Taming Literacy in This Age

Is the novel dead?

Why do the remaining book readers today prefer nonfiction to fiction?

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When I had been working as an engineer for some 6-7 years, the Chief Structural Engineer called me in and said, “Bob, I need you to write a letter for me.” What he meant was a scolding letter to a local legislator and one of his constituency. I did that and eventually made my bones in the organization by writing for highly-placed engineers.

It’s never been a secret that technical types are weak on the written word. My question in the early years of my career wasn’t “Why is that so?” Rather, it was, “How is it that I paid attention in grammar and literature classes when other future engineers and scientists didn’t?”

I don’t think I know the complete answer to that. Just a proclivity that eventually led me to be a writer, I suppose.

But what’s afoot here is something called post-literacy. Just as the invention of the printing press made possible literacy, i.e., the ability to read with comprehension and the parallel ability to articulate one’s thoughts by writing in a given language. Thought and social functioning became funneled largely through books, newspapers, and letters.

We now realize that something was lost in moving from the pre-literate age, when society functioned, inspired by oral story-telling, dance, music, poetic history, and the oral handing down of skills such as weaving, blacksmithing, and farming. The printed word and the skills of reading and writing did much to build the modern society, but that society lost much of its passion to the written word’s abstract expressiveness.

Those engineers that I wrote for realized something I didn’t: that the technical professions functioned ably with numerical language, relegating the written word to a support role handled by those who persisted in a fascination with expressing thought and imagination through writing.

So to cut to the chase, is the novel dead? Maybe. Cinema has largely supplanted it, and the novel has even copied cinema in some respects.

Why history and other nonfiction? Imagination is now expressing itself through technological gadgets and social media; those who prefer a longer view lean to more linear examinations of the world we live in.

But all’s never completely lost. We’re now in an age in which intuition  is slowly gaining a foothold over reason, and the devices of pre-modernism are returning: theater, music, poetry, and –yes –perhaps the novel will now grow new legs.

 

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A New Ballgame

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There are some changes coming in GF posts, one temporary, and at least one permanent.

I’ve been hesitant to enter this stage of self disclosure, but my family life with the missus has entered a new phase, one that has ironically drawn us closer together – – she’s been stricken with an extremely nasty and difficult to treat form of cancer,  and it’s proved consuming emotionally as well as physically. I don’t regret in the least the time I’ve had to spend supporting, transporting and ministering to her, but it has meant little time to read. So until at least summer, I’m going to reprise some of the most important or provocative books I’ve read and posted on in my 1100+ posts, ones you may have missed, but ones you’ll find worthy of a read.

I’ve posted monthly (more or less) on magazines I’ve enjoyed, and some have drawn the most reads and reader comments of all my posts. But magazines I enjoy aren’t always ones you would enjoy, so I plan changes to magazine-related posts.

If you, the reader, wish to suggest changes to GF, or support the ones I’ve mentioned, let me know. After all, this blog is as much for you as for me.

Thanks for your previous and, hopefully, your future support of GridleyFires.

 

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Provoking, Informing, and Magazine Success

The Atlantic, March 2014

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In a world in which magazines are closing their doors daily, a few have found the key to success, and The Atlantic seems to have that key firmly in its grasp. What makes its mojo work, then? Simple – find a way to entertain as it informs, and do so in a fairly concise fashion.  Sometimes this involves provocation for the sake of provoking. We all remember what makes our blood boil, it seems, as in the case of Jonathan Rauch’s brief, “The Case for Corruption.”

Did you know that WalMart claims that nearly half its purchases are made on smart phones? Neither did Alexis Madrigal, in a quickie interview with WalMart’s Gibu Thomas.

James Parker tries to overlay today’s polarized political TV talk shows over the film, Network.  He has a point, I think, but it’s a strained one.

This issue takes on hockey, of all things (a sport I liken to professional wrestling), but as Chris Koentges depicts the sport in “The Puck Stops Here,” a Finnish promoter has transformed it from a brawl on ice to  international prestige.

Paul Bloom, in “The War On Reason,” rings my bell loudly by explaining that philosophy, the bedrock of Enlightenment reason, has drifted away from logic and reason into a physiological abyss. In this semi-philosophical world, reason seems devoid of  worth, but Bloom seems to hold out hope: our human need for moral values will trump this straying and bring reason back in new clothes.

I remember how the KA fraternity partied till they puked in my college days. Those well-oiled frat rats even killed a famous horse in the process. In the lead article, “The Dark Power of Fraternities,” Caitlin Flanagan tells us things are even worse, many frat peccadilloes now ending in court.

I’m a Southerner, despite all attempts to be a one-worlder, and I’m compelled to say that Ron Rash’s story “Where The Map Ends,” the story of two escaping slaves in the Civil War South, is the finest piece of short fiction I’ve seen in a magazine in a long while.

These are but my highlights in another fine issue of The Atlantic.

 

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Teaching the Law And Order Short Story/The Millions

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If you’re an avid reader, you probably wonder sometimes why movies made from the best novels disappoint. Well, here’s Kevin Clouther’s rationale, and I think it’s a good one:

“Good fiction grants you sustained, nuanced entry into a character’s mind that is difficult to achieve on the screen. This is one of the reasons the best books rarely translate into transcendent films, no matter how many times studios try…”

And in a related vein, most neophyte writers are so in thrall to the visual media of TV and movies that when they take on a short story it disappoints in similar fashion. Mr. Clouther explains further in the link below.

 

The Millions

 

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Teamwork Tells the Tale

Empire on the Platte, by Richard Crabb

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If this post’s title confuses or leads astray, I’m sorry. Nebraskan Burt Sell, a home-grown historian, provided much of author Crabb’s fodder for this book, by the author’s admission information important to the tale. And a great tale it is.

We first follow the lives of the Olive family, beginning with patriarch James Olive. Most of the story, however, is built on the life and times of James and wife Julia’s son, I.P. (Isom Prentice) Olive, known familiarly as Print. The Olive family settles in western Texas in the early 1800s and make their name rounding up wild longhorn cattle – something of a cowboy Garden of Eden. Despite competing cattlemen and rustlers, the Olives make a fortune on the backs of these longhorns. Soon, however, farmers begin coming in droves, and the Olives pick up and move to Nebraska. There they come to loggerheads once more with settlers intent on farming, and we see developing the conflict between cattlemen and sodbusters, which has been made into virtual cliche in early cowboy movies.

The Olive family’s part in this conflict along the Platte River is a central one, and it summons controversy. As Crabb tells the Olive story, Print murders a pair of farmers in gruesome fashion. Some of those involved in the killings turn state’s evidence, and Print is sent to jail.

The rest of the century-long conflict between farmers and ranchers isn’t told here; Crabbs story is built myopically about Print, and with his conviction this chapter of the long-running western conflict ends. Crabb gives us a chronological tour of this story, and he offers a multitude of details without the book becoming cumbersome. For historians wishing to find out more about this chapter of the U.S.’s westward expansion, the book is a must. And it’s eminently readable for the casual nonfiction reader.

 

My rating: 17 of 20 stars

 

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The Age of the iPod is Over/The Verge

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Time and technology march on, leaving us with drawers full of antiquated gadgets. Still, this is important news for readers and book marketers. The world is all about mobility now, mobile devices that can do more and more. Soon you’ll be able to read books, watch streaming TV and movies, in your car (don’t do this if you’re driving), read books, listen to audio books – all on a single, chosen mobile device.

The Verge

 

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Atlantic Ascendant

The Atlantic, January/February, 2014

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Perhaps Editor-in-Chief James Bennet has developed the complex touch of a successful pro sports team coach. Or maybe the world is handing him better and better stories. Whatever the reason, this issue of The Atlantic is one of the best balanced, most newsworthy, and downright interesting issues yet. And that’s with a minimal emphasis on things literary.

What does it take to find the next grand inventor? Derek Thompson writes, correctly, that such new gizmos are the thing of basements and garages. But how to make use of them? Technology sharing, says, Thompson, that’s the way to co-opt these gadgets for biz benefit. Only partly correct, I say; businesses are hidebound for the most part and resistant to new ideas and gadgets that compel change.

James Fallows talks cancer with Eric S. Lander, as well as new developments in the field of genomics. Is this the breakthrough approach? Lander says there are usually no “AHA!” moments in such things. It’s a process.

Why do the eminently cinematic Elmore Leonard books end up as crappy movies? Christopher Orr gives us a glance at both media. Justified is a hit now on TV, but why? I think there’s been too much devotion to every detail of Leonard’s work in cinema. Movies aren’t books, and movie adaptations need to be willing to do that: adapt the book. A TV series may very well be the better device to morph books such as Leonard’s into a cinematic format.

These Unites States have always looked the other way as criminal enterprises seek the bread to generate legitimacy. Taylor Clark gives us a look at Jesse Willms, a 26 year-old techie scam artist and a purveyor of technology and the Internet in doing just that.

Scott Stossel reveals the aches and pains of his life-long struggles with anxiety. Is there a solution here? Perhaps, but Stossel seems to be saying that the solutions are as varied as the persons afflicted with such anguish.

Too, there’s a glance back at poet Marianne Moore and her life.

More good things within, of course. And this is an issue that is to me an oddity – one I could read over and over.

 

 

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