recentpopularlog in

robertogreco : jrrtolkein   5

Reverting to Type: A Reader’s Story |
"It did become my thing. I transferred to what we thought of as the University of Alabama, the one in Tuscaloosa, largely because it had a better English department. I double-majored in English and history, and at some point decided — what considerations went into the decision I no longer remember — that I wanted to go to graduate school to study more literature. So I attended the University of Virginia. I developed a historical sense — my love for Browne’s prose led me to spend most of my time in the seventeenth century, until a relatively late encounter with the poetry of W. H. Auden made a modernist of me — amassed a repertoire of critical gestures, learned to invoke the names and terms of High Theory in the proper ways and at the proper times. I was initiated into the academic guild; I became a professor.

It wasn’t always easy, of course. In my last weeks as an undergraduate one of my professors had taken me aside and whispered to me the sacred names of Barthes and Derrida, and told me I should make fuller acquaintance with them. I dutifully wrote down the names and immediately forgot about them. Since none of this Theory stuff had previously been mentioned to me in my undergraduate career, how important could it be? So when I plunged into my first graduate classes — including a theoretical survey in which we read Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Gramsci, Georg Lukács, Horkheimer and Adorno, Husserl, Heidegger, Ricoeur, Jakobson, Althusser, Brooks, Frye, de Beauvoir, Kenneth Burke, and, yes, Barthes and Derrida, among others — I was immediately transformed from a confident critic-in-the-making to a lost lamb, baahing reproachfully, petulantly.

Ten weeks or so into my first semester I decided that I just couldn’t cut it and needed to drop out. But I was a newlywed, and had carried my bride hundreds of miles from her family, set her down in a strange town, and effectively forced her to hunt for compartatively menial jobs, all to support this great academic endeavor of mine. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her how miserable and incompetent and just plain lost I was.

Our apartment in Charlottesville had a small windowless room that I used for a study. One evening after dinner I went in and closed the door and tried to sort through the vast pile of photocopied theoretical essays I had bought at Kinko’s on the first day of class. (We could violate copyright in those days, too.) But it was useless. I could scarcely bear even to look at the stuff. My professor had copied from his own well-used books, and every essay was full of confident underlinings and annotations that seemed by their very presence to judge me and find me wanting. I couldn’t bring myself to read another word.

My eyes wandered to a nearby bookshelf, and were caught for a moment by the glit of a gold cardboard box: it contained the three volumes of the Ballantine mass-market version of The Lord of the Rings. I had never read Tolkien: I was a science-fiction guy, not a fantasy guy. But of course I knew that The Trilogy (as I thought of it) was important, and that someday I ought to get to it. Almost thoughtlessly, I picked up the first volume and began to read.

When bedtime rolled around I set the book down and emerged from the sanctuary. “How’d it go tonight?” Teri asked.

I said, “It went well.”

The next evening I re-entered the study, under the pretense of continuing my academic labors with all due seriousness, and picked up where I had left off in the story. For the next week or so, though during the days I went to classes and did generally what I was supposed to do, I did none of the reading or writing I was assigned. I got further and further behind. I didn’t care; I was somewhere else and glad to be somewhere else. Teri seemed pleased with my scholarly discipline, as each evening I washed the dishes, gave her a kiss, and closed the study door behind me.

When I finished The Lord of the Rings I drew a deep breath. I felt more sound and whole than I had felt in weeks, maybe months. But, to my own surprise, I did not conclude that all that academic crap was a waste of time and I should do something else with my life, something that gave me time to read lots of fantasy novels. Instead, I experienced a strange refreshment, almost an exhilaration. My confusion and frustration seemed like small afflictions, conquerable adversaries. Barthes and Derrida weren’t so fearsome after all. I could do this.

I don’t believe that I was thinking, “Literary theory is as nothing in comparison to the power of Mordor!” Or, “If Frodo can carry that Ring to the Cracks of Doom I can write this paper on Paul Ricoeur!” Rather, I was just benefiting from spending some time away from my anxieties. We had been too intimate and needed separation. So I resumed my studies in a far better frame of mind; as a result, I did better work. I completed my doctorate and began my career as a teacher, but I didn’t forget the debt I owed to that week I spent in Tolkien’s world."



"In a sense I am only talking here about expanding my repertoire of analogies, my ability to make illuminating and meaningful comparisons. For many years now Douglas Hofstadter, drawing on the work of the mathematician Stanislaw Ulam, has been convinced that the secret to creating artificial intelligence lies in teaching machines to recognize analogies. (Ulam says somewhere that it’s all about “as”: we see marks on a piece of wood pulp as a portrait of a beloved child, a cairn of stones as a monument to a dead chieftain.) Similar principles underlie the methods of Google Translate, which collects an enormous corpus of sentences and then tries to match your input to something in that corpus, and Apple’s “digital personal assistant,” Siri. Siri can’t parse what you say to her unless she can connect to the network, which undertakes a comparison of your utterance to other utterances on record. All this might be called brute-force analogizing, but it seems to me that my own understanding develops as I pursue the same method, though with far less force and (I hope) less brutishness.

In one of his most beautiful poems, Richard Wilbur writes, “Odd that a thing is most itself when likened.” And this is true no matter the thing: a book becomes more fully itself when we see both how it resembles and how is differs from other books; one discipline of study takes on its proper hues only when we see its relations to other disciplines that stand close to it or very far away. My repertoire of analogies is my toolbox, or my console of instruments, by which I comprehend and navigate the world. It can’t be too large; every addition helps, at least a bit. And that’s why I’m thankful for my gradual recovery of the books I adored, and thoughts I lovingly entertained, when I was forty years younger."
alanjacobs  howweread  reading  2015  analogies  metaphor  text  pleasurereading  richardwilbur  harukimurukami  jrrtolkein  thelordoftherings  stainslawulam  loreneisley  sciencefiction  understanding  literarycriticism  genrefiction  fiction  literature  academia  writing  howwewrite  howwelearn  books  jacquesderrida  rolandbarthes  whauden  sirthomasbrowne  williamfaulkner  nealstephenson  joycecaroloates  twocultures  cpsnow  jamesgleick  linux  learning  canon  digressions  amateurism  dabbling  listening  communication  howweteach  teaching  education  silos 
december 2015 by robertogreco
Girl Bilbo and updating classic books – Michelle Nijhuis – Aeon
"most six years ago, when I became a parent, one of my very few certainties was that I would read to my daughter. I had been an only child, and now I was raising one. I wanted my daughter to learn, as I had, that stories were sources of adventure, inspiration and constant, loyal companionship.

So I read to my daughter the way I had been read to, eclectically but faithfully. As she got older, we talked about the exploits of Frog and Toad, and Junie B Jones, and the Pevensies almost as often as we talked about her friends from school. As soon as she could write the letters of her name, she got her own library card and started to add her selections to the pile. And last year, when we started to read J R R Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit (1937) together, she listened patiently to the first two chapters. Then she told me, matter-of-factly, that Bilbo Baggins was a girl.

Well, I said. That would be nice. But Bilbo is definitely a boy.

No, she said. Bilbo is a girl.

I hesitated. I wanted to share the story I knew, and I had always known Bilbo as a boy. But it seemed that my daughter knew otherwise. I soon agreed to swap ‘she’ with ‘he’ and ‘her’ with ‘his’, and my daughter and I met Girl Bilbo – who turned out to be a delightful heroine. She was humble and resourceful and witty and brave. She was no tacked-on Strong Female Character with little to do, but a true heroine with her very own quest and skills. For my daughter, Girl Bilbo was thrilling. For me, she was damn refreshing.

When I wrote about this experiment in literary gender-swapping for the Last Word On Nothing website last year, the public response to Girl Bilbo was startling. My daughter had ‘brought the internet’s Tolkien fanboys to their Mithril-padded knees’, in the words of one commenter. Girl Bilbo and her implications, I knew through comments and emails, were discussed at length in science-fiction circles, parenting groups, Head Start classes, and among Swedish devotees of role-playing games.

While many of these readers were enthusiastic about my daughter’s idea, a sizable minority thought I was indulging heresy. Leave the classics alone, they said. If you want stories with more female characters, some suggested, write them yourself. But my daughter didn't create Girl Bilbo, and neither did I. She has deep roots, and she isn't going away anytime soon.

I remember the moment I learned that books were imperfect. I was a teenager – 14 or 15, maybe – and I was in my school library, searching for books for a research paper. My English teacher appeared at my elbow with a hardcover in hand. ‘It’s not a very good book,’ he said, pushing it toward me, ‘but it’ll have some useful information.’

I stared at him. A book could be... something other than good? I’d been transported by books since childhood, and it had never occurred to me that they could have flaws. I knew I liked some stories more than others, but that was just personal taste. I had only a vague idea of how books were written and published, and I assumed that whoever or whatever oversaw that process was as wise as Gandalf. The words that lay between the covers of books were, as far as I was concerned, perfect.

Decades later, I’m still full of respect for the hard work that goes into writing any kind of book, fiction or non-fiction. As a writer myself, I recognise the importance of books as neat, marketable packages by which writers can learn a living.

I also know that books are fallible. I know the publishing industry is made up of people who love good books yet profit from bad ones. And, like most writers, I know that even the best books – the books that stay with us for a lifetime, the books that are read and re-read by people of different ages and different generations – are not sovereign objects, no matter how hefty their covers. ‘All novels are sequels; influence is bliss,’ wrote Michael Chabon in his essay collection Maps and Legends (2008). Every writer, no matter how fresh his or her vision, draws inspiration and ideas from the work of those who came before.

Likewise, every story – fiction or non-fiction – leaves room for the next writer, the next era, the next leap of imagination or understanding. ‘When we tell a story, we exercise control, but in such a way to leave a gap, an opening,’ wrote the English novelist Jeanette Winterson in her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011). ‘It is a version, but never the final one. And perhaps we hope that the silences will be heard by someone else, and the story can continue, can be retold.’"



"For me, the most fascinating part of literary genderswapping is its illumination of my own assumptions. Not long ago, my daughter and I read an Ursula K Le Guin novel with a young male hero. When we switched the pronouns, I found myself pleasantly but repeatedly surprised by our heroine’s independence. She journeyed alone, building her own boats, casting her own spells, and passing tests of strength and wits as she confronted dragons and shadows.

Of course she can do that, I thought. Of course she should be able to. But I was raised on Boy Bilbo, and on a million other stories where boys – usually white, usually English-speaking, usually straight – assume the lead. If I wrote a girl-centric adventure story for my daughter, I might reflexively throw in a male companion, or put our heroine on an easier path. By switching pronouns, though, my daughter and I met a heroine who pushed the boundaries of both our imaginations and took us on a truly unexpected journey."
childhood  culture  gender  2014  michellenijhuis  literature  fiction  nonfiction  thehobbit  bilbobaggins  perspective  jrrtolkein  writing  reading  howweread  identity  ursulaleguin 
july 2014 by robertogreco
The Maps We Wandered Into As Kids | The Awl
"If I ruled the world, or at least a publishing company, all books would contain as much supplementary information as possible. Nonfiction, fiction—doesn't matter. Every work would have an appendix filled with diagrams, background information, digressions and anecdata. And of course, maps. Lots and lots of maps. This predilection probably sprang from the books I read as a kid—books like The Phantom Tollbooth, The Hobbit and The Princesss Bride—all of which feature engaging maps that serve as gateways to imaginary lands. Here, say these maps, you're in this other world now."

[via: http://lukescommonplacebook.tumblr.com/post/17291470354/if-i-ruled-the-world-or-at-least-a-publishing ]

[Related: http://www.austinkleon.com/tag/michael-chabon/ and http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2009/jul/16/manhood-for-amateurs-the-wilderness-of-childhood/ and http://www.avclub.com/articles/michael-chabon,14122/ ]
nonfiction  fictionalworlds  children  childrenliterature  themysteriousdisappearanceofleon  ellenraskin  thehobbit  jrrtolkein  lfrankbaum  wizardofoz  williamgoldman  thephantomtollbooth  theprincessbride  aamilne  winniethepooh  nortonjuster  victoriajohnson  fantasy  fiction  books  cartography  mapping  maps 
february 2012 by robertogreco
Finally Fit for Kids’ Lit | Designers & Books
"What I can say is that this book won’t be a primer about design. People should be protected from the confusion associated with that word until they are old enough to practice it professionally. Let children learn about how things are made and where the raw material comes from. Let them extend the environmental lessons of stewardship by considering the objects we preserve and throw away. Let them study the history of invention, the evolution of customs, the cultural differences embodied in our communications and devices. Let them assemble and disassemble freely. But let them not refer to all that as design, which is so much more (a pursuit frequently guided by, and wriggling under the demands of, commercial interests), and so much less (see parenthetical insertion above)."
mairakalman  childrenliterature  hanschristianandersen  brothersgrimm  edwardgorey  cslewis  jrrtolkein  roalddahl  beverlycleary  mauricesendak  drseuss  srg  edg  glvo  design  children  books  julielasky  stewardship 
january 2012 by robertogreco
Mieville on Tolkien - Boing Boing
"Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature. His oeuvre is massive and contagious - you can't ignore it, so don't even try. The best you can do is consciously try to lance the boil. And there's a lot to dislike - his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos, his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity. Tolkien's clichés - elves 'n' dwarfs 'n' magic rings - have spread like viruses. He wrote that the function of fantasy was 'consolation', thereby making it an article of policy that a fantasy writer should mollycoddle the reader."

[via: http://bettyann.tumblr.com/post/3549253868 ]
jrrtolkein  chinamieville 
february 2011 by robertogreco

Copy this bookmark:





to read