Friday, June 14, 2024

Reading Lists 

This farmer isn't outstanding in his field, he's sitting and reading.

Why do we love lists? Apple recently listed the "best 100 Albums" and while I didn't expect many of my personal favourites to appear, it was shocking that the only two albums from the Beatles were. Revolver (sure, why not?) and Abbey Road. Excuse me whilst I take a swig of water to spit-take at my computer screen. There, done. Abbey Road isn't even one of the Beatles' top albums, never mind being on an all time top album list. Where is the White Album, or Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band? I'm not even that big of a Beatles fan but come on! The outrage!

These lists are ephemeral, incomplete and wrong, which is sort of the point. Someone compiles them to start an argument, that hopefully leads to a conversation. Though, I think it's fair to say, "conversations" on the Internet ended sometime in 2006 several hours after the launch of Twitter. Also, art as competition is always a waste of time - I present the Eurovision Song Contest thingy or American Idol to the jury as examples. These lists are mostly arbitrary and subjective. Yet, what these lists do is give you some barometer between your own tastes and some establishment's assessment. They are also a great way to give you some recommendations for what you might want to listen to, view or read next.

While giving a once over to the Guardian's list of top 100 books, I couldn't help but count the ones I've read. Out of 100, I'd read 15. That's 15% (I did the math so you don't have to). I generally consider myself "well-read" but I'm not sure 15% would qualify me for that. On a list of graphic novel recommendations also from the Guardian (about 25 mentioned), I'd read over half, but if I'm being honest, it was a bit of a crap list that even the author acknowledged as they were trying to give readers a very wide and introductory selection to chose from. I think at work or in a professional setting, we'd call this "Subject Matter Expertise Fatigue" or SMEF because creating acronyms is most of the job - when you know a subject well enough that you basically have a well-informed opinion about everybody else's opinion. On this one subject, I could easily list 100 or more, high quality and influential, graphic novels just from North America or English language sources. It would be impossible to limit yourself to 100, if you listed Japanese, French or Belgian comics too. If I asked some friends to chime in, I'd have another 100. That wouldn't even include fringe, alternative, self-published or hard to find comics. The fact there wasn't a single Moebius… OK, OK, I'm not going to go there. That is a topic for another time.

All this is to say, I do try to read more, but, sort of like my desire to see all of the AFI's top 100 films (I'm closer to 91% on that list - though again, it consists of only American films), rather than try to read all the classics, I've decided to have only one goal: read a book you like and try to read at least a book a month. As Margaret Atwood has said, if you don't like a book after the first chapter, then put it down and start another one. Ironically, taking Margaret Atwood's advice has lead me to not read much of anything by Margaret Atwood. One year I realized I had only read 2-3 books, and I think two of them were comic books or graphic novels. Now if you think I mean a 16-24 page action comic, I do not. There are plenty of graphic novels in my collection that clock in at anywhere from 200-600 pages (I'm looking at you, Jason Lutes' Berlin or Joe Sacco's Gaza). That made me wonder how I couldn't read a dozen books a year when I know people who could read a book in a week or a weekend. Thus, I started to keep track.

Last year I read 15 books (I'll hold here for applause), a couple of which were audio books I listened to while taking a stroll (do audio books count? I think so.). This year I've read 7 books, and yes, 4 of them were comic books. One of which, A Frog in the Fall (and Later On), is almost 350 pages, and while many of those pages were wordless, it is still one of my favourite books that I imagine I'll re-read many times. Another of those books is a historical non-fiction book about the Thames river and it is 500-page absolute doorstopper that should come with a medal the reader receives after finishing.

Why does it matter? I guess I could say something about critical thinking, or brain health, or that kids that read for fun do better on tests and so on, but really, for me, it's a world away from screens. When I'm really absorbed in a book, I imagine I'm there. It might be one of the reasons I read so slowly, but when I read, I kind of perform the text. If there are characters, I play them. If it's non-fiction, I'm the voice-over presenter. I know this is probably an indication of a poor reading habit, but it helps me escape and remember my favourite parts. Also, if I'm being honest, I'm a terrible sleeper so reading before sleep helps get all the crud out of my head. I'm not sure you should or have to read, but I do think it improves my thinking in a way movies or podcasts don't. Like music, reading seems to activate a unique part of your brain that, if I only read more, I might be able to articulate. In the end, I read because I like to and that's the only reason I need.

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