Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar

 Author: Sylvia Plath

Title: The Bell Jar
Published: 1963
Publisher: Heinemann
Length: 244 pages
Genre: Semi-autobiographical fiction
Why I picked it up: A ‘classic’, sounded good
Rating: 4 stars
Challenges: 100+  
Buy: IndieBound | Chapters | Check your local bookstore!

I sometimes wonder if I might ever loose my grounding or go crazy or have a nervous breakdown. I think everyone does. What struck me about this book was how well I could identify with Esther. She is my age and has the same hopes and the same worries and some of the same thought processes. I liked the part where she talks about a warm bath (I completely agree that baths are/should be like a religious rite of purification) and where she describes the imaginary conversation with Buddy where she comes up with the metaphor of cadavers and dust; that’s very much like how I think. I marked the passage where she describes seeing her future branching out like a fig tree:

From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

I can identify with that feeling very well. How do you know which path is the best one for you when you can’t try them all? How do you know you’re making the right decision? I just do my best and not let it stress me out too much. This is where I differ from Esther. I can sympathize with her but you’d have to rewind five years for me to be able to empathize with her. 

What struck me was how normal her breakdown seemed. It slowly crept its way into the story and felt like a perfectly natural and understandable thing to happen. I’ve never experienced any sort of mental illness and this book shows how it can really just happen to anyone. I liked the perspective of the novel; it felt like I was reading Esther’s diary and getting a peak inside her/Plath’s mind.

Maybe this isn’t the most well-written novel, though I enjoyed what I found was casual, easy-to-read, conversational prose; it felt to me like Esther was telling the reader the story. I don’t think one reads it for the literary experience, though, I think one reads it to experience the decline of a promising young one. That is an awful sentence. What I mean is, I chose this novel because I wanted to see what it might be like for someone to fall apart in such a sad way. This isn’t something you experience often, hopefully. I expected there to be more obvious signs, more obvious causes that would hint towards a breakdown. But there weren’t. There were difficulties and frustrations that Esther faced and unfortunately depression overtook her. It’s as simple of that. There isn’t really much you can do about it.

This post has probably revealed much of my ignorance towards mental disorders. The main point is I enjoyed this novel and getting to know Esther, even though it was a tragic read.

Eli Pariser – The Filter Bubble

Author: Eli Pariser
Title: The Filter Bubble
Published: May 2011
Publisher: Penguin Press
Length: 243 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Why I picked it up: Saw his TED talk, interested in topic
Rating: 3 stars
Challenges: 100+  
Buy: IndieBound | Chapters | Check your local bookstore!

The Filter Bubble book is about personal information gathered online and the invisible filtering algorithms that make use of that information. Facebook uses filters, Google uses filters, advertisers use filters. Who knows who will use and/or take advantage of such filtering systems in the future, Pariser wonders. I first a read a book on this topic sometime ago (maybe two or three years ago?). The book I read was Republic.Com by Cass Sunstein and I felt smugly pleased with myself when Sunstein’s book was hailed and referenced multiple times throughout this book.

Sunstein’s book (I would probably recommended his 2007 book, Republic 2.0 if I had read it…) was one of the first books to discuss the personalize and filtering that was beginning to take place online. Where the internet was once thought to be a marvellous tool that would break down all barriers between people, Sunstein realized that people were using the internet to put up barriers in the name of personalization. Sunstein’s book focused heavily on what this would mean for democracy and was a very interesting read. Pariser’s book served as, for me, a refresher of sorts. He didn’t say anything new or revolutionary, but reading this book forced me to think about the topic (net filtration). As I posted on my Tumblr after watching Pariser’s TED talk leading up to the release of this book, I like to think this is the sort of thing I am aware of. It’s important to think about who is controlling what you see, and why, and how. It’s good to listen to opposing viewpoints in order to further the growth of your opinion, for example. While I have difficulty believing the hypothesis that filtering will reach unreasonable extremes and rise to dictator-like control levels (I suppose anything is possible but I have trouble with theories that resemble science fiction), I agree that it couldn’t hurt for Google and other major corporations to make their filtering algorithms public. Sure, they help me find information I’m looking for quicker (I think…) but I want to be able to see what they’re keeping from me.

That’s my two cents on this topic…if you use the Internet at all (which you do, can’t deny it now!) then I suggest you read this book for a decent introduction or, better yet, check out Sunstein’s writing on the topic. It’s an important subject that will become increasingly important with the blossoming international popularity of the web.

Interesting points made:

  • Algorithms feeding algorithms…if Google thinks you like one thing, it’ll show you more of that one thing, which means you’ll click on more of that one thing, and Google will think you like it more…you get the idea.
  • What image might Facebook show you to get you to go on a photo-browsing binge? Where can politicians strategically place their information to get you on their side? Minor subjects, it may seem, but the information collected through personalization algorithms can be used for a variety of purposes and who can foresee how those purposes will evolve in the future…