Sunday, June 5, 2011

Mogul Diamond Readers

There are two kinds of people in the world: fast readers and slow readers.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was more specific (and more critical) in his assessment of readership:

"Readers may be divided into four classes:
  1. Sponges, who absorb all that they read and return it in nearly the same state, only a little dirtied.
  2. Sand-glasses, who retain nothing and are content to get through a book for the sake of getting through the time.
  3. Strain-bags, who retain merely the dregs of what they read.
  4. Mogul diamonds, equally rare and valuable, who profit by what they read, and enable others to profit by it also."
I tend to agree less with Coleridge and more with one of the speakers in my writers' workshop who said that writers do only half the work; readers complete it. Each time a book is read by someone new, or even when it is reread, it is rewritten.

I don't remember not knowing how to read. In fact, once I broke the code, it seemed impossible not to read or try to decode a series of letters organized in the shape of a word. I do remember the enormous pleasure I got from reading as child. I devoured books (not quickly, I'm one of the s-l-o-w readers), but in great gulps. I remember reading straight through the Little House books in third grade, then moving on to other, more treacly series like the Bobbsey Twins and Sue Barton Student Nurse, just because there were so many of them. I read every biography of every famous female I could find. I lived and breathed the lives of the March sisters, furious when I finished the last Louisa May Alcott book in our school library.

By middle school, I had moved on to adult literature (there was little by way of Young Adult [YA] material back then, though I vividly remember A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Mr. and Mrs. BoJo Jones (later, a truly awful movie of the week starring Desi Arnaz, Jr.) and Go Ask Alice by Anonymous (a "true diary" as fraught with controversy as James Frey's Million Little Pieces). Back then, the thing I loved most about books is that I could scan them for every little mention of the topic most on my mind — sex — without having to ask any adults. I remember sneaking into the stacks of the public library and reading the Angelique books by Sergeanne Golon, a tawdry historical series set in 17th Century France.

In high school, I was steeped in Chaucer and Fitzgerald, and began a life-long love affair with John Irving. My family was big in car trips and reading took me all over the world while our station wagon traversed practically every square inch of the state of Michigan and most of US east of the Mississippi.

But by college, I ran out of time for fiction. I had so much school-related reading to do, and read it all so slowly, that I just couldn't squeeze in much extracurricular fiction (except for a brief tour through Harlequin romances my sophomore year, which I still regret, but those bubblegum books took even a pokey reader like me less time time to read than it took for my gum ball to lose its flavor). Rediscovering the joys of fiction after graduation was a gift.

I have one son who reads as fast as an Evelyn Wood speed-reading graduate. He literally reads whole pages in a glance — it's remarkable. My middle son claims to hate reading. Last year, he told me he was a "bad" reader. When I asked what he meant, he said he's a bad reader because he reads one word a time. I assured him that I've always read one word at a time and consider myself a very good reader. He wasn't convinced. When his English teacher told me at the beginning of the year that my son had the highest reading score in his grade, I told the boy to get over his reading phobia and embrace his word-for-word technique.

Like my son, though, I always assumed my slow reading was a liability, until I read Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. In addition to having perhaps the best name ever for a writer, Prose is also a critic and teacher, and advocates what she calls "close reading" — reading at the word level, the sentence level and the paragraph level. Suddenly, I discovered that I had been a brilliant reader all along. (For a nice 2KoP review by Wilson Knut of Reading Like a Writer, click here.)

As life has gotten busier, as I have buried myself in all the reading I must to do for parenting and work, I find that I don't indulge in fiction the way I should. I read all the time, but mostly on line these days. Like golf, fiction just takes too long, or so I tell myself. The other day I began to prepare to teach a four-week creative writing camp by making a poster board about writing. "Writers write" said rule #1. "Writers read" said rule #2. "Hypocrite" was what I wanted to write in my little teacher bio.

To avoid having to condemn myself in my summer camp bio, I started and finished the book I've been wanting to read for months. The leisurely pace and beautiful language of the writing encouraged me to read the way I read best — word-for-word, one word at a time. I read for long stretches every day until I was just about 25 pages short of the end, when I did what I always do with books I love … I set it aside, not wanting the story to end, not wanting to lose my connection with the characters. I hate the end of a good book, which may be the real reason I read as slowly as a do.

I hope you will let me give you the gift of recommending this book for your summer reading list: The Bird Sisters, by Rebecca Rasmussen. Be one of Coleridge's rare and valuable mogul diamond readers. Savor the words. Rasmussen has imbued The Bird Sisters with everything that makes for good storytelling: love and betrayal, longing and despair, devotion and sacrifice. And tornadoes, both real and metaphorical:

"After her father returned, wild-eyed and windblown, Twiss ran to him, but not as quickly as she could have. It was as if he had inadvertently told her something essential about himself, a secret she would have to keep forever: You can't count on me."
— Chapter 4, The Bird Sisters
In my next post, I'll tell you about getting to know author Rebecca Rasmussen. In the meantime, let me know if and when you read The Bird Sisters. Or take a minute now and tell us how you read, fast or slow or somewhere in between. And please share your best recommendation of what should be on our summer reading lists. Just click here.


Christi Craig said...

Great post! I love the four classes of readers, and your son's word-for-word technique. I just cannot read fast, not well anyway.

And, aren't novels like The Bird Sisters delicious? The ones you just don't want to end? For my summer reading, I'm about to start Jenna Blum's The Stormchasers. I've had it, but my husband snatched it up before me. Soon enough, it's my turn.

Susan Bearman said...

Delicious, yes. Funny how many "taste" words we use in describing the books we love. Get back to us on The Stormchasers. We need to know if it's tasty enough to add to our summer menu.

Grace at Feeding My Book Addiction said...

Great post. I fell in love with reading all over again as I read your reading history and thought about the four types of readers mentioned at the beginning of the post.

I read Rebecca Rasmussen's The Bird Sisters. It is a reader's treat, isn't it? It's a well crafted story; the words just fall off the page and into your brain! I loved the book.

Grace at Feeding My Book Addiction

Susan Bearman said...

Thanks, Grace. I fell in love with reading all over again while writing this and remembering all the happy hours I have spent reading. Thanks for sharing your blog, too. It looks like a great place for reading inspiration.

Victoria said...

I believe I just went though my s-l-o-w reading in a recent blog post, so there's your answer on that.

I really love the thought, a writer does half the work, a reader completes it. I've been finding out how true that is, and it's just wonderful.

Oh, yes, I have read The Bird Sisters and given it as a gift three times. That lovely, Rebecca. Thanks for this, Susan. You're a gem.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Susan! I just finally read "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" (wonderful), and am ready for my next treat. Goodness, reading is swell!

Susan Bearman said...

Victoria — thanks always for you comments. I can't wait to hear more about your relationship with your readers.

Anonymous — I'd not heard of The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Thanks for the recommendation.

Andrea said...

A great list! I am hosting a Twitter book club this Thursday night with Rebecca Rasmussen, discussing The Bird Sisters. Isn't it wonderful? Please join us- 8-9 pm CST, hashtag #sitsbooks


Linda Gartz said...

Hi Susan,
This subject has always plagued me. I am a SLOW reader. When I try to read fast, I retain a fraction of what I've read--not to mention I don't get to savor wonderful writing. I also have How to Read Like a Writer -- next to my bed -- and I pick it up regularly to learn from Francine's examples. I try to read the paper fast - I try practicing reading in chunks, (my son, too, can read a 700 page Harry Potter book overnight!), but I realize if I read too fast, I miss too much of a well-written book. I'll check out the Bird Sisters. I hope to read a book a week this summer.

Jenny Fickey said...

What a fun coincidence. I am reading The Bird Sisters right now! Even funnier, I was just condemning myself because I felt it was taking me too long to read it. It's like you wrote this post just for me. Thanks.

I can't wait to read more about Rebecca. She is a gifted storyteller.

Susan Bearman said...

Linda — I'm thinking of starting a support group. Slow Readers Unite!

Jenny — I did write it just for you. So glad you loved The Bird Sisters, too. I know Rebecca will be thrilled, too.

Carol Apple said...

Hello - stopping by from the She Writes Blogger Ball, and I'm glad I did! Looks like we share some similar interests: I have sons (2), wrote recently about learning to read (but I do remember not knowing how), mentioned "Reading Like a Writer" in my last post, and also mentioned James Frey a few posts back. I also read through the Little House on the Prairie series in 3rd grade. Love your blog!

Diana Hallare said...

I've enjoyed reading this post, especially the quote from Coleridge. Good encouragement about taking time to read. Also, just wondering, have you read Alcott's "A Long Fatal Love Chase" and "The Inheritance"?