Reading legacy

On the phone my cousin asked me “What are you reading?” and I was stunned into momentary silence because this isn’t a question I’m often asked. Knowing his reading is as vast as the prairies I was afraid to answer “short stories” for the only form less appealing to the reading world is poetry.

“Truth is like poetry and most people fucking hate poetry.” – from The Big Short

I’m also reading poetry but I didn’t tell him that. 

I read short stories because they are quick and I can finish one at bedtime and be satisfied. I read poetry for the opposite reason: Poetry slows me down. A single word like “thestered” in Nocturn by W.H. Auden stalls me, brings me to a moment of concentration that I can’t find in my job, or my family life as I ping-pong from one task, one thought, one imperative to the next.

In reading a novel I’m absorbed in movement from page to page, poured out by plot, needing to advance to the next chapter and the next and the next. I don’t pause. I need to finish. It is a hurry-up read.

My non-fiction reading comes in compact literary magazines and on-line journals. How do you explain this to a man who uses books as coffee tables and coasters and foot stools? A man who lives far back in the bush on Vancouver Island and lives on a pension smaller than a cherry tomato but who lives an interior life larger and richer than anyone in Trump Tower?

We talk books together because this is what he talked about with my mother. He assumes I must be a reader too and he is right. I like this triangulation that connects my mother to him and to me across time, across space and skirts the absence of my long dead mother. I like this unseen legacy given by my mother to her children, a legacy that, more than anything else, makes us richer than our bank accounts will ever show.

Canadian literary journals

23 thoughts on “Reading legacy

  1. Luanne October 23, 2016 / 3:37 pm

    I like that whole triangulation thing! And I understand about the short stories and the poetry, in every way! By the way, I once had a poem published in The Antigonish Review woohoo!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Susanne October 23, 2016 / 7:30 pm

      I haven’t yet been rejected by them for a story I sent a few months ago. Perhaps I’ll be lucky enough to follow in your footsteps! Some of the most memorable stories I’ve read in the last year have all been in lit journals by non-mega-authors. I can’t believe it took me 59 years to discover such amazing writing!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Luanne October 24, 2016 / 11:27 am

        Fingers crossed for you!!! Isn’t it crazy though? Such good stuff. And read by so few.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Cynthia Jobin October 23, 2016 / 4:23 pm

    It’s good that you have that sense of a legacy and a connection with your mother, when you speak about reading with your cousin. I’m sorry you feel defensive about your authentic tastes in reading, though. If what you read serves your living well, I doubt St. Peter will be comparing it to some ideal reading list at the pearly gates.

    When someone asks me what I am reading, I want to say: none of your G..D… business… or…I am reading nothing!…nothing!
    I don’t say that, of course. I tell them what I am reading. The response is usually: “Oh”. Then they tell me what they are reading, which is usually a novel, and I say: “Oh.” (I can no longer find sufficient idleness for novels.) If what they are reading is so-called nonfiction, it’s usually a recent best seller.

    I call these people READISTS…they read as an acquisitive exercise, a competition, and there’s some kind of silent judgement going on when they discuss what anyone is reading. They gulp books and join bookclubs and participate in read-a-thons. They are awash in book reviews. I have never understood the need of READISTS to turn what is a solitary occupation—a quiet conversation between an author and a reader—into a judgmental, social exercise.

    For me, one good book (I don’t call them “reads”) often sends me to another…it’s like a spontaneous trail of what I need to read at any given time. But it’s not like a marathon or a contest of “how many hot dogs can you eat.” The books I need to read seem to fall off of shelves, or somehow find me, at just the right moment. Each one leads me a bit closer to what I can understand as true. But then, that’s about truth, isn’t it….and I am thinking of your opening quotation about truth and poetry and how most people” fucking hate” them both.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Susanne October 23, 2016 / 7:42 pm

      After I got over the shock of being asked what I was reading, I enjoyed chatting with my cousin about books. It was common ground and he isn’t at all competitive about his reading. It was merely a conversation starter. His reading is very different than mine – lots of non-fiction and science with a leaning to physics which is something I’ll probably never read but I still enjoyed hearing what draws him to it.

      Bookclubs. Ugh. I once thought I’d like to join such a group but realized that I like to read what I like to read and as I have not a lot of time to read, the last thing I want is to be told what to read. I think “Goodreads” is the epitome of what you refer to as a “judgemental social exercise” and I avoid it like the plague. But I do like to hear what other people are reading and why. The information is like going for a walk at dusk and peering into people’s lit up living rooms before the curtains are drawn for the night.

      I liked the quote from the movie “The Big Short” which is about the financial crash of 2007 and is spoken in the context of those who knew the crash was coming but nobody was listening or paying attention. And being a lover of poetry, it made me laugh albeit in a rueful way.

      Glad my simple post got such a long comment, Cynthia. Always a pleasure having you read my thoughts and responding with yours.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Bruce Goodman October 23, 2016 / 6:59 pm

    No one has ever asked me what I’m reading, so I feel a bit left out. Anyway, I’m a terrible reader – I read the New Zealand Women’s Weekly fairly regularly though. How else can one keep up with what the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are doing? (I’m not kidding!) I made a resolution this year to re-read the classics, and I started with Tom Brown’s School Days. I threw it away. I have no idea how I managed to finish reading such highfalutin things when I was a kid! Short stories are one of my favourite genres – and my favourite line from a short story (at least for today) comes from Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss: “Tomato soup is so dreadfully eternal, don’t you think?”


    • Susanne October 23, 2016 / 7:27 pm

      The equivalent to New Zealand Women’s Weekly here would be “Hello” magazine which chronicles the comings and goings of Will and Kate. They were just in Canada so we had never ending coverage of what she was wearing where and when. They are an awfully pretty family. As for reading, I do wish I had the attention span for “Important Works of Literature” but I don’t and like you am impatient with many classics. I’ve heard you mention Katherine Mansfield several times and will have to find a book of her stories. Such wisdom in the observation of dreadful eternal tomato soup.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. joey October 23, 2016 / 9:45 pm

    Well I love that last bit, about a reading mother’s legacy. I won’t forget that. True stories. My mother’s family was more the reader-y sort, fersure, and my kids are afflicted similarly. We crave it, I spose.

    I enjoy non-fiction, but I’m picky about it. I enjoy fiction, but I’m picky about it. I enjoy poetry and I am NOT picky about that. Short stories are the ideal reading for when you can’t get sucked in, and I’ve been like that for a while now, maybe 4 months or so. Unless I’ve already read it or I can read it in a weekend, I can’t open it. Looking forward to the holidays for this reason, and of course, for baking more as well.


  5. Cathy Murphy October 24, 2016 / 6:52 am

    Love the connection to your mother. I read for pure enjoyment and to lose myself…poetry, short stories and novels…love them all, and to read something written by an amazing writer is truly a gift!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Susanne October 24, 2016 / 7:26 am

      As a dog lover Cath, have a look at “A dog’s purpose” by Bruce Cameron. Absolutely delightful!


  6. Osyth October 24, 2016 / 9:44 am

    I love that ‘poetry slows me down’ …. I’d never considered it but I suppose that IS why I love it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Susanne October 24, 2016 / 7:10 pm

      It’s possible to race through a poem but I don’t think you’d enjoy it as much. Most good poems demand re-reading many times over which is like loitering over words.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Osyth October 25, 2016 / 4:55 am

        It’s the same as looking at a painting or sculpture …. you can just glance and walk past or you can stand and stare and let yourself respond …. actually its the same as connecting with anything beautiful now I think about it.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Andrea Stephenson October 24, 2016 / 1:55 pm

    I love that you’re linked through books. Strange how we turn our noses up at some forms of writing and not others. I admit to rarely reading a book of poetry – in fact it’s probably blogging friends that have encouraged me to read more poetry than I ever have. And short stories, I tend to read in literary magazines.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Susanne October 24, 2016 / 2:56 pm

      I started reading poetry again when I started writing poetry and wanted to get better at it. Blogging stretches our minds!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. exiledprospero October 25, 2016 / 9:27 am

    You say you are a contrarian. So am I.

    Yet there is something sempiternal about books: poetry collections; the manual I just devoured detailing lovingly every feature of my flat screen TV, with special–dare I say anatomical–attention to the dizzying array of near-pornographic inputs and outputs found on the back; comic books, including but not limited to the Adventures of Captain Wombat, an Aussie publication : ask Bruce for the skinny on this fine magazine; and certain gruesome passages from The Bible.

    We read because we are as a species inexorably bound by language. What we read is a detail– the fact that we read is the essence.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Ellen Morris Prewitt October 27, 2016 / 11:17 am

    I’m drawn to your comment about the only form more hated than poetry is short stories. As you know I write short stories and have thought in the past that the form’s drift away from narrative to unresolved meaning in images is sending it even further down the road of unpopularity. I unabashedly write a narrative arc, of course, and short stories were my first literary love. Sometimes I worry that poetry is becoming a form written for other poets and short stories for other short story writers. I guess that’s my depressing comment of the day 🙂


    • Susanne October 27, 2016 / 5:30 pm

      My bold statement about short stories being hated is from a small random sampling of friends and relations who prefer novels. Over the last year I’ve spent a ton of time with short stories as I try to write them and I think you’re onto something with your comment about their drift away from narrative to unresolved meaning. When I look at the stories I favour they are, as you say, those with a clear story and a resolution. I wonder why the move away?

      In my recent affair with W.H. Auden, I read in a bio that he actually made a living at writing poetry and being a poet. I wonder how many poets now can say that? Is it that people don’t have the attention span to stick with a poem? Should a poem require attention span? I picked up a Billy Collins collection today at lunch and sat down in a coffee shop to read and his poetry is so accessible and delightful. There’s no need for special equipment to divine the poems’ meanings just clear language and deep insights into small moments. Poetry doesn’t have to be hard but some poets may have bought into the belief it should be.


      • Ellen Morris Prewitt November 2, 2016 / 11:12 pm

        How did I miss this reply? I don’t know why the drift, but I think someone told someone else that stories were more “literary” if readers don’t really understand what you are trying to say. 🙂 I grew up on John Cheever and Bernard Malamud and Eudora Welty. Masters of the field, and no one has to tell you what they were trying to say.
        I don’t know if poetry takes attention span but, for me, it takes a certain concentration of attention. And (big confession) when I started writing everyone who read my stuff said, “You should write poetry!” But I wanted to be accessible. So I wrote short stories, only to discover many found them . . . in accessible. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  10. hilarycustancegreen October 31, 2016 / 5:40 pm

    I understand your momentary hesitation. I was asked, in an online interview, what will I be reading next. I have unread books (including poetry) stacked all around me, but I solemnly walked upstairs and picked the next book off the pile on my bedside table – it was a non-fiction book about what happens to human cadavers (titled Stiff). I love the way you have conversations with your cousin that somehow include your mother.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Susanne November 1, 2016 / 6:11 pm

      I’m learning that my mother, in her quiet unassuming way, stitched her patchwork family together in ways I didn’t perceive as a younger person.

      I try so hard not to accumulate books I won’t read but I am often drawn to the Idea of a Book that I think I’ll read and then it languishes on my bedside table collecting dust and guilt. I’ve discovered a terrific used bookstore near where I work and it is my undoing although today I pulled out 4 books I thought I must have and then sat down at a table and set aside 3, coming home with a book of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. Yay!


  11. Malissa Greenwood November 6, 2016 / 2:01 pm

    This is a lovely post, for its topic as well as the writing. Thank you for sharing it! Happy reading.

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