Ah yes, Mark Twain. “Huckleberry Finn”, “Tom Sawyer” and so many more stories this man, born Samuel Clemens, wrote for the world to experience. Ernest Hemingway once wrote of “Huckleberry Finn” that ‘modern American literature came from that one book’.
There are many who admire his work, others who wonder what the fuss if about. We each have our opinions about his work. I personally always loved “Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” and “The Prince and the Pauper”.
There are many reasons to like Mark Twain, but for me it is more a sense of understanding of the area he grew up in. I myself grew up about an hour from Hannibal Missouri, where Twain spent his childhood. The Mississippi River was a major part of my early years, much like his. While I didn’t work on a river boat, I did spend many a day boating on the river, fishing and swimming. He even spent time in Keokuk, Iowa just across the bridge from Illinois, my home state. He helped his brother Orion Clemens put out the Keokuk Journal.
There is something about mid-west sensibilities that Twain tapped into and enhanced in his chronicling of the human condition. I think that may be the part I admire most. He tried and was unsuccessful at jobs until he found his calling. While he had his critics and still does, his observations and ability to make you laugh while making you think is still as relevant today as it was in his time.
Thanks to StephJ for inspiring this. Since I love to read as much as I love to write, here are my answers to some questions about how I read.
Do you have a specific place for reading?
Because of my visual impairment, I prefer listening to books, either in recorded or digital print formats. For this reason, I can read while eating, doing dishes, putting away laundry, etc. Most of the time, I prefer to read in the recliner that once belonged to my late husband Bill or in the back yard where he also enjoyed sitting. I like reading in these places because it makes me feel closer to him.
Do you use bookmarks or random pieces of paper?
The devices I use are capable of keeping my place when I leave a book and return to it later. They have bookmark features, but I rarely use them.
Can you just stop anywhere or must it be at the end of the chapter?
I try to stop at the end of a chapter, but some authors end chapters with cliffhangers, so that can be more easily said than done. Also, some chapters are lengthy, and if I start nodding off, forget it.
Do you eat or drink while reading?
Whether I’m reading or writing, I’m always drinking water. In mid-afternoon, I drink Dr. Pepper. Occasionally, I’ll listen to a book at the kitchen table while eating.
Do you listen to music or watch TV while reading?
Since I listen to books instead of reading them, this can be tricky, so I usually don’t.
Do you read one book at a time or several?
I read one book at a time. I finish it, or not, then move on.
Do you prefer to read at home or elsewhere?
With my portable devices, I can read anywhere, but I prefer to read at home.
Do you read out loud or silently?
Most of the time, books are read to me, either by a human voice on a recording or by my device’s text to speech engine. Sometimes though, especially when reading poetry, I read material aloud to myself with my device’s Braille display.
Do you read ahead or skip pages?
It depends on the book. With a novel, I don’t dare skip anything because I don’t want to miss an important plot twist. With a book of essays, short stories, or poems, I skip material that doesn’t appeal to me.
Do you break the spine or keep it like new?
Most of the time, I’m not dealing with spines. Occasionally though, if I really want to read a book and can’t find it in an accessible digital format, I’ll buy a hard copy and scan it. When I do this, I try to keep the book intact.
Now it’s your turn. You can answer any or all the questions above, either in the comments field or on your own blog. If you do this on your blog, please put a link to your post in the comments field here. In any case, I look forward to reading about your reading life.
A couple of months ago, I wrote that I’d planned to write about Ernest Hemingway but decided against it. I changed my mind because I wanted to be erudite but that night just didn’t have it in me.
The truth is, I never have erudite in me. I am not an erudite person. If people read my master’s thesis, they might think I’m erudite, and maybe I was, a little, when I wrote it in 1985–I used a lot of semicolons–but overall, I am just not erudite. And I’m too tired to pretend I am.
So I’m going to write a little bit about Hemingway, but in a non-analytical, non-literary, non-scholarly, generally shallow way.
My working vocabulary has never been large, so I used thesaurus.com to find both synonyms and antonyms for erudite. I didn’t approve of the antonyms, so I put a few touches of my own on some synonyms, as one knows if one read the preceding paragraph.
(Using one in place of you and I smacks of scholarship, but it’s the only thing in this post that will smack of it.)
The antonyms I objected to are uneducated, ignorant, and uncultured. They don’t necessarily apply. I have a couple of degrees and I know a few things about Hemingway. As to culture, I make no claims, except to say I like opera, at least the old-fashioned ones with melodies, and I am never tempted to laugh when the soprano starts to sing.
I can say that as a young reader and writer I did not get Hemingway at all. My negativity may have been nothing more than a 1960s rebellion against the sensibilities of our parents. . . .
While some would claim that the passage above [from A Farewell to Arms] is strong, clear, lean, direct and pure, all I could see was dry, repetitious, undecorated, and dull, a movie star without makeup.
Well. I liked The Art of X-Ray Reading–I enjoy reading literary criticism and analysis, so maybe I’m a little cultured. But when I reached that passage, I absolutely fell in love with it. Because I didn’t get Hemingway at all either.
No, I lie. I didn’t like Hemingway. I’m a baby boomer, too, but my distaste for his books had nothing to do with the generation gap.
I didn’t like him because of all the fishing.
In my junior American literature class, we read “Big Two-Hearted River.” I’m sure it was a truncated version. But it seemed interminable. Nick, the main character, goes out into the forest to fish. He walks, sees a grasshopper attached to his sock, takes a nap, wakes up sore, sets up his tent, eats (pork and beans, spaghetti, and canned apricots), drinks coffee, kills a mosquito, and goes to sleep, all methodically, every move described in detail. But most of what Nick does is fish. Fish, fish, fish.
My grandfather took me fishing a couple of times, and I liked the way he did it. In the evening, he set out trotlines across the river, and early the next morning he went out again to run the lines. Looking back, I see it as inhumane, and I wouldn’t do it today. I think trotlines are illegal now, so he wouldn’t do it either.
But the thing is–my grandfather didn’t stand out in the middle of the river, baiting his hook with grasshoppers, and hoping to catch one fish at a time. He used Crystal White Soap and caught lots of fish all at once. Fishing wasn’t so much a sport as an art or what might now be called a practice: he was meticulous, every movement deliberate, as methodical as Nick. But not nearly so boring.
Regarding the story, it might have helped if I’d known that after serving in World War I, Nick is trying to adapt to life at home, where no one understands what he’s experienced. But I was a sixteen-year-old girl, so it probably wouldn’t have, not really.
Years later, I took a graduate seminar in the novels of Hemingway and Faulkner. It’s amazing what a little education can do. Close textual analysis under the direction of a formidable scholar and professor (and a thoroughly delightful man) forged in me a sincere appreciation for the novels.
Excluding The Old Man and the Sea.
I expressed my negative feelings (quietly) to a classmate. She asked if this was the first time I read the book. I said yes.
“That’s the problem,” she said. “If you’d read it in seventh grade, you’d love it.”
Sure. Old man, boy, boat, sea, alone, forty days and forty nights, catch, sharks, dreaming of lions.
Nothing but fish, fish, fish.
And that’s my shallow, non-erudite dissertation on Hemingway.
(Does anyone out there appreciate how difficult it is to compose a blog post with fifteen pounds of cat lying across your forearm, elbow to wrist, whence he has access to keys that can wipe out everything? IfHemingway had used a computer, with all those six-toed cats, he’d never have published a thing.)
My memory of “Big Two-Hearted River” was helped along by Sparknotes.
For the past few weeks, on my personal blog, I’ve posted doodles I’ve done from prompts taken from 365 Days of Doodling by Carin Channing.
Doodle #6. Doodle a pilgrimage you’d like to take.
In November, while in Salem, Massachusetts, for Writer Unboxed’s UnCon, I’ll make a pilgrimage to the House of the Seven Gables, which Nathaniel Hawthorne made famous in his novel of the same name.
Fortunately, it won’t look like my doodle. If I’d been sensible, I’d have chosen to travel to a two-dimensional setting, something flat, with no corners or gables. I’d have planned the drawing more carefully, too. I was so wrapped up in keeping the gables from running off the page, I forgot the house would need a roof.
To help with identification, I numbered the gables.
I haven’t read The House of the Seven Gables since college. Hawthorne’s books have never been my favorites and I don’t read them for pleasure.
One year I read The Scarlet Letter aloud to a class of junior English students. Normally I would have assigned it as outside reading, but I was almost certain–no, I was certain–these students wouldn’t read it at all. If I read to them, they would hear the story and I would be able to translate from Hawthorne-ese to modern English. I didn’t look forward to the task, but it had to be done.
That was the year of the surprise. For fifty-five minutes every weekday, the body of a sixteen-year-old girl occupied a desk at the front of the classroom, her eyes fixed on the text as I read. It seemed as if she had entered the world of Hester Prynne. Sometimes I felt as if she had become Hester.
After preaching all those sermons about the importance of literature, I still wasn’t prepared for what I saw in her face. The novel mattered. Hester Prynne, who never existed, mattered. With words, Hawthorne fashioned a bridge that spanned three centuries, and a young girl crossed to meet a woman she would never forget.
As we read, an old book took hold of a girl and wouldn’t let go. Somehow, reading it changed her. As I watched, it changed me, too.
That’s when The Scarlet Letter became one of my favorite books.
Because of some schedule issues with folks in our group, I volunteered to take an extra shift, so to speak, and therefore have two entries in three days. So I decided to do a two-parter. As the title says, I’m going to write about eight lessons I learned from Victor Hugo’s immortal classic, Les Miserables. Today, I’ll write about the first four and finish the job in a couple of days when it’s my turn again.
In the interest of full disclosure, I saw the musical before I read the book. But I did read the book, and it was just as powerful in a different way. If you haven’t seen or read it, you need to. When I talk about the experience of seeing the musical for the first time, I always say the same thing: it completely changed my life because it made me want to be a better person than I was. It has way more than eight lessons we can take from it, but I’ll concentrate on the ones that I wrote down first.
People who are hard to love often need it the most. At the beginning of the story, the protagonist, a recently released prisoner named Jean Valjean can’t find a place to stay or decent work because he’s required to show his yellow ticket of leave, which shows everyone he meets that he’s a convict. It’s appropriate that it’s yellow like the yellow Star of David that Jews had to wear under the Nazis because both marked the individual as less. Less than human, less worthy, less important. Finally, he’s taken in by a humble bishop who feeds him well, allowing him to have the biggest portion of the meal, and gives him a comfortable place to sleep. Valjean repays the man of God by stealing the one thing of any monetary value in the house–a silver tea set. When the police catch Valjean and drag him before the bishop, he could do what most of us would in that situation–toss him away. He could scold him for repaying his kindness by stealing from him and send him back to rot in prison for the rest of his life. But he doesn’t. He shows mercy, backing up Valjean’s story to the authorities, even going the extra step of giving him the candlesticks he’d missed initially. He literally saves his life and makes him rich at the same time. Valjean spends his entire life trying to live up to this almost inexplicable act of selflessness and mercy. By choosing to love an unlovable man who did a despicable thing, the bishop indirectly changes the lives of countless others.
Love is contagious, but so are hate and apathy. Later in the story Valjean has opened a factory in a town. The factory is highly successful and makes the economy of the previously poor village boom. He pays high wages and creates an atmosphere in which all are treated with love and respect. His example ripples through all levels of the town. Unfortunately, because Valjean is technically an outlaw who has broken his parole, he is eventually forced to run away from the police. Though the factory remains, eventually it falls into ruin along with the economy and positive outlook of the village. Because no one is there to serve as the beacon for love and selflessness, the baser instincts of the villagers take over, ruining everything that Valjean has built. All evil needs to get a foothold is for good people not to do the right thing.
The most fulfilling thing you can do for yourself is to do service for others. Valjean adopts the child of a former employee who has died and raises the little girl as his own daughter. He had no legal responsibility to do this, but he puts his own needs aside and gives the child a home that is filled with love. She becomes a beautiful young woman of great substance and is the great joy of Valjean’s life. He could easily have slipped away and left that girl to fend for herself. In fact, by taking her in, he has exposed himself to the possibility of being captured by the police again. But he counts it worth the risk to save this girl from a life of abuse and abject poverty. And he finds by saving her that he has saved himself.
The strong have a responsibility to defend the weak. A large part of this story, and not just that which deals specifically with Jean Valjean, is about social justice. The Bishop is a man of great religious and social standing. He sees it as his mission to protect the downtrodden. His example leads Valjean to do the same when he becomes a man of means. A group of well-to-do students participate in an uprising to fight the totalitarian French government that treat the poor and disenfranchised of Paris like cattle, or sometimes worse. They die in their attempt, but their example leads to other uprisings, which eventually change France. All of the decent people in this amazing story realize that, to quote another great literary character–Uncle Ben from Spiderman–“[w]ith great power comes great responsibility.”
Stay tuned for part two of our saga in a couple of days, in which I discuss four more lessons that Hugo’s masterpiece has taught me. I’ll end with a line from the musical that has become my life’s motto.
Joe Stephens is a teacher at Parkersburg High School. He is also the author of Harsh Prey and Kisses and Lies, both of which are available in paperback and Kindle formats. The paperback may be purchased from
Amazon, from J & M Used Book Store in Parkersburg, and from the author’s trunk.
Posted by Kathy Waller
When you reread a classic you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than was there before. ~ Clifton Fadiman
The first few years I studied Romeo and Juliet with my high school freshmen, when I was in my early twenties, I followed the Star-Cross’d Lovers school of thought: Romeo and Juliet, two innocents, their eyes meet across a crowded room, she teaches the torches to burn bright, he’s the god of her idolatry, he wants to be a glove upon her hand, she wants to cut him out in little stars–but the cruel world conspires to bring them down. The way Juliet’s father tells her to thank him no thankings nor proud him no prouds but get to that church on Thursday next and marry Paris or he’ll drag her on a hurdle thither–what kind of father says that to a thirteen-year-old girl? Parents don’t listen. The kids might be a little quick to act, and goodness knows Romeo should have waited to talk to Friar Laurence before buying that poison. But who can expect patience of such romantic souls? A sad story indeed.
When I hit thirty, and had several years of teaching under my belt, I shifted to the What Can You Expect When Teenagers Behave Like Brats? philosophy: Romeo and Juliet, a couple of kids in a hurry, he doesn’t even bother to drop in on his family, just runs off to crash Capulet’s party, proposes to a girl before the first date, insists on a jumped-up wedding, then gets himself kicked out of the city, and he still hasn’t been home for dinner. She mouths off to her father, tells him what she will and will not do, and he’s just told her what a nice husband he’s picked out for her. I mean, if you were a parent and your daughter spoke to you in that tone of voice, would you pat her hand and ask what’s wrong, or would you remind
her who’s boss here? If Romeo had just gone home in the first place, like any decent boy would have, instead of running off with his friends, this mess wouldn’t have occurred. In fact, since Old Montague and Old Capulet had that very afternoon been sworn to keep the peace, they might have arranged a marriage between Romeo and Juliet–formed an alliance that way–and the whole of Verona would have lived happily ever after, and Montague would have been spared the expense of a gold Juliet statue. Paris might have been a little put out at being jilted, but he’d have gotten over it. Kids! They don’t think.
When I hit forty, however, I discovered the dogma of the Meddlesome Priest. Friar Laurence has no business performing a secret marriage between two minors without parental consent.
He says he wants to promote peace, but he isn’t a diplomat. His field is pharmacology. Furthermore, when Juliet informs him she’s about to acquire an extra husband, why doesn’t he go right then to Old Capulet and tell the man she’s married? Capulet wouldn’t have been pleased, but he’d have gotten over it. Instead, the Friar gives Juliet a sedative and stuffs her into a tomb with a passel of relatives in varying stages of disrepair. The man appears to mean well, but it’s also possible he intends to take credit for being the brains behind the peace accords. Bunglesome or corrupt–the end is the same. With role models like this, are we surprised that children run amok?
Soon after the last epiphany, I became a librarian and ended my stint as a classroom teacher. I’ve since wondered what would have happened if I’d continued studying Romeo and Juliet year after year. Would I have had new insights? Developed new interpretations? Uncovered new layers of meaning?
How much more would I have found in Shakespeare’s words? How much more would I have shared with my charges?
Would I have continued to teach them respect and reverence? Would I have led them down the primrose path of dalliance and left them mired in levity?
The future you shall know when it has come; before then, forget it. Aeschylus
How many of you have had or wanted to have your future told? There is palm reading, card reading, psychics, all willing to give you a glimpse of what is to come. People want to know they will be safe, they will have plenty of money, that they will be happy. It’s human nature.
Does anyone have a key to the future? Can anyone know for certain what will happen in the next twenty-four hours of their lives?
We have and will continue to have disasters, accidents and any number of negative events in our lives. We will also have days of joy, sunshine and pure unadulterated love. We want the last and try to escape the first.
I believe the future is only the past again, enter through another gate. Arthur Wing Pinero
Pinero in the quote may or may not have it completely correct, but there is a certain truth to his thought. We may in fact keep getting the future we don’t want because we continue to repeat actions that lead to the same results. We have all heard the variations of the quote. Do what you have always done and you will continue to get what you always get and Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, and on and on.
Flaubert may have something here. If we continue to only think about the future, we can’t see what is in front of us. How many times have we driven through a town only to get on the other side and missed everything there. Have you ever planned to go pick the grapes you saw two days ago only to find the wildlife have beaten you to it. In our quest to get to our hopes and dreams we miss the gifts right in front of us.
Real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present. Albert Camus
If we want to have a great future, stop worrying about it. Do the things that make your heart sing and feed your soul. I truly do believe you can do that and still make a living. We may have to trade our hours for dollars, but our off hours are our own. If we give our all to being present in the present the future can take care of itself.
How do you define your work? Do you ever feel like you are in a rut? I know I do. I am always trying to find ways to push myself and my creativity. As many of you know I love history and have written papers on various historic subjects. I also write haiku as a daily writing practice that is in its second year. Still, my work could become stilted and boring. I could become bored. For people who live for their creativity boredom can become a death knell.
Lately I have rethought my writing and how it makes me feel. I still love all that I am doing, but at the same time it feels like is something missing. I have started a search to reignite the flames of creativity to reach an even higher point. I want to push myself to create in ways that are new and unusual. To that end I have begun a search and have found some interesting options I thought I would share. Some of you may already know of them and some may not.
One of the members of Pike Peak Writers has an improv writing group that meets once a week. Anywhere from five to fifteen people show up. The rules are: no critiquing, each person reads their work aloud. Different people bring three writing prompts which everyone writes to. Even if you cannot think of anything to write you can just start writing words. There is no judgement on the part of the participants. I have found this exercise to be exciting and supportive.
I have just found a form of poetry called cento. You compose a new work using the verses or passages taken from another author or authors work put in a new form or order. For more information on this form Wikipedia has a fairly simple definition and example. What I like about this concept is learning and hearing ideas that I have formed from the works I love.
All these are ways for me to re-define my work and creativity. It is something I do to keep myself excited about the prospect of creating new and exciting works. The blog post, the haiku, the short story and non-fiction are all hopefully the beneficiary of this search.
I am filling in today and thought it might be fun to post a piece, edited of course, from the local paper, Gazette, dated July 19, 1873. I have taken the liberty of adding comments and hope you all enjoy.
EASY DIRECTIONS TO YOUNG WRITERS OF MUSIC, POETS, ETC.
1. WRITE MUCH
All the old masters wrote much; otherwise they would never have obtained what you and I so much desire – immortality. (How may of us have heard this over and over? It seems that history repeats itself over and over.) The article than uses as one of its examples reading a single paragraph of Mark Twain and then stopping. It then continues with: No, my dear young (or old) friend, with the voluminous Beethoven, the prodigious Mozart…for your illustrious examples, write, write, WRITE!!!
2.THINK WELL OF YOUR OWN
Nothing can be more unnatural in a young author, poet, etc., than lack of self-appreciation. …Your reputation at home and abroad, nine times out of ten, will be no “Freak of Fortune” bestowed by fairy hands, or thrown gratuitously at your feet by an indulgent public, but will begin and end with yourself. ( I think this is one of the best pieces of information from the past. We’re told to not toot our own horn, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t appreciate our work.)
3. LIVE AND DIE POOR
Here a great many fail. ‘Tis so hard to continually and effectually turn a deaf ear to the seductive wiles of earthly riches. Remember Edgar Allan Poe, who, in spite of “marble bust” –his “velvet sofa” and “purple lining”–was poor as a raven. (This one took a bit to understand, but I think they are saying don’t write for the money, write what feeds your soul.)
4. GO WEST
Doubtless up0n this more than anything else, depends your future greatness. …Where would the Mayflower have landed, had she pointed otherwise than West? ( I think they are saying go where others haven’t gone, follow your own star and see where it leads.)
The article ends with a long paragraph including this line…Remember the great undeveloped future.
I hope you enjoyed the trip to the past…the advice really hasn’t changed much, just the wording.
You can find my own pieces of writing at the following:
I confess I love writing short shorts. For those who are wondering, a short short is a story of 6 to 500 words. It is a great exercise in writing. I have always loved short stories and this shorter form is such a wonderful challenge.
Can you write your memoir in six words? Try it. Mine could be Acting, Mississippi River, Friends, Mountains, Home or Birth, Illness, School, Forgotonia, History, Peace. Type ‘six word memoir‘ into search engines. You will find a plethora of options. There is even the story of Ernest Hemingway being challenged to write a story in six words.
Try putting your current story in less than 200 words. It will help you focus and give you a great pitch for editors. It also helps clear away unnecessary pieces that do nothing to push the story forward. I have used this form when pitching both books and screenplays. It was at a screenwriters conference that the concept first came to my attention. The idea was to use the first words of ‘what if’ and then continue your pitch. For example: “What if in 1879 a brothel owner moved her family to a decent town and her husband kills a young man who came knocking at the door late at night. Will the truth come out about her during the trial and why was a young man knocking at the door that late?” Do you think you have the editor’s attention? That is the story in about 50 words.
There are also wonderful newsletters and websites devoted to short short and the longer short story. Some of the ones I enjoy are:
For those who like the longer form, short story and novellas have gained a resurgence in recent years. This is possibly due to the short attention span of younger readers along with less leisure time for adults. The e-reader probably also plays a part in this resurgence. As it has become easier for the new writer to get their work out there via the digital market, the short story seems to be the form of choice. Of course the Ray Bradburys and Louis L’Amours always wrote short stories in addition to regular length works. For anyone who would like to see a master, read any Harlan Ellison short story. He is amazing, although not to everyone’s taste.
For me, the haiku I write are a poetry version of the short-short. I have seventeen syllables to make my point. Each word, each syllable is so important to create the piece. You can visit: http://fivesevenfivepage.blogspot.com to see examples.
Ultimately that could be the fascination I have with this story form. Each word is important, unlike the essays written in school. To tell the story effectively each word needs to be chosen with care. You use adverbs and adjectives to move the story, not add filler. I love the challenge and for that reason praise and love the short short story form.