LT challenge

I have been a consistent user of LibraryThing (LT) ( since March of 2009. I have mentioned it a few times in earlier posts in this blog. I use LT to record my reading. As soon as I complete a book I add it to my catalogue, suitably tagged so that it shows up in my collection of ‘Read in 2009’, or ‘Read in 2010’, or, more pertinently ‘Read in 2011’. I also rate each book I add there, but I consider that mostly just a memory aide. I like to know which books I have read that I would definitely recommend to someone else. (In my case, I’m happy to recommend anything to which I give a 4-star rating or higher.)

Recently I started exploring some of the social aspects of LT. I’m not a big one for participating on fora, joining group challenges, or commenting on what other people read. However, some time in December I started ‘watching’ the group 75 Books Challenge for 2011. I was curious because I have in fact read that many books in 2011 (I’ll post my 2011 reading list on the 1st of the new year). Would you be surprised to learn that this group has more than 1000 members? Would it further surprise you to discover that a sizeable portion of the group surpassed the 75 book challenge? Maybe not, but it did surprise me.

By visiting the discussion ‘threads’ of a number of the prolific readers in this group, I learned that not only were they voracious readers, many were also substantial contributors to LT in terms of writing reviews of the books they had read or proffering recommendations to other members of the group. Here, in fact, was a vibrant community of sensitive and sensible readers – the kind of folk who like to talk about what they read, what they love about the books they read and, sometimes, what disappoints them. I think I may have been missing out these past couple of years on one of the fun parts of LT.

With that in mind, I was quick to sign up to the 75 Books Challenge for 2012. That group was initiated on 26 December, and one day later there are already more than 100 people signed up. This is one motivated group of readers. I hope I am up to the challenge in 2012.


Last game of the season

The leaves on the linden tree that I can see out my window have mostly turned yellow-brown. A number have already fallen. We’ve had a series of very cool nights, as though to highlight the now surprisingly warm days. It won’t last. Soon enough the first snow will come. The signs are all there. The Blue Jays play their last game of the season today.

I didn’t play baseball as a boy other than a few pick-up games. But since their inaugural season (1977) I have more or less followed the Toronto Blue Jays. Before that my allegiance lay with the Detroit Tigers, which remains the closest team geographically to where my home town lies. In those early days with the Jays at Exhibition Stadium, I would get to a game once a year usually during The Ex. Toward the end of the summer the guys at the bakery would pile into a car early some Sunday morning and drive the near 3 hours to Toronto. But mostly I would listen to the games on my radio in my room as I drifted off to sleep.

A great many writers have noted that baseball is a sport that lends itself to radio (I would now add that cricket also shares this property). The play-by-play announcers seem to easily paint the scene. It has something to do with the structural nature of the field placements perhaps. Or the conversational pace of the game. Or the narrative drive for drama. Some of it, however, has to do with the familiarity one gains with the radio broadcast team. Over a 162 game season, their voices – the cadence and energy, the commiserations and excitements – take on the aura of friends. I still remember Tom Cheek with fondness and Jerry Howarth just sounds like the nicest gentleman imaginable.

It’s been another middling season for the Jays. They have stayed about .500 throughout the year. That’s not bad in baseball. But it’s not enough to seriously challenge within their division, possibly the most competitive in the league. That’s okay. I just like to listen to the games.

Today is the last game of the season. It will be a long winter.

Shelf life

The Kitchener-Waterloo branch of the Canadian Federation of University Women (CFUW) will be holding its annual book sale at the end of April. I’ve already got the dates in my calendar. This two-day sale of used books is tremendously popular. And since it takes place just around the block from where I live, I have easy access both to the sale itself and to carrying over a box or two of books for donation. The CFUW accepts only items in good condition and only for the two days prior to the sale. The cars, vans, and, yes, trucks pulling in to the sale site’s parking lot during those two days to drop off bags and boxes of books overwhelms the normal quiet flow of traffic on surrounding streets. So many people giving away books they have purchased or received as gifts. And on the days of the sale, even more people arriving to stock up on five or ten more books for their shelves.

I don’t know if anyone studies the migratory patterns of books. It would, I think, be a fascinating science, whether one specialized in non-fiction encyclopaedic sets or small-press literary fiction. Electronic tagging of individual books, common enough these days even in our public libraries, aided by radar or satellite tracking ought to make the seasonal or yearly migrations scientific child’s-play to follow. I wonder what it would reveal.

I have a box in my basement that has been there throughout the year. I have it labelled – book sale books. It is about half full at the moment, but it will be full when I walk it across to the CFUW book collection. What books make it into this box?

  • Duplicates. Yes, I periodically still find the odd duplicate in amongst our books. But fewer, ever fewer.
  • Duds. Some books I am so disappointed by that even after a single reading I am prepared to set them on their way to potentially more hospitable homes. I have mixed feelings about this. If I really felt some book was a bad book, could I in good conscience pass it on to others? Would I pass along a book that I couldn’t even bring myself to recommend to anyone? There will be sleepless nights ahead.
  • Deadwood. Some books just seem to take up space. I’ve read them, I’ve been mildly entertained, but our relationship seems to have come to an end. Time to move on. You would not believe how hard it is to decide that a book falls in to this category. Some that have entered the book sale books box mysteriously find their way back on to my shelves before the box leaves the house. I don’t know how that happens.

There is one further category of  books that make it into the book sale books box. These are placed in the box with regret. Casualties of expediency. It turns out that a book shelf will only hold a finite number of books, even if I stack them double. These are the hardest books to let go. But they go knowing that their place on the shelf will only be taken by a book I love at least as much and cannot yet bring myself to let go.

In a year, more than one-third of the books I read come from the public library. That includes electronic books which I sometimes read on my computer, not yet having given in to the eBook movement. That still leaves at least a box full of books that I will acquire over the course of a year. And another box that will be setting some books free on their continuing migration. Long may they wander.

Writers reading

Francine Prose wrote a wonderfully useful book called Reading Like a Writer. I read it a few years ago and I think it is time to dip into it again. Recently I have been experiencing the frightful pleasure of having my own writing read by writers. Shortly after the demise of my previous writing group, I was lucky enough to join in with a dedicated group of writers who are forcing me to raise my game. There are two poets, two novelists, and a creative non-fiction writer plus me. Every one of them is a careful, perceptive reader. What’s more, they all read like writers. So the feedback I’m getting at the moment is precise, constructive, and inspiring.

I fear that my own contributions are not nearly as helpful, though I try. Fortunately they all write well and are unlikely to be harmed by my weak observational feedback. I spot a word or two that I think might be replaced by a better one. I fact-check. I speculate on what an action or event commits a writer to. I test the believability of described facial expressions. I don’t imagine I’m helping all that much.

Surprisingly, perhaps, I find providing comment on the poems to be the hardest. That’s only surprising to me because there was a time when I thought of myself as (and probably was) a poet. More than 25 years ago now, of course. In those days I was passionate about poetry. The group I hung with as an undergrad would argue long into the night about the placement of a word or a line’s scansion. We didn’t wear black, but our writing was dark and driven.

These days I’ve got out of the habit of reading poetry. It’s one thing to read like a writer, but reading like a poet is even harder. I see it in the commentary from the poets in my current group. They can be so observant about the weight of a single word.

I’m feeling very lucky to be in with this group of writers. And hoping that I can one day be as useful to them as they are for me.

Rating reading

Over on LibraryThing I maintain a catalogue of what I read. As I finish each book, the first thing I do is add it to my catalogue and then I rate it. I’m not especially a fan of crude rating systems. But I have found, over time, that it can serve a use, at least personally.

LibraryThing uses a 5-star system and, I have recently discovered, half-stars are also possible. Although my rating gets added to the pool of ratings for the book in question, I tend not to pay too much attention to other ratings. My rating method is idiosyncratic, and I suspect the same is true for others. What the ratings do provide, however, is a trigger to remind myself what I thought of a book.

Looking back over, say, the last twenty-five books I have read, I can see patterns emerging. There may be three or four books in a row with fairly low ratings. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in my rating scheme. Sometimes a book with a very high rating will be followed by one with a very low rating. Then I begin to wonder whether the second book suffered unduly by comparison to its predecessor. I have on occasion adjusted a rating for a book that I thought I had been too hard on, or too lenient.

I will tend to give one star to almost any book. Sometimes this means that I have thoroughly not enjoyed the book. But there aren’t many books that I would bother reading to the end which would receive such a rating from me. So, sometimes one star just means that the book didn’t live up to what I think is the potential for that author. Two stars, by contrast, tend to be books that I may have enjoyed but which I probably wouldn’t recommend unless I knew someone’s reading taste very well. Here is where a genre series might find a home and provides the source for some of those one star ratings previously mentioned.

Three stars, for me, is a book that is competently written but not outstanding. There are some writers I read who nearly always end up with three stars. I’m never disappointed reading their work, but they never surprise me or take my breath away. I am not averse to recommending such a book to anyone.

Four stars stands out far about the usual fare. I tend to find myself talking about such a book and continuing to think about it long after I have finished reading it. Such books are not especially rare. I engage in a fair bit of pre-selection and perhaps this skews the curve. I also have a habit of wanting to think well of an author, so if she or he is at least reaching for something difficult to attain, I will tend to be generous. Looking back over the sixteen books since 2008 to which I have given four stars, I see a couple that on reflection I now think may be slightly over-rated by me. But I’ll let those stand because I want to remind myself of how I felt at the time.

I have read 166 books since I started keeping my catalogue. Only three have attained a five star rating from me: W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and Jane Austen’s Emma. For these I have no hesitation. Each one is a great piece of literature. That doesn’t mean I don’t think discussion might ensue. It does, it should. Great literature needs to be argued, needs to be lived. I only wish that I could read more books that belong in this group.

I’m glad, however, that the Recent Reads feed from my catalogue that I show on this blog’s webpage does not include the rating I’ve given the book. I don’t think it would be informative. And if a book is worth talking about, I will tend to be talking (and writing) about it in any case. Perhaps I should be doing more of that in this blog. For example, I don’t think I have mentioned anywhere what a great pleasure it has been to read Lisa Moore’s short stories. High time.

I’m looking forward to what I read next.