Tuesday, August 29, 2006

How do you pick a good book?

(NB: I am talking about fictional works, that is, novels.)

This post is the first of a two-part post on “What are the signs of a good book?” I decided to break the post into two (with one focusing on picking a good book and with the other (the next post) focusing on the reactions to a good book), because I noticed that most books I read are good books. Consequently, it occurred to me that, on some level, I read only books that I predict would be good. I am selective in what I read, particularly because I don’t have that much time, since my school work is so jealous and demanding that it threatens to limit my time and effort with anything that is not it.

So how do I pick my books? The words below reveal my list of steps, which I suspect is not unique to me.

Before I buy or borrow a book, the first thing I look at is the back
cover, in order to determine whether the book’s content appeals to my mind—and this is why it annoys me when I see a book whose back cover consists solely of what people thought about the book; there is no brief synopsis, no nothing. For authors that I already love, this might not be as offensive, but it still is offensive. Don’t assume that I’ll like a book solely because someone said good things about it or because I liked an author’s previous books.

This step in the good-book-picking applies even when someone recommends a book. If the person who recommended the book is someone whose opinion and insight I value, the duration of Step 1 is considerably shorter and the book more or less automatically proceeds to Step 2 and Step 3.

I read a few pages of the book. What I am looking for now is the writing style of the author, to see if my mind can stand the voice and narrative style of this new book. I tend to like books that speak in a “literary” way, where ideas are not written as they are (or in a plot-driven sort of way), but are written in a state of comparison or exaggeration, so that I see old ideas in a different view, however subtly different that view might be. I also like books with an insightful flair. When I read a couple of pages or so of these kinds of books, I get a sense that I am going to learn something, that I am going to be required to examine my world view, my approach to my life or the life around and outside of me.

I determine whether I am going to buy or borrow the book in question. This decision is primarily determined by the price of the book and my budget at the time. However, there have been times when a book’s appeal to my mind and heart is so urgent that I find myself mentally hungry for it, and I, consequently, override any objections induced by the price. This hunger is prompted mainly by the expectation of how much I am going to love or learn from the voice of the book.

I read the book, which I suspect will be “good.”

That is it. That is my four-step examination of a potential read.
My next post will talk about how I react when I read a good book. Stay tuned.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Our inherent power

Hearing that someone we know kicked the bucket invariably seems to drive us into an ocean of questions, questions that we anxiously direct towards ourselves. When a life is gone, we invariably think about our lives and the damages that would occur (if any) in our absence--it might seem selfish or inconsiderate to think about our still-present life upon hearing the loss of another, but it really is not. We exist via the presence of others; our living is dependent on the others acknowledging or noticing that we exist. Therefore, to lose a person we know is, in some sense, to lose a part of our definition, and so we have become so fearful of the “D” word. To talk about the “D” word is to be morbid…

Why are we so fearful of "The end"? Is it because life can sometimes be like reading a really good book, which we imbibe in bits, savoring each page, delaying reading further ahead, and rereading certain parts, because we are not ready to see the story end? Alternatively, is it that we are socially wired to think about tomorrow, to plan for many tomorrows, so the idea of being denied a tomorrow is a kind of death?

Is our "tomorrow mentality" adequately beneficial? Does it explain our intense fear of "the end"? Even the most incredibly entertaining book must eventually end. Sometimes, the greatness of something is best (or only) realized after it is gone. What would life be like if we were to have a "today mentality" coated with a layer of hope for tomorrow? Maybe if we didn’t command tomorrow to come to us, if we didn't demand it as if it were our right, then when tomorrow fails to come, we wouldn't be in shock or panic. When we hear of “D’s” knocking, it shouldn’t require a dramatic change in our daily way of living, there shouldn't be much in the room for regret, and so on, as we see in Last Holiday, starring Queen Latifa.

Life does not exist in tomorrow; it exists in the now. Life is valuable while we have it, and it is justified to feel sorrow when it is lost. Consequently, it is good to be aware that it will be lost—and our decisions about life should be informed by this awareness, so that we would be prepared, come what may.

As an aside, I think it is also good to remember that our lives are made complete with the awareness and acknowledgment of others. When we abuse, injure or otherwise despise another life, we partake in rendering that life relatively meaningless--an unacknowledged or respected life is a murdered life. I do not mean to make my readers uncomfortable. It is just sad to see, in the course of even just a few hours, the devaluation of populations of the living even as we fear "the end." How so often we choose to ignore the power (of influence, for example) that we have over others’ lives--the power to make better or to make worse. Certainly, we have to take responsibility for our own lives, but there is no denying that in the movie about our individual lives, we are only one of the characters.

I promise that my next post (God-willing) will be a bit less serious. It is going to be about books we love.

I hope you have an enjoyable day.

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Thursday, August 03, 2006

Goodbye, my uncle

I found out yesterday that a beloved relative, one who has been like an uncle to me, just passed away in his sleep. His illness finally took him. I'm glad that, at least, at the last moments, it took him peacefully.

Yesterday, when my sister called to let me in on the news, I was sleeping. I was a little upset at the interruption; for some reason, my sleep had been restless and I slept with unease. When she told me the news, sleep instantly ran away from me as I screamed. Tears fell as if my eyes were a basket full of water. My mind reminded me of the people who would feel the pain of his death, more than I could, and the realization weighed me down into silence, as if for a moment I carried all their pains on my heart.

I still cannot believe it is true; it seems strange and unlikely. I mean, we were making plans to visit him next year. We were all looking forward to meeting with each other again, particularly after a long physical absence. Now, he is gone, leaving nothing but memories that, for now, seem like a cheap substitute. Another reminder that tomorrow is not guaranteed.

It is still so unreal. Death is probably the most frequent and constant thing, rivaled only by birth. But when death visits someone you know, someone you love, it seems like it's just your bad luck--that you've won a lottery from death. When it comes to the people we love, death seems like a one in a billion chances occurrence. It is the kind of lottery we do not like to win.

Life is so fragile and so fickle. One moment it's here, and the next it's gone, sometimes without much notice. The greatest thing we can accomplish while we have it is not success, riches, and other materialistic things; it is loving and being loved by those around us. When we are gone, all we leave behind are memories. If there is no one to shelter, lovingly, our memories, we fade away completely, almost as if we never existed. Love God, love people, and be loved. These are the only things that ultimately matter. These things are worth living for, because they are eternal--they don't cease to exist because our breaths escape from us. These things transcend life and death, as we know it.

I will miss you, uncle. I pray that you find mercy, peace, and rest. The memories of you rest safely in my heart.

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