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.

Nose in a book

One of the frugal habits I learned as a child was to love the public library. My parents aren’t bookish, but my mom appreciates a bargain wherever she can find one, and public libraries are a bargain-hunter’s dream. As a child, my mother would often take me to the Bexley Public Library–located on the other side of the tracks from our working class neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio–and read magazines while I selected an armful of books to borrow. It was a profitable endeavor for both of us. Growing up in a neighborhood without many children, I learned to love reading, and my mother didn’t have to subscribe to magazines. Where else but at a library could my mother have let her budding bookworm of a daughter wander at will, free to choose anything she’d like to take home?

One of the downsides of my teaching schedule is the relative lack of time it leaves me for pleasure reading. During a busy semester, it feels like so much of my time is devoted to reading student papers, when I (finally) find a free moment, the last thing I want to do is read more. Over the past year or so, though, I’ve discovered (and yes, this makes me a decidedly late adopter) the pleasures and downright convenience of audiobooks. Even when my eyes don’t feel like reading another written word, I can pop on my earphones and have someone read me a story. I’ve found it to be a wonderful way to relax, and during busy semesters, audiobooks (which I listen to during my frequent drives between New Hampshire and Massachusetts, or while I’m doing housework, or occasionally while I walk the dog) have been my biggest connection to my bookworm past.

2009 Audiobook Challenge

This new-found fondness for audiobooks (or perhaps, more accurately, a New Year’s decision to finally come clean about my ongoing audiobook habit) is why you’ll now find a link at the top of my blog to a page titled “Audiobook Challenge.” As a way of encouraging myself to keep track, on-blog, of the books I listen to this year, I’ve signed up for J. Kaye’s 2009 Audiobook Challenge. Since I’m already in the the habit of listening to audiobooks, why not make a New Year’s resolution to continue the practice?

J. Kaye is challenging folks to listen to twelve audiobooks in twelve months, but for me, the real challenge is to blog each of the books I listen to. I have a long-dormant blog category called Book chat where I used to post my thoughts on books I read…but I haven’t written any book posts since the spring of 2007. Now that the New Year is upon us, I want to keep track of what I read and what I think about what I read. Although I’m not committing to write full reviews of the books I’ll listen to over the next twelve months, I want to keep at least a brief record of what audiobooks I’m listening to, as much for my own future benefit as for anyone else’s.

Looking back on 2008, for instance, I quickly jotted down thirty (!!!) audiobooks I listened to over the course of the year, most of them borrowed from either the Boston Public or Keene Public Libraries, both of which offer digital audiobook downloads. (Several of the titles below came from Keene State Library’s Mason Library or the Newton Public Library, which offer CD audiobooks.) Thirty audiobooks in a year is a lot of virtual “reading,” and all of it was free!

Books to read, places to go

  1. Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations … One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson
  2. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah
  3. The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute To His White Mother by James McBride
  4. The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman
  5. Night by Elie Wiesel
  6. Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction by David Sheff
  7. This Land Is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation by Barbara Ehrenreich
  8. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson
  9. Here If You Need Me by Kate Braestrup
  10. Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach
  11. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach
  12. Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York by Adam Gopnik
  13. The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History by Jonathan Franzen
  14. How to Be Alone: Essays by Jonathan Franzen
  15. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard P. Feynman
  16. Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil by Deborah Rodriguez
  17. Madness: A Bipolar Life by Marya Hornbacher
  18. Middletown, America: One Town’s Passage from Trauma to Hope by Gail Sheehy
  19. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch
  20. Audition: A Memoir by Barbara Walters
  21. A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father by Augusten Burroughs
  22. Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s by John Elder Robison
  23. The Necklace: Thirteen Women and the Experiment That Transformed Their Lives by Cheryl Jarvis
  24. Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert
  25. The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream by Barack Obama
  26. Worth the Fighting For: The Education of an American Maverick, by John McCain
  27. Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics by Joseph Biden
  28. Wake-Up Call: The Political Education of a 9/11 Widow by Kristen Breitweiser
  29. Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution by Simon Schama
  30. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

Engrossed

In retrospect, my 2008 reading habits show several things. First, I listen to far more audiobooks than I read actual books; second, although I show a marked preference to nonfiction narratives, my tastes within the nonfiction genre truly are eclectic. I credit this partly to my own curiosity–there’s little in the world I’m not interested in learning more about–but I also credit the fact that (according to one of my mother’s favorite sayings) beggars can’t be choosers: if you’re relying upon free audiobooks downloaded from one or another of your public libraries, you’re necessarily limited to what’s available. In retrospect, having some relative limitation on your reading habits isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as I typically find I learn to take an interest in whatever book I’m listening to once I’ve given it a fair chance. As my mother (again) would say, you can’t beat free.

Although I don’t have any definite reading list set out for 2009, I want to make a conscious effort to listen to more fiction. At the moment, I’m listening to Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which I’ve already read but which I’m re-visiting before diving into Robinson’s latest novel, Home. Since I began listening to Gilead in 2008, it doesn’t count toward J. Kaye’s challenge, but I’ll tackle that soon enough. In the meantime, feel free to follow my book-by-book progress on my Audiobook Challenge page, and consider taking the challenge yourself. What’s not to like about books for free?

Needless to say, I snapped today’s images of the bookish statue outside the Newton Free Library last June, before she was topped with New Year’s snow. Apart from the ponytail, which I acquired only as an adult, this bronze bookworm with her jacket, ball-cap, and backpack could be a clone of my younger self, at least after I was old enough to take myself to the Bexley Public Library on my bike.