Thursday, 28 February 2013

Bookworm News (February 2013)

Nicholas Hoult, who will reportedly play Stephen
The sun is shining and the birds are singing
Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks, is one of the best works of First World War-rooted literature I've read (although if you can recommend others, I'm all ears), and far surpasses his more recent works. Now Birdsong fans can breathe a sigh of nostalgia thanks to a film version of the novel being released, hot on the heels of the 2012 BBC miniseries. Rupert Wyatt has adapted the script and will be directing this version of the modern classic, and Nicholas Hoult is rumoured to be starring in the main role. No release date has yet been set for the film, but you can be sure that I'll be in the queue at the cinema as soon as it comes out.

Also up for adaptation is Tolstoy's War and Peace, which will be adapted for the BBC by Andrew Davies (who to date has already adapted such classics as Pride and Prejudice and Bleak House). While it sounds like it could be a little dumbed down according to the Telegraph's report (which states that "lengthy philosophical elements of the book will be left out"), the emphasis on romance and on human relationships is not without appeal. There are already whispers on the wind that Davies hopes to cast an unknown as Natasha - and after her sterling performance as Kitty in the recently released Anna Karenina, I do hope fervently that rising star Alicia Vikander will be considered.
Pass it on
Amazon was last week granted a new patent to sell used ebooks and other digital objects, Wired magazine reports. Purportedly working similarly to Amazon Kindle's ebook lending process, the original owner of the digital file would transfer the access rights to the buyer permanently. However, I'm not sure how far this can really work: how can you ensure, for instance, that the old user would really delete all traces of the file from their own computers, rather than simply continuing to use them? It seems that Bill Rosenblatt, a consultant and expert witness in digital content patent cases, is also worried about an issue that equally plagues the second-hand market for physical books: the fact that the publisher loses control completely once the book leaves their hands. I think there's still a lot to iron out here before this can really be put into practice.

Victoria Barnsley, HarperCollins CEO
Just browsing? That'll be £2, please
Several book lovers (including myself) are often guilty of using physical bookshops as mere showrooms: we go in, we look around, we make a list, and then buy the books off cheaper websites later. The CEO of HarperCollins UK, Victoria Barnsley, has suggested a solution to this problem: charging book lovers for the right to browse. Some shoe stores apparently exercise this policy already in America to sort the wheat from the chaff, and while I agree that it could do this, I also think that it could reduce the number of people buying unexpectedly. How many times have I gone in not intending to buy and yet come out with something anyway? Quite a few, in fact. It seems to me that knowing you will buy before you even enter the shop, because you are in effect forced to purchase, also removes some of the excitement and limits customers' ability to research a purchase. My view? It's a risky strategy that, like Amazon's ebook second-hand store idea, will require careful thought.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico (Antonio Tabucchi)

--The blurb--
"The reader meets a flying creature of ambiguous species in a priest's vegetable garden, and a revolutionary who is told her incredible future by Mademoiselle Lenormand, a fortune teller from the shadow world." 

--The review--
With the popularity of artists such as Laura Pausini, Eiffel 65 and Andrea Bocelli, and the success of Italian films such as Scialla!, it seems only naturally that the English-speaking public should also be interested in contemporary literature by Italian authors (Dario Fo and Umberto Eco are just two Italian writers who are still alive and still popular today, and whose works are already considered classics). So how does Antonio Tabucchi, who died in 2012, measure up to these greats?

Tabucchi was a prolific writer and academic who published 31 works between 1975 and 2011, including the greatly-lauded Indian Nocturne. Expectations are therefore great. Specifically, what of his 1987 collection of short stories, The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico? 

There are certainly elements that are worthy of applause. Tabucchi was clearly wildly imaginative and a talented creator of beautiful description. The story entitled Messages From The Shadows is perhaps the best example of this, proving mysterious, elegant and poetic. The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico, which is the first story in the collection, is eminently readable and should appeal broadly.

However, there were several problems, which can be attributed respectively to the writer, the translator, and those responsible for formatting this book for Kindle.

Several aspects of the story were unsatisfying, thanks to various instances of unsophisticated syntax, abrupt endings, undeveloped plotlines, telling rather than showing, pretention, narcissism, poor punctuation, awkward phrasing, and a general lack of clarity, precision and direction. However, due to reading The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico in translation, it is not necessarily possible to tell whether this is the fault of Tabucchi himself, or his translator (in this case, Tim Parks, who has been nominated for the Booker Prize twice for his own works of fiction). For this reason, I would not completely discount reading other works by Tabucchi if translated by others.

Formatting problems for the Kindle edition of the text were equally bothersome: paragraphing was destroyed by random gaps and lines were interspersed with odd sequences of unrelated text and symbols. Equally, instinct tells the reader that pictures are supposed to accompany and thus enhance the text; none of these images were, however, visible in the text's Kindle edition. This is a great shame, as given that the collection's title is so heavily rooted in art, it is almost certain that the inclusion of images would greatly supplement the stories.

So while perhaps Tabucchi does not reach the dizzying heights of Fo and Eco in the annals of 20th-century literature with The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico, this one work alone is not reason enough to discard his oeuvre completely. Perhaps instead seek out Pereira Maintains, which won Tabucchi the Viareggio Prize in 1994 - a prize also accorded to another Italian great, Primo Levi.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Bookish Bits and Bobs: Every Error You Make, Every Step You Take, I'll Be Watching You

As an English teacher, I'm always keenly interested in anything which promises to improve student spelling, punctuation and grammar. My current technique for marking runs roughly as follows: I grade out of 20, and for every four errors you make, you lose 1 mark. This generally works well and results in an accurate grade for the student (assuming you follow my school's scale, which states that anything between 10 and 13 counts as satisfactory, 14 and 15 count as good, 16 and 17 count as very good, and that anything scored at 18 or over counts as excellent). For dyslexic students, I don't take away a point until they reach 8 mistakes. However, even with this system in place, adjustments sometimes still need to be made, with me giving a grade roughly corresponding to the system above (if I think it's good in terms of structure or content, for example, I'll give a 14 or 15). Why do such adjustments need to be made? Because if I followed that system to the letter every single time, I would find that some students make so many errors that their grade would actually be in minus numbers.

My interest was naturally piqued, then, when I heard about this: a new grammar pen that vibrates with every error you make, in real time, as you write. There are plenty of perks: the pen's Orthography setting would encourage students to self-correct and eventually to avoid making the mistakes altogether. It's also not as expensive as a tutor or voice-activated software, and continues to encourage the art of handwriting. This is reinforced by the pen's Calligraphy mode, which is designed to help students improve legibility and form when they write. This would all be done thanks to the pen's built-in sensors, which are supposed to detect variations in letter formation and subsequently alert users to errors with a light vibration.

All of this seems to be a logical next step given the current tools available, such as autocorrect within word-processing programmes. But could this lead to an over-reliance on technology for a generation for whom this is already becoming a serious problem? I agree that no one piece of technology could trigger such complacency, but it does all build up to a culture of using one's brain less. It's already bad enough when students rely on autocorrect to fix their mistakes: the work comes in, and there are still errors because they haven't gone through the process of having a human proofread it (whether that's the student themselves, or somebody else, such as a peer or family member).

The pen would also run into the same problems as machine translation: the pen is not an encyclopaedia, and so would be limited by a lack of human knowledge and context. 'Bear' and 'bare' are both perfectly correctly-spelled words, but only the human knows that we 'grin and bear it' and yet 'bare all'. Ultimately, the human still needs to reread their work - the pen may reduce the number of mistakes, but it needs to be supported by human critical thinking.

Other criticisms have also been mentioned by those who have heard about this idea. In relation to the above, some quite rightly point out that the pen would seem too scolding or critical in a way that a human reader or teacher may not: the pen tells you that you've made a mistake, but doesn't tell you why it's wrong or how to fix it. More jocularly, some commenters joke that their poor spelling would make the pen go up in smoke within a paragraph, leading me to question how the pen would be powered (no functional prototype currently exists). The pen may not go up in smoke thanks to repeated errors, but if battery-powered, it could prove costly to run, meaning that the makers of the pen, Lernstift, may wish to consider a mains-powered mechanism. However, the amount of money that Lernstift will have available to spend on working this out is dependent on public support: the company hopes to source crowdfunding of up to €1.5 million for the purpose.

So, in the face of all this, how can people improve their standards of spelling, punctuation and grammar?

My answer as an education professional would always be to read, read, and read some more, whether it's comic books, newspapers, magazines, books, or even blogs like this one. Reading widens vocabulary and cements knowledge, meaning that with luck, if you see commonly-mistaken words enough times, you will eventually become familiar with their spelling. This also works for punctuation and grammar: if you read enough, you will notice patterns of punctuation use (particularly concerning the demon semi-colon, whose patterns of usage seem to trouble many), know when and how to use English's rare subjunctives (we know mainly from reading that it's "Long live the Queen", not "Long lives the Queen"), and know how to make subject and verb agree in complex sentences. Reading also provides that much-valued context - so that you know when to use 'deign' and not 'Dane' - and encourages you to challenge yourself and broaden your interests (eventually, when your favourite author is no longer writing books or you begin to tire of your currently favourite genre, you will begin to look elsewhere).

Equally, the classic spelling lesson technique of 'look - cover - say - write - check', while more laborious, works for the trickier words. In addition, I would advocate speaking clearly. This doesn't mean speaking like the Queen of England, but just being sure to enunciate: of course you will always write 'tetnus' instead of 'tetanus' if you never pronounce the 'a'. Finally, playing with words is also helpful: try crosswords, making words from the letters on car registration plates, and playing Word Mole on your Blackberry (did I mention I'm a bit addicted to this game at the moment).

While technology is certainly not useless in allowing people to improve - as evidenced by my game recommendation above, and by the fact that so many people read on the go these days thanks to the exhaustive storage capacities of Kindles and iPads - it's important to harness the power of our brains in conjunction with it. We need to stay conscious, rather than being in thrall to machines, and to be aware of what they cannot do for us, as well as being aware of what they can do. And in the meantime, I should probably pick up that pile of marking that's still in my work bag from Friday, so that I can tell myself I didn't bring it home in vain - and hope wholeheartedly that my Grade 11 didn't make too many spelling mistakes.