Friday, April 2, 2010

A Bit About Reading

OMG, a new blog post! I know, I'm terribly inconsistent about updating this thing. I'll try to improve.

First, an update on Buddha on the Backstretch. Since my lecture in California at the end of January, I've done a couple of radio interviews about it and two public readings, one for a local writers' group and one for the Virginia Festival of the Book. The festival is a pretty big event, featuring nearly 150 public events, 200 authors, 33 publishers, and 20,000 total attendance. I read the essay at the back of the book, the one that became an NPR commentary, which the publisher heard, which led to him e-mailing me, which led to the book itself. It's called "How Dale Earnhardt Made Me a Better Buddhist," and I wrote it just after Earnhardt's 2001 death.

I was paired with two other sports writers, both far more veteran than I, including one who has authored or co-authored over sixty(!) books. After I read the essay, he said quietly, "I can see why an editor thought that needed to be a book -- that's something really special." That was deeply gratifying. I was also gratified (and surprised) that the bookstore where the event was held promptly sold all of the copies it had, and ever since, my Amazon sales have been plugging steadily along. It's still not exactly selling like hotcakes -- in fact, during the Q&A someone in the audience asked me, "Who's buying it, Buddhists or NASCAR fans?" and I said, "Honestly? Neither," which got a nice chuckle. But it looks like it does have good word of mouth -- the people who have read it are recommending it to others.

So that's where that stands. What was this blog about? Oh yeah, reading. The book's editor is a professor. When I spoke to his class, he emphasized that I had read over eighty books in six months for research -- and that while I was working full-time. Admittedly, that was kind of insane. I did nothing but work, eat, bathe, sleep, and read. I skipped weekend plans, stayed home from family events, stopped watching nearly all television (I saved three shows I knew I would actually miss, but cut everything else out), didn't go out to dinner ... nothing. I was a madwoman about reading three books a week, every week, nonstop, no exceptions.

That's over with now, but it let me know just how much I was capable of doing if I chose to buckle down and do it. So ever since then, I've held it in my mind that I'm capable of reading no less than a book a week, preferably two, and I'm aiming to do that consistently this year.

This all started a few years ago with a quote from Arthur Schopenhauer:

"Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them
in; but as a rule the purchase of books is mistaken for the appropriation of
their contents."

Reading that stung me a little. I'd managed to build up a library of around 500 books, but an embarrassingly tiny number of them had actually been read. I determined the moment I read that quote to stop buying so many books and to start reading them. At the time, I had read about ten books in the previous year. At that rate, I realized, it would take fifty years to read just what I already owned, even if I purchased nothing for the next half-century!

Well, that was untenable, unsupportable, and outrageous, all the way around. Since my madwoman's peak would be 160 books a year, and even I'll admit that was a little crazy and exhausting, I decided that 50-100 books a year was quite achievable, and that starting this year, I would achieve it. [Obviously, I also achieved it two years ago, researching the book, and I knocked off quite a bit in 2009 -- more on that in a moment -- but I didn't count up last year's reading precisely.]

Last year, I decided to apply to grad school, and wound up doing another madwoman's feat. I planned to take the GRE Subject Test in English Literature. One problem: I never majored in English, or Literature, or any combination thereof. In fact, I took exactly one lit course in college. I was a history major instead.

No problem. I would simply read, in two months, four Norton Anthologies back to back. [To quote one lovely writer, I shall pause here to allow for reeling around and fainting.] If you remember your Norton from college, it was the 3,000-page brick in your backpack printed in teeny-weeny Eyestrain-o-Vision on onionskin paper. Undeterred in my apparent fit of temporary(?) insanity, I checked out the two-volume Norton Anthology of British Literature, the Anthology of World Masterpieces, and the Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 2. A grand total of over 11,000 pages of reading. Once again, I dropped all other projects, buckled down, and got it done. Two to three hundred pages a night, every night.

The upshot of this is that I think I might be pretty well qualified to make a few observations about reading. One, please do read the classics. My bout with the Nortons was quite often the first chance I'd had to read them (being a non-lit major after all). Once a book becomes a classic, we tend to think of it as "good for us," our "Vitamin L (as in literature)." We don't expect to like it.

But classics don't become classics because they're good for us. They become classics because they're a delight to read, the kind of book you finish and either start again or rush off to press it into the hands of your friends. I was swept away by so many of the classics. I never expected to love Milton's Paradise Lost, but I did. I loved Jonathan Swift's absurd but biting satire and Virginia Woolf's quietly fierce sisterhood. I loved everyone from Homer and Aeschylus to Hemingway and Margaret Atwood. I copied down whole chunks of Thomas Carlyle because I never wanted to forget it, along with Simone de Beauvoir and D.H. Lawrence.

Secondly, when you do read the classics, you realize how many allusions to them surround us. You might have vaguely known that something was a classical allusion, but it's a distinct pleasure to not only recognize it immediately but to savor the additional meaning that it gives to the work that alludes to it. The Simpsons is full of such allusions -- it's still a great show if you don't get them, but it's richer and deeper and often more poignant when you do. I'm currently reading Tristram Shandy, and it is a virtual encyclopedia of learning, so much so that it requires extensive footnotes to capture all of the references, allusions, jokes, and glances.

It's an observation only about my own reading that of my five hundred books, fewer than 20 of them (excluding Shakespeare, who is a category of his own with me) were fiction. I know I'm strange that way. I'm strange in many ways, but let's not digress...

Fiction usually makes me impatient. Somewhere in the course of the book, I'll say to myself, "These people don't exist! Why am I wasting hours on them?" It's the history training, but I find understanding more about the Titanic or the Holocaust or Reconstruction much more interesting than fiction. Histories are about how people reacted when pushed to the extremes of their lives -- what they did when war or death came to their doorstep or when they had lost everything. How they not only survived, but thrived. How they built the world I'm lucky enough to live in today. To me, that's compelling.

And I suppose that's a related issue of mine about fiction. I know I'm not alone here, because I've seen other critics say the same thing: fiction these days is so small. Mark Twain wrote to battle racism and stupidity, a David-versus-Goliath battle if there ever was one. Virginia Woolf wrote to be the "female Shakespeare." No setting small goals for herself there! Now, novels seem to all be essentially dressed-up romances -- dramas of the household, the tale of one family and its various problems. Well, I think Tolstoy is wrong when he says, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Too often, one modern novel about an unhappy family (or person) is exactly like another -- tiresome and self-indulgent. Or rather, Tolstoy may be right, but the books about them are not unique. And what do 5,000 novels about dysfunctional families give us? Virtually nothing of worth, nothing you can't get out of a self-help book, and nothing you probably can't observe on your own street. History, by definition, is large. Classics are always large. And I guess I like my fiction to be large.

That said, since tearing my way through the Norton Anthologies, which were mostly fiction that I loved, I have been reading more of it this year, although it's usually with an eye toward something I'm thinking about writing or an eye toward reading some classics that I missed. [By the way, the result of Mad Reading Scheme 2.0 was that despite being a non-lit major, I scored in the top ten percent on the Test of Literature in English, so I outscored 90% of presumed majors. Thanks, Norton!]

So far this year, I've read:

The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood
Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood
Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson
Curse of the Narrows, Laura MacDonald (history)
The Other Side of the Night, Donald Butler (history)
A Fellow of Infinite Jest, Thomas Yoseloff (a biography of Laurence Sterne)
Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne
The Bible, Karen Armstrong
The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels
God's Problem, Bart Ehrman
Too Many to Mourn, James Mahar (history)
Hooked, Kaza (ed.) (Buddhism)
Awake, Dyia (ed.) (Buddhism)
No Time to Lose, Pema Chodron (Buddhism)

So far that's keeping me on track with my goal of reading 50-100 books this year. We'll see how grad school interferes with that plan. If I have the 50 knocked out by August, when school starts, maybe I'll just declare victory and dive into scholarly reading. Standouts on that list, by the way, are Curse of the Narrows, The Other Side of the Night, and No Time to Lose. I love reading Pema Chodron -- she's such a wise, warm, wonderful writer. The other two are both histories. The first is of the Halifax Explosion, which occurred when a munitions ship exploded in Halifax Harbor during World War I, and the other is about the night the Titanic sank and the two ships that were nearest to her and what they did -- and didn't -- do. All three are fantastic books that will stay with me for a long time. And that's really all I ask out of a good book.

1 comment:

  1. I truly wish I had more time to read. I think I'll have to force myself into making more time.

    Good blog you have here. As a writer I appreciate this. reading it as I go on.