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

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.

Not Now. Daddy’s Reading.

I had a good Thanksgiving. One of the major pleasures of the long holiday weekend was the opportunity to read for several hours at one sitting on Saturday morning. That doesn’t happen too often. Between work, house and family, I usually read in short gasps these days. When I do read, I often find myself reaching for the kinds of things you read when your attention is frayed — blog posts, Twitter links, short articles. Nothing too taxing. The hard, long-form stuff gets pushed into my Instapaper account for later. Later never comes.

I am reading Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, a 900+ page wrist-bender of a book. This is the kind of book the Kindle was made for – light weight, easy page turning, no book mark to misplace.

Still, as I was reading, a part of my mind was busy wondering what my daughter thinks I am doing when I read the Kindle. I grew up loving books because my parents love reading. My dad read books and newspaper. My mom read magazines. I saw them reading. I saw the book in my dad”s hands. I watched him work his way through the pages. When he finished, the book changed. I could keep track of how fast he read, how quickly he moved through the pages.

My daughter can’t do that. She loves to read, but I wonder if, somehow, the experience of seeing me read on a Kindle or an iPad or an iPhone deprives her of some essential element that seals that love for reading. The outside of the book never changes.

Worse, when reading on the iPad, how does she know I am reading a book and not watching a video or playing a game or surfing the web?

It comes down to gestures and demeanor, I suppose. The act of reading is essentially a meditative act. The outward signs of the internal activity are steady, intent focus. I’m sure she can tell the difference from when I am reading and when I am doing something else. I wonder if seeing me read on a multipurpose device, like the iPad, diminishes for her that sacred sense I picked up watching my dad read. Or, if there is a sacred sense, if the positive feelings around that act will transfer to the device in general more than to the hidden object of my actual attention.

It is a bit maddening to consider.

I don’t worry so much about my daughter. She already loves books, both paper and virtual. I read in both formats often, so she knows books as objects are important to me. Still, I wonder in how many households will the love of reading become confused or conflated with the love of a specific device. In other words, will the tablet or eReader become fetishized in the same way that books are fetishized?

I had a terrific morning reading last Saturday. I read for a few hours, then played with my daughter, then read some more. Back and forth. Several times, she asked if I was ready to play.

“Not now. Daddy’s reading.” These aren’t words I say very often. Maybe I should say them more often. They are significant words which I think she will remember.

No worries. She didn’t feel neglected. “Okay,” she told me. “I’ll just grab a book and we can read together in our minds.” This was her way of saying we could each read our own books together in silence. I do believe this remains one of the main joys of human experience — the feeling that comes from sitting together in silence, enjoying one another’s company while swallowed up in the delicious isolation of your own books. It is a part of what makes libraries so comforting.

We spent the best part of our Saturday morning this way, she and I. I was reading my Kindle. She was reading a print book. We were reading together in our minds. I’m pretty sure everything is going to be okay.


Questions and Answers about Books I’ve Read

Being a librarian, I spend most of my working day online — email, web searches, database articles, Twitter, Facebook, a few dozen blogs. Sometimes, really fun things capture my attention, like something washed up on the shore.

Today’s web gift was this Entertainment Weekly interview with Jonathan Franzen (“Jonathan Franzen on the Books He Loves and Loathes“). I enjoyed Franzen’s The Corrections and How to Be Alone very much. The interview is fun because it reveals Franzen as a reader to be a normal guy who likes Asimov but hasn’t yet actually managed Moby-Dick.

I like these questions so much I decided to have a go at them myself just for fun. Think of this as one of those silly games people play on Facebook, except interesting because it is about books.

What was your favorite book as a child?

That’s not so easy. All the books I read as a kid tend to wash together for me. As a kid, I loved the mere act of reading more than any one specific book. When I picture myself reading as a kid, I see myself reading The Black Cauldron series by Lloyd Alexander. I don’t remember specific plots, but I remember being completely captured by the stories, and I remember the look and feel of those books very well.

What is your favorite book that you read for school?

I remember reading The Sun Also Rises several times my junior year of high school. I was knocked out that the writing was so spare and there was so much dialogue. I knew there was a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes that I didn’t really understand. I loved the way the story hinted at big, complicated, grown up things without coming right out and talking about them. That felt pretty true to life. The things people are willing to talk about are usually pretty trivial. If you listen carefully, people tell you more than just the things they want you to know. They end up telling you the things they need you to know.

What’s a book that really cemented you as a writer?

 Reading Ralph Waldo Emerson as a junior in high school helped me realize I could dress spiritual experiences up in words. It also made me comfortable with reaching for the big, vague ideas in my head and just keep turning them over on the page until I got the sense of what I was talking about. So much of Emerson for me is a blend between brilliance and bewilderment. He helped me learn how to toss it all in.
Is there a book you’ve read over and over again?

I have read Stephen King’s The Stand at least 6 times. It is a totem for me. My original mass market copy fell apart so I got rid of it. The copy on my shelf today is the updated trade paper edition. I miss the mass market copy with the blue cover and yellow eyes. That book was my serious friend.

What’s a classic that you’re embarrassed to say you’ve never read?

I’ve never read The Red Badge of Courage. No one ever made me. Its not an easy book to just pick up and read if no one is making you.

What’s a book you’ve pretended to have read?

I nod sometimes and smile when people talk about Red Badge of Courage.

I have only read Leaves of Grass in snippets and snatches. I’ve read the whole thing in pieces but never in one continuous run. Still, I talk about it like a single, magical experience every reader should have. That’s not really being honest.

What’s a book you consider grossly overrated?

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Don’t get it. Don’t want it. Way to many easter eggs hiding in Joyce’s work. A good book shouldn’t require a magic decoder ring.

T.S. Eliot is the same for me. To much work. Not enough substance.

What’s a recent book you wish you had written?

I was pretty knocked out by Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead. He does some really tricky things in that story that simply amaze.

What’s a movie adaptation of a book that you loved?

I haven’t read Ender’s Game but loved the movie. I’m actually not sure if I want to read the book. I’m afraid it won’t live up to the film. I’m usually the other way around about these things.

What was an illicit book that you had to read in secret as a kid?

A collection of Greek and Roman mythology. It was illustrated with line drawing and photographs of classical statuary. All of the characters were naked, which my mother thought highly inappropriate for an eight year old. There was a conversation and it was decided that the text was suitable and that I wasn’t receiving any prurient satisfaction from the nude gods, goddesses and heros. Pretty tame stuff. Naked bodies were uncommon in my home. We didn’t even subscribe to National Geographic.

I realized from this small controversy that my mom couldn’t handle the more disturbing stuff I read later as a teen. I had to hide my Clive Barker graphic novels. They were everything bad — naked, demented and, occasionally, I suppose, depraved. I got them from a friend who got them from a comic shop in Nashville. They weren’t easy to get. I cherished them for the garish green sticker on the covers that read: “Not suitable for children. This is intended only for adults.” Super fantastic stuff.

What’s a book that people might be surprised to learn that you loved?

Native Son by Richard Wright. Not sure why, but people seem really surprised when I mention how much I enjoyed it.

If there were only one genre you could read for the rest of your life, what would it be?

I think I could satisfy myself by reading only science fiction from now on. The quality of ideas in good science fiction excites me. There’s no better way than science fiction to talk about the ways we live our lives today.

What was the last book that made you laugh out loud, and what was the last one that made you cry?

Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House has some wonderfully funny stories in it.

Room by Emma Donough choked me up a bit. I didn’t cry. If I did, nobody saw me and can’t prove anything.

What are you reading right now?

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson.

Okay. That was fun. Now, its your turn. I’d enjoy hearing your take on any or all of these questions. Post comments here or blog them and post the link.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (book review)

Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber is a short, savage, surreal meditation on the fate of women in fairy tales. A few of the stories succeed brilliantly. Most fall short. This is a collection of stories about men, women and the ways in which innocence is sometimes given, but more often taken. It is violent, bloody and sometimes vile. It is also, at turns, beautiful. Sometimes painfully so.

The men are beasts — lecherous, gluttonous, power-mad. As is often the case in fairy tales, the women are sacrificial virgins offered to sate the voracious appetites of terrible monsters. Sometimes, the women are ruined by failed, disastrous relationships. Sometimes, the women are rescued, Occasionally, the women give themselves over to their own transformations and become strange, beautiful, savage creatures in their own right.

The best story is the title story, which is a magically realistic retelling of The Beauty and the Beast. “The Company of Wolves” is also terrific. Wolves feature prominently throughout the stories — lycanthropes, condemned souls and a few strange twists on the Red Riding Hood theme.

There are plenty of wonders throughout the book and some really powerful imagery. Most generally, the writing is too heavy, packed tight with  arcane description. This collection of stories aspires to transport the reader. Skim through. It is a short book but I found myself taking a long time to read it. I pushed my way through. I was not carried.

Books are not sacred objects

I am a book person. For a long time, I believed that meant I was ordaned by Powers Greater Than Me to save books. I rescued books from free bins. I bought them at yard sales and flea markets. I stole them from basements. Wherever books were being mistreated and neglected, I was there to play rescue. I took these sad, saved creatures home, placed them on my shelf and never read them.

These were anxiety-ridden years. I was wracked with guilt at the numbers of grubby-spined tomes on my shelves that would never be read but yet could not be removed. I had to keep these these shabby miscreants because I “might” someday read them. I now understand that this condition is called hoarding. It is a psychological disorder that is treated by a regimen of meds, therapy and appearance on a cable TV reality show.

Now I am recovered. I have found balance, and I can once again enjoy books. I read eBooks. I can stop reading books that I am not enjoying and, sometimes, recycle the paperbacks. I give books away. I sell them. Sometimes, yes, they go into the trashcan.

I love books because of what’s inside. I cherish ideas. I adore controversial opinions well-stated. I like to wear other people’s lives and walk around in their borrowed skins for a few hundred pages.

Books are made to be used. Reading books makes my life larger, better.

But simply having books for the sake of having them is a bit of a burden. Much better that books be put to a good use. And so I find myself defending the idea that books, once no longer read, are great fodder for doing crafts. I’m not crafty but I appreciate the clever soul who can fashion a Kleenex holder, lamp or work desk out of old, unused books. Books worth reading should be read because reading is a sacred thing. Books that are no longer worth reading should be used some other way.

Rebecca Joines Schinsky says all of this much more eloquently that I am able. Read her blog post “Books Are Not Sacred Objects“. Spread the word. If we can get past the idea that all books are sacred objects, we might be able to convince non-book people that reading is a pretty great thing.

What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (a mid-book review)

I am halfway through Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Carr is the guy who wrote the excellent Atlantic essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” several years ago in which he documented his personal sense that reading online was somehow ruining his familiar mental habits — namely, concentration and focus. “Ruining”, I thought at the time, was an unfairly harsh term. He takes a more nuanced, thoughtful approach to his own experience of reading in the book-length study.

Page 125 of a 224 page book is not the ideal place from which to write a review. That said, I am ready to recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand what is probably happening to us in the age of ubiquitous internet access. Carr’s argument expands on the theme established in his Atlantic essay: the internet is destroying our ability to read deeply and engage with text-based narrative in a linear, hierarchical, rational fashion. Hypertext and multimedia “enhanced” text is changing the experience of reading and rewiring the way our minds are able to read.

The Atlantic essay struck me as alarmist, reactionary even. The Shallows places the new ways of thinking engendered by the internet into the context of other mind-altering technologies that actually changed the way our brains worked: the alphabet, numbers, the map, the clock, the codex. Carr examines how these new technologies of intellect have made entirely new thought processes possible and, thus, altered physical structures in the human mind. These changes play out over the course of millennia but they also play out in the course of a human lifetime. In the case of the internet, these changes may play out in a matter of days or weeks.

There’s a lot of strong scholarship in this book. I will come back for a better review 100 pages from now. For now, I just want to share how impressed I am with Carr’s ability to summarize the history of technological innovation, describe how it works and create a meaningful context that is value-neutral and does not necessarily crown contemporary humans as the apotheosis of what we will become. We are not necessarily destined to remain as we are. We are most likely destined to continue our process of becoming something else. This has happened before. It is going to happen again.

Carr says it better. Here’s a great passage from his chapter on the history of reading aloud vs. reading alone:

Like our forebears during the later years of the Middle Ages, we find ourselves today between two technological worlds. After 550 years, the printing press and its products are being pushed from the center of our intellectual life to its edges. The shift began during the middle years of the twentieth century, when we started devoting more and more of our time and attention to the cheap, copious, and endlessly entertaining products of the first wave of electric and electronic media: radio, cinema, phonograph, television. But those technologies were always limited by their inability to transmit the written word. They could displace but not replace the book. Culture’s mainstream still ran through the printing press.

Now the mainstream is being diverted, quickly and decisively, into a new channel. The electronic revolution is approaching its culmination as the computer — desktop, laptop, handheld — becomes our constant companion and the Internet becomes our medium of choice for storing, processing, and sharing information in all forms, including text. The new world will remain, of course, a literate world, packed with the familiar symbols of the alphabet. We cannot go back to the lost oral world, any more than we can turn the clock back to a time before the clock existed. “Writing and printing and the computer,” writes Walter Ong, “are all ways of technologizing the word”; and once technologized, the word cannot be de-technologized. But the world of the screen, as we’re already coming to understand, is a much different place from the world of the page. A new intellectual ethic is taking hold. The pathways in our brains are once again being rerouted. (77)

This is a very enjoyable, well-researched, well-built study. I just hope there are still people out there able to sit still long enough to enjoy it.

Remembering Ray Bradbury

You don’t have to be a die-hard science fiction fan to mourn the loss of Ray Bradbury. Bradbury wasn’t actually much of a science writer. He wrote about possibility. I started reading Bradbury in high school, much later than most of my friends. I read Fahrenheit 451, Martian Chronicle and Illustrated Man in three quick gulps. I admire Bradbury for his relentless optimism. No matter how bleak the times, his stories all finish with a sense of wonder and an expansive view of man’s destiny to make new things and explore. Bradbury believed that we are destined to get away from Earth and explore new worlds. I think he is right.

Bradbury’s most famous novel is probably Fahrenheit 451, which is often characterized as a dystopian warning against the abuse of government authority through censorship and the destruction of printed books. True enough. Had the novel rested there, it would have been a bit dull. Fahrenheit 451 is prescient in how it depicts a society that is saturated with video entertainments. The characters who inhabit Bradbury’s television-obsessed society are shallow, self-absorbed and incapable of sustained self-exploration. The novel rests somewhere between 1984 and Brave New World in suggesting that an authoritarian regime can get away with whatever it likes so long as the citizens are sufficiently entertained. 1984 suggests that books would need to be destroyed to keep people from caring. Fahrenheit 451 says that books can be destroyed precisely because no one cares.

The programming that occupies the 24/7 television schedule is predominantly soap operas and “Cops-style” reality shows.

Bradbury hated the idea of eBooks yet his own work, I think, argues favorably for eText. In the end, when print books have all but vanished, it becomes the life work of passionate people to preserve the content of the books by memorizing them. These volunteers become Books and travel the country, looking for people to inspire. From my reading, Bradbury suggests that print books are merely vessels for ideas. Print books are wonderfully efficient vessels in they way they transmit ideas from one mind to another across boundaries of geography and time. Still, books are most important in the way they transfer ideas, experience and knowledge from one person to another. Even after the books are all gone, there are still Books. The knowledge is protected and carried forward.

The closing metaphor of people as Books is a beautiful metaphor that touches on why I so enjoy being a librarian. We must not fetishize the object of books to the point that we loose sight of what books do for us. Books are tools. Books move ideas forward. The battle cry of Fahrenheit 451 is not simply to appreciate and protect the books. Bradbury urges us to carry worthy ideas forward by any means necessary.

I, like so many others, am grateful for the gift of Ray Bradbury’s work. Amid all the wonderful comment and reflection on Bradbury’s contributions, I like Andrew Chaikin’s comments on NPR’s Morning Edition the best. Chaikin says:

For anyone who longs to make their dreams take flight, Ray Bradbury had some very clear advice: Jump off the cliff, he said, and build your wings on the way down. He was telling us that every impossible dream that comes true begins with a leap of faith.

Bradbury died on Tuesday. He was 91.

Reading is my refuge.

Reading is a physical act. I think a lot about eBooks and the kind of reading experience they offer. I’ve written a bit about the Kindle and how I love reading with it. For me, the Kindle has a similar, but slightly different, talismanic effect as a print book. Critics of eBooks are quick to claim that eReading destroys the physicality of reading and that eReading is not really reading because the text is discorporeal. They miss a major part of the joy of reading. The book itself is only a part of the physical act of reading. The other, to me, equally important part is location. Where I read a book often informs how I read a book and how I receive it.

I started thinking of the importance of place for reading after seeing these 17 pictures of gorgeous reading nooks. These spaces are intimate, personal spaces designed to encapsulate a single person in their own thoughts.

Life is tedious, stressful and noisy. I read for escape. Here’s my reading refuge:

my reading nook

My home office is one of my favorite places to read.

Where do you most love to read? I’d love to see pictures of your favorite reading spots.