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One of the books I recently donated contained a bookmark from the Maine Coast Book Shop, a place I’m sure I’ve never been.  On the back of the bookmark were four handwritten words:  avatar, Savonarola, apocryphal and puissant.   This random discovery is one of the many things I like about actual, physical, tangible books.  You find stuff in them (literarily of course, and in this case, quite literally).  You can write yourself notes on bookmarks or post-its or in the margins.  Things that make you laugh out loud years later when you discover them out of context.  Books can even provide a connection to others.  My mother and I used to leave each other notes in the books we lent to each other.  This is probably one of my biggest complaints about e-readers.  This loss of physicality.  I don’t want my books stacked somewhere in a cloud.  I want them where I can see them and touch them. 

So clearly I’m still on the side of “traditional” reading, rather than e-reading.  But I cannot have a house overridden with books I’ve already read.  Add to that my almost pathological inability to pass a bookstore, nay a book aisle in the grocery store without buying something.  Which brings me to the finer points of e-reading which I think are beneficial to me personally.  1) e-books do not cause cascading piles of tomes around my house 2) e-books are generally cheaper (discounting, well, discount aisles at bricks and mortar bookstores) which is a nice plus and 3) it’s much easier to purchase them via my favorite book-buying venue Amazon. 

This third one is questionably advantageous.  It is an observable fact that I cannot listen to more than 10 minutes of NPR or read a single New York Times Sunday book review without purchasing at least one book.  Should I happen to have my e-reader on me at one of those times, the sheer ease of book purchasing could do me in – financially.  And without the physical evidence to remind me of my pathology, I may not know it until it was too late.  Something to ponder.

However the first two are certainly benefits and have prompted me to strike what I think is a solid compromise.  One that straddles the line and, hopefully, puts technology to good use, which still holding true to my inner, bibliophile self.  Every reader knows, on the outset, that some books are not purchased for long-term.  We know they are not enduring relationship material.  Perhaps we know the author and he/she has proven themselves superficial in the past.  Or maybe there is a “now a major motion picture” sticker on the cover.  On the other hand, there are some that generally promise to be keepers in the literal sense.  Classics, for instance, or a work from a beloved author.   I argue that anything that I would buy in trade paperback, for instance, should be an e-book.  Anything in hardcover should be an actual book.  This system isn’t full proof of course, since one can find gems that might be future re-reads just by stumbling upon them.  And of course, even classics can fall flat (in my opinion, any time they are Russian).    

Interestingly the day I made this decision, my beloved Amazon came out with the new Paperwhite.  A sign from above?  Perhaps. . .

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I think you’re supposed to nest before a baby is born, but I seem to have become afflicted with the urge many weeks post partum.  Perhaps it’s the extended time I’m spending staring at things I don’t normally see, or the fact that there are now four people living in what is a small house.  I can always blame it on hormones too, I suppose.  Regardless of the root cause, I suddenly feel the need to clean, simplify and purge.  The first place I always start is my bookshelves.  We have at least one in every room.  We have books stacked everywhere there isn’t a bookshelf, including the back of the toilet. I even currently have a bookshelf in a closet. 

My nephew came by the other day and he said “Have you read all these books?”

I looked at him and smugly answered “Almost all of them, yes.” I may have even puffed myself up a little.   Later, when I was frothing-at-the-mouth annoyed that I have no room to put anything (you know, like another small person and all her paraphernalia), I thought, not so smugly, “You did this to yourself.” 

I had finally realized something.  Reading by its nature, is a solitary activity.  You can’t really share it with anyone else.  Therefore the only external expression of having read is a house full of books.  A house full of books you have already read. That seems crazy right?  Yes, it does.  While I re-read my favorites (A River Runs Through It, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and my favorite romance novel the title of which I will not disclose, although I will tell you that ‘peacock’ is in that title), I simply don’t have time to re-read most of the books I have acquired.  Otherwise I would never be able to read anything new.  So why keep them? 

The answer is complicated but for me it comes down to one thing.  A prolific reader (and yes, this is a generalization which may prove to be only specific to me) keeps them so that when someone comes to your home they can be impressed by the physical manifestation of your reading prowess.  Additionally, the right books on display may even indicate to such visitor that you are way smart.  They will be duly intimidated and full of admiration. “Look at Jess,” they will think “She has two copies of To Kill a Mockingbird [true story].  What, one for everyday wear and one for special occasions?  She must be a literary rockstar!”  Simply put, visitors like my nephew are the reason. 

Oh, but the problem is that there is a massage parlor full of rubs here.  Number one:  Generally speaking, the people who read the most are the most introverted.  Time that others spend at parties at other events, they spend curled up on the couch with a book.  Which stands to reason they likely have fewer people to actually come to their house to see their extensive libraries.  This, of course, defeats the purpose.  If a library is full and there is no one there to see it, is it still impressive?  Perhaps. Personally I never have anyone over who isn’t family or close friends.  They don’t find me smart or intimidating.

Number two, anyone who is not a reader will not be sufficiently impressed with your book overflow, as my friend’s husband, a man who has a tv in every room, once illustrated.  “This is the only tv you have?” he asked, pointing to my 19″ model with a built-in VCR. “What do you do, read?”

Number three, anyone who is a reader will not be sufficiently impressed with your book overflow, seeing as they have one of their own.  Perhaps they will see some of their favorites among your titles.  Perhaps they will see something new they like and want to borrow.  But sure enough, they will have a suggestion (or ten) of their own to add, which might in fact, make you feel less impressive, since you haven’t read it(them).  At that point, the Sisyphean nature of your book collecting will rear its ugly head.

All of which, made it quite easy for me (mostly) to pack up many dozens of titles and donate them to the library, whose collection is now a mite more impressive than it used to be.  Leaving me with enough room to liberate the closet bookshelf.  But while there are gaps on my shelves, the big psychological gap needs filling.  How will anyone know what and how much I’ve read?  How will I get my external validation?  Technology has the answer, fortunately:  www.goodreads.com.  Where you can show off what you are reading and what you have read.  All without taking up any physical space whatsoever.  Genius.  And with the Facebook app, you can be sure that all your friends know how impressive a reader you really are.

Now, what to do with my pathological book buying. . .stay tuned for Part 2.

 I’ve gotten on my soapbox before about how high school English ruins reading for kids.  And be forewarned, here we go again.   But before I begin, I just want you to read this:

“This was the tree, and it seemed to me standing there to resemble those men, the giants of your childhood, whom you encounter years later and find that they are not merely smaller in relation to your growth, but that they are absolutely smaller, shrunken by age.  In this double demotion the old giants have become pigmies while you were looking the other way.”

I have one question.  How the HELL does anyone expect a 16-year-old to understand that?

The fact is, course, that they can’t.  They’re sixteen, mere emotional fetuses.  They read John Knowles beautiful words, but they don’t digest them.  They hear but they don’t listen (isn’t that typical teenager behavior?). They don’t get what this book is really about, which is deeply sad, because there is so, so much to “get.”

I know this, because I was asked to read this book when I was sixteen and I even I, a practically professional reader, almost forgot about the third protagonist – the war.  What I remember most was wondering idly which of the boys I would have liked to date (Finny of course!).   In that way I am (or rather, as I like to think, was) no better than the scads of Twi-hards in their Team Jacob and Team Edward tshirts.

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My mother’s reading habits are less like Jesse’s and more like mine.  She reads quickly, broadly and plentifully (is that a word? spell check says it is).  This, in addition to our generally similar test, and our always similar distaste in fiction make us especially good reading partners. 

She and I exchange books so often that we don’t always remember whose book it was originally.  We also share with many others in the family and with select friends, so it can get confusing.  For instance she recently recommended a book to my sister-in-law that my sister-in-law had given to me which I then passed on to my mom. 

Further, sometimes we want the books back, sometimes we don’t care where they end up.  So we have a system.  Anything we want back we put our address label inside.  Anything we don’t want is blank.  Apparently though, somewhere along the way, we needed some improvements on this system.  I went to my mom’s house the other day and saw a familiar book on the table.  I picked it up and read the back and thought “Hey, this sounds like a good read.”  I looked inside and found a post-it note in my own handwriting:

“You have read this book before.  And yes, you need the reminder.”

I laughed so hard I had tears in my eyes.  The funniest part is, that neither she nor I can remember who the note was for.  Clearly we’ve both read the book before and at least one of us (if not both) has attempted to read it again.  So it’s entirely possible she is currently reading it for a third time – and enjoying it.  I might even take it from her when she’s done.

What does this have to do with A New Mom’s Guide to Reading?   Rereading!

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huck-finn

I apologize dear reader(s), for being gone so long.  My blogging has been stymied by other obligations.  I have been reading like crazy, however.   I promised to get back to y’all about that.

*****

I decided to devote some of new year to books that high school or junior high has ruined for millions.  Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are two of these.  I must admit I was looking for the same lightning in a bottle as To Kill a Mockingbird.  Alas it was not to be, though I can’t say I’m disapointed either.

Tom Sawyer has been accurately described as a children’s book about a boy.  I would venture to guess that if it were written today it would not make the best seller lists.  What it lacks in complexity, it doesn’t make up for in plot.  There is a lot of action and adventure and not much substance.  One wonders how one boy got into so many scrapes in such a small amount of pages!  I must be getting older, because I wonder about Aunt Polly’s fitness as a guardian.  Though her Mary seemed to turn out alright.  All in all, it’s over too soon and not much of it sticks with you, besides the whitewashing scene.  Though cultural prevalence probably has more to do with that than anything.

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To Kill a Mockingbird should never be read in school.  Period.

To Kill a MockingbirdI originally read it when I was 16; it was an assignment for some class or another. I rushed through it, impatiently endured the various discussions of race and class and prejudice and ultimately felt burdened by the fact that I was supposed to like it.   That was, I think, a typical reaction to class reading assignments and I know I was not alone.  And I was a reader, for goodness sake, and any educational system that gets readers to disregard truly great books is obviously doing something very wrong (and very very deterimental).

Harper Lee and her pal Truman Capote are in vogue right now, thanks to the movies Capote and Infamous and I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve caught the fever (I reread In Cold Blood about a year ago).  I also just finished a awfully written novel surmising about their relationship post Cold Blood.  It was called Capote in Kansas (skip it, it’s not worth the time) and it kicked off a sudden desire to read that slim novel collecting dust on my shelves. 

Rereading this book now, as an adult, I realize that there are few books which can be read without cynicism (or maybe which can read without cynicism, an entirely different thing) .  An experienced reader learns to like books – with reservations.  We learn to tolerate poor writing in the search for a good story.  We forgive or willfully deny plot holes and wide spaces of imperfect style and content.  In short, we learn to say “I liked it, but. . .”   Because we think that we can’t do better.  That all the good books we already read with abandon by the age of seven.

With Mockingbird there are no buts or reservations.  This book is simply perfect.  It belongs to a short list indeed; I can count on one hand the number of books that can claim such a grand achievement. 

Which to me is all the reason I need to understand why Ms. Lee never wrote again.  She’s already succeeded at the unattainable.  Where else could she go but down?

Jessica’s Reading

Jesse’s Reading

Jesse and Jessica are Both Reading

Devin’s Reading

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