Wednesday, November 19, 2008

This Week in Reading November 16 - 22

One would imagine that this week gives us authors whose names any student of literature has heard of but whose works, except for a couple, one may not have gotten around to reading.

There are four Nobel prizewinners, France's Andre Gide (1947), Portugal's Jose Saramago (1998), South Africa's Nadine Gordimer (1991) and Sweden's Selma Lagerof (1909) who was the first woman to win it for literature. Nigerian Chinua Achebe and Canadian Margaret Atwood may yet win it, and though there was no such prize in his day, Voltaire certainly achieved that status. Other current writers with strong reputations include novelist Don deLillo and historian Shelby Foote.

Also on the list are several authors who will appeal to young adults and lovers of comics and graphic novels. There are some well known politicians, some poets, and quite a few names from television and entertainnment, as well.

Apart from the distanced works of the above literary names, two authors named George, on the other hand, have been encountered by many a high schooler. Algonquin Round Table member George S. Kauffman was the cowriter of the quintessential American comedies of the 1940s that have played on nearly every high school and amateur stage in the country and George Eliot wrote the novel, Silas Marner, which nearly every teen student has had to read for class.

This Week's Question: Once out of school, however, anyone with a taste for literature will find that the rest of the novels George Eliot wrote, Middlemarch, Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, are some of the finest novels ever written. Though everyone should know that George Eliot was the pen name for a woman who wanted her books to be taken seriously in the Victorian Era in which she lived, not everyone knows a) what that real name was, b) what other famous British personality had the same name nearly at the same time, and c) that the author's highly controversial real life would have made a great novel by itself but would have needed a more enlightened era in which a movie, or at least a cable or PBS miniseries about it would find a more receptive audience.

Answer to Last Week's Question: Literary critic Roland Barthes enigmatically described literature as "the question minus the answer." Out of context, that obviously tells us nothing, but in the context of his anti-tradition structuralism, it makes some sense. That is, if you believe in another of his quotes, "the death of the author is the birth of the reader." Leading others, such as Jacques Derrida, to the theories of deconstruction, Barthes felt that there was no neutral writing and that a text is not completed until the reader "recreates" it for himself. He differentiated between writerly text which causes the reader to actively give it new and presumably personal and immediate meaning, and readerly text which allows readers to accept whatever has been stored or displayed in the text in common sense ways. While libraries are depositories and deliverers of that commonly agreed upon literature, today's new electronic media actually allow textual interactivity in ways that will show how seemingly paradoxical and nonsensical critical theories such as Barthes' will make new sense. New works by new Shakespeares will come out of new media in new ways. We can all be Shakespeares for ourselves if we play with text enough by both reading and writing.

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