On the dangers of the thesaurus and The Great Gatsby

I got a personal message on Goodreads the other day by somebody spruiking his new book site. It was great, he said, you can chat to people about books on it. After making the obvious point that he was telling me that on a site where people chat about books, he enthusiastically assured me that if I just went and had a look, I’d see….

So I did. Book-talks.com You need a login to see chat rooms, but you can see books and their blurbs without that. I zeroed in on The Great Gatsby on account of how it’s more or less my favourite book. And this is what I read:

The Great Gatsby is a 1925 novel composed by American creator F. Scott Fitzgerald that follows a cast of characters living in the anecdotal towns of West Egg and East Egg on prosperous Long Island in the late spring of 1922. The story essentially concerns the youthful and baffling mogul Jay Gatsby and his eccentric energy and fixation on the excellent previous debutante Daisy Buchanan. The Great Gatsby investigates topics of debauchery, vision, protection from change, social change and abundance, making a representation of the Roaring Twenties that has been depicted as a useful example in regards to the American Dream.

Something odd is going on here. It’s either been written by a non-native person with a thesaurus…or an algorithm? I put a sentence into google and discovered the answer.

The Great Gatsby is a 1925 novel written by American author F. Scott Fitzgerald that follows a cast of characters living in the fictional towns of West Egg and East Egg on prosperous Long Island in the summer of 1922. Many literary critics consider The Great Gatsby to be one of the greatest novels ever written.[1][2][3][4]

The story of the book primarily concerns the young and mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby and his quixotic passion and obsession with the beautiful former debutante Daisy Buchanan. Considered to be Fitzgerald’s magnum opus, The Great Gatsby explores themes of decadence, idealism, resistance to change, social upheaval and excess, creating a portrait of the Roaring Twenties that has been described as a cautionary[a] tale regarding the American Dream.[5][6]

The blurb has been taken lock stock and barrel from wiki’s The Great Gatsby entry and a thesaurus loving algorithm has changed some words to make it ‘original’. The comparisons between the two are hilarious. It would make a nice lesson for school kids on understanding what a thesaurus is and the dangers of using it.

Another reason not to use kindles

You miss this….

The Range of Reason by Jacques Maritain Bles 1953

I am not likely to find the time ever to read this, but I must record for posterity the inscription:

Jo Wells,

Hoping that this small volume may correct a few of your weird notions, thereby saving your friends from the torture of having to listen to them.

From Pat Martin
Christmas 1953

How to read happily in the year of the virus

I read the post of Stuck in a Book about reading in anxious times. It is not just fear at issue right now, but

 It’s the scary amount of choice, and the scary amount of time. Usually I grab something and read it on my lunch break, or after I come home from something, or for a few hours on a Saturday. Now I have seemingly endless time and seemingly endless options. It’s overwhelming.

So true and yet so important to get out of that state of mind. To see it as a period of being as in a library, dipping into a book as you would when deciding whether to take it out on loan. Don’t feel bad about doing that and then putting something back on the shelf thinking, ‘another time for that one.’ I love browsing in bookshops and I am hugely grateful that I have enough books in my own home, many unread, that permit me to do that now.

See your bookshelves as a new way of leaving your house each day to go on a journey, without any of the hassle of airport queues, squashed seats on planes, jetlag. Instead, with a cup of tea in hand, and, if you are lucky as I am right now, the sun shining in the window, you journey safely into the imaginative worlds an infinite* number of writers care to create for us. It’s the moment to celebrate and appreciate their never-ending gift to the world.

*because they will never stop

How do you get teenagers to read?

I hope some of my reading friends here have ideas about this, but let me be more specific about the problem, as I think it’s a new one, twenty years ago it wouldn’t have existed.

The question is, how do you get hostile belligerent teenagers who are addicted to phones/social media and over whom you have no authority, though you are their teacher, to read for pleasure? And, by the way, this is a ‘nice’ school in Geneva, Switzerland; heaven knows how bad it must be in other places.

To complicate things further, these teenagers are learning English as a second language. Their grasp of it is very weak, A2 at best.

The best I’ve come up with so far is one teacher’s suggestion of The Hunger Games because what is relevant to teenagers is sex, death, violence and drugs. Relationships with each other and how to get through those. Are there more uptodate examples readers might suggest that will get kids reading?

And if these kids don’t even read in their own language, what are the chances of their reading anything in a foreign language they are being forced to learn?

The teacher referred to above posted here about his experiences.

Approaching adult themes
Perhaps the two most popular fictional series for young adults in recent years have been The Hunger Games trilogy and The Twilight Saga. They have been translated successfully into all the major languages so it’s clear that they have a universal appeal. They may appear to be very different from each other on the surface: the one being set in a futuristic dystopia while the other, although set in the contemporary world is a tale of rival gangs of vampires and werewolves. But they share a number of important themes in common. They are both works of fantasy. They both deal with relationships in the form of a love triangle. Violence and death and all of the emotional and moral conundrums therein are also central plot themes. These themes crop up again and again in young adult fiction. The prevalence of fantasy is easy to understand – successful books need to entertain after all. Vampires, werewolves and wizards may come and go according to fashion. But the human realities of surviving relationships, being different, coping with hardship, violence and even death are here to stay.

Looking at the top ten teen books being sold online at the moment, six fall into the science fiction/fantasy genre, two are set in futuristic dystopias. Four have romance as plot elements, while two deal with the issue of rape. It should come as no surprise that these themes have so much appeal to teenagers who are themselves coming to grips with issues surrounding relationships, sex, violence, and being different themselves, as they near adulthood. Books offer them a safe place to explore these ideas as they try and work out their own beliefs and how they fit in with the world around them.

I wonder if there are any A2 vampire stories out there? Perhaps that’s the way forward in this dispiriting conundrum.

The Longest Book Table in the world

I assumed last Sunday, that we were at a weekly open air book mart when we happened upon tables of books for sale on Drottninggatan in the centre of Stockholm. Little did I know. Each year there is one special day in August which is called Världens längsta bokbord which marks the end of the Summer Culture Festival.

We were there quite late in the day and still found lots of things we wanted, as mentioned in my last post. Maybe the slightly out of temper weather accounted for that. Some of the books were a little wet.

For a detailed report on this annual day, including pictures, I recommend Danielle Blackbird’s post here.

Too much open at once

I seem to be finding it hard to finish books at the moment.

Right now I have open:

Bad Show: The Quiz, The Cough, The Millionaire Major

The Second Tree from the Corner

What is Intelligence? Beyond the Flynn Effect.

Eight Stories

Peter Pan’s First XI

Not to mention various elementary French books, with which I struggle on a daily basis.

No doubt books will be finished, reviews will come.


Littered with Books

We dropped in on Littered with Books in Singapore last year, after which I wrote this post and promptly left it in drafts.

If a real bookshop can survive in an increasingly unreal world, I don’t see why this won’t be the one. It’s bang in the trendy Duxton Hill area which means an educated population which likes to spend. The staff told me that the owners are a group of readers and that shows. The literature section is particularly strong. I came away with the latest Galgut and Tyler, and Frayn’s memoir of his father. I’d been hoping to find a book on Nonya cuisine, but a large cooking section was small on local.

They don’t have a website and discourage the taking of photos, but look around the web and you’ll see everybody loves them.

If you get a taxi in Singapore, where-ever YOU want to go, the driver is likely to tell you that he knows the best places to go shopping. Insist if you must. You want to go to Duxton Road. And not only will you get to see this lovely bookshop, but there are terrific cafes and restaurants in the area, including Nonya. This is a clear-cut win-win-win-win…win.

Science issues

Science research has been taking a lot of knocks lately, a recent example which would be hilarious if it was not so alarming, being the case of the randomly generated papers accepted by Springer journals.

Here is the original report: Springer and IEEE withdrawing more than 120 nonsense papers

And here is Springer’s response. Retraction Watch is not hard enough on Springer for this pathetic statement. Springer charges a fortune and makes a fortune from its academic publishing empire. It has some obligation to be competent. Publishing any number of randomly generated nonsense papers is incompetent.

My experience of Springer is limited to the following story. I was given proofs of two chapters of a book about to go to press, which I proofread as a favour. These were the just-before-publication proofs, in other words, ready to go, but do you see anything grossly wrong like your name mispelt on the contributors list, that sort of thing. After I finished the chapters in question and made a list of the errors to be fixed – dead set, a list, how is that possible at this stage of the publication process? – I started looking at some of the other chapters. The book as a whole was not in a publishable state, but one chapter in particular caught my eye. It looked like it had been written by a not very literate primary school student. I started making notes on the many corrections that needed to be made to this chapter (can’t help it, compulsive proofer). After showing it to a contributor to the book, he said that it would not be appreciated if I sent my work to the writer concerned, as she was the editor.

So this book went to press in a state which was completely unpublishable. A snip at $149 US as I write.

The uberfashion. The Proust.

Talking in my last post about how goodreads is driven by fashion, what could have been more uberfashionable last year than Proust. Boy, did the marketers have a field day selling the fans everything from a look at his bed to books they had to shell out hundreds for. Yes indeedy, if you weren’t buying Proust stuff and spending most of your time online talking about like how amazing he was, you just didn’t have a life.

All the more refreshing to be witness to this conversation yesterday at a nice little Italian place called The Mess Hall in Melbourne:

Manny: So has Australia been covered in Proust stuff this year too?

Sonia: No.

Manny: That’s amazing, in Europe it’s just like nothing but Proust.

Sonia: Well, I haven’t even heard of him. Maybe he’s just not that good a writer.

Yay for Australia.