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Non-Reader Spotlight: James Lai photo

First a note about what I’m doing here: talking to people who consider themselves non-readers. It seems like most times I talk to a person who calls him- or herself a non-reader, the situation is a bit more complicated than just simply not reading at all. Oftentimes they read only certain things or have specific reasons for not reading more. I live in a world where I talk to people who generally consider themselves readers, but I always enjoy a good conversation with someone who has distanced herself from that community by referring to herself as a non-reader. I thought it might be fun to formally present some of those conversations, so this is what I hope to be the first in a series of interviews with a range of people who “don’t read.”

For the first Non-Reader Spotlight, I talked to James Lai.  James and I met when I worked with his wife, Juli, at Women & Children First Bookstore in Chicago, and they now have three of the most beautiful children I’ve ever seen: Aidan, Sidney, and Dalton. James works as a Senior IT Analyst for a human resources company. Once I got the idea for this column, I decided to turn to Facebook first in my hunt for people who were self-described non-readers. James responded almost immediately and so we began our conversation.


Jac Jemc: Hi James! When I crowd-sourced on Facebook looking for non-readers, you said that “a book has to be really compelling to get you to finish a novel.” Did you assume i was only talking about fiction? Why? Is non-fiction easier for you to read? You specifically called out a novel. Are short stories easier to get through or do you avoid those altogether?

James Lai: No, I didn’t assume that you were talking only novels.  I generally find nonfiction/autobiography easier to read because there’s a connection I have with the subject.  I know they exist, and can somewhat relate the book back to my own life (especially if the story is in the media, ie:  I remember when the Clinton scandal hit, I remember the impeachment process, etc).  As for fiction, it’s harder for me (pending on genre), especially drama-fiction.  I think it’s because when I read, I don’t want drama, I want escapism (ie, Game of Thrones, Hunger Games).  I want to be taken to another world, another time, and want to be astounded with everything that’s different.  So I would say that my tastes run to both extremes: I either want to completely relate or I want a fantasy. I would say I’m indifferent to short stories.  I read them now and then when I’m scanning the New Yorker or a magazine, but I wouldn’t be buying a collection. Well, I do love humorist Laurie Notaro; she writes short story collections about her life. 


JJ: Despite this issue with completing novels, do you consider yourself a big reader? What do you like to read?

JL: Not really.  If I’m lucky I read about three to four books a year.  I personally like sci-fi or fantasy.  Every now and then I would read a drama (I actually read an Oprah book one year), but it’s rare.


JJ: Were you a bigger reader when you were a kid? If so, what changed? If not, any ideas of why it was never your thing?

JL: Not really - English is my second language, so I remember in first grade being tutored by my older cousin.  I don’t want to say that I have associations of that experience as being a chore, but I remember being very frustrated.


JJ: So you spoke Chinese, but English was the first language you learned to read in: Am I understanding that right?  That does seem like it would be an arduous task.

JL: It wasn’t until kindergarten that I started learning English - both reading/writing.  I think I understood English enough from watching Sesame Street and Electric Company, but I was far from being fluent.  My parents never taught us how to read/write in Chinese and when we asked later, they said it was already going to be hard enough to learn English on our own, that teaching Chinese was going to drive them/us crazy.


JJ: Do you read a lot with your kids?

JL:  We read a lot to them, and now that they’re somewhat reading on their own, we encourage them to go look at books when we’re at a store.


JJ: I used to work at Women & Children First Bookstore with your wife, Juli.  Did it drive her nuts that you don’t like to read?

JL: Yes and no. Juli knows my taste, so it also drove her nuts when I would try to cram Dean Kootnz down her throat.  Juli’s mom is an avid reader, so she always had someone else to talk to when it came to books.


JJ: What are some of your favorite books that you most enjoyed reading?  You can go the traditional route and tell me what your favorite book is, but I think sometimes people pick an answer that sounds good there, like Moby Dick, when really it’s a good true crime book that really holds the key, enjoyment-wise.

JL: My current favorite books are the Game of Thrones series, Hunger Games, a handful of Dean Kootnz books - BUT - the most ironic part is that my favorite book of all time is Henry James’s Washington Square.  I’ve read it about three times - once in high school, once in college, and one more time just for fun. I don’t think I really enjoyed it in high school, but once I read it again in college - I fell in love with the relationship of the daughter and father, especially the topic of the father being bitter towards his daughter about his wife dying in childbirth.


JJ: I want to know more about Washington Square. Is there something about the story that is personal to you, or possibly makes the story feel more real to you, the way nonfiction does? Or maybe the world and the story are so foreign to you that the book feels almost like a fantasy?  I certainly don’t think every book you like has to fit into one of the categories you described; we’re not all that simple, but I’m interested in the idea that your favorite book actually falls outside of those categories. Are there other books that fall outside of these categories that you remember fondly?

JL: For me it’s the automatic assumption that the father is against her suitor because he wants her to be as miserable as he is.  There’s so much more depth in being a parent - that I think most younger readers miss.  It also reminds me very much of Chinese culture in general: your parents sacrifice a lot for their children. They may not understand why immediately, but life is an unforgiving teacher, and parents ultimately want to shield their children from being hurt.  Another reason why I love this book is that, in college, I was the only person that wrote my final paper arguing that the father loved his daughter and everything he did was for her own good. First time I got an A+ in college.


JJ: Do you read the internet? Why does or doesn’t that count in the realm of being a “reader?”

JL: Yes, too much I would say.  I don’t count it as “reading” like reading a newspaper is not really reading.  Reading on the net is like watching the ten o’clock news, you get a glimpse of the world, then you forget about it ten seconds later.  My bigger beef with the internet is when people spread their opinions as facts.  I think that’s also why I tend to stay away from blogs - I think that writers are forced to make their site so unique that they just write to spark a response (Gawker, Jezebel, etc) regardless of topic.


JJ: Are there books that you’ve heard about recently that you’re interested in reading?  What are they? Why?

JL: Blood by Christopher Farnsworth - it has vampires and politics!  What’s not to love? World War Z by Max Brooks - it came highly recommended, and there’s buzz of a movie version. I’m a very visual person, and I tend to mentally translate what I’m reading into a screenplay.  I think that’s why Hunger Games was such an easy read for me - it translates to the screen so easily.


JJ: Are there often times when you have issue with movies you see because you’ve already translated them to the screen in your head? Maybe you imagined something different, or don’t think the movie does justice to the book? 

JL: While growing up, I loved comic books. I think that’s why storyboarding is so easy to me.  I think I understand the movie business too much to be too critical of novel adaptations. Your lead needs to have a certain look, or the story needs to be dumbed down or shortened, etc. Now if you’re talking comic book adaptations - that’s when I get really critical.


JJ: Do you read a book first, usually, or see the movie first and then read the book?  What value do you get from either order of activities?

JL: I think it really depends.  For example, Game of Thrones: I don’t think I would have even picked up the books if it wasn’t for the series.  Even though the series (season 1) follow the book faithfully, I enjoyed the differences, but I will admit that it helped a lot that I was familiar with the characters before reading it, because when there are more than ten major characters, you tend to get confused very easily. As for something like Hunger Games, even though there was buzz of a movie when I read it, the way Juli raved about the book, I had to read it.  She sold me on it when she said, “It reads just like a movie.”  I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I remember seeing the cast the first time, and going to Juli and saying, “They got it ALL wrong.”  It will also all depend on how the acting is.  If the actor can’t sell me on the character, then I’m going to be pissed, especially if it’s a book that I enjoyed a lot. I’ve always had a fascination with Hollywood and the screenplay aspect, so I understand how difficult it is to stay true to the story and to convey the same emotions that on both screen and paper.  I think the best example would be Julie and Julia.  I read the book first, and saw the movie. They definitely changed it up some, but, at the same time, they kept the spirit of the movie true to the book.  You feel for Julie, and her quest to achieve something that has never been blogged about, and you laugh at her failures and cheer her successes. At the same time, by adding scenes of Julia Child, you’re directed in this kindred spirits subplot.  In the book, Julia is just talked about which I can picture the movie exec opting out of that because it would be too boring. In both case scenarios, I think I have more appreciation for the actors - because they have the difficult task of selling me on the character that’s on paper.  They have to make me feel the same way I did when I was reading, and that’s tough, because when you’re reading, you’re using your own memory/experiences as your guidance, and when you’re watching a movie, the actors are directing your emotions.


JJ: Do you think that you do something else that takes the place of reading, like in the time that otherwise reading might happen?  Do you do something that satisfies you in a similar way to how reading used to?

JL: The internet.  The internet has made us so more ADHD than before. If you don’t like what you’re listening/reading/watching on the web, you just go to a different URL.  I want to say that I have enough patience to go through a book, but very honestly, if there’s nothing interesting in the first chapter that grabbed my attention, chances are you’re not going to get me to continue.


JJ: Is there anything you miss about reading? Do you regret not reading more or are you cool with it? Do you want to read more? Why or why not?

JL: Free time - I don’t know if this is more of a personal perception, but when you see people reading, you see them on the beach, on the bus/train.  Now that I work from home, I don’t have the commute time I use to read.  The only time I find myself reading for long lengths of time is on the plane when I have to travel for work. I don’t know if I “regret” not reading more... I would say I would like to read more, and have more free time to do it.


JJ: So, James, I have a proposition. Any interest in reading a book with me that falls outside of your standard categories and talking about what you do or don’t like about it?  I know that’s a big time commitment, so no pressure. I’m also open to you picking a book and I’ll read it with you and tell you what I do or don’t like.  Either way might be fun!

JL: That sounds like fun.  Just pick a book that I can get on the kindle.


JJ: Awesome!  How about Ethel Rohan’s Cut Through the Bone? The book is a short collection of stories, so I think it should be pretty easy to finish quickly, and it’s from a small press called Dark Sky Books.

JL: 115 pages is good! I just hope it’s easier to read than Heart of Darkness.


11 Days Later:

JJ: First off, after you told me that the book had to be available on the kindle, I wondered: What is a non-reader doing with a kindle?  Was it a gift? Do you read periodicals on it as well?

JL: I got it as a gift.  I got it last year when I was reading Game of Thrones. I bought it and was reading it on Juli’s Kindle.  When I was traveling, Juli would be without hers for a whole week.  So my sister bought me my one for my birthday.  I exclusively read books on it.


JJ: General thoughts about the book?

JL: I enjoyed it alot.  It reminds me very much of my own writing in college (BA in English w/ a concentration in Creative Writing).  It always drove me crazy when authors went on and on about describing a character, or scene.  Cut to the chase - I don’t care what the character looks like (unless there’s something specific about the character physically that is needed for the plot), but tell me their story.  I really enjoyed that aspect of the stories - they tossed us right in, and let my own imagination create what they should look like, but more importantly, the stories told me how they felt.  I loved how simple the author kept it.  There were a couple of stories where I felt it was just a starter for a bigger story and I really wanted to read more.  I also loved how simple the stories conveyed the emotions - hatred, anger, fear, resentment, joy.


JJ: HOLD UP!  You were an English Major?  With an emphasis in creative writing?  How did that happen when you find reading a chore? Was it just an arbitrary choice or were you really interested in literature?  When did that change, or is it just your tastes that have changed and your ability to devote time to it? 

JL: Senior year in high school a teacher told us to major in something we can get good grades in, and minor in something we’re going to spend the rest of our lives doing.  I went into my freshman year already knowing that I was going to be a computer science minor, but had no idea what major.  So my first two years in college was getting my gen-ed classes out of the way along with my computer science classes.  In my sophomore year, I took a Creative Writing 1 class as a gen-ed.  I did well, and I enjoyed it alot.  By the end of my sophomore year, Loyola forces you to declare.  Going back to what my high school teacher told me, I declared English with concentration on Creative Writing.  I was just required to take four more writing classes than the normal English track.


JJ: What did you write? Do you still write?

JL: When I was writing, I wrote very much like Kevin Smith, not the same topics, but very much dialogue.  A lot of dialogue.  They were all short stories. They were all over the place. I wrote about the life of a father and daughter after the mother abandons them, a boxer that throws a match just so he can feed his family, an entire dialogue of a young couple breaking up. I don’t write anymore, but that’s not to say I don’t have a lot of ideas in my head on what would make a good story, but I very much have motivation problems.


JJ: Any stories you particularly enjoyed?

JL: I really enjoyed the first one (“More Than Gone”); there’s something about the simple sentences and visuals that just sets the mood of the book, and the stories.


JJ: When do you find time to read?

JL: Right before bed or in the middle of the night after my dogs woke me up to go outside, and then I found myself not being able to fall back asleep.


JJ: Did you feel it was a worthy use of your time, or did you find yourself thinking you’d rather be doing something else?

JL: Yes, it was nice not to be in front of my computer or the television, and to basically let my imagination run wild for a little bit.


JJ: A kindle screen is different, huh? Just kidding! I’m glad this was a good experience for you.

JL: Unlike a computer, or television, I can’t change the channel or surf to something else on a Kindle.


JJ: Anything turn you off about the book?

JL: There were a couple of stories where I was just flat-out confused.  I can’t think of the title of the story, but it was about a woman that brought home a “baby”, then it was gone, and there really wasn’t a baby, or was there?  I think I would have preferred to have read that story from the daughter’s or husband’s perspective.  Or have two separate stories, one as is, and the other telling the story of the “real” situation.


JJ: I really like the idea of writing two versions of a story.  One of my favorite stories “The Harvest,” by Amy Hempel does that to a certain degree, she tells you the story, and then she tells you what she left out and it’s pretty great.  I highly recommend it. http://www.pifmagazine.com/1998/09/the-harvest/ Earlier you said you weren’t really interested in short stories, with the exception of Laurie Notaro, but it sounds like this experience went well.  Are you interested in reading more story collections now? Or was this just a nice change of pace?

JL: A little of both - it is a nice change of pace in that I don’t have to remember 200 characters and how they all relate to each other like Game of Thrones. I think I would be more interested in reading story collections, but I’m leaning towards reading the same type of writing.


JJ: Are you in the middle of reading something else right now? What will you read next? Also, James, it sounds like you’re a reader to me! It might be hard for you to find time and you might have particular taste in books, but I would still say that those things a reader make.

JL: I’m actually racing to catch up with Juli on the Game of Throne series.  I started way ahead of her, but she has completely leapt in front of  me and is already on the fourth book, while I’m still on the third. I wouldn’t classify myself as a reader because I don’t think about how a story has impacted me after I’m done reading, or appreciate all the finer points in literature/fiction writing.  Due to my style of writing, I think that’s also another reason why I have such a better appreciation for Hollywood and screenplays/screenwriting.  Like I said before, reading for me is an escape/diversion from real life, and I don’t think real readers think that way at all.  I think “real” readers want to learn from reading and live through someone else’s words, while I’m more of the guy that slows down the car to watch a traffic accident, and then speeds up once I lose interest.


JJ: Thank you so much for answering all my probing questions and for reading with me! It’s been really great talking to you, and you’ve been incredibly generous with your time!


image: Aidan Lai