Learning to Read Literature the Way Critics Watch Movies

When I’m trying to teach rhetorical analysis or any kind of analytical reading, I find this metaphor to be useful: we need to learn to read literature the way that critics watch movies. Everybody can picture that and relate to it immediately. All students have seen movies and have seen and heard others pick apart the various aspects of films.

The two processes–literary analysis and film criticism–are remarkably similar: they’re both exercises in identifying the basic building blocks of a work, and then scrutinizing them through lenses like comparison, connection, and evaluation. They’re both means of interpreting the content of messages while appreciating the modes of communication themselves.

I find that having students examine examples of great film criticism, such as essays found from Roger Ebert or the Criterion Collection, is a productive foundation for then extending the tools those writers used to their own approaches to literature in our classes.

And–bonus!–students also get exposed to quality films!

 

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Written English As a Foreign Language to Native Speakers

Over the years, I’ve had a lot of ELL students–English Language Learners (also known as ESL, or English as a Second Language). They have a certain set of needs in writing instruction. In fact, students have slightly differing sets of needs depending on what their first language is: some language backgrounds make learning to use plurals harder; others create a tough time with verb conjugation, for example.

This has nothing to do with anyone’s intelligence–it’s just a matter of learning to think and communicate those thoughts in a new way. What shocks me, though, is just how often I see native English speakers make the same kinds of mistakes in writing that foreign language students make. What accounts for this?

For a young American today, written English is practically a foreign language. Students very likely have little more engagement with written English than they would with any other world language, and it shows in the kinds of errors they make in writing.

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Reviewed and Recommended: F. Paul Wilson’s Nightworld

7957849I recently had such a great reading experience! So many of the books I read are deep, or classics, or deep classics–this time I just wanted something fun. Because of that, I spent a few days in a row staying up late so I could keep reading. That hasn’t happened in a while.

Nightworld is the final book in a series that begins with Wilson’s classic The Keep. (Yes, I skipped to the end of a series just so I could get to the gripping, white-knuckled conclusion. Fight me.) Like all great horror novels, the plot is as elemental as any dark fairy tale: a powerful evil entity is making each day on Earth shorter than the one before, and at night hungry creatures come out of the ground to ravage the world. Each night is longer than the one before, and each night brings larger and more aggressive monsters. Soon, the world will be kept in permanent night, ruled by this demon and his army of monster minions. And only a small rag-tag band of human heroes can come together to stop him.

Pretty awesome. Wilson delivers. Why isn’t there a movie of this? Tons of fun. Highly recommended.

 

Quote About Reading Great Books, From a Great Book I Once Read

Winston stopped reading for a moment. Somewhere in remote distance a rocket bomb thundered. The blissful feeling of being alone with the forbidden book, in a room with no telescreen, had not worn off. Solitude and safety were physical sensations, mixed up somehow with the tiredness of his body, the softness of the chair, the touch of the faint breeze from the window that played upon his cheek. The book fascinated him, or more exactly it reassured him. In a sense it told him nothing that was new, but that was part of the attraction. It said what he would have said, if it had been possible for him to set his scattered thoughts in order. It was the product of a mind similar to his own, but enormously more powerful, more systematic, less fear-ridden. The best books, he perceived, are those that tell you what you know already.

–George Orwell, 1984, Part II, chapter 9

 

Strategies For Reading and Relationships

In relationships, never give up on people. Stick it out, make it work.

In reading…just the opposite. A book should always be a perfect ten. If your connection to a book ever cools off, feel free to kick it to the curb and find another one. Plenty of fish in the sea, plenty of books in the library. Life is short and you deserve the best.

Just don’t get these two ideas confused. Your life will be fun for others to watch, but frustrating for you.

Comparing Three Translations of Les Miserables

I recently started reading Les Miserables. I’m up to Part III and–no surprise–it’s amazing so far.

It had a rocky start, though. I researched translations and couldn’t find one that stood out, so I figured I’d just try the old original standard translation from the 19th century, the Wilbour translation.

I only got a few pages in before getting tired of the pretentious contortion of it all. I decided to find a copy of Denny’s translation from the 70’s. My local library district actually didn’t have that one, but do you know who did? The library at the school where I work! How great is that?

And from page one I loved it. I don’t know how well it reflects the French, but this English version hums and sings for me with pitch-perfect tone.

Here are two passages I really like so far, compared between three popular versions: Wilbour’s, Denny’s, and the recent Julie Rose translation.

This is the end of Part II, chapter 8:

Denny 1

Denny

Wilbour 1

Wilbour

Rose 1

Rose

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Literacy Victories!

One of the best things I get to be part of as a teacher is introducing young people to great books they love. Granted, 99% of what I do in this department falls on deaf ears, but those glorious moments of success–few and far between though they are–really do make it all worth it.

Here are a few recent ones:

Last semester for a book project, one girl chose to read The Handmaid’s Tale from a list of options I gave. She loved it and, when they all had to do presentations on their books, she was overjoyed to learn that it’s being made into a series on Hulu.

Cormac McCarthy is always a safe bet. I often recommend his books to students, and they tend to love him. So many kids read his various books last semester that some classes had spontaneous compare/contrast discussions where they picked up on stylistic and thematic trends across his works. They did this on their own.

Earlier this month I had classes take notes on a documentary about Moby Dick. At the end of class when they turned their notes in, one girl was so excited about it that she had already put the ebook on her phone and said that she’d start reading it that weekend. This wasn’t assigned–she just wanted to read Moby Dick on her own. For fun.

My Year in Books: 2016

I finished 37 books in 2016. For variety and quality, it was one of my best years for reading: nine “A plusses” this year, more than ever before!

1. Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers, Patrick Kavanaugh (1/12, music, religion)–A+

2. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (2/6, literature, Garnett trans.)–A+

3. Pity the Beautiful, Dana Gioia (2/9, poetry)–B

4. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo (2/28, self-improvement)–F

5. Buried Alive, Gloria Skurzynski (3/1, young adult)–C

6. Thomas Cole, Earl A. Powell (3/1, art, biography)–B

7. The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius (3/9, classics, Watts trans.)–C

8. Albert Bierstadt, Tom Robotham (3/12, art, biography)–C

9. Redshirts, John Scalzi, (3/19, science fiction, comedy)–B

10. Rendezvous With Rama, Arthur C. Clarke (3/26, science fiction)–A

11. The Fifth Gospel, Ian Caldwell (4/30, mystery)–A

12. Browsings, Michael Dirda (5/10, memoir, reading)–A+

13. The Lord and His Prayer, N.T. Wright (5/12, religion)–A

14. The Last Good Kiss, James Crumley (5/14, mystery)–B

15. The Anchoress, Robyn Cadwallader (5/19, historical fiction)–C

16. The Prisoner of Zenda, Anthony Hope (5/26, adventure)–B

17. The World’s Strongest Librarian, Josh Hanagarne (5/28, memoir, humor, reading)–A+

18. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester (6/13, science fiction)–B

19. We Are Called to Rise, Laura McBride (6/17, literature)–A+

20. Fair Isn’t Always Equal, Rick Wormeli (6/28, education)–D

21. Mockingbird, Walter Tevis (6/30, science fiction)–A+

22. The Libation Bearers, Aeschylus (7/1, Greek drama, Lattimore trans.)–C

23. Never Go Back, Lee Child (7/12, mystery)–B

24. Death in Venice, Thomas Mann (7/15, literature, Lowe-Porter trans.)–C

25. Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, Monique Morris (7/20, sociology)–F

26. The Taking, Dean Koontz (7/28, horror)–A

27. Fluent in 3 Months, Benny Lewis (8/3, language/self-improvement)–A

28. The Knight of the Swords, Michael Moorcock (8/4, fantasy)–A

29. How to Be Perfect, Daniel Harrell (8/9, scripture study, religion)—B

30. The Eumenides, Aeschylus (8/9, Greek drama, Lattimore trans.)—C

31. Zion: The Long Road to Sanctification, Larry Barkdull (8/17, religion)—B

32. Inferno, Dante (8/26, poetry, classics, Anthony Esolen trans.)—A+

33. Submission, Michel Houellebecq (9/3, fiction, translated from French)—C

34. The Aeneid, Virgil (10/28, classics, Robert Fagles trans.)—A+

35.  A Winter Haunting, Dan Simmons (11/1, suspense)—B

36. To the Rescue: The Biography of Thomas S. Monson, Heidi Swinton (11/13, religion, biography)—A+

37. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (12/29, literature, Maude trans.)—A

Some Dark Humor in The Aeneid

I’m in book 10 of The Aeneid–a major battle scene–and I just came across this lovely bit:

aeneid

Ha! “There were these two identical twins…at least, they were identical twins until one got his hand cut off and the other got decapitated. NOW we can tell them apart just fine!”

What President Monson Is Reading

512ktnfwjelIn President Monson’s brief remarks at this month’s General Conference, perhaps the thing that struck me most was in the priesthood session when he said, “Recently I read the true account of a dramatic manifestation concerning these promises.” Most of the talk, in fact, is a summary of a story from the book. That right there is already pretty high praise for a book, to have a prophet mention it and cite from it as the core of an address to the world.

It’s great to know what the prophet has been reading. He’s still working full time as CEO of a global organization, he’s several years a widower now, and his strength is starting to decline, but he still reads, and this is what he reads: a book about the inspiring experiences of Latter-day Saints during World War II. As far as I know, there isn’t a team of research interns doing any behind-the-scenes lifting in preparing anybody’s conference talks; when the prophet says he’s been reading this book lately, it’s really something he chose to pick up and spend time with.

Maybe we would do well to follow the prophet in his priorities, his habits, and even in his specific choices in reading. The book he mentions, Saints at War: Experiences of Latter-Day Saints in World War II, isn’t on Google Books, but it’s on sale at Amazon for as low as 14 cents a copy.

14 cents, to do what the prophet does.

You know what would be great? A “Prophets Book Club,” where people read books mentioned by prophets and apostles in General Conference.

At the end of the citation for this book in the published version of President Monson’s talk, a note says, “used by permission.” That’s wonderful: the prophet (or maybe his secretary) reached out to the author to ask if it was OK to refer to the book in General Conference. What a sweet conversation I bet that was.

 

Top 5 Most Frightening Scenes In Stephen King Books

 

Be ye warned, Constant Reader: here there be spoilers.

5. The Dark Tower VII: “The Thing Under the Castle”

This is the most recent entry on this list; the only one from the 21st century, but it works because it so strongly harkens back to classic King style: that combination of simple, elemental storytelling with detailed, psychological exposition.

Roland and Susanna are, as the chapter title implies, fleeing some unknown thing in the winding, dark passages under a ruined, ancient castle. At first, there’s just a slight noise in the distance, but then, over the course of several pages, the noises get clearer and closer, and that primitive instinct we all have warns of an approaching predator.

The pace increases to one of sheer panic as they first jog, then run, then sprint with terror-fueled energy away from the mysterious thing. Susanna, whose wheelchair has been lost, rides on Roland’s back and can see behind them into the darkness at what’s coming. As it finally comes within biting distance…

darktower

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