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Don't Read Faulkner On The Subway...and other reading advice, Or, How to be a "creative Reader"

Updated: 5 days ago

Most of us like variety in our fiction reading. I can read Cold Comfort Farm one week, then read Proust, then read Lessing. I used to pick the book, sit down, and read for as long as I liked. I found some books "slow" going and would put them down and not go back.

Here's what changed: when I was commuting to work it took an hour each way on the "LL" train from Brooklyn to Manhattan. (This was before the train line became hip and dropped the second "L" -- don't ask me!) Getting on at the first stop meant I got a seat.

Having read one book by Faulkner in school, I decided I wanted to read more. So

I chose "Light in August" to read on the train. Embarrasing, yes. I shoulda known better. Why?

(1) Never read Faulkner on your own

(2) Never read Faulkner on your own while commuting.

You think you can tune out the train, the riders, and the noise while you read, but you can't. And Faulkner needs your full attention. This you probably already knew.

Anyway, this got me thinking about what we read, where we read, how long we read for.

And thus, how we evaluate, or critique a book.

A book that you "can't put down" is obviously a good read. But what about the books you need to put down after a while?

As your elemetary school librarian probably told you, "Books are your friends!" And like friends, each book makes different demands.

Reading Proust's masterpiece, "In Search of Lost Time," I would read only a few pages each night. It was like a sweet cordial before bed. But not always. Sometimes I felt like shaking Proust and saying "Enough already!" That was the point where I stopped reading. Same with Faulkner. Not to mention Toni Morrison's "Beloved," which I stopped in the middle of to catch my breath. Two weeks later I was able to continue. And now I have (finally) gotten to Cormac McCarthy.

This new "friend" is difficult. His prose can be poetic and repetitive. He uses no punctuation or quotations marks. His characters say very little and a lot of it is in Spanish. (whole paragraphs) Some bad things happen. But if you read it slowly, in small doses, you are rewarded with a powerful, mesmerizing, even haunting experience. ("All The Pretty Horses,"The Crossing, Cities of the Plain.")

On social media these days readers are bragging about how many books they read in a week/month/year. I'm sure there is a marketing angle here but it seems a shame. We will miss some extraordinary books if we judge each book by the same criteria.

Some books want your full attention for a couple of pages. Others want you to race through to the end. We need to drop expectation and open up to whatever the author wants from us, go wherever they want to take us, feel whatever they are hoping we will feel.

Whether we "relate" to the characters or not, whether it takes 2 minutes per page or 10, what does it matter? We open a book to enter a different world. And I now know that the "LL" train will not get me there!

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