Rules of Notice
These conventions tell us which details are important. Everything is not important— readers need to decide what is important. Rules of notice tell us where to concentrate our focus and how to build a scaffold that will serve as a basic structure on which to build an interpretation.
- Privileged Position: Titles, beginnings, endings, subsections, epigraphs, descriptive subtitles. Titles tell readers where to concentrate and provide a core around which we can organize an interpretation. Last sentences cannot server to focus a reading experience (at least not an initial reading experience), but they often serve to scaffold our retrospective interpretation of the book.
- Privileged Words: Threats, warnings, and promises are important because of their role in predicting the shape of a text.
- Privileged Placement: Details at climactic moments deserve notice:
- When a character’s moral choice serves as a linchpin for the development of the plot,
- When an event changes a major character’s relationship to other characters
- Rules of Rupture— Distractions that should be noticed
- Blatantly irrelevant detail (Tom and Gatsby exchanging cars)
- Inappropriate actions or words (Mersault’s actions at his mother’s funeral)
- Miscellaneous things to notice: Repetitions (words, phrases, scenes); metaphors and similes; typography (italics and capital letters)
Rules of Signification
These conventions tell readers how to recast, symbolize, or draw the significance from the rules of notice.
- Rules of Source: Who is speaking? The author or the narrator?
- Rules of Snap Moral Judgment: Authors often need quick ways to set up reader’s expectations about characters— either because the characters are too minor for full development or because the author needs an initial scaffolding that can then be developed (or undercut ironically) as the novel progresses.
- Readers are to judge characters by their exterior, until the text gives us sufficient reason to judge them in some other way. “Physical appearance, in other words, can be assumes to stand metaphorically for inner quality.”
- Other snap judgment clues: eyes; sound (Daisy in Great Gatsby); names (Miss Havisham, Mr. Grandgrind); how characters judge other characters; moral failings: one moral failing naturally accompanies another; characters who violate others’ physical or emotional space are not to be trusted; negative allusions (referring to someone as a Lady Macbeth); linking ethical qualities to an aesthetic taste: characters with “correct” aesthetic views are also morally correct.
Rules of Configuration
These are predictive rules. They allow us to make guesses about what will happen in the text. When certain elements appear, rules of configuration activate certain expectations. Rules of configuration are just as important when they turn out as when they don’t turn out.
- Rules of Undermining— Readers can expect situations of inertia to be upset. A stable situations at the beginning is going to change (Emma, Bleak House). The probability that a state of affairs will change depends, in part, on the reliability of the person claiming it to be permanent.
- Rule of Chutzpah: When a character makes a bold claim (Bigger Thomas) it’s likely he or she will be undermined. This rule does not apply in detective novels, especially with famous detectives.
- Rules of Imminent Cataclysm: If a story begins at a specified moment right before a generally known upheaval (the Holocaust), we are probably being asked to read with expectation that the upheaval will influence the course of the novel.
- Rules of Balance:
- Focus: By knowing the focus of the novel, the reader can determine the boundaries of the novel’s universe and thus make some predictions about the course the novel will take. Two obvious things that give focus: the title, and the first character named.
- Reasonable to assume that repetitions will be continued until they are blocked (Three Little Pigs, “I’ll huff…”)
- Diverse strands of action will in some way be linked; plot lines will merge.
- Antecedent/consequent patterns in relationships: As a general rule, we expect the strong attractions and dissonances between characters will have consequences. Be especially alert to relational tensions introduced at the beginning of a narrative. (Pride and Prejudice)
- Other antecedent/consequent patterns: Warnings and promises should alert us, but only (mostly) when they’re made by major characters.
Rules of Coherence
Rules of configuration lead readers to ask, “How will it work out?” Rules of coherence ask, “Did the way it worked out make sense?”
- Basic Rule of Coherence: We assume that a book is coherent and that apparent flaws in its construction are intentional and meaning-bearing. Rules of coherence are invoked whenever a text appears to resist this assumption.
In no particular order,
- Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. My favorite book of his. The moment I read this book, I felt like I understood the world a little better. It’s kind of a love letter to humanity, with all of its follies and vices. It’s also full of some fun allusions to all English nerds out there. And the science and philosophy in it is just delicious, if that appeals to you. An overall must-read.
- House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. Possibly the best book I have ever read. It seems to defy all descriptions, but I’ll do my best. It is unlike any book you will ever read. Footnotes reference other footnotes that don’t exist, and some of the printing is sideways or upside-down or forms a spiral. It’s utterly mesmerizing and enchanting. It’s often described as a mystery/horror novel, but it may be more accurately described as a love story. You’ll just have to read it yourself.
- A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin. The fifth installment of the Song of Ice and Fire series, some may argue that it is not as interesting as some of the other books in the series, but it is definitely the best written. Now, by no means should you read this without reading the other books (or at least watching the show and then reading the rest of the series.) The whole series is a must-read, really. But this book is the best. If you want, you can simply read the book and just take it at face value, it’ll be enjoyable. But, if you so wish, you can delve deeper and look at all the small nuances in the text, reading “in-between the lines”, and you will uncover the wonderful world of ASOIAF theories. It’s as beautiful as traditional art, really, the choice of language and syntax to imply the complete opposite of what the text is saying at face-value. If annotations and reading with a critical eye is your thing, you have to read this series. GRRM really perfects his subtlety with this last book.
- Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. If you’ve been following me for a while, then you knew this was coming. If you are looking for smut and a graphic affair between an old pedophile and small child, then look elsewhere. Despite the bad reputation this book has, it’s actually pretty tame. Though you do need to go in with an open mind, since it is true that the protagonist is a pedophile. But the fancy prose makes you completely forget the taboo subject. Nabokov has one of the most gorgeous styles of writing, so even if this book turns you off, you simply must read something of his before you die. You won’t regret it, I promise.
I’ll just end it there. I don’t wanna clog your dash any more!
Judging a Book by Its Lover. It is one of the coolest book trailers I’ve ever seen online. Going through it is such an experience. Thanks, Golda for sharing. Check it out: Judging a Book by Its Lover: A Field Guide to the Hearts and Minds of Readers Everywhere.
from Ada by Vladimir Nabokov
I think I just fell head-over-heels in love (or at least “really strong like”) with Bunpei Yorifuji’s Wonderful Life With The Elements book. Each element becomes a character, giving a cartoonish face to their particular chemical properties. Sure, some aren’t wearing pants … but minerals do as minerals want (peek through the book preview if you don’t believe me).
Periods are divided by their odd haircut choices, and the age of the element since discovery via facial hair. Other physical and chemical characteristics are evident by attire and appearance. If you’re looking for an early Christmas present for your favorite science blogger, just go ahead and put it in the mail with my name on it.
- The Elements of Style Illustrated—Maira Kalman
- Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life—Anne Lamott
- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft— Stephen King
- Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You— Ray Bradbury
- The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles—Steven Pressfield
- Advice to Writers
- How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One—Stanley Fish
- Ernest Hemingway on Writing
- How to Read a Book—Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren
”Anyway — Harry,” said the giant, turning his back on the Dursleys, “a very happy birthday to yeh. Got summat fer yeh here — I mighta sat on it at some point, but it’ll taste all right.”
from Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov
Do I read Lolita or Game of Thrones on my trip?