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CARPE LIBRUM: Gwenyfar contemplates her reading list for 2020

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Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Lookout, Eno, Bull City), and a pair of well-regarded literary magazines out of UNCW, it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literary publishing. More so, it shows the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title or an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

Looking at the year ahead…

“So how many books do you think you read this year? 40? 50?” a friend asked in early December.

“No, that number is way too low—probably closer to 400,” I answered.

His jaw dropped in disbelief and he asked me how that was possible.

I realize the number sounds terribly inflated and like an incredible case of bragging. But it is neither.

I cannot run a mile. When I tell people as much, they argue that of course, I could. Somehow, the idea I can (and do) read a book in a day seems impossible to them. As I explain time and again, it is just a different set of muscles. Genuinely, I cannot run a mile. I know this; I am well-aware. But I really do finish a book most days, sometimes two. The next thing that happens is people start to quibble about it: “Well, how long is the book? Like a kids’ book? Like a play? Like a short book?”

It’s not about numbers, nor racking up the accomplishments. While it might be surprising to people who know me best—at heart, I’m a very driven and goal-oriented person—reading has never been about numbers. I know a lot of people who set goals every new year about how many books they are going to read—and that is awesome! Anything that dedicates more time to reading is a worthy endeavor. For me reading is like breathing: I have a nearly constant need for narrative. I used to have incredible powers of retention and could summon really arcane passages from novels or poems or even more irritating trivia from nonfiction. Now, unfortunately, not as much anymore (though, my friends are probably grateful it is waning). Reading for me is therapy. I learned a long time ago I have to read and write every day, or it gets really bad and really dark, real fast. It is cheaper than Prozac and incredibly necessary for me.

So it’s one of the few things in my life that is not about checking off the list and racking up the gold stars. It doesn’t matter if it is a short book or long book. There are very short books that have taken me years to read. For instance, I have been coming back to, and not finishing “A Rap on Race” by James Baldwin and Margaret Mead for over 15 years. It’s the kind of book I can read about a page at a time, and then I have to just sit with it for a few months. What they address is so involved, I can’t digest it quickly.

I flew through the Bruno books by S.J. Parris, and I know I missed a lot I need to go back and reread when I can pay attention. But I had to know what happened! I had to know—I couldn’t slow down!

In 2020, it is not so much about setting a quantitative goal, but more about a qualitative one. If this is a year of vision and clarity, what does that mean about the things we put into our brains? I really do believe you get out of your brain what you put into it. So if you fill your head with nonsense and trash, that is all that will be available for you to draw upon within yourself.

There is a trend that has been developing for many years to encourage people to read outside their comfort zones—books by people of other cultures, perspectives, ages and experiences. A good example comes from local author Wiley Cash’s book club, dedicated to reading writers outside of the traditional literary canon of white and male. The invention of the novel has been credited with a rise in humans’ capacity to have empathy for others. Perhaps that’s a tool we are not using as effectively as we could.

I plan to actually revisit a lot of books and writers I haven’t seen in many years. What the reader, the audience, brings to the table is half the experience with a book. Who we are and where we are in life changes over time; therefore, our experiences change.

Currently, I am drawn to revisit stories that shaped me—books I thought I knew—to be present with them as a middle-aged adult. When I was little, my mother was adamant we were not just going to read Grimm’s Fairy Tales; we would read folklore from China, Mexico, Russia, West Africa and Persia. We would read Greek Mythology, Celtic, Norse and Egyptian. I feel curious about how those core stories will resonate now.

There are nonfiction books that were instrumental in shaping my world view, and that in my adulthood I have found flawed and then reconciled with, if only to ambivalence. In the last 10 years, I have become increasingly drawn to first-person accounts of historic events and also extended interviews with some of the great (and frequently unappreciated) thinkers of our times. So in Carpe Librum, folks can expect as much in 2020.

Yes, I also will start making headway with my stack of new writers, but I think it will be a year of seeking depth. I hope, together, we all find as much on our reading journeys.

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