Book a week

I’m trying to read a book a week, but a book a week really puts a book into perspective. I’m spending a whole week on this? I’m only spending a week on this?

Last week I read Dubliners by James Joyce. The problem was it was short stories. I read two. That’s not a book a week. That’s one short story every 3.5 days.

This week I’m reading The Town That Forgot How to Breathe by Kenneth J. Harvey. Since I had never heard of it before I started to read it, it felt like a waste of a week. I will finish this book and still no one will have heard of it? Then I read something – a blog post I got linked to through the New Yorker‘s book blog “Page-Turner.” It was a blog post someone made about things their professor (the writer Max Sebald) had said in class. One thing that stuck out:

Get off the main thoroughfares; you’ll see nothing there. For example, Kant’s Critique is a yawn but his incidental writings are fascinating.”

This very creepy book I’m reading about a small town in Newfoundland where people literally forget how to breathe is not Kant’s other book, but I get it. I’m reading this book because it’s going to tell me something that not everyone knows. I am also reading it because I’m reading Maritime books, preparing for the moment where I go back and know everything there is to know about the book I’m writing about Cape Breton.

My book club meets tonight. We are always just sitting there itching to go home and read. Why is that books are such an enjoyable thing, but something we just want to get done? Why do we have bookshelves to show off the quantity of what we’ve read, when we could just endlessly borrow books from a library? Why do we have websites where we collect books like Pokemon cards? Why do we spout names of authors and their books like we are all so aware of the classics that we keep lists ready in our head?

Miss Auras by John Lavery, depicts a woman reading a book.from en.Wikipedia.org
Miss Auras by John Lavery, depicts a woman reading a book.
from en.Wikipedia.org

I hope that I haven’t misunderstood reading. I really like doing it, I swear I do. But still I make resolutions like I don’t do enough of it, and I join clubs about it like I need support. Books are a big part of my life, but when did I decide that having a lot of books means having a lot of life?

I think it was when I decided that to be a writer I needed to have read everything. I ignored that being a writer had come from being a reader. I ignored that I read before I went to school, that there’s pictures of me as a baby staring fascinated at books. (See my “About” page). I forgot that there are too many books to read. I forgot that it’s more important to read than to think about reading.

Kids Who Were Into Reading

Today I read a children’s book with my grade three class and told them we had to make up the story. It was a book that, of course, allowed for that: illustrations and sentences that only suggestively went with them, the way The Mysteries of Harris Burdick did.

I was obsessed with that book growing up, because it contained the most stories ever. Every time I looked at an image and the sentence next to it, I could make up a new story. I hid the book outside my bedroom every time I borrowed it from the library: it haunted me, the ability to create the scariest of stories.

Allsburg

“Under the Rug: Two weeks passed and it happened again.”

(from The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, Houghton Mufflin 1984)

The book I read today was far less scary, and in French. I first hid the sentence, to see if the kids could make a story out of the illustration. Once they had come up with several reasons as to why a man was looking into a smoky sewer grate, I revealed the sentence: he thought he saw an angel. Everyone was stunned: we can be that creative?

Even more fun was the fact that each page was alliterated like an alphabet book. First Alex Algodon did something with a lot of A-words, then Bernard Boulet. The kids started predicting the names of the next people, and what it was they might be doing. One girl stood up to show what tap dancing (“claquettes”) was, and another led the class in The Sound of Music’s “Do Re Mi” to show others what the word “mi” was. It was so fun to hypothesise about what these characters were doing with students who weren’t afraid to hypothesise wrong. It was so great to see students so excited about reading.

Most people I know who are at university have a common excuse for not reading: I read for school. If we at university, wise as we are, think reading is something we do for school, what do you think students in elementary and high school, when learning to read is the thing, think about reading outside of school? And if you spend your first twenty-two-ish years not reading because you’re reading too much for the sake of school, what are you going to be like when you turn twenty-three? When no one cares whether you read?

I have thus concluded that school has too much reading. A larger percentage of school reading should be fun reading, but mandatory fun reading. If up until the age twenty-two everybody was forced to read for fun for at least half an hour a day, what excuse could you use when you’re twenty-three? I’m tired of reading for fun?

Reading is my passion because I love words. I get that others don’t love reading because they don’t have the same strange obsession as I do. But reading should be so much more than the words: it’s images, it’s meaning, it’s inferences and rhythm and relationships. Reading is everything that’s missing in bad television. It’s like opening Christmas gifts.

I think we forget that kids love silent reading. It seems ridiculous to an adult, the idea that little students and teen-aged students might have to sit at their tiny desks and look down at a book for half an hour every day, but to the kids I have observed, it’s FUN. It’s engrossing. It’s a passionate thing.

When you read you put a bit of yourself into a book. To understand it, you need to let the content pass through your body. When you do so, the book becomes your own. It’s something kids innately understand and get excited about: I built this book. It’s mine.

Such a Good One

An excerpt from Adam Gopnik‘s Paris to the Moon

“The hardest thing to convey is how lovely it all is and how the loveliness seems all you need. The ghosts that haunted you in New York or Pittsburgh will haunt you anywhere you go, because they’re your ghosts and the house they haunt is you. But they become disconcerted, shaken confused for a half a minute, and in that moment in December at 4:00 when you’re walking from the bus stop to the rue Saint-Dominique and the lights are twinkling across the river – only twinkling in the bateaux mouches, luring the tourists, but still – … you feel as if you’ve escaped your ghosts if only because, being you, they’re transfixed looking at the lights in the trees on the other bank, too, which they haven’t seen before, either. It’s true you can’t run away from yourself. But we were right: you can run away.”

Why isn’t everyone reading Walden?

I am on page 77 of Walden and I have so far read Henry David Thoreau’s take on mortgages, fashion, DIY, travel and school. Thoreau published his masterpiece in 1854, but it feels so relevant – too relevant to be so good, so insightful. I don’t know why we aren’t all reading Walden right now.

(from mapsofdeserts.wordpress.com)

Walden is the account of a social experiment. Thoreau built a cabin and lived on the edge of Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts for two years in search of meaning in his life. Isn’t that what we are all reading right now? Memoirs of people looking for the meaning of life?

Thoreau is a philosopher of sorts – a trancendentalist. We read his quotes everywhere – on bookmarks and graduation gifts. His school of thought says that man is inherently good and needs to find ways to be independent and self-reliant or else he will be corrupted by organized religion and politics. Isn’t that a lot of what we’re reading right now? Books arguing for the power of the individual?

Thoreau on mortgages: “And when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him.”

Thoreau on fashion: “My tailoress tells me gravely, ‘They do not make them so, now,” not emphasizing the ‘They’ at all, as if she quoted an authority as impersonal as the Fates.”

Thoreau on DIY: “Shall we forever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter? … Where is this division of labor to end? and what object does it finally serve? No doubt another may also think for me; but it is not therefore desirable that he should do so to the exclusion of my thinking for myself.”

Thoreau on travel: “This spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it, reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once. ‘What!’ exclaim a million Irishmen.”

Thoreau on school: ” ‘But,’ says one, ‘you do not mean that the students should go to work with their hands instead of their heads?’ I do not mean that exactly, but I mean something which he might think a good deal like that; I mean that they should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living?”

(from nevalee.wordpress.com)

I can’t get over how much I want to be reading this 160 year old book right now. It’s exciting to feel that sometimes we can find the answers to the most pressing issues in the oldest, wisest places. I’ve maybe learned something about why people read the Bible: the answers were here, all along.

It might be that Walden caught me at the right moment in my life, and this moment in my life has coincided with the right moment in time.

Me, on mortgages: I am contemplating, in the Vancouver housing market, the possibility that if things go on this way I may never be able to buy my own home. And if by chance I am able to successfully buy my own home, still never own it.

Me, on fashion: As a young woman bombarded by media, I’ve developed a bad habit for spending money on frivolous items, such as the latest clothing and other ephemeral trends.

Me, on DIY: I’m attempting to eat and buy local in order to offset the negative impacts of globalization.

Me, on travel: I am at the point in my life where I’m supposed to travel, but also at the point in my life where I’m supposed to settle down.

Me, on school: I left school last year and am going back this year, all in search of what?

I don’t know why everyone isn’t talking about Walden right now. Then again, this headline was in The New York Times this morning. Maybe everyone is, and I just haven’t been listening.

I Ate a Book!

Not really, but reading fast! So fast!

The Blue Light Project is the latest book by Timothy Taylor, the Vancouver-based author who wrote Stanley Park.

(photo taken from arts.nationalpost.com)

I will tell you nothing about the book except for this:

I will do a review once I’m done, but I’ll probably just post another Youtube video of parkour.

Timothy Taylor was previously nominated for the Giller Prize  for Stanley Park so I will take this as an opportunity to tell you that as you were busy reading and thinking about my blog posts from a few weeks ago about how I am doing two self-made, self-entertaining challenges where I read a Pulitzer prize-winning book from each decade and also a Governor’s General prize-winning book from each decade, I changed my mind.

I am doing the Pulitzer thing, because I want to read some American classics I haven’t read, but I am a lot more interested in modern Canadian authors. So I am going to choose from the past ten years of Giller-prize nominees (not necessarily winners) one book from 2001 until now.

First up: Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje.

Check out an excellently written review of my first Pulitzer book, The Age of Innocence, and then also a series of poorly-written book reviews I recorded in a journal of mine that is on paper not blog.

Anyway, I have to go sit in a hammock and read this thing.

Badly Written Book Reviews

I have a Moleskine book journal in which I write terribly-written book reviews.

(By the way, on the cover of this journal is a confusing set of titles (look closer), some of which I know are books, some of which I think, okay, this must be a book, but it’s written in Chinese characters, thanks. I’ve tried to find a forum where someone has asked what this list is all about and someone else answered it but of course I’m not going to start a forum discussion about this (I will instead write a blog post with this as my hidden intention). I think I want to know really badly because I secretly want Moleskine to dictate my reading curriculum. I miss English class!)

Parentheses aside, I keep a book journal mainly because Moleskine made this available for me. Also because it helps me to recall what I thought of books and it feels good to flip through and be proud of how many books I’ve read. What makes me less proud is the level of my book reviews.

Here are some of these convoluted reviews. If you would like my opinion on a book, you can post a comment, and if I’ve read it I will give you something similar to what you find below. If I haven’t read it yet, maybe I will read it now! Thanks for your interest.

(Disclaimer: I got this book journal for Christmas 2010 so this is sadly not me writing as a child.)

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery:

“So wonderful … This book and its movie (of which I’ve only seen bits) breathe romance. The book, and Anne herself, are a dream, but touch my emotions like they must be real.”

Bossypants by Tina Fey:

“This book is inspirational, and so exciting. I loved the description of her father, and of her job at the YMCA.”

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville:

“I love the form of the book, and how the book always comments on the form of the book, which is: how can I best tell you about the whalebut the person telling it is very, very tangential.”

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy:

“I like Cormac McCarthy’s writing and though I don’t feel like I relate to it, I’d read more, at least to feel like I do for a moment.”

An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin:

“I loved this book for its use of language, its ability to take me in and display to me with everything it has another world I knew nothing about: art possession in New York City.”

On the Road by Jack Kerouac:

On the Road runs along like I’m dreaming, but then I reread a sentence and realize that no, someone else wrote this down. Someone wrote, “and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear?” on the last page of his novel.”

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce:

“I am happy I have read this book, but I’m not sure I was happy all the while that I was reading this book … I wish I could be more thorough when reading, but alas, I’m not always or ever that way.”

Reading The Age of Innocence

I like to review books before I’m done them, not because I’m a lazy journalist, but because I’m not a journalist, I’m a person reading a book.

The thing is I forget about a book once I’m done it. The book doesn’t lose its impact on me – I think I am probably shaped in one way from every book I read, whether it’s that I learned a new word or I changed the way I live my life – I just lose the book. I put it away or I return it to the library or I lend it to a forgetful friend and I simply don’t think about it for a while (unless I am recommending it or talking about it at Book Club). I certainly don’t ever remember a book’s ending.

I would rather tell you about a book when I am fully immersed in it, when I am breathless about it. And this way I won’t tell you the ending. I will only tell you the middle, which is by far the worst part of any book, and therefore okay that I spoil it for you.

Well, here’s the middle of The Age of Innocence: Tension is rising! Maybe Newland and Ellen will get together! Where the heck is May, Newland’s bride-to-be anyway? Oh yeah, she’s in Florida! Newland just had a pillow fight!

(from Wikipedia – not my cover, but so cute! It looks like she stapled it together.)

Yes, I know: Edith Wharton sounds like a hoot. I say this somewhat sarcastically, somewhat with honest surprise. This is a woman writing in the 1920’s about the 1870s. I haven’t ever heard the word hoot next to Edith Wharton’s name, a name I hear often in articles I breeze by in The New Yorker and other literary sources (sure, I’ll give it to you, what am I talking about?). I thought Edith Wharton was a crotchety lady writing about crotchety people. But no – it’s all about escaping crotchetiness. And Ellen Olenska is awesome!

I am actually so excited to be reading this book right now. I like reading three books at once because I like to be braggy and also because I like to discover the merits of books by seeing how much I want to read one over another.

For example, right now I am also reading The Wealthy Barber Returns, and a light-hearted French novel called Les Yeux Jaunes des Crocodiles. I’ve read enough in French that French requires equivalent brain-using skill as English does to read, so this means that a novel should win out over an old novel I am forcing myself to read through a Pulitzer Challenge, and a non-fiction book about money. All the credit goes to David Chilton from London, Ontario who is hilarious and just feels like my best friend, and also to Edith Wharton, this awesome lady from the 20’s.

My favourite lines so far from The Age of Innocence:

1) I already mentioned the pillow fight, which takes place in a brief re-telling of a party where I couldn’t quite figure out if all these things actually happened in the literal sense. If yes, so fun:

“And finally, about midnight, he assisted in putting a goldfish in one’s visitor’s bed, dressed up a burglar in the bathroom of a nervous aunt, and saw in the small hours by joining in a pillow-fight that ranged from the nurseries to the basement.”

2) Ellen says this to Newland. Ellen is from Europe!:

“Is there nowhere in an American house where one may be by one’s self? You’re so shy, and yet you’re so public. I always feel as if I were in the convent again – or on the stage, before a dreadfully polite audience that never applauds.”

3) And a few things I think apply even today:

“He arrived late at the office, perceived that his doing so made no difference whatever to any one, and was filled with sudden exasperation at the elaborate futility of his life.”

“Winsett was not a journalist by choice. He was a pure man of letters, untimely born in a world that had no need of letters.”

So, if you are following along with me in the Pulitzer Challenge, or in my Governor General’s Award challenge which I have yet to begin according to my rules, then I would recommend choosing this book!

If you are doing the challenge, I would love for you to comment about it, or to tell me which book you are choosing instead of this one. I will continue to write blog posts as though everyone ever is doing this challenge I made up. So congratulations, guys!

PS: I am writing to you from a beautiful converted green house on Denman Island, British Columbia. More on THAT to come.