On the importance of books First up, a little something I skimmed from Jeannine Atkins, who put up an excellent post discussing comments made by Sherman Alexie when she heard him speak last weekend. He was talking about why he feels it's important to keep books available in print form, but I like this quote whether in or out of context.
People sometimes need to hold books as if totems that may change their lives.
Isn't that the truth? Speaking of books (and aren't we usually?), here's a bit taken from a thoughtful rant posted by Anindita Basu Sempere earlier this week, in which she was discussing one of the key issues she sees with book challenges such as the ongoing one in Kentucky, where books by Laurie Halse Anderson (
What judges of literature don't realize is that in making a decision for another, they are removing all possibility for others to become independent thinkers, individuals who can read and articulate what they believe. The purpose of a critique is not to say whether a work should or should not exist, but how it could be made more effective and how the person conducting the critique can also learn to create.
A romance novel is escapist. A YA novel deals with adolescent, not adult, concerns. They are what they are, and they can be written in thousands of ways.
The purpose of reading is also manifold: for enjoyment, for entertainment, for illumination, for escape, for understanding, for empathy, for insight, for knowledge. But it's for the reader to learn how to read, and therefore to think, critically, and for the writer to also learn how to read and then to read widely because there are lessons to be learned from both "good" and "bad" literature.
Amen, sister. Not that Anindita said any of the challenged books were "bad" literature, but I like her point - even if they were, and had little literary merit on their own (think of the enjoyable-but-not-exactly-heavy-lifting Gossip Girls series, for instance, which are fun reads -- ooh, candy! -- but not on a par with, say, Winter Girls or Jumping Off Swings for complex ideas and amazingly well-crafted sentences) - where was I? Right - even if they had little literary merit on their own, they would belong in a high school classroom to help kids hone their own critical reading skills.
On immersing oneself in one's writing. The other day, Christy Lenzi posted this lovely quote from Gustave Flaubert, which I believe she skimmed from someone else. I particularly like how it celebrates that feeling one gets when really "into" the writing process, and in such swoon-worthy terms to boot:
It is a delicious thing to write, to be no longer yourself but to move in an entire universe of your own creating. Today, for instance, as man and woman, both lover and mistress, I rode in a forest on an autumn afternoon under the yellow leaves, and I was also the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words my people uttered, even the red sun that made them almost close their love-drowned eyes.
On writing for children. Roald Dahl wrote an article for The Writer back in the 70s that was reprinted in the September 2009 issue. Part of the article talks about what he thinks children like in books, and I can say for certain that my inner child still likes all the stuff on his list.
I believe that the writer for children . . . must like simple tricks and jokes and riddles and other childish things. He must be unconventional and inventive. He must have a really first-class plot. He must know what enthralls children and what bores them. They love being spooked. They love suspense. They love action. They love ghosts. The love the finding of treasure. They love chocolates and toys and money. They love magic. They love being made to giggle. They love seeing the villain meet a grisly death. They love a hero and they love the hero to be a winner. . . They like stories that contain a threat. "D'you know what I feel like?" said the big crocodile to the smaller one. "I feel like having myself a nice plump juicy child for my lunch." They love that sort of thing.
What else do they love?
New inventions. Unorthodox methods. Eccentricity. Secret information. The list is long.
On poetry. A few weeks ago, I purchased the new book, Robert Frost: Speaking on Campus: Excerpts from His Talks, 1949-1962, edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Frost tended to speak in a folksy, somewhat rambling sort of way, but always he made his point, digressions or no. Despite the length of this particular quote, it's nowhere near the length of the full excerpt given in the book, and I've also added ellipses where I've made further edits.
In answering the question "What philosophy has poetry, for a time like this?", Frost began his answer as follows:
And of course the first thing to say about that, all times have been troubled, haven't they? I was looking at Matthew Arnold, and there's nothing but the trouble of that time through his poetry.
. . .
Well, the answer is that I don't believe poetry has any philosophy for offer. To make a kind of poetic allegory or myth – Platonic sort of myth – let me put it this way: God sent into the world three things – just three, great things; the greatest things. Two of them were beliefs, and one of them was unbelief.
And one of the beliefs call itself a "belief" and uses that word for itself all the time: true religion. (Though, it always has second breaths. It'll say, "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief." Unbelief goes with it, in true religion.) And the other belief, that doesn't always know it's only a belief, is science.
[Discussion of how religion and science are both beliefs - religion knows it, science doesn't always remember that it is a belief that all things can be explained]
And the third thing that God sent into the world, like a goddess or something, is the unbelief called "philosophy" – which is never its true self and never good when it isn't doubting, when it isn't pruning and trimming and combing the dead hair out of the two beliefs – like combing a dog, combing dogs.
[Discussion as to how philosophy, religion and science interact among themselves.]
Now, after I've said that and given you a chance to look it over, I wonder if you're wondering where I say poetry would come in. Well, it doesn't come in anywhere there. It doesn't match with those things at all.
It plays around over the surface of all those things, just the same as you do. . . .
See, all I think of in Socrates was the negative side. I heard a fine old man say the other day, "Well, I don't like you to use the words 'the negative side.'" Said, "I don't think it's nice to thing about negative things."
But the negative is the cleansing. It's Socrates' demons that told him "no" and nothing else – never told him "yes" once; always told him "no." And that's what he was there for, to disturb the boys with "no," on the street corner – Alcibiades and the rest of 'em. That's why they gave him poison, in the end. The town couldn't stand him.
Now, poetry comes in like this. I don't want the word "philosophy" for it at all; I don't. I want the word "wisdom" – little scraps of wisdom, little flashes of insight, just the same as you get every day among people. . . . I often think a poem is nothing but a momentary stay against confusion. It's got something in it that's like that, that holds the moment for you, anyway – stops the confusion.
And now, some writing time, where I shall hope for some "little scraps of wisdom, little flashes of insight" - something to hold the moment and stop the confusion.