Good Books Can Be Bad for Your Health

You woke feeling barely conscious, a headache looming at the edge of that consciousness. The alarm felt like someone pounding you, and the instant you hit snooze, you dropped back into sleep, only to be startled out of it again an instant later, though the clock said eight minutes had passed. You groaned.

You’d meant to go to bed early.

You’d put the kids down wishing it could be the opposite: that they could put you to sleep at eight p.m. You’d felt weary and bleary all day. So you hurried to load the dishwasher and prep for breakfast and then climb into bed yourself.

There were so many reasons to, like the chill fall weather that had brought back sniffles and coughs, always the threat of colds and flu around the corner. Plus you could hear your doctor scolding you by talking about the last page in his favorite picture book: rabbits lined up to watch the sunset, “knowing day is done”; in other words, those underlying health problems you wanted to fix weren’t going to get any better unless you respected the natural cycle of light and dark.

You were in bed at a decent hour. (Yeah, it wasn’t exactly right at sunset, so maybe your doctor would still scowl about 9:30, but you were trying. It was better than eleven.) You reached over to your nightstand and picked up the book you’d been reading for a few weeks, just a few minutes here or there as you’d had time. Just a half hour, you promised yourself.

But then the book got good. Got, like, insanely good. And terribly suspenseful. And there was some secret that he wasn’t telling her and it had better not be what you suspected or it would ruin the whole book and you certainly couldn’t stop reading at ten because then you’d toss and turn all night wondering.

You kept reading, turning pages at a frantic speed but unwilling to skip a single word in any sentence. The phrases were beautiful, and you kept your pencil handy to underline the best of them while still whipping through the story, dying to have the mysteries revealed.

You noticed the clock at 10:30 and ignored it. At 10:40 you had expected to see 11:00, so you rationalized that you’d been gifted an extra twenty minutes to read. At eleven the baby woke up crying, so you thought you might as well keep reading while you rocked him back to sleep. And once he was back in his crib, well, your spouse had come to bed and was reading, so you might as well read on.

You hesitate to mention this part, but, well, the book was also the teensiest bit romantic, with all this lovely sexual tension, and you began to be more and more aware of the insanely good-looking person beside you in bed. And so, at midnight, once you finally found a chapter ending that didn’t lurch you straight into the next (thank heavens the secret wasn’t what you feared! everything would be okay! love would prevail!), you set the book on your nightstand and snuggled a little closer.

Afterward, as you fell asleep, you rationalized again. Snuggling was good for your health and relationship — psychological well-being and all that — so maybe if the book got credit for that then it negated the blame of robbing you of some shut-eye, the way some people swear that a diet soda cancels out the junk food you eat with it. You thought of the handful of nights that you’d stayed up until 3, 4, 5 and yes one time even 6 a.m. reading a page-turner, so midnight was only bad in the context of the doctor’s metaphorical bunny book.

Plus, you finally had a funny topic for a blog post that would practically write itself after days of writer’s block and tries that had gone nowhere.

So if you added the three and carried the four and dropped the two, or however that long-division saying goes, in the end you couldn’t regret opening the book and getting caught up in it for so many hours and hundreds of pages.

That is until the alarm went off.

Can you relate? What’s the latest — or earliest — you’ve ever stayed up because of a book?

Leave a comment!

Reprise: Homophones, Nazi Cows and Other Banned Books Dangers

I wrote this post two years ago for Banned Books Week 2009, and I’m re-posting it this week to kick off Banned Books Week 2011. There are some really extreme ideas out there about what censorship means, so I share this post in the hope of illuminating a moderate view. Later this week I plan to write more on the subject. Enjoy!


speak your mind

It’s a little funny at first, the whole concept of reading banned books. I mean, it feels dangerous, right? It feels like you’re doing something you shouldn’t, peeking at something you have no business seeing.

Until somebody explains to you that Little House on the Prairie has been banned. Or The Giving Tree. Or Alice in Wonderland. Or The Lorax by Dr. Seuss.

ACLU Freedom ConcertThen it just seems plain ridiculous.

I think my students recognized this yesterday when I introduced the concept of Banned Books Week to them.

Their first reaction was confusion, since they thought I was telling them Harry Potter is a “band” book (oh, the joy of homophones).

Their second reaction, after I showed them the PTA meeting clip from Field of Dreams (“Step outside, you Nazi cow!”), was laughter mixed with a tinge of uncertainty. After all, aren’t banned books banned for a reason?

Their third reaction, when I showed them the covers of the children’s books I mentioned above, was a collective gasp. 

“Wait a second,” that gasp clearly said. “Something’s not right.”

Read Banned BooksIt seems to me that this is exactly what Banned Books Week is all about: showing people what censorship really looks like.

The trouble is, of course, that it’s complicated.

Does my freedom to have books available at the library impinge on your right not to walk into something offensive? If I want my children to read the picture book And Tango Makes Three, does having it on the library shelves endanger your children by exposure to the idea of gay adoption?

I live in a conservative community. I can’t pretend that I don’t understand that side of it. We all want to protect our children. But a lot of people don’t see it the way I do: that there are books and ideas out there that can save our children–except that if those books are banned, the children and the books might never meet.

For example, Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Twisted was challenged in at least two school districts this past month. She shared with blog readers the letter she was sending to those superintendents, and it included excerpts from letters she’s received from teen readers who were thinking of committing suicide–one who had even attempted it twice–and decided against it after reading Twisted.

So, yeah–I meant it literally when I say that books can save.

One of the comments in class last night that I really appreciated was that the way things should work is that parents should be in tune enough to their kids that they can communicate about every issue openly, whether suicidal feelings or gay adoption or racist terms in To Kill a Mockingbird. But too often children and teens can’t turn to their parents about the things troubling them, and it falls to a perceptive librarian or teacher to choose a book off a shelf and hand it to that student and say, “Here. Try this. See if this helps.”I read banned books.

That’s what I’m fighting for this week. I’m fighting for the right to have the right book on the shelf when the right reader needs it.

At the same time, I believe that parents should still have a say–for their own children.

In high school I did many alternate assignments in the library while my history or English classes watched R-rated movies, because my parents and I decided that movie rating was inappropriate for our family. We didn’t try to dictate, however, that the other students shouldn’t watch Braveheart either.

After discussing it as a class last night, it was great to see how a little bit of information helped open minds about the topic of banning books. That’s my hope for this blog post and this week, too: that a little bit of information will help stop censorship from removing books that are on the shelves for a reason.


*                    *                    *

On a side note, I once heard from some librarians at our university library that there is a case of certain books they keep locked away.

“Whoa!” I thought. “Those must be the really dangerous books.”


As it turned out, they were books that had been locked away for their own safety.

It was the readers who were dangerous to the books. Writing over offensive words with a permanent marker. Ripping out offensive pages. Shredding whole novels.

So the librarians locked the books away to keep them safe from the efforts of censors, and you had to get special permission to check them out.

Interesting, huh?

Dissection for a Good Review

In the writing classes I teach, when we cover analysis and argument, we discuss the importance of how and why. As with any lesson, the challenge is making the concepts tangible, finding concrete examples that will have my students going, “I get it! That makes total sense.”

Thanks to a few vague kitchen product reviews, an unfortunate purchase, and a simple-but-elegant mechanism, I think I can now prove the essentialness of how and why.

Last weekend, I bought oat groats. I had never even seen what they look like, but in reading about rolled oats versus steel cut oats, it suddenly struck me that it was another case of “this OR that” and I abandoned both in favor of flaking my own oats for the freshest possible oatmeal.

Um, only trouble? Equipment. I’m not sure how pioneers and others rolled their oats, but when I searched how to do it, I found relatively few options. The reviews I read made them all sound more or less equal for flaking oats, as in “they all get the job done, no problems,” so I bought the cheapest one and figured that would do it. After all, I only need to roll about a cup of oats at a time for oatmeal. No sweat.

Oh, not so. That cheapest roller (cheap at $45 — still a large chunk of money!) arrived in the mail last Monday, and it felt too light, too flimsy. It rolled the oats, but they were thicker than I expected (even though I’m used to old-fashioned oats) and half the time I’d be turning the crank and nothing would be coming through because all the groats were jammed at the top, refusing to be squashed between the rollers. I had figured it would take five minutes or less to roll a cup of oats. With that thing, in five minutes I only had a third of a cup.

Hubby happened to walk into the kitchen at 10:30 p.m. as I was trying to get the oatmeal ready for breakfast. I also had wheat berries grinding in my Family Grain Mill powered by my KitchenAid stand mixer, and Hubby’s astute observation was, “Why can’t you use that thing for oats, too?”

“Because the oat roller attachment for that costs twice as much as this thing.”

“But if you’re going to use it all the time and have this big a headache every time, isn’t the more expensive one worth it?”

Bless husbands who can say such things! Neither of us likes to spend money, and I’d been trying to be frugal, but I am so glad he nudged me toward a better quality purchase.

Yesterday I drove to a Bosch Kitchen Center and bought the display model flaker mill (they were out of boxed ones, and I was thrilled to get a discount for the used version). It was heavy in a good way — substantial, quality — and I was excited to test it out.

Today I hooked it up to my hand crank (too lazy to drag out the KitchenAid for just a cup of oats), and it worked marvelously: a steady stream of thinly rolled oats poured out of the bottom.

Then I dismantled it and discovered the difference.

In the cheap unit, how it worked was that two rollers turned toward each other on the theory that they would pull the oats down between them and squash them, but that had a number of problems. Why? First of all, you could only get the oats as thin as the space between the rollers, but if the rollers were too close together the oats would never go down between them in the first place. That’s why I kept turning the crank and sometimes got a few, sometimes none, because you had to wait until the textured grip of the rollers caught each groat just right.

In my higher quality version, one roller presses the oats against a steel plate, the space between the roller and the plate narrowing to create a funnel that forces the oats down at an even pace. 

Smarter design, improved function.

So here’s my writing analogy of the week: to really figure out what makes something better — whether you’re reviewing kitchen equipment or a movie or novel, etc — you have to take it apart and figure out how and why it works.

If I’d come across a review explaining to me the difference between the $45 model and the $80 (used) model, I wouldn’t have bothered with the cheap one in the first place.

I’m not a reviewer myself, but what I appreciate about book or movie reviewers who do their job well is that they don’t just sum up the story and whether or not they liked it, but they dissect it and describe the how and the why.

For example:

How does the writer keep the audience hooked?

  • With gimmicky tension created by withholding information or tossing characters into ridiculous and unreasonable situations? (**cough, cough** The Proposal, where they invented an excuse to have Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds run into each other naked.) 
  • Or with genuine tension based on realistic circumstances and situations that explore character through difficult decisions? (Every amazing book I’ve ever read, but first movie example that comes to mind: Gladiator, where Russell Crowe is pitted against the last wishes of a soon-to-be-murdered emperor and the power-hungry delusions of the emperor’s love-starved and emotionally unstable son — not to mention fighting for his very life, his family’s life, and the well-being of the whole country and a woman he cares for.)

Why does the writer include certain elements?

  • To fit a formula — whether a popular trend or a genre “recipe”? (Again, I’m going to pick on romantic comedies that create certain characters just to have the “nerdy best friend” and other formulaic roles filled.)
  • Or to serve a purpose unique to that story? (I’m thinking of books like Whirligig where the author makes the main character unlikable, normally a sin in novel-writing, in order to show the enormous change he undergoes in the course of the story.)

By including how and why, the reviewer helps me anticipate whether or not that movie or book or kitchen gadget will work for me. Maybe I like certain genre formulas and so a movie with a nerdy best friend will be perfect for me. Maybe I don’t like the tension of realistic drama and would rather have the gimmicks so I can just be entertained. Maybe I’m not going to use an oat roller very often and so waiting for the groats to squash between two rollers is fine with me due to the price difference.*

Also, as a writer, analyzing the how and the why of my own story is absolutely the key to improving it. How would my character react in this situation? Why is this scene crucial?

Anyhow, you get the idea. Any thoughts? Run across any great reviews lately?

Leave a comment!

*In case anyone’s interested, here is the rest of the price story: even at Costco, I felt like I was paying way too much for relatively few rolled oats. With the oat groats (which I bought in a 50# bag from a grain distributor for $28), it’s not only fresher — no chance of being rancid — but 1/2 cup of groats rolls into 1 cup of oats, so I’m getting twice as much for the same price. This means that even my $80 gadget will pay for itself pretty quickly since we eat oatmeal twice a week and I make my own granola. Hooray for tools that provide both better health and spending!

Genius Husbands, Video Cameras, and Reading Time

The usual two familiar faces turned the doorknob and peeked into the garage wearing “fuzzy jammies” and happy grins as I pulled in after work tonight. They hugged my legs, I kissed their hair, and they ran back upstairs and into bed. It’s routine for us ever since I started teaching evening classes a couple years ago.

While I’m gone, they have routines with their dad as well. He’s a master at fun bedtime games that make them excited to get pajamas on, brush their teeth, and climb into bed. It’s fantastic. But unfortunately, what with the hecticness of a baby, etc, they’ve also fallen into not-so-great routines like watching cartoons before bed. Parents are only human. This stuff happens. 

Tonight, as the boys ran back upstairs, Hubby grabbed the camera and flipped it to playback mode, saying to me, “You’ve gotta check this out.”

It was a thirty-second home video featuring the sound of tears with Hubby narrating: “Here on the couch we have a sad five-year-old holding Cat in the Hat. Why are you crying?” And the five-year-old whined: “I want to play my computer!” The camera then moved into the kitchen where it caught sight of the three-year-old holding a board book behind his back. Hubby: “There are tears on his face and he keeps running away because he doesn’t want to read, either. He wants to watch cartoons.” And the three-year-old scowled at the camera and ran off again on cue.

(I wish I could post it here, but we try to avoid showing our kids or using their names on the internet, for their protection.)

Well, I was laughing pretty hard watching all this, but I was also thinking to myself, “Great. He’s forcing them to read and now they’re going to hate it.”

“Now watch this,” he said, skipping to a second video.

In the second video, the boys had done a 180, both of them on the couch with big grins on their faces, excited to show their books to the camera and talk about what they were reading. “I showed them the first video of themselves, and it totally calmed them down.”

Wow. Sometimes my husband amazes me. Two thirty-second videos and suddenly a reading-time routine is born (which, by the way, was all his idea; I can’t take any credit at all).

It’s not for reading bedtime stories to the kids, which comes after, but for each member of the family to choose a book and read it alone. Hubby showed the camera the biography of Carnegie he’s reading. On the nights I’m not teaching, I’m looking forward to getting through Behemoth. The boys will be able to see that both of their parents love to read, which wasn’t happening before when we waited until we got in bed to crack open our own books.

There’s something to be said for genius husbands, video cameras, and reading time.

What reading traditions have you used in your family? What creative tactics have worked in getting your kids to love reading? What ideas do you have that you want to try?

Leave a comment!

Darwinists and Clankers — No Need to Explain

You know what’s impressive? Weaving exposition into a novel so subtly that a reader gets to have wonderful moments of “Aha! I get it! That’s so cool!”

Reading Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan for the first time has been like that all the way through, and it’s made the whole reading experience so much fun.

Take the first page, for example:

The Austrian horses glinted in the moonlight, their riders standing tall in the saddle, swords raised. Behind them two ranks of diesel-powered walking machines stood ready to fire, cannon aimed over the heads of the cavalry. A zeppelin scouted no-man’s land at the center of the battlefield, its metal skin sparkling.

The French and British infantry crouched behind their fortifications — a letter opener, an ink jar, and a line of fountain pens — knowing they stood no chance against the might of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But a row of Darwinist monsters loomed behind them, ready to devour any who dared retreat.

The attack had almost begun when Prince Aleksander thought he heard someone outside his door . . .

He took a guilty step toward his bed — then froze in place, listening hard. Trees stirred in a soft breeze outside, but otherwise the night was silent. Mother and Father were in Sarajevo, after all. The servants wouldn’t dare disturb his sleep.

Alek turned back to his desk and began to move the cavalry forward, grinning as the battle neared its climax.

I don’t know if every reader’s experience is like mine, but I went in not at all sure what this book was about and got to put the pieces together one step at a time. Walking machines? I pictured something similar to those huge Star Wars two-legged shooters, and the mention of a zeppelin helped me picture the time period. The letter opener, ink jar and fountain pens confused me, but in a good way, like I knew this scene wasn’t what it appeared to be and I got to anticipate the “reveal.” And then Darwinist monsters? No idea, but I loved the sound of them, whatever they were, and I was excited to find out.

Just a few short paragraphs later, Westerfeld reveals the writing supplies by saying “Alek turned back to his desk.” He doesn’t stop and say, “The reason they were crouched behind writing supplies is that these were toy armies.” He simply shows us what’s happening and let’s us figure out what it means.

We get to see the walking machine in the second chapter, but “Darwinist monsters” doesn’t become clear for several more chapters, and even then he shows us what that means gradually, first by introducing us to “tigeresques” that are “fabricated . . . half-wolf tigers” and then showing us the Darwinist version of a hot-air balloon: a giant jellyfish-like thing that rises with enough hydrogen to carry one scout into the air.

I remember the moment when I caught on that the British and French are “Darwinists” with beasts as weapons and the Austrians and Germans are the “Clankers” with zeppelins and walking machines. I really did say out loud, “That’s so cool.”

The reason I think it’s cool is because it amounts to the author dropping clues and letting the reader solve them. It lets the reader experience the action without having to pause for exposition; it gets the reader in on the game as an active participant. On the other hand, when an author stops to give exposition, even in the case of a sequel reminding us what happened in the previous book, it tends to throw the reader out of the action and create the feeling of being lectured to.

It works the same way with teaching. If you can use an “indirect” approach that allows the students to figure concepts out for themselves, it allows students to participate as opposed to inflicting them with the sleep-inducing effects of direct lecture.

But being aware of that doesn’t make doing it easy. I struggle to come up with indirect lesson plans as much as I struggle with weaving exposition into the action of my manuscripts. Sometimes I get it right, but often I bomb it.

The whole time I’ve been reading Leviathan I’ve been thinking to myself, “Holy cow. I’ve got to learn how to write this well.”

It’s a humbling feeling, but also fantastic. I’m so excited now to jump back into “world building” with my novel and come up with more fun setting details and cultural terminology and elements of the magic system that a reader might be intrigued by, and then figure out how to weave those things into the novel like dropping clues. And I think I’ll keep Leviathan on hand as my textbook for how to do it well.

What have you learned lately from fantastic novels or fantastic examples of whatever your craft is?

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Love of Reading

Yesterday we sent our oldest off to kindergarten. And no worries: we didn’t cry, even though the principal had Kleenex and cookies ready for tearful parents. Our five-year-old waved goodbye happily and so did we. Such a great milestone! He’s off to a big school to have fun learning and reading.

When we met with his teacher the day before so he could show off his mad reading skills, I really appreciated what she told me, pointing out the take-home books they use for reading practice:

“He can take home the next in the series whenever he’s ready, whether every day or once a week. The important thing is to make reading enjoyable. If he doesn’t want to read one night, let it go and try again later. Don’t pressure him to get to the next book. Let him go at his own pace.”

Hooray! A teacher after my own heart. I’ve never been too concerned about how fast he learns to read, only that he comes to love it.

some of the books/series/authors I credit for my love of reading

I remember when I first consciously realized how much reading meant to me. I was probably seven or eight and we were camping in my family’s trailer and I’d forgotten to bring any books with me. And I was miserable without them. Every night of that camping trip I vowed to myself that I would never ever go on vacation without a book again.

That still happens to me once in a while as an adult. If I find myself in any kind of waiting room without a book in my purse, that same misery my seven-or-eight-year-old self felt washes over me again and I get all pouty, thinking, “Sure they’ve got all these magazines, but I don’t want a magazine! I want my book!” And I think of it with longing, scheming ways to time warp back an hour and grab the book before leaving the house.

One of the most rewarding things as a teacher is when a student comes up to me at the end of a semester and says, “I just wanted to tell you that you inspired me to start reading for fun again.” These are adults, and many of them haven’t read a book for fun since they were kids. But they light up and tell me how great it feels to love reading now.

I even appreciate it when they tell me that Twilight gets the credit for their reading recovery and that it was the first book they’d read as an adult and since then they’ve been insatiable readers. Hooray for that!



What’s your story? How did a love of reading find you? What kinds of books do you absolutely adore and can’t live without?

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