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Books You Wouldn’t Be Caught Dead Reading

December 13, 2009

The quarter is over. I just finished entering grades and it’s time to focus on next quarter which always comes much more quickly than I anticipate. Before I do, I’m planning to do a bit of reading just for fun. I’ll probably read some trash. I’ll also read some densely academic stuff that I’ve been waiting to chew on without distraction. Between these two extremes lies another world of reading, the sometimes weird and always wonderful randomness of thrift store reading that piles up all over the house since I cannot resist an interesting-to-me book.

Here’s a sampling of my recent random reading purchases. Satirist P.J. O’Rourke said that you should always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it. Clearly I didn’t always take his advice when considering what to buy:

Bill’s Story of the Wholesale Produce Market. This “Social Learnings Reader” by Marie Elizabeth Smith, was written in 1951 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons), and its preface explains that “[d]eveloping desirable social attitudes is one of the most important functions of education in a democracy.” Fifteen men and two boys in this book help us do so. There are no women named or talked with except the anonymous ladies buying things in pictures. I use books like this to remind me and my students that some things actually have changed.

Scandal, Secrets, and Sensual Confessions (2006, no authors listed). This book from True Confessions (first time available in paperback) promised on its cover to be “sizzling with dark magic and dangerous desires.” It was also supposed to be filled with “sassy, sexy, and strictly taboo confessions.” In addition, between the covers I would find “delectable sensual tales that will tantalize.” Oh, my, what a big bunch of lies. I read this on the train and there were a couple of kisses in its 350 pages, but not much else. Why did I buy it? One of my girlfriends in junior high school had access to big stacks of romance magazines like True Confessions that her mother and aunts bought, and we spent hours in her room after school reading stuff forbidden at my house. This will be good bathroom reading, sure to impress visitors who see it on the shelf. It is also an excellent example of hyperbolic cover promises that aren’t delivered on as well as the appeal of the forbidden for prepubescent readers.

A book I’d be proud to put on my coffee table is Studs Terkel’s (1995) Coming of Age: The Story of Our Century by Those Who’ve Lived It. I have often said I’d like to be Studs Terkel and not just because he has such a great name. Terkel died just over a year ago, having captured hundreds of people’s stories as an oral historian, and I’ve read just about all of his books. This book is dedicated “to those old ones who still do battle with dragons,” and it inspires me. If you watch a little too much of the wrong kind of television or read a little too much of the wrong kind of magazine articles, you forget that growing older is also about accruing wisdom and gaining a sense of self and your place in the world, and not just about looking as young as you can for as long as you can. Terkel’s books always remind me of what matters.

Kennilworthy Whisp’s Quidditch Through the Ages (2001, by J.K. Rowling) is billed as one of the most popular titles in the Hogwarts’ library. If you’ve been wondering about the rules and history of quidditch, this is the book for you. ‘Nuff said. (I haven’t been wondering, but I collect books related to the Harry Potter phenomenon as examples of creative writing extension activities students can do.)

I saw Malcolm Gladwell on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Gladwell was discussing his latest book, What the Dog Saw. I’m planning to pay full price for it because I was intrigued by what Gladwell had to say and by something a reviewer reports that Gladwell says in his book, that “curiosity about the interior life of other people’s day-to-day work is one of the most fundamental human impulses.” As an autoethnographer, I track my own interior life hoping to gain insight into my creative processes. I got Gladwell’s (2000, 2002) book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, at a thrift store. I’ve read excerpts, but look forward to reading the whole book.

Here’s the paragraph that intrigued me. It’s from page 7 of the introduction: “The Tipping Point [New York: Little, Brown, and Company] is the biography of an idea and the idea is very simple. It is that the best way to understand the emergence of fashion trends, the ebb and flow of crime waves, or for that matter, the transformation of unknown books into bestsellers, or the rise of teenage smoking, or the phenomena of words of mouth, or any number of other mysterious changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do.”

I read something very similar in Aaron Lynch’s (1996) book, Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads through Society, The New Science of Memes, and although I don’t find reference to Lynch, thought contagion, or memes in the index of Gladwell’s book, I’m anxious to read it see if there’s a relationship since I’ve been intrigued by the idea of memes since first reading Lynch’s book. The back cover of Thought Contagion notes, “Like a software virus in a computer or a real virus in a community, thought contagions proliferate by effectively programming their own transmission. Thought Contagion lays the groundwork for understanding the new science of memes—a science that asks not how people accumulate ideas but how ideas accumulate people.”

I just bought Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield in the “Illustrated Classic Edition” (1979 by I. Waldman and Sons) at the Salvation Army. I know I said that I am happy when people are reading something, anything. I know I said I’m not picky about what they choose. But this just makes me sad. Dickens is wonderful, and while this book encourages reading, no one who reads it has really read Dickens. It’s as though Romeo met Juliet and said, “Yo, Julie, whassup?” Just not the same.

Read something, anything. I don’t even care what it is. You can even borrow my Illustrated Classic David Copperfield if you want to. After all, if anyone asks, you can say you’re reading Dickens!

What’s something you’d enjoy reading if you had the time to do so?

I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.
• Anna Quindlen, “Enough Bookshelves,”
New York Times, August 7, 1991

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