Reading Matters blog

Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His 13 novels for young adults include The Revealers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools; its sequel, True Shoes (Long Stride Books, 2012), and Doug's newest book, The Prince of Denial (Long Stride, 2013).

Maybe we need to hang up ... and be

Louis CK is a comic who tends to capture things, and in a few words recently he capsulized what an MIT professor, researcher and author conveyed in a 1,600-word New York Times oped. Our phones are wrecking our ability to be real.

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What to leave out

“Omission” is the title of an essay by the celebrated nonfiction writer John McPhee in this week’s New Yorker, and as soon as I saw that I knew I had to read the piece. For me, the key to writing anything that might connect and mean something has always been as much about what you leave out — or take out — as it’s ever about what you put in. This is lucky, because I’m much better at leaving and taking stuff out than I am at thinking of clever things to put in.

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Ending my summer of story: Fatima

For over 30 years I’ve been both fascinated and baffled by the traditional teaching stories of the sufis, Islam’s teachers of the wisdom path. Best known and widely read in collections by the late Idries Shah, these stories have often, Shah tells us, been in circulation for centuries. He usually shares what’s known about their origin or authorship as he passes on the stories in books like Caravan of Dreams and The Way of the Sufi.

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My summer of story: the detective encounter

Edgar Allan Poe invented the detective story. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” his first, came out in 1841 and featured an almost magically observant amateur detective, plus his his much-impressed sidekick narrator. Arthur Conan Doyle later based his better-known detective on Poe’s Parisian sleuth Auguste Dupin, and called Poe “the father of the detective tale” in his preface to 1902's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Added Doyle: “The secret of the thinness and also of the intensity of the detective story is, that the writer is left with only one quality, that of intellectual acuteness, with which to endow his hero.”

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My summer of story: Grisham

Without having read his stuff, I used to be snide about John Grisham. How could he be worth reading, I figured, if everyone was reading him? Then I actually read a Grisham novel, and now I have a different question. Why do we tend to assume that a first-rate storyteller can’t be a first-rate writer?
   

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My summer of story: World Tales

“A man once heard that he would attain to wisdom if he could meet the Happiest Man in the World, and obtain his shirt. It took him nearly all his life to find him. And then he noticed that the Happiest Man did not own a shirt.”
    This may be my favorite story — it’s definitely the shortest one — in Idries Shah’s World Tales, a 400-page collection of traditional stories that have each emerged in various different cultures.

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My summer of story: The Human Comedy

I’ve struggled to come up with the simplest way to get young writers going on writing a real story. By “real” I don’t mean non-fiction — I mean a piece of fiction that is a story.
    I’ve tried going super-simple. “In a story,” I wrote on the board, “something happens.” But that was too general, too vague. Then I tried saying, “When your friend asks you ‘What’s up’ and you say ‘Nothing,’” that is not a story — but when you text your friend “OMG! You won’t believe what happened!” you are promising (and you’ll soon be telling) a story.”
    But that didn’t give enough of a sense of what a story is. So lately I’ve begun saying, “First, create a character or two that you really find interesting. Then put them in a predicament. If you do that, then let your characters find their way out, you will have written the first draft of a story.”

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My summer of story: Mockingbird

This is the summer of Harper Lee, in our house and all over. My wife brought home Go Set a Watchman, Lee's new-published novel that was a very early draft of what became To Kill a Mockingbird, the most-read American novel of all time, along with the Lee biography Mockingbird and a copy of the classic novel itself, even though I’d told her I’ve already got one. (She wanted her own.) So I pulled out my copy and read To Kill a Mockingbird again, this time paying attention ... to the story.

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My summer of story: the element of risk

It’s hard to imagine this was over 20 years ago: I was a freelance writer (then as now), and I was pretty beaten-down. I’d spent 10 years on a nonfiction book, a personal story of travel and conversation in Muslim Asia, that had been rejected 75 times and would never be published. In the many rejection letters I had received, some of which were quite thoughtful, one response had stayed with me. I needed to tell a better story. 
    This seemed good advice, but what to do with it?

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My summer of story: homage to Ramona

A chapter book for kids came out in 1955 about a four-year-old girl, in an unexceptional but caring white family, who wants to make noise, be noticed, and have picture books read to her over and over and over about steam shovels. The third-person novel is told largely from the viewpoint of the girl’s dutiful older sister, whose name is Beatrice but whom everyone calls Beezus, and who is constantly being driven crazy by the noisy, creative, impulsive Ramona.
    Ramona became famous.

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My summer of story: appreciating the elusive comic novel

There’s a type of story that’s really hard to write, and that as a reader I often look for when I don’t feel well or I’m struggling — and that’s the comic novel. I love Carl Hiassen’s riotous eco-morality tales set in Florida, for both YA and adult readers; I’ve enjoyed a couple of Christopher Moore’s contemporary novels, especially Fluke; and, as I’m about to drive from Vermont to New York City to see my agent, I’m overjoyed to have downloaded Dave Barry’s new novel Insane City. But the comic novelist I still love most is the late, legendary Englishman P.G. Wodehouse.
   

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The summer of story: message vs. meaning

Why are we putty in a storyteller’s hands?

Jonathan Gottschall, an English professor and writer about evolutionary psychology, asks this in his 2012 book The Storytelling Animal, in the chapter “Ink People Change the World." He has just described how research shows we’re influenced, a lot more than we normally realize, by the fictions we absorb — not just by books but by sitcoms, films and so forth.

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Starting my summer of story

Story is for a human as water is for a fish — all-encompassing and not quite palpable.

This is from The Storytelling Animal, a relatively new (2012) book by Jonathan Gottschall, an English professor at Washington and Jefferson College, that is thought-sparking on a variety of story-related topics — why and how we dream, how children live so naturally in storyland, and why in the world we are storytelling animals. The survival value of fiction isn’t obvious, after all, but it must exist: humans have been immersed in story at all times, all over the world and in all cultures. And still today.

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The last steamship (conclusion)


I've been serializing a chapter from my first, never-published book, The Heart of the Bazaar: A Journey into Islamic Asia. In Dubai in early 1981, having left my newspaper job to travel in the Muslim world and write about it, I took passage on the last ocean-going, regularly scheduled passenger ship in the world: the RMS Dwarka, a British vessel that ran from the Persian Gulf to Karachi and Bombay. This is the last of seven segments drawn from the chapter I wrote about traveling on the Dwarka from Dubai to Karachi.

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Queen of the Gulf, part 6

At evening I’m standing by the rail, looking across the water (the Arabian Sea is dark — much deeper than the Gulf), when an old man comes out from the passageway and over to me. He is a workingman, cotton-clad. His face is grizzled, he is almost toothless, he wears a Muslim’s lace skullcap. He stops beside me and asks if he can see the book — Venture to the Interior, a book about Africa — that I have in my hand. I say, sure.

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Queen of the Gulf, part 5

The Gulf is light green — the water is not so deep. The first morning at sea is bright, but misty far off. From the promenade deck I can see supertankers in the mist, crossing the horizon in a long irregular line.
    They are a brush’s bare strokes on a watercolor horizon. Each one is a long, long stretched-out hull, barely visible above the waterline, and a bit of housing at the far back. 

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Queen of the Gulf, part 4

The first evening as supper was finishing, I was sitting alone noticing the napkin rings were numbered when a steward entered the dining saloon and, bending to me, whispered that the captain would like, after coffee, to have me up. (He’d gone up already, from his place at center table.) So later I climbed, first the staircase and then a steep metal stair-ladder in open air to the boat deck up top. The captain’s quarters were fitted in closely behind the bridge. We hadn’t yet left Dubai, which sat off behind the darkened harbor area. I knocked on the captain’s door, hearing communication equipment inside.

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Queen of the Gulf, part 3

To the dessert forks and coffee spoons, each piece in the Dwarka’s silver was engraved with the letters “BI,” for British India Steam Navigation Company, Ltd. B.I., as itself, no longer exists — it is part of a corporation now — but in its day it had as much to do with the making and shifting of eras in the world as has any similar enterprise, early or late, any carrier of human beings.

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Queen of the Gulf, part 2

I step into a quiet passageway, and an Indian steward in a white jacket appears, leads me to my cabin. It has wood shutters and a fan on the wall, a sink, dressing table, desk, two wardrobe closets and three bunks, two over-under. No one else is in here. I sit on a bunk. The clamor is distant now. The harbor ruffles outside.

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Queen of the Gulf: Part 1

In early 1981 I took passage on the last ocean-going, regularly scheduled passenger ship in the world: the RMS Dwarka, running from the Persian Gulf to Karachi and Bombay. I had just left my newspaper job to travel in the Muslim world and write my first book, The Heart of the Bazaar: A Journey Into Islamic Asia. The book was rejected 75 times and never published — so this chapter from it has never before been shared. I thought I’d serialize it, starting today.

The last Dubai morning is washed in sun. A taxi takes me from my hotel neighborhood, looking back as I leave it, down into Port Rashid through a gate in a very long, high wire fence. I see no water, only asphalt expanse. Cranes and cargo derricks stand at leisure, far down the sky. Somewhere in this the taxi lands me at the passenger terminal, which is a tiny white cube on the asphalt. This is not, it seems, a people-oriented port.

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