Reading for the sake of aesthetic enthusiasm
It was one of my college professors, the late Falstaffian oracle Howard Ziff, who one day stumped his students in “New Journalism” — at a time when that term had nothing to do with social media or Fake News — by challenging them to write a companion piece to George Orwell’s essay “Why I Write.”
Being, as we were, a classroom of would-be Orwells, the task was greeted with a great deal of undergraduate chutzpah. You could almost hear the typewriters whimpering in anticipation of the sort of over-written self-aggrandizement about to be pounded into submission by undergraduate would-be Orwells.
Howie (if you called him “Professor Ziff,” it was clearly your first encounter with him) had other ideas. He knew why we wanted to write; he was after something far more insidious, a paper that, to his way of thinking, could give him insight into his potential ink-stained wretches.
He wanted returned essays on a completely different topic. He wanted it called ... “Why I Read.”
Wait? What? The “shift-caps I” keys of typewriters across campus sighed in relief. Howie wanted to know not so much what we read ... but why we chose to read what we read.
By the end of the day Thursday.
March is National Reading Month, and Howie Ziff’s assignment came to mind the other day when my wife asked her husband why he had decided on taking home a particular novel from the New Paperbacks table at Bloomsbury.
In my paper for “New Journalism,” I recall that I wrote that I would read anything — the backs of cereal boxes and baseball cards, a wall filled with posters, this new magazine called “People.” I recounted the time I bought six newspapers to read everything that had been written when my favorite ballplayer had been traded.
I finished my essay with a mea culpa for being so indiscriminate about my reading tastes — a lament that Howie brushed aside, championing my desire to absorb words, then taking me for a beer (or two) at the bar on the top floor on the on-campus hotel.
I passed his test.
The book I chose the other day — “If, Then” by Oregon novelist Kate Hope Day — was a title I had been vaguely familiar with aforehand. The back-cover description promises a story about the possibilities of lives turning out in various ways. It’s a topic to which I’ve always been drawn.
(I should note here, that “If, Then” is not related to the musical “If/Then” — recently produced at Southern Oregon University.)
But what cinched the deal with me to pick up Day’s debut novel was its first paragraph:
“The Earth trembles. She tastes metal. That’s how it starts on a moonless Sunday in Clearing, Oregon, in the shadow of the dormant volcano locals call Broken Mountain.”
Clean, crisp, unsettling notes to let the reader know that, although what immediately follows sounds mundane, that’s a false sense of stability. “That’s how it starts ...” has an added layer of insecurity after the two short preceding sentencing.
You want chutzpah? It takes chutzpah the size of Jupiter to start your first published novel with “The Earth trembles.” I knew before reaching the Bloomsbury cash register that this would be a book I wasn’t likely to give up on midway through ... even though I’m still waiting to start reading it.
Determining what we want to read isn’t an exact science. We all have our preferences, and our turn-offs. You show me an author photo where’s the writer’s head is so weighted by deep thoughts that it must be supported by his hand, and you’re not getting my money.
A slew of bookstores have eschewed with the cliché of judging a book by its cover by running “Blind Date” events, often in February, wherein the identity of the book is sealed beneath a brown paper wrapper ... on which is written generic details about the genre, the setting and the characters.
Such an idea seems less like a romantic notion, though, than the anxiety of receiving a gift from someone who knows you that might turn out to be a disappointment. (Come to think of it, maybe it is exactly like a blind date.)
Mohamed El Mougy, a Instagram user from Dubai whose pen name there is @CitizenBook, has taken the concept one level deeper.
The Nation, a news service out of the Middle East, reports that El Mougy has used his background as a data analyst to create an 11-question online survey that creates a profile of an expectant reader, from which he will select a book and send to you — again wrapped in brown paper — for the equivalent of 19 U.S. dollars (plus shipping).
I wasn’t as intrigued in the prospect of getting an unknown book in the mail (I’m not even sure how many customers he has, if any, from the United States), as I was with the survey itself. I haven’t put much stock in the success of an algorithm after seeing him attempt to do the Macarena.
The inconvenient truth is that many of us aren’t that comfortable with a computer program telling us what to read — as opposed to something less important than, say, who we should date, or what defensive shift the infield should employ against the batter at the plate.
And @CitizenBook’s survey questions did tend toward the nerd-zone. One asks which of the following describes you best — Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter or “I am Not A Geek.” (I checked the box marked other.
Along with asking about genre preferences; tastes in television, movies and music; and favorites books that you’ve read, the survey asks how many you’ve read ... and says that a “Hardcore Bookworm” has read from 20-40. I double-checked; the question didn’t include “per year.”
“We are trying to help you discover new books that you’ll definitely fall in love with,” the final question begins, “so which mystery date would you prefer?”
The choices? ... “Something new.” ... Surprise me!” ... and “Don’t Mess With My Comfort Zone.”
I decided I already was comfortable in my “Comfort Zone” and decided not to send in the survey. I’ll read what I want to read, thank you very much.
After all, I have Howie’s approval on that score ... and that’s good enough for me.
Mail Tribune news editor Robert Galvin breezes through copies of People magazine left at the offices of email@example.com