A few of my favorite things: books edition

As I mentioned in an earlier post I am currently taking a writing class focusing on personal writing. One of the prompts for this week was to write about your five favorite things, books, movies, music, etc. I thought, wow this will be easy and perfect for the blog! Though I think I could write about my five favorite of any of those, I am choosing books because I believe there is a direct correlation between my desire to write and my love of reading. So why not write about the books I love to read! So here they are my five favorite books.

  1. Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell. When someone asks me what my favorite book is this is the first title I throw out. My first copy of Gone with the Wind was a paperback I purchased at a library sale which cost me a whopping fifty cents. If I had heard of the book or the movie at that point it was only vaguely, so I am not sure what initially drew me to this book. Perhaps it was the dramatic cover featuring Rhett grasping Scarlett, while Atlanta burns in the foreground (after seeing the movie for the first time it is apparent the cover figures on this particular edition were modeled after Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, which only makes me love it more). I’m sure the back cover synopsis also played a role. A story that takes place during the Civil War with a strong headed heroine as the central figure. Sold! If I had to sum up why exactly I love Gone with the Wind I would say it’s that it is truly an epic. The span of this story is part of what contributes to this, it takes place over the course of more than a decade, but it’s also the story of the downfall of a society and the end of a way of life. Of course it was entirely necessary for this society to fall, it was based on  a morally corrupt and reprehensible system, but the story of this downfall and how the characters who lived within this society, the perpetrators of the crimes of this system, respond to it makes this story an epic. The fact that the heroine is flawed and mostly unlikable, only adds to the appeal for me. It isn’t an easy book and it certainly has its issues, for example that the author seems at times to be writing a troublesome love letter to the Old South, but I think you can use this romance about a young woman surviving the Civil War as a way to launch a discussion about the larger picture of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. If nothing else, it is a captivating story with memorable characters, and certainly a piece of American literary history.
  2. Anything by Jane Austen. Okay so this isn’t a specific title, but I felt this list had to include something by Austen and I couldn’t quite bring myself to choose just one. Pride and Prejudice is the first Jane Austen novel I ever read, and it is probably the novel I have reread the most times, but I truly love her entire body of work. The books are romances, yet they are also sharp critiques of the society in which Austen lived and women’s role in it. Plus, they are legitimately funny. Her heroines have a wide array of traits and personalities, but each of them is the hero of her own story and that is so refreshing.
  3. The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling. Again not a single book, but this story is a series and I think it is best discussed as such. I am a part of the generation which grew up with Harry Potter. I remember reading books one and two in 5th grade and I attended a midnight release for the 7th book the summer after I graduated from high school. It is because of this that these books will always hold a special place for me. It also happens to be one of the first series of books I ever read. The anticipation of waiting for the next book to come out, the sadness when the series that you have spent the past several years with has finally come to end, the first time I really experienced these feelings intensely was with Harry Potter. Of course it also helps that it is the story of regular boy who ends up saving his world, and that is a story that will always appeal to me.
  4. A Song of Ice and Fire Series, George RR Martin. I know, I know I keep counting multiple books as one entry on this list, but I feel this is legitimate when it comes to a series of books. They are generally one overarching story told over many installments. One story, one entry. I started reading this series the year the fifth book came out. I devoured all five of these monstrous tomes in about two months. To say I enjoyed them is an understatement. The thing I love the most about this series is the thing that everyone loves most, the characters. George RR Martin has created these vivid, flawed, realistic characters and everything from their histories down to the smallest bits of dialogue is captivating. Another great aspect of these books is a cultural one. You can sit and discuss and dissect these novels for hours (and believe me, I have). Anything that brings fellow readers together in such a way deserves a gold star in my book. (Note: Yes, yes the show is amazing too, however I strongly believe everyone who loves the show should check out the books. But don’t worry, not in a snobbish ‘the books are better’ way…though in this case I do think they are).
  5. This fifth slot is a tough one for me to fill. Not because I cannot think of another book which I love, but because there are so many other books that I love. The first four entries came to mind immediately when I was thinking about my list of favorite books. They are the ones that will always be at the top of my list. But when creating a list of merely five, the fifth slot seems more difficult to fill. It fluctuates depending on my mood and what I am reading at the time. Classics, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Modern fiction, Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. Contemporary Young Adult, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta. Fantasy Young Adult, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. Genre Fiction, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I read a lot of books and there have been many that have touched me in some way, many which have inspired me to read more and to write. So I am saving this slot for whatever book I fall in love with next.
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Reading rut

Every avid reader has been there. You think about the books you’ve read most recently, you glance over your to-read list. A pattern emerges, the same authors, the same genre, similar themes, similar stories. You’re in a reading rut.

I found myself in such a rut a little over a year ago. The genre: Young Adult (side note: I could write an entire treatise in defense of this genre. Granted, it has already been tackled on both sides in The Guardian, Slate, the New York Times, and countless other places. I may still write my own piece one day, but in sum: No, it does not begin and end with Twilight. No, it is not about people wanting relive their youth. It is about deep and meaningful stories, which allow the reader to relate much more than many other genres because the themes of finding yourself and discovering your place in the world are things we continue to grapple with throughout our lives).

Now, I don’t think there is anything wrong with having certain genres that you love. Ones that you come back to over and over again. Even within the most well trodden of genres, you can find someone who is subverting old themes or doing something new altogether. But I also think it is important to broaden your horizons a bit every now and then and read something outside of your comfort zone. To get exposure to new ideas and different writing styles, but also to keep your reading skills in tip top shape. So what can be done once you’ve realized you’re in a reading rut? I set some reading goals for myself.

Goal One: read more modern, literary fiction. The reason behind this is twofold. By reading works that are more modern I can be part of the discussions which always surround new books. Book clubs, book reviews, online communities, the forums for discussing books are plentiful, and everyone seems to want to discuss the ‘hot new book’. Second, by focusing on the literary end of the spectrum, I can give myself a bit more of a challenge, and who doesn’t need that?

Goal Two: read more graphic novels. Graphic novels are EVERYWHERE. They are infiltrating every aspect of pop culture. And with topics ranging from World War II told through mice, to a young girl’s experience in post revolution Iran, to (of course) Superheroes, there seems to be something for everyone.

Goal Three: revisit my love of the ‘classics’. I found Jane Austen in high school, and thus began my love affair with the classics. Dickens, Shakespeare, Fitzgerald, the Bronte sisters, I devoured many of the authors whose works are typically deemed classics. But there are still many more sitting on my to-read list. Plus much of what I have read is very euro-centric, and it is far past time that was corrected.

The realization of my reading rut was over a year ago, so how have I done on these goals? Goal One has been a minor success. Marisha Pessl, Gillian Flynn, and Sarah Waters have all been added to my read pile and my list of to-read in this category is ever growing. Goal Two has been a bit slower. I did finally find a graphic novel series that really clicked with me and which proved to me that there are stories which are best told as graphic novels (The Sandman Series by Neil Gaiman, in case you were wondering). Plus, through the help of some friends and the Internet, I have many more which I am eager to read. Now Goal Three, honestly I have not been successful with this one, but I did start re-reading an old Austen favorite the other night, just to get a taste of the old favorites. All in all, two out of three isn’t bad.

Setting a few reading goals was good for me. I discovered new authors and genres, and read things I may not have picked up before. I now find myself adding new goals in my head (read some Science Fiction and adult Fantasy, try short stories, crack open that copy of selected poems by Lord Byron). Will I accomplish all of these? Probably not, but having them has made me a better, more rounded reader (and hopefully it will ultimately lead to me becoming a better writer). So c’mon, let’s all set some goals. Happy reading!