Monday, July 20, 2009

Summer reading

During my recent long silence on this blog, I conceived of numerous posts, all of which (obviously) didn’t make it to the stage of actual composition. Some of them are now past their prime and so won’t see the light of day; some I’m still toying with writing; and some may emerge in heavily modified fashion. We’ll see.

The most frequently thought posts over the last few months have been of the “what I’m reading now” variety. As anyone who knows me well will attest, I am a reading junky. I always have been, for that matter; Lockett family lore says that when I was very young, I was anxious to learn to read, and pestered my parents with the repeated question of when?? When will I learn to read? To which they always said: “Grade One. You’ll learn to read in Grade One.” So after my first day of Grade One I came home sulky and just generally pissed off …. because, as I said accusingly to my parents, they hadn’t taught me to read. (For the record, I have no memory of this. It is however a story my mother has told many times).

I’ve always been an omnivorous reader. I devoured whatever I got my hands on as a kid. Fiction, sure, but I partly identify my grade school years by what my obsession at the time was: Grade One was dinosaurs; Grade Two, insects; Grade Three, World War II; Grade Four, private detectives; Grade Five, Ancient Egypt. And so on.

When I started university, I unconsciously started focusing my reading, limiting myself to “literature”—a rather pretentious affectation in which it only felt worthwhile to me to read that which felt like it had some sort of artistic imprimatur. What knocked me out of that headspace was Annie Dillard’s beautiful Thoreau-esque memoir Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which details a year she spent living in a cabin in the woods. Dillard’s meditations on nature and self, rendered in stunning prose, were augmented with facts, anecdotes, and curiosities from the various books she read over that year—most of which were notably un-literary and included entomological studies, medical memoirs, encyclopedias, natural history, and science journals. Reading Dillard’s fascination with seemingly and often obscure facts made me miss my own previously omnivorous reading habits.

I’m happy to say I’ve gone back to that, and will often as not buy bed-time reading from the history or politics section of the bookstore as from fiction. Anything to feed the addiction.

Seriously: reading is an addiction, which while contributing a great deal to my career choice and making a large portion of that job easier, can also hamstring things a bit. To wit: my insatiable need for reading material doesn’t necessarily extend to my professional obligation to keep up on the most recent scholarship, literature, or teaching material. Often it does (usually in reverse order of the three categories just listed), but often enough I have to fight upstream against the desire to pick up a book I’m reading for pleasure in order to sit down with one I’m reading for work. This is especially true during the summer months, when warm weather and a comfortable seat out in my sunny backyard make one less inclined to read a sheaf of peer-reviewed articles than a nice chunky novel.

During the summer, of course, I’m also playing catch-up. Ever since I first started university, during the school year I keep a running list of books I want to read but don’t have time to get to. Come summer, I’d work my way through the list, with the usual expected diversions in the form of spontaneous additions to the list (usually occurring during impulse buys at the bookstore when picking up titles from the main list). That much hasn’t changed.

So, the long and short of it is that I have, since May, read a significant number of books—some for research purposes, some for pleasure, and a few in that indeterminate space between that makes me love my job. Given that we still have over a month of summer left (I count the end as Labour Day, not September 20), I will devote a series of blog posts between now and then to talking about some of the standouts on the 2009 summer list.

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