Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Libraries: earliest fond memories

For some people, I suspect, libraries have become an act of faith, or a kind of heritage; they hang on to libraries like cathedrals long after their belief in the deity has past away. No doubt the great libraries will survive. Those are the ones with vast national collections, or those with a special antiquity, or a majestic architecture.

The fate of the rundown relics of suburbia is less clear; not matter how much we celebrate the power of the little library it appears that its extinction is as likely as the video-hire shop, or even the local bookshop, with its greeting cards, its quaint plantpots, and its local authors.

Yet some of us still delight in tea-leaves, coffee-beans, and the safe solidity of printed books, long after the the victory of the instant download has streamlined the past, the present, and the future, in a dizzying sea of sameness. Sometimes there is something radical in remembering the past; it need not collapese into a conservative tear-torn nostalgia.

Gazing over these old photos of my local library, Crossgates, in Leeds, I remember the smell of polished floors; it was also the odour of Barclays Bank, the Leek and Westbourne Building Society, and civic buildings such as the Town Hall. The smell of leather seats and books bound in leather. Built to last.



I soon outgrew the Children's Library. I had enjoyed a book on The Life of Birds (especially the chapter on the sociability of rooks); for  I had moved on now to insects and, having learned the Latin names Diptera, Hymenoptera, Lepidopetera ... what I was seeking was a very big book containing all the English and Latin names for all the animals.

The bewildered librarian and my apologetic mother led me round to the section of the adult library dealing with principles of classification. This ought to have taught me a lesson, and in a way it did; for now there was the awesome realization that libraries did not classify their books by size or colour, or rank them according to popularity, but instead used the Dewey system of numbers on their spines. Books, like animals and plants, were subject to a taxonomy.

Main Adult Library

That section of the library also had books on religion and spirituality; so it seemed reasonable to respect this temple of wisdom by sampling some of those books. The History of Monasticism was not a book that I read in its entirety. In fact, as I now recall, the only part of the book that shocked me at the time was the outline of the problems with monastic discipline; and certain highly sinful, and to me deeply mysterious, irregularities of conduct, which persistently threatened to undermine the holy orders.

Ouspensky's The Fourth Way was a book that I laboured with for years. I'm still not sure whether Gurdjieff was a charlatan, but I know that I had accidently taught myself the foundations of meditation, self-realization, awakening, and awareness. But the real conversion was to the library experience, to history, and mythologies.

As I had just read all the Tolkien books, and I was now busy writing my young adult novel, Lord Ethelred, an Anglo-Saxon adventure, it was invaluable to have access to Beowulf and Its Analogues. Whenever my novel ran out of steam someone would recite the next episode of Beowulf using the voice of an 11-year old Yorkshire lad. Sadly this great work, like many others, remains unfinished.

The Crossgates Library still appears to be functioning. In 2009 it celebrated 70 years of community service.  I'm intending to make the pilgrimage and pay my respects the next time I'm visiting Leeds.

Crossgates Library, 1939

We all know that books have largely ceased to be sacred objects or things to be reverenced, and that the technology that replaced scrolls and parchment, and now throws out the relics of the printed book, is creating a new reformation and renaissance in the dissemination of wisdom and knowledge. Times change and so do our media for experiencing those changes. The sublime cathedrals of knowledge and their modest little suburban cousins have shrunk to the palm of my hand. Here is all God's plenty at the touch of a finger and the flick of the thumb.

For me, the library was a refuge. It was a place of peace and calm. But it could also make you heart beat with wonder, with delight, with discovery. It was the amazement of scale, of order, and system; it was power, authority, and respect. It was also gentle curves, an invitation to join the circle. Its polish was an invitation to ascend and to participate, to glide along its smooth surfaces.

But I fear that the vision of a great library built in 1939 to serve the vast council housing project (to the left of the image above) was a bold statement for a brave people perched on the precipice of poverty, and the darkest war hitherto witnessed in the historic 'progress' of humanity. What we are perhaps gaining in the march technology we are also losing in the vanishing magnitude of our vision. That vision, whether it belonged to the East or the West was a kind of Enlightenment that still has the capacity to decrease and hold back the forces of cultural vandalism and community fragmentation.





Dr Ian McCormick is the author of
also available on Kindle,

Monday, 22 September 2014

Sound must seem an echo to the Sense!

Although sometimes associated with a cramped classical approach to the imagination, there are bundles of life and energy in the poetry of Alexander Pope. He often speaks about dance, and it provides a rich vein of physicality to his verse. Like Dryden, he had perfected his ability to hear the inherent musicality of words and their sinewy rhythmic potential. He is a master of soft rhapsodic cadences of lyric and elegy as much as the harsh, rough music of snarling satire.

Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism (1711) was written in 1709 when he was 21. His poem discussed the balance between nature and art; creativity and criticism; freedom and regularity.

Influences: Boileau's Art Poétique (1674) and the French critics, Rapin and Le Bossu; Latin verse-essays of Horace, Vida, and two minor Restoration writers, the Earls of Mulgrave and Roscommon. Also borrows form the classical Roman writer, Quintilian.  As the final line of this extract on the role of sound qualities and versification also demonstrates, the poet and critic John Dryden was also an inspiration for Pope.

As elsewhere in the poem, Pope practises what he preaches; he explains by doing. In order to grasp his sense of how sound functions in poetry, all we have to do is read the poem aloud!

The common sense notion that sound supports the sense (meaning/ideas) is brilliantly demonstrated as a happy union or balance between the two aspects of poetry. He shows us examples of the tedious, dull and repetitive uses of sounds, and contrasts these to more inspiring models agility and lively expression.

 

An Essay on Criticism

Alexander Pope

But most by Numbers judge a Poet's Song,
And smooth or rough, with them, is right or wrong;
In the bright Muse tho' thousand Charms conspire,
Her Voice is all these tuneful Fools admire,
Who haunt Parnassus but to please their Ear,
Not mend their Minds; as some to Church repair,
Not for the Doctrine, but the Musick there.
These Equal Syllables alone require,
Tho' oft the Ear the open Vowels tire,
While Expletives their feeble Aid do join,
And ten low Words oft creep in one dull Line,
While they ring round the same unvary'd Chimes,
With sure Returns of still expected Rhymes.
Where-e'er you find the cooling Western Breeze,
In the next Line, it whispers thro' the Trees;
If Chrystal Streams with pleasing Murmurs creep,
The Reader's threaten'd (not in vain) with Sleep.
Then, at the last, and only Couplet fraught
With some unmeaning Thing they call a Thought,
A needless Alexandrine ends the Song,
That like a wounded Snake, drags its slow length along.
Leave such to tune their own dull Rhimes, and know
What's roundly smooth, or languishingly slow;
And praise the Easie Vigor of a Line,
Where Denham's Strength, and Waller's Sweetness join.
True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,
As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance,
'Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,
The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense.
Soft is the Strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth Stream in smoother Numbers flows;
But when loud Surges lash the sounding Shore,
The hoarse, rough Verse shou'd like the Torrent roar.
When Ajax strives, some Rocks' vast Weight to throw,
The Line too labours, and the Words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the Plain,
Flies o'er th'unbending Corn, and skims along the Main.
Hear how Timotheus' vary'd Lays surprize,
And bid Alternate Passions fall and rise!
While, at each Change, the Son of Lybian Jove
Now burns with Glory, and then melts with Love;
Now his fierce Eyes with sparkling Fury glow;
Now Sighs steal out, and Tears begin to flow:
Persians and Greeks like Turns of Nature found,
And the World's Victor stood subdu'd by Sound!
The Pow'rs of Musick all our Hearts allow;
And what Timotheus was, is Dryden now.

In The Art of Love, the Roman poet Ovid provides some tips (for women) on the cultivation of voice and the power of song (poetry) :



Sirens, though monsters of the stormy main,
Can ships when under sail with songs detain:
Scarce could Ulysses by his friends be bound,
When first he listen’d to the charming sound.
Singing insinuates: learn all ye maids;
Oft when a face forbids, a voice persuades:
Whether on theatres loud strains we hear,
Or in Ruelles some soft Egyptian air,
Well shall she sing of whom I make my choice,
And with her lute accompany her voice.
The Rocks were stirr’d, and beasts to listen stay’d
When on his lyre melodious Orpheus play’d,
Ev’n Cerberus and hell that sound obey’d.
And stones officious were, thy walls to raise,
O Thebes, attracted by Amphion’s lays.
The Dolphin, dumb itself, thy voice admir’d,
And was, Arion, by the songs inspir’d,
Of sweet Callimachus the works rehearse,
And read Phileras’ and Anacreon’s verse;
Terentian plays may much thy mind improve,
But softest Sappho best instructs to love.
Propertius, Gallus, and Tibullus read,
And let Varronian verse to these succeed.

See Ars Amatoria, translated by Congreve, Book 3.

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
 and 11+ English 

Thursday, 18 September 2014

The Eight Openings and the Blank Page Trauma

Are you familiar with the terror of the blank page in the exam room?
Do you experience a sense of writer's block in this situation?
Are you just unsure about your technique in starting an essay?

In fact, there are many tried and tested openings that will get your writing off to a confident and winning start. Although there are infinite possible ways of leading into an essay, blog, or news article, there are some common opening gambits that writers rely on (as in a game of chess). After a strong opening you will be ready for a winning middle game.



Before outlining the Eight Openings, here are some points to think about:

Is your aim to engage the reader by being relevant, creative, and original?
Are you trying to arouse curiosity or to meet expectations?
Are you explaining what’s on offer (like a menu), or offering a taster session?
In a promotional sense you want to encourage the reader to come through the door: to enter your mental world. Some readers are reluctant, suspicious people who need to be coaxed into your space.

Remember that your aim is a happy relationship between writer and reader; not a divorce.

Sometime it is helpful to signal or summarize what your topic is, and how you will be approaching it (methodology). In academic essays there is often a well-crafted thesis statement that encapsulates the main argument in one sentence.

1. The Quoted Opening

"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect." Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (1916). My transformation happened over three lazy weeks, but it was not any less wonderful... Begin with an impressive quotation from someone who will be recognised by your reader. A well chosen quotation can also have the advantage that it provides an unusual angle on your content. Also, it may hint at the tone and approach you are taking to your topic. In academic essays marks may also be gained for evidence of research. Disadvantages: quotations can be over used (clichés); you are relying on someone else’s work at the outset.

2. The Story Opening

"I write this sitting in the kitchen sink."  Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle (1948). A story has a universal appeal and everyone wants to know what happens next if there is an element of intrigue. This opening plays on the art of the unexplained: look where I am; how did I arrive at this point. This approach also involves the art of delayed resolution (ending) that we find in jokes or anecdotes. A story that is relevant to the reader also plays on empathy.

3. The Headline Opening
The Times Of India: “We saw the sea coming, we all ran. But God saves little”

This approach keeps coming back to the essay title or the newspaper heading, but offers more detail or clarity. Again the emphasis is on focus and relevance. This technique works well where the eye-catching headline is not a ready-made statement, or the solution to an issue. 

4. The Shocking Opening

Shock tactics may fit well with an eye-catching sensational opening. Often the trick is to reverse normal expectations, turning the world upside down. The element of surprise can be very effective, but it may be difficult to sustain after the initial impact.  Build your special effects using rhetorical drama (pattern, pace, rhythm, alliteration) and memorable literary devices (such as simile or metaphor).

5. The Interrogatory Opening

This opening relies on asking questions that engage the reader. This may involve empathy (Don’t you just hate daytime marketing calls? Why do we want to laugh in a moment of crisis?); or it may interrogate the title/heading in a curious or surprising way (Why do most disasters happen on Thursday mornings?). But too many questions leave the reader frustrated or perhaps impatient to hear the answers. Avoid this problem by asking unusual, thought-provoking questions.

6. The Summary Opening

This opening offers a preview of the remainder of the essay. It’s rather like a menu that explains what to expect and offers an insight into your approach (how the steak will be cooked; is the food spicy). The risk is that you give away all the surprises at the outset. So try to avoid going into too much detail at this stage. Better to give a sense of the general scope of your project, rather than trying to tick every box.

7. The Strange, but True, Opening

This is also known as the newsworthy or factual opening. ‘In Great Britain in 2012 it is reported that 3,678 babies swallowed an iPhone. All but one survived. This is his story...’ Common features of this approach deploy data, or statistics, but also develop a human angle on the arithmetic. Again, eye-catching news reverses expectations: the "Man Bites Dog" Rule.

8. The Connoisseur Opening

This opening does not fit any of the above categories, or it is a hybrid strategy that deploys several styles of opening. Sometimes it is a low-key opening that marks the innovator. In 1913, Marcel Proust began his epic novel sequence, "For a long time, I went to bed early." Swann's Way. (tr. Lydia Davis).

Tips to Develop Your Style:
Use a notebook, or simply cut and paste opening sentences and paragraphs which in your view are engaging and appealing. Also note down why you think they are effective. It’s also useful to make a list of your own categories of opening. For instance, what are the differences between factual items and literary fiction? What else is required in an essay for school or college? Why are some openings longer than others?
It is worthwhile examining existing models of great writing, but with practice you will craft engaging openings that bear your personal stamp of creative genius.



Dr Ian McCormick is the author of
also available on Kindle, or to download.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Character Definitions and Creative Techniques



An Examination of the role of CHARACTER in literary texts

Superficially ... “A person in a story, someone we can relate to, or identify with ...”

But Note:

Caricature – 2-dimensinal, simple, represents one value, e.g. the angry man, jealousy = related to allegory and satire = distortion for effect of one quality, or exaggeration of certain features; stereotypes

Narrative functions – hero/villain, trickster, false hero, magician, father/son, mother/daughter, outcast, rebel.

In real life people that we come to know well are seldom just functions or caricatures.

Real living people in the media, or celebrities, often have an assumed character or role that might be quite different from how they are in their personal life. In texts, an assumed role is called a persona, in the media we even talk about ‘personalities’ to express the public projection of a role. Perceptions of role or character can also be manipulated e.g. spin doctors and propagandists may want to present a politician with ‘strong leadership qualities and empathy.’

First person – autobiographical, “I”, my story.

Third person – author/omniscient narrator may provide insights into what they are thinking and feeling – free indirect narrative (author comments). “ ‘Yeah,’he muttered, feeling guilty about what he had done.”

You do not have to describe a character in full at the outset – you can build up the sense of a character through the accumulation of details, observed behaviour, speech patterns ...

Historical – based on real people
Realistic – true-to-life, psychological, inner life and physical appearance;
3-dimensional, complex
Fantastic – imaginary – don’t even have to be human.


Development – some are static, others grow and develop from birth through childhood and adolescence to adult life. A Bildungsroman has the development of a central character across his/her life as a central preoccupation. An example of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations or David Copperfield.

Leading or primary characters – occupy key roles and focalise points of view. Often linked to the idea of the hero/heroine.

Supporting / secondary characters – help to illustrate the main theme, or to develop sub-plots.

Note the key role of dialogue to SHOW and REVEAL characters and their relationships

- accent/dialect                           
- lexis
- grammar                                
- colloquialisms, slang, blasphemy, coarse
- polished and elegant, urbaned and civilized
- tone
- monosyllabic or oratorical (speeches)

Conflict and relationships are essential for building character, and for moving the story forward.

The hero’s JOURNEY / progress involves – threats, obstacles, reversals, tricks, irony, metamorphosis, tests, deviations. Many stories have these structural elements.

Too much inconsistency leads to incredulity (disbelief) in the mind of the reader.

Wider Contexts:

characters display causation as a result of factors such as environment/ family/ social class; these aspects allow the development of ideas and themes.

Avoid confusing a character’s voice, or that of the narrator, with the author's. Don't try to guess authorial intentions! This called the inentional fallacy!

Remember that some characters are ironic – perhaps the narrator/author is having a laugh at their expense?

In Gulliver’s Travels, author Jonathan Swift manipulates the voice of Gulliver so that the reader sometimes supports, and at other times opposes Gulliver's point of view.

This means that there is a degree of inconsistency, and perhaps we should refer to Gulliver as a satirical persona, mouthpiece, or rhetorical device, rather than a character in the tradition of the realist novel.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Transition from School to University

University - anxiety or liberation ?


Dear Students,

Many of you will find the transition from school to university very difficult. In a previous blog I offered an impressionistic account of some of the main reasons why students don't have a successful first year and provided some practical tips. But what about the initial transition? How will university life be different from being at school and living at home? Below, I offer a five point plan for making a successful transition.

The first point to consider is that the intensive care you have probably experienced at home and at school will not be available with the same frequency at your college. Personal tutors and welfare staff will be available to help, but they won't be monitoring your health and well-being on a daily basis. Support services are widely available in all universities, but you will need to seek them out. If you have lived a sheltered life between your school and your bedroom the personal transition to full independence can come as a big shock.

The second point to consider is that your ability to direct your own studies will be crucial, especially if you are working in the arts or social sciences. Understand that academics typically have a 550 hours annual contract for direct teaching. For you, that works out at about 12-15 hours contact time in seminars, tutorials, and lectures. The rest of the time you'll be on your own, doing your reading, doing your research, drafting and writing your assignments. Don't expect you tutor to stand over you while you spend 40 hours reading George Eliot's Middlemarch or Charles Dickens's David Copperfield.

My third point is that you should take a more active role in seeking academic support if you feel that you need it. Most universities have an academic support department that is designed to help you develop academic-level skills. These support centres should be used to improve your general level of competence. Your academic tutors will provide more focussed and more specialised support. All tutors have open office hours. Use this time to drop in, or book and appointment to discuss the plans you have made for your first assignment. When you have had your work marked and returned seek out your tutor to discuss the feedback. Ensure that you have fully understood what you need to do to improve your grade next time. In my experience as few as 15% of students (usually the brightest and the weakest) make use of this opportunity.

Don't just take the easy option, which is typically to email your lecturer saying, 'I don't know what we're supposed to do for this assignment.' Usually, all the required information will be in the module or course handbook. It's so frustrating that hundreds of hours are spent writing the course materials that students have not bothered to read.

The fourth point is to recognise that the subject you learned at school is going to be different at university. There will be a higher level of theoretical approaches, for example, rather than just explaining why you enjoyed the characters and the story. There will be strong emphasis on research and on critical reading. Remember that your seminars and lectures are just the beginning of your work; they are merely a point of departure for your journey; they are not the be-all and end-all of your academic life. If you find that the course is not what you were expecting it is often possible to switch course or turn your major subject into a minor. However, it is essential to seek help and advice early. You will generally find that the university is more flexible than you imagined if it looks like you might be dropping out. Remember that universities have a vested interest in the improvement of retention rates.

The fifth point is to participate. This means socialising and making friends. This means joining clubs and societies, doing sport, or taking part in charity work.  All of this will build your character, make you more independent and crucially more employable. Academically, participation means interacting with other students in seminars, having prepared professionally for the activities involved.

A final point to consider, as an afterthought, is that university does not suit everyone. Nor does university life  suit everyone at the age of 18. Some of the best students I've ever taught were those who came to university later in life.

I guess some of this blog will sound like a harsh diatribe and rant against the molly-coddled student. I often reminded myself that my life at college was not as difficult as my father's - down the pit (coal mine) at the age of 15. Nor did I suffer the major social and economic disadvantges of the other six billion poor people on this planet.

I have some sympathy for those of you who feel that the £9000 fees are not worth it. Indeed, the fees are not worth it, but YOU are, and it's up to YOU to make the best of the brilliant career opportunity that university affords in the luxury of the first world.



Dr Ian McCormick is the author of  

The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences (Quibble Academic, 2013) 

Also available on Kindle

Monday, 1 September 2014

Book Challenge



Time to take the Book Challenge. Please post comments and suggestion below, or use Twitter #bookchallenge

  1. Which book is most often stolen from a library?
  2. Is it possible to be poisoned by a book?
  3. How much did it cost to produce the world's most expensive book?
  4. What was Shakespeare's best insult?
  5. Who invented science fiction, or fantasy?
  6. When was the world's first novel written?
  7. What's the funniest moment in literature?
  8. Which book has the best opening line?
  9. What's the longest book ever written?
  10. Who is the world's best selling writer, alive or dead?
  11. Who is the most famous/infamous fictional woman to appear in a story?
  12. When was the first comic strip published?
  13. Who wrote the world's first romance?
  14. When was the world's first recipe book composed?
  15. Who was the world's most prolific author?
  16. Who invented young adult fiction?
  17. Which book has caused the most trouble?
  18. Who is the most liked/hated superhero? 
  19. Who was the world's slowest writer?
  20. Who is the most monstrous person in literature?
  21. Where will you find the world's biggest library?
  22. Who was the first black person to tell his/her story?
  23. What's the longest word to appear in a work of fiction?
  24. Is there a book that no one has ever finished reading?
  25. What's the most interesting lost book?
  26. What's the highest ever auction price for a printed book?
  27. What's the world record for writing a book in the shortest/longest time?
  28. What's the best nonsense word in a published work?
  29. What's the most famous anonymous work? 
  30. What's the most shocking fight in literture?
  31. Who is the oldest character in literature?
  32. What's the world's most tragic play?
  33. What's the world's most infamous literary hoax?
  34. Which books include talking objects?
  35. What's the most famous line in literature?
  36. What's the world's scariest book?
  37. Which book has the best ending?
  38. Are there any books that don't use punctuation?
  39. What was the first word ever written in a work of fiction?
  40. Who is the best-read person in history?
  41. Which book has been banned most often?
  42. Which book do you wish you had written yourself?
  43. Please write down three more questions which improve on the ones written above.


Dr Ian McCormick served as Professor in the Arts at the University of Northampton.

His most recent book is The Art of Connection. [Quibble Academic, 2013]