What were you reading ten years ago?

Ten years ago I published this photo of a nightstand stack of books. I looked at the photo and wondered what changes occurred in my reading habits or tastes during the last ten years. Then I asked, what is on my desk today? After some thought, I wrote a blog post. Or rather an essay regarding my observation. But it was long.

I did not publish the post. Instead, I merged the photos together for comparison. Pictures are worth a thousand words. In this case, two thousand words. And this post will only take a minute to read, rather than 15 to 20 minutes.

Morning commute

Found this photo from my morning commute. A year ago.

Read a Frederick Buechner book on the morning train. And a Li Po book on the evening train.

“Art is work”

A drawing of my desk with books read, unread, or partially read.

It is a challenge for me. When I am introduced as an artist and/or poet. Still not comfortable with either of those nouns. The next question is inevitable. It usually goes something like this:

My wife turns and introduces me to her friend and adds, “He’s also an artist and poet, too.”

“Wow, can I see your art work on Facebook?”

“No. I am not on Facebook.”

“Oh. Instagram?”

“No. Not on Instagram, either.”

“Well. Um. What do you do? Oil paintings? Do you have a gallery somewhere?”

“He posts some of his work on his blog,” my wife offers.

About that time the bread crumb trail ends and the conversation shifts to something else.

The trouble is that some of the work I create I cannot contractually share. Technically, I do not own the copyrights to the final art. And so, I cannot distribute or display it on this or other online platforms. Frustrating. Yes. Bad. No. It is the cost of commercial arts.

For example, a couple weeks ago I drew a portrait. A line art drawing. The portrait will be featured as an etching in either crystal or acrylic as part of a lifetime award. Sometime in March. You may have seen such awards in business offices. A crystal award on black base sitting on someone’s desk or shelf or trophy case.

I am reminded of one of Milton Glaser’s mottos: “Art is work.”

Milton Glaser, celebrated graphic designer, may not be a household name. Not even in my home. But most Americans will recognize the I [heart] NY logo. It is highly unlikely that school children will study designers as part of their art curriculum. (My children are presently studying the American painter Andrew Wyeth.)

Too often I lament, or rather, complain that I spend too much time creating work in front of a screen. It was so nice to ditch the screen and work in ink on vellum and illustration paper. Took nearly four hours to draw the portrait. And that is with the interruptions of replying to emails and designing elements for a multi-page editorial piece. It would take four weeks if I tried to craft the portrait as an oil painting.

In order to answer a request (Where may I find your art work?), I drew the above page last weekend. Inspired by Jane Mount’s Ideal Bookshelf, I managed to draw the stacks of books on my desk by the bedroom window. At least fifty books. So many books. So little time. I enjoyed the exercise. It felt good to pencil a sketch, flesh out the details, and ink the page.

“Wait. You write poetry, too?”

“Um…” I start.

“Have you been published?”

“Yes,” I say.

And this time the bread crumb trail ends quickly. Because most people do not know where to begin to look for published poetry.

“He posts some of his published poems on his blog,” my wife adds.

Saturday morning jazz

No-plan, salvaged-wood bookshelf finally installed

Saturday mornings. The work week is done. Sunrise is an hour or more away. The windows open. And have been all week. Unusual for this time of year and this part of the country. Birds create a pre-dawn cacophony in the evergreens outside the windows to the east.

The oldest kidlinger is up early doing laundry. Needs clean clothes for work later today. We move about the apartment quietly.

Saturday mornings are time for jazz. Brubeck. Coltrane. Evans. Tatum. But it is too early for Saturday morning jazz. It is time for stillness. A time to plan, think, and meditate. 

* * *

Conversations from the week come to mind. What makes a good book?

There are good books. Or at least, interesting books. There are poorly written books. And bad books. Meaning stylistically bad (as in the content is unsuccessfully researched, appallingly argued, or intentionally misleading). There are well-written books with poorly argued thesis statements. There are dull books with good data. And there is a bookshelf that holds them together. 

The no-plan, salvaged-wood bookshelf collects a portion of my library. The space between the work-from-home station and the vintage stereo is the new home of the bookshelf. The summer therapy project was completed so late that the intended use for the bookshelf for school materials was no longer relevant. 

The relevance is now my education. My continuing education in art, science and religion. Essentially, philosophy. What is truth? And, how do I know it? Variations on a theme. A book about technology. Another about project and time management. The top shelf nearly all books of poetry and essays. Some memoirs and novels. Several books on theology and spirituality. Books by American writers. British writers. And German writers.

The second shelf. A mix of poetry, fiction, essays, art and design. The third shelf. Memoirs, classical education, technology, theology, and philosophy. 

Reading an abundance of books does not make an individual well-read. Reading great books does not make one well-read. Understanding the great conversation makes a reader well-read. 

* * *

“I don’t read books,” he said. I did not know what to say. “I read the newspaper. Mainly the sports page. But that’s it.” 

I recalled the conversation from a few years ago. At lunch. On the patio of the Knickerbocker Hotel. The thought appalled me. Not the person. He’s a good guy. But no book reading? How is that possible?

And I know how this happens. Happened. Long days of work. Long commute. Family responsibilities. Community engagement. And other demands. Priorities need to be made in order to set and accomplish goals. 

* * *

Found myself in the recliner. Everyone asleep. It was late. The lamp near the recliner was on. All other lights were off. The apartment was dark. A copy of the New Yorker on my chest. The record player was on. Three records on the platter. Waiting to be reloaded on the center spindle.

I had fallen asleep. Midway through the tables for two section of the magazine. Could not even keep my eyes open. Did I eat supper? Or dream of eating it? Or dream of reading that I ate it?  

Who has time to read legacy publications? Will try again on the weekend.

I folded the magazine cover to the back so that the page I had read was open. And placed it on the top of the bookshelf to read later. Then turned off the lamp. 

* * *

How did it get to be noon? How did it get to be Saturday?

The sun is bright. Warm November breeze rattles the remaining brown leaves on the tree outside. Art Tatum plays from the record player.

I return a small book to the bookshelf. I place it open on the top shelf of the no-plan, salvaged-wood bookshelf I built this summer. The shelves are deep. At least a foot deep. Could hold two rows of standard-sized paperback books.

I place the book open on the top shelf. A reminder for me to return to the passage that captured my attention. Imagination. A bread crumb trail back to an idea.

The next vinyl record drops down the spindle. Bill Evens. Peace Piece. It is Saturday morning jazz slouching toward afternoon.

 

 

Things you will not find in an e-book

Things you will not find in an e-book

12 notable books read in 2019

The book reading routine I was accustomed to six years ago is nearly unobtainable at this present time. However, I did manage to read quite a few thick books both in content and page count. Here is a short list of 12 books read in 2019:

  1. Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman
  2. Bright Moon, White Clouds: Selected Poems of Li Po
  3. The Cellist of Sarajevo, Steven Galloway
  4. Facing the Moon, Li Bai and Du Fu
  5. Hamlet, William Shakespeare
  6. Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare
  7. Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff
  8. Macbeth, William Shakespeare
  9. My Antonia, Willa Cather
  10. The Poems of T. S. Eliot
  11. The Republic, Plato
  12. Total Truth, Nancy Pearcey

This is not a complete list. And a few of the books were a second reading. It is safe to say, there is not a single book on my reading list that appears in the best books of 2019 lists of  Chicago Review of Books, the Guardian, Washington Post, or the New Yorker.

Whether poetry or play, novel or nonfiction, these 12 books are recommended. Which of these books is my favorite? Some of these books challenged ideas, disturbed my understanding of the cosmos, and lead to changes in my life. But which is my favorite?

Work is the curse of the reading class, or the virtue of reading

Work is the curse of the reading class.

How many books did you read last year? According to some reports, one in four Americans did not read a single book in the last twelve months. Three out of the four who did read in the last year read only one book. But the reports are even more dismal when a distinction is made between any books and books of literature. For example, books on business, cooking, gardening or self-help are in a different category from books of literature. Further, books on business and marketing by Tim Ferriss, Seth Godin or Simon Sinek are not considered literary works. Books by Dante, Plato and Shakespeare are works of high literature. Books of literature by American authors include Flannery O’Connor, Robert Frost and Thornton Wilder.

My own reading pattern shadows the national trend. This discourages me. Years ago I read more than 50 books a year. In addition to that, I used to read several literary journals, magazines and newspapers on the bus ride to the office each day. It was a delicious and robust period of time. But life interrupted this reading regimen. A dream job, mega commute, cross-country move, career change, new job at a legacy media organization, and more commuting disrupted my reading habits.

It is a struggle for me to completely read one single book from cover to cover. The desk in front of the window holds eight books. I may have to return all these to the public library partially read. Or renew them. The library must be weary of me renewing a copy of a theological book. I must have renewed it several times over the last few months. One report I read stated the reason people do not read books is due to their busy work/life balance.

Great disruption.

The interruption to the reading habit is due in part to the daily commute. 90 minutes a day spent traveling from home to work. Public transit would be nice. However, no public transit system services the rural communities surrounded by cultivated fields and farmland. Travel accounts for more than 15 days of my time each year. And then there are the long hours of production work. The job is mentally demanding. My fatigued mind only desires to turn on the record player and go to sleep when I return home.

Solution.

Most Americans spend more than two hours each day on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter. That equals more than 40 days a year. From an economic stand point that seems like a lot of wasted productivity. What that means in practical terms is that my social media feeds are on life support. I do not spend time on Facebook or Twitter at all. LinkedIn occasionally. And I deleted my Instagram account. Eliminating social media activity allowed me to reclaim some of the time lost to commuting and work.

Great books.

A second action put into practice during the last few years included reading great books of literature. Mostly. Plato’s The Republic, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, The Autobiographies of Frederick Douglas, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina are some of the books read during the last year and a half. The classical education curriculum of my children helped me form a list of great books to read. I added a few books to the list to include Asian and Near Eastern studies. I explored Basho’s The Narrow Road, an anthology of Rumi, Hafix and Lalla, and Ryokan’s Sky Above, Great Wind. Most recently I attempted to read and compare three different translations of Dante’s Divine Comedy. An ambitious task that I failed. Ended up focusing on selected cantos for comparison before the books were shuffled back to the public library.

The virtue of reading.

Why is reading books, especially, great books, important? The virtue of being well-read is the goal. Do not leave it up to the academics and professionals to read great books. C. S. Lewis wrote that “the simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism.” He continued by encouraging readers to acquire firsthand knowledge of the source material rather than to rely on secondhand commentary. Being a well-read individual has the potential to foster a civilized society. But you must be vigilant, designate time, pick up a book and read it cover to cover.

Strange Throwback Thursday

Comic Stroll 2013

 

After nearly a six-year hiatus, I was excited to see a project that began with notes and sketches transform into a published comic strip. Even if it was a one-off. Even if I had to hand the responsibility of drawing each panel to someone else. It was done.

I had imagined that the creative non-fiction comic story I crafted would earn some interest. Maybe it would open a few doors to an audience. And allow me to write and illustrate. Even earn some money. Maybe I would quit my day job and provide for my household by doing something I loved. Telling stories. And drawing pictures.

That was five years ago.

A few weeks ago I found a box in the garage. It had several copies of a publication that printed my comic strip. I glanced over the pages and then placed them back into the box. I also found several books. Opened one book I remembered enjoying.

“What’s that?” asked one of the children.

“It’s a collection of comic strips.”

“Oh.”

I pulled a copy from the box and gave it to the child.

“There’s a story in there I wrote.” I said. “See if you can find it.”

The child took the copy of Comic Stroll and headed off to the couch in the living room.

I flipped through the pages of the book I had found. Read a few highlights.

Yeah, I resemble that, I thought to myself after reading a few lines at the end of the book. The author referenced a friend of his who gave up an art gig for a corporate job in order to provide for his family.

Yeah. I know what that is like.

How many comic pages might I have written and illustrated if I had. . . Well, what-ifs and might-have-beens are dangerous paths to pursue. What you did, great or small, is what matters.

Watching my progeny spend an afternoon reading comic strips I had a hand in creating was a pleasure.

NOTES:
Comic Stroll, a publication of the Southeast chapter of the National Cartoonist Society, featured a collection of previously unpublished comic strips. You can read the whole journey of what started in November 2005 as a couple drawings and became a creative non-fiction comic strip:
[1] Comics and Narrative Non-Fiction
[2] Comics and Narrative Non-Fiction Continued
[3] Narrative Non-Fiction Comics: part 3
[4] Narrative Non-Fiction Comics: part 4
[5] Narrative Non-Fiction Comics: part 5
[6] Narrative Non-Fiction Comics: UPDATE
[7] Narrative Non-Fiction Comics: UPDATE
[8] Strange Familiar Place comic series
[9] Strange Familiar Place returns
[10] The return of Strange Familiar Place to print

Poetry reading list for National Poetry Month, part one

The best way to share poetry with people — who do not know that they may like poetry — is to start by reading the works of living poets. That is the basic idea of my poetry reading list for National Poetry Month.

Most books lists of are just lists. Promotional bullet points. Usually there is an image of the book or photo of the poet, a brief description or summary, sometimes even a list of credentials and awards, and a hyperlink to the poetic work or an online retail store. That is an approach I will try to avoid.

I read recently that the ancient Greeks and Romans enjoyed literature in a very different way than our modern culture — where we silently read books. The ancient poets read and/or recited their work out loud to a public audience.

So, my poetry reading list for National Poetry Month is designed to encourage you to seek out the influence of living poets — where they live and and where they read.[1]

NOTES:

Poetry reading list for National Poetry Month, intro

The best way to share poetry with people — who do not know that they may like poetry — is to start by reading the works of living poets. That is the basic idea of my poetry reading list for National Poetry Month.

Most books lists of are just lists. Promotional bullet points. Usually there is an image of the book or photo of the poet, a brief description or summary, sometimes even a list of credentials and awards, and a hyperlink to the poetic work or an online retail store. That is an approach I will try to avoid.

I read recently that the ancient Greeks and Romans enjoyed literature in a very different way than our modern culture — where we silently read books. The ancient poets read and/or recited their work out loud to a public audience.

So, my poetry reading list for National Poetry Month is designed to encourage you to seek out the influence of living poets — where they live and and where they read.