What Am I Reading?

Lots of books. The one that I am most fascinated by is Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. There are many reasons. The most important one is that Harari is so definite about everything that he writes. The counterargument is something to which he pays very little attention. Engaging counterarguments is a primary weakness in the papers that my students write. I take points off their papers for the absence of same.

It is lovely and wonderful to see that someone has written an entire book in which his very definite-ness – if that is a word – is the most fascinating part of the book. Confidence? Hubris? Knowledge? All of the above? This is a book that I pick up in the morning and read one chapter at a time. It is taking me months to finish because some mornings I don’t read. Some mornings all the details are just too much to entertain so early in the day.

Still Waters by Viveca Sten. There is something about Nordic culture that is so foreign to me, I am attracted to it. Maybe it is the fact that there is so little sun there. That has got to affect the psyche of the people who live there, yeah? I mean, consider how open and happy people are who are born and raised in California.

Okay. I don’t know that for a fact. It is a mythology that I am willing to believe. Just as I am willing to believe – based on the fact that so many of them are in the United States – that Nordic culture is gloomily homogeneous – because there is so little sun.

The setting of Still Waters is an island during the summer – Sandhamm – three bodies so far, all connected. We don’t yet know how. I can’t wait to find out. I am reading this one on Kindle. I am 45% into the book according to my reader. Page 202. There is something about knowing how far into the book that I am which I like. I am not yet half-way through. The police don’t have a clue. Unlike Harari, they are not confident. They are confused, puzzled, and trying to find a way into the next step. Nothing so far.

As the reader, however, it is essential that they find a clue that is compelling or I will not want to finish the book. I mean, really, there are three bodies. By now Christie would have already pointed you toward the perpetrator though you wouldn’t realize it necessarily. This is a book I read when I am waiting for my next appointment. It is taking me weeks to finish it.

Just stumbled across The Anatomist’s Apprentice by Tessa Harris. On audiobook because I am in to multitasking – again. If I had thought about it, I would not have chosen this book because it is so graphic. Autopsies are that way. I once viewed an autopsy when I worked at a hospital. It is not as fascinating as the books make it out to be. It is smelly and so, so sad. The person whose autopsy I witnessed had ascites. Look it up and you will know why I have a particular perception about autopsies.

Harris captures the goriness of an autopsy – the smells, the inhumanity, the detailed slices and scientific curiosities. The forensic scientist wants to know… period.

This takes me back to Harari’s Sapiens. One point he makes toward the end of the book – yes I am almost finished – is that Europeans have ruled the planet because they accepted that they did not know. They were not more powerful – which is the mythology that we live with in the 21st century. Their curiosity is what led them to other lands. According to Harari, maps were filled – monsters, places you didn’t want to be, but not actual lands. At some point, folks started to accept that they did not know what was beyond their beyond and their maps had lots of blank spaces. Europeans wanted to know what was beyond this beyond. So their motto was “let’s go see what’s there. And discover it! And make it our own!”

What made Europeans exceptional was their unparalleled and insatiable ambition to explore and conquer. Although they might have had the ability, the Romans never attempted to conquer India or Scandinavia, the Persians never attempted to conquer Madagascar or Spain, and the Chinese never attempted to conquer Indonesia or Africa. Most Chinese rulers left even nearby Japan to its own devices. There was nothing peculiar about that. The oddity is that early modern Europeans caught a fever that drove them to sail to distant and completely unknown lands full of alien cultures, take one step on to their beaches, and immediately declare, ‘I claim all these territories for my king!’ from “The Marriage of Science and Empire” in Sapiens

Now maybe that is so. Or maybe that is Harari’s “So.” Confidence. You gotta admire it.

Is Listening the New Reading?

Audible.com’s slogan is “Listening is the new reading.” On the face of it, this is very clever, until you really delve into it. How can listening be the new reading when they are different actions? But a company’s slogan is not presented for deconstruction, is it? It is intended to capture attention.

Several years ago, I experienced three versions of Winter’s Bone: the movie, the audiobook, and the novel, in that order. I watched the movie because I liked the description of it: a teenaged girl goes on a quest to find her father and save her family (okay, I made that up, but that is the gist).

Through the movie, I learned about a part of the United States that I had not even thought about: the Ozarks. I was so intrigued by the story that I listened to the audiobook because that was the format available to me at the library. I wanted to know how closely aligned the book and the movie were (very). Then I read the book because I just wanted to experience the story with my eyes.

(I do have to say that I did not care for the narrator of the audiobook. Her performance was just a tad too flat.)

When I read Winter’s Bone, I marveled at the genius of Woodrell’s writing. There was not one spare word in the entire novel (It is 208 pages). I haven’t read anything that spare and marvelous since Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories.

The three versions of Winter’s Bone were compelling. Each was rich in its own way, but also very different experiences.

Listening and reading are valuable and serve overlapping purposes in that they are forms of communication. But so are dance and music. Music is never going to be the new dance, nor will dance become the new music. They are artistic expressions that hit us in different parts of our souls and our hearts.

I enjoy audiobooks. They appeal to my multitasking personality. I suspect that others enjoy them for the same reason. You can drive and listen. You can cook, clean, dance, paint, and listen. You cannot, however, drive and read or cook, clean, dance and paint while reading, without risking mishaps.

Also, there is the visual aspect of reading that is not present when listening to a book. I just finished listening to Anne of Green Gables (Don’t ask). What I enjoyed most about the experience was Kate Burton’s narration. What a performance! I found myself laughingly immersed in Burton’s depictions of the loquacious orphan and her taciturn foster father.

I skimmed through the novel, and I can readily say that I would have lost patience reading the lengthy paragraphs (brilliant though they were) filled with Anne’s breathless, interminable monologues. The visual alone exhausted me. If I had not listened to the novel, I would never have experienced the full story. Reading Anne of Green Gables and listening to it being read were not the same.

Audible.com’s slogan is clever. Still, listening is not the new reading. Listening is listening. Reading is reading. Audiences can appreciate, and welcome, multiple representations of a work of art. We don’t need to be seduced into thinking that one replaces the other.

A Writer Reads

I love to read. As a writer, reading is enjoyable and educational. Here are three books I’m in the midst of reading. I may provide an update once I’ve finished them.

Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t by Steven Pressfield: In the first few pages, Pressfield offers valuable advice:

“The reader donates his time and attention, which are supremely valuable commodities. In return, you the writer must give him something worthy of his gift to you.”

“develop empathy”

“switch back and forth in your imagination from your own point of view as writer/painter/seller to the point of view of your reader/gallery-goer/customer.”

       I have just finished chapter 61, in which he explores the distinctly “American” story principles of Hollywood movies. Pressfield also talks about making a living. This book is a worthwhile read for anyone serious about building a career through artistic expression.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear: Elizabeth Gilbert’s perspective on creativity won’t appeal to a lot of folks. I find it refreshing. I just finished the chapter on permission, in which Gilbert explores the paradox of art as “absolutely meaningless” and “deeply meaningful.” Her basic premise (so far) is to lighten up and play. Works for me.

The Bones of Paris: I love mysteries. Laurie R. King’s lush narrative set in 1929 Paris seemed promising when I thumbed through the book. Private investigator Harris Stuyvesant is looking for a missing woman. So far the book is big on atmosphere and low on dramatic tension. Also, I really don’t care about any of the characters. Having stalled at chapter 17, the book has become an assignment: What techniques does King use to draw in the reader? When does atmospheric charm get in the way of the story? As a writer, I want to understand why I find such a well-written book so dull.

By switching between the perspectives of a writer and a reader, I can discover what works and what doesn’t, while indulging in one of my primary pleasures, reading.

What are you reading?