Trying to read harder

Trying to read harder

Relax.  There’s nothing in this piece about testicles or their removal.

You’re welcome or I’m sorry,  whatever.

I had been looking for a particular sort of book cover to illustrate my reading assignment over the past few weeks, one that presents a book with a cover I find objectionable; this one pretty much fits the bill.  To be honest, I haven’t actually read the Whitman Tell-A-Tale, but I get the jist, as it were.  To return to the reading assignments, I’m not terribly far along in meeting Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge; I’ve just finished White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi, the fourth Oyeyemi novel I’ve read in the last year and one that met the category, “a book with a cover you hate.”  Since finishing the book, I’ve found that the more recent editions (2014) present the cover I dislike, whereas, the earlier edition (2009) actually has a pretty snappy cover.  In any case, given the disparity between Oyeyemi covers, I thought I’d entice the casual reader with the portrait of an pre-operational puppy, pretty much a sure thing in the cover trade.

Why read harder?  It all starts with my eldest son, a better person than I from the start and a much more disciplined reader.  He reads the big books, Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest for example, and sticks with them.  I think he’s actually read these two more than once.  To further establish his moral superiority, he refuses to drop a book one started, no matter how onerous the reading of the book may be.  He’s waded through books that caused him real pain, and yet persists.

I’m a less patient, less disciplined, less ambitious reader.  I’ll bounce from novel to novel, dropping those that seem tedious or just not quite right for the reading mood I’m in.  I’ll circle back from time to time to give a book a second chance, recognizing that the moon and stars may line up differently the second time around.  With some goading I did finish Infinite Jest and found myself quite taken with the novel in the end.  Gravity’s Rainbow is on a shelf somewhere.  Maybe someday.

So, my eldest is taking on the Book Riot Challenge, determined to attack every category by reading only female authors.  This is the guy who decided he needed to read a nineteenth century novel by a female author, deflecting cautionary advice and picking Middlemarch and finishing it, so I’m a relatively lazy piece of flotsam by comparison.  Thus, the challenge to prod me into some sort of direction.

We started in the middle of the year and have only five months to sock away the entire list, but even if I come up short, I will have read more deliberately than I have in a long while.  I began with a slight evasion, re-reading Henry V and Loves’ Labors’ Lost, both plays  I’m working with at the Shakespeare Festival.  All of Shakespeare’s work was published posthumously, which is kind of a weasel choice, but I’ve only got five months so I’m going to grab shortcuts where I can.  I’ll double up a few as well when one novel meets more than one criterion.  Five months and I still have my ordinary undisciplined reading to do as well.

The toughest nut to crack, I knew, would be in reading an assigned book that I hated or never finished.  The list was not all that long even though I majored in Medieval and Early European History.  I actually enjoyed The Nibelungenlied and The Song of Roland.  Enough to finish in any case.  No, the novel to be picked up again after all these years was The Scarlet Letter.

The slog was notable at the outset, but as I clambered through Hawthorne’s dark romanticism and randomly digressive style, I found myself warming to him as an author even as I anticipated the heaviness of narrative at the novel’s end.  It’s considered one of the truly great and thoroughly American American novels, and the characterisation of Hester Prynne is more psychologically complex than I had expected, so I am pleased to have spent some time in Hawthorne’s company.  I am not sure I’d like to spend a moment more with Hester’s feral daughter Pearl and Hester’s demon-husband Chillingworth, although each in her/his distance from the norm in any age would have made for a stirring tale of active witchcraft and satanic possession.  Ah, well.

I’ve read The  Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan, a terrifying account of how the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway began a process by which lampreys, alewives, zebra mussels, and a host of other non-native life forms have transformed the lakes entirely.  It’s a cautionary tale and one I won’t spoil by ham-handedly describing what Egan presents with such clarity.  That was my book about Nature, so on with the parade.

My book of Social Science was every bit as disturbing, perhaps signifying that the current  graceless epoch is simply a continuation of bad behavior that arrived with the first colonists.  Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann describes the murder of at least twenty members of the Osage Nation who held title to oil-rich land that Texas robber barons felt should be theirs.  Twenty is a conservative guess; there may have been hundreds of murders.  It is hard to know that genocide was still a matter of fact in the 1920’s (as were lynchings, of course), but important to put names to those who carried out genocide for profit.

I’ll be cleansing the palate by turning to my celebrity memoir, Wishful Drinking, by Carrie Fisher.  I’ve got a slew of books associated with recovery from a slew of addictions, so the response to Fisher will likely appear in the wider context of recovery literature (Infinite Jest, Girl in Pieces, etc).

Meanwhile, nineteen books left.

Tick, Tock.  Here’s the list:

  1. A book published posthumously
  2. A book of true crime
  3. A classic of genre fiction (i.e. mystery, sci fi/fantasy, romance)
  4. A comic written and drawn by the same person
  5. A book set in or about one of the five BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, or South Africa)
  6. A book about nature
  7. A western
  8. A comic written or drawn by a person of color
  9. A book of colonial or postcolonial literature
  10. A romance novel by or about a person of color
  11. A children’s classic published before 1980
  12. A celebrity memoir
  13. An Oprah Book Club selection
  14. A book of social science
  15. A one-sitting book
  16. The first book in a new-to-you YA or middle grade series
  17. A sci fi novel with a female protagonist by a female author
  18. A comic that isn’t published by Marvel, DC, or Image
  19. A book of genre fiction in translation
  20. A book with a cover you hate
  21. A mystery by a person of color or LGBTQ+ author
  22. An essay anthology
  23. A book with a female protagonist over the age of 60
  24. An assigned book you hated (or never finished)

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