Thursday, December 31, 2009

Travelogue: San Francisco

On a clear day, with a blue-blue sky touched by wisps of high cirrus, few American cities could be as spectacular as San Francisco. Not only are there steep hills and vistas but, in many of the residential streets, there stand—plentiful and elegant—the distinctive wooden houses sometimes known as Queen Annes, in tasteful yellows, restrained greys, and demure beiges.

Nor are the staples of art, education, and gustation, neglected here. On the new University of California San Francisco Campus at Mission Bay, there are outdoor art-works which include two 49-feet-tall steel plates by local sculptor, Richard Serra. One of the plates slants sideways slightly to the north, and the other slightly to the south. They stand outside an eatery called Peasant Pies that is furnished with beautiful tables made from wood salvaged from demolished buildings. I was pleased to find in it a Soup and Pie Combo for $5.70: Vegan Vegetable Soup plus a Basque Beef and Potato Pie. Delicious.

Transport, too, is very fine in San Francisco. As well as the excellent buses and trains, there are, of course, the famous cable cars. In each one, a giant pincer device passes down through its floor into channels in the roadway wherein run the cables at a constant 9.5 miles an hour. The car operator, known as the gripman—typically a six-foot-something twenty-five-year-old—hauls heftily on a long lever to clasp the pincer onto a cable so that the car can be pulled by it up the steep hills. I understand that the first gripwoman, after working on her upper-body strength, started employment in 1998. The pleasure of a ride on a cable car is exceeded only by a visit to the cable barn, where one can see the marvellous machinery and winding gear for the cables. Almost as good as the cable cars is the F-Market streetcar line that runs from Fisherman's Wharf, to the Embarcadero, and up the hill of Market Street to Castro. Although many of the F-Market cars are only sixty years old, some are much older. They have been brought here from across America—from New York, from Baltimore, from the Boston Elevated Railway, and elsewhere—and some have come from as far away as Italy, Australia, and Japan.

My mother-in-law, whom my family and I are visiting, lives in a house not far from where the F-Market streetcars turn round. Her road is parallel to, and further up the hill from, Castro Street. From her windows one can look eastwards across the roofs, to the fjord-like San Francisco Bay, and beyond to the Berkeley Hills and Oakland. On many days, a vivid sunrise splashes a mile into the sky across the whole eastern horizon. And, as daylight grows and I gaze out across the city, I wonder whether, in a moment, a flying saucer might glide noiselessly past.

My mother-in-law lives on the edge of San Francisco's gay district where one sees, in the shops and on the streets, many more lesbian and gay couples than straight couples. She attends a church which is also the Catholic Church of the gay community, which has a fine choir and holds services which have about them a certain ceremony. Religious belief is beyond my capacity, but on some Christmas Eves, I have gone with my mother-in-law and the rest of the family to this church. One year, I remember a warm and humorous priest giving a sermon that took the form of a shaggy-dog story. It was about the three kings, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, from the East, following a star on their journey to Bethlehem for the first Christmas. It had all the detours and innuendo necessary to a good shaggy dog story. Its culmination was achieved—one could imagine it happening right here in San Francisco—when the three kings reached the end of their journey, but were mistaken for three queens.

The editors of OnFiction wish all our readers a happy 2010.

Monday, December 28, 2009

One Shining Word

“I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word. Sometimes I write one, and I look at it, until it begins to shine.”

That a poet as talented as Emily Dickinson would have said this is not a mystery, for poets must gaze at words with as much love as astronomers tracing galaxies in the midnight-blue skies. But how many of us, even those who make our living by words, still think of a written word as inscrutable and alluring, worthy of the sustained contemplation that foreshadows love? Not very many, and for a good reason. It is the same reason that makes it easy to lose sight of the preciousness of water, when we can command its presence by turning on a faucet, and when we can use it so unglamorously in flushing a toilet. A written word is so ubiquitous that teenagers text each other around the same dinner table, and e-mail is a preferred form of communication to a colleague sitting in the next cubicle. It is difficult, indeed, to think of words as precious, but is hard, too, not to grope to imagine a time when the words still shone.

It is easy to imagine an elderly bureaucrat in the court of Mycenae or Crete, to imagine him spending his days carving endless lists of inventory - cows, goats, pigs, oil-jugs, grain, slaves – recording it all meticulously for the benefit of his masters. And imagine him one long evening, when, tricked by the muses, he succumbs into carving a word for which he had no use – ‘dusk’ perhaps, or ‘love’. Imagine his wonder, his awe that a word can resonate, that it can borne things in him. And fear too, of what a word that has no use may do. Imagine him in the morning, sobered from his drunkenness by more useful words, more cows, more pigs and goats. It is easy to imagine our ancient gentleman never again letting himself be seduced into carving a word that has no use, for he was no fool, and knew the power of one shining word.

But there is no need to imagine. We can watch ourselves carving cows and pigs and goats on our computer screens, squeezing all our words, even ‘dusk’ or ‘love’ for the last cent. And unlike our ancient gentleman, we are no longer afraid, either, that a word could resonate enough to disturb our placid surface. It is not words that have lost their power. It is we, who no longer shine.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Future of Reading

Last week I took part in a television discussion on the future of reading, on a program called The Agenda (on TVO, arranged by Wodek Szemberg and hosted by Steve Paikin; you can watch the program, broadcast on 16 December, by clicking here). The other people in the discussion were Bob Young (who runs the Institute for the Future of the Book, click here), Bill Buxton (Chief Researcher at Microsoft), Mark Federman (a researcher at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education), and Cynthia Good (former Publisher and Editor-in-Chief at Penguin Canada, now Director of the Creative Book Publishing Program at Humber College, in Toronto).

The discussion was on whether the computer and the internet were changing the way we read, and whether they have already put in place the elements of a revolution that will be as significant for reading as the introduction of printed books by Johannes Gutenberg 555 years ago.

Perhaps the most obvious change in the last couple of years has been that the Sony Reader, the Amazon Kindle, and the Apple i-Phone, have appeared, which connect to the internet, and which enable one to choose, download, and read books, all by means of one portable device. The new technological niche opened up here is that of replacing the hardback and the paperback (the printed codex) with electronic print on a small computer interface. The opportunity that this brings is to hold thousands of books in a piece of hardware the size of one book (or less). It will make for less weight in your luggage when you travel, save shelf-space in your house, require fewer trees to be chopped down, and save you trips to the bookshop. The worry is that it will cause these bookshops to close, and that it will mark the end of traditional publishing. In all this, however, the book and the act of reading stay much the same. The new electronic reading devices are designed to emulate the print-on-paper book. They already do a pretty good job, and no doubt they will get better.

The next phase of the revolution is only just beginning. It will be to make both writing and reading more interactive: writing-and-reading. For instance every blog, including OnFiction, is a publisher, and offers the opportunity not only for more people to write and promulgate what they write, but for people to engage with the writers in discussion, a mode that we at OnFiction, of course, encourage in comments sections at the end of each post. This mode of interactivity has much further to go. Spontaneity in writing is likely to become more highly valued. There are already on-line games in which players jointly produce fictional worlds and fictional interactions. Authors can make use of feedback from readers, readers can engage with each other … the new modes of interactivity for fiction and non-fiction will be fascinating to witness.

Will the book as we know it become extinct? In the TVO discussion, Cynthia Good and I found ourselves on the side of dinosaurs in relation to the other three panel members, the techno-chappies, who pronounced the paper book already obsolete.

The coming into existence of the paper-and-print book has many accomplishments, two of which, it seems to me, were scarcely foreseeable in 1455. They are entirely remarkable. One was to enable the emergence and wide appreciation of novels and short-stories: forms in which authors spend months and years on a work, thinking, drafting and re-drafting, so that they can reach all the way down into the subjects they treat. The other has been the possibilities for readers to enter into relationships—quite intimate relationships—with books, with authors, with fictional characters. in his essay Sur la lecture (On reading) Marcel Proust put it like this.
In reading, friendship is restored immediately to its original purity. With books there is no forced sociability. If we pass the evening with those friends—books—it's because we really want to. When we leave them, we do so with regret and, when we have left them, there are none of those thoughts that spoil friendship: "What did they think of us?"—"Did we make a mistake and say something tactless?"—"Did they like us?"—nor is there the anxiety of being forgotten because of displacement by someone else. All such agitating thoughts expire as we enter the pure and calm friendship of reading (p. 40, my translation).
Marcel Proust (1905). Sur la lecture. Mozambook (current edition 2001).

Monday, December 21, 2009

Forbidden Love

It must be a quality of snobs to have to be pushed in the direction in which multitudes are already running. In this particular case, 17 million readers of the book, and in the first day of film release, at least 3 million viewers. The enormity of Twilight’s success made me conflicted – a bit like going to the dentist to have a tooth pulled out. Not only do you anticipate pain, but also a sense of emptiness and loss afterward. I mean, what is one to expect from a film described as a ‘teenage vampire romance flick’?

And sure, it was a teenage flick, and about vampires and romance, but not quite in that order. The film had two recommendations – the way it was filmed (beautifully), and its eternally animating theme (forbidden love). In this case, the never-to-be-consummated romance is between the awkward and fortunately-named Bella and her ethereal-looking, handsome, and terribly conflicted lover Edward. Bella’s very scent arouses his passions, both as a man and as a vampire. Here we have it – one’s own nature turned against itself. Will they be forever suspended just beyond the reach of each other’s kiss, or shall one of them sacrifice their very essence for love…

Well, probably neither. Meyers isn’t Shakespeare or Keats, and judging by the number of new Twilight books and movies coming out, it might take a very long while for this particular saga to reach its conclusion. And while I might not be tempted to see another installation of the story, now at least I don’t shrink a little inside every time faces of the Twilight protagonists light up the magazine covers. Rather I imagine millions searching, if a bit too earnestly, for a thread to lead them out of the labyrinth to their own love.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Research Bulletin: The Writer’s Fingerprint

A recent BBC article described a study by Sebastian Bernhardsson (2009) and colleagues, in which they examined how the number of unique words (appearing only once) in a text relates to how long the overall text is. While it should go without saying that a longer text is likely to have more unique words than a shorter text, the relationship between the number of such words and the length of the text turns out to differ by author. Bernhardsson and colleagues (2009) examined various works of different length by Thomas Hardy, Herman Melville, and D. H. Lawrence. What they found was that each author produced a unique curve that could be seen as a sort of finger-print for that author. Moreover, this curve appeared consistent across works, and works of different lengths, leading the researchers to conclude that whenever writers create a work they are pulling from a hypothetical “meta-book,” that encompasses their style.

While it would be nice to see this work replicated, using a greater corpus of authors, the idea that a writer’s style can be quantified using relatively simple word-count techniques is not a new one. Jamie Pennebaker, for example, has demonstrated that language use is an individual difference that can be used to predict a wide variety of things, including health outcomes and personality (e.g., Pennebaker & Graybeal, 2001). That our style of writing reflects something innate to our self and being, in a very real way, probably comes as no surprise to those of us who write. It is comforting, however, that this is not mere intuition but a phenomenon profound enough in magnitude to be detected using relatively crude research methods. It would be interesting to examine how a person’s writing style changes, and how these changes might reflect changes in the individual as a result of personal growth or encounters with unfortunate happenstance.

Bernhardsson, S., Correa da Rocha, L. E., & Minnhagen, P. (2009). The meta book and size-dependent properties of written language. New Journal of Physics, 11, 123015. (Online journal)

Pennebaker, J. W., & Graybeal, A. (2001). Patterns of natural language use: Disclosure, Personality, and Social Integration. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10, 90-93.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Quick Hits: Lists and Recommendations

With this post we introduce +Quick Hits, a series of links that might be of interest to our readers.

With the year drawing to a close, a number of Best of 2009 lists have begun to appear. The New York Times has a bunch, including the 100 Notable Books of the Year, the 10 Best Books, as well as Children's Books and Graphic Novels. The New Yorker has asked writers what their favourite books have been, with James Wood highlighting the scary fairy tale collection by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, entitled There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor's Baby. Humorist David Sedaris, on the other hand, listened primarily to Audiobooks, but did manage to read Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs.

Plenty of other Best of lists abound. Feel free to post links to them below in the comments, or recommend your own best books of the year.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Reading by Neural Recycling

Stanislas Dehaene is a French neuroscientist, who has a background in mathematics, experimental psychology, and brain research. He is known for his work on the neural basis of numerical thinking, but in his most recent work he has turned his mind to reading. His book on the subject—Reading in the brain—is a very good read.

Dehaene's basic idea is that the neural processes that are used in reading, an activity which is only about 5000 years old, must have been pre-adapted or, as Dehaene says, "recycled" from processes that had already been in used for something firmly established and important in vision. Dehaene argues that the part of the visual system that is suited for analyzing patterns of the kind of which letters such as Ts, Ls, and Ys are made is that which has been used for many millions of years for recognizing edges and corners, the branches of trees, and so on, in the natural world. In this brain area, he argues, neurons have receptive fields that are tuned, or are tunable, to such patterns.

It is remarkable, says Dehaene that that we can recognize objects from mere line-drawings. Such drawings are least 30,000 years old, for instance in cave paintings such as the ox-like animal from Lascaux at the head of this post. Dehaene has studied ancient Middle Eastern and Western writing systems from cuneiform and hieroglyphic onwards, as well as Oriental writing systems like Chinese. Writing systems started with pictograms, which in turn derived from line-drawings.

The development of writing systems was a process of stylization and standardization, also a process of assimilation to what the receptive fields of visual neurons could easily respond to. In the earliest discovered Semitic writing (Proto-Sinaitic, from about 1700 BCE), the pictogram for an ox became a circle with two curved lines coming out of its top (for horns). It is a stylized version of something not very different from the Lascaux ox-head. In Phoenician, a writing system that descended from Proto-Sinaitic, a further stylization occurred: the curved lines became straight, and the character was rotated through 90 degrees, so that it looks like an A lying on its side. Written Greek derived from Phoenician, and in it a further 90 degree rotation occurred to produce A, alpha, and the same shape carried into the letter A in Latin which, of course, is still with us in English. Alpha derives from aleph, which in early Semitic languages means "ox." Dehaene goes on to show that most characters, in most writing systems, are made from one to three strokes. So, in the lower case Latin alphabet, c is one stroke, f is two strokes, k is three strokes (as is capital A). It isn't that the brain had to adapt to reading, but that writing systems had to adapt to a pre-existing functionality of the brain.

For readers of all languages, Dehaene claims, a specific area of the brain, the left occipito-temporal region, is the basis for the recognition of written characters. He calls it the letter box. This region has been identified in neuro-imaging studies by Dehaene and his colleagues, and it is used by Chinese people when they read Chinese, as well as by Westerners as they read European scripts. From this region, connections are made principally to two systems, one of which is concerned with the meanings of words and the other with their sounds. As a child learns to read, a network with an input from the letterbox region is formed. When the letterbox region is damaged, for instance by a stroke, a skilled reader can suffer the syndrome of being suddenly unable to read, though still able to write. The well-known Canadian writer of detective fiction, Howard Engel suffered such a stroke and I wrote a post about him (to see it you may click here).

At the end of his book, Dehaene goes on to describe how other features of the brain may have been the bases for other cultural inventions. He says that: "Mathematics, art, and religion may also be construed as constrained devices, adjusted to our primate brains by millennia of cultural evolution." He goes on to propose that a "conscious neuronal workspace" has arisen, and this "vast system of cortical connections, allows for the flexible arrangement of mental objects for novel purposes" (p. 301). According to this proposal, this network is not only the basis of conscious thought, but of the explorations of art.

Stanislas Dehaene (2009). Reading in the brain: The science and evolution of a human invention. New York: Viking.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Research Bulletin: Children’s Storybooks and Empathy

We discuss empathy quite a bit on this site, particularly the hypothesis that reading can improve our capacity to feel and understand the emotions of others. Much of the research that has been done on this issue to date, including our own, has been correlational in nature. This means that we don’t know whether reading causes increased empathy, or whether people who are more empathic are more likely to seek out fiction. One way to get around this issue is to use experimental designs in which people are randomly assigned to read either fiction or nonfiction, but these studies can be difficult to perform especially in the context of extended periods of reading (e.g., an entire book or a series of books). Another way to work around this problem is to look at populations that aren’t likely to be in control of how many books they read, such as young children who are not yet old enough to read on their own. While some children might make more requests for joint-reading, there are no guarantees that these requests will be met. As well, the aspects of joint-reading that might be particularly helpful for fostering the development of empathy and perspective-taking (e.g., discussion of mental-states and emotions) are completely out of their control. Thus, it is interesting to ask whether storybook exposure in children predicts their socioemotional development.

Adrian and colleagues (1995), working in Spain, found that parent–child book-reading was positively correlated with a more developed understanding that people have mental-states. This study, however, did not control for the child’s age, gender, or parental variables such as income. A more recent study from Israel found that expertise in choosing children’s fiction on the part of mothers predicted teacher ratings of empathy and socioemotional adjustment of their children, even after maternal education was statistically controlled (Aram & Aviram, 2009). More recent still, a study currently in press at Cognitive Development, by myself, Dr. Jennifer Tackett (Toronto), and Dr. Chris Moore (Dalhousie), found that exposure to storybooks predicted the ability to understand the interior states of others in 4 to 6 year-olds, even after controlling for that child’s age, gender, vocabulary ability, and parental income. Moreover, we extended this finding to other forms of narrative media, finding that exposure to children’s movies also predicting more advanced development, but exposure to children’s television did not. In light of these convergent findings from separate research groups in three different countries, it seems increasingly likely that exposure to children’s storybooks (and perhaps movies), helps them to develop an understanding of other people and their internal states. Future studies need to be performed to help isolate the mechanism by which this takes place, as well as examine potential longer-term consequences of these early differences.

Adrian, J. E., Clemente, R. A., Villanueva, L., & Rieffe, C. (2005). Parent–child picture-book reading, mothers’ mental state language and children’s theory of mind. Journal of Child Language, 32, 673–686.

Aram, D. & Aviram, S. (2009). Mothers' storybook reading and kindergartners' socioemotional and literacy development. Reading Psychology, 30, 175–194.

Mar, R. A., Tackett, J. L., & Moore, C. (in press). Exposure to media and theory-of-mind development in preschoolers. Cognitive Development.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Slow Slog of Literary Education, by Joan Peskin

Research that I carried out revealed that young adults, that is, students of 17 to 18 years, respond to a text very differently when it is in the physical shape of a poem, compared to when the identical words are presented in the form of expository prose (Peskin, 2007). However, a follow-up study suggests that, for younger adolescents, the identification of a poem as a poem does not prompt a more literary reading (Peskin, in press). It seems that there are systematic changes in what students attend to and process when reading a poem, and these changes appear to require a lengthy process of formal literary training.

Our participants were from middle- to upper-middle class backgrounds and attended two private schools. Both of these schools had an explicit, detailed poetry curriculum and extremely low student attrition rates so that almost all students had experienced the prescribed curriculum. We asked students in Grades 4, 8 and 12 at these schools to “think aloud” as they read poem-shaped and prose-shaped texts.

The 12th Graders spent significantly longer processing the texts in poetic form than prose, thinking aloud about their expectations, and observing textual devices associated with the genre of poetry. For instance, they talked about the poems as expressing a significant attitude to some issue related to the human condition, and as involving multiple meanings and metaphoric content. These older students paid attention not only to what the poem was saying, but how the author was saying it; how the subject matter is amplified by the sounds, the contrasts, and other textual devices.

The responses of both the Grade 8 and the Grade 4 students, however, were most surprising: The 8th Graders had experienced more than four years of a poetry curriculum, yet, even after these years of literary training, they read the poem-shaped texts no differently from the prose versions. They spent no longer processing the literary texts, and these texts did not appear to trigger any expectations about the reading of literature or provoke any feelings or thoughts about the role of textual devices.

The responses of children at the beginning of Grade 4 were even more surprising. Although these children had not yet begun formal poetry instruction, they had had many informal experiences with poetic texts both at home and at school. However, they did not even appear to categorize a poem as a poem. Some of them even referred to the poems as prose extracts, such as a “paragraph.” For instance, when reading the poem, “Like they say,” by Robert Creeley, a poem of 29 words graphically portrayed in 8 lines divided into four separate stanzas, one young student thought aloud, “it’s a nice kind of little paragraph, and you can tell a lot about this thing, this story.” These students did not seem to have a conscious representation of a text in poetic form, as a “poem.”

The students were also asked to rate each text in terms of enjoyment, emotion engendered, imagery, and challenge, and a similar developmental pattern emerged. Grade 12 students rated their enjoyment of the poems higher than the prose versions and also rated the poetic texts higher on emotion and imagery. Their positive personal responses to the poetic texts may have been a result of their greater understanding of the culturally attuned conventions and their aesthetic appreciation of the textual devices. On the other hand the Grade 8 students rated the texts in poetic format no higher on any of the measures, and the children in Grade 4 not only did not rate the poems any higher than the prose versions, but, in terms of emotion engendered, actually rated the prose versions higher than the poetic counterparts.

As James Gee (2001) noted, the development of literary competence appears to be tied up with the acquisition of societal practices through enculturation. Developing the structure of knowledge needed for poetic literacy seems to require a long process of formal literary education.

Gee, J. P. (2001). Literacy, discourse, and linguistics: Introduction and what is literacy? In E. Cushman, E. R. Kintgen, B. M. Kroll & M. Rose (Eds.), Literacy: A critical sourcebook (pp. 525-544). Boston: Bedford.

Peskin, J (in press). The development of poetic literacy through the school years. Discourse Processes.

Peskin, J. (2007). The genre of poetry: Secondary school students’ conventional expectations and interpretive operations. English in Education, 41, 20-36.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


The show was ending, to be closed, as was customary, by the designer’s final bow. The models, tall and angular, led him by his hands, coaxing him, charmingly, onto the stage. He seemed very small and compact, and calmly dressed – compared to the scatter of wandering limbs and fabrics that surrounded him. Barbara was watching intently, second row from the stage. She felt feverish as she watched them - a row of hallucinogenic visions roused by few concentrated drops of prestigious genetic material.

Barbara suspended her breathing for a second…. “That’s what it looks like when nature gets it right.” The line proceeded toward the backstage, and Barbara pulled in her stomach and tightened her buttocks, approximating how their beauty would feel in her own body. The spasm wasn’t sustainable. It was starting to hurt. The show was over.

Barbara stood up, and her shortness overcame her unpleasantly, as if she stepped accidentally into a deceivingly deep puddle. She put on her dark glasses. She found that people are very curious who is hiding behind the large dark glasses. They wonder whether it is some celebrity, trying to escape attention. They look at her. She squeezed slowly through the crowds, but suddenly felt small and ridiculous in her dark glasses, and took them off.

She could be a model. She put a wisp of her longish blond hair behind her ear. She had the right angularity of the face, the right acuteness of the chin… if it only weren’t for her stupid 5 feet and 5 inches. And some of her body curvature. John didn’t seem to mind. He thought she was a model. He said “one can’t tell how tall or short you are in a photograph.” She posed for him – even though he is only studying to be a photographer. Something might come of those pictures. He said some of them came out beautifully. He doesn’t have the money to develop them yet. But he is sure that she could get some modeling jobs with those pictures in her portfolio – for sure.

Barbara finally made her way out of the building and proceeded toward the parking area. Jobs – how amazing would that be… She unlocked her car and seated herself inside. She pulled a little mirror out of her purse and looked in it. A small blotch of pink was spreading over her left eyebrow and she touched it repeatedly to assess just how bad it will be if the pimple actually shows itself. Great – that’s what she needed – and she is taking John for dinner tomorrow night. She wanted to look stunning for him. Just stunning.
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