Monthly Archives: April 2012

Academic Writing

Today I discussed academic writing briefly with someone writing a thesis. I’ve never heard of the authors she is writing about, but the topic sounded interesting, and she is clearly interested in it. I also am interested in the things I study and research. Both of us agreed that, even if we are really interested in our research, and enthusiastic about the things that we learned in doing the research, writing is like slitting your wrists and bleeding onto the paper. It is really hard to do.

There might be things that make writing a little easier. Mostly, though, it is being disciplined. It is a matter of butt in chair and fingers on keyboards. Having a set time to write helps. If I decide I’m going to write from time X to time Y, then I have no excuse not to do this. (Of course, I could write a blog post instead of the chapter I’m working on.) Part of having the set time is figuring out when you work best. I’ve not quite got that down yet. I’ve got friends who know they are most productive in the morning, so they get up at the crack of dawn and write. More power to them. I’ve been trying to work out when my most productive time of day is. I used to write most of my essays for classwork late in the evening and into the night. I’m a little afraid that maybe my best writing time is still deep into the night. I’ve not tried that in a while. Maybe I should.

When is your most productive writing/work time? Any tips for others on figuring out when that might be?

It is also important to take breaks from writing. I’m on a break from my other writing project right now. My problem is finishing breaks and going back to the writing. It is especially hard in the middle of a transition or natural break in the piece I’m writing. It is very hard to bridge those natural breaks and get into the next section. I read an article by a well-known author who gets over this natural break problem by stopping work in the middle of a sentence. I’d be afraid I’d forget how I meant the sentence to end! But it is something to try. I tend to break at natural breaks in my writing, but then restarting is brutal.

How do you get over natural breaks in writing? Or is this only a problem in my head?

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Theological Reading

At present, I’m reading John R.W. Stott’s Between Two Worlds, which is a book on preaching. In it, Stott argues that reading and study are essential to the work of the pastor. This is reading and study not necessarily directly related to the week’s sermon, and in addition to regular Bible reading and study. “The minimum would amount to this: every day at least one hour; every week one morning, afternoon or evening; every month a full day; every year a week. Set out like this it sounds very little. Indeed, it is too little. Yet everybody who tries it is surprised to discover how much reading can be done within such a disciplined framework. It tots up to nearly 600 hours in the course of a year.”

Almost two years ago I started the one-hour per day thing. I didn’t realize that Stott recommended the scheme. My thinking was as follows: “I’ve got lots of books on my shelf that I got thinking that I should read them some day. Some day does not appear to be arriving. I’d better make some time for theological reading.” Of course I read theologically before two years ago, but I read in a more haphazard way than I do now. I often had multiple books on the go and found I’d start a book and then picked up another before I finished. I found going back to a book and finishing it hard work. I did try things like the back-and-forth scheme I talked about last week, and that worked for some things. But I wasn’t really making a serious dent in the to-be-read pile. Thus the hour-a-day scheme.

What do I read in this hour every day, you might ask. Let me tell you! I’ve got four lists of books, one for each of the theological disciplines: biblical studies, theology, history, and pastoral theology. I read a biblical studies book, then a theology book, then a history book, then one from pastoral theology. The Stott book I’m reading is a pastoral theology book, thus I must have read a history book before that — it was Victorian England: Portrait of an Age by G.E. Young. Next up is a biblical studies book, Reading the Bible with the Dead. I’ve dipped into Reading the Bible with the Dead before, but not read it cover-to-cover. I keep my to-be-read lists short. They are not more than three books long at any time. When I finish a book and cross it off, I add another to the bottom of the list. That way I can adapt my list to what I’m interested in at the time, and as I acquire books.

Now that I’ve read Stott’s suggestion about a morning/afternoon/evening a week and a day a month, I’d like to try adding those in next. I’d probably read differently in those times than I do in my hour-a-day slot. Maybe those times would be for books that don’t easily fit into the categories I’ve set up, or biographies, or non-fiction in fields other than theology. Hurray for more reading time!

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Examples of Atmosphere; or, A Sense of Place

Previously I suggested that it was a particular kind of atmosphere in some books that meant I classified them as a comfort read. Most books that I re-read have a strong sense of place. Pride and Prejudice is overshadowed by Pemberley, whose shades would be polluted by association with Miss Elizabeth Bennet. All the Harry Potter books centre on Hogwarts. But there’s more to it than just that. Somehow the place has to be properly suggested by the author. Here is an example of a scene that gives a sense of place:

“Respect the Pedestrian, say the street signs of Metro Manila. As soon as Randy saw those, he knew he was in trouble.

“For the first couple of weeks he spent in Manila, his work consisted of walking. He walked all over the city carrying a handheld GPS receiver, taking down latitudes and longitudes. He encrypted the data in his hotel room and e-mailed it to Avi. It became part of Epiphyte’s intellectual property. It became equity.

“Now, they had secured some actual office space. Randy walks to it doggedly. He knows that the first time he takes a taxi there, he’ll never walk again.

“RESPECT THE PEDESTRIAN, the signs say, but the drivers, the physical environment, local land use customs, and the very layout of the place conspire to treat the pedestrian with the contempt he so richly deserves. Randy would get more respect if he went to work on a pogo stick with a propellor beanie on his head. Every morning the bellhops ask him if he wants a taxi, and practically lose consciousness when he says no. Every morning the taxi drivers lined up in front of the hotel, leaning against their cars and smoking, shout ‘Taxi? Taxi?’ to him. When he turns them down, they say witty things to each other in Tagalog and roar with laughter.”

That description comes from Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson. Randy walks to work — the whole of his walk gives a sense of place. It was hard to choose a particular passage from that book — one thing that Stephenson does well is give a sense of the variety of places there are on the planet. Characters in Cryptonomicon travel a lot, and Stephenson manages to capture well the sense of difference between places.

Do you have particular places that inspire your imagination and prompt you to return to books? Or is it an entire world (Narnia?) that draws you back? Or do you just think I’m a little bit crazy?

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Atmosphere in Comfort Reads?

I’ve been thinking about comfort re-reads since writing about them on Monday. I went looking for a quote from C.S. Lewis on the atmosphere of a book. I found what I was looking for, but cannot quote the whole essay. You should read “On Stories” which was first published in Essays Presented to Charles Williams (1947) but can now most easily be found in the collection Of This and Other Worlds. I’ll quote a little from the essay, but understand that I’m writing from my own experience to make a particular point about re-reading, whereas Lewis’s essay tries to redeem popular “stories” or “romances” which is what he calls plot-driven books.

I re-read books for the particular atmosphere they contain. Lewis read stories for their particular atmosphere, not just the excitement of the plot, but for the particular kind of excitement in each book. One of his examples compares the book King Solomon’s Mines with the movie version. This is what he says:

“I was one taken to see a film version of King Solomon’s Mines. Of its many sins — not least the introduction of a totally irrelevant young woman in shorts who accompanied the three adventurers wherever they went — only one concerns us here. At the end of Haggard’s book, as everyone remembers [you don’t? It’s ok, neither do I], the heroes are awaiting death entombed in a rock chamber and surrounded by the mummified kings of that land. The maker of the film version, however, apparently thought this tame. He substituted a subterranean volcanic eruption, and then went one better by adding an earthquake. … No doubt if sheer excitement is all you want from a story and if increase in dangers increases excitement, then a rapidly changing series of two risks (that of being burned alive and that of being crushed to bits) would be better than the single prolonged danger of starving to death in a cave. But that is just the point. There must be a pleasure in such stories distinct from mere excitement or I should not feel that I had been cheated in being given the earthquake instead of Haggard’s actual scene. What I lose is the whole sense of the deathly (quite a different thing from simple danger of death) — the cold, the silence, and the surrounding faces of the ancient, the crowned and sceptred, dead. You may, if you please, say that Rider Haggard’s effect is quite as ‘crude’ or ‘vulgar’ or ‘sensational’ as that which the film substituted for it. I am not at present discussing that. The point is that it is extremely different. The one lays a hushing spell on the imagination; the other excites a rapid flutter of nerves. In reading that chapter of the book curiosity or suspense about the escape of the heroes from their death-trap makes a very minor part of one’s experience. The trap I remember for ever: how they got out I have long since forgotten.”

For Lewis, the appeal of the scene in the book is a particular atmosphere, not just the danger of the situation. Later in the essay he says he doesn’t like The Three Musketeers because “the total lack of atmosphere repels me.” When one re-reads, of course, the excitement or suspense or surprise are gone, but the atmosphere remains. Lewis again: “We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties.”

When I’m looking for a particular kind of atmosphere, I go back to old favourites. I’m also always looking for new favourites, though, places with atmosphere that I might want to revisit in the future.

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Comfort Reading

I re-read books. I’ve mentioned this before. I re-read books because I like them, and because I find the familiarity somehow comforting. Not all re-reading is for this purpose, as I don’t think all books can be called “comfort reads.” What makes a reading comfortable or comforting? I’m not sure I have a good answer to that question, but I’ll give it a shot.

I just finished re-reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I felt a little Potter fix was the thing I needed this weekend. Part of the reason may have been the anti-Rowling article I wrote about last week. I wanted to find out if I still thought that Potter and Rowling were worth defending. Yes, I still think they are worth defending. This was the 9th time I’ve read Philosopher’s Stone — that’s not quite once a year since I first read it in 2001. I also find the Potter books comfortable reading. Rowling tells a good story,  with funny bits and suspenseful bits and also heart-warming bits. Sometimes I’m just in the proper mood for hot chocolate and Harry Potter.

Other comfort authors include Maeve Binchy, Rosamunde Pilcher, Jane Austen, C.S. Lewis (Narnia books), and Dorothy L. Sayers (the Wimsey detective stories). I do re-read other authors but those authors and books I re-read for purposes other than comfort. I think part of the attraction in these books is the setting. I like the setting well enough to lose myself in that world for a while. And I like the characters enough to spend time with them. But I think that all my comfort reads have settings I wouldn’t mind living in. (I’m not looking for a Lost in Austen experience, though.)

What about you? Why do you re-read books? Which books are your comfort reads?

I’m off to jump into Pride and Prejudice. Good times.

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Some interesting links on reading and writing

For a Saturday morning when I’ve got a writing deadline, a list of interesting bits and pieces on reading and writing that I found over the last few weeks:

1. In the category “Readers are Leaders” a blog post on reading as real work.

2. The possible secret formula to writing a bestselling novel.

3. And three books on writing anything, such as a bestselling novel, or possibly a bestselling nonfiction book.

Last, but certainly not least in entertainment value, an illustrated list of some common twitter spelling errors. This one made me laugh. Out Loud. As in LOL. For real.

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Reading for people who get bored easily

I don’t think I get bored too easily. And I can sucked in by a book and fail to notice that great amounts of time have gone by while I’m reading. But sometimes I find my mind wandering when I’m reading. I read a sentence and a word triggers a memory and pouf! I’m off on a ramble down a rabbit trail in my head instead of reading the book in my hand. Now, of course, this isn’t always a bad thing. A little trip down memory lane, or a side trip along related-thought trail, can be therapeutic. Or insightful. Or all of the above. But sometimes it is just distracting from the matter at hand.

I find I drift off a little more often if a book I’m reading is difficult or if I’m a bit bored by the material. If the book is dense with ideas, and I need a mental break, my mind drifts off. Sometimes it is difficult to come back from these mental breaks, however needed they might be, so I’ve been trying out some techniques so that I’m more focused while reading. Taking notes helps, particularly when reading for research purposes. I read with a small notebook and pencil to hand. I do make notes in books (only in pencil) but the notebook gives me space for related jottings, summaries, or ways things relate to one another. When reading particularly difficult material, stopping and summarizing every chapter (or smaller unit if that is helpful) is a very useful exercise. It is time-consuming, but can be quite valuable when writing up research.

Then there’s the multi-tasking reader method. I picked this idea up from a novel I once read. I think it was a book by Margaret Drabble, and the two books I’ve read of hers are The Radiant Way and A Natural Curiosity. There’s a character that occurs in both these books who is an academic who characteristically reads two books at once as she is easily bored. Huh, I thought. Two books at once. There’s an idea. And I shelved it in the space in my brain reserved for quirky things characters do in books that I find interesting. A few years ago I was trying to wade through a particularly dreadful book that I thought I SHOULD read because people were talking about it. I remembered the two-book academic. I decided to try a version of the two-book thing. I’d read one chapter of the dreadful book, then one chapter of something else, and alternate. Maybe, I thought, I can then make it through the dreadful book without self-injury. It worked. And I got through the dreadful book quite quickly. I filed this under Useful Information in my brain. A couple of weeks ago I hauled out the two-book technique. I wasn’t reading a dreadful book this time, but one with a lot of information. Once more, the alternating thing worked quite well. I’ve decided that this is a way I can read more non-work non-fiction – I’ll alternate non-fiction chapters with my current fiction read. We’ll see how this goes. Updates to come.

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Breakfast Conversation?

Yesterday students talked about me at breakfast. It is a bit unnerving when a student enrolled in your online class comes into the bookshop and says “I was talking about you at breakfast.” Great. Now what did I do? Apparently the other student recommended he find out which book I’d suggested on writing essays and style during my summer course a couple of years ago. I was completely blank. I started in with Turabian, because I always recommend Turabian as a style guide, plus there are good tips on making arguments in the more recent editions. As we gazed at Turabian on the shelf, I spotted the little style guide I usually wave at my students because they’ve broken Rule #1. Aha! I picked up Strunk and White and said, “This is it.” My student promptly bought The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White and requested that I give him lots of feedback during the summer course as he wanted to learn to write well.

I also want to learn to write well. I should revisit Strunk and White. It is a handy little guide to expressing oneself clearly in English. I admit that I’m a bit fanatic about Rule #1 (how to make a singular noun possessive) because I’ve encountered many a graduate student who has no clue about using the possessive properly. I don’t mean the odd case like Charles’s dog (which is correct because Charles is singular and one makes a singular noun possessive by adding apostrophe s regardless of the last letter of the singular noun — Rule #1). I mean not using the possessive at all. Or using a possessive where a plural should be used. Apostrophes are often portents of grammatical catastrophes.

I think I’ve got Rule #1 in Strunk and White down. I should probably move on to Rule #2. Let’s see, Rule #2 … ah yes, the serial comma. Good old rule #2, also often neglected. “In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.” I opened the book, found the page, and made a note of the second rule.

I could go on to Rule #3, but will leave you to run and find your copy of The Elements of Style to remind yourself of the indefensible punctuation discussed under that head. What? You don’t have a copy of Strunk and White? What’s the world coming to??

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Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell. And Cranmer too.

I noted when listing books-read-so-far-in-2012 that Henry VIII is a recurring character in many of them. Henry shows up in the background of one non-fiction book, The Last Divine Service about the dissolution of the monastery at Durham. In Durham the monastery wasn’t destroyed, it was converted into a cathedral chapter that still exists today. Geoffrey Moorhouse managed to catch some of the way things remained the same though everything changed during the English Reformation in that book. There was an ambivalence to the thing, a not wanting to go too far.

That same ambivalence is caught very well in Wolf Hall, the Booker-Prize-winning novel by Hilary Mantel. The point-of-view character in WH is Thomas Cromwell. The book follows his career from his loyal service to Cardinal Wolsey to becoming one of the king’s trusted advisors. Mantel makes Cromwell, who history does not regard fondly, a very sympathetic character. The book left me wanting more history. Shortly after finishing WH I found published letters of Cromwell in the used books at the theological bookshop where I work. I didn’t buy these as I’ve got really large to-be-read piles already, but the letters are out there. I’m thinking Mantel read them. Anyhow, I think Mantel catches the ambivalent nature of the English Reformation, the king wants to be a good Catholic, but now he’s the Head of the Church in England, and what does that mean exactly. Then there’s the whole Cranmer’s SECRET WIFE business. The Archbishop of Canterbury had a SECRET GERMAN WIFE. No wonder he wanted a Reformation in England.

I’ve also read two of the Matthew Shardlake mysteries by C.J. Sansom, Sovereign, and Dark Fire. I’ve been reading the Shardlake books out of order. I started with the first one, Dissolution, then jumped to Revelation, then backed up through S, and DF. May I suggest reading them in order? (Dissolution, Dark Fire, Sovereign, Revelation.) The characters do develop, and there is a historical timeline to be concerned about. They can be read out of order, but some of the suspense might diminish in sub-plots if you do that. Just saying. The Shardlake mysteries are set in England during the reign of Henry VIII. Our Hero is a lawyer who longs for the quiet life, but seems to get dragged into solving mysteries connected to affairs of state. Cromwell features as Shardlake’s employer in the first two, but then he falls and his fall is great. Cranmer shows up in the second book, and in the third is the person Shardlake investigates for. The King is a key character in the third book as well, as might be guessed by the title, Sovereign. While Sansom captures elements of the back-and-forth nature of the English Reformation, and also describes aspects of the time really clearly, I think his main character is too modern in outlook. This can be a problem in writing historical fiction. The past is a foreign country, so how does one adequately get into the characters’ heads? I’ve found historical mystery writers especially prone to writing first-person characters who have a 21st-century outlook and make 21-C remarks about what is going on back in the day. Sansom’s Shardlake character leans in that direction in these books. Maybe this makes them more readable as fiction, but I find some of the revisionist historical fiction becomes unreadable when the revisions are really obvious. (I can’t read Anne Perry’s 19th Century characters any more, because they are too revisionist.)

If you want an interesting way into the English Reformation, give any of these books a try — start with the fiction though, it makes looking at the history more interesting somehow.

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Further musings on book reviews with An Example

Yesterday I had some thoughts about negative book reviews — which prompted some thoughts on book reviews in general. Later that same day, I read a brief article bemoaning the forthcoming adult novel by J.K. Rowling. Here it is, it is short, go read it, then come back. Mr. Rahim has attempted to give reasons he thinks Rowling is OK, but not great. He also acknowledges that people may not agree with him, but he does give the criteria by which he makes his evaluation. Let’s have a look at his two criteria.

1. Rowling lacks a feel for language. This is the point he expands upon when he compares the Potter books to Alice in Wonderland and thus Rowling to Lewis Carroll. (Here I must admit that I’ve still not read the Alice books.) Rahim calls Rowling’s works “wholesome” and “decently paced” but finds her magic “logical and plodding.” In contrast, Carroll’s books contain “unexpected weirdness” and they are “riddling, disturbing, unexpected and memorable.” Rowling’s prose, like her magic, he calls logical and plodding and asks “can anyone honestly say they can quote one line?” This is in contrast to Carroll’s “relish for language that means you can still recite whole passages from memory years after reading them.” Here is the crucial point — Rahim’s way of knowing if an author has a feel for language is the memorability of lines of their prose. If one finds people who can recite lines from a particular book years later, the prose must be memorable and thus, by this criteria, move from good to great.

I’m not sure this is a helpful way of discerning great prose. For example, many of my friends and I can recite lines from the movie “The Princess Bride.” Many of us haven’t seen the film in years. But we say things to each other like “Bye-bye, have fun storming the castle,” or “I do not think that word means what you think it means.” We know what we’re talking about. Sometimes someone picks up the scene and continues it. Does this mean “The Princess Bride” contains great prose? Possibly. But it also means we’ve seen the movie several times, and have repeated some bits of it over and over, so of course it is a bit stuck in our heads. Rahim asks if anyone can recite lines from Rowling. Probably there are people who can. I remember key phrases “The boy who lived,” or “He Who Must Not Be Named.” That’s something more than I remember from lots of books I’ve read.

Rahim also calls Rowling’s use of language “logical and plodding” after saying that the books were enjoyable and noting that one could “easily while away a rainy hour or two in their company.” I’m not sure one can while away an enjoyable hour or two in the company of books whose language is plodding. Further, Rahim seems to be implying throughout his piece, though he does not come out and say it, that Rowling’s prose is too easy to follow, thus it must not be great. I think that this is wrong-headed thinking. Well written prose in a story should allow us to easily move into another world. That is the point of the story-telling. It seems to me that good prose does not draw attention to itself, it points to the subject matter or story that it refers to.

2. Rowling lacks a feel for character. Rahim does not expand upon this point, but drops it in and moves on. Really? Rowling lacks a feel for character? I’m not sure this holds water. I may be wrong and people may wish to comment that they think the characters in the Potter books are flat and uninteresting, but I think the success of Potter has a lot to do with the main characters in the books. Even in book 5, the one where everyone complains that Harry is just too annoying, I think shows good characterization. Harry acts like a 15-year-old boy, and they can be pretty annoying at times.

What other criteria should be used in discerning whether a book is only good or great? While I agree with Rahim that Rowling’s adult novel being released in September will sell primarily because of her name initially, might it not be well-written too? We’ll have to wait and see.

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