Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Reading Challenge and Recommendations

Currently Reading: The Return of the King by J. R. R. Tolkien

Hello everyone! After the success of my November challenge for myself – nine new blog posts in one month – I’ve decided to take on another one. However, this time I’m switching my focus. Instead of setting a writing goal, I’m turning my attention to my reading habits. Thus do I embark on my February challenge:

One Book a Week for this Geek! Four for February

Why yes. I am proud of that title.

And more importantly, that’s right! I’m determined to read one book for every week in February (i.e. four books for the month). I figure that was a fairly normal reading pace for me in college so it can’t be too hard an undertaking. Yet, it will hopefully help me to fulfill a personal goal, which is spending more time with my nose in a book rather than with my eyes glued to the TV. Fortunately, my favorite television shows are making it easier and beginning to endlessly suck… but that’s a rant for some other time and a different blog.

So with The Return of the King as my first book for the month (despite beginning it two days ago, in January), I will read four books in February. Furthermore, I’m holding myself accountable for this goal by proclaiming it on my blog, which, theoretically, means I’m holding myself accountable to others.

In the meantime, since this is likely to decrease my posting for the next month, I decided I’d give some more reading suggestions for you to fill the time in my absence. Again, the summaries come from the books’ back covers.

1. Life of Pi by Yann Martel

“Pi Patel, a God-loving boy and the son of a zookeeper, has a fervent love of stories and practices not only his native Hinduism, but also Christianity and Islam. When Pi is sixteen, his family and their zoo animals emigrate from India to North America aboard a Japanese cargo ship. Alas, the ship sinks – and Pi finds himself in a lifeboat, his only companions a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Soon the tiger has dispatched all but Pi. Can Pi and the tiger find their way to land? Can Pi’s fear, knowledge, and cunning keep him alive until they do?”

I’m not sure if I’ve made it clear or not from the five or six times I’ve mentioned Life of Pi in this blog, but I really love this book. It’s beautifully written and despite the lack of action, Martel does a great job of making the plot compelling. But the reason I keep mentioning this book is that it keeps me thinking and guessing after the fact. I’ve read it twice, my best friend has read it four times and we still find new nuggets of metaphor and meaning each time we read it. It’s not a great book to read over an extended period, in short intervals, but it’s a wonderful novel, especially when you have a chunk of time to dedicate to it.

2. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

“With ravishing beauty and unsettling intelligence, Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning novel traces the intersection of four damaged lives in an Italian villa at the end of World War II. Hana, the exhausted nurse; the maimed thief, Caravaggio; the wary sapper, Kip: each is haunted by the riddle of the English patient, the nameless, burned man who lies in an upstairs room and whose memories of passion, betrayal, and rescue illuminate this book like flashes of heat lightning.”

It’s been a while since I’ve read this novel so the details of it are a little fuzzy. What isn’t fuzzy is how wonderful and complex the characters and stories are; how tragic and romantic the plot is. Even if you’ve seen the movie, it’s nothing compared to the book. In fact, part of what I find so frustrating about the movie is that it barely touches on the depths of the characters I loved best, Hana and Kip. Believe me, there’s a reason this novel is a prizewinner and is taught in so many English courses.

3. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

“We hear the world will end on a Saturday. Next Saturday, in fact. Just before dinner. Unfortunately, Sister Mary Loquacious of the Chattering Order has misplaced the Antichrist. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride motorcycles. And the representatives from Heaven and Hell have decided they actually like the human race…”

This recommendation is partly for my friend who is reading this for her book club as encouragement. It really is awesome. If you are at all a fan of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you will certainly enjoy Good Omens. It has the same style of humor, subverting expectations, playing with words and cleverly reworking one of the most well known stories – the story of the Apocalypse. It’s light and fun reading, despite centering on such a morbid topic. 

Here’s hoping these suggestions will entice you to also put your nose in a book this coming month.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Peter Jackso – I mean, Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring

Currently Reading: The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien

I was in 7th grade when The Fellowship of the Ring movie first appeared in theaters. Beyond the tentative excitement my mother felt about it, I had very minimal interest in the release. In fact, I never actually saw The Fellowship of the Ring in theaters. The first time I watched it – with half interest – was right before I went to see The Two Towers a year later, a movie chosen by popular vote among my friends. I don’t remember any real impact from the first film because it was a rushed viewing, done only to understand what I was about to go watch in theaters.

Ahhh… how times have changed.

The Two Towers essentially rocked my middle school self’s world. I saw it three times in theaters. Since then, I have watched the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy more times than I can count – and probably more times than I should ever admit to. They have become a staple in my house; they're some of our go-to movies when we are in the mood to pop something in and we usually agree to the extended versions. While my obsession has never reached the heights of having a wall-sized poster of Orlando Bloom as Legolas in my bedroom – you know who you are – it’s certainly noteworthy.

Seriously, SO GOOD!!!!!!!!!!
The point is, I love these movies and I know them pretty much inside out and backwards.

Now here’s the shameful part in all this:

Until about two weeks ago, I had never read any of the books.

I know, Kitty. It's quite shocking.
I’d always meant to, I just had such a bad taste in my mouth from my oh-so-tragic experience reading The Hobbit – refer to my sole December post for that tear-jerking tale – that I had written off Tolkien entirely. My intense love for Peter Jackson’s movie versions couldn’t conquer my irrational hate of Tolkien.

I have now overcome my previous, rather unfounded prejudices towards the author and have finished the first installment of the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring. What did I think of the book version? Was it better than the movie, as is generally the rule for all books adapted for the big screen?

I honestly can’t tell you.

Because the horrible thing about reading a novel that is the basis for one of your favorite movies is that you cannot, cannot separate the two.

I literally could not get my mind to stop comparing Tolkien’s book with Jackson’s film adaptation. Instead of forming any sort of opinion about the action or the writing, my mind would think, 

“Hmmm… that’s not how that went in the movie.”


“Weird. Gandalf said that line in the movie.”


“That happens so much later in the movie.”

It wracked my brain the whole time!!

In some ways, it was nice having the comparison. Truthfully, I’m not sure I would have stuck it out to Bree – which truly is when the plot picks up in The Fellowship – if I hadn’t known how great the story was. It also made me enjoy some of the extra background bits of information for the characters or the lengthy decision making scenes more than I probably would have originally because it felt like finding extra bonus features on the DVD. It helped me to understand a lot of aspects of the movies I never would have gotten otherwise. Plus, as is always the case, the book allows for more depth in the characters, especially somewhat secondary characters like Legolas and Gimli. For example, I’m not sure I ever really understood that Legolas was from Mirkwood, the same place from which Bilbo had to rescue his dwarf companions in The Hobbit. It’s added a new layer to the story I thought I knew so well… which sounds kind of silly when I think about the fact that the story came from the book so they aren’t really new layers.

However, I reiterate that overall I’m not sure what my opinion of the book is. And that kind of breaks my heart. I feel as if I’ve been deprived of a reading experience and I’m saddened to know that it’s one I can never have. I can’t un-watch the movies and I can’t go back and read the books before I saw the films, or before I knew them so well. I will never know what it feels like to be surprised by the twists and turns of this novel and I’m really disappointed that that is the case.

Not as relevant as I wanted, but way too amused not to share. PS Don't type in "book heartbreak" to your Google Images. It's just depressing the titles that show up.
It’s not completely hopeless, though. I have managed to form one or two opinions of the book and Tolkien’s writing outside of the movie versions. However, I believe I’m going to hold off on voicing them until I’ve completed the whole series in case they become firmer or change entirely by the end of the trilogy.

Hopefully, in the end, I will figure out some trick for separating the book from the movie…

I'd love any helpful hints if you've got them :)

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Teaching Book History Workshop Highlights and Reflections

Currently Reading: The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien

For about a month now, I’ve wanted to write a post in response to the incredible weekend workshop that my department at the Folger Shakespeare Library co-hosted for undergraduate professors from all over the world. The workshop was called Teaching Book History and during this workshop, professors gathered to debate “how print culture, physical bibliography, and textual studies might best be integrated into a curriculum; what digital humanities may offer book historians; and how faculty and librarians can teach book history without access to a large collection of rare material” (description taken from our website). In short, it was a forum for undergraduate professors to discuss the “how” and “why” behind teaching book history courses at their respective institutions.

Adding to the endless list of reasons I love my job, I got to be part of the team helping out for the weekend. It was my job to assist our curators with lecture needs ranging from setting up a projector to displaying books from the 17th century to preparing the quills and ink as part of a demonstration. While occasionally stressful, my duties were fairly simple and were usually completed before the lecture, not during. This meant that I had the privilege of being a fly on the wall at this workshop, hearing some of the smartest people in the fields of early modern literature, history, and special collections not only share the knowledge they have, but debate and discuss with each other. It was a rare look into the minds of professors and the logistics of preparing the classes they teach.

It was fascinating and eye opening! In both a negative and a positive sense actually. I was somewhat disheartened to discover just how many gaps there are in my English knowledge since I focused so exclusively on Shakespeare and creative writing during my undergraduate career. Not that I regret taking my elective classes. I just wish that I had had more time to explore all the areas of the major and I definitely wish I had taken a course in book history after our weekend workshop. I always assumed I would find the subject mind-numbingly boring, but after hearing our Curator of Rare Books and our Curator of Art and Special Collections describe all of the nuances and careful artisanship that used to go into making books before the Industrial Revolution, I discovered I found the subject stimulating rather than boring.

And I got paid to attend these talks!

I know for my non-academic minded friends, the amazing, almost unreal feeling of luck and happiness that that sentence makes me feel will never be understood. But some of you out there must appreciate that this past weekend, I essentially was paid to learn!

Besides this financial benefit, some of the highlights from the workshop, for me, included hearing a reference to both Oregon Trail and Fifty Shades of Grey in one professor’s speech, watching a room full of undergraduate professors (i.e. mostly PhD’s) struggle to figure out a folding exercise (even though my amusement was completely unfair since I was absolutely lost just listening to it), and finally the discovery that there’s an entire field dedicated to studying the notes people leave in the margins of books – marginalia.

As the granddaughter of a librarian, I’ve always viewed notes and scribbles in the margins of books to be a desecration of property on  par with graffiti on the side of a church. However, the anthropology major in me was awakened when these professors pointed out just how much there was to learn about a person or a culture from marginalia and how it could sometimes be the most fascinating part of a document. After all, it’s a look inside the person’s mind, like reading his diaries or letters but in relation to a very specific topic. It’s certainly made me rethink my anger towards my previous used book owners.

For me, though, my favorite part of the weekend had to be Professor Ian Gadd's (Bath-Spa University) lecture called, “Touching Books.” It so perfectly and eloquently explained why I have such an attachment to hard copies of books, why I find the experience of reading from a book so much more satisfying than reading from an eReader. He described how essential touch is, how it intimately connects us to a book in a way that I believe an eReader just can’t.

In fact, if you think about it, there’s a lot more individuality to books than you might realize. Professor Gadd explained how he emphasizes this point through an exercise he does with his classes in which he has his students identify the genre of a book blindfolded, making their assessments solely based on touch. You don’t normally think about it, but a cookbook has a completely different feel from a novel and a novel has a completely different feel from a textbook, which feels different from a children’s book. 

Touch is so fundamental to our experience in handling an object. Just look at what a child does when you ask him to look at something. His first instinct is to touch it. Even adults are obsessed with being able to touch objects as evidenced by all the new technologies that allow people to “handle” digital items through touch screens.

This presentation made me really think about why exactly I find touching a book so important to the experience of reading. It made me realize that turning the pages of a book creates what Professor Gadd called an “electrical intimacy” that flipping the “page” on a screen just can’t. Through an eReader, every book touch experience is the same; it removes part of the connection I create to that specific book. Yes, there are advantages to the electronic book, but Professor Gadd helped me to understand why it’s unlikely real books will ever be obsolete or at least why I believe they shouldn’t ever become so.

Of course, at the end of the workshop there was a casual closing reception during which I attempted to talk to Professor Gadd and I’m sure I humiliated myself because I was in such awe of him. Figures.

But overall, the workshop was an unbelievable success! The energy and enthusiasm of the whole weekend was inspiring and contagious, not to mention fun. I can’t wait for our next one and I hope that it too will receive a standing ovation – because yeah, that happened.