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7 reasons I read Kipling while brushing my teeth

drawing of Rudyard Kipling

I was drawn to the work of Rudyard Kipling after finding a reference to his poem “Tommy” in Karl Marlantes’ What It Is Like to Go to War.

I wasn’t familiar with the poem—which inspired the title of the movie The Thin Red Line—so I searched it out. Now, I’m working my way through Rudyard Kipling Complete Verse (Anchor Books, 1989), one poem per day, while flossing and brushing my teeth.

Much of his work was written in the late 1800s, and is set in—or influenced by—his time in India, which means I don’t understand every line. But I enjoy trying to figure out the gist of each poem.

Once I’ve read it through, I go to The New Readers' Guide to the works of Rudyard Kipling, hosted by The Kipling Society, to get more info on the context and definitions of foreign, archaic, or slang words that aren’t footnoted in the text.

Understanding what was going on in the author’s world enriches my reading experience.

Here are seven of the reasons I read Kipling–and will eventually read other poets–while thwarting cavities.

1. Reading before bed is relaxing, but not if I get sucked in and stay up all night to finish the book—a common problem because I have no willpower to resist a good story. With poetry, it’s much easier to read one poem and close the book.

2. I hope that reading poetry will introduce me to new themes, as well as influence my more lyrical side.

3. Reading outside my genre, length, and style can only expand my skills as a writer, and the references upon which I can draw.

4. Poetry stretches your brain. Instead of speeding through the prose with a movie running in my head like I do with a novel or memoir, I’m forced to slow down and ponder each word. It’s like savoring a gourmet dessert rather than inhaling a plate of sugar cookies. Both are enjoyable, but in different ways.

5. By exploring the context of each poem, I’m also expanding my knowledge of history and the author’s life. Not all authors' works are so intensely influenced by their personal experiences, but Kipling seemed to view his life and everything around him as fodder for his art.

6. I’m inspired by the wide variety of themes and moods one author can produce. Kipling wrote satire, humor, lighthearted verse, dark tales, and diatribes.

7. I like knowing things. Period. I want to learn as much as I can about art, history, literature, science…

Probably one of the reasons I’m driven to write is because I love the research. I’m curious at heart. What’s it like to be firefighter, sculptor, pilot, accountant, billionaire’s daughter, or pararescueman? My inquiring mind wants to know.

And I love the connections my brain starts to make when I expand my horizons, just like the connections that brought me to read Kipling while brushing my teeth.

Making connections (or Six degrees of Rudyard Kipling)

group of wordsHave you ever learned of a new-to-you word, historic event, interesting fact, or famous person only to see a reference to it again within days?

In school, I loved being able to make those types of connections between classes, especially if they were in different disciplines. Now I find them all over the place.

For example, I was watching Prison Break⁠1 a few weeks ago and one of the characters mentions that he stole a baseball card collection that included a Honus Wagner, not realizing it was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. That one card bumped his crime up to grand larceny, which carries a much heavier sentence than petty theft.

The name Honus Wagner wasn’t really that important—and given a month or two I would have forgotten it—but they made a bit of a deal out of it, so it stuck with me beyond the episode. A week later I was reading The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry for my book club and the main character likens a rare copy of Poe’s Tamerlane to a Honus Wagner baseball card.⁠2

I swear, it was like having a slot machine hit the jackpot. My brain went bing, bing, bing and I got a little thrill down my spine. (I did manage to resist jumping up and down and screaming.)

It happened again a few days later. I’m currently reading What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes for research and personal interest. A few days ago in an episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.⁠3, Agent Ward was reading Marlantes’ other book, Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War. Just a week earlier, his mention would have gone right over my head.

In the book I'm reading, Marlantes mentions Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Tommy.”⁠4 Not familiar with this poem—or any of Kipling's work, though I knew his name—I looked it up online. The third stanza refers to the British soldiers in their red coats:

But it's “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll.

Thin red line. Wait, like the movie with Jim Caviezel and every other famous actor of the day who wasn’t in Saving Private Ryan that year (1998)? Why, yes. Turns out the book by James Jones, on which the movie was based, was named for the line in the Kipling poem.

Bing, bing, bing.

I liked “Tommy,” so I started reading about the poet. As I learned more about the context in which he wrote, I found myself even more interested in his work. I put book of Kipling's work on hold at the library, and when I went to pick it up today the woman told me they’re hosting a Kipling program in a few months.

I almost laughed. The connections never stop. Things I've never heard of are suddenly everywhere.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace popped up in both book club readings and in a friend’s Twitter feed within a three week span.

Two summers ago on a tour of the UK, we visited the Lake District in Wales. A week later I unwittingly read a historical romance where the hero went to the Lake District in Wales…

These connections enrich the experience of reading, watching, living. They’re one of the reasons I love learning and exploring so much. For me, it’s not about feeling smart, but about finding a commonality of experience in unexpected places.

Have you made any interesting connections lately?

1 Season 1, episode 19 “The Key”

2 Chapter 2, page unknown since I was reading electronically

3 Season 1, episode 2 “0-8-4”

4 Page 87