Category Archives: Literature

Touring Milan by Visiting Its Public Libraries

On a steamy July morning, I followed my phone’s GPS to the coolest spot in Parco Sempione, Milan, Italy:  the public library. The small, modern building sits on a knoll surrounded by mature evergreens and a bright flower garden; this particular day, dozing elderly rested on benches nearby.

Though Milan allegedly empties in the summer, the  library at Parco Sempione and any number of other libraries I visited were full of silent patrons, intense in their concentration with books, periodicals, and at computers. Often I found myself looking for a seat, which surprised me because of the usual advise to avoid Italy in July and August “because no one is there” and “everything stops.”

But July and August is the only time I could spend five weeks away visiting family in the city, so July and August it was. And while I deeply respect the city’s overwhelmingly impressive art and culture and made sure to spend contemplative hours in Pinoteca Brera and the Duomo as well as hundreds of other significant heritage sites, I made a decision early to visit as many libraries as I could. My library-themed tour gave me a refreshing alternative view from opinion of the city found in guidebooks.

Because the selections librarians make for their collections reflect the interests of their patrons, I was particularly interested in displays and featured books and magazines. But on the day I climbed the knoll to Biblioteca Parco Sempione, I had walked several miles in the heat to get there and my first priority was one of the scarce seats, and the only one open was in the back corner. I plopped down and gulped some water, I glanced up to a propped copy of a volume of poetry that made me feel like the librarians here knew my tastes and saw me coming: Ballistics, by Billy Collins.

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Filed under Italia, Literature

“Sine” of Great Sentences

I have been reading about power inverters that convert direct current to alternating current, but I have also – for separate reasons – been reading Old Man and the Sea again. What a beautiful synthesis of thought dawned on me when I read Hemingway’s  sentence-paragraph:

He loved green turtles and hawk-bills with their elegance and speed and their great value and he had a friendly contempt for the huge, stupid loggerheads, yellow in their armour-plating, strange in their love-making,  and happily eating the Portuguese men-of-war with their eyes shut.

When I read the sentence again, the first part with its staccato rhythm of phrases joined by “and,” “elegance and speed and their great value and he had…” reminded me of the square wave inverters. They are simple and cheap and work with a short of push-pull. But the second part of Hemingway’s sentence, with its smoothly flowing parallelism:  “yellow in their armour-plating, strange in their love-making,  and happily eating…”seemed to flow as a sine wave, in lovely smooth rhythm.

Brooks Landon speaks of the writer’s craft of building great sentences in one of The Great Courses says that readers “recognize distinctive rhythms in prose,”  which are a series of long and short steps akin to Morse Code, or Aristotle’s vision that prose should not be metrical, nor should it be without rhythm.” Writers have to feel the variety pulse through our fingers as we create precise, intense sentences  so that we carry our readers along.  Thus, the sine wave is a metaphor for the effective sentence, illustrating the silky flow of power moving back and forth in a series of high frequency pulses.

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Filed under Around the world while you were sleeping..., Literature

Didn’t you hear: Juliet woke up in time! She & Romeo are happily married in Verona.

A recent article in the New York Times presents the problems and concerns parents have about the ways their children read. The concern seemed to be whether or not online reading constitutes the type of reading that cultivates the cognitive and critical thinking skills children will need to succeed in higher education and later in the workplace.

I am usually a proponent of the view that it is not the medium but the message when it comes to reading or research or writing: the fact that the internet is the tool rather than a brick and mortar library has never bothered me as long as the material that is being tapped is high quality. The fact that interacting with online text encourages writing is again probably a good thing. However, something in the Times article snagged my attention as a bringing students into a danger zone if it constitutes the bulk of their literature consumption:

Clearly, reading in print and on the Internet are different. On paper, text has a predetermined beginning, middle and end, where readers focus for a sustained period on one author’s vision. On the Internet, readers skate through cyberspace at will and, in effect, compose their own beginnings, middles and ends.

Literature that has endings we don’t like can often be the ones that get us to think the most, that force us to use our skills of argument, that make us grow the most.Students are always shocked to learn that Romeo & Juliet is not a love story at all, but a commentary on the price society pays for pointless conflict, stubborn pride, jealousy and unbridled revenge. It didn’t end well; that is why it sticks with us.

Of course, there might be the positive social good if students could alter it as they went along. The fiery Tybalt listens to his uncle and lets Romeo alone; Juliet resists the sin of disobedient opposition. Hmm, maybe fanfiction.com is on to something…

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Filed under Classic, Literature

To those afraid of visual literacy

Recently a colleague showed me a copy of The Arrival by Shaun Tan. I can’t wait for someone to give it to me for my birthday this month. However, her enthusiasm for the book had been quashed by another colleague, also an English teacher, who dismissed the book as “not literature.” The reason for the dismissal is that the book is composed entirely of drawings. The reader must look closely to construct the plot and themes of the book. Wow! Imagine.

Drawing to communicate is not a new technique of a semi-literature generation; drawing is a venerable form of literature that made its appearance in caves. In the case of The Arrival, which I cannot do justice to because I have not read it as closely as I will when I own it 🙂 [birthday hint], the silence of the drawings is the perfect voice for an arriving immigrant.

The thinking of the scoffer annoys me, in part because it is indicative of a type of elitist thinking that limits students and makes those in favor of No Child Left Behind so sure they are right about teachers. The more I think about Tan’s achievement, the more I am convinced the book is a type – one type among many – that students could gain from reading. In the current age of digital media, writing is not done only with text; powerful and successful writing often includes a special blend of text and image such that neither would be as effective without the other.

Consider for example, the presentation Shift Happens, available on YouTube. The elegant simplicity of the presentation happens in part because of the three-part harmony of text, numbers and image. By the time the thesis is presented – Shift Happens – viewers have been convinced by a series of vivid impressions and images working together. It is the ability of the presenter to blend all three that demonstrates his or her literary skill.

Consider the image from the PopTech conference held in Camden, Maine this month. Would the impressions be as strong or lasting if the Guardian had merely printed the number of cell phones thrown away each month? Not hardly.

Mortimer Adler, in How to Read a Book, speaking of an expository book, writes that “You must not only reduce the whole to its simplest unity, but you must also discover how that whole is constructed out of all its parts.” From what I saw of Tan’s book, to those who are afraid of the fate of reading in an electronic age , be reassured it is not a threat to textual literacy. Instead, it calls for the kind of intense and close observation of the reading state that Birkerts refers to in The Gutenberg Elegies. It is the close and careful observation that “point and click” and “copy and paste” rob readers and writers of. For what we are most missing, when it comes to reading is the time to do it.

If you are unafraid of shift, join the conversation.

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Filed under Literature, Technology

CCCC takes the pressure off

Any individual’s writing ability is a sum of a variety of skills employed in a diversity of contexts, and individual ability fluctuates unevenly among these varieties.

This simple statement by the Conference on College Composition and Communication in its position statement on writing, suggests – no, outright says – we write well about some things and not well about others.

Writing is not an isolated skill. Rather it pours out from our critical thinking, our emotions, our knowledge, and our experiences. I believe this statement explains why we write well about what we know and why we struggle to find a voice on topics we don’t know anything about.

The statement is truly an expression of common sense, uncommonly said.

Write what you know.

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Filed under Literature, Tools of the Trade

April/May AusLit News & other morning tidbits

I look forward to getting my AusLit news, even though I have to do massive work arounds to find the recommended content in places other than the AusLit database. I am not complaining; it is only fair since I don’t have a subscription to the library at the University of Queensland that puts it out. I do love what I can glean from it, so my new interest is literature of Tasmania. One of the additional insights I gained was how Australian English writing is informed by the Asian experience. Now that makes perfect sense considering where Australia lives. But if we only think of the Australian experience as coming in a straight line from Europe, we will miss most of the richness that makes it unique among literatures written in English.

Another useful tidbit that came in my morning (e)mail, was a link to Quizlet:” “Created by a high school student in the San Francisco Bay Area, Quizlet is a free, web-based tool designed to help students learn and practice vocabulary. Users enter the vocabulary terms and definitions they’re trying to learn, and the site creates flashcards and other study tools, including collaboration tools so students can share, edit, and discuss word sets.” What I like about this review tool is that the learner puts in effort to set it up that will also help them learn the words.

My final thumbs up of the morning goes to “Billy Hudson, a professor of medicine and biochemistry, got inspiration for the project from his own childhood in rural Arkansas… Children in his hometown of Grapevine, Ark., still are so isolated that, for some, the bus ride between their homes and school lasts 90 minutes each way…Hudson returned to his hometown recently to launch a three-year pilot study of what he calls the Aspirnaut Initiative. ..In a ceremony at their school, students who have chosen to participate in the program received video iPods they will use to view educational videos and podcasts.”

The results of my morning email should keep me busy for quite some time. I hope you find any of that useful.

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Filed under Around the world while you were sleeping..., Literature, Looking forward

Margaret Fuller and Snack Bar

A few weeks ago, I got to Rome before Dean so went out to eat (of course!). I picked a spot near our hotel (between the Trevi fountain and Piazza Barberini)that looked friendly and looked like they would understand my “Itaglish.” Above the snack bar was a plaque to recall that another New England woman beat me to the spot a long time ago. I end the comparisons there.

Sarah Margaret Fuller gave much more than I to both literature and Italy, both of which I love. Her life is worth review. It made the spot and the moment special for me. Thank you to those in Rome who recognize her contribution for women, literature and their country.

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Filed under Around the world while you were sleeping..., Just thinking, Literature