thoughts

Let’s Talk | Why I read (kind of)

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My mom was a study skills aid when I was a kid. That seems like one of the natural places to start. She helped kids with learning disabilities to improve their time at school, to stay organized, to retain information. But, she was never content to stop there.

My mom was fantastic and she was determined to prepare her children for the best.  When I was about three or four, she brought home basic phonics books (Some sadly beaten up knock-offs of Hooked on Phonics).

This was all great, but didn’t make me love reading.  It was a favorite activity, but actual love would take a while.

It was only a little while later that I’d moved on to the big bad world of chapter books and very quickly I had outpaced my peers in reading level. My mother was constantly bringing home older classics (sometimes inappropriate in content, if not reading level). Some of these I would love, but for the most part they were not my favorite books.

At about six or seven I found that reading could be really fun, to the point where when I could, I would sneak flashlights into my room to read later.

But at about nine, things got pretty bad for a while at home. A family history of mental illness, my brother’s developmental disability, and just general economic difficulties had made living at home difficult, even for those who were able to leave and get alone time. That’s when I dove deep into reading.

It took quite a few years for things to level out and then we hit another rough spot when I entered high school. My brother was hospitalized for a long time and our recent move to a rural area meant that the only doctors with expertise in his illness were literally hours away by car.

It’s during those two times I realized that I was going to reading as a get-away. Books had always been fun, but they were quickly becoming my safe place in the world. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. Books were like my fairy godmother. They were there when I needed my life to be a bit different; they still are.

All I can say to that, really, is “Thank God.”

 

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Let’s Talk: When I shop at Amazon

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So, this is an interesting topic. The world is all abuzz about Amazon, indie shops, and the death of the library. Of course, I have two cents.

I want to start out by being very clear: I love the library. I love my local indie books and comics shops. I also love Amazon.

Libraries

I worked at a library for four years as a tutor and instructor. I understand that libraries are vital to the system. They provide services to so many who truly need them. The truth is that computers and internet access are not universal. Calm environments aren’t universal. Educational aid isn’t universal. With the library those things can be. I don’t go to the library because I’m scared that it will cease to exist. Frankly, I’m less concerned about a book-filled building being shut down than I am about the community services that libraries play a vital role in providing no longer being available. I use my library for a bunch of different reasons. Not the least of those is that I don’t have the funds to constantly be buying every book I want to read, especially for series that have huge backlogs and that I may simply not enjoy.

As a side note, for those of you who are concerned about the library disappearing, go there. Library funding isn’t necessarily based on the number of books checked out. A big factor is in service use and foot traffic. You’re helping just by going in and sitting down in the library’s quiet environment. Stats track the number of people coming into the building. That in and of itself is vital.

My local indies

I try and make a point of going to my indies, both the books and comics stores. There are a number of reasons for this, but mostly I just can’t imagine not having them. I can’t imagine a world where I have to resort to simple computer algorithms (however good they may be) for my book and comics recs. I love the feeling of walking into a bookstore and smelling the books, especially when the building is slightly cramped and crowded, filled to the brim with books. I love the people who frequent them. I can’t imagine not having those available.

Unfortunately, I can’t afford to always shop there. I try and go on payday, but I can’t go constantly.

So, my rule of thumb: use Amazon or the library for testing out series, go to the indie to read the rest of it. By and large, my expenses on a single series are going to be high. If I love it, I’ll stick with it for a long time, even if the story drags or starts to sour. But, I try out a lot of series. This lets me (1) test out books at a lower cost, and (2) concentrate a lot of my consistent purchases on places I love to visit.

Books and comics I love and never would have read if it weren’t for my indies:

Amazon

This leads us to the beast. Amazon has a big role to play in the books industry. It has the capacity and presence to lap my indies like no one else. While I always will want my brick and mortar store, I shop at Amazon a lot.

Amazon is able to provide some super cheap prices. This is often seen as a big threat to bookstores. This is only sometimes true. Does the current ease of access make me occasionally less likely to buy in store? yes.

However,Amazon’s presence also allows a lot of my local indies, especially ones with a specialty market (for instance in classics or antiques) to supplement their own income. Amazon owns The Book Depository, AbeBooks, and a variety of  other marketplaces where they can list products that aren’t selling in store. My local shop has a lot of signed books. I’m not going to buy a signed Heinlein, but there’s a guy in Massachusetts who will. If the presence and utilization of Amazon and its subsidiaries allows them to sell specialty products and stay in business, I’m all for it.

On top of that, with the option to buy from vendors other than Amazon, I know that I can spread the love around. Is Amazon a great company? Maybe, maybe not.Yes there are some ethically questionable stuff, but they also (1) fulfill some of my needs as a consumer, and (2) feed into my book purchasing overall. In combination with my Rule of Thumb, I think it tends to actually lead me to purchase more in store.

Amazon also provides a service for people whose libraries or bookstores maybe far away. It takes over 5 hours to get to a bookstore that sells anything other than the top best sellers where my parents live and their library is very limited, with long waits and shipping times. Amazon there fills a very important role.

Anyways, just some thoughts. They’re not terribly elegant, but there you have it.

 

The Thinking Chair: Different Storytelling Mediums

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I love storytelling. I think it’s one of the most fundamental human urges: to share experiences. It’s one of the ways we grow and learn. Though I will often be heard saying that books are my preferred storytelling form, I don’t often get the opportunity to say why or what I enjoy about the different storytelling mediums we have available to us.

One of the things I like best about books is that they are so similar in form and storytelling capability to verbal storytelling (This is also a big reason why I like audiobooks). Books offer the same verbal craftsmanship and omnipotence that oral storytelling does. The advantage of the written word comes in the ability to refine the story before the reader receives it.

In my opinion, books maintain much of the artfulness of oral storytelling while allowing the creator the ability to go more in-depth with their tale and the ability to revise and refine their work.

This is not to say that books are superior to other forms of storytelling.

I know it’s often popular or considered a sign of sophistication to advocate reading over modern visual storytelling forms like movies and television. Doing that, however, would undermine the growth and perpetuation of storytelling as a form and underestimate the value of visual mediums.

First off, we know that I love graphic novels and comics. They offer a compromise between the visual and the verbal that I find enjoyable and intriguing.

Movies and television offer, however, a sense of real-time experience that shouldn’t be sold short. They also allow the viewer an opportunity to create bonds and decide how they feel about a character without the potential for an all-seeing narrator to interrupt and tell them otherwise. Of course, stories and characters are still guided; their plots are fixed and the consumer only sees chosen actions. However, I think there is some value to not seeing inside a person’s head, even if it is one of the things I like most about books. Television in particular offers a fantastic sense of time, especially when shown in weekly episodes.

What do you like about storytelling? What forms are your favorite?

I won’t go into all of them. Of course, plays, music, art all offer their own advantages. Let me know what you prefer.

The Thinking Chair: Young Adult Fiction, RE: Slate

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Slate recently released an OpEd article about the young adult genre ( http://slate.me/1nmpVgH ). 

I’m not going to pretend to be a champion of young adult fiction. On a personal level, I find that young adult doesn’t do it for me, but I’ll talk about that later. 

The slate article claims: 

(1) Young adult is all about wish fulfillment. 

Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction. These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future. But wanting endings like this is no more ambitious than only wanting to read books with “likable” protagonists.

Graham wants to argue that distinct endings are inherently bad. They don’t reflect reality, and, thus, ought to be rejected out of hand.

I’ll be honest. I’m a fan of messy endings. I do think they reflect reality, and I often want to see reality reflected in the literature I read. I do think that YA does this because, in large part, its proclaimed audience is younger (13-17 years old) and does not always seek out stories that don’t resolve themselves. The reasons behind this are vast and change with the reader. 

I’ll be honest. This is one of the reasons that I don’t find YA particularly satisfying. I like things unresolved (Granted I also enjoy the occasional lighter read that does resolve itself). 

However, should you be ashamed of reading YA because it has resolved endings?

Of course not. The truth is that people like resolved endings. Most books that we read are stand-alone. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting a resolved ending. Resolution is one of those things that we want as humans. It’s why we pick at those unresolved problems in our lives even weeks or months after we claim to let them go. To ask for a resolved ending in a story that will, in fact, end in page numbers, if not always in plot, is not unreasonable. Nor does having a resolved ending make a story any less valuable in its plot, character development, or overarching cohesion. 

(2) The author writes that:

I want teenagers and ambitious pre-teens to have as many wonderful books to read as possible, including books about their own lives. But I remember, when I was a young adult, being desperate to earn my way into the adult stacks; I wouldn’t have wanted to live in a world where all the adults were camped out in mine. There’s a special reward in that feeling of stretching yourself beyond the YA mark, akin to the excitement of graduating out of the kiddie pool and the rest of the padded trappings of childhood: It’s the thrill of growing up. 

I’m not going to address this point in detail, but a person’s individual feelings (the desire to present one’s self as more adult than they are) doesn’t mean anything regarding what someone else’s feelings ought to be. 

So, should the teenage desire to be seen as an adult mean that you, an adult reader, should be ashamed of reading YA?

Of course not. Let’s ignore the total pretension of this claim (The author may as well be saying that they’ve always been sophisticated and why aren’t you) and instead talk about the more basic claims.

You shouldn’t ever feel like your voluntary entertainment needs to meet anyone else’s standards. Whether or not a kid wants to read literature above their typical age level is a good thing or not, as an adult, you should feel free to read whatever you want and you should feel confident that you know your entertainment desires more than anyone else. At the end of the day, you’re an adult. Whether you want to pick up a copy of a middle grade, YA, or adult fiction novel is not anyone else’s business and someone else’s opinion should change your desire to pick out what you think will keep you interested and entertained. 

(3) The author is concerned whether YA novels are “literary enough”

Literary fiction is not the only thing in the world. NOR SHOULD IT BE. To pretend that the young adult genre doesn’t offer anything in the way of complex topics or narrative sophistication is a total denial of the multitude of worthwhile reads that are in the genre. 

I’m not going to pretend that I find the YA genre to offer much in the way of literature in the classical sense. I often find it to be lacking in character development and topical considerations. I often find that the way topics are tackled lacks complexity that appeals to me more now that I am an adult. 

Does this mean you should feel ashamed to read YA?

Of course not. I don’t read all of my books in order to be a sophisticate. I read because reading is my preferred form of storytelling. Reading offers an insight into human nature that cannot be conveyed in visual media. Regardless of whether a novel meets up to an arbitrary standard of literature, this storytelling advantage is there. It should not be put down simply because the storytelling isn’t poetic enough or the topic not complex enough. 

True. I don’t always find fulfillment in young adult fiction. But, my opinions or anyone else’s shouldn’t change anyone else’s opinion. It’s hard to ignore people’s criticism, but as an adult, you should be working towards, if not already have achieved, a sense of confidence in your ability to determine what you like. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.