What I am reading: The 100 book challenge

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Decameron 15th C. Author unknown.

Right now, I am technically reading three books, although some more actively than others. Two of the books I am reading are part of my own 100 book challenge: The Decameron (Boccaccio) and the Devil to Pay in the Backlands (Rosa).

About two years ago, I started a challenge for myself to read (most) of the guardian’s 100 books of all time. I picked this list over others, because I liked the fact that it was collected by recommendations from 100 authors in 54 different countries. Because of that, there is a wide diversity of materials, and it is not just limited to English books. The upside of the list is that I have already read a lot of them; the downside is that some of them are pretty dense. I have opted not to read the short story and essay collections (although I did opt for a few, like the Decameron).

Unexpectedly, one of the difficulties I have run into is finding the books in English, preferably in digital format. Sometimes this has lead to wonderful discoveries, like Naguib Mahfouz. I couldn’t find his book in digital format, so I read another book by him instead. I loved it so much (Morning & Evening Talk) that I ended up reading several other pieces of his like his fabulously interesting Cairo Trilogy. Other times it has been very frustrating. I had a really hard time finding the Devil to Pay in the Backlands since apparently the books are very rare in English. The last translation was published in the 60’s and a used hard copy starts at $250 on Amazon. Luckily, through some sleuthing, I was able to find a pdf on scribd.

So this is where I am at, obviously in the “D” section with Decameron and The Devil to Pay. I don’t expect to be finishing either anytime soon, since I have been working on both for a while (and I am reading other books too….), but I have been enjoying both of them so far.

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Why Words Matter

 

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Page from Book of Kells (public domain) c. 800 CE

“Words, words, words! I’m so sick of words. get words all day through/ First from him, now from you/ Is that all you blighters can do?” – Lerner and Loewe, My Fair Lady.

This is just a very small musing. Of course, the topic of words mattering is much larger, and one I hope to touch on again and again.

As kids we are taught that sticks and stones can break people’s bones, but words may never hurt us. As someone who has studied social linguistics, I realize the sentiment, but the reality is that words are powerful. Words help us shape our realities and organize our world cognitively; They help us explain the world to ourselves and to explain it to others.

Sometimes, as a type of thought project, I try to imagine how we would understand the world, if we had no words to describe it. Clearly, it must be possible, but trying to think about feelings, senses, memories, and ideas without the words to shape them seems impossible. I always imagine a world without words must be very immediate, confusing, and lonely. A world without words would also limit interaction between people. We might appreciate a rainbow, but we would have little way to communicate it. Of course, words are not the only form of communication, but for most humans verbal or visual signs are the building blocks of our languages.

Without words we would have no history, oral or written. We would be stuck in the present, unable to share our past. Without a past, without sharing, without words, we wouldn’t be human.

Tips for Starting or Overcoming the Tyranny of the Blank Page

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There is something special about the tyranny of the blank page. On one hand it teases you with unending possibilities. You could start here, or you could start there, but to start at all often feels daunting. Anyone, who has ever had the opportunity to write at one time or another, knows the stark power of the white void. Since the adoption of word processing, the blinking text cursor has also joined in to distract would-be writers.

However, if the blank page always held sway there would not be any novels, articles, or writings of any kind. So, if you find yourself held captive by the blank page, what can you do?

Write something, anything. It sounds counter intuitive to advise someone to write something, when the very problem they are having is not begin able to write, but it works! Usually people get too concerned about writing something useful or beautiful or even coherent that they cannot write anything at all.  So just put it all out there – warts and all. It doesn’t even have to be on topic. You can always delete it later. After my many years of writing, I have discovered that when I follow this method with the intention of deleting crummy writing later, I find that my writing wasn’t so crummy after all. Here are some specific tips for writing something, anything!

  1. Pretend to tell it to a friend. While there are times that you may want your writing to be more formal, the “telling it to a friend” method can always be made more formal in the end. In fact, you could even go find a friend and tell them what you are trying to write. Take notes while you are telling them and then write it down.
  2. Free-write/Brainstorm for 2 or 5 Min. Some people do well with timers, others do not. The trick to this one is that you set a timer for your desired time and just write – anything and everything. You can even write that you don’t know what to write. Eventually, I have found, things start to flow a little more, and if they don’t, then when the timer goes off just take a short break and reward yourself.
  3. Skip the beginning. There is no reason to write the introduction first or even the first line, especially when it is so easy to get hung up on it. So, start in the middle and then come back to the beginning after you are on a roll – by then it wont be a blank page anymore.
  4. Make an outline. My students always groan when I tell them to make an outline. They don’t need an outline; they never use an outline. I don’t really know when people became so opposed to outlines. I find them useful if I need to organize my thoughts, think about how things will flow, or even if I need to just write something, anything! After you develop an outline, you can always just start filling it in. Start with the easy parts and leave the beginning for the end.

On the Art of Reading

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“Beaufort, South Carolina” by Elisa.rolle CC by SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Writing and reading. Reading and writing. They are really just one and the same. Without one, the other would not exist, and because of that, I suspect, most writers are also avid readers. I know I am.

A long time ago, I remember reading an interview with Pat Conroy, the author of The Prince of Tides, where he discussed his writing education. I can’t find the article or interview, but I remember it quite well. As a graduate of the Citadel in Charleston, SC, he recounted that he did not have an Ivy League education. This is not dissuade him. Instead, Conroy decided to commit himself, not only to writing, but to reading too. He reasoned that if he couldn’t be an Ivy League graduate, he could at least read like one. What struck me about Conroy’s interview was not only his sheer determination, but also his focus on the importance of reading as a writer. The interview even described the page count that he read everyday, which I remember thinking was a massive amount. Unfortunately this page amount is a detail that, as Billy Collins describes, “decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain, to a little fishing village where there are no phones.”

I have not always been a voracious reader like Conroy, but I have always aspired to be one. As an academic, I ironically lost my habit of reading for pleasure. Overwhelmed by work reading and academic literature, the time for pleasure reading was moved aside. Over the past two years, I refocused my reading habit and built time into my day for pleasure reading. By reinvesting in reading fiction or literary non-fiction (as opposed to academic literature), I have found myself recentered in the things I love about reading…and writing.