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Archive for the ‘reading’ Category

The arrival of new appliances later this week mean that I have to move the bookshelves on the stairs. Roused to long-overdue action I’ve been using the necessity to cull books, mostly from historical and children’s fiction. My goal is to eliminate all double rows of books on the shelves, but I’m finding it harder to condemn books than I thought.

The historical fiction will survive with only minor culls; it’s full of books by Gillian Bradshaw, Bernard Cornwell, Robert Graves,. Rosemary Sutcliff, and Henry Trease, and Patrick O’Brian. However, I won’t be keeping the Dudley Popes, which are no more than adequately written, nor the odd library remainder with a wretched-looking cover. Admittedly, I haven’t read any of the twenty or so Georgette Heyers, but I figure that anything Trish liked so well should be worth a read some time; perhaps after I’ve read them all, I’ll keep the best half dozen.

Most of my culls are from the children’s section. I’m keeping the Arthur Ransom series, figuring I’ll read them some day. However, I’ve decided that I can live without most of the Doctor DoLittles, the Green Gables, and the Mary Poppins books.

However, it’s wretched to cull any books, and harder still to cull Trish’s book and the odd volume we bought anticipating having children. But I tell myself that keeping a book I’m not going to re-read is hoarding, and denying others a chance to read is simply wrong. All the same, there’s such a clear history of my life on the shelves that I half-believe I could commit a series of murders more easily than I can discard even books I’m not going to read.

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When I’m an invalid, I want reading that is light, long, and  moderately intelligent. Last week when my left knee decided to complain about its lack of cartilage, my choice was the first half dozen books of Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire or 1632 series. Mostly, the choice fit my requirements, although I have a few reservations about the books.

The premise of the series is simple: A small town in West Virginia suddenly finds itself in Germany in the middle of the Thirty Years’ War. With its technological edge, the town rapidly becomes a major power, allying itself with Gustav Adolphus of Sweden, and history begins to change. Originally a single book, the series has expanded as Flint has thrown open the series to other writers and encouraged fan fiction set in the same universe.

Beyond the actual pages, the series is also interesting because Flint is one of the first science fiction writers to see the possibility in ebooks and free downloads. Although he doesn’t go so far as Cory Doctorow and make all his books available for free downloads, Flint has seen the advantage of releasing his earlier works to keep them available, which means that the first two books in the series are free ebooks.

The series’ attractions are not stylistic ones. Flint and his growing list of co-authors are competent writers at best, and fall into the category of storytellers rather than artists or even strong plotters. Not that there is anything wrong with that; I respect an intelligent light read, and appreciate one in certain moods, such as coming home on public transit at the end of the day or — as recently, when I was doped on ibuprofen.

Rather, the series is interesting for two reasons. First, it deals with European history, a topic that most of his English-speaking audience is likely to know little about. Since the era includes such larger than life characters as Gustav Adolphus, Oliver Cromwell, and Cardinal Richelieu, there is plenty to entertain and inform, although obviously these characters soon start acting in non-historical ways. However, if you do know the characters who appear on its pages, then seeing where and how they depart from our history becomes intriguing – all the more so since Flint and the other writers largely resist the temptation to make antagonists outright or villains.

Second, the early books of the series focus on the West Virginian’s survival strategies. Their technological advantage is limited because they lack the infrastructure to support it, so much of their planning involves figuring how to downgrade their knowledge – for example, they decide to focus on 19th Century firearms rather than modern ones. These survival efforts are all the more interesting because the emergent leader and many of his supporters are unionists, and express a vision of the future that is more idealistic than the conscious or unconscious free market philosophy of most American science fiction.

However, as often happens when you read a series (or a chunk of it) in one sitting, The Ring of Fire series soon reveals itself as formula fiction. Each of the books I have read in the series revolves around a plot against the West Virginians by political opponents. Through devious means and native ingenuity, these opponents seek to even the technological odds against them, but, although these efforts keep the books from being a completely adolescent power fantasy, there is never much doubt that the moderns and their allies will win, amalgamating their noble enemies and forcing the rest into retreat. In other words, American imperialism is still very much a part of these books — even if it is a liberal imperialism — and the outcome is never much in doubt.

Another problem is that the scenes in each book tend to be one of two kinds: talking heads – often politicians – and loving descriptions of battles and action that I can only describe as war-porn.

I can mostly endure the talking heads, although I wouldn’t mind more variation in technique. However, the war porn soon becomes tedious.

By “war porn” I do not mean graphic, nauseating descriptions of violence – which are mostly absent in the series – but a devotion to action sequences for their own sake. For the most part, battles in the Ring of Fire series are not described to give background to individual characters’ actions or to make clear why other events are happening, the way they are in Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series. Instead, from the tone and the undue length of the descriptions, I get the impression that readers are assumed to be as fascinated with the descriptions as the writers are. I’m not, and often amuse myself in them by deciding which scenes could be deleted and thereby speed up the pace of the books.

Yet another problem is the depiction of women. The series is by no means overtly sexist –  although so far, no one has mentioned how family planning might fit into the priorities of the stranded moderns. Rather, the depiction of women tends to be token and limited. With no exception that I can readily recall, major female characters tend have one-note in a way that the male characters don’t: One is an old activist, another wise, another full of revolutionary fervor, and so on. Mostly, too, they tend to be introduced in a quirky love story, after which any attempt to develop them comes to an abrupt halt. I suppose that Flint and the others deserve points for trying, but I’d still like to see one of them tackle a story about a woman with her own concerns someday.

Some of this criticism is probably due to an overdose. After all, no series is supposed to be read over a few days. Still, while I will probably return to the series some time when I want intelligent light reading, for now I find myself in no great hurry to do so.

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Maybe it’s a character flaw, but nostalgia for a technology puzzles me. My bewilderment has last all my adult life, and now, with the all the sentimental preference for paper books over ebooks, it returns to me stronger than ever.

I first became aware of other people’s technology nostalgia when I jumped from a typewriter to a word processor. Did I miss working with carbon paper, or having the choice of redoing a page because of a spelling mistake or getting liquid paper all over everything? Not for a moment. Revision was so much easier on a computer that I barely looked back. The IBM Selectric that I kept in a back closet just in case languished in obscurity for a decade before I realized that I would never use it.

Yet much to my surprise, many people started romanticizing the typewriter. I could understand veteran writers who after several decades were reluctant to mess with their creative processes. But other people insisted that the hum of the computer kept them from concentrating (apparently the even louder hum of an electric typewriter didn’t). Their thoughts, they insisted, were geared to the tap of the keys (as though a century of using typewriters could have produced any significant natural selection in favor of them).

Soon, distressed typefaces that mimicked typewriters with old ribbons or out of alignment keys became a fashion in graphical design. You still see these typefaces occasionally today, a sentimental attachment to all the inefficiencies of the old technology added with more ingenuity than sense to the new technology.

Now, with journalists constantly trumpeting the death of the paper book, the same thing is happening. Suddenly, people are forgetting the tendency of paperbacks to fall apart after one reading (assuming pages didn’t start flying away before then), and talking about the shape and construction of the book – which is largely an accident of cheap production – as something to get sentimental over. Again, I wonder what they are rattling on about.

Not that ebook readers are perfect technologies. You have to learn exactly how hard to tap a paper if they use a touch screen, and how often to refresh so that you can turn a page without a pause interrupting your reading. Every reader, too, could use twice the resolution, even if they have improved considerably from a decade ago. I admit, too, that the end of the standard two page spread leaves me wondering what to do with my spare hand, and that a single page looks odd to my typographically-trained eye.

The mistake that people make is imagining that the medium is the book– which isn’t true for either paper books or ebooks. If it were, then to get the full experience of Catullus or Cicero, we would have to read them on papyrus scrolls. Shakespeare would have to be read on vellum, and Jonathan Swift and George Eliot on rag paper. All of these are simply media.

The book – the play, the oration or the novel – is the words and how they are put together. And that doesn’t change, regardless of whether we read a clay tablet or have the words beamed directly into our brains. If we remember a particular technology fondly, I suspect that it’s because we transfer the pleasure of the words to the medium in which we read them.

Personally, I neither welcome nor decry the rise of ebooks. They have their points, such as reduced storage space or the ability to change fonts, but that’s not what I notice when I read, any more than I notice the convenience and portability of paperbacks, or the smallness of the loss if they fall into the bathtub. When I read, what I notice is the story or the arguments, and the skill in word use. Should I live long enough to see ebooks replaced by something else, I’ll use that something else, just as I use ebooks now.

Like those who romanticized typewriters, the people currently anticipating the end of paper books have lost sight of what’s important when we read. Maybe they’re just afraid of anything that’s new, but the medium is a minor issues so long as we can read without being distracted by inefficiency or inconvenience. What matters is the words. Always.

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When I was twelve, I thought J. R. R. Tolkien the greatest writer in the world. By the time I was 15, I was appreciating Shakespeare, and reading systematically through the collected poems of Byron and Shelley. But it wasn’t until after my bachelor’s degree in English that I could read Dickens for pleasure, and I was doing my master’s before I became a fan of Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, and the other Victorian novelists. These experiences, I believe, indicate something that is often overlooked in high schools and universities – namely, that you can only read a writer in your own time, and when that time occurs is partly dependent on gender.

The question is not just one of age, although those who try to classify young adult fiction would have you believe everything is that simple. Admittedly, my own trail shows a progression in subtlety, from Tolkien’s action-packed adventures to the verbal cleverness of Shakespeare and the iconoclasm and revolutionary spirit of the Romantic poets (so suitable to a boy who believed in social causes), and becomes increasingly nuanced after that. But it is also a matter of increased experience and perception as well.

Just as few great novels are written by anyone under twenty-five, so few great novels are likely appreciated by men under twenty-five. The majority of teenage boys (and I was no exception) simply don’t have the experience to have developed the taste for demanding works when they’re young. The insights that underlie a novel, let alone the rhythms of a strong prose stylist, represent a kind of aesthetic puberty that teenage boys and young men haven’t reached yet. Few of them can appreciate such things any more than a pre-pubescent child can appreciate the intricacies of sex and love.

By contrast, plot-driven stories such as Tolkien’s seem accessible to males at a relatively young age. You only have to see the selection of blockbuster movies aimed at the taste of young males to see the truth of this fact. In much the same way, as a dramatist, Shakespeare externalizes experience, with introspection served up in the breaks in the action represented by the soliloquy. The shift to perception and point of view that is characterized by the novel is subtler than either – and also a relatively recent literary development, and one that wouldn’t have been possible without adventure tales and plays having been developed first.

The trouble is, the average male adolescent, no matter how full of social causes and good intentions, isn’t socially conditioned to want to seek out a female point of view like Austen’s. The definitions of male sexuality in the culture don’t encourage them to be aware that a female point of view even exists. If they do discover it, they are likely to be too egocentric to care much about it. If they approach it at all, they usually do so with reservations.

With the best will in the world, the female perspective is too foreign to them – and the novel, whoever writes it, has always been more about female perspectives than any other structural genre in English (which is why terms such as “chick lit” are nonsense). The average male in modern industrial culture needs five to ten years of relationships and even marriage to appreciate a socially-centered or psychological novel.

By contrast, the female experience seems quite different. Women start off with an advantage because, if they are interested in adventure at all, they have to learn early how to read around the male dominance in such stories. Probably, too, they are ready for the novel earlier, because its territory is more familiar to them – when I was teaching university English, I couldn’t help but notice that in the novel courses I taught, three quarters of the young students were women, while poetry and drama courses tended to have a slight majority of men.

Middle-age is a great equalizer, and I am glad to have arrived at an age where I can view both Tolkien and Hardy as great writers, each in their own way. But when I think of the gender-influenced delays and detours I took, I wish that I could have more daring or imagination and expanded my horizons more quickly. If I had, I could have had another decade or more to enjoy George Elliot! But, considering the odds, maybe I should just be glad that I managed to reach my current perspective at all.

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I’m not a heavy drinker, and, while I appreciate fine food, I don’t stuff myself. But books are another matter. Give me a stack of unread books and the time and place to read them, and I become as gluttonous as anyone.

The habit dates back to my teen years. I’d no sooner get my allowance than I’d descend on the stores to spend it on books. Used books, new books, science fiction, classics, biography, history – it hardly mattered which. After an hour in a book store, I would emerge with a dozen books and rush home to bury myself in my room. Ignoring the parental pleas to come out into the living room and “be sociable,” I’d stretch on the bed, reading intently and staying up as late as possible. In the morning, I’d be at the breakfast table with a book in my hand. If I had to go to school, I’d walk along reading. If I had to go out, I would take along a couple of my new books.

When I reached adulthood, these habits only intensified. When I was in my twenties, I considered the perfect Saturday afternoon a descent upon the local science fiction specialty shop in which I bore home a pile of paperbacks and the odd hardcover for spoils. Just like when I was a child, a good part of my discretionary income went for books.

However, as I grew older, my habits changed. I was no less an avid reader, but except after Christmas or my birthday (when, naturally enough, most people would give me books), my habits became less gluttonous. I’d buy a book or two at a time, and be content. Had I thought of it, I would have said I was a changed man.

Then, about a week ago, I started re-reading a few books by Gillian Bradshaw, the English historical writer. Realizing that the newest one was over a decade old, I started wondering what she had done in the interval. A search on the Internet revealed that not only was she active, but that the local library had at least a dozen titles that I hadn’t read. When Trish checked out five or six, suddenly my book gluttony was back, insatiable as ever.

What triggers the gluttony, I realize now, is not just unread books. It’s books in which I can expect imagination, fine writing, and a variety of them. Although Bradshaw is only one writer, her work stirs the gluttony on all both accounts. Her extrapolations into the remoter regions of the classical past show a convincing imagination, and her understated writing is very much to my taste. Moreover, she writes not only of a variety of classical settings, but also contemporary novels and science fiction for both children and adult. What these things add up to the luxury of choice. When I finish each book, I have a delicious moment when I can stretch and linger over what I am going to devour next.

Fortunately for the rest of my life, these outbursts of gluttony are usually short. But, while they last, I feel wealthier and more privileged than I have any right to feel.

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What skills do English graduates bring to the job market? More than you might think – and far more than all the jokes about their unemployability would have you believe. In fact, many of the skills developed by English markets while reading novels and poems make them ideal for senior positions.

To start with, English majors may be comfortable with reading. I don’t mean simply that they can read; I mean that they can read with some ease. Many read as instinctively as they hear. It has become a reflex in them to read whatever words are put in front of them.

Moreover, because they are comfortable with reading and have practiced it, they can read more quickly than most people.

These may seem like minor skills, but when you consider the number of reports, emails, memos, and other documents that the average manager has to plow through every week, they mean increased efficiency; I’ve known at least one politician who found that the worst parts of being an elected official was reading the weekly paper work.

Even more importantly, English majors may have learned not only to be comfortable with reading, but to have gained some skill in it.

If you look at the comments beneath almost any article published online, one of the first things that will probably strike you is how few people can read a comment in context. More often, people take things out of context, and come up with the most fantastical over-simplifications, exaggerations, and misreadings.

Nor, naturally enough, can the average person summarize accurately. In fact, most of the critical skills that English majors learn when producing essays are beyond the average person. After all, you can hardly analyze or compare accurately when you haven’t read accurately. These skills are especially important if you need to keep abreast of legal matters, but they matter almost as much when you are writing marketing copy, producing a white paper on technology, or writing a business plan or competitive analysis.

Finally, like most Art students, whose grading is based largely on essays, English majors have probably learned to research – to find sources, absorb them quickly, and evaluate them both on their own and in comparison to other sources. In other words, they have learned to process information, and reach conclusions that are logically based upon that information. This ability is continually useful in daily business, and, on the Internet it can be invaluable. After all, what is the Internet, if not a giant library waiting for an expert to use it?

Of course, not every English graduate possesses these skills. Because the subject matter of English Departments is subjective, students can coast through them more easily than they can in other Departments. Even in English graduate school, you can find students who don’t read unless they have to, and whose essays have more to do with striking a pose than actual analysis.

But, having been a product manager and a director of communications, I can’t begin to tell you how often I’ve looked down at the task that I’m doing and realized that what I learned taking an English degree has helped me breeze through it.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, English major do graduate with employable skills – in fact, ones that will help them if they ever become managers or team leaders among the creatives. The only problem is, they don’t realize everything they’ve learned, so they don’t express it.

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Yesterday, my work on the computer was interrupted by a sustained thunder storm. The storm lasted for hours, so I lost an opportunity to work, but, in doing so, I rediscovered my former pleasure in reading as my dominant leisure activity and in writing by hand.

When the first of the thunder rolled out above me, I was about ten minutes from finishing an article. The sound was distant, but I know how quickly a storm can cross the sky. With memories stirring uneasily about how I had lost a couple of chapters of my thesis to lightning directly overhead, I shut down the computer without waiting for a proper shutdown, and finished the article as best I could by hand. Then I started looking for ways to amuse myself, only to realize that I couldn’t do much of what I wanted to do because of the storm.

I couldn’t go for my daily swim, because a pool is high on the list of places you should avoid during a thunder storm. I did a few chores around the house, but most of what I wanted to do required electricity, so they didn’t seem like sensible ideas, either.

As for leisure activities – well, I didn’t think the stories I heard in childhood about lightning leaping through the screen of a TV were likely, especially these days when cable is more common than an antenna, but I didn’t want to take the chance of being wrong. So, no watching the news or a DVD. No music either, except in the portable player.

I did think of working on the laptop, but the battery was low. Besides, to continue my work, I needed an Internet connection, which would expose the laptop to the same risk as any appliance I might use. I hadn’t felt so out of sorts since the power went down a couple of years ago.

Vaguely, I felt ridiculous. After all, I hadn’t had a computer for much of my life. How had I amused myself before? I imagined myself camping, moping around and complaining about the lack of a wireless access point. How, I wondered, had I become so dependent on electronic devices that I had no personal resources to keep myself busy?

Maybe if I went for a run? But that didn’t seem something I should do in a thunder storm, either.
The trouble was, I hadn’t expected to be interrupted. Listlessly, I put a few DVDs away, and did a bit of tidying her and there, still hoping that the storm would pass and I would get my swim after all.

After three hours, I gave up that idea. From the darkness outside, you might have guessed that sunset had arrived, even though it was still two hours away. Lightning kept catching my eyes whenever my head swung towards the window, and on the porch the rain was rattling against the floor like an animal against the bars of its cage.

Reluctantly, I settled down with a light book. When that paled, I started some writing by hand – the old-fashioned way, the way that I preferred before the pressure of deadlines forced me to learn to compose on a computer. Everything was magnificent, but also a bit frightning.

Both activities felt surprisingly comfortable. How long had it been, I wondered, since I read as my dominant leisure activity, instead of reading a few pages here and there on breaks during my day? Probably not since the last time I was sick in bed, when I couldn’t really appreciate it. As for writing, it had been years since I had scrawled more than a paragraph that arrived in my head in the middle of the night. Yet both were surprisingly pleasant activities – productive, but somehow less rushed than reading or writing on the computer.

Naturally, I logged on to the computer as soon as the storm seemed safely past. Nor do I regret doing so. For efficiency and ease of use, computers are impossible to beat, and in most ways I don’t regret my dependency on them.

Still, there is something to be said for the total relaxation of reading a paperback sprawled back on a couch, and words written by hand somehow seem to express thoughts more accurately than a keyboard could ever hope to.

I doubt that I’ll do either as much as I did in my pre-computer days, but both are sufficiently satisfying that I think I’ll make more time for them. In some ways, I’ve missed them.

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