What happens when you read fiction or fantasy

Like I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I haven’t always been a big reader. I’ve always aspired to be a big reader, maybe even faking it once or twice, but never like my sister. Or my mom. Or even some of the kids in my family.

Truth be told, up until a couple years ago, I never really saw the benefits of reading fiction, and definitely not fantasy. I think my exact words to my therapist were, “It’s a waste of time to read stories that aren’t real.” Well, friends, I stand corrected. And sometimes I have to teach fiction so it’s helpful to everybody for me to read all the time…. right?

One. You learn about places you’ve either been to… or places you want to go. I’m not sure who would read Outlander and then decide they don’t want to go to Scotland. That is, unless you really hate cool rainy weather, endless precipitous sea cliffs, and amazing history. Last month I read Magic Lessons, and I think I fell in love a little more with the Northeast/East Coast region where we live now. We’ve been here about five years, and when we first arrived I wasn’t thrilled, but it is home and there’s so much to love about it. While reading the book, I kept having flashbacks to my short stay in Providence, Rhode Island last year in October. Even though the story was about witches (or because it was about witches?), it gave me a warm cozy feeling. But, Elizabeth, what about places like the Shire? Or Hogwarts? Well, those places can exist in our minds and through our imagination we can have experiences there.

Two. You see real people as complex as the characters you read about. There’s a story arc, character development. Sometimes it takes characters years to develop into their final form, and even then, even after the last page of a series, there’s still a question in your mind of, What if? I think this point is super important because in our world right now, it is so easy and even encouraged to demonize others. When a member of my family was getting out of a bad situation, I kept reminding myself that no person is either 100% good or 100% bad, even the perpetrator. Call it human nature, call it whatever you want, but we are all complex and subject to the human condition, even the murderer Jack Glass. People you may meet now may seem to be two-dimensional or in a plateau of their own personal development, but you have no idea the extent of the life they lived before your life lines intersected. And even our beloved characters in books – there is obviously a story before and after the tiny part of their lives that we see as readers. We meet Harry Potter when he’s 11 and follow his story until he’s 18, but when about when he turns 21? Or 25? Or, gasp, 30? There are innumerable events and chance meetings in his life that can change him still.

Three. Your vocabulary deepens. Research shows that it takes many encounters of a word before it makes it into our vocabulary, maybe even 15-20. Despite the research surrounding literacy and language acquisition, I believe there’s a kind of alchemy that happens in our brain when we read, and eventually those words will make it into our writing, speaking, and even into our imaginations or dreams. Of course, there is vocabulary acquisition that happens during phases of listening, like with podcasts. But I think reading is starkly different from listening to a podcast in that you are the one who adds inflection, who pauses when necessary to mull over something, and you make your own context by the sections you reread.

Four. You have something interesting to talk about… all the time. Even if all you’re reading is historical romantic fantasy, there’s still lots to discuss – characters, settings, and relationships among the characters, even reading habits. If you can get past the conversation where people low-key shame you for having enough time to read a whole book and talk about how horrible they are for not reading, it can be super enlightening to have these conversations. And another perk is that often they have absolutely nothing to do with current events or politics – for once can we talk about things that are not on Facebook??

Perhaps these amorphous conversations evolve into an organized book club. Without a doubt, telling other people about what you read strengthens your own comprehension skills because you’re retelling a story you read with your audience and purpose in mind – maybe it’s being simplified for a child, or someone who’s not as into fantasy as you are. Maybe you cannot stop talking about a book you read (as I am with Court of Thorns and Roses or The Bear and the Nightingale) and you’re trying to persuade someone to read it. That right there is considering your audience and purpose.

Five. You relax your brain and your body. For me, reading can be meditative. Right now, I read when I wake up (after taking the dog and during consumption of a French press). And I let reading put me to sleep. Maybe it’s that I didn’t have bedtimes stories read to me past the age of about 5, but I love being all cozy in bed with a book. The house is quiet, the dog is snoring. It’s like Christmas Eve every night. For just a little while, I can escape.

Five. You introduce yourself to new or possibly contrary ideas from what you know, or what you subconsciously believe. This has probably been the most instrumental thing that’s happened to me as I’ve really become a reader. You’re introduced to relationships you don’t know much about (such as in LGBTQ-affirming books like I’ll Give You the Sun) and decisions made that you don’t agree with, like in Tidelands, but you also can’t fully comprehend. This point of course applies to nonfiction, and this was a big reason I read nonfiction for so long. I wanted to know more, more, more information about a topic. The difference is that I would get stuck on one idea, like when I went through my Mt. Everest phase, and then I would be reluctant to read about new ideas.

I want to conclude with a quote from On Tyranny, a cute little but powerful book I picked up from our library sale…

Staring at screens is perhaps unavoidable, but the two-dimensional world makes little sense unless we can draw upon a mental armory that we have developed somewhere else. When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger framework. To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading. So get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books.

-Timothy Snyder in On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

September Reads, incluso un libro en español

On October 1, I completed the 50th book of 2020. A handful of those were DNFs (Did Not Finish), but the rest I read in their entirety.

On the Psychology of Meditation | Robert E. Ornstein & Claudio Narranjo (read September 1-12)

Inhale the fragrance of old books.

Our outgoing pastor invited my husband to his office to collect any books that he wanted. What a gift, right? Among many, he brought home this volume about meditation.

It’s an ongoing joke with one of my sisters and my therapist that I hate meditation but should really try it. (I did actually! This month I did a short video on YouTube from beloved Yoga with Adriene.) Often the first step I take when I’m trying to expose my mind to new ideas is to read about it. I want to know the experiences and science related to a new idea. Meditation was no exception.

This book was divided into two parts: “Meditation: Its Spirit and Techniques” and “The Techniques of Meditation and Their Implications for Modern Psychology.” The first half discusses the role of meditation in the major world religions (yes, even Christianity).

I would say the big concept I got from this book was that meditation is a process of letting go:

The practice in “letting go” that [the negative way] entails, in the sense of “surrendering to” or “allowing,” cannot be completely divorced from a letting go in another sense, which is the essence of the negative way: letting go of habits, preconceptions, and expectations; letting go of habits, preconceptions, and expectations; letting go of control and of the filtering mechanisms of ego.

page 75, emphasis mine

Earlier this year I read Welcoming the Unwelcome by Pema Chodron, and The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer, and I’d say this book formed a nice trio with those as background and guidance on letting go and living in the moment.

Jack Glass | Adam Roberts (read September 12-23)

Checking out books from the library has become like Christmas morning. You stop by and pick up your books in a paper bag –
it’s a gift every time.
(Note: Tidelands on the docket for October).

I read this book as part of a book club read for award-winning sci-fi and and fantasy. I will say, I’m not a science fiction fan generally. I do love the cover of this book, and strangely that is one thing that kept me motivated while reading. I was also very intrigued by the characters, particularly Jack Glass and Diana, and the story was so readable and frankly, enjoyable. The world building was solid but not overly extensive, and by the end I found myself actually siding with the murderer-main-character (not a spoiler). I read this both in hardback from the library and partially on Kindle. There was a good basis of philosophy sprinkled throughout the book, namely:

“The best analgesic for mental discomfort is work, of course.”

38% of the way through

This resonated with me because not only do I believe it to be true, but I think that might be one reason Americans are kind of known for being workaholics. When you look at the current state of affairs in the US, COVID-19 and social unrest has taken the giant Band-aid off of our collective “mental discomfort” and exposed the fact that we have a giant rug under which we sweep everything.

But taking a total view, death is the bell curve upon which the cosmos is balanced. Without it, nothing would work, everything would collapse, clogged and stagnant. Death is flow. It is the necessary lubrication of universal motion.

82% of the way through

This is also true. If there’s nothing else that all humankind participates in, it’s death. We all die; there’s no way around it. I found this quotation to be very comforting, as I started this book only a couple of week after my Nana passed away, and a couple weeks before RBG died. We need death, whether we want to or not. A very Stoic thing to bear in mind, for sure.

De qué hablo cuando hablo de correr | Haruki Murakami (leído el 24 de septiembre al primer de octubre)

A little rejected slice of the Seattle Public Library

Les hablo de este libro en español. Una de mis hermanas me mandó este libro hace meses, tal vez años. Es una traducción del japonés, y el estilo es muy conversacional. Me alegría de eso porque no he leído un libro espanol hace muchos años, y honestamente, no me apetecen muchos los libros españoles aunque tengo muchos estudios en español y su literatura.

Me gusto este libro porque se trata de ambos correr y escribir, dos activitidades que a mí me encantan. Me di cuenta que si, quiero ser autora, y ya soy autora. La verdad es que he sido autora a través de la vida mía.

Me gusta mucho leer de la vida de una persona que se convertió en escritor mas tarde en su vida, en los 30s. Trataba de leer este libro para disfrutarlo, no como un gran estudio del idioma español. No obstante, aprendí algunas frases y vocabulario nuevo.

Me dio satisfacción y ánimo para perseguir leer otros libros españoles.