Reading separate books together

“Sometimes they would sit in the parlor together, both reading – in entirely separate worlds, to be sure, but joined somehow. When this happened, other people in the family couldn’t bring themselves to disturb them. All that could be heard in the parlor was the sound of pages, turning.” ― Alice HoffmanBlackbird House

People who read together in silence–except for the sound of pages turning–in the same room are usually comfortable together. I’m thinking of families and friends, not passengers on a plane or people in a waiting room at the train station.

Some say that when you use the technique of astral projection, you imagine yourself away to other worlds as a shaman does, leaving your body unattended. To some extent, this happens when we read. Books carry us away upon spells of words just  as surely as dreams carry us away while we’re sleeping.

During a family visit, we all sat in the living room reading our very disparate books. We weren’t there, yet we were there, linked both by our trust in leaving our bodies unattended and by our common, quiet activity. It’s a good feeling, almost as good as lovers who feel secure in silence while they sit on a park bench and day dream, holding hands or leaning against each other.

In the evening, the living room lamps create pools of light where each reader sits. Yet those pools overlap and we are all one within our shared light. I suppose we could each do this with laptop computers or phones for texting, but the books truly have more magic in them making for a deeper experience.

I hope you have also found this to be true.



The many worlds of fiction are calling you away

“I know I walk in and out of several worlds each day.” – Joy Harjo

I won’t try to second guess what Harjo, winner of the 2017 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, meant exactly when she mentioned several worlds. If you’ve read her 1983 book She Had Some Horses, you might suspect–as I do–that her “several worlds” are more than figurative. The title poem, which I can never read often enough, says the horses are sand, are maps, contain ocean water, are the sky’s air, fur and teeth, breakable clay, and splintered from a cliff. Throughout the poem, those horses are everything else.

Nothing figurative there. I see it as real because when I’m there, reading, I’m in that world, and she did not say, like sand, like maps, like fur and teeth, etc. When you read and when you are where the words take you, you are no longer in your safe bed or your easy chair or at your desk. You are in a place where “She had horses with eyes of trains.”

NASA Photo

If you write, you are where the words have taken you, perhaps with Joy Harjo, in a place where “She had horses who licked razor blades.” The typewriter, yellow tablet, or PC slip away, and now you see the bright cold day where the clocks were striking thirteen, where the screaming comes across the sky, where there was a dark and stormy night where the rain was falling in torrents, where Mrs. Dalloway bought flowers for herself, or where stars are living and dying.

If you read and/or write, it is hard not to talk in and out of several worlds each day. The words conjure you there. Those words are your quantum entanglement, placing you simultaneously at one place and another place, and the place with the strongest attraction is where you attention is, often more within the book than your safe bed or easy chair. Perhaps the call of sleep, the ringing of a phone, another person entering the room, or a thunderstorm will draw you away from the horses “who whispered in the dark, who were afraid to speak.”

That sudden change of worlds can be like dying or being born. It’s often wrenching like being pulled suddenly out of weep water or stepping into a fire. Sometimes the worlds blur the way dreams and waking moments tangle together at dawn. Sometimes you’re sure you safe bad is made of sand, is a map, contains ocean water, is fur and teeth, breakable clay, and a splintered sliver from a red cliff. Worlds can tangle for readers, writers, dreamers, and anyone else with an free-ranging imagination.

You become a shaman when you read or write. To the logical observer, you appear to be a man or woman reading in bed or a man or woman writing a book at his or her computer. They can’t quite see that you are the sky’s air and the ocean’s water.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the magical realism novels “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.”

A new poll says people are still reading

A new Gallup poll summarized by Art Swift and Steve Ander shows the following:

  • 35% say they read more than 11 books in the past year
  • 53% of young adults read between one and 10 books in the past year
  • 73% prefer printed books to e-readers or audio books

According to Swift and Ander, “Despite the abundance of digital diversions vying for their time and attention, most Americans are still reading books. In fact, they are consuming books at nearly the same rate that they were when Gallup last asked this question in 2002.”

Writers’ magazines love including essays with titles like “Death of the Novel.” While it’s true that most commercial magazines no longer carry serialized novels or short fiction, bricks and mortar stores and online booksellers are still moving books into people’s hands and hearts. And just type the words “book blog” into a search engine and look at the number of hits. A lot of people are talking about books.

galluppollSome say the business is easier for authors these days because we’re not shackled to BIG PUBLISHERS, some of whom won’t even consider a book unless it can sell 50,000 copies. So we self-publish and bring out our books through smaller publishers. Unfortunately, our main sources of editorial reviews have declined so there are fewer ways for new and so-called “midlist” authors to reach the public’s consciousness. It wasn’t too many years ago that solid newspaper review sections were written by local editors and staff writers, and–in addition to mainstream authors–covered local and regional authors as well as metro bookstore readings and signings.

In spite of that, readers are finding books. It’s a pity so many of them rely on Amazon and that so many of them think books ought to be free or nearly free. I often argue in this blog that while it’s true that a Kindle file doesn’t have the physical costs behind it that a hardcover book has, it still represents (possibly) a year or so of the author’s life in addition to the expense of editors, cover designers, proofreaders and publicists. As authors, we’re not selling the file: we’re selling what’s in it.

I still prefer printed books because I like the art and craft of them and find them easier to read in bed, in a car, on a bus, on the beach. Plus, I stare at a screen all day, so the last thing I want to do when I relax with a good book is stare at another screen. But that’s me. Reading from a screen is better than not reading. And, as we’re hearing, audiobooks are doing a lot better than most of us would have guessed if we’d been asked about their future ten years ago.

One positive note in this year’s survey over the one done in 2002 comes from the fact older Americans are reading more books than they used to. The poll doesn’t say why, but I like the increase in the numbers. Another thing I can’t tell from the poll is whether (or if) avid readers skew the numbers, making the averages look better than they are. Comparing notes at the end of 2016, another writer and I figured we read almost one book a week. So, do my 52 books per year counteract the answers from 51 people who didn’t read at all? In changing McCoy’s of Star Trek line, my response to that is, “Jim, I’m not a mathematician, I’m just a country storyteller.”

Yes, arts/humanities education is suffering

Every year, I read that one school system or another has further diluted the classroom hours devoted to the arts, what we used to get in courses labeled “Art” and “English” and, sometimes, “Humanities.” This introduction to books and other arts seems indispensable if we want a nation of informed readers, so it’s a pity we’re losing it. I wish those who have national platforms (talk show hosts, actors, singers) would talk about the value of reading. When Oprah’s show was going strong, she did a lot for the country’s authors because she had a popular platform. We need more of that, I think, before diminished exposure to the arts in school finally impacts a future Gallup poll.

Like the long-time literacy-based organization says, Reading is Fundamental. It’s sobering to see on their website that 93 million Americans can’t read well enough “to contribute successful in society.” For people who can’t negotiate all the forms, signs, jobs, news sources and other writing they require for day to day for basic needs, books aren’t even on the radar. I think we need to understand why this is the case before we understand why reading ten or eleven books per year is a pitifully low number for our national average even though the poll says things haven’t gotten worse.

When I served as a literacy volunteer between college and military service, I thought the need was incomprehensibly large and that progress seemed so slow at times, it was like trying to empty the ocean with a thimble. Yet, we can’t stop, can we? I’d like to see a Gallup poll that shows more people not only know how to read, but are reading more books and magazines as well.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of magical, paranormal, contemporary fantasy and satire novels and and short stories. You can learn more about them on his website here.

Books, the new heroin

While I was finally getting rid of a 20-year addiction to cigarettes, I read a detailed description of what happens when a person tries crack. The description was so powerful that I would have tried crack if any had been lying around. Instead, I lit another cigarette, postponing my last tobacco day for several weeks.

A writer friend of mine just sent me an excerpt from her work in progress. The result: instant addiction. But, since the rest of her story wasn’t lying around, I had a bourbon and Coke instead. Better than nothing, but not as good as her writing.

heroinHello, addiction, my old friend. I’ve been there and done that and ought to have a tee shirt. Perhaps some will say that an addiction to books is a good thing, especially if those books are wonderful novels that are good enough to elevate the soul through the mere contact with the words.

Ever since I finished my recent work in progress, Eulalie and Washerwoman, and sent it to my publisher, I’ve lost all my discipline and have been reading books at flank speed. I know I have to come down off of this and get stuff done, but coming down is almost as difficult as giving up Marlboros.

Some suggest that addiction to a positive thing is good. They equate it with the oneness promised to the seeker who becomes one with the god of his or her heart so that the two are synchronized. I don’t think that kind of addiction is true enlightenment because with the dominance of the large over the small, the small is lost and no longer has the freedom to continue the relationship.

We’ve seen this dominating kind of addiction a lot during the Presidential race. Movers and shakers and every day voters have become so addicted to the candidate of their choice that they can no longer think for themselves. So, they are lost and have neither arrived at Nirvana nor a meaningful psychological balance–much less a logical political decision.

Some days, we need to put down the book we’re reading and do something else. No, it’s not easy. That’s why it’s called addiction and it represents a loss of free will. Even the “most positive addictions”–love, God, freedom, justice, compassion–can steal souls and render us less than ourselves.

As a reader and a writer, I know how easy it is to lose oneself in a book or a cause. Saying “no” really doesn’t fix it. It takes a strength of will to be oneself and get rid of the best of things that have entrapped you.


do you know why you read what you read or does it just kind of happen

“A reader’s tastes are peculiar. Choosing books to read is like making your way down a remote and winding path. Your stops on that path are always idiosyncratic. One book leads to another and another the way one thought leads to another and another. My type of reader is the sort who burrows through the stacks in the bookstore or the library (or the Web site — stacks are stacks), yielding to impulse and instinct.” ― Jane Smiley

I’m a creature of habit and my strongest habit is inconsistency.

During the Vietnam War, bar girls in navy liberty ports used the phrase “butterfly man” to describe sailors who weren’t “loyal” to the same woman every time they came to port.

Assuming I can forget where that phrase came from, it aptly describes the apparent inconsistency of a writer’s reading habits as well as his/her seemingly slapdash approach to the art and craft of writing itself.

As Smiley says, our paths are winding and are choices along them are idiosyncratic and ruled by impulse and instinct. I grab books off the shelves because they seem like they’re going to be good. I am seldom fooled by this approach, though I have gotten stuck with a few books I wished I hadn’t grabbed off the shelves.

When I try to outline or, so to speak, plot out my reading choices (such as reading only one genre or reading all the books that receive certain prizes), I end up with a mess. Inconsistency makes perfect sense to me because I trust instinct and impulse more than I trust to-do lists and step-by-step plans.

I spent a lot of time out doors when I was growing up, and while certain things were good to do based on experience, one had to be ready for anything, to watch for signs, changes of weather, become attuned to sounds and scents and wrap that all together into moving up a mountain or along a trail with a fair amount of intuition. Sure, a lot of it was knowledge that had become internalized and then followed without having to think about it. But instinct kept one aware of dangers and wonders that plans never uncovered.

The worst thing people can for me is to recommend books. Then, suddenly, I start feeling an obligation to read those books, and get back to them the moment I’m done as though I’m doing a school book report. Funny, how there are people I like and agree with about a lot of things except the books they want me to read. “They want me to read book ABC because it’s by the same author and/or similar to book XYZ which they know I liked.”

I know NPR and other media outlets mean well with their lists of a year's best books, but I don't take those ideas a gospel.
I know NPR and other media outlets mean well with their lists of a year’s best books, but I don’t take those ideas a gospel.

I dislike most of the books suggested to me based on that kind of reasoning.

This will sound superstitious and insanely inconsistent, but I’m a “force is with me” kind of reader and writer. That is to say, if I’m “supposed to read” a certain book, I’ll find if by myself one way or another. If it’s a book I probably won’t like, I either don’t hear of it or stay away from it for unknown reasons.

My wife and I often finish each other’s sentences, but we seldom finish books one of us reads and recommends to the other. If you’re not my wife (and the odds are 100% that you’re not) you have a snowball’s chance in hell of handing me a book to read that I’ll be happy with.

Over the years, family members have given up on picking books for me as gifts. When Christmas and my birthday approach, they want to see a wish list from which to choose. (I just need to remember not too buy anything off the list before December 25th and August 12th have come and gone.)

So, how have you fared? Do family members and friends tend to know what you want to read and suggest or send books to you that you actually like. Or do they strike out?

I feel bad when people send me books I don’t like because having to tell them I don’t like the book they selected is about as difficult to do without injury as answering such questions as “how do you like my new dress,” “isn’t my hairdo just perfect,” and “would you like some more of my green bean casserole?” So many hurt feelings, busted noses and broken marriages come from answering those questions incorrectly.

Seriously, if we like each other, please don’t say, “Malcolm, you really need to read Lust in a Broken Birdbath (or whatever).”


Malcolm R. Campbell’s Vietnam novel “At Sea” is free on Kindle August 15-17.

Thank you to my 26,250 visitors

83grandThis blog has been staggering along for awhile like a sailor trying to find his way back to the ship after a night on the town in a foreign port. (Been there, done that.)

When I started Malcolm’s Round Table, I was thinking of King Arthur (indirectly in my family tree) and the Knights of the Round Table. Not that I would admit that I was looking for the Holy Grail. I had no idea what I was going to say or that I’d end up saying it for some 1,050 posts about everything from writing to Glacier National Park, to the USS Ranger to the Florida locations for some of my recent stories.

Somehow along the road, 26,250 of you stopped by for some 83,252 visits. And, according to the WordPress gurus, the busiest time has been Thursday at 2 p.m. This tells me you guys are logging on at work after drinking your lunch.


Seriously, were you trying to stay awake or were you looking for the Holy Grail? (And, were you successful in either quest?) Truth be told, I bring to this blog and to most of my fiction the premise that every one of us is on a hero’s journey in search of that moment and/or that insight that transforms us into the individual we were destined to become if we allowed it to happen.

In my novel The Sun Singer, I explore the hero’s journey from a masculine perspective. In Sarabande, I look at the journey from a feminine perspective. A recent article on Brain Pickings called “If Librarians Were Honest” caught my attention because it’s based on the premise that “If librarians were honest, they would say, No one spends time here without being changed…”

Vision of the Holy Grail at the Round Table.
Vision of the Holy Grail at the Round Table.

Hero’s and Heroine’s journeys change us, often in spectacular ways under dangerous circumstances. Libraries can also change us. Potentially, every book, article, and post we read will change us a little or a lot. We never quite know at the beginning of a journey or a book, just who we will be at the end of it.

So, it’s a glorious risk, right?

Perhaps I should have posted this yesterday on my birthday because each of your visits is a gift. It’s a gift of your time, just as reading The Sun Singer, Sarabande, and Conjure Woman’s Cat is a gift of your time. Perhaps you felt different when you finished some of the posts and some of my stories.

Or, perhaps you were changed in imperceptible ways. If you’re also a writer, you will know that you not only change as you read but also as you write. I’m slightly different than I was when I wrote, “This blog has been staggering along for awhile like a sailor trying to find his way back to the ship after a nigh on the town” at the beginning of this post.

We don’t often notice the smallest changes in ourselves because movies and books lead us to believe that when we find the Holy Grail, we’ll find it all at once rather than little by little. Perhaps we need a magic mirror that shows us, not how we’ve aged over time, but how we’ve changed.

If we did, I think we’d not only be surprised by the results, but we’d all feel a lot better about ourselves. At any rate, that’s why I write and that’s why I’m happy that 26,250 of you have stopped by to read.


KIndle cover 200x300(1)Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the 1950s-era novella “Conjure Woman’s Cat” about a conjure woman who fights back against the KKK with folk magic.

Visit my website to learn more.


Clean up your plate: people are starving in. . .

Even though this is only 212 pages, a lot of people didn't have time to finish it.
Even though this is only 212 pages, a lot of people didn’t have time to finish it.

This is a post about books even though you wouldn’t know it from the title. Hopefully, I can connect the dots with or without logic.

My brothers and I were taught that it was not only rude, but just plain wrong, to leave food on our plates. Why?

Generally speaking, food left was food wasted. Years later the giant chow hall sigh at Navy boot camp “suggested”: TAKE ALL YOU WANT BUT EAT ALL YOU TAKE.

It was okay to be a pig as long as you didn’t leave anything in the trough.

Why was leaving food wrong? Because people were starving in country XYZ. We were informed that while eating two or three times the amount of food we needed wouldn’t harm anybody, that throwing away food literally took it off their plates. Asking how that worked in practical terms was considered rude and/or that you thought your parents, school teachers and pastors were liars.

Later, we were told that books cost money (so does food, as it turned out) and that reading only half a book meant that–figuratively and/or literally speaking–you had thrown away half the book’s cover price. Of course, by today’s standards in which people are slinging books out there on Kindle for 99 cents, reading only a third of it means you only threw away 66 cents even though–had you sent that to countries where money goes farther (and often further)–life in general would be better for everyone.

The bottom line on unfinished dinners and unfinished books was shame. Whether it was Aunt Naomi’s brick-hard fruitcake or a dreadfully depressing novel like All Quiet on the Western Front, we were supposed to soldier on to the final battle no matter how much collateral damage our stomachs and psyches suffered in the process.

Lured into the book by its sexy cover, people apparently thought 21 was the number of centuries it would take to finish it.
Lured into the book by its sexy cover, people apparently thought 21 was the number of centuries it would take to finish it.

Today, that shame isn’t quite gone with the wind, but it’s getting there. In fact, reviewers on Amazon and GoodReads often confess that “This book sucks even though I stopped reading on page 10.” How brazen is that, shame-wise? You really need to finish the book because some kid in city XYZ is going without a story tonight.

Now we’re getting statistics on unfinished books. People mean well, but like boring stews and bland deserts, their eyes are bigger than their reading endurance. So, consequently, they bought “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by Thomas Piketty and “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking seriously intending to eat up every word, but then lost interest a few pages into their literary meals.

Using something called a Hawking Index (H.I.)–explained in The Summer’s Most Unread Book Is…–scientists determined that these two books top the list of unfinished books with folks getting only 2.4% and 6.6% of the way through. These days, fewer people believe in such admonitions as TAKE ALL YOU WANT BUT READ ALL YOU TAKE.

People seem to care less about waste, shame or the value of soldiering on. We’re more comfortable with tweets, texting and sound bites, even though such things often leave us ignorant of the big pictures, full course meals and lengthy tomes the world has to offer. We’re more of a TAKE VERY LITTLE AND PURSUE IT UNTIL BORED kind of society these days. More information, words and food all require commitment and frankly, we don’t want to promise that.

I’ve been tempted of late to throw several books out the window before finishing them. But, I kept on going, not so much because people are staving for words on continent XYZ but because I didn’t have any more fresh books in the house. When that happens, it’s like throwing away your last cracker because it’s a Ritz rather than a Triscuit.

As I read on in spite of the hardships involved, I try not to feel pride for soldiering on or shame for wishing I weren’t. In case it matters, I still clean up my plate.

You May Also Like: Can the Hawking Index tell us when people give up on books? in  The Guardian.


We could fill cemeteries with neglected books

books“There was a time when a learned fellow (literally, a Renaissance man) could read all the major extant works published in the western world. Information overload soon put paid to that. Since there is “no end” to “making many books” – as the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes prophesied, anticipating our digital age – the realm of the unread has spread like a spilt bottle of correction fluid.” – The Guardian in “In theory: the unread and the unreadable”

Carlos Ruiz Zafón writes about a “cemetery of forgotten books” in his novel The Shadow of the Wind. This cemetery is a library maintained by the secret few who know about it and who may lend you a volume if you will protect it for life. After reading the article in “The Guardian” which led me to The Neglected Books Page which led me author Jo Walton’s lengthy 2010 Neglected Books: The List (with a science fiction and fantasy focus), I wondered if we should build a cemetery, that is, a library, of forgotten AND neglected books.


You probably have some favorite authors and books that never seem to catch on with the general public. With my Georgia focus, I can usually name several Georgia authors who seem to be lost in the shuffle even though they have won awards and/or had a book or two made into a movie. While I’ll probably read the upcoming Dan Brown book Inferno, I don’t usually follow fads. Reading outside the latest fad, I’m usually able to think of wonderful books that are being overlooked.

“The Guardian” article mentions information overload. That’s certainly a factor. Adults aren’t known for reading a lot of novels per year. Perhaps high school and college literature classes made fiction seem boring. Perhaps the latest reality show, movie, or trending Internet story gets in the way. There are plenty of reasons.

One can also say that small press authors, not including those published by old-line prestigious small presses, are likely to feel neglected. For the most part, small press books do not get reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, Publishers Weekly and major newspapers. There usually are no noteworthy interviews with small press authors or off-book-page stories about their work. With few exceptions, their books are not entered into awards competitions, included on the media’s best-books-of-the-year lists, optioned for movies, or remotely on the radar of most prospective readers.

If you ask a major critic, book reviewer, literary magazine, or publishing magazine what a neglected or a forgotten book is, it is normally considered one from a major publisher that was well reviewed, but had lower than expected sales and was allowed to go out of print. Books by popular authors that don’t catch on like the authors’ other works are also in the “neglected” category.

The cemetery/library in The Shadow of the Wind resonated with me in part because of the novel’s notion that “Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.” In “real life,” a secret library that almost nobody knows about won’t serve our need. Perhaps books need patrons or people who love them and talk about them or people who share them with their friends. Perhaps we need more adventurous readers who will commit to buying five books a year that are not on the bestseller list. We need more reviewers: writers often wonder why people say, “hey, I loved youshadowofwindr book” but then don’t follow that up with a reader review on GoodReads or Amazon.

I think I’m only talking about band-aids here unless more people find more reasons to read. According to ParaPublishing, 27% of adults in the U.S. don’t read books for pleasure (based on figures from a few years ago). What books are the remaining adults going to pick from: an old and forgotten book, a book from a small press author, or the book sitting in the bookstore window and at the top of the national bestseller lists? No wonder so many books are forgotten and/or neglected and/or passed over—depending on your definition of those terms.

Years ago when literature and other liberal arts courses were more valued in high schools and college than they are now, most of the students in my classes came from families where their parents read almost no books. The students learned from home that reading wasn’t valued. Our town’s public library has reading classes for kids, and I love seeing the kids there. But I wonder, is the excitement of the reading program reinforced by parents at home or are the kids just dropped off at the library by parents who need time to run some errands elsewhere?

Reading is an investment in time more than an investment of money. I get offers via e-mail, Facebook and GoodReads for free downloads and sample chapters. I read a lot, but I can’t keep up with the deluge. I try to promote new authors on my blogs and on Twitter, but sooner or later, I want to read the books I hear about rather than free books I’ve never heard about. It’s book overload even for those of us who read a lot.

riflogoPerhaps reading just isn’t a modern-day avocation and perhaps it’s too late to change that. Can reading-oriented groups help or did we let lack of reading get so far out of hand that the problem is too broken to fix? More and more people are writing and publishing, but their viable readership seems to be getting smaller no matter how much time we all spend arguing about whether e-books should be almost free or should sell for enough to support the authors who wrote them?

  • So, what books and authors do you like that have fallen into the neglected or forgotten categories?
  • What happens when you tell your friends about these books? Do they yawn and then spend another evening watching reality TV shows or reading only the top ten book on their genre’s bestseller list?



Books: Magic Between the Covers

“A well-composed book is a magic carpet on which we are wafted to a world that we cannot enter in any other way.” – Caroline Gordon

My parents orchestrated Christmas Eve and the following morning with skill, making it a time of magic and expectation even though the gifts beneath the gifts beneath the tree were saturated with love rather than money. More often that not, one or more of the carefully wrapped packages beneath the spruce tree contained a book.

More often than not, each book was inscribed with my name, the date, and the name of the person who found the book and thought I might like the story. Pirates, space ships, wild animals and detectives waited between the covers for me to turn the page and enter an alternate universe. I didn’t see stories as alternate universes at the time, but now when I think of books, I smile at the concept of being in two places at one time.

There I was following the Hardy Boys in their latest attempt to help their police detective father crack a dangerous case AND there I was sitting in a comfortable chair in the living room next to a lamp. According to reports, I often didn’t respond when my parents called me to dinner when I was more there than here within the pages of a book like The Twisted Claw.

Portals, Portkeys and Magic Carpets

Caroline Gordon saw books as magic carpets. Ever fascinated with portals, I see books as doorways to faraway lands like the famous wardrobe in C. S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia. In today’s Harry Potter series terms, readers might well see a book as a portkey that whisks them away the minute they touch it.

While looking at the Amazon page for Mark Helprin’s upcoming novel In Sun Light and Shadow, I found the novel’s stunning 489-word prologue included there as part of the book’s description. The constraints of fair use don’t allow me to cut and paste the entire prologue into this blog as a shining example of an author’s invitation to his readers asking them to step through the door, touch the portkey or settle themselves onto a flying carpet. But, here’s a taste. . .

An Invitation

Helprin’s prologue begins with the line: If you were a spirit, and could fly and alight as you wished, and time did not bind you, and patience and love were all you knew, then you might rise to enter an open window high above the park, in the New York of almost a lifetime ago, early in November of 1947.

The prologue goes on to describe the view from that window, and then the room itself: full bookshelves, the Manet seascape above the fireplace, a telephone, a desk drawer containing a loaded pistol, and a “bracelet waiting for a wrist.” Then the prologue concludes with: And if you were a spirit, and time did not bind you, and patience and love were all you knew, then there you would wait for someone to return, and the story to unfold.

Even though I was, from the viewpoint of my three cats who were hovering around the den door waiting to be fed, sitting here at my desk, I had in fact stepped through a portal to an apartment in New York 65 years ago. I tell you this: I wasn’t ready to return when Katy, our large calico, rubbed against my leg with a no-nonsense purr because I was thoroughly enchanted by the magic between the covers.

Even though a small percentage of the books I read each year come into my hands as gifts, I approach every book with an interesting premise and a cover splashed with promises as a gift. Years ago, I watched a TV western called “Have Gun, Will Travel.” Today, I gravitate more toward Have Book, Will Travel. Each book is an invitation to adventure, lives hanging in the balance, twisted claws lurking in the dark, castles set high above green valleys, and frightened travelers walking down roads in sunlight and in shadow.

Books cast spells and carry us away and while we are gone, we are changed, writ larger by the experiences now living within our consciousness, and ready to see the word of here with the visions we had while we were there.


Travel to mountains and magic for $4.99. It’s cheaper than Amtrak and Delta Airlines.

If you’re not a reader, for Pete’s sake, stop trying to be a writer

When I taught college-level journalism, I was convinced that some of my reporting and feature writing students never read newspapers.

Other than wondering what the hell they were doing in my classroom, it was clear to me that those who didn’t read the news would probably never learn how to write it. News and feature stories have a noticeable organization and style.

Long-time journalists can hear the cadence of a “properly written” news story inside their heads. Stands to reason, then, that reading—in this case, the news—will help you learn the fundamentals of reporting much faster in a classroom and on the job than being clueless about it.

Aspiring poets and novelists who don’t read poems and novels

Author and editor C. Hope Clark (“Lowcountry Bribe”) wrote in a February 28th post at read.learn.write that in her consulting and speaking work, she finds a lot of aspiring writers who seldom read:

The world abounds with writers. Everyone wants his name, photo and title on a bookstore shelf, as a minimum on Amazon. But amazingly enough, most of them are not voracious readers. They are spitting out words, but taking few in. It’s like using a shotgun instead of a high-powered rifle. The result isn’t very refined, the results less satisfactory.

Some years ago, when desktop publishing programs made it easier to create newsletters, brochures, and posters on a PC screen, a lot of big corporations cut the writers from their staffs because—the bean counters seasoned—anyone could use the software and create something that looked like a newsletter, brochure or poster. Who needed actual writers? The results were a mess, and since the bean counters never read anything anyway, they didn’t know the results were a mess.

The Internet is (perhaps) today’s desktop publishing

The Internet has not only reduced our attention spans, it’s given all of us the power to create materials that look like e-zines, blogs, books, magazine articles and poems. No experience necessary. Simply log on and create.  Clark says that “The slogan ‘reading is fundamental’ is remarkably accurate. Somewhere along the line, however, between elementary school and college, reading falls by the wayside. Teaching to tests, however, and not enticing children to fall in love with words, has stolen their ability to perform later in life.”

As a writer, I’m biased: I think all of us need to learn how to read and then not let the skill get away from us. And, we’re talking novels, essays, commentaries, features and criticism here, not just the back of the cereal box or the “Trending Now” links on the Yahoo screen. Having worked in corporate America, I can testify to the fact that a lot of stuff got screwed up because the people reading the reports and white papers and trade magazine article weren’t really getting it. They skimmed and/or couldn’t follow a logical argument in print.

What do I have to do to become a writer?

The Internet, and that includes a few well-known print-on-demand book publishers, gives the impression the answer is nothing. Just put one word after another until you reach the required word count for a short story or a book, format it, and you’re done. And when nobody reads it, the first thing you’ll hear from “the writer” is the accusation that there’s a conspiracy out there. Amazon, BIG PUBLISHING, the government, the search engines, the service providers and the reviewers had nothing better to do that get together in a bar and decide to stomp down some a book that otherwise would have won the Booker, Nobel, and Pulitzer prizes.

The speculation about “What the hell happened to my book?” seldom includes any need to learn the art and craft of writing first. And this goes back to something very fundamental: Reading. That’s where becoming a writer starts, and it never stops.