Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Why I Read by Peter Carlson

A few years ago, we started an occasional series in our email newsletter: an original essay by a writer called "Why I Read." We've been reprinting them on the blog on occasion (see below for links to others).

Today's comes from Peter Carlson, who wrote a fine and funny book called K Blows Top. It was our Book of the Month back in June 2009 (my blurb on the book is here; or pre-order the paperback here--it's due in about a month). Without further ado, here's why Peter Carlson reads:

I read to be entertained and enlightened, amazed and amused.

I read to hear great stories and encounter fascinating minds. I read to fall asleep and I read to wake up. I read to learn how the world works, how the other half lives, how we got in this mess and how we can get out. I read to find out what happened yesterday, and also to find out what happened in the Big Bang and the Black Plague and the Black Sox scandal. I read because reading transports me through time and space and I don’t even have to get out of my chair, except to pour more coffee.

When I was in kindergarten, I fell in love with the delightful rhythm and music and wordplay of Dr. Seuss and ever since then I’ve been reading in the hopes of finding a book that made me feel as ecstatic as the good Dr. did. Seuss led me to the zany comic verse of my next literary hero, Ogden Nash. My search for Nash poems led me to anthologies of American humor, where I discovered Mark Twain and William Saroyan, and I haven’t been the same since.

I love how one book leads to another and another and another in a never-ending chain of discovery. I read to satisfy my curiosity, but my curiosity is insatiable, so I keep on reading.

I read everything--newspapers, magazines, novels, poems, biographies, history, e-mail, junk mail, and the backs of cereal boxes, although the quality of cereal box literature ain’t what it used to be. I also read the wisdom inside fortune cookies, always adding the customary implied ending “in bed,” which inevitably improves the message. I also enjoy reading FBI files, in which words, lines, sometimes entire pages are blacked out by G-man censors—a heavy-handed, backhanded tribute to the power of words.

I love the moment when something an author wrote in another time and place makes me burst out laughing. And I treasure the moments when I’ve watched people riding the Metro in Washington read my newspaper stories and laugh out loud. That’s a better award than a Pulitzer Prize, although less lucrative.

Of course, it was my love of reading that led me to start writing in the first place. And attempting to write inevitably gives you a deeper appreciation for what you read. But there is a downside, as any honest writer will admit: You read something that’s really good and you think, Damn, I wish I’d written that.

I‘ve just published a new book —“K Blows Top,” a non-fiction comedy about Nikita Khrushchev’s bizarre adventures in America. I’ll be thrilled if readers think, Damn, I wish I’d written that. The only thing better would be hearing them laugh out loud.

Thanks, Mr. Carlson. Want to read others? On the blog so far: Beth Lisick, Susan Choi, Peter Rock, Dave Eggers, Daniel Handler, T.C. Boyle, and Joyce Maynard.

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