Category Archives: Literature

Confessions of a Book Hoarder: Part 1

1. I horde books. It seems obvious, considering the title, but you need to understand what I mean. I didn’t really know this about myself until I bought an e-reader, thinking my love for books would have ample room to grow in the 1,000+ capacity libraries they offered, but when I started buying books I wanted to, for lack of a better word, touch them. I wanted to feel that paper bend and snap as I fingered the next page. I wanted to close the book and slide it onto my bookshelf, looking at its grand place in my entire library. Being denied that satisfaction with my little nook, I haven’t really touched it since.

Note: It’s possible to read that entire paragraph as a long double entendre, and I’m not so sure it isn’t. 

2. I have spent extra money for a book with greater aesthetic appeal. I was in Barnes & Noble the other day, looking for a copy of  Sandburg’s Chicago Poems, and couldn’t bring myself to resist the beautiful cover of one copy (a $5 more expensive copy), when the alternative was a bland and, quite frankly, ugly, even if it was cheaper. I bought that book with the knowledge that when I finished it, I would proudly place it on my shelf, and such an experience should never be ruined by a hideous cover.

3. I have never had a B&N giftcard for more than a week. Never. I think my record was five days before I cracked and went to satisfy that primal literary urge.

to be continued…

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Saving Books by Banning Them

We can’t go a day without being reminded of the next generation’s total animosity, or at least apathy towards reading. The books palatable to them are generally graphic, sensual, and never classics, their only exposure to them coming from unpleasant experiences of forced English assignments. And this is the trouble with classics in literature: not the actual content, but rather the format and conditions under which they are presented.

First of all, the would-be reader is  forced to read, a prospect which no one enjoys, and especially not children. Forced or not, oftentimes this potential bibliophile is presented with a copy that is thick, densely worded, and looks like it came from the 19th century

Yeah, that's the idea--wait...
Yeah, that’s the idea–wait…

(which it might’ve). If we are so desperate to make our children read (specifically, want to read), why do we put up obstacles like poor typeface, a disintegrating binding, and a cover that could be great fiction or an owner’s manual? Say what you want about judging a book by its cover, but that’s why books have covers.

The best way to encourage reading is not by force, but by a feigned inaccessibility. As Steinbeck relates in Travels With Charleyhis own childhood had a, “great dark walnut bookcase with…glass doors” in which was housed, “strange and wonderful things.” He goes on to say that his, “parents never offered them, and the glass doors obviously guarded them, and so I pilfered from that case. It was neither forbidden or discouraged. I think today if we forbade our illiterate children to touch the wonderful things of our literature, perhaps they might steal them and find secret joy.” If we combine the readable books with a quality of forbidden treasure, as was Steinbeck’s case, perhaps children won’t be so quick to spurn the written word. I can’t remember my parents ever encouraging me to read, but they never had to. Literature was always a part of my life. Now, I can’t say whether or not my love of books comes from an internal predisposition or through the quasi-apathetic actions of my mother and father towards reading, but it certainly couldn’t hurt. Since I came to reading on my own, it wasn’t some chain that genetics forced me to rebel against. The title, perhaps, is a tad bit of hyperbole. But the basic premise stands; children hate doing what they’re supposed to do almost as much as they love doing something they’re not supposed to do.

Classics, however, pose a unique and difficult situation. The child must be hooked as early as he can comprehend it, or they’ll fall exclusively into the young adult literature hell hole, and more “literature” like Twilight will be turned out year after year. I remember reading

"Literature"
“Literature”           Source

Johnny Tremain for the first time, around the third or fourth grade, and I knew I could never again settle for the seemingly mass-produced literature turned out by the current authors writing for my age groups. I saw how language could be used, manipulated, could convey emotions and    stories, but more than that. I saw that words could transfer those emotions to me, drag me along with the plot as an ecstatic stowaway. I firmly believe that if someone experiences the wit and style in Pride and Prejudice before Twilight, or the terse brilliance of Of Mice and Men, they could never get past Stephanie Meyer‘s second page.

Thoughts? Comment below!

Everything You Know About Haiku Is Wrong

Well most of it. In elementary school you probably learned about some guy named Basho writing three lined poems about nature, with the first line containing five syllables, the second seven, and the third five. Damn this is easy, you thought, as you were forced to write your own in-class. And your teacher dutifully checked for the syllable count and gave you and A+. Why? Because you can count to seven. If I’m assaulting the last glimmer of light in an otherwise dismal academic career, then my apologies. You were misled by an oversimplification and ignorance on the part of your teachers on what haiku is.

Let’s start with the big one: just like a sonnet can fulfill all the form requirements and suck, so too can a haiku (and suck). But this quality of all poetry is somehow dropped for haiku, and the syllable count, not what the syllables say, are what determines a poem’s success.

But before we go on it’s necessary to examine what haiku was in Japan. I won’t bore you with history, but there are a few names you should know. The primary haiku authors from Japanese literature are Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki. As haiku grew into its own independent form of poetry, it acquired certain characteristics. Classically speaking, a “season word” was always included, that is, something that denotes or implies the haiku’s season. For example, this haiku by Saimaro:

    Summer rains
leaves of the plum
the color of cold wind

The season word is rather obvious in this, but I put it in green anyway, as I don’t exactly trust the same school system that taught us syllables = poem. Regardless, a season word is directly included. Sometimes, however, it is implied, like in this poem by Kaiga:

   How interesting–
running errands right and left
fireflies

The clue-in to the season is fireflies. Since fireflies only come in the summer months, we can assume the season is summer. When this is utilized in English however, the result is usually a choppy, one-of-four word approach that distracts from the true nature of haiku (see below). This is due in no small part to the more stress Japan places on the season, through a combination of Shintoism‘s kami in them and the susceptibility, shall we call it, to seasonal natural disasters. As a result of this emphasis, many words and animals in the  Japanese language have significant seasonal associations, a characteristic English lacks. As we’ll see, this is far from the only language difference leading to a misunderstanding of English haiku.

Brief Interjection: The plural of haiku is haiku. Not haikus, no matter what anyone says. Japanese doesn’t have plurals the same way that English does. The movie wasn’t Seven Samurais, was it?

When composing your own haiku so many years ago, you may recall how it felt awkward, fulfilling that syllable count, and in a different way that writing to a rhymed rhythm. It just didn’t  sound right. While there are ways to do it (see some in The Haiku Anthology), this awkwardness is due to the linguistic differences between Japanese and English. The Haiku grew up in Japan — naturally it adopted a form that intertwined nicely with the language. English and Japan are about as far apart linguistically as a language can get it, and to maintain the same elegant simplicity of Japanese haiku, an English author is incapacitated by the long syllabic requirements. The equivalent of a haiku’s worth ofJapanese syllables to English is about 3-5-3, a number that fits more naturally into the length and structure of English phrases.

The Nature of Haiku

At its core, a good haiku is a single moment in time, taken from the time stream by capturing the most base elements of it, and then preserving it as the written word. Moments are not very long–haiku’s sparse form and Zen-like qualities reflect that. So what constitutes a moment?  Essentially haiku is a juxtaposition between the human self and nature, or a revealing of the self through a reflection in nature. The oft-quoted Santoka poem is a perfect example:

   Dragonfly on a rock–
absorbed in
a daydream

The introduction of Haiku: An Anthology of Japanese Poems by Stephen Addiss, Fumiko Yamamoto and Akira Yamamoto, uses the above haiku (10) and adds for commentary:

                  The observation of an insect leads to a deeper consideration of our own
perceptions. We may well ask…who is daydreaming?                                    

I can’t remember learning that in school.

So is it even possible to write good English haiku? Of course. The magazines Modern Haiku and  Acorn carry quality selections, and I highly recommend you subscribe. An example of a delightful poem from issue No. 28 Acorn:

                   Apple orchard scents–
             the ordinariness
                 of the abbot’s hello
                                                              – Rebecca Lilly

Well it’s definitely possible. I understand that most schools don’t have the luxury of spending several weeks or even a few days on haiku, but this didn’t take more than ten minutes now.

For further reading:

Haiku: A Poet’s Guide

The Haiku Anthology (contains modern English haiku)

Haiku: An Anthology of Japanese Poems

The Narrow Road to the Deep North