Update: Big Fat Book and Other Reading

Lots of my blogging friends have commented lately on troubles with reading–how we are not as good at focusing and challenging ourselves as we once were. And we’re not the only ones: of the recent jeremiads on reading, I especially enjoyed (if that’s the word) “Reading: The Struggle” by Tim Parks. It took the March Big Fat Book readalong instigated by Sunita to get me to read Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch (which, though long, turned out to be zippy and plot-driven). So I was glad when Ros decided to start another readalong in July. Here are early reports from some participating readers.

Although I have some Big Fat Fiction on my shelves (and e-reader), this time I decided to choose non-fiction. I’ve been listening to quite a bit of non-fiction (I blogged about that here), but I find it hard to concentrate on in print, so I figured the #BFB readalong would give me the push I needed.

This week, I read the first three chapters/110 pp. of Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. In fact, I read them twice, at least, because I’d read a couple of pages and find I had taken nothing in. This is not Sperber’s fault; it’s mine. Yes, this is an intellectual biography, so it can be dense (even a simple explanation of Hegelianism makes my brain freeze, and I’ve read some Hegel), but the writing is clear and engaging. I am just out of practice concentrating on something like this. I’m kind of appalled by how dumb I’ve gotten. ;) I am making an effort to carve out reading time earlier in the day, because when I’m tired, it’s hopeless. I need a Reading Fitness regime for the summer.

I’ve read a little of Marx’s work, but I knew pretty much nothing about his life–and much more about the British than the German contexts for his work. I had no idea that his family background was Jewish, for instance, and I enjoyed the glimpse of him as a drinking,

Drawing of Karl Marx as a student.  Links to wikipedia page for Scorpion and Felix, an unpublished novel Marx wrote at this time.

Marx as a student. Kind of hot. Who knew?

brawling, possibly dueling university student–and ardent suitor of a (slightly) older woman. Sperber is clearly deeply knowledgeable about the political and cultural context from which Marx emerged: his part of Germany was briefly under Napoleonic rule, and then under Prussia, so he grew up in a time of political upheaval. So often we hear about Marx’s influence on the 20th-century. To see how he “belongs” in his own time is especially interesting to me as an erstwhile Victorianist.

Marx is just about to head off to England after the newspaper he edited is suppressed by the Prussian authorities, but I’m going to leave him for a while because my library hold on David van Reybrouck’s Congo: The Epic History of a People (translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett) just came in. That will likely be my BFB for the rest of the month. My knowledge of Africa comes mostly from a handful of novels, memoirs and colonialist Victorian texts, and I’m trying to expand it.

My listening right now is non-fiction too: Ann Patchett’s essay collection This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, read (wonderfully) by the author. I loved her introductory essay on writing non-fiction and what she learned from it (to get rid of ego by having periodicals like Seventeen magazine edit the heck out of her), and her advice on writing, “The Getaway Car.” The latter is available online, but you have to “join” Byliner to read it and I don’t know what that entails. I found it, like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, to be mostly the kind of advice on writing that applies to life generally and is interesting even to non-writers.

I found her comments about her dedication to art very appealing and refreshing. One downside about following commercial fiction writers on social media is that they talk more about the commerce than the art/writing and honestly I find this kind of disheartening after a while. I do think they care about craft, but it’s harder to tweet about than branding your covers.

Patchett is not pretentious about “my art,” in my opinion, nor is she unaware of commercial pressures: she counsels people never to go into debt for an MFA, she knows an agent has to be able to sell your work, she wrote for magazines for years, and she never expected to make a living from her fiction. But she cares above all that her writing be good. She talks about only taking advice that will make your work better (i.e. not being swayed by “what readers want” and being aware that there’s a lot of bad advice and feedback around). This is a collection of previously published pieces, mostly personal (on divorce, on loving a dog). I’m enjoying it very much so far. I had mixed feelings about Patchett’s State of Wonder, but I loved her voice, and I’m reminded that I want to read more of her fiction.

As for fiction, I’m reading the second part of Ginn Hale’s Rifter serial, but I don’t feel like I’ve really committed myself to my next book. I’m feeling the call of historical romance. Could I be back on the horse?

My vacation plans this summer now involve a brief, not-very-touristy visit to the UK next month–my husband is giving a paper in Dundee–and a lot of time on planes and trains. Can I read a BFB in those circumstances? Is this my chance to finally conquer Dorothy Dunnett’s Game of Kings? Stay tuned. . . .

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12 Responses to Update: Big Fat Book and Other Reading

  1. kaetrin says:

    I’ve listened to a little bit of non fiction in the past year or so and I’m finding it both fascinating and a wonderful palate cleanser. Just yesterday I finished David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell (narrated by the author) and it was full of interesting stories and links to things I hadn’t made connections with before. It was essentially about how the underdog leverages their LACK of knowledge, their DISadvantages to succeed and there were lots of different kinds of stories to illustrate his points. One was about a woman who was very clever and got all A’s through high school and had her pick of colleges. She was passionately interested in science. She got into both Brown and the U of Maryland and chose Brown because it was more prestigious. She struggled there to get a B- and in the end, disheartened and feeling stupid, she changed to the humanities. Gladwell then goes on to tease out an idea about being a small fish in a big pond vs. the big fish in the small pond and about how the SAT scores for the people at Harvard (say) are ALL better than the highest SAT scores at some other (which I now can’t remember but, less prestigious) university. So the bottom third of Harvard classes are actually “smarter” than the top third of the class in the other college but the bottom third of Harvard classes feel stupid because their peers are doing so much better than them and they often drop out of that course and switch to something ‘easier’. Basically, this really smart woman would have been better off going to U of Maryland because she would have been at the top of her class there and felt like she was succeeding rather than failing. He says it much better (!) but it was really interesting.

    And before that, I listened to Dark Tide, a book about the 1919 Boston Molasses flood which was of particular interest to me because it was basically the beginning of industrial safety regulations in the US and that’s kind of my thing here.

    For some reason, I find it much easier to consume non fiction this way. And it makes me feel much smarter too. :)

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I find non-fiction easier to follow on audio too. Possibly I just resign myself to missing more. When I first read a review of the Congo book and knew I wanted to read it, I was hoping there was an audio version. No dice. BUT it’s excellent so far. The author is also a poet and the writing is lovely, though not distractingly poetic.

      That’s interesting about the Gladwell. I’ve been reading about “under-matching” lately–I think it’s primarily economists who speculate on this. They point out that students from under-privileged backgrounds often don’t go, or even apply, to the best colleges they qualify for (for all kinds of reasons: money, fear of leaving home, just not knowing about their options). Their argument is essentially the opposite of Gladwell’s, that a student will do best when appropriately challenged and with a peer group that’s more successful–peers create a culture that supports learning. (I think the trick is not to feel like you’re failing just because you’re not top of your class at Brown or Harvard).

      • kaetrin says:

        Yes, it’s even worse when geo restrictions come into play. I really wanted to listen to Longitute by Dava Sobel (sp?) but it wasn’t available as an audio here so I ended up borrowing the dvd from the library. It was a poor second but I knew I’d never read the book. My listening time is much more flexible than my reading time.

        Re the Gladwell – he actually uses this as an argument* against Affirmative Action (*argument is too strong a word – it isn’t the main point, more of an aside). Apparently there is good research about the level “you” are at and the level “your peer group” is at and according to him at least, there is a point where going to an Ivy League school can actually be a disadvantage. I certainly recommend the book. It’s very interesting on a number of levels – he talkes about class sizes, the original David and Goliath story, the 3 strikes law in California (which I think has changed now), the “troubles” in Ireland, legitimate/illegitimate power; there are stories about people who are very successful and are also dyslexic and who attribute the dyslexia, ultimately, to their success, the correlation between success and losing a parent before age 20. It’s packaged in an entertaining and accessible way too. I feel like it got a little off track at the end in that I was a bit lost re how what he was talking about (interesting as it was) was related to the David and Goliath motif and I would have liked him to tie it all together more but it was certainly a worthwhile listen.

  2. KeiraSoleore says:

    I’m greatly interested in your report and Kaetrin’s report above about listening to books. My problem is that first of all, I can’t find a place to sit and listen. I feel I must do something, not sit still, and then I get distracted when someone talks. I find it easier to read even if others are talking or stop and pick up when I get interrupted. Harder to do with audio. I also find that my attention wanders with audio. Another thing I’ve noticed is that I do not read at a steady pace. I read slow down, speed up, go back and forth. All of this is hard to do with audio. As a result, I’m almost one hundred percent print.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Adjusting to going the narrator’s pace took some time for me. Partly I just resigned myself to missing things. There are also things I avoid in audio, like literary fiction. Sometimes (like with the Patchett book) I regret that I can’t savor sentences more. But I do experience more books this way, so the trade-offs are worth it to me.

      I can’t listen and do nothing else (except when I’m falling asleep and listen to old favorites–I know this is a bad habit, but I do it). I listen while I’m doing chores around the house, walking the dog, or driving/training to work–which means less listening at this time of year. Or I’ll play a game on my iPod while I listen to keep my hands occupied. What I really need to do is take up knitting. It would be the perfect accompaniment for me!

      • Ros says:

        Definitely take up knitting! I frequently knit while I’m in lectures and seminars. Doing something with my hands keeps me much more alert than simply trying to sit and listen.

      • KeiraSoleore says:

        Thanks to your blogging about BFB and audiobooks, I’ll be trying the first Lymond this summer.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        If you make it through, you’ll be ahead of me (unless I read it in August). I often like really long books on audio. They take time, yes, but you can make that time while you do other things like exercise, and that makes it easier for me to find the stamina required. I once tried to start Game of Thrones in audio, and quickly realized there were just too many people to keep track of in that form. I might feel the same about Lymond (I have to SEE names written for them to stick in my head). I had the same problem with Wade Davis’ Everest book, which I loved–I just resigned myself to not always remembering who X was or being able to keep all the climbers straight.

      • KeiraSoleore says:

        I have put a hold on the book in the library, so who knows when it’ll show up. I’m hoping I can start in August. But with 25 hours of listening, I doubt I’ll finish in August. Do join me.

    • kaetrin says:

      I can’t just sit and listen either. I listen when I’m doing housework, exercising, driving, cooking, even when I’m having a shower. Basically, anytime I could have a radio on, I choose an audiobook instead. Most of my listening is done during the day and my reading is done in the evening when I’m sitting down and focused on doing only that thing.

      I read a lot faster than the average narrator speaks (it’s about 30 pages to an hour on audio I’ve worked out). I can’t skim on audio – sometimes this is a bad thing and other times it’s great. And, it usually means I find some “hidden gem” in an audiobook I’ve already read. It is difficult to go back and forth – if I’m interrupted or have a brain fade, I might go back and re-listen to the previous 5 minutes or so but it’s very hard to find a particular spot in a book to check on something – and glossaries etc are of no real use. Digital reading is kind of the same because unless one bookmarks the spot (and how often do you know you will want to refer to it later?) it can be hard to find the section unless you try a word search. Paper books are the easiest for flipping back and forth I’ve found.

      The first audiobook I listened to didn’t keep my attention at all and I DNFd it but then I stumbled across an excellent one which put me on the right track. I suppose it’s something you get used to – like the differences between a print and digital book but I love it now – it means I can get through so many more books and I do think that the narration adds an extra dimension to the story so in many ways it’s transformative.

      • KeiraSoleore says:

        I have taken your suggestions to heart. I have put a hold on The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett at the library and hope to listen to all 25 hours of it (God, help me!) while I exercise. Let’s see how my experiment fares. It’ll be my audiobook and Summer BFB in one fell swoop.

  3. Ros says:

    I am in awe of your choice of BFB. Hegelianism makes my brain freeze even before someone tries to explain it to me.

    Several people have asked to extend the Summer BFB into August, so maybe you could read both books by the end of the summer?!

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