Tuesday, February 13, 2018

2001, Consider Phlebas done, still at 156

2001: A Space Odyssey took me to places that I had not anticipated. I have seen (and been mystified) by the movie. This book lays out the story behind the visual and audio power of the movie. The movie wouldn't be nearly as powerful without this very solid story behind it. The book does more than merely provide a strong skeleton to some classic cinema. The scale of the Universe defies our understanding (just as much as what happens down at the electron level), but this book gives us a little peak into the vastness of creation. It's compelling and wondrous and awe inspiring. Definitely a book worth reading.

I'm much more lukewarm on Consider Phlebas. The entire book is a series of unfortunate events for the Changer. The different sections of the book are solid in their own way, but the effort to string them together into some kind of cohesive whole was not convincing. The book would have been better as a collection of loosely connected short stories (which it kind of is in its own way) than a single novel. It's the first book in the Culture Series. We'll see if Banks got better at this kind of writing by the time he really got going with this style of writing.

These two books bring me up to 6 books for the year. I'm happy with this pace. I'm still at 156 books to read as these were both library books, but they were also both entries on the NPR Top 100 Sci Fi list. That brings me up to 36 of those titles completed. That's only 5 fewer than the 41 books of the Modern Library Top 100. I'm currently reading a book from each list (I, Robot and A House for Mr Biswas) so there will be progress on both of those lists very soon. I'm borrowing I, Robot from the library (as an ebook, which is just way too convenient) so that does nothing for Bookshelf Zero, but A House for Mr Biswas is a book that I've had for a long time. It's old enough that it has a Border's tag on the back!

I haven't had a particularly strong urge to buy anything. Well, it's more accurate to say that the desire to get my to read number down is stronger than my desire to acquire a new book. The library ebooks are helping with the urge to buy. I can acquire the books and get through them quickly. This pattern may hold until I finish Mr Biswas.

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Hero of Ages - 156 to go

If I had only known! The Mistborn trilogy ends in fantastic fashion. I'm not just talking about the conclusion of this last novel. The entire book was outstanding.I have been cheating myself by putting it off for years. Yes,t it was a little on the long side, but all those pages were totally worth it. I closed the book feeling very satisfied. That's high praise because so many exciting books end with a whimper. Endings are where Sanderson excels. I've read some reviews of Oathbringer, another of his books that I'm slowly making my way through on Audible, and the ending of that book is highly praised. So The Hero of Ages goes back in the box with its other two friends, I get to mark another title from the NPR sci fi list (I'm up to 35 completed), and I have reduced my to read pile by one more book to get it to 156.

I'm on track to knock a couple more books off that NPR list in the next week or two. My to read pile will not change though. I'm deep enough into my ebook borrow from the library that I will do my best to finish it before my loan period ends on Wednesday (or is it Tuesday?). This will be my primary book for the next several days. I think I can finish it this week. My other library book, 2001: A Space Odyssey, may keep me from it though. I read a few pages of that this morning before heading to work. It's going to be a very fast read. It's short and compelling. I've seen the movie. I was entertained but confused. I've read that the book clarifies some of the confusion. We'll see.

I'm well ahead of my book reading pace of last year. I was still days from finishing my second book of the year at this point last year. I've already finished 4 this year. Those other two books are going to go quickly so I will have 6 books before too long. That's book a week pace again. This rapid progress tells me it's time to pick up something a bit more intimidating. I've had The Wings of the Dove on my nightstand for many months. This may be the time to take that on. Ulysses is there too, but I'm getting very close to (officially) abandoning my first attempt on that one.

I have unlocked a book to buy. Oh, the temptation is so strong. It's also nice to have the freedom to get a book if i so desire. I'm going to take my time and enjoy this. I may even wait until I have unlocked two books. That way I can buy one but still have the option to buy another if the right target comes along.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

It's a process, a long one

Bookshelf Zero will take years for me to realize. At 20 books a year (that would be a net number of books read minus books purchased), it will take me 8 years to finish. Let's face it, as I'm only left with really challenging books, my pace will slow down considerably. This is really more of a lifetime kind of quest.

Finishing either of the lists I mentioned last time, the Modern Library Top 100 or the NPR SciFi/Fantasy list, will also require years of reading. I read 3 Modern Library books last year. I have 59 titles left on that list. Excluding the multi-volume entries, I have 20ish years to go if I'm going to complete that list, at least at last year's pace. The Science Fiction list will take even longer. How much longer? A decade at least. It's taken me 2.5 years to read the Mistborn trilogy. That's just one entry on that mammoth list. How long will it take me to get through some of the huge series?

These are goals that are about the journey. The destination isn't the point. Exploring books that I would never have thought to read is the point. It's nice to see progress, but this is not something that I can rush. I'm looking forward to getting to under 150 books to achieve Bookshelf Zero. I will celebrate the milestones, but I will not simply abandon the ultimate goal because it's taking a long time. I have to be persistent, consistent, and patient. I will get there. It's going to take some time. There is no need to hurry or rush. I just need to stick to the process.

I'm sticking to the process through Mistborn 3. This is easily the best of the Mistborn books. This is mature Sanderson. He was still finding his voice in the first two volumes. He's all there in this one. I'm reading it quickly, but this is not a rush to just have the book finished. I'm desperate to see how it all turns out! I will be there soon. I expect that I will be transfixed with the big conclusion Wednesday night. That's not so good as I get up early to run on Thursday, but whatever. If I do finish on Wednesday, that means I spent two weeks to the day reading the book. That's pretty much what I expected when I started the book.

So it's about finding pleasure and a rewarding experience as I slowly chip away at my piles and piles of books. Enjoy the books I read. Keep my buying under control. Remind myself that this is not a short term endeavor. This is a lifestyle. I make a few pages of progress everyday. Those small steps add up after awhile. The number of books to read will get smaller and smaller every year. Well, assuming I don't go on a huge buying binge anyway.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Flashman complete, Mistborn 3 underway, lists and more lists

I was planning on writing some thoughts about my experience as a white, straight, married man in contemporary culture, but that feels really hard so I'm going to write about books instead. Flashman and the Dragon has been slain. The first two thirds of this one was entertaining (as all Flashman books are), but it was also a touch dry with lots of dialogue dedicated to putting all the players in their place and detailing the actions of different armies. The last third was the opposite of that. The domino rally that Macdonald spent all that time setting up fell together beautifully. (Come to think of it, Flashman has lots to say about masculinity.) I have the next Flashman book on my shelf, where it will stay for the next few weeks at least. Flashy is best consumed in moderation. The books are also very reasonable in length (about 300 pages) and highly readable so they are good palate cleansers between weightier (either in sheer heft or density) titles.

With my third book of the year complete (and my unread pile back down to 157 books), I've moved onto the third and final book of the Mistborn trilogy. These have not been my favorite books. I'm not sure I would have even read books 2 and 3 after reading book 1 if I had not bought the entire trilogy as a boxed set. Well, I have this minor goal to read all of Sanderson's books so I can maybe start to see his Cosmere thing come into play as he continues to churn out books at a crazy rate so I probably would have read them eventually. Regardless, I started this book with some trepidation. It's over 700 pages. The first two books dragged for a bit before ending on a much stronger note. Getting through that draggy early part is what has kept me from reading book 3 for so long. Well, 255 pages in there is no dragging. The action gets going right from the first page. I didn't realize how much I had forgotten from the last book, but a very convenient summary of book 2 in the back of this one has given me the reminders I need to reorient myself to the story. I'm all in on this one. It should be a fun read.

Finishing the Mistborn series will be another title I can mark as read in the NPR Top 100 Science Fiction / Fantasy list. I spent way too much time entering all the book/series into the spreadsheet I use to record all of my reading activities. I wanted to keep track of how many of those books/series I have read. I have a shelf for this list in Goodreads, but all the series make it hard to know how many of the 100 I have read. The answer is a third. I have finished 34 of the 100 titles. Now, I had to read 69 books to achieve that number. The Malazan books, all 10 of them, are part of that list. The Wheel of Time, which is a 14 book series, is also on the list. There are plenty of single books on that list too. I guess this list (and the Modern Library Top 100 novels) are kind of side quests to my main quest of Book Shelf Zero. Curiously, I think I've read most of the NPR list books that I own. Yes, other than this Mistborn book and the second Kingkiller Chronicles book, I have read all the sci fi/fantasy books that I own on that list. I have a couple of audiobooks that I haven't gotten to yet, but it's nothing like the 17 Modern Library books that I own but have not read. Let's face it, it's more fun to read an adventure in space than an examination of manners!

The contradiction of having a side quest that requires me buying more books when my stated purpose is to read all of the books I already own is not lost on me. I will keep buying books. The challenge is to avoid buying books on impulse. A perfect example of a potential impulse purchase came up this afternoon. A blog I read did a mini-review of a new book. That book just happened to be today's Kindle Daily Deal. Two years ago I would have bought it. It's only $2, what is there to lose?! Having lists like these give me a place to focus my desire to buy. The Sci Fi list is particularly promising place to look for fun books to buy. The entire list is around 315 books. All of those series really add up. Just one entry on the list, number 99, the Xanth series, includes 40 books. There are over 200 books for me to choose from. Well, that's not entirely true. A few of the series have omnibus editions. The Amber Chronicles, number 40, is a good example of this. The series is 10 books, but they are not very long. A single book containing all the novels is less than $20.

Now, the challenge with a book like that is how to account for it in my tracking of unread books. Is it one book or 10? I could see reading one novel from the series, putting the omnibus aside and reading something else, coming back to the next novel in the omnibus, and so on until the series (and the omnibus book) was finished. Would I count each novel from the omnibus as a book read on Goodreads? That would mess up my annual book tracking. I guess I could count them as borrowed books until I finished the 10th novel. It would get (unnecessarily) complicated.

I could try this approach to tracking the individual novels in a book that contains an entire series using some books I already own. I have the Alexandria Quartet in my phone. It's a 4 book series. The entire series is over 800 pages, but each book is only a couple hundred pages. I'm not reading anything on my phone at the moment (all my effort is with Mistborn), but I could start reading Justine, the first book, to see if my new system will work.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Getting to Yes with Yourself - 157...for now anyway

I wrapped up my first book that I both started and finished in 2018. I regretted buying Getting to Yes with Yourself after picking it up as a Daily Deal sometime in 2016. I read the intro and a bit of the first chapter and it just felt dull and inane. It was formulaic, thin, and a waste of time. It's still formulaic and thin, but it wasn't a waste of time. Learning to observe my feelings without judgement marks some pretty serious progress for me over the last year or so. I would lash out when threatened before I learned to just deal with my feelings. Lashing out only made the people around feel bad. Being vulnerable and authentic is difficult. You have to put so much on the line when you're honest about your feelings. I was taught to hide my emotions and coerce people to accommodate my emotional needs. That approach creates nothing but limits. It limits your opportunity to grow, it limits how deep your relationships can be, and makes it harder to get what you really want. This quick little book is a good reminder about being kind to yourself while being vulnerable and authentic. It's nothing life altering, but it's a nice reminder of a better way to live.

Two books down in 2018. I'm pretty deep into Flashman and the Dragon so it's looking like that will be number 3 for the year. I very much enjoy the Flashman books, but I've found that I get bored with them if I try to read too many in a row. I did two in a row a couple of years ago. The books follow the same basic plan. Flashman gets himself involved in an extreme situation (with deep historical significance) by pursuing a woman. The rest of the book is how he extricates himself from this dire predicament. They're very well done. Fraser maintains the Flashman identity in every line of the book. They're fun and entertaining in their own very unique style. I own another one with two more left in the series. It's a series I will definitely complete, eventually.

I finally bought a book earlier this week. I decided to go with A High Wind in Jamaica. It's a shorter book, 250 pages or so, and a Modern Library Top 100 book. I resisted the urge to buy a collection of three McMurtry books. I have a few of these collections in my to read pile. That would just be one more long book that I have to wade through. I decided it would be better to get something that doesn't make me cringe when I scroll by it in my Goodreads shelf. I tried to be clever and skip the Prime shipping so I could get Flashman finished before my new book arrived. I would not count it as bought until it was delivered. That would give me time to extend my book buying limit by another book (and get me a $5 credit for Amazon Now). I ended up outsmarting myself. I ordered my book Tuesday morning, opting out of the Prime shipping (delivery date was a week away, plenty of time to read Flashman). I ordered some books for my wife that evening, but this time I requested Prime shipping. Well, they ended up combing those orders for shipping. My book was delivered with my wife's books today (Friday). I discovered a way to hack the Amazon system, but I also gave myself a way to get a new book sooner. Oh well, I could always have some self-discipline and not buy a book for every two that I read.

I laid down some preliminary reading goals for 2018 this afternoon. I have had fairly ambitious reading goals (beyond reading a certain number of books) in the past, but I have never completed all of them. I will pick a group of books that I want to read. The group usually represents a mix of reading ambitions. Bucket list books like War and Peace usually show up. I try to get some of my series in there (Mistborn has been in every goal, I may actually read the last book this year), and I try to dig deep into my pile to find something that hasn't really been on my radar recently. I have a Mozart book that was one of my free books when I joined the History Book Club years ago. I read a few pages of it years ago. Maybe I'll work on that one at some point this year. I wouldn't hold my breath that it will get read though.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

New Year - Down to 158

I wrapped up The Fifties this morning. I would say that it wasn't what I expected, but I didn't really have much of an expectation when I picked it up on impulse. (Ironically, it's on sale right now too.) I assumed that there would be some kind of narrative throughout the book, but it's just a bunch of loosely related chapters. There isn't much in the way of analysis or discussion (outside of the choice of which topics and people to write about). We're kind of left to draw our own conclusions, but the leaps required to make these conclusions are minor at best. TV changed the way we make decisions and shaped opinion. Presidential politics, Civil Rights, advertising, entertainment, sports, all of these things were altered by the wiring of the nation. I guess that was the narrative. The nation got smaller in the fifties. A national conscience emerged. Everyone could have an opinion on events taking place well outside of their community. You could experience more of the world from your living room. Well, you could get a sense of the experience. TV provides a produced view of an event. You see what the people running the cameras want you to see. Just like our social media feeds show us what the people we follow want us to see. We build opinions with selected pieces of reality. We feel like we know everything and proclaim our expertise. We really know so little. We're ignorant about so many things. That's a timeless property of living. It's just as true now as it was 60 years ago.

Books like The Fifties perpetuate the idea that we know what's going on all the time. We can read about McDonald's and Russia and Martin Luther King and know how things turned out. We can start with something that emerged as significant and trace it back to some inauspicious beginning. We can tell ourselves that we see wisdom and foresight where there may just have been luck or good fortune. We can cast the heroes and the villains based on shifts in social norms. Events seem inevitable when looked at in hindsight. We read about the things that turned out well. We don't hear about the ventures that failed or aborted social movements. We tell ourselves a story based on a selective culling of the facts. We tell the story that helps the world make sense. We find the neat and tidy explanations buried in the ambiguous and noisy reality of life.

So The Fifties was an adequate book. It was a competent collection of facts told with a compelling style. It's also rather conventional and seeks easy answers to difficult questions. I read it despite feeling like it was a book that I would just pass over again and again. It's in my past. The timing of my finishing this book is nice. It's only January 2 and I already have 1 book completed for 2018, a several hundred page book at that. I'm going for 30 books again this year so that leaves me with 29 to go. For the year anyway. Only 158 to go for Book Shelf Zero (not bad considering that I was looking at 180 at this point last year.)

On to what's next. I find myself once again finishing a book without being well advanced in another book (aside from Ulysses, which I may or may not resume). So many options! I like to have both an ebook and a print book going at the same time so I really have two choices to make. I'm pretty sure my print selection will be the next Flashman book. I'm up to number 8, Flashman and the Dragon. They're fun and pretty quick reads. I've been working through some ponderous stuff recently so something pleasing to read will be a good way to start 2018. As for my next ebook, I'm leaning towards quickly knocking out Getting to Yes With Yourself. This is another one of my impulse Deal of the Day purchases. It sounded like a good book at the time, but I was less than enthralled after reading a few pages. I'm at a point where I can just swallow my feelings on the book and just get through it. It's not very long so it could be a way to build some momentum and make some room for something more involved. I have the Alexandria Quartet as a single ebook. That's four books in one. I could read one, move on to something else, come back, and repeat until finished. I just don't want to start something else overly long after just finishing an 800 plus bag behemoth via the Kindle app.

I'm free to buy books again, but I don't want to get something just for the sake of getting something. I'm sure the urge to acquire some new material will get the better of me soon. I'm just trying to decide if I should get something that I can read quickly or find something with a little more heft.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

To Have or to Be? - Still at 161 (library book)

I was shaken twice while reading this book. 

The first time was when Fromm says that we repress the truth. We build up all kinds of stories in our head to make life tolerable. We put those stories in place to deny the truth. Said differently, we live a lie. 

The second time was his observation that the Greek Heroic Ideal (the one who dominates and defeats his opponents, takes their stuff, and wins) has defeated the Heroic Ideal personified by Jesus, the powerless man who fights back and resists the might of an Empire. 

Striving has always been a central part of my life. I never thought to question it. I always felt justified to do whatever it took to pursue the next big opportunity. I pursued my own idea of the Heroic and told myself all kinds of stories and lies to reassure myself that I was justified in my choices and actions. I was aware of this dynamic long before I read To Have or To Be?, but the straight-forward simplicity of these two ideas were so focused and sharp and close to my own experience, they hit me right in the intellectual solar plexus. 

I'm very areligious. My wife calls me an atheist, which is factually accurate, but I'm not offended by the idea of religion or the church. The concepts and practices of Christianity just don't make me feel anything. Fromm has this idea that religion is just the animating concept. It's the fundamental thing that we pursue in our life. I long held the kind of achievement oriented, outcome focused pursuing kind of life that he calls the Having orientation. I never considered another approach, at least not up until the last couple of years.

Ambition and I are on very good terms, but my ambition has never been strong enough to burn up my identity and desire to live my life on my own terms. As much as I thought I wanted to be a big important person at work, I could never take the steps necessary to fall into the established track for progression up the corporate ladder. Well, that's not entirely true. I tried, but other people were selected over me. What is true was that I fought against and resisted that track. I actively went against my best interests when I decided to stick with my analytical role rather than switch to design. It was an early step towards doing what is best for me and my family rather than what is best for my career. 

Fromm bemoans the overwhelming presence of otherness in our lives. Our lives in modern America suburbia are not shaped by our individual wants, our community, or the people we impact and who impact us. Market forces and the needs of extensive bureaucracies color and shape what we pursue and what we think is really important. We strive to win, we strive for more. We see the fabulous life lived by everybody else and bemoan the sorry sadness of our own mundane movie. Fromm points out how this is not the only way to live. You can live in a way that emphasizes what really matters and impacts  you rather than fulfilling your socially defined role as a consumer of all things both physical, moral, and spiritual. There are plenty of writers doing their thing right now that are basically promoting the same message. Don't listen to what else is going on around you. Find your space and fill it. Let the haters hate. 

Fromm's focus is not on the individual living their life, but on social forces that shape that life. His ambition is much more grand than popular bloggers (and authors). He wants to reshape society in an effort to save mankind from itself. He loses points for some of his utopian proposals, but at least he has the guts to propose something big and audacious.