Further Reading

Further Reading Presentations

Our studies into the craft of nonfiction can be enhanced by doing some further reading into these writers and their craft beyond the assigned text.  You will present in class some basic research into the writer you have been assigned; you will also initiate discussion into some element of this writer’s biography and/or craft that is of interest and that might provide some context for the book we are reading. With the final project at the end of the semester, you will be selecting a mentor from one or more of these authors to guide you in your own crafting of an essay; at that point, you can return to these further reading posts to delve more into the author and the elements of craft.

Here are the guidelines for this assignment:

  • Research. Find and provide a brief summary of an additional text by the author or about the author: another essay, a chapter from another book, an interview with the author (such as Paris Review), a critical essay or review of the author.
  • Connections. Make note of any elements of style or craft or particular topics in this further reading that might compare/contrast with the text we are reading: further evidence of how the writer writes and thinks that we can apply to our reading.  Identify an element or passage in the class text that you want to highlight for comparison in class discussion. As a way to develop this focus on craft, identify for discussion one philosophical, rhetorical or poetic element of writing relevant to this writer: for example, a particular rhetorical figure used, an element of the writer’s style or grammar you notice and want to highlight. Consult course resources such as Silva Rhetoricae and the Guide to Grammar and Writing. Make a link to whatever web resources you find relevant or useful.
  • Question. Sketch out one or two questions or ideas to raise for further discussion in class the day you present. Help us forward your further reading into a better grasp of the writer, his/her text and craft.
  • Publish. Write this up into a 1 page overview and post to this Further Reading page (copy into the “Leave a Reply” box); post before your class presentation. The presentation/discussion should be around 5 minutes. If you desire, you can combine your efforts with another person also scheduled to present on the same day, though will need to post your overview separately.

Schedule of Presentations:

3/18 Sontag: Karina

4/1 Schlosser: Meir

4/8 Schlosser: Karly

4/15 MultiMedia Essayists: Ann, Wendy

4/22 D’Agata or Gutkind: Doryann, Matt

5 thoughts on “Further Reading

  1. During an interview by Edward Hirsch for the Paris Review in 1995, Susan Sontag claims “writing essays has always been laborious. They go through many drafts, and the end result may bear little relation to the first draft; often I completely change my mind in the course of writing an essay.” Little wonder she turned from writing essays to writing fiction by the latter part of her career. She further comments about Hirsch’s notice of her turning from essays to fiction by 1995, “that I was having a kind of slow-motion, asymptomatic nervous breakdown writing essays. I was so full of feeling and ideas and fantasies that I was still trying to cram into the essay mode.” Throughout this interview Sontag makes clear she desires an emotional connection to accompany writing, that her model for prose is poet’s prose.” In On Photography, readers sense the undercurrent of Sontag’s questioning of the role of photos in modern culture throughout the essays. She tells us explicitly in the Paris Review interview the book started as an assignment to review the Museum of Modern Art’s display of Diane Arbus’s photos… “And then when I began writing it,” Sontag tells Hirsch, “I thought that it should start with a few paragraphs about photography in general and then move to Arbus. And soon there was a lot more than a few paragraphs, and I couldn’t extricate myself. The essays multiplied—I felt often like the hapless sorcerer’s apprentice—and they got harder and harder to write, I mean, to get right. But I’m stubborn—I was on the third essay before I managed to place some paragraphs about Arbus and the show—and, feeling I’d committed myself, wouldn’t give up. It took five years to write the six essays that make up On Photography.”
    Based on the interview, Sontag’s need to exhaust her ideas on photography distracted her while writing, and she lets go, entering a quest for understanding the role of photography in modern culture while adding to the modern body of criticism. Sontag’s role as a critic has invited criticism of its own. Cary Nelson, in an essay entitled “Soliciting Self Knowledge: Susan Sontag’s Criticism” Nelson ventures the idea that Sontag pushes for emotional exhaustion an effect, or even requirement for criticism, and he claims, “Throughout her work we feel a demand that criticism become a total occupation, a way of being in the world so completely that the self is at once fulfilled and forgotten.” His perception is supported by the journal entry of a sixteen year old Sontag: “I know what I want to do with my life … I want to sleep with many people— I want to live and hate to die—I will not teach, or get a master’s … I don’t intend to let my intellect dominate me, and the last thing I want to do is worship knowledge or people who have knowledge! … I intend to do everything … I shall anticipate pleasure everywhere and find it, too, for it is everywhere! I shall involve myself wholly … everything matters! … I am alive … I am beautiful … what else is there?” Her passionate desire to experience life fullyin this journal entry hints at the critic who passionately questions and runs to extinction her need to understand.
    On Photography provides an example of this pathos, especially in the context of the interview with Hirsch and her own words on writing the text. Sontag traces photography through several historical contexts and perspectives and throughout the essays, Sontag’s vocabulary implies an offense at how photography replaces personal experience, defines experience, and records experience so therefore becomes truth and history, without Sontag actually appearing offended. This dichotomy felt strange to me until I discovered Sontag’s long-term relationship with probably the most recognized photographer of all time, Annie Leibovitz, making Sontag’s perspectives even more interesting. The passion Sontag pours into On Photography highlights a period of time when modern art and ideas exploded. Ironically, today’s technology, ubiquitous in its ability to create images, makes Sontag’s On Photography appear more relevant today than it was in the 1970s.

    Some Links:
    http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1505/the-art-of-fiction-no-143-susan-sontag

    http://www.nytimes.com/indexes/2003/03/23/books/authors/index.html?inline=nyt-per

    http://www.stephanieboluk.com/teaching/articles/sontag_aids_and_its_metaphors.pdf

    http://www.nytimes.com/1978/01/30/books/booksspecial/sontag-cancer.html

    http://rhetoricofhealth.blogspot.com/2011/09/illness-as-metaphor-chapter-9-summary.html

    http://www.google.com/search?q=susan+sontag+young&hl=en&rls=com.microsoft:en-us:IE-SearchBox&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=RH1HUePJGMjk4AOXlICQBg&ved=0CDsQsAQ&biw=1600&bih=772

  2. In 2006 a British McDonalds executive agreed to meet Eric Schlosser on television for a debate. Much like many publicly held debates, both parties focused on one or two major points and repeated them as loudly as possible. Schlosser held the upper hand over the twenty minutes of the BBC aired debate, highlighted by his response to the McDonald’s executive stating that most customers come 3-4 times a month to which Schlosser points out that while this might be true, McDonalds does 80% of its business from 20% of its customers. Point to Schlosser.
    This statistic enforces Schlosser’s main problem with McDonalds. He argues that McDonalds focusses on marketing to young people, hoping to create brand loyalty and build taste in customers as young as 2 or 3 years old. McDonalds is trying to hook their customers young, reminiscent of what tobacco companies had done. If 20% of McDonald’s customers provide 80% of its revenue, McDonalds has succeeded in its marketing scheme and latched onto these people.
    In the Introduction to Fast Food Nation Schlosser states:
    This is a book about fast food, the values it embodies, and the world it has made. Fast Food has proven to be a revolutionary force in American life; I am interested in it both as a commodity and as a metaphor. What people eat (or don’t eat) has always been determined by a complex interplay of social, economic, and technological forces. The early Roman Republic was fed by its citizen-farmers; the Roman Empire, by its slaves. A nation’s diet can be more revealing than its art or literature.
    The mission is to analyze the specifics of fast food as a product and to explore what it means for American culture and its “values.” As a product, fast food is what we all know it to be, processed food that can cause endless health risks. As a representation of culture and values, Schlosser discovers that fast food represents a side of America that exploits anything and anyone for profit. The industry especially takes advantage of the young, immigrants, and the poor.
    Fast Food Nation is an exposition that attempts to inform readers of the ills that fast food presents. Schlosser approaches the topic dutifully, seeing it as a responsibility to provide the truth about something so integral to American culture, something that has come to represent the country.
    This approach comes from his devotion to the craft of journalism. In a presentation to the Campus Progress Student Conference, Schlosser discusses his initial inspiration: Deep Throat. He initially describes Bob Woodward as a hero journalist who had been in the thick of what eventually led to a toppled American president. He continues by stating that ever since the Watergate Scandal Woodward has acted as a suck up to anyone with power, and labeled him a fake.
    In this presentation, Schlosser states that journalism is dead. If anyone wanted to become a journalist, they would have to be good at “concocting entertainment” and supporting celebrities who did nothing to earn fame. To surmise his feelings Schlosser says that it is “tragic what’s happened to this profession.” According to him, journalism is dead.
    It is with this intensity that Schlosser writes Fast Food Nation. It is his Watergate Scandal. He has taken on the biggest of enemies and fought successfully. I would argue that Schlosser is a big part of the movement against fast food. As food and health continues to gain publicity and indeed, becomes trendy, fast food companies must react to keep up. Today fast food companies, especially McDonald’s, spend a lot of money promoting healthy options on their menu.
    While Schlosser successfully points out that fast food has represented the worst of American values for years, if the companies change and evolve with a public that demands the “premium health wrap”, maybe there is hope for us after all.
    Has Schlosser succeeded? Have Fast Food companies adopted healthier options for good? Is the war over?

  3. Published in 2003, three years after Fast Food Nation, Reefer Madness takes a close look at three divisions of the black market American economy: marijuana, migrant, mostly illegal, workers and the porn industry. In each of the chapters that make up Reefer Madness (“Reefer Madness,” “In the Strawberry Fields” and “An Empire of the Obscene,” Schlosser examines how the underground portion of the U.S. economy is inextricably linked to the mainstream. How, he wonders, can the American financial system be properly understood if 5% – 20% of its gross domestic product isn’t accounted for? Because pot and porn, two items that Americans publicly abhor and privately adore, also happen to be two that we buy in astonishing amounts. In 2001, the underground marketplace contributed an estimated $650 billion to the United States’ GDP.
    The chapters in Reefer Madness are much longer than those in Fast Food Nation (Schlosser even goes so far as to call them essays in his intro), but they seem stick to the same format: small scale introductions to large scale expositions, with plenty of chapter breaks sprinkled throughout. In “Reefer Madness,” (the first section, not to be confused with the entire book), he starts out with a personal story about an Indianan named Mark Young and returns to him at the end of the chapter. Young was arrested, and ordered to serve a life sentence without possibility of parole for introducing potential pot buyers to potential pot sellers. He had no record of drug trafficking and no history of violent crime. And his arrest occurred three years after the introductions, made solely based on testimony from co-conspirators cooperating with the government. Unlike Young, the average murderer in Indiana will spend 25 years in jail—an amount higher than the national average.
    After invoking the reader’s sense of pathos (something he excels at in Fast Food Nation), Schlosser takes a step back and examines the biological and chemical makeup of marijuana, noting that it can grow just about anywhere. In the US, pot is primarily grown in the heartland. Its value is an estimated $4 – $25 billion. Corn, on the other hand, contributed $10 billion to the U.S. economy in 2001.
    Schlosser then goes on to provide a detailed history of pot’s presence in the United States, its criminalization-de-criminalization roller coaster ride (not to mention the enormous amount of funds used to try to stop its spread) and its standing in our current judicial system.
    He hits on pathos again and again throughout the essay. At one point, Schlosser notes that Americans convicted of a marijuana felony may no longer receive federal welfare payments or food stamps, even if they’re disabled. Convicted murderers, rapists and child molesters remain eligible.
    Schlosser later lists a number of cases in which the sentences for marijuana felonies don’t seem to match their crime. Orland Foster, an AIDS patient in NC served fifteen months for growing marijuana; one of his cellmates served less time for killing a woman. Jim Montgomery, a paraplegic immobilized from the waist down who smoked pot to relieve muscle spasms was arrested when sheriffs found two ounces of it on the pouch on the back of his wheelchair and was tried and convicted, eventually given life in prison plus sixteen years (reduced to ten years by the judge).
    Throughout the essay, Schlosser follows the Fast Food Nation tactic of laying out the facts and letting the reader come to his or her own conclusions. While it’s clear that he feels that the level of worry in this country about marijuana has reached ridiculous levels of paranoia, he doesn’t come right out and say it. He presents his facts (that not a single death has ever been directly attributed to pot, that it was openly sold in pharmacies in the latter half of the nineteenth century and that its occasional use by a healthy adult poses no greater risks than moderate alcohol consumption). And he includes some of the bad press too, noting that it can cause bronchitis and other smoke inhalation-related illnesses. He also spends some time with an undercover DEA agent, investigating the personal side of the anti-marijuana movement. Schlosser is determined to allow his readers to draw their own conclusions, all while steering their course.
    Skipping ahead to the end of the book, it’s noticeable that he also takes the Fast Food Nation approach to his conclusion. He includes an epilogue, an afterword and notes. And backs up all of his research with pages upon pages of citation and explanation, opening the chapter with almost the exact same phrase with which he open his notes in Fast Food Nation, “Although I did a great deal of reporting and research for this book, I also benefited from the hard work of others (213).”
    Research, as usual with Schlosser, seems key.

  4. Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance

    The more I read, listened to and watched this week’s assignments, the more I was reminded of a film that I saw while an undergrad at the University of Vermont. This was about the same time Talking Heads came out with Stop Making Sense; they played on campus and it was the first and only time I saw them perform. I didn’t want to go but one of my roommates, Bob Vozar, told me I had to. He bought me tickets and took me to see the band. I was blown away and never stopped loving the work of the band or David Byrne. You could argue that Stop Making Sense, the film of the tour, is in its own way an essay employing music, lyrics, lighting, setting, choreography; Byrne’s songs are a piercing reflection of and skewering comment upon the cocaine ’80s, the paranoid and narcissistic time of “greed is good” and Ronald Reagan’s “star wars” initiatives, driven by an incessant beat, a stupidly frantic kind of pace and rhythm—he would run around on the stage, running in circles (no symbolism there, do you think?) sweating in his huge suit. Anyway, this seems a long time away from the environmental activism of today, but this was Vermont, where people love the natural world and tie themselves to trees, and when Koyaanisqatsi came to the movie theater, Vozar once again dragged me to it. You’ve got to see it, he said, and he was right about this, too.
    This film has no words, just music by Philip Glass. There are lyrics of a sort, deeply bass and almost dirge-like, sung in a manner that makes it sound like someone is singing through a digiridoo. It’s a dark and threatening theme, like a brewing thunderstorm on a too-hot day. It frequently employs a pipe organ, and you can’t avoid hearing religious symbolism in that choice of instrument, which you typically hear in cathedrals and no where else.
    The film was directed by Godfrey Reggio, who was born in 1940 and, according to the film’s website, spent 14 years in silence and prayer studying to become a monk. Koyaanisqatsi was his debut as a director. Website: “The title is a Hopi Indian word meaning ‘life out of balance.’ Created between 1975 and 1982, the film is an apocalyptic vision of the collision of two different worlds — urban life and technology versus the environment.” The word koyaanisqatsi can also be translated as crazy life, life in turmoil, disintegration, a state of life that calls for another way of living.
    Reggio says: “If one lives in this world, the globalized world of high technology, all one can see is one layer of commodity piled upon another. In our world the “original” is the proliferation of the standardized. Copies are copies of copies. There seems to be no ability to see beyond, to see that we have encased ourselves in an artificial environment that has remarkably replaced the original, nature itself. We do not live with nature any longer; we live above it, off of it as it were. Nature has become the resource to keep this artificial or new nature alive.” To me, this harkens to Fast Food Nation, in the sense of cultural homogeneity covering and consuming individualism the way kudzu kills an oak tree. And I also think Reggio’s film is, like Fast Food Nation, a sort of call to knowledge, a way of peeling back layers in order to make people see the world in a deeper way and, hopefully, question the status quo.
    Reggio: “The film’s role is to provoke, to raise questions that only the audience can answer. This is the highest value of any work of art, not predetermined meaning, but meaning gleaned from the experience of the encounter. The encounter is my interest, not the meaning. If meaning is the point, then propaganda and advertising is the form. So in the sense of art, the meaning of KOYAANISQATSI is whatever you wish to make of it. This is its power.”
    This seems to me another take on what John Bresland says about granting the audience “a lasting measure of imaginative space.” Its combination of music and image, but no words, also is an excellent example of what Ander Monson describes as literary hack: “An ingenious use of technology to accomplish something that is otherwise impossible to accomplish.”
    Mostly, though, I see it as a very early form of what people like Bresland, Rankin, and other video-essayists are now pursuing as a legitimate exploration of the genre. Reggio (and Glass, the composer) are taking us on a journey through their minds, their thoughts, their perceptions—they are essaying, literally—in an effort to do what Monson says is the “glorious attempt”—to rewire the brain, to jangle it from its ruts of perception and belief. It accomplishes, juxtaposing image and music, what Bresland says is the purpose of any essay: “to ask more than it answers,” and to “push toward some insight or truth.”

    Link to hear the theme: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=afkaCEoZj0w

    Link to the website:
    http://www.koyaanisqatsi.org/films/koyaanisqatsi.php

    Link to the trailer:

    Koyaanisqatsi
    From http://www.koyaanisqatsi.org/films/godfrey.php

  5. Inexhaustible Sources of Multimedia Humor

    Multimedia essay exploration has provided diverse examples of combining audible voice, music, and visual art. The narrative is still primary, but these interdisciplinary artists capture the audience in profound ways. My two favorite examples are David Sedaris and Jon Stewart. Each is unique, strange, and wonderful.

    David Sedaris fell into funny, finding his real life journey to be loaded with material. He was born in New York in 1956 but grew up in North Carolina, then attended several colleges but did not graduate. (He never went to Princeton, though he gave a comic baccalaureate address there in 2006, saying he did.) Sedaris dabbled in performance art and was discovered by Ira Glass in a Chicago club when he was reading his diary onstage. SantaLand Diaries debuted in 1992 and launched a serious career in humor and writing. He tells stories, not jokes.

    In 2007 The New Republic reported that much of Sedaris’ work is insufficiently factual to justify being called nonfiction. “Intentionally exaggerated and manipulated” seem to be reasonable charges. For our purposes, Sedaris is an excellent multimedia essay artist. He is sharing common human experience. His work is self-exposing and unpredictable, and his aural presentations are understated and hilarious. His style is succinct. Sedaris’ distinctive voice serves as great accompaniment to his confessions of flaws and self-awareness.

    Jon Stewart was born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz in 1962, in New York City. He was a bullied Jewish kid whose father left the family for his secretary when Stewart was young. He was voted “Best Sense of Humor” in high school and graduated from William and Mary with a degree in psychology. A succession of crazy, insignificant jobs, including counting mosquitoes, followed, and he worked comedy clubs relentlessly. He landed The Daily Show in 1999, and the ratings took off, winning numerous awards. He met his wife on a blind date, proposed to her through a professionally prepared crossword puzzle, and they both changed their names legally to Stewart.

    He has written books, but his rock star status derives from the spectacle of his TV show. Stewart injects comedy into current events, with visual gags and brilliant timing; his over-the-top reactions reinforce the tongue in cheek presentations of news. The Daily show gives the illusion of truth, and a large percentage of young people cite it as their main source of news. Stewart maintains that he is a comdian delivering satire, but he has become the most trusted man in fake news to an audience that is young, smart, and voting.

    As a multimedia artist, Stewart is able to prepare his audience for serious reflection and observation through his facial expression, gesture, and rousing music. And he’s intelligent, juxtaposing thoughts that enhance meaning. He actually presents a credible news show, developing larger points from isolated comments and news items. Stewart often says what we’re thinking and would not dare say, utilizing personal exposure and honesty. He loves a live audience.

    Seeing Sedaris and Stewart together is watching two pranksters turned icons. Both engage their listeners and challenge pre-conceived notions. They catch us unawares, injecting the unexpected and the improbable. Humor essaying is illuminating truth we might not otherwise be able to see and makes us laugh in the process, sometimes uncomfortably.

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