Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Karmic Life of Literature







What happens when you read a book?

The answer, perhaps, depends on the reader, the writer, and the book itself.

In a strictly biological sense, written information is received by the retina, processed by your brain in the primary visual cortex, and then interpreted in Wernicke's area, an area of the cerebral cortex devoted to understanding written and spoken language.

But there’s a little more to it than that. Something else happens when you read. Sometimes the book makes an impact that goes beyond the physical process of reading and retaining information. It interacts with other thoughts, memories, and ideas all ready floating around inside your head, and the seed of something new begins to form.

Maybe it’s the feeling of finding the perfect expression of what you’ve been dying to articulate your whole life. You decide, “This is my favorite book,” and it changes the way you perceive everything around you, or it strengthens perceptions you already had. Then that love inspires you to change some aspect of your life and that internal feeling becomes external.

Maybe you read Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut and you get “So it goes” tattooed across your foot. Or maybe, if you’re Seth Grahame-Smith, you read Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen in high school and ten years later you write a bestselling novel called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Or maybe, if you’re Michael Cunningham, you read Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and you write a book inspired by it called The Hours, for which you win a Pulitzer Prize. After that your book becomes a movie, and then Nicole Kidman wins an Oscar playing your interpretation of Virginia Woolf.

It’s this process that causes literature to regenerate itself and to form offspring: it’s an endless cycle of inspiration and creation, one that sometimes gets overlooked in the conception of books as dusty objects rotting on library shelves.

Virginia Woolf is an author that particularly embodies this karmic life cycle of literature, the rebirth of novels and essays as more novels, or short stories or poems, or new kinds of essays with new interpretations, or even as movies and songs. Emily Herr, Eve Sorum, and Matt Kivel are a part of this life cycle.


A sophomore at Emmanuel College, Emily Herr is fresh faced, with bright blue eyes and freckles, and speaks with a youthful enthusiasm. “I first heard about Virginia Woolf in one of my classes,” she says. “And I immediately thought of our zine.”

The zine she’s referring to was the brainchild of Emmanuel’s Feminist Coalition. An organization brand new to the campus, with Herr as one of its founding members, the Coalition had spent a few months putting up flyers and meeting once a week when they decided to try their hands at publishing. Each member was responsible for crafting an article for the zine, and after class, Herr knew immediately what she wanted to write about.

The piece the class read was A Room of One’s Own.

Published in 1929, A Room of One's Own attempts to address the reasons behind the lack of well-respected female writers in history. In it, Woolf comes to the now famous conclusion that women need money and a room of their own in order to write fiction.

“I was fascinated with the parts about Shakespeare's fictional sister that Woolf makes up,” Herr leans forward, her eyes wide. “Judith, I think her name was.”

Judith Shakespeare is a tool Woolf uses in a sort of historical experiment where gender is the only variable. Woolf molds Judith into a writer and genius that is every bit Shakespeare’s equal, but is denied the opportunities open to him because she is a woman. Woolf concludes that:

"Any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at."

Herr focused the article on Judith. She turned Judith from Woolf’s way of diagnosing the problem into a call to action for young women writers everywhere. She wrote: “Women may not have had the opportunity to create literary works as significant as Shakespeare but now here is our chance.”

A small booklet of about five pages, printed on plain computer paper with black ink, the zine circulated its way around the Emmanuel campus in March, in honor of Women's History Month.


Like Emily Herr, University of Massachusetts Boston Professor Eve Sorum’s first experience with Woolf was also A Room of One’s Own. She fondly recalls a friend handing it to her in high school. “She said, ‘Here’s a book about writing and about feminism. I think we’ll like it.’”

Sorum laughs. “I don’t remember how much I actually understood of it,” she reflects, “but after that I read some of her novels and I had this sense that even though I wasn’t necessarily getting everything that she was saying, there was this new way of opening up my way of thinking about what words could do.”

This new way of thinking led to a passion Sorum pursued in college, where she focused her studies on literary modernism, the literary period following World War I that inspired authors like Woolf to break from traditional forms. Sorum now teaches a class at UMass that reads Woolf’s work exclusively. Sorum engages with Woolf’s texts on a day to day basis. Essentially, studying Woolf is what pays Sorum’s bills.

In the classroom, Sorum has students sit in a circle. She stands in the center or walks about the room, gesturing gracefully, her piercing blue eyes demanding attention and response as she writes questions and notes on the whiteboard.

“She (Woolf) seems to be morphing in so many ways as a figure. It’s both what makes it fabulous to teach but it also makes it difficult.”

Sorum says there are a wide range of reactions from students. They attempt to classify her based on things they’ve heard or seen. Some understand her as simply a feminist writer; others know little or nothing at all about her prior to taking the class. For many, The Hours is the only conception they have of Virginia Woolf: a mentally unstable woman with an uncommonly large nose who drowns herself in a river.

But as the class progresses, conceptions change. “One of the students in the class who writes fiction said: ‘Reading this… it felt like, oh! This is how I want to write.’” Sorum pauses before continuing. “And it was amazing to me,” she says finally, “thinking that here is a young man in the early twentieth century, saying this, and there is still that sense of excitement and possibility with her language and what she’s doing.”


The excitement and possibility felt by that writer in Sorum’s class was shared by Matt Kivel and his twin brother, Jesse. But Matt and Jesse weren’t so much focused on language. They wanted a new and different approach to looking at literature, and at Virginia Woolf as a writer: through the lens of music and songwriting.

Growing up in Santa Monica, California, the two decided to form a band. They called it Princeton, after the street they lived on. Princeton’s first EP was called “Bloomsbury,” in honor of the intellectual circle called the Bloomsbury Group that Virginia Woolf was a part of throughout the early twentieth century. Each song on the EP was inspired by a member of the group.

Princeton’s song “The Waves” is intended to be an account of Woolf’s thoughts as she commits suicide:

"But when it's over now
I'd say I'd know how
She would be hypnotized, watching the sky
And oh the songs we'd sing, when she'd come home to me
The masks and the jewelry, gifts from the land"

The song is a unique interpretation, with cryptic lyrics, an upbeat tempo and cheery instrumentation, with lots of bells, piano, and some ukulele.

In an interview with LA Record, Matt Kivel discussed the power of using different creative mediums to express an inspiration based on one thing.

“Looking at a painting of a mountain—a photo, a film, all of a mountain and writing a song or book about a mountain—they can describe the same thing but the beauty of these different mediums is they do it in different ways.”

He continued: “What’s interesting is you can convey nuances of the same object using different mediums. In music, melody and mood and texture create a much more immediate reaction in a person’s mind. You can feel a certain way and you don’t have to think about it.”


Princeton’s interpretation of Virginia Woolf’s suicide is very different from the movie version in The Hours and different from the book The Hours. All are undeniably very different from the actual event itself, which happened almost seventy years ago. But this process of reinvention, of these different interpretations, has kept the memory of the original event alive, and kept Woolf’s work alive as well.

Great literature and great writers continue to morph even after the page is printed and the funeral finished. Ideas beget new ideas, and the next time you read, you may find yourself a part of the cycle.

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