On Sherlock and Other Feelings ⎟ Bildungsroman

Dear Reader,

Do you remember sitting in grade 9 English (or if you’re not in North America, the age of about 13/14) learning the word bildungsroman? It’s rather an ugly word, it’s like trying to spit your tongue out and juggle it. A bildungsroman is a novel or story in which the main character, or protagonist, comes of age or develops. Usually, young people read them because, they too, are coming of age. For example, the Harry Potter series is a bildungsroman in which the protagonists and other students at Hogwarts develop into adults and learn about the complicated morals of the (adult) world.

A lot of the time, books that follow the development of a main character will also employ archetypal representations of good and evil. Sometimes, there is a slight complication of those tropes, but, usually, they glare right at you. Consider the way that Voldemort is just evil. Consider the way that the Slytherins are, likewise, represented as evil, evil eleven-year-old children. Now, Rowling complicates our ideas of good and evil with Harry’s struggle between understanding his own goodness in the face of Voldemort’s semi-possession of his mind in book five. She also complicates it with the character of Snape. Yes, an abusive teacher that frightens his students, but also, a hero to some? I have a difficult time with Snape, but he is meant to be read as someone who changed their mind about something because it was someone for whom he particularly cared. The author sets up clear lines between the states of pure goodness (think Lily, who sacrificed herself for her child) and pure evil (think Voldemort, who tried to kill said child), as if such categories truly exist, in order to play around with ideas of good and evil. At times, Rowling complicates persons somewhat effectively such as Dumbledore, but other times she uses Dudley’s fatness as an indicator that he is bad. We are just meant to read some characters as good and some as bad, especially some bodies are good and others as bad.

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This type of heavy-handed coding is also clear in Western films. You know, those racist ones where white guys ride ride horses and call themselves cowboys. There is always a lot of salooning, frisky whisky, spurring spurs, and blink-speed shooting. The good guys wore white hats, and the bad guys wore black hats. This was in part because it saved a lot of story-telling time for audiences to have a coded way to read the film and the story. It also made it easier for audiences to distinguish between two cowboys (because white people look the same). Most importantly, white, whiteness, and the white hat were meant to be read in terms of white equating with goodness, purity, and morality. Blackness, read as the opposite of whiteness, was thus sinister, evil, and immoral or, perhaps, amoral. This, of course, also applies to how race has been used in film, literature, and popular culture.

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Let’s parse these things out a little bit. When Harry defeats Voldemort we get a glimpse of the heroes happy life in the epilogue. We are to read that ending as a happy ending. Our characters have developed, they have children, and their children are going to Hogwarts, where they will grow into wizards and witches and maintain the status quo. (I am not including The Cursed Child or Fantastic Beasts in this discussion.) The end message is that Harry, Hermione, and Ron have triumphed and the world is good. Likewise, in a western film, when the good guy expels the baddie, all is well in the world. The order of the cosmos have returned to a state of flourishing, principled, law-abiding, and, I suppose, happy status quo. There really isn’t any development beyond that because everything that could be done is done. We move onto another story, imagining that these characters are moral and developed characters. Think about how Disney princesses get married, and the story that young viewers are told is that that is the happy ending they should want in life. The adults in the room chortle knowingly; life is far more difficult and less certain than this Romantic ideal.

When we engage with these types of stories, we need to consider the motivation of the story. Why and how does this character or these characters come of age? What lessons do they learn? What are we supposed to learn from their actions? How can we learn to grow up like these characters? What will it take for us to reach a final state of goodness? (Hint: there is no such thing, but more on that later). Inculcating people to particular behaviours is not a new concept, but specifically targeting young people and children is new enough. In the eighteenth century, Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote a book called The Social Contract (1762). He wanted ‘man’ to be forced to be free in his new world order; there was to be a return to nature and a lot of outdoor dancing (a noble-savage trope, popular in this era). But people needed to know how to be ideal citizens in the world, Rousseau thought. So, he taught them with his novel/bildungsroman/educational guide Emile, or On Education (1762). A young boy, Emile, and girl, Sophie, are shown to grow up and learn to be the right kinds of people.

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Rousseau indoctrination à la life-style guide creates stable statuses for our two grown-up protagonists: the manly man and the passive woman. (Please note the use of creates in the previous sentence; such ideas of gender are man-made, not inherent.) A lot of bildungsroman follow the same trajectory. The character grows to be an (young) adult, and their future is boundless and hopeful because of the lessons they’ve learnt along the way.

This is rather dissatisfying. Isn’t it? Are any of our lives actually like that? I doubt it. We should be chortling at it, knowingly, because we don’t just learn a lesson once and know how to live correctly, as it were, for all of our lives. Also, I’m certain that bildungsroman novels have generally precluded the inclusion of other races because most of these growing-up opportunities were likely only available to white protagonists–boys and their dogs.

Moreover, this stasis of reaching the clarity of pubescence is rather a sham. We might be told that we are going to get to a point where we’ve reached moral untouchability, but that’s simply not true. People aren’t either good or evil. For instance, one might suppose themselves to be a good person, but perhaps that doesn’t fit with the fact that you told someone’s secret to someone else or you said something cruel about another person to make that other person feel the anger you feel. And yet, one might also do kind things, too. I wrestle with this idea of a dichotomy that seems to be solid state of good versus bad.

This is where Sherlock comes in. In the first few seasons, the characters tried to remain relatively themselves, but they rubbed off on each other provoking change. Watson learnt that he really wanted to be a soldier again. Sherlock learnt that he could be more vulnerable.  Without giving any plot twists away, this new season, while a little unlikeable for other reasons, has these characters seriously interrogate their morals. There is not just a state of goodness to be occupied, but it is a conscientious journey. It is an act in motion.

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Formidable story-telling reminds the reader/viewer/listener/audience to query their ideas of good and bad. We may do good or bad things, but those things have to be complicated beyond a tropism of ‘good’ or ‘evil’ (we should always be complicating how we view people as good or bad, and how we have come to understand what those terms mean). Of course, as I think about the polarized villains such as Moriarty and Magnussen, I’m sure some of you will query this stance. Recall that Sherlock and these villains have many of the same traits. It is often the uniqueness of Sherlock that is employed against him as a foil. We are meant to align Sherlock with these villains and the danger that he might easily slip into being a villain. What is it that Sergeant Donavon says to Watson? “One day we’ll be standing around a body, and Sherlock Holmes will be the one who puts it there” (“Lady in Pink”). The traits of the villains encourages the audience to view Sherlock’s character as constantly in danger of slippage into evilness, but, as we learn from Mrs Hudson, Sherlock’s responses are always emotional. Also, we cannot forget both Irene Adler and Mary and their complicated roles as both villains and heroes.

The idea of character growth within the Sherlock narrative is fitting because Watson is our meta-narrator, informing us about Sherlock and his adventures. Watson strives to paint Sherlock sympathetically to his readers. We are hyper aware of this meta-narration, particularly with the release of the Abominable Bride,” in which the audience comes face to face with Sherlock Holmes in his nineteenth- and twenty-first-century portrayals and Watson’s intentional framing of the stories explicitly shown when Mrs Hudson rebukes him for cutting her lines. It is the on-going space for growth within a narrative of puzzles of crime that force the characters to confront their own morality and values and how they match up with their own crisis of self.

I’d like to extrapolate from these literary and filmic examples to my own life. I think we grow up reading books, assuming that we’ve got it figured out by the time we’re fifteen. We declare ourselves to be Hermiones or Lunas, but in doing so, sometimes we fail to recognize the complexities of our selves. Certainly, this is not easy, or at least, not always easy. Working to understand ourselves and quieten our ego in the face of making our world equitable and the goal of empathy teaches us how to see ourselves and other people as complex beings with multiple and conflicting emotions. Sometimes, intentions are all in order, but the heart fails to grab the bit. It’s hard to convince yourself to move past the things you feel, even if it would seem easier if you could just switch on a dime. It isn’t always possible. Learning to be fair and kind in the face of what is difficult is not an easy lesson. If it were, then we would already live in a fair world. We don’t always have kindness or the capability for kindness; that’s okay, we’ll try better together. Take the time you need, dear ones. Stare sadly into the distance, wipe that tear, look for friendship and love, feel joy, feel angst, feel ecstatic. Learn to be kind, for in our endeavour to kindness we should be the physically impossible perpetual motion of learning to have empathy and compassion. You’ll slip up. I’ll slip up. You’ll lose your temper, and so will I. But we’ll always be growing.

So, dear reader, just when you thought your journey was over, it’s time you head into the woods and find the most gnarled tree. The grooves, the slopes, the dips, the crevices, the moss growing all over, that is what your bildungsroman should look like. It’s complicated, compelled to grow and pay host to other lives.

 

Heaps of love,

Kat

 

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When Breath Becomes Air ⎟ Book Exchange Series

Dear Reader,

I recently took part in a Book Exchange. A friend of mine posted a status asking if anyone wanted to take part in a gift exchange. I had often seen posts like this before. In the past, I’ve never answered the call because I felt uncomfortable giving my address out to total strangers. This time, I decided, I was just going to jump in. My friend sent me a long message immediately after I replied that asked you to send your favourite book to Person A; you would make a similar post on your wall and those who responded would send a book to Person B (the person who’s post I had seen and to which I had responded). One swapped addresses as the chain of connections grew.

At first, I was a little overwhelmed. I was about to say, oh, maybe this isn’t for me. But, I embraced it. I embraced that I would be asking my friends to send my friend a book and that their friends would be sending me a book.  I was to send a book to the person who caught her in this web of gift-giving, and those who responded to me would send my friend a book.  I kind of liked that this whole experiment was at least once-removed. It felt like a connection wherein you shared part of yourself to someone you did not necessarily know. I didn’t even think about the books I would get, I just thought about the book I wanted to give and the person who would receive my book.

Since money is tight and our government insists that young people just need to get used to precarious employment, I told the friends who responded to my post that it was perfectly okay to send a used book or to buy from cheaper online shops, an advantage being that one can ship directly to their person. I know that we should be supporting independent shops, but there just aren’t any around me. I suppose the ideal situation would be to send a book with a care package and a small gift, but that wasn’t in my budget and I didn’t want to ask anyone to spend beyond what they were able. The only downside of this method is that the person who receives the book doesn’t know who sent the book. I’ve decided to make a post for every book I receive and extend my most heartfelt thanks and bow in humility to those who sent the precious gift of a book to me.

 

***

Yesterday, I received a book from the book exchange. At first, I was trying to remember what books I had purchased. I was awaiting some Roald Dahl books and Black and British, and when I opened the bubbly envelope, out popped When Breath Becomes Air. Afterwards, I realized this wasn’t a book I’d purchased because of the name on the label, it had my nicknameI was a bit shocked. I knew that everyone was super hyped about this book; I was not. Two humans in my life had told me about Paul Kalanithi, one before Kalanithi’s death and one who had fallen in love with this book.

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I really wasn’t convinced. He was sold to me as someone who had crossed the invisible but very tangible boundary between the arts and sciences. It seemed ludicrous to me. In my experience, science has heralded itself as the worthy occupation, and arts are usually sidelined as a luxury. It felt that science was a career, but literature, art, history, economics (not commerce), philosophy, etc., those things are considered to be hobbies. I’m wary of this crack in the earth, this line in the land, this unfathomable fissure. I never used to feel that divide so strongly when I was younger, I had studied physics and maths in secondary school, and I loved reading and history. I, myself, debated between studying engineering and history. My dad’s friends, engineers that had lived through Nortel Networks, told me to do history. So, I did.

As I studied, the prejudices against the arts from the sciences ruffled my feathers. It was like constantly going against the grain, and even though I was moving through molasses, people believed that work was somehow meaningless in the greater scheme. I had many existential crises in the library: what was the meaning of anything? History and revisionists and philosophies, oh my!  So, I let those experiences inform my opinion on this book, and I decided against reading it. I was wrong to have those prejudices.

Certainly, Kalanithi understands his own prejudices, the arrogances and ego that come with medicine or any career, really, and he conscientiously works against them. He notices it, and he remarks that it doesn’t feel right. Next time, we do better. I think that is one of the most refreshing aspects of this book; he recognizes that we are not always going to have the answers or be the same person day after day. Each day we have to struggle with the good and bad things that inform our past actions, we must be held accountable, and we must strive to shift our experience beyond what we know to be true.

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Although Kalanithi doesn’t explicitly state: BE EMPATHETIC, his entire memoir is an ode to empathy and understanding. It does not bridge the gulfs created by class, race, and gender, but it does remind us that privileges may make us heedless to how others think and feel. We might become solipsistic, the sole ego that denies souls to others.

The book is chockfull of references and allusions to erudite and esoteric literary works, and, by applying texts that might seem elusive, dusty tomes directly to his professional and personal experiences, Kalanithi encourages us to think of them as relevant to our own lives. Things that seem elitist are within our grasp; he evidences this by the fact that his mother’s revolutionizing force in the previously somewhat bereft local education system gave opportunities to all students.

Indeed, I’m still figuring out how education and elitism go hand-in-hand, particularly when so many  young people are educated but lack the hoards of moveable property that accompany the elite. Moreover, I know reading classics of western literature is laden full of privilege and historical prejudices, and, surely, our sense of their beauty is tied to the colonialism that accompanied(s) them. And yet, words, literature, and thoughts are profound and full of meaning. Canonical western literature is not the be-all and end-all. There are so many voices to whom we should listen. We must actively make social and public spaces for those voices.

We must also not forget that Kalanithi had an extraordinary education, Stanford and Cambridge. I cannot ignore this in my review because it would deny the fact that many persons will not and do not have access to these kinds of experiences. I would also like to make note that the book does contain some privileging of able bodies and able minds. The book, at times, seems to preclude a world inclusive of neurodivergence, but that these are problems to be solved. I am not well-informed enough in this area to speak to it fully.

Kalanithi’s bridge between Literature and Neuro-science and -surgery echoes his investigation of the mind/body nexus, a philosophical problem as old as time. We accept that language gives us the tools of expression, meaning, feeling, intelligence. ‘Man’ has believed that what made him man was language. (Animals, meanwhile, have argued that it was the red-flower.) And then there is the brain that controls the lot. If we want to understand how we think and what we think, do we engage in philosophy or neuroscience? If parts of the brain that become damaged or put under the pressure of a tumour influence how we behave and act, then what does that mean about what it means to about selfhood? Kalanithi doesn’t give us a straight-forward answer; rather, he engages in a well-thought discourse that attempts to meaningfully untangle the seemingly unsolvable. Unsolvable things such as life, death, mortality, suffering, the liminal experience of the patient who may or may not return from the cusp of death, and the place of those who remain after death.

To me, and I think most people will agree, it is the abridged and purpose-driven autobiographical narrative that a parent would hope to leave their child, especially if the parent will die before the child can ask the parent questions about their life.

Finally, I’d like to finish by quoting one of my best friend’s favourite lines: ‘You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving’. A life in motion, a life that moves forward, learning from others, ourselves, and how to engage with people as people and not as problems or a ticking clock.

 

Heaps of Love,

Kat Xx

[Edit: see below]

P.S. In my desire to publish this before I had to take my dog out, I forgot to emphasize a few things. The main takeaway that I want people to have from this book is the importance of reading and the act of reading as a tool to build empathy. For all of its flaws, children that grew up reading the Harry Potter series have been shown to be more empathetic. Because so many young people have this shared experience, they are also able to connect through it. Likewise, we may not agree on which religion or why, we might agree that Hermione’s activities through SPEW are indicative of white feminism. We were given a language to discuss child abuse and the loneliness that teens and young adults feel alongside the loneliness and isolation of adults (re: Sirius). Literature is important. People who study literature are important. Their brains work in wonderful and often uncelebrated ways.

In addition to noting the importance of literature, I did make the point about the prevalence of western literature throughout the text. When I was studying, I was co-Chair of an off-shoot of a charity that builds local-language libraries, supports local-language publishing, and gives money for girls to go to school. When I was part of this charity, it was always important to me that the books that were placed in the libraries and the books that were published were not western exports. Those books are usually readily available, but it was important that money was given to regional and local authors. It is never about exporting the western canon elsewhere; it is about recognizing that we need to support local publishing. This is why writing, and empathy, and developing our individual and shared vocabularies through reading, writing, and supporting authors is important.

Look at the ways in which my own world was broadened by this book. Those are the things that are important.

 

Book rating: 3.5/5

E.M Forster’s Maurice ⎟ sex, love, and philosophy

PODCAST REVEAL ⎟ E.M Forster’s Maurice

 

Dear Reader,

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The podcast is finally here! Click below to hear about E.M Forster’s Maurice and about sex, love, and philosophy! I mean! Rock and Roll! iTunes link to come soon.

 

 

<<Download this episode here>>

 

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Heaps and heaps of love,

WordPlay Xx

Reader’s Regret ⎜On Reading When It’s Right For You

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I’ve been thinking a lot about when we read books. It has been said that we come to the books we read when we need them most. I’ve been going through my shelves lately, and I kept thinking, I bought this when I was a teenager, why didn’t I read this then? Why didn’t I read this then? How would my life be different? What complex emotions would I have derived from this experience at that time?

Reader’s regret?

I have to stop myself from giving into that feeling, except as a motivator to keep reading as voraciously as possible. Or, as much as I can. My eyes hate day-reading, so I end up staying up really late to read. It makes no sense; but I think years of libraries have, in fact, ruined daytime for me. So I will use this feeling to spur on better reading habits, but I won’t let it define me or make me feel bad for *past me* not knowing or empathizing or understanding those emotions and feelings the author presents or limits.

I remind myself that those books are still open to me, and, in fact, because I understand language and its nuance more than I did before, those words will take me to places into which I had, previously, been unable to tap. Booktubers often do a year-end wrap-up video about ‘Books that Made Me’. It applies to my reader’s regret. All of the books that I have read, thus far, inform how and what I read in the future. I may pick up a book that I bought when I was a teen, probably a little inappropriately (some of the books I bought were quite mature), and read and enjoy.

For example, I can’t quite remember how old I was, but Costo sold some of Ophah’s Bookclub Books. My mom bought me A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, East of Eden by John Steinbeck, and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez. I have only read one of the three, so far, and I only read A Tree in 2013. I do plan on reading the other two, but not just yet. East of Eden seems like a summer novel—and Canadian summers can get sultry—so maybe this summer. Additionally, I think my reading was informed more by Canada’s links to the UK and slight idolatry of UK literature over American literature, so that also informed my reluctance to tackle American lit. (Sorry guys…but I’ll get there). The reason I haven’t picked up Solitude, is mostly that other people have said a lot of “it was a long book”…so peer-pressure!!

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***

Back on point, I was an avid reader as a child, so I read other books instead of these. I think they were also a little too mature for my preteen or early-teen self. I think the language and nuance would have been a little lost compared to my reading them now. I read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men when I was in my early teens, and I did love it a lot. But, I had many other book to read and re-read. When I was younger, I definitely had an immortality complex when it came to books. I had/have all the time in the world to read. So, I read what I wanted and what I chose. I re-read books many time. I have re-read The Hobbit more times than I can count. Indeed, I read it so many times when I was so young, that it is a “gospel truth” to me. I don’t doubt the existence of hobbits. You all need to stop being such noisy walkers!!

Indeed, I read other books. I didn’t read some of the ones I was bought or took out from the library. I snuck books that belonged to my mom or sister. The books that I read then, have read since, and am reading inform what and how I read. I read Betty Smith’s book in the spring of 2013. I read it, and I saw myself so firmly in the character of Francie. Our childhoods were quite a bit different because I belonged to the sort of middling classes of a privileged country. Yet, I learned and could empathize and connect with the main character because of our mutual love of books and language, our desire to learn in spite of the expense of school, and our desire to share language with others. When I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I fell in love. I recommended it to everyone. I underlined passages and shared them on twitter. I would send photos via text of underlined pages. Pages upon pages, I underlined with love. Margins scribbled in a book that was warped from the final pressure my hands, heart, mind, and eyes exerted upon the covers and spine of this precious book. I loved it so much then and there and now, that I don’t regret that I didn’t read it when I was younger because I wanted to tell the world how much I read or how sophisticated my tastes were. I regret not reading it when I was younger because it was such a pleasure and I wish I had always known that feeling.

But, I remind myself, you did and do. I remind myself of reading The Hobbit and Harry Potter and picture books with my mum. I remind myself of dragging Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland around with me everywhere and not reading it. Sometimes we read books and sometimes we don’t, but books are our most exciting and powerful resources. Wielding a book means power. If you are reading right it is not a tyrannical power, but a power to engage and develop empathy. It gives us the power to engage with the creativity or frustration of the author.

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I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale the summer before I turned 14. I may not have really understood the stake of Atwood’s story: feminism, patriarchal structures of oppression, &c., but reading it exposed me to that language. I was exposed in a way that I had not been before. I may not have understood feminism from one book, but I was being equipped with the language to be able to understand. I read Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai in school, whilst gay marriage and homosexuality were being discussed distantly in the news or by our elders, this book provided a moment to engage personally and critically (literary not judgementally) with, for me and my peers, a new language: sexuality.

On a brief side note, this is why the internet is so important. It makes these types of knowledges so accessible. I read about these ideas through literature and later through various philosophers etc., but the internet allows young people to engage in discussions of feminism and LGBTQ+. Of course, there will always be trolls and havoc-causers, but I do think the internet has opened a space where language can instantaneously permeate through otherwise impervious spaces. The language of acceptance becomes normalized. But keep reading, young ones, it’s the stuff of life.

So, friends, I wish that I had always been capable of reading the way I do now. I wish that, at the age of fifteen, I could have picked up a book and seen through ideology. I saw the things I saw, even if I was still learning. I’ve read and listened; I’ve worked hard to read the way I do. It was never a chore, except sometimes. I wish I could see the nuance I do now. But, “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” I hope that I am able to look back, in ten- or twenty-years time, and say, I wish I understood these (new) things back then, too.

The Great Gatsby / giphy

Heaps of Love,
Word Play Xx

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Dickensian Tips for Yule Tidings and Beyond

Hear ye- Hear ye;;  A serial reader intends to crack a spine or two this
here year.

I have decided to undertake a Dickensian endeavour.  I will be outlining a reading schedule and attempt to make my way through a few of Dickens’s larger works, but Christmas Carol will be reserved for the month of December.  I will be setting myself about two months for the larger books, but may end up taking longer depending on school and, hopefully, work.

So the plan, so far, is: 

November (and into December) – Barnaby Rudge (if it can be found used)
December – Christmas Carol
January&February&March –  Our Mutual Friend (This text is properly long…oh dear)
April&May – Oliver Twist
June&July – A Tale of Two Cities

Dickens I have read: Great Expectations and Little Dorrit.
Dickens I want to read: The Old Curiosity Shop, Dombey and Son, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

If you have any suggestions as to books I should shift or alter, then I will consider a shift.  Of course, none of these are set in stone, due to availability of texts and my own schedule of research and essays.

Do look out for the future Dickensian tips of the day that will follow; mostly through twitter, but I may do a compilation of the most effective remedies to our ailments.

Best,
K