The Reading Format Grudge Match: Paper v. Screen

It’s funny how often SF writers predicted the future.  Verne imagined exploring space and the ocean floor, Bradbury predicted earbuds and my favorite, Robert Heinlein foresaw the Cold War, the Internet and helped invent water-beds.  Still the development Heinlein predicted that I enjoy the most was in his novel Time Enough for Love.  In that book, Heinlein not only foresaw the development of the e-reader, he predicted the difference between the traditional “paper” book fans and the screen readers.  However, I doubt if he realized how silly that battle would get.

According to that source of all knowledge, Wikipedia, e-readers actually started in the 1930’s, long before the computer age (or I) was born and Project Gutenberg started digitizing texts 40 years later. Of course, the hardware wasn’t really available to the public then to make the data easily accessible but once personal computers and access to the internet became a common household item, the times began a changing.  People began reading books on screens.  Then eight years ago, Amazon upended everything by coming out with the Kindle, first as a standalone e-reading pad and later as a software app that allowed the user to keep and use an entire library on any computer: from the CPU at home, to the hand-held smart phone.  The format grudge match was on.
Now I’ll admit that reading off screens can give the dedicated reader a monumental case of eye-strain.  The night I realized the entire Anne of Green Gables series was available on Gutenberg’s website, I strained my eyes racing through all the books in one night.  Of course, I am a card-carrying weirdo. Strained eyes and a headache weren’t going to stop me from making sure Anne ended up with Gilbert Blythe.  Since then, screen texts have become a lot easier to read.  So what’s the fuss?
Part of it, some friends insist, is the gestalt of the book reading experience.  No e-reader, they say, can compare to feeling the size and weight of a book and turning the printed pages; in a way they have a point.  For devotees to the act of reading, no delight is quite like lifting a hefty book that you’ve been wanting to read.  But when I’m lost in a story, I lose focus on minor details like the number of pages left in the book (or where I am).  I read until the tale is done or the book falls from my hand as I drop off to sleep (and I can hold the light e-reader in my hand longer than a heavy, traditional book).   Let’s put it this way: if you’re reading the books of Marcel Proust, an e-reader could save you from straining your wrist.  But if you insist on reading in the tub, paper is the only reasonable candidate. No e-reader I know has learned to survive a dip in the bath.
A real area of concern is comprehension: the e-reader has limited worth as a tool if screen reading results in lower comprehension.  As a teacher, my sis worries about that kind of thing and she sent this article that suggests that “deep reading”, reading that involves contemplation as well as visual auditing, falls off when people read off of screens instead of paper.  However the studies in the article didn’t list any hard data to support their worry – just the notice that people are more dis-tractable when they’re reading off the screen. Since most e-reading is done from the same machine that handles the users phone calls, text messages and social media, it may not be the act of screen reading that creates the distraction but the inputs a user gets while using the machine.  And the question of comprehension is still in debate.  In 2012, a Norwegian study suggested the format made a difference in reading comprehension.  Last year, a French study came to the opposite conclusion.  
So does the format change how we experience or incorporate knowledge from reading?  I don’t know.  I wish we could settle the question but I hope the medium is not the message.  To me, a great story is a great story and I don’t care if I read those words from a page, a screen or painted on the sky by a plane.  The story is what matters, the prose and the characters, the narrative, themes and thought.  Without that we are arguing about the frame of an artwork; the masterpiece inside would be gone.
Or so says the card-carrying weirdo.

A Great Writer, Stealing

Some say T. S. Eliot came up with the quote, “Good writers borrow; great ones steal.”  Others say the line came from Oscar Wilde.  Either way, every fiction writer knows that their finished work is based in part on the experiences and stories of others that they’ve heard about and read and the best way to avoid a copyright or invasion of privacy suit is to take the base material and then change it until it becomes something you can use for your story.  Do a good job and you’ll win the lawsuit, (although you may not be forgiven).  Do a great job and academic types will study your work and reverse engineer it to detect the roots of the story you wrote.  That’s what James Shapiro has done in The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606.   Whether you like history or theatre, this fascinating book puts a great man’s work back in the context of his time.

Shapiro points out the author and the play are not the the creations we assume we know.  Younger Shakespeare is remembered for writing the comedies and historical plays that entertained Queen Elizabeth I but the times and the man have changed.  The author of Lear is an older man, retired from acting, and now writes full-time for the King, James the I.  A theatrical company like Shakespeare’s was supposed to produce twenty new plays each year as well as revive twenty more old favorites (well, this was before TV and the internet).  So writers were scrambling for new material to fashion into plays that would divert the court and put audiences in the seats.  Everything was up for grabs including the play someone else invented last season.   Oh, by the way, did I mention Bill stole the basic plot and characters we thought he created for Lear?

The Most Famous Chronicle Historye of Leire King of England and his Three Daughters had been produced 12 years before by Shakespeare’s company but it is wildly different from the Lear that we know.  The King still makes the moronic mistake of dividing his land between the daughters that lied to him and disinherits the dutiful daughter but in the original, the King is ultimately saved from his mistake.  The “Good Daughter”, with the help of her husband, rescues Lear and his kingdom and puts Lear back on the throne.  All ends well.  Shakespeare wasn’t only a brilliant playwright on his own, he was a collaborator and a first rate play-doctor in the bargain and he saw the weakness in this structure.  With Lear and Cordelia well and triumphant at the end, the whole episode lacks consequences.  Let one good character die and make the other one triumph is a standard formula today.  Kill both along with Reagan and Goneril (Stinking Sister One and Stinking Sister Two) and now the country has no government and is likely to fall apart.   That’s consequences.  That’s believable and (of course) that’s our well-known King Lear.

Mr. Shapiro points out that Shakespeare’s Lear was political propaganda as well.   While Elizabeth was the Queen of England, her heir, James, ruled both Scotland and England and unifying the two countries (plus Wales and Ireland) into Great Britain was a thorny proposal James was trying to get Parliament to accept.  It wasn’t a popular idea in Parliament or Glasgow (Given Scotland’s referendum two years ago, the idea still has its detractors).  Shapiro points out that Shakespeare’s tragedy starts when a King of Great Britain willfully divides his empire.  Unified, the country has a strong central government.  Divide it between sisters that can’t and don’t trust each other and eventually the whole island falls apart.  It’s a subtle lesson but one that would have easily understood by the audiences who saw those first performances by Shakespeare’s company, the aptly-named, “King’s Men”.  Their objective wasn’t just to entertain the Court; it was to support and impart the King’s policies.

Bill the Scribe

So much more of what happened that year appears in this famous play.  A woman pretending to be possessed is exposed  and the recipe of the potion she drank to create her altered state is paraphrased in the play.  An anonymous letter exposes the Gunpowder Plot (remembered now on Guy Fawkes day) and another anonymous letter kicks off the sub-plot of Lear where a powerful man chooses to believe the wrong son.  Shapiro recounts the episodes of paranoia, happiness, intrigue and change that Shakespeare witnessed during this year and then ties them to incidents in Shakespeare’s Lear, Macbeth and the Tempest so a year in the life of the playwright becomes a key to understanding the man and his work a little better.

And, in the end, it is the work that matters.  We don’t remember Lear because it started life as a play with a happy ending or that Bill the Scribe wrote his strongest, darkest pieces when he was old enough to see that older, more powerful men, can make larger, more disastrous mistakes.  We remember the work because it is good, because it moves us and the emotional truth of the piece informs our own lives. Lear is the story of families that come to grief after flattery is mistaken for love.  That is nearly a universal experience recreated in deathless lines that intelligent actors love to declaim.  The Year of Lear gives Bill’s tragedy context that enriches our understanding of the play.   But Lear, even standing alone, is a devastating, brilliant gift that writers have been stealing from ever since.

A Life in American Theatre.

If you go to any college orientation, it’s easy to pick out the theatre major wannabes.  While the business majors are making contacts and the proto-engineers are using their smartphones to game and/or calculate maximum spillage in their latest prank, the theatre majors are busy being theatrical.  Other students wear clothes; the theatricals show up in layers. Layers and layers of rehearsal outfits which can be removed or rearranged as needed, along with an overly large carrier of some kind that also looks like a refugee from the consignment store.  Once inside, it’s hard to get theatre majors out the door again.  They aren’t friendly during interviews, they are effusive (or moribund, if they’re channeling a Method Actor).  An English Major is ten minutes late for class; the Theatre Major appears just before he/she is declared dead.  It’s the nature of the beast.  And, concealed into the folds of rehearsal layers or tucked into the overlarge carrier are the proto-drama major’s tools of the trade: their Starbucks card, a few B&W headshots, a book on acting by Stella Adler (read), another by O’Neill on masks (not read) and Moss Hart’s autobiography, Act One.   When you see one of these young and theatrical types, knock them down, grab their copy of Act One and run for the exit.  They can draw on the memory of you mugging them to prepare for some future role and you can get a good read.  When it comes to a life in the theatre, there is no better story than this one.

Hart was the Horatio Alger of 20th century American Theatre, a child of immigrants from the poorest slum in New York whose success and drive allowed him to build the kind of life that (according to one critic) God would have built…if he only had the money.  But it didn’t come easy.  There was no Julliard at that time, no AADA, or film school for those who wanted a life in the industry.  There was only the stage and how you got in depended on connections or drive.  Moss got there by drive, first taking the worst jobs in the least stable productions (where getting paid was still a gamble) and then inching his way up to something better.  Along the way he saw the Catskills resorts at its best and some declining stars at their worst and realized that he needed a life behind the footlights.  Hart was a director and a playwright but not an actor.  His idea of how sound would affect silent pictures became a satire on Hollywood that attracted the biggest playwright on Broadway at that time: George S. Kaufman.
It’s difficult to describe Kaufman in terms of contemporary theatre.   He started out as a journalist and drama critic (like Shaw) and became a playwright, someone infatuated with the rhythm of a spoken line as well as the idea it presented.  He was a sought-after play-doctor, for his ability to see the structural flaws in developing vehicles and correct them.  Harvey Fierstein does some of that these days and, like Fierstein, Kaufman was known to act, on occasion.  He was a fearsome director, a tireless worker and the most intimidating person in the world, according to Moss Hart but he was also a generous collaborator and, as Act One shows, a firm believer in the practice of “Kill Your Darlings.”
Kaufman and Hart’s first comedy, “Once in a Lifetime” is a study in Hollywood excess and early performances included a third act in an expensive, bird-themed nightclub set that was hilarious to look at but it stopped the action cold.  Another Broadway legend, Sam Harris (the man who partnered with George M. Cohan for years) mentioned after one dreary, show-killing point how loud and tiring the whole show was.  There was never a scene where a couple of the actors could simply talk over the events, he said and give him a chance to rest.  Hart took the suggestion seriously and rewrote the entire act, scrapping the expensive, already paid for set and adding the quiet interlude needed before the mayhem of a finale begins.  That quiet, third-act moment is necessary for the audience and whenever I’ve seen one in other productions, I know it was put in because the playwright heeded the advice of Moss Hart and Sam Harris.  George Kaufman agreed and when “Once in a Lifetime” opened to rave reviews, Kaufman made sure Hart got most of the credit (financially and publicly) for the hit.

The plural of genius: Kaufman & Hart

It’s a shame Hart never wrote the follow-up to this vivid theatrical autobiography because there was so much for him to cover: the string of plays and musicals he wrote and/or directed, his screenplays (including Garland’s “A Star is Born” and “Hans Christian Anderson), but it wasn’t in the cards.  Moss Hart died when he was still in his fifties and two of his shows (Camelot and My Fair Lady) were still running on Broadway.  Instead, he left behind a widow, two children, the theatrical legacy of a wunderkind and an autobiography theatre majors still pore over.  Let the sagacious and elderly rethink their lives reading Shakespeare; Act One is when you need to feel young.

A Year in the Company of Words

New Years is such a peculiar holiday on the calendar.  It doesn’t have religious nor historic connotations like most major holidays although it does contain elements of both.  The drinking or party phase section of the population, commemorate it with the required bacchanalia and woozy recovery but the rest of us aren’t so sure of our role.  We can review the year end lists or re-watch  The Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller biopics that seem to appear on each New Year’s Eve TV schedule but by now I know exactly when Lionel Hampton will show up and June Allyson will tug on her ear lobe.  Nope, I don’t want to spend this New Year’s re-watching the same old movies, nor do I want to spend it kicking my poor old liver with an overdoes of scotch.  Instead I want to end the year as I’ve spent it:  in the company of words.

  • Reading New Books – After checking various electronic records and the drain that sucks up my spare income and phone space (Amazon Kindle) I can safely say I read at least one new book every week this year, which was sort of like making a new friend every week.  Some of them, like A Tale Dark and Grimm and The Ocean at the End of the Lane went straight to my heart and onto my  re-reading list.  (I am a re-reader of books).  Others were nice and interesting for the interval but not a lifetime love.  A couple, like The Forsyte Saga, could only be defined as “new” books because I hadn’t read them before and one or two I read not from paper or through a book-friendly program, like Kindle, but as text files on a screen simply because I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. While each new book may not life up to its hype, each unread book brings new hope when it’s opened.  
  • Re-reading Old Books – When I was in Girl Scouts, we used to sing a song.

Make New Friends,But Keep the Old.  

One is Silver and the Other’s Gold

  • Well loved books are like old friends and I have to stay in touch.  Wherever I go, they go with me and yes, I’ll put down the new books to re-acquaint myself with the prose and poetry that I’ve known for decades.  If that makes me weird, so be it.  I just wish I had more time to spend with them.  Still only part of this word year was about reading
  • 2015 is, for me, the year I stopped writing in short, painful bursts (and re-writing, re-writing and hiding the finished product in shame) and began the discipline of printing something at least twice a week.  Something the public could see and criticize. I still have an enormous amount to learn but I’m not as afraid of failure as I was a few years ago. Instead of thinking, “Oh what if I fail!” and then scrambling to hide under the bed, I’ve learned to think “Of course, I’m going to fail; so what!” I learned I can survive being rejected.  I can’t recommend it as a life-experience but learning I don’t implode after hearing “No” was heartening. I even learned I can write something new to submit for rejection.  Amazing.

Reading, to me, is honest-to-God magic, a way to climb inside someone else’s soul and understand their feelings and thoughts.  Because of words, I know the voices of so many people I’d never have the chance to hear, sometimes voices of people who died long before I was born.  Writing then becomes the act of sending out a new transmission, adding my own voice to the chorus.  Amazing.  Words are a human creation but, arranged well, they bring us into the family of mankind.

So the year slides into it’s final hours as I continue to peck at the keyboard, looking for the next decent sentence.  I hope you had a full and wonderful year with good memories to temper the bad.  May you find a better world next year and a future filled with hope and words. 

Settling In with a Winter Book

Winter is the Season with the strongest ties to Home and Hearth.  Spring and Autumn may pull us to work in our yards and Summer is for Adventure and Travel but Winter, with its long nights and bleak weather, is the time when people sub-consciously pull closer to the places that comfort and protect them and settle in for the Season.  While the winds blast across the open ground and temperatures plummet, we can feel safe as long as we have dry, warm rooms, comfortable seats and a selection of Winter Books to re-read. If there are Summer Authors (and I think there are) that invite the heart toward roaming, there are also the writers that celebrate hearth and home and these are a joy to re-read.  While the Winter stories are rarely in high demand (Winter tales have pages you want to mull over, not rip through) their appeal is eternal and simple.  Winter Stories insist on a mindful awareness of the joys and trials of everyday life.  They celebrate what is real.

New England is one of those places that seems to have a copyright on Winter and Gladys Taber is still one of New England’s best-loved “home-and hearth” Winter Writers.  Robert Frost could scribble out poems about people who underpin their friendships with fences and allow the hired man home to die. That’s fine for Robert Frost, but it isn’t much comfort during Winter.  Instead, readers turned to the woman who fell in love with a 15th century farmhouse named Stillmeadow and made her life there with kids, cats, dogs and twin devotions to the written word and the natural world.  She supported herself by writing about domestic life and no one has written more skillfully or with more mindfulness about the Winter.

“We have an appointment with winter and we are ready. The wood is stacked with seasoned applewood and maple, the snow shovel leans at the back door, the shelves are jammed with supplies. When the first innocent flakes drift down, we put out more soot and fill the bird feeders. When the snow begins to come in all directions at once and the wind takes on a peculiar lonely cry, we pile more wood on the fire and hang the old iron soup kettle over it, browning the pot roast in diced salt pork and onion. As the blizzard increases, the old house seems to steady herself like a ship against a gale wind. . . Snow piles up against the windowpanes, sifts under the ancient sills, makes heaps of powdered pearl on the ancient oak floors. But the house is snug in the twilight of the snow and we sit by the fire and toast our toes feeling there is much to be said for winter after all.” 

Ms. Taber may have been my mother’s favorite writer; I’m sure she’s the only one Mother trusted enough to write to and Ms. Taber’s handwritten reply was one of Mama’s treasured possessions.  It was enough for me to watch Mama’s reaction as she pored over one Ms. Taber’s volumes.  She would sit quietly, with one hand on the edge of the pages and a small smile would appear on her face.  Pages were turned with deliberation.  After spending twenty minutes with Ms.Taber and Stillmeadow, Mama would return to our world, a happier, more serene person.

As for me, I followed a southern star and my favorite hearth writer became Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, that Florida transplant and author of The Yearling and Cross Creek. Ms. Rawlings described the rough but wonderful life she found in the backwoods of Florida and how winter can be a wonderful thing in a place where it’s still seen as alien.

“For all our battles, winter at the Creek is the cozy time, when fat pine fires crackle on all the hearths. I take my dog for a walk up the road at sunset and the wind blows in our faces. I turn back to walk westward home as the red sun drops behind Orange Lake. The dusk comes quickly and we turn in at the gate and shut the house door behind us and drop down in front of the hearth fire in the living room. A fresh log of fatwood thrown on the slow-burning bed of oak coals catches and blazes and roars up the big chimney. The flames light the old white-walled room so that there is no need even of candles, though one or two over the bookshelves are always pleasant, for candlelight on books is one of the lovely things of this world. The ruby-red velvet sleepy hollow chair glows in the firelight. The dog groans for comfort and turns his belly to the heat and stretches out his paws in the ultimate luxury. Only a hunting dog or a cat can share man’s love of the open fire, and if I had a whole kennel full of dogs, on winter nights I should let them all come in to enjoy mine with me.”

In a number of weeks, we will venture out into Spring and run forward again, with our futures.  Take the time this season to be aware of your life and enjoy the comforts of home.  Settle in with a winter book.