Archive | Books

Advice for Writers Struggling with Genre: Ask This Question

bookshelf

bookshelfIf you’ve ever thought about writing a book, the very first thing anyone will tell you is to figure out which “shelf” it will sit on in a bookstore. It’s not enough to simply have a topic, or even an angle into a topic. You need to know who’s going to buy this book. Because book publishing, like anything else, is a business and the key to a successful business is knowing your market.

I knew all of this, of course. Over the years, I’ve been in enough writing groups and consumed enough resources devoted to the art and science of getting published that I knew that were I someday to approach an agent with an idea for a book, I’d need to be able to provide a cogent answer to this question.

And then someday arrived and I wasn’t quite sure how I wanted to answer it.

Let me back up. I’ve been working for several months on a book about…drumroll please…swimming and adulthood. After more than 25 years as a “casual runner” – someone who ran three times a week to stay fit – my body was telling me that that I could no longer run. The reasons why I needed to stop running aren’t all that interesting. (Well, OK, something called Piriformis Syndrome, if you must know…) But the upshot was that, on the advice of my doctor, I began – somewhat reluctantly – to swim.

This obviously not an entirely new topic for me. This blog’s strapline – “Finding Yourself In Adulthood” – is all about conceptualizing adulthood as a journey, not a destination. But whereas the blog tackles topics ranging from work and parenting to therapy and the arts in a much more general way, the daily act of swimming enabled me to analyse these subjects through a single prism. In essence, swimming serves as a metaphor through which to explore what it means to be a grown up in the contemporary age.

But even after I started writing this book, I still struggled with where it fit on the proverbial bookshelf. Was it an extended meditation on swimming itself, Like Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies?  Was it a sports memoir a la Gerald Marzaroti’s Late to the Ball about picking up a new skill (tennis) in midlife? Was it a humorous, loosely themed take on daily life, modelled on David Sedaris or Sandra Tsing Loh?  Or a was it a collection of more serious essays like Meghan Daum’s The Unspeakable?

On alternate days it felt a bit like all of these.

It didn’t help that when I showed my précis (2 page overview) of the book to a few friends I got very different advice. One friend thought that it needed to be funnier, more like my daily status updates which I post on Facebook recounting the cast of characters I run into at my local swimming pool. Another friend thought that it should be a novel. Someone else advised me to convert it into an inspirational journey, the sort of Eat, Pray, Love of swimming.

Instead of writing the book, I began to obsess about genre.

And then, one day, at the tail end of a dinner party while chatting about this problem with a friend, I had my Eureka moment. My friend is a novelist who has written several novels in the Lad Lit genre and is on the cusp of becoming a sensation with his latest work-in-progress, which has already been snatched up by a major New York imprint. (He’s also sold the film rights. As he put it so beautifully, “Who knew that becoming an overnight success took so long?”)

After I regaled him with all of my anxieties about what the book could and should be, he looked at me and simply said: “Write the book that only you could write.”

It wasn’t rocket science. Nor was some dark, heretofore unknown secret of the publishing world. But for me, it was sort of like that age-old adage: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” And just like that, I immediately felt better.

Because I realised in that moment that I actually *had* been writing the book that only I could write all along. While it had elements of several different styles, at the end of the day the book I was writing was essentially a self-help book, albeit one very much rooted in my own experience. (I’ve since learned that there is a name for this sub-genre – self-help memoir or prescriptive memoir. Thank you, Jane Friedman.)

For me, my friend’s throwaway line (heartfelt, to be sure, even if infused with a few glasses of red wine), was clarifying: I need to stop obsessing over what other people think my book is meant to be. That comes later. For now, the book is already what I need it to be: a place to bring my voice and my insights to a topic I’ve long been passionate about with a fresh angle.

In a year where my new year’s resolution was to embrace authenticity, that feels pretty good.

Image: Bookshelves by Hernán Poo-Camaño via Flickr

Tips For Adulthood: Five Self-Help Books That Changed My Life

self helpOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

I’ve never been much for self-help books.

As a general rule, I don’t read a lot of non-fiction. And for a long time I think I was a bit of a snob where self-help books were concerned, thinking they were somehow low brow.

I was wrong. In the past few months, I’ve had occasion to read a couple of self-help books that have had a profound impact on how I want to move forward with my life. And in reflecting back, I realize that there have been a few others along the way that also left their mark.

So today I’m going to share five self help books that changed my life – organized by theme – in the hope that one of these might motivate you to change some aspect of your life that you’re not entirely satisfied with either.

Before I begin, If I can offer one piece of (self-help) of on my own, it would be that you not “dabble” in these books. While it’s fine to start and stop and/or to read them alongside something else, be sure that you read each one start to finish, because each one has its own internal logic which builds, chapter by chapter.

Above all: do the exercises. They are there to force you to confront tough questions about yourself and you won’t progress if you don’t use these tools to identify your strengths – as well as whatever it is that’s holding you back.

Finally, be patient:  some of these books are deceptively short. You might spend an entire month on one page before moving on to the next chapter. That’s just fine.

To wit, five self-help books that changed my life:

1. Happiness. Gretchen Rubin’s happiness franchise needs no introduction. She has a popular blog, several books and a podcast, all geared towards how to be happier in life. Gretchen’s basic philosophy is that through better self-understanding, most of us can make even tiny changes in our daily life that would make us happier, regardless of our baseline. So it’s not necessarily about rushing out and buying a new espresso machine or embarking upon an extreme sport vacation. Rather, small things like figuring out if you’re a chronic under-buyer or over-buyer and shopping accordingly or adopting a personal motif to inspire your creativity can improve your mood on a daily basis. Personally, I found her advice about singing in the morning to work wonders.

2. Career Change. I’m a huge fan of one of the most well-known guides to career change ever written: What Color Is Your Parachute? by Richard N. Bolles. This book is so famous it has almost become a cliché. But when I left academia to go into journalism, I locked myself in a café several hours a day for several months and did nothing but follow this book’s script. The book’s basic premise is that to make a meaningful career change, you need to zero in on two variables: what you like and what you’re good at, and where these overlap (harder than it sounds). Six months later, I had a great job as a producer with Chicago Public Radio. I still recommend this book every time someone asks me if I have any advice on how to change careers without spending more than $15.

3. Creativity. I’m shouting to anyone who will listen about Elle Luna’s amazing The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion. Like “Parachute,” this book is also partly about how to finding meaningful work and/or embark upon a career change. But it’s so much more. It’s about going to the very core of who you are and figuring out how to be authentic to that self – what Luna calls our “must.” It isn’t an easy or comfortable journey. (Try the “write your own obituary” exercise and you may well end up in tears.)  But the book is utterly inspiring because Luna believes so firmly that each of us really does have an amazing gift inside. We just need to figure out how to unlock that creativity and release it into the world. Bonus: because the author is a visual artist, the layout and design of this book are worth the shelf price in and of themselves.

4. Decluttering. Yeah, yeah I know. The whole decluttering thing is soooo…now. But Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying: A Simple, Effective Way to Banish Clutter Forever is another deceptively short and simple book that’s loaded with so much more. Kondo’s essential message is that most of us are living with untold amounts of clutter in our lives that simply doesn’t “spark joy.” Sure, as one of the friends I recommended this book to put it: “Your socks need to ‘relax’? Has it crossed your mind that this lady might be a teensy bit OCD?” (If you google her video on how to fold the perfect underwear drawer, you might find yourself agreeing…) But by the last chapter you will forgive her everything because what she’s really trying to do is to use tidying as a vehicle for achieving clarity in our lives (e.g., change careers/get a divorce/take up windsurfing/etc.) If we can get rid of all our excess stuff, and pare down to the things that we really love, we’ll not only see our lives more clearly, we’ll be happier and more relaxed.

5. Platforms. This one is for all you aspiring writers out there who think you have a book in you. I’m currently reading Christina Katz’ Get Known Before The Book Deal. It’s the second time I’ve read this book and I’m finding it much more useful this time around, possibly because I have a much clearer idea for a non-fiction book proposal now than I did when I picked this up several years ago and was vaguely thinking about writing a novel. This book is written for all those aspiring non-fiction writers who want to be an “expert” in something but haven’t yet created their platform. It shows you how to do this, step by step. I found the chapters on identifying your target audience to be particularly useful.

How about you. What self-help book would you recommend?

Image: Self Help Books by Angie via flickr.

Coloring Books for Adults? Cheaper Than Therapy!

coloring books grown ups

Crayons

LONDON – Have you heard? Five out of the top ten best sellers on Amazon right now are coloring books… for grown ups!

That’s right, folks. Drop the briefcase. Cash in that advanced degree. The secret to happiness and success in life lies in that box of Crayolas your three-year-old is clutching.

If, like me, you were initially skeptical when news of this trend hit your inbox, you’re in good company. As a columnist in Britain’s Daily Telegraph so eloquently put it: Has the creeping infantilization of the adult world reached a new nadir?

I think the answer is “maybe.”

I say “maybe” because there’s not just one version of the adult coloring book making the rounds these days. The fabulously ironic Sad and Useless website had this hilarious send-up of what it looks like when grown-ups start drawing their fantasies. One caption proclaims, “It’s like kindergarten, but with more drinking!” Personally, I love the “Hipster or Homeless” exercise, where you’re supposed to take two identical images of a bearded man in a jacket and make one look respectable and the other … not so much.

But before you choke on your own snark, I’d like to invite you to step back for a minute and reflect a bit more on the latest development in the get-in-touch-with-your-inner-child movement

Read the rest of this post over on The Broad Side...

In Defense of Mark Zuckerberg’s Book Club

booksforzuckHave you heard? Mark Zuckerberg wants to start a book club. As one of his New Year’s Resolutions for 2015, the 30-year-old CEO of Facebook will commit to reading one new book every two weeks. He has already set up a Facebook page “The Year of the Book” and invited Facebook’s 864 million members to join in the fun by leaving comments relevant to the book at hand. As of this writing, the page has some 241,000 likes.

So far at least – and in marked contrast to Facebook users – the reaction to this announcement within the cultural commentariat has been largely negative. Criticisms seem to come mostly in the form of: The nerve of that young upstart! Who does he think he is…Oprah? The argument here is that Mark Zuckerberg cannot pretend – nor should he pretend – to be a tastemaker like Oprah Winfrey, who re-ignited reading within her (largely) middle-aged female audience by closely aligning her book club selections with the highly personal, emotionally resonant material covered on her talk show. As Gawker’s Anna Wiener puts it: “Oprah’s best product has always been Oprah. Zuckerberg’s best product is Facebook.”

Sure and point well taken.

Read the rest of this post at The Broad Side

Image via Flickr/Ali Edwards/Creative Commons License

J.K. Rowling: Lessons on Fame & Glee’s Cory Monteith

What’s not to love about J.K. Rowling?

The best-selling, mega-successful author of the Harry Potter series has always been a winner with the public. She’s wise…she’s modest…she’s even funny. (If you’ve never heard her commencement speech at Harvard University a couple of years back, drop whatever you’re doing and listen to this…)!

But most of all, I think we all deeply respect and revere this one-time-welfare-mom who decided one day in her mid-30s while working as a divorced secretary that she would take a chance on a dream and create what would eventually become the first of a series of books that has defined a generation.

But Rowling outdid herself this past weekend when it was revealed that she had secretly written a crime novel under the male pseudonym of Robert Galbraith, a (purported) first-time novelist. The book, The Cuckoo’s Calling, had opened to high critical praise when it was published in April, but had failed to attract much in the way of commercial success, selling but 1,500 copies.

Until now. Within hours of the revelation that Rowling was the actual author (an editor at Britain’s Sunday Times was the sleuth), the book rocketed to top the Amazon best-seller charts.

Read the rest of this post at The Broad Side...

Image: 100405_EasterEggRoll_682 by Daniel Ogren via Flickr under a Creative Commons License

Game Of Thrones Author Surprisingly Normal

As a denizen of North London lo’ these past five and a half years, I’ve had my fair share of celebrity sightings. I’ve caught a glimpse of chef Boy Wonder Jamie Oliver as he entered a local bookstore. I’ve exchanged a few pleasantries with actress Helena Bonham Carter. I’ve even locked eyes with comedian Ricky Gervais at the hair dresser’s.

But by far the most exciting celebrity encounter to date was this week, when I attended a Q and A with author George R.R. Martin.

Martin — or GRRM as he’s known to fans — is the writer of the best-selling fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, on which the hugely popular HBO television series, Game of Thrones, is based. If you haven’t read the books — and you really should — they are famous for their unbelievably graphic and realistic depiction of medieval life, replete with internecine power struggles between warring clans, routine war crimes of the most vicious sort and, yes, quite a bit of sex. The net effect, as many have observed, is a good deal closer to history than fantasy.

I myself am not normally a fantasy reader. I came to these books via my 11 year-old son who, like many fans, literally counted down the nights until last summer’s release of the fifth volume in the series — A Dance With Dragons . (Yeah, I know. Please don’t ask. He was 4,000 pages in before I realized that the books might not be appropriate.) But at my son’s insistence, I immersed myself in Martin’s Kingdom of Westeros and its more than 1,000 characters and have never looked back. So when I saw that Martin would be giving a talk at a local University theatre, I ran to get us some tickets.

He did not disappoint.

Read the rest of this post at The Washington Post’s She The People blog

 

Image: George R.R. Martin, author of Game of Thrones by Arnold Tijerina via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

 

 

Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons To Read A Game Of Thrones

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I read a great post yesterday on the Online magazine The Tribe about why adults ought to read more children’s books. The author argues that great children’s books share much in common with great adult books in terms of plot, character and pacing. The difference is that because the authors are aware of the fickle attention spans of their target audiences (e.g., kids), they try that much harder to reel you in.

This wasn’t the first time I’d heard this point of view. A year or so ago, Pamela Paul took to the pages of the New York Times to talk about the rising popularity of kidlit among adult readers.

I’m currently undergoing a variation on this theme myself:  at my 11 year-old’s urging, I’m reading the first book in George R.R. Martin’s wildly successful fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire.

Yeah, I know. A lot of people don’t think of this as “kid lit,” though I think it’s reasonable to describe it as cross-over fare aimed at both teens and adults.  I also know that some parents will want to haul me into social services for letting my (then ten-year old) read this stuff, especially if they’ve seen the HBO series, Game of Thrones, based on the first novel. (I haven’t.)

But for me, this is about as close as I get to children’s fiction.

Let me say up front that I’m soooo *not* your typical fantasy fiction reader. As with my taste in films, I tend towards the irrepressibly realistic (some would say dire.)

But I’m loving A Game of Thrones and here’s why  – if you haven’t already tried it – you should also give it a go:

1. It’s realistic. If you’re like me, when you hear the term “fantasy fiction” you immediately conjure up maps of countries that don’t exist, an array of dungeons and dragons and – as a wanna-be fantasy writing friend of mine put it so aptly – “animals that talk.” All of this can be found in Martin’s kingdom of Westeros. But as anyone who has read his novels knows, what makes them stand out is how utterly realistic they are. Sure there’s a demonic human being known as “the hound,” a whole lot of sword-fighting, and some kind of evil monster-like species I haven’t quite yet sussed out that doesn’t bleed. But what really pulls the reader in is the feeling that – as in the modern world: actions have consequences. As one reviewer put it in The New York Times, “When people are stabbed, they die; when kingdoms ignore debts, the bankers show up. The characters understand their world, and we understand the characters.”

2. It’s historically grounded. A lot of that realism flows from the fact that the book at times reads more like history than it does fantasy. There are literally more than a thousand characters in the series and Martin helpfully adds an appendix to the end of the first book so that you can figure out how the different clans relate to one another. The net effect is not dissimilar to reading something like Hillary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall, in that you feel like you’re reading a fictional account of the internecine struggles among the factions in a real kingdom. Martin himself has allowed that he was frustrated with a lot of the post-Tolkien fantasy literature because it was so often grounded in a kind of “Disneyland Middle Ages” where they had the trappings of a class system but no sense of how it actually worked. He’s out to set the record straight.

3. It’s about growing up. One of the main reasons I started reading A Game of Thrones – other than that my son insisted that I try it – was an article about the fantasy genre in The Wall Street Journal by Lev Grossman. In it, Grossman systematically takes apart the standard biases that many (grown ups) bring to this sort of literature. One of the points Grossman makes is that fantasy – pace Harry Potter –  is often dismissed for being  about “the moment when a powerless, mundane person realizes that he or she is anything but.” Grossman accepts this characterization, but then goes on to point out that by the time we’re 35 – if not older – most of us are still figuring out who we are and what we want out of life. So why should a coming of age tale be any less resonant for adults than it is for kids? As someone who blogs about adulthood as a journey, I had to agree.

4.The violence is graphic; the sex is not. When I tell people that my 11 year-old has read the entire series, they often react with horror. So of course I had to go back and read the first book after he’d finished the first five volumes in order to know just how badly I’d screwed up as a parent. The fact is, there is tons of brutal violence described in minute detail. But is that really so much worse than your average video game (which I do, as a parent, limit)? And as for the sex, so far at least, it’s few and far between and quite muted. You pick your poison as a parent. (Can I patent that?) And I think that in this case, the superb story-telling and breadth of characters Martin introduces us to far outweighs the “bad” bits.

5. You will bond with your teen. My son is on the cusp of being a teenager, and all that entails. But right now, every morning my son asks me which chapter in of A Game of Thrones I’m on and we have a lengthy discussion. And for me, that would be worth it even if I hated the book.

 

Image: Fantasy Faire Unicornuus by Michelle Hyacinth via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Tips For Adulthood: Five Political Novels Worth Reading

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Over the course of last week’s blackout at RealDelia – or “blogout,”  as I ‘m now calling it (Can I coin that term?) – one of the many things that caught my eye was an article by Zoe Williams in the Guardian suggesting that we should all ditch novels in favor of non-fiction.

Her argument basically boiled down to the claim that  in dire, apocalyptic times like these, where we face the threat of global warming, financial crisis and political turmoil on a daily basis, we can’t afford to bury our heads in the airy-fairy world of fiction. Rather, we need to don our serious hats and seek to better understand the origin of earthquakes and trade deficits and the like.

I’m not sure I see that there’s necessarily a trade-off between the two. More to the point, however, I completely reject her premise that fiction is so obviously apolitical.

I don’t know what sort of fiction Ms. Williams is reading – and I hope, and rather suspect – that she wrote the article as a form of link-bait more than anything else. But I read a lot of fiction, and much of it is not only political, but highly timely and relevant.

So, just as I once recommended five political films worth viewing, I hereby submit five recent political novels worth reading:

1. Freedom. Say what you will about Jonathan Franzen’s latest epic novel about America. Some people loved it; some hated it. I was in the “loved it” camp. But however you felt, there is no denying that this is a deeply political novel about the United States at the turn of the twentieth century as it confronts the inevitable limitations and contradictions  embedded in its love-affair with personal choice. Along the way, we get a full-on immersion in party politics, environmentalism, college athletics and infidelity, all presented through the central prism of one family’s slow and painful collapse.

2. Saturday. This novel traces a day in the life of a middle-class doctor in London who goes to work on that precise Saturday in 2003 when thousands of people turned out to protest the War in Iraq. OK, sure. The War in Iraq now feels like yesterday’s news. But the anger and outrage that brought all those people out onto the street  still exists, even if the target has changed. (Today, two million people in this country participated in a 24-hour walk out to protest against pension reforms put forth by the current government.)  But author Ian McEwan is also addressing a deeper point in this brilliantly crafted novel about the political mood in Britain post 9/11: what it means to be political and whether one can truly remain detached from politics in this day and age.

3. The Tiger’s Wife. This novel has been nominated for every award in sight over the past year and justifiably so. It is a beautifully written, almost fable-like tale about family and history in twentieth century Yugoslavia. Although told with a sort of magical realist veneer, the horror and tragedy of the war that ripped apart this Balkan nation is never far below the surface. Plus, once you learn that the author, Téa Obreht, is only 25, you’ll be green with envy.

4.  The White Tiger. Another beautifully written book which has the added bonus of being laugh-out-loud funny. This book addresses politics in the developing world – specifically India. Through the rags to riches story of one boy-turned-man, the author, Aravind Adiga, exposes two sides of India (and practically every other poor country out there):  the vast, seemingly endless stretches of poverty and kinship ties and the small, almost impenetrable circles of wealth and greed. It’s a damning  – if not humorous – indictment of how it really works in most countries facing a similar socio-economic predicament. You will laugh and cry in equal measure.

5. American Wife. I just finished this (on the recommendation of a friend) and must confess that I could not put it down. As some of you may know, this book is a fictional account of Laura Bush’s life prior to and during her role as first lady. It’s not autobiographical in any way, shape or form, and is not meant to be factual, although it does include some incidents that bear an uncanny resemblance to Laura Bush’s life. I adored the author – Curtis Sittenfeld’s – first book, Prep, about what it’s like to be a Midwestern misfit at a posh, East Coast boarding school. And American Wife has that same sort of observant, interior voice that was featured in Prep. It’s a book that will definitely make you think about marriage. But it will also make you think specifically about political marriages. In an era where the First Lady is widely being touted as President Obama’s best “electoral weapon,” how much are political spouses expected to believe in their candidates?

OK, so those are just a few of the political novels I pulled off the top of my head. I didn’t even include any of the explicitly 9/11 novels like Neverland and/or The Submission because I haven’t read either of them yet.

What am I missing? What good political novels have you read lately and would you like to add to the list?

 

Image: Protest 11 by marcovdc via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

 

Why I Envy Atheists

Every so often you read a book or watch a film that you need to put down or look away from because it cuts too close to the bone.

So it was for me the other night when my husband and I finally finished watching the 1981 British television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Brideshead Revisited, an 11 episode meditation on privilege, family, religion and sexuality, all set in England between the Wars.

Most people – even those who haven’t read the book or seen the series – use  “Brideshead” as shorthand for the flamboyant excesses of the British aristocracy on its last legs. And make no mistake, there’s no shortage of champagne flutes, dinner jackets and preposterously polite banter. In short, it’s the kind of thing that Americans tend to lap up. (See: Upstairs, Downstairs, Gosford Park and most recently, Downton Abbey.)

The actors are to die for. The series launched Jeremy Irons’ career and also features outstanding performances by Diana Quick, Anthony Andrews, Lawrence Olivier and more. Plus, any film that dwells on extensive bouts of family conflict, alcoholism and unspoken homo-eroticism? I’m there.

So that was all well and good. But as the series wore on, it became increasingly clear that this wasn’t just another voyeuristic journey into the heart of Oxbridge-bred England. Rather, it was essentially a protracted tale of one family’s inexorable, inter-generational and self-destructive struggle with Catholicism.

I’ve written before about my own personal struggles with my family’s faith. How my husband and I have tried, through the years, to reconcile my religious Catholic upbringing with his cultural Jewish identity. And how that has led me to become, begrudgingly, over time, a sort of reluctant secularist.

What Brideshead Revisited added to that equation was the pain and guilt that goes along with that decision. I wanted desperately, as I watched, to identify with Charles Ryder, the protagonist of the story. He is the stoic, eternally rational hero who can’t quite fathom why this otherwise well-educated and cultured family in which he has become enmeshed – The Flytes – is so hopelessly caught up in their Roman Catholic faith.

Instead, I ended up identifying with Julia, his beloved, who tries her very best to leave her religion (and thus, to some extent, her family) by embracing Charles (and divorce and modernity) and the skepticism it implies. In the end, however, it’s too much for her and she can’t quite bring herself to do it. It breaks her heart, but she chooses the Church over her true love. It is her destiny.

I won’t do that. I left the church long ago and save a few masses here and there and the occasional compunction to pray on airplanes, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to Catholicism. Or any other religion, for that matter.  Even Judaism.

But I experience that as a loss. And it’s a painful one.

And that’s why I envy all the atheists I know, who make up about 90% of the people around me, including my husband. They don’t share this anguish. It doesn’t keep them awake at night.

I would love to have that peace of mind.

But I don’t.

And that, my friends, is one price of adulthood. At least mine.

 

Image: IMG_2994 by Franie Frou Frou via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

 

Why Summer Reading Lists Bum Me Out

I’ve been thinking a lot about reading lately.

I suppose it’s because it’s that time of the year again. You know, when everyone starts posting their “Summer Reading Lists” – a selection of books that you can and should devour when you have those mythical four weeks of lolly-gagging around the pool/beach/barbecue…you name it.

(Me? I tend to spend my summers lolly-gagging around the Talacre Sports Centre about a half-mile from my home, desperately trying to squeeze in some work in between lugging my kids to their various camps. But I suppose “there’s always tomorrow,” as Annie once said….)

If you’re like me, summer reading lists don’t inspire excitement or inspiration. They merely inspire dread and a looming sense of failure. And that’s because they remind me how very many books I wish to read and how very few of those I’ll ever manage to actually get through.

On my bedside table right now I’ve got two books open which I’m mid-way through – Tea Obreht’s award-winning The Tiger’s Wife and Hans Fallada’s haunting holocaust-era thriller, Alone In Berlin.

Buried underneath them are, in no particular order: Michael Lewis’ The Blind Side (which is relevant to my own-novel-in-progress), Lorrie Moore’s A Gate At The Stairs (because Book Snob Katy Keim recommended it) and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. (Yup, it’s true.)

(I do give myself credit for finally donating Eternal Message of Muhammed to the library. What can I say? Old habits die hard.)

If you glance at this list, you may be wondering: Does she really plan to get through all of these books this summer – let alone in her lifetime?

And therein lies the dilemma of reading. I love to do it and try, most nights, to read before going to bed. (Unless, of course, I’m watching our box set of The Wire.) But it’s a sisyphean task because no sooner do I knock one book off of my night table, another slides in to take its place. And I’m left feeling…behind.

Which is why I was so delighted to happen upon an article on the NPR website by Linda Holmes entitled “The Sad Beautiful Fact That We’re All Going To Miss Almost Everything.” Holmes’ basic point is that in today’s world, there are an infinite amount of good books/movies/artistic treasures to consume. ( I would add that in light of technology, there are also a never-ending barrage of reminders about their existence, as well as how easy it is to access them. (Click here!))

And yet, we can’t possibly consume everything out there that we’re told is worthwhile. Which leaves us, according to Holmes – with two options: to “cull”  – i.e. to self-consciously decide what’s worth our time and what we should ignore – or to “surrender” – i.e., to accept that we can’t possibly make it through all of these great works, but that failing to do so should not threaten our sense that we are ‘well read.'”

The second option is painful, but oddly liberating. As she writes: “It is the recognition that well-read is not a destination; there is nowhere to get to, and if you assume there is somewhere to get to, you’d have to live a thousand years to even think about getting there, and by the time you got there, there would be a thousand years to catch up on.”

Such sage wisdom. Not only for reading, but for life

I love this idea. To view reading not as the summit, but as the mountain-climbing itself. And to recognize the sadness – and also the relief – embedded in that journey.

Whew! I feel better already.

Which reminds me – I really need to get my summer reading list out…

 

Image: get my hands on by mrsexsmith via Flickr under a Creative Commons license