Category Archives: Reading Aloud

What I read in 2016

When I graduated from university, I started to keep track of my books read in this wee diary that was a gift from my roommate.

bookdiary1

I started the books diary in 1983. It’s coming apart at the seams a bit. Over the years, I’ve backed up my list in databases, spreadsheets, Goodreads and other book apps du jour … but I’ve always updated this little diary as part of my reading routine. Yes, this book and this part of my reading ritual is getting on 34 years …

bookdiary2

Here are the books I read in 2016 – once again, diligently recorded in my book diary, along with a backup spreadsheet and Goodreads – with links to reviews where I have them. By the way, this is an exhaustive, “all of” list, not a “best of” list.

I continued my commitment in 2016 to a daily devotion to at least one poem … and usually more, as friends on Twitter continued to generously share their poem choices and reflections via the #todayspoem hashtag. Now five years in, I still haven’t missed a day, both contributing and enjoying selections from others in this edifying, often spirit-lifting and vital communal experience. I’ve now pondered the works of close to 1,000 unique poets, writers, translators, songsmiths and wordsmiths I’ve revisited or unearthed myself, and countless more via others wielding that often revelatory hashtag. On into its sixth year, I’m continuing with my #todayspoem habit every day heading into 2017. I hope many contributors will continue or join anew.

I welcomed some wonderful and insightful guest reviewers and correspondents to this blog in 2016. I’m so grateful for the time and thought they spent on their pieces, from which I learned a lot and hope you did, too. Let’s revisit them again:

Here are the books I read, reread and read aloud in 2016. Wherever I go, I try to carry a book with me, so for each book, I’m also going to try to recall where I was when I was reading it.

  1. Hope Makes Love
    by Trevor Cole

    I vividly recall reading this book at the cottage during the wintry first days of the new year.

  2. The Beauty of the Husband
    by Anne Carson

    I was reading this amazing book while waiting for a friend who was arriving by GO Train at Toronto’s Union Station. We were meeting another friend to go to a poetry reading – how perfect is that?

  3. Fates and Furies
    by Lauren Groff

    I distinctly recall reading this engrossing book snuggled in bed.

  4. A Little Life
    by Hanya Yanagihara

    I went through a protracted period of insomnia last winter and if, after trying to relax and consciously breathe myself back to sleep, I was still wide-eyed in the dark, I would turn on my little book-light and read. This book actually didn’t help get me back to sleep – quite the contrary – but it was stunningly memorable company during those sleepless hours. What an unforgettable wallop of a reading experience.

  5. The Mark and the Void
    by Paul Murray

    I read this two-volume paperback (a very interesting packaging of the story) mostly at our dining room table. It was February, when this household observes a month of abstinence from alcohol, so the accompanying beverages were likely tea and coffee.

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  7. Between You & Me
    by Mary Norris

    I took this entertaining book with me on more than a few subway rides.

  8. When Words Deny the World
    by Stephen Henighan

    This book kept me company on streetcar rides to physiotherapy appointments.

  9. The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl
    by Sue Goyette

    I read this gorgeous book (also a gorgeous book object) at home.

  10. Just Watch Me – The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1968-2000)
    by John English
    (read aloud)

    A lot of our reading aloud takes place in the kitchen, with my talented husband cooking and me singing for my supper. We actually read a lot of this book during the interminable 2015 Canadian federal election and it was a great reminder that there were dedicated, thoughtful and honorable politicians of all political stripes as recently as just a generation or two ago.

  11. M Train
    by Patti Smith

    I read this sweet, luminous book at home.

  12. All the Gold Hurts My Mouth
    by Katherine Leyton

    This poetry collection was company on several subway rides.

  13. Birdie
    by Tracey Lindberg

    This book was warm and fascinating company on streetcar rides to physiotherapy appointments.

  14. Innocents and Others
    by Dana Spiotta

    Among his many talents, my husband is a great seeker and finder of first editions of books. When I fell in love with author Dana Spiotta on the basis of this intriguing New York Times Magazine interview, he made it his mission to find all of her novels for me. And then I read them all this year. To a book, they were amazing. I already can’t wait for what she’ll do next.

  15. Don’t Be Interesting
    by Jacob McArthur Mooney

    I read this collection (which had me at the John Darnielle references) at home and on public transit.

  16. Model Disciple
    by Michael Prior

    This collection was fine company during the continued streetcar rides to physio appointments.

  17. Tell: poems for a girlhood
    by Soraya Peerbaye

    You know what? I was so wrapped up in the entrancing, often horrifying but also heartwrenchingly beautiful world of this collection that I in fact don’t recall a specific place or moment when I was reading it. What does that say?

  18. Lightning Field
    by Dana Spiotta

    I read this book at home, probably mostly at my desk and the dining room table.

  19. Providence
    by Anita Brookner
    (reread)

    I read this tiny, battered, much loved paperback on the subway, where a fellow passenger remarked that it was her favourite Brookner.

  20. Frayed Opus for Strings & Wind Instruments
    by Ulrikka S. Gernes, translated by Per Brask and Patrick Friesen

    This poetry collection accompanied me on more than one road trip.

  21. Who Needs Books? Reading in the Digital Age
    by Lynn Coady

    I pretty much read this in one sitting … with lunch.

  22. Sustenance … lunch with Lynn Coady's nourishing Who Needs Books? @clcualberta #canlit #books #bookstagram

    A photo posted by Vicki Ziegler (@vzbookgaga) on

  23. Caribou Run
    by Richard Kelly Kemick

    I read this very fine collection at home, on public transit and I recall packing it along to the cottage, too.

  24. The Mercy Journals
    by Claudia Casper

    I remember reading this haunting novel late at night at the cottage.

  25. Zero K
    by Don DeLillo

    I vividly recall reading most of this book in an incredible, absorbing whoosh while driving home from the cottage. (No, I wasn’t driving.)

  26. Saints, Unexpected
    by Brent van Staalduinen

    I remember reading this fine and amiable book while relaxing on the back porch.

  27. All That Sang
    by Lydia Perovic

    I pretty much had this captivating book read in a couple of subway rides and a sit on the front porch.

  28. Stone Arabia
    by Dana Spiotta

    I remember being absorbed in this book while sitting on the cottage dock with a refreshing beverage or two.

  29. The Quotations of Bone
    by Norman Dubie

    Subway reading, I do believe …

  30. Independent People
    by Halldor Laxness

    This one took a while to read – which was fine, as it was a read to savour and get immersed in – so I had it with me everywhere. It’s another book that a fellow subway rider remarked on, most enthusiastically.

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  32. I’m thinking of ending things
    by Iain Reid

    I had the good sense to only read this book during daylight hours.

  33. The Hatred of Poetry
    by Ben Lerner

    Some subway rides went quickly with this wise book for company.

  34. Thirteen Shells
    by Nadia Bozak

    I was reading and enjoying this book during a weekend visit with friends at our cottage.

  35. Yiddish for Pirates
    by Gary Barwin

    This book was thoroughly delightful company during a week’s vacation at the cottage.

  36. History’s People
    by Margaret MacMillan
    (read aloud)

    We read this book aloud – and learned a lot about greater and lesser known historical figures – during cozy reading sessions at home and at the cottage.

  37. The Cauliflower
    by Nicola Barker

    Not my favourite Barker, although Barker remains one of my favourite writers … I read this book while on my own for a working week at the cottage.

  38. The Dancehall Years
    by Joan Haggerty

    Remembering this book reminds me of our shade-dappled dock at the cottage.

  39. The Clay Girl
    by Heather Tucker

    I will remember The Clay Girl and the next book on this list, Still Mine, side by side and as my constant companions everywhere (home, out and about, cottage) for two or three weeks. I had the honour in 2016 of moderating a couple of special book club events for the Toronto Word on the Street Festival. Selected contest winners qualified for small, private book club meetings with authors Heather Tucker and Amy Stuart, and it was my job to introduce them to their book fans and keep the conversations going with pertinent questions about their respective books. I prepared exhaustively with questions and observations … but then didn’t need a lot of those preps because those book fans showed up excited, motivated and brimming with their own wide-ranging queries and reflections. It was really rewarding to see such warm and dynamic meetings of readers and writers – truly wonderful!

  40. Still Mine
    Amy Stuart

    See my comments about The Clay Girl … I also recall enjoying Still Mine on a coffee shop patio on a sunny Saturday morning while waiting for my husband.

  41. English is Not a Magic Language
    by Jacques Poulin, translated by Sheila Fischman

    This charming novella was good subway company.

  42. 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl
    by Mona Awad

    I read this book at home and out and about.

  43. The Best Kind of People
    by Zoe Whittall

    I read this book at home and out and about.

  44. The Last White House at the End of the Row of White Houses
    by Michael e. Casteels

    I recall being wrapped up in this enchanting little collection while waiting for my husband to join me for dinner out.

  45. The Tobacconist
    by Robert Seethaler, translated by Charlotte Collins

    I read this fascinating and rather prophetic book at my desk in my home office, as I prepared the readers’ guide / book club questions for this book, offered by House of Anansi Press.

  46. The Emily Valentine Poems
    by Zoe Whittall

    A squirrel jumped up next to me on the park bench I was sitting on as I read this while waiting for a friend in a parkette outside her office in downtown Toronto.

  47. Wenjack
    by Joseph Boyden

    I read this small, moving book in one sitting at home.

  48. Thrillows & Despairos
    by Chris Chambers

    I discovered this collection when I heard Chris Chambers read from it at the 2016 International Festival of Authors, and I ran to the book table and purchased it right after the reading. Immersive indeed!

  49. Do Not Say We Have Nothing
    by Madeleine Thien

    This beautiful book was constant, contemplative company at home throughout the fall.

  50. The Goddess of Fireflies
    by Genevieve Pettersen, translated by Neil Smith

    I remember standing on subway platforms with this book in my hand.

  51. Where’d You Go, Bernadette
    by Maria Semple

    I remember carrying and reading this sweet book on transit and waiting for friends at restaurants and before musical events in late November.

  52. Eat the Document
    by Dana Spiotta

    I read this intriguing book, the final in my year-long Dana Spiotta-fest, at home.

  53. Based on Actual Events
    by Robert Moore

    Devoured in just a few subway rides, I believe …

  54. The Break
    by Katherena Vermette

    I had this absorbing book with me at home, out and about and even on a wintry trip to the cottage.

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  56. Life On Mars
    by Tracy K. Smith

    I stayed up late reading this gift on Christmas night.

  57. #Poetry break after all the holiday excitement … #airedalesofinstagram

    A photo posted by Vicki Ziegler (@vzbookgaga) on

  58. Pond
    by Claire-Louise Bennett

    I treasure this quirky read, a spontaneous gift from a lovely colleague.

  59. The Albertine Workout
    by Anne Carson

    Another Christmas gift, I read this poetry pamphlet pretty much in one gulp while sitting at my home office desk.

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In 2016, I read a total of 54 works: 32 works of fiction (novels and short story collections), 15 poetry collections and 7 works of non-fiction. I re-read one book, read 4 works in translation, and read 35 works by Canadian authors. My husband and I read two books aloud to each other this year and have a third in progress as we greet the new year.

Currently in progress, heading into 2017:

Looking back fondly on my 2016 reading, looking forward eagerly and with anticipation to my 2017 reading, I’ll simply conclude (as I’ve done in previous years) …

It’s not how many you read that counts. It’s that you read that counts.

Postscript (added January 11, 2017)

I love the discussion this post has sparked, both here and on social media, including some debate about whether or not such list-keeping is usual or kind of nutty/anal-retentive. Obviously, keeping these lists every year is part of enjoying my reading. I’ve added a bit more to my scrutiny of what I’ve read every year, not so much with a view to altering the flow of what I decide to pick up and read every year as to just be aware if there was more or different directions in which I should explore. So, for example, I’ve looked in recent years at how much fiction vs non-fiction vs poetry I read, and how many works in translation, how much Canadian versus international literature, how many rereads, read-alouds, etc, etc, etc. Because the lists are easy to scan, I can quickly figure out the author gender mix every year … just to see how I’m doing, usually not to be corrective in my reading habits.

One thing I’ve decided to add to my record-keeping in 2017 is the publication year of each book read, to gauge how much current/hot-off-the-press vs back catalogue/older stuff I’m reading. I love that everyone who has joined this conversation loves their reading, loves to examine it to some extent and loves to share it. We all learn and benefit from that.

2016 reading list (so far)

Hope Makes Love, by Trevor Cole

I like to do a little check-in partway through every year to see how my reading is going. As I’ve done in years past, I’m taking a look around the halfway point (ish) in the year at the books I’ve read so far, with links where they exist to books that I’ve reviewed (either here on this blog or briefly on Goodreads). As I’ve always pointed out, it’s a competition with no one but myself, but it is always useful and interesting to stop and reflect a bit where one is at with one’s reading, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Here’s the quantitative part: Of the 34 books I’ve read so far this year, 7 were non-fiction, 9 were poetry and the balance of 18 were fiction (novels and short story collections). One book was a reread. One book was a work in translation. Twenty of the books were by Canadian writers. Two books were read aloud in their entirety (er, over a period of time, not in one sitting), which is a wonderful way to share the experience with another reader/listener.

On the qualitative front, I think it’s been especially good year so far. Apart from where I’ve reviewed a particular work, I can say in broad terms that I’ve enjoyed and can enthusiastically recommend everything I’ve read so far this year (with perhaps some qualifications for subject matter with which individual readers might be uncomfortable). Could this be why my overall reading count seems to be up so far this year? A happy reader is a prolific reader? Well then, here’s to happy reading!

  1. Hope Makes Love
    by Trevor Cole

  2. The Beauty of the Husband
    by Anne Carson

  3. Fates and Furies
    by Lauren Groff

  4. A Little Life
    by Hanya Yanagihara

  5. The Mark and the Void
    by Paul Murray

  6. Between You & Me
    by Mary Norris

  7. When Words Deny the World
    by Stephen Henighan

  8. The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl
    by Sue Goyette

  9. Just Watch Me – The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1968-2000)
    by John English
    (read aloud)

  10. M Train
    by Patti Smith

  11. All the Gold Hurts My Mouth
    by Katherine Leyton

  12. Birdie
    by Tracey Lindberg

  13. Innocents and Others
    by Dana Spiotta

  14. Don’t Be Interesting
    by Jacob McArthur Mooney

  15. Model Disciple
    by Michael Prior

  16. Tell: poems for a girlhood
    by Soraya Peerbaye

  17. Lightning Field
    by Dana Spiotta

  18. Providence
    by Anita Brookner
    (reread)

  19. Frayed Opus for Strings & Wind Instruments
    by Ulrikka S. Gernes, translated by Per Brask and Patrick Friesen

  20. Who Needs Books? Reading in the Digital Age
    by Lynn Coady

  21. Caribou Run
    by Richard Kelly Kemick

  22. The Mercy Journals
    by Claudia Casper

  23. Zero K
    by Don DeLillo

  24. Saints, Unexpected
    by Brent van Staalduinen

  25. All That Sang
    by Lydia Perovic

  26. Stone Arabia
    by Dana Spiotta

  27. The Quotations of Bone
    by Norman Dubie

  28. Independent People
    by Halldor Laxness

  29. I’m thinking of ending things
    by Iain Reid

  30. The Hatred of Poetry
    by Ben Lerner

  31. Thirteen Shells
    by Nadia Bozak

  32. Yiddish for Pirates
    by Gary Barwin

  33. History’s People
    by Margaret MacMillan
    (read aloud)

  34. The Cauliflower
    by Nicola Barker

Currently in progress:

  • The Dancehall Years
    by Joan Haggerty

  • Being a Dog
    by Alexandra Horowitz
    (read aloud)

  • Slow States of Collapse
    by Ashley-Elizabeth Best

How is your reading going so far in 2016?

Friends reading aloud / #sundaysentence for July 24, 2016

bookcover-mammals-ontario“Although most of us will never see a Wolverine, the knowledge that it maintains a hold in remote forests may reassure us that expanses of wilderness still exist.”

from Mammals of Ontario by Tamara Eder
(2002 Lone Pine Publishing)

My Sunday sentence comes from one of many vibrant sentences read aloud on Saturday night. Four longtime friends gathered at a cottage by a lake, comfortably tired after a sunny day of swimming, dogwalking, birdwatching and more, comfortably full after a delicious and lovingly prepared meal, to read aloud to each other. The reading selections came from a charmingly eclectic range of sources:

Such a wonderful way to knit together a special weekend spent with beloved friends …

Enjoy more #sundaysentence selections here.

World Read Aloud Day – March 6, 2013

World Read Aloud Day

March 6, 2013, is World Read Aloud Day, an awareness day advocating for literacy as a human right. The event is championed by LitWorld, a non-profit literacy organization fostering resilience, hope, and joy through the power of story. Since 2010, the organization has been encouraging people worldwide to celebrate by reading aloud, giving away a book, or taking action in any way you can to “Read It Forward” on behalf of the 793 million people who cannot yet read or write.

As LitWorld describes it, World Read Aloud Day creates a community of people who are advocating for every child’s right to learn to read and technology that will make them lifelong readers. Read It Forward creates a ripple effect that resonates around the world with the power of story and shared words.

LitWorld invites everyone to visit them online to join the Read It Forward movement. They offer free downloadable activity kits full of ideas for children, teens, families, educators, and professionals. You can also follow LitWorld on Facebook and Twitter.

Countless articles and studies tout the many benefits of reading aloud – of teachers, parents and caregivers reading to children, children to adults, children to each other, aspiring writers of any age reading aloud to themselves. Less documented, perhaps, but equally enjoyable and potent, is adults celebrating the joys of reading with each other. Here among my book blog reviews, I’ve noted that most satisfying practice as enhancing and even markedly improving upon the reading experience with some books, including:

At our house, we’re enjoying this as our read aloud book du jour:

Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock, by Jesse Jarnow

All pretty varied subjects and subject matter, but what they share and what makes them all great are passionate narrators telling lively, vibrant stories with arresting characters (in these cases, all real life) … which makes it a rewarding experience to bring them to life with your own voice and to share them with others.

However you choose to observe World Read Aloud Day, do it with gusto!

A Ride in the Sun, or Gasoline Gypsy, by Peggy Iris Thomas

A Ride in the Sun, or Gasoline Gypsy, by Peggy Iris Thomas

I’ve mentioned before that my husband Jason and I have combined our love of books with our love of dogs (Airedale terriers in particular) by building a library of books in which Airedales have starring or supporting roles, or at least appear in all their handsome splendour on book covers. Jason and I also, by the way, regularly enjoy sharing our books by reading aloud to each other. We combined all of these pleasures when we read together A Ride in the Sun, or Gasoline Gypsy, by Peggy Iris Thomas, earlier this year.

This book has many charms. The author recounts the myriad adventures she and her Airedale, Matelot, enjoyed as they embarked on a 14,000-mile motorcycle trek through Canada, the United States and Mexico from 1950 to 1952. As an unassuming paean to a considerably more innocent time, it’s a delight. At every hairpin turn along the way, Peggy miraculously finds a trucker who will pick up her woefully underpowered and overloaded motorcycle and transport it to the next garage. With only one or two comically villainous exceptions, those garages are staffed by resourceful mechanics willing to figure out the vagaries of her unusual model of bike and get her back on the road again – often no charge. At times fearless and self-sufficient, at times naively hapless, Peggy is always captivating, and Matelot is the epitome of canine patience and fidelity.

We relished all of these charms and they seemed to shine through most brilliantly when we were sharing the book together, reading it aloud, laughing, pausing to comment on Peggy’s misadventures, close calls and feisty spirit, and to stray into our own stories. When we paused to stumble just a bit over yet another repetition of Peggy’s stock phrases or stilted prose, the fact that we were reading it all aloud helped us to compensate, laugh it off and carry on. The few times we tried to read portions of the books to ourselves, the story fell calamitously flat, freighted under the words of someone more comfortable riding a motorcycle or training dogs than capturing any of it in sentences. And hence the glory of reading aloud to redeem great stories somewhat awkwardly told.

See also:

60th anniversary edition of A Ride in the Sun, or Gasoline Gypsy, by Peggy Iris Thomas

Benefits of reading aloud
(While there is much to be said about children reading aloud, adults reading aloud to children, and adults reading their own prose aloud to remedy problems in expression, it’s hard to find much about the joys of adults reading aloud to adults. Leave a comment on this post if you find anything, OK?)

Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend, by Larry Tye

Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend, by Larry Tye

In one of the sports literature arenas that already boasts many seminal works of great storytelling and rhapsodic prose, Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend, by Larry Tye is a distinguished, inviting and elucidating addition. The book captures a pivotal time in the evolution of baseball and of North American society. As if there isn’t already a motherlode of stories and milestones to make that a captivating read, this book is rendered even livelier because it focuses on arguably the sport’s greatest practitioner and groundbreaker on numerous levels: athlete, entertainer, ambassador, philosopher clown prince and African American icon Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige.

Close to the turn of the last century, Satchel Paige was born in Mobile, Alabama into the brimming, struggling but loving family of gardener Robert and domestic worker Lula Page – “close” because Satchel’s birthdate was long in dispute and frequently subject to scrutiny and confusion, some of it generated by Paige himself. And yes, even the spelling of Paige’s name changed as he embarked on a storied career as a virtually unstoppable baseball pitcher with raw talents evident at an early age that were honed starting with a teenaged stint in reform school.

Paige’s professional journey took him through the Negro leagues, an evolving amalgam of amateur, semi-professional and professional teams and leagues comprised chiefly of African Americans and some Latin Americans. The Negro leagues started in the late 1800s and lasted until the early 1950s, overlapping with Major League baseball for a few years after black players started to be integrated in that white-dominated sporting domain. Paige himself weighed in to the debate about who should have been the very first black player to break the baseball colour line, a role that fell famously to Jackie Robinson. Paige was still one of the first to cross that often treacherous barrier with signature aplomb, and certainly the one to leave the most indelible marks. Those marks were made and cemented before he departed after his last professional game in 1966, just shy of his 60th birthday (assuming we could, by then, trust his purported birth certificate).

If the range and longevity of Paige’s professional accomplishments against a backdrop of racial tension and societal change isn’t riveting enough, there’s also the diverting portrait of a singular man: charmer, trickster, and bon vivant (whether, at any given time, he could afford the cars, clothes, food, drink, companions, appurtenances et al that filled his lively and peripatetic life to overflowing). He was a life force exuding an ebullience that probably intentionally glossed over the pain he contended with maintaining a seemingly effortless physical prowess that was in play, quite literally, year round – from league play to barnstorming and other games and exhibitions across the United States, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. That pain surely extended to the emotional challenges of being separated from loved ones, not to mention being socially separated, even when that was supposedly a thing of the past. Paige’s almost unstoppable and at times inexplicable joie de vivre only seemed to fray around the edges in his final years, when he was out of the game and probably felt freer to give vent to some of the injustices with which he’d contended and had seemed to dance over, around and through at the time.

Author Larry Tye’s skills at distilling a complex story with layers of themes, towering mountains of data and gaping valleys of omissions in the data (for a sport deeply fascinated with and rich in statistics, recordkeeping in the early days and outside of the then exclusively white major leagues was sketchy at best) are breathtakingly impressive. That the themes and data are digestibly interwoven with infectious storytelling – true or tinted delightfully rose-coloured, all told with gusto – is more impressive still. That this daunting assignment was further complicated by a central figure who contributed as much to his own mystique as he did to his rightful legend makes the whole package, with astutely marshalled sources and research, extraordinary.

Some knowledge of baseball is useful to follow the terminology and have some frame of reference for the excellence of the accomplishments of Paige, his contemporaries and those who came after. Still, the reader will not be intimidated by an overly technical examination of the game. Tye frames well and accessibly where Paige stood in the context of the sport and its evolution, along with where he stood in the context of social changes external to but internalized by and affecting the sports world in which he operated and often but didn’t always thrive. Finally, Tye paints a vivid but also clear, honest picture of Paige, where there are wide and vibrant swaths of impressionistic versions of Paige out there (with some brushstrokes by Paige himself), but bringing the man into the sharpest focus possible to date, and possibly ever.

Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend is, by the way, a great read aloud book – that’s how my husband and I read this entire book. That’s tribute to Tye’s crisp, pleasant style which matches Paige’s argot in note perfect tandem … and of course, to the treasure trove of witticisms and repartee either on the record or legendarily associated with Paige and his contemporaries. (Yes, you can easily and abundantly google them.)

Inside of a Dog, by Alexandra Horowitz

Inside of a Dog, by Alexandra Horowitz

In learning to slow down to better appreciate my dogs’ perception of our shared world, Alexandra Horowitz has also taught me to slow down for my own benefit. It’s no longer too cold, I’m no longer too tired, I’m no longer in a roaring hurry to get home to watch the “At Issue” panel (and probably raise my blood pressure anyhow), if my dogs need to take measure of the world through their own gauges, via some good, long, ruminative sniffs.

In its absorbing and entertaining examination of the unique human-canine bond, Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog charmingly balances the scholarly and scientific with the personal and whimsical. This is one of my favourite explorations of how dogs and people can so effectively, happily and affectionately co-exist.

Human and animal cognition expert Horowitz spells out in down to earth fashion a practical and enlightening approach to optimally and respectfully sharing our lives with another species. Her science/technical examination of differences between wild and domesticated species and their perceptions of their lives and the lives of those with whom they share their existence is accessible without feeling oversimplified or condescending. She couples it with a sweet, wistful personal recounting of the dogs in her life, which serves to illustrate and underpin the scientific themes without ever feeling forced or cloying.

Horowitz tackles concepts that are certainly thought provoking for dog owners and lovers, but I’m guessing (because I can’t be other than a dog lover) are also instructive to other animal lovers or others just interested in our relationship to the species with whom our paths cross. Most elucidating is the discussion about umwelt as distinct from the dangers of anthromorphizing, where we attribute human characteristics and reactions to animal behaviour, and allow that interpretation to inform how we train, interact with and attempt to understand our pets. Umwelt, on the other hand, accounts for different creatures with different physiology, sensibilities, experiences and more processing and reacting to the same environment in very divergent ways.

Umwelt is an important concept in The Tiger, the acclaimed non-fiction bestseller by John Vaillant. Vaillant uses the concept to pointedly avoid characterizing the behaviours of the tiger in the story as having human motivations, such as the urge for revenge, and weaves that appreciation of different interpretations of the same world and circumstances into a compelling tale and environmental paean.

Horowitz dials down the application of umwelt to the small, the domestic, the practical, but still with a profundity surprisingly comparable to Vaillant’s.

The parcel of scientific facts we have collected allows us to take an informed imaginative leap inside of a dog – to see what it is like to be a dog; what the world is like from a dog’s point of view.

We have already seen that it is smelly; that it is well peopled with people. On further consideration, we can add: it is close to the ground; it is lickable. It either fits in the mouth or it doesn’t. It is in the moment. It is full of details, fleeting, and fast. It is written all over their faces. It is probably nothing like what it is like to be us.

Horowitz literally illustrates how warmly approachable Inside of a Dog is. While making notes of scientific observations of dog behaviour, she was often inclined to doodle and the results depicted her subjects. She incorporates many of those whimsical line drawings throughout the book, forging a heartwarming connection with every reader and fellow dog lover.

Inside of a Dog, by Alexandra Horowitz

See also: