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amreading Commonplace Book interviews Thinkers writer's inspiration

Podcasted: Alan Jacobs and Brett McKay on How to Get More Pleasure and Fulfillment Out of Your Reading.


If you don’t want a guilt trip on reading more than Alan Jacobs is for you.

Few people speak as eloquently on reading as Alan Jacobs.

Few people are less judgmental hoity-toity arses speaking on reading as Alan Jacobs.

So when Brett McKay recently interviewed Alan on how reading should bring pleasure and fulfillment to your life, I listened twice.


Alan admits, it’s OK not to read the great works everyday:

But you don’t read Shakespeare every single day and you certainly don’t read the tragedies every single day. Those are incredibly demanding for the same reason you don’t every night sit down and watch an Ingmar Bergman movie or 12 Years of Slave or something like that. You have to be able to give yourself a break from the demands of really great works of art.

Great works of art ask a lot of us and we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can rise to that occasion every single day. So, sometimes you ought to be reading Harry Potter instead of reading Shakespeare because you need a break. And I think both Bloom and Adler were reluctant to acknowledge that.

On seeing where your W-H-I-M takes you:

Yeah. So, I got this from the poet Randall Jarrell, who ended an essay that way, read at Whim. And Whim with capital W, W-H-I-M is a kind of a principle or a policy. Let me tell you how I came onto this. What would happen is that year after year after year, so I’ve been a college university teacher for 35 years now and I would have students who would come to my office and they would say, “I’m about to graduate, but there’s so many great things I haven’t read yet. Give me a list of things to read. Give me a list of books that every educated person should have read.” And they’re coming in with their notebooks and they’ve got their pins poised over the notebook. Like, “Give me these things.”

And I would think you’re just finishing up four years of school, give yourself a break. You don’t have to do this now. You don’t have to read according to an assignment or according to a list of approved texts. Enjoy your freedom. Go out there and follow your whim. And by that, I mean follow that which really draws your spirit and your soul and see where that takes you. If it turns out that you spend a year reading Stephen King novels or something like that, that’s totally fine. That’s not a problem. Read your Stephen King novels, but there are also really good novels.

But whatever it happens to be, if you’re reading young adult fiction for a year, read young adult fiction for a year. After a while, you probably got to have enough of that. But don’t go around making your reading life a kind of means of authenticating yourself as a serious person. It’s just no way to live. So, I would always tell them, “Give yourself a break. Don’t make a list. See where Whim takes you.”

How to read “upstream”:

Well, what happens is that there is a kind of an emergent structure in a way, things emerge. So, here’s one of the things that I will tell people. I’ll say, “Let’s say you really love Tolkien and you’ve read Lord of the Rings like 10 times and you’re not sure you want to read the Lord of the Rings again.” First of all, I will say, “Rereading is always a good idea. It’s always a good idea. But there may be times when you think, yeah, maybe I don’t need an 11th reading of the Lord of the Rings.”

And so, I’ll say, “Well then, let’s move upstream a little bit. Why don’t you ask yourself what did Tolkien read? What did he love? If you love Tolkien’s writing, what writing did Tolkien love and kind of go upstream of him and find out what he read.” And in that way, you’re doing something that is really substantial. I mean, learning about some new things, some important things, things that are really valuable, but you’re also kind of following whatever it is in your spirit that responded to Lord of the Rings. You’re taking it to that next level.

And Brett McKay shares how reading “upstream” led him to Empire of the Summer Moon:

Brett McKay:

Yeah. So, I’ve done this before, this going upstream, but in a different way. So, my favorite novel of all time, I said this before on the podcast lots of times is Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah.

Brett McKay:

And then I started reading his like … I’ve read that thing like five times, but then I was like, I’ve got to read the prequels. I started reading like a Dead Man’s Walk and a Comanche Moon. And then I started learning about that. I was like, “These Comanche Indians, I didn’t know about this.” And so, I was like, I went on Amazon and just searched books about Comanche Indians and that’s how I discovered Empire of the Summer Moon, fantastic book. It was some of the best books I’ve read.

Alan Jacobs:

Right. But you wouldn’t have discovered it if you hadn’t been actually reading at Whim. You were not thinking, “Oh, let me see, I’ve read this Larry McMurtry book, now I need to read all the other books that were well-reviewed that year.” Instead you were following up something that was really drawing you on. In a way, you’re just obeying your own curiosity and that’s a much better guide to reading than having a list that somebody else has given you.

And rereading a book can shake your core:

Brett McKay:

Well, what do you think the value of rereading is?

Alan Jacobs:

Well, there’s a lot. I mean, first of all, if it’s a really worthwhile book and books can be worthwhile in a thousand different ways, you’re never going to get everything important out of it on a first reading. But then in addition to that, you go through different stages of life. And in those different stages of life, books speak to you in dramatically different ways.

I remember once I used to teach Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina almost every year. And one year I was reading it and I came across a passage, which totally knocked me out and I couldn’t even remember having read it before. I’d taught the book six or seven times and I had completely passed over this particular passage. And it’s a passage where one of the two protagonists, a man named Konstantin Lëvin, his wife kitty has just given birth to their first child. And he picks up his newborn son and the first thing he thinks is, now the world has so many ways to hurt me. And it’s just an incredibly powerful scene.

Why didn’t I notice it before? Because I hadn’t had children before. It was as soon as my son was born, I saw that passage in a way that it would have been irrelevant to me before because it was so disconnected from my experience. At that point I thought to myself, what’s wrong with you that you didn’t notice this? Did you have to have a child in order to understand how emotionally overwhelming it is to have a child? I guess so. So, I learned something about myself there. I learned about the things that I was paying attention to and not paying attention to.

Read on a W-H-I-M.

Forge your own reading path. You don’t always need someone’s list to guide you.

Listen to the podcast in full below:

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Poems

Reading on a whim


Peeling back pages.

Pen at hand, underlining

the mysterious.

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Hacks Poems

Life Hacks


Twitter storms, podcasts,

contradictions burn my ears.

Leave. Think for yourself.

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amreading Commonplace Book Poems writer's inspiration

Woeful Targets

I had to add this to my online common place book:

“Remember this, son, if you forget everything else. A poet is a musician who can’t sing. Words have to find a man’s mind before they can touch his heart, and some men’s minds are woeful small targets. Music touches their hearts directly no matter how small or stubborn the mind of the man who listens.”

The Name of the Wind. Patrick Rothfuss. pg 106
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amreading Poems

How to Read a Poem

Thoughts from an amateur.

I’ve written before on how to to write a poem. Followed by how to truly write a poem – study Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook and then practice.

But reading a poem is a whole different pack of monkeys.

I developed this weird method to help me absorb the poems I read. It slows me down, so I don’t rocket through the lines. The aim is to bury the verses in my subconscious.

See if it works for you.


First I read the poem to myself. From the first verse to the last, all the way through.

Then I’ll read the poem from the end to the beginning. I read line by line, from the final verse, back up to the opener:

From Over the Fence, Emily Dickinson

Reading it backwards is like reverse engineering. It helps me see the poem’s structure. How each verse builds up to the final one.

After that, I’ll read the poem beginning to end again, but this time out loud.

Reading out loud helps you find the poem’s rhythm. I’m sure there’s things like meter and tone involved as well, but I won’t pretend to know how.

Then I’ll read the poem in reverse order again. But this time in full blocks. Starting from the bottom of the poem to the top:

From Again his voice is at the door, Emily Dickinson

While reading I’ll keep a pencil close. If the poem rhymes I search for the rhyming pattern by underlining all the rhyming words.

From Again his voice is at the door, Emily Dickinson

Once finished, I’ll log the date, author, and name of the poem in my steno book. Keeping a record gives me a sense of progress.

It’s a practice I stole the from director Steven Soderbergh who publishes a yearly log of what he’s watched, read, and listened to, on his site.

This how I read a poem. You may read a poem once and bin it. And that works too.

Categories
writer's inspiration

The Look Up Artist

I underline words as I read.

My reasons vary.

A word sounds smooth in my head.

A word sounds crisp when spoken out loud.

It may be a fancy word I want to remember, like say, pretentious. But fancy words are like my Air Jordan 11s – you pull them out only for special occasions.

After underlining a word, I make a silent promise to myself. I promise to return to the page. I promise to grab a real-life dictionary and look up the definition.

I break these promises to myself almost every time.

But today I kept it.

Definitions from a few pages from Dryer’s English:

Ossified v. – cease developing; become inflexible.

Fundament n. – 1 the foundation or basis of something. 2 humorous a person’s buttocks or anus.

Knell n. – the sound of a bell, especially when rung solemnly for a death or funeral.

Keeping promises always satisfies.

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amreading writer's inspiration

The Manual for Civilization: a curation of books for our future

The Long Now Foundation has scrambled up the the idea of a reading list.

Instead of the typical what we’re reading now list. Or, our favorite summer reads list. They’ve asked us to imagine reading beyond our lifetimes by posing the question:

What Books Would You Choose to Restart Civilization?

With the the goal of:

Gathering essential books and democratizing human knowledge for future generations.

It’s ambitious. It’s thoughtful. It’s called:

The Manual For Civilization.

There have been 11 contributors to date, but Kevin Kelly’s list via Medium introduced me to the project.

Kevin, the author of the Inevitable, and host of the stupid-dope-fresh podcast Cool Tools, assembled a list of nearly 200 tomes.

Below are three titles from Kevin’s list that piqued my immediate interest.

The Manual for Civilization has me meditating on this idea of a reading list for the future. I’m asking myself:

What books would I select, and why? 
Which books would a scholar or intellectual from an eastern culture select?
Which books would you select?

Check out Kevin’s list in full here, and the rest of the contributors here.

Categories
Commonplace Book

The most important thing we learn

The most important thing we ever learn at school is the fact that the most important things can’t be learned at school.

    – Haruki Murakami

From: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: A Memoir

Categories
Commonplace Book

Raw Materials

“I mean, it’s like we all get our raw materials from our families-but it’s up to us whether we build bridges or bombs.”

– Antsy Bonano

 

From a Neal Shusterman classic – The Schwa was Here

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4Panel Friday

Doooo Wop

 

Prom doo on point…


From: Mechaboys

By: James Kochalka