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Friday, March 11, 2011

On The Hundred Books Aspired (to) Yearly Club -- My first post

January 1, 2006       
“Happy as a mushroom collector bounding from the stables, I come to spread the joys of discoveries in Book Land.” (ibid).

            Every January 1 I vow to read a hundred books in the coming year. That sounds like a lot of books to me and seems wonderfully counter-cultural. After all, we live in a country that encourages us to do everything but read books, especially serious books (books that can’t be read while listening to television, radio, CDs, DVDs, streaming websites, instant-messaging or  iPoding). Some very big businesses spend millions of dollars annually hiring experts to kneecap anyone who’s selfishly set aside time for peace of mind. Their ethos demands that any brain corrugations not currently being hammered smooth by an advertisement are wasting space. And any mind that is already occupied by an advertisement should be distracted away from that advertisement to listen to a more determined predator’s advertisement for his manufactures.  Books are products that don’t allow for simultaneous use of other products (except among students) and, hence, time spent with them is time stolen from the national mission of nudging the Dow Jones heavenward.  So, we get ads and counter-ads all day long, every day, everywhere we turn our eyes and ears. All determined to steal our time and money, our minds and souls.

And so on . . . “Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite them, and little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.” (Jonathan Swift, 1733, words later echoed by the dead-too-soon comedian, Bill Hicks, who asked during a stand-up routine, “Anyone here in marketing? Would you raise your hands? Okay, thank you. Now, go kill yourself. I’m serious, go kill yourself. You’re ruining the world for the rest of us. So, please, leave. Right now. Kill yourselves.”)

Given today’s world, I’d compare reading a hundred books in a year to a 1000-yard rushing season, or hitting a baseball at a .300 clip. Nice round numbers that speak of dedication and commitment. To some people, professors perhaps, or 100,000 mile frequent flyers, or mystery readers even, 100 books may seem like a piffling few, but let’s just ignore these pituitary giants and keep reaching for an attainable number.

(And by the way, professors must read out of fear of being turned on by the rest of the pack if they show a knowledge or opinion gap. They are said to be able to actually smell such weakness. And I suspect frequent flyers read mostly because OxyContin is too expensive and dauntingly illegal. And as for mystery readers: they read more than any other category of reader mostly because they’re addicted to the adrenalin-pumping side effects. They have to shoot up daily. I know people who read at least one of those contrivances a day and I’m sure there must be others who need even bigger boosts.)

That said, I must turn the flashlight around and shine it in my own face. Full disclosure: last year I finished only 82 books. I touched well over that number, but actually read only 82 cover-to-cover. And the year before, 2005: I read only 78. In 2004: 74. Not quite the ace you may have thought I thought I was. And I’ll tell you why, honestly, and I won’t try any of that “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for” stuff. The answer is simple. And insidious: Comcast Cable.

Three years ago I bought a beautiful flat-screen TV and touch-toned that 800 number they’d begged me to call for years. Till then I’d laughed at their mailings, “Look, another invitation from Comcast. Ha Ha Ha.” Rip Rip Rip. Read read read.

Then 9/11 happened and I wanted to see the television reports. And then the USA went to war in Iraq and I wanted to see that too. And sports, of course. But I wanted to SEE them see them. TV reception is lousy in Chestnut Hill, despite our lofty status as the highest point above sea level in Philadelphia (Summit Street - 200 and something feet).

After several trips to Best Buy and other such places, and after trying many hinky rabbit ear antennas, and after many wasted foot-tapping AOL dial-up internet moments (Hours! If you want to use Ebay), I humbly made the cable call. All three TV’s in the house, and all three computers, charged as a tidy little monthly bundle costing more than twice the take-home pay of my first grown-up job. Instead of seven channels of crap, I rented 188 channels of crap. But the reception is great!

I am not a daytime book reader. Magazines, yes. Newspapers, yes. Menus: yes, yes! But, book time is nighttime for wild guys like me. And here’s what happened: Evening news, then Jeopardy! We’re now at 7:30 p.m. Comcast gives you (and me, alas) every Phillies and Sixers home game. And they start around 7 o’clock. Just take a peek to check the score – while finishing the newspaper, or a magazine article … badda bing! It’s 9:30. I like to be asleep by 10:30 or 11:00. I read about 50 pages and hour, maybe. A 300 page book takes about five or six days. Badda bing! It’s December 31 and I’ve only got 70 or 80 books on my reading list! You tell me, Mr. Soprano, but am I missing something here? Is it just me, or does somethin’ gotta give here?

Okay, Okay, I know you get the point. So, from now on, the time between when I stop working for the day and the time I go to sleep is not going to be wasted (as much).

If you want to join me in the Hundred Books Aspired (to)Yearly Club, I welcome you. Just so you don’t try to talk me when I have a book in my hands. (Okay, YES, I’m married and I know what talk-magnets books in spouses’ hands are, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, etc.).

Oh, yes, I’m getting near the end of this page and my crayon is nearly ground down, so: To the Point! In this column I’ll be discussing ways to avoid the spike-strips thrown in our HBA(t)YC way. And I’ll be addressing the hardest question of all when it comes to reading: What’s fun to read, and maybe even worth reading? That question-and-a-half is the true genesis of this column. I’ve read some wonderful books in recent years and want to tell the world (aka Chestnut Hill - you’ve seen the Steinberg cartoon where he mistook New York for Chestnut Hill? ) about them.

My prejudices first:  I read mostly nonfiction, but try to make at least every third book fiction because I owe the fiction writers of the world an enormous, unpayable debt for all the pleasure they’ve given me. 

In nonfiction, I read almost anything I call a ‘backstage’ book about an occupation, profession, mission, caper, crime, quest, tryst, or just plain dirty rotten shame. Among history books I prefer first-person accounts by people directly involved, either as perpetrators, victims, or witnesses. Books must be personal to draw me. I love survival books. I nearly OD’d on true crime a few years back, but make exceptions now and then.

In reading fiction, I tend to count on serendipity, stumbling into someone in the dark and sharing a bottle with him while I listen to his story. Yes, ‘him.’ When I’m wandering through lists or libraries I tend to choose male authors telling stories about males, but I do brake for good female writers when they’re pointed out to me. More on all this in future pieces. . .  .