Hollywood loves readers: The (sometimes) mutually beneficial relationship between books & movies

movies adapted from books

This is an essay by Chris Ciolli.

Books and movies need not compete for our attention and affection. They are two very different mediums, and they have, as explained in an earlier post on this site by Williesha Morris, different needs and goals and use different tools to do the same thing—share a story with the world. In fact, although many readers and writers may loathe to admit it, movies and the books that inspire them enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship in which one feeds off and grows from the other. Less than convinced? Let me explain.

Good and Bad Movie Versions of Books Create New Readers

When it comes to readers, Hollywood often gets a bad rap. But why? Because even with a blockbuster budget a la Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter, directors, producers, makeup artists and actors galore cannot measure up to many book-lovers’ imaginations. Too often, the characters, the setting, the plot, are not how we experienced them in the middle of the night, huddled under the covers with a flashlight, no special effects required.

But that’s okay.  What matters most is a writer’s story reaching more people. Because when a movie waters down or modifies a tale drastically, readers complain to their friends and family about it. Moviegoers who enjoyed the film, but have heard more times than they can count about how the books are superior, or the screenplay was so different sometimes become curious enough to crack open the book and the writer gains a new reader.

And on those rare occasions when the movie version is sublime, perfect, and adored by all the book fans, they drag their non-reader friends to the premiere, and goad them into buying or borrowing the book, and again, the writer gets new readers. For me, one instance of this is The Perks of Being a Wallflower–amazing execution, beautiful in print and on the big screen—and don’t get me started on the soundtrack—the book talks about music a lot, and wow.

Movie Versions of Books Alert Readers

Films are good press for books. It may seem shameful to readers and writers, but new movies receive far more attention and word of mouth than most freshly published tomes. Savvy readers know that many movies are based on books, so if a movie being advertised looks intriguing, with a little research they can stumble into something even more intriguing to read.

Hollywood’s in-your-face advertising put books like The Silver Linings Playbook, The Cloud Atlas and The Life of Pi on my reading list, and I’ve not even seen the last two movies. The striking print and television ads piqued my interest, and now I plan to read the books and watch the movies.

In fact, a lot of books I’ve really enjoyed have come to my attention when the blockbusters based on them were produced and promoted. Slick ads produced for box office hits nudged me into reading the Harry Potter books, the Hunger Games, Beautiful Creatures, and the Immortal Instruments, just to name a few recent offenders—all fun, entertaining reads, well-worth a cozy afternoon spent turning pages and sipping coffee. The movies aren’t too bad, either, once you let go of the idea that they must exactly resemble the book world you and the author created in your mind.

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Chris Ciolli is a Barcelona-based writer and translator. She’s an unabashed book worm and a bit of a coffee addict. She’s accepting new writing and translation clients. Look her up at ChrisCiolli.com.

Three Things Game of Thrones Can Teach Non-Fiction Writers

game of thrones reading writing

This is an essay by Rhonda Kronyk.

The list of categories we can choose reading material from is endless. Yet, as busy people, we often choose to read in the genre we write in and forget that all writers can learn from reading outside their genre.

I admit that I’ve been guilty of letting my non-fiction reading slide this year as I work on my freelance writing and editing business. I miss reading novels, but never seem to make the time to fit them into my schedule.

That is until my son introduced me to the Game of Thrones television series. I rarely read fantasy fiction, and I never watch it on TV. But I am enthralled by Game of Thrones. So much so that I bought all of the novels.

It didn’t take me long to realize that writers can adapt George RR Martin’s techniques for non-fiction writing.

Here’s how to do it.

1. Understand your characters.

All non-fiction writing has a human at its core. Whether you’re writing a technical manual, a scientific treatise, a book of history, or a self-help article, everything is written by and for humans. The sooner you understand that, the better your writing will be.

However, for some genres this is even more important. Biographies, case studies, and memoir come immediately to mind.

Martin’s characters reflect humanity. They are incredibly complex, almost always contradictory, and are motivated by a range of rationales.

The people you discuss in your writing are the same. That means you need to hone your interview skills in order to access this complexity.

What aren’t they saying? How do past actions contradict or support their current words? What are their motivations?

I’m not suggesting that you dig up dirt on the people you write about. But you need to remember that, like Martin’s characters, people are rarely easy. That means that you need to take the time to try to understand them. Martin was once asked how he writes such good female characters. His response is classic: “I’ve always considered women to be people.”

What does this mean for you? No matter how difficult the interview or your personal feelings about a subject, you are dealing with people. None of us are easy, so take that into account.

2. Setting matters.

Have you ever read a feature article about a place and walked away disappointed? When Martin writes about his kingdom, readers can form a mental picture of dark castles, rich, walled cities and a wall of ice separating the North from the Seven Kingdoms.

You need to learn to convey this same detail in your non-fiction writing. Don’t leave your reader unable to form a mental image of the nature reserve, museum, or cultural event you are writing about.

That means it isn’t enough to say the lake water is blue. Rather, say “the clouds cause the water to change from blue green to steel grey, while the wind creates patterns of ripples across the water.” Details help your reader to see what you see.

Can you imagine the ice wall in the northern kingdom described as a barrier to separate the wild lands from the Seven Kingdoms? That doesn’t provide much of a mental picture, does it? But Martin’s ice-wall is 700 feet tall, 300 miles long, and infused with magic. It has abandoned forts built along its length and dominates the surrounding geography. It is forbidding and frightening and necessary.

When you build this level of detail into your descriptions, you provide your reader with a richer experience and draw them deeper into your writing.

3. The plot has to make sense.

It doesn’t matter if your story starts at the middle or the end. By the time the reader finishes the whole article, they have to understand the chain of events.

It sounds simple, doesn’t it? But think about the plot turns that Game of Throne takes. I can generally guess the ending of a show before the halfway point. Yet, I am constantly amazed by the plot twists that evolve. Not only that, but the twists are realistic because they reflect the characters and setting that Martin has worked into his story.

But you aren’t writing fiction, so none of this matters right? Wrong. Real life takes just as many twists and turns as a novel. It’s just as full of unintended consequences. As a writer, you need to be able to follow the various threads, sort them into a semblance of order and cut the ones that will clutter and confuse the story.

You always need to keep the facts straight so your reader can get an understanding of the events that you are writing about – no matter how complicated they are.

I’m thrilled that I was introduced to the rich tapestry that is a George RR Martin novel. It has been an excellent reminder to rekindle my love of fiction.

So expand your reading, go back to the wonderful world of well-written novels and incorporate the techniques of good fiction writing into non-fiction writing.

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Rhonda Kronyk is the editor and co-author of Releasing the Words: Writers on Writing, an e-book helping writers take control of writer’s block. As a die-hard word-nerd, she explores everything word related including writing, editing, and reading.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Douglas Brown.

If You Don’t Like Reading, You’re Doing It Wrong

don't like to read

This is an essay by Taylor Church.

I was not a bibliophile from the beginning. My love of books did not come until late in my adolescence. I never loathed literature, but reading books I found boring and irrelevant in school did not nurture a healthy longing to read.

I mostly stuck to the basics: Garfield books, books about NBA players with copious amounts of pictures, and the occasional novel about Wayside Schools or perhaps a fictional baseball player trying to make it the big leagues.

As my juvenility slowly progressed into my pubescent years, I began to form a somewhat broader interest in reading. But it only went further into the subject of sports. All I read was books about various athletes and maybe the occasional biography on a musician. The only real progress was that at age 14 or 15 I was reading decent-sized books with little or no pictures inside (often just a few choice photos in the middle of the book). One instance altered my paradigm forever.

I was 16 and in California on vacation with my family. We were lounging one day for hours at Huntington Beach. My parents were engrossed in huge paperbacks per usual. I was laying in the sand reading a book about post-retirement Michael Jordan. My dad took an inspired break from his guilty pleasure and accosted me. He said quite sardonically, “Why don’t you read a grown up book for once?”

I laughed and shrugged. I had no clever or reasonable retort. He then tossed me a paperback of some 500-plus pages and said, “Start reading this, if after the first two chapters you are bored or don’t like it I will leave you alone, but I think you will enjoy it.” I reluctantly agreed, thinking I was going to prove him to be the fool.

Well I was wrong. John Grisham had captured me. The book was The Runaway Jury, and I was hooked. Never before had I realized how enjoyable reading could be. I mostly just liked learning trivialities about my childhood heroes. So I got a late start, but almost 10 years later I have read almost 500 books since that fateful day on the shore.

I am afraid too many people are stuck in the same place I was 9 years ago. They do not hold reading with disdain or harsh feelings. They simply do not know how to love reading. They are stuck with the notion that reading is tolerable and enjoyable if the subject is just right.

But one must love reading! One must be enthralled with learning, exploring, finding, and searching for new ideas. One must learn from the past and study to conquer the future.

I have met too many people that claim “I like reading. I just do not have the time.” I assure them that the busiest people in the world find time to glean knowledge from the priceless pages of timeless books. Louis L’Amour in his book entitled Education of a Wandering Man said that within a year he could read upwards of 25 books simply in the time he spent waiting for things.

Ipso facto, we all have time to read. We simply must make the time. For Mr. L’Amour also said: “Once you have read a book you care about, some part of it is always with you.” What terrific incentive we have to not waste away our time. Thomas A. Kempis so wisely said: “Never be entirely idle; but either be reading, or writing, or praying, or meditating or endeavoring something for the public good.”

My personal secret for making the leap from liking reading to loving it, to having an obsessive passion with it is simple. I dominate the books I read. No matter the book, if I come across a word I do not know, I do not read another page until I have looked up said word and written the definition in the margin.

Even if I have a pretty good idea what the word means from context, I look it up to homologate my suspicions. Why be unsure if we can be certain?

In reading works of history, I omnivorously look up subject matter, whether it concerns names, geography or organizations. Why just learn about something if you can become expert in it? Why are we so determined to know much, but be expert of nothing?

My books are precious to me. They are filled with food stains and scratchy annotations. They have underlined salient phraseology, and highlighted pieces of poetry. But I never vacillate with the idea of lending my book to another. The point of a book is that it is timeless.

As long as one copy is extant, its inspiration and influence can know no bounds. So why limit a book’s influence by keeping it on a dusty shelf or in a battered book bag? After all, knowledge begets knowledge. So if you are having trouble finding that passion for literature, do not fret. You needn’t run out and procure the works of Tolstoy or Edward Gibbons.

Read something small that sounds interesting. Knowledge begets knowledge. Read Wikipedia, read magazines, read blogs, read comics. But do not ever read just to read. Read to learn, read to edify yourself, read to find answers, read to escape. Let your mind be tangential.

If you just finished a book you quite enjoyed about two young lovers in South Carolina, read up on South Carolina on Wikipedia. Maybe you will find that James Brown is from there, or that Ray Allen grew up there. Or maybe you will come to remember what you heard once in an 8th grade social studies class – that the Civil War started in Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Let your curiosities dictate what you learn. And lastly, do not limit yourself to one book at a time.

Perhaps you think it does not make sense to read more than one book at a time. But should you not have a book ready at hand for your every capricious mood? Sometimes you just want to escape, get away from it all and delve into a guilty pleasure type book.

Sometimes you just want facts, so you read the Sports Almanac, or Guiness Book of World Records. Sometimes you need healing, so you read a religious piece to enhance your spirituality. Sometimes you just get recommended a book, and absolutely have to start it immediately because it looks so interesting.

I am always reading between 5-10 books at a time. And it is perfect for me. But find what is perfect for you. My advice would be however, to start a book any time you feel inclined to do so.

I will finish with a few words of sagacity by Henry David Thoreau: “A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.”

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Taylor Church is from Utah, enjoys learning languages, is working on two non-fiction books and hopes to teach high school history.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Evan Bench

Cheating on Your Genre

cheating on your genre

This is an essay by Susan Sundwall.

It’s an interesting word, genre, a bit snooty sounding. It means kind or type. If someone asks what sort of writing you do, they expect a genre answer.

The question frequently stumps me. My first mystery was recently published, so you’d think I’d answer “mystery,” but the word tends to stick in my throat. There’s a hesitation there, because I don’t want this asker to think that’s all I write – I’m broader than that. I don’t want her to think that’s all I read, either. Yeah, I’m broader and, dare I say, more beautiful than that, too, because of the poetry. It’s true I always have a mystery waiting on the table, under the lamp, but often, in a mad fever of rebellion, I’ll give in to my cheating heart. Here’s my confession.

Books like Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns” seduced me into the historical fiction genre with its violent beauty, ancient cultural patterns, and the universal revulsion for cruel injustice. In like manner. Lisa See’s “Snow Flower and The Secret Fan” pulled me in and begged me to experience the old Chinese practice of foot binding. It was dreadful and fascinating and sent me searching like a mad women for authentic images (which I found). It also made me cringe and give thanks for being born elsewhere and in another time.

Hugh Howey’s “Wool” whipped me below the surface of the earth and made me wander through a future where everyone lives like a mole. Science fiction. I rarely read it but I could hardly lay “Wool” down. I tried. Then, every time my e-reader gave up the ghost on one installment, I had to tap-tap and get the next. So what if it was two in the morning? This is what cheating does to you, and I’m not sure I’m ashamed. Don’t judge.

After the pleasing, near erotic, diversion of any number of other genres I scamper happily back to Janet Evanovich, P.D. James, Lee Child, and Elizabeth George – old flames, brief passions, or current crushes all from my long days of delicious mystery reading. I’m excited. I feel like I have things to tell them – tales and imaginings from these other worlds I’ve discovered. I’ll gladly grab their hands and set out the picnic blanket if they’re only willing to listen, to broaden out, too.

Where can we go for a glass of wine and good brie to discuss the dark secrets revealed in the back alleys of nineteenth century London? Do they have any idea how strangely wonderful Tibetan butter tea is? And then what kind of dirty secrets might I pull from these masters about their wildly popular inspectors, detectives, or bumbling amateurs?

And who have they cheated on – these masters? You tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine. Let’s make a deal.

Once we’re settled down and begin courting true insight, another phenomenon bubbles up. In veering off (a gentle term for cheating) into other genres, writers can become green with envy in so many productive ways. At first we chasten ourselves for not coming up with this brilliant plot twist or that sublime syntax more readily than Mr. #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Self flagellation looms. But in short order we get mad – as in mental – in a way far greater than simply red in the face. The mind whirls. The pen flies. Our writing scales new heights and heads for Alpha Centauri because our cheating heart has brought home the goods. And when, at last, that pen is laid to rest, we collapse into sobbing.

“Why didn’t I stray before? What was wrong with me?”

The old flame, brief passion, and current crush smile. What I didn’t know is that they know what it’s like – they’ve cheated, too. And so they forgive, hand over a hanky, and pour me more wine. Sure, I’m no longer pure, but I’m better, wiser and more able to forgive myself and others. The glorious blooming must come next. It’s a wonderful thing.

Now, tell me, what has your cheating heart been up to lately?

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Susan is a freelance writer and mystery novelist. The first book in her series, The Red Shoelace Killer – A Minnie Markwood Mystery is now available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Untreed Reads, and from the publisher, Mainly Murder Press. Follow her at her blog.

Serendipity in the Second-hand Bookshop

secondhand book

This is an essay by C. Witter.

In this digital age of e-books and mail-delivery online book stores, many commentators seem to suggest the printed book is an anachronism. But, one thing these prophets of techno-literacy elide is the joy of browsing the shelves of a good bookshop. And for me, though I generally detest shopping, few things are as relaxing and curious as the second-hand bookshop.

One of the most wonderful things about second-hand bookshops is the element of chance – of serendipity. Click up your internet browser and, within seconds, you can locate almost any book you can name – to read online, to buy online, to search and bookmark, with reviews and commentary. But, in the bookshop you don’t know what you will find – and that’s the joy.

I frequent bookshops for many reasons: for a good novel, or some poetry, to track down academic research materials, to buy gifts for friends, sometimes just to relax amidst that curious dry odour that seeps from so much old paper squeezed together on shelves. I often walk around in a near-trance, scanning book spines, and occasionally leaning around people to see what volumes they’re considering. In this state, it is something a surprise to find my hand going out for something: a green Virago Press paperback; a slim volume from Faber; an old hardback with a tattered dustcover. And more of a surprise to realise this is just what I was looking for – looking for without knowing – as though the book were waiting for me to come along and find it.

Many of the books I buy are for academic work. I’ve sat through long Research Methods tutorials in my time, dedicated to giving one the tools necessary to track down research materials. But, often it is the chance encounter that seems most transformative. A biography by James Forman, a Civil Rights leader in the 1960s, found in an Adams Morgan bookshop in Washington, DC, became more important to me than all of the books I was able to read whilst undertaking a research fellowship at the Library of Congress. Apparently Forman lived in the neighborhood briefly; that coincidence – the fact that he, too, might have bought books from the same place, made the book even more resonant for me.

This leads me to another thing I love about second-hand books: that they’ve been owned, read, loved – and often marked: inscribed with the previous owner’s name, or a dedication, or scribblings in the margins. Sometimes these books have been given as gifts.

In one book I own there is a note on the first page:

To Helen,

Here is a book from my own collection. A reminder.
With love, as always,

Simon
– 1962

How many questions this simple message provokes! Who was this couple? What did it mean for Simon to part with one of his books? A reminder of what? And how did this gift, this token of love, end up on a mildewed shelf in a ramshackle shop in Morecambe, Lancashire, scored over in pencil: £3.50?

To read is always to encounter other people – their lives and experiences – in profound ways. But, to chance upon a book in a certain place, at a certain time – a book carrying the invisible thread of other readers’ lives – is to begin to step into another dimension.

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C. Witter grew up on brown bread in the flatlands of the Fens. He now lives, reads and writes in the cold, windswept North-West of England. He has just finished doctoral research on US literature in the 1960s. He writes fiction, poetry and polemic, as well as academic research.

Photo: Some rights reserved by dr_tr.

This One Habit Revived and Enhanced My Love for Reading

audiobook love reading

This is an essay by Glori Surban.

Working as an online freelance writer affords you many luxuries you otherwise wouldn’t have if you’re on a 9-to-5 job. But it also has a lot of challenges. After all, it’s still a business.

But the challenge, or let’s call it, “the change” which stood out to me the most and caught me by surprise was (drumroll) my deteriorating love for reading.

I know what you’re thinking. And yes, I have to admit it’s a little embarrassing. As someone who writes for a living, I should be a voracious reader, a lover of books, a mistress to words, a connoisseur of ignoring people because I’m so entranced in a story. But for a long time, I wasn’t. It’s why I said “the change” took me by surprise.

I didn’t even notice it until one day, when I remembered the low stack of untouched books on my desk. (Books I swore I was going to devour when I bought them.) I picked one up, read the cover, skipped the foreword (a bad sign), read the first few paragraphs of the first chapter, and flipped through the pages like I was handling a deck of playing cards.

It dawned on me: I, official bookworm of class ‘09, have become a skimmer.

The Unnoticeable Effect of Being an Online Reader

The web is constantly updated with content, both good and bad. Most people would only read a headline to decide whether a blog post is worth a read or not.

Looking back, I realized the only times I seriously read something word for word was when I was researching for blog posts for clients. And even then, the process of finding reliable information took a lot skimming.

Here’s how it usually goes: You get a bunch of results in Google, you click each page, skim the material to see if it’s worth reading, and you do the same with the fifteen or so other results to be thorough.

This isn’t necessarily bad. Skimming is a sort of a required skill when you’re an online content creator. You need to be able to quickly judge a piece of content so you can spend more time reading the worthy ones to help you create.

The problem was, I unconsciously applied my skimming habit when I read for leisure, the kind of reading that got me interested in writing in the first place. As a result, I no longer found it as enjoyable as I did before.

I rarely read any fiction anymore, I skimmed ebooks instead of actually reading them, and I shared posts just because they had nice titles.

My traitorous eyes automatically skimmed everything!

The Audiobook Effect and How It Could Help You Too

It all started the day I got my smartphone. I’m not usually one for gadgets and I’m pretty old school, but I had business reasons for getting one. Anyway, it was nothing special, a standard LG Android phone.

Audiobooks were something I was already interested in even before I got my smartphone, so I wanted to listen to some. I did, and I made three important observations:

1. No skipped pages.

This may not sound like a big deal, but if you’re a writer and you suddenly realized you haven’t essentially finished (as in read-the-entire-thing-and actually-understood-it finished) one book in a space of one year, it’s a little alarming.

Listening to audiobooks forced me to listen. To every word. A good audiobook is like a blockbuster movie you wouldn’t want to take a toilet break from. You want to listen to every word so you could understand and follow the author, especially if the narrator is excellent.

Listening to Tina Fey’s Bossypants was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The book was both hilarious and oddly comforting. And I heard every word of it from Tina herself. Every word.

One a side note: I have thick fingers, making touchscreen manipulation difficult. I simply didn’t want to go through the trouble of skipping and wondering what part of the book I was in.

2. Better understanding of the material.

Prior to listening to the audiobook version, I’ve read Susan Cain’s Quiet. Or at least I thought I did.

Upon experiencing it in audio form, I realized that I didn’t exactly read it as thoughtfully as I should have because, once again, I skimmed and skipped some pages that I thought weren’t interesting enough. I also didn’t really make the effort to truly understand it.

Audiobooks allowed me to understand books better, maybe because the sound of the words being spoken is irresistible to me or perhaps because listening is the only task I have to focus on. I can just close my eyes and let the words flow.

3. Eye strain was no longer an excuse.

There used to be a bunch of ebooks that I always promised myself to read, but I never got around to it because I was too tired and my eyes needed rest. Eye strain was my go-to reason for not wanting to read any more than I thought I should.

As you can imagine, such an excuse doesn’t work on audiobooks. I listened to Chris Guillebeau’s $100 Startup and Steven Pressfield’s Do the Work while lying in bed (a little ironic, I know). My eyes and my body rested while my brain absorbed the wisdom of good authors.

So how did listening to audiobooks revive my love for reading?

It’s simple. As I developed my audiobook habit, I rediscovered the joy of “reading” a book in its entirety, the awe of understanding a concept, and the excitement of connecting with interesting characters.

Now, every time I read an ebook, a little voice inside my head reminds me of those joys, of the sense of fulfillment at reading and understanding a book.

For self- and peer-proclaimed bookworms (and proud of it!) like me and you, this is a feeling like no other.

So if you’re experiencing “the change” and just realized it, don’t fret. Try an audiobook. Perhaps know someone who you want to encourage to read, let them try an audiobook. Get back and give to the others the gift that keeps on giving.

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Glori Surban is a freelance blogger with a renewed passion for reading. She helps small business grow their online presence by providing quality blogging and guest blogging services. Follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

 Photo: Some rights reserved by yum9me

An Introduction to the Commonplace Book

commonplacebook

This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

I recently stumbled on the idea of the commonplace book via Ryan Holiday of Thought Catalog‘s post, “How And Why To Keep A “Commonplace Book.” That post lead me to search Twitter for the popularity of the idea which lead me to two books by Richard Katzev: A Commonplace Book Primer and A Literary Collage: Annotating My Commonplace Book. As is the way of the internet, that led me  to Auden’s commonplace book, A Certain World: A Commonplace Book and by that time my head was swirling with the idea of  starting one of my own.

I’ve been keeping something akin to a commonplace book in notebooks and online for a few years, but I’ve never implemented a comprehsneive system. I type up or write up notes on the books I read, I write in the margins, and sometimes I compile my thoughts into blog posts. But, nothing mandatory or systematic. Without a system I still have to rely on memory to uncover the right notebook when I want to revisit a passage.

Katzev describes his process, and I think it’s a good introduction to the idea:

When I come across a passage that seems memorable in some respect, I put a little mark in the margin or enclose the passage in parentheses. Then I write down on the end page of the document its page number. I do this for every one of the passages I have marked in this way. When I have completed reading the material, I type each passage in a Word document on my computer, listed under the name of the author, title of the work and its source if it is from a periodical. At the end of the year, I review the collection, correct any errors, and make a printed copy. Following this, I add the yearly collection to the growing hard copy volume and now electronic version that I have been compiling for many years.

Ryan Holiday describes his, very different, process:

-I use 4×6 ruled index cards, which Robert Greene introduced me to. I write the information on the card, and the theme/category on the top right corner. As he figured out, being able to shuffle and move the cards into different groups is crucial to getting the most out of them. Ronald Reagan actually kept quotes on a similar notecard system.

-For bigger projects, I organize the cards in these Cropper Hoppers. It’s meant for storing photos, but it handles index cards perfectly (especially when you use file dividers). Each of the books I have written gets its own hopper (and you can store papers/articles in the compartment below.

I’m not sure which method is superior. With a project like this it’s best to make it your own. That’ll make it more likely to stick. Steal what you like from the practitioners that came before you. There are a many examples available online.

To Katzev, one of the key components of the commonplace book is the transcription of long passages from the books you’ve read. This kind of work is tedious. There are shortcuts. Katzev would argue that the shortcuts take away from the overall intent of keeping a commonplace book–which is to force some form of muscle memory to interact with the words. This visceral interaction is key for some.

If you prefer the shortcut and read with a Kindle you could easily use the Kindle: Your Highlights function to remove the need for tedious transcription. (You will need to log in to your Amazon.com account to access this feature.) Highlight with your Kindle as you read and the highlights automatically appear. From Kindle: Your Highlights you can copy and paste to your application of preference. This frees up time for you to annotate the passages you’ve read. This method has the added advantage of allowing you to use Kindle’s “Daily Review” function to review your highlighted passages and annotations as if they the passages were printed on notecards.

Katzev also discusses the value of annotating your commonplace book. Your thoughts, as you read a particular passage, are valuable to you, to your loved ones, and for your writing. The annotations can serve as source material for articles or blog posts or as a kind of diary of the remembrances invoked by your reading.

The beauty of the commonplace book is that it makes the act of reading and writing inseparable. Reading inspires writing which inspires more reading.

Emerson, in his Journals, July 1836, compared the activity to making your own bible. His take was, if you collect all the words and sentences that mean something to you, you are performing an activity that will provide a reference for future use, a book you could pull out when you needed an answer or to be uplifted. I believe it would make a fine keepsake to pass on to descendants, but there’s no harm in deciding to keep it private.

Some keepers of commonplace books, including John Locke in the 17th century, create systems to categorize and organize the passages they’ve noted. Storing your entries electronically would certainly make that task either easier or unnecessary because of the search functions available in tools like Evernote and on Amazon. The balancing act is to keep the system simple enough that you’re not discouraged from using it.

There are no hard rules when it comes to what to include in a commonplace book, basically, you note what interests you. And, isn’t that the question we ask constantly as we read anyway? “What resonates with me?” or “What in this book is consistent with my experience?”

As Katzev points out, reading is a passive activity unless we do something about that. By putting a pen in our hand or by doing something like keeping a commonplace book we turn reading into active reading. Active interaction aids our memories. The commonplace book becomes a tool we can use to refresh our minds–to recall important sentences and words.

A commonplace book could become a sort of reading memoir. There’s no doubt that the passages we pay attention to and take time to record must say something about who we are or who we’d like to be. Imagine having access to a commonplace book your grandfather consistently used.

As Alain de Botton has said more eloquently,

In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have experienced in himself. And the recognition by the reader of his own self of what the books says is proof it its veracity.

A commonplace book gives you the tool to re-read yourself and Chris Ciolli has talked about the value of re-reading here before. It can be a tool to analyze and track your own evolution. As you age, your thoughts about certain passages will change and in that change you can experience your changing self.

My suggestion: Just start with what seems natural. I intend to evolve my commonplace book entries into a better system in 2014.

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Brandon Monk is a Texas attorney. He created readlearnwrite.com to become a better reader and, hopefully, a better person.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Beinecke Flickr Laboratory.

Required Holiday Reading: A Christmas Carol

dickens christmas carol scrooge

This essay was written by Amarie Fox.

Upon hearing the news that my father would be working most of the day on Thanksgiving, I instinctively, walked over to my bookshelf and pulled Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” down from the shelf. I suppose I was trying to remind myself what this time of year is truly about.

Although I am thankful that my father has work again, especially after losing his job earlier this year, it saddens me that at his age, the only type of job he was able to get was in sales. Where especially during these upcoming weeks, people will flood the store, shoving and screaming, looking for things, simple, silly objects, that they just need to buy.

Each year, it begins earlier, the sale advertisements in anticipation for Black Friday, so much so that they have managed to successfully intrude upon yet another important, overlooked holiday. Are we as a culture structuring our lives around greed and gratification? Have we forgotten tradition, or what is important and meaningful? Sometimes I think I know the answer, I just don’t want to say it aloud.

Dickens, I feel, is an expert on humanity, which is why he is still relevant today. During the Victorian era, he was considered a social novelist, writing ‘epics of everyday life.’ The purpose of narrative literature, for him, was to raise society’s consciousness, namely about itself. Characters in his novels are metaphorical representations, standing in for certain values, philosophies, or attitudes.

However, this is not to say the content is overwhelmingly or unnecessarily depressing or gloomy. Dickens, actually, was a master at balancing harsh realities of this world, while also seeking out and elevating the good amidst the bleakness.

A Voice of Many

Many consider “A Christmas Carol” melodramatic and sentimental. In some ways, I can understand this, but at the same time, I have to say, it represents so much more. Obviously, when approaching it historically, the short novel is a major denunciation of the Industrial period and laissez-faire capitalism, which values money and profit over the well-being of the individual. The Cractchit family – with their tenderness for one another, their care of Tiny Tim, their happiness over a frugal Christmas meal – embody a side of this system. And despite circumstances and their set position in society, not to mention the atrocious and popular attitudes of the mercantile class, they are not without love and goodness. In fact, they exude these qualities.

After the initial release and immediate wild success of it, many struggling families wrote to Dickens to tell him, ‘how the Carol had come to be read aloud there, and was to be kept upon a little shelf by itself, and was to do them no end of good.’ One must consider something: that although the Cratchit family represented quite a large portion of the poor population, Dickens was one of the only ones who actually gave them a voice.

Want and Ignorance

One of my favorite moments is when the Ghost of Christmas Present introduces the two children clinging to his robes: appropriately named Want and Ignorance. Both represent common traits that exist in society during times of financial inequality between the rich and poor. We see this numerous times throughout the text, but perhaps most strongly in the characters of Scrooge and Marley.

When two men arrive, in search of charity contributions, Scrooge promptly dismisses them. He points out that they should either be put in jail or put to work or die in order to decrease the ‘surplus population.’ Being regarded as a ‘surplus’ came from Reverend Thomas Malthus’s 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population. At its publication, it sparked a widespread fear of over-population in England. Again, Scrooge is the vehicle, here. His opinion mirrors many other people’s opinions at the time. Like them, he is unkind, and worse, ignorant and uninformed about the strife, struggles, and experiences of the poor.

Some time later, when the ghost of his friend and business partner Marley visits, Scrooge remarks on his chains, a symbol that Jacob is a prisoner of his bad deeds. Because he never left the courting house, the money-changing home, he never recognized the hardships of others. His craving for money fueled him, but as he learns, albeit too late, “mankind was [his] business.” Charity and mercy and benevolence were traits he should have practiced while living, not the ‘every man for himself’ mentality.

After their conversation, Scrooge looks through his window and notices many miserable looking ghosts in similar shackles, some that he even recognizes. They, like Marley and like much of society, turned a blind eye to the injustice, as well. And as much as they’d like to interfere for the good, to maybe lend a hand, they cannot. They are forever separated from the living.

True Change?

One question, or maybe a doubt, I am left with at the end of this novel is regarding the nature of Scrooge’s transformation. When we examine his ‘journey’ closely, we see that it only becomes possible when he uncovers his eyes and confronts his painful past and background. Re-experiencing those repressed memories, he comes to pity himself first. With that new acknowledgement, that remembrance, he is then able to care for others.

The reason we are sympathetic, the reason we move past self-centeredness as children, is not only that we have experienced loss, loneliness, defeat, or dread, but because we also remember it when faced with someone else’s sufferings. Basically, we apply our own past emotions when attempting to understand others. Without that, we deny any chance of deeper connection, camaraderie or love.

I find consolation, though, in the simple possibility of change. The fact that goodness is something you can always strive for, no matter who you are or what you’ve done. It is never too late. But, it is a choice. Behaving badly is not difficult. Usually it is appealing, desirable, selfish, but provides that instant gratification.

What I will take away from “A Christmas Carol” this year is the reminder that one can never prove their goodness without the challenge to make a decision. And that is just what Scrooge does. He makes an important final choice, one that we should remember this December, but also year round: Love for humanity over money, material, and greed.

Will you be reading (or re-reading) A Christmas Carol this season? If so, why or why not? Do you have any holiday reading rituals? Favorite holiday related books?

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Amarie Fox is a writer and artist. She graduated with a BA in English Literature and recently finished her novella. She plans of making an origami swan out of her diploma. Her recent fiction work has been published by Little Fiction, NIB, and Literary Orphans. Find more information at amariefoxart.wordpress.com and amariefox.tumblr.com.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Ciara McDonnell

All Quiet on the Western Front: A Testament to Humanity

all quiet on the western front

This essay was written by T. Lloyd Reilly.

A search for the realities of humanity or of humanness can steer one into strange places and reveal unexpected gems.  This happened to me a few months ago in a book.  For some reason or another I had escaped reading “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque.  This probably should have been read when I was a teen, or perhaps as a part of a college lit course.  As an aficionado of classic film, I could not imagine how I skipped this story.  I found it at the bottom of a box at a garage sale.  I passed several of my favorite authors digging into the box to get to this book, and find myself quite pleased with the choice.

In a world rampant with tales of war, it seems unlikely that a tale of a group of enemy soldiers of America, in a war that occurred long ago, could divulge so many truths about who we are and what we feel.

A tale of a group of German teenagers enlisting in the Kaiser’s army during World War I, the narrative held me captive.

I usually read quickly, but I consumed this saga in a single sitting.  There are only a handful of books that have stimulated me in such a manner.  Each of them is worthy of an essay in themselves, but this particular book came at a particularly poignant time in my life.  I was enduring the end of my sister’s life from leukemia and found myself, as is usual, with a loss of importance, questioning the beliefs and feelings I had developed about life and beyond.

In this book there is an ongoing narrative of the day-to-day movements of the main characters as they wind their way through the bunkers and rear areas of the Great War.  A description of attacking the enemy lines and losing more than half the company is accented with the survivors attempting to get something to eat afterwards and being refused because the cook had instruction to serve the entire company or none.  When told that the entire company was present and that the rest of the contingent lay in pieces either on the battlefield or in medical tents the cook still refused until given a direct order from an officer.

The cook had simply done what he was told, and the lack of deviation probably came as a self-defense action.  By doing what is right in front of him, he did not have to think about the horror of the place he lived.  Any escape from reality is a tool all the characters shared.  Playing cards, smoking cigarettes, taking about girls back home, and how much of a jerk the sergeant was were just some of the diversions used to make it between times of horror.

One scene of particular interest came when several of the teens went to visit a wounded comrade.  The wounded man, Kemmerich, lay on a bed complaining that his foot hurt.  He had no clue that he was, in fact, absent the entire leg due to an amputation meant to save his life.  When one of his comrades let slip that he had lost his leg the wounded soldier laments its loss and the fact that he could not realize his dream of becoming a forester.

While Paul, the narrator, attempts to console his friend, one of the other visitors eyes the wounded man’s boots and realizes that they are in better shape than those he wore and schemed to take them for himself.  The thought of having a decent pair of boots served as motivation to enable his willingness to go back into battle.  Creature comforts supplanted the deeper emotions of fear and dread that awaits the soldier on the battlefield.

Kemmerich suffers for a while and finally drifts off into unconsciousness before dying.  While still lucid, the wounded hero implores the narrator to give his boots to the other man.  Paul’s reaction to Kemmerich’s death erupted in a dash out of the tent and around the area, realizing that running made him forget the death and feel more alive and then hungry.  Again, creature comforts displace the dread that all must have felt most of the time.  The dead man’s boots find different homes as the book go on, reinforcing the ideal of practicality in the face of that which is unbearable.

Living within their means and surviving that which is seemingly impossible to endure rings throughout the book with every page.  When the narrator gets a leave to go home, he finds less then he wished and found confusion seeping in.  He could understand a day-to-day struggle when being shot at, but grew confused by the same struggle in those whose lives are not immediately at risk.

The daily realities that the narrator expounds upon all have a flavor of true humanness.  The things that a combat soldier must tolerate seem to bring out the humanity instead of disallowing it.

Perhaps the most poignant scene comes with the death of the narrator’s friend, Katczinsky.  Wounded by a bomb, he is discovered by Paul scrounging for food.  While being carried to safety by Paul, another bomb from the very plane that initially caused his distress lets loose another bomb which kills the man while leaving his rescuer untouched.  Perhaps, continuing to search for food, the creature comfort, might have saved his life.

Paul suffers through many trials and tribulations that speak to his character and brings the reader to the thought that he is a noble warrior deserving of escape from harm.  The reality is that he is just a teenager that has experienced things that no young person should have to.  He gradually grows jaded to life and death and it is in his final moment that he reveals that which is still within him.  While sitting on the wall of his trench he spies a butterfly and, forgetting where he is, reaches for it revealing too much of his body and is shot dead.

The final scene seems tragic, yet, it fits perfectly.  The certainties of war come into focus all throughout the book while the search for simple human dignity is desperately being sought by the narrator and his cohorts.  It speaks to what is, and not what is wanted.  In living day to day with the ugliness of war, the characters teach lessons of humanity while ignoring the horror.

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T. Lloyd Reilly is a writer with over twenty five years of writing experience. He has lived what some would consider more than one lifetime and has acquired a wide range of knowledge and life experience which he wishes to share through generous application of the written word. For more information about him go to: http://about.me/tlloydreilly.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Mordac.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane Meets Memory Lane

memorylane

This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

“I remembered that, and, remembering that, I remembered everything.” Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

I’ve written before about the idea that taking a trip down reading memory lane is a worthwhile way to re-kindle your reading interest. An old favorite–a book you read for pleasure as a child–can take you back to the days when reading was a care-free experience. Often, the mandatory reading school imposes robs us of the pleasure. Those who continue to read find ways to carve out time to read the things they like.

But, what if you have no pleasant reading memory? I recently read Neil Gaiman’s, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s a book that captures the essence of what it’s like to read for pleasure. The main character is bookish, the setting is fantasy, and the book engages the mythic inclinations hard-wired in our minds.

I see Gaiman’s book as picking up where I left off when I wrote the piece about taking a trip down reading memory lane eighteen months ago. Sometimes it takes a new book to fill the gaps in our thought process. The Ocean at the End of the Lane does that for me. It’s the closest I’ve come to the feeling I had when I’d read something I loved as a child since I’ve been forced into adulthood by the passage of time. It gives me new hope that even without a pleasurable childhood reading experience we can fill the gaps in our adult lives and find a way to read for pleasure.

Gaiman invokes three things in the book that make it have the effect it does:

1. Gaiman’s main character takes us back to our childhood.

Gaiman must have poured much of himself into the main character of the novel. His bookish ways, the manner in which he views the world, his old-soul makeup. He’d rather be reading than adventuring. But, as children, we always end up doing something other than what we want and it’s often those things that make us grow the most.

Gaiman recognizes, though, that even as adults we’re still pretending to be something we aren’t. We’re still forced to do things we don’t want to do and the way we keep ourselves in tact is by taking some time to be alone with our inner-selves and even our inner-child.

2. Gaiman invokes our sense of nostalgia.

The novel begins with an adult main character returning to his childhood home. The novel becomes a reflection on his childhood past. The effect of this is to take the reader back in time to our own childhood. Gaiman guides us, through the narrative, to our own past. Those experiences are a combination of pleasant and unpleasant events that have shaped us into the people we are. Gaiman’s novel acts as a guided meditation down memory lane and it can supplement or fill the gaps of our childhood reading past.

To explore this aspect of the book, I recommend reading slowly enough to allow time for reflection. Make annotations in the book or in a notebook of the memories brought to the surface by your reading. The interaction you have with the novel can cause you to remember things you’d thought were long forgotten. In that way, the book serves as a path by which you can arrive at some of those sentimental places that exist, now, only in your mind.

3. Gaiman’s fantasy setting carries us far enough away from the real.

Fantasy settings allow us to step out of the world where we’re expected to know how everything works, and to have an answer for every uncertainty we experience. If a fantasy setting is done right, there are enough things there to remind us of our real lives, but it’s equally important that we be asked to temporarily suspend our rational thought processes long enough to accept the fantasy the author’s created. Gaiman masterfully mixes the two. We can both relate to the world we’re told of, yet not completely understand what will come next.

The benefit to the reader is that they’re given a break from the real. They’re given an opportunity to live in the world created by the cooperative effort of the author and the reader. Just enough distance is created by the fantasy to give space for you to explore our own thoughts and remembrances.

Gaiman’s novel does what I could never do in a non-fiction piece. It creates a fantasy that fills the gaps or reminds us what we used to be like when we were willing to admit we don’t know how everything works. It’s a novel that takes us down memory lane and it can, I think, re-kindle our love of reading even if we have no pleasurable reading memory of our own.

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Brandon Monk is a Texas attorney. He created readlearnwrite.com to foster the love of amateur reading in adults.

Photo:  Some rights reserved by ajvin.