Category Archives: Books

Those strange things we used to carry around and read before laptops with wireless Internet access.

Reading Analysis

I’m trying to read more. I think I mentioned this earlier, but it’s on my mind lately so I thought I’d expand on it a little. Most of my time is spent working or with my family. These are good things, reflective of my overall good fortune. These are things I want to do. But they are both also obligatory, necessary parts of a daily routine. When those things aren’t occupying my immediate present I have a long list of other things I am required to do such as chores, exercise, and various responsible-adult activities. Once those are out of the way enough for me to do something else, I try to carve out enough time for me to write a bit. Writing is semi-obligatory; it’s work that is not mandated by anything other than a sense of responsibility to my own passion for it and my hope that if I don’t let it stop it may eventually open a door for me somewhere down the road. Writing is fun but it is still work.

The tiny sliver of time left over is my leisure time. I have another long list of things I like to do with that time. Video games. Watching movies. Painting miniatures. Drawing pictures. Playing board games. Televised sports. And reading books. Of those activities, the only one that doesn’t carry with it any sense of guilt that I might be spending my time better is reading. There’s a hierarchy in there that I don’t fully understand, based on precisely nothing, such as feeling like video games are at the bottom of the list because they are largely solitary and demand a huge amount of time and money; board games are closer to books because they typically require social interaction but they do take a lot of time; movies are preferable to TV for some reason; and so on. Regardless of validity, I feel that I could do a lot worse with my idle hours than reading. Thankfully, I love reading and a couple of recent adjustments to the way I read has allowed me to finish a lot more books even with the limited time I have.

Before I even thought about it much, I was the kind of person who started a lot of books. If you asked me five years ago what I was reading I’d have a list of probably five to ten books I was “in the middle of.” I also felt that if I started a book, I ought to finish it. The simple change I made was to stop reading more than one (or really two, which I’ll get to in a second) book at a time. In order to do that, though, I needed to learn how to say “no” to a book that wasn’t working for me.

I have this tendency to read books sometimes that I feel like I ought to read, books that I should be able to say I finished. So from time to time I’ll pick up some stuffy classic or some heady nonfiction work and get about 25 pages in and set it down. “I’ll finish this later,” I’ll say. The multi-book approach works because when I set that book down and pick up another, I can say (to myself, mostly) that I’m reading both. This is, of course, fairly silly since you can’t effectively read two books at the same time. But if I don’t admit defeat on a book, I can perhaps not say when asked that I finished whatever book it is, but I can say “Oh, I’m in the middle of that.” That is often not really truthful. I told people I was “in the middle” of Naomi Klein’s “No Logo” for something like five or six years. Much of the time I was not reading it at all and I worked through it in bursts of about 30 pages before the dry style exhausted me. What I’ve learned is that if a book doesn’t work for me when I first try it, I need to set it aside and admit, “I’m not going to read this right now,” then pick up something else. It doesn’t mean I won’t ever read the book—I did eventually finish No Logo—it just means that thinking of myself as being in the middle of a lot of books mostly just means I haven’t found one I’m interested in actually reading to the end.

The other facet is really still in progress, but it involves trying to get past that same notion of reading things I should read as opposed to things I want to read. In my head, I read a broad range of books. I want to consider myself well-read, versed in a broad array of topics and capable of finding fascination in any number of styles, subjects and perspectives. In reality, I struggle more than I’d like with certain classic literature and there are some topics that are interesting but the books I’ve tried about them aren’t. When I’m reading for fun, I have to accept that I len heavily on novels. And a lot of those novels aren’t exactly the kinds of novels you’d be proud to have read. I’m talking about licensed World of Warcraft novels or perhaps airport dimestore paperback thrillers (I admit I’ve read most of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s body of work). So yeah, some of what I enjoy is a bit trashy but the way I see it, the trashiest thriller novel is still better for me to spend my time on than even the most cerebral television drama. For one thing, it helps sharpen my writing to read what others are doing with language, pacing, structure and character development regardless of their literary proficiency. For another, it requires at least some imagination to conjure the images in the book which is probably why snooty intellectuals never sniff at people to “go watch some TV” and though they may roll their eyes if you follow their advice to “go read a book” by grabbing the latest Dan Brown novel or a Harry Potter volume, I’m sure they’d grudgingly admit that it was better than the alternative.

What I’m slowly finding is that if I’m willing to give up on a book because it just isn’t working, and if I’m willing to try stuff I might not be drawn to because I’m not afraid of it being something I’m stuck with for the next several months or years as I torturously drag my way through it, I end up finding things I didn’t expect to enjoy. I didn’t think, for example, that I’d be particularly fond of a travel book by Bill Bryson. It ended up being one of my all-time favorites. I wasn’t sure I was going to like Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett, but I enjoyed it quite a bit and found it was an easy read. And I’m secretly proud of myself for having read each, because I learned something from both. They can hardly be considered trash.

So the curious thing is that by not reading a lot of books at once I find I actually read (as in finish) a lot more books and by not worrying so much about the cachet of my selections, I actually end up reading some pretty impressive stuff. It took me a while to get to this point and I may look back a few months further on and sneer at my current rube status. But for the time being I feel happy with the fact that I’m reading a lot and that I’m not missing much of the other things I used to spend way more time doing instead. And I’ve discovered that if you put your mind to it, you can find more time for reading in a day than you might think. For example, I mentioned before that I only read one book at a time but the truth is really that I read two at a time now only one is an audiobook I keep in my car. I only get to listen to maybe three or at the most five hours worth of it per week, but it’s easier and better at keeping me awake during the commute than radio or podcasts and I get to slowly pick away at a second book while I read the one I keep in my backpack. Since I can’t otherwise read when I drive and I can’t listen to the audiobook easily elsewhere, there is no conflict.

There are a couple of other small factors that have played a role in my reading resurgence. One is definitely Goodreads. I’m a stats junkie so being able to track my reading progress the way I track my music listening with or my exercise with LoseIt is just something that clicks with me and motivates me. I used to do the same thing with Achievements on XBox Live or World of Warcraft so it feels kind of game-like. It also encourages me to write reviews of the books I read which aids me in considering what I read, something I think is important especially if I’m using the reading as a means of improving my own writing. The other is the Kindle Nik got me for Father’s Day this year. I’m not sure why it is, but I seem to read books much faster on the Kindle. I don’t use it for everything I read, but I look for deals on books I have on my to-read list and usually when I’m thinking about buying a new book (that is, one that I couldn’t get from the library or a used bookshop) I check for the Kindle edition first since it usually saves some money.

So in honor of all this reading I decided to go back and do a bit of analysis, just for fun, on the books I’ve read since about mid-2009 when I first started tracking on Goodreads. There are some gaps and missing books in there because as with all stats tracking and/or social media sites it takes me a while to get into the habit of using them, but it’s a pretty good representation of my reading activity for about two and a half years.

  • Total Books Read (May 2009 – October 2011): 50
    • 2009: 7
    • 2010: 21
    • 2011: 22
  • Genre Breakdown (some overlap in sub-genres may occur so don’t look for numbers to add up)
    • Nonfiction: 10
    • Fiction: 40
      • Mystery: 10
      • Fantasy: 9
      • Young Adult: 9
      • Science Fiction: 7
      • Zombies: 3
      • Graphic Novel: 3
  • Reading Time (I didn’t track start dates on every book so these numbers are very rough)
    • Average Time To Finish a Book: 10 days
    • Books I Read Fastest:
      • Death Match (416 pages; 2 days)
      • The Hunger Games (374 pages; 2 days)
      • Food Rules (140 pages; 1 day)
      • The Time Machine (128 pages; 1 day)
    • Books I Read Slowest:
      • The Zombie Survival Guide (254 pages; 69 days)
      • This Book Is Overdue (272 pages; 19 days)
      • Dune (512 pages; 33 days)
      • Devil In The White City (447 pages; 16 days)
  • Ratings
In this exercise I counted the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels as one single graphic novel because even though they are actually six volumes, it’s one continuous story and frankly it would feel like padding to say I read six books when there is so little content in each. I also read Chronicles of War which is a World of Warcraft anthology containing four separate books reprinted together in a single volume so I counted those individually as four books with four separate ratings. When calculating the average time to read a book I threw out any book that I didn’t have a definite timeframe for which significantly disqualified a couple of books that I started a year or more before I actually finished them like No Logo. But I think the 10 days book is pretty accurate provided I’m actually interested in and/or enjoying the book.
Interestingly, that suggests I should be able to get through nearly forty books a year and I set my goal for 2011 at 30 which I think is reasonable when you account for the odd anomaly like Dune (which I liked but wasn’t the most breezy of novels) and various times when other things slow down your progress. I’m not quite on pace to reach my goal this year, even at my average pace (at exactly 10 days per book I’d get up to about 29.5 books before December 31st). Then again, I set the goal in August or something without really calculating anything so it’s sort of arbitrary anyway. I suspect if I went for 30 again in 2012 and started from the beginning I could do it without much trouble.

A Follow Up Note

They are replacing my sine wave carpeting with something… else. I’m sort of sad.
Sayonara, Sine

Books, A List

I saw that in honor of World Book Night 2012, the WBN site is performing a sort of democratic top 100 books list where you choose you 10 favorite books and the votes are all tabulated to create the master list based on popularity. It’s probably nothing new, but I like that instead of “Editor’s Choice” style top X lists that, at best, include a small sample size reader’s poll alongside the “real” list, this one is all audience-based.

I contributed but the more I looked at my list the more intrigued I was about what it said about me that these were the top 10 books I picked. Naturally everyone is going to bring their own criteria to such an undertaking which is partially why it’s interesting at all, but my selection method was that I went for books that I felt had some sort of actual impact on my life or my perspectives and—this is critical—that each was a book I liked enough to read again. Maybe for chronic re-readers that doesn’t sound like much of a narrowing factor but I hardly ever re-read books. My thought is, there are so many books out there I haven’t read yet, I’d rather try something different than revisit one. Even one I loved the first time through.

Curiously I think this also means that some books I didn’t think I cared for at the time I may enjoy now; or that books I really liked once upon an idle hour wouldn’t stand the test of time. Still, if I have re-read or would actually consider re-reading a book, it must have stuck out to me as particularly noteworthy so it helped to narrow down a lengthy list of possibilities. I’m annotating the list here because as I mentioned I think this list seems to reflect a bit about me and perhaps my rationales enhance that reflection. As an aside, you can also view this list as “Top 10 Topics of Conversation With Paul (Provided You Don’t Care That He Never Shuts Up).” Also, these are in order (as best as I can remember) that I read the books, oldest to newest.

  • 1984 – George Orwell
    I read Orwell’s oft-cited dystopian nightmare in high school and despite having the haunting closing line spoiled for me with less than 25 pages left to go, it struck me as the rare kind of novel that I appreciated even at the time for its instructive value but also that such pointed social critiques and cautionary imagery could be incorporated into an otherwise interesting story. It was the first time I think that I truly grasped what fiction could do. Also, practically every human on this planet needs this book as a reference point or you’re unlikely to ever understand any serious debate about a government, privacy, liberty or the future.
  •  Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
    I’ve always thought of myself as a science fiction kind of guy, but when I was younger I think it was mostly just because I liked Star Wars and Buck Rogers and Metroid. Ender’s Game is kind of entry-level SF, but when I read it as a 19 year-old working at a mall bookstore, it cemented in my mind exactly why SF is awesome. Someone too clever for their own good pointed out that Ender’s Game appeals to nerds everywhere by being the geeky underdog equivalent of a fairy princess story to chubby little girls, and that’s true, but EG still has all the things that SF novels need to be great: A world you wish you could visit, a protagonist you can’t help but love, more than a few “neat ideas,” a sense of order and justice that appeals to those struggling with the genuine uncertainties of real life and an ending that is exactly right.
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
    Honestly, I had no idea that narrative fiction could be truly funny until I read HGttG. I knew people could be funny in their writing because my dad used to get a lot of Dave Barry books that would get genuine LOLs, but the idea of being funny for reasons other than just comedy didn’t occur to me until I found Douglas Adams (also while working at that bookstore). This is one of those that I have read several times, and it’s still hilarious even when you’re prepared for the jokes. What I didn’t remember until after re-reading it a few years ago was that the story hidden in the absurdity is actually good, too. I’m not sure if the jokes or the story could exist apart from each other, but then again, I’m glad they don’t have to.
  •  Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson
    Right after I got married (12 years ago, yikes), I went on a journey into the heart of geek culture. As the Internet was exploding into popular consciousness, I was diving into the thought processes of the kinds of people who had started laying the groudwork for it (literally and conceptually) years before. As part of that nerd event horizon, I began to read books recommended by the kinds of people who wrote code that made the Internet function. I’m not talking about guys who started Google or Amazon, I’m talking about the guys who wrote the HTTP specification, who were instrumental in developing DNS. Those kinds of guys. Anyway, one recommendation that kept coming up was Snow Crash.
    Truthfully, I can’t tell if I love this book to death or hate it with a fiery passion. There are so many awesome ideas packed into it, even Stephenson himself couldn’t keep them contained. When you get within about 50 pages of the end and there are still amazing revelations coming that can’t possibly be fully explored in the remainder of the novel, you’re in for heartbreak. And the heartbreak is entirely Snow Crash’s end: Both that the ending is somewhat disappointing but also that it has to end at all. It’s not just great science fiction, it’s also funny, thoughtful, provocative and prescient literature. Read Stephenson’s description of the Metaverse, written in 1992, and then think about social MMOs like Second Life and, to an extent, Facebook and Twitter. You’ll see what I mean.
  •  Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut
    I read Slaughter-house Five in high school and thought it was pretty interesting but it wasn’t until I was a know-it-all aspiring bohemian twenty-something that I could finally get a real sense of the fatalism and the defense mechanism of wry humor in the face of life’s ceaseless absurdity that Vonnegut lampoons. I honestly don’t remember many specifics about BoC, but I know that it colored my whole perception (and, you can ask Nik for verification, made me an absolute pain in the neck to live with for the next couple of months as I cynically dissected all of modern society with what passes for my own meager wit). I only let myself read Vonnegut once every five years or so, just so I don’t become completely insufferable to everyone around me in a permanent sense. BoC stands out as the first time I felt like I really heard another person’s perspective on life and truly understood how someone who wasn’t me saw the world.
  • Watchmen – Alan Moore
    It seems almost trite to say Watchmen is one of my favorite books. I always liked comics and superheroes, but like so many other things, I never considered that kind of story could elevate into art and not just effective but valuable social critique. It goes beyond even being remarkable for being, essentially, literature in graphic novel form. The depths and layers of story that happen in this volume are like a self-contained class in genre deconstruction, multi-tiered storytelling and pacing. Here’s the true genius of Watchmen: Even without the poignancy, the emotional depth, the allegory, the social commentary, you’d still have a remarkably complete and well-crafted superhero story. What makes Watchmen great is that even without the parts that make it so great, it’s still great. The movie was okay, but I don’t know that it was ever something that was going to make the leap to another medium fully intact. It would be like a Watchmen novel: Ultimately, it kind of misses the point.
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Hunter S. Thompson
    Where Vonnegut first made me see the world from someone else’s perspective, Thompson in Fear and Loathing was first to show me that the more perspectives you have, the more you need just to hope to make sense of anything. Thompson also revealed to me that breaking rules, while never without consequence, is sometimes just the right thing to do. And Fear and Loathing gleefully destroys every rule it encounters: Thompson’s drug-addled prose flips a very considered bird to narrative structure and organization while also sneering derisively at the pretense of unfiltered stream-of-(altered)-consciousness; the descriptions of wanton recklessness, lawlessness and only the barest of perfunctory nods at responsibility and duty not to mention the way the novel revels in the dirty corners were all eye-opening. Those dirty corners aren’t just physical places, the dank mildews of seedy hotels and dusty niche sports, but also societal corners as far removed from proper civilization as can be. Fear and Loathing reminded me that books can be dangerous things, in the best possible sense.
  • Neither Here, Nor There – Bill Bryson
    A few years ago when I read this book I was operating under the following false impressions: One; non-fiction books were always dull. Two; travel books were for suckers who couldn’t afford to travel themselves. Three; examining facts is the most efficient way of  learning. Bill Bryson demolished all those impressions in one single volume. Neither Here, Nor There is lively, funny, artistic, educational and a worthy read regardless of personal travel experience. True, the book makes one desperately want to visit Europe (I would assume an effective travel book would do nothing less than inspire one to visit its subject) but Bryson goes well beyond that and details the purpose of travel, showing the necessity of broad horizons and experimentation outside the confines of pre-packaged tours. Bryson’s theory of travel seems to be “show up, try to blend.” He visits museums and landmarks and such sometimes, but about as much as a local might. Mostly he tries to get a sense of a place, to contextualize its history with its present and to think about what it means to him and how his presence in that particular spot is significant. The truth, it seems, is that wherever you are is always significant.
  • Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
    This is the book, when I read it earlier this year, that finally kicked me into gear to try in a serious way to write myself. Nabokov’s loathsome protagonist, Humbert Humbert, is drawn incredibly by Nabokov through nothing more than the power of his beautiful, poetic prose as inexplicably sympathetic. This is an astounding feat because neither Nabokov nor the narrating Humbert shies away from his detestable nature or actions. Neither are proud nor defensive of the monster that is Humbert and yet Nabokov is able to reveal the human beneath the cur and the result is astounding. Nabokov writing in his non-native English is a technical wizard, enviable in his seeming casual ability to paint a vivid portrait of a scene, a feeling, a subtlety in such a way as to be both beautiful and horrible by turns, or simultaneously. This is a writer’s book that showcases what writing can do and, for me, just makes me want to practice and practice until I come into the same zip code as the word-craft on display here.
  • What We Talk About When We Talk About Love – Raymond Carver
    This is a book I read only very recently and while the few forays into Hemingway I’ve undertaken have never given me a true appreciation for minimalism (go ahead and laugh now, longtime readers), Carver finally did it for me. Carver’s ability to say volumes by specifically not saying something is wondrous to behold and his peculiarly dry, grim view of people, relationships and really the world at large are served so well by his genuflection to the reader’s ability to fill in the gaps. Some of the stories in this collection are fragments, barely qualifying as stories at all and yet the snapshots they create are in many ways like art: A single photo or painting can’t always execute a narrative but then they don’t need to. Carver’s writing is like the accompaniment to those captured moments and I learned from this book about the power of brevity.
    And yes, I can still hear you laughing.
So that’s my list. Like I said, I think it’s an interesting reflection of my own personality in a way: Lots of dark perspectives, lots of humor, lots of the fantastic. I did have to prune a few to make it to an even ten so here’s my short list of honorable mentions, just to round it out a little. These are in no particular order.
  • Blue Like Jazz – Donald Miller
    No other book before or since has permitted me to make huge leaps in my ability to reconcile my often conflicted thoughts on human spirituality and the role of God in our lives. Donald Miller’s introspective, often rambling account of his own spiritual journey is honest-to-a-fault, funny, insightful and in many ways beautiful. He actually helped me understand the very terrestrial nature of jazz music as well, and solidify the notion of altruism and how it can be practically applied. BLJ didn’t quite make the cut mostly because I don’t know that I would feel the need to read it again but it may be telling that I vividly remember long passages from this book better than some of the others that appear above. A great book regardless of its status in my top ten and one I’d recommend to just about everybody (regardless of spiritual orientation).
  • Moneyball – Michael Lewis
    Even though I’m a born and bred San Francisco Giants fan, I don’t have the sort of juvenile loathing of the across-the-Bay American Leaguers that are the Oakland Athletics some do. Unless they’re facing the Giants in the World Series, I guess. Anyway, I never really followed the A’s that closely but I paid enough attention that it was kind of cool to read a behind-the-scenes book about them. Then about 1/3 of the way through I realized Moneyball isn’t about the A’s or even really about baseball. It’s about solving problems that people think already have solutions. It’s about not accepting that closed systems have to remain closed. It’s about not listening to the old guard just because they exist. Moneyball is a well-written, strangely exciting book for what amounts to a pseudo-biography of an otherwise unknown ballplayer who did nothing more than keep a perennially underfunded ball club competitive just by thinking outside the box (scores). Moneyball barely missed the cut just because, like any moment-in-time nonfiction book, the real-life epilogue was so much more disappointing than the book’s finale.
  • Where The Red Fern Grows – Wilson Rawls
    I read this book in fifth or sixth grade and to date it is the only book that has ever made me have to put it down because I couldn’t keep reading through the tears. I’m not sure what it says about me that the death of two dogs moved me to tears where even the most emotional demise of a human in other books could not, but I know it says in part that this is a beautiful account of the relationship between best friends. Rawls’ tale of Billy, Old Dan and Little Ann and their raccoon hunting adventures is poignant, poetic and obviously more than a little sad. I left it off the master list because it’s one of those that I don’t know if I want to revisit not because of how it affected me the first time but because I’m afraid it won’t stand up. I kind of want my one truly emotional connection to remain untarnished by my now-adult’s viewpoint and that kind of disqualifies it from the list on a technicality.
  • The Odessa File – Frederick Forsyth
    Somehow I managed to get assigned this book in high school and was delighted to find that in spite of most assigned reading books being dull and plodding, this was a modern thriller with a spectacularly cool hero, a riveting mystery of a plot and, you know, Nazis. This is one book that fell off the list because I actually did go back and re-read it, fairly recently, and found that while it was still pretty good it wasn’t as devastatingly brilliant as I recalled it. I guess context was everything and while I still find no true fault with the novel, my memory elevated it beyond its status as just a really good thriller into this kind of idealized adventure. In truth, it’s more like The Da Vinci Code, if The Da Vinci Code was written by someone with a working command of creative writing skill.
So, what’s your favorite book of all time?

When Other Worlds You Enter

As with most every non-essential facet of my life, I’m pretty cyclical when it comes to reading. I suppose that reading is like watching movies moreso than, say, playing video games or drawing: I’m almost always reading something and don’t know if I can think of a time when I didn’t do much reading for pleasure at all but I certainly slow way down at times.

Lately I’ve been on something of an upswing, probably brought about by the proximity of our current apartment to the local branch library: It’s no more than a ten minute walk. Combined with the county library’s website feature that allows you to search the catalog and put a hold on any item with a destination branch of your choosing, this has allowed me to have ready access within about a week to mostly any book I’m inclined to read. I also think that Goodreads has had a lot to do with my increased reading because I’m such a stats junkie when it comes to every aspect of my life (I also credit with making me listen to more music and Netflix for making me watch more movies as I can track my activity for the respective media on those sites).

But as I’ve been checking all these books out of the library I keep having this twinge of guilt as I walk through my living room with another stack of borrowed items, past the bookshelf that houses what I know are at least a couple dozen books that I picked up over the years and either meant to read but didn’t, started but couldn’t finish or read but wanted to re-visit and it’s like they taunt me mockingly. “What’s that? Another pile of books? Another chance to rack up some late fees? Another set of tomes to renew four or five times while you struggle to read them? You know what doesn’t cost late fees? You know what you don’t have to renew? Books you already own, jerk!”

My books are kind of mean. I’m not sure why.

In any case I keep having all these reasons why the unread books are sitting on my shelf and finally I got sick of it. So after the most recent round of checkouts went back (completed in this case), I did some organizing and arranged all the books I owned but needed to attend to into the same shelves. I expected there to be like I said maybe 15-25. There were 41. So I did the only thing that I could think of: I made a game out of it. I call it my Reading Project (I guess I should take “Good at coming up with clever names for stuff” off my resume) and my intent is to either read or get rid of every book on the list by the end of 2011.

Now, this is an ambitious goal. For reference 2010 was an “up” year for reading and I tracked 22 books I finished on Goodreads this past year. However, I don’t really expect to actually read through 41 books as will become evident in a minute. The point is not to read every book, but to determine once and for all if the book will be read so I can stop feeling like I have no business borrowing or buying any more books until I get through the ones I already have. Some of the books on the list I’ve actually read already, but they are included because I intend to read them again. For example I read Watership Down back in high school. At least, I think I did. I’ve picked it up a few times since and flipped to random pages and it all sounds very familiar to me. I have fond memories of the story but for whatever reason I can’t remember beyond the back cover copy what it’s really about. So it’s on the list because I want to not just say I read it and think I read it but know I read it and determine if I actually enjoyed it as much as I think I did.

Others, like the first three books of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, I’ve read and remember but it took so long for King to get from Book 3 to Book 4 that when I tried to read Wizard and Glass, I couldn’t remember enough details about the previous books to get into it. I’ve meant (and actually attempted) to re-read the first three but I’ve never seemed to be able to make it through. So they’re all on the list because I want to try one last time to read 1-3 and then continue on the series but if I can’t do the re-reading thing I may try Book 4 alone once more to see if I can power through. If not, I’m at a point in my life where I’m comfortable declaring that I just don’t have to finish every single thing I start (my experience with the Wheel of Time series did a lot to get me to that place).

Some, like Lies My Teacher Told Me, I mostly skimmed and skipped around in the first time through. I read enough of it to feel comfortable saying, “Yeah I read that” and rating it on Goodreads but now I’d like to actually go through it cover to cover. A few of them like The Lovely Bones and Bookends are Nik’s books by authors she enjoys that I’m interested in trying out because I like to take steps to not box myself into any particular corner (of any media, not just literature). I may end up swapping the actual titles of these at some point because I didn’t consult with Nik on which she would recommend but I read some Christopher Pike young adult thrillers on her recommendation this summer and enjoyed them, plus it was fun to be able to talk about them with her so I figure they count as “books I’ve been telling myself I’ll try one of these days” and thus belong in the Project. Maybe I should rename the project to “Today Is One Of These Days.”

Finally there are a handful of titles on the list that I either hated but slogged through anyway, hated and therefore gave up on or read because I had to for school and therefore was prejudiced against (I dislike being told what I must read). These include The Good Earth, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Fountainhead and Life Work. I’m giving them all another chance because I’ve been slowly working my way through Crime and Punishment via DailyLit and finding that it’s much more interesting this time around than it was Sophomore year so I wonder if voluntarily approaching some of these bad reading experiences with a fresh perspective will change my tune on some of them.

The Rules

I wanted to keep it simple but I needed some criteria to determine if I was going to take a book off the list without actually finishing it and just write it off as a book I wasn’t meant to read. So here they are:

  1. I must read only one book at a time. Historically I’ve been “halfway through” as many as ten or eleven books simultaneously. But in order for me to work through the list, I need to focus (the case could even be made that I’m already halfway through a lot of these). Therefore when I set a book in Goodreads to my “currently-reading” list, it’s the only one that I can have on there. I’m not counting stuff I read on DailyLit because it’s not on the list to begin with and it by design gets read over time.
  2. I have to finish at least 20% of the book. The amount is kind of arbitrary but I figure one-fifth of a book is sufficient to give a pretty good idea whether you can stand to read the remaining 80%. My percentage will be based on page count, minus any appendices or notes. As an example my first book is Lies My Teacher Told Me which is 318 pages, so I have to read at least 64 pages before I can give up on it.
  3. I have to cycle books that don’t hit the 20% mark within five days. With just over a year to read 41 books, I need to be on pace for about a book (the average page count for the books on the list is 396) every nine to ten days. Realistically that means if I’m not making progress enough to decide if I want to keep reading or not in about a work week I need to move on to something else. Ideally I’m either reading a book at a pretty comfortable pace for a book I’m enjoying (roughly 62 pages a week) or I’m deciding it’s not for me in that same time period. If I’m getting toward the end of the week and still haven’t met the base criteria for crossing it off the list, I’ll need to save it for later in the year when hopefully I’ll have banked some time on some of the easier reads to make up lost ground.

So that’s my project. You can follow along on my Goodreads page or wager on how many books I’ll actually cross off the list through before the end of next year in the comments. If you want to go for super bragging rights I’m also accepting predictions for how many of the books will be fully read as opposed to being discarded and what the ratio of completed to rejected books will be. And of course if you’re a reader and not already on Goodreads, I can’t recommend the site enough; sign up and add me as a friend.

Sidestepping the Magniloquence

I think it would be nice to say, “Hey look, I have a new post. It is well-researched, carefully edited and revised and thoughtfully written.” But you’d probably be like, “Where am I and what happened to ironSoap?” So in the interest of fulfilling your expectations… hastily written bullet points! Ahh…

  • Tomorrow is Super Tuesday. If you are part of a Super Tuesday state, I encourage you to vote. Now, I know that primary elections aren’t as significant as the general election in November so if you skate on this one, I’ll forgive you but only if you promise—and pinky-swear!—to vote later this year.
  • If you do vote tomorrow and can participate in the Republican election, would you please consider Ron Paul?
  • I know people like to say that voting for an underdog is like throwing your vote away but, well, tell that to New York Giants fans. Truth is, you never know.
  • And while I’m sorta on the subject, how weird was that Super Bowl? I mean it was the biggest snoozer of all time until the 4th quarter at which point it became a great game, seemingly out of nowhere. The telling statistic? There were three lead changes in the fourth quarter: A Super Bowl record. I listened to the end of the game on my commute home from work. When Manning tossed that pass for the TD late in the game, I LOL’d. Seriously.
  • You may have already gathered from the Twitter feed (had you been following along at home like I keep telling you), but I finally made my HD dreams come true last weekend. We picked up a Samsung 46″ LCD, got rid of the old 36″ Trinitron, wrangled some HD cable and iced the cake with a PS3/Blu-Ray, an HD-capable TiVo and a Logitech Harmony 550 universal remote. It was a lot of money… so much that I kind of freaked out about it for a little while, but then I caught my first Sharks game in HD and, well, I didn’t feel so bad about it after that. There is more to the story, of course, including a still-ongoing royal rumble with Comcast over the acquisition of a cable card for the TiVo, but I’ll spare you the details until I can provide the epilogue.
  • So… there’s this movie called ‘Sunshine.’ It’s deeply flawed but I think still worth watching. Either way, it basically did for Blu-Ray what The Matrix did for DVD: Sell the format.
  • I have, however, decided that I no longer have any interest in purchasing physical copies of movies. As such I won’t be “upgrading” my DVD collection to Blu-Ray. Aside from the general uncertainty of the format’s future, I just am sick of storing movies in my living space. First we had a pretty impressive collection of VHS tapes. Now we’ve finally gotten to where we have a lot of DVDs. I don’t care to go through the exercise again, so until we all figure out how too handle digital film storage, I’ll stick to rentals.
  • Of course, the PS3 came with Spider-Man 3 (ugh) and also included a 5-free Blu-Ray offer (which I felt obliged to take advantage of) so I will have at least six of the stupid things. But that’s it! I’m not paying for any more.
  • I am also fully aware my resolve has no bearing on the activities of my spouse, who loves to own her favorite movies and TV shows. I guess I better buy a new DVD rack.
  • You know what I think is tacky? That the Cheesecake Factory has ads in their menus.
  • However, TCF makes a mean meatloaf.
  • Nik and I saw Michael Clayton over the weekend. It’s a pretty great flick although I didn’t think so until the very end, and there is still a particular scene that I don’t quite understand once the “truth” is revealed. Or I guess considering what that truth does reveal. Either way, it left Nik and I scratching our heads. Also, it has to have the worst title of the year. Who wants to see a movie named after the fictional lead character? It’s not even some deeply memorable character nor a remarkable/memorable name like Forrest Gump. Michael Clayton sounds like the title of a biopic for some long-ago sports star no one remembers.
  • I would have gone with “The Fixer” or perhaps “The Settlement.” But that’s just me.
  • Snack Watch: So, if you like Sun Chips I implore you to find the “Garden Salsa” flavor, they are exquisite. However, you may also want to investigate Cinnamon Sun Chips (you read that right) which sound questionable but are in fact quite delicious (though more of a standalone snack than a lunch accompaniment). You may also be interested in knowing that the Black Cherry and Almond flavor of Clif bars are especially tasty if you need a mid-afternoon light meal. And I can say with confidence that the energy drink Nos is not suitable for human consumption.
  • On the flip side, has anyone tried Chocolate Chex yet? Nik is too chicken to try them and I’m hit or miss with Chex brand cereal, but I can see it being a fine addition to a batch of Chex mix. Anyone?
  • I’m committed to Lost for the long haul, but I’m terribly, terribly disappointed in the direction they’ve decided to take the show.
  • I have to give some respect to Netflix, a company which had such a terrible site back when I joined almost five years ago that I filed a bug report on it. Now they have one of the best designed, most user-friendly sites I frequent. As a simple example, I indicated to them that I was interested in getting Blu-Ray discs when available. Their system simply confirms that you know what you’re talking about and that you have the appropriate hardware and then it automagically goes in and replaces any movies in your queue with Blu-Ray versions. Brilliant.
  • I loved the book Freakonomics and since I finished it I’ve been following the Freakonomics blog, which often has funny, insightful or thought-provoking posts. Today they had one I found cynical and amusing in all the right ways: Choose a six word motto for the US. My favorite sarcastic suggestion: “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Democracy.” My favorite funny suggestion: “Just like Canada, with Better Bacon.”
  • As much as I love Rock Band, especially the multiplayer, Band World Tour mode is sadly flawed in a fairly fundamental way. And the fact that online co-op doesn’t allow BWT mode is kind of a criminal oversight. Still, I have faith in my Joey Big Hat bandmates to rise above the stupid game limitations.
  • It occurs to me that we need a band logo. And I think you can upload such files into the game and use them as tattoos for your avatar.
  • Excuse me, I have some Photoshopping to do.

The Occasional Taste

I’ve been sick for the last few days with a pretty hefty cold. I thought it was the flu at first because of the general sense of achy unpleasantness and chills, but after staying home on Wednesday and having it not manifest with the usual aches and fever I’m inclined to believe it’s merely an industrial-strength common cold.

I’m still recovering but I’ve been doing a lot of lying around and thinking so I have a few unconnected thoughts and anecdotes to share, in a familiar format.

  • For reasons that won’t make sense unless you’re a gamer who owns an Xbox 360 and an OCD-afflicted psychopath such as myself, I purchased a copy of Madden 06 for under $5 from my local game store and have been simulating thirty seasons worth of games. What’s significant about this is that, according to the software, the 49ers won’t win the Super Bowl again until the year 2033. Just something to look forward to.
  • I’m reading a wonderful book by Naomi Klein called “No Logo” about marketing, advertising and branding. There is a passage in the book that stuck with me:

    The people who line up for Starbukcs, writes CEO Howard Shultz, aren’t just there for the coffee. “It’s the romance of the coffee experience, the feeling of warmth and community people get in Starbucks stores.”

    I guess that’s why I dislike Starbucks. Here I thought they made bad coffee and served them in pretentious and ubiquitous locations. Turns out the make pretentious and ubiquitous locations in which to serve bad coffee.

  • Our band name (comprised of myself on “vocals,” Nik on guitar, HB on drums and Gin as a roadie/groupie, but soon she’ll play bass… I just don’t have another guitar-shaped controller) is “Joey Big Hat is a Bit Much.” It’s completely an inside joke and probably not a very funny one at that. However, it still cracks me up whenever I think about it.
  • The above bullet refers to Rock Band, which Nik bought me for my birthday.
  • However, I’ve decided that this year I will buy a new guitar (I’m thinking Fender Telecaster), Nik has indicated that she wants to take guitar lessons and Lister has indicated that once he returns from overseas he wants to get a bit more serious about forming a jam band so music is on people’s minds. There may one day be a real-life variant of JBHiaBM. We probably won’t cover Bon Jovi’s “Dead or Alive” however.
  • My folks sent me a very kind gift for my birthday which was essentially funds to be converted into San Jose Sharks tickets. I did some digging around and found that you can actually buy unwanted season tickets for a single game through Ticketmaster which seems to be the only way to get lower-reserve seating. But I found that the price differs wildly depending on what team is visiting. For example, for about $60 a ticket I can get lower-reserve center ice tickets (row 25) and see the Sharks play the Columbus Blue Jackets. For those same seats I can see them play the Anaheim Ducks… for $300 each.
  • I’m probably going to see the Blue Jackets.
  • We went and saw Juno on New Year’s Eve. It’s an exceptional movie.
  • Just days before my birthday I went to the eye doctor as a sign of solidarity with Nik, who was going because she’s had terrible migraines for about a month now and her doctor suggested she may be having vision trouble (the actual doctorese-to-English translation of that is “I have no idea what’s wrong, so hows about a stab in the dark?”). I hadn’t had my eyes checked in a very long while so I went along, assuming my vision was still 20/20. It’s not. Now I need glasses. Strangely, Nik and I need practically the same prescription.
  • I have no delusions that people who meet me or pass me on the street are fooled into thinking I’m anything but a nerd. However, for those few who may have been blinded by the ruse, I think glasses ought to remove all doubt.
  • Truthfully, I’m okay with that. However, with my basketball-shaped noggin, hairless pate and the chunky Buddy Holly style glasses I went with, I fear I may end up resembling Dr. Bunsen Honeydew.

Seven Year Itch

I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows after several days of fearfully rapid reading, concerned for the inevitability that the fate of the beloved characters would somehow be revealed to me ahead of time. Mercifully, I made it through without issue and now wish to discuss. But in the interest of those who have not yet finished and don’t want even a chance of spoiling the end, I’ll use the under-used (on ironSoap, at least) jump to prevent inadvertent plot leaks because I don’t want to be held back from the conversation.

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Seriously? His Initials Are A. X. L.?

I’m a pretty loyal reader of the books by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. I happened to pick up their first novel, The Relic when it first came out in paperback while I was working at Waldenbooks on the recommendation of a patron. It was fantastic: Exactly the kind of book I love to read. When asked what kinds of books I prefer to read I usually answer “Science Fiction, Fantasy or Horror” and it just so happens that The Relic is a masterful blend of all three.

After the first book they put out a couple of others including a somewhat disappointing sequel to The Relic called Reliquary and a standalone novel entitled Mount Dragon but neither really matched the initial brilliance of The Relic.

The authors seemed to want to branch out and try writing different kinds of stories using new and interesting characters (one of Mount Dragon’s greatest failings was that its characters were nowhere near as memorable as those in The Relic) but were struggling to do so. Gradually the authors began to get a little bit better with their standalone work and they managed to sneak a few recurring characters from The Relic into later novels without making them full sequels or even really requiring the reader to have finished The Relic to enjoy the books.

But gradually it became apparent that the fan favorite from The Relic, Special Agent Pendergast (who was unceremoniously and idiotically excised from the agonizingly stupid film adaptation), was the star of the Preston/Child show. And so the duo began writing books that pulled a few key characters from previous standalone novels into a cohesive cast and put Pendergast right up front as the leading man.

They still tried hard to maintain the illusion of the self-contained novel. It’s interesting to read a title like Still Life With Crows where you can see them struggling to try and use Pendergast in a capacity away from the Museum of Natural History in New York where The Relic, Reliquary and many later books take place (or at least provide employment to a large percentage of major recurring characters). After several of these it seems that Preston and Child have finally realized that Special Agent A. X. L. Pendergast is their man and they should stop trying to deny that longtime readers will tolerate but not necessarily appreciate novels which do not feature him prominently.

The last three books have focused so intently on Pendergast that the authors have taken to calling it the “Pendergast Trilogy,” something that would be acceptable if I still had delusions that it would not stretch into a “Pendergast Tetralogy” and then the “Pendergast Pentalogy” and so on. But it will, and I’m wary of this.

What struck me as significant in the most recent book (The Book of the Dead) is that the authors have moved so far into dealing with the life and times of Agent Pendergast that they have almost stopped really worrying about having new mysteries to solve and new strange-b ut-explainable circumstances that have served as the hallmark of their previous work. In this case the passing references to and sketchy outline of an Egyptian curse are barely developed as we spend far more time reading about Pendergast’s time in prison (long story) such that when he finally steps outside the prison walls it takes him all of half an hour to solve the case.

The most telling part of the whole book is that once the “plot” is sufficiently resolved, there are still roughly 100 pages left of a very extended epilogue which—if my wishes come true—finally wrap up the Evil Brother plotline that followed through the “Pendergast Trilogy.” It isn’t that The Book of the Dead is a bad book, it is that it so clearly reveals that the authors have let Pendergast as a protagonist become the story himself to the detriment of their real skill which is in their well-reasoned techno-thriller mystery hooks. I finished the book more or less satisfied but I honestly hope that the next novel shows a return to form with Pendergast there only to solve the mystery and not to be the mystery.

I mean, if I wanted to read a million pages of character-driven soap opera with some passing nods to my favorite genres, I’d go back and read The Wheel of Time again.