Day 30: How to Get in the Reading Habit

This is a bit supplemental, but along with my book list and thoughts on lit from yesterday, important.

I read a lot. This year I decided to track how many new books I read in a year. I set a goal of 175, to read before Jan. 1, 2013.

I hit that goal last week.

That’s a LOT of books. (No, to my father, who reads this: I did not BUY all of those 175 books!)

So, people always ask: “How do you read that many books?” or, its companion, “I never have time to read.”

Part of it is reading is in my DNA. I can’t imagine not having a book with me wherever I go. I might forget my wallet or my cellphone, but a book? Never. I read in the tub, for pete’s sake.

Where I’d spend most of my time, if I could.

Second, I’m usually reading several books at one time. This is carryover from college. Two liberal arts majors means a lot of reading, so I had to be able to juggle books for Brit Lit Survey with 19th Century American Lit, and foreign policy. Again, habit. ¬†But this also means I can finish books faster, because if one book is lagging, or is dense (like¬†Catherine the Great, which I’m reading now–it’s dense. Good, but dense), I can switch to something a bit faster or lighter. That’s an important thing to remember–not all books are “equal” in the time it takes them to read. I can polish off the new Alexander McCall Smith novel in an hour or so.¬†Wolf Hall¬†took me a¬†lot¬†longer, partially because I was enjoying the writing, and partially because there’s a lot going on there.

(This doesn’t mean I don’t love AMcS–I do. He’s in my top five contemporary authors. I just mean his books read very easily.)

One of my many bookshelves

Third, I like a wide variety of books. I will read just about anything. I love kid lit (I’m a huge fan of Rick Riordan’s mythology series–Percy Jackson, Heroes of Olympus, and the Kane Chronicles), but I also will read books on creativity or science or schizophrenia. (Yes. For fun. I’m weird.)

Fourth, I have friends who like to read, so we’re constantly swapping recommendations.

If you want to get into the reading habit, like anything else, it takes practice. But my first suggestion is to find what you like, and then go for it! I love discovering new authors just for this purpose, because there’s a whole new bunch of books to start reading. They don’t have to be classics (although I’d prefer if you didn’t read Dan Brown. Please? Plleeeeeeease?). ¬†They don’t have to be big or impressive.

As a kid, I would go into the school library and just grab books that looked good, and then check them out. I suggest this as a way to start, if you’re really lost. Or check out those books you “should have” read, but never got around to (see my book list!). I did this post-college with the Russian authors. My focus was British Literature in school, so post-school, I did a “Big Russian Novel” for a few summers. That way I plowed through¬†Anna Karenina, The Idiot,¬†and¬†The Brothers Karamazov.¬†I have¬†War and Peace, but that might just never happen. This summer, I read A Farewell To Arms, and Steinbeck, a few years back:¬†East of Eden. Other books I read this way:¬†almost all of Thomas Hardy and Edith Wharton (I’m still working on both of them); Dante’s¬†Divine Comedy;¬†Madame Bovary; Notre-Dame de Paris;¬†Charlotte Bronte’s¬†Villette¬†(ring a bell?),¬†Frankenstein; Dracula; Middlemarch,¬†and essentially all of Dickens, except for¬†Hard Times, which I read in college (and didn’t really like).¬†A Tale of Two Cities¬†is one of my all-time favorites. Now, these might all sound like hard, school-y books. Here’s a recommendation: watch the BBC versions (the recent ones, like¬†Bleak House¬†with Gillian Andersen, or¬†Little Dorrit ) and¬†then¬†go read the books. This works especially well with Dickens, because his later books (like the two I just mentioned) are so dense.

Biographies are also a good place to start, or history. I love British, French and Russian history. Colonial history is my favorite part of American history, so I’ve read¬†John Adams¬†and¬†1776.¬†¬†Pick a part of history you like and go for it. Kids books are actually a great¬†place to start here. My love of royal history started with the¬†Dear America¬†diary series!

The point is, to read. Keep books around, dip into them at your leisure. It’s not school. There will be no test, no quizzes, no “which characters were in Starbuck’s boat in chapter whatever of¬†Moby-Dick” (yes, that was a question on a pop quiz in my 19th Century American Lit class. This could be why I am so averse to Melville…)?

Part of the Jane collection, top shelf; autobiographies and memoir, second shelf.

Even when I’ve been able to do very little else–when sitting up was hard–I could always read. Granted, it might not make a lot of sense, but I did it! (I read¬†Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince¬†in the CICU post-transplant. Let me tell you, I had some plot twists in there that JK Rowling¬†never¬†thought of…) You don’t need a Nook, although I have one, and it makes sharing fun. Reading can be free!

What’s your favorite type of book to read? Do you branch out in your reading, or do you stick to one subject?

30 Important Books, No. 12: On Being Catholic

If you’ve read any of my blogs for any amount of time, you know I’m Catholic. Really Catholic. So it shouldn’t be surprising that a lot of my important books are Catholic ones.

This one,¬†On Being Catholic, is one that I regularly shove into people’s hands. It’s written by Professor Thomas Howard (he’s an English prof, so his writing style definitely appeals to me), who’s also a convert to Catholicism. The book covers a lot of topics, but what gets me is the awe, the wonder, the¬†power¬†that Howard’s writing infuses in things that can be “ordinary.”

On Being Catholic

When you’ve been in a religion your entire life, you get used to it, right? It’s like anything else. I get up in the morning and I drive to work, and very rarely do I think about the driving itself. I’m thinking about my schedule, or the words to the song I’m singing, or the weather. It’s only if I’m driving in ice or snow or something else that I think about the act of driving.

Mass used to be the same way, but this book blew that open for me. Almost every page of this book has my notes or scribbles in it, so I apologize in advance to whomever I lend it to–they’re going to have to deal with my notations. (Once an English major, always an English major. My best loved books are often quite scribbly.)

You can read the book either for information, or as meditation. Howard talks about the Mass, the sacraments, what male and female mean in Catholic life, prayer, and other topics, including the Bible and how it relates to Catholicism (yes, we do read it….!).

It’s not a book for everyone, but it’s a book I dearly love.

Day 29: The universal power of literature

Today we’re going back in time, to my Brit Lit I Survey Class at Capital University, fall of 2001.

Yes, that was a Big Fall for a lot of us. (9/11, me-almost-dying-and-spending-two-plus-weeks-in-the-ICU-scaring-everyone-to-death)

But before–and during, and after–that, there were classes.

My Brit Lit survey class was taught by my favorite English professor, Dr. Summers, and had one of my best friends in it. It was a full class–we had about 25, 30 kids–and we were reading literature from Beowulf to Shakespeare/the Restoration. (Brit Lit Survey II started with the Romantic poets and went to the end of the 20th century.) Not only was the reading great, but the discussions were awesome. There were a lot of smart, engaged kids in that class. We met every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 11 a.m., so when class was over, Richelle and I would walk to the Main Dining Room and have lunch. It was pretty perfect.

The “quad” at Capital University, my alma mater

One of the things we talked about was the idea of universal experiences. Do universal experiences exist? Some students argued no; our lives are too different. What does my life and the life of someone in, say, Bangladesh have in common?

I argued that we do have a lot in common with each other: for starters, birth, death, and love. Each of us will be born. Each of us will die. Each of us will experience love–either receiving it, giving it, sharing it, falling in it, knowing the lack of it…in some way, love will touch everyone’s lives. It’s inescapable. Everything else may be negotiable, but not these three things.

Literature brings everyone closer. C.S. Lewis said, “we read to know we’re not alone.” Great books leave time behind and immerse us in the world of the novel, the poem, the play. We feel Cordelia’s despair when she cannot “heave [her] heart into her mouth.” We cringe with Elizabeth Bennet when her mother makes a fool of herself at the Netherfield Ball. We love Tiny Tim and rejoice in Scrooge’s change of heart. Voldermort’s death is celebrated, Dorothy gets to go home, and Scarlett reminds us that tomorrow is another day. We climb the turrets of Notre Dame with Quasimodo, and are swept into Russia by Dostoevksy’s incomparable epics. I’ve never been to Greece, but when I read¬†The Odyssey, I can imagine dawn’s rosy fingers rising over the wine-dark sea. I’ve never been in jail, but I can understand and know the despair and the pain from reading Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Books grow and change with us. I own a lot of books, and sometimes, when people come to my house and see all the books everywhere, they ask why. Why read a book more than once? You know the ending.

The book doesn’t change.¬†I¬†change. Although a good book is always good (C.S. Lewis again–a children’s book is only good if it speaks to adults and children alike), what I get out of it can change wildly. I hated¬†Wuthering Heights¬†the first time I read it. I thought the characters were awful. No one acts like that! But when I read it just a few years later, having been in that kind of passionate love, I liked it much better. I’ll never go out onto the moors and night and yell “Cathy!” while banging my head against a tree, but I can understand what drives Heathcliff to do it.

Words and stories can unite us and show what we have in common, which is so much more than what divides us. All cultures share stories, whether by mouth or by papers passed down through generations. Fairy tales are a great example of that–there’s a Cinderella, a Red Riding Hood, a Snow White almost everywhere in the world. The defeat of evil and the triumph of good are universally desired.

When we think of all the things that make us different–let’s look at the things that are the same. Literature is a great place to start.

Once upon a time…

Day 28: A book list

We’re winding down here in the 31 Days, and we’ve covered a lot! But now we’re getting into the randoms. I still hope, however, that you’ll find good things here.

I love a good book list, and since we’re getting into winter and staying indoors, it might be time to investigate some new reads. Along with the books we’ve discussed here, this is a list of books I wrote a few years ago that I consider must-reads. Give it a glance and add some of them to your reading list!


Day 27: Fairy Tale Poll!

OK, so now that we’ve discussed these tales, included how they’ve been changed, what version is your favorite?

Let’s have a poll!

Feel free to explain your answer  in the comments!