Slow Reading

I completed my 75 books challenge in mid-October. I think you can see the list here. Some good reading…some fluffy reading…mostly fairly non-demanding reading. So, I’m struggling a little bit with my current read. Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land is a dense story of a man facing the “Permanent Period” of his life as he struggles with relationships, health problems and a general sense of things breaking apart. There are moments of insight but there are also moments when I just want to shake Frank Bascombe, the main character. Indeed, The New York Times called the book “lethargic” and that’s an apt description. Long chapters, long internal musings. In a way I don’t want to abandon it because there must be some climax, a reckoning, at least a satisfying personal experience as a reward for living in this man’s head for so many pages. So, I think I need a different strategy for reading it.

It occurred to me that it is so different from the other books I’ve read this year. They emphasized the story and included multiple interesting characters interacting with each other. Frank is really the only character here: we see everyone else through his eyes. I think it’s a book that requires slow reading, almost like reading someone’s journal: less story and more reflection, so a few pages here and there are enough. After all, there isn’t any real plot to remember.

I wasn’t aware it was the third book in a trilogy. Evidently, at the Times thinks the two other books were better, but I’m not sure I want to go back. Will I like Frank any better as a young man?

Oh no! The Game is Down!

One of my big goals this year is to eat better and exercise more, making the kinds of lifestyle changes that, I hope, will help me feel stronger and more energetic. More vegies, less sitting, that kind of thing.

A couple days ago, I logged back into Jane McGonigal’s Super Better health game where you identify your epic win and then work towards it one activity, power up, and quest at a time. McGonigal has partnered with other organizations so some of the content comes from third parties. For instance, those interested in weight loss are connected to the free resources provided by the Full Plate diet. I took the time to set up my account and started logging some points and achievements. It was fun to drink a glass of water and then, rather than just recording it in a database, being rewarded with a few points. For 48 hours, I felt successful and was having fun making changes that had been real challenges for many years.

Here’s Jane talking about the genesis of the game in her own illness:

Then, the game went down. I couldn’t get in on my iPad and the website wouldn’t load on the laptop. WHAT? I had completed at least a few things that would get me some points. I wanted to remind myself what else I should be doing. Mostly, I just needed those few minutes of game play to focus my attention on my goal. And I wasn’t sure I could really do this without the game; goodness knows I had tried often enough. The game was going to be the edge that helped me succeed this time. Nothing in the game is a surprise: eat better, move around, think positive thoughts. It’s just that the game both reminded me and made it fun to do those things. Now, it was gone.

I’m happy to say it wasn’t gone for long, but I was a little surprised at my visceral reaction when it didn’t load, as though I had lost a really valuable tool!

The ephemeral nature of the web can be frustrating. This week, as I proofread a colleague’s dissertation, I longed for the return of CiteRefs, an online tool that checked citations and references for both format and correctness. It’s painful to do it manually, and CiteRefs was an elegant solution. I used it extensively in my own doctoral work. It has, sadly, disappeared, perhaps killed off by support costs, changing software or just time.


The Messiness of Contemporary Media

A fancy title for something that I suspect has been going on for awhile but only really hit home with me today.

I get an email from the Chester County Book Company about books and today’s edition included a link to this amazing book trailer for Mosquitoland:

The description shows the blending of words, music and images: “Book and music written and produced by David Arnold.” No longer does a writer just put words on a page; he is able to create his own imagery as well. I was struck by the power of the video to make me want to read the book. I suspect it would be even more powerful for the young adult audience for which this book is really written.

Video book trailers is not a new idea for educators: they’ve been making them with kids since video became readily accessible. But they seem to have also found their way into mainstream in a pervasive way.

And, for me, it is a reminder of one of the ways I tend to seem old in this very new world. In the old world, books were books, movies were movies, created by different people and often not the same story in the end. What happens when authors “produce” the whole range of their work from written word to soundtrack to video. In this short clip, we get a visual of the main character, something we would normally have to create on our own out of the words themselves. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

I am also reminded of the wealth of media resources out there around books from interviews to recitations. This review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book is a great example as it mixes words, images, audio and video into one page. Wonderful and yet, again, I’m not sure how I feel about it. I want to engage with the author at the level of the work he has created. I don’t want to hear too many interviews that ask him to explain it or too many reviews that try to explain it. I’ll check all this out afterwards, but for now, I just want to sit with the book itself.

Labor Organizing Now and Then

I’m reading Sweet Thunder by Ivan Doig, the third is his Morrie Morgan series. Morgan returns to Butte, Montana, in the early 20s and writes commentary for the pro-union newspaper. Doig does a great job of showing how the company-run newspaper answers Morgan’s arguments for better wages and safe working conditions. Ultimately, we are encouraged to support the union as Doig describes the unnecessary deaths in the mines and the violent suppression tactics of the company.

It is tempting to believe that these arguments ended with the success of labor unions. But a headline in Salon caught my eye this morning: The One Thing That Can Save America. Thomas Geoghegan, a labor lawyer in Chicago, describes a country very different from the one in which Morgan lives and works where more and more companies are using “non-employees” to do their work, thus freeing them from any responsibility for health care and retirement. He wonders labor unions need to change to help support these new kinds of workers.

There is still a role for traditional unions, too. I follow a local school division on Facebook and the teachers are fighting for better wages and working conditions. It’s a tough fight in a state that doesn’t include collective bargaining. One poster indicated that she would no longer sponsor clubs or grade papers on her own time. These kinds of work stoppages harken back to the kinds of union actions described in Doig’s book.

Vocabulary Lesson: Tsundoku

It turns out there is a word for my habit of buying books that I don’t read: tsundoku.

I have made the no new books pledge in the past only to break it pretty quickly.

This year, I am  making the same promise although I’m already thinking about a trip to Chester County Book Company next week when I make a trek to Pennsylvania to visit old friends. I love their newsletter and really think I should support indie book stores, right?

I joined two LibraryThing groups for the new year: the 75 Book Challenge and the ROOTS 2015 (Reading Our Own Tomes). The latter is just for people like me who have lots of books on the shelf that they haven’t read. I started 2015 with The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro as part of British authors reading challenge. It’s been on the shelf since April 2012.

I managed to get in 71 books in 2014: here’s the list.

Baking and Books

I’ve been reading…I’ll get to 70 for this year.

And, I’ve been baking: whole wheat bread in various forms, cornbread with cheese and jalapenos, and, tonight, Gingerbread Cupcakes with Cinnamon Icing from King Arthur. They showed it with a ginger cookies and I substituted shortbread. These are ready for the wonderful staff at our local Farm Credit office. They financed us when the regular banks said no.

Gingerbread cupcakes with cinnamon icing and a shortbread cookie

The Accidental Pilgrimage: On Being Aware

Work took me to San Francisco. I was fortunate to have an afternoon off and, at one point in my pre-trip planning, checked the location of possibly the most revered of all United States bookstores: City Lights. I have been there once, in 1987, and can still remember that I bought Mother by Maxim Gorky. I thought I was staying in the Presidio and the store was pretty far away from there so I decided I probably couldn’t make it this trip. Although now that I’ve been to San Francisco, I’ll say that it is very walkable and, while I didn’t use it, there seems to be abundant public transportation so even if I had been staying in the Presidio, I could have gotten to the store without too much trouble.

What I didn’t realize is that my hotel was on Union Square, much closer to the bookstore, just a mile away. But, I never rechecked and planned a walk through Chinatown to the Coit Tower and then lunch at the Ferry Building on the Embarcadaro without thinking about the store.

So, I set out on the planned journey. As I climbed the hill on Grant Avenue and moved further into Chinatown, I came upon a bronze dedication to Jack Kerouac at the entrance to an alley that featured several stunning murals. I took some photos before heading back to Grant Avenue and continuing my journey.

I was tired when I got back to the hotel room but decided to check out my photos. On the edge of a photo of the Vida y sueños de la cañada Perla (Life and Dreams of the Perla River Valley) mural, I noticed a yellow banner that said City Lights Books. I was a bit taken by surprise. In my zeal for photographing the murals and then following the plan, I simply didn’t see the banner.

Mural at City LIghts with Banner

It turns out that I also missed the pavers in the alley with quotes from authors like Kerouac, Felinghetti and Angelou. In fact, I discovered that I had wandered down Jack Kerouac Alley, the brainchild of poet and bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti. It turns out the mural was painted on the wall of the bookstore.

There really was no choice but to go back. Despite having already walked several miles on the city concrete, I knew I would forever regret not making this pilgrimage. So, I trudged up the hill to China Town once again, found the alley and entered the bookstore. It is small, crammed with books, yet inviting with simple wooden chairs where one can ponder the shelves or turn a few pages. The past is very much present as you walk the same creaky floors where the Beat Generation founders read and wrote and talked. This is more than a place to buy books; it is a place where wrestling with the ideas found in books is a sacred act.

I picked up several volumes including two Ivan Doig novels I hadn’t seen before. A few others piqued my interest. But I had sort of decided I would just buy one book, probably one published by City Lights Books.

Then, I walked the stairs to the Poetry Room. I fingered some Kerouac, took a few photos of the Poet’s Chair and then found the Wendell Berry section. I own a lot of Berry, have read some, but would love to spend more time with him. I picked up Farming: A Handbook, a new printing of poems written more than 40 years ago, focusing on Berry’s experience of farming. Right beside it was the real find: a copy of a volume of letters between Berry and Gary Snyder. It was autographed by both authors. The covers shows a laughing Berry with Snyder by his side in front of Grimblefingers Bookstore in Nevada. I knew I had found my purchases and headed downstairs. These just seemed the perfect two books to buy in this special place.

Then, I discovered they would ship books. The box of other choices is on its way. It includes the two Doigs but some other more unusual volumes that I wouldn’t have looked for such as Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society edited by Kevin Evans, Carrie Galbraith and John Law.

I am grateful for whatever higher power may have intervened here to direct my attention. I would have been really upset if I waited to look at my picture until I got home. It is a lesson in being completely aware. I find cities very distracting with all their people and sounds and smells. So many places to look and sense that it is easy to lose track of it all. I focused on murals and missed banners and the ground under my feet.