If a book makes me want to keep reading, it’s the right book.
If a book makes me want to start writing, it’s the right book.
Any other book is not the right book. (Right now.)
If a book makes me want to keep reading, it’s the right book.
If a book makes me want to start writing, it’s the right book.
Any other book is not the right book. (Right now.)
The Library Book
I am a former librarian who read this on a flight from Cleveland to Los Angeles, so it was pretty much the perfect book at the perfect time. A real page-turner. Orlean knows what she’s doing. (Another good LA book, not a page-turner, but a page-lingerer: Christoph Niemann’s Hopes and Dreams.)
Andrew Sean Greer
How great is it when an acclaimed book turns out to be worthy of the hype? I laughed all the way through this book and then I cried at the end. (Another great novel, one I re-read: Charles Portis’s True Grit.)
How To Do Nothing
When I came across the original talk I knew this was going to be a good book, but I liked it even more than I thought it would. (Another book about attention I knew was going to be good based on the original Medium post: Rob Walker’s The Art of Noticing. I’d also throw in Bruno Munari’s Drawing a Tree, which I loved even more upon re-reading.)
The Three Robbers
My 4-year-old got obsessed with this book, and I got obsessed with it and with Ungerer. (Other great graphic tales [but not for kids]: Tillie Walden’s On A Sunbeam and Jaime Hernandez’s excellent comic, The Love Bunglers and the followup, Is This How You See Me?)
Essays Over Eighty
“Maybe we’ll soon have a new literary category, Old Adult, to match Young Adult,” wrote John Wilson, in his review of Hall’s posthumous collection of essays, A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety. I’d be so down for that.
Here’s a unposed stack of books I found on our coffee table over the weekend. (When we have obsessions around here, we give in to them, completely, and feed them many, many books.)
I often think about how the kids’ books do a better job of informing and entertaining on various subjects, so I got a kick out of this bit from Jeopardy champion James Holzhauer, who admits he was “never a diligent student”:
I have a strategy of reading children’s books to gain knowledge. I’ve found that in an adult reference book, if it’s not a subject I’m interested in, I just can’t get into it.
I was thinking, what is the place in the library I can go to to get books tailored to make things interesting for uninterested readers? Boom. The children’s section.
Another Jeopardy connection: the Ken Jennings books illustrated by Mike Lowery are a big hit with our nonfiction-loving six-year-old.
“I always read a lot. I read the same amount, no matter what season it is. I read every night. When I’m on book tour, I’m on airplanes all the time, so I’m always reading. People say, ‘How do you have time to read?’ Oh, come on, it’s simple! You’re single and you don’t watch television.”
“How do you make time for that?” can almost always be answered with, “I make time for that.”
Still, here are 5 things that have helped me read more, and might help you, too:
“I believe that the phrase ‘obligatory reading’ is a contradiction in terms; reading should not be obligatory… If a book bores you, leave it; don’t read it because it is famous, don’t read it because it is modern, don’t read a book because it is old…. If a book is tedious to you, don’t read it; that book was not written for you.”
—Jorge Luis Borges
“Nobody is going to get any points in heaven by slogging their way through a book they aren’t enjoying but think they ought to read.”
“There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag — and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or a movement. Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty — and vice-versa. Don’t read a book out of its right time for you.”
—Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook
If you aren’t getting anything out of a book, put it down, and pick up another book.
Every hour you spend inching through a boring book is an hour you could’ve spent plowing through a brilliant one.
When it comes to books, quitters finish more.
Sometimes a book just isn’t for you, or it’s not for you yet.
It helps if you choose the right books in the first place. Stop reading what you think you should be reading and just read what you genuinely want to read. Read what you love and read at whim.
Get used to carrying a book around with you wherever you go and reaching for it in all the spare moments you’d usually pull out your phone. (Commutes, lunch breaks, grocery store lines, etc.)
Go to bed early and bring your book with you. If you fall asleep while reading, pick it back up when you wake and read for a bit before you get out of bed.
Always have a book queued next in line for when you finish the current book you’re reading.
Feel free to read promiscuously — date 3 or 4 books at the same time until one makes you want to settle down with it.
I am partial to carrying paper books and reading with a pencil, but I also love my e-reader, and a smartphone is undeniably handy, if you can avoid social media and the internet.
Which brings us to our next point.
“Reading is socially accepted disassociation. You flip a switch and you’re not there anymore. It’s better than heroin. More effective and cheaper and legal.”
A big part of reading is visiting other worlds, and you can’t visit another world if you’re constantly distracted by this one.
If you’re gonna read on your phone, switch it into airplane mode so you’re not even tempted to go online.
When you sit down to read a paper book, either put your phone in airplane mode, or plug your phone in across the room so you’re not tempted to reach for it.
Get a paper dictionary, so when you read at home or in the office, you don’t have to pull out your phone to look up words.
“You must go to the library and fall in love.”
I find a lot of great books through friends and online and through my own reading, but there’s nothing quite like the “serendipity of the stacks,” the magical discoveries that often happen when you’re browsing in a library or a bookstore.
If distraction is terrible for book reading, it’s great for book discovering. You never know what you’ll bump into in the stacks. You go hunting for a book and you find an even better book shelved a few books down from it.
I frequent the “New” and “Recently Returned” shelves at my local library and sometimes I’ll even snoop to see what people have on hold on the reserve shelves.
Nothing beats a well-curated selection in a great indie bookstore. It’s glorious to spend an afternoon shopping at Bookpeople or Powell’s or The Strand or any number of the great stores I’ve had the pleasure to visit on book tour.
“Read the books you love, tell people about authors you like, and don’t worry about it.”
The great thing about sharing your favorite books is that you meet other people who love those books, and they’ll share with you even more books to love.
Take notes, and let the books stack up. Gigantic book piles aren’t a sign you’re doing it wrong, they’re a sign that you’re doing it right.
* * *
If you need something to read, my new book, Keep Going, is out April 2nd.
Why wait until the end of the year? Here are 5 really good books I’ve read so far this winter:
First published in 1960. Out of print for years. Now beautifully reissued by NYRB. (Are they my favorite imprint? Maybe.) Incredible, 59-year-old drawings that look absolutely fresh. An American classic.
I don’t read as many novels as I probably should, and this is a novel novel. McCracken goes for it, doing in the book what, I think, only a novel can do. And damn, can she write a sentence. So many underlines. (Related post: “The religion of walking.”)
Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back)
I don’t really listen to audiobooks (they don’t fit into my commute-less life), but I got my hands on this one, and used it for company while shoveling snow. Except for the “aw shucks, can’t believe I’m writin’ a book” intro (come on, man), I found it really warm and smart. A bunch of good stuff about the creative process and parenting. (Related post: “On solitude and being who you are”)
Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book
Seems like a love-it-or-hate-it book, but I tore through it. One of those books that came at just the right place and just the right time for me. (Related reading: “Walker Percy’s problems of re-entry”)
Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed
Werner Herzog with Paul Cronin
A 500-page interview arranged to cover Herzog’s career in chronological order. This book took me forever to get through, not because it was a slog, but because it’s so dense with insane stories and poetic insights, I was constantly stopping to underline. (Related reading: “Werner Herzog on writing and reading”)
I picked up Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed a week or so ago, and it’s taking me forever to read because 1) it’s 500 pages long and I’m slow, and 2) it’s so dense with insane stories and great wisdom about creative work that I’m constantly stopping to underline sentences.
He describes himself as an autodidact, who “never felt comfortable in school” and “never trusted teachers”:
I’ve always been more interested in teaching myself. If I want to explore something, I never think about attending a class; I do the reading on my own or seek out experts for conversations. Everything we’re forced to learn at school we quickly forget, but the things we set out to learn ourselves — to quench a thirst — are never forgotten, and inevitably become an important part of our existence.
“When he was in school,” his mother says, “Werner never learned anything. He never read the books he was supposed to read, he never studied, he never knew what he was supposed to know, it seemed.”
But over and over, in the book, and in other interviews, he has one unwavering piece of advice for filmmakers: “Read.”
Read, read, read, read, read. Those who read own the world; those who immerse themselves in the Internet or watch too much television lose it. If you don’t read, you will never be a filmmaker. Our civilization is suffering profound wounds because of the wholesale abandonment of reading by contemporary society.
He gives his Rogue Film School students a “mandatory” reading list and he brings two books with him on film shoots: Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible and Livy’s account of the Second Punic War. (“The Book of Job acts as consolation, Livy gives me courage.”)
He talks a lot about approaching his screenplays with a literary sensibility, often abandoning traditional structure for prose descriptions of scenes. He’s convinced that Conquest of the Useless, his diary of making Fitzcarraldo, will outlive all of his films. “I suspect that my true voice emerges more clearly through prose than cinema,” he says. “I might be a better writer than I am a filmmaker.”
It is a really terrific book.
For the first time since my first son was born, I am living in a house without a piano. What I have now is a Yamaha “electronic piano,” a decades-old leftover from my pre-piano, pre-children days. The Yamaha is a hefty plank of plastic with “weighted” keys that make a sad thunky plastic sound when you play them. Unlike the vegan cashew queso my wife made for dinner the other night, it is a poor substitute for the real thing.
But The Yamaha, for now, is what I have, so I am making the best of it. The Yamaha has ten different voices: 2 pianos, 2 electric pianos, 2 organs, strings, 2 harpsichords, and a vibraphone. I hate the two pianos and never play them. The organs make the room sound like church. The other voices I can work with. As with many things in life, I like it more the less it tries to pretend to be something it’s not.
Can you have a moment of transcendence on such a sub-par instrument? I got close the other night. I was practicing some Bach, and I felt something like, I am putting my fingers on the same keys as Bach. He wrote these notes down 250 years ago, and now I am playing them. I may be doing a clumsy job, but I am making him come alive again.
I thought of Margaret Atwood’s “frozen music”:
Books are frozen voices, in the same way that musical scores are frozen music. The score is a way of transmitting the music to someone who can play it, releasing it into the air where it can once more be heard. And the black alphabet marks on the page represent words that were once spoken, if only in the writer’s head. They lie there inert until a reader comes along and transforms the letters into living sounds. The reader is the musician of the book: each reader may read the same text, just as each violinist plays the same piece, but each interpretation is different.
…one of the greatest blessings conferred on our lives by the Arts is that they are our chief means of breaking bread with the dead, and I think that, without communication with the dead, a fully human life is not possible.
I suppose you break bread with the dead using whatever tools you have on hand. Sometimes it’s a fine, dusty hardback, and sometimes it’s a free ebook on your Kindle. Sometimes it’s an old wooden piano, and sometimes it’s The Yamaha.
“Every morning, I have woken up knowing that I will never run out of books to read. That has been my life.”
This schedule went viral on Twitter with the caption: “Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing routine is the ideal writing routine.”
It’s a lovely, lovely thing, but it should be pointed out that it was an “ideal” routine for her, too, as she says in the 1988 interview it’s excerpted from. (Left out: “I go to bed at 10:00 p.m. If I’m at the beach there would be one ore two long walks on the beach in that day. This is a perfect day for me.”)
I’m sure that life got in the way a lot for her, just like it does for all of us. In fact, I was just thinking about her take on interruptions the other day when a mother wrote to me about the crush of having young kids and trying to work. I sent her this quote:
“Babies eat books. But they spit out wads of them that can be taped back together; and they are only babies for a couple of years, while writers live for decades…”
I love how her schedule doesn’t exclude mundane ordinary things like housework or dinner. “An artist can go off into the private world they create, and maybe not be so good at finding the way out again,” she said. “This could be one reason I’ve always been grateful for having a family and doing housework, and the stupid ordinary stuff that has to be done that you cannot let go.”
I also love how much time is set aside for reading. (Stephen King says he writes all morning and reads all afternoon.) It’s too easy when you’re writing full time to feel like you should stuff every single minute with writing, even when you know reading is a huge part of your job.
“Don’t feel guilty if you spend the first 90 minutes of your day drinking coffee and reading blogs,” Nate Silver once advised young journalists. “It’s your job. Your ratio of reading to writing should be high.”
Even after you achieve great things, that guilt might still linger. Here’s director Paul Thomas Anderson:
I still have trouble reading a book during the day because it somehow feels indulging… You know, like oh, my – this is so naughty. I’m actually reading at 10 o’clock in the morning. I think it’s just your upbringing – something about like you got to go to work, and you’ve got to – and move on. And still even – this is how I make my living. I still feel guilty. 10 o’clock, I mean – and it’s – but I’ve sunken into the pleasure of it – to think, my God, I’ve got my life in a way where I can read a book in the middle of the day.
I love that last sentence so much. I’ve always thought a great question for sorting out your life is: “What do you want your days to look like?”
It’s been said a million times — it’s one of the main points of my books Steal Like An Artist and Show Your Work! — and yet, it still seems to be controversial or confusing to young people who are starting out: If you want to be a writer, you have to be a reader first.
“You can’t be a good writer without being a devoted reader.”
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut… If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.”
“Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.”
“The ugly fact is books are made out of books.”
“Read with the mind-set of a carpenter looking at trees.”
“Read, read, read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read!”
“If you stuff yourself full of poems, essays, plays, stories, novels, films, comic strips, magazines, music, you automatically explode every morning like Old Faithful. I have never had a dry spell in my life, mainly because I feed myself well, to the point of bursting.”
“When I’m reading, I’m looking for something to steal. Readers ask me all the time the traditional question ‘Where do you get your ideas from?” I reply: ‘We are all having ideas all the time. But I’m on the lookout for them. You’re not.’”
“Reading is grist. Reading is bliss.”
“I find it weird to meet writers who aren’t also big readers. Met one the other day at a bar and I looked at him queerly. He said he couldn’t find the time. This reminded me that readers are probably my people first, before writers. Writers are more likely to be dicks.”
“I had never had any desire to be a writer. I wanted to be a reader.”
“I don’t enjoy writing. I enjoy reading.”
“If only you’d remember before you ever sit down to write that you’ve been a reader much longer than you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world [you] would most want to read…”
—J.D. Salinger, Seymour: An Introduction
“If you feel the urge to write, just lie down and read a book: it will pass.”