Archive for reading

On books and pretending to have read them.

Posted in blogging, books, education, ill effects of computers, memory, shyness, Uncategorized, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2010 by katekanno

I’ve always been inarticulate, particularly in groups when the social anxiety ramps up.  I have a tendency to lock onto some obscure, often not very meaningful detail, and wax incomprehensible. Summarizing is not a strong suit, and  I cannot, for the life of me, exude an air of mastery over anything so much as making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Yet, what baffled me when I returned to the States five years ago, was how much that skill, online or off,  has usurped genuine knowledge. There seemed to be more value placed on knowing about something, more so if that thing could be dismissed with a clever reference to theory or more appallingly,  a wikipedia link.

Before the internet we called that jousting with a trashcan and a garden hoe.

Even worse is that it now gets the nod from self-help manuals like Pierre Bayard’s “How to Talk About Books that You Haven’t Read,” which Tracy Seeley, a vanguard in the slow reading movement, sees as a more sinister sign of our fraying focus.

Agreed.

And it’s phony as all get up, too.

I’m the first to admit that I’m as insecure  as the next person, but I’d prefer to use that anxiety as a guide. What haven’t I read? Where am I woefully ignorant?  And then I’ll go out and pick up a book, try to gain at least a meager grasp over what I know I don’t know.  It’s not a very efficient system, a little too random, but more often than not the serendipity pays off in ways that I would hope are more creative than the simple art of name dropping.

Creating a reading journal (a cozy catastrophe in progress)

Posted in lifehacking, Lists, literature, stationery lust, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2010 by katekanno

Here I am in this noisy café, unable to concentrate thanks to a gaggle of chain-smoking obasans complaining mightily about absent friends and their sorely inadequate children.

It’s as good a time as any to update my blog.As I’ve been making my way through the notebook, I’ve been able to devise a my own version of a reading journal and thought I’d share.

Note: I don’t like to choose sections of my notebook for use beforehand: doing so wrecks the fun of writing in it, sort of like slogging carelessly into a pristine patch of snow takes away the magic, so I organize as I go along.

1. Orange is for Reading

This is the reading journal. A work in progress, but basically if the book is certain to contain a lot of words I’ve never heard of, I draw a line down the page. The inner side I use to write those words and the outer edge for quotations, thoughts, or questions.What I like about this system is that it’s an easy way for me to stay honest about what one blogger aptly called “the shit I know I don’t know.”

2. Beige is for Writing.

I don’t really have a system in place here. If I have a story idea or to expand on something in my reading journal, I scribble it down and slap on a tag. That way I can come back and grimace at my leisure.

3. White is for er… Japanese

The move back to Japan demands that I get my ass in gear and start studying the language again. I passed level one of the Japanese proficiency test back in 1997, but 12 years (five of them out of the country) is plenty of time to get rusty. Thus, I added a language section. I use it the same way I do the reading journal, except there’s A LOT more vocabulary space, and my thoughts are mainly awkward practice sentences.

4. Yellow is for Lists

For anything and everything. I’m especially fond of book lists, but they’re also wonderful writing prompts,  great for mining memory and personal experience — a tip from Barbara DeMarco Barrett’s Pen on Fire.

This is what the closed book looks like. I use tags from mujirushi. I love their muted colors. I love their notebooks, too. And their pens. And their lunch boxes, and…I’ll stop now.

That’s pretty much it. It works well so far, but I’m sure that I’ll be wringing my hands over a new class/system soon. How do you organize your notebooks/ reading journals?

On Not Teaching Writing

Posted in education, literature, politics, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 6, 2010 by katekanno

Just a little whining about Obama’s State of the Union, most of which I liked, except the Sputnik style push for more science and math. That one’s old.  It isn’t change, and it’s part of Arne Duncan’s corporatist agenda to hack apart the teachers’ unions.

No doubt.

Nevertheless, what kind of defense can the humanities mount when the ed schools themselves are doing such a great job of undermining its subjects.

I apologize for dragging you into the old cranky time tunnel of nostalgia with me, but when I was in high school, we wrote. And when I say write, I mean we picked up pens and made marks on the blank page, sometimes staring at it for a few frustrated minutes, before pressing on, but we wrote, sometimes churning out one, two –gasp!–  even three pages in the space of a fifty minute class period.

Today’s ed schools, however, train English teachers to do everything they can to stand between the kid and the page.  It’s called “scaffolding” a term taken from Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, which initially meant something more complicated, but has now been ham-fistedly tacked on whatever silly scrapbook, Disney video, or papier-mache monstrosity the writing teacher must first inflict on his or her students before allowing them to pick up their pens.

First, there must be ceremonial readings of the text, eased through with motivational gimmickry, after which there will be an all too brief prewriting session, one or two graphic organizers, then peer reviews in which peers who cannot write their way out of a cereal box critique one another’s essays, all of this until the students have gained enough distance from both text and prompt that they can’t remember what it was they were to write in the first place.

I should note that I’m sinking to a gimmick myself by typing out this entry on Dr. Wicked’s Write or Die site. I have twenty minutes to do five hundred words, because Dr. Wicked will not give me a graphic organizer, he will not dazzle me with visual aids, or that ludicrous mish mash of stupidity referred to as “scaffolding.” If I do not write, Dr. Wicked will simply start erasing everything I’ve done up to this point, and that will feel bad. Very bad. But you see, we cannot have that, because in this mighty land of hollow self-esteem, we cannot allow our students to feel pressure, receive censure, or encounter a consequence at any moment.

Also, for as useful as they’ve been over the past few thousand years, actual reading and writing have none of the flash of a good Powerpoint presentation, none of the razzle dazzle of faux research, and none of the spurious, reductive labels educational researchers like to slap on kids’ thoughts.

I could complain about the push for math and science, but I won’t. As a graduate of one of the nation’s top ed programs — a fact of which I am not proud– I’d rather call on reformers to divert their attention from so-called “bad” teachers and look, really look at what’s being peddled to aspiring teachers in today’s ed schools. If they do, they might finally find the easy answers they’ve been looking for all along.

Exploitation vs. Exploration

Posted in blogging, books, education, lifehacking, literature, multitasking, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 28, 2009 by katekanno

Exploitation vs. Exploration.

Previously the former word brought to mind underpaid factory workers or at least those miserably lopsided friendships in junior high, whereas exploration has always drummed up that conscientious chap in the beat up Tee, making his open-minded, charitable way through a new place.  If exploitation was Saruman, hacking up the trees in Lord of the Rings, then exploration was Indiana Jones, knowledgeable, adaptable, and of course, heroic.

On a larger level, of course, this is still true. On a personal level, such thinking is the disaster that we inflict on both ourselves and the world.

How, you might ask, can trying new things, reading new authors, and meeting fabulous new people be a bad thing? It isn’t.
But my life, and I suspect the same is happening in those of many other people, is suffering from a glut of exploration, both physical and psychological. It’s what buries our living spaces in useless consumer junk, the books we don’t read, our time with mildly interesting pursuits and people we know only tangentially, and our brains with all of that digital information on which we, to use that ominously cutesy term coined by David Armano,  snack.

Take all of those indelicate act(s) of multitasking: What are they but pure exploration at the expense of exploitation? We listen to 30 new songs on Pandora while talking on the phone and attempting to cook that souffle via the step by step instructions that we’re watching on the Food Network. And we’re making a hash of it all, even the talking, which we’re reducing more and more to Malaprops, disjointed threads, and yes, grunts.

So this is the year I make a determined effort to exploit more and explore less. Exploit! Exploit! Exploit! I’m with you Saruman. But only when it comes to myself. Save the trees.

Because when you exploit on a personal level, you do save trees. Let’s take my book habit, because it’s come to me after spending five predominantly dull years in the world’s dullest town with nothing else to do but read like a maniac, how very rarely I’ve come away from a book feeling that I know it  to my satisfaction, that I have many of its ideas, characters, and underlying themes mastered, before I’m on to the next one. I’m not trying to beat myself up, or to argue that I’ve gained nothing for my efforts. But as a writer, I want to be better poised to use what’s in what I read both for inspiration and to strengthen my own abilities.

Exploitation project 1: The Reading Journal.

To this purpose I’ve been keeping a reading journal. I’ve been doing it for awhile, but haven’t really landed on a good system until now, my biggest problem being how to separate the writing I do for myself with notes or ideas taken from books. I’ve been using color coded tags from Mujirushi to separate pages of my own writing and the  journal, which is working out well so far. In the reading journal, I  draw a line down the page and note any words or concepts with which I’m unfamiliar, leaving random thoughts or quotes I want to keep on the other. Although I’m not a proponent of Gardner’s learning styles, which are finally, and thankfully being discredited, the act of writing things down rather than typing them up does seem to help me remember what I’ve read. It’s rote baby! There’s no magic trick or psychobabble that can make it any easier.

On Lists

Posted in blogging, books, lifehacking, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2009 by katekanno

This week’s Der Spiegel has an interview with Umberto Eco on the subject of lists. Eco states that lists are stabs at immortality, an attempt to take control of the infinite through categorization:”We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. We like lists because we don’t want to die.”

I’ve always attributed it to something less grandiose, the desire not to squander whatever limited time we have, or to just plain get organized.

Of course there’s always the old saw about cultural insecurity, particularly among Americans. Lists of cultural artifacts, books, paintings, films,  have often been a quick way to stack ourselves up against others — “At least I’ve read Proust. Sniff.” I’ve seen evidence of this;  a few months back, in fact, I was appalled when a social networking friend humorlessly posted the Booker list, and then checked off each one he had read, even adding the number of times read in parentheses. But we’ll leave him to his demons, and as long as one uses them playfully, lists can be good references, to safely shake us out of our habits, show us something new.

A few weeks back though, when jotting down ideas for a list-based project, I was suddenly overtaken by a severe, albeit brief spell of depression, not about mortality as Eco argues, but the recent prevalence of list-making in popular culture.

“The list doesn’t destroy culture; it creates it.” Eco says. “Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists.”

But if the list creates culture, what in fact is behind the creation of the lists?

I began to wonder about the increasing presence of the list, and not just those numbered sets of bullet points, but graphic organizers, Powerpoints, and so many creative works gleefully basing their form on the dumbed down worksheet absurdities of K-12 education. Take Sufjan Stephen’s grandiose plan to record an album for each of the 50 states, or the graphs albeit tongue-in-cheek in the Believer. This reverie then glommed onto NaNoWriMo, Edmo, Drunkmo, all of these attempts to impose creativity through organized allotments of time or space.

I’m not out to bash these things. I’m a participant in this year’s NaNoWriMo and believe me, it’s good to be writing rather than fretting over where my life is going. Besides, when you’re looking to brainstorm fiction ideas, lists are an insanely effective way to tap memories and ideas you had no clue were there.

But I also wonder if this recent surge in list making might not also be the result of our waning ability to organize our own thoughts.

Take research on multitasking, the implications of which are ignored in inverse proportion to the frightening results. According to an August article in Wired, Dr. Clifford Nass found that multitaskers do poorly on cognitive tests, showing an inability to ignore “irrelevant” information.“Whether people with a predisposition to multitask happen to be mentally disorganized, or if multitasking feeds the condition — “that’s the million dollar question.”

To add a ten-dollar question of my own, is this mental disorganization being fed by the computer, and is that in turn stoking our desire for order; is the smog build up in our gray matter behind our recent, and often misguided attempts to assign rank to novels, works of art, or experience itself? As much as I enjoy checking them off, you’ve got to admit that the 1001 Books/Places/Painting/Records to Read/Visit/See/Hear Before You Die series is not the end all and be all of taste.

As Nass states, acts of multitasking involve exploration, the act of gathering up as much information as possible over exploitation, focused concentration on what we’ve gathered. All of these lists seem provide the promise of exploitation, or a false sense of mastery over that information. But more importantly, I think they attract us because we can sense something is wrong. Lists provide a simplified route to exploitation, a cognitive lifeline to those flailing about in a morass of often irrelevant information.

"Fathomless Stupidity" and November Noir

Posted in books, education, literature, movies, Queer life, Queer Lit, Uncategorized, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 8, 2009 by katekanno

Ash_MalindaLoYesterday, I went in to buy Malinda Lo’s Ash. It’s a relatively new book, or at least I thought so. After all, Lo is still doing book tours. You’d think her hardback might still be on the shelves.

Now usually it’s not my habit to purchase a new book unless it’s something I’m really excited about, and I was very, very excited about a lesbian take on Cinderella. Enough, I’m embarrassed to say, to break my previous vow on this blog to read only the stack of unread books glaring from the living room shelves.

I went into Barnes and Noble in Irvine. Probably Orange County’s most depressing chain book store; Irvine’s B&N is a the kind of dim halogen mall hole where fathers read “Rapture Ready” aloud to their children, and the latest idiocy a la “Why do Men have Nipples?” is prominently displayed.

But I was determined. I looked in sci-fi, in fiction, in YA. Nothing, until hope draining, I slogged up to the counter and asked the clerk, who said, “We do have one copy, I think.”

We returned to the YA section,but the book was still not there. “Hmm,” he said, “Let me check in the back. It might be being shipped back to the publisher.

Huh?

I was just in time, it seemed. After a few minutes, he appeared from the back room, that last copy in hand, rescued from the shredder.

“But, why were you shipping it back?” I asked.

“Got to make room for new books,” he said.

Maybe my eyes aren’t very good, but this book looked new and shiny. It had a dust free jacket and a September 2009 publication date on the inside.

And there was only one left.

I could go into all sorts of Orange County conspiracy theories, that a lesbian-themed fairy tale for teens might be targeted in a bookstore with umpteen mega churches within a ten block radius. But as Ursula Le Guin remarked in a Jan, 2008 issue of Harper’s, it’s probably more that “the stupidity of the contemporary, corporation-owned publishing company is fathomless.”

If a title that was supposed to sell a lot doesn’t “perform” within a few weeks, it gets its covers torn off—it is trashed. The corporate mentality recognizes no success that is not immediate. This week’s blockbuster must eclipse last week’s, as if there weren’t room for more than one book at a time. Hence the crass stupidity of most publishers (and, again, chain booksellers) in handling backlists.

This is far worse than any conspiracy I could dream up. If you’re a lonely adolescent living in Orange County, surrounded by squealing, dimwit fans of Twilight and questioning your sexuality, good luck. Your own vampire romances are being shipped back to the publisher by virtue not of homophobia, but lack of instantaneous profits.

But don’t worry, homophobia will always be there to limit even more of your reading options. I’m talking to you Scholastic, now that you’re in the business of blatantly censoring LGBT children’s books.

Now on to November Noir.

“I met him a corral. He had the jump but I guess hate made me fast.”

RanchoNotorious

This movie killed me. Marlene Dietrich riding piggy back on a cowboy in a saloon, that crazy ballad about the legend of “Chuck-a-Luck.” Do you mean dog food or a defunct sporting goods store?

Actually the song narrates a great Johnny Guitar style piece of Western Noir, referring to a game of chance. Fritz Lang, in fact, wanted to call it “Chuck-a-Luck” but was stopped by Howard Hughes who argued that European audiences wouldn’t understand. Lang retorted that neither would they get the name “Rancho Notorious.”

This movie is insane! See it!

Avoiding the Brain Sucker: limiting screen culture, more ghost stories, and notebook hacks.

Posted in blogging, ghost stories, Halloween, lifehacking, literature, old time radio, stationery lust, Uncategorized, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 30, 2009 by katekanno

Picture 10Avoiding the brain sucker.

I’ve been limiting my internet hours to the evening, having noticed that I’ve been becoming more and more frazzled and distracted, particularly when it comes to my writing. It’s a creepy experience when you go online to search for specific information only to forget what that was the second your browser appears. This has been scaring me as I’ve always had a steel trap memory, or so my partner complains.

Furthermore, it’s been harming my ability to focus on my writing, and so I’ve decided to stop.

My email can wait until after dinner, so can my podcasts, facebook, twitter, and other interests. It hasn’t been hard really. I get up, and rather than going for that cup of coffee that gives me limitless excuses to go online, I jump into the shower and get dressed. Twyla Tharp in her book The Creative Habit suggests adopting a mundane ritual — hers, is grabbing a taxi — to throw yourself into the right mindset for work. The shower’s worked for me so far.

The hardest part has been writing in longhand, a necessary part of the deal as typing would lure me right back online again. I find I’m more hesitant with a pen, more self-critical, and rather than twitter distracting me, it’s those mean old voices and a desire to snack. Apples have taken care of the latter, but the former, that’s just something you can’t avoid.

At the same time, my writing is less slapdash. I’m less likely to write crap because I know I can go back and fix it later, a mode of thinking that gets me into serious trouble at 10,000 words. I’m no climber, but if I see each word as one foot higher, I’d better damn well be prepared once I get high enough to break my neck. Today, I outlined a story, and although I’m not extremely thrilled with the outcome yet, it is progress.

I’ve also done more dishes, been more helpful to my partner, edited two articles (not mine) and finished reading another book. What’s been interesting and a little unnerving is how hard it was for me to focus on it, at least for a few hours. I had to stop myself, catch my mind wandering, and return to the same paragraph. Reassuring, however, was that I was able to knuckle down after awhile. Using my Piccadilly as a reading journal to jot down new vocabulary, quotations, and thoughts, also helps to keep me physically, if not mentally committed to the reading.

Anyway, one more day til Halloween.

Here is a favorite tale of the occult, Casting the Runes by M.R. James, adapted into an excellent radio program here, and a superb 1957 Val Lewton production with Dana Andrews.

The Thought is a 1950 radio presentation from the Haunting Hour. I don’t know who the writer is, but the Wurlitzer here is out of control. Seriously, I was harried not so much by the story, but by nervously anticipating each blast of the organ. Jeez guys, it’s just a telepath predicting a murder. Lighten up, will ya?