Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Reader's Muse

It's a peculiar combination of factors that makes me want to read a book -- different for every one, it seems. Since my time and energy for reading are more limited than ever, I'm selective.

One factor, for sure, is length; it is sad to admit, but I really have given up the idea that I am going to get through anything over 350 pages at this point in my life. If the book is too fat, I can get depressed just picking it up.

My last attempt at a long book was "The Cider House Rules," which I read and loved many years back; but, trying to recreate that feeling recently, I was forced to give up. After not picking the novel up for a couple days, I would return to find that I had forgotten who most of the characters were. (No, I did not forget Melony ... )

More than anything, though, inspiration plays a part in my choices -- the right book at the right moment. It is not unlike the feeling one gets when one wants to write about a certain topic ... the feeling I had when I started composing this first blog entry.

I like to know, for example, that a book is new; I like the idea of being an early consumer of fresh words and ideas. I also can get inspired if I know or have met and like the author of a book; so earlier this year I read four books in a row by friends and colleagues from different parts of my life. (They were all excellent, by the way.)

But, if I can be inspired by a book quickly and for seemingly fickle reasons, I can also get turned off in a flash. In Borders the other day, I had come upon one that caught my interest -- "Shop Class as Soulcraft," a meditation about finding meaning in work.

Getting into a different head space about work has been on my mind of late; and, in retrospect, I realize that part of the book's appeal came from my impression that it was somewhat obscure -- a bit of a discovery on my part. (It had not been prominently displayed, just sitting on a shelf.) I resolved to buy the book on my next visit.

Then, upon visiting The New York Times Web site this morning, what did I see screaming at me from the homepage but an ad for my "little discovery" -- with the title in giant letters and rave reviews on prominent display. I clicked to another page, and the ad followed me. Suddenly, my interest in the book vanished ...

It is not that I won't read a popular book; I piled through Chris Buckley's "Losing Mum and Pup," for example -- but I never imagined that was a "discovery." I had grown up in a Conservative household where William F. Buckley was an icon; and I had recently lost my own mother -- so the memoir hit me at just the right moment.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that readers need to be inspired in the same way that writers do. The connections they feel to book can be profound, and the ways that they become connected to the things they decide to read can be as mysterious as the Muse. (Can we say, indeed, that it is something other than the Muse?)

Of course, marketing (which I do in my daylight hours) attempts to push us in this or that direction -- to tell us (as the "Soulcraft" ad did) that THIS IS THE BOOK YOU WILL LOVE MORE THAN ANY OTHER.

But even if marketing may point us to a particular book, like some kind of dating service, it cannot create the spark that gets us beyond the cover, beyond the first few pages, and deep into the joy of reading.

And maybe, just maybe, that joy can surpass the writer's own joy in writing the book.

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