Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

December 18, 2016

On Focus and Reading

My brain feels like swiss cheese, only instead of holes, I have portals. Tunnels, sucking me out of my brain and into some other place, some other thought, and then sideways, down again, and – and I’m already off topic, because I barely know what the topic was. So, I will go back to the middle, and then digress a few times to points earlier than that, and maybe, if I’m lucky, I might find a beginning that hints at a source, or a cause, of my problems.

I have always had a hard time focusing on one thing, but it has become worse. So much worse. Infinitely worse.

Initially, I pegged the point where my lack of focus was actually hindering me – as opposed to just causing a kind of multitasking superself that could accomplish multiple things at once – as the decision to start taking anti-anxiety medication. The drugs helped me in so many ways that I didn’t mind much that I was having trouble with my memory, short term especially. My brain was overactive before, being merely active should have been fine.

But things slip from me now like I’m carrying water in a net. It’s not just funny things, like putting the sugar pot into the freezer or calling a bus a train. I read ten pages of a book and find I have no idea what I’m reading about. I’ve been thinking about something else, something unrelated. Or I schedule a lunch date and a doctor’s appointment into the same slot, and despite knowing I have both upcoming, I fail to notice they conflict. They’re on parallel, separate, timelines in my head. I don’t put them together until I’m in trouble.

I blamed the drugs, but in all honesty, the stress of the events leading up to the decision to take drugs had caused my brain to fragment long before drugs got involved, and the extra work I took on in its wake didn’t help either. I’m assured that this kind of dysfunction is common in overworked people. “Pregnancy brain”, “mommy brain”, and, probably, “freelancer brain” are all real things that turn high-functioning adults into badly-trained puppies. I’m told I should relax, maybe take less on. I had an ex who told me his over-worked sister had a stroke in her 30s, and I should be mindful of that. I dismissed that, at the time, as not how strokes work. Now I wonder.

But could I ever focus? Really? I recall being a teenager, sitting in my favourite spot on a baseboard heater, trying to read – something – but being so distracted by my own reactions to the text that I just couldn’t make any headway. I had my journal at my elbow, and I’d have to put the book down and write instead; get my own thoughts out of the way. I say “out of the way” like I could dump them, then go back to the text unimpeded; but no. Once my brain was headed in another direction, there was nothing to do but follow it. I’d start a novel instead, or a web venture, or rope three friends into mounting some kind of expedition. There was nothing for it, really. I never finished anything.

My generation is remarked upon as being one with no focus, no ability to read or learn deeply. We, society, blame media. That might be it. I’m on the edge, GenX by some calculations and Millennial by others, but the internet came early into my life in the form of BBSes and the Carleton University Freenet in the early ’90s. I was always dividing my brain space between what I was supposed to be doing, and this secondary track wondering, how was I going to mine what I was doing for a good narrative to share? Could I post about this to alt.gothic, or send an email about it to the-boy-I-liked?

If media – social media – is to blame, can I pull back? Is the solution to my lack of focus, to my declining memory, to flip a switch, go offline? The world is full of pundits who certainly think so. But they tell stories of existence that mean nothing to me. They have always been good, focused students who chose to avoid the distraction of the internet, or introverts who were just as happy without external stimulus. I read a study about alcoholics recently that found the people with the easiest time avoiding alcohol were – get ready for it – people who didn’t really like alcohol anyway. Alcoholics had a taste for it.

Extroverts, too, are energized by social interaction, and what is the internet if not a constant, 24/7 source of stimulation? Introverts find this tiring, but I’m not an introvert, and never have been. I’m not going to become one by quitting Twitter. Even as a child, before media, I invented friends in my head and spoke to them for hours. I started journaling at a very early age, more interaction with an imaginary companion. I wrote letters to all my friends and talked to them on the phone whenever possible. It’s not media. It’s me.

When I realized I was having greater-than-usual problems with my focus, I thought it might be my nearly-drugged brain needing time to form new connections. The net needed to be woven a little tighter. I could still take on everything, I just needed to practice. Like mythical monks or vikings, my version of training involved beating my head against the stone wall in order to make it stronger. I’m not sure if it’s working, or if I’m giving myself a concussion. Is it both? Maybe I need more training.

Last night I found myself playing video games – one of the few things I can focus on, because of whatever it is that makes hyperfocus work – and I realized I was too tense, too stimulated to get to sleep. So I shut my device off and picked up my book instead. My brain physically hurt. I’d been having headaches for days. Christmas does this too me – too much to remember and keep track of. Even I can see a limit when it is that obvious. So I climbed into bed, picked up my book and resolved to relax and focus.

Within moments, I could feel the hole. A portal, with a tunnel. I wanted to channel what I was reading – and the fifty thousand ideas it had spawned already – out. I was composing Tweets and a blog post and wondering how I could use this idea for a story and wondering if I should Google stroke symptoms. It was the same feeling you get when you get “sucked into” a book, only it was sucking me out; or perhaps sucking me into something else, something more fragmented. I tried not thinking, but that just made me sleepy, and the whole point of reading this book (interviews with authors) was to make me think. I wanted to be sucked into the book, not out. Why can’t I just focus?

How does anyone? I could have read a stupider book, I suppose; something that would only amuse me and not give me any cause to think about anything. Or I could have kept a notebook at hand, like I used to – a bedside book to make notes as I read. I could try to “just listen,” reserving reaction until I had absorbed the whole, but I can’t even do this in a conversation. If I wait for someone to finish their soliloquy, I can’t remember by the end what I’d been desperate to say at the beginning. I am a terrible interrupter. Apologies to literally everyone I have ever met in real life.

I try to imagine the habits of great, deep readers of pre-media pasts. What did they do? Could they somehow channel their own ideas and thoughts into a holding area of their brain, to be written out and expanded upon at the end? Is this a brain-building skill, like a memory palace? Will it help me hold all of this *gestures at all of space and time* a little better?

How is it done, and can it be done by me?

I don’t really know.

December 1, 2014

Utopia: An Interactive Crisis in Twine…

My interactive Twine story, Utopia, is available here! You’re in charge at the end of the world, so don’t screw it up…

December 6, 2012

Holiday Round-Up Pt. I

I like to find cool literary gifts for people. I don’t mean books, since I have been long since barred from buying members of my family “any more damn books”; but the next best thing, items which tastefully display a person’s literary leanings. Gifts for the reader: that’s what I like to find.

I’m a little bit obsessed with neckties this year. I am close – VERY CLOSE – to re-imagining my own wardrobe in order to ensure that I can wear a tie every day. Given that my current uniform consists exclusively of jeans and t-shirts this would be a very expensive overhaul, but I think you will agree with me that the ties make this a very attractive prospect regardless.

Latin Lover 1: Spondeo. (Vow) from Cyberoptix Tie Studio

The Lindau Gospels Tie from the Morgan Library & Museum

Harry Potter House Ties from ThinkGeek

Canterbury Tales Tie from the British Library

November 16, 2012

In Which Etsy Gets All My Holiday Money

You can follow the #FridayReads hashtag on Twitter and get a snapshot of what the Twitterati (Litertwatti?) are reading, if you choose. If you do follow, you might have noticed that I have been reading (see right) Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset for the last month or so. A week ago I added Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to the mix because I’m hoping to see the new movie next week and wanted this one last chance to read the book without Kiera Knightly’s jawline dominating my imagination.

In conclusion, I have 1,700 pages of book to bull through this weekend.

Luckily Etsy has the accessory for everyone, even masochists like me.

February 22, 2012

Paper Love

This Christmas my sister, who works as a conservator at Kensington Palace, gave me the best gift a bibliophile could possibly hope for: preservation. Specifically, she mounted, matted and framed much of my growing collection of ephemera.

The Bookworm, a keepsake from the Alcuin Society and a warning to my houseguests.

I’ve blogged before about real value added in publishing and, well, here’s a prime example. There seems to be a growing trend of including ephemera in paper periodicals, ranging from the postcard-sized prints included in each issue of The Devil’s Artisan to the large-scale bookish curios that form the basis of The Thing. It’s an easy gimmick, really. If you want to sell a periodical as an object rather than the content, you need to capitalize on the physical. McSweeny’s has figured this out and with it reaped great success. Canadian periodicals haven’t become so ambitious as to print a Douglas Coupland bedspread (yet), but I love what I’ve received from Canadian Notes and Queries, Amphora, and DA nevertheless.

The first keepsake from CNQ.

Bit by bit my house looks less like an exploded college library and more like the private museum of a gin-muddled librarian. I must be growing up!

June 14, 2011

An Oldie but a Goodie

I know, I’m embedding a YouTube video, right?  Well, it’s been a slow week.

May 17, 2011

On Elitism and Culture

I’m going to describe a phenomenon which I suspect reflects a deep social divide, like left vs right politics, or religion vs reason. There are those who think that literature, like every other art, is something everyone can produce with a little intelligence and hard work, and there are those who think great art is a talent; an unteachable flame of inspiration that only a lucky few can produce.  It’s a divide recently exhibited by Elif Batuman and Mark McGurl in their exchange over the value of creative writing MFAs: Batuman feels MFA programs are pulping out legions of under-read hacks (to put hyperbolic words in her mouth – she’s much more even handed than I am), while McGurl feels “a more democratic culture is possible” and that the “workmanlike” literature produced by these programs benefits society in more diverse ways than simply, say, producing a great book.

I don’t think you have to think too hard to see how this same rhetoric is also cropping up in discussions of ebooks vs paper books, most recently evoked by Natalee Caple in this essay for the National Post.  “Is this literature, you might ask? No, I do not argue that it is. Instead, it is something more radical. It is free thought; it is democracy.” says she.  Ebooks (like MFA programs) have widened the field, and can give everyone a voice.

Putting aside the fact that ereaders, like MFA programs, aren’t actually especially accessible to genuinely disenfranchised people, I think the argument anyone can (or should) be a writer is misguided. Literacy is a beautiful thing and a true pillar of democracy. It lets everyone have access, in theory anyway, to the same ideas, the same education, the same public sphere. It lets everyone potentially in on the important, society-changing movements.  The ability to decode texts is absolutely, unquestionably valuable to democracy.  And then, for the most part, the right to say whatever you want in the public sphere is also a vital part of democratic life.  Voices should not be silenced and marginalized: therein lies control and potential abuse. People should have the right to write.

But let’s be honest here: ebook publishing and MFA programs are not about freedom of expression.  They are about producing a marketable product.  You don’t enroll in an MFA program because you need to make charges about people in power or because you have a great new approach to irrigation you’d like to make available.  There was nothing about the old publishing structure that was preventing marginalized or radical people from expressing their ideas. Plenty of old-school publishers were happy to put their money where your mouth is, publishing revolutionary tracts and out-of-the-way stories.  To boot, they’d edit, develop and promote your idea, helping it find a bigger audience than you could have on your own. If your ideas are so out in left field that you can’t find a publisher, well, you could always self-publish them. Even without the money for a vanity publication, you could print your pamphlets at Kinkos.

But it’s easier with an ereader, you say! Is it now? I will tell you something from a bookseller’s perspective: we won’t carry self-published work that doesn’t have proper distribution, no matter how it was printed. Similarly, we’re happy to carry cheap little tracts – so long as they come through the usual channels.  I don’t believe for one second that Amazon, Chapters or Apple are much more generous than we are.  They will not sell your book if the content offends them. Even if you’re listed, there’s no guarantee of “spotlight” status. “Ranked” search engine results and hard-to-search-for designations like “adult” status can keep your book out of sight indefinitely.  Its simply having been published using the right software doesn’t give you the right to be sold through their stores.  It’s the same game in the end: whether or not you are read is not about being able to set words on page or screen.

I don’t believe ebooks make voices from the margins any better heard than, say, html documents did back in 1995.  Or the photocopier did in 1959.  The problem was still how to make people read marginal texts.  Will it be easier to get a copy of a marginal ebook than it was to access a marginal webpage? Do MFA programs map a solid path from the classroom to the front table at Chapters? The answer to both questions is of course no.

What they do offer is, perhaps, a better model for getting paid if you are self published.  In both cases, however, the path to money has nothing to do with democracy; if anything, it is undemocratic. An MFA program will teach you to write the way publishers want you to. They’ll help you develop a voice that sounds a lot like the big prize winners from the last ten years.  Self-publishing an ebook, especially if you do it through (Amazon subsidiary) Lulu, will give you the right to be sold on Amazon.com, the Apple ebook store, or Chapters (unless of course they object to what you’ve written.)  Both phenomena might help you get sold (and then presumably read) if and only if you play the game nicely and produce a product they think will sell.  On Caple’s continuum between democracy and capitalism, this lands squarely at the capitalism end of the spectrum. MFA programs are a tool to get published and sold, and ebook platforms are a tool to get big chains to distribute your book to be sold.

Booksellers (small and large) might be the “hegemony”, but we’re better representative of readers’ tastes than McGurl or Caple give us credit for. We’re not part of a big machine standing in the way of fresh new thoughts and voices (well, Amazon might be).  If a crummy book isn’t being read, it is not our fault.  The myth that learning to write program fiction, self-publishing and selling on Amazon is going to bring the limelight to countless marginalized voices is just that: a myth. Readers don’t read at random, and don’t read indiscriminately.  Simply showing up in Amazon’s vast database does not guarantee you any more readers than putting up a website or going out to trade shows or press fairs would. If anything, the increased self published noise out there is going to make it harder than ever to stand out in the crowd.  You need the bookseller: you need a mechanism to sort through the noise.  Booksellers read, Amazon’s search engine does not.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I come down on Batuman’s side with regard to the creation of great literature too. Not everyone has a writer in them. No creative writing class or self-publishing tool is going to turn any literature student into Tolstoy.  The reader has no responsibility, democratic or otherwise, to read mediocre literature. And lastly, democracy does not guarantee anyone the right to make a living doing anything they please.  That there are tools available to help people make a buck by buying into an expensive system dictated top-down by corporations isn’t democratic. It’s a pyramid scheme. Nobody is making more money in this system except the people who were making money already.  The rest of us are being sold snake oil.

Thanks to Kerry Clare (and her more even-handed approach) for getting me thinking about this this morning!

March 8, 2011

Happy International Women’s Day!

Not too long ago we discovered (to my delight) that the small wiggly proto-baby in my belly is most likely a girl, my second.  This makes my life easier on many accounts, but on one it opened an old wound.  What do you name a girl?

I am a staunch believer in “names with meaning”.  I don’t care a lot what a name sounds like, and I am outright offended at the practice of naming girls after pretty but inanimate objects (Ruby, Ivy, Lily, Yuki, etc.) or limp character traits (Grace, Hope, Harmony, Chastity, etc.)  I like a name with strong historical and literary connections.  I want to say I have named my daughter after a history of women she can be proud of.

Miss Margaret

My first daughter is named Margaret, after (mainly) Marguerite de Navarre & Marguerite de Valois.  The former is most famously the author of The Heptameron, while the later’s life inspired both Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost and Dumas’ La Reine Margot.  My favourite of her accomplishments was her managing to get her loveless marriage to Henri de Navarre dissolved, but maintaining her power and title of Queen.  To say nothing of her impressive list of romantic conquests, the coup d’etat she orchestrated, and the many scandalous writings she left behind.  Margarets, too, have an illustrious presence in Canadian literary circles, of course.  When she was 3 months old I took her to the Trinity College bookfair, where a new acquaintance exclaimed, “Ah! Margaret! As in Drabble?” to which I replied, “No, as in Laurence!”

What to name her sister?  Part of my problem is epitomized by this article published in the Guardian this morning, Where are all the daring women heroines? Strong, heroic women in literature are few and hard to come by.  True, children’s literature is plush with them, but this route is somewhat infantilizing.  Speculative fiction is debatably a source, but comes with its own set of problems.  Much specfic isn’t very good for starters – I’m not naming my child after a two-bit chick in some forgettable contemporary novel.  Many of the “heroines” are undermined by weaknesses that wouldn’t be found in their male counterparts, and in many cases male co-heroes hog all the best page-time.  And I’ve a bit of a rule – no names that entered our vocabulary less than 50 years ago.  Sorry, kids.

And what does it say, anyway, that the strong female heroine is a trope only of the land of make-believe?  Is our history really that poor?  Or is the modern, real world too gritty and unequal to even pretend that out there are strong, uncompromised women kicking ass and winning?  I believe in the power of names, so I want a name associated with power.  My husband and I find ourselves throwing around names like Sheherazade and Boudiccia. We’re mining Shakespeare – Beatrice, Rosalind, and Catharine have come up, but seem like stretches.  After all, with the exception of the tamed-Catharine, none of these women are the central figures of their stories.  Dear Josephine (of Little Women) is an option, though it happens that we know a number of young Jos already.

This shouldn’t be this hard! But the paucity is in the source material.  Where are the heroines?  Send me your strong, unvictimized, accomplished literary women; those who didn’t get murdered, kidnapped, tamed or commit suicide.  On International Women’s Day, this feels like a mission.

June 7, 2010

Another Part of Print Culture

The National Magazine Awards were given out this weekend, and the results were sort of depressing.  The very first line of their website begins, “Despite a year of magazine closings, restructuring and layoffs…” and the recipients of the awards are largely the few hardy brands which remain: The Walrus, Report on Business, Macleans, Canadian Geographic.  I know it hasn’t been a good year for periodicals in Canada, given that the Canada Magazine Fund and Publishing Assistance Program are about to be gutted in favour of the much more limited Canada Periodical Fund.  The new funding program restricts federal funding to periodicals who distribute at least 5,000 copies a year – a exceedingly difficult number to reach for a magazine published 2 – 4 times per year as so many smaller publications are.  But the new funding structure doesn’t come in until this year – our struggling but excellent little ecosystem of tiny journals and quarterlies ought to have been better represented in the NMAs.  I love the Walrus, don’t get me wrong – but does highest-profile actually mean best?

This made me wonder what the rest of you are reading.  During Book Camp’s Literary Grassroots session, almost every person in the room admitted to having a subscription to a print periodical of some kind.  What are you subscribed to?  Why?  And how do your favourite magazines and journals hold up to the big boys?

I am positively addicted to periodicals.  It’s the same neurosis that compels me to check my email every three minutes – I love getting mail.  And there are just so many incredible publications out there!  Not, sadly, ones which win NMAs – but here’s a look inside my mailbox.

The Devil’s Artisan

“A Journal of the Printing Arts” from Porcupine’s Quill, DA is dedicated to all those things about the form of the book. The focus is decidedly Canadian. Rather than a series of smaller articles and features, each issue tends to zero in on, for example, one press, artist, or issue and really go over the subject in excellent, long-form detail. The journal is, needless to say, beautifully produced. My favourite bit is the “keepsakes” included in each issue – small prints done by or after the work of print artists like Frank Newfeld or Gerard Brender à Brandis.  I’m always scumming garage sales for more little frames for these little beauties!

Canadian Notes and Queries

I wasn’t sure about this one at first.  What I wanted was a Canadian version of British Notes and Queries, and that is exactly what this was once supposed to be.  Over the years the mandate has broadened somewhat from a more scholarly study of books (not, necessarily, literature) to a more conventional literary review.  Nevertheless it remains the place to go for a report on the Canadian book world outside of the Canadian publishing world.  Honestly, that it is where David Mason publishes his essays was what ultimately sold me on it.  The content is a little unpredictable, but that means it’s likely to contain some really excellent pieces.  My only complaint is that they make it devilishly difficult to subscribe.  For heaven’s sake, I don’t want to “print out” an order form and mail it in!  I want to click on a button and enter my credit card information.  Please, and thank you.

Slightly Foxed

This is a British publication, but I love, love, love it!  From their website: “Slightly Foxed is a rather unusual kind of book review, informal and independent-minded, and its readers tend to be independent-minded too – people who don’t want to read only what the big publishers are hyping and the newspapers are reviewing.”  I picked up my first copy from the British Library in London and have never enjoyed so many successive essays in my life.  It isn’t about is-the-book-good or should-you-buy-this-book, but what did this book mean to its reader, and how did it fit into the story he’s about to tell you.  I came back from England determined to start a Canadian version of it.  Coincidentally I had also just read Don Gillmor’s phenomenal essay My Life With Tolstoy, and I thought, this is the kind of thing I like to read.  Needless to say my little idea never got off the ground, but I did subscribe to Slightly Foxed.

The Quill and Quire, The Times Literary  Supplement and The Walrus

They who need no introduction.  Let me talk about The Walrus for three minutes:  I am only subscribed for Don Gillmor.  Once upon a time I would read my Walrus cover to cover and be a better person for it, but I really think it has gone (a little) downhill, its 30+ NMAs not withstanding.  For starters, reading Ken Alexander’s editorials was once the highlight of my month.  The first editorial I read by current editor John Macfarlane was a plea for money unadorned by anything worth reading.  They haven’t got any better.  Somehow the articles don’t bite the way they used to.  Yes, it still contains some excellent reading and I don’t think there’s a serious challenger for its status as the “Atlantic of the North”, but that speaks more to the lack of competition than any greatness on the Walrus‘s part.  I remain subscribed because I want to support the project and, as I say, three or four doses on Don Gillmor per year are worth the price of subscription to me.  I have hopes that The Walrus will have higher highs.  Perhaps if the remainder of the Canadian magazine world can stay afloat, some competition will do it some good…?

March 24, 2010

The Busy-Day Post

Remember this?

I knew I was a freaking genius.

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