Friday, January 29, 2010

Juggling Books

When I first started this blog, I thought I would write a lot more about books. Somehow, channeling my inner Erma Bombeck has been loads more fun, but it gives the false impression that I’m, you know, actually funny. George and my mother can assure you I am not nearly so funny in real life.

I’m not funny. I just write that way. (Name that movie I’m paraphrasing!)

In real life, I am an unapologetic geek. I’m the weirdo in Bible study who pipes up with trivia tidbits like how as the bishops gained authority in the 8th and 9th centuries, they sapped the power of abbots and abbesses—especially the abbesses. Or how the popes saved the fish industry in Italy by declaring Fridays meat-free.

You know. That geek.

Anyway, in a past life, I was either a librarian at Alexandria (2nd century B.C.), a monk at Lindisfarne (7th century A.D.), a professor in Paris (14th century A.D.), or a Quaker rhetorician (19th century AD). Or perhaps I was all of the above. So it’s only logical that from the beginning of this life books have riveted my attention even when, perhaps, I should have been doing something else.

In school, books were my world. I knew that the secrets of life, the universe and everything lay hidden in them, and school provided the perfect excuse to juggle many books at one time. History, math, chemistry, biology, physics, novels, grammar handbooks, poetry, foreign languages…such diversity of subject matter challenged me to soak it all in, and I accepted the challenge joyfully.

This is why I know so much about classical, medieval, and Renaissance history despite the fact that most history classes are, generally speaking, mind-numbingly soporific. I can remember sitting in eighth grade history telling myself that surely there had to be something interesting about the Hittites; the text book just missed it. Maybe if I kept reading, I’d figure it out. No matter how boring the book, I shuffled through, made good grades, and never once understood why other kids had lost hope that the Hittites were anything but pointlessly boring dead people.

My faith in books stands unshaken, but my ability to multitask with them significantly declined when I had children. For the last ten years, I have rarely had two books going at once, unless, of course, I had already read them before. I reread books, having lunch with them as if they were old friends. It takes less mental energy to reread a book than it does to read it the first time, which is perfect for someone suffering from Mommy ADD.

I hoped when I started this blog that I would regain some of my powers of concentration and can happily report at least partial success. Right now, I am reading four different books, none of which I have read before. If you’re a fellow geek, you know just how cool that is.

Here they are, in case you’re curious.

The red leather-bound book is Volumes 1-2 of the 1950 edition of The Book of Knowledge, a children’s encyclopedia. Why, you might ask, is the 43-year-old geek reading an old children’s encyclopedia? To prove just how geeky I am, I guess. It’s an old book and smells of knights and Natives and oh!my!gosh! Geoffrey Chaucer! There’s a whole big entry on medieval literature, complete with anachronistic Victorian engravings and a fairy-tale retelling of Beowulf. It has articles as diverse as “The Wonder of the Train”; “The Artists of the Old Empires: Egypt, Babylonia, and Assyria”; “How to Renew the Edge of Your Screwdriver”; and “Birth, Life, and Death of a Plant.” It even has a poetry section with the following poem by Amy Lowell:

Sea Shell, Sea Shell,
Sing me a song, O please!
A song of ships, and sailor men,
And parrots, and tropical trees,
Of islands lost in the Spanish Main
Which no man ever may find again,
Of fishes and corals under the waves,
And sea-horses stabled in great green caves.
Sea Shell, Sea Shell,
Sing of the things you know so well.

Do kids today even know what the Spanish Main was? I’d like to go where it used to be because it’s a heck of a lot warmer and sunnier in the Spanish Main than Ohio in January.

The Way I See It by Temple Grandin contains mini-articles about autism. Grandin has a PhD in animal behavior and her own consulting firm that works to improve the conditions of animals raised for slaughter. She also has autism and writes with the authority of one who’s lived it. The Way I See It gives advice to parents and therapists on how to help their children with autism learn and mature to be useful contributors to society rather than warehoused and written-off disabled adults. I’ve always appreciated her unique point of view and find the tidbits of advice in this book quite useful.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle tells the story of Barbara Kingsolver’s attempt to get closer to the food she eats. Another volume in the increasingly popular genre of do-something-weird-for-a-year-and-write-a-book-about-it, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle gives lots of interesting information about food: where it comes from, how it’s grown, how unnatural it is to eat asparagus in October. A bit preachy at times (I won’t stop eating asparagus in October), but an enlightening read nevertheless.

Finally, a volume of children’s literature caught my attention at Christmas so I bought it for Nick. The Percy Jackson series taps into my lifelong love affair with stories of the Greek and Roman gods. Unlike the Harry Potter series, these books are definitely for children, written in the first person from young Percy Jackson’s point of view. Percy has ADHD, dyslexia, and impulse-control issues. He’s also the half-blood son of Poseidon and a mortal woman who is tasked with saving the Olympian gods from total destruction. I wanted to read the book before seeing the movie, which comes out in February.

When I finish the Percy Jackson series, I’m going to dive into Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I read parts of this Roman classic in graduate school but never the whole thing. There’s something appealing about reading stories of transformation when I’m trying to transform myself. Of course, I’d rather not transform into a tree or have my liver plucked out daily by a giant eagle, but I’m sure you know what I mean.

It feels good to get back to normal (for me) with books. What is normal for you? Do you juggle multiple books or focus on one at a time? What are you reading right now? Chick lit? A book on raising designer chickens for fun and profit? The Bible? A how-to book on belly dancing? A children’s encyclopedia? Please share!

While you're thinking, I'll just go check the edges on my screwdrivers to see if they need tending. Who knew screwdriver edges were an encyclopedia-worthy topic? You learn something new every day....


  1. i am back on a reading kick, as i run a little hot and cold in the reading department.
    just finished "the 19th wife", an historical novel about brigham youngs umteenth wife who actually ran away, filed for divorce, wrote a book, and traveled around the country giving lectures decrying the mormon's polygamy practice. she met with president grant and was partly instrumental in legislation passed to outlaw that practice.
    now i'm reading "year of wonders", a novel about the bubonic plague. next up i have library books called "abraham..a journey to the heart of three faiths" and "misquoting jesus..the story behind who changed the bible and why."
    i have to read one book at a time...never have been so good with multi.tasking in that department.
    thanks for your interesting thoughts and ideas. i feel like you are a fast friend, eventho we've never met.(and you don't know nearly as much about me as i do about you!!)
    thanks, as always, for sharing.
    with friendship,
    marty ferraro

    please excuse the quotation marks around book titles. i can't figure out how to underline. :)

  2. I usually read 2 or 3 books at once - a novel, a spiritual book of some sort, and sometimes an art book. I'm so glad to be home to my library :) (That's the Vancouver Public Library). I'm too ashamed to tell you the name of the thriller novel I'm finishing (brought from the condo), but I'm looking forward to a library visit this weekend. I have "Journal Bliss", an art journalling book, on order, and "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" and "The unbearable lightness of scones" are ready for me to pick up. What yummy titles! And of course, I dip into the Bible each morning. I enjoy hearing about your reads!

  3. Oh my. I'm not nearly in your category reading-wise. I read lots of "fluff" but throw in something "heavy" once in a while. I have Sully Sullenberger's new one ready to be opened as soon as I finish Sue Grafton's newest.

  4. Marty, you have a great list there! That's the only thing I don't like about blogging...people get to know me, but it's hard to get to know them! And there are so many interesting people in the world.... Thanks for reading!

    Wanda, I bought the Sully book for George for Christmas and want to read it myself. I heard an interview with him and he sounds so wise and sensible. I adore sensible people. And if you want to know more about my opinion of reading (and what people "should" read), read the October 9, 2008 essay here:
    It's my opinion that you should read what you want...light, heavy, or otherwise. Because reading should, above all else, be fun!

  5. I've never been one for reading multiple books at a time. I do, however, read quickly, so I finish one in a snap and move on to the next.

    Just yesterday I finished reading "Range of Motion" by Elizabeth Berg. It's about a woman whose husband is in a freak accident and falls into a coma...and she's left to deal with everything alone. It sounds depressing, but really it's quite life affirming.

    I had a conversation at work this week about favorite childhood books, so I think another reading of "Charlotte's Web" is in my near future.

    And my students just started "To Kill a Mockingbird." LOVE me some Atticus Finch!

  6. Besides the books I'm reading, I also have audio books playing in the background while I'm working at home or in the car. I've gotten to the age where if I don't like the book after the first 100 pages or so, I stop reading it. Life is too short for bad books.

  7. From one bibliophile to another, I thoroughly enjoyed today's column, Susan :). And if you don't already subscribe, I thought you'd be interested in this little site:

    Happy reading!

  8. I LOVE Barbara Kingsolver! Well, I love the few that I've read: The Bean Trees and it's sequel; The Poisonwood Bible, and Prodigal Summer. She can be a little preachy in her novels too, but they are rich and absorbing and you'll love them too.

    Growing up I read all the Louisa May Alcott books, even obscure ones like Little Button Rose. I also read a number of Leon Uris and I.B. Singer. I had quite the Jewish complex going on. The Source by James Michener had a profound affect on me but I don't think I could ever re-read it.

    I wanted to be the next Beverly Cleary, but clearly I am not writer material. So for now, I'm reading professional books in hopes of being "better" at my job: Getting Things Done by David Allen, and Strategic Thinking by someone who's name completely escapes me and the book is at work.

    I can't remember the last time I read just for pleasure, unless Yoga Journal counts. Maybe you'll inspire me!


  9. Oh, I forgot - are we to call you Jessica Rabbit now? :-)

  10. So fun to find others who are reading a stack of books at a time. I find my 'current' reads to be a variety, each for it's own reason...from silly fun, to thinking, to informational. However, I have found, with 3 children under the age of 5...immersing myself in a book and loosing a day hour is not best mommy practicing. I miss reading...and have several books in my 'current' reads to be a couple of years old...I know time to start over. I do however, read lots of picture books, over and over and over. That counts too right? Click clack time for this mommy to hit the hay clickety clack.

  11. My entire household is reading the Percy Jackson series right now. (Randy 45, me 43, Jenna 11 and Shane 9). Shane brought The Lightning Thief home from school, and now we're all fighting over who gets to read the next volumes first. We all agree that it's the same story as Harry Potter, but different. We have 4 different bookmarks in The Titans Curse! I don't dare put it down or it disappears. It's kind of funny, since wasn't it just yesterday we were reading Goodnight Moon to them every night? Now we're fighting over the same book. Jenna and I are also reading the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer.
    I can't wait until she's old enough to read the Clan of The Cavebear series by Jean M. Auel, it still is one of my faves. I know she will enjoy it.


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!