In one notorious example, when I was ten or so, I convinced a bunch of friends--and my mom--that we could break the world record for continuous uninterrupted play of a game of Monopoly (the Hasbro, not the robber baron variety). I don't exactly remember, but I think the standing record at that time was like twenty days. We did do enough homework to determine that the Guinness rules involved a five minute break every hour (or maybe two--I don't recall) to go to the bathroom or have a quick bite to eat. The rest of the time we were required to be sitting in front of the game, playing. For twenty days.
Looking back now, I realize my mom must have known what would happen. After all, what parent in their right mind agrees to have her house taken over by Monopoly for almost three weeks? (I don't know what my friends' moms' excuses were). But after about five hours of gruelling non-stop play, we decided we'd had enough and quit.
You may be relieved to know that when it comes to matching my effort to my ambition, my success rate has improved marginally since the Monopoly Marathon Fiasco of '78.
Yet, there are still pockets of over-ambition in my life. Book reading has long been a constant source of trouble for me in this regard, although there have been occasions when I didn't get into trouble.
I remember one summer, on a visit to Ireland for a six week vacation, being rather bored at the outset. Vacations are really for the grownups if you think about it, so as my father and my grandmother and my other relatives all sat about the table and drank tea, talking about the weather and the high price of gasoline (89 cents!), I found myself with nothing to do. Until I dug under the bed in the upstairs bedroom and pulled out a cardboard box brimming with old books! I was thrilled. I don't remember the titles of all the books I read, but I can tell you I was one pretty content kid for the rest of the summer. I had more books than I could ever wish for and nothing but days and days in which to read them.
As a grownup, it doesn't always go so smoothly. It is difficult--strike that!--impossible for me to go to a bookstore and come home empty-handed. I'm worse than a kid in a candy store. The covers of the books are so shiny and bright, the smell of ink and the binding glue so inviting--even as I write this I am reviewing in my mind the list of books I want to purchase next. Make the mistake of setting me loose at a garage sale or flea market and I will come back, arms filled to overflowing, with paperbacks. Furnace Girl raises the now famous Eyebrow of Disapproval and I feel like a goof, but sure enough, the next time I do it all over again. Add to this tendency the wide variety of time-sucking activities that come with having a "life", and that means I bring home far more books than I will ever have time to read.
In response to this dilemma, I made a concerted effort to pare things back over the last year. I thought coming to Iraq would simplify this process, but it's actually made it worse. Book trading is practically a professional sport here. Everywhere you go, there are tables and bookshelves and nooks and crannys (when I build my retirement home, I'm going to tell the builder to include at least three crannies. They're so useful!) filled with FREE books--some very good ones too.
Despite that, I've been relatively successful at not overdoing it. Right now--as evidenced by the pic on the right--I am in the midst of reading Lehane's "Shutter Island." I'm liking it so far, although I've never been a big detective novel kinda guy. I am also reading John Gardner's "The Art of Fiction" which is very good for helping me knock the rust off my writing skills. I read it once before, but it's one of the best fiction how-to books around, so a second time through felt like a good idea, and I'm hanging on every word. I'll be sure to share a few pointers here from time to time.
In the queue I also have Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird" (another repeat) and I just picked up (for FREE) Stephanie Meyer's "Twilight." Another Gardner book, "On Becoming A Novelist" is high on the short list as well and two others that I haven't picked up yet are "The Book Thief" and "Hunger Games". But that's basically it. This short list is a wide departure from the days when a stack of a dozen unread books literally teetered on my nightstand and taunted me each evening as I climbed into bed. So I've been relatively successful at focusing my reading effort.
The exciting side benefit as I dig more into writing fiction is that the reading choices I am making have changed. I still feel a bit the neophyte on the current fiction market, so I am following Faulkner's advice to "Read everything--trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it." So far, so good! In the past I stuck primarily to literary fiction, but this new approach--and the added variety which it brings--is yielding results. Already I see changes in my writing based on tips and tricks I'm gleaning from the authors I'm reading.
What about you? How do you go about choosing what goes in your TBR list? What's the relationship between your TBR choices and your writing process?