5 Tips to Alleviate the Dense

There are those tomes that try as we might to read with some semblance of speed and agility, our progress remains nearly stationary when set against the larger page count. I don’t know about you, but the prospect of finishing a thousand plus page book in a society that’s becoming known for an attention span of less-than-30-second vine clips makes me cringe.

That said, is it futile to push on? Never. Set your goals for reading the bigger books high, and live up to those expectations, for the worth in finishing the dense books that many have tried and few have conquered can become some of the most meaningful experiences of your life. Here are a few tips to get you going:

1. Set a Schedule: This is by far the most important element in succeeding whenever reading a book that could easily suffice as a car seat for a toddler. Set a specific page goal for the day and stick to it. Through thick and thin it’s most often when we’re in the throes of the monstrous–wallowing away four hundred pages into a book and not even being halfway–that we tend to toss in the towel fifteen-twenty pages too soon. On days when I don’t work, I mandate one-hundred pages from myself. On work days–50. Whatever yours may be, set it and stick to it.

2. Read Summaries: This is an aspect of reading a large, difficult book that many people deem cheating. But, if you’re like me and pride yourself in tackling those books others shy away from because of difficulty and length, reading summaries alongside some of the more difficult chapters of a dense Dostoevsky or Dumas novel will alleviate some of the stresses of gleaning plot from antiquated and nuanced language. Certainly every word has its place, but grasping a loose understanding of the plot either before or after reading a section of a larger novel can be an essential tool necessary to pull you through to the end.

3. Find Your Quiet Space: I’m a bit of a hermit when it comes to reading, and anyone who knows me will tell you that I value my peace and quiet–to the point that the faint hum of the refrigerator can sometimes be distracting. Thus, I read on my couch, away from distraction, screens and computers, the accoutrements of a culture hell-bent on switching attention every thirty seconds. I need silence to read, and thus I seek it out wherever I can get it–I suggest you do the same.

4. Persevere: Common sense has never been so simple. In order to wrestle your way through the Don Quixote‘s in the world one must be willing to stomach the boring, the passive, the antiquated, and the frustrating in order to extract those bits of truth we hungrily vie for whenever we set our sights on one of the denser classics.

5. Self-talk: This might just be me, but often when reading something particularly difficult and dense, there’s always that moment when the world sort of screams for you to quit. That little voice can be the bane of trudging through the marshy waters of dense literature, and thus, I need to personally remind myself that I can read thisIt’s worth it. Just like long-distance running, the prize is often awaiting you at the very end. The exhaustion and clear-headedness of finishing something others deem too difficult is reward in and of itself.

So the next time you set your sights high and feel your diligence and perseverance wavering under the pressure of the dense, remember the above strategies for making it through those books that are worth it–and, believe me, they are.

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To Be An Expert

I recently read that in order to become an expert in a particular field or subject one must practice/engage/hone a specific skill for a minimum of 10,000 hours (the equivalent of 1,250 8-hour work days)–which brings me to a subject that seems to become increasingly more important as I get older–that of expertise.

I think a necessary aspect of humanity is that of drive, which is nothing more than the abstract representation of a desire for expertise.

We all long to be the best. Be it an athlete, mathematician, writer, scientist, competitive eater, no matter what the field our passion to be the greatest is the very essence that gets us up in the morning. It’s that which keeps us in the gym after work and the lights on well-past quitting time.

Personally, I aspire to be a writer. This isn’t a secret, nor is it something I hide from my friends, family, fiancé. They all know it, and encourage, and I’m thankful for their encouragement. With that said, based on the above it’ll be a staggering number of years before I’m ever able to consider myself an “expert” in writing. I can teach the craft to high-school students until my lips turn blue, and for some reason that edge toward expertise will never be reached–the carrot perpetually dangled but never fully grasped.

Philosophically, I wonder if anyone ever truly considers themselves “experts” in their field. The examples of humility from the greats are too many to count. Haruki Murakami didn’t start writing until his early 40’s and yet, despite global success as an author, he still exhibits the puerile sense of language that borders on the jejune. He’s an adolescent trapped in an elderly man’s body that consistently turns out some of the most intriguing prose today.

Take sushi chef Jiro Ono who has literally devoted his entire life to making the world’s best sushi (see Jiro Dreams of Sushi). Here’s a man who slaves over literally every intricacy of his food, his craft, his livlihood in order to make it supremely “perfect.” Expert? Absolutely. Although, I would wager to bet that were Jiro Ono asked about his own expertise, he’d claim he’s still learning. He’s still growing. He’s still honing his skills to somehow, someway, get better.

But such dedication is necessary toward pursuing that which makes us whole, and growth is always at the forefront of experience. I just wonder if expertise is the intangible equivalent of finance–the idea that there’s never enough money in the bank to satiate our limitless desires.

Expertise itself seems to be the spawn of what makes Buddhism such a universally satisfying ideology in that it professes relinquishment of the very thing that drives us–it professes the need to rid ourselves of want, of desire, of hunger itself.

But the point still stands. We all have an innate sense of thirst or hunger for the need to be an expert.

What’s your expertise?

Blind Positivity: On Making It Through

With summer drawing to a close it’s a reluctant adios to my blissfully sedentary days of reading and writing for god-only-knows how long. It’s a sad change, yet leisure time, albeit well-spent leisure time still leads to a slush of days in which my gut seems to expand with every page I take down.

As most of you know (see about) I’m a teacher. I love my job. It’s satisfying like nothing else could be. Regardless, there’s always a sadness and a relative anxiety about going back to school, working with hundreds of children, pushing classics I love, and instructing them on how to write a proper paper.

Let’s just put it this way, I’m not exactly happy about returning back to school, but it’s a living, and at the end of the day, I can smile my way through anything. Sometimes the only way to get through the tough times is to remind yourself that life, deep down is good, and things are never as dark as they seem.

I’m not trying to be take on some woe-is-me mentality and really my job is fantastic. I love working where I do, but after a two month break from anything returning back any job would be difficult. And thus I recommend my own personal coping strategy. Be positive: no. matter. what.

Minor fender bender? Don’t sweat it. Tick off the boss? Exhale out the bad and breathe in the good. Forget your lunch? Go find a granola bar and get over it. And after it all, when someone asks you that unbelievably vacuous question: “How are you?” you smile and respond with an equally nauseating: “So great!”

You’ll find that however synthetically sugary-sweet the response, it’s met laughter. The artifice of responding with such positivity is the point. It leads to genuine laughter and smiling, which’ll never fail in bringing out the best in people.

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Maniacally deranged? Forced? Completely artificial? You bet! And that’s the point.

Sometimes all that’s required to turn the horror of yet another work day into something tolerable, something maybe even fun, is the simple reminder that the little snags and strifes that life tosses your way are not as significant as they seem.

So the next time you experience one of the inexplicably difficult days, tilt your chin up, pull those shoulders back, breathe, and know that things really are so great. At least, eventually, they will be.

Escapism: A Discussion

As an avid reader, escapism seems to be the name of the game. I read for a number of hours a day without fail, without remorse, without reservation. I long for the experiences of others. I long for thoughts and actions of the greatest minds of our kind so that I might be able to make some sort of sense out of my own.

To some extent, books are the instruction manuals for how to live a life–for better or worse.

But as much as I try, I can’t get past the thought that inherent in the act of reading is the act of escapism. That in order to experience the lives and actions of others we must break outside our own present–which to me strikes a harsh chord against the idea of “presence” in life.

The sad (maybe?) part of it all is the truth that we’re all escapists.

No matter what our poison, be it books, movies, television, music, we’re all longing for that clean, well-lit place that Hemingway so beautifully penned in the 1930’s and people like Tolkien and Lewis made fantastical for even further gratification.

We’re all longing for a sense of home in the things we experience, when for most of us, the very act of sitting down to consume whatever media we’ve got is the essence of home. Our media (books included) has become a perverse sort of hearth we gather around for our own sense of appeasement.

But is this a good thing? As hard as this is to admit: what’s the difference between escaping into the pages of a book vs. the pixelated glow of a screen? Obviously one is more linguistically advanced than the other, but the idea is the still the same. Regardless of media or format, we’re still diverging from the present for the seemingly greener pastures of the other.

Is escapism a good thing or a bad thing? What are your thoughts?

To Be Well Read

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I came across the Guardian’s list of the Top 100 greatest novels of all time, and I have to say that I’m impressed. Such a list is something that is immensely difficult to come up with, but The Guardian has chosen a selection of novels (some I’ve heard of, some I haven’t) that stretch in fields and genre’s from Shelley’s Frankenstein, to Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night A Traveler, and it’s made me recognize that despite my own sense of confidence–my own sense of satisfaction at the fact that regardless of occupation and personal/social obligation, I’ve still been able to tackle roughly a book a week. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but there’s always something on the nightstand/coffee table/toilet (yup).

And yet, the contents of this list are awesomely unfamiliar.

Which brings up an interesting question: What does it mean to be well-read? As an individual that reads constantly, I’d like to consider myself as one who is relatively well-read, but this list proves otherwise. Does it mean one has to read the classics? The biographies? The sciences, essays, and fictions of each continent?

IMG_0204I’ve been criticized time and again from some colleagues that I’m relatively grounded in anglo-continentalism (old, dead, white, men) and to some extent, I agree. But, regardless of my own literary limitations, it’s nice to be reminded of the fact that there is always more. The world of great literature is never-ending and stretches into the furthest reaches of imagination. Those worlds that the most gifted of us imagine, but only select few are somehow able to transcribe.

Thus, I’m going to embark on a little challenge. I’m going to make a run at this list, and hopefully I’ll be successful. Interspersed with library books and the occasional amazon purchase, this list is going to largely comprise my reading for the next year or two (hopefully, no more). What sights await?

And yet, the question still stands: What makes an individual well-read? Clearly, it’s relative, but there has to be something out there that gives an individual that pluck of conversational awe us bibliophiles vie for so vehemently.

What are your thoughts?

Running and the Liminal Space

I run for several reasons. There are the obvious points behind the importance of physical fitness and cardiovascular health; it clarifies the mind and allows for detoxification of the body; it induces endorphins which cause a feeling of euphoria; I also run because I find it downright fun.

It’s a personal battle against the self. It’s the sensation of the fight at its purest. There’s the burn of the limbs, the harshness of intake of breath, and then the elements.

I confess, horrendous allergies limit me to running on a treadmill during the summer months, which any purist will dismiss outright as simply “not as good.” And I agree with them. It’s not. It’s the equivalent of eating at a McDonald’s in Shang-hi. Needless to say, I run because it’s fun.

But there’s more to running than simply cardiovascular health. There’s a willingness that must be pursued. There’s an inherent drive in the act of forcibly pushing one’s body to the brink of collapse that carries over into a number of other personal endeavors.

For one (and by far the most obvious)–running helps with perseverance. Whether it’s the perseverance to finish that tome of a novel, or the willingness to stick out a movie that might just suck enough to merit turning off before it’s through, running allows a person to enter that sort of fugue state in which finishing isn’t a maybe it’s a must.

Less obvious though are the mental benefits behind running, and these are by far the most important. After a hard day’s work, thirty-minutes on a treadmill is the best tonic available. When all is said and done, after I’ve pumped my limbs to the brink of collapse and driven my lungs through through the diverse gauntlet of huffs and puffs, the head is clear and the thoughts are easy. Those tasks that have been on my mind for the better part of the day (sometimes longer) dissipate with the knowledge that they will be done one way or another. Why worry? You just ran five miles straight–you’re practically Superman. What’s a bullet to the man of steel?

I suppose the underlying factor behind a good run is that it allows us to internally occupy that liminal space between anguish and contentment. The space where the limbs seem to go numb and the mind shuts down and there’s nothing but the pounding sensation of pavement, harsh breath, and the shudder of excitement at possibly breaking a personal time or distance. It allows for reflection of a different sort. A more absent-minded reflection where it’s both forced and not.

It’s no coincidence that runners are often avid readers. They both require the same skill-set. Diligence, perseverance, the will to finish, because acknowledging the fact that to read a 1000+ page book will take ten days of reading 100 pages or more is the very same as staring at a hill straight on and knowing that quitting is not an option.

Somehow the metaphorical (and not) hill must be conquered.

Linguistic Hedges and Bridges: Why Do We Read?

In short: we live through the words of others.

In length: we’re a bumbling race of accidents.

I won’t go into the whole evolutionary discussion as it pertains to creation because to do so would cause a torrential digression that I’m sure would aggravate some and incense others, which is not my purpose.

We all know that language is meant to connect. It’s meant to allow a glimpse into the other through our ability to give words and labels to that which we see and experience. E.g. Saussure’s “Theory of the Sign” and our ability to match labels to the world around us–signifier and signified and all that crap for the lit. theory majors out there.

Reading as a whole allows for windows and doors to be made from one consciousness to another. The connection is evident in our society’s broad range of reading appetites. Whether we’re reading for pleasure and joy or for inspiration and education, the point is the same. We’re looking for connection.

However, the search for connection also brings on an untended sort of isolation. How am I supposed to relate to the thoughts and sentiments of an author singularly different in every way from myself? Answer? I wish I had one.

Regardless, the importance of reading vs. something more immediate and imaginatively accommodating like television or movies is our ability to interpret and to construct. Reading requires a visionary self-construction to glimpse into the world of others. What the author intended may not be what we (the reader) constructs. And thus, we read to create. We read to bridge the gaps between the worlds of others and ourselves.

Myself, I’ve kept a list of my favorite quotes for the last decade. It began when I was seventeen and progressed and evolved from my scribblings in notebooks and little pocketbooks, and ultimately made its way (predictably so) into a word document that now stretches to nearly fifteen pages.

On it’s glossy-white digitized finish, I can trace the reading path of a decade’s worth of linguistic peaks and troughs–the thoughts that have hedged me into private reflection, and the thoughts that have connected. Those that have made me feel insignificant and entirely imperceptive, to those that have made me identify with the lives of some of the best minds of our species–both the worlds of now and then.

Whether it’s the isolationist crystalline beauty of Plath or Woolf to the bravado and machismo of Hemingway and Bukowski, I’ve been able to pick apart the lives of others as they’ve been put down by their creators. Through language, I’ve been able to create the connective bridges between my isolation and that of another to form a sort of collective conscious that ideally inspires, and regrettably segregates.

Hence the profuse reading agenda. We read to connect. We read to discover what others have thought the sense and purpose of our time here truly is. Is it to inspire, to isolate, or simply to exist?

The beauty of it is that at the end of the day, it’s your choice.

What do you wish to experience?