Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Questions About Reading

A friend of mine, who is a teacher, asked me if she could teach my post How You Find Books, How Books Find You, in the context of choosing independent reading. That is bucket-list awesome. What is even awesomer is her students asked some very thoughtful questions, the kind of simple, direct, but also really important and challenging questions, young people are uniquely capable of asking, and because I am a responsible adult, I answered them as best as I could. So here are their questions and my answers. Fair warning, I list a little towards the shmaltzy at times, but, hey, I'm talking about reading to kids. That's gonna happen.

What made you pick up The Haunted Bookshop instead of you other choices?

As a bookseller I've developed a really close relationship with the publisher, so I know there's a good chance I'm going to like anything they send me. They told me this book was a great celebration of bookselling and given that I was at the end of a very exhausting bookselling project I was looking for a "remind me why I do this," kind of experience. FYI, I started reading Seiobo There Below and it also would have been the perfect book. Its long, lyrical, and artistic sentences, the complexity of the images, the fact that its chapters are number with a Fibonnacci Sequence (1, 2, [1+2] 3, [3+2] 5...), the hyperfocus, the flat-out gutsyness (I'd probably prefer to say "ballsiness" but feel free to use "gutsyness") of attempting a book like this, are all things I love about books and were pretty much completely absent from the books I read for the panel.)

What strategies do you use to identify if you will enjoy a book? How do you know before you start reading it/how do you essentially choose your book?
Sometimes I listen to suggestions. There are some authors whose books I will always read. Sometimes I'm intrigued by the plot. Sometimes I happen to start reading and am intrigued by the style. The important thing is that I listen to my own brain when I'm interacting with a book. Do I feel interested? Do I feel as though my mental ears have perked up? Do I want to know more about whatever the book is saying? If yes, I'll read the book. But if I don't "hear" my brain doing those things, I probably don't read the book.

What genre of book is your favorite? I love mysteries.

I read pretty much everything. Mysteries (my favorite is The Maltese Falcon) Sci Fi (my favorite is The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov) Graphic novels and comics (The Sandman), poetry (Cesar Vallejo & Walt Whitman) and books that don't really have a genre that people usually just consider literature. (Ulysses) I guess if I had to pick just one genre, I'd go with books people consider literature because those are the most important to me. They're also the books that keep giving no matter how many times I read them.

I hate reading. My teacher says that means I haven't found the right book yet. What's the right book? [Quick aside. As a writer, reader, and bookseller, this one was a hell of a challenge. Getting it was like saying to your friend, “Hey want to go for a hike today?” and then YOU ARE IN THE HIMALAYAS AND IT IS TIME TO HIKE. Anyway, I did my best.]

For me, it was The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper. For some reason, that particular story showed me what the imagination is capable of. For you it could be The Golden Compass, or Feed by M.T Anderson or Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos or Northern Lights by Jennifer Donnelly, or The Hobbit or Moneyball or The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, or American Born Chinese (which is a comic book) Ender's Game or Vampire Academy or a cookbook or a magazine or maybe you'll be playing one of those really good video games and realize the game makers are actually using the storytelling tools books use...The thing is, you're your own person living your own life, so there's really a ton of different right books out there for you, but if you approach every book you read assuming you're going to hate it, there's a good chance you're going to hate no matter how good it is. But, if you keep you're mind open, the next book might be the right book.

How do you force yourself to read books you don't really like?

If I'm reading a book I don't like it's because I have a responsibility to another person. Whether it's because I'm going to write a review, or give critique, or evaluate it for an award, like the panel I wrote the essay about, I've promised someone I'd read it and so I read it. I also try to remember that I can learn almost as much from books I don't like as from books I do. I just have to ask myself “Why don't I like this book?” and then actually try to find the answer. For example, this one book I really didn't like in part because I thought the writing was careless. One sentence was “He was slim but broad.” Those words don't really go together. I know the author was trying to say something like “He had a thin waist and broad shoulders,” but that's not what was written. I didn't like it, but the careless prose made me think about careful prose.

We don't read your blog. Can you tell us why you dislike conventional stories?

It's not that I don't like conventional stories. I do, especially when I'm reading to relax, but I don't feel like most conventional stories ask the questions I'm asking. I want to know about the stories people will be telling in 10, 50, 100 years and I want to know what people will be like in 10, 50, 100 years. Conventional stories usually don't think about those people. I also think the problems in the world are different from what they used to be. They're more complicated and more confusing. I believe complicated and confusing books help me think about complicated and confusing problems. Finally, everything that's conventional today, used to be unconventional. Before Jane Austen, (I'm sure Ms. Boncek has mentioned her) nobody wrote about realistic relationships from the perspective of women. And nobody wrote with Jane Austen's sophistication. But now, lots of writers write about realistic relationships and try to have her sophistication. I believe reading and supporting unconventional books now, helps make sure that those people living 100 or 200 years from now will have their own Jane Austen from our time.

What made you want to be a writer/critic?

I just started writing stories and poems when I was about 12 or 13 (maybe even a little younger) and haven't stopped. I don't know why I wrote that first story, or the second, or even really why I do it today, but it is who I am. Being a critic grew out of that. In order to be a better writer, I tried to figure out how the books I liked worked. How did they express their ideas? Why did they make me feel what I felt? Kind of like taking a clock apart to see how it works, except that, because these are books and words, the clock kept telling me the time even after I had separated all the gears and springs and coils. With books, even when you pull apart all the words to see why they made you think about something, they still make you think about that something.

Is there any book that has the same meaning for everyone?

There are books that have been read for long enough by enough people that we've come to a kind of agreement about what they mean. We can all kind of agree that Too Kill a Mockingbird is about looking past the surface and skin color to the real person within. And it's important to work at agreements around books. Books are important, in part, because they help us have difficult discussions, because we learn about the world and ourselves by how we agree or disagree over books. But the most important part is what happens between the book you're reading and your brain. And because no one else can ever really share your brain, there aren't any books that have the same meaning for everyone.

How would you describe your own writing, since you said you dislike conventional books?

I write what's in my head. Sometimes what's in my head is a story that goes back and forth around an event, has text boxes in the middle of the page, and includes a poem. Sometimes what's in my head starts at the beginning, goes through the middle, and ends at the, well, end. I kind of like to think of it as if I'm a scientist in a lab, trying different ways to express different ideas.

How long did you take to edit this essay?

Since I wrote this for my blog, I probably went over it four or five times over the course two days or three days finding better ways to say things, making sure everything makes sense, and fixing mistakes. If I'm writing something that I'm going to send to someone else to publish I usually do at least four or five drafts, sometimes completely re-writing whatever it is I'm working more than once. It can take weeks or months or sometimes even years.

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