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Posts Tagged ‘reading’

So I have a post in the works containing my thoughts about the Amazon Kindle, which I (quite unexpectedly) found myself in possession of this Christmas. In addition to transferring some knitting patterns and Instapaper documents to it, I’ve read Syzygy by Amanda Borenstadt and am in the process of reading Jane Eyre.

Or rather, I was in the process of reading Jane Eyre. And then this happened.

That's two-thirds of Agatha Christie's face.

Let’s just say it involved an unfortunate accident with folding laundry and leave it at that. I feel pretty awful, since this was a gift from my future father-in-law, and I’d owned it for all of a month and three days before this happened. But I’m going to see about replacing it.

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Well, I am back, sort of. At any rate I have survived the end of the semester, with all its grading and being graded, and I am happy to say I am now living in a clean apartment.

In a week I’m heading to California for the rest of May, but in the meantime I am compiling summer’s lists. There is a list for writing, a list for teaching (I am preparing to teach a creative writing summer course June-August), and a list for reading.

The last could go on inexhaustibly, if my memory were better. It keeps getting longer as I remember things that should go on it, or discover other things.

At first I thought of this list as divided between Things I Want To Read, and Things I Should Read. But the reality is that I want to read most of the books on it, or they wouldn’t be there to begin with. So the categories end up looking more like this.

1. Things I Want To Read For Pure Enjoyment

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (Susanna Clarke)
The Sea Wolf (Jack London)
Let the Great World Spin (Colum McCann)
A Countess Below Stairs (Eva Ibbotson)
Broken Vessels (Andre Dubus)
The Maze Runner (James Dashner)

2. Fiction I Want To Read To Benefit My Own Writing (but intend on enjoying thoroughly)

The Necessary Grace to Fall (Gina Ochsner)
The Things They Carried (Tim O’Brien)
Winesburg Ohio (Sherwood Anderson … I should have read this ages ago)

3. Nonfiction That Has To Do With Writing and Literary Matters

Mystery and Manners (Flannery O’Connor)
Art and Scholasticism (Jacques Maritain)
A Moveable Feast (Ernest Hemingway)
The StAR Review
AWP Chronicle (I never read this during the semester)

4. Spiritual Reading

Introduction to the Devout Life (Francis de Sales)
The Intellectual Life (Sertillanges)
Truth and Tolerance (Benedict XVI/Cardinal Ratzinger)
Waiting for God (Simone Weil)

That is, at least, a beginning.

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The first time I was asked to do a reading, I was ridiculously nervous. It was in front of about 80 people, most of whom were strangers (was that better or worse?). I had chopped up my story because it was too long to read all of it, and wasn’t sure if it was going to work. The reading was part of a larger end-of-the-semester English ceremony, a combination Sigma Tau Delta induction and Rock Writing release party. The reading came near the end, and I was nervous and dry-mouthed through most of the ceremony.

But when I stood up and faced everyone and started to read, the nerves went away. It was like the words belonged in my voice. At least, words and voice certainly knew what to do with each other. The words carried me, and my story came off of the page and lived.

Since then I was invited to read at Your Inner Vagabond coffee shop (now closed, sadly) and Pitt’s MFA reading series. It is much the same experience, and always begins with nervousness, with a feeling of the inadequacy of my writing. But the words always carry me as I read. They open out into the world and it is beautiful.

I’m pretty sure this is not because my writing is breathtakingly brilliant. Perhaps it is because words are meant to be spoken. Perhaps because we write stories to share them, and reading them aloud is much more immediate and intimate.

All this because I have found a recording of Flannery O’Connor reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and her lecture, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” This has made my month.

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A few weeks ago Maud Newton and Sven Birkerts were scheduled to speak at Pitt about The Future of the Book. Then snow happened and things got postponed.

However, this did not stop us students in Cathy Day’s workshop from reading selections of Birkerts The Gutenberg Elegies and watching the panel that Maud moderated about “Literature in a Digital Age.”

I am of two minds about this whole digitization of the book thing. Part of me reacts with a visceral sort of disgust. Or I guess several parts of me. One part is just traditional about things–and this inevitably affects other parts of me. Such as the part of me that already spends too many hours looking at computers both out of necessity and addiction to social networking sites, and needs a break from screens. And of course, there’s the part of me that simply loves books: in my hands, in bookstores, on bookshelves. I love the thing-ness of them. I love owning them. Every time another row fills up on a bookshelf, it gives me pleasure. I even love books about books, like Inkheart and The Book Thief.

At the same time I don’t think all books are created equal. It is the content that determines the value. They are not some mystical entity to be worshiped. That part of me doesn’t freak out about books becoming digital. A more reasonable part that says “wait and see,” that tells me not to get riled up. Not only wait and see if digitization is for better or for worse, but if it really will become the way people read fiction. One of my favorite authors once said that as soon as he heard that an innovation was “here to stay,” he knew it wouldn’t be around that long. I don’t know if that’s the case for ebooks, but the principle makes sense to me. Both those who defend and demonize ebooks start sounding too much like prophets.

Either way, I don’t believe that the nature of narrative, of story, changes according to the medium. Perhaps the delivery is affected, similarly to the changes that occur between printed and oral storytelling; but it remains the same art. And when I think of books, I guess that’s what I think of—the ones that hold stories, as opposed to the ones that store information.

In his Elegies Birkerts argues that the way we receive information changes our experience, and I do agree with this. I’ve always had very little patience when reading fiction on a screen. I start skimming, I get bored, I can’t sink in and take pleasure in it. Maybe this is just me, but there is a different feel to it. But I don’t think that fiction itself changes much when translated into a digital form. Last week I went to the panel Joel Lovell organized, and the future of reading was discussed, along with all the different possibilities that digitization opened up. One of the opinions given was that while nonfiction (magazines, newspapers, and other forms) would change, fiction (especially the novel) would not.

In the panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival, Dwight Garner stated that even if fancy extras are added to fiction in digitized form, real readers will push past all the extras, will ignore them and actually read. This makes sense to me. It reminds me of the interviews with the author you sometimes find in the backs of books, especially young adult fiction; they are not the story, not what stays with us. They are not the experience.

I can see literary journals going digital, short stories being published online. And I can see the market for ebooks growing. But I honestly don’t think that the novel in book form will become outdated. Digital reading is about convenience. We want convenience when finding information, reading the news. And it’s convenient to be able to take several books on a single device when you vacation or commute or whatever.

But people read fiction to relax, to receive pleasure, to experience something. It isn’t about convenience. And I think that, aside from the novelty (which provides a different sort of pleasure), reading novels on a Kindle or and iPad won’t fit that need—at least not for many people; not the way books do. We are not just walking brains. We have eyes that need to rest from screens; we have fingers that touch things. We’re material creatures, and things in their thingness matter, because they speak to our materiality.

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