My Attention in Waning

As I graduated college and began an 8-to-5 working life, I looked into my past experience for cues on how to spend my free time. Since my weekly schedule in college was so unreliable, I needed to stretch back to my high school practices to pinpoint my last relatable consistent weekly schedule. Life now is considerably different than it was in high school, but the practice of weekday obligations followed by open weekends was the same, and I began reflecting on how I spent my weeknights and weekends as a 14- to 18-year-old to help frame the way I would spend my time as a twenty-something.

The biggest, most apparent difference was the current habit of watching streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. We simply didn’t have them when I was a teenager, and even having cable wasn’t the same. With cable, if a show was on I was interested in, I would tune in and then stop when it was over. With Netflix, I can watch and watch and watch without pause, for as long as I please.

Next, was my interaction with technology. As a teenager, I was definitely texting more than I am now (mostly because I was constantly texting the boys I liked!), but I’ve noticed in the last year after college graduation a sharp uptick in my interaction with all social media sites—but in a passive way, not an active. I scroll and scroll and scroll and close the window and open it again and scroll and scroll and scroll.

Lastly, my reading (and writing) life. In 2010 it was my goal to read between 50 and 75 books a year, or around 1-1.5 books a week. And I did it. I ate up books in high school, reading well into the night with my bedside lamp on and falling asleep with the book in my hands. (I remember many a night where Annie would come home late, gently pull the book from my hands, and flick the light off, without a stir from me!)

What I am noticing now about my after-work practices is becoming increasingly of concern to me. Books no longer capture my attention. I am impatient to finish, and grow uninterested incredibly quickly. On the other hand, I’ve seen a steady rise in the number of episodes on Netflix I’ll watch in a row, the length of time I’ll spend surfing social media.

I fear my ability to remain focused without stimulation is atrophying. In fact, it’s so bad that I can’t even watch television—which is specifically designed now to hold my decreasing attention span—without also scrolling through my phone or working on my computer. I am stimulated and over-stimulated all day, every day. On the nights that I try to read before bed, I fall asleep almost immediately. Why? Because my mind has lost the ability to focus on something stationary for an extended period of time. But if my laptop comes to bed with me, I’ll stay awake watching episode after episode until it’s well into the early morning.

I feel the freneticism in my life, the need to constantly be doing something. An inconsistency I see from the culture I was raised in is the shift from “making the most of your time” to outright addiction to motion. As adolescents we were told again and again, “If you’re standing in line at the grocery store, study your vocabulary words! If you have a spare moment before school starts, pull out your memory verse!” And now, those same people say of us, “Look at them—they can’t even stand in line at the grocery store without checking their cell phones.” I was raised to never waste a moment, but I wasn’t necessarily taught the difference between using moments well and using them poorly, and I certainly wasn’t taught how to rest.

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So here I am—a twenty-something in the age of technology, constantly on the move and losing the ability to hold my attention, a book lover who is losing the ability to read. What is to be done?

A few things, which Kyle and I are already trying out: keeping cellphones out of reach;  not allowing laptops to come to bed with us; watching movies and doing absolutely nothing else; intentionally reading for longer chunks of time without a break. We’ve found it to be hard work. It’s no wonder our generation reads less and less every year. If I’m having trouble, and I love to read, what hope is there for those who don’t have the same level of interest? And if they aren’t filling their time with slow, measured activities like reading, are they consumed by the constant motion of television and the internet?


I believe time will continue to reveal the negative effects our currently technological advances are having on our well-being. I know they are already are. Now all that remains is to see where technology is bad for us, and have the mental strength to stop.




2016 Reading in Review

Ah, 2016. What a year. With this unprecedented, unexplainable, out-of-left-field year drawing to a close, I am pleased to bring some normalcy to your day with the good, the steady, the art, of reading. Here I present to you my top reads from 2016—eleven in all, since I couldn’t quite narrow it down to a nice even ten. While I did steer into pop culture for a little while—with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and The Girl on the Train under my belt—I must say that the books that made the top of my list this year were, by and large, already tested by scores of avid readers and found once again to be true. And I am here to say, one more time, that those that books we all knew were great, still are, despite all else. So, to keep my “top ten” intact, I will begin with an honorable mention:

  • Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books by Paul Collins.  This is delightful little read is not centuries old, but its subject matter is. A story of one family who decided to utterly displace themselves from the bustling San Francisco life and move to Hay-on-Wye, Wales—also known as The City of Books. Perfect for any bibliophile who is craving a little Anglophilia as well.

And now, for the top ten, in reverse order (to make things a little more exciting):

ifonawintersnight.jpg10. If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino.
The book cover sums it up pretty well. Calvino’s 1979 novel is not one story, not two stories, but ten stories, all started but never finished. You’ll find yourself enraptures in ten novels you wish you knew the endings to, but you never will. The book trips along as you, the reader, are also part of the story—a nine others besides. And, if you were wondering, I didn’t forget to capitalize part of the title. All will make sense, should you ever give it a try…

410gnfmui1l-_sx330_bo1204203200_9. Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett.  Let’s go—We can’t—Why not?—We’re waiting for Godot—Ah! As Vivian Mercier famously said, Godot is “a play in which nothing happens, twice.” The genius of Samuel Beckett and Godot are unparalleled, except perhaps by his contemporaries who were asking the same questions and developing the same methodology. Godot is a searing view on the emptiness of life as Beckett saw it in post-World War II Europe. If you sit down to read Godot and find yourself bored, that’s (arguably) exactly the point. And if you can’t get enough Beckett, go watch his play, called Play, starring Alan Rickman—It’ll make your skin crawl, and you’ll be bored all at once. It’s genius!41xpxq0qr-l-_sx305_bo1204203200_

8. Four Quartets by TS Eliot.  A poetry classic if there ever was one. To steal the words of my professor, Eliot is a mystery wrapped in an enigma: this text is hard—but worth the effort. Some things that are helpful to know before diving in include: each quartet is named after a place; “salvages” is pronounced so that it rhymes with “assuages” (how?); and when he starts talking about time, listen closely.

616eizn12dl7. Lila by Marilynne Robinson.  Third in a trilogy surrounding the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa, in early twentieth-century America, Lila focuses on the vagabond wife of Reverend John Ames, protagonist of the first novel in the series. Distinctly different from both Gilead and Home, Lila offers readers an achingly human narrative that doesn’t shy away from questions of judgement, love, and justice. Robinson manages to tie in the narrative style of the other novels while also giving Lila her own, distinct, and unforgettable voice. how-to-read

6. How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren.  Why is this on my list, you may ask? Well, because it’s a work of pure genius. I could not put this 360-page lesson on how to read down, and if you haven’t read it I would highly recommend you buy it immediately. Adler and van Doren get right to the heart of what they call good reading (dismissing almost immediately any reading one does “for fun” and making me woefully reconsider my to-read list) and teach their readers how to respect authors, learn from them, critique them justly, and inevitably grow as a person and member of society in the process. Five stars, 100%, A+, all of the above.

63345. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.  On an entirely different note, here’s a “fun” book that was anything but fun, but so, so good. The novel relates a dystopian-type future where certain children are raised for a specific purpose: to one day, when they are in the prime of life, donate their vital organs. A beautiful story of hope and loss and just getting by, I was enraptured from the first page to the last. (And, if you’ve seen the movie, the book really is that much better.)

51rpo-u0egl-_sy344_bo1204203200_4. Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy.  A comforting read from a sixth-century author, written from a jail cell, and formatted as a conversation between the author and Lady Philosophy. As he awaits execution for treason that he may or may not have actually committed, Boethius discusses the themes of Providence and Fate, free will, happiness, and justice. By far one of the most thought-provoking and gentle works I read while in college.

97803745153623. Flannery O’Connor’s Short Stories.  First of all, no book with a cover this beautiful could possibly be bad. And when it comes to Flannery O’Connor, her short stories very much allow you to judge a book by its cover. A devout Roman Catholic who was crippled by lupus that claimed her life at the age of 39, O’Connor wrote unflinchingly about redemption—and I say “unflinchingly” because it would seem she writes about anything but. From an angry old woman getting gutted by a bull to a little boy who tries to “baptize” himself and drowns, O’Connor’s writing will leave you with your mouth agape, and should the good Lord take you right then and there, you’ll be shaking in your boots when you pass through the gates of heaven.

51snokpluol-_sx358_bo1204203200_2. At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald.  Since we’re on the topic of death… I think that MacDonald’s children’s story is the only book that made me cry all year. The story follows Diamond, a kind young boy, who is visited by North Wind (quite literally the north wind) who takes the shape of a beautiful woman and whisks Diamond away on many, many adventures. As the story unfolds, you discover the heart-breaking and beautiful truth behind North Wind and where it is she is taking Diamond, and where it is Diamond chooses to go with her. (*sob*)

51fiyykscxl-_sx333_bo1204203200_1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  This nineteenth-century Russian novel that recounts the life and death of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov and his three (er, four?) sons is arguably, from a critical and personal perspective, the best novel ever written—and I’m certainly not the only one who thinks so (see below).Screen Shot 2016-12-21 at 6.30.42 PM.png



My 2016 read of the 776-page novel was my second time through it in less than 12 months, if that says anything to its caliber. The story primarily follows Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov, or Aloysha, the youngest of the Karamazov brothers. He is the apprentice of a monk, Elder Zosima, at the town’s monastery. Even though Dostoevsky singles Alyosha out as the hero of his story, his two brothers, Dmitri (the oldest—lustful and impulsive) and Ivan (the middle brother—thoughtful and a bit anarchic), keep themselves pretty busy wreaking all kinds of havoc in the town. I should mention that if you’re already having trouble with all these names, you don’t even know the half of it. But don’t worry—there’s a character index in the front of the book. From notable passages such as The Grand Inquisitor, the sermons of Elder Zosima, and the parable of the woman and her onion, The Brothers Karamazov is at once a murder mystery, a philosophical and religious treatise, and a study on the depravity and redemption of mankind. I as a reader and a human person have never felt so known as I do when I am between the pages of The Brothers Karamazov.

Until next year! Happy reading!

Cultivating a Calling

“What if you think you have a calling in life, but you’re just not good at it?”

Dr Molloy bent her knees and flung her arms out at this question, assuming her “great question” stance, and immediately shouted “Yes!” to the twenty-one students staring back at her. “That is a great question!” she continued. “The answer is—work hard. Cultivate it. Get good at it. Why do you think you should already be an expert at the age of twenty-two?”

This idea of cultivation was—it seems silly now—shocking to me. I’m not sure if I remember who asked the question in our Communication & Calling class this past semester, but I do remember that everyone found Dr Molloy’s surprisingly straightforward answer to be, oddly enough, groundbreaking. Cultivate your calling. Is there such a thing?

I sat down yesterday to write the next chapter of a project I’m working on, and I found myself constantly stopping and stalling when I examined the quality of my work. The writing felt forced, and poorly paced, and unaccessible, and I didn’t like it. I tried rereading and rewriting a few passages, IMG_3502.JPGextending it here and shortening it there, but in the end, a slump of writer’s block and self-consciousness made my creativity peter out. I realized only afterwards that for the few hours that I was writing, I was constantly—obsessively—thinking about my intended audience, asking questions that distracted me from the project in front of me. I would write a sentence and immediately think—Would people like this? Two sentences later—Can people relate to this? A paragraph down the page—What if someone walked up right now and asked to read this, would they want to read more? Time and time again, I told myself that the answer was no, no, no, no. My writing isn’t publish worthy. My subject matter is uninteresting. I think I’m called to this, but I’m not good enough to actually do it.

I found an article the other day called “15 Ways to Defeat Writers Block, As Told By Published Authors.” Well, I thought, they’re published, which is one step ahead of me, so they must have something worthwhile to say. What surprised me in reading the article was what at least two of the authors pinpointed as the cause of their writer’s block: not, in fact, a lack of creativity; but in fact “a fear of writing badly.”

The connection was instantaneous in my mind—as if a lightbulb went on, as if someone managed to explain perfectly something I could never quite get right. Writer’s block is the fear of writing badly. That’s it—that’s the golden nugget. I don’t lack words to say, I lack the confidence to say them. I expect my writing to be perfect and publish worthy in its first draft and I leave absolutely no margin for error. If it’s not great, it’s not anything, and it’s not worth continuing. I came to this mindset, I think, for two reasons:

One. In our time, we have come to worship something we call “the gift.” The gift is that indescribable something that artists possess—the something that you’re “born with”, that you can’t “manufacture”, that you “just have”, etc., etc. Truly gifted musicians and poets and painters don’t need training, they just need to be. We’ve even begun to treat training like cheating. After all, a trained singer isn’t a good singer, she’s just a trained one. There’s a difference, right? Aren’t the only good singers the ones who are good without any help?

Look at it this way. Which one would you prefer: an accountant who has been to business school and knows how to be an accountant—or a budding adolescent who really “has a gift for accounting”? It sounds ridiculous when you put it that way, but that’s how everyone approaches the arts—and only the arts specifically. If you don’t have the gift from the get-go, you’ll never truly be gifted.

Truth be told, the best accountants probably start out with a simple knack for math; the best architects, with a knack for space and angles; the best authors, with a knack for reading. I’m a budding writer, but I’ve only ever taken one course on writing throughout my sixteen years of schooling. This is probably due to my implicit belief that formal training feels like “cheating”, that if I was really meant to be an author, wouldn’t I already be one? And also, because my parents paid for me to college to get a real degree, didn’t they? Which brings me around to my second reason.

Two. In our diminishing respect for the legitimacy of the arts as worthwhile work comes an equally diminishing regard to cultivate the arts in a legitimate manner. At some point in recent history, the arts became peripheral to other, more “tangible” careers, such as business pursuits or the sciences. After all, how many would respond to the statement, “I want to be an author” with, “But when are you going to get a real job?” Y’know, one that pays? 

Thus the combination of, on the one hand, the effortlessness required to possess true talent, and, on the other hand, a dwindling esteem for that talent in the first place—and I find myself staring at my (still) unfinished manuscript, with writer’s block.

Every calling requires cultivation. Every calling. I am not an accomplished writer yet because I haven’t taken the time to become an accomplished writer. I may have the spark—the knack—for it, but I’m not yet there. Not everyone gets math problems right on their first go; why should a first novel be held to any different standard?

Photo: Beating writer’s block by outlining my next project on color-coated 3×5 cards, spread out all over my bedroom floor. Time consuming, but necessary, prep work, and it looks pretty cool, too! 

Workaholism on the University Level

As a graduating senior from Biola University with a qualifying GPA, I was eligible to apply for Epsilon Kappa Epsilon, our honors society. Here’s an excerpt from the email I received regarding applying:

Each spring semester, Biola inducts up to 7% of our baccalaureate graduating class into EKE. Eligibility is based on high scholastic achievement (3.75 cumulative GPA or above) and the completion of 80 academic credits at Biola prior to this semester. In addition to academic achievement, the final selection criteria generally includes evidence of Christian character, service, and contribution to the Biola community as a whole.

The application required that I list out the scholarships and awards I received while attending Biola, my participation in extracurricular activities, various community service or church volunteer work, and my on- or off-campus employment during the eight terms I was a student (and only during those eight terms; Interterm or summer employment was disqualified). In essence, induction to EKE centered around maintaining outstanding academic achievement in addition to cramming schedules to bursting with extracurriculars, volunteering, and student jobs. While EKE is an award—as in, students are being recognized and praised for their above-and-beyond contributions to Biola as a whole—I’m not sure it’s something I want to be awarded for. My application for EKE was clocking in 10-15 hours of employment, 3 hours of volunteering, and 6-10 hours of extracurriculars per week during my upper-division years at Biola—while I also maintained a Summa Cum Laude-level GPA. I wouldn’t call this impressive, I would call this being overworked—and being praised for it.

Workaholism in the university setting is one of the most neglected and unidentified issues of workplace unhealth in our modern era. In organizational culture, a good employee is expected to work a 40-hour work week. Sometimes busy seasons demand more, but on a consistent basis, 40 hours is the appropriate and expected amount of work a full-time employee should be working. Those employees that clock in at 60, 80, or more hours a week are either overworked or possibility exhibiting workaholic tendencies. But, you say, that type of work ethic is necessary in order to advance in a company—to land a promotion or even to retain the position you currently have. I would agree, these things are necessary in today’s work climate. But that doesn’t make them good.

I identified workaholism in the university setting as a workplace issue—and I meant it. Being a student is a job. There’s a reason doctor’s offices or banks allow patrons to mark “student” under the employment section on their forms. Universities even adopt organizational language when referring to their students as “part-time” when they are taking 1-11 units, or “full-time” when they are taking 12-18. Except that “full-time” university students are far past 40-hour weeks when all is said and done.

You’ve probably seen this graphic before, representing the “Choose Two” college dilemma:


Later a disgruntled student updated the graphic to this, much more accurate, decagon:


It’s definitely funny, because it’s so true. Even though we recognize this graphic as accurate we don’t bother doing anything to change it. How many times have I answered people asking how college is with “Busy,” and they respond with, “Yeah, well, that’s college.” I even had a friend report to me after he graduated and spent a few years in the workforce that “Half of getting an undergrad degree is just proving to your future employers that you can survive.” Equally sad has been one of my professor’s constant plea to us all semester to “Take one day off a week. I know you don’t think you can, but for your own health, take one day off.” Employees in the workforce are given five evenings and two full days for rest; university students are lucky if they can one afternoon a week off. Taking an entire day is so laughable that my professor had to constantly remind us all semester that it was actually a good idea. And if we do report that we “didn’t do any homework on Saturday,” other students or parents or adults have actually commented, “Was that the responsible thing to do?”

This is also coming from a Biola student, who is required to take an extra 30 units of Bible courses as well as attend over 250 hours of chapels over my eight semesters. In order to graduate in four years, Biola students need to enroll in an average of 16.25 units per semester as well as dedicate 30 hours of their semesters to chapel attendance—which, in unit-language, is an additional 1-unit class. On average, then, Biola students are taking 17.25 units per semester in order to graduate on time. That’s just 0.75 units under the maximum units you can take—and that does not include any extracurricular activities, student jobs, or volunteer work.

So this brings us back to EKE. At the culmination of Biola students’ careers, they are given a chance to express just how overworked they were throughout their eight (+/-) semesters—and then, if they prove to be the most impressively overworked, they are given an award. I did get into EKE, but I don’t know how happy I am about it. I’m proud of all I accomplished in college—academic, extracurricular, social, and work-related, among other things—but I sincerely wish it did not come at such a high price.

I don’t want to hear anymore that “that’s just how college is.” Ridiculous. That’s how college is because no one is willing to admit how unacceptably we are treating our university students. As a graduating senior who still has one more paper between her and graduation, and who will undoubtedly hear in the next 24-hours, “You had time to write a blog post during finals week?”—something needs to change.


An Unexpected Discipline

When I heard Freshman year that graduating Torrey students were required to write a 40-page senior thesis, I was appalled. Never in my life had I considered myself capable of writing anything academic that spanned more than nine or ten pages, so 40 pages was simply out of the question. Who could possibly have that much to say? When I realized in my sophomore year that I wanted to go to graduate school, and that a large academic writing sample was all but required for applying, I understood that one way or another I would be pumping out a 40-page paper by the time my four years in Torrey came to a close. And before I knew it, my four years in Torrey were coming to a close.

Now, four weeks from graduation, that 40-page, 12,000-word requirement is sitting in my GoogleDocs waiting for a final read-through at the unbelievably unexpected grand total of 49 pages and 13,575 words (exactly). I did it. I tackled French Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre’s idea of human freedom in his play, The Flies. lesmouches.jpgHoly cow, it was fun. Reflecting back on the process, I was surprised to find just how much goes into writing a 40-page, 12,000-word Torrey senior thesis—and the academic aspect of it only scratches the surface. I came to realize that the journey of writing this thesis turned out to be an excellent example of an unexpected, yet unfathomably rewarding, spiritual discipline. Here’s how:

Patience & Diligence. A Torrey Thesis is a marathon, not a sprint. 15 to 20 weeks to research and write may sound like plenty of time, and in a sense it is, but the effort takes an extreme amount of patience and diligence. After a month or so of researching (and changing my topic almost completely two or three times), I was all but chomping at the bit to get words on paper—but I didn’t, because I knew my research wasn’t quite vigorous enough yet. Writing and researching takes a certain amount of self-awareness in order to say, “No. I’m not ready. I need to research more”—and then, a week or two later, to say, “No. I’m ready. Now stop researching.” Both are just as difficult to admit and just as important. Knowing yourself, your limits, and your capabilities are essential.

Honesty & Criticism. On that note, writing a thesis is no time to lie to yourself about your writing and research abilities. When the graduating-dependent project is Pass/Fail, and the goal is a B-level paper for Year 1 of a Masters program, there’s not much time to fool around. I needed to be square with myself. I also needed to take criticism, real criticism, and not the type you get once your paper has been turned in and graded and the critiques feel irrelevant. Thesis criticism is harder because it’s painfully relevant. My immediate short-comings needed to be pointed out to me and immediately fixed—not when my draft was done, but in the middle of writing the draft. Admitting my weak spots took just as much humility as it took confidence that I could overcome them. Taking criticism was just as much about admitting, “Yeah, this isn’t good, you’re right” as it was about not crawling into a hole and dying from humiliation. I needed to push through. It hurts but it’s worth it!

You’re On Your Own. The Torrey Thesis is a lonely endeavor, and my own project exacerbated that even more. For starters, no one really tells you that you need to start the thesis; you just need to be proactive and do it. In addition, my thesis situation was a little unique because I asked Dr. Molloy (my hero) to be my thesis advisor. Dr. Molloy is an organizational rhetorician who studied the concept of work calling for her dissertation…but my paper is on the philosophy of playwriting. To top it off, she’s an APA master…but my paper is in Chicago/Turabian. Ergo, even though I’m a Communication Studies major and she’s a Communication Studies professor, there was little to no overlap of academic study between the two of us. We both recognized this from the get-go and decided to give it a try anyway, and it turned out to be awesome. We met bi-weekly to make sure I was doing okay, and I was doing okay, but for the rest of the two weeks outside of our 15-minute appointment slot, it was up to me to make progress. At the end of the day, my success was my responsibility. That’s both liberating and suffocating. (See my paper for how and why…!)

The Iceberg Metaphor. If my thesis actually included everything I researched and wanted to put into it, it would easily be twice or three times the size. Easily. To quote Hitch:

Hitch: I want you to meditate on the image of an iceberg. Do you know why I want you to do that?
Albert: Because I’m cool?
Hitch: No.
Albert: I know, I’m not, I…
Hitch: I’m saying that you are an iceberg in that over 90% of your mass…is below the surface.
Albert: I know I’m heavy. I am.
Hitch: No, I’m talking about who you are. It’s a metaphor.

Essentially my thesis is Albert. A little too robust, a little too enthusiastic, and not really sure what he’s supposed to say and when he’s supposed to say it. And, 90% of its mass is below the surface. No one will ever see or know the dozens of books and articles I read that didn’t make the final cut, but all that research was absolutely necessary to make the final  product as well-rounded as it is. No one will know the “whole story” of my paper, but the effort is there. This discouraged me at first—there was so much good stuff that I never got to say!—but I realized that the purpose of this thesis was not to vomit out every single skill and concept I had learned in my four years of Torrey. It was supposed to be nuanced—and, in a sense, it was supposed to be…humble.

Being Content with Not Being Perfect. Ah, the kicker for honors students. A week before my thesis was due, I emailed Dr. Molloy asking if she could help me take my near-perfect draft to the next level of complete, mind-blowing perfection, and she essentially said, “Ellie…let it go.” Okay, okay, fine, yes, I understand—but it’s not perfect yet! But she was right, and I had to give it up. My thesis is like a little slice of myself, staring back at me on paper, and it’s…not perfect. It’s the best I can do, but it’s not perfect. Years from now, when I write my Masters thesis and eventually my doctoral dissertation, they’ll be a whole lot better than my undergraduate thesis. But for now, I’ve done the absolute best I can do. Learning to let it go, to accept it truly as my best, is difficult but so, so necessary.

If you’re curious about the area of study my thesis focused on, feel free to reach out! I would love to discuss it with you. I have yet to mine the depths of the topic, and would love to journey deeper into it with whoever is up for a good conversation and a good cup of coffee.


Choosing Books – Part III: Aesthetics

I feel that, when asked if some books are beautiful, the correct answer sometimes just has to be, “Well…she has a nice personality.”

Some books are ugly. Just straight-up ugly. When thinking of ugly book covers, the first one that always comes to mind is the dumb cover on The Great Gatsby. bfz5ovh9ecolxdr1f3j00fka2.534x800x1.jpg

What is going on here? The midnight blue, I get. The cityscape, nice touch. But you can’t even focus on those nice elements because a noseless lady with weirdly low-set and overly thick eyebrows with a tiny mouth is staring at you. It’s off-putting.

I get why they have the eyes on the cover: it’s the whole thing about the eyes on the billboard, looking down on Gatsby when he drives through with Daisy. But those eyes were spectacled—they very clearly and specifically had to be spectacled. So who’s this on the cover, Daisy? Why is a noseless Daisy on the cover?!

I resisted for years—for years upon years—buying Gatsby because I could not stand the cover. And for some reason, every American edition of Gatsby is this same thing. It doesn’t matter if its brand new or ancient, it’s all the same.GreatGatsby423x630.jpg There’s even one edition that tries to trick you with a white spine, but when you pull it off the shelf, it’s the same old thing, but with the artwork minimized on the cover. What??

And then of course, Rachel goes to England and finds this beautiful edition—yellow, simple, nice use of black and white, the Y is even a champagne glass… the-great-gatsby.jpg

and naturally when I go to England it slips my mind and I come back Gatsbyless and upset. I caved finally—ugh, fine, FINE, I’ll just BUY it, GRRR—and bought the hideous edition. But not without some angst.

Now Emily, on the other hand, disagrees with me completely. She loves the midnight-blue cover. And apparently millions of other Americans do too, because they keep printing it. Maybe I’m alone on this point. But just to prove I’m not—go ahead and Google Image search “worst book covers ever” (preferably not in the presence of malleable children) and scroll down for a bit, and you know what you’ll find…? Boom. Noseless Midnight-Blue Gatsby.

Whoever said not to judge a book by its cover clearly does not understand something.

So we must ask the question, how much does cover art actually matter? Cover art as we know it wasn’t a thing until the twentieth century anyway; before that, books were printed with leather or cloth covers of just one color or had a design imprinted on them. And way back in the day, if book owners were particularly wealthy, they would cover all of their books with the exact same (usually leather) cover, so that their library looked poshly uniform. But we live in an era of film posters and magazines, so photo-strewn book covers are our present reality. And this definitely has some positives and negatives.

Back in the day, you couldn’t really judge a book by its cover because there was nothing remarkable or, on the other hand, commonplace about the covers themselves anyway. And there was no synopsis, or biography of the author, or announcement that it was a New York Times Bestseller, or any of that stuff. The book was read because the book was simply worth reading. That’s all it took.

But what about all those hidden gems I find simply because of the cover? That has to say something, too. 51naG-FeFpL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgTake one of my all-time favorite books, Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. I picked this book up in Barnes & Noble because of the cover, and it didn’t disappoint. Something about the typeface, the man glancing over his shoulder, the way the title is displayed, the open book with the image of Barcelona printed on it… It intrigued me and won my attention.

But take a look at this earlier editionshadow-of-the-wind.jpg that I see all the time in used bookstores. I’m not sure I would’ve picked it up if it had been that one. It doesn’t have the same tantalizing zing as the newer one. The typeface is dated, the cover is too simple and doesn’t describe well enough the contents of the book. I don’t see intrigue on this cover the way I see intrigue in the newer one.

And then there’s the most recent edition, which seems shadow.jpgkinda milky and plain and, again, maybe would not have interested me had I seen it sitting on a table in Barnes & Noble. To me, the pale orange with the contemplative wanderer doesn’t quite accurately portray the enrapturing journey to uncover the truth behind a mysterious author-gone-missing. It’s closer to the contents of the book than the red edition, but still quite not up to snuff with the open-book edition.

In my opinion, those people that warn us not to judge a book by its cover have got some things right, but they’ve also got some things wrong. The Great Gatsby or The Shadow of the Wind are the same on the inside no matter what the front cover is. Whether I own the ugly blue Gatsby or the mustard yellow one, Gatsby still loves Daisy and Daisy is still a jerk. But I also must say that there’s something to a good cover. It may not be everything, but it serves as a way to invite the reader in, set a tone for the reading of the book, stimulate the imagination during the first few chapters, aid in setting the scene. I’ve kept from buying some books just because of the cover, but I’ve also run straight for the check-out counter for the same reason. There may not be a universal way to judge just what makes a good cover good, but then again, judging a book by its cover may just lead you to some really great books.

Click here to read Part I and Part II of “Choosing Books.” 

2015 Reading Challenge – Revisited!

Has it really been a year already?! 2015 flew by! Even though I ended up reading about 65 books this year, I only satisfied 40 of the 50 categories in the Reading Challenge. After about January I started getting antsy and veered off from this list. But these books just about hit the 40 best books I read this year anyway, so it works! Enjoy. My favorites are marked with an asterisk. My extra-favorites are marked with multiple asterisks.

2015 Reading Challenge (More or Less Completed)

– A book with more than 500 pages: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (776 pages)***
– A classic romance: The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy (it’s sort of a romance…)
– A book that became a movie: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
– A book published this year: The Story of Monasticism by Greg Peters*
– A book with a number in the title: And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
– A book written by someone under 30: (I read a lot of books written by authors under forty, but actually none by any authors under thirty)
– A book with nonhuman characters: Magic by GK Chesterton (the magician says he’s not human, so that counts, right?)
– A funny book: (I guess this wasn’t the year for funny books!)
– A book by a female author: Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman*
– A mystery or thriller: House of Leaves by Mark D. Danielewski
– A book with a one-word title: Pensées by Blaise Pascal*
– A book of short stories: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
– A book set in a different country: Letters to Malcolm by CS Lewis
– A nonfiction book: The Idea of a University by John Henry Newman*
– A popular author’s first book: Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin
– A book from an author you love that you haven’t read: The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis
– A book a friend recommended to you: Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke*
– A Pulitzer Prize-winning book: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson**
– A book based on a true story: The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester
– A book at the bottom of your reading list (whatever it was, it’s still at the bottom…)
– A book your mom loves: (she kept changing her mind on what she wanted me to read, so this one isn’t my fault)
– A book that scares you: No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre
– A book more than 100 years old: De Anima by Aristotle
– A book based entirely on its cover: We, The Drowned by Carsten Jensen (I started it!)
– A book you were supposed to read in school but didn’t: (I didn’t read it then, and I still don’t want to now. Sorry, Cousin Annie, I’m trying to read Winter Wheat, I really am!)
– A memoir: The History of an Autumn by Christopher Morley
– A book you can finish in a day: A Scandal in Bohemia by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
– A book with antonyms in the title: The Devil and the Good Lord by Jean-Paul Sartre
– A book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit: Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
– A book that came out the year you were born: (literally nothing of any interest came out the year I was born… )
– A book with bad reviews: (if it had bad reviews, why would I want to read it, anyway?)
– A trilogy: (I read half of That Hideous Strength and all of Abolition of Man, does that count? Besides, a trilogy isn’t one book so I think that’s not fair)
– A book from your childhood: (if I read it then, why do I have to read it again?)
– A book with a love triangle: Cymbeline by William Shakespeare
– A book set in the future: The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
– A book set in high school: Words by Jean-Paul Sartre (he goes through high school, so…)
– A book with a color in the title: Devil in the White City by Erik Larson*
– A book that made you cry: The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk
– A book with magic: Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquirel
– A graphic novel: Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
– A book by an author you’ve never read before: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (started it! and it’s addictively good)*
– A book you own but have never read: The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee**
– A book that takes place in your hometown: East of Eden by John Steinbeck (I mean, Salinas Valley is close enough…)**
– A book that was originally written in a different language: Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
– A book set during Christmas: (you can’t read a Christmas book unless it’s actually Christmastime, and when Christmastime came around and I had finals, I was just…no)
– A book written by an author with your same initials (what if I read a book titled Ellie, by Mike Wu, can that count?)
– A play: The Seagull by Anton Chekov*
– A banned book: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
– A book based on or turned into a TV show: (I wanted to give Game of Thrones or Outlander a try, but I just ran out of time)
– A book you started but never finished: Girl Sleuth by Melanie Rehak (it’s still not finished…)

If you want to look at the original list, click here.