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

Posts tagged ‘reading’

New Year, New Look, New Books

Lately I’ve been finding the layout of this blog a little too dark for my tastes, so I decided to start off the new year with an updated, brighter look. Hopefully this will make the blog a bit more readable and more lovable for my loyal fan base . . . such as it is.

Here are just a few of the books you can expect to hear about (and therefore hopefully I’ll get a chance to read) in the coming year:

  • Denying History by Michael Shermer & Alex Grobman
  • Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King
  • Lost on the Darkside, an anthology edited by John Pelan
  • The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (widely considered the English language’s first detective novel)
  • Simple Recipes by Madeleine Thien
  • My Spiritual Journey by the Dalai Lama
  • The Story of a Soul, the autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux
  • Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackery

And some interesting topics I’m hoping to address in posts coming up soon:

  • What do you do with books of pseudo-history? Does the principle of free speech give them the right to be heard? To be accessible in libraries?
  • Buddhism, mindfulness, reading, and understanding
  • Libraries in the real world, and my experiences in them – including a very recent (frustrating) trip to a branch of the Toronto Public Library
  • More adventures with children like Cookie and Berry.
  • Hopefully – cross your fingers really hard that I can do this – some volunteer work at a local library or related charity.

Happy New Year, faithful readers! And happy reading in 2011.

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Recent Reading Round-Up

A true bookshelf of the mind

Image via Rod Dreher's blog on Beliefnet.

It’s been a busy time of year, and I haven’t had a chance to blog about all my recent reading. So here – in time for Boxing Day book-shopping, if you’re so inclined, or a relaxing vacation-time visit to the library if you’re not – a list of some books I’ve read and enjoyed, but never discussed in their own blog posts.

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Back to the Books: How To Nourish Growing Readers

In honour of the end of summer and the return to school for most of the students and teachers I know, I present a topic that’s dear to my heart: how to encourage children and young adults to read.

We know that most parents would like their kids to become avid readers. The benefits are numerous. Kids who like reading do better in school and find it less of a pain than kids who see reading as a chore. They have greater access to information and can solve problems more effectively as they grow. They also usually have greater compassion because of their exposure to different situations through fiction and non-fiction. But if you’ve got little ones to love in your life, how do you help them develop into people who think reading is fun?

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The Literacy Link: How Books Make Your World Safer

I’ve been reading through Born For Love by Bruce D. Perry and Maia Szalavitz, a book about how human development creates empathy and what increases or decreases it in human beings. They have a lot of fascinating, surprising things to say, but here’s something I bet you didn’t know: some historians have observed that, as literacy spreads in a given society, murder, torture, and violence become more rare. Reading makes people less violent!

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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?

Children’s Reading and Adventures in Compassion

Here’s a big question for you, one I’ve considered often in the past as I prepared for my future career: beyond the individual desire for a parent to have his/her child grow up to be a skilled reader, what is the good of reading with children?

I was reflecting earlier today on a book I read for an assignment in library school. The assignment was to select and present a book to the class as you’d present it to a storytime group of young children, and the book I chose was Gummytoes by Sean Cassidy. It’s the story of a tree frog who wants to be loved and admired by children, until they capture him and put him in a terrarium. There, he lives in fear of loud voices, fingers tapping on the glass, and the messy conditions in the prison that keeps him away from his beloved natural habitat.

Sean Cassidy, author of Gummytoes, showing his illustrations.

Sean Cassidy, author of Gummytoes, showcasing his illustrations at Visual Arts Brampton in December 2004.

I chose that story because it’s full of great lessons about gratitude, and when it’s better to blend in than stand out, and how being resourceful can get you out of a tough scrape. I also chose it because it’s illustrated beautifully and vividly, and because animals seem pretty fascinating to kids. Who doesn’t remember chasing frogs?

But I think the most valuable thing about the story is how easy it is to relate to Gummytoes the frog – to his desires to be noticed, his discomfort once he’s kidnapped, and his relief at returning to the wild. Even though the reader probably isn’t a frog, it isn’t hard to imagine what that would be like . . . and maybe on the next visit to the pet store or the zoo, she’ll think twice before tapping on the aquarium glass.

Imagination is the key to compassion. You can’t feel for someone else’s pain unless you can imagine what it’s like to have that pain yourself. If reading promotes imagination, it necessarily promotes compassion. Imagining yourself in some other situation – whether as an astronaut, a ballerina, a big sister, or a tree frog – leads to considering whether you’d like or dislike what’s happening to you. And that consideration leads to compassion, which at bottom is an understanding that somebody else is in a situation that would make you yourself unhappy.

Do books always need to have a lesson? I think not, and sometimes trying to force a lesson into a story where it doesn’t belong can make it a less attractive piece of literature. It’s a loss that isn’t worth the trouble. Children are always learning; as long as a story isn’t lauding bad values, a little kid doesn’t need to have good ones rammed down his throat. He’ll learn.

But the one value that a story must always have is compassion, because it’s necessary to making a story worth reading. If we don’t have compassion for the characters, if we can’t imagine and feel for their suffering, why should we care about what’s happening to them? The entire experience of reading is based on the idea of taking an interest in others’ circumstances and finding out more about them. Without compassion, the response to any possible piece of reading material is inevitably, “So what?”

The more you read, it seems to me, the more you care about other people’s situations.  For one, you learn more about how other people live their lives, and you’re exposed to situations you might never have considered. But also, you learn to put yourself in another’s shoes and hope for a good outcome, and identify with their pain if they get a bad one instead. That calls for imagination. And in a world where imagination is in short supply, compassion can’t survive. Reading with children is good for the world, society, and the future. And not just because good readers get into good schools and get good jobs.

They also get to be good people.

Image courtesy of Clipart, Etc.

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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