Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Books: Some Confessions

I am a slow reader. I’m also an impatient one. I will buy a book based on a table of contents and then never read it. The Table of Contents was all I wanted. It was all I needed, a list of titles to steal, a list of words to use, a set of plot points.

I collect and assemble books the way that reliquarist finds and enshrines pieces of the true cross, shrouds of saints, knucklebones of prophets, teeth of bodhisattvas. Less, in other words, for whether they are authentic or not. More to keep myself from feeling too comfortable. Through the bones to hear the god’s whisper.

In fact, I hate to read sometimes. Sometimes for years, it feels as if reading is the mental equivalent of eating my vegetables. I do it out of necessity, to keep my job, to keep my friends.

Most of the time, I can’t abide fiction as Fiction, as a made up story, as an entertainment. I read to learn things first, to disappear second, to appreciate artistry third. To congratulate someone for merely writing something down does not appear on the map. Most of the time I can’t abide poetry as Poetry.

When I say I’m an impatient reader, what I mean to say is I think I might at any moment die. I’d prefer not to be irritated by a complex family tree or a torturous plot while I’m gasping for my last breath.

To really read one great book a year is enough. It took me two years to recover from Anna Karenina. I don’t enter into those relationships lightly.

I don’t need an axe to break up the frozen sea within me. I need a ship, a submarine, a whale’s belly, a magic shell to take me from shore to shore. Or, in the case of poetry, a spell to walk on water, to swim at great speeds, to change weight for wings.


Books: a Challenge

Books summer 15

What else to do in the summer but read, remember that? We were so bored we read. We read until we were caught up and couldn’t help but want to ride again the mysterious rollercoasters inside letters, typing, paper.

So my version of Oliver de la Paz’s Summer Reading Challenge is inflected by the upcoming Scotland trip.

1. Leslie Jameson’s The Empathy Exams

2. How the Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman

3. Edgelands by by Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley

4. The Other Walk by Sven Birkerts

5. Sightlines by Kathleen Jaime

6. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

7. Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

8. The Beauty by Jane Hirschfield

9. Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane

10. The Pen and the Bell by Brenda Miller and Holly Hughes

11. The New Testament by Jericho Brown

12. King Me by Roger Reeves

13. No One’s Rose by Paul Celan translated by David Young

14. On Immunity by Eula Biss

15. (not pictured) The Glory Gets by Honoree Jeffers

I’m taking the Birkerts, Herman, Jaime, McCarthy, and Macfarlane with me to Scotland. Most of the poetry I’ll keep for July. Biss, Jameson, and Nelson for August. Or at least that’s the plan. Because I have no idea what I’ll find in Edinburgh, with its beautiful bookstores.

Here’s my friend Liz Ahl’s List and friend Ron Mohring’s List, if you want some more ideas for reading.

Noah Stetzer

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