Friday, July 27, 2012

Tier One Book List

It seemed only fitting that my next post be this. Here are a few of my favorite works** that have transported or transformed my thoughts at one time or another. If you haven't, read just a page or two and you'll start to understand why I feel the way I do and why you'll have to finish whichever ones you choose:

Book: Author
Love in the Time of Cholera: Garcia Marquez
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: Murakami
The Bridge of San Luis Rey: Wilder
100 Years of Solitude: Garcia Marquez
The Grapes of Wrath: Steinbeck
The Autobiography of Malcom X (as told to Alex Haley): X & Haley
Slaughterhouse Five: Vonnegut
Catch-22: Heller
Herzog: Bellow
Crime and Punishment: Dostoyevsky
The Master and Margarita: Bulgakov
Lolita: Nabokov
A Brief History of Time: Hawking
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Twain
Their Eyes Were Watching God: Hurston
In Cold Blood: Capote
How to Read a Book: Adler & Van Doren
A Short History of Nearly Everything: Bryson
Master of The Senate: Caro

**Updated periodically.

P.S. If you read a bunch, let me know what I'm missing!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

On My Reading

I used to hate reading. A huge part of that I had nothing to do with. I blame my father. His mother called him Deek. Let's also do so. As a child my father would make us write book reports. When other kids were playing in the streets riding bikes and pushing off skateboards, I had a task to complete. I had to read from targeted selections, transcribe, and present. I'm not talking about Huckleberry or Hardy. I'm talking about books on attitude and skills. Deek built an extra curricular activity steeped in learning networking and salesmanship and motivation. Imagine this not now, but as a 10 year old. Reading as a result was never a joy for me, it was a chore. And I liked to do chores in my own time, not his, but I didn't have that luxury. I did what I was told. I only discovered decades later that everyone one of those books were business and self help classics, and for that, plus the advanced reading and comprehension skills I am forever in debt. 

These days I go into withdrawal if I don't read something found wherever my free will takes me. Reading is such a rare opportunity to trick myself into escaping reality, and often I need that break. The past two years getting a master's has thus been tough. It's one of the ironies of academics that every time I go into a hallowed place of learning my reading gets thrown into crisis. I find it so difficult to deal with the high wire tension of picking up a book and feeling like it should fall on the side of studying. If I dive off the other and read like I want to, I find reading turns into this reckless activity - I can't do anything else until I finish, and then I start again. Because the payoff is so immediate, that connection from author to story to reader so fulfilling, all other books pale in comparison.

I hear words when I read. Often one of the first things I'll ask someone before we traverse into a land of characters and themes is what type of reader they are - then I pass judgment. I am insanely jealous of visual readers - the ones who look at words on a page and consume them without being trapped at the speed of sound. My sister is one those people. I am disappointed that I have not been able to adapt. I can do it for certain pieces, but it has to be something very casual and relatively short. This is of course excluding those times when I get my hands on a gorgeous stretch of prose where I absorb every letter and let my mind wonder. At those moments, time stops and I can feel the words floating in my mind. It's not unlike the sensation of being adrift in a sparkling pool on a sweltering day. 

As I read, in the background I focus on composition, style, language and message: What is the writer trying to convey. What are the overlapping themes. What is the motivation. What am I feeling that I can walk away with and relate to myself and others. How is the book proportioned. What words does the writer frequent. How are the sentences structured - are they simple or complex, filled with metaphors, or plain and declarative. How long is the novel, could it have been shorter or longer and still have had the same impact. Do the sentences and paragraphs flow. Did the author create people instead of characters. Could these people exist. Do I know people like this. Do I see myself reflected in any of these situations. These are some of the things I look for. They make the difference between a great story and a magnificent piece of literature for me. Classic writing has all of these elements, and if I can have it all then I'll always say, "Yes, please."

I am amazed every time I finish something like that. No one will ever again write those exact words in that exact sequence, yet the possibility of a brilliant piece still exists every time a pen touches a page. It’s that magic of an endless number of combinations from a finite set of words. It’s that concrete example of creativity. Writing is the embodiment of self-expression and individualism. And I just love reading it.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Talking About My Generation

We've all had this conversation at one point or another with friends - both marveling at and judging the lack of internet savvy by our parents. I just had another one this morning. I can basically summarize it to: Why is it so difficult for them to send emails? I couldn't say what number this particular conversational occurrence was, but it's well into the double digits. It wasn't until recently that I exchanged the first text with my mother (Although in fairness, she lives internationally, or technically, I guess I'm the one that does.) and it's been a struggle to get both of my parents to see the use of and need for communicating over the internet that way. It seems like moms always say, "Why not just pick up the phone and call?" It set me to wondering out loud what would be the advancement in technology that sets my generation apart from the one that follows. 

One of my friends quickly pointed out that it would not be just the one, and then we both set to begrudgingly admitting that disruption was probably already here in the resistance we both feel for social media. It was not a good feeling. I certainly liked to think that I'd be much better at technological adaptation than my parents. I was seduced by the idea that because I am apart of the generation that came online as teenagers with the internet - arguably the most defining advance in technology for the past two generations - that I would be predisposed to such flexibility. After getting shoved off that elitist plateau, I readily admit to not taking a deep liking to social media. I've never questioned myself as to why that is though. The default answer has been that I'm more private than most. Just the mere thought of sharing what I'm thinking with friends is already a bit much for me (sorry loved ones!), let alone sharing these thoughts publicly. Still, the privacy answer seems commonplace and superficial. 

If I dig deeper there's probably some form of vulnerability I feel in starting over, of recreating a hard earned identity in real life for an online one. It's a realization of the effort and time that takes. It's also a bit of the classic: why change anything that's working? None of that is so surprising I guess. You wouldn't be a very astute student of human nature if you didn't predict inertia and resistance in response to such a significant change. If I fight past those reflexive defenses, however, I can see the value of social media (sharing, connecting, bolstering ties, etc). Ironically, I see it most clearly in a business context (probably because I'm in the middle of a job search...). What better way have we discovered to judge people over time than by what they think and produce? A resume seems grossly deficient in this day and age. I would rather be judged by the content and merit in my thoughts, projects and actions online than have those assumed in my absence after a one hour encounter over one sheet of paper. The more information we have the better decisions we can make. And if I am diligent enough I can control my own chunk of big data.

I'm sure that just begins to peel back the layers, but whatever the reasons I feel such a resistance, as a direct result, I was most certainly a late comer to Facebook, this is technically my first blog post (under my real name at least), and I have only just signed up for a Twitter account (also the first under my real name @simmserely). I guess we'll see where this goes. Don't judge me if I relapse.