Deep Reading (All the Books)

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There is a moment when you’re charmed / challenged / bedazzled by the writing and you resolve to read every book this author has written.

(Sometimes, though, in the middle of the fourth book by that beloved author, one recants! Alas, true story.)

My reading life began with Laura Ingalls Wilder. Twice a year — on my birthday and on Christmas — my dad and mom gave me a brand new hardback, the next Little House in the series. Oh how rich I felt, how lovingly I smoothed the dustjackets, how often I re-read those early books.

Wilder was the first author who inspired me to ‘read the canon’ (not to be confused with reading the cannon!) even though I didn’t know the word canon. As long as we’re talking about obscure words, I like oeuvre. (←three vowels in a row!!!)

In my early twenties I embarked on reading James Michener — always skipping the first boring chapter — immersing myself in family sagas set in Hawaii, Israel, South Africa and the Chesapeake Bay. At some point I forgot what I loved about them and moved on. I have his book, Poland, unread on my shelf, curious what I will think of it after all these years.

Somewhere in my thirties I read Jane. Dear, dear Jane. There is only one Jane whose whispered name thrills the soul. Jane Austen. Seven books that I’ve enjoyed multiple times. My beloved Latin teacher would say, “I was reading Mansfield Park, and came across the ethical dative.” There is more than one reason to read Jane.

Fast forward to 2012. I fell victim to a Kindle Daily Deal and bought all of L.M. Montgomery’s books for $2.99. More astonishingly, I read them all! I had known and loved Anne-with-an-e, but I never knew Emily! A few got a ‘meh’ response, but I enjoyed almost all.

I began to compile a list of authors. David McCullough. Anthony Trollope. (Same beloved Latin teacher remarked, If you like Jane Austen, you should read Trollope.) Jan Karon. Wendell Berry. Miss Read. Marilynne Robinson. Colin Thubron.

[Wait for it! Here come the initials!] A.A. Milne. C.S. Lewis. J.R.R. Tolkien (I can’t. I’m flawed. Because The Silmarillion.) P.G. Wodehouse. G.K. Chesterton. N.D. Wilson.  P.D. James. D.E. Stevenson.

A few authors I vowed to read all and then recanted: Mark Helprin. Alexander McCall Smith. Bill Bryson.

This year I succumbed to Shakespeare. I joined a Facebook group that is reading All of Shakespeare in 2017.  While I don’t love all of the bard, each play or poem rewards the discipline of reading it. It feels like being back in school, with a schedule pressing. I copied a friend’s idea to document the quest.

A friend calls this deep reading. I like that.

Next year I’m thinking of reading all of C.S. Lewis. It will require diligence and discipline. But why wait to read some of the best writing on the planet? Harper One has reissued Lewis’ books in gorgeous paperbacks with deckle edges. (Go ahead and click on the link just to see the covers.) Here is an even better glimpse. Even though I own almost all of CSL in various and sundry editions, I’m jonesing (← am I allowed to use the word jonesing with Lewis?) for this collection. I’ve already mentioned it to my husband. Birthday with a zero this year, dear. This is what I want. I dearly love matched collections.

Last month two young friends invited us to join them for lunch. As I passed through a bedroom (the only route to the only bathroom) I noticed her shelves full of Louis L’Amour paperbacks. What fun! She has her own quest, yes?!

How Can I Keep from Reading? Pt. 3

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Why I Read, Part 3

My third answer is: I read because I’m tired.

I went through a long spell (5+ years) of insomnia. It was impossible to turn my mind off and go to sleep; even more difficult to return to sleep after waking at 2:00 – 4:00 a.m.  All recommended remedies were futile. My jaw clenched in frustration. At least if I read, I didn’t feel like the time was a total waste. A favorite coping mechanism was to go into the living room and read. My object was to become chilled through. Then I slinked into the warm bed and back into that sweet unconscious state.

Sal knew that she would not sleep so she took Emma to bed with her, hoping that the well-known story would soothe her troubled spirit and dissipate her worried thoughts…
~ from The Four Graces by D.E. Stevenson

Since I was diagnosed with sleep apnea and now use a CPAP, I’m sleeping 7-8.5 hours straight, which is wealth untold.

But I still use books to soothe myself to sleep. The hour between going to bed and the book falling on my face is my primary reading time. Each evening my husband asks me, “What are you reading?” and I give a short recap, sometimes reading a sample.

There are two kinds of bedtime books: books that put you to sleep, and books that make you lose sleep. I usually choose the book whose deadline (library, friend-loans, book club, self-imposed) is most pressing. Too many times I’ve listed an unread book for sale or swap (cold logic insisting I’ll never read it); when the email “Sold. Ship Now.” arrives, I panic and decide to read it before I mail it. Even when it’s 400 pages. #fearofmissingout

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How Can I Keep from Reading? Pt 2

 

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My nightstand in 2011

Why I Read, Part 2

The second answer is short: because I’m hungry.

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I could respond to the Why do you read? question with Why do you eat?

I’m hungry to know, hungry to discover, hungry to learn. Hungry for story, hungry for wordsmithery, hungry for surprise. I’m hungry to see, hungry to really see my world, your world, their world over there. I thirst for books that establish my roots and for books that bend my thoughts. I don’t mind books that give me a needed smack-down. I want to laugh, I want my throat to constrict, I want to gasp, to nod, to stop reading and ponder. I want to recognize, to reform, and I dearly want to remember.

In my mind, I often classify my current read by a food equivalent. This is butternut soup: light, but nourishing. This is chocolate torte: rich and sweetThis is steel cut oats: not very exciting, but it gets the job done. This is burnt garlic: yuck! This is a cup of tea and a sit-down. This is an omelet: satisfying protein. This is flour and water: half-baked! This is a glorious main-dish salad: it took some time and effort, but so worth it.

A confession: I love cotton candy. It’s pure sugar, I know, but those yummy sticky pink wisps whisper joy, joy, joy…—until they are suddenly thoroughly revolting. Shoved in the garbage. You know that kind of book? Mediocre writing, but a catchy storyline. If you finish, you feel filmy and regret the hours you just wasted. I don’t like retching; better to avoid wretched things, even when they appear so seductively lovely.

There is a time for easy reading (fast food), reading magazines or online articles (snacks), and escape reading (ice cam from the carton). I have a few favorite comfort books, all British, which I admit are in the suburbs of sentimental. Excellent books for children are my first choice when fatigue and grief confound me.

 

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A page from my commonplace (quote-collecting) book.

 

 

 

How Can I Keep from Reading?

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Why I Read, 1

The first answer is easy: because I can’t not read.

I grew up in a book-filled house, the youngest of seven kids. We read in bed, we read in the bathroom (picture a child pounding on the door: “I really have to go. . . and I know  you’re reading!”), we read on the porch swing, we read on the front steps, we read on the couch (we called it the davenport), but we didn’t read at the dinner table. That was considered rude. In the same way people today sneak a look at their cell phone under the table, we all at least once tried to read a book on our laps. We always got caught.

After dinner, we grabbed RSV versions of the Bible and read a chapter of Jeremiah. I know we read other books, but I only remember Jeremiah. (Honestly, in second grade my teacher asked us to define rent. I threw my hand up and swirled it around until she called on me. To tear your clothes.)

We read at the same table while gulping down cold cereal. Every inch of the cereal boxes. Over and over and over. Riboflavin, B12, sold by weight not by volume. Battle Creek, Michigan. 49037.

My dad never left the house with less than four books. Because, you know, you never know.

We grew up without a television (my dad’s choice) so reading was the first avenue of diversion available.

Reading became a habit that followed me into my adulthood. It is my default.

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The Best of My Reading Life: 2016

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Here are this year’s favorite books in quirky categories, along with sample quotes.

Hello, Again (the second time together)

               

Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. ATGiB

I love mankind, he said, but I find to my amazement that the more I love mankind as a whole, the less I love man in particular. TBK

Think Tanks (books that made me pause and ponder)

                  

We’re happiest when we’re absorbed in a difficult task, a task that has clear goals and that challenges us not only to exercise our talents but to stretch them. tGC

Work is necessarily toilsome and serves someone else’s interest. That’s why you get paid. SCaS

Franklin could never see chaos without thinking of order. BF

Waiting is the primary recreation of Russia. You could try getting used to it. tFT

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Where Have You Been All My Life? (a book I wish was available years ago)

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We spent that midsummer reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the backyard, and I will always remember my surprise when the children laughed in the right places. MM

Sweet Comfort (sure, they’re about food, but the prose is delicious)

             

And, please—enough with the supposed health concerns. I mean, it’s not as though the obesity epidemic was caused by overconsumption of duck legs. NK

It is my most religious belief that a recipe is just a story that ends with a good meal. tPCC

But cooking is a way of paying attention, of really being in this world. When you look closely at a mango and inhale its scent, everything else stops. Life feels rich and easy. G-FG&tC

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Cover Story (the cover drew me in)



In Scotland, one does not ‘mend’ anything or ‘fix’ it in any way. One ‘sorts’ it.
CtN

 

Core Strengthening (soul-building books)

     

Over and Over we hear the dissonance of pain resolve into the consonance of joy. MOC

The opposite of a slave is not a free man. It’s a worshiper. TRoG

Upper Story (two memoirs and a history a cut above )

               

Rome is a broken mirror, the falling strap of a dress, a puzzle of astonishing complexity. It is an iceberg floating below our terrace, all its ballast hidden beneath the surface. FSiR

At Yale, many of my friends had never spent time with a veteran. In other words, I was an anomaly. HE

Fear settled over the men like silt in a tide. DW

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For the Children (for me, too…my husband & I are reading HP series for the first time)

                    

If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals. HPG0F

Books can ignite fires in your mind, because they carry ideas for kindling, and art for matches. LB&BB

Whatever it means to be friends, taking a black eye for someone has to be in it. WW

(Amazon affiliate links included: thank you!)

A Story of Dutch Resistance

Judging by the cover, this looked self-published (it’s not); my expectations were minimal. I was pleasantly surprised by the writing, and found the story of Everett De Boer’s family’s work with the Dutch Resistance compelling. Journey Through the Night is four volumes (written in Dutch 1951-1958, translated in 1960) published as one.

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The De Boer family is likeable. The architect father has pluck, the mother is kind-hearted, oldest son John is capable but inclined to hesitate, and impetuous Fritz can’t keep out of trouble; the other siblings have cameo roles. They are Christian — the winsome kind whose faith is more acted upon than spoken of, not off-putting.

What impressed me most in a world of checkpoints, false IDs, and fascist occupation was the advantage of being relaxed and calm, casual and nonchalant. Terror is perilous.

The De Boers had recently read Isaiah 16:3 Hide the outcast, don’t betray the fugitive, when a young man knocks on their door, seeking refuge. A procession of Jewish families and resistance fighters are hidden and helped. Such a small thing, and yet it changed the course of war: simple courageous people opening their homes and risking their lives for all kinds of strangers.

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What I discovered while reading this book:

DKW cars (Dampf-Kraft-Wagen = steam-driven car) photo courtesy of Wikipedia

 

The Dutch National Anthem —another example of music bolstering courage

“OSO!” (Orange Shall Overcome) the slogan of the Dutch Resistance (here’s a link to learn more about the Dutch Resistance)

The Dutch writer Anne de Vries is a male. (Rainer Maria Rilke comes to mind as another writer with a conventionally female name.)

Favorite quotes:

No one could stop the course of the sun,
and no one could stop the course of God’s justice – not even Hitler.
 

True during war or peace:

Don’t let impatience make life miserable for you.

 

I highly recommend this to readers who liked Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place and Anne Frank’s Diary.

Sailing Alone Around the Room

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In my ideal life, I would keep poetry on my nightstand. In my perfect life, I would read it regularly. Sailing Alone Around the Room  had been ensconced there nine weeks;* when I ran out of renewals I started reading.

Humor, the deep-from-within-the-DNA-funny, permeates this poetry.

The first poem places a neighbor’s dog in a Beethoven symphony,
while the other musicians listen in respectful 
silence to the famous barking dog solo, 
that endless coda that first established
Beethoven as an innovative genius.

The poems centered around music (and their abundance) delighted me.

I swooned reading Sunday Morning with the Sensational Nightingales that spoke of the power of gospel music on the radio to create a minor ascension. I’ve been in the car, I’ve been transported. I could hear the overtones; I became a church lady with a floppy hat and matching pumps calling out, “Yes!”

I was pleased to learn a new form of poetry (I won’t mention the name); I did a search to read more. Then I roared with laughter. The joke’s on me — this is a parody! It was a small consolation that book reviewers and other poets also missed the satire.

Another tickle, this in a title:
Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty,
I Pause to Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles

Collins always surprises me. He twists words, insisting I see life from a changed perspective.

* How it got there: reading Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility  made me curious to see Walker Evan’s photography. In my library’s poetry section was Something Permanent, Evan’s photography paired with Cynthia Rylant’s poems. While my fingers trailed the bindings, I saw Billy Collins. Like ice cream, there’s always room for Billy Collins.

The title reminds me that I still have Joshua Slocum’s 1900 book, Sailing Alone Around the World, on my To Be Read shelf. And also William F. Buckley’s sailing books. Also unread.