Jason Mierek is the Visiting Project Manager of the Humanities Without Walls consortium, headquartered in the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities. He likes to read a lot.
My life has been about books for as long as I can remember. It was a truism in my family that I would have a book in hand whenever and wherever we went, from the dinner table to the swimming pool. One of my earliest fulltime jobs was as a bookseller at Champaign’s independent bookstore, Pages for All Ages. I met my wife when we worked together at another independent bookstore, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco; we’re both such avid readers and book lovers that our daughter was reading by the time she was three, which I am told is unusual. My first decently paying, professional job had me working for Lonely Planet Publications in Oakland, and a healthy portion of that income went to buy books.
My first literary loves were comics, and then books about science, science fiction, monster movies, and mythology. Over the decades I’ve branched out as one book or author in my favorite genres suggested I look in a new area for beauty, inspiration, mind-blowing, or just a good story, and now I read pretty widely, wherever the winds (and the Further Reading sections) blow. My to-read list grows daily. You might say it is books all the way down. (And I do mean books, printed on paper, with pages turned by hand. In a world where screens spring up like plague sores, there is something liberating about poring over a dog-eared paperback. I stare at a screen eight hours a day, so no eBooks for me.)
I am currently about halfway through one of those results of following the tangents where they lead, The Ottoman Centuries by John Patrick Douglas Balfour (aka “Lord Kinross”). After I participated in a 2010 cultural exchange trip to Turkey, sponsored by the Intercultural Friendship Foundation, I returned with a new-found love of the Turkish language (which I then studied for two years) and an interest in Turkish culture and history. In reading this book about an empire that collapsed almost a century ago I have gotten a clearer perspective on the context surrounding many issues of contemporary relevance and concern.
Back to that that ever-expanding to-read list. The late, great singer-songwriter Warren Zevon said, “We buy books because we believe we’re buying the time to read them,” and that insight sinks in a little deeper every time I look at my bookshelves or that to-read list. I realize that the only way I’m getting to all those books is if someone discovers a cure for death in my lifetime. But I don’t think there is a cure for death, no matter what Aubrey de Grey, Ray Kurzweil, or other transhumanists assert. (That doesn’t stop me from reading them too!)
Instead, as per the Buddhist traditions with which I regularly engage, awareness of the fact that I too shall die spurs me to be a better human being; to treat others with kindness, patience, and generosity; and to devote energy and time to the cultivation of those positive qualities, among others. As a part of my “path,” I have made it a project to read the hagiographies of all of the Buddhist masters in the Tibetan Kagyü and Nyingma lineages, the antecedents to my own meager meditative and spiritual efforts. As such I am presently steeping in the “spontaneous realization songs” collected in The Rain of Wisdom: The Essence of the Ocean of True Meaning. It is not exactly light reading, but it definitely helps restore my sense of clarity, hopefulness, and humor whenever I dip into its pages.
I also enjoy book groups, as a facilitator and a participant. Book groups introduce me to titles I wouldn’t otherwise read while often distracting me from the growing piles of books scattered throughout my house. My wife and I have recently begun our own two-member book group, with the hope of turning that logic on its head and focusing on those piles. She has a stack of candidates of books she wants to read together, alongside a similar stack of my books, and we take turns selecting a book from each other’s stacks; the semi-randomization makes the process a tad more exciting. We began with the classic Watership Down (her book, my choice) which provided a glimpse through non-human eyes; are presently working on the funny, stylish, and psychedelic Another Roadside Attraction (my book, her choice), Tom Robbin’s debut novel about “the 60s” and how the Second Coming of Christ doesn’t unfold quite as advertised; and plan next to devour David Remnick’s King of the World, a Pulitzer-prize-winning character study of Muhammad Ali.
I’m also into DIY, or in the current parlance, “reskilling,” and this (surprise!) involves lots of reading. I am an inveterate homebrewer, having concocted over 25 different potables, including the dandelion wine (called “Bumper Crop”) presently aging in my basement, but Sam Calagione’s (of Dogfish Head fame) Extreme Brewing is giving me all sorts of wonderful, Mad Scientist-type ideas. (It doesn’t hurt that I’ve recently discovered sour beers in all their weird diversity and want to start making my own.) I’ve also gotten into other forms of home fermentation, like making my own yogurt, kim chee, and dill pickles, thanks in part to reference works like Real Food Fermentation and The Everyday Fermentation Handbook. And as my veggie garden enters its sixth year, I return to helpful guides like Mel Bartholomew’s updated classic All New Square Foot Gardening and the Week-by-Week Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook, both essential for gardening newbs like yours truly.
Finally, there are the comics, or graphic novels, as Serious Adults call them. According to my Goodreads page, approximately 1/3 of the books I have read in the last 15 years comprise graphic novels and comics anthologies. Admitting this fact 25 years ago would have gotten me stern looks from my elders, but luckily the world has figured out (thanks in part to greats like Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, and Brian Vaughan) that comics, in spite of their silly name, can be taken seriously as literature and art. Take for instance the comic I recently read, Unflattening by Nick Sousanis, which “uses the collage-like capacity of comics to show that perception is always an active process of incorporating and reevaluating different vantage points.” Surprisingly (or not) this was the first doctoral dissertation at Columbia University “written” as a comic book. This and other books use the collage-like powers of “sequential art” to make some complex points more easily and lucidly than text alone, and they also often feel “easier” to handle than text-only books, because of all the pictures. (Note: Nick Sousanis will give a lecture and workshop on March 17 at the University of Illinois.)
I could go on endlessly (after all, it is books all the way down), but you probably want to get back to your own books (or, sigh, your eBooks). If you’d like to follow what I am reading, join in a reading group, or just get in touch, feel free to visit my Goodreads page.