Tag: reading

Really. Big. Books.

Beach reading for the long weekend

There is something about really long books that I find irresistible. The longer the better. As a bibliophile, Really. Long. Books. are almost a fetish with me. I suppose that part of it is simply that when I am reading a good book, I never want it to end. I find myself looking to see how much more I have left before it is all over. With a really big book (which I will hereafter refer to as an RBB), I might be 500 pages in and still have 600 pages to go. That is always heartening, especially when I am enjoying what i am reading. If I read a review of a book and somewhere it mentions its RBB-ness, positively or negatively, I immediately have to investigate.

What constitutes an RBB? The answer is different for everyone. For me, when a book hits at least 700 or 800 pages, it’s an RBB. I was thinking about RBBs because this evening, I began reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which at 1,079 pages, certainly meets my RBB criteria.

RBBs can be challenging for a number of reasons. They are so long that I sometimes make it further into an RBB than I might a book of normal length before deciding it doesn’t work for me. RBBs are an investment, but they also require trust. You have to have a good sense of what you think you’ll like when you invest time in an RBB. When an RBB works out, it is great, but it also takes longer to read than your normal-sized book. In the time it would take me to read Infinite Jest, for instance, I could read five normal-sized books. That makes for another challenge, one I’ve often heard from magazine editors when accepting or rejecting a novelette or novella: is this long story worth the space that two or three shorter stories might take? Or, for my RBB, is the book worth the time that three or four other books might take?

Not every RBB I’ve tried works out. Earlier this year I tried reading Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hafstader, which, at just over 700 pages, barely qualifies as an RBB. But I couldn’t get through it.

Some RBBs I’ve read several times. Stephen King’s It is one example.That book is over 1,000 pages and I have read it at least five times.

I love RBBs, but there is something I love even more than an RBB: a series of RBBs. These are not easy to come across, but late last year, I began reading Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives series. The first book in the series, The Way of Kings is just over 1,000 pages. Each subsequent book gets longer and longer until the forth and most recent is over 1,200 pages. And there are supposed to be 10 books in this series when it is finished! I’ve read the first three so far, and will eventually get around to the fourth.

There are also series of RBBs that are nonfiction. Perhaps my favorite is Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization which is an 11-volume history of human civilization. The first book came out in 1935 and the last in 1975. Many of the books in this series are in the 800-900 page range, with the forth installment, The Age of Faith, being the longest at nearly 1,200 pages. The 11 volumes total 13,549 pages. I’ve read the first six books in the series.

Some RBBs I’ve collected but not yet read. I got them because they were RBBs but also because the subjects were fascinating and I was amazed that there could be such detail in a subject to warrant the length. There are books that sit on my shelves, calling to me now and then, but which I won’t likely get to until I have time to concentrate on them more fully. Two examples: Stephen Jay Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, which comes in at around 1,400 pages; and Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson’s The Ants, which is an RBB both in page count and stature. The book is enormous!

I don’t know if I will make it through Infinite Jest or not. I know it doesn’t qualify for what many people consider to be beach reading, but that’s what I am taking with me to the beach. There’s nothing quite like sun, surf, sand, and a good RBB to keep your mind occupied while your kids are bury you in the sand.

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My Book Collection: A Library and Antilibrary All in One

I am trying to remember what my book collection looked like in high school. It was, at most, half a shelf of paperbacks. Probably ten or fewer. Until I headed off to college, most of the books I read came from the Granada Hills branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. In those days before college, it often seems like I spent a large chunk of my summers in the library. Once in college, however, I began to buy books and keep them. As Dickens said, it was the best of times and the worst of times for collecting books. The best, because I had my own space, and a small bookshelf on which I could keep my nascent collection; the worst, because I could not really afford to buy books, and always did so with trepidation and anxiety.

I went to school in the age before ubiquitous digital cameras and I know of no film of my burgeoning collection in its earliest stages, but if memory serves me, there were several Piers Anthony books, mostly paperbacks but a few hardcovers, especially of his newer stuff. There were some Harlan Ellison books, including a copy of Deathbird Stories, which still sits on my shelves today. It contains “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” one of the scariest stories I’ve ever read. There was a paperback copy of Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, and there was a paperback copy of Jumper by Steven Gould. By the time I was close to graduation in June 1994, there was a hardcover copy of I. Asimov by Isaac Asimov. It, and two other books, one Tony Robbins and one books on note-taking that was a game-changer for me, but which I’ve lost to the ages, made of the trio of nonfiction books on my shelf. I think that by the time I graduated, I had 15-20 books, not counting books for school.

Twenty-seven years later, my book collection has grown from those 15-20 volumes to something over 1,000 paper volumes. Eleven bookshelves fill three sides of my office. And while there is room to grow, it is extremely limited and that limited room has dictated how I add to my collection over time.

the books behind my desk
The books behind my desk.

The books that make it onto the shelves, the ones that survive the occasional purges and donations to local libraries and schools, are there for two reasons: (1) they are part of what I think of as a collection, one that has value to me; and (2) they are there as a reference for me to use when needed.

With each move, my books collection has grown as space permits. At some point, I began to think of it as a library as much as a collection. And with space limitations, what goes into the library is dictated by its value to me as a collector’s item. This became much easier to do when e-books and audio books made it easy to get a book that takes up no physical space. Books that I want to read but that don’t need to be part of a physical collection go into the digital library. Books that I want to be able to hold in my hands, books that have special value to me, go on the shelves.

Back when I started collecting books in college, e-books were nowhere in my imagination. When they first came out, I was dubious, as any bibliophile might be, but their convenience and ease of access quickly outweighed any objection I might have had to not having a physical copy in my hand. I bought my first e-book in 2008, and as of this writing, there are 512 e-books in my virtual library. I had a harder time with audio books. For a long time, I thought I could not listen to an audio book, that the added dimension would not work for me. Boy, was I ever wrong! Today, I use the term “reading” even when I listen to an audio book because I firmly believe they are equivalent–at least in terms of the text. As of this writing, I have 1,090 audio books in my Audible library. Putting all of this together, I have about 2,700 books in my collection, accumulated over 27 years, for a growth rate of about 100 books per year on average.

That’s a lot of books. Of the books sitting on the shelves in my office, or in virtual libraries in Amazon and Audible, I’ve probably read less than half. That number–the number of books I own but haven’t yet read–continues to grow as I accumulate more books. In a recent post, my friend Mike refers to these books–those that he owns but hasn’t read–as his TBR books (to-be-read) and they can feel daunting. Why, one might ask as he does in his post, should one continue to accumulate new books when there are already so many books on your shelves that you haven’t read?

I had an intuition for why I continue to do this, but it wasn’t until I read a post on Brain Picking’s about Umberto Eco’s antilibrary that I fully understood what it was I was doing. The key passage in that piece was a quote about Eco’s thoughts on books:

The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

Reading is, and always has been, the primary way I learn things. I’ve often said that grade school taught me to read, high school taught me to think about what I read, and college taught me to learn. Since then, reading has been all about learning for me. Despite taking AP classes in biology, and physics, as well as chem and o-chem in college, I continue to believe that almost everything I’ve learned about science, I learned from Isaac Asimov. I continue to accumulate books, despite having more unread books than read ones, for the very reason Eco describes: unconsciously or not, I want my library to contain as much of what I don’t know as I can manage. Mike’s TBR books are my antilibrary.

The other side of my office and most of the other bookshelves.

My library has gone through occasional purges, some of them tougher than others. The biggest and most recent was one in which I donated more than 200 books. These were books that I felt would not really damage my collection if they went away. They included nearly 100 Piers Anthony books that I’d painstakingly accumulated from those high school days. Indeed, I kept only a few Piers Anthony book, ones that I particularly enjoyed read, and one, Race Against Time, that I remember first reading in the Granada Hills library sometime in the 1980s and absolutely loving as a kid. I got rid of most of the Tom Clancy books I’d picked up, and all kinds of paperbacks. What stayed was the nonfiction, the stuff I hadn’t read, the stuff I didn’t yet know about.

My collection includes rare books, some of them dating back to 1865. I’ve got many signed books, most of which I was able to get signed myself, and quite a few by people who I’ve become friends with in my time as a writer. Many of the books in my collection are used, and there are all kinds of wonderful things that I’ve found in those used books. I have many first editions, and some rare editions of books by writers I admire, for instance, first editions of Isaac Asimov’s Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan and Asimov’s Annotated Don Juan. (His Annotated Paradise Lost still eludes me.) It contains an almost complete collection of original Astounding Science Fiction magazines from 1939-1950, many of which I’ve written about in my Vacation in the Golden Age series, and several of which are signed by Jack Williamson and A. E. von Vogt. It also includes a complete run of my favorite science fiction magazine, Science Fiction Age.

I am delighted sometimes, just sitting in the rail-chair in my office, surrounded by my books. I used to think it was the books themselves that delighted me, but what I realize now is that what I have collected is much more than book. It is a collection of things that I don’t yet know, but they are things that are within my grasp. All I have to do is reach for a shelf, pull out a book, sit down and begin reading.

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Wanted: Good Books on the Science of Dreaming

The emphasis here is on science. My understanding of current theories of why we dream, based on articles I’ve read in science-based publications like Scientific American, is that dreaming helps convert short-term memories to long-term memory. What I am looking for is a book-length treatise on the science of dreaming. It can be a history of the science: what we’ve learned from our first investigations down to the present; or it can be a book describing the current scientific theories on why we dream, and the mechanisms that influence those dream.

When I search for books on “science of dreaming” I get a lot of noise that seems to divide into two major groupings: (1) how to lucid dream; and (2) how to interpret dreams. I could care less about either of these. I’m not trying to become aware that I am dreaming when I am asleep and to take control and start flying around my dreamscape. Nor do I particularly care about how I might interpret what it is I am dreaming about. Given what I have already read about dreams, the latter is more or less meaningless, the brains reaction to firing neurons while committing memories to longer-term storage. What I want to know more about is the research and study that has gone into dreaming.

I am sleeping better than I used to, and I am grateful for that. But despite sleeping well, I wake from most nights feeling worn out from the endless parade of dreams that I’ve been having over the last several months. These are vague dreams, but they seem to be constantly in the background. I wake from them in the middle of the night only to have them resume after I fall asleep. They are not frightening, or particularly exciting, but they are exhausting and they take away from what could be a really good night’s sleep.

I understand (from what reading I’ve done about dreaming) that we all dream, even if we don’t remember what we dream about. What I am looking for is if there have been studies or research done on what external triggers might effect what I will call the “volume” of dreaming. What I’d like the be able to do is turn down that volume for a while. Ideally, I’d like to mute it. The dreams can continue in the background as they always do, but I’d rather not be aware of them for a while. I just want a good night’s sleep. I’d like to do this, of course, without the aid of any pharmaceuticals.

So, I am looking for books on the science of dreaming. Maybe I should be looking for books on consciousness more broadly, but I have a narrow focus here. So far, I have found two possible candidates: a book called When Brains Dream: Exploring the Science and Mystery of Sleep by Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold; and The Secret World of Sleep: The Surprising Science of the Mind at Rest by Penelope A. Lewis.

Does anyone have other recommendations on the science of dreaming? If so, please drop your recommendations into the comments. I’d be grateful.

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The Irony of Four Thousand Weeks

Sometimes I don’t recognize the problem that is right in front of me. Take, for instance, the book I am currently reading, and nearly finished with, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman. I started this book just after finishing The Big Roads by Earl Swift. Sometimes I finish a book in the middle of the day and immediately start the next one, but this was one of those times when I finished the book later in the day, and didn’t start Four Thousand Weeks until the following morning. I set out on my 6 am walk, and began listening to the audiobook edition.

Four Thousand Weeks is a book I needed to read. It has a lot to say about how we perceive time, how we perceive busyness, and the many, many traps that lie between the two. For instance, the more books I read, the more books I feel I need to read (butterfly effect of reading, folks). Knocking one book of my list adds three or four more to that list. It’s no different with tasks. The quicker you get through your to-do list, the more you find you have to add to it until you realize that you’ll never have an empty list and I’ll never read all of the books ever written.

So there I am on the bike path at 6:10 am listening to Four Thousand Weeks. For the last several years, I’ve tried to read at least 100 books each year. Audiobooks help greatly in this regard because I can multitask and I’ve gradually worked my way up to listening to most books at 1.8x. That’s the speed at which I’d listened to The Big Roads, and it was the speed I was listening to Four Thousand Weeks as I walked up the one steep hill on the bike path. At the top of the hill, I paused to jot down a note, and a few steps later, I paused again, and then again. And it was there, jotting down the third note that the irony of the situation dawned on me: here I was, multitasking, getting in my morning exercise while tearing my way through another book at 1.8x speed–a book that happened to be about how on average we live four thousand weeks, and maybe we should rethink the pace of our lives and all we are trying to accomplish in that time.

I slowed the speed of the audiobook down to 1.5x.

Often when I read nonfiction, I’ll have either a paper or e-book edition along with the audiobook so that I can more readily highlight passages or jot notes in the margins. Indeed, I have the e-book for Four Thousand Weeks in addition to the audiobook, and later that morning, using notes I’d jotted on my walk, I went back and highlighted passages. But circumstances were such that I mostly listened to the audiobook without following along in the e-book. And as I hit the last chapter, I realized that this book was too important, had too much good things to say, things I needed to hear, to rush through it.

So I am doing something I have done only once before1 since starting my list of books that I’ve read since 1996: I am re-reading Four Thousand Week immediately after I finish it. This second reading will be without the audiobook. It will be me sitting with the e-book, thinking carefully about what I am reading, and being more thoughtful about it. When I have finished it a second time, you can be sure I’ll share my thoughts with you. There are things that I have sensed in Four Thousand Weeks that warrant this closer reading.

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  1. I loved Bruce Springsteen’s memoir Born to Run so much that I started it over as soon as I finished it the first time.

A Revolutionary Cemetery

Across the street from our house in Warwick, Rhode Island, beyond the backyard of our neighbors, an old cemetery was perched atop a small hill. The cemetery was surrounded by a low stone wall. A rusty iron gate opened into the cemetery on one side of the wall, but I never remember using the gate. We always just hopped the wall. The cemetery itself was strange and a little scary to the ten-year old I was at the time. I never dreamed of visiting it at night. Gravestones were scattered about, almost at random. Bramble and thorny vines seemed to overgrow the center of the cemetery so that only the outskirts were bare. Trees loomed over the entire space, which couldn’t have been more than half an acre.

The name of the cemetery was Carpenter-Wightman Cemetery. I didn’t learn that until decades alter. Walking around the cemetery was strange. The ground had a hollow thud to it as we stepped through it. Many of the graves were so weatherworn that it was impossible to read the inscriptions on them. But there were several graves that stood out. They weren’t larger than the other, or brighter. They all had a dull, aged look, but these specific gravestones had rusted bronze emblems buried into the earth before them. They were, I eventually learned, markers signifying that the person buried there was a veteran of the American Revolution.

I thought about this cemetery a lot as I read Rick Atkinson’s The British Are Coming, the first of a three-volume history of the American Revolution. I’ve read many histories of the Revolution, and Atkinson’s was vivid, especially where the battles were concerned. I find that he really tries to put you in the midst of the fighting to see what it was like rather than to glorify it. War is gruesome, and it was the description of one battle after another, that had my thoughts returning to the cemetery on the hill. For instance, Atkinson writes,

Sparks ignited the powder, first tearing off the rammer’s arm, then detonating with such violence that six men “were blown all to pieces by imprudence,” a passing mariner named Christopher Prince reported. “Their legs, arms, and bodies were all separated, so much so that we put them all on two handbarrows and carried them up to the Bowling Green, and dug a hoel and put their remains in it and covered them over.”

As a kid, walking through the cemetery, I didn’t think much about the history of it. Today, I get something of a shiver to think that I was standing in front of the graves of men, some of whom were fighting for the American cause, others simply because that’s what they thought they should do.

Aside from the battles, it was interesting to read so many descriptions from the diaries of people living in that period. Atkinson located so many diaries from the period that it seemed that everyone kept a diary. A single diary, of course, can give a skewed view of any situation, but in aggregate, I think they help to form a good picture.

Once again, history demonstrates that behaviors we think are new and strange, behaviors we sometimes don’t understand, are not new at all. They are just new to us. One example came early in the book, when discussing smallpox in Boston:

A report in late March noted that thirty-eight smallpox patients were quarantined on a hospital scow in the Charles River, “some distance from the wharf.” Freeholders voted to continue a recent ban on inoculations; many now feared that it posed a greater risk of epidemic than natural infection.

How many people in that little cemetery, I wondered, were planted there because of smallpox?

One amusing line came from King George III, who supposedly,

once asserted that seven hours of sleep sufficed for a man, eight for a woman, and nine for a fool.

My favorite parts of the book, however, were not the pitched battled, but rather the descriptions of the people involved, be they ordinary citizens, just trying to make a living, or the extraordinary people whose names we know today. This book wasn’t among my favorite books on the Revolution, but every book serves a purpose. This one put me in mind of that cemetery from my youth. It also suggested further investigation of two other people I’ve often been curious about: King George III, and Henry Knox, the bookbinder-general.

In November, a massive 800-page biography of King George III is coming out, titled The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III by Andrew Roberts. It’s on my to-buy list. I also picked up Henry Knox’s Noble Train: The Story of a Boston Bookseller’s Heroic Expedition that Saved the American Revolution by William Hazelgrove. This is the great thing about the butterfly effect of reading. Even books that don’t completely wow me can still lead me in new and interesting directions.

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The Emotional Ride of Good Nonfiction

One sign of a really good work of fiction is the emotional impact it has on me. The last lines of Isaac Asimov’s Forward the Foundation always moves me to tears. Several scenes in Stephen King’s 11/22/63 have a similar effect on me. There is a scene in Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings that had be on the edge of my seat, heart pounding in my chest for more than hour. The ending of W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe just wrecks me every time. I’ve come to expect this from good fiction. Even some of my own stories have this effect on me.

These days, however, I read far more nonfiction than fiction. As a youngster, I had the mistaken idea that nonfiction was dry and boring. Fortunately, by the time I was 12 or 13, making frequent trips to my local branch of the Los Angeles Public library, I learned that good nonfiction, like good fiction, is anything but dry. Indeed, the best of it can elicit the same emotions as a good fiction.

I was thinking about this because I am currently reading Volume I of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative. There is an interesting set of emotions it stirs in me. It is a mixture of frustration, awe, admiration, and exhaustion. The frustration comes from what I call “the hindsight of history.” I know how things turns out, and every time I read about a McClellan fumble or a Lee victory, I feel like I want to jump into the story and say, “Don’t you know how this is going to turn out?” This is not the only piece of nonfiction that stirs this particular emotion in me. I remember reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Albert Einstein and feeling frustrated at Einstein’s early setbacks. Don’t you know who this is? I wanted to say.

Awe and admiration come from reading about the bravery of the privates (and occasionally, the officers), especially the volunteers, fighting to protect what they believe in. I’ve felt similar emotions reading Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, and David McCullough’s John Adams and 1776. The exhaustion comes from experiencing battle after battle after battle. I’m reading about these battles 160 years after the fact, and still, they wear me out. I find I have to set the book aside for short intervals to allow me to recuperate, a luxury the soldiers engaged in those battles didn’t have.

Good nonfiction generates other emotions. I remember reading William Manchester’s outstanding 3-volume biography of Winston Churchill. This was years ago when I still went into the office regularly, and I’d listen to the audio book as I walked around the block where my office was. The three volumes are massive and cover an incredibly eventful life, but what stand out most was how I was reduced to tears on learning of the death of Marigold Churchill, Winston’s daughter. There I was, on the sidewalk outside a Bed, Bath, and Beyond unable to continue walking. There were too many tears.

Some works of nonfiction fill me with joy. 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff was one of these. Some make me laugh out loud, like Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter by Frank Deford. Still others infuriate me like Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker, and portions of his Years of Lyndon Johnson biography.

Works of fiction in any medium, when they are well done, move us, but there is always the escape hatch of knowing that these are fictional characters. When nonfiction moves me, that safety net isn’t there. I felt the Churchill’s pain in losing their daughter in part because I knew it was a real loss. To me, the emotional ride of good nonfiction is part of what makes it great.

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5 Interesting Reads – 8/19/2021

Note: Because my brain is off today, this post was originally titled “5 Interesting Reads – 8/19/2019.” I have no idea where the 2019 came from, but it has since been corrected.

In addition to books, I do a lot of short reading. Here are five recent shorter reads that I found interesting. Let me know if you find these interesting and maybe I’ll start doing this weekly.

  1. From the September issue of The Atlantic, a powerful 9/11 read by Jennifer Senior, “What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind.” Though it has been 20 years, it is still difficult for me to read about 9/11. What attracted me to this piece was the diary that lies at its center. It’s a long read, but worth getting through to the end.
  2. The September issue of WIRED has a great piece by Clive Thompson on the failure of to-do apps. I mentioned this piece earlier this week, but its worth repeating here since there’s a lot of good stuff in it.
  3. I found an older piece by Maria Papova on why time seems to slow down and speed up under different circumstances. I certainly notice this more and more as I get older.
  4. In the New Yorker, Cal Newport (of Deep Work fame) asked why so many knowledge workers are quitting during the pandemic.
  5. Finally, I really enjoyed Jo Marchant’s article, “Inside the Tombs of Saqqara” in the July/August Smithsonian. When I read an article like this, and try to imagine that a 4,400 year-old tomb was already over 2,000 years old at the end of the Roman Empire, it makes me think of those science fiction novels that take place thousands of years in the future. Looking back on our time is like looking back on that tomb.

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Thoughts on Theft By Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 by David Sedaris

Way back in 2005 or 2006, my brother-in-law1 introduced me to David Sedaris’s books. He did this one evening by describing to me some of the funny stories Sedaris recounts. They were indeed funny, and the events of that evening seemed to mimic the humor of what I was hearing. At the time my brother-in-law was in school and I was staying with him. The room had two single beds each of which was on rollers, one on one side of the room, the other on the opposite side. Apparently, the floors of the rooms were bowed in toward the center of the room and throughout the course of the night, the beds rolled toward the center of the room.

For some reason, I never ended up reading a David Sedaris book. That happens sometimes. There are always more books to read. Recently, however, I decided to change that. A few years back, Sedaris came out with a book called Theft By Finding: Diaries 1977-2002. This was a collection of diary entries that Sedaris culled from journals he’s kept most of his life. I was mainly attracted by the word “diaries.” I have a fascination with diaries, having kept my own for a quarter century now. I enjoy dipping into John Quincy Adams’s diaries now and then, or the Journals of Henry David Thoreau. I have a theory that there is an entire history of civilization waiting to be told in unread diaries, journals, manuscripts. Sometimes, these come to light, and add real, practical color historic events. I also happened to note that Sedaris has a second volume of his diaries, A Carnival of Snackery: Diaries 2003-2020, coming out in October. So why not give them a try.

Try them I did, and I flew through the book, laughing more often than not. But there were several striking similarities between Sedaris’s methods for keeping his diary and my own. In the introduction, for instance, he writes,

I was never one to write about my feelings, in part because they weren’t that interesting (even to me) but mainly because they were so likely to change.

When I started my own diary in 1996, it was with the express idea to record events, rather than feeling. I took Isaac Asimov as an example. This is how he wrote his diary. Over the years however, my feelings changed (ironically) and eventually, I began to record my feelings about things as well.

In 1979, Sedaris says, “I began numbering my entries.” I began doing this in 2017. My idea was that if I wanted to index my diary, I could key the index to the numbered entry, which I maintain from one volume to the next, so that I didn’t have to worry about page number. I’ve kept this up ever since, writing entry #1 back on October 13, 2017, and writing entry #1933 this morning.

One final similarity I noted:

Another old-fashioned practice I maintain is carrying a notebook, a small one I keep in my shirt pocket and never leave the house without. In it I register all the little things that strike me, not in great detail but just quickly.

I’ve written often about how I always have a Field Notes notebook in my pocket. Originally, it was a shirt pocket, but now it’s just my back pocket.

Reading Sedaris’s diaries was both fun and interesting. He is funny even in his diaries. But it was also interesting to see the progression of someone who went from scraping for various manual labor jobs to someone who eventually lived in Paris and London, toured for his books, and became a successfully writer. I think this kind of thing is heartening to many writers who start out feeling like they will never amount to much.

Diaries are a tricky thing to consider from a literary perspective. People writing for themselves are writing for an audience of one. The writing is not designed to be the polished prose presented to the public. Stephen King calls this “writing with the door closed.” I think anyone who writes a diary understands this, although there are some diaries that read like prose: John Quincy Adams and Henry David Thoreau are two that come to mind.

I thought some of the funniest things that appeared in the diary were imagined retorts Sedaris had to people or events taking place. In particular, his description of some of the writing he did for his French teacher while learning French are absolutely hilarious.

There is a certain vulnerability about sharing one’s diary with the world–at least while one is still walking the earth. I’ve often wondered if John Quincy Adams considered posterity when writing his own diary. Did he know that people would be reading it more than 200 years later? Could Leonardo Da Vinci have imagined people would be reading his notebooks half a millennia after they were written? Sedaris has made some of his diary available and I was thoroughly entertained by it. I am already looking forward to October when the next volume comes out.

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  1. He has written here for the blog. Check out his hilarious tribute to Tommy Lasorda.

A Guy Walks Into a Library…

I took the girls to the library again so that they could return the books they checked out three weeks ago. They then wandered about looking for more books to check out. I think they like they concept of borrowing books. While I managed to resist the last time, this time, I couldn’t help me surrounded by so many books without taking a little time to browse. That browsing resulting in me checking out some books. That stack is now sitting on my desk at home:

the stack of books I got from the library

It has been a while since I have checked books out of the library. I support libraries, but I’ve reached the point where if I want to buy a book, or audio book, I buy it. I like thinking of it as mine, especially since I enjoy interacting with the book, marking it up with marginal notes, highlighting passages, etc. This has lead me to buy lots of books, although my tendency these days is to buy mostly digital copies: either Kindle or Audible. Now and then, I’ll buy paper copies for those books that I really enjoy and want on my bookshelves.

I was reminded today, there is something uniquely delightful about browsing books on a shelf and finding things I wouldn’t have find by simply browsing online. When looking at books organized on a shelf, I am essentially going through the collection alphabetically. There is no practical way to do this online. But the results are always interesting. This is how I managed to come up with a book called The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books by Edward Wilson-Lee (attracted by the words “catalogue” and “books”; and The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways by Earl Swift. In that case, I recall reading Roads by Larry McMurtry years ago and enjoying it. Finally, I am sucker for big books, and The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America by Douglas Brinkley fit the bill in this case. Actually, my first choice had been an even bigger book on Abraham Lincoln, but when I pulled it off the shelf, I discovered it was Volume II. Volume I was nowhere in sight. (It was not the Carl Sandberg biography, which I read back in 2016.)

It’s nice to read actual paper books now and then, and there is something about how library books are protected with their plastic shields that make them even more enjoyable. Often, when I read one of my own hard cover books, I remove the dust jacket so that it doesn’t get messed up. That isn’t a problem with library books. I used to enjoy looking at the card flap to see how many people had checked the book out before me, and how often. They don’t have card flaps anymore, alas. Now everything is done by barcode.

The big dilemma I face borrowing a library book versus just buying it is how to handle annotating the book. Since it has been a long time since I borrowed library books, I feel as if I have to figure out a good way to handle this all over again. My thought is that I will use those little book post-its that I can stick to pages pointing to relevant passages as I read. When I have finished, I can go through all those passages and make my notes from where the stickies are. I can then remove the post-its before I return the books and they will be as if I’d never touched them.

I worry that I will be able to get through all three books in the allotted time. After all, I just started reading the first volume of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative, which means it will be several days before I can get started on any of these new ones. But then again, I have three weeks; and our library system allows us to auto-renew up to two times for books that aren’t brand new and have wait lists. So I really have plenty of time.

More than likely, I will buy the audio book editions so that I can squeeze in reading when I am doing other things (I often read the e-book or a paper version in parallel with an audio edition) and that helps to speed things along. Audio books are great for multitasking, but terrible for taking notes and marking passages, which is where the other editions come in as handy companions. I suspect that when I finally do return these books, I’ll be browsing once again, and bringing home some more.

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Rocking Chair Reading

In one daydream, I am sitting on a covered porch that faces south toward a vast cornfield. There is a gentle breeze that blows and if I look up at the corn, I become distracted by the waves that seem to ripple through it. Beside me, on a small table, is a sweating glass filled with the perfect lemonade. In my lap is a thick book (like the one I am currently reading, Volume I of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative) with a bookmark slipped in after the first four or five pages. Glancing down at the book, I see I have 800 pages before me. The sun is just above the distant horizon in the east. There is not a cloud in the sky. The air is cool, but not cold. I’m sitting in a rocking chair. There is a padded cushion on the seat and a gentle, rhythmic rumble on the planks of the porch as the chair pendulums back and forth.

In another version of this daydream, the porch faces the Penobscot Bay or the Bagaduce River in Maine. In still another, the porch is screened in, and facing a fishing lake deep in the Vermont wilderness. A steady rain is falling and another thick book sits open in my lap.

Sometimes, when driving, I’ll pass a large meadow. In the distance, I’ll see an oak tree, and in the shade of that tree my imagination conjures a rocking chair. I find myself longing to be in that chair, book in hand, and a quiet afternoon before me.

The reality is somewhat different. The chair is not a rocking chair, but a rail chair. We bought it thirteen years ago, when Kelly was pregnant with the Little Man, thinking it would be a good chair for sitting in while rocking the little man to sleep. It is cushioned and comfortable, and came with an ottoman that itself rocks along with the chair. Having long grown out of the need for being rocked to sleep, the chair ended up in my office after we moved into this house a few years back. Instead of being surrounded by a wide porch, it is surrounded by bookshelves

My rocking rail chair
The rail chair (glider) in my office

I do a lot of reading in this chair, and there is a reality that never comes up in my daydreams. For instance, if I am reading, say, a thriller, I’ll find myself rocking faster and faster as the tension builds, often to the point where the chair reaches its limits, abruptly stopping and giving me minor whiplash. It happens again and again, but I can’t help it. My rocking matches the pace of whatever it is I am reading. It is probably a good think this is a rail chair and not a rocking chair. If it was, I imagine I’d have already flipped myself over backwards several times.

In my daydreams, all I hear is the sound of the wind through the corn, or the rain pelting the lake, and perhaps the hum of the rocking chair on the floorboards of the porch. In reality, I often hear the television from the living room, which is right next to my office. When we moved into the house, I wanted to put in French doors that would provide some separation from the office to the living room. That hasn’t happened yet so my reading is often disturbed but the sounds of Murdock Mysteries or Pink videos on YouTube.

Finally, in my daydreams, I set out to read at sunrise, and watch the shadows move across the land while the sun passes over from east to west and my bookmark finds its way deeper and deeper into the book I am reading. The glass of lemonade is always full. I never feel the need to empty my bladder. And by the time the sun has set and there is no longer enough light left in the sky to make out the words, I feel incredibly satisfied with just how much reading I managed to do. The reality is far different. For when the TV is not on and the house is quiet and I find myself sitting in the chair with a thick book open in front of my and a cold A&W Zero Sugar Root Beer on the table beside my, as often as not I find that I read five or ten pages, and then fall asleep in the chair.

That never happens in my daydreams.

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Thoughts on Billy Summers by Stephen King

Note: I never know what is a spoiler and what isn’t. I think it varies by person. With that said, it is possible there are spoilers in what I have written below, but I don’t think I give anything significant away. Still, that is my own judgement so if you haven’t yet read the novel, be warned, here may be spoilers.

Before I ever read a Stephen King novel, I was convinced he was overrated. This was back in my teens and twenties, when I thought I knew everything, and most of my reading was limited to science fiction novels. The first King novel I read was Salem’s Lot and I wasn’t sure how I liked it that first time. Looking back, I see it wasn’t because of any flaw in King as a writer, but in me as a reader. It has since become one of my favorite King novels.

Since then, Stephen King has become one of my favorite fiction writers, precisely because he does the unexpected with his stories while the momentum of publicity still carries him as a horror writer. I look forward to each new release, and I was fortunate enough to be on vacation when King’s latest novel, Billy Summers, came out.

On its surface, this latest novel is a thriller of the Jack Reacher genre: a loner assassin-for-hire takes one last job before calling it quits. But that’s the thing about King. There are layers and layers to his stories, or as Jake Chambers might describe them, “there are other worlds than these.” The “surface” story is for those readers who want to put in the work to see what is underneath. For me, as a reader, putting in the work is what reading is all about. If I don’t want to have to do any work, I’ll watch a TV show.

What, then, are these other worlds?

Billy Summer’s story is told in first person, and at the beginning, Billy seems very simple, almost slow. He is clearly regarded as a world class shot, and he has a reputation that precedes him. He comes across as a slightly more intelligent Charlie Gordon at the opening of Flowers for Algernon. But this is a ruse. Billy is much smarter than he appears (there are layers and layers to Billy, other worlds beyond these). Billy chooses to show only his “dumb self” to his clients. Billy is well aware of this.

Billy’s cover story for his current job is as a writer who has to buckle down because he’s been partying too much. His “agent” finds him a quiet place to live somewhere bordering the South in the U.S., a small town called Midwood. There, Billy waits for his prey, and in the meantime, pretends to live the life of a writer, one in which is writes his own story as cover. He even recognizes his relationship to Charlie Gordon:

Can he really write a fictionalized dump self version of his own life story? Risky, but he thinks maybe he can. Faulkner wrote dumb in The Sound and the Fury. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, is another example.

I’ve read that King dislikes the term “meta-fiction” but that is what much of his fiction is, and at least part of what makes it great. He did it as early as Carrie, where the story itself is made up, in part of newspaper articles, diary entries, etc. It became almost a signature of some of his best work, Misery being one example. How many of King’s great characters are writers? How often do references to King’s own work show up in other King books? He took this to an extreme in the Dark Tower series, where Salem’s Lot, the novel, plays a pivotal role, and where Stephen King himself shows up as a character.

In Billy Summers, it is the novel that Billy writes that becomes the work-within-the-work. That novel serves to provide us with Billy’s background, and how he became an assassin. King is aware that the “one last job” story is almost cliche, and he tackles it head on when Billy considers the job:

Billy doesn’t mind. He’s thinking of all the movies he’s seen about robbers who are planning one last job. If noir is a genre, then “one last job” is a sub-genre. In those movies, the last job always goes badly. Billy isn’t a robber and doesn’t work with a gang and he’s not superstitious, bu this last job thing nags at him just the same.

And what does King do? The unexpected. The job itself goes off without a hitch. Pretty early in the overall story, too. Indeed, I was surprised when Billy carried out the job successfully as early as he did, and wondered what would possibly carry the remaining two-thirds of the novel. Then, after the job is done and things are beginning to settle down, Billy meets Alice Maxwell, and the novel really takes off.

King fans will not be disappointed by some of the references in the novel. The small town in which Billy first stays, Midwood, seems remarkably close to Mid-world. Perhaps it is one of those “thin” places that King often writes about. Later, a pivotal scene takes place on a dirt road in Hemingford Home, Nebraska, a town that fans of The Stand and a few other King stories will recognize. Sidewinder also makes an appearance in the novel.

Billy Summers embodies what I like about most Stephen King stories: it is a fun read, and if all you’re looking for is edge-of-your-seat entertainment, it delivers. But it also delivers so much more, if you are willing to work for it.

Billy Summers by Stephen King, Scribner, August 3, 2021

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Reading versus Sleeping

There is a battle I engage in each night: whether to go to sleep, or read. I get up pretty early. Usually I’m awake between 5:15 and 5:30a, and I am out on my morning walk between 5:50 and 6:00a. During the summers, the kids don’t go to bed until 10p and I usually start to drag around 8p. If I could, I’d probably go to bed around 8p each night. Usually, I end up going to bed closer to 10p.

By the time I get into bed, I am usually tired. I have a small window in which I can fall asleep quickly and if I miss that window for some reason, it usually takes me much longer to settle down and fall asleep. The problem, for me, if the constant battle that goes on in my head between reading and sleeping. There is rarely a time that I don’t want to continue reading for as long as I can. At the same time, I can often feel myself slipping outside the boundaries of that sleep window. So: do I continue to read, knowing it will be difficult to fall asleep? Or do I set aside the book knowing I’ll fall asleep quickly and feel well-rested in the morning.

nightstand book stack

As much as I need a good night’s sleep, I almost always opt to continue reading. Usually, when I am on the fence, the thought that goes through my head is: At the end of my life, I’m not going to say, “I wish I’d slept more.” And then I imagine that I am on the verge of reading a book I’ve been looking forward to for a long time when the lights go out. That usually puts off sleep for a time. Some nights I’ll read for a while, and the book will keep sleep at bay. Other nights, I’ll get another 15 minutes before the laws of physics make it impossible for me to keep my eyes open any longer.

On some nights, much more rare, I just can’t put a book down. I’ll keep reading and reading, past midnight, past one o’clock, two o’clock… I know that I will regret this in the morning, but some books are just so good I can’t put them down.

Occasionally, I will give in to my need for sleep. I’ll get into bed with the thought that maybe I’ll read for a few minutes, and then reconsider, close my eyes, and be right off to sleep. Usually when this happen I tell myself that I’ll pick up the book first thing in the morning, or in the middle of the night, if I wake up and can’t get back to sleep. That never happens, probably because I am so tired from reading late in the first place.

When I really want to read, but am just too tired to keep my eyes open, I become envious of the “sleepless” in Nancy Kress’s “Beggars in Spain,” people who have been genetically modified so that they don’t need sleep. I wonder just how much more reading I could get done if I didn’t need to sleep between 6-8 hours each night?

Actually, it wouldn’t be that hard to estimate. Say it takes me 10 hours, on average, to read a book. And suppose that, by being sleepless, I could get in an additional 5 hours of reading per day. (I say 5 because even at my best, I can’t read for 7 hours straight without breaks.) That would mean an additional 35 hours of reading per week, or about 3-1/2 books. There are 52 weeks in a year so I would read an additional 182 books a year. Without that time, in my best year, I read 130 books. Usually I am for 100 books/year. Being genetically modified to not require sleep would increase my reading by 182%. If I lived to be 90, I might be able to read an additional 4,000 – 5,000 books in my life. Without sleep, that number jumps to an additional 7,300 – 8,300 books in the last 40 years of my life.

I know that people are wary of genetic modification, but being able to go without sleep sounds like a real superpower when I consider how much more reading I could do. I wonder if this is something Jennifer Doudna is looking into?

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