My Reading Challenge: Progress Report

I’ve fallen behind in writing reviews of the books I have read in 2017. It’s a classic case of biting off more than I could chew. In the height of summer’s festivities, Christmas and New Year’s Eve*, it seemed so simple a goal to blog more frequently in the coming year than practical reality has allowed. But that’s okay. I think of a quote from Anglican scholar and bishop N. T. Wright that I heard recently, in a video lecture, where he remarked that he plays golf because it’s good for a Bishop to have something he does where it doesn’t matter if he does it terribly. Perhaps that’s similar to my scenario: as a parent, I have an expectation to be decent at the tasks I perform in that role.

However, as a blogger, I’ve found that reader audiences tend to be understanding when someone they read doesn’t always follow the supposedly un-thwart-able blogging rules of regularly posting on a particular day of the week. I don’t think blogging is dead. I reckon that it was weighed down by unnecessary rules from ‘experts,’ who insisted on unfailing consistency in posting; and I suspect was, for some, replaced by the simplicity of microblogging.

In one of my imagined ideal worlds I’d become one of those bloggers whose content is so regular, accessible and punchy that it amasses a huge following and lands me a book deal. I like to pretend that my writing would be so universally liked that there’d be not a single troll to shower their dirt over the accepting, diverse and kind comment threads. However, in 11 years of intermittent blogging such a scenario has yet to occur.

Let’s face it, if I’d written that imagined book some ten years ago, it would’ve been this in-hindsight shudder-worthy tome on why I had found the One True Religion while everyone outside my narrow theological strictures got it wrong, how I was just so lucky blessed and special to be saved by the grace of God despite my obvious unworthiness, and that prayer alone was the answer to every ailment in life. I’m very glad I never wrote that. I would hate for my literary legacy to be in that genre, gathering dust on the shelves of the Christian bookstore under a placard reading ‘Women’s Spirit Filled Living’.

(On a side note, in one of my other imagined ideal worlds I would be the first woman Formula One race car driver and bloody brilliant at it with my ISTP personality and quick reflexes finally put to good use, instead of merely being a source of bemusement for my extroverted family; and of course I’d be married to some Scandinavian heavy metal rock star, while myself being a brilliant bassist just for the fun of it. Let’s just say that the world of my imagination works overtime to compensate for my existence as an introverted, socially anxious housewife and stay-at-home-mother whose sadly neglected bass guitar collects dust under the bed, and the most intense driving I do is taking my little automatic hatchback on runs to the health food store. And where the most exciting thing that happened today was when my cat Odin found a dead moth in the garage and decided to run laps of the backyard with it in his mouth as I ran after him begging him to not jump the fence into the neighbours’ yard lest they call the council to impound him. Life on the edge of the suburbs, hey?)

Onwards to the books and the point of this post…

As of this moment I have read ten books in 2017.

According to my own rules, these ten books represent texts I have read completely from cover-to-cover, finishing them sometime during 2017. Some of them I started reading in the last year or two; others I completely read between 1 January and today, 24 February 2017.

They are:

  1. Aliens, ghosts and vanishings: strange and possibly true Australian stories, by Stella Tarakson. Finished reading: 4 January 2017.

  2. Lestat and the realms of Atlantis, by Anne Rice. Finished: 11 January 2017.

  3. Star Wars: Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel, by James Luceno. Finished 16 January 2017.

  4. The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy, edited by Johanna Sinisalo. Finished 19 January 2017.

  5. The story of life in 25 fossils: tales of intrepid fossil hunters and the wonders of evolution, by Donald R. Prothero. Finished 31 January 2017.

  6. Leaving the Fold: A guide for former fundamentalists and others leaving their religion, by Marlene Winell. Finished 1 February 2017.

  7. A sunlit absence: silence, awareness and contemplation, by Martin Laird. Finished 1 February 2017.

  8. Tales of twilight and the unseen, by Arthur Conan Doyle. Finished 11 February 2017.

  9. Fantastic beasts and where to find them: the original screenplay, by J. K. Rowling. 22 February 2017.

  10. The best Australian science writing 2011, edited by Stephen Pincock. Finished 23 February 2017.

I also have several other books still in progress. I hope to soon add to this list some works by J. R. R. Tolkien, James Gurney, titles in the new Star Wars canon, and some old favourites I re-read once every year or three, like The Silver Brumby series, Watership Down, the Narnia stories, and Harry Potter.

I am currently reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets aloud to my youngest child as a bedtime story, and she loves it. She’s been saving her pocket money to buy her own copies of the books. While I usually try to avoid doubling up on books in order to save precious bookshelf space (as tenants renting a house we are limited in the amount of shelving we can access – we are not allowed to install permanent floor-to-ceiling shelves, as much as I’d love to do so), in the case of the Harry Potter novels, my children and I have our own individual collections of the books with different covers. I don’t want to spend all my money on Harry Potter, but gee I would love to buy the new hardcover full-colour illustrated versions of them that I’ve seen at the local bookstore.

Things that are helping me accomplish my reading goals

In trying to read more books than I have in recent years, the following practical steps have helped me:

Starting this blog. Seriously. It gives me an incentive to keep reading so that I have material to post on here. I think back to my first blog, which I started in 2006 as a way to share my art. It began with the backlog of works from my old art folios, and I tried to write little thoughts with each one, but soon it became an outlet to start drawing again after years of not drawing. I think that a kind of public accountability helps me to persevere with my goals.

Just saying ‘no’ to facebook! The debates about the pros and cons of facebook rage ever on, eternally, with some of my friends vigorously defending facebook to a kind of manic-seeming intensity that in my humble opinion far over-states the usefulness of social media. Others give up completely and delete their accounts, forcing me to communicate with them in old fashioned ways like email and text message and Instagram and hanging out with each other talking face-to-face enjoying coffee and meals together. (But not phone calls, for we are introverts.)

I would like to say that I fall neatly into a kind of happy, moderate middle-ground between belligerent pro-facebook defensiveness and a complete rejection of social media.

But I don’t.

I have a fairly all-or-nothing personality, which is thankfully toning down since I started studying contemplation, mindfulness and nondualism in the last few years. In practice, this means that my facebook usage swings wildly between too much and nothing at all. 2016 was a year when I had the most ‘nothing at all’ approach to facebook since that first fateful day I signed up for an account, not realising how much I would grow to both love and loathe that site.

I spent a week or two earlier this month being generally unwell – among other things my allergies were giving me a lot of grief as painful eczema flared over my whole body – and, for some reason, the times when I feel miserable are when I use the most social media. In fact, I’m still pretty under the weather as I write this but I’m feeling a lot better than I did a fortnight ago.

Instead of, say, doing the sensible thing and asking my doctor about what to do with the painful itchy sores on my hand and face caused by a series of unexpected allergic reactions – I seem to have suddenly become sensitised to benzyl alcohol, a common preservative used in all kinds of skin products – I started impulse refreshing my newsfeed and feeling increasingly despondent at the politicised, angry, racist, anti-environment content flowing on my feed. Not to mention a distant family member’s unwanted repeat tagging of me in videos that left me stressed out at the treatment of the animals in those videos. She told my husband she thought they were ‘positive’ and ‘cute’ when he tried to gently explain to her that her online behaviour was becoming a bit overwhelming. After which she increased the spam-tagging.

When I get caught up in the pointless bickering, one-upmanship, the way people try to build a cohesive worldview on shallow memes (something I’ve written about on my other blog), the sad political affairs around the globe, and the emotional flip-flopping as my newsfeed scrolls down through a diverse array of happy, sad, tragic and infuriating conspiracy theorist posts one-by-one, it becomes overwhelming and I inevitably end up in my therapist’s office anguishing over that thing that someone wrote that upset me on the Internet that time. And yet, miserable as I was in mindlessly refreshing my feed, it was distracting me from the pain in my skin and the anxiety triggered by my allergies.

When I take time off facebook, like I have this week, once the habitual need to distract my mind with new information wears off, I’m happier, more patient, and I read more books. I also do more art, which is good, because art is my day-job and yet it’s amazing how often I don’t do art considering that it’s my current occupation.

I relish the silence and calm I experience, even spending whole days in silence – no radio, no television, just the sound of the birds in my garden, the cats chattering in frustration at the birds, and the distant sound of children playing in the grounds of one of the three schools on our street… Silence until my own kids get home from school, that is.

I connect over coffee and lunch with one in-real-life friend instead of 500 online acquaintances. I could be compulsively hand-wringing over an old acquaintance’s high-intensity facebook posts about her recent conversion to an intense religion a lot like the one I left almost two years ago, feeling stressed at how much she reminds me of me in the time before I realised I was metaphorically drowning in that religious environment. Or I could be wondering how one side of my extended family morphed into a collective of some of the most aggressively racist, sexist and bigoted humans I’ve encountered in years. Or getting angry because out of 50 notifications, 49 of them were from aforementioned distant family member’s impulse tagging of me in everything I didn’t know people thought of when they thought of me, from videos of animals in situations I think are degrading or potentially dangerous to the creatures involved while other people coo over how cute they think it is, to videos of Chinese children singing American Christian songs with the description #blessed and #ptl (“praise the Lord”).

Instead of pondering all that, I put the phone aside, and I return to my books.

I pick up The Silmarillion, a novel I’ve been planning to read ever since I first saw it on my grandparents’ bookshelf about 20 years ago, and discover a beautiful Norse-like mythos and creation cycle from the perspective of Tolkien’s inimitable Elves. I pick up a science text book and find myself in awe of this incredibly complex universe. I pick up a book on mindfulness practices and find that it helps me live life out of a happier sense of peace in myself, rather than worrying about whether or not I think people like me on a surface level. I pick up a compilation of short stories and wonder at how much action and emotion can be expressed so concisely. I read books about the weird, uncanny and supernatural and find that they inspire my art. I read reference books about animals and gain fresh appreciation for the nonhuman beings that grace my life with their presence and affection.

Packing a book in my bag when I go out. As a parent, I spend a lot of my week driving the kids to things and waiting for them. This year isn’t as hectic as in the past, as my children now both go to a school so close we can see it from the front door of our house, and to my profound, deep, inexpressible relief I no longer have to drive them in peak-hour traffic across the suburbs for 40 minutes twice a day. However, they still have a busy after-school routine. Ballet twice a week, piano once a week, and youth church once a week. My eldest child also does weekend volunteer work at a church. The remaining week night we have designated ‘Library Time,’ so we jump in the car and go to the fantastic library in the next suburb. Weekly trips to that library have been a staple part of the children’s existence since we first moved to this region from our rural home.

My own upbringing taught me that no matter what you want to learn, you can find it at a library; and no matter how difficult it is to navigate the tricky world of relationships and society, books are always your friend. I feel like one of the best gifts I can give my kids is a love for reading and libraries.

The point is that taking the kids to all these different places means I spend a fair bit of time sitting and waiting for them, whether in the dance school foyer, or in the church car park. In the past, I have used that time to improve my high scores on a number of mobile phone video games. But this year I’m pushing myself to read books instead. It might be just ten minutes here or half an hour there, but it’s helping me to achieve my book-reading goals.

Thoughts on the possible benefits of reading more

I won’t write an objective treatise on ‘all people ought to read more all the time just because I’ve had a good two months following that rule for myself.’ I don’t think that’s reasonable. All I can do in this context is reflect on what I feel and think the benefits have been for myself, as I’ve experienced them.

It’s early days yet; I still have another ten months left to add finished books to my 2017 list, so who knows what I might accomplish – or not accomplish – by then! I am yet to hit the busy months – those predictable phases when my reading time is limited. They usually fall in September and carry right through until the following January. It’s a significant chunk of the year marked by several family birthdays, piano school and ballet school concerts for the kids, end of year celebrations for school, family obligations around Christmas time, and our attempts to make the most of the holidays by getting outdoors as frequently as possible. And the whole way through November is the glorious madness that is NaNoWriMo, one of my most favourite times of the year, when every aspiration I have as a hopeful novelist can come out, after being repressed most of the time due to grown-up things like priorities and sleep patterns and life obligations.

However, all said, I am so far experiencing some results in my new higher intensity reading habits:

  • Books demand a greater depth of thinking than I have practiced when I’m leaping from link-to-link on the Internet.
  • Books carry a thought through a variety of complex possibilities. Instead of a shallow snippet of information, in a good book an idea can be constructed and deconstructed and developed over the course of pages and chapters.
  • A good novel improves my empathy and kindness. Socialising doesn’t come easy to me (ISTP Problems). Books help me gain an insight into the ways other people view the world.
  • Books remind me that there’s more to humanity than the current machinations of global politics. Thank goodness.
  • Books help me realise my own priorities. When I look back on my life, I don’t want it to just be a blur of social media rage.
  • Books help me to be better at conversation. When I do meet up with friends, I can draw from a broader general knowledge base for conversation than I would if I didn’t read. I might not know all the details of my friends’ myriad careers, interests and concerns, but by reading a diverse array of books I increase my ability to engage with my friends on the things that interest them.
  • Books help me form my own worldview. As I slowly come out of a challenging spiritual journey (see here, here and here for my earlier blog posts on that journey), books assist me in the process of rebuilding my sense of self and my understanding of the universe, which was massively destabilised in recent years.

On that note, I will take my leave. I have some Stephen King, Terry Pratchett and Nikolai Gogol books in my library book pile that won’t read themselves!

*Here in southern Australia, summer is December to February inclusive. I only make a mention of this fact because I have, on occasion, been met with incredulous comments on my social media from folks in the Northern Hemisphere who had never learned that the Southern Hemisphere has different seasonal cycles. I’ve learned to never assume that my readers know about the things we Aussies take for granted!