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  • Ginni Chen 8:55 pm on 2015/10/07 Permalink
    Tags: advice, , , literature majors,   

    Ask a Literary Lady: My Parents Say Literary Studies Don’t Help. Thoughts? 

    ginni0202Dear Literary Lady,

    I’m in college and I love taking literature classes, but my parents say they won’t prepare me for the world and I should focus on classes that lead to a career. They say I can read novels in my own time. What do you think? 

    –K.C., Riverside, CA

    Dear K.C.,

    Wow, that’s a tough one! It’s hard to argue with parents, especially when they want what’s best for you and have your future interests at heart and desperately hope you don’t become a struggling artist and wonder when you’ll give them grandchildren…sorry, what was I saying?

    I’m not going to tell you your parents are wrong. I’m not going to assure you that the world is ripe with opportunity for literary enthusiasts. I’m definitely not going to tell you what to do or what to major in. Nobody can, or should, tell you these things, least of all some girl who calls herself Literary Lady and dreams about reading ten novels a day and befriending famous writers.

    What I will tell you is what English literature classes taught me, and how it applies to work.

    1. How to write, and write well.
    Writing well is an invaluable skill, and likely one you’ll use every day. Whether you’re writing an article, marketing copy, a legal brief, or even just a very persuasive email to a client, you need to write well to succeed on just about any career path. Plus, any on-the-job writing assignment will forever seem easy to you if you’ve already written three term papers on Ulysses.

    2. How to communicate articulately.
    Literature classes often require you to participate in class discussion daily. You have to discuss, in front of your peers and your professor, complex thoughts around “postmodernism” and “expressions of the human condition.” This is excellent practice for all the meetings you’ll have to attend in life. For reasons unfathomable to me, people love having meetings and asking everyone to weigh in on things like “strategy.” With years of English literature discussion under your belt, you’ll excel in this area, even when you’re half asleep and didn’t do the assigned reading.

    3. How to use big words and little words at the right times.
    Literature teaches you the power of using big words and little words as required. Sometimes, simple vocabulary and a short direct statement has a powerful lasting effect. For example, “Dude, no.” Sometimes, you need more verbiage and extra fancy vocabulary to sound like you’re actually doing work; for example, “I’ll liaise with the relevant parties to facilitate discussion of these terms.” You’ll use both at various moments throughout your career to sound decisive and important.

    4. How to read between the lines.
    Much of literary interpretation requires reading between the lines—how else would we know Niccolo Machiavelli was being satirical in The Prince or that Shakespeare had a sense of humor? Work life requires much of the same. You’ll spend a lot of time sussing out what people are really saying in their emails, and predicting what your passive-aggressive coworkers want from you.

    I may say some of this in jest, but the truth is studying English literature gave me a foundation of skills that have been helpful in my career pursuits and daily work life.  I’ve never regretted what I studied, and never felt ill-equipped because of it.

    My parting advice? Figure out some career paths you’d be interested in pursuing. Talk to your parents about what you want to do, and how literary studies and all your other classes specifically contribute to that. Parents tend to worry less if you actually have a plan.

    Love and paperbacks,
    Literary Lady

  • Ginni Chen 3:30 pm on 2015/09/23 Permalink
    Tags: advice, , , calvin trillin, , here is new york, , the historical atlas of new york city,   

    Can Reading Help the New York City Blues? 

    Dear Literary Lady,

    I’ve grown weary of New York City over the years, but I’m trapped here because of work, family, and other obligations. What can I read to help me get over my disenchantment with where I live? I want to love the City again and stop being miserable here.

    –T.C., New York, NY

    Dear T.C.,

    Dorothy Parker once said, “As only New Yorkers know, if you can get through the twilight, you can live through the night.”

    It sounds like you’re going through the twilight of your unhappiness with New York City. Feeling trapped here, whether it’s because of your job, your loved ones, or other responsibilities, can exacerbate the sense of being crushed by the City—by its buildings, its hordes of people, its constant noise and movement.

    Books have always had the ability to pull people through the night, both literally and figuratively, and to bequeath upon readers new perspectives on their environment. Whether it’s New York City you’re sick of or any city in the world, from Tokyo to Middletown, reading the right books can make you a little more patient, a little more appreciative, and maybe a little happier.

    Here are my suggestions:

    1. Read nonfiction
    Because nothing reignites a sense of wonder with a place than learning something new about it. If you’re bored of a place and think everything in New York is in the “been there, done that” category, you need a couple of good nonfiction reads. It’ll make you stop and look at the bridges, the parks, the buildings, and everything around you a little differently.

    2. Read about what irks you
    Because reading about whatever frustrates you most helps you understand it and tolerate it. Hate rats? There’s a book for that. Does the subway infuriate you? There are dozens of books for that. Absurd housing prices? Read about it. Right now, all the things you dislike about the City probably feel senselessly annoying, but reading about them will calm you down and help you deal with them better.

    3. Read slice-of-life essays
    Because if you don’t have time for an entire book about New York, short essays about Manhattan living are the perfect pick-me-up. There are some wonderful City-centric essays out there. Some are funny anecdotes, some are descriptive scenes from Manhattan living, some are rants and raves. All of them will make you embrace of the quirks of living where you are.

    4. Browse photography books
    Because sometimes words don’t help, and beautiful pictures are good for the soul. Also, photographers have the uncanny ability to make everyday things you think are ugly (subway platforms, trash, crowds of people) look surprisingly intriguing.

    5. Write
    Because bottling it up does nobody any good. Write down your observations, your thoughts, and your feelings about the City. You’re disenchanted with it these days, but for all you know, you might have some very funny or insightful things to say from out of that frustration. And by venting it all on paper, you’re joining the ranks of some very distinguished writers who have long been inspired by the city that never sleeps!

    6. Read something funny.
    Last of all, look for the humor in your situation. There are countless essays, novels, and literary snippets that poke fun at the absurdity of living on this overcrowded island. Read them, chuckle at them, and you’ll feel a little less sick and tired about where you are.

    You’ll get through the twilight with a good book or two, and if the night still isn’t over, just keep reading.

    Good luck,
    Literary Lady

  • Ginni Chen 4:00 pm on 2015/08/19 Permalink
    Tags: advice, , , ,   

    Ask a Literary Lady: How Do I Stop Missing My Stop? 

    Orphan Train

    Ginni at B&NDear Literary Lady,

    Whenever I read on the train or the bus, I get so absorbed I miss my stop, I’m late to wherever I’m going, and then I have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Help!

    – B.F., Washington D.C.


    Dear B.F.,

    Oh the Curse of the Commuter Bookworm! Every morning it befalls another unsuspecting, unlucky reader.  I know it well because it happened to me at least twice a day all throughout grade school.

    The curse usually strikes when a book is not just good, but too good. So good that it’s miss-your-stop worthy. You become so absorbed in a fictional world that you can’t help but tune out the real world and you can think only of turning the page.  You’re enjoying reading so much that your commute seems too short.  In fact, let’s face it, you’re having more fun with your novel than whatever you have to do at whatever place you’re going.

    So how do you stop missing your stop? Here are a few things to try:

    1. Don’t wear headphones.

    True, you won’t be able to block out the screaming baby or the businessman jabbering on his phone, but you’ll need your aural senses to be alert to transportation announcements while your eyes are busy devouring the pages of your book.

    2. Set a timer or a reminder on your phone.

    If your commute is 47 minutes, set your phone to vibrate/beep 45 minutes after you get on the train. Once it goes off, put your book down and muster all the discipline you have to sit tight for the next two minutes!

    3. Bookmark your book beforehand.

    Figure out how many pages you can safely read before you approach your stop. If you can always read 20 pages during your commute, insert a bookmark 20 pages ahead. When you reach the bookmark, take a break and check if you’re almost at your destination.

    4. Stand during your commute.

    That seat might be tempting, but you’re less likely to get too comfortable and miss your stop if you’re standing. Moreover, if you’re standing, you’re more apt to feel the train or bus lurching to a stop and you’ll look up to see if you’re almost there.

    5. Hold something in your other hand.

    It sounds weird but holding something in your hand is going to make you less comfortable, and anything that makes you less comfortable means that you’re less likely to sink into the pages of your novel with abandon.  It could be anything—a travel mug of coffee, your lunch bag, a pen, a yoyo—whatever you’re holding will make turning the pages more difficult and you’ll start to wonder how many more stops you have to go.

    6. Sit or stand next to the door.

    The constant stream of people exiting or entering the vehicle will distract you just enough that you keep track of all the stops that are going by. Sometimes when you read, you lose all track of time. If you’re standing near the door and have to keep an eye out for incoming and outgoing passengers, you’ll remember where you are.

    7. Leave earlier.

    If you’re a repeat offender when it comes to missing your stop and being late, then know thyself and simply leave earlier. If you do manage to get off at the right stop, it’s perfectly ok that you’re thirty minutes early – you just bought yourself a little extra reading time!

    Lastly, don’t let a missed stop ruin your day. Everyone’s commute runs into unforeseeable delays, whether they’re reading or not. Think of it as a little detour that gives you just a few more minutes of calm before the storm.

    Love and paperbacks,

    Literary Lady

  • Ginni Chen 4:00 pm on 2015/08/12 Permalink
    Tags: advice, , , , , , ,   

    Ask a Literary Lady: Help! I Need to Fake My Book Club Reading! 

    Literary LadyDear Literary Lady,

    HELP! I have a book club meeting tonight and I didn’t read the book! How do I cover my tracks and ensure I’m not excommunicated from the book club and snubbed by all my literary friends?

    –M.L., Durango, CO.


    Dear M.L.,

    Ok, first of all, do not panic. The situation is salvageable, but you’re going to need to keep a calm and clear head to pull this off. Faking your way through a book club meeting is not for amateurs or the faint of heart. You’ll need to be able to withstand the scrutiny of an entire room, to pass an interrogation about the novel with flying colors, and to eat cookies nonchalantly as if you weren’t consumed by guilt.

    Now, in the few hours you have before your book club meeting, you must prepare to do the following:

    1. Bring food
    I cannot overstate the importance of this. Should you get caught in your lie, being the bearer of delicious treats will be your saving grace. It will keep you from being swiftly ousted from the book club, and it will buy you a second chance.

    2. Browse the book quickly. Now.
    In the little time you have remaining, browse the book. Note the names that pop up, where it takes place and the prose. Are there big descriptive paragraphs? Is there a lot of dialogue? Are there a million footnotes? All of this is good to remember when you’re faking your way through conversation about the book.

    3. Read one page in its entirety. Two if possible.
    Pick any one page, preferably in the middle of the book, and read it in its entirety. Whatever happens on that page is what you’re going to talk about during the meeting. If there’s a lull in conversation and someone turns to you expectantly and says, “So, what do you think, M.L.?,” you’ll reply, “Well, not to change the topic, but this particular scene stuck out in my mind.”

    4. Crack the book’s spine
    If you didn’t read the book, it probably looks brand spanking new. I know this is hard for many book lovers out there, but you’re going to have to wear it down a bit. Crack the spine, bend the pages back and forth. Make it look like a well-thumbed and well-loved novel.

    5. Pick out an “inside page” review
    Many books have review blurbs on the first few pages, in addition to the blurbs on the front and back covers. Few people read or even remember them. You’re going to pick one out, remember it, adapt it, and use it throughout the book meeting. Does a review call it “tenderly humorous” or a “triumph of empathy”? Then you’re going to say that you found the book “funny in a tender way” and “sympathetic to the human condition.”

    6. Turn the tables
    If you get asked a question you can’t answer, respond with another question. Use the Socratic method as much as possible when contributing to the book club discussion. If someone says, “M.L., did you like this character?” You respond by saying, “I was conflicted about that, actually. I’m curious, did you guys find the character likable?”

    7. Talk about the author’s intent.
    When in doubt, turn the conversation toward speculation about the author’s intent. Nobody ever actually knows what that is, so it’s easier to bluff your way through the topic. If someone says, “M.L., did you think that twist was a little absurd and unbelievable?,” you simply respond by saying, “Yes but I wondered if that was the author’s intent.”

    8. Smile.
    Nothing says, “I totally did the reading” like a big eager smile.

    It’s show time! Good luck out there,
    Literary Lady


  • Ginni Chen 4:00 pm on 2015/08/05 Permalink
    Tags: advice, , ,   

    I Hated Reading in School, I Want to Love it Now 

    photo 3Literary Lady is on vacation this week, but here’s a favorite question from the archives!

    Dear Literary Lady,
    I hated reading in school. I was a slow reader, I didn’t do well on book assignments, and I always felt dumb when I didn’t understand what was happening. A lot of my friends read for fun now and I wish I could enjoy it, too. Any advice?
    –SecondChances, Austin, TX.

    Dear SecondChances,

    I love your question because it’s courageous. We all think we are “bad” at something, but few of us are willing to give it another try.

    Nothing takes the joy out of an activity like being forced to do it, and I can understand how school may have left a bad taste for literature in your mouth. The books you read in school, however, are an infinitesimally small fraction of a vast literary world. There are so many books out there that are light years away from what you experienced in class. I’d hate to see you write off reading and miss out on them.

    Learning to love reading takes experimentation and it takes confidence. Experimentation is the easier task. Ask your friends for recommendations, check out our blog, or just browse a bookstore. Think about your interests—do you love animals, music, or worrying about zombies? There are great books on all these subjects. Try reading novellas, short stories, graphic novels, poetry, or plays. Different formats might be more enjoyable for you.

    What’s harder, and ultimately more important, is building your confidence. You are not “bad” at reading. You may have read more slowly than others in class, you may have struggled with class assignments, but you are not actually bad at reading. You read every day. You read texts, emails, work documents, nutrition labels, blogs, and directions. You’re great at reading, you just don’t connect with certain material. And that’s perfectly okay.

    Don’t beat yourself up because you don’t “get” a book or have trouble getting through it. Books were not written to stump you, test you, or judge you. Writers write to connect, to illuminate, and, as Ray Bradbury said, “to let the world burn through.” If one book doesn’t speak to you, trust that another book will.

    Lastly, change how you think of yourself as a reader. Don’t think about your shortcomings or your inexperience, focus on your taste and your preferences. Don’t let your time in school dictate your experiences with books, go forge your own. Don’t worry about what everyone else is reading, become an expert in your chosen genre of books. As Haruki Murakami said, “If you only read books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”

    Love and paperbacks,
    Literary Lady

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