Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Category Archives: reading

Self-Measurement Through Writing

A couple weeks ago, Kyell was talking about how to measure your improvement as a writer. One of the things he recommends is going back through your old work from time to time, as you should be constantly acquiring better skills to evaluate your work.

This post on BLDGBLOG, which is usually about architecture, talks about measuring your progress through life by reading the same book every few years, or visiting the same building every few years. Oddly, I was just talking about this yesterday, how I remember the Circus Circus casino in Las Vegas as a big, glamorous place. I have a very vivid memory of standing right by the pit, because as a seven-year-old I wasn’t allowed to go down in where the slot machines were. But Circus Circus was (and remains) one of the more kid-friendly casinos on the Strip. Returning there a few years ago, it seemed shabby to me, dirty and old, not as glamorous as it had been.

The problem with buildings is that they change while we are changing, so unlike a novel, it’s not a fixed mark. Where Geoff of BLDGBLOG recommends going back and reading the same novel every few years, I think writers can go one better. You should go back and re-read when you can*, but you should also go back and examine your own work, to measure your growth as a person (what was important to you then? what were you writing about?) and as a writer (how have you matured? what mistakes did you make then?).

*My favorite books for re-reading, over the course of my life, are Susan Cooper’s “The Dark Is Rising” series, though currently my favorites are probably the Harry Potter books, because I’ve been re-reading them every time a new one comes out and they hold up surprisingly well. But “The Dark Is Rising” has been on my bookshelf since 1976-77ish, and I’ve re-read them every few years. And I did not go see the movie.

I admit I don’t spend a lot of time going back and re-reading my own work. Maybe in a couple years I’ll revisit “Common and Precious,” though I’m already embarrassed at some of the language errors I’ve come across just doing readings…

Colm Toibin

I attended a reading at Stanford this week by Irish author Colm Toibin, whom I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard of until our workshop instructor recommended him to us. I am now writing to recommend him to you.

The man who introduced him recommended Heather Blazing of Toibin’s published works. It’s going on my list as of now. Toibin himself is an engaging, pleasant speaker, who began his talk by saying, “My father died when I was twelve.” In true Irish fashion, this story leads through a few other stories about Irish funeral customs, how people would just come over to his house to pay their respects for months afterwards, to the story that leads into the work he’s going to read from. A woman he didn’t know well was over to pay her respects to his mother, and told his mother a story of her own, about her daughter who she found dead in her bed (two dead people already–you can tell this is an Irish story). The death prompted her other daughter to return from Brooklyn (not just “America,” but Brooklyn specifically). For a time, she stayed with the mother, the mother thinking she’d returned for good, until one day the daughter said, “Mum…I’m married in America.” And then it became clear that she would have to go back.

That one small story became the basis of his upcoming novel, “Brooklyn,” which he read two passages from. It’s funny (no dead people in either of the passages) and very lyrical, and despite the fact that I hadn’t slept well the night before, my eyes didn’t droop once. The first passage he read concerned his heroine’s passage in third class on a boat from Liverpool to New York, much of which is spent vomiting; the second passage takes place in Brooklyn on Christmas Day, 1951.

I’m adding his books to my stack and will certainly pick up “Brooklyn” when it comes out. Though I wouldn’t have discovered him without the workshop, ironically, I won’t have time to read any of his books until the workshop is over.

The E-Book Revolution Will Not Be Kindled

Amazon’s new e-book reader, Kindle, is the talk of the blogosphere this week. The Oxford University Press blog dramatically states that the fate of Kindle will determine the fate of all e-books for ALL TIME (the comments in that post are worth reading, especially the ones bringing up the generation issue, which I think is a critical one–more below). Guy Kawasaki rhapsodizes about it, as you might expect from the eternal tech-optimist. On the other side, we have Bethanne Patrick at Publisher’s Weekly, who comments on the OUP blog and rhapsodizes about paper books.

Speaking only from the position of someone who grew up reading books and now works and lives in the heart of Silicon Valley, I don’t think this is “the last gasp” of e-books. I don’t think it’s the perfect solution. Even Guy Kawasaki admits that reading novels isn’t the best use of the Kindle–he likes that it can pull down blogs, news, and other ephemera from the net. But more reading is probably done electronically than on paper, at least in the U.S., and so this is the way things are headed. If the Kindle fails, someone else will come up with a better solution, and eventually, there will be one that is sufficiently usable that making the switch from paper won’t be an issue.

The most frequent comparison is to the iPod, but that’s not really a valid comparison for a lot of reasons. Namely:

* Type of consumable: music vs. books. I might listen to three albums in a day. I might listen to fifty songs from fifty different albums, if I made a couple mix CDs. Rarely will I read more than one book in a day, and almost never more than two. The iPod allowed me to vary my music in three-to-five minute intervals. The Kindle will replace a single book. Why would I just not carry around the one book I’m reading? Even on vacation, I usually don’t bring a stack of books, and it’s an expensive toy to be just a “vacation reader.”

* Backwards compatibility. I was able to load my entire CD collection onto my iPod. Can I get my whole library onto a Kindle? Even if it had the room to store several hundred books, there’s no exchange program available to load electronic copies. I go back and re-read from time to time, and actually, I would love to be able to just call up passages from my favorite books. I may be unusual in that sense, but I think that people who love books and love to read rarely finish a book and leave it behind forever.

* Availability of material. Here, at least, Amazon has good inroads, and I could see them building up their title library to the point where most new stuff is available for the Kindle. The problem, again, is that there’s no easy conversion process, so they have to do the conversion on their end before a title can be available.

One of my friends is thrilled, because he hates lugging books around and having them all over his apartment. I admit, I hate moving books, but I love having them. I think this is what bothered some audiophiles when they had to give up their LPs for CDs, and eventually for iPods: the thing itself is a link to your memory of reading it.

I can see why people loved albums: the smell of cardboard and vinyl, holding onto the sleeve as you listened to the record play, burning the cover image into your mind, reading the liner notes. But I own no albums with which I’ve spent as much time as the shortest book in my library (not true of the music, but we’re distinguishing packaging from content here). CDs overtook LPs in a matter of years, accomplishing what eight-tracks and cassettes could not, because they were such a markedly superior format and took so little away from the essential experience. Can we say that about the Kindle?

I know certain books by the shape and color of their spine. I love the variations in cover art between different editions, some of the amazing paintings that were done to promote books. In creating our own books, we’ve tried to re-create that feel of a book you can really love (at the recent convention, I saw people carrying around some well-worn copies of our books, and it made me happy).

I think that I am on the cusp, though, of a generation that loves books. My parents brought me up to love books, and I still have a strong memory of just the spines of some of the books in their library, though I never read them. Recent surveys continue to show reading on the decline (one showed that 25% of adults in the U.S. did not read a single book in 2006). The “new reading” is quick hits: blogs, web pages, ten-minute digestible doses of words. Harry Potter is remarkable because it is the exception rather than the rule; it is remarkable not so much because it is popular with children, who after all are being forced to read books in school every day, but because it is also popular with adults, who cannot be forced to read anything besides the occasional 1040 form.

And so we come to the generational issue. The tech-savvy generation doesn’t read; the generation that loves to read clings to paper-tech. How does the Kindle bridge the gap? It tries to make the e-reading experience as close as possible to the paper-reading experience. But without some of the conveniences the iPod offers, that’s a losing strategy. If you make it similar, you remove people’s incentive to switch. Yes, it allows you to look up things on the online dictionary while you’re reading; yes, it has a built-in link to Wikipedia. These are steps forward. They don’t make me want to stop reading paper, and they won’t be enough to get a twenty-something to sit down with Tolstoy, or even Ishiguro. There are, I think, many more steps to go, some leap of insight that someone has yet to make.

[EDITED to add: when it comes to leaps of insight, you can always look over in Seth Godin’s corner.]