My Reading Life

I pilfered this idea from Rod Dreher, who posted his answers to these questions after reading Clive James’ answers to them at The Guardian. I thought it was an excellent idea, and contemplating the answers made me think deeply about my own reading life, so here goes:

The Books I Am Currently Reading:

I’m currently reading three books. The first is Dorothy Sayer’s Mind of the Maker. The second is Brave New World Revisited by Aldous Huxley. The third is Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. I’ll probably finish them in that order, so stay tuned.

A Book That Changed My Life:

Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one that immediately springs to mind. It was an excellent opportunity to be reminded that as Christians, we would do well to be thankful for our mutual fellowship. We should be looking for common ground rather than reasons to bite and devour one another over minutiae. It really is a classic exploration of Christian community. A second one might be The  Heart of the Five Love languages by Gary Chapman. It really helped me reconsider how I interact in my marriage and personal relationships.

A Book I Wish I’d Written:

I can’t really think of a book I wish I’d written, although the books that I immediately thought of when I read the question are the ones by authors who drew on their local culture: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, The Lion’s Paw by Robb White, and  Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski, all set in Florida during overlapping periods, are the kinds of books I wish I could write. I am not inclined, however, towards fiction writing so I can’t say definitively that I wish I’d written any of them.

A Book That Had the Greatest Influence on My Writing:

For right now, I’m thinking it’s probably How to Be Unlucky by Joshua Gibbs. I’m sure this is partly because it’s still relatively fresh in my mind, but it’s also because I really appreciate his ability to write about faith in a genuine way without over spiritualizing every facet of life.

I haven’t yet determined whether or not this speaks well of my spiritual state, but I want to be called higher (and to call others higher), from down here among the wrestling rabble, not from the pretense of on a lofty plane, of having arrived. I hope, when I can sort my thoughts enough to produce an entire volume, I can find the sweet spot Gibbs hits in his writing.

A Book I Think Is Most Over/Underrated:

Persuasion, by Jane Austen, hands down. Unless I’m in a conversation among die hard literature types, I never hear any mention of this novel of hers. And it is among my favorite Austen books, second only to Emma which I love for its humor.

A Book That Changed My Mind:

Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell was the first book I read that made me think completely differently about economic policy and politics as an integrated subject. It was partially the beginning of my abandonment of liberalism and the discarding of incongruent thinking on the subject of, well…basic economics.

The Last Book That Made Me Cry:

Books don’t generally make me cry. While I can’t think of one which fits that specific bill, I can think of one that moved me emotionally as I read it. A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis is a book that lays bare the stages of grief in a way that almost anyone can appreciate.

The Last Book That Made me Laugh:

My Man Jeeves and Other Stories, by P.G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse is among the best humorist writers and reading his books are guaranteed to make me chuckle.

A Book I Couldn’t Finish:

Fierce Angels was the latest one. I just couldn’t swallow all the intersectionality and oppression talk. Sometimes even I, who can wade through quite a lot of muck for the sake of information, have to throw in the towel.

The Book I’m Most Ashamed Not to Have Read:

I tend to think that if I haven’t read a book yet, it’s okay. It’s even okay if I never read it. However, I used to feel kind of icky that I’ve never read The Odyssey. Oh, well. Maybe one day.

My Earliest Reading Memory:

The Dick and Jane books in first grade. I could already read when I got there, so it was a drag reading these.

My Comfort Read:

The Bible, followed by almost any Jane Austen novel.

The Book I Give As a Gift:

I recently gave How to be Unlucky as a gift to a friend, and a Frog and Toad collection to an expectant mother. I don’t have a go-to book that I give as a gift. I’m a gift card kind of gal and a gift card to Barnes and Noble frees the giftee to choose whatever they want to read.

The Book I’d Most Like to Be Remembered For:

I don’t have an answer for this one as I haven’t published a book yet. Time will tell either way…

Now to the important part: Tell me all about YOUR reading life by answering some of these questions in the comments!

 

Blogging Challenges of a Nonfiction Bibliophile

When I began this experiment of blogging for the purpose of reviewing, analyzing, and highlighting  books, I assumed that it would be easy. After all, I’d been reading several book blogs and they made it look quite easy. With the exception of my personal favorite Pages Unbound, which is hosted by two writers, these (mostly) ladies were able to churn out three book reviews a week.

Although it usually takes me a week to 10 days to read a book, I committed to using this format as a means of marrying my desire to improve my writing and share my love of books. I figured with some strategic scheduling, I could manage to review a couple of books a week.

That strategy hasn’t quite worked out, due to a number of factors. Homemaking, homeschooling, and other commitments are part of it, but those aren’t even the main reasons. I can easily put together a 1,000 word blog post, plus editing, in less than an hour.

No, the difference between my approach and the approach of most of the book bloggers I enjoy so much is that the lion’s share of of my reading is nonfiction, and nonfiction takes me a lot longer to read than fiction books, which is what most of the bibliophile bloggers I enjoy tend to review. The few bloggers I read who review nonfiction tend to offer reviews as slowly as I do, with gaps between reviews.

It was this awareness of the rate at which I post reviews which prompted me to begin interspersing book reviews with discussion posts on the related topics of reading and education, two other subjects that I enjoy discussing. Maintaining a book blog based mostly on the nonfiction books I generally read is more difficult than I realized.

When I am reading fiction, I read faster, collect my thoughts faster, and can formulate an opinion and review faster. Entertainment material is easier to plow through than informational material. There’s also a difference in the speed at which certain authors can be processed and read through. Dostoyevsky requires more concentration than Austen which requires more thoughtful consideration than J.K. Rowling.

In the nonfiction realm, Chesterton takes some serious concentration, while Wendell Berry is a little easier to work through (though just as thoughtful). Books such as my latest review, Mating in Captivity, hardly require any deep introspection at all, even if there are bursts of original thought or notable commentary. It was a very quick read relative to the time I usually spend in a nonfiction book.

I am currently waiting for one of my kids to finish a music lesson and am about to crack open The 5000 Year Leap. My optimistic ambition is to have it completed by next Friday, even amidst household responsibilities, church stuff, school orientations which take place next week, and myriad other tasks which must be done. The life stuff into which all the reading is sandwiched. We’ll see how it goes.

What about you? Does nonfiction reading challenge you much more than fiction in terms of time and concentration? Which do you prefer?

More Short Stories and Mid-year Roundup.

Where did the time go? It’s the first day of the third quarter of 2019. I have a birthday coming up very soon, even though it feels as if I just celebrated one. Preparation for the upcoming school year is well underway, and even though we’re still 16 months away from our country’s next major election, we received a political call at our a few nights ago. The mother’s encouragement trusim about long days and short years rings quite true today as I consider how quickly time  seems to be flying by.

Short stories worth a look:

In preparation for the new school year when our kids will be studying British literature (last year was American literature), I had the great pleasure of meeting with several women much smarter than me for a time of literature appreciation. We read short stories by British authors.

One of the best things about short stories (I’m certain I’m repeating something I’ve said before), is that they can be read quickly. Because of that, even those  who have limited amounts of time for leisure reading can read great literature which transmits time tested values of what is True, Good, and Beautiful. Others, such as the first one I will highlight, are just a light and fun good time, and there ain’t nothing wrong with that either.

  • Jeeves Takes Charge, by P.G. Wodehouse (read at link), is a story published in 1916 by the renowned British humorist. Wodehouse is one of my go-to writers when I want to read something that is not only funny, but intelligently so. This story is the one in which we meet the indomitable valet Jeeves for the first time. As the story suggests, he takes charge from the moment Bertie Wooster, the young heir, hires him into his employ.
  • The Red-Headed League, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (read at link) first appeared in a magazine in 1891, and is one of many Sherlock Holmes short stories. A red-headed client appears with a fantastically bizarre and mysterious tale which has left him confused. Holmes, using his masterfully astute gift of deduction, figures out that what appears on the surface to be nothing more than a curious story is actually the beginnings of an elaborate criminal heist.
  • The Blue Cross, by G.K. Chesterton is the first of Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries. Of the three stories I read this weekend, this was by far my favorite. Up until this point, I hadn’t read any of the Father Brown stories, but that is about to change. This story, filled with equal bits of mystery, humor, and profound -without being preachy- insights into the nature of man and nature itself, enveloped me from the first. I am very glad to be entering the world Chesterton’s fictional works, albeit a little late.

Mid-year roundup:

  • I took a minute to tally up the book reviews I’ve posted to date this year and I’ve written a grand total of 20. That isn’t many, especially when you consider that four of those were chapter installments of the Feminine Mystique throughout January.
  • In what counts as a pretty big departure from how I’ve handled this blog over the preceding three years, I’ve also written 21 discussion posts, covering everything from education to book trends,  genres and characters, and even a couple on current cultural trends. As I expected, when I began to add more of those kinds of posts, the conversations here were more animated and robust. I appreciated hearing all of your thoughts on the various topics. So thank you.

My favorite books of the year so far:

  • My favorite book that I’ve read so far this year is one that I haven’t reviewed here yet. I haven’t reviewed it for two reasons. The first is that I’ve picked it up and put it down so many times that it took what seemed like forever to read it. I often needed to set it aside and let the ideas marinate for a few days. Now, I want to re-read it and I have a friend reading it along with me so I hope to have a review up in August. At that point, I’ll divulge the title. I do have other favorites which I’ll break down by fiction and nonfiction.
  • My favorite fiction book for the first half of this year was A Girl of the Liberlost. The beauty, language, and deep relational insights of this book have stayed with me.
  • My favorite nonfiction books of the year tied for first place. The first is Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. I find that I am still challenged by everything about this book. It is a magnum opus for the digital age. My second favorite nonfiction book to date at mid-year is Beauty Destroys the Beast, by my friend Amy Fleming. Yes, it’s a favorite because she’s my friend. More than that however, it’s a favorite because it speaks to a subject that I actually care about, and I agree with what she has to say about it.

Looking ahead to the second half of this year:

  • I am currently reading a few books, including a novel by the British humorist P.G. Wodehouse whose short story I reviewed above. In addition, I have three non fiction books in queue. However:
  • School starts around the middle to end of August, and we still have a lot of prepping to do for that.  At that time, my entire reading queue may be overtaken by British literature, so don’t be surprised if all the book reviews here are books by British authors -except for books I’ve already read but not yet reviewed.
  • What we refer to as “birthday season” in our family has meant we’ve been partying like it’s 1999 since May, partying overtime in June, and won’t really let up until the beginning September when all the of seven birthdays in our immediate family are wrapped up. I’ve eaten too much cake. Speaking of which, here’s one I made for one of my girls upon special request:

20190628_194644.jpg

20190628_194541.jpg

This dark chocolate cake, with peanut butter frosting, chocolate ganache drizzle and Reese’s peanut butter cups on top was very good! It was also so rich that no one (guests and family alike) could finish an entire slice. I think that’s the sign of a good dessert; you only need a little of it to be sated. We’re on a sugar moratorium around here to recover, making exceptions for, and only for, each of our respective birthdays.

Summer in Florida is oppressively hot, but we’re still managing to have great fun because, why not? I still can’t believe that we’re half way through 2019!

How’s your year been so far? Read any good books lately?

 

 

Current Kid Read: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Our 12-year-old is the only one of our five offspring who is not an avid reader. She reads the books she is assigned for school, with mixed reactions. Every now and again, she’s assigned a book she really enjoys, but most of the time, she grits her way through it. It is a source of angst to me at times, but I’ve learned to accept that there are people born into the world, even born of me, who don’t enjoy reading.

This week, however, she has been more engrossed in and talkative about a book than I have witnessed since she read Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, which she truly loves. This extraordinary book -in the sense that my kids is captivated by it- is Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Young Readers Edition, which her sister picked up for her as a spontaneous gift.

omnivores dilemma young reader

I’m not sure how she knew 12-year-old would like the book, or if she even knew the book would be such a hit with her, but it has really piqued her interest in myriad ways.

Sitting next to me as I try to recapture my inner student (I recently started taking online classes via Local University.) was this child informing me that we are all basically composed of corn. The first sections of the book assess the expansion of the corn industry and how it affects nearly every food we put into our bodies. Unless of course, we avoid processed foods and make as much as we can from scratch.

Before encountering the book, this child was the least likely of all our children to show much interest in what was in her food so long as it tasted good. This kis has always had trouble dealing with my propensity to have cabinets and a fridge with nothing but healthy fare. Now, she takes the phrase “USDA Organic” with a heaping grain of salt, and is infinitely more curious about where and what kinds of meats I buy when I shop.

Behold the power of books.

No Time for Reading Books?

More inspiration from the excellent classical educators at Circe Institute.

John Ehrett describes a recent phenomena of high school education that wasn’t common back during the dark ages when I was a high school student. Namely, that literature and language arts teachers are increasingly refraining from assigning classic works of literature as part of their curriculum.

Why you ask? Because of a growing belief that in the absence of the necessary time required to read the books, students are SparkNoting their way through the related assignments. Using the magic of the Internet, it is entirely possible to produce papers and test results which seem to indicate a thorough understanding of the literature even when they haven’t read it:

In my experience and that of many others, this precise problem is virtually ubiquitous across modern education. When it’s scheduling crunch time, “doing the assigned readings” is usually the first thing to go. And why wouldn’t it be? The savvy student motivated predominantly by grades has a whole range of resources at his disposal: Armed with readily available summaries and model answers, he can muddle through papers and exams with half-baked “analysis” that engages the work at the level of its most overt plot points. Viewed through this lens, a book like Anna Karenina becomes a story of infidelity interrupted by annoying digressions about farming rather than the comprehensive meditation on “the good life” that Tolstoy actually penned. Nobody learns anything in this scenario, but A-grades are awarded in due course and everyone moves on.

When grades are the holy grail on which everything of importance rests, the means becomes irrelevant. The ends are all that matter, and the deeper understanding of humanity, life, and nature that one acquires through reading great books is lost. It is not unlike those who are excellent at proof-texting their way through sacred texts to achieve whatever moral or psychological end they brought to the book before they ever picked it up. Winning the argument, the grade, or whatever we need to succeed becomes the goal. Whether that be a good job or peace with ourselves, we’ve learned how to get there. And clearly, we’ve taught our young people how to get there as well. This is not without cost, however:

Of course, eventually this habit catches up to a culture. Whenever I read about top-flight university departments jettisoning the classical canon in favor of more “relevant” offerings, I’ve comforted myself with the thought that most students at elite colleges have already read the Western core: Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the rest. If my teacher friend’s experience is representative, though, the situation is graver than that: We now have an educational culture producing students—ostensibly trained in the “liberal arts”—who have no connection whatsoever to the great works of the past, or even the reading habits necessary to engage those works.

This is one of the reasons we have chosen a classical approach to homeschooling our children, although we do so with a veritable mountain of educational support. I could never do it on my own. There are things of far more value than ticking off of the appropriate boxes required to be an efficient cog in the economic wheel:

That is the paradigm that classical education affirms—and by juxtaposing a commitment to moral formation alongside the conveyance of information and data, classical education strikes at the root causes of academic acedia. Surely in the end what matters isn’t an admission letter to a prestigious college—a letter that appears, all too often, to denote compliance with certain procedural norms rather than real intellectual curiosity—but the capacity to live a contented and virtuous life. Speaking as the product of a classically inspired home education, I can attest that such an approach is far more likely to produce students willing to tune out the frenetic clamor of the college-prep-industrial complex and love learning for its own sake.

Click over and read the whole thing. It’s worth the 5 minutes, particularly if you are still educating children. As a slow reader with a very full schedule, I appreciate the pressures of life than encroach on one’s ability to find time to read, savor, and integrate the ideas of deeper works of literature. This pressure is even more pronounced among young people who are facing deadlines in various subjects to numerous teachers. But somehow, we have to find a way to strike a balance for the sake of the lives they have to live when schooling is done.

 

Sharing Books with Friends (and random updates)

Digital respites are almost always excellent opportunities for more reading. Of course, that’s not the only thing a digital respite frees up time for. The list is endless. There’s increased cleaning time, increased exercise time, and increased home improvement time. The latter also includes increased spending, but more about that later.

One of the most notable changes that come with reduced mental noise is the ability to think unfettered. When reading great ideas and grand classic fiction, the abiity to step away in quietness and analyze what was read helped me to better flesh out the nuances in the books I was reading. I wanted to chat with others about what I was reading, and having deliberately closed the door to being able to do that here, those conversations took on a larger role during times with friends.

At the end of March, after weeks of sharing different ideas from Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, I handed my copy to a friend who was interested in reading it. When she gave it back to me last week, I immediately took it from her and handed it to another friend of ours who’d been wanting to read it as well. It was such a satisfying moment, the ability to bond and share ideas which emerged from the things we read.

This is, without question, the best part about increased reading time: the opportunity to talk about books with friends. Even better than that is when we have the opportunity to share not only what we have read with friends, but share the books themselves.

As I have handed friends -and taken from the hands of friends- books of every era and genre, my commitment has steadily increased to physical books over digital. I thoroughly appreciate the ease and convenience of both digital and audio books. I have a loaded Kindle and am currently listening -albeit very slowly- to The Brothers Karamazov. The wealth of digital book option is a boon to the bibliophile.

However, they can’t compare with the joy of passing tomes between friends and dissecting the ideas over cups of coffee. I’m considering the idea of a summer book club because spending time chatting with girlfriends and fellow mothers about books is infinitely more edifying than complaining or gossip. I am blessed to be in community with women who don’t engage in the latter anyway.

In addition to more time with books over the past several weeks has been more time celebrating with family and friends, entertaining, spring cleaning, and probably my most favorite thing, helping my husband re-do our master bedroom closet. Remember that increased spending? Here is the before (well actually after he took out the boring original white wire hanging apparatus):

 

before

After spending a small fortune on good wood (birch I believe it is), lots of measuring, cutting, and sanding, the wood was handed to me and the kids for staining and ironing veneer on the edges. This was the midway point:

midway

Several drawers need to be finished, as we had to return some of the drawer hardware that arrived damaged to the manufacturer for replacements, which we are still waiting for, and currently my husband is working on some molding near the floor. He’s still not quite done, but we’re about 75% of the way there:

 

We went ahead and started hanging some of the garments because nearly 3 months of clothes stacked across the desk in our bedroom was more than long enough. Public service announcement: Never start a major home project at nearly the exact same time as you’re beginnng a new, relatively demanding job.

Respite, feasts, worship, family, (and extra closet space!) are the stuff of life. But what is any of it without great books?

 

 

 

Discussion post: The Great KonMari Book Debate

We’ve discussed before the advantages, limitations and broader implications of Marie Kondo’s best-selling book on de-cluttering and home organization. Quite recently, I even posted pictures of my kids’ attempts to organize their dresser drawers KonMari style for the purposes of fitting everything in such a way that each item is easily visible and easy to access.

While I was impressed with the patience and skill my kids demonstrated by turning their t-shirts and underwear into an origami project, I couldn’t quite bring myself to go that far. There’s no possible way I could ever, washing two loads of laundry per day, find the motivation let alone the time, to sit and fold everything into neat little triangular shapes then line them up in the drawers.

Guess what? My kids haven’t stuck to it either. They made a valiant effort worth commending, especially knowing them as I do. The method simply isn’t realistic long term, but I digress. The merits folding one’s clothing origami style isn’t what prompted this post.

This is a blog about books, and despite the overwhelmingly positive response to Kondo’s admonition that we get rid of most of our junk, one thing which has drawn consistent howls of protest is her suggestion that those following her method scale their libraries down to no more than 30 books. Being a homeschool parent as well as a voracious reader, I dismissed that nonsense out of hand. Others however, have taken the time to dissect and contemplate the underlying implications of suggesting that we purge ourselves right out having any substantial home library at all. The delightfully poetic Rachel at Bay Boxwood put it thus:

It strikes me as odd that one of the first edicts handed down by the pop-minimalist scolds is The Culling of the Books.

Don’t get me wrong, if you’re hanging on to a houseful of junky or unread books and paper ephemera, then cull away, you’ll probably be glad you did – but – considering the amount of unworn clothing, abandoned craft projects, ancient canned goods, and broken everything in peoples living spaces, it just seems like there are better places to start de-cluttering and un-owning, and that perhaps once the rest of the mess is resolved the books are a collection worth keeping.

Given that beautifying living spaces is what she does, I’ll defer to her authority on that issue, and agree with it wholeheartedly.  Being given to conspiratorial imaginations complete with visions of elitist machinations in smoke-filled rooms, I am immediately wary of attempts to encourage the masses to do away with hard copies of books.

Y’all can cancel the paddy wagon. Tongue is planted firmly in cheek, but I do consider it unwise to trap our most beloved books in digital formats which are much easier to delete or manipulate. More than that however, is that there are few things at all which spark joy, inspire thought, and disseminate wisdom than great books. I loved the wistfully exciting way Bethany Fiction said it:

Do you know what brings me joy? BOOKS! Adventures to times and places I’ll never visit in the “real” world, deep journeys into hope and heartbreak, thrilling escapades where someone won’t get out alive but I probably will, somewhat-confusing classics I had to read for school that made me a better person even if I didn’t appreciate them at the time…I love them all.

I mean, it’s great to have a few travel mementos that bring a smile every time you look at them, don’t get me wrong, but books contain whole worlds—the lives and journeys of beloved friends we’ve admired and empathized and learned from. The joy quotient is just through the roof. Libraries and bookstores spark so much joy that they might as well be actual infernos of happiness. (Is that a little Fahrenheit 451? Maybe. But you get the idea.) And if your house just happens to resemble a library or bookstore…all the better!

I especially appreciated that she invoked Fahrenheit 451.

Writing for The Guardian,  Anakana Scholfield reminds us that not every book we read is going to spark joy, and sometimes this is a very good thing:

The metric of objects only “sparking joy” is deeply problematic when applied to books. The definition of joy (for the many people yelling at me on Twitter, who appear to have Konmari’d their dictionaries) is: “A feeling of great pleasure and happiness, a thing that causes joy, success or satisfaction.” This is a ludicrous suggestion for books. Literature does not exist only to provoke feelings of happiness or to placate us with its pleasure; art should also challenge and perturb us.

We live in a frantic, goal-obsessed, myopic time. Everything undertaken has to have a purpose, outcome or a destination, or it’s invalid. But art doesn’t care a noodle about your Apple watch, your fitness goals, active lifestyle, right swipes, career and surrender on black pudding. Art will be around far longer than Kondo’s books remain in print. Art exists on its own terms and untidy timeline.

As for culling one’s unread books – while that may be essential for reducing fire and tripping hazards, it is certainly not a satisfying engagement with the possibilities of literature. (Unless it’s self-help or golf, in which case, toss it.) Success is, eventually, actually reading your unread books, or at least holding on to them long enough that they have the chance to satisfy, dissatisfy or dement you. Unread books are imagined reading futures, not an indication of failure.

Some of the most rewarding books I own, beginning with my Bible, have grieved, challenged, and stretched me in the most painful yet rewarding ways. Several are worth re-reading again and again, sharing with friends, and passing along to my children and their children.

Despite my predilection for book collection, I am a fervent supporter of local libraries and encourage their patronage for books that we enjoy exploring which are, for whatever reasons, not worth retaining in our personal libraries.

The bigger takeaway from all of this is that each of us, rather than being carried away by the cultural wave of the moment, needs to use wisdom and discretion when it comes to what we own, how we spend our money, and how we decide which experts of the moment are worth listening to.The way I feel about my books is the way my husband feels about his tools. Some of the more obscure specialty tools might only be used  yearly, but when needed, they are worth every penny and whatever bit of space they occupy.

Materialism and collection of worthless clutter is expensive and causes unnecessary stress. That’s something most all agree on. How we approach Marie Kondo’s needed invitation to examine our relationship with our stuff will be as varied as each of our homes and families.

How many books in your library are you willing to part with?