My Reading Habit

November 19, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Grab your coffee and let me tell you about my reading habit. This is not about my conversion to eBook; that might happen yet, but another day another story.

I read several books at a time, at least one or two nonfiction and two or three novels or short story collections, plus a couple of magazines, usually about writing or art or photography. Invariably one of the books would be so ‘unputdownable’ that I would have to concentrate on it, not merely to finish it, but to sense that moment of hanging on to a slippery denouement until the last word is read, when all the dust in that whole journey with the character(s) is settled. This ‘moment’ is repeated with the other books until the pile dwindles to a well-thumbed magazine.

Reading the books simultaneously I not only enjoy different scenarios with different characters (becoming my friends) at once, I can choose to spend a certain quality time with each one of them as my mood is moved by each ambience. The books come to me as I browse through the bookstore or surf the Internet and read their reviews. (I choose the magazines) More often, they have been living under the same roof and I suddenly see one of them looking like an acquaintance that I haven’t yet said hello to and have a coffee with. These guys had previously jumped out at me in the bookstore, or had gently followed me around in the fiction or nonfiction aisles, gently hoping I would shell out a few dollars at the cashier and take them home. When they do that, whether jumping out at me happily or shadowing me wistfully, offering a good time curled up in my couch with a cuppa, or gently shadowing me wistfully, I’d get impulsive. At a book festival though, their creators would have introduced them to me, and I usually take five or six of them home with the “author-ity” penned into the frontispiece bidding me to ‘enjoy!’

Once home, they would wait to talk intelligently to me when I have done my laundry, cooked my meals, taken the garbage out, paid my bills, read online part of the New York Times, BBC News, listened to stories on BBC radio, go to meetings at the art leagues or social club, painted and drawn some, experimented some, and last but not least, spent time playing, bathing and reading to the grandchildren when they visit. My book friends promise to reward me after, whenever, and they usually do.

I cannot list all my favourites in one little conversation like this. Most recently I have been delightfully struck by Lorna Goodison’s collection called By Love Possessed that I bought at Kingston’s Writers Fest in 2011. Lorna is a poet, or a songbird as they call poets in the romantic Tang era China. The whole short story collection is like a song album, Jamaican rich and colourfully jazzy. I swayed and sung along with the book, not letting it go until I turned the last page, leaving three others half burrowed, and several art magazines and writers’ journals lying flat on night table and coffee table.

Amita Rao Badami’s Tell It To the Trees competes with Goodison’s collection for my attention. Its strong characterization convinces me that I have once known such characters, or a shade of such characters. Somewhere in my past life, I might have met real life characters with such latent personalities, that I actually have those real persons acting the parts as I read the book. Such is the power of a good book.

Now, I did have IQ84 following me around in the bookstore until I decided to hug it and take it home with me. I had a sore arm for a couple of days. Not that I was reluctant to, since Haruki Murakami is one of my favourite authors, favourite as with respect for his calm and matter of fact writing – frequently with a character cooking spaghetti while listening to classical music, and then there’d be a knock on the door. (There’s a character in IQ84 too, a female, cooking something while listening to music when the phone rang. I share a sort of love for the same kind of music as Murakami’s character, like Janacek. There is something about Eastern European melodies…anyway…) I know, you can pick out a writer’s quirk and quip if you keep reading him or her. It is perhaps for that familiarity that you keep reading the same author. I like to read the other books by a writer that I have discovered I like, and right now I am waiting for new works from Helen Simonson (Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand) and Muriel Barbery (The Elegance of the Hedgehog). But yes I was wishy-washy about IQ84 because the thought of taking the joyfully overweight tome to bed was a little daunting. (This is where the eBook sellers would say to me; time to change your habit) I have done that before with other books (Vikram Seth’s Suitable Boy comes to mind), but it’s always a feat.

I was two chapters into IQ84, sitting with it like a good reader in my living room with a coffee, and pausing to refill my coffee, when my daughter Tricia visited. She leafed through it, and out came her “Can I read it first?” Which means she would have to take it home and God knows when it would come back. Anyway, I let her because I wanted to slowly savour the calm and meticulously crafted stories, the rather intriguing and totally different, and truly Murakami. Tricia read it within a week. I wondered what she skipped, perhaps details like how the character wiped the needle and corked its lethal point and put it carefully in her bag, how she looked at the slouched figure over the hotel table, etc.

But no, she read every word of it lying in bed with the tome on her side and the lamp shining on it. I need a better bedside lamp.

Every book is different, so I treat them all differently. Although Orhan Parmuk’s Museum of Innocence is a great tome of a book too, I somehow could not let it go (Tricia was not visiting), and managed to hold it in bed to read (propped up by sham pillows), and finished it within three days, forgoing several other chores and duties, and other simultaneous books. That was a couple of years ago. Parmuk has since talked about the places in the book in several interviews, about how readers have assumed that the novel was surely part of his personal story. Even his closest friend assumes that he lives in the very address his protagonists live in in the book.

I am not alone in reading reality into novels and stories. What Parmuk has painted in the novel is so real, that his reader is visiting Turkey in her armchair, and walking by the same street address, or riding in the same taxi on the same highway. How to achieve that in my own stories?

In truth the reader has to take part in a story for the story to be successful. I love being present in a novel seeing the events unfold; perhaps I am because I have entered my own mind. I take the books home as potential trips somewhere fun or sad in somebody’s life, a kind of travel different from my photography trips to Tuscany or Venice or Ireland, or Mexico, or Asia. Reading is like going into a place and being a character acting inside that storyline, speaking their tongues, eating their food, wearing their clothes, seeing with their eyes. A total participation if you will, vicariously.

That’s why Kindle or Kobo hasn’t been able to hook me though they too follow me around in the bookstore’s aisles, and nudge me to take them home because I can hold one up easily in bed, in trains and planes, and I can carry a whole library or bookstore with me and read simultaneously even more books. At the moment I may be too conventional for them. No, I am not old fashioned. I like new things, all the time. I can co-exist with old and new. But what would life be like when there are no books to follow me around in the bookstore (or no books in stores, but eReading devices only!) eyeing me with their attractive covers, and making me pause to have a little chat and acquaintance? I love being possessed by love in my way. It’s already in my genes I suppose, intertwined with the twists and turns of my DNA, that I must visit bookstores the way I used to visit libraries in my youth. That’s my IQ too, I suppose. Books are museums of innocence, being suitable boys and girls. Sorry folks, about the trees. But let’s grow special trees for all the books that I want to read for the rest of my life. Let’s tell it to the trees!

I am still savouring every morsel of Haruki Murakami’s IQ84. I don’t like to finish a tome too quickly, the way my daughter did, in a week. I like to enjoy my food in the same way, pulling out its flavour on my tongue, while wondering about its ingredients and envisioning where the cook shopped, how he or she stood in the kitchen, and how the ingredients had been dashed from counter to sink to stove to plate. As I have said before, I read several books at a time, fiction and nonfiction, plus art magazines and house décor books and magazines, and blogs and website essays and digital newspapers. I believe that reading like I do is as healthy if not healthier than reading a bunch of self help books. Reading IQ84, I am exercising whatever patience and zen I have acquired over the past half century. The book is a plow driving at 25 kmph. The snail pace calms my nerves, gives me a chance to fill my lungs (with air and dust of course), and a chance to call home the spirit that has been dispersed all over the city when I have been charging myself with painting so many canvases in response to several calls to display art; or have been reading my own mistakes in my own blogs or journals or story drafts. Especially when helping with chores that aren’t mine, such as babysitting the grandchildren, or cooking a meal for my daughter when she requested so she could have a break from cooking for her baby and his father after work. I enjoy my grand kids when they are in my charge for a few hours, or at times, a few days – the pain and joy of a happy bundle, or that ‘glory and burthen’ as they called the now faded British Empire – but when the ‘enjoyment’ is over, I love to go back to my moments of other joys and burthens of life. Right now I have just had another daughter’s two kids over three days each week for two weeks while she was away on work conferences. On the other days they returned to their father when he was resting between day and night shifts. When in my charge, I sent them to their regular babysitter where the elder one had to board the school bus in the afternoon and her little brother would have a nap. I get to do my own stuff in between drop off and pick up. My busiest time of the day was between five and nine, those crucial, lovely meal time, bath time and reading before bed time. When big sister chose three books, little brother had to do likewise. Nana would hold up each picture book so both listeners could see the illustrations. If she slacked and dropped the book a centimetre she would hear from the big sister. Like her Nana, she has to see and listen and savour the texts and pictures at 25 kmph, to make sure she absorbed the whole story, and that there was no mistake (she would ask why they made that mistake if she were to spot any). I fear she has that DNA too for correcting every typo, or concept, or straightening every picture that dared to slant a little when Mother Earth turned herself over in her sleep.

The most recent addition to my pile of to-read, reading and almost done (IQ84 is only three quarters done) is Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris. This is another book after my own heart. I hated grammar lessons at school, yet I loathe to make mistakes at any time. It is heartening to find people, and in Fadiman’s case, her whole family and clan and friends, who fiendishly proof read and edit menus and bill boards and everything they lay their eyes and hands on, literarily and literally, and as Fadiman pointed out too, obnoxiously (as it would seem to many people who cannot stand corrected, but must sit down and have a drink to repair their brain). I am a fan of Fadiman's club or league (which I am sure has a huge membership). I often pass my time mentally correcting spellings and word usage whether they are in my sight while I am driving or walking, or in my head when I am painting or cleaning up my house (after painting and after babies), and while listening to the radio. I edit my work all the time – which incidentally bids me walk straight because I have to concentrate and breathe more deeply. My husband, a sensitive and humble soul, used to rap my knuckles for correcting someone's speech, or something that I have read or seen. Whenever I opened my mouth to say there’s a typo here, he would say, 'Don’t presume yourself correct all the time. Be humble. You can make the same mistake too.' He did not realize right then and there that he had assumed that my motive in correcting or editing typos was for laughs. To him it is a snooty habit, and I imagine he might one day lobby for Moses to make an Eleventh Commandment forbidding it. In the 1990s, when I was living in Singapore and had contracted to write my books for Oxford University Press, I knew some secretaries of prestigious companies who were afraid to correct their bosses’ grammatical or spelling mistakes, especially if the bosses were Europeans, males, or Harvard graduates. It would be assumed that being the boss meant he or she could never make any mistake. What a big mistake that assumption was. Why are we surprised that we still find so many typo errors, wrong word usage, and grammatical butchery in so many leading papers and radio shows? In the fast lanes of life, no one likes anyone who drives at 25kmph on our reading highways conscientiously picking up garbage generated from high speed.

Here’s a quote from one of Fadiman’s essays, and as you read, you might want to forgive nosey parkers like us for assuming the burthens of the world with an unselfish motive…

Alas, there is no twelve-step program for us. We must learn to live with our affliction. Perhaps we could even attempt to extract some social benefit from it by offering our faultfinding services on a pro bono basis. Had a Fadiman…been present in 1986, when the New York law firm of Haight, Gardner, Poor & Havens misplaced a decimal point in a ship’s mortgage, we could have saved its client more than $11 million. Had we been present in 1962, when a computer programmer at NASA omitted a hyphen from Mariner f’s flight program, we could have prevented the space probe from having to be destroyed when it headed off course, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $7 million." Anne Fadiman. Ex Libris: Confessions of A Common Reader Farrar, Staus and Giroux, New York, 2000. (p.86)


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