An Open Book

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

For most things in my life, my ambition far outstrips my level of effort.  I can report this trait has been a hallmark of my personality for a long time.

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?

14 bolts from the blue:

Amber Tidd Murphy said...

I am the same way around books. I try to limit myseld to only buying 4 or 5 at a time. This year, I've read a variety of authors. I've mostly read literary fiction, but keep promising myself I'll branch out.

Jonathan S. Foer has inspired me the most in my own writing so far.

I agree that being an avid reader has helped my writing in a huge way.

Scott said...

My reading list is long and lengthy, and more books keep appearing on the list. The # of books far outweighs my ability to actually read them all, have some sort of life, right, go out for margaritas, do the family thing when required and . . . so, I pretty much quit stressing out about my lengthy reading list.

I do try to expand my horizons with my reading, going from genre to genre just to mix things up a bit, especially since new releases in Epic Fantasy (my genre of choice) are few and far between. I can't wait for the current trend for non-epic fantasy to end so I have some excellent reading choices available.

Yours Truly,

Sugar Doll #115

Christi Goddard said...

I have a very long TBR list that keeps getting longer and longer. I keep telling myself I'll get caught up, but that hasn't happened yet.

Liza said...

Just added The Art of Fiction to my list. To Kill a Mockingbird is an all time favorite paperback copy on the bookshelf remains on the "NEVER give away" shelf.

glnroz said...

i thought I was the only person who loves garage sales. Usually the first thing they will tell me when I walk up. "we have (or have not) some tools.". I say, "Have any books?" they look shocked,, lol.. my pickup is full of books that I havent even taken inside. Reading Hemingway right now.

Lydia Sharp said...

I have far too many books to read as well, and being a book reviewer just exacerbates it. If someone recommends a book, then it will get bumped up (if I value that person's opinion).

I like to help out fellow authors whenever I can, which is what prompted my current read, Orange Mint and Honey by Carleen Brice. The film version of her novel is airing on Lifetime Movie Network February 21 and I wanted to make sure I read the book before seeing it. I follow her book blog, and have spoken with her in writing communities, and once I finish her book and see the film, I'll post a review.

That's just one thing, though. A lot of times, I'm a sucker for cover art. Sounds cheap, I know, but if a book has a really nice cover that is the first thing to draw me in. The final decision to crack it open depends next on the jacket blurb.

This year I'm trying to focus mainly on Sci-fi, so once I finish Ms. Brice's novel, I'm going to read 7th Son: Descent by J.C. Hutchins, who also happens to be an author I met through a writing site and had promised to read and promote his book.

Haha. This is what happens when you network too much. The plate just gets more and more piled on. It's all good, though. I've been reading since I was 4 (no joke). If I didn't love every part of this industry (including the required reading), I wouldn't be involved in it.

Laura said...

"The covers of the books are so shiny and bright, the smell of ink and the binding glue so inviting--"
Oh yes! That's exactly why books are almost like an aphrodisiac. I spend much more time in a bookstore than in any other store. I can't live without books and without reading. Unfortunately, life gets in the way sometimes and the pile of bought-but-unread books gets a bit too tall.
I'm applying Faulkner's law too and learning a great deal on good and bad writing.
Fact: the more I read the better I write.

Thanks for mentioning Gardner's book, I'm getting it. I've read and re-re-read Stephen King's "On Writing", which is my favorite, but I'm very interested in new lessons.

Brittany Laneaux said...

My TBR list consists mainly of Veggie Tales and Elmo books (my 2 year old). I have no time!!!

I teach ninth grade english and I do get the privilege of reading classic and contemporary short stories, great poetry, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Odyssey, and Romeo and Juliet!

Postman said...

You're infecting me with your writing excitement. I'm exactly the same--can't go into a bookstore without being overwhelmed by shiny covers and the scent of ink and binding glue. I go all glassy-eyed and slobbery, and wander about until I've got a handful.

And I never would've DREAMED that there are books in such plenitude in Iraq! Free, no less! Now I'm really jealous.

I used to be uber-picky about my TBR list. If it was nonfiction, or any kind of fiction that wasn't sci-fi, I wasn't interested. Nowadays, I do like Stephen King suggests (and does) and "read any book I can get my hands on." It's all part of the learning process. I read anything I think I can learn from, obscure historical nonfiction to the most rotten, hackneyed fantasy. There's bound to be writing lessons in it somewhere, not to mention fodder for my insatiable imagination.

What I read usually winds up influencing what I write. I'm either inspired by a certain historical snippet, or turned on (or off) by writing styles (and therefore repeat/don't repeat them), and get fired up that way. I either think, "Hey, I wanna do that," or "Yuck, I can do better than that."

Excellent thought-provoking post, friend. You're cool like that.

Dawn Simon said...

I'm always gathering books, too. I love 'em! I bought THE BOOK THIEF for my son (and me), but I haven't started it yet because I was working on other books on my TBR list. Right now I'm reading a friend's ms and THE LOOKING GLASS WARS. Next will be GOING BOVINE.

I read a ton of YA, which is the genre I write. I also read MG, which is my second favorite genre. I love fiction for adults so I read that, too, but not nearly as much as YA. I choose by what interests me and what is getting talked about as being a must read--or what just happened to catch my eye. I also read books to hit something on an agent's list, to get a feel for someone's taste. Since I write humor, I sometimes feel a funny book loosens me up and inspires me. Craft books also help. Good questions, though I don't think I answered them well!

Jon Paul said...

Amber--I hadn't heard of Foer. I'll have to check him out.

Sugar Doll #115--I would have worried if you didn't mention the margaritas. What are some of your epic fantasy titles? I'm completely unfamiliar with that genre (unless Tolkien counts).

Christi--It sounds like we share the same wonderful problem.

Liza--AoF is good. You'll enjoy it. I have a "Don't Give Away" shelf too.

Glen--Hemingway is one of my all time favs, but since it's been so many years since I read any of his longer work (reread Old Man And The Sea last year) that I have been considering dropping "For Whom The Bell Tolls" or "A Farewell To Arms" onto my TBR--but at this stage it's just an idea.

Lydia--I go for the cover art too. It sounds absurd, but there have been cases where I purchase almost because I just want to see the thing on my shelf and nothing more. Happily I'm not quite that bad anymore.

Laura--AoF and "On Writing" are actually great companion books both in terms of content and style. King is more laid back and speaks more from a commercial standpoint, while Gardner is more formal and conceptual. For these reasons, I think the two fit nicely together.

Brittany--Ahh R&J. That is an endless well of inspiration. I could think of much worse things to be doing than teaching young minds such great material. I have a 2 year-old too, so I expect I'll be adding a few other titles--Horton Hears a Who?--to my TBR once I return home.

Postie--One of my goals is to be as infectious as possible. I guess it's working.

Yeah, the Iraq thing is pretty wild, but the troops got to do something when Lost or the Superbowl isn't on TV.

Dawn--I've heard good things about Going Bovine. In the past, I haven't really followed the "what's talked about" trail, and I think that is what has changed primarily in my reading choices. If I want to know the market, I need to know what's hot--so I'm picking up titles I never would have a year ago.

Great answers BTW.

Thank you all so very much for stopping by and commenting!

Claire Dawn said...

Here's my strategy for bookstores:

Take $50 and not a cent more. There's no way that you can leave with more than what you have in hand. (also hide credit cards, cheque books, etc...)

Sadly, I also have a weakness for music. I don't know who's brilliant idea it was to combine book stores with CD stores, but they need to stop it! NOW!!!

My TBR is basically what i can get my hands on/what I find in my house, since I live in Japan, and can't read enough Japanese to enjoy anything more advanced than literature for 6 year olds. Lately, I've also been trying to make an effort with the classics I never read, but it's hard. I can't tell you how many times I started and stopped Anna Karenina! But at least I discovered To Kill a Mockingbird! (Yes, I was 27 when I read it for the first time.)

The Blogger Formerly known as Linguista.

Meghan Ward said...

I generally read literary fiction and, like you, buy them much faster than I can read them. My new rule is that I can't buy a new book until I read the last one I bought, but I cheat a lot (I bought three last week). I want to read both The Book Thief and The Hunger Games. I don't have time to read nearly as much as I used to, and I miss those days as a kid when I could read for as long as I wanted. (Of course, then I wanted to be an adult so I could "do what I wanted".)

Jon Paul said...

Claire--I had a hard time with my TBR when I lived in Japan as well, and that was before the internet had really taken off. I've never read Anna Karenina though I've wanted to; Brothers Karamazov was good.

Meghan--That sounds like a good strategy. I might have to consider it--except for the cheating part. It's hilarious. When I was a kid, all I wanted was to be grown up. Now all I want is to be a kid again.

I think it's all about the potential for naps.

Thanks guys for stopping in!

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