A review of Lucia Berlin’s short story collection Evening in Paradise

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Evening in Paradise is the second posthumously-published collection of short stories by the American writer Lucia Berlin. The book collects twenty-two stories originally published between 1981 and 1999. Most of the stories center around a semi-autobiographical version of Berlin herself. Like the excellent compendium A Manual for Cleaning Women which preceded it, Evening in Paradise is crammed with life. These stories teem with electric energy—even when their immediate subject matters might seem banal on the surface. Evening in Paradise shows an artist shaping the events of her life, big and small, wild and tragic, sharp and dull, into an impressionistic and urgent patchwork of tales that add up to a fictional memoir of sorts. As Berlin’s eldest son Mark Berlin noted in a 2005 essay on his mother (which serves as an introduction to Evening in Paradise),

Ma wrote true stories; not necessarily autobiographical, but close enough for horseshoes. Our family stories and memories have been slowly reshaped, embellished and edited to the extent that I’m not sure what really happened all the time. Lucia said this didn’t matter: the story is the thing.

The first stories in the collection feel sharply autobiographical. Both “The Musical Vanity Boxes” and “Sometimes in the Summer” are told by a first-person narrator named “Lucia” who details the small adventures of her childhood early 1940s in El Paso, Texas. Lucia and her friend slip over borders of all sorts, passing not only into Juarez, but also into a more complicated version of themselves as they mature. There’s a subtle menace rumbling under these stories. A mature Berlin looks back, knows what her girl protagonist does not yet know about the world and its dark joys and sinister terrors. The writer shows us a narrator gazing on life’s bright lights, even as she—the writer—draws our attention to the edge of those lights, to the threatening shadows on the margin.

Like A Manual for Cleaning Women, the stories in Evening in Paradise follow an arc of maturation—they are organized not chronologically by dates of composition or publication, but organized rather around the age of the central protagonist, the Berlin stand-in.

We find this protagonist simultaneously struggling and thriving in her teenage years. “Anando: A Gothic Romance” lives up to its subtitle. Set in Chile in an ex-pat community, “Andado” features a version of Berlin’s own teenage family—the father, a somewhat-absent mining engineer; the mother a depressed alcoholic. It’s no wonder then that our hero “Laura” is so easily seduced — “ruined” — by an older man. In one telling aside, the third-person narrator assesses a subtle moment of the seduction from the distance of time:

She was simply enveloped.

This would never happen to her again. When she grew older she would always be in control, even when being submissive. This would be the first and the last time anyone took over herself.

In “Itinerary,” another fictionalized-version of Berlin departs Chile for college in New Mexico. She leaves on her own, taking a series of planes and being greeted by a series of hosts, each of which reveals, inadvertently, something about her family which she had not previously seen, something that would be obvious though to any mature eyes settling on the family with objective distance. Berlin’s first-person narrator never quite names what is revealed to her; instead, she takes us up to the moment where we see her seeing what she has previously been blind to, yet still does not quite have the language to name. The final lines of “Itinerary” are a sort of negative epiphany:

It was sunset as we circled Albuquerque. The Sandias and the miles of rocky desert were a deep coral pink. I felt old. Not grown up, but the way I do now. That there was so much I did not see or understand, and now it is too late. The air was cold in New Mexico. No one met me.

The middle section of Evening in Paradise gives way to a series of stories focusing on young wives and young mothers different iterations of Berlin in the fifties. “Lead Street, Albuquerque” is particularly fascinating. Here, Berlin splits the material of her life into two different characters—the narrator, a somewhat hapless housewife who’s relegated to washing the dishes while her artist-husband and his artist-friends chat about hepcat stuff—and “Maria” — “seventeen, American, but grew up in South America, acts foreign, shy. English major.” A mature narrator looks back, half-mockingly and half-lovingly, at an ingénue-muse version of herself, the pair framed in the same tale. And our narrator turns toward her own life in the same attitude in turn:

Is there a word opposite of déjà vu? Or a word to describe how I saw my whole future flash before my eyes? I saw that I’d stay at the Albuquerque National Bank and Bernie would get his doctorate and keep on painting bad paintings and making muddy pottery and would get tenure. We would have two daughters and one would a dentist and the other a cocaine addict. Well, of course I didn’t know all that, but I saw how things would be hard. And I knew that years and years from then Bernie would probably leave me for one of his students and I’d be devastated but then would go back to school and when I was fifty I’d finally do things I wanted to do, but I would be tired.

The push-pull of artistic ambition against domestic life’s constraints ripple through these middle stories, where women raise kids and clean houses while men pursue their muses—writing, jazz, painting. There are small resentments and sordid affairs, banal routines and burgeoning substance abuse problems. Threaded through these stories is a common theme though, summed up in the last line of “Cherry Blossom Time,” when the hero Cassandra addresses her husband: “David. Please talk to me.”

The collection’s title story marks a shift in the trajectory of the Berlinverse, and stands out as a bit of an oddity. “Evening in Paradise” is the only piece here that doesn’t feature a straightforward Berlin stand-in; indeed, the story doesn’t have a strong central persona at all. Rather, “Evening” plays like a series of elegiac vignettes centered around the Oceano hotel–notably its bar—in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. It’s 1963 and cast and crew of The Night of the Iguana are causing a ruckus in the small fishing town, drinking heavily, taking up with beach gigolos, smoking reefers—and even shooting heroin and snorting coke. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor burst in and out; Ava Gardner looms larger than life. Director John Huston sits in the bar’s corner, drinking homemade mescal from a mayonnaise jar. There’s scheming and screaming, and generally famous times—but, like the title declares, the scene announces the end of an era.

“Evening in Paradise,” without a Berlin-protagonist, resets the stage, moving us to Mexico for a while, and introducing heroin as a major trope. In the next tale, “La Barca de la Ilusion,” Maya and her husband Buzz move to Yelapa (in Jalisco, Mexico) so that Buzz can kick heroin. “La Barca” is a standout in the collection, a slow burn of a tale, but one packed with lifetimes of storytelling. Buzz, born to a wealthy Boston family, drops out of Harvard to play saxophone in jazz clubs. He marries an heiress named Circe (I know, right?), starts a Volkswagen franchise, becomes a millionaire, has an affair with Maya, divorces Circe, etc. The problem remains though: “Heroin is easy to hide if you are rich, because you always have it.” That problem transgresses the paradise of Yalapa in the form of Victor, a menacing drug dealer who’s had his hooks in Buzz for years. Victor is a creature from the shadows, the sinister specter that haunted the background of the earlier tales of Evening in Paradise finally made manifest. I won’t spoil the rest of the story, but it swells to a startling, cinematic climax.

Characters like Victor and Buzz and Circe show up in different iterations in successive stories, like “My Life Is an Open Book” and “The Wives,” before Evening in Paradise gives over to Berlin’s Oakland years. Stories like “Noël, 1974” feature Berlin’s sons—excuse me, Berlin’s stand-in’s sons. These stories also feature her alter-ego’s high-functioning alcoholism. (Again, features that will be familiar to fans of the stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women).

The one-pager “The Pony Bar, Oakland” serves as something of a summary of the material that preceded it, delivered in Berlin’s economical prose. “There are certain perfect particular sounds. A tennis ball, a golf ball hit just right….Pool is erotic any way you look at it” the narrator begins, perched on a bar stool, as the sounds of billiards take her back in time to a cricket match in Chile:

Cricket in Santiago. Red parasols, green grass, white Andes. Red and white striped canvas chairs at the Prince of Wales Country Club. I signed chits for lemonade, tipped the tuxedoed waiters, applauded John Wells. Perfect crack of the cricket bat. I wore white, was careful of the grass stains, flirted with the boys who wore Grange school gray flannels, blue blazers in summertime. Cucumber sandwiches with tea, plans for Sunday at Viña del Mar.

The narrator remarks that she felt like an alien in that privileged childhood, just as she feels like an alien here at the Pony Bar in Oakland, sitting next to a tattooed biker. Berlin—or hey, sorry, Berlin’s stand-in—is never at home, but also at home every where. The tale ends as she glances at the hinges tattooed on the biker’s wrists, elbows, knees. The story ends in a wry punchline:

“You need a hinge on your neck,” I said.

“You need a screw up your ass.”

The smoky bar reverberating with the erotic sounds of pool transmutes into expatriate pastimes and then lands back into unglamorous Oakland, to culminate in a dirty joke. “Pony Bar, Oakland” condenses Evening in Paradise’s themes of memory, sensation, and life into a spare but evocative tale.

Later stories, like “Our Brother’s Keeper,” “Lost in the Louvre,” and “Luna Nueva” work in much the same way, filling a few slim pages with full fat life. These late stories are reflective and fully mature—still questioning and questing, but also shining with a strange peace, a strange reconciling to the sinister forces that vibrate under life’s vivid contours of family, work, culture, persona. I’ll confess that there’s something in these stories that I don’t fully appreciate—something beyond my forty years, something that their narrators see that I don’t maybe—maybe not yet, maybe not ever. But I’ll be happy to revisit them—and Berlin’s work in general—in years to come. Highly recommended.

 

Not a review of Laurent Binet’s novel The Seventh Function of Language

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I was a big a fan of Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH, so I was excited when I heard about his follow up, The Seventh Function of Language. I was especially excited when I learned that The Seventh Function took the death of Roland Barthes as its starting point and post-structuralism in general as its milieu. I audited the audiobook (translated by Sam Taylor and read with dry wry humor by Bronson Pinchot).

The audiobook is twelve hours. If it had been six hours I might have loved it. But twelve hours was a bit too much.

Wait. Sorry. What is the novel about though? you may ask. This is not a review and I am feeling lazy and not especially passionate about the book, so here is the publisher’s-blurb-as-summary:

Paris, 1980. The literary critic Roland Barthes dies – struck by a laundry van – after lunch with the presidential candidate François Mitterand. The world of letters mourns a tragic accident. But what if it wasn’t an accident at all? What if Barthes was murdered?

In The Seventh Function of Language, Laurent Binet spins a madcap secret history of the French intelligentsia, starring such luminaries as Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, and Julia Kristeva – as well as the hapless police detective Jacques Bayard, whose new case will plunge him into the depths of literary theory. Soon Bayard finds himself in search of a lost manuscript by the linguist Roman Jakobson on the mysterious “seventh function of language.”

Kristeva! Eco! Derrida! All my childhood heroes are here!

So of course, y’know, I was interested. And I’m sure that the twenty-year-old version of me would have flipped out over Binet’s pastiche of postmodern theory and detective pulp fiction. But almost-forty me found the whole thing exhausting, a shaggy dog detective story with patches of the whole continental-philosophy-vs-analytical-philosophy debate sewn in with loose stitches.

The initial intellectual rush of what amounts to a Tel Quel fan fiction/murder-mystery/political thriller hybrid begins to wear thin about halfway through. Binet is smart and he’s writing about smart people, but the cleverness on display becomes irksome, especially when he’s drawing his characters’ big philosophical ideas in the broadest of strokes (Julia Kristeva arrives at her concept of abjection after a floating film on a glass of milk makes her ill).

Binet loves to cram his characters into social situations where they can wax philosophical (in the thinnest possible sense of that verb wax). The Seventh Function is larded with chatty cocktail parties where Kristeva and Foucault can toss out zinger after zinger. One of the novel’s centerpieces, an academic conference at Cornell, serves as an excuse for Binet to riff large (but shallow) on language philosophy. He even brings Chomsky and Searle to the conference to take on Derrida et al. (Binet also squeezes in a postmodern orgy here, in which Detective Bayard has a threesome with Hélène Cixous and Judith Butler). Such scenes are funny but baggy, overlong, and often feel like an excuse for Binet to show how clever he is. (And don’t even get me started on the fact that the novel’s central protagonist worries that he might be a character in a novel).

Binet is more successful at channeling his characters’ intellects during the high-risk debates of a secret society called the Logos Club. The best of these debates showcase thought-in-action, as Binet’s characters deconstruct various topics. Still, as engaging as some elements of the Logos Club debates are, they drag on too long, and the Club’s connection to the political-thriller aspect of the plot is pretty tenuous.  Indeed, the novel is so loose that a minor character has to show up at the end and explain how all the elements connect for both the reader and detectives alike.

What’s probably most remarkable about The Seventh Function (despite the fact that it features a who’s-who of postmodern theory for its cast) is just how one-note the novel is. After all, it’s a mashup. As Anthony Domestico puts it in his (proper and insightful) review at The San Francisco Chronicle, “The novel is three parts Tom Clancy to two parts Theory SparkNotes to one part sex romp.” The Seventh Function of Language should be a lot more fun than it is.  And it is fun at times, but not enough fun to sustain, say, twelve hours of an audiobook or 359 pages in hardcover.

As HHhH showed, Binet is a talented author, and even though The Seventh Function didn’t work for me, I’m interested to see what he does next. It’s possible that The Seventh Function didn’t float my proverbial boat precisely because I’m the ideal audience for the novel. If anything, it made me want to reread Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulumbut The Seventh Function also reminded me that I read Eco’s semiotics-detective story as a much younger man—as a kid in my early twenties who probably would’ve loved Binet’s novel. So maybe I should leave well enough alone.

 

 

 

Margaret Atwood on her cameo in The Handmaid’s Tale pilot

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From Margaret Atwood’s essay of 10 March 2017 in The New York Times:

In this series I have a small cameo. The scene is the one in which the newly conscripted Handmaids are being brainwashed in a sort of Red Guard re-education facility known as the Red Center. They must learn to renounce their previous identities, to know their place and their duties, to understand that they have no real rights but will be protected up to a point if they conform, and to think so poorly of themselves that they will accept their assigned fate and not rebel or run away.

The Handmaids sit in a circle, with the Taser-equipped Aunts forcing them to join in what is now called (but was not, in 1984) the “slut-shaming” of one of their number, Jeanine, who is being made to recount how she was gang-raped as a teenager. Her fault, she led them on — that is the chant of the other Handmaids.

Although it was “only a television show” and these were actresses who would be giggling at coffee break, and I myself was “just pretending,” I found this scene horribly upsetting. It was way too much like way too much history. Yes, women will gang up on other women. Yes, they will accuse others to keep themselves off the hook: We see that very publicly in the age of social media, which enables group swarmings. Yes, they will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power: All power is relative, and in tough times any amount is seen as better than none. Some of the controlling Aunts are true believers, and think they are doing the Handmaids a favor: At least they haven’t been sent to clean up toxic waste, and at least in this brave new world they won’t get raped, not as such, not by strangers. Some of the Aunts are sadists. Some are opportunists. And they are adept at taking some of the stated aims of 1984 feminism — like the anti-porn campaign and greater safety from sexual assault — and turning them to their own advantage. As I say: real life.

Which brings me to three questions I am often asked.

First, is “The Handmaid’s Tale” a “feminist” novel? If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes. In that sense, many books are “feminist.”

A note to readers new to Infinite Jest

A note to readers new to Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest poses rhetorical, formal, and verbal challenges that will confound many readers new to the text. The abundance of (or excess of) guides and commentaries on the novel can perhaps have the adverse and unintentional consequence of making readers new to Infinite Jest believe that they can’t “get it” without help.  Many of the online analyses and resources for Infinite Jest are created by and targeted to readers who have finished the novel or are rereading the novel. While I’ve read many insightful and enlightening commentaries on the novel over the years, my intuition remains that the superabundance of analysis may have the paradoxical effect of actually impeding readers new to the text. With this in mind, I’d suggest that first-time readers need only a dictionary and some patience.

Infinite Jest is very long but it’s not nearly as difficult as its reputation suggests. There is a compelling plot behind the erudite essaying and sesquipedalian vocabulary. That plot develops around three major strands which the reader must tie together, with both the aid of—and the challenge of—the novel’s discursive style. Those three major plot strands are the tragic saga of the Incandenzas (familial); the redemptive narrative of Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, with Don Gately as the primary hero (socicultural); and the the schemes of the Québécois separatists (national/international/political). An addictive and thus deadly film called Infinite Jest links these three plots (through discursive and byzantine subplots).

Wallace often obscures the links between these plot strands, and many of the major plot connections have to be intuited or outright guessed. Furthermore, while there are clear, explicit connections between the plot strands made for the reader, Wallace seems to withhold explicating these connections until after the 200-page mark. Arguably, the real contours of the Big Plot come into (incomplete) focus in a discussion between Hal Incandenza and his brother Orin in pages 242-58. Getting to this scene is perhaps a demand on the patience of many readers. And, while the scene by no means telegraphs what happens in IJ, it nonetheless offers some promise that the set pieces, riffs, scenes, lists, and vignettes shall add up to Something Bigger. 

Some of those earliest set pieces, riffs, scenes, lists, and vignettes function almost as rhetorical obstacles for a first-time reader. The  novel’s opening scene, Hal Incandenza’s interview with the deans at the University of Arizona, is chronologically the last event in the narrative, and it dumps a lot of expository info on the reader. It also poses a number of questions or riddles about the plot to come, questions and riddles that frankly run the risk of the first-time reader’s forgetting through no fault of his own.

The second chapter of IJ is relatively short—just 10 pages—but it seems interminable, and it’s my guess that Wallace wanted to make his reader endure it the same way that the chapter’s protagonist–Erdedy, an ultimately very minor character—must endure the agonizing wait for a marijuana delivery. The chapter delivers the novel’s themes of ambivalence, desire, addiction, shame, entertainment, “fun,” and secrecy, both in its content and form. My guess is that this where a lot of new readers abandon the novel.

The reader who continues must then work through 30 more pages until meeting the novel’s heart, Don Gately, but by the time we’ve met him we might not trust just how much attention we need to pay him, because Wallace has shifted through so many other characters already. And then Gately doesn’t really show up again until like, 200 pages later.

In Infinite Jest, Wallace seems to suspend or delay introducing the reading rules that we’ve been trained to look for in contemporary novels. While I imagine this technique could frustrate first-time readers, I want to reiterate that this suspension or delay or digression is indeed a technique, a rhetorical tool Wallace employs to perform the novel’s themes about addiction and relief, patience and plateaus, gratitude and forgiveness.

Where is a fair place to abandon Infinite Jest

I would urge first-time readers to stick with the novel at least until page 64, where they will be directed to end note 24, the filmography of J.O. Incandenza (I will not even discuss the idea of not reading the end notes. They are essential). Incandenza’s filmography helps to outline the plot’s themes and the themes’ plots—albeit obliquely. And readers who make it to the filmography and find nothing to compel them further into the text should feel okay about abandoning the book at that point.

What about a guide?

There are many, many guides and discussions to IJ online and elsewhere, as I noted above. Do you really need them? I don’t know—but my intuition is that you’d probably do fine without them. Maybe reread Hamlet’s monologue from the beginning of Act V, but don’t dwell too much on the relationship between entertainment and death. All you really need is a good dictionary. (And, by the way, IJ is an ideal read for an electronic device—the end notes are hyperlinked, and you can easily look up words as you read).

Still: Two online resources that might be useful are “Several More and Less Helpful Things for the Person Reading Infinite Jest,” which offers a glossary and a few other unobtrusive documents, and Infinite Jest: A Scene-by-Scene Guide,” which is not a guide at all, but rather a brief series of synopses of each scene in the novel, organized by page number and year; my sense is that this guide would be helpful to readers attempting to delineate the novel’s nonlinear chronology—however, I’d advise against peeking ahead. After you read you may wish to search for a plot diagram of the novel, of which there are several. But I’d wait until after.

An incomplete list of motifs readers new to Infinite Jest may wish to attend to

The big advantage (and pleasure) of rereading Infinite Jest is that the rereader may come to understand the plot anew; IJ is richer and denser the second go around, its themes showing brighter as its formal construction clarifies. The rereader is free to attend to the imagery and motifs of the novel more intensely than a first-time reader, who must suss out a byzantine plot propelled by a plethora of characters.

Therefore, readers new to IJ may find it helpful to attend from the outset to some of the novel’s repeated images, words, and phrases. Tracking motifs will help to clarify not only the novel’s themes and “messages,” but also its plot. I’ve listed just a few of these motifs below, leaving out the obvious ones like entertainment, drugs, tennis (and, more generally, sports and games), and death. The list is in no way definitive or analytic, nor do I present it as an expert; rather, it’s my hope that this short list might help a reader or two get more out of a first reading.

Heads

Cages

Faces

Masks

Teeth

Cycles

Maps

Waste

Infants

Pain

Deformities

Subjects

Objects

One final note

Infinite Jest is a rhetorical/aesthetic experience, not a plot.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept posted a version of this note in the summer of 2015. Wallace would have turned 55 years old today].

Musings under an Apple Tree — Francine Van Hove

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Thomas Bernhard’s Atzbacher on State-Sanctioned Corpses

Irrsigler has that irritating stare which museum attendants employ in order to intimidate the visitors who, as is well known, are endowed with all kinds of bad behaviour; his manner of abruptly and utterly soundlessly appearing round the corner of whatever room in order to inspect it is indeed repulsive to anyone who does not know him; in his grey uniform, badly cut and yet intended for eternity, held together by large black buttons and hanging on his meagre body as if from a coat rack, and with his peaked cap tailored from the same grey cloth, he is more reminiscent of a warder in one of our penal institutions than of a state-employed guardian of works of art. Ever since I have known him Irrsigler has always been as pale as he now is, even though he is not sick, and Reger has for decades described him as a state corpse on duty at the Kunsthistorisches Museum for over thirty-six years.

–Thomas Bernhard, Old Masters, trans. Ewald Osers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.
 

Paul Carr on the iPad, Shallow Reading, and Frotteurism

From Paul Carr’s article in TechCrunch, “NSFW: I Admit It, The iPad Is A Kindle Killer. I Just Wish It Weren’t Going To Kill Reading Too”:

The iPad is emphatically not a serious readers’ device: the only people who would genuinely consider it a Kindle killer are those for whom the idea of reading for pleasure died years ago; if it was ever alive. The people who will spout bullshit like “I read on screen all day” when what they really mean is “I read the first three paragraphs of the New York Times article I saw linked on Twitter before retweeting it; and then I repeat that process for the next eight hours while pretending to work.” That’s reading in the way that rubbing against women on the subway is sex.

Read the whole thing.

Kakutani (and The Onion) on Sustained, Analytical Reading

In her recent essay “Texts Without Context,” New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani argues that web two-point-oh innovations have led to a world where–

More people are impatient to cut to the chase, and they’re increasingly willing to take the imperfect but immediately available product over a more thoughtfully analyzed, carefully created one. Instead of reading an entire news article, watching an entire television show or listening to an entire speech, growing numbers of people are happy to jump to the summary, the video clip, the sound bite — never mind if context and nuance are lost in the process; never mind if it’s our emotions, more than our sense of reason, that are engaged; never mind if statements haven’t been properly vetted and sourced.

Kakutani’s piece seems to be prompted by David Shields’s recent “manifesto” Reality Hunger, which she points out is a symptom of “a culture addicted to speed, drowning in data and overstimulated to the point where only sensationalism and willful hyperbole grab people’s attention.” She continues–

Given the constant bombardment of trivia and data that we’re subjected to in today’s mediascape, it’s little wonder that noisy, Manichean arguments tend to get more attention than subtle, policy-heavy ones; that funny, snarky or willfully provocative assertions often gain more traction than earnest, measured ones; and that loud, entertaining or controversial personalities tend to get the most ink and airtime.

Kakutani keenly points out the stakes of such a facile media-land, even as she posits the real good that can come from technologies. In short, we seem to be heading into a future obsessed with immediacy to the point that sustained, analytical reading will not only no longer have place or merit with the general public, it will also be increasingly difficult as we learn to “read” new media in new ways. Put another way, we are becoming shallow.

I see this first-hand every day. I teach Advanced Placement high school English courses, mostly to kids aged 16-18. I’ve noticed that in the past seven years my students are less and less able to sustain concentration on challenging–or even particularly unchallenging pieces of rhetoric or literature in the classroom. My current students are less likely to read for pleasure than the kids I taught at the beginning of the last decade. They have all bought into the fiction of multitasking, the belief that one can frequently interrupt one’s reading of Shakespeare or Henry David Thoreau (or hell, even Stephen King or a Harry Potter book) with a quick text message, or, worse, a change of the channel (I have to literally begin each year by explaining to students that it is basically impossible to read something by a writer like Herman Melville or Cynthia Ozick with one eye on the television screen). You can imagine what how these shallow reading habits affect their research abilities. It’s not just my students though. Nationwide, the NCES reports that almost a third of high school graduates need reading remediation courses in college and that remediation classes are necessary for those students to earn college degrees. It’s pretty much an open secret in education that these numbers are drastically under-reported, with remedial classes often given euphemistic names to hide the appearance of shared institutional/student inadequacies. As Kakutani points out in her article, shallow attention spans, weak readers, and poor research skills could lead to drastic balkanization, cultural inertia, and just plain ole stupidity.

Kakutani’s article points to a future where “the blurring of news and entertainment” is normalized, so what better way to end than with an article from The Onion, published a week before “Texts Without Context.” The headline: “Nation Shudders At Large Block of Uninterrupted Text.” The first paragraphs:

Unable to rest their eyes on a colorful photograph or boldface heading that could be easily skimmed and forgotten about, Americans collectively recoiled Monday when confronted with a solid block of uninterrupted text.

Dumbfounded citizens from Maine to California gazed helplessly at the frightening chunk of print, unsure of what to do next. Without an illustration, chart, or embedded YouTube video to ease them in, millions were frozen in place, terrified by the sight of one long, unbroken string of English words.

“Why won’t it just tell me what it’s about?” said Boston resident Charlyne Thomson, who was bombarded with the overwhelming mass of black text late Monday afternoon. “There are no bullet points, no highlighted parts. I’ve looked everywhere—there’s nothing here but words.”

“Ow,” Thomson added after reading the first and last lines in an attempt to get the gist of whatever the article, review, or possibly recipe was about.

“Books in the Age of the iPad” — Craig Mod

In his recent essay, “Books in the Age of the iPad,” Craig Mod distinguishes between “Formless” and “Definite” content:

Formless Content is is unaware of the container. Definite Content embraces the container as a canvas. Formless content is usually only text. Definite content usually has some visual elements along with text. Much of what we consume happens to be Formless. The bulk of printed matter — novels and non-fiction — is Formless.

Mod argues that the rise of e-readers like the Kindle and (presumably) the iPad are harbingers of a new age in reading, where both formless and, now, definite content might be readily (and easily) displayed. He makes a brash judgment:

The convenience of digital text — on demand, lightweight (in file size and physicality), searchable — already far trumps that of traditional printed matter.

Really? On demand? For whom? “On demand” here presupposes a number of conditions, first and foremost, that each person who wishes to enjoy this new medium has the economic means to do so. The projected retail cost of the iPad is currently $500, a price that does not include monthly ISP fees, let alone the prices of e-books and other e-texts. The Kindle retails now for about half the price of the iPad. Although these prices will certainly fall over time, it is difficult to imagine that the “convenience of digital text” will trump equitable access to “traditional printed matter” — particularly for families with multiple children (at least any time soon).

Mod makes some good points about the future of printed, physical books in the age of e-readers (or, the iPad, a device he seems to think will normalize the medium):

I propose the following to be considered whenever we think of printing a book:

  • The Books We Make embrace their physicality — working in concert with the content to illuminate the narrative.
  • The Books We Make are confident in form and usage of material.
  • The Books We Make exploit the advantages of print.
  • The Books We Make are built to last.

The result of this is:

  • The Books We Make will feel whole and solid in the hands.
  • The Books We Make will smell like now forgotten, far away libraries.
  • The Books We Make will be something of which even our children — who have fully embraced all things digital — will understand the worth.
  • The Books We Make will always remind people that the printed book can be a sculpture for thoughts and ideas.

Anything less than this will be stepped over and promptly forgotten in the digital march forward.

Goodbye disposable books.

Hello new canvases.

Books as aesthetic, durable objects — great idea. But books as relics, as things to recall the smell of “now forgotten, far away libraries”? Really? Libraries function as an important space in communities that transcend the mediums of information in those libraries. It’s almost downright scary to posit some kind of project-utopia where a library becomes “digitized.” Also — and again, much of what Mod suggests here is great — but also, who are “our children” who “have fully embraced all things digital”? In the current geopolitical climate, Mod’s line of thinking can only realistically apply to “First World” countries. Even in our own beloved United States, first among the “First World,” we have difficulty feeding all of our children or funding their educations. E-readers like the iPad or Kindle could presumably do much to ameliorate the burgeoning education gap, but recent efforts haven’t gained much momentum or praise.

It’s not that I disagree with (what I perceive to be) Mod’s overall thesis — that the iPad and successive e-readers will revolutionize how we read, access, and store information. I do, however, think that his rosy-toned enthusiasm has led to a number of blind spots in his article. Why should e-readers eliminate libraries? What, exactly, are “disposable books”? Who will have access to these “new canvases,” and in what capacity? Why the implicit presumption that digital storage of media is fail safe, easier than current methods, and more permanent?

Finally, my biggest problem with the piece is the simple assumption that any e-reader could be more comfortable than a paperback book. Mod addresses arguments like mine:

When people lament the loss of the printed book, this — comfort — is usually what they’re talking about. My eyes tire more easily, they say. The batteries run out, the screen is tough to read in sunlight. It doesn’t like bath tubs.

Mod responds to these arguments:

Important to note is that these aren’t complaints about the text losing meaning. Books don’t become harder to understand, or confusing just because they’re digital. It’s mainly issues concerning quality. One inevitable property of the quality argument is that technology is closing the gap (through advancements in screens and batteries) and because of additional features (note taking, bookmarking, searching), will inevitably surpass the comfort level of reading on paper.

While Mod’s point of meaning vs. quality (what I’d refer to as readability) is certainly right, his assumption that technology “will inevitably surpass the comfort level of reading on paper” is wholly unfounded and unsupported. It’s exactly the kind of teleological claim we see too often about technology — that technology always progresses to an inevitable, good, and superior end point. Still, Apple can feel free to send me an iPad and I’ll be sure to test my own assumptions on the issue, and redress them here if need be.

Cheat Code

Motoko Rich’s article “The Future of Reading,” published in today’s New York Times, discusses the emerging trend in publishing and education of reaching out to young readers via video games. According to the article–

Increasingly, authors, teachers, librarians and publishers are embracing this fast-paced, image-laden world in the hope that the games will draw children to reading. Spurred by arguments that video games also may teach a kind of digital literacy that is becoming as important as proficiency in print, libraries are hosting gaming tournaments, while schools are exploring how to incorporate video games in the classroom. In New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is supporting efforts to create a proposed public school that will use principles of game design like instant feedback and graphic imagery to promote learning.

Loyal readers will recall that last year I wrote quite positively about the MacArthur grant to promote gaming literacy. However, the trend detailed in today’s article seems like a big step in the wrong direction. While graphic design and computer programming are vital skill sets we should be teaching our kids, trying to hook them on reading through video games is altogether different. It smacks of cheap gimmickry that dismisses outright that reading might be a pleasure unto itself. In an age when the majority of college students can’t handle complex but necessary reading tasks and high school illiteracy rates are woefully underreported, trying to hook kids on books with Dance Dance Revolution just doesn’t seem like a great plan. If anything, it’s yet another step in the dumbing-down of America, a land increasingly hostile to anything with a hint of intellectualism–reading included. No wonder the Nobel Committee are such dicks to the U.S. Buried at the end of the article, luckily, is a voice of reason–

“I actually think reading is pretty great and can compete with video games easily,” said Mark S. Seidenberg, a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison who specializes in reading research. “So rather than say, ‘Oh, books are irrelevant in the modern era because there are all these other media available,’ I would ask shouldn’t we be doing a better job of teaching kids how to read?”

Professor Seidenberg seems like a wise and reasonable man. Let’s hope that we can get this country back on track and realize that the skill sets needed to survive and compete in a technological world do not replace but rather augment traditional literacy. Video games are great entertainment but it’s hard to imagine that they could ever trump the depth and breadth of philosophy and cultural currency contained in literature. Let’s not cheat our children out of that heritage by mistakenly believing that they cannot be taught to access it.

Summer Reading List: Primer–Beach Reading and School Reading

The end of the Memorial Day weekend marks the beginning of summer, and with it, summer reading. This week Biblioklept will offer up some swell reading suggestions that will both entertain you and make you a better human being (seriously). In advance of that, let’s start with a silly question: just what is “summer reading” and how is it different–or is it different–than any other type of reading?

We’ll divide summer reading into two distinct camps: there’s elective summer reading, which we will henceforth call beach reading (no beach need be involved, as we will soon see), and then there’s the summer reading forced upon young people, henceforth known as the mandatory summer reading list. Let’s look at mandatory reading first, and then quickly dismiss it.

The lists. Oh the lists. We imagine most of our audience has been through the whole mandatory summer reading drill: schlepping around Barnes & Noble (or B. Dalton, back in the day), diligent Mom with said list clutched in hand, the embarrassment of the whole thing summed up in the piles of A Raisin in the Sun and A Separate Peace displayed in the aisles, the sullen look of an emerging sophomore gripping various honeybee-colored editions of Cliff’s Notes, the indignant cries of younger siblings, also forced to read, your never-read copy of My Side of the Mountain foisted upon them. The list seems impossible: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? The Aeneid? Tess of the D’Ubervilles? Christ on crutches! Almost everything else in the bookstore seems doubly alluring by comparison. We want to read what we want to read, not what you tell us we want to read

This isn’t to suggest that a codified summer reading list should be done away with, of course. Summer reading helps to keep young people’s minds engaged during a time when they’d otherwise, let’s face it, consume naught but the cotton candy fare of Grand Theft Auto and Flavor of Love. Without the rigors of summer reading, students would return to school in the fall with their mind-muscled atrophied, puny, impotent. Still, having someone mandate what you should read is never fun. We had to go back years later, on our own, to appreciate much of what was forced upon us in youth.

That said, summer is a fine time to go back to those very lists. Just because you didn’t “get” Don Quixote when you were fifteen (and really, why would you have?) doesn’t mean that you won’t find it hilarious now that you’re older and your frames of reference have so greatly expanded. Ditto Moby-Dick, The Turn of the Screw, Walden, et al. There’s no rule that what we are calling here “beach reads” have to be light and fluffy. Still.

Ideas of just what constitutes beach reading, are, of course varied. But for many of us, beach reading implies a book that we can read on the beach or by the pool or swaying in a hammock in our backyard. Beach reading is a book that we can still follow after three beers on the porch. Beach reading can be trashy and lurid; beach reading can be literary junk food. Beach reading is genre fiction in cheap mass produced paperbacks, the kind of books we’re happy to leave at the condo when we’re through with them. Someone else will find them, digest them along with a blender of margaritas. At the same time, for a lot of us beach reading is the time to play catch up with all those books that have been stacking up in the margins of our homes, neglected, unread. In any case, summer is a time that many of us put renewed energies into pursuing the endangered pastime of reading, and over the next week Biblioklept aims to aid the cause.

Gaming Literacy

According to this NPR report, the MacArthur Foundation is providing a $1.1 million grant to create a new middle/high school in New York with a curriculum based on video game design. The idea here is that video game design promotes a new type of literacy vital for America’s success in the rapidly growing global economy. The report stresses a shift from older models of literacy, which focus on content memorization, to the pressing need to emphasize literacy models that engage the dynamic systems inherent in newer media.

I think that this is a fantastic idea. Some may find it a nonsensical or even radical shift in education, but we have to try something new. The educational system in this country is based on a model that hasn’t really changed since the industrial revolution. Although numerous sources rank America as having one of the highest literacy rates in the world, my own anecdotal evidence collected as a high school English teacher leads me to believe that this country is in the midst of a literacy crisis that is sure to have a major impact in the country’s ability to compete with countries like India and China.

The risks here are very, very real. Literacy is not just a matter of being able to read stop signs or popular novels or wikipedia pages–literacy is what informs the content of our cultural, social, and political discourse. And beyond the economic issues presented in our difficulty competing in fields like science and engineering–an issue that the MacArthur Foundation’s grant may help address–the everyday rhetoric in this country has become drastically dumbed-down, polarized, reduced to hackneyed platitudes and snappy sound-bites. Political and cultural discourse now consists of empty catch-phrases and meaningless psychobabble. I mean, it’s like totally gay, know what I’m sayin’?

This clip from Mike Judge’s satire Idiocracy neatly sums up the future of verbal discourse in America: