Posts Tagged ‘the reading life’
August 10, 2018 @ 8:38 pm | Filed under: Books
Here’s the sequence: I’m lying on the bed reading the opening chapter of a library book on my phone. I don’t know why I’m doing this: I’m several chapters into Deep Work, about which I’ve just talked Scott’s ear off for an hour or more during dinner and, afterward, our walk; and I’ve got another Mary Stewart novel on the Kindle, which I know I’ll find totally absorbing as soon as I settle into it properly. And here beside me on the bed: A Tale of Time City and Elizabeth and Her German Garden, both of which I read, oh golly, back in the ’90s I guess it would have been. (Or more precisely, Time City was read to me by Scott, one of the books we enjoyed aloud together when Jane was a newborn. I nursed, he read.) I grabbed them on my way into the room, for no particular reason. I’m hungry for something, pacing a mental library like a caged tiger, wanting a contrast to the sobering, change-demanding Deep Work.
And so here I am ignoring the books already in progress or gathered on my way to this quiet corner. I got up at six this morning and was in my chair, writing, by 6:10. I haven’t stopped since, unless the walk counts as down time. (It does.) Now the rest of the family is watching Superman and I have an hour free, an hour to spend reading. I ache to read. I think about it all day long: how I can’t wait until evening is here and I can read.
But then I don’t. I work on tomorrow’s NYT crossword puzzle, which hits my phone at 7pm. Get about halfway through before flicking away. Instagram, but only for a moment. I want to read. Why am I not reading?
I remember that a Penelope Lively book I’d requested hit my Overdrive account today. I tap open the Libby app (though I’m not clear on why I’m now using Libby for Overdrive; the library website nudged me in that direction but didn’t explain why) and there it is: Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir. I’m going to relish it; this I know from the cover, the brief description. Below this new arrival, there’s the audiobook of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, a big chunk of which I listened to last Sunday while doing some handwork—and then in the rush of the work-week, forgot all about. I was enjoying it quite a lot, and the audio version is wonderful: a delicious array of voices.
Below that, the Mary Poppins audiobook—that’s my next Brave Writer Arrow title, I just turned in Redwall today, and in late afternoon I decided to get a jump on this next assignment. I looked all over the house for our copy of Poppins; I know it’s here somewhere; it’s nowhere to be seen. Thus the audio, which I’d downloaded last week in anticipation, and spent some time with before dinner this evening. This is suddenly adding up to be a lot of books in progress (let’s not mention The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, which I’m reading to the kids but didn’t today). And below Mary Poppins on the Libby screen, yet another book I put on hold (not audio this time)—last weekend, I think, when my friend Kelly Ramsdell mentioned it on Instagram? Ursula K. Le Guin’s No Time to Spare. The title terrifies me. It sounds like more Deep Work. I scroll back up and tap open the Penelope Lively.
Oh dear, the Preface, I’m hooked already, I genuinely want to read this. By page two, I want to read it on paper. This keeps happening lately—is it a delayed reaction to purging our shelves of (sob) hundreds, really I think it might have been thousands, of books before the move last summer? We couldn’t afford to move them—you know how it is with books—and I’m sure there are still a thousand left on my shelves, here in Portland, it’s not like I’m deprived…but I miss the abandoned ones. I remember particular volumes and where they lived on the shelves. I can’t think about it too hard. And I’m not buying books at the moment but I keep wanting to. I want this one, this Dancing Fish and hello, you had me at Ammonites to hold in my hand, to mark up with underlines and notes. Earlier today I was pining for a hard copy of Deep Work—again the urge to scrawl in the margins, to make satisfying little checkmarks next to bits I like.
Penelope Lively ends her preface with this:
“…most of us end up with an identifying cargo—that painting, this vase, those titles on the shelf. I can give eloquence to mine—I know what they are saying. Not so much detachment here; more, a flicker of memoir proper—a voyage around the eighty years by way of two ammonites, a pair of American ducks, leaping fish…And a raft of books.”
Oh Penelope, what are you doing to me?
I flick to chapter one but my eyes have left the screen; I’m staring at the nearest shelf and thinking, suddenly, that what I ought to do is forget about all the books I don’t have on hand and just—oh it’s a ludicrous thought, I know that even before the thought completes—read my way back through my own shelves. Every book, one after another, in the order in which I find them on the shelf: a sort of Julie-and-Julia project, aspic and all.
Ridiculous, I know. But the idea tickles my fancy and I go to the bookcase nearest the bed, just to see. Top left corner, the obvious place to start. Oh but I can’t start there—it’s the Norton Anthologies, the five we kept for homeschooling purposes. You can’t start with Norton Anthologies! Can you?
Next in line: The Lord of the Rings. Which, you know, you don’t have to twist my arm to get me to fall into those volumes…but it is wise? How many dozens of times have I read them!
(The Norton Anthology of Women’s Literature is whispering to me. How long is it since I’ve read The Awakening? The Bluest Eye?)
The rest of that shelf is old Greensboro Reviews—I was poetry editor in the early 90s—and some back issues of Flow Magazine. This will never do. I huff impatiently and turn away from this bookcase, which is laughable, since shelves four and five are where I’ve been stashing books I own but haven’t read yet and really want to. Look, I’m tired, I worked really hard today, I’m perhaps a bit irrational. There are two tall, crammed bookcases on the next wall. Top left corner: some picture books, I can skip those (or can I? what rules do I want to invent for this game I know I’m not actually going to play?); what’s the first novel-length book on the shelf?
Lloyd Alexander’s Time Cat. Er, I’m not in the mood. The Rhetoric and the Poetics of Aristotle, hahahahaha. Next. Papa’s Daughter by Thyra Ferré Bjorn, read half to tatters before I turned eighteen, and perhaps only once since. If it were Papa’s Wife I might have succumbed—the Lucia crown; the lutefisk and the midnight sun!—but Papa’s Daughter, eh, I feel impatient with Button’s moods already. Oh here’s The Sherwood Ring, lying sideways because I pulled it out two weeks ago for a juicy reread…and then didn’t. I stand there for a moment, falling into page one, this is perfect, it’s just what I was looking for to counterbalance Deep Work. (Forgetting again that I already have that counterbalance with the Mary Stewart novel I started the other night, which one is it this time? Nine Coaches Waiting, that’s right.) (Nobody mention the subtitle of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Oh, that’s rich.)
I abandon Sherwood Ring, too, and wander to the computer to chronicle this foolish indecision, this half hour I could have spent, you know, READING. I’ve crammed all the books back on the shelf. It’s 9:30, which is when I watch TV.
It occurred to me that I could use the voice-record feature on my phone to dictate a quote directly into Evernote. Then, later, when I’m back at my laptop, I can clean up the typos (voice recording always generates some gems) and paste the quote into my Tumblr, which, as I mentioned the other day, I’ve decided to try out as my commonplace book.
I’m still using my tumblr to collect other articles as well, but I’m using a tag to collect all the book quotes I want to hold on to. So far, I’m enjoying the process: the format encourages me to add my own thoughts below a quote, if I wish, but there’s no pressure.
Bee avatar from Lesley Austin of Wisteria & Sunshine
Ryan Holiday on How And Why To Keep A “Commonplace Book”:
A commonplace book is a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits. The purpose of the book is to record and organize these gems for later use in your life, in your business, in your writing, speaking or whatever it is that you do.
Some of the greatest men and women in history have kept these books. Marcus Aurelius kept one–which more or less became the Meditations. Petrarch kept one. Montaigne, who invented the essay, kept a handwritten compilation of sayings, maxims and quotations from literature and history that he felt were important. His earliest essays were little more than compilations of these thoughts. Thomas Jefferson kept one. Napoleon kept one. HL Mencken, who did so much for the English language, as his biographer put it, “methodically filled notebooks with incidents, recording straps of dialog and slang” and favorite bits from newspaper columns he liked. Bill Gates keeps one.
Not only did all these famous and great individuals do it. But so have common people throughout history. Our true understanding of the Civil War, for example, is a result of the spread of cheap diaries and notebooks that soldiers could record their thoughts in. Art of Manliness recently did an amazing post about the history of pocket notebooks. Some people have gone as far as to claim that Pinterest is a modern iteration of the commonplace book.
Fun to hear thoughts on this topic from someone outside homeschooling circles. Apart from a few quiet book bloggers, nearly everyone I know who is familiar with or interested in commonplace books is a homeschooler.
I’ve tried many interations of the practice over the years. (This recent Onion piece made me laugh, because I relate all too well to the feeling that just the right notebook and just the right pen will make, this time, all the difference—only re quote-keeping rather than creative writing.)
It’s always the copying out by hand that gets me. I bookmark quotes all over the place (via Diigo, Tumblr, or Evernote, depending on whether I want to share them, if indeed I want to share them at all). And I highlight the dickens out of the things I read on Kindle. But as methods go mine are pretty scattered—and, except for the Kindle highlights, only cover my internet reading. I’ve no single place to go to pore over passages that have struck me in, you know, books made of paper.
Mental Multivitamin has made a consistent practice out of commonplace-book-style blog posts for some ten years, recording quotes that struck her in the books she has read. Would that I had followed her example. The paper-loving side of me craves a handwritten version, but realistically I know myself (and my achy wrists) well enough to know that I would wind up with that dogeared stack of waiting books Ryan mentions in his post—the very thing he cautions you to avoid. Typing is always going to work better than writing, for me.
I wonder if I would keep up with a Commonplace Tumblr? Typing or pasting book quotes into that platform? Same principle, easier on the wrists. It would certainly be a steadier use of my tumblr than the haphazard link-collecting I do there. (My original vision for my tumblr back in 2009—good grief, has it really been that long?—was to collect links to all the reading I do online, or all significant reading, at least: a companion to my reading log. That didn’t pan out over the long haul.)
I began this post a couple of days ago and have since decided to give it a try. I’ve hit the reset button on my tumblr (figuratively) and am going to try to copy out book quotes into once or twice a month. It’s an experiment; I may lose steam after a while, but we’ll see.
(I could do it here instead, but when I post things here I feel more pressure—entirely self-imposed—to add my own commentary. Over there I don’t seem to mind tossing a quote onto the page and letting it speak for itself. Then, if I have more to say—as indeed turned out to be the case with the article above—I can bring it over here and expand upon it.)
While finishing up this post just now, I was amused to find “commonplace book” among my categories. I probably made a similar resolution years ago. Didn’t take, obviously.
May 29, 2012 @ 6:04 pm | Filed under: Books
At a certain stage of writing, I have great difficulty reading other fiction. But this is akin to saying “I have great difficulty breathing oxygen.” And when, as now, the intense writing stage stretches out somewhat longer than expected, I begin to get…squirrely. I’m crafting my own story while holding my breath. I crave a nice deep inhalation of fiction. Ha—I didn’t even realize I was spinning an inspiration metaphor until now. Inspire: “to stimulate to action,” “to fill with enlivening or exalting emotion,” “to breathe life into,” “to draw in air.”
There are a few, a very few, works of fiction that can mist past the boundaries my working mind puts up against other people’s stories when I’m deep inside my own. The Blue Castle. Rilla of Ingleside. Sometimes, but not always, Anne’s House of Dreams or Anne of the Island. (You may detect a pattern.) Betsy’s Wedding and the four high-school Betsy books, but not Betsy and the Great World—all the travel, I suppose, too many absorbing new places to take in. I can’t accommodate so many setting changes when I’m rooted to my own fictional world. Curiously, Middlemarch works, and the first third of Portrait of a Lady (but as soon as Isabel meets that snake Osmond, I must bail). Never Austen. Austen is a reward for finishing a novel. Sometimes L’Engle, but I have to be careful with her: her characters have an archness about them, a precociousness that works beautifully in her prose but I can’t risk it seeping into my own, where it would surely be too much sugar in the peas.
(I think House Like a Lotus was the book that made me realize that L’Engle’s characters, much as I adore them, are not exactly real people. At least—Meg was real, with her prickles and that ribbon of cynicism in her soul. And Vicky Austin, so sensitive you’re almost afraid to look at her askance. (Oh how I love Vicky.) But Polly, oh my. You know that scene at the beginning of the international conference when the well-traveled workers gather and sing, spontaneously going around the circle, each crooning Silent Night in his or her own language? And Polly, not missing a beat, jumps in—in German? Yeah, that’s when I realized that much as I enjoy Polly and am rooting for her, I don’t find her relatable. Which is fine. Isabel Archer isn’t terribly relatable either, but she (like Polly) is interesting, and that’s plenty. But I digress.)
One book that works like a charm for me these days is Alan Bennett’s gem, The Uncommon Reader. In my desperate state of fiction-deprivation, I turned to it again two nights ago, and it was like coming up from underwater and drawing a deep breath of air. This is a book I’ve highlighted practically from cover to cover—so many quotable quotes. (Those are but a few. The title of this post is another.)
As the Queen of England (that most unlikely of relatable characters) finds her way into fiction (well, and nonfiction, too; for her the discovery is the absorbing, altering joy of reading itself—whereas my current troubles are only with fiction; I inhale reams of nonfiction with no difficulty), so, too, am I drawn back into the romance of The Other Person’s Story. And so it was that when I finished Uncommon Reader last night, I was immediately, almost in the next breath, able to fall headlong Elizabeth Goudge’s The Scent of Water—a book I started ages and ages ago, and set aside, always meaning to return. For me, Goudge is as Alice Munro is for the Queen:
‘Can there be any greater pleasure,’ she confided in her neighbor, the Canadian minister for overseas trade, ‘than to come across an author one enjoys and then to find they have written not just one book or two, but at least a dozen.’
Linnets and Valerians is practically woven into my DNA—the song to the bees rings in my ears every time I walk out to my garden—but the only other Goudge I’ve read, despite having collected and hoarded nearly a dozen of her novels over the years, is The Little White Horse. It was Lesley Austin, over at Wisteria and Sunshine, who brought Elizabeth Goudge back into my mind. This afternoon, when the orthodontist’s waiting room faded away and the little English village of Appleshaw formed around me, and the house with the green door, and Queen Mab’s hazelnut-sized coach in the collection of ‘little things,’ I knew I’d remembered how to breathe again.
November 10, 2011 @ 10:13 am | Filed under: Books
I completely, utterly identify with this:
I imposed these restrictions on my reading about two years ago and it’s had the most fantastic results. Unfortunately it requires some discipline. My self-imposed reading rule was: only one book at a time. Take the book with you everywhere, christen it – it’s the book you are currently reading. Stick with it until the end. Read at least an hour a day, then and only then can you move onto magazines and other reading material. This might sound sort of silly, these self-imposed rules, but it had dramatic results. You see, I was really lazy and promiscuous about my book reading. I would read a third of this book, lose it in the house, and then move onto a third of another book. It never added up to anything and I wasn’t finishing anything.
(from Julia Sweeney’s October books-and-movies recap)
I am in the middle of a ridiculous number of books right now. And by “right now,” I mean “at all times.” Cybils judging has helped me focus: I’m reading AND FINISHING several books a week (but I need to step up that pace in a hurry). This is one reason I like participating in the Cybil Awards, and why I always prefer the nominations round of judging: I work best under deadline pressure, and it means I absolutely HAVE TO read a whole bunch of books.
Speaking of which, I fell head over heels in love with Allen Say’s Drawing from Memory. I’ll write a proper post about it, but don’t wait for that—go put it on hold at your library. You won’t be sorry.
June 24, 2011 @ 3:11 pm | Filed under: Books
Another day, another ebooks-BAD-because-you-can’t-dogear-the-pages screed—this time in the L.A. Times, which should know better. As astute commenter Kate points out in a recent thread at Mental Multivitamin, ebook doomsayers often make a faulty assumption that it’s an either/or situation: that once you’ve gone Kindle you’ll never pick up a codex again. Which is just silly—a narrow vision of the reading life. I didn’t ditch my oven just because my microwave does some things better. Sometimes I want to bake a cake. Sometimes I want to curl up with a couple of kids on each side and pore over the pictures in a book made of paper.
But…sometimes I want to read the new Connie Willis novel without getting a squint-headache from the small print.
Sometimes I want to bring a half-dozen books with me on a trip, but I’d rather not weigh down my shoulder bag.
Sometimes I want to read in the dark without disturbing my husband. (For this, my phone is better than my Kindle.)
Sometimes I want to fall asleep reading without smacking myself awake when a big fat book falls on my face at the moment I drift off. (This has happened more times than I can count.)
Sometimes I want to sit down in a chair, which is a lot easier when it isn’t full of advanced review copies awaiting my attention. (NetGalley, you are a revelation.)
But also? Sometimes I want to read Elizabeth Bishop and see the notes I wrote in the margins in grad school.
Sometimes I want to walk through the house grabbing picture books off a shelf, building a pile with which to delight a small child at what she calls “quiet reading time,” which means “time ALONE with Mom and a mountain of books.” (Ain’t nothing quiet about it.)
Sometimes I want to flip back and forth in the pages of a nonfiction text, filling the pages with flags and sticky notes.
Sometimes I want to follow a cookbook recipe, and you just know I’m going to splatter something.
Sometimes I want to leave a book in the path of a person I suspect is going to be swept away by its charms.
It’s awfully nice to have choices.
UPDATED to add: I love this comment by Mary Alice about the unforeseen benefits of her family’s shared Kindle account.