In which I wonder about my own plans

I had a couple of thoughts this past week relative to my great books reading plans:

  1. Why bother challenging myself with the classics when I’m having so much fun with the Ohio Building Code? Now I know why no one volunteers to do this. (Darn it all, the office had to go and skew young. Where’s all the old timers that knew this stuff?)
  2. It’s been firmly settled in my mind for at least a month that I’m taking Pride and Prejudice with me on vacation. A classic. I’ve been spending inordinate amounts of time the last week trying to decide which classic I should take with me…Duh.

Regardless, I’ve had a number of thoughts pertaining to my great books reading plan. I’m trying to sort through them all to form a coherent goal more precise than “read great books better,” which is admittedly very loosey-goosey. I think what it ultimately comes down to is that I would like to feel that I can pick up a more contemporary work of fiction, read it, and form a valid judgment as to its merits which isn’t dependant on the opinions of others. I want to know for myself what a “great book” is, which means I will have to read many books traditionally considered “great” or “classic” in order to even begin to approach this goal. More soon…

In which I wonder about my own reading

I’ve never considered myself much of a non-fiction reader, preferring the plots and characters of a well-crafted novel to a tale of reality I too often prejudge as dull and dusty. Generalizations about non-fiction should not be based on the genuinely dry textbooks of our schooling, however, as I was recently reminded by The Monster of Florence, a riveting true-crime tale with twists and turns even the most daring crime writer would not dare take—due in part to the fact that the cognitive leaps taken by the investigators of the case would not be deemed plausible in the confines of mystery fiction, indeed, the authors of the book argue that they are not plausible in real life. In this sense, not only can non-fiction be more riveting than a novel, it can also be more troubling.

What I am troubled by in my latest non-fiction reading is not the words therein, however, but my own self. It is probably not generally advisable to read books that make us feel incompetent failures, yet here I am, reading not one, but two books that loudly declare my own failures, their condemnations ringing in my ears.

I am a failed reader.

This is a completely subjective statement. What and why anyone reads, how they read, what they take from it, outside of educational or work settings necessitating a more particular conquest of a text, is almost completely up to the reader themselves. Reading may be done for information, for entertainment, for edification, for escape, for cultural awareness, to prove one’s worth. My failure then, is not societal—I can, and do, read—but personal. I fail to meet my own expectations.

Once upon a time, I considered myself an accomplished reader. I read primarily the classics, with enjoyment, without an overbearing sense of obligation. Shakespeare? Check. Dickens? Check. Austen? Piece of cake. As I moved away from reading, as my reading of the classics was largely influenced by critical readings imposed by the classroom, I forgot to keep reading these great works. I became a sloppy reader, rushing through less difficult works with abandon, choosing escape and enjoyment over the personal satisfaction of a difficult task accomplished. I forgot that even the great books, the impossible books could hold the entertainment of those much easier.

Browsing around the web in the past weeks, seeing discussions of “best books” or the latest literary hits, I’ve been dismayed at the thought that I don’t know these books. I don’t know the Pulitzer winners, the Nobel winners, the critically acclaimed darlings. I’ve abandoned my beloved classics. If pressed to name books I’ve actually read that I consider “great,” I could name but few. This all I could realize without my latest reads.

It is Beowulf on the Beach and Reading like a Writer that force me to address my other failings. Both authors advocate “close reading,” reading for enjoyment, but without skimming, without rushing, rather, noticing the words and the phrases, processing everything, rereading if necessary. I skim, I skip, I overlook. Reading their words, their enthusiasms for phrases and sentences and stanzas, I feel the full force of how much I miss in my reading—not merely in the more difficult classics of obligation, but in the cozies of enjoyment. How often have I had to flip back a few pages, wondering how the protagonist, whom I recalled most definitely was in the kitchen, had arrived at the neighbors’ without ever leaving the house, only to discover that I had skipped right over the defining action words in my haste to arrive at the next plot turn? Do I ever even notice with enjoyment delightful turns of phrase? Have I not frequently wondered what defines a good book from a mediocre, a great book from a merely good?

I know that I have read great books with much enjoyment. I adored One Hundred Years of Solitude. But why? Was I a better reader nearly ten years ago, when I first read García Márquez’s delightful words than I am now?

All these thoughts in mind, I have decided to embark on a challenge, a personal challenge. There are many books challenges around, I know, some of which will overlap this. But I wish for no timeline, no strictly defined rules. (This is not to say I will not attempt some of these other challenges.) My challenge is simply this:

  1. I wish to read more “great” books.
  2. I wish to read them better.

To this end, I will have to create my own definition of great books. I will have to determine how I intend to read them better. I do not mean to parse them for every ounce of meaning or symbolism; I do mean to more fully appreciate the language, the words of the books.

To this list I add one more item, in an attempt to propel myself forward. I will be taking a vacation in the third week of May, a week when I will have more than ample time to begin a challenging book. This gives me four weeks to finish up those books currently scattered around, to define my “great books,” and to choose my first selection.

I must start planning. How exciting!

Volume One…and Volume Two

Volumes One & Two I’ve purchased quite a bit of music lately, both online (as my credit card statement woefully attests) and in stores. Yes, I’m one of those people who still buys physical CD’s. For the most part, I’ve liked what I’ve purchased. I do sometimes take chances, in my never-ending search for something new and different. Sometimes those risks pay off, other times they don’t. Fortunately, my most recent risk paid off.

In my Internet browsing recently, I happened upon the video for the new single “In the Sun” by She & Him. Intrigued, I decided to look for their first CD, Volume One. Much to my surprise, I found it in a store (I was expecting to have to order it). I listened to it pretty much non-stop for about four days, including five times in a row the day I purchased it—something I have not done for quite a while with new music. And the following Tuesday found me back at the store to purchase the just-released Volume Two.

I find these particular CDs incredibly charming. I like the voice of Zooey Deschanel, the “She” and the primary vocalist and songwriter. I like the peppiness of the songs. They remind me somewhat of summer and simpler times. What the genre or style is, I could not say. (I find such labels confusing, most likely because I do not pay close attention. However, knowing more about the distinctions between eras in classical music, it also seems likely that these labels are imprecise and overlap anyway.) There seem to be hints of multiple styles at any rate, and I am reminded most strongly of 60’s era pop music. Regardless, these are albums I anticipate listening to all through the coming summer.

Cozy Mystery Challenge, Book 1

I only just started the book Sunday and I finished Tuesday evening—without even touching it Monday. I think this is actually one of the primary attractions of Cozy Mysteries for me—I don’t think I’ve read one yet that hasn’t been a quick read.

Pride and Prescience: Or, A Truth Universally Acknowledged (Carrie Bebris) proved not only quick, but enjoyable, with not a few occurrences of wit in the banter between the two leading characters, Mr. and Mrs. Darcy. The story begins with the wedding celebrations of two of Jane Austen’s best known pairs: Miss Jane Bennett and Mr. Bingley and Miss Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. Their celebratory day is somewhat marred by the announcement of Miss Caroline Bingley’s recent engagement to a Mr. Frederick Parrish. One event leads to another, and soon the Darcys find themselves caught up in a mystery straight from a Gothic Romance, threatening the welfare of Miss Bingley, her brother and sister-in-law, and perhaps the Darcys themselves.

Although I appreciated the wit of much of the story, and Bebris’ ability to maintain Austen’s characterizations of the Darcys and Bingleys, I find in the end that I am unable to reconcile myself to the combination of the genteel world of Jane Austen and the genre of Gothic Romance—Northanger Abbey excepted, of course. It was however, an entirely suitable cozy; perhaps I only lacked a suitably gloomy and chilly evening to place myself in the proper state of mind for a gothic tale. (A point to remember should I choose to read any more of Ms. Bebris’ mysteries.)

Up next: TBD.

(Book 1 of 6 for the 2010 Cozy Mystery Challenge.)

In which I undertake a challenge

Once upon a time I read a lot. Once upon a time I had the time to read a lot. Over the last few years, I unfortunately did not read quite so much. Last year, I even challenged myself to a mere twenty-four books in the year, or only two a month. I failed miserably, ending the year with only fourteen read, of which two were no more than 100 pages or so, illustrated. (Admittedly, the year before was worse, with a mere ten.)

So, it should be considered madness that I would even consider undertaking a book-related challenge. Unless it involved the purchase of books of course. My acquisition of new reading material continued unabated, even when I wasn’t reading it. However, I’m feeling optimistic. I’ve managed to already finish ten and one-half books this year (that last was started in ’09), and I’m currently in the middle of a half dozen or so. Considering four of those books could solidly be considered “cozies”, the Cozy Mystery Challenge seems a natural fit.

I have between now and  the end of September to read six cozy mysteries from start to finish. With two weeks of vacation in there, I think this is entirely doable. As long as I remember to select cozies for my reading of course.

I’m off to a good start; I began Pride and Prescience this morning, which has already proved a quick and enjoyable read. The characters are those of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and the time immediately after the wedding that ends the original book. I’m not very far yet, but am quite enjoying the wit of the banter between the Mr. and Mrs. Darcy.

Otherwise, I’ve no set plans for the challenge—merely to read, read, and read some more!