A Smattering of Stupid (?) Studies

We can’t always spend a whole class on a single book or author, can we? As an English literature student, obviously I read outside of class (“for fun,” as some would put it) and surf for literature-related material online. As I think these “supplemental study tools” can only be judged on an individual basis, nonetheless, here are some I think are interesting, weird, scarily cultish… or just plain stupid.

So adorbs

For example, there is the ever-adorable “Writers and Kitties” tumblr, which takes a step back from literature itself and merely captures our empathy for the authors themselves. Apparently Mark Twain liked to relax while playing pool with a kitty in the corner pocket.

However, if one chooses to follow the trail of Twain’s digital afterlife, it derails quite quickly.

Kitties > famous authors ?…

Here is a 1940’s ad from Royal Crown Cola featuring not just Twain, but containing (and focusing on!) his pool-playing kitten. Somewhat reassuring– it seems the digital age’s “nothing is sacred” mentality is nothing new (just as we have discussed that new technology scares are nothing new– paper?! OMG.)

Pure sex appeal.

However, if we continue down the electric pathway of the ghost of Twain, we rapidly descend into madness. The twitter handle Shirtless Mark Twain takes a simple picture of said phenomenon (the explanation lost in time, it seems– can’t find the reason for it) and creates a new life for the author; over a hundred tweets capitalizing on the photograph. He usually signs every third tweet or so with a call for “shirts off,” as well as often dissing the physique of fellow authors. Fortunately(?), the account has only a paltry 45 followers. Please do not add to the following– I think this one serious students may skip. However, there may be something here– a short, comic appeal focused on the author himself (or herself).

Moving on to more positive examples, there is the Henry David Thoreau twitter account, which seems to be mostly tweets of T quotations. Here’s one that demonstrates T’s quotability:

“As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”

It’s interesting how powerful a quotation seems to become when it’s set off by itself like this. Reading Walden twice, I never noticed this particular line before specifically (nor, shamefully(?) can even remember it at all). Are things like twitter literature accounts helping literature, as well as general students, alike? I can’t help by notice the similarities between something like this and our Social Text edition of Walden. This particular tweet had a fine 39 retweets, and it was the favorite of 41. The ThoreauPage has a staggering 25.1k followers. However, missing from many of the tweeted quotations (despite the exposure) was discussion, such as can be found in a more academic setting like the Reader’s Walden. And even if there was a long discussion from different accounts, how much can be conveyed in 140 characters for each individual comment?

As much as one can speculate on the meaning of this quotation by itself, is there missing context to it that can only be found embedded within its proper passage? Is this additional exposure– twitter pages, etc.– to literature really beneficial, or even detrimental, if the content is all flash and no substance? Will non-literature students ever willingly follow the forbidding Thoreau, author of the much-hated Walden (at least so seems to be the opinion of most people in Geneseo whenever I mention the book to others)? (My friend has scathingly accused Geneseo of having a “Thoreau fetish”– we literature students seem to always be on the defense for our field of academic criticism [see my other blog post on Annotations]. Has anyone else been on the end of a quick explosion of anger toward Thoreau in Geneseo?)

I’m not aware of how one could gauge the academic usefulness of things like the ThoreauPage on twitter (forget ShirtlessTwain), it probably being too complex to control for a scientific polling, but here’s something interesting that perhaps could be related, if other studies could be found or done: “Texting can help improve your kid’s writing skills.” This article cites British research done that correlates (positively) “textisms” and a student’s writing skills. It seems that students’ texting is language and writing use (while before texting, the students would not be writing at all)– even those “textisms” are beneficial in a way, and better yet, students, fortunately, know when to not use them in schoolwork.

Hawt? Nawt.

Maybe those Thoreau quotations, even taken out of context (and only those pithy, short statements) are getting students to read while otherwise they would not be at all? Perhaps if Thoreau had posed for a shirtless daguerreotype, and if this comic aspect of Thoreau’s personal life was combined with serious quotations, the appeal to ThoreauPage would be even greater and more influential (unfortunately, I think Thoreau’s neckbeard disqualifies him for the label of “pure sex appeal,” as with our friend Mark Twain). But still, putting T on twitter must be more useful than reserving him to college courses… right?

Here’s a link to the 100 Best Opening Lines from Novels. Here’s a link to the complementary 100 Best Closing Lines, and here’s an entire tumblr page dedicated to that all-spoiling topic: the final sentence. Is digital media focusing on the easy quotables of literature? Or is that a false stereotype?

Speaking of pithiness, did you know the Bible has a Sparknotes page? See here for an interesting survey on who knows (aka reads) the Bible best among various religious groups. Religious (and Christian) or not, it would be a fair opinion that the Bible is the most well-read book in America and world-wide (especially if you’re one who thinks it ought to be read). Here’s another article discussing just how many read the Bible versus how many think it should be read. Hmm… will the biblical god be happy with those who have only sparknotes’d him? After all, 1 Peter 3:15 makes a call for Christians to know their book and faith, and yet it seems like they need a little help. The Bible, after all, is first and foremost a piece of literature with a profound affect on history, and huge numbers of classical works allude to it.

Sparknotes, of course, is the original student-slacking site, and the most well-known. But as much as teachers [seem to] hate it (input, Dr. Schacht?), it seems to be the general consensus that it helps students get a general grasp on basic plot and theme when reading, providing a shallow but supportive scaffolding to literary endeavors– however, the question is, as has been the entire post, does this tool substitute real thought and criticism, or add to its richness, and, in its shallowness itself, easily allow for otherwise difficult works to be entered into by hesitant students? I think, as long as students actually use these as supplemental tools as such, there can’t really be any net harm, only tiny, or even great, gains. Should students of literature loosen up a little in a ShirtlessTwain sort-of-way, in order to make ourselves more accessible and appealing? Is it time for Thoreauvians to call “shirts off, bro!”, and lighten the mood a little?

Pessimism floods us again– here is Twitterature, “The World’s Greatest Books in Twenty Tweets or Less.” Poorly reviewed on Amazon, it seems that good “scaffolding” for works themselves might be beneficial, but often times, as here, trying to be cool and compact leads one to laziness. The Guardian reviews, “The classics are so last century.” Ultimately, I think short, compact “guides” to literature may be helpful in (basic) understanding and motivating one to push past dense wordy slogs, but we might be careful to censor gently avoid the bad ones.

Finally, here is Elliott Holt‘s short detective story told entirely in Twitter itself. Twitterfiction tweets out 140-character stories. Good quality or not– most authors, when giving advice, say simply to start writing, no matter how bad or little. Practice for english students is analogous. How many literary-related tweets or Twitterfictions will it take to build up skill for a 10 page paper?…

I was going to end the post with a few cool, literature-related twitter accounts, but rather than quickly find some (having just made my twitter account for class and followed a few pages) without checking them over for quality, does anyone know of any useful or just interesting twitter accounts for literature-lovers?

One Reply to “A Smattering of Stupid (?) Studies”

  1. Matt: A book that speaks to a number of the questions you raise here is Ruth Finnegan’s Why Do We Quote? The Culture and History of Quotation. And there’s an interesting discussion in Northrop Frye’s The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (New York: Harcourt, 1982) p. 217ff., of how both characters and quotations in certain works “come loose from their moorings” in their original context and circulate freely in culture at large. “In Shakespeare’s day,” he points out, “there was much more emphasis, in studying literature in school, on the importance of sententiae, the epigrammatic comments on the human situation in, for example, a comedy of Terence: these were often copied into commonplace books and memorized. What is happening here is that the work of literature is taking on the existential quality of entering into one’s life and becoming a personal possession.” Social media have changed the ease, manner, and speed with which bits of thought and language are exchanged among us, in some ways accelerating and intensifying the sociality of the reading experience; but that sociality has always been a feature of the experience. One might as quickly add that it has always been a bug, too: “The devil can quote Scripture for his purpose,” as Antonio says in The Merchant of Venice (a quotation that came readily to mind in this context, but whose exact source, I confess, I had to look up — it has simply become for me, as for possibly millions of others, a personal possession). A few years ago, Brian Morton wrote an op-ed for the New York Times meditating on misquotation. His starting point was a coffee mug bearing a misquotation from Walden: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.” Morton pointed out, in effect, that misquotations such as this can help produce unhelpful myths about the works they come from or the people who wrote those works, at the same time reinforcing illusions about our own capacity for self-reinvention.

    As for Sparknotes: I think they’re only evil when they become substitutes for reading the original or — even worse — for a student’s own critical thinking about a text. But simplified or re-packaged versions of classic texts have, like quotation, their own long history. I encountered a number of books first as Classic Comics. My kids grew up on PBS’ Wishbone series. No harm done, as far as I can tell, in either case.

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