Saturday, April 28, 2012

Meditation on the Joys of Reading Alone (Together)

Book Riot recently published a post called "What I Hate About Being a Reader," in which item four was "Reading Alone":
Reading can be doubly isolating. First, it is inherently a solitary practice. But there is also the secondary isolation that comes from reading’s cultural marginalization: the difficulty of finding people who not only read as you do, but read what you do. I think most serious readers have a desire to discuss what they’ve read with others, but those others can be so hard to find. The internet has been a boon for this, but I think we also know that online discussion doesn’t compare to in-person discussion.
I would like to make a case for social reading. A lot of people seem to view picking up a book in a social context as exclusionary, or even rude. Beyond the simple remedy of reading aloud, or listening to an audiobook as a group, reading can also be a social activity. Here is the radical premise:

It is possible, perhaps even desirable, to read quietly to yourself in a room in which other people are reading, and to feel like you are spending quality time with those people. 

That's right, I am talking about reading as a social activity. Imagine spending a few hours at a friend's house, reading on comfortable furniture and occasionally going for more snacks. One friend chuckles as she hits a particularly delectable passage. Another is completely absorbed in her book, which she is reading on her e-reader. A third has finished his book and moved on to one of his backups. The predominating sounds are pages turning and cats purring (it's my fantasy, so there are cats).

After some time has passed, reading time may end in favor of games and conversation. For some people, it may not end until they prepare to go home. Far be it from me to interrupt someone who is nearing the end of their book. At some point, the readers may wish to discuss books in a spoiler-free manner.  This kind of gathering--a shortened version of which could be held at a local coffee shop--would counter both kinds of isolation described above. Not only does it provide a built-in discussion group, but when you see friends reading (and enjoying) books, it acts as a forum for recommendation.

At my library, one of my co-workers hosts a book discussion group in which she previews upcoming titles and each member comes prepared to talk about the books they've been reading. A "book discussion" doesn't necessarily mean that all present have read the same book. At many of the personal book club meetings I've attended, there are usually several people who haven't read or finished the assigned book, which somewhat defeats the purpose of meeting to discuss it. Why not have a gathering in which everyone gets to read what they want to read, and discuss it if they feel like talking about it?

Suggested guidelines for social reading (conceived with assistance from friends on Twitter):
  • Limit reading aloud, even if the passages are the best ever. Mark them to share later.
  • Avoid talking. Most people like to read in relative quiet.
  • No spoilers during discussion time.
  • Bring a backup book or three.
  • Turn off the wireless capability.
More suggestions? Anyone want to read near me?

Meditation Index

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Clutching the Obsolete: A Meditation On The Stick Shift

I recently purchased a new (to me) car. It was definitely time--my old car, a 1998 Honda Civic, had finally reached the point where the cost to repair its many problems far outweighed its actual value. With the assistance of my girlfriend, I auditioned new cars and found one that seemed like an acceptable replacement. In many ways the new car is a huge upgrade over my previous car. First and foremost, it has air conditioning. It has power windows and locks! It's a hybrid! It's also a Honda Civic! It doesn't have over 200,000 miles! You can't pick off rusty pieces from its side in an idle moment! It has a USB port! It has a trunk that actually stays closed! However...


It's an automatic. I've never had a car that was my car that didn't have a standard transmission. My mother taught me to drive stick on our family's Honda Civic (sensing a trend yet?) station wagon, which was a tearful and sometimes frustrating process for both of us, but ultimately I mastered the ability to shift. Sure, I went to Driver's Ed as well, but I really learned to drive when I was in that car with my mom. Once you've stalled in the middle of a busy intersection and can't get going again, or in the middle of a large hill--unable to continue, but afraid to roll back--it all comes together fairly quickly. It takes longer for the remembered panic to fade, however. I never quite pushed the envelope the way that she did, whipping around corners in third gear, but I relished the control over my cars that shifting seemed to impart.

I discovered after leaving home that driving a stick was not really a . . . standard skill to have, especially as a woman. Demand for manual transmissions is down, as are the numbers of people who know how to drive them. Most new cars aren't even made with manual transmissions, and fewer than 7% of cars sold are standards. When I was making my car purchase, I actually did make a conscious choice between a manual Honda Fit and an automatic Civic. I went with the automatic for a lot of reasons that continue to make sense. But a certain portion of me--personified while I'm driving by my restless, useless left foot--regrets the choice.

Late, lamented
While I'm enjoying my new automatic, I also miss that tie to my mother, especially my ability to pass on the knowledge to the next generation. My toddler and I used to sit in my old car and roll the windows up and down, push and pull the locks, and play with the gear shift. These are things that will soon be as obsolete as dialing a rotary telephone or owning VHS tapes. Even though I knew I was going to have to buy a new car in the next thirteen or fourteen years, I had a romantic notion of teaching my son to drive a stick shift. Obsolete skills, like DNA, have a strong urge for self-perpetuation. A small voice argues that it might be useful someday, wherever his life eventually takes him.

Aside from the opportunity for parental instruction, I regret the fact that I am no longer a part of the club of stick shift drivers, even though my exit was voluntary. I've always loved coming to a stop on a hill and keeping perfect balance between my clutch and gas, standing still without needing a brake. I loved listening to my car and figuring out the perfect time to change gears. When I graduated from college, I got a car from my family. It was a four-speed Honda Civic (surprise!), and I adored it and promptly drove it across the country and back again. Using my car, I taught (or tried to teach) several people to drive a stick. I relish the idea that I can drive pretty much any car that's parked in front of me, once I have the keys in hand. It feels independent. I miss the feeling of control, the nuance, the fact that you are forced to pay attention to the car and not the phone or the drink.

Luckily, I have a plan. In fourteen years, I will go to Europe. I can teach my son to drive a standard and sight-see at the same time. My mother would definitely approve.

Further Reading:
Check the Manual (Transmission): Stick Shift Cars Going Away
Death to the Stick Shift (ouch)
Parents Hope Stick Shifts Will Keep Kids Minds on Driving (ah, local news)

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