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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Mining Books for “Hidden” Treasures

Most people approach a book the same way: they start at the beginning and read until they reach the end. While that method is certainly an efficient way to barrel through the material, it’s NOT the most productive way to approach a book. It doesn’t take advantage of everything a book potentially has to offer.

If you want to get the most out of a book that you possibly can, you need to start at the back.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating reading the book backwards.  If you did, you’d probably spoil several (if not all) major plot points – if you could understand anything that was happening at all.  No, what I recommend you do the first time you pick up a book is to immediately search for the “extras.”

If a book has “extras,” they will usually come in the form of indices and appendices. An index, when referring to a book,  is a system that makes finding information easier and it is almost always located at the back of a book.  An appendix, when referring to a book, is a document providing supplementary information and is also usually located at the back of a book.  These two sections are invaluable when it comes to understanding the material presented, especially if it’s unfamiliar or densely packed. 

If you read fantasy or science-fiction, you know how weird character and place names can get, and how hard it can be to try to remember where the character has been and where he is going when the author is writing about a different world with different geographical locales.  If you have a story with several storylines occurring concurrently, you might as well just give up.  I know I used to give up when I read books like that; I’d read the whole story through not remembering how one character was related to another or where the adventure had taken the questing company. Sure, I got through story, but I missed out on many of the jokes (“Ohhh, that was funny because those characters are siblings so his mother is her mother”) and subtler plot points (“If I’d had a map I could’ve seen they’ve been traveling in a circle without realizing it”).  It wouldn’t be until I’d get to the end of the book and see the appendices that I’d realize there HAD been a map for me to refer to all along.

If you bother to check the nooks and crannies of the books you read, you might discover some interesting (and useful) things.  Pronunciation guides, maps, genealogical charts, and indices of names and places are just a few of the tidbits you could find in the back of  a book.  Don’t think these guides are limited to physical books, either!

If you read web fiction, poke around the author’s website or the forums (if a forum exists for the story) and see what you can find.  For example, I was pleasantly surprised to find a wiki for the online serial Above Ground when I first read it last weekend.  The wiki made keeping track of all the different races so much easier.  You can even vote in the forum for what content is covered in bonus stories!

I’ve been referring mainly to novels in this blog post, but don’t neglect the value of leafing through the back of a textbook before getting to work on the chapters.  A new school semester is starting and I just know there will be students who read only the pages they are assigned to read for homework.  When you pay so much for a book, it just doesn’t make sense not to get as much value out of it as you can.   

So, from now on, read your books Japanese-style and start from the back!

Photo credit: Ifijay

Monday, January 18, 2010

Free Online Literature: Magician’s Merger

I have quite a collection of free online novels (both serialized and not) and short stories that I’ve accumulated over the years.  I’ve derived so much enjoyment from each work, it’s about time I started to spread the love and let others have a chance to read the little-known treasures I seem to be able to find so easily online.

Part of the reason I want to share my hoard of literature is to (hopefully) encourage people to read more.  Most of my students tell me they don’t like reading because it’s boring and tedious.  That tells me they haven’t been exposed to enough different types of writing to find the genre they like.  This post (and subsequent posts like it) is an attempt to rectify that.

Another part of the reason I am highlighting these online works is because they deserve to be read.  I’m a picky reader and shoddy writing grates on my nerves after a while.  Add a bad plot to the mix and I refuse to keep reading.  The story links I will be posting have all passed my personal taste test so you can rest assured your literary sensibilities won’t be offended when you read them.  

Unfortunately, the publishing industry isn’t kind to those writers without insider connections, and so a great many worthy tales remain unread and uncelebrated in the slush pile.    I don’t know if the Xenophon Hendrix, the author of  Magician's Merger, ever tried to get the novel published, but it’s an enchanting story that would make a wonderful addition to the Young Adult section in any bookstore. 

A note of caution: The first several chapters of this novel are rough, to say the least.  Even the author says in a LiveJournal entry “The first few chapters were utterly horrid. I'm surprised that anyone made it through them to read the rest of the serial.”  The farther along you get in the story, the better the writing gets.  I actually kind of like that about the novel.  The same way you can see a webcomic artist’s art improve over the passage of time, this novel demonstrates quite tangibly the power of practice. 


Photo credit: Sean McGrath

Friday, January 15, 2010

Lolcat Building: An Exercise in Creativity

The majority of documents that are written every day by students and non-students alike are rather dull.  They have to be to fulfill their purpose.  Lab reports, patient records, legal briefs, grant proposals are all essays that are generated using the analytical side of one’s brain.  Creative expression is not welcome in this kind of literature because it can distort the message. 

As a result, a great number of people are walking around on this planet with the mistaken notion that all writing is dry, dull, and tedious to both read and write. 

Innovative thinking, the imagination to approach situations from different angles, creativity are all highly coveted in this century.  But how exactly does an uncreative person become creative?  

Captioning photos is an exercise that develops creativity.

It does so because it requires that you engage your imagination as you evaluate the picture.  You have to ask yourself questions like “What is going on in the photo? What is the context of the situation pictured in the photo? What is included in the picture and what, if anything, is excluded?  Out of everything I have evaluated, what is most important? What phrase or sentence can I use to succinctly and accurately capture the one meaning I wish to focus on in the picture?” 

If you’ve ever tried to caption a photo well (I say “well” because slapping “a tree in a field” under a picture of a tree in a field is not a good faith effort when it comes to creating a meaningful caption that evokes some emotion  in a reader looking at the photo), you’ll know that it’s not easy to do.  Unless you caption pictures in your spare time for fun, this activity should be difficult because it’s so unlike the things we are asked to do on a daily basis.  It forces you to stretch your mind (in a good way). 

How to Create Captions for Photos

For a caption to be a good one, it must adhere to a few simple rules:

  • It must be relevant
  • It must be brief
  • It must evoke emotion

Relevance and brevity are fairly straightforward to understand.  But what does “evoke emotion” mean?  It means , basically, that the words of the caption call to the reader’s mind (if not heart) some feeling.  For example, if you wanted to focus on the isolation depicted in a photo of a single tree in a field, you could caption the photo: ‘The ones looked up to by all are often times the most alone,’ or ‘One is truly the loneliest number.’  It really doesn’t matter what emotion you choose – any is a viable focus for a moving caption. 

I Can Has Cheezburger, home of the famous Lolcats, is a site that focuses almost exclusively on humorous captions.  I love this site because of how much the captions crack me up most of the time.  I like this site so much I usually have it open on the overhead projector as students come in to class because it sets up an enjoyable, fun tone for the rest of the class period.  On the other end of the emotional spectrum, Demotivators are sarcastic, angst-filled captions that point out many of life’s ironies. 

Don’t think that you have to actually go through with physically captioning whatever picture you’ve chosen for this exercise.  Unless you’re a Photoshop guru, it’s too much trouble to do and unnecessary for reaping the benefits of the exercise.  Just do what I do in class with my students: I choose an uncaptioned photo (usually from the Lol Builder) and ask for suggestions on what to write IF I were going to caption the photo to be funny, sad, etc.

Every time you come across a picture in a magazine or a blog, just take a moment to stop and ask yourself what you’d write as a caption – then move on without actually captioning it.  The more you engage your brain in this kind of thinking, the easier it will be to approach problems and situations from several different view points. 

As to why this exercise is worth doing… Isn’t innovative, multi-angled thinking the kind of thinking that’s valued in today’s marketplace?