I am pleased to announce that “Seasonturn,” a short story of mine, will be published in the next issue of Stone Crowns Magazine, due out in May. If you’ve never heard of Stone Crowns Magazine, you should check it out immediately by clicking right here. The magazine’s mission and philosophy are inspiring, refreshing, and desperately needed in today’s literary world. Read past issues and follow them on Facebook and/or Twitter in order to keep in the loop about all the future ones.
Over the course of the past few months, I’ve had the pleasure of babysitting for my niece a handful of times. Harper is going on a year and a half, and while at first I thought that her age would limit the amount of stuff she and I could do together, I quickly found out that there are, in fact, tons of different activities to fill our time with.
We draw. We build things out of big, pink and purple Legos (and then, occasionally, one of us tries to chew on the corners of the things we’ve built). We look at pictures (Harper loves to identify herself and anyone or anything else she knows). We aggravate the dog. We watch for birds. We play with our food and, sometimes, also eat it. We sing. We dance. We listen to the same CD of Elmo singing nursery rhymes and pop songs over and over again so many times that, days later, apropos of nothing, while you’re jotting down a grocery list or walking to work, you catch yourself humming the furry, big-mouthed puppet’s rendition of the Beatles’ “Drive My Car” or banging out the beat of “Elmo’s Rap Alphabet.”
Also, we read. Every hour or so, it seems – usually about half a second after the Elmo CD ends – Harper says, “Book!” This, I’ve learned, means that she wants to sit down in your lap and have you read to her. Of all the activities Harper and I manage to cram into a single day, this one might be my favorite (sorry, Elmo).
The last time I babysat for Harper, she wanted to read Bill Martin, Jr. and Eric Carle’s classic, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? You probably know how it goes: the brown bear sees a redbird, who sees a yellow duck, who sees a blue horse, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, until a black sheep sees a goldfish, who sees a teacher, who sees a group of children. End of story.
I already knew how it went, of course. I’d been through the book dozens of times during my life. But what really amazed me? Harper already knew how it went, too. Before I turned the page on the grinning green frog, Harper made a meowing sound. And sure enough, waiting for us there on the next page was a purple cat. Before we got to the white dog she said, “Baxter” (which is the name of her dog). She sucked in her cheeks and pursed her lips as I flipped from the black sheep to the goldfish. She said, “Teacher,” before we got to her and, before we reached the array of children’s faces spread across the book’s final pages, she said, “Babies.”
Now, I could spend the rest of this post reflecting on how brilliant and advanced my niece is – a fact, by the way, that’s been backed up by a pair of prominent child psychologists (who, full disclosure, also happen to be Harper’s grandparents).
But I won’t.
Instead I’ll focus on how incredible it is that a one-year-old mind is capable of setting an entire story to memory (something any parent and most uncles, aunts, and veteran babysitters are no doubt familiar with). Sure, it helps that Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? is basic, repetitive, and written in rhyme (the big, bright illustrations probably don’t hurt, either). It helps, in other words, that the book contains a strong, straightforward, coherent narrative.
But rather than detract from an infant’s accomplishment, I think this fact – that it’s a story they can so easily remember – makes it all the more miraculous.
Reading with Harper has made me see just how fundamental stories and storytelling truly are to us as human beings. Because they’re more than merely ways to pass the time. Stories help us understand ourselves and the world around us, then help us make a place for ourselves in that world. We read and write (on paper or computers, orally or in our heads) and share stories in order to learn, remember, change, stay the same, explain, discover, connect – they’re a global currency, an interface that helps us better be in the world, and also sort of like the stepping stones we stand on in order to avoid getting swept away by the immense, raging, chaotic river of everyday life.
I’d take these ideas even further and say that we – you and me, our families and our countries – are stories. Literally. Because aren’t our ideas of who we are both based on and made up of stories? Take a second to consider how important certain stories are to your sense of self.
For example, the members of my family constantly tell a story of which I have no real memory (though after all these years, I do have a vague, imagined one). I was very young, and evidently very annoyed that my dad and sister were spending the evening together at a Daddy/Daughter Dance. I wanted to go, too. But I was told I wasn’t allowed. I was a son, not a daughter. So I stomped upstairs, threw on one of my sister’s dresses and a wig from an old Halloween costume, stomped back downstairs and announced, “Okay. I’m a daughter now. Let’s go.”
More than two decades later, I’m not sure exactly what, if anything, this story says about me. But I do know that the story has become a part of me – an entry in my own personal mythology. I know that it has affected the way I conceive of myself. And it has certainly affected the way my parents and siblings – and the legions of people they’re so quick to share this story with – conceive of me. (Which, of course, influences and reinforces the way the story further affects me.)
You can think of your identity as a sprawling collection of vignettes, anecdotes, and short stories – which, stitched together, unified by the fact that the main character is always you, form a larger, grander narrative that is the story of your life, the one you’re living/writing every second of every day.
Okay. I’ll settle down.
And I’ll leave you with this thought, which is the one I kept coming back around to that day on the couch with my niece and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? in my lap. If Harper is so drawn to and taken by stories now, at the age of one, then imagine how momentous it’ll be when she first encounters Charlotte’s Web, The Phantom Tollbooth, Matilda, Great Expectations, Slaughterhouse-Five, Romeo and Juliet, 1984 – and, what’s more, when she begins to tell the world her own story, the one that is herself.
I’ve been on Goodreads for a little over a year now, and I’ve officially decided: I’m a fan. The site does a number of great things. It provides you with a tidy list of your reading past and offers you a space in which to plan for your reading future. It sparks global conversations about books, gives you the chance to meet other readers and writers (as well as keep in touch with the ones you already know), and makes all kinds of valuable (and often spot-on) recommendations.
Then there are the ratings. They’re optional, of course, but from the beginning I opted to use them. Goodreads employs a five-star scale. The ratings are supposed to correspond to the following responses:
1 star: “did not like it”
2 stars: “it was ok”
3 stars: “liked it”
4 stars: “really liked it”
5 stars: “it was amazing”
The emotion-based, conversational tone of these ratings helps keep things on the site casual. They prevent you from taking yourself too seriously (something that many book critics tend to do, and that I myself will begin doing in about two paragraphs).
At first, I didn’t think much about the ratings. I used Goodreads more as a virtual catalog of what I’d read, when I’d read it, and what I happened to feel and think about it at the time. But gradually, as my catalog grew, I began to think a lot more about how many stars I was giving this or that book. I might sign on to the site thinking that I’d give the book I’d just finished three stars, but then see that I’d given some other book three stars last month. Suddenly, I’d be torn – because this month’s book’s characters were so much more finely drawn than last month’s. But then again, the plot sagged a little toward the middle of this month’s book, and last month’s was taut, propulsive all the way through.
These are problems inherent in any simplified rating system. How do you distill 100,000 words and hours and hours of active reading into “liked it” or “really liked it”? The five-star scale is a blunt instrument. That’s one of the reasons Goodreads used the language they used and didn’t, say, assign 5 stars “flawless classic” and 1 star “hopeless piece of inarticulate crap.” They’re trying to keep the atmosphere loose and laidback.
But, perhaps inevitably, I stopped being loose and laidback about my ratings. I started to worry about them, to go back and tweak them according to new analyses (if you’ve read previous posts about my perfectionist tendencies, this should come as no surprise: here and here), and even stop in the middle of reading a book to ask myself, What would I give this thing on Goodreads?
If anyone who works for Goodreads happens to be reading this right now, they’re probably jumping up and down with glee, seeing as this is exactly the sort of reflexive response they want to cultivate in readers. It’s good for business.
But one great thing that the business that is Goodreads has done: it’s leveled the playing field. By encouraging people to publicly post their opinions about the books they read, the site is quietly according some legitimacy to those opinions, ones that had heretofore been unavailable and/or ignored. It’s letting the common, average readers of the world know that their thoughts and feelings about books matter, and that they can take their reading lives seriously (the rating system then reminds them not to get too serious, that reading can and often should be fun, that the majority of people on the site are book-lovers just like them).
Of course, there are plenty of people who use this public space crudely and cruelly. People who will post (and then, often, post and post and post some more) with malicious, ignorant, or plain bad-sportsmanlike intent. But if you’re a good reader – and, if you’re active on Goodreads, I think it’s safe to assume that you’re at least a somewhat discerning, open-minded reader – you can typically tell what sorts of reviews you should take into consideration and which you should probably ignore.
Here’s another criticism I’ve heard about Goodreads (and that has no doubt been voiced about any site that allows people to post personal opinions): that opening up the gates and giving any amount of legitimacy to unvetted opinions will lower the level of our national discourse, like each publically posted, unprofessional opinion will act as a sandbag tied to the ankles of American Culture. And yes, it’s possible – and even, based on numbers alone, likely – that the typical Goodreads reviewer doesn’t have the same sort of reading and/or educational background as the typical “book critic” (by which I mean someone who publishes their opinions about books professionally, for money, as a career or part of their career).
But to me, that’s a good thing. I read The New York Times Sunday Book Review, pay attention to who’s receiving awards and accolades, and have a handful of trusted book critics whose recommendations and writings I closely follow. But I don’t want to, and don’t feel comfortable, making decisions about what to read and what to think about what I’ve read based solely on these “sanctioned” opinions. I might also want to know what a schoolteacher in South Africa thinks about a book, how it made a high school kid feel, and why some guy in England is telling me to drop everything I’m doing and read the thing now. And the fact that I can find all that out – well, that’s pretty freaking cool.
So long as you recognize how blunt of an instrument the five-star scale is, so long as you read posted reviews with a grain or two of salt (which goes for those professionally published, “sanctified” reviews, too) – and so long as you don’t let either get in the way of your enjoyment of and empathetic involvement in reading – thinking about how you’d rate and write about a book while you’re in the middle of it is an excellent way to keep yourself critically engaged. If you feel like you’re reading a four-star novel, and then suddenly read a chapter that has you thinking three stars, it will (hopefully) get you thinking about why these pages aren’t as gripping or effective as the previous ones. And as a reader, these are extraordinarily productive questions to ask.