Living · Reading · Teaching

The Road to Memory is Paved with Giant Teeth

I’m thinking about memory again.

My position on reading print over electronic texts is not changing. When I discussed Maryanne Wolf’s recent book, Reader, Come Home, I was looking (because she was) at the different ways we read when we read print on paper versus screen. Wolf demonstrates that we read more superficially when we read on a screen, in part because of the distractions possible through advertisements and notifications. We are more interruptible in that context, and we read more content, but much less deeply.

This weekend on the patio I had a moment.

My well-worn Penguin edition of the Prose Edda. I am a reader, not an illustrator.

I was strolling through the fertile fields of Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda on Saturday for… I don’t know… maybe the thirtieth time, reading about the creation of the cosmos from the head and body of the giant Ymir. After they kill the evil frost giant, Odin and his brothers dismember him and use his parts for raw materials. They use his skull to form the dome of the heavens (and install unfortunate dwarves at the cardinal points to hold it up). They use his bones to make Midgard, the realm of humans. They use his blood to make the oceans.

This time I stopped here and pondered. It’s gross and gory, yes. And I usually just tromp right through, almost mechanically tallying the parts with their upcycled functions, so I remember them when students ask: his bones become mountains, teeth become rocks, brains become clouds. His blood becomes the oceans.

I paused. I lifted my eyes from the book and gazed for a moment into the distance as one does when contemplating spiritual truths. In mid-ponder, my partner bustled out, mid-chore, and couldn’t help but notice my philosophical stance. He asked what on earth I was doing.  

Processing. I was processing. I imagined giant blood for oceans and, put off by the sheer grossness of it all, I pushed on that image for a minute in my brain. This guy was a frost giant. What do frost giants bleed? Maybe water. Thirty times reading this, in all sorts of contexts with people way more and way less experienced than I, and it had never occurred to me that frost giants must perforce bleed water. The oceans are water.

Well, then. That’s fine.  Way less gross. Cool, even—those clever Norsefolk.

Rob was still looking at me.

And it occurred to me how I read differently online than in a book. When I’m staring at a screen, it’s much harder for me to glance away and think, so I don’t do as much questioning or imagining or connecting to other books and things I know. The screen keeps me riveted, and that keeps me in receiving mode exclusively. I read more quickly. I don’t reflect as much. And if I don’t reflect and somehow connect what I’m reading to other ideas in my head, I don’t remember as much.

Books present information in a lovely, static format. If I lift my gaze, there is no risk that when I look down again the text will be altered or gone. But virtual text taunts me with that possibility all the time—sometimes from faulty internet connection, but sometimes I hit the wrong key or place on my phone’s screen, and I lose the whole damn thing and can’t get it back. (Totally justified) comments about my technical ineptness aside, the risks are greater in the ephemeral world of electronic text, and that may be one reason why I dare not look away. And there is always the risk that some ad in the margin or some clickbait at the bottom will draw me away from the Thing I’m Trying To Read, and I’ll never wend my way back.

This has far-reaching ramifications, my friends. If we only receive a steady stream of information, and don’t give ourselves time or mental space to process it thoroughly, it’s no wonder we read more superficially.

But we also won’t remember as much.

“I’m reading,” I said to my expectant spouse. “This is what reading looks like.”

Living · Picture Books · Reading

Idylls of the Introverts–a summer tradition

A Tree Grows in Solvang

When my son was ten, he and my partner played a tabletop fantasy game called Warhammer 40K. This involved lots of painting of tiny soldiers and model tanks and buildings, and it sort of peaked when they found out there was a convention in Chicago. At first, my eight year old daughter and I thought we’d go too, but we also thought it sounded like watching movies in a foreign language about subjects that don’t interest you. So we passed and decided to think of our own thing.

I had always wanted to go to Solvang, a little tourist town in the Santa Barbara wine country with Danish roots (and therefore bakeries). There was even a Hans Christian Andersen museum.

As a Girly Getaway, it had loads of potential.

I made a reservation at a Bed and Breakfast with a fairy tale theme, and we got a room filled with Danish lace and paintings of swans and princesses. It was perfect. We bought Dala horses and ate abelskivers, the little spherical pancakes drizzled in raspberry sauce, and we decided this was our thing.

And that was before we discovered the bookshop.

The bookshop is what kept us going. The Book Loft is a lovely, independent bookstore with used and new books and the best Fairy Tales and Folklore collection I’ve ever seen.  We each bought an armload of books, and we headed across the street to the park to examine our haul. We read under a tree all afternoon.

Since then we have done largely the same thing every summer. We love the little town, but if we’re honest, we go for the books. It’s a perfect destination for us, although neither of the boys understand.

We chat all the way there and back, and if it were a trip with girlfriends, we probably would buy wine and keep chatting. It’s not.

It’s with my favorite bookworm, and we spend a considerable chunk of our time sitting next to each other companionably and reading. We stop to read each other funny passages or show a picture or summarize a great story. We are geeks. When she was eight, I was already buying more picture books than she was. She was reading children’s fantasy novels, and I was collecting picture books and new versions of fairy tales.

Now she’s a teenager, and she reads YA fantasy novels. I’m still collecting fairy tales. This year I got a couple collections with an eye to adopting one for my folklore syllabus in the fall. But the first thing I did was read one of her books—a verse novel about Joan of Arc. And she read a collection of graphic novel-style fairy tales I’d picked out to stay current. That’s right. We both sat there and read a whole book under that tree before one of us had to go to the bathroom.

Book Haul 2019

Several things stand out about this to me (or they did, when our hotel smoke alarm went off and the front desk guy came in to turn it off and saw our giant stack of books strewn across the bed and looked at us like that was one thing he’d never seen when he entered someone’s hotel room at night.) Maybe this is weird. Maybe the fact that we essentially make a two-day bookstore run every year is weird. Maybe that we take a vacation together but don’t talk half the time is weird. Maybe the fact that we’re happy doing essentially the same thing, eating at the same restaurants, and that we go to the fudge shop the first night for us and on the way home for the boys, since we can’t be trusted not to eat theirs is weird. (That seems least weird to me of this list, frankly.)

But the fact is some day she’s going to be 21, and even though people have been recommending wine to her there since she was 13, she will someday take them up on it, and the dynamic will change.

I tried to shake things up a few years with different locations or (gasp!) restaurants, but she has always been somewhere between reluctant and outraged. I have pushed her to all the local museums and the ostrich farm, with the tacit understanding that we should probably know more of the area than the park and the bookstore, but really, what makes us happy is the quiet time leaning against each other under our tree, comparing this year’s books to last year’s, and chatting with the shop workers and servers who only see us once a year, but remember us anyway. Some comment on how much she’s grown, like the server who remembers her back when she wore Crocs with gibbitz in them and clapped at the Red Viking because they served her milk in a pilsner glass.

The secret to happiness is indulging your inner geek. Especially with someone who high fives you for it.


The Mild Mania of Loving Languages

Can one be addicted to learning languages? If you can, aren’t there worse obsessions?

It’s not like I do it thoroughly. I know a fair bit about a number of languages. Most of them aren’t spoken anywhere (hands up if you know anyone who speaks Gothic or Old French?), so there’s no immersion program where I can relocate for six months and come out the other side able to converse with Alaric the Goth.

Mostly it’s about reading. I do like to be able to speak, but my fear of sounding like a jerk or an idiot overcomes my desire to communicate most of the time. It has taken decades to get better at–not over—that. But I really like to read in different languages.

When I was wending my way through graduate school, trying to pin down a field of study, I embarked on a linguistics program. I told my advisor I wanted to focus on historical linguistics. He told me that wasn’t done anymore, that it was just a relic–something non-linguists think of when they think of linguists. What I should have told him was that I wanted the keys to the kingdom—the secret to learning languages. Because the real reason was that I didn’t trust translators. I wanted to read Beowulf and Vǫlsunga Saga and the Romance of the Rose without an intermediary.

That’s pretty close to what I got. I got a chance to study language and language change in the abstract and I got to know a few languages in very concrete, “this text and one other are all we know of this language” terms. Perhaps most importantly, I learned how I learn, and that did me in. I swear it’s addicting. Like Bubble Pop or crosswords, languages feel like puzzle games, and I will be that old, weird little person trying to figure out what dragoncello means in Italian.

Discovering how you think and learn is both empowering and baffling. I know I see words in my head as I hear them, that I parse them, search for cognates, and am genuinely annoyed if I can’t figure out how something is spelled. It makes me good at deducing meaning from words, and good at slipping in to rabbit holes mid-conversation (which is usually not good). In my case it means that I have the same sense of wonder about words as I do about cloud formations, genetics, and how they cram music between the ridges of a record.

It means I recently spent a disconcerting amount of time wondering whether there was a corresponding opposite to the Latinate word “crepuscular,” which means ‘growing dark’ as in twilight or dusk. There was a word in Latin, “clarescere” which meant ‘to grow clearer and brighter’ but English didn’t steal  that one, apparently, and I haven’t found a cognate in other modern Romance languages.

This is all to say that thinking in words is a way of thinking, as is thinking in images or concepts. And as the world continues toward global community, it’s not a bad one to cultivate.


The Saga of Moira Aschenputtel

Reading with a cat (or dog!) is one of my favorite images of contentment.

There’s something soothing about the quiet it requires, the warmth of the fuzzy one curled up on a lap or on the floor nearby. It’s an image of comfort, as we imagine the person sitting for a period of time, reading in quiet companionship. And a cat or dog, who can’t interrupt (at least not with speech) evokes a shared silence conducive to reading.

I was lucky enough to spend many hours over Thanksgiving break in such a position. I feel very rested.

I have spent many hours reading with pets over the years, but this weekend was a little different. This weekend we adopted a new cat because her person, my cousin, recently died. This kitty has quite a story.

This kitty found and claimed my cousin’s husband about four and a half years ago. She was alone and needed a home, and they were mourning the recent loss of their previous cat. It was perfect. Brian was retired and lonely while his wife was at work, so the cat became his companion, and in the way these things go, they rescued each other.

But then he got cancer. He was strong and healthy, and he kicked it, but it came back with a vengeance. Through a second round of chemo and some alternative medicines, including trips to far-off retreats and Bucket List vacations, the kitty stayed close, offering what comfort she could. When he died, she was the only other heartbeat in the house, and Carrie was consoled, but still bereft.

A married woman for two thirds of her life, Carrie was lost without her partner. The kitty was a tie to him, but also a reminder of her loss. After a few months, the cat started wandering off for longer and longer periods.

She was on walkabout when the fire came.

When Carrie evacuated, seriously fearing for her house and property, she looked high and low for the cat. The school where she taught third grade closed for over a week. She took refuge at her parents’ house fifteen miles away. She feared for the little gray cat alone in the smoke and ash. Ten days later the kitty returned–haggard, dirty, hungry, lonely.

In the months that followed, she stayed home more. She seemed to sleep more. Carrie described her as lazy. The truth was they were both cocooning, trying to decide what shape their life would take moving forward. My cousin made the decision to stay in the house. She resolved to renovate and redecorate and make the house hers–to shape her next phase of life purposefully.

But just as she seemed to be finding her footing, she went to sleep one Saturday night and didn’t wake up.

The cat went rogue.

How much, really, should one little cat have to take? How much can any of us take? She came and went, and the neighbors put food out for her, but she didn’t live there anymore. No one did. Instead, she watched.

In the weeks that followed, the house was emptied. The last ties to her people were boxed and bagged and donated and dumped. What reason could she have for staying there? The food, sure, but nothing else, really–at least not until the sweet voice and soft hand of a sixteen year old girl who scratched her ears and cleaned the cobwebs off her whiskers.
We went to help clean the house last weekend and came home with a new kitty cat. We have pets, and she was dirty and flea-addled, so she needs to be quarantined for a bit while she heals and recovers and adapts. And while she does, we’re taking turns doing our various homework in the back room with her. Because reading with a cat is the best way to read.
Living · Writing

Metamorphosis–Giving Myself Permission to Change

I got my fifteen year pin at work. That’s half a career. It feels like a perfect time to shift some gears.
I sometimes have to remind myself not to be afraid of change. I’m pretty good about trying new foods and restaurants, but big changes, I resist. I’m done moving. I chose a career with job security.  I’ve been married to the same guy pretty much all of my adult life.
But I know change is good. I know it’s invigorating, and I know it’s necessary. Since I’m not willing to trade in my husband for another model, it had to be work that changes.
I certainly am not stopping teaching, although some shifts are coming there too, as we change to semesters, and I step out of the King Arthur class and in to some new territory after “semester conversion.”  But this is a multi-faceted job I’m in, so I’m shaking things up in terms of writing.  Really, I’m giving myself permission to revisit a dream.
If you had asked me at fifteen what I wanted to do when I grew up, I’d have said write, and at that point, I’d have meant poetry. I wrote a lot when I was young, but I could never have been so bold as to try to make a career out of writing creatively.
After about twenty-five more years of reading, though, I feel like I have something to write.
It started with a book for my kids. After reading so many books to them, I felt like I could tell where the gaps were, and what worked and didn’t work. But I still wasn’t ready to commit to thinking of myself as a writer.  It took five years to write one little novel. The kids I wrote it for have grown up; that doesn’t sound like I’m a writer—more like a scratcher in the sand.
This year, though, I’m picking up speed. I got awarded a sabbatical to wrap up the novel. That was very validating. I started a blog about reading. It turns out that counts as writing! Before I finished my first novel, I started thinking about the second one. And as I start getting in to critique groups and searching for an agent, I find I have reached a critical mass of baby steps toward a new identity and now don’t feel like an impostor when I call myself a writer.
There is a delicate dance, being a reader and a writer, and we can go from being one to another and back again in an endless circle. I have always considered myself a reader, but only a dilettante writer.  But I have come around to writer again, and this time I’m not begging off.
The best bit of wisdom my dad ever gave me was “If you do what you love, you’ll never work again.”  At the time, I dropped the biology degree and ran headlong in to literature and languages.  And he was right (except for grading). What he forgot is that there can be more than one thing you love.

Didascalicons, or What to Read and How to Read It

I have always been interested in education, and when I chose to study medieval Europe, it was a natural draw for me to see how they studied and what they valued in terms of learning. When relatively few people were literate, and most of those had strong ties to the church, reading was viewed quite differently from today. Texts were produced laboriously, often by many different artisans, even before one considered the text’s author. Reading was serious work—serious enough that people worried about doing it wrong—with bad intentions or just badly (reading that is superficial or frivolous, not reflective and enlightening). Thus there was a need for a Didascalicon.
Hugh of St. Victor wrote the Didascalicon as instructions toward productive study and correct reading. He includes directions on what texts to read, what areas to study, and what order of subjects leads to fullest understanding. We might presume that the idea of reading rightly may have had more clout when there were fewer readers and fewer texts, and most of them were associated with the church. One should read with the elevation of one’s soul in mind, of course. But I think we still fret about this.
There’s a shift, to be sure.  Dante writes in his Inferno (Canto 5) about a couple who fall in to the sin of lust while reading the tale of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere’s affair. He worries (not unreasonably) that his own books might lead people to sin if they were read badly—quickly, shallowly, or misdirectedly—if they were misinterpreted. The idea that his current book, which he intends to lead readers to salvation, might also lead some to Hell, hits him like a ton of bricks.
But Dante was writing in the Catholic Middle Ages. So was Hugh, a century before him. We live in the 21st century. Surely we don’t need people telling us how to read or what to read.
Or do we? The advantage that medieval readers had over us is the same thing I listed as a deficit above.There were far fewer texts, and the cost of producing a text meant someone had to really want to produce and disseminate that text. That means, if not quality control, at least quantity control was built right in to the system.
Hugh is worried about us reading so that we get maximum gain from what we read, but he’s not worried about our reading texts that are deliberately misleading. No “Alternative Facts” or propaganda in a medieval romance. No Buzz Feed lists and no satire sites that are so carefully crafted that readers have to check their sources to make sure they’re satire.
Face it. We still need help reading. Now we need help knowing what to read, what not to read, and what not to believe, if we do get sucked down a rabbit hole.  We worry about images we can’t “unsee” and spending too much time reading things that really upset us.  The context is different (I think the number of people afraid of being damned for reading something is down, at least per capita), but the result is the same—people worry about wasting time, being misled, and even being psychologically affected  by what they read.
What do we do to combat the overwhelming amount of text and image that we encounter on a daily basis?  We read lists that other people have compiled. Blogs are full of reading recommendations, as is Pinterest. We publish lists of bestsellers, and we award prizes for excellence. Some of us check the list of challenged and banned books for suggestions. We teach classes on how to tell reliable sources from biased or commercial ones, and our librarians teach us to use the CRAAP test to ferret out questionable sources. And I’m afraid we get pretty cynical and set our default on “mistrust” rather than believing what we read right away.

I admit, sometimes it would be easier to just take some well-meaning person’s word for what we should read and what we should get out of it. But we don’t do that anymore. We can’t afford to. Maybe it’s better. We all have to come up with our own Didascalicon.

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.  

Reading · Teaching

Why Read Calvino? Or Any Other Classic Author?

I’m teaching Italo Calvino again, and that means starting with his essay “Why Read the Classics?,” wherein he decides ultimately that the strongest reason to read the classics is that it’s better to have read them than not.  He gets there through a list of fourteen attempts to define what a classic is or does, all while crafting a definition everyone can agree upon.  This is at once, I think, an important discussion and one whose reality we deal with in the effects it produces—what ends up on bookstore shelves and stays in print—and a futile discussion, but one I continue to have.
It is of course necessary to distinguish between those traits of a classic that you think everyone would benefit from, and those more personal preferences that make a work classic for you, but that may not be everyone’s cup of tea.  He addresses this.  He goes so far to name them “personal classics.”  When I discuss the essay with my English majors, we distinguish between “Upper Case Classics” that are somehow empirically classic, and “Lower Case classics,” our own personal favorites.
Ten years of discussing this issue with English majors, most of whom self-describe as “avid readers” and so invested in the discussion, and I have come to think he’s right:  it’s a muddle, and there are lots of traits of classic literature that ring true, but nothing that pins it down neatly.  If we can’t pin down what’s good about classic literature among people who almost uniformly love it, we don’t have a prayer of explaining what’s good about it for every person on the planet.
Part of the problem is logistical:  we can’t very often find a work of “classic” literature that everyone in the room has read. The two times we have, it has been Hamlet.  So we’re trying to triangulate positive traits in or definitions of classic books by finding several books that most of the class have read, and hoping there is enough overlap that everyone can stake their claim.
This year we loosely decided that Classics should make us think and feel deeply (hopefully inspiring us to change or grow), and that within those functions, we can choose what kinds of subjects or characters or style works more effectively on each of us.  This leads in to our discussion of the first novel of the quarter, If on a winter’s night a traveler, where Calvino tries to build a classic everyone can agree on, and which I’ll think more about for next week.  Meanwhile, I put the questions to you:  Is there something that classic literature does for us that Dan Brown or JD Robb or Tom Clancy don’t do?  What do we gain from reading something old, attested, and approved by previous generations?