The Month in Reading
I hit my quota of two thousand pages again this month, so I’ve got plenty to talk about. I’ve finally settled on a good system of arranging my reading list, which I’ll summarise quickly before I get into the books… I aim for about 25 books every three months. Of the 25, I try to get through: 13 fiction (6 horror, 6 non-horror and 1 collection of short stories), 3 Nonfiction, 3 On Writing, 3 Philosophy/Self Help, and 3 Classics.
Anyway, here’s what I finished this July…
Ratings Key: 1: The heat provided by burning as kindling is more enjoyable than the book.
2: Couldn’t finish it. Wouldn’t recommend it to someone I liked.
3: A decent way to kill time. I don’t regret finishing it.
4: Good book. Telling my friends about it and lending it out.
5: I wish I could liquify this book and inject it directly into my heart like that scene in Pulp Fiction.
- The Talent Code – Daniel Coyle (NF)
Rundown: An analysis of the nature of talent, and an investigation into the phenomenon of talent hubs – schools or training institutions that seem to reliably produce world class tennis players, singers, violinists, and various other high achievers.
Writing: Solid journalism, well researched and insightful. Reminded me a lot of Malcolm Gladwell, and the subject matter was similar to Outliers.
Final Word: Fascinating book. Definitely read if you are interested in how people get really good at shit. SPOILER: It’s practice, but only a specific type of practice, accompanied by excellent coaches and a certain approach to learning. Innate talent for an art or craft is basically a myth: these things are learned.
- The Fireman – Joe Hill (F)
Rundown: The world is going to hell because a new disease (spread in the form of spores) causes people to burst into flames randomly. The story follows Harper, an infected nurse who escapes from her abusive boyfriend to join a community of others infected with the spore who have found a way to keep from turning to charcoal, and one man – the fireman – who’s even learned to use the fire to his advantage. Unfortunately, the uninfected are sweeping the country straight up massacring infected people, and the leader of the community is starting to get awful dictarory, the way cult leaders do. Oh, and Harper is pregnant, too, which is kind’ve a big deal when you could burn to death at any minute. It’s original, I’ll give it that!
Writing: It is not, in my opinion, Joe Hill’s best work (that would be NOS4R2), and I think he could have got to the point a couple hundred pages quicker and trimmed it down. That said, the man knows how to weave a good tale, and I went happily along for the ride.
Final Word: If you like anything else he’s done, you’ll like this. I probably wouldn’t rave about it to anyone, but others have raved about it to me and I can see why. The characters were probably the best thing about the book, and you’ll be keen to return to them, regardless of the book’s few failings.
- The Emotional Craft of Fiction – Donald Maas (OW)
Rundown: What is it that makes readers feel some emotions so strongly when they read, and how can you, as an author, make deliberate choices to capitalize on this and create emotional punch in your fiction?
Writing: I was sold on this book within the first few chapters, and intend to read all of Donald Maas’s ‘On Writing’ Stuff. The guy knows what he’s talking about. And I know he knows, because my own writing greatly improved when I started following his advice. He reminds me a bit of Sol Stein.
Final Word: Another good practical book, not unlike Stein on Writing but more concerned with the emotional side of the reading experience.
- The Rape of Nanking – Iris Chang (NF)
Rundown: At the beginning of the second world war Japan took over Nanking – China’s capital city at the time – and proceeded to massacre large numbers of the Chinese civilians in the most brutal ways imaginable. The book is a documentation of both the darkest aspect of humanity and, in its description of the heroes who rose up to defend the Chinese, the brightest. It was on the whole, the most horrific thing I’ve ever read – and I spend much of my time seeking this type of thing out.
Writing: Extremely well written and researched and everything you’d want from such a book in terms of actual construction. Iris Chang was a passionate, intelligent and capable journalist – but god damn, she sure as hell didn’t pull any punches; she plumbs these depths with the precision of a surgeon extracting and analysing a deadly cancer. Not for the faint of heart. Read it if you would like to see the blackest horrors human beings are capable of.
Final Word: I’d recommend it to anyone: to shock them, to shatter their naivety, to strip away their innocence, to traumatise them, to make them question their own goodness – so easily assumed – and most of all to terrify them. You won’t see the world the same way after reading this book, that’s for sure.
- Nowhere Man – Gregg Hurwitz (F)
Rundown: The second in the Orphan X series. Evan Smoak gets captured by a maniac after his bank account halfway through a mission to save a couple of innocent trafficking victims. Meanwhile, the other Orphans are hunting him down and closing in.
Writing: No doubt about it, this man knows how to tell a good story. He may not be lyrical or literary or anything like that, but it doesn’t matter. Think Jack Reacher and Jason Bourne, only with better story: the scenes are tight, the characters are interesting and three dimensional, and few words are wasted.
Final Word: If fast paced thrillers are your gravy, I guarantee you will devour the Orphan X books like a bloody steak fresh from the grill.
- Tribe – Sebastian Junger (NF)
Rundown: War Journalist Sebastian Junger investigates the social evolution of human beings. Not only to people seem to cope well under times of high stress, it appears we thrive. Why do so many soldiers long to return to battle? Why did Londoners miss the blitz? Why is it that in times of disaster and danger, suicide rates and depression plummet to near zero? It’s an interesting book, people, is what I’m trying to say.
Writing: He’s an interesting dude, Junger, having been out there on the front lines himself along with the soldiers in intense conflict. His personal experience lends fascinating insight into the psychology of that extreme existence.
Final Word: This book gave me a completely new perspective on human beings and something I’d never considered before: the social side of our evolution as a species.
On the Darkness of the Human Soul
I’ve been reading some dark shit lately. Among others: The Rape of Nanking, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, Panzram… as well as listening to podcasts: Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History on World War 1, Ghengis Khan, and the nature of torture for entertainment (Painfotainment), and Daniele Bolleli’s History on Fire about the Sand Creek and My Lai Massacres. Plus I’ve been falling down some internet rabbit holes concerning murders, tortures, massacres, genocides and all kinds of different real life horror.
There are a few things I’ve learned from this (so far) brief trip to the underworld. The first is this: that Solzhenitzyn’s statement: ‘The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being’, is true. To use the participants in the My Lai massacre, those involved in committing the atrocities could not be more normal. Some of the letters sent home to parents before the massacre occurred described their unit as a bunch of everyday normal American boys.
This seems to be the case in a lot of these horrific events. The people involved are not innately monsters. They aren’t psychopaths or emotionless robots. A combination of circumstances, experiences, and most insidious of all – ideas – have unlocked within them the innate savagery of the human soul. The appetite, capacity, and tendency for evil is as much a part of the human condition as eating and having sex.
If you doubt this, read Jane Goodall’s experiences living with the chimpanzees, and her documentation of just how brutally sadistic they could be to each other. Cruelty is not the aberration but the rule of nature.
People like to categorize perpetrators of true acts of evil as the ‘other’ – as villains and antagonists and psychopaths, people with no empathy and no remorse and no soul. People who are, in other words, fundamentally different.
But the evidence is to the contrary – the fact that the war criminals, the psychos, the sadists, the executioners and torturers of history were fundamentally no different than you or I. Maybe this is why people enjoy reading tales of horror in the first place – to explore the dark side of ourselves that society has endeavoured justifiably to suppress. I wonder if the most peaceful societies have the greatest appetite for horror in their entertainment?
Just a thought.
My take on the Classics.
Soon after determining to be a writer – or at least one who writes seriously – I made a list of the necessary requirements. The standards I’d have to live up to so I could confidently say I was on the path and slinging words with the best of them. I’d have to write over a thousand words a day, read two thousand pages a month, edit extensively, finish and send out all of my stories, study the art and craft of fiction any way I could…. And read the classics. Yeah, you know – The Classics. Just all those famous books you hear smart people talking about, like Shakespeare and Dickens and all the rest. What? It can’t be that hard, can it?
After fighting my way through Crime and Punishment, The Iliad, Ulysses, and God knows how many other dense (but let’s not forget, world changing) novels, I realised I was on a fool’s errand. Don Quixote is a thousand pages long, and it’s only one of hundreds of books that could be considered ‘Classics’. I found myself climbing endless walls like a Navy Seal at boot camp, only mine were made of words instead of bricks – though they were no less taxing.
I wasn’t enjoying myself. I wasn’t learning much, either. I wanted to learn. That was, after all, the whole point. I wanted to soak in the transcendent words of these revered authors, discover the timeless truths and human emotions they evoked. In some cases, I succeeded: Steinbeck, Hemingway, Dickens, Vonnegut. But in too many others, I fought to consume the prose, struggling to discover whatever lessons and meaning might be concealed within. It was like forcing dry chicken down my throat. At the time, I told people how much I enjoyed Lovecraft. But the truth is? I thought ‘In the Mountains of Madness’ sucked. I know at the time he wrote it, it was special. But reading it objectively from my modern day perspective, it just wasn’t good. It’s like watching a famous movie from the 1960s and saying it’s corny. Of course it is. Corny is something that happens when you make something so good that it gets copied to the point of nausea and cringing. Like clichés. The first guy who wrote the words: ‘He fought like a lion’ was way ahead of his time.
But the point is, I was forcing myself to read things I wasn’t enjoying and wasn’t learning anything from just because I thought I should. It wasn’t a good investment. I know you’re supposed to love the classics. You’re supposed to be literature educated, and appreciate what they did and why and how. But that’s bullshit.
Listen. A book is a big investment in your time and concentration. It better do at least one of two things very well, or it isn’t worth either: 1. Entertain you 2. Inform you
That’s it. These are the only purposes books serve. If you’re not entertained, and you’re not learning, then give it up.
In light of this, I developed a system for reading classics that both keeps me from getting bogged down in swamps of words I don’t have an interest in reading and educates me at the same time.
When I read a ‘Classic’ book, I have the following rules:
- Read 100 pages. If a book doesn’t interest you in the first hundred pages, it never will, classic or not.
- If it interests you enough to keep reading, finish it. If not, stop. Life is too short to read things you don’t like, and there are more classics than you could get through even if you only commit yourself to a hundred pages of each – or fifty for that matter.
- If you do stop reading, skip to the last ten pages and read them. Then go to the Wikipedia page or an equivalent and find out everything you can about it. Find out why it became a classic in the first place. Who was the author? What was going on in his or her life and in the world at the time? Why did he write the book? Why did it have such a great affect on society and become a classic?
That’s it. If you’ve read 100 pages of a book, then you know the style, tone, and voice of the author, and you know the direction and pace and form of the book. Combined with the knowledge about the author, the context of the time, and the reasons for the books enduring success, you have a pretty holistic and complete idea of whatever book you chose. You could probably achieve the same reading only fifty pages, even.
So that’s what I do. Occasionally I come across a classic novel I like or even love, and read it all the way through and study it and marvel at it.
Often, though, reading a classic feels like chewing dried fish. It’s probably good for you, but is it really worth it?
That said, I’ve also discovered some Earth shatteringly good books through my determination to read classics: The Old Man and the Sea, for example; Dracula, The Grapes of Wrath, and too many others to list here. So don’t dismiss the daunting classic – reach out and taste, and whether or not you like what you find, recognize that there is value there independent of you. If it isn’t your style, leave if and try something new. But I can guarantee you’ll learn something, and that the ones you don’t toss aside, yawning, just might change your life.