Reading Habits: Shann Ray

The American Book Award-winning author loves writing in a book’s margins. “[It’s] like a conversation with the beauty they are creating.”

Reading Habits is a recurring series that asks authors, artists, community leaders, and others about their lives as readers. Shann Ray is the American Book Award-winning author of American Copper, American Masculine: Stories, and other works. He is also a social scientist and professor at Gonzaga University.


A book you’re reading right now. 

Can’t pick only one! Here’s the current handful: The Book of Light by Lucille Clifton, Atomic Physics by Max Born, The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto, and Christopher Howell’s Love’s Last Number. Two beautiful poets in the mix in Lucille and Chris, and some atomic theory and theology added in to leaven the bread.

Your favorite place to read.  

In the mountains overlooking water, in the fiercely beating heart of the Pacific Northwest waterways stretching from the Alaskan coast (where I lived for 6 years) all the way to Montana (deep Inland Northwest?) where I was born and raised. Here in Spokane we have 70 lakes in a 50-mile radius. Heaven for the booklover.

Your least favorite place to read but you often end up reading there anyway.

Anywhere too cramped. I like to stretch it out when reading. If loosely surrounded by some stacks of books, even better.

You’re banished to a desert island. For reading material you’re allowed to take the complete works of just one author. Who is it? 

Such a tight race between Toni Morrison and Michael Ondaatje. I’d choose both if I could. But if I had to choose only one I’d go with Michael for the love and the fire, for the poetry and the novels, for the essays and the art! Also, I’d secretly hide a copy of the Psalms inside one of his books to have them with me too.

A book you’ve read more than once.

Li-Young Lee’s The City in Which I Love You.

What you’re holding when you read: a paper book or an e-reader. Why?

I’m game for all forms, but I go paper most of the time for the bodily love, the giving and receiving…the tactile beauty of the exchange.

A book that changed your life in a significant way.  

Anna Karenina. A marriage on the rise toward a hard won intimacy. A marriage on the descent into hell. A lot like the American “dream” and how the forces of dominant culture generate ethnocentric white think and torque the pervasive structural fault lines that fracture us. All the hate, love, forgiveness, mercy, and shame in between. So much life in Tolstoy’s pages, such devastation, and such wisdom about human nature. The book made me more willing to ask forgiveness and seek to atone for my life with others, and more willing to love. I’d pair it with Toni Morrison’s Home and Sherman Alexie’s Blasphemy for a master class in love.

You become the librarian for the entire world. As part of your newfound powers, you get to require everyone on earth to read one book. Which one, and why?

I’m such a bad one for these because a million come to mind: everything by Erdrich, everything by Momaday, everything by Welch, everything by Dickinson, Whitman, and a bunch of poets of today: Diaz, Reeves, Jericho Brown, Alexie, Layli Long Soldier, Elizabeth Alexander, Harrison.

But the one for this hour is Malanie Rae Thon’s Sweethearts. A heartbreaker and a daylight song.

A book you found too disturbing to finish.

King’s The Green Mile. His Shawshank Redemption and The Dark Half set me in the groove. The Green Mile didn’t. What disturbed me was the homespun spiritualism, untested by the fires of East and West that have moved humanity throughout the centuries. Throwing [beliefs] out on a whim isn’t my thing (unlike Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Native spiritualities, and smart atheism); in my opinion, the kind of homemade theology in The Green Mile, which happens all the time whether a person is more defined by faith, doubt, or “none,” is like making a kite from an anvil. I’m all for doubt and healthy skepticism, and all for the honest and humble quest for faith, but lazy pop-think has no life for me and I think it weakens or degrades the multi-cultural community we share.

Do you read with music on? If so, what kind?

Yes, I love music in the house. So grateful to have three daughters and my wife, Jennifer, to influence me in music and life! They are all singers and dancers, so the house is full of live music and all other forms every day: from Pat Benatar to Bach, from Aerosmith’s Dream On to Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton and It’s Quiet UpTown.

Do you write in the margins? 

Love writing in the margins, and covering them with my strange hieroglyphics of checks, stars, and underlines for what completely undoes me and remakes me as a reader and person. Tons of notes in the margins with certain writers, like a conversation with the beauty they are creating.

Do you fold the page corners? 

If I don’t have a pen or pencil to write in the margins, I fold corners down to point directly to the sentences and paragraphs that are found treasures. The books become a packet of strange folds, and look oddly birdlike.

A classic you think shouldn’t be considered a classic.

Waiting for Godot.  The absurd as champion. I get it. Doesn’t work for me though. Yes to revolution. Yes to undermining the Western white supremacist patriarchal power structure. Yes to deconstructing the myth of regeneration through violence. Yes to facing our collective genocidal amnesia with legitimate reparations, restorative justice, forgiveness, and atonement. But how about doing it through the fullness rather than the lack? The fullness is everywhere: in Simone Weil, Camus, Milosz, Kundera, Morrison, Erdrich, bell hooks, Angela Davis, Judith Butler, and thousands more. Sorry all you Beckett lovers! Happy to have a public debate when you’d like, and let’s do it collectively. I’ll bring three debaters/dialogue artists, and you bring three. Perhaps Humanities Washington will sponsor it for us?  In the end maybe we can help each other collapse the binaries.

A book you think should be considered a classic, but isn’t.

Fools Crow by James Welch. The Blackfeet culture, a mirror in many ways to the Roman Empire at the height of its power. A fiercely written, subversive, and gorgeously intimate novel.

Where you buy most of your books.

All the stunning independent bookstores of the west.  Here’s just a few for which I have undying love: in Washington, on the east side Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane, on the west side Queen Anne Book Company, Elliott Bay, Phinney Books, and Village Books, and in between A Book For All Seasons in Leavenworth; in Idaho, the Well-Read Moose in Coeur D’Alene, Book People in Moscow, and Rediscovered Bookshop in Boise; and in Montana, Elk River Books in Livingston; This House of Books in Billings; Country Bookshelf in Bozeman; and Fact and Fiction in Missoula. I’ve posted a tribute or two over the years, because these stores are the lifeblood of American poetry and fiction! Whenever you can, please do stop in and just experience the greatest hand-sold books anywhere. The recommendations I’ve gotten from these booksellers never fail!

Here’s one of the tributes I mentioned, this one for Elliot Bay:

Are you a library user? If so, what’s your favorite?

All of Spokane’s libraries, and those on our surrounding plains, with special love to the downtown branch with its wide windows over the Spokane River. Libraries are the lightning and the wide open landscape of American lit. Who can price or replace a visit to the library.  It’s beyond measure, worth everything, and results in great conversations with loved ones! With Jenn and me, our girls have grown up in libraries. The worlds they know astound me. The people they’ve become humbles me. Thank you to all libraries everywhere!

A genre you think is underappreciated.

I love mixed-genre writers. Especially realism with sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, murder, mayhem, or experimental…writers trying to shake it up. Writers building the next horizon.

Longest number of hours you’ve ever spent reading something. What was it?

Tolstoy’s War and Peace took me a ton of hours. I tried a couple of times and faded, and finally my wife and I were on a basketball tour of Europe, back in the days when I was playing hoops, and I knew with those long plane rides and daily bus tours I’d have the hours. Cracked the first page when the flight lifted off in Spokane, and turned the final one when the plane landed.  Yes, it’s a book of war and peace, but in the end all I felt was peace.

Ray will be reading an original short story as part of Humanities Washington’s Bedtime Stories fundraiser in Spokane on October 27. Tickets and more information is available here.

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