Sunday, January 31, 2016

Reading Challenge

Before this year, I have never had to consciously set reading goals for myself. It was always something that I did for both education and pleasure, what I was drawn to in my spare time or, I'll admit it, sometimes as necessary escapism. Let's face it, a paperback is much cheaper than therapy, especially if it comes from your local library!

Now that I've returned to school, I am finding to my horror that I don't have time or energy to read for pleasure like I used to. Even as an undergraduate, I was always able to get some recreational reading done after my homework and as a bookseller, reading was literally my life. But when I spend the majority of your day having to sit and really focus on what I'm reading or writing, and when that material is generally of an academic nature, the last thing my body and mind want to do is sit and focus some more in whatever down time I have!

That being the case, this year I decided to participate for the first time in a group reading challenge. A few friends from across the US have teamed up with me, and we're all committed to reading the list that I posted above. Having a group to encourage my reading is really motivating me to keep broadening my literary horizons, and it reminds me that even when I'm exhausted, reading really is fun! Consciously choosing books that are (mostly) new to me, and seeing what others have selected, has gotten me excited for my 2016 reading in a way that my overworked grad student brain thought might be impossible.

If you want some extra motivation for reading this year, consider doing a reading challenge like this one. If the list I'm using doesn't suit you, consider this one from Book Riot or this one from Better World Books. See bits and pieces that you like from each? Create your own reading list! And do get a group of friends together to take on the reading challenge with you. You'll be surprised at how many of them also want to read more but don't feel they have time or motivation. Your arrangement doesn't have to be formal; you can get together every week for a book club sort of check-in while all reading the same book at once, or you can set up a group online to informally share what you've read, what you thought of it, and what's next on your list whenever you happen to check something off your list. A little bit of reading encouragement goes a long way, and the internet is a great resource for that even when your friends aren't all within book club distance. Make 2016 the year that you re-commit to reading!

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Reading of "Lot 49"

If you've looked into postmodernist literature at all, odds are good that you've run into the name of author Thomas Pynchon. And once you've done that, "The Crying of Lot 49" is bound to come up on your radar in conjunction. It was not the first Pynchon novel that I've read (that would be "Gravity's Rainbow") but it seems to be a popular postmodernist starter because it's quite short: only 152 pages in the paperback edition.

But this strange, unassuming little novel packs a whole lot of punch. The entire thing is one big metaphorical curve ball, made up entirely of intricately interwoven details that are devilishly easy to overlook, resulting more often than not in crossed eyes and a strong urge to pull out your own hair by the fistful. It's the seemingly unimportant, mundane things that the reader finds unite the entire story and pull us deeper down the paranoid rabbit hole that this book is.

While I have read this book multiple times, I wouldn't necessarily say that it's enjoyable. The only people who seem to genuinely like it most of the time are English majors and people who claim to have read it but really bought it just because it looks sophisticated on their bookshelf. Sometimes these people are one and the same. But this select (pseudo-)audience isn't a result of bad writing or pointless metatextual spiraling. On the contrary, all the possibly nonsensical layers are a part of what makes Pynchon's writing so incredibly interesting. When you make a connection, unlock a subtle little secret in the text, you feel like you as a reader have accomplished something nearly as important to the story being written and published was.

Part of why nobody "likes" this and other Pynchon titles much of the time is just that his writing isn't easy to digest. It isn't the sort of paperback that most people curl up with on a rainy afternoon and enjoy over a cup of hot tea. And so unless one is making a deliberate effort to make one's way through this novel, nobody reads "The Crying of Lot 49." I think this is a shame. And half the people with whom I've spoken about it have already decided not to read it without even picking it up, just because its reputation can be intimidating.

The big difference I see here between people who read Pynchon (overwhelmingly English majors and postmodern enthusiasts) and those who don't is that people who work in and around the field of English have been deliberately taught how to read dense and intricate writing like that in "The Crying of Lot 49." We've been painstakingly instructed on how to dissect a text, layer by layer, and it does indeed involve real work instead of just reading the text once and deciding that it "doesn't make any sense."

Perhaps if more people were taught or sought out methods for reading and understanding complex texts like Pynchon's, readers wouldn't be so intimidate of books like "The Crying of Lot 49." If you're interested in taking on a literary challenge like this but don't know where to begin trying to take it apart, here are some quick tips and approaches that I personally find helpful:

1. Keep a running list of characters' names and who they are. Leave some open space underneath your initial entry so that you can expand on their relationships to other characters, because many of the names in "The Crying of Lot 49" contain their own little jokes and ironies. They fade in and out of the larger story without reintroductions.

2. When you start to observe recurring themes or key words and phrases, bookmark them with a sticky note or arrow. Being able to flip back and forth to compare the contexts directly will be immensely helpful!

3. Write down your own thoughts, questions, and interpretations as you encounter them. They needn't be coherent; after all, the text doesn't seem overly concerned with that most of the time. I personally find that actively wild speculation is the best way to keep my brain wide open to receive (and perceive) information from the book, especially when it's a complicated one.

When we make a conscious effort to stretch our brains with books like "The Crying of Lot 49" I honestly believe that we expand our mental horizons and broaden our ways of thinking. You don't have to enjoy a book to get something out of it. In all honesty most of the books that I read for class are not ones that I would choose to read of my own accord had I been let loose and told to pick something that I "liked." But I can honestly say that I have gained some insight, some new perspective, from each of them for which I find good use and am grateful. That's why it's important to read beyond pleasure, to read for more than entertainment. I hope that these basic tips will help to give you the encouragement you need to pick up something that has perhaps intimidated you in the past and give it a try. If you do, please let me know! I'd love to hear about your experience.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Inspiration From Haruki Murakami

For those of you not familiar with Haruki Murakami, he is a Japanese writer cherished for his lyrical, surreal writing and its insights into the human heart. He has written a large number of books, both novels and short story collections, and his latest volume is entitled "Wind/Pinball." My personal favorite of his work so far (and I have not read everything by him) is "Kafka on the Shore."

No matter which volume of Murakami's that you pick up though, you will find gorgeously worded (and painstakingly translated) insights into what it means to be a person. Not just human, but a real living, feeling person. This time of year, when the fervor of the holidays dies down and the cold grayness of a Pacific Northwest winter can get me down, I like to revisit Murakami's work. It's the perfect way to integrate the soft, cold weather into the dreamscapes of your thinking, and Murakami's work is the perfect material to send you out on that sort of introspective but ultimately positive journey.

If you're interested in seeing what Murakami's writing has to offer you, check out's compilation of "20 Haruki Murakami Quotes to Inspire You." If a particular quote or subject speaks to you, consider picking up the book from which it was pulled. No matter your choice, you're in for a wondrously surrealistic ride that will broaden your mind and make you question your point of view.