English 881 Reads

May 09, 2016

Over the last semester the graduate students in English 881, the professional development course for MA and first year PhD students, have been writing blogs about their best reading experience over the past year. Here they are: 


When looking over the number of books I’ve read over the last few months, I would never have thought one of the most enjoyable would be one assigned for class. I was gently “voluntold” to read Image on the Edge in a Medieval Literature course this semester for a class presentation. When I picked it up at the library, I was more excited about its modest size than the prospect of actually reading it. To my surprise however, it wound up being a refreshing change of pace from my routine. Camille’s simple and engaging writing creates a piece that is both more informative than the fiction I typically read for pleasure, and less dry than my usual reading requirements for class.

The book is about the art found on the edges of manuscripts and how it interacts with the text it frames. These images often vary between the bizarre and grotesque to the hilariously vulgar and Camille offers plenty of images alongside his writing to help illustrate his points. The illustrations are eye opening as they offer detailed examples of the chaotic framing Camille is talking about. European society in the Middle Ages believed that as one strayed further from the center-point of Jerusalem the more alien the world became. These edges of civilization were unknown to them and so the bizarre creatures occupying the edges of a manuscript’s page were often manifestations of what they imagined could quite naturally exist outside their known world. Some of these fantastic creatures included men with eyes in their chest, persons with the head of a dog, or the gryllus: a creature with no body, only the head of a man placed on two shaggy goat-like legs. The creatures are disturbing and entertaining and, placed amongst Camille’s text, they make his explanations come to life.

Image on the Edge is split into sections. The first part – and for me the most interesting – lays out the cultural space of these decorated margins and how such bizarre creatures and images came to inhabit the space during the 13th century. It was during this period that the marginalia went from simply reiterating the central text’s message to engaging in playful interaction with it as the images began to ridicule and invert the text’s meaning. The meaning of the images too changed depending on the text they framed. Camille stresses that these manipulations of the text were conscious as images would intentionally misread a text’s meaning. While we might call these images fantastic, Camille explains that a more appropriate term in the 13th century would have been ‘babuini’, which can be translated as monkey-business. Apes were a large part of this marginalia as they were seen as entertaining, but also as symbols signifying the dubious status of representation. The French term for monkey is ‘singe’ and so its proximity to the word sign (‘signe’ in French) made these apes an embodiment of signs in art. From there, Camille explains, their role spread to the rest of the creatures sharing their marginal space.

Camille dedicates the rest of his book into chapters focusing on the margins surrounding specific sites of power in the Middle Ages, including monasteries, cathedrals, courts, and cities. Having set up a detailed general background of marginalia’s role beforehand, he can then apply this onto more specific examples. While typically I don’t consider a scholarly work something I would read for pleasure, Camille manages to avoid making his book feel like any work at all as he escapes the jargon and other convoluted language that often clogs up academic texts. He presents his ideas simply while vividly painting in our minds what these images are doing and the little facts sprinkled amongst his overarching ideas offer pleasing breaks amongst heavier concepts.

Alison R.




In the late summer of 2015, I read The Bell Jar for the very first time.

It’s somewhat incredible that I hadn’t read it till then — my area of interest is American literature from the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly women’s fiction with feminist intention. The Bell Jar is a — if not the — seminal feminist novel, and Plath as a literary figure comes close to myth: the clinically depressed writer stifled by the expectations of her American womanhood; the tragic genius who put her head in the oven.

I had never read any of Plath’s work before, but that mythology loomed over me as I started reading. This wasn’t any other American novel, any other women’s novel, any other fictional work with feminist overtones. This was American feminist canon. It’s narratively quiet beginning belied its power, and I braced myself to be blown over the cliff of literary disappointment.

I did not fall off. Plath’s great work met every high expectation I could throw at it. The deeply personal autobiographical story of a young woman with literary ambitions struggling through mental illness, isolation, and emotional breakdown is as much alive for me — a young woman with literary ambitions herself — as it would have been when it was published in 1963. Her portrait of a woman trapped in the constraints of femininity, the expectation of marriage and a “feminine” career path in particular, still rings true today.

Plath described the project of the  novel herself, saying, “What I’ve done is to throw together events from my own life, fictionalizing to add colour – it’s a pot boiler really, but I think it will show how isolated a person feels when he is suffering a breakdown…. I’ve tried to picture my world and the people in it as seen through the distorting lens of a bell jar.” The isolation in particular washed over me from the first page, portrayed through Plath’s stark and intimate prose.

The climax of the story, when the narrator attempts suicide by taking pills and sequestering herself in the wall of basement of her home, only to find that her heart refuses to die, is a pang in the readers own heart, forcing them to hear it brag, “I am, I am, I am.” But Plath’s refusal to let her story end there, her continuation of the narrative into the slow, painful recovery process — a recovery that does not feel quite honest or complete — is disarmingly real.

What Plath has done is given that picture of her world, “seen through the distorting lens of a bell jar,” where that lens is fiction. Transcending the expectations of the “based on a true story” trope (before it was really a trope), Plath uses truth and fiction to emphasize the isolated, distorted reality of her narrator and herself. Far from finding it overrated, The Bell Jar left me even more enchanted and invested in the literature I love the most.

Allison S. 

“It was a feeling, some unpleasant feeling, earlier in the day perhaps; something that Peter had said, combined with some depression of her own, in her bedroom, taking off her hat; and what Richard had said had added to it, but what had he said? There were his roses. Her parties! That was it! Her parties! Both of them criticised her very unfairly, laughed at her very unjustly, for her parties. That was it! That was it!”

Bright colours draw the eye. That’s probably why so many “Used Book” stickers are bright orange or fluorescent yellow, like the one I painstakingly scraped off my copy of Mrs Dalloway.

I would like to say that I bought the book for noble, deeply-intellectual reasons, but the truth is twofold. One, the aforementioned sticker. Two, the simple fact that I, an undergrad at the time, was becoming increasingly frustrated with all the in-class references to books I knew absolutely nothing about. I decided to ‘solve’ this ‘problem’ by raiding the student book store for anything with “Oxford” or “Broadview” on the spine. The result was a mixed collection of canonical literature all bearing the same obnoxious, yellow sticker. From this collection, I began with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.

What is Mrs Dalloway about? Well, finitely, it is about a party. More generally, it is about a party held within an environment of post-wartime attrition, stress, and alienation. The central character Clarissa Dalloway navigates this place of overlapping splendor and terror. Most importantly, she is the one who plans the party. Clarissa seeks to find order and continuity where there, evidentially, may be none. Woolf’s unique style of writing brings Clarissa alive in a compelling yet maddening way, as can be seen with the opening quote.

I finished Mrs Dalloway in a day. By ‘finished,’ I mean that I hit the back cover. I was not finished with the book. Doing such a thing seemed, and likely is, impossible. As a burgeoning student of English literature, I was struck by how it was possible for a person to write this way, so loosely and so evocatively. I had never seen or envisioned anything like it, and I immediately understood why people talked about Woolf so reverently. I finished Mrs Dalloway in my student lodgings of the time, a garage-turned-bedroom with concrete floors and a long, rectangular window. I finished it in the natural light, which oscillated between brightness and dullness, and in near silence, broken only by the murmur of passing cars.

There was something dream-like about the experience, whether induced by Woolf’s words or the imposing calm of the day, and perhaps that’s why I remember this all so fondly. Despite my intentions for picking up the book, rooted in deep academic insecurity, I associate the book with the pleasure of reading and the surprises that ‘canonical literature’ can hold.



One glance at the summary on the inside book jacket, or even at the cover photo featuring a image of a man’s face contorted in an indecipherable expression, suggests that Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life will not be an easy read.a little life

However, the book begins with the slightly banal post-graduate experiences of four young men in New York. Such a story is nothing exactly new; the intensely close bond of the group reminded me of Donna Tartt’s A Secret History, for instance.

A third-person omniscient narrator details the groups’ professional successes and failures. First, there is Willem, an up-and-coming actor, then there is JB, an idealistic painter, and Malcolm, a bored architect. Finally, there is Jude, a lawyer who experiences far less professional struggles than his friends. Yet, he remains enigmatic to both his friends and readers.

The narrator also provides rich details about the familial backgrounds of Willem, JB, and Malcolm, but Jude’s history is largely a question mark. Yanagihara purposefully paints vibrant yet flawed heritages for JB, Malcolm, and Willem to contrast with Jude’s ambiguous background.  Even as Jude is initially hard to pin down, it soon becomes clear that he is very much the crux of the group.

Accordingly, the narrative begins to center upon Jude, particularly as details about his childhood growing up as an orphan in a monastery begin to slowly emerge. Scars cover Jude’s body that are initially purported to be from a car crash. Yet, just as we learn that there is more to this story, we also learn that he experienced other horrific trauma during his childhood that he fears will leave psychological scars on the rest of his life. The length of the novel -a hefty 720 pages- allows the narrative to span the groups’ lives from their twenties to their fifties. Yanagihara essentially deceives expectations about the post-graduate or college genre, revealing that the group faces more challenges than the relatively minor professional and personal problems that frame the beginning of the novel.

While set in New York, a city punctuated with political and historical figures, events, and associations, the novel features no references that distinguish the time period within which it is set. The chapters are also wiped clean of allusions to technological innovation that would pin point the novel to specific decade. Even when Willem’s acting career begins to thrive, he stars in films based on Grecian tragedies rather than those that are connected to specific cinematic trends. The novel is thus contained in a perpetual contemporaneity, enabling readers to focus on the relationship of the four friends beyond any political, social, or technological contexts.

Stylistically, the book features interesting narrative changes. In the only chapter containing a first person narrative, Harold, Jude’s former law professor who becomes a father figure to him, intimately directs his words to Jude himself. My main critique of the novel rests on the chain of misfortune to which the group succumbs later in their lives. In these passages, Yanagihara pushes the level of tragedy to an unnecessary extreme. Indeed, the most affecting parts of the narrative involve small moments of kindness between the group rather than the brief scenes of violence.

The details about Jude’s suffering are horrific and difficult to read. In fact, I raced through the last 250 or so pages of the book, wanting it to end.

Yet, Yanagihara makes no attempt to easily resolve or treat Jude’s trauma nor does she deem the perpetrators of his abuse as simply evil. For Jude, who obtains a master’s degree in mathematics along with his law degree, the absolutism of math becomes a source of stability “in a constructed world with very few unshakable absolutes.” The very size of the novel speaks to a similar endurance of Jude’s relationships with his friends, with Harold, and with others who lovingly encircle him. Indeed, the flaws, triumphs, and intricacies of these relationships are the reason for my recommendation of this novel.


Okay, so it might be cheating to choose a course text as my best reading experience of the year, but let’s be honest, I am a grad student, a teacher and a mom, I rarely read “just for fun.” And yet, I love to read. It is my passion and it drives me to work more hours than a junior partner at a law firm, seriously.

Furthermore, this poem has changed the course of my studies. So, as reading experiences go this one was a pretty darn big deal in my life. And it happened in a grad course. Luckily, I have the luxury of mixing scholarship and pleasure with relative ease.

If this wasn’t enough build up for the text, just wait, there’s more. It could also be cheating to use a text that I have actually read twice before. Yes, I have three separate critical editions of this work chilling out next to me on my desk as I write this.

So, what is this magical and mythical text? Well, it is a late fourteenth-century poem known as Pearl. The funny thing about Pearl is that to describe simply the plotline would leave most people slightly dumbfounded in how this poem could begin to haunt your thoughts in the shower, driving to campus, or into the wee hours of the night. I mean, what if I were to tell you that the poem is about this guy who loses his pearl that turns out to maybe possibly be his two-year old daughter? He then has a dream vision of meeting her again. She shares a whole whack of parables and scriptural allusions with him. Eventually, she lets him witness New Jerusalem and he even gets a front row ticket to the procession of the Lamb. Unfortunately, he’s more interested in his daughter than the Lamb, which doesn’t go well for him. He’s forced to wake up and then finishes the poem by taking the Eucharist.

Oh, yeah, I know. Doesn’t sound like much, and yet at the same time, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But that’s all just a simple plot summary. Pearl is so much more than it seems. It’s rich with allusions, alliterations, metaphors, and allegory; actually, just name your favourite literary device. You will find it. It has double, triple, quadruple meanings. Reading Pearl feels like being on an archaeological dig where every layer reveals a more and more complicated understanding of the story and fresh mysteries to throw at your doorstep. The meaning of Pearl has an entire field scratching their head and turning to and against each other. What does it mean? Well, it could be a didactic religious lesson, or an elegy on the loss of a loved one, a social commentary against the Ricardian court, or a way of dealing with the harsh circumstances of fourteenth century daily life from disease to feudalism. There is no one answer…yet.

But you know what, don’t just take my word for it see for yourself- go here.


Review of Rachel Hartman’s “Seraphina”

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman dominated the young adult literary scene during its release in 2012, recognized on both the New York Times Bestsellers List and through literary awards (both Canadian and international). It is rare for a novel to be both a bestseller and a literary award recipient – and it is even rarer for a Canadian novel to receive such popular and critical attention, especially in the young adult, fantasy genre.

Seraphina is the story of a young, hybrid female, who is half-human, half-dragon. Dragons can take on the physical form of a human; Seraphina’s father did not know that his wife was a dragon in human form until after she died giving birth to Seraphina. Seraphina’s existence as a half-breed is threatened by the fantastical kingdom she lives in, which has firm divisions between the worlds of humans and dragons. Her father forces her to keep her identity a secret, as her mixed parentage threatens both her life and his own through the kingdom’s death penalty for interbreeding. Seraphina is able to pass as a human, since she looks like a young woman; the only physical signs of her dragon side are the scales on her arm and around her waist (which she keeps hidden from the critical eyes of the humans around her) and her silver blood. Seraphina’s musical talents have started to bring her into the public eye, threatening her father’s desire to keep her away from any attention that could potentially expose her mixed identity. The personal tension her family feels with her identity is magnified by the anniversary of the ten-year peace treaty between dragons and humans, which is slowly beginning to be challenged by rebellious individuals on both sides.

Underneath the fantastical and rebellious plot (which has led to the novel’s commercial success and are typical in current popular novels), Seraphina presents a hybridity theme which is not seen in current, popular children’s and young adult novels. Seraphina herself is a hybrid individual: usually, the main characters in children’s and YA fantasy novels are not hybrids. Seraphina’s silver blood underneath her human is a marker of her embodied hybridity.

Hartman’s narrative is complex in its presentation of two major conflicts: Seraphina’s own personal struggle with her identity and the rising tension between dragons and humans after the mysterious death of the human king, which many humans believe to have been murder by a dragon. These conflicts are woven together in the first chapter by the selection of Seraphina to play the flute at the king’s funeral. As she is playing the flute, she questions her father’s warning to avoid attention (as she both wants to keep her identity a secret and be acknowledged for her musical talent), while viewing the humans’ standoffishness at the dragon delegates (in their human forms) attending the funeral. Here, the hybrid individual (Seraphina) is in the balance of her two worlds, which are at odds with each other. Hartman brilliantly presents this tension through the variations in the pacing of Seraphina’s music as she internalizes the world around her.

Seraphina’s music can be discussed only in terms of hybridity, but also liminality, agency, and the hierarchical concept of empire versus colony (in the political structure of the novel). Also, the fact that a popular, fantasy novel with thematic elements of hybridity has come out of Canada links back to the debated question: is Canada postcolonial?

I find this novel incredibly beautiful in its simplicity at presenting a complex theme of embodied hybridity. Seraphina’s hybrid identity creates her identity with the world around her, a complex theme that is not seen in children’s and YA fantasy novels.

Work Cited

Hartman, Rachel. Seraphina. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2012. Print.


Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World

“Although the art world is frequently characterized as a classless scene where artists from lower-middle-class backgrounds drink champagne with high-priced-fund managers, scholarly curators, fashion designers, and other ‘creatives,’ you’d be mistaken if you thought this world was egalitarian or democratic. Art is about experimenting and ideas, but it is also about excellence and exclusion. In a society where everyone is looking for a little distinction, it’s an intoxicating combination” (Thornton).

To really appreciate Seven Days in the Art World, you also have to appreciate the trajectory of its author, Sarah Thornton. When Thornton released her PhD thesis-turned-book, Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital in 1995, she became highly renowned for finally breaking the spell of redundant analysis that had been plaguing the Cultural Studies scene for decades. In a branch of academia that loves to feel cool, Thornton singlehandedly dated all of these foundational cultural theorists and then galloped off into the sunset. That is, she abandoned academia to become an active writer of and for her first love, the global art world. I was recently reintroduced to Thornton’s work through Seven Days in the Art World and let her expertise as a talented ethnographer and writer wash over me. Thornton structures the narrative to follow her through seven eventful days – each day allotted to a different sphere of the art world – to highlight the tensions and connections that make up the various subcultures of this exclusive group. The book is highly addictive to read and develops seamlessly simply because it is an intersection of what Thornton does best: ethnography, cultural studies and art. And, while she is returning to her first passion (her B.A is in Art History), she is also highly critical of the art world’s exclusivity and she constantly provides a new reading of the types of social hierarchies that unfold at every level. Whether it is an unconventional classroom of graduate students at CalArts to the obscenely rich buyers’ seating arrangements at a Christie’s auction, no one and nothing is spared from her critical eye.

In the most climactic moment of the book and my personal favourite chapter, “The Studio Visit”, Thornton is given intimate access to the highly celebrated contemporary artist, Takashi Murakami. Thornton’s position is never clear-cut or explicit, but rather her writing considers the great artist as a sum of all his parts. And while you can easily slip into the romanticism that is inherent to the art world, an underlying tension of this chapter and much of the book is the reality that Thornton is writing through the 2008 global economic collapse.How are readers to react when the art market is alluded to as a type of real estate market for the wealthiest people in the world? Thornton’s project in Seven Days in the Art World is not to provide juicy insider gossip about key players in this scene, but to trouble issues of exclusivity and capital that determine the survival and success of this very real subculture.


Message one. Tuesday, 8:52 A.M. Is anybody there? Hello? It’s Dad. If you’re there, pick up. I just tried the office, but no one was picking up. Listen, something’s happened. I’m OK. They’re telling us to stay where we are and wait for the firemen. I’m sure it’s fine. I’ll give you another call when I have a better idea of what’s going on. Just wanted to let you know that I’m OK,  and not to worry. I’ll call again soon (15).

It was July 2015 when I first read the messages that Oskar Schell’s father left for him on the morning of September 11th. Each message is increasingly more frantic as the office that his father works in begins to fill with smoke and structurally collapse. More devastating still, the revelation that Oskar, having been let out from school due to the terrorist attack, arrives home in time to pick up the phone and talk to his father but doesn’t answer. But this is a fun story, an adventure story. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer is the story of a young boy searching for closure in the death of his father in the only way he knows how: an epic game of “reconnaissance expedition” (8), a riddle based scavenger hunt.

The novel chronicles Oskar Schell, a National Geographic-Stephen Hawking loving little boy, in his attempt to finish the final unsolved reconnaissance game that his father designed for him. This is also a story of fathers and sons as the reader soon learns that Oskar’s grandfather abandoned his family when his son was young. The narrative shifts between Oskar and his grandfather as they struggle to make peace with their own tragedies. His grandfather, a mute, communicates and navigates his universe by writing people notes which Safran Foer replicates.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is paratextually beautiful and devastating. Each clue that Oskar cracks leads him closer to understanding his father through his grandfather. Safran Foer uses images and notably, blank space as a unique entrance way into the text that challenges how much authority verbal communication has. The images also create a contained narrative of their own, one of locked doors, missed connections, and broken relationships.

Oskar grapples with the idea of truth and tangibility; that his father was dead but his coffin empty appeared to him to be untruthful: “‘Why would you want to do that?’ I told him, ‘Because it’s the truth, and Dad loved the truth.’ ‘What truth?’ ‘That he is dead'” (321). Oskar’s final words reimagine his father’s last day in a reverse order that preserves his physical form:

“Dad would have left his messages backward, until the machine was empty, and the plane would have flown backward away from him, all the way to Boston…He would’ve taken the elevator to the street…walked backward to the subway…spit coffee into his mug, unbrushed his teeth…He would’ve gotten into bed with me…I’d have said ‘Dad?’ backward, which would have sounded the same as ‘Dad?’ forward. He would have told me the story of the Sixth Borough, from the voice in the can at the end to the beginning, from ‘I love you’ to ‘Once upon a time…’ We would have been safe.(326)

The book ends with a series of images that show the now very infamous pictures of the individual falling or jumping from the World Trade Centre. However, just as Oskar reclaims his father, he too reclaims these images and reorders them to show the individual floating up into sky and back into the building.

I revelled in every moment spent reading this book, in transit, in my bedroom with my cat curled up on my lap, and at the beach (As my boyfriend reads this over my shoulder he informs me that ‘revelled’ is not the right word for a book about 9/11. I argue that it is. I Google synonyms but none of them work. I decide to stick with revel). Loud & Close is a very accessible way of approaching discourse surrounding terrorism and extreme violence. It forces you to read differently. As I reached the end I longed to do what Oskar did and revision this text in an order that I felt would give me closure. I considered doing what Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas boasts, and rip the pages from this book and reorder them but my inner idolater stopped me. Possibly because the narrative belongs to a child, but more probably because I feel like an intruder in what is an extremely intimate glance at unfiltered and unapologetic grief.


Alexander Kluge, Cinema Stories

Alexander Kluge’s first experimental film, Brutality in Stone, opens with a title card that reads: “Every structure left to us by history expresses the spirit of its builder.” The quote is reminiscent of W.G. Sebald, whose name appears on the back of Kluge’s book, Cinema Stories  (2007), under review here.

Cinema Stories recalls Sebald’s fragmented narratives, his erudite tangents, his oblique analyses. I make the comparison not to lump the authors together but to suggest that fans of one go read the other. (Fans of Sebald’s Austerlitz would find further affinities in Kluge’s Brutality of Stone. Both works trace the development of European barbarism via extended architectural observations).

Alexander Kluge is a German author and film director whose name is attached to the New German Cinema movement and the Oberhausen Manifesto that inaugurated it. As author-photographers, Kluge and Sebald are concerned with images of history and the history of images. Cinema Stories, as one might guess from the title, is a book of stories about cinema, especially early film (1890s to 1920s, roughly). But to Kluge, cinema is older than “film” and includes the cosmos itself as a kind of ur-cinema, which he describes in the book’s final story as a kind of vast auditorium in which ancient rays of light from our planet beam images of world history into the void of space. Space, he says, is an “eternally indestructible and unerring archive of the images of the past” (91). It’s a nice idea, perhaps a comforting illusion of the retrievability of history.

There are thirty-nine stories in the book, almost entirely disconnected except for certain thematic resonances. They are half-fact, half-fiction. So it’s not easy to tell what’s what, unless you happen to be a “cinema addict” like the intrepid neurologist in the book, who wins the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the “transport phase” in film — the 1/48th of a second of blackness between frames in which the brain registers a theater’s darkness so that we end up watching two movies, not just one (rather, the film and its negative).

The book is fundamentally about people in the film industry: oddball directors, unlikely actors, film scholars, pioneers, and the author himself. If names like Sergei Eisenstein, Ernst Lubitsch, Olive Thomas, Erich von Stroheim, Jean-Luc Godard, Walter Benjamin, and Federico Fellini register with you, then you’ll enjoy reveling in the kind of strange anecdotes that Kluge either unburies and invents.

Some of these anecdotes are genuinely funny, as when Fellini casts a Roman film extra from the suburbs in the role of emperor. The film is Satirycon. The actor, an amateur, is directed to keep a straight face while two industrial fans blow wind (the winds of history) directly at him for seven minutes. Every reflex tells him to avoid the wind, but he keeps a straight face anyways. The actor, according to Fellini, succeeds because he is not an actor. And when asked how he did it — how he kept a straight face — the man says he doesn’t know. When the film is released, the man has the scene, two-minutes long, replayed forty times for his comrades back home, triumphantly (70).

No doubt the book will set off a chain reaction of secondary readings and viewings for anyone interested in factoids and trivia (for one, you might end up watching Fellini’s Satirycon). The gaps between the fragmented stories have this effect. They are the unseen images in Kluge’s book. You have to look elsewhere for them.

Kluge, Alexander, Martin Brady, and Helen Hughes. Cinema Stories. New York: New Directions, 2007. Print.



A few months ago, I wrote a blog post about my attraction to medieval literature and its ability to bring me into another world, culture, and mentality.  For the past four years, I have read a wide but fairly limited amount of works from this era, and I have enjoyed every sentence and every word within them.  However, I never had the opportunity to approach a text in its original form—in a bound manuscript with dozens of velum sheets wherein hair pigments and natural, animal skin tears can be found.  In September 2015, the SFU library team made such an experience possible for many SFU students by acquiring a Latin anthology of Civil Law most likely written in Southern France in 1269.  The manuscript represents the university’s first—and earliest—complete literary acquisition from the Middle Ages, and I was able to have a very close look at this book as a part of one of my professional development graduate class here at SFU.  But let us step away from these technicalities from a moment…

Central text (bigger size and colored) and abundant amount of glosses and notes most likely written by students all around.

How do we read a medieval manuscript, let alone a Latin one that has not only been officially glossed in Old French, but also severely annotated by contemporary students?  What is a book supposed to look like in the first place?  It is hard to conceive that the clean collections of words we lay our eyes on everyday were ever as drastically dense as our anthology of Civil Law.  While the rise to popularity of Kindle tablets similarly contributes to our alienation from busy and “sallied” texts, standing in front of this manuscript did not destabilize me as much as I expected.  I was, in fact, taken aback by the precision of the scribe’s calligraphy and the long-standing quality of the pigments on the page.  Some of the pages were so thin that it was possible to see the writings on the other side of the vellum.  If my lack of training in both paleography and Latin prevented me from grasping the material in front of me, the illuminations and colours of the text (indicative of paragraph or line breaks) guided me through what appears to be different lists of laws and theoretical material for aspiring clerks.  As such, my encounter with our Anthology of Civil Law was a purely visual experience that distanced me from my own field: the Middle Ages.

Finger pointing at what appears to be an important section of the text.

And yet, I found myself looking for traces and remnants of the scribe who copied the anthology for contemporary students and ultimately for us.  The anthology is filled with little finger-pointing marginalia that represent the intellectual activity of students at least 700 years older than me.  Doodles, signs of boredom, wine stains, scrapings… who said our reading and studying practices are to be so drastically different from the medieval period?


The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

I haven’t finished reading this collection spanning about twenty years of Davis’s work. I don’t know if I ever will read this in its entirety, or know that I’ve done so if I do. This is a book that I intermittently pick up whenever I come across it; I’ll then flip open to a random page, and chances are I’ll find the beginning of a story and proceed to consume a handful in quick succession. Davis has been called a master of the American short story, or rather, the short short story. Some are a respectable twenty or something odd pages. Most span a few pages, but there are many paragraph-long stories, and even sentence-long ones that read like pithy koans.

Davis adroitly balances and subtly maneuvers between irony, sincerity, cheekiness, and introspection, and almost always narrates with a pleasant strangeness. These stories do one of the things I value most in literature: they render the quotidian curious and encourage the reader to look at common occurrences a bit awry. One of my favourites is “Cockroaches in Autumn,” originally published in Break It Down, despite my revulsion whenever I remember the only instance I’ve encountered a cockroach (which may or may not have involved shrieking). At once, she invokes the visceral response most seem to have at even the thought of cockroaches, “the forest of moving legs” (69), while at the same time eliciting a measure of unexpected sympathy for “such nimble rascals, such quick movers, such clever thieves” (70).

I had the pleasure of attending master class with Lydia Davis at Concordia University where I did my MA. With the quirky humour and understated charm found in her narratives, she told the room about the inspiration for many of her stories, which, unsurprisingly, come simply from close observation of everyday particulars that make up our shared experiences.

Lydia Davis. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. NY: Picador, 2009.