Wednesday, May 16, 2018

We are what we read

Books have been a constant companion in my life and for the past several years, my means of making a living.

Yet something has happened. After the events of the past year, I have developed a difficult time reading. Don't get me wrong, I get it done. I can read through piles of student writing with due diligence, notably this past weekend for the end of the semester. When reading is assigned in my terminal degree program, I attack it with "active reading" just as I've been trained. I underline key phrases, I make notes in the margins, and I "engage with the text." I've also managed to plow through news articles, documentation, and a few dry business books as research for my book.

The problem arises when I try to read for pleasure. I'll pick a book from my massive to-read pile and try to end the night in comfort. Things start out well enough, but then I find my eyes darting from the middle of one page to the top of another. My thoughts begin to drift to existential worries, just as they have for a year now, and my mind is everywhere except on the book in my hand. It even happens when I read comics.

This has had a deleterious effect on this blogger for leisure reading has always been something I've prized. It relieved stress, not caused it. Then not long ago, I read this book review in the New York Times of  The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization by Martin Puchner. It heightened my concerned for my pleasure reading habits. From the review:

"“Literature,” the first page declares, “since it emerged 4,000 years ago,” has “shaped the lives of most humans on planet Earth.” We are what we read.

“The Written World” makes this grand assertion on the basis of a set of theses. Storytelling is as human as breathing. When fabulation intersected with writing, stories were empowered to propagate themselves in society and around the world as civilization-forming “foundational texts.”"

We are what we read.

That phrase haunted me. If we are not reading, then what are we? I take this as a particular indictment of myself. I press my students to read, read, read, so that they may learn, learn, learn. Outside of what I'm assigned, what have I been able to read? I did have success for two days last summer when I went to visit Chris in Florida. I enjoyed two installments in The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I believe my success in that case had something to do with being trapped in a metal tube, hurtling high above the ground at hundreds of miles an hour, leaving me no choice but to concentrate on my books.

While I don't know if I can replicate such conditions on terra firma, I committed to set aside time each day this summer to read. Read just for myself, that is. So what follows is my immediate list. It's lengthy, it's ambitious, but I would rather overshoot and fall short than do otherwise.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville.
I've mentioned my rereading of this tome in an earlier post. The sensation of being tossed adrift while clinging to Queequeg's coffin, the drive to achieve justice though the heavens fall, it all speaks to me. I have a had a head start, but it still might take me the entire summer to finish it, rendering the remainder of this list moot. Going to give it a valiant effort anyway. Maybe if I gloss over the numerous pages of tech writing on whaling and seafaring, I can manage it.

The Trial by Franz Kafka

I have taught Kafka's The Metamorphosis many times, but am less familiar with this work, considered by many to be Kafka's paraph. In fact, my most memorable exposure to it is the delicious black and white film adaptation by Orson Welles and Anthony Perkins. A man is charged with a crime that is never named and he hurtles listlessly through a labyrinth of bureaucracy.

The Plague by Albert Camus

Another existential classic. I loved The Stranger and have been eager to give this one a try. It is said to be similar in tone to Kafka's The Trial, asking many of the same questions of the human condition, plus examining what crisis brings out of human nature.

We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
There are any number of marvelous works from JCO where one could start. I don't know why this one just spoke to me from the shelf at Half Price Books. The things that can tear a family apart...

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Already read it. Already taught it. So I'm not sure I'll have time to revisit it after getting through my first-runs. It calls to me again, however. This is not simply for Coates' amazing writing style, but for the allure of the concept of "the beautiful struggle."

Cured: The Tale of Two Imaginary Boys by Lol Tolhurst
In an alternate timeline, I might have been a music journalist. Of course, I probably would have to have been born in the late 1950s in London so that I could be writing about my favorite music scene when it was actually happening. This book tells the story of one of my favorite bands, The Cure. As is so often the case with these bands, it explores how something so massive in pop culture came from the humble origins of two guys who lived near one another and both loved music.

Captured! The Betty and Barney Hill UFO Experience by Stanton Friedman and Kathleen Marden
The 1961 story of Betty and Barney Hill was one of the first, perhaps the first, alleged case of alien abduction to reach widespread popular publication. There are many reasons to poke holes in the account, and yet it remains an intriguing case for a number of reasons. Stanton Friedman is a nuclear physicist by academic training and has, usually, been one of the more level-headed voices in ufology. Yes, he's had his head scratching moments, but I'm intrigued by this book nonetheless and would like to weigh the evidence with a fair mind.

So that's the list. Well aware my eyes are bigger than my stomach, but here I go...

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