Blizzard Books

I’m snowed in today, so I’m going to share some of my Blizzard Books with you.

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I’m in the two book zone for the blizzard (picture sourced from Folly Quarter Media on Twitter

Blizzard Books (also known as Desert Island Books) are the books you would chose to take with you to read if you knew you were going to be stranded in a place far away from civilization (and book stores).

If I could only read five books for the rest of my life, these are the books I would choose (in no particular order):

  • The Complete Jane Austen
  • The Complete Works of Shakespeare
  • The Bible (New King James Version preferred)
  • Middlemarch (by George Eliot)
  • The Complete Father Brown (a collection of mystery stories by G. K. Chesterton)

Yes, I know that including collections of complete works is cheating a bit, but I don’t care.

For us, the question “What five books would you take with you to a desert island?” is completely hypothetical, but it’s really interesting to imagine situations where this kind of question is actually relevant.

When I was in middle school, I read a slim little sci-fi story called “The Green Book,” written by Jill Paton Walsh. In “The Green Book,” the characters must leave Earth, taking only one book per person as they try to settle on a new world.

When you can only take one book, you must weigh the value of practical information with the value of preserving human culture and great literary works. This conundrum has stuck with me for years.

If you were stuck on a desert island, or snowed in for the winter, what books would you want to have with you?


My Favorite Words

My favorite word is insipid:

not interesting or exciting : dull or boring

lacking strong flavor  (Merriam Webster)

Or perhaps my favorite word is serendipity:

luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things that are not looked for (Merriam Webster)

Almost everyone has words they are particularly fond of, without know quite why. Words that catch in our brains and bump gently around inside, surfacing at random times. Words that we love for their mellifluous feel in our mouths and their seductive tickling in our ears.

Mellifluous, by the way, is ranked among people’s top ten favorite words, along with serendipity, defenestration, kerfuffle, discombobulated, and persnickety. (Check out the full article here if you’re curious about the other words and their ranks in the top ten).

What’s your favorite word (or words)? Let me know!

Library Magic

Today I walked to the library and got my first library card. My first library card as an adult, that is. I’ve had a library card for the library in my home town since I was old enough to write my own name, but this is the first time I’ve walked into a library by myself and filled out the paperwork required for a card.

I’d almost forgotten how magical a library is, and how addictive. As soon as I walked in the door, I saw DVDs for several movies I wanted to see this summer, but hadn’t gotten around to while they were still in theaters. I saw a new Agatha Cristie story I’d never read. I saw an acclaimed biography of Lucrezia Borgia. And I knew then that if I didn’t get my library card and check them out immediately, I would find more to read than I had time for.

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When I was a kid, my mother took us to the library regularly during the summer. (We didn’t go as often during the school year, because she claimed we’d never get our school work done if we had an entire library of books to distract us. She may have been right.) We checked out stacks and stacks of books and read them voraciously.

I loved the library, even though it wasn’t in the greatest part of town and didn’t have the budget for shelves of new books. I read old science fiction and all of the little-known sequels to “The Wizard of Oz” that I could get my hands on (there’s 20+ of them, if you can believe it). There were some books that I must have checked out four or five times when all was said and done. I’ve always been fond of re-reading.

Since I’m no longer a kid with a seemingly endless summer vacation, I exhibited remarkable self control today and only left with three items. I was tempted to call one of my friends and gush about my new library card and the books I’d found (I know, I’m such a nerd) but I restrained myself. I’m writing a blog post instead 😛

The importance of a balenced diet (of reading)

When I was growing up, my mom made a wonderful dessert out of lemon Jello and evaporated milk. It was pale yellow and foamy and dissolved in your mouth as quickly as cotton candy, but without the overly-cloying sugar content. We called this dessert “lemon fluff.”

Delicious as lemon fluff was, I realized even then that it probably didn’t have a whole heck of a lot of nutritional value. As far as desserts go, it wasn’t as calorie-laden as it could have been, but most of the calories it did have were pretty empty.

They say that you are what you eat. It’s just as true to say that we are what we read. Over the years, I’ve read some books that reminded me of my mother’s lemon fluff–enjoyable but without a lot of substance.

fluffy lemon gelatin dessert

This isn’t my mom’s lemon fluff, but it’s close. Picture and recipe available from

I don’t think it’s bad to read a “lemon fluff” book every once it a while, but if that’s all you read, your reading life is going to lack some of the depth and thoughtfulness it could otherwise have. Just as eating only dessert does not result in the healthiest possible body, reading only “lemon fluff” books will not result in the most incisive mind.

On the other hand, we all know people who are overly proud of their healthy eating habits or their classic-laden reading list. These things can be great, but not if they make a person frustrating to be around. The point of eating well or reading great books is for your own well-being, not so that you can go around acting maddeningly superior all the time.

That’s why I strive for a “balanced diet” when I read. I’ll alternate a thoughtful memoir with a suspenseful thriller, or follow up a cheesy romance with Charles Dickens. I believe the key to a wholesome reading experience is to approach every book with the willingness to learn from it.

Even books that don’t have the most original plot or use of language can still make you think about the way the world works or the way people are likely to behave in a certain situation. It’s true that there are books which fail to do this, no matter how enjoyable they were to read. But there are also books that can surprise you by teaching you something you never thought you’d learn from them.

The Maze Runner series is an example of this for me. I don’t particularly enjoy James Dashner’s writing style, but the books definitely made me think a lot about ethics and what kinds of things are justifiable to do in the name of the “greater good.”

Have you ever had a similar experience? Would you describe your reading habits as “balanced,” or do they skew to a particular genre of books? Let me know in the comments!

Why I Love (Re)Reading

“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book; one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, and an active and creative reader is a rereader” Vladimir Nabokov

I am a rereader, and I have been almost as long as I’ve been a reader at all. When I was first learning to read, I read the same simple books over and over. I’ve reread he first chapter books I ever read (a obscure but wonderful series called The Woodland Gang) at least five times. I still have The Chronicles of Narnia practically memorized because I read them so many times.

I was something of a shock to me to learn the not everyone does this. Some people, perfectly intelligent people who love books, are finished after one reading. (If you are one of these people, dear reader, that’s fine. I won’t judge you. But I also can’t understand you).

It was difficult for me to imagine that not everyone has the location of their favorite books memorized on the library shelves. When I first read Little Women when I was in middle school, my greatest regret was that I hadn’t read it sooner, because now I wouldn’t be able to reread it as many times.

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Some books don’t hold up to multiple rereadings, of course. A book might be enjoyable the first time through but not deep enough or well-written enough to warrant a second reading. Unlike Nabokov, I do think the first time counts. There’s a feeling of suspense and anticipation, a feeling of discovery, that only comes once, with the first reading.

However, there are some books (Nabokov’s Lolita among them) that you truly do need to reread to understand, or at least to understand well. No matter how wonderful and exhilarating the first reading was, you will learn more with each rereading. It’s as though details and ideas that you never saw the first time unfold themselves out of the pages where they were hidden.

Rereading a book after a long period of time is like revisiting an old friend. You realize the ways that you have grown and changed, and you find that your relationship has changed in subtle ways because you are bringing new experiences to your reading.

At the same time, every time that you chose to reread a book, you have less time to read other books for the first time. There are so many books in the world that you could never even hope to read them all, but what if one of the books you’ve chosen to forgo reading to reread something for the third time would have been one of your favorites?

As Patricia Meyer Spacks writes in her aptly named On Rereading, we reread “in the face of guilt-inducing awareness of all the other books that [we] should have read at least once but haven’t.”

I guess it all comes down to striking a balance between the familiar and the unknown, between being adventurous and playing it safe. If you simply race through your reading because of all the great books you want to be able to read, you won’t nearly as much out of them.

It’s like eating a piece of really good chocolate: you know you have a whole box of chocolates, and each piece has the potential to be an amazing, mouthwatering experience, but just because you have that box of chocolates doesn’t mean that you should savor the piece you’re eating any less. For me to truly savor a book means reading it, and rereading it… and maybe rereading it again.

If you want to think some more about rereading, I suggest you check out this article in the New Yorker.

Behold the power of WORDS!

Today is National Literacy Day, everyone! (At least in this timezone, it still is. Barely). If you’re reading this right now, you are clearly literate 🙂 Congratulations! I’d like you to take a minute or two to think back to a time when reading wasn’t effortless for you, when you still had to sound out each word and think about what sounds the letters made.

Think about the people in your life who helped encourage you, who listened to your hesitant first efforts, who let you read the same Golden Book over and over to them for an hour. Maybe there was a teacher who was instrumental in teaching you how to read, or perhaps your mom or dad was the one who first helped the process to “click” for you.

Have you ever thanked them for introducing you to the power of the written word? (As I write this, I’m thinking of my mom and the way she drilled me in the basics of reading even when I thought I never wanted to see another letter again. I loved it when people read to me, but reading can be hard when you’re first learning and I was easily frustrated. I don’t think I’ve ever thanked her properly.)

You can certainly still love words even if you can’t read (there are strong oral traditions around the world that prove it), but being literate certainly expands the amount of words you have access to. You don’t need to be around someone who has the Iliad memorized or who has a vocabulary the size of Shakespeare’s. You only need to have access to a written text (although being around people with large vocabularies and cultural literacy never hurts, either!).

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For me, it was the written word that first allowed me to truly understand the power of language and start to harness it for myself, so the fact that I’m going to use a story about watching a TV show to illustrate the power of words might seem a bit strange. Bear with me.

Did any of you watch Arthur on PBS when you were growing up? You know, the show that totally warped hundreds of kids’ ideas about what aardvarks actually look like? The episode that scared me most wasn’t a show about bullying, or camping, or anything that you might expect a kid to find frightening. It was an episode in which Arthur and his friend Buster use a word without knowing what it means, because they think it makes them sound cool, only to find out later that it has changed the way all their classmates perceive them.

(I don’t even know how the episode ends because I was too afraid to finish it).

You may be thinking, “that’s not so scary,” and you’d be right. I think what frightened me so much was that I saw myself in that circumstance… encountering a word that I thought meant one thing and using it only to find out that it meant something completely different to my listeners. I think it’s because I understood even then that words have power, and if you don’t understand all the connotations of a word, then you aren’t fully in control of that power.

That’s the heart of a “that’s what she said” joke: the idea that words can get away from you, that they can be twisted into a meaning that you’d didn’t intend or were too naive to see.

This can still happen with the written word, of course, but it’s less likely. The written word is language crystallized, able to be refined and arranged to an extent that is not possible for the spoken word (at least, not for my careless tongue).


The perils of a large vocabulary

I have a pretty good vocabulary, most of which comes from reading extensively. This is more apparent in my writing than in my everyday speech. I think there’s something about the writing process that allows me to access and utilize more of the words I know. Also, there’s spell check (which has just kindly informed me that “spellcheck” is not a word).

The biggest factor that prevents me from using all the polysyllabic words that I know in everyday speech is that I can’t pronounce them properly. I used to think that this problem was mine alone; surely everyone else in the world knew that “superfluous” was not pronounced “super-flous” and didn’t get tripped up when they tried to say the word “miscellaneous.”

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Then I went to college and found out that this wasn’t true at all. One of the most intelligent people in my classes would be discussing the finer points of a novel, for example, and completely butcher the pronunciation of a certain word. I can’t tell you how many times someone in a literature class  would attempt to read a quotation and stumble over some of the words.

Now, these people could define these words in a heartbeat if you asked them, and could probably use them quite seamlessly in a piece of writing. But when it came to speaking these words aloud, they couldn’t do it. “These are my people,” I remember thinking.

One of my English professors claims:

One of the occupational hazards of being an English major is that you learn most of your vocabulary from books, so you will always be in danger of mispronouncing the words you know.

I don’t think this danger is confined strictly to English majors, although we might be more prone to it. It can happen to anyone who reads a lot and picks up new words from context clues or looks up unfamiliar words in the dictionary without hearing them spoken aloud.

Perhaps you’ve heard the joking definition of a synonym that says “A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the word you want.” Well, for me, a synonym is a word I use when I’m not 100% sure I can say the word I want 🙂

It’s not so bad, though. Usually, the worst thing that happens is that I provide my friends with something funny to laugh at. I just tell them it’s one of the perils of a large vocabulary.

What’s the strangest word you’ve ever mispronounced? Is your vocabulary larger than the number of words you can say?

Writing isn’t brain surgery

Several of my friends have been recommending Libba Bray’s books to me, and I finally finished reading my first Libba Bray book today, A Great and Terrible Beauty. It took me a few chapters to really get into it, but after that I couldn’t wait to keep reading. The book is set in the Victorian era and tells the story of a girl named Gemma Doyle who sees mysterious visions. (Of course it’s about much more than that, but that’s my one-sentence, spoiler-free plot summary.)

The relationships between the characters in the book are fascinating; people constantly surprise you in little ways, just as they do in real life. The plot is engaging, and the book asks some really interesting questions about women’s relationship with power.

In an interview, Libba Bray has shared some advice for people who want to “live a writerly life” (as one of my college English professors would say):

(1) Read everything. Read what interests and moves you. Read what challenges you. Read for pleasure. Read for craft. Read instead of watching reality TV. Just read. It might change your life. I know it has mine. (2) Live your life. Writing’s all about that, anyway. And no one’s living your life, seeing things the way you see them, but you. You are unique, and this is a beautiful, beautiful thing, grasshopper. (3) You can write about whatever you want, just don’t lie. (4) Have fun, for heaven’s sake! It’s not brain surgery. You won’t kill anyone if you choose the wrong words. You can just fix ’em later. Writing is power. You are in control of it. You are able to say whatever you need to say, long to say, must say. And that is an amazing feeling.

Thanks for reading this. Now go live your life! 🙂

Been Reading Any Good Books Lately?

“Been reading any good books lately?” This is a question I’m asked a lot, because people know I majored in English and love to read. At times, it can be a really good conversation starter; I know I’m always interested to hear about the books other people are reading.

Strangely, there are times when this simple question seems impossibly difficult to answer. If I haven’t done much reading lately, this question reminds me of that fact and makes me sad.

Other times, I over-analyze the  question: what makes a “good” book, anyway? More specifically, what kinds of books does the person asking the question consider “good”? Will people judge me if I answer with the title of a detective story or a thriller instead of a thoughtful piece of nonfiction?

There are some books that I have read (and enjoyed reading) but that I wouldn’t be particularly interested in reading again. Since I’m a re-reader at heart, that tells you something about the book. Can I honestly say it’s good if I don’t want to reread it? On the other hand, doesn’t the fact that I found pleasure in reading the book the first time make it “good” on some level?

I’m not confident in my ability to  distinguish “enjoyable” books from “good” books or “great” books. On some level I realize that everyone responds differently to literature and that you can honestly disagree with someone over the qualities that make a “good” book without one of you being right and the other being wrong.

I don’t judge other people for what they read or the books they love (okay, I might judge you a little if I saw you reading 50 Shades of Gray in public) so I don’t know why I’m so afraid that people will think less of me for what I read. They’re asking because they’re interested, and if I happen to be really passionate about a book that they read and didn’t care for, that’s okay.

All this rambling is not to say that I don’t want anyone to ask me if I’ve read any good books lately. (I ask my friends this question as often as they as me). It’s just a snapshot of what goes through my mind sometimes 🙂

Do you ever worry that people will judge you for a book you’re reading? How do you define a “good” book?