Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Redbreast - 161 remain

Lifestyle bloggers seem to have a central hook that they manage to turn into enough content to write a book, set up some kind of class, and keep their blog going for however long they stay interested. I tried something like that in a different blog of mine years ago. I had this notion of The Edge. The Edge is where things get scary and uncomfortable. It was about pushing myself while working out and going into places I normally avoid in my personal life. The idea got old quickly and I stopped writing those posts. They felt forced and inauthentic. It was a reasonable idea at the time, but looking back it really just reflects my constant internal refrain that I must go beyond the comfortable and experience real pain and suffering to discover what is at my core.

So maybe there are other central ideas that I could use to build up an entire brand. It's not that I have a real desire to become some kind of online thought leader. It's just an intellectual exercise. The next best idea I have for a central message is to avoid the pattern set by others and do your own thing. The space that others already occupy is crowded. Find your own thing and succeed at that. This is not a particularly unique message, and the irony that using the idea of following your own path as a way to emulate what others have done is not lost on me. 

Formulas and following well tread paths is a popular idea. That's why telling people to believe in themselves and do their own thing is a powerful, if slightly cliched, message. This Nowegian guy Jo Nesbo has been successful following the formula of so many thriller writers before him. I was seeing these books in B&N so I decided to check one out. There is a whole series of them so this could be another list of books for me to check off if they provided enough intrigue. The book was decent enough, but I'm not going to be pursuing any more of them. The story felt very familiar despite talking place in Norway. It was a curiosity read. My curiosity is sated and I can happily leave Nesbo and Harry Hole behind (they may be good audio books though). So another book is off my to be read list. 

My Ulysses progress has slowed, but I'm still moving my bookmark. Unlike The Redbreast, nothing about Ulysses feels familiar. It's not everyday that you read a book that is basically some guys internal narrative. I'm getting the hang of the book. It takes some coaxing for me to start reading it, but once I'm in it's not a huge deal for me to read 10 pages or so. This is not rapid progress, but it's progress. I'm about a quarter through the book. Sustained effort will get me to the end before the year is out.

I spent a huge chunk of my last half day Friday of the year at the garage while my car was being inspected. I used that time to start reading Undermajordomo Minor. It's the latest novel by Patrick deWitt. I read and enjoyed The Sister Brothers. His books are short, quick but still substantial reads. He's good with dialogue and the books are humorous. I will finish this book quickly, assuming I actually spend some time reading. I've been giving a decent chunk of my reading time to a book I checked out of the library. To Have or to Be? I'm not supposed to read library books (or any book other than those I owned at the start of the year), but I picked this one up when I was checking something out for my daughter. It's a very, very interesting book. There are some pretty weighty ideas scattered throughout the book. It's surprisingly easy to read for something so scholarly. I'm intrigued but not totally taken in. The politics of the book do not sit well with me. I will still finish it. It gets me closer to 30 but does nothing for Book Shelf Zero. As those are both more about having than being, I don't think it would bother Fromm too much.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Courage (Ulysses) - my brush with the heroic

I just took a look at a project that I've been working on for years. I mean that literally. It's been years. I've shared the work in a bunch of different professional forums, but the ultimate goal is to get it out there a paper in a peer reviewed journal. I tried once with an earlier version of the project, but it was very quickly killed by the editorial board of the journal I selected. I was aiming high so it didn't come as a total surprise. I revised the paper and made it much better this time. I've gotten additional input, reworked the worded over and over again, obsessed over the figures, and whittled the paper down to the main point that I want to deliver. It's just been sitting in my computer for a year or so. I haven't had the courage to push it back into the gauntlet of peer review. I thought there was just enough hard work left that I couldn't find the time to do it. 

There isn't that much work left. I just read it and it's essentially finished. I took out one awkward section that overstates the conclusions of some data. The rest of it is solid. That one section that I edited has been the difficult transition for me over the course of this entire project. The data are clear. The primary interpretation is clear, it's that transition from describing data to interpreting data that has been hard. I need to say enough without making claims that go what the data can support. I think I'm there. Now it's time for the really hard part. Now it's time for the part that requires courage. 

Submitting a paper for peer review is scary. You're exposing yourself to a possible failure. Facing the possibility of failure requires courage. Picking up a book as imposing as Ulysses takes courage. Hard books are hard to pick up but much easier to put down. They can be very rewarding reading experiences, but they can also be dry, boring, and just plain unpleasant to read. Ulysses is not dry and boring. It's actually much more engaging and entertaining than I anticipated. It's just not an easy book to pick up at the end of the day. The Name of the Wind was easy to pick up as I was rounding into the cool down phase of my day. It was a fun romp before heading to bed. The thought of Ulysses makes me spend more time watching TV or doing something on my phone. Reading a few virtual pages of The Redbreast is an easier bite for me to chew even though that book is vastly inferior to Joyce. It's all plot and things happening and suspense. I don't need to spend time in Bloom's head. I just get to ride along with a story for twenty minutes or so. 

Choosing to take on Joyce has made another failure very likely. I've read 19 books this year. My goal was 30. At my current pace, it will take me the rest of the year to finish Ulysses. I will finish The Redbreast in the not too distant future. If I finish both of those books, I'm at 21. Finishing a book that I checked out of the library, To Have or To Be, would get me to 22 (I would still only have reduced my to be read pile by 20). I was being ambitious with 30. I knew that I had lots of less than quick reads on my shelf. I will be ok with 22 for the year if Ulysses is one of those 22 books. I've had that book for a long time. I've been putting if off until some time in the future. Just like running a marathon, I realized that some day needs to be today at some point. Making it through a book that has scared me off year after year is a bigger accomplishment than just reading some arbitrary number of books. Even if it means that Book Shelf Zero will be that much further into the future. I need to get through these scary books eventually. I might as well check one off now.

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

168

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.