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Book links roundup: Ryan Gosling memes book to be published, social media’s effect on book criticism, and more

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Q&A: talking swimming and the Olympics with author Leanne Shapton

As a youth, Toronto-born author and illustrator Leanne Shapton was a dedicated competitive swimmer, at one time ranking eighth in Canada. She competed in two Olympic trials (1988, 1992), but narrowly missed qualifying. In her new book, Swimming Studies (Blue Rider Press/Penguin Canada), Shapton meditates on her life in the pool through essays, photos, and watercolour paintings.

Shapton is an accomplished artist who began her career at the National Post before moving into art director positions at Saturday Night magazine and The New York Times. She is the author of five illustrated books.

Quillblog caught up with Shapton in New York City, where she’s resided since 2003.

How did Swimming Studies come to be?
When I’d talk about swimming, [former Saturday Night editor and Rogers Publishing president] Ken Whyte, who started his career as a sports writer, encouraged me to write things down. So I took some writing courses and tried to organize the material.

In 2007, when I had about a quarter of the book written, I sent it to my agent and then told them to throw it away. It wasn’t the right time.

Why is this the right time?
I made a two-book deal with Blue Rider Press, but after the auction catalogue (Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry), I didn’t want to do another picture-heavy book. It was really important to do something weirder and less like what I’ve done before.

For a while I had a column in The New York Times Magazine. It was a revelation to work with an editor. The book then became a huge experiment in whether I could write anything longer than a caption or small capsule.

A series of paintings from Swimming Studies (Photo: Leanne Shapton)

Did you set out to write a non-traditional memoir?
I think it’s a funny book – there are a lot of different levels and layers. This is how I described it to my editor as I was working through the manuscript: I wanted it to be a book of landscapes – either interior or literal. I see these landscapes and because I don’t have a photograph of them and I don’t want to paint them, all I have is this language that I’m trying to learn as I go.

Did you keep diaries as a kid?
When I was training at 14 or 15, I mostly kept photo albums. When I was training with the University of Toronto team for my second Olympic trials in 1992, I kept them. It wasn’t until around 2006 that I started writing the other things down.

Shapton's Speedo “paper suit,” worn during the 1992 Canadian Olympic swimming trials (Photo: Leanne Shapton)

One of the most striking chapters in the book is “Size,” which includes photos of your personal collection of bathing suits. Why did you choose to include these?
That’s only half of them. I tried to get a sense of going from competitive to non-competitive to getting my first two-piece at 27 or 28. I really resisted getting one.

That chapter is called “Size” because there’s so much body stuff going on in terms of eating and shape and insecurities. There’s so much around bathing suits in particular – it’s all twisted and tangled, the idea of body size and image.

The book contains many references to time. Was that intentional?
One thing that came with training is that I know what five seconds feels like in the same way that a well plumber knows what five feet looks like from a different angle than the erst of us might. It’s a temporal understanding of things. It’s like how a minute feels when you’re late for a train.

How would you describe your relationship to water now?
I still swim, but I still don’t like swimming in open water. I will do it because I always feel like jumping into water, but I’m not entirely comfortable.

It makes me feel good to be in water – it’s like wearing a favourite sweater. It’s something that I know really, really well. I know my body so much more in water. I’m clumsier outside of it.

What about your relationship to the sport?
I’m not competitive at all. I joined a team to see if I had any spirit left, and I didn’t. It’s not a challenging thing for me anymore and I have no jock mindset for it.

Although watching the Olympics makes me cry. I love watching swimming. When I watch it on TV and they turn, I do it in my head, too.

Would you say you’ve replaced swimming with art?
For years I wanted the same focus that I had as a swimmer because I knew I was moving toward a perfection or a time goal. So now I’ll do 20 sketches or paintings. I’ll work the sport’s discipline into how I work, whether it’s an assignment or a series of paintings.

Since retiring from swimming I’ve tried to find that dumb blind zone you go into as an athlete. I’ve found it now with drawing and painting, which is so nice.

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Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, dies at age 83

Where the Wild Things Are, 1963

He is known for upending the traditions of American children’s fiction – for taking it out of the safe confines of the home and plunging it into darker, more raucous places.

Maurice Sendak was wildly popular, sometimes misunderstood, and not always well received. But it’s safe to say he will be remembered. Often called one of the most important figures in 20th-century children’s literature, the author and self-taught illustrator died Tuesday at age 83 due to complications from a recent stroke.

From The New York Times:

“Roundly praised, intermittently censored and occasionally eaten, Mr. Sendak’s books were essential ingredients of childhood … His visual style could range from … airy watercolors reminiscent of Chagall to bold, bulbous figures inspired by the comic books he loved all his life, with outsize feet that the page could scarcely contain. He never did learn to draw feet, he often said.”

Born in Brooklyn in June 1928* , Sendak’s longtime career began in 1952 when he illustrated Ruth Krauss’s A Hole Is To Dig. His children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are was published by Harper & Row in 1963. Other popular titles include In the Night Kitchen (1970), Outside Over There (1981), The Sign on Rosie’s Door (1960), Higglety Pigglety Pop! (1967) and The Nutshell Library (1962, which includes “Alligators All Around,” “Chicken Soup With Rice,” “One Was Johnny” and, “Pierre”).

In the 1980s, toward the second half of his career, Sendak designed sets and costumes for ballets and operas produced by major houses in the U.S. and England, including Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker.

In September 2011, a new picture book, Bumble-Ardy (the first book he wrote and illustrated in 30 years), was published by HarperCollins, and a posthumous picture book, My Brother’s Book (inspired by his late brother, Jack), is to be published in February 2013.

Throughout his career, Sendak was the recipient of numerous awards, including the 1964 Caldecott Medal for Where the Wild Things Are, the 1970 Hans Christian Andersen Medal for illustration (the only American ever honoured with the award), and the 1983 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, given by the American Library Association to acknowledge his works as a whole.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton presented him with the National Medal of the Arts, saying he “single-handedly revolutionized children’s literature.” In 2003, Sendak received the first Astrid Lingdren Memorial Award, which was established by the Swedish government to recognize children’s literature internationally.

*CORRECTION, MAY 8: An earlier version of this post stated that Sendak’s birth year was 1948.

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Book links roundup: New generation of Canadian poets, gender and literary fiction, and more

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Amazon, the iPad, and the culture of reading in an age of distraction

“It’s like trying to cook when there are little children around.” That’s the assessment of one David Myers, a 53-year-old system administrator in Atlanta, regarding the experience of reading a book on the Kindle Fire. Myers is quoted in a New York Times article about the qualitative aspects of reading on multimedia, Internet-enabled devices. The article finds, unsurprisingly, that devices such as the iPad or the Kindle Fire, which are capable of surfing the Internet or streaming video, promote heightened distractibility among readers.

People who read ebooks on tablets like the iPad are realizing that while a book in print or on a black-and-white Kindle is straightforward and immersive, a tablet offers a menu of distractions that can fragment the reading experience, or stop it in its tracks.

Email lurks tantalizingly within reach. Looking up a tricky word or unknown fact in the book is easily accomplished through a quick Google search. And if a book starts to drag, giving up on it to stream a movie over Netflix or scroll through your Twitter feed is only a few taps away.

The argument is not a new one, having been well rehearsed in volumes such as Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows and William Powers’s Hamlet’s Blackberry. Nor is it likely to gain much traction with technophiles who envision a not-so-distant future in which even dedicated e-readers will feature enhanced books that link to external multimedia content.

And there is something to be said for the devices’ insistence that a book hold a reader’s attention. As Erin Faulk says in the NYT piece: “Recently, I gravitate to books that make me forget I have a world of entertainment at my fingertips. If the book’s not good enough to do that, I guess my time is better spent.”

Still, what Cory Doctorow referred to as an “ecosystem of interruption technologies” embedded in devices such as the iPad may be partly to blame for the reason Carr is able to quote Clay Shirky as writing, “No one reads War and Peace.… It’s too long and not so interesting.” Or maybe the lure of YouTube is just too great.

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Book links round-up: hidden meanings, rhetorical devices, and more

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Timothy Leary’s papers find a home at the New York Public Library

He was perhaps best known for invoking the peace and love generation of the 1960s to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” but Timothy Leary, the guru who advocated the mind-enhancing positive effects of LSD, was a central figure in the counterculture, associating closely with literary figures such as William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, and Allen Ginsberg. Last Thursday, The New York Times reported that the New York Public Library has purchased Leary’s voluminous library of papers and correspondence for $900,000.

The 335 boxes that comprise the library’s acquisition include photographs, videotapes, and “session records” with figures like Ginsberg.

From the NYT:

The archive will not be available to the public or scholars for 18 to 24 months, as the library organizes the papers. A preview of the collection, however, reveals a rich record not only of Leary’s tumultuous life but also of the lives of many significant cultural figures in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.

Robert Greenfield, who combed through the archive when it was kept in California, for his 2007 biography of Leary, said: “It is a unique firsthand archive of the 1960s. Leary was at the epicenter of what was going on back then, and some of the stuff in there is extraordinary.”


Leary kept meticulous records at many points during his life. There are comprehensive research files, legal briefs, and budgets and memos about the many institutes and organizations he founded, but there are also notes and documents from when he was on the run after escaping from a California prison with help from the Weather Underground. A folder labeled as notes from his “C.I.A. kidnapping” in 1973 is full of cryptic jottings recounting the details of his arrest in Afghanistan, at an airport in Kabul, after he fled the United States.

While it is unsurprising to read of people like Jack Kerouac requesting that Leary contribute to his “next prose masterpiece” by sending him a bottle of psilocybin (“Allen said I could knock off a daily chapter with 2 SMs and be done with a whole novel in a month,” Kerouac wrote), one of the most interesting tidbits in the NYT piece is that Cary Grant was an aficionado of LSD whose correspondence with Leary is included among the papers. (Although that is arguably less astonishing than the revelation that Leary “kept meticulous records” including “research files, legal briefs, and budgets …”)

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Eva Stachniak's Empress of the Night

Eva Stachniak poses with a copy of her book, Empress of the Night

Tea and snacks inspired by Eva Stachniak's Empress of the Night

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