Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Reading & "Reading"

by Kevin Wolf

My history as a reader used to be pretty simple: I loved to read as a kid (probably the only thing that got me through school) and went on to read pretty voraciously for another two decades.

Somewhere in there was a switch from reading only fiction (except as required by college) to reading only non-fiction.

Then, long about five years ago, I pretty much stopped reading books all together. In addition to my inability to see very clearly why this happened, my few vague ideas about the wherefores of this development would make a boring post. Suffice to say that books were somewhat suddenly out, left unfinished after 200 or 100 or 10 pages, and often unread altogether.

Soon, even my magazine subscriptions went by the wayside, victims of circumstance including cashflow and a move.

Well, this fall I've made it my goal to get back on track and, dammit, read. A number of factors play into this: All the terrific titles that keep popping up over at Lance Mannion's place; the books my pal Brad keeps recommending; the things I already know I want to read (all those Russians!) and, hey -- let's face it -- time 's a-wastin.' All those books aren't going to read themselves.

I'm sincerely hoping a sea change is in the works: a rising tide of books finally turning to shore from a long, low ebb. I remember how much fun it was to read so much. I wonder what in the hell I've been doing with the time I've not spent reading. I'm realizing that the weight, if you will, of all the books unread is paradoxically lightened by the satifactory distraction of reading a book.

In recent weeks, as this reclamation project was taking shape, I managed to resubscribe to a few magazines (none of which I've received yet); read about half (so far) of George Saunders' latest story collection, In Persausion Nation; and finish my first-ever audio book, The Detection of Sherlock Holmes as read by the author, actor and voice artist Patrick Horgan.

Horgan's book deserves its own post, ideally written by someone other than me, but it merits mention for introducing me to the audio book. My buddy Brad recently "read" Zadie Smith's On Beauty in audio and our IM conversation about this included a lot of the same scare quotes. Was he reading the book or "reading" the book? Did it matter?

I enjoyed the experience well enough and I'm curious enough to try another audio book, soon. Anybody have anything to say that would dissuade me?

Meantime, I'll finish the Saunders and line up some more titles, on paper. The weather is cooling off fast and a long, winter's book might be just the thing. I've still got that acclaimed recent translation of Don Quixote on the shelf. Unread.


Blogger fgfdsg said...

Reading is a process that ebbs and flows for me as well, a large part of it due to being over-familiar with story archetypes, formulas, and the simple process of writing.

It's rare for me to be surprised by the plot of books, and, as such, I have to take my enjoyment from the quality of the writing, and the bar is pretty damn low at the moment.

So, I mainly read Non-Fiction, but every so often I just stop reading for a good year or more at a time. Perhaps it's your brain taking in all the information it can handle and needs time to process and file away the important nuggets of information gleaned.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006  
Blogger Neddie said...

A four-year stint as an editor (low on the editorial totem pole) of paperback books -- fiction and nonfiction -- soured me forever on a huge range of popular books. Rather like the butcher who turns vegetarian, I think; nothing like seeing a manuscript by a Rich and Famous Author absolutely slathered with blue pencil markings. You'd be amazed at how absolutely incompetent some of these Big Names are at actually putting a sentence together.

I'm a member of the Board of Directors of our local Historical Society (which sounds very grand, but it's like the Historical Society of Mayberry, RFD, with Floyd the Barber as Treasurer). At this year's town Octoberfest (the town was founded by displaced Pennsylvania Dutch) we're raffling off a fairly venerable copy of Jules Verne's "The Mysterious Island," with illustrations by N. C. Wyeth, Andrew's illustrator dad. They produced the volume at our meeting last Saturday, and I was absolutely flabbergasted to find I had read exactly this edition of the book back when I was a lad. I was absolutely floored by the memories this discovery brought back -- and by how well the prose had stood the test of time. I sense a Jules Verne jag coming on.

Audio Books: Why the guilt? There's no shame in it; I recently "read" Patrick O'Brian's Desolation Island on a long car-trip. It was wonderful, and even my Gameboy-addicted son enjoyed it (though getting him to admit it would be like pulling teeth).

Tuesday, September 12, 2006  
Blogger Lance Mannion said...

At least half the books I've read over the last four or five years have been read to me. AudioBooks are the only reason I can bear to mow the lawn.

But it depends on the reader.

Ned, I've tried to listen to the Aubrey/Maturin books, but Patrick Tull just sounds all wrong to me. I think the books need a younger, more vigorous voice. Tull doing Rumpole though works just fine.

Thursday, September 14, 2006  
Blogger John Morrish said...

I did an English degree and spent many whole days doing nothing but reading. One week we covered Dickens, which required us to plough through three full length Victorian novels and write an essay about them. Naturally, when I left I didn't touch a book for a year. The feel of paper under my fingers made me feel physically sick.

Now, though, I'm back to being addicted. It's not an entirely false analogy; when I'm not reading a compelling piece of fiction, I feel a vague sense of unease the whole time.

I'm not particularly proud of this. Sometimes I wonder whether all that time spent in imaginary worlds (and it must add up to years) has had a detrimental effect on my connection to the real one. My parents, while not exactly hostile to reading, were certainly rather suspicious of it. We fret if our children don't read: I was certainly criticised for the amount of time I spent with my head in a book.

Nick Hornby has just published a little book about reading, and in it he says you should never struggle with a book. If you don't like it, throw it aside and start another. But I've always been sceptical about Hornby, whose novels slip down like a cold San Miguel on a Benidorm balcony, and I don't think this is good advice. I think the struggle is part of the point. (Not all the Puritans got on the Mayflower, you know.)

For instance, I'm 800 pages into The Brothers Karamazov. For at least half of that it was a grind. The blurb promised me a murder mystery, but no-one died until page 600. Now I've accustomed myself to the meandering, circuitous style and I know that when I reach the end I'll be glad I made the effort.

I wouldn't feel bad about the audio books, though. Language is an auditory medium, fundamentally. And narrative (which even most non-fiction now employs) began with story-telling. I once listened to The Handmaid's Tale on a long journey through France, and it certainly beat struggling to pick up Radio Four on long-wave from Droitwich. The only problem is that most audiobooks are severely cut: if you're not careful, you're getting the Readers Digest Condensed Book.

Friday, September 15, 2006  
Blogger Blowing Shit Up With Gas said...

I went through that same transition from fiction to non-fiction. I wonder if that's common?

After college, I spent years reading nothing but science and philosophy books for some reason -- and I still love them. Much of the "fiction" I love has that cross-genre appeal, actually (e.g., Robert Pirsig's or Milan Kundera).

Like you, though, I've been making that transition back to strict fiction again lately (esp, crime novels, for some reason). I read some Hammett last week and someone in the blogosphere turned me onto Arthur Conan Doyle (probably Neddie), and I've enjoyed that thoroughly so far as well.

Friday, September 15, 2006  
Blogger Kevin Wolf said...

Patrick, I envy you your crime fiction kick, if you've never read this stuff before. Sherlock Holmes: great stuff, as generations of readers know.

Hammett is terrific, Raymond Chandler is a must, and Ross MacDonald should be added to the list.

Somewhat off the beaten path: I suggest Patricia Highsmith's work. Her Tom Ripley novels get some attention but her short stories are also very good. Other novels? Well, that gets a little sticky in her case.

Friday, September 15, 2006  
Blogger MichaelBains said...

Reading science fiction/fantasy was my salvation throughout junior high and high school. After that, it got a bit more difficult to enjoy those genres without the Real World seeming so much less worth the while.

I don't like the lesson (not quite) learned, but I've managed to mix it up as I've gotten older. There's more laymen's physics books and academics ponderin' in print to my diet than used to be the case. The biggest thing is that I've started reading some of "the classics". I'd always avoided those as being pointless since I "know" all the taglines and allusions from them.

Boy, what I don't know...

So, a readin' I will go! Might even try another Audiobook. Rice's Interview . . . is the only one I've tried to date. I've a feeling it was probably better that way.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006  

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