Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Some thoughts on reading

There are only so many hours in a day and even retired I do not have enough time for everything I would like. And now we have so many alternatives - call them distractions. The internet itself - the home of this blog - is a major distraction with it’s near infinite variety of ‘things’ to peer at and ponder.

And then there’s the near constant flow of cable television, now pumped in a stream through the internet. Movies on demand through cable and Netflix. No wonder people don’t read any more.

Or do they…? I have no statistics, but even with the distractions I seem to complete more books now in a year than I ever managed in the past.

Well, sure, I AM retired and that makes a difference, but not as much as you might think.

No, I believe it’s in the ear.

Let me tell you a little story.

Once upon a time when cassettes began to replace 8 track and even reel-to-reel as the recording medium of choice, ‘somebody’ decided she could make a buck (or two) producing books which people could listen rather than read. People did this for years using records (big black discs played non-digitally using a special needle and a curious non-digital amplification process that I never really understood). But access to these had limited itself to the visually impaired - folks who for one reason or another could not read.

But beginning with the ‘Cassette Age’ people who could see more or less well began to enjoy having someone read a favorite book aloud. I discovered Nostromo by Joseph Conrad (and read by the brilliant Frank Muller) and realized for the first time how brilliant and accessible this book is. And I realized how important to find a good reader….

Let me tell you about Frank Muller. For years a favorite reader of mine, I heard he had a motorcycle accident with debilitating brain damage and that he could no longer read professionally. I kept checking to see how he did, always hoping for his return to the public sector, but alas, he died a few years ago, finally released from his damaged body…. He will be missed by all who knew him, even those of us who only met him through his wonderful voice….

The Digital Age began and let us make the starting date 1984 with the advent of the first Apple Macintosh (not that I’m biased or anything…). And with that came the CD. But for many people CDs never had as much appeal for recorded books as did cassettes, since most players could never remember where the CD left off. A cassette only required that the listener remember which side to put into the player (and which cassette to play…). But both CDs and cassettes seemed too expensive for the average listener. Luckily libraries began to catch onto the technology and at that time seemed well enough funded to keep a nice stock.

Today libraries have entire rooms devoted to CD and cassette versions of books. Yet how long before libraries cease to exist? But let me not digress further….

The next and (to date) the most important step was MP3 technology. This created the digital equivalent of the tape cassette. And for about $100 I can own a recording device that rivals studio quality machines from 30 or 40 years ago! I can, if I want, record my own book, make a series of MP3s and release it through my website. It’s just unfortunate that my voice isn’t quite as luxurious as that of Frank Muller…, but the fact that I can do it is amazing!

And here’s the thing: with my MP3 player I can listen to a book at any time. I can drive with Charles de Lint’s The Onion Girl helping me along. I can walk or bike with Jane Austen or Tolkien. I don’t have to hole up in a corner with a book unless I want to (and sometimes that’s exactly what I want!).

And now eBooks have arrived…, but I'm not sure…. I like paper. I like the bulk and substantiality of hard copy…. And is there a real value to carrying a library in my pocket? How many books can I read at one time? (2 or 3 seems the limit - 1 on my MP3 and 1 by the bed [perhaps a 3rd as a carry along in my tote]). But perhaps an ebook collection means I can go to some obscure place and have my reference library with me…. For me the issue has yet to clarify.

As for what to read…. Well, the classics still work: Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Herman Melville (just skim the fishy stuff in Moby Dick and you’ll do fine), William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Philip K. Dick, John dos Passos - or whomever you regard as a classic (not everyone will agree about Philip K. Dick or even John dos Passos).

And the moderns…. Well here we have a problem…. “Many are called, but few are chosen….”

I suspect Thomas Pynchon will remain, although if you’re in High School or younger, I suspect you should stay with The Crying of Lot 49. Try V after HS (or your Senior year of HS if you’ve the nerve) and tackle the others if you're still interested.

And, young people…, PLEASE, if you must read Stephanie Meyers, try to find a bit of Anne Rice and Dracula and, if you really want to get the vampire vibe, Camilla, by Sheridan Le Fanu (a truly strange person…). At the very least reading these will make your conversations about Steffi’s books more sensible….

Am I being too hard on Stephanie Meyer? Sorry - nothing personal…. Perhaps I can salvage myself by saying I liked the Harry Potter series (up to the very end, at least…)…. Although, now that I think of it, I might suggest that Harry Potter devotees consider reading Philip Pullman for a different (and MUCH more sophisticated) take on… well not magic, but life in general….

And then there’s Haruki Murakami. Awesome stuff…. It’s hard to say where to leap into his work…. Oh, just try After Dark. Good story, interesting characters and strange enough to make me wonder: WTF….

And then there’s Joanne Harris - Chocolat was her ‘movie’ novel, but all her ‘stuff’ is terrific. And Tracy Chevalier. The Girl with a Pearl Earring is her movie book, but, again, all her stuff is solid.

I mentioned Charles de Lint earlier. Not only does he write well (within a solid base of magic realism), but he has ‘soul’ (and, no, I don’t know exactly what that means, but it’s still true…).

And you might find John Crowley’s Little, Big worth your time.


Well, enough…. As one can see, there’s no end to the list. But if you want to write, ya gots to read….

I’m just sayin….

Jim FitzPatrick 2010 08-25

No comments:

Post a Comment