Tag Archives: reading

Books, Books, Books!

A logical follow-up to last week’s post about libraries is have one celebrating books. Here is a bit of verse by Elizabeth Barrett Browning – I quoted her once before in ‘From Recluse to Romance,’ which was part of my Real-life Romance series. I haven’t actually read much of her work, because of my somewhat ambivalent attitude to poetry in general, but I do like a lot of her verse than I have read. So here is a chunk so you all can decide what you think too!

Books, books, books!
I had found the secret of a garret room
Piled high with cases in my father’s name;
Piled high, packed large,—where, creeping in and out
Among the giant fossils of my past,
Like some small nimble mouse between the ribs
Of a mastodon, I nibbled here and there
At this or that box, pulling through the gap,
In heats of terror, haste, victorious joy,
The first book first. And how I felt it beat
Under my pillow, in the morning’s dark,
An hour before the sun would let me read!
My books!
At last, because the time was ripe,
I chanced upon the poets.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh (1856), Book I, line 830.

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Oh, Libraries!

The Bookworm, by Carl Spitzweg {PD}

The Bookworm, by Carl Spitzweg {PD}

“Human beings can lose their lives in libraries. They ought to be warned.”

Saul Bellow, in “Him with His Foot in His Mouth”, from Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories (1984)

I once made an acquaintance with a man who had the most amazing library. It wasn’t the biggest library I had even seen – just several shelves lined up side-by-side, in fact – but it had every book I wanted to read or thought I should read someday. Every classic that ought to be in one’s library was there. It was as well-selected and tasteful as I dream my library should be, but isn’t (yet).

But time, unfortunately, was short. I found myself jumping from classic novel to classic novel, reading the first chapter of each before going on to the next. If I had had the time, I certainly could’ve lost my life in those shelves. Instead, I ended up cramming as many snatches of ‘great literature’ from as many different authors as possible. The first chapter of Brave New World, of Atlas Shrugged, of The Great Divorce, and on and on… I may never finish pick up any of these books again, and certainly have not read enough of them to decide if they should be counted as ‘great literature’ or not. But I discovered the thrill a great library can give you.

What about you – what is the most amazing library you have set foot in?

(This post contains affiliate links)

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The Dangerous Business of Recommending Novels

And the Dangerous Business of Reading Recommendations

“Please read these books and tell me what you think”
(Library books, by CCAC North Library. Licensed under Creative Common Attribution 2.0 Generic)

Someone lends you a book, telling you it’s “fantastic,” “will change your life forever,” or that you “have to read it.” You take and swear you’ll read it. Then it sits on your bookshelf for the next twelve months, while you stare at it and promise yourself you will read it when you have time.

Why is it sometimes so hard to read books that people recommend to you?

I find this reaction very strange, but I do it myself. Someone can describe a book and it might sounds exactly what I’d be interested in, but I still put off reading it. Maybe I’m scared it can never measure up to my hopes. Maybe I’m not one hundred percent positive that whoever recommended it to me actually understands what I like. Or maybe I’d just prefer to have the thrill of discovery for myself. But still, it’s hard enough to find good books, so you’d think it would help to have books recommended to me. And it is nice. I do enjoy most of what people give me, once I convince myself to actually read it. I can think of three possible reasons for this reaction though:

1.) We’ve all had someone tell us we’ll “love” something, but then we don’t. It’s like when a joke is supposed to be “hysterical,” but once someone actually tells the joke, it just falls flat. By raising expectations beforehand, which is kind of part of recommending a book (after all, who says, “this book isn’t all that great, but you have to read it?”), you also risk that the book won’t live up to your description. And everyone’s reaction to books does tend to be personal. Sometimes you just aren’t in the mood for a happy book when you read it, so what came off as “sweet and charming” to your friends, comes off as “syrupy” to you.

So, basically, you’re afraid the book can’t possibly be as good as you were told, so you put off reading it rather than tell your friend your real opinion of it.

2.) Or, possibly, you’re afraid your friends don’t know you as well as they think they do. Maybe you’ve got a friend that gushes over any work with a boy and girl falling in love as “soooooooooo romantic!” or “soooooooooooo suspenseful!” But to you, the books are just mushy or terribly cliché. Someone will tell you there’s no way you could not love Twilight. You like romance novels, right, and Twilight is a full of romance! So you’re pretty hesitant to believe every book people tell you is perfect for you, actually is.

3.) Or maybe you just feel contrary. I don’t know if it’s just me who does this, but if someone tells me I’ll love something, I always wonder how do you know? No one likes to feel like their reactions are predictable and obvious (though maybe mine are). Or if someone tells me a book will change my life, I get nervous and wonder if I want my life to change (or I get cynical and think every book gets called life-changing, when very few actually are). It’s probably a similar reaction to being told you have to read a book for English class – it might be the greatest novel ever, but because it’s assigned you just know you’ll hate it. Case in point, I didn’t take the opportunity to re-read Persuasion when it was assigned in university, relying instead on my very hazy memory of the plot, despite the fact the book is Jane Austen. I still dislike Lord of the Flies and The Chrysalids, because I was made to read them in school. And when someone tells you a book is a “classic” – the word “classic” can mean so many different things! It could be a potboiler, like Dracula, or a depressing assessment of humanity, like Lord of the Flies. I always stubbornly think, “classic doesn’t necessarily mean good.”

By no means does this post mean to stop recommending me books! I love books, always will. I just want to analyze my reluctance to start new books for a moment, when I usually enjoy almost anything once I start reading. But I have had a mixed bag with some recommendations, from the library trying to convince me every fantasy book was “Hotter than Potter” when very few were (though I did stumble upon Artemis Fowl this way), to the one elementary teacher who kept throwing these ancient, ugly books at me that I enjoyed almost every time I read them (“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” he said, and he was right). I guess I just need to spend a bit of time in anticipation and nervousness before I really plunge into something. And so my stack of books-to-read might grow ever higher, but at least I do slowly read them.

Do you have the same problem when people recommend books to you? Why do you think people would be reluctant to start reading a book recommended to them?

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I Need to Read More Books

If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you’ve probably started to see a pattern. I know I have, from writing it. The same books keep coming up over and over. If you were to take a guess at which books exactly were my favourite, what would you come up with? Say Lord of the Rings, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Pride and Prejudice, and you’d be pretty close.

Now, these keep coming up partly because they made a book impact on me, and I want to know why I classify some books as “good” and some books as “horrible.” But at some point the well is going to start getting a little dry. There’s a chance all you readers out there are going to start predicting, “She’s talking about romance again? I bet the example will be Pride and Prejudice,” or, “Is the topic fantasy? Lord of the Rings, of course!”

The obvious solution for this is for me to read more good books.

And here we come upon the realization that has slowly been dawning on me for the last couple months. I don’t read near as many books as I used to!

Part of the reason for this is because in highschool I was lucky (or unlucky) enough to have a forty-five minute long bus-ride to school, so I taught myself to read on the bus without feeling nauseated. This meant I had time to read all kinds of books that maybe I wouldn’t have otherwise–All Quiet on the Western Front (which I found gory but hugely insightful into the misery of war), Hiroshima (similarly gory, like All Quiet on the Western Front, but about how people felt after the atom bomb dropped on Hiroschima), The Old Man and the Sea (which I didn’t entirely understand) and The Three Musketeers (which I hardly remember, and should re-read sometime). I may not have read these books otherwise, because they don’t exactly fall into my usual genres of romance and fantasy, as you may have noticed. In university, I just don’t have as much time. Of course, I get to read lovely non-fiction books such as Imposing Decency and Revolutionizing the Sciences, which probably educate my brain too. But after reading assigned pages of somewhat dry material, my brain is too tired to read novels for fun.

The other up-side to being in highschool (and there’s not too many of these) is that you’re assigned books to read in English. Now that I’m done all my English classes for my university degree, no one is forcing me to read certain bits of fiction. Highschool is the reason I read The Great Gatsby, most of the Shakespeare I’ve read, The Chrysalids (which I hated) and Lord of the Flies (which I also hated, but I was forced to read it over summer vacation). Sometimes being forced to read stuff means you at least know what pop culture is referencing when they parody it–pig’s head on a stick, anyone?

I hope this is not part of growing up. I remember, as a kid, hearing my mum complain about never having time to read, and I used to wonder how anyone didn’t have time to read. Books had such a magnetic draw for me that I had to make time to read them, or go crazy. Now I understand a bit better about how sometimes, no matter how much you want to do something, you just can’t fit it into your schedule.

For example, I started re-reading The Hobbit, and it’s taking me a month. I think it took me a day the first time I read it. And the last ‘classic’ I started, Cyrano de Bergerac (on the recommendation of some of my lovely visitors here), I haven’t finished yet. But I will. I will make time to read.

Because if I’m reading a good book, I find it improves my writing immensely. It seems to turns on that creative side of my brain. That’s why finding and thinking about good books is so important to me. That, and getting another perspective on how one can view life. I do hope I do not reach a point where I am perpetually too busy to devote myself to challenging stuff.  

How about you – do you think you read less than you used to? What books have you been meaning to read, and haven’t got around to?

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Why You Read, Why I Write:

The Reader. {{PD-US}}

“To some degree, we thrust ourselves into the hands of a storyteller, trusting that he will deliver us safely from a daydream that swiftly turns into a nightmare.” (The Passive Voice, quoting David Farland)

What should stories do – teach us something about reality, or allow us to escape from reality? Those that are more literary scoff at clichéd, formulaic endings, yet readers still snatch them up. What exactly is it we (since I include myself under ‘readers’) are looking for in stories? Not something unexpected, or you’d think romantic comedies would go out of business.

Obviously, all writers would like to know why readers read. It’s like the magic formula for turning lead (your writing) into gold (money). That’s why this particular post from The Passive Voice (summarizing from David Farland) intrigued me. “Why People Read.” Hmmm, wouldn’t we all like to know?

One of Farland’s main ideas is that reading is some sort of emotional catharsis that enables us to deal with the unpredictability and painfulness of life. See the above quote – we put ourselves through the emotional experiences of characters because we trust the authors. (Could actually explain why I feel cheated when authors put their characters through torment, and then never rescue them at the end.) We trust the author to resolve the situation in a way that real life almost never does:

“In short, those “trashy” genre stories that my writing teachers didn’t want me to read—the romances, fantasy, westerns, and so on – sell so well precisely because the audience does know within certain parameters how the story will end.” (quoting Farland again). We trust the authors to follow the script.

Which brings me to why I write. I think one of the reasons (and not the only one, mind you) is because through writing I can control things. Things will turn out how they should, rather than not making sense, like life does. I have far more time to think about each step, measure my words, and plot out the consequences of every possibility. When was the last time life allowed you to do that?

We all have to live in the real world. And I do, despite escaping into imaginary ones on a regular basis. But we all have different ways to cope with whatever life throws at us.

 

What about you – why do you read?

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A Thought From C.S. Lewis – On Reading the Classics

C.S. Lewis, by Paulina D. All rights reserved.

“It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”

         – C.S. Lewis (full text found here)

Very useful rule, C.S. Lewis, but I fail miserably at it. I comfort myself with the idea that “when I have more time” I will improve my reading habits.

 Lewis’s argument is:

– Classics are classics for a reason. Who knows if anyone will be reading Twilight in two hundred years?

– Old books help correct the blind spots we modern people don’t realize we have.

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The Lesser Known Works of the Better Known Writers

Or, Wait–She Wrote That?

Lucy Maud Montgomery, from wikimedia commons

 Sometimes an author is so good you want to read everything they wrote–so you go out and read every single thing on their list of publications. You know, like when you finish Lord of the Rings and go out and find The Silmarillion (somewhat of an interesting surprise for people!) Sometimes you find more gems, and sometimes you find out why only one book of theirs is famous. Here’s a couple of interesting lesser known works:

 L.M Montgomery – Blue Castle

I had to blog about a Canadian author at some point because–well, I am Canadian. And I am a fan of L.M Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables being her best known work). She actually wrote at least twenty-one different novels, so there’s lots of her work to choose from. But Blue Castle is one of her few works of adult fiction. It wasn’t actually that successful during her life, since if you read it it’s more of a fairytale than your typical “adult fiction,” as well as being based on the conventional plot of “what happens when a shy, picked-on girl finds out she has terminal heart disease?” All the same, I absolutely enjoyed it. I find some of L.M Montgomery’s work somewhat uneven–I can’t get into Emily of New Moon or Pat of Silver Bush–but despite any faults of Blue Castle, I found myself cheering for Valancy Stirling and hoping things worked out somehow in the end.

 Jane Austen – Lady Susan

Most of Jane Austen’s work is pretty well known. The problem is she only wrote six novels, so you get through them pretty fast. Well, imagine how happy I was to find she’d completed this novella, Lady Susan, as well! It’s written in “epistolary novel” form, which means the story is told through the characters writing letters to each other. And it’s highly amusing! Lady Susan is an unscrupulous woman who sinks her claws into the very man who swore he’d never be caught by her … and then what happens? My only disappointment with this novella was how abrupt the ending was. I felt Austen could’ve gone on longer and made it a full novel, instead of quickly tacking a conclusion on the events. But for the extra bit of Austen enjoyment I got out of it, it’s worth it. (Plus, it’s actually finished, which is more than can be said for The Watsons and Sandition).

UPDATE: Lady Susan was made into a movie in 2016, starring Kate Beckinsale! It’s retitled ‘Love and Friendship’ and I absolutely loved it. I think it really catches the spirit of the novella.


So… don’t know what to read? (How can you not, after I gave you that nice chart of fantasy novels last week? But maybe fantasy’s not your thing.) Find an author you really enjoyed, and see what else they wrote. Or read one of the above–I enjoyed them. What other lesser known works have you read that you’d recommend?

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The Pleasures of Re-Reading

Reading in bed, by Artotem. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution LIcense 2.0

Or, Surprise! I Actually Like This Book

Some novels can stand up to the pressures of being re-read over and over – Lord of the Rings, Howl’s Moving Castle, Pride and Prejudice – and get better and better each time I read them. To come back to them is like finding a comfortable old friend, to pay more attention to sections I merely skimmed over before, or to open my eyes wider and wider to the genius of the author. Other novels fail this test miserably. Still others that don’t seem all that great on their first reading actually improve once you’ve read them multiple times. I’m not sure why that is. Either sometimes the story benefits because I know exactly what the plot is and where the author is trying to go, or somehow all the little annoyances get less annoying the more I read them. Anyway, here are a couple of novels I’ve experienced this with – which just goes to show that not judging on first impressions extends to more than just not judging a book by its cover!

Emma, by Jane Austen:
You probably think I’m the biggest fan of this book, especially after posting that “missing chapter” on this blog last Saturday. Actually, for the longest time I never understood why so many fans of Austen’s work liked this book so much. Not that I thought it was exactly lesser quality of prose than anything else she wrote, but she seemed to demonstrate rather too well how little went on in the life of a well-bred young lady in that time period – how closed and confined her society really was. All Emma does is drive into town, or visit with her neighbours, or “cheer” her father’s spirits. I had nothing against the general plot, but I thought the author could’ve cut out some long passages of “nothing happens.”
Here is an example of what I mean by a book being better when you know where the author is going. The first read-through you are completely guided by Emma. But all those long passages of “nothing happens” are liberally sprinkled with clues that point exactly to the ending, and you have to be as blind as Emma to miss them. It is a joy to read them over and figure out what they all mean. Frank Churchill is not fixing Mrs. Bates’ spectacles merely out of the goodness of his heart!
I have to admit, it took me at least three read-throughs to appreciate this one, but now it has gone up my hierarchy of Jane Austen’s novels. All I can say is – worth the effort.

Good Wives, by Louisa May Alcott: 
This is the sequel to Little Women, and is in fact packaged in the same volume as Little Women in most editions. I actually read it long after I read Little Women, and thought it far weaker than Little Women, Little Men, or Jo’s Boys. Again, it took me three times reading it to appreciate it on its own.
*Spoilers ahead*   Surprisingly, it was not the much complained about fact that Jo does not marry Laurie that bugged me about this book. I don’t really mind that Laurie marries Amy instead. I never saw it coming, but I find their relationship relatively sensible. Professor Bhaer came way out of left field though, and I could not see him as a romantic interest (in fact, I still see him as a better husband and father than a romantic interest – not all good husbands make good heroes of romance novels, remember that!) And I had no idea why Jo went off with him to start a school, since to my younger self “starting a school” was unheard of – all schools I knew were institutions and not run by random individuals. In fact, probably most of my displeasure with the book came from reading Little Women when I was so much younger – I accepted Jo and Laurie as just good friends, and Jo as rather motherly towards him, and to see them hurting each other as a result of misplaced romance was just weird. And Beth dies, when the high point of Little Women is that she lives after her illness. And so on. I had to get over my preconceptions to fully enjoy it. And once I did, my opinion of it rose.

Two examples are probably enough for now. There’s plenty more books I have NOT been able to get into, despite the number of times I re-read them (I could never get into Emily of New Moon, despite loving the Anne of Green Gables series). Who knows, maybe I just have to re-read them a few more times.
What about you? What are your favourite books to re-read, and has re-reading a book ever changed your mind about it?

This post comes to you on Friday, not Thursday, which I think will become the regular schedule for this semester. Class-wise, it works much better for the next couple months. 

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It’s the Readers’ Fault! Why Bad Writing is Called Good

OR: Don’t Blame Them, They Didn’t Notice the Difference Anyway

page 61, by D’Arcy Norman. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Authors agonize over metaphors. They might spend ages debating word choice. They careful revise their sentence structure. What would you say if someone told you readers rarely notice this kind of thing anyway?

I’m a poor student, and like many a poor student I participate in psych research studies in exchange for meagre bits of cash. The last one I attended was rather intriguing – they were looking at whether readers actually remembered the specific word choice of the author, or if all those lovingly chosen metaphors just slipped from their memory moments after reading it.

This study tested this by having us read a story, and then giving up examples of sentences that could’ve been in the story. We had to say whether the words were exactly the same as in the story, probably the same, probably not the same, or not the same at all. I am not confident I answered them all correctly.

Now, this wasn’t about whether the reader forgot the whole story. Readers usually remember ‘how the story goes,’ and its general meaning for quite awhile. But, these researchers pointed out, the difference between “exceptional examples of literature and more mundane prose”* is the sentence structure. There are many stories dealing with themes of love, death etc., but one author’s writing is considered superior to another’s because of the wording. It is the metaphors, the language, and the word choice that elevates a good story to a great one. Except – readers don’t even notice these things on their first read-through! In other words, they could be reading fine literature or complete trash, and on their first reading they won’t even notice the difference.

When I heard this, I was amazed. But it explains a few things. Like how people can insist “The Da Vinci Code” and “Twilight” are well-written. Actually, research indicates that the true value of a text only become apparent after SEVERAL readings, and much study. And since most of your average readers left that kind of analysis behind them in English class, a lot of bad writing can become very popular.

It also takes a bit of a weight off my mind. Even if my prose is not as lofty as that of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Shakespeare, I might become popular anyway. But, on the other hand, that means the reason I am slaving over this perfect description of my main character’s inner turmoil is only to impress a bunch of fusty literary critics in ivory towers. Or maybe English teachers.

Oh well. I’ve come to the conclusion that all I can do is to write as well as I can, and hope that people like it. I still believe good writing can give a general atmosphere to a story that may not be achieved with bad writing, even if the reader cannot remember the specific words you used. Not that I’ve done any psych research to back this up.

Do you agree that sentence structure is one of the important things that separate the “exceptional” writer from the “mundane”*? Does it matter to you if the reader doesn’t even notice what you’ve put so much effort into?

 

*The quote I asterisked comes from the debriefing sheet I received after participating in this study.  I would cite it properly, but it doesn’t provide an author. It does, however, state the researchers involved are Dr. Peter Dixon and Dr. Marisa Bortolussi, so I hope mentioning them is adequate.

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