I read a Huffington Post article this week by Julien Smith on the subject of reading fifty-two books in a year. I thought that much of his advice was practical and sound — chop your reading up into manageable doses and do it daily, preferably early in the day before other things take over. This is good advice for any habit – it’s precisely what writers are told to do if we want to be serious about our writing. Even something enjoyable becomes very easy to procrastinate in the face of work and life pressures. I really am into this book, but I need to also go to the post office, pay my bills, take care of the cat or the kid or the spouse. Etc., etc. By making reading your first priority, you make certain it happens before the rest of your life can take over. While I laughed at Smith’s comment that he would start his day by going to a coffee shop and reading his daily forty pages — no matter how long it took — because I know very few people with that kind of luxury in their mornings, I have to admit that his approach is sound.
Good advice. Life is all about choices.
I particularly liked what Julien Smith had to say on his own blog about why you should want to read so widely. He writes that:
The other thing is that books contain pretty much all the knowledge and wisdom in the whole world– not just for today, but for all of history. It’s in an imperfect form right now, what with books being out of print and all the problems of limited distribution, etc., but over time, that’ll be solved. So I see books as direct conduits to the past, and the most reliable way that we have to receive important information from other people, living or dead.
In the colonial days of the U.S., when there were no such things as painters, architects and doctors, if you needed to know how to do one of those things, you ordered a book from Europe. Then you waited for months for your book to arrive on a boat, if you were lucky. Then you tried to turn the knowledge from the book into your new house. One of the most successful people at this was Thomas Jefferson, who is considered one of the first architects in the U.S.
He built Monticello, from knowledge he picked up entirely in books.
Well played, Tom, well played.
That has always been the magic of books for me, because I am so curious about so many different things. No matter what the topic, you can go find a book to tell you about it, which is much easier than finding someone with accurate knowledge that is also willing to teach. If you read multiple genres, even fiction genres, you’ll pick up all sorts of bits of knowledge about how the world works. You’ll also develop a reputation for being smart, when you’re just repeating things that you read in books. Your prowess at Jeopardy will be the toast of the neighborhood, too.
At ten weeks into the year, I have six novels under my belt and a good start on Louise Eldrich’s Love Medicine, P.S. One of them was George R. R. Martin, which directly countermand’s Smith’s suggestion to cheat. I have to disagree with him — trying to read a book every single week means eliminating longer works from your selection. If I were to take his challenge, I would rework it from reading a book a week to reading something every day off the Internet. Spend time reading widely, taking in different types of books and knowledge. The world is big and the time in which we have to know it is limited…but books sure do help a lot.
This is a beta copy of a novel, which Julie Christine has been blogging about over the past year at Chalk the Sun. She has been kind enough to send it to me as a beta reader — complete with red pen! I have several deadlines to meet this weekend before I can dig into it, but I couldn’t help but eagerly scan the first page and admire the professional presentation. It was with deep regret that I put it down again so that I can do all the things that I must do first.
I have done a lot of peer review of short stories in the classroom, but I have never been in a position before to give feedback on a mature novel that is being seriously developed for publication. I truly could not be more excited. Are there any more exciting words than Chapter One?
There’s been a meme going around that I’ve been enjoying, where people post the lists of books that they’ve read over the last year. Thanks to Goodreads, which I am not always the best about updating, I have a decent record this year of the books that I read. Some I’ve even managed to write reviews about here, though I intended to do more of that than I actually did. Maybe I’ll do better this coming year.
Although I have always been a constant reader, a few years back I realized that I wasn’t reading very many novels beyond the easy beach read fiction — just a cavalcade of novels that weren’t different enough from one another for me to even bother to learn the title or remember the author. I decided to start tracking what I read and to make an attempt to read a larger variety of fiction. I was beginning to take my writing a lot more seriously, so reading a larger variety of authors felt like the least I could do to improve my writing. Although I only have twenty-three books on my 2013 list (after all, I was doing a lot of writing of my own), the variety I was looking for seems to be there, with a decent smattering of old and new, fantasy, fiction and non.
Fantasy A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin A Clash of Kings, George R. R. Martin A Storm of Swords, George R. R. Martin A Feast of Crows, George R. R. Martin The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman
I actually began the year with A Game of Thrones and was immediately immersed into Martin’s world, which is rich, vivid and filled with an insane variety of complex characters. Martin focuses on the interaction of characters above glorification of the fantasy world and he keeps his magic simple, vague and a relatively small part of the plot. By doing that, he avoids that trap that so many fantasy authors seem to fall into where the writing becomes about the laws of the world and not the people moving around in it. He has an amazing way with characters and I’m hoping that I’m learning a lot from reading his work. When I reached the end of A Game of Thrones, I was so emotionally invested in what happened to the characters that I loved that I had to take some time off to mourn before launching into A Clash of Kings. Although I was disappointed with the direction that A Feast with Crows took, I’m reading A Dance with Dragons now and am looking forward to seeing the end of this incredibly rich saga.
I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman in nearly one sitting. I thought the beginning of the book was particularly beautiful and I enjoyed the imaginative archetypical world that Gaiman always delivers. It is a very different sort of book from the Song of Ice and Fire series, with characters that are much more distant, but Gaiman is always a solid read. Yet, if I had to pick a favorite book of his, it would probably still be The Graveyard Book.
Fiction Dear Life, Alice Munro I See By My Outfit, Peter S. Beagle My Soul to Take, Yrsa Sigurdardottir Jar City, Arnoldur Indridsson High Fidelity, Nick Hornby Alias Dragonfly, Jane Singer The Stand, Stephen King In the Woods, Tana French The Likeness, Tana French
I should really retitle this the fiction & mystery section, as I apparently read a lot more mystery this year than usual. I don’t usually go for the crime and mystery genre, but I read In the Woods on the recommendation of a friend early in the year and it seems to have kicked off a certain interest. French’s novels are deeply character driven, which is an important factor for me in my investment in a novel, and I fell in love with her lyrical and rhythmic prose. I enjoyed The Likeness even more than In the Woods and need to get back to reading the rest of the series.
Other bright lights in this section were Dear Life, The Stand and I See By My Outfit. The Stand was the first Stephen King novel I had ever read, due to a certain bigotry towards the horror genre, and I was deeply, deeply impressed with his characterization. I particularly admired his ability to get inside the head of a slightly mad character and explore the reasons for the character’s behavior in a way in which the reader can sympathize with the character. It reminds me of what George R. R. Martin does with some of his characters, who do repulsive things, yet manage to become sympathetic characters. Alice Munro places her characters solidly in a world that’s much closer to reality than either King or Martin, but she also writes about moral ambiguity, creating stories that explore the complexity of human behavior.
I See By My Outfit is more difficult to describe. On the surface, it is the story of a road journey that two friends take from New York to California on motor scooters. It was recommended to me by one of my motorcyclist friends when I bought my scooter and I was expecting something like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (which I tried years ago, but never got very far with), but was utterly blown over by the poetic and loving descriptions of strangers and friendship that fill the chapters. I read this one very slowly, savoring each chapter for the beauty of the language and the flavor it left on my tongue. Beagle is a New Yorker; the rhythm that fills the speech of the natives here comes out as poetry in his writing.
Classic Literature Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad The Turn of the Screw, Henry James The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe The Colossus and Other Poems, Sylvia Plath
Three of the four books here were related to classwork that I was doing. I’m certain I probably reread at least one Jane Austen novel through the year, which I undoubtedly enjoyed more than any of them. (Yes – I tried to originally write about The Mysteries of Udolpho and Northanger Abbey for the paper I was writing, so that must be true.) Yet while I didn’t particularly enjoy The Mysteries of Udolpho or The Turn of the Screw, I emerged from them with deeper respect and appreciation for both James and Radcliffe, who both wrote about psychology, though they did it in remarkably different ways. From the perspective of reading a wider variety of writing styles and genres, all of these reads were helpful. Although I loathed Heart of Darkness with all of the loathing in my loathsome heart, there is even something to be said for the aloof narrative style that Conrad used to describe horror and inhumanity.
Nonfiction The Flesh Made Word, Helena Mitchie The Female Malady, Elaine Showalter Viking Age Iceland, Jesse Byock Women in the Viking Age, Judith Jesch On Fiction, Stephen King
My nonfiction reading was all done this year to support my writing, but that doesn’t at all mean that it wasn’t enjoyable. I’m pretty sure there’s a fair amount that should be here that never made it to Goodreads, because it didn’t occur to me that those books belong there too. But of the four that did make it to my list making, I enjoyed The Female Malady the most. There’s a certain theme to all of my non-fiction reading, which was how women interacted with their worlds in the past, but The Female Malady combined that with early psychology and the beginnings of the institution. Simply fascinating material, presented in a really readable format. All of the books covered fascinating subjects, but The Female Malady was the best read. I found that I really enjoyed the nonfiction works on my list more than I thought I would — nonfiction can have a reputation for being dry and factual, but a good writer can make it come alive.
This leaves me, in January, with a fresh slate for a new reading list. I can’t help but notice that I currently have over a hundred books downloaded to my Kindle, which would take me over five years to read if I keep reading novels at the pace I showed this year. This year I am trying to focus my efforts a little better, so maybe it’s time to chomp through that list a little faster. That should be easier with tomes like The Stand and most of the Song of Ice and Fire series behind me…
Alice Munro was announced the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature today. It’s a hefty prize, with a 1.2 million dollar award, given to a writer for lifetime achievement. It really couldn’t have gone to a better writer – her literary chops are among the best out there. There are many biographies published today.
I am very pleased with the choice. It is a wonderful thing to see a writer who has created such beautiful art for so many years be so prestigiously honored. When I think about Munro’s work, I get an image most of all of a gray sky and and a gentle moodiness – the remote and wild beauty that her characters move around in. She is often spoken about for her loving way of presenting her characters without judgment. I first encountered her in a college classroom and the mood of that first story has always stuck with me.
If you don’t know her work, try Amundsen and tell me what you think.
I have finished reading Ann Ward Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, which really grabbed me by the end of the novel and became difficult to put down. Part of this was that the end was in sight; by the time 600 pages of Radcliffe’s writing has happened to you, you’ll just want to see how things turn out. And Radcliffe is good at stringing you along — there are mysteries that aren’t explained until the very final pages, so even as you think you know what must happen to give the happy ending that’s surely coming, it’s not all that obvious that it’s going to. She is good with her misdirection.
Anyway. One more classic early novel under my belt. And although I aspire more towards Austen’s humor than Radcliffe’s dark drama, there were a couple of aspects that I really enjoyed about the reading. The first, as I mentioned before, was that Radcliffe knows how to paint a scene with detail. At no point are you ever in doubt as to what the corners of the room look like. She excels at putting the reader in a place that is concrete and real. As a historical fiction writer, that’s an important skill to master, since that’s half of why the reader is interested in the novel to begin with.
The second aspect that I really enjoyed was that Radcliffe had an amusing method of introducing the hero whenever he came into a scene, which was to wonder at the mysterious figure in the doorway, then announce him–as Valancourt! She does this nearly every single time Valancourt comes into a scene, which got to be downright funny by the end. Perhaps not the effect she intended.
Unintended, perhaps, but I now desperately want, when someone writes the book about my life, for my entrances to always be announced–as Charlotte! Let the trumpets blare on my behalf. I think I’m at least half as heroic as Valancourt, even if he did end up taking significantly more bullets than I ever hope to.
Heroes equal exclamation points. It’s true.
The reason I found myself reading The Mysteries of Udolpho is because it’s mentioned so prominently in Northanger Abbey, which I’ve now started reading again. It’s one of Austen’s early novels, which is obvious from the style and the simplicity of the plot line. Quite a lot of the humor revolves around the heroines of gothic novels, like Udolpho, and people who find themselves taken up enough with them to try and emulate their characteristics. (Rampant TV and movie watchers….you know who you are.) I’ve just reached Chapter Five, where Austen speaks directly to the reader in defense of the novel as a worthy art form. This rant not the best fiction, but it’s difficult not to sympathize with the indignant Austen, when the rest of the text is so witty and clever, and you happen to know that novels wouldn’t win widespread respect for nearly a century.
The two novels were written within a few years of each other, but reading Austen after Radcliffe is like leaving a cave for a bright day, which is actually exactly how both writers probably would have liked to phrase it. And while I am enjoying being back with an author that writes better characters, I do find myself missing Radcliffe a bit. After all….Valancourt!
I have been deep in gothic literature, as I somehow decided writing a fifteen page term paper on The Mysteries of Udolpho was a good idea. I did this, despite not having actually ever readThe Mysteries of Udolpho, which is neither here nor there.
Aren’t I clever? It has the same number of dots on the bottom of my Kindle’s screen as The Thorn Birds, AKA That Australian Epic, did. Clearly this is an appropriate amount of work for a twelve-week semester, because I haven’t got the good sense to be reasonably daunted by, well, much of anything. All the same, I have been enjoying myself. I have a weakness for early novels.
Radcliffe was writing before just about every book you’ve ever heard of was written. She was one of the first, if not the first, to write about finding corpses in lonely towers. The characters are flat, but the descriptions of the landscape are vivid enough to make up for it. And if I giggle a little every time the villains whip out their swords and fight amongst themselves, well, it does well to remember that her original audience had never seen the conclusion of The Princess Bride.
But they probably knew Hamlet.
One of the reasons I love 18th century literature (or, in this case, not-quite-18th-century-literature) is that it’s such a reminder of what electricity did to change our world. The people who originally read Radcliffe read her novels out loud to each other while sitting in dark rooms lit only by candle light. There are parts of the story that seem nearly innocent because of our modern overexposure to gore and violence, but there was a time when reading about finding a corpse in a dark turret of a lonely castle at night would have been enough to haunt you for days. There’s something fabulous about early horror novels– so fabulous that I want to read them while sitting in a dark room lit only by candle light on a cold and rainy night.
It is not the most amazing writing. The characters are very flat. Our heroine is good and brave and generous. Her parents are good. Her extended relations are foolish and selfish. You don’t have to wonder who the villain is–Radcliffe refers to him as such all the time (pet peeve alert). But if Radcliffe doesn’t leave you to form your own opinion about him, there’s no real need to– since he only ever acts in a villainous way, there isn’t much to discuss about his character. The landscape is given much more attention than the characterization of any of the people, which is one of the areas where the novel really shines. The characters are moving through an agricultural world, where groups of people would sit around and discuss the attributes of the mountains surrounding them. Taking a day trip to see a vista was completely reasonable. I imagine that Radcliffe was one of those people– her love affair with nature comes through whenever the characters move through the world. The natural world looms so large that it becomes a character of itself; a character that dwarfs the people in it and makes their vulnerability and frailty obvious. If I would bring any of Radcliffe’s style into my own writing, her setting description would be what I would choose.
As tempting as corpses in lonely castle turrets are.
All the same, if you’re a horror lover, I can’t imagine that you’d want to pass over the original horror writer. It’s long, it’s very 18th century, but it’s also a view into a way of life that has disappeared — and there are points where it’s heart-poundingly page-turningly good, in the way only a swashbuckling adventure can be.
Neil Gaiman has another cool project, where he asked for writing prompts based on the calendar months to his Twitter feed. In response to an answer from each month, he wrote a flash fiction. Some of them are very wonderful and they’ll only take you about half an hour to read.
Download them (for free) from here. You’ll be glad you did.
I love his sparing use of wonderful and extraordinarily creative details. What’s your favorite part?
An excerpt: A few minutes later, I was in a taxi and heading uptown with my Northern Irish husband and our half-Indian, half-English friend, but that initial hesitation was ominous; the first step on a typical British journey. A hesitation in the face of difference, which leads to caution before difference and ends in fear of it. Before long, the only voice you recognize, the only life you can empathize with, is your own.
Zadie Smith is the author of the truly excellent White Teeth, which I recommend reading. Much like Shakespeare, you can never tell exactly whose side Smith is on, which makes her a fascinating novelist. I think, perhaps, she is on everybody’s.