Archive for the ‘Books’ category

How To Tell a Story, Wrongly

March 1, 2012

This week’s New York Times Book Review has an utterly disturbing cover story. It’s about a writer’s tale of 16-year-old Levi Presley who, in 2002, jumped to his death from the observation deck of the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas.

The writer, though, has no allegiance to factual accuracy. Instead, he changes facts in the story to suit his artistic musings about suicide, Las Vegas and storytelling itself.

You may ask, how can the story be believable if there is no fidelity to facts? Ah, that’s what landed a most unusual book, The Lifespan of a Fact, on the cover of the Times Book Review.

Let’s start at the beginning. An English professor at the University of Iowa, John D’Agata, wrote an essay on Levi’s death for Harper’s, and it was rejected because of “factual inaccuracies.” The author then submitted a 15-page article to a literary magazine titled The Believer, and the magazine assigned an intern, Jim Fingal, to be the fact-checker.

The Lifespan of a Fact presents D’Agata’s original essay as well as what The Times calls “Fingal’s staggeringly meticulous annotations.” For instance, the first sentence of the essay refers to Vegas having 34 licensed strip clubs at the time of Levi’s death. Source material said 31. When Fingal asked D’Agata why it says 34, the writer replied, “Because the rhythm of ’34’ works better in that sentence.”

And it’s downhill from there. D’Agata changes the name of Levi’s school because he didn’t like it. He changes the color of a fleet of dog-grooming vans because he wanted the double-beat of “purple” rather than the factually accurate “pink.” He changes another suicide-by-jump that same day to a suicide-by-hanging “because I wanted Levi’s death to be the only one from falling that day. I wanted his death to be more unique.”

Fingal gamely tried at first to understand this literary license, but couldn’t shake his belief in accuracy. At one point he reminds D’Agata: “You are writing what will probably become the de facto story of what happened to Levi. Don’t you think that the gravity of the situation demands an accuracy that you’re dismissing as incidental?”

D’Agata responds that Fingal’s “nitpicking” is ruining his essay. In manipulating Levi’s story, the writer argues that he is “making a better work of art — and thus a better and truer experience for the reader.”

Uh-huh. Right. Sure.

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Book Covers for Different Countries

January 28, 2012

Growing up, I naively thought a book had only one cover. When I read George Orwell’s 1984 as a teenager, the cover to the right was the one on my paperback.

In time, it became apparent that different editions have different covers. But publishers also design different covers for different audiences, including those in other nations.

Following last June’s blog on the best opening lines of literature, a reader asked if I knew the designer of the cover that I had included. I didn’t, but it really wasn’t hard to discover in this age of Google images. The French edition cover is reproduced here with the designer’s name.

French edition cover design by Michel Siméon, 1966

Here also is a 1984 cover for Indonesian readers. If you’re into it, this website offers a lot of examples of book-cover designs.

An Indonesian book cover

Fleet Street

November 3, 2011

St. Bride's Church

The church's altar of remembrance for fallen journalists

For 500 years, Fleet Street has been the generic term for “the press” in London, and its spiritual heart has been the church of St. Bride.

In the early days, the clergy had a near monopoly on literacy and were the printers’ best customers. The modern image of Fleet Street was born when it became the scene of transformation of the medieval art and “mistery” of printing.

In media history, students learn the name of William Caxton. After mastering the technique of printing in Germany, Caxton returned to London in 1476 and set up a press near Westminster Abbey. He proceeded to print about 100 books on subjects that included history and geography, the lives of saints, and most of Chaucer’s works.

Caxton died in 1491, and his apprentice acquired the press. England’s first printing press with moveable type was brought alongside St. Bride’s. In fact, the apprentice is buried in St. Bride’s.

The photos are compliments of Professor Jessica Gisclair of the School of Communications, who is leading the Elon in London program this fall.

Best Opening Lines of Literature

June 25, 2011

Sometimes the opening line of a novel is so captivating that you just know it’s going to be a great book.

I remember thinking that when, as an early teen, I first read: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” George Orwell’s 1984 remains one of my all-time favorites.

The same was true with Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (“You better not never tell nobody but God.”) and Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim (“He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.”).

You knew immediately that A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens was an epic by the way it began: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Ernest Hemingway set the mood for The Old Man and the Sea with the opening line: “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”

Some leads make the reader laugh right at the start, such as C.S. Lewis’s delightful The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which begins, “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

Others are humorous for a different reason, such as “It was a dark and stormy night” popularized by the “Peanuts” comic strip. Edward George Bulwer-Lytton began his novel Paul Clifford with those seven memorable words, but unfortunately didn’t use a period. Instead, the opening line continues in excess with “the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

“American Book Review” recently declared the 100 best lines from novels, and all of the above are on the list. See if some of your favorites are on the list.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles… and Huck Finn

January 10, 2011

I laugh every time I even think about the movie “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” What a hilarious scene when Steve Martin and John Candy have to share a motel room, or when Candy unsuccessfully tries to take off his jacket while driving.

With family visiting from afar several years ago, I rented the movie and we settled down for a delightful evening of comedy and popcorn.

Soon, I heard Steve Martin utter the F word and was surprised that I hadn’t remembered. Then he issued a string of F this and F that. I was sitting next to my 80-year-old mother-in-law and lamely said, “Well, I sure don’t remember the movie having this language.”

And that’s when I realized I had never seen the movie theatre version. Instead, I had come to love the movie on TV and during long-distance flights. I loved the edited version.

I thought of my movie conundrum this week amid the controversy over the editing of the N word in Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” For a new edition of the book (which is in the public domain), an Auburn University professor has edited out the N word, which appears 219 times.

Many schools stopped teaching the book because of the offensive language, causing the professor to say, “It is a shame that a single word can form such an impediment to students enjoying the greatness of the narratives and the sharpness of their social critique.”

The publisher noted that other editions faithfully replicate Twain’s text, and this is simply an option for those uncomfortable with requiring students to read a text that could be so hurtful.

While some critics act as if this is a travesty, it’s not the end of the world to have a version that may well provide Huck Finn a longer shelf life as a literary work taught in schools.

Now if I could just get a copy of the “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” version that I love.

The Lede

February 12, 2010

The first paragraph of a new story is called the lede (that’s how journalists spell it). It’s also the most important because a reader either is pulled in by wanting to know more or pushed away in disinterest.

In my days as an Associated Press editor, we liked to see ledes of 25 words or less. Having so few words available brings great clarity to the mind. What is the essential point of the story? What lede can make this a compelling story worth reading?

Professor Melvin Mencher of Columbia recently noted how The New York Times lede on J.D. Salinger’s obituary was more than 60 words, reflecting Salinger’s own writing style. Read the comparison yourself.

Salinger’s opening sentence in his best-seller novel The Catcher in the Rye reflects the rhythmic speech pattern given to the central character, teenager Holden Caulfield:  “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

And now the rhythmic lede to his recent obituary in The New York Times: “J.D. Salinger, who was thought at one time to be the most important American writer to emerge since World War II but who then turned his back on success and adulation, becoming the Garbo of letters, famous for not wanting to be famous, died on Wednesday at his home in Cornish, N.H., where he had lived in seclusion for more than 50 years. He was 91.”

The shorter the better, usually. But Mencher notes that another journalistic axiom is applicable: The lede should fit the nature of the event.

From Illiteracy and Stuttering to ’60 Minutes’

November 1, 2009

Step_Out_on_NothingI read a terrific book while flying to the Middle East this week.

CBS News correspondent Byron Pitts, who is on the School of Communications Advisory Board at Elon, is the author of “Step Out on Nothing.”

The book tells the story of his functional illiteracy and stuttering problems that went deep into his schooling years, and how faith, family and friends helped him overcome enormous obstacles to become a correspondent for the nation’s premier news show “60 Minutes.”

Pitts writes about how his love for words is the result of his long struggle with literacy, and he tells about his broadcast journalism career leading to CBS News assignments in Afghanistan and Iraq and ultimately to “60 Minutes.”

His advice?  “Never say you’ll try. Say you will.”