Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

Posts tagged ‘books’

A Tiny Corner of the World

One of the unintended benefits of unemployment following graduation is that I have an abundant amount of free time and no alarm set for the morning. Apart from applying to jobs left, right, and center, I’m also trying to publicize this blog more and update it more frequently. I’ve now linked my accounts to my Facebook and to my Twitter (follow me! @rachelkspurrier). Consequently, I’m trolling for subject matter. I’m looking a little closer at my PW Daily e-mails than I used to, unlike in college when I would check my e-mail on my way to class, skim through the updates, and forget all about the headlines once the professor began talking. Fortunately, learning more about the publishing industry is only a good thing when you’re trying to break into the business, but I usually look more at the Roundup Section with articles from across the Internet (by the way, the PW Daily e-mail is delightfully free, so you can sign up and get the latest industry news without paying the high subscription price).

I found an article about a writer’s New Year’s resolution to read fewer books, and before I dive in on my thoughts, I’d like to inclue a brief excerpt from one of my favorite books, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. An excellent crossover book that is semi-autobiographical, Alexie’s book provides some nice little truth bombs throughout the text. The following is one, where the main character is talking to his new friend Gordy at his new high school:

We ran into the Reardan High School Library.

“Look at all these books,” he said.

“There aren’t that many.” It was a small library in a small high school in a small town.

“There are three thousand four hundred and twelve books here,” Gordy said. “I know that because I counted them.”

“Okay, now you’re officially a freak,” I said.

“Yes, it’s a small library. It’s a tiny one. But if you read one of these books a day, it would still take you almost ten years to finish.”

“What’s your point?”

“The world, even the smallest parts of it, is filled with things you don’t know.”

Wow. That was a huge idea. 

I immediately thought of this little snippet while reading Michael Bourne’s article, because his New Year’s Resolution is to read fewer books. He writes that he has read 776 books in the past twelve years, at an average of 60 books per year. I’m not a math genius, so I hadn’t really put the pieces together like that. In the past twelve years, I’ve probably read at least ten books a year, give or take (I’ve read fewer in the past few years, a byproduct of working and going to school). That’s only 120 books out of the hundreds of thousands of titles that have come out in the past decade. I’ve already written about the sheer vastness of the writing world, but I’d never really realized how minuscule the number of books I’ve read compares to the number of books published. Apart from being humbling, that realization both motivates me and exhausts me. Of course reading that article made me think of how little I know and how much I have yet to learn and experience, but mostly the realization of how little I’ve read is daunting. Yes, I want to read more and more often, but if my goal is to read everything, then I’ll never catch up. Covering the whole scope of everything written each year on top of everything that’s ever been published would be impossible, of course. And I have no intention of trying. Obviously not every book on the shelves is suited to my tastes or interests, and a good number of them get picked off the pile simply for literary quality or lack thereof (Danielle Steele, anyone?)

But I’ve still got to make the effort to read more. My little corner of the world of DFW has exposed me to literature, culture, the arts, but books are a whole other avenue for world exploration. Mr. Bourne has many more titles under his belt and much more literary experience (not to mention life experience), so I think he’s earned the right to pressure himself a little less on reading a book a week. He mentioned he’s the primary caregiver for his six-year-old daughter, so he probably could use a break. But as for me, I’m young, unmarried, childless, unencumbered by a strict schedule or responsibilities. I should be reading more, but I’m not. I guess I’m doing better than the average American; according to a Washington Post article, 25% of Americans did not read one book in 2006. Yet, as a writer and a lover of literature, I should probably be putting in a little more initiative to read more often. Perhaps the fact that I just found out the full series of The West Wing is now on Netflix instant watch is preventing me from putting more of my energy into book reading. Yes, instant watch is one of my greatest downfalls: for Lent last year, I chose to cut out instant watch. I saved a ridiculous amount of time, but I quickly returned to my bad habit after Easter.

Just like Lent is a time for reevaluating life choices, New Year’s is another opportunity to reflect and resolve to do better. My New Year’s resolutions are fairly basic: be kinder to everyone, smile more often, exercise more frequently, be more organized, get a job, etc. Standard stuff, really. But I should add on the list to read more books. Until I’ve reached Bourne’s 776 count, I’m still a literary novice and a writing rube. I will note, however, that Bourne admits himself that his need to make lists of all the books he’d read was a tad bit obsessive. I assume that he, like me, has a type-A personality, so I’ll try to avoid the pitfalls of my perfectionism and just go with the flow on which books I read. And I need to set a realistic goal. When I was trying to finish up my thesis, I made the decision to write three pages a day, which was a lot less terrifying than writing ten a day for three days. I finished with more ease and less stress, and I think this whole book goal should be the same. Instead of viewing it as a challenge, I see it as an opportunity to hunker down with a good book with a mug of hot chocolate and get immersed in new knowledge and new worlds.

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Book List 2012: Holiday Edition!

So we are officially approaching the holiday season now that Halloween is over. Like me, you’ve probably made a list of people you need to buy or make gifts for, and what better gift than a book? So, I’ve compiled a list of some of this year’s best reads (according to me) for everyone on your list. I have listed the full prices, but bargain hunters are sure to find a good deal at discount stores and online. I’ve also provided some paperback alternatives in certain categories. Also, my list is limited to the people I encounter in my social circle, so I might have missed a couple categories. Happy shopping!

For the female friend: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed, hardcover $25.95.

Don’t let the Oprah’s Book Club endorsement fool you–Strayed’s powerful and insightful writing makes this memoir both harrowing and honest. Strayed recounts how, at twenty-two, she faces the loss of her mother to cancer and must find a way to survive emotionally. Four years later, now facing the destruction of her marriage, she impulsively decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. This story is one of healing and coping with crushing grief. Strayed is a masterful writer who combines wit, humor, lyricism, and emotion. I love the way she treats grief, death, and the reality that closure is just a dream.

For the mystery lover: Broken Harbor by Tana French, hardcover $27.95.

In her fourth novel, French returns with the same emotional force and talent that marked her previous three books: In the WoodsThe Likeness, and Faithful Place. This time her protagonist murder detective is Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy who, with a green rookie, takes on one of the biggest cases of the year: a father and two children slain in their own home, the mother in a coma. French employs the same psychological insight to create this masterfully constructed murder mystery, her most shocking and powerful yet. When I read this book, my jaw literally dropped when I figured out the murderer. Definitely a page turner and definitely full of plot twists and surprises, French has written another tour de force. A must-read for anyone who loves psychological thrillers.

For the statistician/math nerd: The Signal and the Noise: Why so Many Predictions Fail But Some Don’t by Nate Silver, hardcover $27.95

Nate Silver, famed author of the blog five-thirty-eight on the New York Times, is renowned for his uncanny ability to use statistics to make amazing predictions in politics and in his previous career, baseball. He recently received flak from political pundits for projecting a solid electoral win for President Obama, and his predictions turned out to be right. I’ve seen him on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and he is adorably geeky, a lovable nerd with his large glasses and awkward demeanor. What can I say? I have a thing for smart guys. Even for those who aren’t the best mathematicians, this book is great for anyone who loves to stretch his or her mind. Settle down with your calculator to learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff in a world full of proliferation of polls and manipulation of numbers.

For the journalist/CNF lover: Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries by Jon Ronson, hardcover $26.95

One of the current kings of nonfiction and investigative journalism, Jon Ronson has captured America with his The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test. His subtle humor and hilarious handling of some of the most absurd situations in modern society make Ronson one of the most entertaining and intelligent authors on the market. In this book, Ronson examines the deep, underlying crazy that defines human society and some of the more bizarre ideas we’re willing to believe in, from seemingly mundane topics like credit card companies’ ability to bleed you dry to the more outlandish, like self-made superheroes. His humane treatment of some of the most inhumane and puzzling issues in our world today makes for a fascinating read, colored by his self-deprecating and goofy British humor.

For the fiction fan: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, hardcover $25

I keep seeing this book in lists of the best books of 2012 and at the top of bestseller lists. If you keep up with publishing industry news, you can’t escape the darn thing. Suspense writer Flynn takes a look at the dark side of marriage with unflinching honesty and thrilling prose. An ingenious plot, a dark tone, and a fast plot make this book a must-read. If you’re looking for a calmer piece of fiction, you might want to look elsewhere to avoid reading about a serial killer. I’ve been behind on my fiction reading this year, so I’m lost in the dark on this one, but hopefully one of your friends will appreciate this great thriller. If you’re looking for an alternative, Barbara Kingsolver’s new book Flight Behavior is now available for $26.99. With Kingsolver’s usual lyrical writing, she delivers another social commentary (this time on global warming) through her incredible storytelling.

For the history buff: The Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum, hardcover $35

With so much misperception around the Cold War, Applebaum’s thoroughly researched work sheds light on the traumatic period from the end of WWII to the beginnings of the Cold War. Applebaum debunks myths, clarifies confusion, and shares testimonies of men and women caught in this time and place. Not a fan of the Cold War, European history, or modern history? Don’t worry; this book is highly readable and based on primary research, so no slogging through academia and secondary sources. If you’re looking for something more suitable to your tastes that you might have missed last year, consider Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie, now in paperback for $20, a fifteen-dollar reduction from last year’s hardback.

For the psychology student: Coming of Age on Zoloft: How Antidepressants Cheered Us Up, Let us Down, and Changed who We Are by Katherine Sharpe, paperback $14.99

Katherine Sharpe blends the best of both worlds in this well researched and personal book: personal narrative memoir and interviews with history writing. In an age where many of us are medicated, Sharpe takes a look at the antidepressant age’s effects on adolescents, who either find antidepressants freeing of depression and a return to normalcy or instead those who find them too altering and hate the label of “chemically imbalanced.” Sharpe combines her personal experience with antidepressants and skillful historical writing. A balanced discussion of a controversial topic.

For the comedian: America Again, Rebecoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t by Stephen Colbert, hardcover $28.99

Colbert showcases his satire and parody in his latest book, which addresses the paradox that Americans are clamoring to become great again without admitting that America might have fallen from being the best country ever. Whether or not you’re a fan of the show, this book is sure to entertain as well as provoke some thought while providing America with a blueprint with how to get back on track. If you’re looking for a less expensive alternative, consider Tina Fey’s Bossypants, her hilarious memoir, now in paperback. With her usual self-deprecating humor and odd-earned wisdom, Fey discusses her childhood, dealing with “crotch muffins,” and “having it all.”

For the chef: Barefoot Contessa Foolproof, Recipes You Can Trust by Ina Garten, hardcover $35

Even though I dislike the Contessa for turning down that dying little boy who wanted to cook with her for his Make a Wish, you can’t deny that Ina’s recipes are delicious (probably because the first item on each one is at least one cup of heavy cream or two sticks of butter). Garten focuses on making cooking easy and helping you plan menus and coordinate cooking so that you host the perfect dinner party. A must-have for anyone who loves to host, entertain, or cook. If you’re looking for a low-cost way to give your friend some cooking ideas, consider giving them an iTunes gift card so they can buy that Food Network or All Recipes app they’ve had their eye on.

For the intellectual: Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks, hardcover $26.95

Neurologist Oliver Sacks is back to explain to us that hallucinations are everyone’s problem, not just the clinically insane. We have hallucinations for a whole host of reasons: sleep deprivation, lack of food, illness, etc. Sacks discusses his patients and investigates the cultural and scientific history of hallucinations to show us how halluncinations are an integral facet of the human condition. Written for laypeople, Sacks’ writing is accessible to the non-neuroscientists of the world. If you’re looking for a paperback alternative, consider getting Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach, one of the best science writers out there.

For the political scientist: The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Political Campaigns by Sasha Issenberg, hardback $26

Prepare to be creeped out by Sasha Issenberg’s new book that looks at how the political campaign has become an industry full of market research using voters as unwitting test subjects. By collecting information from where you live, where you shop, what websites you visit, what magazines you subscribe to, campaign advisers now think they can predict for whom you’ll vote before you do. You’ll discover that political campaigns have adopted advertisers’ tactics of tracking your habits without your consent to predict your behavior. Possibly paranoia-inducing, this book promises new insights into a multi-million dollar industry.

For the friend who is never afraid to tell you that no, those shoes do not go with that outfit: Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible: The Fascinating History of Everything in Your Closet, hardcover $28

In his second book about fashion, Tim Gunn (famous for his sass, flavor, and wit on Project Runway) takes you through the different items in your wardrobe and tells you the history of each piece and forms a narrative of the history of fashion from togas to chain mil to corsets to skinny jeans. If you love Gunn’s flair, this book is a great gift for the intellectual fashionista who will be glad to have a historical reason as to why that top and those pants just don’t work together. If you’re looking for more on fashion and culture and want a paperback alternative, consider Joan DeJean’s Essence of Style about how the French invented haute couture, haute cuisine, and everything fashionable in between.

For the person who has to read the book before seeing the movie:

  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, paperback $6.95: The unforgettable, timeless Russian classic by one of the great masters. The movie comes out on November 16.
  • Life of Pi, Deluxe Illustrated Edition by Yann Martel, hardcover $16.50: So I’m sure many of you have already read Life of Pi, but I just recently found out about the illustrated edition, in which Croatian artist Tomislav Torjanac illustrates scenes in beautiful oils. The movie comes out November 21.
  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, paperback $21: The new movie Lincoln starring Daniel Day Lewis will be out November 16, 2012, so prepare to read through this long, fascinating historical account of how Lincoln worked with his “team of rivals” to lead the US through the Civil War.
  • Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, paperback $9.95: French classic, the movie adaptation of the famous musical stars Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman and will come out Christmas Day.
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, paperback $8.75: A staple of the American literary canon, The Great Gatsby will receive a new interpretation by Baz Luhrmann, director of Moulin Rouge. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, and Tobey Maguire, the movie will come out on May 10, 2013.

If you want to give a book-related gift but don’t have the cash or the time to sniff out deals, consider making bookmarks for your family and friends! Lamination is fairly cheap these days, and personalizing a bookmark is easy: cut some cardboard or scrapbook paper into a long, thing rectangle, personalize with stickers, quotes, pictures, etc., and laminate! Or, for a more crafty touch: http://www.countryliving.com/crafts/projects/practically-free-crafts#slide-1

Anyway, happy holidays everyone! I’ll be spending this month counting out the things I’m thankful for: good books, great friends, wonderful family.

A new meaning of “ownership”

I’m going to start off topic today and mention a post I made a few weeks back about the importance of public libraries, and I recently read a Publisher’s Weekly article that supports my claim with statistics: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/content-and-e-books/article/54474-majority-of-young-readers-still-use-libraries.html. I’m not posting this to say, “Hah! Look! I was right!” Really my intention is to show with numbers that libraries continue to be a valuable resource and an important asset to communities. There are several books I’d like to read soon, and I don’t have the funds to buy them, so I’m looking forward to checking them out from my local public library. Hooray for libraries!

Moving on to the main topic of this post, which will be short and sweet today while I chill during my lunch break before the rest of my afternoon (read: 1.5 hour long class and a goodness-knows-how-long group project meeting followed by going home and writing 6+ pages for my thesis and then eking out some French homework before working out). I know many of my posts are pretty long, so I’ll spare you the long-winded idea explications.

As someone who uses an e-reader and has purchased a fair amount of e-books for my Kindle, I became pretty concerned when I read this article: http://www.zdnet.com/why-amazon-is-within-its-rights-to-remove-access-to-your-kindle-books-7000006385/. Most stores that offer online content for your e-reader have clear rights of ownership; you’re basically a renter of what you buy online and is subsequently stored digitally on the seller’s server. This move is (pardon my inappropriate language for a minute) a cover-your-ass tactic on the company’s part to avoid a lawsuit should they have a systems failure/crash and your e-content disappears. Without their disclaimers in their terms of use, you could technically sue them for loss of property if your content is lost or unavailable from a systems failure/error.

The author, Eileen Brown, brings up an excellent point of the end of the article: with content becoming increasingly digital, we need to re-evaluate our notions of ownership. When we buy an e-book, we don’t own the book in the same sense that we own a print book–Amazon or B&N or Apple or whoever has the absolute right to revoke your access to that content. You’re pretty much paying a one-time fee to lease or borrow the content, but it’s not yours. Fortunately, none of the books I’ve bought are particularly sentimental or important to me–I make sure to have the books that matter most to me in print where they’re pretty much protected, except from theft or fire, though I have no idea who would want to steal my measly book collection or set fire to my apartment.

Anything we buy online and that exists online isn’t really “ours.” We’re renting it, and like something rented, the right to rent can be revoked at any time, often without any reason. I’m not sure how long it’ll take me to get comfortable with being at the whim of large companies with stuff that I think is “mine.” “Ownership” is undergoing a radical definition change. Maybe Merriam-Webster’s will have to catch up and add an entry for online ownership. Hopefully the law will catch up with these changes to protect consumers, though I doubt with the current political gridlock that that will happen anytime soon. For now, I’m just going to enjoy what I’ve got and not worry about it; I already have a long list of things to worry about, some of which keep me up at night. There’s no room in my overcrowded head to heap this issue on the towering pile.

Have a great weekend, everybody!

Thought for the day: “Moderation in everything, in itself, is a kind of extreme.”

Finding Solace in Books

I’ll be a little bit confessional here, and I’ll try not to get too self-pitying or melodramatic. I was bullied as a kid. Socially awkward and a bit of a know-it-all, I didn’t really understand my peers, and they didn’t really understand me. Add in anxiety problems, insomnia, and severe depression, and you get a kid who has a really hard time fitting in. I got called ugly, weird, and a whole host of other words about nerdy, geeky kids who don’t really know how to relate or connect to kids of the same age. It didn’t help either that I was still growing into my features, and my growth spurts left me gawky and clumsy. I got along better with adults than I did with most of my classmates and struggled to make friends. I was often pretty lonely and found solace in books. I read the Harry Potter series incessantly and used the books as an escape and calming influence for my anxiety. Without sounding too pathetic, Harry, Ron, and Hermione were my friends when I felt friendless and alone. When I had episodes of anxiety or insomnia, I would read those books until I calmed down and/or began to finally feel tired. Today, I have small tattoos of the three stars that appear in the upper corners of each page on my shoulder blades as a reminder of how far I’ve come since those elementary school days.

In middle school, I got introduced to cyberbullying, and some of my classmates used instant messaging as a platform to tell me that I dressed badly, I needed to fix my eyebrows, and that I was weird with my obsession with reading, history, and school. I’d get online and half an hour later end up crying in my bedroom because of something some girl said to me. Fortunately, I got older, found a group of friends with whom I fit in pretty well, got some self-confidence, and left the days of being bullied behind me. Sometimes the memories still sting a little, but I lead a relatively happy, productive, normal, and successful life these days, and those memories feel distant and foreign.

I wasn’t alone, of course. Two girls I knew played tricks online: girl A would get girl B to talk badly about girl C online. Girl A would then copy and paste the conversation of what girl B said about girl C, and then girl A would send the conversation to girl C so she could see what girl B said about her. Insane? Yes. And with the advent of myspace and facebook, bullying online is public and 24/7. A family friend of mine who is in high school found out the unfortunate consequences of Facebook bullying. She broke up with her boyfriend over the phone before her mom drove her home from an after school activity. The ex-boyfriend posted a status immediately afterward about their breakup, unfairly accusing her of being mean and heartless. During the drive home, a bunch of friends started posting on the status, saying mean and rude things about my friend, and when she did get online an hour later, she was greeted with over a dozen comments about what a horrible, mean person she was.

Bullying is in the public spotlight now more than ever before after the Columbine shootings and teen suicides as a result of bullying. Various state legislatures have tried to pass legislation against bullying with mixed results, and the battle to fight bullying and its negative effects is raging on. Publishers have joined in the effort with books targeted to help both bullies and the bullied cope. 35% of teens turn to books to cope with bullying. This article (http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-book-news/article/54458-a-call-to-action-bullying-and-books.html) outlines some of the actions publishers have taken to combat bullying.

As Shannon Maughan explains, many books and resources are available:

There are picture books and early readers featuring characters playing together peacefully and making each other feel welcome and included in a peer group. Nonfiction books for elementary-age students help identify different forms of bullying and spell out an action plan for kids who are dealing with the problem. Several middle-grade novels use humor in stories of kids coming to grips with being bullied (or perhaps being a perpetrator). And not surprisingly, the books for teens include powerful novels about suicide and other devastating fallout from bullying behavior, as well as titles designed to boost self-esteem or to offer hope for those enduring the pain of bullying. Additionally, there are some new guides for parents and educators on the topic. Authors and publishers alike have been inspired to work on projects with an anti-bullying theme and have increasingly developed effective ways to get the word out about their books. 

Check out the article to find examples of publishers like Random House and DK launching campaigns and publishing books to help fight bullying and its negative effects.

I want to highlight here how books serve as a resource for comfort and for education. Bullying has become a national epidemic with 13 million students bullied each year. Books are an escape as well as a tool. My parents, ever supportive and loving, bought books about how to help me to fit in and manage the bullying, and the books I read provided a much-needed escape and outlet for the panic attacks and depression. Books gave our family a way to handle the situation and move forward. Without books, I’m not sure how I would have gotten through some of the things that happened. I also was fortunate enough to discover the transformative power of the written word. In the fourth grade, at least when I was fourth grade, students had to learn how to write a two-page paper for the annual standardized. After I turned in my first practice paper, my teacher called me up to her desk, set down my paper, and smiled at me. She told me I had a gift, a special ability, something I should nurture and foster. She showed my papers to other teachers, pointing out my sensory detail and vocabulary. I began to write as an outlet for the difficult emotions I was experiencing, and writing gave me a chance to express everything that was in my head that I couldn’t get out otherwise. The transformative power of the written word had changed me.

I’m so glad that publishers are making a concerted effort to educate, inform, and help both bullies and the bullied. Knowledge is power, as clichéd as that saying is, and the more students, educators, and parents know about bullying and how to cope/handle, the better they will manage the consequences of bullying. Hopefully anyone affected by bullying will find comfort and safety in the written word.

Banned Books Week!

Hi everyone and Happy Banned Books Week! This week is one of my favorite weeks of the year. Today is the first day of October, and here in Texas it feels a little bit like fall. Miracles! This year is the 30th anniversary of Banned Books Week, so we’re celebrating thirty years of the right to read. Books like To Kill A Mockingbird, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451 are still under fire; people are still attempting to take these amazing, inspiring, wonderful books off bookshelves in schools and libraries. And it’s not just classics that are threatened–books like Speak and The Kite Runner are being challenged all over the country. Check out Simon & Schuster’s page to see some quotes from frequently challenged authors: http://pages.simonandschuster.com/bannedbooksweek

I hope everyone celebrates Banned Books Week by reading a banned book. What book will you read? I still find it incredible that some of the most wonderful books in the English/American literary canon suffer attempted censorship, so everyone should rejoice in our freedom to produce, write, publish, and read banned books. After all, a truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.

Even if some books aren’t outright banned, some are hoping to impose ratings on books, especially books for Young Adults. I read an article (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/9558797/Fifty-Shades-of-YA-Should-teen-books-have-ratings.html) by a young adult author, CJ Daugherty, who discussed the possibility of imposing a ratings system on YA books in the UK, but the discussion isn’t limited to our friends across the pond (http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2012/05/18/is-it-time-to-rate-young-adult-books-for-mature-content). When I first read these articles, I couldn’t express my outrage. I struggled to find the words to explain how indignant I felt. After all, movies have ratings systems–if you’re under seventeen, you can’t see an R-rated movie without an adult. However, I never snuck into an R-rated movie before my seventeenth birthday. When I did finally go to one after my seventeenth, the girl at the register didn’t even card me, but the thought of a young person hooked on reading having to show ID to buy a book rankled me.

I do agree that some YA adults aren’t appropriate for elementary-age children. If I had kids, I’d limit if they could read The Hunger Games series (a lot of violence) or the later books of the Harry Potter series (lots of adult themes and death), but I want to leave that choice up to individual parents rather than imposing an arbitrary system like the MPAA does on movies. CJ Daugherty is a fan of the system in the United States where publishers place a recommended age on the back covers of YA books, but some feel that this doesn’t go far enough.

Why should books be exempted from ratings while moviemakers are forced to edit down their movies to receive a lower rating than NC-17? An NC-17 rating effectively cancels a movie’s ability to turn a profit, so filmmakers cut out a lot of the juicier tidbits to avoid the ire of the MPAA, and I do not want to see books go the same way, where authors have to water down the content to avoid getting a bad rating. The ALA believes that a rating system that would require authors to edit out content is nothing short of censorship.

Plus, where would you draw the line for what is appropriate and inappropriate for which ages? Three curse words is inappropriate for twelve-year-olds, but five is acceptable for thirteen-year-olds? Making out is taboo for 5th graders, but second base is okay for 7th graders?

Sarah Coyne, a professor in Brigham Young University’s department of family life points out that many books, if adapted into movies, would quickly be rated R within just a few pages. She argues, “I don’t think anyone would argue that books like Harry Potter orTwilight didn’t have a big influence on adolescents. When you see a TV show like Gossip Girl, you get a hint of the [adult content], but I don’t think parents are aware of how much worse it is in the books.” But books are different from movies. Beth Yoke, executive director of the Young Adult Library Services Association, asserts that books provide a safe avenue for exploring more adult topics. “Books can be a safe way for young people to explore edgier, sensitive, or complicated topics, and they provide parents the opportunity to help their teens grow and understand these kinds of sensitive issues.”

Plus, books with too much edited out don’t truthfully depict what it’s like to be a teen. I led a fairly vanilla young adolescence, but I had friends whose activities, if displayed onscreen, would get an R-rating in a second. I think books should accurately portray what teens experience–their trials and tribulations, their triumphs, their heartbreak, their mistakes. I learned a lot about what it’s like to grow up and how to survive the perilous word of teenagerdom from reading books like Speak and Go Ask Alice. Without those books, I would have been more lost than I already was in a complicated world of teenage drama and emotions.

I fully support a parent’s right to closely monitor what his or her children read and to prohibit his or her own children from reading inappropriate material, but for goodness’ sake, let’s not create an organization that limits teens from reading a whole range of books. It’s hard enough to get teens to read today in general, so why on earth are we narrowing the field of what they can read? I cannot bear to one day see a young, avid reader who can’t buy The Perks of Being a Wallflower because they aren’t old enough to read it, according to a third-party organization.

Although I don’t want to fall into the trap of a slippery slope logical fallacy, I don’t there are too many steps between limiting what children can read and banning books altogether. Books challenge people, force them out of their comfort zone. Books are a door into another world we might have never experienced otherwise. And it’s brain exercise. Brain waves while watching a TV show or a movie are pretty stagnant, but while reading a book, brain activity is alive and on fire. Books spark creativity and imagination; books teach us about ourselves, whether the setting is the suburbs or a fantasy world. Let’s promote creative innovation rather than stifling expression.

 

Am I Killing Literature?

My purview is not reviewing books. As far as I know, I haven’t reviewed any books on my blog as of yet. For one thing, it’s not really my area of expertise, and  when I read for pleasure I’m not really evaluating a book for its literary quality. I do enough reading and evaluating of writing at my work and in my courses. When I do get time to read a book, I’m not spending time reading it as a writer; I’m reading it as a reader. If that doesn’t make any sense, I’ll try to explain the difference between reading as a reader and reading as a writer. When approaching a text, I’m of the opinion that you can read it through several different lenses. The main two for me are as a reader and as a creative writer (I also read as a copyeditor and as a peer tutor, but those are nitpicky subsets that aren’t really at issue right now). Reading as a reader is what we all learn in high school: looking for symbolism, reading for themes and motifs, identifying figurative language and other literary goodies. Reading as a reader is what most undergraduate lit students focus on: evaluating the text merely from the end product, not the process of producing it. Writing majors look down on lit students sometimes, because we snobbishly think, “That’s not that difficult. I learned how to do that as a freshman in high school. Big deal.” Of course, reading literature as a reader well and truly analyzing it at a high level is incredibly difficult, so I do not mean to discredit the work of literary scholars. But writing majors get stuck up because reading as a writer takes a whole different skill set, and usually when reading a piece, you have to read it as a reader and as a writer, which is usually why when I’m reading a piece for a creative writing workshop, I read it twice. First, I read as a reader to get comprehension and get that out of the way. Then I read it again as a writer, looking for how the writer crafted the piece and how well he or she did it. I usually ask myself, “What is the writer trying to do, and how well is he or she doing it?” I look for how well they structured the piece, how well the language works, if the rhetoric fits, if the diction works, and so on. Reading as a writer takes a certain level of maturity, because you can’t evaluate a text on whether or not you personally like it, but whether or not it’s written well.

When I was an editor for eleven40seven, the acquisitions staff often hit these snags about personal opinion versus literary evaluation. One of the editors on staff was quite opinionated, but she could not back up her opinions with, “Well the literary allusions he/she employs are trite and cliché” or “The structure of the piece is too confusing and convoluted to effectively tell the story.” She simply would stubbornly put down her foot and say, “I hate this piece. We are not publishing this if I have anything to say about it.” The result was that the whole acquisitions process was like pulling teeth, and we all ended up hating each other. That’s besides the point. The main issue became persuading this editor that we didn’t give a damn whether or not she personally liked it; she needed to support her opinions with commentary and how well the piece was written. I recognized that some of the pieces I really enjoyed were actually not all that good–I merely identified with the subject matter or was in a good mood when I originally read it, so I backed off when no one else liked it.

Wow, that was quite a tangent. Anyway, if I’m going to review a book, I’d review it as a writer, not a reader, and that takes more time and brain power than I’m willing to give. I just finished Broken Harbor by Tana French, and I loved it. It was a whodunit where my jaw literally dropped when I realized who had committed the murders. I think I might have actually said under my breath, “Oh. My. God.” while eating dinner at my kitchen table. But I’m not going to review it, because I read through it at lightning speed because I couldn’t put it down. I’m not going to be able to give a well-reasoned argument on why it was good. I loved it as a reader, but I couldn’t tell you if the book had merit from a writer’s perspective.

So, I’m not a reviewer of books, but I’m a blogger. I don’t have great credentials just yet. I’ve been published, and I’m just a couple months away from receiving a BA in Writing from Texas Christian University, but apart from that, I can’t provide any solid reasons why anyone should listen to what I have to say about literature apart from the fact that I love to read and that I’ve spent the past three years honing my craft and reading works from a literary standpoint, from a writer’s standpoint, from an acquisition editor’s standpoint, from a copyeditor’s standpoint, and from a writing tutor’s standpoint. That’s a lot of perspectives, but I don’t work at a publishing house, and the only awards I’ve gotten for my writing have come from TCU. I don’t have ethos, as a rhetorician might say.

However, I still took offense when reading this article about how book bloggers are harming literature: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/sep/25/books-bloggers-literature-booker-prize-stothard. Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement and a book blogger himself, is of the opinion that the mass of online opinion about books is damaging to the literary world. Stothard claimed, “If the mass of unargued opinion chokes off literary critics…then literature will be the lesser for it. There is a great deal of opinion online, and it’s probably reasonable opinion, but there is much less reasoned opinion….If we make the main criteria good page-turning stories – if we prioritise unargued opinion over criticism – then I think literature will be harmed. Someone has to stand up for the role and the art of the critic, otherwise it will just be drowned – overwhelmed. And literature will be worse off.”

Apparently, there are snobs toward the snobs such as myself. If I go ahead and start reviewing books, I’ll just be white noise in the buzz of literary criticism,  and I realize that, which is part of the reason I abstain. But I think there is a lot to be said for people going online and saying what the they think about books, even if they are not credentialed reviewers. For one thing, literary critics may have the literary background to give sound, well-argued opinions, but I like to hear what “regular people” are saying about books. If I find many favorable reviews online, I’ll probably discount a few as paid for by the author, but I have to believe that at least one or two are the real deal. And I like knowing that real, live people, not just regular reviewers, are liking and reading the book I’m considering sinking my teeth into. Although I’m a bit of a snob of people being able to read like writers, I think that anyone who reads a lot can get a feel for whether a book is worth reading or not, even if they can’t clearly articulate why.

I think that the practice of online book blogging should be encouraged and definitely should continue. If there are people out there who are still passionate about reading and recommending books, then we should celebrate that. Simon Savidge fortunately disagreed with Stothard, saying, “All the blogs I follow are written for free by people who have a passion for books, many of whom are currently reading some of the Man Booker shortlisted novels, and recommending the books that excite them. I think anyone who reads a lot, just by reading, has the ability to critique anything they read … reading and the reaction is a personal experience based on life experience. Interestingly, you don’t find bloggers scathing review pages; you find them reading them between books, along with other blogs, because we are all united on the love of literature in all its forms and genres.” We should want people being so moved or annoyed by what they read to share it from the world or shout it from the mountaintops.

I’m going to keep blogging, because I love to read, and I love to write. If anything, bloggers are keeping the literary world alive and continuing to practice of loving literature.

 

Also, Banned Books Week is coming up! I’ll be having a post on whether or not YA books should have rating systems. Happy Banned Books Week in advance!!

The Demon in the File

I worked as an acquisitions editor for eleven40seven: TCU’s Student Journal of the Arts (www.1147.tcu.edu), so I had the privilege of reading all the submissions and recommending the picks that would appear in the journal that semester. As a creative writer, I had a pretty okay knack for separating the wheat from the chaff, an ability I used later as an acquisitions assistant at TCU Press (www.prs.tcu.edu). One semester, I read a short story fiction piece about a selkie–a seal that lives in human form. I liked the story, as did my fellow editors, and was curious about what a selkie was and its place in mythology, so I did some googling and found a Wikipedia page about selkies (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selkie). The plot line of the short story I was considering was almost identical to that of the movie The Secret of Ronan Inish. Although the plot points weren’t exactly the same, the two were close enough that I knew the writer had stolen the story line from this movie. I informed the editor-in-chief, and we did not select the piece for the journal, as we almost had.

The specter of plagiarism had reared its ugly head. The editor-in-chief and I had half a mind to send an e-mail to the writer warning him or her (I can’t remember the writer’s gender) about the dangers of plagiarism and how had we had reported this piece to the university authorities, he or she would have been promptly placed on academic probation at the very least and at the most expelled. I am not sure if the writer was consciously plagiarizing, accidentally blurring the line between intellectual property and “creativity,” or really had no idea that what he or she was doing was definitely unethicial and possibly illegal. The faculty advisor for the journal had never encountered such an issue, and he was flabbergasted than anyone would so brazenly plagiarize another’s work and submit it to a journal.

I work at the Center for Writing at TCU, and I often work with students who are shocked to find out that they are violating all kinds of rules in their papers when they do not properly cite their sources or even paraphrase. I am not sure where this ignorance comes from, as works cited pages and MLA format are standard fare for high school English research papers, but I occasionally have to put the fear of God (or at least the law/student handbook) into these students to get them to realize that plagiarism is a big big deal. Professional writers do it, sure–but they get severely penalized for it. I had a friend at SMU who wrote papers for other people for a fee; the practice disgusted me, but not my university, not my problem. I find myself saying over and over, “You have to cite your sources; the issue is non-negotiable, unless your professor already knows all your sources from course readings and has no reason for works cited.” I give the spiel about ethos, credibility, and a paper trail for other readers who might be interested in the research, but I emphasize the whole, “this could get you expelled or a whole lot worse” bit. Their eyes widen a little, and they listen a little more intently when I tell them how to cite their sources depending on the style guide.

I bring up the issue because today I read an article that concerned a totally different topic but discussed plagiarism in the publishing industry and the subsequent recalls that result from a publisher realizing, “Oh my dear Lord, we just sent out 50,000 copies of a book that is plagiarized” (full article here: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/09/how-to-make-a-book-disappear/262469/). Anyway, Maria Konnikova cites several instances of publishers having to recall books because of plagiarism:

“1999, to take one example, was a particularly impressive year. In September, Grove/Atlantic junked 7,500 just-printed copies of James Mackay’s I Have Not Yet Begun to Fight: A Life of John Paul Jones after “an absolutely scathing indictment” of plagiarism (apparently, Grove/Atlantic hadn’t cared to investigate the fact that only a year prior, John Wiley & Sons had to withdraw Mackay’s biography of Alexander Graham Bell and pulp all remaining copies, for the very same reason)….More recent examples abound. In 2006, Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan made headlines for plagiarizing her debut novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life; Little, Brown promptly recalled the 55,000 copies that had already been shipped. 2009 saw the recall of the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization—a recall its editor likened to the “first instance of mass book-burning in the 21stcentury.” In 2011, the new thriller Assassin of Secrets, by Q. R. Markham, was found instead to be an assassin of other people’s work—and all 6,500 copies were recalled by Little, Brown. And just this summer, David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies was recalled by publisher Thomas Nelson—apparently, it contained one too many lies itself.”

I know I’m incorrectly block quoting here and thus becoming a hypocrite (WordPress is kind of limiting when it comes to formatting), but plagiarism is not a thing of the past–it is a ghost that haunts every writer, every publisher, every student, even if they don’t realize it’s there. I don’t know if we need to have an awareness campaign out there or just plain better education at the high school and collegiate level, but people need to realize it’s not just a legal issue, it’s a moral issue.

My next post will probably concern the opposition’s argument about new media, the strangling effects of copyright law on creativity, and the electronic marketplace’s changing of the scene of intellectual property. I agree to some extent, but as a writer myself, if I found someone plagiarizing my work, I would sue that person for all he or she was worth until they paid through the nose for violating my intellectual property, even if that idea/term is relatively new in the grand scheme of things. But, a post for another day.

The article also discusses how some memoirs have gotten the shaft for not being memoir enough. There has always been a fine, fine line between what is creative non-fiction and what is fabrication. I’ll readily admit that I have manipulated certain parts of my past to better fit a story line, to be more entertaining, to allow me to skip over giving background information and just keep moving along. But creative nonfiction writers have to be wary that at some point, putting too much fiction in the work moves it from memoir to a novel. A Million Little Pieces is famous for this controversy when Oprah took James Frey down a notch when he appeared on her talk show.

It’s not a news flash that not everything that appears in a memoir in completely, one hundred percent true. For one thing, memoirs are subjective, not objective. If you want reality and truth, go for an autobiography that’s more about relaying truth (a debatable idea in our post-modern world) than about entertaining. For another, memoirs are based on memory, and psychologists have proved that our memories are faulty and suggestible. Every time we call up a memory, our brain slightly modifies it and stores it away in the new, revised form. This problem has led many judges to start disallowing eyewitnesses from testifying in court–we just can’t trust their memories to be accurate. For another, memoir makes no attempt to avoid bias. After all, it’s about a story, usually a piece of a person’s life (for example, if I were to write a memoir, it would not go from childhood to now–I’d focus on a specific aspect).

I’m not defending memoirists who fabricate an entire life that never happened or include so much sensationalism that they abandoned the basic outline of the past a long time ago. But let’s cut some memoirists a break–they’re not claiming to give the whole and absolute truth, nothing but. Memoir is an incredibly difficult genre to write well. It’s not hard to write out your life story, but it’s damn hard to make it well written and effective. Many professional writers don’t even attempt it, and I would argue that it’s the most difficult genre to write well. I think the whole reality vs. fabrication is a little more shades of gray than the plagiarism issue. After all, a memoir is a recollection, and a memoirist is a writer first–we concern ourselves with tweaking the truth for a better piece of writing.

I’m not a memoirist; I’m an essayist. However, I do include personal writing in my works, and I’ll be damned if someone cries wolf because I changed a scene to include me cutting tomatoes rather than just sitting at the table during the conversation to add drama. But I’ll also be damned for taking someone else’s work and claiming it’s my own. We should all know better.

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