Book Store Tours – A Little Beach Reading

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Our favored little shore town offers a few options for the procurement of enjoyable printed word, but none (perhaps) as quaint, nor satisfying, as this.  You might miss it if you happen only to stroll the main thoroughfares; it’s around the corner… and then around the corner again.  Local bookworms consider it a most precious resource.  It’s a bit larger than a mere hole in the wall, but cozy indeed, and is bursting with second-hand treasures.  Long ago, when I first resolved to read as many timeless classics as I could, I found some ideal candidates here. Like many used book stores, you sometimes feel as if you’re robbing the place blind, casting a mere dollar or two down on the counter for a charming (albeit slightly tattered) hardbound copy of Island of the Blue Dolphins, or Robinson Crusoe.  And if that weren’t enough, there’s a sportingly suitable sci-fi fantasy section where you might find a David Brin or a lesser-known Asimov among the GRRM’s and Terry Brooks volumes you’ve likely already read. “In fact, is that my old copy of The Ilse Witch there?” I asked myself during a recent visit. I’m glad others will get to enjoy it, though I’m not one to often let go of any book from my collection. There is also a nice children’s corner with picture and chapter books for the little ones, and us adults with youthful tastes every now and then–give me A Cricket in Times Square any day of the week, my friend.

The best part of this one I’ve found, however, is it’s extremely close proximity to the beach.  It’s almost too much joy to handle…

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HOPEISNOWHERE – Identifying our Biases in our Work

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Every new analyst in the Intelligence Community must attend a training course called Analysis 101, which is sponsored by the National Intelligence Council.  One morning in the winter of 2008, while my class was settling into their seats, the instructor wrote the following cluster of letters on the board in ALL CAPS:

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By the time he was finished, we were all quiet and ready to digest the day’s lessons.  To my dismay, in getting started, he turned around and pointed straight at me and said, “You there.  Please read what I’ve written.”

I scrutinized the letters and blurted out, “Hope is nowhere.”

He said, “Interesting,” and he rubbed his chin for a moment.  Then he called on one of my peers, “How about you?”

“Hope is now here,” she said, and the room seemed to voice a collective epiphany that suggested:  Yes, she is right!  It’s supposed to be a positive message, not a negative one!!

I then remarked, “I suppose that makes me a raving pessimist!”  And I received a moderate chuckle from around the room.

But, ultimately, the instructor said he was glad I answered the way I did because it played perfectly into his lesson.  He told us this:  That we always needed to keep in mind that our “customers” (cabinet officials, congress persons, and other policymakers) bring certain biases to any document that they receive in written form.  And what’s more, we bring certain biases to our work on the front end, when we are researching and writing.  It’s human nature.  So he implored us to remove our biases as thoroughly as we possibly can.  To look at what we write from every angle we possibly can, and to be as clear as possible with what we intend to convey.

I could write a thesis on how the writing process in the context of intelligence analysis differs from creative writing, but it suffices to say they differ greatly.  Yet some axioms benefit both forms without question.  The choices we make in our use of language can either unfurl a seamless narrative that carries the reader along a journey from one point to the next with thrilling dips and dives that are as clear as day. Or they can twist things up in knots and confuse the reader to the point of delirium.  We want to make our stories accessible to the most people possible.  With that in mind, it helps to remain mindful of how different readers may approach our word choices, the organization of our plot points, and our various narrative devices that we use, so that our message is conveyed with optimized clarity.

A hundred years ago when I was learning to drive, my father asked me why I was constantly looking in the rear-view mirror at the car behind us.  He asked this for good reason.  I was always attentive to the status of the driver that followed behind, probably over-attentive.  Are they anxious to pass because I’m driving too slowly?  Are they aware I intend to turn at the next corner?  Have they seen my signal?  Do they know I’m new at this??  Sure, in doing so I was probably being over-cautious and it may have affected my approach to something that I was doing, something important like driving, which requires us to project to those around us our clear intent in where we are going and how we plan to get there.  But as I became more comfortable on the road, I developed instincts that helped me intuit the status of the driver following behind, and it made me a better, safer driver who was free to look forward and keep my eyes on the road, while only glancing from time-to-time in the rear-view.

The same method may help us in our writing.  At the outset of any project, we’ll want to remain attentive to the many ways that readers may approach our subject matter.  The many ways, for instance, a character can be perceived for his or her actions, or the way a setting can be perceived for its mood and tone.  Then once we’ve gotten comfortable in the space and have established a certain level of clarity in our work, we can look ahead and press forward with confidence.  We don’t want to send mixed signals, or muddle a scene in such a way that might reduce its appeal to certain readers.

For a creative writing course in college, I wrote a scene in a short story that took place on a warm, overcast afternoon with a light drizzle, and in the scene, a character benefitted from a particularly positive turn of events.  When we talked about my story in class, a classmate shared that they’d had a conflicted emotional response to the scene, as the plot development was positive, but the setting was notably dreary and oppressive.  Thinking on this, I realized I may be in the minority when it comes to warm overcast days with a light drizzle; finding them to be actually quite cozy and enjoyable.  So to me, the setting befit the plot development. And let’s face it, not every positive plot twist needs to occur on a bright, sunny day.  Good things happen in real life on rainy days, right?  But for many folks, a sunny (or at least more neutral) setting might have promoted a more unified, effective response to my scene.  So for that reason, it would have been worth at least considering an edit for the sake of clarity.

In some senses, this concept reminds me of a project concept I’ve always wanted to pursue; a bare-bones, almost starkly minimalist narrative that inspires (perhaps even requires) the reader to run wild with their imagination.  I would strip away all the descriptive language.  I would leave climate descriptors out completely, maybe even time of day, season, time period, and location, too (are we in North America? Europe? On Earth? In the Milky Way Galaxy even?) and I would let the reader fill in almost everything.  I’d certainly leave out facial feature descriptors, non-verbal expressions, and definitely those italicized thought inserts where the characters spell everything out for you—which, by the way, I use liberally in my narratives; with a reasonable measure of restraint, of course!  All these things, though, would be entirely up to the reader to fill in.  As a result, I wonder how many unique visualizations of the same story would be formed.  Probably just as many as there are persons who would read it.  Hopefully I’ll find the time to give it a try some day.  But this idea turns the process of bias awareness on its head.  My point is, if we’re going to ignore readers’ biases (and our own), we really have to go all-in on the idea, and make it the central theme of our work–and an unconventional work it would certainly turn out to be.  In all other circumstances, we need to be mindful of the many ways our narrative can be interpreted (and misinterpreted).

Maybe I was having a bad morning when I provided my pessimistic reading of the instructor’s puzzle that day in Analysis 101.  And if so, I suppose I’ll give myself a pass.  The puzzle provided a great lesson in interpretive reading, and in that respect it succeeded.  But if it’d been either the headline in an intelligence assessment, or the first sentence in a fiction narrative, it would have failed miserably.

Book Store Tours – A Walk along the Strand

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We made sure to duck into the extraordinary Strand bookstore at 828 Broadway, New York, NY, and it was every bit worth the stop during our visit to the big city. I have a bit of an obsession with book stores, I’ll admit. There’s just something so inspiring about being ensconced in all that glorious literature. And the Strand might have provided the most impressive mixed offering of new, used, vintage, rare, and just plain fantastic books I’ve seen in a while.

Like most storefronts downtown, you instantly find yourself, along with all the many other patrons browsing the aisles, in likely violation of the fire code, but you don’t much mind the bustle because it’s the books that everyone is there to see, and as such, a sense of polite respect for one another flows unspoken through the space. I was immediately on the lookout for the Science Fiction, Fantasy section, as I’m always wont to do, but our group heads upstairs, where there are childrens’ chapter and picture books—great stuff; fantastic selection. I’ve got a thing for vintage hardbacks of sci-fi classics, and found a great copy of Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, featuring illustrations by N.C. Wyeth. I’d been trolling eBay for a copy of this edition for some time, so I couldn’t resist, and the famous art works of the Wyeth family are treasures to us Philadelphia, Delaware Valley folk. What an excellent addition to my collection.

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Back downstairs, I finally find the Science Fiction and Fantasy sections, all the way through the length of the main floor, into the depths of the back left corner. It’s a glorious, cavernous area lined with makeshift shelves from floor to ceiling, built around old radiators and utility pipes, and packed to the gills with Lackey and Brooks, Asimov and Bova, Jordan and Heinlein, ahh yes, the good stuff! All my dear friends. I could troll these bindings all day. No matter where I’ve traveled, I’ve always been able to find a little slice of home in the SF/F aisle of any book store. Do you ever just slide out a book on your TBR list from a shelf in a book store, just to read the first paragraph? Ever do it with two, or three, or, ohhh, fifty of them? Yeah… me neither……..

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I have a feeling this won’t be my last post on book store destinations.

If you’re in the Union Square section of the big city, take a walk along the Strand. You won’t be disappointed.

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(Also worth a quick peek is the quaint Alabaster Books, just a bit around the corner.)

Not far around the corner is Alabaster; cozy and inviting

Not far around the corner is Alabaster; cozy and inviting

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