Books and the self

As someone who teaches courses in editing and book culture, I am always looking for thoughtful writing about how readers interact with books. Adam Gidwitz’s essay “Books for Life” discusses how we may be identified by our favourite children’s books. He comes to an unexpected but striking conclusion:

When a child asks for the same book three hundred times, she is telling her parents what she needs to learn, what she needs to come to terms with. Adults do the same thing. Books are psychologists, using imagination therapy to elicit secrets that their readers did not know they kept.

Provoking! And I like it. This is a strong psychoanalytic essay. It’s not based in academic research and backed up by scholarly sources. Rather, Gidwitz’s claims arise from the observation of his own life, his friends’ lives, his lived experiences. His discussion is funny, poignant, stark, but mostly identifiable — or at least it is for me.

I have publicly questioned the simplistic endorsement of the claim that reading makes people more “human” — kinder, more considerate, more sensitive, more empathetic — although I don’t dispute the claim in itself. Gidwitz’s essay speaks insightfully to the reasons reading can help people develop greater emotional range and resilience. It’s definitely a text I’ll return to.

Source: Adam Gidwitz, “Books for Life,” published online here

Review: “When Did You See Her Last?”

by Lemony Snicket
HarperCollins, 2013

Lemony“When Did You See Her Last?” is the second volume in a new Lemony Snicket series, All the Wrong Questions, which launched in 2012 with the novel Who Could That Be at This Hour? The new volume takes us deeper into the mysterious happenings in the soon to be deserted town of Stain’d-by-the-Sea. S. Theodora Markson is back, as are Moxie Mallahan, Ellington Feint, the police officers Mitchum, little cab drivers Pip and Squeak Bellerophon, and Hangfire, the villain at the helm of various misdeeds and disappearances.

This time around, the problem is the apparent kidnapping of Cleo Knight, the daughter of an important local family. When Theodora wraps up the case prematurely, Lemony feels compelled to uncover the real wrongdoing. His pursuit leads him and his associates into numerous risky situations, and by the end of the novel, the mystery has grown even bigger and darker.

Despite its noir-ish narrative, “When Did You See Her Last?” is often laugh-out-loud funny and features the distinctive voice and quirky stylistics readers expect in a Lemony Snicket novel. The narrator is an avid reader and throughout the novel uses books in a variety of ways to solve the real mystery. The narration actively encourages readers to read, making frequent (although often oblique) references to other books they might enjoy. As in earlier Lemony Snicket books, the narrator uses advanced vocabulary, glossing meanings in context. Certainly this strategy pushes up the reading level, but I found the tactic well integrated with the larger narrative style, never intrusive or artificial. The stylized artwork by Seth is a fine accompanying touch, adding to the atmosphere of the novel and providing its own storytelling.

“When Did You See Her Last?” can be read as a stand-alone novel, but readers may find the book confusing if they are unfamiliar with the first book in the series or with Lemony Snicket generally. Readers who already know Book 1 may find this volume not quite as strong, but “When Did You See Her Last?” is still a quirky, clever, enjoyable reading experience. It’s a great pick for readers who are willing to put up with a degree of ambiguity — and with waiting for the next volume in the series. I’m already looking forward to Book 3.


This review was originally published in Resource Links, February 2014.

Uncertain about the androgynous mind

“Why do you think I won’t like it?” a friend asked after I described a book I had read and liked but said he wouldn’t enjoy. I have been reaching for an answer, because simply saying It’s a feeling I have is insufficient. But Virginia Woolf, whose writing I adore, has provided a reason:

 This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop …. (67)

That. The authorship of a book and the subject of a book still influence how readers position ourselves relative to the book. Many readers — even open-minded readers of “better” literature — want to read the book about the metaphorical or actual battle-field because they believe it will be more important, more worthwhile, than a woman’s book about interior matters.

Woolf made her comments in 1928, but the sentiment still applies. Look at whose books are reviewed, whose books win major prizes. Look at how books by women writers tend to be handled when they are reviewed. Whether we acknowledge the fact or not, books by women are perceived to be less serious, less important, than books by men. This perception troubles me deeply. It’s not a perception I share.

It is necessary, as Woolf says elsewhere in A Room of One’s Own, to write “as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman, so that her pages [are] full of that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself” (84). I’m not sure I agree with Woolf on this point, but do feel that books by women may be different from those by men — and by no means less for that difference.

Source: Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (London: Penguin Classics, 1993).


Max’s choice

When I was in my teens I read John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden, an assigned text that propelled me into studying the Modernists and Modernism generally. You may remember that the key to the novel is the word timshel:

 But the Hebrew word, the word timshel — ‘Thou mayest’ — that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’ — it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’

In a closely argued essay about Where the Wild Things Are, Desmond Manderson explains how the story of Max may be read as a tightly compressed telling of the growth from strict obedience to personal responsibility — timshel, if you will:

 A rule can never capture the complex process of judgment that must always be experienced as both bound and unbound, unique and universal. To be responsible is precisely to respond to the particularities of a situation, and to make a choice in relation to it. Merely to apply in rote fashion the words of a rule is no exercise of responsibility at all, because it involves no decision at all; it is, in fact, to claim that one ’s hands are tied. No one would ask a machine or the wind to act responsibly. Obedience, then, is the polar opposite of responsibility. The recognition of difference, and the necessity of continually making judgments that attend to that difference, marks the end of the possibility of unquestioning obedience and the true dawn of responsibility. (123)

I love the ideas about law and love this essay traces, and how Manderson ultimately argues that the critical, thinking being is the best legal subject — and how he puts reading at the centre of that process. I like the normative claims and the ethical subjectivity he argues for. This is a fresh analysis of Sendak that has potential for opening up many other children’s and YA texts.


Source: Desmond Manderson, “From Hunger to Love” (Law and Literature 15.1: 87–141).


Thoughts on gifted girls

Returning to one of my long-term interests, this time in the context of literature and analysis. This article has really struck a chord, personally and academically.

Academically, gifted girls are usually precocious readers. The National Association for Gifted Children’s (2006) position statement on early childhood states that characteristics of young gifted children include early reading skills and advanced vocabulary, and most of the gifted eminent adult women were precocious readers whose talent was nourished at an early age (Kerr, 1997). … Too often, gifted girls’ precocious reading is discounted as merely memorizing or decoding without comprehension …. Although early entrance to school is frowned on by many (Frey, 2005), research consistently shows that these accelerated children show advantages throughout their entire academic careers (Colangelo, Assouline, & Gross, 2004). When kindergarten entry policies are based on average boys’ readiness, tradition, or financial considerations, rather than on an individual child’s actual readiness, they are gendered practices.

Source: Barbara A Kerr, M. Alexandra Yuyk, and Christopher Read, “Gendered Practices in the Education of Gifted Girls and Boys” (Psychology in the Schools 49.7), 647–55.




Real readers will understand

This excerpt comes from an urban fantasy series about libriomancers, people who are able to use books to produce magic. It expresses, in a tidy rhetorical figure, a feeling I’ve always had about books and reading but never been able to articulate.

I had said before that all stories were magic. It had never occurred to me that all magic was stories.

Jim C. Hines, Unbound (New York: Daw Books, 2014), p. 229