To Be Read: One Writer’s Fight Against His Ridiculous Reading Ambitions (August 2018)

By Blake Atwood

Rather appropriately, Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree bookended my time at the God’s Whisper Farm Writers’ Retreat in Radiant, Virginia, in late June of this year. I read his slim volume on both my departing and return flights.

The book’s subtitle—which has to be a tagline rather than a subtitle because of its ridiculous yet awesome length—tells you what you need to know about the book: “A hilarious and true account of one man’s struggle with the monthly tide of the books he’s bought and the books he’s been meaning to read.”

Now, I’m no Nick Hornby.

Although we share the same follicular challenge, he’s a celebrated author with dozens of excellent books to his name and more than a few film adaptions of those works.

However, I am a writer, and I’d guess we shared something in common long before either of us chose to begin writing.

We love reading.

In September 2003, Hornby began writing a monthly column where he captured what books he’d bought that month and what books he’d read.

Even though I was familiar with maybe 50 percent of his monthly lists, I was still compelled to read every chapter, inhaling his book about books like a bloodhound attracted to the unmistakable scent within a used bookstore.

Of course, it helps that Hornby knows how to write.

But what truly fascinated me were the coincidental connections he haphazardly stumbled upon. Like many literature lovers, he had little rhyme or reason for choosing what he wanted to read next (unless an author friend or a publishing professional asked him to read their book or their client’s book).

In other words, he wasn’t trying to make the connections happen. They just did.

Inspired by his book and wanting to be a better literary citizen myself, here’s my first installment of “To Be Read: One Writer’s Fight Against His Ridiculous Reading Ambitions.”

Books Bought and Books Read in August 2018

Books Bought

The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, Phillip Lopate

Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, Patricia T. O’Conner

The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions, Arthur Bennett

The Little Black Book: Books – Over a Century of the Greatest Books, Writers, Characters, Passages and Events That Rocked the Literary World, Lucy Daniel

The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov

The Literary Legacy of C. S. Lewis, Chad Walsh

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, Mary Norris

Tell It Slant, Brenda Miller

Writer’s Handbook: Explorations in Writing and Publishing, James A. Michener

Books Read

Creative Quest (Audiobook), Questlove

Moonglow, Michael Chabon

Robin (Audiobook), Dave Itzkoff

***

In “Other People’s Bookshelves,” literary cartoonist Grant Snider boldly proclaims, “I will judge you by your bookshelf.” In the last three frames, the story takes an inevitable turn: “But if I ever invite you over . . . I ask only one thing: Don’t judge me.”

I don’t think I fear your judgment of my reading choices. Rather, I fear your judgment of my problem.

Then again, maybe you suffer from the same disease. Book-buying as pastime. Used bookstore browsing as weekly—daily—ritual. Rare bookstore shopping as a vacation destination.

I bought nine books last month. I read three. Even then, I’m not quite telling the truth. I didn’t finish one of them.

***

In “7 Ways to Retain more of Every Book You Read” by James Clear, his first suggestion is to “Quit More Books.”

I have such a hard time with this.

I feel that I owe it to the author to finish what they’ve spent untold hours creating. (I’d want the same from my readers, after all.) I seldom skim. Even if I’m bored to tears, I will plow my way through. For reasons unknown, I have always been this way.

But I hope to change that. I want to read more, and I want to read more of what truly engages my mind and my heart. Which means a sacrifice is necessary.

Sorry, Questlove. You were that first sacrifice.

I went into the book thinking I could glean suggestions for creativity when it comes to writing, even though Quest’s life is filled with music. As a fellow drummer (of much less talent than Quest, of course), I enjoyed some of the anecdotes and lessons. But, aside from one exception, not much stood out to me as revelatory.

The exception was Quest talking about his quest to be the perfect imitation drummer. He could emulate nearly any drummer. He worked on his timing such that it’d be so impeccable, listeners might think he was a drum machine. He wanted to be seen as talented and legit, so he copied those whom he saw as talented and legit.

But then he asked himself, “Who is Questlove as a drummer?”

In other words, he was searching for his voice.

And that’s something I understand in this season of my professional life.

Maybe that’s all I needed to hear from that book.

***

I briefly met Michael Chabon in college when he conducted a reading of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and he signed a copy of that book for me. Since reading Kavalier, I’ve been a fan, though I haven’t always read his books as they’ve been released.

For instance, Moonglow came out in 2016 and was on my radar since its release. But Chabon’s works require investment. You often want to sit within a sentence just to enjoy the way he weaves words together.

And with Moonglow, a story that takes place along multiple timelines, you have to allow yourself time to understand how these timelines ultimately tie together. 

Maybe what’s most fascinating about this book is that it’s a memoir, but it’s not. As the opening Author’s Note says, “In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.”

Ostensibly, it’s about Michael’s grandfather, on his deathbed, recounting his experiences during World War II to Michael. But, if you read the author interview in the paperback version I read, (“Michael Chabon Is An Underdog On Top Of The World”), Michael’s grandfather was subconsciously modeled more after Michael himself.

It takes an impressive talent to speak meaningfully about love, mental illness, fathers and their children, the Holocaust, and rocketry. But Michael Chabon makes it work because he’s Michael Chabon.

***

Finally, a surprising pick: Robin, by Dave Itzkoff, a recently released biography of Robin Williams.

Like so many others, I assume, I didn’t realize how much I appreciated Robin as a comedian and actor until his time on earth was cut short due to the suicidal ramifications caused by his diffuse Lewy body demetia—a diagnosis that wasn’t made until after his passing.

I was surprised to find myself purchasing and soon listening to this book because thinking about Robin’s death made me sad. For many months following his death, I couldn’t watch his movies or shows, and I’d change the channel whenever a news report about him came on. I realize now that was all denial of a truth I didn’t want to accept.

So, to choose this audiobook, where I’d spend sixteen hours listening to an account of Robin’s life, surprised me.

But I’m so glad I did.

Audiobook narrator Fred Berman did an impressive job of conveying Robin’s hyperkinetic vocal patterns and various voices. His reading made the book thoroughly enjoyable, even above the anecdotes and memories shared throughout the book.

I never knew how quickly Robin ascended from being an unknown comic to instant fame due to Mork & Mindy. Nor did I know that Robin had attended Juilliard. Or that he fought drug addiction. Or that he was at John Belushi’s place the night before he died of an overdose. Or that his career, through his eyes, was so up-and-down. Or that his acting and comedy seemed to be the real highs he constantly chased.

For an actor who was so quick on his feet—mentally and physically—the tragedy of Robin’s life was the way his disease ultimately robbed him of his ability to think clearly and even control his body. While many still mourn his loss, we should be grateful for the body of work he left behind.

I think I’ll go watch Hook now, which isn’t considered one of his more successful films but remains one of my favorites for more reasons than I have room to go into here.

***

What books have you been buying? What books have you been reading? If you’ve read or purchased any of the books listed in this roundup, what did you think about them?

If we all have the same problem, let’s commiserate.