Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Roll-Call for Readers: Do You Exist?

Photograph of ring in open spine of book, casting shadow of a heart
Attribution Some rights reserved by MissTurner ,
Used under CC license
So, she has been working on her syllabus for the Creative Writing class that she'll be teaching in a few weeks.  A stack of books is teetering on her table, sticky-noted at this story or that poem her students will read and discuss on days they aren't discussing their own creations.

Meanwhile, she has also been reading outside of these books, and maybe it's just her luck, but she keeps landing on rather depressing articles.  For example, Nicholas Carr's article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" in which he discusses the way internet reading is affecting our brain patterns and, thus, ability to read deeply.  It's the true, sordid tale of how once-avid readers are losing their reading skills, much like a piano player who, after a twenty-year break, returns to the bench to find that her fingers have lost their songs.

Then, there's a more recent article out in The Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled "We Can't Teach Students to Love Reading"; here, Alan Jacobs compares reading habits from the advent of the printing press to the shift in post WWII students to present-day reading.  Some of his essay is a response to Carr's book that was inspired by the above-mentioned article. Jacobs concludes that, and she thinks rightly, that it is a much different task to teach students who have never experienced deep-reading how to do that by college but that it is more possible to reinvigorate those who have, at some time in their lives, experienced deep-reading and the benefits and joys.

A more, perhaps, uplifting article in The New York Times came out last week entitled "Your Brain on Fiction", which summarizes recent studies that show how the brain is triggered by reading fiction in similar ways as to when it's having sensory experiences outside of reading. Of course, it's a bit disheartening that anyone should have to go to such lengths to prove that reading is beneficial, but that the studies existed and an article was written to relay this information is one of those "sign of our times".  She supposes.  Because while it's nice that people are taking the time to research such things, the conclusions are akin to what Ian Frazier lampoons in his essay, "Researchers Say".
Photograph of a man standing in front of overflowing book shelves in open market
AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Roel Wijnants,
Used under CC license 

But, see here, it seems to her that it might be awfully depressing to be a [starting] writer right now, especially since all these reports keep being released about how people aren't reading anymore, or how, for example, there's evidently something wrong with Oprah for elevating the reading taste of her followers because readers with higher literary tastes don't buy market romance.  (Oh, Culture Industry.  Oh, oh, oh.)

So, this is what she would like: 
One sentence, but no more than ten sentences, in which you explain

1) why you read fiction or poetry (or both), OR 
2) what you look for when you go hunting for a new book, OR 
3) who your favorite writer is and what it is about his or her writing, you think, that draws you back, OR
4) why you no longer read fiction or poetry

Photograph of discarded book stamp card
Attribution Some rights reserved
gypsy999, Used under CC license 
Just post your mini-essay at the bottom of this blog.  Feel free to stay anonymous, although it would be nice if you could state both your general location and age (Ohio, U.S., 41-years old).

Her idea is to then print out the answers for her students and discuss them since, after all, you, reader, are one of their potential audience members in years to come.

For one, she hopes that the responses will encourage her students to know that readers do, in fact, still exist.  And, two, she hopes that the responses will show the variety of readers who read and for a variety of reasons.

Think of this as a sort of  Roll-Call for Readers, a sort of rallying anthem for the troop of writers she will meet in a few weeks and then teach for the next few months.  Writers who, no doubt, have been told already that no one reads anymore and that there is no life in writing about people who don't exist for people who don't exist.

Do you exist, reader?  

(Click on the title of this post to access the comment form.)


Unknown said...

Austin Tx,USA,35
1. I read fiction to escape, view life from a different perspective, creatively learn about history and rarely because Oprah suggests I should. I read poetry (mainly the Romantics) when I feel, well, romantic.
2. I look for new titles by authors I have read before, suggestions of trusted friends, texture of the cover and if meandering, I see if I my attention is captured when I finish reading a random page. If Kindle shopping, all of the above except for the texture. I also weekly download at least 10 free books from Amazon for the variety.
3. I do not have 1 favorite because that would be impossible. I enjoy: Sarah Addison Allen, Jane Austen, Meg Cabot, Suzanne Collins, Deborah Harkness, Charlaine Harris, Maureen Johnson, Susanna Kearsley, Sharon Lathan, Deanna Raybourn, Shakespeare, Anne Rice, Elizabeth Kostova, Kate Morton, Anne Fortier, and Titania Hardie
4. Obviously, not a problem!

Anonymous said...

Austin, TX, 42 (Existing)
I read fiction because stories help me to find meaning in my own life, and because I delight in the inner music that words make, to quote Capote. Poetry I mainly reach for or write when I'm struggling with something. I don't really need to go hunting for a new book; they seem to find me. In droves.

Anonymous said...

Peter McClean (Ireland 55)

What I look for when I go hunting for a new book.

A new book must give me something new, be well written, and give me a new view on life. My favourite books challenge the accepted norm of society and focus on exposing oppression, unveiling corruption, and highlighting the hypocrisy of so many of today’s institutions and many members of society.

I like historical fiction that informs me of a period in history without distorting the reality of times gone by. I detest historical fiction that simply puts a character in a time period as a novelty. These books usually get all the facts wrong because the history is simply being used as a backdrop instead of a real environment to be explored and revealed by the story and the characters.

If a book references real places, real people or real events, inaccuracy in relation to facts will result in the book bouncing off the far wall and lying on the ground until I have the energy to burn it or through in the bin.

A book that does not give me something new will not survive my reading process.

John Kenny said...

John Kenny, Dublin, 49.
1. I read fiction for a two reasons: escape and its opposite, sometimes both to be found in the same book. The discovery of a new world of characters and situations presented in an entertaining way can be a wonderful release. But I also love delving into a richly depicted world that deals with a time or situation in a thought provoking way. Both help define us as human beings and our place in the scheme of things in a way non-fiction rarely does.
2. There are dozens of authors I'll go back to because I love their work. Other than that it's a mix of books I 'should' read and books I'm drawn to by the premise or situation described on the back cover, after I've been drawn to them by the front covers.
3. The list is endless: Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, Peter Carey, J.G. Ballard, Kazuo Ishiguro, Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, Brian Moore, William Trevor, John McGahern, Paul Auster, John Irving, Cormac McCarthy... All radically writers and the better for it.
4. I do read. So many books, so little time. :-)

Gretchen Rix said...

I read fiction because it's fun.
Right now my favorite writer is Terry Pratchett. His fantasy novels can't be beat. Also Stephen King. Dick Francis. Edgar Rice Burroughs. The list goes on(Can you tell I'm heavy on the popular fiction side?)

John Kenny said...

John Kenny, Dublin, 49
Oops. The last sentence in my answer to question 3 should read: 'All radically different writers and the more exciting for it.' :-)

Anonymous said...

Cincinnati, OH, 31

I read fiction (almost any fiction) primarily to escape and to use my brain for something besides laundry, sibling mediation and elementary homework problems. In fact, "read" is a rather demure word to describe my all-consuming fiction addiction. I often find that taking a walk in a character's shoes gives me a breather and allows me to put my own shoes back on feeling refreshed. I'll confess, though, my major weakness as a "deep" reader is that I always want happy endings--I can only take so much "beautiful sadness."

Twister Marquiss said...

1. I read fiction and poetry to understand the world, maybe even the cosmos, the internal and the external. Reading opens moments of possibility and comprehension and the comprehension of possibility — and impossibility. See?
2. In new writing, I seek works in which the writer clearly cares about language, that each word earned its way to the page, even at the expense of breaking rules to deliver to potential. I want to see that every word matters. Every word.
3. My favorite writer at the moment is F. Scott Fitzgerald. Read his sentences. Read his paragraphs. And the narrative voice and driving plot of _The Great Gatsby_ are absolute tours de force.
4. N/A. In fact, I read more poetry than I have in the past, and I'm reading more fiction lately too. And nonfiction, particularly science writing, which also adds to understanding.

Heather Anastasiu said...

Yes, we readers exist! I read fiction pretty exclusively. I buy several books a month and get the rest from the library. When I'm on the hunt for what to read, I'll check out Goodreads to see what books are newly released or are being buzzed about. Often I'll know about a book before it's released because I follow authors on Twitter and see cover reveals and synopsis' early on. Lately I have been very interested in reading debut releases, but if there is a series I'm into, I almost always grab the next book soon after it comes out.
-Heather, Minneapolis, MN, 29

dan powell said...

1. I read fiction to experience different lives. Reading fiction allows you to see all kinds of situations through the eyes of all kinds of characters. The best fiction will show the reader a world/characters they can relate to, that, however different the subject matter, will tell them something about themselves. Fiction impacts on a reader in similar ways to actual experience, people can learn from it, or even test run experiences. To put myself in someone else’s shoes is why I read and why I write.

2. I look for an interesting voice. I want the story telling to engage me and a strong voice, right from the off will draw me in and have me willing to spend my time and money reading more. An interesting idea or take on a situation will catch my eye, so to recommendations from other readers whose opinions I trust.

3. My favourite author at the moment is probably Amy Hempel. The honesty and depth of her short fiction keeps me returning to her work to uncover fresh insights and details to her powerful writing. I enjoy and am a little in awe of her ability to make the mundane startling. The fact that she has made me care about knitting and carpet stains says a lot about how she can control the reader’s emotional state. She is the writer who has consistentl made me care most about the characters and stories she choses to tell.

Dan Powell, 38, UK.

Anne Greenwood Brown said...

I read to escape - to jump into someone else's life for awhile, which is why character voice is so important. Once there, it's the excitement of having a story unfold, guessing where it's going to take me, getting it wrong(!), and then the satisfaction (hopefully) of a fantastic ending.

J. Anderson Coats said...

I read fiction and poetry because the world is bigger than I am, and there's no way I'll ever be able to do all the things I want to do. Books let me feel like I've been more places and done more things, albeit vicariously.

J. Anderson Coats, thirtymumble, Puget Sound

Shelia Day said...

I read (mainly fiction) to keep my own mind sharp and my imagination in tact. To enter other worlds, realistic or fantastical, is a pretty special thing. To learn; I'm always learning from fiction. How to be a better, stronger writer and what to avoid.

2. Usually, I browse around book stores (or the library). I'm not going to lie, I am sucker for a pretty cover. I also pick up books reviewed by NPR, The Guardian, etc. Good Reads is also helpful, but my favorite way to learn about a book is through a friend.

3. Kerouac- It's the way he can create this image in my head with words, as well as his honesty.

Shelia Day, Louisville, KY, 30

Anonymous said...

I read for the sheer enjoyment, for relaxation, for escapism and to enrich my imagination. My main interests are classic fiction and vintage science fiction.
Mark Twain is the only writer I've ever read who can consistently make me laugh...his wit, humor and cynicism are simply outstanding so he's my classic fiction fave.
However, Erin Toungate is my favorite modern fiction writer hands down!

Anonymous said...

I read fiction, mostly, but I have a strong predilection for nonfiction about school shootings and abnormal psychology. When I walk into a book store, I feel slightly reverent. I think it's what some people feel when walking into a church. I know, on some fundamental level, that there's a book within reach that could change my life. I just have to find it. In this way, browsing is a little bit magical. For the record, I don't feel this way at all when I'm "browsing" for books online. I am married to the idea that I will never be able to read every book I want to read. Every time I go back, there will be more to read.

I read a lot, and I often have multiple titles going at once. This is not because I'm a fast reader, only that I'm in the mood for different things at different times. When I hit on something especially engaging, I read it all the way through and put the others on hold.

I look for content that allows me to experience something I've never experienced emotionally or physically. This often leads to dark and disturbing narratives. I'm a sucker for sentences that are built with care. I'll sacrifice plot for character, but never character for plot.

I'm into Michel Faber and his dry, cautiously hopeful approach to fractured identity.
Dan Chaon and Lionel Shriver definitely draw me back again and again through language and the element of surprise.
I'm always returning to Shirley Jackson because I feel kind of haunted by her stories and I want to go back and make sure they're still just as fucked up as I left them.
And finally, I will never miss anything by Anne Patchett or Donna Tartt.

Erin Pringle-Toungate said...

These are really lovely, folks. Thank you so much for taking the time to discuss your reading habits with us. I'm not officially closing this comment section, so if anyone else wants to add his or her voice to the discussion, please do!