Thursday, July 31, 2008

What the Kids Are Reading Now

This past weekend, the New York Times touched on a subject that I've thought about frequently: what and how are people reading in the 21st century. Like any informed American, I spend a lot of time on the Internet, reading and researching things for work and for my personal hobbies (such as reading and writing) and for topics related to family life in general. So I'm certainly not averse to people reading online.

Indeed, I applaud it; at least people are reading. And I believe that people are not afraid of writing for themselves. The explosion of blogs and social networking sites and twittering tidbits of foolishness at all hours of the day are strong anecdotal evidence that people are writing more now than they ever have.

I also know from experience that some kids are more likely than others to read books. Back when I was driving kids from schools to a YMCA for an afterschool program, there was one kid in particular (I think he was in first grade when I met him) who'd graduated from picture books to those in which only an occasional sketch was included (think Charlotte's Web or the original Winnie the Pooh books). He even remarked to a friend about how adults read books without pictures as though the concept was incredible.

Still, I can't help but see a healthy dose of pomposity in the views of those in the article who believe children can't learn without reading great books. Of course, they need first to be literate; it's a crucial life skill on par with the ability to communicate (note, I didn't say speak. Moreover, even the most affected by autism are able to communicate as long as we are willing and able to learn how to do so with them.)

I read often — great books, mediocre books, magazine articles, Web sites, academic studies — so I realize I'm not quite the average reader. But there are things I've not even thought of as readable areas that the kids described in this article devour., for example, is a site I've heard of but that's about it. It doesn't look familiar, so I'm not sure I've ever examined it before. But the girl in the article reads reams of Web pages there, eschewing television. Say what you will about the value of "great books," but I believe a kid who is that devoted to reading now is more likely to both read and possibly write as an adult. Good for Nadia!

Deeper in the article, there's a reference to a 2006 study that found, among other things, that the only kind of reading that related to higher academic performance was frequent novel reading, which is directly related to higher grades — especially in English. The key value of reading book-novels, academics argue, is that it allows readers to mentally chew over the ideas proffered in the works. Indeed that's true, and when people have read books in common, this spurs conversation and further reflection, which embeds the ideas deeper into a child's or adult's brain. This is where the Web is perfect!

So, if I can suggest anything in this post, it would be to encourage everyone to read — novels and short stories, works of nonfiction, newspapers, Web sites, the NYT article from which this post is inspired — and then talk about these things with other people. Reading fosters intelligent discussion. Conversation builds community. Strong community bonds can instill more democratic governance. There's a slogan in the waiting: Literacy Builds Democracy. I think both Republicans and Democrats can support that.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Fidel Castro: BFFs

I had no idea that Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Fidel Castro were friends. According to a story that appeared in la Prensa Latina, the two have been friends for fifty years, and he met him before his revolution.

I don't know an awful lot about the writer — or Castro for that matter — so, while it sounds like a surprising relationship, perhaps it fits perfectly with their personalities.

What I do know about "Gabo" is that he's a brilliant writer with a love of the magical.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Emailing the Elephant

I've been trying to figure out how to allow subscriptions to my blogs, and finally Blogger has added that capability. So if you enjoy reading my thoughts on writing and reading, please sign up using the clickable subscription button on the right hand side.

I've also set up an email box for those who want to reach me but don't want to post a comment on the blog. So, feel free to email me at and I promise to get back to you ASAP.

Edgar Sawtelle and the Millions of Would-Be Novelists

Now, this is good news. It seems the reading world is going ga-ga for David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, which I've not yet read.

The Boston Globe said that the book "is proving that readers can still fall hard for an old-fashioned literary epic by someone they've never heard of." Personally, I think anyone who took a college-level literature course understands that already, but we are talking about the general American public and I'm just happy to hear that they're still reading.

I love that this guy's book took a decade to complete. I can relate. I came upon the original idea for my novel in 1995. I penned scores of pages of notes before I wrote the book's first few dozen pages, but it wasn't until after 9/11 that I realized how quickly time and life could be erased. (Indeed, that idea became an important theme within the novel.) If I were to sell this novel by the end of the year, it'd probably be nearly a decade between the time I actually started to write it and its eventual publication date. And that's a best-case scenario.

This comment in the Globe is also telling:
One thing is clear: No one is buying this book because it's similar to something else they've read recently.

Having spent many hours now on Agent Query and other sites, I know there are thousands of people out there with novels, memoirs, works of nonfiction, short stories all hoping to get published. Probably millions more have ideas that they believe would make a great book. Many of the writers even seem capable of stringing sentences together in interesting ways, so I believe the possibilities for wonderful literature are endless.

One of my challenges is getting a sense of what other books might be similar to mine. In other words, who is my potential audience? I've read lots of items about how you compare novels, and I suppose if I knew of a book that was exactly like mine, then mine would be superfluous at best. I've even asked my readers who my style reminded them of; what other writer did they think of when they read my book...

I believe that ultimately this is the agent and publisher's problem to resolve, but from what I've read, they like to have a good idea before they even review a book by an unknown quantity like me.

For all I know, perhaps my competition is David Wroblewski. At least now I'll be able to read his work and find out.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Midnight's Children Arise From Slumber

This was a bit of a surprise to me. Salman Rushdie, best known as the writer who had a death sentence placed on his head by Islamic leaders, was honored once again for writing the book considered the best of the Man Booker Prize winners. It's not for his Satanic Verses, which was the one that pissed off the imams, but rather for Midnight's Children, which won the Booker Prize in 1981.

I've read Satanic Verses and have another of his books in a stack, but I've not read Midnight's Children. What surprises me is not that this book has won so many prizes but that the Emory University press release (Rushdie is a writer-in-residence there) can't do simple math. It notes that "at least half of the voters are under the age of 35, therefore not yet born when Rushdie wrote the novel." I'm sorry, it's been a while since the Reagan and Thatcher administrations, but not quite that long; 1981 is only 27 years ago. You'd think that, since the Booker Prize has only been around for 40 years, such math would have been easier.

Regardless, my congratulations to Salman Rushdie. I think I'll need to read your book

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

It's Good to Be Back

I know I said that I'd be reading my own work — and I did, for a couple days on the train. I should have continued with my work, because it's clearly better than what I've been reading lately. Well, I enjoyed the Christopher Moore book, so I shouldn't lump it in with the others.

I completely hated one nonfiction book that I'd read with the intention of reviewing. It should never have been published, at least not in the appalling condition in which I found it. I won't review it. And I struggled to finish another book, Cooperstown, which was tangentially about baseball. Perhaps I needed to see the problems that arise out of bad structural choices in a novel.

But this morning I began something new on the train, Joe Hill's 20th Century Ghosts. I'm only in the first story, "Buttonboy," and already I'm enjoying it more than anything I've read in the past two weeks — including my book, including Chris Moore. Earlier this year, I read Hill's novel, Heart-Shaped Box, which I found entertaining and enjoyable.

While Hill is the son of writers (Stephen and Tabitha King), he hasn't relied on his father's fame to get noticed. He's done quite well for himself already, and I expect he'll provide many enjoyable works of fiction in the future. While he may never write Pulitzer Prize winning literature, if nothing else, he's provided me with a welcome respite from poor and mediocre writing.

Thanks, Joe.