Saturday, January 14, 2017

Post from a train

I'm somewhere in southern North Carolina. We'll be in South Carolina fairly soon. Hopefully I'll be asleep by then. I can just start reading Jonathan Syrange & Mr. Norrell if I have much trouble getting to sleep. All the years of avoiding this book were well spent. I keep waiting for something to happen. It just keeps dragging on. I can make myself get in 30 pages or so but it's a struggle to read much past that. I'm fearing a Fellowship of the Rings situation brewing. Just because loads of other people love a certain book is no guarantee that it will be something I enjoy with the same fervor. It's not a bad book. I will keep reading it, but it's so long.

Maybe I will have a repeat of my latest audiobook experience. I nearly bailed on Asimov's Amongst the Gods, but I stuck with it. The middle section was a huge drag. It had a fun ending that made the tedium of the section worth the slog through multiple sections switching between three different characters. The third section really saved the book. It tied everything together and was brisk and engaging. It wasn't exactly my kind of book, but I can recognize excellent work when it doesn't resonate with my taste. I'm hoping Jonathan Strange will reward my effort in a similar fashion. Dickens books always take forever to build and end in a flourish that makes the previous hundreds of pages worth the effort. Jonathan Steange has Dickensian aspirations. Perhaps those aspirations will be realized in the end.


Thursday, January 12, 2017

Cramming workout time into my routine

I got up 10 minutes earlier than normal this morning so I could get in a 5000 m rowing session. I usually get up and shower before I wake up my kids, but I just got dressed and headed downstairs today. I was on the rowing machine 10 minutes after my alarm went off. That's pretty good for me. It sometimes takes me 30 minutes to get out the door for a morning run. I wasn't feeling superb during the rowing, but I stuck with it and got in the full distance. I felt better at the end than I had in the first 1000 m or so. The shift in how I started my day didn't cause any issues with my parental duties. I woke my kids up after I finished rowing and managed to get them to their daycare (schools are still closed from Saturday's snow) on time. I even dragged myself into work 30 minute earlier than normal for a meeting with my boss. This bodes well for incorporating an additional workout into my weekly routine. An extra 50 or so 5000 m rowing sessions will net me an extra 250,000 m over the course of the year (I will miss weeks that I'm on vacation or doing other fun family stuff). 

The workout fit in well with the must get done parts of my day, but my reading time did get squeezed a bit. Reading volume is really nothing more than a reflection of time spent reading. I lost about 10 pages of reading this morning. It's more important that I take care of my body than grab a few more pages of reading. It's not as much about the progress I'm making in my book of the moment as it's about breaking a habit. I've been reading in the morning after my kids are on their way to school (or at their daycare in the summer) for a couple of years. Breaking that habit is the real challenge. I'm focused on the reading aspect of it because I have this compulsion to finish books (and spending more time reading gets me to the end of a book faster), but the challenge is really about modifying the way I start my day. 

It's critical that I maintain my current habits while establishing some new ones. I went to the gym today at lunch after almost talking myself out of it this morning. My desire to lift was low, but it was hard to justify not going when I realized that I would just go out for lunch if I skipped the gym. Spending money and skipping a workout is hard to justify when I have a lunch ready to eat in my car. The no book buying rule for this year also plays a role in maintaining my lunch time trips to the gym. Visiting a book store is my preferred not going to the gym at lunch activity. I have no reason to visit a book store if I'm not buying anything. I almost talked myself into going so I could shop for books to get on Audible, but that became a non-issue when I convinced myself to go lift at lunch. 

I'm not totally immune to temptations and cravings. I did hit Taco Bell to try one of the double stack tacos after my workout. After avoiding beer all weekend, pushing myself to the gym, and settling into no book shopping (which includes losing the Daily Deal email, a fun little part of my morning for the last couple of years), I felt alright letting my willpower recovery for a moment. The fact that I will allow myself to eat all kinds of not so healthy food next week also played a role. Why push so hard to resist my taco urging today when I'm going to be eating all I care to eat breakfast buffets and countless desserts and small treats while walking around Disney next week? So I tried the taco. It was very good. I enjoyed it tremendously.

Monday, January 9, 2017

1 down, 179 to go

I finished Freedom yesterday. Freedom is an excellent novel. The writing is outstanding and the struggles and conflicts that drive the story bubble with authenticity. I've been dealing with family discord of my own and every parent knows what it's like to question your choices and worry that you're not doing the best that you can for your children. There is a very strong political current throughout the story. Those aspects of the novel were highlighted by the moderators of a couple of podcasts I've listened to since finishing the book, but I don't see them as essential to the novel's success. Politics were more a prop driving actions and identity. The novel succeeds despite the politics. Bush was a big deal to people when Franzen was writing the book, but he's faded in relevance, particularly with the rise of Trump. 

The characters just felt politically naive to me. They adopted well established liberal positions with little conflict or thought. There is a smug superiority in their positions, particularly Walter's environmentalist crusade, and they eagerly criticize those few characters who take different political positions. The depiction of this uncritical adoption of the "correct" position on socially charged issues resonates with me after watching the reaction to Trump's election. I was shocked by how easily people had accepted the characterization of Trump as a homophobic, bullying bore. People had picked Hillary's team and were happy to cheer for her while rooting against the evil Trump. The sad truth is that the major parties are essentially working towards the same end (consolidation of power). They use different words and distract people from what they're doing by feeding the media's drive to cast every political contest as some kind of big game, but people in Washington just want to get power and money regardless of their party affiliation. Decisions are made based on which position consolidates influence and wealth in the hands of somebody with a big office somewhere in DC or NoVa. Larger societal concerns are secondary.

So it's on to the next book. If I did not have a long trip to Disney World on the almost immediate horizon (next week!) I would just have picked up Crime and Punishment and been on my way. Thinking about reading Crime and Punishment while riding on the train down to Florida (an overnight trip with a solid couple of hours remaining in the trip after we wake up) made me reconsider that course of action. It didn't take me long to settle on Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I've had this highly regarded and frequently included in all kinds of best fantasy book lists book on my shelves for years. I've been putting it off because it's long. I spent a couple of years with the long fantasy books of the Malazan series. Something like JS & Mr. N is not exactly the first thing that came to mind when I was looking for something to read between those Malazan monsters. It also lives on an out of the way bookcase in an extra bedroom. I have to intentionally go looking for books on these particular shelves. I just didn't think about it because I didn't see it. I would also be remiss if I did not acknowledge my 52 books in a 2016 goal as a factor in my neglect of this book. It takes a long time to read an almost 900 page book. That kind of time commitment is not exactly easy to swallow when you're working on a deadline. It's just this kind of thinking that I'm working on breaking away from this year. That's why picking up JS & Mr. N was a pretty easy decision.

I've made a reasonable start with this very thick book. (Even my son commented on how thick it is.) It won't be the easiest book to read on the train or after a long day of walking around Disney parks only because it's kind of hard to hold onto when I'm laying in bed. The story itself is intriguing and enjoyable (at least the 40 or so pages I've managed to read so far). I'm looking forward to finally reading this long neglected novel. I also started a book on my Kindle app. It's also something that I've had for a long time. I bought Boy's Life when it was the Daily Deal back in December 2013 (I didn't have that info handy, I had to look it up in my Amazon account). I read the other book I bought that day, Annapurna, soon after that purchase, but I just keep skipping over Boy's Life. I didn't really know anything about it when I bought it. I figured it was cheap and it's fun to try different stuff. If I hadn't started this whole Book Shelf Zero thing I would probably keep skipping it in favor of more immediately appealing books (like Seveneves). Boy's Life feels like a fun book that will be easy to read when getting out a big fat book like JS & Mr. N isn't the easiest thing to do. After reading the first few chapters, this definitely seems to be the case. This will be a fun and easy book that will pass the time and get me one step closer to Book Shelf Zero. Only 179 more to go.   

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Freedom's flow and Audio books (never sure if it's two words or one) (Jan 6)

Yes, Jonathan Franzen's means Freedom ironically. Every character thinks they're free to make a certain choice, but the consequences of those choices (and all the what may have beens if a different choice had been made) dog them for years. Their lives feel shaped by the consequences of choices they made years and years ago. So they're not really free. And if they were free at one point, like when they were young, that freedom was ephemeral and really all just an illusion. At least that's my take having read about two thirds of the book. 

The book continues to rush by. I was a little snagged by one of Walter's chapters, but the smooth flow of the book returned when the story shifted back to Richard. I experienced something like this when I read Purity, another of Franzen's books. They pages just pass without the impression of much effort being exerted. Ten pages of Proust is a task that feels like it took an hour. Ten pages of Franzen is a breeze that feels like it took no time at all. I start reading and before I know it 30 minutes have gone by in a blink. The distortion of my time sense is what has me staying up later than I wanted all this week. I tell myself that I'll just read for a few more minutes and it's been 15 minutes when I look at the clock. I was almost late to a meeting at work this morning (that I mostly go to to get a free bagel) after spending a few extra minutes at home to finish that chapter told from Richard's perspective.

I'm enjoying this book enough that I used one of my Audible credits to get The Corrections. I've had a long standing aversion to actually buying that book. I generally have an aversion to any Oprah Book Club book, but I've been learning to put that bias behind me and just read what intrigues regardless of marketing ploys by media figures. I usually use my audible credits on more action oriented books or books about video games (I do not know how this pattern started, but I've listened to three audio books with video games at their core). Literary books just don't work for me in the audio format, but I don't want to wait until next year to read The Corrections. The reviews said the narrator was good. Between that and the my curiosity about the book, I decided to take the plunge. 

The Corrections may get me out of my audio book funk. I went all in on the audio books last year. I listened to 16 of them. That was pretty much all I listened to. There wasn't much that I found appealing in music and I had gotten tired of podcasts. Audio books do a nice job of getting me through workouts and time alone in the car. The books that I have in my library just didn't sound that appealing after I finished Term Limits, a Vince Flynn book that falls very squarely into my action/suspense target. I started an Asimov book that was decent to a point but veered off into some weird place that I'm still trying to get a handle on. I've been listening to music on my way in to work this week (Run the Jewels 3 and Jamie xx) rather than trying to make it through more of the story about some weird alien species that needs three beings to reproduce. I listened to it a bit while I was at the gym this afternoon, but it's not something I'm clamoring to get back to. I will probably set Asimov aside and switch to The Corrections next week. I will need to finish Freedom first. I don't like to read and listen to two books by the same author at the same time.

Fitting in time for fitness (Jan 5)

Got out the door at 5:30 this morning for my first run of the New Year. It was cold for the first mile or so but I was reasonably comfortable after that. I've figured out the best way for me to dress when the temperatures are near freezing. I managed to talk myself into extending my usual 3.5 mile loop into 4.25 miles. Pace was not my focus this morning. I'm just trying to get back into a three day a week running routine. I've been a two day a week (or less) runner for the last month or so. Rowing is great and will be a major part of my exercise regime this year (I currently have 2,550,219 lifetime rowing meters, I'm aiming to have over 3 million by the end of the year), but miles will be critical to my running success this year. I would like to at least equal my effort at the Monument Avenue 10K in April and would like to survive my first marathon on November. The only way to make both of those goals happen is to spend plenty of time running.

Time to run (or do any workouts beyond my 3 runs each week and going to the gym at lunch) is very much in my things to find this year list. It would be easier to find more time to run if I actually enjoyed the anticipation of hitting the road for a few miles. Mild dread is the way I usually feel as I'm getting prepared for a run. Once I get going I'm usually fine, but getting started is definitely the hardest part of every run. This sense of ugh that comes with planning to run prevents me from exploiting small gaps of time that I could use to run. I realized a year ago that I could get to work early and run around the neighborhood one morning a week. I wouldn't do anything too long, just a few miles, but it would be a chance to get in those extra miles I need to improve my 10K time and make it through the marathon.

There are other small gaps that I could use, but they all require giving up time that I currently use to read. I get my kids on the bus a little after 7 but I don't leave for work until 8 at the earliest. I use that hour to complete the Temple Run 2 daily challenge, take care of a few chores around the house, and read. Sacrificing that reading time is the real challenge. At the same time, I'm talking about 1 day of the week. That's like 15 pages or so of whatever book I'm reading. One day could turn into 2 if I decide to add another rowing day to my routine. I run Monday and Thursday so those days will safely remain reading days. Friday would likely be my extra running day. The reasons for that are related to half day Fridays. I'll leave it at that for now. 

So that would leave Tuesday and Wednesday for rowing. My wife goes to the gym to run with a friend on Wednesday so that's the better day for me to row. I won't be in her way or make her adjust her plans if I hit the rowing machine on Wednesday rather than Tuesday. I could keep my Wednesday reading time if I could get myself out of bed at 5:30. I only need 20 minutes to row. I could shower while my kids are watching TV and waking up and be downstairs to get their breakfast ready with plenty of time to spare. It sounds good in theory, but it's so much harder to actually execute. 

Getting more sleep is one of my goals this year. I've been failing at that miserably the first few days of the year. It's all Jonathan Franzen's fault. I just can't put Freedom down. I stayed up way too late reading the book last night. I finally managed to stop at page 300, but I really wanted to read the next 8 pages to finish the chapter. I decided that I would leave that to the morning when I was in the bathroom before my run (an essential ceremony to perform before any run). I figured it would help me get up in the morning. I knew I would need an extra boost as it was already 11 and my alarm would be going off at 4:50 am. The promise of those 8 pages helped me pull myself out of bed. Then I left for work later than I planned when I got pulled into the next chapter. I made it to work earlier than normal, but Freedom kept me home an extra 15 minutes longer than I planned. I would like to say that I will be going to be early tonight, but I'll probably stay up until 11 again reading that book.

I will likely finish Freedom this weekend. That would put me 1 book in one week. I will not be adjusting my 30 book reading goal. I kept my reading goal relatively low so I would be able to give up some of the time I've spent reading to getting in better shape and getting more sleep. Shifting my patterns and redistributing my time is not something that I can just flip a switch and make happen. I look back at when I started running in the morning or shifted my bedtime from close to midnight to more like 11 as evidence that my current state is malleable, but I also remember how difficult it was to make those changes. My current routine is very well established and it lets me do the things that I like to do. It will be hard to make the changes, but I just have to be consistent and not expect too much too soon. And I need to read a boring book or two as I make the switch.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

And a New Year begins

Ironic that I chose to start my year reading a book titled Freedom (even if that title may have some ironic intent, still a little early in the book for me to say for sure). I'm I felt a little overwhelmed choosing one book to read of the 180 that I have sitting around. There were too many choices. I had too much freedom! I could finish the Mistborn trilogy, keep going with Proust, read the next Flashman book, make an effort with the several history books that I own but rarely read, take a crack at one of the numerous Roth books that I keep meaning to read, accept the challenge of War and Peace, or any number of different reading options. I just went with what felt right. I read a few pages of Crime and Punishment and a few pages of Freedom. Freedom called to me more vigorously than Crime and Punishment so that's what I decided to read. That's all that I'm reading for the moment. I may start a book on my phone or start plugging away at Proust's second volume, but I'm rather enjoying the lack of an obligation at the moment. 

I put so much pressure on myself to hit that 52 book target, and finishing Swann's Way was a very big part of that reading goal. I'm not under any illusion that reading Proust will make me a better person or that reading 52 books in a year gives me some claim to superiority, but I want to be the kind of person who reads Proust and many different kinds of books. I enjoyed Swann's Way. It's a brilliant novel. It's just not always fun reading. When it comes right down to it, I read because I think it's fun. I've wound my identity into reading in all kinds of weird and unnecessary ways, but I keep going back to reading because it's something that I enjoy. I felt obligated to read a certain kind of book as the end of my reading year got closer. I had to figure a book's impact on reaching my reading goal when making my decision of what to read next. That limitation obligated me to fairly small subset of my books. I  couldn't read anything too thick or too intimidating. The goal propelled me to new levels of reading consumption, but it prevented me from exploring different authors and types of books. It definitely took away from the fun of reading. 

The pleasure I'm taking in being free of a reading obligation has me questioning the value of pre-selecting a batch of books for 2017. I've done this the last couple of years and have made abysmal progress on reading that particular set of books. I set aside  17 books as things I wanted to read in 2016. I read 6 of them. Out of 52 books, I read 6 of the books I thought would be interesting reading. I read more of the books that I bough last year, 8 of my 52 books read in 2016 were bought in 2016, than I read of those 17 books that I gave special status too at the beginning of the year. To give myself a small break on falling short of this goal, some of those books (War and Peace, The Good Soldier) were largely challenging books that I aspire to read one day. I read other books that fall into that list (Anna Karenina, Swann's Way). So when I look at those 17 books as representing the types of books that I wanted to read, I actually did a pretty nice job. I had To the Lighthouse in last year's list as a representative of the Modern Library Top 100.  I read far more of those titles than I thought I would at the start of the year. I read 9 of them in 2016. That brings me up to 41 of the 100. I still need to read To the Lighthouse though. 

When it comes down to it, I just want to read the books that are on my shelf. It was hard for me to pick which book to read because there were so many of them that sounded appealing. This is a good problem. Cutting myself off from buying new books has given me a chance to stop and take another look at my own shelves. I'm not looking out in the big wide world for the next thing to read, but taking a closer look at what I already have. I spent a good chunk of 2016 clearing out a bunch of hastily acquired mediocre books from my reading shelves. While I failed to made a serious dent in my owned but unread books (thanks to my buying compulsion), I did remove a bunch of bothersome distractions from my pursuit of larger reading goals. I bought a bunch of books this year, but I avoided buying too many books on a whim. A biography on Grant was the only book I would unbuy if I had the option. The others are books that I've wanted to read for awhile. They're by authors I've read and enjoyed or books I've been curious about for awhile.

I will have no problems finding 30 books that I want to read this year on my shelves. At least I hope to read 30 this year. I've set 30 as my Goodreads reading challenge target. It's ambitious enough that I will have to stay consistent with my reading to reach that goal, but it's also not so ambitious that will have to consider the heft of every book that I read to make sure I won't fall off my reading pace too much if I decide to read something that approaches 1000 pages in length. I enjoy the process of reading a book, but I also get a real kick out of finishing a book. Having an annual reading goal makes me feel like I'm making progress towards something. That sense of progress is particularly relevant as I pursue Book Shelf Zero. Thirty isn't a small reading goal, I will need to finish a book every 12 days or so to stay on track for that goal, but it's still only 1/6th of my book total. All these books are like big credit card balances. I read and read but the total just doesn't seem to get any smaller.

So I really have three concurrent reading goals. The first is to read 30 books in 2017. I've done at least that many over the last four years. My willingness to take on intimidating books will be the decider on this one. The second goal is to read all of the Modern Library Top 100 books. I've read 41 one of them and I already own 19 more. I can make good progress on that goal without setting myself back too far towards Book Shelf Zero. Book Shelf Zero is the third goal. It's going to take me years to realize that one. I would be impressed if I manage it in 10 years. It's not that I'll need 10 years to read 180 books. I will buy more books, I will struggle to finish what I have, and face all kinds of other stuff in my life. There are many things in life more important than reading, but reading will always be there.  

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Race to 52 - Completed

It took every minute of 2016 (and an hour or so of 2017) but I made it to 52 before going to bed on New Year's Eve. I was happy to make my goal, but I felt a surprising lack of accomplishment when I read the last pages of Executive Power. I was pretty tired and a little drunk so maybe that detracted from the sense that I'd just finished something Important. Or maybe it just wasn't that important to begin with. Oh well, on to the next books!

It just occurred to me that the first Vince Flynn book I read was Consent to Kill. I just finished Executive Power. As far as I can tell, I have now read all of the Mitch Rapp books Vince Flynn wrote (I haven't checked out any of the new ones yet). So I finished the series by reading the book that came before the first one that I read. Seems weirdly fitting.