Friday, February 29, 2008

The Conscious Bride

For my staff pick this month, I chose The Conscious Bride by Sheryl Nissinen. Because this isn’t your typical wedding book, I wanted to write a little more about what it offers that most other wedding-related books do not. As my own wedding approaches this summer, I have somehow felt that I “should” be perusing bridal books and magazines to gather all the latest tips, advice, and reminders of all the little details that can’t be overlooked. Also, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do when you get engaged? It seems that we’re surrounded by numerous experts to guide us smoothly through the engagement and wedding…that is, if you’re only looking for experts on dresses, flowers, and the etiquette of whether to invite your second cousin once-removed. I certainly have consulted these sources, sometimes for a laugh and sometimes looking for and finding genuine good advice. I understand and sympathize with a desire to make your wedding tasteful, aesthetically pleasing, and celebratory in whatever way best fits you, and clearly a degree of some planning is necessary for any event. But in my perusal of wedding “literature” I was searching for some insight beyond the planning and implementation of just this one day.

Nissinen’s book offers a different take on the wedding, which I think is a wonderful complement to any other wedding books or magazines you may be reading. Being a “conscious bride” (“as opposed to unconscious/drunk?” one of my friends joked) is about being aware of, and willing to face, the variety of emotions – both joyous and painful - that can surround the wedding and beginning of marriage. Nissinen views the engagement, wedding, and first year of marriage as a rite of passage, with typical stages and rituals that characterize all rites of passage. A rite of passage, she argues, involves a transformation of identity, as the “initiate” lets go of his/her old way of life and moves into a new role. The three stages of separation, transition, and incorporation of the new self are present in the wedding process, too. And as with any separation and transition from the old to the new, we can be scared, confused, and even sad, which Nissinen argues are all natural and necessary parts of any rite of passage, including a wedding. So often, though, our image of a wedding is one of pure and total happiness, and we worry that if any other emotions are present there is something wrong with us.

Nissinen brings to the surface the confusion and doubt that even the happiest of brides can feel during this lifecycle event, and dispels the notion that feelings of fear and sadness are not okay. Rather she argues that many brides and their family and friends put so much energy into the planning of this one “perfect” day precisely so they don’t have to face the changes and emotions this new stage will bring. Nissinen interviews and gathers stories from many brides reflecting on their experiences. The personal voices and variety in these stories were one of my favorite aspects of the book.

My one big complaint about the book is that while Nissinen moves beyond the material aspects of the wedding to focus on the emotional process -- which I clearly value and think makes the book worth reading -- the wedding template she uses is still of a very traditional nature (an engagement ring, a fancy white dress, and a father “giving away” his daughter). There is little discussion of same-sex or inter-racial and inter-religious marriages. In the introduction, Nissinen makes a disclaimer to this point: “Because what we are talking about is an archetype, it makes no difference what we call this commitment - marriage, sacred union, spiritual partnership; it makes no difference what combination of races, cultures, and sexes enter into this union.... so although the book is largely written for heterosexual couples, the energy that consumes brides applies to all committed unions.”

Despite the problematic and limiting nature of looking mainly at the archetypal heterosexual wedding, I still appreciate the emotional/psychological guidance this book provides. It truly is unique to find a book that acknowledges the full scope of feelings involved in the wedding process. It is rare to see someone completely avoid advice on how to make the external and material aspects of a wedding as “perfect” as possible, and instead advocate improving your inner landscape before and during the wedding. That is why if you’re engaged, or know someone who is, this is an incredibly important wedding book to own. I can only hope that Nissinen, or someone else, will expand on this unique perspective and write another book that more actively includes a diversity of participants and rituals.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Infinite Jest Challenge

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace is one of my favorite novels. It has become for many readers the epitome of the unreadable post-modern novel. Much of the narrative takes place in footnotes, characters exist in disparate narratives, entire story arcs never connect with each other, and when it ends it all comes to, is strange. What makes it most unreadable is its length. At 1,104 pages it's a tome more massive than most are willing to tackle, but the authors of The Infinite Jest Challenge decided to try and read the entire book in 30 Days. The Infinite Jest Challenge is almost an example of performance reading. This is up there with the continuous readings of Ulysses that happen on Bloomsday and the Vollmann club for devotions to a work or body of literature.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Handwritten Word

Here is an article from Slate magazine about the challenges of deciphering an author's handwriting. Editors usually encounter this challenge when transcribing an author's journals, diaries, and notes. (Make sure to check out the slide show of horrifying handwriting.) Though it may not seem that important whether Henry James signed one of his letters "unutterably" or "unalterably," James, and the other authors mentioned in the article, built their lives around choosing the right word and most editors feel compelled to honor that commitment themselves.

Another reason why editors would pour over the chicken scratches of a dead writer is to create a definitive edition of a work. Printing and copying are never perfect, so the longer a work is copied and, quite often, the more complicated the work is, the more likely it is that errors will creep in. In order to correct these errors scholars and editors will work through the author's notes, manuscripts, and proofs to try and figure out the right word. Again, a mistaken word here and there might not seem like much, but imagine your favorite painting with the wrong hue of green. A mistake at a crucial word could change the meaning of an entire work.

Perhaps the author upon whom the most effort is directed to create a "definitive work" is Shakespeare. Not only were his plays beset by the same copying problems as all the other texts of his time, but they were published in many different versions (four folios and a host of quartos) mostly after his death. And the differences aren't subtle. Often they are differences of a single word, but just as often whole passages are left out (or added in). Because of this, many of the plays have variorums, editions of the plays that show all of the differences between all of the different versions. Which raises the question, what are we reading when we are reading the Hamlet we are reading? And as Hamlet, and all of Shakespeare, is a corner-stone of the western literature canon, what exactly is that canon resting on?

Saturday, February 9, 2008

a book by its cover...

I'd love to be in the room when artists and designers are brainstorming about some of these book covers. Just the other day Josh and I were discussing The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall which is soon to come out in soft cover. The American hard cover version gave you the choice of red or blue dust jackets each featuring an image of a ludovician "...a conceptual, unusual is a predator, a shark. It feeds on human memories and the intrinsic sense of self. " This image is formed of words strung together.

(Both US Hard Covers)

The British hard cover has a really neat illustration combining different elements of the story into an abstract ink blot akin to the Rorschach Tests which I think is just a brilliant visual representation of the story.

(UK Hard Cover)

(UK Slip Case)

Now, here's my problem - the American paperback is dull. While Canada, Australia and Germany all get fun new covers with the shark theme we watery looking words on black. Where's the design, the originality? This is a fabulously written account of one man on the brink of losing his mind and identity, literally, to a memory eating shark . It should have a cover that conveys the depth and creativity of the novel.

(US Paper Back)

(Canadian Paper back- more interesting than American)

(Finland's Cover)

(Australian Cover)

I believe that the design of a book cover needs to be true to the type of book it's representing. I know that we're not supposed to judge a book by it's cover but we all do and there's a good reason- we can't just judge a book by the blurb on the back. It's the combination of an honest cover, intruiging title and well written summary that informs the consumer and convinces him/her to take it home.

I'm hoping to be pleasantly surprised when the paperback is released here in April.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Layers of Walden

My book group is about to finish our time with Walden. My book group is organized differently than most; because we have the luxury of most of us living together, we can meet more often. With Walden, we met about once every two weeks or so, sometimes meeting once a week and sometimes having the distance between meetings stretched by circumstance. This means that we read shorter segments of the book for each meeting, allowing us to read much closer than we would have if we'd tried to digest the entire book in one or two meetings. Not every book can sustain such rigorous reading. Walden thrives on it.

Most of us first read Walden as nature writing for a number of reasons (one being that when you've got to burn through a work to get your essay assignment done on time you are forced to focus on easily identifiable aspects of a work,) and though that's not really incorrect, it limits the scope and impact of Walden. As I write this post, I want to say "Walden is not nature writing, Walden is..." but I don't have a good description of what Walden is. It's philosophy and economics and literature and nature and a something else that combines all of those elements into a multi-layer whole that gets more complicated and nuanced with the more attention you pay to it. He writes in the world of non-fiction but uses images as if he were writing a novel. Walden has motifs along with ideas. Porter Square Books shelves it in our nature section and I would disagree if I could come up with an accurate section. I'll close this post with a few quotes from Walden, that I think illustrate the points I'm making.

"When man has reduced a fact of the imagination to be a fact to his understanding, I foresee that all men at length establish their lives on that basis."

"It is time that we had uncommon schools, that we did not leave off our education when we begin to be men and women. It is time that villages were universities, and their elder inhabitants the fellows of universities, with leisure--if they are indeed so well off--to pursue liberal studies the rest of their lives."

"It is not for a man to put himself in such an attitude to society, but to maintain himself in whatever attitude he find himself through obedience to the laws of his being, which will never be one of opposition to a just government, if he should chance to meet with such."

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