Tag Archives: Reading

365+ Books & a Few Good Stories

“Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly.”

― Cornelia FunkeInkheart

I read every day for a year. I have been a voracious reader all my life but events eroded my time and my enthusiasm and I read very little for a number of years, until last October. In the middle of a collapsing life in a collapsing civilization, with panic keeping me up all night, I began staying up half the night to read and blog about books. Some of those books were sheer crap. Some were really really pedestrian. Quite a few left me wondering how they ever got published. A far smaller number stunned me with their inventiveness, imagination, eloquence and brilliance. I met memorable characters. I waded through mudflats of stereotypes, caricatures, and just plain stupid attempts to put people on the page–lots of fails. Reading so much made me hungry for really good books.

Discovered anew there are no new stories. I can predict plots fairly well–comes of having been a bookish child–and I honed that skill appreciably by reading every day. The daily word count forced me to finish a lot of books I would have abandoned and sadly set aside big fat tomes I would have worked through for as long as it took. I’m happy to have freedom of choice back. But I’m interested to note that I’m a lot calmer about the wreckage of the world I knew than I was last year. There are other worlds, just next to this one. We can choose to inhabit them if they appeal to us more. It is necessary to acknowledge that, though, and most people would think it madness. Read enough books and madness comes to resemble sanity.

I will keep reading but I’m shifting the lion’s share of my time, outside of the typing-for-pennies work, to my own writing. I have no illusions about what it takes to make up stories but I’m well aware now that the time is a luxury. Aware as well that time is the one irreplaceable currency. There are many ways to access better worlds than this limited and shabby one–music, theatre, art, sailing, contemplation, reading books, writing them.  A book is a passage to somewhere else it might be worth exploring. Capturing stories in words is a bridge to a world you create–and who can say it is any less real than the dreams and nightmares we trudge through now?

“Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.”
― Voltaire

Once upon a time, I thought the challenge of reading a-book-a-day would save me. Instead it reminded me that I am perfectly capable of saving myself. And I have stacks of unread volumes piled all over the house for the hours every day when I will gratefully open the covers and step inside a story. Humans are narratives. That’s not a metaphor. We are just a bunch of swirling molecules we perceive in the shape of a story. Every single person–told or unrecounted–is a story.  That’s enough reason for hope.

“Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.” 
― Miguel de Cervantes SaavedraDon Quixote

The end.

Hundreds…

So far, I haven’t even hit the one-third mark in a year of reading a book a day. But I have logged more than one hundred books and a trillion hours of reading and some serious blog time. The epiphanies have been much more modest than the effort and they are more like observations than revelations. But there are a few.

Many books that seem juicy and eminently readable are HUGE—800 pages or more. Many. This is really really difficult to manage when you are juggling making a living and running a house at the same time. Skip too much sleep and your eyes go blurry—reading speed slows and the brain turns to mush. Skip the rest of life and no one gets fed, the rabbit runs out of hay and paying work evaporates like ocean spume on black sand. I started Marukami’s 1Q84 and had to return it to the library before I was finished. And it was good—I wanted to read it but it wasn’t happening in one day. Back on the endless library list now to check it out again so I can discover whether the entire book is as good as the beginning. Tackled a massive life of Mahler, another doorstop, and dropped it back in the book bin. Deadly. Not worth the epic read to get it finished.

One casualty of the daily deadline is reflection. I have to forego savoring clever or beautiful writing—or contemplating imaginative ideas—when it’s essential to push on through and complete the book. On the plus side, how fiction works and how language supports it get clearer and clearer the more books I read. A good biography will typically have a classic hero’s journey, even if the hero loses in the end. A good mystery will weave a believable world around a murder with no false step to jar you out of it. Some genres that I never read but pick up now to add variety to this daily adventure are actually entertaining—romance, for example, although I doubt I will ever spend too much time in the land of brooding heroes and heaving bosoms.

So, how is this changing my life? Obviously, it’s eating my time. I’m working my way through a lot of books. I’m also forced to produce some writing every day, tired or not, inspired or not. That has to be good practice for a procrastinating writer. And I have reinforced the knowledge that, if I sit down and begin, I will always find something to write. Never fails. I have more respect for genre books now—I always liked certain kinds but, a hundred books in, I understand that they are often more readable and enjoyable than the well-reviewed “literary” novels that display a mastery of dog-and-pony tricks but don’t pull me into a world. I still want characters who care about things and count for something. Being trapped in a book with a self-absorbed nihilist is a fate akin to falling in love with a vampire—it can never end well and the experience will probably be very painful to boot.

My suspicion is that reading a book every day for a year is an odd kind of creative writing MFA. Some of the stories are very good, some not, but all of the books have a narrative to discern, and lit tricks to make the puzzle pieces fit. I’m better at picking them out. The randomness of the books I select increases the odds that I will learn as much about how to make a book as I do about the women who changed paleontology or where to sit when straddling a dragon in-flight. A book I might consider a fail has as much to reveal about the art of writing as a clear, fluent read with every note pitch-perfect.

I love reading and I’m not sick of it yet, although keeping a stack of books on hand requires a constant hustle. This challenge has intensified my appreciation for the public library. We should treasure our libraries; we would be savages and philistines without them. And one more trivial observation—the doorstop books are awkward to heft and uncomfortable to hold after a while. Their weight and bulk make a compelling case for the convenience of a slim, lightweight e-reader, however much you prefer the experience of curling up with a good, turn-the-paper-pages book.