When Literati Step Away

December 9, 2011

The essay begins with a question, “When you’ve long been identified as a ‘literary type,’ how can it be that receiving books as get-well gifts leaves you feeling empty, angry, and determined to chug YouTube straight?”

Now That Books Mean Nothing, by Nell Boeschenstein is straightforward about the answer. She is a healthy 31-year-old woman with a genetic mutation predisposing her to reproductive cancer, so she made the decision to undergo a prophylactic double mastectomy. That’s how.

Boeschenstein describes her decision and the aftereffects in terms of her longstanding relationship to books. I cannot fully grasp the emotions she must be feeling, but her gift with words invites me to try. Take a look:

It’s not easy or appropriate to tell people who love you and who are trying to help you that what they are doing is not helping, that books are not what you want or need, that what you want and need right now are flowers, letters—notes, even—stupid movies, something that might help you feel pretty, emails that contain funny anecdotes from the outside world. That what you want is quiet company, conversation, to talk about you or him or her or whatever, who cares, that the last thing you want is to be left alone either with your thoughts or with a book chock full of someone else’s thoughts and into which your own encroach all too easily. Minds can become Frankensteins, and you’ve gotten gun-shy of yours and the noises it makes in the night. Of course, I don’t say any of this to those who hand me a book they say is lovely and that they hope I’ll enjoy. Instead, I say, “Thank you. I can’t wait to read it,” because that’s closer to what I hope I’ll mean in the end. […more]

Read the article. It is beautifully written, frustrating yet hopeful, and well worth your time.

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The Why Question

June 27, 2011

I came across this quote this morning and thought it was worth passing along.

“The sciences teach us how. The humanities teach us why…You can’t continue to do the how without the why. If we ignore history, philosophy, and all of the other attempts to deal with the why, the how can become very dangerous.”

-George Lucas, on behalf of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ national Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences. (Read more…)

What do you think?


Longing as, not in, ‘Freedom’

October 7, 2010

I might have to add Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom to my reading list just because of the reviews. “The ‘Freedom’ Agenda” by David Brooks challenges the way Americans construct literature. He says — pointing back to Thoreau’s “lives of quiet desperation”– that authors have become so caught up in demystifying idealism that they have also decimated any longing for ordinary heroes, for extraordinary lives, or for the admirable working out of ideals.

Here’s a teaser:

Social critics from Thoreau to Allan Bloom to the S.D.S. authors of The Port Huron Statement also made critiques about the flatness of bourgeois life, but at least they tried to induce their readers to long for serious things. “Freedom” is a brilliantly written book that is nonetheless trapped in an intellectual cul de sac — overly gimlet-eyed about American life and lacking an alternative vision of higher ground.

Check it out!

Have you read Franzen’s book? If so, what did you think?

Thanks to Brooks for getting me thinking on this Thursday morning.


Taming the Big Shaggy

June 16, 2010

Last week, David Brooks’ editorial “History for Dollars” caught my attention. Citing the rapid decline in participation, funding, and support for university-level humanities, Brooks sets out to, as he says, “throw another sandbag on the levee of those trying to resist this tide.”

He defends the humanities on a range of fronts:

  • They improve your ability to read and write.
  • They give you familiarity with the language of emotion.
  • They give you a wealth of analogies.
  • They help you to befriend what Brooks calls “The Big Shaggy.”

If the last item confused you as much as it did me, you’ll be pleased to know that Brooks goes on to explain:

You can see The Big Shaggy at work when a governor of South Carolina suddenly chucks it all for a love voyage south of the equator, or when a smart, philosophical congressman from Indiana risks everything for an in-office affair…

Those are the destructive sides of The Big Shaggy. But this tender beast is also responsible for the mysterious but fierce determination that drives Kobe Bryant, the graceful bemusement the Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga showed when his perfect game slipped away, the selfless courage soldiers in Afghanistan show when they risk death for buddies or a family they may never see again.

The observant person goes through life asking: Where did that come from? Why did he or she act that way? The answers are hard to come by because the behavior emanates from somewhere deep inside The Big Shaggy.

As images from Monsters, Inc., Bigfoot, and Star Wars vie for dominance, Brooks says the humanities, by representing the “upheavals of thought that emanate from the Big Shaggy” in art, story, etc., “help us understand these yearnings and also educate and mold them.”

Brooks stops there. To me, what is left is an uneasy impasse.

The first three reasons are predominantly utilitarian: the ability to read and write well, use analogies, and market to the emotions produces  more effective employees. I can agree, but, like Brooks, find those reasons incomplete. The fourth, however, “The Big Shaggy,” gestures toward a study of humanity itself, but falls short of answering, “To what end?”

Although the concepts are difficult to define, and although they need to be unpacked and handled with caution, I think it is impossible to evaluate the humanities without eventually confronting another set of terms: “Truth” and “Beauty.”

For catchy nomenclature, however, “Big Shaggy” wins hands down.


Literature in Translation

May 17, 2010

I’m back! Thanks for your patience in the interim.

World literature has become an increasingly potent interest of mine, and though I have had little exposure to Korean literature, I would love to read some when I have the opportunity.

Helping provide that opportunity for English-speakers are two Seattle natives recently featured in the Seattle Times.

That’s one reason I’ve chosen this article, “Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton bring Korean literature to the English-speaking world,” by Mary Ann Gwinn, for the next ProfoundNet.

Here’s a snippet:

Translation is an exacting business; hours and hours of reading, writing, looking things up, then pondering words that may or may not have an equivalent in English. Montlake’s Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton recently received a major validation for their labors: they won Korea’s Daesan Foundation’s translation prize for their work on “There a Petal Silently Falls: Three Stories by Ch’oe Yun” (Columbia University Press).

The article goes on to say that the Fultons have helped to make available works that might otherwise go unnoticed:

The two have been able to translate Korean writers who have fallen under the radar of the Korean literary establishment, particularly women writers of short stories. Korean writers are expected to be “cognizant of the modern tragedy of Korean history,” Bruce says. “Until recently, if you wrote out of imagination, with a sense of humor or playfulness, you were considered a lightweight, not to be taken seriously.”

Besides providing a window into another culture, the immersion necessary for accurate translation is an excellent way to draw attention to the nuances–and peculiarities–of your own language, as well as the language being translated. What better way to explore the many facets of literature?

And now that my graduate program is finished for the summer, I’m looking forward to reading There a Petal Silently Falls. I hope you’ll join me!

Thanks, Mary Ann, for a thought-provoking article.


Literature for iPhone

December 5, 2009

Because I care deeply about literature, I’m always interested to see new and innovative ways that others are coming up with to share literature on a broader scale.

That’s one reason I’ve chosen “Promoting Lit in the Digital Age: Electric Literature Co-Founder Lindenbaum on the Menu” by Amanda Ernst of Fishbowl NY for the next ProfoundNet. Here’s a snippet, quoting Lindenbaum, the founder of a new electronic literary magazine:

“We are trying to use new media and innovative forms of distribution to make sure that those stories are delivered back to the popular culture in the digital age. And we want to make sure that literature remains vital,” Scott said about the project. “So in order to do that, we kind of adopted a new distribution system where we distribute to the iPhone — we’re the first literary magazine to the iPhone. We also distribute in every digital form for all ereaders from Kindles to all ereaders in every file format.”

The journal publishes five stories per quarter. For hard copy request, the magazine uses Print on Demand to minimize costs and maximize payment to writers. Although the success of such ventures remains to be seen, I’m impressed by the  founders’ innovation and use of convergence to allow new literature to reach the greatest possible number of individuals.

For more information about the journal, or to subscribe, visit www.electricliterature.com.

Thanks, Amanda, for a thought-provoking story.


Catching Shakespeare

November 5, 2009

Technology fascinates me, in part because I know relatively little about how it works, and I want to know more. The potential for responsible use of technology as a supplement to literary study is particularly interesting. The challenge, as I see it, is to keep technology in its proper place as a supplement, not a replacement for genuine thought.

That’s one reason I’ve chosen Plagiarism Software Finds a New Shakespeare Play by Gaelle Fauer in Time Magazine for the next ProfoundNet. Here’s a snippet:

Plagiarism-detection software was created with lazy, sneaky college students in mind — not the likes of William Shakespeare. Yet the software may have settled a centuries-old mystery over the authorship of an unattributed play from the late 1500s called The Reign of Edward III…. With a program called Pl@giarism, [Sir Brian Vickers, a literature professor at the University of London] detected 200 strings of three or more words in Edward III that matched phrases in Shakespeare’s other works.

As Vickers reminds readers, computers can’t do the work alone – human knowledge, skill, and judgment are still an integral part of the process. He says what he is hoping to do is “bring about a marriage between human reading and machine reading. If you distrust computers, you won’t advance at all; if you have just computers and know nothing about literature, you’re likely to go wrong as well.”

To me, this is a great example of using technology to advance the work of humans, rather than allowing technology to assume the role of primary agent and in the process rendering humans the subject of a passive sentence.

Thanks, Gaelle , for a thought-provoking article.