Monday, December 20, 2010

"Reading On Your Feet"

One of the things that makes me so very fascinating is my total lack of consistency. I just switch on a dime. I’ll profess a certain belief one hundred percent, then discover an opinion altering counter-example, and I’m off in the other direction, with a degree of certainty equal or greater than when I believed exactly the opposite. I’m just a delightful marvel of contradiction.
Case in point:
“I don’t like fiction.”
I believed that. It fits well with the rest of my views. I am already on record concerning my disinterest in the problems of actual people – by which I mean people I don’t know, more specifically, celebrities. Ipso facto, you can imagine my even greater apathy towards the problems of people who do not in any way, shape or form, exist.
I don’t care about them at all.
I don’t care about their romantic entanglements. I don’t care about their reversals in business. I don’t care if they’re bitten by vampires. I don’t care if they’re Harry Potter.
A man wakes up one morning and discovers he’s turned into a cockroach. Such a story might attract some passing interest if I read it in the newspaper. But somebody made it up? All I can think of is, “That guy’s a really different writer than me.”
I prefer reading about things that actually happened. I feel like I’m learning something.
That’s what I’ve always believed.
And then I get introduced to the Stieg Larsson Swedish mystery trilogy. The Girl With The Thing On Her Neck. The Girl Who Burned Up Her Father. And The Girl Who Caused A Lot Of Trouble For The Swedish Government.
Or something.
I did my own translations. And I don’t know any Swedish.
I have read these books standing up. Meaning, I walk on the treadmill, and a terrific reader named Simon Vance tells me the story. Books can be evaluated on the basis of style and content. Books on Tape add a third essential ingredient: the reader. It really makes a difference.
I have listened to good books read badly. Professional but unengaged. You get the feeling the reader can’t wait for the lunch break. This is definitely a Books on Tape deal-breaker. A disinterested reader can scuttle the entire experience.
Speaking of “scuttling”’, I once had a pirate book read to me, and I wanted to abandon ship. It’s not easy to make a book about seafaring scalawags boring. But this droning disappointment pulled it off.
Here’s my disclaimer. Or it is a caveat, I’m not sure. When fiction reads like a heavily researched, extended feature story, it’s easier for me to feel like I’m not wasting my time. That’s what the Stieg Larsson books do. At their best, they simulate the work of a top investigative reporter blowing the lid off some high octane shenanigans.
One of the main characters actually is an investigative reporter. The other, Lizabeth Salander, the journalist’s sort of collaborator, is an expert hacker, who can technologically unearth buried computer info. The books chronicle every step in meticulous detail, or cxcruciating detail if you’re my friend Paul and you hated the “tediousness exposition.” Of course, Paul has a right to his opinion. Even when it’s wrong.
What do I love most about these books? Their clarity and their specificity. (Though I could have used less detail during the scenes describing the violence.) Even if the story has been fabricated, the building blocks seem persuasively real. I feel like a privileged “ride-along” on an actual, complicated, but that’s what makes it worth the journey, investigation.
Admittedly, it’s easier to negotiate the voluminous detail when you don’t how to plow through the extensive verbiage yourself. You don’t go, “Twelve pages on the hierachical structure of the Special Unit of the Swedish Security Police. I have better things to do with my time.” With Books on Tape, it’s “I’m getting in my cardio work, and a man with a soothing voice is reading to me.”
I never feel inpatient. I’m not going anywhere. Literally. I’m walking on a treadmill. On top of that, when I’m being read the Larsson books, I don’t have to phonetic my way through the Swedish names and places. Simon Vance is doing it for me.
So I now make this distinction. Fiction about nothing – still not interested. Fiction about nothing but that carries the weight and authority that makes you feel it could actually be something, I’m in.
If the reader doesn’t stink.
Announcements! Announcements! Annou-ounce-ments!
Last night, Anna Benne Pomerantz became engaged to Colby James Buddelmeyer, generating possibly the longest hyphenated last name in the history of marriage.
To honor the occasion, someone in my family dropped a glass bowl on the floor, and I immediately developed an enormous knot in my upper back. We need work reacting to good news.
And good news it really, really is.
Finally, a boy in the family. Eeeha!
And the look on my little girl's face. That's worth the price of admission, right there.
So there's that.
And I'll tell ya something.
"That" feels pretty darn good.


YEKIMI said...

Congrats to your daughter! Now, better start selling some scripts or polishing up other's stories....remember the father always has to pay for the wedding.

Rory Wohl said...

Congrats on the addition to the family. Does Colby know what he's getting into? Has he read your blog?

I'm with you on the "fiction that seems like it could be something thing." Unfortunately, that's what disappointed me about the "Millennium Trilogy." I was all in on the first book until the plot hinged on a bit of computer hackery that is impossible to execute. (As a friend of mine said, "That's why the call it fiction.) I still finished the book and read the other two, though, because the writing was really good.

PG said...

I have been staying away from 'made up stories' in recent years, leaning towards biographies and essays, but, when I wasn't looking, got caught up in a couple of Phillip Roth novellas, 'Indignation' and 'Nemisis'.
All I can say, Earl, is be very, very careful. This sort of stuff can be dangerous to your mental health!
Should carry a warning for adult readers of advanced years.
What is the opposite of 'life affirming'?

Jon Weisman said...

Congrats on the great news, Earl!

Dimension Skipper said...

Congratulations to everyone involved in the familial expansion announcement.

Re fiction vs non-fiction:

It seems to me that it's getting harder and harder to tell one from the other anymore. Personally, I've always preferred fiction (specifically science fiction, but then I've always been somewhat geeky). At least it's honest and right up front about the fact that it's fiction.

Kathryn Hartog said...

I love reading on my feet. The one thing I enjoy about walking to and from school is that it gives me about 40 minutes each day where I can be read to.