Is This Cheating? (…Cause This Feels Like Cheating)

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Audiobooks Vs. Actual Books. Does it still count as reading the book if you never actually read the book?

Back when I was in high school, I worked at my town’s local library. Looking back at the job, it was probably one of the best (if not the best) jobs I’ve ever had. I say that because retrospectively, no other job allowed me to flip through interesting books all day (even though I suppose I did that on the sly). I would spend my afternoons organizing shelves, checking out what books patrons were taking out, and covering (or re-covering) books with plastic so that they always looked and felt fresh (but that’s where it ended, because no matter how many times you cover a book in new plastic, you could never cover up that old-book stink).

Of all the things I did at the library, my favorite days were the ones I’d spend in the back room, creating art for the windows. I don’t remember how I earned that job, or how often I was tasked with a new window, but I do remember spending hours in that back room—piecing together construction paper, lining my work with thick black sharpie, and blowing through glue stick after glue stick as I organized the shapes like a puzzle in order to create different scenes. And for all the time I spent alone working on these murals, the time felt like it flew by. This could have been because of amount of fun I had creating these pieces, but I also think it was what I listened to while I worked, that made it fly. Because this was a library, I had complete access to the CDs and DVDs that were in stock, and I used that unlimited access to monopolize the Harry Potter audiobooks.

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The only remaining picture of my brief career as an 18 year old construction paper artist.

Every shift, I would place one of the disks into the little boom box we kept in the back and get completely wrapped up in the wizarding world. In his slightly-Americanized English accent, the melodic voice of Harry Potter narrator Jim Dale would quietly guide me through the books, chapter after chapter, shift after shift.

But for all the hours I spent listening to these books over and over, I never felt as though I were reading the stories. When I talk about the series with friends (and yes, I roll with a crowd where this conversation comes up at least once a year), I never count the times I’ve listened to the stories when someone asks how many times I’ve read the books. I mean, why would I? My eyes never saw a single word of Rowling’s writing, my mind never gave voice to the words of the characters, and I never exhausted my eyes to the point where I’d fall asleep mid chapter.

But with that said, it never felt right to not include my listening sessions because so much of my listening experience was the same as my reading experience. Just as if I were reading the books myself, I experienced every word of Rowling’s writing and I watched every scene play out in my mind. Just like reading, I felt emotional during the exciting parts and nervous during the finale scenes. Essentially, I felt all the same things I would have, had I been reading the book.

So should it count as reading the book? Or am I cheating the book? 

A few years ago, this question came up when I tried to read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Trying to read that book was an epic failure. With too much time spent on only three chapters worth of progress, I turned to the audiobook—and it helped… significantly. Although I experienced her language through my earbuds instead of on the page, it was fulfilling. For a while there, I even felt influenced by her writing style, as I found myself mimicking a certain type of grace in my work emails that had not been there prior (which was… awkward, but only because I was emailing people that clearly had no time for grace or beauty in their writing. They were NYS Medicare employees and they refused to read anything over 5 sentences long). I got all the positive side effects of reading a beautiful classic book, without having to actually read it.

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This popped up in my Google search for “Jane Austen writing” and I can’t help but wish this were a real line from Pride and Prejudice.

This month, under the insistence of NSBCBC podcast panelist Amanda, I dipped my foot in the audiobook pool yet again, in order to “read” David Sedaris’ Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. (Side note: I tried to illegally download it because I didn’t want to wait for the library copy to arrive, and I didn’t want to pay the $20 it cost on i tunes. However, my foray into small time crime didn’t pay because I immediately downloaded a virus that took days to get out of my computer. Oy… never again.) Anyway, the experience thus far has been pretty great (aside from that virus business) and it has me thinking—perhaps this is the way some authors need to be absorbed. For example, a friend of mine tried to read this book and didn’t love it, but now that I’ve heard the audiobook, maybe she would have enjoyed it had she heard the author’s delivery of the text instead. His voice, his pauses, his pronunciation—it all adds so much to the stories that I’m not sure they’d be as rewarding without him.

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Here is David Sedaris, cracking up John Stewart on The Daily Show. See, John knows what I mean about David’s delivery. Amanda was so right about this.

But it this reading? Technically, no. But am I experiencing the story? Absolutely! I’m absorbing every word, learning new things, and experiencing feelings with every page that passes. And isn’t that what reading is all about? Whichever way you decide to take in a story, it is still a rewarding experience.

So the next time someone asks how many times I’ve read the Harry Potter stories, I’ll include the times I’ve listened, because really, shouldn’t the question actually be, “how many times have you experienced the story?”

– Nina Sclafani

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I, Memoir

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Welcome to the memoir factory. Same story told 5,000,000 different times.

When I sat down to read Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson, I was pretty excited. My friend (and Not So Book Club Podcast guest) Alison, had recommended it to me and I tend to not take her suggestions lightly. 9 times out of 10, our tastes perfectly sync. The story of how we became friends even reflects that. (She approached me because I was wearing a “Hey Brother” Buster Bluth t-shirt. She was sporting a Mr. Banana Grabber tote bag. And if you don’t understand why that was important, perhaps this is the reason why you and I don’t share as strong a connection as me and Al.) Anyway, she swore by this book and said it made her laugh so much that she was exiled from her home and forced to read it (noisily) at her local Starbucks instead. But when I cracked open the book, I didn’t have quite the same reaction. I chuckled here and there at a few odd stories about the author’s taxidermy-obsessed father and her mother’s ingenious solutions for their poverty-stricken home, but aside from that, I felt slightly annoyed. I kept thinking “why is this important? Why tell me this story? What should I get out of this?” And these are questions that have plagued me about the memoir genre for years.

 

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My feelings expressed perfectly by Shania Twain.

It all started a few summers ago when I went on a celebrity memoir binge. I first read Russell Brands My Booky Wook and absolutely loved it. His writing style perfectly reflected his speaking style—chaotic, fast-paced, and saturated with enough beautiful vocabulary words that I had to keep my Merriam-Webster handy at all times. Next was Tina Fey’s Bossypants. I had always been a fan of Tina and liked to pretend that if my life were to ever be made into a movie, it’d be Tina who would play me despite our age difference. Needless to say, I was almost pre-programmed to enjoy this one as well. Then I read Sarah Silverman’s The Bedwetter, and although I enjoyed it, I started to see some similarities with these books. By Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me it was clear. I had read the same book 4 times. They all had loving parents. They all grew up middle class. They all went through awkward fazes (and included pictures to prove it). All (with the exception of Russell’s heroin and prostitution addiction) shared the same basic plot points, and by the end I was wondering what possessed me to read their books in the first place?

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See, I wasn’t lying. Each of their memoirs included at least one picture of them flaunting their childhood awkwardness. (Top left going clockwise – Russell Brand, Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman, and Mindy Kaling)

Perhaps it was voyeurism that made me pick up the books. These were books written by people I respected and watched on my television on daily basis. Perhaps, I thought, I just wanted a glimpse into their lives so maybe I could see how they reached such success, and maybe learn a thing or two so I could emulate that in my own life. But no. There wasn’t much of that. These memoirs were just mainly ugly duckling stories (i.e. I once was a loser at summer camp but now I’m a fantastically witty, albeit still nerdy-cool celebrity!)

And now a few years later, these stories make even less of an impact now that we live in an age where almost everything we do is posted on the Internet for others to see. With this new culture of oversharing, it has become so very clear—we all believe what we do is unique but in the grand scheme of things… most of the time it’s not. And as far as your typical memoir topics go, most of them have been beaten to death. As eloquently stated by New York Times writer Neil Genzlinger,

“Memoirs have been disgorged by virtually every­one who has ever had cancer, been anorexic, battled depression, lost weight. By anyone who has ever taught an underprivileged child, adopted an under­privileged child or been an under­privileged child. By anyone who was raised in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s, not to mention the ’50s, ’40s or ’30s. Owned a dog. Run a marathon. Found religion. Held a job.”

Reading Genzlinger’s 2011 article (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/30/books/review/Genzlinger-t.html?pagewanted=all) I couldn’t stop thinking about the people I know who have traveled the across America—many of whom want to write a book about their experience, and I cringe because I think of On the Road, or Into the Wild, or this year’s best seller Wild. We love sharing our experiences because 1. We believe they are unique and 2. Because it’s a less flashy way to tell the world you’ve done something you think is interesting,  but we fail to recognize that perhaps the experience is only truly unique or interesting to us and in the end, it comes off as self serving. Even in my own writing, I struggle to find the balance between “hoping to inspire others” and “hoping others will see me as fabulous.”

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Yes, Hannah. We all do.

So how can this genre be saved? How can I learn to love the memoir genre again? And for those of us who write, what is the best way for us to tell our stories so that they are in their most genuine/purest form?

I’m not sure if I have the answer for that. I feel the war of the memoir wage within me. The positive Nina loves the idea that writing can bring people together so that we all have a shared human experience. But the negative Nina despises writers who think they’re so important that even their ordinary and mundane lives deserve book deals.

So this week, I need your help. Since I can’t seem to find an answer on my own right now, I’d like to pose the question to you, my Not So Book Clubbers. What do you think about the genre of memoir, and what do you think should be done to improve it? Share your thoughts on the Facebook page (www.facebook.com/nsbcbc) or in the comments section below. I’d love to hear what you have to say on the subject.

– Nina Sclafani

Never Judge a Book by its Movie

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This widely repeated quote can be found all over the Internet in the form of bookmarks, t-shirts, mugs, bathrobes… you name it, it exists.

Think back to your high school English class. You spend a month slowly plodding through a dense book that is filled with language you barely understand, lengthy descriptions of settings, and metaphors that fly right over your head. Perhaps it’s Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, or maybe it’s Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Despite your best effort to find enjoyment in the experience, the book feels like work. Every night on top of your math and science homework, you have to muster up the energy to get through another 20 pages of a book you can’t really wrap your head around. But there is salvation—the prize at the end of the journey. That beautiful week where your English class becomes a movie theater and you get to spend 5 glorious days watching that book you struggled through in easy to swallow half-hour increments. Does it help you appreciate the book more? Maybe. Does it help you write a better essay for class? Almost certainly. But does the film help or hurt the experience of the book? That is the question that’s up for debate.

This month, in order to try to answer that question, the The Not So Book Club Book Club decided to tackle books that were all made into movies. Two of the books’ movies had not been released yet, while one had already dominated a past awards season. All 3 books however, sported new book covers that mirrored their movie posters and included stickers that proudly declared “Now a feature film!”

To help address the issue at hand, I decided to power read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, and immediately follow it with the movie. I wanted the book to be so fresh in my mind that I’d be able to spot the differences faster than I would in a child’s Highlights magazine. I read for 2 days straight, finishing the book at 6PM and jumped right into the film at 6:30.

And right off the bat, I was struck by how frustrated I was by the changes in the film. The settings didn’t fit the landscapes my mind painted, the characters’ accents weren’t as drawn out as I expected from the southern heat, and the music felt too playful to be properly setting up the tension that would saturate the story. Even more so, I was bothered by the fact that subtlety fell by the wayside…hard. Instead of having the audience swim around the innermost thoughts of the 3 main characters, each and every motive had to be spelled out loud and clear. I found myself shouting things like “Skeeter would have never done this out in the open!” and “Minny wouldn’t have looked that worried! She was tougher than that!” My frustration mounted so high that the second the credits started to roll, I took to the Internet to feel the affirmation of fellow angry viewers. However, I was met with mainly positive reviews. People loved it and gushed about how it deserved all the accolades it received. So why did I take it so personally?

A few days after I watched the movie, I shared my thoughts with one of my close friends. She reminded me that despite her immense love of the Harry Potter series, she refused to watch the films. She went on to say, “Harry and his friends have been with me throughout all of my formative years. They have been like a family to me, and I just know I am not ready to watch my character family be portrayed in someone else’s vision.” And I think that was the thing that got me so hot and bothered about the movie watching experience— it was someone else’s vision.

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Harry Potter 3 ways. Here is a compilation of 3 different interpretations of what Harry’s second bedroom looked like. The first is by book cover artist Mary GrandPré, the second is by cartoonist Alec Longstreth, and the third is a still shot from the feature film Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.

When we read, our mind meets the author halfway. The author gives us the words to construct the scenery and situations, but our own imaginations fill in the rest of the blanks. It’s because of this personal effort we feel so attached to what we read. We concoct our own perfect vision of the book, making it almost impossible for any two individuals see that same exact thing.

We also feel deeply attached to the characters. We read their deepest thoughts and feelings, and in doing so they become a part of us. When we see it acted out, we lose something. We lose a bit of that attachment because we become a viewer instead of a participant.

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What we see of the other person’s vision via film, and what we experience through our own experience reading the book.

Now that’s not to say these movies cannot be spectacular. They’re just another person’s view of the story, and despite how close it may be to your own, it will never be the exact picture your mind painted when you read the book.

So do movies help or hurt the reading experience? I think the answer is neither. It just shows us a different interpretation of the story we read and allows us to see someone else’s vision. And despite what people say, I think it’s impossible to say if the book is always better than the film, because it’s comparing apples to oranges— two great individual things that share similarities, but can never fully act as a substitute for the other.

A Note from your NSBCBC ringleader:

Dear NSBCBCers,

I truly hope you have been enjoying the experience of reading with me as much as I have enjoyed this experience with you! Together we have become a strong community of readers and I look forward to us growing in the months to come.

Make sure to check back next Tuesday to see what March’s NSBCBC reads are going to be and make sure to spread the word about the Not So Book Club Book Club!  The more people we have participating, the better the experience will be. Post your thoughts on our facebook wall (https://www.facebook.com/nsbcbc), instagram your reading experience using the #nsbcbc hashtag, and follow us on Twitter at @notsobookclub.

And most importantly, enjoy your reading experience!

Tons of love!

Nina Sclafani

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