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Saturday in Boston

posted: 11.2.12 by archived

Come mid-semester, when responding to student writing starts to feel like a Sisyphean task, I need to remember that I have a mind, body, spirit separate from my identity as a grading machine. A bike ride or a walk in the woods will do that for my body; for my mind and spirit last weekend it was a day spent at the Boston Book Festival. Copley Square was packed with readers and writers trying to edge their way to the booths set up by independent bookstores, literary magazines, writers’ organizations and to line up outside auditoriums and beautiful old churches around the square to listen to writers and thinkers talk about their craft.

At home afterwards, when I was thinking back on the day, I realized how cleverly I had chosen out of all of the impossibly difficult choices (Lemony Snicket or Junot Diaz or Hanna Rosin, for example) four sessions that captured and reflected four of my key bookish roles: writer and reader, student and teacher.  (There’s nothing I love more than a neat classification scheme!)

Writer. The first panel I attended was titled Memoir: Parents and Children (with memoirists Buzz Bissinger, Alexandra Styron, Alex Witchel, and Leslie Maitland). I’ve been stalled at about page 220 of a memoir started after I turned 50, my mother died, and my three daughters weathered adolescence, so I was interested in what these writers had to say about their motivations for writing, the necessity of a narrative arc, their process of investigation, what they learned from writing, and how family and friends reacted.

Reader. Next I went to Fiction: Heaven Knows (with novelists Tom Perrota, Alan Lightman, Ben Marcus). These writers described their most recent novels (conveniently for sale in the church foyer). The premises were intriguing (a community’s response to a Rapture-like disappearance of dozens of its members; the explanation of the Creation from the point of view of Mr.g; a dystopic world in which the words of children have the power to kill their parents): all three were novels I happily added to the To Read list on my iPhone.

Student. The third presentation, The Brain: Thinking about Thinking, was the most crowded, with Big Thinkers Eric Kandel and Ray Kurzweil filling the pews of Trinity Church. They fed us little nibbles of Big Ideas on Memory and Art and Technology and Brain, material to fill a lifetime’s worth of study.

Teacher. The last session I attended was my favorite, a panel on The Future of Reading (with Nicholas Negroponte, Maryanne Wolf, Robert Darnton , Cheryl Cramer, and Baratunde Thurston). Wolf’s was the only name familiar to me, though I had read a bit about Negroponte’s One Laptop per Child program with out remembering his name.  Here’s a quick summary of my notes:

  • Negroponte: The future of words Is not the same as the future of paper; ambivalent about the great advantages that technology gives in terms of distribution and education in the Third World vs. nostalgia about the loss of memories embodied in physical books
  • Wolf: She asked, “Can the evolution of the reading brain inform the future of the reading brain?”; concern that books encourage deep reading whereas digital reading (because of its large amounts of information and the associated tendency to multi-task) may lead to more superficial); acknowledges the possibility of bi-literacy as a goal
  • Darnton: He took the historical view, pointing out that this is but one in a series of shifts  (from scrolls to codex, introduction of inter-word spacing, Gutenberg); technology is “driving fundamental change in how we apprehend text, that it’s resulted in the “erosion of adjectives and adverbs” but has provided the  great demoocratizing advantage of opening up our cultural heritage to everyone
  • Cramer: She explained the challenges publishers face as they cede power to the reader as texts become “boundless, borderless, personalized, and social.”
  • Thurston: He described his experiences as a writer, publishing a paper book that incorporates technology in various ways (composing in an open online space, building a video into book, connecting with readers via social networking platforms); the possibility of a new type of knowledge through remixing, “alternate windows into the same story”

Of course, I’m interested in how digital reading is affecting my students’ reading processes (and my own), but what fascinated me most was the skillful composition of the panel itself and the rich variety of perspective it offered with media entrepreneur, cognitive neuroscientist, librarian, publisher, and author. I wondered if I could adopt a structure like that for a collaborative researching and writing and presentation project, assigning students various roles in the exploration of some issue.

It was a wonderful day; I’m already looking forward to next year’s Festival and strongly encourage anyone in the northeast to keep an eye out for it come next October.

In the flush of all of this excitement, I made an ambitious but perhaps foolhardy commitment: I’m trying out DigiWriMo, described on its site as “insane month-long writing challenge, a wild ride through the world of digital writing, wherein those daring enough to participate wield keyboard and cursor to create 50,000 words of digital writing in the thirty short days of November.” I’ll report on my progress in my next blog post (it’s going to take a heap of writing to get me to 50K). Anyone else along for the ride?

 

 

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Categories: Holly Pappas
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