Social Reading

I found myself thinking blasphemous thoughts today: What is the point in reading this book?

I was choosing which book to start next for fun, and it came down to a battle between The Marriage Plot and Sima’s Undergarments for Women. The first is famous if you’re in the literary world: The Marriage Plot is by Jeffrey Eugenides, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and just came out this Christmas with the help of a pretty heavy marketing campaign. But Sima’s Undergarments for Women, by Ilana Stranger-Ross, is somewhat of an unknown. (That’s misleading: it has over 100 reviews on Goodreads, which is a very good number indicating many readers, but to me it’s an unknown because I found it all by myself in the corner of a bookstore and have never heard of anyone who has heard of it.)

I ended up deciding on Sima’s, for a variety of reasons that were practical (it had bigger type, which is easier to read while exercising) as well as literary (was I really up for something as heavy as a Pulitzer-prize winning novel this morning?). Enter the blasphemous thoughts. As I walked to class, I figured I’d be done with the book this weekend, or today if it really grabbed me, and then it would go on my bookshelf and I’d think of it only every now and then. This is what happens with most books I read: they’re a source of pleasure while I’m reading them, but afterwards, unless I’m actually reminded of them, they disappear into the myriad of fictional worlds I’ve read before.

And as I was thinking this, I realized that I wouldn’t feel the same if it were The Marriage Plot in my backpack. Devoting my time to Eugenides somehow seems more productive and consequential, even though the difference is really that he’s won a prestigious award and Stranger-Ross has not. But that’s not really the difference, is it? Continue reading

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When to Stop Reading

One of the things I’ve started doing since reading for an agency is to stop reading a book. What I mean by that is if I’m not pulled into a book within the first fifty pages, I stop reading. I put it aside. I move on. I used to be one of those people who powered through books even if I didn’t like them (I can remember two that I stopped: one of the Little House on the Prairie books because Laura was about to do something that was going to get her in trouble and I couldn’t take it, and The Scarlet Letter because I was reading it in the summer and the first few pages were just too boring). But after reading many partials and fulls, I got used to the freedom of putting something aside (literally rejecting it) when it didn’t hit my stride. More than that, I realized that not all books are for me. There are many great writers out there with many great stories to tell, but I’m not going to enjoy reading all of them. Furthermore, I have a huge metaphorical stack of books to read and only so much time to do that reading. Why waste my time on books I don’t like?

On the other hand, you have people like my mother, who keep reading even when they find the subject matter difficult. She was recently trying to get through The Secret Life of Bees, but the violence made her put it down before the fiftieth page. I told her she should feel free to stop reading and to find something else. She, instead, skipped to the end (to make sure everyone lives happily ever after), read the appendix with a discussion from the author, and then returned to read the whole book. Because she saw promise in the themes of the book, she was determined to keep reading, even though it was a painful process.

Former agent and current blogger Nathan Bransford recently took a poll about whether people keep reading or not. The majority, it turns out, read like me. But I think every writer admires and yearns for readers like my mother, who will stick with the writing even when it’s hard just to see how it turns out.

Kindle-The Great Equalizer

After getting my Kindle for Christmas, I have been reading as much as I can on it. It’s great for all the reasons everyone has spouted – it’s lightweight, it’s easy to read, it holds a lot of books, it’s easy to buy new books, etc. However, what I think is great about it is that it acts as an equalizer so that all books are created equal, except for the actual writing.

First of all, there is the cover issue. As discussed in my last post, we really do judge books by their covers, even if we don’t mean to. On the Kindle, covers don’t really exist. Sure, when you’re surfing Amazon.com for a book, you see the cover, and you can opt to look at the cover on the Kindle once you’ve bought it, but books are displayed by their titles, not their covers, and if you simply click to read it, you skip right over the cover. In fact, I recently saw for the first time the cover of a book I had read on my Kindle, and I thought, “I would never want to read that!”

Second, there is the length issue. Kindle only recently rolled out the option to see page numbers, but overall you don’t really know how long your books are on the Kindle. You can see how far you are in percent, but you can’t see whether it’s a hundred pages or a thousand pages, and you can see a general line that is supposed to represent length, but it is a very inaccurate estimate. This can sometimes be a hindrance, such as when I got the books for my Dickens class and I didn’t realize how long they would take me to read because  all that showed me how long they were was a line. But at the same time, it can be a blessing. Some books take forever to read because you can feel those 900 pages left for you to read in your hand. On the Kindle, a book is a book and you just read.

Third, there’s the actual text itself. Some people judge a book by how large the text is, and on a Kindle there is no need to do that since you can change the size. But more important to me is the style of the text. Different print books use different fonts, and each font can affect the way you read a book. On a Kindle, there is only one font. Every book looks exactly the same as the next book, even if they are completely different genres. As You Like It looks the same as David Copperfield which looks the same as The Bean Tree. No longer can the font shape your reading experience.

All these factors add up to one effect: on the Kindle, a book is a book and you can only judge it by its writing. I download unpublished manuscripts onto my Kindle and read them between Dickens assignments, and they look exactly the same. The only way I can tell them apart is that Dickens’s plots are better planned out. The Kindle, and other e-readers of course, lets me judge based on merit alone.

Inspiration

I recently went to a reading organized by the Literary Writers Network, a literary network in Chicago. The association “offers a bimonthly Chicago writing group coupled with an online writing community and special literary reading events throughout the year. It also publishes the literary publication 10,000 Tons of Black Ink.

The reading featured five local writers, including one Northwestern alum. Two of them read excerpts from their novels, one from a short story, one from an essay, and one from a full-length non-fiction piece. All of their writing was inspiring. Something I admired about their readings was how they each articulated and inflected the stories with the practice of a storyteller. This may sound intuitive, but it is easy to read monotonously, especially when nervous.

My favorite part about the reading, however, was actually its location. It was hosted in The Book Cellar, a well-known indie bookstore in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago. The atmosphere of a small room filled with books was inspiring; I was practically breathing words. There was a break halfway between the readings and I browsed the shelves to find nearly ten books to add to my wish list. To add another of my favorite things to the experience, The Book Cellar has its own cafe with food, drinks, and beer and wine for those over 21.

My Friday night was spent with books and food in a wonderful, bustling neighborhood of Chicago. All of it was inspiring to keep writing and to get to the point where I can be the nervous author reading in front of a group of twenty strangers. That, folks, is the dream.

And in other news, the winner of my contest is Vickie Motter! Congratulations!