#GrownUp

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My mother wanted children for a number of reasons, but one of the reasons that stuck with me was that she wanted someone with whom to share children’s books.  She hit jackpot with her firstborn (my brother didn’t really like books or literature of any kind until college), and I was reading before kindergarten.  Every year at Christmas I got a stack of children’s literature; and the public library was always my favorite place to visit. My mother got me started with the greats:

  • Little House books;
  • Shel Silverstein poetry;
  • Tasha Tudor illustrations;
  • Winnie the Pooh;
  • Maurice Sendak’s illustrated version of The Nutcracker;
  • Little Golden Books;
  • The Velveteen Rabbit.

There were others, sure.  And then on my father’s side there was the slapstick of childhood in Warner Brother’s cartoons (he preferred them to Disney, but Disney was okay by him too if the film had actors he liked, such as Phil Harris or Jimmy Durante).

I inherited all of this, in addition to a pretty deep attachment to LEGOs, Harry Potter, and the legends of comic books and graphic novels.  I like Pixar movies.  If I could still go to story hour and not make the room uncomfortable, I would.  I love coloring books.

There are two worlds of whirling dervish right now on social media: Marie Kondo’s broadcasts of decluttering lives, and Bill Maher proclaiming that comics are something everyone should have outgrown at the age of 17 and a half.  Marie believes in ridding our lives of anything that doesn’t “spark joy,” including–gasp–books, if that’s the case. Maher doesn’t care if the comic books spark joy, get rid of them anyway and grow up. Read the adult stuff, he insists, like Dickens or Melville, etc.

I have to admit a couple of things here.  First, I haven’t seen the Marie Kondo episodes on Netflix; I’m a neat freak already and I imagine Kondo would just bore me.  I do watch Maher’s show Real Time, but I watch it more for the same reason that I occasionally pick up a copy of O Magazine; I like the contributors more than the host.  I could do without Bill (or Oprah), but I’m pretty impassioned about his show; without it I wouldn’t be aware of some of the stuff that I think it’s important that I should be aware of.  Some of that awareness is despicable, but some of it isn’t.  Do I agree with Maher on his take on comic books? Nope. Do I agree with all of his contributors? Nope. Do I cringe when he puts some of these contributors on? Oh yes.

But whether it’s Kondo or Maher or someone else, I think the lighting of the hair on fire based on disagreement could be discarded unless it could be presented as discourse.  If I ever get around to watching Kondo for fun some rainy afternoon, then I’m not planning on losing my mind when she says ditch some books; that’s just the piece of the pie I don’t need to take, and then I can drop and move on.  When Bill launched into this anti-comic tirade last Friday night, I wasn’t happy (it seemed like an over-simplification, but so does the “spark joy” argument and all of the arguments against Kondo and Maher), but that’s just the piece I don’t take with me.

When did the internet turn into self-help?  There’s nothing wrong with self-help, either, but goodness, did the folks watching any self-proclaimed subject matter expert really think they should have that complete authority?

Maybe we learn something from everything, albeit not always the intended lesson of the teacher.  Kondo’s whirlwind taught me that, and she meant to teach us all how to be neater.  Maher’s whirlwind is reinforcing something in my learning; I have often thought my failures have hatched in not following the well-intentioned and/or unasked advice of others, when I should consider the various contributors.  Maher’s ranting about comics during his editorial bits teach me how important all voices are, including my own.

I don’t need to yell at Kondo to “Leave my books alone!” or yell at Maher to “Leave my children’s literature alone!” I just need to shrug and read my books, be them Melville (which I love) or Winnie the Pooh (which I still love), or watch Ant-Man (which is still the laugh I need).  Keep talking, Kondo and Maher.  Someone’s nodding in agreement somewhere, and you’re the validation they need…but I’m good on my own, finding validation elsewhere.

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#BookClub

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Every day there’s a new article about how a degree in the fine arts will get you an overabundance of student debt and that’s it; there’s nothing lucrative about literature.  I don’t think solvency was the motivation or even any remote consideration when I entered college as a non-traditional student (read: older than everyone else in the class at 22 years old).  There were a combination of arguments:

  • If I was going to be broke anyway, why not study something that I loved?
  • My manager at the time was a little stunned that I loved books as much as I did and wasn’t in college;
  • Once the general education classes were out of the way, then I would get college credits to gush about other peoples’ writing for months.

In essence, my college years were one long sequence of book clubs.

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After the gen ed courses, I briefly double-majored in both literature and history.  Fiction and non-fiction, if you will. I took two classes in literature a semester and two classes in history.  I was already in love with literature when I entered college, but an excellent professor in history during my gen ed years convinced me that history was one of the best stories I could find, so I double-majored.  The two majors paired wonderfully together (read Moby Dick, and then study 19th century whaling to see how Melville got there), and my only hang-up was that writing about literature is a completely different animal than writing about history, unless you break the rules like David McCullough or Stephen Ambrose and have the audacity to tell a story.  Writing about literature was direct, like sipping on a sazerac in the back of a dive bar with a pack of Marlboros, but writing about history in a purely academic sense was a hard lesson in the passive voice, like backing into a glass of rose. I continually mixed up the two, and then there was a British history professor who claimed I had plagiarized Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier (I have never been a fan of Orwell, even before the damn class, and other professors didn’t think it was that close of a match even though they liked my writing, including the dean, so charges were dropped), so that was one too many straws, and history was dropped to a minor.  To this day, however, I still balance out a lot of fiction with non-fiction (preferably memoirs and biographies, but I read about history if the story is specific enough), and love to talk about all of it.

Sadly, you can’t go to college forever, and the course load decreased when I demoted history, so I graduated against my will in December of 2000.  I futzed around with exploring options into careers in literature or careers in the proximity of literature at the beginning of 2001, but life had other plans, and after a series of diversions I finally moved to what I considered to be a more literary city in San Francisco in 2004.  San Francisco had more bookstores than I had seen in whole states in the Midwest; at lunch I would flip a coin and, depending on the outcome, would visit either Alexander’s on Second Street or Stacey’s on Market, which were less than a block from each other.  I would occasionally chat books with these booksellers, but finding a chatty bookseller in San Francisco has rarely been my luck.  The bookstores in San Francisco are luxurious, “floors of books” and historical sites of Beat poets and quirky adhoc shelves made from planks, but most of the booksellers there seemed…sentenced.  Another starry-eyed former literature student stumbling around in a bohemian funk?  I could have gotten in line or paid subscriber dues.  Yes, the bookstores had author events, or the yearly book fair called Litquake would pop up a rash of author events or panels, and I leaped at tickets.  I had one line of questioning for every author and panel: What are you reading? What books inspired you to write the way you do? What is your favorite book?

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I tried traditional book clubs in San Francisco, but they usually defaulted to a combination of wine, appetizers, other book events, other authors, or personal stuff unrelated to the book.  I loved talking about and listening to others talk about books, so having to shut up and be good for the other topics was maddening.

There are several book club movies out there that remind me of this kind of experience.  The most recent is Book Club, which came out last year and has a stellar cast of Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Diane Keaton, Craig T. Nelson, Andy Garcia, and Don Johnson, just to name a few.  I like every actor in this film and love book clubs and I loathe this movie.  The only redeeming aspect of the film is the music and a flying sequence with Garcia and Keaton in the Grand Canyon…and neither one of those topics are related to the title.  Books are discussed for about seven minutes in this movie, and the overwhelming reference in the club is to the Fifty Shades of Grey series, a collection of books that isn’t struggling for promotion.

Back in the late aughts there was a movie called The Jane Austen Book Club, which wasn’t a much better script but talked about books a lot more more than Book Club.  I watched that movie again after Book Club as a palette-cleanser, and, because it’s January, thought I might be able to follow the calendar in The Jane Austen Book Club this year starting in February with Emma like the characters in the movie did.  Still a lot of wine and coffee in that movie, though.  Probably my favorite book club film was an adaptation of a book for a Netflix production called The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which addresses World War II as well as literary classics and struggles of writers. The members of that group had some questionable edibles (which factors in the plot in more ways than just the title) but the primary food is the stuff of reading, and I could watch that movie on a loop if needed.

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I went without a book club for some time after moving to Southern California.  One reason was that I briefly belonged to a writing group who wanted someone to organize their writing lives but did not want to write under the organization of what someone else had put together for them.  The writer’s group that I belonged to in the Bay Area would write in all kinds of places and locations; I had written with them in Oakland after work, at a cafe in Duboce Triangle on Sundays for a day-long marathon session with a lunch break, at the Richmond District Library in the basement conference room, at the Borderlands Cafe in the Mission, where there was purposely no wi-fi.  I tutored kids in writing, science, and math at 826 Valencia and wrote for their 826 Day festivities.  But reading…that fell off the radar early and generated a TBR pile in my apartment bedroom that would choke a fire.  I kept with writing and thought reading would come in later, when an earthquake killed the power or I ran out of ink.

In Southern California I knew people who read, but either didn’t like to talk about what they read or thought of reading as a non-social activity.  I didn’t know how to debate that; when I was in college I was alone a lot, but there was the social aspect of class.  Was it possible that one couldn’t have a book club without other aspects: a classroom forcing to read, a bottle of wine, a number count on Goodreads, a hashtag of Sunday sentences?  Social media has made online book clubs or book communities a sometimes mine field; if I were to pick up a short story by Woody Allen or quote from Garrison Keillor’s anthology Good Poems, do these choices unleash wrath or banishment?  Social media can be cruel and often is (I often find myself retreating into just Sunday sentences, but what happens when I want to find Hemingway there?), and a reader has to step carefully.

Do I wish I were part of more readers’ circles?  Sometimes. I have the added joy of reviewing books for an online publication, and when the authors reach out and connect over the reviews I have a few hours of feeling like a I have a book club to love words in, a safe space regardless. Most of my friends and family fulfill other curiosities for me, since their interests rarely involve books.  Just this past year, however, I stumbled on the greatest fortune: a book club in a book store here in San Diego.  The owner of the store selects a fiction book in paperback, discounts it for the month leading up to discussion, and one Thursday night a month a sizable crowd of us discuss the book.  The personalities and approaches to the book in that group are nearly stories of their own, and I’m back in class in the 90’s, arguing writers’ choices of POV, characterization, voice, setting, and special effects.

There’s no wine, no appetizers.  All the food is brain food. For one hour a month I sit in the room and socialize with a slim paperback in my hand, at the center of all of our thoughts.

#ListeningUp

It’s a rare person not on the podcast craze in our time. I usually can’t go more than a week without hearing of a recommendation for a new one from one of my other podcasts, from social media, or from wait staff or bartenders. Occasionally I’ll get recommendations from friends and family, but for some reason they only recommend single episodes of something or start out recommending radio programs that may also be available as a podcast.

Some podcasts I have been listening to for decades; most of the NPR podcasts fall into that category. When I graduated from college I missed classes so much that I tuned into public radio nearly around the clock, a habit made even more intense by the fact that one of my part-time jobs out of college was data entry for a health insurance company. In the mornings I would tune my radio/headset combination to NPR while everyone else listened to rock or country music on theirs (this was Southwest Missouri in the early aughts; coincidentally I was the first person on the floor to know that 9/11 was happening because of my listening choice). I also listened to audio books during pledge season, picking out classic literature from the library.

After moving to California, my first manager there bought me an iPod as a performance achievement gift, and then I could download podcasts from my laptop into it and listen to them as I walked to lunch or during sightseeing adventures. Podcasts always seem to serve as a way to fill the silence; I had moved to California expecting worldly conversation and instead heard a lot of cell phone conversations that were watered down with bragging and filler words. Podcasts blocked out these disappointments, but they also blocked out a lot of the life that I loved in the Bay; now when I go out for a walk, or hop on transit, the earbuds stay stashed in my bag. But I still listen to a LOT of podcasts, even if I don’t listen to them as a multitask activity much anymore. They are like the old time radio programs of the early 20th century, and, yet, still like the classes that I miss at college.

Here are the podcasts I miss, love, and do my best to keep up with when I can:

  • The Writer’s Almanac – This one went the way of the dodo when its host was looped into the business end of the #MeToo movement, but I still listen to old episodes from time to time. The podcast was a 5-minute overview of famous literary and cultural events in history that happened that day, and was aired daily, weekday and weekend;
  • Fresh Air – This one goes all the way back to when I was still in college; Fresh Air is something my mother would catch occasionally so we would have something to share. My favorite interviews are the ones with writers and comedians, but they did have an interview last year with Springsteen that I loved, and Rachel Maddow is also a favorite (she’s been on twice);
  • (Speaking of Maddow…) Bag Man – This was a recent, limited series podcast from Rachel Maddow on the story behind Spiro Agnew’s troubled political career and his fall from power under Nixon. A lot of people remember Agnew as being caught up in the Watergate issue, but he actually had nothing to do with Watergate and was a loaded morality bomb of his own. This podcast actually falls into the “I miss my history courses” reason for listening, and Maddow is a sparkling storyteller;
  • The Daily (New York Times) – This podcast is one of my morning espresso shots; the opening sequence is about 20 minutes of in-depth coverage on one topical item, and then the host comes back for two-minute recap of top headlines. If I don’t want to listen to an entire Trump speech (who does), I wait until this podcast and let them give me the highlights;
  • Up First – This podcast is NPR’s version of The Daily, and is my other shot of espresso. Up First carries a variety of stories in their 20 minutes, however. Both The Daily and Up First are weekday podcasts, not airing on weekends (and in The Daily’s case, on holidays);
  • The California Report/The California Report Magazine – Like Up First and The Daily, but California news only, or how national events affect Californians. There are some lovely history segments, unexpected popular music tie-ins, and a healthy sense of humor with these folks, with just enough gravitas to make updates of the wildfires and the border crossings meaningful as well;
  • Recode Decode – Kara Swisher is one of my biggest heroes, and not just because she has a track history of holding top Silicon Valley leadership accountable. This podcast introduces me to new companies (employment opportunities?) and reenforces, with every podcast, the importance of letting your intelligence shine out, even if you aren’t always encouraged to do so as a woman;
  • Pop Culture Happy Hour – Another NPR favorite. I sometimes find myself annoyed at the easy criticisms for difficult cultural reviews on this show, but for the most part this show tells me about things I might miss in my radar;
  • Make Me Smart – Not NPR but commonly mistaken for being part of the NPR family, Make Me Smart is a half-tech, half-business podcast that kind of works as a companion piece to Recode Decode, with a twist; listeners are advised to send their expertise in for topics as well. There are interviews with topic experts, book club selections, and a special segment where interview subjects and listeners alike are asked the question, “What is something you thought you knew, but it turns out you didn’t?”;
  • All Songs Considered – I used to listen to this podcast a lot when I lived in the Bay because it was long (an hour plus at times) and had enough variety in music to make me happy. When I started a job in San Diego a coworker friend would recommend new music to me all of the time, so I took this podcast off my list, but when I moved on to another job and didn’t hear from him as much I went back to listening to this podcast. The hosts of this program have interviews, best of recent releases episodes, artist hosting episodes, and variety shows for holidays, and the banter is great;
  • Book Riot (any podcast) – Some of the Book Riot podcasts are audio, some are video, and some are by paid subscription, but all of them are good. Book podcasts can be pretty dry and hinting at profound, but these hosts have just enough humor to dress up any aspect of reading (and writing);
  • So Many Damn Books – Unrelated to Book Riot, but another good reader/writer podcast. This podcast features interviews and book recs (I particularly loved their gift suggestions for Christmas);
  • This American Life – Almost everyone knows this one based on associations with Mike Birbiglia and David Sedaris, but if not…this podcast is a collection of three to six segments on a common theme, sometimes topical, sometimes historical, and always quirky. I deeply loved a most recent episode on libraries, which they linked to the Room or Requirement in Hogwarts, and which I heard right after finishing Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, and it brought some tears and laughter;
  • 30 For 30 – Because, baseball.

Yes…I do have a difficult time keeping up with all of them, and even listen to individual episodes of even more.

But they keep me learning, keep me curious, and keep me listening. 🎧

#SlowReader

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There’s this neat trick that some of the websites have (I’ve usually seen it on Fast Company links, but you may have seen it in other stories), where somewhere in the top mess of advertisements and notations there is a statement of how long it will take the reader to consume the piece they are about to review.  I’ve always found these estimations a bit off; is this the estimation for the regular skimmer, or the reader like myself who sits and savors?

And I do savor.  I savor to the point of rumination.  I “close read,” which is what my advisor in college used to call it, not because I knew he would test me on something obscure and ridiculous (he wasn’t that kind of professor), but because he wanted everyone involved in discussion and he wanted us to be prepared for a round of devil’s advocate.  I didn’t want to miss the devil’s advocate in the text–I wanted to be prepared for it AND I wanted to see the writer pull from both sides of the coin (neat trick!)–so I read closely.  Also, I always felt that I was less intelligent than the other students because I was an unconventional student (read, older).  And literature was my major. So…it took me a long time to get my homework done.

It still takes me a long time to read.  I feel like I’m going to miss something if I don’t sit with it, even with books that top out at 160 pages.  Things that take a long time to do try my patience.  I’m also a writer, which is a craft that takes time to get right.  In today’s attention-deficient world, time-consuming stuff can be a problem if you want to feel some sense of accomplishment.  Still, it’s a lesson I am determined to learn…even in the face of glittering reporting on social media.

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Every year on January 1st the book-related websites and apps reach out to readers:  “What are your reading goals for this year?” In most cases they are called “challenges,” a long way from the bookworms we’d construct as kids with round pieces of colored paper at the library or in our elementary classrooms.  Some challenges are just numbers (Goodreads) and some have specifics (Book Riot’s Read Harder) that force the reader to read something they normally wouldn’t.  I find the numbers thing somewhat turnstile, even though this year I’m shooting for the same number that I would have read in my college days; how is one supposed to be changed or moved by literature that is skimmed to make a quota?  For the specifics’ challenges, I’m usually challenged enough by the fact that I’m hearing about books from a wide variety of sources:

  • My local independent bookstores;
  • Podcasts;
  • The New York Times’ book section;
  • Best new lists and themed lists off of Twitter or pictured in a stack on Instagram (Facebook for some reason doesn’t provoke me to read much);
  • What people I know are reading on Goodreads.

If I went with a specifics’ challenge, I would never read anything in my TBR (to be read) pile, or…I would never find a book by pick-up in the bookstore or library.

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I have always had this nifty gift of find the book I most need at the time when I most need it (even in college this phemonenon was more or less true).  Sometimes, needing it, I keep in longer than others might, dwelling with it.  I recently did this with Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, even though I ended up gobbling it in the last 100 pages.   I think my challenge for 2019 isn’t so much how much I can read, or how varied I am, but what I can glean from my reading…getting back to close reading.  Yes, maybe it will take me two or three renewals to finish Adam Bede, or maybe I’ll need to snap out of the habit of reading six books at once.  I think the challenge lies in developing my pace and keeping it, in the face of a world rushing through accomplishment.

Here’s to spending time with books.