Reading Journal—for Mason Reviewing Course

This fall’s classes at George Mason University include a course in “Reviewing”—one which I originally taught in Spring 2017, and I’m not teaching for the second time, with several alterations.

One assignment I’m preserving is for students to maintain a blog (or equivalent) with a weely reading journal—though I’ve informally told them that it also focus on something besides reading: film, music, video games… nail polish? (That last one came up in discussion.) The goal isn’t to have them produce weekly reviews of the books they’ve reading (or films they’re watching or music they’re listening too) but to put thoughts and reactions and whatever down on paper (pixel) however they see fit. This will, I think (hope), lead them toward greater awareness about how they’re responding to and articulating their thoughts on whatever they’re writing about—a stepping stone toward the more formal reviews they’ll be doing.

(Not all of my writing has so many parentheticals, I should add. (At least I hope not.))

One thing I am doing differently here is keeping my own weekly journal—beginning this week.

So what am I reading lately? At a recent get-together hosted by Kristopher Zgorski and Michael Mueller—both of whom, coincidentally, will be visiting with our class to talk about Kris’s work at BOLO Books—several folks were talking about the mysteries they’d been reading over the summer, book recommendations and those to avoid too, and Tonya Spratt Williams asked me what I’d been reading… a question I dodged a bit by explaining that whenever anyone asks me that question, my mind inevitably goes blank, despite the various piles of books and stories on my desk and nightstand. Usually, all I can remember is what I’ve been reading for classes—reading that takes up the bulk of my time.

But my answer to Tonya was a dodge in other ways—embarrassment a bit that I haven’t been reading much in terms of contemporary mystery this summer. Instead, I’d found my interests going toward philosophy—or at least to books adjacent to philosophy—which was one of my real passions when I was an undergraduate myself.

By “adjacent” to philosophy, I mean that I’ve been reading books about philosophy rather than many of the primary sources themselves. An essay about stoicism by Massimo Pigliucci this summer led me to look up works by Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, for example, but I’ll admit, I enjoyed the essay about them more than the originals—in part because of some of the ways I could see those original texts being misunderstood and misrepresented and leading readers down some fairly nasty paths (think masculinity, think militias; a little Googling will lead you to some discussion on this; I ultimately moved on).

One book I particularly enjoyed—one too long on my TBR list—was Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails (which was not, as my wife first thought, a book about cocktails). Part history, part biography, part philosophy, the book was delightful and reawakened some of my own interests in existentialism, leading me back to a a couple of my favorite courses with Yale professor Maurice Natanson (“Philosophy and Literature,” “Philosophy of Existence”) and to one very distinct memory of hurling Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time out the window of our fourth-floor dorm room and into the courtyard; I never went back to retrieve it.

My enjoyment of Bakewell’s book also led me to her previous one: How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. I’m about halfway through that one now, and it’s a joy as well—part history, biography, and philosophy again and also a great reminder of the power and legacy of Montaigne’s work, something I often refer often in teaching the personal essay in another course I teach at Mason on creative nonfiction.

I want to point out to any of my students who might read this that clearly none of the above is “reviewing” really, but just notes on what I’m reading and some quick reactions to it; that’s all I’m asking of you ultimately, though you can go deeper, of course, as I might too. (And do know this is longer than you need to write as well—don’t feel intimidated!)

Other reading this past week:

“The Director’s Notes” by Ted Blain in the December 1995 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Ted and I have been corresponding lately, but I only recently realized that my first appearance in EQMM in this issue was also his first appearance in the magazine too—and his short story is set in a boarding school, which resonates with the novel-eternally-in-progress I’m working on and… It’s a great story with a rich setting and a nice twist or two; I’ve just ordered Ted’s debut novel, Passion Play, as well.

“Publish or Perish” by Smita Harish Jain in the new issue of EQMM—a short tale of scientific discovery, academic ambitions, and greed, with a couple of nice twists of its own.

I’ll plan to keep this up each week for the course—and possibly go into more detail in later posts on some of what I’m reading!