Archive for February, 2012

Harshness vanished. A sudden softness
has replaced the meadows’ wintry grey.
Little rivulets of water changed
their singing accents. Tendernesses,

hesitantly, reach toward the earth
from space, and country lanes are showing
these unexpected subtle risings
that find expression in the empty trees.

More Poems, Articles, and Bio of Rilke from Poetry Foundation

A Look at Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet: Trust in What is Difficult

More Favorite Poems on Word Hits

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Unless you have been under a rock—or perhaps outside enjoying this unusually fine and springlike winter—you know this year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of English novelist Charles Dickens.

For two centuries, Dickens has been a social and cultural force. He was immensely prolific, and his books have never gone out of print. But still, it is pretty amazing that his stories have held up so well, for so long, in popularity and in the public consciousness. It is well known that Dickens changed society’s attitude to the poor by calling attention to child labor, debtor’s prisons, and the dismal, imprisoning poverty of those who fell under the wheels of “social Darwinism” during the Industrial Revolution. Though he was no revolutionary, his words fueled social reform throughout England. His stories also helped spread these notions to Europe and North America.

Culturally, Dickens continues to impact us. The BBC credits him with modern character comedy, our view of the law, and the concept of red tape. He also shaped our notion of Christmas. And just how many catchphrases have been derived from his name? “What the Dickens?” “A Dickens of a time.” And of course, “Dickensian” which appropriately has several different meanings: 1.) squalid or deprived as in “a Dickensian slum” 2.) jolly and cosy as in “a Dickensian Christmas” 3.) overtly serendipitous as in “a Dickensian inheritance from a long-lost relative” 4.) grotesquely comic, like the “Dickensian Child Catcher” in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Ok, the Child Catcher was soooo Roald Dahl, but Dickens was one of his favorite authors.

Beyond Dahl, the litany of writers influenced by Dickens reads like a who’s who of literature: Elizabeth Gaskell, Edgar Allen Poe, Thomas Hardy, Emily Dickinson, TS Eliot, GK Chesterton, Somerset Maugham, George Orwell, Graham Greene, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Tom Wolfe, Richard Russo, Zadie Smith, and John Irving—just to name a few. Dickens was also particularly esteemed by contemporary Russian writers, including Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Leo Tolstoy.

Oh, and Dickens has snagged a current coup for writers—pick for Oprah’s Book Club—three times. Oprah also invited author Jane Smiley to talk about Dickens and Social Change.

I am still making my way through his giant body of work, picking up a book every year or two. On deck this year, will be Our Mutual Friend. A biggie that I confess I have not read. Many of you will now click away in shock and disgust. And if so, I suggest you try one of the many wonderful Dickens links listed at the end of this piece.

It’s a bit like that comfortable feeling of putting on a favorite sweater when you start a new Dickens—his rich, inviting words and his distinctive characters. I usually read his books in the winter, by the fire. Even though they are nice and thick, I just can’t work them as beach books, perhaps because they are so dense and so descriptive—and often so serious in theme.

Dickens stories have a cinematic feel, as he really invests in setting. There were no movies or TV back then, so he painted out the scenes for his characters … and his readers.

Take the opening passage of Bleak House:

“London … Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes–gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun … Fog everywhere … Fog down the river … Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards …
Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets … Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time–as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.
The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.”

Sumptous! It’s almost like the opening of a David Lean film, with the camera panning through the fog and the streets of London until it zeroes in for the close-up of the Lord High Chancellor. And that’s with about half of the words hacked out by my ellipses—the actual opening has even more detail and atmosphere. Indeed, Lean, who is best know for epics such as Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia, also filmed both Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. Pioneering film director DW Griffiths pointed to Dickens as a source for his choices in camera angles and scene layouts, and even today film theorists continue to cite Dickens’s influence on the cinema. He is the most adapted author, with over 400 versions of his books on film and TV.

In addition to the obvious forum, Masterpiece Theater, Dickens has been a source of inspiration for shows like NCIS, Big Love, and LOST.  HBO’s The Wire featured an episode on Baltimore’s homeless titled “The Dickensian Aspect.” And even South Park spoofed Great Expectations in “A Dickens Classic.” LOST not only had an episode called “A Tale of Two Cities,” but also hid many ‘easter egg’ references to Dickens throughout the series. Exec Producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindenhof said they admired Dickens ability to develop elaborate plots over hundreds of pages, especially tricky considering his novels were mostly written in serial form, like episodes of TV. However, it seems that ‘Darlton’ did not quite pick up on Dickens’s knack for tying up loose ends.

And watch out Disney World, Charles Dickens is feted his own theme park, Dickens World. It’s in England, in Kent (of course), and it does sound a bit twee, as the Brits would say. But then aren’t all theme parks? The New York Times visited the park and also jaunted around Dickens landmarks on a literary tour. I have also heard great things about the Charles Dickens Museum in London.

But why travel when you can enter the world of Dickens just by opening one of his books? And don’t miss the brilliant series of cartoons which lampoon the author and his works in The New Yorker.

Finally, you get a sense of Dickens’s reach just from the many celebrations this year for him in places that he never lived like Paris, France; Bologna, Italy; and Zurich, Switzerland. There are also numerous events in the US, and, of course, throughout the UK. Check out Dickens 2012 for a complete listing of events and tributes worldwide.

Dickens left so many legacies, and he also gave us a perfect bit of wisdom:

“There is nothing better than a friend, unless it is a friend with chocolate.”

More Clicks for Dickens

The Atlantic: 10 Greatest Dickens Characters

The BBC: Six Things Dickens Gave the Modern World

Charles Dickens Museum

Charles Dickens Online

Dickens 2012

Dickens on Screen: the Highs and the Lows

George Orwell’s Famous Essay on Dickens

The Guardian: Charles Dickens at 200

The Lasting Social Legacy of Dickens

The New Yorker: A Far Far Better Cartoon Gag

The Oprah Show: Jane Smiley on Charles Dickens and Social Change

Time Magazine Dickens Top 10 Novels by Dickens

TV Writers on Dickens’s Legacy

Why Dickens Makes Great TV

The World Celebrates Dickens on Screen

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Just had to share this captivating gem of a short film that is “a love letter to books” and showcases “the curative power of the story.” The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore has been nominated for this year’s Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. Full of whimsy, and with a nod to The Wizard of Oz, the film feels like  a booklover’s Up, offering a similar charming, but not corny or saccharin, pull at the heartstrings.

Visit MoonBot Studios for an interactive story app for iPad, a portfolio of stills, and more on the film.  They are also offering it via iTunes.

Huff Post Books Review of The Fantastic Flying Books

Short of the Week Pick

San Antonio Current Critics Pick

LA Times: Morris Lessmore Has Hybrid Animation, iPad App

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Why is Sarah reading The Wandering Falcon?This week I am sharing the joy of reading with Reading Riverhead, which spotlights readers and books that they love. So why I am reading The Wandering Falcon?  Hint: it’s a searing, beautiful book, which by the way, I highly recommend. Soon to follow up with a rave-view.

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Are e-books a “radical” threat to society? Jonathan Franzen said as much at his first press conference over the weekend at the Hay Festival, in Cartagena, Columbia. “For serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience,” said the author of Freedom and The Corrections. “A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.”

Having been driven away from Kindle by the intrusive and annoying “popular highlights” feature, I have to agree. Yes, I know you can disable it, but the collective e-commentary on great works of literature feels like a violation. Hey, when I’m reading Anna Karenina, I want to sink into Tolstoy’s world, not be notified of that a committee of readers has highlighted a certain phrase. It’s not a work memo.

Franzen went on to argue that doing away with this sense of permanence is harmful to individuals and, thus, to society as a whole. “I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.”

In just a few sentences, he managed to indight e-books for the ultimate demise of the civilized world—quite the verbal sally from someone not known to mince words. Oprah-Book-Club-gate comes to mind.

E-books causing the downfall of civilization? Hmm. I thought Angry Birds was doing that. Still, Franzen’s comments struck a chord with me. I’ve always preferred physical books, and now I’m thinking that this sense of permanence—this feeling that you are holding your own, perfect piece of art—may be why. “Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it,” said Franzen. “They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper.”

It’s the interaction with this ink and paper that makes my reading experience. I love the smell of books and the stiffness of the binding that softens as you read along. I like to ruffle the corners of the pages, and I get a real satisfaction as I turn them. I run my fingers across the dust jacket, daydreaming about the design and the writing within. Despite the warning, I often buy books just for their covers.

But, no. I don’t think this makes me a more serious reader than those who are glued to their screens. Some of my bookwormiest friends are strictly e-readers. Kathleen, who runs our book club and goes through books like they are episodes of 24, was an early e-dopter. Even before Kindle, Nook, iPhone, or Google Books, Kathleen would surf arcane online collections of universities or libraries to download public-domain works. Sometimes she reads onscreen, and sometimes she prints out pages, but I think that digital ownership adds to her connection with the material. Lest anyone confuse speed with lack of seriousness, Kathleen does not read book candy (unlike me). She favors literary fiction: Ian McEwen, Philip Roth (one of her favorites), and most recently, Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, the Booker Prize winner. However someone ‘gets their read on’ works for me. It just saddens me (for them) when they don’t read at all.

Still, Franzen’s provocative comments keep turning in my head: the sense of permanence and the dangers of impermanence. It’s not just e-books, but also smartphones, tablets, laptops, video games, picture-in-picture TV screens (one show isn’t enough?) and on-demand programming—a constant stream of instant gratification. Anticipation has been largely replaced by impatience. Is it any wonder that so many of us have ADD?

“The combination of technology and capitalism has given us a world that really feels out of control,” said Franzen. He then argued that technology has empowered the bankers over elected politicians. “We are hostage to that because we like our iPhones.”

Oops, guilty. I love my iPhone and my iPad. The first thing I did was launch the iBooks app with its fun “bookshelf” graphic. My first download: The Lyrical Ballads. It’s a digital reproduction of the original 1798 edition, just as it appeared to Wordsworth and Coleridge. Well, almost. I then downloaded the books of all three Brontës, and of course, all of Jane Austen. I just love having a library in my pocket wherever I go. Ultimately though, I find the e-read is not as rewarding as the printed page.

We defenders of said page got an alarming jolt last May, when Amazon announced they were selling more e-books than bound copies. This week, we learned that Barnes & Noble is struggling to survive. Who would have thought we’d be rooting for Barnes & Noble? It does feel like the inexorable march towards an all-digital dystopia.

Yes, I do despair over about the future of books and bookstores. It’s hard not to when you consider how quickly the music industry collapsed. Does anyone buy CD’s anymore? I fear that one day I will become the biblio version of a vinyl geek, scouring the back alleys of Berlin or Hay-on-Wye for shops that actually sell old-school, printed books. Perhaps Franzen is right. For me, a bookless world would be indeed a giant leap backwards for civilization, or perhaps, a sign of Apocalypse.

The Telegraph: Jonathan Franzen: E-books are Damaging Society

The Guardian: Jonathan Franzen Warns E-books are Corroding Values

The Telegraph Blog: Franzen Wrong About E-Books

NPR: No More E-Books vs Print Books Arguments, Ok?

Fast Company: Amazon Sells More E-Books than Paper Ones

NY Times: The Bookstore’s Last Stand—Barnes & Noble in the Fight of It’s Life

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