Why I Read: An Essay in Two Acts

I. Learning to Read

“There is no Frigate like a Book to take us Lands away.” —Emily Dickinson

The importance of books

My parents taught me the importance of books. They surrounded me with books, read to me, and encouraged my love of books. As a child of the 1970s, I was lucky: There were 3 television stations, and no video games to serve as a distractions. I remember my mom telling me that books could take you anywhere. I knew that she didn’t mean literally, but I learned that my imagination filled in enough of the gaps to make the distinction meaningless. Books could take me anywhere.

I remember staring at the books in my parent’s and grandparents house longingly. Once I could read, I read the titles and authors and they were like magic incantations: Eye of the Needle, The Thornbirds, Hunt for Red October, Tropic of Cancer, and mysterious names like John Le Carre, which I always pronounced, “la car.”

Learning to read

I learned to read in grade school. In Kindergarten we had this wonderful flip-board story about Milton the Monkey and his adventures. Each adventure tackled a letter of the alphabet, one for the capital and one for the lowercase. That is how I learned the alphabet.

The process of learning to read is a blur. Today, it feels like something I have always known. But I do remember sounding out L-O-V-E and the thrill I felt in the achievement stayed with me right down to this very moment. I remember struggling with words early on, especially when reading aloud. I remember wondering if I would ever be able to read as smoothly as my teachers or parents read. It seemed like it would never happen, but eventually it did. I remind my kids of this today, as they learn to read.

In first grade I discovered a book called The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley. The book was midwife to love of science and astronomy. I checked our of the library repeatedly, and can remember reading it, so I was reading (haltingly) in first grade.

There were other books along the way: abridged and illustrated editions of Robin Hood and Treasure Island that seemed daunting. There were four of the blue bound Hardy Boys books on a shelf. I remember being fascinated by Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (read in third grade). I looked forward to the Weekly Reader. I picked out books on ghost stories, and mysteries, sometimes combining the two, as in The Mystery of the Green Ghost. There were books on Bigfoot and UFOs. There was a fantasy book, David and the Phoenix, which may well have been the first novel that I read on my own. Today it would be called a YA novel. There was a remarkable story I read in my four or fifth grade reading textbook called “How Baseball Began in Brooklyn.” I have never been able to find it again, but it was wonderful.

Libraries and the great awakening

As a small boy, I went with my mom to the Franklin Township library, near my house. I remember the stacks of books and I couldn’t believe that so many books could possibly exist in the world. And I could actually borrow these books. It was amazing.

I was always fascinated by the school library. When we moved to New England when I was in second grade, the school library was a big open area between corridors. Books lined the walls. The center had tables and displays, and smaller bookcases. Just walking along the shelfs, looking at the book spines was a thrill.

It was when we moved to Los Angeles, when I was in sixth grade, that I really discovered the power of the library. I would walk to the Granada Hills library, about a mile or so from my house. In the summers, the walk was hot, but the library was air-conditioned and blessedly cool. It was at this library that my reading expanded.

I had mostly read fiction with an occasional nonfiction book. But once I had access to the Granada Hills library, I experimented with everything. I could spend what seemed like hours walking through the stacks. I’d take some books and sit at a reading carrell, flipping through the pages, skimming here and there. I realized that if there was something I wanted to know about I could look it up in the library. I was fascinated by the card catalog, and became a whiz at using it to find what I was looking for. It’s hard to describe the feeling, but I suppose it is something akin to an amateur golfer finding in a golf course, everything they could ever want.

Oddly, I have no memory of my high school library, but in college, the library was a like temple to me, and I’d often seek out desolate, quite places where I could study and stare at the books that surrounded me.

Using the tools

By the time I reached high school, I knew how to read. I mean that I don’t think I read any faster today than I did when I was in high school. What high school taught me was how to think critically about what I read. Looking back, I consider myself a naive reader before high school. I never really thought to question what I read, or apply what I read in one domain of knowledge to another domain of knowledge.

All of that changed in high school. I went to a humanities magnet high school in Los Angeles in the late innings of the 1980s. We didn’t have traditional English and History classes. Instead, we rotated through a set of four “core” humanities classes: philosophy, literature, social institutions, and art history. These classes taught me how to think about what I read, and exposed me to the kind of reading I had never come across on my own. We read Plato and Socrates. Some of it was boring, but the parts that weren’t made it worthwhile. We read Shakespeare. We read Vonnegut and Richard Wright. It was in high school that I began to form my own opinions about what I read, rather than regurgitate summaries. I decided, for instance, that Henry V was my favorite Shakespeare play, and the Tempest was my least favorite. It felt good to have opinions!

We read books I would never have chosen, but was grateful for reading: Day of the Locusts, The Painted Bird, and Ragged Dick to name just a few.

One of the biggest takeaways from high school was that so long as you felt you understood what you were reading, and had some sense of the context of it, you could disagree with your teachers, and others on what was good and bad. I never liked A Tale of Two Cities and the fact that I had to read it in school nearly turned me off of Dickens forever. This confidence has had positive and negative side-effects. I never worry about differing in opinion on a book with friends or family. On the other hand, I rarely ask for or take recommendations from people I know, simply because I know my own tastes better than anyone else. This is unfair to others, true, but I put some of the blame on being forced to read things that I didn’t like. I dread little more than the words, “You should read…”

Learning to learn

College taught me to use those these skills to learn. It seems to me that the wide variety of classes I took in college (from cultural anthropology to organic chemistry to constitutional law to entomology to history and film) provided different tools for learning, all of which depended on reading and books.

  • Constitutional law taught me how to write a succinct argument.
  • Organic chemistry taught me the importance of showing my work. Before organic chemistry, I had the neatest lab books, everything copied neatly over from my original notes. After organic chemistry, my lab books and other notes were far more messy because I worked out everything there, crossed out (but didn’t erase) my mistakes. They became a kind of history my progress.
  • Classes on political theory taught me how to do proper research.
  • Classes on journalism taught me the conciseness of reporting. Often in meetings to this day, I try to focus on the who, what, when, where, how, and why to get the point as quickly as possible.

By the time I completed four years of college, and walked away with a B.A. in political science and journalism, I had all the tools I needed to begin learning in earnest.

II. Why I read

“Books became his academy, his college. The printed word united his mind with the great mind of generations past.” —Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of RivalsThe Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

My informal education

I read to learn. I read because just when I was in the optimal position to continue my formal education and really start to learn, I went out and got a job. I read to provide myself with an informal education using the tools I learned from my parents, grade school, high school, and college. It turns out that this informal education has now lasted nearly a quarter of a century, and is far better than anything I imagine a graduate education in a specialized field could have provided me. But it is never enough. I always want more. As John Adams once said, “I read my eyes out and can’t read half enough… the more one reads the more one sees we have to read.”

I call it an informal education, but only because it has less structure than what a university setting might provide. The structure is straight-forward. In late 1995 I set a goal: read one book per week, or 52 books per year. In order to track my progress, I needed to track what I read. Thus, my reading list was born.

First page of my reading list.
First page of my reading list.

In learning to read, I’d learned to learn. Now I wanted to learn as much as I could. About everything. And so, I started my list and the first entry was for a collection of Isaac Asimov science essays, recorded as book #1 on my list. 22 years later, I just passed my 800th book.

The butterfly effect

My education is guided by a principle akin to the butterfly effect. I might read a book about Leonardo da Vinci and end up, ten books later on a book about Alaska:

  1. Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson
  2. The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester
  3. Genghis Kahn and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford
  4. Paper: Paging Through History by Mark Kurlansky
  5. The Map That Changed the World by Simon Winchester
  6. The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel
  7. The Lost City of Z by David Grann
  8. Walden On Wheels by Ken Ilgunas
  9. 1491: New Revelations of America Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann
  10. Coming into the Country by John McPhee

This butterfly effect controls my curriculum and is the best force for education that I have ever encountered. While occasionally, one book logically follows another, sometimes there are odd jumps. I read the book on Genghis Kahn after reading an article in Money magazine about the richest people in history relative to the current dollar. (Khan was one of the richest.)

The butterfly effect acts as a kind of natural selection for reading. I don’t know exactly how it works, but I have discovered that its selection of books has gotten better over time. While I don’t rate books (I think rating books is silly), I do mark a book as one I’d recommend or read again. The number of books so marked has increased in frequency over time. This tells me that whatever force is at work behind this butterfly effect, is getting better over time.

Applied reading

I practice what I call applied reading. I try to take something practical and useful from everything I read. Sometimes, that comes in the form of other books to read. Other times, it is practical, real-world advice that I can apply to my life. The best self-help books out there are the stories of remarkable achievements other people have made. For instance, the best books I’ve read on project management didn’t come from the Self-Help shelf. One was The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. The other: Moon Lander: How We Developed the Lunar Module by Thomas J. Kelly. Both of these books described how real people solved real problems in the real world, and I took invaluable lessons from these books that have helped my manage projects at work.

I am constantly marking up the books I read. I learned long ago that to learn the most I can from a book, I need to make it mine. I underline passages and write in the margins. Looking at a book I read reveals much about what I was thinking about while reading it. This helps me apply what I read.

Knowledge is power

Education is the foundation of a democracy. When education fails, that foundation begins to crumble. For me, it is a lifelong pursuit. That foundation needs constant reinforcement. I can’t force others to want to learn new things, but I can learn new things myself, and in doing so, I can do my part to help keep that foundation intact.

As Thomas Jefferson once said, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

Writing What I Know

Write what you know! That old advice and my lack of writing on this blog might lead one to believe that I know nothing. I have neglected the blog far too long, but I was tired of the kinds of things I had been writing about. So I’ve decided to take that old advice and write about what I know–and love–reading.

I plan to start writing a weekly post on what I have been reading. I am not planning on writing book reviews. Instead, I plan on writing about the themes and items of interest I come across in my reading. I’ll write about my books and how I use them. I’ll write about my notions on applied reading. I’ll write about reading lists, and about my thoughts on book recommendations. I’ll write about libraries and bookstores. All of it will ultimately be tied to something I have read. To get a real sense of what I mean, you’ll just have to check it out, if you are so inclined.

The first post will appear on Tuesday, September 18. And since it is a kind of a debut post, I’ll use it to tell you why I read.

In the meantime, if you are interested in what I have read recently, you can check out my reading list. And if you take a peek over there in the sidebar, you can see what I am reading at the moment.

Voices of the Ballgame

Baseball is a game of senses: the roar of the crowd. The crack of the bat. The smell of the popcorn. The feel of the worn leather mat. The green and browns of the field against a blue sky. The taste of Big League Chew, or a cold beer in the stands. Amidst the sounds the of the game, there is an undercurrent that I often participate in without ever hearing: the voices.

Last week at my son’s game I paid closer attention to those voices, marveling in the patterns and the encouragement I heard. This week, I took notes during one inning. Here’s the voices of the game as I heard them, sitting behind home plate and scribbling rapidly into my Field Notes notebook.

Top of the inning

“Batter up!

“Here you go buddy, eyes on the ball.”

“There you go! Run! Run! Run! Good hustle buddy.”

“Okay, coming to you.”

“Good cut. Straighten her out.”

“There you go! Alright!”

“Come on now!”

“Good cut. Keep your eyes on it. Hands to the ball.:”

“Nice cut, nice cut. Straighten her out.”

“That’s you. Protect that plate.”

“Let’s go. You got three coming.”

“Feet steady. Good try, good try.”

“Here you go. See it, hit it.”

“Here you go!”

Bottom of the inning

“Nice hard swing, buddy.”

“Alright, let’s get a rip big guy.”

“Batter up!”

“Grip it and rip it!”

“Get that bat back. Good hard swing.”

“Good eye!”

“Look at your feet. Square your feet.”

“You gotta swing at those. Good hard rip.”

“Let’s go now, defense. Go!”

“Play’s to third.”

“Let’s go. Let’s go.”

“Here we go, here we go. Stay in there.”

“Take a breath before you throw it. Slow down.”

“Set yourself, look at your target.”

“Nice out.”

Casting a Line in Literary Rivers

This weekend a friend told me about the Sports Illustrated 100 Best Sports Books of All Time. I don’t think I’d known about this list before, and I was immediately intrigued. As with the Modern Library Top 100 Nonfiction Books, I immediately picked through the list to see what I had already read. Turns out that I’ve read five of the 100 books on the list:

  • #1 The Sweet Science by A.J. Liebling (1956)
  • #3 Ball Four by Jim Bouton (1970)
  • #24 The Natural by Bernard Malamud (1952)
  • #35 The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1922)
  • #47 Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella (1982)

I like lists like these. They don’t dictate my reading. I don’t try to read every book on the list. They are more like rivers meandering through a literary wilderness. Sometimes, I’ll come to the river unexpectedly and cast a line. Other times, especially when I can’t quite figure out which way to go, I’ll find the river, and see what’s there.

As I stood along its bank this weekend I noted several books that I have been wanting to read for some time:

  • #2 The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn (1971)
  • #11 A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean (1976)
  • #18 The Summer Game by Roger Angell (1972)
  • #39 The Red Smith Reader by Red Smith (1982)
  • #48 Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (1997)
  • #49 Eight Men Out by Eliot Asinof (1963)
  • #57 The Glory of Their Times by Lawrence Ritter (1966)
  • #93 No Cheering in the Press Box by Jerome Holtzman (1973)

There were other books that I was not familiar with that piqued my interest almost at once, among them:

  • #5 You Know Me Al by Ring Lardner (1914)
  • #8 Paper Lion by George Plimpton (1965)
  • #19 The Long Season by Jim Brosnan (1960)
  • #22 Fat City by Leonard Gardner (1969)
  • #40 An Outside Chance: Essays on Sport by Thomas McGuane (1980)
  • #42 The Celebrant by Eric Rolfe Greenberg (1983)
  • #52 Dollar Sign on the Muscle by Kevin Kerrane (1984)
  • #61 The Universal Baseball Associate, Inc. by Robert Coover (1968)
  • #74 Only the Ball Was White by Robert Peterson (1970)
  • #75 Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book by Harvey Penick (1992)
  • #77 Annapurna by Maurice Herzog (1951)
  • #82 Farewell to Sport by Paul Gallico (1930)
  • #90 Road Swing by Steve Rushin (1998)

At the moment, I’m not all that close to this particular river, and it is hard to say when I’ll reach it again. At least I know it is well-stocked. So are the other rivers that I sometimes encounter on this journey of mine.

100 Books Per Year

This morning I finished my 784th book since January 1, 1996. It is a milestone. When I started keeping my list, I had a goal of reading a book a week, or 52 books a year. For the first 17 years, I never hit my goal, although I’ve come close. Then, in 2013, I read 54 books, finally hitting and surpassing my initial goal.

I’m always amazed when I read how people like Thomas Jefferson read tens of thousands of books in their lifetime. The math for me doesn’t even come close. But I’ve often wondered if it would be possible to read 100 books in a year.

That is the significance of my 784th book. One year ago, I had just completed by 684th book. That means that in the last 365 days, I’ve read 100 books.

Indeed, in the first half of 2018, I read 62 books totaling over 29,000 pages, more than I have read in any single previous year. (The book I finished today, Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose was my 66th of the year.). In the calendar year that puts me on track of reading 120 books.

I’ve been reading so much that it is hard to keep up. Usually, when I finish a book, I write notes about what I read in my journal. It helps my memory of the book. I also copy any highlights I’ve made there so it acts as a kind of commonplace book. But I’ve been reading so much, so quickly that I am now 20 books behind in my notes. I’ve got to find a block of time to catch up.

The speed is due to several factors:

  1. I listen to audiobooks and have gradually increased the speed at which I listen to where 1.5x sounds normals to me. That means I finish a book in two thirds of the time it would normally take (e.g. a 15 hours book I can finish in 10 hours of listening).
  2. I listen longer during the day than I used to. In June, for instance, I average a little over 5 hours of actual listening time each day. At 1.5x speed that’s the equivalent of 7.5 hours of listening each day.
  3. I read more than one thing. Usually when I am reading an audiobook, I am also reading something on the Kindle or paper. These go more slowly but they add up.

For instance, I just finished my 784th book today, but I will likely also finish my 785th book today, which I have been reading separately.

I know these are just numbers but they please me because I love to read. Books form the foundation of my real education. High school and college taught me how to learn. Reading has taught me nearly everything else.

The Age of Faith, Take 3

I am 550 pages into my third attempt at reading Will Durant’s Age of Faith. This time, I think I’m going to finish it. I’ve always been interested in history, largely because it teaches us that anything we are experiencing today, no matter how strange or absurd it seems, is nothing new. It’s all happened before. But I am also fascinated by Will Durant and his (and his wife, Ariel) lifetime of work on 11 volumes that encompasses a large span of human history. The first volume was published in 1935, the 11th in 1975.

Much of my reading these days is through audiobooks, but in this instance, I am listening to the book, and reading at the same time. Not only am I reading (I have all 11 books in print), but I am highlighting and annotating as I go. A friend of mine told me perhaps 20 years ago that The Age of Faith was not only the longest (my edition is 1,196 pages, making it the second longest book I’ve read), but the most erudite. I’ve made two previous attempts at reading it, and both petered out.

Annotation Example

I can’t begin to describe how much I am enjoying it this time around. There are many things I love about Will Durant’s writing—his style being not the least of them. But he writes equal force on those anonymous people of history as he does the famous. What I am finding as I move through the Age of Faith is very personal feeling of the passage of time. Some people are mentioned in only a sentence—an entire life encapsulated it a dozen words. And yet… their name lives on in Durant’s books.

The Age of Faith covers the period of time leading to and through the Dark Ages. When Durant set out to write the series, I think the thought there would be only five books, making Age of Faith the middle of the series. That there are seven books beyond this one makes me very happy.

Pen and Ink

Pen and Ink

I do a lot of writing on paper these days, and that means carrying around pen. I am almost never without 3 Pilot G-2 pens (black, blue, and red), or a Field Notes notebook. I write a kind of journal in a large Moleskine Sketchbook. And I write my fiction these days (first drafts, anyway) in composition books.

Measuring how much I write on paper is more challenging than at the keyboard. At the keyboard, I can put together all kinds of automation to track word counts. On paper, it’s trickier, especially when I have three different kinds of notebooks for three different types of writing.

Wait long enough, however, and a solution will present itself, as it did for me today. I was working on my novel, scribbling away in a red camouflage-covered Composition book when right smack in the middle of a scene, my pen ran out of ink. I keep spare pens in my backpack. I tossed the old pen and pulled out a spare, and continued writing. The pen had died mid-sentence, so there was a bit of momentum I had to regain, but it wasn’t anything particularly difficult. In fact, writing was going great guns today.

Later, when I finished, I wondered about that pen running out of ink. How long had I been using it? And I remembered that the last time my pen ran out of ink, I jotted a note in the margin of my journal. I wrote “New pen today.” So I went wandering backward through time, leafing through the current volume of my journal to see when that was. It turned out to be Wednesday, April 18. I think that puts it about 50 days ago. So my black Pilot G-2 lasted 50 days. That amounts to 30 pages of journal writing, about 100 pages of notes for the day job, and more or less an entire Field Notes notebook, to say nothing of the 15 or so pages of novel I’ve written in that time.

Of course, not all of that ink gets on the page. I typically keep my Field Notes notebook and all three pens in my back left pocket. I’ve got three or four pairs of shorts, each of which with black, blue, and red ink stains on the pocket. A few shirt pockets have been sanctified in similar fashion. I suppose I could get a pocket protector, but the ink stains are more colorful. They somehow legitimize my status as a writer.

Over time, I’ve grown tired of tracking how many words I’ve written. I much prefer to focus on writing. But I have to say, there’s something subversive about reporting the amount I’ve written in Pens. 

“How long is the current novel?” someone asks.

“Well, let’s see. I started it on June 1. Today is July 20, so that makes it just about 2 Pens long.”

Or even better, imagine the delight of submitting a manuscript, and in place of a word count at the top right corner of the first page, seeing something like this:

“About 7 Pens.”

Small Towns and Slow Lives

Vermont is offering people $10,000 to move and work there. That sounds appealing to me, although I admit it would sound appealing even without the financial inducement. We spent a week in the hills above Woodstock, Vermont last summer, and the desolation, the quiet, and the slowness of life formed the perfect anodyne to my normally hectic, crowded lifestyle.

I’m not sure when it started, but for some time now, I’ve been dreaming of small towns and slow lives in the same way I used to dream about being a published writer when I was young. I call it my midlife crisis. No sports car for me—give me wilderness, acres without another house in sight; give me small towns where everyone knows everyone else, and news from the town spreads outward from the general store.

Not long ago, I was explaining these feelings to a friend. I couldn’t quite put it into words so I grabbed a napkin (we had just finished a barbecue dinner), pulled one of the ever-present Pilot G-2s out of my back pocket and sketched out the following diagram:


I have lived much of my life in urban areas, or the suburbs of large urban areas. Moreover, since leaving home for college, my life has gotten steadily busier to the point where at times, the pace of things is frantic.

It seems to me, therefore, that my days pivot around two axes: how crowded my space is, and how crowded my time is. The y-axis on the drawing, the urban/rural axis, represents space density. The x-axis, the busy/bored axis represents time density. I’ve lived in that crowded upper-right corner for a long time. It’s no wonder I am craving something different.

I imagine that people who grow up in rural areas sometimes dream of living in the big city the way I dream of moving to the country. It’s the grass-is-always-greener syndrome. In reality (outside my rose-colored imagination), rural living would have its challenges. But I admire people who are able to make the change. I recall reading fondly of E. B. White, who, after years in New York City, gave up writing regularly for The New Yorker and moved to Brooklin, Maine. There, he ran a little farm, which became the subject of his One Man’s Meat column in Harpers, to say nothing of the stage for Charlotte’s Web.

What would I gain from living in the country? Swapping the sounds of car motors and airplanes and helicopters overhead for the sounds of birds, the whine of insects would be a start. I love the sounds of the country as much as I detest the background noise of the city. I’ve learned to tune it out, but it takes an effort. It would be nice to listen for a change.

Life is fast in the big city. I’ve been running that race for a long time, and I’m ready for a slower pace. I used to think busy was a good thing—cramming as much into every day as possible. Just look back at posts I wrote 5 years ago and its everywhere. Now things are different. I’ve been frantically busy long enough. I’m ready to slow things down. I’m ready for a calendar that doesn’t overwhelm me each time I look at it.

But the pace of life isn’t changing (much), and the country will have to wait a while longer. This is part of the reason I started to write again. In stories, just as in my imagination, I can live where I want. My characters can slow down their lives, even if I can’t slow down mine. And while it isn’t quite the same thing, it does help a little.

Still, I am looking for ways to move that stick figure version of me close to that daydream version. I think I’ll get there someday, but the road is still a long one.

Distraction-Free Writing

I have started writing again. After a year off, it feels as if I am starting over from the very beginning. In some ways, I guess I am. This time around, I am aiming for truly distraction-free writing as much as possible.

“Distraction-free” is buzzword I see in many apps today. Word processors have “distraction-free” modes that are supposed to help writers focus on the writing. I’ve tried many of these and found that to a large extent, they don’t work well for me. From what distraction am I being freed?

These days, I find the tools themselves a distraction. Even the choice about which tool to use to write is a distraction that prevents me from writing. I used Scrivener for a long time. Then I used Google Docs. Then I switched to a text editor. All of them had their distractions, no matter how distraction-free they claimed to be.

When I started writing again, I spent days trying to figure out which of these tools to use—days which I could have spent writing, instead of being distracted by the very features designed to be distraction-free. Eventually, I backed away from my computer and considered this. I felt foolish. I decided that for me there was only one way to get a true distraction-free writing experience:

I would no longer write on the computer—at least not first drafts.

On June 1, I began writing the first draft of a new novel. I have written only one other novel in my life—I wrote the first draft of it in 2013, and never wrote a second draft. It was practice. Perhaps this time is practice, too. But unlike just about all of my previous writing, this draft started on the first page of a brand new 200-page Composition Book.

Almost at once, I learned some things:

  1. I write more slowly than I type.
  2. I am not bothered by the same kind of distractions writing in a notebook as I am writing in a word processor. I don’t have to worry about formatting, fonts, or if my changes have been saved.
  3. Since I am not on the computer when I am writing, I don’t have to worry about going down some kind of Google rabbit hole. If there’s something I need to look up, I just make a note of it and leave it for a time when I am not writing.
  4. I am not distracted by word counts. I used to be obsessed by word counts. Writing in the notebook, I have the general sense that each page I fill is worth about 300 words. Beyond that, I don’t worry about it. I just write.
  5. There are no alerts or notifications popping up to bug me. I try to leave my phone somewhere else when I write so that I don’t have to worry about that distraction either.

There are still interruptions. Kelly or the kids might ask me for something while I am writing, and these are welcome interruptions. I’ve been making extensive use of the margins to jot down notes, especially if I think an interruption will take me away for an extended period of time.

So far, I like using the notebook approach. It is the most distraction-free writing approach I have yet encountered.

What happens when I complete the first draft? At that point, I’ll do what I usually do: I’ll set the story aside for a while. When I come back to it, I’ll read it, mark it up, and I’ll do the second draft—which for me is usually the best part of writing—in Scrivener. I can afford more distractions once I know what the story is about, and I almost never know that until the first draft is completed.

What I Read in May 2018

I set a personal record in May for the most reading I’ve done since I’ve kept my list. I managed to read about 5,500 pages spread over 14 books. Here are the books I read in May (bold titles are recommended):

  1. The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
  2. In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy
  3. Letters to a Young Scientist by Edward O. Wilson
  4. Brave Companions: Portraits in History by David McCullough
  5. The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World by Simon Winchester
  6. The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of the Lost World by Steve Brusatte
  7. Factfulness: Ten Reasons Why We’re Wrong About the World—And Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling
  8. Titan: The Life of John D. Rockerfeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow
  9. The Sweet Science by A. J. Liebling
  10. The Outsider by Stephen King
  11. Irons in the Fire by John McPhee
  12. Pet Sematary by Stephen King
  13. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
  14. The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing by Norman Mailer

I think the book that most surprised me was The Sweet Science by A. J. Liebling. Going into it, I knew it was a book of essays Liebling had written on boxing, but I had no idea how good it would turn out to be.

Through the end of May, I’ve now read 50 books in 2018. The most I’ve previous read is 58 books, and that was for all of 2017. So 2018 is turning into a breakout year in terms of how much I am reading, and I am happy about that.

What did you read in May?

The Nine Billion Names of Science Fiction

I was saddened to learn that Gardner Dozois died over the weekend. I’d seen him on several occasions, at various conventions, but only ever spoke to him once. Many of the online tributes to Gardner speak of his shyness, but I was always wary of introducing myself to him. His was a Big Name and I was virtually unknown.

I was forced to overcome this shyness one evening at Worldcon in Chicago a few years back. I was sitting in the SFWA suite, and Allen Steele pulled me out of a conversation I was having—literally took my arm and said, “You need to come with me right now.” I followed him into the back rooms of the suite, and Allen introduced me to Gardner, saying, “This is the guy I was telling you about.” I spent the next hour our so sitting in a room with Gardner, and Mike Resnick, and others, listening to them talk, just listening, and it was wonderful.

I was present for an amazing “panel” discussion that included Gardner, and George R. R. Martin at Capclave back in 2013. It was standing-room only, and I stood near the back for two hours, laughing harder than I’d laughed in years. Gardner told stories from his days in the army, and the refrain across the convention the following day went something like: “IF YOU DO (X) YOU WILL DIE.” You had to be there.

Gardner’s annual Year’s Best Science Fiction anthologies were my crash course in modern science fiction, writing, and storytelling. I came into the field with a very narrow list of authors that I’d read. The stories in Gardner’s anthologies gave me what felt like a graduate degree in science fiction, to say nothing of countless hours of enjoyment.

I don’t read much science fiction these days. Don’t get me wrong. I still love it. But my interests have shifted over time. It means I don’t read many of the bright new writers coming into the field. That skews my perspective. When I saw the news of Gardner’s passing, I thought of the ending of Arthur C. Clarke’s story, “The Nine Billion Names of God.” For me it seems like star after star is winking out of the science fiction world.

I have to remind myself that Gardner himself was a supernova. He was a nursery for new stars. And while his star may have winked out, there are thousands that he helped create that still shine brightly, and will continue to do so for generations to come.

Ringside with A.J.

I’ve never considered myself a boxing fan. Outside of what I’ve seen in the Rocky movies, there isn’t a whole lot I know about the sport. And yet here I am with an unfamiliar desire to sit in the stands with a crowd, and a box of over-buttered popcorn, and see a boxing match for myself. And it’s entirely A.J. Liebling’s fault.

I knew nothing of Liebling until last spring when I read Assignment To Hell: The War Against Nazi Germany with Correspondents Walter Cronkite, Andy Rooney, A. J. Liebling, Homer Bigart, and Hal Boyle by Timothy M. Gay. It was my favorite book of 2017.  Then, in the fall, I came across Modern Library’s list of the top 100 nonfiction books. I scoured the list to see what I had ready, and there, in the midst of some remarkable nonfiction titles like The Education of Henry AdamsBlack Boy, and The Making of the Atomic Bomb (all of which I have read) was The Sweet Science by A. J. Liebling.

I looked up the book and learned it was a collection of essays that Liebling, a lifelong boxing fan, had written on the sport. I had no idea what the book might be like. Could essays on boxing be interesting? I decided to give the book a chance. I’m glad I did.

The essays were written in the 1950s. Television was beginning to creep into American life, and Liebling was openly resentful. In the essays that followed, I understood why. Television dealt a knock-out blow to the sport as it had been for several centuries. Liebling wrote about boxing the way the best baseball writers write about baseball. The sport is background. It’s the people who make up the sport that make it interesting. And Liebling’s essay made boxing seem fascinating.

He described the sport outside the ring. It was in small, sweaty gyms, where real names had long been forgotten in place of nicknames. He captured the language of the sport, as rich as baseballs, and so pervasive that there are websites that list the many (50+) common phrases we use today whose etymologies can be traced to boxing. In Liebling’s essays, the action in the ring was postscript, or perhaps parenthetical. He brought the sport to life in a way that seeing it on TV never did for me.

Reading Liebling’s essays, I felt like he was my companion–or I his. I followed him to gyms, climbed into weary cabs and listened to him chat to the equally weary cab drivers about the fight that had just taken place. I went with him to bars and taverns, and to Madison Square Garden and now and then, I watched a fight with him.

It impressed and saddened me. Sportswriting has changed so much since Liebling’s day. This is as true for baseball as I imagine it is for boxing. Shorter attention spans require more glamour. Writers write about the rich lifestyle of quarterbacks, and starting pitchers, and the airplanes that boxers own. But Liebling wrote about people and the kind of symbiotic relationship they had with the sport. The people were the sport. One could not be separated from the other. Red Smith wrote this way. Roger Angell wrote this way. While I can’t say that no one is writing sports this way today, I’ve been hard-pressed to find it.

Maybe it isn’t the writing that has changed so much as the sports. Or the writers writing about the sports. Maybe there’s no longer an audience. Television, Liebling would say in disgust. There was something that A.J. Liebling could do in a few thousand words that captured the heart of boxing in the way a well-trained photography captures the perfect moment in time in single photo. In his essays, I could see everything that boxing ever was, and everything that it ever would be.