What happened to that semi-sacred reading space during the golden months?

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A few years ago, in the Boston Globe, Craig Fehrman wrote an amusing piece about the origins of the summer reading list in the late 19th century. He connected it to the rise of the American vacation. A growing middle class meant the advent of leisure time, and these developments coincided with the desire of working Americans to escape the increasingly routinized nature of their jobs.

The emphasis at that time was on light reading, on diversionary texts that would relieve the harried mind. Mr. Fehrman quotes from an article that appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 1872 that recommended summer books which “the idler can take with him into solitude, and read with delightful pauses, when with indolent finger upon the page, his eye wanders up some green vista, or catches some view of the distant sea, and his ear is soothed with the distant murmur of the winds and waves.” In other words, if you’re too distracted to read, bring along a book that will not make you feel guilty if you never finish it. […]

And what did it matter if you never finished any of these books, if a lot of people picked up Tolstoy’s classic summer after summer and never got through the peace part to the war part? The idea of perfecting your inner life by reading the right books over the summer was as much a chimera as the idea of the perfect summer.

Still, looking forward to that spell of leisure and self-edification got you through the winter, and it consoled you with the illusion of a replenishing pause, outside the frame of mortal space and time. The Summer Book will always be with me. Even now, as my indolent finger falls upon a page of Gibbon’s masterwork on the Roman empire (summers of 1975-76, 1978-80, 2014-15, status: pending), winter’s workaday grind and piles of snow seem far, far away.

~ Lee Siegel, The End of the Ambitious Summer Reading ListFor generations, Americans used the golden months to catch up on great old books and modern must reads. What happened to that semi-sacred reading space?

A Solemn Pleasure

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I’ve read hundreds of forewords introducing new books. I’ve skipped many many (many) hundreds more to get to the story. And, then, there was this one:

Like all great writers, Pritchard has no interest in providing answers. Rather, she strives only to articulate the questions in a manner that the readers can hear. Her aim is never to convey information, but only and powerfully to relay experiences – experiences that are poignant and devastating, familiar and extraordinary, inspiring and gutting. Individually, each of these essays confirms that to write is to think and feel, to take park in the profound and sacred act of witness. Read together – and the book is so arresting that many readers will finish it in a single sitting – the essays amount to a clear and irrefutable mandate for empathy. […]

As you read A Solemn Pleasure, notice how often you find yourself leaning toward the pages. I did so often my neck hurt. The pain was minor, but persistent. In fact, this ache – like each of the powerful essays – is still with me. It’s a reminder. Each time it flares, I remember one of Pritchard’s trenchant sentences. No matter which sentence I recall, it translates to the author beckoning. Look here, she’s saying. Come closer. I’ve got something to show you. Something you need to see.

~ Bret Anthony Johnston, His Foreword for A Solemn Pleasure: To Imagine, Witness, And Write (The Art of the Essay): Melissa Pritchard


It never happens like that

Heidi-Julavits
What I failed to mention, however, was my recent worry: As a writer, I have mistaken how to use words. I write too much. I write like some people talk to fill silence. When I write, I am trying through the movement of my fingers to reach my head. I’m trying to build a word ladder up to my brain. Eventually these words, help me come to an idea, and then I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite what I’d already written (when I had no idea what I was writing about) until the path of thinking, in retrospect, feels immediate. What’s on the page appears to have busted out of my head and traveled down my arms and through my fingers and my keyboard and coalesced on the screen. But it didn’t happen like that; it never happens like that.

~ Heidi Julavits, The Folded Clock: A Diary


Notes: Author Bio: Heidi Julavits.  Photo: Bustle.com

We exist together in a little patch of warmth and light

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To curl up with children and a good book has long been one of the great civilizing practices of domestic life, an almost magical means of cultivating warm fellow feeling, shared in-jokes and a common cultural understanding. Harvard professor Maria Tatar has written of its origins in medieval fireside storytelling, “before print and electronic media supplied nighttime entertainments.”

Certainly in the modern era there is something quaint about a grown-up and a child or two sitting in a silence broken only by the sound of a single human voice. Yet how cozy, how impossibly lovely it is! Unlike tech devices, which atomize the family by drawing each member into his own virtual reality, great stories pull people of different ages toward one another, emotionally and physically. When my children were small, I would often read with my eldest daughter tucked in by my side, the boy draped like a panther half across my shoulders and half across the back of the sofa, a tiny daughter on either knee, and the baby in my lap. If we happened to be on one of our cycles through “Treasure Island,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s swashbuckling classic, my husband would come to listen, too, and stretch out on the floor in his suit and tie and shush the children when they started to act out the exciting bits.

“We let down our guard when someone we love is reading us a story,” Ms. DiCamillo says. “We exist together in a little patch of warmth and light.”

~ Meghan Cox Gurdon, The Great Gift of Reading Aloud

Look at me when I talking to you

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“I’ve been finding it harder and harder to concentrate on words, sentences, paragraphs. Let alone chapters. Chapters often have page after page of paragraphs. It just seems such an awful lot of words to concentrate on, on their own, without something else happening. […]

When the people at the New Yorker can’t concentrate long enough to listen to a song all the way through, how are books to survive? […]

It makes me feel vaguely dirty, reading my phone with my daughter doing something wonderful right next to me, like I’m sneaking a cigarette. Or a crack pipe. […]

One time I was reading on my phone while my older daughter, the four-year-old, was trying to talk to me. I didn’t quite hear what she had said, and in any case… She grabbed my face in her two hands, pulled me towards her. “Look at me,” she said, “when I’m talking to you.” She is right. I should. […]

Spending time with friends, or family, I often feel a soul-deep throb coming from that perfectly engineered wafer of stainless steel and glass and rare earth metals in my pocket. Touch me. Look at me. You might find something marvelous. […]”

Hugh McGuire, Why Can’t We Read Anymore?

Don’t miss how McGuire changes and his explanation on why books are important.  Full post here.


Photo Source: Choi Moi

Write Shorter

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Read more by Josh Bernoff: 10 top writing tips and the psychology behind them


Smell it. Ohio Soil. Humus.

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Spent the day in Cambridge Library.

The Library a wilderness of books. The volumes of the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries, which lie so near on the shelf, are rarely opened, are effectually forgotten and not implied by our literature and newspapers. When I looked into Purchas’s Pilgrims, it affected me like looking into an impassable swamp, ten feet deep with sphagnum, where the monarchs of the forest, covered with mosses and stretched along the ground, were making haste to become peat. Those old books suggested a certain fertility, an Ohio soil, as if they were making a humus for new literatures to spring in. I heard the bellowing of bullfrogs and the hum of mosquitoes reverberating through the thick embossed covers when I had closed the book. Decayed literature makes the richest of all soils.

~ Henry David Thoreau, Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861


Source: Brainpickings

Saturday Morning

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There were a lot of other things he no longer had to deal with.
He was like one of those horses,
who having shaken off the jockey,
slow down, dreamily, to a gentle trot,
while the others are still bursting their lungs
in pursuit of a finish line and an order of arrival.

Alessandro Baricco, from Mr. Gwyn


Notes: Photo Source. Quote: The Journey of Words

Unread. And looming.

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My reading backlog, tweaking me, ever present, ever growing.
Unread books on night stand.
Unread eBooks slumbering on my Kindle.
Unread magazines. Hard copy + digital.
Unread newspapers. Hard copy + digital.
Unread articles and blog posts on my Pocket App and Evernote App.
Unread emails in a reading folder on gmail.
All swelling, bulging, throbbing – an alien blob slime slowly cutting oxygen.

Kooser chanting: I travel the endless reaches of my ignorance, all of the books I haven’t read, and never will, come rolling at me out of the dark like a hail of asteroids.

Apparently, I don’t suffer my affliction alone:

“Many people are drowning in magazines, articles, newsletters, books and blogs they want or need to read. Is it possible to get to Magazine Zero?…”

“Three in four people say they feel overwhelmed some or all of the time by too much information from magazines, newspapers and other media…”

“Everybody has this deep dark feeling that they aren’t keeping up…”

“I hope at some point I’ll catch up…”

Read more on how others are coping here: How to Declutter Your Magazine Pile: Prioritize and ‘ABR —always be reading” with digital apps and iPods


Image Source: sentimientos-en-el-aire

David Carr: Try harder. Create something with your own dirty little hands.

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David Carr died last week. He overcame drug addiction, survived cancer and struggled with alcoholism. He was a best selling author, a top media columnist at The New York Times and a member of the faculty at Boston University’s communications school.  He was a “mentor to young reports and a blunt critic of those who didn’t measure up.” Here’s a excerpt from today’s paper:

NY Times: David Carr’s Last Word on Journalism, Aimed at Students:

David was interested in people, not their résumés. He didn’t care where someone went to college or who their parents were. So instead of giving his students a standard biographical blurb…David told them this, under the heading “Not need to know, but nice to know”:

“Your professor is a terrible singer and a decent dancer. He is a movie crier but stone-faced in real life. He never laughs even when he is actually amused. He hates suck-ups, people who treat waitresses and cab drivers poorly and anybody who thinks diversity is just an academic conceit. He is a big sucker for the hard worker and is rarely dazzled by brilliance. He has little patience for people who pretend to ask questions when all they really want to do is make a speech…Your professor is fair, fundamentally friendly, a little odd, but not very mysterious. If you want to know where you stand, just ask.”

He encouraged teamwork. “While writing, shooting, and editing are often solitary activities, great work emerges in the spaces between people,” David wrote, adding, “Evaluations will be based not just on your efforts, but on your ability to bring excellence out of the people around you…”

Mikaela Lefrak, 26, was his teaching assistant his first semester. “He didn’t want us to sound like everyone else,” she wrote in an email. “He wanted us to sound better. Extended metaphors should be indulged and encouraged — the stranger, the better. And clichés were poison. ‘Try harder,’ he told me constantly. ‘Create something with your own dirty little hands…’ ”

David warned there would be a heavy reading list. “I’m not sliming you with a bunch of textbooks, so please know I am dead serious about these readings,” he wrote. “Skip or skim at your peril.”

I encourage you to read the entire article. You can find it here:  David Carr’s Last Word on Journalism, Aimed at Students.

His best selling book, “The Night of the Gun,” is a memoir of addiction and recovery. I highly recommend it.  Maria Popova at Brain Pickings shared some excellent excerpts from the book in her post: Addiction to Truth.

And here are links to some of my favorite quotes by Carr:

Carr lived in New Jersey with Jill Rooney Carr and their three children. He was 58. As Scott Peck would say, he took the road less traveled and many of us are better for it.

RIP.


Credits: Photograph of David Carr in 2008 –  NY Times