Friday, April 29, 2016

Literature's importance

I have long believed literature to be important, but I've never been clear on why it's important. Religions, cultures and even families pass down their wisdom through stories, so maybe that's part of the answer. But still, why should students study Macbeth or Moby-Dick? What of lasting value is actually being learned?

Now I've read David Denby's new book Lit Up: One Reporter, Three Schools, Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives, and if I am still not entirely clear why literature is important I am at least more certain than ever that it is. I can witness dramatic changes in the lives of several high school sophomores through literature classes taught by challenging teachers given the freedom to teach outside the confines of textbooks and state testing guidelines.

"At that age, the brain still has a genuine capacity to change," Denby writes in his introduction. "Fifteen is a danger spot and a sweet spot... They can be reached. Their moral education, as well as their literary education is a stake; the two may be inseparable." And so he decided to monitor classes in three public schools, including a troubled inner-city school. The racially diverse students, while unusually bright, were not readers when the year began. Their lives were chained to their handheld devices, and they seemed to believe that was all they needed to lead successful, rewarding lives.

Then they met their teachers, including Sean Leon, who teaches at the Beacon School in Manhattan and whose assigned reading would be too demanding for most college sophomores. Books he required included Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's 1984, Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, Jean-Paul Satre's No Exit and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.

Teachers Jessica Zelenski and Mary Beth Jordan were less challenging, but still they taught works by William Shakespeare, Kurt Vonnegut, Harper Lee, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway and Alice Walker, among many others. These lit teachers lit fires in their students, most of whom were non-readers when they began ninth grade and are now in college.

Denby follows these classes month by month and book by book, and you can observe the progress made as students become more animated, more caught up in their discussions and more committed to actually reading these books rather than just reading about them in study guides. One class was told to write an essay ranking the books they had read and explaining why they judged one better than another. "They justified their taste," Denby writes. "Suddenly they had taste in books, a new idea for many."

The difficulty of the these books, especially those assigned by Leon, was an advantage, not a disadvantage, Denby believes. "Curious and ambitious teens always read things that are too hard for them and fail to understand half of what they read. But frustration only makes them eager to find out more."

One advantage literature has over such other typical high school subjects as biology and geometry is that it allows for interpretation and argument. What does 1984 mean in 2016? Well, it means something a little different to everyone who reads it. It gives us something to think about and talk about, and thinking and talking about it and other great books helps young minds develop in ways that biology, geometry and those handheld electronic devices cannot do.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Entertaining stories

There's nothing arty or pretentious about Sharyn McCrumb's short stories in her 1997 collection Foggy Mountain Breakdown, with the possible exception of "Gerda's Sense of Snow," the least successful of these stories. The tales, first published mostly in detective magazines, were meant to entertain, and that is what they do.

Mostly crime stories, as one would expect, they vary a great deal in tone, style, locale, characters and points of view. Some of them, like "Typewriter Man" and "Autumn Migration," flirt with the supernatural. Several are humorous, while others are as serious as death. Her surprise endings truly surprise. One never gets the feeling that if you have read one Sharyn McCrumb story, you have read them all.

In "Remains to be Seen," one of the more lighthearted stories, a couple of old women buy a mummy at an army surplus store. In "A Predatory Woman," a murderess released from prison turns out not to be the title character at all. "The Matchmaker" tells of a dating service that finds the perfect mate for a killer. The murder story in "Gentle Reader" is told entirely in a series of letters between an author and a fan. The title story, one of the best in the collection, tells of a bully who gets his just deserts, and then some. And so it goes, one gem after another.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The popularity of mysteries

I was able to attend the Ohioana Book Festival in Columbus on Saturday. It was the tenth year this fine event has been held, bringing together under one roof dozens of Ohio's authors and, of course, their books displayed on tables. Because I had to leave early, I attended just two of the many panel discussions held during the day, but they were good ones. The first featured five mystery writers and the second the three writers responsible for recent biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the country's only four-term president, and James A. Rhodes, Ohio's only four-term governor. These politicians had more in common than you might think, although the real surprise, at least for me, was Douglas Brinkley's list of things Franklin Roosevelt had in common with Theodore Roosevelt.

Yet mostly today I want to reflect on responses made by the mystery writers about why mysteries are so popular with readers. This popularity was evident at the book festival, where at least 15 of the 40-some novelists present were mystery writers.

Shelley Costa
Shelley Costa, author of Practical Sins for Cold Climates (a book I'd like to read just for its title), suggested mysteries are popular because they are "moral fiction." In other words, murderers get caught, and justice prevails. Most readers prefer unambiguous endings. Sam Thomas, author of The Midwife and the Assassin, spoke about how "the social fabric is torn by crime," and a mystery story is about its repair.
Sam Thomas

I have heard this explanation before, and I'm sure there must be some truth in it, yet I wonder if another, simpler explanation might have been suggested earlier in the discussion when Thomas commented that when he was trying to get his first book published, the publisher asked if it were part of a series. He said he knew enough to answer yes, even though he had no idea for a second novel featuring the same character.. Other authors echoed much the same thing. To get that first novel published, they had to commit themselves to writing a series.

Why do publishers like series? Because readers like series, and once they become familiar with the characters in one novel, they want to follow them into other books. One reads Jane Marple mysteries at least as much for Jane Marple as for the mysteries themselves. As good as Sherlock Holmes stories are, it is the character that readers love, which is why Sherlock Holmes stories continue to be written long after the death of his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. One could write similar mysteries featuring other characters, but it is Holmes readers want to read about.

Series of books are popular in other genres, such as romance, westerns and science fiction. Readers even like to revisit beloved characters in more serious fiction. Consider the recent avalanche of books featuring the beloved characters in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Yet more than other kinds of books, mysteries are ideally suited to series treatment. There can always be another murder that needs to be solved by our favorite fictional detective.

I bought just one book on Saturday, but that was a mystery, Bookmarked for Murder by Dan Andriacco, another of the panelists that morning. If I like it, and especially if I like the characters, I will probably seek out other novels in that series. That's what readers do, and that's one reason so many mysteries are sold.

Friday, April 22, 2016

What makes a book a book?

A "text" existing only on a screen and in the mind is not, to me, a book.
Wendell Berry, My Bookstore

Wendell Berry
If you or I were to say something like that, it wouldn't mean much. Nobody would take us seriously. But when celebrated poet and novelist Wendell Berry says it, it's worth paying attention to.

I have sometimes used the phrase "real book" to distinguish between something printed on paper and something, even if it's the same something, reproduced on a Kindle, iPad, CD or whatever. Every month LibraryThing presents a list of newly published books that will soon be available for members to review. You can indicate those that appeal to you and, if you are lucky, you might win a copy. Those at the bottom of this list are identified as ebooks. I always ignore these. If I'm going to win a book, I want it to be a real book, something I can hold in my hand and, later, put on a shelf. I have read a few ebooks and listened to quite a number of books on CD and, years ago, on tape. These were books in my mind, but yet not quite. They are like artificial Christmas trees. They serve the purpose, but are not quite the real thing.

Hear what else Berry has to say on the subject: "To me, it is not enough that a book is thought realized in language; it must also be language further realized in print on paper pages bound between covers. It is a material artifact, a thing made not only to be seen but also to be held and smelled, containing language that can be touched, and underlined with an actual pencil, with margins that can be actually written on. And so a book, a real book, language incarnate, becomes a part of one's bodily life."

Wendell Berry uses the phrase "real book." too, I'm glad to see. Other phrases that catch my eye are "thought realized in language," which is true even of any spoken sentence, and "language incarnate," which refers to words taking physical form. It was a big step when mankind moved from just "thought realized in language" to "language incarnate." To many, especially younger generations, it seems like another big step to be moving on to language on screens.

David Denby's new book Lit Up, one of the recent review books I've received through LibraryThing, examines the difficulties faced by teachers trying to teach literature to today's teenagers. He quotes one boy, perhaps speaking for his generation, saying, "Books smell like old people." Thanks to an inspired teacher, this same boy was soon not just reading real books but engaging in literary discussions with classmates. Even so, it would appear that those of us who agree with Wendell Berry on what makes a book a book are in a dwindling minority.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Revisiting the past

In my early teens I developed a passion for Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines. Never mind that I had no aptitude for mechanics or, as it turned out when I later took high school chemistry, for science. These magazines just seemed exotic to me. They seemed to offer a peek into the future, while at the same time revealing an exciting present. I especially loved those issues devoted to new cars. The release of new models of automobiles has not interested me much since I stopped reading the magazines in the early 1960s.

A few months ago I reclaimed a portion of my youth by purchasing three issues of Popular Mechanics from the era when I still read the magazine. (I have no idea what happened to all those issues I had stacked in my room back home.) Last night I poured over the September 1957 issue, the one that announced the new Edsel on the cover.

"There's no market for cars that look alike," says the article inside. No one ever accused the Edsel of looking like other cars. The article points out that the Edsel was vertical in the front, where most cars were horizontal, and horizontal in the back, where most cars then had vertical lines. Of course we know the Edsel failed miserably. And today, or so it appears to me, most cars look pretty much alike.

Another fascinating article, "What's Happening to the Weather," interviews a panel of experts about the recent warming trend in the world's climate, including a noticeable melting of polar ice. Sound familiar? The meteorologists blamed the changing climate on sunspots.

The magazine has two articles about sports cars designed to look like jet planes. Another article describes inventive games played by people on horseback, including a polo match played with brooms instead of mallets and a ribbon race in which two horsemen attempt to complete a course with a strip of crepe paper between them without dropping or tearing the paper. "Pupils Study Math With Calculators" says one headline. The photograph shows children with machines on their desks the size of small typewriters. Another article is about "The Organ That Plays Stalactites" and yet another announces, "You Can Make a Plant Do Tricks."

I can remember devoting as much time to the ads in these magazines as the articles. This particular issue has ads for a 75X telescope for $3.98, a hot-air-balloon kit for a dollar, a "lifetime" radio for $2, 6-foot government surplus balloons for just 59 cents each, a vest-pocket sized adding machine for $2.95 and 12 "disgustingly potent" stink bombs for a dollar. What boy wouldn't love to get his hands on any of these things? But they were just too expensive for me. I was lucky just to get the magazine, which cost 35 cents an issue back then.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Novels about books

Those of us who love books, and I mean really love books, tend to love books about books. That phrase, "books about books," usually refers to nonfiction works, such as Joe Queenan's One for the Books or Wendy Welch's The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap. Yet there are numerous novels, more every year it seems, that are also books about books. That is, books or authors or the characters from famous novels are vital to the plots. Whether or not these novels qualify as literature, they are nevertheless read avidly by those who love literature.

As examples of this genre, I have chosen 10 novels from the past 15 years. Most of these books I have written about previously in this blog.

Mr. Timothy by Louis Bayard (2003) - Tiny Tim, from the famous Charles Dickens Christmas story has grown up in Bayard's novel and struggles to discover who has been killing young girls in London. B

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones (2006) - Great Expectations is his only textbook when a white man reluctantly becomes the teacher of children on a tropical island during wartime. A

Finn by Jon Clinch (2007) - Clinch revisits Huckleberry Finn, but this time from the perspective of his no-good father. A

The Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton (2007) - Fiona Sweeney loads books on the back of a camel and takes them to villagers in an arid part of Kenya. A

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke (2007) - Sam Pulzifer accidentally burned down Emily Dickinson's house, so now he's a suspect when the homes of other writers are torched. B+ 

The Bad Book Affair by Ian Sansom (2010) - The last, so far, of Ian Sansom's Mobile Library mysteries, this one finds librarian Israel Armstrong having to prove a Philip Roth novel he loaned to a teen-age girl has nothing to do with her disappearance. To do that, he needs to find the girl. A

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (2012) - A bookstore employee discovers there is much more going on in Mr. Penumbra's store than just the sale of books. B

The Bookman's Tale by Charles Lovett (2013) - A young bookseller thinks he may have found a book that will prove William Shakespeare was actually the author of those plays bearing his name. B

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (2014) - A small-town bookstore, a rare collection of Poe poetry, an abandoned baby and a little romance are combined in a winning novel with chapters themed by famous short stories. A-

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin (2016) - Author Truman Capote's literary career reaches it zenith and then plummets downward while he hangs out with some famous New York City socialites. A

You don't have to be a book nut to enjoy any of these novels, but it sure helps.

Friday, April 15, 2016

You make the call

Leading storytelling workshops, I often compared the well-told story -- written or spoken -- to a coloring book; there are guidelines, but you create the details for yourself. A television does most of the work for you; one need not even think, only watch. Some writers are like TVs, but the best ones offer you sovereignty.
Wendy Welch, The Little Bookstore in Big Stone Gap

I like that comparison, stories to coloring books. Movies adapted from novels so often disappoint because the "colors" in the films don't match those in our imaginations when we read the stories. Our minds fill in the blanks one way, while directors fill them differently..

I also like Wendy Welch's use of the word sovereignty. As a reader you have sovereignty, at least some sovereignty, over the stories you read. The better the story, the greater your sovereignty. The best stories have ambiguity and subtlety. You decide what they mean and, in some cases, even what takes place. You also have control over any detail the author chooses not to describe. In terms of what takes place in your mind, reading a story is not at all like watching a story, even if it happens to be the same story.

Yet I think the best movies and television shows, like the best written stories, can offer a degree of sovereignty. They allow some measure of interpretation and choice in the hands of the viewer. A case  in point is the 2013 Indian film The Lunchbox, the subject of a movie discussion I will be leading tonight. The story is about an office worker, soon to retire, who mistakenly each day gets a lunchbox intended for another man. This leads to a series of notes between this man and the much younger woman who packs the lunch.

In the film, the two never come face to face, although they write about running away together. At the end we see the woman, with her daughter, preparing to leave her unfaithful husband, while the man sets out to track her down. Will he get there in time? Will they really go to Bhutan together? Are they even suited for each other in view of their different ages and different religions? It's left to the viewer to decide. And that's just one of the many things the story gives us to talk about tonight.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Read or write?

I'm now in my sixties, which means that I'm looking at a maximum of about thirty more years of life. Which should I do? Read, or write?
Larry McMurtry, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen

Most of us of advancing years face, if not the same question Larry McMurtry did in 1999 when he wrote Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, at least a similar one. Should I see as much of the world as I can while I still can or should I stay home and mind the dahlias or watch the grandchildren grow up or whatever? Should I volunteer more or use what energy I have to get my things in order so my heirs don't have to deal with them? When time seems endless, there is time for everything. Later you realize that is not true.

McMurtry says he had no books at all until, when he was 6, an older cousin presented him with 19 popular Grosset and Dunlap children's books he had outgrown. "I quickly began to need books as naturally as I need food," he writes. Book editors, literary critics and literature professors may be able to make a living by reading, but most avid readers need to do something else to survive. McMurtry chose the next best thing, writing and, later, dealing secondhand books. Yet he found himself torn, even as a younger man. When he was writing books or buying and selling books, he couldn't be reading books. This tension has only become more pronounced with aging.

McMurtry wonders about other writers. Are they also torn between the need to read and the need to write? Presumably people become writers in the first place because they loved to read. Yet I have also read about at least one writer who refrained from reading while writing a book for fear another writer's style might influence his own. But don't most professional writers have a book in progress at all times? More commonly authors seem to write in the morning, when their minds are freshest, then read, make public appearances or do whatever needs doing in their personal lives during the rest of the day. That sounds more like the kind of balance McMurtry writes about. But not quite.

"On the rare occasions when I visit another writer's home I always immediately look at their books, which in too many cases consist mainly, if not exclusively, of books they've been sent to blurb or perhaps review.... Few writers now seem to have large libraries, deliberately and selectively acquired. Most merely have accumulations of books which somehow got into their houses, toward which they display little interest or affection. What happened?" If this is true of writers in general, I'm as shocked as McMurtry is.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Carla Buckley's latest

So many novels are at their best at the beginning and at the end. They tend to get bogged down in the middle. Yet Carla Buckley's new medical thriller The Good Goodbye works nicely in the middle, but it seems confusing at the start and too simple at the end.

Two cousins, as close as sisters, are both seriously injured in a dormitory fire in which a young man dies. Both Arden and Rory lie in comas. They attend a local Maryland university only because the restaurant owned by Arden's mother, Natalie, and Rory's father, Vince, faces financial failure, thanks to Vince's bad investments. It doesn't help that Natalie and Vince were once lovers, before she married Theo, Vince's brother, and he married Gabrielle, a mysterious French beauty who now seeks to control Rory's life just as Rory seeks to control Arden's.

Before the money problems, Arden had planned to study art in California, to get away from Rory as much as anything, while Rory had been accepted to Harvard. Yet it turns out that Arden has been writing Rory's papers for her and has been taking tests for her. Yet Rory, not Arden, was accepted by Harvard?

We experience this story through the minds of Natalie, Arden and Rory, with Natalie telling us what's happening in the present, while the cousins, still in their comas, recall the past and how that fire ultimately occurred.

Buckley gives her readers some surprises along the way before wrapping everything up with a neat bow at the end. I found her novel addictive, at least until the disappointing ending.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Sharing stories

Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen seems like an odd title, especially for a memoir by someone other than Walter Benjamin, but then it is an odd book. Novelist Larry McMurtry, whose memoir it is, calls it an essay throughout, and much of it reads like an essay. Yet more of it reads like a memoir, so that is what I choose to call it.

Walter Benjamin
Walter Benjamin was a German philosopher and cultural critic whose book Illuminations McMurtry remembers first opening in the Dairy Queen in Archer City, Texas. He recalls drinking Dr Pepper and reading Benjamin's thoughts about "the growing obsolescence of what might be called practical memory and the consequent diminution of the power of oral narrative." In other words, people don't sit around sharing stories the way they once did. There are televisions to watch, various kinds of electronic gizmos to occupy their attention and a million things to do and places to go. The Dairy Queen, McMurtry finds, is the only place left in Archer City where people still actually sit and talk to each other.

That's where his essay/memoir starts. From there he reflects on the history of the McMurtry family in Texas, his father's hopeless efforts to make a success of a relatively small cattle ranch and his own rejection of a life spent with cattle for one spent with books, both writing them and selling them. His stories here are the kind someone might once have told by a fire or around a dinner table, or perhaps while whittling with other whittlers. Instead he presents them in this fine book.

Here are a few lines from his book I found particularly interesting:

I'm writing this book with a pen, unlike my twenty-two previous books, because I don't want the sentences to slip by so quickly that I don't notice them.

Just as reading slowly aids us in understanding what we read, so writing slowly aids in understanding what we write or in being certain what we write is really what we mean to say. But is it really necessary to use a pen, as opposed to using a keyboard more deliberately? And what does this say about the thought McMurtry put into his 22 previous books?

But as Ian Watt has sagely informed us, without lightly employed middle-class ladies who were not allowed to do the housework anymore, there was no readership of sufficient size to support publishers, booksellers, and novelists.

Isn't that interesting? The publishing industry thrived at the time in our history when middle-class women had servants and no jobs, giving them time to read. The problems faced by this industry today can be traced to fewer people having the time to read and, perhaps even more significantly, having the desire to read.

Even a few bad books can make a whole room full of good books look tatty.

Some used bookstores place their least desirable books just outside their front door. They may help draw shoppers to the store. If they are stolen or ruined by a sudden rain, it's no great loss. The important thing, as McMurtry suggests, is that these books are outside the store, not inside where they would detract from the better quality books on display.

I still believe that books are the fuel of genius. Leaving a million or so in Archer City is as good a legacy as I can think of for that region and indeed for the West.

If I ever visit Archer City, Texas, I will head first, not to the Dairy Queen, but to Booked Up, Larry McMurtry's bookstore. He has been gathering books for decades and has placed them in his bulging shop, spread over several buildings. Interesting, isn't it, that he thinks of these books, not the ones he has written himself, as his legacy to his hometown?

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Herding words

That I chose to herd words into novel-sized ranches was fortunate. Even if I had wanted to ranch, I didn't have the money it takes.
Larry McMurtry, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen

Larry McMurtry's 1999 memoir Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen is something of a meditation on ranching, writing and scouting for books, as well as a tribute to his father. In addition to writing novels and other books, he buys and sells used books. Although he grew up on a Texas cattle ranch, ranching is one thing he never wanted to do, But he wrote books, like Lonesome Dove, about herding cattle, and in this memoir he repeatedly employs metaphors like the one quoted above to compare the cowboy life to his true loves. Here are some others:

"... I've now spent most of a working life herding words in the morning and secondhand books in the afternoon ..."

"Where literature was concerned I preferred from the first to go my own way, roving around on the great open range."

"I'm sure that I've had as much pleasure in the hundreds (or maybe the thousands) of bookshops I've been in, going along row by row and shelf by shelf looking for a title or an edition that I've never seen, as my father did culling and inspecting the many cattle herds he bought from."

"When I consider my twenty and more books I sometimes feel the same uneasy breeze that my father felt as he contemplated the too meager acres where his own life began and ended. My achievement may be not much different from his; it may consist mainly of the good name I bore and the gifted and responsible son I will pass it on to."

These few quotations actually summarize McMurtry's book rather well, but I still think I will have more to say about it later.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Seeing things

A brain surgeon gets a brain tumor. OK, this story is interesting already, but Mira Jacobs takes this high-concept idea and, with intriguing characters and subtle plot developments, turns her first novel, The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing, into something special.

Almost every American city of any size now has at least one physician from India, and Dr. Thomas Eapen is one of them, a successful brain surgeon who brought his wife, Kamala, and two children, Amina and Akhil, to Albuquerque in the late 1970s. The son, Akhil, died while still in high school, but Amina is now, in 1998, a promising wedding photographer in Seattle. But a disturbing call from her mother brings her home. It seems her father has been having long conversations with his late mother and other dead relatives.

The visions stem from a tumor, and the treatments keep Amina in Albuquerque much longer than she planned, especially when her father decides against continuing them rather than miss an opportunity to see and speak with Akhil.

A spooky, underdeveloped aspect of the plot finds Amina, without a brain tumor, having visions of her own. She thinks she can see her grandmother in one of her photographs, and in a late-night visit to her old high school she sees the spirit of her brother. So is her father, with his tumor, seeing what really is there rather than just imaging what isn't? Meanwhile, Amina's career is on the line because of some artful but unflattering photos she has taken, and unresolved issues threaten to tear her family apart.

While not totally satisfying, this novel makes irresistible reading.

Friday, April 1, 2016

After the fat lady sings

So, you may think it's over when the fat lady sings, but it isn't over for her until you've leapt to your feet, cheered madly, applauded wildly, and thrown roses onto the stage.
Dwight Currie, How We Behave at the Feast

In fiction, it's called the denouement. First, there's the climax, which is when the mystery is solved, the bad guy is captured, the heroine is rescued or whatever. Then comes the denouement, when everything gets back to normal and any remaining questions are answered.

Real life has its denouements as well. As Dwight Currie suggests in How We Behave at the Feast, the opera isn't over when the fat lady sings or when the orchestra plays the final note of music or even when the curtain comes down. It's not really over until the audience responds. That's the denouement that restores normality, allowing opera fans to go home satisfied.

In worship services in many churches, applause after choir anthems or solo performances is frowned upon because it supposedly interferes with the worshipful atmosphere. People are there to worship God, not human singers and musicians. Yet, especially after a particularly rousing piece of music, one can get a feeling of incompleteness. We have a climax without the denouement.

When is a meal over? Is it when the last bite is eaten, or is it when the dishes have been cleared away and washed, when the cook has been complimented or, if it takes place in a restaurant, when the check has been paid?

I often stay in my seat for movie credits. Sometimes, as in the Bill Murray film St. Vincent, it's a big mistake to walk out of the theater or to stop the DVD before watching the credits. But even when the credits are nothing but names, I still appreciate these few minutes to listen to the music and contemplate the story I have just watched.

Sporting events don't end with the final whistle, the last out or whatever. They end when the athletes congratulate each other and when the fans stop cheering. Some big games don't end until several days later when people finally stop talking about them and reliving key plays.

Books, both for those who write them and those who read them, aren't really over when they may seem to be over. A book may be published, yet it's not really finished until a reader reads it. Each reader, in a sense, finishes the author's work. Great Expectations remains an unfinished novel because people are still reading it and still gaining something from the experience.

I don't write something about every book I read, but I write about most of them. This commentary, for me, completes the reading of the book. It helps me digest it. Often I feel I don't really understand it until I've written something about it. Whether I write about a book or not, I do write down its title in a notebook in which I keep a record of books read. That, too, helps give me a feeling of completion.