Friday, July 29, 2011

Out of your Plane you go!

Image from Wikipedia
Disclosure: I tried to read Flatland a while back but somehow stalled, despite quite liking it. I never really forgot about it but earlier this week I started reading it from the beginning and... whew. What a hilarious, interesting, confusing and bizarre little book. For the first time in a very long time, I found myself constantly highlighting paragraphs and taking notes (on Artemis, my Sony Reader). In part thanks to that extensive notetaking and the very nature of the book, this might be an almost-review scale ramble.  

***Profanity warning
***Also, some readers may consider the following (fake) summary of the book as a spoiler, so be warned.

To merely describe Flatland as a math book is only doing it a service. If someone had told me that Flatland had so much philosophy and satire, I'd have probably said, "Uhh, no thanks." But instead, I was pretty much given the following description of Flatland by someone who read the book for math class as a teen:
There's like, this line or something, and he's taken to the second dimension. At first he's like, "WHATTHEFUCKNOWAY" but then he realizes it's true, so he goes to tell his friends, "Hey, there's a second dimension!" and all the first dimension people are like "WHATTHEFUCKNOWAY". Then he tells the second dimension people, "Hey maybe there's a third dimension too!" and all the second dimension people are like, "WHATTHEFUCKNOWAY."
To say the least, this description had me sold. Then again, I won't pretend I wasn't disappointed by the lack of profanity (though "Fool! Madman! Irregular!" is pretty splendid in itself). But it turns out Flatland is a lot more than just a book about geometry (and the plot doesn't quite follow the above description, but that's irrelevant for all intents and purposes). It's a book bursting more with ideas, some mind-bending concepts, and the very concept of the mind-bending.

One of the first things I noticed was the notion of the "Irregular", essentially a significantly deformed perversion of the Flatland mentality. In a world where everyone is perfectly angular, where the number of sides you have indicate your social class, anyone "irregular" is:
from his birth scouted by his own parents, derided by his brothers and sisters, neglected by the domestics, scorned and suspected by society, and excluded from all posts of responsibility, trust and useful activity. His every movement is jealously watched by the police till he comes of age and presents himself for inspect; the he is either destroyed, if he is found to exceed the fixed margin of deviation, or else immured in a Government Office as a clerk of the seventh class[...]
This subclass intrigued me, particularly after it became obvious that Flatland has a strict and rigid hierarchy. Take, for instance, the position of women in Flatland. It's... not particularly good. Because women are straight lines, they are also sharp (and dangerous) points. Therefore, laws like this exist in Flatland:
Any Female, duly certified to be suffering from St. Vitus's Dance, fits, chronic cold accompanied by violent sneezing, or any disease necessitating involuntary motions, shall be instantly destroyed.
And then, sentiments like these exists:
[S]ince women are deficient in Reason but abundant in Emotion, they ought no longer to be considered as rational, nor receive any mental education. [...] My fear is that, with the best intentions, this policy has been carried so far as to react injuriously on the Male Sex.
So the problem isn't that women are no longer educated at all, but rather that it might harm men. At the end of the chapter, our narrator proposes reinstating education for women. But the reasoning is so that it may benefit men. So not so noble after all...

It's only in the second part of the book that the math takes over. In a lot of senses, it reminded me of A Wrinkle in Time, probably because it goes into trippy dimensional explanations. It made my head hurt, but it also made me think. Which is kind of the point. The end of the book is frustrating, in that I was frustrated (like our narrator) that the citizens of Flatland did not realize the truth about the dimensions. It's hard not to feel a sense of disappointment.

But this is only ever internal disappointment. Setting aside the questionable morals of the Flatland world, Flatland as a book is excellent. It's cool quasi sci-fi (or particularly mathematical fantasy), it's a fascinating social satire (at least, I hope it's satire... sometimes it's so seriously done it's hard to know...), and is full of interesting philosophical questions. It's an easy enough book to read (being very short and very plainly written), but it's bursting with complex ideas that are just as relevant and confusing today as they may have been in the 1880s.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Stumble and surprise

One of the things I've only recently learned to love about is the potential for surprise. If years ago when I first discovered the site I was amazed by the mere idea, and more recently, by the ability to download classics, I now relish the availability of less-known titles. In this internet age, when browsing Amazon "recommended" lists always shows the same titles, Gutenberg is an utterly refreshing shift in perspective.

Because here, there's no agenda. When I browse a list of most recent releases, it's literally the titles that were most recently released, not a selection of recently released titles that will benefit the site if pushed. This is how I find myself browsing truly different and weird titles, often by authors who were once a lot more significant than they are today.

Look, for instance, at Mór Jókai. A Hungarian author with a vast bibliography (and a very detailed Wikipedia entry, oddly enough), and yet I've never even seen reference to him. Or Christine de Pizan, one of the earliest feminist writers (and we're talking early - 13th century!). By coming across these books, I find myself learning much more than I might have expected just from simple browsing. There's that magic of newly discovered knowledge, of something different.

Though to be honest, it's that difference from last year's mentality that has me most interested. In a year and a half, I've gone from wanting to standards to wanting the random and the obscure. I realized that I'll always be able to find and download War and Peace if I feel like it, but I might never again come across Xavier Hommaire de Hell again. In the same way that I semi-stumbled upon A Honeymoon in Space, I want to stumble upon other books with obviously silly titles and equally embarrassing old covers.

You know what it is? I want to relive some of that childhood joy of just finding a book and not knowing what it's about or where it came from. I've kind of missed that.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Please like the BPL... or something

Can someone explain this one to me? I recently got my I-have-no-idea-how-often-it-comes eNewsletter from the Boston Public Library (BPL) and the following paragraph caught my eye:
Thank you to all who helped the Boston Public Library reach 5,000 likes on Facebook last week. Now, it's time to set our sights on 6,000 and beyond. Like the Boston Public Library's Facebook page and enjoy updates on library events, behind-the-scenes photos, and the opportunity to interact with other library fans.

What in the world does the BPL need Facebook likes for? (I can justify the reasons for the BPL having a Facebook page in the first place) I'm not going to get into the general question of the purpose of Facebook likes, but I really want to understand what possible benefit it could have for a public library. People aren't going to become fans of the library and then buy more of its stuff. Likes have, until now, been used as a sort of gauge for the popularity of certain artists, organizations, politicians, etc. The BPL is none of these things. Please explain.

I can understand that maybe the BPL want to increase library attendance and solicit donations, but this feels like the completely wrong approach. Asking people to "like" their Facebook page just makes them seem childish and silly. Also, kind of lame. 5,000 likes... cause for excitement? Even Henrik Ibsen has more Facebook likes than that!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

It ended, but it will never end

I've been reading too many blog posts and articles recently about Harry Potter. And seeing the giant posters everywhere. "It all ends" - this is the claim the final movie posters are trying to sell, this is Rowling's own point, this is the feeling going 'round Harry Potter fans' minds. Except mine.

Because guys, Harry Potter ended in 2007.

Back when the movies first started coming out, it felt almost premature. I remember wondering how they could be making movies of a series that wasn't even complete yet (the same feeling I get, by the way, when thinking about A Song of Ice and Fire). It felt rushed, it felt passionate, it felt... exciting. There was an excitement because I wanted to see how it lived up to my expectations. I wanted to see the actors and the sets and the exciting scenes (as well as the cool stuff, like the characters figuring things out for themselves).

But they were separate. Though the movies became a thing I cared about, I never let them take over my reading experience. I continued to imagine the characters as I had before, never for a moment thinking of them as the actors. These were two worlds I cared about that were tied together at their core, but split so clearly in my head.

"It's the end of the franchise," people tell me, but I'm unconvinced. I recently read the first few pages of Harry Potter to my young cousin and it looks as though I might even convince him to read further. Though he has grown up in a world that has always had Harry Potter - though he is clearly not of my own generation, that which was completely enchanted and won over by the whole phenomenon - he wants to read the books because they tell a good story. That will never end.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The 10% Rule

I'm really sick of this.

You know when you're reading the back cover of a book, and it references something? And you're like, "Oh, that must be something pretty basic and simple! I mean, it's not like the back cover would have spoilers, right?" So it turns out that back cover blurbs actually have spoilers. Often.

Recently, I've found myself reading books that go into immense detail in the back cover blurbs. Now, I don't have any problems with the concept of a blurb. I don't think it's inherently bad to have a short, summarizing introduction. But giving away plot points or revealing character traits that aren't introduced in the book until very late...? Here I must draw the line.

A few weeks ago, I finished reading a novel that hammered home this problem. In the overly descriptive back cover blurb, it's casually mentioned that the main character lies about her name. This fact, it turns out, is only revealed on page 89. Even in a 500 paged book, that's pretty flipping late. Annoyed by this revelation, I wondered what could be done to avoid this in the future. Then it hit me: the 10% Rule.

Basically, the 10% Rule would state that the back cover blurb cannot include any reference to plot points, characters, ideas or concepts not mentioned in the first tenth of the novel. This would mean that a novella could have only a simple background description, while an epic fantasy novel could probably squeeze in a lot of information. We're so concerned about spoilers all the time but ultimately these blurbs can do more harm than a somewhat spoilery review. The reader spends so much time expecting events and characters and revelations, often times realizing that their effect is significantly diminished by the prior knowledge.

So readers, writers, publishers... let us join together to make our reading world a much more enjoyable and fulfilling place. Let us implement the 10% Rule and enjoy the surprises as they hit us. Because for heaven's sake: if the book spoils itself, what's the point?

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Translations, cultural ubiquity and Anglo-American superiority - a rant

Unfortunately, I can't find a translation of the interview into English, but a few weekends ago I read a very interesting (and very frustrating) article in the Ha'aretz weekend supplement. Not, I must stress, my typical source for book-related news. The interview is between Israeli author Nir Baram and The Paris Review editor Lorin Stein. At first, the interview was curious and somewhat pretentious - Ha'aretz is known for its attempts at raising its nose high - but then I hit the following (unedited) question and answer (my translation from Hebrew):
BARAM: This is obviously not the fault of authors, but it's interesting to note that in the Anglo-American world, very few books get translated. The differences between the number of translations in the U.S. and countries like Germany, France and others are very large. There's even a publisher called "3%", in defiance of the U.S. translations policy. As a French translator and as the editor of The Paris Review, a literary magazine that has always sought to present authors and literary works from across the globe, how do you explain this phenomenon? Is the impression that because of the vast range of cultures included within the Anglo-American literary field, they cover experiences from all over the world and effectively present all potential voices?

STEIN: I don't think it's possible to truly discuss a "policy" regarding literary translations. If put crudely, one can say that Dutch publishers translate American literature because they like it and it sells well. Why do they like it? Why does it sell well? First of all, Dutch editors and reviewers grew up in a culture heavily influenced by American products and they feel it's within their ability to review and assess our books. And it's true that many of them also studied English in school (because English is still more useful internationally than Dutch). Furthermore, the Dutch are serious readers, but they live in a small country and want more serious literature in addition to their own. Finally, if we return to your earlier question: it's possible that Dutch readers feel, rightfully so or not, that there's something more "universal" to American literature, that to read about Americans is, to a certain extent, like reading about the greater world. 150 years ago, American readers felt this way about English and French literature.

Now let's flip the equation. American publishers didn't grow up in a setting with Dutch films, television, Barbie dolls, etc. They've never studied Dutch in school. American reviewers are hesitant to write about literature they barely know. And let's admit it: the problems likely to be discussed in a contemporary, ambitious Dutch novel - the tension between Christians and Muslims, for example - aren't necessarily interesting even for the more serious San Francisco reader. In my mind, this isn't a sign that Americans lack curiosity or are intellectually lazy as compared to others, but rather that we and the Dutch are live in the same metaphor: the U.S. is the cosmopolis.
Let's begin with a nod and shake of my head at Baram. I appreciate his question incredibly, but I also have to gently point out that the publishers aren't called "3%"... that's just the name of their blog. But hey - thanks for pointing it out, especially to Israeli readers who probably had no idea that publishers like that even existed. Kudos!

Now I begin to take issue with Stein's remarks. Throughout the interview, I was a little put-off by Stein's pretentious and assured attitude, but it made sense - the guy is editor of a very respected literary magazine, he's been editor to some big names, and he has access to some of the most impressive literary-minded folks in the U.S. It wasn't until the above exchange that I truly got annoyed, first by the stupid use of the Netherlands as an example in an Israeli newspaper (I mean, seriously, couldn't you think of your audience?) and later, by the excuse that Americans don't actually need to read translations, because it can all be found in the Great United States.

I think I'm most angered by the flippant comment that even the most serious of American readers won't be interested in issues from around the world, as long as they aren't "relevant" to them. I'm honestly trying to figure out what Stein was trying to say here, after attempting to paint a picture that it isn't that American readers are lazy or uninterested. Um, isn't that exactly what you're saying? Or our cultural non-exposure... is that also so easily forgivable and ignored?

It's Stein's attitude that's so frustrating. He's trying to avoid answering the question with the real answer: publishing is an industry, economics works according to supply and demand, no demand for translations means no supply... end of story. In the next question, Baram coyly raises the Bolaño factor, pointing out the immense popularity that this modernist foreigner has garnered. The conversation thus shifted to discussing specific authors and moved away from the translations question, leaving it rather unanswered. Why is Stein made so uncomfortable saying outright that publishers don't want to publish books they think people won't want to read? That's the impression I get from his long Netherlands-U.S. analogy. Why beat around your own stupid bush?

At the end of the day, I just disagree with Stein. I don't think that serious readers of literature won't identify with a book that takes place in a different culture for the simple reason that human nature is universal... and that's one of the main reasons we read. Also, we read sci-fi and classics and fairy tales and historical fiction... why would we have trouble relating to different worlds? Meanwhile, I think the ubiquity of Anglo-American culture around the world is a curious and even troubling phenomenon, one that shouldn't be the basis for assuming that other cultures are essentially inferior (again the impression I got from Stein's comments).

It's also kind of funny when put into context. Stein is touting this American "we don't need your foreign lit'rature" stuff in an Israeli newspaper. The Israeli literary market is flooded with Anglo-American titles, often comprised of seriously hyped books that don't necessarily deserve the immortality of translation. You can pretty much count on a popular U.S. book coming out in Israel within a few months of its U.S. publication, whether it's high quality or not. Israeli authors, meanwhile, struggle and wait years to get their books to English (which is almost considered the highest honor a foreign author can get, if you listen to some people...). Nir Baram himself, for instance, has not been introduced to the American market, but authors with much less literary capital than he that hail from the U.S. of A. have made it to Israel...

I won't pretend to be an expert in the field of literary translations. As my family and friends know, I'm just an overly obsessive amateur who follows Three Percent almost religiously. I've grown to understand more about translations in general over the past few years in part thanks to my job as a translator (though, granted, not a literary translator by any means...) and though I've made it a point to educate myself on the matter, I can't say I necessarily know what I'm talking about. But I know what pisses me off. I know what things sound like they're being spoken of without thought and what things sound like they're being spoken of without care. Stein's comments come off as aloof and full of Anglo-American superiority. Granted, this is likely a translated interview (unless Stein speaks Hebrew)... who knows what he said in the original?

I'm fascinated to know what others think of the topic and Stein's comments. Am I misunderstanding Stein? Is he just telling the truth as he sees it? What do you think?

Update: I found the official Ha'aretz English version of the interview but it's a bit messy and is somewhat edited (for instance, it doesn't include the reference to Three Percent but includes a bit about Stendhal and Hawthorne that was excluded from the Hebrew version).