Reading Classic Literature Outside of Class

By Jenna Resch

Now that I’m out of school for the moment, I’ve made it a goal of mine to try to still be a diligent reader on my own. Though I no longer have grades to worry about, I don’t want to lose the habit of reading before I go to bed, on a long road trip, or when I’m bored on a day off. I also want to read more of a variety of books and poems than I have thus far in my life, and to start, I’ve decided to go back to the classics. Continue reading “Reading Classic Literature Outside of Class”

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Defending Movies Based on Books

by Davis Allen

Many great books have been adapted as movies or TV series. Recently, there has been a lot of attention around Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but other important adaptations include Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Rowling’s Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, The Da Vinci Code, Life of Pi and many more. Continue reading “Defending Movies Based on Books”

Packing Up the Books

Ashley Bach

It may be hard for someone without an attachment to books to understand, but one of the difficult parts of moving is handling the books.

In a circumstance when you’re leaving the nest — moving out from your parent’s house — you do have it a bit better than someone who is moving from a place they can never go back to. The former gets to leave things behind, but which books gets left behind?

There are the to-be-read books that you’d like to brings just to keep the opportunity to read them opened, and there are the favorite books that you keep to revisit a particular passage or as an existential memento that you think shows visitors who you are or what has shaped who you are.

A book is an oddity — it is a cultural artifact, like a painting, a form of entertainment, like a television, a storage device (remember writing is connsidered a technology), a form of self-expression for the writer, a form of self-expression for the reader who carries it around as a companion-accessory, and a decoration when its on display on a shelf.

Tough decisions have to be made. There’s a sense of God cmplex; who must be left behind to make this an easier journey? Who as sentimental value and is that good enought of a reason to bring them along?  The last question is best not to play with. If sentimental value’s not a good reason to take a book along, you could leave them all behind and start a new collection elsewhere.

Something to remember is that the U.S. Postal Service ships boxes of books cheap, but who knows if your landlord would be willing to let you have a mini library in your apartment or rented room. A grad student can be expected to have books, but you have to go in imagining there’s a limit. You have to be prepared that you’re moving to a place populated by the real life Mr. Wormwood. So how do you choose?

 

Tragedies, From Ancient Greece to the Present

By Jenna Resch

Some of my favorite songs, books, and movies have always been sad ones. Similarly, my favorite scenes to write and read have always been tragic scenes—when a beloved character is taken from the story, when lovers are forced to part ways for good, or when the ill-fated ship begins to sink and the main characters finally realize what is happening and must prepare for the end.

It sounds a little sadistic now that I’m writing it out…but I know I’m not alone in this.

Last fall, I took a class on Greek Tragedy in which we read, analyzed and discussed some of the world’s earliest tragedies from the most important playwrights of 5th Century BC Athens. As we read the texts and began to discuss, the biggest question was why? Why produce plays that retell myths, particularly such violent and sorrowful ones, to an audience who would have already known the famous characters’ fates in the first place?

The same question can be asked about stories today. A good portion of literature and film focus on tragedies, both personal and societal. Famous novels such as Les Miserables and movies such as Titanic have plots that result in the deaths of several main characters and many others. These stories are stories of suffering and loss that no one would ever want to experience personally. They’re also often inspired by real people and events, which makes them even more devastating. So what is the appeal of reading or watching them?

A Google search brought up pages of articles on the subject, many collectively concluding that there are several reasons why tragedies are such popular stories. The main one is how sad books and movies can allow people to feel what we consider more negative emotions in a safe environment, because it is not their reality. People can later look at their own lives to feel gratitude and other positive emotions seeing as they have not endured the tragic events that they just read or watched.

For the ancient Greeks, aside from the main purpose of honoring Dionysus through the competitive writing and production of these plays at his festival, the goal of the tragedian was to evoke catharsis from his audience–a release of strong emotion thought to cleanse the soul and better the man. The playwrights took well-known myths and created their own interpretations of them, sometimes taking surprising turns that the audience might not have expected. One of the most memorable examples of this I remember from my class is Euripides’ Medea. In previous versions of the story it is not Medea who kills her children to punish Jason, but the citizens of Corinth as Medea grieves. Having Medea murder her own children in an act of vengeance was shocking—apparently enough to land the play last place in that year’s contest.

The myths of ancient Greece were not merely stories to them. The tales of the gods, heroes, and the Trojan War were believed to be historical. Additionally, both tragedies and comedies were adapted to comment upon social and political issues of Athens at the time of their production. So the retelling of these stories as tragic plays with political themes makes them even more interesting, especially considering how we still do this today. All of the books and films inspired by wars, natural disasters, and even events as recent as the last couple of years tell the stories that people should hear and consider. In a time of much political and social change in our country, many stories seem to not only recount these events but provide some sort of message to encourage discussion. Tragedies are ideal for this, as they play on emotions, I believe, more so than any other type of story.

Tragedies also reveal the true power fiction. Even tragic stories that are completely made up can have just as much of an emotional impact on their audience as ones inspired by real events. Good storytelling and well-developed characters are truly important and will pay off in these stories. The emotions one can evoke simply through language and storytelling devices is pretty remarkable.

Of course, I do enjoy comedies, feel-good stories and “happily ever afters.” I think it’s safe to say everybody wants to laugh and smile and feel happiness, and these forms of entertainment (especially ones that also excellent characters and storytelling) are wonderful for lifting spirits. There’s something about tragedies, however, that stir up intense emotions that I really think are important ones to address. We get to experience our humanity, what makes us feel for others (in this case, fictional characters) in the wake of something that does directly affect us but is still undeniably horrific. The term heart-wrenching is often rightfully used to describe tragic stories, and I think it’s interesting how even something we know to be fictional can evoke such a feeling.

 

 

 

Bodies, Minds, and Literary Fiction

by Davis Allen

In literature studies, some work under the assumption that fiction speaks to the core of humanness—that fictions opens a window to see who we really are. We need this to be true, because studying literature in the modern age feels like it is detached from reality. Abstract. Fanciful.

As a graduate student, reading fiction—and sometimes writing it too—is my primary job description. It is easy to doubt the importance or significance of reading fiction given the Western telos of having a good job, making lots of money, and retiring early. My siblings are off working practical jobs, as is evident by their production of practical money, and I sometimes ask myself, is reading worth it? Should I use my time doing something more practical?

We often concede the impracticality of reading, and instead justify reading and studying literature through arguing that it describes the human condition. However, I am very aware that people debate whether fiction really does speak to the core of humanity, whether there is such a thing as the human condition, and I too am on the fence in that debate—though that is a topic for a different blog post. This post aims to show that reading can have practical effects.

What can be said about fiction—if it does not tell us what humanity is—is that it can transform us into better humans. What do I mean by better humans? In this post, I mean minds and bodies that function more efficiently and have a higher capacity for empathy.

First, reading increases the connectivity and efficiency of our neural pathways. Without diving into too much science, a study conducted by Emory University showed that novel readers experienced “heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex… [and] in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory motor region” (Clark).

Basically, scientific studies have shown that reading makes our brains—our physical, material brains—stronger and more efficient. This heightened activity does more than make readers smarter—it actually increases memory capability and reduces the likelihood of mental decline—like Alzheimer’s disease—later in life.

Reading makes our brains better—our ability to think, to remember, and to live a long life with a well-functioning mind.

Second, reading fiction helps our bodies cool down and relax. Reading a novel can reduce stress levels by 68 percent, and provides more stress relief than:

listening to music (reduces stress by 61 percent),

drinking tea or coffee (reduces stress by 54 percent),

taking a walk (reduces stress by 42 percent).

What’s even more interesting is that readers need only read for 6 minutes to receive this much stress relief (Reading). As an added bonus, reading also improves sleeping habits, increases levels of self-esteem, and decreases rates of depression (Seiter).

Third, reading literary fiction in particular increases our social awareness and makes us more empathetic. Scientific American published a study in 2013 that showed readers of literary fiction developed empathy much more than non-readers or readers of genre fiction (if you are skeptical about this study—check it out). Literary fiction increases empathy more than genre fiction because in genre fiction “the characters are internally consistent and predictable, which tends to affirm the reader’s expectations of others” (Chiaet).

The empathy gained from reading literary fiction is due to an improved theory of mind (Bergland). Children and adults who read fiction are transported into another person’s life and willingly take on another person’s perspective. The reader then, at their own pace, is able to reconcile their personal thoughts and opinions with those of the speaker. The reader must engage in the process of perspective-taking—a skill that dramatically helps with empathy in the real world.

These studies show that reading fiction has real, observable effects on us. This does not make a case necessarily for reading or writing as a profession, as much as it is a reminder that reading is worth it. And, as readers, we owe a lot to the writers we read who are capable of making us into better humans as this post suggests.

Maybe one day, you or I will be the writer that helps make our readers into better people too.  

– Bergland, Christopher. “Reading Fiction Improves Brain Connectivity and Function.” The Athlete’s Way. Psychology Today, 04 Jan. 2014. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.
– Chiaet, Julianne. “Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy.” Scientific American. Scientific American, 4 Oct. 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.
– Clark, Carol. “A Novel Look At How Stories May Change The Brain.” EScienceCommons. Emory University, 17 Dec. 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.
– “Reading ‘Can Help Reduce Stress'” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 30 Mar. 2009. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.
– Seiter, Courtney. “The Surprising Power of Reading Fiction.” Buffer Open. N.p., 19 Oct. 2015.Web. 20 Apr. 2017.

Dystopian Stories in Modern Times

By Jenna Resch

Even after the huge influx of dystopian trilogies that dominated the YA shelves at bookstores around 2010 and the soaring popularity that led to film adaptations of several trilogies in the years that followed, most notably The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Maze Runner, post-apocalyptic and dystopian tales seem to still be popular several years later. I’ve always found that I enjoy these genres and subgenres in what I read and watch, and a couple of my WIPs are post-apocalyptic and dystopian in nature. There is also a relevance that the dystopian genre has within our society as well, as we see recent and significant changes occurring in our government and the way our society functions. Though trends in literature and television may change and other genres may overwhelm the industries, I think dystopian themes will remain constant and important.

One of my favorite television shows and my family’s Sunday night ritual is The Walking Dead. The initial story is a more extreme look at what happens after society collapses from an apocalyptic event: how will people survive, who will rise up to lead others to safety, what lengths will people go to in order to keep themselves and their loved ones alive? Despite the now occasional pesky presence of zombies, the storyline of the latest season has taken somewhat of a dystopian turn with the introduction of Negan and his Saviors. Though the main characters have fought other attempts at the rising of corrupt, mini government (I’m looking at you, Woodbury), this particular group is way more massive and more twisted than Rick and friends originally thought. They have their own giant sanctuary with several outposts in surrounding areas, all governed by baseball bat-wielding dictator Negan. It’s a community structured on fear and unquestioning obedience.

For my family and I, a lot of the time watching the show is spent questioning the motives and behavior of Negan’s followers. It’s a similar feeling of not understanding how the citizens of the Capital could bury their morals so deep that they not only participate but celebrate The Hunger Games. There’s actually a whole list of reasons for people to submit to Negan’s totalitarian authority, as are revealed when the show digs into the lives of characters such as Dwight, who, despite Negan stealing his wife for himself and burning Dwight’s face as a punishment and a warning, remains loyal to Negan because Negan provides him and his wife a way to survive with all they need. He’s their “savior.” His mercy just comes at the cost of their individual freedom.

Dystopian tales contemplate human behavior in action-reaction situations. What happens when the liberties of the people are taken away? Who will comply or resist, and what are the consequences of both? Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has made a resurgence in popularity more recently in times when people are on high alert after the election of Trump. Atwood uses the term “speculative fiction” for her book, which she defines as “a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth.” People seem to be looking to Atwood’s novel for a cautionary tale regarding women’s rights as well as the use of oppressive religion to seize control over a government. Given that our country was founded on principles such as the freedom of religion and we view women as equals rather than an inferior sex, this manner of caution in looking at the way our government is changing is certainly warranted. It’s interesting and undoubtedly perfect timing that The Handmaid’s Tale is being remade as a TV series set to premier this month. Sales for Orwell’s 1949 dystopian 1984 have also increased because of the Trump election. The dystopian genre is certainly not dying out as it stirs up a sense of awareness and caution when the future is uncertain and peoples’ lives and freedoms are at stake.

To be completely honest, a lot of what I read (and almost all of the fiction I write) is YA. Other than classics like The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984, I’m not sure of the amount of dystopian or post-apocalyptic fiction currently on the adult fiction shelves. (I really need to catch up on my reading.) But I can name numerous dystopian YA titles, which are also often popular among adult readers, that have appeared in the last couple of years despite the waning popularity of The Hunger Games and Divergent now that the movie series have ended and the industry has somewhat moved on. Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes series, for example, is a relatively new fantasy series in which characters of an oppressed group of people fight against a corrupt, tyrannical regime. There are also several recent television series, many on Netflix or other streaming apps, which feature dystopian themes. Dystopian seems be more of a subgenre in a lot of fantasy and sci-fi media these days, but it’s still a significant genre and its popularity says something about the consciousness and the wariness people in our society have towards the way we are governed.

Literature and Film and the Literary Film

by Ashley Bach

I honestly believe that I would have liked Tom Sawyer if I had not watched and loved The Modern Adventures of Tom Sawyer when I was preschool-age. But I also believe in the literary value of films beyond a film that is an adaptation. I cannot name how many books I would never have learned about if I had not at first heard of their literary adaptation.

I do make it a point to read something before I watch it unless I can’t help it, but just last week a classmate said he was reading the John Carter stories. He said that the fact he already saw the movie added to the reading experience because he was able to envision the actors and set pieces of the film while reading. It may go against those who are against reading something after seeing it, but my classmate had a unique reading experience and was able to, as HG Wells said, “read in a unique way.” Consider films that included books as objects, The Hours had Mrs. DallowayDefinitely Maybe had Jane Eyre500 Days of Summer had The Picture of Dorian Gray. Those are three very different movies, and I had already known of or read those respective novels prior to viewing those films, but I can only assume that there were people who watched these films without ever hearing of those books, maybe thought those books were made up, like “The Littlest Elf” from A Series of Unfortunate Events, only to discover them in a thrift store or a bookstore. Of course, this extends to music. I would have never thought of reading White Noise if I weren’t a fan of The Airborne Toxic Event, and read that the name was taken from the novel, which is one of my favorite novels. I did not know until I already began reading Virginia Woolf that Modest Mouse took its name from one of her works, even though I had been a fan of the band since elementary school. The point is, the arts, no matter what form is deeply connected, for the creative type is equal parts original and reverential and embellishes their own work with allusions in order to enrich their writing and endear themselves to it.

In considering the importance of film and books have to each other, I think of some major writers who are/were also screenwriters: William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, William Goldman, Raymond Chandler, and Nick Hornby.

 

The Art of Poetry

by Jenna Resch

I believe every poet has a different relationship with poetry—it’s evident in the way each poet discusses their craft, the way they treat their words, and the way they value certain elements over others. Like all art, poetry is highly subjective. It’s taken a lot of time, thought, and practice writing and revising it to discover my own view on poetry as an art.

Recently, I was looking through a journal I kept as an assignment for one of my poetry classes last year. It was meant to help us interact with the poetry, since, for a lot of people, poetry seems difficult to maneuver. We could be as creative or as analytical as we liked. It just forced us to engage with it in some way, which I thought was a really good idea.

One of the entries in my journal was on Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica.” I remember being stunned at the words he chose to describe poetry: “mute,” “dumb,” “silent,” “wordless.” How could a poet possibly insist that a poem be wordless and dumb? Doesn’t that go against everything a poem is and does?

MacLeish’s poem, inspired by Horace’s Ars Poetica, argues that poetry should strive to be tangible. It should not explain itself. It should just exist as a thing. Horace wrote the phrase ut pictura poesis, meaning “as is painting, so is poetry.”

While I agree that a poem shouldn’t attempt to explain itself, I don’t know that eliminating meaning entirely is realistic. There have been attempts at it—namely, in Dadaism, putting letters or words together in a senseless order to try to suck the meaning out of them until they are just sounds to be made but not comprehended. It takes the purpose away from language, which contains the essential building blocks for poetry in even its most basic form.

All throughout history, humans have sought to explain. If we didn’t, scientific research wouldn’t be valued as it is. Origin myths wouldn’t have been so abundant among ancient cultures or religion. I think it’s this human instinct to try to make sense of phenomena that also makes us look at poetry and beg to ask, but what does it mean? We read it with a desire to draw something from it.

In my journal response to “Ars Poetica,” I made an erasure of the poem that read:

A poem should be entangled as the mind in time.

An empty poem should not be.

 

In class, as we analyzed poems line by line, I thought of reading poetry as a form of exercise for the mind. It’s not always easily deciphered. It demands focus. I think that’s why a lot of people get frustrated with it. It can be hard work. That’s why I hated the poetry unit every year from fourth grade to tenth grade.

It’s also why I didn’t complete my first real poem until I was almost 20, during my senior year of college, when I took two back-to-back poetry writing classes that opened my eyes to what poetry could actually do. I went in to those workshops nervous and already embarrassed, firmly believing that I was solely a fiction writer and would never write poetry seriously. Devoting several hours each week to reading poetry, discussing poetry, and experimenting with language, however, changed everything. It wasn’t all just sonnets and structure like I’d seen in high school. It was the act of tearing into my soul and feeling around for the things I’d never been able to express, furiously filling my journals in unexpected ways. Margaret Atwood said, “Writing poetry is a state of free float.” It was exactly this realization that drew me to poetry that year.

As I continued to write poems, I quickly became a fan of confessional poetry. I was in a place where I needed a coping method, a way to set my mind free. I found that the confessional style fit what was going on in my life and stirred up exactly what I needed to work through while writing it. Through poetry, I was finally able to let everything I was feeling flood the pages until my mind was calm and quiet and content. The act of being a poet is like developing gills and diving into the sea to stay as long as I like, to explore the depths of life and of me.

When I think of the art of writing poetry, I don’t think so much about what a poem is, but rather what it does, what it contains and conveys, and how it is carefully tuned. When I sit down to write, I don’t question whether what I put down on paper is poetry. Like fiction, poetry requires craft, which must be practiced. But the “free float” is what makes it such a daring and fulfilling form of writing for me.