A TSR book challenge for 2011

January 4, 2011 by · 7 Comments 

Anyone spending a significant amount of time on blogs and websites devoted to books will come across any number of reading-related challenges. At Book Mine Set, John Mutford challenges readers to read 13 Canadian books in a year. Mark Sampson challenges readers to reread a book they loved 15 or more years ago. In June of 2010, the folks at The Morning News challenged readers to read David Foster Wallace’s doorstopper novel Infinite Jest over the summer. And on Twitter, there is the 50 Book Pledge, which involves readers pledging to read (unsurprisingly) 50 books in 2011. That works out to a book a week, with two weeks’ grace time.

The Twitter challenge has been getting a lot of traction online, and has been officially endorsed by the HarperCollins staffers at The Savvy Reader, nine of whom have taken the pledge. As of 3:00 p.m. this afternoon, their comment feed had 32 responses, the vast majority from people signing on to take the challenge.

Now, far be it from me to complain about people getting excited about reading. My entire project here at TSR is to stoke enthusiasm about literature and to encourage people to lose themselves in books. But it seems to me that challenges like the 50 Book Pledge approach reading in the wrong way.

First off, by imposing artificial deadlines, the project risks denuding reading of its pleasure. Speaking as someone who reads to deadlines for a living, I can assure you that it is neither the easiest nor the most enjoyable way to encounter the written word. At the site In Over Your Head, author Julien Smith provides a list of tips on how to manage a book per week, things like “Make a Routine,” “Use Every Moment,” and “Never Fall Behind.” Call me crazy, but this sounds like a hell of a lot of work, not to mention the attendant guilt should one not manage to keep up the pace.

The first comment on Smith’s post begins, “I’ve wanted to make ‘reading more books, more often’ my life’s resolution for … well, forever now.” This seems to be the impetus behind many people signing on to the 50 Book Pledge, but it is also chimerical. According to Stephen Shapiro, there were 127,000 books published each year in the U.S. as of 2006; the number is no doubt higher now. Assuming a population that is 10% the size, Canada should publish roughly 13,000 books per year (a conservative estimate, to be sure). There is obviously no way any individual can read even a fraction of these titles, yet people online are champing at the bit to get a massive number of books under their belts in 2011.

Two things to bear in mind. First, reading is not a competitive sport. Some people read quickly, others read more slowly. One’s relative reading pace, as well as the relative length and difficulty of the texts one chooses, will inevitably impact the number of books one is able to read in a given period. There are only 24 hours in a day, after all.

Second, and more importantly, the whole premise behind the 50 Book Pledge privileges quantity over quality. That is, it focuses on the amount a person reads, without giving any thought to the way a person reads. This is totally in keeping with an online culture that prizes speed and efficiency, but it does little to promote quality reading, which often requires that a reader slow down to properly appreciate the nuances of a particular text. One of the great joys of reading is savouring the quality of a writer’s prose, which is difficult to do if one is barrelling through the book in order to get to the next one on time.

With that in mind, here is TSR’s reading challenge for 2011. Frankly, I don’t give a tinker’s damn how many books you read this year, whether they are classics or Harlequin romances, or whether you gravitate toward Canadian, American, or Mongolian literature. Instead of pledging to read more this year, why don’t we all try to read better: to be more sensitive, expansive readers, to enter more deeply into the text, to actively engage with books on an intellectual, aesthetic, and linguistic level. Let’s try to focus less on the quantity of our reading and more on the quality. Who knows? By slowing down a bit, you might even find you’re enjoying yourself more.

The problem of sustained reading in a distracted society

February 3, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

This past weekend, yr. humble correspondent finished reading Under the Dome by Stephen King. The endeavour took approximately 30 days to complete. While a novel of 1,072 pages is by no means a minor undertaking, 30 days to read a single book seems – to an inveterate reader such as myself – excessive. True, I completed two other, shorter books for review in the interim, but for the most part, my reading time in the month of January was devoted to a single book.

One reason for this is that I read the book in snippets – short gulps here and there whenever I could fit them in – rather than setting aside blocks of time to read, say, 100 pages or so. True, I have a day job that cuts into my reading time, and it’s clearly important to maintain a life outside the confines of a book’s covers, lest one become a kind of anti-social hermit. Still, it’s not as though my life is so back-breakingly full that I couldn’t find a quiet hour or two for sustained reading each day. Indeed, if I were to add up all the time spent staring at various screens in the month of January, the total would probably have been sufficient to allow me to finish a book of 1,000+ pages in 10 days or so.

It wasn’t always this way. I remember a time, not so long ago, when blocks of several hours per day could easily be found to read for pleasure. What has changed? In a word: distraction. The Internet, social media, reality television, and 24-hour-a-day celebrity culture have increased easy access to all manner of distraction, and distraction is anathema to sustained reading. Reading requires concentration and active engagement, qualities that are in short supply in today’s hyperlinked, attention-deficit society.

Alan Bissett, writing on the Guardian‘s Books Blog (yes, I recognize the irony), makes the same point, and extends it to include a value judgment:

So besieged are we by the entertainment industry that we are being stimulated only in certain directions. The sound of fizz is everywhere. Sustained concentration on the printed word, whether in-depth argument or fictional narrative, creates a particular cerebral event which visual-dependent media cannot. The assault upon this has meant the very theft of our thinking space.

This argument has been made before, notably in a 2008 article by Nicholas Carr in The Atlantic called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”. Carr points out that although we are engaging with the written word more than ever before, the way we are doing so is changing:

Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking – perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

This is no small matter. Skimming an online news article for tidbits of information or the next interesting hyperlink on which to click does little to develop the kind of complex thinking skills that are necessary to engage in a sustained analysis or argument, nor does it allow for an acceptance of ambiguity or nuance.

Jakob Nielson, an influential figure in “web usability,” provides statistics to support this shift in the way people read online: “People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences. In research on how people read websites we found that 79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word by word.” All of which might be fine in an online environment, but the same kind of reading habits have begun to bleed into our offline lives. Don’t believe me? Then you haven’t picked up the print edition of The Globe and Mail recently. If you had, you’d surely have noticed that the news articles are getting shorter, and are frequently displaced by verbal graphics, “charticles,” and bulleted lists. All perfect fodder for people who want their information provided to them quickly and cleanly, without requiring the reader to chew over intricate concepts or bedeviling subject matter.

Neil Postman was certainly ahead of his time when, in his 1985 work Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, he surveyed the media landscape and noticed the deleterious effect that television was having on our political culture. It was a brilliant time-waster, to be sure, but Postman also realized that the ubiquitous home entertainment device was destroying rational argument and civic awareness. In his foreword, he juxtaposes the visions of two authors, George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley in Brave New World:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

Huxley – who, while nailing our “almost infinite appetite for distractions,” could hardly have foreseen American Idol, Twitter, or Perez Hilton – was also far ahead of his time.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to read a book.

The sombreness of the long-distance reader

October 21, 2009 by · 13 Comments 

In her book The Solitary Vice: Against Reading, Mikita Brottman points to all the various campaigns that have been launched recently to make reading appear fun, then asks why, if reading is so much fun to begin with, people have to work so hard and spend so much money to promote its pleasures to a reluctant public. In North America, publishers, libraries, and governments invest much time and effort (not to mention dollars) on campaigns with names like “Get Caught Reading,” “Live with Books,” and “Books Change Lives.” Each year, the CBC holds an annual week-long “battle of the books” – Canada Reads – which pits five works of CanLit in a Survivor-style elimination contest featuring celebrity panellists. And Scotiabank Giller Prize founder Jack Rabinovitch repeatedly reiterates that for the price of a dinner in Toronto, readers can buy all five Giller shortlisted books. Pace Brottman, the juries have all spoken, and they are unanimous: reading is an enjoyable, enlightening, and engrossing activity.

So why do I feel so depressed at the moment?

I have now finished two of the five books shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize, and am well into a third. (Relax: roundups are coming.) And my verdict at the midway point is as dispiriting as it is surprising: I don’t want to read any more. Not these books, nor anything else. The first three Giller contenders have managed to do something I never would have thought possible: robbed me of my delight in reading.

It’s not that the three books (okay, two and a half) I’ve read so far are badly written, or devoid of interest on the level of technique or story. But they all have one thing in common: whether it’s Linden MacIntyre’s sombre meditation on the horrors of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Kim Echlin’s painful recapitulation of the Cambodian genocide, or Annabel Lyon’s ardent history lessons about life in ancient Macedon, the first three Giller contenders are defiantly serious, ponderous books about weighty subjects and heavy themes. And they are all devoid of one signal quality: joy.

Now, you will argue that sex abuse in the Catholic Church and the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge are not joyful subjects, and you would be absolutely right. However, I am reminded of John Updike’s comment about Nabokov: he “writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically.” Nabokov, no doubt, treated some very dark subject matter in his fiction, but that never prevented him from delighting in the ecstasy of writing, which in turn bled over into the ecstasy of reading.

The enduring writers of the 19th and 20th centuries – Dostoevesky, Woolf, Beckett, O’Connor, Greene, Faulkner, Chekhov, and Joyce among them – all dealt with weighty subjects and posed difficult moral questions, but no matter how depressing their themes became, the experience of reading them was never itself depressing. In a similar vein, 21st century international writers like Saramago, Houellebecq, Murakami, Bolaño, and McCarthy have traced our modern, technologically obsessed malaise in a climate of post-9/11 anomic alienation without themselves becoming forces of alienation. The same cannot be said of the current Giller crop, at least three of which are sober, earnest, and seem intent on proving their literary and intellectual worth at the expense of a reader’s engagement.

What is a reader, looking for the highest achievement in Canadian writing and handed The Bishop’s Man, The Disappeared, and The Golden Mean, to do? Each book has merits, to be sure, but the cumulative effect of reading them is to inculcate the idea that our prestige fiction is portentous, plodding, and grim, filled with dirt and grime and death, and devoid of the vigour and verve that makes the best writing come alive. Any one of these books on its own might be tolerable. Together, they have put me off reading.

Reading as stress relief

July 30, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

From Marie Claire U.K.:

Reading is the best way to relax and even six minutes can be enough to reduce the stress levels by more than two thirds or 68%.

New research by consultancy Mindlab International at the University of Sussex says reading works better and faster than other methods to calm frazzled nerves such as listening to music, going for a walk or settling down with a cup of tea.

Which is so funny, because I could swear that reading The Da Vinci Code and Kiss the Girls actually increased my stress level. Go figure.

Seen Reading goes national

May 14, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Julie Wilson, online content manager at House of Anansi Press and the brains behind the popular literary site Seen Reading, is expanding her blog’s focus to encompass the entire country. For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past two-and-a-half years, Seen Reading is a locus for what Wilson calls “literary voyeurism.” Wilson makes a note of what she sees people reading on her travels, goes to a bookstore and copies a passage from the book, then creates a short imaginative piece based on the book and her impression of the individual reading it. For her troubles, she and her site have appeared everywhere from the CBC to the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, the Globe and Mail, and elsewhere.

Until now, Seen Reading has been pretty much a one-woman affair. Last year, Wilson instituted a “Readers Reading” section on her site, featuring podcasts of readers (including Rebecca Rosenblum, Mariko Tamaki, and Stacey May Fowles) reading short passages from some of their favourite books. But for the most part, the site has spotlighted readers Wilson noticed on her travels around her home city of Toronto.

Not anymore. Beginning this Victoria Day, Monday, May 18, Seen Reading is expanding its focus to include the entire country, from the East Coast to the West. Wilson has enlisted the help of three writers from different parts of Canada to provide installments for the site each week. The new national format will begin on Monday, with a post by Nova Scotia’s Ami McKay, author of The Birth House. Other new contributors to the site include Montreal’s Saleema Nawaz, author of the story collection Mother Superior, and Vancouver’s Monique Trottier, who runs Boxcar Marketing, an Internet consultancy firm.

Wilson initiated the idea of bringing other bloggers from around the country on board a few months ago:

It had been over two-and-a-half years of collecting sightings and responding to them, and I was unsure of the next step. I confided in Monique who, remarkably, offered to take care of Seen Reading if I wanted a break. Through Twitter, I had learned that Ami and Saleema were both supporters of the site. I simply took the plunge. I admire each of them as writers and their sense of community within the publishing industry. I had the utmost faith that they would be kind to the project, while offering a new perspective from different parts of the country.

The feeling of admiration is clearly mutual. McKay says that she’s been a fan of Seen Reading “from the start,” and was “thrilled” to be asked to participate. “I plan on bringing a quirky, curious, rural sensibility to my posts,” McKay says. “My sightings will largely be based in the day-to-day of Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley: pee-wee baseball practices, doctor’s offices, small-town coffee shops, and grocery store parking lots.”

For her part, Trottier says that she has long admired Seen Reading. “The structured format was fun and flexible and as a fellow blogger I wished that I’d thought of something similar.” And Nawaz admits to a similar strain of blogger envy where Seen Reading was concerned: “Just about every weekday on my way to work, I’d notice somebody reading something fantastic and I would be thrown back into the same wishful reverie of a Montreal Seen Reading.” Nawaz wants to bring Montrealers’ love of reading out into the open: “Montreal readers are keen and passionate. I can’t wait to find out more about them. I’ll be the one on the back of the bus, in the park, in the café, furiously scribbling notes while trying to look invisible.”

Wilson herself plans to continue posting from Toronto, but says that she envisions a time when her role begins to resemble that of an acquisitions editor. “There’s no reason why Seen Reading couldn’t evolve into a true community,” she says. “It will take a larger team, and funds, but the possibilities are exciting.”

In the short term, Wilson plans a three-pronged approach to publicize the new, expanded Seen Reading. She is soliciting the assistance of litbloggers and booksellers to help get the word out, and has partnered with McNally Robinson in Toronto to give away two books per month on Twitter. “People are asked to submit 10 words to describe themselves. Using that biographical information, two winners a month will be picked to have their book needs met by Book Madam,” an alter ego Wilson created for the Twitter venture.

Secondly, Wilson wants to mount a charity event with an evening of readings by authors whose books have been “seen.” The proceeds would go to support a national literacy program.

And finally, Wilson is relying on word of mouth, through blogs (McKay’s Incidental Pieces, Trottier’s So Misguided, and Nawaz’s Metaphysical Conceit), as well as social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Linked In, to reach out to the online community. Calling this “connector publicity,” Trottier expects that the contributors’ various Web-based networks will form the “first line of promotion” for the beefed-up Seen Reading. “It’s very exciting to see how quickly interest in the project has surfaced.”

This focus on Web-based marketing is entirely appropriate for Seen Reading, of course, and each of the contributors to the site is a passionate advocate for the Internet’s potential to spur interest in, and discussion of, books. Says McKay:

Without a doubt, there’s a literary community out there [online] that is just as valid and valuable as the writing in publications such as The New York Review of Books or The Times Literary Supplement. Universal access is part of what makes the ‘Net such a brilliant place for sharing ideas. It makes room for conversation rather than striving to be the last word. I guess I’d say to the critics that I believe our words and our creative selves are like nature, they thrive on diversity.

Nawaz agrees, saying that “writers, readers, and publishers are generally delighted with the way the Internet can expand and enhance traditional coverage, as well as the opportunity it offers for bringing books to a wider audience.” And Trottier points to declining book coverage in traditional print media versus the volume of online coverage, which continues to grow. “Depending on whose numbers you cite,” she says, “60-80% of offline purchase decisions are made after online research or recommendations. In my mind, this signals a huge opportunity for literary blogs to reach an audience interested in books and reading.”

Wilson also points out the creative side of Seen Reading, and emphasizes its function as a repository of what could be termed “flash fiction”:

Seen Reading has most often been discussed as a project that notes reading habits, and less as an archive of creative writing. By bringing in more perspectives, and certainly authors such as Ami and Saleema, my hope is that the site will begin to function more visibly as a publisher, and that contributors will be viewed more apparently as writers.

THIS POST CONTAINS MATERIAL THAT HAS BEEN CORRECTED. Julie Wilson is no longer a publicist at House of Anansi, as was originally posted. Her current position is online content manager. TSR regrets the error.

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