Summer is always when my reading drastically spikes, a habit developed long ago in my childhood and also a result of the library summer-reading program. Since my early thirties, I’ve maintained a quasi-routine with my summer reading: a couple of novels, a collected or complete poems by a poet, a couple full-length poetry collections, and a book or two on the craft of writing. In addition, I throw in some nonfiction.
Two weeks ago at this time I was taking in my first experience of the annual Willa Cather Spring Conference. For months my excitement grew for the event, which included a 700-mile solo road trip.
To observe that contemporary American society is fast-paced and frenetic is stating the obvious, but in recent months I’ve contemplated the ways I feel rushed and the ways in which I might push back against that pressure.
Two weeks ago, a writer I follow on Twitter quoted this statement from Junot Diaz: “The whole culture is telling you hurry, while the art tells you to take your time. Always listen to the art.” I thought, that’s exactly right.
In a post from early January, I shared how I adjusted my writing process so that I am not working simultaneously on multiple pieces at different stages of development. Rather, I work on a first draft or a revision of piece for however long it takes to complete the next draft. Then I move to the next piece.
I’m happy to report that I’ve maintained the focus, and I find myself less hurried and less harried. When I do write, I find that I delight it in the act, a return to that love and excitement I felt when I was a younger, less-experienced writer.
I’ve transferred this idea of slowing down into a related area of my life. I used to pride myself on having between six to eight books I was reading: different genres, bouncing from one to the next. Reading poetry one night, followed by a short story, maybe part of a chapter from a historical book. I’d have a book of criticism going, too, maybe a memoir, and even a novel.
When I noticed was that my ability to immerse myself in the world of the text had weakened, so considering my writing-approach adjustment, I cut back on the books that I’m currently reading. I can say that my enjoyment of the books (and of reading in general) has only deepened.
I’m no longer trying to read a certain number of books in a year. When I was younger, I was trying to beat my record of books read from the prior year. Now, however, I’d rather read fewer books in a more focused way and in a way that involves a richer understanding of and appreciation for those books.
Beyond these two areas, I’m applying the principles of slowing down to my internet usage, my time on social media, my approach to teaching, my relationships, my spiritual life. I’m finding that those other elements are even more fulfilling when I don’t try to rush through activities, when I don’t hurry from one thing to the next.
Slow down. Be present. Pay attention. Be all there. Don’t rush. These are the words I tell myself.
Last week I had the opportunity to visit the childhood hometown of Willa Cather. As I wrote about in an earlier post, she is one of my favorite writers. I had been dreaming about this day ever since we made plans to travel through Red Cloud, Nebraska, on our vacation to visit family in Minnesota.
The afternoon was full of the blue sky and puffy clouds that I associate with her novels O Pioneers! and My Antonia. While my wife and kids played at a nearby park, I toured the inside of her childhood home and visited the newly opened Willa Cather center. This was my first literary pilgrimage, and it was everything I hoped it would be.
Exterior of house
Official dedicatory plaque
Dining room and Willa Cather’s highchair
Her bedroom (with original wallpaper)
One of Willa Cather’s writing desks
Willa Cather and Plainswriter
In the two months since I’ve turned in spring grades, I have written a lot, but I’ve also been reading a lot. Here’s what I’ve read so far:
H. Porter Abbott: Real Mysteries
This is the one “scholarly” book on the list, a work in the branch of literary criticism known as narratology. Abbott explores how the idea of the “unknown” works in narratives, creating drama and developing characters, among other effects.
Saint Augustine: The Confessions
When I finished rereading this, I thought, why read another “Christian” book? There’s so much insight and depth of thought. It’s exquisitely written. There’s so much for the reader to chew on. You read a paragraph, and you’re pondering the big questions along with Augustine.
T.C. Boyle: Stories II
This 900-page tome has close to 60 of his short stories, and I found them to be just as good as those in Stories, which I read several summers ago. Few contemporary short-fiction writers are as good as he is. Each story is its own world.
Willa Cather: Collected Stories
This was the next step after I finished her twelve novels. Just as in the novels, her prose is a pleasure to read, and she has a fine eye for details. In a month’s time I will be visiting Red Cloud, Nebraska, where she spent much of her childhood.
Dave Eggers: The Circle
This book, along with the last book (the only other novel on the list), was difficult to put down. The lack of chapters certainly helped compel me forward, but more than that was the scenario that Eggers imagines that is eerily prescient, which is especially surprising because the book was published in 2013.
Jim Gaffigan: Dad is Fat
I’ve watched (and listened to) his comedy specials many times, and this book was a great listen because it was read by Gaffigan. His delivery is as good as in the specials. So funny.
Mary Karr: The Art of Memoir
While reading this book, I underlined so many sentences. I was already a fan of her work (having read her first two memoirs), and I found the book to be immensely helpful as I continue with my own book-length memoir.
Sylvia Plath: Ariel
Before I read this influential poetry collection, I’d only read a handful of Plath’s poems (and taught some as well). This volume shows such skill, and it wasn’t as dark as I expected it would be.
Richard Ford: Between Them
Every time a new Ford book is released I feel much anticipation. This book, however, is his first extended work of memoir, with the book divided into two sections, each half about one of his parents. Ford is an only child, as I am, and so it was interesting to read about his relationship with each of his parents.
Suzanne M. Wolfe: The Confessions of X
I’m not a particular fan of historical fiction, not that I hold anything against it. I just rarely read any. But this book–wow! Reading this book while also rereading The Confessions was a wonderful experience. I found the depiction of Augustine’s concubine (who is the main character and narrator) to be very authentic and moving. Highly recommended.