Category Archives: review & analysis

Rethinking Adaptation in Meiji Japan

I recently read J. Scott Miller’s Adaptations of Western Literature in Meiji Japan (New York: Palgrave, 2001) and am full of Thoughts on Meiji writers, literature, zeitgeist, continuity, and adaptation. Let me express some of them here.

Continue reading Rethinking Adaptation in Meiji Japan

academic death squad

Are you interested in joining a supportive academic community online? A place to share ideas, brainstorming, motivation and inspiration, and if you’re comfortable, your drafts and freewriting and blogging for critique? If so, Academic Death Squad may be for you.

This is a Google group that I believe can be accessed publicly (although I’ve had some issues with signing up with non-Gmail addresses) although you appear to have to be logged in to Google to view the group’s page. Just put in a request to join and I’ll approve you. Or, if that doesn’t work, email me at mdesjardin (at) gmail.com.

Link: [Academic Death Squad]

I’m trying to get as many disciplines and geographic/chronological areas involved as possible, so all are welcome. And I especially would love to have diversity in careers, mixing in tenure-track faculty, adjuncts, grad students, staff broadly interpreted, librarians, museum curators, and independent scholars – and any other career path you can think of. Many of us not in grad student or faculty land have very little institutional support for academic research, so let’s support each other virtually.

In fact, one member has already posted a publication-ready article draft for last-minute comments, so we even have a little activity already!

Best regards and best wishes for this group. Please email me or comment on this post if you have questions, concerns, or suggestions.

よろしくお願いいたします!

*footnote: The name came originally based on a group I ran called “Creative Death Squad” but the real origin is an amazing t-shirt I used to own in Pittsburgh that read “412 Vegan Death Squad” and had a picture of a skull with a carrot driven through it. I hope the name connotates badass-ness, serious commitment to our research, and some casual levity. Take it as you will.

what books to read and how to read

I came across a book a while ago from 1912 entitled What Books to Read and How to Read when searching around in the university library basement. (Incidentally, this is where all of my wonderful finds come from – including the ones that make up the basis of my research!) It’s such a fascinating and still-relevant book that I’d like to introduce it here. (Full citation: David Pryde, LL.D. What Books to Read and How to Read: Being Suggestions for Those Who Would Seek the Broad Highways of Literature. New York and London: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1912.)

The book starts off with the anxiety that is surely familiar to us: there is too much information out there, and it’s growing exponentially. It’s overwhelming. The number of books being printed is too much for any one human to deal with and the problem is only getting worse. What to do in the face of this?

Well, this book has an answer. First, how to read books. You don’t want to become a “dungeon of learning,” someone who reads a wide variety but can’t apply any of it to real life. Instead of just ingesting, investigate first. The advice reads like a library seminar on reliable sources and searching for research leads. Learn something about the author first. Read the preface carefully. Take a comprehensive survey of the table of contents – “if the preface is the appetizer, the table of contents is the bill of fare.”

Give your whole attention to whatever you read. “A book is a representation of the best workings of the author’s soul. In order to understand it, we must shut out our own circumstances, cast off our personal identity, and lose ourselves in the writer before us. We must follow him closely through all his lines of thought, understand clearly all his ideas, and enter into all his feelings. Anything less than this is not worthy of the name of reading.”

Be sure to note the most valuable passages as you read. Write out in your own language a summary of the facts you have noted.

Most important? Apply the results of your reading to your every-day duties.

This guide is a paean to close reading and taking books to heart. It’s a guide to knuckling down and processing information in a useful way, rather than simply succumbing to the overwhelming amount of books out there. It’s reading for use, not reading for reading’s sake.

The second half of the book involves a full bibliography of books you should read, and annotations of them. It’s a catalog of useful knowledge that everyone ought to be familiar with.

There is much to be said for going outside a set canon and reading widely, and for not relying on authoritative sources to tell you what to read. But I can’t help but wish there were an updated version of this book – and perhaps the “how to read” does not really need to be updated. Actually, the bibliography probably doesn’t need to be either. But it could be adapted and expanded to meet the specific contents of our information overload now. In any case, I found it remarkable that 100 years ago this year, someone was writing in a very 21st-century way about just the same problems that we wrestle with now, and over which many anxious words have been spilled.

Information. It’s always a problem. The question is what you’ll do about it. Say what you will about the contents of any particular bibliography, but the advice of Mr. Pryde is timeless.

wuthering heights: a review 160 years after the fact

I recently reread Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights for the first time in about 15 years. In fact, I devoured it in only 36 hours, and was so struck by it this time around that I am writing a little review here.

My own history with the book: I read it in high school, for English class, and was knocked over by it then too. I quickly started putting it at the top of my “favorite books” list, despite having only read it once, and having not read it since then. I wondered recently, did I love it so much because it was literally (sadly) the only book I had to read for school that I’ve ever liked? Was it something about being 15 and the book being so over-the-top with crazy drama? Or is it actually really that good? I was hoping it was the last, but this wouldn’t be the first time I’ve revisited a loved thing from my childhood or teen years and had all of my good memories ruined by its reality.

As you can see, this was not the case. In fact, I liked it more this time around. So I can happily say, now, that it is one of the best books I have ever read, with no reservations.

First, the most amorphous: This has to be one of the most well-written works I have ever come across. It’s not every day that a book forces me to stay up half the night reading it, despite almost falling asleep on my Kindle (I’m reading the Project Gutenberg copy – go Gutenberg!). Throughout, I was practically shouting at the page, “Nelly Dean, don’t go to bed! Get back here and finish telling us what happened!” But it’s more than simply keeping a fast and absorbing pace. Emily Brone’s writing style is powerful and unique; I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like it before or since. Sadly, I can’t put more of a finger on it than that at the moment. I’m still fighting my urge to reread it immediately, after all.

But I want to spend the remainder of my short review on what I value so much about this book and its narration, and why.

I was looking around for information on the reception (because I’m a book history nerd) after I had finished, and I was really, truly astounded to find this book referred to as a romance and a love story everywhere I looked. Heathcliff himself was being referred to as a romantic hero! I nearly fell off my chair when I ran across that one, but then I kept seeing it again and again. Did these people read the same book that I did?

I’m going to go ahead and make a statement that I don’t think will be terribly controversial to anyone else who has read this novel: This is not a love story. It contains one, but it is not primarily about the love story. This is a book that has one foot firmly in the horror genre, and at times borders on terrifying if the reader has any sense of humanity. It is about unspeakable evil, here personified in the not-exactly-“romantic” main character, who I would also refrain from calling a “hero” in any sense, except perhaps “hero of unnecessary revenge through evil means.”

This is, for me, a tale of abuse and its results; of real, almost unimaginable evil; of madness (and in a sense, the madness that results from the characters and from the environment and experiences that they face); and of a borderline-horrifying environment in which the characters are so isolated that the rest of the world may as well not exist.

Now I’m going to make a much more controversial statement: Emily Bronte was Lovecraftian before H.P. Lovecraft was born.

No, she may not have a Cthulhu lurking among the heather on the moors, but she has the same type of setting as Lovecraft’s freakish isolated New England villages and awful countryside, and if she’s not talking about evil as manifested through fungus and occasionally monsters and aliens, she’s talking about the same kind of incomprehensible evil as personified through our favorite Heathcliff. If you pushed me, I’d rank Cathy Earnshaw just below him on the evil scale. And if you want some more Lovecraft precursor: The theme of madness in Wuthering Heights is overpowering. I’m not one to ascribe bipolar disorder with psychotic episodes (what I’m sure I’m seeing in Cathy, though I am not a doctor) to seeing the face of evil in person, but it’s undeniable that it’s a major presence in the novel – something more than a theme – and goes beyond a simple character attribute.

It is Bronte’s frequent attempted descriptions of Heathcliff – and failed descriptions, for the most part – that make me recall Lovecraft so closely. Obviously, we have a link in their racism and linking of “brown” characters to base evil. I’m being overly general, but bear with me, because if you pay attention you will find it throughout the entire novel, not just in the main characters. More than this, though, is that I truly struggled to envision Heathcliff – especially his face – while reading, despite paying close attention to every word that conveyed any physical characteristic. It’s as though the characters often had to stop at simply concluding that he is the devil or a demon incarnate, describing the terror-inducing emotion they see on his face (the eyes!) rather than his basic appearance. There are attempts but they are repetition of the same few facts over and over.

Lovecraft can point to unspeakable evil, but it is just that: it is indescribable, beyond words. Heathcliff, as a person, appears to be in the same category.

As a final note on my categorization of this book in the horror genre, and close enough to Lovecraft to be in the same corner within that genre, I want to remark that having been to Yorkshire, and having been to the moors – they are terrifying enough on their own. They’re a landscape as bizarre and vaguely horrifying to be eligible for most of Lovecraft’s work to have been set there rather than in New England, although I understand the point of setting a story where New World villages can have been simultaneously without history from newness, and forgotten already. This is what, in my opinion, really sets apart the United States in particular as a setting quite different from any European country. But in these isolated, threatening places, I can imagine the same kinds of stories taking place without too much strain on my part.

This review isn’t as coherent as I’d like it to be, but I’d love to hear what my readers think about my shifting focus here from the “love story” of the novel (which really doesn’t take up a whole lot of space, and in light of the second half of the book, isn’t the overall point) and toward the idea of unspeakable evil personified – and having taken up residence in an isolated, abusive home in a bizarre landscape and threatening world. Not quite the evaluation I’ve been coming across in my online reading, but I can’t be the first person to praise the novel for these points.

quick note: digital reading coverage in Eureka 8/10

Eureka, a monthly poetry and criticism publication in Japanese, has a theme of “reading digital materials” for the August 2010 issue. If you’re in a position to do so, I recommend picking it up. There are a lot of interesting perspectives in here. Not least is the fact that it specifies “reading materials,” not “books,” and that kind of take on digital reading vs. print reading isn’t something I see enough of in English-language coverage.

Not to mention that Japan is living proof that the magazine industry is not only not dead, but will never die – at least not here. I had to wade through literally hundreds of different magazines in a corner bookstore in Ueno station to find my copy of this one.

The info in Japanese is ユリイカ2010年8月号・特集「電子書籍を読む!」 (“let’s read digital stuff!”) If anyone has a more eloquent translation for 書籍 please leave it in the comments. I am coming up empty at the moment.

series proposals

In lieu of actual content (which I promise I am actually working on in draft form), I have a few proposals and I’d be interested to hear some feedback on them.

As a beginning professional blogger (and by that I mean “blog about my profession,” not “it’s my job”), I’ve been thinking a lot about how to approach it. How do I attract and retain readers? How much substance is enough, is expected, or is too much? Do I act as a link referral service, commentary, or something closer to my academic work?

I could do all three, but what I am coming to think is that I need serious consistency. I am thinking of it in the following ways:

  • posting frequency
  • posting content consistency
  • focus on my academic and professional work, big picture style
  • currency/timeliness

But I think a fine and perhaps necessary addition to this kind of stream of consciousness style posting is a series. A series or two?

My ideas boil down to these three:

  • weekly On the Media review and commentary
  • monthly Moratoria highlighting terms and methodology within my fields that “I find problematic” (that’s academic slang for “they piss me off and I can’t believe people actually use them in this day and age”)
  • perhaps most important, Read the Fine Print (the original title of this blog, stricken for being too forgettable), highlighting the complexities of ownership, intellectual property, contracts, power relationships in publishing, publishing customs, assumptions and their reality, and issues in authorship.
  • I spoke too soon – on par in importance, Librarian Alert, covering topics that are less well-represented in the library blogosphere and academic literature – some examples are net neutrality, thinking of plagiarism from the standpoint of student authorship rather than source evaluation, and critical information literacy theory and practice in instruction.

What do you think? Is there anything else related to book history, librarianship, journalism, communication, information science, Japanese literature, literature in general, or my fascinating (read: not) life that you’re interested in hearing about regularly? Topics I haven’t covered or seem to be unintentionally avoiding?

Thoughts?