The Bookshelf Challenge: Are My Shelves Bullshit?

When I lived in Miami, Florida, I loved visiting Books & Books, a locally-owned, independent neighborhood bookstore. All over the city, Books & Books reigns as the ultimate source for literary events and the book-buying experience. The Bell has tomed for me (😳)  many times at Books & Books, and I’ve spent my fair share of money. And I’m well aware that with every single purchase, the bookseller placed a bookmark that had the following Borges quote:

I cannot sleep unless I’m surrounded by books.

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Why Read Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land?

This month I decided to read Robert A. Heinlein’s Strange in a Strange Land for one reason: Stephen King wrote “[Heinlein was] not only America’s premier writer of speculative fiction, but the greatest writer of such fiction in the world. He remains today as a sort of trademark for all that is finest in American imaginative fiction.” When the King speaks so glowingly about another writer, I’m inclined to listen. So I picked up Robert A. Heinlein’s Strange in a Strange Land from my local bookstore, The Book Catapult. Ultimately, I wanted to know why I should read Heinlein’s 1961 novel…today.

I didn’t know much about Heinlein’s work. When I Googled Heinlein, I recognized some of his other titles, specifically “Starship Troopers,” even though my association with that book is more of Denise Richards and the slaughtering of alien bugs. I went into the book with very little knowledge of the author, but Heinlein was a four-time winner of the Hugo Award. Clearly, Heinlein is someone we’re supposed to read.

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A Saturday Night Lyft with a Madman

Yesterday I called a Lyft to take me from The Holding Company in Ocean Beach to my home in South Park, and what I expected to be just an ordinary ride home on a Saturday night turned out to be a trip chauffeured by a madman.

When the Ford Expedition — Lyft decided to upgrade me for no apparent reason — picked me up in front of THC, I opened the door to see a man wearing clothes that caused me to second guess my decision to step into his SUV. The Lyft driver had red hair that looked the texture of shoelaces, and it was bursting out of a stovetop hat. He had on white makeup, which made him look like a ghost, and rouge around his eyes. Around his neck, he was wearing a ridiculous bow tie that would have been appropriately sized for Yao Ming, not a man that appeared just under six feet tall.

It took me a moment to realize that it was Halloween weekend, and, no, I shouldn’t turn down the free luxury Lyft. And that the man was, indeed, playing a character from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. He was Johnny Depp’s version of the Mad Hatter.

Ironically, I had recently finished reading Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece, and I was thinking about how this one character had transformed from the book to the Disney cartoon to Johnny Depp and now to the driver of my Lyft. It has been a long time for this character to exist, and what I found ironic was that in the original Alice’s Adventures in WonderLand that Lewis Carroll gave as a gift to the real Alice, the Mad Hatter wasn’t even in the original text, according to the BBC. The Mad Hatter was only added later when Carroll — a man steeped in mystery over his mathematical mind meets psychedelic journeyman meets potential pedophile — when he decided to take the book and try and publish it.

The Mad Hatter is someone who is a bit of a holy fool — someone who appears mad but actually has wisdom. It’s an archetype that has existed from Shakespeare to Rick and Morty.

I love these types of characters. Individuals who seem lost in the world, investing in passions and visions of life that others don’t find appropriate, conventional, or sane. These types of people are creative, imaginative, and, sometimes, dangerous. They are my type of people.

The Lyft driver certainly appeared to be revealing a lot of about his inner character, his inner madness, with his costume, and when he began to talk, I continued to be surprised.

For some reason, he started telling me about how his expedition was custom built, and he said that he needed the expedition to be climate controlled, comfortable for long hauls, and big. It turned out he needed these specs because he collects reptiles, especially snakes. At the mere mention of the word snakes, I looked down at my ankles and anticipated a new version of Snakes on the Plane, except the title would obviously have to change, to begin with me as the protagonist, and from the vents and the floorboards, I would suddenly be swimming in reptiles. Perhaps a cobra would snap into my achilles tendon.

Of course, I know this wasn’t going to happen, but we all have an irrational fear of snakes, and here was a man who collected them and was driving me home on a Saturday. He said that he owned about 300 different snakes, and they were in his house.

My immediate thought was about the reaction a date would have when the lyft driver brought her or him home to his house of serpents. I had so many questions: Did he warn them about the snakes before entering the house? Are some of the non-venomous 🐍s simply slithering around the floors? Does he ever have someone stay the night?

Honestly, it would take a very specific person to be able to handle a one-night stand with this man. Imagine a couple, a night out drinking, ripping off each other’s clothes before they entered an apartment. The door opens, the man fumbles for the light switch, the couples pants are almost off: Then the hissing begins. The rattling. The inaudible yet intense sound of slithering.

That’s when the date, I imagine, would end.

So, instead of asking all the prying questions that I wanted to ask, I simply said: “Do people get nervous when you bring them over?” To my dissapointment, he had an apartment next door to where he kept the snakes, and he owned a separate apartment to sleep. It’s not great for my blog, but it’s good for his personal life.

Of course, when someone tells you they specialize in reptiles, you’re going to ask questions. A couple things I learned that were interesting was that he gets bit all the time by snakes, but he compared them to dog bites. He said, some dogs are more aggresive than others, and some dogs are smaller, so their bites hurt less. That’s just like snakes.

But what I found also interesting was that he had a tortoise. In fact, over the years he’s sold many tortoises. Somewhere, I heard tortoises live a long life, and it turns out that his great great great great (not sure how many greats honestly) grandfather received a 🐢, and they had been handing it down in their family ever since. The Lyft driver still has the tortoise, and it’s 180 years old.

When I did the math, I realized that the 🐢 was alive when slavery was still legal and before Lincoln was president or assasinated. Part of me wonders if this is bullshit, but I’ll never know. Slate has an article that backs up that tortoises can live a long time.

Really, at the end of the day, I have no idea if what this man told me was accurate, but I enjoyed my Saturday night ride with the mad hatter.

What is Good Writing?

What is good writing? It’s easy to sit there from your computer or phone and say, “Joe, it’s simple to spot good writing. No typos. Great command of the English language. Possess a fundamental understanding of grammar.” Other people might say something like: “You have to know how to use a comma and understand the difference between Let’s eat grandma and Let’s eat, Grandma.”

Don’t forget about the people who say: “Vary your sentence structure” or “understand how to use a semicolon” or “commas splices are the devil, Bobby.”

Then there are the people who think that split infinitives are the worst thing in the world, believe that using a serial comma is wrong, or chastise writers for a typo in a blog and see that as an indication of an inferior intellect. Oh, and don’t use literally the wrong way; you’re going to piss a lot of people off.

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I’ve heard so many rules that people have to follow to write well, but I’m here to say that there is no such thing as good writing. It’s a lie. It’s all a lie. Our teachers and our parents and our high school newspaper editor all want us to believe that there is good writing. I’m sorry to say this, but that’s just not fair. It’s not accurate. It’s kind of a shared hallucination.

When most people examine writing to evaluate if it’s good, I actually believe they are more likely asking (unconsciously), does it match my style expectations? Is it following the rules that I have in my head that define good writing? Does it meet my understanding of language? And when you break those rules that I know, that I understand, you should be crushed and seen as a hack!

But this is just a poor way to evaluate quality. For instance, I heard for years — from professors, authors, and copy editors — that a split infinitive is a mistake; yet when I read Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style,” he has an almost diatribe on how many credible sources believe that a split infinitive shouldn’t be remotely considered a mistake. To poorly construct a sentence with a split infinitive shows as little about writing abilities as using the passive voice.

Yes, we have been trained that the passive voice is horrible and should never be used, but emphasizing a different part of a sentence can be a great use of style.

What I’m trying to get at is that good writing is not actually good writing; it’s effective communication. It’s being understood by an audience; it’s making them feel something; it’s helping them understand a complex idea. It’s a conversation that can be expertly done. Steven Pinker doesn’t say this exactly in his book– or he might; I can’t remember — but what I took away from it was that effective writing is about using style and language to convey thoughts to be understood. And that’s what we should focus on.

When you evaluate this post, I hope you don’t look at a typo; I hope you say: “Did I truly understand what he was trying to say?” “Did he convince me that good writing isn’t real?” Well, probably not in this small space.

But overall, I’m so tired of the question about “What is good writing?” Yes, when we work with people professionally, we have to agree on a standard, and if I write right as write when I actually mean right not left (😉), then you probably will think I’m an idiot. And it would behoove any writer to avoid obvious mistakes. Just…. does that mean the writing is bad?

No, good writing is a lie that we are sold by elitists who want to keep literature and writing to themselves.

How to Get Better at Reading

This is going to be embarrassing. Over the last year, I forgot how to read. Every time I picked up a book, well, I couldn’t actually connect with the words, pages, paragraphs. The novels and memoirs that I normally loved became cumbersome strangers. Perhaps it was the books I was reading, I can hear you saying, but it wasn’t the quality of my selections. From fun reads to intellectually stimulating journeys, I was trying to read works by talented authors.

There is a line in one of J.D. Salinger’s short story, For Esme:–with Love and Squalor, that reminds me of this predicament:

“He was seated on a folding wooden chair at a small, messy-looking writing table, with a paperback overseas novel open before him, which he was having great trouble reading. The trouble lay with him, not the novel.”

Ever since I read this line almost eight years ago, it stuck out to me because it showed that the problem with reading is often not the book; it’s the state of the mind of the person. Perhaps books can also read people. As a journalist, a graduate with an MFA in creative writing, and a published author, I was just not enjoying reading. Everything I read felt like work.

So, what was wrong with me?

Perhaps I can blame this on just being tired. After working all day, reading and reading and writing and writing and strategizing and strategizing, it was easy to surmise that I just didn’t have the mental strength to come home and read for enjoyment. But I heard on a podcast that the mind shouldn’t be thought of as a muscle that becomes fatigued and needs a rest; it’s more of computer that is always on and can never be turned off … it just needs, well, a variety of inputs.

What else was strange about my disinterest in reading was that I was crushing Audible books. Over the last two to three years, I have noticed that the amount of books I consumed in an audio format was beginning to exponentially surpass (I’ve decided I’m pro split infinitive 😉) the amount of physical or digital books that I was reading. I started to wonder if I just preferred the audio format of books now, and that my tastes had simply evolved. Homer was meant to be spoken rather than read after all.

I asked myself: Why was I enjoying the audio books more than the physical artifact, which I collect and love so much? What changed?

I couldn’t understand it. I was starting to think there was something wrong with me. Perhaps my capabilities as a reader were just simply diminishing. Perhaps I was actually just dumber than I was before. Perhaps I didn’t care anymore.

Then it hit me like a ton of books.

When I listen to audiobooks, I play the books at a speed that is 1.75 times faster than the original speed. Technology is amazing, and Audible cuts the spaces in between words so that I can consume my books faster. There were times when I would listen to the audiobooks in my car on a walk in my neighborhood in South Park, and I would realize that I just completely tuned out. I didn’t remember what I had just read, but I didn’t care and still enjoyed the experience.

If this same phenomenon, a sort of literally hypnosis, happened when I was reading a physical book, then I would have reread the paragraph or sentence or section until I was sure I consumed and comprehended the material. When I read a physical book, I stopped tuning out and sinking into the material. It was sort of like listening to someone speak and asking them to repeat the last sentence they just said because I couldn’t understand it. No one wants to talk to that person.

I didn’t used to read this way. I used to be able to consume books, to become lost in their worlds, and to see reading as leisure and not drudgery. How did this happen?

Well, it’s probably years of school. Years of analysis. Years of critical thinking. Years of trying to deconstruct works of literature to figure out how to put them back together.

I had to stop. I had to learn to read again.

Now, I’m reading books the way I listen to them. I’m not worrying about every word, every sentence. I’m trying to leave this world and enter the one created by the author.

I’ve heard similar problems from many of my friends. They say it’s hard for them to read when they come home from work, but they have no problem watching Netflix. And I’m not judging. But I think many people in my generation and younger are falling victim to an education system, a community, a culture, that demands we interpret books rather than experience them.