Confessions of a Book Abandoner

A positively shameful confession from college student and eNotes intern, Yael…

I need to confess something, guys.

I’m a book-starter. That kind of sounds like a positive thing, but it’s not.

Allow me to rephrase.

I’m a book-abandoner… a book-deserter.

I just can’t kick the habit.

In the past two years, I’ve probably started and stopped reading about 20 books. With each, as goes the one before it, I make it through about a quarter of the novel. Then I bookmark it and put it on my nightstand like I’m totally going to tackle it “one of these days,” but I know, deep down in my book-neglecting heart, that my lame attempts to try and pick it back up weeks later will result in one page being read, over and over, until I realize I’m hungry. Then, you know, it’s game over. Book goes back on the nightstand. Collects dust. Poor book. (Sometimes-and I put this in parentheses because it’s just so shameful-I even do this to used books…books who have already gone through so much. Who does that? It’s like…where’s my heart? I don’t know. I just don’t know.)

Theoretically, I love books. I love the idea of books, the feel of books. I’m one of those people (or maybe the only person) who walks down the hallways at Barnes & Noble just, you know, lightly grazing book bindings with my finger tips, flipping through random pages and thinking about all the possibilities that lie within them. I even love smelling books. Don’t you furrow your brows at me…there’s no denying it: books smell like hundreds of years of life and also like warm, cozy memories and those are the best smells that were ever invented. But…seriously? I haven’t been able to read past chapter 3 in any book since high school when reading fictional novels was required and life was a little more chipper. Harry Potter, where you at? (Obviously…on my book shelf in order from 1-7 and properly covered with their respective book sleeves, but that’s beside the point…

The real point is, I’m fed up.

I’m done. I’m ready to change.

TODAY IS THE DAY I START MY JOURNEY TO BECOME A WELL-READ, BOOK-COMPLETER. I will be a book-MASTER. (You go, girl ← yes, that was self encouragement, and it makes talking to yourself acceptable)

If you’re like me, this transformation I’ve just gone through might spark something in you. Maybe you’ll feel motivated to kick that nasty habit, stop pretending you don’t know how to “read for pleasure” anymore because textbooks burned you out, and get your act together. Seriously…just get it together. Because, if you’re like me, you may soon be an unemployed, recent graduate, looking for ways to kill time in between all that job-hunting and stress eating. Books, friends. Books. We can spend time getting caught up in other peoples’ more exciting lives, actually gain a little knowledge, and maybe even get our hands on a little bit of peace of mind and calm.

Now that you’re ready to become a librarian and the world’s most influential leader in literary criticism, let’s discuss book choice.

It doesn’t really matter. Any kind of reading is the good kind.

Personally, I want to tackle the classics. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe because everyone’s read them and I just want to be one of the cool kids. But that’s only about 80% of it.

I also think that the “classic” novels are classic for a reason, and not just because they’re old and wise. In general, I feel like it would be beneficial to read the works of writers who laid the backbone and set the pace for the next great writers. They’re the OGs, you know? You have to learn from the masters and then their students.

Now if you hate Jane Austen and Dostoyevsky and are about to say to me sternly “Yael, don’t you dare put that Hemingway anywhere near me,” be soothed: there are millions of books left out there to read. All kinds and all sizes, from all different kinds of countries and different kinds of people. You have a world of novels to choose from. So choose randomly, haphazardly, and without much forethought. Scratch that, without any forethought. And do it often. (A good analogy is to act like you would if you were at a grocery store in the ice cream aisle, and that for today only, all the ice cream had 0 calories and 0 grams of fat. I mean…just go to town. Take all of it. All. Of. It. Even the weird flavors.) Books are one of those world wonders that will enrich your life in so many ways you can’t even begin to realize. The lessons you learn, the relationships you make, the inspiration you’ll take, and the enjoyment you’ll get from reading a book is something you really can’t get elsewhere.

So go to your nearest library or book store, grab some books, smell them (seriously, just try it) and read them. Finish them. Even if you don’t like them very much, you’ll get something out of it. That’s what I’m going to do at least, and honestly if I can do it…I really think anyone can.

Oh, and also if anyone wants to start a book club, I’m interested. I’ll bring the snacks.

Sincerely,

Your-Book’s-New-BFFAEAE (that’s best friend forever and ever and ever)


Top Ten Most Anticipated Releases of 2013

Though I’m still reeling to catch up on the great new releases of 2012, and though I already have a set list of books to tackle as my New Year’s resolution, I’m already salivating over the following sneak previews that come courtesy of The Millions. Apparently the first stage of overcoming literature fatigue is admitting that you will never catch up to all the amazing books out there. Maybe I’ll get around to these promising reads in 2016 or so. Til then, well hello Booker Prize winner of 2010…

What new releases are you looking forward to this year?

coverUmbrella by Will Self: Shortly before Umbrella came out in the UK last September, Will Self published an essay in The Guardian about how he’d gone modernist. “As I’ve grown older, and realised that there aren’t that many books left for me to write, so I’ve become determined that they should be the fictive equivalent of ripping the damn corset off altogether and chucking it on the fire.” Umbrella is the result of Self’s surge in ambition, and it won him some of the best reviews of his career, as well as his first Booker shortlisting. He lost out to Hilary Mantel in the end, but he won the moral victory in the group photo round by doing this.

coverScenes from Early Life by Philip Hensher: In his eighth novel, Scenes from Early Life, Philip Hensher “shows for the first time what [he] has largely concealed in the past: his heart,” writes Amanda Craig in The Independent.  Written in the form of a memoir, narrated in the voice of Hensher’s real-life husband Zaved Mahmood, the novel invites comparison with Gertrude Stein’sThe Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.  Described as a hybrid of fiction, history, and biography—and as both “clever” and “loving”—the inventive project here is distinctly intriguing.

coverMy Brother’s Book by Maurice Sendak: When Maurice Sendak died last May he left one, final, unpublished book behind.  It is, according to a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, a beautiful, intensely serious elegy for Sendak’s beloved older brother Jack, who died in 1995.  The story, illustrated in watercolors, has Guy (a stand-in for Sendak), journeying down the gullet of a massive polar bear named Death- “Diving through time so vast—sweeping past paradise”- into an underworld where he and Jack have one last reunion. “To read this intensely private work,” writes Publisher’s Weekly, “is to look over the artist’s shoulder as he crafts his own afterworld, a place where he lies in silent embrace with those he loves forever.”

coverSee Now Then by Jamaica Kincaid: For See Now Then, her first novel in a decade, Jamaica Kincaid settles into a small town in Vermont, where she dissects the past, present and future of the crumbling marriage of Mrs. Sweet, mother of two children named Heracles and Persephone, a woman whose composer husband leaves her for a younger musician.  Kincaid is known as a writer who can see clean through the surface of things – and people – and this novel assures us that “Mrs. Sweet could see Mrs. Sweet very well.”

coverGive Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked by James Lasdun: English poet, novelist and short story writer James Lasdun’s new book is a short memoir about a long and harrowing experience at the hands of a former student who set out to destroy him and through online accusations of sexual harassment and theft. J.M. Coetzee has called it “a reminder, as if any were needed, of how easily, since the arrival of the Internet, our peace can be troubled and our good name besmirched.”

coverAll That Is by James Salter: Upon return from service as a naval officer in Okinawa, Philip Bowman becomes a book editor during the “golden age” of publishing.  The publisher’s blurb promises “Salter’s signature economy of prose” and a story about the “dazzling, sometimes devastating labyrinth of love and ambition.” In our interview with Salter in September, he told us it was “an intimate story about a life in New York publishing,” some 10 years in the making.  From John Irving: “A beautiful novel, with sufficient love, heartbreak, vengeance, identity confusion, longing, and euphoria of language to have satisfied Shakespeare.” Tim O’Brien: “Salter’s vivid, lucid prose does exquisite justice to his subject—the relentless struggle to make good on our own humanity.” April will not come soon enough.

coverYou Are One of Them by Elliott HoltYou Are One of Them is Pushcart Prize-winner Elliott Holt’s debut novel. You might be forgiven for thinking she’d already published a few books, as Holt has been a fixture of the literary Twittersphere for years. Holt’s debut is a literary suspense novel spanning years, as a young woman, raised in politically charged Washington D.C. of the 1980s, goes to Moscow to investigate the decades-old death of her childhood friend.

coverA Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel: A short story collection that includes the author’s New Yorker debut, “Atria”. If that piece is any indication, the book is more than a bit fabulist – the plot involves a girl who finds herself pregnant and worries she’ll give birth to an animal. The specter of parenthood, as the title suggests, appears in numerous guises, as does the reinvention that marked the protagonists of her novel (the genesis of which she wrote about in our own pages).


cover
His Wife Leaves Him by Stephen Dixon: Stephen Dixon, a writer known for rendering unbearable experiences, has built his 15th novel around a premise that is almost unbearably simple: A man named Martin is thinking about the loss of his wife, Gwen.  Dixon’s long and fruitful career includes more than 500 shorts stories, three O. Henry Prizes, two Pushcart Prizes and a pair of nominations for the National Book Award.  His Wife Leaves Him, according to its author, “is about a bunch of nouns: love, guilt, sickness, death, remorse, loss, family, matrimony, sex, children, parenting, aging, mistakes, incidents, minutiae, birth, music, jobs, affairs, memory, remembering, reminiscence, forgetting, repression, dreams, reverie, nightmares, meeting, dating, conceiving, imagining, delaying, loving.”

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff: Rakoff passed away last summer at the age of 47, shortly after completing this slender novel “written entirely in verse.” His previous books have been largely satirical, so this final work is a departure: stretching across the country and the twentieth century, the novel’s stories are linked by “acts of generosity or cruelty.” Ira Glass, who brought Rakoff to the airwaves for more than a decade, has described the book as “very funny and very sad, which is my favorite combination” (a fair descriptor of much of Rakoff’s radio work, likethis heartbreaking performance from the live episode of “This American Life” staged just a few months before his death.)

Blast, this Top Ten only made it halfway through the year! There’s just too much brewing to be able to discern what will be the true standouts. For the full list, arranged by release date, head over to The Millions immediately.


Every Book A Surprise

Ah, the instant gratification of the vending machine. Always there when you desperately require a dozen eggs or a business card, and no dilly-dallying about it! Well, perhaps that’s only in Japan… Regardless, the capabilities of the vending machine have now been pushed to new levels in Toronto, where you can now find the amazing, the wondrous “Biblio-Mat.”

With the Biblio-Mat, customers of Toronto’s second-hand bookshop The Monkey’s Paw can snag an obscure, out-of-print book for just a Toonie. (That’s Canadian for $2.) The one catch may be that when you insert your 2 bucks into the machine, you have no idea what book it might divulge. Then again, that’s also half the fun; rumor has it that the Biblio-Mat, aside from being the first vending machine of its kind, also possesses psychic abilities in its book-granting powers. So if you don’t like the book you get, well, you probably have the imagination and enthusiasm of a mollusk.

Other fun things about it are the retro mint exterior, not unlike a 1950s refrigerator, accompanied by the mechanic clank upon the Biblio-Mat’s mystic delivery.

When a customer puts coins into it, the Biblio-Mat dramatically whirrs and vibrates as the machine is set in motion. The ring of an old telephone bell enhances the thrill when the customer’s mystery book is delivered with a satisfying clunk into the receptacle below.

Another fun fact: bookshop owner Stephen Fowler initially envisioned the Biblio-Mat as a metal locker with his assistant inside, delivering books upon payment. The end result is almost as good, only because nothing really beats a human hand emerging from the other side of a vending machine (though it probably would have violated several fair employment laws). Also, I secretly believe that every ATM hides behind it an elf, and every automatic door a man with a thin piece of string, but I think that’s just me…

I just love this idea and can’t wait to see what book within the psychic interiors of the Biblio-Mat awaits my next visit to Toronto. Check it out in action below!

*No assistants were subjected to confined spaces in the making of this vending machine.


How to Read a Book a Day in 2013

Perhaps one of your resolutions for 2013, like so many people’s, is to read more this year. I’m guessing, though, that you did not set yourself the daunting task of reading a grand total of 365 books over the course of as many days. That would be crazy, right? Not according to Jeff Ryan of Slate, who proved in 2012 that such a resolution, though insane, is not impossible to achieve. While I certainly do not have plans to attempt Ryan’s wacky goal myself, the tactics he employed to reach that number might help anyone looking to cover more literary ground this year. Here’s how he did it, how you can learn from it, and why Ryan’s goal might actually not have been so wacky after all…

For a resolution like this, Ryan had to start out with some ground rules. And no, priority No. 1 was not to lower the minimum page count of the books on his list. It was to avoid scrimping on his current duties as father, husband, and full-time job-holder.

My test for this was my wife: I didn’t even tell her I was tackling a book a day until six weeks into the project. If she suspected I was slacking—dishes undone, litter box a ruin, laundry growing sentient—then I was failing my prime directive.

The preference for quick reads didn’t come into play until rule No. 2: Read short books.

I don’t deny that 2012 was not the year for me to launch into Terry Goodkind. Want some Tolstoy? The Forged Coupon, not War and Peace.

Don’t hide your YA, exercise shamelessness if you want to reach your 365 book goal.

In similar fashion, if I had to point out a third rule of Ryan’s in this project, it’d be “Don’t be a snob.” You don’t get to read 365 books in a year without padding out your reading list with a bit of light fodder. The journalist’s “literary junk food” as he calls it consisted of “zombie novels, books about Old Hollywood,  books about video games (I can’t play you anymore, but I can read about you!), comedians’ memoirs, and essay collections.” Anyone else’s indulgence of guilty pleasures would easily stretch to include Young Adult books, chick lit, comic books, even erotica. Does everything you read have to be Booker-worthy? Not if the goal is simply to read and learn more, so feel free to exercise a bit of shamelessness.

One of Ryan’s most important tactics was to read multiple books at once. If you’re anything like me, you’ll imagine this point as being annoying; I like to give my full attention to a novel without interruption from other works, if I can manage it. But the thing about this project is that it opens your eyes to how many different things you already read simultaneously everyday, besides books, and how much extra stuff can be forsaken in order to read more literature. For instance, Ryan might in one day finish up a 1,000 page tome he’d been working on for a while, approach the end of an audiobook on his drive home, and close the final chapter on a Chronicles of Narnia novel with his daughter at bedtime. Sound like the kind of multitasking you’re used to?

And what happens when you replace the normal go-to forms of entertainment crunching up your free time and replace them with books? What might you inadvertently give up? For Ryan it was video games, “direct-to-DVD horror films” (in the manner of Starship Troopers 2 and Saw V-VII), and music, as he exclusively listened to audiobooks on his iPod. It’s also not difficult to imagine how much more most of us would read were it not  for our TV addictions. To many people, some of those casualties would be unforgivable. To others, pledging to read a book a day might help to check off other resolutions we might often swear to keep but never manage to.

It’s this new awareness of how most of us use our free time that suddenly makes this resolution appear less impossible and more like something we already engage in:

If you follow my path and read a book a day in 2013, you’ll find that you truly, truly will not be reading more than usual. Right now, you are probably reading a comparable amount to me—but you’re reading newspapers, Facebook and Twitter, and the work of the fine folks at Slate. I let that stuff go for a year in the interest of making my quota. (Maybe that’s why I liked essay collections so much; they’re like magazines in book format.) I always dreamed that in retirement I might be able to knock off a book a day: Turns out, I didn’t have to wait.

So you see, pledging to read more in 2013 doesn’t have to be a futile promise. As for me, I’m going to try something infinitely more manageable than 365 books and focus on six authors I always mean to read but never get around to. They are:  David Mitchell, Haruki Murakami, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Phillip Roth, and (just for fun, because I’m appalling when it comes to Russian lit knowledge) Leo Tolstoy.

Do you have any literature-related resolutions planned? Perhaps you’ll plan to read a book a month, or even to participate in 2013′s NaNoWriMo? Please, share your ideas on how to read more in a comment below. Whatever you resolve this New Year’s, I hope your 2013 is full of inspiring and enjoyable reads!


Helen Fielding Working on New Bridget Jones Novel (v.g.)

Everyone’s favourite singleton to be thrust into the brave new world of Twitterature.

It’s been thirteen long years since a new volume of Bridget Jones’ diary, with all its obsessive weight woes and love laments, has been unleashed upon the world. In that time, fanatics have had to content themselves with reading the series’ two books over and over again, to the point of having memorized them by rote. (Okay, maybe some of us are more fanatical than others.) But the agonizing wait is finally over: Helen Fielding has confirmed that she is working on a new Bridget Jones novel to be released late next year. Hurrah!

And one of the most interesting tidbits to come out of Fielding’s announcement is how her writing and Bridget’s life will be thrust into the world of 2012. Instead of beginning the day with her routine account of weight, alcohol units drunk, calories consumed, and 1471 calls made, Bridget’s diary entries will begin with a tweet. Says Fielding, “It’s more like ‘number of Twitter followers: 0. Still no followers. Still no followers.’”

Perhaps Fielding will take it a step further. What if Bridget’s diary was not on paper at all? What if she has discovered the world of blogging, even tumblr, or instagram? Not only does the new medium give Fielding lots to play with, it gives Bridget an infinite number of worries to obsess over, like the number of visitors she has on her online dating profile, or her mother’s permeating presence on Facebook. Worries that make her just like the rest of us, regretful though we are to admit it.

In the age of social networks and text messages, Bridget has the power of instant drunken replies.
Oof, tumbled over.

As for the story at the heart of the work, it’s a mystery as to whether the perennial men of Bridget’s life, sensible Mark Darcy and reprehensible Daniel Cleaver, will be making an appearance. “Some characters remain and some may have disappeared,” Fielding said. “They’ll still be presences in the book. Like all of us you keep your friends, people stay in your life, but everyone’s life moves on.”

What? Possibly no Darcy and Cleaver? But what will have become of Bridget? If she is to have aged in real time, that would put her in her late 40s to early 50s. Is she the tragic spinster retread she always feared she’d be, the threat of being half eaten by alsatians looming? Or the lonely single mother of a pair of troublesome teenagers? Fielding isn’t giving away much information.

She has grownup. My life has moved on and hers will move on too. She’s still trying to give up [drinking and smoking], she’s still on a diet. She’s trying a bit harder, and is a bit more successful, but she’s never really going to change.

Phew. Now all one has to worry about awaiting this twitterature-influenced Bridget Jones episode is avoiding eating the entire contents of one’s fridge. Non v.g.


What Are You Doing for the Next 30 Days? NaNoWriMo, That’s What

All you fellow writers out there know… tell anyone, anyone at all… the taxi driver, a sales clerk, your grandfather, what you do for a living and 50% of the time you will get  a version of the following: “A writer, huh? You know, I always thought I had a novel in me.” The other 50% of the time, you will get a variation of this response:  “I have always felt my life story would make a great book. I need to write that down soon.”

And who is to say that some of these people DON’T actually have a book inside them? (Well, we are pretty sure the gum-chomping girl at the Abercrombie does not, but then again, this is a real thing in the world.) During the month of November, you can tell those would-be writers, and perhaps yourself, to stop talking about it and really do it.

You will be in good company. NaNoWriMo is the acronym for National Novel Writing Month.  NaNoWriMo is a collaborative effort involving thousands of writers and millions of words.

According to the project’s website, NaNoWriMo is “the world’s largest writing event and nonprofit literary crusade. Participants pledge to write 50,000 words in a month, starting from scratch and reaching “The End” by November 30. “There are no judges, no prizes, and entries are deleted from the server before anyone even reads them.”

So what are you waiting for? November 1st is already half over… and you still have 50,000 words to go.


Some Pig, Some Book: Charlotte’s Web Turns 60

How E.B. White loved spiders before the rest of the world fell in love with his.

Some children’s books are truly timeless.

When you think of their titles, the very smell of their pages seems to seep from your memory, and you find yourself once again feeling those same emotions you felt on the first reading, or indeed any reading thereafter.

Charlotte’s Web is one of those books.

E.B. White’s classic tale has played a pivotal role in many a child’s upbringing. In fact, in a Publisher’s Weekly poll it was ranked as the most popular children’s book ever published. Today marks its sixtieth year in print.

The tale is so familiar to so many of us that I hardly feel the need to raise a spoiler alert. All the same, don’t read on if you don’t yet know the ending…

The body of the novel may concern a pig, a girl, and a series of barnyard animals to fill the backdrop, but at its heart is a remarkable spider, Charlotte A. Cavatica. Though a spider to many may seem like an unlikely creature to feel empathy for, the author obviously saw differently.

Charlotte’s Web had its beginnings in the Maine farm White ran with his wife Katherine Angell. One October day, White noticed a spider’s web in the corner of his barn. He watched as, over a manner of weeks, the spider in it spread her net wider and wider, eventually laying a tiny egg sac at its center. The spider was never to be seen again. When the time came for White to leave Maine for New York (and the farm for his steady job at The New Yorker), “he put the sac in an empty candy box, punched some holes in it, and absent-mindedly put the box atop his bedroom bureau in New York.”

Some weeks later, that precious egg sac began to breathe life. The author watched as tiny eight-legged spiders crawled out of the candy box, through the air holes he’d made for them.

White was delighted at this affirmation of life and left the hundreds of barn spiderlings alone for the next week or so — to spin webs from his hair brush to his nail scissors to his mirror — until, finally, the cleaning lady complained.

Thus also hatched White’s idea for Charlotte’s Web.

Interestingly, his fascination with and emotional attachment to spiders went back further than those first stirrings of the novel in 1949. White once wrote of the arachnids that “once you begin watching spiders, you haven’t time for much else.” Even one of his love poems to his new bride concerned a spider. This one he wrote in 1929 is titled “Natural History”:

The spider, dropping down from twig,
Unwinds a thread of his devising;
A thin, premeditated rig
To use in rising.

And all the journey down through space,
In cool descent, and loyal-hearted,
He builds a ladder to the place
From which he started.

Thus I, gone forth, as spiders do,
In spider’s web a truth discerning,
Attach one silken strand to you
For my returning.

So White was no novice in making a spider appear beautiful and regal rather than something to be feared. In Charlotte’s Web, he instilled all of the attributes in Charlotte that made us fall in love with her; she was kind, honest, a truly loyal friend, and of course a great writer, too. It wasn’t long before she spun a web around children’s hearts everywhere.

And when we cried at Charlotte’s death, White was right there with us.

So great was the author’s love for his character that in 1970, when it came time for him to record the audio book, he had a difficult time reading the passage wherein his beloved spider passed. In the end, it took 17 takes for White to get through the following paragraph without his voice “cracking or beginning to cry.”

The fairgrounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody of the hundreds of people that had visited the fair knew that a gray spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.

It wasn’t the first time a reader cried over Charlotte, nor will it be the last. Wilbur may have been some pig, but Charlotte was certainly some spider, and White’s story is one very special book. If those who remember her now have anything to do with it, Charlotte’s story will be celebrated in another sixty years as one of the most beloved children’s novels of our, or indeed of any time.

To hear White read the passage above, head to NPR’s Morning Edition story, which includes an interview with Michael Sims, author of the biography The Story of Charlotte’s Web. You can also listen to E.B. White read an excerpt of Charlotte’s Web via an NPR recording at this link.

Charlotte’s Web on eNotes:

Charlotte’s Web Study Guide

Lesson Plan

and Q&A

 


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 820 other followers