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It’s that time of year to make lists.  With this list I will cover two memes at once – my Two Thirds Book Challenge update, and my contribution to the #libfavs2011 tag (librarians listing their favorite 11 books read in 2011).  So in no particular order …

(1) The Sparrow and (2) Children of God by Mary Doria Russell

Early in 2011 I read two books recommended by one of our English professors at my university.  I’m surprised I had never heard of them before.  They were (1) The Sparrow and (2) Children of God by Mary Doria Russell.  Basically, the books are about a team of Jesuits (yes, Jesuits) who become the first humans to visit Alpha Centauri after catching snippets of song on a SETI satellite.  Imagine the stories of the Spanish missionaries and treasure hunters who came to the New World in the 1400’s and later, retold as a sci-fi alien contact parable.  These were books that stayed with me for a long, long, long time.  I still think about things from these books and it’s been almost ten months since I read them!  The characters, the cultures, even the details for the logistics of the trip itself are laid out in details.  I will warn you, though, that the second book – Children of God – can be a harrowing book in some parts.  It’s when everything breaks down, just as things inevitably did when our Old World met New World.  Highly recommended.

(3) An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin

I enjoyed reading Steve Martin’s Shopgirl a few years ago, and I want to know more about the art world someday so this little book seemed like a good choice for me.  Overall, it was just okay, but I’m including it on this list because of the way he wove the artwork and the experiences of seeing the artwork into the story.  In the edition I had from the library, there were even color images of the paintings in question sprinkled throughout the book.  But for anyone who thinks ebooks can’t improve on their paper counterparts, this would be an example against that claim.  I would much prefer to have read this as an ebook on the iPad with hi-res images for the paintings that I could make full-screen and really absorb.  The little bitty images in the paper book did not do justice.

(4) Among Others by Jo Walton

I read this book on the heels of other similar stories about awkward kids discovering some unknown ability or world and battling their own monsters, imagined or otherwise.  The other books included Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses and Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.  I chose Among Others for my list because I think it was the best written and the characters stayed with me far longer.  Most importantly, the protagonist had a deep and abiding love of books that delighted me.  Seeing the way the character thought about books, people, and places felt like stepping into someone else’s life.  This one of the few books written as a diary that actually felt like reading a diary.

(5) The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I’ve seen wildly different reviews for this book – seems to be a love it or hate it item.  I myself absolutely loved it and can’t wait to own a beautiful hardcover mint condition copy of my own.  I think the “hate it” crowd wanted stronger characters or plot or something, though I didn’t see much lacking in those departments for what it is — a fantasy/magic realism fiction.  I think those same critics are pleased as punch with writers like China Mieville – who I also enjoyed this year, with his book Embassytown.  But here’s the thing that a writer like Morgenstern has, that a writer like Mieville does not:  Style.  Mieville’s prose is clumsy and choppy.  The words trip over themselves, the dialogue is stilted. But his story ideas are fantastically brilliant and original.  Morgenstern, on the other hand, writes beautiful prose with gorgeous descriptions.  She sets a scene and you can practically walk in it.  You can smell the circus food, you can hear the gravel crunching, you can feel that breeze go by.  I only wish her circus had more amazing tents so I could read her descriptions of them.

(6) The Late American Novel, edited by Jeff Martin

Now we get into my Two Thirds Book Challenge books.  Though, of course, I am reading themes not books.  This one comes from my Writing theme and it was an excellent choice.  Dozens of writers of various genres put in their two cents about the future of writing, reading and books.  The reactions are all over the place, the styles vary dramatically, and the different voices are very strong.  Out of all these essays, there were only a couple I found myself skimming through rather than reading carefully and soaking up.  I took many notes and in some places laughed out loud.  Ironically, I read the book in the Kindle app on my iPad.  I would love to get a paper copy and read it again in a year to see how the predictions are faring.  Highly recommended for personal collections and gift giving.

(7) The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

One of the motivations of using themes in my Two Thirds Book Challenge was to broaden my reading palette, but so far I’m still stuck in fiction, which is the theme of my next couple books on this list.  Gaiman was one of those authors that seemed to be too hyped to me, so I avoided his books for a while.  Then a year or so ago I read Good Omens by Gaiman and Terry Pratchett — lots of fun.  After that the Twitter book club 1 Book 140 picked Gaiman’s American Gods and I read along.  Enjoyed that, too.  All sorts of mythology and legends being pulled together and brought into a modern age that doesn’t know what to make of mythology or legends. The Graveyard Book is no exception to that trend — Gaiman takes Kipling’s classic The Jungle Book and changes the setting to a graveyard.  He pulls it off in a wonderful way, and without a tacky ending.  I would love to see more stories with these characters.

(8) The Magicians and (9) The Magician King by Lev Grossman

When Magician King came out, I saw all sorts of interviews and reviews on book blogs discussing the allusions and references to writers like C. S. Lewis, J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien, Neal Stephenson, and many others.  Just like my fascination with retold myths, I was intrigued by this series that admitted to so many influences.  It took me a couple times to start The Magicians — Quentin is not the most sympathetic character, after all.  But once I pushed through the first few chapters, the book really took off for me and the second book was even better.  Now I’m contemplating a return to the Narnia books that I haven’t read in … 25 years??  Though seeing them through the jaded, skeptic eyes of Grossman’s characters makes me hesitate, too.

(10) and (11) … ??

I’m not going to pick these yet because I still have ten days in the year left – ten days that include quite a few hours in airports, airplanes, and away from work.  Who knows what I might read next?  Maybe even (gasp) a nonfiction book!

Over a month ago, Mark came up with a new book challenge for the year he called The Two-Thirds Book Challenge.

Right away I made my own list for the challenge but didn’t take the time to post it anywhere.  I could cheat, use the same list, and declare myself halfway done … or I could revise the list and still give myself a decent challenge.

The original list:

Of those books, I have since finished The Late American Novel (excellent!), more than three fiction books by new-to-me authors, I’m halfway through the Technology Training book, and I dismissed the project management book I had in mind because it turned out to be awful.  Also, I am going to be honest with myself and admit that I will probably not read any of the Lectures books until possibly late December.

I’m also learning something about myself over the past year of trying to read various “lists” of books — I don’t really do specifics.  As in, within six weeks of listing a specific title, I probably won’t want to read it anymore if I haven’t read it already.  But I do follow themes.  Themes and general topics with plenty of room for options works very well for me.  Therefore my Two-Thirds Book list will not be a list of titles, but of themes that I want to pursue, with some potential titles as examples.  If I can read from two-thirds of these themes over the next twelve months, I will be very happy indeed.

With all that in mind, here is my new list, with links to the respective GoodReads shelf I’ve created for each:

One of the benefits of looking at my books in themes and then setting myself the challenge of reading from at least two-thirds of the themes is the opportunity to get more diverse reading in.  I’ve been a glutton for fiction lately, and my GoodReads list shows that — 34 books to read in fiction!  No other “theme” gets even close to that.  The next highest is a shelf called “Books on Books” with 18 titles, some of which overlap with the “Erudition” shelf listed above.

If you’d like to participate in the challenge, create a list of books (or themes) somewhere and put the link in a comment on Mark’s blog.  Happy reading!

 

Hurray! I have read 6 of my 12 Books 12 Months list.  And with this book I am fully appreciating the benefits of the 12 Books 12 Months idea because without it, I would most likely have gotten lost on reading tangents about sci-fi Jesuits, emotional food, and teenage demi-gods.  And I would completely forget about all these books that the Sara from 6 months ago wanted to read.  With the 12 Books list and the brilliant monthly summaries from E on latter day bohemian (I think those monthly round-ups really play an important role in motivation), I’ve managed to alternate between my whim readings and my planned readings – thus, moving ahead on some goals while also pursuing other spontaneous interests.  It’s a really good feeling.

So even though I was very tempted to immediately jump into the sequel to the space traveling Jesuit story, I did myself a favor and picked up Haroun and the Sea of Stories.  I had heard about this book at the ALA Conference this past summer in D.C. when I had the great privilege of seeing Salman Rushdie at an author talk.  He was charming and intelligent, and his story about the beginnings of this book had me hooked.

This is a children’s book with some obvious, but playful, political messages.  Rushdie wrote this just after the fatwa against his life was announced, wondering each day if he would see his son again, to whom the book is dedicated.  So we get greasy politicians, evil tyrants, and egotistical princes.  We also get some absolutely delightful bits — like the chapter headings: The Shah of Blah, An Iff and a Butt, and a wonderful nod to Beatles’ lyrics.

My timing in reading this book was good and bad.  Bad – the pace and humor of a children’s book felt kind of jarring when I was in the middle of a stressful, high-stakes work week.  Good – the pace and humor of a children’s book jarred me out of thinking about the stressful, high-stakes work week … for a few minutes at a time, at least.

BookmarkI also had to rethink my reading style for this book.  See, I’m anal.  I know it.  I admit it.  I use folded sheets of paper as bookmarks so I can take notes while reading, and I even do this with fiction books.  It’s a habit I developed after reading Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Educated Mind (very highly recommended as a book to own).  I have a 3-ring binder full of old book notes from pre-grad school, and now a nice thick manilla folder of book notes post-grad school.  But children’s books do not lend themselves to taking notes, at least not for me.  I tried taking basic fiction notes at the beginning of the book — things like characters and place names — but finally I just put the pen down and read the book for the sake of reading.  Pleasure reading.  Personal pleasure reading.

This truly is the work of a storyteller.  Sure, it might not be the best story in the world, or the most developed characters, or strongest plot, but it’s not supposed to be.  This is a book that was meant to be read aloud at night to children, or read aloud to anyone who needs a distraction.  And if you feel like being anal about it, well, read the short glossary at the end about the names in the book and then get on with the story.

“Believe in your own eyes and you’ll get into a lot of trouble, hot water, a mess…”   — Iff, the Water Genie (p. 63)

Doctor Who, Delicious, and the Commonplace Book

Once again, all my worlds colliding in interesting ways this week.  For starters, I got Mark watching Doctor Who — he’s working his way through Season 4 with Doctor David Tennant on Netflix Streaming, and whenever the red envelopes show up, we slowly work our way through Season 5 with Doctor Matt Smith.

What the heck could this possibly have to do with Delicious.com and Commonplace Books, you ask?  Excellent question. Here goes…

In the Season 5 episode “The Time of Angels” River Song reappears with her intriguing blue TARDIS book, which basically serves as her commonplace book of all things Doctor-related.  But I didn’t think of it as her commonplace book till I saw some tweets coming out of THATcamp about digitizing them, plus Amanda Watson’s Ngram comparing commonplace books to scrapbooks. On top of all this, I’m reading Steven Johnson’s new book Where Good Ideas Come From (*highly* recommended) and I just came to the part in chapter 3 where he talks about the magic of commonplace books, particularly in regards to Darwin, who wrote copious notes and re-read them later to compare with other notes.

So with my brain churning around questions about commonplace books, a seemingly unrelated event happens — rumors spin out of control about my beloved bookmarking site Delicious.com riding off into the dot.com horizon, and suddenly I (and thousands of other people) start really thinking about where to keep our treasure troves of both useful and forgotten links (I’m toying with both Diigo and Pinboard, for what it’s worth…).

But then tonight I came back to Steven Johnson, where I’m still in the middle of musings about commonplace books – especially John Locke’s system of indexing his books and the Enlightenment habit of treating text as a wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey, here-and-there kind of thing.  And I realized that these commonplace books proved invaluable to their writer-owners because they held everything … reading notes, letter drafts, observations, recipes … sound familiar?  How many times have you tried to devise a Thing To Hold All Thoughts for yourself?  Be it a filing system, a gadget, a piece of software, or a website — many of us are constantly waging this battle to reinvent the commonplace book in a digital age.

I realized that I don’t need a Delicious replacement.  I need a whole bloody completely different way of doing things.  What can serve as my commonplace book?  My home laptop…? My Evernote account …?  Do I go back to paper journals…?  Right now I have ideas and snippets and quotes scattered across all of these places, which means I have a hard time finding that one recipe I’m thinking of or that one short story I have another idea for. So the good news for me is – Delicious and Yahoo aren’t the problems at all. The bad news is – I need to think about a much bigger picture and do my future self a favor by making up my mind and condensing my workflows.

Speaking of the future … a bit ironic that River Song is still using good old paper as her commonplace book centuries from now, isn’t it? *

 

*Yes, I know it’s fiction, silly.  But I also know the writers can dream up things like sonic screwdrivers and time-eating stone angels, yet they still trust memories to paper.  I find that very, very interesting.

 

This post is about 3 books I read for the 12 Books, 12 Months reading club and 1 book that I did not.

On my original 12 Books, 12 Months blog post (http://esquetee.wordpress.com/2010/09/06/latecomer-to-12-books-12-months/), I listed out the Connie Willis related books as such:

  1. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, 1992
  2. Three Men in a Boat, to say nothing of the dog by Jerome K. Jerome, 1889
  3. To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis, 1998
  4. Black Out by Connie Willis, 2010
  5. All Clear by Connie Willis, 2010

Here’s the gist of this series:  It’s the year 2057, time travel has been invented but only the history departments of major universities even bother with it since the money holders found out they can’t steal things from the past (no really, they physically cannot remove objects from the past, no matter how hard they try).  I don’t recall any of the historians trying to visit the future, but then … all the time travelers are historians, not futurists. Most of the stories focus on visitng England in World War II.  Doomsday Book, however, is focused on the Black Plague, and To Say Nothing of the Dog (TSND) centers around 1888 – Victorian times.

But in my 12 Books 12 Months list, I forgot about the story that started it all — Fire Watch, from the 1984 short story collection of the same name.  So I read that first and I’m very glad I did.  Even though this story was published first, the events in it actually take place *after* the events in Doomsday Book, which came out in 1992. Fire Watch is a good place to start not only because it’s the first story in the series, but because it takes the reader right into the heart of Willis’ style.  Our hero is a PhD student in history who has to do “field work” in London, England during the Blitz.  He is stationed at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Have you ever seen war ruins? Have you visited a church or a school that has remained in shambles for decades as a reminder of how stupid war can be?  I visited such a church in Stuttgart, Germany while I was a freshman in college.  The roof was gone, the windows were empty eye sockets.  There were large laminated black and white photographs around the ruins showing what it looked like before the war.  It was beautiful.  Even as a heathen atheist, I could see how beautiful and special this place was.  And it was dead now. Fire Watch reminded me of that church and then it showed me what it would have been like to be there when it happened.  Bombs, incendiaries, fires, and more bombs.  The Fire Watch was the group of volunteers who stood guard at the cathedral and tried to put out as many fires and incendiaries as they could, often getting killed in the process.

Strange as it may sound, this novella set in World War II reminded me how painful it had been to read Doomsday Book set in 1348 the first time.  So I decided not to read it again after all.  Doomsday is a very good book — historical fiction done as historical fiction should be, but man, was history depressing sometimes.  I don’t remember the story very well, but I remember crying at least once. I don’t want to be depressed when the days are getting shorter and the weather colder so I moved on to Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog) by Jerome K. Jerome – a comedy travelogue about three chums taking holiday on the Thames in a pleasant English June.

But first I will tell you about the book that got me here.  I first read To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis when I was a sophomore in college.  I found it on a “take one, leave one” shelf at the college library and completely fell in love with it.  I was a history major with crazy, delightfully eccentric history professors, and the book seemed to be made specifically for me.  One of my requirements of an excellent book is that it leads me on to other excellent books.  In the 10ish years since I first read it, I have worked my way through some of the other classics that it introduced me to — The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, the Sherlock Holmes canon, and – of course – Three Men in a Boat.  My re-read this time around has given me more to look up that I forgot about — Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses and Dorothy Sayers’ mystery novels.

Call me a heretic, but I actually think the Connie Willis sci-fi is a far better book than the Victorian classic.  I did enjoy Jerome’s anecdotes and (some of) his tangents into English history and sentimental descriptions.  I have to admit that the Victorian elements of TSND made a LOT more sense after reading Jerome.  My advice would be to skim through Jerome’s book (it is free out on Gutenberg and FeedBooks) and get the taste of Victorian flourish and a dose of good humor before traveling through time with Willis.

Willis definitely has her own sense of humor and uses it very well in TSND — especially where dogs and cats are concerned.  I also love that sci-fi in this instance is not about the gadgetry but more about theory and thought puzzles.  In TSND, the thought puzzle revolves around time, paradox, and whether or not history can “correct” itself.  I won’t go more into it because I would just confuse us both, trust me.

Also, she doesn’t simply quote from other works, she weaves them into the texture of the story.  One of her characters uses examples from Agatha Christie’s Poirot to try and solve a problem, and another character relies almost entirely on Tennyson’s poetry for everything he says.

TSND cries out to be a hyperlink novel. Unfortunately, the ebook edition available on Amazon is pathetic.  Granted, I only looked at the sample chapter, but the format of the chapter headings was ghastly and it did not include any table of contents.  Why?  Why would you not have something as basic as a table of contents for an ebook?  I read the entire Jerome book in the Kindle app on an iPad and it had the same problems – no table of contents and clumsy formatting in the text.  Being able to quickly look up obscure Victorian terms by simply tapping made the reading much easier, though. I realized that my experience in reading these books now is very different than it was ten years ago thanks to the online search tools that I keep close at hand.  I first read TSND around 1999.  Google Images and Wikipedia didn’t come out till 2001 – which I used this time to find what the heck a penwiper is supposed to look like and to follow the route along the Thames.

I find it helpful when other bloggers write a “things I’ve been reading” post — these summaries often put other posts from the same blog in context, or serve as timely little bibliographies of a meme flying across the web.

One of my favorite side effects of reading many different things in a relatively short amount of time is the serendipity of themes running across all the readings. I hope I can get organized enough to start making a habit of collecting these little patterns and connections and summarizing them every couple weeks here on my blog.

First, I have to give a shout-out here to the Sioux City Pubic Library.  Although the website is abominable to use, their service is exceptional.  I requested a couple brand new books, thinking I might get an interlibrary loan if I was lucky, but instead they bought the books for the library and had them ready for me in less than 2 weeks from my original request.  I was mighty impressed.

So, this week’s readings.  The book I am reading right now – only about fifty pages into it, in fact – seems to be magically pulling together pieces from other texts and quotes I’ve been exposed to recently.  The book is Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas. I haven’t read anything else by this author.  I heard about this book in particular from Amazon’s Best Books of September 2010 newsletter, which made the book sound completely insane.  This appealed to me.

Page 19 –  seemed to directly refer to the young adult book I breezed through just a couple days ago – Restoring Harmony by Joelle Anthony.  From my GoodReads review: “I loved this book for setting the scene of a post-oil-collapse America. The author included wonderful credible details of such a future world, including a thriving black market, barter system, unreliable solar energy, backyard vegetable gardens, deserted cities, and a return to craftsmanship that makes sense. Even though nothing scary or disturbing happens in this book, the possibility of everything she describes coming true is scary enough in itself that I feel even more rushed to get that piece of land with an off-the-grid house and veggie garden. The author generously gives us until 2031 before it all goes bad, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens much sooner.”  In Our Tragic Universe, a character talks about “cultural premonition” – when people write and paint about a disaster before it actually happens.  The examples used in the book had to do with the Titanic. I’m sure there are plenty of other post-oil dystopia stories coming out soon or already available. I’m not going to look for them right now because the subject is freaky enough in my imagination as is.

Page 53 – “… a key feature of storylessness: all structures must contain the possibility of their own non-existence…”  This reminded me of a TED Talk from Andrew Bird that Mark and I had just watched, in which Andrew describes a song he hasn’t finished yet, a song about “self-destructive feedback loops” and a person who avoids heartbreak so well they end up causing it themselves, or an eye straining to see itself.

Most of Our Tragic Universe so far has been conversations between friends.  These conversations meander in remarkable ways, comparing Neitzsche to knitting, for example. These tangled threads reminded me of another TED Talk watched this weekend. This one from Steven B. Johnson, a technopundit with a background in semiotics and English literature, which makes for a very interesting mix of metaphors and examples in his writing. His most recent TED Talk is basically a plug for his latest book Where Good Ideas Come From: the natural history of innovation – which I also have checked out from the library but haven’t started reading yet.  To see a really fun, quick summary of some ideas from the book, check out this 4-minute video.

I finished an older book by Johnson last week called Interface Culture: how new technology trasforms the way we create and communicate from 1997.  The things that stuck with me were the brief histories of visual and architectural metaphors used in the graphical design of modern interfaces — from small details like “trash cans” or “recycle bins” to structural concepts like “folders” and “desktops”.   Some of his hopes and predictions for future interfaces had me wondering which of our contemporary tools might fit into his 1997 descriptions.  I had to give myself a quick refresher on historical internet landmarks in order to put Interface Culture in context.  For example:  the domain google.com was registered in September 1997, “weblog” was supposedly coined in December 1997, Yahoo Mail started in October 1997, RSS wouldn’t be around until 1999, the iPod – 2001, Delicious.com – 2003, Facebook – 2004, Twitter – 2006, and the iPhone – 2007.  As I was reading the book, it was amazing to realize how much had changed in thirteen years and how much had not.  Some questions still nagging me:  what is the iPad’s interface metaphor?  Can we still talk about iOS having “windows” or has it done away with that old standby?  What is our mental concept map for navigating through apps on an iPad or iPhone?  How much longer will we continue to use paperbook metaphors in ebook interfaces?

 

 

It is with a sorta-heavy heart that I report:  I have broken my streak at 750words.com.  I had 45 days under my belt – 45 days! – almost half way to the coveted Phoenix badge (awarded to those who write 100 days in a row).

If you’re not familiar with 750words, I encourage you to check it out.  It’s a very simple, basic idea.  It gives you an online space to start and stick to a writing habit.  You write 750 words a day, you win cute little meaningless animal badges for writing so many days in row, or writing without distraction (ie. a 3-minute break), or completing a one-month challenge.

Even though I knew the cute little badges amounted to nothing really, I was actually mysteriously motivated by them.  Before I broke my streak, I had accumulated 9 badges – 9! Including things like the Speedy Cheetah and the Undistractable Hamster.  I was on a roll, man.

But the most mysterious thing of all? … I’m actually not that disappointed about breaking the streak.  No, really.  Maybe if I had been actively trying to write my post and wasn’t able to because of the cable went out, I might be upset.  In reality, I just plum forgot.  I had a wonderful day yesterday – got off work early, lunched at our favorite coffee shop, did some errands, made cookies, watched the X-Files pilot (which I had never seen and, heck, it was on Netflix Streaming), read a bunch out of a really great book I’m into — all around, a superbly relaxing day.  Writing?  Didn’t even occur to me.

So now I’m looking at this mishap as an opportunity – a chance to take a week off from writing, and focus more on all the reading I’ve piled up for myself, which will be mentioned in a separate post.

And I have to give 750words credit for doing the unexpected — it got me writing again on a regular basis.  Something I haven’t had with that much consistency in *years*.  In grad school, writing had become a laborious, painful punishment.  Considering I used to keep a journal, used to write poetry, used to *love* writing (before grad school) this was a pretty major change in attitude for me.  The silly animal badges and the colorful graphs showing progress in 750words helped me love writing again, even if it was just a simple journal entry.  So even if I won’t get that Phoenix badge as soon as I hoped, I am now looking forward to writing an article in the near future and I’m even considering getting on the NaNoWriMo bandwagon.

That can all start in a week.  For now, I will pause this newfound love of writing to revisit my love of reading.  Another beauty of 750words — I can always start again.

Karen Armstrong. A Short History of Myth, 2005

First book done!  for 12 Books, 12 Months

I am SO glad I started 12 Books, 12 Months with this one.  It was the only non-fiction book in my list but it paves the way for much of the fiction that I’m planning to read this year (and into next).  I started with Short History of Myth because it is the first title in the Canongate Myth Series — books by different authors, from different countries, retelling a myth from their culture.  I heard about this series because Philip Pullman’s latest book is the latest addition to the series (The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ).  But I have this thing about putting my media consumption in chronological order, whether it be movies, books, or TV series.  I can’t start Buffy in the middle or end, I have to see it from the pilot episode, moving forward… for example.

With the Canongate Myth Series, I am making an exception because: 1) I can’t get all the books anyway since a couple of them have not been translated yet, as far as I know, and 2) I really don’t want to wait that long to read Philip Pullman’s book, man.  And besides 3) I only have the Pullman book from my local public library for another week, so I have to start reading it, like, now.

It also helped that Mark happened to own a copy of Karen Armstrong’s book already.

The book is a nice, short introduction to mythology — just 150 pages long.  In such a small amount of space, it would be hard to really do justice to any particular aspect of mythology so I have to give Armstrong some credit for summing things up as well as she did.  My biggest problem with the book was in the second and third chapters when she is describing the development of mythology and religion during the Palaeolithic and Neolithic Periods. There were so many universal statements and broad sweeping assumptions that I started getting really annoyed with the writing, even though I was really into the topic.  Starting with the fourth chapter on early cities and city-states, the writing improved and the book got a lot more interesting.  I now have a longer reading list with things I never thought I would want to read, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, when man first turns his back on his gods — “Mortals are better off without these destructive encounters with irresponsible gods” (p. 74).

From there, we go into the Axial Age – so named because it is considered a pivotal time in humanity’s spiritual development and marks the beginning of religions as we know them today.  Post-Axial followed that with religions trying to become rational – throwing out their mythology in favor of silly attempts at “proving” the facts in their respective literatures.  And finally, we get The Great Western Transformation, which brings us up to modern day.  This chapter is terribly sad, depressing, emotional, but, by the end, hopeful.

This might be a weird analogy, but bear with me … I felt like I was reading something like Peter Pan, with a lot of foreshadowing of Tinkerbell’s death and not knowing if this new altered version of Peter Pan would save her or not.  At the same time, I found myself rooting for Tinkerbell even though I’ve always thought of her as rude and troublesome before.  Replace Tinkerbell in this equation with religion/mythology and maybe you’ll get what I mean.

Mythology is the hero in this little book.  A misunderstood, riches-to-rags character of heartache.  Our heartache.  Their heartache.  Everyone’s heartache.  But if another person’s mythology isn’t dressed up like our own, we try to destroy it … then steal the clothes to drape over our own mythology anyway.  Does mythology die in the end?  I’ll leave that to you to decide.

The last twelve pages of the book are some of the best twelve pages I have ever read — Armstrong mentions both T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and magic realism as two examples of modern literature foreseeing and dealing with the nihilistic position we’ve put ourselves in by rejecting all our mythologies.  And no, she does not accept fundamentalist nuts as participants in mythology — one of my favorite quotes from the book: “once you start reading Genesis as scientifically valid, you have bad science and bad religion.” (p. 130)

And why do we need mythology, you might ask?  Armstrong gave plenty of reasons, but I like how her quote from Blaise Pascal summed it up best:  “When I see the blind and wretched state of men, when I survey the whole universe in its deadness, and man left to himself with no light, as though lost in this corner of the universe without knowing who put him there, what he has to do, or what will become of him when he dies, incapable of knowing anything, I am moved to terror, like a man transported in his sleep to some terrifying desert island, who wakes up quite lost, with no means of escape.  Then I marvel that so wretched a state does not drive people to despair.”  (p. 127)

Some other quotes to end with:

p. 124 “Myth had made human beings believe that they were bound up with the essence of the universe, yet now it appeared that they had only a peripheral place on an undistinguished planet revolving around a minor star.”

p. 138 “It has been writers and artists, rather than religious leaders, who have stepped into the vacuum and attempted to reacquaint us with the mythological wisdom of our past.”

p. 149 “If professional religious leaders cannot instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight to our lost and damaged world.”

Today I had my mental model* of the e-book completely shook up.

I went to a brown bag presentation here on the UIUC campus called “Encounters with E-Texts“.  Catherine Prendergast from the Undergraduate Rhetoric Program talked about the adoption of an in-house developed e-textbook for the freshman composition classes.  Here’s the description that went out to campus listservs: “Cathy Prendergast discusses the process of adopting an e-text from preliminary research and implementation to student evaluation and feedback. Join us for a peek between the pages of teaching with e- textbooks.”

My notes below from the brown bag might not be entirely accurate, so please keep a look out for the video of the talk which will be up on the brown bag website eventually. [ Update: video is available here ]

The Undergraduate Rhetoric Program:

  • 4,000 students per year
  • 65 Teaching Assistants (graduate students)
  • 27 Adjunct Instructors
  • new paper textbooks every 3 years, roughly
  • students usually have to pay about $130 for the paper textbooks

Prendergast devoted a year and collaborated with several campus departments to develop a UIUC-centric textbook that would work better for the Rhetoric Program, be accessible, be cheaper for the students, be more flexible and allow more creativity.

Now, when I first saw the brief description for this brown bag, I imagine the kind of e-books I’m used to reading on my iPhone:  basic epub files that I downloaded from Feedbooks.com or Project Gutenberg, mostly fiction that doesn’t have any fancy formatting, looks pretty much just like a paper book.

The e-textbook for the Rhetoric Program, however, is a different animal altogether.  The keywords here are *flexible* and *interactive*.  I don’t mean the old-fashioned “ooo, we have hyperlinks” interactive.  Prendergast and her colleagues went out to professors in other disciplines at UIUC and interviewed them about citation styles, research methods and other writing issues, then incorporated these interviews as videos into the textbook.

But the most surprising part to me was how customizable the instructors wanted this text to be.  The Rhetoric Department includes several different classes, each taught by several different instructors.  They wanted to be able to rearrange the chapters for each class (the students purchase a log-in to the book, which then identifies them to a specific section and instructor).  Plus, the instructors can leave different “notes” throughout the text, which look like small thumbtacks off to the margin with prompts like “Think about such-and-such questions while reading this section.” or “Be prepared to discuss your reaction to this part in class.” Even though all the classes are using the same e-textbook, each instructor can tailor the experience for their students from within the text itself – setting up links to other sections of the book, inserting exercises, incorporating media.  What they envision this being in the end is a textbook and an LMS (like Blackboard, Compass) all rolled into one.

At first, the Rhetoric Department went with a vendor to distribute this e-textbook, which turned out to be a miserable experience.  But – very wisely – the department kept the copyright (and receives the royalties!  which will be funding better equipment in classrooms to view these e-texts).  So now they are in collaboration with another unit on campus to get the e-textbook made the way they originally wanted.  They hope to have it ready for the fall semester of 2010.  I’m very excited to see how it turns out.  More than anything, I’m blown away by how different the e-textbook could be from the traditional paper textbook I grew up with.  Although there are some aspects of the e-textbooks that I don’t like (won’t go into those details here though), I do see this move toward fluid, non-linear textbooks as a step toward some amazing learning tools.  This has completely changed my thoughts on what the textbook might look like 10 years from now.

———————–

* For a great discussion of mental models and looking at our assumptions, see the TED Talks “Weird, or just different?” and “What we think we know”.

from Milan Kundera’s, The Joke,
Czech: 1967 / English: 1992, Harper Perennial

p. 164

“… I only asked with a calm (and well-rested) heart: why did I meet her? what did the encounter mean and what was it trying to tell me?
Do stories, apart from happening, being, have something to say? For all my skepticism, some trace of irrational superstition did survive in me, the strange conviction, for example, that everything in life that happens to me also has a sense, that it means something, that life speaks to us about itself through its story, that it gradually reveals a secret, that it takes the form of a rebus whose message must be deciphered, that the stories we live comprise the mythology of our lives and in that mythology lies the key to truth and mystery. Is it an illusion? Possibly, even probably, but I can’t rid myself of the need continually to decipher my own life.”

Me:  But more specifically, I want to decipher the now of my life as it is happening.  Some things I have deciphered – long after the thing passed and was just ready to be forgotten completely.  But that doesn’t satisfy.  I want the sense of right now, the meaning of right here.

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