My Imaginary Life as a Book Hermit

Yesterday, the QI Elves (who work for the BBC’s QI trivia show) tweeted a fact that sent me on a wonderful little daydream:

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Tweeted 8 August 2017

What would it be like if I was paid to do nothing but read and no one would ever be around to interrupt? I know book reviewers for major publications have a similar gig, but they’re expected to comment intelligently on what they’ve read. Hermits don’t have to do anything except hang around in a cave or shed or something and can please themselves. If food or money was thrown in along with shelter, I would do very little except read.

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Of course, my hermitage would be cozy and tastefully decorated.

The wonderful part of the daydream ended when I realized that part of what I love about the bookish life so much is talking to other bookish people about what they’ve been reading and to recommend books. I’m sure it wouldn’t be long before I came bursting out of the hermitage in order to run someone down and talk them into reading a particularly good book—which defeats the whole purpose of being a professional recluse. Not only that, but I’m not sure how I would a) find out about books I’d like to read and b) get those books.

My daydreams never last very long because some practical question always pops into my head and ruins the whole thing.

On reflection, I have the best job I think I could ever have. As an academic librarian who buys all the fiction for my library, I get to scour the trade magazines and comb the bookish internet for new books. I spend a lot of time answering tricky questions and running down sources for people (which is also a lot of fun), but I also get opportunities to just talk books with people. On a really good day, I can send people home with a stack of books. Then, at the end of every work day, I get to go home and spend a few hours reading my latest pick. I might not be a hermit, but I have a lot of the perks—like not having to live in a cave.

 

Jane and I

jane_austen_coloured_versionIt’s the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death and the bookish internet has exploded in a frenzy of Austeniana. (See Book Riot for an example.) It cheers me to see how many other readers love Jane and her books. Usually, I let bookish anniversaries pass because I don’t feel the need to mark them—except for taking potshots at James Joyce and Marcel Proust when their dates come up. But when Austen comes up, I special place in my bookish heart starts to glow.

Austen’s novels were the first classics (books published before 1900 that we still read—as I define it) that I genuinely loved and enjoyed reading. With other classics, I would have issues with the language or want to grab a red pencil to edit the book down (I’m looking at you, Charles Dickens). While Austen uses language that strikes us as a little antique, her writing is clear, lively, and funny even after two hundred years of slang and mass communication. The plots hum along at just the right pace. There are never any extraneous details that distract from the tangle of personalities and schemes.

It doesn’t matter that I’ve been reading her books over and over for twenty years; I still find joy in them. Aside from the snark, what I love most about Austen’s novels are the characters. They’re so full of personality and are so well drawn that they feel real from the first page. Their problems are so universal—especially for those of us who are shy and a bit awkward about our feelings—that I always get sucked into the plots and worry even though I know everything will turn out alright in the end.

I suspect that, in addition to the humor and great characters, Austen’s novels are so good is because she was writing for herself (especially with Persuasion). Other books that are held up as Great Literature so often come along with morals or tragedy or with some kind of message written all over the plots, characters, and settings. There are depths in Austen’s novels, but they’re the kind of depths that you explore after the initial reading. We get to have our dessert first, with Austen.

Here’s to another 200 years of reading joy, Jane!

Reviewing, Past and Present

This weekend, I started to clean up my oldest reviews. Images had disappeared. Links broke. It was a mess. I’m glad that so many of them were never posted to Goodreads because I worry that other readers will think I’m an idiot about books. To be honest, a lot of those reviews are still a mess, but since there are more than 10 years’ worth of reviews there’s no way I’m going back to rewrite them. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

As I tweaked my posts, I noticed a few things that have changed over the years:

  1. My reviews have gotten longer. In the early days, I used to write two smallish paragraphs about each book and grouped series entries into single posts. Their brevity and shortness shames me as a former English major. Now I write four or five bigger paragraphs. When I started this blog, I was starting graduate school. My posts started to get longer after I graduated and got a job.
  2. I used to review a lot of series genre fiction. Now I only review the first entry because I’ve found that subsequent entries tend to be more of the same and I don’t have anything new to say other than “pretty good” or “not so good.”
  3. I read a ton now compared to the early days. I used to post only a three to five times a month. Now I feel bad if I don’t post that much in a week.
  4. I’ve broadened the number of genres I read. I’ve even made room in my life for literary fiction (if not the type of literary fiction about adultery that bore the pants off me). I still read the odd series of mysteries and contemporary fantasy, but I’ve pushed myself to read more widely so that I can be a better readers’ advisor. Also, my tastes in fiction have really changed.
  5. I used to post more about being a librarian, but this blog is pretty much all about books now. I put my library stuff on twitter because so much of it is funny things people say.
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Victor-Gabriel Gilbert

I hope that I’ve gotten better as a book reviewer. I’ve certainly gotten wordier. A lot of my earliest reviews make me blush in embarrassment because they’re not much more than “I liked it.” Now I write the kind of posts that I would like to see from other people. I try to give the gist of the premise, a sense of what the book’s about over all, and a final statement of whether I liked the book or not and why.

I’m glad I took a walk down memory lane, even if I was tempted to delete the first two years of this blog.

No Backstage Pass for Me, Thanks

When I was in junior high, I took a typing class (yes I am that old) for reasons I don’t really remember. I’m a fast typer now but, back then, I was hampered by my inability to leave typos and mistakes behind. I would un-type three times as much as I actually submitted later. And I still do this. The reason I bring this up is because the memory of my terribly finicky typing was the first thing that popped into my head when I read that Quarterly was offering bookish folk the opportunity to get an author-annotated hardback every month by subscribing to PageHabit.

I want no part of this.

This might sound unreasonable—and I’m willing to admit that I am being a titch bit unreasonable—but this kind of behind-the-scenes look into authorial intent and the writerly process is something I’ve been avoiding for years. (Ever since I graduated with my BA in Literature, to be honest.) I prefer to form my own opinions about what a book is trying to tell me without the author jumping in to tell me what they meant when they wrote it. And I love to argue with other readers about what a book’s meaning. Having the author’s definitive answer would settle the question too quickly for most readers.

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Richard van Mensvoort

The other reason I don’t want an author-annotated copy of a book is because it strikes me as seeing how the sausage is made. I just want to enjoy the finished product and I learned when I was an English major that analyzing the text or having someone tell you what a book mean took a lot of the magic out of it. Knowing that an author struggled with a particular stretch of dialog or that they moved scenes around would serve as a constant reminder to me that I was reading a bunch of squiggles on paper. The illusion of story is fragile enough; there are too few books that can completely transport me. When I read, I want to ride around on the narrator’s shoulders and forget about work, my illness, the cats getting up to who know’s what in the kitchen, etc. Seeing an author’s notes about how they arranged the squiggles on the page in front of me would throw off my reading groove.

What about you, gentle readers? Would you subscribe to PageHabit?

Reading in the Winter of Our Discontent

Normally, I don’t think too hard about why I read what I do because I enjoy non-cozy murder mysteries, stories about restarting civilizations after plagues, and similar depressing fare. Oh I can point to my enjoyment of intellectual and ethical puzzles, but it doesn’t quite absolve me of my love of dark novels*. But a recent essay by Jill Lepore for The New Yorker, “A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction,” got me to wondering about why readers—not just me—have made dystopian novels bestsellers for decades.

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Der alte Bücherkasten, by Friedrich Frotzel

Lepore begins with a series of plot synopses that made me realize just how dark authors have gotten in catering to our tastes for fucked up societies. Then she introduces one of her theories about why dystopias have proliferated, writing “Dystopias follow utopias the way thunder follows lightning. This year, the thunder is roaring.” It’s hard to argue with this. I’ve turned to Wodehouse and Ben Aaronovitch to cheer myself up since the inauguration because so many things have gone awry in my country. (But that’s another blog entirely.) If I could find a utopian novel to read (they’re increasingly rare, as Lepore points out), I know that reading it would make me more depressed about politics than the actual news. Reading a utopian novel now would probably just highlight how far things have gone astray from how I had hoped. Reading dystopias is depressing, sure, but they perversely cheer me up because at least things aren’t that bad.

So far, I can agree with Lepore that we’ve lost something by not encouraging more authors to write about how the future can be something wonderful to look forward to. But then she makes this statement in the last paragraph:

Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it’s become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness. It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one. It nurses grievances and indulges resentments; it doesn’t call for courage; it finds that cowardice suffices. Its only admonition is: Despair more.

I can’t agree with this. In addition to reassuring me that at least things are that bad, dystopias remind me of the power of human endurance and that the bad times don’t last forever (though they can last an awfully long time). It’s possible that she’s reading even darker dystopias than I have, but Lepore cites The Hunger Games—which I really enjoyed because the protagonist Katniss Everdeen embodied the virtues of endurance and justice. The message I got from Katniss’ story was not that life is suffering and government is cruel and oppressive. The message I got was that, when things are not right, you fight back as hard as you can while keeping your eyes open for cynical manipulation or destructive vengeance.

Utopias make for hopeful reading, but I notice that most (if not all) of them skip over the struggles it would take to arrive in the promised land of post-scarcity and equality. Dystopias are all about struggle and sorrow and suffering and, right now, I think we need to be reminded that the fight for a future utopia is always hard but worthwhile and absolutely necessary.

But if you need a break from the struggle, it’s totally okay to go read Wodehouse** for a bit.


* This makes recommending books to people at my library tricky because so many of them tell me they’re looking for something light and fun.
** Or your favorite comfort read. I’ll even help you find something to read.

Talking Books with Strangers

The most awkward bookish conversations I have are always with strangers who ask, as soon as they find out I’m a librarian, what my favorite book is or what I like to read. Every time this happens, my mind immediately goes blank. When I tweeted about this yesterday, I got some sympathy from my fellow book dragons. Finding out that I’m not the only one this happens to makes me feel better, but I wish I could respond to these questions with something more intelligent than, “Um…Well, I read a lot.”

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Marta Altés

The reason I blank out when I get asked by people I don’t know about my reading habits is that all of the possible answers I could give create a logjam on the way to my mouth. I read a lot. Unless I’m sick or have family obligations, I can read up to five books a week. No one apart from another book dragon wants to hear about all that and I know that strangers who ask the question are just trying to make conversation to pass the time. They are not prepared for the amount of bookish talk I can bring.

After the logjam, I start to overthink the whole thing and try to think of the most socially acceptable book to talk about. Which of the many books I’ve read recently should I tell this person about? The incredibly grim book about a horror movie? The book where women’s jaws rot because of radium? One of the many books about the Holocaust I’ve read? I know I’m weird, but I don’t want other people to know that about me right off the bat. I like to ease people into my bookishness and weirdness.

When I talk books with fellow readers, they understand that I can’t just pick one book or genre to talk about. I can pick a book or a genre to start with, after much mental struggle, but one book or genre can’t sum up who I am as a reader. It would be quicker to ask me what I don’t read (contemporary romance, true crime, hard science fiction, literary fiction about professors having affairs with students) or about a book I hated (The Great Gatsby—come fight me).

Yesterday, when a nurse asked me what I like to read, she made it easier for me by saying she’s a reader who’s looking for new books to read. Once the usual logjam cleared, the floodgates opened and we happily chatted about books for the rest of my appointment in between the medical stuff.

What Reading Has Taught Me

I spend a good chunk of yesterday on Twitter, following the developments of the anti-refugee executive order signed by Trump—the protests, the lawyers sitting on the floor filing habeas briefs pro bono, the temporary stays ordered by Judges Donnelly and Brinkema. I retweeted news, contact numbers, recommendations to donate to groups fighting for refugees, and voicing my anger, sadness, and embarrassment at the actions of the government that claims to represent me. This is not a political blog and I’m not usually a political person. I don’t intend to turn this blog into another angry voice on the Internet. But I also don’t want my fellow readers to think that I am carrying on link normal. Though I am limited in what I can do, I am raising my voice against injustice.

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From Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi

Part of this is because my parents raised me right. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!) And part of this is because I am a reader. The books I read have given me glimpses into the lives of people of color, LGBTQ people, refugees, victims of crime, heroes and heroines, immigrants, and more. These glimpses have helped me learn to see the world from more than one perspective and be empathetic.

The news just this week has been so awful and outrageous (in the sense that it outraged me) that it’s tempting to disappear into fiction. Fiction is a splendid retreat from the world. But, as Jayson Flores recommends at The Mary Sue, we should not retreat into books or movies or other distractions. Readers can’t forget about the real world when events demand loud, decisive action. The stories we’ve read about all those different kinds of people should have taught us to be better than that.

I’ve been thinking more and more about Atticus Finch lately. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus defends a black man who was accused of raping a white woman. His defense shows the case to be a racist frame up. At one point, Atticus stands outside the jailhouse to defend his client from the possibility of being lynched by the townspeople. Atticus used his privilege as a white man to do the right thing. He did not stand aside because he wasn’t black or poor or because there was a certain amount of risk in taking on the job. But he stood up for his belief in justice. His bravery made a huge impression on me when I first read To Kill a Mockingbird. I consider Mockingbird to be one of the books that helped form me as a person and a reader.

I intend to use whatever privilege I have to resist the un-American and unconstitutional actions of the current president for as long as I have to.

A reader resolves, year 4

This year’s resolutions are a mix of challenge and reward:

  1. Challenge: I will read at least one work of nonfiction each month.
  2. Reward: I will read at least one book written before 1900 each month.

I thought about adding one of the myriad reading challenges but, due to health issues, I need to take it easy on myself for at least the first six months of the year. (Mostly, I don’t want to end up with a challenge that requires me to read poetry.) I’d rather let my mood dictate what I read for the next while.

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Gayle Kabaker

Nonfiction is on this year’s resolution list because I keep running across reviews for books on topics that sound utterly fascinating. John McWhorter has two new books out that I haven’t gotten to yet and someone just wrote a history of the Nazi regime on drugs. Plus, there are books that people have been talking about on the bookish internet for ages that I really want to tackle, like The Emperor of All Maladies. The only downside is for my friends and family, who will be assailed with random trivia about any number of weird events and phenomena over the next twelve months.

The classics are back on the list because I realized that I miss reading Victorian literature after a while. I love the rich language and the subtle jabs of writers like Austen and Dickens about their characters. There’s more to it, but I’m not entirely sure why I’m drawn to these books so much. Perhaps I’ll figure that out by the end of the year.

If you’ve also made reading resolutions, let me know in the comments. Happy reading, everyone!

Resolution reflections

Since I’m 200 pages into Little Dorrit (800+ pages in total) this seemed like a dandy time to see how I measured up to this year’s reading resolutions. To sum up, I had two resolutions this year. First, I would read down my to-read list. Second, I would re-read a book I own. I regret to say that I only managed to achieve one of my goals by fudging; I completely blew the second goal.

Until this year, my to-read list has hovered around 150 books. It’s been up over 200 in the past, but 150 or so usual. I would read books from the list, so it wasn’t entirely an aspirational fantasy. The problem is that I read so many book reviews to get ideas of titles to buy for my library that I would add one more titles for every one I took off. I never got ahead. So I set myself the goal of reading three books from the list each month. I’ve been pretty good about following this goal…I just still had the problem of adding more books to the list than I was reading. It didn’t look like I was making any progress. So I looked over the list a couple of times and started taking things off the list. I culled:

  1. Books that probably sounded interesting at the time but now made me wonder what I hell I was thinking.
  2. Books that were aspirational fantasies such as experimental fiction.
  3. Books that had been on the list for ages that I still hadn’t read them. I finally faced up to the fact that I just wasn’t going to read them.

The to-read list now sits at 87 titles. This is the first time since I joined Goodreads that the list has been under 100 titles.

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Elena Samokysh-Sudovskaya

I completely failed at the second goal. The books I really wanted to re-read are already blogged here, so I would have had to slow down my review pacing and that turned out to be harder than I realized. Then there were a couple of months were I got bogged down with new titles that I needed to review before they were published. Once you skip a month or two, it gets very easy to keep skipping.

I haven’t entirely decided on my goals for 2017. I want to continue my good work whittling down the to-read list. I also want to return to reading classics. Several of my friends have given me crap about reading Little Dorrit (“A book about debtors in prison? How cheery!”), but I’ve missed the rich vocabulary of older literature. Other than that, I have no idea what I will challenge myself with next year.

I hate you (in fiction)

There have been a lot of interruptions in my reading lately. First, there was the sinusitis. Then, there was the election. Now, there’s Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White and a library conference. Until I finish that almost 900 page honker, I won’t be able to post reviews. In the meantime, though, I have bookish thoughts for you all. This little rant is inspired by the behemoth I am currently reading.

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Joan Llimona i Bruguera

The Crimson Petal and the White begins with a literary device that I loathe: the second person perspective. The narrator plays at being Virgil, guiding “You” through the dank, insalubrious streets of 1870s London. This device is supposed to provide immediacy by trying to get readers to imagine themselves inside the story as observers, even actors in some stories. This has never worked for me. Instead of immersing me in the story, all the second person does is constantly remind me that I’m looking at letters on a page and, in the words of Katie Oldham, “vividly hallucinate” for “hours on end.”

Once I got through the first few chapters of The Crimson Petal and the White, the Virgilian narrator cooled it with the second person and I was finally able to sink into the novel. (The fact that I was on a plane for three hours also turned out to be wonderful for my concentration.) When I had some time yesterday to reflect on my dislike-then-actually-quite-enjoy reaction to this book so far, I realized that I much prefer it when I get to recreate the setting in my own head, choosing what to pay attention to or ignore myself rather than being told by a narrator. The narrator does pop up later in the book but only to deliver snarky asides that had me snorting at inappropriate moments.

The other issue I have with the second person is that, with a few exceptions like The Crimson Petal and the White, the only time I see this device cropping up is in literary fiction or in stories written by immature authors. (By immature I mean they haven’t really grown into their craft.) Second person is tough to pull off, I’m told, though I’ve yet to see it used successfully. Like purple prose, second person perspective makes me think a writer is more interested in literary pyrotechnics than in telling a good story.

Am I being too hard on second person? It’s possible I’m judging it too harshly because I much prefer to learn about a character’s psychology or a setting than be an actor in a story myself. I really don’t like literary techniques that remind me I’m reading. It always feels like I’m being evicted from a book when I run across something like the second person, narrators breaking the fourth wall (unless it’s metafiction, but then I’m prepared), or clumsy world-building. I like to be immersed in a fictional world, but only if I do the heavy mental lifting myself. That way, the story becomes uniquely mine. The second person just screws that up for me.