These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

It’s almost a new year, let the embarrassing work Christmas parties commence and the Auld Lang Synes ring! For my part, I’d like to say farewell to 2012 and herald 2013 with a list of favorite things I discovered or enjoyed this past year, for the most part online. Hopefully you’ll agree that this collection has a little something for everyone: students, teachers, avid readers, art admirers, humorists, or simply the perennially curious.

Working for eNotes I try my best to promote learning at every age. I strongly feel that if you cannot participate in a classroom, you should at least maintain an active level of curiosity and wonder about the world around you. With the many information-grabbing, curio-snapping sites below, you’ll never be at a loss for tools of learning and instruction…

1. Brain Pickings

It’s not hard to imagine the Internet as a museum of wonders. It’s much harder to imagine oneself as the curator of such an exhibit. Enter superwoman Maria Popova, “interestingness hunter-gatherer and curious mind at large” and creator of the wonderful blog Brain Pickings, the site that collects everything funny, captivating, and obscure from the far corners of the interweb for your consumption. Without Brain Pickings this year I would not have learnt of Salvador Dali’s struggle between skepticism and faith, or of how to talk about books I haven’t read, or book spine poetry and how to dabble in it myself.

Brain Pickings is a human-powered discovery engine for interestingness, culling and curating cross-disciplinary curiosity-quenchers, and separating the signal from the noise to bring you things you didn’t know you were interested in until you are… Brain Pickings is your LEGO treasure chest, full of pieces across art, design, science, technology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, you-name-itology.

2. Underground New York Public Library

As the Sartorialist does for the fashion conscious, UNYPL documents in photographs the penchants of everyday people in a bustling metropolis, the difference being that creator Ourit Ben-Haim is more interested in what you’re reading than who you’re wearing. If you’re looking for book recommendations hot off the pavement, this blog is the place to find them. And if you’re looking for the picture of a kid grossed out by reading Fifty Shades, that can be arranged too.

But the best part about UNYPL (besides the also stellar visuals themselves) is that beneath every caption telling you what the subject is reading, you’ll find links to either “Read” by purchasing the book online or “Borrow” the book from your local library (via the very handy WorldCat library network service). You’ll find works you never knew existed, not only in a New York subway, but right outside your front door, too.

The photos come together as a visual library. This library freely lends out a reminder that we’re capable of traveling to great depths within ourselves and as a whole.

3. What a year for literary adaptations!

Yes, books are adapted for the silver screen all the time, but in 2012 the results really stuck out for me, either for their ambitious undertakings (naysayers said Cloud Atlas and Life of Pi could never be made into films) or for their daring takes on old classics (such as the stage play-esque adaptation of Anna Karenina and the forthcoming 3D “red curtain” spin on The Great Gatsby). It’s also the year that most of the Internet fell in love with the British series Sherlock, a modern-day adaptation of the Holmes mystery series (and precursor to CBS’s Elementary). There are so many more books worth a mention here… Cosmopolis, The Hobbit, Great Expectations, On the Road, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Midnight’s Children… come Oscar season, the awards will be dominated by films that were originally books. Watch out for a punch up over the Best Adapted Screenplay prize, not to mention the Best Visual Effects nod, as filmakers outdid themselves in 2012 to recreate the stunning landscapes of these imaginative novels.

4. S#@! My Students Write

Screen Shot 2012-12-21 at 11.35.48 AM

If you are or have ever been in charge of a classroom, you’ll likely have a few gems in your back pocket similar to the above. Now there’s a tumblr account to collect other unintentionally hilarious snippets from teachers everywhere, and yes they’re all true. Even this one. And this one. You would not believe how much tumblr helped me waste time ahem, grow as a person this year.

S#@! My Students Write: Evidence of the true cost of educational funding cuts.

5. eNotes Quizzes

Interestingly, a great way to counteract the above problem! This year we at eNotes released our very own collection of quizzes across hundreds of book titles. And because they’re all developed in-house, these quizzes contain thousands of unique questions geared towards helping students study for their literature tests. They’re also a pretty fun way to kill a few minutes, or 30… Out of all of eNotes’ releases in 2012, Quizzes iss definitely my favorite, and it’s an area of the site we expect to grow and grow. If you haven’t checked it out yet, test your knowledge today to try and beat some of our top quiz takers.

Screen Shot 2012-12-21 at 12.05.59 PM

6. TED Talks

Okay, I admit, I must seem a little late to the game right now, but omg TED Talks!! I love you. You’re so great, you even made it into one of those futuristic teasers for the Prometheus movie. Where else could I learn about neo-evolution, how to 3D print a human kidney, or about time-lapse nature photography all in one place? I also believe that any site that allows you to sort through its video archives by “Rated jaw-dropping” must contain some very humbling stuff. If you’ve never visited TED before… what are you doing with your life? Get on it now, or better, watch one of my favorite ever talks below:

We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world. So we’re building here a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world’s most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other.

Free knowledge for all! (If not a free pass to their annual TED Conferences, which will run you more than the cost of ten Coachella tickets. But hey, that’s what the video archives are for.) If you’re interested in keeping up to date with all the world’s brilliant ideas, this non-profit organization has a great blog to peruse, too.

7. Books on the Nightstand

A podcast I discovered just this year, BOTNS is a great resource to turn to to stay ahead of the latest book-selling trends. Hosted by industry insiders Michael Kindness and Ann Kingman, the show offers lots of great conversation on new releases, mostly sorted into various categories (their holiday gift guide does a great job of this, collating best graphic novels, best non-fiction, best children’s lit, and so on into a neat gift-giving manual). It’s because of this podcast that I picked up my current read, Age of Miracles, and have a lot more waiting on my Amazon wish list. Check out the show notes on their website for lots of good end-of-year recommendations, plus info on their annual reading challenge and Booktopia Festival.

8. Twitterature

Last but not least, if you’ve read any of my past posts you may have noticed my growing fascination this year with the idea of “Twitterature.” I was never a great supporter of Twitter until 2012–I knew it was a good publicity tool, yes, but how could it actually work for me in my life? At best, I thought of tweets as glorified Facebook statuses, and the last thing I wanted to read on the Internet were the details of others’ lives eating chips and looking out windows. I do enough of that on my own, thank you very much. I also don’t like this new word we have in our lexicon thanks to Twitter: hashtag. To me, it’s an ugly word that now, unfortunately, is somebody’s ugly name. But I digress…

In May I encountered Jennifer Egan’s short story created purely for Twitter, “Black Box.” The installments, all published as tweets of 140 characters or less, read like a kind of poetry. It struck a chord with me–if tweets reveal a person’s thoughts, then perhaps narration is perfectly suited to Twitter? Luckily, authors across the world have taken this idea and run with it. At this year’s Twitter Fiction Festival, I encountered a variety of stories created purely for this new form, from the murder mystery narrated by three party guests’ Twitter accounts, to a retelling of Hardy’s The Turn of the Screw, via the perspective of the nanny’s tweets.

While I still may not hold a Twitter account personally, I am eager to see where this new avenue of literature leads to in 2013, especially in light of the latest Bridget Jones’ scoop.  It’s always exciting to feel in the midst of a big change in the world of literature. Sure, tweeters may not make up the next Romantics, or Beats, or Angry Young Men, but they might, just might, be carving out a new form for a brave new literary world.

Well, that’s all from me until next year. Happy holidays, and a very happy 2013 to everyone! I hope this new year will be just as exciting as our last.


Top Ten Self-Deprecating Quotes from Authors

The literary world is a pretentious place, right? You wouldn’t think so judging by these ten quotes from authors playfully poking fun at their success. Who knew the Paris Review was such a popular venue in which to be self-deprecating?

Know of any others? Tell us in a comment below.

1. Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita is famous, not I. I am an obscure, doubly obscure, novelist with an unpronounceable name.” — in The Paris Review, 1967

2. Mark Twain

“I must have a prodigious quantity of mind; it takes me as much as a week sometimes to make it up.” – The Innocents Abroad

3. Ray Bradbury

“A conglomerate heap of trash, that’s what I am. But it burns with a high flame.” — in The Paris Review, 2010

4. Kurt Vonnegut

Slapstick may be a very bad book. I am perfectly willing to believe that. Everybody else writes lousy books, so why shouldn’t I? What was unusual about the reviews was that they wanted people to admit now that I had never been any good. The reviewer for the Sunday Times actually asked critics who had praised me in the past to now admit in public how wrong they’d been. My publisher, Sam Lawrence, tried to comfort me by saying that authors were invariably attacked when they became fabulously well-to-do… I had suffered, all right — but as a badly educated person in vulgar company and in a vulgar trade. It was dishonorable enough that I perverted art for money. I then topped that felony by becoming, as I say, fabulously well-to-do. Well, that’s just too damn bad for me and for everybody. I’m completely in print, so we’re all stuck with me and stuck with my books.” — in The Paris Review, 1977

5. Stephen King

“I am the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and Fries.”

6. David Sedaris

“At the end of a miserable day, instead of grieving my virtual nothing, I can always look at my loaded wastepaper basket and tell myself that if I failed, at least I took a few trees down with me.” — Me Talk Pretty One Day

7. Jonathan Lethem

“Listen, you can’t imagine what a freak I was. I worked in used bookstores as a teenager. I grew up with hippie parents. I lived in a ten-year cultural lag. At all times. I had not the faintest idea what was contemporary. When I got to Bennington, and I found that Richard Brautigan and Thomas Berger and Kurt Vonnegut and Donald Barthelme were not ‘the contemporary,’ but were in fact awkward and embarrassing and had been overthrown by something else, I was as disconcerted as a time traveler. The world I’d dwelled in was now apocryphal. No one read Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell, the Beats were regarded with embarrassment. When all that was swept away, I stopped knowing what contemporary literature was. I didn’t replace it; I just stopped knowing.” — in The Paris Review, 2003

8. John Grisham

“I can’t change overnight into a serious literary author. You can’t compare apples to oranges. William Faulkner was a great literary genius. I am not.”

9. Dorothy Parker

“I fell into writing, I suppose, being one of those awful children who wrote verses. I went to a convent in New York—the Blessed Sacrament… I was fired from there, finally, for a lot of things, among them my insistence that the Immaculate Conception was spontaneous combustion.” — in The Paris Review, 1956

10. And the self-deprecating author who took it to the highest extreme? That’d have to be Gary Shteyngart, who created a five minute parody of himself to promote his book Super Sad True Love Story:

“He really wants to cash in on this whole Hollywood vampire thing, but with werewolves… But they’re not wolves, they’re bears. Werebears.”

Images and quotes courtesy of Flavorwire.


Catcher in the Rye To Be Dropped from Curriculum? Puh-lease

New Common Core Standards drop classic novels in favor of “informational texts.”

The US school system will undergo some big changes within the next two years, chiefly due to a decision to remove a good deal of classic novels from the curriculum, or so the recent media reports would have you think.

The idea behind discouraging or reducing the teaching of old favorites like The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird is to make room for non-fiction “informational texts” in the curriculum. These should be approved by the Common Core Standards of each state. Suggested texts include, “Recommended Levels of Insulation by the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the Invasive Plant Inventory, by California’s Invasive Plant Council,” among others.

Mmmm, I just love me a good read on insulation levels while I soak in the tub.

So, the idea behind this is that children who pass through such a school system will be better prepared for the workplace, their brains packed with useful, practical knowledge rather than brimming with literary fluff (my personal summation). It has the backing of the National Governors’ Association, the Council of Chief of State School Officers, and even the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which partially funded the directive.

But is that estimate correct? Will reading more non-fiction in favor of fiction breed better writing, or more informed graduates? The discussion is extremely divided. One Arkansas teacher wrote in this Telegraph article,

In the end, education has to be about more than simply ensuring that kids can get a job. Isn’t it supposed to be about making well-rounded citizens?

Meanwhile, another reader weighed in for the pros of teaching more scientific texts:

I don’t understand how adding non-fiction books to reading lists REDUCES imagination.  Hard science is all about imagination–the “what ifs” of nature and the universe… I am sick of English professors acting like English Literature is the only bastion of imagination/critical thinking/culture.

When I first read that article stating that The Catcher in the Rye and other novels specifically would be gone from curriculums nation-wide, I was alarmed and frightened, though I now know it was needlessly so. The reactions of protesters are a tad hyperbolic, given that the two soporific texts I named above are found amongst a long list of alternate suggestions in various subjects, for instance Circumference: Eratosthenes and the Ancient Quest to Measure the Globe by Nicholas Nicastro, and The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story by Richard Preston, interesting and well-written books in their own right. English Literature classes will not be barred from teaching certain classic novels, as some of the reports would have you believe, though they may have more limited time to teach them than before. Yes, the school system will be changed and possibly not for the better, but Salinger and Lee aren’t going anywhere.

All in all, the arguments for both sides make overblown assumptions: on the one, that students will miraculously be better prepared for the job market, on the other, that all imagination and creativity will be drained from impressionable young adults. So, which side do you stand on, if either? Is the teaching of informational texts merited, or best left to vocational studies? Tell us in a comment below!


#twitterfiction Worthy of a Retweet

Literary festivals come to town and go, and for whatever reason you just couldn’t make it out to all you wanted to see this year. Fear not! Now the festival can come to you.

Today is the first day of Twitter’s very own Fiction Festival, an event that draws writers and readers from around the globe together on one page. Literature has never been so instant, accessible, or succinct, as authors craft stories from afar in real time, sometimes as short as 140 characters.

The Festival showcase will be a completely virtual event, taking place on Twitter with participants from five continents and stories in five languages. For five days, Wednesday, November 28 to Sunday, December 2, you’ll be able to find creative experiments in story-telling on Twitter around the clock.

Want to get involved? At this festival, you’re not relegated to the sidelines. Jump in with your own fiction, and use the tag #twitterfiction for all to see your work. You could:

- create a character and tell a story in his or her voice
– tell a story from your own account
– tell a story in a single Tweet
…and of course, any other creative ideas you have.

A showcase page of all the festival’s entries can be found at this link. Missed the daily live retweeting of Hamlet? Don’t worry, all of the selections are collated for you like this. You’ll never miss a lit festival again.

To give you a heads up on the happenings, here are a few highlights. No need to grab a map and traipse from tent to tent! You can also head to Twitter’s blog for a complete schedule:

  • Starting with the idea of a Twitter feed used as evidence, author Elliott Holt (@elliottholt) will tell the story of a crime. The audience will see that story unfold via three different perspectives, and then will have to weigh the presented evidence for themselves. Wednesday at 7pm EST
  • Perhaps no story is more powerful than a myth. Lucy Coats (@lucycoats) from Northampton UK, will re-tell 100 Greek myths in 100 Tweets. Wednesday 21 Nov. till Sunday 25 Nov. 9am EST
  • Emmy Laybourne (@emmylaybourne) and Anna Banks (@byannabanks) will put a humorous spin on the paranormal young adult story with love affair between a teenage girl and a…Sasquatch. Wednesday through Sunday at 4pm EST (21:00 GMT) 
  • For author Kurt Crisman (@unpublishedguy) online descriptions of TV episodes tell a story all their own. He’ll weave a whole story together out of these to describe five seasons of a science fiction show with an absurdist twist. Every day, updated hourly
  • Ifeoluwapo Odedere offers a satire, written in the style of the King James Bible, about a Nigerian community whose attempts to find a sustainable power source are continually thwarted by a saboteur. Thursday through Saturday at 8am EST
  • In a tense psychological thriller, Andrew Pyper (@andrewpyper) re-tells the classic Henry James ghost story “The Turn of the Screw” — set in a present-day White House. We will follow the Tweets of the new nanny, who is increasingly convinced something strange is afoot. Thursday through Sunday at 7pm EST
  • A group of four authors in Paris plan to work together to build collaborative sonnets in French, which they call #TwitRature. Thursday to Sunday at 5am EST
  • AND if you’re lucky enough to be in New York, the New York Public Library will be hosting the festival’s only non-virtual live event this Saturday.

I love that all of these creative people have embraced the idea of “twitterature.” I’m sure it’s a challenging way to stretch (squeeze?) one’s writing skills, and really brings the audience something innovative. What are your thoughts on how Twitter is changing the literary world?

Check back next week for a summary of the festival’s highlights!


The Truth About Youth and Books

Young people today just don’t read enough, right?

If you’re under the age of 30, you’ve probably been accused of this at some point in your life. In fact, it seems that every upcoming generation is stereotyped as lazier than the one that came before it. We’ve all overheard the same complaints: “always up to no good with their fancy devices,” “always at their computers or watching too much TV.” “Why, back in my day…” You know the drill. In the end both sides come to believe that kids in the old days were both more capable of entertaining themselves and walked uphill both ways while they did it.

But what if the public perception of youth culture is just a little bit wrong? What if young people actually turned out to be the age group that reads the most, and frequents the library the most? Could that be? A survey conducted by Pew Research Center aimed to find out the truth about youth and books. Their results show that not only do 18-24 year-olds read more than any other age group, but that many are more open to it because of the availability of e-readers and e-books. So before you curse the decline of print publishing, think of how it might serve the next generation of iPad, Kindle, and Nook readers, and read on to find out more about the Pew Center’s findings.


Some Pig, Some Book: Charlotte’s Web Turns 60

How E.B. White loved spiders before the rest of the world fell in love with his.

Some children’s books are truly timeless.

When you think of their titles, the very smell of their pages seems to seep from your memory, and you find yourself once again feeling those same emotions you felt on the first reading, or indeed any reading thereafter.

Charlotte’s Web is one of those books.

E.B. White’s classic tale has played a pivotal role in many a child’s upbringing. In fact, in a Publisher’s Weekly poll it was ranked as the most popular children’s book ever published. Today marks its sixtieth year in print.

The tale is so familiar to so many of us that I hardly feel the need to raise a spoiler alert. All the same, don’t read on if you don’t yet know the ending…

The body of the novel may concern a pig, a girl, and a series of barnyard animals to fill the backdrop, but at its heart is a remarkable spider, Charlotte A. Cavatica. Though a spider to many may seem like an unlikely creature to feel empathy for, the author obviously saw differently.

Charlotte’s Web had its beginnings in the Maine farm White ran with his wife Katherine Angell. One October day, White noticed a spider’s web in the corner of his barn. He watched as, over a manner of weeks, the spider in it spread her net wider and wider, eventually laying a tiny egg sac at its center. The spider was never to be seen again. When the time came for White to leave Maine for New York (and the farm for his steady job at The New Yorker), “he put the sac in an empty candy box, punched some holes in it, and absent-mindedly put the box atop his bedroom bureau in New York.”

Some weeks later, that precious egg sac began to breathe life. The author watched as tiny eight-legged spiders crawled out of the candy box, through the air holes he’d made for them.

White was delighted at this affirmation of life and left the hundreds of barn spiderlings alone for the next week or so — to spin webs from his hair brush to his nail scissors to his mirror — until, finally, the cleaning lady complained.

Thus also hatched White’s idea for Charlotte’s Web.

Interestingly, his fascination with and emotional attachment to spiders went back further than those first stirrings of the novel in 1949. White once wrote of the arachnids that “once you begin watching spiders, you haven’t time for much else.” Even one of his love poems to his new bride concerned a spider. This one he wrote in 1929 is titled “Natural History”:

The spider, dropping down from twig,
Unwinds a thread of his devising;
A thin, premeditated rig
To use in rising.

And all the journey down through space,
In cool descent, and loyal-hearted,
He builds a ladder to the place
From which he started.

Thus I, gone forth, as spiders do,
In spider’s web a truth discerning,
Attach one silken strand to you
For my returning.

So White was no novice in making a spider appear beautiful and regal rather than something to be feared. In Charlotte’s Web, he instilled all of the attributes in Charlotte that made us fall in love with her; she was kind, honest, a truly loyal friend, and of course a great writer, too. It wasn’t long before she spun a web around children’s hearts everywhere.

And when we cried at Charlotte’s death, White was right there with us.

So great was the author’s love for his character that in 1970, when it came time for him to record the audio book, he had a difficult time reading the passage wherein his beloved spider passed. In the end, it took 17 takes for White to get through the following paragraph without his voice “cracking or beginning to cry.”

The fairgrounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody of the hundreds of people that had visited the fair knew that a gray spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.

It wasn’t the first time a reader cried over Charlotte, nor will it be the last. Wilbur may have been some pig, but Charlotte was certainly some spider, and White’s story is one very special book. If those who remember her now have anything to do with it, Charlotte’s story will be celebrated in another sixty years as one of the most beloved children’s novels of our, or indeed of any time.

To hear White read the passage above, head to NPR’s Morning Edition story, which includes an interview with Michael Sims, author of the biography The Story of Charlotte’s Web. You can also listen to E.B. White read an excerpt of Charlotte’s Web via an NPR recording at this link.

Charlotte’s Web on eNotes:

Charlotte’s Web Study Guide

Lesson Plan

and Q&A

 


A Promising Payday, a Petulant Penguin

Lena Dunham scores with Random House while Penguin seeks repayment on book deals gone sour.

If you’ve evaded living under a rock this past week, you’ve probably also heard about the bidding war over Lena Dunham’s forthcoming book of essays that resulted in a $3.5m payout for the author (slash director, slash actress). Yes, now aspiring young authors can join the ranks of aspiring young film makers made green with envy by the talented Miss Dunham. But all we can think of is that, for her sake, it better be good, given the example that Penguin set in court last month.

At the end of September the Penguin Group New York filed lawsuits to recoup losses made on advances to several of its authors who never delivered. With the filing of these suits, the details of these authors’ paydays have become public knowledge. Though none are as hefty as Dunham’s, the size of a few of these advances may surprise you:

The largest advance of the list went to Ana Marie Cox, who founded the political blog Wonkette. In 2006 she signed a contract that totaled $325,000 to write a “humorous examination of the next generation of political activists.” Now, because she didn’t deliver, Penguin is suing to reclaim the $81,250 advance it paid her, plus $50,000 in interest. Hopefully her correspondent jobs at GQ and The Guardian compensate her as handsomely (we’re guessing that they probably do).

A controversial plaintiff in this series of cases is Holocaust survivor Herman Rosenblat. In 1996, Rosenblat and his wife appeared on Oprah to tell the miraculous story of their meeting and falling in love. Per the story, Herman survived his imprisonment as a child in the concentration camp Buchenwald thanks to a young Roma, his future wife, who threw apples to him from the other side of the fence. Years later, the two met again in New York on a blind date and fell in love. Unfortunately, their tale is as implausible as it sounds. When news of the faked story broke, Rosenblat was due to release a memoir through Berkley Books, an imprint of Penguin. The publishing house then cancelled the release of the book and now aims to collect the would-be memoirist’s advance of $30,000, with an additional $10,000 in interest.

Penguin is also seeking repayments from Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation, for a teen book on depression that she never produced; New Yorker journalist Rebecca Mead for a $50,000 deal she agreed to in 2003, and never fulfilled; and Conrad Tillard for the $85,000 paid to him for the memoir of his “epic journey from the Ivy League to the Nation of Islam,” also never completed. The Smoking Gun has more on those.

Here’s hoping Lena Dunham never ends up in the same hot water, given the massive amount she’d be held accountable for. We’re pretty sure she’s doing just fine, though.

On another note, um Penguin, how bout sending advancements some other writers’ ways? I know several who’d fulfill their contracts for you. Just sayin’.

Thoughts on advances, the repayment of advances, and celebrity book deals in general? Sound off below!


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