A Reader’s Communion

Being a librarian, I often enjoy deeply delightful conversations about the love of books as objects. Places with books are places of power. Thoughtful people often try to describe the joy they feel at simply standing in a library or bookstore, surrounded on all sides by so many books. They can sense the psychic thrum of books waiting to be read, which is to say they feel a keen awareness of their own curiosity and native weirdness.

I often remind people that a library’s books are meant for borrowing. They can find them, use them, take them home at no cost. It may surprise you the number of people who recoil in a kind of horror at the thought. Oh no. I couldn’t. I prefer to own my own books.

I get it. Books are precious. Brand new, first-owner books are a powerful fetish. Used books found in a used book shop are like mysterious treasure bottles washed randomly, wonderfully on your personal shore. Ebooks ward against the boredom of grocery store lines. Audiobooks fold the time-space continuum, transmuting the experience of a 35 minute commute into a momentary jaunt, a kind of teleportation.

Recently, I had opportunity to read a borrowed book from the library. This, for me, is no uncommon thing. This particular borrowed book, however, happened to have one of the old stamped date due pockets in back. The book itself was first checked out to someone three months after I was born.

Understanding that this book and I were roughly contemporaries, I became curious to know about its life. Not the title but this very book, specific.Stamped date due pocket for borrowed library book

The pocket was a parade of dates: 5/31/1974; 9/4/1975; 6/3/1976; 2/4/1977; 5/23/1980; 8/6/1981; 8/20/1981; 5/10/1982; 5/22/1982; 6/4/1982; 8/12/1982; 5/26/1983; 1/29/1985; 10/19/1989; 7/20/1992; 2/1/2002.

What hands had held this very book while I was still learning to focus my eyes and grasp objects? What secret places — living rooms, bed rooms and apartment balconies — had this book seen? Where had this book gone and been?

I wondered about the reader who read this book a few months before Star Wars lit across its first screen. Did they know how much movies would come to embody our mythology? Did they care?

A sequence of three dates in May – June of 1982 where, perhaps a slow reader wandered casually through the pages, not finishing, stopping by to beg renewal for another few weeks at a time. Or maybe this was a time in their life interrupted by catastrophe and distraction. The illness of a loved one. An illness of their own.

Or, instead, during those same six weeks, a bevy of readers waiting impatiently to have their turn at that month’s hard-to-find book discussion group selection. There was no Amazon. People waited for things.

There is the mystery of the book’s resurgent popularity between 1980 and 1983 and then three year rest between 1989 and 1992, which was a mere nap compared with the long hibernation between 7/20/1992 and 2/1/2002.

And how did it feel for this book to be lifted from the shelve on February 1, 2002? I imagine it would have seemed a kind of liberation, as if waking anew to one’s purpose after a long, dusty dream.

And, finally, the mystery of whatever checkouts we cannot see beyond 2002, an event horizon in reverse, an interregnum between present and past that we cannot imagine because the library no longer stamps date due slips.

As I am reading, all of this serves to remind that books are all infused with holy and mystical purpose, but borrowed library books, perhaps more than all others, connect us to the unseen community of other eyes, hands and minds. A date stamped library book is a talisman of time travel, connecting us in communion with the readers who came before and the readers who will come after.

This is not a thing I can easily tell people in a casual conversation standing in a hallway. So I am telling you, so you can understand and, perhaps, yourself reach for a dusty date-stamped book to borrow.

Speed Reading: A (Hoped For) Superpower

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

Whenever people ask me this question, I usually run down the traditional pros and cons of invisibility versus flying versus mind reading but the honest, actual truth is I’d choose speed reading. I would rather read three times faster than I do now (with complete recall and undiminished joy) than prowl forbidden hallways unseen beneath a Cloak of Invisibility or leap tall buildings in a single bound or peer inside the unguarded mind of friends and foes.

With the talent of speed reading, I could plow through my personal bookshelves and liberate the unread volumes from their years of dusty confinement. I could traverse my library’s bookshelves, first reading everything that interested me from the new book shelves before systematically attacking the circulating stacks in Library of Congress Classification order. First: philosophy, psychology and religion. Then: World and American History. Then: Geography and Anthropology. Next: Political science, law, education, music, fine art, language and literature, science, medicine and technology. I would weave from topic to topic, bouncing from print text to eBook and back again, setting each discipline atop the other like a foundation of well-hewn bricks. When I had digested the entire collection, I would end my journey in the Zs, which is where Library of Congress places Bibliography, or Books about Books. And I would take extravagant notes until my Goodreads account was bursting with To Read titles. And my college would have to hire two additional interlibrary loan clerks to manage the volume of my requests.

The PDF app on my iPad would rejoice whenever I pushed an article there because, at last, articles saved for eventual reading would be read. And my Pocket app for mobile would be a well-oiled machine — articles in, articles read.

It would be a joy.

And so, try to imagine the scene when I came home from work today and my wife said, “Do you want to sign up for this summer speed reading class? They meet for two hours every Monday evening in June. Its kind of expensive, but we can figure it out if you want to give it a try.”

Yes!

When the call center guy at registration asked about my goals for the program, I told him I read about 20 books each year but want to read more. My dad’s dad took a speed reading class many years ago and eventually came to read a book a day. I know because my grandfather let me scavenge his basement mounds of mass-market paperbacks. That’s where I found out about Clive Barker and Dean Koontz and Robert R. McCammon.

And so, I signed up for summer speed reading classes with the University of Tennessee non-credit program. I gave the call center guy at registration my credit card number and fully expect to gain an incredible superpower in return. I always look forward to summer but this summer is going to be extra nerdtastic. You can have your fantasies about invisibility or flying or mind-reading. I will be gaining an actual super power. I’ll be learning how to read. By August I expect to be making my way through the Top 100 Lists of the Top 100 Books About x.

And yes. You’ll be most welcome to peruse my basement.

You Can Stop Reading That Book, or A Farewell to A Farewell to Arms

Life is short. Don’t read books you hate unless someone is making you, like your teacher or your students or a weird criminal who breaks in to houses and makes people read things they don’t want to read at gun point.

People who make themselves read bad books are psychologically disordered. They are wastrels. People who spend time unnecessarily reading books they don’t enjoy have unrealistic expectations of their own longevity. They have delusions of immortality.

I was once a psychologically disordered wastrel myself. I used to compulsively finish reading everything I started. Once the marker was placed, I could not remove it until the last chapter was turned. Sometimes I loathed the book but read on anyway with the kind of self-flagellation that leads to anxiety and disappointment.

And then, one day, I realized I am going to die someday. I gave myself permission to stop reading things I don’t enjoy. Now, when I find myself reading a book I don’t enjoy, I read just long enough to understand why I am not enjoying it. Fifty pages is enough. If an author cannot manage to somehow interest me in 50 pages, they aren’t really trying.

Most recently, I decided to dust off my Hemingway. I made 32 pages into A Farewell to Arms. The novel promises a “frank portrayal of the love” between somebody and somebody else which “glows with an intensity unrivaled in modern literature.” Hemingway’s description of the German attack on Caporetto is “one of the greatest moments in literary history.” Umm. Okay. 32 pages. There are mountains, and it is snowing. There’s a war but you can’t see the war because they keep taking vacations. And, during vacation, the character I don’t care about tries to date rape the other character I don’t care about. She tells him to stop. Then, she tells him not to stop. I don’t know if he stopped. I pulled the bookmark.

Of course, sometimes not enjoying the book is the whole point. You might find yourself enjoying the experience of not enjoying a book. Like the summer in high school my friend Brian and I made a bet to see who could read L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth the fastest. That was the summer before our senior year in high school. I didn’t have a lot going on, I guess. I lost the bet. Cooler kids than we chugged cheap beers that summer. We chugged bad science fiction. It still makes me sad.

It may be hard to give yourself permission to not read a book. You may feel guilty. Do it anyway. Pull the bookmark. The feeling passes. Life is short and there are 45 shelf feet of not yet read books waiting in my basement.

My No-Longer-Secret Shame

I need to tell you a shocking secret, but you must promise not to tell anyone. If you tell even one other person, it will ruin my professional reputation and call my credentials as a friend of culture and the written word into question.

Okay. Here goes.

I, Robert Benson, have never read Of Mice and Men.miceandmen

Shocking, right? I’m a college library director, and I’ve never even once read this short, accessible literary classic. My team at work found me out this week and are now questioning their life choices. How can they work on a library team led by someone who has never taken the time to experience a 100 page staple of American literature read by millions of American middle school students every single year? I have no answers.

It gets worse.

I also have never read Pride and Prejudice; The Diary of Anne Frank; Little Women; Wuthering Heights; The Picture of Dorian Gray; or The Old Man and the Sea.

I once started Moby Dick but thought it was boring and stopped.

Hard Times is the only Charles Dickens novel I have ever read.

I’ve never watched Gone with the Wind, Casablanca or Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

I don’t particularly enjoy Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong or Billie Holiday recordings. I desperately love the music but the sound quality of those early recordings hurts my ears.

Too much? I know it’s painful, but there’s more you need to know.

Most rhyming poetry is willfully opaque and boring. Unless its not.

Emily Dickinson seems pretty sexy to me, but I can’t explain why.

I definitely enjoy William Blake’s poems best as decoration for his engravings.

I don’t get the big deal about Robert Frost.

When I read Shakespeare, I don’t feel like I completely understand what’s happening or even what the characters are saying until I can see it happening on the screen or stage.

You still with me? Are we still friends?

I’m sorry you had to find out this way. I know this is a lot to process.

In my defense, there’s a lot of culture to take in, and we keep making more of it.

I am 43 years old and have been actively reading a book every day of my life since I was five. My Goodreads profile says I have read 462 books, but that’s just since I started keeping track in 2008.

I have read a lot of great stuff, both classic and contemporary, but there’s so much greatness I cannot take it all in.

My “To Watch” list is a hot mess. I hope to live long enough to see Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and 200+ other classic films that will make my life richer but one of my best friends loaned me the first three seasons of Game of Thrones on DVD over two years ago, and I still haven’t returned them. Sorry, not sorry.

There are 24 hours in a day, seven days in a week, 52 weeks in a year. Movies last about 2 hours. You do the math. There’s a mathematical limit. I sleep, eat and work. I have a family. We do stuff together.

At this moment right now, I am listening to Yo-Yo Ma’s rendition of “Sarabande” from The Cello Suites Inspired by Bach. This gorgeous 6 minute and 36 second track is just one of 8706 songs in my iTunes library rated 4 stars or higher. It would take 25.6 days of continuous listening to hear all of those songs I love play just one time. I’m trying. I have a version of my playlist sorted by date last played and another which extracts only those songs I haven’t played in the past year. There are 621 songs on that list which would take 48 continuous hours to hear. I still buy music.

But I digress. I was telling you about how I haven’t read Of Mice and Men. Yet.

You and I live in a miraculous time amidst the staggering abundance of cultural riches. At any given moment, we can access visual, aural and written art created across most of recorded human history. It is, in fact, the absolute greatest time to be a person.

But our time is also one of scarcity. We have precisely as many hours in our day as Monet and Newton and Voltaire, yet we feel ourselves constantly time-starved. We pack our own lives with activity and distraction. We often feel the lack of time as if it is a thing that is being stolen from us, as if we are being robbed.

I am going to read Of Mice and Men and also Charles Dickens. Soon.

I am also going to keep watching movies and listening to music. I am going to read poetry and see brilliant (and not-so brilliant) productions of Shakespeare. I am going to keep writing things and and playing piano.

There is no end to it, no bottom to the list. I can’t take it all in. No one can. But we never stop trying because art is sustenance. Art feeds life. The books and poems and movies and songs and paintings and plays are not culture. What we do them is culture.

Abundance and scarcity. The absolute greatest time of all.

 

Harry Potter and the 20 Year Spoiler Dodge

I finally read the Harry Potter series. This is ten years after most of my friends finished the series and twenty years after publication of the first book in the UK. As a librarian, not having read Harry Potter made me a kind of professional curiosity, a thing to be questioned and not entirely trusted. My lack of Hogwarts knowledge was a dark demerit on my professional credentials.

I gave the first two books a try 15 years ago, when everyone else in the world was reading about The  Boy Who Lived and You Know Who. I was unimpressed and set the series down after the first two books. Everybody I knew was reading and loving the books and yet, somehow, I believed I was not the target demographic. That was just me being hipster.

For twenty years, I managed to weave artfully through countless conversations with zealous Rowling apostles urging me to give the series just one more try. As if disliking these particular books was simply not possible. In these conversations, I listened patiently, acknowledged that, yes, something must be very wrong with me and moved on without gleaning too much about the actual plot or characters.

During this time, I also managed to see only the first movie adaptation which I actually enjoyed but never followed through to see the others.

This year, I decided to give it another go. My ten year old daughter doesn’t choose reading for fun. I hoped to inspire her by reading the series in parallel so we could get through it together and talk about it along the way. Her ten year old friends were all reading it too so I was sure this would work.

It didn’t. I ended up reading the series on my own.

And here’s the thing. I loved them. I now know what the rest of the world has known for years. The first books are charming but unchallenging. The series grows in complexity and quality with each book. The final three — Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows — are among the best books I have ever read.

The series is astonishingly well-plotted. Minor details and characters from previous books emerge to become major plot points and characters in subsequent books. Everything has a place. Nothing is wasted. Important characters die. Main characters do stupid things. Villains gain depth. And the world of adults becomes increasingly complex as the children grow to understand more of how the world actually works.

I get it now. I admit I was wrong. The books are both magic-filled and magical. How much better to have been reading them with everyone else, so I could anguish along side my friends for the next book to land. And I missed out on a great opportunity to share the experience with my daughter.

And yet, despite the missed opportunities, I feel proud that while living in the Golden Age of Spoilers, I managed to read through the arc of Harry’s adventures unspoiled. I can’t quite explain how I managed it. It feels like a kind of magic requiring both the Cloak of Invisibility and the Marauder’s Map. I am the Boy Who Read Unspoiled. Robert Benson and the 20 year spoiler dodge.

A Reader’s House

My wife and I bought a new house in July. We had a perfectly nice, though somewhat shrinking, home where we had lived for 14 years. We were doing some long overdue updates and repairs on our house while looking around at other houses with one eye. We had a list of “perfect home” requirements and figured it would take several years to find the right place. It took three weeks.

And so, in the time that this blog has been quiet, we have been updating, repairing, packing, moving, unpacking, arranging, rearranging, hanging and generally settling in. We have found a very comfortable, happy space for two adults, a 7 year old, five dogs and all their accompanying stuff.

We moved from our somewhat shrinking house to this house because it met the criteria of our ideal home list: large deck high off the ground with no ground access; big, flat backyard; large fenced area for dogs; lots of sunlight; big open kitchen with island; guest bedroom plus playroom plus office; living room with no television; more than one bathroom; walk-in shower; Chronicles of Narnia-sized closets; and garage all situated on a dead end lane. We found it quick, made a deal and moved. It happened fast.

And that now that we are more or less situated, I have a confession. This may or may not surprise my wife. I think it will not.

All of the things on this list are terrific. I like them all very much. I bought this house because it is a reader’s house. I bought it because there are so many nooks and places a person can settle down with a book and get lost for a few minutes or a few hours. I had one favorite reading space in our old house. There was a big, oak chair in my overcrowded office where I could sit and read. It was a tranquil place but not near any windows so all the light was artificial and night was the best time to enjoy.

Our new home has windows and glass doors through which sunlight pours. We’ve put couches and chairs near all of these, creating little sunlight wells. Most days I feel very much like a cat, slinking from sunny spot to sunny spot finding places to stretch my bones. In the two months we’ve been here, I think I have read as many books as I read all of last year.

Place, I think, is very important to readers. And it doesn’t have to be fancy or spacious. It just needs to be yours. There is palpable magic inside a reader’s house. You can walk through and feel those sanctified spaces, consecrated by time, attention and hours of holy focus, where the mind and heart are blended and unseen doors stand ajar in the places where mundane reality has been made thin through the constant press of imagination. This same phenomenon happens in good libraries and bookstores. That chill that arrives when you stand in a place and can feel, whether it is silent or not, a kind of vibrating hush, defining the space. This happens sometimes in church, often in the woods, but always in the sacred spaces where imagination has been loosened and allowed to prowl free. Amidst the noise and confusion, the complexity and turmoil, there are still sacred places in our tired and busy world. You will find them when you look. You can start by looking in a reader’s home.

Alone, Together: More Thoughts on Reading

My post this morning missed a more elementary, obvious fact about why The Storied Life of AJ Fikry works so well. It is commonly believed that reading is a solitary act and that readers are, for the most part, selfish with the time they devote to their inner selves. There is, I think, a belief that too much reading carries a person far away from the company of others and makes that person a stranger, alienated from the fellowship of friends, neighbors and fellow citizens of the world. There is an expectation that too much reading makes a person strange, unfit for healthy relationships and the regular responsibilities all decent people must bear. In this belief, reading is a kind of madness, a flaw in one’s nature that separates us from other, more productive pursuits.

And yet, the story of AJ Fikry is exactly the opposite. Reading carries him into closer communion with others. His reading makes him brave. His reading widens his heart. His reading is not selfish. For Fikry, reading is an act of generosity as he constantly shares what he has read and relates his own reading to the lives of others. He reads to bring others in, not to push them out. His reading is a kind of communion, an act of radical belief in the importance of ideas and virtues and commitment. Fikry creates a family through books. He finds the people who best understand what he is about. He broadens the lives of others who felt their lives too narrow.

And it is exuberant love of sharing that makes his reading worthwhile. It isn’t an act of self focus that consumes the reader. The life of the generous reader is made larger through the time spent with books. Though sometimes, it is true, we may read to escape, we never read to make ourselves feel alone. We read to help keep ourselves together.

Why We Read: A Review of Gabrielle Zevin’s Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

I just finished reading an extraordinary book, Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. This post isn’t going to be a clever literary analysis or full of especially keen observations on the mechanics of a well-made story. I won’t gush on and on about the exquisite pacing, the truly-drawn characters and the subtle, satisfying twists that make this book so enjoyable. We can talk about all that some other time.

This is a thank you. I am grateful to the writer who made this story and to the friend who suggested I read it. This book found me at exactly the right time.

I am 40 years old. I am a reader. Since the age of 7, there has never been a time when I did not have at least one book in progress. There have been months and years when I have read less and more slowly than I had wanted. There have been entire years recently when I have felt my attention too scattered and dissipated to really enjoy my reading, but I have read anyway because it is a thing that I do. Reading is who I am.

This book reminds me of why I read.

I meet A.J. Fikry and recognize two things. 1: Individually, our lives are unsatisfying because they are too short and too limited. 2: We make our lives satisfying by connecting with other people. It is only by connecting our lives to other lives that we get to experience the richness and power of our purpose.

This is why we read.

We read to connect. We read to connect to the characters inside the stories. We read to connect to those people who have lived before us in other times at other places. We read to connect to the strange folk who spend their lives making up stories. We read to share ourselves with the world and to let the world share itself with us.

Life is full of plot twists. I hope it does not spoil things too much to tell you that Fikry becomes a father even though he is entirely unprepared for the experience. His life has been narrowed by loss and disappointment. He learns to make his life larger again by sharing it with his foundling daughter, Maya and through her with more and more people. As soon as he begins to open, his life grows and grows.

The novel is organized, in part, around journal entries Fikry writes for his daughter, in which he shares thoughts about the books and stories he has read. Each becomes a kind of sign post for life. The books he has read interpret the many frustrations, challenges and triumphs that make up a life. Fikry gives his daughter a love for books. In that love, she is given all the tools she needs to live a purposeful, joyful life.

As a father, I am inspired by the extraordinary gift Fikry has given his daughter. My own daughter is seven. I want her to be brave and curious and kind. I want her to feel at home in the world and help others feel at home as well. I want her life to be an adventure, full of purpose and work that demands her best attention and effort. I want her to connect deeply, as I have, with the people with whom she will share this world and with the people with whom she will share her shelves.

I am raising a reader because the world needs readers. The world needs thoughtful, reflective, curious minds tempered by generous, tender, expansive hearts.

I am grateful to this particular story at this particular moment for helping me remember.

This why I read. The world requires it.

You Have to Eat. You Have to Read.

There are a few inescapable requirements for life. You have to eat. You have to drink. You have to breathe. You have to read.

Just as the body needs food, water and oxygen to sustain the basic biological functions of life, the mind needs words, images and ideas to keep itself humming in a productive, coherent manner. This is especially true for people who want to write.

Time is precious. We constantly make choices about what’s valuable to us in the way we spend our time. I often find myself caught between two conflicting but complimentary urges: the urge to spend my time reading and the urge to spend my time writing. I can’t spend equal time with both and so, in general, I find myself doing one at the exclusion of the other.

Stephen King offers a lot of really generous, useful advice to writers in his book On Writing. This, in particular, has stayed with me: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”

He’s right, of course. The art of writing is primarily an act of digestion. We have to eat to live. We have to read to write.

Looking back, I am astonished to find I only read 7 books in 2013. I read a lot of other stuff, too. Lots of articles, blog posts and miscellaneous stuff. That other stuff matters, but the truth is books are the best diet. You can’t write books, if you don’t read books.

I know this is true. I write well when I read well. And so, in place of a new year’s resolution, which I abhor, I am undertaking a project. I am going to read 20 books in 2014. I am also going to write as much as I can. I’m going to stop thinking about the two activities as competing joys. They are two sides of the same act. The eating and the energy. The inhale and the exhale. The words you receive and the words you share.


Here’s what I read in 2013:

Robert’s bookshelf: read

Cryptonomicon
The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories
Welcome to the Monkey House
Player Piano
Nine Horses
A Year of Writing Dangerously: 365 Days of Inspiration and Encouragement
A Feast for Crows



Robert’s favorite books »

Share book reviews and ratings with Robert, and even join a book club on Goodreads.

The Most Magical Time of the Year

Just two more days until I’m on holiday. I get two weeks off for Christmas. This is my favorite time of the year. I’ll get to spend time with my family. I will eat too much. I will ruin my sleep schedule and completely lose track of time. I will read books in the middle of the morning, when my mind is fresh and eager for new thoughts and ideas.

I read best in the mid-to-late morning, but I don’t often get to read then. My reading time is usually pushed to the far edges of the day, when my mind is numb with sleep. When I read at the wrong times, I read slowly, gradually pressing my way through the pages one centimeter at a time. When I read this way, I get lost and confused. I lose the narrative thread and often find myself sidetracked. I don’t remember things as well and have to reread or just start anew in the middle of things.

When I read in the morning, my day has a kind of warmth. The words find me and follow me through the day. The story percolates in my head and I find it is my companion. The things I read are alive and vital and essential. Reading becomes an active thing. Reading becomes creative. When I read in the morning, I am making something, and the creative act sustains me.

I’m pretty tired right now and looking forward to some downtime. My head is a bit of a mess. Mentally exhausted. Funny, perhaps, that reading is the battery I crave when my mental reserves run so low. I’ve got the stack ready (virtual, for the most part). Just a few more days and I can dig in and destroy my time-sense. I can get a little bit lost. I’m ready to binge myself on books.