Friday, April 18, 2014

Are You Bi-Literate?

Tim Challies linked to an interesting article on how the internet has made most of us "skimmers" vs. readers. (The follow-up article was on how most people just skimmed the first article.) The passages in italics are from the original post.

Claire Handscombe relates that since she quickly reads through e-mails and blog posts, she now has difficulty reading normal books. I have noticed this tendency in myself. My new attention span for a book is about an hour. After that I really have to push myself.

To cognitive neuroscientists, Handscombe's experience is the subject of great fascination and growing alarm. Humans, they warn, seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through torrents of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia...

Maryanne Wolf, one of the world's foremost experts on the study of reading was startled last year to discover her brain was apparently adapting, too. After a day of scrolling through the Web, she sat down to read Herman Hesse's "The Glass Bead Game." "I'm not kidding: I couldn't do it," she said. "It was torture getting through the first page..."

Wolf's next book will look at what the digital world is doing to the brain, including looking at brain-scan data as people read both online and in print. She is particularly interested in comprehension results in screen vs. print reading...

Researchers say that the differences between text and screen reading should be studied more thoroughly and that the differences should be dealt with in education, particularly with school-aged children. There are advantages to both ways of reading. There is potential for a bi-literate brain. "We can't turn back," Wolf said. "We should be simultaneously reading to children from books, giving them print, helping them learn this slower mode, and at the same time steadily increasing their immersion into the technological, digital age. It's both." 

I'd like to make just a couple of comments: First, I think skimming is absolutely essential in this age of information overload. I learned this skill way back in the 1980's so that I wouldn't waste time on non-essential information while doing research papers. Skimming is not a bad thing. What worries me is that our brains are becoming re-wired to want/tolerate only small bites of information.

Second, the idea that we have to steadily increase our children's immersion into the technological, digital age is ridiculous. It's already a stampeding horse, that's dragging our kids away from healthy times of imaginitive play and quiet reflection. If anything, we have to look for ways to decrease their immersion.

It looks like it's going to take a lot of determination to be bi-literate, but I'm up for the challenge. What about you? Do you struggle with this too?


Friday, April 11, 2014

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

This book has never been high on my priority lists, but Heather piqued my interest in the audioversion when she left a comment on an earlier post.  She mentioned that Adrian Praetzellis had done an excellent job of reading several classics at Librivox so I popped over and downloaded three of his books.

The first was Treasure Island. Mr. Praetzellis catches you off guard when he begins because his voice seems so dull and uninteresting. But don't worry, it's a ruse. When he gets started on the pirate's voices, he's absolutely amazing. His reading of Long John Silver is spot on, succeeding in conveying both his dastardliness and his charm.

The story itself held few surprises since I'd read the Classics Illustrated comic book version a hundred times as a child and have seen various movie versions (the latest being Treasure Planet). Still, it's a pleasure to listen to any book with engaging characters that's well-written and well-narrated.

I especially liked the fact that Jim Hawkins is a kind of Frodo-figure. He's a little boy in the midst of adult good guys (the doctor and the squire) and bad guys (the pirates) and manages to be in the right place at the right time to be the hero of the story.

For families that read/listen together, these audio chapters are broken down into half hour chunks which would make this book a nice evening activity. (Maybe a bit too exciting for pre-bedtime if the kids don't already know the story.)

Thanks, Heather! I look forward to further listening from Mr. Praetzellis.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel

Their job description was simple: to save as much of the culture of Europe as they could during combat. (p. 2)

Adolf Hitler, in his lust for world power, had sent German art scholars all over Europe, secretly preparing inventories so that when he conquered each country, his agents would know the name and location of every important object of artistic and cultural value. He planned to put them all in the soon-to-be created Fuhrermuseum as a lasting tribute to his own greatness. After the war more than a thousand depositories were discovered of plundered artworks.

The thought that nagged me all the way through the book was that the work of the MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section of U.S. military) was proof of the fact that we are born with "eternity in our hearts." If we are only a conglomeration of cells that just happend to come together and evolve over time, then, of course, we have no souls and art is superfluous. But this book clearly (albeit unintentionally) shows that man is made for something higher. George Stout, (the recognized leader of the MM) wrote, "To safeguard these things will show respect for the beliefs and customs of all men and will bear witness that these things belong not only to a particular people but also to the heritage of mankind. To safeguard these things is part of the responsibility that lies on the governments of the United Nations. These monuments are not merely pretty things, not merely valued signs of man's creative power. They are expressions of faith, and they stand for man's struggle to relate himself to his past and to his God. (p. 23)

Intriguing scenarios abound:  Stout mused, What if we win the war, but lose the last five hundred years of our cultural history? (p. 236) Then comes the dilemma the MM face with returning all artworks to their original owners, even their enemies, the Germans. The Western Allies had sacrificed their national fortunes and a generation of young men; would they really hand back the spoils of their victory? (p. 396) The thought came back to [Hancock] as it often did: To save the culture of your allies is a small thing. To cherish the culture of your enemy, to risk your life and the life of other men to save it, to give it all back to them as soon as the battle was won... it was unheard of, but that is exactly what he and the other Monuments Men intended to do. (p.254)

The book has some surprising heroes: Count Franz von Wolff-Metternich, a Nazi art official who did his best to protect France's art collections from Hitler's looters. Rose Valland, a mousy looking secretary who meticulously recorded thousands of notes on stolen paintings and their locations that greatly facilitated their recovery after the war. Pöchmüller and Högler, the men who engineered a minor bomb explosion at Altausee which closed down the treasure-filled mines so that their priceless art works could not be destroyed by Hitler's Nero Decree.

It is easy to see why someone wanted to turn this into a movie (which I haven't seen) because of the powerful images. A small boy taking a U.S. soldier by the hand as they travel down a dark, enemy-filled tunnel, a priceless statue lying on a stained mattress, a helmet full of gold coins, the empty walls of the Louvre, and so much more.

Although a work of non-fiction, Monuments Men brimmed with all the themes that would make a great novel: hidden treasure, unexpected heroes, beauty in the midst of tragedy, and the risking of one's life for something bigger than one's self. Also, for a non-fiction work, Edsel's writing is unexpectedly beautiful at times. I love word precision and he knows when to wax eloquent and when to get straight to the point.

One of my favorite books of 2014. (The painting above was Hitler's favorite: "The Astronomer")

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Golden Triangle by Maurice Leblanc

"Don't thank me. It's a hobby of mine, saving people." (Arsène Lupin to Patrice)

What do you get when you take seven crippled men and a beautiful nurse, and mix them up with a broken rosary bead, a rusty key, and a rash of secret identities? A rollicking good story! This was my third venture into Maurice Leblanc's mystery stories about gentleman thief Arsene Lupin and it was quite a ride. It takes place during World War I and wounded warrior Patrice Belval is in love with his nurse. There are multiple obstacles to their union, each more surprising than the first.

What really endeared Patrice to me was the Jane-Eyre-like speech he makes to Coralie. Just as Jane declared her equality to Rochester in spite of her looks and poverty, he gives a touching speech declaring his elegibility as a husband in spite of his war injuries: Because the war has deprived me of a leg, or an arm, or even both legs or both arms, does that mean I no longer have the right to love a woman save at the risk of meeting with rebuff or imagining that she pities me? We don't want women to pity us, nor to make an effort to love us...What we demand is equality. We all of us claim to be just as good, physically and morally, as any one you please; and perhaps better. What! Shall men who have used their legs to rush to the enemy be outdistanced in life, because they no longer have those legs, by men who have sat and warmed their toes at an office fire? What nonsense! There is no happiness to which we are not entitled and no work for which we are not capable with a little exercise and training. (from Chapter 2)

I can't tell any more without spoilers so I'll just leave it at that. The brilliant Arsène Lupin solves all the mysteries and irons out all difficulties.

Although I enjoyed the book, I was uncomfortable with the way the villain was finished off. And there was one aspect of the mystery that I found to be unbelievable. (Most of my early doubts were brushed away by Lupin's explanations.) Other than that this was a great way to spend two successive rainy afternoons.

According to Wikipedia a surprising number of films have been made based on this character. Be forewarned that Patrice has a close friend who is African and is referred to in stereotypical language of that time.

There are at least ten free Arsène Lupin titles on Kindle. Eleven are available as free audiobooks at Librivox.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Reading to Babies

This is an "artsy" version of a recent photo of my wonderful brother reading to his grandson. You can never start too early!

(I used FotoSketcher)

Friday, March 14, 2014

Recommended Librivox Recordings

          Librivox is an online source for free audiobooks that I've used and enjoyed in the past few years. Their goal (which is commendable) is to make all public domain books available in audio versions. The way they hope to accomplish this is to let anyone volunteer to read a book. Of course, this leaves their vast selection in the hands of a mixed bag of excellent, mediocre and awful readers. Instead of complaining about the books that aren't worth listening to, I thought I'd post a list of the exceptional titles. The most satisfying listening experience comes when there is a single narrator, but occasionally I make an exception to this. Clicking on the titles will take you straight to Librivox.

Conscience Pudding - a Christmas short story
The Claverings by Anthony Trollope (multiple readers, my review here)
Confessions of Arsene Lupin by Leblanc (mystery, my review here)
Daniel Deronda by George Eliot (my review here)
El Dorado (Sequel to Scarlet Pimpernel, my review here)
Emma by Jane Austen (Version 3 is by one of the best readers, Elizabeth Klett, my review here)
The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsene Lupin by Leblanc (my review here)
Lady Audley's Secret by Braddon (narrated by Klett, my review here)
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (Version 2 is narrated by Klett, my review here)
A Room with a View by E.M. Forster (Version 2 by Klett, my review here)
Turn of the Screw by Henry James (Version 2 by Klett, my review here)
The Virginian by Owen Wister (western, my review here)
The Warden by Trollope (some of the narrators are poor, but Minter makes it all worth it, review here)
Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell (Version 2 by Klett, my review here)
Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (mystery, various readers, review here)

Have you listened to an especially good classic at Librivox? If so, please leave a note in the comment section.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Sunshine Award

My blogging friend at Complete and Unabridged surprised me with a nomination for the Sunshine Award. It's a tag type award that comes with cozy, semi-personal questions that allow me to reveal a bit more of my personality than I usually do.  I loved finding out that she is a big fan of the Mary Martin version of Peter Pan. We wore that VHS tape out when we had it many years ago.

Here are her questions:

1. If you could have tea with any literary character, who would it be? Definitely Jane Eyre.

2. What book would you like to see made into a film? Probably the "Miss Buncle" books by D.E. Stevenson or the Connie Willis "Blackout" books.

3. If you could live somewhere other than you do now, where would it be and why? Wouldn't trade where I live for anything. I feel very privileged to live and work in central Brazil.

4. What would you choose for your last meal? When we lived in NE Brazil the food of choice was roast goat served with fried manioc (dripping in butter). The beverage was coke with ice cubes and lemon wedges. Best meal ever.

5. What is your favorite sport/outdoor activity? Although I come from an athletic family, I was never involved in sports. I'm so glad that my daily trek to the subway, to the school, and then back home requires 40 minutes of brisk walking. That's my activity of choice.

Another book blogger I enjoy is Country Girls Read. I nominate her for the Sunshine Award and here are my questions:

1. Drink of preference: Coffee or Tea? What kind?
2. Describe a perfect afternoon.
3. Who is your favorite literary hero or heroine?
4. What is one book that has had a lasting impact on your life?
5. What is your love language?