Since I started this blog a few weeks ago, I’ve subscribed to several book blogs (some of which are listed in my “Favorite Web Sites” tab on the right). On the first one I subscribed to, Fat Books and Thin Women, Ellen recently wrote about some interesting posts on The Reading Ape about what people want from book blogs. After reading all of those posts and responding to a couple of them, I decided to write my own post about what I want from book blogs, and why the things I want from them differ from what I want to post about on my own blog.
First, I read book blogs to figure out what new things I might want to read. I’m grateful to some of the wonderful book-bloggers out there: David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, Matt Bell, Charles E. May, The Reading Ape, the people who post on Emerging Writers Network and Fiction Writers Review, and whomever writes all that stuff on The New Yorker’s Book Bench. You guys have expanded my little reading world exponentially.
I now have a wish list of about 20 short stories and books of short stories that I want to read because of your reviews. But that also makes book reviews in the newspaper, on NPR, and on book blogs dangerous. I’ve already made my reading list for the coming year, and I don’t think I’ll have time to get to all the stories and books you’ve turned me on to in just three weeks. See, I already have quite a pile of Unread Stuff to Get Around To on the floor of my office.
I could give some of the list to my husband a few months before Christmas. I did that last year, and I was thrilled to see a large number of book-shaped packages under the tree. When I opened them, I found that not one single book had come from my list. And every single book looked good. David had given me Independent People by Halldór Laxness because he remembered how much I had enjoyed seeing some of Iceland during USS MOUNT WHITNEY’s 1996 port visit in Reykjavik. I set it aside to read after I finished (ok, started) the Icelandic sagas – copies of which I bought in the English-language section on the second floor of Mál og Menning (Language and Culture), an enormous indie bookstore in downtown Reykjavik. Yep, been meaning to get around to reading those since 1996! A review in the Washington Post turned me on to The Word Exchange, a dual-language (Old English/Modern English) volume of Saxon poetry; that reminded me that I’d always meant to read Beowulf properly, so I picked up a dual-language edition of that too. Now I’ve got a big stack of Germanic literature to read, and that could be a whole different reading and blogging project, and I could read all of it while blasting Wagner on my iPod, which reminds me that I haven’t downloaded nearly enough classical music….
Anyway. I think that a book blog can be many things at the same time, and it can change at any time to serve the blogger’s and readers’ needs.
We read for different things at different times. In children’s book author Avi’s 2003 Newbery Award acceptance speech, Avi discusses a Donald Hall metaphor: Hall says that a writer tries to create the letter O, but instead creates the letter C. If the gap in the letter C is neither too small nor too large, the reader closes it with self to complete the circle. That “self” changes with time and circumstance, which is why one might reread the same book or story several times and respond to it in different ways every time.
For many years, I wasn’t looking for depth either in book reviews or in books themselves. As I’ve said elsewhere, I usually read too fast to “read deep.” For most of my life, I’ve read to escape to some other reality. Identifying and appreciating a sexy synecdoche doesn’t help much with the escape attempt. It’s like watching a magic show when you know how the magician pulls off all his tricks. Also, I spent most of my time on active duty reading military intelligence documents critically and analytically. The last thing I wanted to do was to read fiction that way. Reading for technique and vocabulary seemed analogous to navel-gazing: interesting to contemplate in theory, but a waste of time in practice. Finally, I thought it might drain some of the pleasure. In college, I watched an Alfred Hitchcock movie with a theater-major friend who was taking a film class. She did so much deconstruction during the film, and was so bipolar about it (everything was either BRILLIANT, or it sucked snake teat) that it seemed she would never again watch a movie for fun. I didn’t want to risk getting all bipolar about books. Books are sacred. It would be a tragedy to fall out of love with them.
Now I’m retired. I have time to ponder the many mysteries of my navel. Military intelligence production required intense analysis of texts and critical thinking, but being a member of the Stay-Home Mom Mafia often doesn’t. Reading good fiction critically and analytically is a great workout for the mental muscles. In theory, it will also help me write better. In a grad school class we read to understand what in a story or novel was working for us, so that we could identify techniques to try out in our own writing. For that reason, catching the magician at his tricks has become a fun game. In short, I’m now looking for fiction that engages my critical and analytical faculties. I wasn’t an English major; I didn’t really know how to go beyond The New Yorker and NPR to look for good stuff; well-written, thoughtful book blogs are helping me find it.
To address one of the original questions posed by The Reading Ape, I am looking for a certain amount of “I-ness” in a book blog. Lacking a personal connection with the reviewers who write for The New York Times or The Washington Post, I find that it takes a leap of faith to spend my precious time on their reviews or the books they recommend. A book blog written by someone whose “voice” intrigues me is likely to contain reviews of stories and books I would like: if Charles May, David Abrams, Matt Bell or Ellen Rhudy is writing about (or has vetted a review of) a story or a book, I know that the review will be worth my time, and that they’ll give me enough information to make a good choice about whether to spend even more time reading the thing they’ve reviewed. Engaging in conversations about literature and reading via a blog is like being in a good literature or writing class: there are no final exams, and I like the bloggers I follow much better than I liked that intolerable goon N-., whose snarky company I had to endure through two writing workshops.
Book bloggers are by definition readers. One’s response to a book is inevitably colored by one’s life experiences, but I find that the best book bloggers don’t consider themselves excused from the responsibility of reading in the deepest, fullest, most critical and analytical way that they are capable of, and posting to that same standard. We are never more alive than when we exercise our faculties to the fullest. If book bloggers choose to shut down their critical and analytical faculties, to be sloppy or thoughtless or careless, perhaps they are less alive. Isn’t it enough that the authors in Harold Bloom’s “canon” are mostly a bunch of dead white guys? I like my book bloggers mentally alive and kicking, thank you.
Because that’s the standard to which I aspire, I’m not yet posting many reviews on my own blog. The Reading Ape mentioned a recent list of “40 Literary Terms Every Bookworm Should Know.” I had seen that list myself, and had printed up a copy literally minutes before reading The Ape’s post.
Twenty years ago, when I took my first graduate class in literature (Russian, not English), I bought one of those laminated “cheat sheets” that one sometimes finds in university bookstores which defined lots of literary terms: I knew more literature and grammar terminology in Russian than I did in my native language. Even now, possibly because I had that cheat sheet (long gone) and did not retain its content, I suspect that my 4th-grader is more fluent in literary terminology than I am.
My son’s reading teacher uses a “dual-entry journal” to help teach students to be better critical readers. She was kind enough to show me how it works, and I’m trying to use my own version of it to become a better reader and to develop the confidence to contribute productively to some of the discussions of fiction that are floating around in the blogosphere. (If I’d known how to use a dual-entry reading journal, I might have been better than a B/B+ student in my college classes in Russian literature.) I also sneaked home an extra copy of some “critical reading helpers,” including a fun little laminated bookmark covered in “thinking questions,” that I Xeroxed for an eighth-grade teacher at the local middle school. (Yikes! Stealing from the local school system! Wait – it’s a public school, and I pay my state and county taxes….)
So for the moment, I’m mostly thinking and blogging about the experience of reading; hoovering up what other, more qualified people are saying in their book blog reviews; attempting to learn “good reading” techniques to apply to my own reading; and enjoying the company of other book bloggers.
Thanks to all of you book bloggers out there for sharing yourselves, your thoughts, and your reading lists. If my office floor collapses under the weight of more books in the to-be-read pile, I will hold you personally responsible.