JUNE 2011

11 Jul

JUNE 2011

BOOKS PURCHASED

Fury, Salman Rushdie

Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, Keith Johnstone

Improvise.  Scene From the Inside Out, Nick Napier

Truth in Comedy, Charna Halpern, Del Close and Kim “Howard” Johnson

All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren

Walden; Or, Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau

Skinny Legs and All, Tom Robbins

BOOKS READ

Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire, Rafe Esquith

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig

Generation A, Douglas Coupland

 

 

 

 

 

I’m sensing a pattern.  It would appear that my capacity to buy books far outweighs my capacity to read books.  Therefore, I have an abundance of books on my shelves and splayed about my living room, and only have time and energy to read a few of them every month.  Maybe I’ll take it easy on the July purchases.  Not living in my home country, the prospect of having dozens of books that aren’t sensible to carry home and will be abandoned upon departure looms realistically in my future.

Several notes on purchases: 1) The three improv books were purchased in part for my course I’m teaching on performance this term, and in part because I just want to get better at something I’m passionate about.  I thought I would blaze through them as I prepared my course during my two-week holiday; hopefully I find time to read them at all.  2) All the King’s Men was purchased in a hurry because Norm MacDonald started a book club on twitter and this was the first book they were going to read.  It sounded great, as I love Norm MacDonald and would love to thoughtfully and playfully discuss books with a group of people, but I ended up being far too overwhelmed to get much past the first three pages, especially when there were 600 left and only five days to read them.  Hopefully I’ll get a book for his book club soon enough that I can actually finish it and discuss it with the rest of the gang.

While I did have two weeks off from work, June did not prove overly fruitful in my reading pursuits, in overall numbers.  But in quality of books read, it ranks quite high.  All three books read this month had an impact on me, or were enjoyable to read, or both.

A teacher of non-native English elementary kids in Los Angeles by the name of Rafe Esquith wrote Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire, named so because he once went on with a lesson for a short time without knowing his hair was on fire.  Despite its slightly braggadocious title, it generally comes off as a thoughtful and caring book about how to teach students with more care than your average low-salary teacher.  He gives thousands of hours a year to his kids in an effort to help them get the most out of their education.  He describes methods he uses to teach various subjects all while using applicable life skills as a foundation for what he teaches.  He makes it sound easy, but it’s not.

The book does inspire, and there are several methods he explains that I have instilled, or tried to instill, in many of my classes.  As a teacher being paid a relatively low (but certainly livable) wage, it is sometimes hard to muster up everything it takes to teach a class of students for hours on end every day.  Having recently made the jump to teaching college students, however, I feel an even greater compulsion than before to give these kids more – a lot more – than simply my presence.  In many schools, sadly, that is all that is asked of you.  Here, however, creating a lesson is on me, and I can’t take a class, or even a minute, off.  I work with adults, and they often have very adult and mature questions, even if their English skills are not immaculate.  As it is with any young twenty-something in university, they’re trying to find their voice, and it is part of my job to give them some of the tools to do that.  Esquith helped me find some tools – and inspiration – to hopefully do that.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig is quite the book.  As is the case with other philosophy books to hit the mainstream (Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder comes to mind), it was hard to get into, but well worth it once I did.  I tried reading it a year ago on my vacation with a group of friends, but I never got very far.  For whatever reason, I wasn’t feeling it.  And in talking with other people who had (tried to) read it, they never got to the end, either.  But once I got into it, and once my mind was in the right place, there were many times in the book I found myself thinking, “Man, this guy is saying what I’ve wanted to say so much better than I could have ever said it.”

One of the most interesting aspects of the book, and one which is largely the crux of the title, is how it deals with man’s connection to technology.  I’ve always had a bit of a tenuous relationship with technology, and not in the sense that I want to live without it, but in the sense that I see the harm that it does in addition to the benefits it provides, and have therefore tread carefully upon my technologically-infested ground.  I love my computer, but I don’t want to become too dependent on it; I think an iPhone sounds great, but I don’t want to be looking at my palm whenever I’m not walking (and maybe even then); I like toast, and I’m glad I have a toaster.  Pirsig talks about the relationship between man and machine and says that those who think the machine is evil are simply looking at it from the wrong angle; it’s not the machine itself that’s bad – it’s our relationship to the machine that needs fixing.  That makes perfect sense me, and if it’s the only thing I take out of the book, I’ll be happy.  Hopefully, though, my brain chooses to hang on to a lot of the other tidbits and tidpieces that the book dishes out.

Generation A, then was a fitting follow-up read to Zen.  Douglas Coupland was recommended to me by a fellow reading enthusiast who thought I might enjoy his modern slant on technology and the world we live in, and he was right.  If Pirsig’s look at technology was like a computer program I was unfamiliar with and had to get used to over time, Coupland’s was one I could start working with as soon as I opened it up.  Darting from narrator to narrator with ease and wit, Generation A takes a look at today’s technology-obsessed generation and where we might end up if we are not careful, all the while maintaining a playful and intelligent tone.  I read through it in a hurry, and I’m already reading a second book of his.

I’m going to publish this entry without much review, as I am dead tired and already a day past my self-imposed deadline.  This upcoming month is intensives at work, and it’s already shaping up to be quite a doozy.  I’ll be lucky to get through two books on my own, although I might surprise myself.

Tootles.

 

 

May 2011

11 Jun

MAY 2011

BOOKS PURCHASED

Eat, Drink and Be Healthy, Walter C. Willett, M.D.

The Comic, Brain Glanville

What Should I Do With My Life?, Po Bronson

Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss

The Need for Words: Voice and the Text, Patsy Rodenburg

A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson

BOOKS READ

Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson

Still Life With Woodpecker, Tom Robbins

Naked, David Sedaris

 

 

A paltry list, isn’t it?  It looks so feeble sitting there all by itself.  I have just three books on the “BOOKS READ” side and five on the “BOOKS PURCHASED” side?  Not very impressive.  But I tell you, I have my reasons.

This seems to have been one of the busiest months in recent history, especially during May’s former half.  In addition to what seems like half of my social circle leaving Seoul, including my girlfriend on the 1st, we had an international improv festival that was the culmination of months of work and welcomed improvisers and troupes from Beijing, Hong Kong and Los Angeles.  As soon as that was over, 7,439 of my friends left Seoul.  But before they left we had to finish filming for a web series that I, and many others, had been working on for about the last five months.  Then, my relationship ended.  In addition to all of this, I did eight stand up gigs, including hosting our biggest monthly open mic, and doing shows in Gumi and Gwangju, each of which required at least three hours of travel each way.  It never ends.

I’m not complaining, mind you, I’m simply letting you know why I didn’t read more.  Gigs and shows are what I live for, books are what make me any good at it.  Much of my reading was done in the last two weeks’ time, so I’d say reading three books in two weeks isn’t so bad, actually.

Regarding my numbers for the month, I could have read more.  Reading a couple of quick books is certainly not out of line.  Reading is reading, after all.  But, in fact, I chose to read fewer books.  In April, I read a book about teaching that inspired me to be a better teacher.  In order to help my quest to improve, I started reading another book about teaching right away that I put down for a while but easily could have been finished on the last day of the month.  However, when reading it on the last day of the month, I realized that this book would much better serve me if I were to read a chapter a day, in an effort to take some of the valuable lessons in, as opposed to just reading it all in a hurry so I could say I read one more book.  I’ll tell you about it next month.

So this month I read books that were gifted, loaned or recommended to me at some point within the last five years.  None of these books, however, had I had for less than one year; it takes me a while to get around to a book.

A note on “BOOKS PURCHASED” this month:  having gotten to the 17th of the month without purchasing one book, I’d started to feel a little bit uneasy.  It wasn’t guilt, but something more along the lines of a gentle tugging.  This tugging was also due to the fact that we were filming some scenes (our final scenes, in fact) for a web series in a major bookstore in the heart of Seoul (which we didn’t get thrown out of once), and I couldn’t let all these books pass me by without paying them some sort of respect.  So, rather quickly, I picked out Eat, Drink, And Be Healthy, which was rather spendy – around twenty dollars – but I reasoned it was worth it, because it was sure to change my life for the better.

The next day, I stopped in to my favorite used bookstore in Seoul.  It’s the kind of place that has sections of books that don’t seem to go together, dozens of books that you’ll recognize from your childhood, and stuff that you’ve never heard of or is out of print (I assume – what does “out of print” mean, really?).  Going there with a plan is only setting yourself up for disappointment, getting frustrated when they don’t have all the classics or the latest release from your favorite author.  Rather, you spend fifteen minutes perusing through books you didn’t know you were interested in and bumping into people in a shop that would have a hard time fitting five people comfortably.  The old couple that runs the place makes pleasant small talk as you check out and is happy to have you, leaving you feeling warm and fuzzy about the experience.

Feeling good about the store I was in, and wanting to feel a little better about the twenty bucks I’d spent the day before on a single book, I picked out a handful of books (only one of which I’d previously heard about) that totaled little more than the one I had bought the day prior.  By spending more money, though, I’d lowered the average price of my books for the month, thereby saving money.  Ah, frugality.

On to the reading.

The first book, Jesus’ Son, was a birthday gift from a friend I’d gotten while still in university.  It was a quick read – which is probably one reason I had put it off for so long.  Knowing that I could read a book without much trouble, I hesitate to read it at all.  Sometimes, my logic makes perfect sense.

Basically, the characters in this book are fucked up.  Drunk, high, abusive, violent, deceitful, self-indulgent.  All the things you look for in your protagonist.  Somehow, I still connected with the characters, in particular the central character.  That is what a good book should do, though, isn’t it?  Make you hate and love a character at the same time.  To be able to see a character’s flaws and still love them in spite of (because of?) them is the mark of a quality writer.  Or is it just simple manipulation of some basic tenets of creating a character?  That’s up for debate.  I’d love to hear some thoughts on this.  Do you want to love your characters through thick and thin?  Or do you want to hate them a little bit, and make them earn your love?

I had known that a movie starring Jack Black was made based on this book, so I envisioned him as the main character, only to download the movie and find that Billy Crudup actually played the central dude.  I liked the JB version in my head better – it was dirtier, creepier.  Often, in fact, I find that the made-up version of the character in my head is more appropriate than the one I might find in the onscreen adaptation.  Although, the fact that I used Jack Black because I thought he was in the film and not some personal creation shows how weak-willed my own mind is when battling Warner Bros for intellectual rights to book characters envisioned in my head.

Another topic for discussion – what do you think about characters in movies based on characters in books?  Does the onscreen version of Hugh Grant prevent you from reading Nick Hornby’s version of About a Boy?  Or does Gimli from The Fellowship of the Ring give you a better idea of what Tolkien was talking about?  Do you prefer to read books before you see the movies?  Or does seeing a movie before you read the book give you something more to work with?

The second book I read was Tom Robbins’ Still Life with Woodpecker, a topsy-turvy (I can hardly believe I just said “topsy-turvy”) ride through the life of a royal family disposed from their currently defunct home-country, left to live in the blackberry-infested woodlands of Washington state.  The story itself paid particular attention to the daughter, a stunning young princess with the reddest of hair who, despite her time on the UW cheer squad, had a predisposition towards hippy-dippy (“hippy-dippy”?!  Really?!?) pursuits, although she was wise enough to distance herself from many of the new-agers found at the Ecofest in Hawaii where she met her love – a wanted bomber who lived as an outlaw and spouted bursts of wisdom as he went to jail and made bombs and love and got wasted – while accompanied by her old-coke sniffing maid who tried to smuggle a frog into Hawaii.  Sound like a lot to take in?  Well, it was, but it was a great time.

I read a lot of this book on the campus of the women’s university I teach, and it was a bit odd at times, reading such graphic depictions in the middle of a busy college café.  But that’s one of the beauties of reading in public – that, no matter where you are or who is surrounding you, you can be in a completely different place than everyone around you.  You can be in a dark and dirty den of iniquity while surrounded by schoolchildren, you can be in the throes of passion while a stranger’s crotch is in your face on the subway, or you can let out a chortle in the midst of a sermon.  Take a look, it’s in a book…

Naked by David Sedaris was the first of his books I’ve read.  I didn’t dislike it, but I’m still not quite sure how I feel about it.  I didn’t feel much connection with the author until reading the final, titular story, which painted the character a little more completely.  While I couldn’t help but question the truthfulness of these autobiographical short stories, they were interesting and engaging.  I couldn’t, however, help but feel like he was trying to be clever the whole time, much like I feel about most movies made by Danny Boyle.  Neither of them are bad, but I’m not sure they’re for me.  Maybe they feel a bit too stylistic?  Too self-indulgent?  (Totally unlike blogs and stand-up comedy, of course.)

One fun thread weaved throughout the three books is all of them had parts that took place, or at least mentioned, the Pacific Northwest – my home.  I didn’t seek this out, but when one is away from home and their friends are leaving, it’s nice to think about your home, and be transported back there, even momentarily.

April 2011

10 May

APRIL 2011

BOOKS PURCHASED-The Polysyllabic Spree, Nick Hornby

-The Elements of Style, 1st Edit.

-How To Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie

-The Comedy Bible, Judy Carter

-Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Haruki Murakami (lost on the subway)

-The Hottest State, Ethan Hawke

-The Best American Erotica of 2002

-He’s Scared, She’s Scared: Understanding the Hidden Fears That Sabotage Your Relationships (Kindle for Mac edit.), Steven Carter and Julia Sokol

BOOKS READ-The Polysyllabic Spree, Hornby

-The Hottest State, Hawke

-Your Republic is Calling You, Kim Young-Ha

-An Empty Spoon, Sunny Decker

Firstly, I have an admission to make.  I didn’t finish all of these books entirely in the month of April.  98.2% of them were read and completed in April, but An Empty Spoon was finished on the night of May 1st.  (Technically, it was May 2nd, but no one really likes those people who make a big fuss about midnight, do they?)  I am including it in April, however, because having only two books to talk about so soon after beginning my journey is pretty embarrassing.  Maybe that makes me a bit of a cheater, but I’m an honest cheater, which makes it not so bad.

How am I cheating?  Well, here are some “rules”:  every book I finish in a given calendar month will be discussed, if even for a sentence; I will focus on reading books I, to put it simply, want to read; books of any length are acceptable; audiobooks are not acceptable to include in “BOOKS READ” (but they are certainly acceptable to listen to); and this blog is to be posted by the 10th of each month.

“BOOKS PURCHASED” – a borrowed aspect of Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree, which I discussed in my previous post – is included because Hornby said that some other guy said (and I’m quoting, obviously) “that being a reader is as much about intent as anything.”  I intend to read all of those books on my bookshelf and floor, which is basically just as good as having read them.  Their mere presence represents some part of me that maybe hasn’t found its way out yet.  If you go to the bookstore with your friend, you judge them on what they purchase, not what they intend to purchase, right?  Well, I did it.  I actually purchased (or obtained, somehow) these books.

Let’s get to the books.

The first book I read after TPS was Ethan Hawke’s (yes, that Ethan Hawke) debut novel, The Hottest State.  I picked it up because I enjoy some of what Hawke has starred in.  He never really appealed to me until I watched a few films he was in about being youngish and uncertain and romantic and naïve and jaded and cocky and a bunch of things that I sometimes feel (which are all elements of his book that I didn’t find too endearing).  I figured, if he speaks to me onscreen, maybe he would speak to me on the page.

           Also, it is a short book and I wanted to keep this momentum going.  I didn’t want to start with a book that was long and laborious.  It is discouraging to start reading a book (or many books), only to find it cumbersome, but you still feel like you have to plod through it and the thought of finishing it ends up hanging over your head for days and weeks and months like a very unappetizing carrot.  This was a short book.  If I didn’t like, it would be over in an evening or two.

            Basically, the story is about a young dude who is handsome and gets laid easily and has a moderately rough, but relatively easy, upbringing and screws it up with girls that deserve better.  I couldn’t help but picture the main character as Hawke himself, because he was an actor living in New York City and had been cast to play a role in a small film shot in Paris (a la Richard Linklater’s amazing movies Before Sunrise meets Before Sunset, starring Hawke and the endearing Julie Delpy).

My envisioning of Hawke as the protagonist, plus my overall disdain for said protagonist took away some of the points Hawke had scored with me in the past few years (I know he’ll be really disappointed to hear that).  Why should I care about this character that is obsessive and apathetic at the same time?  But then I thought, “Hey, it’s this guy’s first novel.  He probably has been told he is great for a while, and has gotten laid easily, and has screwed it up with women, and this is just a fictionalization of many of his past foibles and lessons.”  I thought that, and I was a little less hard on a guy who gave a decent first effort on a novel.  He wrote a book, didn’t he?

The next book I read, Your Republic Is Calling You, by Kim Young-Ha, was a vivid and graphic description of a day in the life of a North Korean spy who had lived undercover in Seoul for twenty years.  I borrowed it from my girlfriend’s roommate months ago, but didn’t get past the first few chapters, which each take place during a different hour of the day, a lot like Jack Bauer’s days in 24.  I figured I ought to read it, as my girlfriend was leaving the country for five months, and probably wouldn’t be spending much time at her place anymore.  I hate having books that I have borrowed from people, only to never read them and never give them back.  I feel like a thief.

More than that, though, I thought this book would be a telling look at the lives of Korean people.  Living in a foreign country can be an eye-opening experience, or it can simply lead to a more narrow-minded view.  I know many expats in Seoul whose time here has been replete with kimchi pot festivals, language learning and meaningful and deep interaction with Koreans.  But for every person who is wide-eyed and excited about everything being an actual foreigner entails, there is another foreigner who is jaded about their time here, complaining about Korea’s narrow-mindedness and superficiality, while doing little else besides collecting their paycheck and hoping to get lucky.  I tend to fall somewhere in between these two extremes.

The book itself was awesome.  It’s not your typical spy story of high espionage and Bourne-like action sequences (although there are one or two chase scenes in there).  It’s a story about a man who has to make decisions about whether he wants to keep the life he has led for the last twenty years, or go back to a place where he would be, essentially, a foreigner.  It’s about loyalty and family.  It’s about choices.  It’s about life.

Kim Young-ha’s graphic depictions of violence and sex are surprising to read from a South Korean author.  In a society where many topics are off-limits, this book moves forward admirably with ferocious honesty.  So many people take great pains to put up walls or masks around them, but reading this book humanizes everyone around me on the subway, where I spent most of my time reading it.

As I was reading the book on the crowded subway, I caught a glimpse of a small white spider crawling on the bag of the woman sitting next to me.  Not knowing Korean, I wasn’t sure if I should say something – it was just a little spider, after all.  As the tiny spider raced toward the unknowing woman, my better judgment told me to help so I said, “Spider,” and mimed some sort of squeezing-crawling motion with one hand and pointed with the other.  She had no idea why I was pointing at her lap and making grabby gestures until she caught glimpse of the little beast, and let out a high-pitched squeal and batted at the spider.  I joined in the fight and hit it away from her with my book until it finally landed on the floor.  The young Korean man standing in front of our fallen foe had seen the battle, and ended it all by squashing the spider under his Converse.  Feeling like we had gone through something together, I looked at the woman, a little shocked.  She gave an acknowledging nod and looked back straight ahead at the young man’s jeans.  I smiled at the guy, he made eye contact with me and slowly looked back at the carriage rack in front of him.

Reading a great book about the city you live in is one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself.  One of the things that I most liked about it was knowing what was going on.  Not in the sense of understanding the story, but understanding that when they ate “wine soaked pork belly” they were actually eating “samgipsal” – a ridiculously fatty type of bacon that drunk people eat at three in the morning.  Or knowing that the “Hongik University area” (simply known as “Hongdae”) is a popular and sprawling neighborhood of hundreds of the coolest bars, restaurants, shops and galleries for foreigners and hip Koreans to go, where I have partied and and danced and smoked hookah until the sun came up more times than I can count.  Or while on the subway, reading about the exact line you are riding on as the setting for a scene between two central characters is like being in on an exciting secret that you shouldn’t know about.  “I’m there right now!”  I wanted to yell a couple of times while reading this book.  It was like wonderful easter eggs were planted all over this book.

While I read the book in English, there are certain things that would have gone way over my head had I not lived in Korea for going on two and half years.  That is not to say that people who don’t live in Korea or aren’t familiar with Korean culture wouldn’t enjoy this book – Kim writes a great book for everyone who likes compelling literature – but my experiences here added another layer or two of enjoyment to my reading experience.

I found it funny that on the cover of the book Kim was compared to one of the world’s most famous authors, Haruki Murakami.  I didn’t find their writing too similar, although they are both Asian.

The aforementioned The Empty Spoon was a book I stole from one of my mom’s classroom’s years ago.  It is a very thin book and has a picture of black kid in a classroom on the cover.  I picked it up because it looked too old for anyone to miss it too much.  It didn’t look like it had been read more than once since it’s publishing in the late 1960’s.  It’s the only book about teaching I can ever remember stealing from a school.

The book is written by a woman, Sunny Decker, who decided that out of college she would teach at one of the most impoverished school districts in all of Philadelphia.  Being a privileged white woman, she had her sights on changing the world and becoming some sort of Dangerous Minds character long before that movie ever came out.  As it turns out, she only taught there for two years, quitting after she got pregnant.  (I’m assuming she didn’t go back, but for all I know, she might have after she gave birth.)

Immediately, the author gave off a gossipy vibe.  The first part of the book was not much more than Decker describing her students and co-workers in much the same way as you might describe a person you don’t care for to your friends.  Though names were changed, it seemed like an awfully unprofessional manner for a teacher (and author) to carry on.

Throughout the first year (the book was broken up into two parts: “The First Year” and “The Second Year”), she got away from so many insults, and got more into her interactions with the students and co-workers and school board.  It was an interesting look inside an inner-city classroom some four decades ago, and I began to think that she handled herself quite admirably.  In spite of her occasional judgment, she really cared about her students.  She wanted to help them to learn and give them at least a small vision of what might be available to them past the lives of poverty and failure that so many of them had grown accustomed to.  Being the only white woman in a school with far too many students than it was meant to handle was a trying, and oftentimes scary, experience.  She didn’t always know what to do, or handle herself professionally (as she admitted), but she tried admirably and wanted the best for her students.

I’m not sure if I found this book inspirational, or if it simply allowed me to appreciate a teacher’s struggle to create an environment that was conducive to learning, and provoke me to examine more deeply how I run my classrooms.  I want to be a good teacher for my students, but I’m not sure if I’m doing the job, or if I’m just a friendly foreigner who helps their students feel a bit more comfortable speaking English.  If anything can make me take a step back and question what I am doing, then it is worth my time.

I’m disappointed in myself for not racing through a bunch of books this month, but that will come.  With a never-ending list of groups and classes and shows and nights out to be a part of, it is hard to find the time to read.  Additionally, my girlfriend was spending her last days in Korea before leaving for five months, and there was a lot of time spent together and rushing too and fro.  We even went to a small history-filled town with her visiting cousin and had a great time.  I was planning on kicking back and reading a book or two that week, but I ended up reading about zero pages, and having a great time in the process.  And sometimes when I have the time to read, my body is so exhausted from the past week that I just want to do something a bit more passive, like listen to music or watch comedy.  The struggle to read is constant, but I welcome it, and will face it throughout this equally hectic month.  Wish me luck.

Until next time, keep on reading.

Why aren’t I reading?

24 Apr

Where to begin?

Minutes ago, I finished reading a real, live book.  It’s the first of its kind I’ve finished this year.  Well, “this year” since I moved back to Korea and started my new job, about six weeks ago.  Completing a book is reason to celebrate – by starting a blog, naturally.  But with life and all that getting in the way, reading is just so hard to squeeze in.  I love reading, but I haven’t made time for it.  (And how could I?  There are so many books out there!) That, however, is changing.

I work at a university, teaching young Korean women valuable lessons about life and art.  I wake up before the sun and go to my first job I might ever consider grown up.  (As I still say “grown up”, I might not quite be there yet.) 7:00 AM classes consist of me trying to coerce fifty nineteen-year-old girls to engage in something other than desk naps.  Jokes, internet clips and a striking resemblance to Harry Potter aid my attempts to foil nap time.  I don’t blame the students, though.  The three-week class is mandatory for all freshman. They wake at sunrise for a pass/no-pass class based solely on their attendance and completion of online assignments.  Nowhere in the course description does it say they must be captivated, or remain conscious.  If it weren’t so frowned upon, I’d grab a nap, too.

My other classes are mainly reading classes, where I lead group discussions with three to eight students.  We focus on highly condensed versions of classics by the likes of Jane Austen, James Joyce or John Grisham.  The classes are captivating and fun, and the students are there voluntarily.  I attempt to lead a discussion that is worthy of college credit.  Students participate and we have compelling discussions about the books, and other relevant topics.  Last week we spoke about “adulthood.”

The books, however, are only a step above Spark Notes.  “Condensed” is the perfect word for them, as they are not unlike the Campbell’s soups of the same variety.  They are boiled down to the bare minimum.  There is no room for subtlety or narrative voice – just a lot of salt and plot.  For these classes of non-native English speakers, however, the books serve their purpose – to provoke discussion – well.

They have also sparked my interest in actual reading.  Being required to read condensed versions of books has only made me want my books with big chunks of meat and vegetables and spices in them. (Had enough of the soup analogy?  Not me.  Mmm…I love soup.)  I want books that I have to work to digest.  Books that can’t be read and simply forgotten, but books that are meant to be wondered about – sometimes aloud – and had with a sandwich.  Books with passages that I have to read two, three, eight times over before taking a pretentious sip of coffee or barley tea or guava nectar, and twirling my wispy mustache while staring thoughtfully into the distance.  I want those books.  Put those books on and in and in front of me.

Last year was a shameful year for my literacy.  Not because I had something against books, but because I was busy.  I was working a full-time (okay, part-time) job, cutting back on drinking, having my first ever real-life girlfriend and discovering that I can – and more importantly, have to – pursue what I am most passionate about in life – comedy.  I picked up several books in English, looked at them, even read parts of them, but can I name one I read completely that taught me something valuable?  (Don’t answer that.)  (Why would you even try to answer?  Did I attempt to blog about books last year?)  (No.  The answer is no.)

Being horrible at Korean only embarrassed my literacy further.  In my country of residence, I am what some call “a functioning illiterate”. (Oh, irony.)  Taking five minutes to mispronounce most menu items is a disheartening experience, especially when it occurs regularly.  Some people would use that as inspiration to improve their Korean.  I , currently, do not seem to be one of those people.  My attempts to learn Korean are half-hearted and lose steam easily.  I cannot deny the utility and respect that attaining at least a conversational ability would grant me.  Maybe I’ll find a book to help me.

So I vowed to make this year the “Year of The Book” (“A book”, really).  I’ve gotten off to a decent start.  In my lazy February stateside, I read a handful of books.  (In the shortest month!)  I read a book about a would-be savior gifted to me years ago, a book of short stories a friend insisted I read and a book I had picked up while in university written by a Frenchman discussing why he had never written any of his books.  Finishing them made me feel like I had accomplished something.  Feeling accomplishment is important when your days are filled with cat-snuggling and watching non-cable daytime television.  (Okay, fine.  I feel ridiculously accomplished after a good kitty snuggle.)

March, however, was a bit slow.  My new job got in the way, as did the endless shows I am involved in.  I did, however, toy with Freakonomics for probably the fourth time.  How can sumo wrestlers and schoolteachers be compared?  Or gang members and tax attorneys?  Or pudding and elephants?  These guys are ridiculous!  They’re fun writers, too.  I swear I’ll finish it someday.  And actually, they make one hell of a podcast.

Oh yes, podcasts!  That was another derailer of The Book in 2010 – podcasts!  I blame technology!  If there weren’t so many podcasts then I’d be reading much more!  Like books, the podcasts never end!  If you find one that you like, you can’t just listen to just one and then be done with it;  you must continue!  You must find out more stuff your mom or history teacher or pet rat never told you.  So wonderfully diverse are podcasts.  They lull me to sleep or wake me up.  They make me keel over laughing or shed a silent tear on the bus.  All of this while barely having to move my eyeballs or get paper cuts or any of the archaic stuff associated with book reading.

Ooh, and Twitter!  I love twitter!  I read tweets instead of books.  I wait by my computer (I have no other smart-device) for Doug Benson to tell me when he’s performing in Augusta, or for Kim Kardashian to give a teaser of Khloe and Lamar.  People care about me, and they tweet to tens of thousands of people to prove it.  Famous people, friends, poor people, fictional people and more importantly – famous people are all tweeting to me.  It’s important that I keep up with what they have to say, because they want me to know – me!  Thanks, everybody.  That means a lot.  You’re funny.

The absence of technology (after the printing press) has its benefits when it comes to reading physical, actual books.  For two years, I have been the beneficiary of the ignorant kindness of my neighbors, who let others vulture their internet.  (If you can’t put up a firewall, then you deserve to be shared with, right?)  I just moved into a new place – another reading impediment – and last week lost the only available signal.  At first I would sit by my computer in hopes that those magical bars would fill up, waiting, clicking, waiting, clicking.  With no internet signal, my lonely computer was simply a music and movie player.  What good is a MacBook Pro (Naaaaame drop!!!) without connectivity?

But April has come and now I’m back in the game.  With fewer available distractions, an acclimation to my pre-sunrise wake up call and a refocused mindset, I’m ready to read.  As such, I found myself in a book store last week, buying some books.  But I will focus on just one for now.  It is a book that changed my life:  it made me want to blog.  And I almost missed it.  As I was heading to the register, the author’s name caught my eye.

Nick Hornby was introduced to me by Hugh Grant, via the film About a Boy.  Say what you will about Hugh Grant, but I am indebted to him for starring in this movie.  I can watch it at any time and feel better about getting out of whatever pit I have dug for myself.  Thanks, Hugh.  Turns out, the movie was based on a book by Hornby, who also wrote High Fidelity – the book.  (Who knew there were so many books good enough to become movies?)   Both are great movies – and books – that illustrate what it’s like to be human and, occasionally, despicable.  Thanks, Nick.

So I picked up Hornby’s book entitled The Polysyllabic Spree because it was roughly five bucks and said something about “reading” on the front.  (Plus, the other books I had purchased were rather pricey and I like to offset my expensive purchases with more economical ones, so the average price drops a bit.)

The Polysyllabic Spree wasn’t a book like his others I mentioned, but more of a diary about his attempts to read.  It was first published as a monthly series of articles in The Believer – a literary magazine which focuses on enjoying books – wherein he describes his attempts to read books he wants to read (this is key) and his thoughts on them, even though it is sometimes a task to find the time or will to pick up a book.  He lists “Books Purchased” and “Books Read” each month, discussing how he felt about them, how he came upon them, where he read them, how they affected him and his ideas on reading in general.  There are also excerpts from a few of the books mentioned.

Reading this book was like having a very playful, one-sided conversation with my friend, complete with laughter, head nods and the occasional “I know!”  Books are not experienced outside of life.  Where you are, what you’re doing and how hungry you are (…mmm…soup…) all affect why and how you read.  He discussed his difficulties reading and how or if he overcame them.  He mentioned the Portland (Oregon!) Powell’s bookstore and then told Americans that we have the best bookstores in the world. (I know, right?!?)  Plus, the excerpts and discussion of so many books made me feel like I was reading multiple books at once, slyly bumping up my numbers for the month.  And, it was particularly refreshing and encouraging to know that an author I enjoy hits a snag every now and again in his reading regimen.

So, for the purposes of this blog, I will use books as a starting point, but not necessarily as an ending point.  Movies, music, comedy, shows, work, friends, relationships, food, cats and aliens will play roles in what and how I write, which will change from day to day.  I hope you enjoy reading my words.  I’d love to hear what you think.  I figure I’ve tried to make so many failed book clubs with so many people I might as well start my own and see if people want to chime in.  Have you read a book I’ve mentioned? Let me know about it.  Think something entirely different than I think?  Tell me about it!  Did one of these books make you want to jump on a zebra and play Led Zeppelin?  The world should know!

Oh, and what was the last book Hornby discussed in The Polysyllabic SpreeFreakonomics, of course.  A sign from the universe for me to pick it up right now and start reading?  We shall see.  Until next time…

Much love and happy reading!