"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Monday, August 12, 2013

State of Mind: Back to School Reading Edition

I'm back!  This summer has not been a good one for posting, something I really wanted to do during my summer 254 (which was absolutely incredible in so many ways), through the process of getting a job and defending my dissertation, ending my summer class and packing up my apartment and movers coming, to my lovely two-week trip to Ireland to present at the International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures on the subject of place in Irish noir, and now the moving-in to my new apartment in Fargo.  I have books on the shelves!  I have internet!  And I think I know where, maybe, half my stuff is.  It's all here somewhere, right?

I may have had a slight breakdown in Target over the weekend as I was shopping for that stuff you need when you move into a new place and the teenage girl in front of me had her shopping cart loaded with college ruled paper, binders, pens, and other assorted back-to-school supplies.  It can't be Back to School yet!  This distressed me on several levels:  an inability to comprehend that we're into the second week of August, that the semester starts in two weeks and I haven't gotten my syllabi done, that I haven't even gotten to enjoy the pleasure of my own school supplies shopping.  But this coincided with my movers good-naturedly complaining about having to lug eighty boxes of books up to the third floor and one of the movers asking if I'd actually read all these books (I said, "most of them.") and the other mover confiding that he hated reading.  "Dangerous thing to tell an English teacher," I said.  He said that he'd dropped out of school, was a slow reader.  I told him what I tell all my students:  reading is a muscle, it's not magic.  You have to practice.  But the reality is that it doesn't matter what you read as long as you read.  You could read car magazines, you could read newspapers, you could read short stories--it doesn't matter.  I don't know if it made any difference, but one effect of teaching first-year writing for so long is that I have to combat this culture of fear around reading as much as I have to combat the fear of writing.  There's an incredible amount of shame I've noticed surrounding those who say that they hate reading (and writing).  Maybe it's partly a culture of exceptionalism that says that if you're going to do something, you have to be an expert at it.  So then, maybe it's easier to say that you hate something and avoid it.

Of course, I didn't tell him that my idea of tourist destinations when in Ireland included Chapters bookstore in Dublin and Charlie Byrne's in Galway...

Maybe it's intimidating to haul eighty boxes of books up three flights of stairs, but if my mover had stuck around long enough to see those books on the shelves, he would have seen that my shelves are the least-intimidating shelves ever.  There are writers that scare me, writers I've never read, and I admitted this to my mover (though I will only admit those writers out loud, not in print), which made him laugh.  But my shelves of nonfiction are incredibly varied, from books on cheese and dirt (two separate books) to books on natural disasters, to memoirs and histories and all kinds of random stuff.  My Irish shelves don't contain much in the way of scary authors (I only have Joyce's Portrait...and I have no shame in admitting that Joyce scares me...)--and if he'd checked out the shelves of literary fiction and crime literature, that's the least scary part of what I do.  Crime literature?  Seriously?  Except for the subject matter, there's nothing easier to get into than mysteries.  Yesterday, I finally decided to get over my distaste for Dashiell Hammett as a human being (I read Lillian Hellman's memoir ten years ago, learned to dislike Hammett for his treatment of her, and refused to read him...)--and finally pulled The Maltese Falcon off the shelf, settled down on my new balcony in my zero gravity chair, and started and finished it in one sitting.  Glorious prairie night.  And it was a good book, as I knew it would be.

But then, today, as I'm crossing all kinds of things off my To Do list (update insurance policies, get paperwork in order for my new job, etc), my friend Karen Craigo posts to Facebook this graphic:  Surprising Book Facts.  My first reaction, as a reader, as a writer, as a teacher, is disappointment and a certain amount of resignation.  But even as I try to crawl out of that hole of despair, I realize that the nature of this graphic is misleading and it goes back to what I told my mover.  Perhaps we place too much value on the books themselves, as a form, rather than what they contain.  It's something I've been thinking about as I've been shelving my books and wondering where to put my One Story archive.  By reimagining the form that reading takes, we put more value on the words, the sentences, the ideas.  With so many literary journals going online, the delivery method of the work and the inherent value we put on that method needs to change.

It doesn't matter what you read, as long as you read.  In a few short weeks, I will tell my students that nothing will teach you more about how to put a sentence together than reading.  Even if you don't like what you're reading, you can still learn something from it.  I will tell them about my dislike for Cormac McCarthy, but there are few who taught me more about language.  I will tell them that "that [wo]man can write a sentence!" is the best compliment I can give a book.  On my flight from Shannon, Ireland to Chicago (where my television didn't work, so I had to read while everybody else watched movies...), I started and finished Declan Burke's Slaughter's Hound and Joy Castro's Nearer Home.  I tweeted a few days later that I felt like my soul had been singed when I landed in Chicago.  Both books were incredible, in different ways, but the result of them was the same:  as a reader, it made me want to read more, to keep following the characters wherever they would go; as a writer, they made me want to write.  I included Burke in the paper I presented at IASIL and as I revise that paper into an article for publication, I can't wait to include Slaughter's Hound in my analysis.

I've also seen this graphic floating around cyberspace too and I think it's going to be the newest addition to my office door.  It's been so long since I've been able to read anything just for the pure pleasure of it and I'm hoping that now that I'm done with my PhD I'll be able to get back to the joy of reading.  For the last three years, I haven't read anything that hasn't been assigned for a class, on my exam reading lists, or something I'm teaching in my own classes.  If I've wanted to explore something new, I've had to justify it by writing something critical on it or teaching a class where I could include it.  That's how I got to read all kinds of natural disaster narratives, that's how I got to read all kinds of fun crime literature.  I might have to justify fun reading to myself this way for a while longer, but such is the life of an academic, though.

It's helpful to see reading, visually, in terms of this graphic, though.  Twenty minutes doesn't seem like a long time at all, though the cumulative effect of all those words and sentences and ideas is so much larger than the equivalent of sixty whole school days of reading.  I didn't have a television while I did my PhD (no physical room in my tiny apartment) and I don't plan to buy one now that I have room.  I have Netflix on my computer and that's enough.  I hope that I can spend my downtime reading the books on my shelves that I haven't read yet.  The Lincoln library book sale has ensured that there are more books on my shelves than I could possibly read--and I see this as a good thing, not a bad thing.  But I also like to reread books (and I don't understand those who don't reread books--but that's another blog post...).  There's always something more to be found, even on my own shelves.

Maybe the disconnect is in differentiating between fun-reading and work-reading, between reading that happens in a long-form book or another form.  I'm not sure how to break that down into something else, but maybe that's the first, necessary step.  There is no bad reading, there is no bad time spent reading.  Even writing that isn't the best (like this book my mother lent me, self-published by a man in her hometown about a crime that went on in his family's business, or even poorly written online work) will teach you what not to do, as well as good writing teaches what to do.  While this graphic focuses on elementary students, the same can be applied to college students.  Who will be better critical thinkers?  Who will be better writers?  Who will be more compassionate human beings?  Who will discover new interests, new curiosities, things they never knew existed?  I never thought about it that way before is my favorite thing to hear as a teacher.

It's time now to get back to unpacking, adding new things to the To Do list, and planning to end for the day around 4:00, so I can sit on my balcony in my zero-gravity chair in the prairie evening with something new to read.  Or maybe something I've read before.  The possibilities are endless.

So, here's today's question:  which authors/books are you afraid of?  And what's on your list to get your twenty minutes of reading in?  What books would you recommend to others to get their twenty minutes?


  1. I love this post so much. And congrats on the job! I'm teaching at a community college in Iowa now that I'm freshly post-PhD, and one of my courses this semester is College Reading, for adults with low literacy skills. I am going to use that line that reading is a muscle. Beautiful. I am always so thrilled to read one of your blog entries. I learn so much from you.

  2. Aw, thanks! Congrats to you too! I hope you'll let me know how it all goes in your new place and new job!