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On Reading and Writing

“Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.” – William Faulkner

The man who owns the coffee shop that I go every morning is frustrated about his son’s lackluster English grade. He gets mostly C/C+ on most of his writing assignments. At the mention of writing that rings a bell in my head. I suggest cultivation of a reading habit—to read whatever subject that interests his son, in stead of playing video games.

All the grammar guides, writing tips, and books on writing will not make you a better writer if one never reads. Reading is just as crucial as actually writing, if not more so, and the work one produces will only be as good as the work you read.

Reading and writing go hand-in-hand. I have never met a good writer who doesn’t read—and reads widely. Through reading one will gain knowledge and find inspiration. As I read more, I have learned to read with a writer’s eye. Even grammar sinks in when I read. If you’re worried about knowing all the rules of grammar, then just read books written by adept writers. Eventually, it all will become part of your mental makeup.

A well-read writer has a better handle on vocabulary, understands the nuances of language, and recognizes the difference between poor and quality writing. Most importantly, what I read will somehow manifest and find the way back in my writing. I attribute this to the brain, which is like a sponge that soaks up everything we observe and experience throughout our lives, and each thing we are exposed to becomes part of the very fiber of our beings. What we read is no exception.

On Libraries

Why do you love to hang out at the library?

When I was a kid, the library was my refuge from everything annoying—the bullying kids, the meaningless sport plays. The library was a heaven full of books and they were free. I wish I can say that now about the public library. It’s no longer that peaceful place where I could get things done and not be assaulted mentally, sensationally, and olfactorily. Public libraries haven’t been a quiet place for work and research for a long time. They have become video rental stores, nursery, and job centers. In the cities, they are homeless shelters by the time, and generally unkempt. There are some great public libraries still around, mostly in the suburbs, but by large, I’ve given up on them.

That said, I am still supportive of my local library. I rummage through their sale and donate money. I understand the library has an obligation to promote reading and take care of those who are in the need. But the unkempt condition and noise are very frustrating.

RIP, Harriet Klausner

Harriet Klausner (May 20, 1952 – October 15, 2015) was a reviewer of books and a newspaper columnist. She was the #1 ranked reviewer on Amazon.com until October 24, 2008, when the company began a new ranking system. On December 8, 2011, Amazon removed the “Classic Reviewer Ranking” and Klausner is no longer a Top Ranked Reviewer.

I know Harriet Klausner because once I was a reviewer of books on Amazon and was obsessed with playing the ranking game. You spin out reviews as quickly as you can and hope the reviews are voted helpers by fellow customers. I have long quit reviewing altogether and quit Amazon because I was over with their policy regarding review ownership.

Harriet Klausner provoked a lot of controversy within the reviewer community. Was she real? Rumor had it that she was just a robot feeding the tube with 15 to 20 reviews a day. A Time article in 2006 finally demystified all the rumors about her. She is indeed a real person, a librarian who reads 6 to 8 books a day, mostly romances. Whether real or not, to me the whole Amazon ranking was just a game. There were lots of sour grapes and I really didn’t care of the books the top 20 reviewers reviewed. Those books were either trashy, fluffy, or both.

“Bodies in a Bookshop” Found

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An usual scout at the used bookstore during lunch landed a rare copy of Bodies in a Bookshop by Ruthven Campbell Todd who, at the time of the Second World War, was a poet, scholar, and critic from Scotland. He wrote a series of detective fiction and was quickly, but unjustly, forgotten. His detective fiction is very difficult to come by; so this rare copy (not collectible though) would be a treat in time for the season.

The title alone is irresistible. The subject matter corresponds to the very circumstance in which I found this book—rummaging through musty old bookstore in search for the unexpected, except, thankfully, I didn’t find two bodies lie sprawled on the floor of the back room.

On Booker Prize

The winner of Booker Prize 2015, Marlon James, has revealed that he briefly abandoned writing after his debut novel, John Crow’s Devil, was rejected nearly 80 times, before it was eventually published in 2005. Despite the success of his latest novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, James thought the publishing industry had not changed much since his first book was repeatedly turned down.

Which brings me to the point: how do publishers know what readers want to read? “There was a time I actually thought I was writing the kind of stories people didn’t want to read.” Marlon James said. But I think publishers, especially American publishers, are too panicky and fearful to go out of their comfort zone in picking what is to be published. We see a lot of formulaic thrillers like Gone Girl because publishers think books that are like Gone Girl will sell. In other words, sometimes it’s not all about the quality of the writing but the market. As readers we are being deprived of the opportunity to read refreshing new voices. Instead of a diversity of books, all you see at the bookstores is a table full of “If You like Gone Girl, you might also like . . . ” kind of books.

On Literary Prizes

Although literary prizes have introduced to me some of my most relished writers, Hilary Mantel, Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro to name a few, I don’t judge a book on the merit of its accolade alone. Even with the Booker prize, a small panel of judges pick the winner from a shortlist of books that only reflect their tastes. Over the recent years prizes have become just an easy way for the book industry to market the products. Look at the “Winner of xxx Award” and “Shortlisted for xxx Prize” stickers on the covers. Every book has its audience and it might take years for a book to find its perfect-matched readers. A good book will not exhaust its possibilities even if it doesn’t get piled high in the supermarket, invited to the top tables in the bookshops, or advertised on the sides of buses. Real readers will find the books they enjoy regardless of what the media would have pulled in the campaign because real readers focus on the content of the books and not the prizes they are awarded.

“Digital Distraction”

A thoughtful article about making time for books on the Harvard Business Review. Interesting the piece is filed under “Stress” section. maybe are less stressed out if we read more during our down-time? We live in an age of explosive easy information. What everyone is doing from grocery shopping to traveling around the world is at the touch of a finger. You sweep the screen of the electronic devices and all the information is there. The delight, indeed, abounds; but it’s not always delightful. I can get distracted at work or being with family and friends. The biggest disruption, I’m afraid, would be to forfeit my precious reading time.

I make a point to only check my Facebook the first 15 minutes in the morning, then devote the time to reading. I love reading and books are my passion and livelihood. I prefer to delve into the pages and allow myself to be enlightened or amused, depending on what I read, fiction or non-fiction, instead of poring over the ceaseless feeds of status updates. We are choked by this digital information stress, this obsession that held us imprisoned.

Another “virtue” of books is the slow retention time. As long as I keep reading, at my pace, I’m being possessed by the book and engaging in a conversation with it. When being engaged, my focus is sustained. I really enjoy the slower form of information delivery that is reading. Recently I was in France, and I noticed, in general, when the French are engaging in a conversation, they don’t check their phone. Readers abound at sidewalk cafes, poring over their newspapers or books. They don’t seem to fuzz over making or checking status updates as much as we do. I’m not trying to make any generalization. It’s just an observation and, to me, this observation is both encouraging and inspiring.

“School Reads”

In light of back-to-school week, Goodreads asks what assigned reading book do you wish you had paid more attention to in school.

Moby Dick: it was too much of a rush to read something that didn’t interest me.
Great Expectations: I wish I read it more earnestly than like fiction.
The Bell Jar: the writing literally drove me crazy

I think as a teenager I lacked the life experiences to appreciate the themes of these monumental works. I took the books for their face value, gauging them just by whether they could keep me engaged. Also I didn’t enjoy the way books were taught in high school, within the constraint of a curriculum. I didn’t like dissecting a book into cold hard facts afterwards for an essay. Sometimes that mad dash to finish assignment ruins the pleasure of reading.

“Go Set A Watchman” Refund

Newsweek article reveals that Go Set a Watchman buyers get a refund at a Michigan bookstore. How absurd is that! According to Brilliant Books in Traverse City MI, refund is good for readers who pre-ordered the book based on the deceptive marketing and were misled as to what the book would be. Kudos to the indie bookstore owner. But serious readers should know that this book was a rejected manuscript and was published under very dubious circumstances. In light of this, those readers don’t deserve the refund. The publisher and this lawyer Tonja Carter should be held accountable for exploiting the readers.

Not the Booker Prize

The Guardian reveals the Not Booker Prize shortlist, list of six books chosen by their readers. Although I know very little about these books, it’s interesting to see the choices and most importantly, the enthusiasm for literature is affirming.

The Guardian readers’s picks:
Fishnet by Kirstin Innes
The Artificial Anatomy of Parks by Kat Gordon
Dark Star by Oliver Langmead
The Good Son by Paul McVeigh
Things We Have in Common by Tasha Kavanagh
Shame by Melanie Finn

Booker Prize books sometimes are hard to find as they are not yet available in the United States. That gives me a time advantage.