Monday, February 28, 2011

What to Read? Part 1: The Literary Love Affair

So how to decide what to read next?  I always get excited about new releases, but when faced with the multitude of captivating covers and compelling blurbs – all at hardcover prices – I find myself paralyzed.  How to choose?  Frustrated, I browse a while, and my thoughts turn to all the unread books on my shelves, many of them classics I have the best intentions of reading and don’t, or the books my sister/mother/friend handed me with a overly enthusiastic and dubious testimony of their greatness.  Then there is the stack of reading I checked out from the slim pickin’s at my small town library, but I take them for granted because they are somewhat passé, or because they were free, or because I can always renew them if I don’t get around to them.
            I would argue that the reason most people don’t read (or don’t read more) is because the choices are too many, not too few.  When a book requires a commitment of time (and quiet space), we become stingy.  We don’t want to waste one minute on a book that tortures rather than titillates, erodes us rather than edifies, bores us rather than brightens us. 
We seem to forget that we can always put a book down if it displeases us, but it’s sort of like a bad first date or a disappointing relationship – we've invested in this book.  We asked around about it, reading reviews and taking tips from friends.  We spent a good while in bookstores looking at covers to see which were the hottest.  We read back cover blurbs like so much small talk…and then it happened.  We thought we found “the one”.  We “took it out”, forking over our money so we could get to know this book better.  When we got a chapter or two into the date, we began to suspect we made a mistake.  We kept reading, hoping the date would get better, but it didn’t. 

Friday, February 25, 2011

Review of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

On many trips to the book store I have picked up and examined Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, only to put it down again.  The diagrams and pictures on the pages I leafed through were certainly appealing.  The premise about a twelve year old cartography prodigy hopping a train cross country to the Smithsonian to receive the prestigious Baird award was original, but would the story be compelling and were those illustrations in the margins merely a gimmick to get me to buy a mediocre book?
            As it turns out, I didn’t buy the book, but I did borrow it from the library.  I guess I’m like my kids – a sucker for pretty pictures.  What I discovered was that the charts, maps, and diagrams were oh so much more than illustrations of the text.  These wonderful tidbits in the margins enriched the book, serving as a means to develop characters, drop in back story, explain historical and scientific references, highlight symbolism, and overall make me fall in love with quirky, young T.S.

Book Phantom’s Ten Commandments for the Reading Life

  1. Thou shalt commit thyself to the Reading Life.  Start now.  It’s easy.  Buy books, get a library card, put your butt in the chair and read the dusty volumes you already have but haven’t read.  Set goals to complete a target number of books each week, month, or year.  To help you stay committed, join Shelfari, a website where readers list books they’ve read, are reading, and want to read.  Shelfari tracks the number of books you’ve read during the year and tells you whether you are ahead or behind your pace compared with previous years.  It offers book synopses and reviews, and you can rate and review your own books, recommend books to friends, and join online book discussions.
  2. Thou shalt put reading before all other diversions.  What I mean is, turn off that damn T.V.!  It’s not that television and other trivial amusements (PlayStation, Tweeting, mindless Internet surfing, porn, *ahem* blogging) don’t have a place in our lives – these just need to come after books if you are to embrace the Reading Life.
  3. Thou shalt not idolize classics, best sellers, or prize winning works.  In other words, there is no place for literary snobbery in the Reading Life.  Canadian playwright Robertson Davies said, “Do not suppose…that I intend to urge a diet of classics on anybody. I have seen such diets at work. I have known people who have actually read all, or almost all, the guaranteed Hundred Best Books. God save us from reading nothing but the best.”  Wise words, eh?  Read anything and everything that interests you – graphic novels, tawdry romances, tell-all bios, children’s books, barbarian fantasies, trendy diet books…anything goes.