The little reader, reading @newtonfreelibrary

One of the things that always makes me eager to finish my end-term grading piles are the piles of books I’ve stockpiled for summer. You might think grading piles of exams and essays would make me grow sour on reading, but actually the opposite is true. The more student writing I read, the more I want to immerse myself in writing done by professionals.

To me, reading is like watering a plant. It’s true that my brain won’t die if I don’t read books, essays, and articles on a wide range of topics, but I sincerely believe it will start to shrivel. Throughout the semester, I try to read at least a little bit every day, and I intentionally try to be as eclectic as possible in my choices. The point of reading isn’t to underscore the things you already know; it’s to stretch your thinking in new directions.

Elliptical staircase

I make a habit of keeping my phone nearby when I listen to public radio so I can quickly lookup and add to my Goodreads “to-read” list (and then request from the library) any titles mentioned that pique my curiosity, and I do the same whenever I watch or read the news. The people I most admire are the ones who never stop learning, and the way I feed my inner lifelong learner is through a long queue of library books.

I encounter a surprising number of would-be writers who claim they hate to read, arguing that reading others’ work will only drown out their own voice. To me, this is a ludicrous claim. Writers improve not through isolation but immersion. Just as would-be musicians can easily name their favorite bands, would-be writers should be well-versed in the words and ideas of others. Writing isn’t about speaking into a vacuum; it’s about jumping into a conversation, so it helps to be well-read (and thus well-conversant) on a variety of topics.

Origami cranes from above

So, what’s currently on my reading pile? At the moment I’m hurrying to finish Elizabeth Warren’s latest book before it’s due back at the library, and I’m looking forward to the other checkouts in my bag: Perfect Strangers, Roseann Sdoia’s memoir of the Boston Marathon bombing; Born a Crime, Trevor Noah’s memoir from his South African childhood; and The Nature Fix, Florence Williams’ exploration of the science behind nature’s curative powers. After that, I’ll read whichever of the books I’ve requested from the library shows up first: a series of summer surprises to keep my brain fed until fall.

STEAM Expo and summer reading pennants

Last week when I went to the Newton Free Library to return a book, I saw that librarians had strung a line of handmade pennants promoting the mayor’s annual Summer Reading Challenge. As a child, I loved these challenges, as I loved to read and cherished the excuse of a “challenge” to indulge in a beloved summer pastime. Summer reading programs are designed to entice children who would prefer to do anything other than read, but I didn’t need any sort of enticement.

Summer Reading pennants

When I was a kid, signing up for a summer reading challenge meant you’d be rewarded for the number of books you read, with prizes such as stickers and T-shirt decals for each milestone. Although I didn’t need such prizes to lure me to the library, every year I signed up regardless because getting rewarded to read was like piling prizes atop of prizes. What I looked forward to each summer, after all, was the freedom to read more than I could during the school year, when both classes and assigned homework got in the way. Rewarding me for reading in the summer time was like rewarding a child for eating candy.

Summer Reading pennants

In Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, Gretchen Rubin advises against using rewards to encourage someone to cultivate a habit, as the habit itself should be its own reward. If the only reason you’re reading is to earn a sticker or T-shirt, you’ll probably stop reading after those rewards have ceased. For me, summer reading prizes were more of a bonus than a bribe, but I can understand Rubin’s perspective. If you’re trying to encourage a child who doesn’t like to read, offering prizes might work in the short term, but the reading habit will “stick” only if a child discovers he or she actually enjoys reading for its own sake.

Summer Reading pennants

Even now, I look forward to summertime as a chance to catch up with reading. During the school year, I spend too much time prepping classes and grading student papers. Summer is when I remind myself that the whole reason I became an English major, after all, is the simple fact that I love to read. During the lazy days of June, July, and August, I let my curiosity lead me, reading whatever catches my interest. Sometimes I’ll read something because a friend on Goodreads recommended it, like Carine McCandless’ The Wild Truth, or sometimes I’ll read a book because it’s related to a recent news story, like Rachel Hope Cleves’ Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America. When I hear an author I like is coming out with a new book, I immediately request it from the library, content to wait my turn along with the other early-birds. This means my summer reading list is a kind of planned serendipity where new books I’d forgotten I’d requested, like Judy Blume’s new novel or Oliver Sacks’ new autobiography, suddenly show up, ready for me to read them: a surprise that is its own reward.

Russian nesting dolls

This month at the Newton Free Library, there is an exhibit of Russian matryoshka dolls in three glass cases in the main entrance hall. Normally I don’t pay much attention to the monthly displays in these cases: they’re simply something I pass on my way to pick-up or drop-off books. But because I know J admires Russian nesting dolls, I stopped long enough to snap a few photos, the way you do when you see something you know a loved one would love.

Russian leaders nesting dolls

What initially caught my eye was a medium-sized Mikhail Gorbachev doll that contains within him his Soviet-era predecessors. I had to snap a photo to share with J because I knew that years ago during a business trip to Prague, J bought a large Boris Yeltsin that contains within him the same sequence of Russian leaders all the way back to the tzars. Although I’m no expert when it comes to Russian history or Russian nesting dolls, I recognize the zeal in J’s voice when he recites the names of Russian leaders like a litany, the smallest tzar not much larger than a grain of rice.

Russian nesting dolls

J is a connoisseur of matryoshka dolls, but I’m just a newbie, drawn to pay attention to something simply because someone I love is an admirer. I suppose this is how parents become well-versed in dinosaurs, Legos, or anything else their children love obsessively. I have to admire a collector’s zeal, even if I know little about his or her collection. When it comes to Russian matryoshka dolls, I admire the meticulous way one figure fits into another, a single doll containing an entire collection, each individual packed with its predecessors like a person carrying his own history.

Newton's newest little free library

A Little Free Library has appeared in our neighborhood, with a sign urging passersby to “take a book, return a book.” The box is right alongside a footpath that is popular with dog walkers, runners, and mothers walking their children to and from school, so I’m sure many people will browse the books on offer even if they don’t take (or return) any for themselves.

Old phone booth repurposed as BookCrossing station

Most of the books currently in the box are for children, but there were several titles for adults as well. (I would have claimed a paperback copy of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild if I hadn’t already read it on my Kindle.) But even though I haven’t taken any books from our local Little Free Library, I did leave a paperback copy of Junot Diaz’ The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao–a book I enjoyed but probably won’t re-read–for someone else to claim. I like the idea of someone else happening upon a new-to-them book that would have otherwise sat collecting dust on my shelves: a sense of serendipity in the middle of an ordinary jog or dog-walk.

Little Free Library

These days I’ve fallen in love again with my local public library, submitting requests for books that look interesting and then feeling a small thrill when I get an email saying my book has arrived. Submitting library requests is like writing letters to Santa: you can ask for whatever you want, but you have to be patient (and have faith) while your request is being processed.

Whenever I go to the library to pick up a book I’ve requested, I browse the New Titles on display, looking for anything that catches my eye. When you spy a promising title you hadn’t previously heard of, you get the same sense of serendipity you might feel when browsing a Little Free Library: here, by chance, is a book for you, free for the taking, and all you have to do is claim it.

Literary freecycling is alive and well in greater Boston. The top photo shows the newest Little Free Library here in Newton, the second photo shows a phone booth re-purposed as a BookCrossing station on Mass Ave in Boston, and the last photo shows a Little Free Library in Jamaica Plain.