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May 25, 2006

The many faces of classic literature

You know how whenever a classic novel is made into a movie, the novel is reissued with a new, glossy cover featuring the actors from the film? I've never really liked those reissues (though I do own several of them), because they make it so much harder for me to remember how the characters looked in my mind's eye before the film version came along. Even when I really like the film, I'm bothered by these covers. There's just something way too literal and imagination-restricting about them. Case in point: I have a cheap, mass-market paperback copy of Sense and Sensibility which I purchased around the time Ang Lee's film version (starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet) was released. I adore the film; it is probably my favorite of the recent Austen screen adaptations. But when I re-read the novel, I want to be able to picture Elinor Dashwood as someone other than Emma Thompson trying to look like she's twenty. With her picture on the cover, staring at me every time I pick up the book, I just can't do it.

That's really sort of a long and winding road leading up to what I really wanted to talk about, which is this cool slide show appearing in Slate today. I had no idea that some classics had been issued in the 50's with pulp-inspired cover illustrations. My favorite is the Moby Dick cover, which is brilliant in the way it gets right to the point of what the novel is actually about, plot aside. This illustration also made me consider for the first time ever the ways in which Moby Dick and Hitchcock's Vertigo are similar. That's a pretty neat trick for a mere book cover!

Posted by at 6:30 PM

March 24, 2006

Lord of the Wrongs

I am as big a Lord of the Rings fan as anyone. Okay, actually, I'm a much bigger fan than most people, having read the thing upwards of 20 times and being extremely fond of the recent film version. But some ... interpretations ... of the story just don't seem like such a good idea. For example, the musical, which has just opened in Toronto. Critics are underwhelmed by the spectacle, calling it, among other complimentary things, "largely incomprehensible."

I'm not sure I ever want to hear the music, which, no matter how good it might actually be, is pretty much my reason for believing that a LOTR musical is just a bad, bad idea to begin with. Here we have a work that teeters on the edge of self-parody and camp under the best of circumstances -- and we're going to turn it into a musical, that most campy of artistic/entertainment genres? This really couldn't have gone well. The New York Times review confirms my worst suspicions: Galadriel "sings of Elvish good will in the style of Celine Dion," and many of the songs "suggest Enya at an ashram." Oy.

I'm all for reinterpreting classics in new ways, "putting old wine into new bottles," as the saying goes. But to stretch that metaphor further than it should be stretched, sometimes the bottle really isn't the right shape or size for the wine it's supposed to hold. Maybe this musical can be tweaked and altered enough to make it an artistic success (and, oh yeah, a runaway hit), but I'm doubtful. I'm reminded of The Simpsons and Oh! Streetcar: The Musical. But that was supposed to be a joke.

Posted by at 5:24 PM

April 26, 2005

Making a statement, or just posing with a book?

The American Library Association's long-running READ campaign features posters and bookmarks of assorted celebrities posing with their favorite books. These usually barely register with me, but the poster of Christina Ricci, which is currently displayed in Wilson Library's foyer, got my attention. Apparently, The Fountainhead is actually Ricci's favorite book. Seems like an odd choice for a known Hollywood liberal type.

Ricci's poster isn't the only oddball one. How about Weird Al Yankovic, posing not-quite seriously with A Brief History of Time? That's kinda funny, but who even suspected that The Rock could read?

And when's the last time Tim Robbins and Mel Gibson found themselves supporting the same cause -- even one as non-controversial as reading? This almost makes my head explode.

It's nothing short of astonishing that Mel would have anything to do with a commie pinko organization like the ALA, anyway. But then, the book he's reading is 1984. Does that mean something? Creepy.

Posted by at 9:43 PM

March 24, 2005

A meme I can't resist

1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the next 3 sentences on your blog along with these instructions.
5. Don’t you dare dig for that “cool” or “intellectual” book in your closet! I know you were thinking about it! Just pick up whatever is closest.

The greatest threats to the security of Battledale are the House Jaelre drow (see Cormanthor, below), who see an opportunity to overthrow a weak dale while they gather their strength to deal with better defended or better organized dales. Skirmishes against the drow concern the Battledarrans greatly because of the quadrennial Shieldmeet festival to be held outside Aencar's manor at Midsummer. The Lord of Essembra seeks loyal and competent adventurers to help him secure Battledale's borders before the festival begins.
-- Dungeons & Dragons Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting

Eep. I'm really not as geeky as all that. Well, maybe I am -- besides D&D books, other nearby books tend heavily toward library-geekdom. This was fun in spite of my embarassing results, however...

(Thanks to Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast)

Posted by at 8:19 PM

January 21, 2005

Loose baggy monsters

Thus did Henry James famously describe the peculiar beast of the nineteenth-century novel. James meant it as a criticism, but I have always had a special affinity for Thackeray, Dickens, Eliot, and other purveyors of such epics. A lovely essay in today's New York Times touches obliquely on this idea. The author describes listening to an audiobook of that greatest of English novels, George Eliot's Middlemarch, over the course of a coast-to-coast roadtrip, and how the novel transforms and improves from being experienced in such a way.

The key thesis of the piece is how hearing a novel read aloud makes vivid its temporal character. This must be especially true of novels like Middlemarch, whose stories unfold over a period of years. Although I have always been a fast reader rather than a careful one, such novels almost demand to be savored. They are never a quick read, even for a fast reader. Their prose is so densely packed, with every word in every description seemingly so painstakingly chosen, that they practically force one to slow down and sense the passage of time that happens between their covers.

Film adaptations of such novels never quite succeed, for a couple of reasons. First, it's nearly impossible to effectively convey the passage of so much time over the two or at most three hours allotted to a feature film. Even successful screen translations of epic novels usually succeed despite their inability to impress upon the viewer the experience of time passing.1 Second, many large novels are large because they dwell so thoroughly (some might say excessively) on the innermost thoughts and feelings of their protagonists. This, too, is impossible to adequately convey on film; no matter how talented the actor, short of extensive reliance on narrative voice-over, the medium of film really offers no way to put across the richness of the character's inner life as laid out by the novelist. (This, incidentally, must be the reason why so many of Henry James's novels -- wonderful novels though they are -- wind up as such inert and uninvolving films. James's novels mostly do not qualify as "loose, baggy monsters" -- but to my knowledge, no author in the history of fiction has been such a master of interiority as James. Without the access to his characters' every thought and feeling granted by the written word, there is not much to make drama.)

But hearing a grand, epic novel read aloud (particularly in an unabridged version) over a period of many hours offers the best of all worlds, in a way: the listener, in a more passive role than if she were reading to herself, has the leisure to more fully imagine the events of the plot. If the reading is skillfully done, extra layers of interpretation can aid the imaginative process. (These are the same characteristics that must have made radio drama so compelling in the pre-television era.) And of course, the story is experienced over a relatively long period of time, just as if the listener were reading it herself.

Music is perhaps the art that is most obviously and fully bounded in time, something that has always both drawn me to it and frustrated me. The listener of a performance of a lengthy piece of music must have the patience to let the music unfold as it will, at its own pace. Naturally, performances and interpretations differ -- tempos change, so a piece of music does not always last the same amount of time. But the overall variance among performances is slight. As every musician well knows, there is a certain point on either end of the tempo spectrum where the music fails to make sense any longer; a piece simply doesn't work if it is performed much too fast or much too slow. This is something most people understand innately. Music presents us with the fact of its existence in time and offers us a take-it-or-leave it proposition: we can always turn the music off, or leave a performance in progress, but we can't have the full experience of the work without acquiescing to the music's temporal demands. It simply takes as long as it takes, and the longer the piece, the greater the sacrifice of time the listener must make in order to experience it.

Epic novels share some of that quality with music, even though temporal boundedness is not their fundamental condition, as it is with music. Still, to my mind, an Eliot novel has much in common with, say, a Mahler symphony. Both present their own worlds, fully formed, completely alien to the modern reader/listener, yet compelling enough to be completely absorbing, if you are willing to accept the terms the work imposes on you. I have always loved both big novels (those loose baggy monsters) and "big music" (whether Schubert, Mahler, or Shostakovich). Could the similar ways in which they impose themselves as temporal experiences be part of the reason why?

Perhaps it's time I revisited Middlemarch.

1I should say that I think that Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films are an exception to this rule, particularly in their extended editions, where they manage to achieve to some degree the sense of time passing that is so palpable in Tolkien's novel. This hit me with special force last Sunday, when a group of us watched all three extended films back-to-back in a 13-hour marathon. Take that with a grain of salt, though: I've lived my life much too close to those books to be at all objective about the film versions, which made me cry for joy at how much they got right (even though I found plenty to criticize).

Posted by at 10:11 PM

January 1, 2005

November 9, 2004

Warping fragile little minds

The great state of Texas has forced textbook publishers Holt and McGraw-Hill to change language in health textbooks for high school students regarding marriage. Prior to the changes, the textbooks used gender-neutral phrases like "individuals who marry" and "married partners." The Texas Board of Education is insisting that the textbooks strictly define marriage as occurring between a man and a woman, and the parties involved as husband and wife.

Although this story is interesting (if disheartening), it's merely a minor example of an ongoing outrage. Texas, as the second-largest purchaser of K-12 textbooks in the nation, has a huge influence on the content of those textbooks. A little over a year ago, I read the excellent The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn" by Diane Ravitch, an education historian at NYU. In it, Ravitch exposes how interest groups from the left and the right and state boards of education have forced textbook and standardized test publishers either to adopt the blandest possible language in many cases, or specifically to include language that interest groups see as supporting their agendas.

I don't think enough people are angry about this, so I strongly recommend The Language Police to anyone interested in how children are educated. Not convinced? Visit the link above, and read the excerpt there from the book's first chapter, which gives some bizarre, almost unbelievable examples of reading passages that were removed from a standardized test because of bias or lack of sensitivity. You'll want to read the whole book to learn how pervasive these practices are.

Posted by at 4:15 PM

October 30, 2004

The old college try

Michiko Kakutani takes Tom Wolfe's new novel I Am Charlotte Simmons apart in this New York Times review. The novel's title character is a student at the fictional Dupont University, which Kakutani identifies as closely based on Duke University.

I read The Bonfire of the Vanities years ago, and found it moderately enjoyable, but (apparently, like many people) I have never gotten around to reading Wolfe's second novel from a few years back, A Man in Full. Guess I'll put that back on the list now that I've been reminded of it!

Anyway, if Kakutani can be believed, I Am Charlotte Simmons invokes every trite and superficial trope of college life there is, and contains precious few insights into either student life or the culture of American higher education. It sounds like Wolfe should have taken to heart the old piece of advice that says authors should write what they know. Why a 70+ year-old man -- even an acknowledged great writer like Wolfe -- would think he could successfully write about a contemporary female college student is beyond me. I'll probably read it anyway, even if just for eye-rolls and laughs.

Posted by at 12:25 PM

October 19, 2004

Too much of a good thing

Although I didn't love the novel enough to re-read it, there are a few passages from Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections (winner of the 2001 National Book Award) that have stuck with me. One of my favorites follows:

It had started as a family joke: Dad always orders the mixed grill in restaurants, Dad only wants to go to restaurants with mixed grill on the menu. To Gary there was indeed something endlessly delicious, something irresistibly luxurious, about a bit of lamb, a bit of pork, a bit of veal, and a lean and tender modern-style sausage or two -- a classic mixed grill, in short. It was such a treat that he began to do his own mixed grills at home. Along with pizza and Chinese takeout and one-pot pasta meals, mixed grill became a family staple. ... before long, Gary was doing mixed grill two or even three times a week, braving all but the foulest weather on the deck, and loving it. ... He loved it and loved it and loved it and then all at once he didn't. ...

On the deck, in the radiant heat, as he blackened the prawns and seared the swordfish, a weariness overtook him. The aspects of his life not related to grilling now seemed like mere blips of extraneity between the poundingly recurrent moments when he ignited the mesquite and paced the deck, avoiding smoke. Shutting his eyes, he saw twisted boogers of browning meats on a grilled of chrome and hellish coals. The eternal broiling, broiling of the damned. The parching torments of compulsive repetition. On the inner walls of the grill a deep-pile carpet of phenolic black greases had accumulated. The ground behind the garage where he dumped the ashes resembled a moonscape or the yard of a cement plant. He was very, very, very sick of mixed grill.

In the book, this passage is a not especially subtle symbol for Gary's marriage and family life, which is falling apart. But what I've always loved about the passage (aside from the hilarious phrase "broiling of the damned") is how effectively it captures the counterintutive truth that excessive indulgence in something almost always leads to loathing of that thing.

I've experienced this in my own life with food, music, books, movies, and games. It happens so mysteriously: one day, I love a certain song or piece of music more than anything else. I want to hear it constantly. I listen to it over and over again. Then, suddenly, without warning, its appeal is gone. I might listen to it again after some time has passed. I might even appreciate it. But I will never again experience that intense, almost obsessive, craving to hear it.

What causes us to reach that saturation point? I haven't noticed any pattern to how long it takes the object of my devotion -- whether it be edible, musical, or otherwise -- to lose its magic. But it always happens eventually, and without warning. Maybe it's some sort of instinctive regulation, an enforced moderation, for the purpose of self-preservation. I can't explain it. But I do know I have to mourn a little each time this happens to me.

Posted by at 8:23 PM

September 1, 2004

"This is probably the best button to press."

Exciting news for those of us who have fond memories of the old Infocom text-based games (not to mention anyone who thinks Douglas Adams died far too young): the original Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy text-based game is being revived by BBC Radio 4 in time for their new series based on the book. The game will be available on Radio 4's website in late September. But it gets even better: the game will be enhanced with new illustrations by Rod Lord, who did the graphics for the original Hitchhiker's Guide TV series.

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is one of only a few of my childhood favorites that still holds up for me. I only vaguely remember the text-based game (a friend of a friend had it), but I'm looking forward to it, especially since it was written by Adams himself. I also fondly recall Adams's late-90s game Starship Titanic, which was a lot of fun despite its bugginess on the Mac. Good stuff.

Posted by at 3:22 PM

August 13, 2004

Open Audiobooks Project

The Open Audiobooks Project is a new initiative where volunteers contribute their recording of a chapter of a book in the public domain. These recordings will be freely available for download when they are complete. Their first project is Pride and Prejudice, which seems like an excellent choice: in my opinion, it's among the most purely entertaining of the accepted "classics" of English literature. In other words, you'll like it even though it's something your high school English teacher would have wanted you to read.

It looks like they're still seeking volunteers, so if you want to give it a shot, head over to the site and sign up. One of the neat things about this project is that the initiators recognize that there might be value in having works read by ordinary people rather than professional readers. I'm looking forward to sampling the results.

Posted by at 10:11 AM

August 9, 2004

That's Poli-tainment!

Here's a nice summary article from the Palm Beach Post about the trend toward "poli-tainment," under which general heading the author places everything from the Vote for Change tour to The Daily Show to The West Wing to Rush Limbaugh. The article makes the argument that the blending of entertainment with politics -- sometimes a little light on facts -- was pioneered by conservatives, with liberals only now really beginning to produce a lot of their own poli-tainment.

There's a lot of commentary and opinion about this issue right now, stemming from events like the recent announcement of the Vote for Change tour and lineup of artists. People on both sides of the political fence have argued that poli-tainment is a bad trend, either because celebrities outside politics should not use their position to push their political views, or because audiences for poli-tainment don't get the whole story. As I've previously written, I think the first argument is silly: celebrities ought to be able to address whatever issues they choose, so long as they're prepared for the potential consequences. As for the second point contra poli-tainment, I'm pessimistic (or realistic) enough to believe that some of those becoming "informed" through shows like The Daily Show, The West Wing, or even Rush Limbaugh are highly unlikely to seek out news and information through other means -- and some information is better than no information.

Also -- and maybe this is just postmodern Gen-X cynicism talking -- I'm not totally clear on the line between some of the things the article describes as poli-tainment and other things that purport to be respectable sources of news and opinion. Much of the content on Fox News comes immediately to mind, of course, but to be fair I would also include shows like MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann. Depending on your views and the stories of the day, these may be fun to watch, but they're the junk food of news: you'll probably learn enough to get by, but you're not doing yourself any favors by restricting your news diet to such sources.

I will, however, add the forthcoming book by former CNN editor David Mindich to my reading list. Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don't Follow the News will potentially provide some insight into whether the trend toward poli-tainment is actually something to worry about.

Posted by at 2:05 PM

July 30, 2004

Happy birthday, dear Fellowship

BBC News ran a story yesterday summarizing the initial critical reception of Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring, upon the 50th anniversary of its publication. Although FOTR did receive some positive reviews (notably including a rave from Tolkien's friend and colleague C.S. Lewis), many of the book's first critics were unable to take the novel seriously because of the genre. Even if they admired other aspects of the work, they dismissed it as children's literature.

I was a child of 11 when I first read The Lord of the Rings. It was love-at-first-chapter for me then, but I think I get even more enjoyment from it as an adult. There are layers of subtlety in the portrayals of the main characters that were lost on me as a child and teenager. Also, the central themes of the sacrifice of comfort for the greater good, how heroism is possible for anyone, and the bittersweetness of inexorable progress resonate much more now that I'm older. These themes weren't especially original even in the fifties, but Tolkien's presentation of them is both so compelling and so entertaining that their impact is greatly intensified.

So happy birthday to the beginning of one of the greatest stories ever told. Like the works of Beethoven, Mahler, and so many others, Tolkien's trilogy is proof that initial reception tells us very little about the historical and artistic value of a work of art.

Posted by at 3:28 PM

July 20, 2004

Still not a Trekkie. No, really!

Another item from the Star Trek department: Wil Wheaton has just published a memoir/autobiography/collection of essays titled Just a Geek. Amazon.com's description makes it sound pretty gag-inducing: "...Wil shares his deeply personal and difficult journey to find himself. You'll understand the rigors, and joys, of Wil's rediscovering of himself, as he comes to terms with what it means to be famous, or, ironically, famous for once having been famous. Writing with honesty and disarming humanity, Wil touches on the frustrations associated with his acting career, his inability to distance himself from Ensign Crusher in the public's eyes, the launch of his incredibly successful web site, wilwheaton.net, and the joy he's found in writing. Through all of this, Wil shares the ups and downs he encountered along the journey, along with the support and love he discovered from his friends and family. " Ugh. And thus begins my titanic struggle to keep my lunch down.

But...at least one semi-trusted Internet source (the Librarian In Black) says that it's a worthwhile read. I'm reluctant to run right out and buy it (mostly because I think doing so would say something really kinda sad about me), but I have to admit I'm curious. Wheaton has certainly strayed far (but successfully) from the typical child star's path to adulthood. Maybe reading what he's written wouldn't be a complete waste of time. I'll have to see what Dr. Dregs thinks.

Posted by at 3:06 PM

July 8, 2004

Yet another sign of the Apocalypse...

As if we didn't already know this, a study by the National Endowment for the Arts shows that reading among Americans is in serious decline. But it's worse than you think. According to the study, 89.9 million adults did not read a book in 2002. 89.9 million people! did NOT read! even ONE book! Astounding.

Of course, both the NEA and the book industry think this is a national crisis, a tragedy. I tend to agree, but the AP story doesn't really say why the decline of reading is such a problem: because the amount of reading you do is directly proportional to how well you communicate, especially in writing. Because reading helps you learn critical thinking, which helps you function in the world. And those are just a couple of the reasons that instantly occur to me.

But ... here's my question. Are people reading good writing, but just not in books? Are people satisfying their hunger for the written word on the Internet? Sure, the Internet is full of really awful writing. But there's also plenty of mediocre-to-great stuff out there, especially with the explosion of blogging. I'm curious as to whether the study addresses this at all.

Guess I should track it down and read it.

Posted by at 6:45 PM

June 30, 2004