Tag Archives: reading

Don’t Forget Your Library


Writers are supposed to read, right?

And we’re supposed to read widely and prolifically, right?

Here’s the truth: in years past, I haven’t read enough. Not as much as I liked, and certainly not as much as I should. Why? Because books are fraggin’ expensive. And a major commitment. You go and drop forty bucks on a handful of books, not knowing if you’re going to enjoy them. But because you’ve spent the money, you feel obligated to read through the whole thing, whether you’re enjoying it or not.

Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t be buying books. (As a guy who very much hopes you may buy his books when they become available, that would be pretty much anathema.) But for whatever reason, I had forgotten about the most obvious alternative: the library.

My wife recently started her specialist’s program, and had to do a bit of research. So off she went to the library. And because, you know, libraries are good for kids books, she took the kids along, and I went, too. And so I got a chance to browse around as well. And, hey, here’s a John Scalzi book I’d been thinking about reading — I read Lock In and loved it, but wasn’t sure about his other stuff. And there, some Neil Gaiman — somehow I haven’t read much of his work, but I’ve heard very good things. And then over there in nonfiction, a bunch of titles by Malcolm Gladwell — I’ve been listening to his podcast, and it’s excellent, so why not?

I went home laden with a bunch of titles I wouldn’t have read otherwise, feeling basically no commitment or obligation to any of them. Which is really the best way to read a book — with no expectations.

I read a few, and it was good — but I quickly became a little disillusioned. Our local library is pretty tiny, and the selection isn’t much to speak of. But — what I didn’t know until recently is that basically all the libraries in the state are networked, which means that you can browse the entire selection of books in all the libraries (which is quite a lot.) Then, if some library carries a book that your branch doesn’t, you just put in a request and within a week or so, the book shows up at your library.

This changed everything.

I’ve now got a queue of books ten deep and a stack of five or so on my bedside table. I’m reading books on philosophy and sociology and nuclear weapons and all kinds of things that I just couldn’t pull the trigger on before, for whatever reason. (The fact that it’s summer helps.) You might even say I’m reading so much it’s to the detriment of my writing, but that’s a discussion for another time. (It’s easier to pick up and put down a book at will than it is to pick up and put down your novel.)

Point is, I’m shoving words into my facehole at an unprecedented rate lately, and it’s entirely because I’ve rediscovered the library.

So, you know. Visit yours. Check out a book. Learn something new.

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Page-Turner


Chuck’s challenge this week: Must Contain 3 Things. My three things: Library, Survival, War.

Ever gotten totally lost in a really good book? So did Elloree. Her story is below.

Page-Turner

In the flickering light of her dying candle, Elloree resembled nothing so much as a praying mantis in smudged plaid and oversized glasses. Her spindly fingers tracked like machines across the typeface, barreling toward the bottom of the page, then flicked it over with robotic efficiency. Her radiant eyes bounced from side to side as they drank in the words like so much water down the throat of a man dying of thirst. Her papery lips alternately pursed with puzzlement or curled up with satisfaction or opened just slightly to gasp with surprise. In a matter of moments, she had finished the book and tossed it on the pile of its brethren; another stripped-down carcass added to a growing pile of bones.

She rose, dusted her knees, and ghosted her way through the aisles. They towered over her diminutive frame like guardians, shielding her from the crimson light streaming through the windows, the streaked and scorched sunlight invading her fortress as it did for only a few times every day. She floated through fiction, bandied around the biographies, and reveled past the reference section, landing at last in her favorite section: Romance. She picked out a thick volume with a strapping bare-chested man on its cover and hummed dreamily to herself as she carried it back to her nest.

******

Rast’s shrill whistle pierced the evening, and Nell lifted her gaze from her bedraggled footsteps.

“Up ahead,” Rast whispered, as if afraid of breaking the dusty silence. “See it?”

She did. And as it always did when they approached another town, her throat tightened. Most likely it was just full of more of the same: smoldering corpses, shattered buildings, the haunting echoes of an entire community’s tortured final moments lingering in the air like poison. Occasionally, despite all the festering death, there would be some supplies. It had to be risked.

Nell straightened her pack on her shoulders, brushed an errant strand of soot-smeared hair from her face. “Let’s go.”

******

The sun was almost down, but Elloree hardly noticed. She never did, as the sunset looked the same as sunrise and much of the rest of the day. With the never-breaking columns of acrid black clouds streaming overhead, only an occasional ray of burning light would streak through, and then only briefly. The rest was darkness and smoke, and her candle was guttering. She lit another and continued her story.

******

The extermination here had been methodical and absolute. The roads were pulverized and difficult to walk on; Rast and Nell found their footing much more easily several feet off the road in the mud and weeds. The buildings were hollowed and skeletal, their shells weird misshapen silhouettes against the fading red light. No food. No survivors. Nothing left.

“Sun’s down soon,” Nell said. “Time to go.” She hated making camp in towns; you never knew when a sentry would pass over. They were better off when they could find a copse of trees or a rampant untended cornfield. But Rast wasn’t listening. He was squinting against the fading light, his three-fingered hand needlessly visoring out the sun. “There’s a light.”

“Don’t be stupid. I don’t want to get caught out here.”

“Nell. That building. Over there. It’s intact.” he pointed with his five-fingered hand. “And there’s a light in its window.”

Nell sighed and humored Rast with a look. He was daft as a post, but loyal, and he tried to help, bless him. He was also absolutely right.

The Septids razed every building they declared “tactically useful,” which included food storage, weapons repositories, residences, schools, churches, and offices. Occasionally you’d find a squat untouched, a shed or a low-slung warehouse. This building was small — probably too small to hold anything useful — but it was also definitely illuminated from within. Not by much. A light too faint to be mistaken for anything other than the reflected glow from the scorched sun burned at one window at the nearest corner. But that one window glowed while the others were dark. Rast’s sharp eyes had picked out something useful after all.

She turned to him and nodded, drawing her pistol. “Quietly.”

******

The cracked and smoke-stained door opened soundlessly as Rast leaned into it, and on practiced, stealthy footsteps, they stole into the wide open space.

A library.

For a moment, Nell simply gaped. She couldn’t believe the building was so intact, but it didn’t take long to figure out why. Books had long ago gone obsolete. They’d been digitized and collected into virtual storage, which was easier to police and took up less space. Most libraries had been decommissioned, but in some outlying towns it hadn’t been finished before the overthrow. And here they were, in a library.

With somebody else. At the end of the room, a shuffling of feet, a clatter of books. They edged around the shelves and aimed their guns at the tiny girl hunched over a novel in front of a ludicrous pile of books. Her eyes peered at them curiously through the thick lenses of her glasses.

She blinked at them, and they at her, for a few tense moments.

“How are you alive?” Nell finally asked.

Elloree shrugged.

“How long have you been here?”

She shrugged again.

The girl seemed so carefree, so unimpressed by them. Nell felt foolish. “How did you survive the war?” She demanded, her voice growing shrill.

“The war?”

Rast giggled foolishly. Nell scowled. “The war,” she explained, “that wiped out most of humanity. The war,” she continued, “that destroyed this town. The war,” she finished, “that somehow left you untouched. You didn’t know?!”

Elloree shrugged, looking a little sheepish. “It’s just… well… I’ve been reading.”

Rast began cackling. “Bookworm read right through the end of the world!”

“It’s just,” Elloree said, “that they were really good books.”


Time Out for Reading!


Weird circumstances the past couple days have seriously disrupted the routine, and as a result I’m getting virtually no work done on the novel, nor am I having any particularly useful things to post about here on the blarg.

That’s partly due to the honest-to-goodness fact that my daily schedule is all screwed up and partly due to the fact that there is some heavy sharknado weighing on my mind that I am literally not allowed to discuss.  More updates in a few days when the dust settles.

However, my activities the past few days have left me with some rather large gaps during the day which I’ve had to fill using no electronic devices at all, and since I plan ahead for these eventualities, I’ve gotten to do something I haven’t enjoyed in quite some time: sit down and read.  You know, from a book.  Like in the olden times.  Pages and all.  Bookmarks.  Dog-eared pages and jotting little notes in a notebook.  (Yeah, that’s how I read, I can’t help it.)

In particular, I’m sinking myself into the second in a series by Jasper Fforde, Lost in a Good Book.  The series in question is the Thursday Next series, which follows the titular heroine (a literary detective) as she gallivants in and out of various works of fiction, some renowned, others reviled, in pursuit of her duties tracking unauthorized changes to priceless manuscripts and verifying the authenticity of lost works of Shakespeare.

Now, “literary detective” is a job title which immediately makes me want to fall asleep, but these books are just flat out fun.  They detail a fantastically well-imagined alternate reality in which, to name just a few key differences, ownership of the Crimean peninsula is still in dispute, long-extinct animals have been genetically resequenced as household pets (Thursday keeps an adorable and rare second-sequence dodo bird, Pickwick, in her home), and Gravity Tubes allow anybody to travel to anywhere in the world in the space of just over forty minutes.  If that sounds whimsical, rest assured that I’ve only just slipped you the tip of the taco.  Fforde weaves the details of this fantastical world so thoroughly into his narrative that I never find myself questioning how things work; rather, I bounce happily along for the ride.  In fact, the alacrity and gusto and sometimes the offhanded way in which he creates the tiniest of details in this world is so charming and effective that it makes me feel woefully inadequate as a writer.

To wit, this passage from page 112 of Lost in a Good Book:

“Looping” was a slang term for Closed Loop Temporal Field Containment.  They popped the criminal in an eight-minute repetitive time loop for five, ten, twenty years.  Usually it was a Laundromat, doctor’s waiting room or bus stop, and your presence often caused time to slow down for others near the loop.  Your body aged but never needed sustenance.  It was cruel and unnatural — yet cheap and required no bars, guards, or food.

He tosses off this explanation like sluicing water off the hood of a freshly waxed car, deftly weaving the callous cruelty of the monstrous corporation together with the unfathomable scientific capabilities of the universe and, oh, just for fun, offers a clever explanation for why we always sit around checking our watches (sharknado, I just dated myself) or rather our cell phones in waiting rooms.  And he does this every three or four pages.

I’m not here today to offer a review of the entire book, let alone the series.  I haven’t yet reached the point in the book where somebody does get Looped, though it’s not necessarily an eventuality I expect.  It’s simply one example out of hundreds that detail the possibilities of an alternate universe that plays fast and loose with the laws of physics.  Fforde is also unrelentingly British and has that delightfully dry wit, so the books scratch that Douglas Adams itch that seems so untameable.  (Untameable?  Untamable?  Spellcheck doesn’t like either option.)

In short, if you’re a bookish sort, you should be reading Thursday Next.  Possibly you could read Thursday Next on Thursday next.  (I think the man must have been chuckling sideways at himself with just about every character name in the thing.)  And no, it’s not a particularly new series — Good Book came out in 2002 — but who cares?  It’s brilliant and clever and whimsical and ridiculous all at once.

The last several books I’ve read have been so heavy and dark and drear that these books have felt like a much-needed B12 shot.  Anybody else out there reading books that make you laugh?


Things Writers Need — Books


Every Thursday I write a little piece for people who are thinking of writing books or for people who have writers in their lives.  A collection of things that a writer’s life is not complete without.  To continue in my series in Things Writers Need, here are some of my thoughts on one of the most important things in any writer’s life: books.

Nobody takes up soccer because they think it’d be nifty to kick a ball around without using their hands for an hour and a half.  They take it up because they watch a game or two and think it looks like fun and they start to practice and they get decent at kicking the ball around and that’s how we get soccer teams now.

Nobody takes up stand-up comedy because they think it’d be nifty to stand in front of a crowd and ramble about whatever minutiae are going on in his or her life at the time while a bunch of strangers sip overpriced drinks or shout abuse.  No, they see other comedians on TV or on stage and they appreciate the humor they see on display and they practice telling jokes to their friends and one day they step up to an open mic and that’s how we get stand-up comedians.

Writing is maybe a little different in that I think there may be an intrinsic desire to write things down and tell stories; something encoded in our DNA that makes us want to pass tales on to the rest of our clan.  But people don’t set out to write hundreds of pages without seeing it done several times, learning the intricacy of storytelling, learning the way characters can sprout fully-formed from mere words, learning the way an otherwise rational adult can develop a really unhealthy relationship with a collection of pulverized wood and ink: taking it to bed at night, carrying it around in a purse, caressing and holding its pages, staring into its face for hours and hours and hours on end.

Any great writer was a great reader first.  You can’t run before you walk.  You can’t write before you read.  Writers learn to love writing by reading lots and lots of books, and they learn to write by reading lots and lots of high-quality books on all sorts of things.  So, a writer needs books.

Think about your favorite book.  It changed your life, or at the very least, changed the way you thought about the world, right?  If writers want to write books that can do the same for others, we have to learn from the masters, we have to imitate their work, we have to transmogrify their talent and their teaching into our own twisted wonderful creation.

Reading is the lifeblood of the writer.  In order to keep up the steady flow of words out of our brain-holes, we need a just-as-steady flow of words in the other side.  Words are weird, words are a paradox.  You can never lose a word, but you can sure as hell use one until it’s so tired it can no longer lift its own head.  They’re a renewable resource, but you can only carry so much at a time.  I can only juggle a couple of story ideas in my head before they start knocking each other out through the ears.  And sure, I can write down every idea that comes to me, but that doesn’t necessarily help me.  The idea I jot down in February because it sounds brilliant looks like a puddle of mushy dogsharknado by the time I get around to wanting to write it in June.  These ideas have an expiration date, I think; a use-by warning that causes them to decay the longer they’re left on the shelf.

So if words and story ideas can go bad like so much Aldi produce, how does one keep fresh stock on the shelves?  You go to the grocery store, naturally.  But not Aldi — their produce goes bad in just a few days.  No, you need the good stuff; you go to Publix, or the farmer’s market.  You go to books.

In reading and pondering the intricacies of the last book I read (The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde) I had no less than three ideas for new stories of my own, riffing off of elements found in Fforde’s book from genetically engineered pets to holding works of art hostage.  They might have been crap ideas, but I had them, and a lot of writing I think is in the exercise; it’s about the journey, as they say, rather than the destination.  I also rekindled a bit of my love for science fiction and the ridiculous, which I think is at the core of my contemporary writer self.  It was a welcome discovery after the detour into YA lit I’ve had over the last couple of years.  The heavy tropes and weighty themes of Dystopian Futures and Society Must Be Saved and The Chosen Ones have weighed on me and made my writing a little bleak, a little encumbered, a little melodramatic, perhaps.  (I’m talking about the Divergents, the Matcheds, the Hunger Gameses which have been so popular in recent years.  It’s good stuff, but man, it ain’t uplifting.  Pity the children being raised on this stuff!)

Now, that’s not to say there’s nothing to gain from those books.  Far from it.  No, in every book there’s something to be learned, even if all you learn is that you don’t want to write a story like the one you just read, ever.  (I’m looking at you, Wuthering Heights.)  It’s a foolish student that turns aside the tutelage of his predecessors.  Writers need books like football players need to review tape.  Like babies need mothers’ milk.  Like a hurricane needs an area of warm, high pressure air moving into an area of cool, low pressure air.

Now, every writer out there has their preferences and tendencies.  One will gravitate toward sprawling works of incredibly detailed interpersonally linked tales of fantasy, a la Game of Thrones.  Another will splash around in the deep and impenetrable waters of gritty crime and mystery stories in the vein of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  Still another will lounge in the comforting pages of a classic romance like Pride and Prejudice.  But tendencies and preferences aside, I think it’s necessary for all writers to consume all types of literature at least occasionally.

I’ll grant that attempting to read books in all genres is a perhaps insurmountable task just given the volume of what’s out there.  You could read a book a week for a year and still leave out some of the obscure genres like, oh I dunno, Interstellar Revenge Comedy Romance.  And maybe that’s a genre best left untapped (or maybe I just got an idea for a story…).  But I think it’s far too easy to stay in your own little cabin in the woods, reading books you know you’ll like before you read them, never sampling the waters in the streams and ponds that crisscross the landscape.

I think a good book is going to have lots of elements of lots of different genres and stories; a little something for everybody.  It’s an anemic adventure story if there isn’t a little bit of romance along the way.  No science fiction yarn is complete without a good solid dose of gritty down-to-earth human interest at the bottom of it.  Thrillers go amiss if there isn’t a little bit of a fantasy element in there; a bit of something that plays outside the rules of reality.  And I don’t know a single story in any genre, no matter how dark or dismal or defeatist, that wouldn’t be better off for at least a little dose of humor.  We must bring balance to the force, and if we want to bring balance, we must ourselves be balanced.

So, the writer needs a steady diet of books.  We need books that we like and books that we hate.  Great books and terrible books.  Books we can read cover-to-cover twenty times and books we can’t penetrate beyond the first chapter.  Books that uplift and books that depress.  Books that make you want to run out of your front door and start hugging people and books that make you want to nuke the planet from orbit.  We need to read it all so that we can write all of it into our own stories.  Writers are tasked with communicating the unending message of the human condition to those who will come after us; we don’t have the right to leave any of it out.  We have to read as much as we can so that we can tell our own stories as completely as possible.

If you’re a writer, you need a library card, or you need Amazon’s new book-rental service, or you need a bookstore in your neighborhood that will let you park in an armchair and read for hours at a time, or you need a friend with a crapton of books that you can borrow.  If you’re a friend of a writer, you can never go wrong by buying that friend a book.  Doesn’t matter what kind, what genre, what author; buy them a book.  But for god’s sake, don’t give them a gift card, don’t just buy something off Oprah’s Book Club or whatever… pick out a book that you like or a book that you think they’ll like or hell, just pick out a book with an interesting cover.  They’ll read it just the same, and maybe on the next thing they write, they’ll credit you with putting that book in their hands that inspired the new story.

What book has most influenced you as a writer?  As a person?  What would be your desert-island book?  If you could make one book required reading for everybody in the world, what would it be?


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