Daily Reads: 8 December 2014

Daily Reads

Morning all! I’ve got some particularly good stuff for you today.

Tim Parks thinks we should be writing in our books with pens. We tend to treat the written word as sacred, he says, and it impairs our ability to think critically about what we’re reading and engage with it. He finds that his students perform much better after he’s got them reading with a pen in hand. I think Parks had classic and literary fiction in mind here (the ‘important’, intimidatingly authoritative stuff) but it’s still worth thinking about.

As a fairly critical reviewer, I’m already on Parks’s side. I take loads of notes on my Kindle, and I pencil notes in my print copies. I’m still wary of the pen though. I understand his point – the permanency of the ink gives the pen greater authority, thereby giving you more authority, and so encouraging you to think more critically. But these days my print copies are among my most valuable books (signed, limited edition, hardcover), and so I don’t want to write in them with a pen any more than I want my cat to scratch an expensive piece of furniture. I might be willing to try it on a cheap paperback, but I sometimes I lend, sell or give my books away, and the recipient probably wouldn’t appreciate comments in ink.

Still, I appreciate the sentiment of this article. Even though I already leave comments and underline/highlight passages, I love how Parks is encouraging even more – 3-4 comments on every page, underlining everything you love or hate, everything that moves you in some way. It’s not about simply criticising texts, but understanding and engaging with them. When re-reading you could see how your feelings might have changed over the years. I also think that more notes are always better than less for review purposes. Most importantly, more notes can help me learn more about fiction with more in-depth dialogue. What works, what doesn’t, why do I feel the way I do, how could this be better?

Now to pick a book to sacrifice to my pen…

Robert Jackson Bennett reviews Nexus by Ramez Naam over at The Book Smugglers. I’ve never paid that much attention to this book (not for any real reason other than being unable to take note of everything), but Bennett makes it sound absolutely brilliant. I’m totally sold.

Charles Stross laments the lack of cultural estrangement in far-future sf. If a story is set a few centuries in the future, how could a contemporary “Anglophone developed-world middle class lifestyle that lots of folks aspire to” possibly be a universal norm? As he points out, even in “in the context of our own history, we are aliens”. If you travelled back even a century in time, you’d be totally lost, so it’s unlikely you’d feel at home four centuries into the future. Granted, implausibly familiar societies are easier on writers and readers, but Stross makes a good argument for the harder option. Great food for thought for sf writers and readers.

Daily Reads is my feature for helping me get more organised about my online reading, and sharing my favourite posts with you. If you know of something cool you think I should check out, please let me know in the comments 🙂

7 thoughts on “Daily Reads: 8 December 2014

  1. I used to write in my books a lot more when I was in college and often in ink. My copy of Paradise Lost particularly comes to mind. When I finally get around to rereading it one of these days, I look forward to my old notes!

    • I think it would definitely be a lot easier for me if I were studying the book and most of my notes came from a lecturer or academic text. At least then you know they’re (probably) good notes. But I’d always worry if my thoughts are worth putting down in pen or if I’m just going to feel deeply embarrassed about them later! Maybe I should try it with a book I don’t respect, haha.

  2. I’ve been told that in some e-reading apps, if there are enough underlines of a certain passage, then everyone with that e-book can see the underline. (I imagine there’s a setting that needs to be tweaked, otherwise that seems distracting.) I haven’t seen it yet myself, but as an author it’s sort of a ‘squee’ idea, to be able to see what readers found interesting on a broader scale than a review.

    • That feature is definitely on Kindle, but I’m pretty sure you can turn it off. There have never been that many highlights (or number of highlighters) in the books I’ve bought, but then again I don’t buy the most popular books. The highlighted text often seems quite random, but I’d be curious to see what the most popular highlights from the bestsellers are.

  3. NOOOooooooooooo!

    Couldn’t do it with a pen.

    As a child the books in my life were so few and far between that they assumed an almost sacred status that I haven’t quite gotten over. 🙂

    I’ve read books from libraries where someone has taken it upon themselves to either proofread (and mark changes in pen) or written commentaries in the margins, and found that a kind of hubris that boggles the mind. Would it’ve been too much for them to contact the author if it bothered them that much?

    A lot of my print books used to come in to my home, stay for a few years and then move on to further adventures via a used book or thrift store. Because it happened to me, I wouldn’t want someone to find a treasure of a book and discover someone had ‘left their mark’.

    Doing it myself would just throw me out of the story.

    All that being said, I do most of my reading digitally these days so it’s a (mostly) moot point.

    • Yep, the whole pen thing is certainly for privileged readers who can buy their own books and don’t plan to sell them or give them away (unless they’re assholes who don’t care about the state of the books they pass on). Luckily eBooks have given us the freedom of guilt-free notes and highlights 🙂

      I’ve never borrowed or bought a book with excessive marginalia, but I wonder if I might actually enjoy it, if the notes are good. Might be interesting to see how others felt.

      A few years ago, I read a short story about a pair of siblings packing up their recently deceased father’s belongings. He had lots of potentially valuable first and signed editions, but he’d written in all of them in ink. At first the siblings were annoyed that their father had ruined such valuable property, but then found that they could connect with their father through all the comments he’d left.

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