Friday, August 30, 2013

Seamus Heaney, from The Harvest Bow

As you plaited the harvest bow
You implicated the mellowed silence in you
In wheat that does not rust
But brightens as it tightens twist by twist
Into a knowable corona,
A throwaway love-knot of straw.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

English education: is it anachronistic? Adam Gopnik's opinion...

A very interesting piece by Adam Gopnik on the New Yorker blog this morning, an argument that has been banding about for years: is it necessary to "major" in English anymore? Or, more precisely, is the major becoming obsolete or abandoned in academia?

It's something I think about, being an English major myself (and hesitantly so, after starting out in the sciences, every one I knew told me that I should be studying humanities and a career aptitude test I took when I was 18 or 19 suggested something similar) and feeling strongly that an undergraduate education in humanities is an excellent foundation for most types of professions.

Gopnik sidesteps (at least throughout most of the piece) the real argument which he only glances at sideways in the final paragraphs:

No sane person proposes or has ever proposed an entirely utilitarian, production-oriented view of human purpose. We cannot merely produce goods and services as efficiently as we can, sell them each other as cheaply as possible, and die.

Right. I wholeheartedly agree but this argument isn't then applied to the entire approach to education in much of the developed (and developing) world: education as commodity as opposed to education as foundation, as experience, as a shaping and influencing period of time. But that's where we are: people now go to college with the intent of "getting a good job," whereas I don't think was necessarily always the case (at least not in North America). And literary studies does not necessarily equal gainful employment (though I know people who've studied science, law and other fields who can't find jobs after graduation whereas I studied literature and have never had trouble finding work in my entire adult life knock on wood!).

Perhaps the argument can be made that we no longer have that luxury: to send generations of young people to school to simply learn about who they are and now it has to have a more practical concern, i.e., learn a trade, learn how to balance your personal needs with larger external concerns, learn to jump through hoops, learn to socialize in the "right" way with the right people.

But I think this is precisely the advantage of the system we have now. By studying humanities as an undergraduate, by giving our young people freedom to extend their youth and learn about things they may never have another chance to learn about, they can become better citizens, can develop how to think better, etc., before they do their graduate degrees and have to put on the garb of a productive citizen. Does it really matter, actually, what one studied as an undergraduate once you finish your graduate work and have been in the real world for a few years? Give undergraduate students free license to study what they want to study without having to think about the beyond. There will be plenty of time for that (this leaves out the entire cohort of students who don't even go to college at all, an argument for a different day).

Another issue that Gopnik doesn't address is how the English/literary academic system itself certainly has some blame in the fall of literature as a field of study: one can quite literally do an entire degree in literature and never read any primary texts at all. Academic literary studies can be incredibly obtuse, useless and obscure. Because I work for a literary festival and I come to literature from a "general readers'" point of view (an epithet in academia), I notice frequently the rift between those who simply like to read and those who do "professionally."  Academic institutions' insistence on isolation and obscurity has to play a role in the fact that so few people want to study English or literature any more.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Four Excellent Movies Set in New York City

Yes, there are lots of great movies set in New York but when I daydream about taking a weekend away, it's always a New York movie I want to see. Here are four of my favorite films set in New York:

Of course, Woody Allen's masterpiece, shot in black and white and starring Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway, Meryl Streep and others. This is a movie I know long sections of almost by heart: that opening scene with the saxophone playing and Woody Allen's voiceover trying to get it right, the repartee with his ex-wife (who leaves him for another woman) and the amazing acting of a very young Hemingway who is uber-convincing as a highly intelligent yet still emotionally her age woman in love with the Allen character. Some gorgeous B&W shots of the Brooklyn Bridge and the streets of NYC.

I haven't seen this movie in a long time but I love the images it still conjures up: Cher walking home in the early morning (what people of my generation called The Walk of Shame), her father sitting in his easy chair always listening to Vicki Carr, Olympia Dukakis as the mother. Great film.

After Hours
This was one of my favorite movies when I was in my 20s. Griffin Dunne (why did he never become a star) just trying to get home through the (rough) streets of New York. He tries to romance Roseanne Arquette (who lives with a sculptor though her entire life and character are just bizarre) but soon he realizes that's going nowhere and leaves. Through a series of misadventures, he loses all his money and is forced to make his way home on foot. Along the way he meets Teri Garr (who's hilarious as a waitress who hates her job) and is mistaken for a burglar and almost done in by a crazed mob. It's a hilarious film directed by Martin Scorsese.

Rear Window
Though there is nothing uniquely New York about it in some ways (you can tell it was filmed completely in a studio), the hardscrabble life of Nicky's neighbors and the glamour of Lisa (Grace Kelley) do seem uniquely New York.

Also: Dog Day Afternoon, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Tootsie, Do the Right Thing....

Monday, August 19, 2013

Back in full swing...

After semi-working at home (reading, writing, catching up on all the little niggly things we can never get to during the year), we are back in our offices full time now, airing out dusty corners, going through the piles of books, galleys, catalogues and magazines that have piled up, and getting kind of excited about what we have on our docket for 2014! Yes, it might seem like an eternity away but before you know it, winter will be here, then spring and our 2014 edition.

Can't say what we have going on yet, but I can say that our 2014 Festival dates are April 29 - May 4, 2014 and will be held at Hotel 10, 10 Sherbrooke Street West, just as we've done the past few years.

One of the first things on my task-list (just finished going through my hundreds of emails, organizing, deleting, replying, puzzling) is to tackle the piles and piles of books we have all over our offices and in my office in particular. That means filing some, tossing some, lending many, and giving some away as promotion! Stay tuned for that!

It's a big messy job keeping track of all these books, but, naturally, we wouldn't have it any other way...