Reading Roundup

September 2, 2010

“. . . I hate a room without books. I hate a desk without papers. . . .”
dialogue spoken by Bonita Prideau, a character in
                           Normal People Don’t Live Like This,
                           a novel-in-stories by Dylan Landis, b. 1956, American fiction writer

When Lynn was in elementary school, we had to maintain a log of her reading. As I recall, the parent was supposed to read with the child for fifteen minutes each evening, progressing to a half hour by middle school. I don’t remember if we had to note what was read or if Lynn had to provide a comment or a short synopsis. I do know that even in our house, where education and reading are highly valued and where there is not a room without books nor a desk without papers, maintaining that log became burdensome.

It’s not that we found the exercise counterproductive, as many parents do, or that we had trouble meeting the requirements. It’s just that filling it in and having me or Ron sign it was a distraction, especially since by second grade certainly, maybe even first grade, we were not reading with Lynn or to Lynn anymore. She was reading on her own before she was in kindergarten and was perfectly capable of choosing and consuming reading materials without supervision. We talked to each other about the things we read, about current events, about the television programs we watched. Lynn did not become the voracious reader I am, and she has almost no interest in fiction, but she is well-informed and knows how to find and assess the information she needs on any topic. Isn’t that the goal of a broad basic education?

At the beginning of my 2009-2010 Year of Reading and Writing, I once again set up a reading log of sorts in these pages. Two of them, actually, one a list of everything I read, the other the Fiction Fifty, the list of fifty books like the one I want to write that, writing coach Heather Sellers advised, would help me achieve my goals as a writer. (She actually advises reading one hundred books in a year. I decided to take a more conservative approach.)

I did pretty well with keeping up. Early on I stopped listing every individual poem I read, mostly because the list was getting awfully long. And I stopped noting nonfiction articles. I was best at recording the fiction reading, although I probably missed a short story here or there. Analyzing the information I do have, I can say that it appears I read 47 individual short stories and 13 book-length works of fiction, either novels or collections by a single author.

Doing some very rough estimating (which considers a “book” 300 pages and figures that the 47 short stories comprise maybe 5 books), I read, let’s say, 5400 pages. I know that I read slowly, about 30 pages an hour. That works out to 180 hours of reading, or about 30 minutes a day. That sounds right. My morning C&C (Coffee and Contemplation), which takes about an hour and two cups of coffee, is usually divided into half for unfocused stream-of-consciousness writing, and half for reading. I hardly have my nose in a book all the time! In fact, I am “reading for pleasure” at the rate recommended for a sixth grader! And I want to read not only for the joy, but to learn the craft.

I’ve started up again. The Fiction Fifty is now called the Fiction Fifty Plus. The new reading log is up. I didn’t write about my reading in this space last year, as I had announced. And I didn’t write to the authors I knew how to contact (and to whom I had something positive to say, which is most of them), another thing I thought I’d like to do, after a conversation at Bread Loaf in which a writer friend (well-published) said he seldom hears from readers. I want to improve in all areas this year — reading more, writing about it, and writing to the authors who have given me so much pleasure and shown me so well how it’s done.

And I’ve decided to start compiling a Nonfiction Fifty, divided into narrative nonfiction (memoir, essentially, maybe biography in that classification as well) and expository nonfiction (reading to learn about death, cremation, burial rites, abortion, building codes, all the subjects that inform my fiction). I went through all the rooms of my house plucking nonfiction titles, wondering why I’ve had Chris Offut”s book The Same River Twice for seventeen years but haven’t read it (yet), and remembering who I was and what I was interested in in 1993 (just starting my MA in American Studies, supervising my first-grader’s reading, imagining myself the author of a historical novel about 19th century domestic life among the Pennsylvania Germans of Berks County), in any of the moments I put my hand on a book and said, I want to read this.

There are twenty-four titles on the list so far, only because that’s how many were piled on a table beside my desk at home and thus easy to pick up, list here, and then restack. I’m starting with Driving By Moonlight, Kristin Henderson’s account of her cross-country journey of self-discovery after her husband, a military chaplain, is deployed to Afghanistan. I met her at Bread Loaf in 2004, I think. I remember that she thanked me for buying her book. Like so many of my book choices, it journeyed home from Vermont with me, got put in a stack, and not exactly forgotten, but deferred.

I just opened it, read the first chapter. It’s as fresh and engaging now as when I heard her read from it six years ago. Excuse me now, while I go read some more.

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