Friday, March 30, 2012

Some thoughts on "serious" books and reading

Apparently we must be going through another wave of book snobs looking down on plebeian readers. This week I have seen at least two pieces on the subject of the serious reader:

  • Via Book Riot, "A Very UnSerious Reader, Indeed" by Dr. Brenna Clarke Gray. This is a defense of the non-serious reader pretty much. 
  • Via The New York Times, "Adults Should Read Adult Books" by Joel Stein. I came across it at the librarian hangout of FriendFeed here, where Stein's "satire" (as it has been suggested) has gotten some attention. If it is satire, I think Mr. Stein needs to go back and look up the definition of the word satire. 
 This debate seems to flare up any time you get some over-hyped, popular, and light (or perceived as such) book. The Hunger Games, to pick the current example, is probably many things, but it is not War and Peace nor The Feast of the Goat, again, to pick some contrasting examples. The debate flares up once the hype hits a certain mass-- lots of people are reading it, readers of various ages and demographics; the book is covered in every book blog and news source to the point of saturation, and if Hollywood makes a movie out of it, then the snobs really take off. We got the same phenomenon when the Harry Potter books came out, and it will happen again when the next big hype book comes along. It's a cycle pretty much.

The latest manifestation of book snobs versus free readers makes me reflect a bit on my own reading philosophies, beliefs, and habits. I would say that I fall in the latter camp: I read freely, and I encourage others to do so. As I often tell others: I read what I want when I want. In addition, I don't go on to tell others what they should be reading or not. I think every reader should find their bliss. Some readers may need a little advice or assistance, and that is where Reader's Advisory (RA) can come in.

"I said I never had much use for one. Never said I didn't know how to use it."  --Matthew Quigley, from the film Quigley Down Under.

As a disclosure note, I was trained to be a "serious" reader as well as trained to teach how to be a "serious" reader. I've got an advanced degree (in addition to my MLS) and a lot of additional credit hours to prove it too. I've taught literature. To some extent I think people should be exposed to some classics, or great books, or whatever you want to call them, in order to learn a bit about life and the human condition we all share. I will leave to others the evolution of "the canon" and what should be in it or not; I do believe it is (or should be) an evolving thing. But once you get that done, learning a bit about the classics that make our shared experience, explore and read away to your heart's content. One of the things that always irked me as a public school teacher, way back when, was the inability to encourage my students to read, officially at least. There was a curriculum. There were certain books you had to cover, and that was that. Today it has gotten worse with the whole testing movement. That our daughter has held on to being a reader in spite of public school education is a bit of a miracle (that and all the encouragement and supplementation we do at home. We are all readers in our house, and she always grew up encouraged to read). Unofficially, yes, I did try to encourage my students to expand their horizons a bit.

These days, I may know what makes "serious" books (ok, I know quite a bit, but even I am smart enough to realize I do not know it all by a long shot), but I have little use for such. Life is too short to be boxed in books some people think are good for you or that you ought to read to be seen as cultured or "serious." Sure, there are books I dislike or care little for. Every reader, whether they admit it or not has such books and genres, but every reader also has the books and genres he or she enjoys. Find your bliss in reading whether it be The Hunger Games, some steamy erotica, some porn (lo and behold, I have no problem with porn. Watching or reading the more visual forms of it in open public may be a bit of an issue, but it is not due to the content), classics, westerns, science fiction, or graphic novels. Tell the Joel Steins of the world what they can do with their "adults should read adults books" snobbery.

And keep on reading.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Booknote: The New Bedside Playboy

I found this book to be an interesting and curious item to pick up and read. I guess at one point, when people said, "I read it for the articles," they did read it for the articles. As I say in my review, do not let the fact it is a Playboy book turn you away. There is some good writing here. I will say as a final comment that I have read the magazine here and there, but not in any regular fashion. You do get the feeling that it was a lot more in its heyday, and yet, it keeps rolling along.

Here is the review then as I posted it to my GoodReads profile:

The New Bedside PlayboyThe New Bedside Playboy by Hugh Hefner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Though I labeled this book for my "erotica and sensual" bookshelf, do not let that dissuade you from reading it if erotica and sexuality materials are not your cup of tea. There is very little actual erotic content in this anthology. The book focuses more on 50 years of literary content in Playboy magazine. Yes, people could indeed really be reading it for the articles. The anthology features a pretty broad selection of commentary, opinion pieces, essays, some celebrity interviews, pieces of short fiction, plus some of the features many do expect from the magazine such as a sampling on pin-ups and cartoons and "Playboy jokes."

I think you can read this anthology in a few ways. You can read it as a piece of nostalgia, as a look back at how the magazine was great, and not just for the pictorials. They did feature some of the great writers of the late part of the 20th century. Some of the pieces were better than others, and that is the only reason I gave it three stars. I liked it, but I did not "really like it." There were some misses, but I am sure for other readers, the pieces I did not like others might like. So give it a try anyways. You can also read this book as a sort of small literary history or time capsule. As I mentioned, some great writers and thinkers are featured here. I think you can also read it as a piece of popular culture, as a reflection of its time. I did find interesting some of the things the writers addressed and were concerned about. Some things were curious little details, for example, William Buckley writing about reading and defining what makes someone smart mentioned that, in 1983 or so, he had not really heard of Michael Jackson. Reading that detail today is an interesting experience.

There may be a few pieces that show age, but there are also a few that are pretty timeless, some even relevant still today. The best part of this book is that you can browse through it, find items of interest, and read those. Leaf through it, read a little bit now, a little bit later. It does lend itself to be a bedside reader (may also work for bathroom reading, and I do mean that in a good way).

The only other small nitpicks I had with the book were the way the table of contents was organized and a lack of some small note of information to preface the pieces. The table of contents is organized by major topics, instead of in the order that the pieces appear in the book. Personally, I would have preferred to know what came in what order. Two, in anthologies like this I tend to like a small preface to the pieces, something like, "this piece was published in the X year issue of Playboy" and maybe a bit about an author or something like that. Only way I could tell when a piece was written was either by references the authors made in their piece or by looking at the copyright page if I got curious. Most of the time I could guess ok (on classical things, like that piece by Boccaccio I obviously had an idea when it was originally written). Anyhow, those are the small things.

Overall, this is a pretty good book to pass the time. If you need some reading material, and you need something that you can read with ease, something you can pick up and drop and pick up again, then this is the book for you. And if you have never read the magazine, it may give you an appreciation for it, especially for what it used to be.

View all my reviews

Friday, March 23, 2012

30 Books to Read Before You Turn 30: Yea, another book list, plus snark

As folks know, I see one of these "must read" lists, and I have to make snarky comments about it and see how many books on it I have read if any. So, naturally, when I saw the "30 Books to Read Before You're 30" list over at Perfectly Prompted!, I had to take a look. I am already past 30. Out of the list, I have read 10, and I have read at least one or two under protest, or I just did not care for them. As with many classics-heavy lists, I may never read them all as there are classics I honestly do not give a rodent's derriere about. So, here are the ten I read, with my commentary. Feel free to follow the link and see the rest:

  • George Orwell, 1984. I read it, and I had to teach to seniors in high school for a few years. That alone assures that the book will stay with me for a long time, and it also assures I will not be rereading it anytime soon. After my first year teaching it, I practically had it memorized. And while I like the book, I certainly hated the dissection process I had to do with students because the powers that be said so (even though I did find a few workarounds). 
  • Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude. I have mentioned in various places that this is my all-time favorite book. It is one I reread every couple of years or so, when I get the feeling that it is time to go back to Macondo. 
  • Sun Tzu, The Art of War. One I have to reread sometime soon. Well worth reading. 
  • J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. I reread the trilogy recently when the movies were about to come out. With The Hobbit film coming out, I may reread that as well soon. However, since I do not do movie theaters, there is no rush since I will likely wait for the film to hit DVD.
  • Joseph Heller, Catch-22. I remember liking it when I read it years ago. It may be time for another visit. 
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. One of those classics I honestly do not give a hoot about. I read it as an English major; I read it in graduate school. I cannot remember what class it was for. Hated it then, still hate it now. What people see in it is beyond me. 
  • J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye. I read this voluntarily, and it is one of the great regrets of my life. As far as I am concerned, Salinger owes me for this piece of overrated tripe (and I am being polite). So, Salinger went into seclusion and did not write much else? Good. I hope it stays that way. There are not too many books I actually hate in a visceral way. This is one of those few. 
  • Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince. Great advice on leadership and dealing with people. When I read it, I did find much of it relevant to my field of librarianship, specifically library "leadership." Yes, there is a reason I put the term in quotes. 
  • Henry David Thoreau, Walden. Another one I read in college as an English major; it was in graduate school for a course in American literature. This one I did like a bit better.  It would be nice if I could take some time to just hang around in a cabin in the woods, write pithy and curious observations on nature, then go back into town. Yes, contrary to popular belief, Thoreau did not stay in the cabin the whole time. 
  • Plato, The Republic. I remember reading as an undergraduate for an introduction to philosophy class. I don't think I got much out of it back then. I have reread it since, and I have come to understand it a bit better. I could probably reread it one more time.
In addition, I have read other works by authors listed, but not the book listed on this list:

  • Thomas Paine. I have read some of his shorter stuff, like Common Sense
  • Charles Dickens. I had to teach Great Expectations to high school freshmen. It was one of the most excruciating experiences I have faced. The book is not really that good overall. Teens tend to hate it, and at a time when there are so many and so much better young adult books out there, why my school persisted in shoving this down our throats was beyond me. The experience with Great Expectations pretty much ruined Dickens for me, and I know I will never, in all likelihood, ever pick up any Dickens book again. 
  • T.S. Eliot. I have read some of his poetry here and there, mostly in anthologies. 
So anyhow, there it is. How did folks out there do? Feel free to comment, or if you write your own post and thoughts, leave me a link in the comments. I always enjoy reading about what other people read or not.

    Friday, March 09, 2012

    Reading about the reading life. March 9, 2012

    A few things about books and reading that I have recently read and found interesting.
    • An article about getting Korean literature translated so folks abroad can read it. The article out of the The Korea Herald features an interview with the director of the Korea Literature Translation Institute.
    • A Spanish language article from the blog Papeles Pérdidos. The article is entitled "Un recorrido por las librerías más bonitas del mundo." The article highlights beautiful bookstores around the world, using a previous article on the topic out of Flavorpill. I think the English-language version has made the rounds in a few celebrity librarian blogs and other book blogs. However, as often the case with Spanish language writing, I found the article a more pleasant reading experience. The language is a bit more lyrical in describing these havens for book readers. Additional commentary on the book industry is also included. 
    • Under learning something new, did you know that Japan has about 500 literary prizes? This article from The Japan Times a small Q&A on the prominent literary awards in Japan.  A hat tip to The Literary Saloon.
    • From Cornell University's Cornell Chronicle magazine, a short profile of writer José Edmundo Paz-Soldán. Not too many of his works have been translated into English. I do recall ordering a few of his works in Spanish for the collections at my previous workplace. A pity I did not get around to reading them myself at the time. I may need to work on fixing that reading gap. A hat tip to The Literary Saloon.

        Thursday, March 08, 2012

        Booknote: Agorafabulous

        I am posting my review of the book from my GoodReads page because I do think the book is worth reading and sharing. Though I am not a big fan of the memoir genre, I do think the book is funny at times as well as moving in some parts. I think anyone, especially women, who suffers from mental health issues including anxiety and panic attacks may find someone to relate to in Ms. Benincasa. I will add that I would like to see Ms. Benincasa performing sometime down the road.

        To keep the FTC happy, I am disclosing that I won a copy of the book as a prize in a giveaway over at the Stiletto Storytime blog. And on Valentine's Day nonetheless.

        The review:

        Agorafabulous!: Dispatches from My BedroomAgorafabulous!: Dispatches from My Bedroom by Sara Benincasa

        My rating: 3 of 5 stars

        Sara Benincasa tells the story of how she struggled with and learned to cope and overcome her mental health issues. Ms. Benincasa suffers from anxiety disorder, including very aggressive panic attacks that immobilized her. At times, she could not even leave her house due to her fears. There are few good messages in this book.

        1. The power of humor. Humor helped her cope and grow. Humor also led her to find her true path as a comedian and writer.

        2. The power of persistence. Hard as it was for her, she did persevere.

        3. The power of supportive family and friends. I don't think this can be said enough.

        4. Healing and rehabilitation do take time. You may fall. You get back up again.

        Ms. Benincasa writes with humor and gentleness. There are some moments when you will smile and laugh. There may be a moment or two when you will grimace. There may be some awkward moments as well. That is all ok as those moments are all part of the big picture, so to speak. Readers will smile, and they will also be very moved at times. I was moved at times. The chapter on her days of teaching school in Texas, dealing with Billy's "problem" was funny but also very moving when you look at how she did handle it, which, I will say, as a former teacher myself, was probably about the best way to deal with it. Ms. Benincasa may be a better teacher than she thinks.

        The book is pretty easy to read. Though I did find a couple of passages a bit too long, overall, the book makes a good reading experience. If you like memoirs, you will probably like this. If you have an interest in mental health issues, especially as they affect women, you probably want to read this book. And even though the book is written for an adult audience, I would venture to say that older, mature teens might benefit from reading as well as she deals with and discusses issues that affect teens as well.

        (The note to keep the FTC, a.k.a. "The Man," happy: I got the copy of the book as prize from a book away at the Stiletto Storytime blog).

        View all my reviews