Reading classic novels in an era of climate change



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Smoke rises over the city of Manchester in William Wyld’s painting Manchester from Kersal Moor.
(1852).
Wikimedia commons

Philip Steer, Massey University

There is a strange and troubled kind of intimacy between our own moment of climate change and 19th century Britain. It was there that a global, fossil fuel economy first took shape, through its coal-powered factories, railways, and steamships, which drove the emergence of modern consumer capitalism. The Conversation

What might we now find if we look again at the literature of the 19th century? Although Victorian writers lacked our understanding of a warming planet, we can learn from their deep awareness of the rapid and far-reaching ways that their society was changing. In their hands, the novel became a powerful tool for thinking about the interconnections between individuals, society, economics, and the natural world.

North and South

One place to start thinking about such things might be Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855), a classic example of the “industrial novel” genre that flourished in the middle decades of that century.

Most of the novel’s events take place in the industrial town of Milton-Northern (Manchester), the epicentre of Victorian coal-fired industrial production. Our protagonist, Margaret Hale, is forced to relocate there due to family circumstances, and her first numb impressions are that the environment, the economy, and the city’s urban geography have all been transformed by fossil fuel consumption:

For several miles before they reached Milton, they saw a deep lead-coloured cloud hanging over the horizon in the direction in which it lay … Nearer to the town, the air had a faint taste and smell of smoke; perhaps, after all more a loss of the fragrance of grass and herbage than any positive taste or smell. Quick they were whirled over long, straight, hopeless streets of regularly-built houses, all small and of brick.

Milton is covered in a thick layer of pollution as a result of the town’s industrialisation, as depicted in the BBC mini-series North and South (2004), which starred Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret.
British Broadcasting Corporation

Gaskell brings her refined but impoverished heroine into contact with a forceful cotton-mill owner, John Thornton — imagine if Pride and Prejudice were set in a factory. Their love plot offers a symbolic means of restoring harmony to a nation disrupted by the new economy, as Margaret softens the edges of Thornton’s laissez faire practices and brings about improved relations with his workers. As he admits to one of his acquaintances, near the end of the novel,

My only wish is to have the opportunity of cultivating some intercourse with the hands beyond the mere ‘cash nexus’.

Thinking about this resolution in light of the fossil fuel economy, however, what comes into focus is how vulnerable this harmonious social vision is to wider social and environmental forces. By the novel’s conclusion, the global market — the source of raw materials, investors, and customers — proves to be so powerful and destabilising that the harmony of Thornton’s factory can provide only temporary solace at best, and he is bankrupted:

Meanwhile, at Milton the chimneys smoked, the ceaseless roar and mighty beat, and dizzying whirl of machinery, struggled and strove perpetually… . Few came to buy, and those who did were looked at suspiciously by the sellers; for credit was insecure… . [F]rom the immense speculations that had come to light in making a bad end in America, and yet nearer home, it was known that some Milton houses of business must suffer[.]

Looking back at North and South now, we can see how interconnected its vision of a fossil-fuelled society and the economy is, and how artificial the borders of the nation prove to be when faced with the instabilities that it causes.

The Time Machine

Australian author James Bradley suggests that writers today, grappling with how to represent climate change, have found genres such as science fiction more suited to the task than classic realism.

“In a way this is unsurprising,” he comments, because of those genres’ interest in “estrangement” from everyday circumstances, and their fascination with “experiences that exceed human scales of being.”

The last decades of the Victorian era were, like now, a stunning time of generic innovation, and prominent amongst those late-century innovations were the “scientific romances” of H. G. Wells.

The Time Machine’s bleak view of humanity’s future (seen here in the 1960 film adaptation) is a chilling one.
George Pal Productions

In The Time Machine (1895) Wells found a narrative device that would allow him to think about social and environmental change over enormous spans of history. Near the end of the novel, the inventor of the machine undertakes a voyage to the very end of the planet’s history:

I looked about me to see if any traces of animal life remained… . I saw nothing moving, in earth or sky or sea. The green slime on the rocks alone testified that life was not extinct… .
From the edge of the sea came a ripple and a whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the stir that makes the background of our lives — all that was over.

In imagining this bleak beach, Wells is taking up contemporary predictions that the law of entropy meant the inevitable “heat death” of the universe. Global cooling rather than global warming, then, but one thing that resonates now is how the novel views humanity as a species — and a finite one, at that — rather than from a more limited individual or even national perspective.

The Victorians were the first to stare into the abyss of geological deep time, and to confront the idea of natural history as a succession of mass extinctions.

As a result, Wells raises the idea of a future where even technology cannot overcome calamitous natural processes, and dares to imagine a planet without a human presence.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles

The novelist Amitav Ghosh has recently described a “broader imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the climate crisis,” arguing that the characteristics of the realist novel have made it resistant to representing those environmental and social complexities. Does the realist novel really have nothing to offer and nothing to say in an era of climate change?

The melting icebergs of Breidamerkurjokull’s Vatnajokull glacier in Iceland: is there a role for the realist novel in an era of climate change?
Ints Kalnins/Reuters

One place to look for an answer is another famously bleak Victorian text, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891). The plot is set in motion with Tess’s father’s discovery that his family name, Durbeyfield, is a corruption of D’Urberville, and they are in fact descended from an ancient family that once dominated the area. When they are ultimately thrown out of their home, the Durbeyfields end up seeking refuge at a church, amongst the graves of their ancestors:

They were canopied, altar-shaped, and plain; their carvings being defaced and broken; their brasses torn from the matrices, the rivet-holes remaining like marten-holes in a sand-cliff. Of all the reminders that she had ever received that her people were socially extinct there was none so forcible as this spoliation.

A bit like our own era of increasingly constrained resources, Tess inhabits an exhausted present, and she moves amidst the ruins left by previous generations who have consumed the material wealth that once made life abundant.

Hardy is also deeply attuned to the ecological damage produced by increasingly industrialised forms of agriculture. Late in the novel, when Tess is abandoned by her lover, Angel Clare, she is forced to accept work on the vast and stony fields of Flintcomb-Ash farm.

She labours through a brutal winter, and endures the relentless demands imposed by a steam-powered threshing machine — “a portable repository of force” — that reduces the workers to automatons. Around the same time, Angel abandons England for Brazil, only to find that English bodies do not translate to tropical ecosystems:

He would see mothers from English farms trudging along with their infants in their arms, when the child would be stricken with fever and would die; the mother would pause to dig a hole in the loose earth with her bare hands, would bury the babe therein with the same natural grave-tools, shed one tear, and again trudge on.

Gemma Arterton as Tess in the 2008 mini series adaptation. Stuck on a farm, Tess seesk to make ethical choices despite overwhelming constraints in Hardy’s novel.
British Broadcasting Corporation

Both Tess and Angel — and the anonymous, sundered colonial families — seem to be climate refugees of a kind, caught between hostile climates and the environmental wreckage wrought by agribusiness.

What little Tess of the D’Urbervilles offers in the face of all this bleakness also centres on Tess. For one thing, she doesn’t just think of herself as an isolated individual, but sees herself as part of larger social and ecological collectives — her family, her fellow milkmaids, even the rural landscape.

She persists in her determination to care for those around her — including, most challengingly, the son she gives birth to after her rape — despite the weight of the moral and economic systems that bear down upon her. After her father refuses to let the parson visit, Tess chooses to baptise her dying son herself — naming him Sorrow — and then secures him a Christian burial:

In spite of the untoward surroundings … Tess bravely made a little cross of two laths and a piece of string, and having bound it with flowers, she stuck it up at the head of the grave one evening … putting at the foot also a bunch of the same flowers in a little jar of water to keep them alive.

Tess refuses to abandon her project of care despite its futility, persisting with her fidelity in the midst of catastrophe.

Literature in itself isn’t going to save us from global warming — if salvation is even possible, at this point — but then neither, on their own, will economics or science. But if Amitav Ghosh is right, and climate change has revealed an imaginative paralysis in western culture, one thing that the Victorian novel offers us is a means of thinking and feeling about our own moment anew.

The Sydney Writers Festival will host a session on the rise and rise of Cli-Fi featuring James Bradley, Sally Abbott, Hannah Donnelly and Ashley Hay on Friday May 26.

Philip Steer, Senior Lecturer in English, Massey University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Explainer: how the brain changes when we learn to read



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Learning to read is not actually that easy.
from shutterstock.com

Nicola Bell, The University of Queensland

Right now, you are reading these words without much thought or conscious effort. In lightning-fast bursts, your eyes are darting from left to right across your screen, somehow making meaning from what would otherwise be a series of black squiggles. The Conversation

Reading for you is not just easy – it’s automatic. Looking at a word and not reading it is almost impossible, because the cogs of written language processing are set in motion as soon as skilled readers see print.

And yet, as tempting as it is to think of reading as hard-wired into us, don’t be fooled. Learning to read is not easy. It’s not even natural.

The first examples of written language date back to about 5,000 years ago, which is a small fraction of the 60,000 years or more that humans have spent using spoken language.

This means our species hasn’t had enough time to evolve brain networks that predispose us to learn literacy. It is only through years of practice and instruction that we have forged those connections for ourselves.

How the brain learns to read

Brains are constantly reorganising themselves. Any time we learn a new skill, connections between neurons that allow us to perform that skill become stronger. This flexibility is heightened during childhood, which is why so much learning gets crammed in before adolescence.

As a child becomes literate, there is no “reading centre” that magically materialises in the brain. Instead, a network of connections develops to link existing areas that weren’t previously linked. Reading becomes a way of accessing language by sight, which means it builds on architecture that is already used for recognising visual patterns and understanding spoken language.

Words and letters are initailly stored in the brain as symbols.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

The journey of a word

When a skilled reader encounters a printed word, that information travels from their eyes to their occipital lobe (at the back of the brain), where it is processed like any other visual stimulus.

From there, it travels to the left fusiform gyrus, otherwise known as the brain’s “letterbox”. This is where the black squiggles are recognised as letters in a word. The letterbox is a special stopover on the word’s journey because it only develops as the result of learning to read. It doesn’t exist in very young children or illiterate adults, and it’s activated less in people with dyslexia, who have a biological difference in the way their brains process written text.

Words and letters are stored in the letterbox – not as individually memorised shapes or patterns, but as symbols. This is why a skilled reader can recognise a word quickly, regardless of font, cAsE, or typeface.

Information then travels from the letterbox to the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, to work out word meaning and pronunciation. These same areas are activated when we hear a word, so they are specialised for language, rather than just reading and writing.

Because information can travel so quickly across the skilled reader’s synaptic highways, the entire journey takes less than half a second.

But what happens in the brain of a five-year-old child, whose highways are still under construction?

Learning to read takes a lot of effort.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

The growing brain

For young children, the process of getting from print to meaning is slow and effortful. This is partly because beginning readers have not yet built up a store of familiar words that they can recognise by sight, so they must instead “sound out” each letter or letter sequence.

Every time children practise decoding words, they forge new connections between the visual and spoken language areas of the brain, gradually adding new letters and words to the brain’s all-important letterbox.

Remember, when a practised reader recognises a word by sight, they process the letters in that word, rather than its shape.

Literacy instruction can therefore support children’s learning by highlighting the symbolic nature of letters – in other words, by drawing attention to the relationships between letters and speech sounds.

Here, evidence from brain imaging research and educational research converge to show that early phonics instruction can help construct an efficient reading network in the brain.

What might the future hold for literacy development?

As technology evolves, so too must our definition of what it means to be “literate”. Young brains now need to adapt not only to written language, but also to the fast-paced media through which written language is presented.

Only time will tell how this affects the development of that mysterious beige sponge between our ears.

Nicola Bell, PhD student, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Reading with your children: proper books vs tablets


Nicola Yuill, University of Sussex

Most of us have an opinion about whether we prefer reading on screen or paper: but what difference does it make for children? The truth is that technology is now encountered from babyhood. Anecdotes abound of toddlers swiping their fingers across paper rather than turning the page, while parents and teachers express their fear of screen addiction as tablets introduce new distractions as well as new attractions for young readers.

Ofcom figures tell us that children’s screen use rises sharply towards the end of primary school (from age seven to 11) and in the same period, book-reading drops. Increasing screen use is a reality, but does it contribute to a loss of interest in reading, and does reading from a screen provide the same experience as the feel of reading on paper?

We looked at this in our research on shared reading. This has been a neglected topic even though it is clearly a common context for children when they read at home. It might be their regular homework reading of a book from school, or a parent reading them a favourite bedtime story.

Warming up

We asked 24 mothers and their seven to nine-year-old children to take turns – mother reading or child reading – with popular fiction books on paper, and on a tablet. They read Barry Loser: I am not a Loser by Jim Smith and You’re a Bad Man, Mr Gum by Andy Stanton. We found that the children’s memory for the descriptions and narratives showed no difference between the two media. But that’s not the whole story.

The interactions of parent and child were found to be different in the independent ratings from video observation of the study. When they read from paper rather than a screen, there was a significant increase in the warmth of the parent/child interactions: more laughter, more smiling, more shows of affection.

It may be that this is largely down to the simple physical positioning of the parent and child when using the different media, as well as their cultural meaning. When children were reading from a screen, they tended to hold the tablet in a head-down position, typical of the way they would use the device for solo activities such as one-player games or web-browsing.

This meant that the parents had to “shoulder-surf” in order to share visual attention. In contrast, when parents read to their children on paper, they often held the book out to support shared visual engagement, tucking the child cosily under their arms. Some children just listened without trying to see the book, but instead curled themselves up comfortably on the sofa.

Paper or pixels?
Megan Trace/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Keep taking the tablets?

Our research joins a growing list of studies comparing paper and e-books, but the answer isn’t a simple one. Shared reading is different to reading alone, for a start. And we may be interested in whether screen or paper makes a difference in how children learn to read, to understand, and enjoy reading. In short there are multiple perspectives to consider – developmental, educational, literary and technological – if we are to decide which medium is preferable.

Most studies have compared children at the earliest stages of reading, using paper books, e-books with audio and dictionary support to help less-skilled readers, and so-called “enhanced” e-books with multimedia, activities, hotspots and games.

Text with audio support helps children to decode text, and multimedia can keep a reluctant reader engaged for longer, so a good e-book can indeed be as good as an adult reading a paper book with their child. But we don’t yet have long-term studies to tell us whether constant provision of audio might prevent children developing ways of unpicking the code of written language themselves.

They think I’m reading; I’m playing Candy Crush.
George Rudy/Shutterstock

Re-design for life

There is also increasing evidence that adding multimedia and games can quickly get distracting: one study found that young children spent almost half their time playing games in enhanced e-books, and therefore they read, remembered and understood little of the story itself. But there is plenty of guidance for e-book developers on the what, where and how much of designing multimedia texts.

And that brings us back to perhaps the defining conclusion from our own study. Books versus screens is not a simple either/or – children don’t read books in a cultural vacuum and we can’t approach the topic just from a single academic field. Books are just books, with a single typical use, but screens have many uses, and currently most of these uses are designed round a single user, even if that user is interacting with others remotely.

We believe that designers could think more about how such technology can be designed for sharing, and this is especially true for reading, which starts, and ideally continues, as a shared activity in the context of close long-term family relationships. Book Trust figures report a drop from 86% of parents reading with their five-year-olds to just 38% with 11-year olds. There is a possibility that the clever redesign of e-books and tablets might just slow that trend.

The Conversation

Nicola Yuill, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, University of Sussex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Summer reading guide from The Conversation’s business & economics writers


Janine Dixon, Victoria University; Beth Webster, Swinburne University of Technology; Gigi Foster, UNSW Australia; Rodney Maddock, Monash University; Ross Guest, Griffith University, and Tim Harcourt, UNSW Australia

Janine Dixon, Economist at Centre of Policy Studies, Victoria University

Black Inc. Books.

In his 2016 book Richard Denniss calls out politicians and vested interests for using “econobabble” – which he defines as “incomprehensible economic jargon and apparently simple words that have been stripped of their normal meanings” – to conceal simple truths from the public. Econobabble was published at the beginning of 2016, but it almost feels as though Denniss knew in advance that “post-truth” would be voted the Oxford Dictionaries 2016 word of the year.

The book teems with examples of econobabble that are both entertaining, because of the way Denniss describes them, and infuriating, because the consequences are so devastating. The discussion of the Adani coal mine, which continues to this day, is particularly enlightening.

Economists themselves are not immune from criticism. As an economic modeller, I was particularly interested in the chapter on economic modelling. In this chapter, continuing with the main themes of the book, Denniss promotes simplicity and openness in the way economic issues should be communicated to the wider community – and I can only agree!


Gigi Foster, Associate Professor, School of Economics, UNSW Australia


Oxford University Press.

Back in September I had the unique experience of attending the Sydney launch of William Coleman’s new edited volume, “Only in Australia” (OUP 2016). I like William and I bought his book mainly out of curiosity and a desire to be entertained.

As an Aussie-loving Yankee transplant who for professional reasons is supposed to have at least a passing familiarity with Australian political and economic history, I have found “Only in Australia” to be enlightening, reaffirming, and most definitely amusing. The enlightenment has been in regard to umpteen little facts and interpretations about Australia’s history as a nation.

Did you know, for example, that in the mid-1800’s, “public schooling in NSW was not as exclusive of religion as Victoria but was still, at its core, secular” (from the chapter by Greg Melleuish and Stephen A. Chavura)? Or that “from the 1850s, Australian governments have been responsible for the financing, construction, and operation of railways – urban, suburban, and rural…[while] in other countries, extensive government railways were initiated later than the 1850s, often beginning with the nationalization of substantial private rail lines or networks” (from the chapter by Jonathan Pincus)? These types of titbits have filled in some of my sometimes patchy understanding of the how and why of modern Australia.

The reaffirmation has mainly been of my impressions of Australian culture. The book itself is a testament to that culture: not a single of the 15 chapters is written or co-written by a woman, and the entire enterprise has a clubbish old-boysy feel to it. That said, as a constant whinger about the Australian cultural cringe, I felt my heart buoyed by many observations rejecting European and particularly British derivations of Australian institutions – both formal and informal. Many of my own observations about those institutions were also confirmed as I turned the pages, such as the observation that “no other significant comparator country has tribunal-determined wages to the extent that Australia does ” (from Phil Lewis’s chapter) and the “absence of domestic corporate strength and financing” of Australian agribusiness (from Nick Carter’s chapter).

I didn’t always agree with the ideological packaging sometimes wrapping the text, and of course the book was far too expensive for reasons we all know too well, but I still enjoyed reading “Only in Australia”.


Ross Guest, Professor of Economics and National Senior Teaching Fellow, Griffith University


Riverhead Books

Tim Harford is one of the best economics writers for a general audience that I have ever read. He shows how economics is everywhere and relevant to our lives in many ways. And he is very entertaining. Besides, this latest book appeals to me because it gives me hope that all of the disorder in my own life might actually be a good thing.


Tim Harcourt, J.W. Nevile Fellow in Economics, UNSW Australia

Penguin.

Last year I read Geoffrey Blainey ‘s history of Indigenous Australia, titled The Story of Australia’s People, subtitled The Rise and Fall of Ancient Australia.

It got me thinking that Australia is 50,000 years old not 230. Geoffrey Blainey tells us, as only he can, the amazing stories of Indigenous history and innovation

This year I am reading the Blainey sequel “The Story of Australia’s people” subtitled The Rise and Rise of a New Australia which takes Australia from the Gold Rush to the present day. Blainey has a unique way of looking at Australia and the world and a unique way of re-looking at it. As he says himself, he has revised a lot of his thinking on Indigenous Australia since his early work The Triumph of the Nomads, written in 1975. He is the master of the historical narrative, a natural born story teller whose words “literally fly off the page”. He is always a pleasure to read regardless of whether you share his view of Australian life.

New South Books.

Another book I’ll be reading, as a self-confessed Australian history junkie, is Stuart McIntyre’s Australia’s Boldest Experiment about the national building efforts of post-war reconstruction in the 1940s. Think of the Snowy Mountains scheme, the Holden car, CSIRO, the ANU, the expansion of the post-migration scheme, all coming out of that innovative policy work undertaken by the war time Curtin-Chifley Labor government and into the long economic boom that Australia enjoyed from the 1950s to the 1970s. The role of the influential economic advisers of the era such as HC Nugget Coombs, JG Crawford and others (known as “The Seven Dwarfs” although no one knows who Snow White was!) is examined in detail by McIntyre. As my own grandfather was an adviser to Prime Minister and Treasurer Ben Chifley in the war years, I am fascinated to see what one of Australia’s most distinguished social historians has to say.


Rodney Maddock, Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at Victoria University and Adjunct Professor of Economics, Monash University

W.W Norton & Company.

My book of the year is The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data by Michael P. Lynch. This is quite philosophical work, reflecting on the ways in which we will change and are changing in response to the internet. It explores all the ideas and concerns you would expect and is somewhat pessimistic as is clear from the title. What Lynch underplays is the way in which consideration and debate can and do take place on the web, so that it can assist in active development of knowledge rather than just consumption of facts. A thoughtful read.

HarperCollins.

My novel of the year is Commonwealth by Ann Patchett which I think is her best book since Bel Canto. It is a multigenerational family novel, but written with a light touch and lots of insights into how families function. It is another thoughtful book and one which deserves to be read with time for reflection on its shape and character.


Beth Webster, Director, Centre for Transformative Innovation, Swinburne University of Technology

Princeton University Press.

Joel Mokyr is a smooth read – packed with anecdotes, facts and stories about our economic origins that will surprise even the most crusty scholar. In A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy, Mokyr highlights the persistent fundamentals that are still very much in operation today in the economy. He makes us wonder why no-one studies economic history any more. Are we raising new generations of number crunchers who only have a superficial understanding of data?

The Conversation

Janine Dixon, Economist at Centre of Policy Studies, Victoria University; Beth Webster, Director, Centre for Transformative Innovation, Swinburne University of Technology; Gigi Foster, Associate Professor, School of Economics, UNSW Australia; Rodney Maddock, Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at Victoria University and Adjunct Professor of Economics, Monash University; Ross Guest, Professor of Economics and National Senior Teaching Fellow, Griffith University, and Tim Harcourt, J.W. Nevile Fellow in Economics, UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

2017 Goodreads Reading Challenge


It is that time of year for starting the Goodreads Reading Challenge for 2017. Will you be taking part? I have set my challenge for 70 books in 2017 and I’m off to a good start having read my first book already. I tend to have the odd reading slump throughout a year and last year there was quite a long one of several months, which is really the only threat to my not reaching the target I have set myself – another prolonged slump (otherwise I may have set 100 as the target).

For more visit:
https://www.goodreads.com/blog/show/779-want-to-read-more-this-year-join-the-2017-reading-challenge
https://www.goodreads.com/challenges/5493-2017-reading-challenge