Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tree Show

Ah, hedgerows!
Poodles of the arboretum!
Sculpted, trimmed, and pampered into
shapely likenesses.
But prickly:
snappish if you get too close.

The solemn oaks, great danes, stand attentive;
redwood mastiffs glower intimidation
at everyone smaller than them;
and the playful aspen collies
frisk about, dancing, never still.

Elm trees catch kites like frisbees.
They are still learning the second half of "fetch"
and are confused at our discontent. Why
can we never find a golden retriever
to play with instead?

Puggish rose bushes and ornamental dogwoods
scatter yipping through the park,
and lazy bougainvillea spaniels drape themselves
on the edges of everything.

Setter, dachsund, beagle,
terrier and pomeranian;
cherry, olive, myrtle,
dwarf willow and piƱon pine.
A bewildering variety
surrounds us,
each of them man's best friend.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Autumn Wind

I wish I knew what Autumn Wind
said when he came last night.
I heard him come and stay awhile,
grass whispering with delight.
It must have been something he said,
or else it was his touch
so cool and gentle on their skin
that caused the trees to blush.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Serial Reader (II)

As you remember, last week two weeks ago our hero was confronted by a dilemma: At the end of an exciting chapter should he immediately read on? Or should he stop and give the characters a chance to breathe?

To be honest, I generally choose to forge ahead with barely a pause. There is a degree of self control required to postpone resolution, and that is something that I often lack. If I am reading with other people then the appeal of sharing the story with them will provide enough incentive to wait (though it didn't always--for example take the way my entire family covertly finished books two and three of Harry Potter before actually reading the second half together). I also will wait (grumpily) if I forced to do so by the fact that the next chapter in a web comic or the next book in a series has not yet been published.

This tendency represents a disturbing lack of patience on my part. It appears that I want everything to happen to my convenience, immediately, and on demand. If there is intervening story, I don't mind anticipation and suspense because I am still engaged directly. But to pull away from the characters? Not a chance!

I recently read Brandon Sanderson's breathtaking The Way of Kings, book one of the anticipated ten-book Stormlight Archive. It is 1000 pages long, and I read it in three sittings over four days. Well, technically four sittings since I took a rather extended break for lunch on day two. Not only did I ignore puny speed bumps like chapter endings, but I vaulted across much more functional divides between the novel's five "books" and the "interludes" between them. It was delicious and exhilarating!

And yet, though I was completely invested in the story throughout, I feel like I lost something by reading so quickly. The characters met with obstacle after obstacle over weeks and months. They had to struggle with moral dilemmas, with uncertainty, and with indecision. At one point I realized that in the previous three hours the primary character had gone through four defining arcs, and the middle two had meant very little to me because in my mind he had already moved on to the next and the next. In my eagerness to see him through to the end, I had sacrificed the depth of his experience. I knew what had happened, but because I had not stopped at the book or chapter breaks to reflect, I had missed the impact.

And isn't that what life is like? A whole lot of time passes between events, and we must wait between the time that a decision is made and the effects begin to appear. I have impatiently waited for new chapters of my life to begin, wondering why there was all this empty space before the story could continue. But these chapter breaks are necessary: we must learn to value this breathing space, a new epigraph, and the opportunity to look both back and ahead--even when it takes an uncomfortably long time.

I have been described as a "serial reader" more than once. The name was meant to convey that I move quickly through a lot of material. But there is another, more literal meaning that harks back to the origins of novels. Once, everything was serialized and time to reflect was built in between episodes. I have decided that I need to reform, to incorporate some level of this second meaning into my approach to reading. The reader has a responsibility, in the interest of his or her own experience of the story, to step away from the narrative before continuing. I don't know yet where that balance lies for me, but I have a lot of chapters ahead to try to discover it.

(This post has focused on the responsibilities of the reader with respect to chapter breaks. Authors also have important responsibilities in this, which will be the subject of a future post.)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Banjo Pig II

I drew another picture for the dueling banjo pigs blog. The scanner didn't quite do justice to the colored pencil, but I'm still happy with it. I'm posting two versions here: one with brighter colors and one with the shadows I was really going for.

I call this one Guardians

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Serial Reader (I)

Back in the day, writers such as Charles Dickens released their novels not as books but as individual chapters serialized in magazines. Each month (or, later on, each week) the next episode in the story became available. This was something of a social phenomenon because people would read the chapter and then discuss it with the other literary-minded people in their circles, eagerly anticipating the release of the next installment. Only after the entire story had made its appearance in serialized form were the chapters published together in a single volume.

I don't know how pervasive this form of literature was in the rest of the world, but it soon appeared as far afield as Japan, which had recently begun the Meiji Restoration. In an adaptation, the stories were published not in periodicals but in hanging posters inside of trains. Each Sunday a new segment would replace the one commuters had read the week before.

These are interesting social phenomena from the standpoint of shared experience and cultural literacy, but we are interested in them today for their influence on the reading experience. Specifically, what is the function of chapter breaks, and how important is it for the reader to pause at these breaks?

In the form that we have it now, I cannot imagine anyone reading Oliver Twist in one-chapter-a-month installments unless they happened to be a high school student grudgingly completing a summer reading assignment. I even have difficulty imagining someone carefully going through one chapter every day. No, readers now pace themselves through chunks of material according to the time they have available to read, not according to the author's whim of where to insert chapter breaks.

Perhaps that isn't important for Dickens. At the time his social commentaries were intended to spark conversation about social reform, and the month of discussion about the story between installments was crucial to the purpose of writing it. Today, when many of the issues are considered more relevant to the industrial revolution than modern life, we read Dickens for entertainment or education, neither of which require the same length of time for pondering. But other authors writing for entertainment also serialized their works, so it can't be simply a function of genre.

The genre that reproduces this today is actually television, not print. Think about the weekly gatherings to watch LOST, 24, Chuck, The Office, House, Monk, Psych, and other programs with large followings. My friends like to experience each episode in a group, and even if they watch it separately there is always discussion about the most recent episode and what might happen next week. The regular release of episodes is, I believe, an integral part of what makes the shows themselves. Remove the serialization and you have crippled the genre. Just ask anyone who has sat down to watch old episodes of a show back-to-back. On one level it is more satisfying to watch it all at once and reach the resolutions more quickly, but the show loses something important when you remove the breathing room between episodes.

In books, though, are chapter breaks this important? Sometimes they give you an excuse to put down the book because you have reached a "stopping point," and sometimes they simply give you incentive to keep turning pages. Are you supposed to stop and think about things rather than reading on to find out what happens?

Although I hadn't intended to make this post an object lesson in serialization, it is rapidly escaping the customary length for the blogging genre and is approaching essay-length. So I am going to pause here and resume this discussion in a future post. Will Chris condone or condemn chapter breaks? Will he explain the title of this post? Will he respond to comments and reader opinions? Tune in next time for part II!


Snorkeling through Chicago, I surfaced above a pizzeria, deep dish, with anchovies swimming thick as double-crust. Waves of traffic rose and fell, but it was not hard to stay afloat. Bobbing up and down, I watched a school of lunch-hour swimmers battle through the current to a reef-shielded cove: a coffee shop full of languid anemones and slow seastars, bubbles drifting up to tickle the seaweed canopy.

Tacking onto 9th, I kicked out from the shallows. Warm sunlight filtered down and rippled along the sandy bottom, dancing slowly with the kelp and eels. Spying several mounds I dove to dig them out. They were just in reach, slightly above the ear-crushing depth. Two were nothing but underwater dunes, the third a testy ray, fins rolling and barb raised. I swam quickly away and up,  gulping breath from the sky. 

A dolphin pod of leaping taxis passed, playing games of chase and tag, but instead I caught the bus that trundled along behind them, a whale making its ponderous way. When I could see our beach-house I let go of the whale and drifted, letting the tide bring me in. I splashed ashore some way down the beach, nearly to the jetty--farther than I had been that way in months. 

The tide was out and so there was much more to see than often met the eye on wading trips when I had gone there in the past. That was where I watched the careful crab in blue and green strut past an oyster hole. Closer than I had known to look, I found precisely the treasure that I had swum out looking for. 

That is where I found for you this sparkling strand of pearls.

note: I was playing around with inserting line breaks to make it poem-esque. How do you think it works as a prose piece?