2019 Reading Goals

But I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting about my reading goals for 2019, and after looking back at 2017 and 2018, and considering my school reading load, I’ve determined to set a couple of rather loose goals for next year.

  1. Aim for Slow Reading. I have a tendency to read quickly, bolting books and piling up the numbers. I’d like to work away from that for a couple of reasons.
    • I want to read some long books that I’ve been putting off because they’ll take a while.
    • I often grab whatever sounds interesting in the moment, which leads to my reading a lot of okay books that are, frankly, forgettable.
    • Speaking of forgetting, I also forget (or miss) the finer points of the good books I do read.
    • have to read quickly and at high volume for school. This past semester I ended up, out of a sheer lack of time, having a for-fun book simmering along in the background and I rather enjoyed reading a chapter or even a few pages before bed. While the quantity of my reading tanked Sept-Nov, the quality was much better, because I didn’t want to waste time with books I knew I’d only sort of enjoy.
  2. Genre/Category focuses (yes, I know technically it’s foci): In 2019, I’d like to read more classics and am participating in the Back to the Classics challenge to that end. I would also like to read more adult books, especially fantasy, historical fiction, and literary fiction. After long avoiding the previous three genres for a number of reasons, I feel like my deeper immersion into the bookish world this year has better equipped me to find the kinds of books I want to read.
  3. More Nonfiction I always say this, and then I never do. But I think part of that is because it takes me much longer to read nonfiction. By reading slower, I hope I can do better here.
  4. Goodreads Goal: 75 books
    • Since I count any whole books I read for school as well as my personal reading, I think this will be achievable (it sounds like in just one of my classes next semester, we might be reading 20 or more plays!) but also encourage me to slow down.
    • My personal reading goal is 2-3 books/month or about 1/3 of the total

And that’s it! An intense Spring semester and some over-ambitious goals in the previous years has led me to be a bit more broad and vague than before. My overall goal is to be more deliberate with my book selections and more attentive when I do read for fun.

In my next post, I’m going to list out more specifically some of the authors and books I’d like to read.

 

On Stress-Reading and Some Recommendations

IMG_0367.jpgI don’t know about you, but I definitely stress-read.

I mean, I read all the time, and when I’m REALLY stressed, I do tend to watch Netflix instead of reading, but a step below that is stress-reading.

This is what I do when I’m at the end of a semester, usually. Books that fit this category are usually re-reads, or familiar authors. It’s like eating comfort food, but with books.

I noticed this semester that I actually turn to a particular genre, as well: detective fiction. In particular, I binge- read Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, although I’m non-discriminatory in my author choices–new, old, I’ll take anyone. As long as it’s not thrillers or horror. Those are NOT relaxing.

For example, at the moment I’m listening to a full cast adaptation of seven of the Hercule Poirot stories. I’m also reading Still Waters by Vivica Stein, a contemporary Swedish novel featured in Amazon’s translated books series.

It seemed odd to me that I turn to detective fiction at the end of the year (I find murder relaxing? Is that a problem?), at least, until I thought about it for a little while.

Although Dorothy Sayers is a little bit of an exception, generally detective stories are focused entirely on the plot, and aside from wondering “whodunnit?” there’s not much else. That is, these books don’t really have highly rounded characters (though they certainly may be enjoyable ones), or even the most perfect prose. Thus, they offer the perfect solution to the words-weary English-grad mind: compelling stories that take little mental effort to read. You can try to figure out the mystery, of course, but you don’t have to expend a lot of energy on it. Also, you know how the story will end, in that you are very sure that the murderer will be caught and everything will be explained. When I’m frantically writing analytic essays and am worried about grades and due dates, this easy, assured reading is, indeed, relaxing.

So I thought, in light of this discovery, here are a few recommendations of classic murder mysteries, ones I love enough to re-read because they’re just so much fun.

Agatha Christie:

Unknown.jpegMurder on the Orient Express. I mean, if you haven’t read this yet, what have you been doing? The Orient Express gets stuck in a snowdrift and one of the passengers is murdered. Only one of the twelve other passengers in the first-class cars could have done it, but who? The twists and turns of this novel keep me going even after I know the murderer; it’s marvelous. THE classic.

And then There Were None. Ten people are invited to a remote house on an otherwise deserted island. Their hosts never show. Then people start dying.

Apparently Christie set out to create the most perfect, watertight crime in this novel, and it is so good she had to reveal the murderer in a (kind of hokey) epilogue. The slightly horror vibe here is great, and again, the reveal is stunning.

The Murder of Rodger Ackroyd. What’s brilliant about this novel is you’re really sure it’s one of Christie’s typical “murder in the English Countryside” novels until it’s absolutely different from all the others. I’m not even going to say anything else. This was so genius.

Dorothy Sayers:

isbn9781444797435.jpgWhose Body? The first of her Lord Peter mysteries. A middle-class man finds a dead body in his bathtub, and at first it’s thought he’s the missing Levy. Except he’s not. So who is the dead body, and where’s Levy?

Introducing Lord Peter, this is, in my opinion, the most typical of Sayers’ mysteries, but start with this one because they only get better from here.

Murder Must Advertise. An ad man is killed, and Lord Peter is invited by the owner of the agency to go undercover and solve the mystery. I love this one because Sayers had previously worked in advertising, and aside from a compelling mystery, she gently satirizes advertising, a satire which is surprisingly relevant today. Apparently the ethos of ads hasn’t changed much from the 1920s. Also, the agency employees are delightful characters.

Finally, in case you’re wondering, I’m enjoying Still Waters. I was a little annoyed with the prose until the mystery got going, and now I don’t mind it as much. It is very much a typical Swedish detective story; the main detective is ruggedly handsome with a sad past and all the ladies want him but he doesn’t notice them…. you know. That kind of book.

How about you? Do you turn to a particular genre or particular authors when you’re stressed? What’s your book comfort food?

Some Thoughts on Reading and This Blog

I’m a strange kind of reader.

I’ve been watching a lot of book-related YouTube videos (colloquially called BookTube), and browsing a lot of book-related Instagram accounts (Bookstagram), and tentatively participating in them myself.

Now, some of the sweeping generalizations I’m about to make might be because of what I happen to be seeing, and if I dig a little harder I’ll find things to be different, but  –

Here’s the thing: if you want to get a lot of views, or likes, or whatever, it seems like you have to be a particular kind of reader.

Like, a very particular kind of reader. This reader likes YA fiction, fantasy, and contemporary popular adult fiction (thrillers, books like Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale). They are reading for entertainment almost exclusively; plot and character matter most; the writing is often described as “amazing” or “beautiful” when it simply features some rhythm or a preponderance of good images.

There is NOTHING wrong with being this kind of reader. Zero things. None of them. I’ve discovered a lot of great books through these avenues, and some are even new favorites on the order of possess-and-reread, which is my personal gold star (versus the enjoy once from the library).

I am not this kind of reader, not entirely. I read YA, and a lot of it. I don’t like thrillers (though mysteries are usually okay), and I find a lot of popular adult fiction boring (ok, most of it).

I’ve DNF’d three of the Holy Grail series: The Mortal Instruments, the Throne of Glass, and that trilogy that probably has a name but I can’t remember it – you know, the A Court of …. books. Meh. They were all meh books; sort-of entertaining but not enough to commit to a series. I really don’t get the popularity of any of them. (WHY ARE THEY SO POPULAR?) Also, I enjoyed Harry Potter but just don’t care that much about it. (sacrilege, I know). This means that a lot of the book chatter I’m currently hearing just doesn’t matter to me.

Maybe the difference is that I’m also a writer, or maybe it’s that I’m also a scholar, or maybe it’s that I’m often older than the people I’m watching. Maybe it’s just that I’m me.

As a writer, I’ve learned to see the skeleton of a story, and as a result I think I’m a pretty good judge of the skill of a given writer. (to qualify, any published writer is automatically more successful that I am at the moment, so really I shouldn’t judge. But I do. Even when I really like some of those more basically written books.)

As a graduate student heading towards a Ph.D in literature and hopefully college teaching, I’ve gained specific, advanced instruction in evaluating and interpreting texts.

I read a lot, which means I have a lot to compare a book to. I know a good story when I read it. I don’t insist that a book does anything beyond be entertaining, but it better do that really well to get praise from me. It bothers me when people give books 5 stars on Goodreads when there are inconsistencies in the plot or characterization. I think a book should be judged not only on how it makes you feel, but also on how well it’s done. Do we want a slew of mediocre books that are being published because they’re “diverse” or “entertaining” or whatever, or do we want diverse and entertaining books that are good. Lasting. Meaningful.

In addition to reading for entertainment, I want to be stretched and provoked by some of the books I read. For me, this means digging up odd literary works that I’ve never heard of. It means reading old books, even the unfashionable ones. It means not reading Dickens the same way you do J.K Rowling, because their writing goals and assumptions are different. It means discussing the authors’ writing goals and assumptions.

In addition to reading new books, I like to read old books. About half of my favorite books ever (a long list, I admit) are books that are nearing their hundredth birthday, if they haven’t already passed it by ages ago. These are also often books that are not the Greatest Hits, or were and have fallen out of favor – Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the Dorothy Sayers mysteries, the Divine Comedy. I have a fondness for the poetry of George Herbert, and T.S. Eliot, and Shakespeare.

Basically, I don’t fit in a box. And that awareness has caused me to hesitate in adding my voice to the conversation, because I know it’s often going to be a contrary one. Will anyone care to listen? Is the time I spend writing or filming worth it?

In the end, I’ve decided, that yes, I’m going to keep going, in my own time, in my own way. I won’t be a consistent poster (ever), and my content isn’t going to be anything but what it is. I mean, the blog title is meant to be descriptive.

So I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately, and here’s what you’re going to get from now on: Me talking about books I like. It’s going to be an eclectic grab bag of books and registers, Faulkner and Zadie Smith and Laini Taylor and Dorothy Sayers all together, the writing analytic one day, fangirling the next. Maybe that means I’ll have four followers, and eight hits on every post, and feel like I’m adding to the noise but not the conversation, and that’s okay.

Over the next several months I plan to carefully shape this blog and my YouTube channel into whatever strange shape they’ll ultimately take on. If you do want this kind of content, please interact! Share with like-minded folks. Comment. Add to the conversation! I suspect, I hope, that there’s somebody else out there wanting this kind of content. Let’s form a club and have some conversations. Isn’t that what the internet is for?

Edition Matters

IMG_0100.jpgIn this post, a list of tips for reading classics, one of the points I make is that edition matters. Never has this been made more clear to me than this weekend.

I have been reading Anna Karenina, slowly, at a snail’s pace, ten pages here, twenty there, for more than two weeks, and was on page 150 or so. Now, this pace has nothing to do with my level of interest in the story. Almost from the first page, I’ve been intrigued by and drawn into this interesting world that Tolstoy portrays. I like the book. I think about it when I’m not reading it. I want to read it.

And yet, I wasn’t reading it.

This weekend, because of President’s Day (which isn’t even a post holiday anymore, let alone a school holiday, but is nevertheless a good excuse to issue coupons and encourage consumerism), I went to the bookstore, in possession of a coupon that gave me 40% off an item of my choice. I don’t usually use the deals I’m emailed, not even for books, preferring to buy used, especially for classics. But 40% off meant I could get a lovely edition of something (hardcover, cloth-bound, or deluxe edition, I dreamed immediately). So off to the bookstore I went.

Of course, as I immediately remembered, this particular chain bookstore (the only US national one, guess which?) has a habit of only stocking its own version of the classics, a version I find particularly ugly, and only buy if I have to. Beautiful editions of classic works were few and far between, and most were of books I already own and don’t want a second copy of (David Copperfield, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall).

9780198709701.jpegThen I found the Oxford hardcovers. The first one appeared with the Dostoyevsky books, a red, cloth-bound version of Crime and Punishment featuring a minimalistic axe on the front.

But I didn’t want a Dostoyevsky, because The Brothers Karamazov has been languishing, unread, on my bookshelves since time immemorial (seriously, I don’t remember when I bought it), and I didn’t want to add C&P to that party. So I kept wandering, and between the “D” and the “T” section was mostly a wasteland.

And there it was, at eye level, in the “T’s”: Anna Karenina, in the Oxford clothbound, a beautiful blue hardback with a paler blue fan and the title dripping down like ribbon. I tried to talk myself out of it, and failed. It came home with me.

9780198800538.jpegThat night I read a hundred pages. A hundred.

It was about more than the aesthetics, too. The book, weighty as it is, felt comfortable in my hand. The pages open easily. The font is well-spaced and comfortable to read. I lost track of time in the book instead of counting the number pages I had left until the next chapter.

This is my conclusion: edition matters.

Spring for the lovely books, the aesthetic books, but also get those books that not only feature helpful notes and annotations and introductions, but also (or instead, even) offer a pleasurable reading experience. I wonder how many classics I have struggled to read simply because the cheap edition was subtly fighting against my eyes?  I wonder if students would like the books we ask them to read better if we gave them beautiful, readable editions instead of the tiny Signets and Dovers with the minuscule font and no spacing?

I don’t know the answer. I just know that thanks to my purchase, I have a hope of finishing Anna Karenina before the month ends.

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The images of the covers are from the OUP website: https://global.oup.com/academic/content/series/o/oxford-worlds-classics-hardback-collection-owch/?cc=us&lang=en&

If you’re interested in the Oxford Hardcover series, which really is lovely, and contains the insides of their very good paperback World’s Classics series, it looks like aside from the Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy (including War and Peace), there’s an Austen, a Shelley, and several short story and fairytale collections. I hope they add more in the future! I would certainly be interested in adding them to my collection.

Also, here’s a comparison of the insides of my two copies of Anna. The Oxford is on the top, the cheap old bookstore-released edition is on the left. The differences are subtle, to be sure, but that’s my point – a little change matters a lot. I flipped to a page in the middle at random, and they happened to be a similar layout, which is convenient. Also, you’ll notice how much more nicely the Oxford lays open.

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