Review: Jesus: A Pilgrimage

This book came to me by a trade.  I traded Stoney the Road, about black reaction to Reconstruction , and its aftermath, in which my son-in-law had an interest, for a book he was reading that I thought was Jerusalem.  But the book he was reading turned out to be Jesus: a Pilgrimage, by James Martin, SJ, a Jesuit priest.  Nonetheless, it turned out to be a fair trade, because I enjoyed Jesus: A Pilgrimage.  It was also a New York Times bestseller and Christopher Award Winner.

Father James Martin is a prolific writer having authored thirteen books.  He is also editor-at-large of the Jesuit magazine, America.  He was born in 1960 and grew up in Plymouth Meeting,  Pennsylvania, United States (near where I grew up).  He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business in 1982 and worked in corporate finance at General Electric for six years.

Dissatisfied with the corporate world, he became more deeply involved in the Catholic Church and decided to enter the Society of Jesus (more commonly known as the Jesuits) in 1988. During his studies to become a Jesuit priest, he earned a M.A. in philosophy from Loyola University Chicago in 1994, an M.Div. from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in 1998, and a Th.M., also from the Weston School, in 1999. He was ordained a priest in 1999.

Father James Martin

In Jesus: A Pilgrimage, Father James describes a pilgrimage he made to the Holy Land to view the many historic places associated with Jesus in Jerusalem and vicinity and in Galilee.  He describes the site, his reaction to it, reveals what other religious writers have said about it.  He includes the New Testament verses that relate to the events that are though to have taken place there, and he offers theological commentary on the significance of the events.

But this book is not a heavy theological tome, because Father James also covers the joys and difficulties of journeying through the Holy Land.  His touch is light, his prose in simple; the journey is spiritual, but also light-hearted.

I found nothing to criticize in this book.  At 465 pages, it was lengthy, but it progressed naturally from site to site, following Jesus’ time line.  To have abbreviated it, would necessarily have made it more superficial or more theological.

The book was particularly interesting for me as my wife and I toured Israel several years ago and visited many of the sites mentioned.  Since our interests were secular as well as religious (we wanted to learn more about Christianity, Judaism and Islam), we missed some of the iconic places mentioned.  It was good to draw a mental and spiritual picture of them.

Those of you who have read my books know that I am a committed Christian. I was entirely comfortable with nearly everything Father James said; his spiritual beliefs tended to confirm my own.  But what advice can I give to those potential readers who consider themselves adherent of other faiths, or agnostics, or atheist?  My view is that Jewish and Muslim readers, who may have some curiosity about Christianity, would find the book interesting in that it clearly defines what Christianity is about, without any reference to other religions.  Agnostics may struggle with the intensity of the evidence that Father James presents.  It is difficult to be ambivalent about it.  Atheists will almost certainly put the book aside after reading, at most, the first four pages, and declare: “this book isn’t for me.”

How Long Does It Take to Publish a First Book?

Lucy Ayrton was featured on the Jericho Writers blog recently with her story about the time it took to get her first book published.  Lucy’s debut novel, One More Chance, is out 28th June (ebook and audio) and 15th November 2018 (paperback) with Dialogue Books. The novel follows the story of Dani, a London prison inmate, and combines physiological suspense with contemporary women’s fiction.

How long does it take to publish your first book

“The first time I thought I’d finished my novel was in November 2015. It was 80,000 words and it had a beginning, a middle and an end, and I’d given it to some friends for feedback and made some minor changes. I was DONE. Well done, me!

I sent it off to a couple of competitions and put my feet up, resolving to send it to some agents in the new year. I felt very, very pleased with myself.

The next time I thought I’d finished my novel was the summer of 2016.

I’d been shortlisted for one of the prizes I entered and had some feedback from agents and publishers. I’d done a rewrite, swallowed my pride, deleted a load of my beautiful, precious words to make way for new ones, and done another proof.

I mean … NOW I was done, right?

The next time was the spring of 2017. I had found a brilliant agent who loved my book and had some ideas of how to make it even better. We had worked on it together, tweaking, making changes, polishing and rearranging. Now, it was the eve of the London Book Fair and we were officially ready to send it out on submission. The book was surely finished.

In September that year I started working with my publisher and editor. Of course, the fact that “editor” is a job title should have tipped me off that she may want me to spend further time on the work. I was really happy about the changes that we were making together! It was exciting to be nearly finished.

In October that year I discovered that line edits were different to structural edits.

In November I discovered that copy edits are different again.

In January this year, I was sent a fully typeset manuscript to proofread. My book, typeset! Now for real it was done, hurray!

All I would have to do, I was sure, was have a quick skim through to make sure it was all in order – something I had done many times before – tell them it was all okay, and we were off. I set aside a whole day to do this, which seemed excessive. I figured I would probably be able to knock off and go to the pub mid-afternoon.

In late March, after a fair few back and forths and me spending an entire panicked weekend staring at a text, believing myself to have forgotten how to read. (Professional proofreaders spend FIFTY HOURS with a novel, guys! It turns out you can’t knock it out in a long afternoon.) I got an email from my production manager. She said that this was the very last round of edits, and that after this one, we wouldn’t make any more changes – it would be sent to the printers. It would finally and truly be done.

As I emailed back the approval, I didn’t feel as triumphant as I thought I would. I felt a little bit sad, almost scared. I’d spent so long with that book, with my protagonist and in my world. I didn’t really want to let her go. I love that book. What if I couldn’t write anything as good ever again? I almost didn’t want to sign the proofs off.

But I did it. I hit send, and I turned back to my work in progress. And over the next couple of weeks, I found I had a lot of energy on this new project. It seems so unlikely that a scrappy little manuscript will ever come to anything, but I think this one can. I know I could do it again, you see, because I’ve done it before.

I’ve finally finished a novel.”

Review: Another Country

I bought this book at an airport bookshop in May, because I’ve never read anything by James Baldwin.  I’m glad I did, because Another Country is like no other novel I’ve read.

James Baldwin was born in Harlem, NY in 1924.  His mother left his biological father because of his drug abuse.  She then married a Baptist preacher, David Baldwin, with whom she had eight more children.  Young Baldwin was treated harshly by his step father, but he followed in the elder Baldwin’s footsteps to become a junior minister.  He later described himself as not religious, but his church experience clearly influenced his world view and his writing.  In 1948, Baldwin emigrated to Paris, discouraged by the racial prejudice in the US and aware that he was gay.  He spent most of the rest of his life in France, returning to the US a number of times to participate in the civil rights movement.  He wrote six novels, of which Another Country is the third, two plays, nine collections of essays and one collection of poems.  He died in 1987.

James Baldwin

Another Country begins with Rufus, a young, black drummer from Harlem who has fallen on hard times, with drugs, too much alcohol, too few gigs.  Rufus meets Leona, a poor, white, Southern girl in a bar.  They go to a party, have sex and she follows him to his place, where Vivaldo, Rufus’ only friend, a failing writer, who is white meets them.  The three of them encounter Cass who is married to Richard, Vivaldo’s friend and high school English instructor, who is about to publish a novel he has written. Rufus drifts into a homosexual prostitution encounter, and losing his self esteem, beats up Leona and self destructs, committing suicide.

The scene then shifts to Ida, Rufus’ adoring sister, who becomes Vivaldo’s lover, but there is constant friction between them over their respective identities. They meet Steve Ellis, who is a promoter working with Richard.  Ellis senses singing and sexual talent in Ida.

The scene shifts to France where Eric, a bisexual friend of Vivaldo and Cass is making arrangements to travel to New York to take up a lead role in a play, and must take temporary leave from his young French boyfriend, Yves.

In New York, Cass, who has become estranged from Richard, has an affair with Eric, and Vivaldo who is desperate with suspicion over the affair between Ida and Ellis, also has a fling with Eric.

Richard learns of his wife’s infidelity with Eric; he had suspected Vivaldo; he is enraged but they are talking.  Ida confesses her unromantic affair with Ellis, and they, also are talking.   Yves and Eric meet at Idlewild airport.

This novel has a beautifully crafted, credible plot.  It delves into a nether world of drugs, music, self-gratification and self-deception. It deals with perceptions of racial identities on both sides of the divide in the US: neither blacks nor whites are happy, to the detriment of society generally.  It also deals with the gaps between actual and longed-for identities, and masculinity, which can lead to self-destruction.  As such, it is a portrait of a dysfunctional society.  One cannot help but feel that in the 1960’s when Another Country was published the portrait was accurate for some.

The only criticisms I have of Another Country are that some of the dialogue, while realistic, is just chit-chat and does not add value for the reader.  Similarly, some of the narrative about the perceptions and feelings of characters can be lengthy, complex and therefor loses some focus and clarity.  Finally, the environment of the relationship between Cass and Richard isn’t clear enough to support either Cass’ disappointment or Richard’s outrage.  I can only theorise that Baldwin did not have experience of long-time heterosexual relationships.

If you haven’t read Another Country, I highly recommend it.

Editing Isn’t Easy (for the author)

I have finished the manuscript for my latest novel.  I’ve read and re-read it several times, always finding small things that needed to be improved.

It was time to call in a professional editor, and I wanted a good one.  The editor who worked on Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives didn’t seem to understand that there were three narrators: a universal narrator, God’s representative, and the devil’s representative.  She objected repeatedly when the latter two infrequently appeared, even though each of them introduced himself (or herself) on their first appearances.  This lack of understanding seemed to colour her experience of the novel in a negative way.  Only one of the reviews since publication has disliked this device.  One was almost ecstatic about it.  From my point of view, it didn’t take a great deal of brainpower to figure it out.

Author or Editor?

So, finding a good editor isn’t easy, even though there are literally thousands of them who have set out their shingles on the Internet.  I started off trying one of the ubiquitous websites that promises all manner of help for the Indie writer.  Their offering was that they have a stable of scores of editors, and that all I had to do was specify the type of editing, and the genre of the novel.  I didn’t want copy editing (spelling, punctuation and basic grammar), and I didn’t need a re-write editor.  What I wanted was a structural editor, who would pay attention to what could be deleted, what should be added or clarified.  My input yielded the names of five editors.  To each of them I sent a message: “Yes, tell me more!”  All five of them declined; some for workload reasons; some for “don’t do that genre” reasons.

At that point, I threw the Indie approach out the window, and started looking at professional editing websites.  Having narrowed it down to one website, there were two named editors, both of whom liked working on inspirational novels, and both had glowing testimonials.  I sent each of them the synopsis.  The woman said she would take a month longer than the man.  They both were charging $0.03 per word.  I went with the man, who was enthusiastic about working on a novel about fear of dying.

The editor overran his completion target by two weeks, but he sent me several “almost finished” emails.  Then, he wanted my postal address to send me the physical edited manuscript.  There was no soft copy.  He offered to get it scanned for an extra hundred dollars.  The problem for me is that I spend the summer in Sicily, which has a third world postal service.  It took two more weeks for the physical manuscript to arrive.

I found it somewhat easier to make corrections from the physical manuscript, with the original soft copy on my laptop than to switch back and forth between copies on my laptop.

The editor was very conscientious about use of commas (I use too many); he frequently broke my long sentences into two (I generally felt he was right); he corrected my use of ‘that’ vs ‘which’ (as a result, I’ve learned the ‘that vs which rule’); he put a full stop after each abbreviated title (Dr. vs Dr).  Actually, in the UK we don’t put a full stop after Mr.; it’s always just Mr; perhaps he should have asked, because the manuscript is set in London.

He commented when a point in the text wasn’t clear, and usually, I would make a clarification.  Exception: when he challenged a character’s statement to her husband that he had determined the gender of their unborn child.  I left the text unchanged and pointed out to the editor that the male sperm determines the child’s sex, the egg is neutral.

Occasionally, he would suggest that I show the emotion a character is feeling, rather than just have him/her express it.  Being a relatively non-emotive person, I have let the characters say what they feel, but gradually I have realised that it deepens the reader’s experience to have a character express and show her feelings.

The most difficult part for me was the very frequent suggestion to ‘skip this’ of ‘drop this character’.  The compromise I worked out was that I would eliminate the social, chit-chat portions of dialogue that make it seem more real but don’t add any value for the reader.  I also scrutinised scenes to eliminate portions which seemed real, but added no value.

Here is what I said in my email to him: “You made a number of recommendations to cut scenes and characters on the basis that they tended to “stop” the story/plot.  Leaving aside that to do so would have reduced the manuscript to a sub-saleable size, your advice seems to imply that a fictional biography has a linear story/plot.  I would argue that no one has a linear life; rather, it is a collection of kaleidoscopic experiences and characters that, in the end, make us who we are.

“I have tried to structure Fear of Dying with Bertie’s fear of death as the central theme, and with three supporting themes which converge on the central theme and moderate it.  The supporting themes are Bertie’s views and feelings about family, vocation and faith.  Having read the manuscript through an extra time, I’m confident that every scene and every character supports the development of at least one of the supporting themes.  If I had a doubt about the relevance of a scene or character, I had Bertie express his view.”

His response was to the effect of “it’s your novel, you decide.”

So, my next hurdle is finding an agent.  I’ll let you know how that works out.

Rules for Acquiring Editors

Publishers Weekly ran an article 10 Rules for Book Editors by Jonathan Karp on 20 October 2017.  I’ve rediscovered it and I think it’s worth sharing here partly because of what he says (interesting) and partly because of who he is.

Simon and Schuster’s press release dated 6 March last year says: “Jonathan Karp has been promoted to President and Publisher, Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing, effective immediately.  In this new role, he will have overall responsibility for Simon & Schuster’s New York–based adult trade publishing, which includes Atria Books, Gallery Books, Scribner, Simon & Schuster, Touchstone and their associated sub-imprints and lines, and he will report to President and CEO Carolyn Reidy. Mr. Karp will also continue to serve as Publisher of the Simon & Schuster trade imprint.”

Jonathan Karp

His article is excerpted below:

” I’ve been acquiring books for 25 years, and there are times in the acquisitions process when I don’t even agree with myself! With that caveat, here are some general rules for thinking about trade acquisitions.

1. Love it

This is the most common advice given by acquisitions editors, but it raises questions. Is it possible to love many books at the same time without winding up in a polyamorous predicament? Would it be easier on the editor’s heart to arrange a few marriages of convenience? Some editors fall in love too easily. Others withhold their love with such discipline that it’s an event whenever they want to buy something. The inescapable truth is that each new acquisition marks the beginning of a relationship, one in which you will be reading an author’s work closely and engaging in what is usually an extensive conversation and collaboration. If you don’t begin that relationship with enthusiasm or desire, the project is likely to become a grind or a burden.

2. Wait for Authority

Whether the work is fiction or nonfiction, readers respect authors who deeply understand their subject. It’s apparent when a writer is in command, and this command is the surest justification for asking readers to devote hours of their time to a book. It’s possible for someone who deeply understands a subject to write an authoritative book in less than 12 months, but it’s unlikely. The 2015 and 2014 winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Anthony Doerr and Donna Tartt, each took about a decade to write their books. Editors should learn to recognize when a book will be worth the wait, contractual due date or not.

3. If You Cry, Buy!

I once asked publisher Jamie Raab why she had the confidence to spend a vast sum to acquire a first novel. She responded, “I cried at the last page.” Her reaction was purely emotional, and she was right not to overthink it. The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks went on to become a phenomenon. Often the books readers most enthusiastically embrace are the ones they experience emotionally, not just intellectually.

4. Make a Promise, Have a Purpose

Some altruistic readers out there might hope to better the world through their book purchases, but many potential consumers are probably asking, “What’s in it for me?” The works most likely to appeal to them are the ones that make them the most direct and appealing promise. In 2015 the nation’s number-one nonfiction bestseller was The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up—an inspired promise, because it is within every lazy slob’s reach and does not strain credulity.

5. Resist the Urge to Acquire in Slow Periods

One of my colleagues, when asked by strangers what he does for a living, tells them, “I read bad books so you don’t have to.” But what happens when the book isn’t bad? What if it’s good but not great? The most frequent comment I hear from less experienced acquisitions editors is “I’m on the fence.” If you’re on the fence, get off, don’t buy it, and find something else to read.

6. Tell Me Something I Don’t Know

Chris Matthews always used to end his Sunday-morning TV show with a segment called “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know,” in which his guests had to offer one piece of news. On an elemental level, books serve the same purpose. On some hot topics, such as abortion or gun rights or immigration, readers can’t be told anything because they’ve already made up their minds. Other topics aren’t urgent enough to require attention. An agent once sent me a proposal for a book on procrastination. I decided readers would never get around to buying it.

7. Know the Audience

One reason editors tend to specialize in certain categories is that they become familiar with the tastes of the most active buyers in those categories. An experienced editor of crime fiction may sense that a novel is too wild or too mild for the intended audience. A history editor will know whether a “new” Lincoln biography on submission says anything distinctive enough to spark commentary. Conversely, an editor who really knows her market may spot a niche that hasn’t been filled.

8. Have Your Own Ideas . . .

Great acquisitions editors are always thinking of books they’d like to publish. Ann Godoff suggested to her author Ron Chernow that he write a biography of John D. Rockefeller. At Random House, Kate Medina pursued Tom Brokaw for a long time before he wrote The Greatest Generation. In the early 1980s, Simon & Schuster editor Alice Mayhew was sharing a cab home with a young magazine reporter. She asked him to write a group biography of the men most responsible for America’s international leadership after World War II. The writer was Walter Isaacson, and that conversation marked the beginning of an editorial relationship that has lasted more than 30 years.

9. Don’t Be Cynical

There are certain books for which there is almost always an audience, but they have to withstand scrutiny. Maybe there’s an author capable of convincing me that The Macaroni and Cheese Diet will reduce my waistline while also boosting my productivity, but the evidence would have to be compelling. Don’t assume that a book will sell because the author is famous or well connected. A personality in search of an idea is a waste of time. Be wary of sequels, too. A literary agent once tried to convince me to pay a large advance for an author’s second memoir. When I asked him to name one author whose subsequent memoir had outsold the first book, the agent’s only response was . . . “Proust.”

10. Have Conviction

Great editors push hard for the works they want to publish. At Simon & Schuster, Editor in Chief Marysue Rucci felt such conviction about a novelist named Matthew Thomas that we did not hesitate to make an offer for his first novel, We Are Not Ourselves. She knew the audience (readers of sophisticated fiction who love books with a strong female protagonist). She had a purpose (to give voice to an indelible portrait of the impact of Alzheimer’s disease on a family). And to top it all off, the novel made Marysue cry, so she was certain of its emotional power. Upon its publication, We Are Not Ourselves was an instant bestseller and one of the best-reviewed books of 2014. If you’re a new editor, your fresh perspective is the one advantage you’ll have over the weathered veterans who have been evaluating manuscripts for years. If a new voice speaks to you, persist in your crusade on behalf of that writer. The lack of a successful precedent is often used as a reason for not publishing a book, but it can also be the reason that a book will connect with the public: precisely because no writer has ever done it quite this way, and quite this well, before.”

All of this, for me, makes sense, except that I would entitle number 9 “Be Cynical Sometimes”.

Don’t Be Precious

The IBPA Independent magazine ran an article in the December 2017 issue which I missed at the time, but has recently re-surfaced.  It caught my attention because the full title is “Don’t Be Precious (with Your Ideas)”.

It was written by Scott Berkun, who, according to the Independent, is a bestselling author and popular speaker on creativity, philosophy, culture, business, and many other subjects. He is the author of six books, including The Myths of Innovation, Confessions of a Public Speaker, and The Year Without Pants.

Scott Berkun

“Three magic words for people who create things are: Don’t be precious. Being precious means you’re behaving as if the idea you’re working on is the most important thing in the history of the universe. It means you’ve lost perspective and can’t see the work objectively anymore. When you treat a work in progress too preciously, you trade your talents for fears. You become conservative, suppressing the courage required to make the tough choices that will resolve the work’s problems and let you finish. If you fear that your next decision will ruin the work, you are being precious.

“When I see a young writer struggling to finish a book, I say “don’t be precious.” If you truly love your craft, there are an infinity of projects in your future. There will be other chapters. Whatever you’re making, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Perfection is an illusion.

“Obsessing about every little choice is a surefire way to prevent great work from happening. Try a bold choice. Put the beginning at the end, or the top at the bottom. Blow your work up into jagged pieces and put them back together. You might just find this opens doors you didn’t even know were there. If you’re too precious, you miss the hundreds of big choices that might reveal the path to completion, or convince you the project is a puzzle that needs to be abandoned for a time. But if you spin your wheels faster and faster on smaller and smaller details, you’ll never move anywhere. You’ll never call anything finished, denying yourself the essential experience of looking back from a distance and learning from what you’ve already made.

“Some Buddhist monks make mandalas, intricate paintings made from colored grains of sand. When completed, the mandalas are destroyed. It’s a recognition that while your work might mean everything to you in the moment, in the grand scheme of your career, your life, and the universe itself, it’s just another thing that will someday fade away.

“Of course, it is important to strive for greatness. You should care deeply about people and ideas that matter to you. To make good things requires intense effort and practice. There’s a long history of masters, from Michelangelo to Twyla Tharp, who obsessed about the smallest details of their works and demanded the best from everyone who worked with them. In some ways, they were very precious indeed. But they didn’t let those ambitions stop them from finishing their works.

“It’s rarely discussed, but all good makers leave a legacy of abandoned drafts, unfinished works, mediocre projects, and failed ideas—work that enabled them to learn what they needed to finish the projects they are famous for. If your high standards, or self-loathing, is preventing your progress, don’t be precious about it. It takes hundreds of experiences with the cycle of starting, working, and finishing creative works before you have the talent to make finished things that match the grandeur of the ideas in your mind.”

I thought this is an excellent piece of advice, not only for artists of all sorts, but for also for practitioners of life in general.

Does Reading Fiction Make Us Better People?

An article with this title by Claudia Hammond was posted on the BBC Future website two days ago.  Not surprisingly, it caught my attention.

Claudia Hammond’s page in Wikipedia says that she is a British author, occasional TV presenter, and frequent radio presenter with the BBC World Service and BBC Radio 4.  Born in 1971, she was educated at Sussex University (applied psychology) and Surrey University (MSc health psychology) and has written three non-fiction books on psychological subjects.

Claudia Hammond

The article is quoted in full, below:

Every day more than 1.8 million books are sold in the US and another half a million books are sold in the UK. Despite all the other easy distractions available to us today, there’s no doubt that many people still love reading. Books can teach us plenty about the world, of course, as well as improving our vocabularies and writing skills. But can fiction also make us better people?

The claims for fiction are great. It’s been credited with everything from an increase in volunteering and charitable giving to the tendency to vote – and even with the gradual decrease in violence over the centuries.

Characters hook us into stories. Aristotle said that when we watch a tragedy two emotions predominate: pity (for the character) and fear (for yourself). Without necessarily even noticing, we imagine what it’s like to be them and compare their reactions to situations with how we responded in the past, or imagine we might in the future.

This exercise in perspective-taking is like a training course in understanding others. The Canadian cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley calls fiction “the mind’s flight simulator”. Just as pilots can practise flying without leaving the ground, people who read fiction may improve their social skills each time they open a novel. In his research, he has found that as we begin to identify with the characters, we start to consider their goals and desires instead of our own. When they are in danger, our hearts start to race. We might even gasp. But we read with luxury of knowing that none of this is happening to us. We don’t wet ourselves with terror or jump out of windows to escape.

Having said that, some of the neural mechanisms the brain uses to make sense of narratives in stories do share similarities with those used in real-life situations. If we read the word “kick”, for example, areas of the brain related to physically kicking are activated.  If we read that a character pulled a light cord, activity increases in the region of the brain associated with grasping.

To follow a plot, we need to know who knows what, how they feel about it and what each character believes others might be thinking. This requires the skill known as “theory of mind”.

With all this practise in empathising with other people through reading, you would think it would be possible to demonstrate that those who read fiction have better social skills than those who read mostly non-fiction or don’t read at all.

The difficulty with conducting this kind of research is that many of us have a tendency to exaggerate the number of books we’ve read. To get around this, Oatley and colleagues gave students a list of fiction and non-fiction writers and asked them to indicate which writers they had heard of. They warned them that a few fake names had been thrown in to check they weren’t lying. The number of writers people have heard of turns out to be a good proxy for how much they actually read.

Next, Oatley’s team gave people the “Mind in the Eyes” test, where you are given a series of photographs of pairs of eyes. From the eyes and surrounding skin alone, your task is to divine which emotion a person is feeling. You are given a short list of options like shy, guilty, daydreaming or worried. The expressions are subtle and at first glance might appear neutral, so it’s harder than it sounds. But those deemed to have read more fiction than non-fiction scored higher on this test – as well as on a scale measuring interpersonal sensitivity.

At the Princeton Social Neuroscience Lab, psychologist Diana Tamir has demonstrated that people who often read fiction have better social cognition. In other words, they’re more skilled at working out what other people are thinking and feeling.

People who read novels appear to be better than average at reading other people’s emotions, but does that necessarily make them better people? To test this, researchers at used a method many a psychology student has tried at some point, where you “accidentally” drop a bunch of pens on the floor and then see who offers to help you gather them up. Before the pen-drop took place participants were given a mood questionnaire interspersed with questions measuring empathy. Then they read a short story and answered a series of questions about to the extent they had felt transported while reading the story. Did they have a vivid mental picture of the characters? Did they want to learn more about the characters after they’d finished the story?

The experimenters then said they needed to fetch something from another room and, oops, dropped six pens on the way out. It worked: the people who felt the most  transported by the story and expressed the most empathy for the characters were more likely to help retrieve the pens.

You might be wondering whether the people who cared the most about the characters in the story were the kinder people in the first place – as in, the type of people who would offer to help others. But the authors of the study took into account people’s scores for empathy and found that, regardless, those who were most transported by the story behaved more altruistically.

Of course, experiments are one thing. Before we extrapolate to wider society we need to be careful about the direction of causality. There is always the possibility that in real life, people who are more empathic in the first place are more interested in other people’s interior lives and that this interest draws them towards reading fiction. It’s not an easy topic to research: the ideal study would involving measuring people’s empathy levels, randomly allocating them either to read numerous novels or none at all for many years, and then measuring their empathy levels again to see whether reading novels had made any difference.

Instead, short-term studies have been done. For example, Dutch researchers arranged for students to read either newspaper articles about riots in Greece and liberation day in the Netherlands or the first chapter from Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness. In this story, a man is waiting in his car at traffic lights when he suddenly goes blind. His passengers bring him home and a passer-by promises to drive his car home for him, but instead he steals it.  When students read the story, not only did their empathy levels rise immediately afterwards, but provided they had felt emotionally transported by the story, a week later they scored even higher on empathy than they did right after reading.

Of course, you could argue that fiction isn’t alone in this. We can empathise with people we see in news stories too, and hopefully we often do. But fiction has at least three advantages. We have access to the character’s interior world in a way we normally do not with journalism, and we are more likely to willingly suspend disbelief without questioning the veracity of what people are saying. Finally, novels allow us to do something that is hard to do in our own lives, which is to view a character’s life over many years.

So the research shows that perhaps reading fiction does make people behave better. Certainly some institutions consider the effects of reading to be so significant that they now include modules on literature. At the University of California Irvine, for example, Johanna Shapiro from the Department of Family Medicine firmly believes that reading fiction results in better doctors and has led to the establishment of a humanities programme to train medical students.

It sounds as though it’s time to lose the stereotype of the shy bookworm whose nose is always in a book because they find it difficult to deal with real people. In fact, these bookworms might be better than everyone else at understanding human beings.

Review: Stony the Road

There was an article about this non-fiction book in either the New York Times or the Telegraph.  The book is subtitled, “Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow.”  It was the subtitle that caught my interest: I know very little about the period following the American Civil War.  I think I have been reasonably well educated in American history, but the late 1860’s and 1870’s are pretty vague for me.  For example, I knew that there was a period of Reconstruction during which the physical damage of the war was somewhat rebuilt and slavery was abolished in practice.  But I didn’t know what or how it was done.  I also knew there were carpetbaggers, who were bad people, but I didn’t know what they did.  And I knew there was Jim Crow, which, as far as I knew was short hand for treating black people badly.  I had therefor hoped that this book, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr, a distinguished professor at Harvard, would fully enlighten me.

The flyleaf in the book says this about Professor Gates: “(He) is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.  An award-winning film maker, literary scholar, journalist, cultural critic, and institution builder, Professor Gates has authored or coauthored twenty-four books and created twenty documentary films.”

Henry Louis Gates Jr.

The flyleaf also says, “Stony the Road examines America’ first post-war clash of images utilizing modern mass media to divide, overwhelm – and resist. Enforcing the stark color line and ensuring the roll back of the rights of formerly enslaved people, racist images were reproduced on an unprecedented scale thanks to advances in technology such as chromolithography, which enabled their widespread dissemination in advertisements, on postcards, and on an astonishing array of everyday objects.  Yet during the same period when the Supreme Court stamped ‘separate but equal’ as the law of the land, African Americans advanced the concept of the ‘New Negro’ to renew the fight for Reconstruction’s promise.  Against the steepest of odds, they waged war by other means: countering depictions of black people as ignorant, debased and inhuman with images of a vanguard of educated and upstanding men and women who were talented, cosmopolitan and urbane.”

There are references in the book to Redemption, a term applied to a renewal of local rule in the South, facilitated by white supremacists in the South, Reconstruction fatigue, and growing indifference in the North, and which led to the passage of Jim Crow segregation laws in the South, and the transition to the sharecropper scheme which kept the freed slaves in virtual slavery.

The book is a scholarly work of research detailing the strategies, the beliefs and the actions of leading blacks in the circumstances of extreme discrimination.  One can understand why, in the face of both white supremacy and indifference, the rather tepid response of the ‘New Negro’ was largely ineffective, and rampant racism continued in the United States for at least one hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

For me, the only disappointment in this book is its focus on black leaders responses to the events, while I was seeking a better understanding white reactions and inactions at the time.

Reading

There is an article in the February 18-25 issue of Time magazine that caught my eye.

It begins, “‘The book is dead’ is a refrain I hear often.  When I say what I do, people ask, ‘Does anyone read anymore?’   It’s a throwaway remark: the book is obviously dead, or at least dying, right?”

The author is Lisa Lucas, who is director of the National Bok Foundation, which celebrates the best literature in America, and is the presenter of the National Book Awards.

Lisa Lucas

Her response is: “False.  When people say fighting for books is a futile battle, that’s the moment when my optimism kicks in.  A person who wants to lament the death of reading with me is a person who wants to be convinced otherwise.  I’m here for this fight.

“Not long ago I came across the Pew Research Center finding that 24% of Americans didn’t read a book in 2017.  Now, what I saw was that 76% of Americans did read a book.  If three-quarters of any group is participating in an activity, then you ae surrounded by people doing that very thing.  Meanwhile, book sales have increased every year since 2013.  The American Booksellers Association, which promotes independent bookstores, says its membership grew for the ninth year in a row in 2018.  While headlines proclaim that books are dying, the research says we are a nation of readers.

“Of course, we know that not everyone reads.  But we need to better understand who does and why, and how to encourage them to read more and more joyfully.  We need to figure out who has been left out of the conversation about books and welcome them into the fold with open arms.

“My colleagues at publishers, libraries, bookstores and literary nonprofits share such challenges. Our job is to build readers.  And we do this because the profound pleasures of a good book are for everyone, everywhere.  Storytelling is how we explore and make sense of this world and understand one another.   Because books absorb us and harness our imaginations, they are an essential medium for storytelling.

“Each day, more books are being published that speak to every kind of person, from every kind of place.  And so I believe readers can be built.  After all, we have unlimited invitations to this party.”

Review: Transcription

This is the new novel by Kate Atkinson.  I signed up for it last autumn, six months before it was published, because I very much liked A God in Ruins, her Costa Book Award winner in 2015 – her third time to win the award.

Kate Atkinson was born in York, England in 1951; she studied English Literature at Dundee University, winning her MA in 1974.  She went on to study for a doctorate in American Literature, but she failed at the oral examination stage.  She has written five Jackson Brodie novels, six other novels (three of which won the Costa Award or its predecessor, the Whitbread Award), two plays and a collection of short stories.  She lives in Edinburgh currently.

Kate Atkinson

The central character in Transcription is Juliet Armstrong, who, at age eighteen, becomes the typist in 1940 for the Security Service, MI5.  Her role is to transcribe the conversations a British agent has with German sympathisers: the Fifth Column.  Her boss thinks well enough of her that he gives her the assignment of getting close to Mrs Scaife, a German-sympathising British socialite, the wife of an admiral who has been interred for his pro-Nazi views.  Juliet succeeds rather well in this deception, arranging a meeting between Mr Vanderkamp, an American official opposed to war with Germany and who has access to US secrets, with Mrs Scaif, who intends to pass the information on to the Third Reich.  The pair are arrested as the information is passed between Vanderkamp and Scaife.  Juliet is also involved in the death of a pro-German woman who accidentally discovers that her conversations with the man she thought was a Gestapo are actually being recorded by the British.  Toward the end of the war, Juliet becomes sympathetic to the Russian cause, and an attempt is made to recruit her as a double agent for the British.

As usual, Ms Atkinson does a splendid job researching her subject matter, from the identities of the real-life players, to the settings, to the actual events and messages.  One is transported back to a blacked-out, war time London, where there was much going on in secret, well-lit places.  The principal characters: Juliet, her boss, Perry Gibbons, Godfrey Toby, the fake Gestapo, and Mrs Scaife as well as some of the minor characters are all distinctly drawn and entirely credible.  Ms Atkinson’s writing is confident and authoritative, leading the reader deftly into unexpected turns of events.  This is not a heavy, sinister novel; it has moments of humor and irony.

For me, there are two serious problems with this novel.  First, Juliet’s assignment as transcriber of the conversations is relatively unimportant in the war effort: nothing of significance is learned that will remotely affect the war’s outcome; and second, a large portion of the book is devoted to Juliet’s transcription efforts.  The novel would have been more interesting if it had more to do with Juliet’s spy persona, Iris Carter-Jenkins, and with more of the identity intrigue and double-dealing going on at high levels in MI5.  There were also some details that didn’t seem right to me.  For example, does it make sense for the man who has the power to force Juliet into a double agent’s role to bother sending her anonymous ‘You will pay for what you did’ messages?

This long-anticipated novel is not up to Kate Atkinson’s usual standards.