BIBLIO CURIO

acquiring, collecting, reading, adapting

Category: books I’ve never read

Nonlinear Viewing and the Pleasures of Making Meaning

This is the third of my three promised blog posts for the Write-A-Thon for Boston 826. Please sponsor me in this fundraiser for an incredible nonprofit writing and tutoring center serving Boston Public Schools.

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I promised myself I wouldn’t write about “Game of Thrones.”

But since it’s all I’ve been watching the past few weeks and I have a blog post due, I have decided to write about my experience of viewing the show. I began watching it in the middle of season two (episode 6, to be exact), watched to the end of season three, then went back and watched season one. This way of watching the show (which was not deliberate, for the record) prompted me to think about how we read and understand texts.

I am fairly certain that what I will describe here has been explained by narrative theorists, structuralists, and/or reader-response theorists. But frankly, as I’m not in grad school any more and am writing this for my own pleasure, I am not going to bother looking it up. If you want to tell me about theorists who discuss these ideas, feel free. I also am not going to catch up on three years of internet writing about “Game of Thrones” either, so deal with it.

Requisite SPOILER ALERT: This post contains plot spoilers for “Game of Thrones.” It discusses the show as if you have either watched it, already know the plot, or don’t care about spoilers. It also discusses the concept of what it means to have a plot spoiled in the first place.

First, let me quickly say that I was always skeptical of the show before watching it, am not a fan of the fantasy genre, and did not read the books. I had a vague sense that it was like Lord of the Rings, but with a lot more misogyny. Predictably, given that I don’t like Lord of the Rings (don’t hurt me!), and I certainly do not like misogyny, I was convinced the show was not for me.

Perhaps more importantly, I already knew about two of the major plot twists of the show, which happen at the ends of seasons 1 and 3. I didn’t know the details of the season three twist, but I knew the basic gist. Hearing about these plot twists made me a bit more interested in the show, but also made me think I had missed the boat. After all, now that I knew what was going to happen, I figured it was too late to start watching anyway.

My husband began watching the show while I was out of town, and even offered to stop watching until I got home, but I declined. One day I came home from work while he was watching and I got sucked in, despite my initial negative impression—in the span of the first 20 minutes or so of watching, I witnessed two women use their bodies to manipulate men, which initially confirmed all my negative assumptions about the show.

What exactly sucked me in? I can’t say for sure because I am reconstructing this from my memory, but I think part of what sucked me in was the fact that one of the first scenes I saw featured Ygritte, who as many of you should already know, is played by the actress who played the first maid to escape “Downton Abbey,” the one who learned how to type so she could leave service and enter a different type of service—I mean, secretarial work. Why would this suck me in? Well, I hadn’t seen her in a while, yet I recognized her immediately, but then she would turn a different way and I would question myself—was it really her? It’s not that I was so invested in that “DA” maid character, but I wanted to see if I was right. So I kept watching, but of course that meant I was watching the scenes between the ones she was in, and then I couldn’t help but become curious about what was going on. And then who should show up but Charles Dance, who plays the evil Tywin Lannister but to me is better known as the evil Tulkinghorn from “Bleak House,” but I actually couldn’t place him for some time—I only knew instinctively that he was evil and had been on a Masterpiece Theatre production. So at first what was going on was not a game of thrones but a game of, “now what other British costume drama do I know you from?” Which is one of my favorite games.

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Obviously, it’s nothing new for actors to go on and play other roles, nor is it uncommon to cast familiar actors on purpose; in fact, the entire economy of Hollywood has been based on the assumption you would seek out familiar actors since the silent years, when actors first became movie stars. But of course, it’s a little different with television, because if these are bit players, you didn’t show up on purpose to see them. Instead what happens is you bring a set of associations with them: Tywin/Tulkinhorn is evil, I already know that, and Ygritte/typing maid is a spunky, likable lass who does things her own way. So already I’m getting the feel of things, right?

So now that I’m in the world a bit, I need to figure out what’s going on. I actually think the first character who hooked me—and I very much doubt I’m alone in this—was Arya. This is partially because I had NO idea what was going on with her at that point in the story. My husband kept trying to explain it, but it didn’t make sense—she had been posing as a boy, but I didn’t know why, and she wasn’t anymore, and Tywin doesn’t know she’s a Stark, and she only has one more death wish left—HUH? The mystery of it drew me further in; I wanted to understand her motivations and history and future.

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I was rather pleased with myself that, with the exception of Arya, I thought everything else was easy to figure out. I was really patting myself on the back about it. But now, looking back on it, I know how much time it really took to put all the pieces together. Sure, some characters, such as Robb and Catelyn Stark—were pretty easy to figure out. But some of the smaller or more complicated characters took much longer to figure out because of how completely out of context they were.

To make meaning, I had to do what we all have to do when we read or view a film or show: I needed to assess the elements of each scene—Who are these people? What is their relationship to each other? What are they doing or discussing in this scene? Then, as I watched further, I could put each scene in context: Ok, now this is happening because this other thing happened earlier. For each new scene with a character I had seen before, I needed to remember the earlier events in order to assess any new information that was introduced. And of course, because the information is visual, I could only base my understanding of the characters on how they reacted to other characters and/or their environment. In other words, context is everything, and memory is constantly being engaged when you read or watch something, even though you are “moving forward” in time.

Because I wasn’t introduced to the characters in a linear fashion, I had to work harder than the viewer who began at the beginning and had the events presented linearly. But at the same time, my struggles lay bare the cognitive work that goes on even when we begin at the beginning. What’s more, it was incredibly fun. If I had watched from the beginning, I think it still would have been fun because I would just be enjoying the show, but watching the show out of order increased my consciousness of how fun it is to try to figure out what’s going on in a text.

And I do think that viewers have to struggle at least a little, at least at first, to follow what’s going on with this particular show. Whatever else I might think of it—and I have a lot of opinions—I can no longer dismiss it as simplistic. I mean, I guess it’s possible to show up each week and just watch for the boobs and the blood, of which there is a-plenty of both, but surely there is an easier way to get your thrills if that’s what you want. This show has a great number of characters, and while it may not be terribly difficult to keep the main characters straight, just the fact that you can’t point to a single protagonist reveals it to be more complex than many television shows, and of course, the multitudinous minor characters often play important or unexpected roles.

So, what of the spoilers? As you may have guessed, having an idea of what would happen did not ruin my enjoyment of the show, though it did change it. In all fairness, while I did not know exactly what was going to happen with the red wedding or to whom, the name, to my mind, said it all: I knew that two families would join at a wedding that would turn out to be a massacre in which only the hosts would survive. A few minutes into watching the show, I saw Robb and Talisa talking on the battlefield and, while I didn’t know for certain, all indications pointed to these two as victims. For one thing, love makes you vulnerable; for another, broken promises are clearly going to come back to haunt you in a world like this. My husband, who, despite our talking about it last year, had forgotten about the red wedding, and even he knew Talisa was going to die. When they married in secret, I briefly thought I had guessed wrong, but the specter of the bridge and the broken promise (which I had not yet witnessed being made) soon re-emerged as a new threat.

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I was not going to feel surprise, then. This enjoyable reaction was replaced with a different feeling: impending dread. One of the awful enjoyments of the third season was the molasses pace at which the characters drew toward that wedding; my stomach was in knots for several episodes. My biggest fear, which I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t have had if I didn’t know what would happen, was that Arya would get to the wedding on time. Rather than the plot twist being ruined, I found an alternate enjoyment in the anticipation of a scene that had been hinted at so much. And of course, as an added pleasure, when I finally went back to watch season 1, I was able to see more clearly how certain things had been set up; for instance, what Maester Aemon says to Jon Snow about choosing between duty and love seems much more directed at his brother and father than at him.

All leads to why, even though having the plot “spoiled” takes away the specific pleasure of surprise, it does not ruin the enjoyment of the text. Because while there is enjoyment in surprise, it cannot be the only enjoyment—how could that be possible? And while a major strength of some shows, such as “Game of Thrones,” lies in the idea that the rug can be pulled out from under us at any time, this is not its only strength, nor is it the primary experience of viewership. Although what happens is important and pleasurable—and arguably part of what gets us hooked—it is the why and the how that keeps us going.

And this is a show that could arguably be viewed as hinging entirely on what happens, not why or how. As my supersmart friend Anne Moore points out, serial television is structured around cliffhangers in way that encourages binging. Even given this observation, though, the “Game of Thrones” cliffhanger structure seems aggressive. After all, when a show ends its first episode by having an adult character push a ten-year-old boy from a tower after he witnesses incestuous sex, it’s safe to say that cliffhangers (or falls?) and plot twists and the endings of episodes are vital to the identify of the show. And yet, here I was, getting sucked in despite knowing about several of the most aggressive of these twists.

Honestly, the excessive hue and cry over spoilers and alerting us to them has gotten old. A show that can suck you in when you start in the middle must be doing something right with its storytelling. The middle is the story. It’s where we spend our time. We do not read or watch in order to get to the end; we do so to stay in the middle for as long as we can, or as long as we enjoy the text.

After all, we cannot remember our beginnings, and our endings are both unknown and unknowable to us, as well as something we are staving off to the best of our abilities. It’s the middle where we make meaning.

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The Missing Classics

In my last post, I mentioned that I had a spotty and unusual literary education in high school.

Here is a short list of regularly-assigned high school classics I did NOT read in high school:

  • The Great Gatsby
  • Anything (ANYTHING!) by Jane Austen
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • A Tale of Two Cities (though we did read the vastly superior Great Expectations, so it wasn’t a total wash)
  • 1984*
  • Fahrenheit 451*
  • The Grapes of Wrath*
  • The Scarlet Letter (I did read this novel on my own during high school, or possibly even middle school, but it was not assigned. I was just a weird kid. I remember buying it from the Scholastic book club catalogue.)
  • Heart of Darkness (when I finally read this–in grad school–I was surprised that it would ever be assigned in high school)
  • Wuthering Heights

To be fair to my high school, I was never assigned any of these books in college, either–though I’ve always thought the college professors probably assumed we had already read them. Some of these I’ve read since then, on my own or in grad school, but I still have not read the ones with asterisks next to them.

After finishing college without having read The Great Gatsby and a few others, I felt like the foundation of my reading was lacking and decided to take a college class called–this was really the title of the class–“The Great American Novel.” And guess what was not assigned? Because the professor assumed we had already read it? Yeah, we read Tender is the Night, instead–which is fine, because I love that novel and probably wouldn’t have read it on my own, but what is a “Great American Novel” class without Gatsby? Then again, the professor was obviously not taking a traditional view of the course: he also didn’t assign Moby-Dick or The Scarlet Letter, but he did assign Tender Buttons, Michael Gold’s Jews Without Money, and This Side of Paradise. I’m really glad I read those books, but I still consider the class to have been falsely advertised.

Also, you guys: I NEVER READ ANYTHING BY JANE AUSTEN UNTIL I WAS IN GRADUATE SCHOOL. It boggles the mind.

I’ve been thinking that, after Moby-Dick (if I decide to read it), maybe I will re-read The Scarlet Letter, since even though I did read it, it was so long ago that I assume I would get more out of it as an adult than I did at thirteen. But it’s hard to tell. I think some books have a kind of expiration date; like, if you didn’t read On the Road in college or The Catcher in the Rye in high school, maybe it’s just too late. Personally I felt the same way about A Tale of Two Cities when I finally read it a while back. Whereas other novels age much better. I re-read Great Expectations a few years ago and was struck by its poignancy, particularly in the relationship between Pip and Joe, when all I had remembered was Miss Havisham and Estella and Magwitch–though those characters, too, were more complex when viewed from a mature perspective. And for all my whining about not having read any Jane Austen before graduate school, what a nice surprise it was when I finally did read it. I was aware of Austen in high school, but I was a total book snob with a delusional sense of myself as highly cynical (even though I was really quite romantic) and I had assumed Austen wrote nothing more than fluffy romances. What a delight to discover how funny she was. And would I have understood that humor when I was fifteen? I’m not sure, since I was obviously so busy taking myself too seriously.

To be honest, I have no interest in reading Steinbeck. But I am curious about 1984 and Fahrenheit 451–should I read those? Or is it too late? Does The Scarlet Letter for an adult reader? Should I make this the summer of reading and re-reading high school classics?

On readerly identity

I’m in the middle of a book called Why Read Moby-Dick? Why I’m reading Why Read Moby-Dick? is more complicated than my usual decisions about reading. After all, Moby-Dick is at the heart of one of my favorite stories about myself as a reader.

On one level, I am simply reading Why Read Moby-Dick? as research; I was thinking about having this question (why read this book?) be at the heart of a book I’d like to write about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, so I wanted to see how the author, Nathaniel Philbrick, went about structuring his book around this question. But if I’m being honest, what drew me to the book was the book that it’s about. I was curious about this book well before I even had an idea for my own. I semi-secretly want Philbrick to convince me to read Moby-Dick. You see, I’ve never read it. And I can’t decide whether I want to, since to read it would change my readerly identity.

If I read Moby-Dick, I could reward myself with this beautiful t-shirt.

To explain my ambivalence, we must travel way back to my high school years. Located in a small town in one of the consistently lowest-ranked states for education, my public high school was not the kind of place that provided a solid foundation for college, or lifelong reading habits, for that matter. My high school literary education was spotty and unusual and deeply formative.*

In eleventh grade, I was in an honors English class led by a lovable and eccentric teacher who, instead of  assigning a book for the whole class to read, would personally select books and assign them individually. For example, one week, I would be reading Jane Eyre while my classmate would be reading Of Mice And Men.** And yeah, there’s a major length discrepancy there that did not escape my notice, but I decided to feel honored that my teacher assigned me long, older, sometimes difficult novels. He knew I would read them. I was a very good girl who did what she was told, but it was not just that: I loved reading more than anything, and I loved getting an ambitious assignment, and I really did love the novels. I credit him for introducing me to Jane Eyre, my favorite novel ever and the book that I most strongly identify with. (The only book I ever asked my husband to read was Jane Eyre, because I finally came to the conclusion that you can’t fully understand me if you haven’t read that novel. For the record, he liked it***, which is good because I am Jane Eyre. I know every girl thinks she is Jane Eyre, but, like, except for the Christianity and the fact that I grew out of masochistic obsessions with bad boys, we are seriously  the same.) My high school teacher also assigned me The Sound and The Fury, and even though I didn’t understand half of it, I was in love. That book completely blew my mind, changed my understanding of what literature could be, possibly even set me on my very convoluted path toward graduate school (even though I didn’t study Faulkner in grad school). I still can’t believe he assigned The Sound and The Fury to an eleventh grader to read completely on her own, and I still thank him for doing it.

But then there was Moby-Dick.

Maybe after I read Jane Eyre he overestimated my love for lengthy nineteenth-century novels. Or maybe he just figured it was an important novel for me to read. But, dear reader, I could not get past the second chapter. I just hated it. I hated the writing style, I hated the fact that it was about whaling, I hated that there was not a female character in sight–I don’t even quite know what  I hated, but I was not going to read it. My simple sixteen year-old brain clamored for a solution. Then I did something I never did before and never have done since: I cheated on the assignment and copied a synopsis from Cliffnotes. (Should I be admitting this publicly? What is the statute of limitations on high school cheating? Does this ruin my cred as someone who tries to help students avoid plagiarism?)

My teacher had a funny habit of making us read him our book reports instead of handing them in. When I was finished reading him my Cliffnotes synopsis, he looked me right in the eyes and asked, “Kristina, did you read this book?”

And to my shame, I boldly met his gaze and replied, “yes, of course I read it.”

If I read Moby-Dick, I can watch this incredible-looking movie: “Since the beginning of time, man has pitted himself against the power of the sea!”

Ever since then, Moby-Dick has been as much a part of my identity as a reader as Jane Eyre is, but it is the anti-Jane Eyre. It is the book I never read, the book I knew my teacher knew I didn’t read, the impetus for lying to my favorite teacher; it represented the only time I cheated in all of my many years of schooling, from kindergarten through doctorate. I have felt shame. But I have also felt a strange pride, a sense of rebellion for not reading it. I even made a habit of telling people that, as a general rule, I do not read novels by men that take place on a ship. (Now I don’t even remember what prompted me to make this generalization–was it the horrible Heart of Darkness, which I *did* read but hated? In any case, ask any of my grad-school friends and they will tell you: yep, Kristina does not read novels by men that take place on a ship.)

Because of my sordid history with Moby-Dick, I’ve vacillated between considering it a badge of dishonor and wanting to redeem myself by reading it. But now, after living in New England for so long, and having read and loved “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and having read and loved so many 19th century novels, I am starting to think I might be ready to change my identity and read a book by a man that takes place on a ship. Because maybe I’m tired of holding onto that kind of rule about reading.

What do you say? Anyone want to talk me into or out of reading Moby-Dick? Is it too late to read it now, or would I enjoy it more as an adult? Unfortunately, Nathaniel Philbrick is not succeeding thus far, so at this point I only have my own convictions as motivation. And is there a book (or books) that you think of as forming your readerly identity?

*More about my high school literary education in my next post.

**I have also never read Of Mice and Men.

***My husband’s favorite part of Jane Eyre was the part with St. John. I love him for that. I have never, ever, ever met anyone who liked that part best! When I asked him about it, though, he said he liked that he was still being introduced to new characters that late in the story. How great is that?