BOOK REVIEW: The Art of X-Ray Reading by Roy Peter Clark

The Art of X-Ray ReadingThe Art of X-Ray Reading by Roy Peter Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

If one asks a group of people whether a story worked or not, one is likely to hear widespread agreement, but if one asks them why it worked [or didn’t,] one is likely to get a hodgepodge of murky conclusions. The average person will struggle to put together a coherent explanation for failed stories, an explanation which may or may not be grounded in paydirt. That’s because whether writing works or not is a matter of emotional resonance, and what delivers that emotional experience is almost as hidden as the pipes and wires in the walls that deliver water and electricity. Clark’s purpose with this book is to show the reader some of the characteristics they can read for, features which may not be readily apparent when one is lost in a good book, but which make the difference between a masterpiece and a ho-hum work.

While I referred to “story” a lot in the preceding paragraph, it’s worth noting that Clark’s book does cover the gambit of creative writing activities – including a few poets, essayists, non-fiction authors, and repeated references to one very famous playwright. That said, the bulk of the works under discussion are fiction — be it a novel, short story, epic poem, or play.

The book consists of twenty-five chapters, and the subtitle is a little bit deceptive because not all of the chapters take a single work as a focal point. Each of the chapters has a core concept to convey, using one or more authors (and one or more of each writer’s works) to do so. Some of these lessons are at the level of language, such as Nabokov’s playfully poetic alliteration and assonance, Hemingway’s sparse prose, or Toni Morrison’s effective use of repetition. Other chapters explore how intrigue can be set up and sustained: such as in Shirley Jackson’s foreshadowing of the twist in her story “The Lottery,” or the way “Sir Gawain and the Green Night” turns a non-event into unexpected chills, or how Harper Lee uses the slowed experience of time to build tension. Still other chapters present techniques such as placing texts within the text as done in “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” zooming in or out with perspective as is done in Homer’s “Odyssey,” or Shakespeare’s rejection of conventions in his sonnets. Some chapters investigate how a tone is established such as in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism, and one other focuses on intertextuality – i.e. the borrowing of ideas from past masters in a non-plagiaristic sort of way.

The authors and works selected are popular and will generally be a least familiar to avid readers of English language literature, and most readers will have read at least a few of the works under consideration. A few of my personal favorites were explored including Shakespeare, Yeats, and Hemingway, and I suspect that will be true of most readers. There was only one author of whom I had no knowledge, M.F.K. Fisher, a writer who is well-known to mid-twentieth century cookbook fans, but who is a little obscure today. Having said that, I did come away with an interest in reading the book under discussion – i.e. “How to Cook a Wolf.”

While this book is marketed towards writers, I think any serious reader would find it an interesting and worthwhile read. If you want a better understanding of what succeeds in the world of writing, you should take a look at this book.


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POEM: Visiting Dystopia [Triolet]

I opened up a book to a strange land.
A storied portal let me travel through,
and I looked down an unknown city’s strand.
I’d opened up a book to a strange land.
Here, ironically, all great books were banned
to keep the locals home and quite subdued.
I opened up a book to a strange land;
a storied portal let me travel through.

POEM: Literary Journeys

I’ve taken journeys by the page,
sitting before the Globe’s great stage,
trolling a knight’s tilt at windmills,
and seen where Grendel made his kills
to kick off a much greater rage.


I learned why birds sing in their cage,
and why the caged go on rampage,
while knights and knaves go quest for thrills.
I’ve read of roads…


I’ve spanned the Stone through the Space Age
while living too briefly to be sage,
I’ve moved by dogsled through the chill,
and opulently, with all the frills.
I’ve read of roads…

POEM: Rocketed by Book

I donned this book like sunglasses
to tweak my old worldview,
but that intent was overshot
and I saw all anew.

I peered at the page and there saw
another universe.
Through eyes not mine, but no better —
nor in any way worse.

Eyes that’d seen things unknown to me,
but not this world of mine.
We’ll have to work together to
unravel space and time.

POEM: Reading Courageously


If you’ve never been incensed,
challenged, or nauseous —
your reading is too safe, puny,
and far, far too cautious.

Reading should be a courageous act
that threatens all you know.
It should shove your feet into shoes
far different from your own.

If you want your world unchanged,
T.V. is right for you.
Books will insist you be torn a-
part and rebuilt anew.

5 Readable Philosophical Novels

There are many philosophical novels in existence. However, many of them are difficult reads either because they are complex in language or concepts (e.g. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” or “Faust“) or because — while readily understandable — they were badly in need of an editor (e.g. “Atlas Shrugged.”) Here are a few novels with interesting philosophical lessons that aren’t killers to read.


5.) Ishmael by Daniel Quinn: A man answers an ad that begins: “Teacher seeks pupil.” The teacher he discovers and the lessons he is taught aren’t what he bargained for. The book considers the impact of modern man versus aboriginal people, and the two groups’ respective place in the world.

 

4.) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: In a futuristic world, people are controlled and manipulated by genetic engineering, classical conditioning, sleep-teaching, not to mention heaping helpings of drugs and promiscuity. The book considers the role of technology in humanity’s trajectory, and it contrasts Orwell’s bleak vision of dystopian governance with one that is every bit as manipulatory — if a great deal more pleasant in appearance.

 

3.) The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: A young prince from a far-away land comes to Earth, and shows how wise the young can be and how absurd adults often are.

 

2.) Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse: A man who feels out of step with humanity faces events that force him to reconsider what it means to be a man in the world of men.

 

1.) The Journeys of Socrates by Dan Millman: The prequel to Millman’s acclaimed book “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior.” It blends Eastern and Western philosophy in the training of a warrior.

5 Reasons to Read Outside Your Comfort Zone

5.) Nothing, and I mean nothing, gets stronger in the absence of adversity. If I told you that I had a strength building regime that would double your strength and you’d never be sore, you’d call bullshit. [I’m presuming that you’re not the proud owner of a Shake Weight.] Yet, somehow, people think they can build a stronger mind while consuming only information that confirms their existing worldview just because it, at best, offers a few additional scraps of information.

4.) Get a journey on the cheap.
 Reading outside your comfort zone not only exposes you to an unfamiliar world, it’s good preparation for traveling and the mental gymnastics that will be required of you. If you cannot handle the cognitive dissonance of reading something that challenges your existing worldview, you aren’t ready for traveling — stick with your AC bus tour group, or stay at home. [Yes, I’m distinguishing between being a tourist and a traveler. If you’re a traveler, you know exactly what I mean. If you don’t know the difference, you — my friend — are either a tourist or a homebody. Yes, furthermore, I’m aware of the irony of making a distinction between travelers and tourists in a post that is — in part — a critique of the proclivity to create separations between oneself and large portions of the rest of humanity.]

3.) Master your mind. If you get queasy reading a character perspective that is remote from your experience, or if you get livid reading views that radically depart from your own, that’s a good opportunity to step in and rewire your mind to be more agile and empathetic. A good place to start is by trying to adopt another’s perspective as a dispassionate observer.

2.) Tear down some of the things you “know.”  I use the word “know” [in quote marks] to describe those beliefs you ascribe to with iron-clad certainty for no reason that would survive, say… lunch with Socrates. I’m not suggesting one should obliterate all of one’s beliefs, I’m just saying one should become aware of which articles of belief serve you and which do not.

For a few decades, I thought the path to a truer picture of the world involved adding to my stockpile of knowledge. However, I realized that some of what I knew was bullshit, and just adding to a stockpile of knowledge ballooned up the bullshit as well as the understanding of truth. So I needed away to tear down illusions. But how to do it? Turns out that beating one’s head with a frying pan destroys what one knows as well as what one “knows.” Furthermore, it turns out that reading outside my comfort zone has been key to helping separate the wheat of knowledge from the chaff.

1.) Be less predictable. Emerson said, “If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument.” He was a smart guy, and thought for himself.

POEM: Some Books

Some books are wings,
lifting one up to see countless things.
Untethered, be your rise,
glimpsing vistas known to the wise.

Some books are blocks,
building up a reader’s bulwark box.
Barring ideas opposed
to a mind certain and closed.

Which books are which?
book’s soar = f (reader’s fears)

BOOK REVIEW: Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon

Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the BorderlandsMaps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands by Michael Chabon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book consists of 17 essays about reading and writing. As the book’s title–also the title of the second essay–suggests, there’s an analogy drawn between story and a map, but—more importantly– Chabon proposes that the literary domain is a realm with frontiers and hinterlands. The central theme is that there is room for great discoveries if we stray from the center of the map were all is clear and well-defined. Literary fiction is the center. The hinterlands include a range of genres and approaches to story-telling that are often maligned as low-brow—e.g. fan fiction and comic books.

 

The book could be split into two parts, though the aforementioned theme cuts across all essays. The first 11 essays offer insight into maligned genres and their merits, but the next five shift gears into autobiographical telling of Chabon’s transformation into a writer. (The last essay, not present in some editions, could be seen as an epilogue to the entire work.) I’ll list the essays and give a hint about what each is about:

 

-“Trickster in a Suit of Lights”: This essay invites us to reconsider the connection between entertainment and literature, and in particular with respect to the modern short story.

 

-“Maps and Legends”: Here Chabon reflects upon the nature of a map and its analogy to the domain of fiction.

 

-“Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes”: Fan fiction is maligned, and not entirely without reason. Even when it achieves great popularity, it’s often bad (e.g. “Fifty Shades…”) However, Chabon correctly suggests that we consider fan fiction too narrowly, including only that which reinforces our notions. He offers a great example of a character, Sherlock Holmes, who launched a thousand fan fictions, some of which are masterpieces in their own right.

 

-“Ragnarok Boy”: Mythology often seems tired and cliché, but there are reasons such stories survive across ages. Chabon explores what it is in Norse mythology that makes it an ongoing font of inspiration for writers.

 

-“On Daemons & Dust”: For a while, YA was the only genre with rising sales–much to the chagrin of those who felt this might herald the rise of a real world idiocracy. In this essay, Chabon describes what it is about Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” series of fantasy books that pulls readers in—including the appeal of dark elements in stories.

 

-“Kids Stuff”: In this essay, Chabon considers the comic book and its evolution from kids’ stuff to a vast domain meant to appeal to a broad readership.

 

-“The Killer Hook”: This essay continues Chabon’s look at comic books, but through a specific example: “American Flagg!” a dystopian sci-fi comic book. Chabon proposes that “American Flagg!” spawned a new approach to comic book art and tone.

 

-“Dark Adventure”: This is about Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” Some topics are revisited, such as the appeal of dark and dystopian content. [For those unfamiliar, “The Road” is the story of a father and son wandering through a post-apocalyptic wasteland in search of some sort of stable community. McCarthy is the master of sparse prose, eschewing dialogue tags and maintaining a minimalist approach to his craft.

 

-“The Other James”: Here Chabon discusses the ghost story, using M.R. James’ story “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” as an exemplar.

 

-“The Landsman of the Lost”: Chabon discusses the comic strip work of Ben Katchor.

 

-“Thoughts on the Death of Will Eisner”: Eisner was a popular cartoonist, associated with such comic books as, “The Spirit.”

 

-“My Back Pages”: Here the book ventures into autobiographical territory as Chabon talks about his first dalliances with writing a novel.

 

-“Diving into the Wreck”: This continues Chabon’s telling of how he came to be a writer, and his early troubles in structuring a novel.

 

-“The Recipe for Life”: Here Chabon tells us about his introduction to Golems, a concept that would play an important role in one of his most influential works—an in the rest of the book. You’ll note the connection between fantastical devices and the telling of story that carries over from the first part.

 

-“Imaginary Homelands”: Chabon describes the role that is played by culture in forming a writer’s experience—both the culture one is living in and the cultural heritage that we each carry with us wherever we may roam.

 

-“Golems I Have Known”: This is one of the longer pieces and it presents the climax of Chabon’s tale of his transformation into a novelist. Golems as fictitious creatures built to facilitate certain truths are a central feature around which Chabon’s story is told.

 

-“Secret Skin”: [Note: This essay didn’t appear in the initial version of the book, and so your edition might not have it.] This essay invites the reader to reconsider the role that costumes and secret identities play for superheroes and how that need resonates with readers. In the process, this last essay sums up the reason why fantastical elements are so powerful in fiction.

 

There are only few graphics in the book, i.e. comic panels. Other than that there’s not much by way of ancillary matter, though there are recommended readings (oddly) interspersed within the index—rather than being a separate section.

 

I’d recommend this book for readers and writers. The essays are well-crafted and thought-provoking.

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