Thursday, June 16, 2011

Susanna Daniel, On Reading

"There's a lot of complaining and judgment these days concerning the act of reading -- about the demise of the physical book and traditional publishing, in particular. And yet, everywhere I look: Readers, reading!

I've visited more than twenty book groups in the past year. I've joined, in my adult life, half as many (I always stop going -- for a writer, especially, I think reading tends to be a solitary experience). I am not at all concerned about the future of the book, in whatever form it takes.

My one concern about modern reading isn't that it's on the wane -- all evidence to the contrary -- but that it is homogenizing. There have always been popular books, of course, but it seems that with the rise of book group culture, two things are true:

a) More books have room to be popular at once (a good thing)
b) People who read are expected to read all the same books (not a good thing)

When I visit book groups, I ask what they've been reading, because I'm genuinely curious. In a ten-book-year, seven or eight titles will be repeated across every group. These titles filter through the public consciousness like weather. There's nothing abjectly wrong with this, but it leads to a way of thinking about books that I believe is misguided.

Many people seem to believe these days that a book should be consistently appreciated or even liked, as if every book strives to take its place on a universal reading list (and if a book doesn't, it's failed). This is a misapprehension not only about books but about humans, who experience everything in the world -- the written word included -- individually.

Recently I was taken to task when I said I hadn't read a wildly popular series of novels. I think there was a time when a person might have said, 'No, I haven't read that,' and that would be the end of that part of the discussion. These days, the follow-up question is more likely to be, 'Why? Is there a particular reason you've neglected this book [that everyone else has read and liked]? Are you taking a particular stand against reading this book?'

It's disconcerting. Despite the difficult publishing climate, books continue to be released in numbers much greater than one can reasonably consume. (And of course there's literature's backlist, all the books we wish we'd read but still haven't.) Considering this alone, there should be no expectation -- none at all -- that we all read the same books.

This naturally leads to the question of how to find books to read, which brings up the demise of the brick-and-mortar store and the pastime of browsing. The one path left to lesser-known books? Word of mouth.

So my answer to the question of why I haven't read monumentally popular books X, Y, and Z is this: I want to be part of the word of mouth, not one voice in a million but one in a dozen. I want to be able to say: If you liked that, you might really enjoy this little-known author and his little-known body of work. And if you like it, you can recommend it to your book group. And so on."

{Susanna Daniel's debut novel, Stiltsville, which is due out in paperback at the end of this month, was named a Best Debut of 2010 by You can read more about Stiltsville on her website.}

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Thaddeus Rutkowski, On Reading

"Winning slams, even one time, can open doors to readings. I'm no slam champ, but I've been able to read in Berlin, Budapest, Hong Kong, Paris and London, as well as in many cities in the U.S. Sometimes I'm compensated, other times not. But I always have fun reading my work in public."

Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of the innovative novels Haywire, Tetched and Roughhouse. His website can be found here.}

Monday, June 13, 2011

Darby Larson, On Reading

"The swine in the page with ink and blank ink on pixels near the idea of the page. Tattoo words into the eyes of pigs and let the page of the idea read ink and let pixels make happen ideas conjuring ink. An ink is an ink while reading is reading swine with ideas. Make happen the swine more in the page with more ink and thread it like ink on pixels near the idea of the page also. Blacksmithed words into skies and let the pages of a billion ideas thread its ink, let pixels make happen ideas with ink. An ink is ink is ink while threading is threading swine with ideas forever. Make happen this time swine in a page with ink and blue and red thread inkpixels near the lawnmown ideas of ideapages. Tattoo artists have your mother's words in their eyes. Your mothers let their page of threaded ideas thread their ink and their pixels and make their ideas like sewn sweaters for winter. An ink is blinked at, thinked at, while threading is threading swine together with sewn ideas and an apple perhaps. Make sentimexperimental music the swinging swine in the page with ink and threaded ink on spines near the idea the book looked at you during. Tattooed its meaning into your cerebrumless swine first, into the eyes, let the page, the idea thread ink and spines make happen ideas blinking like strobe headlights rearview mirrorlooked. An ink is an ink is an ink is an ink is an ink. While threading is threading swine with love. The swine in the metaphor with ink and threaded like red ink on bloody spines of brewmaster witch libraries. The idea of the metaphor. The idea of the tattooed words. Let the metaphor of the idea thread its pig and spines make good hooks, ideas like pigs and forests. A pig is a pig while threading is reading library spines. Make the slaying in the metaphor with the pig and thread a pig with spines near the metaphor again. Words in shapes like double yous and ohs and ares and dees and eses into eyes and let a metaphor of an idea thread its pig shins and spines conjure your imaginary pig. A pig is a big metaphor while threading is threading slayed with ideas. The slaying in the metaphor with pig and picked pigberries on spines near the love story of the metaphor. Let the metaphor of the love story thread its pig in you with hooks the size of mutant swines and spines with love stories concerning you. A pig is you. You while threading and slayed with love stories. Make art later. You, the slayed swine in the metaphor with your lover pig threaded in cerebrums of a billion human readers. Threaded red pig ink on spines near the love story of the metaphor. Make art love story pigs after reading with inspersperation. A pig is a pig is a pig, read and threaded, while reading is threading slayed with love stories."

Darby Larson is the author of The Iguana Complex. Recent short fiction can be found at Caketrain, The Collagist, kill author, and Everyday Genius. He is the editor of Abjective.}

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Sandra Beasley, On Reading

"As a child, there was a year when my brain stopped processing the images from one of my eyes; I was reduced to monovision. The cause? My opthamologist figured out that I had been trying to read past the point of exhaustion every night--first shutting one eye, then the other, resting each eye for 10 pages at a time. They took away my flashlight.

Another time my mother came into my bedroom and discovered graphite marks on the ceiling. Why? I'd been hopping up and down on the mattress, using the point of a pencil to attach a piece of scotch tape to the ceiling. Why the tape? It was supposed to secure a long piece of yarn. Why the yarn? So I could suspend the paperback I was reading over my face. My arms were tired from holding up the book, but I was determined to find out how the story ended.

Reading isn't easy on either spine--that of the book or that of the reader. I sprawl on my belly and prop my chin on my fist. I sit back against pillows. Then I shift the pillows and try again. I lay on my side and lean my cheek to my palm. I turn the pages. I take the papercuts. I love reading, and I've got the aches and pains to prove it. Reading is my only full-contact sport."

{Sandra Beasley is the author of three books, including Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life (Crown) and I Was the Jukebox: Poems (W.W. Norton). Visit her website here for more information.}

Monday, June 6, 2011

Ellen Meister, On Reading

"I believe in the magic of reading. The escape is real, and there is something like rapture in discovering a thought you've had your whole life but never put to words. That giddy moment of 'Yes!' feels like you've been granted a wish.

And as a writer, there's another side to reading. Every book I pick up—good or bad—has something to teach me about my craft."

{Ellen Meister is author of three novels, including The Other Life (Putnam 2011). To learn more, please visit her website at}

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Tom Williams, On Reading

"I'm moving, and that means I'm boxing up books, making tough decisions on what to keep and what to leave outside my office door with a FREE BOOKS sign taped above the piles. A lot are easy to toss: textbooks and duplicates and classics that bored me or I've been meaning to read but have realized I'm not going to get to and besides if I really want to I can look them up on Google Books. The ones I'm keeping, though, are those by friends and those by mentors, and those by writers so dear to me it's as if I've never known a time when I wasn't reading them (Charles Johnson, Philip Roth, Flannery O'Connor, Clarice Lispector, Graham Greene). I'll shove them all in a U-Haul box and seal it up, wanting to get this onerous task out of the way. But invariably, my hand, as if on its own, will pause when I pull something from my shelves. And I'll stare at the title, recalling not only the wondrous contents of the book itself but the circumstances, places, and times when I read and reread it. This time it was Mark Harris's Bang the Drum Slowly, a book I'd been thinking about a lot lately, a book I've cherished for decades, which I've wished I'd written and tried too often to rewrite. And I realize again, something I've known forever, that I was a reader first, before I even wanted to be a writer, and that what made me want to write, most likely, was a desire to keep company with people like Mark Harris--whom I never met yet whose heart and mind I feel I know. After that, I stuffed, neatly, carefully, every book into a box. I couldn't leave any more behind."

Tom Williams is the author of The Mimic's Own Voice, which was published this year by Main Street Rag Publishing Company. His stories, essays and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, most recently in Barrelhouse, Booth, The Collagist, RE:AL and Slab. An associate editor of American Book Review, he is the incoming Chair of English at Morehead State University.}