7 Ways to Cope With the Well-Read: A Survival Guide

Alexandria VA signThis past week, I learned that I live in America’s most well-read city, according to Amazon.com, and for the second year running.

This was surprising news to me although not completely. I do live in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, after all, which is a snooty place. This is where power mongers and policy wonks rule, where people speak two and three languages – including “acronym” – and hold multiple degrees. And they make sure you know it.

So allow me to indulge that DC snootiness for a moment (“when in Rome…”) by remarking that the list of most well-read cities seems odd at first. DC is not ranked (ironically), nor are other cities you might expect like New York or Chicago or San Francisco. Alexandria ranks first followed by Knoxville, TN (a college town, ok) then Miami, FL (huh?). Fourth is Cambridge, MA (home of Harvard and MIT, back to making sense), and fifth is Orlando, FL (Disney World??).

Amazon’s rankings were based on the per capita sale of books, magazines and newspapers (both in print and electronic format) for cities with a population of 100,000 or more, so smallish cities held an advantage.

Also, Amazon ranked by quantity and attempted no subjective judgment of quality, which is fair. The best-selling book in my city was Gone Girl, a genre-bending thriller that I enjoyed. But the second best-seller was the Fifty Shades trilogy, which I won’t read because it sounds like Twilight with whips (Amazon won’t judge, but I will). My point is, us Alexandrians shouldn’t be too smug about what took us to the top.

But we will, because we’re part of metropolitan DC – again, smug and snooty are what we do. But I have a confession to make, Dear Reader: I’m not that well read, especially for a writer. Several friends of mine here and elsewhere – both writers and non-writers and at least one sibling – have read many more books than I.

books on shelf

So for my own sake as well as yours (unless you’re bookish, in which case you can stop reading this post), I’ve come up with 7 Ways to Cope With the Well-Read. Bookworms are everywhere, in your life as well as in mine. And most of them, I should add, aren’t remotely arrogant about it and don’t mean to make us feel small, they just love their books and need to talk about them. The rest is our problem. To help, consider the following:

1) Accept that well-read people are likely superior to you in several ways.

Not helpful? Sorry. But numerous studies show that reading is overwhelmingly beneficial and comprehensively so. See here, here and here. A paragraph from the 2007 National Endowment for the Arts study sums it up best:

All of the data suggest how powerfully reading transforms the lives of individuals—whatever their social circumstances. Regular reading not only boosts the likelihood of an individual’s academic and economic success—facts that are not especially surprising—but it also seems to awaken a person’s social and civic sense. Reading correlates with almost every measurement of positive personal and social behavior surveyed. It is reassuring, though hardly amazing, that readers attend more concerts and theater than non-readers, but it is surprising that they exercise more and play more sports—no matter what their educational level. The cold statistics confirm something that most readers know but have mostly been reluctant to declare as fact—books change lives for the better.

Gulp. To quote that master of uplift, George Orwell: “Happiness can exist only in acceptance.” I want you to be happy, Dear Reader.

http://lauraeperjesi.co.uk/wp-json/ two people reading2) See what all the fuss is about by reading more.

See point #1. After all, this Survival Guide is a form of self-help, which implies self-improvement… so…

3) Read a “classic” book or two…

I haven’t done a lot of this myself, but certain books are called “classics” for a reason – they’re very good and worth your time. Among the classic book authors I’ve tried, Jane Austen is fantastic, hugely enjoyable and accessible. She’s a good one to start with. I didn’t expect to like Joseph Conrad’s work, but I do, a lot. He was a master stylist even though English was his second language. Same for Vladimir Nabokov, a genius linguist who wrote some of his best works in English rather than in his native Russian; if you’re put off by the lechery of Lolita, then read Pnin, a hilarious book about a bumbling Russian professor teaching at a midwest American college. Among the American greats I’ve read and enjoyed are John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger, Toni Morrison, and my favorite, Wallace Stegner, a teacher of other great writers and an often-overlooked master of everything (plot, setting, character, point of view, etc.).

4) …But focus on reading what you enjoy.

One of my well-read hometown friends in Pennsylvania inhales books and reads purely for pleasure. When I’ve asked her what she likes to read, she always replies: “everything.” She is my model well-read person because books give her so much joy; her face lights up every time you ask her what she’s reading. She is one of the most unpretentious people I know, and also one of the wisest (again, see point #1).

5) Make your reading social by joining a book club.

I’m a veteran book clubber. I helped start one that met from 1993 to 1997 – when I last lived in the DC area – and we resumed meeting in 2010 after I moved back. While I lived in Tucson, AZ, I was in two book clubs simultaneously from about 2002 to 2009. I should point out that I’ve often failed to keep up with book club assignments, and you might, too. The best book clubs – the only ones that last, really – will forgive you and will be flexible about members’ busy schedules. Book club discussions can get impassioned and animated beyond belief — one time I did a head-stand in front of my book club to make a point, another time I climbed on someone’s shoulders (don’t ask, I don’t remember, and yes, alcohol was involved both times). The point is, a book club is a worthwhile commitment that can enrich your life. Through them, I’ve discovered some great books and writers, and – most importantly – I’ve formed some of my dearest friendships.

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overfreely 6) Support your local library.

Books – whether in print or electronic form – don’t have to cost you, Dear Reader, as long as you have access to a lending library. As a repository of knowledge, the library concept goes back to ancient times. According to The Washington Post, the city of Alexandria – the one in Egypt – housed the ancient world’s greatest archive of information. Today’s American library system is a jewel of democracy because it offers the gift of knowledge to all Americans for free. Even if you don’t use your local public library, consider donating books or money to it (most public library systems have a non-profit fundraising arm to help support it). Like everything else, library budgets across the country have been cut.

7) Take a break from books and do other things.

Finally, it’s ok to sometimes forget about books and just live. After all, this is part of the well-read person’s m.o.: They’ve learned so friggin’ much from all that reading – point #1 again, always point #1 – that they take time to go out and do some of it. You should, too.

 

 

Transforming Terror’s Negative Space

Z010456-R01-016-6AOn this crazy, chaotic Friday, I write this as we await a conclusion to the manhunt for the Boston Marathon attack’s “suspect number two,” whose older brother was killed in a shoot-out with police last night.

It’s the end of an awful week that began at one of America’s most iconic sporting events, a celebration shattered by the terror and devastation of two bombs that killed three people and wounded close to 200.

Apart from the pain we feel for the victims and their families, what remains for all Americans is the uncertainty and fear that comes with knowing that terrorism is still a part of our reality. With that reality comes the question of what we do with terror’s “negative space.”

What do I mean by that?

Negative Space exampleThe concept of negative space is well known in several disciplines but can be hard to grasp. It’s not actually negative in connotation; it’s often meant by what is not as opposed to what is. It’s easiest to see in photography, where sometimes it refers to a predominant background that forms part of the subject (as in the photo above). Sometimes, negative space becomes the subject when that space is seen in new light (as in the images to the left). In language, it can refer to what is read between the lines, or to the spare form of a poem.

When it comes to terrorism, I see negative space as whatever our psyche confronts in the aftermath of terror’s physical destruction. We don’t have complete control over it, of course, but over time we do have choices to make, and we can reshape and redefine that negative space.

It’s hard to consider something like negative space in relation to an event like the Boston Marathon, which is such a tremendous physical as well as spiritual accomplishment.

I emphasize the spiritual because, if you’ve ever completed a marathon – I ran the Tucson Marathon in December 2000 – you realize that what you achieved physically is maybe only half the matter. Amid the challenges of training – long, lonely runs, injuries, illness – you learn that you need to get your head right.

In other words, you need to tap into your spiritual side – your soul, your consciousness, your life force – to fortify yourself mentally so that you’ll stick to your training, you’ll learn to be patient, and hopefully you’ll find a way to develop zen-like consciousness that can sometimes turn physical pain and drudgery into bliss. I was lucky enough to experience a few moments of bliss during my own marathon experience, after having overcome two major set-backs — a pesky injury and a sudden illness — during my long journey of marathon training.

Any distance runner good enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon understands the importance of spiritual development in running, and likely runs marathons for the spiritual as much as for the physical benefits.

Runners’ family and friends may not fully share in the zen-like vibe that comes with regular distance running, but what they see is inspiring, and they want to support it. So they gather to watch and wait and eventually greet their loved ones with jubilation at the finish line.

Imagine how shocking and spiritually crushing the terrorist attack was for all of the people at the  Boston Marathon there to just celebrate life.

Those injured or killed, and their families and friends, experienced a level of tragedy and loss that I do not understand and I am not attempting to express here.

But for the rest of us, the Boston Marathon attack was an assault on our spirit. We were its object as well, and we rightly see that terrorism continues to threaten our way of life.

It’s hard to fill terror’s negative space with nothing but the fear that terrorists strive to foster. In policy terms, it’s hard to resist the desire for ever tighter security measures that may ultimately infringe upon our rights and freedoms.

But so often we also find that, in the face of terror, our spirit finds strength.

In President Barack Obama’s remarks yesterday at the Interfaith Service in Boston, he quoted a scripture passage telling us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us.”

The President expressed the nation’s collective grief for the victims and their families, but he also spoke of the storied Bostonian resolve as “the greatest rebuke” to those who perpetrated the attack.

In terror’s negative space, we can – and do – replace fear and uncertainty with compassion, love, and power.

And that is how our spirit endures, and finds a way to carry on.

Like 78-year-old Boston Marathon runner, Bill Iffrig, who was seen getting knocked down by the first bomb’s shock waves just yards from the finish line. Luckily, he suffered only a scraped knee. He was helped up, brushed off and he made his way to the finish line.

[If you’d like to donate to the families of those killed or injured in the Boston Marathon bombings, Governor Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Tom Menino set up a fund called The One Fund Boston, visit their website by clicking here. For more ways to donate, go here.]

 

The Value of Blogging: Ipso Facto or Lorem Ipsum?

I really don’t know where this blogging thing will lead me.

This is my first official blog post on my first official blog. But I have been writing – as a professional non-fiction writer and fiction hobbyist – for over 20 years.

What have I been waiting for?

Ideas? Inspiration?

No, those aren’t hard to find. I once wrote an essay titled “Scratching an Itch,” a short piece on a simple, meaningless act hardly worthy of an essay.

Or is it?

The sudden urge to scratch an itch on your arm, or on your head, or other places less polite, can lead to broader questions. Is it just a little itch, or a nervous tick? Where do you draw the line in terms of what to scratch and in front of whom?

Scratching an itch can be meaningful or not — a harmless gesture, a poker player’s tell, or an affront to society.

Blogging, it appears, can also be meaningful or not. Some will ask: does blogging have inherent value?

Like scratching an itch, it depends.

If you blog to hone your writing craft, or to share something of interest to readers, or to sell a product or service, then it’s fair to say blogging has value ipso facto. But what if you find yourself writing a puff-piece blog post just to check off your must-blog-something task for the day, and bore your readers in the process?

In that case, your blog might as well be lorem ipsum, that Latin-looking gibberish you see on examples of WordPress themes whose only function is to fill text space.

I will never blog just to fill space. I may do it a little, or a lot. I’ll probably cover a few of the topics that I’ve written about professionally such as politics, healthcare, fitness and wellness, and, naturally, writing. Check back more than once.

Another thing for you to know — I enjoy writing essays, which is primarily what bloggers do, right? An essay is often the best way to explore and clarify what it is you think and feel about an issue or event in your life.

As the writer E.M. Forster once said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?

Over the years, I’ve published a number of personal essays and persuasive essays otherwise known as op-eds (to read my latest op-ed published by  http://acorncentre.co.uk/wp-json/oembed/1.0/embed?url=https://acorncentre.co.uk/events/small-steps/ The Christian Science Monitor, click here).

I’ve ghostwritten op-eds for business clients, and I also volunteer to help others get their views and opinions in print and online. I’m a volunteer Editor-Mentor for The Op-Ed Project, a great non-profit organization based in New York City whose mission is to promote and increase a diversity of voices in media.

Even though over half of the population are women, only about 20% of major newspaper opinion pieces are written by women. This lack of women voices creates a huge deficit in our national dialogue.

I’ve had the privilege to help several accomplished women in business, academia and advocacy craft and publish op-eds in newspapers and online media outlets throughout the country. I hope to add the links to some of my mentees’ work in the near future.

In addition, The Op-Ed Project’s website has a very helpful and public resource section on how to write an op-ed, in case you would like to share your own opinion on a topical issue in a newspaper or online news site some day.

If you are interested in learning more about the personal essay form as a beautiful exercise in critical thinking and self-discovery, let me recommend a very good book on personal essays:

The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, edited by Phillip Lopate (Doubleday, 1994).

The book is not really a how-to on essay writing, but it offers an informative introduction to the craft and is a large anthology of some of the best essays ever written, organized culturally, by theme and by form (book review, humor, list, mosaic, portrait, etc.).

If I were to recommend only one essay in this volume, it would be Virginia Woolf’s The Death of the Moth, about watching a moth die on a windowsill. It’s a tour de force on truths surrounding life and death that runs only around 1200 words in length. It is also easy to find online.

Admire it for the language and for Woolf’s ability to connect the trivial to the universal, but fair warning: it may give you a case of the sads.

Finally, one note of business about my blog. I don’t plan on posting any reader comments to my blog posts. Instead, feel free to email me about something I wrote at info@kateholder.com.

For example, do you have a personal essay (or opinion piece) to recommend, one that moved you or helped you or changed your thinking? I’d like to know.

If you do email me about a blog post, please reference that particular post in your comment. In return, I may occasionally post a reader’s email, and I will try my best to read all email comments. However – and this is important – I cannot guarantee that I will respond to any of them.

Remember, I really don’t know where this blogging thing will lead me.

Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter, where I’ll alert readers of my latest blog posts and other news.