Read a Book You Idiot

Banned Books #4
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I work with a kid who just turned twenty-one and he’s an idiot. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a sweet kid, just an idiot.  I’m a long way out from twenty-one and I understand that old guys are always going to think young guys are stupid. This is the way of things.  But this kid claims he’s never read anything by Shakespeare. I’m not a literary snob who thinks you should only read the classics, but how can you get to twenty-one without reading anything by Shakespeare? I thought everybody who had a high school diploma would have to at least read Romeo and Juliet.

I made a joke about Doublespeak and he had no idea what I was talking about. Not only had he not been taught any Shakespeare but he hadn’t been taught 1984. Had never even heard of it or George Orwell for that matter. Again, I don’t think everything you read has to be ‘important’, but in my opinion 1984 is a top contender for most important novel of the twentieth century. Plus it’s just a good book.

If this kid is to be believed, he hasn’t been taught any books of any kind in school. That’s hard to buy, but even if true it’s not the real issue for me. That’s a failure of the public school system but it’s not a failure you have to live with. Just read a damn book.  I don’t get how people can’t grasp the concept of reading on your own and this kid is not the only person I’ve met with this problem. I won’t take any excuses on the matter. I don’t care if you weren’t taught any books in school. I don’t care if you had a teacher who hated you or who was criminally boring or who made you read a book you hated. Now’s the time to read what you want.

You should definitely be reading for pleasure, maybe even guilty pleasure. You should also be reading books that move you and deal with important issues. You should occassionally read books that are challenging or above your head. Just because someone is smarter than you doesn’t make you stupid. Stupider than the author maybe but drop your ego and you might learn something. Reading books that fulfill more than one of these functions is one of life’s true joys.

I talked about this with a friend of mine who teaches English (and contributes to this blog)  and he said he started giving students booklists. But which books?  What books would you put on a list for a person who claims he’s never read anything? They would have to be books that have some of the big ideas going on. Literature in other words but it would also have to be an engaging read. It would need to be a good story that you can’t put down and may feel the need to read more than once. It would help if the book was infectious. One of those books you make excuses to quote or talk about and feel like you have to pass along.

And how long a list? My friends are all readers and I’m sure each of us could come up with a list of fifty ‘must reads’ without trying hard. That number may be too daunting for a novice reader though. In fact I think a top ten list is too many. I think five is a good number and I think I’m gonna make a five book reading list. I’ll ponder it for a bit and make that my next post. I am of course open to suggestions in the comments.

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Who Am I? (A Reader’s Inventory)

King Arthur as one of the Nine Worthies, detai...
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In a recent post to the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) website, an elementary school Reading teacher shared an exercise that she does with her students. The idea is for the students to write down 100 things about themselves as readers. The point of the activity is to help the students become aware of their own reading habits and tastes.

Here’s a link:  http://readingyear.blogspot.com/2010/10/100-things-about-me-as-reader.html

I decided to take up the challenge myself, and here are some of the items I came up with:

1. I tend to divide my reading time equally between fiction and non-fiction (particularly, history).

2. To me, literature and history go hand-in-hand. You can’t truly understand (or appreciate) one without the other.

3. Starting in Junior High, I began reading everything by J.R.R. Tolkien I could get my hands on. This served to introduce me to elements of the Arthurian legend, which consequently led me to scores of other old stories. Thus, I give Tolkien credit for my career choice. (I’m an English teacher.)

4. I don’t skip around much when I read. I tend to read every paragraph of the books I choose (even the boring parts). This slows me down a bit, but that’s okay. I can usually learn something from even the most tedious passages (such as how not to write something).

5. I don’t necessarily have to like the characters in a book to enjoy it, but I do have to at least find the characters interesting.

6. There are only a handful of books that I go back to and reread. Yet I have trouble getting rid of the others, even if I know I will probably never look at them again. (Maybe it’s an illness!)

7. I find that sometimes even the worst books will have a least a few redeeming qualities.

8. I don’t like it when someone tries to strong-arm me into reading a book. I’d rather the choice be entirely my own (even if the book turns out to be the same one that the person recommended). I’m sort of like a cat in this regard. It’s my time, damn it, and I’m going to read what I want to when I want to!

Obviously, my list hasn’t made it all the way to 100 yet, but I’m working on it. How about you? What are some things you could say about your own reading habits? How has your reading impacted your writing?

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Know When to Say When

When I was a kid if I started a book, I finished a book.  I’m not sure why but it felt like quitting if you didn’t finish the whole thing, a failure.  The problem of course is that you’ll spend a lot of time reading stuff you don’t like or stuff that’s simply crap. 

It took me a long time to be able to give up on a book and I still have some problems.  Like when is it too soon to give up?  Or when is it too late to give up?  Recently I started reading a book called Serpent in the Thorns by Jeri Westerson.  The cover claims it was a medieval noir (both things I like) but I didn’t find it to really be either.  The main character, in his second novel here, is a dispossessed knight who now works as The Tracker.  I guess he’s called The Tracker because there were no PI’s in the 1300’s. 

I kept giving it one more chapter for things to heat up until I was halfway through the book.  I’m not going to finish it.  If you like J.A. Jance and Patricia Cornwell type books this one might be right up your alley. But that’s not my bag, baby!  I stopped reading it and I’m okay with that. 

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