Polls and Questions
Enough with all the literary deaths and shootings. The green and idyllic small town above, captured in an aerial shot via Google Maps, once nurtured a writer currently acknowledged as one of the greatest of all time. This writer is both wildly popular with bookbuying audiences and highly respected by the most severe literary critics. Unfortunately, the writer did not live long enough to enjoy this universal acclaim.
"Situations have ended sad, relationships have all been bad
Mine have been like Verlaine and Rimbaud
But there's no way I can compare all them scenes to this affair
You're gonna make me lonesome when you go"
-- Bob Dylan, "Blood on the Tracks"
Congrats to everybody who knew the answer. Yes, as one deft commenter guessed, our wayward writers were French: they are Symbolist poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, who were staying at a hotel overlooking Grand Place in the center of Bruxelles, Belgium in July 1873 when their relationship ended ugly.
At a corner near the center of the Google Maps image above there is a strange plaque celebrating a literary moment in history that could not have possibly seemed worthy of celebration when it occurred. Two famous writers visited a foreign city together, intending to rekindle their troubled and illicit romance, but the getaway went badly. One of the writers wanted to leave, but the other did not want this to happen, and shot the first writer. The wound was not fatal, except to their friendship.
I began investigating the real-life setting of some key scenes in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby after discovering an amazing new online historical map of New York City, a photographic mashup that allows you to see detailed images from 1924, 1951 and the present time. When I saw that 1924 was represented on this map, I immediately realized that it would yield a rare opportunity to see New York City exactly as F. Scott Fitzgerald would have seen it during the period that he lived in the Long Island town of Great Neck (represented in Gatsby as West Egg) and traveled frequently to Manhattan. Therefore, since Gatsby was set in Fitzgerald's present time, it would allow us to see New York City exactly as Nick Carraway, Jay Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan, Tom Buchanan and Myrtle Wilson would have seen it.
According to the biography Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald by Matthew Bruccoli, one of Fitzgerald's earliest inspirations for The Great Gatsby was the striking vision of a vast, desolate "valley of ashes" -- a gigantic trash burning operation -- on the road between Great Neck and Manhattan. The infernal vision seemed to provide an ironic counterpoint to the opulent social swirls of New York City and Great Neck, as if the passage revealed some deeper truth about the souls who traveled it. Fitzgerald described a small edge settlement just east of the valley of ashes where a billboard with blazing eyes advertises the services of eye doctor T. J. Eckleburg, and where Tom Buchanan's mistress Myrtle Wilson's husband George runs a decrepit auto garage.
Can you identify the famous literary work represented in the photograph above? Here are a couple of hints:
• You have definitely read this novel. It's one of the most widely loved novels of all time.
• A person is killed, during one of the novel's climactic scenes, by the forked road near the top right of the photo.
• The vast expanse in the photo's center, which appears to be a work of geometric modern art, provides one of the novel's central metaphors.
This image has been seen before but has never before, as far as I know, been connected to or identified as related to the famous novel it depicts. I had to do some research and make some educated guesses to ascertain the exact spot myself, and I will explain my reasoning in the post to follow.
I spotted this image while browsing a historical map site referred to me on Twitter. The photo was taken in 1924, and I will reveal its source and link to the very cool map website when I reveal the identity of the spot in the next post.
Please post your guesses by commenting. Just to keep it interesting ... I will not publish any comments until I reveal the answer, because it would ruin the fun if a commenter gave it away. I wonder how many of you will guess it!
FOLLOW-UP: the answer is revealed here.
A couple of weeks ago, I had a grand idea: I should ask people about their reading habits, namely, if they read at all, and what they do read. The reason I had this grand idea was because I was having one of those 1 a.m. thought sessions, which are usually about really deep and important things, like where I left my keys, if I want to get up and get a glass of water, or why I can't get that godawful Mariah Carey song out of my head. But this particular thought session was about how I kept reading that nobody reads anymore, and if they do read, they certainly don't read fiction or short stories or poetry. And if they are among the rare who read any of those things, they don't buy these types of books. So I wanted to see if it was true or not. And I figured the only way I could see if it was true or not was by conducting a study, so that's what I did. The results are interesting, if I do say so myself, even if tabulating the results was decidedly not interesting and I often mentioned how irritated I was with myself for having the idea in the first place while I spent warm sunny afternoons entering data into a spreadsheet. But now that I'm done entering data into a spreadsheet, I'm happier about the whole thing.
I am not a scientist nor a statistician and complex math makes my brain curl up in the fetal position and cry, but I do like data and asking people for their opinions. I even (in theory) like making spreadsheets, and I definitely like charts and graphs. So even though this is in no way scientific, and I'm certain the results won't end up being quoted on the evening news, I did the best I could.
First, I needed some people to complete a survey. So I asked people on my blog and in a Flickr group I am active in, and I had some friends ask their friends to participate as well. I was shooting for 100 participants, but when all was said and done, I ended up with 90 who agreed to let me e-mail them a survey. I sent out an 18-question survey to people, asking for them to be returned by May 30. Of the 90 surveys I sent out, I received 67. I was a little annoyed about that, mainly because I like nice, round numbers and 67 is pretty much the antithesis of nice and round, but even so, 67 responses were way more than I had been expecting so I was generally pleased. Anyway, the 67 responses came to my e-mail and I hand-entered them into a spreadsheet I created specifically for entering survey data. This was very boring. Once I was done entering the data, I had to decide what to do with it. I'd already promised Levi that I was going to make graphs, and I decided that although it's nerdy enough to make graphs from data about people's reading habits, it would be even nerdier (and at least 10 times more awesome) if I made the graphs by hand. Since I am all about awesome nerdiness (why am I still single? It's a mystery), I went and bought some graph paper. (One of the joys, or pains-in-the-ass, rather, of small-town living: I had to go to another town to buy the graph paper. May the environment forgive me.)
And without further ado, let's get it on. I mean, let's learn about reading. I mean, here, have some charts and graphs. (You can click on any of the graphs to make them bigger.
Of the 67 respondents, 56 were from the United States, and 11 were from other countries: Canada (4), Italy (2), Germany (1), the Czech Republic (1), the United Kingdom (1), the Philippines (1), New Zealand (1). I know it's lame that the graph is broken up into "United States" and "Other" but a) the arcs for each individual country would've been pretty small, and b) I'm kinda lazy.
There were 29 men and 38 women.
The majority of respondents (25) were in the 18-30 age group; 18 were 31-40, 11 were 41-50, and 13 were 50+.
The Things We Read
Since it's possible to be a reader without reading books, I next asked what types of things people read on a regular basis: books (94%), print newspapers (42%), print magazines/journals (75%), online newspapers (67%), online magazines/journals (58%), and other websites/blogs (97%). As you can see, the front runners are books and websites/blogs, with websites/blogs edging out books by 3%.
When asked which one type of publication people read the most (on a monthly basis), the battle still remained between books (36%) and websites/blogs (37%), with websites/blogs just barely coming out on top by 1 point. Coming in third was online newspapers (12%), fourth was print magazines/journals (7%), and web magazines/journals and print newspapers tied for last place with 4% each.
I was interested in seeing if reading habits had anything to do with the age of the respondents, so I made a couple of extra graphs to illustrate this. Or at least I think it illustrates this. The first graph shows each type of publication read, broken down into different age categories. Don't freak out about the fact that the percentages here add up to more than 100. People were allowed to choose any or all of the listed choices, so each line on the graph is its own percentage of 100. I hope that makes sense. My point is that if you tell me that these add up to more than 100, I will say "I KNOW. That's the point."
As we can see, books average highly across age groups: 92% of 18-30 year olds read books regularly, 94% of 31-40 year olds do, 100% of 41-50 year olds do, and 85% of those in the 50+ age group do. The only other type of publication faring more highly was Other Websites/Blogs, with 96% (18-30), 100% (31-40), 100% (41-50) and 92% (50+). The type of publication type with the lowest regular readership was print newspapers, with 16% of 18-30 age group, 44% of 31-40 age group, and 46% of the 50+ age group. The only group that scored print newspapers over 50% was the 41-50 age group, coming in at 82% stating that they read them regularly.
The second graph again illustrates the various types of publications people read, though in this case, respondents were asked to select one that they read the most:
The only age group with a higher percentage of website/blog readers than book readers was the 18-30 year old group, with 44% answering that they read websites/blogs the most compared to 32% who read books the most. Otherwise, books edge out websites/blogs, by 5 points in the 31-40 group (44% for books, 39% for websites/blogs), by 10 points in the 41-50 group (37% for books, 27% for websites/blogs), and by 12 points in the 50+ group (35% for books, 23% for websites/blogs). Among 18-30 year olds, 0 answered that they read print newspapers the most, compared to 5% in the 31-40 group, and 9% each in the 41-50 and 50+ groups.
In the battle between fiction and nonfiction, fiction comes out victorious by a landslide, with 72% of respondents stating that they read it more, compared to the 28% who chose nonfiction.
As for independent literature (which I defined as small press or self-published work), 39% say they read it, and 61% say they don't. Had I thought about it at the time I was writing up the survey, I would've asked the reason why people don't read indie lit (if they don't). Despite my not asking, some people said it was because they didn't know it was out there or where to find it, but for the ones who didn't, I'm wondering if this was the case, or if in any way, it has anything to do with a stigma that is often attached to indie lit, in that if it was really worth reading, it would be published by a big publishing house. I should've asked the question and I didn't, so if any of you would care to shed some light on this, that would be swell. And here is a graph:
I got really sick of drawing graphs by hand at this point (I guess there are limits to my awesome nerdiness), so I'm just going to give you numbers for readers of short stories and poetry, and that's totally okay, isn't it? I know. Right.
So, of those surveyed, 64% say they read short stories, whereas 36% say they don't. Of those who read short stories, the majority of them (70%) read those stories in collections (either by the same author or various authors), 13% read stories online, and 17% read them in magazines or journals. As for purchasing short stories, 58% buy them occasionally, 35% seldom buy them, 2% often buy stories, and 5% never buy them.
When it comes to reading poetry, 63% of people say they do and 37% say they don't. 23% read poetry online, 19% read it in magazines/journals, and 57% read it in books (collections either by the same author or various authors). As for purchasing poetry, the numbers are entirely unsurprising: 2% say they purchase it often, 24% purchase it occasionally, 55% purchase it seldom, and 19% never purchase poetry. (I actually thought the "never" percentage would be higher, because I'm like that.)
How Much We Read
In terms of how many books people read per month, most people (22%) average 2 books a month. The rest, from highest percentage to lowest:
- 4: 21%
- 3: 18%
- 1: 15%
- Less than 1: 7%
- 6: 6%
- 7: 4%
- 10 or more: 3%
- 5: 2%
- 8: 2%
- 9: 0%
Why We Read
The majority of people (73%) read for entertainment. 20% read for education, 6% read for something to do while traveling/commuting, and 1% read for another reason, that other reason being, and I quote, "Enjoyment. Watching two ducks fight over a hunk of bread is entertaining, but not particularly enjoyable. Know what I mean, Verne?" (To which I reply, fair enough. And way to quote Ernest!)
Purchasing and Borrowing
Other than occasionally or seldom or never buying short stories and poetry, I asked people what type of thing they would purchase from a bookstore or borrow from a library. By far, the most popular thing to get was contemporary (non-genre) fiction, with 34% choosing it. The rest, in order of popularity:
- Genre fiction (mystery, horror, science fiction, romance, etc.): 21%
- Other (most frequent choices were science, history, sociology): 12%
- Classic literature: 10%
- A how-to book (cooking, gardening, photography, etc.): 10%
- Short stories: 4%
- Biography of a famous person: 4%
- Poetry: 3%
- A magazine: 2%
I asked people, if they were reading something, what it was that they were reading. I was mostly curious to see if there was going to be any overlap in people's choices, but there overwhelmingly wasn't. Not a bit. So, instead of providing you with a hideously long list of titles and authors, I'll just tell you I found out that almost every person who responded was reading (or had just finished) something, and out of those people, more than half were reading more than one book. Though I didn't look up individual books listed on Amazon or someplace like it to see if each title was indeed fiction or nonfiction, it looked like the split between the two was a bit more equitable.
I think there is one major flaw in the application of this survey, in that it doesn't deal with a random sample, and instead I got people to participate by asking if they'd like to take a survey about reading. While I made it clear that the survey was equally open to readers and non-readers alike, I think the nature of the question led to the sample being heavily skewed toward readers. This is fine, and I learned a lot, though I did include a section of the survey for people who didn't read in their spare time, and only one person completed this section (citing lack of interest as a reason for not reading books for pleasure). I know that there must be more people out there who don't read for pleasure, and while I was interested in finding out their opinions as well, it pretty much didn't work out that way.
All in all, I think it was interesting to learn more about other people's reading habits (and I was especially fascinated by the people who say they read 10 or more books a month -- where do you find time? I'm a little envious). I don't think I've ever written a blog post with a calculator and a spreadsheet in my lap before, but there's always a first time for everything. And I'm pretty sure I am never going to draw graphs by hand again as long as I live, or at least not for another year or so, whatever comes first.
My thanks go out to everyone who participated, and to my friends for letting me complain about how long it takes to draw graphs, and for explaining effective graphing methods to me when I got stuck trying to figure out how to present multiple data sets in one place. Cheers. The end.
Do you read one book at a time, or do you typically keep 5 going at once? Do you sometimes not have time for books because you have to keep up with 50 different blogs? Are you reading lots of e-mail? (And are you like me? Do you actually read spam?) Do you curl up in a chair to read the newspaper or do you get your newsreading done online? Do you idly flip through at least one magazine a day? How many times have you read the back of your tube of toothpaste while you're getting ready for work in the morning?
On an average day, how much time do you think you spend reading? What are some of your favorite publications and daily reads? Do you think it's better to concentrate on one thing at a time or do you like to keep it mixed up? Why? Whether it's in print or digital, literary or not so literary, how much are you reading?
Or maybe it's a daily practice. Sitting down at a computer or typewriter or at a table with a stack of paper and a cup full of sharpened pencils. Carving the words out of the raw blocks of space into something recognizable and -- you hope -- real.
Perhaps it's a series of stolen secret moments, notes hastily scribbled on desk calendars, scraps of paper, napkins, matchbooks, the back of your hand. The images and lines come at the strangest times, and you've learned from experience that you'd better write them down when they show up, because it's no good, trusting your memory to keep them for you to write when it's convenient.
Could be it's like this, or maybe it's entirely different, but each of us go about writing in our own ways. How do you do it? Longhand or typed? Late at night or early in the morning (or whenever you have time)? Do you write every day or just when the mood or need strikes you? Do you have any rituals for writing? Lucky writing shirt (or pants or socks or whatever) or do you write naked? Do you know what you're going to write before you start or do you start writing and hope your ideas catch up with you? Do you try your best to get everything down in one go or do you write in fits and stops? Do you edit when you're done or as you go along (or not at all)?
We talk a lot about books and what's going on with literature, and we talk some about different aspects of being a writer. But being a writer happens differently for each of us. How do you create? What's your process?
Let's get 'er done, shall we?
1. Do you even like poetry or are you totally faking it?
2. What's the last book of poetry you've purchased (for yourself or a friend), borrowed or stolen?
3. Above all else, what most attracts you to a poem? Rhythm, rhyme, structure, the lack thereof? Is it the message that draws you in ... the metaphor, the triggering of an emotion or memory? Does size matter? Of the poem.
4. With #3 in mind, is there a certain type or style of poetry that you like most? Really, it's ok to admit that you just have a thing for senryu. Or maybe you're more of a villanelle junkie. We're not here to judge...
5. We covered everyone's favoritest poem of all time here, but beyond your wonder of wonders, what is the last/most recent poem you've read that made you say "whoa", "wow", "heck yeah" or some similar expression of amazement? Maybe it was a re-read of an old standby, a new discovery or maybe it was something you stumbled across here? Maybe it was something from a Burger King commercial?
And finally ...
6. If Walt Whitman went to Burger King, what would he order?
That's it. Take your time, be sure to fill in the bubbles completely and as always, we promise to only use your answers for our usual nefarious purposes.
What do you want from a great author?
What do I want? Simple. Make me want to turn the page.
Ok, so I learned something, great. But make me want to turn the page.
He can really turn a phrase, is insightful, is witty. Terrific. But make me want to turn the page.