Category Archives: Reading

I remember

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Once upon a time, in AP English, our instructor (who had gone to the Christmas break single and came back married and with a new last name) had us in a poetry unit. I was a senior then, and already had been writing a ton of poetry for years. But we read Thomas Grey’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard and English classes (and literature classes in college) naturally revolve around getting to whatever “deeper meaning” is in a poem, as if every single poem in the world is written with Deep Inscrutable Meaning instead of being anything more mundane, like observations on a place or time or objects, or a description of an ordinary day, or how we value this thing over that other thing, or any of a million other possibilities.

At that time, after reading it, Mrs. Poole (that was her name after she married) asked us what the tone of the poem was. No one answered, and into the silence, I said, “Grave.”

I thought the reply quite funny, but did not laugh out loud, and no one else reacted at all to it. I don’t even believe Mrs. Poole even smiled at it.

That’s the down side of life: saying or writing things people don’t get, especially if it’s some off the cuff witticism that some (rather humorless) people don’t understand right away, or at all.

But I enjoyed that moment, even if no one appreciated it but me, because it isn’t often you have the perfect answer jump to your lips. Those memories should be savored, even if they are solitary ones.

Opinions are like…

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“In literature as in love, we are astonished at what is chosen by others.” (André Maurois)

I keep this in mind as I read five star reviews on Amazon, GoodReads, et al, of books that I’ve recently completed in which I struggle mightily to find some good. Everything gets one star by default, because the writer finished writing the thing. From there, though, some days it’s like looking for a needle in a pile full of needles trying to say anything kind before launching into the things that didn’t work for me. The current book I’m reading has no likable characters in it. Good guys, bad guys, secondary characters – none of them are interesting or likable, and the main character is actually incredibly unpleasant. The question is how to convey this without making it sound as if the writer should have simply burned the manuscript instead of publishing it.

Thoughts on Night

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Elie Wiesel died yesterday. Unlike (apparently) a lot of people, I did not encounter Night, his nonfiction/fictional account of internment at the Auschwitz concentration camp, survival, forced march, and subsequent liberation, until a few years after high school. It was not among the required readings for any of my classes, not even AP History (nor was Anne Frank’s diary). My reading habits by that time after graduation had come to cover a range very far and quite wide, and I found myself with a particular interest in Europe post-WWI through the end of WWII. More specifically, I was fascinated by both Germany and Russia (and then the USSR) both under the spell of tyrants, with people surrounding them willing to do the unthinkable to others whose only crime was being different or having some trait – religion, education, race, ethnicity – deemed undesirable by the dictator in charge. I was also amazed by the kindness of those not blinded by hate who were willing, often at a steep price, to assist complete strangers escape the realm that held them in such disregard they may as well not have been people at all.

Wiesel, like everyone else, was not perfect, and I did not agree with him on everything, just as no one does with any other person (his balking at the Iran nuclear deal was one such instance). However, his was a large and important voice with others reminding society of just what it is capable of doing if hypernationalism, xenophobia, and hatred are combined into a toxic mix. Unfortunately, those other voices who lived to tell their stories of that period are rapidly dying off as well, and I can only hope that people, now and in the future, are willing to heed the voices of those no longer among us.

Reading: done

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Just finished the last few pages of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. It is by no means a complete account, and is a slim volume; however, Franklin himself notes this is supposed to be the case. A fascinating man in a fascinating time, he truly does bring into color the way life was in the nascent colonies/states and how all the things we (now) take for granted would have been as foreign to them as would invaders from Jupiter be to us – although unless they possessed stealth technology, at least we would know they were coming.

Next up from the stack of now 11 books on my desk, per the random number generator: number three, Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville. This is one of three books in the stack that are huge (the others being Critique of Pure Reason by Kant and The Wealth of Nations by Smith) and should keep me busy for a bit.

Currently reading

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I’m currently reading The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. I’d read some piece of it way back in the day – for school, of course – and Franklin was an interesting guy living in most interesting times. The thought of having to be on a boat for three days (in a storm) to go less than 200 miles must seem incredibly strange to the youngest generation today, but I can picture it in my eye just fine. People tend to focus on one thing only – “Why didn’t he just ride a horse?”, for instance – and forget that things like roads were also not then what they are now, and the boat, even with the slight delay of a storm, would be faster than horses, which would need to be fed and rested, and so on.

I found this passage, where Franklin displays some regional bias, very amusing.

“There was another bookish lad in the town, John Collins by name, with whom I was intimately acquainted. We sometimes disputed, and very fond we were of argument, and very desirous of confuting one another, which disputatious turn, by the way, is apt to become a very bad habit, making people often extremely disagreeable in company by the contradiction that is necessary to bring it into practice; and thence, besides souring and spoiling the conversation, is productive of disgusts and, perhaps enmities where you may have occasion for friendship. I had caught it by reading my father’s books of dispute about religion. Persons of good sense, I have since observed, seldom fall into it, except lawyers, university men, and men of all sorts that have been bred at Edinborough.”

It seems Franklin did not think much of the men of Edinborough.

Reading versus watching

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Stephen King — ‘Books and movies are like apples and oranges. They both are fruit, but taste completely different.’

This is true. It’s also true that sometimes the apple you bite into is mushy and full of worms, or the orange has gotten blight or froze on the tree before it was picked, something you don’t notice until you’ve already had a few bites.

It is rare (in my opinion, of course) that a movie does an accurate or even a passing job of both hanging on to the original story and being good. Often, it does one or the other well, and rarely both. And sometimes, both the book and the movie are dreadful – the only consistency that exists as it relates to that title. Authors don’t generally have control over adaptations to their work, and I grasp this.

There are exceptions, of course. King would know, given the number of movies made from his books or novellas. Some of the movies are quite bad (Maximum Overdrive), some could be better with better casting (The Shining – Jack Nicholson looked crazy right from the beginning, which kind of spoils his devolvement into madness at the Overlook), and at least one is fantastic (The Shawshank Redemption). Does this mean no books should ever be made into movies? Of course not. I would suggest, though, that if you do see a movie based on a book, you should also read the book if that is at all possible. In some cases, at least for me, I have started, but not been able to finish, those books.

Example: Forrest Gump. The movie was quite good. I found the book to be simplistic pap. The Bridges of Madison County was a passable movie, but again, the book I found to be unreadable.

More recently – and by that, I mean today – I watched Divergent, which is based on the novel of the same name by Veronica Roth. I know, I’m behind the times, but I’m okay with that. The movie was not bad, inasmuch as it’s aimed more toward the teenager crowd. Some cliches here and there (the class, or faction in this case, bully; it just happens that the two people in Dauntless who happen to be Divergent are a woman and a man who happen to fall for one another; one of them is turned against the other but saved by love in the end, and so on) but overall, not a completely terrible movie. So, I decided I should probably read the book, which is my thing to do if I’ve seen the movie first.

I am not a fan of first person narratives. Or of present tense. The book has both. That knocked it down slightly in my head as I started reading, but I got past the urge to purge it from my Fire and kept reading. It also is not terrible, at least not to chapter thirteen, which is where I am currently in reading. The same sorts of cliches, but thus far, the movie is fairly true to the book, so that sort of cancels out the first person, present tense issue a tad.

What’s the point of all this?  As I said above, don’t just watch the movie and think you’ve read the book. That is the child’s way, or the way of people who proudly say things like “I don’t read.” (and I hope there are not too many people surrounding you who say that). There are films based on books that are completely unrecognizable if you have read the book, as almost everything is changed, not always for the better. Plus, if you’re going to be a writer, you must also be a reader. Reading the book and watching the movie, both carefully, and particularly for movies and books that make oodles of money, will give you insights not just about the differences, but allow you to look at those differences and note how they may ultimately impact the telling of the story. Nicholson as Jack in The Shining versus the character portrayed in the book opens a wide gulf of how the story is told: in the book, it takes longer for Jack to reach the crazy point, and you expect this because he is a normal sort of guy, all things considered. One look at Jack in the movie, as depicted by Nicholson, and you simply know the crazy will come on much faster as it seems he’s already halfway there.

Thus ends my not-a-rant-but-interesting thought for today’s entry. Hope you’re writing on whatever schedule you picked or whatever goal you selected to mark your progress. Keep on keeping on.

The importance of reading

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Writers are not just writers: they need to be readers, too, both of material in their genre and out of it. Actually, everyone should be a reader, but that is a topic for another day.

Amazon has a list of 100 mysteries and thrillers to read in a lifetime – or, rather, at this point in any given lifetime, since of course it cannot list books yet to come that may be must-reads. I looked over the list and just as a guess, I’ve probably read half of these at least. As with any list like this one, people will disagree with inclusions or exclusions, but how about we just make it a goal to read as widely as possible, across all types of work, as is humanly possible? There are tons of books out there, so if you don’t like a book on a list like this or any other, or can’t get into it – Sue Grafton is a raging success with her alphabet series, but I just cannot get into them, for instance, having tried A-D – swap it out for something else that entices you.