Thursday, December 29, 2011

The e-Reader Debate

I hope everyone had a Merry Christmas and is still reveling in holiday spirit.  This is my favorite time of year, and I wish you all have some of the joy I have been feeling.  And while things have been extremely busy in my life lately, I have not given up on this blog.  I hope to come back with new energy in January!

But before we discuss specific books and authors again, I want to open a little debate.  I imagine that the Kindle was a popular present this year, and since so many of you love reading, it's likely that you received one (or another kind of e-reader).  However, many book lovers are resisting the emergence of e-readers out their loyalty to books.  I know this because I was once staunchly opposed to reading tablets. 

I love books.  Let me make that as clear as possible.  There is nothing that compares to holding a book in your hands and feeling the significance in its weight.  I love turning pages forward to feel the progress I'm making but also flipping back to ones I've already read to find the connections.  (Or when I'm reading Russian works, I need to flip back to remember all the names!)  I like penciling in notes in the margins or underlining a passage I want to be able to quickly find again.  I adore antique books that have soft leather covers and that delightful musty smell of old pages.  Some of my most prized possessions are volumes I have from the 1800s, such as my first-edition copy of The Portrait of a Lady.  A reading tablet could never be a legitimate substitute for something like that.

Another objection I had to Kindles was a commercial they had on TV.  In it, a guy and a girl have a short "debate" about Kindles versus books.  I can hardly bring myself to call it a debate because the arguments are absolutely pathetic.  The only defense the girl offers for books is that she feels satisfaction turning down a page.  I don't think there's a single book lover who would say that is the primary reason he or she enjoys holding a book.  In fact, I imagine that many adament book lovers would never dream of damaging the page by folding it down.  I was so irritated with the completely inadequate defense of books that I formed a negative opinion of Kindles in general.

Thus, when my parents surprised me with a Kindle last spring, I was not thrilled with the gift.  I glared at the small tablet like it was my enemy, threatening the extinction of something I so greatly love.  I could barely muster a polite "thank you" for their generous and well-meaning gift, because I was waging this internal battle.  But since I now owned it, I reluctantly begin to play around with it and observe its capabilities.  In almost no time at all, I was hooked.

That's right, I am absolutely a fan of the Kindle.  I can't argue as adamantly for other e-Readers because this is the only one I really know.  But I now carry mine with me wherever I go.  By far, the most useful aspect of a Kindle for me has been reading it while I use public transportation.  When I get on the T, (subway in Boston), it can be so difficult to balance my purse, coffee, newspaper, and book, especially when I still need a free hand to hold on to the pole.  As you can imagine, I feel awfully clumsy when I try to use two hands to turn the pages and keep track of a bookmark to save my place.  With my Kindle, however, I can have my purse on my shoulder, tuck my coffee in the crook of my arm, and hold the Kindle with just one hand, leaving the other free to hold on for dear life.  I can also easily slip it in and out of my purse, which is too small to fit actual books but has plenty of room for my beloved Kindle.  Just think how many books you could have with you on vacation!

My other favorite feature is that you can download almost every classic for free.  You heard me - FREE.  I have not yet paid one penny to put a book on my Kindle, nor have I run out of memory space.  Now, it's a piece of cake to check out books that people recommend to me.  In just seconds, I can have a free copy in my hands that I don't have to worry about finding or returning to the library. 

Finally, the internet feature has been helpful to me.  It is certainly not the easiest internet browser, but it's functional.  Yet because I don't have internet on my phone, my Kindle has helped me out in a few tight spots.  If I want to do something fairly simple, like look up the weather, a restaurant's number, my email, etc., my Kindle does the job.  The iPad clearly has a much better internet system, and people unfamiliar with my Kindle tend to struggle with using the online feature.  But remember that the Kindle is designed for reading, and the internet is just a handy addition.

HOWEVER, I still love books, and I still believe that there is no replacement for them.  If I'm just sitting on the couch, I would rather read a physical book.  I miss being able to flip through past pages when I want to make a connection or check something out.  I miss penciling in notes for passages I want to be able to quickly reference.  I don't feel like I'm making as much progress when I am looking at a percentage number rather than feeling the weight shift as the finished pages surpass the ones yet to read.  And as I said earlier, I adore antique books with their soft leather covers, golden trim, and musty book scent.  A Kindle can't reproduce this, and thus it could never extinguish books.  But I've learned that it does have its advantages, and I can heartily recommend it, especially to those who use the subway!

But I want to hear from you!  What do you think of e-readers?  Do you like them?  Hate them?  Did you get one for Christmas?  Can you understand my internal struggle?  I look forward to your thoughts!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The French Lieutenant's Woman

I've been wanting to share this next one with you for some time now, and it's the perfect follow-up to my post about Metanarrative.  It's been a while since I read The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles, but I still remember how much I loved it upon my first reading.  I've now reexamined the story and am eager to add it to my list of Classics.

The main character of the story is Charles Smithson, a Victorian gentleman who begins the story with a suitable fiance.  The title character is Sarah Woodruff, a social outcast due to her past relationship with a lieutenant who abandoned her and tarnished her reputation.  As fate would have it, Charles is captivated by this mysterious woman and eventually enters into an affair with her.  In many ways, the characters and setting of the story fit into a typical Victorian design.  Based in England in 1867, it is reminiscent of Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, and other authors of that era.  However, Fowles is clearly satirizing Victorian literature and fashioning a Postmodern work of brilliance in this Victorian mold.

The primary method of satire is Fowles' unique and amusing narration.  The narrator constantly breaks in and out of the story in metanarrative, dispelling the fantasy.  Eventually, he confesses that he is actually writing the story in 1967, yet he claims to have no authority over his characters.  In a truly unique move, Fowles actually places himself temporarily in the story.  Near the end, he describes a man who is sitting on the train across from the main character and studying him quizzically.  He reveals that he, the narrator, is the mysterious man on the train and as he looks at Charles, he says, "What the devil am I going to do with you?"  Then, he proceeds to weigh the possible outcomes of the story.  Memorably, he eventually settles the matter by offering three alternative endings, which he suggests are all equally valid.

I thoroughly enjoyed this narrative style.  I love the ways he poked fun at Victorian literature, and I often chuckled at the narrator's subjective comments that balk from a tradition of "narrator as god."  He also filled the text with countless literary allusions, which I, as a fellow lit lover, absolutely loved.  Every chapter begins with at least one quote from a famous piece of literature, and at times he directly explains its connection to the story.  His characters are equally well read and frequently refer to various works of their time, such as Madame Bovary and Persuasion.

Another important aspect of this story is the ambiguity, which plays a critical role in the novel.  Fowles pushes readers to consider that things cannot always be separated into distinct categories.  It is not always a matter of right or wrong, good or bad, yes or no.  Sarah is the best example of this in the novel.  Through gossip in the town, we hear many explanations and opinions about her relationship with the French lieutenant, but none of them are ever confirmed.  Moreover, the shame she bears from this relationship is presented at times as her source of victimization, and at other times, it's her source of power. But perhaps the greatest ambiguity of all these possible motives is that they do not necessarily contradict each other.  It is conceivable that they may all be true, or at least partially true.  Moreover, there is an implicit suggestion that one explanation does not exist, that there is not one “true” reason for Sarah’s actions.  This essentially borders the Postmodern theory of "truth" and "untruth," in which there are multiple dimensions we perceive rather than one set guideline.

Publishing this in 1969, Fowles was ahead of his time.  I believe that his work was monumental in the transition from Modern to Postmodern literature, and his brilliance is even more striking in consideration of the innovation it brought.  The French Lieutenant's Woman is about so much more than its plot.  In fact, the plot is the least memorable aspect of the story for me.  Instead, Fowles challenged the boundaries of what a story can be and ushered in a new era of writing.  This novel is lightly entertaining and deeply philosophical at the same time, which is not an easy thing to accomplish.  I highly recommend it to all!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Literary Analysis, Part 3: Metanarrative

I'm sorry for taking so long before writing a new post.  Although this series takes more work for me to write, I am finding it to be really valuable, and I am motivated to continue.  However, I am walking in some territory beyond my expertise, so please read this as a discussion rather than an official instruction.

Metanarrative is another really fascinating lens of literary analysis.  It comes from Postmodern philosophy, which is based on the idea that definitive absolutes - such as Truth - are either extremely elusive or nonexistent.  Inherently, this also makes it difficult to define postmodernism, since it balks against definitions.  Nevertheless, there are theories within postmodernism we can understand and which shed light on the literary subset of metanarrative.

According to this philosophy, everything we experience is subject to our interpretation of it.  We cannot evaluate anything from an objective standpoint because we unavoidably make assumptions based on our interpretations.  Even if we tried to avoid this by taking what is written to be meant literally, this is still a subjective decision.  For this reason, postmodernists believe that our conception of Truth is relative because it is subject to our interpretive limits of "true" and "untrue."  Some postmodernists will go so far as to suggest that there is no definitive Truth at all, but others (like myself) argue that it must exist, though we will never have the assurance that we know it.

Authors who incorporate metanarrative in their writing explore this postmodern idea. To start simply, metanarrative is a story within a story.  These texts are not written with a third-person, omniscient narrator who exists outside of the characters in the story.  Instead, they have active narrators who openly insert themselves in the stories they are telling and are self-conscious of their own narration.  If the narrator appears as a character in the story, the author may take a break from the main storyline to say what the narrator is doing in real time.  This creates a metanarrative by acknowledging that there are two simultaneous things happening - 1. The events of a previous experience from a retrospective point of view, and 2. The present events occurring while the narrator is telling the story.

If the narrator does not appear as a character in the story, he will break the traditional framework to reveal that he is incorporating his personal opinions to the story.  By doing this, the author openly acknowledges that the events of the story should not be taken as factual, unwavering Truth.  A metanarrative identifies that there is a narrator behind the story and not an omniscient, inerrant god.  This emphasizes that the reader's understanding of the story will be affected by the narrator's presentation as well as her own interpretation.

Another aspect of postmodernism that often appears in metanarrative is frequent allusions to past works.  Again, this is meant to illustrate that we are wrapped in the context of various stories which impact our understanding.  The author of a metanarrative is extremely self-aware and wants readers to challenge their own interpretations as well. 

Why would I want to know this?  How will this affect my reading?

Because we are so accustomed to omniscient narrators, we may be baffled the first time we encounter metanarratives.  I find that it is helpful to understand the purpose behind these unusual narrations so that we can scrutinize what the author is conveying.  Of course, if you believe in the heavy subjectivity our interpretation brings, then we should never expect to really understand what the author had in mind.  I find that this makes the piece of writing much more fluid and welcomes readers to entertain various interpretations.

Examples in Literature:

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Honorable mention: Frankenstein, Turn of the Screw, and Dracula are all layered with multiple narrators to play with interpretations among the characters of the story and those of the readers

Useful Explanation:

Purdue University's Guide to Postmodernism
I'll try to find more for this later, but let me know if you have a useful site at hand!