Questioning the Tomes

I just finished War and Peace. Yeah, you read that sentence right. Get the streamers; uncork the champagne. I read War and Peace, and it only took me a year. War and Peace is one of those books that is perhaps more famous for not being read than read. It looms, taking up an obscene amount of bookshelf space, and seems to say, “don’t even pretend like you’re going to read me.” Well, screw you book, I read the hell out of you.

What really struck me as I was reading was that I didn’t already have an idea what the book was about before I read it. Yes, I knew it was about Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia, but that’s like saying that All Quiet on the Western Front is about World War I, that Slaughterhouse-Five is about the bombing of Dresden, or that Oliver Twist is about the economic stratification of nineteenth century England. However, I’ve rarely picked up a book that would be considered part of the “Western Canon” without already knowing the main conflict. Long before I read either novel, I knew that Moby-Dick was about Captain Ahab’s obsession with killing the albino whale that ate his leg and that The Brothers Karamazov was in part a murder mystery about which brother killed their father (perhaps this knowledge was why I was so frustrated that the despicable father remained alive so long). I haven’t read Great Expectations, but I know it’s a bildungsroman about a boy who aids a convict, plays with crazy Miss Havisham’s ward, and comes into unexpected wealth. The list goes on. If a book is widely read, its plot leaks into the collective consciousness. After a while, everyone knows what these books are about, yet I was wholly unfamiliar with the plot of War and Peace.

I suspect that some will say this ignorance is due to the fact that War and Peace is more famous for not being read. It’s one of those intimidating tomes that people demur from reading. However, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think of Tolstoy’s novel as being like Mt. Everest—it’s big and intimidating and that challenge attracts people. Around 4,000 people have climbed Everest. I bet a lot more have read War and Peace—it’s much less expensive than mountain climbing. I daresay that, like me, others will shamelessly brag about their accomplishment, which should be enough to get some of the major plot points into the larger culture.

What I think actually keeps the plot of this book out of the cultural consciousness is that we view it with such respect. It is one of the great literary classics, and to read it shows that you have refined tastes and that you’re an intellectual who ponders what others cannot hope to understand. Talking about the plot would rob the book of some of that mystique. True, it’s hard to summarize a book that follows about a dozen characters and that takes place over the years 1807 to 1819, but let’s take one character, Pierre. Pierre is the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. His father has made him his heir, but Prince Vasili tries to convince the father, who is on his death-bed, to write Pierre out of the will. The father does not, and, when Pierre inherits the fortune, Prince Vasili manipulates Pierre into marrying his daughter, Hélène. Hélène probably had an affair with Dolokhov, so Pierre challenges Dolokhov to a duel. We’re not even through the first quarter of the book, yet this bare bones summary is starting to sound a bit melodramatic. And as we all know, there is nothing more counter to literary refinement than melodrama.

The brief summary that I gave above isn’t fair to Tolstoy’s work; as with all summaries, it cuts away the nuances of character and language. Still the novel is filled with moments that would be equally at home in a soap opera. When describing what was happening in the book to my friends, I would sometimes refer to it as The Days of Our Lives: The Napoleonic Wars Edition. Often when we talk about literature, especially books with a reputation for being “Important,” we fail to talk about the parts that share similarities with writing done for pure entertainment. I’m often surprised by how fun some old books are to read.

There is nothing more absurd than going into battle wearing white pants.

One of the most surprising aspects of War and Peace was how funny it was. Tolstoy is trying to make the point that great men aren’t the ones who change the world, but rather they just get caught on top of the cresting wave of change. To do this he often shows the chaos of the battlefield—how orders from generals are based on old, often wrong, information and how the soldiers on the field are reacting to a different set of circumstances so cannot possibly follow said orders. He also shows how the bureaucracy of war keeps anything from getting done, officers vying for advancement and trying to sabotage each other. As far as Tolstoy is concerned, wars are won or lost regardless of the generals and their tactics. During these sections, I started to refer to the novel as Cluster F***: A Victory. Another thing that Tolstoy taught me about war is that it causes traffic jams: people fleeing the coming army, soldiers marching to battle or retreating from a loss. Another title I used to refer to the novel was Traffic Jams and Bureaucracy.

Less surprisingly, Tolstoy interweaves the moments of humor with moments of horror. Officers vying for advancement, no matter how pathetic and funny they may seem, still make their power-plays with men’s lives. The chaos of the battlefield can seem funny one second, and in the next second a cannon ball has obliterated a person. In one scene, Pierre, a civilian, goes to a battlefield just to look. Tolstoy paints a humorous picture of this bumbling tourist wandering about, yet, when Pierre barely escapes with his life and the soldiers he stayed with are all killed, we are terrified. After the capture of Moscow, Pierre is taken prisoner by the French. Tolstoy superbly shows Pierre entering a dissociative state in order to survive: he focuses on counting trees rather than realizing that his friend was just executed.

Strangely, one modern genre that War and Peace reminds me of is that of the internet comment. Tolstoy is angry at historians and how they paint history. There is chapter after chapter, with many great insults, where he picks apart the Great Man theory. He mentions that many historians believe that Napoleon lost a certain battle because he didn’t personally oversee it, as he was suffering from a cold, which means, according to Tolstoy, that the servant who failed to dress the French Emperor in warm clothes was actually responsible for the outcome of the battle. Basically, Tolstoy read some history, became enraged at it, and wrote a really long comment. I imagine that if Tolstoy lived today, he would be a terror, albeit an eloquent one, of the Amazon reviews and the YouTube comments section.

It may seem like I’m being disrespectful to a great piece of literature, and you’re right, I am.

While I read the novel, I was moved, I laughed, I gained new insight, and I yelled at it. I’ll praise what I thought was good, and I’ll criticize what I thought was not. I disliked how he presents peasants as an ideal of Russian identity and Christian suffering rather than as people, and how he presented two of the women as representations of true womanhood whose identities are consumed completely by their husbands and children. Still, I loved how he showed war as absurd. I like to interact with the books that I read. One of the ways that we can kill a book is to treat it like an untouchable relic behind glass in a museum.

This post, no doubt, has revealed my suspicion of dividing literature into the categories of high culture and low culture. I find the elements that low culture is derided for (sex, violence, bathroom humor, melodrama) are often in the works of so-called high culture, while I’ve discovered moments of transcendence and have seen the human condition laid bare in low culture. Admittedly genre or pulp fiction often provide nothing more than an escape from the everyday, but sometimes Literature, with a capital “L,” is nothing more than empty intellectual posing that only reassures its readers that they’re better than that ugly rabble. The latter has always struck me as more dangerous. It disturbs me that I feel a sense of accomplishment in reading War and Peace, which is, as we discussed, primarily known for being long, whereas I was reading fantasy series where individual novels were just as long in my teens. I too am guilty of being awed by the dubious reputation of “Great Literature” and “Important” books, when all that makes a book great is that it helps you understand the world in a way that you haven’t before. It doesn’t matter if this understanding comes from horror novels, fairy tales, or chick lit, as long as it makes you re-examine who you are and how you interact with the world.

As I was finishing War and Peace, I was also giving up on another famously long, much more recent and read novel, The Goldfinch. I was listening to The Goldfinch audio book on my commute, and, for whatever reason, that medium wasn’t working out for me. I’ve had this happen with a few other audio books—sometimes I just need to experience a book through the printed page—so The Goldfinch is now on my to read pile.

Recently a Vanity Fair article came out discussing the growing divide over the novel. Is it awesome that a literary novel has become so popular, or is it an example of the decline of letters that such a book could even be considered Literature? As I haven’t finished the book, I don’t feel comfortable in saying whether I think it’s good or not. However, reading the criticisms of Tart’s novel, I was struck by how much of it was about keeping all that adventure stuff, that escapism, that ability to be enjoyed by teenagers away from important literature. I’m guessing that some of these critics aren’t big fans of Treasure Island. Ultimately, I’m suspicious of this criticism, because it reeks of the old high culture versus low culture view. What seems to decide the boundary between the two is the critics’ aesthetic tastes. However, if they weren’t moved to reflection or didn’t gain some kind of insight, I can’t blame them for dismissing the novel. Still, as an outsider and member of the rabble, I can’t help but wonder if there is some literary guarding of the gates going on here.

The only really good negative review of the novel that I read was one from Salon. The reviewer points out problems with The Goldfinch’s portrayal of its characters of color. What makes this review good is it does what good literature does: it made me reflect. The reflection was on myself and my assumptions. I had already encountered four of the characters she mentioned, and I only felt bothered by the doorman. In fact, I assumed that what we initially saw of the doorman was part of a professional persona and that there would be more to his character. However, when I heard the part about the maid who offered to work for free because she loves her employer so much, I didn’t even register what a B.S. statement that was. It’s like when, in War and Peace, Pierre asks one of his serfs if he wants to be free, and the serf says no. While I believe that Tolstoy wanted his readers to see that statement as sincere, I read the character as being guarded with his master and saying that which most insured his safety. Why I didn’t have a similar realization with The Goldfinch, when the maid basically tells the narrator’s mother that she’s such a good boss that cleaning the mother’s house is reward in and of itself, reveals my own ignorance. Notice that the maid didn’t say she wanted to be friends—which would create a more equal power dynamic between the two woman—but that she wanted to continue to serve even without compensation. I’m not  happy realizing that I too didn’t think anything of that scene when first heard it, but I’m glad that this critic pointed out the problematic assumptions inherent in such a view.

I suppose what I’m looking for when I read is an interrogation of the world and myself. While I enjoy escaping from time to time, I’ve never seen escapism as being opposed to that interrogation. Vampires, spaceships, and afternoon tea can help shatter illusions about the world. However, because books are by people, they will be inherently flawed like people with dangerous blind spots that allow us to remain secure in a false sense of superiority. When I was talking about my problems with the portrayal of women in War and Peace, a friend said, “Yeah, but it was written over a hundred years ago.” “So it was of its time,” I said, “that doesn’t mean that I should excuse either it or its time.” Let us praise the books that make us feel, but let us never excuse or ignore when they fail to question dangerous assumptions—these two activities are not exclusive.

An Incongruity in Taste

I’ve recently recognized an incongruity in my tastes with regards to movies and books. I love retellings of fairy tales and classic literature, but rather despise the current remake culture of TV and film.

Now fairy tales and folklore already lend themselves to retellings, since they originated in an oral tradition and had to, by its very nature, go through different transformations as the story passed from teller to teller. Angela Carter, Tanith Lee, and Neil Gaiman may, at the outset, appear to be radically changing the stories they’re retelling, but on closer inspection they’re doing what storytellers in the oral tradition have always done: changing the story to fit the needs of the audience. These writers, among many more, look to older stories for possibilities. They ask “what if this had happened instead,” “what if we saw the story from another point of view,” or “what other things may have been going on behind the scenes?” Even films like Snow White: A Tale of Terror and the guilty pleasure Hansel and Gretel  Witch Hunters similarly explore the older material.

I enjoy when classic literature is similarly explored. Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea does a wonderful job of exploring the back-story of the mad wife that Rochester kept locked in his attic in Jane Eyre. Alan Moore in his graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (not to be confused with the abomination of the movie adaptation) does a wonderful job exploring the possibility of a world where all our favorite Victorian science fiction and horror stories simultaneously exist. I love Fred Saberhagen’s The Dracula Tape, a novel that retells Bram Stoker’s Dracula from the point of view of the titular character.

If you’ve read some of my poems, you’ll probably notice that I also retell older stories. For instance, my two poem, “Lucy’s Plea” and “Lucy’s Reunion with an Ex,” which have recently been published by the awesome Versus Literary Journal (didn’t I work that self-advertisement in smoothly), deal with Lucy Westenra’s point of view on the events of Dracula. As the more sexual woman who is quickly killed off, she is the character who is most often overlooked or written out of the story. I thought it would be fun to explore her thoughts, even if I had to change some things from the story for her to speak.

Considering how much I love these retellings, you wouldn’t think I’d be completely filled with rage at the NBC’s upcoming Dracula television series, but I am. Maybe I being a bit unfair, since I’ve yet to see the actual show and my opinion is  based on the below ad.

This show seems to be expanding the Dracula universe in a “what if” direction, not something I normally oppose. Mainly what bothers me is if I didn’t recognize the names Renfield, Jonathan Harker, and Mina Murray, I would have never connected it to Dracula beyond “Oh it has vampires and takes place in Victorian England too.” What otherwise would have appeared to be an original story, now has the brand recognition of Dracula.

On the other hand, if we looked at The Dracula Tape, we see Saberhagen’s obvious love for the source material. While reading, and probably rereading, Dracula, Saberhagen noticed that a narrative structured as the characters’ letters and journals naturally has questionable reliability. He also noticed that blood transfusions before blood typing could be a little deadly, which makes how Dr. Van Helsing was treating Lucy not just questionable but possibly fatal. Saberhagen had to sit with the events of novel and wonder in what other ways they could be interpreted. He is asking us to read the original material more deeply.

Whereas this new Dracula TV show doesn’t ask us to look back at the source material, it doesn’t ask us to think critically about it and maybe realize that there are some problematic issues with it, and it doesn’t ask us to find patterns in the story that could connect it to a completely different tale. We just have sexy vampires, secret societies, and the same old conflicted love story involving a possibly reincarnated lover who looks exactly the same (that’s not how reincarnation works). It may be fun, but I can’t help feel it is trying to manipulate me by calling itself Dracula.

In some ways, this TV show seems to be doing the same thing that the all too infamous Catwoman movie did. Give the product a name that audiences will recognize, throw together a lot of plot elements that seem to sell well regardless of the original story, and look surprised when the already existing fan base doesn’t give you their money.

Ahem…

 

It is all right when an artist radically changes the story. Take Carter’s “Lady in a the House of Love,” where she turns Sleeping Beauty into a vampire. Carter seemed intrigued by the idea of how Sleeping Beauty is an unchanging figure in ever-changing time. She makes the natural connection from the fairy tale to vampires. She explores what happens when this figure is awakened to the changes of time by a young man on bicycle soon to serve in World War I (he is the very figure of the twentieth century). Carter takes an image of the perfect always youthful girl waiting in the tower and changes the story to explore new themes.  Yet, we can still find the seeds of the older fairy tale.

Hell, I even have good will towards the Jane Austen monster mash-up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. While I have yet to read the book (I will be so angry if it’s bad), the excerpts I have read suggest that the Seth Grahame-Smith loves both Austen’s fiction and movie monsters. One is the epitome of high culture, while the other the epitome of low. In trying to bring them together, Grahame-Smith, I hope, was trying to find a common ground for these two disparate things. Let the Austen fans have a little fun with zombies, and let the zombies fans have any entry point for a rather intimidating piece of fiction. However, I doubt the author could have pulled the book off, if he didn’t love both Austen and brain-eating corpses.

What I hate most about this remake culture is that just how cynical it is. So many of these movies are being made not because the director has something new to say about the story, but because of brand recognition. I don’t mind hearing story retold as long as each new storyteller wants to explore the parts that keep him or her up late at night wondering “what if.”

The Book I Almost Didn’t Read

I’ve always been fascinated by book covers: how they’re designed, what they tell us about a book before we’ve even read it, how a bad design may keep me from book I would otherwise enjoy, and how a good design will trick me into reading a book I don’t like. Last year Meg Wolitzer wrote a great article on the different ways the books written by women are marketed—including the typeface that is used on the cover. Yesterday, I came across link to an article about how Maureen Johnson had asked her twitter followers to create covers for books as though the original author had a different gender. It’s quite fun.

The article got me thinking about a book I read recently, Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi. This book may be one of my all time favorites.  It’s about a writer, the titular Mr. Fox, his muse, Mary Foxe, and his wife, Daphne.  There is a bit of a love triangle between the three, but what makes it interesting is that Mary is a creation of Mr. Fox’s mind not a flesh and blood woman.  The book begins with Mary accusing Mr. Fox of being a serial killer, as he kills of all the women in his novels. They start a game where they enter several different stories—in someways it is a bit reminiscent of Italo Calivino’s If one a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Ultimately, Oyeyemi is exploring how women are viewed, often in ways that justify the violence done to them, and how fictional constructs reinforce or subvert these views. Yet despite the heavy topic, the book is often lighthearted and funny.

However, you wouldn’t be able to tell it’s dealing with such topics from the cover. When I first come across this book, it  was the cover to the right that I saw. I immediately recognized that the title was a reference to the British fairy tale, “Mr. Fox,” where a young woman visits her fiancé’s house and discovers he is a serial killer.  She takes a dismembered hand of one of the victims, and at their wedding reception reveals his crimes to the whole neighborhood. He is immediately killed by her brothers and her friends.  That definitely drew me to the book, but the Art Deco style, the colors, and the shadow of the woman with her back turned to the dapper gentlemen suggested that this book was most likely a period mystery novel with romance elements. Mystery is a fine genre, but not really my cup of tea (I hate puzzles).

Then I started to hear good but vague things about the novel. When I came across the edition pictured to the right at a book store, I bought the book.  This cover for one connected the book to the fairy tale—the beast disguised as a human—and it suggested that their might be some exploration of tropes—how the collage of the fox and clothing are not smoothly merged.  However, I was a bit worried when I read the summary on the back (which I can never resist reading). It said:

Fairy-tale romances end with a wedding. The fairy tales that don’t get more complicated. In this book, celebrated writer Mr. Fox can’t stop himself from killing off the heroines of his novels, and neither can his wife, Daphne. It’s not until Mary, his muse, comes to life and transforms him from author into subject that his story begins to unfold differently. Meanwhile, Daphne becomes convinced that her husband is having an affair, and finds her way into Mary and Mr. Fox’s game. And so Mr. Fox is offered a choice: Will it be a life with the girl of his dreams, or a life with an all-too-real woman who delights him more than he cares to admit?

On one hand the book had seemed to have magical realism, which I loved, but on the other hand it might just be a romance (also not my cup of tea).  That summary only hints at the fairly dark parts in the book, but definitely emphasizes the romantic relationship between a man and two women.  Oddly, it also suggest that the final outcome of the novel is based on the Mr. Fox’s choice alone, where in the book the two woman have equal agency.

I can’t say why the publisher chose to highlight certain aspects of this book—the love triangle—and not the other more violent parts—the murders in the embedded stories.  Maybe this really did sell better, and I would never begrudge an awesome author getting read by a wider audience.  Maybe I’m just revealing my own biases—in loving the meta and dark parts of the book, I’m probably selling short the fact that it is fun, usually lighthearted, often optimistic, and even romantic.

All I know is that I love this book, and I almost didn’t read it because of what was on its cover.

The Years Needed to Read a Book

I’ve just finished To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, and, as a surprise to no one, I loved it. I loved it so much that I didn’t just break the spine, but, to my horror, ripped the book in half. Thankfully I had some Scotch tape on hand.

What is really momentous is that this is the first book that I’ve returned to after giving up on reading it, because it was “too hard.”

I’ve always been a reader, but somewhere around my Sophomore or Junior high school year my reading habits changed. Before then, I tore through escapist literature—I was particularly fond of the Star Wars extended universe. On whim, I picked up All Quiet of the Western Front. Instead of escaping on a grand adventure, I faced a horrifying reality. Yet, at the end of the book, I felt that I understood the world—the beauty and the tragedy—a little bit better.

At the time I was ignorant of what the Canon was and the problems inherit in it, all I knew was that All Quiet on the Western Front was considered a classic, and that I wanted to experience that sense of clarity and catharsis again. I thought I could only experience it through “the classics.” As you can tell, I had only vague idea what any of this meant or what authors to seek out.

I started to wander the library stacks picking up books that I’ve heard mentioned in class or whose covers made them look like a classic (the only reason I knew Madame Bovary was a classic was because of its leather cover). Sometimes I discovered books I loved (Calvino’s, Camus’, Austen’s, Gaskell’s, and so many others), sometimes I discovered books I hated, and sometimes I discovered books that overwhelmed me.

When I selected a book that overwhelmed, I would often read a few pages, but find that I couldn’t follow what was happening or, in some cases, the syntax. To the Lighthouse was one those books. I started reading it, but I didn’t know what was going on. I was left wondering who the main character was, what were all these people doing, what conflict was pushing the plot forward. I would reread whole pages, but the words became no clearer.  Eventually I gave up—I felt that I wasn’t smart enough to read it.

I encountered Woolf again in a college literature class, where we read Mrs. Dalloway. Once again, I couldn’t follow what was happening.  Woolf’s narrative switched from character to character without warning.  I kept wondering why we were spending so much time with boring Mrs. Dalloway and not more time with Septimus Warren Smith, who I found more interesting. I figured that I just didn’t like Woolf’s writing that she was just to hard for me to read.

This all changed when I saw the film, The Hours. I quickly tracked down the book by Michael Cunningham. His book made me question my initial reading of Mrs. Dalloway, allowing me to read it once more. It is strange how point of view can affect our reading of a book. When I first read Mrs. Dalloway, I’d firmly believed that literature should be about grand ideas and grand passions. When I read The Hours, or maybe because I read The Hours, I was starting to wonder if literature could be about the little things that made up our days. I started to wonder if the trifles that I had been so quick to dismiss were just as important to our lives. In Mrs. Dalloway, and really in much of Woolf’s writing, she shows how the grand and small connect, how our lives are made up of both wars and the errands we run on a busy afternoon. She shows how what we would dismiss as insignificant can make life worth living.

Since then, I’ve read The Voyage Out, Night and Day, Orlando, The Common Reader and A Room of One’s Own. Woolf is one of my favorite writers. Yet when I picked up a copy of To the Lighthouse, I was intimidated. Here was one of the great books that I had failed to read.  Here was a book that I was not smart enough to read. This feeling of doubt is, of course, familiar: I feel it every time I sit down to write.  It asks me who I think am. I’m not that important; I’m not that smart; I’m not one of those people who will finish To the Lighthouse, Ulysses, or Swann’s Way. Perhaps that is why I sat down with the book; I needed to prove something to myself.

When I finished To the Lighthouse, what surprised me most was just how easily I could read it. I could follow the narrator as she switched focus from one character to an other. The action was clear. I wondered if this was the same book that had so overwhelmed me before. But it was, I had simply grown as reader. I was now more familiar with Woolf’s syntax. I had read more complex, sometimes frustrating, experimental writing. Stream of consciousness following multiple characters was familiar; I was an old hat at it.

In some ways my journey to finally reading Too the Lighthouse oddly suites one of the book’s main themes—the relentless march of time. People die, houses fall to ruin, books and paintings are forgotten, nothing lasts. Yet there is comfort in that change. A painting will be finished, and books will be read.

In Too the Lighthouse, Woolf questions  the traditional view of art—an avenue to immortality for the Great. In one scene, we see Lily Briscoe remember Mrs.Ramsey taking her and Charles Tansley to the beach.  Lily thinks:

But what a power was in the human soul!…That woman sitting there writing under the rock resolved everything into simplicity; made these angers, irritations fall off like old rags; she brought together this and that and then this, and so made out of that miserable silliness and spite…something—this scene on the beach for example, this moment of friendship and liking—which survived after all these years complete, so that she dipped into it to re-fashion her memory of him, and there it stayed in the mind affecting one almost like a work of art.

Mrs. Ramsey had gone to the beach with two of her friends and created a day that causes Lily to question her views and had truly moved her. We tend to think of the duties of hostess as inconsequential, but that day, because of Mrs. Ramsey, transcends and works like a piece of art. Woolf has shown us that those “inconsequential” moments can carry consequence.

Perhaps I enjoyed this book so much because it speaks directly to my artistic endeavors. I have known several Charles Tansleys who have told me that I couldn’t write just as Charles told Lily that “women can’t paint, can’t write.”  I too have looked at my writing, much as Lily looks at her paintings, and thought it will be forgotten.  Yet Woolf’s final paragraph in To the Lighthouse reminds me that it does not matter:

she turned to her canvas. There it was—her picture.  Yes, with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? she asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred.  With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.

As I read those final lines, I feel I can go on writing.  Once again I feel that I know something more about this world. I again feel that catharsis I felt at the end of All Quiet on the Western Front and so many times since with many other books.  It was worth all the years it took me to finally read those lines.

The Experience of a Book

For the last six months, three days a week, I make the hour-long drive to Santa Fe and the hour-long drive back. The biggest problem I’ve faced, other than gas prices and the ability of landscape to distract me, is a lack of listening material. I have a habit of driving to music, which increases the likelihood of speeding tickets. I’ve been listening to podcasts so far, but I’ve only found three I really like (Read it and Weep, The Bookrageous Podcast, and Literary Disco). Unfortunately, I’ve exhausted their past episodes and now must wait for each new episode. I’ve tried finding some other podcasts, but nothing has really caught my attention (feel free to make suggestions), so in an attempt to remain sane and within the speed limit, I’m entering the strange new world of audio books.

Now the thing is I love listening to books. Growing up both my parents read to me, and I was still asking them to read to me after I could read chapter books on my own. I only stopped asking my mother when I discovered that she was censoring the more risqué parts (which really weren’t all that risqué). At my father’s house, I had younger siblings, so I was, under the guise of bonding with them, able to be read to well into middle school.

It was during that time that I first encountered an audio book. My family has a tradition of reading Night in the Lonesome October every October. Someone eventually gave us the audio book version. We put the cassette tape in the stereo, gathered around, and listened. We didn’t even make it through the fist chapter. The voice actor had got it all wrong. And by all wrong I mean, he sounded nothing like my father.

In recent years, my husband has read many of Terry Pratchett’s books to me. He is a wonderful reader—he does the voices—so wonderful in fact that hearing him read the Discworld novels out loud is preferable to actually sitting down and reading the books silently. In large part it is because my head doesn’t do the voice, everything I read is in my own voice, even if a picture of Morgan Freeman is right next to the text.

In fact listening is so integral to my reading that I cannot read poetry silently. When I open a book of poetry, I know that I will speak every word. If I read it silently, I won’t retain anything. This habit can get interesting if I’m reading some LANGUAGE poetry.

So considering that reading has so often been linked to listening to me, you would think that I would take quicker to audio books. Yet still I hesitate. Maybe it’s because I don’t know the voice actors—I would hate a bad voice actor to ruin a good book.

Or maybe it is because I feel listening doesn’t count. I can’t claim that I’ve read a book if I only listened to it. I’ve haven’t listed any of the Discworld books that my husband has read to me on my Goodreads page (well until now). Of course, I don’t mind that it doesn’t count when my husband reads to me. I’m able to enjoy a book with him. However, I don’t have that additional bonding moment with an audio book. Alone on my way to work, only I will laugh and only I will cry.

The important question is why do I care if it counts or not. At first I want to say it is because reading is active, you have to work at it, and listening is passive. But as someone who speaks at students on a daily basis, I can tell you that listening is not a passive activity. I still experience each and every word of the book whether I’m reading or listening to it. True I can’t analyze the sentences and the plot of an audio book in the same way, but then I never analyzed everything I’ve read.

Yet I’ve seen people judged by their reading habits all the time. The worst is when people are dismissed as readers because they read science fiction, mystery or romance. I’ve heard people point out that audio books don’t count. But audio books are not like movie adaptations, all the words that the author wrote are still there. I wonder if it’s because we associate being read to with being a child. Is part of being an adult that we don’t get to be read too anymore? I’ve already given up trick-or-treating; I don’t to give this up as well.

In the end, I have six hours a week where I’m alone on the road. These are six hours where I cannot read, yet I can still make my way through a book. I can still empathize with the characters, enjoy a well turned phrase, lose myself in wonder, and ponder new ideas. How could that not count?

At Least it’s Not “The Christmas Shoes”

I feel like I should make a “you better watch out” joke for some reason.

It is the Christmas season again, a time when I would like to get in the holiday mood but the shallow saccharin sentiments used to mask the aggressive consumerism just feed my cynicism. But that is not what I’m going to complain about today, no today I want to ask what the hell is up with the “The Little Match Girl”being a beloved Christmas story! Really? Mind you this is coming from someone who loves Rare Exports and Black Christmas. I’m fine with Elder God Santa and a slasher hiding himself in a sorority house as the girls pack for winter break. I understand my love of horror can be a bit odd especially during this time of the year, but I draw the line at this fairy tale.

The story is by Hans Christian Andersen, who for those you who are  familiar with fairy tales should be cause for alarm (at least when you’re trying to calm children for bed). In it a little girl who has no shoes is dying of hypothermia on New Years Eve. She is afraid to go home because her father will beat her for failing to sell the matches. She ends up lighting each match for warmth during which she hallucinates a warms stove, a Christmas tree, and her dead grandma—the only person that has ever been kind to her. In the end she succumbs to the cold and her frozen little body is found with a smile on its face. Lets send the little ones to bed with that image in their heads.

Christmas seems to need a little sadness and a lot of nostalgia, which I’m fine with. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “White Christmas” are my favorite Christmas songs because they show longing for something that once was, note both songs were written during World War II.  At the time many knew that they would not be home for Christmas that they may never get home, but it is still a possibility. There was still hope. A Christmas Carol needs its ghosts and needs its suffering, but it also needs Scrooge’s redemption and the knowledge that Tiny Tim, that annoying little sprite, can be saved and live a long life. Take It’s a Wonderful Life (a film I hate, but I understand it’s appeal), George Bailey’s possible suicide attempt is necessary, but so is his discovery that life is worth living. Whereas the Little Match Girl dies alone, but that is alright because she’s in heaven. Children die miserable deaths from neglect, but don’t worry or feel guilty for your apathy, they get a nifty afterlife. Merry Christmas!

I suspect as with all things this comes down to taste, and if I was religiously inclined I may view the tale a bit differently. If you enjoy this story there is nothing wrong with that, but in the end I much prefer Terry Pratchett’s take on it in Hogfather.

In Praise of Fear

Recently I agreed to cover a friend’s class while she was out of town.  The night before the class, I felt a familiar knot of anxiety.  I had felt this same knot the first day I taught a class, the first day of graduate school, the first day of college, the first day of any job I ever had. This anxiety and fear has always been with me.

When I was child and teenager, I would describe places as territories. Any place that caused the knot—which seemed to physically interrupt the ebb and flow of my body, which seemed to be like a knot in piece of wood, which also seemed to be a clenched fist in my gut—was a place that was outside of my territory and most places were. The very act of driving down a neighborhood street that I was unfamiliar with was enough to cause this anxiety. Walking up to some door for the first time, I would, and still, imagine what I would do if this was the wrong house or if this was the wrong date and time. The worst for me was on family vacations. I could calm myself by saying that the places we visited were meant for tourists that they welcomed strangers, but if we stopped at a grocery store in a strange city for supplies it terrified me. Surely, the staff and other customers would recognize that we were strangers that we did not belong there, and then they would…I was never quite sure what they would do. Taunt us, throw things at use, torture us in a horror movie sort of way. Even as a child I understood that these outcomes were unlikely, but still I felt the fear.

Fear is not always bad.  You should trust your gut. If a stranger knocks on your door trust your instinct to not open it, even if the stranger becomes insulted at your rudeness and wonders why you can’t see through the peephole that he’s not a serial killer. If you find yourself at a party were you feel unsafe, leave even if your friends are angry at you for dragging them away from a good time. If something about a parking lot seems off, bug the security guard, get him or her walk you to your car. These are all good instincts that should be trusted.

But for all the good that fear does, it can also be crippling. I wouldn’t have been able get a job or go to school, if I didn’t ignore the fear I feel when entering a new building. I wouldn’t be able to leave the house, if I gave into the anxiety. Hell, I wouldn’t be able to sit down at my computer and write these words much less post them in a place where anyone can see and judge them. I would never get to try new restaurants and to explore.

When I was teenager my film tastes were different from my friends, which meant I often found myself alone in a theater watching films like The Importance of Being Ernest or The Exorcist re-release.   If I listened to my fear, I would’ve missed out. Being a girl alone is scary and with good reason. There were many moments where being alone seemed to expose me to danger. Sitting in an empty movie theater, a man sat down right behind me even though every other seat was available, even though I sat in an aisle seat (an easy escape). In a diner reading a book, some stranger saw my solitude as an invitation to sit down at my table and start a conversation, asking if I was waiting for someone, asking questions where the answers seemed to suggest the chances of people missing me if I were to disappear.  Hell, even walking down the street men yell nasty things, pull up in their cars and ask if I need a ride (even walking through a parking lot with my car keys in hand). These are all situations where fear is the necessary and the correct response.

The only way to avoid them is to never leave the house, but I have a life to live.  All I can do is try to be aware of my surroundings and even rude sometimes.  In the movie theater, I stood up, moved to the other side, sitting a few rows back, so I could keep an eye on the man during the film. In the restaurant, I was polite, but I paid my bill as quickly as possible and left—talking on a cell phone to friend. I would not hang up until I was in the car with the doors locked and the engine running.  In these situations, I would like to hope that these men had good intentions and were just oblivious to why their behavior would be a nerving to a teenage girl, but I can’t know for sure.

Fear, for all it does to keep you alive and safe, is also embarrassing. I was embarrassed that I was rude to these men, but embarrassment has little to do with keeping one safe.

I’m embarrassed that after I watch a horror movie I need to turn on the lights in the house.  Many friends who share my love of horror will point out that they can no longer be scared because they don’t believe in ghosts or zombies, as though fear is linked to belief.  I do not believe in ghosts. I turn on every light in the house not to keep the spirits at bay, but because I know how the eyes can play tricks on you that a shadow in a dark room can become a figure. I turn on the light because imagination is what scares me, and the idea of seeing something that is not really there is perhaps scarier than ghosts.

As you, dear reader, can see, for someone who is often afraid and feels anxiety whenever entering a new place or situation, I do a lot to court that fear. I watch horror films even though I know I’ll give myself nightmares. I go to new places and dare do things alone. I even subbed for a friend, though the very idea caused me anxiety.

Fear is to be trusted; it tells you when you’re entering a new territory where you’re unsure of what will happen. But not all fears are equal. When I entered my friend’s classroom, I feared that I’d embarrass myself and let her down, and while these things could have happened they were risks I can take. The time in the movie theater and the diner what I feared was much worse, so I listened to instinct. Being aware of our surroundings is not a bad thing.

In graduate school, a professor told our class that the subjects that frightened us were what we needed to write about. She was right. Only then do we become super aware of the words that we are putting on the page, become aware of what we’ve been avoiding. When we write about things we are comfortable with, we do not scrutinize the corners the way same we scrutinize the rooms in scary old house.

Perhaps my love of horror films is connected to my love of writing. In both, I face things that I could easily hide from, things that will give me nightmares. But when the credits role or I step away from my keyboard, I’m safe at home. Fear is necessary and not to be avoided. It tells us when to run, and it tells when to turn on the lights and scrutinize what once was shadow.

Don’t you hate it when you try to have a polite conversation with the living and they start screaming?