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It may be somewhat fashionable to call oneself a bad reader, but I’m pretty sure I was bad at it before being bad was cool. I was bad before I read about it on the internet, at any rate.

Look familiar?

Look familiar?

I recently had the chance to sit down with a couple dozen high school students and interview them, or mock-interview them, for a job in my library. I had to tell several of them that, although it seems like a natural and appealing thing to say, one should never tell a library interview committee that one loves books.

Why on earth not? Because librarians are offended at the notion that all we do is sit around read books. We also shelve them, put little stickers on them, and dust them from time to time.

But there is more. The librarian, the good librarian, is well-informed about many books, and can offer a suggestion or two to a patron who needs a recommendation. But the recommending skill, the I-can-find-you-anything-you-need skill, is in some ways contrary to the solitary and still skill of real reading.

I noticed shortly after I got my first library job that I had less need to own books, because I was around books all day. More books than I could hope to read in a lifetime. I would borrow ten books at a time, read a few, and renew, renew, renew until I finally had to bring back the rest unread. I wanted to know about this series or that author so I could do my job with reader’s advisory, and much of the time this meant reading a few chapters and moving on to something else.

I didn’t finish many books this way—I think we are all abandoning the idea that finishing is a virtue, anyway—but I did my job and got books into the hands of my patrons. I started listening to audiobooks, too, so I could increase my book consumption, and soon I was never without a book in my bag, three in queue on my MP3 player, six more on my desk, and a ridiculous spreadsheet of what I hoped to read once I had worked my way through what I had already checked out.

The funny thing is, this isn’t too different from how I was as a reader before I became a librarian. I’m not trying to say that my pre-library self was a serious reader with a geological attention span and being a librarian makes me a sort of walking Reader’s Digest Condensed book; I’m saying that my talent for picking up a book, flipping through it to find my favorite passage, reading it, moving on to the first page of a new novel, giving up and going on to look something up in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations is nicely matched to the work of a librarian.

So of course I, and librarians the world over, love books. Of course I’m being flip when I say I’m a bad reader. But you know how fashion-crazy librarians are.


I recently acquired five new books (by which I mean, five old books) and they have inspired me to be lazy. Not a contradiction in terms! Here are five quotes, one from each of these books on–what else?–books and reading. They represent several different viewpoints: reader, writer, philosopher, critic; and differing temperaments, from the Great Books approach to the love of reading for its own sake. But they are all nifty in their way, and one of them mentions sandwiches.

 In response to the question What makes a book great?

“Great books are those which contain the best materials on which the human mind can work in order to gain insight, understanding, and wisdom. Each in its own way raises the recurrent basic questions which men must face. Because these questions are never completely solved, these books are the sources and monuments of continuing intellectual tradition.

“Carl Van Doren once referred to great books as ‘the books that never have to be written again.'”

Adler, Mortimer. Great Ideas from the Great Books. Washington Square Press, 1961.

“The ways in which reading fulfills its aims beyond the immediate verbal encounter are necessarily mysterious. In exploring them we explore, though unscientifically, some of the operations of consciousness itself, especially those having to do with perception and memory. We have to ask not only how we translate a symbolic code, but also what is the effect upon us of the translation process and the translated content? How do we make use of our own experience when we engage a novel? To what extent are we present in the content of what we read? How do we store what we’ve read, and how do we draw upon our reading memory over time? For it is one book we close the covers on today, and quite another after some months or years have passed. The words on the page don’t change, but we do, and our ‘reading’–the experience we had over the duration of our encounter with the book–has the plasticity of any memory.”

Birkerts, Sven.The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Fawcett Columbine, 1994.

“A public that tries to do without criticism, and asserts that it knows what it wants or likes, brutalizes the arts and loses its cultural memory. Art for art’s sake is a retreat from criticism which ends in an impoverishment of civilized life itself.”

Frye, Northrup. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton UP, 1957.




“Fiction seeks out truth. Granted, it seeks a poetic kind of truth, universals not easily translatable into moral codes. But part of our interest as we read is in learning how the world works; how the conflicts we share with the writer and all other human beings can be resolved, if at all; what values we can affirm and, in general, what the moral risks are. The writer who can’t distinguish truth from a peanut-butter sandwich can never write good fiction.”

Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. Vintage, 1985.

“If once in a while the beginning writer does something interesting with language–shows that he’s actually listening to himself and looking closely at words, spying out their secrets–that is sign enough of the writer’s promise. Only a talent that doesn’t exist at all can’t be improved. Usually. On the other hand, if as readers we begin to suspect that the writer cares about nothing but language, we begin to worry that he may be in for trouble. Normal people, people who haven’t been misled by a faulty college education, do not read novels for words alone. They open a novel with the expectation of finding a story, hopefully with interesting characters in it, possibly an interesting landscape here and there, and, with any luck at all, an idea or two–with real luck a large and interesting cargo of ideas. Though there are exceptions, as a rule the good novelist does not worry primarily about linguistic brilliance–at least not brilliance of the showy, immediately obvious kind–but instead worries about telling his story in a moving way, making the reader laugh or cry or endure suspense, whatever it is that this particular story, told at its best, will incline the reader to do.”

Gardner, John. On Becoming a Novelist. Harper & Row, 1983.

I caught the end of an episode of Wisconsin Public Radio’s To the Best of Our Knowledge (1) on Wednesday morning and heard A.S. Byatt talking about turn-of the-century (you know which century I mean) children’s literature in the context of her 2009 book, The Children’s Book. The interviewer asked her if we might be living in a new golden age ( in the present century) of children’s books, and Byatt agreed. I think. But she also said, and this is the interesting part, that the number of adults who read children’s books says either something about those adults or something about the state of adult literature. She thought that the most important books being writen for any age group in that earlier Edwardian golden age were, in fact, children’s books, but she also thinks that they weren’t written exclusively for children. Peter Pan, for example.  Contrast that with Maria Tatar’s recent article about the same period (2).

The rest of the episode is about fairy tales, which, even though they never went away, are coming back in a big way. I had an actual grown-up asking me for Grimm’s original fairy tales the other day, because she and her husband have been watching the TV show Grimm. She went looking in the adult section for the gory versions, and then came–ha ha!–to me. Where I was able to give her a nice new Calla edition with lovely Arthur Rackham illustrations.

So here is the short bibliography for today, on fairy tales:

1. First you must read them. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, illustrated by Arthur Rackham, Calla Editions, 2010.

2. Then you must read about the Brothers Grimm: Hettinga, Donald R.  The Brothers Grimm:Two Lives, One Legacy. Clarion, 2001.

3. Next, why not read a collection of older versions compiled by that master of fairy tale scholarship: Zipes, Jack. The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm. Norton, 2001.

4. Then go on to some more fairy tale scholarship: Tatar, Maria. Off with Their Heads! Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood. Princeton, 1993.

5. And finally, because now you’re very tired and just want some fun, consult The Storyteller’s Sourcebook: a subject, title, and motif index to folklore collections for children,  by Margaret Read MacDonald. Been wondering just want Tale Type 510a is? You hear so much about it, don’t you? Look it up!  This is a fantastic resource for storytelling, writing, and learning about folk and fairy tales.

Special bonus: two fine websites.

1. Sur la Lune A site dedicated to fairy tales in their original form and in pop cuture. Contains several annotated tales.

2. D.L. Ashliman’s Folktexts site. Hundreds of folk and fairy tales, told plainly and often in brief. Invaluable.


(1.)Listen to the podcast here.

(2.) Read Tatar’s article here.

arnold bennett

Reading expert, arbiter of all things

November is the month that causes a turkey’s and a librarian’s thoughts to turn to next year’s summer reading program. And October, and September, and maybe even part of August. It never leaves our thoughts, really. But, ah November! The time to order reading logs, stickers, posters, and little bitty plastic things to give away to young readers. Every year, librarians mutter to themselves that this will be the year it gets easier. This year,  we will have simple reading logs with simple instructions, we will be able to account for how much reading was done, no one will lose their reading logs, and even an adult librarian will be able to understand how the whole thing works. (Ooh, cheeky.)
So, in this time of hopeful planning, before the depression associated with reality sets in, let me offer a few words of charity from summer reading expert and library supporter, novelist Arnold Bennett (1):
“Literature, instead of being an accessory, is the fundamental sine qua non of complete living. I am extremely anxious to avoid rhetorical exaggerations. I do not think I am guilty of one in asserting that he who has not been ‘presented to the freedom’ of literature has not wakened up out of his prenatal sleep. He is merely not born. He can’t see; he can’t hear; he can’t feel, in any full sense. He can only eat his dinner.” (2)
You see? Tell that to the little children when they ask what the heck it’s all about. Not the plastic compasses and t-shirts. It is so that they may be able to eat their dinner with a certain self-satisfaction, and possibly a summer reading-themed cup.
1. I have no evidence to support this claim, but why should that mean anything?
2. From the excellent Literary Taste and How to Form It, 1909. And if the young ones need more counsel from Uncle Arnold when they have a question such as, “Which should I read first? Silas Marner or Always Lots of Heinies at the Zoo? tell them this: “You do not exist in order to honor literature by becoming an encyclopedia of literature. Literature exists for your service. Wherever you happen to be, that, for you, is the centre of literature.” Very apt, sir. Thank you.

after the tsunami

It came as a surpise to me learn that not all writers write for children! Is everyone else aware of this fact? In support of this new movement called “books for grownups,” I have an interview with a writer whose first novel, After the Tsunami (Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2011), tells the story of young Siddhartha’s experiences in an Indian orphange in the years after a devastating tsunami.

Welcome to Annam Manthiram! I particularly wanted to ask Annam about herannam manthiram writing process and her thoughts on creating situations in which her beloved characters experience severe abuse and psychological torment. That is to say, this may be a book about children, but it is not, as I said, for children.

The perspective of your first-person narrator as he looks back on his childhood and discovers more meaning there than he was able to see as a child reminds me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I’m very interested in the differences between child narrators in children’s books, who are in the moment, and adult narrators looking back on their childhoods in adult books. How did you approach Siddhartha’s voice as you were writing?

I was with Siddhartha’s character for so long that over time, it became easy to embody him. And when I wrote the sections that take place in the orphanage, I wrote them as if he were really reliving them—not just looking back but physically and emotionally and mentally transported back to that reality.

I labored to preserve the integrity of his voice: one of an innocent boy/man who struggles to maintain a type of morality. Children in abusive situations often tend to grow up quickly and exhibit mature personalities. It is the only way in which they can survive, so the real challenge was in balancing this trauma-induced maturity with a naïveté that in some ways never really goes away. The sections where he is much older were written later, after the orphanage scenes were already committed. In this way, it was easier for me to write an older, more experienced voice (distanced from his younger self) who was then really just reflecting on his past without being sucked into it.

 That might explain the brevity of those sections. They provide glimpses into his adult life, but they are supporting pieces rather than forming a separate narrative. Did you consider writing a plot into those scenes, or did you always want them to be these quick, almost disembodied flashes?

 Siddhartha is eclipsed by his past, so the form is a mirror of the content. I needed the sections to be imbalanced. I realize that many readers will feel this imbalance personally—what is Siddhartha’s fate? Does he find meaning in his past, so as to live a meaningful future?  Is he happy? The answer lies within the individual reader.

 The brutality! I will say that it was difficult to read at times, but I mean that in the best way–that it touched me deeply. It seemed that hardly a scene went by that wasn’t somehow affected by the raw and horrifying conditions of the House. You must have done research into orphanages, but did you also play up the number of dehumanizing experiences children in those circumstances might undergo?

 Yes, the brutality is immediate and urgent. Aristotle talked about how drama was a form that excited fear as a means of expunging it. I liken my novel to that comparison: by introducing brutality and depravity in such a forceful and repetitive way, I am making it commonplace, irrelevant. So over time, the brutality fades away and what is left is the human spirit: Siddhartha’s human spirit.

 Much of what happens in the novel can happen in these situations; however, I did play up the dehumanization in part so as to make it rote and irrelevant. A desensitization happens to the reader as she is faced with this unrelenting saga, which mirrors the desensitization that happens to Siddhartha who must survive it. I want readers to embody Siddhartha in the way that I had to when I wrote this novel.

 Now that you say it, I see what you mean!

Your ear for language, especially metaphor and simile, is wonderful. How does writing poetry influence writing prose?

 Thank you. I was influenced by Indian cinema music growing up, and the cadences and tone of that music sometimes creep their way into my work.

 Poetry has taught me how to condense an idea in prose. I also read aloud all of my work before I send it anywhere (yes, I did read After the Tsunami out loud in its entirety!) to make sure the flow is apt, the sound is right, and the language heightens the effect I am trying to create. It has also made me write better dialogue. There’s something about the musicality of dialogue in prose that poetry does so well, and I see similarities between the two.

 The dialogue sounds very much like boys’ speech but, at the same time, has another quality to it, maybe having to do with the fact that you’re “translating” Tamil into English. Were you thinking of that as you wrote?

 Yes, I was. I’m glad you caught that. I heard the boys’ chatter in my head in Tamil, and then I translated it into English.  Not all the translations are apt or accurate as there are some words/phrases that do not transfer over perfectly, but my intention was to remain as authentic as possible to the dialect and various inflections in speech.

 Is your next book going to be about bunnies and daisies and really nice things? Just kidding. I can guess by the title Dysfunction (Aqueous Books, 2013) that we’re in for something a little grittier. What draws you to these themes?

 Yes, it is. How did you guess? Ha. Actually Dysfunction is much milder than After the Tsunami. When putting together this collection almost two years ago, I needed to come up with a theme in order to link them. None of the stories have repeating characters or situations, but the one element that kept cropping up was how dysfunctional all of these characters’ lives are. So a title was born.

 I have always been drawn to the underbelly. What drives people to do the evil things they do?  What are their motivations?  Where is the breaking point, and do we all have one?  I take some of these answers and push it to the extreme, twisting scenarios and behaviors and thoughts so much that the darkness becomes beautiful in its own right.

 Perhaps I am drawn to these themes in part because I struggle with finding a purpose to them. Through my writing, I put them to work and deconstruct and then reconstruct them again as a way of assigning a greater meaning, and thus a particular significance.

 I have to say, it’s pretty hard to comprehend the motivations of characters as depraved as the Mothers in After the Tsunami. Do you feel you owe it to your characters (or to your writing, or however you want to think of it) to offer the reader some insight into motivation that they might be able to understand, or do you prefer to present your characters and let the reader decide for herself or himself?

I am in no way whatsoever condoning the sort of depraved behaviors of the Mothers in the novel.  But I feel as though I owe it to myself (having witnessed and experienced the failings of humanity as well as the triumphs) to explore this darkness in my work as a way of deciphering meaning. There is not always meaning, and sometimes violence is gratuitous, but in After the Tsunami, I was very careful in ensuring that the violence never crosses that line. It serves its purpose, and it is up to the readers to decide what that purpose truly is.

What are some books you read recently (and enjoyed)? Why?

 I realized over a year ago that though I was reading a lot, I was forgetting the books I had read and the reasons I had liked/disliked them. So I keep a journal now in which I document books I’ve read and specific details. I note devices or mechanisms that may help me in my own work as well.

 Recently, I read Jane Eyre and fell in love with the narrator—how socially progressive she is for her time. In searching for comparison titles to my own novel, I came across Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. What I like about this book (besides its technical precision) is that it forces the reader to re-evaluate the meaning of happiness, and how one can find happiness no matter the desolation. That one person’s idea of bliss may be different than another’s, but it’s all relative to the situation.

 I’m in the middle of a few books right now: Madame Bovary, which I’m about a third of the way through; Lost Girls by Alice Hoffman, which is a collection of interlinked stories; and a series of essays by Pankaj Mishra. I was doing some research on Bollywood and came across his essays. I like his voice. A strong voice is hard to imitate, especially in nonfiction.

 I try to read as much as I can. I believe that in order to be a good writer, you must be a good reader AND a good listener. I wish I had more time! Ah, the lament of many.

Thank you, Annam, and congratulations on the release of your wonderful debut!

Annam will be appearing at readings in California at the end of the month, and in Indiana in November, and I believe she will be bringing me cookies sometime before Christmas. But I would have interviewed her anyway. Check out her book tour dates here.

The reason why

Theirs but to do and die

The cover image here was going to be just for fun, because I like the title and (yes, I’ll admit it) I really like Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” (1) partly because it’s got a nice horsey rhythm to it and partly because I always think of them as holding something like a nineteenth-century light saber. I guess that would be a light sabre, really. More to the point, I was going to use the title of this book to make some sort of clever segue. Maybe. But then I realized, as I checked the back to see who did the proud-looking soldiers on the cover, that it’s yet another cover-artist-turned-children’s-book-creator. This one’s by Jim McMullan, best known recently for his series with wife Kate: I’m Big!, I Stink!, I’m Dirty! etc. Brilliant!
The books itself is about the actual charge, which was somewhat less glorious, I am led to believe, that the poetic version. The title comes from the lines, “Theirs not to reason why/Theirs but to do and die/Into the valley of Death/Rode the six hundred.” I’m going to appropriate that title and apply it to the world of children’s reading. So here, in graphic form, is The Reason Why:
quote from becoming a nation of readers
 This is probably the best-known quote from the 1985 study put out by the National Committee on Reading, Becoming a Nation of Readers (2). You knew it already, didn’t you? It’s something I tell parents often. It’s the reason why we should continue to read aloud to kids long after they are able to read on their own. It’s cheap, it’s fun, and darn it, it works!  Perhaps the best message of the report, along with that pull-out quote, is the idea that we never stop learning to read. There is no point at which we can say, I’m as good a reader as I’ll ever be, or, I’m as good a reader as I need to be, because reading is the act of creating meaning from a text, and we never run out of opportunities to stretch and challenge our ability to do that.
And here it is in bookmark form (click to enlarge; print if you want to):

Some of my favorite read-alouds: Emily Jenkins’s Toys Go Out and Toy Dance Party; Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck (see if this one doesn’t win the Schneider Family Award); anything by Eva Ibbotson; Trenton Lee Stewart’s Mysterious Benedict Society; Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (I do a creditable Sara Crewe and a truly awful Becky); and Charise Mericle Harper’s Just Grace series.


1. Listen to Tennyson himself read it here. Read along because for some reason the recording isn’t exactly high def.

2. Read the full report here. It’s only 155 pages, and you won’t be sorry you took the time.