…I’m for it. Reading a book slowly, that is. Not just any book. Some books really benefit from slow reading. Last year I joined shelfari and found it revolutionized my awareness of my reading life. (A lot of people prefer goodreads – it is probably a better site – but I enjoy the shelf graphics on shelfari and I’m used to it). The thing that surprised me the most was the fact that I read so many books simultaneously. I wasn’t actually aware of the fact that I tend to have a dozen books on the go. Right now it’s 13 books. Most of the books have a “home” in my apartment and I only read those books when I am in that place. I have a pile of books that I read in bed before going to sleep (one children’s book, a spiritual book, several non-fiction books), a book that I read with breakfast (always a book with a spiritual focus), and a pile of books I read in the living room. There are also a couple of books that rotate locations. I tend to have 1 novel in progress (though right now it’s drama rather than fiction) and a book of short stories which is ongoing (I often take it with me to the laundromat) and more nonfiction books – always at least one on creativity or art. And sometimes, poetry, of course. Because I am in the process of reading so many books at once, most of them get read very slowly. I love this. I might read 1 page or 3 pages a day of a book. The fact that I eventually finish reading the book is wonderful and reminds me of what can be accomplished with tiny daily actions. And because I read certain books so slowly, I live with them much longer. The books become a part of my life, and the authors’ thoughts and writing styles live with me for months and months as I slowly make my way through these worlds of writing. How grateful I am for the abundance of books in my life….
I first heard of Catherine Bush when her novel Claire’s Head was reviewed in the Globe & Mail. It sounded intriguing and some years later, I read it. It’s about a woman looking for her sister, both of them migraine sufferers, a quest that takes her to different therapies and countries. Although I wasn’t exactly enthralled (initially) with the quality of the writing, I was interested, and the story pulled me along. I noticed myself caring more and more about what happened, and to my surprise, I found the ending powerful and moving. It wasn’t the kind of climax I’d expected. It gave me a lot to think about (and I think about it still). I liked that the structure of the novel wasn’t all revealed in the first half. Truly, the point of the book could not be discerned until the whole thing had been experienced.
That’s why I kept going with Minus Time even though I found the main character, Helen Urie, frustratingly “enclosed” (passive?) in the early parts and I have little or no interest in astronauts or space travel. But the book isn’t about space travel, it’s about relationships—Helen’s relationship with herself, her family members, her friends, her environment. Our relationship to our society, to our planet. I found the opening sequence, in which Helen and her brother watch a space shuttle lift-off, well-presented and well-written, but I felt that it should have had an emotional resonance for me which it didn’t have. That made sense later. For me, learning to be a good reader has a lot to do with this idea: Trust the book. Trust that the book and its structure and meaning will become apparent. This kind of thinking is in opposition to my blunt “first line test”, yet recently I have been reading and enjoying books which fail my first line test.
I have to say, with Minus Time, the energy I put into reading it was well worth it. The structure of the novel is complicated and elegant, the main character does undergo complex emotional evolution, and the seemingly disparate activities of the family members (astronaut, earthquake relief worker, architecture student, environmental/animal rights activist) all come together—the writer uses metaphor and repeating thematic elements to great effect. The writing becomes powerfully evocative and poetic later in the novel. I admire a novelist who can orchestrate such effects as Bush does in this book: narrative, metaphoric, emotional. Again, I have a lot to think about. The ending put tears in my eyes and will stay with me a long while.
If you’ve talked to me recently, I’ve probably told you about this great book I’ve read recently called The Renaissance Soul: Life Design for People with Too Many Passions to Pick Just One by Margaret Lobenstine. I’m spending time each day working through the exercises and trying to figure out how to move forward with difficult decisions in my life, primarily those concerned with the area of work and “career”. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who feels in need of life guidance during a time of transition and is the type of person who has a million interests on the go at once. (Click here to go to Margaret Lobenstine’s web site and do the quiz to see if you fit the profile.) I very much admire her practical exercises. I have enthusiastically started other books and done the exercises up to the point where I turned a page and said to myself, “Oh. I can’t do that!” This book is definitely doable. She recommends that readers choose 4 or 5 focal points to focus on for a time, knowing that these can and will change in the future. I found limiting the focal points to only 4 incredibly difficult, but she has an exercise to help the reader zero in on the 5 most important values operating in his or her life right now. Again, that exercise was hard, but I stuck with it and did it more than once over 2 weeks. Now I have a set of 5 values that I know are important to me right now and I can check potential choices to see if they are working with or against those values. Later in the book she has a great exercise called “The Prism Test” which is a method of evaluating a potential focal point by looking at price, reality, integrity, specificity and measurability. She has a lot to say about time management for Renaissance Soul types, which is useful and unlike what I’ve read before, a section aimed at young people who are choosing universities, and wonderful suggestions about how to treat choices about potential jobs—a job should be viewed in terms of how it can advance the reader’s focal points in one or more areas. She also explains how “umbrella careers” can work for Renaissance Souls. The book has nice illustrative stories about her clients (she’s a life coach) and is clearly and enjoyably written. There are a few books that I consider “life-changers” for me, and I’m sensing that this one, rather than becoming a passing infatuation, is going to be on my life list.
I didn’t consciously develop the first line test. At some point, I just noticed my behaviour when I go into the fiction section of a bookstore: I pick up a novel, open it to the first page, read the first line, and then, if I don’t find what I‘m looking for, I put it back on the shelf and move on. What am I looking for? Often, I don’t know. But I do know what I don’t like. I especially dislike novels that begin with the birth of the central character. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it aesthetically or otherwise; as a reader, however, I just don’t like it. (It usually means that childhood will follow and all will be drearily chronological.) That said, I was in a book group for 5 years and read a great number of books that I wouldn’t otherwise have read. It was wonderful to discover that books with flawed openings, even flawed first sections, held riches for me. There are even exceptions to the “don’t begin with birth” rule. My years in the book group taught me that books don’t have to be perfect for me to appreciate them and learn from them. Nevertheless, the first line test persists, and when a book soars over that hurdle, my excitement is palpable. I was almost breathless with joy when I recently read the opening sentences to The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen.
That morning’s ice, no more than a brittle film, had cracked and was now floating in segments. These tapped together or, parting, left channels of dark water, down which swans in slow indignation swam.
Why do I find those lines so beautiful? So astonishing? Ah, that is a subject for another post.