The Reader’s Toolbox

ReadingTackle2
Clockwise from top right corner – a Circa Jotlet, Field Notes Byline Limited Edition, generic 5-1/2″ x 8″ softcover journal, Field Notes Sweet Tooth Limited Edition, Levenger business card magnifier, variety of wood pencils (including highlighter pencils), 2 pencil sharpeners, eraser, 3 x 5 Levenger index cards, pencil case, Book Darts, Gimble (hands free reading tool).

 

When I was in art school I discovered a deep love for the materials out of which art is made: the brushes, the differences in brands of paint pigments, pens and pencils and the cases made to store them.  Hours would go by at Pearl Paint on Canal Street spent looking at different types of paper. This passion for tools has crossed over into my reading life and I’ve accumulated a bunch of little accessories, completely unnecessary, which somehow make reading even more fun. My husband gave me a book bag last Christmas and I’ve taken to carrying it everywhere.  Of course there’s always at least one book (or three) tucked inside, but there are lots of other things too.  Below is a list of my reader/reviewer toolkit –

  • An assortment of notebooks. Of course you probably only need one but, as a friend once said to me, if you’re going in then go in big. I usually have at least two Field Notes notebooks on me at all times.  I like them because 1. – the small, booklet held together by three simple staples and 2. – I’m a bit of a label whore. The Byline Limited Edition is fantastic. It’s a departure from their standard notebook format and was designed with the help of John Dickerson of Face the Nation. I also keep a small Circa Jotlet in the side pocket of my bag. Both it and the Byline are bound at the top, so they flip open and can be held in one hand. It makes it easier to take notes reporter style. I tend to jot down a lot of notes during the day, mostly things I hear or thoughts I might have for a future post. I keep a larger, softcover journal for longer sections of writing, the drafts which will be eventually be incorporated into reviews. All of the notebooks I’m currently using are softcover. I’m less precious about using them and if they get roughed up or filled with scribbles it doesn’t bother me. Whereas there’s something about a hardcover journal that feels like everything recorded in it is for Posterity.
  • Knickknacks
    Clockwise from top left: Book Darts, Gimble (hands-free book opener), KUM Masterpiece Sharpener, M+B Double Hole Brass Sharpener, Staedtler Black Rubber Eraser
    Wood pencils, a handheld eraser & (2) sharpeners. Yes, completely analog. Eventually I hack it out on the Chromebook, but all my initial thoughts and early drafts are put down in longhand using old-school wooden pencils. The benefit of writing by hand is that it forces you to slow down to choose your words and structure your sentences. I also stop more frequently to read over what I’ve written.  To this end I have accumulated a collection of several dozen pencils. Japanese are my favorites. I like softer leads, which generally means shorter point retention, so I’ve also invested in two quality metal hand sharpeners. The KUM Masterpiece Longpoint is a German-made sharpener. It’s a two-blade system, which means you sharpen your pencil in part 1 to extend the lead, and part 2 to shape it into a point that could be used to shank someone. I keep a second, brass sharpener for the fatter, less lethal highlighter pencils that don’t fit into the Masterpiece (no bleeding through the page like markers). Add a colored pencil for editing drafts and at least one rubber eraser and my pencil case is complete. The Erasable Podcast and CW Pencil in NYC have been invaluable resources for putting it together.
  • 3×5 notecards. Ever since reading that Nabokov used index cards to draft his novels I’ve been trying to find a way to incorporate them into my writing routine. The best use I’ve found for them is as bookmarks.  I also jot notes on them, usually nothing more exciting than quotes and page numbers. The Levenger cards are nice because of the vertical format, but pricey. Mine were a gift and I probably won’t replace them once they’re gone.
  • A magnifier. I haven’t needed one yet – but it seems like a good thing to have.  Another gift.
  • Magnifier2
    Magnifying Card
    Book Darts.  I am a Book Dart evangelist. These smooth, sexy, pointed metal clips that slide onto the edge of a page are fantastic for marking passages & quotes you want to reference later. IMHO the darts are vastly superior, and more environmentally friendly, than post-it-notes (which fold and become ragged over time). I cannot live without them.
  • Something to keep the pages of my book open. For those times when you need a page open and your hands free, like when you’re typing out a passage from a book.  The Gimble, which is what I use, isn’t aesthetically pleasing but it gets the job done for a fraction of the price of one of those fancy leather book weights. Plus it fits into my pencil case!

That’s it! Well… except for a confession: I’ve written this post for purely selfish reasons. As I was thinking about my own book bag I couldn’t help wondering if I’m the only one.  I am genuinely curious….do YOU have a favorite bookmark, or write on a vintage typewriter (or have a vintage typewriter sound app for your laptop)?  Do you collect fountain pens? write on stacks of yellow legal pads? put notes in the margins of your books? Please share what is or isn’t in your reading toolbox in the comments.

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Starting 2016 A Little Late This Year

Happy 2016!  I’ve never been a consistent reviewer and, true to form, it’s been some time since I last posted. But while I’ve been taking the last couple months off I haven’t been entirely relaxing. Completely the opposite, in fact.  I’ve been working on submissions outside of this blog – something I want to do more of in the future and which will (by necessity) change the content of the posts you’ll find here.

Are you surprised?  Does any of this sound familiar?  I’ve noticed a lot of posts lately, by some of my favorite bloggers, saying much the same thing.  Bloggers burned out by the daily grind of keeping up a blog, finding it difficult to balance their online & offline lives or just wanting to focus more on submitting their work to places that might pay. Many of these blogs, like mine, came online around 2009 – which leads me to wonder why we all seem to be feeling the same way at the same time. A case of the seven  year itch perhaps?

Displaying 20160119_064006.jpg
Emma, who has eaten so many of the books reviewed on this blog that there was really no choice but to make her a mascot.

Submitting reviews while still creating content here is obviously going to create some challenges.  My posts are still going to be about books and translations – this will remain a literary blog – so the reviews aren’t going away.  Mostly because I’ve never been much of a personal essayist. I’m not a particularly private person, it isn’t that, but my private life isn’t particularly interesting. And I really love writing reviews.  Yet there’s no denying that this blog has grown stale – probably for you as much as for me. That’s something I hope to change going forward.

If all goes as planned 2016 is going to be a busy year. And for my first official post of the New Year let’s start with Reading & Writing Goals of 2016.

I always sign up for the GoodReads Reading Challenge. Even though after 3 years of trying I still haven’t hit my goal. This year I’m going for 60 books and I’m already 3 books behind! But part of my reading goals for 2o16 is to actually spend more time reading. Doesn’t everyone feel like they have less and less time these days?  To combat the hyper-acceleration of modern life (yep, I went there!) I’m working on a major restructuring of how I live. More about that later this week.  (Here’s a hint: a certain Japanese book is part of my plan).  Back to Goodreads –  who else is taking part  in the challenge and how many books have you set as your goal? Let me know in the comments.

What’s on the reading list?  Translations, of course.  But also some non-fiction. Last year there was no plan – no rhyme or reason as to what I was reading. And I prefer to have a plan.  I was discussing the blog with a friend and she brought up a series on gardening books I did the first year of the blog.  Those are some of my favorite posts because I was able to explore a single subject in-depth.  In hindsight two factors made that series possible.  First, I wasn’t getting as many review copies back then.  More often than not the mail tends to dictate what I read now.  This isn’t a bad thing – I’m definitely NOT complaining. I’ve been introduced to authors and publishers and books from all over the world – and am hugely grateful for the education and the opportunities that have resulted.  But last year I was reading by the seat of my pants.  Which leads to the second factor – planning. Series like the one on gardening take some advance planning.  There needs to be more of that here in 2016.  The goal is that every month is going to have a unifying theme and/or focus.  Not necessarily reading books from a single country or a region for a month.  I’m thinking of more abstract ideas –  sometimes it will be a personal writing challenge I set myself, or a type of book, a specific subject or idea. I’ve got a few things planned but am always open to suggestions.

Lastly, expect more experimentation. The majority of posts on this blog have been straightforward reviews of translations.  And you’ll still find those here.  But there will also be more nonfiction, more interviews, more opinions and news pieces (I’ve become a bit obsessed with traditional journalism over the last few months)…  and maybe my version of creative writing.  We’ll see.  The real goal this year is to mix things up a little.

How to Write a Sentence (And How to Read One) by Stanley Fish

THE SENTENCE FORM IS KING, according to Stanley Fish.   He believes that once we grasp what the different forms are, how they work and what they do, – then the rest (“the rest” being the ideas we wish to communicate) falls into place.  It is a convincing argument he makes in the new book How to Write a Sentence (& How To Read One). What surprised me was how much I enjoyed it.

A wonderful example he provides early on uses the first stanza from Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem Jabberwocky.  He explains that it’s easy to replace the nonsense words with actual words –  like mad libs – because we innately know ‘that a “linking verb” such as “was” introduces a state or a condition or a location but does not introduce a verbal auxiliary such as “did”.’  I know, I know – that was a way more complicated explanation than I ever want to read outside of an English class!  But Fish acknowledges he’s being technical – and simplifies it into something a 5th grader can understand easily:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.’

Now replace the nonsense words with good English words in a way that leads to a meaningful sequence. The exercise is useful because there is no content guiding your performance of it. All you have are forms, but they are enough. If you are a speaker of English you know – although it is the kind of knowledge you may never have articulated – that there are only certain classes of words that can follow “’Twas.” “Exciting,” “evening,” “unfinished,” “urban,” “Texas,” or “hilarious” would be okay, but “did” – “’Twas did” – would not (unless you are e.e. cummings).

Throughout How To Write A Sentence (& How to Read One) Fish relies on these types of exercises to reveal to the reader the beauty and complexity of sentences.  Repeatedly he invites us to put into practice what he preaches.  Usually this entails re-writing a famous sentence from literature to better understand why it works.  And so, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” becomes just another aphorism, a more sophisticated version of “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”, or “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundral”.  Or, we’re told to take a 3 word sentence (like “Joe rides horses”) and expand it into a progressively longer sentence without losing the original “doer-doing-done to” format.  Sentences, under Fish’s tutelage, become much more than a series of words strung together with punctuation marks. They become games, puzzles, jumbles, things to be played with, pulled apart and put back together. Enthusiasm is contagious, and that’s what makes How To Write A Sentence marvelous!  The book positively glows with the author’s love for his subject.

In many ways I found Stanley Fish’s book so intriguing because it provides entre (in a surprisingly svelte 176 page package) into a larger conversation on the development of language, Noam Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar and the genetic component involved in the organization of language.  It’s a subject that I’ve been interested in since trying (and mostly failing) to read The Last Speakers by K. David Harrison.  I realize that’s just me.  Most people who pick up How To Write A Sentence will do so because they’re writers or discerning readers, students or teachers, or just sick (and tired!) of Strunk & White.   This book is obviously not for everyone.   If it’s for you, though, I advise buying it in hardcover.  Not something I necessarily recommend for most books.  But I anticipate this is a book that, if bought, will see heavy use.  It’s a book I plan to keep forever.  And at a purely practical level – if it’s that kind of book – best to make sure your copy is up to the task ahead of it.

Publisher: Harper, New York (2011).

ISBN: 978 0 06 184054 8



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