10 Big Books I Have Read & Loved

Not too long ago, in the book section at Target, I overheard a woman say to her companion, “I stay away from big books.” They walked away, so I didn’t get to hear any more of the conversation, but it made me think about big books.

I can imagine many reasons someone might offer for staying away from big books:

  • Big books intimidate me.
  • Big books contain too much stuff for me to keep straight in my head.
  • Big books are too heavy to carry around.
  • Reading a big book requires a long time commitment.
  • I prefer shorter books that I can read quickly.
  • Big books deal with too many big ideas. I just want an entertaining story.

For my money, a book should be as long as it needs to be to tell its story. And a long story can be just as entertaining as a short one. In fact—and I know many readers who would agree with me here—if a story is well told, I sometimes want it not to end; occasionally I purposely wait to finish a book because I don’t want to leave those characters and their world quite yet.

Here, in no particular order, are some big books that I have read and loved. For the sake of definition, I use the term big book to refer to one of 500 or more pages.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
paperback, 515 pages

cloud atlasIn this brilliant novel David Mitchell uses intertwined stories to demonstrate how individual people and their fates are connected across space and time. The literary genres featured here include autobiography, philosophical inquiry, mystery, and speculative fiction in a narrative framework that circles back on itself to create the paradox of discrete moments within the vast expanse of human experience.

This big novel is challenging but not daunting. It well rewards the time spent on a slow and careful reading. This was my introduction to David Mitchell’s work, and I am slowly working my way through the rest of his work.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
hardcover, 773 pages

the goldfinchThirteen-year-old Theo Decker is devastated by the death of his mother. Having been abandoned earlier by his father, he is taken in by the wealthy family of a former schoolmate before his father claims him and moves him from New York City to Las Vegas in pursuit of his own agenda.

Theo spends his adolescence and young adulthood in search of love, family, and a sense of identity. Intrigue in the world of art and antiques keeps the plot moving. With an ever-growing cast of compelling characters, Theo’s coming-of-age travels take him between New York, Las Vegas, and Amsterdam in a journey during which he must learn what things are worth keeping and what ones he must let go of.

This big book caused a big critical controversy over the question, “Is it art?” I’m not going to contribute to that debate, with its unsavory suggestion that any work of literature that is popular cannot also be artistic or literary. All I can tell you is that, for me, this was a real page-turner.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
hardcover, 514 pagesclamity physics

Marisha Pessl’s dazzling debut sparked raves from critics and heralded the arrival of a vibrant new voice in American fiction. At the center of Special Topics in Calamity Physics is clever, deadpan Blue van Meer, who has a head full of literary, philosophical, scientific, and cinematic knowledge, but she could use some friends. Upon entering the elite St. Gallway School, she finds some–a clique of eccentrics known as the Bluebloods. One drowning and one hanging later, Blue finds herself puzzling out a byzantine murder mystery. Nabokov meets Donna Tartt (then invites the rest of the Western Canon to the party) in this novel–with visual aids drawn by the author–that has won over readers of all ages.

Goodreads

If you like literary puzzles, you’ll love this big novel that requires readers to tolerate ambiguity and hold several possibilities in abeyance until the pieces all, finally, fall into place.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck
paperback, 601 pages

east of eden

Set in the farmland of the Salinas Valley in California, this novel retells the stories of Adam and Eve and of the rivalry between Cain and Abel through the intertwined generations of the Trask and Hamilton families.

Here Steinbeck created some of his most memorable characters and explored his most enduring themes: the mystery of identity; the inexplicability of love; and the murderous consequences of love’s absence.

Goodreads

And there’s no question over this big novel, as there is about Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, of whether it’s art. It most definitely is—an artful and rewarding reading experience.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt
paperback, 503 pages

secret historyAs a classics major myself, I was easily drawn into Donna Tartt’s first novel about an inner circle of “five students, worldly and self-assured, selected by a charismatic classics professor to participate in the search for truth and beauty. Together they study the mysteries of ancient Greek culture and spend long weekends at an old country house, reading, boating, basking in an Indian summer that stretches late into autumn.”

Many years later one of these students, Richard Papen, pens this confession of how willing he was to be drawn into this inner circle and of how far these young men went to experience what they considered the fullness of intellectual and emotional life.

This is a big novel full of big ideas:

Hugely ambitious and compulsively readable, this is a chronicle of deception and complicity, of Dionysian abandon, of innocence corrupted by self-love and moral arrogance; and, finally, it is a story of guilt and responsibility.

Goodreads

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
hardcover, 544 pages

life after lifeOn a snowy, cold night in 1910 Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. She arrives too soon and dies before drawing her first breath. On the same night Ursula Todd is born, takes a big breath, and lets out a loud cry, the beginning of but one of the many lives Ursula Todd is destined to live.

Throughout the novel Ursula Todd is reborn many times and dies many times, at different points in her life span. She seems to learn a little bit from each life that her unconscious mind carries into subsequent lives—because she is destined to live her life over and over again until she gets it right. The fate of modern civilization depends on her ability to get it right, finally.

This big book was a big hit: It was a winner in the 2013 Goodreads Choice Awards.

Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt
paperback, 555 pages

possession

Possession is an exhilarating novel of wit and romance, at once an intellectual mystery and triumphant love story. It is the tale of a pair of young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets. As they uncover their letters, journals, and poems, and track their movements from London to Yorkshire—from spiritualist séances to the fairy-haunted far west of Brittany—what emerges is an extraordinary counterpoint of passions and ideas.

Goodreads

This is another book you’ll love if you like literary puzzles. I liked this big novel so much that I’ve read it twice.

Underworld by Don DeLillo
hardcover, 827 pages

underworld

This book is so complex that I’m going to rely on Goodreads to describe it:

While Eisenstein documented the forces of totalitarianism and Stalinism upon the faces of the Russian peoples, DeLillo offers a stunning, at times overwhelming, document of the twin forces of the cold war and American culture, compelling that “swerve from evenness” in which he finds events and people both wondrous and horrifying. Underworld opens with a breathlessly graceful prologue set during the final game of the Giants-Dodgers pennant race in 1951. Written in what DeLillo calls “super-omniscience” the sentences sweep from young Cotter Martin as he jumps the gate to the press box, soars over the radio waves, runs out to the diamond, slides in on a fast ball, pops into the stands where J. Edgar Hoover is sitting with a drunken Jackie Gleason and a splenetic Frank Sinatra, and learns of the Soviet Union’s second detonation of a nuclear bomb. It’s an absolutely thrilling literary moment. When Bobby Thomson hits Branca’s pitch into the outstretched hand of Cotter–the “shot heard around the world”–and Jackie Gleason pukes on Sinatra’s shoes, the events of the next few decades are set in motion, all threaded together by the baseball as it passes from hand to hand.

Goodreads

Yet despite its complexity, the story keeps moving through all 827 pages. Similar to David Mitchell, DeLillo uses intertwined stories to create the sense of connected experience over 50 years of American life.

I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb
paperback, 897 pages

i know this muchThis book narrates the story of identical twins Thomas and Dominick Birdsey. The novel opens when the two are adults. Thomas has schizophrenia, and Dominick is his caregiver. It’s a complex story that jumps between the 1920s, the 1940s, the 1960s, and the 1980s to examine family relationships, the interconnections between generations, love, and responsibility (both personal and civic). Despite the presence of several storylines in different eras playing out throughout, the novel is easy to follow.

This big novel that deals with big truths has a big, loyal following. I know three people who name I Know This Much is True as the favorite book they’ve ever read. Many others say this is the novel that has stuck with them the most of all the books they’ve ever read.

If you haven’t read it yet, I—and a lot of other people—recommend that you give it a try. Chances are that you won’t be able to put it down until you’ve finished page 897.

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
paperback, 973 pages

pillars of earthSet in twelfth-century England, this is the story of the building of a great Gothic cathedral. Several characters people the story: Tom Builder, who dreams of working on such a structure; Philip, prior of the fictional Kingsbridge who must fight the sin of pride in his own desire to build the world’s biggest church; Jack, Tom’s son, a master stone artist; and Aliena, a noblewoman who fights patriarchal prejudice to build a business.

But perhaps the two dominant characters of the novel are the cathedral itself and the historical age in which it is built. The cathedral becomes the focal point for pride, arrogance, and greed among the Church and the nobility, and for a source of sustenance among the peasant workers. In an age when geopolitical boundaries did not exist, power belonged to whichever nobleman could muster the biggest army. Peasants were at the mercy of the nobility, and peasants lived or died according to noble whim. The Church and the nobility jockeyed for power over the masses whose labor they both exploited.

Ken Follett had written a number of thrillers before he turned to this big story, his pet project. He spent years on the research necessary to write the book. In a foreword he says that many readers tell him Pillars of the Earth is their favorite of his novels. “It’s mine, too,” he says.

What about you?

Do you avoid big books, or do you embrace them? Are there any big books that you have read and loved?

Let us know in the comments.

Reading Suggestions

David Bowie’s Top 100 Books

Bowie’s top 100 book list spans decades, from Richard Wright’s raw 1945 memoir Black Boy to Susan Jacoby’s 2008 analysis of U.S. anti-intellectualism in The Age of American Unreason.

his list shows a lot of love to American writers, from the aforementioned to Truman Capote, Hubert Selby, Jr., Saul Bellow, Junot Diaz, Jack Kerouac and many more. He’s also very fond of fellow Brits George Orwell, Ian McEwan, and Julian Barnes and loves Mishima and Bulgakov.

I’m not sure if I could even put together a list of the top 100 books I’ve read, especially one as wide-ranging as this. Read it and be humbled.

Six Religion Books Headed to the Big Screen in 2016

I wasn’t sure I’d find anything I’d be interested in on this list, but I was wrong. One book that depicts the persecution of Christians in Japan during the seventeenth century is being made into a movie starring Liam Neeson. And—and this surprises me—a new film of Ben-Hur is due out in August.

The 10 Most Anticipated Book Adaptations of 2016

Get the scoop on these:

(10) Silence (TBA 2016)
(9) A Monster Calls (October 14)
(8) Inferno (October 14); Dan Brown’s Inferno, not Dante’s
(7) The Divergent Series: Allegiant (March 18)
(6) The BFG
(March 23)
(5) The Jungle Book (April 15)
(4) Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (November 11)
(3) The Girl on the Train (October 7)
(2) Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (November 18)
(1) Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (December 25)

The 27 Most Exciting Books Coming In 2016

Jarry Lee has put together this list of both fiction and nonfiction for BuzzFeed. Her descriptions make me want to read every one of these:

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
High Dive by Jonathan Lee
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan
The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray
We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge
What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell
Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey
In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri
Zero K by Don DeLillo
Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson
Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa
LaRose by Louise Erdrich
Hunger by Roxane Gay
Bullies: A Friendship by Alex Abramovich
Modern Lovers by Emma Straub
Private Citizens by Tony Tulathimutte
The Veins of the Ocean by Patricia Engel
What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera
The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett
The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni
Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue
The Narrow Door by Paul Lisicky
You Should Pity Us Instead by Amy Gustine
Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer

My 10 Favorite Books: Gloria Steinem

This is one in a number of lists by people asked what 10 books they’d take with them if they were marooned on a desert island.

Gloria Steinem very practically answered:

“If I were marooned on a desert island, I would want a book on edible plants and building a raft, but here are 10 I would choose for the pleasure of big and new understandings.”

I love that phrase, “big and new understandings.”

Anyway, read why she chose these books:

The Mermaid and the Minotaur, Dorothy Dinnerstein
Exterminate All the Brutes, Sven Lindqvist
Two Thousand Seasons, Ayi Kwei Armah
The Sacred Hoop, Paula Gunn Allen
Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman
At the Dark End of the Street, Danielle McGuire
The Color Purple, Alice Walker
Sex and World Peace, Valerie Hudson, et al.
The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston
Dark Matter, Robin Morgan

2016 Reading Challenges

I had a poor reading year in 2015, managing to complete only 28 books of a goal of 40. But this year I should have more time to read, so I’ve once again challenged myself to read 40 books this year on Goodreads. I set and exceeded that goal in 2013 and 2014, so I’m pretty confident I can achieve it this year as well.

The only feature of the Goodreads challenge is the number of books you plan to read. If you’re looking for a more structured challenge that will expand your reading horizons, here are three:

The 2016 Reading Challenge

Modern Mrs. Darcy challenges you to “read 12 books in 12 different categories in 12 months.” Her challenge includes the following categories:

  • a book published this year
  • a book you can finish in a day
  • a book you’ve been meaning to read
  • a book recommended by your local librarian or bookseller
  • a book you should have read in school
  • a book chosen for you by your spouse, partner, sibling, child or BFF
  • a book published before you were born
  • a book that was banned at some point
  • a book you previously abandoned
  • a book you own but have never read
  • a book that intimidates you
  • a book you’ve already read at least once

Modern Mrs. Darcy also offers you some free downloadable forms to help you track and complete the challenge, including a list of these categories and a reading journal (look for a link in the right sidebar).

Take 2016’s Ultimate Reading Challenge!

Macy Williams at PopSugar also has a challenge designed to “help you read a variety of books this year.” Her list of categories is a bit longer than Modern Mrs. Darcy’s, so I’m not going to reproduce the whole list here. But you can download a printable list of the categories and check each one off as you complete it.

The 2016 Book Riot Read Harder Challenge

This challenge has 24 tasks, which means you’ll have to complete two a month to finish by the end of 2016. As with the previous two challenges, you can download and print a list of the categories.

There’s also a Read Harder group on Goodreads, and you can “check in all over social media with the hashtag #ReadHarder.” You even have the opportunity to participate in a live Read Harder book group if you live in one of these cities:

  • HOUSTON
  • NEW YORK CITY
  • PHILADELPHIA
  • LOS ANGELES
  • CHICAGO
  • GLASGOW
  • BOSTON
  • WASHINGTON, D.C.

If you need help finding books to fulfill all the categories, there’s a link here to a list of recommendations from the New York Public Library.

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You might be able to find some suggestions for these challenges from 32 New Books To Add To Your Shelf In 2016, which covers new releases through May.

My List: Best Books Read in 2015

It’s not quite the end of the year yet, but since it looks as if I won’t finish any more books in time, I might as well go ahead with my annual list.

I had an abysmal year of reading this year, only 28 books.

While most other “best books of 2015” lists include books published this year, my list includes any books I’ve read, regardless of when they were published. Here, listed alphabetically by author, are the 10 best of the 28 I read this year.

winesburgAnderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio
Connelly, Michael. The Crossing
Costello, Mary. Academy Street: A Novel
Cumming, Alan. Not My Father’s Son
Fowler, Karen Joy. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Green, John. The Fault in Our Stars
Highsmith, Patricia. The Price of Salt
Ueland, Brenda. If You Want to Write
Vine, Barbara. A Dark-Adapted Eye
Zindel, Paul. The Pigman

That’s eight novels and two works of nonfiction.

And here are a couple of 2015’s noteworthy books that I read but that did not make the cut:

Since my own reading total is so low, for those of you who’d like to see the accomplishment of a more productive reader, I offer you I read 164 books in 2015 and tracked them all in a spreadsheet. Here’s what I learned..

The beautiful Icelandic tradition of giving books on Christmas Eve : TreeHugger

Icelanders have a beautiful tradition of giving books to each other on Christmas Eve and then spending the night reading. This custom is so deeply ingrained in the culture that it is the reason for the Jolabokaflod, or “Christmas Book Flood,” when the majority of books in Iceland are sold between September and December in preparation for Christmas giving.

Source: The beautiful Icelandic tradition of giving books on Christmas Eve : TreeHugger

Happy holidays to all, however you celebrate!

“Jane Austen’s Guide to Alzheimer’s”

Most readers of Jane Austen name Pride and Prejudice as their favorite of her novels. But my favorite has always been Emma. I don’t remember whether Emma was the first Austen novel I read, but I do remember that it was the first novel that, when I had finished, I went back to the beginning and started reading all over again.

Emma coverI’ve read Emma several times more, but Carol J. Adams’s essay “Jane Austen’s Guide to Alzheimer’s” introduced me to an aspect of the novel I had never noticed before: Adams argues that Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse, has dementia. Of Emma Adams says:

how she behaved toward her father confirms, to my reading at least, Mr. Woodhouse’s cognitive impairment. Deciding what to send as a gift is only one of the many activities that Emma does to assist her father. She helps him stay oriented, does the conversational work for him, and plays a simple game with him rather than the more complicated ones she prefers.

Adams writes that she read or listened to Emma several times during the middle stages of her 92-year-old mother’s Alzheimer’s disease: “What started as entertainment soon became an important guide.” Adams continued to read books about her mother’s condition and “began a dialogue in my mind in which I used what I learned about Alzheimer’s to deepen my understanding of the novel, and Emma’s behavior to instruct me on caregiving.”

One of the criticisms most often leveled at Emma—the character, not the novel—is that she’s a rich, selfish, spoiled brat who amuses herself at the expense of other peoples’ feelings. It’s true that she does almost ruin the life of her friend Harriet by trying to arrange for her an unsuitable marriage. And she’s rude to another woman during the trip to Box Hill near the end of the novel.

But, for Adams, Emma demonstrates the casualties of caregiving: “When you lose your cool, it might not be with your care receiver, but some unlikely individual in the wrong place at the wrong time.” And, Adams points out, when Emma’s brother-in-law teases her about all her social engagements, Emma replies, “how very, very seldom I am ever two hours from Hartfield,” the Woodhouse home. Adams remembers how giddy she was with anticipation over two hours of freedom when she had arranged for someone else to stay with her mother for a while.

The neuroscience of how reading fiction affects our brains and our personalities, making us more empathetic, understanding, and compassionate, receives a lot of press. Adams’s story of how reading and rereading Emma helped her through a difficult time in her life is more straightforward:

I needed Emma as an example, to inspire me to be more patient, less judgmental. Caregiving books tell us how to behave; Emma showed me.

On Reading

If you enjoyed a good book and you’re a woman, the critics think you’re wrong

Jennifer Weiner never passes up an opportunity to lament how the world of literary criticism mistreats authors (like her) and readers of popular literature. “Every once in a while,” she explains, “a literary novel becomes tremendously popular, transcending the typical sales for literary fiction and making its way onto bestseller lists.”

Those juggernaut books have a few things in common: they’re written by women; they are read (as is most fiction) mostly by women; and, as they ascend toward peak popularity, perhaps even winning a prize or two, some highbrow critic will announce that they are not literature at all but, in fact, sentimental trash, unworthy of a single honor or accolade, written by bad people and read by awful – or, at least, silly and stupid – fans.

She calls this process “‘Goldfinching’, after Vanity Fair’s 2014 yes-but-is-it-art interrogation as to whether Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer prize-winning, mega-bestselling book The Goldfinch is or is not literature.”

Goldfinching isn’t about elevating good books at the necessary expense of bad ones. It’s about once more reminding the wrong kind of reader of just where she stands, and how little her enjoyment or endorsement matters.

You can follow Weiner’s article in depth by clicking on the many links she provides to examples of the disparagement of popular literature she provides.

For the record, I loved Tartt’s The Goldfinch, as well as Gone Girl, another of the novels whose criticism Weiner cites as examples that support her thesis.

When Popular Fiction Isn’t Popular: Genre, Literary, and the Myths of Popularity

This article picks up where Weiner left off in the previous article. The term popular literature usually occurs as a synonym for genre fiction, and that’s how Lincoln Michel uses the term here. As Michel puts it:

When we get into a debate like … “genre” vs. “literary,” we’ve wandered into the book world version of conservative vs. liberal. Arguments revolve around feelings, constantly redefined terms, and moving goal posts rather than any interest in truth or understanding.

Much of the problem with such debates stems from the lack of any specific and generally accepted definitions of terms like genre fiction and literary fiction. Like Weiner, Michel cites a lot of critics’ opinions about what those terms mean. He even crunches a lot of sales numbers in trying to determine what makes literature popular. He does all of that in order to draw the following conclusion:

If you are determined to compare popularity, at least do so with actual facts. But it would be far better if we focused less on popularity, and more on the wide range of amazing books from all genres and corners of the globe that are daily ignored for yet another think piece on already popular books.

What I like about this piece is that it gives me permission to dismiss the whole tiresome question of popular vs. literary fiction.

#42: Defining ‘Fair Play’ in detective fiction

On his or her blog The Invisible Event, Invisible Blogger (IB) writes about classic crime fiction. In this post IB discusses what he or she calls “fair play detective stories”:

I think I’m relatively safe in saying that for many people the appeal of the detective story is the opportunity to have a go at fitting the puzzle together before the author explains all at the end (differentiating here from the crime novel or the thriller, which for brevity’s sake we’ll simply say have different intentions).

Like IB, I take the term fair play detective stories to mean those in which the attentive reader has as much chance of figuring out who the villain is as does the novelist detective. In fact, solving the puzzle is one of the biggest attractions of this type of story. So I agree with IB’s list of unacceptable requirements in such a novel:

  • “there must be sufficient declared clues and no deliberate narrative chicanery on behalf of the author in withholding something without appearing not to”
  • “burying the key information in a higgledy-piggledy mess of deliberately confusing cross-talk does not, to my mind, make it fairly declared”
  • no “specialist knowledge” or “esoteric knowledge” should be required for solving the crime
  • also not allowed is “nonsense invention – no poisons previously unknown to science, not-of-this-world unexplainable influences, or just plain old invention for the sake of surprise”

So what does make a novel a “fair play detective story”?

Put simply, if I get to the reveal of a detective novel and can see how each crumb along the path of reasoning to the solution was given to me to pick up and examine at my leisure then it’s a fair play puzzle.

The big question: are books getting longer?

Richard Lea reports in The Guardian:

Books are steadily increasing in size, according to a survey that has found the average number of pages has grown by 25% over the last 15 years.

A study of more than 2,500 books appearing on New York Times bestseller and notable books lists and Google’s annual survey of the most discussed books reveals that the average length has increased from 320 pages in 1999 to 400 pages in 2014.

Some people attribute the increasing page count to e-readers, which do not emphasize the length of a book as visually as does a huge hunk of a printed book. One other possible explanation is that “people who love to read appear to prefer a long and immersive narrative, the very opposite of a sound bite or snippets of information that we all spend our lives downloading from Google,” says literary agent Clare Alexander. But, Alexander also says:

“I would argue that a countervailing force is also in play with the revival of interest in the short story (also reflected in a growing and excellent prize culture) or the brief but perfectly formed novel.”

Books vs. e-books: The science behind the best way to read

This is one of those debates that just won’t go away. Here CBS News takes “a look at some of the science to consider before you spring for a Kindle, a Nook or a stack of new hardcovers” for someone on your holiday gift list.

Here’s a list of the major points. Be sure to read the explanations of the science behind each one.

  • Young, reluctant readers prefer e-readers
  • Reading on paper may boost retention
  • Paper suits readers with sleep problems and eye strain
  • E-books help the visually impaired
  • Avid readers tend to prefer reading on paper

How Fiction Works

Vanishing Point

This piece is a translation of a speech given by Swedish novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard on receiving a German literary award. Here the writer explains how reading fiction helps us to understand humanity in general by focusing our awareness on individual people.

What characterizes our age is “the sheer volume of images of the world” that allow us to see, almost instantly, an event that occurs anywhere on the planet: natural disasters, plane crashes, acts of terrorism. We see these images as we go about our day-to-day lives, and usually “we keep these different levels of reality apart:

Even the worst disasters are something I merely register, with varying degrees of horror, as if the world outside were a film, a play, a performance, of concern to me only in the most superficial manner.

Our lives are so bound up with the media:

which by its very nature creates remoteness, its narrative structures rendering every event equal, every occurrence identical, thereby dissolving the particular, the singular, the unique, in that way lying to us, or, put differently, fictionalizing our reality.

But occasionally “the two levels of reality converge and become one.”

And in our humanity, “there is a vanishing point.” It’s the point at which our perspective of the world shifts from definite to indefinite and back again. We see images of the mass of humanity, not of individual people. But novels provide the opportunity for the opposite movement:

if there is an ethics of the novel, then it is here, in the zone that lies between the one and the all, that it comes into force and takes its basis. The instant a novel is opened and a reader begins to read, the remoteness between writer and reader dissolves. The other that thereby emerges does so in the reader’s imagination, assimilating at once into his or her mind. This establishing of proximity to another self is characteristic of the novel.

The way in which the world of a novel takes shape in the reader’s mind “is special to the form.” In showing us “value of the particular and the singular,” novels act differently than the media, which push us to see humanity as a whole rather than as a collection of individual people.

Lorin Stein on the Power of Ambiguity in Fiction

woman readingLorin Stein is editor at The Paris Review, one of the world’s most respected literary journals. He has compiled an anthology, The Unprofessionals, of short fiction from the magazine that focuses on the work of a “new generation of writers under 40.” Most of these writers’ names will be unfamiliar to readers, but, according to Stein, their work represents “the best new writing he’s seeing today,” work that “locates a role for literary writing in our media-saturated 21st century.”

In this interview with Joe Fassler for The Atlantic, Stein describes this new kind of writing:

The stories that excite me most tend to have three qualities. First there’s a voice, a narrator who urgently needs to speak. Even if they never say “I.” Second, the narrator tries to persuade you that he or she is telling the truth. The third thing is, for lack of a better word, wisdom. A kind of moral authority, or at least the effort to settle a troubled conscience.

As an example of this new kind of writing Stein cites Denis Johnson’s story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” which was published in The Paris Review in 1989. In this kind of fiction, “the payoff here is emotional, not intellectual—I can feel it even if I can’t articulate it.” The story carries a meaning “that evades logical understanding but hits us in the heart.”

The key to the effectiveness of this type of writing, Stein says, is “you have to believe in the voice itself. The narrator has to exist as a steady reliable fact.” More specifically:

we’ve become interested in the fiction of the speaker. Interested, suspicious, aware. We might ask—in a way that our grandparents wouldn’t have asked—why someone is sitting down at the keyboard at a Starbucks and doing this? It’s no longer given why someone would tell a story on paper, or onscreen. It’s become a troubling question.

This type of fictional narrator has a dual nature:

When it’s done right, fiction provides the authority to speak about deep things; at the same time, it provides a shield, a mask. The mask lets you say things, talk about things, that you couldn’t ordinarily talk about. You don’t have to make sense in quite the same way.

In the works in the anthology Stein sees a new realism, “the truths we can’t tell except when we put on the mantle of this authority.”

On Reading

The universe within.

This is not an example of outstanding writing. But I can’t help but warm to someone who can write this:

While reading you create a universe within you where your characters talk and move through breathtaking landscapes and everything is as unique as you and your imagination are.

You become the container of that universe where the book comes to life. You give life to something bigger than you, you become THE LIFE for your characters which exist only as long as you keep imagining them.

Read what else Daniel Scott has to say about reading, including why he’s never read an e-book and why he prefers to buy new rather than used books.

Nonfiction can appeal to youngsters who appear to be nonreaders

kid with booksI’m not trained in teaching children how to read, but I do usually hear about kids’ graduation to chapter books as a milestone in their process of learning to read. And my impression is that most of those chapter books are fiction. In this article Susie Wilde proclaims:

Children who appear to be nonreaders are often nonfiction readers. While fiction demands the sequential flow, factual books permit stop-and-go reading.

It makes sense to me that some children may in fact prefer reading nonfiction rather than fiction, just as some adults do. According to Wilde, there are now many books available for those children. Read her recommendations for children in the following age groups: 3–5, 4–8, 8–11, 9 and up.

Reading with your ears: do audiobooks harm or help literature?

I have been a big fan of audiobooks since they first became available. My husband and I started by renting titles that came in boxes of several cassette tapes from Books on Tape. Now we’ve upgraded to downloadable books from Audible. It’s now also possible to borrow audiobooks electronically from many public libraries.

I’ve always believed that listening to an audiobook “counts” as having read the book as long as I listened to the unabridged version.

In this article in The Guardian Claire Armitstead wonders “if the oft-maligned rise of spoken word recordings isn’t actually improving our understanding.” She writes that hearing a recorded version of Colm Tóibín’s novel Nora Webster after she had read the book made her understand how the author “weaves a manner of thinking into a manner of speech, so that a whole era and society are contained in the narrator’s broken reporting of spoken sentences.”

Armitstead quotes from critic Harold Bloom, who believes that listening to audiobooks does not allow the whole cognitive process that reading from printed pages does, and from writer Neil Gaiman, who says that dismissing audiobooks is “just snobbery and foolishness.”

On this page you can listen to some audio versions of stories.

I continue to love audiobooks because they make me feel that I’m not wasting precious time when I listen while, driving, folding clothes, or plodding on the treadmill. However, I usually choose mysteries or thrillers to listen to rather than literary fiction. If I know I’m going to want to savor a writer’s style, I’ll read the book on either printed or ebook format.

And speaking of ebooks…

TeleRead

KindleI recently discovered this site, which deals with all things pertaining to e-books:

TeleRead is for technogeeks who love books—and booklovers who love gadgets. We write about Kindle-type ereaders, phones, tablets, other devices and apps in a practical way. TeleRead runs book news and reviews and keeps up with other media appealing to smart booklovers. Along the way, we strive to help narrow the digital and reading divides.

You’ll find all kinds of articles here, including reviews of specific books and of e-reading gadgets as well as a list of sources for free e-books. There’s also information aimed at librarians and at authors interested in producing e-books of their work.

On Reading

Is Google Books Leading Researchers Astray?

Google Books, “a searchable digital archive of millions of texts spanning the history of the printed word,” can allow scholars to analyze the history of language and culture. But a recent published paper by three data scientists from the University of Vermont claims that the basic design of Google Books makes mapping such cultural trends impossible.

One problem with Google Book’s approach to indexing works is that it archives only one copy of a book. Finding a book listed only once obscures the popularity of best sellers, which libraries characteristically own a large number of to reflect the public’s high demand.

In this article several scholars contribute their own additional concerns about Google Books, at least when its used as a sole source of information. See why the author of the article concludes, “ Ultimately, we might have to recognize that Google Books simply isn’t a great research tool, however appealing it might be.”

The Work of Fiction and the Fiction of Work

The habit of reading fiction is training for friendship and responsible citizenship. A healthy society requires its members to utilize the novel’s three gifts: empathy, imagination, and knowledge. Reading fiction puts us in the habit of wanting to know more about people, treating people as people rather than just as statistics with reductive labels slapped on them. In a world where workers are treated like machines and corporations are treated like humans, we need a novelist’s sense of story in order to hold onto our own identity and to respect the common humanity of our fellow workers, all of us struggling for the necessities of life and a dream or two besides.

How 3 New Kids’ Books Help Cope With Traumatic Events

Writing for Time, Sarah Begley looks at how three new books help middle-grade readers learn about and deal with real-world problems:

  • Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate portrays how an imaginary friend helps a boy whose family faces the imminent possibility of homelessness—again.
  • The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin presents a girl who obsessively throws herself into research about a specific kind of jellyfish to understand the drowning death of her friend, a strong swimmer.
  • The Nest by Kenneth Oppel features a boy whose baby brother is born with multiple congenital problems.

Begley reports that books like these are important even for children who aren’t facing such problems because the stories model resilient behavior and help kids better understand their peers. “What’s critical for all young readers, whether or not they are struggling, is that they discuss things with their parents after reading,” she writes.

6 Ways Reading And Watching Science Fiction Makes You A More Ethical Person

Science fiction, a type of speculative fiction that imagines what people and their world might be like in the future, is gaining in popularity. This article looks at six ways in which reading and watching science fiction can make us more moral or ethical people:

  1. Sci-Fi Has Always Been Focussed On Moral Messages
  2. It’s Is Made For Taking On Current Issues In A Subversive Way
  3. Imagination And Morality Are Heavily Linked
  4. Sci-Fi Lets Us Talk About Ideas More Freely
  5. The Concept Of Aliens Helps People Push Us Past Prejudice
  6. “What-If” Thinking Is Good For Moral Brains

3 Key Advantages of “Slow Reading” That Turbocharge Your Learning

Productivity drives a lot of what we do—we want to get more done, and we therefore have to work faster to become more productive. This drive is most apparent in our desire to consume as much information as possible. We read quickly so we can move on to the next book or article. Fast reading may work in some circumstances, but real comprehension demands slow reading.

In this article Gregg Williams, a marriage and family therapist, describes his own experience with realizing how fast reading in fact slowed him down. It takes him a while to get around to the meat of his argument, but he ends up pointing out three advantages of taking time to read a text slowly:

  1. Slow-reading uncovers “hidden” gems.
  2. Stories lead to deeper truths.
  3. Slow-reading adds to your web of knowledge.

He explains that “ slow reading is also a very good idea whenever you are reading to understand any body of knowledge (for example, textbooks and popular nonfiction).” When you’re trying to learn something, slow reading saves you time because you can follow the logical flow of facts and associations.

In many cases fast reading may serve your purpose better than slow reading. “The good news is that you can decide to switch between the two.”