Currently (Still) Reading: Ulysses

Ulysses Modern Classics edition cover
Image courtesy Penguin

Here’s my initial hot take of the first few episodes of Ulysses.

When we last left our heroine, she had bemoaned “too much interiority.” Naively, she thought that she had hit the densest, thorniest parts of Ulysses. That turned out to be misguided hope.

Current thoughts: the connections between the episodes in Ulysses and the chapters of The Odyssey often seem tenuous, if there are any at all. I’m less than impressed. Perhaps the connection has been overstated by Joyce scholars over the years, meaning Joyce himself isn’t to blame?

How much work can you reasonably expect an audience or a reader to do before really, the truth is you’re a garbage writer? I recognize that Ulysses isn’t up there with Finnegans Wake in terms of impenetrability, but nonetheless there are moments. Is Mrs Dalloway a deliberately better book and an eyeroll at Joyce’s pompous view of himself? Or is it a diet version of an artistic vision Woolf had that was similar in scope and density to Ulysses, pared down out of a stronger tendency to acquiesce to other people’s opinions and input than the default male assumption of “but of course my way is the best”?

If you need an annotated version and a podcast and extensive notes to make any sense of a book, maybe the author didn’t do that good of a job. Of course studying a text deeply and thoroughly can add layers of nuance and appreciation in addition to a surface-level enjoyment, but that shouldn’t be the only way to make it through to the other side with any meaningful understanding.

Speaking of notes, I’ve let re:Joyce fall by the wayside. It was to be expected; I hate podcasts. I might listen to a podcast hateread this sucker, though! Other wise, the only study tool I’m using for this is to read plot summaries of each episode beforehand (or after) so I have a mental framework of what’s supposed to be actually going on in the world.

 

GoodReads Challenges

Screencap of a 2019 GoodReads challenge. One book behind, zero books read out of forty-eight.
So it begins.

I recognize that I should probably hate GoodReads. I’ll be the first to admit that its overbusy, hyperactive layout and tools are Not For Me. I don’t care what my friends are reading (sorry, y’all!) and I don’t need to see a constantly updated list of their ratings and reviews. I also don’t care about what the GoodReads/Amazon algorithms think I should read next, or what crappy and undeserving book has been voted the GoodReads Readers’ Choice. I care about keeping track of books I want to read (so easy to just send someone a link to my “to read” shelf!), keeping track of the books I have read, and motivating myself to actually get reading done—trying to keep pace with my GoodReads goal and the little thermometer on the homepage is the best way I’ve found to light a fire under my ass to actually finish books. I’ve been successful in all of them since I started officially keeping track, and I recall even using GoodReads to keep track of my annual book count as far back as 2009.

Which is why I’m posting about how it’s January 14 and I’m officially one book behind because I haven’t finished a single book out of the four I’m reading all at once.  To be fair, one of them is Ulysses, another is L’étranger in the original French, and the third is a Swedish textbook. The fourth is Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows, a book that’s been in my library since it was initially published but I seem really resistant to actually reading. Maybe I should grind that one out first, just to get something done.

My Year in Books, 2018

This year was a weird year in books for me. It was the first year in almost a decade where I didn’t have a checklist of books I wanted to finish, so I was more adrift in my reading habits than usual. However, book clubs and the DipTrans recommended reading list provided some much needed structure, and they contributed a lot to my reading this year, in particular the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club.

I also want to document my favorite books of 2018, but this little widget is provides some interesting extraneous data not covered by a simple list of 5-star books. Not pictured in the screenshot above is my average rating for the year: 3.3. As it should be, statistically speaking.

My Christmas Gift to You: Hack Education

I’m coming out of the hermit’s cave I seem to have accidentally wandered into to leave this link for you:

Hack Education

My timing is awful, as Audrey has just announced that she’s more or less done with the blog. The good news is, she’s done with the blog because her research into education technology is going to become a book published by MIT Press called Teaching Machines. She is a voice of reason in a world full of breathless praise for ed tech and personalized learning and “the whole student” and the wealth of possibilities with MOOCs and the Internet. But until the book is out, you have a wealth of information to peruse on the website.

Merry Christmas.

Friday 5: Just Wing It

What’s something for which you are waiting your tern?

I’m not waiting my turn, as such, but we have some new purchases we need to make for a newer, bigger apartment, but you can’t just get everything at once!

What have you lately gone cuckoo for?

I’m incredibly excited to go thrifting for things we need for the new apartment!

What’s got you feeling down?

As of this writing, I’m incredibly nervous about elections in Sweden (and in the US). By the time this post goes up, I’ll either be slightly relieved or even more anxious. We’ll see how the Swedish elections go. (Or how they’ve gone, I guess.)

What’s something you acquired that was unexpectedly cheep?

We picked up a new-to-us LG TV for a third of the price a similar one would have been new, including door step delivery! Again: the power of thrift shopping.

What’s that fowl smell?

I should probably take out the recycling…

372 Pages We’ll Never Get Back: Hate Reading for Fun (and Profit?)

For almost the entire time I’ve had a GoodReads profile, under “favorite books” I’ve just put: “All of them. Except the ones you like, probably.” It was as true in May 2007 as it is today: I hate everyone’s super trendy, faddish fave, including Ernest Cline.

The cover of Ready Player One

Enter Michael J. Nelson, my childhood comedy hero, and one of his RiffTrax writers, Conor Lastowka, and their podcast 372 Pages We’ll Never Get Back. They’ve turned their attention from mediocre movies to mediocre books—in this case, the oeuvre of Ernest Cline. (There is talk of continuing the podcast and branching into other books, but so far nothing has materialized.) And while the podcast is rooted more in humor than in dissecting bad writing, the humor does (inadvertently?) highlight some of the more subtle traits of weak writing. Until we get a podcast that’s a round table of editors picking apart an anonymized slush pile, this is the next best thing.

 

Bibliotherapy: Walden

A stone bench by Walden pond on a sunny day.

Friday was a rough day for me for a couple of different reasons, but the news and commentary surrounding the Kavanaugh hearings certainly didn’t help. In my rage and frustration, I turned to my books (cheaper than therapy!) and pulled out Walden.

It’s a book I’ve loved since high school, and there’s always something comforting in going back to the books of your formative years. It’s like a hug from a loving parent, or your favorite comfort food. But more than that I needed a reminder of what I miss from America, what I’m proud of, to reorient my inner compass.

“Reading” is always my favorite essay in the whole collection. It has precious little to do with anything I was upset about on Friday, but still, it helped. I might even commit the entire essay to memory, so soothing is the act of reading it. For now, two of my favorite quotes:

The oldest Egyptian or Hindoo philosopher raised a corner of the veil from the statue of the divinity; and still the trembling robe remains raised, and I gaze upon as fresh a glory as he did, since it was I in him that was then so bold, and it is he in me that now reviews the vision. No dust has settled on that robe; no time has elapsed since that divinity was revealed.

And this one, which struck me the first time I read it. I copied it on to the notebook cover for my English binder immediately after I read it for AP English in the summer before 11th grade; if I were the artsy type I would cross-stitch it or write it out in calligraphy, frame it, and hang it on the wall alongside my bookshelves.

A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips; not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself.

The choicest of relics, indeed.

On Swimming in Language

I will confess to having a fondness for astrology. Stars, Greek mythology, and the leftover trappings of the New Age movement captured my imagination at a young age, so that’s hardly surprising. I know enough about the topic to know not only my Sun sign, but all the rest of them. And perhaps—because my horoscope contains a good deal of Pisces, the dual fishes swimming in opposite directions, and I’ve consequently steeped myself in fishy lore—that’s why I think about editing and translating as swimming. Or maybe more like deep-sea diving.

(Not teaching, as much. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that the interactive and interpersonal nature of teaching means that I don’t have to imagine myself into someone else’s thoughts quite as often. They’re right there to interact with me, in the full spectrum of in-person communication.)

One of the psychology rockstars of the last forty years or so is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his “flow” model. If “flow” is a new concept for you in this context, you might better know it as “being in the zone.” Unsurprisingly, since I enjoy my work and am competent at it, I find myself “in the zone” quite regularly. It would be easy enough to simply describe this “swimming” state of being as flow, as being in the zone. It wouldn’t be entirely accurate, though. Swimming in language isn’t like getting lost in my own writing, or working on a new piece of jewelry. Swimming in language is something above and beyond “the zone.”

In any writing-related work that I do, there comes a point where I reach out to original writer, or speaker, or whoever generated the text I’m working on, and connect with them in my own head. I’m sure everyone in the field has their own personal metaphor for that connection; the arbitrary one that my consciousness and my physiology has lit upon is swimming. It’s like diving into an ocean with various currents that can carry you different places.

One current is the author: what did they mean? what tone are they trying to convey here? is there a better word to express what they’re getting at?

Another current is the reader: is this construction clear enough? will they get the author’s intention here? will this word disrupt their reading in any negative way?

Translating has a few more currents: the source language and all of its history and metaphors and idioms, as well as the target language. The tension between the two is yet another third stream that can catch me and send me circling for hours without going anywhere.

And beneath all of them is always my own curiosity, a nefarious undertow. A quick check on a given word’s etymology can, if I’m not careful, lead to a half-hour trip down the Google black hole: if these two are related, how about this third term? is there a Swedish equivalent of this idiom? what’s the name for this kind of grammatical construction?

(By now, anyone else familiar with Pisces as a metaphor for the dissolved ego and the collective unconscious can read a deeper meaning into all of this. But without the woo, the metaphor still holds.)

Conversely, if I can’t dive into the language and swim in the words, then work gets much, much harder. Not that editing or translating is all about inspiration and muses, of course, but when I’m properly swimming, the right word or phrase, the right comma or recasting, comes almost effortlessly. When I have to sit and consciously chop things up or look up word after word in the dictionary, the result is always noticeably worse (in my opinion). Most of the time, that belabored solution just gets replaced by something that comes to me, out of nowhere, hours later.

Like deep sea diving, some adjustment is needed to avoid getting the bends. “The bends,” in this case, being unable to communicate and express myself. Trying to think about something other than words, and trying to articulate what I’m thinking and what I want, is a little challenging after a long stretch of language work. It gets even weirder when I’ve been translating; that’s when I switch to an incomprehensible pidgin full of “non-standard” (that is, awful) pronunciation and rookie false friend mistakes I would never make in my professional work. I have to remember who I am, remember how to be myself.

Editors, translators, and other language professionals, I’m curious: what does your work feel like to you?