Monthly Archives: January 2010

How do we read?

There was an article in the New York Times about the way people read and the way they share (or not) their reading experiences. Basically it’s an argument between “social” readers who use book clubs and social networking, and private readers, who…don’t.  The article starts with a quotation from the latest Newbery book (which I don’t know anything about, really – I am intrigued) comparing someone else reading your favourite book to an invasion of privacy, and kind of continues that line through the rest of the article.

Reading is, of course, a solitary action for most of us. There are ways, of course, to make it less solitary, by reading out loud or listening to audiobooks, but mostly reading is a solitary activity. Experiencing books, on the other hand, is not a solitary activity. Even if you don’t want to share your reading experience, you form a connection with the characters, the storylines. Even non-fiction, unless it’s an encyclopaedia, has characters and storylines that the reader forms an emotional connection with.

And the books that we love help us to form connections with other people. We feel a sense of ownership of our favourite books, sure, so I can see where they are coming from, those people who don’t want to share their favourite books.  But I also know that humans are social creatures, who wither without some point of connection with others.  You can tell a lot about people because of their reaction to books: both their favourites (and least favourites) and what they think of your favourites. I knew that one of my colleagues and I weren’t going to have a lot in common when she said that her favourite book was Nicholas Sparks’s The Notebook because it was so well-written, for example. And I became close to one of my friends in Slovakia because of our shared love of Jane Austen (and Jane Austen adaptations).

Anyway, experiencing books is not a solitary activity. Despite what the article may imply, reading has never been a purely private pursuit.  18th and 19th century novels are filled with people reading in company, or sharing books, or passing around letters. Today, there are organized ways of sharing the books – like book clubs and social networking and literature classes – and there are casual ways – like a friend recommending a book and enthusing about their favourite parts.

For me, at least, reading is – and should be – both a solitary and a social activity. I have intimate relationships with books – I defy anyone to say the contrary – but like most intimate relationships, I find it difficult to put that relationship into words. So when I talk about those books, I don’t necessarily talk about the emotions of it, except to close friends.  I talk about the comic relief, or the plot points, or the weaknesses.  Just like when I fall in love – I don’t usually talk about the depth of my feelings, except to close friends. I talk about what we do, or what is annoying me about him, or when I’m going to see him again.

And just because someone else enjoys the same books that you do, that doesn’t – or shouldn’t – diminish your own relationship with the book. It’s still yours, as much as a book belongs to any reader (which is a philosophical question in and of itself). The laws of this universe, so far as we know, mean that you will not run into people from this world in your book. You read it again, and it’s your own private place just as much as it always was.

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Love this. And I do most of these things already.

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The Fourth Bear, by Jasper Fforde

Man, meta stuff is fun.  It’s one of the thing that I love about Jasper Fforde’s first two series (Thursday Next and the Nursery Crime Division). There are characters who are aware that they are characters, conversations about what plot device to use, the understanding that, in some cases, you just have to let the story play out to its inevitable conclusion.  Those are the moments in The Fourth Bear that made me literally laugh out loud.

Other things that intrigue me about Jasper Fforde, and which I unashamedly have tried to do myself:

  • Turning what, at first glance, might just be a running joke, into a plot device.
  • Taking fairy tales and cultural memory stories, in this case Goldilocks, and completely altering the perspective of it without changing the actual story.
  • The inside jokes for those who do know the literature, and the craft of writing, and the theories and interpretations of it.

It’s one of those books that gets funnier the more danger that the characters are in, without actually diminishing the danger – and then, in a subplot, he throws in things like this:

“…networks are everywhere. The road and rail systems, the postal service, the Internet, your friendships, family, electricity, water – everything on this planet is composed of networks…..because it is the way you are built – your bodies use networks to pass information; your veins and arteries are networks to nourish your bodies. Your mind is a complicated network of nerve impulses. It’s little wonder that networks dominate the planet – you have modeled your existence after the construction of your own minds.”

And it made me think, “….Wow. That’s true. We are a collection of networks. Networks areeverywhere. I’d never thought of it like that before.”

I especially appreciated the way that he included electricity and water in the list – we talk about them as grids so often that we – well, I – lose sight of the way that that’s just another network. It’s not linear (at least, not in the way that the aliens in The Fourth Bear are linear). I wonder if that’s one reason that we have such philosophical questions about time – we perceive time as linear, and that is imposed on our network, almost web-like, mentality and worldview.  It could be one reason that time travel is such an intriguing concept for us – if we could travel back in time, it would make time more of a two-way (multi-way) network than it is now, and that would be more comfortable for us.

(Or maybe I’ve just been watching and listening to too much Doctor Who….)

The only thing that I’m not happy about, upon finishing The Fourth Bear? I have to wait a year for the next Jasper Fforde book. I may have to go through a rereading binge sometime soon.

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Shades of Grey, by Jasper Fforde

It’s the details that make fictional worlds so interesting. Plot and character are important, of course – they’re what get you hooked and keep you reading.  But it’s the details, especially the ordinary, off-hand details, that stick in your mind. You find out a lot about the society by what they see as normal and what they see as unusual.

Shades of Grey is the newest book by Jasper Fforde. I got my copy at a reading he did this week in Nottingham. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic world that operates on a caste system based around visual colour acuity. No one in this world can see the entire colour spectrum – some can only see red, some blue, some yellow.  Some can see orange, green, or purple. Purples are at the top of the hierarchy, Reds are at the bottom. Greys – who can’t see colour, obviously – are the labour force, below all the Colours. The society is completely run through a set of rules. Everyone (well, nearly everyone) adheres almost blindly to these rules. The story here starts when Eddie Russett meets Jane, a Grey who makes a habit of defying the rules.

I’m not going to say anything more about the plot: you should definitely read it yourself, and it is the first in a series so the plot isn’t really concluded yet. But, like I said at the beginning, it’s the details that make fictional worlds special. Details like the barcodes that are on everything, including living things. Or the animals that are mentioned (and further described on the website). Or the idea that everyone in the world has fixed pupils, and therefore no night vision. And the thing that made me actually laugh out loud: a Caravaggio called “Frowny Girl Removing Beardy’s Head.”

One of the things this book does (or certainly tries to do – you can decide for yourself how successful it is) is explore the dangers of unquestioning obedience. The Colourtocracy is stable and sustainable and peaceful and productive. But we know from real life that it can’t possibly be that easy – and of course it’s not.

Another thing that I was thinking about after I finished the book was the social taboos around marriage. Colour perception is generally passed on genetically – a Red and a Yellow will most likely have an Orange child; a low perception Red and a high perception Red will have a medium-to-high perception Red child. And there is a strict taboo against complementary colours (colours opposite each other on the  colour wheel, like Red and Green) having a relationship. This means that no one acceptable in this world ever can see the entire colour spectrum. I am sure that this will be important later in the series; there were a few hints of it even in this book.

I described this to a friend as a dystopia, but not a negative dystopia like Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, 1984, etc. It’s a dystopia because it’s a “perfect world” that’s not, but it’s not nearly as dark as the classic dystopias. I don’t think Jasper Fforde could write something dark and depressing. His style (and, after meeting him, his personality) naturally turn everything to a humorous bent.

One tiny thing that disconcerted me in this book: it’s not unexpected that Jasper Fforde would treat figurative language literally.  There was one line that, at the time, I wondered if that were the case.  At that point, with some of the descriptions (such as the fixed pupils), I wondered if this world were a painting or drawing come to life.  It’s a reasonable thought, given the Thursday Next series, which features “living” literature.  So when he describes a room at dawn as “reassembling itself”, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was literal or figurative.  It’s a lovely passage, either way, but it did make me wonder. After finishing the book, though, there was nothing else that pointed to the literality of it – but it distracted me for a little while.

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Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, by Amanda Foreman

Can I just stay, to start off with, that I am not a fan of ‘movie tie-in’ covers? Especially on biographies. I haven’t seen The Duchess yet, although I’m pretty sure I would like it: I am a Keira Knightley fan and have been since Bend It Like Beckham, and if nothing else I would enjoy seeing Chatsworth. But I really don’t like that most of the copies of this book that are in the stores have (a) been renamed to “The Duchess” and (b) have Keira Knightley on the cover.  The only movie tie-in cover I’ve seen that I think is at all appropriate is one that still has the portrait of Georgiana on the front, but with Keira Knightley in a small circle near the bottom, and says that it has been made into the movie The Duchess.

Anyway. I have been meaning to read this for literally years, pretty much since it came out.  I have always had a connection to Derbyshire because of my godmother, and Chatsworth was one of the first stately homes I ever visited.  It’s always interesting for me to see references to places that I have been (I’m sort of working on a ‘literary memoir’ that explores that).

Georgiana was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, celebrity of her time. She is the one who set trends in almost every field.  It was fascinating to read about how influential she was, and her insecurities even given that.  Her relationships were the main focus of this book, with an emphasis not so much on Georgiana’s relationship with others as their relationship with her.  So much of the book shows Georgiana in other people’s words – a historical necessity, since apparently quite a lot of Georgiana’s letters were censored in the 19th century, literally blacked out.  Showing so many different perspectives is quite possibly the best way to get a sense of a person as a whole: we all present different facets of ourselves depending on whom we’re interacting with, including in our private ‘alone time’, so the only way to see as much as possible is to see the person from as many different views as possible.

This book is also remarkable in the way that it almost makes me care about 18th century politics.  Someone – I think it was Peter Sagal – said about the book Game Change that it shows that character counts more than political ideology. The same could also be said about this book and its portrayal of 18th century politics. I’m sure Georgiana agreed wholeheartedly with the idea of the Whigs. But I also am sure that she wouldn’t have been such a political power for them if she didn’t like them, too. So much of political success is personality and persuasion, then as now, and that was part of what made Georgiana successful.  While reading it, I wished I knew more about some of the characters –  Fox, Grey, Pitt, etc. – to get a non-Georgiana sense of what made them good politicians.

I doubt I would have liked her if I’d been alive at the time, frankly. I would probably have been fascinated by her, as many people seemed to be, but getting to know her through this book, there were definitely times where I got ridiculously frustrated with her: mostly in money matters. Now, my money management is not the best (although not having a reliable income is a big part of that) but I just got so frustrated with her continual gambling and her deceit to her husband and her creditors. It wasn’t until nearer the end of her life – certainly nearer the end of the book – that anyone demanded consequences for her continual spending, borrowing, and lying about it. This is one of the things that would have frustrated me if I had known her: it was rare that she had to face consequences for her own actions. She got away with things that many other people would not and did not get away with, merely because she was glamorous and charming.  The Prince Regent (well, the Prince of Wales, later Prince Regent) seemed quite similar: he is another one that I don’t know that much about and rather wish that I did.

I have also been getting more interested in contemporary medical diagnoses.  What really happened to Georgiana’s eye, and how would it be treated today? How did she form the abscess on her liver that killed her? This is something that I started thinking about more when I was reading Queens Consort: when they said that Henry VI and his French grandfather were ‘mad’, what does that mean in today’s terms? Most people by now know that George III’s madness was actually symptoms of porphyria but where did that come from? My sister has a book somewhere about the medical histories of the kings and queens; I may have to borrow it sometime.

I’m debating about what to read next: do I want to stick with the historical biography theme and read Bess of Hardwick? Or do I want to shift tacks and go for a work of fiction?

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A Room with a View, by E.M. Forster

Okay, I’m kind of cheating here. I haven’t (re)read this recently.  But I was talking with my best friend the other day about the classes we’d taken in college and realized that it had been ten years, almost exactly, since I’d read this book for the first time. And since it is my stated favourite book of all time, I thought I should write something to mark a decade of its being in my life.

It was J-term of my freshman year, and I was taking Reading Fiction. It was the perfect class for me: it combined my favourite professor with my favourite activity (reading books and then talking about them). I don’t remember exactly what else we read in that class: A Lesson Before Dying, I think, and at least one other.  I do remember A Room with a View.

It’s not the absolute best book ever, as many critics have pointed out. Most don’t even consider it Forster’s best book – they usually pick Howards End or A Passage to India. But I just fell in love with A Room with a View. It could be that I identified quite strongly with Lucy – she was about my age, wide-eyed and eager to learn but with a strong sense, almost an oppressive sense, for what “should” be done (stimulated, of course, by Charlotte and Cecil and, to a lesser extent, her mother and Freddy). She also was an amateur musician, who used the piano in particular as a way to find an emotional balance. Sound familiar?

Three years later, when it came time for me to decide on a project for my senior paper, I decided to write about A Room with a View and the other “early” works of Forster (i.e. everything except A Passage to India, which I didn’t finally get through until last year sometime), and the way that they used specific musical pieces as themes within the books as well as structure. It probably wasn’t the most innovative thing ever, but I noticed that each of the books featured music in a significant way, usually a particular piece or style of music, and that piece or style of music was also reflected in the structure of the book.

When I was thinking about doing a Master’s degree, I thought about the periods of literature that I enjoyed and was obsessed with: medieval literature, especially Robin Hood, and early 20th century literature with Forster. That’s why I decided to do the degree I did – the idea was that by studying both periods, I could more easily narrow my interest.  Well, I certainly did  that: I realized that Forster was essentially the only one of that era that I wanted to study further, but I was fascinated by the many, many works of Middle English that I encountered.  I realized that I was more interested in Virginia Woolf, for example, when she was writing about Forster, and Elizabeth Bowen when I could compare her to Forster,  and Joyce not at all.

I recognize that it’s not the best book ever. The film version is certainly not spectacular, although it’s not bad. It’s a bit obvious with some of the symbolism (like, say, the view).  But every time I read it, I find more things to analyze and enjoy in it.  Like Forster’s use of light and shadow with George, for instance. It has entered my consciousness in a lot of ways – I don’t have it completely memorized, but I know it well enough that passages of it go through my head simply by seeing the title.  I also kind of annoyed my companions when we were in Florence by pointing out places that were significant from the book. I freely admit that Santa Croce was one of my favourite places in Florence not just because of the artwork and the tombs and the Dante statue, but because it was the church that Lucy went to with her Baedeker.

It’s been a couple of years since I last read A Room with a View; it may be about time for me to read it again.

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Queens Consort, by Lisa Hilton

This book attempts to explore the lives and personalities of the crowned queens of England from Matilda of Flanders (William the Conqueror’s wife) to Elizabeth of York (Henry VII’s). On the whole, I liked it. Some of the queens are fairly well-known or at least notorious – Eleanor of Aquitaine and Isabella of France (Edward II’s queen) instantly come to my mind – but a lot of them are typically overshadowed by their husbands or sons.

Unfortunately that’s a trap that this book also falls into by the end. It is, of course, always difficult to piece together personality from the limited records that survive, especially for women. Even noble women rarely appear in the records until their betrothals. So much of what survives is either financial or in connection with the king and/or princes.

The structure of the book works really well at first. Each chapter is dedicated to a particular queen, putting the story into a pretty clearly demarcated chronology. The problems naturally come when two are more queens are alive at the same time: when there are dowager queens along with their crowned daughters- or sisters-in-law. At the beginning of the book, the overlaps were pretty easy to keep clear: even when there were multiple queens (Eleanor of Aquitaine and Berengaria, for instance), the story of one queen was told fairly completely before going back a few years to start the story of the next.

Things start to fall apart a little bit by the end of the book. Focus on the queens themselves is subsumed into a description of events, especially in the last few chapters. And focus on a separate queen per chapter is almost non-existent. I think I learned more about the Elizabeths (Woodville and York) during the Anne Neville chapter than about Anne herself, and that doesn’t include the pages that don’t even mention Anne at all.

I don’t know how much of my dissatisfaction with the final chapters is due to my relative disinterest in the Wars of the Roses (and most things after 1400) and how much is the failure of the book to maintain its structure and stated purpose.

I did enjoy it, though. I learned more about a lot of the queens than I’d known before. My interest in the Anarchy was, if anything, increased. (That is one major omission: since the book is about crowned queens, Empress Matilda is not one of the subjects.) And my annoyance with the muddle of the last few chapters has somewhat increased my desire to finally make sense of the late 15th century.

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