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Posts Tagged ‘reading’

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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Ever since I learned to read, I’ve been a chain reader, sometimes literally finishing one book and picking up another one. Books have been my refuge from the bleakness and bad news of the day, a way to while away time while in line at the store, and my companion on constant rides on transit and planes. I even shave while reading to alleviate the boredom of the task (obviously, I use a safety razor). And, inevitably, I re-read.

The first time I read a book, I may have many motivations. Obviously, I need to have an interest in the topic or the writer, but I’m not a very discriminating reader, so that hardly narrows down why I might read something – everything from graphic novels to Middle English poetry might seem interesting to me in different moods. At times, I read because the writer has a reputation, and I want to push back the boundaries of my ignorance a furlong or two. At other times, I read because I’ve been given a book (I count heavily on friends to urge on me books that I might not pick for myself, and, often enough, I find myself pleasantly surprised). Still other times, I read because nothing better is at hand.

However, why I re-read is easier to delineate. I rarely re-read non-fiction from cover to cover, although I might return to particular pages when researching or needing to prod my memory. Mostly, what I re-read is fiction. If I was trying to be a snob, I would claim that I re-read only worthwhile books, but that would be a half-truth. Unless my tastes change, I doubt I’ll re-read standards of the literary canon like Henry James or Anthony Trollope; I recognize that their writing shows some skill, but, like opera, it’s a skill I recognize without appreciating.

It would be more exact to say that I re-read fiction whose skill has impressed me with its craft, regardless of how the canon regards it: Charles Dickens, but also Wilkie Collins; John Fowles and Lawrence Durrell, but also any number of writers who labored their life away in the science fiction ghetto.
What others think of my taste makes little difference to me (although I confess I can’t quite bring myself to read graphic novels on the bus). Instead, what matters is that the work shows some skill. The over-maligned Stephen King, for instance, is a master at pacing and observation of Americana – two skills that are usually missing from the academic’s checklist for greatness, but which average readers reward unconsciously by purchasing his work.
However, the books I re-read the most are those that are not only give aesthetic pleasure, but also reinforce my world view. Three books (or series) in particular come to mind: T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, which shaped my sense of right and wrong; J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, from which I learned the core values of endurance and rising to the occasion; and Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin novels, which idealize friendship and a detached but amused view of the world while also offering historical adventure in the 19th century British navy.

Probably, you could gauge my character very accurately, not only from the common nature of these books – none, notably, have a modern or mundane setting – but also from the number of times I’ve re-read them. White I’ve re-read at least a dozen times since childhood, and Tolkien – the last time I checked – over 33 times, a number that astonishes me as I write it. By contrast, I have only read the twenty or so novels in O’Brian’s series three times through, but, then, I came to them much later that the other two, and they probably amount to two or three times the words of White’s and Tolkien’s classics. I’m re-reading O’Brian now, savoring favorite lines (“Jack, you have debauched my sloth”) and finding new subtleties.

The chances are, I’ll re-read all three – to say nothing of other favorites – many times in the rest of my life. However, I doubt I’ll re-read any of them as many times again as I already have. As I grow older, I am more jealous of time, and more aware of all that I have still to read. In fact, probably a new book has to impress me more than my classics did before I’ll re-read it in preference to moving on to something new. But a change of heart or a prolonged illness might change that, and, even if they don’t, I still expect many hours of pleasure ahead with my old favorites.

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One of the major events of my life was taking speech therapy when I was six. More than any other event, it is responsible for me becoming a writer. Probably, too, it is responsible for my sometimes bloody-minded tenacity and wish to prove myself.

My problem was that I pronounced a hard “k” sound as “t,” so that that “cat” came out as “tat.” It wasn’t much of a problem in kindergarten, although I once overheard someone’s mother asking if I was “retarded” (as the term was in those unenlightened days).

But Grade One was another matter. The class was divided into groups for practicing reading. The groups were named for colors, but, even at six, I could tell the group that I was dumped into was for slow learners. One girl in my group later struggled along for several grades before leaving for a school for the mentally challenged, while another boy was notoriously slow all through school.

Young elitist in the making that I was, I resented being lumped in with these people. And looking back, I’m appalled – how does a pronounciation problem come to be associated with a lack of intelligence? But I was also an overactive child, often charging about and speaking too quickly, and often my left-handedness left me clumsy. So possibly there was more behind the diagnosis.

Still, at least my parents and teacher, or some combination of them, decided I would go to speech therapy. So, after school, I started going regularly to a speech therapist, a pale-skinned woman with a haircut like Jackie Kennedy’s and what I remember as endless patience as I struggled through the verbal exercises she gave me.

The outing was an exciting chance of pace, but I just could not get what the therapist was trying to tell me. I tried to position my tongue and other parts of the mouth the way she showed me, but somehow I just couldn’t. Even when she held my tongue down with a tongue depressor, I didn’t have much luck.

By the accident of being at the right place at the wrong time, I became the poster-boy for that year’s March of Dimes, imitating a deaf boy with a headset so I could hear myself speak. But I still had the speech defect. Nobody said anything, but I could sense the concern in the discussions after each session between my mother and the therapist. Somehow, I wasn’t measuring up.

Then, suddenly – I could do it! I could hardly wait until the next reading practice to demonstrate my newfound pronounciation ability. Opportunely, the piece from the reader I was given was given over to the adventures of ducks, so I had plenty of chance to show off.

The experience left me with a preciseness of speech that sometimes gets mistaken for an English accent, as well as the abilty to enounciate clearly while barely moving my lips. Both traits survive to this day.

More importantly, it left with the feeling that I had to make up for lost time. Within a couple of months of correcting my speech defect, I was devouring the Hardy Boy series, and sitting in the advanced readers’ group. At the year’s end, when I was recognized as top student, the book I received – Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories – was already seeming a little slow to me (It was only later that I learned to treasure it).

That summer, I tried my first story, written in a notebook and concerninga pack of wild dogs. Its plot, if I remember correctly, revolved around dog thieves, and one exceptionally bright dog’s ability to remember the last three digits of the serial number of the van used by the thieves to carry out their dirty deeds. By the next school year, I was well into Alexander Dumas, and not looking back.

Books had always been a part of my life, and my mother had spent long hours reading to me. But, looking back, it was the inability to communicate properly that really roused my interest in words, and the unspoken shame of being in the slow readers’ group that made me determined to not only master reading and writing, but to excel in them. Although I soon stopped comparing myself to anyone else and gave myself over to the pure delight of language, the fierce joy of those drives, once created, never diminished. I wouldn’t have been an English instructor, a technical writer, or a journalist without them. Maybe, too, I wouldn’t have had the tenacity to become a long distance runner, either.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t had a pronounciation problem. Would I still have developed along the same lines? Or would I have gone in a different direction, or even coasted?

It bothers me, too that so much of the direction of my life should be due to over-compensation. I mean, surely I could have found direction without going through unpleasant experiences. Did my life really have to be so Freudian? Or did speech therapy simply awaken inclinations that were already part of my brain-patterns?

But it’s not as though I was aware of any choice at the time. All I knew at the time was that I was going to prove everyone wrong about me – and, ever since, I haven’t been the same.

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