The Act of Reading

The pixels are still warm on my post about Cummingswrites, and here I am writing about reading. Such is life.

At the start of the new year, I tried a little experiment with my reading habits. Feeling a need to disconnect from the digital, I switched to reading only paper books. There are many reasons to make this switch, but here’s a handful of the ones that I muttered to myself:

  • You cannot escape that when you hold a book, you know you’re holding it. There’s something about that weight in your hands, the visible progress as the pages left begin to thin in comparison to the pages read.
  • Not everything’s digital. Maybe it’s because it wasn’t popularize enough to digitize, or maybe the rights aren’t available. Whatever the reason, there are actually books that aren’t available for downloadable purchase. Shocker.
  • We have a used bookstore nearby. Half-Price books has been wonderful for finding treasures. Granted, it’s not only the closest bookstore, it’s the only bookstore in the area. We live in a desert of brick and mortar books (unless you’re looking for religious tracts or new age manifests, which I am not).

At first, things were grand. I had (and still partially have) a stack of books to read. What could go wrong? As it turns out, I’m spoiled, and that was the beginning of my downfall.

  • The first thing I didn’t anticipate was the weight of it all. Most books I read fall somewhere between 300 and 1,000 pages. When your laptop is already back-breaking, adding the weight of a heavy book along with all of the other trappings of commuting – well, you begin to look for things you can drop from your back. Sitting or standing on the BART is fine, but you also have to carry that for the walk. Bah. I wasn’t up for it is the short of it.
  • I also quickly learned the pain of misplacing a book. As it turned out, it was hidden in my backpack, but not after spending days thinking I’d lost the book. With digital books, I have them synched across most of my devices. Misplace a device? Use another, it’ll pick up right where you left off.
  • A not inconsiderable factor: satisfying the Yearning, that mood, that itch needing scratched, that compels to me to drop whatever I’m reading and pursue something. Eleven at night is not an ideal time to go to a bookstore, if there was one, and if it was even open.  But in this digital age, for all its faults, we can at least download samples to see if a book will satisfy our craving.

And so I ultimately failed the paper only diet. Spoiled, perhaps, but I just can’t forgo using digital books in my life. Wiser friends have pointed out that it’s possible to read both formats – some paper, some digital. I call witchcraft. And concede that that is probably my path too.

For this reading challenge, I challenged the format I read. Next, I think I want to challenge what I’m reading. For too long, my diet has been like the country western bar in Blues Brothers (the original movie – no remakes over here!). I’ve subsisted on a diet of two closely bound genres for too long. It is high time for some exposure, some broadening of the mind.

Some non-fiction.

Yeah, I said it – non-fiction. Books about real things with real people – or at least involving real people, though that won’t always be the case (I can think of a few pure science books that won’t even involve humans except as a footnote). I can’t say whether reading non-fiction will be my only diet – as in the case of trying to read only physical books, the path to success is one tempered in moderation, I suspect. I believe the health nuts call this a balance. Pffft. But we’ll see. New ideas expressed in new ways, about real things? Tell me more.

Because I’m enjoying this writing thing. Sure, I’ve been trying it for over a decade now, but I really feel like I’m starting to settle into my groove with it. But reading (what feels like) the same tropes repeated over and over can only result in fiction inspired to retread the same tropes. The argument that there are only so many stories, and we’re all just retelling the same story in different ways.

But then I look at humanity, and all of the different and fascinating – and horrific, and beautiful, and mesmerizing – things we do, and I figure, there has to be a few more stories out there we haven’t written down yet.

So maybe this post was about writing after all – because reading helps us find the stories that we tell each other.

On reading books

It will be no surprise I like books. If it is, perhaps we should sit down for a cup of something warm and caffeinated and talk about how we’ve parted ways so terribly. Growing up, of course, books were a thing of paper and cardboard, bound in glue or cloth. They were an always present weight in my pocket or hand, carrying me away from this world of the mundane. Secretly, I think they were bound with something a little more intangible – dreams and nightmares, adventure and excitement. I won’t give the child savant version of this tale – my reading of choice was, is, and has always been on the more pulpy side. There are times for great tomes and insightful reflections through our books, but typically I read to escape. I will even overlook bad prose (to a point) if the story is “fun” enough.

When e-book readers appeared on the scene en masse (I refer to the dawn of the Kindle era, though of course there had been “e-book readers” of a variety for years before that), I was not an early adopter. I was, however, an earlier than others adopter, buying a used 1st generation kindle on the cheap.  The appeal of the e-reader to someone like me is the nearly mind-boggling concept that in your hands you can hold a library’s worth of books, read on demand, travel anywhere. Back when the built-in 3G option was more common, this also meant being able to buy new books whenever you wanted, at a moment’s notice, no matter the time of day. That kind of freedom is like sitting down to an all you can eat buffet. The cover price may be a little pricy, but once you’re in it’s a feast.

Before I go on, I should say, I love my Paperwhite. Crisp text, a backlight, and a really long battery life. It is the ideal for reading on the go. I even enjoy my $50 Fire, though largely I use it as a spare reader (oh the convenience!) and for comics (because I am a kid inside).

Late last year I started on a mission – to read the backlog of digital books I had bought on $1 and $2 sales on Amazon.  Most of these were initial volumes in series that I wanted to read, but never felt up to spending $10-$12 on (sorry). When the books came up on sale, usually because a sequel had just been released, I grabbed them. But over time, that’s left me with a digital  mountain of reading material. Plus, there are the books I have picked up via Story Bundle. I  intend to make my way through that mountain still.

But lurking on the side, I also have a TBR pile of physical books. I picked up Stephen King’s new collection of short stories, Bazaar of Bad Dreams at the store the other day. Something about holding that in my hands, turning the pages, triggered memories of why I like reading physical books in the first place. That feeling of immersion and achievement as you read, something that is lost reading a digital copy. No matter how light we like our digital devices and how much that adds to their appeal, there is something magical about the weight of a book in your hand.

So looking ahead to 2016, I will aim to make it one of my goals for the year to engage more physical books. Get paper cuts, smell the scent of a used bookstore,  dive into the pages. Some things I will still read digital, of course. In addition to my (shrinking!) backlog of e-books, there are some authors where it  only makes sense to get the digital book. This is particularly true of the smaller press and indie authors I’ve come to enjoy, but also books that I know I will love to read – and then set aside. Better to have a digital bookshelf of have-reads than a pile in the house.

And there are advantages to reading physical books again. For starters, not everything is digital. I mentioned my love for the pulpier fiction earlier. A lot of books from the 90’s and before, unless termed popular enough or classic enough (or turned into a TV/movie) will never see digital space [legally]. Reading the physical book is the only way to get to a lot of those.

I read physical books more slowly. I don’t rush when reading digitally, but I recognize that it takes me longer to read a physical book. Maybe it’s the need for light and setting, absent when I’m able to read a digital book anywhere on anything. But I also feel like I read a book more fully when I’m reading the paper copy. Subjective as hell, but there you go.

I will continue to post the books I read in Goodreads as I read and finish them, but in tandem with this desire to read more physical books, I’ve decided not to do a reading goal in Goodreads this year. I know it’s all in good fun, but I just want to enjoy the act of reading. Goodreads is a fantastic tool for cataloging as you read books, finding new recommendations, etc.. I just don’t want to use it as a competitive tool.

So that’s a lot of words for what is now a Saturday. If you see me on the BART, or lounging in a chair, go ahead and ask me what book that is in my hand. I’ll be happy to tell you about it. Just don’t be surprised if I ask what you’re reading.





So that happened, a series of unrelated events

Seems like a lot has been happening around Casa Cummings the last few days, all of it unrelated. To kick things off, we’re pretty sure we got hit by lightening late last week. At least that’s what we’re calling it – there was a white, blinding flash at the same time as our brains tell us there was a weird popping noise and a vibration that I could feel through my feet. The only casualty in our house was our router and the surge protector it was connected to – everything else seemed to survive unscathed. This isn’t the first time that we’ve had a close call – ten years ago the house across the street got hit and the lightening traveled down the line and into our house, burning out a DVD player and a TV. All things considered, I think we fared pretty well this time.

Private home reference library
Private home reference library (Photo credit: warwick_carter)

In other news, last night I sat down and began writing again. I have reached a place in my initial outline where my brain is ready for me to start putting words down. I was nervous at first – it had been months since I successfully strung anything together. I’ve set up a goal date and word count, with an implied minimum word count per day (a fluid number, I realize, as days with bursts will offset the quieter days). But it has begun. Last night I put down the first 1k of the rewrite of “The Shambling Man,” book one in my urban fantasy series.

And as a final capper – after a year’s absence, I finally went back to the gym today. As I joked on twitter, I mention this not to gloat, but as a notation for future scholars. Day one is easy, I’ve had plenty of them. It’s repeating this every day, every week, for months that is the true test.

That’s about it for now. More on this gym and writing thing in the next few days (I hope).

N.B. – The photo on this page is apropos of nothing actually discussed. I just like book porn, and despite my desire and need to consolidate my physical book footprint in the house, find rooms like this to be intoxicatingly alluring.