Dystopian Reality

Dystopian novels have been “in” for several years now. The Hunger Games and Divergent were the most popular reads of my high school days. Brave New World, 1984, and Anthem were on the AP reading lists. I continue to devour Ray Bradbury’s work.

However, we forget the purpose of dystopian fiction, which is to warn and protect us from creating such futures in reality. Dystopian fiction remains fiction only so long as we read and heed these books as warnings, not merely as disturbingly entertaining tales.

While we continue to be shocked by the dystopian stories we read, we are at the same time allowing ourselves to fall into them. By labelling them as “fiction” we are separating them from our reality and from our future. We feel terror and disgust as we read them, but can easily brush them aside as “mere stories” once we close the covers.

Ray Bradbury once said,

“You do not have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

As much as I’d like to say Bradbury is inerrant, I would like to alter this statement ever so slightly for the sake of clarity:

“You do not have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop believing them.”

As soon as we assure ourselves that dystopian societies are just monsters created by authors, they lose their power to prevent us from growing into such societies. The moment we begin to read these books as fiction, when we stop believing that such horrors and degeneration might be possible, is the moment we begin to descend into dystopia ourselves.

images-1.jpgIf children were to read the classic tale of Hansel and Gretel as merely a story that could not possibly have any truth to it, the preserving concept of “stranger danger” loses its impact. We cannot read this story to children without explaining its moral and begging them to heed its lesson.

In the same way, adults cannot read dystopian novels simply as futuristic fairy tales; we cannot consume them only for their shock and entertainment value. Rather, just as we would hope that children learn caution from Hansel and Gretel, it is our duty as responsible readers to learn an even greater caution from stories such as Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and even The Hunger Games. 

It is of even greater importance now in 2017 than when these stories were originally penned, even if that was not long ago. We already have turned deaf ears to the warnings of these stories and are already reaping the consequences as we slip into dystopia.

Consider the following: 

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 Remember the citizens of the Capitol in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins? We were bothered by them for their selfishness, their vanity, their degenerate morality, and their obsession with entertainment. But are we equally concerned by such lifestyles in reality? Or do we shudder at them between pages and then act as they do in our own lives without even realizing?

download-2In The Giver by Lois Lowery, another YA dystopian novel, babies who are not up to standards are “released.” I remember my friends and I crying over this chapter in elementary school. Yet now so many former young readers champion the killing of the pre-born because of detected health problems, special needs, or simply because the child is unwanted. How can we justly promote in reality the things of which we once read with sorrow?

download-3Fahrenheit 451 is fairly explicit in its message (Bradbury makes no attempt at subtlety -bless him). Yet while we read of the death of literature, we retreat without a thought into cheap entertainment as soon as we finish the book. Worse, we ignore his clear warnings and are happy to glean our information through soundbites and social media blurbs rather than through thorough reading, considerate conversations, and serious thought. Are we, too, mindlessly “watching our stories” without discernment or contemplation?

fullsizeoutput_161Perhaps the most shocking dystopian novel I’ve read is Brave New World (Aldous Huxley). At least, it was shocking when I read it four years ago. Now, it feels rather ordinary. (Has the world really fallen so far in four years? Perhaps I am simply older and sorrowfully wiser.) As I read this book, I was horrified at the unrestrained sexuality of it; most characters sought only their own pleasure, cared nothing for relationships, and procreation was a thing of the distant past. But is this so far different from today? We find ourselves living in a generation that boldly protects promiscuity and demands consequence-free pleasure while conservative approaches to relationships are scorned as old-fashioned.

download-4.jpgAyn Rand’s Anthem centers on a character called “Equality 7-2521.” Everyone is equal, but, ironically, no one is free; every member of the society is equal to the extreme that none of them may differ from others. Today, are we perhaps striving for a dangerous equality like that of Anthem? We must certainly protect and value all people equally; however, Anthem warns against forcing equality of thought. Although we read this warning, do we follow it? The minute someone expresses an idea that we consider offensive, are we quick to aggressively silence him or her rather than admit that we all have the right to think freely?

I am not saying that everything in these dystopian novels will come true, but they are not nearly as far-fetched as they once seemed. Certainly I do not expect America to be divided into factions or our teenagers to be sent into battle against each other or for us to mate according to selection by governors. However, there are undeniable dangers to reading dystopian novels as fiction, just as there are dangers to ignoring the morals of fables and fairy tales.

We ought to read dystopian books as seriously as we read history books. It is said that “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” and so we diligently are set to studying history from the minute we enter school. We also are encouraged throughout our school days to read dystopian stories, but we must not be satisfied with reading them as mere fiction. Rather, we must read them with the discernment and diligence with which we study history. It is imperative that when we read dystopian books, we read with great awareness of their relation to reality so that we are not, like poor history students, doomed to live them.

 

Misshelved: Winnie the Poe

Went to the children’s classics section in search of some light reading…now I am just wondering how many poor young Winnie-the-Pooh fans have been traumatized by Poe instead… 


Perhaps Eeyore likes Poe’s stories. “Nevermore” seems like his type of vocabulary. 

Still, “Welcome to your nightmares” is a daunting phrase to put on a book beside a beloved nursery classic. 

Oh, how I love when shelving decisions go awry. Endless amusement!

Just My Type and Fontly Yours

The title of this post is made of two puns, so I’d say it’s off to a good start.

Today I want to talk about fonts. I know, I sound like Brick Heck from The Middle, but I strongly believe that fonts and type style are crucial to the success of a piece of writing.

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The other day, a friend of mine and I found ourselves in a heated debate over which font is better: Georgia or Helvetica. I argued that Georgia is whimsical yet still professional. He countered that Helvetica is simple and easy on the eye.

We did, however, find common ground in our preference for 12 point font and 1.5 line spacing, as well as our hatred of boring, old Times New Roman.

But why do we as writers feel so strongly toward one font and type setting over another?

To answer that, I am afraid I will have to get a bit philosophical. Writing is both an abstract and concrete art form; it is abstract in the ideas it presents to the reader’s imagination, but concrete in that it does so using visual cues- that is, written words. A book, then, is a concrete collection of the abstract thoughts. Good books are works of visual art that seek to give the reader an impression of something invisible; visible words communicate invisible ideas.

Most importantly, a book (or any piece of writing) must be well-written. The concrete words absorbed by the reader’s eyes must flow naturally, make sense, and be beautiful in their individual phrases in order to construct an abstract thought in his or her mind. Just as no poorly-made sculpture leaves a lasting mental impression, no poorly-written book will inspire great thoughts.

However, there is an element to this process of concrete-abstract in writing that goes beyond the skill of the author; if words are beads, no matter how eloquently the author strings them together, the chain upon which they are strung must also be a thing of artistic merit. This “chain” must complement the beads without overshadowing them.

Just so, fonts and type settings must complement and support the writing itself. You’ve doubtless been told to “never judge a book by its cover” and I’d agree. But perhaps there is some truth to judging a book by its font.

Consider the Harry Potter books. Being a giant nerd, I own both the American and British editions. And, while I prefer the British colloquial to the American “translations,” I always opt for reading the American prints because of- you guessed it- the font. Take a look for yourself!

IMG_4921First of all, notice the adorable illustration! I hold to the belief that one never outgrows books with pictures. Second, I challenge anyone to glance at the font of the chapter title and not immediately associate it with the whimsy and adventure of Harry Potter. The font of the text itself is legible, yet not as stiff as, say, the font you might choose for a thesis.

Now consider the spacing; the margins are wide enough for a child to hold the book by its edges and the space between lines is enough to prevent the reader from feeling overwhelmed.

However, the spacing is not as wide as in some children’s books, making it feel less condescending and as if it is also intended for older audiences. Similarly, had the font been Comic Sans or some other outlandish style, the book would have been less desirable to anyone aside from early readers.

Overall, I’d say the American editions of Harry Potter are an ideal example of font and spacing being used to not only attract the reader, but make the story more accessible. It is easy to “fall behind” the printed words into the story itself because the spaces leave enough of a hole to fall through and the font is easy on the eyes without being distracting. Beautiful.

IMG_4922Now, consider the British editions.  They’re more compact, first of all, so naturally “superfluous” illustrations must be forgotten to save space. The title is lovely and, of course, consists of the same words as its American counterpart, but it lacks the quirkiness the so perfectly parallels the story. No fancy letter “M” for the first word in this edition. No wide margins or extra space between lines, thank you very much. If the American edition wonderfully represents and facilitates the magic of Harry, the British edition is more characteristic of businesslike muggles.

The words (aside from a few candy names and the Philosopher-Sorcerer switch) are the same and the story is thus the same. However, with more crowded words and a more mechanical font/spacing, this edition is not as open to being read by all. I can hardly imagine a child being drawn to this edition, despite the story not being changed, because the words are so packed together and the margins are not friendly to a child’s clumsy grasp. Sure, maybe an adult would read these, but said grownup might not be drawn into the childlike wonder of the HP books as he might be by the visible whimsy of the American editions.

Font matters.

Spacing matters.

Writing is a visual art.

The best writing transcends visuals because it inspires imagining and ideas beyond the printed word; however, this transcendence can be bolstered by a wise choice of type style. Choose a font that reflects your writing’s ideas and, from the first page, the reader will fall more easily into the abstract world you create.

In painting, the better the work, the more it says. Another painter might be inspired to create something with the same message, but if he does not do it with excellent presentation, the viewer will not understand the idea behind the work as well as he might when looking at the first, better painting. The idea is the same, but the presentation makes all the difference.

It is the same with writing.

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Which one, to you, communicates the idea of a “beautiful day”? To me, the first is too stoic to truly represent the beauty of a sunshiny day. The second is more welcoming and expressive.

I’ll say it again: Font matters and spacing matters. Abstract themes are reflected in and enhanced by the visible art of words.

So what do you think? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this hypothesis. Do you  have a favorite font? Why Wing Dings? Why not Papyrus?

I look forward to hearing from you, readers!

Perhaps you’ll be more open to commenting, thought, if I write it this way:

I look forward to hearing from you, readers!

The Race to the Finish Line

Caption for the featured image: “I love writing, but it turned me into something escaped from Star Wars. #RememberMeAsIOnceWas”

I just finished the rough draft of what I suppose is my second novel, but is the first of what I hope to be a trilogy or series… And by “just finished” I mean I typed “THE END” not even twenty minutes ago before staring in exhausted disbelief at my laptop.

I had no motivation to put on real pants or leave my house today, so I decided to marathon to the end of my novel. I did not necessarily expect that to take nine hours of writing with only intermittent breaks for chocolate and coffee, but I am not complaining because, as tired as I am, it was one of the most fun days I’ve had this summer.

Weird, right?

But seriously, marathon writing was incredibly rewarding! Not only do I have a chunky novel draft to show for it (over 83,000 words and 375 pages woot woot!!!), I surprised myself with what I hope to be quotable lines, unique insights, character growth, and some google searches that might be a bit concerning should they ever be discovered… (Examples: “cat noses,” “Italian word for eyebrow,” and “Bacchic frenzy dance music”).

It was a long day of pajamas, chocolate anything, laughing at my own jokes, crying over my own adorable and flawed characters, texting my support group (aka, my poor best friends who have to deal with me on days like this), talking to my dog, avoiding my disheveled reflection, and praying my vision holds out until the end.

BUT I DID IT.

I’m sorry, but I need to take this moment to just celebrate.

My draft needs revision. It needs to be retyped. It probably needs to be restructured in places. But I finished it for now and that’s something to celebrate.

I complain about writer’s block, writer’s despair, and other #WriterProblems like inexplicably finding typewriter ink on my forehead despite writing with a Macbook, but I am overjoyed to announce that all of these make the Writer’s Victory even greater.

And with that, I am going to eat some well-deserved whipped cream and call it a night.

 

 

 

Books from Abroad

I’m back from a six week tour and study trip to four different countries and, thanks to jet lag, my brain is wide awake while my body is still confused as to whether it’s time for second breakfast or a mid-morning nap.

So I will take advantage of this forced downtime to go on my regular post-travel blogging rampage. Expect more than one post within the next couple of days! To start, though, I will begin with my “Read across Europe” post.

In every city I visited, I did my best to find a bookshop. In most, I succeeded, and with an overweight suitcase, returned home with many new reads to add to my library. I tried to be thematic with my selections and ended with a nice little collection of books from abroad. They served as a second way of documenting my travels and expanding my understanding of the lands I visited, the homes of their authors.

  1. Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

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Our first stop was Amsterdam, home of beautiful canals, more bikes than in all of America, a certain district we did our best to avoid, and- of course – the Anne Frank House. We toured it, but I felt that I ought to have read her book first, so I picked it up in the gift shop on the way out and was engrossed in it throughout several train rides and an international bus journey.

I ended up being glad to read the book after having been in its setting. However, I was surprised to see just how roomy the secret attic was; I remember elementary school teachers telling me with horrified tones how the hiding space was probably smaller than my bedroom, perhaps even smaller than my closet. This was no the case, as I found out. However, reading the book I was struck by the brutal honesty of its young authoress. Anne Frank was, well, frank about the too-real trials of their situation and yet she also possessed a wisdom and eloquence beyond her years. I was convicted by her ability to write with such clarity and skill in the darkest of times.

2. Poems of the Great War 

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“In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow.”

From the first line, I was stuck by the poignance of these poems; they are full of yearning, mourning, and heartbreak but also hope and loyalty and courage. I picked up this little collection in Ypres after a strenuous bike ride through the surrounding farmlands, where once the poppies grew.

Although few poppies grow among the memorials of Flanders Fields now, the memories of the Great War linger. The museum and the poems in this book keep them alive, reminding, entreating us to never forget and to carry on with wisdom in light of the tragedies of the past.

This book kicked off my love of poetry, which continued to influence my reading choices throughout the rest of this trip.

3. The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory 

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This book caught my eye just as I finished exploring the castle in Edinburgh. In a city so rich in literature and history, it was a no-brainer that I needed to purchase a book. I had been hoping my something by Sir Arthur Conan Dolye or Robert Louis Stevenson or even J.K. Rowling as they all lived in Edinburgh, but this book focuses on a key point in Scottish and English history, so it worked just as well. It turns out the author got her Ph.D. in 18th century literature from Edinburgh University, which is pretty amazing if you ask me.

It was a great book for gaining insight into Mary Queen of Scots and Tudor England. Was it my favorite book? No, but it was interesting and certainly passed the time on another long train ride.

4. Underwoods by Robert Louis Stevenson

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I found this gem in a quirky bookstore in Inverness. Besides a sporting goods shop where I bought amazing running shoes, this bookstore was the only interesting thing in the city. However, Inverness is situated in the Scottish Highlands, which I strongly believe to be the most beautiful place on earth. This collection of R.L. Stevenson’s poetry is not only over one hundred years old, it smells of “ancient Egypt” and is filled with thrilling rhymes and imagery. For instance, “Wine-scented and poetic soul” (from “To a Gardener”) won me over at once.

Update: I read several more poems and am in love with R.L.S.’s ability to marry humor and earnestness within the same stanzas.

5. The Wrong Box by Robert Louis Stevenson

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After his poetry, I was on a Stevenson reading trend. In St. Andrews, a beautiful coastal town in Scotland, I found another darling bookstore, complete with ladders and books old and new. There, I picked up this “black comedy” and laughed my way through it all the way from Cambridge to Glasgow on my final train ride.

It was a pleasant way to pass a 4.5 hour journey, though Stevenson made me painfully aware of my limited vocabulary. I ended up having to scribble a list of words to look up later in my journal. Still need to do that…oops.

But, after this, I purchased a Stevenson collection on my abomination (er, I mean, my Kindle) and enjoyed finally reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, shocked that I’d never read it before and astounded at its insights into human nature.

6. Much Ado about Nothing by William Shakespeare. 

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G. David, a bookseller in Cambridge, is one of the most magical places in the world. Unfortunately for me, my wallet did not agree, so all I could afford to buy in the end was this teeny-tiny copy of Much Ado. 

We saw this comedy performed in the King’s College Fellows Garden as part of the 30th annual Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, so it seemed a fitting (and suitcase weight limit-friendly) souvenir. Besides, I think sassy Beatrice might be my literary twin and this is definitely my favorite of the comedies.

 

So there you have it! These are my souvenir books, though I also read a wealth of English and Cambridge authors’ books (on my Kindle…alas, it is so convenient for travel…)

  • Romeo and Juliet – Shakespeare
    • Aside from the traumatic Globe experience, I admit that I love this play, not because I make the painful mistake of thinking it is a romance, but because I am fascinated with the way in which it is simultaneously comic and tragic in its plot. Essay on this later?
  • Sermons on Ephesians – Reverend Charles Simeon of Cambridge
    • Wonderful resource to have on hand as I studied Ephesians during my stay in Cambridge. Simeon is concise and insightful.
  • Silhouettes and Skeletons – various
    • This was a weird one and I’m not sure why it was on my reading list for my Cambridge course. It sought to give a character depiction of Simeon and sort of did, I guess… maybe.
  • An Experiment in Criticism – C.S. Lewis
    • This book was incredible and is reshaping how I approach various works of art. I already want to reread it as I know there is a wealth of ideas that I missed.
  • Letters to Malcolm – C.S. Lewis
    • Also insightful, but I wish I could have read Malcolm’s letters to Lewis…
  • Ariel – Sylvia Plath
    • At first, I was shocked and annoyed, considering Plath’s poetry to be nothing more than long and unnecessary sex and suicide metaphors. However, upon closer reading and applying the openness Lewis advises in Experiment, I found a new depth and beauty to Plath’s writing that inspired my own attempts at poetry.
  • The Art of Prophesying – William Perkins
    • This was a nice, concise guide to preaching which, naturally, my honors institute friends and I overcomplicated.
  • Samson Agonistes – John Milton
    • Do NOT make the mistake of skimming this in your head on an airplane. Instead, read it aloud with some literary friends; I promise you will find new meaning and beauty in it this way.
  • Manual of a Christian Knight – Erasmus
    • Rule No. 5 was about the only part of this book that did not make me want to give it up. Yes, it was helpful in some parts as it described our spiritual battle, but overall it was just. so. long. and. wordy. Still, when we discussed it, I – as usual- appreciated it more than before.
  • The Silver Chair – C.S. Lewis
    • This book seemed so straightforward until we discussed it…But it was a relief to read a children’s novel after so much theology.
  • Very British Problems – Rob Temple
    • This had me laughing aloud, but I think a more apt title would be “Awkward Introvert Problems” because all of the so-called “British Problems” are things I too fear.
  • Misery – Stephen King
    • Well this was equal parts inspiring and traumatizing…it’s writing and construction were brilliant and its story had me captivated for nearly all of my transatlantic flight. But now I wonder if I really want to be a famous writer as the plot centers on the kidnapping and torture of one…Still, it was my first King novel and I certainly enjoyed (is that the right word?) it!

 

Well, there you have it! My Euro-trip 2017 summed up in the books I read and purchased. Hopefully it gave you some new reads to check out in the future and maybe some new literary destinations to visit.

Writing a Child

I often refer to my novel as “my baby” and I know this is a tiny bit weird. But, being a writer, I really could not care less if I’m weird.

Still, I think I have a valid point when I call my novel a baby, as…

 

“Writing a Child”

 

It changes each chapter

and brings me to tears,

Especially now as it

becomes a two-year

old- it calls and it cries

for it’s always in need

to stuff it’s word-count

with research as feed.

Such tender affection

to nurture its plot;

for I joy when I’m writing

and guilt when I’m not.

It’s silly and moody

and can’t make up its mind

if it wants to be three books

or five of a kind.

I yearn for a day when

it’s finally grown

and publishing rights

are all of it I’ll own-

but then will I miss it?

A mother no more?

Or is being an author

much, much better for

My sleep-schedule, diet,

mental sanity…

Or will I be pacing

ever constantly

awaiting the critics

and readers reviews…

Oh! Poor baby novel,

how can I leave you?

I must make you stronger

to stand on the shelves

amidst the great classics

who fend for themselves.

My troublesome infant,

mind-born and ink-bred

please, please obey me,

as when sprung from my head-

for then you were simple

and naked and pure

and how to raise you

I felt so very sure…

Yet still I am patient

and faithful to thee

and will guide you until

in covers neatly,

we’ll bind up and copy-

swaddle and send you

to share your small story

with those we pray who

will adopt, read, and love

‘midst this wide-worded world

 

the novel in labor,

I’ve finally unfurled.