Image found on Laughing Squid: The Power of Books, Photo Series Takes the Power of Reading Literally. From the photo series, “The Power of Books,” by designer Mladen Penev.
“Non-reading is not just the absence of reading. It is a genuine activity, one that consists of adopting a stance in relation to the immense tide of books that protects you from drowning. On that basis, it deserves to be defended and even taught.”
How To Talk About Books You Havent Read on Brain Pickings is a great piece that helped crystallize some ideas that had been swirling around in my brain. I spend a lot of time thinking about what I will read, what I will read next and whether I should continue reading what I am reading now. My reading time is limited, and I want to spend it in the best way possible for me. Since I’ve become so conscious of what I read, I have consistently read books that I have enjoyed more and that have made me think more.
There is that tinge of guilt that comes with not reading something, especially if it is a deliberate choice. I really ought to read ______ (fill in the blank with important literary work here). Well, this post banished all those guilty feelings. I can read, not read, skim, give up, just read the review in the NYT, as I choose, because it all becomes part of my collective library. Even the books that I don’t read have meaning to me.
The post even provides a system of categorization of unread books: unknown, skimmed, heard about, forgotten. Those books too may be weighted on a scale from an extremely positive opinion to extremely negative. I immediately put this rating scale into practice when going through my library and trying to decide what to read or reread next. A forgotten book associated with an extremely positive feeling got put on my “to read” shelf, while one with a negative or even neutral opinion was placed in the donate pile, as I knew I wouldn’t want to reread it.
I realize that not everyone delves so deeply into their reading life as to categorize books they haven’t even read yet, but it is a comfort to know that I am not the only one to do so. Indeed, there is a whole book dedicated to the subject. To be truthful, I probably won’t read that book, since this summary on Brain Pickings gave me all the food for thought I needed.
“A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.” – A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin
“Sleep is good,” he said. “And books are better.” – A Clash of Kings, George R.R. Martin
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies …. The man who never reads lives only one.” – A Dance with Dragons, George R.R. Martin
“It’s all that reading that does it, Dietrich. It takes a man out of the world and pushes him inside his own head, and there is nothing there but spooks.” – Eifelheim, Michael Flynn
“My gripe is not with lovers of the truth but with truth herself. What succor, what consolation is there in truth, compared to a story? What good is truth, at midnight, in the dark, when the wind is roaring like a bear in the chimney? What you need are the plump comforts of a story. The soothing, rocking safety of a lie.” – The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield
Fiction allows us to slide into these other heads, these other places, and look out through other eyes. And then in the tale we stop before we die, or we die vicariously and unharmed, and in the world beyond the tale we turn the page or close the book, and we resume our lives. – American Gods, Neil Gaiman
“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.” – The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
“Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.” – Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
“The best books… are those that tell you what you know already.” – 1984, George Orwell
Small Demons — Welcome to the Storyverse is an interesting project that is attempting to catalog connections in books, to other books, to people, places and things. If you are fascinated by the links between little bits of culture, this is a site you can definitely get lost in for a while.
I spent all morning researching and writing this answer to the Quora question: What 20th-century novel has been most influential in shaping mindsets and changing lives? So I thought I’d share my answer here as well.
It is hard to pick just one novel, but I think that 1984 by George Orwell is the most influential novel of the 20th century. It’s not the first dystopian novel, but it defined for most people what a dystopian government is and influenced every dystopian novel that followed. It introduced many terms and concepts into our language: Orwellian, Big Brother, groupthink, thought police. It describes the dangers of totalitarianism and oppression, and persuades citizens to be vigilant against government corruption in order to safeguard democracy. Even today, it influences political figures, judges and ordinary citizens in guarding against government over-reach when it comes to mass surveillance, loss of individual rights and personal freedoms, and manipulation of public opinion.
To round out my top 10 (because I can’t pick just one book):
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, which caused many readers to question their own prejudices and has one of the most enduring heroic characters in literature.
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, the defining novel of the Great Depression and one of the most widely read works of American literature. It exposes the plight of the poor in a capitalist, profit-driven system.
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the quintessential critique of the idea of the American dream.
- Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, which introduced a new phrase to the English language and exposes the absurdities of war and of bureaucracies like the military.
- Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, which captured the coming-of-age experience and has become synonymous with teenage rebellion.
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding, which portrays how easily human beings can regress to savagery and influenced our perception of human nature.
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, which depicted the dangers of censorship.
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, the counterpoint to 1984, which exposes the dangers of loss of individuality and societal control via mass entertainment and consumerism.
- Neuromancer by William Gibson, which introduced the term “cyberspace” and influenced — or at least, predicted — the way the Internet developed.
There are so many other 20th-century novels that were highly influential in describing the human condition, bringing about political reform, establishing philosophies of thought, or exposing societal problems that it is really hard to limit this list. For example, it’s difficult to omit The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway; All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque; The Jungle by Upton Sinclair; All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey; Native Son by Richard Wright; Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison; The Color Purple by Alice Walker; Roots by Alex Haley; The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess; Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand; The Trial by Franz Kafka; and The Stranger by Albert Camus. And then there are books that are just so widely read and highly beloved that they are bound to be personally influential, such as The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams and the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.
It just goes to show the power of literature! Never stop reading.
Over on my books blog, I share my way-too-extensive Further (and Final?) Thoughts on Genre « Books Worth Reading.
This is a repost of an old post of mine from Books Worth Reading. I think about it every time I hear someone say that they can’t or shouldn’t put down a book they’ve started reading, despite not enjoying it.
Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that you or I read, on average, 50 books a year. This is based on reading approximately one book per week, with a two-week vacation (to make the math easier). I know many people read a lot more than this, but most people read less, and I think it is a reasonable number. At least, it is fairly true of me.
Now, also for the sake of argument, let’s estimate that we will all live to be 95 years old, and we will retain our eyesight and mental faculties until our last days. Omitting the first 5 years of life, when we did not know how to read, that gives us approximately 90 years of reading time in a lifetime.
So, averaging 50 books a year for 90 years means that most of us will read around 4,500 books over the course of our life.
In 2006 (the latest year for which I could find data), 291,920 books were published in the United States alone. It would take almost 65 of us, reading our entire lives, just to read all of those books. And that’s what was published in just one year.
I don’t know about you, but if I am going to be able to read only the tiniest fraction of all the books that are out there, I want them to be good books. Which means I’m not going to feel guilty again about putting a book down after page 100, or page 10, or paragraph 10, or even word 10.
Life’s too short to read bad books.
I spotted this question on Quora: How does one become a better reader and what does it mean to be a better reader? Here is my answer.
Being a better reader, I would say, means that you choose higher quality books that can enlighten as well as entertain you. By high quality, I don’t just mean the established canon of literature, but instead I am referring to well-written, impactful books in whatever genre speaks to your interests. Over time, you’ll find that you more naturally choose these books, that you learn more from your reading and that you retain what you’ve read longer. Your reading will start to inform other aspects of your life, particularly your creative life. In all respects, your reading will be richer.
A good way to become a better reader is to practice close reading. Instead of skimming or reading quickly, try reading word by word. Pay attention to the word choices writers have made and the way they have structured their sentences and paragraphs. Think about the effect they are trying to accomplish with their choices. You will read more slowly and you may read less, but you will get more out of what you read. And you will be unable to tolerate poor writing! For more on this technique, see Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer or her article on Close Reading in The Atlantic.
I believe I became a better reader after I started journaling my reading. There are many methods available: a notebook, a blog, social sites like LibraryThing or GoodReads. Discussing what you’ve read with others is also helpful. Over time, I found myself choosing better books and thinking more deeply about what I read. It helps me to think of reading as a conversation between me (the reader) and the writer. Once the writer has his/her say, then I respond. This definitely helps me internalize what I’ve read and remember it longer.