I am on a reading binge.

books towerI have been devouring books as of late. Not literally, because although that would be some great fiber for my diet, it would also be expensive and a perfect waste of a good book. No, I’ve just been reading a lot of books.

In fact, I’m having trouble keeping up with my book reviews. I just get excited about reading the next book before I write about the book I just read. It probably doesn’t help that some of the books I’ve been reading have been graphic novels, which pack the essence of a full story into an afternoon-sized reading time.

All that to say that I’ve read some really good books lately, and I would be remiss if I did not share the fact that they are all worthy of reading. So I’ll see what I can do this week about catching up on these reviews.

But if I fall short in that goal, understand that while my intentions are good, I may just have succumbed to the lure of another excellent book.

I’m only human.

Books as Time Travel

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I’m sure that I’m not the only person fascinated by the idea of time travel. After all, who doesn’t love at least one of the Back to the Future movies?

And while I understand that we are all time travelers (albeit in the same direction and at more or less the same pace), I love the idea of being in control of time. I could visit different eras, meet my favorite U.S. President (Chester A. Arthur, president in the late 1800’s), and prevent historical atrocities. It is one of the root ideas of science fiction. The classic what could have been.

But while we may lament that time is still our master instead of the other way around, there are loopholes to this rule. Books, specifically, allow us to travel through time.

I’ve heard it said that writing is closer to thinking than talking. Thus reading books is akin to reading a person’s thoughts. And when a book is written, those thoughts are trapped in the amber of time, waiting patiently for unwary readers to bring them to life, thus enabling a telepathic connection between the writer and the reader over a span of impossible years.

Is it anything less than incredible that we can read the thoughts and words of people who lived thousands of years ago? Those authors and writers are traveling through time, unbound by death, to influence the readers of today. And so I am proud to be a writer. To drop my thoughts into bits of amber and travel to the future.

Have you had any good telepathic time travel sessions lately?

Paid to Read Books

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Picture a world before iPods, radio, or television. Now picture yourself, working in a factory, doing the same mind-numbing task over and over until either your fingers get mangled in a machine or you go insane from the repetition with no podcasts, music, or audio books to entertain you. Now stop picturing that because it is really depressing.

Perhaps most depressing of all is that the world you just pictured was our world and it really happened that way. And that is why there were lectors.

hanniballecterWhereas Hannibal Lecter entertained himself by feeding on brains, historical lectors would feed people’s brains with entertainment. It was their job to read books, newspapers and magazines aloud to the people in factories.

Can you imagine a better job than getting paid to read books to people? That would be heaven. Or it would be if you weren’t also stuck in a time before regular bathing and modern deodorants.

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In Praise of the Creativity of the Reader

Reading, I had learned, was as creative a process as writing, sometimes more so. When we read of the dying rays of the setting sun or the boom and swish of the incoming tide, we should reserve as much praise for ourselves as for the author. After all, the reader is doing all the work–the writer might have died long ago.

– Jasper Fforde, Thursday Next: First Among Sequels

reading_as_adventureWhen I think about the worlds of fantasy that I’ve visited through literature, I am awed by the fact that simple words on a page can induce such hallucinatory visions.

Sure, the reader has to have the words to read, so the writer is necessary, but only in the same way that a car’s engine is necessary for speeding along an interstate, weaving between cars, while evading the flashing red and blue lights of reality. No one thinks about the engine unless something breaks down.

Indeed, it is the reader who must supply the faces of characters, the tonal qualities of their voices, the gaits of their walks. The reader is the one who paints the canvas of a book’s outline with brushes of past experience and imagination.

This can, of course, lead to difficulty when the reading experience is shared with other people. For one thing, the pronunciation of names can vary greatly. I remember when I finally discussed the Harry Potter novels with my wife, I mentioned something about Herm-ee-own, to which she responded, “Her-my-owe-knee?”

But this variation of experience between readers gives us more than embarrassment; it gives us insight. When we read, we discover ourselves at least as much as we discover the characters in the book. After all, we are supplying the never-mentioned details. And when we discuss our reactions to books with others, we reveal the things that we felt to be important or noteworthy.

Reading is so much more than letters assembled into words. It is our key to a world within.

I am a comic.

Not a comedian, though I do think I’m funny. Nope. A comic.

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This is but one of the illustrations drawn by Dean Dettloff, a friend and coworker who is lending his artistic talents to the 2013 Baker Book House Summer Reading Program. Dean and I are working on a series of comics featuring our own store’s staff where Detective Joel follows the trail for the “Missing Summer Reading Program”. The comics will appear in the weekly activity sheets that get handed out with the program. It’s been fun so far, but it got a lot more fun seeing my beautiful self in 2D.

Stay tuned this summer for more updates with the reading program. And if you live in the West Michigan area, be sure to spread the word about the program to the kids and parents that you know. It’s free to join and tons of fun. Plus, you get rewarded for reading. What could be better?

Baker’s Summer Reading Program is a Mystery

We had spring in Michigan for a few days before the snow came back. Birds were singing, the sun was out, I didn’t need to bundle up to get the mail. But then the snow came back. And so I am thinking about warm thoughts.

One of my favorite job-related tasks is creating the bookstore’s summer reading program. When I first came to Baker, the bookstore used a packaged ready-to-go summer reading program made available by our marketing group. After a year or two of that, the marketing group discontinued the program, but we saw value in summer reading programs, so we started doing them ourselves.

That first year, we chose to do a detective theme. We designed our own guide books, bought our own prizes, came up with our own activities. And it was a blast. The following year, I was asked to head up the group that put on the program. The year after that, I was the group. I didn’t mind doing all the set-up work though. For some reason, I absolutely love doing the summer reading program stuff.

2011_summer_reading_program_advance_adAs I got more years under my belt, I started ramping the program up, getting support from publishers, and doing more in-depth events. A couple of years ago, we did a program with a Berenstain Bears theme called “Character Counts,” complete with Brother & Sister Bear costumes, a visit from Mike Berenstain, and a giveaway of one of Mike’s original drawings. It was incredible.

This year, we’ve come full-circle. Our theme is “Mystery” and features the Mysterious Benedict Society series from Trenton Lee Stewart. I’m working with his publisher and publicist to create special pieces for the program. We’re trying to get him to do a Skype event for the store. And we’re doing some crossover promotion with the Tommy & Brook Book Club (from local pop radio station Star 105.7). I think it has potential to be one of the best programs yet. But what should we call it?

Here’s a few names that I’m throwing around: The Mysterious Reading Society, Sleuth: A Summer Reading Program,  and The Case of the Missing Summer Reading Program. What do you like? Do you have any suggestions of your own?

We’ll be having an illustrator integrate the name into the cover of the program guide in the style of the illustrations from the Mysterious Benedict Society books, so we’ll need to decide soon.

And while I’m asking for input, what about some games/activities that have a mystery/detective theme? Any ideas?

The Importance of Re-reading

“It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”
C.S. Lewis

“I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.”
C.S. Lewis

I love the library. I love that there are places filled with books that are free for the taking. I love browsing shelves, discovering books and authors that I might never have tried had I had to pay for the book.

“But Josh,” says Johnny Everyman, “you work at a bookstore. Your job depends on people buying books, not getting them for free from the library.”

Hear me. Libraries are like drug dealers giving true book lovers the first hit for free. Addicts like me will come back, money in hand, ready to pay what it takes for the next high.

And here’s the thing. When I read a free book from the library, if I really love the book, I will want to own the book. I will put that book on my wish list until I have the money to go out and buy it. I don’t just want to read it once. I want to re-read it, again and again.

Sure, reading a book for the first time is exciting. You don’t know what is going to happen. Your impressions of the characters are visceral, the plot twists leave your mind reeling, the mystery of whodunnit keeps you up much too late. But what if the book isn’t good? The excitement is replaced by the feeling of being cheated, of having your time wasted.

With a good book that you are re-reading, sure you know the characters, but now they are old friends that have a sweetness all their own. Sure, you know the plot and you know how the book is going to end, but it is the journey of getting to the end that is the fun part. Besides, you are going to notice things with each reading that you will have missed the first, second, and third times. You will discover aspects of the characters that you somehow missed, favorite scenes will take on new life with each reading. And best of all, you don’t have to worry that the book is going to be a waste of your time, because it has already passed the test.

DSC00965For me, re-reading is the best part of any book experience. There are so many books that I have re-read over the years, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1984 by George Orwell, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee to name a few. All of these (and more) are great books and deserve another trip through.

I believe that C.S. Lewis had something with his rule about reading an old favorite between each new book, if for no other reason than to refresh your mental palette and remind yourself what good reading tastes like.

What books do you re-read regularly?

Dove Review | The Summer of the Wolves

As I mentioned before, I am a freelance reviewer for the Dove Foundation, an organization whose goal is:

to encourage and promote the creation, production, distribution and consumption of wholesome family entertainment.

This includes books.

So far, I have reviewed one book for the Dove Foundation. That book is Lisa Williams Kline’s Summer of the Wolves, the first in her Sisters in All Seasons series.

Read the review here.

When Bad Things Happen to Characters (and then Keep on Happening)

So, I finished A Game of Thrones. I’m not bragging. I was just caught up in it.

But I met up with my friend Bob the other night to do some writing and we spent a few minutes talking about the book (he joined my book club – see here). Bob is having a tough time getting into it. Admittedly, it is an 800 page book with a huge cast of characters and Bob has little to no time to read, but the same things are true of me and I had no trouble getting hooked on A Game of Thrones.

So what is the difference?

The difference, I think, is that Bob is a modern knight who believes in chivalry and noble fights. And I like the evil characters almost as much as the good ones.

Bob told me that there was only one or two characters that he really liked and that he was sure that if he keeps reading, within three chapters or so something horrible would happen to them. He isn’t wrong.

Authors cause terrible things to happen to their characters all the time. They do it to increase tension in the plots. They do it to show the mettle of their characters. They do it in order to make the resolution all the sweeter because the stakes were as high as they could be. They do it for shock value.

I was relatively young when I first read 1984 by George Orwell. *Spoiler Alert* Big Brother wins. When I read the ending for the first time, I had to read it again just to make sure that I didn’t miss something. This was completely unlike any of the fairy-tales or sitcoms that I was used to, where everything works out in the end. At the realization that not all stories had to have happy endings, my worldview changed and with it my reading preferences.

I went on to devour the works of Kurt Vonnegut. A friend passed me a copy of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 because he didn’t like it. I drank it down like an alcoholic drinks down a bitter ale. Dystopian books took prominence on my bookshelves. They became a part of who I am.

In a way, I’m glad that Bob isn’t having an easy time reading A Game of Thrones because it means that the world isn’t full of jaded folk like me. The world needs more people like him.

Book Club Update

I am having trouble sticking to my 100 page per week goal in order to finish reading A Game of Thrones by mid-August. I can’t put the book down. I’m like 600 pages in and I know that I’m going to finish it soon.

Part of me says that I should slow down and savor the reading experience. I should be making notes about my thoughts as I read. I should be looking for writing devices and topics to discuss when the book club meets.

And then the other part of me says, “Read, you fool!”

I’ll give you one guess as to which part I am listening to.

Maybe I’ll have time to read it a second time before we meet and I’ll make good on my intentions.

So for those of you who wanted to join the book club but were scared off by the amount of reading there is to be done, rest easy. It is a fast read, and addictive.

Also, I’m pretty sure that we’ve decided on a location for the book club to meet.

Date and time have yet to be determined. It’ll depend on what the new baby will allow (she’s due in less than 3 weeks now).