Monday, May 18, 2009

Defining Definitions, or, Splitting Hairs

Oh, let's split hairs. Please? Pretty please?
The following is the first of a short list of terms that I've decided it would be helpful to define, if only to nail down what is to be from now on considered the "official" definitions within the realm of Not-So-Gentle-Reader. I'm open to the interpretations of others, however, because I'm cool like that.

To Read

Yes, my friends, some people don't know when it is appropriate to use the words "to read." Rather than quibble over its exact meaning, however, allow me to simply eliminate the times when this word is not appropriate: when one looked at only the first sentence in every paragraph (which is also known as "skimming" a book); when one studied a subject or a book in class but didn't actually crack it open; when one cracked it open but didn't actually get past the first chapter; when one listens to a book on tape; when one hears about an article or a book but hasn't actually seen it; and, finally, when one has only glanced at the Sparknotes.

In my head, I also differentiate between reading a book casually and doing so more formally. For example, I read Gilead fairly casually because I was so awe-struck by its beauty that I just wanted to soak it in, but I did a very close reading of Oil! because I didn't want to miss any nuances of the point that Sinclair was making. In my own head, I call these two reading and reading, but I feel like the distinction may be lost in everyday conversation.

Light Reading

I never would have suspected that this term needed to be defined, but about six months ago I discovered that there are, indeed, different uses for this term. A co-worker was asking me my opinions on a short list of books she had been recommended, one of which happened to be Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (which is an excellent book, by the way).

When I told her what I thought of the items on the list, she replied, "Oh, good, I was hoping to find some light reading for over Christmas vacation."

I hesitated and said, "Light reading? I wouldn't exactly call a book about the South African apartheid 'light reading'."

She answered, "Well, normally I like reading vampire series, but I was hoping to find something a little happier to read." For this woman, "light" reading is synonymous with "happy" reading, while "light" reading for me is something I don't have to think about overly. Cry, the Beloved Country is not light reading in my opinion, while a vampire series is most definitely "light reading," for all that it is dark.

Writing Style

This one is a bit more difficult to define, but it's worth the effort if only to enlighten others who might not know exactly what "writing style" is. In my opinion, writing style is a writer's tone, rhetoric, and approach to story-telling. It is not characterization, setting, or plot. The reason I point this out is that I came across a forum on-line in which a commenter recommended the novels of Julia Quinn, stating that the author "has obviously studied the writing style of Jane Austen, because her novels feel like Jane Austen novels," or something to that effect.

Curious, I picked up a Julia Quinn novel from the library entitled, Mr. Cavendish, I Presume? Both the title and the cover should have made it pretty evident that this was not a Jane Austen pastiche. The strongest clue, however, was the opening line:

"It was a crime that Amelia Willoughby was not married."

Pretty good for an opening line, as far as these things go. It is sufficiently dramatic and attention-grabbing as to "hook" the audience, which is the whole point of opening lines. Now compare it to the opening line of Pride and Prejudice:

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

While both have similar subjects, the two lines have very little in common beyond that point. This is because Julia Quinn's writing style is nothing like Jane Austen's. Setting: similar. Subject matter: essentially the same with some modern additions. Writing style: entirely different. Julia Quinn uses short sentences and is fairly to the point (a trait that extends throughout her book, although not to the point of ridiculousness). Jane Austen, on the other hand, could be fairly long-winded, as all 19th-Century writers seem to have been. Final Verdict: Not. The. Same.

So there we are. I hope this clears up a few misunderstandings.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Lindsay,

Quoting The Wasteland? You're kidding, right?

Hey, what do you think of this particular blog site? Any problems?

Love you

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

I think Not-So-Gentle Reader is the best damn blog ever.

Or did you mean blogger? I think it's okay, but you can't upload any videos (unless they're on your hard-drive) and formatting is a little difficult to manage sometimes. Other than that, I think it's okay.

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

Oh, and I can quote "The Wasteland" if I want to. I got a BA in Literature, which entitles me to (a) genteel poverty and (b) condescension and pomposity.

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