Read What You Want – A Mini Book Review and Rant

among-the-janeites
http://www.goodreads.com

Ever since I chanced upon it while wandering around a bookstore, Among the Janeites sounded like my kind of book. I don’t naturally tend to gravitate toward nonfiction, but at first glance, this little paperback sounded just like my cup of tea – a tome filled with personal stories of people obsessed with books.  Among the Janeites features the lives of (mostly) women whose lives were changed by Austen’s works. They relate what their day-to-day lives are like, how they prepare for the annual Jane Austen Society of North America gatherings, and exactly how their lives have been altered by their favorite Austen tales. Though not a “Janeite” myself, I am fascinated by books and documentaries about people who love basically anything enough to embrace that thing body, mind, and soul. Fandoms are so interesting to me. Dressing in the appropriate garb, speaking in the customary fashion, living life as if in another world; I find all of it to be so compelling. So, after perusing the back cover, I was excited to delve into Among the Janeites and read about one woman’s foray into the vaguely familiar world of kooky Austen fanatics in their natural habitat, the convention.

I had very romantic notions about this book before I even cracked the cover, to be honest. I think I was expecting some light confection about frilly Austen-lovers, solely informed by my love of the offbeat and woefully underrated movie Austenland, about a superfan who stays at an immersive, 1800s-themed Austen resort (yes, I know there’s a book and no, I’ve never read it). After I grabbed Among the Janeites from my library’s shelves and dove in, I was greeted with a little anecdote involving author Deborah Yaffe and a deck of Jane Austen tarot cards. Not quite as romantic as I’d pictured, but interest piqued! That anecdote was followed by a more personal story about Yaffe’s young life and how she grew up loving literature and the works of Jane Austen. Eventually, she started to make her way to the meat of the story and began discussing the people she had interviewed. She related stories about these Austen fans’ everyday lives and how they came to be obsessed with Jane Austen, and also wrote quite a bit about her unsuccessful attempts at trying to find the right corset and dress for the annual convention. While reading these first few sections of the book, I learned lots of facts, including that the term “Janeite” was coined by some British dude in the late 1800s. All intriguing enough, right? 

Well, yes, it was at first. But that’s where all the fanciful pretense ended. What followed this long and engaging introduction was continual chatter about dress shopping, alternating with strangely analytical biographies.  There was so much talk about finding the perfect gown and corset for the convention, Yaffe sounded as if she was trying to hunt down a wedding dress. She  was so distressed, moaning and lamenting her misfortune, that I actually said out loud, “UGH. I. Don’t. Care.” Perhaps she was attempting to hearken back to times when English gentlewomen had nothing more important to worry about than the gowns they would wear to each ball and the men they intended to marry. But those tropes are best left to Jane Austen, not to a modern woman lamenting the $200 corset she was simply forced to buy. Yikes. No. I could only read about it for so long. 

Yaffe’s personal quest for THE dress (eye roll) might have been tolerable if the stories breaking up her personal anecdotes were appealing. But the way in which she wrote about these everyday women who are so deeply passionate about Jane Austen lacked any, well, passion. The stories, which I’m sure were actually delightful, came off as very factual and clinical. They weren’t presented in a compelling manner, and I felt almost as if I was reading case studies in a scientific journal. To put it bluntly, I could not have been more bored. Over time, I found myself picking this book up and putting it down over and over again, my attempts to read more than a page totally fruitless. I struggled with this book for a long time, desperately wanting to like it, but just frankly not caring for it. After wrestling with myself for a couple of weeks, I finally gave in to my despair and returned it to the library.

The whole process of finally giving up on a book, while not foreign to me, has always been so disheartening. This time especially, I was really disappointed in the book, and in myself. It’s not often that I put any reading material back down after starting it, because I don’t like giving up. But for some reason, this book made me hit my breaking point. I beat myself up about it for a while, thinking that if I had only stuck with it, the story probably would’ve gotten better. However, as disappointed as I was, I got a small but substantial bit of consolation from the fact that I’d only checked the book out and hadn’t bought it. And after all was said and done and I’d started an excellent new book, that feeling of small consolation turned into a flood of relief. I ended up being pretty proud of myself for not wasting my time slogging through something I wasn’t enjoying.

Which leads me to my point/piece of advice, and it’s a simple one: Don’t read stuff you don’t want to read. I know, it’s genius. It took me a long time to get here, but I’ve finally made it. It’s very freeing, not feeling beholden to a burden of a novel. There are simply too many good books out there to waste my time trudging through the dull ones. It was tough to get to this point, because I feel such loyalty to any book I choose to read (not unusual for a book lover, I’m sure). For me, that loyalty owes itself at least in part to the amount of time it takes me to pick out a new book after I’ve finished the last one. So when I do finally make that decision, it’s like the book and I are heading into unknown territory together, and after I’ve spent my hard-earned time and money, I don’t expect to be abandoned by my partner. If that partner ditches me, then I have no choice but to curse the day I ever met him/her and give up the journey. And I have no regrets about this now, either. I know they say you can’t appreciate the good without experiencing the bad, and that is true, but I can definitely read three chapters of a mediocre book and appreciate that I’ve read better. I’m not sticking it out in the muck while my partner wanders off, prattling on about corsets.

It’s important to read what moves you. We’re not going to live forever (probably), so we should spend time doing what we love and actually, I don’t know, enjoying ourselves while doing it. Maybe you’ve been telling yourself that you must read that Proust because all well-read and intelligent people read Proust, but you’re finding it to be long and confusing and boring. Just put it down. It’s okay. Maybe Proust doesn’t speak to your soul. I mean, on my shelf sits Swann’s Way, and I like to think I’m going to read it someday. But if I’m being totally honest with myself, I know that barring some major catastrophe that leaves me with only a flashlight and that behemoth of a book, I’m probably never going to make it all the way through. When I die, I doubt anyone will be impressed or even know that I read some stuff from the Western Canon once. It doesn’t matter. And I’m okay with it. I want you to be okay with it too. What does matter is the pleasure of reading, what we learn from our books, and how we grow from that knowledge. Whether you get that readerly satisfaction from Henry James or Helen Fielding or a bunch of clinical stories about women who dress in period costumes and obsess over Mr. Darcy is inconsequential. You have the right to like whatever you want, others’ opinions be damned.* When it comes to books, we owe no loyalty to anyone, man, book, or beast, dead or alive. We only owe it to our ourselves and our precious time.

So read what you want and tell that negative inner voice to kiss your ass (effing Prudence).

 

* I do, however, reserve the right to judge you harshly if you enjoy Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey. Because I can.

5 Books That Changed My Life

I just got back from a little summer vacation in the tiny, sleepy, hot-as-hell, artistic town of Marfa, TX. The trip afforded me lots of free time, especially because the WiFi in the casita where my beau and I were staying was not the best (which was decidedly for the best). Almost everything in Marfa closes at around 8pm, so there was plenty of time to sit back and catch up on some books I’ve been needing to finish. I even had time to delve into a new, weird “children’s” book that I’m not totally certain is actually for children.

There was also a lot of quiet time for me to chill out and contemplate my life – specifically where mine is going at this very moment. I quit my 8 year, steady job about 8 months ago, and I’m trying to decide exactly what I want to do now. This break from steady work brings up a lot of things that I never really had time to think about when I was working my butt off every day, and I’m trying to decide in what direction I’d like my life to go. I’ve been freelancing and thinking about the things and creative pursuits I love the most, and attempting to decide how to make them into careers. In these ruminations, I’ve realized that if I know one thing, it’s that I love books. They have made an enormous impact on my life, so much that I might even venture to say that books are basically my life. So this thought pattern led me to evaluate which individual books have changed the course of my life over the years (maybe in the hopes that I’ll stumble across another one that will knock me onto the correct path).

It’s undeniable that every book I’ve ever read has changed me in one way or another, but there are really only a handful of books that I can say have truly changed the trajectory of my life. Today I thought I’d share these books as a way to sort of commemorate where I’ve been. Though I wouldn’t say that these are my all-time favorite books or anything, they have absolutely each altered my world at some point in my life.

I’ve listed these books in my own personal chronological order, from the first I discovered to the latest ones to affect me.

1) One Monster After Another by Mercer Mayer

 One Monster After AnotherThis is the first book I learned to read by myself. I was very close to my grandmother, and she was a voracious reader who passed her love of literature on to me. She spent her retirement watching me, my sister, and my two cousins while our parents were at work, and it was in this time that she taught 3- or 4-year-old me (obviously can’t remember the exact age) to read. I remember sitting on Grandmother’s lap and making her read One Monster After Another to me over and over while I turned the pages and memorized all of the words. I read this story about one letter’s fantastical, roundabout journey until I made the connection between letters and words, and could read the book on my own. As you can see, my copy of this book has been read to death, and I imagine it will only get worse if I ever have children. I don’t care. I’m keeping it forever. It jump started my life’s passion.

 

2) The Baby-Sitters Club Series by Ann M. Martin 

http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-book-news/article/54772-scholastic-releases-baby-sitters-club-e-books-with-classic-covers.html
publishersweekly.com

Yes, this is a series and not an individual book. As a kid, I was absolutely OBSESSED with the Baby-Sitters Club books. It’s the first book series that I ever started collecting, and it was at this point that I distinctly remember starting to carry a book (usually more than one) with me at all times to read. Reading this series also helped me acquire the skill of being able to keep story lines separate and read more than one book at a time. But what was the most revelatory for me about this series is that it definitely shaped my views on girls and on female friendship. The main characters in these books are strong, diverse, enterprising girls who know what they want and work for it. They are cool, creative, and smart, and I wanted to be all of them (except Mallory, who I suspected was unfortunately the most similar to me). They also drove home that women and girls should support one another instead of tearing each other down, the latter of which is unfortunately what we too often see on TV, in magazines, online, and subsequently in our own relationships. These strong female role models with their ideal, yet still realistic friendships have definitely stuck with and shaped me. (Also, fun fact, I’m not really a fan of Kirsten Dunst, but I think it’s worth mentioning that she was the model for the little girl on “Claudia and the Phantom Phone Calls” cover.)

 

3) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

 Pride and PrejudiceI was deep into the Baby-Sitters Club books when my sister introduced me to the wonders of Jane Austen. I was at an age when everything I did started to feel stupid and baby-ish, and felt like I needed to be reading things other than kids’ books (oh, budding adolescence). My sister had read Pride and Prejudice in one of her English classes and, promising I would like it, basically forced me to drop what I was reading one summer and pick it up. And I am so glad she ripped the BSC book out of my hands (speaking in hyperbole here), because reading Pride and Prejudice changed my world. It basically introduced me to the vast world of classic literature, and to the notion that there were a multitude of well-written, mature books in existence that I had no idea could be so readable and just so . . . good. I remember putting down the BSC books and never picking them up again (somewhat sadly, because I still think I developmentally should have continued reading them, but c’est la vie). Though Jane Austen is undeniably one of the best, the Bronte sisters speak a little more to my soul; however, I never would have had the pleasure of discovering this about myself had it not been for Jane Austen’s most acclaimed novel. I literally shudder to think of what I might be filling my head with now if I had never read Pride and Prejudice.

 

4) Quiet by Susan Cain

Quiet

This is arguably the most important book on this list to me. I am generally a pretty *quiet* person, but I absolutely love to talk to people about Quiet. I can honestly say that I am a completely different person after reading it. In 2013, at the tender age of 28, I finally stopped apologizing for who I am, and it is thanks to this book. To those who are closest to me, it’s old news that I’m shy and an introvert (the two are not synonymous), but this is usually at least a little surprising to people I’ve worked with or interacted with in social settings. I’ve gotten pretty good at hiding my true nature, mostly because I’ve spent my whole life (see: 27 years) exhausting myself, trying hard not to be shy and withdrawn in basically every school and social setting. In reading Quiet, I found out that I’m an HSP (highly sensitive person), innately shy, and an introverted introvert (there are indeed other combinations of extroversion and introversion, I’m just the furthest to the introvert side). And I no longer apologize for any of it, because I’m convinced that it’s how I was born. Though my parents thankfully never asked me to be anything other than myself, our extrovert-idealizing society did and still does demand other patterns of behavior from me. It was such a sad revelation to see that I had basically spent my life apologizing for who I am, and such a relief to accept that I didn’t need to do it anymore. I bet that almost any true introvert can relate to the feeling of shame that goes along with not wanting to go out with friends sometimes (or almost ever), or fearing working in an open office plan, or avoiding public speaking at all costs. The sort of self-acceptance I have experience is beyond measure. I’ve often said that I should be a spokesperson for this book, because it quite literally changed everything about my life. After many, many years, Quiet has helped me learn that there is nothing wrong with me, and I have finally made peace with the very core of myself

 

5) The Vegetarian by Han Kang

 VegetarianOkay, so the book itself is amazing, enough so that it inspired me to write a “professional-sounding” review that I’ve shared here on this blog. But on its own, the book would not necessarily have made this list (although it’s fantastic and probably the first piece of truly frightening literature that I’ve enjoyed as an adult). What is so personally important about The Vegetarian is that the review I wrote for it recently landed me my dream freelancing gig, which is reviewing books for a major publication. If finding out that your creative pursuits can get you work isn’t life-changing for an artist, I don’t know what is! Reading, writing, and getting paid to do both has been my dream for a very long time. My first review hasn’t been published yet, so I don’t necessarily want to say which publication I’m contributing to, but I’ll definitely share it here when I’m officially published. Needless to say, this book has changed my life and will always remain dear to me.

 

So those are my five life-changing books! I do, however, have to mention somewhere in this post . . . the Harry Potter series. Of course. I didn’t include it because I feel like EVERYONE talks about how it changed their lives, and I wanted to offer something different. For the record, though, Harry Potter is such an important series to me, for many reasons that would take far too long to list. Suffice it to say that growing up with this series has changed how I read, write, think about the world, and view others. It offers solace when I need it, and is always a joy to return to. It’s amazing that reading words on a page can make me feel like I’m going home, no matter where I am or how many times I revisit the story. What’s more life-changing than that?