On Reading fiction

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A student in my War, Peace and Strategy course recently e-mailed me, “…it is extremely difficult to put oneself into the mind of Putin.” To which I replied, “Getting into the minds of others is where reading (and writing) fiction comes in. It teaches you to think outside of your own experience or worldview.”

A decade after September 11th, I taught a politics and literature course. The course was taught as part of the political theory subfield. Previous syllabi consisted of excerpts from classic writers and theorists. Since I was not a theorist, I chose a different tact. Instead, I would look at political themes in contemporary literature.

  • The question of radicalization and political violence was explored by reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. By the way, the movie version is a disaster partly because it removes the ambiguity about the two main characters’ roles.
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran (technically not fiction) looked at women’s roles under a theocracy. We used it to discuss different views of society, feminism, freedom and tolerance.
  • The Jungle is customarily read to see progressive politics or socialism. However, we looked at the universality of the working class immigrant experience and how the Eastern European experience is being repeated with recent Latin American and African immigrants.

Although I heard about the immigrant experience from my mother (a refugee from Nazi Germany), I have learned more from recent authors.

  • Ha Jin is one of my favorite authors (defined as I’ll read anything they wrote). His two books, A Free Life and A Song Everlasting describe recent Chinese immigrants’ experiences.
  • Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake tells a different tale, that of Indians balancing assimilation to American culture and maintaining their Indian identity.

One of my dissertation advisors once told me that he could not remember the last time he had read a book of fiction. All I could think of was, ‘How sad.’ He was an international scholar, including work in political psychology. I thought of how much he was missing by not allowing himself to place himself in the minds of those whose experience is different than his own.

  • Kim Richardson’s two books, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, are emotional trips to the world of Depression and 1950s Appalachia and the prejudice for someone that is only ‘slightly’ different.
  • Even though I was a student of World War 1, it wasn’t until I read fellow Coloradan Aimie Runyan’s Girls on the Line that I had more than a cursory understanding of their lives and importance. Aimie has taken on the task of telling the story of women in both World War 1 and 2, a series of enthralling books. I also recommend her two books on women in French Colonial Canada – Daughters of New France.

I can’t write about this subject without recommending two authors who may both claim to be great historical fiction writers.

  • Kate Quinn, whose The Rose Code and The Diamond Eye need to be made into movies immediately. They are high-tension thrillers about women in nontraditional roles in World War 2.
  • Ellen Marie Wiseman’s books tell the stories of marginalized women and children in the early Twentieth Century.

NOTE: Rather than clutter this with links, I leave it to interested readers to find in their local libraries or from their favorite booksellers (independent ones, if possible).

Libraries and Librarians

After three weeks, I finally had time to post. University duties, building a set of book presses (for my wife) and monitoring the Ukraine conflict (for my classes) have kept me occupied over the last few weeks.

Speaking of Ukraine, this post about Ukrainian librarians canceling a conference until they have ‘vanquished the invaders’ has been viral on my Facebook feeds.

This motivated me to write about what I see as a new historical fiction genre – books about librarians and booksellers.

I think that the grandaddies of this category may be 84 Charing Cross, the epistolary novel set before and during World War 2. The focus is the relationship between an American author and a British bookstore. However, the focus is on the books and not the conflict. By the way, this was turned into a lovely movie with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins (pre-Hannibal Lector).

In the last few years, it seems that this has been augmented by an outbreak of new novels.

  • Although it overlaps with World War 1, the conflict in The Personal Librarian tells the story of Belle da Costa Greene, J.P. Morgan’s librarian and the woman that built the Morgan Library. Her conflict was with both racial and gender stereotypes. The story of how she overcomes these and class distinctions is an amazing story of intellect and belief in one’s self.
  • The Paris Bookseller has been getting a lot of press and it should. Like The Personal Librarian, this is the fictional account of a real person. In this case, it is about Sylvia Beach, who started Shakespeare and Company, an English language bookstore in Paris. The real heart of the story is her trying to get Joyce’s Ulysses published in the United States. At the same time, it describes the life of the ‘Lost Generation.’ Details of their lives and loves added much to an appreciation of their work
  • Moving from historical fiction based on real people, there was The Last Bookshop in London. A charming book, it is situated in London during the height of the Blitz. It details the effect of the bombings and death on the population and how they found salvation through books. My heart broke when a favorite character was killed (no spoliers), but I loved the way it ended. A great read for anyone whose idea of a good time was an afternoon in a bookstore (preferably an independent).
  • I am currently racing through The Paris Library about the American Library in Paris during World War 2. The novel is split between Paris before and during the war, and 1980s rural Montana. It is about survival and intergenerational connections through a love of literature.
  • More Rom-Com than historical fiction, I am including The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend in this list because it is just a fun read. After reading the from tales in these other books, you need to take a break.

The links for the books are to Amazon. This is not an endorsement, nor do I get money for the links. It was just the simplest way to add details to the listing. I got most of these from my local library in Longmont, and I recommend that you get your copy from your local library because they can use your support.

By the way, if you have any recommendations, please add them in the comments.


My Biography as a Reader


Reading Slogans

    I probably started to read at a young age, but I could not tell you exactly when. It must have been when I was very young because I remember being very excited about getting my library card. In New York City, that meant I was probably five years old and could read by then.

            Like most of my generation, the first books I remember were Dr. Seuss books (they were new back then) and the ‘I Can Read All By Myself’ series. With my library card and a bicycle, it meant that I could make independent trips to the library (before that was considered bad parenting). The only other books I remember are Emil and the Detectives which my mother bought me because she had read when a child and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories, wonderful tales of Chelm, the village of fools. I remember reading many of the children’s history and the ‘All About’ series from Random House but cannot recall any specific title. There were probably books from the Scholastic Book Service, and I remember I had a subscription to Reader’s Digest when I was in the sixth grade. It was also when I was introduced to Kipling. His Jungle Stories were in a Boy Scout manual that I had, although I was not a scout. I remember reading and rereading it at night under the covers. Later, I bought a bound set of his stories and poems at a library book sale for one dollar. It has stayed with me through all of my moves, as had a volume of Robert Service bought about the same time.

            My parents probably read to me, but I don’t remember it. For me, the first storytellers were radio drama, which was still available in 1960, and Jean Shepard, who had a nightly show on WOR radio. I did not understand a lot of what he talked about, but I fell in love with his ability to tell a great story. He also introduced me to George Ade and Ambrose Bierce, who I read later when I was in junior high school.

            Because I started reading so early, I quickly got better at it so that when I was tested in 5th grade, it turned out I had the reading ability of a high school senior. Unfortunately, the educational bureaucracy set limits, so I read Jules Verne for pleasure and stuck reading the assigned readers in school. I would be so bored that I would start talking to other students or playing at my desk. Finally, the system figured out I was advanced, and I skipped a grade. Although it seemed a good idea, it caused me problems until college because I was always one year behind my contemporaries for dating, driving, and just about every other mark of growing up.

            I do remember that junior high school was the first time I had required reading. The only ones that stuck in my mind were Johnny Tremaine and David Copperfield, neither of which I liked. They had probably been chosen because they had teenagers as their main characters, but living in suburban New Jersey in the late 1960s, I could not relate. I was also reading a lot more advanced writing as mentioned and had started to read Ray Bradbury, who was classified as science fiction. Still, I think he is an excellent example of American magical realism. During this time, I also remember reading Chaim Potok’s The Chosen and The Promise, which spoke to me about growing up orthodox Jewish in America. I think this may have been the first time that I read Animal Farm, Brave New World, and 1984 although I probably did not understand them as much as I would later. (All three ended up on the syllabus of my Politics and Literature course.)

            During high school, I started my love of science fiction. Asimov, Heinlein, and Bradbury were my go-to writers. I also had a subscription to Analog and a Science Fiction Book Club membership. I still have the copy of Foundation Trilogy that I got for signing on. Later as a graduate student doing formal modeling, I had an illustration of Hari Seldon on my desk. It was also the first of many times that I read Starship Trooper. Until my son lost it about ten years ago, I had my original copy with multiple sets of notes and underlining. I was into drama at the time, so there were a lot of plays being read. Vonnegut was popular back then (the early 1970s), and I read almost all of his books, but I just saw them as science fiction. I’ve never gone back to reread, but I probably should.

The early 1970s was a strange time, so I sprinkled my reading with sociology, history, and politics. Two books from this time stuck in my mind. The first book I remember was Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. I remember being fascinated by the interrogation scene and how the interrogator did not drink or eat during the long sessions to deny the prisoner the moral upper hand. The other book was Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, which started my study of rhetoric and propaganda.

High school had its reading requirements, most of which I have forgotten except for those associated with our theater teacher. First was Spoon River Anthology, which showed me a new way to present a story. My high school copy has become so ragged that I had to buy a new version so I could continue to reread. The second was Chaucer in the original Middle English. I fell in love with how it sounded and still read it out loud to myself. The last was selected Shakespearean plays. It was less the plays, then it was the first time I was taught how to deconstruct something to find additional meanings. I remember writing the term paper on the use of ‘word’ in Richard III.

            College didn’t give me much extra time to read, and most of it was for escape. Mack Bolan and those styles of adventure stories were all I remember reading for fun at the time. The plus side was that I tested out of basic English as a freshman and took advanced English, which consisted of American literature from the colonial period to modern times. I remember that Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus was the ‘modern’ novel and that I didn’t think much of it.

            Surprisingly, being in the service did not slow my reading. I can remember reading Hawthorne and Poe (volumes from college) on tank ranges and field problems. In one assignment, I would go to the library on Friday night, take out a book or two and spend the better part of the weekend reading them. This was a period of strong Anti-American sentiments with Baader-Meinhof and others targeting soldiers, so travel was often not recommended. However, I did spend on Christmas leave in Switzerland and Austria and managed to collect all of Asimov’s Before the Golden Age series, buying them at rail station bookstands. I still have them and refuse to let anyone borrow them. I also read a lot of Ngaio Marsh and Robert Ludlum because they were popular at the time, and I could get them at the AAFES bookstore. For a while, a few of the lieutenants in my battalion were big on John Norman’s Gor series, and we used to trade those among us. Somewhere during this period, I also read a lot of Hunter Thompson. The most likely reason was that paperbacks showed up in the AAFES bookstore, and I liked the covers.

            I want to say I remember what I read over the next 20 years, but I honestly couldn’t tell you. I remember picking up Dune before a TDY and reading it on planes. And somewhere, I ended up reading a lot of Kafka (including Amerika). I shipped a box of books to Honduras for my deployment, but they were mostly cheap second-hand paperbacks that I ended up leaving there.

            Graduate school and two sons slowed down my reading, although I remember reading Harry Potter and the Animorph series to both. Once I got my degree, I could back to reading for pleasure and discovered writers such as Ha Jin and Hosseini, both of whom are on my list of authors whose books I will buy in advance. For a few years, I taught Politics and Literature, which let me combine my love of fiction with teaching about politics. At a book a week for the entire semester, we went through several books.

            I have recently gone to reading purely for pleasure and will read anything that catches my attention. This has led me into urban fantasy, the unclassifiable Chronicle’s of St. Mary’s, and literary fiction such as Amor Towles and Michael Chabon. I tend to obsessively read them until I exhausted their output, after which I follow them in Goodreads to find out their latest. So, I’ve read almost all of Carrie Vaughn, she crosses genre, and Hailey Edwards.

            The saddest thing I can remember anyone ever telling me was when my mentor, Steve Chan, said he could not remember the last fiction he had read. I found that extraordinarily sad.

Goodbye Goodreads

After five years and over 950 books logged, yesterday I said goodbye to Goodreads. That is to say; I closed my account.

I am not anti-Goodreads. It was enjoyable and probably a good tool for those who want to increase the number of books they read. However, that is not a problem I have ever had. Even on field problems, I brought books. This included the footlocker worth I shipped to a six-month overseas deployment.

No, my reasons are personal

  1. I was reading for speed. Rather than enjoy a novel, I tried to read it as quickly as possible to add it to my count. This also led to –
  2. Reviewing while I read. Because Goodreads asks you to rate and review everything you read, I found myself composing comments that some readers would find intriguing and inciteful. Worse yet was being asked to rate escapist novels. It was like rating junk food.
  3. I have a very eclectic reading list ranging from serious nonfiction in security studies (my field of teaching) to historical fiction to lighthearted urban and romantic fantasy (thank you, Hailey Edwards and Kristen Painter). So, getting recommendations from other readers or Goodreads was not necessary. My ‘To Be Read’ list is already double column, page long.
  4. Finally, I was motivated to finish books that I would generally have put down so that I would not ‘waste’ my reading or have to put them on my ‘Did Not Finish’ list.

This does not mean I have slowed down my reading, nor does it mean I will not rejoin in the future. But for now, it is me, a book, and a snack in my love seat with no one overlooking my shoulder.


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