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Six books on my to-finish list.

I used to consider myself an avid reader. Sadly, these days I can’t make that claim. I have finished four books so far in 2011. Of this I am happy because that is about three or four more books than I finished in 2010.

I wish I could become an avid reader again. When I was in eighth grade I made a goal of reading 100 books in one year. I made it up to, I think, 87 by the end of the year. Then, miffed that I hadn’t reached my goal, it took me another year to round out those last 13 books.

I did almost nothing but read all through high school. I was the only kid in my class who actually read Bleak House when we were supposed to be reading Bleak House, and I loved it. I couldn’t get enough of the classics, and I’d leave the library with stacks of books whenever I got the chance.

When I got to college I still loved to read, but I had less and less time for it as the years went on. Somewhere along the way I got really, really out of practice.

I blame my lost love of reading not on college, but on the internet. Or, more accurately, on my lack of willpower where internet usage is concerned. As wonderfully informative and enlightening as the internet can be, more often it becomes somewhat of an intellectual black hole for me. I head to a cozy spot, all ready to settle down for a good hour of reading, deciding just to check my email for one minute real quick…not realizing that I’m teetering on the edge of the event horizon of mindlessness. Before I know it, I’ve spent an hour or two reading comments to an article about Miley Cyrus’s new tattoo, and my entire chance to better my world has somehow cruelly slipped out from under me.

So I have decided to wean myself from my internet surfing habits, and devote myself to the pursuit of things I used to love. In order to make the transition, I’ve been remembering just what components make for a successfully avid reading session. Of course, you need a cozy, quiet spot; comfortable clothing; snacks, preferably chewy but not too unhealthy; a good beverage; adequate lighting; a reading buddy if appropriate; a writing utensil for taking notes; and, of course, a good chunk of time.

It’s also important to take into account your reading style. I tend to be a kinesthetic learner, so I may need to walk around while I’m reading, or sit in a rocking chair or on a porch swing. This is also why I have my pen and my snacks handy. The more fidgeting I can direct to other parts of my body, the better I will be able to keep my eyes and my mind focused on the page. I’ve also found that reading out loud can help me to absorb the language and the meaning, so having a private place to read can be important.

I think the biggest thing for me will be, simply, getting back into the habit. It takes a certain mindset to be able to sink so deeply into a narrative that you don’t want to come out of it. That you would rather stay up till 4am than not finish the next chapter, and the next, and the next…I can’t even remember the last time that I was that kind of a reader! But, if I really put my mind and heart into it, and am willing to take the plunge, I think I might, I just might be able to devote myself to becoming a reader again.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a stack of books to attend to, and some websites to avoid.

 

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Today I discovered an amusing little activity on the website soulpancake.com.

Soul Pancake is co-created by Rainn Wilson (of Dwight Schrute fame), and is his attempt at a community forum where people can gather to discuss meaningful topics, muse about life and literature, and participate in quaint little creative pursuits like the one I am about to tell you about.

The idea behind Book Spine Poem is to stack your book collection to make a creative sentence or poem. You can then take a photo of your creation or simply assemble the words into a poem and post it on the page. This idea was inspired, or basically taken from, a few other projects already in existence. From these three projects I’ve chosen a few that are my favorites.

Of course, I decided to give it a whirl myself, and found my book collection to be woefully inadequate for the task. I first thought I would be lacking in prepositions, but thanks to the My Book House series I had plenty of those to go around. What I ended up really pining for were pronouns, and contractions. Not many book titles are started with those sorts of things. Here is what I came up with, along with my typed out poems for the sake of adding punctuation.

Boy, in shining armor

going solo

over the hills.

Girl, interrupted

wanderlust through fairy halls.

The earth moved.

I know why the caged bird

Sings Tailchaser’s Song.

Deliverance from the tower window.

Gone with the wind,

Alive.

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What do you say, gonna give it a try?

Here are the links if you need some more inspiration…

http://www.ninakatchadourian.com/languagetranslation/sortedbooks-sharkjournal.php

http://www.soulpancake.com/post/1519/book-spine-poem.html

http://100scopenotes.com/2011/04/01/2011-book-spine-poem-gallery/

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“Now, don’t be frightened, loves,” Mrs. Whatsit said. Her plump little body began to shimmer, to quiver, to shift. The wild colors of her clothes became muted, whitened. The pudding-bag shape stretched, lengthened, merged. And suddenly before the children was a creature more beautiful than any Meg had even imagined, and the beauty lay in far more than the outward description. Outwardly Mrs. Whatsit was surely no longer a Mrs. Whatsit. She was a marble-white body with powerful flanks, something like a horse but at the same time completely unlike a horse, for from the magnificently modeled back sprang a nobly formed torso, arms, and a head resembling a man’s, but a man with a perfection of dignity and virtue, an exaltation of joy such as Meg had never before seen. No, she thought, it’s not like a Greek centaur. Not in the least.

From the shoulders slowly a pair of wings unfolded, wings made of rainbows, of light upon water, of poetry.

Calvin fell to his knees.

“No,” Mrs. Whatsit said, though her voice was not Mrs. Whatsit’s voice. “Not to me, Calvin. Never to me. Stand up.”

“Ccarrry themm,” Mrs. Which commanded.

With a gesture both delicate and strong Mrs. Whatsit knelt in front of the children, stretching her wings wide and holding them steady, but quivering. “Onto my back, now,” the new voice said.

The children took hesitant steps toward the beautiful creature.

Excerpted from A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle Copyright© 1973 by Madeleine L’Engle.

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I was sorting through some old books today, and while I didn’t find much that I wanted for my own, I did come across some interesting finds. There was a lot of pulp, and most of the books I had never heard of, but I could tell by looking at the covers that they were probably not worth the time to read.

Yes, I was judging books by their covers.

I did find one that immediately caught my eye as a keeper. Perhaps you can see why:

And another that I took the cover from because I was highly amused by it. You may need to zoom in on the image to see the quotes above the characters’ portraits. I giggled out loud. Perhaps this is only funny to me because I’m not very familiar with popular television shows that are drawn from the same kind of material.

That part of my day got me to thinking about how infatuated I am with book covers. If I could pick any dream job, book cover designer would be up near the top of my list. The truth of it is, it really does matter, a lot, what the cover of the book looks like. And the designer doesn’t even have to read the book because sometimes an eye-catching design has absolutely nothing to do with the story. Case in point:

I’m in love with book covers that employ a creative use of text. After all, unless it’s a picture book, it’s best to know exactly what you are getting yourself into, i.e., a whole lotta words. These old Pelican books are good examples of using text to make an impressive design.

One of my favorite contemporary authors, Jonathan Safran Foer, must have a killer cover designer working for him. His quirky, modern use of text perfectly complements the unique layout of his novels. This one is even better in person because it’s embossed!

I’m always drawn toward the cover designs that are similar to books that I have read and loved. I think that seeing the same image over and over again and anticipating the opportunity to read another chapter makes an indelible impression when you find that what’s inside is simply amazing. A few examples of books I’ve loved and hence love their covers:

But to prove that my eye for beautiful cover design is impartial to the content, I will (somewhat begrudgingly) add one example of a book that has repeatedly caught my eye, but will never end up in my hands (yes, I’m a book snob).

And a few more examples of books I have never read and maybe never will, but whose covers make them seem like they would be interesting to meet and get to know better.

And my last example is a pure contradiction of everything I have said so far in this blog post. Sometimes, just sometimes, you read a book that is really and truly wonderful, and someone has the gall to give it a cover design that makes it look like a cheap romance novel.

How very unfortunate.

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Ages ago, my brother Jimmy brought me to a bookstore in honor of my ninth birthday. The bookstore was Half Price Books, and I had never been there before, but it didn’t take me long to fall in love with the place. He told me I could pick out one book that he would buy for me as my birthday present. I searched for a long time, looking through each little aisle and cubby. The one I finally picked out was a pretty little poetry book, my first poetry book ever, that has made a significant impact on my literary tastes. I think at the time I was mostly interested in the green-cloth spine with gold lettering, and the idyllic Pre-Raphaelite-esque illustrations inside.
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I was in fourth grade then, and one of our tasks for the year was to memorize and recite one poem a week in front of the entire class. With the help of my book I was able to recite the likes of Joyce Kilmer’s Trees, Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, William Blake’s The Tyger, Walt Whitman’s O Captain, My Captain! and even most of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven. My classmates, on the other hand, were still mostly amused by Shel Silverstein on a regular basis. I’m sure they must have been dreadfully bored by my selections. I didn’t understand the verses any better than the rest of them, but I loved the way they sounded. They had a feel and a mystery to them that poor old Shel just couldn’t seem to muster. (Not that Shel’s poems aren’t fantastic in their own right.)
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I’ve loved my poetry book for many years since, and I’ve returned many, many times to that bookstore. Especially in these frugal times, it’s comforting to know that I can walk into my favorite Half Price Books with a dollar bill or two and some change, and walk out again with some little treasure that will likely keep me entertained, at the very least, for several hours. If I’m really lucky I’ll walk away with the potential for something much more profound than entertainment. Most of the books on my shelves have come from that bookstore, and there have been countless more that have passed through my hands and gone back to that place, to be put back into the cycle for someone else to discover and treasure.
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Every year during the holidays I pick up one of their handy calendars, mostly because they have coupons in the back. I hardly ever remember to use them, but it’s nice to know that they are there. The calender itself gives the names of famous authors who were born on each date. Many of them I recognize and love, but just as often I come across a name that I don’t know anything about.
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Today’s is Par Lagerkvist.
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Typically I don’t bother about the names I don’t know, not really caring enough to take the time to find out about someone who has never crossed my path in a literary fashion. But today, since I had the time and needed something to write about, I figured I’d give old Par a good googling at the very least.
Par was a Swedish author born in 1891. He was one of those people who knew from the get-go that he wanted to be a writer, unlike so many others who just happen upon it while they are still working their day job. He was a playwright, a poet, and a novelist. He liked to focus on heavy subjects like good and evil, war, and politics. He received the Nobel prize for literature in 1951, following the publication of his most famous work, Barrabbas, which actually sounds pretty interesting.
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For a Nobel prize winner, there wasn’t a huge wealth of information on the web about Par or his works. I couldn’t find a lot in the way of quotations, though I did find one little quip that I think is perfectly suited to the impetus behind Christmas Is All Around Us:
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“One for whom the pebble has value must be surrounded by treasures wherever he goes.”
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Happy Birthday, Par.

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I have found that, when reading for pleasure, a good way to judge a book is by how much damage is done by the end. Some people can manage to read a book and leave it looking as clean and pristine as if it had never been touched—but I am not one of them. If a book is dog-eared, marked up, written in and highlighted, then you can be sure that something in the lines reached out and grabbed ahold of me, compelling me off my chair in search of the nearest writing utensil. Even better are those moments when I need to set the book down for a moment to think about what I just read. Every once in a while I find a combination of words so beautiful that I have to say them out loud to myself. Those are the moments I read for.

Last night I finished reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It was such a simple story, about a girl from a poor family who lives in Brooklyn in the early 1900s. Nothing overly extraordinary happens, but the language is beautiful and sentimental, and by the time I reached the last page I wished that I could go along with Francie a little bit longer, to follow her to college and see what she thought about it, and to find out if she ever married what’s-his-name.

But in the end we are only left with the words that impressed us, made us think or shaped what we believe in.

Here are a few of the passages from my latest read that got me up and about, searching for a pen…

“A day like this is like somebody giving you a present.” Ch 3

“Most women had the one thing in common: they had great pain when they gave birth to their children. This should make a bond that held them all together; it should make them love and protect each other against the man-world. But it was not so. It seemed like their great birth pains shrank their hearts and their souls. They stuck together for only one thing: to trample on some other woman.” Ch 39

“The difference between rich and poor,” said Francie, “is that poor people do everything with their own hands and the rich hire hands to do things. We’re not poor any more. We can pay to have some things done for us.”                                      “I want to stay poor, then,” said Katie, “because I like to use my hands.” Ch 45

“Let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry…have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere—be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.” Ch 48

“People always think that happiness is a faraway thing,” thought Francie, “something complicated and hard to get. Yet, what little things can make it up; a place of shelter when it rains—a cup of strong hot coffee when you’re blue; for a man, a cigarette for contentment; a book to read when you’re alone—just to be with someone you love. Those things make happiness.” Ch 52

“The last time of anything has the poignancy of death itself. This that I see now, she thought, to see no more this way. Oh, the last time how clearly you see everything; as though a magnifying light had been turned on it. And you grieve because you hadn’t held it tighter when you had it every day.” Ch 55


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