York Town Square

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How York County residents read: You devour 100 books one page at a time

York County’s Joan Concilio developed a random discovery in a book at a sale to an award-winning story, a master’s thesis and a presentation at an international conference. (Submitted)

By Jim McClure

For the York Daily Record

In 2012, Joan Concilio picked up an old volume at a used book sale somewhere in Pennsylvania.

The title caught her eye: “Fever: The Hunt for a New Killer Virus,” a 1974 work about the spread of the Lassa virus in America just a few years before.

Then and now, much of this York County resident’s reading was based on medical topics.

She leafed through the book and found a story involving a Connecticut man who became ill when visiting family in York at Thanksgiving 50 years ago – in 1969 – and later died at York Hospital.

Juan Román died from Lassa virus, a distant cousin to Ebola, a disease that had killed only four people in America at that time.

Joan, a longtime blogger and columnist for the York Daily Record, called this her “what?!” moment.

Reading a passion with purpose, benefit

Veteran readers long for such a moment. And they often are rewarded.

British author C.S. Lewis was spot on: “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”

So with summer upon us, it’s a good time dig into the topic of reading – passion with purpose and benefits.

“Reading is an exercise in empathy,” British writer Malorie Blackman, “an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.”

Someone once pointed to two categories of reading: offensive and defensive reading.

By offensive, he didn’t mean digesting content that is hurtful. It’s reading on topics unrelated to tasks that you have to prepare for – feeding your sense of discovery on themes that just interest you.

Defensive reading means, say, digesting history topics to background yourself for a history project.

Joan’s serendipitous example of discovering the York link to the Lassa virus in an obscure book at a used book sale is a pure product of offensive reading.

I noticed another case of a goal-oriented offensive reading program the other day on Facebook. 

Silas Chamberlin is a York economic development specialist and holds a doctorate in environmental history from Lehigh University. His dissertation became a Yale University Press book: “On the Trail: A History of American Hiking.”

After finishing Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” the other day, he spelled out his reading program on Facebook:” Book 15 of 90 on my quest to read each Pulitzer Prize winner in fiction. 5,299 pages and counting.

Silas views his reading program as a means to “fall back in love with reading.”

He spent eight years in graduate school reading at least 1,000 non-fiction books on American history. When done, it seemed as that regimen had ruined his love for reading as something you do for pleasure.

“Reading fiction from a list of great books has forced me to read things well beyond my American history background,” he said, “and I am loving it.”

So you have someone who works in the job creation field, an expert on recreational hiking, who is reading prize-winning fiction. Silas’ ability to think across disciplines is no doubt fueled by diverse reading.

Modern Library’s challenging reading list

I’ve been involved in a program to read all 100 novels in Modern Library’s 20th-century fiction list since about 2011.

I received great help and encouragement from Bob Rambo of Martin Library.

Two lessons here: If you’re setting up a reading program, find someone who can help you along the way. And you can embark on a reading program with the aid of a library and not have to purchase expensive books.

The title of a column I wrote on this project in 2012 pretty well sums up the purpose of my reading plan: “So, you want to become a journalist or a historian. Are you a reader?”

I have books 99 and 100 to go, and I’m kind of stuck.

Two things are in the way: They’re two dense, unwelcoming titles – James Farrell’s “Studs Lonigan” triology and Aldous Huxley’s “Point Counterpoint.” And my defensive reading demands – too many history projects – are heavy.

But the great readers I’m mentioning have already served as an inspiration to complete this goal.

York County’s Jamie Kinsley is ready for her comprehensive exam, part of her American Studies doctoral program at Penn State Harrisburg. To prepare, she needed to read 100 books in a year. She said in a Facebook post: “But really it took only one thing: determination. Committing to something and sticking to it feels good. Plus, I know stuff now! It’s liberating to look over my books and know what’s in them.” (Photo by Jamie Kinsley).

And how about Jamie Kinsley’s program?

She read 100 books in the past year as part of her comprehensive exam, part of  her American Studies doctoral program at Penn State Harrisburg.

She had 96 hours to answer six essay questions based on the books.

“Just like a marathon where the runner takes one step at a time,” she wrote on Facebook,”preparing for this exam took one page at a time.” 

In an email, Jamie, a high school teacher and a local history blogger, pointed to the importance of reading the works of people and ideas that we aren’t used to. One example is that her program included about 20 African-American literature pieces.

This doesn’t replace getting to know people face to face, she wrote, but they do provide the opportunity, even temporarily, to see through the eyes of another’s experience.

Reading, from York, Pa., to down under

Joan Concilio wrote a piece about her Lassa virus case  in the York Daily Record, and  months later, well-known York countian Delma Rivera contacted her: Juan Román was a family member.

Joan wrote an award-winning story about this difficult moment that entered medical history books.

Joan now works as a multimedia specialist for Hershey Medical Center. The Lassa virus case became a key element of her master’s work in public health preparedness.

She just returned from Australia where she presented about the increased incidence of Lassa virus in Nigeria at the World Association for Disaster and Emergency Medicine’s 2019 Congress.

What started as a casual moment of reading about Lassa at a used book sale ended in her presentation on the topic at an international conference down under.

The power of reading.

How to set up a reading program

I asked Joan Concilio about how she sets up her reading list:

“I set a Goodreads (a books website) challenge goal every year and track my books there as I read them. I set it low for me this year – only 50, which isn’t huge considering I often read YA fiction and graphic novels amid heavier reads – but I’m at 42 of 50 right now. Last year, I aimed for 100 but only hit 90, but I was good with that.

“I also use Trello (a web-based project management/card system) to keep lists of books I have but haven’t yet read, books I’ve read and books I want to acquire. My biggest thing is that I always have a book in progress. Even if I can only read a couple pages a week, I’m still ‘in the middle’ of a book, which means I have something to pick up when I have a minute. If I finish a book, I grab another one and start it, even if it’s only a page or two, so that I never have time to read but have to spend it wondering what to read next.”