Friday, December 31, 2010

"What not what you read"

What counts, in the long run, is not what you read; it is what you sift through your own mind; it is the ideas and impressions that are aroused in you by your reading.

~Eleanor Roosevelt

First, a resolution
I want to track my reading habits in the 2011 Reading Woman engagement calendar my sister gave me for my birthday. Each week features a different painting of a woman reading and an accompanying quote about books, reading, or libraries. I kept such a journal two years ago, and it is fascinating to look back and see what I was was reading (and thinking) on a particular day, and as Kent suggests, to look for developing themes in my own life.

Top reads in 2010
I've read a lot of poetry this year, in the fifteen minutes before bedtime each night. A poem is so manageable. You read a poem and it doesn't have to make sense on a rational level, which is a good thing, since your mind is heading toward the horizon of the dreamscape. But a poem does mean, and you can come back to the same poem on any number of occasions, and the imagery (if it is good) will strike the senses fresh. Some poets I like to read are Christina Rossetti, G.M. Hopkins, Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, and Billy Collins. A poet I would like to know better is Christian Wiman.

Most memorable fiction award is a tie between Bradbury's Farenheit 451 and Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle for narratives that keeps you right between the pages!

To read in 2011
Like Lee Ann, I'm drawn to the lit classics, but I also want to read more contemporary fiction, more history and biography, more theology. I want to read the Bible in English and French.
How does one develop a well-balanced book diet? If it can be rich and balanced, that's even better. I want to know if you have any tips.

First up in the new year, besides the assigned texts for Prof. Littles' Mission of the Church at UGST, is Colum McCann's Zoli, a novel about the Roma people of Eastern Europe.

And because I like to keep my hands occupied with a knitting project, I'll probably be tuning in to LibriVox frequently for unlimited listening to free audio books that are in the public domain. It's a great way to get through the books you know you ought to read but haven't mustered the strength of will to lift them off the shelf! Because LibriVox is operated by volunteers, the recordings vary in quality. However, it seems that because people are reading because they want to and because they value the works being read, the readings are expressive and make for a most pleasant listening experience! Who knows? Maybe I'll sign up to record something myself!

Image: The 2009 Reading Woman engagement calendar

Reading Retrospect and Hopes

This year, my reading has been a little fragmented.

Last January, I embarked on a six-month stay in France (see posts from that time here, here, here, here, here and here) and my reading mainly consisted of reading comprehension exercises. I did take a literature course for my first three months and had the chance to read excerpts of contemporary French and francophone writers. But the only novel that I completed from start to finish this year was a novella by popular French writer Anna Gavalda, L'Echappée belle. I will admit to failures of reading about a quarter of a culture shock comedy, about half of a Christian female travel book called Go Girl: Finding Adventure Wherever Your Travels Lead, and the first two or three chapters of Mansfield Park. Ya win some, ya lose some.

A book that I've stuck with and will continue reading in sips is a creative nonfiction anthology called Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: I & Eye. I've been experimenting a little with the genre in personal writing and am thoroughly enjoying the thematic selections as well as the craft essays which give fresh, valuable insight.

Next year, I'd like to be a little more systematic about my reading. In the past I have followed a suggested reading list instead of wandering around in the wilderness. That wouldn't be a bad system to revisit. I should probably also go back and finish what I started. Leaving things unfinished is not a good habit to start.

Happy New Year!

Reading in 2010: Mysteries & More Mysteries

This was the year I devoured mysteries--from Hammett (if you're looking for sharp dialogue that crackles off the page, you must read The Thin Man) to Georges Simenon's Maigret to Scott Phillips (don't bother with the Ice Harvest) to a turgid Donna Leon Venice mystery to Darwyn Cooke's amazing graphic novel adaptation of Richard Stark's Parker to Wilkie Collins Victorian classic The Moonstone (which wasn't bad, though very heavy on dialogue and light on action) to Walter Mosley's first Easy Rollin's mystery, Devil in a Blue Dress (solid & interesting, though there are parts that must be elided).

I will say, from my experience this year, most mysteries aren't worth reading, but the gems sure shine in a firmament few other genres can match.

Happy 2011!

Ringing in the New Year with Reading

Some make resolutions. Others make a point not to make resolutions. For readers, January means a time to map out the year's reading list.

Something Old
Perhaps it's the literature teacher in me, but when it's time to start a new book, I first turn to the lit classics list. This year I'd like to explore some big writers I know nothing about beyond their famous names. So... Carson McCullers' The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse.

Something New
In November, The Instructions was released by new writer Adam Levin that I imagine we'll be talking about soon on this blog. Ingredients: +900 page novel narrated by a 10 year-old, faith issues, psychologically complex, theologically charged, and so on. Since it is faith-focused and is capturing the attention of critics, it may be a candidate for Word discussion.

On a lighter, offbeat note, I like the sound of Shane Jones' Light Boxes. The big picture: a nonlinear, creative look at seasonal affective disorder. The premise: a town perpetually stuck in February tries to get rid of winter. Maybe I'll take it up in February!

Something Borrowed
In 2010 my reading was centered more on nonfiction than fiction, which was a first. But there's no substitute for printed media when you're researching. (And again this year I'll be reading several more war memoirs for a research project I'm doing that will involve the help of our friendly local library.) Also with the library's aid, I'm hoping to finally get around to Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation six years after the rest of the world.

Something True
I've always been fascinated by Flannery O'Connor. I'd like to round out the year with a look into her life and work from her own voice through The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor.

So a diverse reading list I like to think. It should make for an interesting and eventful year. Best of luck to all of you with your 2011 reading pursuits!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Key to e-Books? Agents!

The Smashwords founder offers some fascinating insights and predictions for 2011, including this gem:

2. Agents write the next chapter of the ebook revolution – Agents, serving the economic best interests of the best-selling authors, will bring new credibility to self publishing by encouraging authors to proactively bypass publishers and work directly with ebook distribution platforms. Agents will use these publishing platforms for negotiating leverage against large publishers. The conversation will go something like this: “You’re offering my author only 15-20% list on ebooks when I can get them 60-70% list working direct with an ebook distributor like Smashwords or a retailer like Amazon?”

Friday, December 24, 2010

Ode to the Well-Stocked Shelf

This is why you keep a well-stocked bookshelf:
  • The kid, now 12, without encouragement and for no discernable reason, pulled The Big Book of Martyrs off my book shelf and began reading it. It’s a 200 page graphic novel about Christian martyrs. He finished it in 2 days.
  • Me the first week of December, drained and adrift. Decided I wanted to indulge in something different. Remembered a book of literary criticism I’d purchased 13 years ago that might be perfect. God and the American Writer offered fascinating insights into the works of Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, Dickinson, Eliot and many other American authors, as well as how God has remained a constant character within our greatest fiction. Good stuff. Exactly what I needed.

Parents and singles who bring 500 channels and millions of web sites into their homes, but offer little tangible proof that reading matters only do themselves and their God a disservice. (Sorry folks, but we’re people of the Word. That’ll never change.)

I know physical books are expensive (e-books are solving some of that problem), but they remain amazing resources for anyone seeking solace, refreshment, and intellectual stimulation. When you don’t know what you’re going to read, you run your finger along the bookshelf until you (re)discover an unrealized treasure. Don’t fret if you still haven’t read that fascinating title or much-lauded classic on your shelf. If you listen, it’ll be calling your name soon enough.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Appendix A: 2010's Personal Reading List

How many books did you read this year?

Stephen Covey (7 Habits of Highly Effective People) said he read a book a week, that if you start tracking your readings, you can build up from a book a month until you will also read a (real) book every week. I didn’t believe him, but decided to try it. It works.

I can’t do it without audio books (21 this year, but often it's higher), but I’m going to hit 60 by next week. They’re not all doorstops, but my personal baseline is 100 pages. Anything less than that is a short story (35 this year) on my list.

Favorites this year include (in no particular order):

Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome by Anthony Everett, Good to Great by Jim Collins, For the Beauty of the Church by W. David O. Taylor (Editor), Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling by Andy Crouch, The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, The Emotionally Healthy Church by Peter Scazzero

If you don’t track your reading, you need to try it. Not to induce guilt, but to trigger memories of where and when you read it. It’s fun to see what the themes of your year might have been, as well as any notable accomplishments

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Appendix A: More on Rossetti's Bleak Midwinter

Having recently considered Christina Rossetti's carol, "In the Bleak Midwinter," I was interested to read Sara's observations on the same over at Transpositions:
And while [Annie]Lennox might want to strip away the ‘religiosity’ of the hymns she covers, one cannot ignore the theological implications that Rosetti is addressing in this hymn and the resulting reminder of what the Christmas season prepares us to receive.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

"In the Bleak Midwinter:" A Reading of Rossetti's Carol

"Winter in the Ozarks" by R. Newton, 2008

In one of Rossetti's best known poems* that is also a beloved Christmas carol, Rossetti imagines that it was against the backdrop of “the bleak midwinter” that the ultimate transcendent truth was displayed in the birth of Christ.

“In the Bleak Midwinter” seems indicative of Rossetti’s poetic vision on a whole, encompassing her ideas about art and faith. Here, she uses the physical setting of winter (supposing that Christ was indeed born in December) to correspond with the spiritual state of man in the fall from grace.

The world is bleak and dark and cold, and into this scene comes the Light of the world, illuminating mankind’s existence. In her rendering, Rossetti portrays the humble circumstances into which the King of Kings “comes to reign.” It is as if the material “stable place” and a “mangerful of hay” where Jesus is born are viewed as representations of His own earthly tabernacle.

In this context, it becomes easy to see the world as a whole as that “sacramental universe” to which Ruskin refers. Rossetti, in pointing out the significance of the physical setting for the Incarnation, does function in the role of prophet, giving readers a vision of God’s nature as a Servant of His people that helps us see the humility with which we should approach Him.

When the poet ponders what it is she can give the Christ child, she concludes that, poor as she is, the best gift will be her heart. Of course, this is what God desires of each and every one of His children: a place in our hearts.

And this place for the Truth in our hearts is something the poets-as-prophets such as Christina Rossetti help to evoke.

*To read the complete text of "In the Bleak Midwinter," see Poetry Foundation. To listen to an instrumental arrangement of the carol, try this one by Loreena McKennitt or this one by the Kings College Choir at Cambridge.

Works Cited
Harrison, Antony H. Christina Rossetti in Context. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
Packer, Lona Mosk. Christina Rossetti. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1963.
Christina Rossetti: An Overview. Victorian Web, 2009.

"That angelic demon of a Christina"

"A Christmas Carol" by D.G. Rossetti, 1867

In the spirit of Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac, today is the 180th birthday of Christina Rossetti. A prominent member of the Victorian canon, Rossetti was born in England in 1830 to an Italian émigré and his wife. She began writing poetry at a young age but also displayed such a strong temper so as to provoke her father to call her “that angelic little demon of a Christina.”

Always grappling with the paradoxes of the human experience and Christian faith, Rossetti found in her poetry a place of meditation. For her, art, like faith was a matter of both beauty and truth. Even a cursory glance at Rossetti’s poetry will assure a reader of one thing: her personal faith does play a crucial role, not only in her poetic vision, but in her purpose for expressing that vision.

Rossetti is not merely concerned with didacticisms or self-expression but instead cares to explore both her world and her heart in intimate detail as she attempts to understand the ways of God. For her, as for Ruskin (19th century art critic) the physical world and personal experience do seem to afford glimpses of the divine nature.

When these glimpses are observed and portrayed by the artist or the poet, the renderings become the means of grace, conduits, as it were, through which truth may flow. And, as Antony Harrison points out with regards to Ruskin’s philosophy, the poet herself becomes something of a prophet.