Reading · Teaching · Writing

Fables are Real: Thoughts on Marcovaldo

I’m teaching Italo Calvino’s Marcovaldo this week, and the older I get, the more I get out of it. I’m so full of things to say, I have to sort through them or risk imploding.

Marcovaldo is the protagonist in a short novel that doesn’t feel like a novel. It feels like a cartoon series to me more than anything—short vignettes with a guy who is sort of a caricature, but also one I can identify with sometimes and pity other times. The book’s subtitle is “Seasons in the City” and begins to explain why some classify it as a mid-20th century “nouveau roman,” or New Novel in the French tradtion. It’s a series of vignettes organized by seasons, not by events in an ongoing plotline.

The seasons pass in the city, but they pass more subtly than in the provinces. And poor Marcovaldo–whose history readers piece together from details dropped occasionally, but even more from his attitudes toward the world–must have been raised in the country, been drafted in to service during World War II, and later moved to the city where all the jobs were to raise his family.

All the jobs, but none of the humanity. All the jobs, but very little from the natural world.

He finds himself trapped in a demeaning job, resentful of the family he struggles to support; the story reads like a list of repeated attempts to escape.

This sweet image is from an Italian version aimed at young readers. This book can be read “simply.” But seriously, the more I read it, the deeper it gets. (Also, there is no point in the book where Marcovaldo stares at a ladybug, on his hand but it is very much the kind of thing he would do–perhaps not this sadly.)

So he’s an idealist in the sense that he thinks he can stumble in to a scheme that will rescue him from this. In the first chapter he finds mushrooms growing wild in the dirt near a tram stop, and he immediately plans a huge feast for his family—watching the mushrooms grow and bringing his kids to help gather them by the hundreds.

In another chapter, he reads in an old newspaper that bee venom has been used to treat rheumatism, and he turns his one-room basement apartment into a clinic, applying angry wasps to people’s skin under a paper cup. He’s receptive to the natural world and its opportunities.

But this is the city. The only mushrooms that grow there are poisonous. The wasp clinic (obviously) goes south and lands him in the hospital. He doesn’t give up, but readers can get tired for him, as he tries one way after another to get something for nothing.

Students sometimes get hung up on this aspect of him and label him as greedy. So this time I’m going in ready to redirect that line of thought. It’s not wrong; it’s just superficial.

First, Marcovaldo is poor. He’s not so much greedy as he is desirous of pretty reasonable things—enough space to house his family comfortably, enough food for them all to eat, enough time to enjoy the world around them. He’s an unskilled laborer with a wife and six kids. His wife has to be home to raise the kids, so it’s all on him to provide for eight people. That he continues to do that seems admirable to me. That he also looks for moments of delight and opportunities out seems healthy.

That is where I’ll start this time. He’s not greedy; he’s burned out.

He’s also lots of other things. He’s an early environmentalist; he notices and cultivates the natural world; in fact, he yearns for it. He’s a class warrior, showcasing the inequities in post-war Italy. He’s full of childlike wonder, always looking for butterflies and stopping to watch birds fly. He’s also kind of a caricature of Calvino—an introverted, disillusioned, middle-aged dreamer. He’s not yet Mr. Palomar, but he’s moving in that direction.

And now I’m thinking I need to write a paper about Marcovaldo. Maybe that would help get him out of my head, like listening to the whole song does, when I have a line repeating in my mind. I need to do something to stop channeling him. Because I can’t stop looking for butterflies and noticing the sunlight hitting pine boughs and freezing when I hear birdsong to see if I can find the bird. I just live in an area with too many birds for that kind of behavior to be practical. 😀

Reading · Teaching · Writing

On Light and Lightness

Apollo is the god of light in the sense that he inspires all things we associated with enlightenment: culture, arts (especially music and poetry), civilization, reason, medicine, and prophecy. As the sun, he IS light. So everything he touches is illuminated or illuminating.  Latin lux/lucere à English light. (Never trust a vowel.)

But when Italo Calvino writes his essay on “Lightness” in Six Memos for the Next Millenium, he’s not talking about brightness or illumination; he values weightlessness in the fabric and content of literature. This comes from Gothic leihts, and Latin went the leviarius/(“leviosa”)/levity route.

When I teach this essay, someone always asks if he means lightness like the quality of being bright or lightweight. If we were reading the original, the question would not come up; it’s entitled “La Legerezza,” of which we only have a relic in “legerdemain”—sleight of (or lightness of) hand. In Italian  the word for bright light is la luce.

Also if you read very far in to the essay, Calvino makes this distinction abundantly clear, but if you are an English reader who imagined brightness first, it can be hard to let go of. After all, we want our literature to be illuminating, don’t we? To light fires in our minds and to shine light on problems and people and practices. Good books do that.

That’s not what Calvino meant. He wouldn’t be so moralizing, to begin with. But he was aestheticizing. (I know that’s not a word in the sense of prescribing literary values, but I want it to be.) He was interested in defining ideals of literature, not humanity.

He strove to remove weight from his works, sometimes in terms of content (like making a suit of armor trot around empty, without the weight of a body inside[The Nonexistent Knight] or like reducing gravity’s pull so that people could float up to the moon [“The Distance to the Moon” in Cosmicomics, which is the basis for the Pixar short “La Luna”].

He also tried to remove weight from his prose, so that it seemed somewhat diaphanous. He quotes Emily Dickinson as an example:

A sepal, petal, and a thorn
Upon a common summer’s morn—
A flask of Dew—A Bee or two—
A Breeze—a caper in the trees—
And I’m a Rose!

Occasionally one of my students will dig in, claiming that it is a higher good to strive to be illuminating than weightless, to which I can only respond that he’s talking about style, and that doesn’t have a moral obligation. Calvino means literature should tread lightly; it should lighten our load by lifting us above the weight of the world and in to the flight of the clouds and imagination. It should inspire contemplation, which is completely abstract and therefore weightless, and it should do so by means that feel light: literature’s form (lightened prose) should follow its function—lightening our spirits.

What began as an etymological exercise has turned in to an analysis of Calvino’s essay, which I didn’t plan on. But I have read and taught and thought about that essay so many times, it is hard for me to think of lightness in any form without also thinking of Calvino’s words. At the risk of sounding repetitive, it’s all connected.

Have a good weekend, y’all. Enjoy the light of the Harvest Moon.

Oak leaves in the sunlight on Mt Palomar
Teaching · Writing

Crystals and Flames: The teaching edition

Italo Calvino’s essay on “Exactitude” exhorts tight, vivid writing and the continual quest for the mot juste. In each of his Six Memos for the Next Millenium, he presents a pair of contrasting qualities literature can have, and then he comes down on one side as being closer to his own practice and of most use to readers in the 21st century. So in the essay on Lightness, he also considers weight or gravitas, and says he simply “has more to say about lightness”(Six Memos 3).

This pattern holds for the remaining four essays—Quickness, not lingering; Exactitude, not vagueness; Visibility, not abstraction; Multiplicity, not singularity. He died before writing the sixth: Consistency.

Today a student expressed frustration with his even-handedness. If he’s going to argue for one side being better, why not stick to that? The short answer is because it’s complicated (as everything important is). The longer answer is because he sees the value of both traits in different contexts and in the interest of living a rich reading life. The deeper answer, I think in retrospect, is that while he chooses the side he most naturally leans toward, he admires and even envies those who occupy the other side. Today it came up in terms of teaching styles and professors.

The crystal: “the self-organizing system” (71)

When Calvino argues for the Party of the Crystal and the Party of the Flame, he conceives of placing authors in camps who favor structure over stream of consciousness—intrinsic order over associative, digressive, descriptive texts.

As I was explaining this dichotomy, I put it in terms of pedagogy. When I was in college, I had two professors who taught entirely differently. One came in every day and put a list of topics on the board, and no matter how esoteric the subject (I took themed courses entitled “Philosophy of Love” and “Philosophy of War” from her), we marched through those topics, in order and in detail. When I left, I knew what I had learned. I felt like there was significant content added to my brain every day.

The flame: “order out of noise” (71)

Another professor in the same department delivered content completely differently. I thought of him as a juggler of ideas. He came in and brought up one subject, which led to a discussion of a related subject, which led to another, like a juggler adding balls without your noticing. All those balls seemed to float in the air above us, one idea connecting to another, with students questioning and adding and variously contributing to the aerial show until it was time to wrap up. And when he did wrap up, all those topics seemed to fold back in on each other like Chinese puzzle boxes, and I sat in awe of how many disparate subjects and ideas seemed seamlessly connected in his lectures.

The juggler was a flame. The list-maker was a crystal.

When I realized that, I recognized the pull in Calvino’s essays toward the opposite side of each binary. He is a crystal, but he admires those who embody the flame in part because he could never pull it off. Every impulse he has directs him toward structure that builds meaning and reveals order. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t marvel at the apparent magic and mystery of the flame and those who embody it.

I know because as I was talking about my professors, I found myself envious of the list-maker. I can start with a list, but when I’m done, if we’ve hit 40% of those items in a class, I’m doing pretty well. I more often follow the interests and experiences of my students, so every class goes where they are more than where I guide. I would never compare my classes to the virtuosity of my idea-juggling magician, but I’m no crystal when it comes to teaching, and I stand in awe of those who are. Students respond well when they can leave with that feeling of having completed a list of tasks and mastered a body of knowledge, and I wish sometimes that I could give that to them. I can’t. I do something else which I think also has value, but I totally get where Calvino feels compelled to do justice to both sides, even though he favors one himself.

If I’m honest, it’s probably why I love him. I am a happy flame, but I remain fascinated by the crystal and its particular beauty.


The Desert Island Book List, or what can you not bear to live without?

I mentioned the Kalevala was one of my Desert Island books last week. It is. The Desert Island list is what it sounds like—if you were stranded on a remote island somewhere away from the honking of traffic, the onslaught of internet information, and could only carry ten books, what would they be?

It’s worth thinking about, and, I think, revisiting at various points in your life. It’s a good way to check in and see what’s changed in terms of values and passions, and to see if you’ve discovered some new treasure since you last thought about it.

So if I were stranded on an island in 2018, the books whose words I would feel lost if I could not read again are as follows, and you should know ahead of time that I intend to cheat:

A Collected Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. (See what I did there?) I don’t think I could live too long without access to the Canterbury Tales, but he has other lovely works, like the Legend of Good Women and the House of Fame that I would want those too, if we’re talking about forever.

Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler is also a frame narrative, or a story full of stories, and it’s the kind of book I’d reread once a year even if I didn’t teach it. It’s all about reading and writing and reading like a writer and writing like a reader, and I love it. There is a character who talks about translating like flow—moving in and out of languages like a fish swimming—and it has never left me.

Franz Xaver von Schonberg’s Collected Folk Tales. I used to say the Grimms,’ and I still love them, but if we’re only granted a limited number of books and they might be used to build a new civilization, I’d want the ones with more neutral gender roles, so we don’t have to relive all that damsel in distress nonsense.

The Arabian Nights. I get lots of stories here too, and since I know less about this area and language, I’d defer to the translation by Husain Hadawy, my first year composition instructor from the University of Nevada, so many moons ago.

The Mabinogion, a collection of medieval Welsh folklore and legends with some marvelous characters and scenes, like Caumniated Wives and Wizards who use transfiguration as a punishment.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoesvsky because we probably should have a traditional sort of novel, and Grushenka’s onion was instrumental in my forming healthy adult relationships.

Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson because we probably should have an American, and Dickinson’s poems craft images as if out of clouds.

A World Mythology collection because it’s good to know where we came from and how much we have in common.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and I favor Allen Mandelbaum’s translation. But let’s face it, if I were on an island, I’d have lots of time to work up my Latin, so I should have a dual-language edition. I love so many of these stories so deeply, but the stories of Proserpina and Orpheus alone would merit its inclusion—Proserpina/Persephone so we remember that death and life are inseparable, and Orpheus so that we remember that while art can do almost everything, it cannot bring back the dead—nor do we mortals need it to.

And last, but not least, The Kalevala, because of all the reasons I mentioned last week and because it’s good to remember that words are magic and can change your world.

This is where I am now. If I were honest, I’d say I need ten picture books, ten children’s novels, ten poets, ten novels, ten essayists, and ten non-fiction, but this is where my mind lives most often at this stage in my career and life, and it is a happy place. A folkloric, mythic, medieval wonderland with only occasional forays in to the modern world, and usually by those who value the past.

Of all the personality inventories and internet quizzes that crank out a conclusion about us based on what we like, I think which stories we could not live without is probably the most accurate, at least for me. I need magic. I think in archetypes. I revel in beautiful words and compelling images. And I view story as the most valuable thread back to our collective past and in to our individual selves.

Reading · Uncategorized

The Meta Blog, or How Reading About Reading Is Making Me a Better Reader

So this is a “Reading About Reading” sort of musing. I’ve recently read Maryanne Wolf’s marvelous new book, Reader, Come Home, which is part Neuroscientist Explaining For Lay Persons How Reading on the Internet is Changing Our Brains, and part Clever Plan to Evolve Purposefully in the Face of a New Shift in Text and Literacy.

I’ll say a bit about this book, a bit about where I’m going from here, and then offer a reading list I’ve given myself and would love to talk about with similarly interested humans.
Reader, Come Homeis a written as a set of letters, a real, old-fashioned epistolary book, evocative of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millenium. It is also a series of love letters to the genre of the novel, which she worries may be in danger. But mostly in this book, the author explains the science of reading.
In a brilliant metaphor of the circus, Wolf illustrates the multiple centers of the brain involved in reading, and shows how they represent an adaptation of using multiple centers in quick succession and simultaneously. Reading involves the “circus rings” of the Vision, Language, and Cognition centers in the brain, but also Motor Functions and the Affective center. Suddenly those memes about your brain on television (barely any activity) vs. your brain on books (huge chunks of your brain lighting up) become clear. It takes a lot of work to read, especially to read deeply.
This is enough, frankly, to set my mind whirring for days, but thankfully she’s got a trajectory that kept me moving forward. She’s discovered that our reading patterns have shifted in response to all those hours skimming news on the Internet, zipping from article to vine to clickbait, and that while we are capable of reading much more, we are losing our ability to read deeply.
Reading deeply (she shows a serious predilection for novels that this medievalist finds limited, but forgivable) has been linked to increased empathy, to stress reduction, to critical thinking, and even to happiness, but our ability to sustain deep reading is waning. Even people who have been excellent deep readers are becoming less so in the onslaught of internet reading.
But she offers some hope, too. She advocates training up the next generation as “bi-literate” by which she means able to switch modes given the medium. Little children should be read to from print picture books, and in school they should learn how to use and manage electronic texts, while continuing to develop a relationship with print. (There are lots of reasons to love print, but I think that’s for a different blog.) In this way we can grow readers who navigate the internet without losing their ability to read deeply, for there are simply too many benefits to being able to read deeply.
You can imagine, for a person who writes a blog on reading, that this book has been a bit of a head cannon. I am puzzled by the idea that we’re not able to read deeply, given the publishing world’s continued success, and my English majors’ habits, but maybe we’re reading “lighter” fare? (Maybe not. I need to be convinced of this. Someone quick—do a study for me.) I am comforted, too, by her findings on children reading print books, as someone whose very favorite moments of child-rearing involved storytime. And I find comfort as a literature professor who aims every year to get more young people intoxicated by the stories of the Middle Ages.
Science now says we need to read. And we need to give it our full attention.
So, naturally, I’ve started another list of books to read in my copious spare time:The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall
The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains
by Nicholas Carr

Reading in the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene
A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel
Why Read? By Mark Edmundson
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs.
Apparently I’m not alone in my interest here. But before I get to these, I have a mystery novel I’ve been putting off for too long. Happy reading, y’all.
Reading · Teaching

Stories, Friends, and Order in the Universe, or Why Do We Read?

Today was that day in class when, compelled by the chaos of Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, my seniors tried to define what kind of reader they are.
The novel is basically about reading. It begins with a Reader trying to read his new copy of If on a winter’s night and careens through the lives of an Other Reader, a Non-Reader, a publisher, a translator, an author, a student, and loads of other people. With all these different perspectives on text production and reception, it’s kind of natural to try and orient our own reading style. (It’s also easier to talk about ourselves sometimes than it is to sort out the labyrinth of the latter half of that novel in an hour, so it’s a common digression.)
But it’s important too, you know. Self-knowledge and all that. Good in itself. This is just the readerly fragment of ourselves.
There are a number of ways to read that my friends, colleagues, and students have described over the years. Today we mostly fell in to five camps:  those who read for character, plot, form, “aesthetics,” and “immersion.”  Some of these will need defining, as you can already see.
People who read for character view every new book as an opportunity to meet new people. They may love or hate them, but mostly they read because they are fascinated by people—by their motivations, their quirks, their backstories. These people tend to need to find someone they like or identify with (in fact that’s the main goal, probably, to find little bits of themselves in other characters) in order to finish the book. If all the characters are reprehensible, it’s hard for them to keep turning pages. These are the people who suffer when movie versions are different too—when the people they loved on the page are altered on screen, they take it very personally.
Those who read for plot want to see how everything turns out. These people read the fastest, skimming when they need to, and are often the ones who can’t recall details, and they certainly can’t quote lines, but they can summarize neatly; they know the story cold. These people tend to like action-packed adventure books or stories with twists or puzzles. Reading is an adventure—a puzzle to solve, a game to finish.
The “form” folks appreciate the structure of a book. They like repetition of scenes, especially when they differ slightly and mean something a little bit different each time. They read a book like a musical score, looking for motifs and waiting for the variations. This is fairly cerebral reading, and they appreciate clever authors with somewhat mathematical or mechanical minds. There are exceptions, of course—some books (and authors) build structure in more organically, like a vine rather than a skyscraper, but these readers still appreciate the order inherent in the story.
The “aesthetics” group is not just the Ivory Tower snobs (it may also be, but not exclusively.) These folks read for something striking—a particularly beautiful image that takes shape like a sculpture in their minds, or a line that feels more like poetry than prose. These are the ones who read with pencils in their hands, not wanting to lose a section that sings in the middle of a 500-page novel. For these folks every new book has loads of potential: who knows what gems they may find inside? They read to discover and to connect and to feel.
To Feel. The last group I add today is a response to my class today.  Four of eighteen students (English Literature and Language majors) said they read for “immersion.” When pressed, some of them said things that made me think they appreciate world-building and like to get lost in cultures and scenarios different from their own lives. They like science-fiction and fantasy but also historical—anything that makes them forget their own world for the duration of the book and completely lose themselves in the book. Otherwise it’s not really worth the time for them. They need to feel another’s experiences so tangibly, it’s like they are living the scenes as they unfold. This sounds to me like classic escapism, but some of them argued for aesthetic and intellectual pleasures as well.
Later in the quarter I’ll ask them if they have a favorite literary theory, and I’ll see if they match up.  Maybe the Plot People will turn out to be New Critics, and the Character Crowd will favor psychoanalysis. The Form Folks will certainly be Formalists (I hope), but what will the Beauty Bunch be? Romantics? And the Immersionists? Maybe they’ll all love Reader-Response. More likely, though, they’ll all surprise me again. Probably we’ll all need tee shirts like team jerseys, so we can easily find our tribe out in the world. We all read so as not to feel alone, after all.
Reading · Teaching

Text and Image, the “What Do You See When You Read?” edition

I had the most wonderful conversation in my Senior Symposium today.  Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millenium always intimidates students, but always precipitates the most animated and thoughtful discussions.  We were talking about his plea for visibility in texts.
I always take this occasion to ask students how they think.  I ask them to think of something—a cloud, say, or a dragon—and then I ask them if, in their heads, they saw images or words. (Or if I asked for coffee, would they see the plant, the word, or the word spelled out in beans?) Do they think, in short, in images or words?  Today’s tally was six wordy folk and 30 picture people. Over the last decade, my students have become decidedly more visual in their thinking.
The implications of that sent us reeling.  First, I discovered many of them write creatively, and when they do, some see mental movies, and then composition is just describing what they saw in their heads.  Calvino admits to starting with an image for three of his novels, but doesn’t claim it for all his works.  It begs the question, where do those images or movies come from that they see in their minds and try to convey.  Mostly they feel like they are spawned by their personal experiences and stories they know. They don’t believe as much in inspiration, but in compilation.
Calvino worried (I find it adorable) in 1985, that we were becoming overwhelmed with images—that we see so many images, we are saturated, and he frets about people in the 21st century being able to make original images.  I think he needn’t have worried.  It has only gotten worse (if you think image-saturation is a bad thing), and we have continued to create more and more.  In fact, visual texts are increasingly popular, and there is no sign of slowing down. In an era of memes, graphic novels, television, and film, the visual arts are still thriving, although perhaps in a more self-consciously derivative way.
Ultimately, I don’t think his fear was founded.  Just as stories can be told and retold, images can be made and remade, and just as for centuries we’ve been bemoaning the fact that no one can read everything in print, now no one can see everything either.  (I can’t even be counted on to watch a television show regularly).  That means there will always be the possibility of finding something new to you.
Perhaps the most delightful discovery we made today was the variety of ways in which different people can think and read.  One confessed she doesn’t see images as she reads; she goes from words on the page to words in her mind and only at the end takes a moment to conjure an image of what happened.  One associates feelings with colors, so reads as if through rose or crimson or charcoal colored glasses. One said ideas and stories come to him in static images, and he has to write them down to be free of them (as good a student of Calvino as there ever was).  I see words in my head as people talk to me and am constantly shifting parts of words to figure out roots and etymologies, but I have a hard time holding images in my head, and I can’t manipulate them (I am an English major, not an engineer.)  But having this discussion opened all our minds a little, just to know the sheer range of ways to process words and images.

There is much work to be done in cognitive science in terms of imagining and reading, if my class is any indicator.  Meanwhile, Calvino’s fear of over-saturation was borne out when wordy people claimed they remember distinctive images and visual people remember slogans and words more readily, as they stand out against the flood of images.  The upshot is that we all move pretty fluidly from text to image and back again.  A picture may be worth a thousand words, but one word can trigger countless images too.  

Teaching · Writing

The Ballad of Lefty and Sergio, or Teaching, Truth, and Tales

This is a story about teaching, about reading, and about epistemology. I taught Calvino’s Mr Palomar last week, which is a lovely collection of reflective vignettes told from the perspective of a very analytical, slightly uptight man. It has no plot. It’s just a series of moments where Mr Palomar encounters the world:  physically, as in looking at waves on the beach; socially, as when he’s buying cheese in a Paris cheese shop; and reflectively, where he tries to make sense of his place in the world.

In the chapter entitled “Serpents and Skulls,” Mr Palomar is visiting Mexico, and touring the Aztec ruins at Tula. He is traveling with a friend who is well-versed in Aztec lore and clearly knows this site. He leads Palomar through a temple, and he “pauses at each stone, transforms it in to a cosmic tale, and allegory, a moral reflection” (96).
Mr Palomar listens rapt, but is occasionally distracted by a school group of children whose teacher keeps pointing to artifacts and describing them, but concluding each description with “We don’t know what it means” (97). Mr Palomar is torn between these two approaches to the world, and my class was inspired to wrestle with them as points on a spectrum.
To discuss them easily, I ascribed names to the speakers. The tour guide, leading a field trip in Mexico, I named Sergio. Then, feeling silly, and thinking perhaps that might be perceived as a goofy name for a Mexican teacher, I doubled down on my dorkiness: and because Palomar’s friend’s impassioned speech was on the left page of my open book, I named him Lefty. This is the kind of randomness or serendipity (depending on your attitude) that I think characterizes my classes. It also contributes to making each class its own culture. I have different students each time, but I also read differently each time. Ten years of Mr Palomar now, and there’s never been a “Ballad of Lefty and Sergio” before.
These two characters represent two approaches to the world and two ways of knowing (there’s the epistemology, as threatened).  Lefty is the conscientious teacher, who does all his homework and prepares for class, and when he gets in front of his students, he weaves a tapestry of what amounts to “scholarship’s best guesses.”  Knowing the cultural, anthropological, and literary history, he ties elements together and presents a working narrative that tries to do justice to the facts we can prove as well as to the truths of human nature (which are harder to prove, but no less real). He makes meaning.
As a medievalist, I’m very sympathetic to Lefty. It’s my job to teach works whose authors have been dead for centuries, frequently works whose authors are completely unknown.  I teach language no one has spoken for 600 years, and I do that, too, by a series of well-intentioned best guesses. If we know what Old English looked like, and we know what Modern English looks like, we can triangulate and make what feels like a valiant effort at understanding Middle English, the transition period.
But there’s no ironclad evidence.  When all is said and done, Sergio’s nihilistic approach that “We don’t know” is true, of course. Maybe it’s the difference between making meaning and making facts. My job is to look at as many external facts as I can, as Lefty does, and then to look at the most important fact—the text, for Lefty the statuary—and from those, produce a faithful reading.
Sergio is right: there is no empirical truth we can find, separated as we are from the works in space and time, but Lefty is right too. The solution is not to throw up our hands and deny any understanding. The solution is to pay attention to where we are standing, as we view as earnestly as we can and bridge the gap between art and audience.
I promise the last two weeks of poetry is not the beginning of a trend, but I couldn’t resist.  If you sing it, the meter can be smoothed out.
“The Ballad of Lefty and Sergio”
Lefty looks at all the facts;
He tirelessly prepares for class–
Reading, writing, watching, and then he
Constructs the truest story he can see.
Sergio won’t trust his eyes;
He sees this world compound of lies.
It’s foolish to presume that he can know
Anything outside of Sergio.
“I think this! It might be right.
The data speaks to me at night.
It makes sense given everything we know…
Why can’t you just imagine, Sergio?”
“It’s too far gone; we’re too far out.
We have no first person account.
You’re saying more about yourself, you see,
Than anything you’re looking at, Lefty.”

Lefty tells us stories that Sergio can’t believe.

Sergio knows Lefty can’t help but deceive.
These guys will keep arguing long after this song,
But thinking one of them is right is surely wrong.

*Photo credit to Bob Lamb, for “Two Gun Bob and Gentleman Kip” who live again as Lefty and Sergio.  🙂  Thanks, Bob!

Reading · Teaching

Reading for Character, Reading for Plot

Lettore READER Lettrice
“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.  Relax.  Concentrate. Dispel every other thought.  Let the world around you fade.  Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room” (3). When you sit down to read Calvino’s hypernovel, the narrator starts talking to you directly.  He addresses you, the Reader, in the second person, just like he’s talking to an old friend.  He draws you in, you–the Reader, by describing what can be seen as pretty generic descriptions of how people read. But just like when you read a horoscope or a Facebook quiz, the description is vague enough (and informed enough—he knows what readers do) that you can find enough truth in it and buy in to his game.
But he addresses you as Reader.  In English this is wonderfully vague.  It is gender-neutral and judgment-neutral. The latter matters because in this book about the acts of reading and writing, there are lots of kinds of readers and lots of kinds of writers, and there is certainly some judgment thrown around.  At the beginning, though, we don’t know what kind of reader you are; you are just a Reader.
In class I spend considerable time asking my English majors what kind of readers they are.  Do they read for plot mostly, to find out what happens?  Do they read to get to know the characters?  Some people won’t read a book unless they like or can identify with an important character.  Do they read for long, richly evocative descriptions, like Dickens’s three-page description of Mr. Tulkinghorn descending into his wine cellar for port?  Do they read to see their favorite kind of story retold anew?  What people look for in books varies, and the students sometimes form support groups for factions.
The self-described “plot whores” hang together and defend each other.  Story above all!  The “character-lovers” share each other’s outrage when film versions give lines to the wrong character or when adaptations make the characters do something contrary to their original character. “Hermione didn’t say that!  Ron said that in the book!”  We decide how we read in relation to Calvino’s characters, and deny others like Lotaria, the overly zealous critic whose acts of interpretation seem violent attacks on the book (at one point she puts novels through a word counter and only reads the list of frequent words to figure out what the book is about! Another time, she rips one chapter out of a book and says that’s all she needs to judge the book.)  All of this helps people figure out their own reading persona, and sometimes through reading this book, they even get a bead on their writing persona.
But this time when we talked about the Reader, the subject of identification with the Reader got a little more attention.  In English, “Reader” is gender-neutral. That means until “you” get in to the second chapter, “you” could be anyone, and it is only at that point where the Reader Calvino envisions identifies as a man, trying to meet an attractive woman, the Other Reader, that female readers have to adjust. (This confusion doesn’t exist in Italian, where the word “Lettore” indicates a man, and later on, a female “Lettrice” appears.) I have read this book a dozen times, and every time it’s a little letdown.  I enjoy the pages where it feels like he’s talking to me—really to me, not the character he’s asking me to be. And sometimes I slip in to my new role as male character with more grace than others. I’m used to it, after all. The default has been male for so long, and I’ve read so many books where the protagonist is male. And sometimes I’ve gone right ahead and identified with him, because I’m trained: females are asked to assume a male persona more regularly than the converse. Still, I’m often a little jarred when I reach the point where I can no longer pretend he’s talking directly to me.
It’s this point that stuck today, in this reading, after the Women’s Marches around the world.  The default is still male.  This book was written in a far more sexist time and culture than 21st century America, but the default is still male.  Gender is understood by more people now as a spectrum than a binary, though, and somehow it was this strict adherence to increasingly outdated gender assumptions that made it feel dated this time, rather than the story about the guy who runs from house to house, thinking all the landline phones along his jogging route are ringing for him.  We talked about how we read and what we looked for in books, and none of those groups of character-readers and plot-fiends were divided along gender lines.  This book keeps bringing up questions about how we read and why we write, and some of the answers are changing, but the most important ones are not.  We all know who we want to identify with—the readers of novels who really enjoy books, who use them as links to understanding other people, who throw stories like ropes across the void between souls, to make friends.  
Reading · Teaching

Words and Pictures, or The Forests of Fiction

“Fantasy is a place where it rains.”  When Italo Calvino begins his lecture on Visibility in literature, he begins with an image from Dante’s Paradiso, of pictures raining in to his imagination directly from God.  I went to sleep after reading Umberto Eco’s first Norton lecture, the first of “Six Walks in the Fictional Woods,” and awoke this morning to that miracle of Southern California weather, The Occasional Drizzle, so I started thinking of rainy images and images raining down.  This is a good time to write.
I have read Calvino’s essay at least a dozen times.  (I know because I’ve taught it annually for over a decade).  My book bears the traces of all these readings—comments and some sketches in red, blue, green, black, and purple ink, and pencil.  He discusses “two types of imaginative process:  the one that starts with the word and arrives at the visual image, and the one that starts with the visual image and arrives at its verbal expression” (Six Memos for the Next Millenium 83).  My book bears this out, as I diagram what he’s argued and illustrate what he’s described. This has been enough, every year, to send my head in to a tailspin. Which comes first, the text or the image?  And how do we understand one without the other?
When I start small, I remember that when I teach Children’s Literature, I spend some time talking about concretization. I probably should in other classes too, but especially when I’m thinking of kids reading stories, I imagine them building elaborate images in their heads as they read.  This is why movies made from books are often unsatisfying to readers—they’ve already imagined, or concretized the pictures from the descriptions given in the book, and nine times out of ten, they imagine things quite differently from the film’s director, so they spend the movie fussing that “that’s not what the house looked like” or “she’s supposed to be taller/shorter/darker/lighter/happier/smarter/better.”
In the movie case, the text has given rise to images in the reader’s and director’s heads, and then to comment on the movie (or explain our mental images), we need to go back to words to describe it.
We move back and forth from text to image to text to image.  (Presumably the author started with an image he or she was trying to convey too, right?  We know Calvino did sometimes.  He claims some of his novellas, like The Non-existent Knight and The Cloven Viscount began as images in his head of an empty suit of armor trotting around in Charlemagne’s army and a soldier split in to his good and bad sides by a cannonball.)  So sometimes it goes from the author’s image to the text he writes to the reader’s image to her description or discussion. So how far does this go?  Can we even understand images without using words, or understand words without visualizing them?
Some subjects, certainly.  Some texts don’t create images, just abstractions.  But I will confine myself to thinking of fiction here, and there is almost always some visual element—characters in a setting carrying out certain actions—all of that can be rendered in images.  Maybe we always move from image to text, back and forth like a pinball.  Maybe that’s how we understand the world.  My inner English major wants to argue, to say we go from words to words all the time—that’s literary criticism—but as I think about this relationship, I can see myself imagining the text taking place and then trying to explain it.  We understand words in terms of images, and we understand images by translating them in words.
Calvino says we spend our lives moving back and forth between text and image, so the literature we read needs to be visual in important ways.  Eco describes fiction as a forest we wander through—a world we enter, wend our way through, and leave different.  Perhaps that’s because we’ve seen, experienced, and understood things in our mental cinema while we wound through the words.