It has been a while since I’ve written about book that I am eagerly awaiting. In fact, I’m not sure that I’ve done it this year so far. 2020, being what it is, has gotten the best of me, and I’m behind in my reading. I’d set a goal of 110 books for the year, and I’m presently about 10 books behind pace (I’ve finished 74 books as of this writing). I will likely finish my 75th book of the year later today. Here are some of the books that I am looking forward to reading over the next several weeks:
Is This Anything? by Jerry Seinfeld.
The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison’s Ten Year Road Trip by Jeff Guinn
The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser
Cubed: The Puzzle of Us All by Erno Rubik
The Polymath: A Cultural History from Leonardo da Vinci to Susan Sontag by Peter Burke
The Furious Sky: The Five Hundred Year History of America’s Hurricanes by Eric Jay Dolin
Presidents vs. the Press: The Endless Battle Between the White House and the Media by Harold Holtzer
Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck by William Souder
There are other books I’m looking forward to, but they don’t come out until early next year, including books by Simon Winchester, Stephen King, and Cal Newport. But the list is a few of the ones that I’m looking forward to for the fall.
I have been fascinated by the Adams family since reading David McCullough’s biography John Adams in the summer of 2001. Adams, to me, was a remarkable man. I’ve often named him as my favorite president (careful to point out that I say my favorite president, not the best president). From time-to-time, I’ve browsed John Adam’s diaries with great delight. I enjoyed reading about Adam’s from Jefferson’s perspective in Dumas Malone’s 6-volume biography of Jefferson. The story of Adams’ and Jefferson’s tumultuous friendship–captured in Friends Divided by Gordon S. Wood–is remarkable for its time. In any case, McCullough’s biography of John Adams has for nearly twenty years now been one of my favorites, and one I’ve re-read on several occasions.
This morning, I finished reading John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit by James Traub, and have found a biography of the son that matches McCullough’s of the father. What a great read. I’ve often felt that there are two qualities that drive people to greatness: genius, or extremely hard work. John Quincy Adams is the rare result of both, and his accomplishments bear that out. JQA was a more prolific diarist than his father and I have now started to immerse myself in Vol 1 of his diaries, with Vol 2 waiting in the wings.
I read The Education of Henry Adams two years ago. Henry was the son of Charles Francis Adams and thus the grandson of JQA and the great-grandson of John Adams. The family had its share of tragedy, and yet it continued to produce some remarkable people.
A paragraph toward the end of Traub’s book sums this up as follows, astounding when you think of John Adams relatively humble beginnings 285 years ago:
The Adams name rolled on in gently ebbing waves of distinction. Charles Francis Adams III, who married the granddaughter of the secretary of the navy under President John Quincy Adams, served as Herbert Hoover’s navy secretary. (He had prepared for the role by successfully defending the America’s Cup.) His son, Charles Francis Adams IV, served as president of the aerospace firm Raytheon. The Roman numerals have marched all the way down to our own day in the form of John Quincy Adams VII, surely one of the very few “VII”s in a nation that has forsworn a hereditary aristocracy. This John Quincy Adams has a blog.
What would John Adams have thought of blogs, I wonder?
On Saturday, May 23, I finished reading The Reformation, Will Durant’s 1,000 page book on, well, the reformation in Europe. There was a nice symmetry to the length being about 1,000 pages since this was also the 1,000th book I finished since I started keeping a list in January 1996. That is a span of over 25 years. For those curious, here is graphical breakdown of those years:
For those unfamiliar with my list, I keep it using a few simple rules:
Only a book that I finish gets on the list. Unfinished books don’t show up.
I don’t rank books, but a book that I would read again, or recommend, I’ll make bold on the list.
Re-reading a book counts as a finished book. Thus, the list is a list of all books I’ve finished, even those read multiple times. It is not a list of distinct titles.
What constitutes a book? I use my judgement. There are a few short books (#789 The Testament of Mary is one. But I also counted the full issues of Astounding that I read for my Vacation in the Golden Age as books since they were of equivalent length.)
I finished the very first book on my list, From Earth to Heaven by Isaac Asimov, on January 13, 1996. I was in New York at the time, on vacation. I can no longer recall what possessed me to start keeping a list. It is possible that I had already come across Eric W. Leuliette’s list of what he’s read since 1974. In any case, I managed to keep the list going in various forms and mediums. Twenty five years later, I finished my 1,000th book. The canonical list has, for some time now, resided in a Leuchtturm1917 notebook. Here’s the first page with entries from 1996, and the most recent pages leading up to and including my 1,000th book:
Sometimes I’ll add some additional notes in the notebook that don’t appear on any of the other forms of my list.
So, it took me 25 years to finish 1,000 books. That’s somewhat deceptive, however. From 1996-2012, I read either paper or the occasional e-book. In that time, I completed about 500 books. That’s about 16 years or about 31 books per year, on average. In early 2013, however, I decided to give audiobooks a try as a way of allowing myself to get more reading done. Since 2013, I’ve read an additional 500 books, so that’s 500 books in 7 years or about 71 books per year on average. My page has been increasing!
In 2017, I decided to see how much I really could read, given the freedom audiobooks provided, and the fact that I had slowly been increasing the speed at which I listen to audiobooks. (Today, I usually listen to a book at somewhere between 1.5 and 1.75x normal speed, depending on the narrator). I set a record in 2017, reading 58 books that year. But that record didn’t last long. In 2018 I read 130 books; in 2019, 113 books. So far in 2020, I’m on pace to read 110. Indeed, I sort of sprinted to the 1,000th book milestone. At the beginning of May I’d read 983 books. That means I read an additional 17 books (including 2 books that were over 1,000 pages each) in the first 23 days of the month. It is, by far, a record-breaking month for me, and one that I am not likely to repeat for some time.
Given the pace I’ve set for the last 3 years, I’d predict, assuming no significant changes, that I’ll finish my 2,000th book in July 2029, a little more than 9 years from now. What took me 25 years to do the first time, should be much quicker the second time.
The books that I read run the gamut of the Dewey Decimal System. While I haven’t looked recently, I think nonfiction outpaces fiction about 60/40. In the last 3 years, it’s probably more like 70/30.
Why read so much, and why list it out? Well, I’ve said elsewhere how I look at my reading as my real education. I learned to read in grade school; I learned to think critically in high school; I learned to learn in college. Once college was over, i was finally prepared to learn–and then had to enter the workforce. So reading is my way of learning. The list acts a reminder of what I’ve read (and what I’ve learned), but also a kind of literary autobiography. I can look at the list and for nearly any book on it, I can recall where I was and what was happening in my life when I read it.
And what about before the list? I’ve often wished I started my list much earlier. I was 24 years old when I started it and 2 years out of college. Looking back over that time, and thinking about books I read in college, and high school, books I read in grade school. Books I got from Weekly Reader and checked out of the library, children’s books that I read on my own or with help from my parents, I’d estimate the total to be not more than 500 books, and probably somewhat less than that.
When I finished the final words of Will Durant’s The Reformation on Saturday, I was sitting out on the deck, enjoying sunshine. I had a quiet, private moment of achievement. Then I started on the next book. I jumped from the middle ages in Europe to the present achievements in physics with Brian Greene’s latest, Until the End of Time, which I’ll like finish today and mark down as book #1,001.
I occasionally get questions about my reading and my list. If you have any, feel free to drop them in the comments below. I’ll do my best to answer them.
The news lately is unsettling. On some days, I finish the paper hoping the coronavirus pandemic is just a dream that I will wake up from. I know it isn’t, but part of me looks for ways to escape. Thank goodness for books! Opening a book is like opening the lid to an escape hatch. The rest of the world falls away. I become fully immersed in a way that I never reach with movies or television. My current escape hatch has taken me back to colonial America.
I’ve resisted reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton since it first came out. After reading David McCullough’s masterful biography of John Adams in 2001, I became a great admirer of Adams. My opinion of Hamilton (and Jefferson, for that matter), distorted through Adams’s lens, was not very high. Because of that, I read other books by Chernow, but not the Hamilton biography.
A few weeks ago, however, I read a great book called The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians by David M. Rubenstein. This was an ideal audiobook because it was Rubenstein interviewing many modern historians, among them, Ron Chernow. That book and Chernow’s interview when he talked about Hamilton was the clincher.
And so, a week ago, I set my reservations about Hamilton aside and started to read Chernow’s biography. It came at a good time. News of the coronavirus was growing increasingly grim, and I needed a mental escape. I found it in America’s colonial past. Even though I didn’t always agree with Hamilton–especially his views of Adams–I looked forward to returning to the book whenever I could, often right after finishing the newspaper.
Hamilton has impressed me in several ways. I mentally divide impressive or outstanding people into two groups: their success is based on extremely hard work; or their success derives from some innate genius. While I admire genius, it is the hard worker that impresses me most–perhaps because that is something achievable without native genius. Rarely do I find people I’d put in both categories, but Hamilton is one. Even among the many hard workers I’ve read about, Hamilton stands out. HIs energy seemed boundless. His prolific output dwarfs Asimov. Then, too, his vision for America’s economic foundation shows genius. So do his ideas on the structure of government as he describes in The Federalist Papers.
Still, McCullough introduced me to Adams and in the two decades since, my admiration for the man, and his thinking has only grown. As I read of Adams and Hamilton’s disputes, this time through a Hamiltonian lens, I kept feeling the need to jump in and defend Adams. If only Hamilton knew… I’d say to myself.
Indeed, I began to wonder how Adams, Hamilton, and Jefferson would react if they all had access to one another’s papers the way we do today. Would their opinions change? Would their feeling for one another differ?
I’m nearly finished with the book, and as I got closer to the end, I worried about my return to the real world. I’ve looked forward to my escapes to colonial America as an anodyne to the uncertainty in present-day America. After all, there is no COVID-19 in colonial America. Instead, they have yellow fever, and their idea of social distancing it to retreat from the cities. I’ve decided, therefore, to extend my vacation in colonial America for now. But I need to turn back to Adams to clear my palate of Hamilton. So I have settled on two books about Adams that I haven’t read before.
The first, just released, is called John Adams Under Fire by Dan Abrams and David Fisher. It is all about Adams’s defense of the British soldiers during the Boston Massacre. The second is Page Smith’s 2-volume biography of John Adams, written in the 1960s not long after access to Adams’s papers was made more widely available. I happened to come across a boxed edition last year at the kids’ school’s annual used book fair.
Our kids, incidentally, will be home from school for the next 5 weeks. All Virginia schools were closed for at least two weeks. Our city’s schools closed down through spring break. They will have virtual classes online. The social distancing can be a real challenge. Last night, I had a virtual happy hour with a bunch of my friends scattered across the country. But with recommendations to avoid large crowds, it makes many of the typical things we’d do out of reach. Fortunately, I am surrounded by books, each one of which is an escape hatch to some other place and time.
It isn’t easy to illustrate the Butterfly
Effect of Reading with concrete examples. Too often, when I think of it, I have
traversed many branches, come to many forks in the road, and am fairly lost, no
longer able to recall the chain of events that led me to the current book. But a
recent lull in my reading has provided an opportunity for me to illustrate the
BEF in action. I figured I should take it before it flutters away.
I took a break from audiobooks for a good part of January.
It wasn’t a conscious decision, just something that happened. There were three
John McPhee books that I wanted to read, none of which were available in
audiobook form. I read them and enjoyed them all.
I was a little bit worried about what to read after
finishing Our Towns. The better a
book is, the harder it is to follow. But browsings the New York Times Book Review section on Sunday, immediately came
across two possibilities:
I raced through The
American Story in about a day. It was a collection of interviews with
“master historians” talking about their subjects. The historians included:
David McCullough, Walter Isaacson, Ron Chernow, Cokie Roberts, Doris Kearns
Goodwin, A. Scott Berg, Jean Edward Smith, Taylor Branch, Bob Woodward, Jay
Winik, and H. W. Brands. Of course, a book like this is a natural hub, and the
following titles were quickly added to my “Read Soon” list:
With The American
Story finished, I turned to Author In
Chief. It seemed to be right up my alley: U.S. history, U.S. Presidents,
and their writings. At this writing, I am more than halfway through and expect
to finish tonight. The last chapter is titled, “A Presidential Reading List,”
and that is certain to add to my “Read Soon” list.
I try to read one magazine feature article a day as a way of keeping up with the world and my various subscriptions. On Monday, I read a piece in the February issue of National Geographic called “The Last Slave Ship.” That in turn led me to a book by one of the authors, Sylviane Diouf, called Dreams of Africa in Alabama. That went onto the “Read Soon” list, too. Then, last night, I read a “The Notebook” by Steven Levy in the March issue of WIRED, and now, Facebook: The Inside Story by Steven Levy is on the list, too.
By my count, that’s a dozen books added to my “Read Soon”
list in the last week or so. Any one of
those books can lead to a dozen others. That is the beauty of the Butterfly
Effect of Reading. I’m sitting here today reading about President’s and their
books. I think I will be reading
about citizen reporters tomorrow. But I might be reading about 747’s. Or I might
have to turn my attention to The
Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. I never know where one book will lead.
That’s the best part.
We departed our resort at Walt Disney World yesterday morning at 8:15 am and arrived home just before 11 pm, 860 miles of driving. We have driven too and from Florida more than a dozen times, but this is the first time we attempted to drive all the way home in a single day.
The first time we drove to Florida, in 2012, we made the trip over 3 days, spending nights in places like Florence, South Carolina, and Kingland, Georgia. We’d do the same on the reverse run, stopping in places like Savannah and Charleston. After several years of these trips, we slimmed them down to just one night on the road, stopping at a roughly midway point in South Carolina. We’ve done that for years, and indeed, that is what we did driving down in December.
But we visited Walt Disney World at the end of our trip this time, instead of the beginning. We are normally in southern Florida, and being three hours closer to home made it tricky to decide where to stop for the night. I suggested we try to make the run all the way through. So we left Orlando at 8:15 am, drove through some rush hour traffic on I-4, and then onto I-95 where we encountered no traffic for the entire drive.
It wasn’t that hard. It might seem like a small thing, but I am always impressed by the good state of the roads, the quality of the rest stops, and the friendliness of the people at gas stations and restaurants along the way. We stopped in Walterboro, South Carolina for a late lunch, but other than a couple of pit stops, I drove and drove and drove.
I finished 3 audiobooks on the drive: I was almost finished with Ted Chaing’s Exhilation before the drive, and finished it while we were still in Florida. Next, I turned to Chuck Palahniuk’s new book, Consider This: Moments in My Life After Which Everything Was Different. Having finished that, I was still craving more on the writing life, so I re-read John McPhee’s Draft No. 4. That audiobook came to an end as we pulled into our driveway, right around 10:50 pm.
Listening to the audiobooks made the time fly by. So did the lull of the road. I remember when we stopped for lunch, around 2 pm, thinking that it didn’t seem like we’d been driving for nearly 6 hours already.
860 miles is the most I have driven in a single day. I think the runner up is in the 500 mile range. It made sense to do this, coming home, because it gives us the entire weekend to get the house back in order, do laundry (we were gone for 21 days) and settle back into our routines before we are back to work and school on Monday. I’m not sure I’d do this driving down to Florida.
The photo is a view from our hotel room on the last full day at Walt Disney World. We stayed in two different resorts this time, but I’ll have more to say about that in a future post.
After being gone for 3 weeks, it feels good to be home. It does not feel like we just left on the trip, or that the trip flew by. 21 days is a long time by any measure. It’s nice to be back in my office surrounded by my books. It’s nice to have 2 days to settle back in before work starts again.
Now that 2019 is officially in the record books, I present my list of best reads of 2019. Keep in mind that this is not a list of books published in 2019. Some of the books on my list are books published in 2019, others published decades earlier. It is, simply, a list of the books I most enjoyed in the last year.
A few stats on my reading from last year:
I read 113 books, for a total of 43,820 pages.
80 books were nonfiction, 43 were fiction.
The longest book I read was 882 pages.
The average length of a book in 2019 was 387 pages.
On average, I finished one book every 3-1/4 days; that’s a little over 2 book per week on average.
And now, the best books I read in 2019 in the order that I read them.
Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games are Made by Jason Schreier
As someone who manages software projects, I’m occasionally interested in how it is done in the real world. I’ve always been fascinated by the construction of video games, even if I am not an avid player, so this book was a perfect mix. It portrayed an array of games and game companies, including Witcher by CD Projekt Red. It was because of this book that, in January 2019, I took the rare move of buying Witcher 3 and playing it, and moreover, winning it and its add-ons. It supplanted the Ultima games as my favorite.
The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintrye
This real life story of double-agents and spies was fascinating. It was like The Americans, but nonfiction, and like a good thriller, it kept me reading, virtually unable to put the book down.
The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King
I watched Mister Rogers as a kid, and I was delighted by this biography by Maxwell King. I read it while in Pittsburgh for work, so I had a sense of the place where Rogers grew up and where he created much of his art.
American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race by Douglas Brinkley
I’ve read most of the books about the Apollo program and the lead-up to it, so I was excited to see something new. This book took a different approach than many of the other more technical books I’ve read. Brinkley tells the political story of the moon race, with fascinating insights into all aspects of the project from the selection of James Webb to run NASA and much more.
No Cheering in the Pressbox by Jerome Holtzman
This is an old sports classic, but it was new to me, and it was probably my favorite book of 2019. Holtzman collected a kind of oral history from sportdwriters going back to the early 20th century, and published a collection of interviews with those writers that were a fascinating look at the job of sportswriting, and the evolution of that job. It was reading this book that I realized the job of sportswriter (in the 20th century) seemed like the ideal job.
84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
I often enjoy books on books. I came across Hanff’s wonderful epistolary book at time when I was struggling to find what to read next. I pulled out my copy of 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die and went through it page, by page, until I came to this book. It sounded fascinating, a New York bibliophile writing to a London bookshop for recommendations and orders, and the friendship that evolved in the letters across the pond.
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
I don’t read much science fiction anymore, but I’d been hearing good things about Mary’s book, and Mary is one of those writers I trust, so I decided to give this one a try. What a treat! It is an alternate history of the space program, and it is extremely well done. First and foremost, Mary tells a great story, which is always the primary consideration for me. She narrates the audiobook, and anyone who knows Mary knows what a talented voice actor she is. This book was pure fun, and I’ve had the sequel queued up for some time now. I’m looking to read it later this year.
The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson
I enjoyed the Longmire TV series, and decided to give the original Craig Johnson novels a try. I started at the beginning and was hooked. Although I list only The Cold Dish here, I actually read all 15 books in the series, as well as the short fiction featuring Walt Longmire. I fell in love with the books, the characters, the style in which they are written. George Guidall narrates the audiobook, and he has become Walt Longmire to me, more than Robert Taylor ever was. These books redefined what a character novel could be.
The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company by Robert Iger
I forget how I became aware of Iger’s book, but I was a little skeptical when I started it. It sounded more like a self-help book, but turned out to be a rather remarkable memoir of Iger, who started in a lowly job with ABC and worked his way up to the CEO of the Walt Disney Company. As someone who has worked for the some company for 25 years, I was impressed by this, and Iger’s story was a fascinating one.
A few other notes on what I read in 2019:
The most intellectually challenging book I read was The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes. This stretched me to my limits and I’m still not sure I understood all of what Jaynes was saying in that book. But sometimes, I need to push myself, and this was one of those times.
My biggest disappointment this year was Blue Moon by Lee Child, the latest Jack Reacher installment. I’ve enjoyed all of the Reacher books to date, and had been looking forward to this one since it was announced. But the book itself fell flat for me, seeming almost a caricature of Reacher. In part, I think this was do to the extraordinary character and storytelling ability of Craig Johnson with his Longmire books. I got spoiled by Longmire in between Reacher books.
With the first half of 2020, I should finish the 1,000th book I’ve read since 1996. I wonder what that book will end up being? It’s impossible to predict, what with the butterfly effect of reading fluttering its wings.
Given all of the reading that I keep track of, one thing I haven’t managed to track is how many hours of audiobooks I actually listen to in a given year. The Audible app shows only the last 5 months worth of listening metrics, and several days ago, I found myself wondering how much it might be. Today, I found out, thanks to an email from Audible. It turns out that through yesterday, I’ve listened to 936 hours of audiobooks this year.
This turns out to be about 2-1/2 hours each day on average. But the number is a bit understated for a few reasons. First, given that it has to be through yesterday, it doesn’t count today or tomorrow, which, based on the last several days, will add another 10 hours to that figure. So we have 946 hours.
Then, too, it has been a long time since I have listened to any book at normal speed. Indeed, listening to a book a normal speed makes the narrator sound drugged. I typically listen at 1.5x normal speed, with some books (depending on the narrator) at 1.75x normal speed. Call it an average of 1.6x for the year. In that case, in my 946 hours of audiobook listening this year, I’ve listened to 1,514 hours worth of audiobooks. That’s an average of 4.1 hours/day compressed down to 2-1/2 hours a day thanks to the faster listening speed.
I am currently reading (listening to) Anything You Can Imagine: Peter Jacksonand the Making of Middle-Earth by Ian Nathan. I expect to finish this book tomorrow, and that will give me 114 books read this year. Of those, the vast majority, 105, are audiobooks.
I’m often chagrined thinking about how much more I might have read if I’d embraced audiobooks sooner. I friend of mine has been using Audible since the late 1990s, while I only got started with Audible in 2013. Indeed, I am on the record claiming I could never listen to an audiobook–which just goes to illustrate the folly of being closed-minded.
Some of the time I spent listening to books this year did not go into completing a book. I give up on quite a few books each year, and if I give up on a book, it doesn’t make it to my list of books I’ve read. I’ve never kept track of the books I give up on so I don’t know how many or how often it happens. I’m considering keeping track in 2020.
I’ll have more to say on the books I read this year later in the week, after the year is over. I plan on posting a list of my 12 favorite books of the year, as well as a separate post on the 10 best books I read this decade. Stay-tuned.
The biggest reason that I wait until January 1 before writing my “best reads” of the year post, is because I never know what book might catch me off-guard and really surprise me. Often, in late December, I’ll read a book that turns out to be one of the better books I’ve read all year. This has happened on a number of occasions. Among the best books I read in 2018, for instance, was the second volume of Gary Giddin’s biography of Bing Crosby, which I didn’t read until late in December.
Yesterday, I needed a break from WW-II. I’d torn through the first 2-1/2 volumes of Rick Atkinson’s massive “Liberation” series of histories about the Second World War. I’d been through North Africa, and Italy and was now on the verge of crossing into Germany, but like those solider push the Germany army back, I needed a break. I had, at some point, picked up Robert Iger’s memoir, The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company, and decided to give it a try.
I couldn’t put it down, and before I went to bed last night, I’d finished the book. It was unexpectedly good, so much so that it has created what I call a reading vacuum–a period in which I feel a desperate need to read something just as good, but have difficulty finding something to fill the void.
I’m fascinated by the job of Chief Executive Officer. Like President of the United States, I don’t believe it is a job someone can properly prepare for through formal education. Iger’s moves up through the ABC structure, and his on-the-job education seemed like a model for how one trains to become a CEO. The one CEO that I know personally seems to have followed a similar path (though not in the entertainment world) and has similar qualities to what I saw in Iger’s book: a hard worker, dedicated to the mission of the company, unusually smart, a gifted communicator, a natural leader, and someone with empathy and a genuine concern for the people who work for him.
As it happens, there is a chance I’ll finish another book or two before the year is out, and in that case, there are still some opportunities to be surprised again. So anyone interesting in knowing my best reads of 2019 will have to wait a few more days.
There is so much to do, I hardly know where to begin. Life these days has become so interrupt-driven that I desperately try to recall what life was like when I was a kid in the late 70s, when the only thing there was to interrupt you was the telephone or the doorbell. Not only is it virtually impossible to finish something I start without interruption (I can’t remember the last time I made it through a 20 minute sit-com without stopping), there is no longer a straight line between two tasks. There are roadblocks and detours all the way.
Take this weekend for example. I’ve been reading Rick Atkinson’s An Army At Dawn, his Pulitzer prize-winning book about the war in North Africa from 1942-1943. There was a passage in there in which Roosevelt, hinting at where he would be making a clandestine trip to, showed a group of friends a new film called Casablanca. I scratched a note to myself to watch that movie again. It has been a long time since I’ve seen it and I’ve mostly forgotten it.
There was lots happening on Saturday. Two basketball games (one for the Little Miss and one for the Little Man) as well as a surprise party to attend in the evening. At some point, when I had five minutes, I started to look to see if Casablanca was playing on any of the streaming services we subscribe to. That led me, somehow, to The Dick Van Dyke show, and I was reminded that we never finished watching the last season and a half or so. I decided I wanted to finish that, and made a note of it.
My search took me back to the Apple store, and there I saw that Rambo: Last Blood was out. I’d seen the first movie years ago, but never any of the others. I was curious, but it seemed silly to jump and watch the fifth movie when I’d barely seen the previous four. It turned out, however, that there was a special on the 5-pack and it was ridiculously cheap, so I bought it. I set about watching the first several movies, always fragmented. I never watched one straight through. On Sunday, I watched the last two. I was, of course, no closer to Casablanca.
Atkinson’s book reminded me that I wanted to re-read Andy Rooney’s My War. I read it when it first came out, and I thought it was a great memoir of the war years as a reporter for Stars and Stripes. A few years ago, I read Timothy M. Gay’s Assignment to Hell which was about many of the WW-II reporters, Rooney included. So I decided to start reading it, and put Casablanca on the back-burner. At this rate I’ll be lucky if I ever manage to see the movie again.
My desk is cluttered with pages of lists torn from a yellow legal pad. One list one do it these days. I have a list for things to do today, a list of things I need to get done for a work project, a list of things to do around the house. I wanted to go to the store today to get some WD-40 because the bathroom door has been squeaking. But it rained much of the day and I decided I would squeeze in some extra walking before it became too rainy to go outside. I never did get the WD-40 and the door is still squeaking.
There are all kinds of systems that purport to tell you how to better manage your time. I’ve tried many of them, and am suspect of all of them. Instead of getting things done, I am learning systems. I’ve come to the conclusion that feeling busy is not the same as being busy. I am busy at this moment, as I write this. I am busy writing. Feeling busy is the sense of utter chaos at everything you have to do, coupled with the knowledge that it is hopeless. There’s no way you’ll get it all done.
I managed to write this entire post without interruption. That’s not saying much, since I was supposed to be cleaning off my desk so that it wouldn’t be so cluttered when I start work in the morning. That’s okay. I’ll clear off my desk in the morning, in order to avoid some other task that I should be doing instead.
After six months in the new house, I have finally settled into my morning routines. I use the plural because my routines vary by day of the week. I know this is something of an oxymoron. Routines are supposed to be consistent, and yet this is the world I live in and I have learned to adapt.
Mondays, Wednesdays, and every other Friday share the same morning routine. Tuesdays and Thursdays share a different routine. Tuesdays have on added element missing from all other days. The reason for the variation is that Kelly takes the kids to school and picks them up from school on Mondays, Wednesday, and every other Friday. I take Tuesdays, Thursdays, and the Fridays in-between.
Regardless of the weekday, I am usually up by 6 am. I spend the next 40 (Tuesdays, Thursdays, every other Friday) minutes to sixty minutes (Mondays, Wednesdays, etc.) reading the news. I read three papers. I start with the New York Times because it has the best obituaries and the obituaries is where I begin my day. It sounds gloomy, but I enjoy the mini-biographies, and often find the full lives described within them an inspiring way to start the day. Occasionally, I’m caught off-guard by who appears there.
I also read the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. I skim the headlines, and usually tackle features and profiles, then the columns. I look for guest editorials. I sometimes read the letters to the editor to see what people are complaining about. I do this in all three papers, and after an hour or so, I generally feel like I have a good sense of what is going on in the world.
If it’s my day, I get the kids up, make them breakfast, and get them ready for school. We are out the door at 7:30 am, and I’m back home 10 minutes later. Then I go for my morning walk. Our house backs up to a park, and I walk two miles each morning. I walk regardless of heat or cold. Drizzle and light snow won’t stop me. Only pouring rain keeps me indoors. I listen to whatever audiobook I happen to be reading while I walk.
Back home I make myself breakfast, usually scrambled eggs, or oatmeal. I read a magazine article while I eat breakfast. I subscribe to a lot of magazines, and I’ve found that the only way I can reasonably keep up is to read one feature article a day. I cross the article off in the table of contents when I finish reading it so I know what I’ve read. When all of the features of a given magazine are crossed off, it goes in the recycling bin.
With breakfast finished, I turn to my work computer, sign in, and begin my workday. I mostly work from home these days and so I can skip the commute, which saves an enormous amount of time.
What got me thinking about my morning routines was the exception to the rule. Tuesday mornings are different than all other mornings. There is one added feature to my Tuesday mornings. When I wake up, I don’t check the obits first thing. Instead, I go to Audible and see what the new releases for the week are. I can spend 30 minutes sifting through the hundreds of audiobooks released to see if there are any gems that need to be added to my wishlist.
I don’t know how it was decided that Tuesdays would be the day to release new books. It seems like a strange day to do it. Maybe the distributors needed Monday to deliver the books to bookstores. With so many books sold online and in digital formats these days, it seems like a new book could be released any day of the week. But I shouldn’t complain. Publishers and distributors have their routines, just like I do, and who am I to disturb them.
Incidentally, I am usually less well-informed about the world on Tuesday mornings because I have to rush through the news after spending so much time seeing what new books have been released. But I still still read the obits.
And if you are curious, this morning’s article was “Escape from a Black Hole” by Steven B. Giddings in the December 2019 issue of Scientific American.
Few things are as frustrating as not being able to fall asleep when I am tired. I toss and turn. I get up and walk around. I lay down again. I drink some milk. I debate whether or not I should take a Tylenol PM. I worry over the time, 5 hours left, now 4 hours. At some point, I am certain that sleep will never come, not just tonight, but never again. I daydream about the good sleeps I recall. I marvel at how my three year-old can sleep so quickly and soundly. No, I will never sleep again. Of course, I do sleep again, but those nights when sleep won’t come seem endless. There is almost nothing as frustrating. Almost.
One thing more frustrating than sleepless nights are days when I can’t figure out what to read next. There are similarities between sleepless nights and what I call restless reading. I start a book that I think I will like. Almost at once I can tell there is a problem. One common symptom is that I am already thinking about what I want to read next. Other symptoms include browsing my bookshelf, or skimming my Audible library for alternatives. Generally speaking, what I am reading doesn’t fit the mood of what I want to be reading.
This is never so frustrating as when I manage to dig deep into a long book, hopeful for its promise, but increasingly nervous that it isn’t going to work out between us. This is what has happened today, when I made the rare decision to give up on a book that I had managed to read more than half of. I started reading Eye of the World by Robert Jordan while in New York this past weekend. The series is so big and vast, that I’ve been fascinated by what kind of story it could tell. I stuck with it, although I could feel my disappointment growing. Finally, this morning, after having made it more than halfway through the book, I set it aside and looked for something else.
I don’t track the books I don’t finish reading. To make it onto my reading list, I have to finish the book. But I do have a pretty good memory of what I have tried and failed to finish. Recently, list includes:
Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert MacFarlane
Walt Whitman’s America by David S. Reynolds
The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien
Rarely do I give up because the book is bad. More often, it is a bad fit for what I am craving at the moment. Right now, I am not craving fiction, and it was silly for me to try Jordan’s series at a time when I know I am not craving fiction. While reading the book, though, I found it slow. I kept thinking to myself, I could re-read The Name of the Wind and A Wise Man’s Fear and have a better time.
Usually, I can identify the symptoms quicker than this, often within the first few pages, or maybe a chapter or two. That leads to a struggle of its own. I can spend hours, sometime days, unable to find something that clicks with me. I scour my physical bookshelves, my e-books, and my audiobooks. I browse my wishlists. Like those nights when it seems like sleep will never come, it seems like I will never find another book that wows me, pulls me in, and from which I don’t want to leave.
There is no cure for sleepless nights, and there is no cure for restless reading. Unlike sleepless nights, however, there are mildly effective measure I take when I fumble for what to read next. I return to my reliables. Right now, where my mind is at, those reliables consist of books by Andy Rooney and E. B. White. Though I’ve read them before, they calm my mind, and allow me to read without struggle.
I know I will eventually get through this period of restless reading. In the midst of it, it seems like it will never end, and I’ve learned that I just have to be patient and hang on. Fortunately, E. B. White has made this a bit easier for me, and Andy Rooney has made me smile through my despair.