Tag Archives: reading

Shocking Truth

The electrician recently stopped by. We’re renters and although I don’t mind doing minor household repairs to benefit the landlord, I draw the line at electricity. It’s a scary thing. I’ve been shocked too many times to want a jolt bigger than I can handle. I even once accidentally grabbed the metal prongs when unplugging something as a child (it was a microscope light, I remember) and that helpless feeling of being unable to drop the plug even while my body jerked uncontrollably left me with a healthy respect for those who actually understand insulation, capacitors, and those impossible electrical diagrams. So when the pull chain came out of the ceiling light I wasn’t going to try to fix it.

The electrician, like most people who see our apartment, commented on the books. “You like to read,” he said. I can’t help but feel guilty about that. It’s almost as if you should apologize for requiring the stimulation of so many tomes. I confessed that I did, but I wanted to justify it. “I work in publishing,” I feebly offered as an excuse. Concentrating on the fixture above his head, he said, “I don’t ever read a book unless I have to.” He fixed the pull chain and left. I couldn’t have fixed the thing so quickly, or safely. He even had a metal ladder. I was grateful for the light, but once again felt somewhat freakish for my bibliophilia.

Those of us who write books must read books. You can’t learn how to do one without the other. Because of movies and television, we picture writers as people with large houses and separate rooms as libraries where they can sit surrounded by books as they type away at their next bestseller. Those of us who work for a living seldom have such luxury. A separate room just for books? I like letting my books reside in whatever room they feel like. Most affordable apartments don’t come with a study. There are living room books that you want people to see, and kitchen books that suggest good things to eat. There are bedroom books that you might not want others to see. What I don’t have is a library. A book zoo. My books roam freely about my home. It occurs to me that one area lacking in my collection is one about household wiring. Maybe instead of feeling weird I should get wired. I’m sure there are books out there that will tell me how. Or at least that will let me know that a wooden ladder makes a poor conductor.

New Year’s Resistance

Now that 2016 is safely behind us, it’s time to start looking ahead to a year of peaceful protest and renewed social activism. When you reach a certain point in your life you’d like to think your country will represent your best interest but the crooked electoral college system with which we’re shackled has lived up to unthinking obedience to convention. Now we all will pay the price. Not all protest has to be highly visible, however. Education has a way of improving things even if done subtly. The key is not to let up. The moment we do, the evil Borg will assimilate us. I’m beginning my new year with a literary protest against ignorance. I mentioned Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge yesterday. It doesn’t have to be that one, but taking on a reading challenge—any educational imperative will do—is a way of saying that the darkness can’t last forever.

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2016 was a busy year, in spite of its many challenges. I wrote two books during the course of the year. Don’t go rushing to Amazon, because neither has been published. One likely never will be, although I have high hopes for my most recent effort. I write this not to draw attention to myself, but to suggest yet another form of social protest. Writing is a powerful tool. Long ago one of the most influential people in my life, a high school English teacher, told our creative writing club to write at least 15 minutes a day. There have been times when I’ve slipped, but by far the majority of my days since then have included spells of writing at least that long. This blog is only one outlet, in addition to the fiction and non-fiction I also write. Write your protest! Your thoughts can’t be known if you don’t share them!

Most important of all, we can’t give up hope. The end of the story hasn’t been written yet. We know that Trump lost the popular vote by an historic landslide of almost 3 million. Many, many, many, many, many people are unhappy with the results of this election. The mistake is to think that so many citizens are powerless. We’re not. Even before last year ended I committed to the peaceful march on Washington the day after the “inauguration.” We need to stand up and be counted. We need to say we’re just as American as the bullies who’ve taken over the schoolyard. And we need to continue to educate this country, no matter how reluctant it may be to pre-post-truth.

Bibliotherapy

This may sound strange, considering the source, but I fear I don’t read enough. An article by Sarah Begley in a recent issue of Time, reinforces what we’ve known all along—reading is incredibly good for you. Even fiction. Especially fiction. For the most part, as I’m commuting, I read non-fiction. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but it doesn’t always help with literacy issues that might call for a bibliotherapist. You see, literacy builds a kind of psychological strength that helps with real-world issues. Part of it is because many books go through a rigorous process of approval. Still, it’s important to realize that this kind of reading may not be the popular fiction that can be found in grocery stores and airports—although even that is fine—but the level of writing that really helps is somewhat mysteriously labeled “literary fiction.” The kind of book an author writes, rewrites, and rewrites. Deep thought and care go into such books, and they can be a help to their readers. Reading isn’t just fundamental, it is transformative.

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I remember my school years well. Kids are amazing in their level of energy. They crave activity and experience. Getting them to read can be difficult. You need to sit still. And concentrate. Concentration isn’t easy. You have to train a child to read, and, at least where I grew up, that was a struggle. The fact that it’s possible to graduate from high school and be functionally illiterate is one of the signs that learning to enjoy reading doesn’t always take hold. I knew guys in middle school who would rather do just about anything other than read. I often wondered what anyone could do to make them realize what they were missing. I read books and stories that took my breath away. There was something incredible going on between the covers—but how to convince others?

Recently a colleague pointed out to me that those of us in publishing are, statistically speaking, a very small number of people. We work in an industry that serves a small number of people. We are an odd lot. We read books, and some of us write books, and we do so for a small sector of society. Signs are hopeful that interest in reading is growing. Leading by example may help. At any one time I have at least one, generally two or more, fiction books going at the same time. On the bus I read through non-fiction at a faster rate. Maybe the mix is actually right. Fiction reading takes more time. It could be because I’m getting more out of it than I realize. I just wish I had more time to do it. More time for reading health. I may need to see a bibliotherapist.

Read Long and Prosper

“Live long and prosper,” Mr. Spock was (or will be, depending) known for saying. Many of us know the regimen for healthy living: don’t overindulge on the food and drink. Get some exercise. Try to eat the right foods. Sleep once in a while. When we go to the doctor’s office, it’s generally a physical cause that we want explained or treated. It seems, however, we might have been overlooking a way to live longer. Reading. An article from last month’s Tech Times explains that book reading—sorry folks, reading this doesn’t count—correlates to longer life, according to a Yale study. The article by Alyssa Navarro explains that concentrated reading for three-and-a-half-hours a week can be connected to living longer. Those of us who read may not have that fringe benefit in mind, but it does stand to reason.

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Since people love correlates that sound alike, the way that we describe aspects of our lives is often quantity verses quality. In terms of quantity, consciousness seems to drive us to claim as much life as possible. It’s hard to let go. Connoisseurs, however, often prefer quality to quantity. While there may well be other options than these two q’s, it seems to me that those of us who read tend to do it for the quality issue. Quantity may be a fringe benefit. My job requires a long commute most days, and I bury myself in books. If I pick one that really captures my interest, I’m amazed at how quickly even an intractable commute can go. On those days I work at home, I have to admit, I miss the reading time. I try to read with the same level of concentration when I power the laptop down, but there is something about being in a situation where you’re forced to read that somehow enhances the level of concentration. It’s training, I suppose. We often think that once we’ve figured out how to read then it’s just a matter of doing it. To really get into a book, however, requires effort.

If I’m at home and I sit down for a marathon reading session, I inevitably get sleepy. Since I awake quite early this isn’t something I think I need to see my doctor about. Of course I get sleepy on the bus, but I’ve seen how ridiculous most people look when they sleep in public, and I don’t want to be one of those. If the book I have is a good fit, I barely notice how tired I am, surrounded by my aluminum walls and the wheels that go round and round. Maybe that’s because my mind is elsewhere. I don’t commute for my health. On the days when I don’t take the bus I try to get out and jog. My healthcare regimen, I think, could use a little more book reading. At least that’s as good an excuse as I can come up with for what many people, ironically, consider a kind of illness. May we “bookworms” read long and prosper.

Hi Ho, Hi Ho

I’ve been writing about reading. No surprises there, I suppose. My wife recently introduced me to BookRiot, and I wish I had more time to spend there. A recent post by Aisling Twomey describes how reading on her Tube commute helps keep her sane. Here is a good case of convergent evolution—I came to the same conclusion after about a week of what turns out to be about three hours a day commuting to New York City. We didn’t move to my current location to work in Manhattan. My job was in nearby Piscataway. It was only when a headhunter found me a job at Routledge that I began the daily trip. The problem is I get terribly car sick. To this day I can’t read in a car. Some days I can’t read on the bus either. Gradually, however, I trained myself to do it, and the results have been worth it. Ms. Twomey has read over fifty books this year on her London commute. I suspect my commute is a bit longer since I’ve read a few more than that. Still, we tilt against the same windmill, so we need to appreciate the dedication it takes.

I was talking to someone the other day who was complaining about cell phones. She said, “I used to read a lot. I worked in a book store. It was great.” Her cell, she said, gave her a stiff neck from constantly looking down. And a sore thumb from swiping and texting. And yet, she lamented, she just couldn’t stop. Books may well be a vice. I’m as bad as any addict. I have no idea how many books I’ve read in my life: the number is in the thousands rather than the hundreds, I know. And even the books I regret, I don’t really regret. Reading is a coping mechanism.

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One of the things that the traditional ancient religions all have in common is books. Not all of them treat sacred texts the same way, but they all have some form of sacred writing. There was an implicit sense, I believe, from the first stylus on clay, that something truly special was going on here. Holy, even. Writing is one of the great joys of life. Reading is another. Both are sacred professions. In a way it seems a shame to have to be forced into a commute in order to find time to read books. Still, the constant flow of new material has a life-saving quality to it. I can’t imagine spending fifteen concentrated hours a week texting. I don’t know that many people to text. The ones I do know I know through their books. And they’re very good company on a long ride.

Philosophies of Reading

I like my Starter. For those of you unaccustomed to New Jersey Transit buses and their ways, a Starter is a person who makes sure the buses scheduled to arrive at her or his gate do so on time. It’s not a job for the faint-hearted. If a bus is late, or AWOL, the Starter takes the heat from angry would-be passengers. Since they’re present “on the ground,” angry people lash out with their frustration. My regular Starter recognizes me. I’m usually early in my line, so I appear about the same place most days. My routine is, well, routine. I get to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, pull out my book, and read. Starters can’t really get involved in anything like a book because their job requires constant interruptions. Even when no buses are coming in because of an accident in the Lincoln Tunnel, they still have to answer questions and hold up the occasional crucifix. My Starter came to me the other day, as I was reading, and asked me what I thought of an incident four days earlier. To put this in context, the incident happened on Friday. I was there for it, in my usual spot, and this was Tuesday. Clearly it still bothered the Starter that someone had come out and yelled at him for not getting us a bus on time.

I sympathized. Starters can’t materialize objects. If they could, they wouldn’t be Starters. Yet, I realized as I turned back to my book, that I had lost some reading time. I don’t mind helping out my Starter, but it occurred to me that there are a couple of different philosophies behind reading while waiting for, and on, the bus. Many people, I suspect, read to pass the time. I don’t know what they’re reading, since much of it is on a flat device, but knowing that research reading is nearly impossible on the bus, I suspect they are just reading to make the weary time go quicker. Others, I know, read for content. For me, reading is very seldom passing time. I read because reading is what I want to do.

Commuting behavior isn’t conducive to my life choices. No longer do people sit quietly on the bus, respecting that inherent violence of awaking before 4 a.m. to try to get to the city before traffic inevitably makes you late. Devices make their unmuted bodily noises and glare in your face. The guy next to you pulls out his wide-screen laptop, while tapping away on his phone. Or pulls our her iPad to watch a movie with fast-paced images splashing in your face. The book is demanding company. Your time, your attention, your concentration are required to get the most out of it. I don’t mind supporting my Starter. I feel for the ennui of my fellow commuters. I also crave time alone with my books.

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And a Literate New Year

One of the most common criticisms of religion, among its detractors, is that it is “uninformed.” I suspect that this is intended to critique the education of those who adhere to religion. It is not too often, however, that you see those who disdain religion giving credit where credit is due. Reading, for example. Although reading has changed in its accidents and character over the millennium, it remains the case that texts—what would eventually evolve into books—were originally a religious creation. Once writing moved beyond keeping track of things like how many cattle a person owned, and grew into literature, that literature was based on religion. We recognize many of these stories as myths today, but that does not devalue them. They are our earliest stories. For many literate people throughout history, their initial reading material was the texts of their religion. One of the purposes behind public education was to teach children to read the Bible. Religion and reading naturally go together.

Now that a new year is upon us, many websites are offering reading challenges for the new year. Long ago I gave up on resolutions. I figured if I noticed something wrong in my life, I wouldn’t wait until January to fix it. Nevertheless, the start of something new is inspiring and full of hope. So it was when my wife showed me Modern Mrs. Darcy’s 2016 Reading Challenge, I gladly accepted. Like many reading challenges, the goals are based on about a book a month—twelve titles for the year. My personal goal is to get over one hundred books read this year, but I like the challenge to read particular kinds of books. On this particular challenge, for example, are books that intimidate you, or that you’ve previously abandoned. Books, such as many of us have, that we own but have never read. Although we may not know what it is yet, a book published this year.

Apart from being a kind of religious activity, promoting literacy is surely one of the best ways to address social ills. Those who read learn to consider the viewpoints of others. I disagree with a great deal of what I read, but I would not wish not to have read it. “Iron sharpens iron,” as one old book says. To put it in modern terms, the only stone hard enough to cut diamond is diamond. Reading material that engages critical faculties is like that. Even so, reading books that are simple or fun also offers bonuses. A guilty pleasure read is one of my favorite rewards. For our own sakes, for the sake of the world itself, I hope that everyone takes up a reading challenge, no matter how modest, as a way of celebrating a new year and, I truly believe, a better tomorrow.

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