Making Poetry While the Sun Shines

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My poem, “Making Hay,” received 3rd place at the Oklahoma Writer’s Federation conference this past weekend. Inspired by my husband’s stories of cutting hay, I tried to write something that connected the field with the country supper table.

Here’s the poem:

MAKING HAY

The heat is a curtain of rippling tension

at the end of the field.

Yellow the sun,

the hay,

the gloves you peel

from hands still cracked by baling wire and dry heat.

Walk through the steaming kitchen,

let the shower wash the day from you.

Come to “can” again.

Then sit at the table

where the fried chicken and cornbread

are as golden as the hay in the field.

Off My Shelf: Falling Angel by William Hjortsbertg

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Aside from two fully employed adults, our home houses several thousand books, and since we don’t follow the “one in, one out,” philosophy, the books overfill the shelves and are stacked on flat surfaces around our home. The books with the best address, upright on shelves handmade by my father or my uncle, have been with me the longest. Some of the oldest have been through eight moves or more, from my adolescent home to the house where I live with my husband today.

This is why I have to answer “none of the above” when asked how I store my books: by author, title, genre, color, or some other system. Our books aren’t stored.

They arrive.

They exist.

Sometimes I get rid of them.

I don’t have any hard and fast rules about which ones go and which ones stay, or I suspect more of them would be gone. But gone is relative, as “gone” means trading off for MORE books and we have an obscene amount of trade credit at the largest used book store in Tulsa, so the problem perpetuates itself. Usually when I do an edition of “Off My Shelf,” I consider a book I haven’t read, but today I look at ragged paperback copy of Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg.

The book was the source material for Alan Parker’s 1987 movie, Angel Heart. The film stars a pre-plastic surgery Mickey Rourke and Lisa Bonet, whose turn as the seductive Voodoo priestess Epiphany Proudfoot shattered her relatively innocent, if somewhat funky, image as one of the Huxtable daughters on The Cosby Show. Using a weird combination of noir and Southern Gothic, the film chronicles a private eye whose pursuit of a missing person leads him into a spiral of bloody murders. The director tangled with the ratings board over whether it deserved an “X” or an “R” because of the violence, but he eventually cut the offending scenes for theatrical release, although they were restored in some versions of the VHS edition.

I saw the movie at a friend’s house soon after the video release and soon forgot it, and the fact it was based on a novel, for almost 30 years. I was reminded of it when Nancy Pearl mentioned it in Book Lust. Hjortsberg’s novel merits its own paragraph, whereas other classics of the horror genre, including The Turn of the Screw, Interview with a Vampire, and two Stephen King novels, are all lumped together. Pearl admits she “couldn’t sleep for days” after reading the book.

Reason enough to read it, so I found a cheap paperback copy in a bookstore and did so.

And now a decade and a half later it’s still on my shelf.

Is it a beautiful edition? No, it’s a simple mass market paperback, the pages yellowed from age, the spine creased and faded. The cover art is interesting, featuring an array of Art Deco skyscrapers on which a gun-toting angel with a shiny foil disc of a halo kneels. Both the figure and the skyscrapers lay diagonally on the front of the book, creating an energy to match the red of the background. The cover itself is chipped, the bottom corner marred where the colored layer has been peeled off, demolishing some of the skyscrapers.

Inside the book is an odd combination of hard-boiled detective story and horror. The voice of the author is Chandler-esque, and even as Harry’s search for the missing crooner Johnny Favorite mount becomes more and more terrifying, the clinical, clipped cadence of the prose is consistent. The pace of the story quickens from the lazy, dreamy slack time of a detective waiting for a job to a gumshoe running from one clue to another to his own bad end.

The characters are “types”, and some of Hjortsberg’s choices are too obvious. It’s not too hard to figure out who Louis Cyphre really is, for example, even before Harry Angel does. I didn’t feel much empathy for the characters, but the events of the novel were compelling enough to keep me reading. The world of the novel is one completely unlike mine, and this is always a reason I might like a book.

“Why,” I sometimes ask myself, “did this author choose to write this book?” Occasionally, I think the writer had a message to communicate or a motive in sharing a tale. But in some cases, the answer is, “There was a story to tell.”

I think Falling Angel was a story to be told and Hjortsberg took the chance to tell it.

Should it stay or should it go? If I were in mood for a quick, heart-quickening read, I might pull this off the shelf again, so this volume gets to go back to its place on the living room shelf.

What's Wrong With My Book Club

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So many things are right about my book club that I hate to bring up the one thing that’s wrong.

It’s our name.  “LILACS” is an acronym for “Like-minded Intelligent Literary Agents of the Credible Sisterhood”.  It’s that first word that gets me. We are not like-minded. In fact, I think the key to the club’s longevity (15 years this month) is our differences, not our similarities.

We take turns choosing our books, and it’s there our differences tend to show up. While one member prefers classics, another tends to pick books with counterculture themes. I often choose non-fiction. Someone else prefers literary fiction.

Aside from genre, we each have our reasons for choosing the books we do, and each reason has led to some memorable reads.

Reason #1: The book is a classic I’ve never read.

Terri picked Ethan Frome, a short, classic novel about love thwarted. We all loved this book and had plenty to discuss, from our impatience with Ethan and his hangdog pursuit of an illicit affair to how our ability to care for others is a source of strength for some people.

Reason #2: The book tells a story I’ve always wanted to know.

Emma Cline’s novel, The Girls, is a fictionalized examination of how Charles Manson’s ‘family’ became enthralled by the tiny criminal. When Pam picked it, the novel rang true for our entire group, reminding us how our adolescence is a time when we balance between the need to be accepted and the need to be free. At the same time, like a lot of good fiction, it offered us insight into how people can be captivated by seemingly charmless leaders.

Reason #3: I’m curious about that incident.

While I had already read Fire in Beulah by Rilla Askew when Denette chose it for our club, we all were enthusiastic about reading a novel set in the middle of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Long ignored and pushed back into shadows, the terrible events of 1921 were mostly unfamiliar to all of us although we had all spent decades in Oklahoma. The book was not just a history lesson. The main characters are two very complex women, and the author’s stylistic choices are good fodder for conversation.

Of course, novels are not textbooks, and non-fiction has also given us a view of history we might not otherwise have had. Columbine by Dave Cullen is a book that had deep resonance for many of us in the group, since we are all connected to education or educators. The 2009 book recounts both the impetus behind the terrible school shooting and the aftermath for its victims.

Reason #4: I want to know more about people.

Literature in general allows us to develop empathy by examining the motivations and results of people’s actions. While some books were uniquely suited to help us understand a particular culture, like The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, a non-fiction book about Hmong culture I chose for us because my school has a large Hmong population, others gave us characters that we admired for their gumption or derided for their character faults.  Teenage Mattie Ross from True Grit won us over with her determination to avenge her father’s death in turn-of-the-century Indian Territory.  We detested Philip Carey, the main character in Of Human Bondage, for his inability to do something, anything, to improve his life. We also shared a dislike for Sal Paradise, the ‘hero’ of On the Road, whom we saw as an emblem for the Beat generation, always in search of experience and never changing or growing because of it.

Reason #5: I want you to love this author, or genre, or book the way I do.

When I chose Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, I knew that not everyone in our group read horror, but Jackson’s story is a compelling puzzle even if a person doesn’t like scary stories. Is Elinor crazy or is the house haunted? Or is it both?

Of course, not every choice has been a success. It’s one thing to dislike a character. It’s another when someone picks a book that no one likes. It’s just this past month, after all this time, with my choice of  Educated by Tara Westover that I’ve been forgiven for choosing the novel Hard Laughter by Anne Lamott the first time I selected a book.

Intelligent, Literary, Credible? Yes. Sisters? Yes again, especially because our diverse choices have brought us together.

Lost Books, Lost Doors

MessyBooks.jpg

The first book I remember was a small, square collection of children’s poems with a blue cover. Each poem was illustrated with happy, shiny people, mostly blonde. The particular rhyme I remember is the monologue of a little girl pictured handing from a blue wingback chair, her eyes squeezed shut with laughter. “I’m hiding, I’m hiding,” she squeals, “and no one knows where.” The adults in the picture look perplexed at the disappearance of their daughter. 

That book was lost somewhere along the way. And I mourn it. 

Our house is filled with hundreds of books, too many for our collection of bookshelves to hold them all. We are victims of “Tsundoku,” the habit of buying books and not reading them. My husband can read a book and then let it go. Read and release. I cannot do the same. Among the books stuffed into the living room bookshelf, piled on the floor in front of it, and lined up on the shelves in the dining room are a few I’ve owned for over 40 years. The books themselves aren’t valuable. Some of them are crumbling paperbacks sitting next to much newer acquisitions.  

The books are like little time machines. I hold onto them like an ardent traveler holds onto a plane ticket or a theater buff hoards tickets. Opening one book pushes me into an operating room in a Boston hospital. Another is a door into a party in Prohibition-era New York City. A third is set in a Southern military college. One paperback has a cryptic note from a high school classmate inside the back cover, so on the way to Washington, D.C. there’s a layover at a high school in Grove, Oklahoma. 

I resist getting rid of them. What if I want to revisit one of those places and my time machine isn’t there? Books can be lost. If it’s not in my house, who knows if I can find it somewhere else? 

When I was in fourth grade my English teacher, Mrs. Clough, recommended a book called Hold Fast to Your Dreams. The story of a young African-American girl with a passion for dance enthralled me because I loved ballet. I was a chunky, graceless kid who hated PE, but the gracefulness of the ballet and the book spoke to me.  

I owned that book.  

And then I lent it to someone and I’ve never seen it again. Not only did the girl never return the book, I have never seen it in a bookstore, thrift shop, flea market, or garage sale since then. 

I remember another book about an aspiring designer I read about the same time. The plot is fuzzy, but I remember the description of her entry into a design contest, an evening dress of turquoise satin with a chocolate brown organza overlay. Another book that disappeared. 

And how I miss those orange-backed biographies of great Americans! Betsy Ross, Jane Addams, Amelia Earhart. I remember pulling them from the short shelves of a tiny small-town library and returning them only to choose another.  

Yes, of course books can be found. I have been reunited with books I thought were lost for good. 

One summer in Kentucky, when I was 9 or 10, I read a collection of strange stories modeled on Robert Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” column. Each page long entry was dedicated to what its title called Amazing But True stories about history, geography, and the natural world. The astonishing platypus! The old man who foiled a bank robbery because he liked to add up numbers on license plates! The funeral for a man’s amputated leg! 

I can’t explain my fascination for that book or remember where it was lost, but when I found it in a thrift store a couple of years ago I bought it and was once again captivated by the weirdness. 

Another book I lost and then found again was the novel, One Summer in Between by Melissa Mather. The heroine of the novel is a Southern college student who spends a summer as a mother’s helper in Vermont. Her experience as a black woman in the Jim Crow South made her interactions with the rambunctious family she moved in with difficult. It’s an epistolary novel, her letters reporting back to the college professor she is obviously falling in love with chronicling how the distance between her and the family she stays with closes over the summer. 

Again, I lost it somewhere along the way and reclaimed it at a garage sale. 

Of course, returning to books we once loved is not always easy. What was magical when I was young is sometimes simplistic. The people I loved then are sometimes flawed in ways I couldn’t recognize as a child or young adult. Mathis’ novel is dated; the white author writing about a black woman’s awakening is awkward to read now, even if the protagonist, Harriet Brown, is spirited and engaging. But as we age so do our tastes, and the dissonance of returning to the things we loved when we were young is there whether we revisit a book, a movie, or even a beloved place. 

Once you’ve read a book, you own it forever. The bone and meat of them sticks with us, like the words from Dorothy Aldis’s poem about the little girl playing hide-and-seek, which I can recite still. What a luxury, though, to be able to pick up the book itself, inhale the scent of the pages, and open that door again. 

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TRAIN Yourself for Difficult Conversations

Photo by  Tim Foster  on  Unsplash

Photo by Tim Foster on Unsplash

 

Driving the short route to school, bored with the radio and out of podcasts on my iPod, I imagine the questions. Softballs at first, gradually increasing in intensity until she asks the one that pierces my steely composure, the infamous question no one thought she’d ever ask again: “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?”

I’ve been practicing for my Barbara Walters interview since I was about 12, but I think it’s time I start preparing for my turn to sit down with Oprah since Barbara’s “10 Most Fascinating People” isn’t an annual event anymore. 

Practicing for a fantasy interview may seem odd, but my (no longer) secret pastime is actually useful since I don’t just practice volleying words back and forth with the rich and famous. I also rehearse for conversations I dread. 

One-on-one conversations sometimes make me nervous. Thinking about having to ask a favor, discuss a problem, let a student know they’ve messed up…all of these can make me tremble.  Most of us are familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s theorem that it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to master a skill. The idea has been widely discussed since his book Outliers appeared. That kind of practice would be overkill for a conversation in our daily lives, but rehearsing for an interpersonal encounter we may help us calm down and approach difficult conversations with aplomb.

Think about what makes you nervous. Is it because you’re asking for a favor? Trying to convince someone to do what you want them to do? Letting someone know they’ve messed up? All of these are conversations I might have at work, whether it’s asking a teacher to judge a round of debate at our tournament, looking for funding for new headsets for the auditorium, or telling a student I’ve discovered their plagiarism. All of these conversations make me nervous, either for myself (am I too demanding?) or for the other person (how will they react?). Thinking about what makes you leery of the upcoming interaction allows you to move to the next step.

Rehearse what you’re going to say. Don’t just think about it. Say it out loud. What tone of voice will you use? Word choices matter whenever we communicate. In fact, Mark Twain once said “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Choose wisely. It’s only practice, so if it doesn’t sound right the first time, try again.

Next, anticipate what the other person might say. Imagine the worst case scenario. Then imagine the best case scenarios.  For each of these exercises, the next step is the same.

Inventory your responses. If the person says no, how do you react? The teacher says they can’t judge because of a prior commitment. I thank them and exit the conversation gracefully. I’ve got other judges to recruit! If they seem interested but hesitate, I might reassure them they’re exactly the kind of person we need in the room.  When we have a plan, we take away part of the uncertainty of a stressful interaction and thus, make ourselves less anxious.

Finally, nail down a time and place to have the conversation and follow through. Putting it off often makes the anxiety grow. Sure, there are other ways you could use your time, but as my high school English teacher advised us when she compared completing a job we dreaded to enjoying dessert, “Eat the crust first.” How can you enjoy the rest of your day if a difficult task is hanging over your head?  

As a career theater educator, I know that practice is, as Malcolm Gladwell said, “the thing that makes us good.”  Rehearsal isn’t just for actors; TRAINing ourselves for conversations we dread will help us face them more positively and make the interaction itself easier.

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How to Woo Your Audience

Your audience wants to love you.

Yes, the people awaiting your speech, your toast, your lecture, your update…they want to love you and what you have to say. Despite your nervousness, the trembling hands only you know about, the sweat trickling down your palms, safely out of reach of any handshakes once you are on the podium, the butterflies performing a badly choreographed aerial ballet in your gullet, despite all that, your audience wishes you the best and wants to be engaged by you.

Forget about the old advice to imagine your audience in their underwear. Imagine your audience as a group of 5-year-olds in pajamas, eyes wide open in anticipation of the story you plan to tell them.

Interest them, and they will listen breathlessly. Bore them, and they will run amok. Furtively fingering phones and leaning in to whisper to a neighbor is the adult equivalent of a 5-year-old’s rampage.

To capture your audience’s attention early and make them your allies for the rest of your time, you have to convince them you’re worth listening to. Asking a rhetorical question, presenting a shocking fact, telling a joke, alluding to literature or history, or invoking pop culture in some way are all dependable gambits.

The best way to engage your audience is to tell them a story.

We are all five-year-olds in our jammies at heart, and a compelling story will reassure an audience that you are not going to waste their time. By the time you establish your credibility as a storyteller, you have made a connection with the people listening that will survive most of the nerve-induced mistakes or influencies you may experience.

You want to know more, though, don’t you? You want to know what story and how to tell it.

Choose a story that is relevant to the topic you are about to present. No matter how funny a joke is, unless it relates to your topic in some way, it’s a bait and switch tactic and will undermine your audience’s trust in you. Tell the one about the frog who walked into the bank and asked for a loan if you are going to talk about fiduciary matters, but not if your speech is about the future of bass fishing.

Choose a personal story. You don’t have to share a deeply personal tale, but at least share a story in which you have a stake. If it’s not your story, tell how you came to know it and why you chose to share it.

Choose a story you can tell fluently and clearly. Of course you will practice before you stand up in front of your audience. Try telling the story in different ways until you know just the right words to use for maximum impact.

Choose a story that builds up people, inspires people, touches people, makes people laugh, or all of the above. Telling a story that tears people down will make your audience embarrassed for you and they not only won’t listen to anything else you have to say, they will not look you in the eye while you say it.

A well-told story is a gift, and like the best gifts, it will make your audience appreciate you and want to thank you.

They will thank you by listening to you.

5 Books to Read in the New Year

Images Credits: Debby Hudson, Mike Kenneally, Aditya Chinchure, Ryan Johns, Jonny Caspari on Unsplash

Images Credits: Debby Hudson, Mike Kenneally, Aditya Chinchure, Ryan Johns, Jonny Caspari on Unsplash

A year full of good books is a good year, and mine has been crowded with them.

When people ask me what my favorite book is, I often want to say “Today, my favorite book is the book in my hand.” Here, on the very last day of the year, I am trying to step back and select a few books that stood out. I offer them not only to praise them, but in hopes that you will add them to your list of books you enjoy in the coming year.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.

My book club has been meeting for 15 years. We take turns choosing books, and so we read a variety of genres. I usually pick non-fiction, partly because the first novel I chose was universally hated, Pam makes awesome choices that veer toward counterculture, and Terri picks classics most of the time. I think it may have been Terri who chose this one. I just remember that whoever was responsible said she went down the Great American Read list and picked the first one she hadn’t read.

Great choice, if random!

Toole’s novel defines the term ‘picaresque,’ with a main character you may well dislike interacting with and a cast of filled with individuals who might not be people you’d want to know, but are definitely the sort you’d want to know of. Ignatius O’Reilly is completely real and completely irritating. I thought his refusal — or inability — to look beyond his own desires and comforts was the most obnoxious part of his emotional makeup.

The reason to read such a book, a book featuring a character you wouldn’t want to fraternize with in real life but are committing to spend several hundred pages with over the course of the story, is that the cast of characters is full of people you recognize and can laugh at heartily from a safe, literary distance because laughing in people’s faces in reality is NOT DONE.

Educated by Tara Westover.

This memoir was a top pick for many people this year, and yet I was late to the party in reading it. When I asked a friend whose taste as a reader I respect for a recommendation, she mentioned this first.

I wish I’d read it sooner.

Tara Westover led a life that only she can explain. Isolated from mainstream America, physically and emotionally abused, her native intelligence uncultivated until she entered Brigham Young University without any formal education, Westover eventually earned a Doctorate from Cambridge University. Her story is a testament to where grit can get a person.

As someone who was a first generation college student, I know what it’s like to try to learn the code of academia, but my unremarkable childhood prepared me in a way that Westover’s isolated upbringing could never equal. I can’t wait to discuss this with my book club. I know that all of us will come at the story from different angles, and one I have thought about most is how keeping people ignorant is one way those in power STAY in power. Leaders can claim ignorance to maintain their position (”I never knew!” “Where’s your evidence?”) and cultivate ignorance in their followers to ensure the same.

Dry by Neal Shusterman.

Shusterman consistently writes the kind of novels that are arguments in themselves as to why adults should be reading Young Adult fiction. It’s not just that often he writes about issues mainstream novels don’t address or handle badly, in this case it’s that he is writing a scenario that is so close to real world issues it’s scary.

When conflicts over water lead to the only source of water for the state of California being cut off, people are caught in the resulting civil unrest. Even those who thought they were prepared couldn’t have imagined what would happen when humanity’s most basic need is gone.

Water may not be a daily issue for you, but the conflict over who owns the lakes and rivers from which your water comes is an issue that of which we all should probably be more aware. Shusterman’s novel takes a ‘what if’ strategy and runs with it.

Vox by Christina Dalcher.

Dalcher’s book was literally the stuff of nightmares for me. The night I started reading it, the premise followed me into my dreams. In a world where men have deprived women of their voice, limiting them to 100 spoken words a day and depriving them of the written word, neurolinguist Jean McClellan is called upon to find a cure for a type of aphasia — -and in return can have her words back. Is the opportunity a chance for a better world? Or a trap?

Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost art of Diagramming Sentences by Kitty Burns Florey.

Before I learned how to diagram sentences myself, I was enchanted by it when Laura Ingalls Wilder had to verbally deconstruct a sentence in preparation for her teaching certificate in one of the Little House books. The thrill of learning to do it myself, to set words on the skeletal frame, lines angled just so, was immensely satisfying.

Florey’s book is satisfying as well, documenting not only the origins and practice of diagramming sentences, but confirming as well the joy that many people other than myself have found in mastering the practice.

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How to Make a SMART Reading Resolution

Image Credit: Nicole Honeywill on Unsplash

Image Credit: Nicole Honeywill on Unsplash

The last few days of the year are at time to recover from the holiday festivities while looking forward to the new year. I am familiar with the SMART formula for setting goals thanks to the ample professional development I’ve participated in over the years as well as the many WW meetings I’ve attended, but I usually don’t get past “specific” to the “measurable, achievable,realistic, and time-bound”.

Except for reading resolutions.

I enjoy making an intention to bring more, and more variety of books into my life. Setting a reading resolution for the new year is fun and easy and it’s low-stakes as well. If you don’t succeed at reading Moby Dick this year, you can’t really beat yourself up for it. I mean, I have a Master’s degree in English and I’ve never read it, and my self-esteem is intact. The Internet is full of reading challenges, of course. Here you’ll find a list of possible goals to set for yourself as a reader.

Choosing one of those challenges makes your goal specific.

Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge is one I always look forward to taking part in every year. I have yet to finish it, but I have read books I otherwise would not have because of the challenge. In 2017, I read Rilla Askew’s Fire in Beulah, which remains one of the best books I’ve EVER read, because of this challenge. The task was to read a book set within 50 miles of where you live, and since I’d already read The Outsiders, I picked up Askew’s novel from my bookshelf. Read Harder challenges include 24 prompts, and the list is notable for asking readers to stretch themselves. In fact, in the introduction to this year’s challenge, which you’ll find HERE, Rachel Manwill reiterates that Book Riot encourages readers “…to push yourself, to take advantage of this challenge as a way to explore topics or formats or genres that you wouldn’t try.”

The Pop Sugar challenge, found HERE, may be a little lighter, but I guess that depends on the books you choose. Pop Sugar offers 50 ideas, ranging from “a book with a two word title” to “a book you see someone reading in a movie or on TV”. I’ve pursued this challenge as well, and found it fun and a little cheekier than the Book Riot roster.

Make your challenge measurable by setting a goal for the number of books you want to read this year and declare it on Goodreads. I overestimated my goal this year since I’d read a lot the year before. I didn’t read the 120 books I thought I would. I did publish a book, though, so I’m going to cut myself some slack. Still, my goal was achievable, given my normal reading habits and in a normal year, I might well have reached it. There’s something to be said for making a goal that is a stretch. Rudyard Kipling said, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” When you set your goal, think about what’s achievable given your circumstances.

A reading goal should be realistic, but let yourself dream a little, too. One way to challenge yourself is to invest time reading a specific author or genre. For several years I’ve decided “this is the year” to read all of Shakespeare’s plays, and I still haven’t, but I still decide it’s something I want to accomplish. While I believe that the best way to experience Shakespeare is to see a live production, I was inspired by movie critic Roger Ebert’s account of reading through the Bard’s canon while on a fellowship in South Africa. A Sunday afternoon is enough time to read one of the plays. Granted, that may not be enough time to really digest it but it’s a lovely idea, to pile up on the couch on a Sunday afternoon and wander into another place. Shakespeare’s descriptions are so vivid I know I’ll be easily lost in Ilyria or Verona or wherever else he sets his scene and the language is always fascinatingly lush or coarse, depending on who’s speaking. Again this year I will resolve to continue reading Shakespeare.

A good goal is time-bound, and a year is a good chunk of time. I have ignored the question of why one should make a reading resolution, I suspect because the idea that reading just for the sake of reading is a good thing. Setting a goal, “SMART” or not, is just another way to make room for books in our lives.

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