Insights on Fiction-Reading Interest from the Philippines

This is an essay by Al Gerard de la Cruz.

For a developing country, the Philippines is said to have one of the highest literacy rates in Asia. More than 84 percent of Filipinos are functionally literate, the state statistics agency claims. Owing to nearly half a century of American colonization, the Philippines in fact ranks among Asia’s largest English-speaking nations. In November, The New York Times reported that some 400,000 call center jobs, many from American companies, have been outsourced to the Philippines.

Many Filipinos have English fiction-reading down pat, a few even going on to write the materials themselves. For every Rowling and Meyer, the likes of Filipino authors Jessica Hagedorn and Melissa de la Cruz hold their own on bookstore shelves around the world.

Mindful of this century-old ferment, Nicholas Sparks and Neil Gaiman, among other world-famous authors, have gone on book tours in the Philippines. Gaiman, who has visited the country thrice, even instituted a local speculative-fiction writing contest, less as a bid to shore up his favorite genre than to encourage more Filipinos to read.

For all Gaiman’s dreams, not all Filipinos can afford his novels. State statistics peg poverty incidence in the country at 26.5 percent, a stratospheric figure anywhere on earth. An average Filipino needs ₱1,403 ($32) every month to survive above the poverty line. Coupled with the leviathan unemployment rate, widespread poverty in the country demotes owning books to a trifling concern. An imported paperback novel typically costs ₱350 ($8), which most would rather spend on rice and dried fish. And while they do not monopolize it, English, or the nuanced language as it appears on a Rowling or Gaiman book, would always be the realm of the elite and middle class. They are the ones more likely to complete a college degree.

Still the masses read. Before the advent of TV sets and personal computers, the comic book was a major diversion for the Filipino masses. At just 10 or 25 centavos for a sit-down rental, ‘komiks’ seemed to give more bang for the buck than a movie ticket. Kenkoy, Darna, Dyesebel, Panday, Captain Barbell—many comic book characters became pop icons as a result. In the ‘90s one could still buy komiks for no more than ₱7 ($0.16), but public interest in them had considerably waned by then. TV, film, and the Internet have apparently killed the comic book star.

Romance novelettes have fortunately skirted the fate of komiks. Since its first publication in 1992, a local series called Precious Heart Romances has endured in popularity, mostly among women. Today initial print runs for the series top at 8,000 copies, staggering for Philippine standards. The country’s largest TV network has even adapted some titles for its soaps. Precious Hearts’ cachet is such that it has been misguidedly disparaged as the favorite of housekeepers. Sold at just over ₱30 ($0.70) and never longer than 130 pages, Precious Hearts is not likely to desert the zeitgeist anytime soon.

Filipinos may be a giddy lot around love stories but they also like to be scared. Locally produced horror books have been perennial bestsellers for the country’s largest bookstore chain, where they occupy a section wholly separate from general fiction. Horror anthologies, e.g. True Philippine Ghost Stories, particularly sell well for the humble price of ₱85 ($1.97).

Affordability truly is king in the Philippines. Stakeholders in the publishing industry must take care to inform their profit motives around this simple market condition. The proliferation of bargain bookstores in shopping malls—of which the country has a lot—should further galvanize readership of imported books among Filipinos. Publishers of textbooks and reference books might want to appropriate sales from their main products as subsidies for their fiction line. The government, on the other hand, should fund the entry of tech upgrades to make printing and publishing more cost-effective.

Stakeholders already have a thing or two to learn from the government though. Aiming to woo more people into reading, the National Book Development Board (NBDB) has established Booklatan. This is a program, which by way of three rounds of training, empowers teachers, librarians, day care workers, etc. to propagate reading interest among the youth. The first phase of Booklatan involves a seminar about the newest concepts and techniques in establishing and manning reading venues. The second phase orients participants on the skills of an engaging storyteller. The third consists of the Readership Enhancement and Advancement (READ) Program, which trains participants how to carry out reading lessons and the like.

NBDB’s Booklatan efforts were not for naught. Their 2007 Readership Survey reveals that readership in the Visayas region, where they have piloted many Booklatan projects, increased by four percent. But perhaps the key to reigniting readership lies neither solely in a book’s price tag nor government intervention.

Jesse A., 25, a daycare teacher who prefers DVDs over books, learned this the hard way. For months now, he has borne the boredom of owning a broken TV; buying a new one is still a luxury for him at this stage in his career. A friend has since lent him the complete series of CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, bought at slashed prices from a book shop.  Jesse devoured the entire set. Now he’s taking the advice he’s giving to students and reading books like never before.

Many Filipinos are like Jesse, with no TV or computer to entertain them. Unplugged, their minds veer off to non-electronic pastimes, e.g. sex, which only exacerbate the country’s meteoric population growth. Educators, NGOs and publishers truly need to pitch reading the most to people who are away from the influence of electronic devices.

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Al Gerard de la Cruz is a freelance journalist, web content writer and problogger based in the Philippines. A former correspondent for Philippine broadsheet BusinessWorld, he has written for, among other publications and websites, the Doha Centre for Media Freedom and Techday New Zealand.

Photo: Some rights reserved by gareth1953

On Tragedy and Escape

This is an essay by Alicia Murphy Monk.

Tragedy strikes. You question everything. The “what ifs” consume you. Eventually, you’re expected to go back to work, but all you can think about is what happened.

I work at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Beaumont, Texas. On March 14, 2012, someone decided to try to kill his daughter and his ex-wife and anyone else in his way. This all happened outside the courthouse where I work.

He succeeded in hurting several people and killing an innocent lady.  He made several attempts to enter the courthouse during the early morning hours when a few people, including myself, are starting their work day.

I think it’s natural, but the “what ifs” take hold of your mind. “What would have happened if I would have been out there? What if he came in here with the gun?”  That’s all you can think about. You need escape.

Then I started reading The Hunger Games.

Let me preface this part of my story with my original thoughts of The Hunger Games. Brandon, his brother, and just about everyone else I know said that I should read these books. I refused. I was not going to be seen reading them because I do not read young adult novels. I typically do not read fiction and certainly do not read about made up dystopian societies where children kill children.

When I would think about young adult novels, I would think of Twilight. The Hunger Games would never be a book on my radar screen, let alone my book shelf.

I finally got so fed up with everyone telling me to read it, I downloaded the first chapter and read it. From there, I could not stop reading. I went from page to page soaking up the detail.

The next day I started on the second book of the trilogy, Catching Fire. Two days later I cracked open Mockingjay.

I could not stop reading these books. My every waking thought became consumed by something else. Someone’s tragedy, but not the tragedy nearest me. A fictional tragedy. After I started reading The Hunger Games, I did not think of the shooting that happened on the courthouse grounds. I felt relieved. The “what ifs” were replaced with “what is going to happen to Katniss and Peeta?” The anxiety went away and it was liberating to be completely absorbed and speed read through a book. The feeling of not being able to turn the page fast enough was exhilarating.

At some point I forgot how good it felt to read the day away. To take a break. To break up my reading with naps. I am grateful that The Hunger Games took away the anxiety and just let my mind rest from the stress.

I guess if I’m guilty of anything, it’s of the cliche, judging a book by its cover. Fortunately, the judgment paid off because when I needed it most it was there for me, for escape.

So as you anticipate your next read, let me make one wish for you. May you be as lucky as me. May you find the right book at the right time. May the book you find save you from what you need to be saved from. To quote The Hunger Games, “May the odds be ever in your favor.” They were in mine in more ways than one.

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From Brandon: Alicia is my wife. She is the love of my life. No one was more scared that day than I was. I feel blessed to have her in my life. The fact that she ignores my reading suggestions on a daily basis only serves to increase my love for her.

Photo: Some rights reserved by PopCultureGeek.com

Why Read: For Education and Experience

This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

The beauty of reading is, “You can use the powers you acquire from books to live better yourself and to do something for the people around you.” – Malcolm X

The purpose of this essay is to discuss the idea of reading and to provide an additional reason to read, if you need one. We have already discussed reading for pleasure and education is, in my mind, the second reason to read as I set out previously. The third is perspective and we will discuss that reason soon. Remember, there is overlap between the ideas. So, don’t get hung up reading for too narrow a focus. Ideally, you’re reading for more than one reason every time you sit down with a book.

For now, though, let’s think about reading for education.

The things I remember are the things that are connected to some other sensation, emotion, or idea. Connections I can’t make in life I can make through books. In that way books are tools used to pass on education and experience.

I will never go to war. I will never command an army. I will never spend time in prison. These are, however, potentially valuable experiences. To empathize with others I should know something of what these things are like.

I will lose a loved one. I will be the butt of a joke. I will be ridiculed. I will be the dumbest man in a room. I will be hurt by a loved one. I will hurt someone’s feelings. I will have my feelings hurt. I will die. To prepare for these experiences I can ignore them or I can prepare through the kind of education books can provide.

I may make a decision that means life or death for someone I care about. I may be called upon to give my opinion on a matter that’s important. I may find myself defending the weak. I should prepare and books are the most efficient way to do so, outside of, perhaps practical experience. Getting practical experience, however, is not always possible. To fill the gap I must read.

Let’s explore this idea of reading for education in the context of eight ideas.

Education Leads to Self-Confidence

It is only when you have read enough that you know who you are. Then, you can become yourself, finally. Only once you become yourself can you be a benefit to other people. The process of becoming yourself requires self-education. You must conquer your own demons, your own shadow. Only then can you share that with the world.

How do you test yourself? How will you know when you are ready to share? How will you know when you are educated enough to contribute? Use books to test yourself. The greater the book the greater the test. Do you know and understand more than your neighbor about it? Can you use the book as a tool to solve your own problems? If the answer is yes then you have something to offer the world. The educated wield books like warriors wield swords.

Educate Yourself to Educate Others

The education you read for is not just your own. Children with parents that read turn into readers. Children watch what you do and do that when they are bored. Do you want your children to be educated? If you do then you must be educated yourself. You have to put in the effort to make yourself a light for your children to be drawn to.

Education Is an Evolutionary Advantage

The kind of education you read for can be an evolutionary advantage. Reading allows us to imagine things before they happen. In that way we can prepare for what may yet come. Our survival does not depend on being the strongest, fastest, or most durable. Our continued survival depends on being the best planners, the most imaginative. We rely on our ability to imagine what could happen and then enact a plan to survive it. Use your evolutionary advantage. Reading is imagining. Reading is practice in creative planning.

Books are the Most Patient Teachers

Have you ever had a patient teacher? Maybe you have. If you have you are blessed. Write them today and thank them.

Have you ever had the benefit of endless time, unlimited access, and an endless supply of the brightest minds the world has ever known? Yes, but if you aren’t reading you are letting those teachers sit in empty classrooms and give lectures to empty chairs. Books are the most patient teachers. Take advantage of them.

Being Educated Feels Good

What does it feel like to read a book and understand it? You feel smart. When was the last time someone called you smart? If it has been more than a week you may need to read more. Maybe the better question is, when was the last time you called yourself smart? If you can’t remember then you need to read. I’m not talking about vanity. I’m talking about reading to have the ability to make it through every day with your head held high no matter what happens because you know you have contributed and you will contribute more because you are improving. That is a powerful feeling.

We Need Educated Heroes

What is a hero? Joseph Campbell has probably done the best job of explaining the myth of the hero. (You should read him, by the way.)

What Joseph Campbell says is, “a hero is someone able to battle past his personal and local historical limitations.” I’ve mentioned this before, but the statistics point to the need. A third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives. Forty-two percent of college graduates never read another book after college. Eighty percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year. (Source: Jenkins Group).

People don’t read after they finish school and most houses don’t buy books. You are a hero struggling against this historical limitation.

Does your city have a particularly uneducated feel to it? If you have noticed this then you are a hero, but only if you decide you are going to go get knowledge and then bring it back to your city. If you accept the quest and then return with some form of knowledge then you are a hero. Be a hero. Bring reading back. Are all heroes welcomed with open arms? Not in modern society. Be prepared for detractors but be a hero anyway.

Access to the “Great Conversation”

There is a conversation that has been going on since man came into existence. It started with tales, “grunts from the hunt.” Now, we have endless volumes of electronic books to carry on the conversation. You can’t just jump into the conversation anywhere, though. That would be rude. At the very least, you would get some strange looks. You would likely be dismissed until you listened for a while and got up to speed.

If you read, you can learn what you need in order to participate. The beauty of this conversation is, if you are smart about how you participate and smart about how much you know about the conversation that happened before you jump in, then you can be a part of the conversation even after your body is dead.

In this conversation you will get to hear from the greatest minds that have ever existed. You will get to hear the opinions of the thinkers you most admire. Then, if you truly read their words and understand what they have to say, you can match yourself against them and improve their ideas. What more lasting tribute can you imagine? Your contribution can assure your favorite thinkers remain part of the conversation for centuries to come.

A Full Education Prepares You For Death

Our life prepares us for our death. If we read we remember that the world did just fine before we came around and we learn that the world will be just fine when we leave. Before we were born we weren’t miserable. We weren’t even conscious of our existence or non-existence. Reading tells us that many good things still happen when we are not around.

We also learn that we can leave a lasting legacy if we try. The legacy need not be for the entire world to be important. If our families benefit, it is a worthwhile legacy. They will want to know what kind of person we were and whether there was something they can learn from how we lived our lives. Write them something to pass on what you’ve learned. They will read that.

Conclusion

As a reader you are an example to all of man kind. You show them our potential. Set the right example and people will flock to you out of admiration and out of the desire to learn. This is what the best writers accomplish.

Be more than a lump of organic existence. Take yourself, through education, into the plane of ideas. Reading is, free, guaranteed passage into the plane of ideas.

Your good fortune is the access you have to knowledge. Everywhere you look, there are books. Our struggle is no longer one of resources. Our struggle is of resource management. Time is one of those resources that must be managed appropriately. Read to make the best use of your time.

Next time you must answer the mental question, what should I do? Think about this discussion.

How has reading educated you? Is reading for education and experience a valuable reason to read, in your opinion?

Photo: Some rights reserved by Dell’s Official Flickr Page

Try

This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

It’s an amazing thing to stand before the world and admit you have no excuses to achieving what you want. It is embarrassing to stand before the world and admit the only reason you haven’t achieved what you want is that you refuse to try.

If you’re trying to be perfect, stop now. I can promise you will never get there. No one has. The only thing you will accomplish by trying to be perfect is paralysis or madness. One of the greatest writers to ever live, Kurt Vonnegut, said, “When I write, I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” As awkward as he feels, the results are still divine.

Just start something and see where it takes you. Give up perfection and give up feeling comfortable. Embrace vulnerability, instead.

Consider the example David Foster Wallace gives us in Infinite Jest. A person has 100 keys. 99 out of 100 of these keys will not work. One key, however, will open the door to your eternal happiness, or whatever it is you want. Will you fall in the camp that does nothing because you’re afraid of using the wrong key? Or will you try every damn one until the door opens?

To refuse to try every key is shameful, right? You’ve never given yourself a chance.

Your happiness depends on your willingness to try and fail.

Pick something to write about and make a habit of writing. Read above your head. Take on something you never thought you could understand.

You might find it gives you a new outlook on life.  At the very least, you will learn something about how failing isn’t as painful as you once thought.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Alaskan Dude

On Reading and Dreaming, Relentlessly

This is an essay by Novita Poerwanto.

Reading is not a habit, let alone a tradition in my country. The oral approach is still perceived as more popular and convenient. Tales have been passed on for generations, orally over bed time and during leisure. Books are considered a luxury. There are theories this is the offspring of colonization and imperialism. We were alienated from education at our very roots. Written thoughts were considered a serious threat. They challenged the imperialists. The safe way to convey a message was to imply it in orally told tales. These stories were passed from one generation to another. So you can understand, let me start by telling you a story…

Every weekend, my dad used to take my little brother and me to book stores. That was in the 1980s. Back then, in Indonesia, not many parents did that. We would spend time reading and got to choose one book to go with us. We took the weekend trip to the bookstore seriously. I was always the one who looked forward to Saturday. My dad would leave the car at home and together we would take public transportation to the bookstore. It was an adventure. We took different routes and stopped to grab lunch and ice cream.

My dad was a book advocate. I wish I had a chance to hear more stories from him. He passed away when I was just seven. Even after he passed, though, I kept hearing stories. I would hear how big a dreamer he had been, and how determined he was to pursue his dreams. Growing up in a poor family in a small town in East Java, my dad was not left with much time for himself.

He was the eldest of six. Even before the sun rose in the morning, and long after it set in the evening, he was always preoccupied with endless tasks. For example, he helped around the house, ran errands, helped my grandma sell traditional snacks, and much more.

He loved going to school, because he got to read books and nurture his dreams. There were times when he had to let my grandpa punish him with a rod, just because he spent too much time in the library reading.

He excelled in classes, went through the best state university in East Java, graduated with honors, was awarded a scholarship from his office to study in the States and taught economics at the University level.

What my father taught me, without him telling me in person, was that reading will get you to your dreams, not only take you places. It was a reminder that hope does exist, even in the worst condition. Reading is dreaming. Seeing it before living it. It takes guts to dream and even more to live it.

My mom was never much of a reader, but she loved to tell stories. She didn’t tell classic tales, though, she loved to tell stories of her own. She made up characters from anything around us, like a light bulb, water jar and anything else she saw. When she gets really sleepy, she forgot the details. That’s when my brother and I start protesting the discrepancies. About that time she suggests, “Ok, let’s just start over.” What I remember most about her tales growing up, they were not “judgmental”  nor “directive.” When I ask her now whether she did it on purpose or because she kept forgetting the details, all I got was her wittiest grin, “isn’t it supposed to be open to interpretation?”

For the love of reading I took literature at the university. It was the best four years of my life. I spent time with Hurston, Walker, and Amy Tan. I admire their distinguished voice on roots and identity. They complimented the oral tradition of their origin. They were proud of it, but they shared the same dream of birthing history for their people. Their books are their printed dreams, and preserved voice.

During my university years, more students took linguistics instead of literature, simply because they can’t stand reading books. So instead of citing why they wanted to take linguistics, they simply state they would rather not take literature.

Today, I see more quality and imported books in our bookstores. They are not as expensive as they once were. Some people are still spoiled by the perceived ease of the oral tradition. They would rather have others spoil their excitement by asking, “how does the story end?”

More people read now, though, which leads them to want to write. People want to go beyond dreaming. We owe technology a flood of thank you notes. Missionary approaches in reading have not had as big an impact as social media. The need to express one’s self, share one’s voice, and pass on dreams is big. Suddenly, it is as though we have too many reading materials instead of not enough. Technology, to us, is like keeping a journal, but instead of keeping it private, you get to publish it for free and relate to others. Reading is now popular and writing even more so. Everybody is suddenly a reader and a writer with instant access to quotes, lines from famous poems, and links to literary reviews.

Perhaps the country that my father and mother have always seen in their dreams will become reality.  From the moment they decided to introduce reading and storytelling to my brother and I they have been doing their part to make it so.  This country can do better, though.

As I read to my four year old boy, I am confident that this country will write and rewrite their own history. Indonesia will take pride in their broadcasted voice and printed dreams. It is because I see this, exactly this, I write and read all the more.

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Novita Poerwanto is a Creative Consultant entrepreneur, fashion designer. She published a collection of flash fictions and short movies with four of her @fiksimini friends in March 2011 and is now finishing the final draft of her first novel. She is a proud mom of a four year old wizard. She lives in Surabaya, Indonesia

Photo: Some rights reserved by glenngould

Freud’s Death Wish and the Reader

This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

Freud says there are two aims, death and life. Later, his pupil named them Thanatos and Eros. The two aims compete. These aims explain our actions. These competing aims explain suicide and war. They explain love and birth. They explain economics and art. These competing aims explain why a smoker smokes knowing the health hazards. They also explain why he quits.

These competing aims also explain the reader and the non-reader.

The reader has conquered the death wish while he reads. He breathes new life into himself and into the writer’s creation. The reader creates instead of destroys.

The non-reader has been defeated by the death wish. The non-reader chooses to kill an author’s creation by never letting it breath within him. Reading is a creative activity.

The choice can become conscious if you’ve been educated. In other words, if you read these words and understand the choice is between death or life then you have a conscious decision to make.

You have read the words and the argument is simple enough. Now, you understand. In the next five minutes, in the next twenty four hours, in the next week, in the next month, in the next year, for the rest of your life, you have a choice to make. Even if you never had the choice to make before, you have it to make now.

This is not semantics. This is a recognition of the battle going on in your mind. You will not win the battle and choose life every time, but since you know what is at stake you will win more often than you did before. Choose life. Read.

Photo by Paul Jarvis.

Message for a Young Reader, Message for an Old Reader

This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

Inspired by True Grit by Charles Portis, Hatchet: 20th Anniversary Edition by Gary Paulsen, and The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal by Ben Mezrich.

When I was around eleven years old my cousins and I started the “Earth Club.” Our goal was to spread the word that recycling was good,easy, and it would save the world.  This was in the early 90s so our ideas were pretty well accepted even though Al Gore had not come around to trumpet the idea with such vigor. We kept this up for an afternoon. When the time came for our parents to take us home we vowed to carry on the idea with informal planning sessions.

We had ambitions to put a homemade pamphlet of our own design in every mail box in our small city (Population 13,000 and change).  Progress being what it was, I wanted to use my personal funds to speed things along and make color copies of our handouts.  Hand drafting each pamphlet was our bottleneck, I thought at the time. Being eleven, I had to ask for permission to spend that money. My request was denied which saved me at least $20. What would have been the result if permission had been granted? Chances are nothing would have changed about my life, but there can be a fine line between frivolous projects and “the next big thing.” Reading and re-reading three books got me thinking along these lines. Let’s look at them as three case studies in youthful potential.

Case Study #1: True Grit (Fiction)

A young girl faced with her father’s murder decides on a plan to hire someone to avenge her father’s death.  Through a great deal of luck and a lost limb she is able to accomplish this goal. Her strengths were persistence, self-awareness, and a reluctance to resign herself to her station in life, that of a teenage girl, even though she was confronted with that suggestion by a number of characters including her own mother.  She recognized when she was being taken advantage of and even wore a chip on her shoulder about this being a potential in her dealings with adults.

Case Study #2: Hatchet (Fiction)

Paulsen, Hatchet’s author, set out with the simple motivation of writing a good story and eventually motivated a generation, myself included, to a reading life. In Hatchet, Brian Robeson is faced with divorcing parents, initially.  As the book progresses this problem is engulfed by a survival tale when the pilot of his plane has a heart attack, and Brian is forced to survive alone for many days.

Brian survives as a result of a combination of luck, brilliance, and patience. He made mistakes along the way which could have killed him. Instead he lived and found a new confidence in the face of hardship because he could lose everything and use his learned skills to start over more easily than before.

Case Study #3: Accidental Billionaires (Non-Fiction)

Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook at age 19 while a sophomore at college. Six years later, in 2010 he was honored by Time magazine as “Person of the Year.” At age 12 he had created what he called “ZuckNet” for his family to use to network their computers.  He had to hire a professional to wire the network. Keep in mind this was on a system using Windows 3.1 and before home networking was as easy as a router purchase.  What if Zuckerberg’s parents had decided that “ZuckNet” was a horrible idea and discouraged it?  Would it have mattered?

I think the message is two fold. One for the younger crowd and one for the older crowd.

Young readers: Don’t be particularly dissuaded by old people when you have enthusiasm and energy. Realize that their pessimism may exist because they never accomplished what they wanted with their time. Whether your ambition is reading, writing, or stuffing hand drawn recycling literature in mailboxes, follow it as far as you can.

Old readers: Children know more of the world than you give them credit for. The language of a child is often hope and idealism, but when faced with a problem they may show an ability to connect that hope and idealism with reality. Give children a chance to be better than you were or are.

I’m not about to tell you which category you belong in, so don’t ask.

Photo by: Some rights reserved by Atreyu san

Books Are Meant to Be Shared

This is an essay by Jessica McCann.

Long before Hermione Granger mesmerized little girls with her cleverness and magic, a little witch who lost her broom right before Halloween captured my heart. The Littlest Witch by Jeanne Massey is the first book I recall reading entirely by myself. I was in second grade.

My family had just returned from a trip to the public library, and I promptly disappeared into my bedroom with an armload of books. I’m sure I read them all. But there was something about The Littlest Witch that gripped me. I adored it.

For days after, I plotted and schemed to come up a way to keep the book, rather than take it back to the library. Alas, when the due date arrived, my mom made sure all the books were promptly returned. I consoled myself with the thought that by returning it, some other little girl would get to enjoy it, too. It was an epiphany. Books are meant to be shared.

Fast forward 30 plus years. My debut novel had just been published, and I was making the rounds to local bookstores with review copies in hand. I was wearing my metaphorical marketing hat, trying to sell books. The Arizona State University bookstore was among the places I visited, since I had done a lot of freelance writing for the university through the years. I was on campus around lunch time, so I grabbed some food at the Memorial Union and found a shady place outside to eat and people-watch.

The MU was a swarm of students and faculty — texting, typing on laptops, talking on cell phones. They all seemed so busy, so plugged in. All I could think was what a perfect day it was to sit in under a tree and read a book. My marketing hat had apparently blown away on the spring breeze, and my reader hat magically appeared in its place. But the only book I had with me was my own…

That’s when my second-grade epiphany echoed in my head. Books are meant to be shared. So I pulled out one of the review copies from my bag, opened it to the inside cover and wrote a note: “Books are meant to be shared. Please read this, if you’d like, and then leave it somewhere for someone else to enjoy.” I gathered my things, set the book down on the bench beside me and walked away.

That was about a year ago, and since then I’ve left behind a few more books in public places (books I had read and wanted to share, not my own book). I have also since discovered Bookcrossing.com, a fun social media site that encourages people to share books and tracks where those books have been.

Why do I love sharing books this way? In my mind’s eye, I can picture someone accidentally sitting on the book, then picking it up, cracking open the cover and getting swept away by the story. I also agree with Book Crossing’s way of thinking: “Your book doesn’t want to spend its life on your shelf gathering dust; it wants to get out there and touch lives!”

Now that’s magic.

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Jessica McCann, a professional freelance writer and novelist, lives with her family in Phoenix, Arizona. Her nonfiction work has been published in Business Week, The Writer and Phoenix magazines, among others. All Different Kinds of Free is her award-winning debut novel. She welcomes interaction with readers and writers at her website and on Twitter (@JMcCannWriter).

Photo: Some rights reserved by on.earth

140 Characters: Twitter Fiction and the Art of Concise Writing

This is an essay by Tucker Cummings.

Plenty of people want to become writers, but feel that they simply don’t have the time to commit to writing even a short story. With all the interruptions of the digital age (to say nothing of family and work obligations), finding time to write really can be a challenge. It’s so easy to get frustrated with your writing when you’re just starting out; so hard to not be discouraged by an inability to finish what you start.

These days, there are plenty of ways an aspiring writer can hone their craft and add publication credits to their resume at the same time. And one of the very best ways is to write Twitter-sized tales. These short stories are 140 characters or less (including spaces), and pack a surprising emotional punch.

Despite the limitations of the form, skilled Twitter fiction writers are able to make readers laugh, cry, or shiver as they build worlds and introduce characters. Twitter is home to several communities of avid writers and readers, and they are passionate about promoting great 140-character stories.

There’s no hard and fast rule about what makes a great Twitter tale. Some stories focus on just a moment’s worth of action, while others span thousands of years in just two sentences. Many are humorous, but plenty more are heart-breaking. The form forces you to choose words precisely, and to cut out any extraneous information. More often than not, the title of the work gives the reader enough framing to understand the events in your story.

So, what do you do after you’ve completed your little tale? The most obvious thing to do is post it on your own Twitter account, to share with your own followers. If you can spare the space, adding hashtags to your story will enable other Twitter fiction fans to find it more easily. Hashtags to consider include #vss (which stands for “very short story”), #nanofiction, or #fiction.

Another hashtag is #lqw, which designates that the story contains the word of the day as designated by @Loqwacious. If your tastes run towards non-fiction, rather than fictional tales, consider adding #cnftweet. Each day, @CreativeNonfiction selects one tweet with this hashtag to retweet, and these tweets are then eligible to be included in upcoming issues of the magazine, or in their newsletter.

There are also dozens of Twitter accounts for websites that publish only 140-character stories. Some of the most notable are @OneFortyFiction, @seedpodpub, @sixwordstories, @twitterfiction, @7×20, and @trapezemag, all of which are unpaid markets.

@Nanoism is a paying Twitter fiction market, which publishes three times a week and pays between $1.50 and $1 for stories: not bad, given the brevity of the form. Serialized Twitter fiction is paid out at a higher rate.

@thaumatrope and @tweetthemeat also pay to publish other people’s Twitter stories, though both markets appear to be on hiatus with no word on when they will resume normal publication schedules.

In short: keep on writing, and keep your eyes peeled for opportunities to grow your fanbase. Depending on where you choose to publish your stories, your work may be exposed to thousands of people. In addition, there are often contests being held on Twitter by various publishers where you can win cash and prizes with your well-written, 140-character stories.

But beyond the accolades and the prizes, the best thing about writing Twitter fiction is how it can improve your writing. With practice, this shortest of short story forms can help even the most verbose of writers to develop a clear, clean, and concise style. And that’s a skill that will benefit any writer as they begin work on longer projects.

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Tucker Cummings is the author of “The Strange Adventures of Margery Jones,” a microfiction serial about parallel universes. Her work has been featured online at HiLoBrow.com (where she won their Spooky-Kooky fiction competition) and at OneFortyFiction. She also won MassTwitFic’s #vss Twitter Story Contest. Visit her online at tuckercummings.com, or say hi to @tuckercummings on Twitter.

Photo: Some rights reserved by bfishadow

A Reader’s First Trip to New York

This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

At the risk of sounding like a hick, I admit I’m not what you’d call a big city guy. I prefer the quaint, might be a nicer way to put it. I do, however, love new experiences. Alicia and I regularly travel for work and pleasure. This past weekend I went to New York City for a party. It was my first visit.

I knew my time was limited so I picked my priorities thus: (1) Book of Mormon; (2) The Strand Bookstore; (3) Peter Luger’s Steakhouse. By starting early each day we squeezed much more into our four days. We managed two more bookstores, the New York Public Library, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, and The Museum of Modern Art. Of course, to get there we used the subway system which, is in my mind, a national treasure.

In no particular order here is four days in New York as seen by a Texan, first time visitor, and reader:

The Airport

I am happy to report that airports still have Hudson News stores and books are still the best pre-flight and in-flight entertainment for your money. Reading while you wait is fashionable and I would even say expected in airports. I worked on American Rust by Philipp Meyer, pre-flight, and during the flight I listened to the final audiobook in the Hunger Games trilogy while I snoozed.

Books still work best because they aren’t electronic devices that have to be turned on and off before takeoff and landing. During preparation for takeoff and landing I stowed my iPad and read a plain old paperback.

I am happy to report the state of reading on planes is strong.

The New York Public Library

Libraries are being hit hard across the world by funding cuts. So the starting point in understanding the New York Public Library system is imaging how you might serve eight million people anything. Hard to imagine, isn’t it?

There is no real way to visit all the sub-structures of the library without devoting more than four days to the adventure. We did, however, make it by the historic location that hosted an exhibit entitled “Shelley’s Ghost,” the Schwarzman Building.

The trip was worthwhile for the architecture alone. The special exhibits, most available free of charge, are worth spending time on. In particular, the Shelley exhibit gave a good history of Shelley as well as sources to learn more. Speakers lined up throughout the week would talk on various subjects related to Shelley, however, time would not permit us more than a walk through of the exhibit.

Alicia found a neat necklace in the gift shop which is engraved to read: “Love should be a tree whose roots are deep in the earth, but whose branches extend into heaven.” -Bertrand Russel

The Strand Bookstore

Four floors. Eighteen miles of books. This is mecca for readers. If you collect books the third floor is the rare book room. If you prefer literary non-fiction, check the basement. In between is the most awesome display of books I have ever seen.

Tables tout special selections. A special section is reserved for “real” books priced less than Kindle titles.

I think this store is an example of the past and future for bookstores. Bookstores like this have character. This one, around since 1927, will find its niche. The fate of others is less certain, but maybe that’s because they try to compete with Amazon at their level. Amazon does what they do very efficiently. I’d like to think that a smal shop with a personality could survive, but that may be naive.

I picked up about ten books as I browsed the shelves and displays.

Peter Luger’s Steakhouse

Alert! Vegans stop reading now and resume at the next heading. I’m sorry, but I love steak and a reader has to eat, right?

I don’t have much to say here except that I haven’t paid for a meal with cash in several years, but Luger’s only takes cash. We savored the meat, left to stand on its own in terms of flavor with very little, if any seasonings used.

We brought the giant porterhouse bone home for Eggers by using a combination of a duct taped doggie bag and the hotel freezer. He found the bone quite pleasing. He devoured it completely in two hours.

Book of Mormon

Set aside your nature if you’re easily offended or don’t go.

I am not easily offended and I loved it. I call it part South Park, part Lion King, part Bertrand Russell. You’ll love this play about organized religion’s strengths and weaknesses.

The Bible and the Book of Mormon are books, so that’s how I defend this as a “book-ish” activity. It was my first Broadway show and I don’t regret the choice at all.

The Subway

No reader’s survey of New York would be complete without a section devoted to the subway. Like a temporary prisoner in a packed cell you ride. If you have a book, though, the entire experience changes and you have an excuse to avoid eye contact with everyone on board and just get lost for the few minutes until you get off.

A Few Asides

If I had more time I would have done something to explore The Great Gatsby in New York. There’s always next time.

Central Park is an outdoor reader’s dream. We watched the dogs play in the park and had a coffee one morning. If I lived in New York I would go daily.

The only thing more common than coffee shops in New York are taxi cabs. There are shops and cafes galore. All great places to read and sip.

Newspaper stands are alive and well in New York, although, I don’t see how. They must be impacted by electronic media, but you can still find one on most streets.

The New York Book Haul

Between Hell’s Kitchen flea market, the smaller bookstores, the New York Library gift shop, and The Strand Bookstore my total New York book haul was:

1. Bartelby The Scrivener, Herman Melville.
2. The Complete Plays of Sophocles, Edited with an Introduction,  Moses Hadas.
3. Aristotle’s Poetics with an introductory essay, Francis Fergusson.
4. The Curtain, An Essay in Seven Parts, Milan Kundera.
5. Roland Barthes, Mythologies.
6. On the Nature of Things, Lucretius, Translated by Frank O. Copley.
7. Kafka Americana,Jonathan Lethem and Carter Scholz.
8. The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett.
9. Tintin and the Secret of Literature, McCarthy.
10. Men of Art, Thomas Craven.
11. Modern Short Stories, The Uses of Imagination, Third Edition, Edited by Arthur Mizener.

The bookstores were crowded in New York. I credit the educated population of New York for making me believe there is a place for books in the city.

All photos by Alicia.