Men Who Read

Surveys show that more women than men read books, but lately two men have inspired me, Geoffrey, 87 and Jimmy, who is 26.
     At lunch the other day, as Geoffrey and his wife and I sticked our way through the tasty and neatly arranged contents of our Bento boxes, he talked about his interest in the World Wars. He grew up in London and his father participated in both WWI and WWII.  But it isn't his devotion to the subject that inspires me. WWII is an apparently endless source of material for fiction and non-fiction writers, some brilliant, some ordinary. New books on some aspect of the war every season, and in my own reading, I'd like to turn the page. So no, it is not what he reads so much as his approach to reading that stimulates. Most recently he has been working his way through Harold MacMillan's memoirs, particularly Blast of War, and also just finished Martin Amis's latest, Zone of Interest. Now he is going back over the Amis novel and making a list of images he intends to compare with The Iliad. He does not just consume a book, but seems to plot it on his perceived course of human intellectual and social development.  Considering how writers as diverse as Homer and Martin Amis described it, how has our view of war changed, is the question I think he is asking.
     Jimmy, on the other hand, is just beginning his exploration of the intellectual/social graph of our times. A theatre school grad, it was only after university that his reading stepped up. He became hungry to learn, hungry for books of all kinds and when he visited he would prowl my shelves in search of a title he recognized, or that piqued his curiosity. What did you think of this, he might ask, usually holding up a volume I had not cracked for years. So he has roused me to do a lot of re- reading, and to read more poetry, some of which he writes.
     We often agree on what we think is good. Dostoyevsky, for example, which was his Christmas gift from me maybe five years ago. The Brother's Karamazov.  I wanted him to read The Grand Inquisitor speech, something that had so influenced me. A few months ago he referred to that while we were discussing Crime and Punishment. We both have copies of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, which we read around the time his mother died. We both devoured The Goldfinch, although I stopped at the last chapter, which felt too much like summing up to me. End a book when it is finished, is my thought on it. Jimmy has nudged me back to Roberto Boleano, whom neither of us counts as a favourite, and introduced me to Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station. I've enjoyed my younger friend's discovery of Henry Miller, and we have both lingered in admiration over scenes and lines in Tennessee Williams plays. We plan to read, even if not exactly simultaneously, A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, by Eimar McBride.
     As for Geoffrey, after the waitress cleared our boxes and poured more tea he mentioned Giorgio Agamben, an Italian philosopher whose book State of Exception my older friend referred to as a way of explaining how governments can get away with virtual murder in times of crisis. Within a "state of exception" the boundaries of power are precarious and threaten to destabilize not only the law, but one’s humanity, as well as their choice of life or death.  Certainly a timely allusion, and one that applies to government reactions to real and perceived terrorist threats, and to the internment camps, stories of which are the awful and inescapable parts of the WWII books that have Geoffrey so hooked.
     My brother reads and my nephew, mostly crime fiction, and as a person whose life has been concerned with reading and writing I know many other men who read too, despite what the statistics say, so Geoffrey and Jimmy are not really the exceptions. Yet in the power they have to make me think, it's fair to say that they are exceptional.

Back to the book

I am a lifelong writer who has entered the world of digital publishing. In some ways it feels like leaving home, saying goodbye to Mom and Dad, the publishers who managed the jobs I am doing now, and striking out on my own. As with any big move, there is much to think about.

My book Shinny's Girls, the Trilogy has been available on Amazon for almost a month. I was excited to let friends and associates know about it and pleased to receive many notes of congratulations. I liked hearing that some readers were getting caught up in the story. But I had signed onto the Kindle Select program, which means that until the end of September the book will be available only to Kindle users and users of Ipads and Iphones, and in the case of the latter two, the print is still appearing in bold italics, which one reader/friend says she does not mind; but it is not supposed to be that way. Ah, doubts. Maybe I should have stayed home, if they would have had me; Mom and Dad, that is.

There is also the lingering stigma attached to self-publishing, the echo of vanity presses and the fact that anyone can publish almost anything electronically now. We traditionalists wonder how quality can be maintained, yet non-traditionalists are less worried. No one has to read a bad book. The gatekeepers, publishers, what did they know anyway? And were they any better at finding readers that I can/will be? One positive is that, like a grown-up, I am not waiting for approval from the gate keepers but have enough confidence to present my work myself. Really, this route is not so new. Even Dostoyevsky self-published, through his press the Dostoyevsky Publishing Company.

More issues arise. My friend Julie wants chapter breaks. She is a serious, traditional reader who enjoys ereading, but prefers ebooks that are more like physical books, with page numbers to show her where she is in the book, and chapter headings to divide up a long read. To me, clear chapters are a stylistic choice; at present I have a running narrative with only lines and spaces dividing the voices of different characters, different scenes. I have four sections in Flashing Yellow, three sections in the lengthier You Again. In the next iteration, I will put these on the Contents page, with links, so that readers can encounter the novels that way. Maybe it is something that digital publishing demands.

And then of course there is promotion. How will browsers on Amazon ever find Shinny's Girls, the Trilogy among the hundreds of thousands of offerings? I can notify friends and ask that they notify their friends. I can especially target other writers and people in the book business, book club members. I should be practical about the necessity of promotion, but after a lifetime in which one of the worst things a person could be accused of was doing something just to get attention (the voices of brothers and sisters clamour in memory), I have to find the right way to balance my private self with the public self required to do these things. My godson Jimmy says it doesn't matter. People tweet their hearts out knowing that recipients will just forget what they read in the flood of other tweets, posts, emails, texts.