It's the reason people ask me how I can own an e-reader. Where's the romance? Where's the love of the book? they ask. You are murdering books and the publishing industry as we know it.
I've actually been told that. Ouch.
I think if you took one look at my "living room" (which has been transformed into our "library") anyone could tell I love me some tree-books. Although most of them were bought before I had a Nook (and a way to e-read), many have been bought after.
But standing in the store using all my will-power not to pick up yet another to add to my collection, I realized there is a difference between loving books, and loving reading.
I love them both.
I love the books - holding them and flipping through them and seeing the colors of the cover and being able to read the front and the back at practically the same time. The physical book is part of the enjoyment of reading.
But it is not everything.
Most of the enjoyment of reading itself comes from the story - one which can be read between covers, or on an electronic device, which, I admit, is also attractive to me. I love the smoothness of the plastic, the way the buttons click just so, the way the words change magically in front of my face as I "turn" pages. The touch screen I am addicted to.
The fact that I can read on an electronic device actually helps me keep engaged in the book, ironically. When reading with a tree-book, I find myself breaking away every now and then, checking my phone, my computer. I am torn between my two addictions.
But when I read on an e-reader, I feed them both at the same time. Subconsciously, my fingers are soothed by the clicking through the pages, and I don't feel the need to constantly check my emails and social media. I am more free to get lost in the story. And as strange as this sounds, I'm not alone. In the book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distractions, the author Alan Jacobs says the same thing.
And when people like to point out that e-readers are going to be the death of books, I like to point to the iPod. Did that kill music? Indeed not! It's true that there are less physical music stores out there. The album is rare, tapes almost non-existant, and CDs probably dwindling. But music continues to thrive, more now than ever. By making music more portable, more immediately accessible, less expensive, consumers tend to buy and listen to more. More artists have the ability to get their voice out there to be heard.
The digitization of books is similar. E-readers allow e-books, and e-books allow more authors to have their shot at publication, allow more competition, which eventually I believe will lead to better quality. The people I know who use their electronic readers primarily, buy more books. They read more. They read far more than they used to read tree-books. They spend far more money on books than they did before.
Maybe people miss music stores, but I haven't heard many people moaning over it lately. People like being able to listen to entire albums online before buying, buying only the songs they love, downloading it immediately when they hear a song.
I don't know that physical book stores will go away in the same manner, but I think if they do, the transition will be long, and by then we'll be weaned enough that we don't miss them as much. We aren't there now, for sure. My own drooling in the grocery store aisle is testament to that. But I also can see a future where there are more books being published, more access to them, and less expense (to say nothing of less space required to keep them in my house!).
Change is rarely easy. Some of us will go kicking and screaming. And others... like a frog in boiling water we'll someday look around and say, "Wait a minute? When did this happen?" Luckily, we're not frogs, and we'll survive whatever comes just fine.
I have imaginary friends. They have conversations in my head. Then I write it down.
Although Mortenson and Relin’s biographical book, Three Cups of Tea, has been criticized for showing Mortenson in a biased and all-too-heroic light, I disagree. There is plenty of flaw in this mountaineer-turned-humanitarian, and that is what made him come alive on the pages, and, if possible, seem even more heroic.
Although listed as co-authors, it’s fairly clear that the majority of this book is written by David Oliver Relin. It presents a third person point of view biography of the man who has come to be known as Dr. Greg. The story begins with a failure and a triumph. On his way to conquer K2, mountain climber Greg Mortenson is called off-course, after already climbing eight times to high camp with the expedition’s food and oxygen stock, to save another climber suffering from pulmonary and cerebral edema. Though it might be easy to paint Mortenson as a superhero who trekked up and down K2 saving lives, it’s this saving of the life that saps his energy and costs him his bid for the summit. Once a helicopter rescues the ill climber at the lower camp where he has been dragged, Mortenson is left to descend the rest of the mountain on his own, where he gets lost and ends up quite sick himself in a small Pakistan village that has never seen a foreigner.
Although this failure brings about the life-changing plans to build schools for the impoverished children of Pakistan, it never seems far from Mortenson’s mind. Failure itself seems to hang over him hard, even through the successes, as he lives in his car and in crack-addled hostiles, faces empty rooms where no one shows to hear him talk, and waits long days for replies to hundreds of pleas for funding that never come.
It is not just his external circumstances that scream failure; Mortenson himself is full of flaws. His work is seemingly disorganized, his basement office “an embarrassing mess.” He appeared depressed, often hiding from the world and his family when he is back in the United States and eventually is given the name of a therapist when he is unable to cope with the depression and anger towards people who want more time than he has to give. He left his family – first a wife, then eventually two children as well – for months at a time, traveling overseas to Pakistan, Afghanistan and India as well as around the country on fund-raising missions. In charge of the Central Asian Institute, Mortenson frustrated his fellow board members with his inability to delegate tasks and allow others in on the planning, leaving them with the knowledge that without him, the charitable work in the middle east through CAI would cease to be. He also became obsessed about the work to the point where “he stopped climbing and exercising. He stopped sleeping. He began to gain so much weight that he didn’t even look like a mountaineer anymore.”
Even in his more heroic acts, he stumbles. When making good on his promise to build the first school, he is ineffective on fundraising. He entrusts his load of cement and lumber to a Pakistani who hides it and uses it for himself and as ransom to get Mortenson to build a school in his town instead. Once he is ready to bring the materials to the town, he is told there is no way to get them there across the river as there is no bridge. Although there will be many instances in which Mortenson comes up against brick walls not of his own doing – such as the Taliban kidnapping of him and the destruction of his passport– there are plenty of times in which Mortenson himself seems to not plan enough and not handle the finances well enough.
He is, however, aware of these failings, and they serve to only send him into further withdrawals at home. When Mortenson is quoted, he is self-effacing and humble in his accomplishments, often giving credit to others
The fact is that what Mortenson does accomplish – building more than 81 schools and bringing clean water pipelines as well as other community improvements – in a region of the world that hates Americans and is at war with them, in a culture he does not initially know, with a language he does not speak, with no contacts or friends or political backing – is amazing. It would be amazing if a superhero with only an aversion to cryptonite did it. The fact that Mortenson, a humble, disorganized, self-conscious and shy individual has done it is what makes it so very heroic.
For writers of fiction or non-fiction this is a lesson to be learned: let the weaknesses shine. Not only does this make for a more believable character, but it makes their victories more triumphant.
It's been a concern of mine for years: writing characters that resemble me a little too closely!
There’s no doubt that people pick up The Art of Racing in the Rain because of the too-close photo of the dog on the front and the fact that it’s written from a dog’s point of view. Enzo the dog makes a tremendous and unique narrator, and that choice for this book is brilliant. But it was not Enzo that kept me reading this book. As cute and philosophical and creative as that point of view is, what kept me glued to page after page until way too late at night was the plot – the fact that event after event piled on top of each other moved the book in such a way that even the dog lazing in the sun couldn’t slow it down.
The book opens on the eve of Enzo’s death, and though the idea is that Enzo is reflecting on his own life with his owner Denny, the truth is that we really are reflecting on the life of Denny. Within the first year of the narrator, which is glossed over in a span of three pages, Denny meets the girl who will become his wife. Under the guise of seeing how Enzo welcomes another person into his home, we really see how Denny falls so hard in love with this woman named Eve, and how, very quickly, the family expands to include a daughter, Zoe. While the story might be tempted to mold the story around Enzo’s rough adjustment to this new larger family and its happy-ever-after, instead, the dog is merely an observer to how this temporarily happy family begins to unravel.
Stein creates a story in which each chapter creates a new problem, a new layer of complications bearing down on Denny. First, we see how Denny’s career as a racecar driver keeps him from being home when his daughter is born, foreshadowing the conflicts he will face later in choosing between his family and his dreams: “But for Mark Fein to say that Denny should put his own needs above the needs of his family because concurrent success in both fields was impossible was simply wrong.”
His being away from home also compounds the problem when Eve begins feeling ill. “’You always go away, and I have to take care of Zoe and Enzo all by myself, and I can’t do it! It’s too much! I can barely take care of myself!’” In order for her to have constant care, her parents have Eve move in with them. This begins a snowball effect of Zoe moving in with the grandparents, loneliness leading to a compromising situation with a teen, Eve’s death, the grandparents’ insistence on getting custody of Zoe, a custody battle that climaxes in the false charges of felony rape, the subsequent bankruptcy of Denny due to escalating lawyer fees and lack of ability to travel for racing and a court case against him. Chapter after chapter, Denny is dealt blows that pull the reader into the story with ferocity. Enzo, though the unique narrator, is merely recording these events as a bystander and comforter.
I don’t want to downplay the importance of Enzo as narrator. The moments of reading where I laughed or cried, it was because of Enzo. My heart broke because his heart broke. My tears came when he became old and frail and unable to stand on his own, because I’ve had dogs and been through those heartbreaking last days.
But I stayed awake, page after turning page, because my attention was invested in Denny and the constant parade of difficulties that came into his life. There was not a page where everything – or even most things – was settled with him. What I learned from The Art of Racing in the Rain is that the art of creating a compelling story is to create plot points that compel a reader to keep reading so that at no chapter do they feel things are well enough to put the book down for a night. Each scene must not just move the story forward but drag the reader further into the mire of the character’s life like a pit of quicksand.
There is often the criticism that literary novels wallow. This book does not wallow; it races. From one blistering complication to the next, it is a perfect example of how a book cannot rest upon a gimmick as cheap as a dog as a narrator; in the end, plot is everything.
I'd written, rewritten, and revised. I sent it around to be read and critiqued. I made more changes. I added a few scenes, clarified some details, but most importantly, chopped thousands of words.