Reading with a Goal

GoalMy family doesn’t really need excuses to make fun of each other. But I left myself wide open for it when I mentioned my reading goal for the year to a brother- the goal in which I’m trying to read twenty-four books, at least half of which are nonfiction. He thought it was a little ridiculous to even keep track of my reading like that, let alone to have goals for what I’m reading and how much. Didn’t I graduate like a zillion years ago?

Of course, I didn’t respond with my reasons for such a goal. I insulted him instead. This is family secret code for: “You are wrong, but I love you anyway.” As the conversation progressed, he conceded that probably anything that involved reading was a good idea and we chatted about good books we’d read lately. Mockery is just our knee-jerk reaction to everything, even when we agree.

But I don’t think he was alone in his initial reaction- seriously, why would someone want to keep track of their reading? Especially someone who does a lot of reading anyway? (Which, in America, apparently means like more than four books a year. *weeps for my people*) Well, hypothetical naysayer, let me tell you!

For any of this to make sense, I’m going to have to delve into specifics. In the New Year post, I stated that I wanted to read twenty-four books, at least half of which were nonfiction. But there’s a bit more to it than that. (Nobody likes dweebs, but bear with me here.)

For nonfiction, I give myself a pretty free hand to read whatever I want, which usually ends up being a lot of history, foreign culture, and science, although I do like to lob some linguistics and anything to do with corpses in there for fun. All well and good.

My fiction goals get a little more finicky. Of course, I let myself read a book if I really really want to. I mean, I work in a library. I would go bonkers if I didn’t grant myself some leeway. But of the twelve fiction books I hope to read this year, at least eight of them will be in genres I am actively writing in. Of those eight, four will be classics- the books everyone has heard of and loves, the sort of books that show up in college courses about this genre- and four will be published within the last five years. At least three of the twelve books will be Own Voices (but ideally it would be more like six or up), and at least six of those twelve books will highlight a group or culture beyond my own (Christian, non-disabled, white, female, etc); ideally the Own Voices three-or-more and the not-about-me six line up, but I’m giving myself a little leeway and here is why:

While I definitely support Own Voices and better representation in stories, it gets a little blurrier when it comes to a person’s gender, sexuality, beliefs, and maybe some other categories too. I don’t feel like it’s any of my business to try to figure out whether the author is or is not a part of whatever marginalized group they’re writing about to see if a story is Own Voices or not because, while I absolutely want to get in a character’s head, that’s pretty private business when it comes to the author. If I’m not comfortable asking a person these questions face to face, and wouldn’t be comfortable with someone asking me, I don’t really feel right internet stalking someone to try and find out. If it’s super out in the open, I’ll probably come across it and chalk it up as Own Voices, but I’m generally not going to go digging for that information. That said, I’m still figuring these waters out and would love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments!

Okay, so: twelve nonfiction; eight fiction in my genre (four classics, four newbs); six diverse fiction (minimum three Own Voices); and a little wiggle room because I have low impulse control. I chose these proportions carefully. I would be super duper happy to just read any old thing, but I’ve ordered my reading this way in the hopes of fostering my own writing and broadening my understanding of the human family and the world in which we live.

The reading within genre obviously has benefits for my writing. But so does the nonfiction. I get tons of writing ideas from reading nonfiction. Plus they’re just fun! And sparking my curiosity in one aspect of my life always feeds it in other aspects; any creative act- playing music, building, crafting, cooking- has been shown to foster creativity in other aspects of life as well. And reading outside of my socioeconomic group not only fuels my creativity and human empathy, but also helps me to write those characters more realistically as well.

Really, I could probably do any reading at all and it would be good for my own writing (as well as my soul) in some way. But by choosing what I read more thoughtfully, I can not just have fun, but improve myself and my writing too. Fun!

And if my doofus brother can’t see that, then too bad for him. 😛

Advertisements

Oh Look I Got More Books Again

the-book-thief-1Book Fair is upon us.

After shelving all the books and making sure the repairs cabinet was still in hand, I clocked out and did a bit of shopping with my kiddos. There were too many to just carry around, so we started stacking the books we wanted up on a side table until- much tallying and quarter counting later- we were satisfied we had everything together. As I was heaping them up, a little girl stared with wide eyes up at the pile higher than her head and asked in awe, “Are you buying them all?” I assured her I was. Then I staggered over to the circulation desk and whomped down the latest additions to the home library. The librarian (aka my boss) looked at the stack, looked at me, and then laughed in my face.

She knows I have a problem. I know I have a problem. My husband who has to keep building me bookshelves knows I have a problem. Anyone who has ever set foot in my house knows I have a problem. We also all know that it’s a problem I intend to keep.

I might joke about it, but I wouldn’t say I’m a true hoarder in any seriousness, because my compulsive book collecting doesn’t significantly impair my life (although it does impair my ability to get through certain doorways- sorry hubby, I’ll get to those ones soon, I swear). Sad to say, I procure a bit more books than I can actually read each year, although I definitely and whole-heartedly intend to read each and every one of them before I die.

The trouble is the acquisition. There I am, standing in a book shop, and then I look along a shelf and –wham!– there it is. A beautiful cover, a catchy title, a fascinating premise… before I know it, I’m hooked. I hardly know what I’m doing before it’s off the shelf and in my arms. I am euphoric buying books, just giddy about taking them home and stacking them on my desk and admiring them before putting them up on the shelves. I don’t care about clothes. I don’t care about movies. I don’t care about rocks or coins or vintage buttons or Pokémon cards or antique keys. I care about books.

Once they’re acquired, there’s no getting rid of them. That love at first sight never goes away. And despite owning thousands of books, I can tell you exactly how I procured every one of them- which shop it came from, or who gave it to me for what occasion. (Seriously. I have been quizzed on this by my friends.)

Honestly, I worry about it a little bit sometimes. My husband brought up the possibility of moving once and I kept it together until I realized I would have to get rid of some of my books, and then I went completely to pieces. I cannot get rid of books. I own a book that I hate that I cannot bear to toss out. I will never inflict it on another person and I cannot bring myself to destroy it or throw it away. It lives hidden in a closet where I never have to look at it and has been there for eleven years.

What’s going to happen when I die? How long is it going to take my kids to go through my scads of books, all carefully cataloged and neatly arranged (except for those stacks lurking around doorposts and the boxes shoved under benches and beds because I ran out of room)?

It is a problem. I know that. But I keep getting more books. Books delight me in a way that no other possession does. I love the way they feel in my hands and I love the paper-and-ink smell when I open them and I love the way they line up all straight and lovely on the bookcases, like soldiers in a thousand motley uniforms. Putting them in order calms my cluttered mind and reading them soothes all my stupid first world problems. Sometimes I just run my fingers along their spines, paper and skin, and it feels good.

Maybe some day it will tip over from being a problem to being a disorder. I’m not quite there yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened. But for now, I just try to stay out of bookshops as much as possible. If I don’t see them, I won’t bring more home.

Probably.

Kids with Books

20minReadingHooo boy, am I stressed out this weekend. One of my hundred part-times is coordinating volunteers for a local nonprofit to go into schools and read to fourth graders. The program starts today and runs for the next few weeks and I’m still scrambling to try to get together enough volunteers for the sixteen schools we’re operating in. It is hard and I am le tired.

But! I also firmly believe that it is super important! Kids with books is as right as hot chocolate with whipped cream! There are huge benefits to a child at any age who is read aloud to (Kemp, 2015), and reading for fun has huge ramifications for a child’s future academic success as well as their success in the workforce (Taylor, 2011). But right around third or fourth grade, kids often stop reading for pleasure, especially boys (Flood, 2015).

Now, my fourth grader certainly isn’t slacking in his reading time. I can hardly get him to come to meals most nights. (Why did I give him his own book case? Whyyyy?) So why does this dip in other kids’ reading matter to me? A couple reasons.

These other kids who maybe don’t read as much at home are my son’s friends. They’re the kids he hangs out with. I’m concerned with their well being – maybe not as much as his, but still. Plus I work in their school library. (So I guess that makes being sure they have book access et cetera kind of like my job… but, my other job. Not the nonprofit job. The school job. There are so many jobs…) But anyway the point is, I know these kids and I know their families and I care about them and I want to see them do well in life. They’re a part of our community. And outside of our school, it’s not hard for me to extend that blanket of community to the rest of the school district. Maybe I don’t interact with those other kids as much as our Pearl Creek Puffins, but I can’t imagine any of them are less loved by their parents and teachers than our kids are. (And Fairbanks babies are the best babies, what can I say? :P)

And then there’s the pure selfish reason that, as a writer, I want to make sure I have as many future customers out there as possible. There. I said it.

Kids may read less for all kinds of reasons, but our program is designed to engage those low interest readers. We love the high interest readers, too, but they’re going to read anyway and they’re going to like what we read no matter what, so we’re really working on those kids who wouldn’t pick up a book on their own. We want all kids to relearn that reading is fun.

To this end, we get enthusiastic volunteers who love to read to role model reading behaviors. We pick stories that we think the kids will enjoy, regardless of whether they’re literary greats. We typically read graphic novels, and while we get some flak for it from more traditional camps, the decision is deliberate. Graphic novels are better at engaging the low interest kids than text novels are. And since so much of the story can be gleaned from images instead of just the words, they follow along better. For this same reason, graphic novels can get away with higher level vocabulary without losing kids, and still light up their little brains in nearly identical ways as straight text reading. (Morrison, 2017) And since we tend toward exciting stories with engaging art, we can emphasize to the students how fun reading is, which is really what we’re after. Because if we can convince them that reading is fun, they’re going to read.

I won’t go into the details of how the program runs. (If you’re interested in learning more about the nuts and bolts of it, you’re welcome to check out the program’s website.) But it’s been running for over a decade and the kinks are mostly worked out. I think it’s a fantastic program and my fourth grader loves hearing great stories while he eats his lunch with his friends. And maybe it stresses me out, but I’ll keep at it.

Speaking of, I still have a few more gaps to fill in the reader schedule. Wish me luck, and happy reading!

Citations

(I haven’t done this since college, haha, don’t judge my sloppy citations)

  1. Flood, Alison. Sharp Decline in Children Reading for Pleasure, Survey Finds. The Guardian, 9 Jan 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/09/decline-children-reading-pleasure-survey
  2. Kemp, Carla. MRI Shows Association Between Reading to Young Children and Brain Activity. AAP News, 25 April 2015.
  3. Morrison, Leslie. The Research Behind Graphic Novels and Young Researchers. CTD News, 14 April 2017. https://www.ctd.northwestern.edu/blog/research-behind-graphic-novels-and-young-learners
  4. Taylor, Mark. Reading at 16 Linked to Better Job Prospects. University of Oxford, 9 May 2011

The Polymorphic Menu

vegetable-buns-7

Mine are not as pretty as The Woks of Life’s. 😦

I pretty much don’t leave my house for shopping (or anything) unless my family is on the brink of starvation. There was some scheduling weirdness a couple weeks ago and I missed a shopping day and so, almost the entire week after, we were subsisting on a rotation of five core ingredients: brown rice, beans, frozen vegetables, lettuce, and eggs. I mean, I had kitchen staples like flour and ketchup, but still- things had the potential to get pretty tiresome. But man oh man have I got a well-stocked spice cabinet and a vivid imagination.

Chunky vegan taco bowls. Vietnamese rice soup. Cobb salad (sort of). Stir-fried vegetables with steamed buns (accompanied by many an exclaimed, “Did she really make fresh bao? Quaint!”). All things considered, we ate pretty well! My hubby and I chatted about how there’s probably this food spectrum that 90% of foods can fall on, and it actually kind of seems to hold up- how chicken soup is very similar to chicken stew, which is very similar to chicken and dumplings, which is very similar to chicken pot pie, which is very similar to pork pot pie, which is et cetera pretty much forever, with each item just slightly different than the ones around it, but different enough to be new and interesting.

Turns out, writing can be a lot like that too.

At their most basic, tropes are commonly recurring literary devices in creative works. They usually work outside of the literal meaning of a word or phrase to convey some deeper meaning, at there are lots of kinds of them. Closely related to clichés, tropes are sometimes looked down on, but if done well, they’re not necessarily bad. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find any piece of fiction that didn’t use tropes.

The tropes I’m specifically thinking about today are the kinds that I like to spoof in my Trope Fail comics. Not necessarily irony or metaphor, but the plot conventions and devices that tend to creep into more stories than not given a certain genre. These are more like ‘YA cannot communicate’ or ‘the evil twin’ or ‘the butler did it’ sort of tropes, and are closely related to archetypes (as proposed by Jung), such as the Magician or the Hero.

(Side note: You can take this archetype thing even wider. Some suggest that all stories can be distilled into just a few story archetypes. Author Christopher Booker claims there are just seven, and he makes an argument for it in his book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories.)

Some people complain that this prevalence of tropes makes it so that nothing is new anymore- all stories have already been told in one form or another. And maybe in a way, they’re right, just like I didn’t serve anything but beans and rice and veggies to my family all week. But I would argue- and hopefully they would too- that I wasn’t serving the same thing each night, just as new books aren’t rewriting the same seven novels over and over again.

Romeo and Juliet has been retold hundreds of times over the centuries- and was itself a retelling too. Does that make West Side Story just the same old hash? Is Warm Bodies just another repeat? (And how about Daughter of Smoke and Bone? I haven’t read that one yet but I’ve heard it’s R&J too. Those crazy kids are everywhere.)

It’s the spices that makes the difference. The preparation. The minutiae. Star-crossed lovers are nothing new. Heck, they weren’t new in the 1500s (although arguably, marrying for love was). But that same theme looks very different when talking about wealthy Italian kids, or hardscrabble street gangs, or zombies. And this is just scratching the surface. I mean, look at Ryan North’s Romeo and/or Juliet! Things get crazy!

Each author brings something new to the potluck in their treatment of the same tropes. Maybe you think you shouldn’t write that Paleolithic stonepunk thriller ‘cause you’ve already seen a dozen. Maybe you’re worried that your cybernetic mermaids have been done a thousand times. Maybe you don’t think you have anything new to add to the Sherlockian eco-fantasy scene.

Write it anyway- or paint it or record it or whatever. Create. Prepare it in your own special way and make it new. It isn’t our bones that make us who we are. If you have a story that you love rattling around in your head, but you aren’t sure it’s fresh enough, write it anyway. It may surprise you what you can do with just a handful of boring old ingredients and a full spice cabinet at your disposal.

Happy writing!