From the Archives: Does reading matter?

This month, I’m reminded by the ongoing turmoil in the world of a discussion post I wrote seven years ago. I can’t remember what it was that was happening then, but it made me feel as though reading (and my mostly bookish blog) could be considered trivial in comparison. Writing out my thoughts about this helped me restore my faith in the power of reading. It’s not just escapism for me, although escape is sometimes the best response, when one is threatened.

Click here to read my original post from May 5, 2015, which began, “Today, with the ongoing barrage of terrible news of every kind from far and near, I scrapped my planned discussion post to address this burning question. Why, with all the other worthy causes that could claim my time and attention, do I spend time on reading, and on writing about reading? …”

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Should memoirs be considered fiction?



I remember how it rocked my world when a New Yorker article showed that Madeleine L’Engle’s portrayal of her life and family in her Crosswicks journals was more of a fictional construct. Since then I’m cautious about assigning factual truth to memoirs, but I tend to give the authors some leeway.

Goodness knows, if I had to write the story of my own life, there would be a lot that was not strictly accurate. Our memories are not photographic records, and we do tend to “re-remember” the past as a defense mechanism against painful experiences or to make sense of disconnected incidents.

If this is done unconsciously in the writing of a memoir, it’s understandable and human. If it’s done consciously, with deliberate intent, then such a book seems to depart from the realm of nonfiction. And given that sometimes it’s hard to know what really happened, maybe all memoirs should be assumed to be “fictionalized.” But is there something wrong with that?

There can be different levels of truth, and sometimes the truth of a narrative is not in the bare facts. Some memoirists are able to tread that line gracefully, letting their real selves shine through what will necessarily always be an interpretation, a reordering of lives phenomena.

If too much is concealed or distorted, though, it seems problematic. If it’s an attempt to push some agenda, or present a false persona, the claim to any kind of truth should be discarded.

What do you think? Should memoirs be considered fiction or nonfiction? And does it matter?

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!

Am I an e-book convert?



Many, many years ago, in my eighth grade oral presentation class, one of the few talks I remember giving was one about e-books. They were not even really a thing back then, but for some reason the topic was in the air. I argued against them, saying that paper was more permanent, more aesthetic, and more shareable. E-books seemed so ephemeral and somehow illegitimate.

I still find e-books more ephemeral and uglier than paper books. But I’ve given them a larger and larger share of my reading life. They’re just so convenient and portable. I check out books from the library, or download free classics, because I don’t like spending money on them. I can carry my e-reader around easily everywhere, get books instantly, and not have to wrestle with heavy volumes or awkward positioning.

Since I’ve started to read books in French, the built-in dictionary is a godsend. And the real clincher is that my excellent eyesight has at long last started to fail, and I HATE wearing reading glasses. With an e-book I can enlarge the text so that I don’t have to.

What I like least about e-books is the inability to focus on more than one page at once: to physically grasp the length of a chapter in relation to the whole, to flip back and forth to look at maps, pictures, and footnotes, or to correlate passages with diagrams or with other sections of the book. For these, I definitely prefer paper. And for a total aesthetic experience, with pictures and typography, give me a beautifully printed and bound copy. These still have an important place in my life.

But otherwise, I’ve done a 180 degree turn from my eighth grade position, and embraced e-books.

What about you? Do you have any opinions about your reading habits you thought would never change, but have since converted?

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!

Am I addicted to reading?


I sometimes humorously refer to my reading habit as an “addiction.” Of course, addiction is no joke, and any kind of compulsive behavior is not a good thing. But what actually makes something an addiction rather than a healthy pleasure? I looked up some of the criteria and tried to apply them to myself as a reader.

  • Growing tolerance: My reading doesn’t need to keep increasing exponentially to give me the same effect as formerly, and fluctuates according to my available time and mood.
  • Cravings and withdrawal: I do feel antsy if I don’t have a book to read, but it doesn’t make me suffer from extreme anxiety, panic attacks, shaking, or nausea.
  • Decrease in ability to enjoy previously pleasurable activities: I enjoy plenty of other things aside from reading, and reading does not decrease my pleasure in them.
  • Feelings of guilt and shame:  I don’t feel ashamed about reading, but rather want to celebrate it!
  • Neglecting other responsibilities: Um, I may be slightly at fault here. When was the last time I dusted behind the fridge? I’d much rather finish this chapter…
  • Blaming others for problems and inability to look at oneself:  I emphatically deny that reading has this effect on me; it has helped me to understand myself and the world and to connect with other people, off the page.

So it looks like I don’t need to worry about reading as an addiction, at least not a harmful one.  As long as life is kept in balance and I don’t neglect my real-world relationships, I think it’s all good.

Do you think that reading could actually become a compulsion? What keeps life in balance for you?

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!

Can you resist free books?



When I go to church in a nearby city, there’s a booth by the bus station that is crammed with books — mostly French and German, but quite a few in English, and free for the taking. I usually come home with as many as I can carry, but I haven’t read most of them yet.

After shedding so many of my possessions in moving to Europe, I really don’t want to pile up more stuff. I’ve managed to buy less, but free books are so hard to resist. Perhaps I need to make a “book in, book out” policy — I can donate books I’ve read in my turn. For a while I may need to shut my eyes when I walk past the Booth of Temptation, at least till I get through some of my current hoard.

How about you? Can you resist the lure of free books? And if you can’t, how do you deal with all your new acquisitions?

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!

What is your favorite (or first favorite) classic?

The Classics Club has revived their monthly meme, with a “rebooted” question for summer 2020: “What is your favorite classic?” So I’ve co-opted it for this month’s discussion challenge.

It’s too hard to designate one favorite classic book, but I well remember the first time I read a “classic” and actually enjoyed it, showing me that having a “favorite classic book” was even a possibility. It was Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, and I devoured it during a Puget Sound ferry ride for some class trip or other when I was about 13 or 14 years old.

Previous encounters with classics that I thought I should read, like Pride and Prejudice, or books schoolteachers thought teenagers should read, like A Separate Peace, had left me confused, bored, and discouraged. But Steinbeck’s brief tale pulled me right in — it was simply written enough for me to understand and emotionally involving enough that I didn’t want to stop. The ending left me in tears but knowing that I had had a new and wonderful reading experience: I had loved reading a classic. There would be many more to come.

Do you remember the first time you enjoyed reading a classic? Or what is your favorite of all time?

Linked in the 2020 Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Feed Your Fiction Addiction and It Starts at Midnight

Do you dislike first-person narratives?


I’ve seen some comments around the blogosphere from people who say they categorically dislike first-person narration. I find this puzzling, and a bit ironic considering how deeply this form is rooted in the history of fiction; many early novels were written in the first person as “letters” or “memoirs” so the authors could present them as if they were real documents, to make them more convincing.

It would be strange indeed if we eschewed the word “I” in all our personal correspondence and other writings. Why ban it from fiction?

I am obviously not a person who dislikes such books, because cutting them out would eliminate many of my favorites of all time:

  • Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis
  • Beauty by Robin McKinley
  • The Spellcoats by Diana Wynne Jones
  • Fifth Business by Robertson Davies
  • Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • The King Must Die by Mary Renault
  • I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I simply could not imagine my reading life without these and many other first-person narratives. Could you?

Are you a person who doesn’t like this kind of book? Or can you understand why some people don’t? Please explain, because I am baffled.

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!

Do you like books about fighting?



Not long ago I read The Lord of the Rings to my son — or most of it; when books get exciting he usually takes them away and ends up finishing them himself.

The battle scenes, though, were often parts that neither of us found exciting. We ended up skipping some of those pages to get into a section that was not merely about hacking orcs to pieces.

This seems a bit ironic as battles would seem to be thrilling events, by definition. But I confess that in narratives I find them dull. Whether it’s the Battle of Waterloo in Les Miserables or the interminable Red Ship Wars in Royal Assassin, as soon as the fighting starts my eyes begin to glaze over. I just want to know the results and get back to something other than troop movements and slashing at enemies.

So if a book is too much about warfare, it loses my interest completely. That applies to war-obsessed characters as well, like the young Alexander the Great in Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault. I stopped reading partway through, unable to care about such a fighting machine. It may have been a highly accurate portrayal of Alexander, but that doesn’t mean I want to spend time with him.

There are exceptions — I love a good swordfight, which can be as much about mental as physical combat. But lengthy scenes of brutal and traumatizing torture, and opponents who are evil incarnate, cannot hold my attention for long. The more physical abuse there is, the less room for psychological development, and while this in itself can be an important statement, it’s always the same and I think I get the point by now.

In terms of what I prefer to read about, I would choose the inner battles over the outer ones. And while wounds are necessary for healing, the latter is what I want to focus on.

How do you feel about battles in books?

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!

Are there too many books?



In my youth, books were not always easy to find; now they seem to be assaulting me from every direction. New, old, domestic, imported, print books, e-books, conventionally published, self-published…. This abundance is amazing, but it sometimes feels a bit oppressive.

Even though I have a “no review requests” policy on my blog, I still get hopeful emails from authors asking me to read their new book. There are so many of these out there, looking for readers! And I sincerely hope they will find an audience, but I start to wonder: are there enough readers for all these books? Do we need so many new books? What would happen if, say, we put a hold on publishing for the next year, and just made do with what we have? Or cut the supply by half — or nine-tenths? If we weren’t so overwhelmed with riches, would we value the remainder more?

This is not a serious proposal. I could never say to any particular book or author, “You are the one that has to go!” Even if a book is not for me, I want to leave the possibility open that someday, somehow, it will find the person who needs to read it. To me, infinite possibilities are what reading is all about.

Everybody thinks their story has never been told before, and needs to be told. And it’s true. But how shall we find the time to listen, the space to look? How can we, within our mortal limitations, grapple with all this boundless creativity?

How do you deal with the feeling that there are too many books?

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!

Do you have a reading plan?



At the beginning of the year, I love reading about other people’s reading goals and making my own. I also sympathize with those who want to have no or very few goals. Nobody should feel that reading has to be a chore.

This year, I noticed that some people have more specific plans than I do. They aim to read a certain number of various types of books per month, for example — different genres, books from their shelves vs. new acquisitions, etc. I wondered if this might be helpful for me to try.

Since my main goals are reading more books from around the world, more nonfiction, and books from the Back to the Classics categories, I could for example aim to complete at least one around-the-world / nonfiction / classic book each month. Sometimes there would be overlap, making things easier! I also would like to read books from my own shelves, since I took the trouble to haul them all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, so I could put in one of those as well.

Four books per month seems doable, and would help me not to forget about my goals as the year progresses. What do you think? Do you have a reading plan for yourself, and how is it working?

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!