The Magdalen Reading, Rogier van der Weyden (National Gallery, London)
…is a good reader. Today, I’ve invited Lisl Zlitni to visit, precisely because she is just that – a good reader. She also happens to be a very good writer, which is apparent not only in her excellent reviews but also in her poetry and those snippets of prose she has chosen to share. If you want to experience Lisl’s writing (and fab reviews) at length, do stop by her blog, Before the Second Sleep. In honour of the occasion, I’ve baked us a nice apple-pie. Plus, I might add, my home-made custard is to die for.
It is so nice to see you here with me, Lisl, what with you being all the way over in Alaska!
Thanks so much for having me, Anna! I’m loving your weather—makes me feel so at home.
Alaska – Mt McKinley (Denali)
Ha! I imagine it does…Speaking of Alaska, what is it like to live there? I suspect you too struggle with myths along the lines that polar bears wander down your streets in full daylight (at least it’s a myth here in Sweden)
Well, it can be somewhat isolating, especially if one doesn’t have many connections to Outside, as we call it. I don’t have television programming, for example, which is why I rely so much on the Internet, because I want to know what’s going on in the world. But that’s just me—we do have television here! It’s also really lovely in summer and winter with loads of stuff to do.
The myths I hear most are how many people don’t realize we don’t have penguins, they think we might not accept American money and are surprised to learn we have cars. At one time I worked in a small specialty shop frequented by tourists and loved hearing these silly things—typically they came from people who genuinely wanted to learn about Alaska, and interacting with their sincerity and friendliness made that one of my favorite jobs ever.
Like me, you live in a place where the seasonal differences are not only due to temperature but due to lack or excess of light. Do you think the dark of winter vs the endless light of summer has a permanent impact on the people living that far north?
Oh, definitely. People form habits and patterns based on these conditions and as part of our culture they are so ingrained we joke about them while simultaneously don’t even notice, if that makes sense. For example, the Summer Solstice is observed by just about everyone, even those with zero interest or real knowledge in the history behind it, because it marks a transition in our year when we psychologically start prepping ourselves for termination dust and the coming of winter. There’s an old joke (one of many) about how you know you’re an Alaskan, because you make your Halloween costume large enough to wear over a coat.
People who run into you on FB and the like, will probably mostly know you as a book reviewer – one of those readers who highlights aspects of the book not even the author may be entirely aware of. I get the impression you read very carefully. Does this mean you also read very slowly?
I don’t suppose I read slowly, though certainly I’m no speed reader. Overall it probably depends on the book. I think I do read carefully, which is a natural habit but there are others to thank for helping me develop my skills, including a particular professor. She engaged our classes rather than lectured and with her we learned so much regarding reading and writing about literature. I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers her fondly.
In my reading I use a great deal of what I learned to this day, even with casual, not-for-review reading, though it doesn’t necessarily slow me down. Having said that, there are some books I do read more slowly, especially if it’s new information or a lot of characters to familiarize myself with.
Do you read more than one book at the time? If yes, do you read similar genre or totally different genre?
For better or worse, I do this a lot. At one time I tried to give it up, but finally just accepted the habit. It can be overwhelming on occasion, but then comes the satisfaction of closing up that last page of one book, then another and then another all within a short period of time.
Whether the genres are similar or different just depends upon circumstance—if I happened to have seen a book that looks really great, for example, and can’t wait, like a book on Kepler I recently came across. Now you’ve got me thinking about it, I think most of the time they aren’t the same, but perhaps there is always some connection: something in, about or related to one book leads me to another. What I can say for certain is that except for review books, which I read in order of when I received them, books choose me, not the other way around.
I have recently noted a certain fascination from your part regarding graphic novels – the modern day version of what I used to call comic books.
I first read a Spiegelman’s Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale in a lit class in which we discussed the controversy of placing Holocaust memoir in graphic novel form. I thought it a great way to engage readers on all levels. Later I came across Satrapi’s Persepolis and Persepolis 2, of growing up in an Iran adversely affected by the 1979 revolution. They could be painful to read but by the genre’s nature the pictures show more than just events: we as readers gain greater dimension to the author’s insight, including images of herself as she perceives herself. It is very, very powerful.
I can’t say I’ve read a ton of graphic novels, but you’re right; largely thanks to Turtle they are becoming more of a presence in my reading repertoire and it seems a shift is indeed occurring.
What brought you to your love of reading, and what books were fundamental to igniting this passion you have for the written word?
Honestly, I don’t really know how I came to love reading in the first place, though my parents modeling it as a worthy pursuit—they were both enormous readers—surely played a large role. I can remember, even picture in my mind, books I found on shelves and flipped through, books about a boy in a jungle and animals that talked. Like now, perhaps the books beckoned to me and I couldn’t resist. Various people habitually brought me books as well: The Witch of Blackbird Pond; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Island of the Blue Dolphins; Strawberry Girl and The Cricket in Times Square were just some from my mother. My father also brought home books for me, most memorably Francis Marion: Swamp Fox of the Revolution. Even my older brother—horrible in my then opinion– picked up books he thought I might like. I still have from him Galahad: Enough of His Life to Explain His Reputation and The Favorite Poems and Ballads of Rudyard Kipling. The Crystal Cave and The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself both also surely went a long way toward my own writing, possibly because they both instigated a deeper delving into myself, owing to my fascination with and curiosity of their subject matter, but also they spoke of times I instinctively felt a close connection to, and it seemed almost as if I was trying to discover who I was, and why what mattered to me, did.
I know you have a son – and that he too is a voracious reader. How have you transferred over your love of reading to him?
I did the easiest thing any parent could do, but what is also the most powerful—I read near and to him. I never gave him any kind of spiel about how important books are, and didn’t have to act enthusiastic because I really was. Before he was born I read aloud—partly because I’d heard about how babies can hear their mother’s voices—but also I really enjoy feeling the words as I read. After he was born I continued to read to him, at that time whatever it was I was reading. As it turns out talking or reading to babies triggers an amazing series of events within the brain that in turn opens windows to further development. I remain in awe of how such a simple, pleasant act can benefit such complex systems.
Turtle has been a library enthusiast his entire life. Very early on he shared plots, illustrations, criticisms, favorites and so on with me, and we still read to each other. Over the years we have developed our own special little traditions or funny jokes, a development covered in Mem Fox’s wonderful Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever. Simple to read; colossal in guiding children toward reading and other success
I also try to support the idea that what he chooses matters—ask questions, let him read funny or other parts of note to me, discuss ideas that arise from readings—and have always let him choose his own books from the time he could. Unless it’s for school I never make him finish a book he isn’t enjoying—how is that reading for pleasure?—and provide a nice place for his collection as well as comfortable spots to curl up and read.
What would you consider are the main benefits of instilling a love of reading in a child?
Apart from what I’ve mentioned above, there are some very practical benefits. While nothing is fool proof, I have nevertheless seen over the years that children who enjoy reading are less likely to be drawn into negative behavior. They also have a larger vocabulary, especially if they have been read to because they’ve made the connections between how a word looks as well as sounds, and are more confident about experimenting with new words. Children develop better communication skills and academic achievement tends to be higher. Perhaps best of all, it fosters loving relationships between people who truly share when they communicate.
Are there books you wouldn’t allow your son to read? And if so, why?
Well, I’ve found there are goalposts that have to be shifted a bit periodically, as well as maintained.
I don’t own a single book I wouldn’t let him read, primarily because we have always been able to discuss different topics, even if my side of the conversation was/is delivered with age appropriateness in mind. Having said that, I will say that when he was younger I might have had some difficulty with this “policy” of mine I have maintained because some books—specifically history—might have been really scary for him. Some of them are scary for me. As for books we don’t own—as far as I know, no, though that is said with some relief at him having reached this age, when I feel he is ready to read some of the more disturbing historical events.
Most parents worry about sexual content as well, and though that is a concern for me, I have to let him learn to be a responsible reader. Plus, I’ve tried to communicate that he’ll never get in trouble for asking me questions. In support of that I attempted to go beyond the standard “You can ask me anything” by communicating that while many kids ask and tell each other lots of details, much of this is incorrect and can lead to real trouble. He agreed the possible awkwardness of asking mom is way better than trouble encountered from following bad advice. I periodically re-inforce that with how I respond to books we read together, though we haven’t come across any real sexual situations in the books he chooses. Swear words, yes, and we’ve had decent conversations about appropriate—and not—places to say that sort of stuff. Hopefully this will keep working with continued maintenance, which is the real point.
I note that quite a few of my “new adult” acquaintances never read – they spend their time on social media and streaming movies instead – or channel-hopping between TV shows. Personally, I worry this leads to a general lack of reflection. Would you agree? And do you see a similar trend?
Sadly, yes on both counts. I suppose some people are more inclined to reflection than others, so even movies could trigger that for them. However, film can’t convey what words can, so a lot will get missed. And of course there’s the danger of shutting down imagination—if the film production company tells you what a dragon looks like, why should you try to imagine it? It creates lazy thinkers, in my opinion.
Nowadays I become really happy when I see people exchanging ideas or engaging in healthy debate, largely because it’s sorely lacking anymore. Even many families act, as someone wrote recently, like a group of people who happen to live in the same house rather than as a cohesive unit. We’ve got a rule we hope can create a positive difference: Read the book first.
You are not only a reader, you are also a writer. Tell us a bit about this!
Well, in school I loved to read and had a really great rapport with my English teacher. She encouraged my fledgling efforts, which at that time I think were small and not necessarily directed toward a bigger picture; they just sort of came and I didn’t have any real desire to complete them. This changed at one point, however, when I wrote a short story about two teenage girls during the Salem witch trials; I really liked the tale—secretly though, because I was unsure it was any good by actual standards. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep it, though it has been in my mind lately and I think at times of trying to re-write. At any rate, from there I did start to write more, but the results were most often poems. I later did write down some rough outlines for stories that lately have been repeatedly knocking, so I’ve been working on them.
What is it that attracts you to writing poetry? Which are the challenges vs writing prose?
Flammarion: the astronomer crawling under the edge of the sky
My mother was an enthusiastic reader of Edgar Allen Poe—she read and re-read his works a lot, and aloud, especially his poetry. She never came out and said poetry had to be read aloud, but I could hear in her voice what came to pass in the words, the narrator’s passion as he speaks of his Annabel Lee, or the isolated anguish of the man mourning the lost Lenore. Though at the time I wouldn’t have described it this way, I had an appreciation for how so much—events, emotions, information, even entire lifetimes—could transpire in so few words. That they were also lyrical and lovely captured my entire imagination and as I began trying my own hand at poetry, I experimented with different words, explored their meanings and histories, sometimes simply repeating the words to hear the way they sounded as compared to how they looked. Unarticulated thoughts began to transform into phrases born within my soul, and it was slightly intoxicating. I had never before been able to speak with great confidence—I was a rather shy child—but poetry was akin to a new language possessing the words I needed that my native tongue didn’t have, and it opened the world to me. Though the contexts are not exactly the same, I felt a little like the astronomer depicted in L’Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire as he crawls under the edge of the sky.
In some ways it seems like poetry comes easier to me, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say poetry is easy. In university, when my writing skills really improved a lot, I was a language tutor and somewhat of an MLA geek. Between that and the papers I wrote, I developed into more of an analytical writer. When I first started trying to expand on my stories this presented a great challenge as creative writing skills were now what I needed, but didn’t really possess.
Writing poetry requires saying a lot with few words, which is true of prose, of course, but the parameters tend to be narrower. Also, a word might not feel right, or could turn out to be much different to what you’d intended and you think, “What do I do with this now?” Although in poetry, this may be a pro because of the separations between poems, despite the relationship uniting them all in one volume. For example, I once tried to write a poem directed at a country—not my own, but one I really do like. I was trying to express anger, but the end result was something so radically different to what I’d aimed for I was astounded. When I thought about it more I wondered that what I had inside me was communicating a different anger that also needed to be directed elsewhere, not at this place I was so fond of. But the result was a complete product—with its own challenges toward my intentions, but still a workable poem.
Like all writers, I suppose you also use your writing as a cathartic exercise, i.e. you write with no intention of ever letting those particular words see the light of the day. And yet – in my case, at least – sometimes that writing is so intense it is almost a pity to hide it away. Your thoughts?
Ohhhhhh, yes. The poem I just talked about falls into that category. It feels so very personal, and I have some reservations, but I still thought, “And now I just put it back in the drawer?” Some work is so emotive it just can’t be contained again.
As a final question, which books would you bring with you to a desert island? You are only allowed three and they must last you a life-time…
This is really difficult. I mean really difficult. Just three?
I thought about The Complete Works of Shakespeare. I have a Bevington edition from my university class that could keep me busy for many years. It’s not that I’m a huge fan of Will, but what he did with language was inspirational, and all those plays could really keep me thinking, and probably writing. And let’s not forget the poems!
Possibly Boorstin’s The Discoverers. He covers a variety of topics—astronomy, measurement of time, science, geography, history, key figures in exploration and expeditions for spices, discovery, the opening of China and so on. I’ve read it a few times and each reading grants me a new observation on something that didn’t quite settle in the last time.
Nikolai Tolstoy’s The Quest for Merlin. This may come as a surprise for you, given my oft-repeated love of Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave. (“Yup,” Anna says) I do love Stewart’s book and feel almost drained leaving it off, but would have to confess that Tolstoy’s, which I read just once, leaves more room for discovery. Plus it has pictures. OK, well in all seriousness I don’t feel quite so connected to Merlin as with Stewart’s work, but the less familiar material would lead me through terra incognita and perhaps a few wonderful surprises.
Wow, not exactly the easiest of reads…Thank you so much for dropping by, Lisl – it has been most inspirational!
Thanks so much, Anna, for having me and I hope we’ll do this again sometime