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:

Urban/Frantic

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.

Spoiler Alert!

I am reading Stephen King’s new novelOutsider, and really enjoying it. It is the most intense King novel I have read since his 2014 novel Revival. I did, however, want to caution friends and readers who are also King fans that if you have not read the third book in the Bill Hodges series, there are spoilers in this book.

As it happens, I read the first two Bill Hodges books, Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers when they were first released. However, I never got around to reading the final book in the trilogy, End of Watch–at least not yet. However, about halfway through Outsider, I learned (in the broad strokes, but enough to get the gist), just what happens in that third book. One of the things I love about King’s books the vast interconnections between them, and Outsider is no exception. In this case, however, I learned the fate of the characters in End of Watch in a most unexpected way.

If you haven’t read any of the Bill Hodges books, then what you read in Outsider won’t seem like anything other than backstory into some tangential characters. But if you’ve read some, but not all of them–look out for the spoilers!

Changes Coming… And New Posts, Too

You may have noticed a few changes to the site today. I’ve been absent for a while, but the desire to write has been stirring again. You can expect to start seeing new posts in the not-too-distant future.

As for the changes, I am trying to simplify and streamline the blog, strip it down to its barebones. Back when I was writing at my peak (2013-2015), social media mattered to me, though I hated to admit it, then or now. Page counts and views also mattered. I think I’ve outgrown all that, so I’ve stripped away most of the social media aspects of the site, including the sidebar, which had my Twitter feed and links to my Facebook Page. Those seem redundant and cluttering now. There have been a few behind-the-scenes changes as well.

In any case, for those still interested, look for new posts coming soon.

10 Audiobook Recommendations

My mom recently listened to her first audiobook, and enjoyed it. She was looking for some others to try out, and asked me for some recommendations. She said she likes fiction (mysteries, etc.) and history. I have listened to 215 audiobooks as of this writing. I went through my list, and picked out 10 book I thought she’d enjoy, based on the subject and the quality of the narrator. In case there is anyone else looking for recommendations, here is the list I gave my mom:

Biography/Memoir

  1. Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen (narrated by The Boss).
  2. The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life by John Le Carre (narrated by the author)
  3. Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson (narrated by Alfred Molina)

History

  1. The Men Who United the States by Simon Winchester (narrated by the author). As I said to my mom, I love Winchester’s narration. I could listen to him read the phone book, if phone books still existed.
  2. Assignment to Hell: The War Against Nazi Germany with Correspondents Walter Cronkite, Andy Rooney, A. J. Leibling, Homer Bigart, and Hal Boyle by Timothy M. Gay (narrated by Walter Dixon)
  3. The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin (narrated by the late Edward Herman)

Fiction

  1. 11/22/63: A Novel by Stephen King (narrated by Craig Wasson). My current favorite book and narrator. I loved Wasson as Jake Epping so much that I have avoided listening to other audiobooks he’s narrated, simply because to me, he is Epping.
  2. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving (narrated by Joe Barrett). Barrett does a marvelous job with Owen Meany’s unique voice.
  3. Joyland by Stephen King (narrated by Michael Kelly).

Bonus

  1. The Longest Road by Philip Caputo (narrated by Pete Larkin).

Note that this is not a list of my favorite books, although I recommend all of them. This is a list of 10 books I think mean great listens if you are new to audiobooks and want an idea of what a great book combined with great narration can be like.

Have other suggestions? I’ll pass them along.