Coming to the realization that loving a good book doesn’t make you a good person.
“It was, gentlemen, after a long absence—seven years to be exact, during which time I was studying in Europe—that I returned to my people.”
So begins Tayeb Salih’s 1966 novel Season of Migration to the North. This fraught first sentence, spoken by a westernized Sudanese narrator returning home, has many layers of division—between home and away, between outsider and insider, between strong and weak, between man and woman, between West and East, between black and white.
In his essay for this series, All Our Names author Dinaw Mengestu indicts what he calls “the fractured gaze”: any worldview that sets apart “us” apart from “them.” For Mengestu, literature offers a way to see beyond the simplistic labels that confine us. In a passage from Season of Migration to the North that suggests the essential human sameness of the Sudanese and Europeans, Mengestu locates his mission statement.
Read more. [Image: Doug McLean]
Print media evolved into its present forms.
In, say, 1469, there were no page numbers. This obvious and now necessary part of the book’s user interface simply did not exist.
The earliest extant example of sequential numbering in a book (this time of ‘leaves’ rather than pages, per se) is the document you see at the top of this page, Sermo in festo praesentationis beatissimae Mariae virginis, which was printed in Cologne in 1470. The practice didn’t become standard, the wonderful I Love Typography tells us, for another half century.
The page number is particularly interesting, I think, because it is a pointer, a kind of metadata that breaks apart a work into constituent parts. The existence of page numbers creates a set of miniature sub-publications to which someone can refer.
Read more. [Image: Heinrich Heine Universität Düsseldorf]
The Great Gatsby may have been inspired by it, and Sal Paradise, the narrator of On the Road, carried a copy of it on his travels. But few Americans have heard of “the greatest novel of adolescence in European literature.” That’s what the British novelist John Fowles called Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, a revered French classic published in the fall of 1913. This centenary edition of the short book is timed to the anniversary of the author’s death barely a year later: Henri-Alban Fournier (his real name) was killed during the early months of World War I, just before he turned 28.
A story of restless youthful questing, The Lost Domain (the translator wisely gave up on a literal rendition of the title) casts a fairy-tale spell—without feeling merely old-fashioned. The haunting account of two teenage companions, one a bold wanderer at 17 and the other a little younger and a lot warier, is steeped in Alain-Fournier’s long-gone rural past. Yet the protracted adolescent limbo it evokes is familiar.
Read more. [Image: Oxford University Press]
The founders of the social network talk about its success in 2013 and its goal of making literature a community experience.
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Ellis Barstow, the protagonist in Nick Arvin's most recent novel, is a reconstructionist—an engineer who uses forensic analysis and simulation to piece together, in minute detail, what happened at a car crash site and why.
The novel is based on Arvin’s own experiences in the field of crash reconstruction: Arvin thus leads an unusual double-life as a working mechanical engineer and a successful author of literary fiction. Following an introduction to Arvin’s work from writer, friend, and fellow explorer of speculative landscapes Scott Geiger, Venue sat down with Arvin on the cozy couches of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver for an afternoon of conversation and car crash animation viewing.
Read more. [Image: Miika Niemelä / Flickr]
Ever since the days of Jane Austen, pop culture consumers have been drawn to stories about female protagonists who find “happily ever after” in marriage and motherhood. (See: the media spectacles surrounding Kate Middleton’s fairytale wedding and now fairytale baby; the storylines of best-selling novels like Helen Fielding’s Austen-inspired Bridget Jones novels and the works of Jennifer Weiner; films and TV shows like 2011’s Friends With Kids and even HBO’s Sex and the City—a series originally deemed celebratory of single women.)
The “marriage plot” has, thankfully, been scrutinized and questioned by some of the aforementioned works—and was perhaps most specifically critiqued by Jeffrey Eugenides’s best-selling 2011 novel The Marriage Plot. Nevertheless, selective omission has successfully kept this perfect, neatly two-dimensional story—of the heterosexual single woman finding happiness by becoming single no longer, welcoming a child, and creating a family—intact.
Which is why Jenny Offill’s new novel, Dept. of Speculation, published a tidy 15 years after the release of her highly praised debut novel Last Things, is so audacious.
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I started my middle-school English and Latin classes the same way every day: with short lessons in etymology and cultural literacy—knowledge of a society’s history, references, symbols, and stories. So, a typical day’s lesson might include the etymology of the word “calculus” (Latin for “small stone, pebble” used by Romans in order to calculate sums in the marketplace) and, in order to maintain a theme, a lesson in Demosthenes. Considered the greatest of Greece’s orators, he overcame a childhood stutter by filling his mouth with pebbles and speaking through them, a remedy portrayed in the film The King’s Speech.
I teach these daily etymology and cultural literacy items not for their individual educational merit, but because, taken together, they form the foundation of my students’ future learning.
Take for example, A Tale of Two Cities, one of my favorite novels to teach, and a perennial favorite among my eighth-grade students. The first page, in all of its beautiful rhetoric and brilliant prose, poses a real challenge to even the most dedicated modern reader. The first chapter sets the stage for the action to come: Dickens explains the political and social strife in England and France through references to cultural, literary, and religious figures.
Read more. [Image: Murray Close/Lionsgate]
The Irish author’s latest novel, The Guts, does what Doyle has done since he first published The Commitments: expertly weave sadness, tenderness, awkwardness, and pride into every page.
Read more. [Image: Mike Segar / Reuters; Viking Adult]
Author Ben Marcus says the beautiful but sorrowful strangeness of Kafka’s “A Message from the Emperor” make it a perfect piece of writing.
Read more. [Image: Doug McLean]