Reading Life: Three Toronto Authors on Their Favourite Habits

Rebecca Rosenblum

What do you most enjoy reading, and how often do you indulge in the habit?
I read something almost every day—it would have to be a bizarre state of emergency that I didn’t absorb at least some text. Short stories and novels are my staples, mixed in with poetry, plays, and graphic novels. I also adore magazines but try to keep them to a minimum because they will overrun me otherwise. I’m not much of a non-fiction person, but I make occasional exceptions for biography and a delicious kind of sociological/self-help hybrid I come across occasionally. I also read a tonne online, like everyone, and it’s a mix of useful news, humour, and practical stuff, like hotel reviews. I’ve gotten away from reading creative work online as much as I used to—I’m just at a screen so much of the day as it is—but I still do read quite a bit from online journals.

What do you subscribe to and why?
Not as much as I want, per above, but here’s the list right now: The New Yorker, Canadian Notes and Queries, The New Quarterly, Maisonneuve, Prism International, the magazine from the CAA and the one from Kraft (the last two are freebies but I do read them so they count). My husband subscribes to Halifax and Malahat Review, so I get a chance to read those as well. Why…these publications are reliably good. A lot journals in Canada publish wonderful stuff and I can’t subscribe to them all, but I can consistently read these lit journals cover to cover and have a lot of pieces resonate. The New Yorker is my way of following American news and politics along with a lot of authors I admire. I’ve read every issue since 2003. I find Maisonneuve has its own voice and beat and politics and it’s an interesting filter on the world. It’s a magazine I’ve watched grow up—I’ve been subscribing for nearly 10 years, and it’s better every year.

What’s your favourite library, a) in Toronto, and b) somewhere else?
I use the Toronto Public Library a lot and I’m fond of my local branch because it’s well used—often crowded with children after school, recent immigrants there for ESL or settlement classes, people just hanging out and reading. But really, I don’t spend a lot of time at the library—just pick up my holds and go mainly. Libraries are good because they are full of books and people who love them and people who can help you access them; I don’t really have preferences beyond that.

Your bookshelves are on fire: what do you save?
Mainly childhood stuff, and probably some signed books if I could find them. If the internet age has taught us anything, it has taught us that you can always get another book if you need it, so very old and signed things are the only ones that matter to me which edition I have. I have a copy of Little Women with colour-plate illustrations that was my mother’s when she was a kid and which I read a billion times when I was growing up—that is probably the only book I have that is truly irreplaceable.

It’s Tuesday night, around 8pm. How do you decide what to read?
I generally write on weeknights, so if I were reading it would be because I was ill or very tired, and thus I would be reading something delightful, like a book of brief short fictions. In desperate times, perhaps a magazine about how to make cake.

Do you have a reading routine?
I read every morning at the gym on the treadmill, between 30 and 60 minutes—almost always The New Yorker. Then I read whatever book I’m reading on the commute to work—40-60 minutes—assorted internet stuff at lunchtime—and back to my book on the way home. If I’m out somewhere and waiting for people, in a waiting room, on a trip, on the beach, I’ll read, but I rarely read at home except on the weekends (on weekends, I read over breakfast and maybe a bit in the afternoon too if I have time).

What formats do you read most happily? Paper books, your phone, newsprint, cereal boxes etc.?
I prefer paper books, but it’s not a huge deal to me. I own a Kobo but it’s older and has trouble with certain downloads and certain computers, so I don’t use it a tonne—when I read on it, I find it more or less fine, but I miss the ability to flip back and forth in the text to check things or reread bits I liked. Certainly you can do that with an ebook but it’s harder, not really intended for that. I find paper books just more pleasant and easier, especially since I read on screen all day for work, and a lot of the evening when I am working on my own projects—I like a break from that. But if the day comes when paper goes out of fashion or we just can’t spare the trees, I’m fine with on-screen reading—as long as the material can get into my brain, I’m not that fussed about the medium.

How did you learn to read?
I learned to actually properly read a book to myself quite late, the summer after second grade. I think the delay was mainly because I preferred to be read to and that was always on offer at my house. My mom loved to read to me, she read well, I got a lap out of it, and perhaps I was a bit lazy—reading is hard when you’re learning. I still find being read to really pleasant—my husband and I will do it on long car trips and it’s lovely. Anyway, at a certain point my mom thought it was really time I learned, so she said she’d only read me a chapter if I read the first page—so I learned. Get’em hooked first, then make’em work for it—it’s a good policy.

Elizabeth Ruth

Your bookshelves are on fire: what do you save?
Bluets, by Maggie Nelson, Bastard Out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison, Written On The Body, by Jeannette Winterson, Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times, A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking, Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl. (Obviously, I don’t make it out in time.)

Do you write in the books you read?
Absolutely. I think best while my pen moves, and if I’m engaged and stimulated while reading I want to circle that exact passage, or put down my immediate response. I hope other writers feel about their books as I do about my own – that they are something with which to be intimately and intensely engaged. Writing in books is a compliment to the author and a reminder that a holy thing is a thing close to the heart, not anything to be held at a distance.

How did you learn to read?
My mother read to me daily. I can remember many occasions as a small child, sitting on her lap in our big wooden rocking chair – for a long time, the only piece of living room furniture we had. She would rock and read. One of my favourite childhood books was called, Hope For The Flowers, now out of print, I believe. I still have my old copy. I thought it was a simple love story between a yellow and a striped caterpillar, (whose divergent paths to self-actualization kept them apart until the end.) But I have read it since and see the powerful subtext, not so below the surface actually, of an anti-capitalist view of life, the economy, and the meaning of success.

What book did you love as an adolescent?
A Separate Peace, by John Knowles, for its questioning of morality. And, The Collector, by John Fowles, for its depiction of a teenage boy’s obsession with a girl. Although different in every way, both novels spoke to my younger self, as I sorted out who I was and who I wanted to become. A Separate Peace felt like a book for anyone stuck inside their own head too much, and Gene was a good antidote to Holden Caulfield from Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, a book I found irritating as hell. The Collector was a horrifying account, from multiple points of view, of an obsession with another person. I had been stalked for several years in my teens and knew well what it was like to be the object of someone else’s obsession. The book took me inside my experience and validated it.

Did you enjoy or struggle with reading as a child?
I didn’t struggle but I delayed. My mother was an avid reader, and in the absence of much money for entertainment, the library was our playground. So, she was always nose in a book at home when she could be, and I was jealous of those books. I would hide her books. So, I refused to read for a long time. Also, as an only child I spent a lot of time in my own mind, creating imaginary friends and worlds and adventures. I didn’t need to enter another’s imaginary world so I read here and there, in patches. The single exception was The Little Prince, by Exupery. I read and reread that book for years, starting at age 7 when it was gifted to me. However, I would say, It wasn’t until Judy Blume and Paul Zindel that I got so hooked into written stories that I was regularly willing to suspend my own.

Have you ever felt transformed by a book?
Absolutely. At 19, by De Beauvoir, reading The Second Sex. It led me to a long line of feminist texts that are still on my shelves today. Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison reached right inside me, grabbed my guts and twisted. It physically hurt to read Bone’s story. There is no need for another novel dealing with childhood sexual abuse because Allison has written the definitive one, and with so much power and grace. It also challenges the notion of illegitimacy, which spoke to my own life, as the child of an unmarried mother. The Colour Purple, by Alice Walker. In my early 20’s, I found it hidden away in a room I was staying in, on the west coast of France. I’d gone there to chase love and turn myself into a writer but all that happened was I got bummed out during the cold, wet, French winter. The book was signed from one girl to another and from the inscription I knew they’d been lovers. Why had it been left behind? I felt I should read it in secret, so I did. 

Mark Sampson

What do you most enjoy reading, and how often do you indulge in the habit?
I like to think my reading tastes are fairly broad and eclectic. I’m usually alternating between the three big genres of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Sometimes I’m reading the classics; sometimes I’m trying to keep up with the latest new titles. I also try to strike a balance between books published by small, independent presses and those from the larger publishing houses.

What do you subscribe to and why?
Between my wife and I, we have a lot of magazines and journals we subscribe to. At any given time, I’ve got access to The New Yorker, Maisonneuve, Arc, The Fiddlehead, and The Malahat Review. Basically, I’m interested in any magazine that can keep me up to date on what’s going on in literary culture and give me a snapshot into interesting books that would be worth pursuing. I’m also a big user of RSS feeds online and subscribe to several newspapers, including The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Guardian, The New York Times and others.

Do you have a reading routine?
I typically read books in the evenings, trying to squeeze in about two or two-and-a-half hours before bed. I usually reserve lunch hours for reading magazines and journals. I also try to cram in some time on the weekends if I can.

What are you reading now? What drew you to this book and what keeps you reading it? 
Right now I’m reading Richard Ellmann’s lengthy and comprehensive biography of James Joyce. I’m a huge fan of Joyce’s prose, and a number of writers I trust have pointed to Ellmann’s book as not only the best Joyce biography available, but also just one of the best literary biographies period. Last summer I took my first trip to Ireland and hunted through several bookstores there looking for this tome, but none carried it. I finally broke down and ordered a used copy off of Amazon after I got home. It was totally worth it. This book is just breathtaking in its level of detail about Joyce’s life, and it does a tremendous job of show how the events of that life helped to shape the novels he wrote. It’s also just a deeply immersive reading experience. I’m about two-thirds of the way through and can’t put it down.

Do you collect or just keep books? Are they furniture? Why or why not? 
I try to keep every book I read, but this has gotten increasingly more difficult as I get older. We’re just running out of space. Books are very much furniture. If you come to our apartment, you’ll see that our collection of books is the most dominant feature in the main room. We have a lengthy wall that is entirely covered with bookshelves overflowing with books. We’ve now had to start purging because we’re running out of space. I really don’t like doing this, as I do a lot of literary criticism and I tend to reference works I read many years ago. The worst feeling is needing to cite something I’ve read in a book and not having a copy to do so. But purging is inevitable. We just literally no longer have enough space.

Where do you prefer to read?
I prefer to read in my reading chair in the living room. It’s big and comfortable and has access to good light. It’s also next to our massive collection of books, which is fitting. I try to get those last couple of hours of the day in that chair, by hook or by crook. It really is one of my favourite places in the world.