The Worlds Opened by The World Book

My set of World Book in my office

I love encyclopedias. They give me a sense of security – all that knowledge lined up on a shelf!

Encyclopedias are about an orderly arrangement of knowledge on a particular subject or a range of subjects. The date of the encyclopedia puts it in the context of its time. The online Brittannica has an interesting story about the history of the encyclopedia and its evolution here.

When I was a kid, my mom got me the Brittanica Junior Encyclopedia. Red bindings, gold lettering. The local grocery store had a special, where if you bought X amount of groceries, the volume of the week was $2.95. It was rough for my mother, who was widowed, and handling everything on her own, but we managed to collect the whole thing. I was thrilled, and read each volume as we got it. I used the set for years. I still have it in my office.

We also managed to collect the Audubon Nature Encyclopedia. We had a subscription for one volume a month. Again, I was thrilled whenever the new volume arrived, and everything stopped while I read it.

I didn’t just read them when I had a paper to write in school. I read them because I enjoyed the new-to-me information, and it got me interested in things that weren’t being taught in school.

Again, I still have the entire set in my office. And I still refer to them.

I always wanted a grown-up encyclopedia set. I didn’t say anything to my mom for years. I knew how hard my mom had worked to make sure I had the two mentioned above (and I contributed from the money I earned babysitting, when I didn’t spend it on Nancy Drew books). When I was old enough to buy it myself, I was living in a NYC apartment, where there wasn’t room for the other books I kept accumulating, so there certainly wasn’t room for a set of encyclopedia.

But I never stopped wanting it.

A couple of years ago, a set of World Book encyclopedia came up on the local craigslist. I jumped on it, made arrangements, and drove out to Harwich to pick them up – contained in several heavy boxes. They are in superb condition. They sit, prominently, in my office.

They make me feel secure.

Sometimes I pull a volume out, open it at random, and read.

I’m sure it’s tied to my love of libraries, and doing research in libraries and archives, something that started when I was a kid and got my first library card. The hours spent in school libraries and the local public library have evolved into visiting libraries when I travel, or traveling to visit a specific library or archive during research.

Reference sections used to carry a wonderful selection of encyclopedias. I hope some still do, although at least one local library I know got rid of their reference section because “it’s all online now.” Which isn’t true – you don’t get the snapshot of a particular era without the book itself.

Even Brittanica is online now, and there are a wealth of other online encyclopedia, including those encompassing the parts of history that were ignored or (literally) whitewashed. But there is something comforting and thrilling about holding a volume of an encyclopedia in my hands and sitting in my reading chair to read it.

It makes me feel connected to writers, scholars, and readers in the centuries before me, and to the writers, scholars, and readers to come, who will continue to use physical books in tandem with electronic resources. It connects me to the love of knowledge.

I’m aware that the information within them is dated, and skewed toward the established white point of view. We can and will do better moving forward (especially when we stop allowing a text book firm in Texas to supply biased materials to the education system). But I still use them as a jumping off point. I can look something up – recognizing red flag words and references – and then use what I read to start the search for other sources.  I can disagree with information printed on the pages, and still value the desire to collect information.

I’m looking forward to someday living in a place where I can unpack all my books. You can be sure all three sets will be proudly displayed.

What Unites Us by Dan Rather

I have not yet read this book, although I’ve ordered it and have every intention of reading it.

But with what’s been going on in this country, and the worries for violence at tomorrow’s inauguration, it’s a solid choice.

NPR has an interesting interview with Dan Rather here.

He is one of the most trusted voices of my lifetime, and continues to be a voice of sanity, courage, and justice.

Reading Goals

image by Manfred Artranius Zimmer courtesy of pixabay.com

At the turn of the year, I saw numerous posts about reading goals. I’m always happy when I see people commit to read more – and even happier when I see them actually doing it.

I read a lot. I carve out reading time every day. Often, it means not watching TV or videos, which is just fine with me. In the days when I wasn’t staying at home due to the pandemic, I made sure to carry a book (or my Kindle) with me at all times, so that anytime I was stuck waiting – or commuting on public transportation – I had something to read. I carry a notebook and pen with me, too, in case I decide to get some writing done, but that’s a different post for a different day.

I learned my alphabet early. My mother still tells the story of us being on a bus in Chicago when I was about 18 months old, and I pointed out the different letters in the signs on the bus (loudly). I remember leaning to read from the book GREEN EGGS AND HAM – my mother tells me I was just over two years old when she taught me to read.

Both parents were big readers (my mother, at 96, still reads for several hours every day). So, of course, I was a reader, too. And going to the library became a favorite adventure when I was little. I got my first library card at the Rye Free Reading Room in Rye, NY, when I was six years old – the earliest it was allowed.

I don’t trust people who don’t have books in their living or working spaces.

Someday, I will live in a house big enough so I can unpack all my books.

I don’t post my reading totals at the end of the year, because people wouldn’t believe them, and I’m not arguing with them. I’d rather spend that energy. . .reading.

From January to May, for instance, I read – yes, actually read – over 100 books for a contest I judge. And I’m a paid reviewer for a publication, so I read regularly for those assignments.

But that doesn’t stop reading as much as possible for pleasure.

Last Sunday, for instance, I read three books. My body needed the rest, and my soul needed the restoration. I read the remaining two books in a mystery series I’ve enjoyed; in between, I read a small nonfiction book that was recommended to me, but I found filled with privilege and making excuses for it. Glad I read it; didn’t like it.

It was a good day.

I did some puttering around and some cooking. Some percolating on writing for the coming week. Too much time on social media, waiting for damn Congress to hold the domestic terrorists accountable.

But mostly, I used reading to restore my wounded soul, and rest my body.

Had the weather been warm enough, I would have read outside, on the covered deck, where I spend as much time as possible in spring, summer, and fall. I love reading outside.

I used to take books to the Ashumet Sanctuary over in Falmouth and read amongst the hollies (which are among my favorite trees).

As far as goals, I don’t set a number of books to read. I think it’s great when other people set a number and then work to hit it, but that’s not how I like to structure my reading.

My reading goal is to expand my reading. I read a pretty wide range, but especially in the mystery/suspense/thriller genres, and I read a lot of nonfiction, especially when I’m researching my own writing.  I enjoy fantasy, steampunk, some science fiction, uncategorized fiction, historical fiction. I read some romance, but I’m more likely to read books with romantic elements. However, when I’m in the mood for an uplifting romance, I have a wonderful ensemble of authors I trust to give me a good experience, and I’m always happy to expand it.

One of my favorite things, when I worked as a librarian, was keeping up with new releases, and choosing a large variety of books that I thought patrons would enjoy.

Whether it’s for myself or others, a review of a book matters less to me than the blurb. If the blurb is interesting, chances are I’ll ignore reviews and make my own decisions.

My review assignments cover a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction. Every time I pick up a book, whether it’s for review, or a contest entry, or something I ordered from the library – I hope to fall in love with it. I read books on recommendations from friends and acquaintances IRL or on social media. If I see a post about a book and it looks interesting, I’ll give it a try. I belong to my university’s online book club – the Voracious Violets of NYU. They’ve introduced me to books I might not have found on my own.

I miss being able to browse library and bookstore shelves – once I’m vaccinated, and things safely open back up again, that is one of the things I will add back in to my life as quickly as possible. I especially miss browsing secondhand bookstores. I’ve been introduced to some wonderful new-to-me authors by finding them on secondhand shelves, and then buying new releases as they come out.

I read for pleasure, but, as a writer, every book I read teaches me something. When the author does their job well, I see the world in a different way, and I think about it far beyond the time the book is finished. I also learn craft from every book I read, even if it doesn’t work for me. How are the characters developed? Is the setting used well? Is the book structured well, with a strong, internal rhythm that’s as unique as a heartbeat? Does the author understand the genre enough so that, when breaking the formula, it’s a structured choice, and not just carelessness?

I started keeping a reading log a few years ago, in a black-and-white covered composition book. I note the date, title, author, publisher, copyright date, and from where I got it – library, if it’s a review assignment, if it’s one of my own books – and then I write a couple of sentences of impressions. I can go back and look things up, and see how my frame of reference was influenced by what else was going on around me.

A year or so ago, on this blog, I did a Readers’ Expansion Challenge, where every month, I tried reading something out of my usual repertoire, and encouraged other readers to do the same. I’m not doing anything as formally as that this year, but I do plan to continue to expand my reading so I’m not just reinforcing my standing opinions.

I like fresh perspectives on the world, and reading offers that in a far more intimate way than anything visual. Reading is internal, living in your heart and soul and brain, as much as it is the external of holding the material and having eyes translate it to brain. I like the intimacy.

Enjoy your year of reading!

The First Reading Choice of the Year

One of my favorite traditions is choosing my first book of the new year.

In normal years, I’d take my time, making the rounds of my favorite bookstores, taking hours – or days – to browse, until I found what spoke to me, what fascinated me, what I hoped would set a positive tone for the coming year.

Of course, nothing was normal about this past year or about preparing for 2021. Yes, I looked at plenty of online shops, and there were many choices. But the tactile portion of it was missing.

I could have rooted through books I’ve bought over past years and never read.

But I did not do so.

Instead, I chose one of the books I’d gotten from my library, Neil Simon’s memoir REWRITES. Why not learn from a hugely successful playwright? I made the choice shortly after submitting two plays ahead of deadline, and putting in a proposal that means I might write at least three new plays in 2021.

I’m reading several books around this book – I’m not rushing through it. I’m savoring it. I was not fortunate enough to work with him while I worked in theatre in New York, but his work was an enormous part of my life during my theatre career working my way up to Broadway, and when I was actually ON Broadway. We’ve worked with some of the same people (six degrees of Kevin Bacon), but never worked directly with each other.

It was also reassuring that I’m not the only writer willing to cut what does not work! I can also learn from what he learned did not work in his own plays. There are so many asides that make me laugh, and so many experiences to which I can relate. And several I’m glad I’ve avoided.

As I said above, I’m savoring it. Considering the ideas for stage plays I have percolating in my head, lining up in order to spill out onto the page, I think it was a good idea, on both professional and personal levels.

I remember several years ago, when I chose a literary novel as First Book of the Year that sounded interesting, built around some recent historical characters, but fiction. Only then I started reading it, and one of the main characters was committing pedophilia and I was . . .supposed to like him? To say it didn’t work for me is an understatement. I did not finish the book and got rid of it. That poor choice felt as though it tainted months into the year.

I don’t sit there and decide, “This year I’ll start with fiction” or “This year will start with non-fiction.” I choose the book that draws me at the time. As I do my browsing through shelves, what I’ve read about various books and recommendations from individuals I trust come to mind. But I’ve rarely left the house knowing what book I sought.

This year, as I tried to decide with what I wanted to start my year, I definitely wanted it to be something centered around theatre. Again, not sure at first if I wanted fiction or non-fiction. I’m more than tired of the ridiculous clichés in novels, especially in cozy mysteries, that paint those involved in theatre or film as not very bright, very selfish, and horrible people. The tone is often patronizing, the author (and the protagonist) looking down on theatre people. Meanwhile, they’re usually written by people who went backstage to one community theatre production and don’t know what they’re talking about, and certainly don’t have the physical stamina for eight shows a week, or the mental capacity to learn two hours’ worth of lines and blocking. I definitely wanted to avoid one of THOSE novels (to be fair, I am writing my own fiction centered around theatre and theatre people that actually recognizes the work, dedication, talent, and intelligence it takes to create a career in the business).

With my scripts, whether they are for stage plays or radio or screenplays, I want every script to be better than the one before. I want to take what I’ve learned from the previous process and apply it. I do this in novels, too, but because scripts involve other people more than novels do (or, at least, more people), there are often more tangibles to take from project to project.

When I came across the Neil Simon memoir, that resonance happened, like a tuning fork pairing with the right note.

I’m glad this is how I started, and I hoped to build on this year positively, as both a reader and I writer.

What reading are you starting with this year?