Reading Habits is a recurring series that asks authors, artists, community leaders, and others about their lives as readers. Sharma Shields is the author of the short story collection Favorite Monster (winner of the 2011 Autumn House Fiction Prize), and the novel The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac. She lives in Spokane.
A book you’re reading right now.
I’m reading Helen Oyeymi’s Boy, Snow, Bird. I just finished The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips, which I love and want to marry.
Your favorite place to read.
I love reading anywhere, really, but usually I read in bed. I rest quite a lot because I have multiple sclerosis and I tire out easily. It’s a great excuse to read.
Your least favorite place to read but you often end up reading there anyway.
I always pretend to read in a doctor’s office, but the truth is, I’m usually distracted by people-watching. I’ll read a paragraph and then listen in on a woman’s cell phone conversation. I’ll pretend to read another paragraph and surreptitiously spy on a couple having a quiet argument in the corner. Hard to get any reading done in those transitory spaces.
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?
ACK. Only one? That’s a difficult choice. Authors I love to read and re-read include Shirley Jackson and graphic novelist Chris Ware, but I think if I was sequestered on an island, I would choose James Joyce. Or Iris Murdoch, since I’ve only read one of her books and now I want to read them all.
What you’re holding when you read: a paper book or an e-reader. Why?
I use both. I get fatigue in my hands from time to time (again: multiple sclerosis) and an e-reader is easier to hold when my fingers tremble. E-readers can be great for people with hand fatigue or vision issues; they are lightweight and you can adjust the type size. But like most people, I love the feel and sight and smell of a paper book above all else. Library books are my very favorites. I love the glossy protective covers and the sensation that the book has been and will soon be passed onto someone else. The truth is, whether its audio or visual, once I get into a story, the medium hardly matters. It’s the story that transports me, not the paper or screen.
A book that changed your life in a significant way.
Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage affected me powerfully. When I read it, I was in my mid-twenties, a time in my life when I felt quite a lot of guilt for becoming my own person and cleaving my beliefs from the beliefs of my family. The main character struggles and then triumphs with a similar dilemma. It was like a slap in the face: Become who you are, unapologetically. I’m still working on the unapologetically part, but that book was very life-affirming for me.
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?
All librarians are superheroes, that’s for sure. But boy, I’m not sure I’d want everyone to read the same book. I’m sort of anti mob-mentality in that sense. What I loved about working in the library was witnessing the disparities within everyone’s reading taste. That was a liberating thing for me to realize as a writer, that there millions of readers out there, and that no matter what you’re writing, you’ll likely be able to connect with a handful of them. But I suppose if I had to suggest one book (and people would be absolutely allowed to openly hate it), I would suggest Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, if only because I’d enjoy hearing all of the different opinions about Jackson’s wonderfully slippery narrator.
A book you found too disturbing to finish.
I’m not easily disturbed. I like horror and I like dark. But especially since becoming a mom, I loathe when fiction writers harm kids in their work for no other reason than shock value. I quit reading The Walking Dead series because of that very thing: the abrupt violence against an infant felt entirely unearned to me. That said, I realize this is just a personal sensitivity I’ve developed; it’s something that happens in the real world, after all. I’m just incredibly disturbed by it these days.
See Sharma Shields
Where: Bedtime Stories Literary Gala, Spokane
When: October 23, 2015
Do you write in the margins?
Do you fold the page corners?
No, sir! These are usually library books, and writing on/folding the pages is blasphemous.
A book you think should be considered a classic, but isn’t.
I would love for more women to be included in the literary canon. Just a few that come to mind include Octavia Butler’s Kindred, Jean Rhys’s The Wide Sargasso Sea, Gloria Naylor’s Bailey’s Cafe, Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, Marilynn Robinson’s Housekeeping. I want to hear more about authors like Iris Murdoch and Mercè Rodoreda and Daphne du Maurier.
Where you buy most of your books.
Auntie’s Bookstore here in Spokane. Atticus has a wonderful book selection, and Boo Radley’s has arguably the best graphic novel selection in town. We also have a great used store near my home called Second Look Books.
Longest number of hours you’ve ever spent reading something. What was it?
I’m not sure about the number of hours, but I’ve never read anything with greater concentration than Ulysses. I love the humor and heart and ingenuity in that book, and nothing is better to me than a huge tome that engages me both intellectually and emotionally. Although when I tried Finnegan’s Wake, I absolutely failed. Couldn’t even make it through the first chapter. I once heard that Ezra Pound told Joyce he hated FW, and that Joyce reacted by taking the manuscript to bed with him and weeping over it for days on end. That story makes me love Joyce all the more…
Second on the list would be Middlemarch, by George Eliot. That book had some outstanding plot twists. It’s always fun to learn from the geniuses of the genre.
A book you’re embarrassed to admit you like.
I’ve read it all, Janette Oke, Sweet Valley High, Jackie Collins, Mary Higgins Clark, Christopher Pike and whatnot. Being an agnostic, it’s probably weird that I’ve read Janette Oke, but I used to devour those books as a kid. Back then, I happily read everything my grandma sent to me.
That said, my guiltiest pleasure right now is HGTV Magazine. It’s soothing for me but it has absolutely zero impact on the mental health of the world.
Editor’s note: Sharma Shields will be reading an original short story written specially for Humanities Washington’s Bedtime Stories literary gala in Spokane on October 23. For details, visit humanities.org.