This week, I wrote a Last Word about the struggle of reading as an adult in this age defined by fast-paced, shiny distractions. I asked a few area writers, and they gave a whole list of challenges, tricks and personal experiences with reading.
That included local Shann Ray, who not only manages to be an award-winning short-story writer, a professor at Gonzaga and a counselor, but occasionally play basketball, and, you know, be married.
So how does he balance all that and still find time to read?
“I didn’t like reading in high school,” Ray says “I think I was resistant to reading because of my own problems. Authority problems.”
But that all changed in college, he says, with a young woman named Jennifer.
“I met my future wife and I read a book called A Severe Mercy. The story of people who have a really in-depth personal relationship."
Oddly, it's a book that ends with his wife dying of cancer when he’s having affairs. But they loved the whole relationship being described before the collapse happened, and decided to model their own after it.
“In their relationship, they went back and read every major, major book that had influenced the other person’s thought, to get to know each other,” Ray says. “So we decided, we’ll just pick 10.”
He could only come up with seven.
“They were like, boy’s dog books,” Ray says. “Literally, Jen had already read the seven.”
But he says his wife’s picks were fantastic: Voltaire’s Candide. Tale of Two Cities. Les Miserables. The whole Lord of the Rings series. C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves.
“I read those under the context of love. I never looked back,” Ray says. “‘I immediately thought, I have been a poor citizen.”
When the two got married they decided not to initially have TV in their house, in order to encourage reading and conversation as a replacement. And unlike many of us these days, the computer and cell-phone doesn’t dominate either.
“My foundation and my wife’s foundation has been to read together, not to access technology together,” Ray say. “Technology is like a small, slender thread in this massive tapestry of books.”
So while the modern couple can easily spend a night staring at separate laptops and cell-phone screens, they curl up with books. They memorize vast passages of poetry and sacred texts together, just like when they were dating decades ago.
It’s like a sacrament in their relationship. A couple that reads together succeeds together.
“When you’re reading real things, try your hardest to give it a sentimental read – that is, see the best in whatever that artist is trying to do,” Ray says, drawing on an idea from Jonathan Johnson, an Eastern Washington University poet. “A book, more than a movie, more than online set of moments – reading a book, I feel, is life-transformative. If a person has an openness to what’s coming down.”
The last three books that "blew his mind:"
Deepstep Come Shining, by C.D. Wright
“She’s so unique. She’s a southern white woman who has accessed the atonement of the whole slavery element in America, by writing in the voices of the South. I think she means by ‘deepstep come shining’ is, ‘Death, bring it on.’ I’m ready for Death. The character she has in there is based on an historical black character who was a profound leader in the South, but subtle, not like an MLK, an average person, but an amazing person. But full of love, full of just readiness to change this culture, you know? I think it’s like, death bring it on. Deepstep come shining. I wrote her a note telling her how much she loved it. And she wrote back. That’s amazing.”
The Picture of Dorian Grey, by Oscar Wilde.
“Unbelievably revolutionary. Just breaking codes all over the place. He was a top-level critic and also a top-level artist, and I think that’s an amazing combination. He guesses at what kind of critique he’s going to receive and implodes all the critique in the art. It’s pretty awesome.”
The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene.
“Another incredible work of inner turmoil in world-level atrocities.”