Friday, May 25, 2012

The State Of The Art - Iain M Banks

I have some mixed feelings about Banks novels. On the one hand, his stories are engaging, and raise all those questions you ask in adolescence and never stop asking: Is war acceptable? What is superiority?

There is something about his prose that I find quite brutal: perhaps it's the way he's exceptionally sparing in his descriptions. Sometimes this works marvellously in his favour. In the really short story, Odd Attachment, a love-sick life-form counts its luck during an alien invasion. It's touching, and hilarious, and very ironic, and it would just flat out not work if there were adjectives.

On the other hand, The State Of The Art, the novella that gives this collection it's name, was fairly tedious: Culture life-forms visit Earth and Banks just seems to make them reiterate all those tired cultural tropes that travellers have: the French are rude, India is dirty.

Banks worships his Culture. You can tell in the bland personalities he gives them, the vagueness that is brought to the details of their lifestyles. It's almost as if his idea of a perfect culture would crumble on closer inspection; so he doesn't.

Instead the characters discuss abstract concepts (social politics, goodshort stories and bad) in a remarkably tedious, Ayn Rand-way.

Boring is the word I'd use to describe this novella.

Banks' strength is in his short stories.

Linguistic Pedantry 2

We were doing a class on 'holiday breaks'. I was asking the students what they wanted to do for their summer break. Most of them were Spanish, and most of them were actually here already for their summer break.

"In summer," one student said, "I go back Barcelona... to Barcelona. There are lovely bitches."

"Beaches," I repeated, drawing out the /i:/ and motioning towards the stretched corners of my mouth.

"Yes, bitches," he agreed.

"Haha," I laughed awkwardly. My sense of humour is crass most of the time, but for some reason I get all prudish in front of a class. And I tried again: "Beeeeeeeches."

He frowned.

"Can you tell me what it is you like about Spanish beeeeeches?" I asked him.

He replied, "They wear less clothes than English bitches."

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Reading around

Written for the Foyles blog.

The contents of books are normally fantastic (even the badly written books), quite literally. Most books are designed to take you somewhere else. Even the most boring of academic books are trying to remove you to a different place.

Books are where new leaves are turned and budding interests can first be satisfied.

Often I see a book as its potential to be somewhere else, I forget it is first and foremost heavily reconstituted wood, bound with glue and thread, and jacketed in more wood.

Familiarity begats forgetfulness.

Then I pick up a box of books that tugs me forward with its weight, and I have to remind myself that the reason it's so heavy is that it is almost exclusively tree.

Which is not really a surprise; it's just one of those truths I take for granted and casually forget, like the lion on the two pence piece.

Just as time and exposure casually mask the nature of a book, so time and exposure mask the original usage of the word 'book'. It comes from the same place as 'beech', probably because when Old English was still being used people were still carving words in beech trees.

'Ben wære hér 2AD.'

Of course, before it's specialisation to mean a selection of bound papers in a cover, the word 'book' used to refer to any written document. The Tom, Dick, or Harry of written materials.

In many languages the word for 'leaf' is the same word for 'page' or 'paper'. 'Page' doesn't mean 'leaf' though ('paper' on the other hand is fairly obviously connected to 'papyrus'). No, 'page' made it's way into English via French/Latin from the Proto-Indo-European word 'pag-', 'to fix', as in 'join', not 'mend'. But the connection's still there in English, we still take a leaf out of someone else's book and read 'leaflets'.

Earlier I was browsing the science-fiction section, which is where all this interest in book related etymology started, trying to find another door-stop to lose myself in, when I found myself, as I'm wont to do, wondering where that word came from. Browse: I can think of many words that sound similar (brow, brown, peruse) and many phrasal synonyms (look through, check out, thumb through, &c.), but no synonym that means the same thing. Sometimes this feels quite rare in English with its numerous Latin/Germanic pairings.

And then a word like 'browse' comes along and deals with this issue by making the journey from Proto-Germanic, through French and into English.

Probably, it comes from the Proto-Germanic word 'brustjan', which meant 'to bud', and later from Old French 'brost' which is a word for a freshly sprung shoot (add -er and it becomes the verb 'to bud').

Which I think adds a rather pleasant dimension to the idea of 'leafing through' a book: Books are where new leaves are turned and budding interests can first be satisfied.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Problem Of Reading

I just finished reading 'One Soldier's War In Chechnya' by Babchenko on the weekend. It's equally mesmerizing and harrowing, and somehow more poignant when being read on the long bus journey to work. There were a couple of times I had to put the book down and take a breather. There were other times that it seemed to me that I was repressing horrors as I read them.

Do you ever get to the end of the page, or worse the chapter, and realise that precisely none of the words you've just read have registered? What's that about?

I was reading half a chapter, only for my awareness to kick in, and half a chapter of Babchenko's charming eloquence to disappear from memory. 'Frustrating' doesn't even begin to cover the number of times it seemed to happen during this book. And I couldn't begin to explain it; it wasn't through lack of interest, I can assure you.

So, I wagged my chin a bit, and chins wagged back, and it seems that everyone has this problem.

That's all good. I'm not alone. But, it's no answer either. So what's actually going on?

I went out of my way to understand.

The reading process is very mechanical. As words and sentences build up a world and a direction through which to take you, the procedures your eyes and brain go through are almost robotic.

In recording reader's eye movements researchers have been able to determine that the eye moves systematically across every word, alternating between letter recognition and faster scanning periods. It can spend between 100 to 450 milliseconds on letter recognition. The much faster scanning periods, at about 30 milliseconds a section, cover distances of about eight letters. About nine in ten of these faster sections are progressive, with the remaining one in ten jumping back in the text to material that's already been read.

Every adult who can competantly read does this, often irregardless of whether they comprehend what they are reading or not. This is because what you're actually doing is scanning a word or phrase, instantly recalling associations with the word or phrase, and storing it in your working memory, wherefrom it either seeps into your long-term memory or disappears in a puff of irrelevance.

Great stuff. So why did Babchenko's enthralling stories fail to enthrall my long-term memory so many times?

Your working memory is a marvelous thing. It enables information from various regions of the brain to be manipulated at the same time.

Observations have shown that the neurons that fire when you think about an object continue firing for a few seconds after you have finished observing the object. This is your working memory continuing to process the information, trying to decide the relevance of information in regards to whatever problem your working memory is trying to sort out.

Reading is a problem. There's so much to analyse: letters have to be translated into phonemes (which have their own relevance), letters have to be translated into words (which a lot of readers have to translate into sequences of phonemes) and instantly connoted, which have to be considered in whatever sequence they've been viewed in, and whether that sequence is a new or recognised string of words. After all of which your working memory then has to decide how it relates to to the narrative that preceded it.

This echo of firing neurons that carries on after the words have been read allows the brain to make associations and connections. As the ideas overlap, the brain is able to form new pathways between neural networks, and the sentence you have read is moved into your brain's long-term storage.

But, if your working memory is unable to make these ideas overlap, then you don't have much chance of remembering what you read.

So, while I was reading on the bus, my working memory was busy dealing with some other problem, and the act of reading is so mechanical that I didn't even realise that none of the words were settling.