My fall literature class for Seniors College is three weeks in and we have five short weeks to go. So far, we have read and analyzed three of Alice Munro’s short stories. When we began, half the class knew of Alice Munro, the other half barely knew her, had only heard of hear, or did not know her at all. Of the half that knew her, they had read a bit of her but could not remember much of what they had read or had not read enough to form an opinion of her. Many times, we read literary works—in this case, short stories—and either like them or don’t like them. Unless we look more deeply into those works, we are unable to create an honest, informed opinion about them. At most, we might say we liked the works because they were interesting or entertaining, or we didn’t like the works because of the exact opposite—we thought them boring or uninteresting. The point with classics and works by acknowledged literary giants is that there is more to them than just mere entertainment or surface interest. That would apply to nearly every book in national and international bestseller lists. When does a literary work climb from being a bestseller to a classic, besides being a bestseller year after year, decade after decade, century after century? What is it that prize committees look for in works that earn their authors accolades and the status of laureate? Probably the most important quality a great literary work has is genuineness. Not impeccable grammar or perfect form. Not even masterful sentences or brilliant plots. This is where I bring around Alice Munro’s writing. The one thing that stands out in all her works is genuineness. Her stories are populated by genuine people, characters we can easily and quickly identify with, dealing with situations and problems we have all encountered or dealt with at one time or another. Her characters live real lives in a familiar world and, like many of us do, live mundane lives of quiet desperation or struggle through daily routines and encounters as heroically as they can. She makes readers see there can be pleasure and happiness in the littlest things, despite the hardships we face on a daily basis. She opens our eyes to the ideas, practices, and beliefs that define our behavior and affect our relationships. She reminds us that sometimes, we cannot change who we are, especially when we aren’t aware of why we think, act, or feel the way we do about what happens to us, what we do, or who we interact with. She points a spotlight on relationships in every imaginable form and makes us think about our relationships, how we live our lives, what we do, what motivates us—because it is exactly what motivates her characters and makes them think, feel, and do what they do.
14. Finishing a book
Every time I start reading a book, I look forward to finishing it. Admittedly, I haven’t finished every book I’ve ever started reading, so finishing a book is really something I look forward to. Except when the book is exceptionally dull or convoluted or just plain unreadable.
I have always been an avid book reader. Ask all my classmates in grade school and high school. They’ll confirm that. They used to call me a bookworm, I took special pleasure in that nickname. I always carried a book in my pocket…if it would fit…or in my bag, if it was any bigger than my pocket. And if I didn’t have a bag, I’d still a have book in my hand, wherever I went.
During breaks and before and after class, you’d always know where to find me–either in the library or on the grass, reading. I never really thought much about my reading habits back then…I just wanted to read anything and everything I could get my hands on, especially if it was fiction. My choice of reading material, of course, changed according to the times and the need and my mood and interests at the moment.
At present, I have several I am reading simultaneously…not that I read them all at the very same time. Just that I am reading them all. I have a couple of books on words I’m chewing through (sheer pleasure), a suspense novel (pleasure and time-filler), an art book (study), the latest issue of Reader’s Digest (bus-stop and out-of-my-handbag reading), a crafts book (self-study), a book on freelance writing, and a book on children’s writing and publishing. Oh, and a science fiction anthology somewhere. There are also a couple of other books that I started but temporarily shelved because I didn’t think I felt like reading them, as they seemed pointless at the moment. And a dictionary of slang that I recently acquired, and another book of quotations.
These books are in different places, mostly, and I grab them when I feel like reading and am in a particular spot of the apartment. Some I read continuously—I could read my novels forever, if I didn’t have to go anywhere or do anything else. I don’t know anyone else who will understand how I read books this way, but that’s how I read books. I used to finish novels in a day of guerilla-reading, sometimes as quick as in an hour–which was the length of lunch break in high school. Now, I usually leave novels to my bed-time reading. Anywhere from 1 chapter to an hour before turning off my bedside lamp to sleep, or the same before I get out of bed in the morning, when I don’t have to be anywhere shortly after I wake up. So it takes me considerably more time finishing a book of leisurely nature nowadays.
Regardless of the type of book I am reading, when I decide to finish it, I keep at it. Others, I don’t see myself finishing any time soon. Dictionaries and other word books, books of quotations and all sorts of anecdotes and wise or witty words are books I enjoy nibbling at, much like a box of assorted chocolates, whose flavours I want to last forever. You take them a bit at a time so you can savour each delectable bite-size treat, look forward to taking another treat and relishing a completely different experience, and when the box is gone, look forward to another box.
Novels and other fiction of best-selling nature are like spicy hot salsa you can have on top of anything you want, really, but you don’t leave it in your mouth long. Those books, you finish fast.
Science fantasy, fantasy, and period literature are a mixed bag of spices leaving different flavours in your mouth. Some you swallow quickly, some you want to roll around in your mouth before swallowing. Some you try once, others, you use over and over again.
Books for learning are books that either reinforce what I already know or can do, help me recall and practice what I want to strengthen, or provide me with completely new knowledge or details of old knowledge that I never knew before. These can be anything from business books to language books to arts and crafts books. These are my cooking books, my problem-solver books, and other how-to books. Most of these, I finish reading but return to every now and then, because I most likely would not have read it in detail the first time around. Usually, I just skim over these books and if I find something immediately useful, I jot it down. Otherwise, I make a mental bookmark then return to the book when I need it.
I’ll admit I have books that I acquired because they looked like something I might try later on…and I still do have a handful of books that are untouched, unread. Thankfully, they don’t rot like real food would. They’d be the dried fruit or dried mushrooms or something like that, that you can keep forever until you want to use them. I suppose they’d have a musky, concentrated flavour as well, which I’d have to sprinkle with generous helpings of magazine reading.
Which brings me to reading magazines. These are all icing on cake, though some of them have exceptional flavours or flavours you want to experience over and over again. I thoroughly enjoy going through the pictures and trying out recipes from these magazines. Some of them provide me with vicarious experiences that I know I will never have—plunging down the ocean depths to examine sea life or sunken treasure…living in deserts or forests or mountains…travelling to destinations around the world that would never be in your average travel brochure. These are experiences of alternate lives I might have lived had I chosen to go down those paths of archaeology, exploration, and science.
Some of you who know me are probably wondering, where are the classics? I love classical literature. I even majored in literature. My genre of choice is drama, and I had books on drama that are hard to find. I had boxes of books of classical literature, the bulk of which are drama–and my nieces know that, because those books are now with them–except for a treasured few that I have kept, and a few more that I have acquired since setting roots in new ground. I did acquire a membership to The Folio Club, which can provide me with all the classics I want, in classic binding, at classic prices, which I can’t really afford. And some of those books, because I have already read them but wanted classic copies to grace my shelves, remain in their clear plastic wrap. Mint editions, that may one day be worth a fortune. Who knows, I may yet have grandchildren who will be bookworms as their grandmother was. I am done collecting classics. Nearly every book of classic literature that I bought, I have read. I have also read classic literature that was not in my old collection, nor in my new collection, because they were library books that I could not keep. I have even read some classic literature on-line. And I have read classic literature from Papa’s Classics Club collection, that I truly wish Mama had deemed fit to give to me. But of course, that wish is like asking for the moon. But the books I read are already in my heart, the stories squirrelled away in some neural wiring in my brain. The only real and extensive collection I have and continue to build is my collection of word books–dictionaries, etymologies, idioms, euphemisms, quotes, and such. My fascination with words far exceeds my fascination with literary plots and themes, because the plots and themes repeat themselves; the words don’t.
I will still read literature that may one day be the stuff of classic literature, and certainly, I hope to write more literature and eventually publish work that might be remembered vaguely in the annals of literature hundreds of years from now. I will still read literature that will be forgotten once a new best seller climbs to the top of the list, as well as literature that only a few people will ever care to read, and I certainly, as well, hope to write some of that literature and earn a living out of it.
But in the meantime, I am a reader, and nothing will stop that. I know that, if I ever lose my sight, I will have audio books and braille books to fill up the dark space before me with the multi-coloured images and scenes of books written by people for people like me who look forward to turning that last page of a book and take a long look once again at the front and back covers, maybe hold the book close to the heart, before putting it away on a shelf or in a box for others to read.