or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk


Reference Question of the Week – 7/31/11

   August 6th, 2011 Brian Herzog

The Outsiders, by S. E. HintonWhen I came into work one day, I was told that three people were already working on this question and no one could find an answer - we still don't have anything conclusive, so please let me know if you have any suggestions.

A student from a private school a few towns over came in to start her summer reading project. One of the books she has to read is S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders, and in addition to the typical "read and describe" work, this student's assignment also said,

...after you finished reading the book, answer the following questions. If you need help, ask the librarian at your public library for assistance.

  1. The Outsiders begins and ends with the same sentence - does this technique have a name, and if so, what is it?
  2. ...

First of all, it's great that the assignment encourages the students to seek out librarians for help - although bad in this case that we're failing her. Second, I dislike the "does this have a name, and if so, what is it?" - it makes me feel like we're not finding an answer because there isn't an answer, but I don't want to give up looking.

Anyway, of course the first thing I did was grab a copy of The Outsiders to check out the sentences (copy/pasted here courtesy of LibraryThing's Common Knowledge)
First sentence:

When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.

Last Sentence:

And I finally began like this: When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home...

After describing the question to me, my coworker said that they had consulted every literary dictionary and reference book in the library, and also any literary terms website they could find - but hadn't been able to find anything.

My first thought was to try the Descriptionary, which is perfectly designed for this type of question. It's a dictionary that lists information by description, rather than by word, so it lets you look something up by what it is and the book tells you what it's called. However, in this case none of the descriptions matched a story beginning and ending with the same sentence, so no luck there.

My next thought was to ask one of our library volunteers - when she's not volunteering for the library, she's a Professor of Literature in the English Department of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. If anyone would know this, she must.

Later that day I spoke to her and explained the question, and she said she had no idea. She felt that if there was a term for it, it would be a term of rhetoric, so I should search those instead of just literary terms. She also said she'd ask around the department and let me know if any of her colleagues knew.

I searched online for rhetoric terms, and found quite a few glossaries, and although many terms were extremely close, none were exactly right.

Later I heard back from the volunteer - she said that no one she spoke with could identify it, and the only suggestion anyone had, however dubious, was "circular construction." That sounds good on its face, but I couldn't find it listed in any of the glossaries I consulted.

Frustrating. This all happened on Thursday and Friday, and I haven't yet contacted the patron with an answer. So if anyone knows, please comment.

***WARNING: SPOILER ALERT***

Ouroboros - snake eating its tailI read The Outsiders when I was young and don't really remember it, so I was interested to learn about this first/last sentence trick in the book. The book ends with a student being assigned a writing project, and he begins his assignment by writing the first sentence of the novel. This leads to the conclusion that the novel itself was the student's assignment, which is fun because it blends reality with fiction, and turns the story into a sort of mobius strip of plot.

It also reminded me of the imagery of the snake eating its tail - which got me wondering if there is a term for that symbol. It turns out there is: Ouroboros. When I do call this student back on Monday, she'll have all kinds of paths to follow.

Update 8/26/11:
After getting comments on this post, I spoke with the patron by phone, and emailed her a few links. A couple weeks later, she emailed me back:

Thanks for the answer and all the hard work everyone did. I just e-mailed my teacher about the summer assignment and she said circular structure is the correct answer.

Alex

That's great - thanks for helping, everyone.



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