Showing posts with label reading. Show all posts
Showing posts with label reading. Show all posts

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Celebrating epic novels - the long view


The Guardian recently selected Richardson's Clarissa as No. 4 on its list of the Top 100 great Novels of all time. Are such lists a snap-shot of current reading habits. Perhaps the choice of this 984,870 word text from 1748 is pure nostalgia.
In my view, however, it sometimes makes sense to spend the entire week on Clarissa, or Middlemarch, or Tom Jones, or Bleak House, or War and Peace ; at other times several sonnets command the same investment of spirit, intellect and emotion. Clearly the great epics also repay re-reading, or at least selective re-sampling, of favourite passages and turning points.

With regard to Clarissa, the reading process is an ordeal, a pleasure, and a discipline (rather like Foucault on sex). Reading an abridged version is perhaps like the difference between a one night stand and a longterm relationship...

It's a different question how well these longer novels function academically in an over-crowded superfast highway curriculum. Increasingly, core courses select shorter fictions. Perhaps in the future we'll be studying a ceaseless flow of the most enigmatic and witty tweets. (And many long works are currently being tweeted daily.)

I've recently read Ngugi wa Thiongo'o's epic satire Wizard of the Crow, but I seldom come across any postcolonial scholars who claim to have read this fantastic book. And many people have unread copies of A Suitable Boy on their shelves.

In addition to finding time for the 1,000 page book what about a sustained run through of the complete works of Zola, or Balzac, or Walter Scott? Just for the sheer pleasure of it? 

Does anyone nowadays have the space for such a project?
On the other hand, the average person will "spend" 25 years sleeping, 12 years watching TV, 6 years online ... etc. 

At present I'm one third of my way through a second reading of Tolstoy. I vaguely recall that there's some prolix theory of history coming up, but I know for certain that I was too you when I accomplished my first reading as an adolescent.

And what happens when Tolstoy meets Thiong'o ? Now there's the beginning of a new book or an academic thesis.




Another Top Ten Long reads is also published by The Guardian .... here.


Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic) 

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, 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]





Wednesday, 20 November 2013

A Quick Guide to Writing an Abstract

But will your abstract fit inside the box?

If you have been reading my blog on The Art of the Abstract, are you now ready for the quick guide?

FORMAT

Use one paragraph.
Stick to the word length.
Check the format style guides for the journal or awarding body / institution.
Employ a professional style

STYLE

Use language that will be understood by readers in your field.
Consider also the needs of the general reader.
Think about the most relevant key words that need emphasis
Write short sentences. Very short.
Employ transitions between the sentences.
Use the active voice, rather than passive constructions
Use the third person singular. IT.
Choose the past tense in the main body.
Check your grammar
Avoid abbreviations.
Provide clear statements: avoid loose opinions.
Employ the present tense for the introduction and the conclusion.

PROCESS

Learn from other respected scholars in your chosen field.
Read journal abstracts in order to become familiar with the standard terminology.
Print out your draft abstract and check it again for errors, waffle and repetition.
Ask a colleague or associate to check your work.
Model your work on excellent examples of abstracts.

CONTENT

Employ an introductory statement and conclusion written in the present tense. (This research demonstrates that ...)
Answer the key questions: what, why, and how.
Follow your headings and subheadings in order to guide the sequence of  the abstract.
Don’t add supplementary information or ideas.
Do not cite the sections of the paper / article / chapter.
Avoid specific references to figures and tables included in your paper.
Avoid the repetition of information.
Check for accuracy of content.


Anything I've missed? Please add comments below.


Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(2013) Also available on Kindle, or to download.

Also worth a look: The PhD Roadmap: A Guide to Successful Submission of your Dissertation / Thesis.

Monday, 18 November 2013

The Art of the Abstract

 
' Supervisor, I found Yorick's Abstract. '


Do you hear, let them be well used, for they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time. After your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live.” --- Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Nowadays there is more pressure than ever to publish often and early. Such is the plight of the doctoral student and the early career academic; such is the life of any career academic.

One of the tricks of the trade that every academic learns is how to write an effective abstract. Typically this activity was undertaken at the end of the third year of the Ph.D and was part of the processing of submitting your work for critical scrutiny.

But really we were abstracting all the way along. The ability to compose a quick summary of what you have been reading is the beginning of abstraction. It’s a useful habit to acquire early in one’s intellectual development.

What you find in the abstract will also be quite similar basically to the sorts of general questions that you will have been asked when seeking funding, or applying for a continuation of your research.

So when we are reading anything, we might want to be asking some questions.

What is this work about?
Why has it been written
What has been discovered?
How did the writer get there?

At first this can be quite bewildering because we are overwhelmed by the sheer plenitude and richness and depth of the writing. But God’s Gift to Scholars is the Abstract. This presents a ready-made solution to these probing questions. As I have pointed out in another post, How doAcademics Read so many Books? The abstract is the short cut for the overloaded, overworked, underpaid scholar-teacher. My intention was not to be cynical. In fact, more pragmatically, it is not possible to undertake wider reading and gain wider familiarity with a body of work without reading lots of abstracts. Abstracts help researchers to decide on what is most  and what is least relevant for their reading. While it may take three hours or more to comb through an academic paper, it will take less than ten minutes to skim and scan the contents. But I can survey the abstract in a matter of seconds.

Therefore, a well-written abstract allows readers to work out how relevant the research undertaken is to what they are trying to achieve. If it is highly relevant then there is a second virtue. The abstract becomes a useful reference point and benchmark for the longer and larger scholarship that follows.

If am I surveying the wider field, and therefore writing a literature review, the abstract is very helpful in providing a quick summary of the work that allows me to position it in relation to other work, either as a specialism, or a theme. The abstract tells me where the research belongs, as part of a cluster, and also, more significantly, provides a sense of its individuality or uniqueness. The sense singularity or originality of the contribution to knowledge is a valued aspect that the abstract must communicate effectively.

In this sense, abstract are useful signposts, they give me a sense of direction.

When I was writing my book The Art of Connection, I noted that one of the Nine Arts of Connection was the Art of the Summary. We are summarising all the time. Often this evident at the end of a paragraph or the end of an essay or speech. Summaries therefore have impact. In a very broad sense, we are already familiar with the art of the summary because we are doing it all the time in the process of reading and writing. Summaries are signposts and they help us to recall key points efficiently and effectively.

In the academic world the abstract is usually one paragraph consisting of about 200 to 300 words. It is situated just under the title of the paper or it appears at the end. It is very important to realise that this is not a supplementary introduction.

While the researcher may all along have had a vague idea of the summary of the work undertaken, the abstract is a precise and efficient of the published text.

The abstract offers a swift appraisal of the research. It is helpful to think in terms of the model that is generally followed. Typically there are four components:

1. An Introduction to the research

2. The Methods, or Methodology employed.

3. The Results of the research

4. The Conclusions reached.

It is useful to remember that the abstract should follow the key sections of your published research in sequence.

Specifically the abstract needs

  • To identify the main subject of the research and its purpose. This may point to the literature review element and provides a wider context for the work.

  • To outline the problem investigated and the approach taken. Explain your objectives and hypothesis precisely. Summarise your methodology.

  • To present your results. What was it that you found out?

  • To offer conclusions. This may involve policy implications.

These are the key words that the abstract-writer and researcher needs to think about clearly: problem, solution, example, evaluation/comparison.


It’s really worth spending a lot of time perfecting your abstract. 

Indeed it might be the only part of your work that most scholars in your field ever read. 

Perhaps it’s what you’ll be remembered by.
 
Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(2013) Also available on Kindle, or to download.

Also worth a look: The PhD Roadmap: A Guide to Successful Submission of your Dissertation / Thesis.


Wisdom is the abstract of the past, but beauty is the promise of the future.

--- Oliver Wendell Holmes
 

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

What's that myth about boys not wanting to read anything?



Boys are underperforming by 10% or more, compared to girls' literacy.

My experience working with boys and adolescents (9-15) in the last year has taught me that they do not have an insurmountable problem with reading or writing. But far too often they are being forced to answer tedious comprehension questions. Or they are pushed into commenting critically on subjects that do not relate at all to their interests. Research shows that often boys visualize reading as a female activity. So some of the problems are part of the current culture and construction of reading as an activity.

At first, the key to success, in my view, is to work with their existing interests. That means that you need to find out what fires their imagination. In an overcrowded classroom that is sometimes difficult, and there is a tendency for the whole class to work on the same topics such as "Africa," or "Environment," or "Superheroes."

The young people I've worked with thrive on football and other sports, gadgets, fashion clothes and brands, fast cars, &c.

As a result of looking at and comparing media texts, such as advertisements, technical data, brochures, films, and leaflets,  the persuasive reading and writing activities emerge as a critical and creative focus for the young people's work.

This process of working with the most appropriate subject matter, or allowing young people to make their own choices, results in deeper engagement and closer reading. There is an awakened and heightened critical faculty, and the discovery of hitherto latent creativity. Often they are still reading when the one hour lesson has finished. And there has been no loss of concentration. They are asking me to let them 'do' this topic as their homework!
With a little guidance, it's not difficult to cover complex sentences and witty epigrams; rhymes and rhythm; alliteration; layout and design; multimedia and interactivity. Quickly they will pick up a wide descriptive and technical vocabulary that was a closed book when they were 'studying' traditional literary topics. They identify literary devices and the impact they have as a tool for advertising and promotion. They begin to deconstruct those sinister forces - the secret and hidden persuaders. By unlocking the promotional tricks of the trade they learn to imitate or resist them. This in turn has a potential for growth and empowerment.

Having picked up key skills, confidence, and competence, the young learners are far less resistant to exploring texts and images critically and creatively.

It's far easier to slip in some classic writing after a solid foundation and strong motivation has been acquired.


Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(2013) Also available on Kindle, or to download.

Also worth a look: The PhD Roadmap: A Guide to Successful Submission of your Dissertation / Thesis.