Hey everyone! Hope you’re all having a lovely day. Here’s another rapid-fire round of reviews on three of the nonfiction books I’ve read this January, centered around my hobbies: reading and running.
Books about Books
I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life by Anne Bogel (2018)
My Rating: ★★★★☆
As a bookworm, I absolutely cannot resist are books about books. I mean, I already love reading, but when the content is also about the love of reading, it’s just pure delight. Also, I’m surrounded by people who aren’t readers, or who read for utilitarian purposes – i.e., to get information or to be “more successful” (yeah, just… no) – so sometimes I just want to be reminded that my obsessive, non-utilitarian love for reading is not odd or archaic, after all.
This book definitely hits all the right notes. Since I read this primarily to feel understood, the parts I related the most with were “The Books that Find You”, about serendipitously picking a book up at the time you most need it; “The Readers I Have Been”, about who we are as readers at different ages; “Again, for the First Time”, about the joys of rereading; “Windows to the Soul”, about how revealing your favorite books are; and finally, “Bookworm Problems”, which speaks for itself.
There are a number of quotes that I loved – I highlighted nearly all of “Bookworm Problems” – but this one stood out to me:
I feel certain of this: I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I weren’t a reader. I don’t just mean because I enjoy reading or spend so much time with my books. I mean that from an early age, and without consciously intending to, the ideas I got from books formed the interior architecture of my mind.
I felt it captures how our hobbies – the things we do for play and for pleasure – profoundly shape who we become.
In short, Ms. Bogel just gets it, and it was a relief and a delight to discover that I’m not alone in my bookish quirks. I’d really recommend this to all readers and book lovers everywhere.
Read from January 13-15, 2020 | Link to Goodreads
How Fiction Works by James Wood (2008, 2018)
My Rating: ★★★★★
James Wood is arguably one of the most (in)famous critics of our age. In this work, though, he is less of a critic than a craftsman carefully taking apart a scene or a sentence to show how beautifully wrought they are, or to remark on the workmanship of each writer.
The book is divided into sections concerning a specific aspect of fiction – narrating, detail, form, character, consciousness, language, and so on – and he tackles each with lucid prose and with generous examples from several authors (mostly from realist writers like Woolf, Chekhov, and Bellow). Wood’s attention to detail is astonishing, and by drawing the readers’ attention to the small details, I felt like he was lending me his eyes and shaping the way I’m going to read fiction. In the section on language and on the issue of mixed metaphors, for example, he cites four ways that different authors have described fire:
Lawrence, seeing a fire in a grate, writes of it as “that rushing bouquet of new flames in the chimney” (Sea and Sardinia). Hardy describes a “scarlet handful of fire” in Gabriel Oak’s cottage in Far from the Madding Crowd. Bellow has this sentence in his story “A Silver Dish”: “The blue flames fluttered like a school of fishes in the coal fire.” And Norman Rush, in his novel Mating, which is set in Botswana, has his hero come upon an abandoned village, where he sees that “cooking fires wagged in some of the lalwapas” (a lalwapa is a kind of simple African courtyard). So: a rushing bouquet (DHL); a scarlet handful of fire (TH); a school of fishes (SB); and a wagging fire (NM). Is one better than the others? Each works slightly differently. . . . (p. 209-210)
He then proceeds to detail how each succeeds, but in a different manner. Obviously, I never read fiction this closely – I can hardly remember the synopsis of a book I read a week later, let alone specific sentences in it! – so Wood’s work was also a lesson in slowing down and delighting in language.
One thing where I disagree with him, but where he makes a compelling argument, is regarding character. He dismantles Forster’s popular notion of “flat” and “round” characters and instead proposes that:
. . . the vitality of literary character has less to do with dramatic action, novelistic coherence, and even plain plausibility—let alone likeability—than with a larger philosophical or metaphysical sense, our awareness that a character’s actions are deeply important, that something profound is at stake, with the author brooding over the face of that character like God over the face of the waters. That is how readers retain in their minds a sense of the character “Isabel Archer,” even if they cannot tell you what she is exactly like. We remember her in the way we remember an obscurely significant day: something important has been enacted here. (p. 118)
This seems to be a very thin description of a character to me. I have read books where I was aware that a “character’s actions are deeply important, that something profound is at stake”, like, for example, Arthur Less in Less, but I didn’t find it very satisfying to read. I like best protagonists who are dynamic, complicated, yet understandable, and who undergo some sort of character growth.
This doesn’t mean that I like Wood’s work any less, though. Overall, his work has definitely given me something to think about, and I’m sure I’ll be referring to it again in the future.
Read from May 4-6, 2019; January 13, 2020 | Link to Goodreads
Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall (2009)
My Rating: ★★★★☆
I truly enjoyed this one. I started this back in September, just two weeks or so before I began my first 10k, and while I’d only read the first half at the time, I remember feeling really fired up for the race. I believe that’s the book’s strongest point—McDougall has a real passion for running, and it really shows in his writing.
In this book, Mr. McDougall’s quest to run with less pain takes him on a whirlwind adventure to meet the Tarahumara, a reclusive tribe in Mexico also nicknamed the “running people”. I enjoyed learning about the mysterious Tarahumara, and how running is deeply woven into their lives as both play and ritual. While running for most of us is a sport or a form of exercise, for the Tarahumara, it’s part of their lives – as natural as eating and breathing.
Aside from them, we also meet a cast of white people who want to pit their endurance skills against the famed tribe, and all these people are absolutely crazy about running. I mean that literally: they’ve all attempted things no sane person would – run barefoot, join ultras without proper preparation or training, and even abandon civilization for running. Mr. McDougall’s descriptions here are possibly exaggerated, but nonetheless they’re also very entertaining.
That being said, this book also espouses in this book certain philosophies and theories about running that can beg belief. Mr. McDougall advocates barefoot running and veganism, has a tendency to exaggerate (“99.9% of all runners [will never qualify for] the Boston Marathon”—really?), and ties running back to a mythical past (that human beings evolved specifically for distance running). In these points, I either disagree with him or am skeptical about his claims. Still, my rating for the book holds because his writing was fun and inspiring, and this book gives voice to my own sudden, inexplicable obsession with running. I read it mainly to hear someone articulate why they love running so much, and on that point it definitely delivered. 4 stars for the very entertaining ride.
Read from September 21, 2019 - January 10, 2020 | Link to Goodreads
Have you read any of these books, or do you have a hobby that you love reading about? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear from you. 🙂