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

 


“All this happened, more or less”*: Ten Great Opening Sentences in Fiction

Sometimes the opening sentence of a novel comes down on you like the safety bar on a roller coaster. That first line locks you in; you tingle with excitement, anticipating the ride that is to come. Here are ten of the most engaging lines that begin works of fiction, some classics, some new, some you may never have heard of, but all captivating:

1.  It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice 

2. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

3.  It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984

4.  “To start with, look at all the books.”  Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot 

5.  “They met at the museum to end it.”  – Johnathan Lethem, You Don’t Love Me Yet

6.  “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.” D.H. Lawrence,  Lady Chatterley’s Lover

7.  “I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday.” John Scalzi,  Old Man’s War 

8.  “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

9.  “She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.” Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint 

10.  “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” C.S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader 

*Note:  Post title is from Kurt Vonnegut’s classic, Slaughterhouse-Five 


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