Reading fiction

Reading fiction is not my preference. I prefer true stories; epic adventures; personal quests; travel, and description of place. Fiction has to grab me in the first ten pages; otherwise I become bored and abandon the book. After all, life is too short and there are too many books to read.

For me, a good fiction story is a page-turner that makes me keen to know what happens next. I hate reverse chronology. Often I find a story has hooked me in the first chapter, and then the following chapter takes me back to some point in the past. And that’s where I usually abandon the book.

I like a good story, told from the beginning to end with some unobvious point of focus that gradually unfolds to a satisfactory close. It is disappointing to say, “ I liked the story, but I didn’t like the ending.” I loathe nihilistic tales of woe with hopeless and detestable characters that seems to be a current popular theme.

But is reading fiction a waste of time, as some people suggest? After all it is just someone’s imaginary tale. And why bother when our world is full of amazing and interesting real people, lives, places and situations?

Research provides interesting reasons that support reading fiction as a valuable activity. Not only does this pursuit provide insight into situations and ideas outside of our everyday life, but there is evidence to suggest that it has positive effects on our brains by making new neurological connections that remain activated long after the reading activity is over. This heightened activity called a ‘shadow activity’, similar to muscle memory, by scientists working on the Emory study.

We reiterate the idea that there are only seven basic plots:

  1. Overcoming the monster.
  2. Rags to riches.
  3. The quest.
  4. Voyage and return.
  5. Comedy.
  6. Tragedy.
  7. Rebirth

Typically though our bookstores and libraries arrange fiction into genres of:

  • Romance
  • Relationship
  • Humour
  • Horror
  • Mystery
  • Thriller
  • Adventure
  • Historical
  • Classic
  • Western
  • Chick Lit
  • Paranormal romance
  • General
  • And others.

My fiction reading sometimes follows a typical pattern of author trails. I discover an author I like, then I am keen to read more by that person; until I am satiated with their voice, style, and ideas. Elizabeth Gilbert and Joanne Harris are two authors I enjoy reading. I loved The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. It is stunning with its unique story and intelligent prose. I like to follow a trail of reading that is unique to my interests at that time.

Many librarians use website tools such as Fantastic Fiction, Literature Map, LibraryThing, GoodReads, and others to find the next great read for ourselves and our customers.

But there is more to be said and understood about the activity of reading fiction and how it impacts and influences our community and society. Librarians get a very real sense of this phenomenon when working with library users. Some book titles seem to grab hold of the attention of the populace and there is a groundswell of interest that seems to defy understanding. The Slap by Christos Tsolkias is an example that comes to mind. It was an uncomfortable book to read. Not everyone liked it. One incident provides the focus for a masterful portrayal of multi-cultural suburban Melbourne in current times. The slap itself – right or wrong – receives attention and opinions from different generations and cultures, and ultimately judged in politically correct times. This resonates with a culture where this experience is known, shared, and debated. We all have an opinion and all are valid.

“Texts affect readers on many levels – emotional, ethical, intellectual, sensual, spiritual. Consequently, two readers can respond very differently to the same text.” ~ Robert Beardwood

But this book had its time and that groundswell of attention is past. Did we learn anything? How has the experience of reading this book of fiction influenced our society? You will still find this title in the bookstores, libraries, and on Book Club lists, but it has been read, discussed, made into a TV series. Why have we gone past that particular book when there would still be many people who haven’t read it? We could apply the analysis of this phenomenon to many new and popular fiction titles. It would be an interesting study.

Fiction of this type leads our collective conscience. We read, we think, we learn, we discuss, we grow, we evolve. I think that this is key to the function and popularity of Book Clubs in our communities. But we know that.

Now relieved of my requirement to read bureaucratic reports and academic articles, I have been trying to catch up with some fiction reading. I have just read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Best of Me by Nicholas Sparks. And now, like so many others at present, I am immersed in the book The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, and I am thoroughly enjoying the voice, the story, the situation, and the intelligence.

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Your thoughts

You think too much.” This has been said to me many times over the years. I disagree. I think most people don’t think enough. I value thinking as our most powerful tool for self-development and actualisation.

I admire people who commit their whole life pursuing one train of thought trying to work something out: scientists and mathematicians for example. Einstein is one of my heroes, but I guess I am not alone there. The Dalai Lama is another unique and remarkable person intent on making positive change for us all through applied thought.

In our own small lives we can make grand improvements simply by applying our thoughts. Many mistakenly believe they are thinking when they are merely reacting. A day spent in constant stimulation and consequent reaction to the words of others is a day wasted in my opinion. Anxiety and worry is not productive thinking. Automatic thought patterns repeated time and time again, year after year, are not beneficial, locks us into repeated behaviours, and deepens the tangled crevasses in our brain.

Have you experienced those “light-bulb moments”? Often these are the impetus that moves us out of our former patterns of thoughts.  Like an electron jumping out to a larger orbit of a nucleus, our world expands.

As a design student I learnt lateral thinking, creative thinking, thinking outside the box; but these do not come naturally. Most of us stay inside the box, unaware of our own individual power to do more. We might react, complain and worry but nothing more.

There is so much helpful advice available that is practical in teaching your brain into new ways of functioning. Edward de Bono’s books are a great place to start: Lateral Thinking and SixThinking Hats are easy to read, understand and apply. The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle is more complex but new gems of understanding can be found each time it is read.

Intentional thought is an interesting concept approached from various angles by different people. Meditation books tell us about “the gap” when emptying our minds, and the power of dropping our intentions into this gap. James Redfield illustrated “intention” in his colourful The Celestine Prophecy. The Law of Attraction has been given dubious attention by some authors, and yet the thinking methodology is a true gift for those who choose to add it to their box of thinking tools.

If you wish to really challenge thought, existence, purpose, reality, then A Course in Miracles may be the one for you. Or for a lighter, fun-filled parable about thought and reality try Illusions by Richard Bach. (The undisputed Top of My Best Ever Reads List)

Feeling bad? Then apply your mind to the problem. Is it physiological? Perhaps environmental? Don’t just feel bad and react badly. Step back and think. There is a way forward and it is up to you.

Of course, not-thinking can be a valuable and necessary respite from our busy days. Emptying our minds of rubbish allows the new positive brain activity to continue afresh. It has been documented somewhere (?) that repetitive physical movement is the perfect activity that empties the mind and allows the fresh ideas to appear: walking, swimming, running, exercising, dancing, and cycling.

So switch off the TV and your computer, get off your arse, go for a walk, empty your brain, then ask yourself, “Why am I thinking this way?” Then apply your amazing natural ability to think your way forward in creating the life you really want and deserve.

But it is not a “one-stop-shop”. It is a daily practice and commitment. Some days we will do better at it than others. Fortunately these days reminders and prompts are readily available online from the blogs of great thinkers, or by connecting via social networking tools to discussions on these topics. For example: http://twitter.com/ACIM_lessons and http://twitter.com/Edward_deBono and http://twitter.com/DalaiLama

Choose your Guru

Have you noticed how many self-proclaimed gurus there are on the internet now? With the blossoming of online social networking there have emerged, dozens, hundreds, perhaps thousands of people happily doling out advice to anyone who will listen.

Who are these experts? And what makes them so knowledgeable? Many I’ve noticed are perhaps 20-something in age. Have they lived? Learned? Made mistakes? The confidence, certainty, and arrogance with which many espouse their views stun me. They preach and prattle and fill blog after blog with dot-point precision. Here is a random selection: How to become a Level 80 Twitter Ninja; How to go tribal and sell a truckload of books; Nine Ways To Build a Bridge Between Who You Were and Who You AreThe You, the Me and the We – How I’m Changing How I Use Twitter | Stayin’ Alive; Choose the Bigger Life; No Pressure Knitting. And I could add many more examples but I’m sure you’ve found your own. Everyone is an expert.

Now I realise that many use the social networking neighbourhood for their own self-improvement and education and blogging about it is their way of sorting through the crap and working out their own ideas. But to offer these often infantile notions firmly as well thought out, tried and true rules for living is ridiculous in my humble opinion. I don’t mind reading some of these blogs and twitters but the increase in the number of people doing this is astonishing. And some appear to have all the authenticity and credibility of a Snake Oil Salesman. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking this.

mandelbrot-set

Where are the humble folk who stumble through life like me? The older I get, the more I learn, the more I realise I don’t know. Life is chaos and can present things to you that you had never imagined. Life can’t be totally planned, controlled or “manifested”. Perhaps because this is my belief then it is my experience. But I do find solace in the Chaos Theory because I don’t have much faith in the attempts of Man to tame the world to the one I would choose. I prefer to believe a higher power holds the aces and will create a world that is far more enriching and awesome and unbelievable than what my humble mind can imagine. So I enjoy seeing the weeds appear in the cracks in the concrete. I am in awe of the Mandelbrot set. I love to see the NASA images from the Hubble telescope of the worlds beyond this Earth.

The philosophies I like to live by in dot-points and at this point in time are:

  • Leave no footprints
  • The Theory of Chaos
  • Live in The Now
  • Be Kind
  • Create your own life
  • Do stuff
  • Keep it simple
  • Appreciate and be grateful
  • Learn more stuff
  • Be optimistic
  • See The Big Picture
  • Be authentic

There remain the constant big names in personal development who have written books on the topic, established themselves as leading thinkers, and have now joined the social networking scene: The Dalai Lama; Deepak Chopra; Dr. Wayne Dyer; Marianne Williamson; Eckhart Tolle, and others. Of course the wisdom of the ages can’t be ignored and these sources stand apart: The Bible; the teachings of Buddha; the words of Jesus Christ; A Course In Miracles; etc, etc. You know them as well as I do.

Newcomers to the scene who are making an impression are: Leo Babauta of Zen Habits; Gary Vayerchuk. But the stampede for recognition in this area is scary. What are they hoping for? A well paid talking circuit? 68,000 followers on Twitter or Facebook? Nirvana? Bliss? Who knows? Not me!

Here are some more dot-points which form my humble advice about how to live a happy fulfilling life:

  • Turn off the computer/laptop/mobile phone/handheld device/whatever
  • Look up from the screen
  • Pat your cat and hear it purr
  • Look out the window
  • Go outside – yes outside!
  • Take the dog for a walk
  • Take your kids to the local park or playground
  • Kick a football or throw a ball
  • Walk down the street
  • Talk to a local – then really listen to what they have to say
  • Have a coffee and a chat with a friend at a local cafe
  • Return home
  • Have a conversation with a family member
  • Cook a healthy meal
  • Smile
  • Get a good night’s sleep

Indeed reject my advice in favour of your own self-discovered words of wisdom and lifestyle.

Zen and the Art of the Reference Interview

Recently I have been prompted to examine the procedure I follow when undertaking a typical Reference Interview. The Reference Interview is the enquiry process that occurs when a person asks a Librarian for some information. It is something I do without thinking about and I follow a procedure that is typical of all Librarians working in Information Services for customers. It is the nature of our work. It is the basis of our training and study. It is second-nature.

So the process is that the customer approaches (sometimes hesitantly) and I smile and ask “What can I do for you?” or “How can I help you?” The questions will vary from: being direct, well-defined, and fast and easy to accommodate, to vague, unsure, complex, deep and involved. They will often ask “Have you got the book “Such and such?” or “Have you got the latest book by “Whoshewhatsit?” or perhaps “Can I order the next DVD in the series “TV show?” I will check the library catalogue at the PC near me and advise the customer. If we don’t have it I will try to determine the age of the item and look online to see if it is still in print, check at other libraries via the Libraries Australia website or Libraries Link and advise the customer. I will order it in for them whenever appropriate and that is more often than not. I will use Google and Amazon as last resorts but most often I have located the information before that.

When a question is vague, general, or ill-defined I will often take the customer to the book shelves where we can browse together while continuing with the conversation and the “reference interview”. This helps the customer hone in on their needs and also introduces them to the arrangement and scope of the collection we offer.

Sometimes a question may go beyond the scope of the public library; questions like “I want to read the history of the Australian 15th Battalion in World War 2. Can you help?” Of course I will follow the same procedure of checking our resources, but inevitably I will end up at the Australian War Memorial website and search their online resources. In this case the gentleman had already visited the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and asked the staff there the same question, so he was way ahead of me. This came to light in the course of our conversation.

The point I wish to highlight is that each question is unique, as is each person who asks a question. I approach each question afresh and with the aim to open a conversation with this person; a conversation that is fluid, natural, flexible, unique, and engaging. I will follow my intuition and try to respond accordingly. There is no pat academic explanation to a process I follow by instinct, despite the fact that I do indeed loosely follow a procedure that is typical of all fellow Librarians or Information Professionals. I do not want to appear automated, stilted, academic, procedural, like I’m ticking all the boxes, robotic, bureaucratic, nor condescending. I merely want to engage in an exploration of resources with a fellow human being and in that interaction discover things together.

I relish the challenge and mental gymnastics required over the course of a days work helping people find the answers to their diverse questions. I love the thrill of the hunt that draws on my detective skills and lateral thinking ability. I enjoy the new things I learn by default from other people’s enquiries. And more importantly I feel my life is enriched by the small everyday relationships that develop along the way.