The 500-Book Hangover

January 6, 2010 at 2:57 pm | Posted in Book Blather, Challenges | 4 Comments

In the aftermath of reading 500 books in one year, one thing has become immediately apparent.  I can’t seem to read any more!  It’s now the 6th, and all I’ve read has been the final 100 pages of a book I started last year.  I keep doing that thing where you read the same paragraph over and over and it doesn’t make sense.  I can only get through 20 pages in a sitting all of a sudden.

There are books all over my living room.  Funny how I never noticed before.  I have 18 books checked out on my card, and another dozen charitably checked out for me by my man Rocket Scientist after I maxed out my account.  They won’t fit in the bookshelf so they’re on a side table.  Suddenly this pile looks like Mt. Rushmore.

RS gave me my own queue on his Netflix account.  I realized that in the six months we’ve lived together, we have watched a video together precisely once – and that was one of two I saw all year!  We also went to the theatre once – to see Watchmen – but that was it.  We didn’t attend a concert or go on a picnic or take a class together, either.

Now that I seem to be temporarily illiterate, the shoe is on the other foot.  My dear husband has been immersed in a sewing project all week, and I find myself constantly interrupting him and hanging over his shoulder.

The evenings seem to disappear almost instantly.  We’re lingering over the dinner table longer, I’m unaccountably exhausted at 10:30, and it seems we barely have enough time to get through our Reading Hour quota before bedtime.

Some time around Halloween, I developed a magnetic attraction to my kitchen.  I started poring over cookbooks while preparing for my first Thanksgiving, and I wasn’t able to pull myself back out.  My reading dipped by a third in November.  It just seemed that I started losing steam in one area and… well… steaming in another.  I almost feel like I used up my lifetime reading quota.

Last year had some very high highs.  First off, I got married!  We also went on vacation to Hawaii and honeymooned in British Columbia.  I walked my goal of 1000 miles – by Thanksgiving Day, no less.  It also turns out I didn’t gain weight like I had thought; in fact I’m down nearly 7 pounds from last New Year’s.  I finally made some kind of breakthrough in the kitchen, and my husband told me the other day, “You’re a better cook than me now.”

Other than that, though, I really did nothing but read.  As glad as I am that I made my goal, and as obsessed as I was over whether I could really do it, I can’t help but wonder now what else I could have accomplished in the same period.

Part of the point of reading 500 books in one year came from my realization that I had over 2000 books in my LibraryThing catalogue, but many of them weren’t books I would choose again.  At the same time, there were long lists of famous Great Books with which I had barely a nodding acquaintance.  I thought I could compress all these great books into a few years, with the arbitrary and goofy deadline of 2012.  Just in case the world comes to an end and I miss out on reading what would have been the defining favorite book of my life.

The bummer was, though, that I kept getting distracted by new books, or trying to read through old stuff from my bookcase, or searching out short books to help make up for the 900-page monsters I couldn’t help reading.  As a result, I gave up a year to The Best Books and didn’t get to all the ones I’d promised myself.  The first one that springs to mind is The Master and Margarita, which I keep seeing praised to the skies.  Why did I deny myself?

What it comes down to is building discipline.  In my years of lifestyle experiments, I’ve finally solved some epic problems, like Getting Organized, Keeping My Weight Down, and Paying Off Credit Card Debt.  With practice, you can transfer the skills you learn by doing one thing – say, following a budget – and using them toward doing something else – like tracking your food intake.  I already knew how to go about calculating what I’d need to achieve on a daily and weekly basis to make my goal.  I also knew how to plan around it, focusing less on other things, and advertising it so I’d feel more committed.  In spite of all that, I still could have done much better in helping myself read more specific things.  It looks like maybe half my reading was actually ‘on target.’

The other thing is that I have a strong preference for nonfiction and I find it a lot easier to read.  I used to read about 2/3 nonfiction, and in 2009 it was slightly over 2/3 fiction.  I just started to miss it and I would feel sad when I would see a thick, juicy nonfiction book I knew I would have to wait a year to read.

I read 500 books in one year, and now I don’t really know what to read or what to blog about any more.  It’s a case of being careful what you wish for.  If you knew you would be able to read 500 books this year, what would you pick?  What if you found you read those things and there weren’t any Great Books left?  What if you realized there weren’t enough new books coming out that met your new standards to keep you satisfied?  What if you finished all the books by your favorite author, who was deceased?

The good news is, I’m project-oriented and I’ve already picked my resolutions for this year.  I’m determined to a) submit at least one book proposal, b) get a literary agent, and c) pay off the last $12,600 of my student loan.  I may be somewhat aimless at the moment in terms of literary goals, but knowing me I will be back on some harebrained scheme before tax time.

I Read 500 Books in 2009

January 1, 2010 at 6:25 pm | Posted in Challenges | 20 Comments

…and most of them were worthy.  I believe it is possible to evaluate the merit of books objectively, at least to a certain extent, and it’s my credo to seek out the best I can find.  Below is an update to stats I posted a couple months ago in The Question of Quality.

But first, for anyone asking who the F cares that I read 500 books, let me tell you a bit about it.  I have a full-time job and a teenage kid.  I commute two hours a day and go to the gym at least three days a week.  We cook all our meals from scratch and let me tell you, I do the majority of it.  I keep a sparkling clean house in spite of our 18-month-old terrier and a messy parrot.  We read aloud together an hour a day or more.  I planned my wedding this year, moved, combined two households, and hostessed my first Thanksgiving.  At Christmas I cooked for 13.  I even helped my parents clean their garage and all their closets.  I am one busy lady.  When I say I read 500 books, I mean I moved heaven and earth to make time for something that was important to me.

Why?  I did it so that other people who hear about it can say, “Wow, if she could read all that in spite of everything, maybe I can finally find time to read [insert longed-for book].”  I could have read far more if I was a speed reader or if I’d been more interested in genre fiction (other than mysteries, which I enjoy from time to time).  The reason I bother to post stats like those below is to show that it’s not only possible to read a huge quantity of books when you’re busy, but also to read dense, absorbing, challenging, literary books.  I read 30 books of 500 pages or more.

As a final note, I’ve heard from a number of people this year who think I’m a snob, largely because I don’t think chick lit “rates” the same as literary fiction.  I’ll say flatly that you’re missing the point here.  I read all sorts of things other people would consider rubbish, including noir fiction, graphic novels, children’s books, and self-help books.  I enjoy them and I think everyone should read for pleasure.  My personal reading pleasure increased by at least triple when I discovered literary fiction, and at that point I found I was no longer able to get anything enjoyable for myself out of chick lit.  If I had one wish, it would be that I could inspire one other person to read one book he or she normally would find “too challenging,” and enjoy it as much as I have enjoyed the terrific books I’ve read this year.

Pulitzers: 40, plus 3 associated by series.  That’s not quite half, though including the ones I’d already read, I’m at 2/3.  I plan to finish them this year, especially since most of the remainder are sitting in my living room right now.

Booker long list: 13, including some short list titles

National Book Award: 5, including some short list titles

Orange Prize long list: 7, including some short list titles

New York Times Notable books: 36 (possibly more, but I got lazy digging around)

American Library Association Notable books: 5 (2008)

National Book Critics Circle Award: 5

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die: 26  (over 2%!)

Modern Library 100 Best Novels: 8

College Board 101: 9 (part of a challenge with my stepkid) and I’m up to 80% complete.

Entertainment Weeklynew classics: 9

The Top 10: 16

Amazon’s Significant 7: 44

Powell’s Indiespensable: 8

I’ve also read 160 nonfiction books, 7 books of poetry, and two plays.  In the interests of full disclosure, I’ve read 9 children’s books, 15 young adult books, and 46 graphic novels (not quite one a week – I’ll have to do more this year).  I catalog my reading on LibraryThing and Goodreads if you’re deeply curious.  (See right column for link).

Addendum: Here’s “how I did it” if you’re curious.


December 15, 2009 at 10:21 am | Posted in Book Blather, Challenges | 9 Comments

Well, 457 actually.  I’ve been sick lately and not posting all that often.  Though I hear blog readers in general only want to hear about a blogger’s personal life when it’s entertaining…

Anyway, I’m 91% of the way to my goal.  There are, including today, 17 days left of 2009.  I have 43 books left to read in order to reach my goal.  That includes 37 Pulitzer winners with an average length of 446 pages, and five more challenge books.  It looks like I’ll need to get through 2.5 books per day, or something upwards of 970 pages per day if I complete my challenges.

The bad news is, that’s basically impossible.  The good news is, I’ll be on vacation next week through the end of the year.  Also, if I let go of at least one of my stubborn ideas, I shouldn’t have too much trouble hitting 500.

Now’s the time to place your bets!

Too Big to Ignore Anymore Challenge

November 15, 2009 at 10:33 pm | Posted in Challenges | 2 Comments

Here we are, at the end of the first challenge ever that I didn’t complete.  Well, technically I did complete one level of it (Mor-Book-ly Obese, at 7 titles), but I didn’t make my own personal goal.  I have mixed feelings about this.  I have a larger goal, that of reading 500 books this year, and to be frank, trying to read a large number of very long books was interfering with that.  I also think I could have made this goal if I’d had until December 31, but I forgot the challenge ended sooner than that.  It’s my own fault all the way around.

Ultimately, though, I did read some really terrific books.  I found myself wondering, what took me so long?  Below is my challenge list.  The books crossed off are the ones I completed, and I’ll include brief notes about each choice.

First, a quick observation on “challenging” books.  I’ve noticed that some of the eyestrain-inducers have certain things in common.  1.  Dense typeface – they seem to be in 8-point font when a lot of other books are in 10- or 12-point.  2.  Margins – they also seem to have half-inch margins.  3.  Page format – they’re paperback, but one page has noticeably more surface area than a mass market paperback.  I worked out the ratio with The Kindly Ones (hardcover, but the same feel) compared to a pop fiction book, and it was .95k per page versus .8k per page.  4.  Foreign languages – the challenging books not only have lines in multiple foreign languages, but also in foreign orthography, and what’s more they are left untranslated.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t read German and French and Spanish and Russian and Greek and Latin.  (Okay, okay, I can sound out the Greek and I can flinch my way through that, the Latin, the French, and the Spanish.  But I’m not fluent).  5.  Footnotes – often.

So much for “brief” observations.  On, now:

Too Big to Ignore Anymore Challenge – due November 15, 2009

The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck  I read this as part of my goal to read all the Pulitzer Prize winners this year.  I tried to read it as a junior in high school, and I couldn’t make it twelve pages.  Twenty years later, I finally had the chops.  It’s hard for me to believe that I denied myself one of the most all-time famous novels, deservedly one of the highlights of American literature, for so long.

Guns, Germs, and Steel – Jared Diamond  Again, why did I wait?  I read the introduction to this book in college maybe 7-8 years ago, and sent it back to the library.  I think I was taking Greek and Latin at the time, and it used up all my RAM.  I love nonfiction, I love history, and I loved this book.  I find myself referring to it constantly.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith  – I have a copy of this in mass market paperback.  That’s the only excuse I can give for not reading it.  I can’t abide reading paperbacks of that format.  I should have ordered it from the library, but chances are they only have it in paperback too.  Oh well, maybe next year.

Sophie’s Choice – William Styron  I just finished Sophie’s Choice this week.  It was a very dense, rich read, as I expected.  I also expected it to be lugubrious and depressing.  Startlingly, it was a very funny book, with a narrative voice reminiscent of Portnoy’s Complaint!  This was probably one of the best books I’ve ever read, and when I’m ready I will definitely seek out more Styron.  Masterful.

Bowling Alone – Robert D. Putnam too short unless notes are counted.  I read it anyway, and it was fantastic.  Also a book you’ll find yourself referring to constantly.

The Mill on the Floss – George Eliot  I read this when I was sick with the flu.  I consider Middlemarch one of my top three favorite books, so I was sure I would love TMOTF.  I identified with the protagonist, sure enough, but I started getting progressively more annoyed in the latter half of the book.  It ranks up there with The Portrait of a Lady for “Oh, come on!” endings.  Sigh.  Do you ever just want to reach through the pages and smack a character?

Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon-  I read about five pages and had to shift gears that day.  It’s still sitting on my shelf and I intend to read it before the library due date.  I’ve read Pynchon before and I know I’ll dig it when I’m in the right mood.  …Wait, wasn’t that what I was thinking when I originally put off reading it?

Tristram Shandy – Thomas Pynchon I finished this just this morning.  The introduction says it’s 200 years before its time, and I agree.  Holy psychedelia, Batman!  The narrator almost doesn’t even appear in the book – we’re 350 pages in and he hasn’t peed his first diaper yet.  The book ends with a punchline, a fairly good one, and indeed there are some hilarious parts.  But don’t read it unless you’re prepared to spend 700 pages wandering all over with a nonexistent plot.

Cryptonomicon – Neal Stephenson – Okay, I read 183 pages.  I read them at about 20 pages an hour.  I hate to say it, but Cryptonomicon is a Man Book bigtime.  I’ve met a couple of men who have claimed it as their favorite book.  I’ve read and loved some Stephenson in my time.  I just can’t break through that whole World War II/math thing.  I’m going to give it another shot, maybe in January.  Right now, though, if I’m going to read a book this long it’s going to be one that’s more my speed.

The Crimson Petal and the White – Michael Faber  Am I the only person who didn’t particularly like this book?  This was one of the first books I read for this challenge.  I thought it was a little heavily painted and a little obvious.  But then, I usually prefer “real” history to historical fiction.

The Recognitions – William Gaddis  Can you even begin to believe that I read this in one 24 hour sitting?  I think I actually did it in 23 hours and 40 minutes, including breaks.  It was complicated and funny and inimitable.  I think I understood it, too!

Life of Johnson – James Boswell – I tried to get this from the library, but they only had – dare I say it? – abridged copies!  What are they doing with my tax dollars???  Abridged.  I ask of you.  I downloaded it on my PDA, and I read through all 30-40 pages of introduction.  Right now Johnson is about 3 years old, begging to go to church some more.  I’ll finish it, but I’d rather do it in print.  It’s too weird to read 18th century prose in e-book format.

The Man Without Qualities – Robert Musil – I tried to get this from my library, too, but they only had one volume.  It wasn’t even one volume of the two-volume set.  I believe it was part of a three-volume version of the first volume, if that makes sense.  Anyway, I broke down and bought it, and it’s sitting there looking very like a stack of cordwood.  Maybe next year.


November 5, 2009 at 11:12 am | Posted in Book Blather, Challenges | 3 Comments

Another milestone already.  Last year I read 409 books.  Now it’s November 5 and I’ve already beaten my personal record.

It’s wearing me down, though.  I’ve been trying to do other challenges as well, and it’s necessarily involved reading more than double the proportion of fiction that I normally do.  You know what?  Most fiction is depressing!  Murder.  Suicide.  Adultery.  Hypocrisy.  Oppressive social constraints.  Terminal misunderstandings.  Even the funny stuff starts to weigh on you, because I think all humorists have a jaundiced view of humanity that leaks through.  I can definitely say that I will be reading less fiction next year.

The other problem is the sheer amount of work that’s gone into this stupid stunt.  I get flack from my friends for missing social gatherings that I didn’t even hear about until after the fact, because I only check my e-mail about once a week.  Whenever I’m not reading, I’m running around doing housework or errands, trying to clear the decks so I can get “caught up.”  Inevitably it’s a race to catch up, because I’ve been behind goal since the second week of January.  Even now, with eight weeks to go, it’s seriously in doubt whether I can make it.  That’s a minimum of 11 books a week, which I can only occasionally manage.

The other problem is that I’m not getting the ego gratification I thought I would for myself.  I wanted to accomplish a death-defying feat.  Last I year I found that someone else had beat my “record” by something like sixty titles, so I settled in for a second year of dedicating inhuman amounts of time to reading and neglecting other aspects of life.  Now I learn that there are supposedly people out there reading 1000 books a year.  I’m obsessed to the point of obsession with Speed Readers and documentation and proof and the limits of age, intelligence, and honesty.  It’s a theme with me that I set myself a challenge and then get beaten at my own game, usually by a close friend.  I should be grateful for the inspiration but I’m usually enraged.  I’m the one!  Can’t you understand?  It was my idea! Nobody gets to be a megalomaniac but me!  I’d take my marbles and go home, but evidently I’ve already lost them.

Blogging is starting to get to me, too.  It seems like a lose-lose proposition.  What interests random strangers the most is also the most likely to alienate any friends who might know the situation first-hand.  The posts that draw the most hits from search engines are the least likely to interest your regular readers, and vice versa.  Writing about obscure books drives readers off, while writing about popular books annoys them because they see the same book on every blog they read.  Writing at all takes away reading time.  The most interesting posts to write often also seem to draw the least comments, and it’s a constant guessing game to try to write about things that interest yourself and your audience too.  After this year, I can’t think what I would write about.

Introspection is a losing proposition in general.  Go ahead and try asking your friends what they really think of you.  Chances are pretty high you’ll get some “constructive criticism.”  Is it ever possible to receive the benefit of the doubt that one extends to others?  At least in reviewing books, people are willing to say, “I didn’t like it but I’m glad you did.”


October 28, 2009 at 8:45 am | Posted in Book Blather, Challenges | 6 Comments

It’s another milestone.  (Did I almost just type millstone?)  Today I finished Girl in a Blue Dress, my 400th book for the year.  Last year I finished book #400 on December 22nd.

As you all know by now, I’ve been trying to read 500 books this year.  This means I have 64 days to read the last 100 books.  That’s one a day on weekdays (46) plus three a day on 18 weekend days.  (I’m not counting the holidays because for some reason I always seem to read far less on vacation days).  Hmm.  It sounds like I’ll really be pushing it – especially because I have some very lengthy books in my future. 

I still have 41 Pulitzers, with an average length of 440 pages, including the 1056 page Executioner’s Song.  I’m also flailing against the bounds of reason as I try to complete my Too Big to Ignore Anymore challenge by November 15:  If I do them all, I have over 7500 pages to go, or 420 pages per day.  I think I can just manage to do it, but it will bring my total book count down.  There’s also The Faerie Queene for another challenge, and Under the Dome, which we all know will be impossible to leave alone.

If I can pull this thing off at this point, it will be a miracle.

Hour 24

October 25, 2009 at 4:40 am | Posted in Book Blather, Challenges | 11 Comments

I did it!  I finished The Recognitions in under 24 hours, with about 40 minutes to spare!  Here is a sly quote from William Gaddis, evidently describing the diametric opposite of his own work:

It was written with reassuring felicity.  There were no abstrusely long sentences, no confounding long words, no bewildering metaphors in an obfuscated system such as he feared finding in simply bound books of thoughts and ideas.

I thought I’d be able to read this book at 50 pages an hour.  But the page format, margins, and font size are similar to Ulysses and The Kindly Ones – big blocks of solid text in tiny print with little space between the lines.  I’m looking at Her Fearful Symmetry right now and it literally looks like it has half the text per page – or less.  I guarantee I could have read another very long book, maybe by Diana Gabaldon, in significantly less time.

Anyway, I did what I set out to do.  I stayed awake for 24 hours and read a notoriously difficult novel.  If I had tackled this book the way I normally do, it would have taken me nearly a week to read.  I’m pretty thrilled that I was able to knock down a challenge book in this way.  The other advantage is that I was able to keep track of the plot and characters more easily – over a period of days they wouldn’t be quite so fresh, you know?

Ordinarily I would finish out the hour – 25 minutes more – in reading something.  But I’ve been nodding off periodically since 3:00 and I just want to floss and go to bed.  Thanks for cheering, everybody, and I hope you all had fun!

Hour 16

October 24, 2009 at 8:21 pm | Posted in Book Blather, Challenges | 6 Comments

Oh man.  Am I tired.  It seems like I haven’t made any progress in my book at all.  I think I am going to get the booby prize for Fewest Book(s) Read.

I’m on page 610 with 349 to go and only nine more hours.  I’m starting to worry that I might not make it!  I’ve had to start getting creative with ways to keep myself awake – TG I have a treadmill!

Here is a quote from The Recognitions:

– I really prefer books.  No matter how bad a book is, it’s unique, but people are all so ordinary.

Hour… 12?!

October 24, 2009 at 4:06 pm | Posted in Book Blather, Challenges | 2 Comments

How’d that happen?

I’ve just hit the halfway mark in The Recognitions.  I lost a half hour logging in this morning, and then I had a 20-minute lunch break with my man Rocket Scientist.  I don’t think I’m going to hit my goal of finishing by 1 AM.  I think it’s more likely to be 3 AM.  At least I’m confident I can finish it within the 24 hours… I’m doubly glad I didn’t choose The Man Without Qualities, which I was considering last week.

The good news is, this is a really absorbing book.  It’s full of all the things I like: picaresque characters, erudition, long intellectual conversations, a little blasphemy, and the occasional bawdy joke.  [i.e. “It’s okay to kiss a nun as long as you don’t get into the habit.”  Snort].

The bad news is, reading one long involved book takes twice as long as reading a stack of short books and graphic novels.  When I did this in October last year I read 1800 pages, and this time I’m not sure I’ll hit 1000.  Funny, huh?

I’ll check in again after dinner, in a few hours.  I want to thank all the cheerleaders – I get a huge kick out of reading the comments, and I can just see you all pumping your fists in the air!

Hour 1

October 24, 2009 at 5:14 am | Posted in Book Blather, Challenges | 19 Comments

3 facts about me … How many books do you have in your TBR pile for the next 24 hours? Do you have any goals for the read-a-thon (i.e. number of books, number of pages, number of hours, or number of comments on blogs)? If you’re a veteran read-a-thoner, Any advice for people doing this for the first time?

Three facts about me:

I am trying to read 500 books this year.

I got married August 29.

This is my third read-a-thon.

I have one single book in my read-a-thon pile, The Recognitions by William Gaddis, and it’s my goal to read all 956 pages (plus introduction) before 1:00 AM.  My advice to anyone else doing this is to just gut it out, because you’ll have to wait 6 months to try again if you give up.

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