On the Virtues of Reading for Pleasure
Published on January 31, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at Salon, Laura Miller argues that stories don't need morals or messages to be worth reading, and that the whole "reading is good for you" philosophy taps into this weird Puritanical strain in mainstream American culture.

My sense is that this is probably true, although I would argue that books can be fun and meaningful, and that it's perfectly fine to read for pleasure rather than personal growth.

Anyway, here's an excerpt from Miller's piece:

"What is the purpose of reading stories, especially made-up stories? That’s the question lurking behind a recent posting to the New York Times’ education blog, SchoolBook. Ann Stone and Jeff Nichols, the parents of twins, wrote about taking their kids’ third-grade English Language Arts test with some friends as a party game on New Year’s Eve. The group read an inane little story about tiger cubs learning to tear bark off logs, but, to their surprise, couldn’t agree on a single answer to the multiple choice question that followed: 'What is this story mostly about?'

Tests like this, the couple asserts, do students 'a double disservice: first, by inflicting on them such mediocre literature, and second, by training them to read not for pleasure but to discover a predetermined answer to a (let’s not mince words) stupid question.' The problem, they feel, stems from the standardized testing regime, which forces the learning experience into a too-rigid structure. Even a 'banal' story like this tiger-cub number admits 'multiple interpretations,' and the prod to 'reduce the work to a single idea' does a disservice to both reader and text.

I’m sure Stone and Nichols are right that the current, reductive obsession with standardized testing has made this propensity worse, but discomfort with fiction — with all its slippery, non-utilitarian qualities — goes back to the beginning of American culture. As the historian Gillian Avery observed in her 'Behold the Child: American Children and Their Books, 1621-1922,' 17th-century Puritans had big doubts about any kind of non-scriptural storytelling, for adults as well as for children. They were as determined to teach their kids to read as any modern helicopter parent, if for other reasons: For Puritans, reading the Bible was essential to getting into heaven, rather than into Harvard (though to hear some people talk today, you wouldn’t think there was much of a difference)."

Click here to read the whole thing.


Literary Tourism
Published on January 24, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at The Poetry Foundation website, Albany-based writer Daniel Nester has an interesting piece up on literary tourism. Reading it, I realized that I am a literary tourist, because when I travel I like to visit the homes of famous writers. In Key West, I visited the Hemingway house, and in California I visited the National Steinbeck Center, which is located in Steinbeck's hometown of Salinas.

Of a trip to the Brook Farm Inn, a bed-and-breakfast in Lenox, Mass., Nester writes:

"Years ago, one dream I carried into the world was that I wanted to be a poet. And so it came to pass that I entered the MFA program in poetry at New York University. If there was a secret language poets spoke, I wrote in my application’s statement of purpose, I wanted to speak it. And so for a year, I spaketh and workshoppeth, and then, in my second year, my teachers and fellow students journeyed north here, to Brook Farm Inn, to write poems and break bread together.

That was in 1996. Fifteen years later, I am back, not as a poet but as a literary tourist.

'Literary tourist?' you say. 'I’ve never heard of such a term.' Watch closely, because here’s where we pivot from personal anecdote to microtrend thinkpiece lede. Ever make a special trip to a used bookstore? Visit Shakespeare's home in Stratford-upon-Avon? Pilgrimage to a writer’s house or grave? Friend, you are a literary tourist."

One of the great things about Nester's piece is that it makes you feel like visiting the homes, graves and various institutions associated with famous writers is a fun and popular thing to do. Everyone's a literary tourist!

Poe Toaster Missing in Action
Published on January 22, 2012 by Sara Foss

I consider myself a fan of Edgar Allen Poe, but I'm not as obsessed with him as his most devoted fans. For instance: the mysterious fan who visits Poe's grave each year on the anniversary of his birth, and leaves behind three red roses and a bottle of cognac.

But this mysterious figure, known as the "Poe Toaster," hasn't shown up for the past two years, and now Poe fans are worried the tradition is over. I'm a little worried myself. It's a good tradition, and it would be a shame if it came to an end.

To learn more about the Poe Toaster, visit this Wall Street Journal article.



Notes On Poetry, Online And Otherwise
Where are the Poetry Blogs?: Twitter Poets
Published on January 10, 2012 by guest author: Dan Schneider

Just before New Years I contemplated joining Facebook, a social media step I never before had been tempted to take. My wife walked me right up to the edge, filling in a username and password for me on the new user page. Her logic: It would be great to be able get the news from friends and family that sometimes was only broadcasted on Facebook. I might even get more readers for my writing. And she wouldn’t have to be the one with the Facebook page.

Contemplating the jump into social media made me wonder how writer are using it. I was curious about Facebook still, but more fascinated by Twitter. Would a tweeting writer mostly post updates about new books, readings and publications, or do some writers use the medium as a way to take notes and share ideas for work? Maybe I could find some micro-novels and pint sized poems in the Twitterverse (Twittersphere? I’m still not sure what to call things these days).

So as I was poking around the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, I was pleased to be introduced to D.A. Powell and Arda Collins, via a piece on poets who tweet posted on the Lit Pub by Tiffany Gibert, a Brooklyn writer and reviewer. She compares the tweeting writer to the metalsmith, whose “work becomes more difficult and more intricate with smaller objects.” She continues:

The writers I love tweet about nonsense. They tweet because it’s amusing. They tweet stories and dreams and observations that succinctly demonstrate why they write, that they must. They tweets shards of wisdom so sharp that I feel the dullness of my own tweets, and I hope that my RTs do not debase their gracefully worded morsels.  

As I hadn’t really ventured into Twitter before, it took a minute to adjust my verbal focus to the #hashtags and @replytopreviouspost Twitterese. (Whoever came up with the name Twitter knew something about how words catch hold and recombine!) But like Shakespearean verse - if one can at all compare the two - once I got the feel of the way things are put and the terseness of a 140 character statement, it got easier.


Reading "Motherless Brooklyn"
Published on January 4, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I review the 1999 Jonathan Lethem novel "Motherless Brooklyn."

Click here to read it.

Book Guilt
Published on January 2, 2012 by guest author: Tatiana Zarnowski

Some books I can't put down -- I read them hungrily in stolen bits of time that stretch into minutes when I should be doing something else, like going to bed or work or meeting friends. Other books I can't seem to pick up. They sit on the shelf and I ignore them the same way I ignore old food in the fridge that's certainly rotten by now. I look the other way and think of something else, anything other than the book that I decided to read and now can't bear to open.

A few years ago I heard a librarian say if a book hasn't grabbed you in 50 pages, you shouldn't keep reading it. And she said anyone over the age of 50 should subtract one page for every year after that.

"Life's too short to read bad books," she said.

Her rule was a relief to me, but also made me nervous. Is it really OK to put down a book forever after 50 pages? This is something I have wondered about over the years. I'm so duty-bound that I'm still pretty sure there's a deity who will punish me someday for giving up on "Don Quixote" and "Uncle Tom's Cabin," or at the very least revoke my college diploma.


Reading Sherman Alexie
Published on December 12, 2011 by Sara Foss

I just finished reading the Sherman Alexie young adult novel "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," and it's very good. If you're unfamiliar with Alexie's work, I'd recommend starting with his 1994 short story collection "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven," but "Absolutely True Diary" isn't a bad starting point, either.

Anyway, I blogged about "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" today at the DG, and you can find that post here.

Notes On Poetry, Online And Otherwise
Love Flea: A Love Poetry Blog
Published on December 4, 2011 by guest author: Dan Schneider

A recent battle with fleas (a story for a different kind of blog post!) inspired me to look up a poem I’d read sometime back in college or grad school called, appropriately enough, "The Flea." I couldn’t remember the author, but a quick Google search brought up “The Flea” by John Donne, a contemporary of Shakespeare. Reading this again (you can find the whole poem here), I was struck by how modern the poem seemed—as long as you disregard Elizabethan notions of chastity and honor. Donne opens:


Mark but this flea, and mark in this,   

How little that which thou deniest me is;   

Me it sucked first, and now sucks thee,

And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;


Perhaps it is Donne’s tongue-in-cheek speaker, his directness when describing the flea sucking blood from both lover and beloved, or the idea of finding love within something revolting (believe me, I can tell you exactly how revolting!) that give this 400-something-year-old poem a modern feel. But then it made me wonder: If Donne was subverting the conventions of the love poems of his time by using the device of the flea, what conventions are contemporary writers using or subverting in love poems today? Does anyone even write love poems these days?


The Magic of Books
Published on December 4, 2011 by Sara Foss

In my column this week at the DG, I write about the joys of reading fantasy and science fiction, and manage to touch upon the epic magician novel "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell," the death of Anne McCaffrey, Elmore Leonard, Stephen King and William Shakespeare.

Here's an excerpt:

"Over Thanksgiving break, I traveled to Maine, where the balmy weather allowed for long walks on the beach and bike rides through the marsh. I also saw 'The Muppets' and finally finished the doorstop-sized novel I’ve been reading since the waning days of summer.

Titled 'Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell,' the book tells the story of two magicians seeking to restore magic to 19th century England. The men have vastly different personalities — Mr Norrell is stuffy and cautious, while Jonathan Strange is dashing and daring — but they join forces to help the British defeat the French before parting ways over philosophical differences.

At 900 pages, 'Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell' is quite large, but it’s also an absolute blast to read, and I have no excuse for taking so long to get through it. (I had hoped to finish it on my vacation but opted instead to work my way through a 13-magazine backlog.) I’d been reading it in bits and pieces, but over Thanksgiving I had time to sit down and plow through the final 300 pages.

This is how I read books when I was younger, long before I had a job or real responsibilities to attend to — in huge chunks, over the course of a few days."

Click here to read the whole thing.

Plagiarism? Or Plagiarism Hoax?
Published on December 1, 2011 by Sara Foss

I find the latest plagiarism scandal fascinating, and not just because I took a poetry workshop with the writer, Quentin Rowan, in college. (We were both creative writing majors.) At the time, we were all kind of in awe of Rowan, because he'd had a poem published in the 1996 anthology of the best American poetry.

Anyway, apparently Rowan's new book, a spy thriller called "Assassin of Secrets," written under the pen name QR Markham (which was previously used by Kingsley Amis), contained excerpts lifted from a number of other writers, including John Gardner and Robert Ludlum. The publisher, Little, Brown, has pulled the book from the shelves, while Rowan has written an apology, of sorts, over at The Fix.

OK, some links.

At Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams explains why Rowan's apology is lame. (He claims addiction made him do it, and that the urge to plagiarize is something of a pathology.)

One of Rowan's fellow Brooklynites bashes him here.

While the Huffington Post provides a detailed look at the scandal here.

And one writer suggests that Rowan might be a genius, and that the whole thing is a hoax that will make him wildly successful.

Judy Blume, Interviewed
Published on November 30, 2011 by Sara Foss

I loved Judy Blume's books when I was a kid, and read everything by her that I could get my hands on. Her young adult novel "Then Again, Maybe I Won't," is one of my favorite books of all time, and I probably read it about 12 times. (My other young adult author hero is Robert Cormier. His book "The Chocolate War" is also pretty amazing.) And when I was in fifth grade I had the opportunity to go see Blume speak and get her autograph. So that was pretty cool. (I believe she autographed "Just As Long As We're Together," thought I'm not entirely positive.)

Anyway, courtesy of NPR comes an interview with Judy Blume. She talks about censorship, getting kids to read and advice for young writers. You can check it out here.

Anne McCaffrey, R.I.P.
Published on November 28, 2011 by Sara Foss

I wanted to note the recent death of novelist Anne McCaffrey, who wrote the excellent fantasy series Dragonriders of Pern, which I absolutely loved when I was 13 years old.

Here are some links to articles about McCaffrey.

Neil Gaiman remembers Anne McCaffrey.

The New York Times runs a lengthy obit.

In July, "Princess Diaries" author Meg Cabot talked about McCaffrey in an interview with the L.A. Times.


Interview with Nicole Krauss
Published on November 17, 2011 by Sara Foss

I really enjoyed Nicole Krauss' 2005 novel "The History of Love."

In this interview with The Morning News, she discusses her most recent novel, "Great House," and some other things.

Notes On Poetry, Online And Otherwise
Where Are the Poetry Blogs? (Part 2)
Published on November 2, 2011 by guest author: Dan Schneider

So I discovered that maybe not all of my favorite poets have started blogs yet, but I knew there must be some good ones out there. The Internet is great for finding specific things you want to know about, but not always so good at leading you to what’s new and interesting and good. For example try searching for "love poetry" and see if you get any results that wouldn’t be rejected by Hallmark’s cheesiest greeting cards.

Part of my problem might have been that I didn’t have precise criteria for what I was looking for in a good poetry blog. Like a good poem it would have to capture my attention in some way—through humor, novelty, images, design, an interesting name, something to get me reading.

I have to admit that although I like reading poetry and writing as well, I can’t boast of a very long attention span for poetry if it’s not in some way rewarding or memorable. I’ll give a “difficult” poem a try just as quickly as an “accessible” one, but either way my eyes start to slide off the words if it gets too murky, self-indulgent, or even too long to bother to keep reading. So finding a whole blog on poetry from a general search seemed like it might not yield such exciting results.

This time, however, the Google Gods were kind. The top hit from Google when you enter "poetry blog" is THEthe Poetry Blog (not a misprint but a reference to Wallace Stevens’ “The Man on the Dump,” of course). THEthe features new poetry weekly, discussions of poetry and poetics, and poetry comics, reviews, and other articles.


Scholars and Sherlock
Published on November 2, 2011 by Sara Foss

Fans of Sherlock Holmes will want to check out this piece on The Awl.

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