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!

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!

In which I introduce my addictions

Reading was my first addiction, books my first great weakness. Even these past few years, when I seemingly abandoned my first love, I found an irresistible satisfaction in perusing bookstore shelves, inhaling the scent of new books, and running my fingers over their jagged edges, seduced by the tantalizing array of stories hidden behind tidy covers.

I confess, my abandonment of books was as much a consequence of mental laziness, as it was a lack of time. I spent five and one-half years of college education—undergraduate and master’s—wherein much of my time was devoted to creative, design pursuits, rather than more bookish studies. I built models; I did not read books. The notable exception was the first semester of the master’s degree, specifically the mandatory “Theories of Architecture,” with required readings ranging from Le Corbusier to Derrida. Given a near-constant state of sleep deprivation, these readings didn’t necessarily “take,” and ultimately only resulted in an aversion to any reading which required effort.

I found other activities, other interests. I neglected my books. But somehow they started creeping back, inserting themselves on my consciousness. I’m not sure I can precisely pinpoint my ultimate downfall, that event which precipitated my relapse to the potent narcotic which is literature. I don’t think there is any one moment, any one book. There is however, a stack of books aside my bed, posing a nightly hazard to both my toes and my sleep. There is a reading list of rapidly increasing proportions. There are shelves full to bursting.

~~~

All these books, these lists, this recurrent habit, pose a deep threat to my other great addiction: music. I am perhaps even less a connoisseur of music than I am books, but am no less a collector.

I was late to music—although I took piano lessons until I graduated high school, my exposure to other forms was limited. The soundtrack of my childhood—classical, “oldies”—was not the music of the day. I was only vaguely familiar with the contemporary top 40.

We embark on our college educations with many expectations in mind—meeting new people, seeing new places, learning much—ultimately earning a degree which will enable us, it is hoped, to proceed on the career path we desire. I did not, in short, anticipate the musical introductions.

It was not, as might be expected, “Understanding Music” which was to blame—I was quite familiar with most of the classical works already, the more contemporary excepted—but rather the studio class. As a group, we spent countless hours in studio, and, lacking either laptop or any personal music player that first semester, I was subjected to whatever might be blaring from my classmates’ radios. In sharp contrast to my previous experiences, this was primarily rock music. At first repulsed, later intrigued, finally attracted, I did not know then, but I was doomed—to the unceasing quest for more, for different, for that which is meaningful to the moment, for the sublime.

~~~

Writing here, I do not delude myself that anything I might have to say on my reading or listening might be any different than that which has been said before. Instead, I simply seek to create a record for myself of where my wanderings have been and where they might take me.