Category Archives: reading

Stephen King Revisited

I have been having a lot of fun following along on Richard Chizmar1‘s Stephen King Revisited blog, as he attempts to re-read every Stephen King book in chronological order. After each book, he posts an article, as there usually several others as well looking at the work through various contexts. It’s been great fun, and as I might have expected, it’s made me want to follow along in a more literal sense–by doing this myself.

I waffled over this for several weeks, and finally decided to give a try. Chizmar is already on King’s 4th book, Rage, a book that is no longer in print, and one of the few King books I don’t already own in one form or another. So I have some catching up to do. I started re-reading Carrie yesterday, and found it to be completely enjoyable. Yes, I am reading stuff I’ve already read, but I’m having fun doing it.

I’m not planning on posting the kind of detailed essays and articles that Chizmar is doing on his site, although I may comment over there from time-to-time. And I’ll probably write about those books that I haven’t read before. Like Rage, which I ordered, used a few days ago, and which is scheduled to arrive in the mail sometime today.

I’m also trying to figure out a way to post my progress for those who are curious. More than likely, I’ll have a link on this site that you can go to see my overall progress. Stay-tuned for more on that.

Even if you are not revisiting Stephen King yourself, I’d encourage you to check out Chizmar’s Stephen King Revisited site, if you are at all interested in King’s work.

ETA (1:00 pm): The mailman delivered The Bachman Books, which includes Rage a little while ago. So I am all set for a long time.

  1. Publisher of Cemetery Dance.

I opted for The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub

In regard to the last post on Stephen King books that I haven’t yet read, I got quite a few recommendations, and enough to change my mind about what I was thinking about reading next. Instead of Insomnia, I’m now reading The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub.

Just in case folks were wondering what I settled on.

Stephen King Books I Have Not Yet Read

Back in November, as part of his 6-city tour for Revival, Stephen King came to the Washington, D.C. area as a guest of the Politics & Prose bookstore. I wasn’t able to attend, but last night, I watched the talk on YouTube.

As often happens after I see Stephen King speak, I thought to myself, “Gee, I wish I was a writer!” It also makes me want to read more Stephen King. I have, over the last several months, been reading a good deal of nonfiction, although I did take a break in November to read Revival. But in the last two weeks or so, I’ve been so busy with other stuff that I haven’t had a chance to do much reading at all. This morning, I woke up with King’s talk still on my mind and decided that I’d start on something else of his today.

But what?

I went through the list of books I’ve read since 1996, looking for all instances of Stephen King. There were 66 of them (+ = e-book, @ = audiobook, * = recommended, ^ = re-read):

  1. Salem’s Lot by Stephen King (9/16/2001)
  2. Needful Things by Stephen King (9/25/2004)
  3. On Writing+ by Stephen King (9/16/2009)
  4. Carrie+ by Stephen King (9/21/2009)
  5. The Shining+ by Stephen King (9/28/2009)
  6. It+ by Stephen King (10/28/2009)
  7. Night Shift+ by Stephen King (11/3/2009)
  8. Under the Dome by Stephen King (11/30/2009)
  9. Different Seasons+ by Stephen King (12/9/2009)
  10. The Stand+ by Stephen King (6/2/2010)
  11. The Dead Zone+ by Stephen King (6/11/2010)
  12. Firestarter+ by Stephen King (6/25/2010)
  13. Pet Sematary by Stephen King (6/29/2010)
  14. Blockade Billy+ by Stephen King (6/9/2011)
  15. 11/22/63*+ by Stephen King (11/18/2011)
  16. The Green Mile+ by Stephen King (11/23/2011)
  17. Full Dark, No Stars+ by Stephen King (7/5/2012)
  18. Bag of Bones+ by Stephen King (7/10/2012)
  19. It*+^ by Stephen King (7/30/2012)
  20. 11/22/63*^+ by Stephen King (2/19/2013)
  21. Misery@ by Stephen King (2/23/2013)
  22. Gerald’s Game@ by Stephen King (3/3/2013)
  23. Hearts in Atlantis@* by Stephen King (3/8/2013)
  24. On Writing@^ by Stephen King (3/14/2013)
  25. Needful Things@^ by Stephen King (3/20/2013)
  26. ‘Salem’s Lot@^ by Stephen King (3/25/2013)
  27. From A Buick 8@ by Stephen King (3/29/2013)
  28. The Tommyknockers@ by Stephen King (4/6/2013)
  29. Dreamcatcher@ by Stephen King (4/13/2013)
  30. It@^ by Stephen King (5/2/2013)
  31. 11/22/63@^ by Stephen King (5/16/2013)
  32. The Shining@^ by Stephen King (5/21/2013)
  33. Danse Macabre@ by Stephen King (5/27/2013)
  34. Carrie@^ by Stephen King (5/29/2013)
  35. On Writing@^ by Stephen King (6/4/2013)
  36. Joyland@* by Stephen King (6/5/2013)
  37. The Dark Tower, Book 1: The Gunslinger@ by Stephen King (6/7/2013)
  38. The Dark Tower, Book 2: The Drawing of Three@ by Stephen King (6/12/2013)
  39. The Dark Tower, Book 3: The Wastelands@ by Stephen King (6/18/2013)
  40. Hard Listening+ by Stephen King, Scott Turow, Amy Tan, et. al. (6/24/2013)
  41. Dolores Claiborne@ by Stephen King (6/27/2013)
  42. The Dark Tower, Book 4: Wizard and Glass@* by Stephen King (7/10/2013)
  43. The Dark Tower, Book 5: Wolves of the Calla@ by Stephen King (7/26/2013)
  44. The Dark Tower, Book 6: Song of Susannah@ by Stephen King (7/30/2013)
  45. The Dark Tower, Book 7: The Dark Tower@ by Stephen King (8/7/2013)
  46. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon@ by Stephen King (9/24/2013)
  47. Doctor Sleep@ by Stephen King (9/29/2013)
  48. On Writing@^* by Stephen King (10/31/2013)
  49. The Wind Through the Keyhole@* by Stephen King (11/5/2013)
  50. The Langoliers@ by Stephen King (11/15/2013)
  51. The Library Policeman@ by Stephen King (11/21/2013)
  52. The Sun Dog@ by Stephen King (11/27/2013)
  53. Nightmares & Dreamscapes, Volume 1@ by Stephen King (12/4/2013)
  54. Everything’s Eventual: 5 Dark Tales@ by Stephen King (12/26/2013)
  55. The Man in the Black Suit: 4 Dark Tales@ by Stephen King (12/27/2013)
  56. Christine@ by Stephen King (1/8/2014)
  57. The Shawshank Redemption@* by Stephen King (1/17/2014)
  58. The Body@* by Stephen King (1/24/2014)
  59. It@*^ by Stephen King (4/3/2014)
  60. From A Buick 8^*@ by Stephen King (4/18/2014)
  61. 11/22/63@^* by Stephen King (6/1/2014)
  62. Mile 81@ by Stephen King (6/2/2014)
  63. Mr. Mercedes@ by Stephen King (6/6/2014)
  64. Joyland@^ by Stephen King (6/9/2014)
  65. The Shawshank Redemption@*^ by Stephen King (6/29/2014)
  66. Revival@ by Stephen King (11/20/2014)

I then compared this to the list of books in Stephen King’s Library to see what I haven’t read. The list turns out to be an interesting one:

  1. Rage (as by Richard Bachman)
  2. The Long Walk (as by Richard Bachman)
  3. Roadwork (as by Richard Bachman)
  4. Cujo
  5. The Running Man (as by Richard Bachman)
  6. Cycle of the Werewolf
  7. The Talisman (w/Peter Straub)
  8. The Eyes of the Dragon
  9. Thinner (as by Richard Bachman)
  10. The Dark Half
  11. Insomnia
  12. Rose Madder
  13. Desperation
  14. The Regulators
  15. The Plant: Zenith Rising
  16. Black House
  17. The Colorado Kid
  18. Cell
  19. Lisey’s Story
  20. Blaze (as by Richard Bachman)
  21. Duma Key

I haven’t read any of the Bachman books yet. Perhaps the biggest standout on the list is Cujo. I’ve started it a couple of times, but have always ended up distracted by other things. I take it as a sign that I just can’t get into the book. King says his favorite book is Lisey’s Story, and I’ve managed to make it halfway through that one, but have given up. I was thinking about re-reading Hearts in Atlantis, which I thought was great the first time I read it, but I do want to give something a try that I haven’t read yet. So at this moment, I’m leaning toward Insomnia. I’ve stayed away from that book mainly because King himself has said it was overly plotted. But it can’t hurt to give it a try and see for myself.

I’m still undecided, but I’ll let you know what I choose. If there are any books on this list that you feel are a MUST READ, let me know in the comments.

What I read in 2014

Although I have a list of everything I’ve read since 1996, here is a version which covers just this year. Orange titles are audio books, blue titles are e-books. Bold titles are books I’d recommend to others. A ^ after a title indicates a re-read.

  1. Christine by Stephen King (1/8/2014)
  2. Work Done for Hire by Joe Haldeman (1/16/2014)
  3. The Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King (1/17/2014)
  4. The Body by Stephen King (1/24/2014)
  5. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (2/2/2014)
  6. John Adams^ by David McCullough (2/20/2014)
  7. George Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow (3/13/2014)
  8. The Joy of Keeping Score by Paul Dickson (4/2/2014)
  9. It^ by Stephen King (4/3/2014)
  10. A Nice Little Place at the North Side by George F. Will (4/5/2014)
  11. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield (4/12/2014)
  12. From A Buick 8^ by Stephen King (4/18/2014)
  13. Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe (4/19/2014)
  14. Love Life by Rob Lowe (4/21/2014)
  15. 11/22/63^ by Stephen King (6/1/2014)
  16. Mile 81 by Stephen King (6/2/2014)
  17. Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King (6/6/2014)
  18. Joyland^ by Stephen King (6/9/2014)
  19. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (6/9/2014)
  20. 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Write More of What You Love by Rachel Aaron (6/13/2014)
  21. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving (6/19/2014)
  22. Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon (6/27/2014)
  23. The Shawshank Redemption^ by Stephen King (6/29/2014)
  24. The Martian by Andy Weir (7/5/2014)
  25. Kiss and Make Up by Gene Simmons (7/11/2014)
  26. The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Volume 1: Visions of Glory 1874-1932 by William Manchester (8/16/2014)
  27. The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Volume 2: Alone 1932-1940 by William Manchester (9/1/2014)
  28. The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Volume 3: Defender of the Realm 1940-1965 by William Manchester and Paul Reid (9/17/2014)
  29. Great Baseball Writing: Sports Illustrated 1954-2004 by Rob Fleder, editor (10/5/2014)
  30. Ball Four by Jim Bouton (10/17/2014)
  31. The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson (10/25/2014)
  32. The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien (11/1/2014)
  33. American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin (11/10/2014)
  34. Revival by Stephen King (11/20/2014)
  35. Hope: Entertainer of the Century by Richard Zoglin (11/30/2014)
  36. Fallen Leaves: Last Words on Life, Love, War, and God by Will Durant (12/12/2014) [1)
  37. Caesar and Christ^ by Will Durant (12/27/2014)

I’ve started listening to Neil Gaiman’s “author’s preferred text” of American Gods, something I last read when it first came out in 2001, but I’m not sure if I will finish it before the end of the year. I mentioned in an earlier post my 6 favorite reads from 2014. And I’ve already got quite a few books that I’m looking forward to in 2015.

New books I’ve obtained over the holidays… so far

Iam, apparently, still on my nonfiction kick for the most part. I will finish up my re-reading of Caesar and Christ today, and begin a long-awaited re-read of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. After that, I think it is back to nonfiction, and here is some of the nonfiction that I’ve acquired around the holidays to fortify me.

  • The Autobiography of Mark Twain (Volumes 1 & 2) by Mark Twain
  • No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli1
  • The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer
  • I, Claudius by Robert Graves

I can’t say this with certainty, but I am beginning to get the feeling that I write better fiction when I am reading nonfiction. I think when I am reading fiction, I am too liable to fall into the trap of trying to imitate the style of whatever author I happen to be reading.

In any case, I am looking forward to all of these books in the new year.

  1. I read this in college, and even wrote a paper on it, but I have no memory of it today.

Audiobooks: Listening vs. Reading

They say that with age comes wisdom, and that part of wisdom is the ability to allow your opinions to be changed with changing facts, arguments, or the natural flow of time. Long time readers will no doubt recall the opinion I once held that audiobooks were not for me. It is interesting to look at that post from nearly 3 years ago and the 4 arguments I made against my own use of audiobooks, and compare them to how my opinions have changed today.

1. The voice bothers me

I wrote,

I am so used to my own internal voice, and the voices I make up in my head for various characters, that I can’t bear the voice of someone else reading to me.

I look upon this statement today as both naive and somewhat self-centered. Since February 2013, I’ve read 80 audiobooks, and if anything, I have learned that the narrator tends to enhance the book rather than detract from it. Indeed, today I would argue that there is at least one advantage to audiobooks over regular books:

A good audiobook narrator will lead me to books I might otherwise not have chosen to read

The one dimension to audiobooks that doesn’t exist in other forms of the books (paper, electronic) is the narrator or narrators who read the books. I have found that I enjoy some narrators so much, that I will seek out other books that they have read, books that I might never have chosen to read if not for the narrator. A few examples of these include:

  • Danse Macabre by Stephen King. Read primarily because it was narrated by William Dufris, a narrator I first heard read John Scazli’s The Human Division. I probably would have gotten to the book eventually, but Dufris brought me to it much sooner, and I enjoyed the book.
  • Blue Highways by William Least-Heat Moon. My dad recommended this book to me years ago, but I didn’t read it until early this summer when I discovered that Joe Barrett narrated the audiobook version. I first heard Joe Barrett as the narrator of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, and as soon as I finished that book, I started looking for other books that Barrett narrated.

Seeking out books because of the narrator provides yet another window into a book that I might not already have read. My “internal voice” which I was so used to three years ago would never have led me to these narrators and thus opened the doors to these other great books.

2. I cannot divide my attention to make listening and doing something else worthwhile.

This is an example of not seeing the big picture. To a large extent, I was forced to audiobooks precisely because I found that my time during the day was too limited to allow me to read as much as I wanted to read. The big lure of audiobooks was that I could multitask. This has become my biggest time saving tip, one that I have talked about in a variety of places, including my “How I Work” interview with Lifehacker earlier this year.

My days are very busy. I try to break them up with exercise, and my preferred exercise is to take long walks at various times throughout the day. During these walks, I listen to audiobooks, and I can usually ensure at least 2 hours of walking–and therefore 2 hours of listening time–each day.

I find that I have little problem dividing my attention between walking and listening to audiobooks. Occasionally my attention wanders, but it is easy to go back and re-listen to what it was I missed. The same happens when reading a book from time-to-time.

Moreover, I can listen to audiobooks while doing things that I can’t do while reading: chores around the house being one big example. And then, of course, there is listening to audiobooks while on long drives where I am the driver.

So, yes, I was absolutely wrong when I said that I could not divide my attention between listening to an audiobook and doing some other kind of activity. The bulk of my listening has occurred while doing other things.

Continue reading Audiobooks: Listening vs. Reading

Joys of a Text-Based Reading List

January will mark the 20th year I have maintained the list of books that I read each year. I started my list back in January 1, 1996, when notions of self-tracking in the digital age hadn’t yet risen to their current ubiquitous levels. Over those two decades, I have read 590 books (I’m in the middle of my 591st as I write this) and my list has been maintained in (so it seems) nearly as many formats.

In the early days, I kept my list in a Microsoft Access database. I did this because it seemed to me to the be most efficient way to store the data, and I was very big into efficiency back in those days. Eventually, this format was migrated into MySQL. But I found over time that the queries I would make against the data were not nearly as sophisticated as those I imagined I would make. Modeling the data and maintaining it took more time than it was worth.

Eventually, the list moved into a page in this WordPress blog. And for many years, that page was manually maintained. About a year ago, I took the final step at simplifying my list, making it into a simple, plain-text file stored on Dropbox, and writing a simple plug-in for WordPress to read and render the text file as a web page.

This is an example I think is pretty typical: design starts out overly complex because the practical use cases are difficult to imagine. Over time, the design is simplified to focus on just those use cases that are important and meaningful. While my reading list started out as a highly normalized database, today it is a simple text file, and I can do more with it in less time than I’ve ever been able to do before. Today, I can ask all sorts of questions about my reading list simply by knowing a few basic commands at the command line.

My reading list as a text file

Reading list text file

I use Sublime Text as my default text editor in both Windows and Mac, and Sublime Text has a few features that help simplify the maintenance of my list. The biggest win is that I don’t need to record the number for each book the way I used to. I simply add a new line to the file with the title and when I look at that title in Sublime Text, I can easily see what number that book is (in the order for which I’ve read it). For instance, I can see that Revival by Stephen King is the 589th book I have read since January 1, 1996.

What I track about my reading

I used to capture all kinds of information about what I read, but I found that I almost never used it. I used to categorize and classify the books, and break them into fiction and nonfiction, and the gender of the author. But I never used it. So I simplified things in the text file. Today, I capture just a few pieces of information:

  • Title
  • Author
  • Date completed

I have a few symbols I use after the title which indicate information useful to me:

  • * = a book I really liked, and would recommend.
  • @ = audiobook
  • + = e-book
  • ^ = a repeated reading (that is, I have read the book more than once).

This turns out to be enough information, and to satisfy most of the questions I have about my reading list and reading habits.

Querying my reading list

One “secret” of my productivity is that I am a big command-line junkie. I have been since I first started playing around with Linux in the mid-1990s. I realize that not everyone uses the command line, and not everyone is comfortable with it, but for many things, I am much faster at the command line than with an app and a mouse.

I always have at least one command window open, whether on a Mac, or Windows (where I use Cygwin). That saves me the step of having to open one when I want to query my reading list. I also have some aliases that speed things up. For instance, if I want to edit my reading list in Sublime Text, I simply type “reading” at the command line, which opens the file in Sublime Text.

But what about querying the list? Well that is pretty easy, too. Here are some examples:

Continue reading Joys of a Text-Based Reading List

Recent Reading

I completed my 34th book of 2014 a few days ago, and realized that I haven’t said much about my recent reading, which has branched out in many different direction. The last I mentioned was how much I enjoyed Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators. Since then, I’ve read a couple more books.

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

This Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of the father of the atomic bomb was a great read. I’d previous read Richard Rhodes The Making of the Atomic Bomb, a book which I’ve cited as a great example of a project management guide, in addition to being a great history. The Oppenheimer biography filled in the details of the man who led the project. Perhaps what stood out most to me was Oppenheimer’s persecution in the communist witch hunts of the 1950s, and even more, the lengths through which J. Edgar Hoover’s establishment would go, legal and illegal to try to take Oppenheimer down. Definitely a good read.

Revival by Stephen King

I’d been looking forward to this new book by King, which was being promoted as his darkest book since Pet Semetary. I don’t about that. I absolutely loved the first four fifths of the book. The real dark stuff didn’t enter into the story until the final fifth, and while it was dark and disconcerted, I felt this was one of those times when the build-up King made didn’t deliver to my expectations at the end. I still enjoyed the book, and David Morse’s narration was fantastic. But I was hoping for a little bit more when it came to the end.

Hope by Richard Zoglin

I’ve mentioned before how celebrity biographies–particularly celebrities from long ago–are guilty pleasures of mine. So when I saw a new biography of Bob Hope, I couldn’t resist. I’m about a third of the way through the book right now and loving every minute of it. One added bonus is the voice actor for the book, Martin Hillgartner. He does a perfect Bob Hope impression, and uses it whenever there is a quote from hope in the book. Adds a nice dimension to it. It wouldn’t work well, if he couldn’t pull it off, but he does it spot on.

Coming soon…

We head off on vacation 3 weeks from today. I’m counting the days. Looking at what I have on my list of things I want to read between now and the end of the year, in addition to finishing the Bob Hope biography. Here are a few:

  • Coming Home by Jack McDevitt
  • The Abominable by Dan Simmons

After that, it really depends on what I’m in the mood for while on vacation. I’d really like to read Will Durant’s The Age of Faith, which seems like a good read for the holiday time of year. But at 61 hours, it is also a pretty big time investment. I also still have John Scalzi’s Lock In, and Winston Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking People so who knows where things will go.

A Look at My Reading in 2014 (So Far, Not Much Science Fiction)

It occurred to me recently that I haven’t been reading much science fiction. Strictly speaking, I haven’t been writing much of it either. My more recent stories have been more along the lines of mainstream alternate histories, with a slightly (barely detectable) element of science fiction to them. This isn’t anything intentional. I just go where the stories take me, and lately, they haven’t been taking me into the galaxy. But I thought it was strange that I wasn’t reading much science fiction either, so I decided to look at what I’ve read so far in 2014.

To-date, I’ve read 30 books in 2014, and it has been a fairly eclectic year. Back when I was a kids and would check books out of the library, there was a requirement to check out nonfiction as well as fiction. Over time, that developed into a habit, and for the early years of my reading list, I kept a pretty good balance of fiction-to-nonfiction. Then, I drifted. Some years, I read a lot of fiction, other years, a lot of nonfiction. This year, the balance seems to have returned.

Type of books

16 out of 30 books to-date have been nonfiction. That comes out to about 53%. Drilling into the categories of books that I’ve read this year, things get more interesting.

Category of Books

Almost a third of all of the books I’ve read are biographies (which include memoirs as well). 9 biographies to-date. But that is more than half of the nonfiction reading that I’ve done this year. The next biggest category is “mainstream” fiction; that is, books that don’t fall into the usual genre categories. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving is one example. 13% of the books I’ve read this year (4) have been on baseball. Science fiction makes up only 10% (3) of the books that I have read in 2014.

The vast majority of my reading these days is via audio book. Indeed, a full 90% (27) of the books that I’ve read so far this year have been audio books.

Format of book

2 of the books have been e-books. And I read 1 paper book this year.

Finally, there are the re-reads. Occasionally, I re-read books that I particularly enjoy. This year was no exception.

Format of book

About 25% of the books that I’ve read have been re-reads. I can accept that ratio. Some years its lower and some years its higher. I sometimes think that with the limited time I have for reading, I should always read something I’ve never read before. But then I think, ah, what the heck, I read for fun, to learn, to relax, why not re-read something I really enjoy every now and then?

I don’t rate the books that I read. My list of books that I’ve read since 1996 has some bold titles, which indicates books that I would recommend to others. That’s about as close as I get to rating them. So far this year, I’ve marked 18 of the 30 books that I’ve read (60%) as “recommended.” That seemed pretty high to me, so I went to look at past years. Here is how they line up:

Recommended Books by Year

Why such an increase in the last 2 years? It goes coincide with when I started listening to audio books, so perhaps the voice actor’s performance changes my perception of the book. But I like to think I’ve just gotten better at selecting books I think I will enjoy reading.

With 12 weeks remaining in 2014, I’d estimate completing another 10 books before the year is out. It’s possible the number will be higher. Several of the books I’ve read this year have been very long, and that tends to skew things. Still, I don’t see an uptick in the fiction ration. It may hold the same, but I’m pretty content with nonfiction at the moment. I’ve learned to just go with the flow, and read whatever I feel like reading. It all works itself out in the end.

Halfway Through the Churchill Biography

At some point today, I passed the halfway mark in William Manchester’s 3-volume biography of Winston Churchill. The 3 volumes total 131 hours of listening time.  I am more than halfway through the second volume, and the pivotal year 1938 is rapidly approaching a close.

I’m sort of obsessed with the biography right now. A few nights ago, Michael J. Sullivan was telling me about the latest book he was reading, and asked what I was reading. “Second volume of the Churchill biography,” I told him. He gave me a strange look. “Still Churchill? Light reading, eh?” Or something like that. I’ve gotten that reaction a few times. But I can’t help it. I can’t seem to turn away. One reason is that the books, though long, are never dull. But there is another, more important reason.

I’ve said this before, but I’m always amazed at how much we gloss over history while in school. Understandably, this isn’t really the fault of the schools. History is a long, detailed interwoven story, and even with 16 years of schooling, you can only skim the surface. That said, there are event in 20th century history for which I knew nearly nothing. The First World War was one. I knew the very basics taught in 4th or 5th grade. Or maybe 7th or 8th grade, I can’t remember. The first volume of Churchill’s biography went into great detail on the first World War and it was fascinating.

Then, too, my understanding of British politics has been somewhat limited. I had an amazing professor in school who dove into some parliamentary politics, using Great Britain as a model, but that was more philosophical, instead of real history. It’s fascinating to read the behind-the-scenes political mechanics of Great Britain.

There is also something utterly frustrating about Britain’s role in Europe in the second half of the 1930s, with the appeasers giving Germany what they want. It’s like watching some riveting television drama unfold, in which you suspect (or even know) the outcome. I keep wanting to shout, “Get in the game, already!” and then remember that this has already happened.

But halfway through, I can say that so far it is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to climb into my time machine and get back to the events of 1938 so that I can see what happens. Of course, I know what happens. But the book is that good.

The Death of Marigold Churchill

I‘m still working my way through the first volume of William Manchester’s 3-volume biography of Winston Churchill. I got almost no reading done while I was in L.A., but I resumed my reading yesterday, and am approaching the end of the first book.

Today, while on my morning walk, Churchill’s youngest daughter (at the time), died. Marigold Churchill was 2 years and 9 months old at the time of her death, and the descriptions of the scene, with her asking her mother to sing the popular tune “Bubbles” to her, brought a flood of tears to my eyes, making it almost dangerous to continue walking.

I’ve noticed more of a tendency toward tears when reading of the death of a child, ever since having children of my own. Indeed, knowing nothing of what Marigold Churchill looked like, other than the fact that she was not quite three, I had in my mind a picture of my own daughter, and how she smiles, and loves to sing songs. My own daughter, who is not quite three herself.

It is entirely possible that readers without children are moved in the same way by these passages, but before I had children, I wasn’t. It also possible, of course, that people with children aren’t moved to tears by passages like these. Everyone is different. But my heart retroactively ached for the Churchill’s and the loss of their little girl. And this, from a book. That writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, can produce these emotions is one of the things I love best about being a writer and a reader.

Reading My Grandfather’s Bookshelf

My grandfather had this bookshelf mounted to the wall above the pull-out sofa in the guest room. Actually, it was two bookshelves, one atop the other, dark planks of wood on grey metal rails. For as long as he and my grandmother lived in their apartment in Spring Valley, New York, those bookshelves were there. I remember them from back when I was a little kid, before I had learned to read. And once I could read, the books there were something of a mystery to me.

Every now and then, when I’m pressed for something interesting to read, and not wanted to tread down familiar paths, I use a gimmick that has worked for me on a number of occasions. I come up with a reading theme. Once, in 1997, I decided to read all of the books that David G. Hartwell mentioned in his book Age of Wonders. Another time, I decided that I would attempt to read a biography for every President of the United States. I rarely completed these ventures, but they did get me out of my rut. Once out, one book often readily leads to another.

My current reading theme is a tough one. I call it Reading My Grandfather’s Bookshelf. The idea is to actually read the books that were such a mystery to me as a little boy and later as a curious teen. There is the difficulty in remembering the books. The book I do remember on my Grandfather’s bookshelf were impressed on my brain through sheer repetition of visits. I would study the bookshelf at night, whenever I visited. Sometimes, I’d study it during the day when I was bored. I was rarely bored and as I kid, I wasn’t as enthusiastic about spending my days reading as I am today. Still, I remember quite a few of the books on the shelf. Specifically, I remember these:

  • Future Shock by Alvin Toffler
  • Clan of the Cave Bear by Jane Auel
  • Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller
  • Rabbit, Run by John Updike
  • Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett
  • The Sensuous Dirty Old Man by Doctor A.1
  • The Most of Burns2 by George Burns

There are others that are less clear in my mind. If I think hard, every now and then I remember one. If only there was a picture of those bookshelves, but to my knowledge, no such picture exists. That’s okay, because this seems like a good enough start for me. I suspect that when I finish my current book (A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving), I’ll start reading my grandfather’s bookshelf with Rabbit, Run by John Updike, and follow that up with Clan of the Cave Bear. If I like either of those books, there are sequels. If not, maybe Eye of the Needle or Future Shock.

It’s refreshing to read fiction outside science fiction, fantasy and horror every now and then3 and these books also have pleasant memories associated with them, despite the fact that I’ve never read them. For decades, when I slept at my grandparents house, I slept with these books keeping watch over me.

  1. By Isaac Asimov. I inherited this book from my grandfather, and still have it.
  2. An omnibus of several of Burns’ books.
  3. I read plenty of nonfiction outside the genre, but no a whole lot of fiction.