Friday, February 25, 2011

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.
  4. Thou shalt not take the Reading Life in vain and remember to keep it “whole-y”.  As Chinese author Lin Yu Tang said, “The wise man reads both books and life itself.”  While reading is largely a solitary activity and a refuge for many of us, it should enhance one’s life, not serve as a substitute for it.  Books should inspire us to live more fully: to act, to interact, to create, to be better people.  As Henry David Thoreau said, “A truly good book teaches me better than to read it.  I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint.... What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.”  For the Reading Life to be whole and fulfilling there must be Reading + Life, not one or the other.  If you don’t strive for both, you might as well switch on the tellie and drool on the sofa as the world passes you by.
  5. Honor thy Classics.   This is the flip side of Commandment #3.  A reader should not avoid the classics any more than he or she should read only classics.  Yes, cultural and linguistic idiosyncrasies of days gone by make some of these books challenging (and sometimes just darn boring) for us.  If I allowed myself to be lazy or intimidated by the Classics, I would not know the pleasures of Shakespeare or Jane Austen.  We honor these books by giving them our best efforts, knowing it is not a sin to put them away when they give us migraines or otherwise put us out of sorts.
  6. Thou shalt not “kill” a book when thou hast finished.  Truman Capote said, “Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.”  Now, Capote was referring to the completion of one of his own manuscripts, but I find this simile holds true for readers as well as writers.  When one is thoroughly engrossed in the world of a book and in love with the characters, completion of the story, no matter how satisfying, leaves a void, like a small death.  Capote’s “child” represents the passion for reading (or writing) and the potentiality of stories.  It is imperative to keep this kid alive, and to do so, I recommend reading a “spin-off” book.  It might be the next book in a series or a book similar in theme.  It could be a biography of the author or a history of the novel’s setting.  One might read a classic that was referenced in the book.  (Example: Stephenie Meyer referenced Wuthering Heights and Romeo and Juliet in the Twilight series.  What better way to get teens to springboard to the Classics? )  And if the book was that good, you can always resuscitate it by rereading it.  Just keep the reading momentum going – don’t let your enthusiasm flatline.
  7. Thou shalt commit adultery against thy favored genres.  Yes, I’m saying it: Be a book slut.  Do not read exclusively what you are drawn to, and don’t get stuck on whatever “concept du jour” is flooding the book market (e.g. zombies, wizards, vampires, werewolves, angels).  Young adult literature is sexy these days, but that’s not all there is.  Perhaps you are a science fiction virgin in need of a little seduction by a skilled author.  Maybe historical fiction could tickle your fancy.  Get a little kinky, and read some splatterpunk.  Even plain old, vanilla nonfiction can be satisfying if penned by Mr. or Ms. "Write”. Break out of your rut.  Cheat on your favorites.
  8. Thou shalt not steal books nor keep the pleasures of reading greedily to thyself.  Return your library books so others may enjoy them.  If a friend lends you a book, make sure you return it, or at least reciprocate the favor.  Pass a book along to someone else when you have finished.  Donate gently used books to libraries, schools, hospitals, homeless shelters, prisons, GoodWill, etc.  Join Book Crossing (, a website where you can trace books you release into the world.  Buy copies of a favorite book for all your friends.  Read aloud as a family.  Buy your kids books they pick out – no matter how crazy or stupid-looking – rather than stuff you think is good for them.  Recommend books to strangers in the bookstore or library.  Review and discuss books online.  Spread the wealth.
  9. Thou shalt beware false witness regarding reading materials.  In other words, never judge a book by its cover (or by its reviews).  I know, I know, it’s the oldest cliché in the book (er, I’m full of clichés), but it’s still true.  While I fully encourage reading book reviews and leisurely perusing front cover art and back cover blurbs, these should never deter you if you really want to read something, nor should they entice or seduce you if you have doubts about a book’s story value.  Some reviews leave me scratching my head and wondering whether I read the same book as the reviewer.  Cool cover art can’t redeem a mediocre book, and a bad cover generally won’t kill a good book.  (Although, sometimes I feel like I’m buying a pregnancy test or illicit drugs when I bring a book bedazzled with a long-haired, chesty man wearing a kilt to the checkout counter.  If you can relate, get over yourself and see Commandment #3).  A back cover synopsis typically can’t do justice to a rich literary piece, while it can – and often does – oversell some pretty crappy hackage.  Never trust the blurb!  Judge for yourself – different strokes, baby. 
  10. Thou shalt not covet the end of the book before thou hast read the beginning and middle.   You may find yourself trying to chew and swallow a book like a seven-year old with a plate of broccoli.  You know what I mean – you’re thumbing through chapters and counting how many pages until the end.  Guess what?  Shuffling book broccoli around doesn’t make it disappear from your plate.  All that shuffling and hating the taste only makes the plot grow cold, and reading ahead to the end won’t provide the cheesy goodness you seek to make it more palatable.  You can hold your nose and keep forking it in, but eventually, you will either decide it’s not so bad, or you will gag.  It’s okay to abandon a book if you’ve given it an honest effort.  Yep, kids, that’s right – you get credit for trying new things but you don’t have to read it all if you don’t wanna.  If this feels like cheating - like you can’t read that empty-calorie dessert of a Harlequin romance until you’ve finished this year’s Pulitzer winner - then develop some reasonable criteria for allowing yourself to put the book down once and for all.  For example:  “Just two more bites – I mean chapters – and if it’s still bad, I’ll quit.”  In my case, I say to myself, “This novella has been sitting on the back of my toilet for three weeks.”  I know if I’m not reading it in my most lonely and captive of reading nooks, it means I’d rather muse upon the softness of the toilet tissue or read the dust flecks on the baseboards like they’re tea leaves than endure one more sentence of the book.  But I still won’t read the end.  There could come a day when I give the broccoli book another chance, and I refuse to spoil it for my future self who may (or may not) have grown into it. 

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