Reading – a year in review, 2013

2013 was a very good year for reading. I discovered new authors whose work I enjoyed: Elena Ferrante, Madeline Miller, and Carrie Snyder. I continued my affection for authors with whom I had already been acquainted: Elizabeth Hay, George Saunders, Penelope Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Lorrie Moore, Nicholson Baker, Tove Jansson, Richard Ford, and Lars Iyer. I started reading ebooks as a normal part of my reading habit. The book club whose meetings I attend continued to give satisfaction. I reread a few favourite novels, most notably the gorgeous Belknap Press edition of Austen’s Emma. And I discovered some new favourites. I also wrote short reviews of each book I read this past year and posted them on LibraryThing, a few of which I re-posted here on this blog. I’m already looking forward to another great year of reading ahead.

Stats from my 2013 reading list:

  • 22 were borrowed from our public library
  • 17 have Canadian authors
  • 24 were chosen due to personal recommendations from friends
  • 10 are by authors who appear more than once on the 2013 list
  • 4 were being reread
  • 3 were read aloud by my wife and me
  • 17 are non-fiction
  • 11 are ebooks

Books read in 2013 (83):

  • Ford, Richard. The Lay of the Land
  • Wood, James. The Fun Stuff
  • Coady, Lynn. The Antagonist
  • Scalzi, John. Redshirts
  • Young, Nora. The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering The World Around Us
  • Schultz, Emily. The Blondes
  • Annas, Julia. Intelligent Virtue
  • Anshaw, Carol. Carry the One
  • Saunders, George. Tenth of December
  • Barnes, Julian. Through the Window: Seventeen Essays and a Short Story
  • Vila-Matas, Enrique. Never Any End to Paris
  • Robinson, Marilynne. When I Was a Child I Read Books
  • Handler, Daniel (author), Kalman, Maira (illustrator). Why We Broke Up
  • Fforde, Jasper. The Song of the Quarkbeast
  • Bradley, Alan. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
  • Fitzgerald, Penelope. Offshore
  • Orr, David. Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry
  • Stein, Lorin (ed.) and Stein, Sadie (ed.). Object Lessons: The Paris Review presents the Art of the Short Story
  • Iyer, Lars. Exodus
  • LaPlante, Alice. The Making of a Story
  • Humphreys, Helen. The Reinvention of Love
  • Ford, Richard. Rock Springs
  • Fitzgerald, Penelope. The Bookshop
  • Chuilleanáin, Eiléan Ní. Selected Poems
  • Vila-Matas, Enrique. Dublinesque
  • Fenton, James. An Introduction to English Poetry
  • Miller, Madeline. The Song of Achilles
  • Hobsbaum, Philip. Metre, Rhythm and Verse Form
  • July, Miranda. It Chooses You
  • Fenton, James. The Strength of Poetry
  • Ferrante, Elena. My Brilliant Friend
  • Ford, Richard. Women with Men
  • Davis, Lydia. Varieties of Disturbance
  • Humphreys, Helen. The Lost Garden
  • Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse
  • Meyer Spacks, Patricia. On Rereading
  • Hay, Elizabeth. Alone in the Classroom
  • LaCava, Stephanie. An Extraordinary Theory of Objects
  • Attenberg, Jami. The Middlesteins
  • Gibbons, Stella. Cold Comfort Farm
  • Wodehouse, P.G. What Ho!: The Best of Wodehouse
  • Ford, Richard (ed.). Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work
  • Rourke, Lee. The Canal
  • Jansson, Tove. Travelling Light
  • Stein, Garth. The Art of Racing in the Rain
  • Pick, Alison. Question & Answer
  • Hay, Elizabeth. Small Change
  • Shields, David. How Literature Saved My Life
  • Atkinson, Kate. Life After Life
  • Ford, Richard. Canada
  • Wagamese, Richard. Ragged Company
  • Ferrante, Elena. The Days of Abandonment
  • al-Tahawy, Miral. Brooklyn Heights
  • Walter, Jess. We Live in Water
  • Moore, Lorrie. Birds of America
  • Saunders, George. The Brain-Dead Megaphone
  • Patchett, Ann. Taft
  • Murakami, Ryu. Coin Locker Babies
  • Kaufman, Andrew. Born Weird
  • Williams, John. Stoner
  • Hill, Miranda. Sleeping Funny
  • Hutchins, Scott. A Working Theory of Love
  • Haddon, Mark. The Red House
  • Schultz, Emily. Heaven Is Small
  • Tropper, Jonathan. The Book of Joe
  • Ferrante, Elena. The Story of a New Name
  • Baker, Nicholson. Traveling Sprinkler
  • Tóibín, Colm. Mothers and Sons
  • Franklin, Ariana. Mistress of the Art of Death
  • Sedaris, David. When You Are Engulfed In Flames
  • Hill, Miranda (compiler), Medley, Mark (compiler), and Wangersky, Russell (compiler). The Journey Prize Stories 25
  • Tropper, Jonathan. Everything Changes
  • Morley, Christopher. Parnassus on Wheels
  • Morley, Christopher. The Haunted Bookshop
  • Joyce, Rachel. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
  • Austen, Jane. Emma edited by Bharat Tandon
  • Hay, Elizabeth. Garbo Laughs
  • Fitzgerald, Penelope. Human Voices
  • Moore, Lorrie. Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?
  • Snyder, Carrie. The Juliet Stories
  • Homes, A.M. This Book Will Save Your Life
  • Fagan, Jenni. The Panopticon
  • Gartner, Zsuzsi. Better Living Through Plastic Explosives


eBook user experience

Ever since I got my Google Nexus 7, I have taken up reading eBooks. Having just completed my tenth eBook, I want to reflect, briefly, on the experience. These ten eBooks constitute 1/8th of the books that I’ve logged on LibraryThing as having been read by me this past year. That is not an insubstantial portion. It is safe to say that I have incorporated eBooks into my normal reading habits. Does the experience of reading an eBook measure up?

First, I should note that all of the eBooks I have read have been downloaded from our local public library. Public libraries in Canada appear to have settled upon the OverDrive Media Console as their default. Thus I have been using the OverDrive app on my Nexus to facilitate my reading. OverDrive functions principally as a broker of eBooks to libraries and other institutions. The eBooks themselves are generated by the publishing houses. As I understand it, the publishing house licenses its material to libraries (or whomever) via the OverDrive intermediary. So my experience of these eBooks is in part due to the product generated by the publishing house and in part due to the environment through which I engage with that product, i.e. the Overdrive app.

There are any number of issues that arise with the above distribution model. But there are other people better placed to canvas and comment upon these. For my part, the only thing that impacts my reading experience is the artificial throttle on digital goods expressed through the “one-copy/one-user” lending model. Typically, for the kinds of books I read, the library will purchase a single licence. When a library patron signs out the eBook, that book becomes unavailable to other users for the full period that it has been borrowed. Our library uses a two-week standard borrowing period. After two-weeks the eBook you have downloaded to your device becomes inaccessible to you and is later deleted. There is no way, currently, to return a downloaded eBook early. In the event of twenty-five library patrons desiring the same eBook for which there is only one licence, there could easily be a one year wait for the last person on the list. I confess that I do not see the logic in that with regard to digital goods. Surely it would be more sensible to simply allow all twenty five patrons to download the book at the same time and just count the instances of its use. But, as noted, there are others more familiar with the licensing models and the economics of eBooks who are better placed to comment on this. I’m only interested here in my user experience.

Of the ten eBooks that I have read, seven different publishing houses are represented. The books range from current literary fiction best-sellers to short story collections and even non-fiction. The authors and their publishing houses are all either Canadian, American, or British, and the original language of each of the books is English. I’ll consider this a limited cross-section.

The Good Stuff:

I like the control I have over the font size. Numerous inexpensive editions of literary classics are published with such tiny font sizes that reading them can be a strain. With an appropriate font size, I can read in bed without my glasses. Admittedly that makes it rather tempting to fall asleep, but then that’s what I would do with a print book as well.

I suppose the next point goes along with the previous, both being aspects of the app through which I am engaging with these eBooks. I like the uniformity of the textual experience. On another day, maybe I wouldn’t count this as a separate point. But today it seems noteworthy.

I like the fact that these books do not occupy space on my bookshelves. Of course no library book is going to end up on my bookshelf permanently. So this isn’t unique to eBooks. But since the majority of what I read is dross (and this may hold true for other people as well), I like that I don’t even have the temptation to fill my shelves with such books. There is a downside to this as well. At least two of these ten eBooks are books that I would very gladly have on my bookshelf for a long, long time. That has something to do with the way I think about my bookshelves, I suppose. Or my vanity. And although it isn’t properly part of my user experience with eBooks, it does make me wonder whether, after having read such an eBook, I would be tempted to purchase a print edition. I don’t have an answer to that question yet.

The Not-so-Good Stuff:

What I like least about eBooks is the poor production value. At times it felt like I was reading a “pre-print” version of the text: typos, elided words, failure to correctly display accents. In some instances, chapters were not separated from each other. In others, blank pages appeared between some chapters. Just plain shoddy workmanship. I confess that I regularly thought to myself, “I’m glad I’m didn’t pay for this.” (But of course I did pay for it one way or another since the public library is supported by my taxes.) And that must be a huge stumbling block for the growth of eBooks, if my experience is even remotely typical. I certainly am not motivated to spend anything like the amount that retailers are demanding for eBooks. Not until I have some reason to think that I would be getting value for money.

Consider a contrasting eReading experience. I have a subscription to the electronic version of The New Yorker magazine. I access and read this magazine on my Nexus 7, just as I do with eBooks. But my experience of The New Yorker is fabulous: the text is clear and flexible, the photos are brilliant, the enhanced multi-media content is always appropriate and welcome, and the content is suitably proofed such that I’ve yet to come across simple errors. Why is my experience of this eMagazine so much better than my experience with any of the eBooks I have read?

I can only speculate here. My guess is that future magazine sales are more directly impacted by the user experience. Provide a poor user experience and your reader will simply not purchase your next issue. Worse, you might be losing that golden chalice of a subscription. So, I think, magazine publishers must be incredibly focused on creating a positive user experience. By contrast, I suspect, book publishers are not really worried about the user’s next purchase. It is the current sale that matters to them, and you’ve already bought the goods, so to speak. Your next eBook purchase might come from any publishing house and is more likely to be due to that book’s reviews and marketing than any previous user experience you’ve have with eBooks. So naturally eBook publishers are not motivated to take poor user experiences to heart.

I suppose that’s pretty thin in the way of explanation, so perhaps I’ll leave further speculation to others.

My experience with eBooks has not turned me off them. I will continue to read eBooks. I will continue to download them from our public library. But I can’t see myself purchasing any eBooks from retailers any time soon. Meanwhile, another issue of The New Yorker has just showed up on my device, so at least I have something to look forward to.

On rereading Jane Austen’s Emma

Few novels return as much pleasure on rereading, for me, as Jane Austen’s Emma. I read it first more than twenty years ago. At the time, I was reading through Austen’s oeuvre quickly and systematically. I read the Austen novels in order of publication. Emma was the last of her novels published in her own lifetime. She had already had some success with Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. But with Emma, I think, Austen pens her first fully mature novel. It seemed to me, even on that first reading, to be the one novel in which she is in total command of her craft, thoroughly realizing a vision of . . . of what? Of love, certainly. Of honour and propriety and family and class and taste, both poor and perfectible, and marriage and, well, life. It is also, as all great literary exemplars are, transformative; it reshapes the novel form itself. Austen reworks here what a novel is and can be. Such novels demand to be read and reread and then reread again.

I was fortunate on this rereading to have at hand the wonderful new annotated edition from The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Edited by Bharat Tandon, this is a beautiful large format hardcover book. The oversize page width allows for the annotations to appear alongside the principal text. There are relevant drawings and reproductions of paintings and even stills from filmic adaptations. But the text is never burdened at any point. The annotations tend to be clarificatory or informational, but sometimes also helpfully interpretative, especially where critical opinions diverge on the importance of key scenes.

Bharat Tandons’ introduction is worthy of special note. It is accessible yet erudite. It points up some of the key tools Austen deploys in writing Emma, such as her liberal use of free indirect style. And it is rightly conscious of the fact that no one would purchase such a heavy, large and somewhat expensive edition unless they were coming back to Emma, coming back with love. This is an edition of Emma almost designed, as it were, for rereaders.

One of the special treats in returning to Emma with such a fine edition is that the reader has the perfect excuse to slow down his reading. There is no need to race along with the plot from one misguided intervention in the lives of others to the next. The reader can take his time. Time to savour Austen’s very precise observations. Time to revel in her withering, warts and all, presentation of grasping tastelessness (e.g. Mrs. Elton) and her superficially similar but in fact very different presentation of kind-hearted senselessness (e.g. Miss Bates). There is plenty of scope here also to take note of how intricately Austen has structured her plot. It is impossible not to imagine her, pen in hand, being delighted with the nuances she has placed on Emma’s self-deceptive insights, knowing full well that all will be revealed in the third volume. It is a delight that transfers naturally to the rereader.

I often claim Emma as my favourite novel. But that is a mere expression of subjective preference. Is it also a good novel?

I have, at times, declared Emma to be a perfect novel. By that, I mean simply that it fully realizes its own (re)vision of what a novel is. It’s in this sense that the novel is transformative. And naturally it admits that there are an indefinite number of perfect novels. As new authors take up the novel form and make it their own, different exemplars of perfection arise. (It’s not surprising that an author would only ever write one perfect novel in her lifetime.) But is a perfect novel also a good novel?

No, not necessarily. A good novel tends to be one in which the reader develops an emotional connection with the characters or events such that the insights and subtle reflections conveyed by the novel (either overtly or tacitly) enter into an ongoing dialogue with the reader. This dialogue is ongoing and open. In effect, the reader learns something, so to speak, through reading a good novel. (The ‘so to speak’ is not perfunctory; readers tend to learn less in this sense from didactic novels.) A sign (but not a foolproof sign) that readers have entered into such a positive relationship with a novel is their willingness to reread the novel again and again (or at least to reflect upon it often). On this ground, I feel confident in identifying Emma as a good novel.

One of the things that this rereading of Emma spurred me to think about is the clear-eyed blindness of love. Love in many forms is on display throughout the novel. It begins with the happy union of Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston. It ends with, “the perfect happiness of the union,” of Emma and Mr. Knightley. Between these points lie yearning, infatuation, admiration, obsession, and more. Harriet Smith is often the vehicle through which love takes its turns. But her love cannot be trusted, blinded as she is by misapprehension and false hope.

By contrast, Mr. Knightley’s love of Emma is clear-eyed. He can see her faults and willingly points them out. And yet despite these faults, he comes to find her faultless. He declares her, “faultless in spite of all her faults.”

That’s a curious state. And I don’t have any glib response to it. But it sounds like something I ought to hold on to and think about further.

In fact, it rather captures how I feel about the novel itself. There are many aspects of Emma that some readers dislike — the capricious and self-involved title character, the meddling in Harriet Smith’s life, the focus on one class in society, the lack of historical sweep (perhaps denoting a preference for a later transformer of the novel such as Tolstoi), or the distrust of unions of ‘so-called’ perfect happiness. To all of which, I can only nod and reply that I stand with Mr. Knightley: I think Emma is, “faultless in spite of all her faults.”

Which, I suppose, is love.

Duolingo – my favourite app

DuolingoPardon me while I enthuse briefly about Duolingo. For the past 68 days, I have used the Duolingo app on my Google Nexus 7 every day. I’m working on my French. It’s getting to be a habit. A good habit. According to Duolingo’s statistics, over those 68 days I have used (successfully) some 1223 French words. I’ve reached, approximately, the half-way point in the 25 skill levels available. My wife says that even my pronunciation is improving. I love this app.

I’ve been working on improving my French for at least 10 years, off and on. It is one of my great regrets in life that I did not pursue French as a youth when it might have been easier and when the language might have got better secured in my still malleable brain. For some reason, I was permitted to drop French after grade 10 in high school. By the time I reached my second year of university, I knew that I’d made a big mistake. But there was no going back. Instead I decided to start from scratch with German and to learn it intensively. That did the trick. I reached a passable level of German and for a while there even carried on conversations with my wife’s unilingual German relatives.

The initial impetus to reclaim my French came when I visited France, and more especially Paris, for the first time. It was the turn of the century (the current one; I’m not that ancient). We were living in London, England, just then. I must have been thinking that it was time to start afresh. Time to make a commitment to who I wanted to be. Time to reclaim the half of my Canadian heritage that I’d admired in the past but never been able to participate in. It was time for me to learn French.

Learning a language well past the age of 30 is, frankly, hard. For me it was very hard. I don’t have a natural aptitude for language learning. And I’d already had a less than stellar history with French nearly 20 years earlier. So there were some obstacles. On the other hand, nothing greatly depended on my learning French. It was just something I wanted to do for myself. I could go at my own pace. And that is basically what I’ve done. Slowly.

Enough about me. Let’s get back to Duolingo.

I can’t say that I set about researching lots of language learning apps before I started using Duolingo. When I first got my Google Nexus 7, I looked briefly at the apps recommend on Google Play. Duolingo had two things going for it straight off. Lots of people were using it, and it was (and apparently always will be) free (as in no cost). So I gave it a whirl.

In Duolingo the user works through a learning tree from basics to intermediate to advanced. Each set of exercises centres around some aspect of the language, either grammar or vocabulary. For example, one set might be focussed on adverbs and another on clothing, or pronouns, or directions. There are four or more lessons in each exercise set. Once you successfully complete all of the lessons in a set its colour changes to gold and, usually, new (harder) exercises are unlocked. The activities in the lessons vary between translating from French to English, translating from English to French, transcribing a sentence you hear in French (I find that the hardest), and repeating a sentence in French until the software declares that you’ve got it close enough to move on. Probably nothing there that you would not expect to find in any technologically sophisticated language learning program.

So you make your way through lesson after lesson, completing exercise after exercise, probably thinking, “This isn’t so hard.” And then one day you notice that an exercise set earlier in the series, which you had completed successfully, is no longer gold. What’s this?

It’s time for revision. Duolingo determines by some algorithm that the skills you learned a week or two weeks ago may already be getting a bit rusty. Time to go back and do a lesson in order to practise your skills. Complete one such lesson successfully and the entire exercise set reverts to gold. You can move on.

The constant need for revision — call it hectoring, if you like — turns out to be exactly what I, as an older learner, need. I need to go over and over those adverbs or pronouns to get them well and truly locked in my head. And then I need to return to them in the not too distant future to deepen the grooves.

Of course once you get to the half-way mark in the learning tree, there are more and more exercise sets behind you that are going to need revision periodically. And that, inevitably, will slow your progress. But I think that’s a good thing. I feel like I’m finally getting some things secured.

My entire experience with Duolingo has been through its Android app. I now know that Duolingo is available through your web browser as well. So you definitely don’t need to wait until you get a tablet device to start enjoying Duolingo. There is also a social component to Duolingo that I have not explored. For example, a group of individuals could join Duolingo together and compete as friends in their progress through the language they are learning. That didn’t appeal to me, but it may appeal to you. And of course there are more languages than just French. You could try Portuguese, German, or Italian. Other languages will follow.

I probably won’t ever reach a level of real proficiency in French. But everything isn’t about the endpoint. It’s about the journey. Duolingo helps make the language learning journey more enjoyable. I recommend it.

Twitter community through self-identification

DSC_7172I made my first tweets on Friday, 15 November 2013. They were a long time coming. I set up my Twitter account more than three years ago. It has taken me this long to overcome my communications anxiety. Not so much anxiety about what to say, although there is that too. But rather anxiety about how this communications stream fits into my PIO, my personal identity online.  Frankly, I didn’t have a viable use-case for me back then. What’s changed?

To some extent Twitter has changed. In the past three years it has grown not just in numbers but in sophistication. These days it would be hard to deny that communities form, interact, and disband within the  Twitter environment. That is part of what motivated my plunge into the tweet pool.

I like the fact that Twitter is not a deep well or walled garden or whichever metaphor you best think captures the semi-permeable envelope surrounding Facebook and users within Facebook. Yes, I’m on Facebook, but I rarely, if ever, use it for anything other than staying abreast of the status updates from my many friends and relatives. For me, Facebook never overcame my anxiety about openness. I have a bias towards openness. I want what I write to be readable by anyone. I think that forces me to be a bit more circumspect about what I write. Just as it would if I was in a real live conversation with someone. Twitter has not produced the same level of anxiety for me. Although it is possible to “protect” your tweets so that only your preferred set of followers see them, the ethos is clearly to leave your tweets visible to one and all.

However, it was something other than anxieties over openness and the challenge of wit or wisdom in under 140 characters that convinced me to activate my sleeping Twitter account. It was something that arose during a panel discussion at the recent Wild Writers Festival in Waterloo.

Many of those present were published writers at different stages of their careers. There were also lots of people present who were one or more steps behind in their career arc. Many of those people, I think, marvelled at the level of camaraderie on display amongst the ‘pros’. How, they asked again and again, could they also find such a community?

Writing is hard. Community, if you don’t already have it, is probably harder. The writers on the panel struggled with what to advise. Many of them had found their writerly communities while in school, often after they embarked on a graduate degree, an MFA. Others followed a different path and felt they had only found their community after their initial publications. That led to speculation as to what the preconditions of such a community might be. The best answer to that question, I think, came when one of the panellists turned the tables and asked whether the questioner self-identified as a writer.

What does it mean to self-identify as a writer? And why might that be important for joining or forming a writerly community?

I think self-identification here means declaring publicly that you are a writer. You aren’t a hobbyist. This isn’t an avocation. When someone asks you about yourself, the first thing you say is, “Hi, I’m a writer.” It’s both what you do and who you are. It’s a vocation, which is a strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation. A strong feeling of suitability.

There is no need to be diffident. Indeed, an unwillingness to declare yourself as a writer may be precisely what is holding up your entry into the community of writers. If you do have that strong feeling of suitability, then declare yourself.

Declare yourself. Sometimes it comes down to just that — admitting to yourself that you are, in fact, a writer. And once you’ve done that, then the next step is to declare it publicly.

Which brings me back to Twitter. I have chosen to use my Twitter account as a means of publicly self-identifying as a writer. I like the extremely limited number of characters that Twitter permits for your personal bio on your profile. Mine now reads:

writer, reader, sometime thinker

Come join me, if you wish. Follow me @randymetcalfe