March 30, 2009

Exploring Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies

One of the things I need to do (or at least think I need to do) for my work on Ahdaf Soueif's In the Eye of the Sun is enhance my understanding of post-colonial theory. My own interests in the novel are rather different than those I take to be the usual concerns of post-colonial criticism, but given the Anglo-Egyptian contexts of the novel and its author, I know I need to give some thought to ways they might be engaging with Egypt's colonial history, through the novel's portrayal of Egyptian history and politics, and also through the role played in the novel by Asya's literary studies and by Soueif's own intertextual allusions, particularly to George Eliot. Surprisingly, perhaps, I have muddled along this far in my professional life without paying a lot of attention to post-colonial theory: I have always had plenty to read in the areas of my own research and writing, though I have made occasional forays, mostly for teaching purposes, into specific debates, such as those over post-colonial readings of Jane Eyre. But I have never tried in any systematic way to map out this field--and I don't intend to do so now, either, as I do know enough to be aware just how complex, varied, and wide-ranging it is. Still, I feel I need to orient myself (so to speak!) well enough that I can consider how or if to draw on the insights of post-colonial theorists to explain what I think Soueif is up to in her novel. More particularly, I have a tentative working hypothesis that Soueif is actually offering a kind of counter-argument to some of the assumptions of post-colonial theory, particularly about the ways the Victorian novel is typically treated as "a vehicle for imperial authority": to test or develop this hypothesis, I need to improve my fluency in this discourse.

As a first step, I have been working my way through the handy volume Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts, by Helen Tiffen, Gareth Griffiths and Bill Ashcroft (the source of the quotation near the end of the previous paragraph). I feel a little anxious about how far to rely on this book, because I don't bring to it enough independent ideas about what I am rapidly learning are vexed concepts to know if its explanations are neutral or tendentious. It is definitely helping me get started, though, just by identifying and defining terms I have heard (and even used) without always knowing exactly their significance or ramifications. Thanks to my Sony Reader, I now have a handy personalized index to terms that seem especially likely to prove relevant to my thinking about In the Eye of the Sun. One of the first ones I explored, for instance, was "hybridity," a term which has been used quite a bit by critics to describe Soueif's Anglo-Egyptian identity. It does seem to mean pretty much what I thought it did (their starting definition is "the creation of new transcultural forms within the contact zone produced by colonization," and they go on to outline its place in the work of Bakhtin and Bhabha particularly). What I hadn't known was that it was a controversial notion if used to "stress mutuality," which has been seen to minimize "oppositionality." The authors touch on other complications of the term as well, such as Robert Young's concern that "hybridity" was commonly used "in imperial and colonial discourse in negative accounts of the union of disparate races." I did want to use the term to summon up a positive, creative relationship between the English and the Egyptian elements of the novel; now I'm aware that if I do so, I may have to defend that usage, and I have some ideas about where to look as I think that problem through. That's useful.

I've brushed up on some other terms too, including liminality, contrapuntal reading, (af)filiation, and rhizome, and reviewed their explanations of the really big concepts, such as Orientalism, imperialism, and post-colonialism (learning in the process that there is a whole debate about whether or not to hyphenate). Though the extent and intricacy of the 'jargon' involved is still somewhat alienating to me, it's clear that for some of the questions I'm going to want (or need) to address, this specialized vocabulary will help me do so with greater precision, whether in my own analysis or in response to questions others might have for me--when I present my first version of the paper at a conference in May, for instance.

One negative effect of reading this glossary, though, has been to confirm my prejudice against post-colonial readings because built into their very methodology is an assumption about the outcome of the reading: built into the definition of both contrapuntal and post-colonial readings here is a pre-determined conclusion about what any particular text will reveal:
contrapuntal reading: A term coined by Edward Said to describe a way of reading the texts of English literature so as to reveal their deep implication in imperialism and the colonial process.
post-colonial reading: A way of reading and rereading texts . . . to draw deliberate attention to the profound and inescapable effects of colonization on literary production. . . . It is a form of deconstructive reading . . . which demonstrates the extent to which the text contradicts its underlying assumptions . . . and reveals its (often unwitting) colonialist ideologies and processes.
By these definitions, post-colonial readings are highly tendentious, even question-begging: here we have a critical method that says we don't really need to read the book to know what it says or does, and that preemptively rules out the possibility that a given text might be in a different--perhaps an oppositional--relationship to "colonialist ideologies and processes." The world "implication" is also the kind of weasel word that drives me crazy: it seems to imply some kind of complicity, but without actually attributing agency or blame. I'm reminded of Derek Attridge's complaint, in the exchange with Henry Staten that I wrote about a little while ago that sometimes in the rush to interpretation we fail to "respond accurately and affirmatively to the singularity of the work." These definitions of post-colonial reading seem to me models for sausage-grinder criticism: put in any Victorian novel, for instance, turn the handle, and it comes out in the same shape (and casing) as any other one.

I'd be interested to know (as I'm sure many of you are wiser in the ways of this critical field than I) first, if the definitions I've quoted from this particular reference work seem reasonably reliable, at least as introductions to what these terms mean and how they are used (or would you recommend another source?), and second, if you have any response to my objection about criticism that assumes its conclusions even before it begins, and/or could steer me towards any good exchanges about this (perceived) problem among people working in post-colonial studies. (I am aware of--and will soon be re-reading--Erin O'Connor's provocative essay "Preface for a Post-Postcolonial Criticism" (and the responses to it) in Victorian Studies.)

March 23, 2009

Miscellaneous Reading Updates

I haven't been doing well blogging my reading lately. Here are some brief comments on recent selections.

I had high expectations for Graham Swift's Waterland. Before I read it, in fact, it was a leading contender for my upcoming survey course on "British Literature Since 1800," for which I figure I can asssign a maximum of two novels, one Victorian (of course!) and one modern or contemporary. As I'm leaning towards Dickens (of course!) for the Victorian novel, I thought, from what I'd heard about it, that Waterland might make a great pairing with Great Expectations. But I was quite disappointed in the novel. Conceptually, it seemed very dated, for one thing: all that historiographical metafiction stuff felt really innovative in the 1980s but now seems to belabour the obvious (and I should know from obvious in this area, as I wrote both my undergraduate honours thesis and my Ph.D. thesis on relationships between history and fiction as narratives). I found the whole "wow he has a really big penis" plot extremely tedious, the family saga stuff uncompelling, and though I can see lots of ways the watery elements lend themselves to metaphorical play, I just wasn't drawn in enough to want to think it through. This novel has been so widely and highly praised that I'm prepared to assume the fault lies in my reading, not the book, but there we are, or at least there I am.

I was also disappointed in Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, though there at least I did not have such great expectations. The narration is all very smoothly handled, and I thought the ambiguities of the set-up were clever--it does become suspenseful as you try to gage who the listener might actually be and just what purpose underlies the speaker's story-telling. But the absolutely crucial part, the moment in which the narrator turns towards not just fundamentalism but (or so we are led to believe) active hostility towards the U.S., or "the west," seemed to be wholly unearned by what came before: the smile on September 11 does shock the narrator himself, but much of the rest of the novel seemed like retroactive justification for it. The edition I read made comparisons to The Remains of the Day, but the developing self-awareness there is far more convincingly supported by the accidental revelations we receive along the way.

I've been trying to read Midnight's Children. I'm bored by it! It's too digressive, too full of extraneous descriptions (yes, I know, I love Dickens). It lacks momentum. Again, my problem, no doubt, not the novel's. I'll keep trying. But I needed to be reading something for myself that I enjoyed, so I've started Ann Patchett's Run. I'm liking it so far, though it is certainly not capturing my reader's imagination the way Bel Canto did.

I've also been reading more on my Sony Reader. Though I am still a bit disappointed that you have to choose your reading location a bit carefully, I do find that in the right conditions, it is very easy to read on, and I really like the bookmarking and annotating functions. I've just gone through a glossary of terms in post-colonial criticism (sounds like fun, doesn't it?) and I've marked it up so I can quite easily find the bits that I think will be helpful in my analysis of Soueif's In the Eye of the Sun. I am reading a book on Islam and feminism now. I definitely like being able to carry a range of books with me, as I shuttle between home and office all the time and am always debating what to carry along in case I get the chance to squeeze in a little research-related reading. I can certainly imagine reaching a point where it seems annoying that a book is "only" on my shelf somewhere and not on my handy machine.

This Week (and Last) in My Classes (March 24, 2009)

In Mystery and Detective Fiction, we have been working on examples of the police procedural, including short stories by Ed McBain, Peter Robinson, and Ian Rankin. Now we are nearly done with our discussion of Rankin's Knots and Crosses. I initially chose this novel for this course because I admire the quality of Rankin's writing and have generally gone with the first in a series, to avoid the sense that I need to fill in a lot of back story on the detective's development. I have kept it on the list because I enjoy its self-conscious literary and gothic elements and the way it doesn't really fit the conventions of the procedural. It also deals with themes about masculinity, brotherhood (especially as nurtured--or forced--through the army and the police force), and uneasy relationships between male sexuality and violence. In these ways I feel it provides a good complement to, say, Grafton's 'A' is for Alibi (though in a very different register)--which also explores sex and violence but as linked through conventional romantic fantasies, and considered from the perspective of a female protagonist struggling to reconcile her own sexual desires with her autonomy. Knots and Crosses is also short (Rankin's books get both better and much, much longer) and neatly structured (almost too neatly, I now think). In other words, it's a pretty good teaching text. This year, though, I find I'm a bit tired of it. It's creepy, for one thing (students have remarked this in past years as well), and there are signs in it of Rankin's relative inexperience as a novelist (for instance, what I consider problems in his handling of point of view, such as shifting occasionally to the perspective of the serial killer or of one of his victims--this kind of thing can be done well, but here seems primarily aimed at increasing suspense, which I find manipulative if it doesn't also serve some larger idea or balance). Especially since I think I'm going to concede the argument against An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (routinely an unpopular text, though one of the few books on the reading list that I like just as a book to read), I may consider either a longer P. D. James or a longer Rankin to represent the procedural. I'm tempted by Fleshmarket Close, but then a 400+ pager near the end of term might sink my evaluations altogether....

In Victorian Literature of Faith and Doubt last week it was a small sampling of Pre-Raphaelites, Swinburne, and Christina Rossetti. CR is the author of a couple of my favourite poems, including this one:


Come to me in the silence of the night;
Come in the speaking silence of a dream;
Come with soft rounded cheeks and eyes as bright
As sunlight on a stream;
Come back in tears,
O memory, hope and love of finished years.

O dream how sweet, too sweet, too bitter-sweet,
Whose wakening should have been in Paradise,
Where souls brim-full of love abide and meet;
Where thirsting longing eyes
Watch the slow door
That opening, letting in, lets out no more.

Yet come to me in dreams, that I may live
My very life again though cold in death;
Come back to me in dreams, that I may give
Pulse for pulse, breath for breath:
Speak low, lean low,
As long ago, my love, how long ago.

It's the sound and feeling of the words here that I respond to here, as much as, or more than, anything the poem is specifically saying. For the class, we read a selection of her religious poetry (I know, one way or another it can all be read as religious)--"Up-Hill," "A Better Resurrection," "The Three Enemies," and a couple of others, and then "Goblin Market," always fun to read and provoking to interpret. For today and Wednesday it's Hopkins (faith today, with "God's Grandeur," "The Windhover," and "Pied Beauty," and doubt next time, with some of the 'terrible' sonnets). So a lot of our discussions over the past few classes have turned on relationships between aesthetic and sensual responses to the world and spiritual ideas and feelings.

March 17, 2009

Weak Reading; or, That's Not What It's About

A while back Dan Green posted a link to this interesting exchange between Derek Attridge and Henry Staten. I'm attracted by the idea of "weak" or "minimal" reading they discuss, because it seems related to my own reservations about some tendencies of academic literary criticism. Here's an excerpt from Attridge's introduction:
I’ve been trying for a while to articulate an understanding of the literary critic’s task which rests on a notion of responsibility, derived in large part from Derrida and Levinas, or, more accurately, Derrida’s recasting of Levinas’s thought, one aspect of which is an emphasis on the importance of what I’ve called variously a “literal” or “weak” reading. That is to say, I’ve become increasingly troubled by the effects of the enormous power inherent in the techniques of literary criticism at our disposal today, including techniques of formal analysis, ideology critique, allusion hunting, genetic tracing, historical contextualization, and biographical research. . . .

The notion that it is smarter to read “against the grain” rather than to do what one can to respond accurately and affirmatively to the singularity of the work can compound this disregard of what is truly important. This is not to say that the use of literary works as illustrations of historical conditions or ideological formations (including abhorrent ones) is invalid or reprehensible; just that to do so is not to treat the works in question as literature. . . .
I'm not (yet) familiar with the other work in which Attridge develops this notion of critical responsibility or the value (or even obligation) of responding "accurately and affirmatively to the singularity of the work." But so far it sounds as if his work would help me articulate my own dissatisfaction with the often sizable gap between what literary texts themselves are primarily concerned with--the conversation they are consciously having with their readers--and what we talk about when we talk about them in our criticism. (I discuss this concern briefly, and a bit flippantly, here in the context of a classic deconstructive reading of Middlemarch, and here in a discussion of Denis Donoghue's The Practice of Reading, to give a couple of examples, and I've pointed to James Wood and Edward Dowden as critics who can [though, in Wood's case, may not always] exemplify what it means to focus on what is "truly important" by the standards of the text itself.) At stake, I think, is the issue a friend with a library science background has told me is called in his world, perhaps unofficially, "aboutness." In determining the appropriate way to catalogue a book, a decision must be made (note the bureaucratic passive voice) regarding its central identity or "aboutness": where it belongs depends on what is it ultimately about. Another useful concept might be what Henry James called the author's "donnee," or Donoghue simply calls the text's "theme"--though Donoghue emphasizes that at issue is the text's theme, not the critic's (he protests, regarding recent criticism of Yeats's "Leda and the Swan," that "Yeats is not allowed to have his theme: he must be writing about something else"). Often, when hearing or reading examples of recent critical analysis, I find myself thinking, "very clever, but that's not what the book is about!"* So at least initially, I like the idea of rigorously minimal reading.

But a 'weak reading' movement would run into trouble pretty quickly, because a text's own "theme" is rarely obvious--which is the challenge Attridge and Staten confront in the bulk of their discussion. They attempt a 'minimal' reading of Blake's "The Sick Rose"; Attridge proposes "talking about what [they] take to be obvious (as well as what a concern with the obvious makes possible and perhaps what it excludes)," to which Staten adds the clarification (or qualification) that "if something is obvious, then it must be so not just to me but to others as well, if not initially, then with a bit of pointing out." But, as every English professor knows, the devil is in the details: what's obvious is very much a result of one's experience and preparation. Attridge and Staten seem to have put themselves at a disadvantage in this experiment by starting with a poem that is, as Staten says, "a very un-obvious poem." Really, the only obvious thing about it to me is precisely its overt reaching at symbolic resonance. The moves in their attempt to fix some stably obvious points certainly demonstrate that weak reading requires considerable effort:
DA: Now you may say that to read the rose as a symbol of beauty, perfection, etc. is to leave the surface, and the garden plant, and therefore the realm of the obvious, to enter the depths about which there cannot be general agreement.

HS: Yes.

DA: But don’t these connotations constitute an aspect of the generally agreed meaning of the word rose? Or perhaps we need to distinguish between the obvious and the more recherch√© aspects of the word’s symbolic force. Of the associations I mentioned, beauty, perfection and love are surely not much less general than the literal botanical meaning.HS: There are many associations that a word like “rose” can potentially arouse; but which of these associations are in fact activated within a specific poem, in a way that we actually need to bring out in order to get the bold, sharp outlines of the poem’s action? Perfection doesn’t seem to me to play a significant role in the major dynamic of “The Sick Rose”—a dynamic you’ve described so well—and therefore I would say this meaning is not saliently activated here (certainly not at the level of what is or can become obvious). The rose is sick, and sickness doesn’t attack perfection as such, it attacks health. Beauty is no doubt there in some way, since flowers in general have this connotation; but even beauty plays no direct role in the drama of the poem; “bed of crimson joy” suggests a kind of exuberant organic vitality in the rose more than it does its beauty. The drama foregrounds the joyous vitality of the rose, on the one hand, and its vulnerability to the worm, on the other hand; and in this connection the associative resonance would be, rather, with the softness of rose petals, so easily crushed, don’t you think? I don’t claim that this association is obvious; it’s a bit in the background. But it’s more directly linked to the manifest action of the poem than are beauty or perfection.
I wonder if their work would have been easier or harder if they had chosen a more literal example for their case study.

*One phenomenon with which anyone in literary studies is certainly familiar, for instance, is the interpretive strategy by which something seemingly incidental in the text is seized upon and 'discovered' to have great interpretive significance--usually because it can be read symptomatically, helping turn the text, as Attridge says, into an "illustration[] of historical conditions or ideological formations."Here's a mildly parodic (but fairly accurate) example of how it works. Suppose the text is a 19th-century realist novel--say, Barchester Towers, which I happen to be reading now. Imagine there's a scene with a dinner party at which pickles are served. Now, the immediate action of Barchester Towers has everything to do with the internecine rivalries of English clergyman and the moral and social crises flowing from them, and nothing to do with pickles, but now that we have noticed the pickles, it becomes irresistible to follow up on them. Lo and behold, nobody has done pickles yet (though I could give you quite a list of what has been done). So we produce a pickled reading. What are the cultural implications of pickles? Who could afford them, and who could not? Were pickling techniques perhaps learned abroad, maybe in the chutney-producing regions of the eastern empire? Or maybe pickling was once a cottage industry and has now been industrialized. We learn all about these issues and make that jar on the table resonate with all the socio-economic and cultural meanings we have uncovered. Though the pickles seemed so incidental, now we realize how much work they are doing, sitting there on the table. (Who among us has not heard or read or written umpteen versions of this paper?) And perhaps we are right to bring this out--after all, for whatever known or felt reason, Trollope saw fit to put pickles there and not, say, oysters or potatoes. But do we really understand more about Barchester Towers, or just more about pickles--not in themselves, but as symptoms of industrialism, colonialism, or bourgeois taste in condiments? It's not that our pickle paper might not be interesting or, indeed, accurate in all the conclusions it draws about the symptomatic or semiotic or other significance of the pickles. But it's hard not to feel somehow that such an analysis misses the point of the book and thus has a certain intrinsic irrelevance.

March 12, 2009

Novel Readings: the Index

This is still very much a work in progress, but I've begun to set up the index to Novel Readings discussed in this post. Once I have filled in more of the contents, a link to it will become a permanent fixture in the blog sidebar. Let me know if you have suggestions about how to make the index clearer or more useful.

March 10, 2009

This Week in My Classes (March 10, 2009)

In Mystery and Detective Fiction, it's time for 'A' is for Alibi. I have fun with this one, putting as much interpretive pressure on it as I can to test our Reverse Thurber principle (in our very first reading for the course, "The Macbeth Murder Mystery," he shows it can be comical to read 'real' literature as detective fiction, while we turn the tables and read genre fiction as seriously as we would read MacBeth) . Will any of these novels collapse under the pressure? I'm helped a lot in this case by the fun Grafton is having playing with hard-boiled detective conventions as well as gothic and romance. That kind of self-consciousness is a critic's good friend. I've been emphasizing the novel's chronology, which places the story in the context of changes in gender politics and roles, particularly within marriage: the victim's first wife marries him in 1957; they are divorced in 1970 (leaving her with bitter memories of her life as a Barbie doll); he is found dead in 1974 and his second wife is accused of the murder. Though she hires Kinsey Millhone to prove her innocence, she too recalls the deceased as controlling. I proposed last class that the poor fellow is doubly victimized, not only as the actual murder victim, but as the scapegoat for patriarchy. How much sympathy, if any, this earns him is another question: Grafton has said she devised the novel as a way to profit from her own revenge fantasies during a painful divorce. Tomorrow we'll be focusing on the other murder plot, though, which involves the gender-bending "homme fatale" and culminates in Kinsey's fairly unheroic last stand pant-less in a garbage can.

In Victorian Literature of Faith and Doubt, 'A' is for Arnold, angst, and alienation. Our progression (as I was trying to explain in a rambling opening comment for the class yesterday) has been from writers wrestling with specific challenges to their faith (or, with Darwin, presenting findings with challenging implications) to writers reimagining society and morality in the absence of that faith (the secular fable of Silas Marner, in which the major value of church-going is that it fosters community and sympathy) or now, with Arnold, seeking in poetry and culture alternative sources of inspiration and spirituality. But while Eliot eases her readers through the transition, in his poetry at least Arnold captures the sense of dislocation and grief that could also be part of the weaning from religion. "Dover Beach," of course, is the best known of his elegies for lost faith, but "The Buried Life" is also beautifully evocative:
But often, in the world's most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us--to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
I like the simplicity with which this poem resolves, as the speaker considers the soothing touch of "a beloved hand" and the "tones of a loved voice" carressing "our world-deafened ear" and the uneasy and irregular lines of pentameter and tetrameter that make up most of the poem soften, restfully, into easy (and rhyming) trimeter (actually, I guess the final line is anapestic):
And there arrives a lull in the hot race
Wherein he doth for ever chase
That flying and elusive shadow, rest.
An air of coolness plays upon his face,
And an unwonted calm pervades his breast.
And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the sea where it goes.
"To Marguerite--Continued," all built around the conceit of us "mortal millions" as islands isolated by "the sea of life," but longing to be reunited as "parts of a single continent," also ends well, with one of my favourite lines of 19th-century poetry, actually:
Who ordered, that their longing's fire
Should be, as soon as kindled, cooled?
Who renders vain their deep desire?--
A God, a God their severance ruled!
And bade betwixt their shores to be
The unplumbed, salt, estranging sea.
If there isn't already a novel called The Estranging Sea, maybe I should write one.

For show and tell, I can bring in my old New Yorker cartoon (sadly, I can't find an image of it to post here) that shows a bemused couple watching Old Sideburns on their TV; the caption is, "Here as on a darkling plain swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night, Matthew Arnold, Fox News, Channel Five."

March 5, 2009

Sony Reader Update

As promised, here's an update on my experience with the Sony Reader. I've owned it for about a week now.

Short version: I'm torn.

Long version:

I love my new Sony Reader PRS-700 because:
  • it lets me store, carry, bookmark, highlight, and annotate hundreds of books in one sleek, lightweight package (and believe me, for a Victorianist, the contrast with carrying around the 'real' thing is substantial)
  • it also stores easy-to-read versions of Word documents
  • in these ways it makes it possible to have a large percentage of the material I need for my ongoing research (and teaching and just plain reading) handy in any location, while also letting me interact with it in ways that make the electronic device feel a lot like working with paper
  • the touch screen is cool (actually, the whole thing is cool)
  • there aren't a lot of buttons cluttering up the unit and the page-turn button in particular is conveniently located
  • overall, then, it is a remarkably user-friendly and practical device for someone in my line of work...except,
I hate revised to struggle a bit with my Sony Reader PRS-700 because:
  • the cool touch screen results in glare that makes it difficult to read the books--which is, after all, the primary reason for owning the thing in the first place
  • the display, though impressively crisp, has poor contrast compared to the less expensive PRS-505 model (which also does not have the same problem with glare)
I'm also not fond of the software Sony provides (but there are alternatives, including this one which is Mac-friendly), and all the reviews that say the Reader is no good at handling PDFs are quite right. But I knew these things going in. I also knew that some people had complained about the glare and the contrast, but others had said 'no problem,' so the annotation functions seemed likely to outweigh them. But do they? That's where I'm stuck.

Do I keep this one for its multi-functionality (there's a nice techno-geeky word), accepting the trade-off of the text not being optimally visible? (Depending on the lighting you're working in, the LED lights that Sony has added to this model help with the contrast problem, but not with the glare, and as one of the other attractions of the Reader was the e-ink technology which I hoped would not tire my eyes the way back-lit screens do, I'm annoyed at resorting to this. Also, the lights run down the battery faster.)

Or do I trade down for the earlier version, so that I can store, carry, and really read the books, and just keep on taking notes by hand or on my computer? Maybe Sony was right the first time: an e-reader should do that job well, not try to be all things to all people.

I think I have to go back to the Sony store and do some side-by-side comparisons. I've read (on my computer, until my eyes were bugging out) all kinds of reviews and comment threads on these and other e-readers, but it does seem to come down to how well it works for your individual eyes and purposes.

Have any of you tried an e-reader? Or do you just read electronic books on your computer? And it's no use recommending the Kindle (1 or 2) because it's not available up here.

Further update, in case anyone cares: I did a more sustained reading test last night, reading the final volume of Silas Marner all on the Reader. In the right light, it was no problem at all to read it: what you need is fairly bright diffuse light. As the best location I found was actually in one of my usual favourite reading chairs with a good lamp beside it, that doesn't seem an insurmountable problem. So, most likely I'll hang on to this version, though I'm going to try a couple more experiments just to be sure.

March 4, 2009

Coming Soon...

Looks nice, doesn't it? I'm reading through the page proofs this week and they look nice too--though it's hard not to be anxious about whatever stupidities of mine will be revealed when the whole thing finally goes public.

March 3, 2009

This Week in My Classes (March 3, 2009)

We're back from reading week, and in true Maritime fashion the second phase (I think of it as the downhill rush) of the term was ushered in with snow, ice pellets, and several hours of freezing rain, meaning an awful lot of students didn't actually get back. Maybe that will be the last storm of the season. Ha. (Remind me again why the first European settlers in this region didn't just keep moving on when they realized what they were letting themselves in for? I guess you do have to go pretty far away from here, though, to get to a temperate, never mind a warm, climate.)

In Mystery and Detective Fiction this week, it's P. D. James's An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, which is one of the few books on the course list that I would actually read just for my own pleasure and interest rather than out of professional obligation. That's not to say I don't enjoy many of the other readings, but I consider James a good novelist, not just a significant mystery novelist. Unsuitable Job reminds me of Kate Atkinson's Case Histories (really, I suppose, it's the other way aroud)--not in any specifics of the cases, but in the attention to evocative atmosphere and compelling characterization achieved with considerable economy. The lectures I've worked up on Unsuitable Job emphasize the continuities James herself identifies between her work and that of the 19th-century realist novel, particularly in terms of the novel's insistence on the centrality of ethics. Though, as with all mysteries, there is a strong puzzle component here, a problem to be solved (and a grim one at that), I think it is Cordelia's development that the novel is really about, particularly the way she grows into the strengths she has by virtue of her compassion and strong sense of justice. Detection is pitched (by others) in the novel as an "unsuitable job for a woman" because of the presumably masculine qualities of toughness, objectivity, and rationality it demands, but she shows, first, that a delicate-looking young woman can have those qualities too, and that she can exercise them in the service of "softer" and more conventionally feminine values including empathy and love. James's usual detective, Adam Dalgleish, is notable also for the strength of his humanity and insight as well as intellect. Insofar as The Maltese Falcon is an indictment of modern society for making survival dependent on refusing to "play the sap," I find Unsuitable Job a kind of antidote, because Cordelia refuses to abandon those she loves but incorporates justice to her feelings for them as part of her larger quest for what is right. I find her confrontation with Ronald Callender suspenseful less because we know there's a murderer in the room but because it pits genuinely competing values against each other. By giving one set of them to a particularly repellent murderer, of course James is tipping the scales--but no worse, perhaps, than Dickens does by giving fairly similar values to Mr. Gradgrind.

In my Faith and Doubt seminar, we have moved on (sighs of relief all 'round) to Silas Marner, which is growing on me every time I read it. I so appreciate the rewards of re-reading George Eliot. In this particular case, the novel's engagement with religion is more interesting to me after several weeks discussing the ways other writers responded to the challenges to their faith in the period. I think she is both sharp and subtle about the ways religion is experienced and understood by people who are caught up, not in abstract theological disputes, but in human needs and desires, such as the need for one's labour, or suffering, to be (or at least feel) purposeful, and about the intricate ways in which religious practices are as much social and personal as spiritual or devout. We talked a bit yesterday, and I hope will talk more tomorrow, about the contrasts between Lantern Yard and Dolly Winthrop's version of church-going, for instance. We also had some interesting discussion about the genre of the book, and what seemed perhaps a fruitful (or perhaps just an unresolved) tension between its fabular form--the pressure in it towards standing as a parable, a secularized version of a fall, a casting out from Eden maybe, and then a humanistic redemption--and its realist aesthetic (or George Eliot's more general commitment to realism). After our work on Darwin before the break, I particularly enjoyed looking at the scenes which on the surface are most contrived and artificial, such as the convergence of Dunstan's crime and Eppie's appearance, the replacement of the gold coins with her gold hair, and seeing how these seeming coincidences or acts of what might (because so hard to explain at once) be attributed to divine (or just novelistic) intervention, are given such detailed backstories, so that we are reminded to be cautious about providing preternatural explanations when we are simply too ignorant to account for things naturalistically. Of course, that is one variation on GE's consistent theme that the good and bad in our lives is attributable to human actions and complicated circumstances.

In other news, I've become the proud owner of a Sony Reader, which I requested as part of a grant with an eye to making my research materials more portable and my research overall more 'sustainable.' The portability is a huge thing for a Victorianist, I must say. It is dazzling to think that in that small machine, I already have about 20 nicely formatted Victorian novels (I had fun picking my 100 free classics from the Sony ebook store) and soon will have several books central to my Ahdaf Soueif project. No more debating at the end of the day which books to bring home from my office! And this model has an annotation feature that seems quite simple to use. I find reading on computer screens quite tiring, which is what made this seem a better option for a reading-intensive project (and person) than something like a Netbook, which is nearly as portable. I'll report more on this later on, in case anyone else is brooding about the usefulness of an ebook reader for research or other purposes.