Saturday, January 16, 2010

Reading material

Writers should be readers. In fact, a number of writers, particularly those writers that teach and instruct about the craft of writing, make strong cases to their students that regular time spent reading is essential, if they want to excel as writers. I agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment.

My own abilities as a writer, especially regarding usage and grammar have more to do with reading than any kind of foundation I acquired during English classes in school. I could not diagram a sentence if my life depended upon it. I would have a hard time breaking down and naming the parts of speech. Yet, because I’ve been a reader since a very early age, I think I’ve acquired an intuitive sense for grammar and English usage.

Most of the books I’ve read over the years—probably 95 percent of them—have been nonfiction. This past year, I’ve read books like this one, by Susan Jacoby. I also read another stellar Jacoby nonfiction work on the freethought movement that became one of several History Maker Mondays I posted for a brief period of time at my other blog. Just prior to Christmas, I completed this one about God and Wal-Mart. These are typical of my orientation and flavor on the nonfiction side. Early in 2009, I read several excellent books about FDR, including Nick Taylor’s very thorough book on the Works Progress Administration. On the occasions that I have picked up a work of fiction, more times than not I’ve enjoyed reading the book. Some of them turned out to be page turners, and I blew through them quickly.

Over Christmas, my son was home for three weeks. A writer, too, Mark is currently enrolled in Brown’s two-year MFA program in Creative Writing.

Over his time away from school and relaxing at home, Mark read an assortment of books, sometimes one a day, with most, if not all of them being ones that were sitting on our bookshelves. This pleased my wife and I, as we’re both readers, and it also impressed me immensely. Not knowing a lot about MFA programs other than that many well-known writers have completed one, if the program demanded their writers immerse themselves in a literary atmosphere of books, readings, and writing for two years, this had to be a good thing.

It’s been interesting to follow Mark’s reading and MFA adventures via his blog. Much like I took an interest in his progress as a baseball player, culminating in a great four-year run at Wheaton College, I’ve been following his writing, first via a zine he created at school, called GMBO. Later, he developed Everyday Yeah, which has now morphed into the official brown mfa blog #1.

One of Mark’s holiday reads was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I knew McCarthy’s book had been well-received, and even received a 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Heck, it was even featured as one of Oprah’s book picks. Maybe it was because of the latter that I stayed away, or maybe it was for some other reason that I passed on the book.

After Mark read it and wrote the following on New Year’s Day, I decided to reconsider and give it a try:

The Road is the best book I’ve read this year. Maybe even the best book I read in 2009. I read the first 80 pages a few days ago and read the rest of it today. There really is no reason not to read this. It’ll take about eight hours. I’m a slow reader and I almost read it all in one day.

I read McCarthy’s book the following day, in about four hours—all in one setting. It was a great book, and not at all “depressing,” as some reviewers have indicated.

Maybe it had to do with it being about the relationship about boy and his father. Certainly, if you crave nonstop action, The Road will probably be disappointing. For me, however, I think McCarthy’s take on the relationship of the two main characters, their struggles along the road in a bleak, post-apocalyptic world, with a few plot twists thrown in made me want to crave a subsequent follow up read like it—something that was fiction, and a page turner. Not my usual type of book, I know.

After Mark left to return to Brown, I looked around his room to see if there were some other books like The Road lying around. I attempted James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name, about his decade of self-exile in Europe. I got about a quarter of the way into it, before putting it down. Another novel scavenged from our crowded book shelves only to spend two successive nights dozing off and not getting further than 20 pages told me that I needed to move onto something else.

Last week, I stopped at the Maine State Library for a quick peruse of their literary fiction section. I happened to find a collection of Raymond Carver short stories. The book’s captured my attention, and the short story format, not one I usually gravitate to, seems to be just what I need right now, as my reading attention span seems to be shorter than usual.

Carver’s Collected Stories, is published by the Library of America and edited by William L. Stull and Maureen P. Carroll. This collection is the first one that gathered all of his stories in one volume and provides a comprehensive overview of his career. I’m really enjoying it.

I now know why Carver was considered one of the late 20th centuries best fiction writers, and someone that breathed new life into the short story. His writing, held up as an example of what was being called “minimalist” at the time, derives its power more from what is suggested, or left unsaid.

While I don’t think I can match my son’s reading prowess, and certainly not the ambitious book devouring proposed by another blogger, Lisa K, I’m going to try to incorporate regular reading of fiction to start 2010.

2009 was the year I finally conquered David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest along with many others. Maybe 2010 will be my year of mostly fiction, and the year when I finally tackle some of the classics, although I don’t think I’ll limit myself merely to older books. I’m finding an entire stable of newer fiction writers that Mark has referenced via his blog.

In the coming weeks are Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (an American fiction classic that I’ve never read), Candide, by Voltaire, and maybe some Flannery O’Connor.

I welcome any other fiction suggestions.