My Reading Life

You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me. —C. S. Lewis

Bookroom corner

For anyone who has read my blog for any length of time, I’m sure you’ve discovered that I love to read. I cannot remember a time when I didn’t love books or have time for books in my life. As a child, the bookcase in my room was a never-ending source of delight. I read and reread favorite books. Every year a friend of my grandmother’s gave my brother and me books for Christmas. The Velveteen Rabbit, the Little House books, The Little Princess, and a set of six matching hardbacks, including titles such as Mary Poppins and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe were some of the titles I remember receiving from her.

My mother took us to the library regularly and once I was big enough and strong enough to bike there myself, I would go on my own. We lived in a small town for several years and the library was only a few miles away. By the time I was in junior high, I could go by myself.

I still remember that library. It was a little house on the town square, filled with books. I first read the Anne of Green Gables books and The Scarlet Pimpernel there. It’s funny that I remember no librarians, just stacks full of books to browse and borrow.

When I was in high school, we moved to a different state and I had a job at our town’s public library. That meant that I could bring books home every day after work. I didn’t have to wait for the once a week trip. It was in high school that I discovered Agatha Christie books, selling for 10 cents a piece at our library book sale. I spent many happy hours reading when my schoolwork was done and on weekends. I remember taking a book out with me to the woods, sitting in a chair with an apple and a book on a rainy Saturday, curled up on my bed one weekend with Gone with the Wind and astonishing my mother when I finished it by Sunday evening.

In the library where I worked, the fiction collection started on the left-hand wall, continued around the back wall, and finished on the right-hand wall. I started the A’s with Jane Austen and spent the last two years in high school working through classics like Sense and Sensibility, Jane Eyre, Les Miserables and many others. I also fell in love with the historical fiction books by Thomas Costain, Anya Seton, and Leon Uris.

Despite my studies in college, I still found time for pleasure reading. I mostly had to rely on the books that I had brought from home until my last year in college. The summer before my senior year, I moved to a house within walking distance of the university with a bunch of other girls.

Just around the corner, there was a tiny public library extension and any time I wasn’t at work that summer, I was reading. Our house didn’t have air conditioning and the nights could be unbearably warm so a book to read until 2 a.m. was a help in making myself tired enough to sleep in the heat.

I worked at my university after graduation. On weekends, I poked around used bookstores and made a trip to the main downtown library for something new to read. My collection of books was growing. I started branching out from historical fiction and mysteries into poetry, plays, and literary fiction. I first found Miss Manners and learned etiquette while giggling over her snarky attitude. I read biographies. It was at this time that I first discovered Anne Morrow Lindberg’s books of journals and letters that made such an impact on my life. I was single and not a party girl. I would go to work and afterwards my books would keep me company in the evenings.

I did finally get married, but I didn’t stop reading. My husband was in school so we spent evenings reading—me with my beloved classics and mysteries and he with his school books. This worked out well since it would have been hard if my new husband hadn’t understood my love for books.

After our children came, I was busy most of the day caring for them and the house but I still carved out time for books. With just one baby, I could find time to read while nursing, while he napped, before bed. However, when the second little guy came along, it was much harder. I was on the go all day. Every time I wasn’t doing something, I was exhausted and only wanted to sleep.

I was feeling starved, intellectually and spiritually, without time spent reading, reflecting, and writing. One day, I realized that after the baby’s early morning feed, he went back to sleep and I had an hour before my oldest woke up. Rather than go back to bed, as I had been doing, I used that time to read my Bible, to journal, to read uplifting books. I rediscovered my core being again as God’s Word nourished my spirit and mind, as I read good fiction and edifying nonfiction, as I reflected on new ideas, and wrote about what I was thinking and how I was growing.

When we started homeschooling our children, I introduced reading as a pastime to my children. I had read aloud to them for years, but now we spent long hours every day with books—reading, discussing, narrating. The boys would look forward to library day when we would go for library programs, gather a new stack of books, and spend the evening together, everyone with the book of their choice.

People asked me how I had time to read while homeschooling three children and running the house. My response was that I needed to read in order to do those things. Reading and studying was key to my ability to grow in my faith, teach my children what they needed to know, and to keep my sanity. Studies detailed how many women were on anti-depressants and other drugs in order to cope with the stresses of modern life. I found that if I kept learning and reading and regularly interacting with good ideas, those pastimes helped me with stress. I found strength in the nourishment I was receiving intellectually, emotionally, and, most importantly, spiritually.

These days I still read whenever I can find a few moments. Now that my children have grown up and starting new lives in working and higher education, I work at our local library so I still have plenty of books at my fingertips. Newly published books make their way to my nightstand, piles of books that I’m reading and pondering teeter around my “book room”, and my bookshelves still overflow.

What started as a common pastime as a child has turned into a way of life. I still spend many evenings and weekends with a book and a pot of tea. I do not regret the many hours spent in other people’s lives. I lived a thousand lives, traveled the world, and learned about life from other people’s experiences. Reading has enriched my life beyond all imagining. The reading life is the only life for me.

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Favorite Books of 2017

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I barely achieved my goal of reading eighty books in 2017. It was a year of transition and I have a lot less dedicated time for reading than I used to have. However, I did read some very good books this past year and thought I’d share my favorites.

Top Five Fiction:

News of the World by Paulette Jiles – An older man and a girl make a journey together in post Civil War Texas. The story was great and the details made me feel as if I was making the journey with them.

A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline – Christina’s World, a painting by Andrew Wyeth, has long been a favorite of mine so how could I resist this historical fiction novel about the Christina in the picture, her life, and how the picture was painted?

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – Beautiful prose and structure and a fascinating story about a Russian aristocrat who lives in a hotel under house arrest in Moscow. While he cannot go out into the world, he soon discovers that the world comes to him. My favorite novel of the year.

The Dry by Jane Harper – A debut mystery set in Australia. The story was so compelling that I read it in less than two days. I’m looking forward to the next in the proposed series.

The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon – I can’t resist novels based on true crimes and I thoroughly enjoyed this one. In the 1930’s, a New York City judge stepped into a cab one summer evening and was never seen again. This is one person’s idea of what happened to him and the women in his life.

Other than The Dry, which is a mystery set in modern Australia, this was the year of historical fiction. Each of the four books gave me a window into another time and place—Texas in the 1800’s, Maine in the early 1900’s, Russia in the 20th century, and New York City in the 1930’s. Historical fiction has always been a favorite genre, and this year I read a lot of it.

 

Top Five Nonfiction:

Jenny Walton’s Packing for a Woman’s Journey by Nancy Lindemeyer – I was fortunate to discover the very first edition of Victoria Magazine in a grocery store in the 1980’s and read it for many years. My favorite columns were written by “Jenny Walton”, who was later revealed to be the editor, Nancy Lindemeyer. For years, I had wanted to read this book which is all of the columns from Victoria plus other essays and this year I finally found a copy of it. It was beautiful in every way, a book I will read again and again.

The Living Page: Keeping Notebooks with Charlotte Mason by Laurie Bestvater – The only thing I was sorry about while reading this book was that it hadn’t been written while my boys were still in my homeschool. However, it’s not too late for me to become more of a journaler or keeper as Mrs. Bestvater calls herself. This book not only inspires one to keep notebooks and journals but also goes into excellent detail on how to be successful at it.

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly – The amazing story of four women who contributed to the space race due to their brilliance in math and science. I had the privilege of hearing Ms. Shetterly speak after I read the book and look forward to reading future volumes of women who have done great things in history and are only waiting to be revealed.

Deep Work by Cal Newport – any of you who have read my blog know how much I liked this book: Deep Work – Final Thoughts

Reading People by Anne Bogel – I love personality tests and take them whenever possible. Anne Bogel took all the various ways of evaluating oneself and brought them together in this book along with explanations of each. It was a fun book to read and helped me to think through more about what makes me tick. If you are a personality test lover, you will adore this book.

Other than Hidden Figures, this was the year of reading books that aided me in thinking about my life and how I’d like it to be within my power to change it. Gretchen Rubin’s The Four Tendencies was yet another book in that self-improvement trend this past year. I suspect that with the transition from one type of lifestyle to another, I’m looking to see what will work best for me as I go forward.

 

Series of 2017 – Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James series by Deborah Crombie (First book is A Share in Death) – Set in modern England, especially London, but drawing from the history of the various places she uses in her books, Deborah Crombie has written a great series of mysteries. While each one has its own mystery, which is solved within that book, there are overarching mysteries and growth in the characters which deepens this series to something more than typical whodunits. They remind me of Louise Penny’s books.

Audiobooks – Audiobooks are a genre of their own, in my opinion. I think of them very differently from print books. I usually read better by sight so for an audiobook to hold my attention, it either needs to have a compelling story and/or a great narrator. These books had both:

Belgravia by Julian Fellowes – Juliet Stevenson narrates this story of two families and how they become intertwined due to an incident 25 years in the past. It’s basically an English Victoria soap opera but, oh so fun!

Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card – My son and I listened to this together in the car last spring. The events in the book occur 1000’s of years after Ender’s Game and Card incorporates many thought-provoking themes into this excellent story. We had some great discussions as a result of listening to this book.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman – As I wrote in my initial review of this: “I laughed, I cried, and I laughed again” at this story of an old curmudgeon and the family who moves in next story who just won’t leave him alone with his grumpiness.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson – A beautifully told story about a girl’s growing up, told in a series of poems. Sad at times, but still hope-filled.

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester – The true story of one of the contributors to the great Oxford English Dictionary and the man who pushed the project through towards completion. Truth is often stranger than fiction and this tale certainly proves that.

 

Favorite Devotional/Theology Book of 2017

Come Let Us Adore Him by Paul David Tripp – a lovely set of devotions about Christmas and its true meaning. Reading it really made the month of December much more meditative and meaningful than it would have been otherwise.

That is a snapshot of my reading year in 2017. I look forward to another great year in 2018. What was your favorite book last year?

Quote for the Day

Bookroom corner

 ” ‘I thank you, sir, I thank you,’ he murmured, and placed George Herbert between Spenser and Piers Plowman on the shelf. ‘You give me great wealth for the gift of a book is the gift of a human soul. Men put their souls in their books. When one man gives another a book then three souls are bound together in that most happy thing, a trinity. ”

From The White Witch by Elizabeth Goudge.

Deep Work – Using Free Time Wisely

I just finished reading about Rule #3 in Deep Work by Cal Newport. Rule #3 is Quit Social Media. I won’t go into all of the reasons he mentions or some of his suggestions as to how. You can get a good idea from his TED talk  (or read his explanation in the book).

Instead, I want to focus on the last section of the chapter because I found it very motivating. His subheading is Don’t Use the Internet to Entertain Yourself and in this section, he refers often to Arnold Bennett’s How to Live on 24 Hours a Day.

We tend to think that distracted free time and wasting time after work is a recent phenomenon. Apparently it was also a problem in the early 20th century when Bennett wrote his book. I read Bennett’s book about ten years ago and found it very helpful and practical. Newport refers to it often and, in particular, focuses on two main points that Bennett made.

The first is Put more thought into your leisure time. Newport says,

It’s crucial, therefore, that you figure out in advance what you’re going to do with your evenings and weekends before they begin. Structured hobbies provide good fodder for these hours, as they generate specific goals to fill your time. A set program of reading, a la Bennett, where you spend regular time each night making progress on a series of deliberately chosen books, is also a good option, as is, of course, exercise or the enjoyment of good (in-person) company. p. 213

He goes on to say that he spends his evenings reading, with his computer and phone tucked away.

The second point he pulls out from Bennett reminded me of Charlotte Mason, who suggested switching subjects often for children since changing to a fresh type of work helps our minds not become too fatigued. Bennett wrote,

One of the chief things which my typical man [or woman] has to learn is that the mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want to change—not rest, except in sleep.

Newport goes on to confirm this,

If you give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours, you’ll end the day more fulfilled, and begin the next one more relaxed, than if you instead allow your mind to bathe for hours in semiconscious and unstructured Web surfing. p. 214

This section resonated with me. There are so many times that I am annoyed with myself for wasting time over too much time surfing the Web, but I am rarely dissatisfied with time spent reading a good book or writing or knitting or walking around the block. I am finding that I must actually plan for those things or it’s all too easy to waste time doing nothing. If I write down the things I want to accomplish, work or recreation, on my daily “to do” list, I am much more likely to do them than if I just float through my day. That may not be true for you, but try planning your free time this week. Or pick up Arnold Bennett’s book and see if he inspires you to give some structure to your recreation. I’d love to hear how it goes for you.

Working toward focus and thought

As you know, I’ve been slowly reading through Deep Work by Cal Newport.  It’s funny how many things pop out at you when you are thinking about a particular subject or person or place.  Over the last few weeks, I’ve read or heard several things to help with learning to think and focus more deeply.

My friend, Kelly, wrote a great post on mindfulness and meditation while walking here.

This past week, a local author spoke to the writers groups, which I facilitate.  He mentioned how Henry David Thoreau walked in order to write.  Emerson wrote, “The length of [Thoreau’s] walk uniformly made the length of his writing. If shut up in the house, he did not write at all.”  In fact, walking was so important to Thoreau that he wrote an entire essay on it:  Walking

Another article I read talked about taking two hours a week to think without anything other than a pen and paper.   Now that would be helpful if I could be disciplined enough to get away from phones and tablets and computers long enough!

So, I’m spending a lot of time thinking about how to carve out deep thinking time, but I have yet to work it into a regular routine.  My goal is to create a schedule that allows for deeper thinking and writing over the next few months.  Now that the weather is cooler, walking is more likely to occur and slowly I am developing an early morning routine without distractions in order to think and write.  Progress is being made albeit at a snail’s pace.

Deep Work – Rule #2

When I was a child, I spent many hours up trees and gazing at the clouds.  On Sunday mornings, I would sit quietly listening to sermons I didn’t really understand.  Then there were the times when my parents would be visiting with other grown-ups, and my brother and I were expected to wait quietly until they were done.

All of those times tended to have moments, even hours,  of boredom.  There was no one and nothing to entertain me except my own thoughts.   I spent a lot of time, thinking up stories, making plans, solving problems, and dreaming of the future.

Cal Newport’s Rule #2 is Embrace Boredom.  These days, escape from boredom is only a click away.  We can check Facebook or read an article on the internet, binge watch a TV show or check out what our kids are doing on Snapchat.  We never allow ourselves to get bored, but instead distract ourselves constantly.  When was the last time you stood in a long line and just stared into space while you waited?  Yeah, it’s been a long time for me, too.

In Deep Work, Cal Newport makes the point that the ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained.  He suggests that you schedule breaks from focus rather than scheduling breaks from distraction.  In other words, make your internet breaks sparse enough that you practice resistance to the distraction those breaks bring.

The key here isn’t to avoid or even reduce the total amount of time you spend engaging in distracting behavior, but is instead to give yourself plenty of opportunities throughout your evening to resist switching to these distractions at the slightest hint of boredom.

A second point he makes is to practice productive meditation.  While engaging in something physical (such as a walk or run or bike ride), you focus on a single, well-defined professional problem.  Every time your attention wanders from the problem, refocus your mind on it.  If you do this  two or three times a week, after several weeks, you will find yourself able to focus on the problem much more effectively than in the past.

In my experience, productive meditation builds on both of the key ideas introduced at the beginning of this rule. By forcing you to resist distraction and return your attention repeatedly to a well-defined problem, it helps strengthen your distraction-resisting muscles, and by forcing you to push your focus deeper and deeper on a single problem, it sharpens your concentration. 

When walking outside, I tend to plug myself in to music or an audio book instead of seeing that time as an escape from distractions and an opportunity to think about things in a more focused way.  The next time I go for a walk, I think I will leave my phone behind and embrace boredom.  Do you want to give productive meditation a try, too?  If so, I’d love to hear how it goes.

 

Deep Work – Part II

In the first part of Deep Work, Cal Newport defines what deep work is and makes a case for why the world needs it. I read this part but since I already had a fairly good idea about the definition and didn’t need convincing, I didn’t linger over Part I.

The second part of the book was where the meat was and I have spent a lot more time there. He has four rules of deep work. Rule #1 is… wait for it… Work Deeply.

Newport says:

“The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.” P. 100

He then goes into some ideas on creating those types of routines and rituals. Some of his ideas were new to me and were helpful to think through. For instance, I get up early because I am a morning person and do my best work in the mornings. However, I have been squandering a lot of that good time in frivolous things. So I’m rethinking my morning routines, reading articles such as How to Set Yourself Up for a Productive Day, Bookend Your Days: The Power of Morning and Evening Routines (morning routines are for women, too!),  Establish a Consistent Morning Routine: Maximize Your Mornings, and 6 Elements of a Powerful Morning Routine

Another point Cal Newport makes in this section is that being “lazy” at times actually helps your deep work and creativity. By leaving work behind for a few hours a day, you give your brain a chance to work on things in the background and come up with new ideas for problems you are seeking to solve.

I think also that time spent reading and thinking about non-work things gives you a chance to refuel your mind so that you have a constant flow of new thoughts and ideas to chew on.

Do you have any morning routines that help you work more effectively and/or use your time more wisely? I’d love to hear about them.