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.

Start to Finish

I’ve found that if I start something I am often tempted to finish it. So I’ve started to roll balls out in all directions and this way I have balls rolling. Then I have to catch them and finish them. Perhaps this is a great explanation for the anxiety that sits in the pit of my stomach.

(This post was started at 9:40 a.m. in the middle of an education class on Classroom Assessment).

Now I am home this evening and I have this, among other balls rolling. I am rolling in balls I’ve set into motion: I am in school and I have to write a novel and I also have to learn the ukulele, start submitting short stories I haven’t written to publications and I also have to work every Saturday. I wish I could juggle, but it seems I’m playing an imaginary version of that soccer drill where you shoot a lot of balls at a goalie at once and they’re like okay, one at a time.

English: A red Ukulele, manufactured by Makala
English: A red Ukulele, manufactured by Makala (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love multi-tasking. It makes me feel like I’m doing everything. But it rarely allows me to feel like I’ve done anything. A combination of these two things makes me continue it: not feeling like I’ve done anything makes me keep going; feeling like I’m doing everything keeps me wanting more. Multi-tasking is my drug, my generation’s drug.

So what do we do when we become students or teachers or lawyers or writers (or another job, name another job) and all day we feel like we’re so close to doing everything but it still feels like nothing gets done? What do we do when we get busy?

I propose that we keep rolling those balls out. The tasks we set into motion are our hopes and dreams materialized. You know how people keep talking about dream boards? About “The Secret”? This is it: the multi-tasker has found a spiritual home. Instead of embarking on tasks, we write them down, and by writing them down we’ve committed ourselves to them.

I’ve been learning the ukulele, sign language, trying horseback riding and writing excellent short stories for years. They’ve all been written on pieces of paper, little tasks to set to the wind whenever I feel I haven’t yet done enough today. Or whenever I feel like I’m doing too much: I need something else. I don’t necessarily do these things from start to finish, but I do get them started – that way I go back to them to finish.

New Places to Read

My favourite parts about vacations and stays away from home are the new places I find to read. This summer has already blessed me with a hammock that seemed to have been forgotten about over the past few years, and in which I’ve read for many an hour (half-hour mostly).

Now I am somewhere new for a month – a beautiful, cozy but spacious home with wide open doors and wood-paneled walls. It and I sit at the top of a hill of arbutus trees and gardens with a view through the branches of the ocean and Vancouver and the islands off in the distance. I’m so happy here.

I’m so happy that I’m unable to stay in one spot for long, moving instead to discover new spaces – new reading spaces.

luxuryd3sign.tumblr.com via G on Pinterest

I love that sunlight comes into different places in the room at different parts of the day.

I love that couches are good to sit up and lie down on.

I love that some chairs spin and some chairs rock.

I love that outside is sometimes good and sometimes bad; that inside is sometimes boring, sometimes cozy.

I love that reading can be done anywhere but is especially great some places.

I love that reading implies staying in one place for a long period of time.

I love that reading can be done while walking, but barely ever is.

Today I put on Jazz music for the first time.

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 to Write

It makes sense that to write well you have to read well. I read often; I don’t know that I read well. I read to get to the end of books, I read to flag good lines, I read to feel something, so I read fast and I read all-consumingly.

It has come to my attention that I am doing it wrong. I should read to understand my own writing.

As I write, the words and the sentences come to me quickly. The shape of the story doesn’t come as easily. I’ve spent over a year now with my story, but jaw-dropping things will happen frequently throughout my day; my book will call out for enormous, ground-breaking changes to which I will acquiesce with a simple, enlightened, “Oh.”

My book speaks to me in its voice, but not its plot structure. I’m not a chemist. I’m not a calculus major. I am a wordsmith; I smith words. I pile them and rearrange them like this will make a story. Then I try to vocalize the story’s main problem in words (and not written words), and all is lost.

Where is my plot? Can I find it in the books I am currently reading? Can Home by Toni Morrison, and The Outcast by Sadie Jones and Charming Billy by Alice McDermott tell me something about Jillian’s story? Or should I go back to Hemingway. Should I dissect books that have moved me?

I hate it, I hate the structure. But I know it makes the book. I know I read quickly, unstoppably, because I want to get to the end of the story, not the melody of the last line. But how do people do it, the story thing?

read this read this read this!

Jennifer Egan’s short story in The New Yorker, Black Box.” Do you ever get so excited you rip pages out of magazines? And a link to the Twitter feed on which it was serialized (though I do recommend not reading it upside down).

(photo credit “Black Box” in The New Yorker)

I once stole a New Yorker from the gym because of Jack Handey’s “Ideas for Paintings

I read this poem by Etheridge Knight out of an SAT Literature Subject Test:

And I and your eyes
Draw round about a ring of gold
And sing their circle of sparks
And I and your eyes
Hold untold tales and conspire
With moon and sun to shake my soul.
And I and your eyes
If I could hold your hillside smile
Your seashore laughter your lips

Then I
Could stand alone the pain
Of flesh alone the time and space
And steel alone but I am shaken
It has taken your eyes
To move this stone.

Lauren Elkin is writing this: “a book about women and cities called Flâneuse, which challenges the widely-held idea that the flâneuse has never existed because women have not had the same access to the city as men. Part critical meander, part memoir, Flâneuse charts a path through literature and art revealing women’s sometimes liberating, sometimes fraught relationship to the metropolis.” -laurenelkin.com

These pictures:

(photo credit adsoftheworld)