Book report

For a long time, reading was one of my great pleasures.  I was constantly reading when I was younger – on weekends and after school, on vacation, at recess, and even late into the night when I’d sneak into the bathroom and read by the nightlight my parents kept there.  I could devour a book in a few days.  I never seemed to bring enough reading material on vacation that there wasn’t a point where we’d have to visit a book store to tide me over until we got home.

Sadly, this isn’t a pleasure that I’ve really kept up with.  Partly, I think it’s a case of having spent so much of my grad school life reading that it’s become more work than relaxation to me.  No matter how many interesting, intriguing, or thought-provoking texts I read, there was always an element of work attached to it.  The materials needed to be understood, evaluated, retained, and applied in very important ways.  This seems to make reading more of a high-pressure activity for me than the time to unwind that I’d like it to be.

On top of that, I had so little time for reading for pleasure that I also put a lot of pressure on myself to choose the perfect book for the limited time that I had.  I constantly felt like I wanted to be reading the “right” book, one that would entertain, enlighten, inspire, fit my mood, and allow me to relax all at the same time – a very tall order (too tall, in fact).  Unfortunately, the desire to choose the most ideal book out of the many that I have waiting to be read often means that I’d dither and debate so long that I’d rarely get to read very much at all, even to this day.

My hope this year is that I can get myself reading for pleasure again on a much more regular basis.  Practically speaking, reading is an inexpensive, engaging, mind-opening hobby that can be done almost anywhere.  But even more than that, I want to cry at sad books, laugh at happy ones, and rant at those that anger me.  I’d like to lose Saturday afternoons engrossed in reading a book on the couch and stay up until 2 am flipping through the pages of something that I couldn’t possibly put down.

In an effort to keep track of what I’ve been reading and buying, I’m going to try to do a monthly book report here.  I’m hoping that it will be further incentive to read more and to eventually relax into reading without the associations of work and the pressure to choose that are all to common these days.

During February, I read:

  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman
  • Auguries of Innocence – William Blake
  • Five Little Pigs – Agatha Christie
  • The ABC Murders – Agatha Christie
  • After the Funeral – Agatha Christie
  • You Can Buy Happiness (And It’s Cheap) – Tammy Strobel

I also bought (all used):

  • The Forest of Hours – Kerstin Ekman
  • What Are People For? – Wendell Berry
  • The Owl Pen – Kenneth Wells
  • The Morte D’Arthur – Thomas Mallory
  • Short Novels – John Steinbeck
  • The Winter Queen – Boris Akunin
  • Middlemarch – George Eliot
  • Dharma Bums – Jack Kerouac
  • The Golem and the Jinni – Helene Wecker

Looking at these lists, it also strikes me that one of my aims should probably be to read at least as many books in a month as I bring home.  Books are a weakness for me – actually, it could probably be argued that they’re my greatest vice – and the fact that I can buy them very inexpensively very close to home has resulted in a vast surplus of reading material.  I’d like to make my way through more of what I have, keep what I love, pass along what I don’t, and build a collection of books that I really love.

What should I do with my life?

A few days ago, Eric at Root Simple wrote a post called How to Answer the Question, “What Should I Do With My Life?” talking about looking at our bookshelves to figure out what it is that we really want to do.  A few other blogs seem to have picked it up as well, so I decided to have a look at my own shelves to see what they say about my current values and priorities.

Most of my book purchases over the last few years have been focused on greater self reliance and, in particular, food.  Even my academic books – once focused largely on technology and assorted digital things – have made way for more books critiquing consumerism and looking at modern food issues in our society (there are actually some rather compelling links between the two, which is what I’m currently working on).

Books 2Apart from my academic life, I’ve also bought a large number of books that are focused on food in a few different ways.  Some of them deal with the social and cultural implications of food and the issues with our current food system.  I’m interested in everything from critical perspectives on what’s not working through to books about the history of food.  On top of this, I’ve also acquired quite a lot of books on producing, cooking, and preserving food – everything from seed saving and gardening to cooking dinner from scratch and making jam.  Beyond food, I also have a selection of books on skills including knitting, crochet, sewing, weaving, bush craft, basket making, natural dyeing, soap making, root cellaring, house construction, bee keeping, livestock care and feeding, and herbalism.

Books 3As for the rest of them, I have a bookcase devoted to fiction and another with sections devoted to a range of topics: folklore, naturalism, graphic novels, communication and cultural theory, children’s literature, poetry, music, fitness, history, anthropology, finances, and social issues.  I suppose it’s also worth noting that I have a fairly large selection of books on things like happiness, mindfulness meditation, and compassion.  These are fairly recent additions to the shelf, and I think they illustrate my desire for a life that is not only more resilient, but hopefully also happier and more mindful.

Books 1Here’s a selection of a few of my current favourites:

  • The Urban Homestead
  • Living Seasonally
  • Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
  • Forgotten Skills of Cooking
  • The River Cottage Cookbook
  • The Art of Simple Food
  • Tassajara Bread Book
  • Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day
  • The Art of Fermentation
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved
  • Square Foot Gardening
  • The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible
  • Four-Season Harvest
  • The Year Round Vegetable Gardener
  • The One Straw Revolution
  • Shop Class as Soulcraft
  • Your Money or Your Life
  • Less if More: The Art of Voluntary Poverty
  • Living More With Less
  • Mindfulness in Plain English
  • The Places that Scare You

I’ve always had varied interests, which are pretty well represented here.  But the large selection of books that are focused on skills makes it pretty clear to me that I’m looking to do more with my life than just think.  I want to be active and productive and find ways to be more self-reliant.  With that in mind, I’m going to get up from looking at my books and actually get down to making something this afternoon – I’m thinking some whole wheat bread might be in order, and perhaps a bit of knitting.

Luz, Girl of the Knowing

A number of years ago, as I was doing research into things like sustainability, transition, and peak oil, I stumbled across Claudia Dávila’s wonderful comic, Luz, Girl of the Knowing.

If you’re not familiar with it, I highly recommend checking it out.  It’s an inspiring look at a young girl who is learning about some of the ways we can learn about and adapt to a changing world with enthusiasm, resourcefulness, and no small degree of intensity.  I’m sure many of us can see ourselves not only in Luz, but in some of the other characters as well.  There are 39 episodes in the series, and they can all be found from the start here.

Afternoon reading

Some days, you walk into the campus bookstore to have a small look around prior to your meeting, and you find not one, not two, not three, but four books that are highly relevant to both your current personal and academic interests in things like consumption and individual production.  And they all have read sale stickers on them.  And there’s a nearby sign proclaiming that all red sale stickers will be discounted by an additional 50 percent at the cash.  And so you leave with these:

New Books

All for less than you’d spend at the thrift store for the same books.  And, because you’re so excited about new books, you then proceed to talk about the admittedly minor experience in the second person for some unknown reason.

In any case, I guess I know what I’ll be reading this afternoon.  I’m off to make some tea and find a blanket…

December reading list

Recently, I started reading again.  Technically, I never really stopped, but for a few years (yes, years), all I really read was theory and research.  Now don’t get me wrong – I like theory and research, but I cannot live by Derrida and Baudrillard alone.  I just didn’t have the time or often the brainpower for much of anything beyond what was required for teaching and the dissertation.

Happily, I’ve recently rediscovered the pleasure of reading, whether it be a long afternoon to polish off a whole novel or a chapter or two read on an afternoon break.  It took me awhile to get to this point, and it took some real, determined effort to make time for it at first, but now that I’m back at it, I’m as completely hooked as I was in undergrad when I stayed up late on weekends, settled cozily into bed with Jane Eyre, A Prayer for Owen Meany, or Look Homeward, Angel.

Now that I’m back at it, I’m polishing off books at a fairly rapid clip.  Sure, I started out with some wonderful young adult fantasy books that I could get through quickly at the start – The Gates and Un Lun Dun were great – but I’ve also started expanding my horizons again to include classics, modern literature, humour, cookbooks, and non-fiction.  Given how much I want to read, and how excited I am about it, I’ve also started to take real pleasure in thinking about and planning what I want to read next, so I thought that every month I’d keep track of what I’d read the previous month and set out a few books to read for the upcoming one.

In November, I made my way through:

  • John Steinbeck – Travels with Charley in Search of America
  • China Miéville – Un Lun Dun
  • Michael Chabon – The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
  • John Connelly – The Gates
  • Guy Gavriel Kay – Tigana

For December, I’m planning to read through:

  • Annie Dillard – Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
  • John Irving – The Cider House Rules
  • Charles Dickens – A Christmas Carol
  • Sandor Ellix Katz – The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved
  • Heston Blumenthal – In Search of Perfection

Personally, I like having a few books on the go at once, especially when some are fiction and some are non-fiction.  I’ve especially been loving the opportunity to read more about food related topics, which I really enjoy on its own, but also presents some interesting research opportunities for future academic work.  But for now, I’m going to grab a blanket, settle myself in on the couch with The Cider House Rules, and slip away to Maine and John Irving’s well-wrought world for a little while.