Tuesday, March 11, 2014

21 Scoops

by Christine Campbell
“The nuns are back!”

            I took a reluctant break from the first of many gelati that day to look expectantly for our accidental companions. Alizeh gestured excitedly down the beach, trying to point them out while clutching a Fior di Latte cone, but I had no trouble spotting the group of habit-clad women against the horizon of the sparsely populated April shoreline.  They were carefully navigating their way across the pebbled beach, taking high, awkward steps as though they were skipping cracks on a sidewalk, their stockinged calves appearing on occasion beneath long black skirts. Toting paper lunch sacks and hanging on to well-balanced cones of their own, it was clear they had just emerged from the same gelateria we visited moments before. How could we have missed them!  I had opted for the black and white Stracciatella, because I liked saying the word and felt I could pronounce it with some authority, but whatever flavors the nuns had chosen were multicolored and bright, making my sweet tooth jealous.  Mint greens, pastel oranges, and raspberry reds stood out in stark contrast to their black garments, seemingly more suited for the sticky hands of rowdy kids at a carnival than for 50-something sisters in habits. 

              Alizeh, Richard, and I, given the freedom of a six week Easter Holiday from Oxford, had been tending to our tired feet on the beach of Monterosso al Mare, the first of five stops in Cinque Terre-- a group of five coastal towns along the Italian Riviera. We were somehow still wired awake after a 5:00 alarm in our Florence hostel got us stumbling out the door, though every day in Italy had been an early one.  The bells of Florence’s Duomo resounded unforgivingly through our wood slatted windows at 7:00am sharp, but with margherita pizza to eat and gelato to taste, Davids to ogle and cappuccinos to sip languidly in cafes, I was tired of sleep and only wished my body could put up with more hours in the day.  This particular morning we had rushed to our train car in a frenzy after forgetting to validate our tickets, with our backpacks comically full and cameras bouncing dangerously around our necks like proper newbie tourists. 

We had first encountered the nuns on our second train from La Spezia, which we had somehow managed to catch on time. The women sat quietly together and shared some sort of pastry in a paper bag, flipping through well-loved Bibles and snapping photos out the window between bites.  Their calm and welcoming presence, discordant as it was against the throngs of tourists and tired Italian businessmen, offered a thoroughly appreciated break in tone from the gaggle of talkative American college girls immediately in front of us, whose incessant chatter fit all too well with their high, blonde ponytails and Jansports.  We had been trying to distance ourselves from these girls, for better or for worse, so as not to be thought a part of “that” group of Americans. In our nervous anxiety about getting off at the right stop, however, Alizeh, Richard, and I were caught in their legging-ed vortex and somehow followed them off the platform at Rio Maggiore. As we eventually realized our mistake, we hightailed it back to the train, wondering desperately what the nuns would get up to as we watched it leave without us. 

Luckily after we caught the next car to Monterosso and found out that the nuns had opted for something sweet in our absence, the day seemed to be getting back on track. Our fear of trying to fit every conceivable sight into the neatly packed time span of about 8 hours had subsided, and in its place was an unexpected, almost voyeuristic desire to know how their day would shape up. From a safe distance we watched a few black habits whip around in the wind as the nuns navigated the stones beneath them in sensible, rubber soled shoes.  My mind was driven to a scene from The Bells of St. Mary’s, in which a habit-clad Ingrid Bergman teaches a schoolboy to box, light on her feet and hopping evasively around the room to demonstrate proper ‘footwork.’  The reference was lost on Richard, who is a fierce but friendly Catholic, so I was left laughing to myself while trying not to drip Stracciatella down the side of my hand. 

Keeping tabs on our new found friends all the while, we found ourselves physically worn down as we tried to hobble towards the sea without shoes or socks, hoping to keep our things dry in anticipation of a long day of walking.  Alizeh’s perpetually Chaco-sandaled soles, which had, in the previous week, trekked a portion of Spain’s Camino del Santiago in the rain, had grown raw and tired without her thick wool socks.  Her 30-foot journey to the water’s edge over bulky black stones was painfully greeted by an anonymous sting from something waiting among the waves.  I’d like to imagine it was a jellyfish, but the pages of our guidebook were curiously barren of useful information about hazardous marine life off the coast of northwestern Italy in spring, and no tentacles were spotted receding beneath the surface upon second glance. Alizeh never wavered in her steadfast determination to continue eating her gelato as we waited to see if the conglomeration of red dots on her left foot would evolve into something more sinister, but this was a relatively accurate portrayal of our priorities throughout the trip.  Dark alleys in strange cities meant nothing if there was pizza at the end. 

After a brief period of tentative hobbling to test out the damage when her sandals were strapped back into place, Alizeh was on the mend and we were all upright again. Our feet were unpleasantly sticky-salty as we started off in casual pursuit of our nuns, who had settled down on top of a few large rocks that jutted out into the water and provided ample room for a picnic.  We were motivated by sheer curiosity; though our break from University life left us time to explore a bit of the world before shutting ourselves back into the Radford Camera to churn out essays, it seemed a much more drastic departure from daily life for these women, wherever they were from, to be laughing freely on the beach, not calculating the spiritual merits of some weathered Fresco in Rome or shouting at spring breakers in short shorts.  Alizeh snuck a photo of them once we had maneuvered our way out onto the rocks, a few of the waves threatening to break over our toes, and it was one of those moments you would never expect to be so beautiful in real life. All was silent apart from the waves at our feet.  Even the busy beauty of Florence, such a departure from home and school and England, felt a long way away.  The sun was warm on our backs but still gentle enough in early April, and I sat with my friends, scanning through photos in our cameras’ viewfinders, reflecting on previous days of travel. All of the nervous anxiety about going somewhere unfamiliar and trying to fill every minute of our days with planned museum visits and tactical relaxation melted away as we learned to just sit there and listen to nothing. 

And that’s how we spent my 21st birthday. We followed a bunch of sweet-toothed nuns around an Italian coastal town, forming some sort of unspoken experiential bond with them and soaking in the mutual sunlight.  We had originally been going for 21 collective scoops of gelato in lieu of typical drunken celebration (the nuns would not approve. Or maybe...?), but a dinner of fried octopus and seafood pizza had left us excessively stuffed in Manarola, and we fell just short of our goal.  We were distracted and led astray from our plan by obstacles good and bad (Richard was later bit by a lizard he tried to catch with bare hands), and to add to the chaos, on our way home we were caught in the middle of a regional train strike and temporarily stranded at La Spezia. The nuns, however, grouped together by the biglietteria and talking animatedly amongst themselves, made us somehow sure we would get where we were going.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Corner of the World

     By Chelsea Ennen       

            A bookshop (or anything else for that matter) cannot be found within an hour of my hometown.  I’ve always felt envious of my college friends who grew up in cities and know enough to mourn the loss of the independent bookshop culture, which I only vaguely understand as a concept.  For me, the occasional shopping mall Barnes & Noble was as good as it got.  What I did have growing up was a copy of Little Women I read so many times the front cover fell off.  Child-me with all my unmolded tastes had practically memorized it, and I said to myself “I’d like to read something else like this, maybe another female author from the nineteenth century?”  From there I found a copy of Pride and Prejudice.  Next it was a whole Jane Austen omnibus.  By the time I got to A Tale of Two Cities I had become a cliché: the Midwestern white girl who corrected the teacher on the Bennett sisters’ ages and dreamed of making a pilgrimage to the “Brit Lit” Mecca that was London, England.  
There was no question where I would go for my semester abroad in college, and when I arrived in January 2013 I immediately planned out my sightseeing schedule.  Westminster Abbey, where I knew a whole host of authors were buried, would come in towards the end: first I had to make myself worthy, to go through trials of some kind, to distinguish myself.  I decided I could best do this by immersing myself in London’s literary culture, so I made a list of famous London bookshops to visit as tourist destinations.  I sprinkled various “big sights” throughout the semester; and every weekend I would track down the shop nearest whatever tourist magnet I was visiting, and check it off my list. 
Foyles on Charing Cross originally gained fame for its counterintuitive business practice where books were organized by publisher rather than by category or author.  By the time I got there, it felt and looked like a good modern bookshop with the added bonus of Ray’s Jazz café, where I snuggled into a small wooden table with a hot latte in a heavy ceramic mug to watch the grey rain fall outside.  Daunt Books on Marylebone is best known for its travel books but what makes it memorable is the Edwardian interior.  Natural light flooding in from the high windowed ceilings and balcony-style top floor were second only to the greatest tote bag ever created by mankind (everyone in London has a Daunt Books tote bag).  Waterstones in Piccadilly is the largest bookshop in Europe: floor after floor filled with shelf after shelf of books.  I had prepared myself for the blandness and impersonal atmosphere of a large chain, but instead the ambiance was warm and friendly.  The lighting, while bright, felt gentle on my eyes, and the black shelves made the book covers pop like canvases in an art gallery. 
But of all the bookshops, Hatchards was by far my favorite.  Founded in 1797 it is the oldest bookshop in the United Kingdom and sits near the Waterstones on Piccadilly, in one of London’s busiest neighborhoods.  When I stepped out of the tube I was immediately transfixed by neon signs like those in Times Square, the winged statue of Eros, the London Pavilion, the Criterion Theater!  Small-town girl that I was I vacillated between child like exhilaration and child like fear.  With its unassuming dark wooden exterior and small hanging sign with the name written on it in a tasteful golden script, Hatchards seemed as if it had been forgotten by time as the city just grew up around it.  Inside, the wooden steps that lead from one small floor to another were worn down in the middle by countless feet, the walls were dark, there was only just enough light for comfortable reading, the air smelled of old paper (what greater scent is there?), and I remember wishing I could live there. Stepping into Hatchards from the bustling Piccadilly streets was like stepping into another, older, quieter world.  When I stepped back outside I was almost surprised to see cars and not horse-drawn carriages.  More than that, I felt the significance of the fact that this shop was actually standing while my nineteenth century favorites were alive and writing.   
Satisfied in my efforts to become a part of a real “bookshop culture,” I felt ready to proceed to the final stage in my journey.  This was the country where my favorite books were written; it was time to do something more than tour places I could buy them.  The time had finally come for Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.  My trusty Rick Steves travel book told me that Poet’s Corner is home to countless memorials of musicians, writers of all kinds, and even Laurence Olivier.  Many of them are not actually buried there, but about half of the names represent actual human remains.  It even worked out that my parents could come see it with me.  They were on their own European trip to celebrate their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, and by the time they got to me they had already seen Rome, Venice, and Paris.  My dad was on a literary mission of his own, finding all the places mentioned in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code.  A history buff, the fun he had reading a book that bent history (to put it kindly) did not lessen his enthusiasm for learning about the real monuments, and he couldn’t wait to find Isaac Newton’s tomb in Westminster (“ ‘ A knight a Pope interred!’ “).
After we found Newton’s monument (which is so ornate we felt embarrassed for missing it ) and browsed through the hundreds of monarchs and consorts buried in the nave, the flowing crowd carried us back to Poet’s Corner.  Everywhere I looked I saw some familiar name or other; it was overwhelming.  Chaucer was here, Milton was there, I suddenly realized I was standing on Thomas Hardy.  We pored over every inch, but I remember wishing desperately that they allowed pictures so I could have something to look over after we left.  Some of the more famous names had ornate statues, like Handel, whose grave was marked by a life size statue of himself writing a piece of music, but others who were equally recognizable, like Henry James, Lewis Carrol, and D.H. Lawrence, were immortalized only by square stones in a row on the floor.  Even the stained glass windows were covered with names.  Countless eyes in busts bore into me with their marble stares, the grander statues loomed giant-like above me, the name-littered floor looked ready to swallow me whole for daring to step on it.
I knew Poet’s Corner would be one of the big highlights of my trip, but I had no idea the effect it would have on me.  It wasn’t long before my stomach tightened and I felt rather dizzy, which at first I attributed to a lack of protein and too much walking.  Suddenly I felt the gravity of the space I was in, the immense weight of all that these names and statues and memorials and plaques and windows represented.  The Corner was its own temple within the church: a sacred space where the nations’ literary history was glorified by tangible altars.  We were only an insignificant few of hundreds who daily came to pay their respects and offer their prayers. 
Despite my unapologetic devotion to literature I am really not a particularly sentimental or sensitive person, so I’m not used to crying or getting emotional at all let alone in public.  But as I stared down at Charles Dickens’ name my head started to swim, as if he knew I was looking at him and pumped my brain full of his iconic London fog.  I turned to my left hoping for relief, but instead saw the Bronte sisters’ memorial.  Dad nudged me, pointed a little to the right of the Brontes and whispered “Hey, look over there,” in my ear.  Jane Austen.
I actually had to sit down and breathe for a minute.  Confused as to what was happening to me I fought the stinging tears in my eyes and just stared blankly at Jane Austen’s name as my wiser parents patted my back and waited for me to collect myself.  I was no longer the skinny little kid who pushed back her hair with a Disney’s Pocahontas headband to read: I was almost a senior in college, I’d been exposed to a much wider variety of authors I admired and enjoyed just as much, but these were the books I grew up with.  These were the stories I loved most, that I read for pleasure.  These were the movie adaptations I watched over and over and over. These stories were my stories, and I was surrounded by the remains of their creators. 

Eventually I gathered myself enough to channel my nervous energy into chattering about why George Eliot wasn’t actually there and one of the guides must have heard me because he approached us.  “Have you found all your favorites?” he asked with a friendly smile.  He was probably used to seeing these breakdowns on an hourly basis.  “I don’t even- I mean I’ve found everyone I can’t even-” I struggled to form coherent sentences.  My eyes filled up again as I finally found the words for what I was feeling. “I’m sorry, I study English literature, my whole life is right here!”  He grinned knowingly.  “This place must be a pretty big deal for you then, huh?”  In that moment, I could have kissed that little man who helped us find a whole host of big names we hadn’t noticed, and who told us all about how people were often buried standing up to save space.  He knew exactly how big a deal that place was for me; I could see it in his eyes as he spoke.  He knew what this meant to me.  My whole life, contained in one corner, was right there.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Winging it

by Hannah Degner

The story of how I was once alone for like two hours

            My own ineffectuality mirrored in the appearance of these three strangers made them irritating. The boy, especially, was a little creepy. Tallish and gangling, with concave cheek cavities, blue-rimmed eyes and a T-shirt I wasn’t calm enough to notice the theme of, he could have been 15 or 25. While I was buzzed with an aimless frenetic energy that I felt surfacing in beads of sweat along my hairline, he had seemingly no inspiration to do anything but stand silently by the curbside and listen to the small, stout Italian man next to him run through his options in broken English. This boy was the easiest target of my bemused frustration. At least he had a little Italian man. I had no one.

            I had spent the previous two days with an old friend in Florence, confronted by an oppressive number of historical stimulants and summering Australian backpackers. After a very long 36 hours, I was happy to begin my journey back to the rural domesticity of my summer job babysitting on a Tuscan hillside. My destination was a lavender-fringed country house, submerged in the living thrum of bees maintaining their civilization on floral essences. 

            I emerged in the dingy train station of Arezzo, my second to last stop, and asked after the location of the commuter rail to my final destination, an out-of-the-way town called Bibbiena where my assumed family would receive me. I was told by an alarmed-looking attendant that I had just missed the last train. Arezzo was 40 rambling kilometers from my journey’s end, and if this experienced transportation specialist was scared for me, it was not an easy fix. I scanned the station for others looking as helpless as I felt and found them outside by the taxi stand.

            There were four of us. No one knew what to do, yet the presence of others was only a mild consolation. The pale, glass-eyed boy (positively not Italian) and the little man (could not have been more Italian) stood together by the curb. They didn't talk much, nor did they appear by any stretch of my imagination to be traveling together. Their disparate attire, physical contrast and awkward body positioning—side-by-side facing the same direction—disavowed any degree of familiarity. Yet, something about how close the little man stood to the boy’s side, their arms almost touching, made me sure that they were allied in some way. 

            I moved a few steps from the other lost souls when I remembered I had a phone. It had been given to me for the weekend and was free as long as I called the only other phone on the plan, the one in the possession of the family waiting for me. When I told them that I had missed the commuter, they seemed unperturbed, mostly making sure I knew I could stay in Arezzo for the night if I thought it would be easier. The gap in our relative levels of life experience was never more apparent to me.

            “No, no. I’ll find a way to get there. I’ll call when I’m on my way.”

            When I hung up, I moved closer to the most promising of the stragglers: a fortyish man with bristly blonde hair and a smart phone. He wasn’t using the phone to talk to anyone, instead he was squinting at its surface, pinching and dragging at what I recognized as a map when I got close enough to see. He smiled at me, asked me if I spoke English. What a wonderful question. He told me that he was Swedish, going to a conference in the area. We should see if we were going in the same direction. Perhaps we could share a cab.

            Knowing even the most superficial details about another person grounded me. The cloud that had settled over my brain’s procedural regions began to drift away. I looked around and noticed that a cab had pulled up before us. An amused driver rolled down the window and began waiting for one of the four staggered individuals near the taxi sign to approach his vehicle. I then remembered that I knew some Italian. I asked the driver if the Swedish man’s town was nearby; he shook his head, disappointed at some combination of the distance and my Italian. I asked him if it was in the same direction as Bibbiena. He shook his head more thoroughly, clearly almost done with me.

            “Bibbiena, Nord. Il luogo di quest’uomo è Sud.” 

            He made his Italian stupid for me. We were going in opposite directions, and wouldn’t be sharing a cab. I explained to the Swedish man, wished him luck and began regrouping my party of one.

            Before the driver entirely lost interest, I jerked forward again and bent down to his window to ask how much it would cost to drive to Bibbiena. If this cab driver estimated as conservatively as those in the U.S., I was 10 Euros short of the fare, at least. I would need to find someone to share the ride with. 

            The vacant boy was still standing next to his little Italian man, but now he was talking on the phone in fluent English flecked with an Eastern European intonation. The Italian man had noticed that I had tried to speak his language, and ushered me over to explain that he was being picked up by a family member, but didn’t want the boy—his seat companion on the train to Arezzo—to be left alone without any prospect. He was also excited to inform me that his companion was going to Bibbiena. The little Italian man and I listened indiscreetly to the boy’s conversation. Apparently someone had sent a ride for the boy, but he was too late. A sense of personality came through for the first time from his exasperation, and I found myself hanging on to his words, hoping that his ride wouldn’t miraculously show up with only room for one. When I recognized from his end of the conversation that he wasn’t going to get a ride, I mentioned that we could split a cab and the price I had been quoted. He flipped his phone closed and agreed to the expenditure. We entered the only taxi and I told the driver where we were headed. 

            As the wheels began to turn beneath me, a quick call confirmed that someone would be waiting for me at the Bibbiena train station. The relief of forward motion abated the undue trauma of the last half hour. My eyes drifted from the hands in my lap to my knees, to the knees next to mine. I remembered the other person sitting there. Conversation was inevitable, the awkwardness of its absence would be more stifling than small talk. I jumped right in. 

             My first task was to seem fairly normal as I introduced myself and explained my traveling babysitter situation. The boy considered each detail I provided as if it were perfectly reasonable, even though I had spent a lot of time back home trying to explain the circumstances under which this had occurred as a plausible summer vocation.

            When he began his story, I had a much harder time maintaining my composure. His name would translate into English as Jasper, he was exactly my age and he was from Lithuania (mental strain to put this country on a map: somewhere near Russia?). He had traveled straight from his country by train and was now on the last leg of a journey to jazz camp in an isolated location nearby where he would improve his jazz piano skills among a curiously reputable assortment of retired famed musicians and eager students. 

            “Wow. Lithuania. I don’t even…that’s so…your English is really good I had no idea…”

            For a second I was congratulating him in earnest for having mastered my language, and then I was mortified. I knew literally nothing about his country, and yet I felt moved to assess his language skills based on the authority that mine provided me. He was mostly patient with me as I struggled to backtrack from the hopeless expression of American arrogance, but I felt like he was a little disappointed. I was disappointed too. 

            He explained that in Lithuania you learn English from a very young age, as a basic subject in school. He had also watched a lot of American TV shows and movies, but said he was still learning and felt insecure about it even now. The mention of school led him to ask me about what mine was like. My shame quickly reemerged.

            Go ahead and try telling a Lithuanian student of computer science and history who writes stories in his second language and plays jazz piano with fluency that you study English at an American liberal arts college. Try describing the free-form inconsistency of a liberal arts sensibility. Try using English to describe poorly the way you conceive of your education studying works of your native language to someone you're pretty sure has a better understanding of its basic construction than you. Try doing all this on a cab you didn't expect to be in, after missing the last train.

            If you're anything like me, you'll feel quite foolish.

           As the Euro count increased on the taxi’s meter, and my awareness of just how much money I had in my wallet became awkward, I interrupted our conversation to consult the taxi driver. 

            “Quando arriviamo…no, scusi...a che ora arriviamo... no, arriveremo?”

            There was nothing organic about my Italian, I grasped hard for future conjugations of verbs, hoping to seem comprehensible enough to the driver that he would sense my real question: How much more is this going to cost? He laughed at me and answered succinctly. Luckily, Jasper knew no Italian, and seemed genuinely pleased that I could handle the logistical navigation. As far as he knew, maybe the cab driver and I had just shared a funny joke? I chuckled aloud at myself to seem like I was in on it. 

            We were never quite sure what we'd be paying, and just as we got to my stop, where the train I had missed would have let me off, Jasper got a call from someone who had been waiting for him at the Arezzo train station to shuttle him off to his obscurely reputable jazz camp. It turns out that the camp was technically nearest to Bibbiena, but quite a ways back the way we’d come. We were both embarrassed when we realized he’d have to turn back and let the meter run on. I ended up giving him all the money I had left—plus twenty pounds my dad had inexplicably pushed on me before leaving—in order to help him get back, knowing that if he hadn’t been as flustered as I was at the train station, he probably would have found the person looking for him and not joined me on an unlikely discussion of our comparative lives. Before I got out of the car, I shook his hand and wished him well. There seemed nothing else to do. The serene, dazed look on his face was the same as when I first saw him, but now I recognized it as some combination of exhaustion and anticipation for his musical enlightenment.

            I waited for my ride at the dusty train stop that I immediately recognized as my own, next to the gelato vendor that I knew to be inferior to another nearby. While the town was deserted and the sun was setting, the familiarity of my environment put me at ease. I wondered if Jasper would make it to jazz camp. The details of what he told me about Lithuania and his education began to slip away, along with the names of the musicians he would be studying with in Bibbiena. I considered how I would tell the story without them.

            My ride arrived at the train station within five minutes. We talked for the drive back to our Italian home about how convenient it had actually been that my train was late, since they were behind schedule as well. Back in my life’s context, the events of the last two hours seemed anecdotal and quirky. Stating the facts without the emotional baggage they carried, I found myself coming across as intrepid, and did nothing to dissuade this conclusion.

            “Well, actually, I ended up sharing a cab with this Lithuanian guy going to jazz camp in Bibbiena.” The implausibility of it all was intoxicating.

For what it's worth, I have since googled every combination of “jazz, summer, workshop, Bibbiena” and could find no sign of this as an event that occurred.

Monday, March 3, 2014

A 99¢ Fear

            My aversion to e-books is inherent. I am a traditionalist when it comes to books. I don’t want to involve cords and outlets and I certainly don’t want to live in fear of spilling coffee on what I’m reading; it would never work out between us. It’s not for lack of trying, though. When I interned at the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, I needed my iPad to access and read galleys for work and the agents I worked with similarly relied on their various Nooks and Kindles. My internship taught me a lot about the role e-books are currently playing. In a way, e-books – and by extension, self-publishing and the presence of Amazon – add opportunities for books and authors to reach readers. Some professionals within publishing think this is an exciting, revolutionary time to be in the business. At the same time, we cannot deny how our present digital age is changing the culture of reading. Even if we are reading more, we are visiting our local libraries and bookstores less, causing problems for both of these vital cultural institutions. There are also those in publishing that are in a panic, not to mention an agent I worked with who advised me to get out while I still can. My aversion to e-books, then, has extended beyond the personal. The way I see it, e-books pose a threat to the value we place on books and reading.

            I really began to hate the idea of e-books and self-publishing when I read Andrew Rice’s “The 99¢ Best-Seller.” The Time article details the triumph and ease of self-publishing. Rice highlights a few authors, nearly all of whom were at one point rejected by the Big 6 publishers of New York. Ever since turning to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, these authors have found success in one form or another, most of them rejoicing over a certain level of monetary gain. To initially attract readers, authors price books at 99¢, or even for free. With Amazon’s system, authors keep 70% of sales. Self-publishing has clearly been lucrative for some authors, the most well-known success story undeniably being E.L. James with her Fifty Shades trilogy. Many authors whom Rice spoke with, though, rallied around ardent self-publishing advocate, Joe Konrath. A self-proclaimed best-selling author, Konrath has a blog dedicated to helping out authors new to self-publishing. He delights in his belief that “Amazon is going to destroy the Big 6,” particularly because he thinks books currently cost too much for the amount of entertainment they provide. I have come to see Konrath as my archenemy. I love a bargain as much as anyone, but I also believe that we should be willing to invest in the things that matter, and for me, that happens to be books. Pricing a book at 99¢ is essentially saying this is how little I think a book is worth.

            There is also an issue of quantity over quality. Many of the authors cited in Rice’s article believe self-publishing to be democratic: anyone can publish anything and readers can read anything for just a few dollars. But more is not always better. George Packer takes a similar stance in his article “Cheap Words,” a critique on profit-driven Amazon. He explains how the Kindle Singles program publishes as many as three to four works per week. Packer argues how this creates a digital market “awash with millions of barely edited titles, most of it dreck, while readers are being conditioned to think that books are worth as little as a sandwich.” Though he spends most of the article portraying Amazon founder Jeff Bezos as the Dark Lord summoning Death Eaters to his lair in Seattle, Packer broaches threatening implications of publishing too many low-quality books at low costs.

            In another sense, the value, or lack thereof, we place on books and reading is evident in the current state of libraries. When budgets get tight, libraries are one of the first places to suffer.
In his speech to the Reading Agency last year, author Neil Gaiman advocated for libraries and how necessary they are. In an increasingly digital age, information is more readily available and exists in endless abundance; for this reason, he says, libraries are more relevant than ever. Gaiman also shares my preference for an actual book. “I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens,” he argues. “Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books.” Gaiman doesn’t say we should avoid e-books entirely; rather, just because access to them is simple and convenient, we should not neglect libraries.

            Independent bookstores face a similar fate. The situation is so dire, that author James Patterson, who has notably called for a bailout of the publishing industry, has recently pledged to donate $1 million to independent bookstores. Actions such as this are necessary. I discovered most of my favorite books growing up at the suggestion of my local booksellers, who knew my tastes better than I did. Online communities – my personal favorite being Goodreads – can similarly provide suggestions and a platform for discussion. But nothing, especially for younger readers, can beat in-person relationships and conversations between a reader and a bookseller—or a reader and a librarian.

            My fear of e-books is thus connected to a fear that as a society, we are choosing to place less monetary and quality value on books and reading. We are choosing to pay 99¢ for books, choosing not to invest in libraries, and choosing to buy books on Amazon or our e-readers rather than at our local bookstores. The music industry suffered this fate recently; we cannot let it happen to books. If we want to maintain quality literature and build a strong literary culture, we must all make a commitment to invest in reading.


Small Man in Vial

Several years ago I bought this small wooden man, part of an antique magic set, in Paris, near the Luxembourg Garden (the shop is called "Librarie Thierry Corcelle"; feast your eyes: librariecorcelle.com...).

Tonight I decided to put him in an empty glass vial, and I was so pleased with the result--in terms both of aesthetic composition and existential implication--that I decided to blog it.

Happy Monday night--

"Dan Chiasson"

Train of Thought

Train of Thought
Kayleigh Butler

The promise of a trip to New York had set the tone in my writing class for weeks before it necessitated a discussion about transportation. The prospect of adventure for the sake of our art evoked animation from all corners of the room, but I sat this one out. I had only traveled by plane and bus to the city; proximity ruled out the former, and I felt thankful that Megabus had yet to enter the conversation. Driving seemed to be the most popular option, that is, until someone mentioned taking the train. The suggestion summoned a near-unanimous, Ooooh, but I was quiet. Our professor noticed the look on my face before I’d realized that I reacted, and he understood it as distaste.
The truth is that, in that moment, my feelings toward train travel were unclear--I hadn’t even been on a train until after my twentieth birthday, when locomotives became semi-permanent fixtures during the nomadic weeks I spent backpacking. Back then, I hadn’t had a choice; each train had been the means to achieving the next end destination. Sometimes I had hated them for their structural imposition on my comfort, and a few times, I loved them for providing a space to relax and relive the long days. After the trip ended, though, I hadn’t thought much about the trains at all.
In class, the conversation diverged away from transportation, but for me, time stopped.


I open my eyes and slowly remember where I am. In a daze, I take inventory of my surroundings: the locomotive hum of wheels on tracks, the splendid vacancy of the car, and Lauren, my devoted friend and travel companion, still asleep with her head bent forward on her chest. Until our brief, claustrophobic plane ride over Western Europe, I could never sleep like that, but exhaustion had taken hold and eased the ever-present tension in my neck.
Still, I’m grateful to have avoided the position this time around. Thanks to the emptiness of the car, and to Lauren’s generosity, I had snagged a window seat and avoided total discomfort. Lauren sits next to me despite an abundance of other available window seats, a selfless decision that I don't understand.
“We’re stronger as a pair,” she’d said, Heaven forbid someone might prey on us. That’s just how she is.
We’re somewhere in Poland and the sun is high, reminding me of how much we have already done in so few hours. I glance at my phone and realize that in less than an hour we will arrive in Krakow. Shit. Only thirty minutes until I leave this cushioned oasis, a departure from the cold airport floor that made our bed last night, and again lift the bag that I know must be doing permanent damage to my back.
We’d better get some pierogies, I think to myself. We have abandoned the original plan to visit Auschwitz, a trek that would have required additional transportation, and emotional stability. That’s all I want, one pierogie.
The voice of the conductor rouses Lauren, and the look on her face immediately stirs my inner adventuress. Oh yeah, we’re in Europe. I nearly bubble over with girlish giggles——how easily experience is taken for granted.
Pierogies, here we come, she says.
Lauren and I sit on the deserted platform, early (as usual) for the train. Too many horror stories of getting stranded, and too few euros to risk it, have influenced our habits. No internet, and we’re sick of playing cards. Instead, we [shamelessly] take selfies with our baguettes, the long ones that don’t last long enough. That’s what France is good for——bread. And cheese, but of course we’re all out. The actual food, that of decent quality, was largely out of our price range, though we probably would have spent our money on bread and cheese anyway——the brie speaks for itself.
Hoping to save the bread for morning, I send Lauren to grab some snacks with our last couple euros. She returns with two bottles of water and——what?!——a chocolate bar. Hysterical, I cannot believe that she has spent our last few coins on candy. Even though we probably won’t survive the night, I can’t be mad because I know it’s something I would do.
Our train finally arrives just as the sun disappears. In typical fashion, I spearhead the search for our sleeper room, and quickly locate it. I stop. Looking back at Lauren, I shake my head. Triple bunk beds line the two walls, triggering my mild claustrophobia and sending me into a panic. We are the first to the room, so we get to choose our fate.
I’m considering the bottom bunk when I imagine the train jerking to a halt and the two above bunks crushing my little body like Giles Corey in The Crucible. Top bunk it is.
Lauren and I are settling into our overnight train ritual, a retelling of events before succumbing to our individual iPods, when four blonde girls enter. With a wave to us, they begin unloading their things. Oscillating between a Scandinavian-sounding language and English, it seems that they, too, memorialize their adventures before bed, but the language barrier prevents me from knowing for sure. Besides, I’m too tired to try, and I’m slowly dozing off when I hear Lauren.
I look over at her and she’s frantically pointing down at the girls, one of which is speaking animatedly in the Scandinavian language. I take out my headphones and listen. It’s not until I recognize “a-wimba-wep, a-wimba-wep,” that I realize she’s reciting a scene The Lion King. Verbatim.
Lauren and I succumb to fits of laughter, struggling to conceal ourselves until Lauren breaks the barrier. Sorry, is that The Lion King? Affirmative. YOU’RE AMAZING!
And, just like that, Lauren’s enthusiasm has cultivated another friendship.

As I lift myself into the train, I’m confronted by a wall of humidity. The August heat has lingered well after dark amongst the languid bodies overcrowding the interior and, even in minimal clothing, my limbs stick together. Lauren and I navigate the sea of passengers only to find our assigned seats filled by teenage boys. We decide not to argue about train etiquette and search for new seats that would serve as beds en route to Vienna.
After fifteen minutes of coming up short, we snag two middle seats in a room of six (just like the Hogwarts Express, I note) and, facing each other, allow the stale heat to lull us to sleep.
I wake to a jolt, and notice that the train has stopped. Groggy, I hear concerned voices say that someone tried to jump in front of the train. Or maybe someone jumped out of the train. I can’t be sure. I look at my phone - it’s been two hours.  
Lauren looks at me, weariness seeping into her typically bright disposition. She opens her mouth to say something when someone knocks on the window to our room. An obnoxious-looking boy motions for us to slide the door open. He’s wearing a graphic designer tee, his hair is too perfect given the conditions, and the look on his face reveals that he’s far too proud to have disturbed us—but, of course, Lauren humors him.
I’m too tired to deal with this nonsense, but the interaction proves amusing. Almost immediately, he asks her if she is Turkish. I chortle, knowing she gets this kind of thing all the time. She’s 100% Italian, but her ruthless dark curls and light skin prove ambiguous to strangers. Their conversation winds down once he realizes that, no, we aren’t going to shotgun some beers with him and his friends; so I make another attempt at sleep.
And I work hard for it. I utilize every inch of the space, contorting my body until, at one point, I am upside down in the chair, careful not to disturb my neighbor. Lauren, on the other hand, greets me at sunrise with red-rimmed eyes. It appears that her endeavors were less successful, leaving me to provide the cheer that reconciles our exhaustion with the prospect of a new city.
Vienna waits for us, I say. This makes Lauren laugh, she always goes for the cheesy jokes.

Should we do it? Lauren asks.
The cashier stares blankly at us, waiting for our decision. At this point, I’ll sacrifice tomorrow’s dinner for an actual bed, I rationalize. And it’s decided. We book a triple sleeper room on the next train to Venice, a luxury purchase by our standards. Even after my contortionist performance, I ended up falling asleep on the floor of the ticket station in Vienna.
Under normal circumstances, I can fall asleep anywhere, but would probably fight fatigue before taking up residence on the floor in a public area. Traveling is funny like that, it brings out even the simplest of truths about people. Like how I couldn’t have cared less about where or how I slept.
Lauren cared, though. She chastised me for my lack of sanitary concern, and, in a departure from her frugality, suggested the fancy sleeping arrangement for our next trip.
We board the train giddy, and find that our roommate is mysteriously absent, leaving us with the 4x6ft palace to ourselves. We take stock of the room, discovering a private sink and, the most unexpected, miniature champagne bottles. Next to the bottles lie breakfast cards, with unlimited options, including (and I squeal) Nutella with toast.
Lauren and I primp for bed like Princesses of Monaco, listlessly sipping champagne and speaking in ridiculous accents - nearly forgetting that its been days since our last shower. We ignore this fact, throwing ourselves dramatically onto the beds, like soft white clouds beneath our wasted limbs. For the first time during our travels, my body stops aching long enough for me to linger in the space between restlessness and sleep. Long enough for me to forget about the inevitable damage to my back and to just listen. The train hums on, carrying us like a magic carpet to our next destination and, like magic, our newest frontier will be awaiting us when we wake. But for now, I just listen.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Children's Literature is For Everyone

When we talk about children’s literature, we’re actually using an umbrella term for books that are marketed towards the ages from 0 all the way to the upper boundary of about 22.* I’m nearly 20 now, old enough to get judgmental side-eyes on the train from stodgy men who would prefer I subscribe to the romantic image of a young woman in a flowery skirt reading Henry James, and young enough that I haven’t forgotten yet the beauty and importance of the literature we create for children. Elitist “high literary” types have decried the books I’ve grown up with and loved as self-indulgent stories for a narcissistic generation. The snap judgment that children’s literature is less important than that for adults is a direct consequence of the impulse of older generations to criticize younger ones. Children and teenagers are not second class citizens. They are absolutely capable of dealing with complex issues and problems in fiction, and it’s time for adults to look at what they’re reading.
As I was growing up, I noticed that the media liked to mock the adolescent feeling of being misunderstood. I find this both incredibly heartless and cruel. As a society, why are we derisive towards the legitimate feelings of young people, and why are we insulting the books that shelter and comfort them? There is no one moment where a person grows out of childhood and into adulthood.  As Sandra Cisnero so astutely points out in her short story “Eleven,” we are all effectively Russian nesting dolls, and the farther deep we look into ourselves the more of our younger selves we discover: “What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one.” To an extent, we are all misunderstood teenagers, or lost and lonely children. In order to live a fulfilling life, we all need to nurture our inner, younger selves the same way we nurture our adult selves, through stories.
With age comes fear. The world has changed drastically since my grandparents were young. In many ways, they don’t recognize the world around them, and they’re understandably shaken by this. But this fear of impending change is integral to human nature, and it can be lessened by a trip to your local independent bookstore, not just for teenagers scared of growing up, but for adults scared of what the younger generation is becoming. In 2012, 23.5% of the population was under 18. That is to say, almost a fourth of our population is set to inherit this changing world. If you want to look to the future, why not look to the literature that is shaping and inspiring a new generation of leaders, rather than decrying it as unimportant?
The Jenkins group ran a survey that discovered that 42 percent of college grads never read another book after college. I would absolutely assume that those who only read for school were never big readers in the first place, reading only what was assigned and never venturing onward. Beyond personal fulfillment, a society of nonreaders has dramatic consequences. There is a strong link between literacy rates and crime. Here’s the thing about children that read children’s books: they grow up to be adults reading books.  The entire generation obsessed with Harry Potter is still reading and exploring new worlds, thanks to one amazingly powerful story. One of the great joys in my life is recommending books to children that I think they’ll love, and the world would be a better place if we all engaged in this practice of building a community of young readers who will one day be adult readers.
To use a real world example, as a society, we’ve decided it’s our responsibility to care for children. We do not leave them alone to weather the world on their own. How are we supposed to take care of people whose experiences are beyond our understanding? I have seen my peers absolutely killing themselves in order to achieve an academic level of perfection that is both mandated and unachievable. The struggle to achieve academically and the very real toll it takes on the mental health of students is beautifully captured in Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story, about a boy whose academic stressors trigger a mental health breakdown. Without reading books like Vizzini’s how are educators supposed to empathize and better care for their students? Studies have shown that reading good fiction encourages empathy, and an education system that requires students to sacrifice health to achieve is anything but empathetic.
These same people running our school system are the ones claiming the YA fiction that they love as “classics.” To these people I say: Catcher in the Rye is about teen angst. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is about racism and coming of age. To Kill A Mockingbird is about a ten year old and is taught in schools: try to tell me there’s no appeal to children there. Just as it would be wrong to deny the obvious value in these books, it’s wrong to deny the value in more contemporary works.
A final, crucial understanding to legitimizing these books to the wider literary community: YA is not a genre. Many people enjoy casually discarding “genre fiction” as unsophisticated or unimportant, and while this practice is flawed in and of itself, YA is not a genre. It’s as broad of a category as adult fiction and contains a myriad of genres within it. We have our romance novels and our fantasy quests, but we also have works of shocking insight, grace, and power, and these categories are not mutually exclusive.
It’s easy to think that as an adult, you don’t have anything in common with young people today. This is profoundly untrue. Good literature encourages its readers to step out of the concerns of their own life and into someone else’s. I may now be nearly a decade older than Anne Shirley when we first meet her in Anne of Green Gables, but there is no other literary figure with whom I identify more. One of the great triumphs of children’s literature is that given the chance, it will speak to anyone of any age, making better, more well rounded, more empathetic people.

*Books that go up this high in age are somewhat rare, but I recommend Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl.