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

Posts tagged ‘reflection’

Five (or More) Reasons to Start A Book Journal

A book lover's journal.

Image via The Bookmooch Journals.

It was a suggestion from one of my professors at librarian school, for a class on Reader’s Advisory Services. (That translates from library-speak as “helping people decide what books to check out even if their tastes are different from yours”.)  She said, “I write down the author and title of every book I read, along with a summary in my own words of what they’re about. That way, if somebody wants to know what I’ve read and would recommend, I’ve got it all at my fingertips.” Sometimes, she suggested, library patrons would page through her journal to get ideas for their own reading lists.

What good is a book journal? And how is it different from a regular journal? A book journal is a place to record all the books you’ve read – good, bad, or indifferent – in chronological order, a log of your life as a reader. It can be as simple or as complicated as you like, as long as it tracks your reading history across time. In a way, this blog’s “What Is Your Librarian Reading?” feature functions as a book journal: I write about every book I read. But what you don’t see is that I also keep a paper log of my reading choices that I’ll (hopefully) have on hand long after this blog is lost to cyberspace.

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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.

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.

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