Adding Literary Realism to Science Fiction

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, August 25, 2015

My favorite reading genre is science fiction, but my favorite books are usually literary novels. I often think about what makes a literary novel great and wonder why those elements aren’t usually found in science fiction.

A Town Like Alice, a 1950 novel by Nevil Shute, has been made into a movie (1956), television mini-series (1981) and radio drama (1997). Shute’s story obviously has lasting appeal, perfect for would-be writers to study. I’m 65 years late discovering this novel, yet it was gripping as any current bestseller. Why? To answer that is a writing lesson and not a review. If you haven’t read this novel go away and come back when you’re done, because to dissect this book will give away spoilers. There’s a $2.99 Kindle version at Amazon. Make sure you get the full version, not one of the shorter editions. The audio edition narrated by Robin Bailey is wonderful.

a town like alice

A Town Without Alice is a love story related through a lawyer. Jean Paget, an Englishwoman, gets caught up in World War II while living in British Malaya, becoming a prisoner of war. She has a brief encounter with Joe Harman, an Australian, also a prisoner. Years after the war she inherits money that allows her to return to Malaya to track down Joe. The narrator of the story is Noel Strachen, a widowed lawyer in his seventies, in charge of Jean’s trust fund in England.

Noel can’t know everything that goes on in this story, but Nevil Shute has him tell the tale. Jean either relates her adventures in person, or via letters, but it’s still not enough for Noel to know everything. So why does Shute have this old solicitor be the storyteller? I think it’s key to why the novel succeeds.

We generally read novels that are in the first or third person. First person novels are very intimate, but have limitations. Third person POV allows writers the most latitude for giving reader information, but it adds an impersonal distance from the character. That’s why many modern writers often use a very close third person. It lets the author convey details the main character won’t know, yet stay close enough to let readers feel intimate with their protagonists.

Nevil Shute knew Jean and Joe could not be writers, and he wants the reader to think this is a true story. By having Jean’s solicitor tell the story in first person, it makes the story feel very true. An “as told by” kind of narrative. A Town Like Alice is based on two real events, but greatly changed for the novel. But it’s also part speculation, about how to revitalize a dying town in the Australian outback. Shute had immigrated to Australia after the war and he obviously loved the frontier life and people. Some of this story feels journalistic with vivid details that Shute must have experienced first hand. Science fiction writers must invent all their details, which puts a burden on realism.

Yet, it’s the accumulation of significant details that make great prose.

My reading experience has taught me stories that feel real often become classics, even if they are entirely made up. One reason why Jodi Picoult novels are so popular is because she starts with headline news and then creates a fictional tale that riffs on reality. Her stories feel real. Genre readers gorge on mysteries, fantasies, science fiction and romances, but genre fiction seldom feels like true stories. Most literary novels seem like thinly disguised real events, or excellent forgeries of reality. A Town Like Alice grips us like a memoir or travelogue rather than a novel.

Downward_to_the_Earth

I recently read Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg, a 1970 science fiction novel that was obviously inspired by The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. The reason why I felt Silverberg’s novel is better than the average science fiction novel is because he created that sense of literary realism, even in a fantastic setting. I wonder why more science fiction writers don’t use this technique? Too often I feel genre writers imitate movies and television shows which seldom seem lifelike. We’re given thrills to replace believability.

I’ve written several drafts of science fiction novels over the years and have never liked what I’ve written. I think my failure is because I’ve modeled my stories on science fiction novels. The lesson I learned from reading A Town Like Alice and Downward to the Earth is I should model my science fiction on literary novels. I’m surprised more science fiction writers haven’t created stories inspired by literary classics like Silverberg did with Downward to the Earth.

Look how successful Andy Weir did with The Martian, which descends from Robinson Crusoe. And isn’t it particularly strange that we never see epic love stories in science fiction? I can’t think of any SF story that comes close to Anna Karenina or Pride and Prejudice. I believe the huge success of The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi was due to it feeling like Graham Greene wrote a science fiction novel, and the reason why I like The Water Knife less is because it feels like a movie thriller.

Can science fiction writers set a story on the Moon, Mars or some distant planet in another star system and make readers feel like they’re reading a true life story? When Robinson Crusoe came out in 1719 readers thought it was a memoir from a real castaway. I’m tempted to write a science fiction novel inspired by Dickens’ Great Expectation, and model the characters on people I know. I lived many Pip like experiences I could use.

JWH

A Reading Plan For An Aging Brain

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 24, 2015

I no longer read to kill time because I’m running out of time to kill.

This essay is for bookworms who are getting older. I’m not sure younger readers will appreciate what I’m going to write about unless they are trying to anticipate getting older like I am now. I’m discovering in my sixties that things are changing once again, adding to that illusion that every decade of life is different.

Getting old is fascinating. You expect your attitude towards life in your autumn years to feel the same as it did in your middle years when you planned your retirement. It hasn’t worked that way for me. Even my relationship with books has changed. I assumed I’d get to read more books when I retired, but I’ve discovered I should intentionally read less. I want to read more, the hunger is there, but the urge to read parallels my sex drive; my mind is still horny but my body has lost it’s enthusiasm. My motto for aging is, “Do more with less.”

The-Signature-of-All-Things

I wish I could read a book a day like super-bookworms Liberty Hardy and Eva at A Striped Armchair, but I can’t. Those women are in their twenties. There were a couple phases in my life when I read a book a day, but reading was about all I did. Now, that I’m 63 and retired, I have plenty of time to read, yet I find I can only read so much before my brain gets mushy. Don’t get me wrong, I can still read all day long and finish a book in a day, but I must tune into a reading mode where words flash by mind like a ticker tape—I’m entertained but I remember little. Imagine a diet of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream for every meal and snack. Such fare will keep you filled up but will it give you any lasting nutritional value?

I’ve read 49 books so far this year. I was on a two books a week pace until July. If I hustled, I could speed back up and finish 102 books in 2015 if I wanted. I still have the vitality to do that, but something has changed. Knocking back book after book just doesn’t feel right. I can’t imagine reading 300-400 books a year like Liberty Hardy. Here’s the rub, now that I’m starting to age, what I want from books is changing. The thrill of quantity is flagging. When you’re young, you want to do it all, and you’re sure you can. Now I’m starting to understand bucket lists. I don’t think I’ll be kicking a bucket anytime soon, but who knows? Youth is full of infinities, I’m learning getting old is all about finite mathematics.

When I go to bookstores, or the library, or read book reviews and book blogs, I encounter hundreds of books I want to read. I ache to be immortal and read them all. I’m giving up my New Year’s goal to read 100 books this year. Just reading a book is no longer enough. It’s like watching television, seeing one show after another in the evening, and realizing the next morning you’ve already forgotten what they were. Realizing that I’m forgetting more and more inspires me to hang on harder and harder. Learning what’s important involves the mathematics of limitations.

Don’t think I’m depressed, or let these thoughts depress you. It’s just a new game, with new rules to make life interesting. Limits have their own pleasures.

Instead of rushing to page one of the next book after reading “The End” of the last book, I want time to think about what I’ve read, to put my impressions into writing, and chat up the book with my bookworm friends. Slowing down my reading pace helps remember. I’m tired of reading only to forget. If reading slower with fewer books means I can retain more, then that’s my new reading plan.

Remember the ending to Fahrenheit 451? Where all the book people are living in the forest. Each person has chosen a book to memorize. I don’t picture myself doing that, but I can picture myself learning to know a finite number of books very well. I expect my sixties to be a decade where I define a set of my favorite books I want to study. Sure, I’ll keep reading new ones, but because of my memory problems I feel compelled to gather books I want to remember. I’m sure as my memories fade, this list will dwindle. It will become a tontine, and one book will be the last to leave my thoughts.

I’ve been a bookworm all my life, and proud of the vast number of books I’ve read, but I now question that sense of pride. It’s probably great to be a voracious reader in the first half of life, but in my waning years becoming a selective reader is becoming necessary. I won’t stop reading new books, because discovering a great new book is one of the better thrills of life. However, my willingness to give them the hook is going to seem downright cruel.

Back in 2002 I had a reading renaissance when I discovered audio books. Reading books with my ears was much slower than reading with my eyes, and I learned to appreciate savoring words rather than speeding past them. It’s time for another reading revolution. I need to change things up again. Here’s the thing, my mind is still pretty sharp, but I can tell it’s in decline. My short term memory is beginning to flake out, and my long term memory feels overstuffed—like I have to erase memories to make room for a new ones.

Reading just to be reading means most of what I take in leaks out of my short term memory before I can use it. And I worry reading new books might be erasing memories of old books. It’s time I defrag my brain and run a disk cleanup. One way I’ve found to preserve old memories is to reread books. Another way is by making lists, writing blogs, talking to friends.

The first stage of my reading plan is to review my books read log and create a list of books I want to get to know intimately. I want stay with these books so they stay in my memory. I’m still anxious to read new books, especially nonfiction, but I’m going to be more selective. It distresses me that I spend so much time taking in new information only to forget it.

Where learning to read slower was the key to my first reading renaissance, learning to take notes will be essential to my second. If a book isn’t worth studying like one in a college course then it isn’t worth my reading time. If the book isn’t a 9 or 10 on a ten point scale, it won’t be reading worthy. Now this might sound too monkish, but there’s a method in my madness. I’m a book junky, an old and jaded one, and if my fix doesn’t have the purity of Walter White’s blue meth, then the high I get won’t feel worthy of the brain cells I sacrifice. After a lifetime of reading, I crave intensity.

I want to read books where the names of the characters stick with me like the names of old friends. I want to read books where writers explore themes with the insight of great philosophers. I want to read books where the prose inspires me to write. I want to read books where the settings feels as vivid as my memories of all the places I lived. I want to read books where the characters struggle to map uncharted reality so well I could follow their trail. I want to read books that show me how other people think and feel that’s both different from the way I feel and think. I want to read books that make me feel I’m seeing more of the world than even the most hardened world travelers. I want to read books that take me up and down the centuries just like I had a time machine. I want to read books that make me feel overwhelming emotions like my favorite music. I want to read books that let me know what it’s like to be people not like me.

And I want to remember those books…

Fifty Novels To Remember

I’ve probably read more than two thousand books, but this short list are the ones that haunt me. I’ve read hundreds more that wowed me at the time, but I’m not sure how well they will linger in my memories. This is my tentative list to work with at the moment. If I reread one book a month, I could reread a list of sixty books every five years. I will need to rethink this list because I only have six women writers—but I have ten slots to fill if I stretch it to sixty books. And I cheated with the Robert J. Sawyer books, which were published as a trilogy, but I consider them one story.

I think these books have stuck with me for philosophical reasons. For some reason they resonate with my unconscious mind.

  1. 1719 – Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
  2. 1813 – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  3. 1861 – Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  4. 1868 – Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  5. 1871 – Middlemarch by George Elliot
  6. 1875 – The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
  7. 1877 – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  8. 1883 – Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
  9. 1895 – The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
  10. 1900 – Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
  11. 1902 – The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  12. 1905 – The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
  13. 1912 – Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey
  14. 1913 – The Patchwork Girl of Oz by L. Frank Baum
  15. 1920 – The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  16. 1926 – The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  17. 1928 – Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence
  18. 1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell
  19. 1945 – High Barbaree by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
  20. 1949 – Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
  21. 1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
  22. 1949 – The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
  23. 1951 – The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  24. 1952 – Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  25. 1953 – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  26. 1955 – Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein
  27. 1956 – Time for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein
  28. 1957 – On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  29. 1958 – Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
  30. 1958 – Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein
  31. 1959 – Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick
  32. 1960 – To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  33. 1961 – Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  34. 1962 – Hothouse by Brian Aldiss
  35. 1962 – The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  36. 1966 – Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany
  37. 1968 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
  38. 1969 – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
  39. 1972 – When HARLIE Was One by David Gerrold
  40. 1974 – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
  41. 1980 – Timescape by Gregory Benford
  42. 1986 – Replay by Ken Grimwood
  43. 1989 – Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  44. 1996 – The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
  45. 2001 – The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  46. 2009 – Wake/Watch/Wonder by Robert J. Sawyer
  47. 2009 – The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
  48. 2011 – The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale
  49. 2012 – The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  50. 2013 – The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

By the way, I cheated with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which is a memoir, but it feels like a novel to me.

JWH

The Creation of Atticus Finch

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, July 20, 2015

Readers who love To Kill A Mockingbird with the passion of a true believer should not read Go Set A Watchman. However, if you want to know more about Nelle Harper Lee, how books used to be edited, and how a decent literary novel evolved into one of the greatest novels of all time, then you’ll probably need to read Go Set A Watchman.

Atticus Finch, the father in To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of the most beloved, admired and respected character in all of literature. How was such a character created? Before this year most readers assumed Harper Lee based Atticus Finch on her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, a real-life lawyer, using her mother, Frances Finch, family’s name. Superficially, it appears we have many clues to suggest the story was autobiographical. This month, Go Set A Watchman was published, an earlier draft of what would become To Kill A Mockingbird. Atticus Finch in Watchman is a much different man than the literary saint he became in the final version?

Atticus Finch

I am troubled by the implication of many reviewers of the Go Set A Watchman that the 1930s Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird has matured into the 1950s Atticus Finch of Go Set A Watchman. 1950s Atticus was created first even though his story appears second in print and second in time. 1930s Atticus evolved from 1950s Atticus.

The Invisible Hand Behind Harper’s Lee ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’” by Jonathan Mahler at the New York Times gives us some clues. Harper Lee was lucky to find Tay Hohoff at J. B. Lippincott for her editor. Hohoff was the old fashioned kind of editor that worked extensively with a writer to shape their novels. Hohoff convinced Lee not to go with the novel she submitted.  I assume that submission is close to what we’re reading now as Go Set A Watchman. Lee and Hohoff worked two years editing the book that became To Kill A Mockingbird in 1960. Mahler also brings up one other valuable clue—Hohoff wrote A Ministry to Man, a biography of John Lovejoy Elliott during this time that was published in 1959. There might be a good bit of Lovejoy in Atticus since the two woman worked so closely together, and the editor may have convinced Lee to create a more humanistic hero for her story.

My guess is Atticus Finch in Go Set A Watchman was probably closer to Amasa Coleman Lee, and the Atticus in Mockingbird is closer to John Lovejoy Elliott. But I also assume that Atticus is mostly the creation of Nelle Harper Lee. We can never know the actual scientific details of the evolution of Atticus Finch. It’s not too wild of a speculation that Hohoff convinced Lee that she needed a likable hero which Atticus Watchman was not. How much Hohoff actually contributed to the creation of Atticus is unknown.

We love Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, but her story would not have made the novel one of the perfect novels of all time. The success of Mockingbird tells me a great novel needs a great character that will be widely loved. How did Harper Lee learn this? From Hohoff? What about from her real father? We don’t know what Amasa Lee was like, but if he was closer to the Atticus Finch in Watchman, he could have taught Nelle Lee she needed a saint and not a real person like himself to create an immortal character. This is just speculation, but the ending of Go Set A Watchman makes me wonder if Nelle was inspired by her father to become a prophet for her cause. (By the way, a prophet is not one who predicts the future, but one who shapes the future. Harper Lee is a true prophet.)

Readers want Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird to be real. Like all great people in history, their legend overshadows their reality. Atticus Finch stands with Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King as being saintly inspirations to the masses, but they all were probably less than perfect to their friends and family. Harper Lee’s writing shows she was an incredibly sharp observer of people, culture and history. I can easily imagine Lee and Hohoff sitting around speculating on possibilities and throwing out, “What if Atticus Finch became a saint to his readers?” It was at that point that the Atticus of Watchman evolves into the Atticus of Mockingbird. It took Lee a couple of years to transform her protagonist. Whereas the early fathers of Christianity spent two hundred years transforming their god. If Lee had spent any more time on Atticus I’m afraid Lee would have given Atticus psychic powers and let him walk on water.

scout jem dill cropped

It’s fascinating that Harper Lee rewrote the novel and set it twenty years earlier. This was a savvy move because it let her create Scout, Jem and Dill as immortal characters rather than anecdotes of memory. But it also positioned Atticus back into time letting him stand out as a guiding light amongst his peers. It’s actually very hard to imagine 1930s Atticus dealing with the 1950s issues. Reducing everything to one court case simplified the major plot and left room for the second plot of Boo Radley. The trial doesn’t begin until the middle of the novel, but everything that comes before sets up the second half of the story. Somehow Hohoff convinced Lee to take sketches of her past and put them into a holistic unity. That also helped shape the character Atticus.

If you’ve read Go Set A Watchman you know it’s filled with long verbose passages dealing with intellectual arguments over race, often about desegregation, a concept 1930s people couldn’t imagine. This makes the 1950s Atticus a mouthpiece for racist rationalization. Throwing the story back twenty years, and letting Atticus speak far less, gives him wisdom and compassion, allowing him to be ahead of his times with modern humanistic insight. 1930s Atticus anticipating the 1950s makes for a much better Atticus. Writing a contemporary novel with a character who thinks with future insight is probably impossible. No wonder most great novels are about events that have gestated in a writer’s mind for decades. It’s also why successful prophets of history were discovered long after the fact.

The Atticus of Go Set A Watchman is made a hero for Jean Louise in a roundabout way. I’m extremely glad to have read Go Set A Watchman, but that’s because it gives me a lot of evidence about how Harper Lee became a great writer. Comparing the two makes it all too obvious why Lee never published anything more. It would have seem silly to create another best-selling saint, and foolish to compete with her own success. Lee could have done something like J. K. Rowling and explored another genre. I assume she didn’t stop writing, but probably kept it to herself like J. D. Salinger did all those years. Wouldn’t it be weird to see an early draft of Catcher in the Rye?

If Harper Lee had only written about Scout, Jem and Dill, she could have continued to crank out novels her whole life like Louisa May Alcott did after Little Women. Or if Lippincott had published Go Set A Watchman, which would have had modest success, she could have shown improvement. But to create something so perfect as To Kill A Mockingbird and Atticus Finch, I can understand why Harper Lee withdrew from the world of fame.

JWH 

The Future of Books

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Here’s my conundrum, do I keep The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited The Sequel by Johnny Rogan, or give it away. This 1988 book revised in 2008 has 735 pages about the The Byrds, my favorite music group from the 1960s. Rogan has since updated this book in 2011 to a 1216 page monster, that’s just the first volume of a trilogy. I read the 2008 edition with much delight, spending several evenings in an orgy of nostalgia, playing my old Byrds albums as I read about how each was created. I kept the book thinking I’d reread it. Was that a mistake? Is the knowledge in books changing so fast that there’s little reason to save them?

The-Byrds---Johnny-Rogan

The edition I have is quite exhaustive in its scope. But if I wanted to read about The Byrds again, shouldn’t I read the latest definitive work? Why have I saved this book for seven years? It’s still a great read, and maybe it’s all I need to know about The Byrds.

Books have become a physical burden. I had a friend who claimed to own every book he ever read. Can you imagine the Sisyphean task of dragging a library behind you everywhere you went? That would be a snap if they were ebooks. Or if I lived in one house my whole life. Or if knowledge wasn’t changing so fast.

This book represents another kind of burden, a psychological burden. We experience life one moment at a time, yet most of us cling to all those past moments. Not only do I want to save my memories of The Bryds, but retain a book that collects all the group member memories. That’s kind of weird when you think about it.

We exist in a transitional time. We’re very close to having all our external memories online. What if The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited The Sequel  was a website that grew as Rogan wrote and researched? The multimedia aspects of the web could greatly expand its potential. Personal and public libraries wouldn’t be burdened with lending and storing the book. And it would be available to all instantly.

I can also see the content this book incorporated into Wikipedia. What if all knowledge was hyperlinked into one book? What if the history of The Byrds was written by anyone who cared about their history? What if all memoirs, interviews, photos, bootlegs, videos, etc. were at one location, and hyperlinked by a carefully crafted narrative of dedicated editors?

We now serialize history with the latest definitive book. What if history lived on the web as an ongoing collective project? Is moving towards such a hive mind existence scary? How much time do you spend reading the web versus reading books? How often do we get facts from iPhones?

Can you imagine books in the future? Are they changing so fast that it’s not worth collecting them?

I’ve always been a lover of books. I hoard and collect them. But I’m starting to wonder if I only need to own one book, the one I’m reading.

JWH

How Much Can We Learn About the World Traveling by Books?

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, February 21, 2015

Ann Morgan has a new book out in England, Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer, due out in America May 4th, as The World Between Two Covers: Reading The Globe. Her book is based on her blog, A Year of Reading the World, where she created a reading challenge to read one book from each of the 196 countries. Here are the books she read. Now, don’t expect her book to be a retelling of the web posts, as she points out in her blog. It’s about the experience of the project.

worldbetweentwocoversreading-the-world

I’ve often thought of doing something like this. Like Ann Morgan, 99.9% of my reading comes from The United States, Canada, Australia or Great Britain. I’ve encountered this project before, over at A Striped Armchair, where super-bookworm Eva routinely reads books from around the world. It’s an inherently fascinating reading challenge, but as the review at the Telegraph points out, it’s full of flaws. How much would non-English speaking people learn about America from reading Jonathan Franzen or Philip Roth? Of course, Morgan wasn’t seeking a course in geography, but getting a sampling of the global literary landscape.

But what if we were trying to get a big picture of what life on planet Earth was like? What if you read 196 nonfiction books about all the countries of the world, wouldn’t that be a fascinating education? I just read Deep Down Dark by Héctor Tobar, about the Chilean mining disaster, but I really didn’t learn much about Chile. Some, but not much. I know lots of travelers who believe you have to visit a country to know it, but I’m not sure if that’s true either, not in the complete sense I’m talking about. Seeing the airport, a few tourist destinations, hotels and restaurants, doesn’t really tell you about the history, politics, social structures, economics, and on on. What about the news? I’ve been seeing a lot about Egypt in the news for the last couple of years, but hasn’t taught me much about the country either.

Ann Morgan set aside a year to learn about the world by reading novels. That’s very impressive, but more work than I want to commit to. I don’t even want to read 196 nonfiction books about the countries of the world. However, I wonder if I could tour the world in a year by watching documentaries? I’d have to watch four a week for a year, and that’s fairly reasonable. I wonder if Netflix has one on every country? Or would I even need to do that? What if I just read the Wikipedia entry for a country each night? Look at this one for Afghanistan. It’s incredibly informative. It’s so interesting, it makes me want to read a book about the country and watch documentaries, especially about its Paleolithic and Neolithic times. Of course, this makes me think I should just become a regular reader of National Geographic.

This concept of getting to know the world through books, either fiction or nonfiction, is a wonderful idea to think about. Here’s a list of countries at Wikipedia, it will give you the scope of the project. Even if you don’t start reading books, reading a Wikipedia article about a country now and then off your smartphone could be an excellent way to virtually travel the world.

JWH

Three Useful Internet Sites for a Dynamic Reading of Ulysses by James Joyce

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Reading Ulysses by James Joyce can be very difficult, even daunting. Many well read readers consider Ulysses the number one novel of all time, because of it’s rich complexity and advanced writing techniques. Joyce intentionally made Ulysses a reading challenge, full of Easter eggs for readers to find and decipher, making it a novel worthy of multiple readings.

I have tried reading Ulysses before, but even after reading Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man three times, I wasn’t ready. One major barrier for me is my poor reading skills. I’ve been conditioned to read fast, always wanting to know what’s going to happen, by the plot driven novels of my youth. Ulysses is more like a great painting that you must study slowly and carefully, and for most of my life I never had the patience.

The range of what I could read took a quantum leap forward in 2002 when I started listening to audio books. Listening makes me read slow, and that changes everything. Also, professional readers showcase writing far better than my own inner voice. It’s like the difference between reading poetry and hearing it read aloud. Quality fiction should be heard. It should sound dramatic and dynamic, even poetical. Bad writing sticks out when read aloud. Once I started listening to Ulysses I could get into it. But still there was much I was missing.

Ulysses is famous for its stream of conscious writing techniques. If you just read it with your eyes, it’s easy to confuse the narrator with inner monologues. And even good audio book narrators don’t always distinguish between the two.

Ulysses is also full of allusions to real world and literary history, using colloquial and idiomatic words and phrases that are long out of fashion. Plus Joyce frequently cites lines of Latin, songs and poems that well educated people knew back then, but most people don’t know about today.

Luckily, I’ve stumbled upon two sites on the internet that are wonderful tools for helping me to read Ulysses in a very efficient manner. The first is  The Joyce Project that features an online version of Ulysses. Now most people hate reading online, but I have a major reason to get over that prejudice. The second site that I use is an audio performance of Ulysses at Archive.org. I read online as I listen to this online recording. This recording is very special because they use different actors for different characters, and they use a special effect for when Joyce is having his character speak in their internal voice. This is a tremendous advantage for understanding Ulysses. And I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to hear Joyce read by someone that can pronounce everything correctly, and even offer good accents.

As an extra bonus, The Joyce Project has an annotation mode you can turn on, and certain words and phrases will appear in color that you can click on to read for elaboration. What I do is read and listen to each episode, and then go back and click on all the highlights. Here’s what the plain text looks like, then with the annotations highlighted, and then with the pop-up for the first annotation.  Clicking on the image will enlarge it.

The Joyce Project 1

The Joyce Project 2

The Joyce Project 3

But what works really well is to open the The Joyce Project and the Archive.org audio player windows so they overlap, like this:

Read and Listen

This allows me start and stop the audio easily as I read, in case I do want to stop my reading to study an annotation.

Finally, there’s a third dimension to using the web for reading and studying Joyce – there’s a goldmine of supplemental material. I’m not pursing the study guides on my first reading except in a very limited way. Ulysses is a black hole for scholarship.

One site that is frequently recommended to me is Frank Delaney’s podcast re:Joyce. Delaney does one podcast a week and is up to #245, but only to episode five in the novel. He estimates it will take him 25 years to finish the project. Delaney is a famous author and broadcaster, and knows Joyce’s Ireland, so his rich voice and literary experience makes him a great guide for traversing the land of Joyce. His enthusiasm enhances the enjoyment of reading Joyce.

I figure the first two tools, the annotated text and the performance narration, are the two best tools I’ve discovered for reading Ulysses for the first time. And the Frank Delaney podcast is a wonderful supplement for those people who want to take their first step into Joyce scholarship.

JWH

The Best Nonfiction of 2014–Collected Lists

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, February 10, 2015

I’m in two nonfiction book clubs. One is online, and one is face-to-face. Between the two, I’m introduced to twenty-four books I would not normally read, and my reading life has become much more exciting over the last few years. Both book clubs have a nomination process where recommended titles must jockey for votes. Both clubs have about a dozen or so members, and it’s rather hard to find books that will appeal to so many people, and even more, get that many people to actually read. Every once in a while, we’ll pick a book everyone absolutely loves, like The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. On average, if we’re lucky, we’ll pick books that at least half the people like.

It’s easy to find books to nominate, but hard to find willing agreement. I generally try to nominate books that have least a 100 reviews at Amazon. The Warmth of Other Suns has 1,297 reviews, with an average rating of 4.7. It turned out to be the highest rated book at my online book club.

One technique I use to scout for possible nominations is to read all the best-of-the-year booklists. If I see a book that’s on many of the lists, I figure it’s a book that’s both good and appealing to wide range of readers. Here are the lists for 2014:

I wished these sites would make a nice printable version of their yearly recommendations so it would be easy to take to the book club and pass around. Even better, I wish some enterprising web site would collate all the lists and make a meta-list of the most recommended books. I could do that, but it’s just too much work. What I end up doing is eyeballing the lists and going from memory which books I see over and over again. These nineteen books were the ones I saw the most, and were on at least 5-10 lists.

Age of AmbitionsBook Review-Bad FeministBeing Mortal

Capital_in_the_Twenty-First_Century_(front_cover)Deep Down Dark - Hector TobarFactory Man - Beth Macy

How_We_Got_to_Nowin the kingdom of iceinnovators

Little FailureMan Alive McBeeOn Immunity.JPG

Sixth-extinction-nonfiction-book-kobertSoldier GirlsThe Empathy Exams

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace - Jeff HobbsThe True AmericanThirteen Days in September

This-Changes-Everything-Capitalism-vs.-The-Climate

JWH