Thursday, February 20, 2014

Why I Read

I’ve been writing book reviews on my blog fairly regularly for the last six months or so. I don’t review all the books I read. Basically, I don’t write about any book that I didn’t like. Why? Well, I don’t like Moby Dick or Harry Potter although I know that they are both works of genius. I’d hate to lead people away from a good book that I just didn’t enjoy for personal reasons.

In the summer, however, I thought I’d track my reading habits to see how what I was reading affected what I wrote and what I did. I had the idea that books were putting me in different emotional states, and maybe I could see how and why they were doing this.

What I found was something a lot more slippery than I thought. There was not a one to one correlation, and in fact, I read for different reasons than I imagined.

Here are some of my findings. My guess is that if you analyze your reading habits, you’ll find something similar.

I tend to split my reading just about three ways. I like popular history, poetry collections, and fiction. My fiction reading favors mystery and crime. No surprise there. I’ll read the occasional oddball philosophy book but not often.

My reading rarely affects what I’m writing about. In fact, it turns out to be just the opposite. For example, I have been working on a collection of poems about how Degas’s desire for social justice and his anger about the working condition for women led to his ballerina paintings. I allowed myself to be drawn to popular history books of his time about moments of social injustice including books about Taft and Carnegie.

I didn’t go through the book stores thinking that I wanted something to help prompt the poems I was writing. If I had done that, I would have looked for books on French history. This was more of an emotional search. I stopped when I saw something that caught my eye.

The truth is that at least part of the reason we read is to confirm the ideas, good and nonsensical, that we already have. It’s not just a logical choice.

My poetry reading leans strongly towards people I know in the Los Angeles poetry community. I’m a Los Angeles poet after all. Or more precisely, a Long Beach poet. When choosing a book of poetry, I tend to choose the book of a person I like. In fact, if I’ve met someone and I don’t like that person, I generally don’t like his or her book.

That seems like a pretty obvious kind of observation, but consider why we think we read what we read. If someone were to ask me what I like to read, I’d probably say anything as long as it’s good. That’s not true. There are a number of local poets who are good, but I just don’t want to read their work because I don’t like them personally (I’m not going to name names).

It seems to me that like so many things in my life, why I’m doing this activity is as much about emotion as intellect. More than that, it’s about my desire for inclusion. I read because I feel like I belong in that book.

I’ve made a long study of the reasons my students go to and stay in class, and the biggest factor is that feeling of inclusion. I’m surprised to find it operating on such a high level in a completely solitary activity.

For me at least.

I also find that I don’t count research as reading. If I was researching, and I read four books about Degas, I didn’t mention any one of these. I don’t know why that is.

I’m interested to see how the rest of the year pans out, and I wonder if my analysis here is going to change my reading habits. Anyway, I’d like to get some feedback. Why do you think you read what you read? What are you reading right now? Be honest. Why did you pick that book up?

I’m currently reading a mystery, Gun, with Occasional Music, and a history book about what happened to Descartes's bones. I’m reaching way down into my psyche trying to figure out that Descartes book.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

2 Minute Book Review

Thomas Lux's God Particles

Okay, not his best. However, it's all tightly written. Love most of his poems in the collection, but some have too much obscurity and not a lot of point. Well, that's pretty negative and I don't feel that way about it. Read the book if you like poetry.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

2 Minute Book Review

I've gotten backed up on my reading again, but here are three more. I think I've fallen into a reading pattern, so next week I'm back to poetry and maybe some lit fiction. I did start the letters of Lord Byron, but I'm not a huge Byron fan, so I doubt that'll last.

Winston Churchill's My African Journey

Churchill's assessment of what had to happen in Africa based on his journeys through the back country. I do truly admire the way Churchill led England through WWII, but he's hard to take when he comes to the idea of colonization. He made his bones in the Boer War, and in this book, he was back with conservative maturity and sobriety. Gag me. He describes the colonial powers as "paternal" and sees that as a good thing. And just when I start to really work up a froth, he makes some good points such as the British were better colonizers than others. That's hard to dispute, but that just makes the claim that they were evil, but a little less so. Same argument that Orwell made it, but he had the good sense to be ashamed.

Ian Rankin's Exit Music

So, a good police procedural, but I don't like police procedurals. Why did I read it? Well, somehow I've gotten caught up in the soap opera of John Rebus's life.  He's a fun cat to spend time with. As for the murder investigation, he's more interesting to me than others. Rebus isn't a genius the way some are. That's boring, but he uses good common sense to get to the end of the crime, and that's satisfying. Should your read it? Sure. Yeah. I like it without liking the genre. That's good writing.

Margaret MacMillan's Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World

Okay, I'm a liberal Quaker, so my feelings about Nixon a non-liberal person pretending to be a Quaker tend to run high. Still, I've always admired what he did in China, and in a couple of other arenas too. It was interesting to read about. The author hammered away at Nixon's paranoia and the strange relationship he had with Kissinger. She was more forgiving of Mao than I was comfortable with. A couple of times she bought into his justifications for the Cultural Revolution and the murders associated with it. At one point talking about Mao's right-hand man, Chou En-lai, she asks what could Chou have done to stop all those murders. Please, the bastard didn't just let them happen, he prospered from them. Okay, maybe I'm angry with this book. I guess I need to let it dance around the brainpan some more.