let’s talk about books

(Warning: this is a Very Long Post™)

Ah, reading. My old friend–well, sort of. You see, reading and I had a bit of a falling-out in high school. I read viciously from the time I was however old enough to read on my own, devouring books the way…no, never mind, the part of my brain that makes analogies is on vacation right now after having taken the MAT, so check back in a while.

The point is, I devoured books one right after another, greedier than the witch in the Hansel and Gretel fairytale, making it almost a personal challenge to see how many books I could handle reading at one time. I wove through throngs of schoolmates (or, typically, marched in a single-file line in elementary and middle school) with my nose stuck in whichever one of many books I had in my possession at the time, and I even got in trouble for reading books during classes a couple of times.

Then high school and the dreaded Required Reading – with capital R’s because it was HIGH SCHOOL (oh my gawd) – happened and, aside from the Harry Potter books which never took long, and the handful of required reading I actually thoroughly read and enjoyed, I didn’t really read much. And this is definitely one of those ‘hindsight is 20/20’ situations. The internet hasn’t helped much, either, with all the distractions it offers.  I wish I’d kept up with reading with the same excitement as before during these four years, because getting back into the habit of something, even if it’s something you love, is hard.

However, in college I began to repair my and reading’s relationship. I actually read the majority of the required reading assigned to me (the exceptions were only ever in English classes, which I don’t understand; maybe I just don’t like the idea of breaking down literature that finely; I still have yet to figure out this aspect of my personality because I can still talk someone’s ear off about character development and archetypes all damn day). I read a couple of books for fun during a few semesters – the one that sticks out the most is probably-unsurprisingly Vladimir Nabokov’s classic, Lolita – and I have many in progress that I started in college and just never got around to finishing. Yet. (Sorry especially to Kurt Vonnegut. You’re next, I promise.)

And even though I feel like I read more slowly these days (nothing has even come close to reading all 870 pages of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in twenty-two hours), that’s just not true. I read John Green’s Looking for Alaska in two days, his Paper Towns in one, Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire in eight hours, and the real question is, why did I EVER think I got slower at reading?

The only difference is now I choose books that might move at a slower pace than, say, Harry Potter, a book series rife with wildly imagined and vividly described magical worlds like you’ve never even dreamed–and those books of the former kind take longer. And that’s okay, because I’ll be honest with you, I don’t remember a significant chunk of Order of the Phoenix.  Sometimes you have to take your time to fully absorb everything, to get every last detail.  If I’m proofreading something for someone else I take my time so I’m sure to not miss a thing, and that’s probably for the best for everyone involved.

But no matter how much time has passed since I last picked up a book, the stark truth of reading always exists: there is nothing quite like getting lost in a fictional world, especially if it’s well-written and so vivid you have a perfect image of it in your mind that might, with added details over time, shift and change but hopefully always stay tucked away as a possible retreat into fiction, into somebody else’s problems for a while, or somebody else’s happy ending, or just to a white-towered city of fantasy. Middle-Earth has to be one of the coolest fictional places I’ve ever ‘been.’ I’m not sure I’ve ever felt complex emotions like those that constantly swirled around inside my mind during all of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.

Movies are good for transporting the audience into an environment in an entirely different way than books; for me, writers have a way of dragging me down into the nitty-gritty of it all; for example, while the HP and the Sorcerer’s Stone film has a charming scene of his first visit to the hidden alley and shopping area where he will buy all his new wizarding supplies, replete with storefronts and strange-looking background characters that certainly live up to the book’s descriptions, I still feel like an outside observer. I’m not part of it.

But with books, I can almost feel the uneven cobblestone under my feet. I could feel the terrifying new-ness with which Harry experienced this new place, because I had never been there before. I can feel people breezing and jostling by. I mean, just read this quote from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and tell me you can’t smell the lilac and roses or hear the “sullen murmur of the bees”:

The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn. […] Now and then the fantastic shadows of birds in flight flitted across the long tussore-silk curtains that were stretched in front of the huge window, producing a kind of momentary Japanese effect, and making him think of those pallid, jade-faced painters of Tokyo who, through the medium of an art that is necessarily immobile, seek to convey the sense of swiftness and motion.

The sullen murmur of the bees shouldering their way through the long unmown grass, or circling with monotonous insistence round the dusty gilt horns of the straggling woodbine, seemed to make the stillness more oppressive. The dim roar of London was like the bourdon note of a distant organ.

But if you’re more of the movie kind, or you just don’t have time to read or don’t enjoy it or whatever, hey, that’s your thing. From experience, if you try to force yourself to read a book just to read it and not because you want to continue reading it, you won’t enjoy it. So do yourself a favor. Quit reading this way-too-long blog post and read something that’ll sweep you off your feet, or make you question everything, or make you cry your eyes out–or whatever you feel. Find something that speaks to you because when you do, you’ll always be able to go back to it to find yourself again.

“There are certain emotions in your body that not even your best friend can sympathize with, but you will find the right film or the right book, and it will understand you.” -Björk

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My November 23, 2011 Resolution: Never stop learning.

So I was just reading this article, and I got a feeling I haven’t remembered feeling in a long, long time.

You see, when I was little, I read encyclopedias like crazy.  My grandmother bought me this really awesome, big encyclopedia in which I first read about the sun’s fate to become a red giant in 7.5 billion years, then cool to a white dwarf (which freaked me out as a 6-year-old, I tell you what), but I reread and reread it all the time, always learning things I’d missed the previous times.

When I would read these encyclopedias, I would read about places like Australia and New Zealand and their natives (for some reason, Oceania has always fascinated me as a place, who knows why?) and other places too!, and always get this leap in my stomach, almost, like it was something I wanted to learn about forever and ever.

Then I read atlases, and just studied my globe – another gift from my grandmother, I believe – all the time.  I would just sit in my room and stare at it.

And I just really sometimes (okay, all the time when I’m reminded of it) feel like I should have majored or should go back to major in archaeology and/or anthropology and linguistics and geography, because I love ancient cultures and indigenous stuff and languages and I always have.  I always get that feeling that I never want to stop learning and I love history, I’m so glad I majored in it, but almost everything I took was Western-biased, and of course not much at all was ever taught about prehistory or early-early history of these places and I know some of that is from lack of information but still.

This sounds so stupid but phrases like

Her speech was rich with words of the natural world, words of the forest and the sea that some linguists suspect date back tens of thousands of years to the first migrations of man.

and

Like some other indigenous groups on this archipelago

…I mean simple phrases (and words, like “archipelago”) like that just really get me excited to learn about this sort of stuff.

I really have always loved history, geography, anthropology, even from an early age, and I never consciously really thought about it.  I mean, I’d be a medievalist if I went into history as a profession (Ph.D.-level), so it’s not like I’m not biased toward the West, too, but reading stuff like this always makes me want to become a prehistory-historian (does even such a thing exist?) or anthropologist or archaeologist and I probably never will, and it makes me sad.

The world is so full of depressing things and I think it made me so sad when I grew up and realized all of these things that went on, like British colonialism – and other colonialism of course but Britain was like, the Queen of Colonization – and world wars and all of that, that it’s very easy to forget the feeling of loving to learn these new things about an indigenous people, even if it’s a sad fate – like the one of the article.

I just love the study of human culture and humanity and its earliest days and it’s so fascinating to me that we’re all from one part of the world yet we all look so different and speak so many languages and I don’t know if I’ll ever stop feeling like this when I read about this stuff that I love.  I think that’s why the quote at the top of my blog is one of my absolute, all-time favorites, and why I’ll never stop quoting it — “What invisible strings connect us all,” from Avatar: The Last Airbender. This is the kind of stuff that will forever fascinate me.

I just want to get the motivated to want to read about this stuff again, to just spend an afternoon in the library reading encyclopedias, looking at and studying atlases, looking up recent archaeological digs, that sort of thing.  But it’s hard in the day of the internet and working and paying bills and just “being an adult” things that really take so much joy out of the life I had as a child.  I hate being cynical and hearing about depressing current events and being a (mostly) responsible adult, but things change, I guess.

But maybe one day, I’ll spend an off-day at the library, doing these things, feeling that new fascination and leap in the pit of my stomach at all of the new information I absorb.

We’ll see.

“we can’t know better until knowing better is useless.” -Looking for Alaska

I just finished Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green and David Levithan, the second of two books I checked out from the Springville Road Library – the first books of many I will be reading during this year off between school and life experiences.  The first book I checked out and read was Looking for Alaska, by John Green, the same John Green who collaborated with David Levithan for WG, WG.

And wow.

These two books were amazing.  I’d first heard of them through tumblr, but especially Looking for Alaska (which I’ll abbreviate as LFA from now on).  Everyone on tumblr seems to worship this book, and I’d seen a few excerpts from it and thought there might be a reason behind this holy love for the book, so I checked it out with WG, WG, and began reading.

LFA takes place in Alabama, at a fictional boarding school called Culver Creek, and although the geography is a little strange (Montevallo is mentioned and the mileage from Birmingham and Culver Creek and Pelham doesn’t add up, but it doesn’t matter), Green himself went to Indian Springs, and so his descriptions of Alabama are pretty perfect.  For instance, the main character is from Florida, and in discussing the head there versus here:

This did not prepare me for the unique sort of heat that one encounters fifteen miles south of Birmingham, Alabama, at Culver Creek Preparatory School.  My parents’ SUV was parked in the grass just a few feet outside my dorm room, Room 43.  But each time I took those few steps to and from the car to unload what now seemed like far too much stuff, the sun burned through my clothes and into my skin with a vicious ferocity that made me genuinely fear hellfire.

Pretty true, right?  Apparently John Green lived in Birmingham, Alabama, and attended Indian Springs, so he has firsthand experience with the heat of Alabama, and I thought while reading that he might be from here or have lived here because of his knowledge of this sort of thing.

So, LFA, by pure virtue of taking place in Alabama, fifteen miles south of Birmingham to be exact, drew me in almost immediately.  While it helps in a book to have landmarks or places or names you know – such as I-65, Pelham, Birmingham, etc. – that’s not the reason I love this book.  Green just has a way with words, and both LFA and WG, WG made me think about authors of ‘teen’ books – or at least John Green and David Levithan – and how amazing they are at describing the teen experience.

There are things both LFA and WG, WG have described that I can relate to so well because I am like a character or see some of myself in a character, but it made me wonder just how much each of us is in a character.  We were all teenagers once if we are no longer teenagers, and we all have struggled with various things these characters have struggled with, and the wonderful thing about Green and Levithan is that they haven’t forgotten this in their age (both in their 30’s, far enough removed from their teen years to perhaps be disgruntled with teenagers as I already am at the age of 21).  Reading these books – especially WG, WG, as I related more to both the Will Graysons than I did Pudge or the Colonel from LFA, but of course could relate to them too – threw me back to the teenage experience, to the almost overwhelming of emotions and hormones and the irrational thoughts that “NO ONE KNOWS HOW I AM FEELING! NOBODY UNDERSTANDS ME!” – yet I am far enough removed from that to say, Wow, I sure have grown a hell of a lot from that person.

How do young adult authors do it?  Do they just channel their teenage selves?  Yet, these kids have individual qualities, they are their own person, and each have different struggles.  I related more to the non-capitalized will grayson than the capitalized Will Grayson because he also struggles with depression and feels many things I felt as a teenager (though he is also gay, and that comes with its own struggles as well), but there were parts of Will Grayson that I could relate to, especially with relationships.  The teen/young adult author is one to be respected, and especially a good writer of young adult/teen books.  Teenagers are hard to deal with, much less write about, but Green and Levithan are amazing at it.

I think young adult/teen books are good for adults to read, especially I would think if one has a kid that age.  I plan on buying both these books and revisiting them over the years to see how my perspective on them and the characters changes, if it does at all.  I think it’s important for everyone to revisit their teen years to an extent, especially when dealing with current teenagers, to really understand why they act the way they do and how to deal with that.  I’m not a parent, so I don’t know firsthand, but I know from my own grief-causing stints as a teenager and looking back on them now how infuriating it must have been to deal with that.  For a kid who never did things like get detention, do drugs and alcohol, run away from home, I certainly did my own share of horrible teenager-y things.  But reading these books made me realize I wasn’t alone in feeling so many feelings, that it’s really a universal sort of thing.

So, this post kind of went in a direction I wasn’t thinking about or planning, but my writing tends to do that (if it’s not for a paper).  The point is that I think every adult can gain something from reading good teen novels, like Looking for Alaska and Will Grayson, Will Grayson, as well as current teens and young adults.  I don’t know if I’m still considered a young adult fiction-wise, but I didn’t find the writing to be below my level and I laughed and cried at both books – laughing aloud and getting the question, “What are you laughing at?” multiple times.  I would recommend these books to anyone, because although some of the character may drive you crazy, I believe anyone could benefit from them.

There are so many quotes I could quote as my favorite, but I’ll save that for another entry because this one’s long enough.  However, I’ll leave with one of many great quotes from Looking for Alaska.

“Imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia. […] You spend your whole life stuck in the labyrinth, thinking about how you’ll escape it one day, and how awesome it will be, and imagining the future keeps you going, but you never do it. You just use the future to escape the present.” -John Green, Looking for Alaska

Books down for the year: 2
Books to go: ???

PS: This books counter will become a new thing for my blog; I’ll use it to track just how many books I read during this year and to serve as a topic to write on, since I’m so bad at coming up with things to write about!