A humble little blog about books, information, and other things that are good to know.

Posts tagged ‘preferences’

Fifteen Books That Stuck

One of my friends from high school posted this fun little note, and I thought I’d respond to it here because, well, it’s a library blog. The point is simple: list the first fifteen books you can think of that you know you’ll always remember. Here’s what the initial meme said:

Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes. Tag 15 friends, including me because I’m interested in seeing what books my friends choose.

Wow, what an idea. Normally it would take a lot of thought to choose fifteen books that would always stick with me, but what would I pick if I were going to go with the first fifteen really meaningful books that came to mind? How about if I give it a try and see what I come  up with?

  1. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  2. Breaking Faith by John Cornwall
  3. The Church That Forgot Christ by Jimmy Breslin
  4. The Shining by Stephen King
  5. Byzantium by Stephen Lawhead
  6. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  7. The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson
  8. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  9. Rose Madder by Stephen King
  10. Full-Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn
  11. How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish
  12. The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer-Bradley
  13. His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman
  14. Silent Night by Mary Higgins Clark
  15. My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

BONUS BOOK: I really felt very tempted to put The Story of Tibet by Thomas Laird on the list, but I don’t suppose I can say it stuck with me to any great degree since I only read it yesterday. It hasn’t had the opportunity to stand the test of time. Still, I identified with it enough to give it honourable mention.

What do these selections say about me? I think they paint a picture of someone to whom relationships are important, slightly haunted by the complicated spirituality that sometimes develops when you come of age in a fairly conservative Catholic parish. Especially when you’re also interested in demons and the dark side. Most of the stories deal with spiritual conflicts or themes in some way, whether metaphorically, historically, or overtly (as in the books about Catholicism’s dark side, which were both highly influential even though I read them at least a decade apart).

Many of the themes in these stories (The Handmaid’s Tale or Fahrenheit 451) are about a fear of being silenced or fighting against an inability to speak up and tell one’s story. No big surprise, when you’re talking to a devoted librarian and would-be novelist! The Mists of Avalon is of particular importance to me because I’ve worked on (and hopefully will one day publish) a novel about the Arthurian legend, an imaginative retelling like Zimmer Bradley’s, but with a dark streak and a good deal more sympathy for Guinevere.

But ultimately I think the selection of books shows a shred of hope in me. After all, Silent Night is about family and Christmas. Books like How to Talk and Full-Catastrophe Living are about how to create positive change in your life and family. And the major theme in Byzantium is growth and self-discovery, the only path to a mature faith for the young monk who is the tale’s protagonist. I’m somebody who wants to make things better.

Yes, that sounds like me.

What fifteen books have you read in the past that really stayed with you, affected you, maybe even changed your life? What do they say about the kind of person you are?

Brainy Beach-Reading

This blog entry is dedicated to the Zigar family, who graciously hosted us and our friends throughout the weekend and generously offered me the use of their refrigerator.

"Beach Blues" by Mimi McCallum

Picture by Mimi McCallum. Click to check out more of McCallum's warm and evocative artwork.

I spent the weekend in cottage country – Ipperwash Beach, to be exact – and, predictably, when I wasn’t floating on Lake Huron or toasting marshmallows and singing “Sweet Caroline”, I was sprawled out on a beach blanket reading. I wasn’t the only one. As many librarians know, the reading public is drawn to the concept of the beach read: the fun, fluffy fiction that melds reading and relaxing when you’re taking your summer vacation. (Check out some fairly typical recommendations here and here, or hit Google with the search term “beach reads”.)

When you think about a beach read, you’re usually not thinking about a particularly heavy story; hot summer days don’t need bulky clothes, big meals, or dragging stories to weigh them down. They’re usually short paperbacks, easy to rest in your lap or hold up as a shield from the sun. (My selection this weekend was an exception: Stephen King’s Under the Dome weighs about as much as my cat, and doctors have recommended that I avoid lifting it. My cottage-country companions nicknamed it “Under the Tome”.) Beach reads aren’t usually the kind of stories you want to overthink – never mind deeper meanings or profound life lessons. Nobody wants to overheat their brain any more than necessary under the hot July sun.

Or do they?

The hot trend at Ipperwash Beach this summer seems to be all about expanding your cranium. When it comes to fiction, the classics are back in fashion. Instead of the latest crime thrillers and bodice-rippers, I caught my companions stretched out in lawn chairs with Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. It’s rare to think of non-fiction as material for beach reads, but even that was drifting around. I caught friends toting paperbacks about Kantian metaphysics (really!) and perusing the latest issue of Scientific American, with stories on brain research and climate change.

I’ve got nothing against fun, fluffy fiction. Snobbery has no place in librarianship, or in life; you could miss out on great life lessons by assuming there’s nothing you can possibly learn from a James Patterson or Nora Roberts . . . or, for that matter, an episode of The Bachelor. Or maybe there is no great life lesson in store, but it’s just fun to read. That’s okay too. As long as it piques your interest, there’s really no such thing as a bad choice when it comes to reading material.

But if libraries stick to promoting the more traditional beach reads, they’re missing an opportunity to capture the imagination. A beach escape can be a great place for escapist fiction, but it can also be the perfect place to dive into thought-provoking, reflective reading. Recalling the fresh breezes, soft sands, and soothing wave-sounds of Ipperwash, I find it hard to imagine a more perfect place to pick up a book that will get your mind going in all kinds of new and intriguing directions. The beach is a great place to get wrapped up in the classic literature you’ve been dying to peruse, or to learn more about some subject that’s piqued your interest, or to search for some conclusion on a controversial topic you’d like to understand. And if, like many of the people I saw this weekend, you like to alternate your reading with cookouts, campfires, boat rides, and water games, it gets even better. The breaks between reading sessions can help your mind digest and reflect on the material you’ve read and possibly make interesting connections that just wouldn’t surface in the fast-paced environment of the workaday world.

If you love your beach reads as they are, more power to you. It’s your vacation, after all: read what you want to.

But if you’re a reader (or a librarian) who feels stuck in a beach-reading rut, maybe it’s time to stop overlooking the more daunting reads that will get your neurons fired up. Don’t be afraid of paragraphs that might take a bit of re-reading or things you’ll want to pause and reflect upon as you read. Where better to reflect than on the water? Or while you’re looking up at a summer-home sky full of stars you’d never see in the big city?

You might find yourself thinking thoughts you honestly never expected, fired up in a whole new way, and more mentally rejuvenated than you thought your summer vacation could ever get you.

What Makes A Good Book?

From a librarian’s perspective, I’m not sure there are really bad books out there. One person’s “this is a piece of junk” is another person’s “I couldn’t put it down”. I don’t plan to review books on this site, nor anything else. I don’t believe in reviews; I’m just one person, and what would make my opinion better than any other person’s? Now, if you have a book you’re reading for a specific purpose – say, as a research tool or to become informed or to help your baby learn to read – that’s a different story. Then you can say the book either will or will not help you to achieve your objective. But if you just want to know whether you’d enjoy it or not? Well, that depends on who’s asking.

That said, everybody’s got biases, so I figured full disclosure was the best strategy: let me tell you what I value in a book, what makes me think I’ll enjoy it or look back on it with the awareness that I have enjoyed it. Naturally, this will differ depending on whether what I’m reading is fiction or non-fiction. I enjoy both, depending on my mood. Of course, it goes without saying that some subject matter interests me more than others, but I’ll get into that later. To start off, heres my opinion about what makes a truly good work of fiction:

  • Characters I can relate to – If I don’t care what happens to them, why should I invest my time in reading the story? I want them to be believable, with thoughts and opinions reflected in their actions, but I also want them to be people I can take an interest in. I don’t have to like them, but I do have to want to know what’s going to happen to them.
  • Strong setting – It doesn’t really matter where it is; I like stories where the setting contributes to the way the story is told and to the atmosphere around it. I want to be able to feel like I’m experiencing the place I’m reading about . . . even if the book is set in the Bahamas and I’m in the middle of a blizzard. Maybe especially then.
  • Use of language – The English language has a certain flow to it. Certain words convey different shades of ideas, and as a result if a writer uses a thesaurus to sound smarter, it shows. What’s more, English uses metaphor and imagery to help create atmosphere and convey ideas. When an author’s figurative language doesn’t accomplish these things, it just sounds wonky. In a well-written story, the prose almost seems to get out of the way of the story’s flow; a badly-written story will trip it up with a not-quite-right feeling that’s hard to put your finger on, but definitely distracting.
  • Credible dialogue – If it doesn’t sound like something a real person would say, it doesn’t belong in a character’s mouth. And it’s hard to care about characters who sound like cardboard cut-outs instead of real people.
  • Perspective and atmosphere – I tend not to enjoy an author who sounds exactly the same in every story. It’s even worse if that particular author writes in the first person. Seeing things from a fresh point of view is the reason why books let you crawl into somebody else’s point of view. Even in a series of books that are all told by or about the same character, changing up the imagery used creates a whole new atmosphere that can really make a story compelling. And if the character is growing and changing as a result of her experiences, wouldn’t she realistically be evolving in her use of metaphor and imagery as well?

And what makes for compelling non-fiction? I may not be any authority, but these are the opinions and judgments I’m bringing to the table when I read a non-fictional work:

  • Underlying structure – there isn’t any one best structure; it will change depending on the subject matter. But if the material isn’t laid out in some clear fashion, it’ll be pretty tough to follow.
  • A solid thesis – it seems really obvious to suggest that a book needs a point. But some non-fiction writers seem afraid to take their ideas to the logical conclusion by boldly asserting whatever they think the information suggests. I like an author who’s not afraid to take a stand on the information she’s presenting: “this is what I think, and here are the facts that led me to that conclusion”. Books are about ideas, people!
  • Appropriate language – if an author is writing a book on genetics for geneticists, it will sound very different than one he’d write for a layperson. An author who writes too technically for his audience will confuse them; keep it too simple, with too many low-level explanations, and technical experts are going to get impatient and probably a little insulted. Writers need to know who they’re writing for; readers do best if they know who a book is meant to serve.

There it is for the record: the things I look for when I’m deciding whether I enjoy a book. You might disagree with me, or not. But that’s not the point. Now that you know where I’m coming from, unknown and anonymous reader somewhere on the worldwide web, we can both try to put aside our biases. But it’s always a good idea to examine them and be aware that they’re there. You can’t erase judgment from your mind, but being aware of it helps you to keep it from clouding your vision.

I read a very wide range of books, but for the record, here are a few of the topics that most interest me: astronomy, biology, Buddhism, Catholicism, cats, Christianity, conspiracies, crime stories, environmentalism, evolution, family dynamics, ghost stories, greed, history, horror, meditation, occult phenomena, parenting, politics, psychology, racism, relationship stories, religion in society, science, sociology, the supernatural, suspense, and theology.

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