March 2010 Archives

I'm Agreeing with Darnton

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"Bibliography has not disappeared, but it has been pushed aside and ignored by more recent trends in literary scholarship" (135).

--From Chapter 9, "The Importance of Bing Bibliographical" in Robert Darnton's The Case for Books

I thought this chapter was really interesting because even in Literary Criticism, we did not really discuss this type of criticism.  When dealing with text however, especially older texts, it makes a lot of sense to compare various editions of the same work.  In one of last week's classes, I wondered what the Italian version of Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler would say when he discussed the "tu" form of you.  Dr. Jerz mentioned in class that Calvino may have included such a discussion because he is aware of his international audience, but it would be nice to know Italian so that I could take a look at this.  This one word may change the entire meaning of the passage for Italian readers as compared to American readers, something that Darnton is pointing out in this chapter. 

Although I can see how and why this form of criticism was "pushed aside," I think that in many cases it can still be very valuable.  Many of the new forms of criticism focus on a return to examining the actual text instead of looking at the reader's response or what historical analysis has to say about the text.  I think that this form does the same thing in a way that the newer forms do not.  By examining multiple copies of the same text, one can decide which is most accurate and then use other forms of criticism from there.  I think that we could still benefit from such a viewpoint today, even with increased accuracy that the Internet allows for, because, although it may allow for more accuracy, it does not guarantee it. 


See what others have to say about Darnton's chapter.  


“In any case, the person who finds this diary will have one certain advantage over me: with a written language it is always possible to reconstruct a dictionary and a grammar, isolate sentences, transcribe them or paraphrase them in another language, whereas I am trying to read in the succession of things presented to me every day the world’s intentions toward me, and I grope my way, knowing that there can exist no dictionary that will translate into words the burden of obscure allusions that lurks in these things.”

-From Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, page 61


I think that the ways that Calvino works with language is very interesting.  In the above quote, he discusses through one of his characters the idea that translation allows a construct (like a text) to be reconstructed and meaning to be shown to others, while in life this is not so.  It is much harder to take bits and pieces of life and put them together in order to derive meaning.  Life is more linear than text.  This is probably in relation to a point that he discussed near the start of the novel concerning the idea that reading allows for the experience of “youthful pleasures” where “the risk of disappointment isn’t serious” (4).  Reading and translating is less complicated than life, but at the same time less linear than it, which really doesn’t make complete sense to me, but is still a thought provoking idea. 

Calvino actually focuses on ideas of translation a lot.  Chapter three ends with the “Reader” going to a Cimmerian translator, Uzzi-Tuzii, in order to hear the story from which the above quote comes.  Also, the fact that the entire novel itself is translated presents an interesting development in this constant surfacing of the idea of translated information.  I think the best place that the reader can see this is when Calvino writes, “‘That’s a good reason for you to sign,’ they say to her.  They address her familiarly, as tu; they all call one another tu; their speech is half in dialect; these are people used to seeing one another daily year after year…” (18).  I am sure we are all familiar with the fact that many other languages, and specifically Romantic ones like Spanish and Italian have a familiar and formal “you” form.  The Italian and Spanish familiar you seem to be the same, “tu.”  When I read this I was curious to know how this portion was written in the Italian.  I think this, as well as Calvino’s own descriptions in the section above, show that we might have a different perspective of this novel because it is translated. 

This idea has an interesting connection, I think, to Darnton’s chapter 8 in his novel A Case for Books.  Even if, as he says, books should be preserved, we may not be able to understand them in the future.  Think of the difficulty we have even with Shakespeare who is writing in our own language.  We have to read books with footnotes from experts, or even resort to Sparknotes or Cliffnotes in order to understand it fully. 

However, this doesn’t mean I am saying that books don’t need to be preserved.  Yes, they do.  Megan quoted as one of her favorite quotes my favorite quote from the book so far that deals with this.  I would much rather read from the physical book than on the computer screen.  This seems to connect me to the story in a way that the pixels cannot.  Books are safe and allow us to explore and adventure in ways that even the computer cannot allow us because books require imagination.  Even though on one of my previous blogs I disagreed a bit with this statement when it is applied to my own life, I know that the only way I can explore outer space or alternate realities, and even many realistic aspects of life, is through books.  But I do think that we need to realize that although translation is great, every book cannot be translated, and although saving books is awesome, every one cannot be preserved.


See what others have to say about Calvino.

“To fend off this danger [of a lack of space and money that is needed for space], the nation’s leading librarians have spread a panic about the self-destructive quality of paper and then promoted technologies for destroying in the name of preservation.”

-From Robert Darnton’s chapter 8, “A Paean to Paper,” of The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future

I thought this quote really summarizes Darnton’s chapter.  Quite fairly, he discusses the unfortunate destruction of books.  I have thought of some of the same ideas that Darnton discusses.  For instance, we have a microfilm machine in our library.  If you have ever gone down to use it (if you can figure out how, since this is not usually part of the library tour in Connections) you will see that many of the microfilm are out of place or have been damaged in some of the ways that Darnton discusses.  And, I think that most of us are more likely to look up an article online or in one of the bound periodicals than to explore this unknown medium.  It seems much better to save these texts by putting them into databases online rather than on microfilm. 

However, I always wonder what would happen if the server at the school went down for, say, a month.  No one, not even the librarians probably, could find a specific book for you.  What would we do, especially if one of our assignments says we need a peer reviewed journal article from 2005 or later?  We do have some periodicals, but everyone would end up using the same ones.  Or, people would be traveling to other libraries or other places with wireless Internet access to find the information they would need.  They could get it, but it wouldn’t be easy.  If computer and Internet access, statewide, nationally, or globally, was stopped for some reason, people would not be able to function in life as usual, literally.  So, the downsides to microfilm are almost the same as the downsides to putting all of these works on computers or the Internet. 

Despite these realistic downsides, I can see why librarians would do this, too.  I worked in Reeve’s Library for my work study job for three semesters and in a public library for about four summers, and volunteered in libraries since middle school.  Libraries, even the public ones that Darnton does not really touch on, do have realistic worries about money and space.  Last summer, I created a workshop at a library where the participants had all of their work bound in hardback binding.  This binding was done by September, but because the state budget was not passed on time, the book has yet to make it onto the shelves.  This is because of funding, not because of any carelessness or mistake on the library’s part.  I only had one book bound, but if I had 50 books bound, this would be a big issue.  The library would have to reorganize its children’s or young adult sections, would have had to remove some books from the shelves, or would have had to limit the number of books I wanted to include, wasting those books that I did have bound.  Libraries cannot just build on an extra room or floor to house extra hard copies.  I think this is the main reason why these “crazy” librarians tried to find ways to reformat the books.  They were probably less worried about whether or not they would survive and more worried about adding books to the collection that were from 2000 instead of 1800. 

Although Darnton assesses the librarians more fairly than does Nicholson Baker in his Double Fold, Darnton still does not see that both sides of this argument are valid.  Yes, more accountability should be placed in libraries, but at the same time, if every newspaper, book, magazine, video, and so on were kept, a lack of finances and space would make libraries either shut down or charge for use, which is what most libraries are openly not about at all. 


See what others have to say about this chapter.  


P.S.-Just so you know, "paean" means a song of thanksgiving or one that shows one's gratefulness to someone or something.  This just shows that Darnton is a bit biased.                        

This Is a Really Strange Book

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Okay, so Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler  is the strangest book I have ever read.  I have read lots of post-modern literature at all levels and got to learn all about Post-Modernism and Deconstruction in Literary Criticism.  This book definitely fits the bill for study through either of these lenses and is a perfect model for Post-Modernism.  Here are just two examples that show this:




“To read properly you must take in both the murmuring effect and the effect of the hidden intention, which you (and I, too) are as yet in no position to perceive.  In reading, therefore, you must remain both oblivious and highly alert, as I am abstracted but prick up my ears, with my elbow on the counter of the bar and my cheek on my fist” (18).




“You fling the book on the floor, or would hurl it out of the window, even out of the closed window, through the slats of the Venetian blinds; let them shred its incongruous quires, let sentences, words, morphemes, phonemes gush forth, beyond recomposition into discourse; through the panes, and if they are of unbreakable glass so much the better , hurl the book and reduce it to photons, undulatory vibrations, polarized spectra; through the wall, let the book crumble into molecules and atoms passing between atom and atom of the reinforced concrete…” (26). 


Calvino is able to incorporate both of these writing trends into his book before either of these was very popular.  He invades the reader’s space, using unconventional language as he breaks down the fourth wall to engage the reader.  He even refers to himself as “abstracted” explicitly showing the reader that this is a fictional world that the reader is engaging in while simultaneously causing the reader (at least me) to feel that I have to go along with what he says and feel what he says is there.  This really makes it a powerful narrative.


He also deconstructs his own work and the idea of books and writing in general, breaking them into the basic units of words, sounds, and then the atoms and parts of atoms that all things in our world possess. 


He is really able to explore what a novel, or any writing for that matter, is and in doing so explores communication. Calvino writes, “Does this mean that the book has become an instrument, a channel of communication, a rendezvous?” (32).  In this sentence, he refers to a book as a tool, and a medium, and as an event, never as the lifeless and unchanging thing that we often think of when we see a book. 


Although I found these parts of his writing to be interesting, I have to say that right now, I don’t really like the story very much, but maybe it is not about the story, but about communication through books.


See what others have to say about Calvino’s book.

I Don't Know If I Like It Yet

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"Well, precisely because you have denied it in every other field, you believe you may still grant yourself legitimately this youthful pleasure of expectation in a carefully circumscribed area like the field of books, where you can be lucky or unlucky, but the risk of disappointment isn't serious."

--From page four of Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler


I have never read anything quite like what this books seems to be before, and this far into it, I am not sure how I feel about it, which is really unusual for me.  I am not a very picky reader, but I can usually tell right away if I will love a book, like a book, or dislike a book.  I usually finish all of them, but I still have a decided opinion from the start. 

However, Calvino's book is really different for me.  At parts, I can identify really well with what he is saying.  As Maddie mentioned on her blog about this introduction, I too walk into a bookstore wanting to buy nearly every book I see.  When I moved into my dorm this year, a freshman stopped me as I was carrying a rather large clear plastic container of books into my room.  She asked, "Is that how many books I have to buy for this semester?!" I told her not to worry, none of these were school books.  Calvino seems almost to know that I am an avid reader and that I love the presence of books around me.  Then there are times that he goes on about things I cannot relate to at all, such as the hierarchy of books to be read or purchased that I cannot identify with at all.  I either want them or do not want them and don't worry too much about putting them into categories.  As in this example, my agreeing and disagreeing with Calvino occur almost simultaneously.

When I read the quote above, I had a similar reaction.  I do feel that books allow me to explore.  I also often reread books that I loved in my childhood with "youthful pleasure."  However, at the same time, I don't do so because I cannot do so in other fields.  I am fortunate enough to be able to work with children daily and from a variety of age groups.  Although I do so with professionalism and with the agenda of education in mind, I still am able to play at a sand table, to draw flower gardens, and to be excited about what students brought in during show-and-tell.  Aside from my profession, I still love to watch Disney movies, I listen to the music from the Parent Trap more than anything else, and I find joy in the creative and innocent aspects of life.

I also think that I enjoy taking risks in the real world, not just in the world of the book.  Although I haven't gone on any grand adventures yet, I will definitely travel internationally in the future, and will probably have to move away to get a job at first.  I am usually positive about any experience that I have and don't worry too much about future disappointment.

In thinking about these ways that I agree and disagree with Calvino, I can see that he is an effective story teller.  Although I cannot yet decide if I am going to enjoy the book, I can see that he is able to answer Havelock's question, "Can Text Speak?"  As Calvino wrote about certain ways that people prepare themselves for reading, and even as I agreed and disagreed with the examples above, Calvino was able to invoke an emotional response in me, the reader.  I could almost hear him "talking" to me, telling me how to sit, to put my feet up, to tell everyone around me to be quite, and so on.  I think that this introduction shows that, whether I like the book or not, I have to say that Calvino is able to use a literary voice that relates to many types of readers and draws them, not only into the story, but into a experience and dialogue with his novel.


See what others have to say about Calvino’s introduction.


Print: Good and Not So Great

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"The reuse of a given woodcut may have been aimed at pointing the reader to a given topic (such as a town or personage) rather than at conveying a particular profile."

--From page 132 of Elizabeth Eisenstein's essay "Some Features of Print Culture" in Tribble and Trubek's Writing Material


Much of Eisenstein's essay was interesting, but this particular topic in the quote above was most interesting.  Although it makes sense that, at first, there would be few illustrations in a printed book because of the time and expertise it would take to create one, I am surprised that printers would simply insert pictures into the text.  Even though Eisenstein clarifies this idea in the quote above by suggesting they were meant to represent topics, not different places or people, it seems that someone could be easily confused, especially if he or she were not very familiar with books, just as much of the public would have been when printed books were first created.  

At first, I was horrified by this idea, but when I thought about it, we still do this today, except today it is out of laziness rather than scarcity; Clipart and Google images allow for this trend.  We have all used these programs to obtain images for a variety of reasons, I am sure.  However, think of how many people have used these generic images for silly reasons, such as to make a PowerPoint slide more colorful.  Then and new, we are all guilty of using generic pictures to represent topics and ideas, both positively and negatively.  

I was also surprised by another of Eisenstein’s quotes: “There is simply no equivalent in scribal culture for the ‘avalanche’ of ‘how-to’ books which poured off the new presses” (133).  This trend seems to have continued today with a variety of books in this genre.  From diet and self-help how-to books, to those that Eisenstein writes were popular when the printed press was first created, including how to play musical instruments.  In fact, as I am writing this at Barnes and Noble, I am listening to a lady taking about how her book is not a “self-help,” “diet,” or “how-to” book, but instead really teaches you how to turn your life around.  It sounds like a “how-to” book to me.  It seems that with both of these ideas that Eisenstein brings up there comes a probability of the spread of misinformation.  Ironically, while print helped more information to be spread, it also allowed for the greater spread of misinformation, and continues to allow us to do so today.  

See what my classmates have to say about Eisenstein.

Did Technology Really Develop the Soul?

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"The special theory of Greek literacy also argues that the concept of selfhood and the soul, as now understood, arose at a historical point in time and was inspired by a technological change, as the inscribed language and thought and the person who spoke it became separated from each other, leading to a new focus on the personality of the speaker."

--From page 120 in chapter 11, "The Special Theories on Trial," of Eric A. Havelock's The Muse Learns to Write


When I first read this, I was as skeptical as any of those who Havelock later mentions would be.  However, as I read on, I realized that this could certainly be a possibility.  As Havelock suggests, religious feelings must be put aside; however, I think that his idea may have some merit.  Before writing, there would have been an emphasis on the fact that a select few could remember such important stories.  These stories, which were usually about select elite who were successful kings, warriors, and so on, kept the cultural traditions alive, while also keeping these people alive.  Also, there was no need for the idea of the afterlife, because people were so busy just trying to survive, and, although the ancient Greeks and Romans did have a concept of one, it did not involve an eternal soul or individuality such as the one that is typically thought of today. 

However, it is also important to note that writing was brought about for some reason.  Population increase, better trading technologies, an agricultural lifestyle, larger and more structured governing bodies, and so on, all influenced writing.  Perhaps there was more time for many people to learn to write, which in turn led to many people recording what was specifically important to them.  This would have led to individuality and an interest in the eternal existence of the individual not through oral stories, but through their souls.  Although I am not suggesting that souls are just ideas that people created to understand their world and to ensure, or at least create for the living, the idea of an eternal life that would make their short lives less depressing, I am just trying to understand Havelock's secular argument.  Do any of you see some validity in his argument, or do you think that evidence elsewhere suggests that the idea of the soul was apparent in cultures before the advent of writing? 


See what others have to say about Havelock's chapter

Why Are We Not Speaking about What We Are Writing?

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I found that Dennis Baron’s essay “From Pencils to Pixels” in Tribble and Trubek’s Writing Material was helpful in that it uncovered a long line of writing’s technological development; however, aside from the historical information, I did not really feel that I learned much.  What I mean to say is that his argument did not seem like an argument to me, but fact.  Baron writes, “My contention in this essay is a modest one: the computer is simply the latest step in a long line of writing technologies” (37).  Perhaps I have this viewpoint because this is the primary use I have for my own computer, while many others can say that gaming, shopping, communication, etc. make up their own primary computer usage.  However, I do not really see how this idea can be anything other than fact.  Baron did first publish this essay in 1999, so computer, and particularly word processing, usage and development at that time must be considered.  Anyone living today must recognize the computer as a major influence, if not today’s most important influence, on written communication.


However, one point that I did find very valuable and new from Baron’s essay was a suggestion about the relationship between written and oral communication.  He wrote, “But even today, most written text does not transcribe spoken language” (40).  This is not an idea that I really remember discussing in our class as of yet.  We have talked about the influences of oral culture on written culture; however, we have never come across this idea that is so true.  Think of all of the papers, articles, proposals, notes to ourselves, and so on that are never spoken aloud.  I know when I thought about this I was astounded.  To think that so much of my work and so many of my best ideas are never even talked about is really quite sad.  And when we are simple undergraduates, we do not typically have or take the chance to spread our work around in written or oral form.


Perhaps this was one of Plato’s Socrates’ biggest fears about writing: that writing would not be properly shared and discussed.  Plato writes, “Socrates: ‘But nobler far is the serious pursuit of the dialectician, who, finding a congenial soul, by the help of science sows and plants therein words which are able to help themselves and him who planted them, and are not unfruitful, but have in them a seed which others brought up in different soils render immortal, making the possessors of it happy to the utmost extent of human happiness’” (363).  This is one area where, at least in undergraduate academia, oral culture has not fully left its mark.  However, when thinking about this idea, I remembered Shellie mentioning in class that when she was writing on her blog she was “saying” something.  Perhaps this is one way that we are able to share the germs of some of our greatest (or some of our not so great) academic thoughts with one another.  If this is the case, you should really take a look at what my classmates have to say about Baron’s essay.  

Text Does Speak, but It Has Many Voices

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I really enjoyed reading Peter Elbow's balanced comparison of written and oral communication in his essay, "The Shifting Relationships between Speech and Writing" from Tribble and Trubek's Writing Material.  I also really enjoyed the fact that, although he argued both sides, he spent more time futhering his own argument that writing and speech are "essentially similar," and why both need to be like one another (142-151). 

One area of his argument that I found especially helpful, and could identify with the most, was his discussion of the importance of "voice" in one's writing.  Elbow writes, "Unless we actively train our students to speak onto paper, they will write the kind of dead, limp, nominalized prose we hate..." (143).  This is one of the most difficult ideas to capture on paper, at least for me and many that I know.  When working with young people who are, quite correctly, focused on learning to develop a well organized piece of writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, they are rarely focused on voice and style.  This often leads to the "dead, limp" writing that Elbow talks about.  I found this to also be true for middle and high school students when I was instructing a creative writing program at a public library last summer.  Some of them had an excellent grasp of this concept, but others were struggling.  They had great ideas, but could not put these ideas into words that would affect and interest others.  One way that we worked on this was to read parts of what we had written aloud, to orally critique one another, and to work on describing places, things, or people that we were less familiar with.  These exercises helped all of us to learn better strategies for appealing to our readers by speaking to them through our writing. 

This means that Elbow's idea about voice shows an affirmative answer to Havelock's question, "Can Text Speak?"  Elbow suggests that the best writing does speak to the reader, which allows him or her to be fully engaged in the experience that the text can offer.  I agree with Elbow; however, writing can have many different types of voices that are both good and bad.  Poor writing can speak to a reader, but in a very different way.  Poor writing can make someone disinterested in a topic, just because of the writing quality and with no attention to the ideas.  This shows just how important it is for us not only to capture what we want to say, but also how we want to say it.  I know this is something that I need to work on myself, but I think we can all learn from Elbow's emphasis on voice in writing.  This idea also provides a great way for us to move from a primarily oral culture to one that is influenced much more by writing, as Megan and Tiffany discuss on their own blogs about this essay.  Take a look at what they and the rest of my classmates also have to say about Elbow's ideas.