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Why Should I Read This? Ulysses by James Joyce

“Ugh, I’d rather read Ulysses than this,” I said, turning away from my computer.

My coworkers stared at me. They know I hate the long-winded jargon that I was skimming through, but nobody commented on my reaction to it.

It might have been my monotone voice. Or maybe they don’t know what Ulysses by James Joyce is. It’s kind of an obscure book and somewhat difficult to read. If I had said “I’d rather read Moby Dick than this,” I’d probably have gotten a laugh.

Instead, I got nothing. It was that kind of day.

Dysfunctional Literacy

I should have known from the cover that this book wasn't about Roman mythology. I should have known from the cover that this book wasn’t about Roman mythology.

When it comes to reading classic literature, there are a lot of challenges.  The writing style from novels published generations ago can confuse today’s readers.  Some of the books have lots of references that today’s readers don’t understand.  And a lot of those classic novels are just too long for our short attention spans.  Any one of those challenges can deter people like me from trying a book.  But when a novel is challenging on every level, I know I’m screwed.

The worst of all of these classic novels might be Ulysses by James Joyce.  I don’t know if Ulysses really is the worst of all the tough classic novels because I haven’t read most of the tough classic novels.  I’ve been told it’s not fair to judge a book that you haven’t read, but I…

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5 Reasons Why English Grammar Is So Difficult

A reader just caught a mistake on a blog post that I wrote a few days ago. It kind of ticks me off because I stared at that post for a long time before I actually put it on the blog, and I still didn’t catch the mistake until it was pointed out to me. It was a weird grammar rule that few people know about and is hardly ever used, but I understand the basics of it and should have noticed the error.

Anyway, even though I have a job that has nothing to do with reading and writing, I’m pretty good at both. Even so, I have a tough time with grammar sometimes.

At least I know I’m not alone.

Dysfunctional Literacy

Don't let them fool you. Even they struggle with grammar. (image via wikimedia) Don’t let them fool you. They struggle with grammar just like the rest of us. (image via wikimedia)

English grammar can be tough.  Even people who enjoy reading and writing have a difficult time getting all the rules right.  When I was in college, I got careless with a composition and messed up a bunch of “its” and “it’s.”  My writing instructor admonished me, saying I couldn’t be successful in a writing profession by making basic mistakes.

At the time, I knew the rules, but I also knew I had a tendency to get careless, so I ended up going into a profession that has nothing to do with writing.  It’s my fault I didn’t choose a writing profession.  But almost everybody struggles with grammar, so if I blame grammar for my problems, almost everybody will agree with me.

Below are five perfectly good, rational reasons that explain why English grammar is…

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Old Things That Are Tough To Explain: The Ugly 1970s

There’s a Decade Day at my oldest daughter’s school next week, and she’s deciding how to dress up. She’s leaning toward the 1980s or 1950s, but I think she’s missing out on the best decade.

If I ever get to dress up for Decade Day (I think I’ve aged out of these things), I know which one I’d choose. It’s a no-brainer.

I’d dress up as the ugly 1970s.

Dysfunctional Literacy

Maybe “ugly” isn’t the right word, but everybody knows what I mean. (image via wikimedia)

It’s tough to explain the fashion sense of the 1970s to my daughters.  Whenever they watch a movie from that decade, they cringe and say something like, “How could they wear that?” or “What made them think that looked good?”

Every decade has a reputation.  The 1950s were cool because of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and a bunch of tuff cars.  The 1960s had the counter cultural stuff with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and lots of drugs.  They were cool too.  But the 1970s?   That decade still had the drugs, but those came with ugly hair, bell bottoms, weird color combinations, and big collars.  None of that is cool.  And it was kind of ugly.

There was some good music from the 1970s, but you don’t look at music, at least you didn’t in the 1970s. …

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Literary Glance: Interview with the Vampire

When I was in college, a girlfriend broke up with me because of Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice.  This girlfriend had a lot of great qualities, but she was a bit tyrannical over the books I read.  She always strongly suggested books like The Mists of Avalon and The Handmaid’s Tale, and she flipped out when I was reading a Stephen King book.

She finally broke up with me when I told her that Interview with the Vampire sucked.  Looking back, I don’t think I meant it.  I mean, I was tired and cranky at the time, and I wanted to read my own books, so I told her that Interview with the Vampire sucked, and I gave her a Mack Bolan book and a football magazine (with a hot chick in a bikini on the cover) as my suggested reading.  I admit, my humor needed refining, and she broke up with me.

The thing is, I don’t remember if Interview with the Vampire really sucked or not.  I’ve been wanting to read it again without the bias I once had, and now is a good time.  My wife doesn’t care what I think of Interview with the Vampire, so it’s probably safe for me to review now.

After a chapter or so, I can say that the book itself is a lot easier to read than I thought it would be.  Anne Rice can get kind of wordy sometimes.  I’ve stopped reading a couple of her more recent books (”recent” as in the last 20 years), and there seem to be lots of long paragraphs with sentences that took a lot of words to not say much.  Or maybe that was my original bias.

Here’s a section that I MIGHT have thought sucked back in the 1980s, a section where the vampire was discussing his transition:

“My last sunrise,” said the vampire.  “That morning, I was not yet a vampire.  And I saw my last sunrise.

I remember it completely; yet I do not think I remember any other sunrise before it.  I remember the light came first to the tops of the French windows, a paling behind the lace curtains, and then a gleam growing brighter in patches among the leaves of the trees.  Finally the sun came through the windows themselves and the lace lay in shadows on the stone floor, and all over the form of my sister, who was still sleeping, shadows of lace on the shawl over her shoulders and head.  As soon as she was warm, she pushed the shawl away without awakening, and then the sun shone full on her eyes and she tightened her eyelids.  Then it was on the table where she rested her head on her arms, and gleaming, blazing, in the water in the pitcher.  And I could feel it in my hands on the counterpane and then on my face.  I lay in the bed thinking about all the things the vampire had told me, and then it was that I said good-bye to the sunrise and went out to become a vampire.  It was… the last sunrise.”

I don’t remember what approach I used to criticize the novel back in the 1980s.  If I were to criticize it today, I’d point out that the author used the word gleam twice in one paragraph and that an editor should have asked for a synonym.  I was taught to avoid repeating the same desriptive word, even if it was vampire dialogue.  I don’t know.  I think using the same kind of word like gleam/gleaming twice in one paragraph is fair criticism, but it’s not enough to say that the book sucks.

Interview with the Vampire is okay, I guess.  I don’t like admitting it.  The writing isn’t tedious.  The story is interesting enough.  As far as I know, it was original for its time.  I probably shouldn’t have told my ex-girlfriend that it sucks.

Battle of the Classics: Moby Dick vs. Ragged Dick

I just told my daughter that Ragged Dick was the little-known sequel to Moby Dick. Ragged Dick is on her school’s recommended classic literature reading list, and I guess she was too lazy to look it up herself, so I decided to see how far I could take my explanation.

In Ragged Dick, I said, the injured whale escapes to a nearby island where it befriends a lonely boy. The lonely boy helps nurture the whale back to health (renaming it Ragged somewhere in the 8th chapter, I think). Of course, some local whalers find out about Ragged and try to hunt it down, but the boy and whale work together and the whale escapes.

Nothing. My daughter seemed to think nothing that I said was implausible. I guess she hasn’t read enough classic literature.

Then I said that in order to raise money to keep the whale healthy, the boy staged a musical to save the whale and a bunch of celebrities like Mark Twain AND Edgar Allen Poe pitched in. That was my daughter’s breaking point.

Next time, I think my daughter will look up the book herself.  I hope my daughter doesn’t develop any trust issues with me over this.

Dysfunctional Literacy

Everybody knows what Moby Dick looks like, so... here's Ragged! (image via wikimedia) Everybody knows what Moby Dick looks like, so… here’s Ragged! (image via wikimedia)

It’s probably not fair to classic literature that word meanings change over time. Nobody laughed when Moby Dick by Herman Melville or Ragged Dick by Horatio Alger, Jr. came out.  I mean, I wasn’t around back then, but I’m pretty sure people didn’t laugh.

It’s not that people were more sophisticated in the 1800s.  It’s just that Dick was only a name back then.  I’m also pretty sure if “dick” had meant back then what it means right now, people would have laughed.   Nowadays, if you want your book to be taken seriously, you don’t put “Dick” in the title.

I’m not the kind of guy who compares Dicks very often, but I’ll do it for the sake of literature.  Moby Dick was published in 1851 and was supposedly a commercial failure when it came out.  Ragged…

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I Am The “So…” Guy

(image via wikimedia)

I caught myself starting off my sentences with the word “So…” last week.  I don’t know how long I’ve been doing it.  I had never noticed myself saying “So…” before, but since then I’ve caught myself doing this several times at work.

I’m pretty sure that I don’t do this at home because my wife would tell me.  She can’t stand it when people start their sentences with “So…”  Whenever people start their conversations with her by saying “So…,” I always hear about it later.  If my wife can’t stand it, then I’m sure a bunch of other people can’t stand it too.

My wife mocks people who start their sentences with “So…”  I mean, she doesn’t make fun of them in public.  My wife’s not like that.  She will gently mock them around me, and around me only.  She won’t even mock people around my daughters (very often) because we don’t want to raise children who think it’s okay to do that.  They’ve probably eavesdropped on us, though.

The thing is, at work I have to make co-workers redo stuff that they don’t want to redo.  For much of my career, I’d just go ahead and fix others’ mistakes myself because that’s usually easier, but now I find myself explaining to them what they need to do in order to fix their errors, and when I begin, I seem to start with “So…”

Once you get a reputation for something like this, it’s tough to be rid of it.  If I keep saying “So…,” coworkers will start expecting it.  Even when I don’t do it, they will imagine that I said it anyway.  The “So…” reputation will linger, like the stench of a serial farter who has changed his diet and no longer has flatulence issues.  But it won’t matter.  People always remember.

I’ve had plenty of mishaps at work before this and have survived.  Years ago, I blanked out at the beginning of a major presentation and barely stammered my way through it.  I’ve walked around all afternoon with broccoli stuck in my teeth.  My fly was once open for an extended period of time.  But as far as I know, these were one-time occurrences.  When it comes to “So…,” I’m a repeat offender.

If my coworkers have noticed that I’ve become the “So…” guy, I haven’t seen the consequences yet.  I haven’t noticed anybody flinch when they see me approaching.  Last week, I walked into a room of coworkers laughing, and nobody stopped.  A couple coworkers even asked me for job-related assistance today.  From what I’ve seen, there is still time to save me.

The first step is to pause before I begin speaking.  I don’t have to pause before each sentence, though.  I seem to say “So…” only as my introduction.  Once I start talking, I’m fine.  It’s not like saying “Uuuuhhhh.”  “Uuuhhh…” can show up any time.  I’ve learned to maintain a pause instead of saying “uuuhhh.”  You would think that quitting “So…” would be more difficult than quitting “uuuhhh,” but that hasn’t been my experience yet.

I don’t want to get stuck with the “So…” reputation.  I don’t want to be the guy who gets quietly mocked behind his back.  I’ve been in that position many times in my life, and I’ve worked hard to climb out.  If anything, I’ve recently been in the position to quietly mock others, and I rarely use that power (because I’ve been on the other side of it).  I’d rather have the power to be the mocker than to be the mocked.  I’m okay with the power to mock because I’m responsible enough to wield it wisely.  But I can’t maintain that power if I keep starting my sentences with “So…”

So I must stop it.

I mean… Therefore, I must stop it.

Reading and Writing: Which One Is More Important?

It’s been a hectic month. We’re still fixing storm damage to the house, the daughters have busy school schedules and need to be driven around, work has gone crazy again, and even when I plan things out perfectly. I don’t have time to read AND to write. Even on a good day, I can choose one, but I can’t do both.

At some point every day, I find myself holding a book and staring at the computer, and I ask:

Should I read, or should I write?

Dysfunctional Literacy

This would be a crummy way to read AND a crummy way to write. (image via Wikimedia) This would be a crummy way to read AND a crummy way to write. (image via Wikimedia)

It might not be the most pressing debate of our time. Until the chicken and the egg dispute is resolved, I feel guilty even bringing this up. But I feel guilty about a lot of things, so I might as well add this to the list.  Which is more important, reading or writing?

There’s a reason I ask this question. The next couple weeks are going to be busier than normal. My family is moving, so discretionary time will be limited for a while. I can usually get about 30 minutes of reading and 30 minutes of writing every weeknight (if everything falls into place), but now I might be lucky to get just 15 minutes of one. So for a couple weeks, I’ll have to choose. Do I use my limited spare time for…

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8 Rules of Writing That Are Easy to Break

As aspiring authors, it’s important for us to develop our own styles to separate ourselves from everybody else. Being unique means sometimes breaking rules that we were taught in school or in writing groups. Even though I don’t mind breaking the rules of writing anymore, it’s good to be reminded what those rules are every once in a while.

Dysfunctional Literacy

P writing blue (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are a lot of rules to writing (and I think I just broke five of them with this opening sentence), so many that I won’t even try to list all of them.  As an amateur, I read about rules of writing because I want to improve.  But I’ve found that when I try to follow the rules too closely, my writing sounds like somebody who is trying to follow the rules of writing.

Since I don’t get paid to write for Dysfunctional Literacy, I’ve decided to write the way I want to write, and I’ve noticed that I tend to break some common rules about writing.  Maybe breaking these rules will keep me from becoming a successful author.  I don’t know.  Maybe breaking these rules will help.  Either way, here are some common rules of writing that I sometimes break.


Nobody should do…

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Literary Glance: Secrets in Death by J.D. Robb

Until recently, I thought that J.D. Robb was a male author.  I mean, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.  It was just an offhand assumption.  When I found out that J.D. Robb was a female author’s pseudonym, I wasn’t shocked or outraged.  I just thought it was a smart pen name.

First of all, Robb is a guy’s name.  And when I think of J.D., I think of Jack Daniels.  Almost every guy associates the initials J.D. with Jack Daniels.  If you’re a woman who absolutely has to come up with a pseudonym that sounds like a dude, use a whiskey and a guy’s first name.  That’s an important thing to know.

Secrets in Death is J.D. Robb’s latest mystery, and it’s okay so far.  After a few pages, I haven’t learned any secrets and there hasn’t been any death, but none of that is necessarily bad.  The only thing that has stood out so far is the word ass, and I don’t mean that in a pervertish kind of way.

In this opening scene, Lt. Eve Dallas (also a cool name) is entering a bar to meet a friend(?):

She stepped out of the noise and rush of downtown New York, into the fern –and-flower-decked noise of the trendy, overpriced drinking hole.

The bar itself, a dull and elegant silver, swept itself into an S curve along the facing wall.  Mirrored shelves filled with shiny bottles backed it.  On the top shelf exotic red flowers spilled out of the black-and-white checked pots.

Stools with black-and-white checked seats lined the front.  An ass filled every seat while other patrons crowded in, keeping the trio of bartenders busy.

I don’t know.  The word ass kind of seems out of place in this scene.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not offended by the word ass.  I’ve written about the word ass a couple times on my blog.  I even spell out ass completely.  I don’t replace the a in ass to make it look like @ss@sshole should be tinkered with a little bit, but ass is fine.

The thing is,  the sentence with the word ass could easily have been reworded to make it less awkward.

All the seats were taken while other patrons crowded in, keeping the trio of bartenders busy.

“All the seats were taken” implies that a human being is sitting in each seat, which in turn means that an ass was placed on every seat.

I don’t think I’ve used the phrase “an ass filled every seat.”  I’ve never walked into a crowded restaurant and thought/said “Those seat are filled with lots of asses.”

When offered a place to sit, I’ve never said, “I shall fill that seat with my ass.”

Maybe people talk like this and I just haven’t noticed.  I’m trying to be a writer, an observer of the human condition, and I can’t believe I’ve missed a linguistic trend like this.  As an aspiring author, I try to borrow the writing strategies of successful authors and try new things, so I’ll try using this expression in my own life.

When I continue to read Secrets in Death by J.D. Robb, my ass shall fill my recliner.

So far, Secrets in Death seems like an okay book.  Some of the phrasing seems awkward though.  I would mention it, but I don’t want to seem nit picky.

How To Blog Without Burning Out

It’s been tough keeping up with the blog recently. Several rooms in my house (including the den) are getting worked on because of recent storm damage, so all my writing has to be done in a high-traffic room amidst television noise, teens arguing, and pets vying for attention.

Writing has been a struggle recently (more so than normal), but I’ve been following my system for blogging. Over the last few years, I’ve realized that when I follow my system, blogging doesn’t stress me out.

If anything, blogging keeps me from getting stressed out.

Dysfunctional Literacy

(image via wikimedia) (image via wikimedia)

If you’re writing a blog, it’s easy to find basic tips all over the internet.  Leave comments on other blogs.  Promote yourself with other kinds of social media.  Use key words that show up on search engines.  Become a credible source in a specific niche.  Those tips can be useful, but some of them are time-consuming and can take the fun out of blogging.

I’ve been blogging for a little over 5 years, and I’ve noticed that a lot of writers who had blogs 5 years ago have either slowed down or no longer blog at all.  I think some of them burned out because they were trying too hard to follow the usual guidelines, and doing all of that isn’t very fun.  Self-promotion is time-consuming when you just want to write.

In my five years of blogging, I’ve accumulated lots of writing.  I’m embarrassed by some of…

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