Un po’ di pasta; A Little Reading

Since I shared my exciting Christmas gift back in December, I thought I’d prove that I’ve actually used it (a week ago), going from this:

To this:

And ending with this:

Yum! Running pasta through the machine is sooooo much easier than rolling it out by hand! Still messy, though.

And to be honest, that is about as exciting as it’s been in my neck of the woods lately. I’ve been reading, but at a snail’s pace. Even my blog reading has been lack-luster of late—some days I could barely convince myself to check the feed reader. I guess you could say rather than a reading slump it was an enthusiasm slump. But then the sun came out, the first crocus opened up, I had a very good cup of Aloe Serenity tea or two, and I’m feeling re-energized. The books seem more engaging, other people’s blog posts are more fascinating, and I have a half-dozen or so blog posts planned out for the next three or four weeks. (Exact timing to be determined based on book completion dates.)

I’m finding that I’m having a very mixed relationship with blog-based deadlines and challenges this year. On the one hand, they’re pushing me to get books read I might otherwise put off. On the other, I seem to be running a few weeks behind every one. It’s an interesting conundrum: do I continue to participate in challenges and read-a-longs to gain the benefit of getting something read, or do I cease participation and read at whim? (Very tempting at the moment, but…) There’s something very satisfying in finishing a challenging read, but I have to balance that against potential discouragement when I fall behind. On the other hand, I’m so consistently behind this year that perhaps I don’t know what “discouragement” means. It seems there should be benefits to training myself to be more disciplined, but at this point in time I’m not sure that I actually care about being “disciplined,” at least not as it comes to my reading. Ah, dilemmas.

Regardless, I have high hopes of finishing two books this week. I have one out from the library (Death Comes to Pemberley) that I hadn’t intended to read this month, but the hold list moved faster than I expected. I can’t renew it, so finish it I must. The other (Savage Detectives) I’ve been making my way through very slowly, despite its excellence. Thank goodness I’m not hung up on remembering the details!

And you, any big reading plans for the week?

2012 TBR Pile Challenge & Other Notes

I can’t believe we’re halfway through November already! Of course that could be in part thanks to the unseasonably warm weather of late, although that should be changing—overnight. I also can’t believe that I’ve barely read a word since my last post. I don’t know what’s gotten into me… But Tea with Transcendentalists started today, and I am determined to read Walden and “Civil Disobedience” by December 15th. I’ve decided not to worry about the library books I have out now, so I can focus on these instead.

It’s the time of year I’m beginning to see challenge lists (terribly fun to read!) all over the place. Personally, I wasn’t going to sign up for any challenges, especially year-long challenges, really I wasn’t. I simply have done horribly in recent months at anything for which I’ve signed up in advance, so I didn’t (don’t) think it a good idea. But then Adam at Roof Beam Reader posted his TBR Pile Challenge and I kept seeing all of these TBR posts, and I got to thinking about it—I’ve already decided for the coming year that need to focus on what I really want to read, and what I’ve had piling up. (I’m planning some organized theme reading as well—more on that in a later post.) This challenge will hopefully help me focus on my goals for next year, while at the same time working through my very, very lengthy list. I’ll probably have other books I read next year that have been on my list(s) for a while as well, but some of them I’ve already read (no rereads on this list) and others I haven’t made my mind up on yet. So…

My 2012 TBR Pile Challenge Official List:

  1. The Iliad – Homer, c. 8th cent. BCE (Greece)
  2. The Aeneid – Virgil, 1st cent. BCE (Rome)
  3. Beowulf – Anonymous, c. 8th-11 cent. CE (Anglo Saxon)
  4. The Lusiad – Luís Vaz de Camões, 1572 (Portugal)
  5. Twelfth Night – William Shakespeare, 1602 (England)
  6. Coriolanus – William Shakespeare, 1607 (England)
  7. Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, 1605 & 1615 (Spain)
  8. Bleak House – Charles Dickens, 1853 (England)
  9. Cranford – Elizabeth Gaskell, 1853 (England)
  10. The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins, 1860 (England)
  11. Ficciones – Jorge Luis Borges, 1962 (Argentina)
  12. The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien, 1977 (posthumous, England)

Alternates:

  1. Black Beauty – Anna Sewell, 1877 (England)
  2. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell – Susanna Clarke, 2004 (England)

I will track these on my 2012 TBR Pile Challenge Page. If I get through all of these, plus some other books I’m hoping to read next year, 2012 will be the best reading year I’ve had in a long time!

I’m also planning to participate in Allie’s (A Literary Odyssey) January Shakespeare month, so Twelfth Night and Coriolanus will do double duty nicely. Other possibilities for January include Much Ado About Nothing and Othello. Or pretty much any play Shakespeare wrote that isn’t Romeo and Juliet (I’ve had my fill of that one) or Macbeth (let’s just say high school senior English killed any interest I have in that one). The last time I read any Shakespeare (a year ago), I was reminded how much fun he is to read, so I’m really looking forward to this month.

Now, to just get the books finished that I wanted to read this year!

Experiments and Other Notes

I had intended—expected—to have a post, somewhere along the lines of “yay, I’m done with the tests,” up well before now, but post-test fatigue + a small but time-involved project for my mom + a temperamental computer that thought spending a day not starting was amusing (after a full day of scans there is nothing wrong with it!) + the simple fact of time getting away from me precluded it  before now. And now it seems much too long since I took the darn thing, that I’m not really going to mention it beyond I really hope I passed, as I can’t bear the thought of studying. Ever again.

Instead, I’m now faced with the fact that it’s now the second week of October and I’ve a pile of reading commitments/plans staring me down. The first two are library books, out of renewals (of course) and less than a week left on them before they are due. Late this summer I over-optimistically estimated my ability to read for fun and study at the same time, so they’ve sat mostly unread until this week. Nipping at their heels, my commitments to Allie’s Dracula RAL and a Classics Circuit read. It’s a good thing I don’t have any solid plans for the next little while, as I have a feeling I’m going to be a bit preoccupied. (And I was worried that I wouldn’t have enough to fill my time…) It’s also a good thing I’m planning on participating in the 24-hour readathon on the 22nd.

Despite my misgivings over How to Read Literature Like a Professor from earlier this year, one of the library books I’m currently working through is How to Read Novels Like a Professor. (My optimism, it seems, extends to the contents of books as well as the amount of reading I can accomplish.) I don’t know yet if I’ll actually even bother with attempting to finish this, but after some comments Jillian made, I wanted to at least complete the Introduction with its brief—very brief—history of the novel. Although I am interested in a more academic discussion (which would necessarily occupy more space than an introduction) than was presented here, there was one thing that stood out to me as I read. It was actually one of those light-bulb moments of the type “Duh. I can’t believe this never occurred to me before, it’s so obvious”—the history of the novel is one of reaction to the history of mankind. As the world changes, so has literature. So have all arts. This is one of the few things I remember distinctly from Architectural Theory: the Modernist architects were responding to a changing, increasingly industrialized and mechanized world. So were the Modernist authors (and undoubtedly the visual artists and composers). And the same theme (responsiveness) holds true for every other “-ism” of the history of literature and the other arts. Why I never connected the dots before now…

When I think about all the literary examples of direct responses to the surrounding world—The Grapes of Wrath and The Crucible to name two—it seems so blazingly obvious that if the contents were a reaction, so must have been the style. The whole 20th century in some ways was a big experiment (although, it should be noted, the pre-1900 form of the novel still thrives), and with the continuing rapidity of changing technology, no doubt novel experiments will continue. (If the Twitter novel doesn’t yet exist, I’m sure it will.) I suppose my questions are two: 1) can the most extravagant experimentations endure as anything more than a curiosity? and 2) will anyone outside of academia (or list completists) actually continue to read the more “out-there” forms? My questions are biased by my views of architecture: the Modernists strove to revolutionize not just the built form but humanity itself, but despite their efforts, most new houses still greatly resemble the forms used well before the rectilinear boxes of modernism. Commercial and other non-residential architecture has moved further from the pre-20th century traditional forms than housing (how many of us have driven by a new church that in almost no visible way resembles the traditional forms for religious architecture?), perhaps suggesting that in our most personal lives, we prefer the comfort of tradition, but allow experimentation in our working environments? (Most of us. There are also those who prefer other styles, but this does not seem to predominate housing stock.)

I have nothing against literary (or architectural) experimentation, which I will readily acknowledge has brought forth incredible gems, and which is vital to the continuing relevance of the novel as an art form; my curiosity deals with longevity. It is akin to the “classics” question: what makes a book a classic? Usually when when this question is addressed, the respondent touches on the idea of endurance—what will people be reading one hundred years from now? Of course, this could have nothing to do with our comfort level with the literature before us. Reading lists (best of the 20th century, 1001 great books, etc., etc.) abound, and how many of us have opted to read a book we otherwise find difficult, intimidating, or just plain weird, because it is on such a list? But I sometimes wonder if continuing evolution of the novel away from the more “traditional” plot-driven format takes it so far away that only the academically minded can understand it, and thus these experiments fade from the public awareness for lack of comprehension, not value. I think of it in terms of contemporary visual art. Although some is perfectly comprehensible by the layman, other art has been derived by a series of steps from its predecessors to the point that most average viewers cannot understand it perhaps even as art, although those “in the know” have no difficulty. Of course, the counterargument here could be Van Gogh, who only sold one painting in his life but whose work sells for incredible sums at auction today. Time provides the answers, not our contemporaneous musings.

I have no answers, and not even really any opinions on the matter. (Well, I have some very strong opinions on some examples of, ahem, “interesting” architecture, but that doesn’t really apply here.) Curiosity drives me. It compels me to wonder what the form of the next “new” novel might be, to wonder where we can go from here. And thus the reading list grows…

On Reading in Other Languages

I’ve been thinking a good bit about reading books in other languages lately, not least because, leaving the reference section of my local library the other day, I nearly walked smack-dab into the small selection of foreign language books. Judging by the selection of both languages and titles, I’m guessing the the availability of these books is as much about the foreign language offerings of local high schools as it is about serving patrons who might feel comfortable in a language other than English.

Over the past year or so, I’ve read a number of conversations about reading in translation vs. reading the original or about the difficulties of conveying certain aspects across languages. The lack of informal vs. formal second person in English. The difficulty of maintaining rhyme scheme or meter across languages. (I can’t imagine trying to translate Shakespeare!) It seems that there could be value, when a reader understands more than one language, in reading books in those languages, rather than always in translation.

In some ways I am both amazed and envious of readers who do this with ease. Although I was fortunate to have had Spanish from fifth through twelfth grades, I have forgotten much and most certainly do not read it well. I’ve thought for a while of trying to resurrect my Spanish, at least to the place that I can read fairly comfortably. But this is something that I am afraid could take rather more time than I have to commit to it, and it has simply been easier to avoid than touch head-on, despite my best intentions (see my Siglo de Oro list). And then I ran into that Spanish shelf.

So I’m attempting La Ciudad de las Bestias by Isabel Allende. This is a book I’ve read before, in its English translation. It is a young adult book and very much an adventure story, set in the Amazon. Which is about all I remember about it!

Honestly, I’m not sure that I will read the entire thing this time around. My Spanish is very, very rusty. I can maybe read a newspaper-level story and get pretty much the gist of it, but I have forgotten so many words. I was surprised, though, when I picked it up the other night and I just started reading, too lazy to find my Spanish-English dictionary, at how much I understood–in general. I got the big picture, not the details. (I did quite unintentionally learn a new work which I think is great fun: “panqueque,” which is pronounced roughly “pahn-kay-kay.” The Spanish is just so much more fun to say than the English “pancake.”)

So I wonder: what is the best way to read in another language in which one is not fluent? In the past, usually spurred on by a school assignment (I used my high school Spanish/college Italian to great advantage in writing research papers for architectural history), I would look up every word I didn’t know, a painstaking process. But this recent read suggests this isn’t necessary for understanding. For anyone who has read much in other languages, what would you suggest (keeping in mind my aim is to improve my comprehension)? Just looking up words that seem key to meaning? Or the ones I recognize but can’t quite remember anymore? Everything?

In the meantime I’ll try to stick to one “other” language for now…a recent post at Wuthering Expectations has me itching to read Pinocchio, finally, but my copy is in Italian…

Completed: How to Read Literature Like a Professor

How to Read Literature Like a Professor
Thomas C. Foster
2003

…the professor, as the slightly more experienced reader, has acquired over the years the use of a certain ‘language of reading,’ something to which the students are only beginning to be introduced. What I’m talking about is a grammar of literature, a set of conventions and patterns, codes and rules, that we learn to employ in dealing with a piece of writing. Every language has a grammar, a set of fules that govern usage and meaning, and literary language is no different. It’s all more or less arbitrary, of course, just like language itself.” (Introduction, “How’d He Do That?”)

Ok, I confess: I’ve been finished with How to Read Literature Like a Professor for nearly three weeks, and I’ve simply been too lazy to post anything. Pure, blatant laziness. Hey, it’s summer, right? (Or close enough…) Of course, this may also be partially a reflection of my feelings of antipathy towards the book: the manner in which Foster reads literature just simply isn’t the manner I prefer to read.

I don’t mean that I’m afraid that all the joy of reading will be taken away if I start to focus on symbolism and “whenever you see X you know it means Y” sorts of things (which are the predominant focus of the book), just that I’d rather focus on different things—the story (a very guilty reading for the plot reader), the themes, the how and why, perhaps some of the more writerly aspects. I suppose I was hoping for a book that would tell me more about these, although to be fair, looking at the symbolism can illuminate these things. I think this is why I ended up in some of the “arguments” I had with the book—we had different ends in mind.

It started in the first chapter “Every Trip is a Quest (Except When It’s Not).” I have no problem with that specific statement. Huckleberry Finn—quest. Lord of the Rings—quest. No, my problem is why does this matter? Foster indicates that the real goal of any quest—not the stated one—is the protagonist’s self-knowledge. Here’s my problem—I understand self-knowledge to be a characteristic of character growth, and character growth to be one of those things that a good reader should be looking for anyway—whether they’re reading “like a professor” or not. I just don’t get the point of needing to define a quest with all its attendant parts. Maybe my problem here is that this seems much too obvious to me, too easy—it may not be so clear-cut for a less practiced reader.

It seems that my issues with the direction of this book are that I’m looking for big picture while a lot of the focus is on tiny parts. I’m wondering –I have no background in literary analysis, so this merely speculation—is this one of those areas where there are different perspectives on the understanding of books and Foster is representing one school of thought? I.e., I’ve heard of approaching books from a feminist lens or a deconstructivist lens; is this just another lens in which literature can be approached?

Now, while it can be terrible fun to have a good book-argument (especially since the book has a hard time arguing back, especially if you close your eyes and don’t read it), I don’t want to give the bad impression that the entirety of my reading session with How to Read Literature was a long drawn-out argument. There is one major point I’m taking away from How to Read Literature Like a Professor that I think is really the key to reading just about anything in depth: know your sources. That’s not how Foster words it, he divides this into separate chapters: “When in Doubt, It’s from Shakespeare…,” “…Or the Bible,” “Hanseldee and Greteldum,” and “It’s Greek to Me,” as well as within others. The point: much of Western literature (all?) has in it references to literature of the past, the big ones being Shakespeare, the Bible, fairy tales, and Greek myth. This is one of those concepts that I think just about every reader picks up on at some point, consciously or not. What I hadn’t thought about before was the manner in which these references can add depth to/inform the story at hand. Nor had I considered that (duh) there must be similar “essential texts” in other cultures:

Still, no matter what your religious beliefs, to get the most out of your reading of European and American literatures, knowing something about the Old and New Testaments is essential. Similarly, if you undertake to read literature from an Islamic or a Buddhist or a Hindu culture, you’re going to need knowledge of other religious traditions. Culture is so influenced by its dominant religious systems that whether a writer adheres to the beliefs or not, the values and principles of those religions will inevitably inform the literary work.” (Chapter 14, “Yes, She’s a Christ Figure, Too”)

At some point in time, I would like to read more literature from outside my western-dominated comfort zone. Some of the classics of Japanese and Chinese literature really sound interesting, and I would really like to read some more African authors (to date, I’ve only read Things Fall Apart, which I think is the default African book for American readers). I just never considered that to fully appreciate such works might require additional work on my part to learn more about the culture and context they come from. It’s one of those things that is really obvious once it’s stated, but not something I’m used to doing. I may not live in the same era/country as the western authors I read, but I’ve had enough history to know something of their times and the references they make are more likely ones that I have a familiarity with.

I don’t have time right now to really dig into a reading project (which of course means that all I seem to want to do is read), but after reading Foster’s book I would love to spend some time with all those classic reference points. Probably most especially the Greeks—Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes—but also more Shakespeare (I’ve forgotten most of what I have read of his), and maybe even a quick survey through the Bible. I’ve read the entire Bible once before and good chunks of it multiple times, but there is so much in it that there are entire stories I don’t remember (usually the really odd ones). And then, maybe I’d feel qualified to start reading novels again! Not that I’d let this stop me from reading novels in the meantime of course. I’m neither that disciplined nor that actually concerned about it!