The Comfort of Public Readings

Last Friday, my friend Karen invited me to an open mic night for anyone who wanted to share their writing—poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, or even songs. Karen’s the editor-in-chief of Xylem, an independent, student-run literary magazine on campus, so some of the staff shared their work, but most of the readers were just people in the audience who decided to share.

Almost every reading I’ve been invited to I’ve gone to, but it’s a weird thing, because I don’t really love them. Okay, to be specific, I don’t love listening to people read. I’m not always the best auditory learner—my mind drifts, and I end up thinking about whatever’s going on in my life, in the same way your mind wanders during a particularly boring lecture. It makes it harder that I’m not super good at understanding poetry; sometimes I can work out the meaning (either the dramatic narrative or the emotional symbolism) if I sit down and concentrate hard and reread the poem a few times, but it’s almost impossible for me to figure it out when it’s being read aloud.

Even if I could carefully pay attention to every single person reading, I’m very bad at telling when poetry is actually good. Every student reading I go to, I hear poems that I sense are pretty good, since there are some decent images and cool words being used, but I have no idea what they actually mean. I know the point of poetry isn’t to figure out what it all ‘means,’ per se, but it still can be frustrating when you feel like you’re not getting much out of a poem aside from the sense that it sounds kind of interesting.

There were some stories and poems I really liked on Friday, when I was able to fully engage. One girl shared a ‘letter to all the guys she kissed,’ which involved a lot of wordplay with numbers. It was pretty hilarious, and well-read, and everyone was laughing with every line she read. One guy sheepishly read a short piece about the couch he owns, with all its mysterious and questionable stains—also very funny.

I thought a lot that night about why I continue to go to events like these when I’m only fitfully entertained and engaged in the reading itself. Well, for one, I go for my friends, like Karen. I want to support them, to hear them read their writing or see what they’ve dedicated their time to outside of class.

But I go mostly for the community. When I sat there in that room—the cozy back room on the second floor of Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tearoom—I felt, momentarily, at peace. It came at the end of a long week dealing with the results of Tuesday’s presidential election, and for a moment I wanted to just stop talking and thinking about it all and just sit and be with people who I felt understood me—even if I didn’t actually know most of them. One essay mentioned the election, but most of the pieces were about other things. When you’re dealing with what we all dealt with this week, poems about regular old teenage heartbreak are downright comfort food.

Even when an open mic night doesn’t come in the middle of a politically cataclysmic week, though, it provides comfort. There’s something about looking around and seeing English majors you vaguely know—that girl who talked a little too much in my Shakespeare class, that girl whose writing I was always jealous of in my creative writing class, those five people I recognize from The Michigan Daily. Even the people you don’t recognize can make you feel at home; some of the students sharing their work were STEM majors, and there was something endearing about seeing them timidly prefacing their reading: “I’ve never done this before,” or “I haven’t really looked this over yet,” or “Sorry, I’m kind of nervous.”

I looked out the window while one guy read, noticing the lights of the Ann Arbor News building across the street, the cars flitting by on the street below. I wondered if I’d have a similar, but larger-scale view a year from now, maybe living in New York and going to a reading like this one, with more people I didn’t know but who felt like my people. I wondered if I’d go to any Trump-related protests in Manhattan, if I’d have a group of liberal, revolutionary-type friends like me who wrote poetry and drank tea in cable knit sweaters and clapped and cheered for one another, even when the poems weren’t that good.

Maybe it was too romantic of an idea. Maybe we could all use a little romance right now.


Check out Xylem Literary Magazine here. The above photo was taken from Xylem’s Facebook page.

The Myth of Being Well-Read

Okay, hold up. If you haven’t heard the big news, I want to be the one to tell you.

Wait for it…


Harper Lee is releasing her second novel ever.

*cue excited screams*

I know.

Frankly, when I first read the news somewhere on Facebook, I didn’t actually freak out on the spot. I mean, I was happy, but it took like a solid hour or two (or maybe three more posts on Facebook) to get me really, really pumped for this. Honestly, the weight of the news really didn’t hit me until then. This is huge.

And actually, it’s funny that this news has been released, because it coincides perfectly with a topic I’ve been meaning to write about lately.

Now, okay, maybe you’re reading this (or you read one of the various other news sources), and you’re thinking “Okay, so what?” To this, I would come up with two possible conclusions about you:

  1. You aren’t a reader and thus don’t understand the gravity that is when your favorite author announces that they’re publishing another book (think Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows or The Winds of Winter, the forthcoming 6th book in the Game of Thrones series), or

  2. You’ve never read To Kill a Mockingbird

These are both completely valid conclusions to come to if someone says “So what?” to this kind of news. The part that gets tricky is what comes after.

Maybe you are a reader, and that first conclusion isn’t true about you. You really really like sci-fi novels, and can’t wait for the next book in your series to come out, so you understand how it feels when this kind of announcement is made. But you still say “So what?” Maybe you don’t really like other types of fiction. Maybe you got into sci-fi because your mom really liked it growing up, and she got you reading, but because she doesn’t read much else neither do you. Maybe you tried to branch into mystery and got bored. For whatever reason, maybe you haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird and the second conclusion does apply to you.

Like I said, the conclusion is valid, but the judgement that comes right after is not.

After being officially declared an English major for a year now (though in my heart I’ve been an English major since I got accepted to UM), I’ve noticed a trend within the English department, that I have to say also applies to me. And it’s not the English majors’ fault, because it’s not just English majors, but also any intellectual who studies/studied the humanities.

What I’m talking about people is the concept of being “well read.” If you go up to an English major and say “I haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird” many will gasp loudly, protest vehemently, and automatically insist you pick it up right this minute, you know what, I’ll go buy it for you right now at The Dawn Treader. But what makes a book considered worth reading in the first place? It obviously isn’t popular opinion, because then Twilight and The Hunger Games would be included in the lexicon.

But more than that is the whole concept of it all, and the judgement that comes immediately after. Although comments such as these have never been directed at me, I’ve often felt uncomfortable in my classes when the topics of books comes up. This comes up most often at the beginning at the semester, when the favorite ice breaker seems to be “the last thing you read” or “the last thing you enjoyed reading.” For someone like me, who is seriously considering either going into creative nonfiction journalism (such as this blog) or into YA Lit, this question is always, without fail, a way to embarrass me, and I always have to have an acceptable back-up answer ready at hand. Last semester my back-up answer was the piece written by the Washington Post journalist that went to and was arrested in Ferguson. I don’t remember my back-up answer this semester, but I sure as heck wasn’t going to say that I finished The Moon and More by YA romance author Sarah Dessen. But that was my honest answer, it was in fact the last book that I finished. And the last piece I read was probably any sort of online article about music, movies, TV, you name it. In the stage of life I’m in right now, it’s honestly what I like to read. Sure, I have Water for Elephants and Life of Pi on my Kindle right now ready for me to read at a moments notice. But I’m also in the middle of reading Paper Towns by John Green, and I plan on finishing it sometime soon.

So why is it that when people talk about Dante’s Inferno or name drop Nietzsche (who I really didn’t know until last semester), I get really anxious and uncomfortable? I know enough about Inferno to get by when it’s mentioned, but I’ve never read it and I’m not planning on it any time soon. Why would I when there’s so many other books I’d enjoy much more?

And yes, okay, I am planning on reading “adult” books eventually. I finally read Frankenstein this past semester for class, and I do actually want to read Life of Pi, which is why it is actually on my Kindle right now. But if I don’t read them right now, does that make me less of a reader?

I’d like to argue that it doesn’t, and I’m sure this argument has been made many times, but I thought it was worth considering in the terms of a highly intellectual University. I’m not saying that every time a professor makes a connection between a novel and Paradise Lost they’re wrong and shouldn’t do it, because intertextuality is important when understanding the novel and its merits, but the judgement that comes when individuals have conversations about books and I just haven’t read one yet should not be happening.

But yeah. Harper Lee. Get excited. Or not. Whatever floats your boat.

5 Novels to Kick Off 2015

This is my first post of the new year/school year, and I am excited to kick it off with something that not only is my current obsession, but something that I feel would help all of you fellow pro-2015, make-it-a-great-year people out there. Reading! I can’t imagine that anyone in this day-in-age would whine and complain about the thought of picking up a good book, outside of what is presented for us to read in the classroom. I mean come on, whether it be the classics or the new-age books of today, there’s nothing like curling up with a great book that you are excited to escape into.

It’s 2015 and everyone is all about starting afresh with new goals and new ideas of turning your life around and making it the best year yet. Well the best way to start these goals off would be to dive into some good reads within the first month of this journey. Books dedicated to inspiring you, teaching you, and entertaining you, are always helpful in planting seeds for prosperous growth. I have a 5-novel list of some of the books that I plan to crack open/have already read (before school swallows me up and spits me out), that I hope sets you all on the journey to growth and enlightenment this upcoming year.

1. The Examine Life by Stephen Grosz

The Examined Life is a book of short stories containing over 50,000 hours worth of conversation on psychological insight into individual lives. What sets this book a part is Grosz’s intentional avoidance of psychoanalytic jargon, which allow for these real stories of human behavior, mistakes, discoveries, and ideals of losing and finding ourselves, to seem real and attainable.

2. The Woman I Wanted to Be by Diane Von Furstenberg

I currently have me nose in this book by Diane Von Furstenburg, one of the most renowned fashion designers and business women of today. What sets her a part from the pack is her effervescent sense of self that stands on the idea of practicing independence, becoming one’s own best friend, and using any hard or difficult past to create the best future possible.

3. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

This classic work tells the story of an Andalusian shepherd boy who is traveling to the Egyptian pyramids to find a hidden treasure. He encounters many people who aid in his journey to find this treasure, but what he comes to discover is the idea of finding treasure within himself. Cheesy caption, great read.

4. Girl Boss

Girl Boss follows the story of Sophia Amoruso, founder and CEO of Nasty Gal retail company, and her journey from the bottom to the top. There are many cliche’s and I-already-knew-that’s present in this read, but the biggest thing to take away is the idea of there ever being impossibility of succession, couldn’t be further from the truth.

5. The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brene Brown

This quintessential self-help book is one of my read-a-little-everyday reads. There are so many inspirational quotes and mantras to live by, as this book draws on classic psychological concepts of what is needed to mentally live a healthier and happier life.

The Reading Paradigm

I have to admit, I’m quite disappointed in myself. This year has been going great, I’ve been on top of homework, getting enough sleep, and I see my friends regularly, and always enjoy my time with them.

But I’ve been neglecting one very important part of school. Reading outside of class.

I’ve always been a ravenous reader, ever since I was little. A lot of times when we’d have library time in elementary school, my friends would look at the I, Spy books while I was looking at the chapter books, the ones that were “harder” and “above my reading level.” I still remember begging my librarian to let me read a book because it was about rabbits and it had won a Newberry Award, so it had a fancy ribbon on the front. It was two reading levels above the grade I was currently in, but I read it, and I was able to tell my librarian what it was about afterwards, so she knew I understood it. I don’t remember it now, but that experience of being told no but doing it anyways was always my kind of style.

My reading habits carried on with me through middle school, although I will admit I went through slumps. Luckily, many of my friends enjoyed reading, so it wasn’t like elementary school where I was the only one reading while everyone else was playing Pokemon on their GameBoys. I honestly couldn’t get my hands on new books fast enough, and I’d often ask my mom to take me to the public library for more.

Each time I went, I’d check out about 20 books. Most of the time, I read them all. But now, I can’t even dream of finishing five. Mostly because the Michigan coursework challenges me enough that I don’t have much time for anything. But there’s another reason as well. Anytime I’m not doing homework, I’m being ensnared by something far worse.

O Netflix, we shall duel once again!

Now, don’t get me wrong: I love Netflix just as much as the next overworked college student. I just don’t understand why I turn to it first when I’m taking a break or done for the day.

Sure, I have to finish all the episodes in a TV show, and sometimes, there are quite a lot. But after I’m done with one show…I start another. I don’t go to my bookshelf, or my Nook containing so many unread books it’s unimaginable. I go to Netflix, or to my DVD collection, or…well, you get the idea.

And I’m truly disappointed in myself. I love reading, I really do. Last semester I had a reading-heavy course (think 100 pages per week, on top of two English courses that had a lighter but still formidable reading schedule), so I was able to excuse myself from my leisurely reading, because if I wasn’t doing homework, I was procrastinating on reading for that class – I was always behind. But this semester, that’s not the case. I don’t reach for my books, and the only time I have is when I was rereading Harry Potter, since we’re reading it later in one of my classes.

I know what’s happened. Reading is so active that I shudder just thinking about picking up a book after doing homework. Instead I’d rather watch something on my laptop, something that feeds me information and pictures rather than me having to produce it.

It’s mental fatigue, but it’s all in my head. I’m disappointed that I’m almost afraid of my books because I think it’s just another aspect of my work. Reading is fun, and it’s something I’ve forgotten in the past few months.

But today, I found for the first time in a while that I wanted that to change. Recalling earlier posts, I’ve expressed my undying love for the Academy Awards, and today I read an article online about female under-representation in the film industry (as in directing, producing, etc.). It made me think about the Awards this year, and wonder if any of the screenwriters nominated were women (note: there are 2 in the list of 10 movies nominated for Adapted and Original screenplay, both accompanied by men in the screenwriting credits).

It also made me think of the time when I thought about adapting my favorite books into screenplays, one of which I still have a 40 page script for in my bedroom back home. It’s a dream, quite far away and almost unimaginable, but how am I going to adapt anything if I never read anything that needs adapting?

My love for film and TV is almost unparalleled. My friends ask who’s in a movie and I respond with the actor’s name almost immediately. But that love is completely surpassed by my love for reading, and that will never change. I just happen to forget sometimes.

Winter 2014: the semester I read so much my eyes fell out.

After entering recluse-mode for many an hour, I have finished my first book of the semester! The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf.

the voyage out 1

*takes breath*

Assigned for my Virginia Woolf class (whodathunkit?), the novel was a quick head on collision to what would be in store for me this semester: a whole lot of reading and a whole lot of feelings. The combination of reading and feelings often leaves me home alone, on my couch without pants, ignoring ambient/electronic beats wafting into the air like my incense, and staring into the massive void that is the winter in Ann Arbor because it never stops snowing.

While it was by no means Woolf’s best work, The Voyage Out is “a beginning” of sorts. Although not her earliest diary nor letters, this first novel stands as a type of fluid production from one of the most brilliant writers of the 20th century. I can see question and figure out what it means to write a novel as she pieces together allusions–from Conrad to Milton to Bronte to Austen to Plato. She tropes Victorian themes (the dying heroine) and twists them into a new modern sensibility as she meditates on deathly illness rather than the sentimental last breath of life. Unlike her other “more modernist” novels, however, there is a clear plot. WOAH. Step back.

Rachel goes to South America, falls in love, and dies. OR A bougie woman travels to a middle class wet dream of what the exotic other-as-land would be and becomes a body with out organs and disintegrates from life. OR Woolf’s creative idea of her dead sister, Stella, comes of age (whatever this means) in a post-Victorian world, and dies. The dying part is pretty consistent, but the other elements of the novel, well, including the death, too, are wildly complex. Meditating on the inability for anyone to really know anyone else, the downfalls of language, the ways humans feel, the ways human name their feelings as emotions, the ways men and women interact, the ways classes interact, what colonialism does to a collective consciousness, how patriarchy fucks over all women (and men), what death and life and love seem to be, etc., etc., . . . *this is a fragment I’m trying to save* . . . the Voyage Out covers a lot of territory that will reappear in the later fiction of Woolf.

the voyage out 2

Not only has Woolf impressed me but she has made me rethink what it means to be a reader in the 21st century.

As an English/Philosophy lover/snob/being, I enjoy a good book. To me, “good” refers to something along the lines of: published out of one’s century (unless your name is Toni Morrison) that either invests too much in the world, consciousness, and humankind or is entirely skeptic of everything including the very page it is written on. Whether Naguib Mahfouz, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, James Joyce, or Audre Lorde, Elizabeth Bishop, or Sylvia Plath, or Michel Foucault, Frank B. Wilderson III, Gilles Deleuze–I have a lot of opinions on what is “good.”

However, as a bibliophile that is moving closer and closer from the hallowed halls of libraries (let’s be real, libraries here means hipster/queer coffee houses) into the real world where the library is anything I can fit on a shelf in my hypothetical apartment in an imaginary Washington D.C. (my future plans), I realize that “good” means more than just “good.”

In reading Virginia Woolf’s first novel I have a newfound respect and curiosity for new authors. This–the ability to read for pleasure and explore new authors–is a epiphany that is oh-too-recent. I have always despised new books because nothing can replace what has already been written. But this despair, I’ve learned, is stupid. Just as I think I have merit and worth in the realm of scholarly writing (HAHAHAHA MY THESIS WHAT), others, too, have merit writing in the scope of fiction. I should honor their creativity.

the voyage out 3

Although new writers can be sloppy, can have an fluctuating style, can be apprehensive, they can also be full of new insights to my queer world–filled with new relations to humans, technologies, and myself, new relations to others, new relations to the environment, and so on. The world is not static, and, I guess what I’m trying to say is, neither should my bookshelf.

Thanks, V.