Four Audiobooks Kristen Ann Ehrenberger

Kristen Ann Ehrenberger will graduate from the Medical Scholars Program in May 2016 and start residency in June. Full reviews of these audiobooks can be found on her blog, Frau Doktor Doctor.


It is interview season for fourth-year medical students, who are traveling around the country to visit hospitals and residency programs. The lucky ones are able to schedule some of their interviews together and can drive, thereby avoiding the hassles of train travel or the prospect of arriving at a distant destination by airplane sans luggage and dark-colored suit. For a road trip that took me from Champaign, IL, through Columbus, OH, to Baltimore, MD, and back via Pittsburgh, PA, I decided to venture into the (new for me) genre of the audiobook. Some people like to listen to familiar books, either so they can pay more attention to the road or so they can quote along. Oh sure, I could have used those hours more “productively” to listen to pathology lectures, but I chucked guilt out the window and borrowed a variety of fiction and comedy selections from the Champaign and Urbana Public Libraries.

Pratchett_GoingPostal.jpgOn the recommendation of a friend, I began with British author Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal (book, 2004; unabridged audiobook, 2005). It is the thirty-third installment in his fantasy-fiction Discworld series, but you do not have to have read any of the other novels or even to have heard of the series to understand this fantastic story. It takes place in Ankh-Morpok, capital city of a principality that exists in a quasi-feudal present in which transportation is by horse or carriage and execution is by hanging but money is counted in dollars. The main character is Moist von Lipwig, a con-man with whom Lord Havelock Vetinari makes a deal: choose death or the position as Postmaster General. There follow maddening antics at the hands of the postal employees, a discussion of labor rights involving big clay golems, and a romance with a chain-smoking dame. The plot is fairly unpredictable, and the action is often laugh-out-loud funny. Hands down, the best part is Stephen Briggs, the voice actor who has collaborated with Pratchett on a number of projects. He gives the characters delightful and unique English, Scottish, and Irish accents. (One of the golems is French.) This audiobook was an unqualified success as such.

Hale_Austenland.jpgThe other three audiobooks to which I listened were good but not great, for different reasons. For instance, Katherine Kellgren reads Shannon Hale’s Austenland (book and unabridged audiobook, 2007) in a style I could only describe as “breathy English romance,” whereas underneath I found Hale’s writing wittier and more dryly American. I hardly dare confess that I have never finished a single book by Jane Austen, although I have watched one of the movies—maybe Pride and Prejudice?—and then only once. Even if I do not exactly fit the demographic Hale surely had in mind when she penned this little romantic comedy, it charmed me. The novel features a New Yorker in her early 30s who is obsessed with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the 1995 mini-series. Jane Hayes has had a series of failed relationships and contemplates swearing off men altogether when she inherits a dream vacation to an English resort that caters to romantic fantasies. After setting up the action, Hale intersperses the plot chapters with vignettes enumerating each boy and man who cheated on Jane, dropped her, or could not live up to her idea(l) of Prince Charming. Unsurprisingly, the narrative arc traces what I assume is a typical Austen novel, with the heroine learning about herself as she tries on a variety of suitors, finally and improbably but deliciously ending up with her nemesis-cum-secret-admirer.

Stewart_America.jpgPerhaps the least successful audiobook among them was The Daily Show with Jon Stewart’s America: A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction (book 2005, abridged audiobook, 2004). The chapters of this satirical history and civics lesson are written by the Comedy Central staff and voiced by actors on the show a decade ago, including Stephen Colbert and Ed Helms. They lampoon American exceptionalism, voter apathy, and the quagmire that is the American Congress; some of the funnier chapters are Samantha Bee’s comparisons with Canada. The book received many awards but in my opinion does not translate very well to the audiobook format. The humor either builds slowly and subtly as hypocrisies accumulate over sentences and paragraphs, or else it comes from long, wry asides. Often the listener has to know the actual history, or facts about how a bill becomes a law, or the composition of the Supreme Court in the early 2000s, to get the joke. By the third CD I realized that Stewart and Colbert’s largely monotone delivery was due to the exceptional dryness of the wit. This kind of humor must be transmitted better on the page or on the stage than spoken aloud.

Mosley_FortunateSon.jpgAfter Going Postal, my favorite selection on the trip was Walter Mosley’s Fortunate Son (book and unabridged audiobook, 2006). Mosley has made a career of writing about black male heroes like detective Ezekial “Easy” Rawlins; Fortunate Son pairs unlikely brothers to question the role fate plays in our lives. The story begins as a sweet, interracial romance between a poor black florist and a rich white surgeon who fall in love and raise their sons with a visionary Vietnamese-refugee nanny in a Beverly Hills mansion. After “Mama Branwyn” dies and her ex-boyfriend and mother show up to claim 6-year-old Tommy, the brothers’ lives diverge drastically. The skinny, introspective, black boy drops out of school almost immediately and lives on the streets, having a series of wild and violent encounters with drug dealers, gang members, and the police. Blonde Adonis Eric is popular, athletic, and excels at school, but he seems to carry a curse that dooms the people around him. Which is the fortunate son of the title? Listening to Lorraine Toussaint voice this audiobook while winding through the Appalachian Mountains did not lend itself to pausing and rewinding in order to savor the delicious turns of phrase with which Mosley closes many chapters. I rather wish I had read it in hardcopy, so I could set my own pace and manipulate the pages of this intriguing text.

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Reading William Maxwell by Valerie Hotchkiss

Valerie Hotchkiss is the Andrew S. G. Turyn Endowed Professor and Director of The Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


William Maxwell's All the Days and NightsI am currently reading a collection of short stories by William Maxwell called All the Days and Nights. I’ve become a fan of Maxwell since arriving at the University of Illinois because we house his literary archives. Maxwell served as fiction editor at The New Yorker from 1936 to 1975, where he not only edited, but also inspired some of the most prominent authors of his day, including Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, J.D. Salinger, John Cheever, Frank O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Eudora Welty once said of Maxwell, “For fiction writers, he was the headquarters.” When J.D. Salinger finished Catcher in the Rye, he went straight to Maxwell with it. Not surprisingly, this amazing editor was also a pretty amazing writer. Indeed, I would argue that he is one of the greatest American authors of the twentieth century.

William Maxwell's The Folded LeafMaxwell was an Illinois native (born in Lincoln, Illinois, in 1908), who attended and taught at the U of I for a few years. I often make a gift of his novel The Folded Leaf, a heart-rending account of a young man’s experiences at the University of Illinois in the 1920s—based on Maxwell’s own life—because it is full of references to places in Urbana. I also highly recommend They Came Like Swallows, one of the few novels about the 1918 flu epidemic.

Though I prefer his novels, I am enjoying Maxwell as a short story writer in All the Days and Nights. “What Every Boy Should Know” captures the anxious and mysterious inner world of an adolescent paperboy in rural Illinois, while “Over By the River” offers an impressionist view of middle class life on the upper east side of Manhattan in a way that reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s style. My favorite piece in this collection is “Love.” Just four pages long, it is the most perfectly executed short story I have ever read. Get a copy of this book, if only to read “Love.” Or treat yourself to Tony Earley’s boyish reading of it for the New Yorker short story podcast.

If you read something by William Maxwell (I recommend The Folded Leaf or So Long, See You Tomorrow), please visit the Rare Book & Manuscript Library and I will show you the original manuscript afterwards. Seeing Maxwell’s drafts is a beautiful experience of the creative process.

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Go Set a Watchwoman by Dawn Durante

Dawn Durante is the Acquisitions Editor at the University of Illinois Press. 


Go Set a Watchman by Harper LeeWe’ve welcomed the New Year, which means all the best of 2015 lists have presented themselves, and especially my favorite lists: the best books of 2015. There is one book that was hard to find on those lists, despite it being one of the most anticipated and bestselling books of the year: Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. To Kill a Mockingbird’s companion, Go Set a Watchman takes us through Scout’s visit home to Maycomb twenty years after she has moved to New York. Through adult eyes, Scout slowly sees the realities of her hometown very differently than she did as a child. Her visit home is filled with reflection on where her idyllic memories of her childhood depart from actual tensions surrounding race, class, and gender. Where the book really shines is when Scout shares new memories of her childhood high jinks with Jem and Dill. These vignettes feel like you are learning something new about an old friend that you grew up with but have not seen in a while—and in so many ways, that is precisely my relationship with Scout and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Upon release of the long-awaited sequel—the publication of which was filled with controversy from the outset—reviews and op-eds everywhere revealed [spoiler alert] Atticus Finch is a racist. People speculated what this meant for everyone who had been inspired by Finch after To Kill a Mockingbird. They questioned how this would impact future generations reading about the once-heroic father figure. The post-publication discourse surrounding Go Set a Watchman was almost entirely Finch-centered. As all of these discussions prioritized Finch, the question I began to ask was: How did a book written by a woman, about a woman, turn into a book about a man in the popular media?

I’m not interested in a close reading of the novel here or in attempting to deeply investigate its literary merit—that has been done already. And, under no circumstances should we sweep Atticus’s racist practices under the rug. But what lacks from the myriad book reviews that came out in the wake of Go Set a Watchman is that it is not necessarily Atticus that has changed. It is perspective. Scout’s perspective, to be precise, and a woman’s perspective, to be even more precise. By decentering the narrative of the book—Scout’s narrative—and placing the emphasis on Finch, we do a disservice to our main character and, I believe, misread some of the most penetrating messages of the novel. After all, we have likely all had loved ones we discover at one time or another have outdated, biased opinions. If you look at any hero long enough, you will see flaws, and what truly matters is how we react to these realizations, and what should matter to us in Go Set a Watchman is how Scout reacts when she returns home and is plainly confronted with injustice, bigotry, and hypocrisy. Scout’s most mature sense of selfhood manifests as she navigates the realization she does want to be wooed and married as well as the discovery that her father’s behavior emphatically conflicts with her moral compass and how she viewed him her whole life.

By making this book about Finch’s loss of heroic status instead of Scout’s process of standing up for what she believes is right, we entirely miss the fact that, like its prequel, Go Set a Watchman also gives us a hero: a critical thinker who takes a stand for equality in the face of racism and sexism.

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“Special Books” by Christine Hedlin

Christine is a PhD candidate in the English department. She is currently writing her dissertation on the history of the nineteenth-century American novel.


I spent the holidays at my parents’ house this year, which inspired me to reflect on some of my favorite childhood and young adult reading memories. As it turned out, this is a delightfully deep rabbit hole in my case, so I’ve decided to write this post in the form of a “Top 10” list, as opposed to describing a single memory. I wouldn’t point to any of these moments and say, “And that’s why I became an English major.” Yet I can also safely say that I wouldn’t be where I am, that is, pursuing a PhD in English, without these kinds of moments. In random order:

Officer Buckle and Gloria by Peggy RathmannOne: As a child, I had many books on a bookshelf in the room that I shared with my twin sister. Many of these books—The Puppy Who Wanted a Boy, There’s a Monster at the End of This Book, Officer Buckle and Gloria—are still among my favorites. Then there were The Special Books. These were books stored in a musty-smell cabinet in the family room. They were “special” not because of their content or even their physical properties (although many were hard cover) but because they were given to my family as gifts. Therefore Ducks, Ducks, Ducks (you can probably guess the gist of the content) was a Special Book in my house, but Hamlet was not.

Two: The first “real” book (aka, not a learn-to-read book) that my sister and I could read ourselves wasErnie Gets Lost book Ernie Gets Lost, about the Sesame Street character Ernie getting separated from his mom at a shopping mall. We would stay up late reading it in unison by nightlight. Whether we could actually read it or just memorized it is highly questionable.

Three: When my next-door neighbor came over to babysit, my sister and I always made her read us the same two Little Golden Books as bedtime stories: Blueberry Bear Learns to Count and Kitty’s New Shoes. These were not our favorite books. We had plenty of others. But we took great delight in her frustration at the repetition.

Judy Blume's Tales of a Fourth Grade NothingFour: When my family went on road trips, we’d bring along books to read aloud. My mom would always do the reading—when her voice got tired, we’d take a break, not switch readers. Family favorites included Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Jamie Gilson’s Thirteen Ways to Sink a Sub, Gordon Korman’s The Sixth Grade Nickname Game, and Barbara Park’s whole Junie B. Jones series. Recently I had the treat of introducing some children I was nannying to Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. I loved it just as much as I remembered.

Five: I had a favorite elementary school library book. It was about a young girl with pigtails whose older sister disliked everything she did. One day the younger sister makes a disgusting soup to trick the older sister—and she likes it. I can’t remember the name of the book, but there was a line that kept repeating, something like “She’d cross her arms and shake her head and say she didn’t like it.” When my sister and I interned at the Library of Congress a few years ago, we had an opportunity to meet with a librarian in the Children’s Literature department. We enlisted her help in tracking down the book’s title, but still couldn’t find it.

Maniac Magee by Jerry SpinelliSix: If I think of my favorite books of all time, much of the young adults’ literature that I read as an adolescent qualifies. Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee, Louis Sachar’s There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom, Caroline B. Cooney’s A Christmas Carol—I have read all of these countless times. One of my life goals is to write a book for young adults.

Seven: Katherine Paterson’s The Bridge to Terabithia was the first sad book that I can remember reading. I won’t spoil the ending in case you haven’t read it, but, after reading it one evening, I went running into my parents’ bedroom sobbing uncontrollably. I’m pretty sure my mom was relieved to find out that the problem was just in a book, but, to her credit, she didn’t say that. Instead she talked with me about how powerfully books can affect us.

Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!Eight: Recently, I had reason to read Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, which I read for the first time as a freshman in high school. I used the same copy of the book—why buy another one?—which ended up being a great decision because I was treated to high-school-me’s book-noting. Some of the notes were embarrassingly wrong. But mostly it was hard to tell because, instead of noting what was happening in the book, I had largely noted my emotional responses to the book. Thus my marginal notes include such gems as “AAHHH!! NOO!!! SHE’S GOING TO DIE! NOO!!!”

Nine: Each Christmas Eve, my mom, sisters, and I read three books: Twas the Night before Christmas, The Littlest Christmas Elf, and The Best Christmas Present Ever, which is about a man named Mr. Floogle and his big orange cat. My sisters and I also write and illustrate a book each Christmas to give to our parents.

The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore

Ten: When I was in first through sixth grade, my school had a Young Authors competition. The books my twin and I wrote (we always co-authored them) usually did really well—we even went to the state-wide Young Authors convention one year. What I remember most about the Young Authors competition, however, is spending two hours (okay, half an hour, but it felt like a lot longer at the time) each afternoon over our winter breaks working on the books. Each year Santa would give us a candy like M+Ms or Runts or Whoppers in our stockings so we could eat them while writing. Now I’m realizing this was probably good practice for writing my dissertation over break. If only Santa still brought me writing candy.

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Call Me Ishmael: Stories about Stories

Reading Matters will be on hiatus during the University of Illinois’s winter break. In the meantime, we want to introduce you to another celebration of reading.

Call Me Ishmael is a project that invites readers to call a phone number and leave a voicemail with a story about their favorite book. The Ishmael team then selects a voicemail, transcribes the message on a typewriter, and creates a video of the transcription and the voice recording. The stories cover a wide range of books, from classics to children’s books, and an ever wider range of experiences. Below are a small sample of the recordings.

 

Special thanks to Miriam Angress, editor at Duke University Press, for introducing us to Call Me Ishmael.

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Angela Selena Williams’s reading list

Angela Selena Williams is the Associate Director of the Center for South Asian & Middle Eastern Studies. She is writing a dissertation on the lived experiences of Arab female rap artists and their implications for education policy.


Harper Lee’s Go Set a WatchmanWhat’s on my night stand/end table/favorite or regular reading: I’m still working on getting through Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, which came out last summer.  I was supposed to finish this and discuss it with my dearest aunt who lives in Alabama.  A couple years ago we visited Harper Lee’s hometown in Alabama because we were both To Kill a Mockngbird fans – I loved Lee’s writing style and Scout’s voice.  Of course visiting the south always gives me an eerie feeling… My favorite novel is Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.  I’ve also thought about picking back up Dick Davis’ English translation of the Persian epic poem Vis and Ramin since he will be on campus next semester.  I have a little daily devotional book called The Upper Room that I read from and the Bible.  My favorite poem is Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” and I love watching her recite it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JqOqo50LSZ0   A favorite author is Anne Lamott and I’d highly recommend her book on the writing process, Bird by Bird.  

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Carol Spindel: Nonfiction and the art of selection and omission

Carol Spindel writes and teaches narrative nonfiction at the University of Illinois and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. 


For the first time since 1953, the Nobel Prize in Literature has been given to a writer devoted to the art of nonfiction, Svetlana Alexievich. Do you hear those of us who write nonfiction and care deeply about it? We’re cheering!

Voices of Chernobyl by Svetlana AlexievichAlexievich calls her work a “melange of reportage and oral history.” The Nobel committee called it “polyphonic.” In each of her books she has gathered (her verb) many voices, a chorale of ordinary Soviet people who recount what they saw, felt, and suffered—women who fought in World War II, soldiers in Afghanistan, and perhaps, most memorably, those who survived the devastating accident of the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl. In order to write Voices From Chernobyl, Alexievich spent ten years, returning again and again to sit with the survivors and listen.

Speaking on a PEN panel at the New York Public Library in 2005, Alexievich said that “Information has discredited itself as a way of knowing human beings.” She also drew a distinction between the documentary genre she has created and art. “There is much that art cannot convey about sorrow and about love,” she said. Of course, her work is powerful precisely because she brings her own literary voice, her practice of compassionate immersion, and her imagination to every scrap of oral history she gathers. Nonfiction is not an art of invention; it is an art of selection and omission, an art of arrangement and of juxtaposition. This Alexievich understands perfectly. She gathers sheaves of voices, and although she might deny it, she arranges them artfully.

You can read excerpts from  in English in the Paris Review  and in n+1.

Svetlana Alexievich is also a two-time winner of the Ryszard Kapuściński Award for Literary Reportage. The award honors Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007), the Polish foreign correspondent who wrote about Latin America, Iran, and especially Africa. He speaks after Alexievich on the same PEN panel linked above.

Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard KapuścińskiAlexievich’s work is often disturbing, and for a gentler read, I recommend Kapuściński’s last book, Travels with Herodotus. In it he meditates on his own life as a traveler and a writer. As a naïve young journalist in the totalitarian 1950s he dared tell his editor he wanted to go abroad. He imagined crossing the border from Poland into Czechoslavakia. Instead he was dispatched to India and China as Poland’s only foreign correspondent. As she sent him off, his editor handed him a copy of Herodotus. For the rest of his life, as he traveled the world writing dispatches and books, Herodotus went along as guide and companion. “We wandered together for years. And although one travels best alone, I do not think we disturbed each other—we were separated by twenty-five hundred years…” Kapuściński witnessed history being made and thought deeply about his role as chronicler. “…getting through to the past itself, the past as it really was, is impossible. What are available to us are only its various versions, more or less credible, one or another of them suiting us better at any given time. The past does not exist. There are only infinite renderings of it.”

If, like me, you contemplate how we write about other places and other cultures, about events we witness and past moments we cannot witness, then I recommend taking this meditative ramble through time and space with Kapuściński and his friend Herodotus.

 

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Angel Ysaguirre’s reading list

Angel Ysaguirre is the Executive Director of the Illinois Humanities Council


Helen Macdonald's H of for HawkI just finished reading Helen Macdonald’s  H of for Hawk, a beautiful story about Macdonald’s training a baby goshawk after her father dies. She impressively weaves memoir, nature writing, history, and literary criticism together to chronicle her grief, showing how situating yourself among others can help you understand your own ordeal better. Or, maybe showing how your own vulnerability can help you understand others better.

Macdonald had trained hawks before but training a goshawk is more demanding. She thinks that the wildness of a goshawk mirrors her feelings upon her father’s death. As she trains her goshawk Mabel, she re-reads T.H. White’s “The Goshawk” and “The Once and Future King.” My favorite part of this book is the relationship she develops with White, through the reading of these books but mediated by her feelings of loss over her father and frustration over training this wild bird. Along the way, even her reading of history is affected. The sensitivity with which she comes to understand White’s life and writing, a homosexual man living in the first part of the 20th century, is a testament to the power of reading when it is paired with a spirit of openness. And, the way in which that reading can help us make sense of our own lives, and the sense of control we feel when we can articulate our feelings.

This issue of understanding oneself plays itself out in many ways, especially in relation to the wildness one feels in the midst of grief and the textbook theories about the stages of grief. That feeling of wildness can manifest itself in hopelessness or anger and we try to control our grief, or move through and past it, by containing it through the understanding of our feelings in relationship to the situation and others. Thus, the issues of the wildness of the goshawk and Macdonald’s evolving understanding of her relationship to that wildness becomes a central metaphor for her process of dealing with grief. And her understanding of a gay man in a deeply homophonic world is informed by this process.

Lovers on All Saints' Day by Juan Gabriel Vasquez I’m now reading two books, Juan Gabriel Vasquez’ new collection of short stories, Lovers on All Saints Day, and the most surprising book of anthropology, Tim Ingold’s Lines: A Brief History, interspersing short stories and chapters of the book of anthropology.  The stories in Lovers on All Saints Days are all love stories but I think that, more than that, they are all stories about loneliness. The first story, “Hiding Places,” is narrated by a writer who witnesses a marriage that is fraying but focuses emotionally less on the marriage than on the narrator who is witnessing the events. The title story is about a couple that is gathering the courage to break up while trying to do so in a way that will not make them feel lonely. “The Solitude of the Magician” is about a love triangle that involves a magician who has always felt lonely and a woman who doesn’t want to abandon her marriage for fear that her daughter will feel deep loneliness growing up without her father. It is the rumination on loneliness that I think give these stories their power.

Lines by Tim IngoldFor a non anthropologist, Lines: A Brief History is a series of investigations that make the most commonplace things start to feel like puzzles. Ingold, for example, looks at the history of literature alongside  the history of music, finding common origins and asking why they developed along such different trajectories, with music divorcing itself so much from writing and literature divorcing itself so much from sound. As Ingold gets deeper into the book, it starts to feel more like what I understand anthropology to be. He looks at the relationship among threads, traces, and surfaces, finding examples of how they work among different societies across the globe and over time. These discussions start to feel philosophical, rooted as they are in human behaviors and beliefs.

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Science Fiction and Psychoanalysis: Getting Through the 12 Hour Shift by Nick Hopkins

Nick Hopkins is an 2015 alumni in History and Sociology and the current coordinator of the Education Justice Project’s Reentry Guide Committee.


Now that I am out of school, I find it difficult to remain engaged with any form of scholarship while also working a full-time job. When I come home after working 12 hours straight, nearly the last thing on my mind is a chi-square test or commodity fetishism. It is simply easier to take a hot bath and watch an episode of Breaking Bad before bed. However, I found myself regretting these choices when I saw political news coverage or overheard a conversation about a controversial topic. Working such long shifts was very stressful and, personally, unfulfilling. This was further exacerbated by a nagging feeling that I, as a recent graduate looking to transition to graduate school, felt out of place. It seemed like I was missing an important perspective, but did not have time to read dense, complicated tomes to search for insight. To get my mind off of these unresolved tensions, I turned to an old friend; Issac Asimov.

Asimov_FoundationMy road back to scholarly reading began unintentionally, by re-reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. An absolute classic, the three book series is set in a far future where humans have achieved space flight and have settled the galaxy under a united, albeit corrupt, Galactic Empire. However, this far-reaching amalgamation is increasingly fraught with poor governance and its society falls prey to ideas of positivist grandeur, where everything can be taken care of by technology.

One man, Hari Seldon, predicts the intellectual decline of the empire, where its citizens are no longer able to reproduce the technology needed for space flight or even able to grow enough food to sustain their cities. Seldon devises a complex plan to ensure the survival of knowledge and humanity, using “psychohistory”, the study of laws of mass action akin to real-life mathematical sociology. Seldon gathers a team of artists and engineers, sending them to the edge of the galaxy to study and to produce an encyclopedia of extant scholarship. Periodically, descendants of this group gather to watch a hologram of Seldon who outlines each crisis the group with face, and the course of action they should take. However, Seldon never gives them the bigger picture of events, playing a complex sociological game post-mortem to ensure their survival on the fringes of the galaxy and aid them in restoring an educated and democratic Galactic Empire.

Zizek_MappingIdeologyThis lighter reading took the place of my evening repose, engaging my mind with tales of the human condition in a far, fantastical future. I found myself thinking more about my own society and the ideas which populate it. I hurried to find time during my lunch and before bed to read and soon finished the three book series. In light of the deterministic, and impossible, science that the protagonist uses in Foundation, I chose to move to a work of philosophy nonfiction, Mapping Ideology. This book is a collection of recent classic and contemporary works on the subject of social ideology, edited by the much-loved (and much-hated) modern philosopher, Slavoj Žižek. The primary thesis of the compilation is that the study of ideology is a worthwhile endeavor, making special effort to present the concept in light of its popular usage; the strong beliefs of people committed to a certain cause. Rather, the works in Mapping Ideology are arranged to posit ideology as the normative ideas which pervade and structure our lived experiences.

The collection presents the works of philosophers of the last century alongside discussion of this material by contemporary scholars. The former authors explore fundamental concepts of perception, while the latter explain how these ideas are interconnected and relevant to the world today. Jacque Lacan’s piece on the mirror stage discusses the formation of self-conception and how everyday stimuli becomes perceived by this “ego”. Theodor Adorno writes on the tendency to only imagine life through subjective experiences, thereby missing the bigger picture of how they are related. Louis Althusser describes how media, business, and governmental agencies shape perceived experience by ascribing narratives to our lives. A philosopher of Marxism, Althusser examines how the ideas of capitalism are reproduced in popular rhetoric. He argues that the pervasiveness of capitalism as a belief system is due to its ability to describe and sort observed events in a way that is widely accessible, regardless of whether its arguments are empirically verifiable.

Mapping Ideology’s selections on how popular beliefs are internalized enthralled me. I was especially interested in the book’s discussion of extricating oneself from everyday ideology. Zizek, the editor of the collection, concludes the book by touching on this idea. He uses a concept of Lacan, the “kernel” of observable reality within all ideology relationships, to describe gaps the capitalism where its claims and effects are disjoint. He applies this concept to ideologies of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany and to Marxism as well. Zizek ends the book by underscoring the importance of studying ideology today, and of trying to understanding one’s unconscious relationship to social narratives.

At this point, I was again reading academic works, but not for class. I was reading at almost every opportunity, and thoroughly enjoying it. I found Lacan’s discussion of the complex psychology that allows ideology to function to be the most interesting chapter. So, the next day I ordered one of Lacan’s works from the University Library and jumped in as soon as I could. After easing back into dense philosophy, the complexities of the books were welcome. I especially enjoyed reading about the challenge of conceptualizing phenomenological experience. Had I not, I’m not sure how I would have gotten through The Language of the Self.

Lacan_LanguageOfTheSelfJacque Lacan is known for speaking complexly (and for being intentionally cryptic). This book sheds light on the author’s allusive (and elusive) theories, refined from Freudian psychoanalysis. Drawing on his many lectures, he summarizes the framework that is the cornerstone of his works, the division of human psychology into three areas: the “real, symbolic, and imaginary”. Lacan argues that language is the primary means by which the exterior world is related to individuals in this triad. Something such as a wedding ring has a particular symbolic social meaning, but also has a uniquely subjective (and imaginary) meaning to a particular person. All the while, the ring is (in stark, observable reality) only a piece of metal. His tripartite structure offers a means of conceptualizing how popular beliefs come to be reproduced across society, as well as the ways in which they are received on an individual level. Making sense of this in relation to my own lived experience was a rewarding challenge, and a welcome daily routine.

Reading has been important throughout my life, and has been especially so during making the proverbially awkward transition from education to employment. It is a great release from quotidian tension and even a means of gaining important perspective on my life. While I found Mapping Ideology intriguing, I actually took the content of The Language of the Self to heart. It is a worthwhile exercise to examine the beliefs that underlie our every routines. For me, it was relieving to consciously disassociate myself from the feeling that I was tragically misplaced simply because I was working at a less than enjoyable job, and had not gone to graduate school. Instead, I felt more invigorated to purse the latter route, as I was confident that it was squarely my own choice. From space tales to deconstructing social reality, reading is powerful, and a pleasant way to stay sane while working 12 hour shifts.

 

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Rubbish, trees, and a new place by Ramón E. Soto-Crespo

Ramón E. Soto-Crespo is an associate professor of English. 


Fall is my favorite season and today I discovered myself reading trees. This habit is new, it grew out of necessity for getting acquainted with my new surroundings. During the past decade I lived in a downtown loft apartment in the midst of a concrete jungle, where buses, cars, parking lots were numerous, but trees were not. These past couple of months, I have acquired greater appreciation for the ecology of my surroundings and enjoy looking at the mature trees on Church Street. Everyday we have visitors: cardinals, rabbits, squirrels, and the occasional garden snake. They are all part of a new place, a new habitat.

I am not only reading trees, but also enjoying reading rubbish. I don’t mean nature as rubbish, nor do I mean that I go around inspecting people’s bins on garbage day. I am referring to rubbish theory of the 1970s. For the past few years I have been reading Anglophone Caribbean postwar trash fiction, hundreds of pulp novels, from Christopher Nicole’s Caribee (1974) to Richard Tressillian’s Bloodheart (1986), wherein I have discovered a neglected literary world of historical novels that resemble the debris of rubbish and seaweed found in a Sargasso sea. My interest in this literary archive led me to what I am reading today: rubbish theory from the 70s and 80s.

Purity and Danger by Mary DouglasAt the moment, I am devouring Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger (1970), Michael Thompson’s Rubbish Theory (1979), and Jonathan Culler’s “Junk and Rubbish” (1985). All oldies, but good oldies.

Douglas’s dictum that “where there is dirt there is system” (2) offers a perspectival shift on how to reinterpret those things that are out of place. Her book is peppered with wonderful insights about the role of purity in Western culture and with examples of sexual practices that come across as dirty precisely because they are out of place. If sex sells, disturbing sex is a bonanza. Her theory is a wonderful heap of anomalies.

Rubbish Theory by Michael ThompsonThompson introduces a conceptual framework that places rubbish in a prominent place. Rubbish is for Thompson an object in limbo, that is to say, in-between the categories of transient or durable. We make this judgment call everyday when—without hesitation—we place some objects in a trash can and others in storage bins. Rubbish is the category for those objects that are in limbo: they have acquired a sentimental value that exceeds any use value that they once possessed and, as a result, they are kept. For example, souvenirs from our trips abroad, or prizes won in a county fair. Rubbish could eventually become trash or acquire immense collectible value. Often they become our most precious items precisely because their value cannot be assessed in economic terms.

Culler’s review of these theories is wonderful and he warns us: “the charm of rubbish” is that it is “really more important than most people think.” Culler’s essay puts rubbish theory in perspective as he describes books that had become rubbish to contemporary theorists until the new interest in waste and debt made us aware of them once again.

“Contemporary theories of trash are great, but rubbish theory from the 70s is even better!” I keep saying to myself, as I read and write to my heart’s content. However, the other day, I found myself aware that I had created a routine. I would read and write on rubbish until 4 o’clock and then go for a late afternoon walk where, without knowing, I have been reading trees. I have been inspecting the reddish, yellowish, bright orange colors of the fall foliage and I can see now the crevices in trunks and branches where squirrels live and hide. A whole new perspective opened when the trees became naked, revealing a busy habitat that had been out of sight until now.

Finite Perfection by Michael WeinsteinI remembered a quote by Emerson that my recently deceased dissertation advisor, Michael A. Weinstein, taught me: “Most persons do not see the sun.” At that moment, I became aware of two things of a personal nature. My reading of trees is actually looking at trees in a new light. Michael’s death had made me sensitive to the writers that he loved: William James, Emerson, Thoreau, Santayana, and Dewey. His passing had reawakened memories of our walks and conversations. At the same time, I became aware of something else, that where others had failed to see me, he had seen me. My eternal gratitude for this profound gesture was to see the world anew, to see what he loved, to value what others had deemed rubbish.

Emerson wrote: “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.” I see today that the fall colors are brighter, the air cooler, and the trees livelier.

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