Monday, January 31, 2011

Reading Books I Hate

Right now I'm reading two books that I hate,

One that I hate so much that I have a little mantra going in my head the whole time I'm reading: "I hate this book, I hate this book..."  Normally, I don't hate books (exception)--I might find them less-than-interesting, but "hate" is a pretty strong word. 

What to do when you hate a book:
  • Stop reading! Different people have different rules of thumb about how long to read a book before they give up on it.  My rule is 50 pages, but I almost never give up on books.  That's probably because I'm pretty picky about what I read.*  I can't stop reading these two because they're both required for class.
  • Break your reading up into small bits of time.  If you choose this option, try to read at least a chapter per sitting, or you will NEVER get through the thing.  Again, I can't use this option because of reading deadlines.
  • Reward yourself.  Promise yourself an equal amount of good reading for each block of time you spend doing this type of reading.
  • Play some good music, loudly.
  • Brew coffee.
  • See below (photo by Andrewc)
By reading these two books at the same time, I have managed to isolate some qualities that will make me hate your writing:
  • Use lots of drawings that don't make sense (on the other hand, this does mean less reading per page).
  • Make random changes in typography for apparently no meaning (see above).
  • Make sure the ideas in one paragraph are completely unrelated to ideas in adjacent paragraphs.
  • Present lots of bold assertions with no evidence.
  • Use terminology that most people aren't familiar with, just for fun.  Make up words.
  • Constantly refer the reader to parts of other chapters, both before and after the chapter she is in.  This will reinforce your lack of organization for her.
  • Write about ideas that others have already written about, only better.  If you have original ideas, hide them well.
I'm afraid to continue.  If these books were fiction, I'd have another whole list, but that's another post.

*except that I'm reading some lists right now, yet another post...

Friday, January 28, 2011

Bartram's Travels

I'm working on finishing up Bartram's Travels.  This Quaker naturalist explored the southeastern portion of the US during the colonial/revolutionary era.  Portions of the book were required for my Florida literature class last semester, and I enjoyed the book so much that I wanted to finish it.  The edition pictured above is pretty much a facsimile, so it has very few reader helps.  I would recommend reading it with something like Brad Sanders' Guide to William Bartram's Travels (which I haven't read) to illuminate some of the more obscure Latin; since Bartram is a naturalist, he's much more familiar than I am with Latin names for plant and animal species.

My favorite part of the book is Bartram's fight with the alligators, which you can read in the wonderful poem "William Bartram Beset by Crocodiles or Alligators" by Campbell McGrath.   I'll never forget that Professor Runge had us draw a scene from the book in class (experimental pedagogy, you know).  I settled for a simple campfire scene, but our animal-lover Susan did tackle the alligator scene.  Her alligator looked something like this.

Other fascinating bits from this book:
  • Bartram's disease that caused his tears to be acid and burn the skin on his face.
  • Bartram's opinions of Indians (very positive). 
  • Bartram's constant cheerfulness while traveling in Florida during the summer.
  • Bartram's plans for escaping the band of Negroes he encounters along the road
  • Apparently, Bartram was a source for Coleridge's Kubla Khan.  
If you enjoy history, nature, or Florida, this book is a must-read. 

Friday, January 21, 2011


Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m a planner.  I love to plan as much as (more than?) to actually do what I’ve planned.  I plan trips, semesters (teaching or studying), comps and dissertation, Vincent’s life, and of course, reading.  

One reason I love to plan is that it does actually help me get things done.  For example, when I plan the semester, I start with a spreadsheet that has every day in the term as the first column.  After removing class days and days I’m unavailable, I’m left with over 100 days to get the work done.  Even with 200 pages of reading a week, my homework is doable if I break it down like this.  I can write a goal into the spreadsheet for every day and make sure it gets done.  Chipping away at big projects does allow me to finish them, even if it takes awhile.

Those of you who know me may remember that there was one week last July during which I came into the possession of over 130 free books!  I won the Penguin 75th anniversary contest (prize: 75 books!) and the same week I visited the RWA conference and came home with 60 some new titles.  Here's a picture of my "currently reading" piles during that week:

They still look about the same, though with different books.  Now, however, the floor around this small table has five piles with about 30 books each.  Those are my "to read" piles.  I think there are more in those piles now than there were in July, since I've acquired a few books since then.

One of the elements of my job that I love the most, though, is reading book reviews.  If I come across a title while I'm buying for the library that I want to read, it goes into my Library Thing collection with the tag "to-read."  Since I'm not actively working on the "to-read" list right now, because of all the books on the floor, it has grown to 442 titles, as of today.  Here are a few:

Plus 439 others. 

I think my planning has once again caused me to overreach.  If my floor piles continue to grow, the list of 442 will also continue to grow.  It almost seems like I may never read another book, but somehow, I'm still reading every night.

What's on your to-read list?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Dumbing Down the Church? (Church? what is this thing called Church?)

A friend of mine linked to Don Miller's blog, which asks about the evangelical church getting dumber.  I forwarded it to a pastor friend with whom I've been having this discussion for awhile.  Here are some of my questions:
  • What is the purpose of that which we know as "church service" (it happens on Sunday mornings)?  Is it worship?  Converting the unsaved?  Other?
  • What is the difference between "worship" and "church service"?
  • What is the difference between "church service" and "Church"?  Can you be a part of "Church" without attending "church service"?
  • Is listening to a sermon worship?  If not, what is the purpose of listening to a sermon?
  • Are Christians whose IQ is above the 100 mark (roughly half of the population if we believe the lore) obligated to wash away that extra bit of brain power along with their sinful nature?
  • Did Jesus use parables so that 9 year olds could understand him?
  • Is the primary focus and purpose of every believer to save the unsaved?
My friend wrote:
But then God reminded me that real worship has never been a feeding trough for saints, it's a sacrifice we offer him.  It's what I bring to God, not what I get from him."

Is attending church "real worship"?  Is it the "sacrifice we bring God"?  Is giving up the hope for  non-dumbed-down sermons our "sacrifice"? If attending church is not "real worship" then what is?

I'm interested to hear your thoughts.  Those of you who don't think much about church, as you were.  Back to books shortly...

Friday, January 7, 2011

Why I Read

My son thinks I read too much.
“Why do you read all the time?”
“Why do you have so many books?”
“I want to write books, not read them.”

I consider it the great failure of my life so far that I have not been able to make a reader of my son.  I thought I was doing all the right things.  I read to him from the day he was born.  His first word was “dog,” said as he pointed to a picture of a dog in a book. (Yes, that would be the only child who skipped over “mama” and “dada” and went straight to “dog.”)  I’ve modeled the behavior (maybe too much).  His dad reads.

Anyway, my son isn’t the point.  I’m actually trying to put into words why I love to read so much. According to my mom, I taught myself to read when I was 3 or so, using a puzzle (that I still remember) with verbs and pictures, and a series of books/records about phonics.  

When I was in grade school, we lived in the country.  Once a week, we’d get a trip into the “big city” (Danville, Ill.) to go to the library.  I remember taking piles of books stacked so high that I couldn’t see over them—had to look around them.  I also pillaged my parents’ bookshelves when I ran out of my own reading material; I learned the facts of life from a parenting manual (and then made my mother uncomfortable by knowing just the right questions to ask to get her to independently verify the information).  I read Black Like Me, Nectar in a Sieve, and The Family Physician before I hit teen age. (The latter title just about made a hypochondriac of me; I had every symptom of every terminal disease.)  At some time during grade school, I learned that Reading Makes You Smart.  I realized that some of the stuff I picked up in books could come in handy later on.  I realized that already knowing a lot of the material I had to learn in school would get me good grades.

Once I got into high school, I learned my second lesson: Reading Can Be a Puzzle.  I’ll never forget reading Being There for a freshman English class and figuring out that it somehow tied in with the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes.  Ever since, I’ve been hooked on prying out the non-obvious.  Puzzle books like The Da Vinci Code and The Eight make me especially happy.

When I hit my twenties, I learned that Reading Can Make You Rich.  OK, not rich.  But it can keep you alive.  My love of books led me to my library career, which has supported me and my family for almost thirty years.  Not to mention Jeopardy! which added another hundred grand or so over a few years (it goes without saying that every answer I knew on J! I had read somewhere or other).

In my thirties, I learned that Reading Can Substitute for Food.  Not completely (those who know me know that I haven’t read enough yet, but I’m trying to get there).  Whenever I love a book so much, more than I can describe, I say that it’s like ice cream.  And that’s as close as I can get to that feeling of sweet, cool, delicious, happiness that I feel when I’m reading.  I try to slow down and speak each word in my mind, just to postpone that moment when I have to take another bite (turn the page) and make it last just a little longer.

Now, hate to admit it, I’m in my forties.  In my forties I’ve learned that Books Can Make You Think.  I found a discipline that I love and that I love to read about (rhetoric).  I’m learning how to “converse” with authors in my own writing.  I’m learning that I might actually have an idea or two worth sharing.  And I’m glad the books I’ve been reading all these years have shown me how to go about doing that.

Of course, I still haven’t answered the question of why I read.  I don’t think I ever really could. 

Thursday, January 6, 2011

My Take On It: Mark Twain and "The 'N' Word"

By now, everyone is familiar with the controversy over removing “the ‘N’ word” from Huck Finn.  

My opinion is that the book should be left alone, if it will be entitled Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.  If it’s called something else (‘Huck Finn for the Innocent’, perhaps), and gives co-author credit to Alan Gribben, then it's a different story--and a different book.  Shakespeare’s language has been updated many times, but the original language is what literature classes study and what acting companies (generally) perform.  

There are lots of books with language that offends all kinds of people. The reaction to that language by the reader is part of what we study.  Changing language doesn’t change the fact that ugly language was used in our nation’s past; it could serve to gloss over that fact, however, an omission that doesn’t serve anyone.

One of the reasons that Gribben cites is the awkwardness involved in reading the text aloud, especially in a classroom setting.  In a graduate-level class that I took last semester, someone suggested that participants in our (all-white) class read aloud some passages from Zora Neale Hurston, an author who is known for her extensive use of southern Black dialect.  Another class member objected vehemently.   

There is no doubt that:
  • Language still has the power to offend.
  • Different people approach language and text in different ways.
  • Some people feel “ownership” of “their” language allows them the ability to dictate when and how certain words are used.  Thus the occurrence of the contested word in many rap and hip hop songs, and thus the strong objection in my class, from a person who, although not Black, has a strong Southern accent. 
  • This controversy has highlighted the still-vast difference in how we react to the written vs. the spoken word.
In my opinion, the author, more than anyone else, “owns” the text.  If the author wants to change language in a work, have at it.  That’s the revision process in action.  If anyone else does it, you have censorship, plain and simple.

Whether censorship is ever justified is another post.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

His Dark Materials

Some thoughts on His Dark Materials.  

I read this series because when the movie came out, there was a lot of discussion, especially from religious groups, about the sort of anti-C.S. Lewis that the author, Philip Pullman, was making himself out to be. 
I tend not to like to give plot summaries, so if you need one, try this one.  And beware of possible spoilers below.

After reading the three books, I have the following questions or comments:
  • Why was Jesus completely left out of the story?  If Pullman is taking on Christianity, Jesus would be an important element of the religion to address, no?
  • Pullman gives a lot of weight to the idea that Lyra is the new Eve.  What exactly was the choice that she was forced to make and/or the command that she could obey or not obey? 
  •  Eve was the mother of her race.  Exactly what was Lyra inaugurating?
  • Why would we need another Eve?  The first Eve made exactly the choice that Pullman would have wished (choosing knowledge over obedience to authority).
  •  Does Pullman really have problems with Christianity or just with authority in general?
  •  How is it that even when two belief systems appear to be so diametrically opposed as Christianity and atheism, they appear to share the same values?
I do have my own thoughts on some of these, but I’d also like to know what you think!