A little more on reading

My first full-time job after I dropped out of my first stint in grad school was as an editorial assistant at HarperCollins publishers. My boss was the acquisitions editor for readers for college freshman composition courses: those giant anthologies of essays that freshmen are supposed to emulate/be inspired by (according to the latest trend) as they learn to write essays of their own. When things slowed down, or when the boss was out of town, or when I just needed a break from typing up the boss’s memos and letters (yes, on a typewriter), I would pull one of our books (or one of the competition’s) off the shelves and just read.

I read essays by C.S. Lewis and George Orwell and Joan Didion, by Annie Dillard and Toni Morrison and Edward Abbey, by Jonathan Swift and Virginia Woolf and Amy Tan. I read them by the hundreds. Boredom is a powerful motivator.

I think that tiny cubicle in midtown Manhattan was where I formed my current reading habits. We didn’t have the Web, but we did have an amazing collection of brief writings on nearly any topic you could imagine. We had thematic readers with whole chapters on language, or capital punishment, or education, or gender (heck, we had entire readers on gender!). Most people only ever read one reader: the one assigned by their freshman composition instructor, but I had read dozens of them, cover to cover.

I’m now listed as “author” of three different readers, which means, of course, that I simply picked the readings I liked best and wrote a snippy little introduction for each of them. The hardest part was probably clearing copyright for the readings.

In a sense, keeping a blog is a little like making a reader. You find articles you like on the Internet, then write snippy little introductions for them. A composition instructor could do worse than assign her students to follow some of the better blogs out there for a lesson in how to write. Plenty of teachers now require that their students keep their own blogs.

Now Bob Stein has written a blog entry about how his reading habits have been changed by the Internet. Where he used to read at least two dozen books a year, in 2004 he read only one.

I’m not sure my reading habits have been changed so much as the means of delivery has changed. I still occasionally embark on the more sustained effort of reading an entire book, but I view that as a completely different experience from reading online (except, of course, for the Moby Blook). A book is like a journey, to be prepared for and embarked on with care. Reading an essay is like taking the bus across town. Reading a blog, I suppose, might be more like talking to your neighbor across the fence — except now we have access to millions of neighbors, all over the world, and we get to pick which ones we want to talk with. (That’s the cool part. The sometimes frustrating part is that they also get to choose whether to talk back to us.) Occasionally I want to embark on a journey, but with so many really interesting neighbors, I’m not inclined to do so quite as often as I had been in the past.

So why do I want to write books? I suppose it’s partly precisely because so many experiences are so easily available to us through blogs. The challenge of creating a journey that others would actually want to embark upon when they’ve got so many interesting people living right next door is simply irresistible.

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3 Responses to A little more on reading

  1. Robert Nagle says:

    Funny coincidence. While a Peace Corps volunteer teaching at a university in Albania, I killed a lot of time by reading old donated college textbooks, including apparently about 10 different freshman writing anthologies. (I also went through about 20 different anthologies of current articles for various disciplines (ranging from psychology, business, anthropology, human sexuality, etc). My favorite essays (you’d know these if you’d read enough of these anthologies): I want a wife! (google it), some beautiful 2 page essay on the Mississippi River by Mark Twain, a great essay on Los Vegas weddings by Joan Didion and this riveting article about the person who founded Cliff Notes (I have tried unsuccessfully to track the Cliff Notes article in the States). Also, Mike Royko articles seemed to pop up in all these anthologies.

    I also read about 50 different textbooks on various topics, some of which were quite good (I remember one in particular, American Economic History, as being quite fascinating). One of the most fascinating articles came from a Comp Sci article collection textbook talking about Turing Test/using Twilight Zone episodes as illustrations. The English language was a little difficult, but my students loved it.

    Much as I loved those anthologies, I’m sure I could dig up some pretty incredible internet essays just by checking a few weblogs. It’s too bad that the infrastructure of ebooks is not established to allow you to read these kinds of things “on the road.”

  2. dave says:

    I haven’t read the Cliff’s Notes essay, which indeed sounds fascinating, but I’ve read all the others. Neat to know that other than the editorial assistants at competing publishers, someone else has done the same thing I did!

  3. I’m a grad student, with years of experience teaching freshman comp and composition for underprepared students. After the first five years or so, looking at the twenty or thirty anthologies provided for textbook selection each year, I started making readers with a photocopier, and yes, the hardest part is the permissions. I think I can locate a copy of that Cliff notes essay–I’ll get back to you if I can Robert Nagle. Now, I do much the same thing, I pick the ones I like, and, because it’s currently The Way We Teach, try to come up with a thematic connection. Last time my thematic connection was the strikingly innovative These Are Really Interesting Texts and I Like ‘Em a Whole Lot. Now I produce digital readers for my students, and usually, several different forms, because the container for the text does affect the reading experience. If the e-book is designed well, reading “on the road” should be simple.

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