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For almost a month now I’ve been very slowly reading Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor.  The Husband heard about the book on 3 Quarks Daily and I’ve been curious about Taoism and Buddhism for a long while now.  One of the things I’m enjoying about the book is the occasional brief meditation exercise slipped into chapters here and there.  For example, from the “Becoming” chapter:

“Sit still and come back to the breath. Center your attention in the rhythm of sensations that make up the act of breathing. Let the agitated mind settle, then expand your awareness to include the rest of the body. With calm alertness gradually increase the field of awareness until you encompass the totality of your experience in this moment: what you hear, see, smell, taste, and touch, as well as the thoughts and emotions that arise and fade in your mind.”  (p. 69)

Meditation is one of those things, like painting, that I really, really hope I learn to do someday but at this point in my life such activities require a focus and patience that I do not seem to possess.  Not that I’m giving up hope!  In fact, I have tried a couple of Batchelor’s little meditations and actually found them very helpful.

Which brings me to the second book I’m reading right now — An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin.  I won’t go into whether it’s a good book or not, I’ll just say this: I love this book so far.  I love how Martin writes about looking at art, wanting to own art.  I have re-read this one paragraph several times already:

“… paintings are layered… first, ephemera and notations on the back of the canvas. Labels indicate gallery shows, museum shows, footprints in the snow, so to speak. Then pencil scribbles on the stretcher, usually by the artist, usually a title or date. Next the stretcher itself. Pine or something. Wooden triangles in the corners so the picture can be tapped tighter when the canvas becomes loose. Nails in the wood securing the picture to the stretcher. Next, a canvas: linen, muslin, sometimes a panel; then the gesso – a primary coat, always white. A layer of underpaint, usually a pastel color, then, the miracle, where the secrets are: the paint itself, swished around, roughly, gently, layer on layer, thick or thin, not more than a quarter of an inch ever — God can happen in that quarter of an inch — the occasional brush hair left embedded, colors mixed over each other, tones showing through, sometimes the weave of the linen revealing itself. The signature on top of the entire goulash. Then varnish is swabbed over the whole. Finally, the frame, translucent gilt or carved wood. The whole thing is done.” (p. 81)

The same day I read this beautiful passage, the Husband and I went to our local art museum to see a show that just opened – Andrew Langoussis: What Was, Is, and Will Be.  I was stopped in my tracks by paintings as tall as me like this:

Siena Apartment, Andrew Langoussis

And especially this:

Street Noise, Andrew Langoussis(you are hereby encouraged to click through and look at the large size image…)

And as we wandered through the gallery, I realized that taking in images like these was the closest I came to meditation.  Perhaps that’s why the passage from Steve Martin’s book stood out for me so much — it captures something of the viewing process, viewing experience.  And if you look back and compare the quote from Batchelor with the quote from Martin, you might see a sort of parallel in the way each writer walks the reader through a series of layers in awareness.

“This moment was a secret among the Avery, the Scotch, and Lacey, and she saw clearly something that had eluded her in her two years in the art business. In a few minutes of unexpected communion, she understood why people wanted to own these things.” (p. 57, An Object of Beauty)

The last time I specifically remember being enthralled with a painting like this was when Marty Maehr had some pieces up in a little gallery in downtown Urbana.  I love the splash of his colors and shapes.  How could I think about everyday distractions when following lines like these?

Marty Maehr Paintings

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)

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.

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”.

A brain dump of recent posts I’m seeing about e-reader devices.  Full disclosure:  I totally lean toward the iPod Touch.  It’s small.  It serves many, many other functions.  And it doesn’t seem nearly as clumsy as a Kindle.   But I also like the Sony Reader.  In fact, it’s the Sony Reader that I’ve seen a couple times on my city bus.  I have yet to see a Kindle *anywhere*.  But don’t listen to me, see what other folks are saying …

Roy Tennant  http://www.libraryjournal.com/blog/1090000309/post/740036474.html?nid=3565

Sony Reader http://www.engadget.com/2008/11/12/sonys-new-reader-close-to-greatness-but-a-bit-too-dim/

iPhone / Touch app Instapaper: http://www.tuaw.com/2008/10/31/friday-favorite-instapaper-for-iphone-ipod-touch/

iPhone as eReader: http://blog.wired.com/business/2008/10/iphone-the-inci.html

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