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I’m reading Ulysses for my book group, Masochists and Classics, and so have been out of commission for other reading / blogging pursuits. I may take a break to read something else while I’m still dealing with the last three hundred pages, but I can’t promise that–it takes a lot of concentration! I really don’t understand much of what is going on, even reading the companion book, but I have to say that it doesn’t matter a lot to me–the prose is so good I’d read a grocery list of it. (And luckily, there are lots of those in there!!!)

This post is in response to a call for submissions by The How-To Issue, a fun, constructive project responding to a recent literary controversy. 

How to Spend Time with a Work of Art

Out of curiosity, I recently researched visitor reviews of a small museum where I’m an educator. While I was pleased, generally, with the enthusiasm reviewers had for the collection, I was astounded that post after post mentioned that, given the size of the space, one could cover it in half an hour. Wait, I thought. When I lead group visits to the galleries, we look at no more than five objects in an hour—sometimes, we only cover three. I’ve worked there for four years now and still find more to see.

Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised—I’ve seen statistics that say museum visitors typically spend mere seconds in front of each work of art. I don’t think these people are the enemy—just walking through the door of a museum places them on the side of good. What I think is that not everyone knows how to spend time with art. And I think that if they did, they would.

Here are some questions to ask and answer for yourself next time you are standing in front of a work of art.

  1. Form a couple of first impressions from a few feet away. Ask yourself, what is going on here? What do you see that makes you think that?
  2. Step closer. How does the work of art change as you move towards it? Are there details you didn’t notice before?
  3. Close your eyes and picture the work of art. What stands out in your memory? Open your eyes and compare—was it the colors you recalled? A specific form or shape? Are there any elements you didn’t recall? Why might that have been?
  4. What is the tone or mood of the work of art? Does it have a point of view?
  5. How would it feel if you could touch it—both the actual object and what is being portrayed? Name the textures. What sounds, smells or tastes could you associate with it?
  6. If the work is narrative, imagine it as the center panel in a comic strip or story board. What might have happened five minutes earlier? Five minutes later?
  7. Look to each side and notice the works of art installed beside the one you are studying. What do they have in common? Is there a thematic or stylistic resonance you can pick up on? How are they different?
  8. Does the artwork remind you of anything in another medium—a song, a movie, a book or a poem?
  9. If you were to describe the work of art to someone who could not see it, what would you say? If you only had one sentence to describe it, what would that be? What about only three words?
  10. Only after you’ve spent time exploring the work for yourself, read the label or wall text. Does the information you learn change the way you think about the artwork? If so, how? If not, why not?

That should take at least ten minutes, right? Happy looking!

Dear readers, I’m deep into a reading project that takes all my literary time and attention (well, except for New Yorker fiction, and the new Tin House, and various podcasts…). It is for work, as well as for ticking off another classic from my list of “should have already reads.”  In the meantime, I’ve asked some lovely friends, writers and readers to do a little guest-posting for me. I’m excited to see what they have to say!

My first and probably only post this October is to tell you that I haven’t finished a book all month. Currently, I am just getting immersed in The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, and loving it, but prior to starting it a week or so ago, my reading list has skewed towards work-related texts. Here’s a quick rundown of what I’ve been reading and what I’ve been reading about:


Power Figure

Interesting stuff. But I hope to return to more literary pursuits next month!

As I wrote yesterday’s post, it occurred to me that this blog turned two years old this week. It’s been another great year of reading and writing about reading. To celebrate, please leave a comment about the best book you read in the past year!

I don’t know if this really counts, since I read it before this year, too, but I have to give my vote to The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard. I was re-reading a passage from it yesterday and the returns never diminish. Currently, I’m in the middle of Amy Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake–it’s already a front runner for next year’s favorite.

Can’t wait to hear from you!

This question drives me up the wall, because it is generally not asked with the intent of eliciting an answer; it is almost always an accusation. If it were an honest question, I would be happy to answer it, mostly focusing on the small, select, irreplaceable group of writers I met there who are and will continue to be not only my most valuable readers and collaborators but some of my favorite friends. Connections, confidence and some seriously awesome professors also top the list. But, I sometimes just get annoyed by the question and say something stupid, defensive, or mean. MFA programs are certainly not perfect, but they have merit and I wish I could trust myself to always convey that.

So I was happy to find  this blog post by Danielle Evans, which brilliantly and effectively deals with the criticisms levied at writers for attending MFA programs. This post is a follow up, and is just as good. I freaking love Danielle Evans and cannot wait until her first collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, comes out in September.

I found out about these posts from Tayari Jones, who interviewed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the Tenement Museum last Thursday. Don’t get me started on those two. (I mean don’t get me started yet–a post is forthcoming in Ms. Adichie’s fantastic new short story collection.) Stay tuned!

On my last day working at the Intrepid, a co-worker gave me The Paris Review Interviews, II as a going away present. It was super nice of him and I’ve been working my way through the book at odd intervals over the last couple of weeks. I’m planning on writing a real blog post about an actual work of fiction soon, but in the meantime, I wanted to share this quote by Isaac Bashevis Singer from his Paris Review interview. It reminded me of another wonderful quote by George Saunders, which, if I can find it, I will also post, in which he explained why he writes science fiction. Here is Singer, from page 105 of the book, explaining why he writes about the supernatural.

SINGER:  …The reason why it always comes up is because it is always on  my mind. I don’t know if I should call myself a mystic, but I feel always that we are surrounded by powers, by mysterious powers, which play a great part in everything we are doing. I would say that telepathy and clairvoyance play a part in every love story. Even in business. In everything human beings are doing. For thousands of years people used to wear woolen clothes and when they took them off at night they saw sparks. I wonder what those people thought thousands of years ago of these sparks they saw when they took off their woolen clothes? I am sure that they ignored them and the children asked them, Mother, what are these sparks? And I am sure the mother said, You imagine them! People must have been afraid to talk about the sparks so they would not be suspected of being sorcerers and witches. Anyhow, they were ignored, and we know now that they were not hallucinations, that they were real, and that what was behind those sparks was the same power that today drives our industry. And I say that we too in each generation see such sparks that we ignore just because they don’t fit into our picture of science or knowledge. And I think it is the writer’s duty, and also pleasure and function, to brings out these sparks…

Happy one year anniversary, Our Books are Better than We Are! To help me celebrate, I think everyone should leave a comment (here on the blog, not on Facebook!) about the best book they’ve read lately.

My celebratory post on one of the best short story collections I’ve read in about my entire life, Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing by Lydia Peelle, is forthcoming.

My brother forwarded me this article, a Q and A with the President.

While the whole article was interesting, the part that really struck me was that our president finds the time in his day–every day, he would have us believe–to read. Fiction. He is reading a contemporary novel right now entitled Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. When Pres. Obama (and Michelle, as evidenced by her appearance at the Met this week) says that the arts are important and integral, he believes it and he lives it.

For everyone who says they don’t have time to read, this is proof that you do!