Journals

While re-reading May Sarton’s At Seventy: A Journal, I recalled reading this essay about the book, by Jeffrey Levine, in June. I first read At Seventy when I was, I think, 40 years old…I recommended it to my mother-in-law, who–like Sarton–lived alone and loved to garden. I now recognize in Sarton’s journal aspects of life and aging and creativity that I had not thought much of when I was younger–at 40, I felt envious of her freedom as a single woman. I was raising young teens, managing a busy household, working on a master’s degree, feeling I had no time to myself.

One thing that interests me about Sarton is her decision to keep journals intended for publication, beginning I think with her journal about recovering from cancer, though she had written at least one memoir before that journal.

Another poet who wrote journals intended for publication was the Japanese writer Masaoka Shiki. Perhaps his most famous diary (in the West, at least) is “The Verse Record of My Peonies,” thanks to a translation by Earl Miner. Shiki kept writing haiku and haibun, as well as reviews, for the newspaper even as he was slowly dying of tuberculosis. His journal entries (there are others) were intended for readers.

My journals (and I have kept one ever since I was ten and read Harriet the Spy), however, would not make good reading; I would be embarrassed if they were published, especially unedited and unrevised, and no one would feel inspired, delighted, or edified by them. The concept of writing a daily journal intended to be read seems either brave or a bit dishonest, like a persona. Then again–many early weblogs were exactly that: daily public journals read by whatever online audience stumbled upon them. And perhaps this blog acts as my public journal, mostly about what I read, what’s in the garden, and what I’m teaching. Those pursuits, made public, do not mask who I am. They are the things I choose to reveal.

I don’t know if that’s different from a social media persona. But here’s a sleeping cat to look at while I ponder.

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Ways of reading

Conversing about books with a colleague recently, I began to reflect on how readers of literature read. The topic had come up earlier in the day when several students came in for tutoring on literary-analysis papers. In addition, a student in the Education program was devising a curriculum for third-graders; the lesson focus was about “different ways of reading.” I have always loved to read, and I never spent much time considering how I go about it. It just seemed natural to me…and then I encountered academia’s approach to reading and had to reconsider the way I devoured fiction.

My coworker consumes novels the way a literature professor does. He savors passages, re-reads earlier chapters in a novel to find connections with later parts of the book, and looks up references and allusions to be sure he understands the deep context of a literary text. He asks himself questions about what he’s reading. The questions keep him reading and engaged with the words on the page.

That method is how I read poetry. But it is not how I read novels or non-fiction books; those I read at a clip, almost inhaling them, seldom stopping. I read them for pleasure, for fun–I even absorb sad novels and memoirs this way, in a mad whirl of reading enjoyment, caught up in the events and characters and setting of the book in my hands. This is not to say I never look up words, places, references, but generally I do so after I have finished the book. I guess I examine such things in retrospect.

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The downside of reading fiction using my own “natural” method is that I tend to come away from a book with a strong sense of whether it was wonderfully-written or moving or amazing, but I cannot explain why it has that effect–how the author managed to get me to  believe in the characters or the world she created with her words alone. When I am reading for fun or information, however, there isn’t any need for analytical levels of cognition. If I forget a detail, I can go back and look for it later. Or forget about it. No great loss.

There are other methods of reading–certainly more than two ways to “get into” a book! The conversation about reading strategies (what feels natural to a literature-consumer, how readers savor a good book, questioning not just the text but also the self reading the words) piques my interest. I suspect some connection with consciousness and cognition, aspects of human-ness I have mulled about in previous posts.

Well, enough for now. I am signing off–to read a good book!

Waves & relationships

I had planned to take a little “vacation” from difficult books this summer and read a bit of fiction, go to the movies, work in the garden. And while Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid covered the challenging topic of reading and delved into some neurological explanations for the process of how we read and how literacy changes our brains, Wolf writes in layperson’s terms and divides her text into easily understandable chunks. It was a relatively easy read on a complex topic and reminded me that I need to re-read Proust’s famous essay “On Reading Ruskin.”

Then my dad said I should read Reflection in the Waves by Pablo Bandera. Here’s a physicist with a philosophical bent who tries “reconciling the realism of Aquinas with the empirical evidence of quantum mechanics.” I like Bandera’s interdisciplinary approach, a blend of physics–his main area of expertise, a “true” science–and philosophy, anthropology, evolution, even theology. Does Bandera entirely succeed in persuading me that the observer effect of quantum physics is a human-based, perspective conundrum that may not be a problem at all? Not completely, but it is an intriguing theory about which I remain open-minded. The recognition that being human alters the observing mechanism seems sensible to me.

I would never suggest that Reflection in the Waves is an easy read for the average informed person. It contains a few fascinating observations and summaries, however, that relate to human relationships (our need to connect), to communication, literature, and art. He writes:

What distinguishes us humans from other objects around us, including other measurement devices, is not that our reality is not somehow irrelevant for the physical world, but that our relationship to this world is such that it transcends the mere subject-object relationship currently envisioned by the physicist.

Reality=relationship to others and the world. That’s a contemporary way of interpreting Aquinas. I’ve never before thought of myself as a Thomist, and the very idea makes me giggle. But as a writer, especially as a poet, the relationships and connections in the physical world are the stuff of metaphors that engage the conscious mind of abstract thought and help to put the poem across to other readers’ minds (thank you, Maryanne Wolf). Perhaps not so far from philosophy, or physics, or neurology, after all.

The morbid book group

[FYI, readers, I have a poem in this anthology, which relates to this post.]

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A little over a year ago, I was invited to participate in a book discussion group that  focuses on texts that offer varying perspectives concerning health, surviving cancer, different cultural views of aging, and dying; books on “dying well,” hospice and palliative care, and on hope and healing; books on chronic pain and on neurology and the medical establishment, on birth traditions, on the history of medicine. We have also read The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, Still Here by Ram Dass, and discussed books that have topics such as placebo effects, psychology, alternative medicines, the pharmaceutical industry, hospitals, the training and practice of doctors, and the death & dying ‘industries,’ including works by authors with personal and moral perspectives on how to live (and how to die). The people involved have included a pediatric palliative care expert, a NICU nurse, a hospice team spiritual counselor, a minister, a former nurse and massage therapist who’s a tai chi instructor, and others–most of us “of a certain age,” by which euphemism I mean we have been living through the experience of having parents in extreme old age and of having long-time friends who now contend with chronic or potentially fatal illnesses. At least one of us has survived cancer.

For a perspective on how most Americans view a serious study of such topics, I offer my husband’s assessment. He calls this “the morbid book group.”

In fact whenever I mention that I participate in a book group (a popular American activity), people ask me if the group has a theme; I tell them, “The theme is medicine, and wellness, and how we die.” And there’s inevitably a pause, and usually my friend asks, “Isn’t that kind of depressing?”

No. It has not been depressing, in fact. I have gained more than I can say from these books and from our small group discussions: information, perspective, philosophy, insight, dare I say wisdom? Not to mention freedom to talk about those things we tend to evade in polite conversation, the space in which to say “This really sucks” or “This saddens me deeply” or to ask, “What can we do?” The book selections have led to great discussions–and have helped me to forge some new friendships as well as to confront and accept different points of view on controversial issues surrounding health care. And death, yes (hello morbid books!), and grief, and–most of all–compassion.

Difficult books? Challenging reading? Have I ever shied from it? I relish exploring this kind of non-fiction-fact-science-ethics-cultural criticism. Participating in this book group is one of the highlights of my current life experience; it’s up there with my long-running poetry critique group and my MFA years in terms of transformational engagement and exchange of ideas.

Below, a list of some of the books we have read and talked about. Just in case any of my readers wish to begin a morbid book group of their own.

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Radical Remissions, Kelly A. Turner

Knocking on Heaven’s Door, Katy Butler

Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson

Death’s Door, Sandra Gilbert

Living with a Wild God, Barbara Ehrenreich

Still Here, Ram Dass

Being Mortal, Atul Gawande

The Anatomy of Hope, Jerome Groopman

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche

Birth, Tina Cassidy

The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison

Counterclockwise, Ellen Langer

The Pain Chronicles, Melanie Thernstrom

Choosing Civility, P.M. Forni

Healing Spaces, Esther M. Sternberg

Die Wise, Stephen Jenkinson

…& more ahead, as we plumb consciousness, placebos, the medical hierarchy, and compassionate ways of living in the world. By the way, readers–suggestions for further readings are welcome!

 

 

Reading as drug

“…Let us admit that reading with us is just a drug we cannot do without–who of this band does not know the restlessness that attacks him when he has been severed from reading too long, the apprehension and irritability, and the sigh of relief which the sight of a printed page extracts from him?–and so let us be no more vainglorious than the poor slaves of the hypodermic needle or the pint-pot.”  ~ W. Somerset Maugham, “The Book-Bag”

azaleas by Ann E. Michael

In June and July, my situation lets up enough that I am not in my office 40 hours a week and can, for a time, attend to the garden or the hiking trail or avail myself of more time to read. Yesterday, I browsed through the campus library and came away with seven or eight books. How I loved that feeling when I was a child: walking through the stacks, thumbing through card catalogues, picking and choosing, now with deliberation, now with impulse, until I had reached the borrowing limit!

It is, in a way, a kind of addiction, though for the past three decades I have been a bit more studied and less compulsive in my reading habits. A bit. Plants and animals, and the workings and seasons of the garden, are my alternate texts when the printed page is unavailable or my eyes feel tired. Certainly I read on-screen quite often, but that process is not nearly as fulfilling. I have downloaded a book by Deleuze (Difference and Repetition) as a kind of experiment; I’m not at all sure that philosophy will be comfortable to read on screen, but I suspect I might prefer reading philosophy on a computer than reading a novel on a computer.

For me, the worst thing about onscreen reading, as I possess neither laptop nor tablet computer, is the inability to stretch on a lounge chair or curl up on a sofa (or, best of all, in a hammock) while reading. And the pleasant experience of leaf-shadows gently caressing the off-white pages of a paper book, the tone of the paper shifting ever slightly as the light changes, the sensation of dozing off with a book over one’s face when the sun gets hot…book addicts find these aspects as enjoyable as the intellectual response to the material, the words themselves.

Several significant events & celebrations appear on this summer’s horizon, but with any luck I can employ my library cards to good purpose a few more times before the fall semester arrives.

 

 

Proofreading

Every Living Thing–The Life & Times of a Glasgow Vet Student has a cute anecdote regarding the value of careful proofreading and how small mistakes can be inconvenient and costly at the customs line. Who thinks to proofread a passport or visa? Well…

Proofreading is how I began my so-called career many years ago, and the habits I learned follow or perhaps plague me still. For example, I’m currently reading Hilary Mantel’s 1992 novel A Place of Greater Safety and finding the text riddled with typos. The most common error is a missed quotation mark–not surprising because Mantel takes a unique approach to setting  up dialogue. But it’s dismaying to find that a major publisher allowed so many mistakes to slip through, and it interrupts my reading pleasure.

Years ago, I saw Edna O’Brien reading at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. She read from one of her short story collections, and at one point she paused, adjusted her reading glasses, and stated: “Typographical error, Farrar, Straus, Giroux.” Called out on the podium, publishers!

Online sites host the largest number of typos and outright grammatical or mechanical mistakes, but paper texts aren’t as reliably correct as they once were. The New York Times has become quite lax lately; three months ago, I even found a typo in The New Yorker!

Proofreading services

I understand why there are so many more typos these days–there are so many fewer proofreaders. It gets expensive, hiring all those human beings to inspect the small details of every text, and publishers are not making as much money as they once did. How many picky readers like me exist? Probably not enough of us that we could stage a book-buying boycott demanding that Random House hire more proofreaders (people like me could never really stage such a boycott–we’re too addicted to books).

Computers, however, are not yet intelligent enough to catch the shimmery, shifting nuances of the English language and its attendant finery in the shape of punctuation and capitalization, footnoting and italicization. So there will be mistakes, and I guess I can live with that. “To err is human,” and all that. And Mantel is a fine writer.

Another Reading reading

On All Saints’ Day, November 1st, I’ll be reading poetry in Reading Pennsylvania–again! And this time, I’ll be accompanied by my fellow Goddard alumna, the dynamic and talented Barbara DeCesare, author of Jigsaw Eyesore and Silent Type.

Reading, PA is home to GoggleWorks, a former goggle-making factory that now serves as studio, theater, and gallery space for Berks County area artists and craftspeople of all kinds. Small, struggling cities like Reading are turning to the arts as a means to fill abandoned factory space and create an economic and cultural reason to keep downtown areas alive. Sometimes these efforts succeed, sometimes they don’t. GoggleWorks opened in its current incarnation in 2005. So far, that’s a 7-year run, supported through grants and donations and rent. I am optimistic about GoggleWorks and about other such endeavors, including Bethlehem PA’s Banana Factory, which is a little closer to my neighborhood. I strongly believe the arts belong in our neighborhoods, in our school curricula, and in our lives.

I’m thrilled, therefore, to be reading from my book, Water-Rites, at 6 pm November 1st at GoggleWorks’ Cucina Cafe.

And I’m thrilled to be reading with Barbara, whose work is funny, poignant, imaginative, fierce, and charming by turns.

November 1st is the Day of the Dead in Mexico, a good day for elegies and to celebrate the lives of those we’ve loved and lost. I will be thinking of David Dunn, among other dear ones. And in honor of All Saints’ Day, I may also read a poem or two about saints; recently, I’ve composed a few imaginary lives of saints poems.

I have no idea what Barbara DeCesare has up her sleeve for this event, but it is certain to be delightful. If you are in the region, stop by at 6 pm. I believe an open mic follows the reading.

water-rites by Ann E Michael