Are we all idiots?

In Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere’s This Is Not the End of the Book, the authors make strong arguments for the traditional book, yet some arguments flounder, particularly those regarding idiocy. As such, this is a close reading of the authors’ comments on idiocy, beginning on page 208 (“I would, however….”) to halfway down page 209 (“….when it’s shouted all over the place”).

Eco begins by distinguishing between “the fool, the idiot and the person with a very low IQ (…the simpleton)” (208). He quickly brushes aside the simpleton, noting that he “is of no interest here” (208). Where the idiot and the fool are worth studying, the simpleton’s problem is obvious. Carriere then argues that the idiot “has to broadcast his error for all to hear” (209). This seems believable, and yet Eco’s following comment seems to refute this in some ways. Though he agrees with Carriere, Eco mentions “banal, commonplace truth[s]” (209) in relation to idiocy. Interestingly, Eco does not further this opinion; though Carriere seems to believe wrongness as one component of idiocy, Eco’s complaint refers to the annoyance of repetition, even if the repetition is true.

Eco’s opinion is most notable because of its contrast with earlier comments regarding masterpieces; the authors argue that “a work of art isn’t created a masterpiece, it becomes one” (159), mainly through many readings by many people – simply, repetition. Eco’s idiocy argument is thus fallible. If it is repetition that creates the masterpiece, then how can it be that same repetition that creates the idiot? Of course, Eco mentions that the idiot speaks of “commonplace” (209) truths, but does not define what makes a truth commonplace. At what point does the masterpiece become a masterpiece, forever defining the speakers of the Mona Lisa as idiots? There is no indication as to where the line is drawn between a person who is contributing to the title of “masterpiece” and the person who blathers on, pushing a truth already known.

Eco’s earlier comments do not support his argument of banal truths, either. He argues that “[the idiot’s] logic is faulty” (208) and that “he’s dangerous” (208). While Eco’s following example of Greeks supports his point, this is only because the idiot’s argument in this example is fallible; however, Eco speaks of truths, too. Certainly, repetitions of obvious truths are annoying, but Eco gives no reason as to why these people are idiots. Faulty logic is dangerous because it can be hard to recognize – but correct logic is simply dull. Moreover, this argument holds no stock in more subjective situations; again, the Mona Lisa is accepted as a masterpiece, and yet this is not an objective truth. One problem with this was explored before, but another problem is disagreement. Is the idiot someone who does not think that the Mona Lisa is a masterpiece, and, though “he seems to reason well enough…you can’t quite work out what’s wrong?” (208), or is the idiot someone who does think that the Mona Lisa is a masterpiece, but is simply repeating “banal, commonplace truth[s]”? (209). Are they both idiots? Eco makes no distinction; the reader can easily accept the incorrect individual as an idiot, but Eco makes no explanation for why correct individual is an idiot, too.

Ultimately, though Eco makes compelling arguments “in praise of stupidity” (205), his idiocy argument falls flat with the inclusion of “truth” (209).

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“Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” (Samuel Beckett)

To my students in English 503:

In our final meeting last week, we had a really good conversation about the things that went well in the course, but I also wanted to hear about what I could have done better. Some of our successes and failures were in my control, as the designer of our course — so I asked the students who were there for their feedback on what parts of my course design and delivery they would have done differently. This is your chance to add to that feedback if you weren’t there, or amend it if you were.

I’ll use this advice the next time I teach *any* advanced seminar integrating presentations & social media, as ours did.

Here are my (bulleted) notes based on our conversation. Please add your clarifications, additions, revisions, constructive criticism, &c. in the comments.

And thanks again for your honesty, forbearance, and collaborative energy. Someday I’ll teach a seminar with a collaboratively-written constitution like this one.

  • More regular feedback on students’ writing. There was too long of a wait to get grades on blog posts, for instance.
  • More links between the informal writing (online) and the more formal research -paper writing.
  • Better integration of the theoretical & historical texts with the novels. The narrative unity of two long novels could have been replaced by shorter excerpts from primary texts (stories, poems, plays, novel chapters, nonfiction) that complemented the theory/history.
  • Initially the course felt confusing & overwhelming.
  • Maybe there could be a choice between tweeting and commenting on peers’ blog posts. There were perhaps too many posts required. There should also be an option to get credit for replying to peers’ tweets, not just posting more questions.
  • In general there were too many ideas being circulated/generated for the time we had to address them.


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“Prospectus” Revised

I have redone my Prospectus to what I hope is a better outline of my essay.

Note: I revised my bibliography and have decided to eliminate Sherman, and to add Eco and Carriere.

Historical reading practices differ from modern practices, i.e. forms of digital reading, in that they require little to no journey for the reading material. While using google or other internet search sites to bring up a text on our screens, there is no need to physically interact with the outside world in our quest for knowledge. Byatt’s Possession works as a tool for this anti-digital reading in that it’s characters correspond with one another (specifically Ash and LaMotte, and Roland and Maud, of whom will be my essay’s main focus). Roland and Maud must physically get their hands on copies of Ash and LaMotte’s writing in order to understand their journeys and relationships with one another, that is, the very essence of the subject matter of the texts they are so eager to understand.

The journey for the reading material influences the characters in Byatt’s novel positively in terms of their desire to possess the texts themselves and the historical background behind them. They also allow for relationships to be built with each other as is the case with Maud and Roland who begin to understand themselves and each other on their journey to find Ash and LaMotte’s letters, developing a, for lack of a better term, romantic relationship with each other along the way. An important moment of self-discovery is when Maud, after years of refusing to read Ash and to accept that he may have had a hand in LaMotte’s writing, discovers that she has shared ancestry with him, arguably a stepping stone in her being able to be rid of her biased opinion of his and LaMotte’s writing. In having taken the journey to find the original copies of the letters, Maud was able to find these answers along the way. Of course the forms of media tools we have today were non-existent in the 80s and 90s, but had they been and had Roland and Maud employed them their experiences, their understanding and self-discovery, and their relationship would not have existed at all, or least to a lesser extent.

One point I wish to address is the fact that Byatt has written some of the correspondences with sentences that have been crossed out. The letters, having been written in the 19th century, are obviously handwritten and evidently they provide their readers (Roland and Maud) with a sense of their original, entire purpose. Though these crossed-out sentences are the result of their author having changed their mind in wishing to include them, without such Roland and Maud would be ignorant to the whole picture that is Ash and LaMotte’s relationship. Although the crossed out sections are a rather minor detail in the grand scheme of the novel, they allow for us to begin to see the importance of an original copy, for if the letters had hypothetically been emails written in a modern time, they would not include crossed-out sections and their readers would be ignorant to anything Ash or LaMotte had wanted to say in the heat of the moment. I will support this using Foucault’s piece on the importance of an author and of knowing who the author is and of their intent. I will also support this using Manguel’s “A History of Reading” and how this piece discussing the importance of what is written in a text, i.e. everything that was intended even if not desired to be shared in the end, as is the case in some of Ash and LaMotte’s correspondence.

Opening Paragraph and Thesis Statement: Byatt’s characters desire to possess their understanding and appreciation of literature through their journey to find the original correspondence between Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. It is through this physical journey that they are able develop relationships arguably not possible had their search been digital, and also to free themselves from any biased opinions of the authors they may have previously had, Maud’s refusal to accept Ash as an influence of LaMotte’s for example. Byatt’s novel acts as a tool for anti-modern reading practices as said practices may involve such bias. This is the case when the reader employs their preconceived notions of  the author or subject; when the text’s author becomes less important to the reader than succeeding literary criticism; and finally when the author becomes absent and thus the reader may employ the criticism or theory of another in their place in order to make sense of the text.

 Annotated Bibliography

 Primary Source:

– Byatt’s Possession

Secondary Sources:

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author”. Modern Literary Theory.

4th Ed. Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh. New York: Oxford University

Press, 2001. p. 180-190. Print.

  • to discuss different reading practices and to support my argument that the contemporary reader arguably moves far enough away from the text towards their own ideas of what a text should be and should provide that there author’s intent has been lost

Carriere, Jean- Claude, and Eco, Umberto. This Is Not the End of the

Book. London: Vintage, 2012. 1-35, 145-171. Print.

  • to discuss the survival of a physical text and use it to build on this notion that there will always be purists who prefer the reality of the finding of a book over the quick steps to do so in the digital world, and that the author’s journey to producing the text is just as important as the text itself

Foucault, Michel. “What Is An Author?.” Language, Counter-Memory,

Practice. Donald F. Bouchard. Revised ed. New York: Cornell University

Press, 1977. 124-127. Web. 20 Mar. 2013. <http://evans->.

  • to discuss the importance of an author in the first place as there are texts that have been circulated without knowledge of their author, and therefore the reading  of it arguably becomes solely dependent on one’s experience of a text based on what others have argued about it in previous years

Gass, William H.. “Death of the Author.” Salmagundi. Robert Boyers.

Vol. 1. Saratoga Springs: Skidmore College, 1984. 6-10. Web. 20 Mar.

2013. <>.

  • used with Foucault to discuss that the absence of an author allows the reader to allocate the text’s habits to a different one, a theorist just as Lacan for example.

Manguel, Alberto. “The Silent Readers.” The History of Reading. 2nd ed.

Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 1996. 50. Print.

  • to discuss the importance of what is written in a text, i.e. everything that was intended even if not desired to be shared in the end

Todorov, Tzvetan. “Reading As Construction.” The Reader in the Text:

Essays on Audience and Interpretation. Susan R. Suleiman and Inge

Crosman Wimmers. Illustrated ed. Cambridge: University Press, 1980.

67. Print.

  • with Manguel and Foucault to discuss the importance of the author and the intent of their writing
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Back to the Future…..of books

I found an interesting article online that coincides quite well with recent class topics of discussions that I thought I would share with you all. After reading Ramsay’s “Reading Machines” and “This is Not the End of the Book” by Eco and Carrier, there are many mixed opinions on what the future of the book will be in the next few generations. The article I found is titled “The Future of Books” by Andrew Losowsky and was written in 2011 so it is fairly recent. He discusses his belief that e-readers and tablets will essentially dominate the book world, but will not extinguish the physical book. His explanation for this is for nostalgic and aesthetic reasons; he relates this to the reasons that people still buy vinyl (which was brought up in class today) for the reason of appreciation for the original value it brings:
“[Books] will continue to exist for certain types of literature read by certain groups of people, just as vinyl still exists today. A book is a weighty precious object, but we’ve gotten quite lazy with them over the last 50 years, they’ve become quite low quality. We’ll see more focus on producing beautiful niche objects for those books that continue to be made, using a variety of new printing techniques.” (Lowosky)
People who want the “convenience” of an e-reader will enjoy the benefits that come with them, but something they lack quite significantly is the aesthetic and comforting value of a book. I would like to agree with Lowosky in saying the book will not be distinguished from the world but it will lose points in popularity; there will always be people who appreciate having the book in its utter wholeness, but these people are not the majority anymore.

The link to the article:

If the link doesn’t work for everyone, here is the information to look the article up:

Losowsky, Andrew. “The Future Of Books.” Print 65.2 (2011): 71-74. Academic Search Elite. Web. 27 Mar. 2013.

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Where to Start Responding?

I have parts of the book flagged off and links that I found whilst perusing for this response that I want to share. So many choices!

Let’s start with the book and tie the rest in later.

I am mostly responding to the phrase, “A typed letter might be seen as rather too close to commercial correspondence”, (114) is this still the case? I think not. Eco goes further to say “if you want to be read and understood it’s best to write legible letters, and that the computer is therefore our best ally” (114). Hand written notes in class maybe, writing on post it notes around my house, yes, but in the classroom handwriting is being phased out, even hand written lists such as grocery lists or to do list are being shifted to smartphones, laptops and tablets. How many people still write their essays by hand for the draft? I used to think I wrote better when I wrote by hand, that I thought about it more thoroughly; however, I think my thinking has shifted (mostly since I began university) to the majority of my writing being done on computer. Carrière comments that he misses hand written drafts, “I miss the mistakes, the words scribbled in the margin, the chaos, the arrows pointing all over the place – all those signs of movement, of life, of unresolved searching. This being said, when the bulk of the items we read are in Times New Roman font or some other computer generated typeset, will we lose the ability to read handwriting? Will future generations be able to read manuscripts of old when they are unable to write in cursive text themselves? Are those of us that can both read and write in cursive a dying breed and will this be another of those filters that Eco and Carrière speak of? Will texts, manuscripts and even letters and notes written in cursive be entered into museums and library ‘special collections’ because technology has removed the ‘need’ for handwriting?

Yikes, and now I’ve written more on that then I thought I would and I still have more to say but I’ll save that for comments and perhaps in-class discussion tomorrow.

Here are some links I thought were interesting and maybe just some food for thought!

Also, check out this stat: Google “history of reading” About 2,510,000,000 results

Thanks for the great discussions guys!

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Fighting Obsolescence

In This is Not the End of the Book, Jean-Claude Carrière and Umberto Eco note that “a person is only a top researcher in nuclear physics for as long as they can make the effort to understand all the data and keep their head above water” (42-43), and this expression of human limitation seems to hold true as well for the world of the book in general. Authors, readers, researchers, professors, and even the book itself are inevitably trapped in an ever more difficult race against irrelevance. Carrière and Eco describe this phenomenon as “the total disappearance of the present” (55), whereby our knowledge and abilities are continually becoming outdated, while simultaneously requiring increasingly greater effort to maintain and expand them. This creates an interesting paradox in the case of literature, in the sense that while our writing and research is driven along ever more fiercely by the desire to remain current and relevant, it actually has the effect of massively increasing the volume of literary material produced and consequently raising the ‘filtering’ standards by which relevance is determined. In essence, by fighting obsolescence we inadvertently encourage it.

There are perhaps ways of challenging this trend, such as the creation of increasingly numerous subjective literary worldviews to ‘store’ research and books crucial to their perpetuation. Political Science, like many fields, is and has long been driven by the idea of competing worldviews through which the past is analyzed, current events are interpreted, and the future is predicted and anticipated, and because of this has managed to retain a relevant home for even the minutiae of a vast body of political and historical documentation. There is little reason to suppose that this cannot also be the case for English literature, and literature in general, as existing fields of literary criticism have already been extremely successful in encouraging the reading and documentation of ‘obscure’ literature and research, eagerly adding it to their respective bodies of supporting evidence. The expansion of critical theory into increasingly more numerous competing categories and subcategories would thus harness competitive human instinct in ensuring the use and reuse of humanity’s cultural heritage.

There are of course a multitude of flaws in this hypothesis, one of them being the eventuality of what Carrière and Eco describe as the problem of “producing six billion separate encyclopaedias, and thus being utterly counterproductive and actually paralysing” (315). In this sense, the multiplying of discourse would ultimately reach an extreme whereby the actual discursive function would become almost impossible, rendering it simply another case in which pursuit culminates in obsolescence. This ultimate failure bodes ill for the fate of the book itself, because if, as Marshall McLuhan famously put it in his book Understanding Media, “the medium is the message” and the message is obsolete, the book seems inevitably doomed to the irrelevance of over-proliferation. Indeed, Carrière and Eco discuss the example of the Bibliothèque nationale in France, where it was found “that more than two million of the library’s books hadn’t been requested since [the library] was first conceived of” (275), and if the vast majority of all creative effort in the literary field is destined to be little more than accumulated stacks of paper, the outlook for the future of literature appears quite pessimistic.

This leads me to an important question, and while I realize this is a ‘response’ post rather than a survey, I want to break a little with ENGL 503 tradition here and ask each of you to explain, in light of what seems to be the absolute futility of the practice, why – why do we in general, and you in particular, read, write and study literature? Is it because you’re good at it? Is it because you enjoy it? Is it because you believe there is something lasting in the reading/writing/criticizing of a work of literature? Etc.? Also, in light of the fact that I have provided one, albeit flawed, idea in this response, how – how can we escape the literary ‘urge to obsolescence’ that seems to doom all literary work from the moment the writer sets his/her fingers to the keyboard, and would it be positive even if we could?

Whether you are willing to post your answers on twitter, in response to this blog post, or in class, I am sincerely interested in both your why and how, and look forward to hearing about them.

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Wooden spoons were improved with metal (because of the splinters)

Let’s address the central premise behind This is not the end of the book;. The book is going to disappear, but literature can survive this disappearance. The electronic medium can accomplish everything the book can – the book exists because the means of production remain convenient and it will be phased out eventually. Soon it will only be valued as sentiment, the way email has supplanted but not yet replaced the greeting card.

Eco and Carriere demonstrate remarkable foresight and historical knowledge but I disagree on their belief that the book will endure in its current, leather-bound, printed-paper form. I have no wish for my presentation to appear harsh, because I respect Eco and Carriere very much as intellectuals and learned a lot reading This is not the end. But I think they are misguided in their belief that the book as a physical object will not migrate onto e-readers, tablets or computer screens.

The technology of e-reading and the power of the Internet is misrepresented and a little bit underestimated by Eco in particular. On page six he suggests that “one can also imagine that the fantastic invention that is the internet may likewise disappear. Just as airships have disappeared from our skies” (6). He goes on to compare the development of the Concorde aeroplane to the invention of the internet, noting that the Concorde was eventually deemed too expensive and abandoned. The problem with this analogy is that the Internet is not a product that is assembled in a factory and then assessed by one patent-holder whether it is profitable or not. Take a look at this website:

The Internet has at least 14 billion pages indexed by search engines. The largest of these, Google, produced more than 50 billion in revenues in 2012 providing a flagship service that is entirely free of charge:

I don’t need to further stress how large or entrenched in our economic and geopolitical landscapes the Internet has become. While it is certainly plausible that we could face a massive energy crisis in the future, rendering our electrical systems defunct I suspect the Internet domain servers would be amongst the last devices to power down. So much of our infrastructure now relies on the Internet – communication for transportation, sources of news, regulation of financial markets. In the event of a global catastrophe our society would fight to keep the Internet available at all costs. Books, on the other hand…

The batteries and electrical energy powering our e-readers and other devices are taxing, but books also consume the environment. Paper production releases hundreds of millions of tons of toxic waste into our ecosystem. North America produces five hundred million tons of paper, much of which goes into landfills or recycling processes that can be environmentally unfriendly in themselves. Paper consumption has been linked to climate change. If you would like to verify these assertions, feel free to check out this boring report on paper and energy consumption I found:

Eco, whose name is somewhat ironic in this context, is misguided in his belief that the digital, not the textual medium is a doomed fad. Books are a doomed, five thousand year-old fad, partially because the Amazon and the ozone layer cannot take much more punishment.

I would also like to refute the claim that technological or digital mediums are necessarily ephemeral. Carriere discusses the DVD as an example of the short life-span most digital forms have: “I was finally sure that I had my ‘lasting media format’. How wrong could I be? They are now announcing much smaller disks, which require new players and, like the e-book, can hold a substantial number of films” (15). He goes on to bemoan that there are things “technology is ruthlessly outdating.”

The somewhat Luddite stance Eco and Carriere take here is surprising to me given the thoughtfulness and nuance with which they discuss memory and grand cultural narratives later in the book. But I would argue firstly that the form of information storage and presentation might be changing (DVD to Blu-Ray, Kindle to iPad, etc.) but this is not very much different from the shift our ancestors made to paper from vellum or papyrus, or the invention of the index or table of contents. The basic idea of learning and reading via computing: 0’s and 1’s translated into human language, is still consistent since the computer’s inception; and most importantly the content is always transmutable. Computers were developed to break codes in World War II after all. In the future, file extension names might change but the technological market will be expected to ensure compatibility and develop legacy software that will allow users to access dated materials. Any major operating system developer or software storage designer that enters the market expecting people to abandon everything on their old system will not succeed. I don’t believe that has ever been attempted.

This is why I think it’s unfair of Eco/Carriere to blame technology for the loss of old knowledge. It is sad that we have discarded so much. But both of them point out later on page 148 that people have thrown away books all the time: “How many precious documents and rare books have been destroyed as a result of simple negligence, oversight or accident?” So it is not the fault of technology. Technology has enabled a huge influx of diverse and in my opinion, very durable writing to profligate our collective consciousness and we only have so much room to spare. And as our storage space capacities continue to improve, it’s less likely we will lose access to obscure and esoteric materials, although our cultural dialogue is moving too fast right now for the uninterested to pay these things attention. Overall though, I believe the Internet is a positive influence on dissecting the grand narratives that have historically shaped the way we think about art and literature, the same behemoths that Eco and Carriere find distasteful. The E-book is in the long run cheaper (there are e-reader recycling/donation programs as well) and provides options that might have been inaccessible through text. For example, difficult translations. Or repressive societies: political dissidents in China might have had certain texts seized if ordered by mail – but a bit of careful digging and filter back-dooring on the net can facilitate access. The value of a book lies in the ideas it presents – if the words are appearing before your eyes as the author intended, then why does it matter whether or not it appears on a screen or on a page?

^ That is a discussion question.

More questions:

-Do you agree with Eco and Carriere that the book will endure? For how much longer? What sort of technological or societal limitations do you think we need to overcome in order for us to do away with the book completely.

-What do you think the objective of the book is? Eco and Carriere discuss that nothing else has managed to replace the book’s function so far, such as film, music, video games. As we move towards a more interactive medium found in more and more e-books, do you think the book’s relationship with the reader is becoming corrupted, or enhanced? What I’m really asking is, do you think it’s okay for me to play Age of Empires as a substitute for reading a history textbook?

-What sort of consequences do you predict the decreased value of the E-book will have on the world of literature?

-It is a potential problem that, although the digital medium will retain storage of old work, our hyperactive imaginations will brush past it. What do you think scholars can do to improve global interest in reading and writing about this knowledge we seem to be on the cusp of permanently forgetting?

-Is there anything else in my summary or presentation you take issue with or would like to comment on?

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Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting

Eco and Carrière’s bibliophilic discussion in This is not the End of the Book takes us through an astonishing array of different topics. What I found particularly striking in my own reading of the text is the section dealing with memory and filtering (which Grant also touched on in his presentation today). In Eco’s conceptuatlization, memory serves a double function:

On the one hand to preserve certain data, and on the other to allow information that does not serve us and could possibly encumber our brains to sink into oblivion. A culture unable to filter the heritage it receives from previous centuries brings to mind Borges’ Funes the Memorious, in which the title character is endowed with the ability to remember everything. That is the exact opposite of culture. Culture is essentially a graveyard for books and other lost objects” (63).

For Eco, then, memory and culture isn’t merely the accumlation of human endeavors; there is also a complimentary erasure and forgetting that takes place. To preserve everything produced or created in an unfiltered manner would constitute an Eco-ian anti-culture, a force that is detrimental to the health of a particular societyor, if the internet can be classified as a “global phenomenon,” the health of global culture.


As I was re-aquainting myself with some of Plato’s writing (otherwise known as “productive procrastination”), I noticed an interesting parallel between Eco’s notion of culture and Plato’s ideal city-state. In Book II of his Republic, Plato states:

Then the first thing will be to establish a censorship of the writers of fiction, and let the censors receive any tale of fiction which is good, and reject the bad; and we will desire mothers and nurses to tell their children the authorised ones only. Let them fashion the mind with such tales, even more fondly than they mould the body with their hands; but most of those which are now in the use must be discarded” (16).

Plato’s ideal isn’t just based on improvement or addition; it is also through the process of a purposeful and necessary discarding that Plato’s republic can come into existence. The culture that survives, that comes through, has its foundations in that which should only exist as lacunae, and the result is that Plato’s ideal republic is also an Eco-ian “graveyard for books and other lost objects.”


However, the trail doesn’t end here. Centuries later, Walter Benjamin takes up the convoluted relationship between the culturally victorious and the defeated, lost, and forgotten. In his Theses on the Philosophy of History, Benjamin writes:

“Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures . . . They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries” (997).

The treasures of culture, carried along with the victors of history, are haunted by those people and objects who have remained anonymous or been forgotten, and these cultural treasures, paradoxically, act as testaments to that which they efface.


Here, we find ourselves in familiar territory as Benjamin gestures towards the dual movement of remembering and forgetting that Eco mentions above, but a question remains: what do we make of the unfiltered material that Eco seems to abhor so much? Will it lead to the collapse of culture, or does it signal a refusal to perpetuate what Benjamin calls the “triumphal procession?”








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Prospectusing for the Last Information Gold Mine

Possession is written on the upward slope of a technological and information revolution. Roland and Maud battle copyright laws, the power of capital and ethical dilemnas about the desirability of free information when their salaries depend on intellectual property. As scholars who are emotionally and, in Maud’s case, genealogically linked to their subjects they have to make decisions that force them to confront how they view the value of literature, information and the currency with which that information is exchanged.

I will introduce the topic of value alongside Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere’s discussion in This is Not the End of the Book. Eco and Carriere are both avid tome collectors and are passionate about the book as a physical object that occupies its own space. The chapter named, “Books with a will to survive” will serve as my argument’s staging ground. Eco and Carriere agree that the physical book, particularly original manuscripts, possess cultural value. Their fears that the new digital medium may prove ephemeral, impermanent or overwhelming given its lack of affirmed filtration system are interesting. National library archives are steadily being converted into online formats. Scholars and critics must now stay abreast of global trends given the widespread proliferation of academic texts during the 2000s. Eco and Carriere’s concerns about accessibility and the creation of a cultural ‘master narrative’ dictated by scientists suggest the destruction of a quality intangible and unique to literature. Concerns about accountability and reliability are outlined in Robert L. Bailey’s article “Information: The Currency of the New Millenium.”

Possession mirrors these fears ambivalently. Legitimate, verifiable sources of information are self-contained and physically traceable. The contents of the black box Cropper unearths, the sheets Roland pilfers and other various letters are presented as valuable because of their uniqueness and fragility. As displayable objects these documents lend their bearers a sense of ownership. Each character desires to be the sole proprietor of the information contained within. However, they do not want this knowledge to stay locked up forever.  Maud and Roland both intend to disseminate the secrets as part of their profession and Cropper enjoys the power associated with playing gatekeeper. They want the world to know and understand the affair`s ramifications – but only at their convenience and through the filter they choose to employ. The characters’ attachment to Ash and La Motte add a hypnotic, seductive quality to the relics that makes them perform outrageous acts, but also drives the story forward. I will explore whether or not Byatt presents the relics in a consumptive light to imply that hunger for ownership over information is destructive, futile or entirely inescapable.

Eco and Carriere address the issue of information filtration in the chapter “The revenge of the filtered-out.” They suggest that the cosmos of art and criticism are moving too rapidly for any sort of canon to be developed and question the process through which our own cultural history is reflected. They also express concern that reliance on digital storage – USB sticks, internal hard drives, internet service providers – will potentially prove catastrophic. I intend to argue that such a failure is unlikely and their fears concerning the loss of access to artistic materiel is a byproduct of too much artistic material being produced for us to universally consume.

Possession articulates these issues by fleshing out the emotional nuances of its characters clearly. I will demonstrate in the text how Roland and Maud’s unwillingness to distribute the letters until they unravel the mystery themselves stems from the problems Eco and Carriere describe. Roland and Maud are both operating in an environment where many of the most obvious (and best) ideas about literary theory have been mined. At the beginning of the book Roland and Blackadder experience increasing difficulty in contributing meaningfully to the discussion about Ash. The discussion itself is clearly growing more unwieldy and obscure as academics are forced to balance their inaccessible ideas on a wobbly stack. Maud and Beatrice’s work on Christabel La Motte is frustrating because she is so poorly known – Maud feels La Motte deserves better but admires and tries to emulate her by living a life free of the compromises that effective marketing would demand. Adrienne Shiffman has written an essay titled “’Burn what they should not see’: The Private Journal as Public Text in A.S Byatt’s Possession‘” that talks about the merging of subject with self when the role of reader, author and critic become mingled that might be useful here.

I would like to explore further how Possession balances the flow of what drives our attachment to information as currency. It is true that pragmatics, such as the wealth and social status that accompanies the production of acclaimed work are elements the novel’s characters (and Eco/Carriere) find hard to ignore. But I think the desire to “own” information is mostly demonstrated by its use as a tool through which to understand and express oneself. Jennifer M. Jeffers points out in her article “The White Bed of Desire” that Roland and Maud are only able to find catharsis in each other after the intellectual fulfilment of their literary adventure creates an opening. This satisfaction extends to the reader and essentializes Byatt’s view on literature’s value for self-discovery.

Eco and Carriere probably need not be afraid that a massive electromagnetic pulse will destroy all information, especially when hard disks are compared to the frail and flammable frame of a paperback book. But the fear that information will become free and subsequently worthless is significant for those of us who construct our identities as filterers and exchangers of data. If scholars find themselves distributing opinions on a substance of little value, will society take them seriously? This might be particularly  worrisome for people like the characters of Possession who, as lifelong students of others’ poetry, write themselves into their criticism as much as their subjects.

Works Cited

Bailey, R. “Information: The Currency of the New Millennium.” The International Information & Library Review 29.3-4 (1997): 319-31. Science Direct. Web. 22 Mar. 2013. This article is a little dated given the subject matter and I might substitute it for something superior if I can find it. However it frames my argument of information as a weapon or tool quite nicely and fits with Eco and Carriere.

Heath, Stephen. “Academia: The Value of Literature.” Critical Quarterly 41.1 (1999): 132-38. Wiley Online Library. Web. 22 Mar. 2013. This article might prove useful in discussing the relevancy of `value`in a free-information society. It presents a lot of interesting questions about academic isolation from the external world and intellectual elitism. It also discusses accusations that literary criticism around the current canon has worn out its use.

Jeffers, Jennifer M. “The White Bed of Desire in A. S. Byatt’s.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 43.2 (2002): 135-47. Taylor Francis. Web. 22 Mar. 2013. This is a text-specific article that focuses on how Byatt`s characters obsess over the colour white. There are sections that I find interesting as white can be written on – the colour white signifies a blank slate or page – a source of both intimidation and autonomy to the writer. The desire Jeffers mentions to know and ultimately merge with the text is a motivating factor in the description of my argument.

Mellard, James M. “”No Ideas but in Things”: Fiction, Criticism, and the New Darwinism.” Style 41 (2007): 1-29. Print. Byatt offers some commentary on the role of science in the categorization and postulation of literary ideas.

Piper, Andrew. “Rethinking the Print Object: Goethe and the Book of Everything.” PMLA 121.1 (2006): 124-39. JSTOR. Web. 22 Mar. 2013. This is more specific to Goethe so perhaps a better article exists. But there are big chunks in this article that discuss the temporality of literature and the challenges it faces from mass production and the internet.

Richardson, Brian. “Remapping the Present: The Master Narrative of Modern Literary History and the Lost Forms of Twentieth-Century Fiction.” Twentieth Century Literature 43.3-4 (1997): 291-309. Print. Will be useful for tying into the Eco and Carriere discussion of filtration as well as some articles pertaining to scientific and technological decision-making when it comes to cultural canon. May or may not use.

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Prospectus: Possession and Ramsay: putting algorithmic criticism to the test

Please accept my apologies on the lateness of my post. Rest assured this will not happen again!

For this project I am undertaking an exploration of A.S. Byatt’s Possession through a series of digital interventions, particularly algorithmic criticism as proposed by Stephen Ramsay’s Reading Machines. This essay will be presented as a series of blog posts titled “Abarstic Reading.” Byatt’s novel is critical of the inadequacies that result in  criticism due to habits of collecting and concealing information among scholars. We see every character portrayed collect artifacts, manuscripts and unpublished work from the past possessively, seeking to protect what they have re-imagined from the scattered fragments of Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte’s history. Possession thus poses a complex set of queries that as students/scholars we are challenged to respond: to what extent can literary criticism accurately recover the past? Can technologies available to us today ease the tensions that lead to the hoarding of information and artifacts? If so, in what ways?

In this essay, I will argue that digital forms of reading, such as the use of text-analysis tools and algorithms, can in fact be used to effectively to sort through these anxieties. My thesis will be divided in two main sections, starting with an analysis of habits of collection in the scholarly world and the role digitization plays in the formation of strong scholar communities. I will then conduct an “experiment” with Ash and LaMotte’s writings, by classifying each author’s work into published and unpublished, then running them through text analysis tools Voyant and TAPoR and record what how the quantitative results clarify/challenge my readings. Allow me to introduce my arguments into more detail here:

I agree with John J. Su, who affirms that Byatt treats collecting memorabilia optimistically since this “can, in certain instances, help individuals to imagine alternative identities” (685). This tendency of accumulation among scholars, however, prove problematic to our ability to understand a text when they are not properly shared or transmitted. The ending of Possession, which puts all LaMotte and Ash scholars together in a room after a cathartic storm, certainly testifies to the need of communal scholarship.  Though Byatt shows us a wealth of criticism from different ideological and geographical camps, the answers scholars and readers seek to possess do not come clear until all the documentation comes together and creates a link between the two Victorian poets. So in this spirit of free transmission and preservation of texts, would Byatt be opposed to archiving documentation online? I wish to use the evidence from Possession as a call for what Richard Cox calls the “digital challenge or promise.” As archivists look for ways to bring traditional and innovative ways to store information, Anthony Grafton realistically states that “any serious reader will have to know how to travel down two very different roads simultaneously”  (292, qtd. in Cox). In other words, the relationship between material and digital sources must be maintained in intellectual communities not only to promote ties among scholars, but also to adequately continue a dialogue about the role that the digitization of archives can play in the ways we think about texts, or reading.

Once I have grounded my argument in the importance of different approaches to reading Possession, I will conduct an analysis of Ash and LaMotte’s poetry algorithmically. This will be the first time I am using text-analysis tools alongside traditional forms of interpretation, so I am unsure of how I will engage these two. I am hoping that the quantitative results that a program like Voyant Tool yields helps me engage with the qualitative distinctions in Byatt’s novel more effectively. I will admit that, as an English student grounded in certain tradition, the empirical approach to analysis that Ramsay proposes disrupts my tendency to value the discourses that have long thrived in ambiguity. Yet, as I think about Byatt’s satirical portrayal of scholarship in conjunction to algorithmic criticism, I increasingly grow convinced that our reading of LaMotte and Ash would benefit from patterns automatically derived by a computer. This will isolate our understanding of the poems away from the larger plot of Possession, so that we can increase our awareness of what Estelle Irizarry calls the “the unique blend of word, structure and pattern” of each of the authors’ poems (172 qtd. in Ramsay). I hope that the “methodological honesty” (Ramsay 173) of algorithmic tampering will help in clearing up possible discrepancies between our understanding of the text and its message. Byatt is obviously skeptical about our ability to ultimately draw satisfactory conclusions about a text because we disrupt through interpretative interventions. Ramsay’s empirical approach to separate the ‘agreed-upon facts’  and those under debate might, I argue, will yield a better-rounded conclusion about Possession, and quite possibly of my own reading habits.

Annotated list of works cited*

*This not a final list; subject to revision

Cox, Richard J. “Conclusion: A New Kind of Archival Future?” Personal Archives and a New Archival Calling: Readings, Reflections and Ruminations. Duluth: Litwin, 2008. 289-312. UCalgary Ebrary. Web. 20 March 2013.

Cox considers the fate of the personal and professional archives that we accumulate through in the progress of our careers, and how these may be responsibly preserved and transmitted. I use Cox’s text to ground my argument that an accessible, digital grouping of archives is viable and necessary to achieve a fuller understanding of a discourse or a text.

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology and the Future of the Academy. New York: NYU Press, 2011. UCalgary Ebrary. Web. 20 March 2013.

This text is keenly in touch with the academic anxieties Byatt develops in Possession; Fitzgerald treats challenges of obsolescence optimistically, and thinks of ways that we can integrate alternative research methodologies in order to plan ahead and ensure that conventional and ‘future’ modes of researching and reading can remain in touch as well as viable.

Mitchell, Kate. “(Dis)possessing Knowledge: A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance.” History and Cultural Memory in Neo-Victorian Fiction: Victorian Afterimages. New York: Palgrave, 2010. 93-116. DOAB. Web. 20 March 2013.

Mitchell addresses the cultural implications of Possession, as well as the assumptions that different scholarly traditions bring to readings of the texts. This text provides evidence to justify not only the reliability of text analysis tools such as algorithms, but also my call on behalf of communal scholarship (and its possible complications).

Ramsay, Stephen. “An Algorithmic Criticism.” Reading Machines: Towards an Algorithmic Criticism”.  Urbana: Illinois UP, 2011. 1-17. Print.

—. “Special Section: Reconceiving Text Analysis Toward an Algorithmic Criticism.” Literary and Linguistic Computing  18.2 (2003): 167-174. Humanities International Complete. Web. March 2013.

This essay shows an earlier stage of Ramsay’s work on algorithmic criticism. Ramsay effectively addresses concerns over computer-assisted criticism, while putting forth the notion of ‘play’ through deformation, a digital form of reading that allows us to actively participate within the qualities of a given text while simultaneously quantifying patterns that deepen our empirical understanding.

Su, John J. “Fantasies of (Re)collection:Collecting and Imagination in A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance.” Contemporary Literature 45.4 (2004): 684-712. Project Muse. Web. February 2013.

This article considers the role that collection of artifacts and documents plays in the formation of identities and awareness of heritage, themes that Su argues Byatt treats optimistically in her novel. I extend Su’s argument in my paper to include academic communities as well, but also problematize it by challenging his thesis with Ramsay’s work: for instance, what if we were to collect information to analyze algorithmically?





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Struggling with Art: A Reading Response to “This is Not the End of the Book”

In reading Eco and Carriére’s This is not the end of the book I was struck by many aspects of the text. The authors throw out various tidbits of information, or ask extremely intriguing questions and then immediately move on. A few ideas in the text could have books of their own. The idea that struck me was the discussion of great artists and how they came to be in their own time, and why the art came about at such a time. The authors ask why “not a single book published in France between 1800 and 1814 – the zenith of Napoleon’s power – is still read today,” (105). The two ultimately come to the conclusion that “as power fades, some art forms are given a boost, and some not,” (105). Additionally, they propose, “when the state is in crisis… then art is free to say what it has to say.” I think this gives rise to two ideas. That one, art is controlled by the powers that be to certain extents, and two that only through struggle does art become memorable. A modern example through author J.K. Rowling comes to mind. With Harry Potter she tapped into the seemingly endless fear the English have about absolute evil power coming to destroy everything good, (their experiences in both World War’s are probably the reason for this). The art mirrored the struggle, and showed characters overcoming insurmountable odds. Her second book, (which I will admit, I have not read, based on the reviews), is about an election in a small town, where no massive struggle is presented. There’s a reason one of the books is a multi-format billion dollar enterprise, and one is a much less read critical dud. Eco and Carriére once again show why books need to last, not only because of their technology, (i.e., the way they’re constructed), but their content as well. When someone is creating art merely for monetary gain, or for political reasons, it becomes “flat and lifeless,” (105). This brings to mind a few questions: what motivates great art? Can great art be achieved without struggle/suffering? What constitutes “great art”?

Work Cited

Carrière, Jean-Claude, Umberto Eco, and Jean-Philippe De. Tonnac. This Is Not the End of the Book: A Conversation. London: Harvill Secker, 2011. Print.



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Reading Practices: The Eighteenth Century versus the Modern Era

Allow me to excuse any vagueness of this prospectus by stating clearly the fact that this paper is still a work in progress and this prospectus serves mainly to illustrate my main areas of interest and sample the sources which I will use to investigate these interests.

This essay will investigate Eighteenth century and modern reading practices with Laurence Sterne’s “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” as its primary text. The continual references Sterne makes to the readers of his novel provide great insight into the expectations 18th century authors have of their contemporary readers, while at the same time illustrating differences between reading practices of their time and now. Sterne’s depth of scholarly knowledge and his many allusions to previous literature (real and fictional) can come across as intimidating and exhausting to the not-so-well-read reader, giving rise to the notion that the reader plays an important role in the understanding of and bringing to life of Sterne’s characters. How different the reactions to Sterne’s novel are between readers of the 18th century and modern readers, then, will be one of the primary concerns of this traditional (not blogged) paper. Sterne’s novel will therefore be explored in an effort to illustrate the potential differences and similarities of 18th century reading and modern reading.

The scholarly sources listed below will be used in conjunction with Tristram Shandy and will assist in my endeavouring to illuminate the similarities and differences between two different time-period’s reading practices. While most sources below are concerned with the 18th century in some way, I have also found sources which will discuss digital reading and the evolution of texts over time in the hands of different authors, publishers, editions, etc. detailing certain effects this has on the modern student. The sources concerned with the 18th century discuss “Novels” and their elevation as a writing format, the demographics of readers, and authors’ expectations of readers. While the list which follows is not the “final” works cited list for this essay, they are representative of the issues which will be explored throughout the paper.

These will be my main points of argumentation:
• The essay will take into consideration the fact that the 18th century readers of Tristram Shandy were of varying classes and, depending on to which class they belonged, their reactions to Tristram Shandy would have been favourable or hostile.
• The increasing popularity of the novel format and the way in which Sterne is aware of this trend will be elaborated upon in order to show that his digressions and non-linearity were intended as a defense against the rising body of works which were goal oriented and, in his mind, unproductive reading practices.
• This paper will also aim to uncover the differences and similarities among the traditional 18th century readers compared to digital/technological modern reader.

Annotated Bibliography (Not in Alphabetical Order):

Lupton, C. “Giving Power to the Medium: Recovering the 1750s”. Eighteenth Century:
Theory and Interpretation, 52(3-4). 2011: 289-302.

Lupton describes the material side of the novel and the interactions authors of the Eighteenth century have with physical books. Also, going a step further, she describes novels of this time period as works which anticipate their own reception. Applying her ideas onto Tristram Shandy will allow me to contextualize Sterne’s addresses to his readers and his insistence on their reading and education. For example, Lupton states that in the 1750s, “trumped-up authors parade knowledge of their books’ printed form while actually illustrating the sense in which its printed matter lies beyond their grasp,” giving “The Two Orphans” (1756) by William Toldervy as an example. Toldervy’s exposition includes instances such as, “those for whom these sheets are written,” or, “which we shall exhibit in the next chapter” (299). Sterne participates in these conventions, allowing extrapolation from Lupton’s discussion here, onto Sterne’s own work. Continuing from this discussion, Lupton emphasizes that not all 18th century novels are successful as entertainment and that “most were received with some hostility” (299). In our class discussion of Tristram Shandy, this feeling of “hostility” towards Sterne’s work was apparent and much of what she says on the readers of the 18th century overlaps with this reception. I feel that her analysis of the novels in the 18th century will be valuable in my investigation of the evolution of reading practices through a material perspective.

O’Driscoll, S. “Reading Through Desire: Interpretive Practices for Eighteenth-Century
Popular Culture”. British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 29(2). 2006: 237-251.

O’Driscoll offers much insight into the demographics of literacy and class in the 18th century, and applies this information onto the reading of ‘Pamphlet Literature.’ While ‘Pamphlet Literature’ is not wholly interesting in this discussion of 18th Century readings of Tristram Shandy compared to our reading of it in English 503, the insights she provides will be included in determining the intended audience and the reception of Sterne’s novel. Her comments on the upper classes portraying the reading practices of the lower classes, for one, as having “nothing pure about the activity” (238), will potentially be helpful in reading Sterne’s addresses to his readers during his meta-fictional breaks from his history. As well, her discussions on the “ambivalence of the middling classes toward the labouring classes” (239) will be useful in framing and contextualizing Sterne’s characters and their stature in society for the purposes of contemporary interpretations versus our own.

Drury, J. “The Novel and the Machine in the Eighteenth Century”. Novel: A Forum on
Fiction, 42(2). 2009: 337-342.

Drury gives much insight into the growing popularity of novels during the 18th century and details the resistance to conventional novel-styles from authors like Laurence Sterne. He also gives a somewhat comprehensive evolution of the history of the novel during this time period. Plot lines and narratives which reach an end are of importance in his paper, giving arguments to support the claim that Sterne flouts conventional writing techniques and wishes, instead, to engage in conversational, digressive, allusive writing of an “older model.” Drury states, for example, that “Tristram declares his book remarkable for the “deep erudition and knowledge” with which it supplements the usual fare of plot and “adventures.”” This source will enhance my argumentation in that I wish to discuss in some detail the narrative effects of Sterne, his awareness of the literary trends of his time, and contrast the impressions this would have given an 18th century reader with a modern reader.

Diaz, J. T. “The Digital Archive as a Tool for Close Reading in the Undergraduate Literature
Course”. Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture, 12(3). 2012: 425-447.

Diaz, who writes specifically on Early English Books Online (EEBO), gives instances of students engaging with digitally formatted texts and compares these digital texts with, say, a Norton anthology physical text. She discusses the changes that happen to texts over time when in the hands of different authors, publishers, etc., and the ways in which being aware of this fact enhances students’ interpretive strength when reading. In comparing the poem ‘Easter Wings’ as it appears in the Norton to the digital copy of it on EEBO, she states, “regardless of which version students prefer, they acquire an insight into how printing and editing practices inform our close reading practices. In addition, they also learn to see these “errors” as moments of insight into the poet’s art; as Random Cloud has observed in his brilliant study of the poem, “the modern critical and editorial confusion about the number of ‘Easter Wings’ poems could be said to emanate from equivocation at the very core of Herbert’s artistic practice”” (83). These moments of comparison between traditional and digital reading will allow me to contrast the ways in which our class engaged with Tristram Shandy and, therefore, how the modern reader would engage with it as well.

Again, these sources should not be taken as a comprehensive list of works which I will cite, only as being representative of the major points I wish to address in my paper to come.

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Harvard: A Pseudo-Cinderella Story About Algorithms

In case you don’t follow sports or my tweets (which I know you don’t), this past weekend and the next two weekends comprise what is known across American post-secondary institutions as March Madness. It’s the ultimate college basketball tournament that happens every year; if a team is good enough over the course of their season, they receive a ranking from 1 (the best) to 16 (the least best) in their conference.  People fill out brackets, stating who they believe will beat who and who will ultimately win the tournament.  They base their decisions on  a wide variety of criteria: some have statistical evidence to back of their choices and some just pick their favourite mascots.

There is almost always a game playing on some broadcasting network, namely TSN, CBS, TBS, and TNT.  16 teams from 4 conferences square off in a single elimination game, cutting the number of participating teams in half after every game.  1 faces 16, 2 faces 15, 3 against 14, etc…  If a team makes it to the second weekend, the Sweet 16 round, by winning 2 games the first weekend, that means they are “going to the big dance”.  If a team that is ranked low (typically 13-16) manages to win their 2 games from the first weekend and make it to the Sweet 16, they are called a Cinderella team (because she finally gets to go to the ball when nobody thought she ever would).

This may sound terribly boring to you and you are wondering “what does this have to do with English 503?”  Well, I will tell you; we have been talking about algorithms and their efficacy and accuracy when applied to subjective fields.

TSN had a clip between games where they interviewed a professor of statistics from University of Toronto who had come up with his own algorithm for figuring out how well teams would do.  Please don’t ask me to explain the algorithm because I don’t have a clue what it means; I just know that after plugging in all his information, each team received a numerical value.  His theory was that in any given match up, the team with the higher number would win.  Not all teams he picked for his Final Four were top ranked teams which is significant to note.  A very similar idea to the “Moneyball” concept seen in the movie with Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill.

This sounds like a great idea, a sure fire way to get a perfect bracket, except for one thing: Harvard.  Yes, Harvard.

Harvard was ranked 14 in their conference and they were matched up against New Mexico, the #3 seed.  Harvard has never been known to do well in March Madness, they rarely even make the tournament.  What do you really expect, most of these kids did not grow up playing the game in the streets with their friends.  Leading up to this tournament, the team had not made a victory in the tournament in 75 years.  Seems like an easy pick for New Mexico, right?


Harvard won in a game that busted everyone’s brackets on the very first day of the tournament.  They beat New Mexico 68-62 in an unbelievable turn of events.  Which just goes to show that this tournament truly is “madness” in many respects.  Any team can win on any given day.  Just like how Arizona completely decimated Harvard 74-51 two days after their win, meaning Harvard will not be going to the dance.  But that is besides the point.  Nobody cares how far Harvard goes, we were all just shocked to see them there at all.

The most significant thing to note about this unfortunate turn of events for New Mexico, besides the fact that it was 75 years in the making for Harvard, is that the aforementioned professor at the U of T had New Mexico in his Final Four.  On paper, this should have been a blow out game.  Absolutely nobody had Harvard in their brackets, 75 years of tradition would support that.  The algorithm failed.

This algorithm did not take in to account human subjectivity.  Nobody, not even a machine, could foresee Harvard winning a game; Harvard didn’t even think it would happen.  It was not that the data input was incorrect, but that human subjectivity cannot be 100% accurately predicted or replicated.

Now, for how this relates to English 503.  We came to the conclusion that in fact there could be a machine created that is the sum of all our shared experiences and influences and that factors every single thing in to its text analysis.  Where I see the problem arising is in using machines to produce the literature themselves.  I feel that this would be less effective based solely on the fact that it would not be a subjective human creating the work.  There will always be that gap between algorithmic capabilities/quantitative data and human production/qualitative experiences.

It may be that this is just my personal opinion or preference because I don’t know enough about the field of digital humanities to be able to make a more informed opinion but I still stand by my point.  Machines don’t take in to account the power of the human will, it’s not exactly quantifiable nor can we ourselves actually pinpoint how effective any one person’s subjectivity can be in any given situation.  We can make educated guesses or predictions but we can never really know for sure.  Our predictions will be correct, until they are not.  They will be correct until Harvard wants to try to fit into glass slippers.

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Presentation Summary: This is Not the End of the Book;

For my presentation, I will approach the assignment in the ‘traditional’ format of an 8 minute presentation discussing Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriére’s This Is not the End of the Book.

Eco and Carriére’s text is a massive undertaking of the many facets of how knowledge is stored, shared and preserved.  The authors, (or more appropriately, conversationalists), suggest that as a tool to preserve knowledge, the printed book cannot be beaten; Eco proclaims “the book [is] like the invention of the wheel. Today’s wheels are the same wheels as prehistoric times.” (Eco & Carriére, 7-8).

Suggesting that even before the printed press the printed word existed, Eco and Carriére become ‘weathermen’ for the future of literature. They propose that digital media, reading and the Internet have become dangerous tools to literature and academia itself. An interesting idea that caught my eye was twofold; can literature be stored on the Internet, and how does the Internet affect our interpretations of text?

The storage of information is one of the key themes of the text, and it’s important in not only books but also film. In the documentary “Side by Side” director Christopher Kenneally outlines the uses of both film and digital film in cinema and consequently cinematography. Film stored on celluloid, laserdisc, DVD, VHS etc., become useless if there’s nothing to play the films or the films will sometimes deteriorate on their format. This can result in them being lost forever. This is the same with literature, when the authors talk about “a CD-ROM of […] Patrologia Latina on the market for 50,000 dollars,” which later became worthless with the advent of information sharing on the Internet, (15).  The rare Orson Welles performance Eco and Carriére discuss would surely become less worthwhile if it’s contents became available on say, Netflix. This gives rise to the biggest problem with the digitization of literature on the Internet – one of filtering knowledge.

If information is stored on the Internet, who is to say it won’t get lost in an endless amount of search results, killed off by the more accessible, (and often dead wrong Wikipedia). “What the internet provides is gross information, with almost no sense of order or hierarchy, and with the sources unchecked,” Jean-Claude Carriére says, with Eco adding it “risks creating six billion separate encyclopedias, which would prevent any common understanding whatsoever.” (81-82). The aforementioned Welles film, extremely important in the annals of cinema will lose its respect and importance when it pops up beside the latest season of Breaking Bad on an internet playlist.

The central idea of Eco and Carriére’s conversation is that books gather ideas, they’re like the gathering of “small groups of people who know each other and share the same tastes at the same time” like the Surrealists and the Beat Poets, (93-94). We need, books, literature, and people with different viewpoints than our own to collectivize knowledge and present it to us – we need others to swim through a sea of rhetoric to find absolute truth, and then we can find that truth ourselves. A printed book, a teacher with a doctorate, or an experienced elderly person has earned our intellectual trust. Digital tools have not yet done so. Eco and Carriére don’t shy away from the fact that digital tools are wholly useful, but they stress the absolute importance of the printed word.


What will be the canonical literature of the future?


How will readers determine what’s important in an era of mass information?


Are digital reading tools absolutely necessary for text analysis? Can English academia survive in a future without them?


Works Cited


Side by Side. Dir. Christopher Kenneally. Perf. Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, David Fincher, David Lynch, Keanu Reeves. Company Films, 2012. DVD.


Carrière, Jean-Claude, Umberto Eco, and Jean-Philippe De. Tonnac. This Is Not the End of the Book: A Conversation. London: Harvill Secker, 2011. Print.

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Davis Hersberger – Research Paper Prospectus

In this paper I am going to address the question, raised by Stephen Ramsey in Reading Machines, of what he calls the ‘scientific metaphor’ and its methodological relevance to literary criticism.

Ramsey discusses critics who contend that the humanities should be more like the sciences, and become more focussed on the kinds of quantifiable data that can be retrieved using algorithms. There is a notion in this critical position, as Ramsey portrays it, that the subjectivity of research in the humanities is a problem that algorithmic criticism can remedy. Ramsey presents a counterargument to this position which it is my intention to analyze, looking into the arguments of those Ramsey is arguing against. (Gottschall figures as the most extreme example that Ramsey cites and therefore I will probably be considering his arguments, although I do not have a specific article or book in mind yet.)

Further, I will explore less positivistic ideas such as those of Wade Davis, an ‘ethnobotanist’ concerned with preserving the human cultural and linguistic diversity, as well as the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, whose critique of the modern scientific paradigm (Heidegger’s term: Enframing) as a narrowing of human thinking (which he contrasts with ancient Greek thought) has some analogies to Ramsey’s position. A. S. Byatt’s Possession raises issues of reading practices and literary theory, and appears to advance a position on what attitudes to reading or doing research about the past are better. This novel also contains many passages relevant to science and technology. I will therefore be close-reading Possession as part of an exploration of my question, allowing the ideas that I derive from these readings to enter into the theoretical dialogue.

My argument will probably follow a pattern something like this: (1) Ramsey’s argument against opting strictly for the scientific metaphor; (2) possible counterarguments from Ramsey’s ‘opponents’ (probably Gottschall); (3)  a section I am not too clear on yet, but this is where I see a counterargument to the scientific camp forming out of the readings of Byatt, Davis, and Heidegger. I do not have a conclusion or thesis yet, and my own argument, which I hope will emerge from section (3), would form section (4).

Annotated Bibliography

Alfer, Alexa and Amy J. Edwards de Campos. A. S. Byatt: Critical Storytelling. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2010. Print. Contemporary British Novelists.

–The introduction of this book, its chapter concerning possession, and final chapter concerning Byatt’s work as a critic and her views on literary theory provides a useful context for reading Possession in light of my topic.

Byatt, A. S. Possession: A Romance. London: Vintage, 1991. Print.

—I feel that Possession raises questions about contemporary reading practices and critical theory in a way that advances (or less strongly put suggests) better and worse, though not necessarily wholly evil or wholly ideal, approaches to reading and doing research. Therefore I will be offering an interpretation of Possession along those lines and considering the results as “Possession’s” contribution (or one possible contribution of that novel) to the debate.

Davis, Wade. The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World. Toronto: Anansi, 2009. Print. CBC Massey Lectures.

—The first two lectures in this book “Season of the Brown Hyena” and “The Wayfinders” offer an argument in favour of preserving ancient and endangered languages and cultures, analogous to arguments in favour of preserving species diversity in the biosphere. His concept of the ‘ethnosphere,’ and the need to preserve its diversity, has resonances with Jarry’s ’pataphysics, Heidegger’s critique of Enframing, and even possibly Byatt’s representations of Nineteenth Century culture, that I am only beginning to pursue, but which I feel will definitely be worth exploring.

Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Trans. William Lovitt. Ed. William Lovitt. New York: Harper, 1977. Print.

—From the title essay I am getting Heidegger’s critique of Enframing and his theory of technology. Enframing is Heidegger’s term for the paradigm of modern science and technology, which (avoiding getting into his extensive jargon) is a narrow and aggressive paradigm concerned with utility and performance, with what things can do for us. For Heidegger, technology is not ‘the technological’ or that is to say the technological objects that we use like airplanes and computers, but is rather a derivative of our thinking, a notion that I think resonates especially with Ramsey.

Ramsey, Stephen. Reading Machines. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2011. Print.

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My essay is still a work in progress but here is the prospectus for what I have so far…I will be answering question one; my argument will emphasize how historical reading practices are similar to that of the present, though the method and physical practice of reading has changed throughout history, the power of the words on the text has remained consistent throughout time. To support my argument, I will be using A.S. Byatt’s “Possession” by analyzing the use of the act of reading and writing, and how that affects the characters interpretation of the past. I will discuss the importance of the correspondence between Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte and compare them to the interactions of the “present day” characters and how easily A.S. Byatt connects the characters through the use of the power of reading, and how it has always had the ability to change the course of people’s lives.

I will use Alberto Manguel’s “A History of Reading” to discuss the importance of the act of physical reading within the novel, as well as the importance of what is written. Manguel argues how, though reading as a physical practice has changed throughout time, the power of the text has not. Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash’s correspondence within “Possession” was a reflection of how people corresponded during that time period. Though the writing of letters was not a popular mode of communication in 1991, Roland Michell and Maud Bailey were brought together, by filling the role of the “readers” within Possession, and by the interpretations and gaps they found within their studies of the letters between LaMotte and Ash. The fact that they were studying and reading, as well as interpreting these letters corresponds nicely with Manguel’s “A History of Reading”.

“…While the reader’s thoughts inspected them at leisure, drawing new notions from them, allowing comparisons from memory or from other books left open for simultaneous perusal. The reader had time to consider and reconsider the predous words whose sounds — he now knew — could echo just as well within as without. And the text itself, protected from outsiders by its covers, became the reader’s own possession, the reader’s intimate knowledge, whether in the busy scrip- torium, the market-place or the home.” (Manguel 51).

To support my argument, I will discuss the roles and relationships of the characters in Byatt’s “Possession” of by referring to Wolfgang Iser’s “The Reader in The Text”. I will emphasize the roles of fictitious readers within “Possession” and how these fictitious readers display and display the different use of text over time, as well as how they allow the power of the text to effect them so tremendously: “The fictitious reader’s perspective may be divided between the explicit position ascribed to him and the implicit attitude he must adopt to that position.” (Iser 113).

Robert E. Heilman’s “’Possession’ Observed” goes into great detail the use of letters between Byatt’s characters and how this is used to display the differences of time and characters because of time:
“Byatt produces some 31 pages of verse by Ash, and about half as much by LaMotte; instead of alleging that they are poets, she gives them dramatic reality as poets. Likewise she turns out a page or two of prose for Ash and about 20 pages by LaMotte. But these two are the major letter writers in the novel, and it is in the letters they exchange that the two characters come through best.” (Heilman 609).

Discussion of the emphasis of the method of correspondence and the depiction of history through these methods is an important part of the evolution of reading and writing throughout time. Jennifer M. Jeffers’ “The White Bed of Desire in A.S. Byatt’s Possession”, in which she discusses the importance of the presence of the letter within the novel, and how it is used to serve as a window in the past for the characters of the present.
Annotated Bibliography:
Byatt, A.S. Possession: A Romance. London: Vintage, 1991. Print.

-The primary source I will be discussing to support my argument.
Heilman, Robert B. “The Sewanee Review: ‘Possession’ Observed.” ‘Possession’ Observed 103.4 (1995): 605-12. John Hopkins University Press. Web.

-This article shows an emphasis on the difference of time and use of reading within Byatt’s “Possession”.
Iser, Wolfgang. “Interaction between Text and Reader.” The Reader in the Text. Ed. Susan R. Suleiman and Inge Crosman. Princeton NJ: Princeton UP, 1980. 106-19. Print.

-Displays the relationship between the text and the reader and will be used to discuss the relationship of the two within the novel and how that effects the history of reading.
Jeffers, Jennifer M. “The White Bed in A.S. Byatt’s Possession.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 42.2 (2002): 135-47. Cleveland State University. Web.

-This article discusses the importance of the presence of the letter within the novel, as a physical textual aspect as well as a major symbol of power and how it remains unchanged.
Manguel, Alberto. “The Silent Readers.” A History of Reading. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. 41-53. Print.

-Goes into great detail of the history of reading and how reading works from the past serves as a window into another time.

On a Side-note:  I plan on having more sources, I just haven’t gotten to that point yet. I will post a comment with the other secondary sources when I have them.  Sorry for any inconvenience this may cause!


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Prospectus: “Playing Around” with Tristram Shandy

Rob Pope writes that the “best way to understand how a text works . . . is to change it: to play around with it, to intervene in it in some way (large or small), and then to try to account for the exact effect of what you have done” (qtd in Ramsay 33). A bucket full of dashes, sermons, and asterisks, Tristram Shandy is a playful text, and it is because of this playfulness, I think, that Tristram Shandy readily lends itself to computational analysis–especially, to distant reading. Distant reading, Franco Moretti says:

. . . allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes—or genres and systems. And if, between the very small and the very large, the text itself disappears, well, it is one of those cases when one can justifiably say, Less is more. (qtd in Ramsay 77) Continue reading

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A Compass Without a Map: Digital Reading and A.S. Byatt’s Possession

Byatt’s novel is a massive testament to literary study, filled to the brim with fascinating literary figures. It’s all the more impressive that Byatt has largely created them out of thin air. There are many characters and motivations within Byatt’s novel; throughout the novel each tries to ‘possess’ knowledge, usually in the form of Randolph Henry Ash’s letters to Christabel LaMotte. With Possession as my primary text, I will argue that Byatt’s novel ultimately resists digital forms of reading. With digital media, there are thousands of intellectual papers, literary rarities, virtually anything I can think of available at the press of a button. This goes against all of the characters in Possession. They want to possess the literary history themselves, privately and individually, all in the same way, for different reasons.
I will first explore the advantages and disadvantages to digital reading, and research, and how it can help and hinder the reader. I will do this using my experience reading Stephen Ramsay’s Reading Machines as an eBook, using both Ramsay’s text and Eco & Carriere’s This is not the end of the Book; as well, I will further discuss the subject using David M. Berry’s book Understanding the Digital Humanities. I will continue to reference these works throughout the essay; however, I will explore them at the beginning to illuminate how I’ll approach Possession and what Byatt’s novel says about how Possession should be approached.
I will then discuss the patterns and readings of Possession through digital media, non-digital reading and the subjectivity of the novel using my own insight and Mark M. Hennely Jr.’s “Repeating Patterns” and Textual Pleasures: Reading (In) A. S. Byatt’s “Possession: A Romance”
Additionally, I will explore the idea of Byatt’s of textual research of literature as a romantic process, through Robert B. Heilman’s “A. S. Byatt’s “Possession” Observed.” Which will ultimately illuminate the dangers of a future where digital reading is the norm, and why elements of Byatt’s novel resist such a future.
Digital libraries are useful in that they tell you everything about the text, and link to all relevant areas. There’s not much intellect or history to possess but rather to read, and acknowledge. But how will new knowledge be discovered? Ultimately the entire point of Byatt’s novel is right in the beginning; Roland find the letters that set off the events in the entire novel because they happened to be in an old Ash text. This is akin to finding a useful book on the shelf beside the book that brought you to that section of the library. Yes, there are “beside this book” options that are available, especially at the U of C‘s Library website, but Byatt seems to argue that the history of literature is literally and figuratively within it’s pages. Without physical documents to prove facts, love and events, there’s no proof, and no knowledge to possess. Like Ramsay suggests in his book, algorithmic reading, and digital reading are extremely useful tools, but Byatt’s novel suggests that if we rely only on tools, our possession of the knowledge itself is lost to endless Google searches and stored .pdfs.


Carrière, Jean-Claude, Umberto Eco, and Jean-Philippe De. Tonnac. This Is Not the End of the Book: A Conversation. London: Harvill Secker, 2011. Print.
I will use Carriere and Eco’s thoughts to illustrate the lasting strength of printed literature and it’s relation to digital media and algorithmic tools.

Berry, David M. Understanding Digital Humanities. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print.
Berry’s text will help to link the two in class texts together, and illuminate the advantages of digital humanities.

Ramsay, Stephen. Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2011. Print.
I will use Ramsay’s text to highlight the importance and usefulness of algorithmic readings in contrast and comparison to Carriere and Eco’s text.

Robert B. Heilman’s “A. S. Byatt’s “Possession” Observed.” The Sewanee Review 103.4 (1995): 605-12. JSTOR. Web. 22 Mar. 2013. .
I will use Heilman’s text to highlight the romantic aspects of Byatt’s text, and the idea of literary studies as something romantic, which will link to the importance of non-digital reading.

Hennely. Mark. M, Jr. “Repeating Patterns” and Textual Pleasures: Reading (In) A. S. Byatt’s “Possession: A Romance” Contemporary Literature. 44.3. (2003). 442-471. JSTOR. Web. 20. Mar. 2013.
I will use Hennely’s text to elucidate the recognition of patterns in reading Byatt’s text in relation to the subject at hand.

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This may or may not be an Anti-Prospectus

First and foremost, I plan on answering the second topic in my English 503 paper or blog. I had really and truly hoped to avoid crossing paths with Tristram Shandy ever again, but it turns out to make more sense when writing on the second topic. I plan to argue that Laurence Sterne’s novel, challenges the traditional forms and rules of literature present before its time. In doing so, Sterne encourages a very different kind of reading and writing within his work, and promotes newer (though not necessarily better) forms of writing – thus the encouragement of methods of future reading. Ramsay’s Reading Machines, will undoubtedly be helpful in my work.

I plan to analyze Sterne’s style of writing, as well as the syntax and forms used within the work through the lens of Russian Formalism and of Post-structuralism, primarily using the works of Lacan and Shklovsky to help me analyze the text. I also intend to consider the writing itself, while discussing its content and disorder on its own – simply as a piece of unconventional writing. As I mentioned before, Tristram Shandy is a work which overturns many of the previously seen novels: Ivan describes the book as an “anti novel” in his work, saying its unconventional use of time and presentation of events, the constant digressions and interruptions and the shifts from one language to another (among other things) are what lead it to be known as such.

The Russian Formalist perspective that I will also be using to analyze the text, further highlights the defamiliarized form of the novel – how its construction and its fragmented form, resembles a blog or a diary more than a true novel. In effect, Sterne changed the face of the novel as it had been previously known, and made it something completely new and ‘strange’.

Post-Structuralism touches on the notion that the meaning of the text is related to the reader rather than the purpose of the author meaning that we as modern readers are not consistently able to understand all of the references that Sterne makes within the novel. The footnotes, (that sometimes go on longer than the chapters themselves,) the name dropping and event listing that Sterne does throughout the novel reads like a list of hyperlinks. It is similar to a list of things ‘to read’ in the near future, that we create on our notepads and never get around to. In Mitchell’s article, he writes that the footnotes “serve as a direct commentary on what Tristram has just written…” and they are meant to augment what has been written, (10) however, he goes on to say that as the novel wanders, we lose the original intent of the writer within the digressions. “A range of possible meanings are created through these odd manoeuvres of compulsive wandering and self defeat”. (11) This is a notion that crops up within Post Structuralism.

Both of these theoretical perspectives took root long after the publication of Tristram Shandy, highlighting the fact that it is a book very much ahead of its time. Sterne was able to manipulate and contour the written word to create a work that has continued to baffle and confuse people centuries later.

Well played, Mr. Sterne.



Annotated Bibliography

Ivan, Oana-Roxana. “Tristram Shandy : An Original and Profound English Novel of the Eighteenth Century.” European Social Fund, n.d. Web. 22 Mar. 2013.

  • This work describes the literary devices used within the text and discusses how it is different from the texts that have come before it.

Ramsay, Stephen. Reading Machines: Towards an Algorithmic Criticism. Chicago: University of Illinois, 2011. Print.

  • Primary source.

Rice, Philip, and Patricia Waugh. Modern Literary Theory: A Reader. London: Arnold, 2001. Print.

  • This book will aid me in analyzing Tristram Shandy from a theoretical perspective. It offers small excerpts from many different theorists, and provides a short analysis of each particular theory.

Šklovskij, Viktor Borisovič, and Gerald L. Bruns. Theory of Prose. Trans. Benjamin Sher. Elmwood Park (Ill.): Dalkey Archive, 1990. Google. Web. 21 Mar. 2013. <>.

  • This book provides a section on Shklovsky’s own analysis of Tristram Shandy using the Formalist Theory he helped develop.

Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. London: Penguin Books Ltd. 2003. Print.

  • Primary source.

Wilson, Mitchell. “”and Let Me Go On”: Tristram Shandy, Lacanian Theory, and the Dialectic of Desire.” Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought 9.3 (1986): 335-72.TristramShandyWeb. IULM: Universita Di Lingue E Comunicazione. Web. <>.

  • This article is an analysis of Tristram Shandy through the Structuralist and Post Structuralist theories, using the works of Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida.

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A Change of Heart About Tristram Shandy… Again

Originally I thought I would argue how much Sterne’s novel encouraged the digital forms and methods of future reading. I felt that the disjointed style of Tristram Shandy and his digressions would be so much easier to understand if you could hover over the highlighted reference and have the definition appear, or if you could click a hyper link back or forward to the continuation of the thought he is having at any given point in the book. I was sure that the ability to converse with other readers through the comments system in an e-book would aid in the analysis and understanding of the novel. Further I would have argued that the ability to listen to an audio format of the novel and then be able to pick up where you left off in the actual text format would be a benefit when the reader finds them at a place where they can make neither heads nor tails of what they are reading and just want to listen to it rather than add the physical action of reading to the effort they must put into the comprehension of this novel.

Through my research I found some great supporting articles that discuss the benefits that digital formats lend to a deeper understanding and engagement with literacy and how authors and readers alike need to take more advantage of these tools. However, after I found these insightful articles I ran into a dilemma, I questioned if my argument was what I truly believed. While I still believe that Tristram Shandy would greatly encourage digital forms and methods of reading, I am hesitant in my support of that theory. Sterne’s novel is already disjointed to the point of being difficult to follow, through its seemingly endless number of digressions. Does the reader really need more distractions when reading this novel? Would a reader actually be able to finish the novel of Tristram Shandy if learning about every reference Sterne makes distracted them? Would digital platforms that already strongly encourage multitasking and their own digressions render the reading of Tristram Shandy impossible?

With these considerations, right now I believe I will argue that while the stylistic aspects of Tristram Shandy appear to encourage the digital forms and methods of future reading, the format may make a novel that is already difficult to read even harder to concentrate on and understand. I would like to look at both sides of the argument even though right now I am slightly more convinced the novel discourages the use of digital forms and methods more than encouraging them.


Annotated Bibliography

Biancarosa, Gina and Griffith, Gina G., “Technology tools to Support Reading in the Digital Age.” The Future of Children 22.2 (2012): 139-160. Academic One File. Web. 20 Mar. 2013.

This work discusses how literacy demands have changed in the digital age. Further it argues how technology has to be conceptualized as a tool to that will build the higher levels of literacy skills and background knowledge that is demanded by today’s information-based society.


Boone, Randall and Higgins, Kyle. “Reading, Writing, and Publishing Text.” Remedial and Special Education 24.3 (2003): 132-140. Sage. Web. 20 Mar. 2013.

This article examines methods used to conduct the business of reading and writing and conducting research and the significant changes these methods are going through. It also looks at how new digital platforms call for a fresh look at such issues.


Williams, Bronwyn T.. “ ‘Tomorrow Will Not Be Like Today’: Literacy and Identity in a World of Multiliteracies.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 5.8 (2008): 682-86. Web. JSTOR. 20 Mar. 2013.

In this article Williams discusses how literacy practices are being fundamentally altered. He argues that daily experiences emphasize the necessity of partaking in an open minded, continuous conversation about ways evolving online technologies and how they change literary practices.

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My essay is still very much a work-in-progress but I have constructed a thesis statement I feel is at least a good starting point for my argument that modern reading practices often move away from the author as a vital piece of the text towards a new type of reading experience that focuses more on the reader and their habit of imposing their own ideas about what the text should mean, rather than what was originally meant.

Thesis Statement: Byatt’s characters possess their understanding and appreciation of literature after approaching a text in an arguably biased manner. Modern reading practices may involve said biased manner when the reader employs their own experiences and/or feelings of contempt for the author or subject, as is the case for Maud; when a text’s author becomes less important to the reader than succeeding literary criticism; and finally when  the author becomes absent and thus the reader may employ the criticism or theory of another in their place in order to make sense of the text.

Primary Sources:

1. Byatt’s Possession

2. Manguel reading

3. Sherman reading

Secondary Sources:

1. Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author”. Modern Literary Theory.

4th Ed. Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh. New York: Oxford University

Press, 2001. p. 180-190. Print.

  • I will use this to discuss different reading practices and to support my argument that the contemporary reader arguably moves far enough away from the text towards their own ideas of what a text should be and should provide that there author’s intent has been lost

2. Foucault, Michel. “What Is An Author?.” Language, Counter-

Memory, Practice. Donald F. Bouchard. Revised ed. New York: Cornell

University Press, 1977. 124-127. Web. 20 Mar. 2013. <http://evans->.

  • I will use this to discuss the importance of an author in the first place as there are texts that have been circulated without knowledge of their author, and therefore the reading  of it arguably becomes solely dependent on one’s experience of a text based on what others have argued about it in previous years

3. Gass, William H.. “Death of the Author.” Salmagundi. Robert Boyers.

Vol. 1. Saratoga Springs: Skidmore College, 1984. 6-10. Web. 20 Mar.

2013. <>.

  • I will use this with Foucault to discuss that the absence of an author allows the reader to allocate the text’s habits to a different one, a theorist just as Lacan for example.

4. Todorov, Tzvetan. “Reading As Construction.” The Reader in the Text:

Essays on Audience and Interpretation. Susan R. Suleiman and Inge

Crosman Wimmers. Illustrated ed. Cambridge: University Press, 1980.

67. Print.

  • I will use this to support my inclusion of Sherman’s work on reading practices used in early modern England
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Reading the Reader of “Tristram Shandy”: Formal Prospectus

The art of reading has changed dramatically throughout the history of the printed word. The reader’s purpose in reading has remained constant throughout history: readers continue to read and critically analyze elements of the text. However, the methods by which individual readers respond to a text, through their reading practices, has been altered significantly as a result of the extra-textual materials available to analyze the text.

In my paper I will argue that the role of the reader has changed little throughout the history of reading, but the methods by which a reader responds to a text have changed significantly as a result of not only reading theories, but also of the extra-textual material available to the reader. To affect this argument, I will be focusing on the role and methods of readers in reading Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, and using William H. Sherman’s John Dee: The Politics of Reading and Writing in the English Renaissance.

The first section of my paper will discuss the role of the reader in the eighteenth century as contemporary readers of Tristram Shandy and compare this to the role of twenty-first century readers in reading the same novel. This section will focus specifically on the role of the reader in analyzing the text, and propagating ideas about the text to the reader’s society. In analyzing the role of the reader in both the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries, I will specifically be focusing on who is reading Tristram Shandy and how this affects their role as a reader.

The second, and most important, section of my paper will discuss the methods of the reader and will focus on the transition to modern reading methods. These reading methods, becoming increasingly scientific as a result of the development of literary criticism, are important in determining how reading practices have changed over the past three centuries. In order to effectively analyze these methods, I will be looking at three important areas of analysis: eighteenth century reading and the focus on genre; twenty-first century reading and the focus on form; and finally an analysis of the materials used for reading.

My analysis of eighteenth century reading will focus primarily on the genre of novels and the society’s interpretation of this genre. In my preliminary research, I have found that eighteenth century readers were preoccupied with how the novel functioned as a representation of society. A novel such as Tristram Shandy, created significant turmoil for eighteenth century Londoners as a result of its discussions of distraction, fidelity, and autobiography. For these readers, Tristram Shandy was controversial and Sterne was consistently called upon to justify this controversy.

In contrast, twenty-first century readers are significantly more focused on the form of a novel. Rather than focusing on what the novel says about the current society (it is presumed that it says little about a society three hundred years removed), twenty-first century readers continue to read Tristram Shandy in order to provoke discussion on elements of the physical text: the marbled/black/blank pages, the asterisks, the frequency of terms, and the implications of dashes, dates, and other elements that can be extracted from a text in a form of algorithmic criticism.

Finally, I will discuss how these changes are paralleled by the increase in materials available for use in analyzing text. In the eighteenth century, much of the extra-textual material existed in the form of other texts (what we now call intertextual critique) or in the form of the literate discussing the text amongst themselves, a limited audience necessitated a limited body of criticism. As printing has become more common, less expensive, and more accessible, the amount of material available to scholars critiquing any particular novel has also increased. This, in conjunction with the increase in literacy and in access to published material (and in the ability to self-publish) has definitively altered the kind of material that critics have access to and are able to use in an analysis of any particular novel. In researching Tristram Shandy, it is possible now to access hundreds of articles, books, and other online or print media on any subject within the novel that was simply not available in the eighteenth century. As a result, the methods of readers have changed.

In conclusion, my paper will discuss the contrast between the methods of readers in the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries and how these methods differ as a result of the materials with which readers read. Although, as I argue in the first section of my paper, the role of the reader has remained the same, it would be difficult for a critical reader of the eighteenth century to recognize the practice of a critical reader of the twenty-first century, and vice versa.

Annotated Bibliography

  • Beaumont, Matthew. “Beginnings, endings, births, deaths: Sterne, Dickens, and Bleak House.” Textual Practice 26:5. (2012): 807-827. JSTOR. Web. 18 March 2013.

This article will be used in analyzing narrative form from the perspective of the twenty-first century reader, and also as a comparative point for other eighteenth century novels.

  • Fawcett, Julia H. “Creating Character in “Chario Oscuro”: Sterne’s Celebrity, Cibber’s Apology, and the Life of Tristram Shandy.” The Eighteenth Century 53:2. (2012): 141-161. Project Muse. Web. 13 March 2013.

This article will be used to discuss contemporary interpretations of Tristram Shandy and the autobiographical perception of Sterne’s novel. I will also use this article to articulate the focus of the eighteenth century reader on the genre of a text and how this directly contrasts to the twenty-first century reader’s focus on form.

  • Gorelick, Nathan. The Unconscious Enlightenment: The Origin of the Novel and the Logic of Fantasy. Diss. University at Buffalo, State University of New York, 2010. ProQuest: UMI, 2010. Web.

This dissertation will be used as a reference source in the discussion of genre and the eighteenth century conception of the novel.

  • Phillips, Natalie. Narrating Distraction: Problems of Focus in Eighteenth Century Fiction, 1750-1820. Diss. Stanford University, 2010. ProQuest: UMI, 2010. Web.

This dissertation will be used as a reference source in the discussion of eighteenth century reading practices and lifestyles.

  • Renwick, W.L. English Literature 1789-1815. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963. Print.

This book will be used as an analysis of the history of English literature, unbiased by the twenty-first century and sufficiently removed from both eras of study to be effective in providing a detailed description of both eighteenth century literature and reading practices

  • Sinding, Michael. “From Fact to Fiction: The Question of Genre in Autobiography and Early First Person Novels.” SubStance 39:2. (2010): 107-130. Project Muse. Web. 17 March 2013.

This article will be used to analyze the effect of autobiography and genre on the eighteenth century reader’s perspective of a novel/text as well as delineate the underlying purposes of texts that readers are provided with, within a text.

  • Wetmore, Alex. “Sympathy Machines: Men of Feeling and the Automaton.” Eighteenth Century Studies 43:1. (2009): 37-54. Project Muse. Web. 19 March 2013.

This article will be used to facilitate a discussion of the changing role of the reader from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century as a function of gender roles and stereotypes, as well as how the changing roles of readers as gendered beings shape interpretation.

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Research Paper Prospectus

“And if, between the very small and the very large, the text itself disappears, well, it is one of those cases when one can justifiably say, Less is more. If we want to understand the system in its entirety, we must accept losing something” (Moretti 57 quoted in Ramsay). This passage from Ramsay’s Reading Machines: Towards an Algorithmic Criticism gestures towards what seems to be the thrust of computational analysis and algorithmic criticism: namely, the union between minute detail and the wide expanse of a literary corpus. This contradictory movement of zooming in and zooming out (in a scope that is beyond the means of regular reader and his or her reading practices) constitutes a method of activating what Ramsay calls “the potentialities of meaning” in a particular text (57).

The problem rests in the difficulty (impossibility?) of realizing the potential of a text that, as Moretti predicts, disappears in the space between the micro and the macro. The disappearance of the text, however, is not just a problem of degree: it is also a problem of kind. Ramsay’s algorithmic criticism is predicated on the precarious notion of a text that is normalized, standardized, and uniform in its constitutive elements. Despite what algorithmic criticism may suggest, literary texts are not merely words on a page, and to think so would, indeed, result in the text’s disappearance. A text is a weaving, a veritable textile of diverse (sometimes non-linguistic) elements that exceed Ramsay’s relatively narrow conception of what a text could be. In my essay, I will argue that Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is an example par excellence of this heterogeneous notion of the text and highlights the inadequacies of Ramsay’s algorithmic criticism.

The Text is a Voice:

My first argument will circulate around notion of orality in Sterne’s text. Scholars firmly situate Tristram Shandy in the domain of the “conversational style,” which attempts to simulate a certain degree of orality or oral-ness within the text, and Sterne accomplishes this with an inventive deployment of punctuation. In using these in-text signifiers, Sterne creates a particular rhythm, cadence, and musicality that place emphasis on how a particular word or phrase should be read. In short, one must note more than the mere presence of words: one must also note their delivery and timbre. But the rhythm and cadence of a text is easily lost in the algorithmic extraction of words from their typographical environment.

The Text is an Architecture:

My second argument will concern itself with the use of space within Sterne’s text. Not narrative or metaphorical space but rather the actual, material space of the text’s pages. The deliberate manipulation of the page’s space, referred to as the “mise en page,” is an element that finds itself especially conspicuous in Tristram Shandy. As particular words and phrases are separated from the rest of the text by walls of un-inked page, space takes up a particular valence. The pièce de résistance, however, is undoubtedly the blank page reserved for the portrait of Widow Wadman, a space highly charged with meaning. Can an algorithmic criticism account for this productive space without words?

The Text is a Picture:

My third argument will explore the illustrations used throughout Sterne’s text. The black page, marbled page, and narrative diagram are all striking examples of Sterne’s use of illustrations, but it would be a mistake to dismiss them as auxiliary or adjacent elements that merely represent the narrative. Instead, I would argue that they participate in the construction of the narrative and operate in tandem with the words of the text, creating an echo chamber in which both textual elements reverberate and resonate with one another. As with the space of the text, the illustrations cannot be quantified or categorized in the same way that words and phrases are in algorithmic criticism. Does this testify to a richness of the text that cannot be captured or circumscribed?

The Text is a ****:

Lastly, I will be looking at Sterne’s use of the asterisks in his text. To be honest, this one is a little unwieldy. The asterisk, as a character, can probably be quantified in a way similar to that of a regular word. But the particular value of the character seems to be indeterminate and unlocatable. At times, Sterne uses the asterisk to signify the absence of a single letter, as in “G**”. At other times, the asterisk becomes dislodged from this usage, as when he writes a whole paragraph using asterisks. Does each one represent a letter? A Word? A Sentence? The reading act enters a state of aporia with his use of the asterisk. In the case of Shandy’s accidental circumcision, the asterisk comes to replace a sort of traumatic, unspeakable event.  A bit more thought is needed before I can firmly situate how the asterisk is or isn’t compatible with algorithmic criticism.

Annotated Bibliography

Fanning, Christopher. “On Sterne’s Page: Spatial Layout, Spatial Form, and Social Spaces in Tristram Shandy.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 10.4 (1998): 429-50. Project Muse. Web. 20 March 2013.

In this article, Fanning explores the material space of the page and what he calls the “mise en page” of Sterne’s text. This will be useful in discussing “extra-textual” elements that may not be compatible with algorithmic criticism.

Flint, Christopher. “In Other Words: Eighteenth-Century Authorship and the Ornaments of Print.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 14.3-4 (2002): 627-72. Project Muse. Web. 20 March 2013.

Flint’s article is interested in 18th century typographical marks, in particular the use of asterisks, and how they contribute to the generation of meaning and significance. His identification of the asterisk as a source of meaningful indeterminacy could be used as an argument to undermine algorithmic criticism’s ability to account for what is present but not written in the asterisk.

Moss, Roger B. “Sterne’s Punctuation.” American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies 15.2 (1981-2): 179-200. JSTOR. 18 Marche 2013.

Despite the somewhat misleading title, Moss’s article interests itself with more than just the punctuation of Sterne’s text: it looks at how the text as object interferes with the text as narrative. His emphasis on the marbled and blackened pages of Sterne’s text is useful for exploring how distinctly non-linguistic visual elements are sutured to “literary” texts.

Vande Berg, Michael. “Pictures of Pronunciation: Typographical Travels Through Tristram Shandy and Jacques le Fataliste.” American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies 21.1 (1987): 21-47. JSTOR. Web. 18 March 2013.

In his article, Vande Berg investigates how Sterne attempts to reproduce an oral or “conversational” style with his specific use of punctuation. In particular, the sections dealing with rhythm and cadence will be useful in delineating the short-comings of algorithmic criticism.

Voogd, Peter J. “Tristram Shandy as Aesthetic Object.” Ed. Thomas Keymer. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy: A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2006. Print.

Vood explores both the typographical elements of Sterne’s text as well as the illustrations that appear within it. This article will be helpful in dealing with Sterne’s use of the non-verbal and typography, especially the asterisk.

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(this is a prospectus)

“One of the few good things about modern times: If you die horribly on television, you will not have died in vain. You will have entertained us.” (Kurt Vonnegut)

I was at a terrible loss when thinking about how to begin this prospectus, but I find that Vonnegut always does the trick. So it goes.

Incidentally, though, this quote is an acceptable jumping-off point for my essay, if only that it causes us to consider the benefits of modern times, and thus, digital times. As such, I will be using Possession to address the second question, and I intend to argue – perhaps to my detriment – that Byatt’s novel both encourages and resists the digital forms and methods of future reading. Furthermore, I will be examining the digital possibilities from two separate angles, these being an argument for a digital analysis of Possession, as well as utilization of digital forms to enhance the novel itself. While both of these analyses encourage digital methods, I will also argue for why Possession does not call for complete digitization, and should thus stay rooted in the traditional form of a book.

I intend to support these arguments by exploring human connection within the novel. In particular, I will begin by demonstrating how the overarching theme of human relationships, including character mirroring, begs the traditional form of the book. I will explore the interrelationships between Maud and Christabel, Roland and Ash, and will highlight not only the importance of a relationship with the author, but with the author’s physical works as well.

Throughout this argument, however, I will simultaneously push for digital methods and forms. Both arguments will be presented at the same time, or nearly so, through the format of my essay (which will have both physical paper and blog components). Thus, while I argue for Possession to remain in the tangible world, I will also be arguing for the novel to partially exist in digital form. This portion of my essay will serve to show how the discoveries within the novel could be expanded further into discoveries of the novel. In the same way that Maud reflects Christabel, the reader could thus reflect Maud. Such could result from digital changes within the novel and a digital study of the novel.

This sounds like a very broad analysis, and it is. However, I firmly believe that these varied angles are integral to my argument as a whole; furthermore, the previously mentioned format will serve to enhance and demonstrate my arguments. The interactive and somewhat indirect structure of this essay will reflect the final result of my imagined version of Possession. In the same way that the reader of the novel would discover new elements and concepts of Possession, the reader of my essay should discover a new way of reading, too.

Annotated Bibliography

Byatt, A.S. Possession. London: Vintage Books, 1991. Print.

  • Primary source

Carrière, Jean-Claude and Umberto Eco. This is not the end of the book;. London: Vintage Books, 2012. Print.

  • Primary source

Kasman Valenza, Joyce and Wendy Stephens. “Reading Remixed.” Educational Leadership 69.6 (2012): 75-78. Web. 21 March 2013

  • This paper argues that digital forms entice new readers; I will be using this article to support my argument of digital forms of reading, specifically with regards to the appeal of reading, and to expound upon the reader-book relationship.

Shinn, Thelma J. “‘What’s in a word?’ Possessing A.S. Byatt’s meronymic novel.” Papers on Language & Literature 31.2 (1995): 164-184. Web. 20 March 2013.

  • This paper explores balance within Possession (e.g. poetry and prose), and will thus be used to enhance my argument for a balance between the tangible and intangible. I will also use this essay to explore the balance of relationships, and how this contributes to the overall theme of interconnectivity.

Su, John J. “Fantasies of (Re)collection: Collecting and Imagination in A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance.Contemporary Literature 45.4 (2004): 684-712. Web. 20 March 2013.

  • I will use this article to further my argument of the importance of Possession as a physical book. This article explores the collection of memorabilia, and I will use Su’s study to enhance my argument that physical elements are essential to the reader’s creative discovery.



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Algorithmic Processes: Analysis and Creation

The term “algorithm,” in most individuals’ minds, likely conjures up images of computers, programming languages, or perhaps database queries. Something which I addressed in class is a more common understanding of the term “algorithm” which is, simply put, a set of instructions. The OED defines an algorithm as, “a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer” (italics mine). While the OED incorporates the word ‘computer’ into its definition, it only states that this process is ‘especially’ true of computers, not to the exclusion of other problem-solving apparatus, like the human brain. Although a computer may be superior at mindless calculation and locating specific data, a human may be superior at drawing connection between abstract ideas through sheer familiarity with a literary body, or even “eureka!” moments. Both computers and humans, then, are capable of following a process in order to analyze, or even to create something novel, new, and thought provoking. If these assertions hold true, then there is an obvious reason to utilize all resources available to us, both computers and our own problem-solving capabilities, in any analysis and most relevant to this discussion, literary criticism.

Statistics, although a branch of mathematics, can be applied in any number of creative an imaginative ways in the humanities and in literary criticism; by investigating the frequencies of certain words used by an author to reveal trends, for example. While the incorporation of statistical mathematics for the purposes of enhancing one’s argumentation may not seem altogether unreasonable, there is a division between those whose utilize “algorithmic” analyses and those who do not. More broadly speaking, there is a division between a scientific approach and an artistic approach to any analysis. Ramsay’s goal in Reading Machines is to incorporate the two disparate styles of analysis into one discipline. In his discussion at the beginning of Part II, “Potential Literature,” Ramsay weighs the two sides of the argument and presents a compromise between the two. This compromise becomes evident in statements such as, “The leap from frequencies to meanings must always be a risky one,” and “Lower-level features are easy to count but impossible to interpret in terms of style; counting images or other high-level structures brings problems of excessive intervention at the categorization stage, and thus unreliability and circularity” (Ramsay 19). Interpreting “lower-level” as the frequencies of words, for example, and “high-level” as the discourse on the literary effects of those words, there becomes an evident struggle between remaining grounded in one or the other. The scientific or algorithmic approach, while better suited to the “lower-level” style analysis, provides a foundation upon which the artistic or discourse-based approach may be built. To use one to the exclusion of the other seems only to detract from the potential of an analysis, whereas utilizing both ought to enhance the analysis.

Ramsay, continuing from these comments by Van Peer, summarizes this struggle by stating that, “Without grounding in the language game of denotation, we risk the “circular reasoning” of a discourse that grounds itself in further discourse – the “unreliability” of a claim that has nothing to recommend it but its rhetorical power to persuade” (19). Apparently taking the side of the “lower-level” analysis, Ramsay explains that the scientific and artistic approaches each have their own necessity in literary criticism. Denotation, however, is rarely the primary focus of any literary critique; the literal interpretation typically only underscores the literary interpretations to be extracted or created. While it is difficult to find the middle ground between discussing primary and secondary sources, the “artistic” approach, if it may be stated so, tends to fall on the side of discourse about discourse, or the discourse about discourse about discourse, etc., eventually straying from the original text altogether. This comment, while not meant to enrage or belittle, speaks true for many discussions in which a literary critic of a text creates an analysis based on the analysis of another critic, who in turn perhaps analyzed a work according to Barthes, Lacan, Derrida, or any other prominent literary theorist of your choosing. At what point does the discourse provided become too far removed from the content/denotations of the original text that it becomes “circular reasoning,” exactly as Ramsay states? This extreme position on the “arts” approach, if it may be stated as such, should not be held as accurately describing the entirety of literary criticism, only as a position against which we may pit ourselves if we are on the other side of the fence.

Ramsay presents instances where computers are outright better suited to the reading task than human beings. Consider, for example, his discussion on Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de poems (100,000,000,000,000 Poems) (25). Given the calculations provided, which state that “a person reading the book for twenty-four hours a day would take 190,258,751 years to finish it” (26), no single individual human could possibility complete such a reading task. Here, using this example, Ramsay implies without directly stating that a computer would be better suited to this task than a human. Assuming this implication is not totally unreasonable, we are able to continue this line of reasoning to a more controversial topic than computer-assisted analysis – computer poetry. The Matthews algorithm, which “remaps the data structure of a set of linguistic units (letters of words, lines of poems, paragraphs of novels) into a two dimensional tabular array(29), exemplifies the possibilities of creative algorithmic application onto language and literature. Ramsay’s comment on this algorithm when applied onto a 4×4 letter array, that “These maneuvers thus create a serendipitous morphology – an instantiation of the phonemic potentiality of ordinary words” (30), suggests that linguistic creativity is not a unique capacity to the human mind, but can be performed (or, at least emulated) by computers following the instructions from algorithms as well. The way in which Ramsay discusses the “morphology” and the “phonemic possibilities” implies that algorithms are able to rearrange abstract representations of sound into word structures, which is perhaps very valuable in understanding human cognition through language manipulation. The ways in which human minds are capable of reorganization of sound, according to phonological constraints of their language, into permissible word-forms seems not unlike the algorithm discussed here. The argument, simply stated, is that computers and human minds are both algorithmically driven, the capabilities of the computer and the human mind are similar, and that in analysis or creation, both the computer and the human mind are well suited to the task.


Discussion Questions:

1)      Is computer-poetry, which follows an algorithmic process, like or unlike the kind of poetry a human being might write?

2)      I have made reference to the fact that human cognition can be understood in the way that we interpret, control, and manipulate language. Can you think of any words, phrases, sentences, or other examples which might support this assertion?

3)      I have made the claim that human brains and computers are alike in the way that both are algorithmically driven. Do you agree? Why or why not?

4)      Should literal or literary interpretations be the more prominent focus in English discussion/discourse?

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Ceci n’est pas une prospectus.

I prefer not to think linearly; I like my thoughts to have free reign when approaching an essay so as to not get lost in the formality of the whole thing. Therefore, my prospectus is more like my brainstorming processes up to this point.

I will use Byatt’s novel to address question 3, my own hybrid version of questions 1 and 2 (because 1 + 2 = 3. I can do math.).  While Byatt’s novel effectively illustrates the abilities of traditional reading practices of academia to find information, it seems to be on the cusp of necessitating newer forms of research.  To the modern day reader, much of the work being done in the novel can seem redundant or an ineffective use of time given the tools and technologies we have available to us today.  Historical practices are used in this novel but on the grander scale, they seem to be inefficient.  I will use Manguel, the IOT podcast on the syllabus, and Ramsay to discuss the forms of reading in the novel and posit suggestions for how using newer technologies will enhance research capabilities on the larger scale of scholarship.



– Reading practices in the novel are like ours/in the tradition of literary research up until present day

– Independent, quiet, personal readings lead to personal interpretations backed up with textual evidence

– Participating in larger scale academia

– Use examples from Manguel and IOT podcast

– Emphasis on background information as central/significant to textual meaning

– Illustrates problematic nature of background information

– How previous knowledge colours our readings of texts à influence of background   information

– What to do with new information being discovered?

– What do we find in texts – what we are looking for or what’s there?

– Barthes’ death of the author theory –> started becoming prominent around the time the novel was written à significance?


– Time period in which it was written (1991) parallels shift towards more technological world; reading practices in the novel seem to be needed something more, practices of the time needed something more as well

– Traditional forms used, nothing is digital (with exception of Cropper’s presentation) à could benefit from digitization

– Leg work done faster = more time for interpretation and synthesizing information instead of searching for it

– Able to find clues in texts faster to be able to interpret them

– Easier catalogues to navigate

– Create own catalogues over course of study

– Able to protect academic information/discoveries if digital

– Less chance of other scholars stealing information or sources

– Someone still has to input all the info but only has to be done once; greater access to greater number of people

-not new ideas, using the same methods through mediation of machines à Ramsay

– Ability to search terms and find textual patterns faster

– Maud and Roland do this, could be done more efficiently and quickly


Works Cited:

Adams, Ann Marie. “Dead Authors, Born Readers, and Defunct Critics: Investigating Ambiguous Critical Identities in A. S. Byatt’s ‘Possession’”. The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association. 36.1 (Spring 2003): 107-124. Online. 18 March 2013.

– Used to discuss different kinds of reading practices seen in the novel in relation to those outline by IOT podcast and Manguel


Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author”. Modern Literary Theory. 4th Ed. Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. p. 185-189. Print.

– Used to discuss efficacy of historical reading practices within context of the novel’s emphasis on authorial presence in the text

– how authorial presence can be seen through algorithmic examinations of textual patterns


Hennelly Jr., Mark M. “Repeating Patterns” and Textual Pleasures: Reading (In) A. S. Byatt’s “Possession: A Romance”. Contemporary Literature. 44.3 (Autumn 2003): 442-471. Online. 18 March 2013.

 – Used for discussion on patterns observed in novel and to what extent those patterns could be seen in algorithmic criticism


In Our Time Archive: Culture. “IOTC: Reading”. BBC Radio 4, 2000. Podcast.

– Primary Source


Manguel, Alberto. “The Silent Readers”. A History of Reading. Toronto: Alfred A.

Knopf Canada, 1996. p. 41-53. Print.

– Primary Source

Ramsay, Stephen. Reading Machines: Towards an Algorithmic Criticism. Chicago:

University of Illinois, 2011. Print.

– Primary Source

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Algorithmic Researching in an Information-Overload Society

Ramsay’s book, Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism, contends that reading, and specifically critical reading, was algorithmic even in the pre-digital age. Now, with rapidly advancing technology and computer software, reading is becoming increasingly algorithmic and the language used to describe reading and criticism is reflecting this change. Despite opposition in the Humanities to this language of mathematically enabled reading, it nonetheless occurs subconsciously. In order to make an effective argument about any text, it is necessary to defend the argument with evidence, much of which is gleaned from the formal analysis of text and the relationships between particular words.

A much less controversial form of text analysis is the analysis of words across texts and the historical relevancies of particular words and concepts. This form of algorithmic analysis, as Stephen Pumfrey et al explain in “Experiments in 17th Century English: Manual versus Automatic Conceptual History,” can allow for expanded research “across more texts and in a shorter time scale” (Pumfrey et al. 396). As a result, digital text analysis, such as that which Pumfrey conducts, can allow for research questions to be asked and answered that could not previously be considered as a result of the large volume of work needing to be analyzed.

Pumfrey’s search of EEBO for the shift in the meaning of the word “experience” (later “experimental”) from a religious to scientific connotation, prompted him to manually sift through 2,700 hits in over 1,000 records (Pumfrey et al. 399). This process, the authors note, took nearly four weeks, in contrast to the minutes it took for the computer program to process the same amount of data and provide equally accurate results. Both of these processes, using computer software to one extent or another, significantly trump the 76 years it took to compile the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Evidently the algorithmic processes used in the analysis of large volumes of text are significantly more efficient in their use of time than a manual, non-computerized analysis of the same, or lesser amounts of text. As a result, it is possible to explore much larger questions, and text analyses are generally much more accessible. However, it is still important to question the validity of these digital programs: it is not possible for a computer (or a human for that matter) to know more than what they have been taught. This is one of the main reasons why we are consistently asked to type words in a box as part of a security feature for online websites: not only does being able to accurately type the text prove that we “are human,” it also allows for the digitization of texts and fonts that have not yet been digitized in an effort to allow the computer to “know more.”

box as part of a security feature

As Ramsay’s analysis of the ELIZA program shows the reader, computer programs often struggle to develop an appropriate response to the inputs provided by a human, as a direct result of its lack of knowledge (Ramsay 59). Should a computer program be challenged with a request to which it cannot accurately respond, what will its response be? Does it only answer the parts of the request it can effectively answer? Does it attempt to answer unknown aspects of the request? Does it just not work? It is important to find answers to these questions in order to effectively understand what is happening “behind the program”; to discover the process of the program and interpret ourselves the effectiveness and accuracy of the program, and ultimately that of the information the program provides the user. Criticism may or may not already be algorithmic, but the algorithmic process must continue to be questioned, regardless of whether the algorithm is executed by a human or a computer.

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Jonathan Dueck ENGL 503 Essay Prospectus and Annotated Bibliography

I have never done one of these before, so hopefully it meets the criteria – I am open to any suggestions/criticism.

Jonathan Dueck ENGL 503 Essay Prospectus and Annotated Bibliography

Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is a classic English work that defies categorization and understanding, driven as it is by a fragmented and progressively regressive narrative in which, to go forward in the story, Tristram counter-intuitively yet almost compulsively retreats increasingly further backwards in narrative time and obscurity. In my ENGL 503 Essay I will argue that these and other properties make Tristram Shandy an ideal example for the effectiveness of digital algorithmic criticism as articulated by Stephen Ramsay in his treatise Reading Machines: Toward An Algorithmic Criticism. In arguing this, I will draw upon various critical sources, ultimately building a case for three vital ways in which the reading and criticism of Sterne’s novel is ameliorated by the application of digital reading practices in the expansion and effectiveness of textual deformative strategies.

I will first elaborate briefly upon the traditional perceptions of Tristram Shandy and the various difficulties inherent in a reading of it, and I will then proceed to a discussion of Ramsay’s relevant ideas of future digital reading practices. Following this introductory groundwork, my essay will discuss the first of my three major points, namely the manner in which digital reading strategies provide a means for ordering and understanding the various marginalia and extra-textual features of Sterne’s novel. These features, which include both a blank and a black page, as well as a multitude of asterisks and dashes, can be usefully contextualized through new deformative strategies, and their elusive significance and content can now be hypothesized through the tracing of patterns, with a much greater degree of accuracy than has heretofore ever been possible.

Following the aforementioned discussion, I will examine the vast referential nature of Tristram Shandy as evinced by its numerous extratexual and intertexual citations, the Tristrapedia, and the inclusion of seemingly unrelated documents and stories in the body of the novel. I will argue that the possibilities provided by digital reading practices, such as the capacity to readily access and link these references to each other and to numerous other conceptions, notes, and definitions contemporary to Sterne, work to greatly enhance the digital reader’s ability to coherently and efficiently follow the exhaustive digressions of Sterne’s narrative. These expanded deformative capabilities help the reader/critic organize the disjunctions and fragmentations of the narrative and even understand Sterne’s humour.

Finally, I will discuss the narrative mapping of Tristram Shandy and Sterne’s active participation in our reading of the text, and how digital reading practices can enable a somewhat orderly reading and particularly an understanding of the various narrative tones employed by Sterne in ‘conversation’ with his different readers. I will argue that algorithmic criticism’s provision of clarity and enhanced comprehensibility will allow increased accessibility, opening Tristram Shandy to a previously excluded readership that simply did not possess the level of proficiency required for a qualified critic of this novel that seems to defy its own genre. My conclusion will provide a brief summary of my argument.


Annotated Bibliography:

Freeman, John. “Delight in the (Dis)order of Things: Tristram Shandy and the Dynamics of

Genre.” Studies in the Novel Vol. 34, No. 2, Summer 2002, pp. 141-161.

EBSCO. Web. 19 March 2013.

-Discusses the anti-Newtonian nature of Sterne’s narrative and the discrepancies and challenging effects of scale in the novel, particularly its seemingly random oscillation between large and small scale perspectives. This argument for the tendency toward chaos in Tristram Shandy will be useful for making each of my essay’s three major points.

Keymer, Thomas, ed. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy: A Casebook. New York: Oxford

University Press Inc., 2006. Print.

—. “Sterne and the ‘New Species of Writing.’” Keymer 50-75.

-Discussion of Sterne’s controlling influence on the narrative and the various techniques utilized by the author in accomplishing this, but most importantly focuses on the various critical approaches to the novel and its potential intertextuality. This article will be important for addressing both the second and third major points of my essay’s argument.

—. “Introduction.” Keymer 3-19.

-Extremely relevant introductory comments that will be useful in framing my essay’s general discussion of Tristram Shandy, as well as making my third major point regarding interaction with and interpretation of the novel.

New, Melvyn. “Sterne and the Narrative of Determinatedness.” Keymer 191-209.

-Discusses the vast body of ‘external’ material found in Tristram Shandy, namely documents, sermons, short stories, and a host of classical references, and how they work together to link Sterne’s novel to humanity in general. This article will be particularly useful in marking my essay’s second major point.

Ostovich, Helen. “Reader as Hobby-Horse in Tristram Shandy.” Keymer 171-190.

-Discusses the narrative interplay between Sterne, writing as Tristram, and his various created readers, particularly ‘Madam’ and ‘Sir’, noting how they parallel the interactions of the novel`s characters. This will be useful in making my essay’s third major point.

Ramsay, Stephen. Reading Machines: Toward An Algorithmic Criticism. Chicago:

University of Illinois Press, 2011. Print.

-Primary text.

Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. London: Penguin

Books Ltd. 2003. Print.

-Primary text.

Voogd, Peter J. “Tristram Shandy as Aesthetic Object.” Keymer 108-119.

-Discusses the aesthetic properties of Sterne`s work such as the proliferation of dashes and asterisks, explaining their significance for the work as a whole. This exploration of the contrast between text and image and its various effects will be vital for making my essay’s first major point.

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Ripples on Water: ‘primacy of pattern’ in Woolf’s novel, “The Waves”

In this (traditional) presentation I will discuss Ramsay’s algorithmic analysis of Virginia Woolf’s novel, The Waves. In so doing, I will argue that traditional literary criticism is not so different from scientific inquiry. While critics like Jonathan Gottschall assert that “literary studies should become more like the sciences”, both disciplines already revolve around the ‘primacy of pattern’: what Stephen Ramsay identifies as “the basic hermeneutical function that unites art, science, and criticism” (4; xi). When we analyze a text, we search for frequencies: whether of themes, tropes, or individual words. In a critical paper, we marshal those frequencies as evidence of overarching trends or patterns—extrapolating about the use of words in a text, and moving from individual citations to “the grander rhetorical formations that constitute critical reading” (Ramsay 17). Pattern-making, in other words, is where paper-based literary criticism and computational analysis overlap, since “critical reading practices already contain elements of the algorithmic” (Ramsay 16). Continue reading

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Normalizing Textual Deformation

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “deformation” as “alteration of form or shape; relative displacement of the parts of a body or surface without breach of continuity; an altered form of” (“deformation,” Def. 3a), and in his book Reading Machines: Toward An Algorithmic Criticism, Stephen Ramsay describes the prevalence of this phenomenon in relation to literature. In briefly examining this concept in my upcoming PetchaKucha presentation, I will argue that the normalizing of increasingly powerful deformation strategies permitted through such methods as ‘algorithmic criticism’ not only affirms such ideas as Roland Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’ theory, but permanently and incontestably situates both the reading and writing process in the alienating realm of the subjective.

Ramsay notes that “literary-critical insight begins with a change of vision” (48), arguably making the case that for a given reading to acquire validation through attaining the status of criticism, the reader-critic must not only endeavor to distance him/herself from the potential limitations of dogmatic interpretation, but by extension likewise distance him/herself from any interpretive strategies that might limit the ability to make logical meaning of the text. Essentially, if we as aspiring reader-critics are unable to extract logical meaning from a text upon an initial reading, or if we encounter a meaning that traditional dogmatic interpretation might render excessively obvious, we are compelled both through a sort of critical responsibility and an innate tendency to engage in an “overt manipulation of the text” (48). This begs the question of whether such a process actually takes place, and if so, whether such a deformative tendency is natural or has been programmed through the hegemonic dominance of such critical regimes as the ‘close reading’ discourse.

If indeed deformation is a natural tendency, it validates Barthes’ assertion that the text is nothing more than a “tissue of quotations” and a “multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash” (Barthes 146). This is so in the sense that the writing process thus becomes only the appropriation and deformation of various types of existing texts, nevertheless ultimately maintaining a sort of fragmented continuity with the massive but finite realm of objective textual possibility. The reading process is then likewise understood as another step in this inescapable cycle of deformative re-writing, wherein the reader-critic also becomes a writer through his/her own inevitable tendency to “read out of order, [to] translate and paraphrase, [to] look only at certain words or certain constellations of surrounding context” (48), all of which is the essence of deformation itself. Ramsay’s description of deformation in action, particularly in the reading and criticism of poetry, certainly feels natural to anyone who has attempted to derive meaning from a Dickinson poem (34-35) or a Shakespearean sonnet (55), as we indeed find ourselves applying a host of unconscious deformative algorithms in the process of meaning extraction/creation. Even in this presentation I am unavoidably deforming Ramsay’s text, which in turn unavoidably contributes to your own individual deformations of the text in your quest to understand and situate it in your subjectivity.

The notion that the deformative tendency is the unnatural product of hegemonic discourse domination by certain modes of criticism seems absurd by comparison, as it is difficult to imagine a possible reading that doesn’t involve deformative action on at least some level. One has only to glance at the numerous schisms that occurred even as early as the 5th Century AD as a result of the tensions arising from the multiplicity of interpretive deformations of Biblical scripture. Such evidence of humanity’s innate deformation tendency is clearly situated well before the advent of formal modern close-reading discourse.

What are the implications of what I will term the ‘deformation instinct’ in textual reading/criticism? Perhaps most importantly, admitting that textual deformation by each subjective reader is a natural occurrence necessitates a willingness to consider the conscious limits of our individual deformative practices. This is precisely the point that Ramsay makes in arguing for a computerized ‘algorithmic criticism’ – that this new method of criticism does not change the definitions and structure of the practice, but instead simply facilitates and expands the possibilities of an already naturally-occurring phenomenon. Essentially, algorithmic criticism is nothing more than “human-based criticism with computers” (Ramsay 81).

While such visionary critical practice indeed allows for deformative techniques previously impossible under the regime of “library based criticism” (81), it inevitably engages in a trade-off of sorts, providing vast new potential for subjective meaning-making through such tools as geometric analysis (55), but at the cost of further alienating the reader-critic from the already tenuous objectivity of the physical text, whose necessity is increasingly obviated by technologies of summary and limitation. Such objectivity has arguably never existed in an absolute sense, and it would not necessarily be positive even if it did, as Ramsay argues that textual works are “always coalescing into stability by virtue of the readerly process of deformation” (54). It is impossible to read or write in a vacuum, and this fact is affirmed by the potential of algorithmic criticism, as it will permit the reader-critic to observe the “bare, trivial truths of textuality” (79) from a vastly increased multiplicity of sources, revealing the utter interdependence of all textual input and output.

By thus gaining increasing access to humanity’s textual wealth, the reader-critic is able to “install the text into a network of critical activity” (Ramsay 79), exponentially multiplying the deformation-potential of a given text and concurrently illuminating the deformation process of a given author as his/her writing act is situated in relation to, and as a consequence of, the myriad number of existing textual manifestations. Ultimately, the advent of new and more sophisticated deformative practices marks the final blurring of the thin line between author, reader, and critic, relegating them all to the realm of subjectivity. Along with the obviation of the currently required ‘objective’ textual experience will come the death of reading as we know it, leading us into a great unknown in which the relationship of reader-critic to text is no longer about answers, if indeed it ever was (68), but is solely driven by the pursuit of our subjective questions.

Discussion Questions:
1) Does the ‘deformation’ process differ according to different types of texts?
2) To what extent does ‘textual deformation’ already define your reading/writing process?
3) What are the types of questions that drive the reader-critic’s deformative relationship to a given text?
4) Does the advent of digitization indeed spell the end of reading as we know it?

Works Cited
Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Image – Music – Text. Trans. Stephen Heath.
New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 142-48. Print.

“Deformation.” Def. 3a. The Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, 2013.
Web. 12 March 2013.

Ramsay, Stephen. Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2011. Print.

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Research Papers

If you’re opting for a blog submission for your final paper in 503 — regardless of the topic you’ve chosen — then here are some guidelines and advice.

First, your choice of format will not have any impact on your grade, as I said in class.

Second, remember that even if you write a ‘traditional’ paper you should feel free, though not compelled, to adapt and adorn the paper in ways that advance your argument (e.g. charts, diagrams, illustrations, non-linear text blocks, origami / paper dolls, and irregular paper sizes and orientations). I’ll judge these elements on how well they suit your argument, not how decorative or inventive they are.

Third, you have three venues for posting a blog, should you go that route:

  1. to the existing 503 blog
  2. to a ucalgaryblogs site that you create 
  3. to a wordpress blog that you create, as Sarah Hertz did

Finally, I’ll read what you post to your blog as you post it, particularly if you send me reminders to do so. But I can’t promise I’ll respond to every draft or section, particularly after the end of March. It’s more effective to send me direct and precise queries that I can address in a few minutes, rather than asking me to give you guidance on a thousand-word section or a broad interpretive strategy or structure.

I will also do the same for papers; e-mail me your documents (PDF or RTF are best) and your direct questions and I’ll do my best to stay on top of them. Again, before the end of March will get you more of my time.

Generally speaking, I will grade your blog like a paper you submit on April 10th; that means I’ll archive the blog as it appears on that date (at midnight), and ignore any drafts I’ve seen beforehand. You can certainly continue to use your blog for other projects and rants and ramblings until the end of time; just make it clear which posts or pages are for 503, and off you go.

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How do you “Possess” a Memory?

The historical mystery that Roland and Maude set out to solve in the pages of Byatt’s Possession reflects the concern of the protagonists with the preservation of memory. The clues that lead Roland and Maude, as well as other interested parties, toward the discovery of the secret relationship between Ash and LaMotte are all, in fact, objects of memory: letters, jet broaches, diaries, etc. As objects, these items can be possessed; someone (or something) can be in possession of them, drawing a convincing correlation with the title. But who/what is the subject and who/what is the object of the possession?

The letters, which prove the relationship between Ash and LaMotte, are the most vexing examples questioning possession. As is evidenced by the legal battle over the rightful possession of the letters, there is ambiguity as to who ought to possess the letters, and who does possess the letters. By possessing the letters, an individual would assume the dominant role in a power-relationship over those who seek to possess the letters, just as Sir George possesses power over Cropper, Maude/Roland, and others seeking the letters. More importantly, the letters themselves possess a crucial element to this novel: memory and truth. The memory that is preserved within, and is possessed by, the letters significantly alters the way the reader interprets both the letters as physical objects themselves, as well as the lives of the individuals concerned within the letters.

The letters are not the only objects that possess memory; upon meeting his daughter in the park, Ash asks for a “lock of hair – a very fine one – to remember you by,” suggesting that hair acts as an important object of memory for Ash (554). Hair, as an object, has many roles in Victorian-culture, so much so that there are now museums dedicated to hair-jewelry. Furthermore, as Limond suggests in her article, The Persistent Shape-Shifting Life of Things: Subject/Object Relations Manifest in A.S. Byatt’s Posession: A Romance, hair acts as a commodity throughout the novel, both in Ash’s interaction with his daughter, as well as in the jet shop, where mourning jewelry, made of hair, is available for purchase (32).  Although hair may also act as a sign of wealth (particularly golden hair), and the trading of hair represents greed in Victorian-culture, it is notable that Ash’s request of a lock of hair arises specifically from his desire to obtain an object of memory (Limond 32).

Equally important, is the suggestion made by Limond regarding how hair “acts as an extension of identity via the body” (32). Maude’s hair, which is a nearly overwhelming motif throughout the novel, plays an important role in shaping her identity. In the same way, Ash’s daughter’s hair also forms much of her identity: the blonde hair, which the novel’s characters presume is Christabel’s, is actually Maia’s, as the final postscript informs the reader. This identity, unknown to either Maia or to scholars of either poet, demonstrates the personal nature of the memory that Ash obtains, and subsequently possesses, in the lock of hair. That this lock of hair remained in his watch, itself a symbol of memory, indicates the power that a memory can exert upon an object.

In sum, is it possible to physically possess a memory? Ash himself possessed memories of both Christabel and Maia through physical objects, and yet these meant little (or perhaps possessed incorrect meanings) to others in his life. These same objects have been dispossessed of that particular memory as a result of time and secrecy. In discovering the truth, it can be argued that Byatt’s scholars have allowed these objects, the letters and the hair, to repossess their original memories, but to what extent are these memories projected and to what extent are they preserved? And do they not now also possess a new meaning and new memories?

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Rhizomatic Possession

Possession is a novel deeply concerned with the renewal of things. We see this in the scholarly pursuit to restore the past,  the journeys recreated, uncanny affinities between characters. The Garden of Proserpina seem to suggest that the cyclical events in Possession are of a perennial nature; Proserphina, the title subject of the poem is the goddess of the myth of springtime. Ash’s words are heavily laden with references to the Garden of Eden: “The first men named this place and named the world. They made the words for it: garden and tree, Dragon or snake and woman, grass and gold and apples” (504). LaMotte and Ash can be said to have tasted the forbidden fruit through their affair; LaMotte’s Melusine herself embodies simultaneously femininity and temptation as a sort of Eve with a serpentine bottom. At the beginning of the novel, Roland discovers lost letters while comparing Vico’s Proserphina with Ash’s Golden Apples for Professor Blackadder, which in turn leads him to recreate the story of Ash and LaMotte (and create his own with Maud). Finding the clue he initially set out to find after his tangential quest has ended is a realization Roland comes to with a laugh (512).

The desire to possess knowledge that drives Roland and Maud is thus as ancient as the tale that begun with a Tree and an Apple. So Roland’s quest ends where it began, and him and Maud finally consummate their relationship after deciding to think of “a modern way” to work things out. But is it as simple as that? The Garden of Proserpina suggests this idea, but not without problematizing it. Ash himself asks “are these places shadows of one Place?” His question seems to be answered in his own reference to Urd, a deity of Norse mythology who is one of the three Norns that control the destiny of men. The three Norns are said to spin the thread of fate at the foot of the Tree of the World. Ash indirectly refers to this place, and the thread: “where past and future mixed[…] ominously turbulent and twined.” While parallels with Adam and Eve in Ash’s poems serve to reference the ancient quality that his desire to be with LaMotte does, but the theme of renewal I argue is symbolized in Urd: it is not linear, nor clean cut, but rather rhizomatic, tangled up and lacking structure yet nonetheless connected. If you must visualize this, it might look something like this


Roland comes to realize this unpredictable connection as he reads Golden Apples “as though the words were living creatures or stones of fire” (512), not in a past he must revive, but rather becoming intertwined with his present experience. And of course, as readers of Byatt, we are invited to experience this as well.



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Speaking Without Words

Language and language use is unquestionably connected to the human acts of speech, writing, reading, thinking, and tasks which are dependent on these human capacities. Chapter 23 of Possession, however, seems to contrast this notion of language with a different notion of “language.” Byatt appears to develop a “language” without any of the aforementioned human acts, or more precisely, a “language” which is not spoken, written, read, or thought, but one that is acted out in the absence of any linguistic signs. Byatt collapses Roland and his “language” (among other human facets) into a single unit, capable of communicating without the need of the physical act of speech. Roland learns to see himself, “theoretically, as a crossing-place for a number of systems, all loosely connected” (459). He sees himself in terms of an “electrical message-network of various desires … language-forms and hormones and pheromones” (459). In this “crossing-place” centered description of Roland, Byatt portrays him as an interconnected network, where all of the complexities of humanity converge into one. Here, the conventional understanding one has of the relationship between a human and his language is confused; Byatt seems to posit that the human is the language, as much as the human is his desires or his bio-chemicals. Roland comes to see himself, not as independent from language, but as intimately connected to language-forms, almost as if he no longer uses language, but rather, lives through language. While other human characteristics are likewise collapsed into the very essence of Roland – a sense of longing and his sexuality – his linguistic capacity has become so deeply integrated within him that word-forms become indistinguishable from his hormones and pheromones; they are all heard by Maud without having to be physically spoken to her.

The instances of “silence” to which Byatt refers during Roland and Maud’s trip to Brittany signify to the reader that Roland and Maud consciously choose not to speak (or think) and find pleasure in not speaking (or thinking). Just to list a few examples, “They drove silently back to their hotel” (455), “Maud was muted” (457), “He would have been in a panic if he had allowed himself to think” (458), “They took to silence” (458), “They did not speak of this, but silently negotiated another such night” (458), “Speech … would have undone it” (459), “not stirring, not speaking” (459). All of these examples revolve around the idea of silence, while most underscore the love that develops between them despite the lack of any spoken language. If language is not dependent on signs which are spoken, but is intertwined with the essence and body and soul of a human being as presented in the paragraph above, this silence could be argued to not be a silence at all, but rather a deep non-linguistic discussion of their growing love. Such an analysis can be coherently applied onto passages such as “One night they fell asleep, side by side… He slept curled up against her back, a dark comma against her pale elegant phrase” (458). Here, literally, Roland is described as sleeping in the shape of a comma. It is impossible, however, to maintain such a literal interpretation of the description of Maud as a “pale elegant phrase.” A human being cannot take the shape of a phrase the way they can take the shape of a comma, but literarily, this description help us maintain the above discussion of the collapsing of a human being and language into one. Byatt’s description, even if not taken entirely in line with the reasoning presented here, gives the reader the impression that even without spoken language, these two individuals are still communicating harmoniously in some other form of language. Roland is the punctuation to Maud’s phrase.

Roland and Maud are literary types. That is to say, Roland and Maud are scholarly, they engage in textual analysis, they speak in a higher academic language. These two individuals are language-oriented and linguistically inclined, yet they are capable of resisting discussion about their romantic interest for one another. In light of their education and literariness, Byatt states that Roland “was in a Romance, a vulgar and a high Romance simultaneously” (460). The romance between Roland and Maud is “high” in that, when the two do speak, they engage in intelligent conversation about poets and poetry, yet “vulgar” in that the romantic aspects of their relationship are communicated in a lower manner, without any language at all. Byatt continues, “Romance was one of the systems that controlled him” (460). Byatt’s description of Roland as “a crossing-place for a number of systems” gains in significance once Byatt describes the idea of a “Romance” in terms of a “system.” Roland is incapable of speaking about the growing romance because his “language” is being controlled by the system of Romance. Recall that “desires, language-forms, hormones and pheromones” are all intermixed within Roland, suggesting that Romance, as a system which controls him, renders him unable to fully control these human qualities under his own will. In reality, the two primarily converse of “the problems of the dead” (456-457), avoiding at all costs any spoken recognition of the romance building between them. Underneath these discussions of deceased poets, however, a far more interesting and intimate discussion is taking place without any words being spoken at all.

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Maud Bailey’s Journey of Finding Her “Self”

Sincerest apologies for this late post, as I cannot begin to explain the technical difficulties I have been having. Without further adieu, here is my topical presentation summary. Maud Bailey is faced with many difficulties throughout the A.S. Byatt’s “Possession”, and toward the end, she is confronted with finding out where she really comes from, and is, at last, at ease with herself. A.S. Byatt makes Maud stand-offish towards others which can be viewed as Maud protecting her “real self”. Throughout the book it can be argued that Maud is fearful that her “real self” prevents her from having real relationship with others, such as Roland. This could be tied in with the fact that for most of the novel, she is not aware of who she truly is or where she comes from, creating a character who is uneasy and incomplete.
While reading “Possession” I found myself getting more and more curious as to who Maud was as a character, where she came from and what the true story behind her was. Early on in the novel I saw the parallels between Cristabel LaMotte and Maud Bailey, especially in relation to her relationship with Roland. Though the reader is not always aware of it, the story of “Possession” is arguably a story following Maud’s quest of finding her “self”. Maud represents the character who strives to find comfort in her own skin through this quest to gain answers to a mysterious love story, which is quite literally possessing her, along with all of her colleagues.
The overall use of the word “possession” and “possessed” throughout the novel leads me to the argument that Maud unknowingly became possessed with finding her real “self” in a quest which she did not know was even about herself. She was aware of her relation to LaMotte, but her captivation with LaMotte’s work lead her to a moment of realization and coming to terms with herself, which she had never expected. This brings me to Lacanian theory, which would argue that Maud’s moment of recognition that she can be complete starts the onset of desire to find out more, whether she was aware of it or not. She was possessed with what would become of this love story, and this possession projected. Stumbling upon the letters between Ash and LaMotte represents the moment of recognition, whether Maud is conscious of that or not. This desire creates a “gravitational pull” of sorts, which brings Maud to a feeling of utter wholeness that we don’t see until the very end of the novel.

Discussion Questions:

1. Do you think that Maud had even the slightest inkling of a clue as to whether or not she was related to Randolph Henry Ash? Why or Why not?

2. Do you think that Maud Bailey as a character would be any different if A.S. Byatt wrote a book about what happened after Maud’s discovery of her heritage?

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Art to Artist and Back Again: Anti-Mimesis and Self-Discovery in Possession

Byatt’s Possession is artistically driven as characters explore and discover new realities through their studies of poetry and poets. In many ways, the characters seem to project their own feelings onto the art they study, and yet it is only through art that they undergo self-realization. Wikipedia describes this concept as follows: “What is found in life and nature is not what is really there, but is that which artists have taught people to find there, through art.” Simply, art changes one’s outlook on life.

I will be presenting from this anti-mimetic approach with a specific focus on Christabel, Melusina, and Maud. I will argue that life imitates art, or conversely, art informs life, and will demonstrate that Christabel and Maud discover their true selves through art. In particular, I will draw parallels between Christabel and Melusina, examine Christabel’s unopened letter to Roland (“I have been Melusina these thirty years” (501)), and connect Maud’s own personal growth to that of Christabel’s.

Christabel’s deep connection to Melusina is evident throughout Possession; I will demonstrate that this connection is not born solely through similarities, but through Christabel’s subtle understanding of the mythic creature, which ultimately leads her to an understanding of herself. Though she desires to break the bonds of societal expectations and remain independent, her pregnancy draws her to a more traditional understanding of the Victorian female. I will explore Christabel’s fear of losing her child to Ash and his wife (500), and will show how this fear is what furthers LaMotte’s bond with Melusina.


In relation, I will highlight Maud’s growth from solitary academic to Roland’s lover (430, 506), and explain why this change occurs as a direct result of LaMotte’s life and work. Just as Maud is born of Christabel’s blood, she is also born of her art: only through artistic exploration does Maud understand that she can exist in both a professional and personal world. Such self-discovery is all connected, with LaMotte’s growth developing from her study of Melusina, and Christabel’s growth from her study of LaMotte.


As Oscar Wilde writes, “the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression. Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realize that energy.” I intend to show you how true this statement is in Possession; I will use the PetchaKucha format to enhance my argument, but also to challenge you to think about why/how art changes your own perspective on life. As an example, consider your reaction to these two (short) songs, and ask yourself whether they imitate your pre-existing feelings, or whether they cause you to feel a certain way.

Discussion questions:

1. Are there other characters that show a change in perspective through the study of art?

2. Do you think that the novel itself is an example of anti-mimesis? Do we project our own lives onto Possession, or does Possession enable us to see life differently?

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An interesting thing I learned today

While researching my spanish essay today I came across this piece of information that clarified a bit in Tristram Shandy. Thought maybe some of you may also find it interesting.

“Another difference you’re likely to see often is the use of a dash — such as the ones separating this clause from the rest of the sentence — to indicate the beginning of dialogue. The dash is also used to end dialogue within a paragraph or to indicate a change in speaker, although none is needed at the end of dialogue if the end comes at the end of a paragraph. It isn’t necessary to start a new paragraph with a change in speaker as is customary in English. These dashes are used by most writers instead of quotation marks, although the use of quotation marks isn’t uncommon. ”

So that’s what he’s doing. I think new paragraphs is much less confusing. But who am I to judge?

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The Reflecting Relationships

Creating believable and human characters is a difficult task for many authors to accomplish successfully. In this aspect, Byatt succeeds tremendously: she creates so many amazing characters, with flaws and virtues of their own that rise off of the page due to their many faceted natures, and are given real life and true form. Conversely, the less important characters are colorless and dull, fading from our memories almost as soon as we are done with them. However, the relationships of the characters in the novel are what really and truly bring the novel to life. They are what lend credibility to the whole of the story and make us want to read the rest of Ash’s and LaMotte’s works, even when we know they do not really exist.

I will be doing a traditional presentation on the nature of these relationships, and discussing the similarity and duality of the characters in those relationships, present in the novel. I will argue in my presentation that Maud and Roland’s relationship is a mirror of that of Christabel LaMotte’s and Randolph Ash’s, and the characters are cleverly created by Byatt to reflect similar personality traits and characteristics in one another.

The females, LaMotte and Maud both display a deep love of freedom, of autonomy and an unrestrained life. They have great difficulty imagining successful lives while being caught up in relationships and ‘love’ (which Maud refers to more than once with disdain.) Even within LaMotte’s writing, specifically in the segment of The Fairy Melusine, we are introduced to a female character of extreme power who is only content when he owns the knight “Body [and] soul” (298).

The male halves of these relationships, Ash and Roland, display similar mannerisms in that they are both awkward when dealing with their female compatriots. They often have difficulty expressing themselves vocally, particularly when discussing sensitive subjects, and while each of the two faces their own problems with their ‘significant other,’ (Val for Roland and Ellen for Ash,) they each choose to run away in a sense, to find their relief and make room for their new relationship.

I will also demonstrate the ways in which Ellen Ash and Val display similar traits, each of them coming to terms with the ‘other woman’ in their respective relationships and the way in which they grow as people when they do begin to realize the truth about their partners. Ellen Ash in particular, shows extraordinary strength of character when she realizes her husband’s deceitfulness, though she never reveals to him the amount she knows or the pain she feels. She resembles Val in that they both dislike conflict, though Val is a person who draws into herself in anger, whereas Ellen chooses to avoid and ignore the topic of disagreement as much as is humanly possible for her (as is seen by her reluctance to bring up Christabel’s letter to her dying husband.)


Discussion Questions:

  1. Independence is very important to the strong female characters, Christabel and Maud. What does it mean to them and how does it affect their lives/relationships?
  2. Are there any other characters that you feel can be reflections of one another? Why/how so?


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…And it all reduced like boiling jam

For my “close reading” post I chose to discuss an excerpt from chapter thirteen of A.S. Byatt’s “Possession”. In my edition of the novel it is on page 253, but unfortunately I believe I have a different version than most of the class, therefore I will simply include the excerpt I will be discussing to save everyone some time:

“Do you ever have the sense that metaphors eat up our world? I mean of course everything connects and connects – all the time – and I suppose one studies – I study – literature because all these connections seem both endlessly exciting and then on some sense dangerously powerful – as though we held a clue to the true nature of things? I mean, all those gloves, giants’ gloves, Blanche Glover, Balzac’s gloves, the sea-anemone’s ovaries – and it all reduced like boiling jam to – human sexuality.” (253)

When Roland says this, it is both metaphorical and ironical in itself. As English majors, we strive to see metaphorical and symbolic meaning in most to all work, and metaphors do, literally “eat up” our world as we pick apart, and pull out these theories in order to discover “what it all really means”. The reader creates the metaphor by seeking and producing meaning within a text, and creates symbols and connections implied by an author, which allows us to create a deeper and more personal meaning. These connections are why we love what we do, it is why we read and take meaning from books like Possession. The irony behind it could be argued that we use metaphors as a vehicle to allow us to make connections, such as, for example, Randolph’s very relationship with Maude Bailey as a metaphorical symbol of the relationship between Cristabel and Randolph. Metaphors play an important role in Possession, and A.S. Byatt effectively gives her readers connections so they feel as though they are on a certain “quest” to find the true meaning in everything, to reduce it “like boiling jam” (253). A.S. Byatt is pointing out what those who study literature strive to find within text; textual evidence which points to deeper meaning.

I would like to take note of the use of the world “reduced”, as in everything in literature simplifies until it comes down into one utmost meaning, in this case, human sexuality. We are always looking for the ultimate meaning behind texts and go in with the assumption that there is one true reason, meaning, or purpose. Everyone is aware that this is not the case and literature can be interpreted from many different angles and is very difficult to “reduce” or “simplify”. From a psychoanalyst perspective, Roland could be arguing that deep meaning, in this case human sexuality, derives from otherwise normal things, such as a sea-anemone. Roland also could be displaying concern within this passage which could be argued that he is concerned that the “go to” underlying meaning for many things literary works is human sexuality. Could there be deeper, alternative meaning? Surely it is possible.

Maude, a psychoanalyst herself, would support the notion that explorations into the deepest parts of the personal psyche through literature can reveal relevant meaning, not only about the literature but about one’s self. What would Roland’s reaction to the “everything reduces to human sexuality” idea mean about his character? Maude also states how interpretations are subjective: “Everything relates to us and so we’re imprisoned in ourselves – we can’t see things. And we paint everything with this metaphor” (254). This could be translated as though what we interpret from literature, whether it trickles down to, for example, human sexuality, it is within the boundaries of our own minds. Arguably, how we reduce the meanings in literature is subjective to an individual’s self.

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(Re?)Centering Discoveries “on the Side” of Research

In this post I will be discussing a section of a conversation between Roland and Maud, which occurs in Chapter Fourteen, during their visit to the Thomason Floss (265-268—Vintage edition), focussing on a brief exchange near the bottom of 267, where, in the process of investigating Ash and Christabelle, Roland and Maud make an equally, or perhaps more, significant discovery about each other (267).

Here, Roland remarks that what he “really” wants “is to—to have nothing” further stating: “I have this image of a clean empty bed in a clean empty room, where nothing is asked or to be asked” (267). Maud replies: “That’s what I think about, when I’m alone. How good it would be to have nothing. How good it would be to desire nothing. And the same image. An empty bed in an empty room. White” (267). While attempting to uncover truths about Ash and Christabelle, they have uncovered a shared drive or deep desire for a pure and solitary existence, perhaps implying a state that is not mired in worldly problems and attachments, reminiscent of Christabelle’s account of the life she has chosen to live with Blanche as quiet, “solitary,” with “sweet daily rythms which are not disturbed,” calling it their “circumscribed little independence” (159). In contrast, the world that Roland and Maud seem to want to escape is necessarily messy and would perhaps be represented by a vision of a dirty room, and a dirty bed, perhaps not circumscribed, but not independent.

Maud characterizes this discovery as a “powerful coincidence” and remarks, a little farther in the exchange: “how very funny—that we should have come here, for this purpose, and sit here, and discover—that—about each other” (267). There is an implication in this passage that the kind of investigation that Roland and Maud are engaging in—or literary/biographical research in general, although characterized in theory as a straight-line narrative beginning with a research question and ending with a clear answer, often do not proceed this way in practice, probably suggesting that their proceeding in this linear fashion is not necessarily even desirable. What one discovers about oneself, or, when people work collaboratively, what emerges in the activity of interpersonal exchange, is being emphasized in this passage in a way that makes it come across as being equally important as the research conducted and the ‘truths’ revealed. This implication has broader significance in the novel as a whole when considered in light of characters like Cropper, whose very name makes him vulnerable to an interpretation in terms of an extreme representation of a narrow, ‘truth-collecting’ sort of research, which excludes (crops) the humanity of the researcher.

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Is Maud’s Hair Holding Her Back?

I wish to discuss the significance Byatt seems to place on Maud’s hair (ppp. 295 – 296, First Vintage International Edition). She actively describes to Roland the different stages her hairstyle has gone through, depending on what is happening in her life. Currently as we know her, she has long blonde hair that she keeps covered up all the time. I feel like this is her way of protecting herself, for in refusing to present all of her, she is able to keep a sense of authority and avoid the risk of having every single piece of it taken away.

She tells Roland that she covers her hair because of Fergus, and because it is “the wrong colour”.   In having been previously accused of dying her hair blonde to please men, Maud had been reduced, at least somewhat, to an object to be looked upon by the male gaze. I say who cares what colour her hair is? But, to touch on the idea that feminism in the novel is often attacked to some degree, it appears that Byatt’s focus on Maud’s hair is in order to say that as a woman in the time period of the novel, she is threatening and so must be controlled.

She explains that she had it also been shaved short, and that Fergus called this “a cop out”, “a concession”, and that it made her “look like a skull”. I wonder what exactly Fergus could mean by her short hair being a cop out. Is her short hair an attempt to avoid being reduced to an object of the male gaze? In my own experience, the men I know prefer women with longer hair, so are Fergus’s complaints part of this psyche? Is he trying to insert his authority over hers in the decision-making process? She explains that upon him telling her to “just have it” as in have it long, she indeed grows it out, but now it remains hidden under a coverup. It seems to me that the short hair and the long hair under cover go hand-in-hand in a quest to demand attention on an intellectual standpoint, rather than on a physical one.

Once she has uncovered her hair at his urging, Roland is “moved – not exactly with desire, but with an obscure emotion that was partly pity” (ppp. 295). His pity is for the hair, not for Maud, and he feels it is a “captive creature” (ppp. 206). Roland has already had desirous thoughts about Maud in her flowing dragon kimono, but it seems to me that her hair has even more of an effect on him. Is he subconciously attracted to Maud and her hair in this moment because he can see it, as I suggested previously for Fergus. In him “not making a pass”, and Maud “knowing he is not” suggests that Roland is attracted to the idea of her hair being free, but more so for her sake than for his. I would argue that Roland wishes for Maud to be free of the confines put on her authority , and this may begin with her acceptance of a physical feature that has become her handicap in an attempt to be taken seriously in a patriarchal society.

In the end, Roland feels “something has been loosened in him” (ppp. 206). Is this the desire for Maud to feel this acceptance and freedom? I think so.

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Female Suppression in Possession

I am choosing to focus on Byatt’s inclusion of feminism and the feelings of intrusion, exclusion and dismissal the feminist characters in the novel feel. Such feelings indeed have an impact on the character’s feeling of being capable of possessing what they desire to possess as they have not been given complete opportunity to do so.

I will discuss Beatrice’s conversation towards Maud about the exclusion and even persecution she felt at Prince Albert College, as the women had their own, “pretty” seminar room separate from the males and did not have a hand in the decision-making process which took place at the pub, another place that they were forbidden to enter (ppp. 240). Byatt appears to use this conversation to unveil the suppression of women in academia in the 20th cent. and that their attractiveness and youth was likely the main reason they were tolerated at all, but that once they grew older and lost these things there began a “witch-hunt” against older women who desired to put their two cents in.

I will discuss the journal entries of Ellen Ash. I will focus on her chess games with Herbert Baulk who tells her she “plays well for a lady”, and who invades her dream and completely suppresses her power in the chess game they play within it. He does so by stripping only Ellen’s Queen’s ability to perform any move she wants. Ellen sees this as a reflection of female suppression in real life, and important to note is when she feels necessary in an entry after the dream that she did indeed win at chess again, as this is a feat she wishes to possess and hold dear as she feels it is a triumph against Baulk’s dismissal of her abilities as a lady. I somewhat feel this is relatable to Val’s essay on “The Male Ventriloquist” that was described as “good work” but dismissed because it must have not been her work (pp. 16). Val’s abilities too have been dismissed and her writing is “good” but only because the examiners are of the opinion it was written by Roland. Baulk and the examiners have robbed Ellen Ash and Val of their right to possess a victory.

I will discuss LaMotte’s “Fountain de Soif” which is described as concealed and difficult for the knight character to get to. The fact that the voice of the Fairy Melusina, who dwells in the fountain “sings no more” when the knight disturbs her (ppp. 266) is indicative of the intrusion of the male voice and opinion within the safe haven of the female, for the Melusina’s female language has become “dumb before the intrusive male” (ppp. 267). I will relate this to Maud’s reading of The Great Ventriloquist about Ash and how she is dismayed by the fact that Ash may have influenced LaMotte in any way. Maud is reluctant to study Ash’s poetry, I think, because she does not want to find evidence that he was able to intrude into LaMotte’s writing and therefore suppress her artistic expression and ideas with his own.

I will finally discuss Maud’s description to Roland about her relationship with Fergus and how she disliked the noise and distraction he made as he argued his opinions which he believed to be superior, and did so by saying “another, cleverer, louder thing” overtop someone’s else voice (ppp. 294). He therefore appears the hold authority over Maud and anyone else he suppresses with his louder, more powerful voice.

Discussion Questions:

1. To what extent do certain means of suppressing one’s attempts to possess something effect their ability to do so?

2. If Maud did not feel so strongly about LaMotte’s influence by Ash, would her reading of LaMotte change? Would she be more open to reading Ash?


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Prometheus in the Machine?

During my reading of Possession I found myself marvelling at how often Roland or Maud could have spared themselves time and trouble with modern technology. Even Roland’s initial theft from the library would have been unnecessary with a digital scanner. Given Professor Ullyot’s fascination with free information and my adoration of anything free in general, I found a scientist named Brewster Kahle:

He is working towards the construction of a library that he hopes will encompass every single book ever produced. Kahle gave a TED talk back in 2007:

He underlined some of the challenges facing a completed digital library but insisted it is possible. Some quick facts: at the time there were some 26 million volumes in print at the Library of Congress. That entire collection could be condensed into a digital archive that could fit in one room, in a device that costs $60,000. I imagine the technology and its pricing have improved since then. Kahle appeared idealistic in the video and skimmed over certain problems such as funding and reparations to the authors, clearly hoping to develop a legitimized peer-sharing system similar to torrenting in order to distribute and collect texts. I found it interesting that he accurately predicted the rise of the E-reader: displaying a beta model and suggesting that services such as Kindle would become the way of the future. Perhaps this foresight will extend to his dream of a complete, virtually uploaded library? Kahle’s project currently has half a million volumes and continues to function as the Internet Archive which unfortunately faces ongoing legal issues.

Although the digitization of books has led to controversies involving piracy and recompense, this new shift has spawned a multitude of clockwork apparatus designed to expedite and enhance the bibliophile’s experience. Take the Espresso Book Machine, a miniaturized manafacturing plant installed at a number of University bookstores (U of A has one). Customized book building is very real; I was able to take advantage of it for a recent gift idea and the process is streamlined and professional:

Bookmobiles, once a European staple, have been revived thanks to upgraded printing technology. They are essentially ambulatory libraries now, as satellite technology and roomier hard drives allows them to download and store thousands upon thousands of books. These have found a niche in the third world where personal internet access is not guaranteed. Do you think there is a place for these contraptions in a city like Calgary?

More recently, interactive books for the iPad and other e-readers have been released (I think we briefly discussed this in class). In this TED talk Mike Matas demonstrates the world’s first interactive e-book, Al Gore’s Our Choice which is probably the most unnecessarily futuristic (but aesthetically appealing) method of reading I have ever seen. The touch-screen technology has reached a point where one can accurately simulate turning a page. Is the physical sensation of holding paper replaceable? Does anyone actually crave it badly enough to forgo the video gaming aspect of these books? Do you find the visualizations distracting, and if so, do you think they destroy Our Choice as a definable book?

Beyond the flashy dials and lurid colours to keep your average reader engaged (I am thinking of myself), digitization has prompted all manner of cataloguing, indexing and information retrieval possibilities that have probably cost a lot of people in our field their jobs. Googles Ngram viewer is one of many such burgeoning search tools; it allows visitors to check the frequency of any words in their 5 million strong collection based on dates. Any word! Try dropping in swear words and you will see the crassness our society has fallen into.

A few questions:

-Do you believe that some of these new literary technologies enhance or decrease an interest in reading older, less accessible texts? Imagine reading a digital copy of Tristram Shandy that decoded every allusion or eloquence for you in plain English. But I also suspect most reading portals will have a star system for their books – do you foresee new readers, attracted by the convenience of e-books, flocking instead to whatever junk has been recommended by ‘the masses’?

-Do you think Possession would be plausible if set in the 2010’s? Would Roland and Maud’s experience of sifting through these old volumes, rifling through sheets of yellowing paper, necessarily be different and if so how? 

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Opening the Book

“Digital technology could be the most revolutionary thing since the discovery of fire–at least, for books.” -Bob Stein

In a recent episode of Ideas called “Opening the Book”, Paul Kennedy interviews several scholars and publishers on the future of print media and the recent shift to electronic readers. The podcast covers several topics related to bibliographic studies: notably, the difficulty in defining the term ‘book’ in a digital era, as well as the malleable and fluid nature of electronic texts. Continue reading

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Maybe He is A Little ‘Girly’

The section I am choosing to provide a close reading on is page 129-130, the last paragraph on 129, starting with “Roland objected to…”.

What caught my focus in this section was the clearly defined reversal of gender roles between Roland and Maud. Roland is being “ridiculous” and “romantic” because he has a “vision” of sharing “emotion” with Maud in an intimate system of discovery. Maud has a system based on efficiency that follows logic and reasoning to maximize their “little time” while at the same time removing the inconvenience of emotion. Perhaps this gender role reversal is because of their individual experiences; Maud derives only negative connotations from emotions. She is emotionally attacked because of her beauty, her motives, her successes, and later she is hurt because of an attachment to a man that brushes her off after their affair. Emotions make her vulnerable and result in she got hurt, logic and reason lead to discovery and academic recognition so they produced the better result. Roland on the other hand is with Val, who appears to me emotionally defunct and who knows neither how to process her own emotions nor how to interact with Rolland on an emotional level.

Roland’s idea that he is being “hustled” again demonstrates the idea of role reversal, and also connects back to his relationship with Val. Val is constantly manipulating and hustling him so that he stays with her. Roland is defined by the traditionally female traits of being the victim of emotional abuse resulting from the conviction of guilt that Val uses to control him. Is his fear of being “hustled” a contributing factor to his actions surrounding the discoveries of the letters both found at the library and at Seal Court? He is the assistant to a leading authority on Ash, perhaps Blackadder would be more appropriate to interpret the letters, and perhaps this is because of Roland’s eagerness to make a great discovery, or his desire to prove of the great romantic love between Ash and LaMotte?

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The Reader’s Power in A.S. Byatt’s Possession


The word “read” has diverse, and even unlikely, etymological roots; according to the OED in Old and Middle English the word was used in a wide range of senses, such as ‘to advise’ or ‘to deliberate;’ furthermore, its original variant, the archaic verb rede meant ‘to rule, direct, or guard.’ So what does this tell us about the exercise of reading? to keep it overly simple, it may very well tell us that reading goes beyond occupying oneself with perusing a written text. Reading is an exchange taking place between the text and the reader, interactive as it is unstable. The text is rendered vulnerable to the readers’ will: we are able to challenge, debate and reinvent a it, as well as its author. This presentation will focus on A.S. Byatt’s reinvention of the past in Possession and how evidence from the text can nurture a discussion on how interpretative writing and reading are exercises of our intellectual and creative sovereignty over a text. This discussion, it must be noted, stems from my (problematic) assumption that Byatt’s writing of Possession and its imaginative restoration of the Victorian era is, in itself, an act of authoritative reading. We should not, however, forget Possession is a self-conscious exercise of a reader’s AUTHORity, as it satirizes the intellectual communities that seek to accurately break down and portray the reality of the past it studies.

Byatt’s extensive knowledge on Victorian and Romantic literature allows her to invent Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte and situate them perfectly into a historical context. Byatt does not speak as LaMotte or Ash, but rather for them, through their poems, critical works and epistolary evidence which, as the author, Byatt obviously controls. LaMotte and Ash are linked to the present through Maud Bailey and Roland Mitchell, scholars consumed by their research interests. We might assume that Byatt offers us a well-rounded window into the minds and hearts of famous poets and the scholars who trail after them. However, the subtitle’s telling us that Possession is to be a romance commands authority, as “it demands we inhabit a world it offers” (Fletcher 141). The subtitle, along with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s preface act as a disclaimer of sorts: we have agreed to enter a world which, in the words of Hawthorne, “has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation” (Byatt 1).Possession’s allure undoubtedly lies within Byatt’s interpretative power as a reader, as well as her ability to cater to our assumptions and desires as readers. Through the construction of Possession’s main characters, Byatt addresses our anxiety as readers based on the assumption that we cannot understand text if we do not fully “possess” its surroundings— the author’s dreams and thoughts, where they spent the night and what they had for breakfast—. By carefully building this intellectual universe uncannily like our own and creating a link between its past and present Possession tells us more about our power as readers than the text itself.

This exercise is not, however, without caution. Possession does not read anything assumingly, and even this subtly acknowledged power of the reader is satirized. I get this (unsettling) feeling that the different viewpoints in Possession are only able to happen because Byatt is the “ventriloquist” behind them all. Is Byatt trying to convey this feeling to us? If so, what can we learn from it? For Wednesday’s discussion, I would like to pay close attention to the correspondence between Ash and LaMotte. Firstly, the letters show Byatt’s control over the imagination and hearts of the central literary figures of the text and fulfills our desire to possess as readers. Yet secondly, and most importantly, the authority that Byatt imposes on the subject-matter is exquisitely self-aware. Byatt seems to assert that the only truthful reality we can ever know is that which we simulate; as her Ash writes to LaMotte “the only life I am sure of is the life of the Imagination…Poetry can make man live for the length of the faith you or any other choose to give to him…Do you touch at my meaning? When I write I know.” (Byatt 185).  By having Ash pose the same thought that inhabits our reading conscience, Byatt makes us aware that we often find in the text what we initially set out to look for, and not necessarily what the text contains.



1) Do you agree or disagree with my thesis that the reader imposes his/her authority over a text when he/she reads it? Why/ why not?


2) Though my presentation dealt chiefly with our individual, personal engagement with the text, can we extend the idea of a reader’s power to critical theories that A.S. Byatt eludes and resists in her text? Think specifically about the “death of the author,” feminism, reader response theory and new historicism.


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Letters to the Future

Letters are an essential cog within the machine that is A.S. Byatt’s, Possession, and they serve as the guiding force for the plotline of the whole novel. The modern readers of the letters, (Maude and Roland,) are able to understand the implications of the events therein depicted, as well as the topics discussed in those letters, much better than the intended readers ever could. This is due to their overall familiarity with the ‘text’ that would have been the lives of the two writer’s. For example, consider Roland’s ability to peruse through records of Crabb Robinson’s parties allow him to stumble on the illicit relationship of LaMotte and Ash (24). Also, Maude’s familiarity with LaMotte’s writing allow the two scholars to find the hidden love letters in the first place (83).

Byatt’s characters Maude and Roland, treat the love letters written by Ash and LaMotte as a sort of book to be opened and perused, though Roland, at least, feels some discomfort in doing so. He understands that the letters are meant to be simply that – that reading them is an invasion of privacy and an injustice to the writer. However, he cannot quench his desire to understand the writer’s better. When reading the hidden batch of messages describing Ash’s and LaMotte’s relationship, Roland describes the purpose of the letter saying, “Letters… are a form of narrative that envisages no outcome, no closure” (130-131).That the writers are not aware of the future, that they have no notion of anything past the ‘now’, is abundantly clear throughout the development of their relationship. Byatt further confirms the idea that the Maude and Roland as readers of the distant future better understand the lives of Ash and LaMotte as a whole by suggesting that letters are not meant to tell a story because, “They do not know, from line to line, where they are going” (131). While Ash and LaMotte would simply look at the immediate relevance of the letters, the two scholars are able to understand their lives as a whole by considering the letters as a sort of ‘text’.

The entire storyline of Possession revolves around the presence, discovery and subsequent analysis of letters that are ages old, in an effort to better understand the lives of those who wrote them. However, the reason for the importance of these letters to the original writers and their intended reader(s), compared to their importance to scholars from centuries later are extremely different. While the original writers would have simply considered the letters for their immediate content, the future scholars are able to connect the dots to various otherwise incomprehensible outcomes and ideas.

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A Reciprocal Possession

Possession – the title of A.S. Byatt’s Booker Prize winning work quite aptly describes the feeling whereby both the novel’s various ‘living’ characters and the historical figures whose lives they attempt to reveal are inexplicably driven in the frantic pursuit of their (often undefined) respective goals. This is particularly evident in the correspondence between Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel Lamotte, which captures the possession of the aforementioned figures by each other, and concurrently epitomizes the total possession of Roland and Maud by the mysteries of the past.

In this correspondence, Ash discourses on the nature of possession, arguing that “there [is] no middle way” (177) – that the phenomenon is unavoidably extreme. Where we might understand possession to mean a type of surrender, however, Ash indicates its reciprocity, noting that when “[he] speak[s] to [Christabel] as [he] might speak to all those who most possess [his] thoughts” he “find[s] [himself] unpardonably lending [her] […] [his] voice” (177). Essentially, while possessed by Christabel or such figures as Shakespeare, John Donne, etc., he necessarily engages in the possessive act in relation to them as well through the inevitable attempt “to construct a Dialogue” (177). Ash argues that this leads to him “encroaching on both halves of [the dialogue]” (177), and it seems that this is likewise the case with Christabel, as both are in a way scripted by the other and yet succeed in scripting the other in such clearly manifested ways as the productions of Melusina and Swammerdam.

This notion is thematically important for the novel as a whole, as characters like Roland and Maud, while trapped in the monologue of objective scholarly reality, nevertheless attempt a sort of dialogue with the story of Ash and Christabel. They are indeed clearly possessed by the story, witnessing its effects on their own lives and choices, yet they also possess the story, uniquely ‘writing’ it by bringing it to life through their own explorations and interpretive perspectives. Barthes would argue that a reader takes possession of an author’s text, but Byatt seems to view possession rather as mutual discourse, and just as Christabel later notes that she is “enlarged by [Ash’s] generosity” (502) in his reciprocal possession of her, so Roland and Maud are enlarged by the story, discovering themselves and each other while also permitting the enlargement and completion of Ash and Christabel’s romance through their possession of it.

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Do You Know What You Know?

The field of English literature is more subjective than other academic disciplines and as such, people in other disciplines can perceive the study of literature as personal opinions constructed by the reader apart from the text. Often, the opinions and conclusions of literary scholars seem out of reach of their academic peers in other disciplines because they have a deeper knowledge of historical concepts and biographical information, which cannot be entirely relied upon yet not entirely discredited. A.S. Byatt’s novel “Possession” explores questions about academic and personal reading processes. By exploring this question through the example of Christabel Lamotte, I argue that our “knowledge” of background information to texts can colour our readings to the point where it can alter the textual meaning and can become supplementary to the text itself. I further posit that research, although not perfect, is the most effective way of gaining new knowledge.

Much of the basis for study in English literature can lie in historical context; biographical contexts can also contribute to a richer understanding. How does our previous knowledge or the things we know colour our readings of texts? To what extent do we ascribe our own interpretations to a text? This dilemma is illustrated in the character of Christabel Lamotte, specifically what was known about her by scholars like Maud Bailey and how that could have influenced interpretation. The very thought of LaMotte being involved in an affair with R.H. Ash at first seems uncharacteristic of her and Maud Bailey completely discredits the idea from the beginning (42). With further research and looking for specific examples that could be interpreted to support the claim of an affair between the two authors, more evidence is found. This leads to more questions about what we can find in texts if we are looking for it; would the same evidence exist if it was not being diligently searched for?

As English majors, it is our job to find what is relevant and prove it thus with textual and historical references. As stated previously, these references can be initially tainted with subjectivity and personal interpretations so the only way to strengthen an argument is to question its very basis even further. When Maud and Roland cautiously accept the notion that there may have been an affair between their favourite authors, the evidence they find changes what they thought they knew. Can new information lead to a reformation of previous thought or will it be shaped to fit what was already assumed about the subject? The fact that new information is being gathered from personal letters is significant to note. These letters were written to specific readers; how accurate can a reading of the letters be by someone who was not intended to read them? (131)

It is not my intent to bash the literary research process but merely to draw attention to how we as readers can construct textual meanings outside of the text itself because of our own knowledge and subjective experiences. The information we have about authors is important to note and can be significant at times to understanding the meaning; it is also important to keep in mind where the information comes from and that although it may be correct, there may be more to the background of the work, the author, and the circumstance than originally thought. It is only through research and questioning what we believe we know that we are able to find what we don’t know and come to know more things.

Discussion Questions:

Do you have any personal examples for when your previous knowledge has accurately/inaccurately coloured your reading of a specific text?

What effect do the series of personal letters have on objective understanding of facts?

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Desert Island Reading List

Susan Hill’s memoir Howard’s End is on the Landing culminates in a list of books she would take to a desert island. Her choices say as much about Hill’s life as her bookshelves — which are really one and the same, as for most lifelong readers.

Today in class we tried a similar exercise, to ‘crystallize’ (Hill’s word) a lifetime of experience into a single shelf of books you have read, and would happily spend the rest of your life reading.

These aren’t the books you wish you had read, or would pack in your suitcase in the earnest hope that long hours of isolation would force you to read them. (For me, that includes Moby Dick and Bleak House and Anatomy of Melancholy and …)

No, these are the books that you have read, and would happily re-read again and again for the rest of your days. Say you’re leaving for a ten-year one-way spaceflight, alone, and will die at the end. These books are for you alone: no one else will ever know which books went with you.

The Rules, then:

Ten books (more manageable than 40). No anthologies. No collected works. One book per author.

What’s on your list? Here’s mine, in no particular order:

  1. Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
  2. A S Byatt, Possession
  3. Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  4. John Milton, Paradise Lost
  5. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene
  6. Ovid, The Metamorphoses (trans. Mandelbaum)
  7. Nick Bantock, Griffin and Sabine
  8. Virginia Woolf, The Waves
  9. Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
  10. William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida

Each one has autobiographical resonances and is linked to a dozen other books, as Susan Hill’s are.

This list also required whittling down. Here are the ten I had to leave behind:

  1. Louis de Bernières, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin
  2. Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism
  3. C S Lewis, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe
  4. Plato, The Republic
  5. Christopher Logue, War Music
  6. Carl Sagan, Cosmos
  7. Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything
  8. Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park
  9. John Lydgate, The Troy Book
  10. Priscilla Presley, Elvis and Me

That last one has a particularly long story; don’t ask.

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You Are Not a Proper Reader

From the outset of Howard’s End is on the Landing, I was curious about the potential success of a book about books. I suppose that in many ways Hill nudges people into becoming “proper reader[s]” (161), but then again, I assume that most people who read about reading have already received this literary stamp of approval. By the end of Hill’s memoir, I really just wanted to nestle into a corner with T.S. Eliot and Roald Dahl and the whole lot in literary ecstasy, and I did not want Hill there to judge me. This brings me to my study of the accessible author, and the effects of knowing an author on a personal level.

Though Hill’s prose is fluid and entertaining, I was often too distracted by other, seemingly less significant comments that were thrown into the mix. These comments put me under the microscope and found me unworthy. Immediately, Hill describes the dullness of an organized reader by comparing a meticulously organized shelf to her father’s sock drawer (6). Susan, I thought, my books are precisely organized by subject and height. I let it slide. A few pages later, Susan asserts that “Elizabethan plays are not as enticing as their titles and if they were any good we would have heard of them” (8). Susan, I thought, of all the plays in all the world, how can you be sure that you have not missed but one good Elizabethan play? And why, if you “do not have to its pay rent just because it is a book” (7), have you kept these apparently terrible plays? Hill also suspects the organized Folio collector of not being a “proper reader” (161), and promises us that girls will always read more than boys (20). Between Susan’s judgement of my failed status as an acceptable reader, and her facts that are not really facts, I quickly lost patience. What was an interesting read quickly became a lesson in patience, and I concluded that knowing your author can be harmful.

Previous to the Internet and the expansion of celebrity, people read books, devoured books, studied books, and the authors were largely left alone. Now we want to know our writers, connect with our writers, and yet it is this writer that I do not like, not this book. To know a writer destroys the creative world they have imagined, unless (maybe) it is from a biographical standpoint. Autobiographies are far too fresh and raw, and I for one do not want the imperfections of the writer to infringe my reading experience (unless it is in a far subtler way, as with fictional characters). I do not fault Hill for having faults, only for showing them to us (though I do not believe she sees them as such). I hoped for a book of exploration and discovery, but ultimately there was far too much of that for me on a personal level. I want to love my authors and the books they write, and knowing the truth lifts the veil of welcomed ignorance. I often find myself shying from autobiographies for this very reason: I find them overly critical, unavoidably narcissistic, and much too real for the world fictional books live in (and where their authors should stay).

What was your experience in reading Howard’s End is on the Landing? Am I overly cynical and sensitive? Did you find Hill’s comments distracting and frustrating, or personal and connective?


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Desire to recover, or if you will, Melancholy Fetish

(The second half of this title was borrowed from P. Vermeulen’s article “Greenblatt’s Melancholy Fetish: Literary Criticism and the Desire for Loss”)

Last Friday, as we were discussing the Sherman and Iser articles and our motivations to read, we inevitably came to Stephen Greenblatt’s, which “began with a desire to speak with the dead” (Sherman 59). This sparked obvious and necessary questions: as contemporary readers can we speak speak with the dead? is it possible to understand what the dead are saying to us? We know a lot writers worked towards posterity of their work, but what kind of posterity?

This candid longing to connect with great minds of the past, or a particular period we have studied is not new, and I daresay not alien to any of us either. But what about the emotional study for the past, which goes beyond a scholarly interest? I want to close read Susan Hill’s chapter “Who’s Afraid,” where Hill details her life-long interest in Virginia Woolf. I believe this to be a good starting point to begin a discussion about why this desire to recover and preserve the past is intrinsically linked to each of our own identities as readers.

From the outset, Hill is sincere about her obsession; her collection of 113 books “by or about” Virginia Woolf (127) is nothing short of impressive. She came to know Woolf in a time where she wished to assert her identity as a writer: “I was hungry for something that would not only teach me how to write novels but would tell me how to be a writer” (Hill 128). Hill gets her wish: Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary serves as a bedside table companion and spiritual nourishment. A Writer’s Diary is not just a much-beloved book, though. It becomes a sort of talisman over the years, when Hill opens it at random and finds that Woolf had “just [come] back from staying with Vita at Long Barn” (Hill 182)  the name which, coincidentally, Hill was contemplating for her publishing venture. Hill seeks to engulf the essence of Woolf and the Bloomsbury circle, and she truly believes her desire is fulfilled. She affirms that the more one reads Woolf “the more one discovers what made her tick, how she thought, what she stood for, why she wrote as she did, why her life was what it was.” It is clear that Hill knows her esteem of Woolf goes beyond an intellectual interest; it is a deeply affective relationship. Hill even goes as far as saying that American scholarship are responsible for a “fair old load of rubbish, too, about her state of mind and even her unconscious” (132).

Now, I do not wish to say that Hill’s longing to restore Woolf mirrors the motivations behind  Greenblatt’s brilliant studies into the Renaissance, or Nicholas Watson’s “Desire for the Past.” But I make the comparison because these examples all speak of a phenomenon that has gone largely unexplored in our discussions in class. To what extent are our research interests, and the theoretical frames through which we explore them, motivated by emotion? We may be tempted to dismiss Hill’s take on Woolf precisely because it is so emotionally-charged. But has this empathy not played a key role in the intellectual formation of Hill?  I think looking at affective commitments we may have towards an author may inform our educational history, but may also help answer the question of whether we can have conversations with the dead: when we see our emotions and thoughts reflected in a text we read it may be, as Watson puts it “haunted by echoes of a past that finds ghostly ways of speaking through [us] whether we like it or not, curiously shaping the desires we express” (161).


Watson, Nicholas. “Desire for the Past.” Maistresse of My Wit: Medieval Women, Modern Scholars, ed. Louise D’Arcens and Juanita Feros Ruys. Turhout: Brepols P, 2004. Print.

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Memoir, Memento, Memory…Where did I put that book again?

Subtitles always have an air of deficiency about them. Can a short, descriptive phrase ever completely circumscribe every angle, contour and protrusion of a text without necessarily cutting something off? Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing is accompanied by the cozy subtitle “a year reading from home.”  However, in light of Hill’s autobiographical intentions (and the helpful word “memoir” placed above the barcode on the back cover), it could just as easily be replaced by “a year remembering from home.” Reading and remembering are, indeed, two very different actions, but, in the case of Hill’s memoir, the two find themselves inextricably intertwined.

In my presentation, which will assume a traditional format, I will argue that Hill’s text presents the object of the book as not only an instrument of communication but also as a technology of remembrance:  books intervene in memory and become vehicles for it. In re-reading books from her personal collection, Hill is “inevitably led to . . . thinking, remembering, ordering, assessing, [her] entire book-reading life” (3). The time, space, and expenditure of energy that surrounds the sustained engagement with books imbue them with personal significance until they reach critical mass, and books transform into mediating elements for both our memory and our identity.

In pursuing this aspect of Hill’s text, I noticed two ways in which books intervene in our memories and methods of remembrance. The first comes from a book’s direct participation in the creation of a memory. When reading a text, there are two experiences which happen simultaneously: the experience of the text and the experience with a text (a contentious distinction). The experience with a text involves a hyper-sensitivity in which the reading of a text and the reading environment enter a state of reciprocal enrichment. In a digression, Hill tells us that two of Graham Greene’s novels are forever linked to a day spent in the Milan train station (157-8). Neither the texts nor the train station appear note-worthy on their own. However, their combination leads to a well-formed memory. As the books are constitutive elements of the memory, any re-encounter with those texts will recall it.

The other way in which the book acts as a technology of remembrance is through a secondary association that occurs separately and retroactively. Because this association isn’t constrained by the specificity of being a constitutive element of a particular memory, the book can often become connected in more dynamic ways. The book can attach to a memory by deploying a multitude of aesthetic dimensions: the smell of pages, the weight of the book, the sound of turning pages, and so on and so forth. All one needs is a certain familiarity. The relative weakness of the tangential connection also enables the book to jump between memories and create a cascade that is interestingly threaded. In one instance, Hill’s encounter with a set of Penguin books brings her back to the birth of her third child, to detective stories, and to a hostel run by nuns (11-14). If the books were too tightly connected to a specific memory, this nomadic remembrance might not have been possible.

In Hill’s text, the object of the book acts as something of a proxy for our memories. It is an object that both constitutes our memories and becomes a place holder for them. The role books play in their creation, organization and recollection is a testament to the richness of reading and the power of the book.

Discussion Questions:

1)Are there any particular qualities in books that facilitate their roles as technologies of remembrance?

2)How do you think the mediation of memories via books affects those memories?

3)Have the dynamics of mnemonics shifted along with changes in reading practices/technologies?

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Read, read, read, read, my unlearned reader! Read!

Sterne’s novel, “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman,” could be argued to defy a “traditional” approach to the novel format. In T.S. Eliot’s essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (available here), however, we find arguments pertaining to whether or not a work ought to fit into our notion of “tradition.” Eliot formulates a unique understanding of the concept of “tradition,” which, when applied onto Sterne’s novel, underscores his adherence to literary tradition, while showcasing the aesthetic talent of Sterne as an author. Sterne’s work emphasizes allusion and demonstrates the contemporary importance of past literary figures, situating Sterne’s work into Eliot’s ideal of the concept of “tradition.”

Eliot states that, “[tradition] cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour” (Eliot, 1). A similar notion is presented in Sterne’s novel, “for, without much reading, by which my reverence knows, I mean much knowledge, you will no more be able to penetrate the moral of the next marbled page … than the world with all its sagacity has been able to unravel the many opinions, transactions and truths which still lie mystically hid under the dark veil of the black one” (Sterne, Vol. III, XXXVI). The two writers show agreement on the importance of reading the literature of the past and, by extension, how essential it is in understanding their own respective modern eras. The scholarliness of Sterne, as an author, exemplifies what Eliot considers “great labour,” for Sterne himself appears absolutely familiar with the entire literary corpus which predates him.

It is an awareness of the timelessness of past works that allows an author to write not only with his own generation’s contemporaneity, but with “a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order” (Eliot, 1). Sterne’s awareness of the simultaneity of the entire literary corpus, which pervades into his present day, is what elevates him to the level of “traditional.” Throughout Sterne’s novel, his desire to discuss the whole of the literature of Europe overrides his desire to present a linear history. Sterne’s obsessive awareness of the preceding literary body builds a strong coherence between his own work and Eliot’s sense of “tradition.” Eliot writes, “[the poet] is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living” (3). The novel itself radiates an intimate understanding of the contemporary presence of the past through allusions, embodying the simultaneous existence of the whole of literature and presenting this simultaneity as the focus of his history.

Sterne appears new, with a unique aesthetic appeal and a new approach to creating art when taken in context with the literature which preceded him and, for Eliot, “[n]o poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone” (1). Sterne’s work means more, signifies more, and conveys greater semantics, when juxtaposed sidelong to the preceding literary body to which he constantly alludes and brings into his own modern era. In league with one of Eliot’s assertions, “[i]t is a judgment, a comparison, in which two things are measured by each other. To conform merely would be for the new work not really to conform at all; it would not be new, and would therefore not be a work of art” (1). Had Tristram Shandy taken the form of a more conventional or accessible novel, its value as art would be lessened and would potentially render it as largely forgettable. In Eliot’s opinion, “novelty is better than repetition” (1).

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A Cock and Bull Story?

(Feb 4th – G9)


The final moments of Sterne’s novel define the entire text. When asked the meaning of an anecdote Yorick replies that the story is about “a cock and bull […] and one of the best of its kind, I ever heard,” (588). It’s a funny and disarming line. As evidenced in its usage as the title on the back of the Penguin Classics edition and as the subtitle for Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, it’s also quite essential to understanding the text.

The terms “Cock” and “Bull” can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. The expression “cock and bull” was widely used before Sterne’s novel, and as the Oxford English Dictionary online illustrates was first used in 1660, and its definition was derived from a variety of sources. The OED defines “cock and bull” as  “(to tell) a long rambling, idle story; tedious, disconnected, or misleading talk.”  This is an important definition, and partially sums up the entirety of Sterne’s text. Tristram Shandy is extremely long for it’s subject matter, sometimes infuriating, and goes of on wild, unnecessary tangents and digressions. The use of this line gives credence to the idea that The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is just one massive “cock and bull story.” However, there is more to the text.

In telling an amusing anecdote about a bull, Yorick is also summing up the life of Tristram. The bull “went through [his] business with a grave face, my father had a high opinion of him,” (588). This can be seen as suggesting Tristram’s father is much like the bull. Earlier, Tristram’s father states that “philosophy speaks free of everything,” (586). In taking these two statements, it is evident that, while Tristram’s life story may be somewhat of a cock and bull story, (with the final anecdote of the bull as a kind of metaphor for Sterne’s entire text), it doesn’t make it meaningless, and everything deserves to be philosophized, even if it be something as silly as a cock and bull story. In the case of Sterne, he wasn’t so much as telling a story, but making the proverbial statement that has been echoed by authors even into the twentieth century; no life, no matter how small, or inconsequential, is meaningless.

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Convention’s White Flage of Surrender

To paint with broad, generous strokes, it could be said that Sterne’s text is one which is pervaded with an unfulfilled desire: a great expectation that is met with an equally great disappointment. But allow me clarify before we jump to conclusions. It is not Tristram, himself, who is let down (or any other character in the narrative for that matter); it is the reader. As our siege in the name of Convention and Unity is continually rebuffed by Sterne’s method of writing, we begin to feel the effects of prolonged warfare: furrowed brow, dry lips and a black temper.

In Chapter IX of Volume VII, however, respite comes from a moment of clarity. In his discussion of travel writing and the description of monuments, Sterne writes that the reader would “chuse rather that I give you the length, breadth, and perpendicular height” of a particular building (441). In short, the reader is typically yearning for the familiarity of convention. The absurdity of this yearning lies in the fact that, like the dimensions of the monuments that Sterne mentions in the text, the contours of story-telling will always be “as the masons and carpenters left them” (441), and the re-tracing of a familiar shape becomes an exercise in futility.

Leaving the measurement of cold stone and mortar to those that wish to do so, Sterne gives us a lively contrast in the shape of Janatone, who “[carries] the principles of change within [her] frame” (441). The particular interest of Janatone resides in her mutability and transience, and Sterne argues that one should spend the effort to write about her, in lieu of the typical monuments, because she will never be the same as she is in her present state. In the future, she may lose her shape, beauty or her innocence (442).

It is something of a hackneyed notion, but this sentiment informs the entire structure of Sterne’s text. The reason why the text is so whimsical and fanciful is because whimsy and fancy are presented as the vital elements of life, and they may be lost for ever if they aren’t indulged in immediately. Digressions and idiosyncratic moments are wisps, and while the reader may be disappointed in the loss of a coherent and conventional narrative, Sterne is presenting him or her with a syncopated alternative that is much more ephemeral and, perhaps, much more important.

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Don’t Throw the Baby/Tristram Out With the Bath Water/Book

By now, it is apparent that the confusion and difficulties in creating a linear plot in Tristram Shandy’s pseudo-autobiography are parallel to the difficulties experienced in life like trying to move in a unilateral, progressive direction, and trying to make sense of all the things that can happen over the course of a lifetime. As Stephen Frye said in “A Cock and Bull Story”: “life is too full, too rich to be able to be captured by art.”. I am still unconvinced that that point needs to be berated and painstakingly illustrated over 700 pages but nevertheless it is a concept worth exploring. I am not exactly on “Team Shandy” and will most likely never crack the book again after this course is done; that is not to say this book is entirely useless, entirely being the operative word. There are occasionally moments of clarity and intellectual gems that surface every now and again throughout this book.

While it may be difficult to relate to much of what is happening in this book, at the beginning of Volume VII, a passage stood out to me. Tristram is talking about the process of writing his story as he ages and how long he will have to write about his life as it is slowly dwindling away. “I have forty volumes to write, and forty thousand things to say and do, which nobody in the world will say and do for me[.]” (Shandy 432). This is a common theme we can see apparent in later works of literature, where the author discusses their own mortality, the mutability of life, and the desire to create things while they are still living. An obvious example that immediately came to my mind upon reading this was that of John Keats’ sonnet “When I have Fears”. Shandy does not take the time to come to resolutions for these life questions, as Keats does, before he is on to the next thought that happens to pass through his brain; but for a moment, he does engage with the transience of his own existence. Perhaps part of the reason this book may seem so scattered is because of the pressing feeling Shandy has about making sure as much of his story as possible makes it to the page; he may not feel he has the time to organize his thoughts but only has time enough to convey them as they come to the forefront of his mind.

Much like within our own lives, amidst the confusion and disarray, there can be brief segments that speak to a larger purpose or to common human experiences. My life could not be more different from Tristram Shady’s and yet we both grapple with similar questions about our existence and the purpose for it at different periods in history, at different points in our lives, and in different realms of reality. Aren’t we all just trying to make our imprint on the world we live in before we no longer live in it?

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Tristram Shandy as Wayfarer

I will be doing a “traditional” presentation, reading Tristram Shandy through the theoretical lens of Tim Ingold’s playful “comparative anthropology of the line” (1), as it is articulated in his book Lines: A Brief History. In his chapter on travel, Ingold draws a distinction between two ways of moving through space, which he associates with two varieties or styles of culture, and with two kinds of line: the distinction between wayfaring and transport, or the winding line, leading to no singular or final destination, and the straight line that connects fixed points (Ingold 76-77).

Transport is “destination-oriented” (Ingold 77). It is “a carrying across, from location to location,” with the journey seen as a kind of temporary exile from the important reality that is only played out in significant places (Ingold 77). The example of transport that he gives is the approach to navigation used by the British Navy in the era when it was in search of the Northwest Passage (Ingold 75). In contrast, wayfaring is a way of living on the move (Ingold 76). It sees life as occurring precisely in the “line of travel,” and is a way of moving that Ingold links with hunter gatherer civilizations (Ingold 75).

Reading Tristram Shandy in light of these concepts illuminates a commentary on the relationship between the polished account of a journey that one might publish in a work of travel writing, and the activity of really travelling. Volume VII gives an account of Tristram’s travels through France and Europe at two different times. The rapid progress he makes through various towns on his way to Paris, and the circuitous route he takes, undermines the expectations of a straight line narrative, as well as the accounts of people and places that would normally appear in a piece of travel writing (Sterne 452). He admits that he knows “no more of Calais […] than” he does “of Grand Cairo” because “it was dusky in the evening when” he “landed, and dark as pitch in the morning” when he moves on (Sterne 435). His inability to move in a straight line also runs up against the expectations of the French authorities (Sterne 474). When Tristram’s carriage falls apart, and he decides to travel the rest of the way to Paris by water, the authorities still expect him to pay the fees for using the roads the whole way, because “the revenues are not to fall short through your fickleness” (Sterne 476). Opposed to the straight lines of the authorities managing the roads, Tristram can be seen as a wayfarer, having more experiences on the road than in specific places.

Considering how Tristram Shandy is a book that is very much aware of itself as a book, this travel narrative can be read as a metaphor for the act of writing a book, and a metafictional commentary on the wandering style of Tristram Shandy itself. Especially significant are the few chapters detailing the loss and recovery of Tristram’s “remarks” (Sterne 476). When he finds them all twisted after being used as papers to curl a woman’s hair, he comments that “when they are published […] They will be worse twisted still” (Sterne 479).


Is Tristram really an uncomplicated wayfarer? Are there ways in which he could be read as embodying the principles of “transport”?

Are there other approaches to movement through space, or space generally, that you can see applying to Tristram Shandy?

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Toby’s Hobbyhorse in Light of some Dates

After reading Volume VI of Tristram Shandy, I was struck by how, despite the novel’s comic tone, themes of war, death, and injury figure prominently. This has led me to pay more attention to the character of Toby, and his significance for an audience that would have lived through several wars, and many of whom may have seen something more serious in Toby’s hobbyhorse. Looking at the dates of Sterne’s life shows that his life overlaps the dates of several major wars in which Britain was involved. His dates are 1713-1768, meaning that he was born a year before the end of the War of the Spanish succession (1701-1714). The War of the Austrian Succession was 1740-1748, and the bulk of the volumes of Tristram Shandy would have come out during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1769). (The blurb about the author at the front of the Penguin edition of Tristram Shandy shows Sterne beginning work on the book in 1759.)

In light of this context, Toby’s injury and subsequent obsessions take on a more serious aspect, as Sterne’s readership would likely have included people who had been involved in the Seven Years’ War, and who would probably have found something familiar in Toby’s story. The linking of warfare and sieges, with injury and impotence through various scenes featuring Toby in martial or mock-martial contexts (for example: Volume VI, Chapter XII and XXIII) may have darker implications than the rather bumbling figure of Toby suggests. That Toby’s wound essentially limits the sphere of his activity to playing war in his garden—a hollow imitation of the real thing—can be read as satirically highlighting the real suffering that these wars visited on people, while simultaneously poking fun.

Considering the constant metaphorical play concerning “noses,” where a nose very rarely is really a nose, there is some cause for caution in reading the military material as strictly what it appears to be. I have occasionally wondered whether Toby has seen any combat at all, and whether his wound and mock-battles are not just a coded description of a tragically doomed love life. However, these ambiguities also leave open the possibility of reading the military cross-section of Tristram Shandy through the lens of the real warfare that was contemporary with its author and readers.

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Name Dropping

In reading Tristram Shandy Volumes V and VI, I was able to pick out two distinct parts that reminded me of previous reading material – John Skelton’s Philip Sparrow [Part I] – and making this connection somewhat allowed me to better understand what I believe to be the narrator’s motives. Said motives as I see them are part of the sense of AUTHORity on behalf of Tristram Shandy discussed last week in class, an aspect of which I believe is the act of demonstrating one’s level of education.

In Vol. V, Chap. III. (page 317) Tristram tells of the act of “weeping for the loss of one’s child”, as his father has just received word of Bobby’s death. Tristram proceeds to drop the names of the ancients and the classics including Plato, Socrates, Plutarch, and Petrarch and he sites them as the authority figures on how exactly to express this feeling of loss. By referring to such greats it would appear as though Tristram is claiming his (and even his father’s) inadequacies in the matter while at the same time giving clear evidence of his high level of education in having read the works of said greats. This is also the case in Vol. V, Chap. XXVII (page 347) when he brings up his father’s talk of the victories of such empires as the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, and Arabians as Pythagorus reports them. He does this in a way that again expresses his own supposed short-comings as he says, “what is Tristram? – Who am I, that I should fret or fume one moment about the matter?”

These sections reminded me of Skelton’s Philip Sparrow I lines 605-824 Here the narrator expresses her inadequacy to write an appropriate epitaph for the death of her pet bird. She does so by listing the works of the greats such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Virgil, and Petrarch and Plutarch like Tristram (to name a few). She also tells of the Latin she knows but insists she is unable to find words appropriate and cultured enough to express her woe. Like Tristram, she is telling the reader she is unworthy of the task at hand, while in reality she is more than capable since she has read works of literature indicative of a high level of education.

In both of these texts, it becomes apparent to me (and probably many others) that the narrators wish to hold authority and control over the reader, and that choosing to drop the names of those who’s timeless works they have read is a rather clever and useful tool in doing so.

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“My Dear Old Uncle Toby”: How Old are You?

Tristram Shandy’s complex method of writing, and convoluted character development can make it incredibly difficult to learn anything about what Tristram is really saying (if, indeed, he is saying anything all).  Volume V, Chapter XVII describes Tristram’s recollection of his accidental circumcision and, briefly, explains how it occurred. This passage, although interesting in both its brevity (have any other events been described in so little detail?) as well as its parallel to Uncle Toby’s injury of a similar nature, provides two important pieces of numerical data that can aid the reader in developing a timeline for the narrative.

In his recollection of the event, Tristram notes that the date upon which he writes this passage is August 10, 1761; a date which, the editor informs the reader, corresponds to a date in Sterne’s letters (p. 339; p. 682). If the reader were to assume that Tristram is a “pen-name” for Laurence Sterne, then the reader may also infer that Tristram and Sterne would be at approximately the same age at the time of writing. In 1761, Sterne would have been 48 years old, nearing the end of his life expectancy for the 18th Century.  Thus, Sterne would also be 48 years old in 1761.

The other important piece of information found in this passage is that Tristram was five years old when the window-sash “came… down like lightening upon us” (p. 339).  Assuming the above, the reader can assume that the year would be 1718. This, thankfully, does correspond with other information that the reader has gleaned about the ages of Tristram’s other characters.

By the time that Tristram is born (1713), his Uncle Toby would be eighteen years removed from his groin injury at the Siege of Namur in 1695 (unless, of course, it was the other siege in 1692, in which case he would be twenty-one years removed!). As Toby would have had minimal years of service in the interim (due to the nature of his injury), and having achieved the rank of Captain, the reader can assume that Toby was a Captain (or at least a Lieutenant) in 1695. In order to achieve this rank, a soldier would generally have had to serve for approximately three years. Assuming that Uncle Toby had reached the rank of Captain just prior to the Siege, and had been fortunate enough to be promoted early, it is feasible (though unlikely) that Uncle Toby was seventeen years old in 1695. More probably, Uncle Toby would have been in his mid- to late-twenties.

By 1718, then, Uncle Toby would be a minimum of thirty-five years of age, and, more likely, approximately forty-seven years. This is somewhat problematic, as Walter, having inherited the Shandy estate, is likely the older brother. Upon Tristram’s fifth birthday, then, his own father would be nearing the end of his life.

Although problematic, this timeline is reasonable: it allows for all the events that Uncle Toby describes (such as the Siege of Limerick in 1690, and the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713) to have occurred within his own lifetime, and also allows for Tristram’s age to coincide with these events. Should the reader infer a different timeline, it would have to be one in which Tristram is older than Sterne, as it is most certainly not feasible for him to be any younger – if this were the case, then it would make for quite a cock and bull story indeed!

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On How to be a Gentleman: A Look at Things

As a narrator, Tristram Shandy has the unique ability to draw the ire of his readers through his continual tangents and broken promises. In doing so, however, Tristram does provide the reader with some important insights to his understanding (and opinions) on what it means to be a gentleman. This understanding is seemingly coloured by his focus on various objects, and the detail with which he describes them.

In Monday’s Pecha Kucha presentation, I will argue that the associations that these objects create, when deconstructed into their constituent parts, things and ideas, illuminate Tristram’s conceptions (opinions) of what it means to be a gentleman in the mid-18th Century. In order to effectively discuss Tristram’s conception of gentlemanliness, I will need to cover two important points: first, the definition of a “gentleman” in the first half of the 18th Century, and second, “Thing Theory” as a combination of the theory of Bill Brown and the methodology of Elaine Freedgood.

The definition of a gentleman was equally as elusive in the 18th Century as it is today: there are gentlemanly actions, and certain ideas associated with the concept of being a gentleman, but who is and is not a gentleman is not clearly outlined. In England, it was generally agreed, for a time, that a gentleman was “both discended from truly Noble Parentage, and withal following their steps, or adding to their Name, is the that may lawfully glorie in his Title” (John Selden, Titles of Honour, 1614). However, an additional definition also existed: “the Gentle-Man will treat every Man with due Respect, and will be friendly, yielding, condescending, obliging, and ready to do a Kindness” (Nathaniel Appleton, Faithful Ministers of Christ, 1743). It is therefore unclear who could be considered a gentleman, and by what method the distinction would be made.

In attempting to grapple with this question, Tristram seems to turn to the presence of objects in the lives of those whom he considers to be gentlemen (i.e. his father and Uncle Toby) and those whom are not considered gentlemen (i.e. Corporal Trim). To the modern reader, seemingly ordinary objects, such as hats, books and eyeglasses, have no specific meaning. However, to an 18th Century reader, certain objects invoke a sense of wealth and class, based on the historical context. These objects can, and must be deconstructed into their constituent parts to understand the meaning that Tristram intends for his readers to see.

Objects, which Bill Brown’s “Thing Theory” argues are constituted by the combination of a thing and an idea, exist because of the value given to things through the ideas imposed upon them. For example, the pipe which Uncle Toby is continuously seen to be smoking (or at least holding) would seem, upon first glance, to be merely a pipe, a means by which to smoke tobacco. By using Elaine Freedgood’s methodology, in which objects are evaluated on the basis of historicity, it becomes evident that the pipe is recognized as a symbol of wealth and prestige. Tobacco, imported from the Thirteen Colonies, was an expensive commodity in England, reflected in its consumption: only the middle and upper classes of society could afford to smoke the plant. In this context, the pipe develops a much different meaning as a thing imbued with ideas of wealth and prestige, making it an object of the Gentleman Class. By association, therefore, Uncle Toby can be considered by the reader to belong to this class.

Although I will not use the example of the pipe in my presentation, I do hope to make a similar argument about various other objects, which Tristram discusses at length, in order to establish a relationship between these objects and Tristram’s opinions on what it means to be a gentleman. I will specifically look at Tristram’s conceptions of his father Walter, his Uncle Toby, and Corporal Trim in this regard, and discuss how Tristram sees himself in light of his revelations.

My post-presentation discussion will focus on the conception of an 18th Century gentleman, as well as the role that objects play in this conception, primarily within Volumes V and VI. Some food for thought:

  1. Does Tristram believe himself to be a gentleman? Does he compare himself to his father and/or his uncle? Do his conceptions of these two men as gentlemen affect the way he views himself?
  2. How do the objects with which Tristram associates each ‘gentleman’ affect the way we, as readers, view his characters? Do the objects invoke a sense of gentlemanliness or detract from Tristram’s point?

Have a great weekend, and I will see you all on Monday!



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At war with words…

Jean-Francois Gilmont’s “Protestant Reformations” covers the effect that printing had on how books were used during the 15th and 16th centuries.  He covers many key points on the importance of how books, which were once “exclusive” to people of higher classes or clergy members, in many ways filled the gaps between social classes, as books became much more common when printing became the norm.  Something that struck me while reading the article was how printed texts were used during that time in an endeavour to make religious influences on people, as Gilmont describes when speaking about the “War of the Pamphlets”:

“‘War of the Pamphlets’ …  a vast ‘press campaign’ developed in Germany. Thousands of pamphlets, brief quarto-format publications of only a few pages, at times with illustrations, circulated throughout the Empire. All the Reformation’s challenges to the Church were propa- gated in hastily written, poorly organized, diffuse and redundant pub- lications of this sort.” (215)

I couldn’t help but think while reading how common the use of pamphlets is in today’s society and how they seemingly haven’t changed very much.  Have we not come up with any better ideas?  Everyone has had the unfortunate experience of opening the door to a reasonably well-dressed person and being handed a pamphlet titled with some sort of philosophical, life changing question, [like this…], who asks you “Do you have time to talk about God?” to which you quickly respond “I’m sorry, I have to read The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, I’m sure you’re really swell but English 503 comes first!” and closing the door before these people have the opportunity to oppose your rejection.  The “war” of pamphlets came with the circulation of books and general literacy as a whole, which made the pamphlets into an effective weapon of combat in the war of religions.

Another point that Gilmont makes that struck me while reading, was the banning and surveilling of books because of opposing beliefs, as stated by Gilmont, between Catholics and Protestants.  Books were banned from certain areas strictly because of the religious context.  This, too, brings me back to a somewhat recent issue which had been brought up within schools in the United States as well as in the United Kingdom; schools banning the Harry Potter books because the bible states the status of wizards as evil: [].  Surely there are many other examples of books being banned because of what is stated in the bible, or for religious matters, but Harry Potter was probably one of the most popular as well as controversial.

The question raised is, how far have we come from the “War of the Pamphlets”, which took place 1520-1523, and how are books being used as a type of weapon to this day, in religious or non-religious terms?

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I must be as crazy as the book I am discussing

I say this for two reasons: 1. I have decided to attempt the illusive PetchaKucha presentation style, probably because I am a sucker for punishment; and 2. because I think I ‘get’ The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

As I was reading the other night, I had an epiphany! Our course is about the history of reading, a history of reading would not be possible without also looking at the history of writing; the two concepts are nothing without each other. My argument is this: as convoluted, and usually quite confusing and frustrating, Tristram Shandy is to read I believe that Sterne’s choice to write in this fashion is to prove the power he holds as an author. We have already discussed how Sterne is aware of the limitations writing presents such as with imagery and an aural sense; however, we have not yet delved into the powers a written format enables. Sterne is flexing his authoritative power, using the power of the book to do what cannot be done in person; jumping around between ideas, digressions, interruptions, inexhaustible details about seemingly meaningless side tracks, none of these are things that would be tolerated in a conversation or lecture. Yet, Sterne provides all of these techniques and more in his novel it has found an audience for nearly 150 years. Authority is after all built upon the word author, so whether we find Tristram ‘believable’ or ‘trustworthy’ as a narrator he is in this case also to be considered the author of this extremely wrinkled story; therefore, he controls the narrative and the reader has a choice to let him lead as he may, or to close the book.

Sterne exemplifies Tristram’s father and Uncle Toby’s stories as justification to why Tristram writes in the manner he does; his style is influenced by the obsessive tendencies he has acquired from these main role models. Sterne, however, writes as he does because of his need to prove the liberties that may be taken in a written format.

Sterne and the reader are taking a journey down the same path only at different times and by different approaches. I will discuss how Sterne influences the reader’s knowledge through his peculiar writing style, and how he spits in the face of traditional writing styles. Through the scope of how he challenges the usual ‘function’ and ‘form’ of a book I will demonstrate Sterne’s Romantic tendencies.

In conclusion, I will demonstrate how The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is not at all a book about nothing, but in fact a book overloaded with an overwhelming amount of everything even relatively pertinent to the story of Tristram’s life and opinions.

Discussion Questions:
1. Do you find Sterne’s technique for writing The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman radical or even revolutionary, or simply the ramblings of a madman?
2. Does the idea of Sterne’s flexing his authoritative power allow you to see the novel in a different light that provides a connection between the otherwise loosely related narrative?

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Presentation Summary: Tristram Shandy → A Book About Nothing (Except one man’s feelings of inadequacy. Possibly)

At one point or another, most of us have likely asked the question “why am I here” or “what am I doing”? As I read the first four volumes of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, rather than asking myself this question (as I surely knew that I had to read this novel in order to pass the class, and even someone as absent-minded as myself would not forget that I was reading a novel), I found myself continuously asking it of the narrator, the titular Tristram Shandy himself. Four volumes in, and the man has continuously sidetracked the reader So, I argue that Tristram Shandy (the character and the book) is an Ur example of a “postmodern” hero in a “postmodern” (some two hundred years or so before the rise of the movement) work. He is a man lacking focus, and intentionally avoiding completing the very task he set out to do, defying the reader’s expectations and leaving the readers continually guessing. To that end, my presentation will be a traditional style, with no visual aids.

The two main passages I am focusing on are Tristram’s rendering of Slawkenbergius’s Tale, and Chapter XIII in book 4. Other passages may be brought up, but these two will be the most important. Slawkenbergius’s Tale might appear to have little to do with much at first (or no more than any of Tristram’s other tangents), but closer observation, particularly in light of what we learn about Tristram’s birth and comments about his father raise a variety of questions (and the actual meaning of what a “nose” really means in this tale) both about Tristram’s feelings on his father, and his own possible feelings of inadequacy. The other passage sheds light on Tristram’s reasons for taking so long to tell his story, noting how long he has taken

To aid me in my presentation, I will be making use of a couple additional resources. The first resource is the abstract for an article entitled “Postmodernism in the Eighteenth Century? Enlightenment Intellectual Contexts and the Roots of Twentieth-Century Concerns in Tristram Shandy”. The abstract, which outlines a historical context for a postmodernist reading of Tristram Shandy, can be found online via the university library. The other text that I will use is Stephen Bonnycastle’s In Searth of Authority: An Introductory Guide to Literary Theory, particularly the chapter on Postmodernism. This book is not available in the library, though relevant quotes will be provided to the class in the presentation.

I also have come up with the following questions to discuss:

  • How does Slawkenbergius’s Tale relate to possible feelings of inadequacy on Tristram’s behalf, particularly in regards to his father’s feelings on noses?
  • According to Stephen Bonnycastle, “[p]ostmodern literature… often offers possibility of new and unusual combinations, and a dissolution of the rules that concern many styles or genres of writing”  (258). Given that this work was written in the 18th century, when many genres as we know them did not exist, is it possible to retroactively “subvert” an entire genre?
  • Has Tristram been meaning to sidetrack the reader and prevent us from getting to his life story? How does this subvert our notions about what a traditional “story” or “autobiography” should be? Is Tristram even the main character in his own life?
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My response – albeit a little later than it should have been.

Hello all,

First off, apologies for the belated nature of this response!

As I was reading this weeks theory piece by Manguel, I was reminded of a particular episode of the BBC show, Sherlock. In the final episode of the second season, Watson finds himself in the Diogenes Club, (a fictional gentleman’s club created by Arthur Conan Doyle in his famous series. Check out the wiki site here.) This club allows gentlemen a place to read with no distractions from the outside world and in fact, speaking or noise-making of any kind is strictly prohibited, on pain of exclusion. In this episode, Watson enters the club unknowingly and begins speaking to the elderly gentlemen patrons of the club, who all respond in (silent and seething) anger and shock, and Watson is shown briskly out of the room by two men with baggies on their shoes to muffle the sound.

Most of us grew up with libraries as quiet places in which people could read or study without distractions, but this silence is no longer being enforced as it was. There are articles upon articles to be found in the depths of the internet lamenting the loss of the rule of the ‘inside voices’ in our libraries. (here, here and here, just to list some.) While the innovative technology (and the amazing game stations) that we are putting into new libraries are making them appealing to the younger generations, older traditions, (like silence in the library,) are being shunted aside to make room for them.

Personally, I feel that libraries should be quiet places. Not necessarily ‘silent-as-a-ninth-century-monastery-and-an-escort-service-out-the-door-for-loud-people’ quiet, but quiet enough to allow people to focus on whatever they are there for. I am all for libraries trying to keep up with the times and cater to the younger generations, but should it be at the cost of our concentration? What does the future of our libraries look like? Gaming arcades or this?

What do you think?

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Here follows my First and Mildly, Somewhat, Plausibly Confused Opinion on the “Dedication Passage” in the Ostensibly Autobiographical work, by Mr. Laurence Sterne, “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy”

At the beginning of Chapter 1.IX (Sterne 12) Shandy breaks away from an absurd, rambling diatribe about hobbies to launch into an absurd, rambling dedication offered to members of a long and unnecessarily comprehensive list of titles. In this segment, Shandy demonstrates an irreverent tone towards the upper echelons of society which, given his other remarks on class and religion in the assigned reading, foreshadow the tone of satire he will use to parody British attitudes towards prestige. This declaration encapsulates many features of Sterne’s writing style. It meanders, taking an infuriating amount of time to come to its points: “nor has it been hawked about, or offered publicly or privately, directly or indirectly, to any one person or personage” (12) and there are many overly dramatic splashes of metaphor and imagery. I suspect that the long-winded and ebullient tone here is intended to resemble the complicated language found in European legal documents from this time period (paragraph-long disclaimers jammed into a single sentence and such). The text is full of self-conscious hesitation and backpedalling: “I labour this point so particularly, merely to remove any offence or objection” (12) creating a wry irony when juxtaposed against the narrator’s hypocrisy. He modestly points out that he hates “chaffering and higgling” (12) over small sums of money but within a few lines is nudging prospective buyers by claiming he has discounted the dedication.

The sale of titles and the corruption of human office has the potential to be a major theme in this autobiography (if you can call it that) as the narrator already indicates his opinions on fortune’s fickleness and the natural advantages being born into wealth or health bestows. This is supported by the narrative divergence into parables about characters like the midwife and Parson. These episodes have a certain resemblance to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, both provide personal sketches defined by profession and both address topics of class, greed and fallibility. Shandy’s mockery of the formal style attaches itself to a broader satirical perspective on the flowery redundancies of Victorian and Romantic etiquette. As relentlessly and deliberately pedantic as it is, Sterne’s prose here still attempts to maintain a conversational tone by directly addressing the reader, digressing from personal dramas to cerebral neuroticism and liberally incorporating the colloquial. I am unsure, but perhaps his intentions were to parody the chirpy Joie de Vivre attitude of the proper British middle class by reminding them of the weighted and rigorous standards of behaviour to which her citizens are held accountable. I really have no idea.

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The Birth—and Digressions—of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

The following is my analysis of a passage located a third of the way down p. 64, beginning with “Digressions” and ending with “digression”.

If one were to remove all digressions from Tristram Shandy, one “might as well take the book along with them;—one cold eternal winter would reign in every page of it” (64). The metaphor of the blank page illustrates my point: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen is so full of digressions that, without them, the book would be a ‘cold eternal winter’ of non-digressive blankness—for the story is no more than a digression from its title. Volumes I and II circumvent both the life and opinions of T.S.—a narrative arc that looks something like this. Continue reading

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