Perspective

My goal for this reading cycle — I call it a cycle because I’m refusing to be ruled by the “New Year’s” time constraints — is 84 books and 30,000 pages. When I wrote these numbers over a month ago, I felt I was being overly ambitious. Now, I feel the numbers may actually be too modest.

In less than six weeks, I’ve already made it through 21 books and 7,500 pages: exactly one fourth of my goal. And I’m not slowing down. Some of the librarians have been slightly lifting their left eyebrows at how often I check out half a dozen volumes.

My son and I are also working on a research project for school. We spent over an hour this weekend searching for information on his favorite inventors/engineers: Steve Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci, Nikola Tesla, Neil Armstrong, Henry Ford, and Alfred Nobel. (Okay. Tesla is actually one of my favorites.) His number one is still Steve Jobs; however, Nobel is starting to grow on him. I think it’s the dynamite.

Hugo doesn’t have a library card anymore ( irrelevant story), so while checking out the dozen or so junior encyclopedias, biographies, and History Channel specials on my card, I was given a very stern warning that I still had three books out, due in one week. This particular librarian is one I usually try to avoid for this exact reason. Most the others know I’m good for it, like a bar tab.

While in college, I learned how to read several books at once without getting character and plot confused. I also have a talent that allows me to set a book aside for several months and then go back to it as if it’s only been a day. Like watching a TV series, or several. As I read, the story plays in my mind. The special effects are just as incredible as in a theatre.

Whether print or film, I’m equally likely to yell at characters, to cry at deaths, to laugh at snarky dialogue, or to (nearly) fall on the floor during suspenseful moments.

Although it’s not healthy, I enjoy the company of fiction more than the company of people. I’m happier without the constant anxiety of betrayal. Much of what I read argues in favor of a reclusive lifestyle; horrible things happen within society, and people do nasty things to each other. If evil must exist, I’d much rather read about it than experience it first-hand. Vicarious heartbreak. This may be why I enjoy the post-apocalypse and future dystopian sub-genres so much: fewer people and more time and freedom to do what I like, not to mention automatic loan forgiveness!

Unlike that poor guy on The Twilight Zone (season 1, episode 8: “Time Enough at Last”), I’m not at risk for the irony of broken glasses, although I do have bad vision. I have to wear glasses to play video games, and I can’t drive at night or in non ideal weather without my prescription. Hindsight is literally 20/20 with me, since I can’t see road signs until I’ve gone past them. However, I have never needed glasses to read a book. In fact, the few times I’ve forgotten to take them off have been terrifying. The words jump out at me in red and green — constant after images of after images surrounding words that appear to float around or vibrate.

I don’t need 3D glasses to see things jumping out at me. And now that I’m thinking about it, I’m tempted to buy a pair and see what happens when I read with them on.

Scratch ‘n Sniff

What causes inspiration? More, importantly, what makes inspiration worth sharing? A large group of people can write with the same topic in mind , yet only a handful may create something worth reading.

English professors make a point to discourage their students from self-publication; they say it is not widely respected in the academic community. This opinion is difficult to dispute, especially when you actually start reading some of the self-published, and obviously unedited, digital garbage now available. I bought a Kindle the year they were first released; I have a lot of my classics and favorites in my cloud, but I still prefer to flip through pages.

I sometimes wonder if any book that lacks a paperback version is worth my time. This attitude is likely a result of a lifelong addiction to the library. Printed words have more meaning when they can be touched and smelled. (My name is Jane, and I am a book sniffer.)

There are, however, a lot of horribly written books that continue to survive the test of time: The Epic of Gilgamesh, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and anything with Chicken Soup in the title. I was forced to read Gilgamesh for three different classes, and the story was worse each time. Just because it is (one of) the oldest written work(s), doesn’t mean it’s any good. The James Joyce I only had to read once, but I didn’t make it past chapter three. And I went through my Chicken Soup phase about the same time I was exclusively watching Lifetime T.V. I deserve to be mocked!

Today, I had a fleeting desire to buy the new Stephen King. Two things stopped me: 1) my preference for borrowing, and 2) my dislike of name brands. Okay: a third reason is that Mr. Mercedes really is awful.

New books are too pretty. There they are all shiny and unblemished on store shelves, like centerfolds; you know you’re not the first, or even the twenty-first, to touch their words, yet they present themselves as being unread. The tramps. Used ones are more honest. They sit in libraries and second-hand stores gathering dust and waiting to be noticed. Some have stains and tears from careless hands. Their bindings are cracked, their yellowed pages showing through worn covers, and yet they are more enticing to me than the beauty queens vying for my attention.

New books are beautiful, but they’re too easily damaged. Paperbacks read once or twice become grotesque: spines bend, covers wrinkle and flap away from fluffed out pages. Used volumes, in comparison, retain their shape; library copies especially maintain a dignified loveliness, perhaps because, rather than in spite, of being loved so many times before.

It won’t matter for Revival; the library will have a brand new, non-bendy hardcover. It’s more about the principle: why buy a book you haven’t read? You don’t know if you’ll enjoy it. What if it’s only good for one read and then just gathers dust on your shelf with no hope of ever being picked up by someone else? Stephen King is a brilliant author. He’s written some of my favorites: The Dark Tower, The Stand, The Green Mile, Dr. Sleep, etc. But he’s also written trash like Pet Sematary, Thinner, and Gerald’s Game. He’s become a name brand; people buy his work because they know he’s good, but they forget that he is still a man who can make mistakes.

My point: I’m not interested in buying the author; I’m after the story, and some stories just aren’t worth the cost.

Literary

Words are beautiful. They have unique purpose and flow before being arranged and rearranged in sentences or lines, paragraphs or stanzas. A word doesn’t need to be in a poem in order to be poetic; a word just needs to be in the right place at the right time.

Only a really bad writer could mess up something so inherently perfect and simple.

I’ve read 54 books so far this year (I’ve yet to tally the pages). In the last ten-plus months, I’ve started at least a dozen books that I’ve placed in the book drop after only a few chapters. Either first impressions mean more to me than I’ll admit or those dozen books were poorly written.

For me, the art is in the writing style; the plot is secondary.

If I had a printout of what I’ve borrowed from the library this year, I’d be able to tell you what books I gave up on…and what books I should have given up on. Those aren’t worth remembering, and I prefer to focus on the ones that have made a positive impact. Oddly enough, those two are the ones I finished most recently: Crooked River by Valerie Geary and Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville.

I checked out Crooked River on Monday and took it back Wednesday morning. Gretel and the Dark went back Thursday. I read fast, but I usually take my time. These two made reading exciting for me again. It’s been a dry few months. Stephen King’s latest (Mr. Mercedes) was a bit disappointing past the first few chapters, and, since then, my reading has been sporadic. Only six more books until I reach my goal, yet I’ve been on autopilot for months; I’m not sure how I got through the last twenty. Now that I’ve finally read something decent, in month 11 of 12, perhaps I can regain a little enthusiasm for the written word.

It takes a lot for me to stop reading once I’ve started. If there’s such a thing as Literary OCD, I have it. (This is actually good news for many writers as the second book in a longer series is usually weak.) Maybe it was my two-month illness or my upsurge of social interaction that caused me to lose interest in the books that would normally make me geek out. Maybe it was just the usual relapse of depression. Or maybe there really was a scarcity of decent literature, at least in my local library.

The library was my favorite place when I was a kid. We lived on top of a hill between one society and another – the literal fringes – so every trip into town was an excursion. The children’s section had puzzles, puppets, games, toys, and more books than I could ever hope to read (although I tried). First, I would find at least eight books: Amelia Bedelia, Where’s Waldo, Little Critters, and (because it freaked my mom out) Madeline. I’d get a puppet or two. Set my books on the bench next to me and play with puzzles. Con my brother into playing a game and then get mad when he won. In all those trips to the library – and we’re talking weekly trips – either I skipped over the books that were not only dedicated to buttons but could be unbuttoned or I just skipped that reading phase altogether.

In the nineties, I was obsessed with V.C. Andrews, Lifetime Television, and number of bleach blonde boy bands. (Sidenote: as a game one day, begin every conversation with “I saw this movie on Lifetime once…” and count how many people stop you right there.) I was still in love with the library, but I mostly went that one Saturday each year when I could buy a huge bag of cast-offs for just one dollar.

In college, I had to read books I absolutely hated because they were “classics.” Although I discovered some of my favorite authors this way (Hawthorne, Dickens, Whitman), I also discovered why book burning isn’t always a bad thing.

My son also loves the library. The one where we live doesn’t have an elaborate children’s wing; there are two puzzles missing half their pieces, no puppets, toys or games, and I can count the number of book shelves using only my two hands. Still, he loves it. Besides, he’s been spending more time in the teen room lately anyway. He still reads children’s books (so do I), but I’m happy that he’s growing up and closing the gap between our reading levels.

A couple years ago, he was obsessed with Scooby Doo chapter books. After surviving those, my resistance to bad prose is fairly high. He’s been getting into jokes lately; however, so I’m anticipating another literary dry spell.