Thursday, March 3, 2011

What to Read? Part 3: How to Make a Reading List

Last post, I introduced the Reader’s Formula for Selecting Books.  It looked like this:

Values ((Assets + x) – (Desires + y) – Liabilities – Requirements) = Optimal Reading List

This post, I am going to give an example from my reading life to demonstrate how to use this formula.  The first part of the formula is “values”, which I said are variable.  They determine what experiences we deem important or not, and influence our judgment and behaviors.  For simplicity, and to avoid sounding like a Sociology 101 text, I call this “life acting upon us”, because essentially, our life circumstances give rise to our values.
            So, what do I value these days?  What filter is life applying to me to influence which experiences I let in and which ones I release?  Lately, I have been feeling adrift, directionless.  After two years of working regularly to revise my manuscript, I find myself ready to give up on the project.  My mind resists quitting, but my behaviors tell me I already have.  I can’t make myself work on it anymore, yet nothing has replaced this piece of work in my mind.  No new ideas.  No desire to do anything else.  I am adrift on a plain of apathy.  How to find my way?
            I decide to read to take my mind off my failure.  I browse the stacks in the library, hoping to be inspired by something.  My eye lands upon the cover of a book, featured by the library staff.  It is called The Selected Works by T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen.  I have seen this book many times, and although intrigued by it, I never took it home.  This particular day, feeling lost and in need of a map to navigate my professional aspirations, I thought, “What better way to reorient myself than to read a book about a boy cartographer?”  If being lost was what life was giving me, then finding my way was what I valued.  Therefore, in my reader’s formula, v = Finding my way.
            Since I found my latest read at my local library, it was a bit dated (2009), but still new enough to satisfy my desire for a new release.  Reading it for free put me ahead in my Assets value, so I could buy something else if I wanted (like one of those random impulse buys for pure escapist fun).  Before applying the formula to select my entire reading list, I read the new release first.  Once I have absorbed it, I evaluate my desires and requirements.  Inevitably the first book will have changed me, and I will seek other books inspired by the first.  This is a “springboard” effect, where one book is a jumping off point to another and another.
            The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet gave me a peek into the mind of a mapping wunderkind, but I still had no sense of my own place.  The book itself became my map to find it.  T.S. charted his personal geographies on any number of topics, from the lofty (how to climb a mountain to shake hands with God), to the mundane (the flow of dinner conversation between family members).  I sought out another book that could help me discover my own personal geography and found Katharine Harmon’s Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination.  This book is a collection of essays and maps from artists, cartographers, and explorers.  It satisfied my desire to read nonfiction, but it also fulfilled a secondary desire to look at visually stimulating material. 
            Now I have read a new release and a work of non-fiction.  I have experienced growth from my reading experiences but wonder if there is some universal truth about being lost in life that has been written in the Past.  Is there some literary archetype for my predicament?  Again, I looked to The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet for guidance.  In it, the eponymous protagonist relates his paternal genealogy, marveling how the women in the lineage are brilliant scientists and artists who marry working class stiffs.  T. S.’s great-great-great grandfather was a fisherman, who read only two books in his life:  Gulliver’s Travels and the Bible.  When the ancestor’s sea-soaked copy of Gulliver’s Travels washes ashore, his wife knows for certain he is dead, and his daughter keeps the ruined copy alongside her own pristine edition.  Since I have never read Gulliver’s Travels and have an unread copy on my bookshelf, I saw an opportunity to read a classic which, indeed, is a story about being lost.  Boing! Another bounce from my springboard.
            Inevitably, my children are feeling neglected because I now have my nose in three books.  “Whatcha’ reading?” they ask.  I tell them I’m reading a story about a boy who makes maps and takes a train to the Smithsonian.  My son, inspired by my response, draws his own maps and hangs them on the walls.  I decide to get the kiddies some related books to entertain them.  We go to the library and check out S is for Smithsonian: American’s Museum Alphabet, by Marie and Roland Smith.  I thought this alphabet book might be too easy for them, but I soon found that even I had a lot to learn from the informative text.  Fascinating stuff.  They both want to go to D.C. over spring break.
            Now that I have shared my reading with those near and dear, I wonder if there is any reading that can shove me back onto the path of creativity.  My library had an interesting book called Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, by Peter Turchi.  Turchi uses the extended metaphor of writing as mapping the world of story.  My favorite quote from the book– the one that was so relevant to my current predicament – was:
            If we attempt to map the world of story before we explore it, we are likely either to (a) prematurely limit our exploration, so as to reduce the amount of material we need to consider, or (b) explore at length but, recognizing the impossibility of taking note of everything, and having no sound basis for choosing what to include, arbitrarily omit entire realms of information.  The opportunities are overwhelming.*”

Then he footnotes with this:
* “This explains why it can be so difficult for beginning writers to embrace thorough revision – which is to say, to fully embrace exploration.  The desire to cling to that first path through the wilderness is both a celebration of initial discovery and fear of the vast unknown.”

            Yep, that’s me alright.  I took comfort in these words, knowing that other writers have been turned around in the same confusing maze of possibility.  Turchi’s compass has pointed the way, and I am ready to contribute again by walking the writer’s road with all its twists, turns, and dead-ends.  What began as life influencing reading has become reading influencing life.  The formula is complete: Problem solved.

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