Walking and Reading, Walking and Writing

On a Wednesday roughly one year ago, I was up at the university rec center playing my regular game of lunchtime basketball. A shot went up, clanked high off the rim, and all the guys down in the paint jumped for the rebound. Being a guard, I was out on the perimeter, and crept down the lane in the hope of the ball being tipped free. It was, but not to me: the ball shot out toward the corner, and I turned to race it down. But one rebounder made one final jump for the ball. He couldn’t get there, but when he came down, he landed on the back of my leg. All his weight came down on the back of my ankle, anchoring me to the floor, and I went face first into the ground.

I had rolled a few ankles before, but nothing quite like this. I couldn’t get up. The pain was stabbing and constant, like my entire ankle was burning. My friend Marc came over and asked: how bad? When I didn’t answer right away, he asked if I heard a pop. I shook my head. Nope. I didn’t hear anything. Every athlete has heard these stories: there’s a sound that accompanies a torn ligament or a broken bone. I didn’t hear anything. So I was fine. Bad ankle sprain. No problem!

I got up and walked to the sideline. My right foot flopped, and I had to turn my toes at an outward angle to limp off the court. For a moment, I actually thought about going back to work before using a little bit of my brain and asking Marc to drive me home. I elevated my foot, iced my ankle, and took ibuprofen. My ankle swelled to double its size, purple bruises the size of quarters sprang up all around the bones, and I could barely walk on it. But I did. For five days.

The lesson, as always: I’m an idiot.

When I finally got smart and went to my doctor the next Monday, the prognosis was pretty easy: full rupture of the Achilles tendon. I spent the rest of the summer on crutches. In the fall, I had lifts in my shoes, slowly removing them quarter inch by quarter inch, until  my heels rested in the sole again. Twenty weeks of physical therapy. Lots of toe lifts, jumping rope, and then slowly beginning to jog again. I was playing ball again by January, but even know, my right calf muscle is a bit smaller than my left.

Because of this, I have a new appreciation for walking, an appreciation that even one year later, still hasn’t gone away. Kinda like the way you appreciate your health after you’ve been sick in bed for a week. But this stays with me: once a day, something happens when my ankle is just a little creaky. Not painful, just a bit tight, like a new rubber band, a reminder that something traumatic happened to the body. And because of that, walking, a relatively simple act that most of us don’t give a tremendous amount of thought to on a daily basis, really means a lot to me.

I bring this up because I was thinking about what a simple, easy pleasure it is to walk. Yesterday, our coffee machine went on the fritz (don’t ask) and I just grabbed my sunglasses, took the stairs, and headed out into downtown Columbia to get a cup of coffee. It was really easy. It was really nice.

Sometimes, I can forget that.

Simple can be good. Summer reading. Beach reads. Pen and paper rather than the laptop. The real basic stuff. Once we all get a little ways into thinking about our writing as a career—even as early as a college undergraduate who “wants to be a writer one day”—we can get pissy about who rejected our poems, what agent ignored our query letter, how the publisher didn’t do enough promotion for the book, how there is a deadline for turning in the second book, and all that other stuff. We can lose sight of what’s important.

We write because we like to write. We read because we like to read. Maybe now, mid-summer, when all writers, including me, worry about getting as much writing done in June and July and August, maybe this is the best time to remember that. We like to do this. And in the right frame of mind, it really can be as easy as that.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

What To Read, What Not To Read, and How To Choose

In Barnes & Noble bookstores all throughout the country, the Summer Reading tables are up and overflowing with mass market trade paperbacks. Or, if someone’s high school English teacher is evil, hardcovers. Every spring, local Barnes & Noble bookstores receive the summer reading list from local high schools, stock up accordingly, and stack these strategically placed tables with the classic literature we read as teenagers … or that we feel we probably should have read as teenagers.

Like most high school kids, I did all my summer reading the week before school started. This helps to explain my failing grade on A Passage To India (it was set in England, right?) and taught all high school kids (okay, me) that renting the movie is not the same as reading the book.

From teaching creative writing and composition at the university level for a few years now, I think it is safe to say that the only two books that students are guaranteed (or at least really close) to have read by the time they have graduated high school are The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird. Other than that? Who knows? In this BN that I’m writing a portion of this blog post from, the Summer Reading tables have titles such as The Bell Jar, The Sun Also Rises, Catcher in the Rye, and Night. All of which I’ve read.

They also  have The Killer AngelsGrendel, The Secret Life of Bees, The Fountainhead, and The Diary of Ana Frank. I’ve never read any of these books.

Recently, hoping to fill a gap in my contemporary literature, I decided to follow the lead of Rebecca Schinsky, who runs The Book Lady’s Blog, and re-read all of Toni Morrison’s books leading up to the release of Morrison’s new novel, Home, which came out last month. It was a good idea. It was motivation. It was interactive. And I managed to read several Morrison books—The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, and Beloved—before flaming out, meekly glancing at the stack of Morrison books I bought, sitting on top of my bookshelf, spines exposed, collecting dust.

How do I choose what to read? Lately, I’ve been reading one new book followed by one re-read, and then read another new book, then another re-read, and so on. Mostly, I’ve been lucky that the books I’ve read for the first time—The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris and Tinkers by Paul Harding—are excellent. There is also the delight in re-reading a classic and seeing it anew each time, the things that I didn’t notice or fully appreciate, perhaps because I couldn’t see them, perhaps I’m making them up, who knows, the pleasure is new even if the narrative is not. I love this. Some people have a reading plan. Most people I know have a TBR (to be read) stack, or several stacks, throughout their home.

So, let’s keep going backwards. Before Harding and Ferris, I re-read The Phantom Tollbooth, which was the first book I read that felt like was written just for me. Before that, I was visiting my mother in Cincinnati, and snagged a used copy of The Great Gatsby and blew through that in a day. I had just finished Mrs. Dalloway. Someone close to me urged me to re-read it, thunderstruck by the fact that I had never even finished it, let alone liked it. She was right: it’s a beautiful, lovely, perfect novel. Next: The Marriage Plot. It was one of the It Books of Literary Fiction in 2011, and one of my friends had talked to me about how the novel was more of an argument than a narrative, and I wanted to know what he was talking about. He was right: an interesting idea but not a particularly memorable novel. Next: several Toni Morrison novels for the reasons listed above. I skipped around simply because one day heading out the door I grabbed the wrong book, and started reading them out of chronological order. Whoops. Next: Portnoy’s Complaint. A writer-friend always talks up Roth, and I haven’t read much Roth, and I bought this in hardcover for twenty five cents last summer, so, yeah, why not? (verdict: yuck). Next: The Best American Essays 2011. I assigned this to my internship class, along with BASS, which I had already read.

And so on.

Do you see a plan there? Neither do I. I see a variety of interests that spring up for a variety of reasons and, despite any planning or best intentions, some that require immediate attention and others that do not.

Here’s the thing: even though I know I can’t and won’t read everything, I still feel anxious about the fact that I haven’t. How can I really know what I’m doing as a writer if I haven’t read everything? How can I really know what’s going in contemporary literature if I’m not up on every single new thing that is published? And, if I can’t get into both of these camps, how am I doing my job, how am I following my passion (writing), if it all often feels far too exhausting to keep up?

This feeling of anxiety never fully goes away. But here’s the weird thing: I don’t really want it to. I don’t want to be comfortable with my reading choices. A certain amount of discomfort keeps me sharp, keeps me open to reading a book I might have dismissed five years ago, or re-reading something that hadn’t impressed me, or dropping everything else I’m reading because of the enthusiasm someone has for a book she just finished and that I must read RIGHT NOW.

I may never get through all of Dickens, or Nadine Gordimer, or Thomas Pynchon, or any other writer that you could name. I also might never be comfortable with the fact that I won’t. But a little bit of discomfort and emotional browbeating are two different things. Read what you love. Don’t waste time on the books that don’t move you. With an open and curious mind, there will always be new books to read, old books to re-read. One particular book or author will never make us feel we “get” modernism or post-confessionalism or whatnot. A little bit of humble (“No, actually, I’ve never read that …”) and a little bit of curiosity go along way. There’s always something terrific to discover for the first time.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

On The End of Summer Reading

Last month, after four days in Boston and an unremarkable flight from Logan International down to North Carolina before hopping a flight to St. Louis, I ended up delayed at Raleigh-Durham International. First, the airplane was late arriving from Cincinnati. Then, one of the tires on the plane was damaged. I actually had the “Wait, changing a tire is really easy!” thought, as if 747s and my Civic require the same amount of time and effort. Next, the plane needed to be cleaned. Then, the airline was waiting on paperwork. Et cetera.

On most trips, I take at least two books: one to get me out there, and one to get me back. On the way to Boston, I read Inman Majors novel “Wonderdog.” The other book was “Candide.” Really. And after thirty pages of that, I decided I couldn’t read any more Voltaire, and headed off to the newsstand. I announced I was going to “buy trash.”

For me, trash translates into sports magazine or men’s magazine. Either one would be fine. Despite numerous pages of advertisements, GQ usually does have a couple of really good articles. Sports is sports, and I could read about the MLB trade deadline and a human interest story or three about an athlete from the 60’s who has fallen into obscurity, or drugs, or obscurity and drugs. No problem!

Instead, I bought Harper’s.

It was a long rectangular store, and the back wall was crowded from floor to ceiling with magazines. There were rows and rows of loud covers: half-dressed men and women, blurry photos of celebrities, ominous photographs of poverty or shadowy images of cities and highways, surrounded by bright packages of chocolate candy bars, bags of candy and pretzels and nuts and chips, coolers loaded with soda and fruit juice and water, a steady hum from the omnipresent televisions hovering in the corners.

My stomach growled and my back ached, and the thought of eating any of this food or reading any of these magazines frustrated me. Why did I have to consume – yup, consume, both my reading and my food – such garbage? There didn’t seem to be anyone else around me. And finally after ten minutes of dithering, I gave up trying to convince myself that there was nothing wrong with reading Sports Illustrated, shrugged and grabbed Harper’s, then reached the counter, and in the next second was back at my gate.

I’ll be the first to acknowledge I was tired and crabby: everyone is a little worn down by the end of a vacation, particularly a “vacation” that was a long weekend based on a wedding. Those aren’t relaxing. But I tend to have the same response when I hear the phrase “summer reading”: just sort of puts me on edge, for two reasons. One, it’s the idea of consumption (notice that the “summer reading” books all have basically the same three or four very similar cover images and layouts). Second, there is the feeling that the book industry believes that when it’s hot outside, no one can read anything other than The Help. Most summer reading isn’t as diverse and interesting and challenging as this guy’s vacation reads.

I’m in the middle of reading The Help right now (really) and I don’t think I have anything to say about that Roxane Gay hasn’t already said better. Maybe the film is okay. I wouldn’t know. In bookstores, there is often a section of “summer reading” that are the books assigned to local high schools. There are some duds in here too, of course (one year I saw “The Secret” was assigned), but on the whole, high school summer reading tends to be books that are sneakily better than you think. Or, maybe, more accurate, better than you remember. Last summer I re-read a pair of books that are often assigned to high school students, and found that they are much better than I realized, that there was in fact a pretty good reason why those books were read and taught and enjoyed every year.

We have to read what captivates us. Why wouldn’t we? Other than what might be assigned for classes – either classes we are teaching or classes we are taking – some writers will admit to feeling that they haven’t read enough. That they haven’t read enough “good” books or the classics or the canon and that, somehow, this makes their own writing ambitions premature, illegitimate. I understand that anxiety: I used to feel this way, too. But there is so much to read. So much great stuff to read. And once we let go of the worry about reading everything, we can take the summer to read one great big book, like Infinite Jest or Anna Karenina.

Summer has another month to go, but for those of us affiliated with a university, in many ways, summer ended this week with the beginning of the autumn semester. We all have enough worries: literary journals reopened for submissions, new students, new colleagues, why hasn’t my agent returned my phone call?, where’d the Borders go?, mailing costs, papers to grade, and so forth. Why worry about what you’re reading? Why follow a marketing trend?

Go ahead and grab that copy of Dostoevsky you haven’t read yet. Great books are worth reading regardless of the weather. And I’m sure Fyodor reads nicely with flip-flops and an umbrella drink.

Follow Michael Nye on Twitter: @mpnye

The Bears and the Bees

If you’re a skeptic in need of a reason to pick up our summer issue – and why not a subscription, while you’re at it? – trust me when I say just one word: “Bearskin.”

James A. McLaughlin’s novella is, simply put, a great story. A great, naturalistic, suspenseful story, complete with bees, a wizened mushroom hunter, vultures circling overhead, ATVs, guns held on hips, Forest Service employees running drugs and, of course, bears.

Not only is “Bearskin” a great story; it’s great in the most delightful way: it is less an intellectual exercise than a sensory experience. This is not to say it’s not a smart story, because it most definitely is. But here the intelligence does not flaunt itself metafictionally, instead manifesting in the traditional elements of plot, characterization and vivid description of setting.

The latter is my favorite aspect and is especially well-rendered, engaging all the senses, sometimes in a single sentence. I found myself completely immersed in the muggy Virginia heat in which the protagonist toils as a caretaker for a private nature preserve. What a great summer read! Near the air conditioner, I got all the feeling of the season without the pesky heat rash and bee stings.

Pick up a copy of TMR and let us know what you think about “Bearskin.” I’ll eat my Mac if you don’t like it. Seriously.