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If you’ve been on BookTube recently, you probably heard about the “12 Days of Litmas,” created by Adrian at Stripped Cover Lit. Unfortunately, I didn’t find out about it until it was already underway, at which point I thought it would be awkward to join in when I would be two days behind everyone else. So instead, we close out the year at Book Geeks Anonymous by answering each of Adrian’s 12 prompts today.
Day 1: Your favorite poem
“As kingfishers catch fire” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. I could have answered this prompt in a number of ways because I have several favorite poems, but few of them are as aurally beautiful, as spiritually profound, and as fun to recite aloud as this one is.
Day 2: Your favorite flash fiction story
Like a lot of the people who participated in the 12 Days of Litmas, I had to look up a piece of flash fiction specifically for this challenge. It turns out that this past summer, The New Yorker ran a whole series on flash fiction, which is where I found “I Don’t Need Anything from Here” by László Krasznahorkai. It reads a little more like a prose poem than a short story, but it’s beautiful, and filled to the brim with that sense of sehnsucht that I love.
Day 3: Your favorite short story
“White Nights” by Fyodor Dostoevsky. At just over 20,000 words, it’s probably too long to be considered a “short story,” but it is one of my favorite pieces of short fiction. I love it because it’s about introversion and daydreaming and the difficulties that arise in trying to form meaningful connections with our fellow humans, all topics that interest me very much. I also love the main character for his selflessness, in that he was willing to lose the woman he loved because he knew she would be happier with someone else. Those sorts of love stories aren’t very common, but they’re some of my favorites.
Day 4: Your favorite novel
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, because it (along with some other works) is one of the books that helped me fall in love with literature in the first place. But that’s getting into the Day 6 challenge.
Day 5: Your favorite haiku
From Kobayashi Issa, in the translation by Robert Hass:
All the time I pray to BuddhaI keep onkilling mosquitoes.
I notice a theme between a lot of my favorite poems: they are often about the tension between the spiritual and the temporal. When I first read this poem, I saw it as a lament on the world’s hostility to anything higher than itself, and it may very well be that too. On rereading it, though, I wondered if maybe the obstacle the speaker faces in his spiritual life is not the world but himself. “I keep on / killing mosquitoes,” not “mosquitoes keep on biting me.” He is the one interrupting his prayers, not the mosquitoes. He lets something small keep him from something infinitely more important. So maybe there’s a duality there: the world and everything that goes with it can be obstacles to spiritual change, but they can also become excuses for our own weakness. Anyway, those are things I like to think about, so I like reading about them in this haiku too.
Day 6: Your story with literature
This sounds cliché, but it’s true: I’ve been reading for as long as I can remember. When I was little, I used to read everything I could find: board books, flyers in the mail, my mom’s baby name book, everything. In grade school, I was fascinated both with American history and the ancient world, so most of my reading as a child was nonfiction on one of those two topics. I read fiction too, because it was fun, but I didn’t really start thinking about it as “literature” until my junior year of high school. We were studying poetry, but, since I had such a small repertoire of poetry behind me, all this talk of meter and assonance and producing certain “feelings” in the reader didn’t really make sense to me. Finally, I was assigned one poem that stood out: “Methought I saw my late espoused saint” by John Milton. I didn’t understand everything in it, but my heart was touched by the pathos of it, while my brain was intrigued by that paradoxical final line. To me, it was a completely new way of writing. I then started reading other poetry from around the same period: Jonson, Shakespeare, and of course, my now-beloved John Donne. From there, I just became more and more curious and started sampling poets from all over the world and from all time periods.
Falling in love with poetry, I think, set me up to fall in love with literature more broadly. The next year in school I was assigned Hamlet. This was the first truly great work of fiction I had ever read (after trying and failing to read Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen as a young girl) and finally, I realized that there was something bigger going on in literature than just entertainment or “self-expression.”
Day 7: Your own writing
You’ve already read it! I’ve tried to write in other forms (poetry, short stories. One time, I thought I might be able to write a novel.), but I always come back to essays. As I mentioned in the Day 6 challenge, nonfiction was my first love and it’s the type of writing I most like to do.
Day 8: Your favorite quote on writing
From Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis:
Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original. Whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how many times it’s been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.
I find my worst writing happens when I’m trying to give it “flair” or make it stand out. If I just write down exactly what I mean to say, it always comes out better. This writerly advice of Lewis’s has saved me from more than a few bad essays.
Day 9: Your favorite quote on literature
From a letter by Franz Kafka to his friend Oskar Pollak:
A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.
I fully believe that there’s no point in reading unless it makes you somehow better than you were before: more knowledgeable, more empathetic, or wiser. I think a book that doesn’t leave you changed, at least in some small way, wasn’t really worth reading in the first place. As a result, I’ve grown quite fond of this quote from Kafka and its imagery, which to me, evokes a struggle against complacency.
Day 10: Your favorite nonfiction writer
C. S. Lewis. Not only is he my most-owned author, he’s also my favorite Christian apologist. Even when handling complex philosophical or theological issues, he’s able to write accessibly without ever giving the impression of talking down to his readers. He anticipates and answers criticism and questions and takes care to make his meaning as clear as possible.
Day 11: Your go-to books when you’re “not feeling it”
Adrian purposely left this prompt wide open so that everyone could come up with their own definition of “not feeling it.” For my part, I want to talk about the two authors I read when I’m just generally out of it, either bored, or depressed, or worried that I’ve run out of things to say: Seamus Heaney and John Donne. They are my favorite and second-favorite poets respectively and I never come away from their poems without feeling like my love of poetry and language has been in someway rekindled. If I had to choose specific books as favorites, I love Heaney’s Selected Poems: 1966-1987 and the Penguin Classics edition of Donne’s Complete English Poems.
Day 12: 5 reading goals, 5 writing goals, and 5 blog goals
How about three for each?
1: Finish at least two Dostoevsky novels in the next year, probably Crime and Punishment and The Idiot. (I spent 2017 dithering away in the short stories. No more!)
2: Don’t buy so many new books. At least, not until I’ve read more of the books I have already.
3: Read books in French. My vocabulary and reading comprehension are not yet up to speed, but they hopefully will be soon.
1: Try to broaden the number of topics on which I can write extensively and confidently. Right now, it’s just literary criticism and personal essays involving literature. I want to try writing about other media and current events too.
2: I want to get published somewhere. It doesn’t have to be a big site or magazine: I just want people who don’t know me to read something I wrote and be enthusiastic about it.
3: I want to try to write a play. Granted, I have no one who wants to produce or act in a play, but the writing could be fun.
1: More long-form pieces. (You’re welcome/I’m sorry.)
2: I want to post book reviews more often. Maybe two per month every month as the minimum.
3: I’m thinking about branching out more into the blogging world. I intend to keep this blog updated into the foreseeable future, but I’ve also thought about starting other blogs, maybe one about films and/or one about the music I listen to.
And with that, we complete the 12 Days of Litmas. I’m glad Adrian put this together, because it was so much fun seeing his and everyone else’s responses.