Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Readers' Choice

I've previously mentioned my fondness for Goodreads (which, spell-check informs me, is not a word). One of the great features is that you can look over the most recently posted reviews, and select it to show you just the most recent reviews of the books you've read. I really enjoy this feature, I'm curious to see what other people have read.

The first thing I learned is that I'm not the only person to have read and enjoyed Harry Potter. I know, I'm surprised too.

The second thing I learned is that there are a lot of people who are made incredibly uncomfortable by the graphic, sexually explicit nature of Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I was quite confused by this, had we read the same book? Then one reviewer clarified it for me. The presence of a gay character upset them. Well, you live and learn.

The third, and most disappointing thing that I learned is that a lot of people who read books aren't too bright. They told me so outright. And I don't mean that their typos and poor use of language was as good as telling me, I mean they tell you so.

It is really depressing how many people explain that they didn't like a book because they were too stupid. If we, as a culture, have failed in creating readers, this is one of the biggest ways. People, even readers, who enjoy reading enough to join a web community focused on books and reading, are taught to feel stupid when they don't appreciate the 'right' literature, and embarrassed when they like the wrong books.

We have few enough readers in our society to criticize any of them, and the people who continue reading the 'right' literature after finishing school are a small minority. Most of the people in our society, including those measurable as they smartest (by whatever flawed measurement you use), don't continue to read Dostoevsky and Joyce. They might pick up the latest Pulitzer winner, or Nobel laureate, but they're probably more likely to read Harry Potter, or Jason Bourne.

The argument could be that we've got to make students read as many major works of classical literature as possible, since they won't continue, but I don't think that's it.

As much as I'd love to blame teachers, I can't do that either. Yes we all come away from school with some author aversions, but so what?

Teachers are paid incredibly poorly to do very hard work. It's important work too, collectively, they're guiding the future (Que singing of I believe the children are our future).

It's on all of us as a society, but parents most of all. Children of readers are much more likely to be readers themselves. Here's my manifesto for parents (because no one knows better what parents should do than people without children).

1. Read to your child.
2. Let your child see you reading on your own as well.
3. When your child is too old to be read to (if that ever really happens), be curious about their reading. If they are really moved by a book read it too, then discuss it.
4. Do not discourage them from reading, just because you think they're reading something too silly. The child who starts with Daniel Pinkwater (he's a lot of fun, btw), could end up reading just about anything. Let the teachers teach the classics, you teach the love of reading.

Ok, that's my little list. Any thoughts?

Quick Links

First, if you're in New York anytime between yesterday (woops, sorry!) and this Sunday, you should try to check out the PEN World Voices Festival. I haven't made it to any part yet, but I hope to soon. I'm disappointed because the most exciting thing, to me, will be taking place in Rochester, and I just can't go that far on short notice, even to see Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie together.

Second, as described at Paper Cuts, it is now possible to follow Samuel Pepys through the past as if he were blogging it right now. I've wanted to read Pepys' diary, ever since I read Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. Now I can!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Friday Five

It's time once again for the Friday Five.

- Ha Jin's War Trash - This is a fictional memoir of the Korean War, told by an old Chinese man as he prepares to go to the USA for the first time to visit his family. It's an amazing work. You get a very different perspective on the Korean War than the American one. Particularly as our main source of perspective is M*A*S*H, both the movie and the show. I read this in 2006 and since then Ha Jin has become one of my favorite authors.

- Orson Scott Card's The Worthing Saga - So, like most Americans, you probably read Ender's Game sometime in your teens, then you picked up some of the Ender books, and the drop off in quality from one to the next knocked your socks off. That's ok, it happens to everyone. There used to be a time when he wrote in worlds other than that of Ender's Game, and he didn't go and rehash the same story over and over again, each time damaging the credibility of the more successful book he wrote before. It's hard to believe, but it's true. This is one of the prime examples, halfway between a collection of short stories on a single theme and a novel, this book is about world building, and attempts to understand what would happen to humanity if we really did have colonies on other planets.

- Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man - Dashiell Hammett wrote some of the best American detective fiction, in my opinion even better than Raymond Chandler, and this is one of his best. It's not quite as grim as some of the others, like The Maltese Falcon, which is also superb, but it's a lot of fun. It also resulted in some of the best movies ever, the William Powell and Myrna Loy Thin Man movies, though the first movie borrows the plot from the book, they are otherwise quite different in feel from the book. Still both are good. Read the book, then watch the movies and come back and tell me I'm wrong (or that I'm right, which would be preferable).

- Russell Shorto's The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America - First, Shorto is an excellent choice to have written this, history, even history as fascinating as that of my beloved New York City, can be very dry, and Shorto does an excellent job keeping the reader interested. Also, New York City is a fascinating place, and Shorto's thesis that the culture of the city is connected to it's early Dutch roots is very interesting. It's filled with engaging descriptions of New Amsterdam, tiny frontier settlement, frustrated democracy, and haven to pirates.

- William Logan's Macbeth in Venice. Read poetry! It tastes great and it's good for you! William Logan is somewhat better known as a viciously acerbic poetry critic. He also, in my opinion, writes poetry well enough to give him some pretty firm ground from which to be acerbic. I'm just going to repeat that word because I like it, acerbic. Not that the poetry is particularly harsh, it's just beautiful.

Celebrities Read: Mario Batali

In keeping with my theory that, if well publicized, celebrities reading preferences might lead their fans to pick up a book, we have Mario Batali.

In an interview with the good folks at Powell's he talks about both an author he thinks people should read, Jim Harrison, and a list of what he sees as five 'great American' books.

The Autobiography of Ben Franklin

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

Post Office by Charles Bukowski

Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis

Now these five books seem a little bit like that list politicians will give out. With the possible exception of Brett Easton Ellis, who also wrote American Psycho, they are all 'safe' books whose worth is well established, and whether or not they fall under Mark Twain's definition of a 'Classic' certainly have that feel.

But what he has to say about Jim Harrison is great. It reads like the kind of passionate recommendation of an author that you expect from someone who has really read and loved the author's work. Score one for Batali, as I'll certainly remember what he said the next time I see one of Jim Harrison's books in a store.

Update: Of course, Bukowski wouldn't be a safe choice for a politician, but for a celebrity chef from New York with the reputation Batali has, it's almost mandatory that someone like Bukowski appear. Frankly, I'm just happy it wasn't Burroughs.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Stairway to Heaven

I've always wanted a real library, but never had the space to devote a room solely to the keeping of books. The result has been that I've always devoted a certain part of every room to the keeping of books. All I have though are prosaic bookshelves, and of course, prosaic piles of loose books that get in the way.

Now, I have a craving. I want this. Stairs that are also an enormous bookshelf, the risk would be that I might never leave the stairs.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Celebrities can Read Books

Ok, so I know that your first thought, looking at the title of this post, is to scoff sarcastically. Well good for you, scoffing is an important skill, and doing it sarcastically takes effort. However, I am serious. There are celebrities out there who can read, some of them even choose to do so.

I come to you with proof of this. The website Poll the People has started up the ambitious attempt to create an unscientifically produced polled series of international lists about books, albums, and movies (or as they call them, films). This part is boring, go ahead and be bored by it.

Are you done? Good, cause there's actually something interesting too. It could get more interesting if people outside of England join them.

Poll the People is encouraging celebrities to contribute top 5 lists. Why are you excited by this, Matt? I hear you ask. After all, who cares what celebrities think, most of them aren't so bright, and in the States we best know them for saying dumb things around election time. This is true.

But hang on, you see the secret with celebrities, and I know I'm dropping a bomb on you here with this revelation, is that they are popular. It is highly likely that the Rolling Stones are more popular than literacy in America. So if they lend their fame to a support of literacy maybe more people will read. I know, I know, it's a fantasy, but it couldn't hurt.

The bad news is, the Rolling Stones are not, as far as I know at present, throwing their considerable weight behind the whole reading thing. Instead, right now we have a bunch of obscure British celebrities who have contributed their top five lists.

Among them is Nick Hornby, the author. We can rest assured he's not bringing anyone new to books. He did his share when people were told that that Cusack movie they liked was once a book.

Still, there's some hope. Tim Rice-Oxley, of the British band Keane, and Tom Simpson, of the band Snow Patrol, have both contributed lists. Now I will admit, I've barely heard of these bands, but if I've barely heard of them, they're probably pretty big. If their fans pick up any of the books they've listed, then we're in the black. So that's pretty cool. Now we just need A-Rod to announce that he loves to curl up in the dugout with his well-thumbed copy of Gormenghast and America will enter a reading frenzy.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

One Less Lost Book!

If you've ever studied Greek and Roman literature, one of the first things you learn is that we have at best 10% of the writing they produced, and there is no guarantee that it is the best 10%. If you want to learn about books that have been lost to us from the ancient times through to the present then this book will help you.

But if you want to learn about a book that will not be lost to us after all, go here.

The short of it. Nabokov, before his death, ordered his son to burn his last novel The Original of Laura. His son has been wrestling with the moral dilemma, obey his father or allow the world to have what he believes is his father's greatest work. He finally decided. The ghost of Nabokov appeared to him and gave him permission to publish.

So thank you ghost of Nabokov, thanks for making the right financial decision for your son, and incidentally allowing us to view your last work.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Nerds are Cool!

This seems to be what the Pulitzer Committee is telling me. First, in 2001, a novel about comic book writers, among other things, and now, a novel about a Dominican nerd.

Now obviously, the first of those two should still have largely universal appeal. Unless you have trouble with the existence of comic books, are the depiction of homosexuals as normal people. The second though, has stunned me. I'm not done with it yet, but the references delve pretty far into the depths of nerdliness.

Junot Diaz may be the only Pulitzer Prize winner to be familiar with Champions. I have some serious nerd credentials and I had to recall conversations with people far nerdier than I in order to get all of his references. This has left me surprised that this book has achieved so much positive critical and monetary attention. Don't all of these dorky references alienate his audience?

I know that books about outsiders don't. Everyone feels alienated at some point in their lives, so we can all identify with alienated characters, but Oscar Wao isn't just alienated. He's a clear member of the nerdiest of nerds, I can picture him because I've met him, I've met dozens of him. People may like the alienated, but these same people had the things they mocked. A kid who ponders Dejah Thoris, plays Champions, and sulks in his room painting his D&D miniatures, hardly seems like someone most people can identify with.

I'm glad I'm wrong. Of course, readers of literature, even (or 'especially', depending on how you look at it) PULITZER PRIZE winning literature, are not most people, so it just means a larger small subset of humanity.

Anyway, everyone clearly has to go out there and read Edgar Rice Burroughs, play D&D, and watch Star Trek, because apparently it can win you a Pulitzer. Junot Diaz, thank you for showing that nerds can be cool!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Friday Five

It's time once again for the Friday Five! As I stated last time, points of no actual value will be awarded to any who have actually read any of the books listed.

- Don Marquis' The Annotated Archie and Mehitabel. This was a well known part of Don Marquis' legendary newspaper column in the 20s. Archie who is a freeverse poet in the body of a cockroach, and Mehitabel the cat who was Cleopatra in a past life, find their way to Don Marquis' typewriter when he leaves the office at night, making strange and intriguing additions to his column. Archie the cockroach is one of the greats.

- Sara Bader's Strange Red Cow. This book managed to very effectively travel under the radar, and deserved more attention. Bader researched historical classified ads, and uses them to give an interesting view of early American life. More interesting than it sounds, and it sounds pretty darn interesting, at least to me. But then, I've also read a book devoted to the history of Obituaries.

- Upton Sinclair's Worlds End. That's right, it's not The Jungle! He wrote other books! It's even likely that, with the success of the movie There Will Be Blood, based on his novel Oil!, that publishers will start to release more of his back catalogue. World's End is the first book in Sinclair's epic series of historical novels following Lanville 'Lanny' Budd, and his travels through Europe. Lanny is the son of an American arms dealer, and he ends up closely connected with many of the major events leading up to and following the First Wold War. It's fascinating for both the detail of it's history and Sinclair's very complicated take on the war.

- Elaine Dundy's The Dud Avocado. I'm cheating here. I'm recommending a book that I haven't finished yet. I'm about half-way through. This is a phenomenal book, written in 1958, it has apparently been one of those books that gets forgotten and rediscovered with some frequency. It's the story of an American girl abroad in Paris, and it deals with the insular society of young American ex-pats living in France. Sally Gorce gets mixed up with many different strange characters, and they're all well-rounded and hilarious.

- Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light. This is one of my favorite SF books. A new planet is colonized with a world run by the people who held onto the technology, for a large population of people with no access to it. They have modeled their world's culture on the Hindo religion, which they have warped in order to maintain their control of the society. One of their number rebels and seeks to restore equality, he does so by creating a rebellious religion based on Buddhism. Cunning, thoughtful and really enjoyable, it also contains one of the most gratuitous puns of all time, set up over the course of about 10 pages, and with absolutely no warning at all that it is coming.

And that's the Friday Five! What books do you think I should read?

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Quick Question: Who will you not read?

I touched on author aversions here, and I want to see where you stand on them.

Are there any authors you will not read, or will not read more of? Particularly, an author that you feel a lot of people love, or regard as a classic?

For example, I'm highly unlikely to ever read anything by Austen or a Bronte. I know a lot of people who love them, but they just don't appeal to me.

Another example, I know a few people who refuse to read Harry Potter. Not for a moral reason, or because they don't like wizards, but because so many other people have told them how great the books are. I had this attitude, in mild form, towards Haruki Murakami, but I got over it, and I now love his books.

How Do You Take Yours?

Paperback? Trade Paperback? Hardcover? eBook? Audio Book?

This question is prompted by this impassioned article in support of the endangered hardcover. My first thought is of course, that I am not particularly concerned with the fate of the hardcover, I wouldn't be particularly sad to see it go. Of course, this has to do with reading style, and I understand that publishers have determined that all of these different formats appeal to different people, the markets are just different. They make judgements about whether a book will sell in paperback or trade paperback. Sometimes they determine it will sell well in both, so they release it in both at the same time. What they don't do that with is hardcover, and that's why I don't like them. I'm not a hardcover reader, I like to carry at least one book around with me at all times, because, as far as reading is concerned, the day is full of moments (there would be a link here to a Penny Arcade comic, but their archives are down). Hardcovers are too big for this. If you have the time, it could be really nice to curl up in an armchair with a good hardcover, but I do my reading when I can, which is usually on the go.

Also, if you really love a book, it has a high chance of surviving longer in your library than if it is a paperback. So I do see the benefits. What I don't see is why those of us who don't typically want to read a book in hardcover have to wait until the publisher decides that the market for the hardcover has slowed down before they release the book in other formats. Wait. I do see. It's because it costs more. This is why I enjoyed Damien Walter's post about hardcovers or, as he calls them, hardbacks. I like the idea of an independent company publishing attractive hardcover volumes. I've purchased a few books in hardcover that I initially had in paperback because I loved them and wanted to have them for a long time.

On the other hand, I don't want to pay hardcover price because there's a new hot book out there that I'm curious to read, and it's only available in hardcover. What I do then is decide to wait until the book comes out in paperback, then as often as not, I forget about the book. Goodreads helps with that. I find it very useful to be able to keep a 'to read' list. It's made me less likely to forget those books I wanted to remember, and more likely to be truly aware of the Sisyphean task that is reading everything I want to read.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

RIP Reading

There seems to be a lot of talk going around about the death of reading, or of the book. I even have a book on my shelf about the future, or lack thereof, of books.

Of course, that book is itself now so old as to be laughably out of date. It never even had a chance to gloat at the creation of the Kindle, or frown contritely at the overall lack of reaction the Kindle garnered.

Reading isn't dead, and I don't think it ever will be. The internet is largely a written media, and is hugely successful. If looked at that way, more people are reading now than ever before. Of course, the problem is that they're not reading what the bloviators want them to. This is always the problem. You can find an article from almost anytime and find out that reading is in some form of danger, right up until you get to Plato, when the worry is rather that reading is endangering memory. Of course, no one remembers that, since as readers we can't remember anything.

It's currently being focused on for a couple of reasons. One, newspapers are dying. Since they know people aren't reading them, they now worry about reading. The other is that there does seem to be a decrease in the size of the literary fiction market. There's also the decrease in the literary fiction market, which is leading to some literary fiction authors talking about the increasing illiteracy of our society.

Looking at the numbers, they seem to be right. Literacy is decreasing, and flaws in our education system likely deserve a part of that blame. Of course, it doesn't help that readers of specific types of writing look down on each other.

Nonfiction fans look down on fiction fans, lit fiction fans look down on those who read anything else, romance fans are often just embarrassed. And then there are fans of science fiction and fantasy, who rightly or wrongly, often feel isolated and looked down upon. This is one of the richest literate societies we have, but they feel alienated. The works they love, be they Grand Masters, like Asimov and Clarke, or space opera like Bujold, are often seen as less in some way, than the books which appear on the general fiction shelf. Kurt Vonnegut stands as the shining example that, if an SF author earns enough attention, they don't bring prestige to the genre, rather, they get to leave the SF ghetto, and enter the regular fiction section in the bookstore.

So is it a quality judgement? It often seems to be. I'm the first to say that there is a lot of terrible SF out there. I mean really terrible, execrable. But there are a lot of really terrible books on the regular fiction shelves, too. Frankly, it's about even.

There's an easy way we should look at it. Don't look down on what people read, let them read it. You might get them hooked on reading, then, when they're hooked, you can get them hooked on the hard stuff.

Be careful about getting them on the hard stuff though, you have to do it right. It was done wrong for me once. I had an English teacher I really liked and admired in Junior High, and at graduation, he gave everyone a graduation gift. I got Moby Dick. I didn't want it. Inside he had written to me that he hoped that I would enjoy this tale of great adventures on the high seas. My alienated early teen alarm went off like a gong. I'd seen the same after school specials he'd seen.

The nerdy kid, who reads comic books, or SF, or something similar, and then his wise teacher gave him a copy of Moby Dick, the great American novel. It changed his life, the kid read that, and it changed his life. His glasses morphed into cool glasses, his spider man t-shirt into a polo shirt, and his voice deepened. He also started reading Kerouac and Hemingway. He always thought so fondly about the teacher who had changed his life.

I put the book on the shelf when I got home. It's still on the shelf in my parents house now. I may read it one day, I may not. Now I really liked this teacher, and I still do. I know he meant well, but it didn't work. And I'm a reader, these days I read about as much literary fiction as anything else. This same teacher also shares the credit for my current fondness for literature. He taught me Homer, and Shakespeare, two authors for whom I have a life-long affection. He taught the Odyssey superbly, complete with his own hand-made charts of the inter-relationships of all of the different figures in Greek myth.

Everyone comes out of high school with a list of authors whom they hate. They may never have even read them, but they know they don't like them. I think the attitude of looking down on the books that people enjoy fosters this. There's plenty to enjoy across the broad spectrum of books. Let them read what they enjoy, teach them to enjoy reading first, then expose them to books across the spectrum to broaden their tastes. If they don't enjoy reading then, when you give them the 'great' books to read, they won't enjoy them.

With that said, I'm curious. What authors did you come out of school with a strong aversion to?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Marking One's Place

For most of my reading life, I was a page folder. Any book of mine that I have had for more than five years has dog-eared pages. I would occasionally start a book with a bookmark, but by the time I was finished, the dog-ears had returned.

Then, I underwent a mysterious transition. About five years ago, I just stopped dog-earing pages and started using bookmarks. I'd love to tell you that there was a precise reason for it, the desire to protect the book from damage or to copy some role-model, but that is not the case.

Of course, I don't really buy bookmarks. I like the random free ones. My favorite are the bookmarks from independent book stores. I hoard them, and use them as needed. For one bookstore I'm particularly fond of, I have a five year-run of all of the different bookmarks they have gone with, as they've changed logos, color-schemes, and locations. I also have bookmarks from independent bookstores in other cities, because of course I can't go anywhere without going to a bookstore.

This weekend I added to my collection with a bookmark from the Harvard Book Store. This isn't the school store and it's not a Barnes & Noble controlled 'false friend'. It is instead, in their own words, a "locally owned, independently run" bookstore. And I liked it a lot. They had a good and eclectic selection of books, and an extensive staff recommendations section.

I consider staff recommendations vital. Not that I often take their recommendations, but it's a sign that the staff really care about books, and that matters to me.

In addition to my bookmark, and the books I purchased, I came away with another little touch that I admired.

Author pins. At the register, they had a small bin filled with patterned pins bearing the names of specific authors. I bought a Saul Bellow, an author I need to read more of, and a Herodotus, an author I have read in English and, to a lesser extent, Greek. There were more authors I would have liked, but one can only wear so many pins. There were a lot more authors I would have loved to have on pins, but they weren't available.

The point is, these pins are a great idea. If you can wear pins of all of your favorite bands, why not your favorite authors. Reading is fun, and we should have fun with it.

Friday, April 11, 2008

When Dad Goes to War

I was very moved by this essay that Alison Buckholtz wrote for Salon. For those of you without the time to go read the article, I'll summarize it.

Alison's husband is in the Navy, and left on a 7 month deployment. For that time period she is left alone to care for their 4-year old son, and 2-year old daughter. What she writes about must be a very common problem for any military family, how to explain to the kids why mommy or daddy had to go away.

It's particularly hard when you don't feel comfortable relying on cliches about having to fight bad guys. For most people in this country, that's not what this war is about. I wish I could say what it is about, but the only answer I really have is that it's about 5 years too long and counting.

Alison wanted to find a way to let her children know "that allowed kids to acknowledge their anger or sadness at Dad's absence, even wallow in their bad mood if necessary -- all while transmitting the assurance of a better day."

Being a writer, she looked for books to communicate this. She couldn't find one. The chidren's books all had problems, the wrong political message, or xenophobia, etc.

So she wrote her own. And it worked.

When we think of books, we think of large scale publications, but that's not all they are. You have to know your audience, and hope to reach them. In her case it was two small children, upset by their father's absence. She reached them, there can be no greater success for an author.

I want to encourage increased literacy in this country, it's very important to me. It troubles me that so many people who feel this way are so concerned with encouraging people to read the 'right' books. The right books are the ones that reach us. For some that may be harlequin romances, for others it's Descartes. That's ok. Not everyone needs to read the hard stuff, but the more you read, the better for you.

And when the message you want to convey is as personal as Alison's, the audience can be as small as it needs to be.

Friday Five

It's time for part one of my weekly series, Friday Five!

That's where I will describe five books that I think are interesting. I'm not saying that you need to read them, but you should consider them.

And if you've read any of them already, you get points. Points can be redeemed for imaginary prizes of no worth.

In no particular order, here they are.

- Alfred Kazin's A Walker in the City. This is an autobiography. Kazin writes about growing up in a Jewish community in Brooklyn before the depression. As a New Yorker, and a lover of New York history, this stood out to me, but I think it really has universal appeal. Kazin is a fascinating man, and his struggles with issues like community and self-identity are easily identifiable.

- Sappho's If Not, Winter, translated by Anne Carson. Sappho is one of the greatest poets out of ancient Greece. Her poems are beautiful, personal, and well structured. They also come down to us largely in fragments. Anne Carson, a phenomenal poet in her own right, has used the fragmentary nature of Sappho's surviving oeuvre to create a translation that is a work of art in itself. Rather than covering the gaps, or marking them in the same tedious way that is often done with other translations of fragmented works, Carson makes the gaps an important part of each piece. This book is not just a good translation of Sappho's poems, it's also a monument to all of the works that we have lost. The organization of her translations provides the reader with a visceral sense of that loss. The title is one of the fragments, all we can do is wonder what the rest of the poem would have been like.

- Alaa Al Aswany's The Yacoubian Building. Curious about the Middle East? Why not read one of the best selling Arabic language books in recent years. This is a novel that forms itself around the lives of the inhabitants of a single old apartment building in Cairo. It deals with the struggles of religion and secularism, east and west, and generations.

- Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds. One of the most brilliant and intricate novels out there. You've heard of James Joyce, but he's not the only great writer from Ireland. Flann O'Brien heads the list of under-appreciated Irish writers. A book about a man writing a book about a man who is writing a book, where the characters of that book begin to take their revenge by writing the life of their own author. If you think that sounds tangled, wait until you read it. It all makes sense in the end, but you'll have to focus. O'Brien had a small resurgence when the creator of Lost said in an interview that another O'Brien novel, The Third Policeman, is one of the biggest influences on the show.

- Connie Willis' Bellwether. Connie Willis is one of the finest living writers of SF. This book, about a social scientist researching trends, is a fascinating examination of how ideas travel through our society. As the title suggests, it also involves a look at the behavior of sheep.

Reading Spots

I'm going to Boston this weekend, taking Amtrak. While I am looking forward to getting there, I'm also looking forward to the train trip. I like reading on trains. I find it to be a relaxing experience. Planes are good too, but there's just something about long train trips that I find really conducive to reading.

I've packed my bags with clothes, and more importantly reading matter, for the trip. I can't wait.

This has gotten me thinking about great places to read. I know that the one that sticks with me as the strongest visceral memory is sitting on a marble slab in the Grand Palaestra at Pompeii reading H.H. Scullard's From the Gracchi to Nero, which is an excellent and comprehensive history of Rome. I remember feeling like a character in a novel.

Of course, that's not an easily recreated activity. But the best reading experiences often aren't. I love to read and do it a lot, but sometimes the experience transcends where it normally is, and becomes something visceral that you remember as a full sense memory. I remember what I was reading there in Pompeii, but I also remember the feel of the breeze on my skin, the cool shade of the trees after working for days in the hot sun, and the smell of the air. I can remember the tactile feel of that stone slab, it all comes together.

They're not all like that either. No matter how hard I try to convey the wonder of that experience, it can come off a bit sappy. That's fine, I can come off a bit sappy myself.

Here's another visceral memory, a little less sappy. In seventh grade English class, for whatever reason, we had reading time. We were all supposed to bring a book of some kind, and read it to ourselves quietly. There's the key word that got me into trouble, quietly. I was reading, for the first of many times, James Herriot's All Creature's Great and Small, and I started laughing out loud. I got shushed angrily by the teacher, and tried to stifle it.

Ten seconds later, I was laughing again, even harder. Now this teacher was kind of an awkward and unpleasant woman, and she never could quite get a handle on me. She decided that I should be publicly embarrassed, and that the perfect way to teach me not to laugh out loud in class was to make me read it aloud to the whole class.

Have you read All Creature's Great and Small? I credit her by believing that she must not have. It's the autobiography of an English vet, and the work he did in the farm country of the English dales. It's probably one of the best known autobiographies out there. It lead to countless sequels and a successful BBC television series.

I got up there, and I started to read, what had cracked me up. Doing my best performance, in the different accents, I began to read. Dr. Herriot described his struggles with the old, folk remedies still used by many English farmers before WWII. In this case it was a lurid description of how, among other 'cures', the farmer had shoved a pound of raw onions into the horses rectum twice daily for a week, before calling the vet.

This was seventh grade! Needless to say she lost complete control of the class that day as we all fell over each other laughing.

As I write this story I can still feel the pain from grinning and laughing so hard, both in my face, and the muscles in my stomach. I'd love to say that my teacher learned to be a little more cautious of me, but she never did.

Any memories of your own to share?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Movies of Books

After my recent post about the far distant Tintin movie, Tavis at Powell's Bookstore (also known as the second best reason that I need to go to Portland) has a post about a bunch of books that are being turned into movies. As he says, 'read it before they screen it.'

Quick: Comics are Reading too!

An important subject, and I plan to write in detail about it sometime, but for now, just a link to an interesting comic short written by Jonathan Ames & Nick Bertozzi.


Quick Question: What are you Reading?

So, yesterday, after my struggles with reader's block, I picked up Captain Blood, and I'm enjoying it.

But now the important question, what are you reading?

And also, what led you to it?

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Reader's Block

'Reader's block' is a great term, isn't it? I'd never heard it before but the second that Book Slut's Jessa Crispin used it, I knew what it was. It's even more helpful to me now, because I'm going through it. On paper, as it were, I'm reading three books right now, a poetry collection, and two short story collections. But really, I'm not reading anything. I haven't been since last night, when I finished Camus' The Stranger, and the time it took me to finish that shows that the reader's block was already setting in.

It's an unpleasant experience. For me the symptoms are gazing listlessly at my bookshelves, picking up books, looking at them, maybe opening to the front page, then putting them back on the shelf. I can do it for hours, but I haven't been letting myself. Instead, I check the blogs again, to see if anyone's updated, then I flip the channels on my TV, put on a DVD that I don't watch, and go back to the bookshelf. I know how to get out of it. I should grab some light fiction, possibly a reread. I often work myself out of these by reading a Dick Francis novel, I have a couple that I haven't read yet, but I know I'll run out eventually, and that makes me stingy with them.

As I've written this I've gone over to my shelves three times, and gazed longingly at them a few more than that. I realized how bad it had gotten when I looked at the small pile of books that I want to take to the used book store. By the very nature of being in that pile, I know I don't want to read them again, but then I think, well maybe I put something good in by mistake.

Okay, I checked. There's nothing worth rereading in that pile. I should have trusted me.

Back from the shelves again, I think I've found it. Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood. I loved his Scaramouche, and I enjoyed the movie with Errol Flynn. It passed the first page test too.

So that's me taken care of (crossed-fingers). How do you deal with reader's block? Assuming you've had it.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

A Game of Pain

It's often said that baseball is a game more about losing than winning. This certainly seems to be true for me, as a Mets fan. Of course, even a good hitter gets out more often than they get a hit, and that's what the saying is really about.

Paper Cuts, at the NY Times, had a post not long ago about sports writing where they quoted George Plimpton's saying that 'the smaller the ball, the better the book.' Now as was pointed out in the comments, this could lead to pinball or marbles being the best sports books, and that's not true. So really it's an implied progression from basketball to football to baseball to golf. The only one of these sports I follow is baseball, though I also follow World Cup soccer(or Football if you live anywhere besides North America).

Now, I don't hold with hard and fast rules, but I think that there is something to baseball writing. Of course, I've only read one book devoted to baseball, Donald Hall's Father's Playing Catch with Sons, but I deeply loved it. The pain and loss so typically associated with baseball lends itself well to writing. Everyone knows Casey at the Bat. There's something very literary about the moment it describes, and it happens all the time. I would say that a 'Casey' strikes out in almost every single game. Sometimes it matters more than others.

Of course, as for sports books, I also read and really enjoyed Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, also a book about the bad times in sports as much as the good. So far, I much prefer his nonfiction.

Both books are also about being fans of the game more than they are about the sport. If baseball is a game of pain, it certainly seems that soccer can make a bid, I think all sports can. For every year that your team wins it all, there are a lot more where they don't, even if you're a Yankees fan. And true fans pride themselves more for their loyalty in the bad times than for enjoying the good times. Fair weather fan is not considered a complement.

It makes sense. The true experience includes the pain. If you're not there for that, then you can't truly understand the thrill of victory. I know that ten years from now I will still be talking about last season, and probably wear it like a badge of honor. Because I was there, and I always watched through to the last pitch.

Being a sports fan is also a lot like reading. In the end, we don't hit the home runs or pitch the strike outs anymore than we have a picnic in the ruins of a fortress with the Rochelois attacking. But we feel like we're there. The authors and the athletes share these experiences with us. Most fans begin to develop a special, entirely fictional relationship with their favorite players. Similarly, readers often do the same with their favorite characters, and sometimes their favorite authors too. D'Artagnan and Jose Reyes both feel like friends to me, but I've never met either of them.

Still, if you're a sports fan, even a little bit, there's a book out there for you, and probably a blog, and I recommend both. Then you can combine your love of the sport with your love of reading, and enrich both.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Greener Reading Accross the Pond

To quote the renowned scholar Cptn. B.F. 'Hawkeye' Pierce, M.D. "I am a life long anglophile. England is still the only country I know where any young man can grow up to be the Queen." Of course, thanks to Freddie Mercury, this statement is more accurate than it was.

Boy, isn't that something? A blog about books and my first quote is from a 30 year old T.V. show. I'm clearly working the educated crowd right now.

Anyway, I was talking about being an anglophile. I am one, of course. Most of the regular readers I know are anglophiles to one degree or another. Why is this? Well, like most nerdy Americans, I grew up on a steady diet of Monty Python, which I mixed up with a healthy dose of Blackadder, and a nigh obsessive devouring of every word ever written by Terry Pratchett, including phone numbers hastily scribbled on napkins. I could go further, it's amazing how many things I love are English in origin (including a nice pint of bitter, or as we call it in the States, ESB because the word 'bitter' is scary to Americans).

However, I did have the disillusioning experience that most anglophiles should have. I met a lot of English people, and worked with them. It is true, that there are a lot of amazing intellectuals to love in that country, and their cultural attitudes towards reading and authors seem vastly superior to ours, but just like us they have their tedious, boorish, narrow-minded people. That's why they're comedy is so funny, they have plenty of examples to work with. The point being, anglophilia is good for us in small doses, but don't take it too far, they are no more perfect than Americans, just different. Some of those differences are truly enviable.

Take for example the interview I referenced in my last post. Though I was frustrated by one part, I also really enjoyed it. The interviewer drew Rushdie out very well, and as an American, it fascinates me to see authors treated as public figures. We just don't do that here. We're much more likely to interview 20 year old actors about the interaction of east and west, than middle aged author's who have lived those differences and published important works of fiction.

The different attitude towards authors and reading in the two countries seems enormous to me. I've already admitted that I suffer from a 'grass is greener' attitude towards reading culture in England, but a glance at the Book sections of the NY Times and the Guardian, show that there's something there. The NY Times is almost exclusively book reviews, while the Guardian covers news about authors, the existence of upcoming books, and interviews with authors, as well as musings of all kinds on reading, books and publishing. And not just the Guardian, check out the Telegraph, too. It'd be great to get that kind of attention in the Times.

Of course, the Times has improved with their interesting, but not updated frequently enough for my tastes, books blog Paper Cuts.

Still, the English can annoy me. I am a huge fan of lists when it comes to books. I maintain lists of every book I read, and I love to check out end of year best of lists, as well as recommended reading lists of all types. That being said, this list of 11o best books, which the Telegraph describes as the "perfect library" seems disastrous to me.

These kinds of lists often do. I think the way they generally serve is to make us feel smug when we've read things on them, and smugger still when we've read things they missed, or have decided that something they did list is not worth reading. So, needless to say, I got a small buzz from having read, let's pick one at random, John Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which I loved, but I got a bigger buzz because they included the obvious choice of Jane Austen, an author I have no interest in. This set me off to notice just how heavily the list relied on English authors, which enabled me to look down on their list.

Of course, if you're really going to narrow down the 110 books that a person should read for a literary education, as an English speaker, there will be a lot more English books on there than American, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealander. After all, they've been writing for a lot longer.

That's why these lists are really fun to make though, it's a chance to insult those 'greats' you don't think are that great, mine for example would exclude Austen and the Brontes, and to include lesser known works that you really enjoy, I would include Flann O'Brien. It's also a chance to show the breadth of your familiarity. They include a section for Science Fiction, which seems to be much more acceptable in England. The big surprise was that they did not include The Watchmen graphic novel by Alan Moore, which has become the de rigeur means of acknowledging the growing importance of graphic novels without having to go around actually reading them. It's typically chosen because its more popular among comic book fans than Maus, or Persepolis, both of which are comics for the non comic reader, so it better demonstrates a familiarity with the genre, but more about that at another time.

Anyway, I started out about anglophilia, and seem to have ended up on book lists, but since I'm sure more lists will come out in future, so that I will always have material to play with, I'll go back to anglophilia, or rather, explain the connection. It's not just that I got the list from an English paper. It's part of that attitude. The New York Times produces, each year at the end of the year, a list of notable books. This is done very seriously, with the deep intention of demonstrating the Times' approval of certain works and authors. It's great for business, people buy the papers to see it (or check the website these days) and people buy the books when they bear that little stamp of approval on the cover. I think they give Oprah a run for her money, particularly as she does one at a time, while they do a hundred or so. Of course, I'm sure they're tied for how few people read the books after buying them.

The Telegraph on the other hand, was clearly being playful. They want to get you thinking, and start discussion. It's successful too, the comment thread on the list has just gotten started, and already people are throwing out what they see as omissions or inappropriate inclusions. After all, our favorite and least favorite books are important to us. They also have their own book blogger, who responded to the list with some very interesting thoughts of her own.

Not to get too down on Americans as being part of the books are fun crowd, I'd like to add that I learned of this list from the blog for Book Slut, which is a great site run by Americans. There are plenty of us out there, and the internet is giving us a lot more opportunities to communicate.

But really, don't the Telegraph editors recognize the importance of Joseph Heller's Catch 22? What fools!

Reading for fun or facts?

I was reading this article in the Guardian, and it got me thinking about the role of Authors in what we read. Now obviously they produce it, but it can go further than that.

In this particular instance, despite Rushdie's objections, the interviewer is intent on linking, strongly and thematically, his new novel to his divorce. While I find Rushdie to be an interesting person, and enjoyed the interview, when I read the book I don't plan to look for that link. I try very hard to separate what I know about an author outside of their writing, from the book that I am reading. Clearly this interviewer disagrees with me, he is very interested in finding details about this author and (particularly in England) public figure. When he read the book, he was clearly looking actively for details about his reaction to his recent divorce. My immediate thought is that he thereby was unable to really enjoy the book, he wasn't reading a story anymore. In my mind what he did was no different than looking through Rushdie's tax returns, it has almost nothing to do with the pleasure of reading a story, or appreciating Rushdie's technique. It's about finding the specific clues to support a thesis.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Movie of the Book

With the recent announcement that the cinematic dream team of Peter Jackson, George Lucas, and Stephen Spielberg are teaming up to make a Tintin movie. I've been thinking a lot about movies based on books and comic books.

Most of them are terrible while the ones that are good often seem to be a studio's Oscar attempt. The initial buzz though, that's always good. When you hear that a book or comic that you really like is being made into a movie, you may worry about them messing it up, but you're also excited about the possibility that they won't. At least, that's how I feel, and I'm going to project this as a universal, because of the truthiness of the idea.

The converse is not the case, I don't know anyone who gets excited about the book of a movie they like. Photo books, or books with the script, maybe, but novelizations? No. Even the word novelization has a negative sound to me.

Movies of comics seem to be particularly bad and unlikely to stay true to the original story. Perhaps because the comic books are already such perfect storyboards, the movie makers feel a need to show that they're doing it themselves, and to resist the directorial force of the original book. At the same time, comic book movies are supposed to be summer blockbusters, and if there was ever a movie type that was driven by committee, it's these. Executives start with the property, and then they package everything good out of it.

But Tintin, well, it's hard to picture it as a summer blockbuster, and the people who are working on it have been pretty good in the past, so I have hopes. I'm fighting them though, because that disappointment when they make a terrible movie out of something you love can be painful.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Keeping Lists

At the beginning of 2005, I decided to start keeping a list of every book that I read over the course of a year. I started this because a friend of mine had done it for 2004, and I found it really interesting to look at her list, to see what books seemed connected thematically, as well as the scope of different types of books she had read.

As it is 2008, I am now in my fourth year of doing so, and still enjoying it. It does lead me to consider applying the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal to reading (I try to apply the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal to almost everything, observing and being observed are powerful forces in our society). Does the fact that I am keeping a precise record of what books I read, and further, sharing these lists with others, change the way I decide what to read?

I believe it does. I have always had a fairly sizable list of books that I feel I should have read, but have not gotten around to yet, and since I began tracking what I read, I've gotten to more of them than I think I would have otherwise. This has been a real positive, I have really enjoyed a number of these, particularly, Dante, both the Inferno and Purgatorio (I confess it, I still haven't gotten to the Paradisio) and also Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

I think that most people have a list, either written out, or existing vaguely in their heads, of books that they feel they should read, and as we read, even as we check off those books, more are added, it's a bit like Sisyphus, but more enjoyable. Every book you read just makes your mountain a little taller.

Welcome to the Armchair Reader!

On this blog, I will be musing about reading, and readers. While I may occasionally recommend or review specific books and authors, the main purpose is to think about what it means to be someone who reads.

Does it just mean books? fiction? novels?

I certainly don't think so. I read voraciously, news, blogs, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and anything else I can get my hands on. As my mother puts it, sometimes you just need words in a line, and if I have nothing to read on me, then I will quickly find myself reading whatever is available, advertisements, ingredient lists, or whatever else has words on it.

One constant curiosity for me is what other people are reading. If I see someone reading on the subway, or anywhere else, I always want to know what they are reading, and can become very patient, waiting for them to shift their hold on their book long enough to reveal the title. I have been aided in this curiosity by the site GoodReads which enables you to connect with your friends, and always know what they are reading (assuming they update their page with this information.)

So with that, I'll close by welcoming you to this blog, and asking, what are you reading?