How Do You Read Now?

how read now
A friend sent me an excerpt from this article by Adam Kirsch, published August 3, 2018. Does this apply to you?
 
“Another way of putting it is that when Americans read, we mostly read for story, not for style. We want to know what happens next, and not to be slowed down by writing that calls attention to itself. According to one familiar indictment of modern literature, today’s literary writers are unpopular precisely because they have lost interest in telling stories and become obsessed with technique. In the 20th century, this argument goes, literature became esoteric, self-regarding and difficult, losing both the storytelling power and the mass readership that writers like Balzac, Dickens and Twain had enjoyed.”

 

Do you agree? Why or why not? Let me know, please.

Tools of the Trade

vivian lawry typewriter tools trade
I recently wrote about smart phones as writing tools. Today I’m writing about tools at the other end of the spectrum.

 

In my high school, Mrs. Echard taught all typing and shorthand classes. College-bound students were guided toward the Personal Typing class. It was the only class that was regularly half male! In this class, one learned to write personal and business letters, but also to compose at the typewriter.

 

I can see her now—brown hair, brown skirt-suit and heels, white blouse—modeling proper business attire. And I can hear her saying, “Always write your first draft at the typewriter. Triple space it, so you have room to edit and add notes. Don’t worry about typing errors, given that it’s only a draft. No matter how slowly you type, it is still faster than hand writing.”
vivian lawry
So there we sat, at individual oak desks in even rows, in good typing posture (i.e., feet flat on the floor). A Remington manual typewriter sat centered on the desk, stacks of paper and carbons off to the sides. Two of these typewriters would have been on the ark, had Noah taken objects.

 

All were black with gold lettered Remington on the front. The ribbon spooled from left to right, black on top and red on the bottom. Changing said ribbons was a messy, bumbling business.
vivian lawry typewriter
The keys were arrayed in a fan-like shape and the biggest hassle was hitting two keys at once, causing them to jam at the platen, requiring manual separation—also a messy business.
typewriter tools trade
The keys were round buttons, black on white or white on black, of all letters and symbols—including a symbol for cents, no longer standard on keyboards today. The shift key was also labeled Freedom.
tools trade
Being manual, the pressure on the keys was reflected in the lettering. All fingers not being equally strong, the end product often looked like this.

 

tools trade
Editing back then was literally cut and paste, then retyping the rearranged text. Moving a paragraph—or even a sentence—meant retyping and entire page or maybe more.

 

Correcting a spelling error meant using a round rubber wheel with an attached brush. This is such an ancient artifact now that sculpures of them are in museums and gardens.

 

That was a time when making copies meant typing carbons. Each page and carbon had to be corrected separately—and heaven forbid one erased a hole in the paper.

 

I learned Mrs. Echard’s lesson well. I never after hand-wrote a draft, or much of anything else. By now, I find it difficult to hand-write a thank you note!

 

BOTTOM LINE: not that long ago, writing was a very slow, laborious activity.  I marvel that anything got written at all.

Consider Personal Symbols

I recently read The Thorn Chronicles by Kimberly Loth. This is a 4-book series for an early teen audience.
thorn chronicles
[Source: Goodreads]
It’s a fairly familiar plot line of good versus evil, with an eventual twist of trying to mediate and balance those forces. (Frankly, the books could use a good edit to catch repetitions, omitted words and using the almost-right word, e.g. viscous when the context suggests the right word was vicious.) I’m writing about it because within this series, the two major women characters had symbolic plant connections.

 

The series opens with Naomi, a sixteen-year-old girl, running away from an abusive home. While at home, Naomi gathered strength and peace working in the rose garden her grandmother started. Each chapter begins with a rose the name of which ties to the content of the chapter.

 

The characters age slowly, but they do age. Their save-the-world challenges are so big-stage that the reader (I, at least) must readjust when there is a reference to going to school, being suspended for a week, etc.

 

I’ve read that YA fiction features protagonists who are 3 to 5 years older than the target audience. Perhaps that’s the reason for the shift in the second two books.

 

secrets kimberly loth
[Source: Goodreads]
In the third book, the focus shifts to the POV of a younger protege of Naomi’s. She was 12 or 13 when Naomi befriended her, and is now 15 or 16. The plant symbolism shifts to cacti. Each chapter starts with cactus facts, names, and/or descriptions.

 

lies kimberly loth
[Source: Goodreads]
In the latest book of the series, both women are prominent. Each chapter begins with a plant epigram, either rose or cactus, signaling POV.

 

The point here is that having signature symbols can ease transitions between/among POVs. It needn’t be plants. It could be pets. It could be something astrological, or mineral elements, or whatever your imagination suggests.

 

Bottom line: Consider some symbolic representation for your protagonist and/or other major characters.

Reading Whatever Comes to Hand

From April 13 to September 30 the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden is displaying sculptures by Kevin Box. Each piece begins as a paper-inspired design. His process of turning that paper inspiration into bronze, aluminum, and/or steel requires 35 steps and takes 12 weeks. I read about it in Volume 1, Issue 1 of the new Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden Magazine. Also included in the magazine are five tips from a nature photographer and using natural enemies for pest management, among other articles.

 

reading whatever comes hand
By reading the back of the map of the Sea Pines Forest Preserve I learned that the Indian Shell Ring is 4,000 years old and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
And there you have it: I read virtually everything that comes to hand—and usually learn something from it! All last week I was on Hilton Head Island, with a day trip to Savannah, GA, for a tour of hidden gardens. The tour ticket included a “southern tea” at the Green-Meldrim House.
reading whatever comes hand
The information card about the house gave all sorts of facts about the history, construction, and ownership of the house. But it also included this bit of information: “…upon the invitation of Mr. Green, General William Tecumseh Sherman used the house as headquarters when the Federal army occupied Savannah during the Civil War. It was at this time (December, 1864) that General Sherman sent his famous telegram to President Lincoln offering him the City of Savannah as a Christmas gift.”  Who knew? Not I—in spite of growing up near Lancaster, Ohio, home of William Tecumseh Sherman, having toured his home, and having written several short stories set during the Civil War.

 

Not surprisingly, this little freebie contains an article on how tides work—always relevant to sailors—along with the legend of the Jake, the Salty Dog. I had to laugh when I read the 2-page spread on why dogs aren’t allowed at the Salty Dog Cafe these days.

 

reading whatever comes hand
Back in 1987 dogs of all shapes and sizes accompanied their owners to lunch, dinner, and happy hour. That ended when the owners realized that “If you allow several dogs of any variety in close proximity to each other, add children with cheeseburgers and ice cream cones, throw in a margarita for the dog owners, the problems can and will begin.” Duh! The info then went on to give examples. BTW, food at The Salty Dog was excellent.

 

reading whatever comes hand
I found this religious tract in a restaurant booth. Even here I found something to enjoy. I read the Bible twice, cover to cover, in my youth and memorized verses at church camp in the summers. Every page of this booklet contains a quote from the Bible, and seeing which verses were attached to which misbehaviors was interesting.

 

reading whatever comes hand
As I recall, this booklet was included with a Virginia Rep play program. I can’t imagine why, so maybe I’m mistaken. But here it is, and very interesting it is, too. Did you know that the first Civil Rights Act was passed in 1866? It gave African-Americans the right to make and enforce contracts, sue and be sued, “give evidence, to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property, and to full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings… as is enjoyed by white citizens.”

 

reading whatever comes hand
This publication follows the history of housing in Virginia from those earliest days through 2011, and it’s well worth a read.

 

reading whatever comes hand
My penchant for reading virtually anything and everything is so well known that one of my daughters sends clippings from her local paper that she thinks might interest me. For example, Sweet is the story of a family whose attic filled with thousands of honeybees, producing so much honey that it dripped down the side of the house.

 

reading whatever comes hand
My most recent read is the April/May 2018 issue of Discover Richmond. As usual, there are lots of good things here, but as a former college teacher, I was especially interested in the article “Then and now: new views of old textbook passages.” Virginia history textbooks in use from the mid-1950s into the 1970s presented a view of the past so warped as to be laughable—if it weren’t also so hurtful. For example, “ON SLAVERY—The slave ‘did not work so hard as the average free laborer, since he did not have to worry about losing his job. In fact, the slave enjoyed what we might call comprehensive social security. Generally speaking, his food was plentiful, his clothing adequate, his cabin warm, his health protected and his leisure carefree.”
reading whatever comes hand
BOTTOM LINE: Read whatever comes your way and you, too, could know that kites were used during the Civil War to deliver letters and newspapers, that drinking water after eating reduces the acid in your mouth by 61%, that 9 out of every 10 living things live in the ocean, that the University of Alaska spans four time zones, that peanut oil is used for cooking in submarines because it doesn’t smoke unless it’s heated above 450 degrees Fahrenheit…

In Praise of Rereading

praise rereading dorothy sayers
For decades my escapist reading—with few exceptions—was mysteries. Once you know who did it, what would be the point? The one exception for me was Dorothy L. Sayers.  My motivation for rereading the Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane mysteries was to discover the early clues and figure out how she built to the big reveal. But I also discovered that Sayers’ characters—clear, distinct, and appealing—grew and developed.

 

I seldom read non-mysteries then, and rereads were even rarer. Two of those exceptions were Austen and Mitchell. They both were mirrors reflecting a period in history and characters that reside in real people, regardless of historical period.

 

praise rereading diana gabaldon books
Not too long ago I read and then reread Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. I reread because this is a far ranging saga. By the time certain characters play a major role I’d lost track of earlier cameo appearances. On rereading, I could appreciate how intricately interwoven the people, places and events were. Having written only two books with repeating characters (Dark Harbor and Tiger Heart) I marvel that the details didn’t trip over each other, that they didn’t contradict themselves, and that the characters matured (as opposed to changed).
new genre new year maas
More recently I read Sarah J. Maas’ series Throne of Glass. And now I am rereading it. Partly that’s because of the great experience rereading Gabaldon. But in addition, Maas has created a whole new world. As fantasy fiction, she’s created a new physical world, but also new history, new creatures, and new personal powers. The first read familiarized me with these aspects of the series. Like Gabaldon, Maas has characters who grow and change over time—but her timeframe is much more compacted. And as a series targeting young adults, I became very aware of the meta-messages inherent in the plot and characters.

 

winston graham books
My experience is that rereading a series is especially gratifying. Perhaps it should be required—in the interest of fully appreciating the author’s creativity and craft.

 

I’ve now committed to reading A Wrinkle in Time between now and March 9, prior to the movie premiere. It was touted as a reread. For me, it will be a read. My youngest daughter has read it many times. Her older daughter has read it. Her younger daughter received it for Christmas but hasn’t read it yet. Could I resist such a recommendation?

 

And the best part is, this is the first book in a series. There may be more rereads in my future!

 

Bottom line: Reread a favorite you haven’t read for several years. Is it as good as you remembered? Better? Different? Let me know.

 

Wrinkle Re-Read

1968 Was a Hell of a Year

smithsonian 1968 hell year
The January-February issue of Smithsonian is a must read. Whether you lived through it or not, you will learn something new on every page. (Well, maybe not the ads at the back!) Many people living through turbulent times experience some segment of the turmoil so deeply that it changes them forever, but I’d venture to say few grasp the whole.
And if you were a child in ’68—or not even born yet—you definitely need to read this. The year still reverberates through our lives, and this issue of Smithsonian is a vivid panorama of the times.

smithsonian contents 1968
The grief and anger surrounding the Vietnam war are made clear, from the war itself to the riots during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Popular culture is highlighted: the Beach Boys and the Beatles in India and teen sensation Frankie Lymon. It was a year of protesting the Miss America Pageant, and getting the first pictures of earth from outer space. What Martin Luther King, Jr. was doing days before his assassination, and the legacy of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination—it’s all there. It was a year of violence, but also of innovation as the groundwork was laid for personal computers and the internet.

Issues of street violence to threats of world hunger made 1968 a year of fear and anger. Read all about it!

What’s So Funny?

whats so funny new yorker january
As you’ve probably gathered by now, I’m a fan of The New Yorker magazine. I like their covers. I like their cartoons. And I especially enjoy “Shouts & Murmurs.”  This particular issue has one that totally cracked me up.

 

whats so funny shakespeare
It is a parody of a modern-day interview with Shakespeare. It purports to be newly discovered quotes from interviews with the Bard when he was promoting his work. Shakespeare says things such as, “I hate getting notes from theater owners. They’re always, like, Romeo and Juliet shouldn’t die and stuff. I thought that was a cool ending. I don’t know.” I’d recommend getting this issue for that article alone.

 

whats so funny new yorker
This week’s “Shouts & Murmurs” takes on the current issue of the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea. It is unabashedly making fun of Trump, and if you are a fan of the president, you would think it insulting rather than humorous. But If you are a Trump supporter, you probably wouldn’t be reading The New Yorker much anyway.

 

whats so funny usa north korea
But as a writer, it is worth reading regardless because it is a good example of what some—lots of?—people find funny.

 

Wikipedia lists 23 genres of comedy in this format:

 

whats so funny forms humor
Consider the various forms of comedy. What do you find funny? And would any of them enhance your writing?

Creative Nonfiction = Literary Nonfiction = Narrative Nonfiction

naked drunk writing adair lara
I bought this book recently because I’ve enrolled in Creative Nonfiction, a class that begins later this month at the VMFA Studio School. I haven’t taken a writing class in years, but why not?

 

Once upon a time I took a class with a title something like “Writing Memoir Using Fiction Techniques.” It was a great class. And now there is a whole genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives written to entertain. There’s quite a good Wikipedia essay about it, and/or you can check out www.creativenonfiction.org.

 

Once I started thinking about it, I realized how much of my pleasure reading is some version of creative nonfiction.

 

Dean King is a Richmond writer who is a master of the form. He brings history to life, whether he’s writing about a shipwreck off the coast of Africa in 1815 or the legendary American Hatfields and McCoys.

 

Three of my other favorites are Bill Bryson, Charles Panati, and Mary Roach.

 

Charles panati books
Each is an educator in his or her own fashion. Panati gathers fascinating bits and pieces, often organized around quirky themes.

 

mary roach books
Mary Roach researches current themes and issues, including their historical roots and cross-cultural connections. And she’s humorous!

 

bill bryson books
Bill Bryson varies between historical research (e.g., Mother Tongue) and personal experience (e.g., A Walk in the Woods).

 

And then there are the personal adventure stories. The first of these I read was Woodswoman by Anne LaBastille about living alone in the Adirondacks, isolated by winter.
woodswoman anne lebastille
The next creative nonfiction book on my agenda will probably be Wild (2013) by Cheryl Strayed. Obviously, I don’t jump on the lists of just published books! But I expect a thrilling read.
wild cheryl strayed
Bottom line: Creative nonfiction can be as varied as fiction. And why not try writing a genre I so enjoy reading? I’ll keep you posted.

Read This Book!

meatballs people gary sotomeatballs people gary soto
It’s a fast, pithy read. The book is small enough to carry virtually anywhere: 6” x 4” x 3/8” and 141 pp. and every one of those pages has a lot of white space.

 

read book meatballs people gary soto
According to Soto, “[Proverbs] don’t take effort to read. They are not riddles or cagey games, but do require an ‘aha’ moment.” Here are some of his proverbs I especially like.

 

If you plant a garden
Get ready to weed
 
You become corrupt
In increments
 
In love with his baritone voice
The politician
Believes what he says
 
A backbone
Is more useful
Than a wishbone
 
As Soto so aptly observed in his preface to this book, “Also, proverbs, in all languages and over the centuries, are quips that speak of our human nature.”

 

Gary Soto is of Mexican-American heritage. His work has taken him from the fields of the San Joaquin Valley to his literary life in Berkeley, California. He taught at the University of California, Berkeley and at University of California, Riverside. You can read about his awards and achievements in Wikipedia and visit his website at garysoto.com.

 

gary soto 2001 national book festival
Gary Soto’s literary oeuvre is as varied as it is extensive, including 14 poetry collections, 21 books for children/young adults, a series of children’s picture books in Spanish and English featuring a cat named Chato, 8 memoirs, 1 play, 2 films, and 4 edited volumes.

 

gary soto meatballs people
Meatballs for the People: Proverbs to Chew On (Red Hen Press, 2017) can be found in the poetry section.

 

“You can always spot bright people. They are reading a book.” Gary Soto.

This Just In!

American Dictionary of the English Language front cover
American Dictionary of the English Language
As many of you know, I collect dictionaries. This facsimile edition of the first American Dictionary of the English Language arrived yesterday and I’ve been enjoying it for hours. Who would have thought there could be 58 definitions of pass?
Portrait of Noah Webster, creator of Dictionary of American English
Noah Webster
According to the preface, Webster was being urged to compile such a volume as early as 1783. He was too busy to even think about it till 1801. The work became ever more ambitious, as you can see from the title page.
American Dictionary of the English Language title page
American Dictionary of the English Language
And the rest is history. Webster’s became almost synonymous with dictionary. He predated the Oxford English Dictionary (1933) by more than a hundred years, and I would claim his scholarship (including historical roots and literary examples) inspired those involved in the OED.
A Dictionary of South African English, title page
A Dictionary of South African English
According to Webster, new locations and new governments require the standardization of modified English. Hence, you can also find dictionaries of Australian English, Indian English, etc.
We are not using Webster’s 1828 dictionary today because—ta da!—language evolves. You heard it here first—unless you read Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way.
 
The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson, book cover
The Mother Tongue
 
The evolution of language comes not only from changing political needs, but also from science, art, technological advances, etc. While some of these changes primarily affect relatively narrow bands of society, others are more pervasive. Based on the sheer variety of offerings, I would argue that slang is one of the most changeable aspects of language, both universal and specialized.
 
two dictionaries
Mob Speak and Knickers in a Twist
 
Slang varies by occupation. I have dictionary of carnival slang, for example, as well as several dealing with war.
War Slang by Paul Dickson, cover of dictionary
War Slang
And of course language varies by time period and sub-culture.
Much as I love them, I’m afraid hard-copy dictionaries are becoming extinct. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary claims to be the best available. Given the rapidity of language evolution, online is probably the only way to keep up.
The Oxford American Dictionary and Language Guide front cover
The Oxford American Dictionary and Language Guide
What’s your newest dictionary? And why do you still have it?