Monthly Archives: March 2006

Experimentation

I had a much calmer day than yesterday, all back to normal, mostly: a little work, a bike ride in the 70 degree weather, and an evening of reading. I’m trying not to obsess about whether I got the job, so it won’t spoil my weekend.

I began reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickel and Dimed today since I’m teaching it in class next week. I’m re-reading the book, actually. I haven’t taught it before, so we’ll see how it goes.

What this means is that I’m in the middle of five books right now: Woolf’s Diary, The Tale of Genji, Mary Oliver’s American Primitive, Mishra’s An End to Suffering, and Ehrenreich’s book. I haven’t been in the middle of five books since I was last taking classes, quite a few years ago, but I decided to try an experiment and read a bunch of things at once, to see how I like it. For most of my life, except for school, I’ve been a one-book-at-a-time person, but I’ve been reading other book bloggers who read a bunch of things at once and like it, and I’m inspired. It’s not that I feel any lack reading only one book at a time: I like being absorbed in one story, like the focus, have a better time remembering the plot and characters, and don’t have any troublesome choices to make about what to read every time I want to.

However, this works best for reading highly absorbing, or even mildly absorbing books. It does keep me, I think, from tackling more difficult things. Would I pick up the Tale of Genji if I expected to read that and only that until finished? I would be less likely to, certainly. With one book at a time, I don’t read much poetry, since I don’t have the discipline to focus on much of it at once. And reading rapidly through a series of poems doesn’t seem like a good idea. I don’t read many collections of short stories. I’ve begun to read through Montaigne essays a couple of times, but I give up because I get tired and want a break. The same goes for Virginia Woolf’s diary.

I can’t see myself reading two novels at once, unless we’re talking about something like Don Quixote, which I might want to vary with something shorter and faster. But I can see myself keeping one novel at a time going, and then a selection of other types of books. The test will be to see if I keep at those other, non-novel books, or whether they suffer from neglect.

We’ll see how it goes — I’ll make sure to report back on this experiment.

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The Tale of Genji

I started to read The Tale of Genji the other day. This is something that will take a long time to read, and I plan on taking it slowly. It’s about 1,000 pages, a collection of 54 stories or chapters in one larger story, I haven’t figured out which, written around the early 11th century in Japan. Most of the chapters are about one character, I believe, but I think the book’s structure might be more like a collection of stories about that character rather than a having a traditional plot line like we might expect from something contemporary. It’s sometimes claimed to be the first novel, or sometimes one of the precursors of the novel. There are probably tons of books one could call the “first novel” out there.

The first chapter got Genji born and grown up and married, all really fast, so it seems that the focus of the stories will be on his adult life. The chapter was full of stories of court intrigue; the wives of the emperor competing, and the Minister of the Right competing with the Minister of the Left, etc. I am already grateful for the list of main characters that opens the book. Since I don’t know anything about 11th century Japan, I’m looking forward to learning about it. Actually, I should say, I’m looking forward to reading about court life in 11th century Japan, since I don’t think the book deals with people outside the court setting. I suppose this is one way The Tale of Genji differs from the novel that developed in the 18th century: that version of the novel is very middle class.

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Blogs and diaries

I mentioned an article about diaries and blogs by Laurie McNeill in an earlier post (the article is from the journal Biography, which doesn’t have free access online, as far as I know – I got my copy from my academic library), where McNeill considers whether online diaries and blogs are a new genre or simply a new form of an old genre. She comes down on the side of seeing online diaries and blogs as a new form of an old genre:

Are Internet diaries, and their generic relations, the Weblogs, a different form from diaries in traditional print media? Or have Internet users simply adopted the traditional diary genre and adapted it to the public realm of cyberspace? … its practitioners in many ways reproduce the traditional diary, upholding instead of resisting the genre both in form and content.

I’m not convinced, however. Yes, a lot of the conventions are the same, including the regular entries labeled by date and the chronological order. But my experience tells me that reading and writing blogs is a very different thing than reading and writing diaries. I think that we are looking at a new genre, not an extension of an old one. McNeill does point out how blogs are different than diaries, but I don’t think she credits the differences enough. I’m actually not generally hung up on issues of categorization, but I think in this case that to call blogs diaries obscures the most interesting things they do.

Doesn’t the different relationship to readers make a big difference? And doesn’t the presence of those readers shape the types of things said? I am reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries at the moment, and I am reading them long after her death. If I had been alive during her lifetime, I would not have been able to read her diary. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to comment on it. The expectation of privacy with diaries is important. Blogs, however, are meant to be public, meant to attract readers, or why would they be online? Many of them aspire to attract readers’ comments, turning a very private diary genre into a dialogue. McNeill also doesn’t recognize that many blogs mix the personal stuff with lots of information and links that are meant to inform readers. Blogs, unlike diaries, can combine personal and public information and therefore serve the purposes of writing about the self AND influencing (or trying to influence) public debate.

I’ll close with Woolf’s take on diaries from her January 3rd, 1918, entry:

The diary habit has come to life at Charleston. Bunny sat up late on the Old Year’s night writing, & Duncan came back with a ledger, bought in Lambs Conduit Street. The sad thing is that we daren’t trust each other to read our books; they lie, like vast consciences, in our most secret drawers.

The diaries are secret, but she also sees that as a sad thing. Hmmm … would she have been a blogger? What do you think – are blogs a brand new genre?

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Odds and ends

  • I bought two books this past weekend at one of the used book stores in my small town, which has four of them. As far as I can tell, this is an awful lot for a town this size. This, as you can imagine, is great fun! And all are within walking distance of my house. One specializes in rare books, but has a good collection of paperbacks too, another is exclusively paperbacks, a third is new and sells overstock from publishers, and the fourth one I haven’t checked out yet (shame on me!). Inspired by Jane Smiley’s book, I got Lady Murasaki’s Tale of Genji, and it’s a two-volume set that came with its own box. The set was too cute to resist. And the other is Balzac’s novel Cousin Bette. I haven’t read any Balzac yet, so, although I don’t think I will get to it soon, I’m happy to have it on hand for when the time is right.
  • I also picked up a copy of Pankaj Mishra’s nonfiction book An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World from the library. So far I have mixed feelings about it, but I’ll save those for a review when I’m finished. I usually like this type of book very much, though — a mix of a lot of genres, in this case personal essay/autobiography, religious and social history, and philosophy.
  • It’s a beautiful day, and I was able to find time for a great bike ride! It feels like spring is finally arriving; it was sunny and in the low 60s.

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More Virginia Woolf

How’s this for a description of reading? From Virginia Woolf’s diary:

But what I like most about Asheham is that I read books there; so divine it is, coming in from a walk to have tea by the fire & then read & read — say Othello — say anything. It doesn’t seem to matter what. But one’s faculties are so oddly clarified that the page detaches itself in its true meaning & lies as if illumined, before one’s eyes; seen whole & truly not in jerks & spasms as so often in London.


I like that she notes she is coming back from a walk — reading strikes me as that much more enjoyable after some exercise. I’m not one of those people who can happily sit around and read ALL DAY, at least not regularly. Once in a while is fine, but if I try to spend too many hours at once reading, my mind gets sluggish. I prefer to go back and forth — a little bit of exercise, and little bit of reading.

Unfortunately I didn’t race this morning, although I’d wanted to. But it was sleeting when I woke up, and the roads were slick. I did, however, go on a bike ride once it warmed up, and then on a walk with husband and the dog, and so now I’m happy to be inside reading and writing.

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Waiting, Ha Jin

I finished Ha Jin’s novel Waiting last night; I wrote yesterday about reading the novel slowly as evidence that I’m not reading as much as usual these days, but the truth of the matter is that the novel rewards slow reading. It’s the kind of book that you can fly through – it’s 300 very quick pages with simple sentences and vocabulary – but it would be a shame to do so because those simple sentences are packed with subtlety and emotion. The writing is Hemingway-esque, with a main character, Lin Kong, who has strong feelings but isn’t entirely aware of them, so that those feelings hit him strongly on those occasions when he is forced to acknowledge them. Often they hit him through his body; he reacts to emotion viscerally, and I mean that literally – experiencing things through the gut.

The story is simple: it takes place in China during the Cultural Revolution, and explores the shift from village life bound by tradition to an urban world controlled by the Communist party. The prologue tells us that “out of filial duty,” Lin Kong agrees to an arranged marriage, so that his wife, Shuyu, can help take care of his ailing mother. This woman, Lin learns with dismay, turns out to look much older than he; she is uneducated, and has bound feet, a tradition which has largely died out, leaving Shuyu as one of the last to suffer from it. Lin was trained as a doctor, works in the city, and, mostly out of shame for his illiterate, old-fashioned wife, leaves her behind in the village, where she works on a farm, cares for his parents, and raises their one daughter.

In the city, Lin meets Manna Wu, and they quickly begin a relationship, which forms the heart of the story. Because of the tight restrictions on behavior in their hospital compound, Lin and Manna cannot spend much time alone, precluding a sexual relationship; they both agree that the risk of getting caught is too great. The “waiting” of the novel’s title refers to the couple’s wait for Lin’s wife to grant him a divorce. Every summer he travels to his wife’s village hoping she will grant him one, and every summer she first says yes, and then changes her mind and says no.

And so Lin and Manna spend their years looking forward to an uncertain event, the divorce, and growing bitter at the passing time. Their lives are hemmed in, both physically and mentally: someone is there to observe every move they make and any hint of unorthodox thought or behavior can mean banishment to the countryside, a life of poverty and hard labor. We see the enormously high personal costs of the Cultural Revolution; the characters lives are shaped by the need for social and intellectual conformity. Their access to books is limited, as is their access to beauty. One of the most moving scenes occurs when Lin discovers Manna has saved a dozen Chairman Mao buttons. Lin “realized that someday these trinkets might become valuable indeed, as reminders of the mad times and the wasted, lost lives in the revolution. They would become relics of history. But for her, they didn’t seem to possess any historical value at all. Then it dawned on him that she must have kept these buttons as a kind of treasure. She must have collected them as the only beautiful things she could own, like jewelry.”

The characterization is complex: we see why Lin abandons Shuyu – he was, in a sense, forced into the marriage – but we also sympathize with her. She is a relic, treated as a freak with tiny feet, and she has known very little pleasure or freedom in her life. Lin, Shuyu, and Manna are all caught in rapidly-changing times, and they all suffer for it, without having made any real mistakes themselves.

I liked this book for its portrayal of China during the Revolution, but also for its exploration of the costs of waiting – and of getting what you want.

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Reading anxiety

I’ve been obsessed with blogs and blogging lately, at the expense of reading, reading real books, that is. That’s not to say I haven’t been reading them, but I haven’t at the rate I usually do. I’m reading Ha Jin’s novel Waiting, which should be quick, but I’m progressing through it very slowly. The thing is, I place such a high value on reading, that if I’m distracted from it by something else, I start to feel guilty and anxious, like something’s wrong. I shouldn’t be reading blogs, I should be reading my novel! I’m getting sucked into the distracting world of the Internet, and I’m afraid I won’t emerge! I’ll never be a serious reader again — oh no!!!

But, of course, what’s really going on is complicated. Part of it is that things at my job are difficult right now, a problem which extends itself into my time away from work, leaving it sometimes difficult for me to concentrate. So reading other people’s blogs is a nice way to deal with a lack of concentration — I can move from short post to short post and not have to focus for too long. And this is something that will pass eventually.

The other thing that’s going on is simply the excitement of discovering a new thing, reading blogs and writing one, which will be distracting for a while, but then will settle down into being normal again. I can find a way to fit blog-reading into my day without taking too much time away from reading. Although, at the same time, there are so many good blogs, it’s hard not to feel like I’m missing a ton of good writing. To my fellow blog readers and writers, how do you keep from spending all your time reading blogs?

Does anyone else occasionally feel an irrational anxiety about reading? This is reading for FUN, I’m talking about here — why should there be any anxiety involved at all? The answer to that one, at least as far as I’m concerned, would, I’m afraid, be long and complicated and involve a lot of self-analysis. I’ll spare you that. At least for today. I’d like to come back later and post a poem for Poetry Friday. And look for my thoughts about Waiting soon.

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The coolest poem I know about moles

Here a poem for Poetry Friday, by Mary Oliver, from her book American Primitive:

Moles

Under the leaves, under
the first loose
levels of earth
they’re there — quick
as beetles, blind
as bats, but seen
less than these –
traveling
among the pale girders
of appleroot,
rockshelf, nests
of insects and black
pastures of bulbs
peppery and packed full
of the sweetest food:
spring flowers.
Field after field
you can see the traceries
of their long
lonely walks, then
the rains blur
even this frail
hint of them –
so excitable,
so plush,
so willing to continue
generation after generation
accomplishing nothing
but their brief physical lives
as they live and die,
pushing and shoving
with their stubborn muzzles against
the whole earth,
finding it
delicious.

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Not a lot about me

As you will see if you look around, I’m not revealing a whole lot about myself here. Obviously, I’m using “you” in that sentence mostly to refer to future readers who will avidly read through my archives (I say with naive optimism), since I have no readers now. Even so, even without readers, I’m uncertain about giving out details about myself. (So why am I writing a blog, you might ask. Good question.) Here are a few facts: I’m an academic. I work as a college instructor and an academic administrator. I just earned an advanced grad degree.

I’m not interested in having an academic blog, however, although I read some of them and like reading them. What got me interested in blogging were those litblogs written by non-academics, like So Many Books and Book World, which are so enthusiastic about books it’s infectious. Reading academic blogs feels just a little bit masochistic. I spend plenty of time thinking about academic issues as it is (and often that time is plenty painful). Of course, the categories aren’t clear — a blog doesn’t have to be clearly “academic” or a “book blog,” it can be both. And I’m sure I’ll write about my students occasionally or other academic matters. But I want to bring some of the pleasure and excitement about books I see in many of the book blogs into my own writing. I’m not an amateur (I labeled myself an academic over at Metaxu Cafe), but can I pretend?

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Our novels are thinking

There’s some interesting discussion over at The Valve of Nancy Armstrong’s new book, How Novels Think, a book on the novel and the “modern subject.” I read parts of her book Desire and Domestic Fiction, which I liked quite a bit, and this new one is on my list of things to read. The posts, however, aren’t increasing my interest – I feel like I’m getting the gist of her argument from the discussion, and, while the book’s details might be interesting, I would read it for the larger argument in the hopes that it would surprise me. The surprise is ruined.

And the argument seems a bit like what I read in Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking At the Novel: see this. I’m sure Armstrong is more nuanced and better researched, but they both seem to be arguing that novels have a particular way of describing the world, and, even more so, of shaping the world, through the kinds of people and behavior they include and exclude. Smiley was always talking about how novels work to create the idea of the individual and then set individuals in conflict with their community and in so doing shape our ideas of acceptable relationships between the individual and group. Now, probably Armstrong is much more complex. But I’m thinking that, at heart, the idea is quite similar to Smiley’s. But … maybe I should read the book before I say anything more about it.

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On blogging

I’ve been reading quite a bit about blogging — the blog as genre, how to attract readers to your blog, the “rules” of blogging. I stumbled across two things, only one of which I’ll discuss today: a scholarly article on blogs and diaries (I’ll save that one), and the forums on MetaxuCafe, a site for “litbloggers” (I joined recently, and you can see the link over on the left). In their forum on “Blogging issues and ideas,” they have a thread on the question, “What is normal activity for a blog?” The posts discuss how to get readers and how to get people to comment; one person recommended being controverial now and then, not too often, or you will get a reputation for having knee-jerk responses, but enough to get people reading. The group wisdom seems to be that you need a big, popular blog to link to you, and then your readership will skyrocket. But some people report slow but steady increases in readers.

Someone else mentioned the “three pillars of blog traffic: focus, short posts, and the pop/gossip/controversy factor.” This is the sort of thing that intrigues me. Blogs are so new, and there are already rules for them! But people are breaking those rules! I read lots of blogs with long posts, and, if the writing is good, I come back to them all the time. I like unfocused blogs that discuss anything and everything — as long as the writer is interesting.

We (writers, readers) craft rules of genre so fast, so that almost instantaneously we have some rules to break. Every blog has the blogroll, the links, the personal information (or noticeable avoidance of personal information), the archives. Before creating my own blog, you can bet I spent some time checking out what other people have done and thinking about what things I want to steal and what others I’d like to adapt. So far, I’ve shaped my blog based on the book blogs I’ve read and liked. So I’ll include the occasional book review, the posts on reading itself, the experience of buying books.

It’s fun to think about what the “blog genre” is, how the medium shapes it (those three pillars are perfect for the what we have come to expect from the internet), and how individual bloggers are contributing to the genre as a whole.

So, to follow one of the suggestions for attracting comments, I’ll end with a question: how much is a blog like or unlike a diary?

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Poetry and prose

Here’s Michael Symmons Roberts’s top 10 list of “verse novels.” I’ve never read a “verse novel,” except for portions of Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Roberts asks, trying to distinguish verse novels from epic poems:

“So how does it differ from an epic poem? Something about the scale and complexity of the story which pushes it into novel territory? Something about intent? You could argue that a verse novel can only be written in conscious awareness of the novel as a form, which counts out Beowulf and Paradise Lost, despite their scale and richness of story and character.”

I suppose so. I wonder what would draw a writer to write a verse novel. If you have a story to tell, why not choose full-on prose, or write lyrical prose that’s prose nonetheless? Now that I re-read Roberts’s two paragraphs or so on the genre, I see that most of his analysis is negative, listing all the ways the verse novel can go wrong:

“The verse novel (like the rock opera or the sound sculpture) is the awkward child of successful parents, destined to disappoint both of them. The pitfalls are many. Verse novels can be full of bad poetry: essential but dull building blocks to get from A to B. Or they can be strong on music but light on narrative. Reading a bad verse novel is very hard work with little reward. You think it must be good for you; you just can’t work out how.

This must be a big part of the draw then: the challenge. What can I write that is highly likely to fail and that nobody will read? This is the sort of thing that makes me feel like a lazy reader. I would like to read Eugene Onegin, first on his list, but I doubt I will any time soon.

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On marriage and bike races

First, Virginia Woolf, on marriage:

“But I was glad to come home, & feel my real life coming back again — I mean life here with L. Solitary is not quite the right word; one’s personality seems to echo out across space, when he’s not there to enclose all one’s vibrations. This is not very intelligibly written; but the feeling itself is a strange one — as if marriage were a completing of the instrument, & the sound of one alone penetrates as if it were a violin robbed of its orchestra or piano.”

Next, me, on bike races:

After a morning spent out in the cold, either racing or watching other races, I am thrilled to be indoors for the afternoon, cozy in my study, to read and write a bit. I rode in a men’s category 5 criterium (women can ride in certain men’s races), and stayed with the pack longer this week than last. That’s good enough. What I was mainly worried about was being the woman who caused a crash. Being a lone woman riding with the guys is fun at times because I get all kinds of attention the other dime-a-dozen men don’t (this is because not many women race, which is a bad thing, but extra attention and encouragement is the good side of the bad situation), but I don’t want people paying attention to me because I caused them to slide across the pavement.

A big part of going to bike races is talking to strangers who also go to bike races. I like the fact that you can tell very little about other people’s non-cycling lives (maybe you can tell something from the way they talk) and so I have conversations with people I might not normally. That turns out to be a whole lot of men in their 50s. I hear a lot of talk about bike gear (about which I know little) and a lot of blaming of things like “getting boxed in.” Hmmm. Not sure what I think about that.

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Diaries

I am reading Virginia Woolf’s diary, Vol. 1, a bit at a time. I expect to move through it slowly. So far I am enjoying it, although the last stretch I read was mostly very short summaries of days spent walking and reading (if I didn’t know a little about what her mental life was like I’d be jealous), and not terribly interesting. But she has some great observations sprinkled in here and there, and I like to know what she is reading, and what she thinks about it. She was reading Pope in the first part of the diary and liking him a lot. Are there two writers whose differences are greater? As someone who claims some expertise in eighteenth-century literature, I should know him better than I do.

I’ve been a sporadic journal keeper myself; I kept one more consistently when I was younger. These days I mostly keep track of what I’m reading with a few thoughts about it and what kind of riding I’m doing. That is, until this blog. So Woolf’s diary is very appropriate reading for me now. I haven’t been a big diary reader (with the exception of … well, see my blogger name), but maybe that will change.

I returned Smiley to the library; there really is no point in reading through all her discussions of individual works. I’m fascinated by the idea of reading through a long list of novels (she spent three years on it) and am a sucker for long, involved projects, and I wish she’d said more about what the experience was like (did she get bored? did she long for nonfiction after a while?).

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Okay, here’s my first post. I’m guessing that this blog will be more about books than bicycles, but I’m using both in my blog name because those are my two main obsessions. But I think I will have more to say about books. And I’m guessing also that I’ll have a lot to say about writing a blog itself — I’m not entirely sure how this will work, whether I will be able to post regularly (and be interested in posting regularly), what exactly I will want to talk about. But I’m interested in this because I’ve been reading a lot of other blogs lately and have become fascinated by them. I’m not interested in “creative” writing generally — “creative” as generally described — poems, fiction, plays — but I might like this sort of creative diary/non-fiction writing. At least it will be fun for me — an online diary.

So, I’m now reading Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, and am feeling ambivalently about it. She has some great theories about the novel — I like her wheel with the various genres that contribute to the novel, and I like her description of writing her own novel. But she has this weird way of refering to the writer as male and the reader as female. Why? And sometimes her theories seem too neat. She loves making broad statements about what the novel is versus what poetry is, and I don’t always buy it. Making broad statements like that will generally get you into trouble.

I’m now into the section where she is describing particular novels; I’m not sure how thoroughly I will read that part. It’s not really meant to be read straight through, but I find it very hard to put a book down without finishing it, and I might find her descriptions interesting, so for now I’m sticking with it. I want to be able to say that I’ve read the whole thing, and if I put it down without reading those descriptions, I can’t say that, can I? That’s the problem with keeping lists of books read — what about those things you read part of? Perhaps I should keep a list of partly-read books.

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