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books on a shelf

British Museum Reading Room via DG Studios

You Need To Read Books On A Shelf Before You Talk About Them.

It only makes sense to read books on a shelf before you talk about them, but it doesn’t always work out that way.

At a writers gathering the speaker showed up in all of their writer regalia geared to wow the young crowd.

Except the crowd was a few decades from young.

There she was in her rock star rig looking more Captain Jack Sparrow/Keith Richards than lit professor.

So far so good, until she started channeling Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg.

Wouldn’t you guess someone in the writer audience had read Writing Down The Bones? The speaker guessed not.

And she was wrong, but did anyone bring it up? Hell no, not to someone dressed like a pirate.

Besides, it didn’t change her message as much as it reinforced Ms Goldberg’s.


“The secret of creativity, Natalie Goldberg makes clear, is to subtract rules for writing, not add them. It’s a process of ‘uneducation’ rather than education. Proof that she knows what she’s talking about is abundant in her own sentences. They flow with speed and grace and accuracy and simplicity. It looks easy to a reader, but writers know it is the hardest writing of all.”
—Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

If writers know the hardest writing of all includes flow, speed, grace, accuracy, and simplicity, then borrowing that advice and using it is a good idea. So is attribution.

Remember Robert Pirsig? All about quality and the metaphor of motorcycle maintenance. And sitting in a quiet place for a few hours a day ‘thinking.’

That was the zen part.

Books on a shelf showed up after I reclaimed my bookshelf.

And my writing room.

My house is one of those early 1990’s places geared for an important family.

Instead of an extra room, it has an office. Since it’s right inside the front door, it could never be a bedroom, right?

I’ve never spent the night in there, but it turned into another kind of room when my father in law got sick and ready to die.

Instead of dying in the two days predicted by medical experts, he got a BoomerPdx pep talk and lived another five years. I read him loud and clear.

This is the room he died in; now it’s my writer’s room. Edgar Allan Poe would love the combination.

Books on a shelf talk is inspired by Chris Bernard, author of Chasing Alaska: A Portrait Of The Last Frontier Then And Now.


C.B. Bernard is a freelance writer and the author of “Chasing Alaska: A Portrait of the Last Frontier Then and Now” (Lyons Press), a Publishers Weekly Top 10 Travel Pick and National Geographic top travel choice for spring. Somewhat itinerant, and born and raised in New England, he lives–for now–in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and a temperamental bird dog named Shakespeare.

One day books on a shelf will include his books, but they’ll be read first.

Another book will be Bernard’s buddy Brendon Jones who read from his novel The Alaskan Laundry at Powell’s last night.

Another writer spoke up for Jones on Amazon:

“This novel is a rarity—a gripping, straightforward, old-fashioned novel about coming of age (a woman, no less) in Alaska. It is reminiscent of the best of Wallace Stegner.” — Richard Ford

When Richard Ford says your book is reminiscent of Wallace Stegner, and you’re a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, you’re doing something right.

Stegner’s Wolf Willow was on the reading list in one of my lit classes. Until then I’d never heard of the Dean of Western Writing, probably the only one in my class with that distinction.

This was a man who carried a Masters and PhD from University of Iowa, home of the famed Iowa Writers Workshop, and has a creative writing program at Stanford named after him.

Needless to say he covered a lot of ground.

Books on a shelf include him.

books on a shelf

These writers have books on the British Museum shelves.

A last note on things you can’t talk about comes from the great Seth Godin.

His latest post hits home with so many:

The problem you can’t talk about

… is now two problems.

Books on a shelf isn’t one of them, neither is talking about them.

If you read Chasing Alaska, or The Alaskan Laundry, you’ll need a little background music.

Cue Johnny Horton.

About David Gillaspie
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