On Books, and on Immersion:
One of my personal resolutions for this shiny new year, is to read books with constancy.
‘Books’ is the operative word: I do read rather voraciously, but in the last few months my regular reading diet has primarily been web-based, or dabbles in ‘tastings’ such as offered by Kindle Singles. Many of my choices are longer reads (such as the wonderful offerings on Aeon Magazine), but they aren’t books, and I’m feeling the need for more book-inspired reading and learning.
There are many differences, I think, between books and other kinds of reading. The chief one for me, in a word, is immersion, and the length and quality of that immersion when you savor a book, and are in no rush to finish it.
When you immerse within something, you succumb to having it swallow you whole, fully within its context and atmosphere, so you can do that concentrated and attentive savoring of the experience with as little distraction as possible. You hold onto your own discerning powers of spirit though, succumbing only until you have made your own decisions, and begin to float: You are ready to newly emerge from that swallow, getting your own feet back under you to then power through the rest of your life with refreshed, and re-energized vitality.
‘Real books’ or kindling: I’ll take both, thank you.
I’d actually started on my book-reading resolution when I picked up Wild, From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail, by Cheryl Strayed about 3 months ago in paperback. My family noticed when the book stack piled up on our living room coffee table as my annual winter sabbatical started, with The Time Keeper, by Mitch Albom sitting on top even though I still deferred to my Kindle (a 2008 dinosaur, by today’s standards).
So for Christmas, they pooled their pennies to get me a new Kindle 3G Paperwhite — a wonderful upgrade! If you want to make quick progress with a fresh intention, a family gift related to it will surely do the trick, spurring you into habitual actions quickly as a way to demonstrate your gratefulness to the gift-givers you live with.
The first book I decided to read on my new Paperwhite, was Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (which Amazon.com offers on Kindle for $0.00). I deliberately chose a classic to start with, knowing its’ older English language would slow me down in the reading, and it has.
Wuthering Heights was required reading for me back in high school, as it was for many of you, I imagine. My remembrance of it was very sketchy, other than having the name Heathcliff firmly park itself in my memory banks, as the dashing, and romantic hero. Turns out my memory of Heathcliff had grown exceptionally kind over the years, for he is neither dashing or romantic, and I am finding the book is not at all what I thought I remembered.
Am I enjoying it? And savoring it? Thoroughly.
I have just finished it, and I am going to return to the beginning to read it again, and before I choose my next book to read. Now that I know the story (the correct one!) I’m going back to sink deeper into the telling of it, going back ‘into the river’ a different person, as Richard Ford has described:
“Our recalled affection for a book is, after all, always woven into how we entertain and balance the best parts with the less artful passages or the wooden infrastructural bits the novelist couldn’t bear to take out. Novels are forgiving forms: good writing over here often forgives less good writing over there, so that the whole may prosper. Rereading all of a novel sometimes invites us to be more forgiving ourselves.
The point here (unsurprisingly) is that rereading a treasured and well-used book is a very different enterprise from reading a book the first time. It’s not that you don’t enter the same river twice. You actually do. It’s just not the same you who does the entering.”
— Richard Ford for Eighteen Bridges: Rereading, A Different Hunger
~ ~ ~
“Wuthering Heights was first published in 1847, and it is the only novel Emily Brontë wrote. She never saw her name in print because the book – about a doomed love affair between Cathy and Heathcliff – was first published under a male pseudonym, Ellis Bell, due to fears she would face prejudice as a female writer. It was only after her death from consumption in 1848, aged 30, that the novel’s brilliance was recognised and it went on to become an English literary classic.”
Source: The Guardian: Copy of Wuthering Heights sells for six figures
Immersion’s Reading Discipline
I started this post, by saying “read books with constancy” and not “read more books,” because my resolution is about immersion’s persuasions, and not about numbers. Mine is a resolution which recognizes that ‘less’ can truly be ‘more.’
I am still quite a fan of Goodreads, and intend to keep up with past habits there as the place to park my book reviews when I write them, but this year I am staying away from the Reading Challenge they promote: I found it can have the detrimental effect of rushing me through books to finish them and update my numbers, and that’s not at all the point of my reading goal. Just the opposite: I want to stretch out my reading, annotating, journaling, and reflecting as I go, so I stay awhile, and notice more.
The social emphasis of Goodreads or any other book club will not be the goal either. I do enjoy the Goodreads community, but am cautious about having reviewer and referral conversation there influence me too soon, i.e. before I “emerge from the swallow” of my own first reading. Maria Popova, curator extraordinaire on BrainPickings — which I highly recommend to anyone wanting to stoke a fire in their sense of curiosity — explained it best for me, in this interview she did with Findings:
How has reading become more social for you?
I have a friend who “skims” books by turning on the popular highlights feature in Kindle and only reading those. It works for her, but to me that’s the death of reading.
Reading is a bootcamp for developing and exercising critical thinking. Without that — intellectual apocalypse! And critical thinking is about developing a point of view, and all writing is — or, should be — about arguing a point of view, implicitly or explicitly. When you bring the crowd into the equation, this concept completely disappears — because a crowd cannot have a point of view, at least not one that is simultaneously focused and authentic to each individual in the crowd.
I don’t need a focus group of strangers to tell me what I should be reading or, more dangerously, how to read what I’m reading. Decision by committee doesn’t work in creative labor, and it certainly doesn’t work in intellectual labor.
Mortimer Aldler, in the wonderful How to Read a Book, says that marginalia are your private dialogue with the author, the intellectual tug-of-war that is really the greatest compliment you can pay an author. Being guided by other people’s marginalia is like letting a thousand voices into your head while trying to hold a challenging debate. Have those conversations, by all means, but do so over dinner or tea with people whom you respect and only after you have read the very thing you’re going to discuss and made up your mind about it.
“Listen, then make up your mind,” Gay Talese famously said about the secret of writing. It’s only logical that this should be inverted when it comes to reading: “Make up your mind, then listen.”
That said, I’ve always taken this advice to heart, from Tim Sanders, in Love is the Killer App:
“If you haven’t found some application within a few months of reading your books, question your aggregation methods… Visualize a discussion. If you’re not using books in your conversation and in your business strategy, review your selection process.”
~ Force of Habit, and the Force of Change
Bottom line: What is your reading goal?
Our recent mood here, talking story about engagement, leads me to thinking about my 2014 book-reading engagement continuum this way: Read for me first, and re-read for me first, privately wallowing in the experience and noticing as much as I can. When I emerge from the swallow, conversing about the entire experience will be the sweet icing on the cake.
A 5-Batch of related links (all of these will take you off-site):
- An article on The Guardian about Kindle Singles: The big short – why Amazon’s Kindle Singles are the future. “All hail the ‘bookeen’, a new format that’s perfect for short stories, novellas and essays.”
- Thankfully, my family realized a new e-reader was the gift for me, and not a tablet. This article gives a good comparison on the two: Kindle Fire Vs. Kindle Paperwhite.
How We Will Read, was a 2012 series for Findings, and they interviewed Steven Johnson, Laura Miller and Maud Newton, Craig Mod, Ryan Chapman, Kevin Kelly, Richard Nash, Clive Thompson, Clay Shirky, Baratunde Thurston, and Paul Carr in addition to Maria Popova. There are gems in each interview.Unfortunately, this is no longer online.
- The book which influenced me most in recent memory, is at first glance a cookbook, but actually so much more: An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler. I have given more than a case worth away as gifts, and did two reviews on it: A short one on Goodreads first, and a longer one for TalkingStory.org second: How to Fill up by Spilling.
- If you would like to read more books too, I’ll again point you to Maria Popova’s BrainPickings for her recent listing: The 13 Best Books of 2013: The Definitive Annual Reading List of Overall Favorites.