Thursday, January 3, 2008

Confessions of a Chronic Page-Turner

One of the questions I get a lot as a writer, and that I also ask a lot of everybody else, writer or not, is “what are you reading?”

I admit to being a lot more curious about what others are reading than eager to share my own list. It’s such a personal thing to me, and how can I expect you to understand, or get down with what I’m reading, without a ten-minute mini-sermon on my influences, or book-buying habits, or some sheepish disclaimer about why you caught me reading a romance (it was for Popular Fiction class!) and why I enjoyed it (it was by Jennifer Crusie, a super-witty, highly humorous fellow Ohioan).

Nevertheless, I’ve been made to answer this question a lot since jumping the track as newspaper reporter (maybe they think reporters don’t read) and setting out on my own to write and publish a nonfiction book and return to grad school to teach and write a few more.

“What are you reading?” came up in my first tutoring session. My undergrad student confessed what, in all honesty, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we probably all feel: “I haven’t read much of the ‘good books,’ and I’m trying to catch up.” Well, what do you say to that? I’d hardly describe my reading list as being populated exclusively with writers in the literary canon, and just because I like something, doesn’t mean you will. Chances are it’s part of my own quirky make up as a writer, and I’d suggest that any writer serious about the craft cling to and take pride in their unique crushes in reading, while also staying open to trying new stuff.

It’s like Billy Joel said about music and food, and here I’m paraphrasing (I recently read his biography and I know this quote is in there, but fifteen minutes flipping and consulting the index yielded zip: why is that usually the case when there’s a specific thing you’re hunting?): there are so many flavors and varieties; why limit yourself to just one?

So how do I respond to the question?

In teaching, it’s about what you bring into the classroom. Through 40 years of its Story Workshop Method, Columbia College has developed an extensive reading list, with materials tested and proven to spark improvement in student writing. The range of stories and novels covers the forms writing can take – letters, dreams, model telling, folktale, story-within-a-story, etc. – and generally works with an eye toward giving students’ permission to write about the deep, personal stuff, to take that first crack at transcending self-censorship, which often blocks out our best stuff. So, you see selections like the ministratin’ episode, from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and “Tralala” from Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, as well as successful student pieces from the past, collected in the college’s award-winning Hair Trigger compilations. To these lists, tutors draw on their observations and hunches about tutees to bring their own selections, which are ideally ferreted out in the tutor training class beforehand. For example, I dipped into “The Vomitorium” chapter from John McNally’s The Book of Ralph to illustrate character, voice, place and movement. Reading for the classroom is partly about finding a connection to the elements that prove useful in your own writing.

On my own, though, I’m more of an impulse/committed reader when it comes to book devouring. I like to wander the aisles and run my fingers along spines, look at the names of authors and publishers, flip to a random page and see how the music of the voice moves me. On the romantic end, I’m a streaky reader, devoting myself to one author for a month or more, weighting my shelves with everything by that writer I can get my hands on. Some of these, I guess you could say, become my favorites, books and writers I’ll return to every year, for the rest of my life: John Updike, Ray Bradbury, Rick Bass, Nabokov, Capote, Michael Chabon, T.C. Boyle, Denis Johnson, Robert Olen Butler. Some are flings, no less passionate in the devouring, though fleeting in my obsession: Buzz Bissinger, John Feinstein, Philip Roth, Dave Barry, Annie Proulx, J.K. Rowling, Jonathan Lethem, Chris Abani, Tom Franklin.

Here are two characteristic examples of my book-buying/-reading habits from 2007.

First, my wife and vacationed in Maui for our fifth anniversary. We were walking past the tourist traps in downtown Lahaina – art galleries, T-shirt shops, eateries fine and profane – when I spied a used bookstore down an alley. We spent about an hour in there, and I walked out with: The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, by Jimmy Breslin; They Whisper, by Robert Olen Butler; Running With Scissors, by Augusten Burrows; and one other my shelves have since swallowed. Didn’t make my return-flight luggage any lighter (I was already toting three or so novels), but a nice mix of literary fiction, fiction by a wise-ass New York newspaper columnist (Breslin), and memoir.

Second instance: Columbia’s writing department sets up a used book sale every fall, and in addition to my usual back-breaking pack, I bought and bagged these to take home: Lake Wobegon Days, Garrison Keillor; The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan; Schindler’s List, Tom Keneally; three Richard Brautigan books bound in one edition; and two Creative Nonfiction journals, including vol. 1, issue 1. All for under $5. While I’m a sucker for buying new, I also kick my heels at buying used in a quantity to make my forearms sting without straining my wallet. I also dig “finding” books, like the giveaways frequently piled atop the table outside the department office. My idea of geekdom is becoming utterly absorbed with the “letters” issues put out by journals, like the Missouri Review edition chronicling correspondence from Alfred A. Knopf’s files. That, and reserving a place of honor on my bookshelf for the two volumes chronicling the best of the Ohio Review, which marked the grand finale of the journal in 2001.

So that’s what I mean about reading being personal. I could say a lot more about my choices above, and my patterns of reading (and planning to get to) them, but why? You’ve got your own page-turning peccadilloes, after all. Or at least you should. Nick Hornby spends a bit of time detailing his in The Polysyllabic Spree, which, after you’ve read about his bookish habits, and likely laughed a bit, too, you can always go out and acquire the stuff he’s been poking his nose in.
Lately, when “What are you reading?” comes up, I’ve been steering folks to a great source I found while researching a class oral report in November. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (first public library in the nation, folks) keeps a nice selection of reading lists on its web site at Developed by librarians, there are lists targeted for teens like “Holden Caulfields for the New Age,” and “Believers and Doubters,” and “Thrillers and Mysteries for the Adrenaline Junkie.” On the adult side (look under “Discover More”), their categories in fiction & poetry (be sure to check under New Arrivals, too) include “Bodies! Where Would We Be Without Them?” Its description: “A bounty of fiction featuring the human body both inside and out, as vehicle, curse or blessing.” Its titles: The Illustrated Man (Bradbury); The Flawless Skin of Ugly People (Doug Crandell); and The Electric Michelangelo (Sarah Hall), among others.
With the aid of search engines, you’re never short a reading list these days. That’s a good thing, especially when considering sobering statistics like these, compiled by publishing researcher Dan Poynter:

* 1/3 of adults don’t read a book after high school.
* adults watch an average of 4 hours of TV a day.
* 80 percent of U.S. households didn’t buy a book at all in 2005.

Yikes. What more can I say about that? Ask away, perhaps. “What do you read?” is preferable to “Who’s Mark Twain?”

As a final blog-buster in a long entry, I’ve mostly been keeping track of what I’ve read each of the last five years, when I remember to write it down, which is more often than not. Perusing my list for the year just ended, I counted 11 short story collections, 28 novels, 14 nonfiction biography, memoir, journalism and letters, 3 writing reference/instruction. A good mix, and it varies every year. Here’s how it broke down for me, in mostly random order. With that, I consider the question answered... for now.

Where I’m Calling From
– Raymond Carver (second time)
Childhood and Other Neighborhoods
The Coast of Chicago
– Stuart Dybek
The Bell Jar
– Sylvia Plath
The Diary of a Madman... and Selected Stories
– Nikolay Gogol
Best of Hair Trigger
– Columbia College short stories, other stuff
Other Voices, Other Rooms
In Cold Blood (second time)
Collected Stories
– Truman Capote
Truman Capote: Conversations (collected interviews)
Conversations with Capote (ed. Lawrence Grobel)
Capote (by Gerald Clarke)
Too Brief a Treat (Capote letters, ed. by Clarke)
A Bridge to Childhood (by one of Capote’s relatives, about his childhood)
– books about Capote!
The Bluest Eye
– Toni Morrison (second time)
“Bartleby, the Scrivener”
– Herman Melville
“The Metamorphosis”
– Franz Kafka (fourth time?)
Mystic River
– Dennis Lehane (third time)
Jesus’ Son
– Denis Johnson
Men and Cartoons
The Fortress of Solitude
– Jonathan Lethem
All the King’s Men
-- Robert Penn Warren
The Book of Ralph
America’s Report Card
-- John McNally
The Lost Grizzlies
The Ninemile Wolves
-- Rick Bass
Becoming Abigail
-- Chris Abani
Aspects of the Novel
-- E.M. Forster (third time)
The Bronx is Burning
-- Jonathan Mahler
Little Children
-- Tom Perrotta
The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight
-- Jimmy Breslin
They Whisper
-- Robert Olen Butler
-- Al Stump (fourth time)
Running with Scissors
-- Augusten Burroughs
The O. Henry Prize Stories 2007
-- collected stories
Welcome to Temptation
-- Jennifer Crusie
Writing from Start to Finish (second time)
Writing from Start to Finish: Teacher’s Manual
-- John Schultz
The Blade Itself
-- Marcus Sakey
Kill Me
-- Stephen White
A Darkness More than Night
-- Michael Connelly
Go Tell it on the Mountain
-- James Baldwin
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (third time)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (second time)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (second time)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
-- J.K. Rowling
Storm Front
-- Jim Butcher
-- Robert Sullivan (second time)
The Golden Compass
The Subtle Knife
-- Philip Pullman
Billy Joel: The Biography
-- Mark Bevo
Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription
-- William F. Buckley Jr.

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