Sunday, October 31, 2010

50 Books

It started with Charlotte’s Web and ended with Shoeless Joe. In the past four years, from 2007 to 2010, I’ve read 50 books. How do I know this? In 2007 I began to write down each book that I finished, and I kept it up year after year. I don’t know why I decided to do this. Maybe it was my way of monitoring what I was reading, like the way a dieter counts calories and plans meals. I wanted to see exactly what kind of reading habit I have. Rest assured that I’ve read each of these books cover to cover. There are plenty of books I’ve partially read, maybe to finish someday, but they won’t make the list until they’re done. I start a new list each year and keep an overall record.

Nothing spectacular, just a list. And, regrettably, that list had gotten shorter over the last couple of years. Last year I read less than 10 books. But when I looked back at all the lists and saw that there was a cumulative total of 50 books, I realized that maybe these lists were a bigger deal than I thought. The number seemed big, for one thing, because it didn’t seem like I had read all that much, especially since I feel like I neglect reading more than I should. But it gave me hope and made me proud that I had read so many. But more importantly, it helped me to see what kind of books I was choosing and not just the number, and even though it is only a list, it tells a lot about how I’ve grown as a reader.

Consider that four years ago I had never even heard of Twilight. Also, during the last four years, I got to read the final book in the Harry Potter series (along with the rest of the world), discovered author Shannon Hale, and fell in love with The Secret Life of Bees. These are all significant events for me and a huge part of my reading experience.

What else? It’s worth noting that most of the books I’ve read in the past four years are children’s and young adult literature titles. That is a MAJOR evolution from what my reading habit was ten years ago, around the time I graduated high school. Being the book geek that I was, I entered college determined to learn all about the “important” authors. Instead I ultimately ended up rediscovering my lost passion for children’s and YA literature, with books like Walk Two Moons, The Devil’s Arithmetic, Holes, and Beauty, so that by the time I graduated college, my reading habits were changing dramatically, which is apparent to me now because of the record I've kept over the years since.

But back then I was a student, so naturally I read, learned about, and gravitated toward the classics. If this list had started in high school, I guarantee you it would have started out showing the opposite than it does now, with more classics than YA titles. Maybe the change is more apparent to me because I know what my reading tastes were before I started making a list, but trust me, it’s there. That’s not to say I’ve abandoned the classics or other genres altogether. Far from it. In the past four years, I've read a Shakespeare play I hadn't read before (The Merchant of Venice), read some American history (In the Heart of the Sea, Devil in the White City), and read classics from both British and American literature, from Pygmalion and Our Town to White Fang and Jane Eyre. But the list shows that my range has definitely opened up.

Another big and telling part of the list is what’s NOT there: Jane Austen, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Lord of the Rings, to name but a few. Has it really been four years, maybe longer, since I’ve read any of these books/authors? (I know it’s been 9 years since LOTR because I read that before any of the films came out and haven’t since.) For shame. I guess I’ll have to remedy that in the next 50 books.

Is the list useful? Yes, because it helps me to see where I’ve been and to draw a map for where to go next, to remember and to reflect. Is it important? Yes and no, because, though useful, a list cannot accurately describe the true purpose of reading. If anything, it’s amazing to see what I’ve read over time and to think that every book I’ve read will always be a part of me. Next on the list? I don’t know, but whatever I do, I'll keep adding to the list.

In conclusion, here is the current list, in order, from 1 to 50.

1. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
2. The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
3. The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
4. Princess Academy by Shannon Hale
5. The BFG by Roald Dahl
6. Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink
7. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
8. Forever in Blue: The Fourth Summer of the Sisterhood by Ann Brashares
9. Nancy Drew #38: The Mystery of the Fire Dragon by Carolyn Keene
10. The Ghost Belonged to Me by Richard Peck
11. The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
12. The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
13. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
14. Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain
15. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
16. In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
17. Q-Squared (A Star Trek novel) by Peter David
18. Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan
19. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
20. Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder
21. Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis
22. White Fang by Jack London
23. A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry
24. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
25. New Moon by Stephenie Meyer
26. Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer
27. The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
28. Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer
29. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
30. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larsen
31. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
32. The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder
33. A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Vile Village by Lemony Snicket
34. The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale
35. Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi
36. Five Patients by Michael Crichton
37. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
38. A Season of Gifts by Richard Peck
39. Eldest by Christopher Paolini
40. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
41. Harry, A History by Melissa Anelli
42. Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes
43. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien
44. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
45. Touch Blue by Cynthia Lord
46. Enna Burning by Shannon Hale
47. On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder
48. Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl
49. Our Town by Thornton Wilder
50. Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella

Friday, May 28, 2010

Unfinished Business

There are so many books I’ve started but have yet to finish:

Redwall by Brian Jacques
A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
The Once and Future King by T.H. White
Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien
Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

In addition, I’ve only finished two books so far this year, Harry, A History by Melissa Anelli and Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes. So it’s been slow-going in terms of reading recently, and that’s my fault. What’s to blame? Procrastination? To some extent, yes, I have been putting my reading off. But I do read. Here a little, and there a little. I have made some progress, but it’s still not enough. So if it isn’t all procrastination, then what is it?

First off, you shouldn’t feel obligated to finish every book you start. Don’t torture yourself if you don’t like a book. Reading is supposed to be fun. If it helps, there is one rule that helps me decide whether I want to finish a book or not. Whenever you begin a book, you should read 100 pages before giving up on it entirely. (If the book is less than 100 pages, I’d try and read at least half of it.) One hundred pages isn’t that much, and I think you’ll find that if you really looked into it, most books are barely getting started at that point. But every book deserves at least that much before you dismiss it. Whether you like what you read depends on the book, or even the mood you’re in while reading the book. Don’t always blame the book if it’s not capturing your attention. Sometimes the reader is at fault, but that’s okay. Try again later.

So you’ve decided you like a book. What next? Because I should mention that all the books I’ve listed above are all good books and ones I sincerely want to finish. And I do get around to them occasionally. So why haven’t I finished them yet? The answer: Too many books. Yes, I read, but only a little at a time, and when I do, it’s always a different book. Also, perhaps along the way, I’ve lost interest because I can’t get lost in a book the way I should when I have so many others I’m reading too. Doing too much at once can be just as unproductive as not bothering to do something at all.

I hate multitasking. It’s a vice as pernicious as procrastination, in my opinion. Personally I think there’s no such thing, or if it does exist in some form, that it doesn’t get as much done as people would like to believe. In my experience, you just end up with a bunch of undone or half-done tasks, and when you do manage to complete something, you risk it not being as well done as it should be. Like my books. It sure sounds like procrastination, doesn’t it? You get the same results anyway. Okay then, if procrastination is the lazy man’s weakness, then multitasking is the busy man’s weakness. Both are poor excuses.

In conclusion, reading is like any other task or goal in life. You have to commit to doing it if you want to get it done. Once I hunker down and decide that a book is worth finishing, and concentrate on that ONE book, I find it’s more likely that I will find it interesting because I’m fully invested in it. Therefore, it becomes more likely that I will finish it. But I say again, don’t feel obligated to finish every book you start. Finishing is not the point. Reading is. Don’t feel guilty if, after an honest effort, you find you don’t want to finish a book. You gave it a try, and that’s all the author can ask for. So take it one book at a time, and breathe.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Rereading

Pride and Prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Othello, Jane Eyre, The Andromeda Strain, Matilda, The Giver, A Tale of Two Cities. What do all these books have in common besides being some of my favorite books ever? They’re all books I’ve read more than once.

The Lord of the Rings, The Green Mile, A Long Way From Chicago, A Prayer for Owen Meany, all of the Twilight series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, David Copperfield, The Secret Life of Bees. These are all books that I’ve read that are NOT on my repeat-read list, although I hope they will be some day.

I never try to “plan” my reading lists because it makes reading feel too much like schoolwork. However, I do try and make an effort to reread books I’ve read before while also reading books I haven’t read. Why? Sometimes rereading is obligatory, like, for example, having to study the same book in college that you studied in high school, but that’s rare. Most of the time I reread something because I want to. I do it for the same reason that I watch my favorite movie over and over again. listen to my favorite song on repeat, or watch reruns on television. I read/watch/listen again because I like whatever it is I’m reading, watching or listening to.

What is there to gain from reading a book more than once? One thing I do know is that no two readings are alike. Each time is different, so there’s always something new to learn if you’re paying attention. I’m always catching new details, or finding a sentence or two that piques my interest when I didn’t notice it before. With each reading, I feel like I get to know the book, its characters, its plot, and its writing style, a little bit better, each time building on the last.

Sometimes I approach a book with a specific goal in mind, paying particular attention to specific aspects of the book, so it affects the way I respond to it. With any given book, I can read it to learn more about the author, to analyze a specific theme, or maybe I don’t reread the whole book, just certain passages, for my own personal benefit. Whether you view it from an educational, analytical, biographical, or personal standpoint is going to affect what you get out of it.

The most obvious example of this is school, where teachers tend to teach a book the way they want you to learn it and encourage you to memorize the details they want you to remember. But it’s not just school. Take, for instance, an avid Harry Potter fan, who likely has memorized every minute detail of the books and come up with endless theories about the characters and the plot. Such dedication requires repeat readings and thorough study. Maybe you think they’ve gone too far, but there is something to be said for knowing a book (or books) inside and out.

And timing is everything. I’ve found that rereading a book, especially one I haven’t picked up in a long time, can give me a new appreciation for that book because I’m coming at it from a different perspective. Maybe a book I didn’t quite “get” before will have a whole new meaning for me now. Nowadays when I’m reading a book for the first time, I even wonder how I would have responded to it if I had encountered it earlier in life. Life itself affects the way you respond to a book.

So why reread books? Because you never stop learning, and if it’s a great book, it never gets old. I’ll tell you one thing: If I had to choose between a Shakespeare “expert” who’s read everything Shakespeare’s ever written, but only once, or someone who has read a few of his plays and some of his sonnets several times, I’d choose the latter. In my mind, rereading is essential to good reading habits. You should make an effort to reread books because you have to work on more than just the breadth of your reading experience—you have to work on the depth of your reading too.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Books That Changed The Way I Feel About Reading

The title of this post explains it all. This list is in no particular order.

1. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens: This is the first book of recognized so-called “literature” that I actually liked. It may be the one responsible for sparking my interest in literature ever since. Specifically, the ending stayed with me long after the book was finished. I didn’t understand a lot of it at first, and it would take me a while to get used to the writing style, but I was young and that’s what teachers are for. (What can I say? I had a good English teacher.) That was my freshman year of high school. By my senior year, I would read it again and still love it. I think this book will always stay with me.

2. The Giver by Lois Lowry: In my opinion, everyone should read this book. The Giver proved to me that young adult literature is capable of addressing important, even controversial, issues. The best feature of this book, however, is not that it gives you the answers to the questions it raises, but rather that it gets the reader to think. In other words, The Giver asks the right questions. The answers are the reader’s responsibility.

3. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien: I feel sorry for those people who saw the movies before reading the books, or who haven’t read the books yet. It was just one of those books that, while I was reading it, I couldn’t wait to get back to. Believe it or not, it was one of the fastest reading experiences I’ve ever had despite its epic scope and length. It was a Harry Potter-like experience before I ever discovered Harry Potter. But don’t worry. Harry would follow close on Frodo’s heels. Speaking of which…

4. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling: This is the Harry Potter book that made me a Harry Potter fan. To be honest, I started with the second book, Chamber of Secrets, because my personal introduction to the Harry Potter series was the first movie. And Book 2 was okay, but Azkaban was the book that convinced me that this series was more than just a story about a boy wizard.

5. Othello by Shakespeare: The play that convinced me that Shakespeare was an okay guy, and not as boring or as complicated as he usually seems to the typical novice reader.

6. Matilda by Roald Dahl: My first love. That’s the best way I can think of to describe my experience with this book. In a way, this book made me into a bookworm because I so loved the title character of this story that deep down I wanted to be exactly like her. Reading was the source of her power. And I read it over and over again.

7. The Nancy Drew books: A Tale of Two Cities may have sparked my interest in literature, but the Nancy Drew books are the ones that sparked my interest in reading in general. Without Nancy, I may have never been able to enjoy Dickens, which reflects my opinion that all reading is connected. One book leads naturally to another, and one’s reading capacity develops of its own accord. A love of reading is the foundation to a wide reading experience. I also believe that one is not better than the other. A book’s literary status, whether it be Nancy Drew or Charles Dickens, is a minor factor in determining whether a book is good to read or not. For me, if it fosters a love of reading, a love for stories, and not anything malicious or degrading, it’s a good book.

8. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: What girl doesn’t like Jane Austen? It’s almost a rite of passage for women to read this book, perhaps because it is one of the few books with a strong female character. Austen also proves that a story does not necessarily have to be action-packed to be dramatic, and that love—whether familial, neighborly, or of course, romantic—can and should be taken seriously.

9. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: The scene that always sticks with me from this book is when Lucy first meets Mr. Tumnus. Or when Edmund first encounters the White Witch. Another scene is the one when Aslan is bound and killed on the stone table. Or when…oh forget it. The whole book is memorable, with simple yet powerful images throughout. That’s why this book has endured for as long as it has.

10. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: I can’t really think of anything to say about this book, which is odd, considering that it’s my favorite novel of all time. Suffice it to say that Atticus Finch is my hero. That pretty much sums it up.