• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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I Don’t Want to Be Your Friend, I Just Want to Be Your Lover


it’s very hard for me to fall in love with books anymore. sadly, i just read them from a writer’s perspective–check for structure, tone, voice. i hate it but i do it. –rea

Thank you, Rea, for this topic. Reading for “pleasure” is almost impossible for most writers. You are either learning, studying, dissecting, or competing. You are either impressed, depressed, inspired or humbled. Who is the person staring out from the back flap, who did she fuck to get those quotes? What I want is a book that has its own language, that makes me sit up straight, that insists I pay attention. I want similes that are sublime. I want STRUCTURE, not and then and then and then. I want to be either hyper aware of the narrator or completely unaware. I honestly think that writers should only read classics. It’s like playing tennis with the pro.

How do you read?


17 Responses

  1. I somewhat agree with you. I have found my favourite spot in the library is the literature section x

  2. “How do you read?”

    As a writer, having fallen from grace through the tasting of the fruit of the Tree of Good or Bad Composition.

    With non-fiction, I’m looking for information, for mastery of the subject and clear communication. A certain gracefulness helps, as do wit, humanity, and humor, though not if inappropriate.

    In fiction, I tend to be very critical, due to fiction being the bulk of what I write. Round up the usual suspects, they’re the gang I’m looking for. I’m looking for words and tone. I’m looking for mastery of the instrument. So many fiction writers can’t play their instrument, can’t noodle their way through their tale without hitting a false note.

    Poetry I have more trouble with. Even though there have been times in my life when I’ve written and read tons of poetry, I have even less patience with poetry than I do with fiction.

    I find most contemporary fiction and poetry unreadable. That there is no shortage of contemporary fiction and poetry means that I can find more than enough to read even though I’m hypercritical. Most of what I read of it comes through my scoping out litmags and small presses for cold calls.

    The classics. I don’t think writers should read only the classics, but we sure as shootin’ should read them, early and often. There are good reasons why they are classics.

  3. Just like Rea said – and yes, we should thank her for the topic. It IS impossible because of all the aforementioned.

    Despite the fact I’m reading analytically, I can still enjoy a story – and the more I enjoy it, the more I study why, what’s working for me, etc.

  4. sometimes i stop reading for a while because i get depressed by my lack of enjoyment. when i miss it enough i return to my book pile. other times i just push through the mental block; it’s my job to read.

    audio recordings of a writer in interview can save me because i then hear their voice in their writing. that’s energizing. of course, it depends on the quality of the interview because, let’s face it, some writers are introverted and cannot answer fully.

    i find i don’t read a lot of just released literary fiction because i’m afraid/embarrassed/questioning of reading for trends. sometimes i make an exception. i just noodle around. my list is varied. i read a lot of short fiction off the internet. and lit mags.

    i force myself to read poetry on fridays. it really helps my writing but i’m no poet.

    apart from a 2 year stint reading for a lit mag, i don’t read submission-level writing. i don’t know how you do it, Betsy. i don’t. i was floored by the weirdness: cat/dog tortures, unnamed prius-driving urbanites “escaping” city stresses, elves drinking beer in taverns, etc.


  5. I love contemporary fiction. There, I said it.

  6. I read painfully slowly, openmindedly, and competitively. There’s always just that soupçon of (I admit) envy. I wonder, I question – “how did she do that?” That does not not exclude downright admiration, however. I love a beautifully crafted sentence. If I am reading a truly compelling book absorption overtakes judgement. I have finally grown up and stop reading a book that doesn’t resonate.

    • “…absorption overtakes judgement.” Absolutely true to my experience as well. If the book’s got me, I’m lost to it. And if it doesn’t, then it just reminds me of the unfairness of the literary lottery. “How is it possible that ______ (insert your own bete noire author here) is in this bookstore, taking up space that I deserve?”

  7. I live in a small town, and have a couple of restaurants I go back to over and over, partly because the food’s good but mostly because I enjoy the relationships my wife and I have developed with the bartenders and waiters over the past six years.

    I read similarly. If there’s a new Sarah Waters, I know that she and I will be both challenged and satisfied. Ditto Sherman Alexie, Joan Didion until her health began to fail. I can go back to the well of Rex Stout over and over again.

    I tend to avoid contemporary literary fiction until people I trust have trusted it. So much of it falls prey to “Garp-ism,” the clockworks of dysfunction wound up tight until that one perfect moment in which the device detonates and everyone is wounded. I sometimes think that the difference between commercial fiction and literary fiction is that one is about trying to emerge from pain, and the other is about inflicting as much misery as possible onto every character in the book. My characters come to me in good will, wanting to have their stories told; why would I want to hurt them needlessly? They’re already hurting, which is why they come talk to me in the first place.

    And I grew up as a latchkey kid, learned to tell stories from television, learned to listen to conversations around me for signs of danger. Dialogue is king of the realm for me, and bad dialogue has led me to lay down more books than almost any other flaw.

    Is there really good writing? Or is there just writing that happens to speak the dialect we individually understand? (There’s bad writing, sure, but the inverse of bad writing won’t be good writing for every one of us.)

  8. The voice I hear in my head when I read; how the narrator sounds to me.

  9. There aren’t different kinds of reading. Or there are but I go back and forth among them. I guess I don’t really love something unless I also admire it a lot (which is the opposite of what Rea was saying), but there’s all sorts of stuff I like, for one or two or many reasons.

  10. I don’t get it: is reading for pleasure a thing? Was it ever? Even non-writers must read critically, that is, get annoyed with a book for some flaw in tone, structure, voice (and plot?) that they might not be able to name but experience none the less.

    Last week’s New York Times magazine, in a story called Neanderthals Were People Too by Jon Mooallum, in a bit about how artists chose to create a statue that depicts a member of this extinct species, contained this sentence:

    “As it happens, the artists had an intense personal interest in where human beings leave their hands when they don’t have pockets.”

    This is one of the best sentences ever written. Not only for the timing of the syllables (I’m in professional awe) but for the expert packaging of fascinating information with just the right amount of cute words.

    Pure pleasure.

  11. I read close. I read several things concurrently. I read according to a long, complex list of books, interchanging them as needed to maintain my sanity and slim hope. I dip into familiar authors to keep sharp, and remember.
    I read Spinoza, and the Landmark translations of the Greeks, and the sublime Loeb translations (Athenaeus!) with slow, deliberate attention—and feel zizzy shivers with every Strassler footnote, every time I beat the Attic translator to the punch, every time poor Baruch’s heroic failure emerges from his labyrinthine pseudo-math. (At least it wasn’t Liebniz and monads; at least it is god-saturated Spinoza.)
    I re-read Elmore Leonard to remind myself that one can write that well in so few pages, say such simple things and still be a vivid movie on the page, and to marvel at his colloquial, peekaboo brilliance.
    I re-read Patricia Highsmith’s short stories to capture her yardarm fire again, the evanescent smoke of truer-than-true humanity, when her serial killer wanders in the damp woods, trying to be good, or her girl in Hell’s Kitchen dies slow of scarlet fever, as an aging career girl upstairs basilisks the struggle.
    I re-read James Ellroy’s White Jazz!—everyone must read that putz James Ellroy, his White Jazz—to know how much is unnecessary, and how to run bare, high-voltage wires between the lines.
    I just finished Snyder’s Black Earth because my 94-year-old Holocaust survivor father-in-law lives with us and goddamn, just goddamn, that book nails it, and scares the shit out of me, and we are in need of well-informed fear this year.
    I re-re-read The Tall Book of Make Believe to remember: we all made mud-pies once, shared carrots, bumped knees, and expected to be elves in mullein leaves, before oops! all of this grew up around us, and we committed our crimes. Zoon, Zoon, cuddle and Croon.
    I read first-person accounts from WWII because I failed to ask my adopted father, a medic under Patton from hedgerow to Berlin, about it, not really, not truly, and he drank himself to death before I got wise.
    Practically no one fools me anymore. Some come close—recently, Frank Conroy’s near-perfect Stop-Time—but I can figure out almost everyone and how they did that to me, just now, in those pages. One of the few exceptions is The Dead. Joyce there is no upper limit, no final plateau, to writing. Painting can only say so much, with color and form and texture—the illusion of space is the evocation of the familiar, ultimately, and abstraction is the familiar spill all around us. Music is limited by the range we can hear; the artful sequences and pauses that can be melody or sustained feeling have a mathematical limit, the finitude of permutations and combinations—and besides, it disappears as you listen. When you replay it the shock of new is gone; all that remains is the puzzling out of note and transition, or perhaps nostalgia, and visceral adolescent memory.
    But writing—there is no limit to what we can say and evoke, to the endless art of narrative and arc of character—and language! the interplay and sustain, the reach after decades into new places, the meaning that was right there and invisible, but now seizes and lifts the heart that elegant, essential quarter-inch, owns our breath—in-spire, ex-pire—and how can so few squiggles on a page, when recombined, do that? explain every wrong done, every love and false moment, every shrug of every trudging striver who plods 14th street—and their eye suddenly on ours and then not, wet in that shard of last light that pierces the toothpaste clock across the river—how can ink give us everything, that whole other life and ours, when it is but hoots, transliterated to the page?
    I read close, is how I read. And I read everything, because writing can tell us everything, when we read close.

  12. Just a note: It was Bradley’s First Army that cleared the hedgerows in Normandy. Patton got the Third Army when it was already well into Brittany.

    • thanks, Vivian. He was repple-depple two weeks after D-Day, so he was in Normandy during the mixed companies confusion, then settled into a tank unit under George when he made his first pincer sweep through the peninsula, was part of the big relief drive north, later. Then it gets a little confusing, but we have pictures of him in Belgium, across the Rhine, and in Berlin, so we assume he saw continuous action. As a medic he would have, though not always at the front lines.

  13. Hi Betsy,Thank you for this.  I’m sure you get this all of the time, but … I’d like to send you a copy of my book.  I will not check in to see if you liked it, didn’t like it, none of that.  I’d like to mail you a copy.Melissa~

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