But What Does It All Mean?

I always begin my workshops for upper division English students with an exercise to help them see how many things they might write about and generate keywords. Using whatever text they’ve just finished in class, I ask them what it was about. And there is always an embarrassing pause and the professor gets hilariously annoyed with their students. After the pause, the students rally and come up with a good list of topics and keywords. I worked with a Shakespeare class yesterday and, as I was scribbling words up on the whiteboard, I got to thinking about how hard it can be to sum up something like Richard IIIThe Handmaid’s Tale, etc. in short phrases and single words.

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Géza Vörös

Summing up books in short phrases and words is something I do all the time, and something that I see book reviewers write about all the time. It’s the mirror of what I imagine authors have to do when they pitch their ideas to agents and publishers. We take a long piece of prose that the author has created and boil it all back down to the idea that might have sparked the story in the first place. Well, at least, we boil it back do to the idea we think was the spark. There might be some disagreement with the author. (I’m looking at you, Ray Bradbury.) English majors and literary critics do this because they want to get at the heart of what a story is about. Book reviewers and recommenders do it because it seems to be the best way to hook a potential reader.

The problem (if you can really call it a problem) is that, just as my students discover while we fill up a white board with ideas, themes, and issues, texts are never about just one thing. For a really great book, it’s probably not fair to even try. There might be a major theme, but a quick look below the surface of a story will find all sorts of interesting things to think about. At least, it will in a good book.

I can understand why those English majors pause when I ask them what a text is about. They’re learning how to summarize thousands of words down to something they can type into a database. Not only do they need to do this to find research on whatever interests them about literature, but I think they also need this skill in order to share the meaning of stories with others. Summarizing is shorthand for talking about books. Without summarizing, the only way to talk about what Richard III and The Handmaid’s Tale have to tell us is to read them (which one should do anyway) and there are so many books out there and so little time!

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The scariest books I’ve ever read…

The books that scare me most aren’t the most obviously scary. In fact, few of them are ever classified as horror novels and I have no idea if other readers will find these books as terrifying as I do. In the spirit of the season, here are some books that scared the crap out of me:

149267The Stand, by Stephen King

I first read The Stand on a road trip through the mostly empty (except for farms) fields of the Great Plains. I got so freaked out by this book—the first pandemic book I’d ever read—that I had to switch between it and a volume of Calvin and Hobbes so my brain wouldn’t combust. In spite of this, I’ve re-read The Stand a couple of times since that first reading.

Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge

Vinge’s version of a future in which all information is commodified scared the spit out of me because a) it seemed entirely plausible and b) the consequences of destroying multiple independent sources of information meant that “reality” as we know it could be manipulated by whoever “owned” the information.

Winter, by Rod Rees

Imagine being trapped in a pocket universe populated by the most violent and unstable of history’s villains. Just thinking about this book makes me uneasy.

Bitter Seeds, by Ian Tregillis

This unusual thriller got me because one of the Nazi antagonists was so good at predicting the future that the protagonists’ plans were already worked into her plans. How do you defeat someone like that?

6288The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

I don’t think I’ve ever read a bleaker book than this. The Road scared me because there was no possibility of rescue but so very many ways of dying horribly.

Reading a genuinely scary book is always an immersive experience for me. For one reason or another I get sucked in and can’t let go until the catharsis of the finale. Either it’s the characters or the plot or the premise, but I just have to know how it all turns out. Then, once I’m done, I have to find a way to deal with the emotional aftermath. In the case of these particular books, I’m clearly still working on that.

The Problem with Hype; Or, I refuse to take your word for it

After many years, I think I’ve finally tuned into the right trade publications and book blogs to keep myself supplied with reviews and recommendations for books I will genuinely enjoy. And yet, I still shy away from personally reading books that get a lot of buzz. I’ve had this curious aversion for a while. It wasn’t until Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban came out that I started reading the series. The only conclusion that I can come up with is that I read a buzzy book that turned out to be so awful I’ve blocked it from my memory.

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Mosè Bianchi

I suspect that the problem (apart from my book trauma theory) is that expectations play a huge part in how I approach books. I expect books to follow or creatively break genre barriers. I expect literary books to devote a lot of time and beautiful language to exploring emotions we don’t have words for in English. And if I learn that there’s a twist, there better damn well be a great twist. When a book fails to live up to expectations, I end up disliking the book even more than I might have without all the hype in the first place. Being a book reviewer, I strive to judge books on their own merits and not my inflated expectations.

I clearly don’t worry about fear of missing out, but I am competitive about discovering books. This is as big a problem for hype-avoidance as managing my expectations. If I wait long enough, I feel like I’m discovering a book on my own instead of following the buzz.

The only thing that gets me over my avoidance of hyped books is time, lots of time. It took me thirteen years to read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I might be making progress; I got around to Homegoing after only a year. I have no problem being behind the curve. Once enough time has elapsed and I’m no longer surrounded by people talking about how great the book is, only then do I feel like I can give the book a fair shake.

Eulogy for Lost Books

In the course of doing something incredibly nerdy*, I discovered that two of my books had gone missing. I know that I didn’t weed them. I think I loaned them to people, but it’s been so long that I have no idea who I lent them to. As far as I know, I’ve only ever lost three books. (This does not include books that I’ve destroyed by reading them too hard or left out in the rain**.) The two books I lost are ones I mourn. Nancy Turner’s These is My Words is one of my absolute favorite books. The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink, was full of my margin notes from two semesters of co-teaching an upper division class.

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Nicolaas van der Waay

I had my copy of These is My Words for years. I read it over and over, falling in love with the characters as they fell in love with each other. These is My Words is one of my favorite comfort reads, even though the ending still makes me tear up. Now it’s a book that I recommend to a lot of readers because it ticks so many boxes: historical fiction, love story without being romance, strong female protagonist, humor, pathos. I read it with my book group last summer (I think) and I was thrilled when most of the group loved it. (The only holdout listened to it as an audiobook and the narrator bugged her.) Every time someone talks to me about this book after I’ve talked them into reading it, I get a glow from the feeling of sharing a beloved book.

All that said, I can easily replace These is My Words. What I can’t replace is my copy of The Reader. The last two times I read it, cover to cover, I filled the margins with notes about things I wanted to point out to students or prod myself to look deeper with a critical eye. I underlined passages I thought the class should talk about. During class, I would add more notes based on discussion and things that my brilliant colleague would say. When I buy a new copy, I’ll never remember what I scribbled in the margins. The idea of lost knowledge bothers me deeply, especially with my copy of The Reader. I’ve changed my mind twice about what I think the book is about and what I think of the narrator. My copy is probably with a student. I have a vague memory of loaning it to a student; they clearly never brought it back.

I wonder where these books are, but not in the sense of their physical locations. They might be stuffed at the back of someones shelves or shoved under a bed. It might be too much to hope that These is My Words is loved by its new owner or that the student who absconded with my copy of The Reader is adding new notes in the margins, calling me an idiot because they found a new way to interpret some scene or other.

Sometimes there is an upside to losing a book. When I replaced my copy of The Tsar of Love and Techno, I was actually sent a signed hard cover. Anthony Marra is one of my favorite contemporary writers, so I’m thrilled to own a book he signed.


* Retagging my book collection on LibraryThing.
** I’ve only lost one book this way.

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.