Citizen in the World of Letters

Yes, New Year's resolutions tend to be good intentions that crisp and crumble under the glare of real life (though I really will be nicer to that guy at work this year). Nonetheless, I can't resist the tradition of taking stock at the end of each year.

Reading and writing are among the two most important activities in my life. Like many of you, I imagine, books are woven into the fiber of my soul, and my time on this Earth would mean much less to me without them. So it's important to me that I do right by this literary world.

Since I read Dan Kobolt's great essay on the importance of protecting reading time, I've been thinking about what we can do to increase the number and variety of books thriving in the world. For those of us who want to publish books, this is a deeply personal quest. Books need readers. And for those of us who read like we breathe, we want a marketplace that can thrive and support the broad array of authors we love and will love to discover. So how do we become better literary citizens?

In the spirit of goal-setting for the new year, I have a few suggestions. I'd love to hear yours too.

My Book Diary.

My Book Diary.

  • Read more books. That sounds both obvious and impossible, right? Well, let's examine the goal more closely. This year, according to my Book Diary, I read 46 books, not including multiple manuscripts and many literary journals. The books ranged in length from 1200+ pages (that would be The Complete Essays by Michel de Montaigne -- fantastic) to around 90 pages. That's not as many books as I had wanted, so this year I'm going to try to aim for 50. With a full-time day job outside of the house, two small kids, a marriage, a writing career and well, life, how can I make that happen? There's only one answer, really. Make reading a priority. Which brings me to ...
  • Watch less TV (or fewer movies). I realize that's an unpopular suggestion, and people tend to get defensive when I bring up television. Listen, watching TV doesn't mean you're a bad person! There are great programs out there. But our leisure time is limited. If you want to read more books, switching out TV is a straightforward way of finding time.
  • Carry a book at all times. I used to be fastidious about tucking a book into every purse or car door or bookbag. But since I've become more fond of my smartphone, I've sometimes let this slip. This is one area where I'm going to push myself. When I'm on the train or standing in line, even for a few minutes, I'll feel more contented if I pull out a book to read a paragraph, or a literary journal to read a poem, than if I scroll through Facebook. 
  • Read in public. Showing books out in the world makes them part of our cultural fabric. Strangers might wonder what you're reading, and friends might ask.
  • Talk about reading. If we ask people what they're reading these days, that increases the social relevance of books. Maybe the conversation might prompt someone who has forgotten about their love of reading to pick it up again. In the same way that talking about The Walking Dead gets folks excited to go home and watch it, talking about reading can increase our anticipation. We're social creatures, after all.
  • Read with children. Don't just read to your kids, but read in front of them. Modeling reading as a leisure activity is the best way to teach it.
  • Buy books. Whether your budget allows only a discount paperback at the used book shop or a new hardcover from the local bookstore, buying books helps them move through the marketplace. Money speaks, for better or worse. Even checking out books from the library is a form of buying, since the library pays for copies. Do what you can to support the literary ecosystem. (A corollary to this is giving books as gifts. Even if they're used books.)
  • Subscribe to literary journals. This should go without saying to writers who are trying to get published, but all readers can find delight in the many carefully-assembled litmags out there. A few are quite pricey but most are a great deal, particularly given the volume of beautiful writing they contain. A few of my favorites are: Silk Road, AGNI, Post Road, The New England Review (especially for their translation and global view), Natural Bridge (the three-part interview is so fun), The Cincinnati Review, Cossack Review, Ploughshares ... 
Some of my current litmag bounty.

Some of my current litmag bounty.

  • Read outside your genre. Prose lovers, read poetry. You'll see words and rhythm in a new light. YA lovers, read some of the classics. (My friend Dorothy Reno is writing a fun column about her tour through some of the classic cannon at WIROBooks, if you want a guide. Frankenstein is up next!) Procedural mystery lovers, read a YA historical fiction verse novel. Everyone, read writers from marginalized communities, and whose original language is not your own. You'll find something you love, I promise. (Then I want you to tell me about it so I can enjoy it too!)
  • Socialize literarily. Take your friends to book festivals, and spend happy hour at author readings. Pull up a barstool at a poetry slam, or cozy up with a book at a Quiet Reading Club. 
  • Review the books you love. This is definitely an area of improvement for me. I write some formal reviews for the Washington Independent, but I rarely go onto GoodReads or Amazon to write up my thoughts. I should.
  • Contact the authors you adore. Humans love to know their efforts are appreciated. Send a letter, care of the author's agent or publisher. Or contact someone via their webpage. If nothing else, send a quick shout-out on Twitter. I've been amazed at how grateful writers have been when I share my enthusiasm -- even the very famous ones. We can all use a little warmth in our days, so spread the love.

I'm expecting next year will be a difficult year for many of us, for all sorts of reasons that we may foresee or not. I hope that books are an anchor for you. Thank you for the beautiful literary community you've created.


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