Sunday, 25 March 2012

Memorable short stories

Yesterday a remark in another blog prompted thoughts of a short story I read many years ago. I knew that Isaac Asimov was the author and that the story had to do with reversing entropy and ended with the words 'Let there be light'. A search on Google quickly led to the story, which is entitled 'The Last Question'. The Google link led to Wikipedia, where I learned that I am not alone in remembering this story. (See

The experience led to further musings on memorable short stories. I wrote down the following list as they occurred to me over the space of two or three minutes. It's definitely a mixed bag, ranging from the sublime to the ordinary.

Shirley Jackson, 'The Lottery'

Saki, 'The Open Window'

Frank O'Connor, 'My Oedipus Complex', 'First Confession'

Henry James, 'The Beast in the Jungle', 'The Jolly Corner', 'The Figure in the Carpet'

Edith Wharton, 'Xingu', 'Autre temps'

Eudora Welty, 'Why I Live at the P.O.'

Kafka, 'The Penal Colony'

Maupassant, 'Boule de suif'

Balzac, 'L'Auberge rouge'

Eugene McCabe, 'Music at Annahullion'

A. S. Byatt, 'The Thing in the Forest', 'The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye'

Raymond Carver, 'Where I'm Calling From'

I also thought of Elizabeth Bowen's story about a country weekend but can't remember the title. I don't know why I immediately thought of these and not the hundreds of other short stories I have read. There doesn't seem to be any link among them other than the workings of my mind. I encountered the French stories the summer before I went to university.  I thought of the Maupassant story first. It followed the Balzac story in the collection of French stories I was reading as part of my preparations for university, and I was impressed at the time by the great change in writing styles between Balzac and Maupassant. That was what brought the Balzac story to mind. Except for the McCabe, Byatt, and Carver stories, I read all of these as a teenager or when I was in my twenties or thirties. They've stuck in my mind for forty-odd years now.

I fell into the habit of reading short stories at that period of my life because I commuted to school or work on a bus or the subway, and I could finish one or two short stories in the time it took to travel the distance. There were many days when I couldn't read because I couldn't get a seat or the ride was too crowded or too bumpy to hold a book while standing. Novels were less accommodating to the commuting process because several days might elapse when I wasn't able to read, and I would lose the thread of the story and forget minor characters or details of the plot. So I hit upon bringing a short story collection in my briefcase and reading a story or two when circumstances allowed.

The Jackson story probably owes its inclusion and its position at the head of the list to Jonathan Lethem's remarks about it in that collection of his essays I read a month or so ago. The Kafka is memorable for me because it's one of the few pieces of writing that have made me physically ill. Anne Enright once described a piece by John McGahern as the literary equivalent of a hand grenade rolling across the kitchen floor. That's what the Kafka was for me.  I felt the description of the workings of the punishment machine on my own flesh, as it were.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

E-books vs P-books

Because of Coetzee's mini-essay on Dostoyevsky in the last novel I read [see no. 38 in the Books 2012 (2) section], I decided to re-read The Brothers Karamozov. My reading speed has been considerably slower than my usual, not only because this is a novel that needs to be read slowly but also because my copy is a paperback edition purchased in 1962. As common for books of that era, it was printed on non-acid-free paper, which is now almost brown. This reduces the contrast between the black type and the background. Moreover, the type size is very small, and there are almost no margins. It stresses my eyes considerably to read this work on paper (hereinafter, a p-book), and I find that about twenty pages is the most I can tolerate in one go. If I haven't finished reading the work by the next time I visit the library, I will borrow a copy with larger type (if the library has one).

Or I could download the entire text from Project Gutenberg and manipulate the screen image to make the type larger--which brings me to the point of this note.

What I miss in reading e-books is the certain sense of where I am in the book. In reading a p-book, one is aware of how much one has read and how much one still has to read. This knowledge may be more sensed than thought about, but one can gauge, however unconsciously and roughly, where one is in relation to the end of the book. This knowledge is, I would argue, important to the reading of a novel. In a mystery novel, for example, the end of the book brings the resolution of the mystery, and one knows that the closer one gets to the end, the closer one gets to the solution. I think this knowledge instinctively shapes our sense of the plot as we are reading.

Such information is of course available in a e-book. Among the control buttons at the top of a PDF file is one indicating that the present page is, for example, 234/702, or no. 234 out of 702. Even in the most primitive form of e-book file some indication of where you are is available. But the point is that one has to search for this information. It isn't there to be sensed immediately. In reading an p-book, a variety of sensory inputs tells us how far we have read in the book. The most prominent clue is visual, but even in holding a book to read it, our sense of touch tells us the relative weights and thicknesses of the blocks of pages we are holding in our right and left hands. Our senses provide clear feedback on how much remains to be read. All one sees in an e-book is the text on the screen at a given moment, and one doesn't instinctively know where this text falls in the book. There is no immediately apprehended feeling of where one is in relation to either the beginning or the end of the book.

I think the same is true of all works that exist physically as one unified narrative published in a physical book. Even our reading of books that aren't meant to be read for the plot is shaped by our expectation that a narrative is rounded off at the end and that we either are or are not approaching that point. In an e-book we lose our sense of progress through a book, progress in terms of not only how much we have read and still have to read but also how quickly we are reading.

A similar point can be made about reading a short story printed on paper within a larger context, say, an anthology or a magazine. Without paging through the publication to find the end of the story, the reader has no certain idea where the page(s) now visible fall in relation to the end of the story. This knowledge only comes when one turns the page and sees that the type ends midway down a page or that there is a new title visible somewhere in the facing-page spread. Or think of an article in the paper version of a newspaper. One instinctively apprehends the size of the article if all of it falls on the same page. But what happens when one reaches the bottom of the column and finds "continued on p. X"? Until one turns to page X, it remains a mystery how much remains to be read. Or consider what must be a common experience for all readers of books--"I'll just finish this chapter and then I'll scrub the kitchen floor"--without paging through the book to find the end of the chapter, one doesn't know how much remains to be read.

So in some senses our readings of short stories, chapters in books, articles in newspapers or magazines that we are reading in paper versions are akin to reading in some electronic format. In most cases we do not immediately have available to us the knowledge of where we are in relationship to the end of the story, chapter, article. That is one way in which our reading of short stories embedded in a larger work differs from our reading of a novel that occupies the entirety of a physical book. We don't know where we are in relation to the end of the narrative, and that uncertainty can be exploited by the author (assuming that the reader doesn't cheat and check the length before beginning to read). Is what I have just started reading the beginning of a short anecdote or have I embarked on a novella? Of course we can sense when we are approaching the end of a story. But even for a skilled and practiced reader, until that reader gets well into a work, there is no sense of the quantity of material to be read.

So back to The Brothers Karamazov--this is a novel of ideas. The plot--what happens--is secondary (at best!) to the discussions of ideas. I left off reading in the middle of the biography of Elder Zossima that Aloysha wrote after Zossima's death. I can see from the bookmark sticking out of the top of the book that I am slightly less than halfway through. I remember from my previous reading roughly what happens next in terms of plot. So it is difficult for me to think myself into the position of a first-time reader of The Brothers Karamazov. I think, however, that a virginal reader engaged with an electronic version of the text would have a very different sense of the book from one reading a p-book version. It moves at such a glacial speed that the knowledge of where one is in relation to the whole of the book shapes one's sense of the book and of the portion currently being read to the book as a whole.

I was surprised in fact to discover that the Grand Inquisitor section falls relatively early in the book. I had remembered it as one of the highlights of the work and thought it far closer to the end that it is. Physically knowing where I am in the reading shapes how I view a particular episode. The Grand Inquisitor's tale becomes less a summing up of the ideas of the work and more a disquisition that will play into the reading of the subsequent text. The tale is prospective (it shapes our reading; it poses questions and ideas to be tested in the novel; it tells us something about the character who is telling the story, knowledge we will use in evaluating that character's subsequent acts) rather than retrospective (imagine if it had been the final chapter in the book--then it would have become Dostoyevsky's final comment on the novel; it would be definitive rather than open). Knowing where one is in the text provides clues on how its parts are to be read.

Later addition: Similar factors are at work in cinema and television shows. Think of a film in which the principal characters are put in peril in the first half-hour. The audience knows that, however bad things look for the leads, they will escape with their lives--they have to survive until the end.  So the 'will they, won't they live through this' tension the film tries to create around the peril is tempered by the knowledge that they will survive. This forces a shift in the dramatic interest to a vicarious enjoyment of a safe danger and perhaps the hero's cleverness in overcoming the threat or her bravery and insouciance in confronting it (peril and wisecracks are commonly paired). The good ship Enterprise will survive the nasty aliens' attack and live to fight again in next week's episode or in the next sequel. Similarly any repeat viewer of the CSI series knows that those accused of the crime and brought in for grilling in the first three-quarters of an episode are not the guilty parties. Their alibis will hold up; their DNA will not match that found at the crime scene.

I have seen a few films in which a 'star' is killed off in the first half-hour. It comes across as a shock. Audiences gasp when they realise that an apparently major character is dead so early in the film. The death seems profligate. It violates our sense of narrative conventions and increases our sense that this movie is serious. A writer's ability to subvert genre conventions depends on the audience's knowledge of those conventions. Surprise works only when we have expectations of what is normal.

Every narrative genre that foregrounds plot (novel, short story, or drama) has stereotypical ways to spread the action over the required space or time. Our knowledge of the limits imposed on the work (either because we can see the size of the book; or because we know that the dénouement of the TV show will come about five minutes before the end of the show to allow time for the final barrage of ads, a final minute showing the characters recovering from the trauma of that particular episode, and the credits; or because we know that the play will last two hours) conditions our instinctive reactions to individual scenes. Hamlet's failure to kill Claudius until the end let Shakespeare address the moral uncertainty surrounding revenge. Shakespeare would have had to find a very different focus if Hamlet had disposed of Claudius early in the play. The delay in killing Claudius forces us to think of the play in a certain way. It matters when something happens in relation to the length of the work.