The Case for Reading Fewer Books

I never plan the coincidence of what I’m reading, but the random mixture of my broad-ranging choices often presents interesting outcomes. More of my stories and poems than I can count sprout from a strange mixture of genres. I might be listening to a commercial horror audio book, reading challenging literary fiction in paperback, and slowly paging through a poetry anthology all at the same time. I read nonfiction for research, fun popular fiction to know what’s going on in the industry, classics to understand my genre lineage, funny books, sad books, sexy books, thoughtful books, outrageous books, and even my critique partners’ books. It’s always interesting to see what effects these various concoctions form in my mind, and it’s often delightfully serendipitous.

For the past chunk of time – probably a month at least, I would imagine – I’ve been reading a poetry collection called The Unswept Room by Sharon Olds as well as the long gothic novel The Witching Hour by Anne Rice. This happy coincidence taught me one important thing: the incredible value of reading slow.

  

When I read the opening poem in Olds’s collection, I had to put the book down. It struck me hard, and I wanted to stop and think about it. The next day, I read the second poem, and I swear by the end of it I was breathless. I had the type of reaction a poet can only dream of: wide eyes, pounding pulse, brain whirling. I had to close the book. I might have uttered choice profanity and lovingly clenched the book to my chest. I am honestly not kidding or even exaggerating. She’s that good.

And that was the crazy part: almost all of the poems were make-me-stop good. Over and over I tried to sit for longer chunks and read several poems, but I never could do it. I had to digest each one thoroughly, reread many again later before moving forward. I had to take it slow so I could better savor the work of who has certainly become my new favorite poet.

Switch to The Witching Hour. This book is over a thousand pages long. It’s dense as hell and certainly a commitment to start. Knowing that Anne Rice would take me there (and remembering how it happily took me my entire junior year of high school to read Queen of the Damned), I eagerly sank into the slow, rich, meticulous pace of it. It took me all of a week to realize three things. 1) I had been cheating myself by subconsciously choosing shorter books. 2) Long books can do things that shorter books simply cannot accomplish. 3) There is nothing more magical than getting lost in something you love when you know that something will last.

If you’ll forgive the adult metaphor (gasp! sex!), The Witching Hour reminded me why the height of a book’s plot is called the climax. Shorter novels can have wonderful climaxes too, of course, but it’s simply not possible for them to achieve the amount of sheer momentum and build-up of a longer book. More pay-in creates more pay-off. I knew these characters not just by their most interesting/unique attributes, but in all of their moods and aspects. I knew not just enough backstory to carry me through, but the entire history of them and their family. I knew not just what was at stake for this one couple, but for the world at large. By the time I got to page 900 I felt like I’d lived several lives and the end was nigh, and, again, I was left literally short of breath. It’s been a really long time since a book made me feel like that.

For some reason, it took the coincidence of Olds and Rice to make me realize how much I love this – reading slow – and how much I’d stopped doing it. I think this shift came about around the same time I started using Goodreads. Don’t get me wrong; I adore Goodreads. But keeping track of how many books I read each year makes me naturally number-hungry. I’m a very goal-oriented person, so even if I don’t set a concrete number I want to read each year, I still find myself subconsciously ticking off a checkmark each time I finish something new. The ramifications of that are that I choose easier, shorter, faster books almost without even thinking about it. I want more numbers, more checkmarks, and that made me quietly reluctant to pick up Tolstoy or The Historian.

What a loss.

At least now I’m aware of it, so I can stop letting quiet hesitations influence my reading choices. (And for the record, it’s not as if I was reading bad quicker reads; I was and will still read really amazing shorter novels too!) The first thing I did when I finished The Witching Hour was go out and buy the two sequels. Up next after those? I don’t know. Maybe Tolstoy or The Historian. 😉

There’s so much value in reading slow, reading thorough, reading thoughtfully. Hell, why not re-read? I’ve always heard writers talk about reading a book again right after finishing it the first time: once for story and once for craft. I’ve re-read books, sure, but not back to back. I think maybe I will now. Why not? It isn’t about the number of checkmarks I get. It’s about how much pleasure reading brings to my life, and like all good things, if it’s worth doing, it’s probably worth doing slowly.

Read less? Never.

Read fewer books? When they’re worth it: absolutely.

Do you find yourself reading fast and easy, or toward a goal? When was the last time you let yourself really savor something? Speed-readers and dawdlers alike welcome to the conversation! 🙂

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The Outsiders

Today, in continued celebration of National Poetry Month, I’m going to share my poem “The Outsiders” here on the blog. This one has a decent bit of history to it. It won 1st place in the Grayson/Logan Prize by the Poetry Society of Texas in 2013 and was subsequently published in their annual prize anthology A Book of the Year.

Then, last year, it was in Merging Visions, the local annual art/poetry collaborative exhibit I participate in. It was accompanied by a really lovely watercolor by Carol Rowley called “Farmhouse at Dusk,” and also published in the catalog of that exhibit called Collections V.

And last but certainly not least, in one of my gutsier moments, I sent it along with a letter and a second poem to Billy Collins. (A line from one of Collins’s poems appears as an epigraph for “The Outsiders.”) Imagine my surprise and delight when he actually took the time to write me back — and even complimented my poem! He said, “I like the mouse-centric one a lot.” You know, it’s not a bad day when Billy Collins says he likes one of your poems a lot. 🙂

Well, I think it’s safe to say that this little poem has had all the thrill it can take, so I’m reprinting here today for you to read. I hope you enjoy!

 

The Outsiders

“I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out…”

–Billy Collins

From the shed,
the back windows
of our house
glow the warmest yellow,
and I pause,
because
I don’t remember
ever appreciating
feeling…
cozy
while inside.
As I settle my tools
against the wall,
close the squeaky door,
and crunch across the grass,
I wonder
if this
is what goes through
the tiny hearts and minds
of the shed mice
who live here –
always outside,
looking in.

© Annie Neugebauer, 2011.

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A Poetry Buffet

In case you missed it on my Twitter and Facebook, I have (even more) good news: I have an agent! I’ve signed with Alec Shane at Writers House, and I couldn’t be happier. 🙂

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What’s more, I’ve survived April Fool’s Day and can now safely proclaim: happy National Poetry Month! Every year I do at least a little something to celebrate on my blog. This year I’ll probably reprint a poem or two that are currently only available in print, but first, I’d like to offer up my poems that are already easily readable. Behind the scenes, I always feel I’m doing so much to promote my work, but then I’m regularly surprised by how many people ask me where they can read my stuff. The internet’s so big and readers are so busy, I’m sure we all miss things all the time. I do always have all of my published work listed on this page, but I also realize that a chronological list doesn’t tell you much about the works in question.

So today I thought I’d sort my poems out and break them down by categories so you can easily find the one or two (or five) poems most likely to be up your alley.

It turned out to be an interesting exercise! Naturally, several of these poems could’ve been categorized under more than one heading, but in the interest of clarity I just chose the one I felt best suited the core spirit of the poem. And because life is busy, money is tight, and time is short, I listed the poems that are currently only available in print/for purchase in a separate category at the bottom, because I know not everyone will want to go that extent to hunt down my work. (The genres of those are in parentheses along with the format.) So that means everything in the first five categories is free to read online!

And just in case you’re picky about your forms, *asterisks denote poems that rhyme and/or are in a more traditional form than free verse. I really hope you find something you enjoy. Happy browsing!

Horror
Naked,” Apex Magazine
I am running,” Grievous Angel
Light and Liquor,” HWA Poetry Showcase Volume I
*“Still, It Pulls me,” New Myths
Shades of Blue,” Hello Horror
*“The Centipede,” Underneath the Juniper Tree
The Skeleton,” Spaceports & Spidersilk
*“Scarcely Caged
Dragging the Waters,” Phantom Kangaroo
To Walk Again,” Collections I
Marionette,” Collections I
The Lurking

Magical Realism/Fantasy/Myth
Seeking Rainbows,” Liquid Imagination
All Gifts,” A Texas Garden of Verses
*“Breaking Earth,” Mirror Dance
*“I, Pandora,” Denton Record Chronicle (at the bottom of the article)
Self-inflicted

Science Fiction
Maxwell’s Demon,” Apex Magazine
The Hadal Zone,” Encore

Realistic/Life/Quiet
Thanks Giving
Country Born,” Texas Poetry Calendar
The Outsiders,” A Book of the Year
*“Rust Never Sleeps,” Deep South Magazine
Nights in Texas,” Deep South Magazine
Picnic,” Encore
*“By Example,” Encore
The Fox Pup of Big Blue Mountain,” A Book of the Year
Approaching June,” Texas Poetry Calendar
Hookah on a Loveseat,” Eunoia Review
*“Cleaning out the Exhaust Vent,” Versifico
Missing Pieces,” (And be sure to listen to the lovely audio reading by Xe Sands!)
*“River of Life,” Collections I
The Air in our Apartment,” Wichita Falls Literature and Arts Review

Playful/Humorous/Light
The road from Denton to Henrietta,” A Book of the Year
*“The Adventures of Squrimy,” Encore
*“My Diversion
*“Digital Implications,” Wichita Falls Literature and Arts Review

Print/for Purchase
“Fiend,” HWA Poetry Showcase Volume II (ebook; horror)
“The Comedian,” Infernal Ink (ebook or print; horror)
*“The Secret in the Village of Dragonsbreath,” British Fantasy Society Journal Summer 2011(print; horror)
“When it snows in Texas,” Texas Poetry Calendar 2015 (print; realistic/life/quiet)
“Press Play,” A Book of the Year 2015 (print; realistic/life/quiet)
“The Outsiders,” A Book of the Year 2014 (print; realistic/life/quiet)
“Anxiety,” The Stray Branch (print; realistic/life/quiet)
*“Deceptive Passages,” The Stray Branch (print; realistic/life/quiet)
“Get Over,” The Stray Branch (print; realistic/life/quiet)
“The Road to Heaven,” Ardent! Poetry Volume 6:1 (print; realistic/life/quiet)


I wish you all a happy, thoughtful, fun, poetic April!

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Naked, More than Twitter, and Strange Little Girls

It’s been an exciting couple of weeks over here!

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First off, if you haven’t already, feel free to go read my newest horror poem, “Naked,” in Apex Magazine Issue 82. It’s probably not for the faint of heart.

Second, I have a new post up at Writer Unboxed, and guess what? It’s not about Twitter! I might still answer the occasional Ask Annie questions if they catch my fancy, so feel free to keep sending them in, but we’ve opened up my topic so I can blog about other things. And I have to tell you, after three full years (It’s my postiversary!) of talking about Twitter, I’m quite excited to branch out. 🙂 My new post is called “Really Going There.” It’s about self-censorship, useful lies, and what writers can learn from Jack Nicholson. I’d love for you to stop by!

And last but certainly not least, Strange Little Girls is out in the world! I’m so excited to have a short story, “The Cottage of Curiosities,” in this awesome anthology by Belladonna Publishing.

Strange Little Girls has absolutely captured my strange little heart. Maybe it’s the killer title and gorgeous cover. (The cover art and interior illustrations are all by the talented Liv Lingborn!) Perhaps, being the end result of a strange little girl myself, I’m unusually drawn to the theme of this anthology. Or it could be that they chose one of my stories that I’m most sweet on:

My short story “The Cottage of Curiosities” features a girl named Patty who lives with her mother in a secluded cottage deep in the woods. The cottage is suitably eccentric and wonderful and more than a little eerie. The duo lives a happy life there, but when Patty’s mama falls ill, it’s up to Patty to take care of her, to make the decisions, and, finally, to seek help beyond the woods that surround them, dark and dense and full of strangeness that seems to have a life of its own…

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If you’d like to read my story (and the 18 other odd and lovely tales in this collection), you can enter to win a free copy on Goodreads! The giveaway is open until March 17th. Be sure to add it to your shelves, too. Or better yet, buy yourself a copy now on Amazon! The paperback is $16.95, or you can get the e-book for $6.99.

I’m away at writing retreat, so I’ll be slower to respond than usual, but I hope you all have a wonderfully strange little week!

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