Books About Reading

I’ve been on a bit of a binge with books about reading since I watched Steve Donoghue’s Book about Books video on BookTube recently: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3DjZDZaBaQ

First, I read Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader and then Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books. I mentioned both of them in my February Reading post.

Bennett’s book is the only novel among these bookish books that I’ve been reading. It’s a look at what happens when Queen Elisabeth II turns into an avid reader. It’s short, sometimes funny, sometimes touching, also heart-warming. A kind of fantasy novel with book recommendations. I loved it.

Schwartz’s book is a look at the importance of reading in her life and whether it enriched or detracted from living life itself. Since I spend a lot of time reading, I also sometimes ask myself, am I living or am I just reading? It’s reassuring that other people also ponder such questions. I could also emphasize with the author about forgetting the books she has read (as does the author of On Rereading, see below). I’m glad that I’m not the only one who can more or less completely forget a novel or a non-fiction book after having read it once (it’s not so bad after I’ve reread it). That is, after all, why I started the blog, to have a record of the things I read and what I felt about them. The book was short, but good.

This weekend I finished On Rereading by Patricia Meyer Spacks. I found this by accident (or rather by algorithm) on Amazon. Spacks is a retired university professor who did a year-long experiment in rereading to explore what would happen:

I will examine my repeated encounters with various books, ranging from the widely familiar to the obscure, from accessible to demanding, in order to show something of what I have learned and felt and how I have developed during a lifetime of rereading for pleasure as well as for professional reasons. The choice of specific texts is almost entirely arbitrary – purposely arbitrary. I wanted to avoid concentration on books of a single kind, to range as widely as possible among the many novels that I have read for pleasure over the years.

Patricia Meyer Spacks, On Rereading. Harvard University Press, Kindle location 222.

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Would she still enjoy books she read at different points in her life? Would she find that some of the books she used to love she now can’t see the appeal of anymore? What does that say about herself? Or about the books? What is the point of rereading when there are so many books that one can never read everything? Should one waste precious reading time on rereads?

Part of my enjoyment of the book is because I have read quite a lot of the books she covers. From the Narnia books in childhood, to Jane Austen, to The Catcher in the Rye, Middlemarch, a book by Graham Greene, The Pickwick Papers… (to name just a few books and authors mentioned in the book).

Regarding the books I also read, my thoughts sometimes differed from the author’s. The Narnia books, for instance, I still love, but she feels done with them. Spacks loved The Catcher in the Rye (by Salinger) when it first came out but found it didn’t do well on rereading. I had to read Catcher at school and hated it, because I felt that Holden, the protagonist, was a super unlikeable arse (he was so annoying that I still remember him although it’s years since I’ve suffered through the novel). I’m not planning on rereading it anytime soon, probably never. Spacks reread The Pickwick Papers and liked them more than she did on her first reading (but not enough to reread them again). I liked The Pickwick Papers when I read my way through Dickens’ novels last year, but it wasn’t my favourite.

I found her discussion of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Emma very insightful. Next time I reread those novels, I must remember to check up on Spacks’ thoughts to see if her judgements still resonate. Some of her thoughts on books that I haven’t yet read made me consider reading them. Although Spacks was a professor of English, she doesn’t use any literary theory jargon in this book so that it is refreshingly readable. A happy mix of literary criticism, pondering about the nature of rereading and memoir. I do a lot of rereading because I remember liking books but don’t remember details. This book supplies a lot of additional reasons for rereading and shows how it can have different effects (always depending on the reader and their needs). Spacks found:

Rereading has turned out to be rich in paradox. A conservative activity that holds on to the past, it is also potentially revolutionary, overturning judgments and repudiating assumptions.

Patricia Meyer Spacks, On Rereading. Harvard University Press, Kindle location 2998.

Of the four books on reading, this one was the most brilliant. It was the only one that I couldn’t race through in one afternoon.

I found yet another book about books by Cathy Rentzenbrink: Dear Reader: The Comfort and Joy of Books. It came out last year and is a memoir coupled with lists and descriptions of books on subjects that the author enjoyed or valued in her life and that helped her through some hard times. She was a bookseller and works to promote literacy among adults, so she’s made reading her career (and, obviously, writing). She read a lot of the same books that I read in my childhood, which had me indulging in nostalgia. Later in the book our reading interests didn’t overlap as much, but who knows, maybe I’ll pick up one or the other of her recommendations. It was interesting and a good read, but it didn’t blow me away like Spacks’ book did.

Keep safe, world

February Reading

Considering that February was a short month and I wasn’t on vacation as I was in January, I managed to read quite a lot:

Ongoing project:

Murasaki Shikibu and Royall Tyler (trsl.), The Tale of Genji.
I managed to read the first 100 pages that I should have read in January. It’s fascinating, but also very strange – a completely unfamiliar world for a European reader, like me, without much knowledge of Japanese culture and history.

Poetry:

  • Patrick Crotty (ed.), The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry.
    I’m almost done with this great selection. Pondering on what poetry to read next.
  • Emily Dickinson and Thomas H. Johnson (ed.), Final Harvest.
    I’m reading this one when I’m in Bavaria, as the Irish Poetry book is too huge and heavy to lug around. Dickinson is one of my favourite poets; I really need to get her collected works one of these days.

Short Stories:

Rudyard Kipling, The Man Who Would Be King: Selected Stories of Rudyard Kipling.
Most of these stories just blew me away, they were so good. I was skeptical when I started as I expected stuff about “the white-man’s burden” and other imperialist rubbish, but these stories are not only set in India (and those that are, aren’t about those ideas). There are some powerful stories with fantastic elements, some stories set during WWI, lots of stories set in England. Some of them are almost gothic. The more of them I read, the better they got. My prejudices where just that, prejudices. Kipling was given the Nobel Prize in Literature and I guess these stories illustrate why. I think I’ll write about a few of them in more detail in a later post. A strong recommendation!

Non-Fiction:
Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books.
A short book about the meaning of reading in the author’s life. Thought-provoking and interesting for fellow life-long readers.

Novels:

  • Laurie R. King, A Letter of Mary and The Moor.
    Installments 3 and 4 of the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series. Rereads, both of them, very enjoyable. The Moor is set in Dartmoor and one of my favourites in the series (of the books that I’ve read so far).
  • Sally Wright, Publish and Perish and Pride and Predator.
    Around the middle of February, I had to spend a whole half-day doing a meaningless but necessary task for work and on the side I was listening to BookTube channels. I came across this series, which is a crime series set at a University (at least the first one) and I couldn’t resist, as I love mystery novels of that sort. There are 5 books in the series, and I plan to read them all. It was reward for my horrid workday – I shouldn’t have started another series. But no regrets!
  • Jane Harper, The Dry.
    This was a book club read. A crime set in a small town in the Australian outback, where flora, fauna and people suffer from a years’ long drought. It was full of suspense, but also just slightly predictable – even I got an inkling as to the motive, and I’m usually not very perspicacious when reading crime novels. The book contained two crimes, one set in the protagonist’s past and never solved, one set in the present of the novel. Not bad.
  • Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader.
    A lovely short novel about what happens when the Queen (Elisabeth II) turns into a serious reader. Cozy and funny and heartwarming.
  • Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose.
    A brilliant novel. A reread, as I last read it while still at University. I started in January, but read most of it in February. I really should read more by Stegner; I love his style in this novel.

Graphic Novel:

Marguerite Abouet, Aya: Life in Yop City.

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I wasn’t meaning to read a graphic novel, but this turned out to be the February selection of the Goodreads “Read Around the World” group. It is about the life of a group of teenage girls a suburb of the city of Abijan in the 1970. Abijan is the largest city of the Ivory Coast (the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire). Some of their experiences are incredibly like teenage experiences in Europe and America. I say “incredible”, because we stupidly always seem to see the African experience as somehow different, usually negatively different. This is, of course, a stupid view and this graphic novel helps to break it up. These universal teenage concerns about school, family, relationships, careers take place in the specific cultural space of Yop City (the suburb) at a certain point in time (the 1970s) and so the details of their lives are different to, say, my teenage experience. I found these cultural specifics engaging and enjoyable. I now feel the need to read the sequel of this graphic novel, as the first part ends rather abruptly, leaving stories unfinished.

In sum it was a good reading month. As for reading from my TBR, I had had Angle of Repose on Kindle since December 2018, so I guess that counts. On the other hand, all the other novels (except for the Laurie R. King ones) and the non-fiction book were new, so I’m not making much inroads on my collection of unread books.

As in January, I’m planning to write more detailed reports on some of the books I read (hopefully in the next few days).

Keep safe, world.

Monday Miscellanea

Last week was quite eventful (at least compared to other recent weeks) regarding work and the weather. At work we had a team meeting where we discussed our projects of the year and how best to divide things up amongst the team members. I’d been dreading it, because feared that it would be awfully tedious and that I’d end up with a horrid new project. It actually wasn’t bad. The meeting itself was productive with hardly any boring discussions. I did end up with the project coordination job that I had almost volunteered for ahead of time because it seemed to fit in well with my other tasks, but I also got to drop a couple of small projects that I hadn’t cared for anyway, so that was almost a win. Almost, because the project I’m supposed to coordinate appears to be extremely chaotic and there’s a high risk that it won’t keep to its schedule. Also, not much support from project management, because there doesn’t seem to be a dedicated project management. Apparently, it’s a strategically important project that’s supposed to run itself. If that sounds crazy, it is crazy. Recipe for disaster. I really don’t understand how these things keep happening. I’ve had quite a few such projects in my work experience. Sometimes they work out, often they don’t. Perhaps it will flub its first project milestones and then get reorganized – one can always hope. I already had my first meeting last week to learn what I am supposed to do and what the boundary conditions are, and when I heard about all the unclear responsibilities, I kind of regretted not declining the project and spent a bit of a sleepless night, but I’ve got used to the idea in the meantime. At least it should be interesting.

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Regarding the weather, we had a very cold week and a half. On some nights it got down to -15°C. We also had a bit of snow, about 10 cm, which hardly melted as it stayed cold during the days (around -4°C on average). When it wasn’t snowing, it was sunny with a freezing wind from the Northeast. In the North and middle of Germany, there was much more snow and it caused traffic chaos. At my cousins’ place, they had 50 cm of snow and -20°C, which hasn’t happened for I don’t know how many years. They did an experiment: throwing a cup of boiling water into the air and watching it come down as fine feathery snow (apparently this only works at these low temperatures). The snow was lovely and feathery, very small crystals, not soggy at all. It squeaked underneath our boots when we went walking. As it only snowed once or twice here, the snow on all the paths was trampled flat and grew very slippery. Rather dangerous with Curious Dog’s great talent for pulling on the leash. So, I tried out my new spikes for my Winter boots. They are a kind of rubber sole with spiky screws on the underside that are attached to one’s boots with Velcro fasteners. They worked great on flattened snow and ice; CD could pull all he liked. I got them three years ago and this year was the first chance I had to try them out. I had older ones that I used last month in Bavaria. They belonged to my Dad, but they are not as good as the new ones. It was fun walking with them on my boots. I went on a few nice long walks with Curious Dog in the afternoons. In the mornings, we only walked for about half an hour, as it was too cold for longer walks. He is, after all, an inside dog, not used to such temperatures. Neither am I.

This week the Winter interlude is ending, temperatures are rising, and I guess we’ll end up with the same old wet and muddy conditions we had before (apparently the U.S. is now affected by unusual cold weather in unusual places).

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The only thing I didn’t like about the weather was the cold wind that kept causing my eyes to tear up when we were walking and the fact that the sunny weather gave me a headache for a couple of days. Somehow highs in Winter sometimes don’t agree with me. On Friday, my day off, I woke up with a headache that then made me feel queasy. But it went away after the morning walk and an aspirin. The weekend was otherwise rather ideal. A lot of time for reading and meditation. On Friday I did half of the shopping, on Saturday the other half. I also managed to clean the bathroom on Saturday (including cleaning the partly blocked drain in the bathroom sink – revolting) and I read two books. That made me feel quite accomplished.

One book was a crime novel, The Dry, by Jane Harper. It’s set in Australia in a small farming community much affected by drought. It’s about a multiple murder/suicide that’s unofficially investigated by a policeman friend of the victims who had a shared history with the suspected murderer. Very atmospheric and full of suspense, although I did get an inkling about the real motive for the murders before it was revealed. This is quite odd for me. Usually I never work out the mystery ahead of the reveal. I read this book for my book club very quickly because it was so thrilling. I started reading on Saturday morning and finished it early in the afternoon. Then, after doing a bit of cleaning, I started reading The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett. A slim book about the power of reading, which took me only about an hour and a half to finish. It gave me the warm fuzzies. This book was recommended by Steve Donoghue on BookTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3DjZDZaBaQ.

On Sunday, I did a bit more housework and continued reading my poetry anthology, my current short-story collection, and Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, which I’ve been reading for a few weeks (it’s a reread, very good). But I will write in more detail about my reading when I tally up my books for February.

I also managed to prepare two book review posts which I will post later this week and watched another couple of episodes of Star Trek: Lower Decks with Partner. Partner cooked a new-for-us dish, a celeriac risotto flavoured with capers and sage. Sounds strange but was delicious. Today, Partner’s cooking another new dish, fennel with mango on basmati rice. I’m sure it will also be very nice. It’s great that Partner has become such an adventurous cook. If it were up to me, we’d be repeating the same few dishes all the time.

This week we will be off to Bavaria again (three weeks pass so quickly). My book club will take place later this week, but since it’s a Zoom meeting, I can join from anywhere. One slight upside to the Corona restrictions. Regarding Corona: the numbers in Germany are still improving, but the lockdown remains in place because of the danger of the mutated version of the virus. There are even border checks on the borders to Austria and the Czech Republic because they are so very badly affected by those mutated viruses. Not sure if it will be possible to keep those mutations from gaining more ground in Germany than they already have. Still a very uncertain situation.

Keep safe, world.