in protective custody, prison officials offer him the opportunity to sign a waiver denying he is in any danger on the mainline. Dannie asked to sign such a waiver when he was brought to Isolation, but his appeal was ignored until his ultimate release from special confinement.

Dannie was later quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, "In a place like this there are a lot of things that can threaten your safety more than writing a newspaper article."

The Bureau of Prisons' ploy of putting an outspoken convict in the hole "for his own safety" did not originate or end with Dannie. In one now-celebrated case just four months later — four days before the 1988 presidential election — the BOP placed Brett Kimberlin in solitary confinement and out of reach of the media hours after it was revealed that he was prepared to announce he had repeatedly sold marijuana to vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle years earlier. That action came from the top - BOP Director J. Michael Quinlan — and followed complaints from high-level officials of the Bush-Quayle campaign. The reason given for putting Kimberlin in solitary was that his life was in danger. No such threat was ever verified, and the prison later determined that he was not in any danger.

It all sounded so familiar.

10.07.2008

what i'm reading: committing journalism

I'm reading an interesting and very compelling book called Committing Journalism: the Prison Writings of Red Hog, co-written by Dannie Martin and Peter Sussman.

Peter Sussman was an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, responsible for a section called "Sunday Punch". In 1986 he started publishing the writing of Dannie Martin, a convict in a federal penitentiary. Sussman recognized that Martin - known as "Red Hog" in prison - had great potential as a writer. The public responded very positively to his essays, so they began a collaborative project.

Martin wrote about prison life with wit and pathos, and put a human face on a world few of his readers would ever see. He wrote about racism, health care, sex, bureaucracy, and what could only be called prison folk stories. When he wrote an essay criticizing the tactics of a new warden, prison authorities punished him and tried to prevent him from writing. A court battle ensued, leading to a major First Amendment victory. The book's tagline: "I committed bank robbery and they put me in prison, and that was right. Then I committed journalism, and they put me in the hole. And that was wrong." (I love the title Committing Journalism.)

The book intersperses a narrative told by Peter Sussman - Dannie Martin's early life, how he came to write for the Chronicle, then the fight to continue to publish Martin's writing under his own name - with Martin's columns that ran in the paper. Martin's writing is excellent, and so impressive.

My partner is a completely self-taught writer, and even though I went to university, I didn't study journalism. I've learned more about writing from Allan editing my work, and a few scraps of advice from editors here and there, than I ever did in school. So even though my experience is light years away from Dannie Martin's, I relate to his journey of discovering himself as a writer, his need to express himself, and his eagerness to improve his craft.

Committing Journalism also has me thinking about something we once called "prisoner's rights," and how those words have fallen out of public discourse. A movement to improve the quality of life of incarcerated people, and to inject anything resembling rehabilitation into the system, seems like a quaint relic from another time. In A People's History of the United States, for example, Howard Zinn writes about this as a social issue, a goal. But no elected official dare utter the words "prisoner's rights" unless they're trying to commit political suicide. Decades ago, the idea was replaced with that useless, resource-sucking propaganda called the "war on drugs," and something called "victim's rights," as if treating a convicted person as a human being somehow violates the rights of a crime victim. So this book can be seen as a barometer of something we've lost.

As many of you know, I've been a victim of violent crime, so I know first-hand the cost. Surely the course and tenor of my life were permanently changed. I'm aware that some people have to be kept away from society.

But consider: in the US, 2.2 million people are incarcerated. When you count probation and parole, the number swells to 7 million, representing one out of every 32 USians. Over 60% of incarcerated people are are people of colour. Prisons are one of the only growth industries in the US, and like everything else, have been quietly privatized.

These prisons are full to bursting with casualties of the so-called "war on drugs" and victims of the impoverished, broken world they were brought into. The entire system is geared towards locking up those on the very bottom rungs of the social ladder, while murderers, war criminals, treasonists and thieves run the country.

It's hard to believe this is the best we can do. But it is another indicator of the US's crumbling social condition - one most people never see or think about.

Good resources: The Sentencing Project, The Innocence Project, American Civil Liberties Union. Really good book, too.

3.22.2008

peter roget, a man who made lists

If you love words, as I do, you might enjoy this review of a book called The Man Who Made Lists - Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget's Thesaurus, by Joshua Kendall. It's a biography of Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869), creator of the first thesaurus.

I was very surprised to learn that Roget never intended the thesaurus as a book of synonyms. He didn't believe there was such a thing as synonyms, since every word has a distinct meaning. But he was mentally ill, or at least mentally unstable, and one of his compulsive coping mechanisms was making lists.

I was also surprised - amazed, startled, astonished, shocked? - to learn that the thesaurus was not Roget's life work.
The Thesaurus, a retirement venture carried out when Roget was in his 70s, may have been prompted by a reissuing, in 1849, of "British Synonymy," a handbook of definitional equivalents first published a half-century earlier by Hester Lynch Piozzi, known to devotees of Dr. Johnson as his friend Mrs. Thrale. Freshly exasperated by the volume's haphazardness, Roget soon set to work in earnest on his own production.

Never quite intended as a book of synonyms (Roget thought there "really was no such thing," given the unique meaning of every word), the Thesaurus was constructed as a crystal palace of abstraction, each of whose 1,000 lists pushes a reader, often antonymically, to the next, "certainty" leading to "uncertainty" leading to "reasoning" leading to "sophistry." The truth is that most users of the Thesaurus have never made head nor tail of the system and have just availed themselves of the index — added by Roget almost as an afterthought — to find what they are looking for.

The book was a hit with the English public from the moment it appeared in 1852; a bowdlerized American edition — dropping such objectionable exciters as "aria" and "the ups and downs of life" — appeared two years later. Roget continued revisions and updates until his death at 90, and his heirs kept the book going as a kind of family concern for a full century, before the name, like Webster's, passed into the public domain. Since 1852, Roget's has, Kendall explains, "lost 10 concepts — it's down to 990 — but it has gained a couple hundred thousand new words."

I love thesauri, although I rarely use one anymore. I like to keep my writing simple and straightforward; I'm more likely to use a dictionary to clarify a word's meaning. But I love looking at the vast array of somewhat synonymic words. When I open a thesaurus, I get lost, the way I get hypnotized by reading place-names on a map.

My mother bought me a hardcover thesaurus when I was in junior high school. A hardcover book was a big deal in our house, and her gift was an affirmation of me as a writer. The edition itself is now a bit archaic, and not the thesaurus I reach for, but I'll never part with it.

12.22.2005

what i'm watching: spellbound, word wars

I hope you've all seen the excellent movie Spellbound. I'm referring not to the 1945 Hitchcock classic, but to the 2002 film about the Spelling Bee. This terrific little movie follows eight regional spelling champions, all under fifteen years old, as they compete in a crazy American phenomenon called the National Spelling Bee. If you haven't seen Spellbound, you must! You won't believe how a spelling bee can generate edge-of-your-seat suspense.

Having seen and enjoyed Spellbound when it came out, last night we saw a movie in a similar vein: Word Wars, about the National Scrabble Championships. Word Wars is about obsession and obsessive people more than anything else. It follows the "tiles and tribulations" (groan!) of four people who live, breathe and sleep Scrabble. They've memorized tens of thousands of words (not their meanings, just their existence), studied strategy, explored the upwards limit of mental endurance - and have given their lives over to the pursuit of the Championship. It's a window into a bizarre world, and a nice little movie. (It owes much to the book Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis.)

The Word Wars movie also introduces you to another subculture: the Scrabble players of Washington Square Park, in New York City's Greenwich Village. Washington Square Park is home to a community of highly competitive chess, backgammon and Scrabble players, who play the "street" version of their respective games. Here are some good photos of the famous Washington Square Park chess players.

It was a great surprise to see this part of my beloved city. Like the news of the transit strike, it made me a little homesick - not in the sense of wishing I still lived there, just in a sweet, wistful way, a piece of my life I'll always treasure.

* * * *

Here's a great story for me, a lover of words, books, history and Canada.

It's been discovered that a Bible in the University of Manitoba's archives is in fact an extremely rare first edition, first printing of the King James Bible. I have a thing for very old books, and I especially love this collection of Christian mythology as a piece of Renaissance literature. The language is beautiful and evocative, and stands alongside its contemporary Shakespeare as some of the greatest writing in the English language.

How cool that a first edition has surfaced in Canada. Here are some pictures.

12.19.2004

what i'm reading: reading lolita in tehran

I just (re) started Lolita In Tehran by Azar Nafisi. Once again I am reminded that, especially for women, geography is destiny. Not that I need reminding, it's something I think about all the time. There but for an accident of birth go I.

And, since right now all roads lead to iPAQ, I'm thinking of getting the book in ebook form, too. I would leave the paper book at home, where it would stay clean and undamaged, and not add weight to my backpack, and read the digital version on the subway.

This means, of course, that I'll want to get a spare battery, which Alan The Handheld Evangelist has advised me to do all along. The lesson here is always listen to evangelists.

Not really.