Wednesday, 14 November 2018

The 5 Best Places To Learn About Literature Online (For Free!)

As most regular readers of The Book Habit already know, I'm someone who needs to be constantly learning. I have always thrived as a student, whether in an official capacity or through picking up knowledge in my spare time. It's probably why I ended up following my academic career to its natural peak as a PhD student and ultimately decided to leave when I realised that it wasn't quite what I thought it would be. Even my hobbies tend to be dictated by the space that they provide to pick up new skills. I took up sewing a couple of years ago and have worked hard to acquire knowledge as much as I can - from online courses to a whole separate sewing blog (you can find me at Sew for Victory, if you're craftily inclined), it's given me an entirely new area for skill acquisition.

With my reading habit, I'm similarly attentive to any opportunities to learn. I've always been someone who digs up all available resources on authors and books. I just love absorbing information that broadens my experience. Since leaving the PhD, I've also had much more time on my hands. I've filled it, in large part, with lots of free literature courses. The internet is an incredible resource for those of us who are constantly seeking to learn more. From my very extensive experience of combing the web for free courses and lectures, I thought it might be useful to compile a list of my favourites. These resources are all free and well-curated, so you can be sure that the information is high quality!

I love Future Learn. I've taken a truly astounding number of their free courses and have yet to be disappointed by the breadth and quality of anything to which I've given time. Not only is there a truly incredible number of courses on offer, the pre-enrollment information gives a clear indication of the general time commitment. Courses offer a variety of written information, video lectures, and assignments. Assignments are given feedback by other students and you also have the option of providing feedback of your own. It's a great opportunity to gauge your own understanding of the material and interact with others! That said, courses do vary in their format. Assignments aren't a part of every course. Some will have set readings that may amount to full books or extracts that are provided by the course creators. This information is usually presented very clearly at the start of the course, so you will have time to get to the library and understand the sort of time commitment expected.

It's important to bear in mind that, unlike other e-learning websites, Future Learn courses are not available on archive. So courses are released and run for set periods of time, during which you have the chance to enroll and participate. Once you're enrolled, you have a set period for course completion. It's a good idea to look over the calendar of upcoming courses - you can enroll in advance and make a note in your diary of when the course content will be released. I've taken many excellent courses via Future Learn that tend to be available on an annual basis. The calendar of courses changes constantly so it is definitely worth keeping an eye on the future course selection! 

As always, courses are free. However, you have the option of paying a set fee to 'upgrade'. Upgrading gives you unrestricted access to the content (so that you have it forever, rather than having to complete within a set period of time) and a certificate of completion to prove that you've taken the course!

Course Highlights:

- Literature and Mental Health (not currently available but you can set up email notifications. This is my personal favourite course!)

edX is an amazing resource for incredibly high-quality courses. Available from the likes of Harvard and Darmouth, you are truly learning from some of the world's best institutions. One great advantage that edX has over Future Learn is its archived courses. You have the option of participating while courses are 'live', in which case you have access to current assignments, feedback, and the ability to interact with other students. However, once the 'live' period is over, courses are archived for enrollment at any future points. This means that there are far more options available to interested students, albeit with less interactivity.

As with Future Learn, courses are provided in a variety of formats - written information, video lectures, and assignments. There is typically required reading, some of which is given in extracts as part of the course. For courses focussed on older literature, links will often be provided to open access sources online so you won't need to worry about hunting out novels from the library or bookshop!

I've been so impressed with the courses that I've taken via edX. They tend to be more challenging and demanding than those available via Future Learn, but I've found that they also provide a much deeper insight. If you're looking for courses more akin to what you would expect from a university-level literature course, edX is definitely the place for you! As with Future Learn, courses are available for free. However, you can 'upgrade' for a fee that will provide you with a certificate of completion at the end of the course! This upgrade is only available for 'live' courses. 

Some courses are also available in other languages. So if you prefer to learn in French, Spanish, or otherwise, there's a good chance that you will find a course that suits you!

Course Highlights:

- Hamlet's Ghost (available now)

In this case, you can go direct to the horse's mouth for a variety of Yale's most interesting literature lectures and courses. These courses include videos of lectures delivered to Yale classes, so you have access to the Yale courses exactly as they are given at the university. It is undeniable that these courses lack the fullness of those provided by Future Learn and edX. They are, after all, courses that were designed to be taken as a student at the university. However, the courses available via Open Yale Courses come with a syllabus (detailing course content more broadly, as well as reading material) and the course's video library. It's really everything you need if your goal is simply to learn.

Of course, the format of these courses means that you will not have access to assignments, feedback, or interaction with other students. Unlike Future Learn and edX, you do not 'enroll' in these courses. They're simply available via the online library for you to work through at your own pace and whenever you choose. I find this hugely appealing because it's truly devoid of any pressure. It's a great way to fill in the blanks regarding any particular literature-based knowledge, as well as to potentially accompany some new reading adventures with authors that you haven't previously read.

Course Highlights:

- The American Novel Since 1945 (available now - the lectures on Nabokov and Lolita are especially interesting!)

When it comes to literature courses, the selection via Coursera is a little harder to navigate. They aren't clearly contained under any particular discipline, so you have to dig a little bit in order to find some good courses (I've included links to some of my favourites below, however). As with Future Learn and edX, Coursera courses are provided by reputable institutions and are all incredibly high quality. They come with video lectures and written information, as well as a variety of assignments that may or may not be available depending on whether you are accessing the course for free. As with other e-learning platforms, you have the option of paying a fee to access the full course and receive a completion certificate at the end of the course.

Coursera courses are more limited to those who choose to access them without paying a fee. Some courses are available for full via free 7-day trials, but most will give you free access to the course as an audit option. This means that you will be able to view most video lectures and written content but will not be able to actively participate by communicating with others or completing assignments. So just be aware when you sign up that taking the course for free will limit your experience. In my view, however, unless you are bowled over by personal interest or looking to complete a course for professional reasons, you will get plenty of information from free access.

Course Highlights:

- Introduction to Who Wrote Shakespeare (starts 13 November 2018)

With Udemy, it is important to bear in mind that not all courses are created equal. Unlike edX and Future Learn courses, just about anyone can submit their own course content to Udemy. So not every literature course is going to be high quality, nor will they all have reputable educational institutions as their creators. Additionally, Udemy puts most of its courses - particularly those of higher quality - behind a payment wall. So keep in mind when browsing that much of what you come across will require upfront payment in order to access any of the course material.

That said, Udemy also has an excellent review system for students to leave their opinions on courses. This is a great way to filter out the lower-quality content and ensure that you are getting what you want. You also have a preview video for a general overview of course content, prior to enrollment. It is certainly worth exploring what Udemy has to offer because there are some truly excellent courses, some of which are offered for free. 

Course Highlights:

So there we have it. My favourite five sources of free literary learning online! If you have any of your own favourites to add, be sure to comment below and share your thoughts. Happy learning!

Monday, 12 November 2018

Monday Musing - 12/11/18

Recently, I've been struggling to find balance. Maybe the idea that balance is something we can ever truly find is just an illusion. It seems to me that wherever we're looking for balance - whether in work versus regular life, between different hobbies, in time spent with friends or alone - there's always going to be a skew one way or another. So perhaps what we're actually searching for is our own perfect imbalance - the kind of wavy, sometimes inconsistent juggling of competing elements that somehow works for us. Since I quit my PhD programme two years and, shortly thereafter, moved to the US, I've been in a constant battle to work out what it is that I want to do. For the first time in my life, my time is truly my own. But having that kind of unrestricted freedom is a burden in itself. I find my self constantly worrying about what I'm doing, whether it's the right thing, whether I'm doing enough of it. Finding a way to balance (or imbalance) the various jobs, hobbies, and relationships that I want to explore and enjoy is tough!

What this past couple of years has given me is the ability to acknowledge the boundaries that I'd unconsciously erected for myself - the various shoulds, shouldnts, and cants that have dictated my choices for as long as I can remember. Boundaries are a gift in that they give us the focus necessary to get things done and meet necessary goals. But they can also produce an inflexibility and lack of imagination that limits what we allow ourselves to achieve. Not everyone will have the benefit of unrestricted exploration of these boundaries. Limits created by free time, the need to make money, and family obligations are just a few of the things that distract us. However, if we learn to work with what we have, we can make boundaries - and imbalance - our friend. Although I'm very sure that I'll never be truly rid of the anxiety about what I'm not doing and whether I actually have that perfect imbalance I'm seeking, I'm definitely learning to embrace the exploration!

Friday, 9 November 2018

Review: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

"What I mean to say is, we had been considerable. Had been loved. Not lonely, not lost, not freakish, but wise, each in his or her own way. Our departures caused pain. Those who had loved us sat upon their beds, heads in hand; lowered their faces to tabletops, making animal noises. We had been loved, I say, and remembering us, even many years later, people would smile, briefly gladdened at the memory."

Most novels are, in one way or another, about loss. The loss of innocence, youth, love - all convey the most universal and human experience of learning to live with the inherent transience of everything around us. Writing about loss is, therefore, perhaps the easiest way for an author to ensure that his or her work is immediately relatable. Yet the tremendous body of literature that already grapples with the topic of loss - whether in death or something more insubstantial - makes it incredibly difficult to explore the experience in a way that is both unique and creative. As I mentioned in a previous post, I've spent a good part of this year reading books that deal explicitly with loss. From the poignant grief portrayed in Banana Yoshimoto's Kitchen to the eerie supernaturalism of Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, there are many ways in which literature can explore grief, absence, and the process of rebuilding in the wake of these experiences. Yet no book has navigated the subject with the gravity, raw emotion, and originality of George Saunders's debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.

Lincoln in the Bardo is built on the foundation of historical myth. Following the death of Abraham Lincoln's son, Willie Lincoln, of typhoid fever on February 20th, 1862, it was reported that Lincoln had returned several times to the crypt in which his son's body was temporarily entombed. Although it cannot be certain what actually occurred during these visitations, Lincoln in the Bardo explores the possibility that Lincoln removed his son's body, held it, and spoke with it. As morbid a picture as this paints, the skill of the novel rests in its ability to explore the weightiness of grief with true empathy and beauty. The novel alternates in structure to achieve this end. Chapters are told alternately in a jigsaw of facts retrieved from historical sources (works by the like of Doris Kearns Goodwin, as well as first hand historical accounts), and as a chaos of conversation between the ghosts that Saunders imagines to populate the graveyard in which Willie Lincoln is entombed. The story follows the history of these ghosts, all of whom have confined themselves to a purgatorial state, in denial of their own deaths and convinced that they are instead suffering from temporary sickness. As Willie awakens to find himself in the graveyard, in the company of his living father, he must grapple with what it means to consign himself to a half-life as a ghost in the world, invisible to those he loves.

"None of it was real; nothing was real. Everything was real; inconceivably real, infinitely dear. These and all things started as nothing, latent with a vast energy-broth, but then we named them, and loved them, and, in this way, brought them forth. And now we must lose them. I send this out to you, dear friends, before I go, in this instantaneous thought-burst, from a place where time slows and then stops and we may live forever in a single instant."

The uniqueness of Lincoln in the Bardo is immediately apparent in its structure. I came to the novel with no prior knowledge and it took me a few chapters to work out what was going on. It was not immediately clear to me why Saunders would have chosen to relate the historical background of Willie's death - and the context of the Civil War in which the event occurred - in the form of extracts from historical sources. In my view, however, this method helped to deliver the emotional punch of the chapters related by the cemetery ghosts. Historical facts, often inconsistent and emotionally cool, bear little relation to the raw experience of loss. The heaviness of Lincoln's grief, presented alongside the confusion and fear of the ghosts living in the cemetery, is palpable. It is almost unimaginable in its humanity. Grief of this nature is something at which so many of us will refuse to look directly.

As such, the lifeblood of this book and its emotional momentum are undoubtedly attached to the graveyard scenes in which the ghosts converse. Saunders's lyrical prose and beautifully realised characters are entertaining, amusing, and infuriating. Attempting to tell a story through the words of such a diverse array of voices is no mean feat. The chapters in which the ghosts speak are truly choral and, once you allow yourself to sink into the writing, the interruptions and back-and-forths of the conversations are fascinating. While some of the death stories related are amusing (the physical manifestation of the ghosts represents their manner of death, to often comic effect), there are many that are equally as heart-rending and steeped in the setting's historical context. One character, for example, relates the life and death of an African American girl, a ghost who cannot speak: 

"What was done to her was done to her many times, by many. What was done to her could not be resisted, was not resisted, sometimes was resisted, which resulted, sometimes, in her being sent away to some far worse place, other times in that resistance simply being forcibly overcome (by fist, knee, board-strike etc.). What was done to her was done and done. Or just done once. What was done to her affected her not at all, affected her very much, drove her to the nervous shakes, drove her to hateful speech, drove her to leap off the Cedar Creek Bridge, drove her to this obstinate silence."

Moments such as this make Lincoln in the Bardo an oftentimes uncomfortable read. Death and grief are often hard for us to consider directly, when not immediately confronted with them through our own experiences. The diversity of the voices that Saunders employs forces us to expand our understanding by considering, in intimate detail, the choices of his characters. This is something at which the author is clearly incredibly skilled. The novel's impressive characterisation makes Lincoln in the Bardo feel extraordinarily expansive for its short 343 pages. That the characters have chosen to live their deaths in an eternal purgatory, denying death to the point of terming coffins 'sick boxes', makes their stories even more interesting. The word 'bardo' is itself taken from Tibetan Buddhism. It refers to the purgatorial state that exists between life and death. In the case of the novel, therefore, 'bardo' is harping directly to the refusal of the dead to move on. The ghosts are attached to life for many reasons and the explorations of the fears these characters experience, even in death, are some of the novel's most profoundly human moments.

While the constant supernatural chatter can feel, at times, slightly repetitive, the momentum that the novel gathers towards its final pages is truly sublime. Lincoln must reconcile his personal grief with the knowledge that he is sending so many American sons into battle and to their deaths. Although the novel is told through the lens of one man's grief, this historical backdrop, as well as the inclusion of its supernatural chorus, widens the scope of what Lincoln in the Bardo is able to achieve. It is a meditation on compassion and soul-wrenching humanity. It takes a peculiar historical moment and translates it into the most universal of all human experiences. This is something upon which Saunders has reflected: 

"You always hope that a book will lead you somewhere you didn't plan to go. And in this one, it was kind of unrelenting in leading me to think about that strange conundrum we're in here. We seem to be born to love - that seems to be what we do naturally and what we crave to do. And then all along, we sort of know that everything is conditional. So how do you, in this world, live joyfully and productively in the fact of those two truths?" (NPR Interview)

Whether Lincoln in the Bardo answers this question is uncertain. As Saunders himself goes on to express, denial is not something that Lincoln can afford. Yet, many of us continue to be stuck between these two distinct and frictious realities. What the novel does achieve, however, is a reminder of the indelible mark left behind through love. I can imagine that many will struggle to read this book. The structure and slow progression ensure that this is not a novel driven by its plot. It is, however, easily one of the most beautiful books that I have ever read. Its critical acclaim only affirms the brilliance that Saunders has achieved in his first step away from short story form. Lincoln in the Bardo reads as a homage to both those lost and those losing. We all have something to gain from learning to better confront the realities of life as temporary beings. How we navigate this is truly up to us, but reading novels like Lincoln in the Bardo will surely equip us to better appreciate the connection that we all share through life's transience. 

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Literary Lifestyles: The Writing Habits of Charles Dickens

Is it possible to really love a book without wanting to know something about the person that produced it? For me, the two are heavily intertwined. I have a fascination with authors and the background, skills, and habits that have allowed them to make such incredible art. Whether there are patterns in the way that great authors set about writing - their routines, planning, methods for combatting writer's block etc. - is something that I've often wondered. In an effort to uncover whether there is any truth to this, while also learning more about some of my favourite authors, I've decided to dig a little deeper into the lives of our most celebrated writers. Since autumn will, for me, be eternally associated with Charles Dickens, I couldn't think of a better place to start. Whether you consider Dickens to be one of history's greatest authors or the peril of every teenage English student, we can certainly agree that his prodigious production of highly esteemed literature is truly incredible. His prolific popularity during the Victorian era and his ongoing estimation as one of the greatest novelists of all time make his writing habits all the more interesting. So exactly what were Dickens's literary secrets?

Questions surrounding the routines of great authors are always among the most fascinating. While all authors will have a different approach to writing - often dependent on other life commitments, as well as their personal work ethic - understanding the habits of an author is typically quite revealing. Dickens's own writing routine was heavily influenced by the demands of his deadlines. Publishing his novels in installment form via periodicals and magazines, Dickens was required to have multiple chapters ready for publication at very short intervals. This type of publication offered a number of advantages, including the ability to gauge the audience's reaction as each new installment was released. However, having new chapters required on a monthly or weekly basis also places inevitable strain on an author's creative output. To meet such an intense publication schedule, Dickens's work routine was invariable. He kept to the same hours every day, without change. As his eldest son noted: "No city clerk was ever more methodical or orderly than he; no humdrum, monotonous, conventional task could ever have been discharged with more punctuality or with more business-like regularity, than he gave to the work of his imagination and fancy."

As such, Dickens treated writing much like any day job. He woke up at 7am, had breakfast at 8am, and was sat down to work in his study by 9am. He would work without pause until 2pm, when he would stop for lunch and embark on a daily three hour walk around London. These walks were integral to Dickens's success as an author. Not only did they provide him with space to muse on his writing and consider future developments, they were also key to Dickens's unrivalled knowledge of the city. Dickens grew up in London and had always walked its streets. Moving through the city on a daily basis, among people of all kinds, equipped him to represent London at its most authentic and raw. Following his walk, Dickens would return home for dinner at 6pm, spend an evening relaxing with his family and friends, and be in bed by midnight. It was a strict routine that allowed him to produce work at an impressive rate. Dickens never varied his hours, even when inspiration failed to strike. He could write thousands of words in a morning, or sometimes nothing at all. But his routine did not change.

Dickens's strict adherence to a daily writing schedule was mirrored by his formulaic approach to planning his novels. Publishing in serial form makes a novel very difficult to plan in whole. Dickens's first novel, The Pickwick Papers, took 20 months to publish in full. It was released in monthly installments from March 1836 to October 1837 and comprised 57 chapters in total. Although this was certainly one of Dickens's longer works, it perfectly represents the difficulty involved in making plans for a novel's progression when published over such a lengthy period. Yet planning remained important for Dickens since serial publication prevents an author from returning to previous chapters in order to make changes or rearrange scenes. In order to ensure that he was prepared at the start of each new serial, Dickens utilised 'Plan Sheets' and working notes as a means to keep track of his story. The use of Plan Sheets was a particularly detailed process. Michael Slater describes Dickens's planning process in his biography, Charles Dickens:

"For each number [monthly installment] he prepared a sheet of paper approximately 7 x 9 inches by turning it sideways, with the long side horizontal, dividing it in two, and then using the left-hand side for what he called 'Mems'. These were memoranda to himself about events and scenes that might feature in the number, directions as to the pace of the narrative, particular phrases he wanted to work in, questions to himself about whether such-and-such a character should appear in this number or be kept waiting in the wings (usually with some such answer as 'Yes', 'No', or 'Not yet' added later)...On the right hand side of the sheet Dickens would generally write the numbers and titles of the three chapters that make up each monthly part and jot down, either before or after writing them, the names of the main characters and events featuring in each chapter, with occasionally a crucial fragment of the dialogue..."

What Dickens used, then, was not a detailed plan for every aspect of his stories but rather a rough outline of key events, characters, and plot points. This was important, as it allowed him to ensure that plot progression was planned at large, whilst also permitting alterations as feedback was received from his audience. These Plan Sheets were further supplemented by pages of working notes in which Dickens outlined his larger structure, developed salient character details, and took note of any symbolism that he particularly wished to incorporate.

Dickens's writing habits were broadly reflective of his literary demands. He did not have the luxury of taking his time and making rounds of edits. Instead, he was required to ensure that his creativity could operate on a stringent schedule. His strict daily regime and structured approach to planning were necessities in ensuring that he could keep up with deadlines, whilst still making time to find inspiration in his London surroundings. Whether or not you enjoy Dickens's works, his ability to publish in serial form whilst still ending up with a coherent and well-structured novel at the end of the process was truly impressive. Although modern authors might not require the same definite attention to daily habits, there is surely something to be learnt from Dickens's remarkable abilities and the ways in which his lifestyle facilitated their expression.