Sunday, September 23, 2012

a (Personal) Brief History of Reading

I was recently reading the latest post on my good friend Michelle’s blog (—and if you’re not reading or following her blog, you need to be. She’s an awesome writer and has many wonderful insights). Her post, I Want to Be the Minority got me thinking about my own history of reading, and I decided that there may be a story there to tell. So here you go…

Let me start by saying that, if you know me, this may be a big surprise.

I love reading. I’ve read hundreds of books. For a short while I worked at a used bookstore, and loved so much about the job. My favorite stores are Barnes & Noble, Powell’s (in Portland, OR), Bookman’s (several locations in AZ), and just about any independent bookstore (especially used bookstores). Between my wife and I, we have 600+ books and are constantly adding to our collection in hopes of someday having our very own “Beauty and the Beast library.”

Most people who know me know all of these things. What most people don’t know is that I used to hate reading. And I don’t just mean when I was a precocious five-year-old who only ever wanted to be playing outside or with my friends or playing video games. I mean that I hated reading all throughout elementary, middle, and even—gasp!—high school. It’s true. Of course every now and then throughout those years I’d come across a book that wasn’t so bad, but for the most part, I didn’t want to have anything to do with books or reading.

When I first learned to read (which my parents taught me how to do before I started kindergarten), the only things I wanted to read were video game manuals and guides. I still remember a special guide I had that covered the first three of the old NES Mega Man games, which I read several times through and through (even the section devoted to Mega Man 1, which I didn’t even own and still have never played).

Through the first several years of elementary school (especially third and fourth grade), all the kids in my class were in a craze of reading Goosebumps (the kids horror series by R. L. Stein). I borrowed one of these books from a classmate and couldn’t get past the third page. It wasn’t that it was a bad book—it’s just that it was a book. As well, in third grade, my teacher gave me a boxed set of the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. I actually took the time to read the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe shortly thereafter (and enjoyed it), but didn’t bother with the rest of the series—even if they were good, they were still books, after all.

Mind you, all along my reading skills were several years ahead of the grade I was in. And I’ve always loved writing—I just didn’t ever want to read.

In high school, I pretty much only read books that were required for class. My junior year I discovered Winnie-the-Pooh and absolutely adored it, but this was a very rare exception. That same year, my Creative Writing teacher asked how I could write without reading, and this question didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t see how the two related (I understand now, of course, but I didn’t at the time).

The first half of my senior year, I read all the books I was required to for English and hated all of them (especially the Odyssey by Homer—ugh!). When we were required to write essays on these books, I got pretty bad scores—mostly 4’s and 5’s out of 9.

Then we got to the Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka.

You’re probably thinking I’m going to say this book turned me around; I loved it; I finally realized what reading was all about.

Nope—quite the opposite, in fact. As much as I hated everything else I’d read that year, I especially hated the Metamorphosis—so much so that I simply couldn’t bring myself to finish reading it. I knew I would struggle with writing the essay on it, but I wasn’t getting good grades on the essays anyways, so why bother? It just wasn’t worth it. I only read—at most—half of the Metamorphosis before tossing it aside. In class, when it came time to write the essay, I was much more nervous than normal and just wanted the awful mess to be over with, assuring myself that I wouldn’t do this again, that I would actually read the next book we were assigned.

But then something miraculous happened: I got an 8 out of 9 on the essay (sorry, Ms. Amundson). Yep: an 8. Ms. Amundson wrote comments on my paper to the effect of: she could tell I was finally grasping this whole essay-writing thing and it was apparent that I actually spent time with the book (ha!).

From then on, I didn’t read anything that was required for school, and saw mostly A’s on all my papers.

Who on Earth would read when they don’t have to?

I took the ACT at the end of my senior year, and got a good enough grade on the English section that I was able to entirely skip the 100-level of English classes in college. My first semester of college, I went straight into a 200-level class, and only went up from there.

This trend continued throughout my first couple years of college—I read almost nothing, despite taking many English classes, as well as several honors classes (which basically operated like weekly book clubs). And I kept getting A’s (or, on rare occasion, high B’s).

But somewhere in there, something happened.

One day, I got into a big fight with the girl I was dating at the time. Anymore, who knows what the fight was about; I certainly don’t remember now. I probably didn’t even really know at the time. I left her house that afternoon, quite upset. But I didn’t want to go home or to another friend’s house or anywhere else that normally would have been a comfort. For some reason, the only thing that sounded like an alright idea was to go to Barnes & Noble. Considering my aversion to reading at the time, I have no idea why this sounded like such a good idea. But I went.

Walking the halls of Barnes & Noble, I didn’t know what I was doing there or what I was looking for. I knew a lot about literary classics (mostly from paying attention and winging it in my classes), so I mostly looked around in that section. I picked up a few books—all ones whose name I had heard at some point or another—and read the descriptions. This actually doesn’t sound too bad…

I honestly don’t even remember if I bought anything that day. But by the time I left, I was feeling much better, and I had a small list of books that I thought I might try to read sometime—mostly classics, though there were also a few random science books on the list as well (every now and again—even to this day—I go through a kick where I suddenly become super nerdy and think I’m into science for a brief spell—it rarely lasts more than a few weeks though).

I don’t mind saying now that that particular girlfriend and I fought quite a bit—which meant that I began to spend more and more time at Barnes & Noble, and slowly began amassing a small collection of books. I even started to not only collect these books, but to actually read them—slowly of course, no more than one or so a month.

At first, I realize now, owning these books made me feel somehow proud and intellectual—even the books I didn’t read, I somehow felt smart just because they were on my shelf. I got better at BS’ing papers for school because (even though I still wasn’t reading any books for school), I understood the concept of books better, the flow of stories, the ways to skim the first couple pages and the last couple pages and get the gist of the story. I began to understand writing styles, which meant I could discuss various forms of writing, as opposed to merely discussing the plots of these books.

(By the way, fair warning: look out, because I’ve gotten quite deft at discussing books I’ve never read, as if I’ve read them. This seems to be a prerequisite for working in a book store. If you ask me straight-up if I’ve actually read a book, I won’t lie to you—but if you don’t ask, I may not volunteer the information.)

Here’s a list of a few of the early books I read that got me more into the idea of reading. I don’t mean to suggest that this will necessarily spark an interest for reading in other non-readers, but I thought it may be worth sharing anyway…

Winnie-the-Pooh and the House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne
The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff
Pooh and Philosophers, Pooh and Psychologists, and Pooh and the Millennium, all by John Williams
Inferno by Dante Alighieri (wait…okay, I haven’t actually read all of this yet. But I’ve read quite a bit of it, and I felt really good choosing it and adding it to my shelf all those years ago)
Bono in Conversation With Michka Assayas
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
Looking for Alaska by John Green (I bought this book completely on a whim just after it came out, and it became the first book I ever read all in one day. Perhaps not surprisingly, it held the title of my very favorite book for several years, before eventually being dethroned by a more recent book by the same author, Paper Towns)
The Giver by Lois Lowry
All Rivers Flow to the Sea by Alison McGhee
Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller
Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett
Seven Types of Ambiguity by Eliot Pearlman (this book really did a lot for me, but every person I’ve recommended it to hasn’t seemed to care for it, to my surprise)
Dracula by Bram Stoker

Nowadays, you can’t keep me away from books. I’m rarely to be seen anywhere without a book in my hands (even at work, church, school, etc.). I mostly enjoy classics and books that are on their way to becoming classics (i.e. anything by Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, C.S. Lewis, Jose Saramago, etc.), though certainly there are many exceptions to this. And of course there’s anything by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Michael Ende, Kahlil Gibran, and Zoran Zivkovic, none of whom can be overlooked.

I suppose, to be fair, there isn’t necessarily much of a point to me telling this story. Maybe the moral here is that people change in unexpected ways. Maybe it’s that a person’s history can always be a surprise. Who knows?—I just thought it’d be worth sharing, especially for those that know me.

And don’t worry—if I ever talk about any specific book in this blog, I’ll be sure it’s one that I’ve actually read, or else be very clear up front that I haven’t read it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


In light of all that’s been happening in the Middle East this past week (the revolts, the attack on the U.S. Embassy, etc.—all allegedly in response to a Youtube video defaming Islam), I’ve been thinking quite a bit about peace, what it really means and what it looks like and how we might find it. I’m not interested in talking about a political stance on anything right now, nor am I interested in hearing one. But I’d like to say something about peace and harmony.

There is a lot of conflict these days (really, I suppose there always has been) over opposing ideals: Republican versus Democrat, Christianity versus whatever other religion it currently happens to be picking on (at the moment Islam, though of course many other religions have fallen prey at one point or another throughout history). And it strikes me that this is all ridiculous. These things—these opposing political parties and religions and whatnot—are all just a means. The Republican Party is a means of governing the country, just as is the Democratic Party. They’re both after the same thing: running the country in (what they believe is) the most efficient way possible. Similarly, Christianity is a means of living life effectively and being compassionate to others and—possibly, hopefully—getting some sort of a reward for this in the end. But the exact same could be said of Islam and Buddhism and Wicca and just about any other religion out there. The fact is that these things are all means, not ends. They are roads.

The interesting thing is that sometimes we will get ourselves onto one of these roads and believe that it is the best of all roads. Perhaps this is not so bad in of itself, but the problem comes in what all-too-often happens next: we begin to talk about our road, preach about it, debate it, defend it, push it on other people, even fight over it (sometimes with words, sometimes violently). Absurd.

We are arguing over shortcuts.

Not to over-simplify things, but I tend to believe that we all want the same basic thing in life. It can be hard to define sometimes—and I certainly don’t want to get myself into a semantic trap here—but it seems to me that we all want peace, especially within ourselves (though, I suspect, most of us would like external peace as well). Peace is the end we’re all aiming for; now we are arguing over the means (which is ironic any way you look at it, but I’m here to make another point).

Interestingly, a very common synonym for peace is harmony—which is, of course, a musical term. Harmony happens when two or more different notes are played or sung together at the same time to produce a pleasing sound. The key here is that the notes are different. Harmony requires different elements working together in synchronicity. In other words, when we’re all playing the same note, we’re not in harmony.

I can’t help but think that this is how peace works as well. Peace doesn’t mean that we all agree all the time, or that there are no differences between us. Rather, it means that we accept our differences and get along with each other anyway.

To these people—the polarized and polarizing ones—I want to say:

“You think that the world would be more peaceful if everyone agrees with you, whether about your god, your religion, your political party—whatever. And maybe it would; who’s to say for certain? But I tend to think that the world would be more peaceful if we all were more accepting of each other, and got over our differences. The key distinction here is that your version of peace requires everybody but you to do something. My version requires that only I do something.”

I can't change everyone else. Really, I can’t even change anyone else. I can only change myself.

That said, which version of peace makes more sense?

I choose to take responsibility for myself and my version of peace, because I know that, ultimately, it is the only peace I have any say in. I cannot make the world listen to me, but I can make myself listen to the world.

Friday, September 14, 2012


“The roof of the kingdom
within has collapsed! When I say the
word you, I mean a hundred universes.”
from the poem The Death of Saladin by Rumi

Oddly, I actually don’t mind the coldness rushing in from my left, spilling in through my window as I drive away. Normally I have an aversion to the cold, but tonight it seems to make sense, almost as though this one small corner of the universe is conspiring to make me feel a very specific sensation or emotion as I drive towards nowhere. I’m not nowhere, of course; I’m somewhere, though it feels like I’m constantly at the edge of nowhere, like it’s always just a step away.

The moon is nowhere to be found, and through the darkness I almost can’t tell that it’s softly raining outside. It is only when I pass beneath a street light that I can see all the raindrops splayed across my windshield, lit up like a thousand sparks. And in those moments I am blinded by those droplets of water, those countless tiny mirrors reflecting light and only light. But instantly the moment passes and there is darkness again, on the other side of every window.

The inside of my car is bathed with a subtle neon glow from the face of my stereo which is, at the moment, playing Set the Fire to the Third Bar by Snow Patrol. This song, this mood, this lighting, these sparks are all leaving me breathing slowly and feeling vaguely haunted. But this is nothing new. I have heard these sounds and seen this light before. Perhaps it is the precision, this specific combination of elements, this atmosphere that surrounds me as I face off against the darkness that is haunting me now.
I don’t mind the coldness pouring in, but you are not in the breeze. I don’t mind the rain that is occasionally blinding me, but you are not in the water or in the mirrors. And I don’t mind the darkness…but surely—wherever you are—you are in the darkness too. Probably it is just another darkness that you are in, a darkness different than mine, a different edge of the circular nowhere that is at the heart of the universe. But of course that universe is only you and me and our ghosts.

The truth is that I’m running, but even I don’t know if it’s toward you or away from you. I can only hope you are just as magnanimous now as you were then, because there’s simply no way to explain how we are fading.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Seagulls Only Die Until 5pm

The moment you step outside of my office, you are immediately confronted by the sound of a thousand seagulls dying. They’re not seagulls, of course—we’re about 800 miles from the sea, give or take a handful. But still, there they are: the sound of the seagulls, cawing, flapping their wings amidst screeches as they plummet to the earth or to the water. At least this is how I picture them dying, falling out of the sky, still struggling all throughout their descent. I’ve never seen it happen. And I’m certainly not going to around here, 800 miles from the sea.

You can only hear them until 5pm, when the lights are turned off, when it’s time to go home from the factory.

I hear them if I happen to go outside on my lunch break, or on the days I go home early. Other days—the days when I don’t leave the building until 5 o’clock—I don’t hear the seagulls. I presume they’re still there throughout the day, dying, though there’s no way of knowing for certain. If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around…but how absurd. Of course seagulls die even when we’re not looking.

My son cries when I’m not looking, though his crying is not so clockwork as the sound of the seagulls. Here and there, now and again throughout the day he’ll cry, but of course that’s normal for a three-month-old boy.

But sometimes he smiles, and that’s when I remember that it’s all worth it. I don’t mean to say that it’s only worth it when he smiles—certainly it’s all worth it when he’s crying and frowning too. I just mean that it’s easier to see that it’s worth it when he’s happy.

And of course smiling doesn’t make a sound. Perhaps happiness is a quiet emotion, because we don’t necessarily feel the need to share it. I am happy, and that is enough. But when we decide to share our happiness, when we show someone else our smile, we realize that happiness should not be a private affair, that others need our happiness just as much as we ourselves need it.

Sometimes when I awaken, I see that my son is already awake, looking around in awe, smiling at anything and everything, and even at me. I wonder: how often does he smile, even when I’m not looking?

I think that one of the saddest things in life, rather than seeing tragedy, is not seeing happiness. Surely happiness is happening all around us, even when we’re not looking. It makes me sad to think about all of the smiles that I miss from my son or from my wife when I’m not around, all the symphonic laughter that I’m not a part of and that I’ll never know, because I’m asleep or at work or in the other room or somehow otherwise just away.

The seagulls have their beginning and their end. They are from 8 to 5, and they are a distraction. But happiness doesn’t have a clock. It is forever—or at least, it should be. And I hope that I always do my part to let it be.

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