Friday, September 24, 2010

Bedtime Reading

At different times in my life I have been an avid reader before going to sleep. As a child I was read to and as a parent I continued the practice of reading to my children before going to bed. I now rarely engage in that practice. I read before going up to bed but hardly ever read while in bed anymore. I do have a number of my favorite books stacked on the shelf just to the right on my headboard. And I will sometimes crack one of the books to read a few familiar lines prior to turning out the lights. I think I do so to just settle myself down and to relish those familiar few lines or paragraphs. I also think that when I do this I’m looking for some new insight into what the writer has provided me. Some new way to view both the written word and my own perception of how I see those words in relation to whatever is going on in my life.

As the reader I’m hoping to find one more nuance in the text. With some books there may really be nothing more to find. When the text reads, “Terrible pain. There was something snapping at my feet, something with fierce sharp claws.” You get the point. There doesn’t seem to be much more to get out of it. I’m also not looking to discover how those particular lines would relate to my life. But with lots of other writings that‘s not the case. I’m looking for something new.

A few years ago I came across the online collect of manuscripts of a writer / poet. What struck me the most was that for one published piece of work she had over twenty-five hand-written, legal-sized paper drafts. That is a serious commitment to getting it right. And when you realize that she was probably thinking about the text prior to putting in down on paper the number of rewrites climbs. Now when an author commits to the final product she / he is telling us that “This is all you get. This is my best effort in telling you what it is I mean to say.”

As the reader I get to choose how often I’m going to read a work. And each time I do I get to bring something new to the experience. I’m not quite the same person I was the last time I read the book. That is one of the reasons why I reread some books. Now, the book has to be something I’ve enjoyed in the past otherwise I won’t pick it up a second time. Now, if I can a book it usually stays canned. But as a younger reader I did reread works that I didn’t enjoy the first time. Or I’d give a book a second shot. Actually it might be more accurate to say I gave myself a second shot at the book.

So why reread something you know before going to bed? Or even read something you’re not familiar with before going to sleep? For ardent library users and most avid readers are library users the act of reading is at the same time both a stimulating and relaxing activity. As a rule you remain motionless while your mind is allowed to venture far beyond what would be your normal, everyday neighborhood. And you’re trying to get what the writer has delivered. The writer thinks they have provided it. So does the editor and the publisher. So it is finally up to us the readers. And I think, that is why I reread familiar lines before closing my eyes. I want to give myself one more shot at getting what a favorite writer has delivered in the past. One more shot at seeing those familiar lines in a new way given what has occurred in my life since I last read those words. Sometimes I remember where I was the last time I read the work. Sometimes it is just the familiar cadence of the text that I enjoyed the first time and still enjoy now. But I also think that if the work really resonates with me then that book will transcend the different times of my life. And just as in the past, I’ll not only get to enjoy those lines again right now but also for years to come. That is why those particular books are stacked right there. And opening one of them again, one more time may just be the very best way for any of us to close out a day.

See you at the Library,

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


I recently came across a poet who is new to me. Mary Oliver has written and published poems and prose for decades. I had run across one of her works, liked what I read and then went searching into the SLFL catalog. No dice. So I expanded my search to include the entire CEF system and hit pay-dirt. I made my requests online and then went back to browsing. If you want to see the collection of American poets in the SLFL wander over to the 811s in the non-fiction section of the library.

I received the first book last Friday and have been enjoying it since then. Included in the book are a number of short items that are termed prose poems. Now, I’ve used the term prose before but I realized today that I may have misspoken in the past. When I started to think about the term I realized I was unhappy with any definition I might use for the word. So I did what any librarian worth her / his salt would do: I did a search.

I checked a number of different sources including the OED, American Webster Dictionary, Encyclopedia Britannia and Wikipedia to educate myself. This is what I came up with: all writing structure can be summed up into just two categories. They consist of prose and verse (poetry). So if it is not verse (poetry) then it is prose. This definition can get rather sticky. Another way to think about it is that prose is the use of the English language in the written form when not meant to be perceived as poetry. These are both pretty broad definitions. So I continued my search and I also came across a quote that I liked and explains the issue nicely. The quote is attributed to Samuel Taylor Coleridge and I've paraphrased it here: “prose is made up of words in their best order; poetry is the best words in their best order." Nice, huh? And of course none of that helps if the poet her/himself has put the two terms together as Ms. Oliver has done. In addition, after rereading Mr. Coleridge words and giving them some more thought it seemed to me that any writer who wanted to produce poems would have to build upon their own prose first. In other words you need to master prose prior to working on poetry. If you don’t know what the best order is then I think it would be hard to put the best words in the best order. But maybe not.

Hmmm, it has also occurred to me that what the best words might be is also a variable. I’m not sure that Emily Dickinson and Mary Oliver would always agree as to what the best words or the best order for those words might be in any given situation. But both of these poets have a tremendous use of the English language. Both often wrote about nature and the interaction of themselves and others with the landscape. Both also delved into how that relationship is perceived by both the writer and then the reader. I’m also pretty sure that both would feel that they had more often then not hit the mark on what it was that they were tyring to achieve. Which is all very nice for us as readers.

And isn’t that is part of the enjoyment of coming across a new writer? Especially when finding a new, to you, poet. I think that in poetry, or even prose, the initial point of contact and following relationship of discovery between the reader and the writer can be extraordinary. All of a sudden you find someone who has taken your thoughts and put them to paper in a unique and artist way. And perhaps in a way that you yourself didn’t even realize was actually what you were thinking about before you read the work. Almost as if they had already read your mind and then run ahead, just a bit, putting the thought to paper and then just waiting for you to catch up.

See you at the Library,

Friday, September 17, 2010

Pete's Picks

I recently added a new side panel to the blog. Over there on your right you’ll see a section entitled “Pete’s Picks”. What I wanted to do was to let readers know about different books that I’ve read over the years that have had a major impact on what I read, how I read and how I think about books and other written works that have stayed with me long after I closed the cover.

As the title states these are “Pete’s Picks” and some or all of them may not be your cup of tea. Why this happens to some folks with a specific book and not to others I have no idea. I was once talking to a musician about a particular artist, long dead, who is now seen as the epitome of a specific genre. I said that I had purchased copies of his music and listened diligently to it but and before I could finish the sentence he added “To you it sounded like a dog with it’s hind leg caught in a barbed wire fence, right?” I said “Yeah”. He just smiled, shrugged his shoulders and said, “Yeah, sometimes it does.” So, these titles might not do it for you. All I can say is that at one time or another they did for me. I’m also pretty sure that my age when I came across the book and whatever else was going on in my life probably had an impact on my ability to get something out of whatever I was reading at the time too.

In order to put together this list I decided that I needed a criterion to sift through all that I’ve read. So, I decided to think about all of the books that, for one reason or another, just knocked my socks off. I also decided that I was going to restrict myself to those works that I’ve read at least twice. Now, for many of the books listed I’ve actually read the book way more then twice. There was a run of about ten years when I read Call of the Wild every autumn. Like many other people I’ve read other works by Jack London. And I enjoyed some of them. But none of the others did for me what Call of the Wild did. Some of these works also lead me to other books by the same author. The Son Avenger by Sigrid Undset is the final book in a four part series. I didn’t know it at the time but I read the last book first. The series actually starts with The Axe, flowed by The Snake Pit and In the Wilderness and finishes with The Son Avenger. For me the order that I originally read them in didn’t and doesn’t matter. I can still to this day feel myself getting excited about both The Axe and The Son Avenger.

Now, my criteria also stated that the book had to change the way I thought. What I mean by that is that the work had to change the way I viewed books, reading and writing. The work had to bring something new to the way I viewed the experience of reading. I had to readjust the reading experience to make room for the work I had just finished. For whatever reason the new work had succeeded in making me see the written word in a new way, the work didn’t fit neatly into any of my old parameters. The book had to challenge what I thought I knew about reading and writing. The book had to make me go beyond what I already knew. Two books that did these things for me are One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Beloved by Toni Morrison. I also had to enjoy the experience. I wasn’t about to inflict something that I had to grind through onto someone else.

Do I still read what I consider “fluff”? Of course I do. And I still enjoy it. Who wouldn’t? But every now and then as a reader you come across something that causes you to think, and to think long and hard. And you don’t begrudge the effort to make sense of what you are reading one little bit. The work, the characters or the setting just stays with you. It all works for you. These books have all stayed with me. I’m pretty sure that I’ll be expanding the list. Yesterday, a book came across the circ desk and I immediately remembered the work and I also remember the experience of reading it long, long ago. I then realized that this particular book had stayed with me even though I hadn’t stayed with it. I checked it out on my card. Know what? It’s still pretty good.

See you at the Library,

Monday, September 13, 2010

Off You Go

So I spent this last weekend as a volunteer helping out at the 90 miler. And that got me to thinking about some of the books I’ve read over the years that deal with canoeing. I have guidebooks of course, and I’ve also read different repair manuals for watercraft that have been involved in some unfortunate events. But what I was thinking about was some of the books I’ve read that got me into the canoe and onto the water in the first place. Books that made me want to pick up a paddle and head off into the unknown. And even if I had a map it was still unknown to me.

The first book I’m going to tell you about I read in, I think, fourth or fifth grade. It’s now titled Two Against the North; the original title is Lost in the Barrens and was written by Farley Mowat. This book didn’t just capture my imagination. It grabbed me by the scruff of my neck, spun me around the neighborhood twelve or thirteen times and then sent me streaming through time and space at a blinding speed. I really liked it. It was a use the flashlight under the covers after you’ve been told to go to bed read for me. I also think that this particular book set the stage for all of the wilderness, trekking, canoeing, climbing, travel through the woods and general love of the North Woods and Far Northern Places type of reading that I still continue with to this day.

The other two books are related to each other. The first is called The Lure of the Labrador Wild by Dillon Wallace (which by the way is available for free when downloaded to a Kindle) and the second is Great Heart: The History of a Labrador Adventure by James West Davidson and John Rugge. Now, an interesting aspect to both books is that the first book is the tale of an adventure written by a survivor. The second book is the story of the widow of the dead adventurer as she takes up the task of completing the trek that her husband perished on. Did I forget to mention that these events occurred at the turn of the last century? That’s correct, these adventurers set out to travel through and write about the then uncharted areas of the Ungava-Labrador Peninsula in Canada in 1903!

Now all three of these books have at different times in my life captured and fired my imagination. The stories are all very compelling. They all deal with struggles against nature and the bonds formed through hardship. But more importantly the books also deal with the inner struggles of the individuals and the attempt of the writers to make clear for themselves exactly why they have taken up their treks in the first place. Just as the different northern lakes and rivers flow through landscapes and time so do the authors. They are on a journey both physically and metaphorically and in each case you get to go on that journey with them. Now, these three books are not the only stories I’ve ever read on this subject. But I do consider these three to be among the very best books I’ve ever read on this subject.

I’ve spent thousands of hours in boats. I never get tired of it and I expect I’ll continue to float around for decades to come. And I do believe that it was reading about traveling by paddle over northern waters that lead me to my lifelong enjoyment and to my standing around on a bobbing boat offering water and candy to competitors as they paddled by. And it made me think. When the paddlers said “thanks” they were talking to me, but I was only partially there. I was thinking about the books I had read; and how those books had set me on the journey of being out on this particular boat, in raingear with a hat and gloves, on an early fall day in the Adirondacks.

See you at the Library,

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


2630.2 is the number of miles I traveled by car last week. As many of you know I was out of town last week driving from Fairbanks, AK to Moscow, ID with my daughter. Our route took us across central Alaska, into the Yukon Territory and then down the spine of the northern Canadian Rockies through British Columbia and finally into Idaho.

It had been my hope to post from the road. In that regard I completely underestimated my ability to write while shoehorned into a passenger seat and also my ability to find access to the internet. Evidently the Yukon and northern BC are still two places in the world where it is difficult to be wired in or to have cell service. It is also a place where lots (being a relative term) of people live strictly on generator power.

Here is the number of books I read on the trip: only 1. But I read that book front to back and also from right to left, really. This is what happened.

The Milepost is written specifically for those individuals driving to Alaska through Northwestern Canada. A new edition is published each year. Originally the book just dealt with travel conditions along the Alaskan Highway. Now the book includes different routes that work their way through parts of British Columbia, Alberta, the Yukon and Alaska. The book has also been expanded to include various ferry routes. You get mileage points that breakdown the trip to minute detail. We knew where every gravel pull-off was along the way. We also knew where to find gas, a place to camp, food, hot springs and when to be aware of large, wild animals traveling along the same road as you. The amount of information available to the reader was / is mind boggling. It also provided us with options to consider when travel plans had to be rearranged due to the lateness of the day or unforeseen events such as wild fires. But here is the catch: all of the sections we needed where written for those traveling south to north. And as you all know we where traveling in the opposite directions; which meant that the reader had to find the appropriate section, he / she would then read from left to right working down the page looking for the appropriate information while turning the pages in, what we would normally consider, the wrong direction, transposing the information along the way. Yes, it was tricky and yes, it took practice. It took both of us a little bit of time to figure out what to do and to then be able to actually do it. So, we read everything multiple times doing mental gymnastics with the information along the way. But it was worth it.

Here are a couple of more numbers that came out of the trip.

Number of miles after leaving Fairbanks, AK until we reached our first stop light: 855, it was red, there was construction on a bridge in the Yukon Territory. Number of additional miles until we reached our second stop light: 170, it too was red and was signaling travel across another bridge undergoing construction.

Number of new species of animals I saw in the wild for the first time: 5, swan, wolf, caribou, stone sheep & wood bison.

Number of rainbows we saw traveling through the Yukon: 7, number of double rainbows: 2; yep, it rained a bit, but never when we were putting up or taking down the tent.

Number of 13 - 14,000 foot peaks seen: too numerous to count; number of 6000 foot passes traveled over: 2; number of nights camped out: 5, we stayed in both private and provincial campgrounds and a few National Parks in Canada. All nice, all interesting in there own way and some with absolutely, spectacular scenery.

Number of different times we experienced a different time change /zone: 4 maybe 5 times I’m still not sure. It got very confusing going along the BC, Alberta, and National Parks of Canada borders.

Number of times we saw active or smoldering wild fires: 3.

Number of times we drove over the Continental Divide: 4.

Number of spare inches left after squeezing in all of the stuff plus 2 adults and 1 dog into a 1993 Honda Civic with a bike and kayak on the roof: not 1.

Oh, and just two more points. Did we run into any difficulties along the way that stalled progress or forced us to make changes to prearranged plans on our trek? Yes, we did. But I’m also happy to say that we didn’t run into a single thing that a biologist from Alaska and a librarian from Saranac Lake couldn’t find a solution to. And would I do the trip again? In a heartbeat.

See you at the Library,