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Reading Like a Sixth Grader

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All in all, my current attitude towards reading reminds me, as I said in my last entry, of the summers before and after sixth grade, which I think is when I read more--voraciously, compulsively--than at any other time in my life. Actually I've reverted to sixth grade in several ways: just as I did during summers when I was nine or ten or eleven, I like to sleep late, put on comfy clothes, then settle down to munch cookies I've made and plow through one book after another.

Summer Reading

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The summer is racing by, and what have I done? Not nearly what I should have. I was supposed to be halfway through with two book proposals by now. I've barely made any progress on either. Nor have I gone once to the yoga studio I was so desperate to find. Instead, I've merely done a whole lot of yard work, a lot of cooking, a lot of sewing (two skirts, three dresses--two of which I gave as gifts--and a blouse that still needs the finishing touches), a little blogging, and a hell of a lot of reading.

For a variety of reasons, I've virtually no interest in movies and tv right now. An entire week will pass without my watching more than half an hour of TV. Why would I want to be inside watching some movie on the dvd player when I could be sitting on the ugly couch I dragged out to my porch, reading just about anything I can get my hands on?

Buffy, Fiction and God

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Here's an entry from Stephen Frug that speaks to several of my primary interests: good writing, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, moral and artistic complexity, and religion. I recommend it with this disclaimer: it's LONG, as long or longer than some of the stuff I post. But it's really thoughtful and interesting, and worth your time.

As They Say about Acid

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Yeah, I'm back.

I got home Wednesday night. The journey home was, as they say about acid from time to time, a bad trip. Flight patterns were screwed up at the Salt Lake airport for some reason no one ever bothered explaining to me so although we boarded on time and shut the door on time and pulled away from the gate on time, we then sat on the tarmac for 55 minutes (the captain specified that it was 55 minutes) waiting for our turn to take off, waiting and waiting and then waiting some more as if waiting were a perfectly normal thing to do in an airplane. Fortunately I have a gift, a very fortunate gift indeed, and even a strange one, in light of the fact that in a bed I am prone to insomnia, and my gift is this: I always fall asleep on planes. I am so disposed to falling asleep on planes that I get sleepy just waiting to board one. So I slept while we waited for our plane to take off, even though I had slept a lot the night before and it was only ten a.m., too early really to be sleepy.

From the Library

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Something I do for fun and self-affirmation is check books out of my university library system, then leave them to languish in my office book case. If I don't start the book within a week of checking it out, I almost never get around to reading it. But as a faculty member, I can keep a book out for, like, the duration of my employment here, as long as no one else wants it, and it comforts me to look at all those books from the library, know that I haven't spent a cent to have access to them, and imagine that I might read them, some day.

I just got an email telling me that I needed to renew my stash of books--I had 34 out. Here are some of the titles:

Reader's Block

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Despite the fact that I spend much of the school year fantasizing about the reading I'll do when I'm not forced to focus on the books I'm teaching that term, I sometimes get to the end of a semester and realize that there might not be a book in the world I can bear to read. I'll haul some tempting volume off my shelf, skim the blurbs on the back cover, open the book to page one...and that's as far as I get before the nauseated revulsion sets in.

Yep, once again, I've got it: reader's block. I simply can't bear to look at a page of print. It happens to me sometimes, particularly after a semester when I've assigned too many books, nearly fallen behind in my reading, had to struggle to make it through the many, many pages I've assigned my students.

The good news is that it will wear off before too long. And when it does, I've got plenty to keep me busy. In fact, here is my summer reading list, broken down by why I have to/want to read the works on it.

Gender, Fiction and Reading Preferences

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Yesterday I came across this article (published a week or so ago) in the Guardian UK about gender, fiction and reading preferences. Frankengirl and Mysticgypsy, you'll be pleased to learn that Jane Eyre was the novel most often cited by women as having the greatest influence on them. The novel most men cited as influential was The Stranger by Camus.

The report is fascinating and draws some interesting conclusions: Women's favorite novels were "surprisingly varied" and women found it easy to discuss the influence fiction had on them, "producing a number of key moments in their life at which they unselfconsciously acknowledged that fiction had offered them guidance or solace," while men's preferences were limited to a much smaller cluster of works, and "men were more reluctant than the women to discuss the influence reading might have had on them." As for why that might be,

Jon Elek, lecturer in English at University College London, told us: "I guess that if you admit to having a watershed novel, then you're admitting to having a watershed moment, which is something that a lot of men don't necessarily want to admit to. And to admit to having five [as respondents were asked to do] - oh, come on!"

The researchers summarize some of their findings thus:

Our final top 20 of men's reading clearly shows a majority of books with strong active narrative themes - books that might traditionally be described at quintessential boys' books. No surprise there, perhaps. Except that both our recorded interviews and questionnaire responses show these choices being made on the basis of a conscious commitment to novels that take the reader in a direction of personal development. Men's reading choices tend to identify themselves with novels that include intellectual struggle. Personal vulnerability is represented as a more or less angst-ridden struggle against convention, a sense of isolation from social normality. Catastrophe and the struggle to rise above circumstance characterise the plots.

Part of the reason for this, we decided, was that, to a far larger degree than women, men's formative reading was done between the ages of 12 and 20 - indeed, specifically around the ages of 15 and 16. For men, fiction was a rite of passage into manhood during painful adolescence. Many men admitted that they had read little fiction since, though mature men returned to fiction reading in later life, and expressed increasing enjoyment in reading for "self-reflection".

Between 20 and 40, many men we talked to openly showed an almost complete lack of interest in reading which drew them into personal introspection, or asked them to engage with the family and the domestic sphere. On the other hand, those who had remained avid readers could see distinct patterns emerging in their choices which differed from those selected by women.

A final conclusion is that

men use fiction almost physically as a guide to negotiate a difficult journey (but would rarely admit to this downright being the case). They use fiction almost topographically, as a map. Many of our women respondents last year explained that they used novels metaphorically - the build-up to an emotional crisis and subsequent denouement in a novel such as Jane Eyre might have helped negotiate an emotional progress through a difficult divorce, or provided support during a difficult period at work, or provided solace when things seemed generally dull.

Even if you get bored by the reseachers' commentary on their study, make sure you scroll to the bottom of the page and read the summary of both Jane Eyre and The Stranger--very witty!

The Really Dead Women Writers Meme

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This meme was started by Bardiac. I found it thanks to Heo Cwaeth. I tried to do this cheater thing where I had Heo Cwaeth email me the html she used to post her entry, but it didn't translate well for whatever reason. Her version is better than mine because it has links to ALL the various texts, not just the ones she added. I'm sorry, but I'm too lazy to do that for you; if you want to learn about these other texts, you'll have to click on the link to HER post.

(Note as of Tuesday, April 11, Bardiac has compiled a list of all the contributions)

Starter Five from Bardiac:
Behn, Aphra - Oroonoko
Christine de Pisan (aka Pizan) - The Book of the City of Ladies
Julian of Norwich - Revelations of Divine Love
Locke, Anne (aka Ane Lok, etc) - A Meditation of a Penitent Sinner
Marie de France - The Lais of Marie de France

Dr. Virago then adds:
The Paston Women - The Paston Letters
Margery Kempe - The Book of Margery Kempe
Anonymous - The Floure and the Leafe(Her reasoning for this is on her blog)
Lady Mary Wroth - Poems

La Lecturess then adds:
Anne Askew - The Examinations of Anne Askew
Mary Sidney - Psalms
Anne Finch - Poems
Katherine Phillips - Poems
Teresa of Avila - Life

Amanda at Household Opera then adds:
Bradstreet, Anne: collected poems
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Fama y obras póstumas
Lanyer, Aemilia: Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum
Wroth, Lady Mary: Urania

Medieval Woman then adds:
Trotula - The Diseases of Women
Female Troubador Poets:- La Comtessa de Dia - "A chantar m'er" & other Trobairitz poetry excerpted.
Hrostvitha of Gandersheim (c.930-c.1002) - Plays Gallicanus & Dulcitius

Heo Cwaeth then adds:
Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) Scivias and Liber Divinorum Operum
Rachel Speght (1597 - Some time after 1621) Mouzell for Melastomus and Mortalities Memorandum
Anna Comnena (1093-1153) The Alexiad
Frau Ava (1060-1127) First named German poetess. "Johannes," "Leben Jesu," "Antichrist," "Das Jüngste Gericht" (That's in MHG)
Dhuoda (9th century, inexact dates) Handbook for William: A Carolingian Woman's Counsel for Her Son (at Sunshine for Women) and a dual-language version from Cambridge UP

Continuations of this meme have occurred all over; check the comments on the various blogs listed above to find other early women writers. Dr. Crazy was the one who brought up the most obvious entry of all: Sappho. (I admit I hadn't thought of Sappho myself, and I admit I was ashamed. Doh!)

One of my favorite continuations is courtesy of Natalie at Philobiblion; she adds:
Sei Shonagon, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon (A lady in waiting to the Japanese empress c. 965AD)
Eliza Haywood The History of Miss Betsey Thoughtless (1751) (and much else)
Chen Tong, Tan Ze and Qian Yi, authors of The Peony Pavilion: Commentary Edition by Wu Wushan's Three Wives (1694) They were his successive wives, by the way...
Isabella Whitney, The Copy of a Letter, lately written in meeter by a yonge Gentilwoman: to her unconstant lover (1567) and A Sweet Nosegay, or Pleasant Posy: Containing a Hundred and Ten Philosophical Flowers (1573)
Elizabeth Elstob, The Rudiments of Grammar for the English-Saxon Tongue (1715).

Given that several of the early women writers I'd add have already been mentioned, I thought I'd discuss the early women writers I personally would recommend. Bardiac suggests the list focus on women who have been dead for 300 years, but she also mentions the scarcity of attention in college courses to women who wrote before 1800, and people seem to have interpreted that as the cutoff date as well. I'm going to follow suit in a couple of cases, because it makes the list easier and more fun for me to compile.

1. Elizabeth Tudor (1533-1603): My first great historical crush. The woman wrote some great letters and gave some truly eloquent speeches, AND she wrote poetry.

2. Margery Kempe (c. 1373-1440), The Book of Margery Kempe: MK is my favorite illiterate author. She dictated the story of her life to a scribe--perhaps her confessor. She cried a lot (she was rather proud of that fact) and was probably really annoying to be around, but the story of her spiritual development is fascinating.

3. Aphra Behn (1640-1689): I read several of her plays 20 years ago but don't remember them. What I do remember is reading some scandalously funny poem in an undergraduate lit survey about how some sexy encounter in a pastoral setting was ruined when the hot young shepherd pursuing the hot young shepherdess couldn't get it up.

I also remember wandering around Westminster Abbey 20 some-odd years ago, looking down, and realizing I was standing on Aphra Behn's grave--except that it wasn't in poets' corner; it was out in some vestibule. I wonder if this is a legitimate memory, or one I made up? I will have to ask Natalie at My London Your London if she can verify where in the abbey AB's tomb is.

(Note: Natalie got back to me with this passage from Maureen Duffy's biography of Behn:

Thrysis [Thomas Sprat, Birmingham's old chaplain, who was Dean of Westminster], I believe, was responsible for her burial in Westminster Abbey on April 20th, no doubt backed by Burnet and by those of sufficient wit and position not to mind the odium or satire that accure to them from such an act. She lies in the cloister and not among the 'trading poets' in poets' corner, but with the Bettertons and Anne Bracegirdle. (p. 294)

So, Natalie concludes, "it sounds like she was classed as 'theatre' rather than 'literature.'"

Natalie also posted the question on Philobiblion; check there to see if any discussion has been generated on the topic, and also to find a link to a picture of the tomb. The engraving on the tomb reads, "Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be Defence enough against Mortality.")

4. Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672): the first North American poet, and my personal favorite Puritan poet. (And I admit I have a soft spot for Puritans, having been one for many years without really realizing it--not in the sense of being a prude but in the sense of being "an iconoclastic, language-fetishizing, constantly self-scrutinizing, fiercely individualistic, hard-working lover of The Word who is pretty sure God isn't very nice and doesn't much like me and that it's MY FAULT, and who has therefore been subject to bouts of despair, bleak and desolate despair, which I don't much talk about because when I do, most of the world tends to assume my descriptions are inflated, exaggerated, melodramatic and not especially sincere," as I once stated elsewhere.)

5. Mary Rowlandson (1637-1710): A History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, also known as The Sovereignty and Goodness of God. (You can download the whole thing here.) Rowlandson was a 17th century New England housewife who was captured by Narragansett Indians during King Philip's War, then wrote an account of the ten weeks she spent traipsing through New England in the winter as a captive before she was finally ransomed. She was very much a product of her time: racist, provincial, convinced that the events of her life were orchestrated by a god who cared about nothing so much as teaching her a lesson. Nonetheless, I find her text remarkable for its uncensored honesty, even down the gratitude she feels that makes her grasp the hand of an Indian and weep with happiness, because he has brought her good news--which she instantly regrets, for proper Puritan housewives do not grasp the hands of Indian men while weeping tears of joy. I am also always moved by her account of the death in her arms of her six-year-old daughter, who has been exclaiming for days, "I will die, let me die." I am fascinated by her discussion of her tobacco addiction and her discovery that profound hunger and fear of starvation changes forever your relationship to food--you are always afraid of hunger after that, she says. There is also some cool prose: people are "knocked on the head" (a mildly nicer term for having one's skull cracked open) and when they misbehave, told to straighten up or someone "will break my face." Students find the text thoroughly problematic, which of course is just one more reason to teach it.

In order to be acceptable to Puritan audiences, Rowlandson's text required an introduction by an upstanding Puritan male assuring readers she was writing this only to show the sovereignty and goodness of God (hence the name) and not to sensationalize her own sensational experience. Nonetheless it was hugely popular and spawned all kinds of imitators. In fact, Rowlandson created the first uniquely American literary genre: the captivity narrative, a story in which a person (generally a woman) is captured by Indians, tormented in various ways, then released or ransomed or able to escape by her wits.

6. Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784): one of America's most remarkable poets. Born in Africa in 1753, she was kidnapped into slavery at age seven. English was not even her first language, she didn't possess (as Alice Walker points out, borrowing from Virginia Woolf) ownership of her own body, much less a room of her own, and she still managed to write "hymns, elegies, translations, philosophical poems, tales, and epyllions-including a poignant plea to the Earl of Dartmouth urging freedom for America and comparing the country's condition to her own."

7. Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823): Radcliffe is acknowledged as one of the great innovators and popularizers of the Gothic novel; one website I looked at claims that The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) "was the world's first 'best-seller.'" I admit I've read more about her than by her, but one of these days I'll do it.

8. Fanny Burney (1752-1840), Evelina. I read this 22 years ago in a survey course on the 18th century novel (a class I liked so well I almost focused on that period for my graduate work) and REALLY liked it. I keep saying I'm going to read it again.... Maybe I should just read some of her other novels instead.

9. Jane Austen (1775-1817): OK, OK, I know this is kind of cheating, because none of Austen's works were PUBLISHED before 1800. But several of them--Lady Susan (special for its deliciously wicked main character), Northanger Abbey and First Impressions (which was the first draft of Pride and Prejudice), were almost certainly written BEFORE 1800. I just think it's important to remember that not only did she write really great novels, she helped shape our expectations of what a good novel should be, back when it was still rather a new form.

note (several hours later): I got an email from Spike, asking, "Where's Mary Wollstonecraft?"

Doh! So now I'm adding

10. Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797): One of the most important feminists in Western history, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. A new biography of her was published last year, Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft by Lyndall Gordon. I haven't read it but a friend has and says it's fabulous.

OK, that's what I've got now. If I think of someone else I should add, I will.

Reader, I'm Not Sure What Happened

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Reese, Frankengirl, Mystic Gypsy, and all types like me, check out this plea from the BBC:

Are you an avid reader of romantic fiction? Has Mr Darcy made you leave your fiancé? Has Mr Rochester, Heathcliff or any other fictional hero changed your love life in a significant way? Does your partner want you to be more like these fictional male heroes?

Silverriver Productions are producing a series of three 60' programmes for the BBC about the history of the romantic novel. Presented by Daisy Goodwin, Reader, I Married Him! will examine the work of Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, Margaret Mitchell, Helen Fielding and Catherine Cookson amongst others, looking at how romantic novels have changed the female perception of the ideal man.

In the programmes we want to talk to real men and women whose love lives have been transformed by romantic fiction for better or for worse. We want to speak to the women who have never found their Mr Darcy, as well as the men who feel that they fall short of romantic literary ideals.

If you have an interesting story, please get in touch with Louisa MacInnes on 020 7580 2746 or louisa.macinnes@silverriver.tv with details of your experience and and some method of contacting you.

It's Out

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Yesterday I met a friend for coffee at Barnes & Noble. (Yeah, I know: how terribly corporate of me. But my little home in the Rust Belt doesn't offer much else. I have tried and rejected as thoroughly inadequate the various non-corporate alternatives for book acquisition, with the exception of my university library--that rocks. And even non-corporate coffee is hard to come by. The one entry in the corporate coffee delocator for this area was provided by me, and that place is a million miles away, with mediocre mochas.)

My friend was late, so I browsed the books. On the "New Arrivals" table, I saw several copies of Best American Short Stories 2005, but couldn't find the other titles in the series. Finally I located a sales clerk. "Where's the Best American Essays?" I asked.

"What do you want?" he asked.

"The same thing as this," I said, holding up the collection of short stories, "except with essays."

He led me to a display, and there it was. I picked it up and scanned the table of contents: twenty-five essays, by the likes of Jonathan Franzen, Edward Hoagland, Oliver Sacks, David Sedaris, David Foster Wallace--and me.

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