Notes from Stonesthrow

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Books and Films June 5, 2010

Filed under: Books,Entertainment — Greg @ 12:18 am

There was an interesting argument posted at The Atlantic about how, by and large, great books cannot become great films because great books are great because they are books, not films. As the author notes, this is something of a truism, but not one looked at more closely: tons of great movies have been made out of books, and likely surpass the quality of the books on which they are based (see: The Godfather). As the author puts it, what often makes a book great — psychologizing, rich description, interior monologues — don’t translate to film well.

I always get excited when films are made of my favorite books, but I’m often disappointed. Mrs. Dalloway is fine for what it is, but it doesn’t reach the despair and sad beauty of the novel. The treatment of Tristram Shandy is clever, and likely the only direction a film could take, but it can’t be the novel at all. I’m a sucker for the Austen adaptations, and they are often entertaining (probably my favorite being Persuasion), but they always have to cut something, and the wry narrative observations most often must be lost (Can “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” be rendered in film?).

Perhaps my most intriguing adaptation favorite is the film Orlando, based on Woolf’s novel. The novel is a mess of time, space, and gender, and it should be impossible to film. However, the director does something smart: she doesn’t so much attempt for adherence to the novel’s plot, as she adheres to the spirit of the novel. It seems to me, that’s what films should try to do when tackling a great book: get the spirit and the love of the book as much as possible and you might just have a great film.

Am I missing exceptions? And, no, I’m not counting plays here because it’s much easier to do.


How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read July 1, 2009

Filed under: Books — Greg @ 12:03 am

is the title of a book I actually, ahem, read.

The premise is intriguing: a book about how to talk about books you haven’t read. The premise is not actually what the book is about. That is, it is not solely a how-to book, though there is some of ¬†that.

Instead, it’s a rumination on what our actual experience is of reading, remembering, and talking about books, and something of a polemic about how we should read and teach literature.

The structure of the book is simple: Bayard posits a thesis and then uses a piece of literature or pop culture to prove his point. It’s an easy read and an entertaining one.

So, what is Bayard’s central thesis? Books are not pure, reliable, or fixed. So why are we pretending that they are? And, why do we pretend to know books that we don’t?

In fact, Bayard would argue that we do know these books, in a way.

Bayard sets up libraries and books in threes. First, the libraries that we all possess/are a part of:

  1. Collective library: this is the library that we share with members of our culture. This library is not just a repository, but influences the meaning of every book we (don’t) read. Our mastery of it is not a complete (yet obviously impossible) knowledge of the books themselves, but of the relationships between books within it.
  2. Inner library: this is a subset of the collective library ¬†around which an individual personality “is constructed, and which then shapes each person’s individual relationship to books and to other people.”
  3. Virtual library: “the realm in which books are discussed,” “a mobile sector” of the collective library and is at “the point of intersection” of other people’s inner libraries. A book club, a journal, a conversation. He calls it virtual because the books being discussed are in fact not real: they are being created out of the misremembering and outright lying of the participants.

Then there are the different types of books:

  1. Screen book: it “consists in large part of what the reader knows or believes he knows about the book, and thus to the comments exchanged about it.” Since we are always forgetting what we read, Bayard argues that the screen book is less about what the book actually contains than what we believe it contains.
  2. Inner book: it is the baggage that we come into the reading context with that shapes our reading without ever realizing it. Our inner books “create a system for receiving other texts and participate both in their reception and reorganization.” Again, Bayard is arguing that there is nothing out there called “a book”: we create the book (screen book) depending on our filters (previous inner books).
  3. Phantom book: it is the produce of screen books interacting in the virtual library — another unreal book, but a different one than we would have created without the additional meaning provided by someone else.

OK, enough with the terminology. The gist? It is a fun and honest assessment of what we do as readers and as discussants. More importantly, for this teacher of books, is his argument at the end: that we are teaching our students incorrectly. That we are teaching them an undue reverence for the “truth” of books, when everyone knows that we lie about books all the time. That when we talk/write about books, we are creating books and are therefore creative: by emphasizing rote memorization and singular meanings, we are not teaching our students how to be creative.

It’s all very interesting. As I was reading the book, I kept thinking about how I would want to teach it. Obviously, with this title, I might be fired before I even hit the classroom, but I recommend it: it will make you think about your own relationship with books and also perhaps make you a bit more honest about that relationship.


The Terror Dream March 15, 2008

Filed under: Books — Greg @ 6:39 pm

So, I actually read a book.

I’ve long been interested in Susan Faludi. I’ve liked the topic of her previous books, Backlash and Stiffed, but have never finished them (I’ve read around the former). I’ve also been interested in reading some of the analyses of 9/11, but also have not gotten to them, either because they seemed morbid or simplistic.

But, this one was recommended on a few sites, so I decided to dig in.

The Terror Dream‘s thesis is that our bellicose response to 9/11 should have come as no surprise. Moreover, that that bellicosity was supported through narratives of brave masculine heroes saving helpless women should definitely come as no surprise, as that has been our national narrative since before we were a country. Finally, that these narratives of masculine heroism and feminine helplessness are largely fictions should come as no surprise, as some of the most foundational stories of our culture, particularly captivity narratives and Daniel Boone, are completely made up and often warp factual narratives of female independence and heroism.

Faludi structures the book in an interesting way, spending the first half on the reactions to 9/11 (in an “Ontology” section), showing methodically how certain narratives — like the one about how America wanted to “nest” after 9/11, or the automatic labelling of first responders as heroes, when they didn’t want the label — were media-driven and largely invented. She spends a lot of time on two other stories: the demonization of the “Jersey Girls” and the canonization of Jessica Lynch. It’s a persuasive argument — that our response to 9/11 quickly became a gendered response.

But Faludi does not want to merely say that, which is laudable. The second section, “Phylogeny,” goes back to the very beginnings of a (white) America and spends a lot of time showing how narratives of female heroism (and even violence) quickly became subsumed by the need to show that men were in fact protecting “their” women from those whom they would consider to be terrorists — the Native Americans who would engage in a series of surprise attacks on the settlers. At the same time, Faludi shows how narratives of male terrorism basically had to be created out of nothing — particularly the story of the largely irresponsible Daniel Boone.

I have to admit that the second half somewhat drags, but that may be because I just wasn’t as interested in going back in as much detail as Faludi provides. However, the overall argument is interesting; it’s almost as if we cannot help ourselves — like it’s in our blood to revert to these tropes and this language. However, Faludi does end the book with a “What if?” chapter, asking what if we had denied our history and engaged in true soul-searching and fact-finding? Her answer is that we might be safer than we are right now — and perhaps would not be engaging in a losing war that will continue to necessitate division along gender lines.