Movie Adaptations

Dear Wife and I recently went out to see “The Hunger Games” movie, and since then I’ve been thinking a lot about my reaction to the movie, and about how it compares to my reaction to the book.  And this got me thinking about the movie adaptations of books more generally.

One word of warning: as I discuss my thoughts on this subject, I’m bound to offer some spoilers from the movies and books I touch on. 

With respect to “The Hunger Games”, there were things I enjoyed about the movie.  It was certainly, in my opinion, a good movie worth seeing and I’m actually eager to see it again when it’s available to watch at home.  There were elements of the movie that made it superior to reading the book.  But there were elements that definitely made it inferior to the book as well. 

For example: the additional scenes focusing on Seneca and President Snow and Haymitch add a lot to the story – a depth that you don’t get from the book alone.  The scene that shows the reaction of Rue’s father after her death in the Games, and the resulting riot in District 11, was much more powerful on an emotional level than the abstraction of Katniss receiving a baked loaf and realizing it came from District 11.  On the other hand, the use of “Shaky Cam” was so disruptive in the early scenes that viewers never really felt settled in this world.  Even more problematic, the movie treated the relationship between Katniss and Rue in such a cursory fashion that the viewer doesn’t have time to be impressed by that relationship before Rue’s death.  I imagine that the viewer that hasn’t read the books might be a tad perplexed as to why Katniss reacts so strongly: poor Rue only had maybe five or ten minutes of screen time, tops (and that’s being generous by counting scenes in which she appears in the background), before her tragic death.  You really only understand how important this relationship was by reading the book. 

As I contemplated this, I realized something. Continue reading

Book Monster

It occurs to me that some of you may not fully appreciate what I meant when I said, recently, that Dear Wife and I had created a monster.

I submit, for your consideration, the following:

B.T. Reading Brandon Sanderson's "The Way of Kings"
B.T. Reading Brandon Sanderson’s “The Way of Kings”

It is my supposition that B.T.can’t actually read the book he pulled off of my shelf.  But that’s not going to stop him from trying!

All he knows for sure is that what he’s picked up is a book, and if there’s one thing he loves, it’s books.

Some related facts about B.T. and books:

  • The first thing B.T. asks for when he wakes every morning is a book.  Literally. When either Dear Wife or I go in to get him in the morning, he smiles, jumps up for us to pick him up, and then says “Book?”
  • The second-to-last thing B.T. wants every night before going to sleep is, you guessed it, to sit on Mommy or Daddy’s lap and read a book.  (The very last thing he asks for? A song.  Or two, or three.  One thing he loves as much as books is music.)
  • On any given day, Dear Wife and I may read between 5 and 50 books to B.T.  (More on weekends, naturally, when he’s around us the whole day.)
  • It is not unheard of, when Dear Wife brings B.T. home from daycare, for B.T. to instruct Dear Wife as follows: “Call Daddy.  Daddy read book.”  His intention is clear to us.  He wants Dear Wife to call me and tell me to come home so I can read him a book.  Typically, he will accept Mommy reading a book or ten to him in the interim.
  • I had an old Economics textbook sitting around, leftover from my recent stint in an evening MBA program.  Having no further use for it, it was time to clear it out.  B.T. cried when I took it out of the house.  He’d grown fond of it, despite the fact that it had very few pictures.

Books I Put Down Without Finishing

In the past few weeks I’ve talked a lot about the books on my “to read” list, and about the genres of YA and Epic Fantasy (here, here, here, here and here) and frequently the conversation in the comments has turned to books that weren’t worth finishing reading.

I, like many readers and other writers, am constantly strapped for time.  There’s a lot going on, between being a day-job warrior, a superhero father, a debonaire husband, and a fantastically inspired writer.  Amidst all that, I also like to read.  But I just don’t have time for books that aren’t delivering something of value to me.

What that value is might be negotiable and variable.  Usually it’s some form of enjoyment or entertainment.  But I also appreciate the use of beautiful language, engaging plot, interesting characters, and other such accoutrements of fine writing – all of which can be subcomponents of “enjoyment” for my purposes.  Then there’s the value of informative qualities, education, experiencing something new, and so on which good writing can also be.  Long story short, if a book isn’t doing several of these things for me, I probably don’t have time for it.

So, I thought it might be instructive, as a writer and as a reader, to go over all the books I’ve put down – the books I stopped reading, for whatever reason, and haven’t yet finished reading. Continue reading

Finding What to Read (Part 2)

Last time I talked about my “To Read” list, but I didn’t get to the gist of what I wanted to talk about, which is: How do you decide what goes on your reading list?  How do you find books you want to read?  How do you learn about new authors?

For myself, the books on my list have ended up there through any number of circuitous paths.  The George R. R. Martin books, for instance, I’d been hearing good things about for years before I finally bought a copy of the first four at a used book store.  I think I first heard about them on a forum I used to frequent at an RPG community site, where those books came up often in favorites lists.  Brandon Sanderson, meanwhile, I became aware of when he was chosen to finish “The Wheel of Time” after Robert Jordan’s untimely passing.  (Jordan’s books, on the other hand, entered my consciousness mainly because my parents bought them when I was younger). 

Most of the books on my list, however, came to this list over the last couple years, and especially after I started this blog.  I started collecting links to the websites and blogs of different authors.  Continue reading

Finding What to Read (Part 1)…

Being Part the First:

In Which I Declare My Official “To Read” List

During the past three years of grad school, I did very little writing and very little reading.  I finished one novelette-length short story.  I read two novels (both “Wheel of Time” books, and actually only half of the second), half of another novel and a few small volumes of short stories.

Since graduating a few months ago, I’ve upped the amps on my writing.  But my reading is still continuing at roughly the same pace.  Largely, I’d felt so deprived of writing while I worked on grad school that I wanted to focus my free time on writing, at least until I was in the thick of my novel and making solid progress (i.e. at least until I had actual draft wordcount on the novel, and not just background stuff).  But my slow reading these past few years hasn’t stopped a tsunami of excellent fiction from exploding into my consciousness.  It’s for that reason that my “To Read” list has grown into something of an unmanageable behemoth, and an unstoppable juggernaut.  To make anything like a dent in that list I’d have to take a few months off from work and dedicate a lot of time exclusively to reading.  Which… ain’t gonna happen.

At some point, I’m going to pivot some of my time to reading a little more again.  Because it’s not like other writers are going to stop writing awesome books just because I haven’t had time to read them.  And if I don’t read those awesome books, I might die unfulfilled.

Right now, my “To Read” list is broken into four parts, and looks like this:

I. Books I Own

A Clash of Kings* by George R. R. Martin

Mistborn: The Final Empire¹ by Brandon Sanderson

Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

The Way of Kings¹ (signed) by Brandon Sanderson

The Children of Amarid¹ (signed) by David B. Coe

The Name of the Wind¹ by Patrick Rothfuss

A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin

A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin

The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction by Philip Athans with introduction by R. A. Salvatore

The Writer’s Digest Guide to Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card and the Editors of Writer’s Digest with introduction by Terry Brooks (this is a combo volume of Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy and Writer’s Digest’s The Writer’s Complete Fantasy Reference) Continue reading

A Tough Row to Hoe…

A couple quick links this afternoon.

The first concerns Kathryn Stockett, author of bestselling book The Help.  In this recent essay she talks about how her book was rejected sixty times before she found it a home.  We’ve heard this story before (i.e. Harry Potter, etc.)  A few questions or thoughts for discussion on this one: If you really believe in your book, how far are you willing to go to see it published?  How long will you stick it out?  And in this day and age of increasing media consolidation and hair-raising questions about Agent accountability and conflicts of interest, when such stories abound of the intermediaries inabilities to recognize a gem when they find one, dare we continue to put our faith in those intermediaries?  Would any of these books – the ones where we hear about the astounding number of rejections a book received before going on to fabulous bestsellerdom – still be bestsellers if the authors had not stuck it out with traditional publishing and instead opted to self-publish?

The second link is to a discussion on NPR with Terry Pratchett, author of the popular Discworld series, on the subject of his Alzheimer’s diagnosis and assisted suicide.  I hesitate even to post this link.  I’ve never read anything by Pratchett, and I’m sure I’m all the poorer for it.  But it disturbed me to consider the idea of a famous, respected, and well-loved pillar of the Fantasy literature community thinking about the possibility of ending his own life, or even on the possibility of losing his own mind.  I must admit that one of my greatest fears of old age is of losing my mind – because largely the internal world is the only world I really have… where things make sense and good always wins.  If I haven’t got that to retreat to… well… the alternative is too deressing to contemplate, isn’t it?  No guiding questions on this one.  I just wanted to point it out.

Choose Your Own Adventure…

Dear Wife and I were talking the other day about books, and about reading.  We’re both pretty avid readers.  But whereas I read almost exclusively in the speculative fiction genres, and venture outside those boundaries only rarely (if you’re going to read for enjoyment, you might as well read what you enjoy, and so I do), Dear Wife reads widely across many different genres, including non-fiction.  As we were talking, Dear Wife commented that she didn’t want B.T. to read only fantasy and science fiction.

“Didn’t you read anything else, when you were a kid?” she asked.  “Like, the Hardy Boys or something?” Continue reading

Summer Reading Plans

So, on Friday, John Scalzi linked to the new blog home of an old column he used to do called “The Weekend Assignment” that gave a weekly topic for writers to blog about over the weekend.  This week’s assignment is about our Summer Reading plans, and what we look forward to most.  So, I thought: “hey, this is cool, and as a writer it’s a nice challenge that would give me something to write about regularly, and this topic in particular is one I can actually say something about.”  So, I’ll be trying to do these “Weekend Assignments” going forward.  Assuming I’m able to keep up with it, they’ll usually post on either Mondays or Tuesdays.

So, what am I excited about reading this summer?  Well, I’ll surely be spending time reading some textbooks and/or business cases for class.  But that’s not what I’m excited about.  Actually, it’s kind of sad to admit what I’m excited about: I’m excited about finishing The Gathering Storm over the summer.  I say it’s sad because I got this book as a gift from Dear Wife over Christmas 2009 (Thank You Dear Wife!), and I’ve been reading it ever since then.

That’s right: I’ve been reading this book for nearly four monthsWhat has happened to me?  When I was a younger man, and still in either High School or College, I used to be able to devour one of the “Wheel of Time” books in a matter of a couple of weeks.  I’ll tell you what didn’t happen: it’s not that the book is boring.  It’s been an enjoyable read so far (I’m on chapter 20), especially when the book has focused on Egwene.

After I finish The Gathering Storm I have several choices for what book I will read next.  The two options I am considering are either A Clash of Kings, the second book in George R. R. Martin‘s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, or Elantris, Brandon Sanderson‘s break-out novel.  I’m interested in exploring Sanderson’s own work outside of what he’s done with Robert Jordan’s latest book, so I’m most eager to read one of these books.  On the flip side, I’ve been hearing about how great Martin’s books are for ages.  I did read the first in his Ice and Fire books already, but it was an odd experience.  While well-written, and while his world is interesting and detailed, it was also a very dark world.  I found myself lacking any serious rooting interest in the book, because all of the characters were either cold and hard or outright villainous bastards.  Even the good-guys (so far as I was able to identify a good guy) had a bit of a nasty streak.  Still, I’m curious to find out what happens next, but I don’t think I’ll ever be as big a fan of Martin’s books as I have been of Jordan’s.

That said, I’ll probably pick up the next Ice and Fire book after finishing The Gathering Storm.  That will probably take up the rest of Summer and beyond.  When I finish that book, I’ll probably put down the Ice and Fire books again and move on to Sanderson with Elantris.

In the future, besides the Sanderson and Martin books, I’ve cued up a hefty list of “To Read” books on my Amazon wishlist.  Most of these are books I’ve learned about since I started following the blogs of a few other writers.  These include Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, Mainspring by Jay Lake, The Adamantine Palace by Stephen Deas, The God Engines by John Scalzi, Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin, His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik, Spellwright by Blake Charlton and possibly Seth Grahame-Smith’s latest, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

So, that’s not a very short list.  Not a short list at all.  That is sure to keep me busy and reading well into the foreseeable future, and beyond.  What’s on your reading list?

Happy Reading.

Ten Books That Moved Me

 So, apparently there’s this game going on in the “blogosphere“, started, as I understand it, by Tyler Cowen on the blog “Marginal Revolution“: name the 10 Books that influenced your view of the world.  I first saw this on the blog of T. S. Bazelli, who’s commented here a few times.  So, at first I had a bit of trouble with this.  I didn’t come up with ten, right away.  It took a little thinking about it, but I did come up with ten.  And the list is a little surprising to me: they’re not all fantasy and science fiction novels (in fact, there’s comparatively little science fiction at all, which may make sense considering I’ve read very little sci fi as compared to fantasy), though they almost all are.  Further thought caused me to consider a few others that impact that list – additions I’d make or possibly substitute if I wasn’t going with the first ten influential books I thought of.  So, here they are:
The Book of Three Cover

The Book of Three

  1. The Chronicles of Prydain” by Lloyd Alexander: starting with The Book of Three and concluding with The High King.  Originally published in the 1960s, and the conclusion of which is a Newbery Award winner, these are books written and intended for a children and adolescent market, and that’s the age at which I discovered them.  I’ve blogged about the influence these books had on me before.  Suffice to say, I’m not certain I’d be a writer today – or an aspiring author, rather – if not for these books.  If everything else in my life were stripped away, this still lies at the heart of who I am, and it is these books that started me down that path.  The final book, if I had to choose, is of particular note in my memory.  The books concluded with such a tangible bittersweetness that writing that emotion has been a sort of quest of mine ever since.

    Picture of an Open Bible

    An Open Book of Scripture

  2. The Bible and other books of Scripture: In some circles (including among many of my friends), claiming the “Bible” or any other book of scripture as one of your biggest influences is by definition a cliché.  The fact is, through most of my life, I’d read and had read to me bits and pieces of the Bible, but I’d never read the whole thing.  Still, I was taught about its importance and preeminence among books, just as a matter or religious instruction.  However, when I was about 19 years old and in college, as I was finding my religious beliefs challenged in unexpected ways, I undertook to read the book, from cover-to-cover as part of a separate religious-studies class looking at a different religion from my own, at that time.  What I discovered there was interesting and exciting.  It challenged some of my long-held beliefs, re-affirmed others, and made me think more about the nature of christianity than I had before.  Was God, for instance, a benevolent and merciful being?  The Bible doesn’t always suggest that he is!  And yet, it concludes with a resounding affirmation of those very traits!  What to make of all that?  In the end, it lead to a profound shift in the direction of my life.  I can honestly say, were it not for that change, I would not be where I am today, I would not have met my wife, and I would not now be bringing a new life into the world with her. 

    The Lord of Rings in Hardcover

    The Lord of the Rings in Hardcover

  3. The Lord of the Rings” by J. R. R. Tolkien: starting with The Fellowship of the Ring, of course.  These are the books without which no list of “the most influential books” is truly complete, making it a cliché of its own.  But, of course, there are reasons the books are so influential.  It’s hard to imagine a world without these books: half of popular entertainment and pop culture would be radically different if so.  But this is about the personal influence these books had on me.  As a writer, this can’t be understated.  Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books were what made me a writer, but it is these books that made me think more deeply about my writing.  I find myself turning time and again to the indices at the back of The Return of the King, and to companion books like The Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarillion for inspiration in the way that I approach writing fantasy and world-building.  I find Tolkien’s influence in my work so strong that I have come to consider that “novel-I’ve-been-working-on” (cue obligatory reference to “blathering”) not so much a novel, or a pending novel-series, but a work of Mythopoeia.  While it is, perhaps, pretentious, that is nonetheless my aspiration – and why I’ve put the book aside until I can develop my skills as a writer sufficiently to be able to tackle such a daunting task. 

    The Hobbit Cover

    The Cover of "The Hobbit"

  4. The Hobbit, also by Tolkien: Another publisher of such a list might classify this as part-and-parcel with “The Lord of the Rings”, but I have to list them separately.  Even before I eventually read this book – which is a children’s book, as opposed to a work for adults such as “The Lord of the Rings” – stories from The Hobbit formed the backdrop of my childhood (along with other tales).  Before I ever read the book, I’d seen the Rankin/Bass animated version of it.  As a story of heroism and adventure, it sets a very different mood than the later books, and have different inspirations. It was only later, with the writing of “The Lord of the Rings”, that Tolkien tied the world of The Hobbit together with the world he’d been creating since his youth that we see in The Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarillion.  It’s another part of the mythopoetic process that’s well worth reading. 

    The Cover of "Dragons of Autumn Twilight"

    The Cover of "Dragons of Autumn Twilight"

  5. The Dragonlance Chronicles” by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman: which begin with Dragons of Autumn Twilight.  Long before I discovered Role-playing, or took up “adventuring” in Dungeons & Dragons, I read the Dragonlance books.  And those books were perhaps the first books that nearly brought me to tears because of the death of a character (I won’t share which one, so as not to spoil it).  It was heart-wrenching.  Of course, that’s besides the epic scope and incredible fantasy-milieu at the heart of these books (and the companion series, The Twins chronicles; read those two trilogies but the rest of the “Dragonlance” books, most by other authors, are extraneous to these two series).  Again, really, these books skew to a slightly younger audience, but they’re still fantastic, in my opinion, and were the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration between Weis and Hickman that continues to this day. 

    The Cover of "The Eye of the World"

    The Cover of "The Eye of the World"

  6. The Wheel of Time” by Robert Jordan: which begins with The Eye of the World.  For all its flaws and detractors, “The Wheel of Time” has earned a place as one of the best epic fantasies every written, and this is especially true if we narrow our focus to the first three books of the series.  These books are among the most thoroughly-researched and richly-detailed fantasy books I’ve ever read, and even during the long slog in the middle, I always found myself eagerly anticipating the next book in the series (when I started reading them in High School, there were six of them).  Even the flaws – and yes, even an ardent fan of these books such as myself must admit that there are flaws – are a source of inspiration to me: I ask myself, as fabulous as Robert Jordan’s books are, what did he do wrong?  And how can I avoid those mistakes in my own writing?  In a future blog posting (after I finish reading The Gathering Storm), I will likely go into greater detail about the series as a whole, what I perceive the flaws to be, and how this all influences my writing. 

    The Cover of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"

    The Cover of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"

  7. The Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling: which begins with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, as per the U.S. title.  These books changed my opinion of YA literature (or at least of YA fantasy and science fiction literature).  I had staunchly refused to read the Harry Potter books, believing them to be a fantasy-light that was unworthy of the attention of someone like me who was interested in serious, adult fantasy (such as the “Wheel of Time” books above); and I held out reading these until after the first movie came out.  Of course, I had to eat my words: these books are really well-written and enjoyable, regardless of what age you are when you read them.  In retrospect, it was silly, naive, and frankly stupid of me to hold the books in such contempt: some of my favorite books were written for the juvenile market (see “Chronicles of Prydain” above).  Can you spell hypocrite?  Regardless, I also learned a thing or two about writing fantasy by seriously considering just what made these books so darn popular in the first place (and by extension, caused Ms. Rowling to become the richest woman in England).  One part of the answer, I surmised: the role relationships between characters play in these books.  I also discovered, after reading these books, how annoyed I was at the U.S. title-change.  It smacks of pandering to the lowest-common-denominator, or of assuming the general stupidity of the American reading public.  The fact is, Ms. Rowling obviously did research on folklore and mythology in writing this series, but you wouldn’t know it by the American title: there’s really no such thing as a “Sorcerer’s Stone”.  But the British title has it right: there’s loads of interesting things in folklore and mythology about a “Philosopher’s Stone“.  

    The Cover of "1984"

    "1984" with the same cover as used in my High School

  8. 1984 by George Orwell: 1984 is easily the best book I have ever had to read for school.  It’s also the most darkly chilling, and most culturally, socially, and politically relevant I’ve ever had to read.  Basically, if you didn’t have to read it in High School like I did, then you should go read this book right now.  Seriously.  I mean, how do you even know what the rest of us are talking about whenever we snidely suggest that “Big Brother is watching you”?  Anyway, 1984 is the science-fiction (yes, it’s science fiction, even if they made you read it in school and even if Orwell didn’t know he was writing science fiction) dystopian-future magnum opus from before dystopian future sci-fi was the cool thing to write, and is the touchstone from which all other dystopian futures ultimately draw their inspiration.  And it is a book that continues to warn us against the dangers that lurk in our futures – dangers of our own making and born of our own complacency. 

    The cover of "A Wizard of Earthsea"

    The Cover of the same edition of "A Wizard of Earthsea" as was owned by my parents

  9. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le GuinLe Guin’s books are deceptively simple to read, and belie their deep exploration of complex themes.  My parents had a huge collection of books from my childhood, and buried in that collection was a box-set of the first three Earthsea books.  Pressed into the pages of the books were dried flowers: flowers I can only assume were given to my mother by my father.  I did my best to take care not to damage the dried, pressed flowers when I read these books.  I included these books on my list because I think there’s something deeper or more meaningful here than in many of the other fantasy and science fiction books I’ve read.  Also, I think Ms. Le Guin’s campaign to protect her copyrights from corporate take-over are worthy of note. 
     
     

                                                                  

  10.  A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
    Cover of "A Thousand Splendid Suns"

    Cover of "A Thousand Splendid Suns"

    This is a very surprising, non-speculative fiction item on my list.  Dear Wife very much enjoyed The Kite Runner by the same author, which she had read before we met, and when she got her hands on this sophomore novel by Hosseini, she convinced me to read it to.  Later, we saw the film version of The Kite Runner.  These stories were deeply disturbing and eye opening, and reading A Thousand Splendid Suns gave me a new understanding of evil that goes beyond the simplistic sense most often understood in fantasy fiction.  And it made me ponder such a situation in which “the good guys”, as my preconceived notions understood it, existed in a world where there were no “good” options, where every choice, every action conceivable would lead to more death, destruction, and evil, no matter what the intentions of “the good guys”.  Indeed, I was forced to ponder a world in which “the good guys” were a force for evil and ill in the world, simply as a consequence of their existence.  That is a stark reality to face, and it is one that A Thousand Splendid Suns made me face.  Also, this book has a fabulously enticing title!  

Honorable Mentions 

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: At once instructive, iconic, enduring, and immortal.  Plus, it’s about my favorite time of year!

 Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson: Adventure! Treasure! Pirates! And a boy in need of a father.  A bildungsroman that still delights young readers to this day.  This book is beyond being a mere classic.  Plus, may I say that this book began my love affair with maps?

 The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells: Veritably the grandfather of science fiction (alongside Mr. Verne, the genre’s other grandfather).  As far as I know, it’s the first time aliens invaded and conquered Earth, and also the first time they were a metaphor of something deeper.  What I read was an illustrated, abridged version for children, at a fairly young age.

 The 1,001 Arabian Nights: While I’ve never read them, the existence of this book nonetheless has a profound impact on my world, and my conception of a heroic tale: from the voyages of Sinbad, to the tale of Aladdin, to Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, these are adventures and stories that were a part of my childhood and formed the backdrop for my early development as a writer.

 Fairy Tales: From Mother Goose to the Brothers Grimm and everything in between.  My childhood was steeped in fairy tales – many of them from children’s books recounting the tales in question.  Others came from movies and television, still others were related as bed-time stories. 

 Wikipedia: It’s not a book.  But it is my one-stop-shop, where all of my more in-depth research begins.   (Which is to say, I know Wikipedia’s not where my research should end, but it’s a great place to begin!)

Happy reading!

Reading

While I was working on my Undergraduate Degree – so many years ago, now – I got involved with a program intended to help promote literacy.  It was called Time-to-Read – it’s a program sponsored by the Time Warner company.  So, twice a week I woke up at 7:30 in the morning – earlier than any self-respecting undergrad ever gets up – and hopped on my bike to ride a couple of miles out from the campus to an elementary school on the underprivileged side of town.

There, I worked with a couple of students – a different pair on each of the two days I went – using the Time-to-Read readers – little pamphlets with kid-friendly news stories and word games – to give the kids a little time to practice their reading in a more private, personal setting, for about a half an hour outside of normal class.

It was a humbling experience.

And it put my own experience and history into perspective.  We were never wealthy, growing up.  Our family clung tenaciously to the underside of the Middle Class, trying to climb up during the good times, but never letting go during the tough ones.  Through all my years in public schools, I don’t recall a one where we didn’t qualify for Free or Reduced Lunches.  But there were two advantages we had that so many others lacked that made us children of privilege: a mother with an unwavering devotion to the quality of her children’s education, and books.

During our primary school years, my Mom never failed to take an opportunity to be a part of our education.  She volunteered at school.  She helped with and checked our homework.  She and my father went to every Parent-Teacher night.  During the summer, she had us read and practice math, reading, and writing from a set of educational books they’d bought for us.  We thought it was pretty draconian to make us do homework during the Summer, but in retrospect I have to thank my mother for that.  It set me up not only for a lifetime of learning, but a lifetime of over-achieving in my education.

But I’m especially grateful for the books.  No, not those education books we had to read out of over the summers.  I mean the novels.  Several dozens of them, maybe hundreds in all.  I never took a full count.  Even if you count out all the romance novels on my mom’s shelves, there were more than enough books to fill my childhood with fantasy, science fiction, and adventure.  And I’m thankful for my parents’ examples.  My parents read.  My dad less so as the years went by, for lack of free time, but by then there were so many books that it didn’t matter.

I always credit Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles with starting my love affair with Fantasy (I’ve blogged about that before), but that’s most probably because those books were the most accessible to me at a young age.  There had always been fantasy and science fiction books in my family’s house.  (I think it’s a genetic thing.  I have an uncle who collects statues of dragons.)

My history with books, and with reading, and with education all were starkly different than that of the kids I was working with on Time-to-Read.  Where my family clung to the underbelly of the Middle Class, the families of these kids reached for it in vain.  Where I was a white boy in a white-dominated society, these kids were not.  Where I had loved to read from a very young age, these kids struggled with it.  By the end of the year, I felt like my efforts had been for naught.  Their reading skills seemed no better by the end of the year than they had at the start.  I felt like a failure.

I didn’t participate in the Time-to-Read program a second year.  Partly, I was dismayed by my apparent failure to have a positive impact on these kids’ lives.  Partly, I was profoundly uncomfortable being confronted with the stark truth of the twin liabilities of race and class: of being the “wrong” race or of the “wrong” class.  I thought I understood what it was to be poor, but I began to suspect that I did not really understand it at all.  Today, I wish I could go back, and find some way, any way, to help those kids improve their reading skills.  What a difference that could have made, if I’d done a better job?

I was reading in Parenting magazine recently (which my wife and I now subscribe to) that reading skills are perhaps the single most important indicator of future success.  Literacy changes everything.  It really isn’t hyperbole.  Reading has made me who I am.  I love to write because I love to read.  And now that I write a blog, it’s hard to express just how much I appreciate my readers. 

Reading will continue to be important – in my life, and in the life of my children.  I already spend time reading to my B.T., my as-yet-unborn child.  Not every night, unfortunately, yet.  It’s a habit I need to get into.  But every few nights, we pick one of the children’s books we’ve begun collecting off the shelf and I read to him.  As time goes on, I hope to make reading to my children at night, before going to bed, a regular part of the evening ritual.  Because it matters.

Perhaps that’s a long, rambling post.  But it’s something I’ve been thinking about, lately.  I hope you’ll promote literacy in whatever neck of the woods you find yourself. 

Happy reading.