Science Asides: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring Still Speaks Its Truth

As Carson readily points out, most pesticides and herbicides do not solely target the intended pest but harm all life in the area.

Without fail, each Earth Day brings mention of Rachel Carson’s most famous work of nonfiction, Silent Spring1—a book renowned for its role in forwarding the modern environmental preservation/conservation movements. Although published more than 50 years ago, this book, meant to raise awareness about the dangers of pesticides and herbicides commonly used in the early 1960s, continues to resonate with readers today. There is good reason for this continued interest. While one might reasonably expect a book discussing such a serious topic to be a dry but dire treatise, Carson surprises with her eloquence, her clear but never tiresome description of scientific knowledge, and her passionate reproofs of shortsighted policies.2 And while our worries for this world may have changed (and indeed may have worsened), many of her concerns remain relevant.

Water must also be thought of in terms of the chains of life it supports— from the small-as-dust green cells of the drifting plant plankton, through the minute water fleas to the fishes that strain plankton from the water and are in turn eaten by other fishes or by birds, mink, raccoons— in an endless cyclic transfer of materials from life to life.

Scientific Interpreter

To discuss impact of pesticide and herbicide usage, Carson needed to dispel the notion that such chemicals found in household products and applied to lawns, gardens, fields, and forest were “safe”, an impression conveyed by the manufacturers and government agencies alike. Carson, therefore, had to educate her audience about how ecosystems function, how chemicals agents operate and spread through various environments into others, and how exposed species (both human and non-human) were affected. She happened to be ideally suited for this task. Science and writing were Carson’s twin passions, and she utilized both professionally at US Bureau of Fisheries (later, the US Fish and Wildlife Service) and when writing for the Baltimore Sun. She eventually transitioned to writing about science full time, publishing articles in the Atlantic and The New Yorker as well as bestselling nonfiction books about maritime species and environments. With this experience, she painstakingly (but never condescendingly) translated the technical scientific data underwriting her contentions into the crisp prose seen in Silent Spring.1, 3, 4 Indeed, one of the achievements of Silent Spring is that it serves as an excellent layperson’s primer for environmental studies.

How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?

Grim Revelations

The picture Carson paints, beginning with the imaginative exercise of small town suffering from an ecological devastation to the actual places suffering devastating drops in beneficial insects such as wild pollinators,5 bird, fish, and other animal populations—not to mention pet and human life—is a disturbing one. As Carson readily points out, most pesticides and herbicides do not solely target the intended pest but harm all life in the area. Pesticides either infiltrate ecosystem food chains and the surrounding soil and waterways, indirectly poisoning or killing other living beings. These chemicals, shown to persist long after application, continue to do damage as they chemically alter and/or combine with other pesticides used, potentially magnifying their destructive capacity. And the damage continues into the next generation, as reduced reproductive capacity is also seen among exposed creatures.

Science Asides: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring Still Speaks Its Truth. Text by Rita E. Gould
Among the species of bird affected by pesticides that Rachel Carson mentions in Silent Spring were robins, the herald of spring.

While this may seem like a regrettable necessity to protect crops or to decide between protecting trees or birds (to use her example), Carson reveals that the benefits of pesticides are remarkably short lived as they require repeats applications, often with increasingly deadlier pesticides since the surviving pest insects are immune to previously applied pesticides. Instead of eliminating pests, a pesticide-resistant species is bred. To further illustrate the futility of this exercise, Carson describes several, more effective methods for controlling pest species (both plant and insect), among them employing less broadly toxic and safer pesticides (eg, pyrethrin), using appropriate fungicides, selective (versus blanket) spraying, introducing predator species, and increasing biodiversity; she also points to promising approaches in development. Not content to count the loss in terms of life and beauty, Carson also points out the dramatic costs involved with using chemical versus the usually less expensive, more successful alternatives she suggested. She is also quick to add another economic cost associated with destroying natural habitats: tourism is negatively affected by blighted vegetation and dying birds and fish.

The key to a healthy plant or animal community lies in what the British ecologist Charles Elton calls “the conservation of variety.” What is happening now is in large part a result of the biological unsophistication of past generations. Even a generation ago no one knew that to fill large areas with a single species of tree was to invite disaster. And so whole towns lined their streets and dotted their parks with elms, and today the elms die and so do the birds.

Lyrical Writer, Passionate Defender of Nature

Although Carson’s book focuses heavily on the damage wrought by indiscriminate pesticide and herbicide usage, readers can readily discover passages describing the beauty of the natural world she loved throughout her text. Her imaginary small town that “lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields” evokes numerous rural places found throughout the United States (Carson 1). Her description of the western grebe is similarly vivid:

the western grebe…is a bird of spectacular appearance and beguiling habits, building its floating nests in shallow lakes of western United States and Canada. It is called the “swan grebe” with reason, for it glides with scarcely a ripple across the lake surface, the body riding low, white neck and shining black head held high. The newly hatched chick is clothed in soft gray down; in only a few hours it takes to the water and rides on the back of the father or mother, nestled under the parental wing coverts (Carson 47).

Carson’s compelling imagery enchants, just as the juxtaposition of dead animals (the western grebe were decimated by DDD [a chemical cousin of DDT] in the 1950s) and wasted swaths of vegetation shock. When we witness this beauty and contrast it with the results of indiscriminate pesticide and herbicide use—agents that often cause much harm with few results—it’s easy to understand why Carson felt compelled to speak for the wild places and their inhabitants.6

The Continuing Call

As biographer Linda Lear notes, “Silent Spring compels each generation to reevaluate its relationship to the natural world.”3 It also reminds us that we are very much part of that natural world, which means the decisions we make for nature our ones we make for ourselves and future generations. It’s difficult to read Carson’s words and disregard the potential for harm we may do, should we not heed her call.

Read More

Interested in reading more works by women writing about nature and the environment? Check out this list on Goodreads featuring women writing about the environment and nature.

NOTES:

 


  1. I used this copy of Silent Spring as my primary resource: Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Kindle ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002. 
  2. At points, such reproofs are savage. She purposefully defines eradication to make the point that a government agency’s multiple “eradications” of gypsy moth are in fact glaring signs of pesticide failure: “Eradication” means the complete and final extinction or extermination of a species throughout its range. Yet as successive programs have failed, the Department has found it necessary to speak of second or third “eradications” of the same species in the same area (Carson 157–8). 
  3. Lear, Linda “Introduction.” In: Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Kindle ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002. 
  4. Lepore, Jill. “The Right Way to Remember Rachel Carson.” The New Yorker, 26 Mar. 2018, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/03/26/the-right-way-to-remember-rachel-carson
  5. Carson’s mention of potential damage done to pollinators such as bees recalls recent concerns about neonicotinoids, insecticides which are thought to cause colony collapse. The European Union recently banned these chemicals. 
  6. Popova, Maria. “The Writing of “Silent Spring”: Rachel Carson and the Culture-Shifting Courage to Speak Inconvenient Truth to Power”. Brain Pickings, https://www.brainpickings.org/2017/01/27/rachel-carson-silent-spring-dorothy-freeman/ 

Lifting The Bell Jar

Plath dispels the notion that people with mental illnesses are monstrous (think Bertha from Jane Eyre). She also demonstrates that psychological distress can occur even in fortunate circumstances.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise involved with properly reading Sylvia Plath’s novel,1 The Bell Jar, is discovering how a coming-of-age story set in the summer of 1953 manages to seem contemporary even as it remains so firmly rooted in its own period.2 Undoubtedly, there are timeless aspects to story arcs that move characters from innocence to experience, just as we find that the issues women grapple with in this book (the double standard, for one) are all too familiar. But what makes The Bell Jar so relatable is its captivating protagonist, Esther Greenwood. Esther is witty, sensitive, occasionally angry, often funny—and not at all what a reader expects to discover in a novel renowned for its suicidal heroine.3 But as The Bell Jar often proves, our assumptions don’t always match our expectations.

“There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends.”

The Grim and the Glamorous

From the outset, the sharply observant Esther is aware of how appearances might mislead. Plath’s narrator, an older Esther, describes the morbid thoughts she had about executions and cadavers when she spent part of her summer in New York City at age 19. But from the outside, Esther’s life seems to have all the hallmarks of an American success story: Hailing from an impoverished middle-class background, she’s a “scholarship girl” who wins a position as a summer intern at women’s magazine—an incredible opportunity for someone with writing aspirations—where she attends parties and receives gifts. As she explains, anyone would assume she was “having the time of [her] life” when she instead struggles to get “[her]self to react”. Just as Esther wryly undercuts the image of the glamorous party the interns attend by pointing out the male guests were hired for the photo shoot, Plath exposes the invisible illness haunting a smart young woman’s New York adventure. Plath’s handling here is sure: stereotypical portrayals of mental illness4 are eschewed by showing Esther as nearly indistinguishable from the other smiling interns (significantly, they’re dressed alike) in the magazine spread. In doing so, Plath dispels the notion that people with mental illnesses are monstrous (think Bertha from Jane Eyre). She also demonstrates that psychological distress can occur even in fortunate circumstances.

“So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about as numb as a slave in a totalitarian state.”

Psyche Under Pressure

Having stripped away Esther’s smiling veneer, Plath better acquaints the reader with Esther’s background and aspirations. Esther, as magazine editor Jay Cee quips, “wants to be everything”: writer, academic, editor, traveler, lover, wife and mother. And while they are the most socially acceptable choices, Esther feels most ambivalent towards marriage and motherhood. Raised by a widowed working mother, Esther sees the pitfalls of marriage (financial vulnerability, drudgery) more clearly than fellow intern, Betsy, a naïve Midwesterner who wants a traditional marriage. Doreen, in contrast, rebels against deadlines and social mores alike in her quest for adventure in New York. While Esther shares Doreen’s cynicism and humor, she finds Doreen’s seemingly violent sexual encounters repellent and untenable given her limited means. Esther is left with uncertainty, as neither model suits her.

This pattern holds true when Esther examines her options for the future, since her unconventional ambitions don’t mesh well with social expectations for women in the sexist 1950s. Evoking the image of a fig tree with diverging branches, Esther sees her choices as being mutually exclusive. Certainly, the various people attempting to influence her future path imply as much: instructors indicate family must be sacrificed for career, her mother pressures her to learn a marketable skill (dictation) instead of gambling on a writing career, society and family insists her proper role is that of wife, and chauvinist Buddy Willard, the boy she’s dating, insinuates a few kids might cure that urge to write poems.5 Coupled with her ongoing pressure to excel academically,6 Esther appears to experience herself almost as two fragments: the outwardly cheerful achiever and the angry hidden self who chafes against her limitations. Approaching her final year of school, she finds herself filled with crippling indecision and feels that her successes thus far are meaningless outside college.7 While there’s no definitive explanation as to what precipitates depression, Plath could be arguing that society is what ails Esther.

“I hated the very idea of the eighteenth century, with all those smug men writing tight little couplets and being so dead keen on reason.”

The Bell Jar Descends and Lifts

It is, however, apparent that an attempted rape rapidly followed by a serious academic disappointment serve as the triggering events for Esther’s mental health crisis. Although Esther’s breakdown is foreshadowed, the change it brings in her startles: she stops bathing, sleeps poorly, and, alarmingly, cannot write. Plath spends the latter half of the novel exploring misconceptions and stigmas surrounding mental health issues as well as critiquing how this illness is treated. Mrs. Greenwood, for example, fails to understand that Esther’s condition is not a choice and believes Esther could get better if she just tried or instead helped out others suffering greater misfortunes. As a layperson, her erroneous views are understandable, whereas Dr. Gordon (her first psychiatrist) disinterest in discussing her issues almost seems negligent, particularly after her prescribed shock therapy is administered incorrectly. Esther, desperate to avoid another traumatic shock session and convinced that her case is impossible, attempts suicide. Still alive and agitated, Esther is placed in a series of asylums. As it becomes clear to Esther once her scholarship sponsor pays for her to move to a better institution, money determines the quality of the patient’s care.

Not long after Esther settles into the new asylum, Esther meets Joan Gilling. Not only do they share the same hometown, church, and acquaintances, but they’ve both dated Buddy (neither are fans) and attempted suicide. While foils Betsy and Doreen represent extremes of sexual values, Joan serves as a near double to Esther since her journey through mental illness darkly mirrors Esther’s own until Joan succeeds in killing herself. While it’s never clear why one lives and the other does not, Joan’s death reminds readers and Esther’s alike that might also have been Esther’s fate. Esther, however, continues improving. And though some remain wary of her or wish to move on as though nothing happened (her mother in particular), Esther accepts that her illness is an important part of her history that she cannot ignore as there’s no guarantee that the bell jar wont’ descend again. It’s with this sobering, but clear-eyed acceptance that Esther moves toward whatever her future holds.

NOTES:


  1. Unlike the first time I picked it up and partially skimmed it during a busy term (I was studying abroad), which really didn’t do it justice. 
  2. And that includes the period’s casual racism and homophobia. Significantly, Esther kicks the only non-white character, a black worker at a mental institute, with little provocation. While her disturbed mindset plays a role in her aggression, she nonetheless appears to have at least some latent prejudices regarding race and sexual orientation. 
  3. While The Bell Jar is Plath’s roman à clef, I won’t be discussing making any comparisons with Plath’s life (something which has been done extensively anyway) as it tends to divert attention from discussing the book. 
  4. Plath makes this point repeatedly, particularly after Esther is institutionalized, that the mentally ill do not appear different from saner individuals. 
  5. So much is wrong with Buddy. Presented to Esther as a desirable marital prospect, he acts like the spiritual heir to the physician doctor from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” when Buddy tells Esther that her stuffed nose is psychosomatic and claims she’s neurotic. More reprehensibly, this “fine and clean” young man who focuses so much on Esther’s minimal sexual experience happens to be a hypocrite since he’s actually had a sexual affair. Although Buddy’s hypocrisy incenses Esther, it’s his paramour who is described as “some slutty waitress”, a detail suggesting Esther’s internalized misogyny. 
  6. Fearing that she will fail a chemistry course, Esther manipulates her image as a good student to escape taking this course and earns accolades for her intellectual maturity, something which she later feels crushing guilt for doing. 
  7. Esther potentially suffers from impostor syndrome: she describes an incident in which Jay Cee questions her focus and career plans as unmasking her. 

Writing Nevers

Exploring different ways to write doesn’t necessarily need to achieve a specific endpoint or goal.

During grad school, I enrolled in a course that focused on writing personal essays. While I regularly sought out opportunities to improve my writing, my interest in this course partially stemmed from my inexperience with the genre. I’d been in many writing classes and workshops since my teenaged years, but I mostly wrote poetry, fiction, and academic papers. I didn’t (and don’t) keep a journal.1 Discounting those personal statements for college applications, I’d written very little from my perspective.2 Clearly, I missed a stop on my writing journey.

As with all new to new-ish ventures, it took me some time to acclimatize to writing personal essays: I initially found it challenging to unpack my own experiences and turn them into writing material for the weekly theme. I eventually found my pace, and some of my anecdotes made a point well or earned an intended chuckle. But I could see I still had some way to go before I reached real proficiency. And however much I enjoyed the course (reading my classmates’ essays often was inspiring), it seemed unlikely that I’d revisit the personal essay. I never felt quite at home writing about myself.

After writing about a year’s worth of blog posts, I’d like to concede that I may have been mistaken.3

Exploring different ways to write doesn’t necessarily need to achieve a specific endpoint or goal. Any time spent writing or learning about writing isn’t wasted for a writer,4 because more writing makes us write better. And what blogging taught me this year was that I didn’t need to make any grand decisions about future writing. As it happens, I discovered that writing from my viewpoint became easier once I recognized the direction it would take: discussing my writing and reading experiences. I don’t doubt that there are stories that are not mine to tell or genres that I will not master, but the only thing saying never did was limit the paths my writing could take. And frankly, that’s a terrible way to end a tale.

NOTES:


  1. For the record, kudos to everyone who keeps a journal and can, whenever they so desire, peruse a record of events, thoughts, impressions, etc. At present, my attempts still tend to produce writing that has grating “dear diary” tone that kinda bores me. 
  2. Unless we’re counting the occasional insertion of inappropriate humor and slightly knowing/know-it-all tone, in which case yes, that would be me. 
  3. Before this descends into a not-so-humble brag, I’ve still think I’ve ways to go before I hit the summit for amazing writing. 
  4. As it happens, I left that class with a greater appreciation of the personal essay format, which helped me become a more critical reader of them. 

Why I’m Reading Women Writers for Women’s History Month and Beyond

For Women’s History Month, I originally planned to list works by women I want to read this month. I intended to point out that the reason I’ve been focusing on reading more women writers,1 as I discussed in my post about Reading Women Month, is that women writers lack representation.2 However, I thought this might be an opportunity to discuss how reading more women actually benefits us, given how women’s representation and issues have come to the forefront over the last year (#metoo and #TimesUp movements, to name two). Reading gives us the chance to self-educate, to learn more about issues that affect us as well as access experiences that aren’t ours. Reading a good book highlights problems women face, such as the wage gap by discussing its roots or revealing the true cost of all that unpaid labor women perform (Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? by Katrine Marçal, trans. Saskia Vogel).3 Reading more written by women lets us discover the unsung women who made important contributions to this world, such as the black female mathematicians who helped NASA win the space race (Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly). And being informed about women’s contributions to society as well their issues often empowers action. Which takes me full circle to Women’s History Month. One book I intend to read, Woman in the Nineteenth Century,4 inspired the women who went off do something about suffrage in the United States. While another nonfiction work focuses on a funny woman (Bossypants by Tina Fey) succeeding in a field notoriously hostile to women, others are works of fiction I’ve heard good things about and wanted to read—books that in their own way that will expose to me women’s voices. In addition, my daily reading involves targeted online zines (eg, Everyday Feminism) that keeps me current with the latest issues women face, certainly something I’ll continue to do this month.5 Regardless of the format, I intend to keep reading women throughout the year, because we deserve to be heard and celebrated.

NOTES:


  1. We also should work on reading inclusively, because more belongs on our shelves than works written by white, straight cisgendered individuals. 
  2. Moreover, even women characters lack representation
  3. IFL Science, helmed by Elise Andrews, published Women Scientists You Need to Know on this International Women’s Day. Also in the “hidden history” category is Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immortal Lives of Henrietta Lacks, which discusses the life of Henrietta Slack, the woman whose cancer cells taken without permission led to countless scientific breakthroughs and raised serious questions about medical ethics. 
  4. And yes, it is book that I said held the record for being on my to-be read list the longest. I promised to read it this year, and there’s no time like the present. 
  5. Recently, EF addressed women’s unpaid emotional labor with update on etiquette by Alice Williams: New Etiquette Rules for Women—Without the Sexism This Time

Hook, Line, and the Writer

Successful hooks pose more questions than answers, making the reader curious. And an intrigued reader is one that keeps reading.

While writing my last post on books that linger on the to-read pile, I briefly mentioned the narrative hook, as it helped explain what I meant by being hooked into a story. At the time, I recalled several great openings to stories, ones that I subsequently read and enjoyed. But looking at these lines from a writer’s perspective now, I wondered what specifically makes such lines so intriguing that a reader simply must read the rest of the story. Any quick survey of novels and stories shows that authors use various approaches to create a hook: compelling/quirky characters, dramatic situations, unusual settings, weather, memories, recounting advice, humor, and so forth. But regardless of the tactic used, these storytelling hooks pique the readers’ interest by presenting them with a scenario that raises questions, the kind that can only be answered by reading further. In the following, I’ve provided three examples of stories that illustrate how writers use their opening lines to land their reader’s attention.

Hook, Line, and Writer. Text by Rita E. Gould

Beloved

“124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children.”—Beloved, Toni Morrison

Morrison elects to drop us straight into the middle of Beloved’s events to ensure that readers, much like Paul D, don’t know why 124 happens to be such an unhappy place when they first encounter it. The sequence of story events has a role in constructing the hook, because the story’s impact hinges on how the reader gains information. In a novel like this one, beginning in media res allows readers to experience Paul D’s shock of discovery as well as introduces uncertainty about how events will unfold once this truth is divulged. Therefore, this hook needs to hint at the terrible disclosure to come without revealing much about it or its consequences, a tactic that also generates a mystery. Morrison’s uses a surprising metaphor (ie, surprising insofar as we normally don’t think of homes as spiteful or babies as being venomous) to signal the lingering malevolence of the as-yet undisclosed past, which suggests the house is haunted—perhaps literally—by the deceased child, Beloved.1 These lines, therefore, raise questions about what created this discord (Why is 124 spiteful? What happened there?) as well as build anticipation for that discovery.

Hook, Line, and Writer. Text by Rita E. GouldThe Lovely Bones

“Inside the snow globe on my father’s desk, there was a penguin wearing a red-and-white-striped scarf….The penguin was alone in there, I thought, and I worried for him. When I told my father this, he said, “Don’t worry, Susie; he has a nice life. He’s trapped in a perfect world.”

“My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.”—The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold

The Lovely Bones is a curious case when it comes to the narrative hook, because the first lines of the novel aren’t in the first chapter: they occur in the prefatory paragraph preceding this chapter. While the goal of the preface is to provide readers with readers background material that somehow informs the story and is technically not part of the story’s action, it’s the text that the reader sees first, meaning that preface also needs to capture the reader’s attention. However, I’d argue that the first chapter also needs a hook, because that’s where the story begins—a critical consideration since readers may overlook or skip the preface.2 For this reason, I’ll discuss how both The Lovely Bones’ preface and first lines from chapter one work as hooks.

Sebold’s preface, which recounts a memory, represents an instance in which the entire paragraph serves as the hook. While this memory initially appears to focus on an ordinary father—daughter bonding moment, its true significance emerges when Susie interrupts their play to express her concern for the penguin in the globe. Her father comforts her, but in doing so he describes the penguin’s “nice life” as a trap. It’s subtle, but the association of perfection with a trap is unexpected and unpleasant (traps aren’t reassuring), one that makes readers wonder how this idea will affect these characters going forward.3 Here, the reader asks: How can a perfect world act as a trap? How does this apply to these characters?

In contrast to Beloved’s opening lines that intrigue readers by hinting at a tragedy, The Lovely Bones’s first chapter begins by revealing its traumatic inciting event.4 An older Susie introduces herself directly to the reader and then stuns them with her dramatic announcement. The name-based joke juxtaposed with her murder defies conversational norms and unsettles the reader. Naturally, the reader asks has questions: Why was she murdered? Who killed her? It’s the question of what will happen next that matters most to The Lovely Bones, as it focuses on the aftermath of Susie’s murder for her family and herself in “her heaven”.

Hook, Line, and Writer. Text by Rita E. Gould

Rebecca

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”—Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

What makes the opening line of Rebecca so interesting is how much it accomplishes in a brief sentence. In a few words, the reader knows this place holds powerful associations for the unidentified narrator and suggests a possible loss—the narrator only dreams of going there. And we already have questions: what kind of place is Manderley? Why is it so important to the narrator? Why does this person recurrently dream about it? du Maurier’s first chapter, utilizing the combination of a mysterious setting and dream sequence, builds on this first line to suggest a tragedy. Since Rebecca begins in the aftermath of some unknown, ominous event, it’s important that the hook (as was the case with Beloved) suggest more than it reveals—particularly since the remainder of the novel (starting midway through chapter two) reveals, via extended flashback, the events that led to this calamity.

SUMMARY

Building a good hook often involves introducing the element of surprise. Writers need to catch the reader off guard by presenting a situation that somehow doesn’t behave normally, whether it’s a spiteful house or the penguin “trapped in the world”, there should be something (or someone) that sidesteps ordinary expectations. Successful hooks pose more questions than answers, making the reader curious. And an intrigued reader is one that keeps reading.

NOTES:


  1. Beloved, we discover late in the novel once had a proper name, but it’s neither used nor revealed in the novel. 
  2. Using a preface, therefore, provides a writer with two opportunities to hook or lose the reader’s attention. 
  3. Initially, I wondered if Jack, Susie’s father, felt trapped him by his own lovely life but that specific desperation proved to be another character’s problem, which means the preface also introduces some narrative misdirection to keep the reader guessing. 
  4. Inciting events represent actions or decision that sets the story in motion (here, Susie’s murder). The sequence of events may be linear or flashback to how events led to inciting incident, as is the case here. Susie’s murder also represents the uses of an external force as the initial driver of the plot. 

Lingering on the To-Read List: Why We Don’t Read Books We Say We Want to Read

But it begs the question: why do we commit to reading a book only to cast it aside?

Finding new books to read and authors to follow is half the reason why I participate in reading challenges I find on social media.1 But a recent challenge gave me pause when it pointed to some reading I’d been neglecting. As I was scanning through the 2018 Reading Women’s challenge, I discovered this:

23. The book that has been on your TBR list the longest

Immediately, I felt guilty when I thought of the dusty shelf or two that holds the books I plan to get to…eventually. While my to-read list might include books I need to buy or borrow, most that linger on my list are ones I already own. And my longest unread book has been on said shelf for quite some time. Clearly, I’m not the only bookworm with a stack(s) of books-not-yet-read. But it begs the question: why do we commit to reading a book only to cast it aside?

The Reading Runaround

Most of us, I’m sure, will point to an abundance of optimism when it comes to our reading time (so many books, so little time). On occasion, we forget some of the books on our reading queues merely because our lists are long. Naturally, we’re more likely to read books we own versus ones we don’t have.2 But time management, access, and poor memory aren’t the only contributing factors. For every book we truly wanted to read but couldn’t squeeze into our schedule, we also skipped several books in favor of reading something else. Whether it’s flagging attention or lacking commitment to the read, I took an honest look at the other reasons that keeps books on the to–be read list.

Difficult Times: Challenging Books and Environmental Hazards

Among the reasons why a book might become stranded on the to-read shelf is the quality of the time we have to read. Not every reading session occurs in a quiet space: many of us read at moments we snatch while we’re exercising at the gym, sitting in waiting rooms, or commuting, often with televisions blaring in the background. We might, therefore, forgo the books that we perceive as being difficult reads, ones with harrowing accounts, difficult syntax, or complex arguments. While my reading environment affects new book selection, I’m unlikely to abandon a book in progress. It’s not to say environment doesn’t matter: I might occasionally postpone my reading until I’m somewhere quieter. The critical factor here is that I know I won’t choose to begin reading a book that requires deep concentration when that’s not an option. In a busy life, however, that type of book might be placed on hold indefinitely.

Lingering on the To-Read List: Why We Don’t Read Books We Say We Want to Read. Text and photo by Rita E. Gould
Margaret Fuller’s Women in the Nineteenth Century likely holds the title for being on my to-read list the longest. While I’m interested in reading this work as it relates to the women’s rights movement in the United States, parsing Fuller’s sentences can be challenging.

Why It’s Difficult to Stay Committed: Waning Attention and Weak Interest

Picking up a book and reading well past bedtime is a common event for bookworms, but we’re also familiar with the reverse problem: when the book either fails to engage or hold our attention. When I’m not “hooked” into the book,3 I find myself skimming ahead to determine whether it improves. If I’m still plodding through it, I put it aside—the same applies for books that I feel don’t maintain my interest despite an intriguing opening.4 In other cases, some books don’t match our expectations for it. When this is problematic, I find my interest in the book declines and it gets shelved. And to be perfectly truthful, sometimes the more complex books out there require more effort to read than we want to make at that moment. Reading through extended passages of dialect, for example, can become tiresome. Even sufficient time and a quiet space for reading combined can’t make tedious reading fun. And if it’s not fun, both attention and commitment to reading have a way of waning.

What I’ve also observed about books that don’t initially capture my attention is that many belong to the “you ought to read this” category. These recommendations come from various lists (“Best Books”, reading assignments, literary classics, etc.) and suggestions (solicited or otherwise) from fellow readers. The difficulty here is that we seem to add “ought-to” books to our reading lists out of obligation more than excitement. There’s an almost medicinal quality to this approach: it’s good for us to expand our reading interests, but will it be to our taste? While people discover new favorites from stretching outside their preferred genres regularly, they also stumble over books that don’t intrigue them. I personally think we should expand our reading horizons, read diversely, and embrace challenging books. But vetting “ought-to” books—skimming a few pages or reading reviews—could be helpful for making more suitable selections.

Reading and Revising

Having promised myself to mostly read books that I owned this year, the Reading Women’s 2018 challenge is a helpful push toward meeting this goal. And taking an honest look at why some books remain on my own to-read list has inspired me to make time for those books I genuinely want to read, however much of a challenge they present. More importantly, it’s made me reconsider whether every book should remain on my list. If I’ve tried reading something on multiple occasions, it may well be time to pass it along to someone else who will enjoy it. After all, there’s so many books and so little time.

NOTES:


  1. The other half is because I like reading. But you knew that. 
  2. Having reviewed my 2017 reading resolution list halfway through the year, I discovered that I read very few of the books I pledged to read that January ( I read other books instead). Roughly half of the books I skipped were ones I didn’t own. 
  3. The term narrative hook describes the the technique by which the opening (typically, the first line but can be paragraphs or pages) of a story is designed to grab the reader’s attention. A good hook goes a long way towards securing the reader’s interest. 
  4. For the record, this doesn’t mean the book is boring by any means. I’ve returned to books, read them through, and rather enjoyed them, which is why some books linger long so long on my reading list. For the other books, they’re usually just not my cup of tea. 

Writing Done Wrong: Breaking the Rules to Grab the Reader’s Attention

Along with a tendency to have strong opinions about the Oxford comma, working as a professional editor means that I tend to find errors in texts even when I’m off duty.[*] However, there are moments when discovering instances of inaccuracy places me in the position of a sleuth. When I’m reading fiction or poetry, I sometimes find what initially looks likes an overlooked error (eg, missing spaces, unusual line breaks, nonstandard spelling) that forms a pattern. And patterns in writing signal intent on the writer’s part.

Writing Done Wrong: Breaking Rules to Grab the Reader’s Attention. Text by Rita E. Gould
This excerpt of Jorie Graham’s poem, “The Errancy”, demonstrates how unconventional line breaks create a halting rhythm when reading the poem.

So, why deliberately add what reads superficially as a mistake? Ignoring writers with idiosyncratic preferences,[†]  violating the conventions of written language—more properly called its orthography[‡]—usually isn’t done to make proofreaders, betas, and grammar pickers twitch. Rather, it represents an artistic approach to drawing the readers’ attention to the text. Considering orthography encompasses spelling, punctuation, emphasis, and so forth, writers can play with written form in numerous ways. While I cannot document all these approaches, I’ll provide several examples where writers ignore conventional usages from the aforementioned categories as well as explain why they did so.

Nonstandard Spelling and Punctuation

Of course, nonstandard spelling and punctuation are the two categories where we’re most likely to assume the author introduced a typo versus deliberately chose incorrect usage. I certainly thought this was the case when I noticed the first instance where quotation marks that usually denote dialogue were absent in The Snow Child. Eowyn Ivey’s novel is based on the Russian folktale, Sneugurochka. In this tale, a childless couple build a child from snow that magically transforms into a real child. Ivey’s novel differs from the source material in that the story points to two possible origins for Faina, one magical and one more mundane. Once I realized that the “error” in Ivey’s novel recurred only when the dialogue involved Faina, I correctly suspected that Ivey eliminated the quotation marks to subtly call our attention to the uncertainty surrounding Faina’s true nature.

Writing Done Wrong: Breaking Rules to Grab the Reader’s Attention. Text by Rita E. Gould
In The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey leaves Faina’s potentially magical origin unresolved, something she signals by omitting quotation marks when the dialogue involves Faina.

However, unconventional orthography isn’t always so subtle as absent punctuation. Perhaps the most recognizable—and potentially controversial—form of unconventional orthography occurs when a writer decides to reproduce dialect by spelling by how the word sounds (also called pronunciation respelling). As Jennifer Sommer observes, dialect adds a level of authenticity.[§] Used respectfully, it can identify where a character is from or help establish the setting (eg, “y’all” suggests the southern United States). In contrast, other uses of nonstandard spelling can be thought provoking. Throughout Beloved, Toni Morrison spells words such as “whitelady”, “coloredfolk”, and “blackman” without a space between the person(s) and their race. Beloved focuses on the pervasive damage slavery inflicted on former black slaves and how it destroys their sense of personhood. With the mere deletion of a space, Morrison points out how (even today) we view people through the lens of racial identity versus their individuality.

Emphasis

Emphasis (eg, bold, italics, underline, small caps, capitalization) in written language serves the purpose of drawing attention to the text, and it’s strikingly similar to the goal writers have when they use emphasis unconventionally. However, the quintessential difference lies in why emphasis is being employed. Traditional use of emphasis works something like a helpful signpost as we travel through a text. All capital letters appear when we read headlines or warnings, boldface titles mark the start of a new section, a capital letter starts a sentence, italics let us know that phrase isn’t misspelled but comes from another language, and so forth. They point to transitions and notify us when we need to observe something more carefully.

Writing Done Wrong: Breaking Rules to Grab the Reader’s Attention. Text by Rita E. Gould
Much like nonstandard spelling for dialect, unconventional emphasis can visually convey information about speech.[**] Terry Pratchett used this approach to characterize Death (from the Discworld series) by having him speak in small caps, because his skeletal form lacks vocal cords. Therefore, his “hollow voice” resounds directly in the listener’s brain.

Unconventional usage of emphasis, however, asks the readers to pay attention to the text’s content. Conventionally, the pronoun “I” is always capitalized. E. E. Cummings chose to forgo this formality in his poem, “i like my body when it’s with your”, a tactic that immerses the reader into an intimate environment where a lover engages in pillow talk. While there are moments when unconventional emphasis points to a transition, such instances tend to make us focus more carefully on the text. Han Kang’s novel, The Vegetarian (trans. Deborah Smith) contains a chunk of italicized text that interrupts the narrative of that section’s primary narrator (Mr. Cheong) and switches to another character’s dream (his wife, Yeong-hye). But italics signal more than this transition.[††] Yeong-hye, as I noted elsewhere, is nearly unknowable character in a story about her mental illness, partly because she does not serve as one of the primary narrators. This passage and other, increasingly shorter disjointed statements (also italicized) provide a nebulous insight into her deteriorating mental state, but the reader never finds a definitive reason as to why her sanity falters.

Unorthodox Orthography

Providing an overarching reason as to why writers decide to ignore conventional orthography is difficult because these decisions serve multiple purposes, whether the writer asks the reader to lean in and hear how people speak or whether they challenge us to think about race and mental health. What these examples have in common, though, is that authors use these techniques to stimulate their readers’ curiosity. The result is that the reader becomes an active participant in their reading, following the clues that inform the text. As such, discarding conventions such as these provides writers with another means by which they engage their readers.

NOTES:

[*] Consider it an occupational hazard that makes reading menus rather unpleasant.

[†] Kurt Vonnegut’s distaste for semicolons comes to mind.

[‡] Colloquially speaking, we’d call this grammar. But since we’re looking at general rules for how language appears on the page, I’m going to stick with the fustier term.

[§] Sommer’s article focuses mostly on objections to dialect, but there are examples illustrating sensitive uses of dialect.

[**] On the topic of how emphasis conveys speech, I considered mentioning that all caps is the visual equivalent of shouting, but it’s become quite common in the post-Internet era.  Arguably, using all caps to depict shouting could be considered common enough to be a convention.

[††] Eowyn Ivey uses italics to offset correspondence (ie, note a narrative transition) in The Snow Child, but this strikes me as an unnecessary flourish as the use of letter formatting adequately conveys this information.