In Defense of Rereading

I recently came across an article where several notable writers revisited their earlier works, rereading them and remarking on their current feelings about these long-ago expressions of their selves. Philip Roth, for instance, checked in on Alexander Portnoy and Portnoy’s Complaint. Marilynne Robinson talked about the writing process for Housekeeping, and Junot Diaz writes about his frustration while working on The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

I loved reading these authors’ reactions to their own work. Hearing what George Saunders had to say about CivilWarLand in Bad Decline was the most interesting to me, though. He was the most critical of his earlier work, the most uncomfortable with it. He also talked about the memories it jostled out of him, taking him back to where he was when writing the book, the actual physical places he was when he wrote and edited the stories.

In closing, he said this:

It was interesting to come back to something I’d made and find how much it had changed. Though we think we are making permanent monuments against which our egos can rest, we’re actually making something more akin to a fog cloud. We come back to what we’ve made and find out it’s been changing all along. We’ve changed, the artistic context around the story has changed, the world has changed. And this is kind of wonderful and useful. It made me remember that the real value of the artistic act is not product but process.

I loved that sentiment, for what it represented about the feelings all of us (writers, artists, creators) have when we look back on something we made long ago. Who among us hasn’t stumbled upon an old notebook, opened it to a poem we wrote in high school (it’s always a poem), and thought, “WHO WROTE THAT? It cannot be me.” Of course, to compare our high school poetry to George Saunders’s excellent short story collection is a little harsh, but you get my meaning.

But his statement also struck me as an apt description of how I feel about rereading books, particularly books I connected deeply with long, long ago.

Rereading, if not exactly a controversial topic, is at least one that some book-lovers have strong opinions on. I know fellow readers who think it’s crazy to reread books — I mean, it’s such a big world, there are so many books out there, and more coming into being every day, and our time is so limited… I get that, I do. Trust me, I often think that the thing I fear most about getting old and dying is not the pain and decay — it’s that I will not have had the chance to read all the books I want to. (Seriously, these are the things that trouble me. That and running out of red wine at an inopportune time.)

But, just as strident in the other camp are the rereaders, and I am proud to plant my proverbial flag there.

Because we are different people from one minute to the next, day to day, year to year. We change. The world changes. And given that we change, how we feel about certain books changes. And what we get out of those books changes. And I love seeing the different things I get out of certain books over time.

That’s why to me, it doesn’t even feel like rereading, really. I often feel I’m approaching a book anew.

For instance, a few years ago I reread Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn. This is a book I’d read only once before, about two decades earlier in high school. In fact, I still have that original copy. I remembered loving it, its weirdness, the alternate reality Dunn created that felt so different, but also felt so normal. It did not let me down upon rereading it. In fact, as I’ve often found, my appreciation for it deepened, and I felt that at their heart, the Binewskis were a family (of freaks, yes) not all that different from my own, or yours, or your neighbor’s.

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It doesn’t always go as planned, though. When I reread Life of Pi (no, I haven’t seen the movie), I did not have that same magical feeling as the first time I read it. Maybe this is because of the nature of the book’s ending, so I knew what was coming. Or maybe it was just that I changed and something in me didn’t feel the same this go ’round. I adored and even wept over that book the first time. This time, eh. Rereading can be weird like that.

I’ve come to ask myself while reading a (truly) new book, “Would I reread this?” That’s usually a great indicator of how I really feel about a book. I’m careful in my reading selections, and it’s rare that I out-and-out hate something. I like lots of things. But I find I only want to reread certain books now and then.

Some, like Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! have been a part of my life for decades. I think I’ve reread that one twice now, and I know I’m not done with it yet. Faulkner, in particular, is an author you can keep going back to and getting new things from his works every time. I feel the same way about The Sound and the Fury, naturally. (Now, THAT book, you simply MUST reread if you ever really want to get a handle on it. I think I’ve reread it three times and I feel like I’m getting there. Maybe.)

A more recent addition to the “will keep rereading forever” club for me is Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout. I first read it last year and could not put it down. I immediately reread it. We’re talking: finish the book, turn the last page, then flip back to the first page and start over. The nuances of that book, the way she gets at longing and nostalgia — LIFE! — astound me. It’s so beautiful. I love cranky old Olive, too. She’s a handful. (And, yes, I did see the recent HBO mini-series: two thumbs up from me, although even though I love Bill Murray, I’m not sure he was exactly right in that role.)

Now, maybe I hadn’t changed that much in between my first and second readings of Olive Kitteridge, but I still loved it even more fiercely the second time through. I’m waiting awhile before I go for it again.

Rereading, for me, is like sitting down with an old friend, one I’ve known for years but haven’t kept up with. I like to see how I’ve changed and grown, and how I haven’t. I like to notice the things that stand out to me that didn’t before, which things speak to me that were previously silent.

It’s amazing to see yourself in books, and to see your growth as a person and your life experiences reflected there. And I do, each and every time I reread something.

All you anti-rereaders out there should try it sometime.

Books: On The Power of Habit

How much of what you do in your day-to-day life is driven by habit? I bet it’s more than you think. Journalist Charles Duhigg’s excellent book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, explores the role of habit in our lives, in society, and in business. It’s an eye-opening look at the fact that, as he points out early in the book, one 2006 study found that more than 40% of the actions people engage in everyday are driven not by active decision-making, but by habit.

Duhigg defines “habits” as “choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day.” It’s not hard to identify them in our lives – just think about your morning routine, for instance. Do you start your day with coffee each morning at roughly the same time? Do you read the paper or perhaps check your email? Or, what about later at work? Do you break for a mid-afternoon snack at about the same time each day? When you get home after work, do you lace up your running shoes or turn on the TV? Habits are the things that just seem to occur naturally after a while, to the point that we often hardly notice them at all.

Habits get a bit of a bad rap, to be sure, but they are necessary for our brains to function efficiently and effectively. If we had to start from scratch mentally each time we needed to do something  — say, choose what to have for breakfast — we’d expend a tremendous amount of brainpower that could be more effectively used elsewhere. The brain automatically looks for patterns and behaviors that it can create shortcuts for, and those shortcuts become habits.

Duhigg explains that habits can be broken down into three distinct steps: a cue, a routine, and a reward. This is the habit loop and it’s crucial to understand its components if you’re looking to change a habit. In fact, he argues that you can’t eliminate habits; you can only change them. And even that is really difficult. Anyone who has struggled to maintain a new exercise regime can certainly understand this truth.

In addition to covering how habits work in our personal lives, Duhigg also explains how companies like Starbucks use habits to instill a strong customer service ethic in its employees. He writes, too, about how habits in society can bring about positive social change.

It’s a fascinating book that will make you look anew at your own habits.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2014/11/07/book-biz-uncovering-habits-drive-daily-lives/)

Books: On The Last Days of California

It’s no secret that Mississippi has produced a number of literary luminaries, whether we’re talking about William Faulkner or Eudora Welty or Larry Brown. Our rich literary history isn’t just history, though — new voices abound, which is both encouraging and exciting. For avid readers, discovering these new writers and being able to follow their careers is such a gift.

Mary Miller is one shining example of these new voices. She’s a Jackson, Mississippi native, and is currently the John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss, following her time as a Michener Fellow in fiction at the University of Texas.

In 2009, Miller published a collection of short stories called Big World, which I read and loved. I found her writing dark, funny, and insightful. So, it was with great anticipation that I awaited the publication of her debut novel this past year. Luckily for readers everywhere, she didn’t disappoint.

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Narrated by a 15-year-old girl named Jess, The Last Days of California is about a family vacation, a road trip across the country from Montgomery, Alabama, to California. In many ways, it’s exactly like the vacations many of us have taken in our lives, complete with the annoyances and frustrations most families feel when in the car together for days. The key difference, though, is that Jess’s evangelical father believes that the rapture is imminent, and so is taking his family to the West Coast to both witness it and to proselytize to people along the way. Jess’s big sister Elise, a couple of years older, looms large as everything Jess feels she’ll never be: beautiful, self-assured, outspoken, and rebellious. Jess’s mother is also along for the ride, quietly skeptical and a bit removed, but supportive of her husband nonetheless.

Miller’s writing here is incredibly detailed, capturing perfectly the landscape of the South as seen during a road trip, from the changing landscape as they move across Texas to the various snack foods Jess and her sister buy at each stop along the way. In Jess’s voice, Miller has created a character any of us could relate to, no matter how far removed from our teenage selves we are. She’s searching for answers, both big and small. She bounces easily from concerns about her religion and what she really believes to worries about her family’s stability to more usual 15-year-old thoughts about her weight and whether a boy will ever like her.

Poignant, relatable, and often funny, The Last Days of California is a standout book that I enjoyed reading. I’m already looking forward to what Miller does next.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2014/11/13/book-biz-last-days-california-compelling-debut-novel-mississippi-native/)

Ellen Gilchrist’s “Acts of God” Proves She’s Not Done Yet

Mississippi’s own modern-day master of the short story, Ellen Gilchrist, is back in true form. With Acts of God, her first book in eight years, and her 12th book of short stories overall, Gilchrist again pleases those who love her wit, her wry sensibility, and her keen eye for detail.

Gilchrist, at 79, has built a long career as a successful writer, and she shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. I was lucky enough to attend a book signing and reading she did this past May in New Orleans at the independent bookstore Garden District Books.

In front of a standing-room-only crowd, Gilchrist read one of the stories from her new collection, bringing back to life the beloved recurring character of Rhoda Manning. Set up as a series of letters between Rhoda, her lawyer, and her neighbors over some noisy dogs next door, the escalation of a trivial situation in Gilchrist’s capable hands was so funny she had us laughing the entire time. The pleasure of hearing a writer like Gilchrist read her own work can’t be overstated. And she herself said that when she writes something funny, she still thinks it’s funny long after, no matter how many times she’s read her own work.

As usual for the National Book Award-winning Gilchrist, she’s filled Acts of God’s ten stories with characters from Mississippi and she’s set a lot of the action either in Mississippi or New Orleans. She herself still keeps a condo on the beach in Ocean Springs, although she primarily lives, as she has for years, in Fayetteville, Ark.

The “acts of god” referred to in the book’s title do take the form of natural disasters in many of these stories, but she also stretches the meaning to include, more simply, things that her characters cannot control (like Rhoda and those pesky dogs next door). Hurricane Katrina gets its due here in more than one story, as does a tornado in Arkansas. But instead of being beaten by these external forces, her characters repeatedly find themselves learning how strong they can really be, and figuring out what matters most in life and what doesn’t. All of this sounds like heavy stuff, and it is, but somehow Gilchrist still manages to find the lightness here and make us laugh.

Asked after she was done reading how she felt about writing for all these many years and where she found inspiration, she said, without missing a beat, “Y’all just keep doing all these crazy things and I just keep writing about it.”

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2014/05/30/book-biz-mississippian-ellen-gilchrists-newest-book-delights/)

Books: On Your Money and Your Brain

Thinking back to our high school or college economics classes, most of us probably learned that when it comes to making economic decisions, humans can be trusted to act rationally. We carefully weigh available information, think through the probabilities, and make our decisions based strictly on cold, hard logic.

The truth, as it turns out, is a bit more complicated. Our brains can be our own worst enemies, throwing up roadblocks to smart decision-making and clouding our ability to think clearly. Emotions do come into play when we’re thinking about money, and operating as if they don’t could you leave you poorer without really understanding why.

Luckily, we can arm ourselves with knowledge about how our brains sometime trick us into making bad decisions, and hopefully use that information to battle back against our own worst impulses. Jason Zweig’s book, Your Money and Your Brain: How the New Science of Neuroeconomics Can Help Make You Rich, will help you do just that.

One of the earliest books published on the topic of neuroeconomics (which combines the fields of neuroscience, economics, and psychology), Zweig’s book reads like a road map to your brain’s dirty tricks. To quote him, “… you will never maximize your wealth unless you can optimize your mind.”

Zweig organizes his book around topics most investors are familiar with: greed, prediction, confidence, risk, fear, surprise, regret, and happiness. He then takes us inside the neural pathways that are connected to these, and the different parts of the brain that are stimulated, and explains why. It’s eye opening, to say the least.

When you realize, for instance, that the pain from a loss is actually much greater than the pleasure you get from a gain, you can begin to take steps to limit your own reactions. You’ll never completely rid yourself of these emotions (and he argues that would be just as damaging to your returns), but knowing why you’re thinking and feeling the way you are will give you a real advantage. Zweig provides actionable steps at the end of each chapter for how to keep your brain in check.

Quoting him again, “When you win, lose, or risk money, you stir up some of the most profound emotions a human being can ever feel.” Taking the steps necessary to learn how your emotions interact with and interfere with your decision-making will undoubtedly enlighten you, and may just enrich you, as well.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2014/02/07/book-biz-comes-money-brain-may-worst-enemy/)

Unexpected Findings Abound in “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants”

Author Malcolm Gladwell has made a career out of taking conventional wisdom and turning it on its head. Whether he’s explaining how seemingly small events transform themselves into trends (The Tipping Point), or how protégés and experts are made and not born (Outliers), or how what we perceive as instinct may not be (Blink), his books challenge us to reassess our assumptions about how the world works.

His newest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, tackles, broadly, how we view advantages and disadvantages. How do underdogs win against those with everything stacked in their favor? What can we learn from them? In classic Gladwell style, he introduces us to everyday people who have overcome what, at first glance, seem to be impossible odds. And he demonstrates that “giants” can be toppled and, in fact, may not be giants at all.

A mix of popular science, sociology and cultural study, David and Goliath is easy to read and covers a fascinating array of topics. Gladwell moves, for instance, from whether or not a high school graduate should always choose the best college he or she is accepted to, to examples of successful people who flourished despite (or maybe because of) their dyslexia, to questioning whether small class sizes really are beneficial to students, to examining whether losing a parent at a young age can actually motivate someone to succeed later in life. That’s just a small sampling.

Along the way, I suspect anyone reading this book will find at least one of Gladwell’s conclusions completely counterintuitive. Yet his writing and storytelling and the evidence he produces will make you think long and hard about your own preconceptions and the way you view the world. That’s what I think his particular gift as a writer is, and that’s what makes his books so enjoyable to read. You’re going to learn something, in an interesting way, and there’s a strong chance you’ll look at things differently after. (Including, here, the story we’ve all grown up hearing about how David defeated Goliath.)

Maybe you consider yourself (or your business) to be an underdog. Or perhaps you’re actually a giant, with a dominant position in your industry and among your competitors. Regardless, there are smart take-aways to be found throughout this book. There’s no guarantee, after all, that every Goliath will be brought to his knees and every David will prevail. Retuning your thinking about each side of this equation could be helpful and would undoubtedly be interesting.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2014/02/21/book-biz-rethinking-defines-underdog-manage-win/)

Books: On To Sell Is Human: The Surpising Truth About Moving Others

Quick, answer the following question: “Are you in sales?” Unless your profession involves selling insurance, or cars, or something else specific, you’re likely to answer this question with a resounding “no.” But not so fast, according to best-selling author Daniel Pink’s newest book, To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others. In it, he argues persuasively that though the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that one-in-nine Americans are in sales, the other eight of us actually are, too.

Using colorful anecdotes to personalize the points he’s making (including the story of the last working Fuller Brush Man in existence), Pink walks us through how economic and societal changes that began in the last century have affected how we define a “salesman.” To start, where formerly there was an information asymmetry in favor of the salesman, now thanks largely to the mass of information available online, the balance of power has shifted to the consumer. Consumers are better informed about their choices and what they want to pay for them than ever before. A car salesman or an appliance salesman has to be ready for this, knowing that there’s a good chance the person walking through their doors has done extensive research and can’t be “sold” in a traditional way.

The larger point, though, that leads Pink to determine that nearly all of us are selling in one way or another is the growth of small businesses. In smaller companies, roles and job responsibilities are by necessity fluid. The founder of a small business has to be able, for instance, to convince venture capital firms to invest in his company, to convince banks to loan him money, to convince stores to stock what he’s producing, and to convince his employees to remain engaged and loyal.

It’s this act of “moving” someone to part with something in exchange for what you’re offering — whether you’re asking them to part with time or attention or shelf space or actual money — that Pink’s referring to as “selling” in the new economic landscape. And just about all of us are doing it in one way or another, whether you’re trying to convert co-workers in a meeting to your way of thinking or even trying to talk your kids into finishing their homework.

Pink provides lots of practical guidance and tools in his book for those of us interested in improving our ability to move others and sell effectively. And if you still think you’re not actually in sales, this book might just surprise you.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2014/01/10/book-biz-new-look-world-sales/)