Friday, October 13, 2017

Time takers, scary books (not the Halloween kind of scary), and the existentialist threat

Reading my books was going to be my big intellectual effort for the next couple of years. I switched this blog, which I used to use to post pictures of my shirtless torso, to a new subject to give me a space to ramble on about these books to make the process of reading them more than a check the box/draw a line through the title kind of exercise. The point wasn't to merely read the books, but to watch the books impact me and see how much all this reading changed me (if at all). Reading is a great way to spend time, but this blog was a challenge to see if I could make more of that experience. It hasn't really been that, and that makes me a little sad. I've read some very powerful books this year, but I haven't spent this extra time with them to more fully digest and incorporate what I've read into the way I view myself, my life, my family, the world.

There are two obvious things in my life that I can point to and blame for my failure to reflect. The release of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a good culprit. The time that I would normally use to write posts has been given to playing that immersive, addictive, and very amazing game. When I fail to meet my 30 book target at the end of the year, Zelda will get the blame for that too. Large chunks of reading time have been given over to exploring Hyrule. I'm not proud of it, but I don't really regret it either. I've had fun playing that game. The second easy scapegoat is marathon training. It's not that marathon training takes reading time, I'm just too tired to spend much time reading. It's hard to read when you're dozing off with the book in your hand. This has been a totally unanticipated aspect of the training program. I was ready for the long runs. I wasn't ready for the fatigue. The early mornings that go with the long runs don't help much either.

Of course it's not too late for me to start writing about the books I read. I'm only 17 deep. I still have 163 on my shelves. Maybe I can start spending one night a week reflecting on what I've read after I'm finished with the marathon training (and we aren't going to baseball games every Saturday night). I could always start right now. The sad truth is I do most of my writing while I'm at work. I just haven't had the time or the desire to do this kind of writing while at work. I have slowly slid into a bit of a coast over the last couple of months. My desire to think and write hasn't been the most intense. Maybe I've been tired, maybe I've been bored, maybe I just needed to take a breather from being too cerebral and just go with the flow. Maybe I've just been too busy seeing all the way things aren't going as I would like (I'm looking at you career) rather than finding ways to keep pushing and challenging myself in ways that won't get captured on a performance review.

I haven't really thought about it in these terms until just now, but I think I've been dealing with some regrets. I have plenty of relationship regrets. Those have weighed heavy on me as I work with my wife on a few issues. I have career regrets. I'm working on making peace with the fact that the way I want to live my life and job roles that would be the easiest route to career progression do not fit well together. There will always be an element of frustration in my job when it comes to the way we do things. There's nothing I can do about it so I just have to learn to live with it. The optimism and believe that things will eventually be different that define the early phase of my career has been burned away. Finding a purpose and meaning in my work has been a challenge this year. I feel lost.

The fact that I'm writing this post is a sign that I'm emerging from this wandering phase. I've been lost in distraction more than observing and being engaged with my world. Disney World podcasts are fun, but they are really just a way for me to slip out of my current state and weakly inhabit a different type of experience. The emergence of Whiteness into my awareness has given me something more substantial to think about. The clue hunting for the landscape has also been helpful. I used those things to get out of my head. Focusing my intellectual energy on something outside of my concerns has helped me get out of that repeating loop. (Whiteness has also been the biggest threat to my book acquisition restriction. I almost got a book that would help me understand the fuss. I found a pdf for free on the internet instead. The concept is a vague and ill-defined ideology based more of perception and interpretive experience rather than anything solid and objective.)

So here I am, poised to move beyond the shallow pool I've been swimming in for the last year or so. I'm ready for a scary challenge. My first instinct was to scour my wants and desires to find a challenge that I could start to focus on as my marathon training starts to ease up and I shift into the winter (and a much anticipated trip to the best of all distractions with the best of all companions), but then I thought about my desire to read all of my books and the vehicle that challenge provides to push me beyond normal, routine, and the everyday. It's time for me to do something scary. Is there a scary challenge in my reading list?

Yes. War and Peace. Ulysses. These are the scary books that I look at every year and always seem to avoid when it comes time to pick what to read next. I'm working my way through The Name of the Wind right now. It's a big fat book that had been a bit scary before, but it's an engaging and fast moving read. I think I was braced for another Malazan type of series. The cover made me think it was another dark and complex series with scores of characters, multiple plot lines, and an elaborate world. It's pretty much the opposite of those things. Limited characters, one story line, and a world that is not all that much different from our own. It's easy to sit down and read 20 to 30 pages of this one. I always know what's going on and have no trouble keeping track of events. That's very un-Malazan like. So maybe Ulysses and War and Peace will also be more fun to read than anticipated.

My wife asked me to tell her about somebody's life and death. Not a real person, just something made up. I came up with a guy who worked for a cereal company (it was while I was eating breakfast) his whole life, was just about to retire and enjoy his life, when brain cancer came along and ended everything for him. The ending is always looming above us. It's just a question of when. There is nothing standing between me and reading Ulysses than my reluctance to pick up the book and start reading. What am I waiting for?

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Remaining books, 164

I made a list of a dozen or so books that I was particularly keen on reading at some point in 2017 towards the end of 2016. Most of these books were on the longer side, 600 pages or more, so I took that into account when I made my reading goal for 2017. The real question is whether I would actually read those books. Remarkably enough, I have read a few of them. One of the first books I read this year, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, is on that list (with a check mark next to it now). The last three books that I've read since finishing The Reef are also on the list (with check marks). I made it through The Goldfinch. I have some thoughts on that book sitting in my drafts. I may put it out here some day. After months of reading a few pages here and there, I finally made it through The Radicalism of the American Revolution. That is a fascinating but rather dry book. It was tough to read, but I'm very happy that I put in the effort. I've also knocked off another Modern Library 100 book. I read Deliverance. It's short but rather brutal.

I picked up Tender is the Night after finishing Deliverance. It's another shorter book that also happens to be a Modern Library 100. It's a very quick and pleasant read. I'd like to get through it this week, but I may not find the time to get it wrapped up. I will definitely be finished with it by this time next week.

Looking at my list of 2017 Aspirations, I can see a couple of possibilities for what to take on next. Mistborn 3 is an attractive choice. The third book in Sanderson's Stormlight Archives is being released in November. I consume those as audiobooks so I can get it without compromising on my no new books pledge (I would have added it as an exception if I had read the print versions of the first two volumes). Wrapping up another story from the Cosmere would be a good way to build up to the new audiobook (all 50 hours of it). The Kingkiller Chronicles are also on that list. I've been meaning to read those books for awhile but I just haven't been motivated to take on another fantasy series with big fat books.

I have another challenging book going on in the background. I'm a few days into An Outline of a Theory of Practice. A dozen or so pages in and things still make sense. It's not quite 200 pages so I could make it through the book in a couple of months at my 5 or 6 pages a day pace. We'll see what my mornings look like once we settle into a new morning routine catching buses for school.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Vacation Reading

It's vacation time! I'm packing tonight so we can leave for the beach as soon as I get home tomorrow afternoon (well, I have to pack the cooler first but that's a quick task). With packing comes the need to decide which books to take with me. I like to have plenty of options. I'm firmly into The Goldfinch. I wasn't sure how the must read book of a couple years ago would strike me, but I find myself sacrificing time playing the latest Zelda game to read this instead. That's a strong statement of readability. So The Goldfinch and it's impressive bulk will be coming with me. I'm making steady progress on The Radicalism of the American Revolution. While that's not exactly a beach read, I'm going to take it with me in the event that I want to keep reading my 10 or so pages a day to finally get that one finished. 

Those two books will probably be enough to keep me fully supplied with reading material for the week, but you never know how these things will play out. I will have plenty of room in my bag for another book or two. My plan for the past month or so has been to start reading the Kingkiller Chronicles while at the beach. I started my long journey with The Malazan Book of the Fallen while on vacation at the beach in 2013. It just feels right to start these massive fantasy series while on vacation. I have clear memories of reading A Dance with Dragons in the hotel room at the beach. Thick fantasy tomes goes with the beach like beer and sunscreen.

I'm way behind on my Modern Library Top 100 reading. I will likely throw Deliverance into my bag as well. It's on the shorter side so I might actually get a little closer to my 30 book goal for the year.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Reef (167 books remain)

I had a post with some comments on The Reef all ready to go, but then I actually finished the book and realized that I had it all wrong. I let the blurb on the back of the book make me think the core commentary of the novel was social criticism and critique of The Patriarchy. It's a much more internal drama. You could read the characters as representing some larger social movement, but the drama is much more personal. The characters are not neat symbols with clearly defined characteristics portraying a single value. They suffer from the complexities and ambiguities inherent in life. Their choices, a consequence of time and circumstances, have consequences. The consequence of choice is really at the core of the novel. You can choose to trust somebody, but do you ever really know what they're thinking or feeling? One person can cause bring you joy and happiness, but the same person can also bring you pain. There is no simple explanation or foolproof method to divine the truth of a person's heart and soul. The novel ends without a neat resolution to the conflict that drives the narrative. There really isn't a story as much as a slow unfolding of a relationship. It's a book that improves after reading. It was hard to read. The pace was slow and the indecision and uncertainty of Anna Leath was frustrating. If I had been quicker to pick up on the reality captured in the novel I may have found it more enjoyable to read. 

It's remarkable that a book written almost a century ago can capture so much of what happens in our modern life. Our human struggles defy time and place. They are constant and universal. Works of art like this do not exist outside of our emotional life. They capture and express our emotions in a way that makes them more understandable and accessible. Edith Wharton can still speak to me years after her death. A shard of her experience matches a small portion of my own life. I can see some of my experience in her's. This peak makes my life a little deeper and meaningful. This is why I read. 

Monday, July 10, 2017


I knew this goal was going to be very long term when I started, but the scale of that long term is starting to sink in. While I don't think about the entire mass of the books to read as one big thing to consume, 168 is a large number. I've read that many books over the last four years so it's definitely something that I can accomplish, but the number of books do not tell the entire story. There's a big difference between reading The Sister Brothers or a 007 book and Proust or Joyce. Short and easy to consume books take a few days. Harder titles can take months. Committing to those challenging books is hard. Taking on the challenge is the entire point of forcing myself to read them. My unread books represent unrealized aspirations. They are things that I want to do that remain to be done. It's the realization that my time to do these unrealized things is finiite and slowly ebbing away that drove me to commit to reading all my unread books in the first place. Some will be quick reads that are fun and easy (like Seveneves, my most recently completed title) while other will be challenging slogs that require a focused and concentrated effort (The Radicalism of the American Revolution falls squarely into this category. It's an extremely interesting book written by a true master of the material, but it's kind of boring and not the easiest book to read). 

The reading of the book, not just finishing it, is the entire point of picking it up in the first place. I want to have my horizons broadened and my mind expanded. I want to be shocked and amazed and made more aware of what is hidden and hard to see in our world. There's talking and there's doing. Buying the book is talking. Reading the book is doing. It's the reading that counts. It's the will to embrace the challenge and stick with it despite the difficulties and challenges that counts in this effort. The books will always be here, but I will not. Getting through these books helps me make the most of that limited time.  

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Bookshelf Zero Update - 13 squared remain

Book Shelf Zero Status Update:
Owned books read in 2017: 11
Books bought in 2017: 0
Borrowed books read in 2017: 1
Total books read in 2017: 12
Books to be read remaining: 169

I finally made it through Lens of the World over the weekend. I bought that ebook a couple of years ago for a dollar. It wasn't a bad book, but it was definitely a book that I probably wouldn't have bothered finishing if it wasn't for these reading goals. The writing was decent enough, but the story just didn't make any sense. It was an experiment. I've found really good books by buying a cheap ebook. That wasn't the case with this one. 

I've fallen off the 30 books this year pace. Committing to The Radicalism of the American Revolution has slowed me down a bit, but playing Breath of the Wild is the true origin of my reduced reading volume. I've spent many hours playing that game rather than reading. I don't regret that choice one bit, at least not right now, but I would like to pick up the reading a bit more. I'm okay sticking with the dry but very interesting history book if i can find a fun book to read on the Kindle app. I'm thinking Seveneves may be the right ebook for me to realize that situation. Undermajordomo Minor may be another good choice. UM may be the winner because it's short, but it feels like the right time to read Seveneves. I'll take a look at each of them tonight. Regardless of which I pick, I need to read a dozen or so pages of The Radicalism to start to regain some momentum with that one.

I only have to read a group of 13 books 13 times and I will achieve Bookshelf Zero. It's taken me about 6 months to read 13 books so far this year. That's only 6.5 years. That doesn't sound so awful...

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Lose Your Gut

The constant refrain on the cover of every men's fitness magazine. Given the generous bellies sported by the vast majority of dudes of all ages at amusement parks (the most abundant place to observe regular people doing living like a huge number of other people), I can understand the marketing potential of such a desirable promise. A gut isn't all about appearance. When you're young and capable, a gut is part of the older guys who look fondly back on their glory days. They're fading. The gut just seems to signify that the best of times are behind us. Fighting against that slowly expanding girth is really a fight against becoming the old guys we mocked when we were young. 

All those lose your gut remedies involve eating the magic diet and sticking with some complicated workout routine. The steps are really just a way to increase self-control and develop better habits. An even better remedy is to live a very simple life focused on feeling rather than feeding. Bloggers of various ilks all seem to believe in minimalism, meditation, and some variation of a vegan/vegetarian diet. Part of this comes from reading each others stuff and part of it comes from not having enough money to have a high-level consumerist lifestyle. That's kind of snarky and jaded of me, I have never talked to one of these guys to really understand their life, but it's a satisfyingly simple explanation for the common elements of the self-improvement self-help internet scribe. 

The simple life is certainly not gut inducing. At least it makes it easier to stick with activities and diets that tend towards a leaner body. If I pursued a simple life (or did not have the means to do things like buy Diamond Club tickets for a Washington Nationals game), my wife and I would be out hiking down by the river or exploring some mountain trail rather than sitting behind the net at Nats Park while a server brings us food and drinks (that are included with the ticket price). We were at the park on Tuesday night. I had two beers, a huge thing of nachos, and a bunch of popcorn. A simple life would me walking around while eating very little. My more complex consumerist life has me sitting around watching elite athletes while I consume all kinds of high calorie goods. The complex consumerist lifestyle is much more fun and pleasurable. 

Staying gut free would be easier if I had programmed myself to abhor consumerism and capitalism when I was younger (or if I had been programmed that way). Viewing pleasurable activities as evil would make them far less appealing. But I had absolutely no shot of being an anti-consumerist radical. I was injected into the respect authority and consuming is fun world. I've never felt the need to turn away from it. I love going to Disney World, the ultimate consumer paradise, and have absolutely no interest in living small. Beers are one of the small pleasures of my life. I've found that I can get by without lots of candy and baked goods, but fatty, salty food is much harder for me to resist. I love meat and enjoy reveling in the abilities that nature has bestowed upon me as a sexually functional male. Fatty stuff fuels that part of my nature. 

The extravagances of the consumer life are not constants. Trips to Disney World or a day at the ballpark are occasional events. The constants that make up the scaffold of these special events are where simple choices are made. Running is a simple thing made all the more complicated by our culture's need to find scarcity and build a market around the desire to have that limited thing. The Boston Qualifier time is the ultimate aim of many runners (I'm way too slow to even consider that at the moment. My fastest 5K ever, which was largely downhill, was run right at the pace I would need for a BQ time. And that only happened because the standard was slightly lower for me once I passed age 40). Equipment of all kinds, from shoes and socks to treadmills and foam rollers, accumulate around the simple act of propelling our bodies forward at a slightly elevated pace. Races are pricey, with those prices only getting bigger as bigger medals and post-run parties are added to enhance the appeal and eventness of contests that have been run for millennia.

Despite all the complexity the market builds into simple things, there are few things simpler than getting up and going for a run. I use a fancy watch that tracks my run and allows me to know just how far I've run and how quickly I've covered that distance at any given time, but there is no product that compels me to get out of bed when it's still dark and head outside to run a few miles right when the birds are just starting to get going. I have a fancy rowing machine in my garage. I may use a TV show as a reason to get out in the garage, but I could choose to just stand on the treadmill to watch the show. I chose to row while I'm watching the show.

As I write these tortured paragraphs, I'm struck by the thought that all of the advocacy of certain lifestyles is really nothing more than one person framing the limit of their consumer opportunities as a desirable state. I'm really doing nothing more than justifying my own choices. The real question is why I feel like I have to justify anything in the first place. My life is my life. Whether I decide to adopt the worldview imposed on me by the conditions of my birth or choose to rail against everything that more rebellious factions of society say is poison and evil is ultimately entirely my decision. It affects me and my family. Whether some hipster in Harlem would make the same choices is irrelevant.