More Jane Smiley: Henry and the Cathars

Hello, readers, hello! My summers are often quite wild, so I haven’t written in a while. But not for lack of thinking.

What I want to do today is pick up on my last post, about Jane Smiley’s twentieth-century trilogy, composed of 3 novels, Some Luck, Early Warning, and The Golden Age. In my last post, I talked about Smiley’s use of the everyday as metaphor.

Today, though, I want to touch on another aspect of the books, one quite removed from the everyday. I want to explore the relationship between the meditations and work of Henry, the academic member of the fictional family at the heart of the trilogy, with the family’s place in time and with Smiley’s project.golden age, smiley

Henry is a bookish Midwestern boy who goes on to become a professor, specializing in Old English. There are touchpoints where he seems to be pointing to the older roots of the characters — older than their provenance in America and even their provenance in 18th and 19th century Europe.

How? Well, early in Early Warning, he thinks of their nearest place of twentieth-century commerce, Denby, as “village of the Danes.” That’s what it means according to his studies. And, that’s what it still means, if you notice that many of Smiley’s characters in Iowa farm country are of Scandinavian or German extraction, and take “Danes” broadly and maybe even metaphorically.

Later, though, Henry begins to think more broadly, about the Cathars. The Cathars,  for those not up on medieval history, were a sect in the medieval period. Henry’s ruminations on them have to do with their sexual equality (women could be leaders), their plague-filled time (there is talk of bloody fluxes), their beliefs (vegetarian), and their persecution (many were ultimately killed rather gruesomely as heretics against the Catholic church).

When Henry thinks of the Cathars, he clearly thinks of touchpoints between their time and our own. Sexuality equality; a mark of our time. Vegetarianism; ditto. Bloody fluxes; several of Henry’s friends die of AIDS. The only outlier is persecution.

So are we supposed to read “the Cathars are us” as one of the meanings, given those commonalities? If so, what about that persecution?

Well, possibly that too, since the trilogy spans a time of religious divides.

rue des catharsI don’t think, though, that is intended to be the ultimate meaning. We are distanced from the Cathars much more than from Smiley’s multitude of Scandinavian/German/Northern European extraction Iowa-born characters.

I think it is intended to deepen her references to current events. All three books are a welter of contemporary-for-the-time references, and at times, for all my admiration of these books, the decades-by-decades references lend the books a cartoonish quality. In Early Warning alone, McGeorge Bundy drops in on a brother-in-law to discuss CIA policy and San Francisco poet Gary Snyder helps a sister in a motorcycle accident on the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s references like this that make critics like NPR’s book critic Maureen Corrigan say things like it “occasionally feels like a flipbook of history-on-the-fly.”

However, there is a longer arc by century rather than decades. In the broad sweep of 100 years, the family in Smiley’s trilogy win and go ever upward. Once a local farm family, they end up bestriding the world, so to speak. Even with economic depressions, recessions, wars, and environmental concerns, the overall arc of their history is ascendant.

And, indeed, Americans often think of their history altogether as one of ascendancy.

With the Cathars, the book introduces a group that couldn’t, didn’t, meet every challenge. They weren’t ascendant. Perhaps it’s an intimation that empires rise and fall, and if the period of the 100 Years Trilogy is clearly a rise, the Cathars shadow a potential fall.

Happy National Novel Writing Month!

Today, I’m going to celebrate the opening of a new month by writing about a cultural phenomenon that takes place within it: National Novel Writing Month, or, as the shortened form is known to cognoscenti, NaNoWrMo.

National Novel Writing Month is a challenge to write 50,000 words on a novel either by yourself, in concert with the Web site dedicated to it, or in tandem with writing buddies. Hundreds of people worldwide participate in it. While the statement on the Web site talks about 50,000 words, you can really set any goal for yourself. The point is to generate words every day for the entire month.  Chinese lantern pictures

And then pat yourself on the back at the end! And publish, revise, or whatever your heart desires.

I’m going to link this to elements in my graduate study, as I love to do. One of the first courses I took talked about the distinction between modern clock time and the festivalization of time that preceded modernity. Modernity is (among other things) about the institution of clock time: a standardized, regimented span of days, continually beginning and ending at designated times. Older eras were defined by feast days, festivals, and so forth. One of my professors argued that, in the contemporary world, widely celebrated holidays (think Thanksgiving, also coming up this month) were one of the few retentions of festival time (a continually replenishing, continually consumed table over the years, containing ritual elements).

Interestingly enough, it can be argued that the academic year also contains elements in common with festival time (very broadly defined, of course). Why? Well, rather than being a series of standardized days of roughly equal length, semesters have periods of waxing and waning, bookended with time that is celebrated as (first) a beginning (think welcomes and invocations) and (second) as ends (think holiday parties and breaks, which are unregimented time).

You can see the components of “festivalization” most clearly, I think, by comparing the waxing, waning, and punctuation of beginning and ends with corporate life. In the latter, one may have a vacation or holiday time off, but it is not celebrated as a beginning or end (certainly not in common), and while there may be busy periods or slow, it is not felt as a waxing in the way that the semester goes uphill, uphill, and then down (final grading!).

Well, I’m going to add NaNoWrMo to contemporary iterations of festival time. First, it has a specific time dedicated to it in which a huge community out there celebrates. It is kicked off with a celebration (there are write-ins that begin on October 31 and kick off as the chimes of midnight herald the month of November). There are numerous mini-celebrations within it (you can get badges and prizes for writing a certain number of words). There are communal write-ins throughout the month, including all-night events. (Talk about unregimented!)

And I think it is no accident that this custom happens during the bleakest month of the year. (I know many people would nominate December for this honor. Not me. Whereas the daylight in December increases after the 21st, the daylight in November only goes downhill.) It’s a shared ritual of harboring the light within, I think, and making sure that you are producing a kind of internal, creative warmth. I find it very encouraging to be part of such a team on these cold and dark mornings. So, all hail, NaNoWrMo!

The Kindle, Part III: Love Song and After

Hello, readers! For the last two posts, I’ve discussed how I feel about one e-reader, the Kindle: my love and its diminishment. Well, today, I’ve going to discuss a category I hinted at in Part II: the role of book covers in how we feel about what we read. In a way, I feel like I’m betraying the text in doing this—I think of myself as a person to whom content matters, not image. Yet that is part of why I was somewhat surprised by my feeling that books seemed more generic in e-form than enclosed in covers dedicated to them. Analyzing the reasons for my surprise is, hey, part of the meta this blog is dedicated to.

Often, Kindle covers mirror those of the paper book. See for example, the two pictures snapped-from-my-own-Kindle covers of Jo Baker’s novel Longbourn and W.J.T. Mitchell’s Seeing Through Race.   (They are ghostly given Kindle’s limited palette, so I show the printed book cover image as well.)  Covers, of course, often give a nice visual symbol of the inside. Baker’s retelling of the events of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice through the eyes of the servants—a telling of their story, rather than that of Elizabeth and Darcy—is well represented by the stilted, partial view of a serving woman pictured just at the moment of walking into our view.

Longbourn

 

longbourn cover

 

 

 

Mitchell’s idea of race as a medium seen through, and his larger discussion of the role of media and frames in determining what we see, is nicely captured by a photograph that causes viewers to, well, use intervening media to see what might not be seen without it.

WJT kindle

Seeing through Race cover

 

 

 

 

But my re-picking up a Kindle has also led me to realize that an increasing number of e-books are opting for generic covers. See, for example, the cover of Laura Lippman’s mystery novel In Big Trouble, which seems to have been chosen to get across the idea that this is a, well, generic book.

Lippman

A cover like this doesn’t do justice to Lippman’s nicely individuated detective series, which is replete with vivid cultural detail about Baltimore and a feisty heroine who lives in the upper level of a bookstore (how’s that for symbolism!), and sculls on the Patapsco (http://www.lauralippman.com/).

Even so, In Big Trouble’s here-I-am-a-generic-book-cover has nothing on my download of Mary Seacole’s 19th-century autobiography The Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, which is almost horrifyingly generic.

secole

Indeed, I find the obliteration of Mrs. Seacole herself in favor of a mobile phone almost shocking. (Probably because in my dissertation life I work a lot with nineteenth-century slavery in the Caribbean and its related ideas of the circulation of people-as-commodities, as slaves were. When I first saw this cover I nearly fell over at what seemed to be an inadvertent symbolism—the mixed-race Mrs. Seacole as part of the circuits of exchange, just as a telephone would be.) To be fair, this is from the bibliophile and student’s friend, Project Gutenberg, (http://www.gutenberg.org), which allows downloads of many a free e-book. The cover is probably intended to represent the circulation of an e-book, not Mrs. Seacole. Mary_Seacole_Drawing

Still. Wouldn’t the drawing of her been a nice cover?

Where am I now with my Kindle? A fondness, not a love. It is convenient and wonderfully so. But it doesn’t contain the whole reading experience. For that, I still want physical pages, discrete objects, and covers.

I think my love, its cooling, and its partial reinstatement are representative of where we are now with the history of the book and digital humanities. No question that the digital humanities are a wonderful resource for many things: keeping vulnerable treasures intact in virtual form (old books, old scrolls and so forth) and enabling unprecedented access come to mind. But remember, physical books are also a technology for carrying knowledge. One that has worked for a very long time. The power of the physical book is not going away any time soon. Its younger sibling, the e-book, stands with it in a row of empowering technologies for spreading the word.

The Kindle, Part II: Why the Bloom Went Off the Rose

So readers, in Part I of this post, there I was, downloading books to my Kindle and loving it.

And then came a period in which most of my reading wasn’t available on e-books. (Although a lot of stuff is on Kindle, a lot also isn’t. So for a long time, my Kindle languished.)

Recently, I went back to it. To my shock…it no longer seemed like a Big Bright Book of Life. It seemed gray and nondescript. Even unworthy of holding so many multifaceted stories.

Why? I was anguished to think of something that had once given so much pleasure suddenly turning so…unappealing.

Well, several reasons, I think. And all of them very related to how we experience books, text, and book jackets. First, in the intervening period (about a year), I saw enough iPads to see what Genuinely Bright e-readers looked like. The bargain Kindle screen is a kind of grayish brown, rather than white.

Second, and more importantly, the text is undifferentiated in one container. Although each book downloads separately, of course, you as a (human) reader pick up just one object to access any number of books. In a new print book, by contrast, there is an anticipatory buzz in picking up a special object, neatly enclosed within covers designed specifically for it, that really doesn’t occur with a Kindle. I had just been in an extended period of reading books where every separate readable object I picked up was a separate narrative enclosed in covers specifically designed for it.

Covers, although secondary to the text, are highly important in giving a sense of the text—another level of anticipation. Covers exist as part of the download of an e-book, of course, but they are pictures on a screen rather than protective, encompassing borders between the book’s contents and the world.

Also, e-books often open to the first lines of text, bypassing the cover entirely. I have to specifically press buttons to go to the cover, rather than seeing it automatically, which makes the book less specifically identified.

And the third reason, the big reason, is related to the second. The all-together, undifferentiated container suddenly made all e-books within the Kindle look generic. I felt like I was engaged in some reading equivalent of buying generic paper towels at the Acme: reduced to an ugly package, a bare bones contract, and ultimately, contents that weren’t…quite…as…good.

And part of that was fed by the nature of the books I’ve been reading in the transition period between graduate school and new position. I have dealt with this period by reading an incredible amount of mystery novels. (I think the sense that there are clues and ultimately a satisfying ending comports well with the search for a job, actually—all tantalizing clues until the final piece of the puzzle—an offer—occurs.)

Mysteries are a kind of generic fiction, of course. A bad deed, investigators dedicated to seeing it punished, and a number of clues and strong plot (and good characterization, if you’re lucky). In that, they are like paper towels; you can buy very good ones or a bare minimum to meet the genre requirements. In book form, mysteries feel solid and have an exciting a new one quality, to me. In a Kindle, less so.

So I had a period of feeling trapped in the land of the generic paper towel, book division.

For more on book covers and their role in the e-book reading experience, see Part III, coming soon!

The Kindle, Part I: Love Song

Although this is an alt-ac blog, my intent is not only to discuss academia but to make public its concerns: to share stuff that I’m interested in and that people might like to read. A piece of this will be paying close attention to scenes of reading and writing and their uses in our life. The field I’m in—English—is highly invested in these scenes, and mediating their uses in the academy and the life beyond is one of the things I really love to do. (Indeed, at one point our department chair told me I should develop a brand—like a marketing brand—for myself, and what came to mind was: I’m The Incredible Reading Woman. This is a parenthetical digression, but since this is an alt-ac blog, alt-acs and postacs who have received similar advice might want to know that I found good info at the grad site maintained at Tufts: https://sites.tufts.edu/gradmatters/2013/01/04/a-graduate-student-guide-to-developing-your-professional-profile-part-3-for-professional-careers-in-industry-nonprofits-and-other-fields/. Ok, end of helpful digression.)

Today’s post is on a particular e-book, the Kindle, and my love for it. Then I’ll move to the next installment, and describe how the bloom came to be off the rose.

Three years ago, I bought a Kindle. The purchase was an experiment, designed to see if I liked reading books electronically. My plan was: download a ton of books, read them, and take copious notes. This would eliminate the need for typing up the notes, I felt, because all would be electronic.

From the first, I simply loved my Kindle as a reading device. Never mind note-taking (which, as it turns out, is as time-consuming as typing notes outright).

I loved my Kindle with a love that was almost embarrassing. See, I’ve always thought of books as a kind of Big Bright Book of Light. Knowledge, companionship, fun, pleasure. A portal to enchanted realms. Well, the Kindle literalized the big-bright-book-of-light-ness.

A lot of the conversations around History of the Book (http://www.sharpweb.org) and digital humanities in our field center around the differences and continuities between old and new media. Much popular media makes these out to be entirely different—as if the Web made Everything New. But the conversation is much more interesting. It can be argued, for example, that the current scene displays a lot of continuities with earlier periods rather than abrupt difference. Think, for example, of how e-mail more resembles letter-writing in the 18th and 19th centuries than voice/telephone methods. We are back to frequently written missives.

Well, here’s another continuity: reading with Kindle reminded me of the kind of immanent spirituality early Protestant England saw in everyone reading their own bible. As I learned it, stained glass was replaced with clear glass, and windows became larger, because incoming light filtered through plain glass facilitated reading.

I saw e-books as combining reading with the same ease of movement one has in one’s mind. Suddenly, books were unencumbered by the need to carry them and pay attention to their relative heaviness. This was a considerable boon to me. First, I checked a helluva lot of books out of the library. And academic books—heck, any books in the aggregate–are often very heavy. Two, when I took vacations I was in the habit of packing and sending books or carrying a very heavy load as I traveled. The Kindle simply took care of that: wealth and ease all in one.

Part II soon!