On Reader’s Block

I’ve written previously about writer’s (or blogger’s) and photographer’s block, which turned into a post about an entirely different subject. Namely, my spontaneous Iowa road trip over Christmas weekend. It’s pretty obvious that I’ve had this problem for awhile since I just realized yesterday that I haven’t posted in three weeks. 

Lately though, I am suffering from another ailment, we’ll call it reader’s block. Last year I made it through 26 books. Until late August, I was in school full time and working 25 hours every weekend. I also spent a few months studying for my aircraft mechanic license exams and the inevitable cramming for finals in April and August. Somehow I found the time to read at least 26 books, including Atlas Shrugged and John Keegan’s monster, The Second World War. 

Here it is late January, and I have yet to finish a book, or even make it halfway through one for that matter. I started the year by picking up the copy of The Picture of Dorian Grey I picked up at the library’s book sale, but I really wanted to read the new copy of Catch-22 I had bought to replace the one my ex never gave back. I picked it up to re-read it, being one of my all-time favorites, but I just couldn’t get into it this time. I made it probably 200 pages in, but eventually gave up on it after buying Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and staring at the pretty hardcover sitting on my coffee table every night. I got a little more than 250 pages into that one when I realized I was completely lost on the story since there are several chapters which are just one or another character’s philosophical rants. I’m not sure if it’s the translation, Dostoevsky’s story, or just my being unfocused and unmotivated. Something tells me you really need to concentrate when reading Dostoevsky, but lately I just haven’t been there.

So what is causing this literary lull that’s going on in my brain? Is it a poor choice in books or is it that I read so many over the last two years that I’m just burned out? Perhaps the Tivo is distracting me way too much? But no, I rarely use it and I don’t watch much TV at all these days. Which makes me wonder why I pay $150 a month for cable and internet. Maybe it’s the complete lack of motivation I’ve had to do much of anything after work lately. I was sick last week and was in bed early every night on account of the drugs, but that only accounts for five days. 

Let’s talk possible solutions here. I could buy some shitty murder novel or maybe a good one, like the new Michael Connolly I saw at the store last week. Perhaps a good old caper that really sucks me in would do me good. Or maybe I just need to go on another murder novel binge for a few months where I just read one per week until I remember that almost every one winds up with the same ending. Maybe I should just forget to pay the cable bill this month so it and my internet gets cut off and I don’t have anything else to do. Then I’ll be forced to read. Then again, I could just pick up another non-fiction history volume that’s on my shelf since it’s been almost a year since I finished one of those. I’ve read that just giving reading a rest for awhile helps sometimes, but for the past few years I’ve always been reading at least one book at any given time, so this is a tough one to swallow.

How about you? What do you do when you can’t seem to get into a reading rhythm? 

 

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All Quiet on the Western Front

Once in awhile I read a book that hits me emotionally. Catch 22 hit me in a comedic way because I could relate to so much of the irony, redundancy, and ridiculousness of the story. It’s amazing to me how a book about a war that occurred 70 years ago can be so relevant to today’s military. After all, most of my military-related mental issues are a result of the monotonous bullshit that I had to deal with on a daily basis, as opposed to the result of the combat I was often involved in over my three years in Iraq as an infantryman.

Today, I finished reading All Quiet on the Western Front for the first time. This book hit me in a different way, in my heart. I won’t even begin to claim that I saw or did anything close to the things WWI, WWII, Korean, and Vietnam War infantryman dealt with on a daily basis, but the troubles with reintegrating into regular civilian society I’m sure are pretty universal among combat vets. The main reason for this post was to share a couple quotes from Remarque’s masterpiece which really hit home for me, and which I hope can help civilians understand the thoughts in combat veterans’ minds when we are thrust back into society. It’s been almost three years since I returned from my third and final tour in Iraq, and two and a half years since I left the Army, but these things still hold true. Even the relationship with my father has become more distant because I just feel like we can’t relate to each other. Even after coming home, I have lost men from my company. One platoon sergeant from my company, who had only one tour under his belt, randomly killed himself two years ago. Just last month, I received several text messages in an hour, asking if I had heard about our buddy who had got into a standoff with police and ultimately pulled the trigger on himself. Even at home, among friends and family, we are not safe from the war.

Anyway, I leave you with Erich Maria Remarque’s two most powerful paragraphs to my eyes.

“I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another. I see that the keenest brains of the world invent weapons and words to make it yet more refined and enduring. And all men of my age, here and over there, throughout the whole world see these things; all my generation is experiencing these things with me. What would our fathers do if we suddenly stood up and came before them and proffered our account? What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing;- it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge is life limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come of us?”

“And men will not understand us – for the generation that grew up before us, though it has passed these years with us already had a home and a calling; now it will return to its old occupations, and the war will be forgotten – and the generation that has grown up after us will be strange to us and push us aside. We will be superfluous even to ourselves, we will grow older, a few will adapt themselves, some others will merely submit, and most will be bewildered; – the years will pass by and in the end we shall fall into ruin.”

Taking the Middle Ground

I literally just closed the back cover of The Grapes of Wrath five minutes ago. I’ll get to that in a minute.

I have been a fan of Ayn Rand’s for awhile now. While I don’t agree with all of her beliefs, her writing makes it hard to disagree with the ideas it portrays. First, I read The Fountainhead. That book appealed to me because I’m a lover of architecture and art in general, and I feel an artist, architect or musician ultimately has sole rights to his/her creations unless he/she decides otherwise. I loved that book, and I moved it back to the to-read pile a few weeks ago, where it awaits it’s turn to be re-read.

A couple months ago, I read Atlas Shrugged. Rand does a good job getting the reader to hate the antagonists in this one. I mean I had visions of choking James Taggart to death with my bare hands, I hated his ignorance and cowardice so much. She draws such a terrible picture of Taggart’s friends and other characters, you find yourself cheering for Dagny and Rearden because of all the things they’ve built and had taken from them. Rand made her philosophy perfectly clear in Atlas Shrugged. However, I saw great flaws in this philosophy upon reading her magnum opus. Should a man who builds his business from the ground-up be entitled to his own profits and the benefits of his work? Yes. Rearden in particular seems to try to pay his employees fairly as long as they work hard. He hires the best in the business and pays them as such.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. In fact, it’s usually not the case. [I just deleted an entire paragraph about how this applies to today’s business culture, but this post is about two books and I don’t want this to turn into a tangent.] On the other hand, are all people entitled to hand-outs by people who work for years to get to the top of the business food chain, or by the taxes of those who do what they can, breaking their back to feed the family? I don’t think so. Some people who get to that level start from the very bottom. Some are born into successful families, but many are born with nothing. You can’t spend your whole life wallowing in self-pity and complaining about how much some people have when you’ve never made much of an effort to get to a better level than you are. At the same time, those who do get to the top of the food chain should not take advantage of cheap labor and financially struggling laborers.

This is the beginning of the story in The Grapes of Wrath, a book I would consider the complete opposite of anything Ayn Rand wrote, but affected me equally as much as her work that I’ve read. This book displays how those successful businessmen can get greedy, eventually to the point of cutting wages to the point where people simply are not able to feed their families. Just about every character in The Grapes of Wrath is a laborer, farmer, or sharecropper who blatantly has their land and jobs stolen from them by men in high places who decided that machines are a lot cheaper and more efficient than thousands of laborers. In order simply to survive, they are drawn and essentially forced west into the hands of more greedy corporate men who take advantage of the migration in order to drive down wages, sometimes over 75%. They bring in more folks than there are jobs for, most of whom can’t afford to turn around and head back home to their dusty farms, forcing them to accept these horrible conditions and wages, IF they can get work. Anyone who gathers in a group and disagrees with the wage drops is called a “red”, essentially a communist, and is often beaten or thrown in jail and separated from their family. Feeding your family mush and living under a tarp because some asshole in Chicago wants to make more money off of what is basically legal slave labor is considered Communism? These people were forced west to find work, not to live off the taxpayers, but were unable to find aid when there was no work. I know the ’30s were a tough time for everyone in the country, but I don’t think any suits in Chicago and New York were dying in a barn, sucking on a miscarried mother’s tit just to survive a few more hours.

This rant is mainly just a product of my frustration at how much two completely opposite authors can tug at my heart and mind so effectively, in completely opposite directions. I wish Ayn Rand could explain to me what to do with capitalist corporation heads who get so out of control with greed that they live off the blood of thousands of laborers who die in the fields. I agree that if you don’t attempt to do anything with your life, don’t attempt to get an education, don’t attempt to get higher than your father’s level of success, don’t have any work ethic, you don’t deserve to live off of the government. I agree that a man or woman who sees his/her business grow from a one-room shop in a strip mall to a nationwide chain, should reap the benefits of their hard work. But for Christ’s sake, don’t forget about the people who help get you there. Take care of them. Don’t forget that without the 5 people working in the kitchen make the food that pays your bills, or the 100 people walking around your retail store every day, making sure your products aren’t stolen and making sure your customer’s are happy so you can buy that Mercedes, you would still be in that strip mall.

 

Used books

You know what the problem is with e-readers? It takes the fun out of looking for books. OK, perhaps you should stop reading this right now if you don’t find looking for books at least somewhat fun. Yesterday I took a trip to my favorite bookstore for the first time in months. School and work get in the way of what used to be monthly visits there on the weekends. I have walked out of this place with five books after spending only $15. Yesterday the total was $21 for four books, although one of them is a collection of three novels. I never know what I’m going to find when I get there and I don’t really plan on picking up a certain book. Yesterday’s trip was slightly comical because they had several books that I have looked for there before, couldn’t find, and then went to Barnes & Noble or Alibris.com to find. I had been looking for a copy of The Maltese Falcon for months, finally found one at B&N, but ruined it with water before even reading a paragraph. Guess what they had at the store for $5. A seemingly unread copy of The Maltese Falcon.

$21 worth of slightly used books

I love the smell of an old book. I love how the spine is broken in, or if not, the care the previous reader took in trying not to break the spine. I love finding pencil notes or underlined text and wondering what that person was thinking when they did this. I like the mystery involved in what kind of character or characters held this book before my hands got hold of it. You can’t get these from an e-reader. The accessibility and ease in finding e-books is great, but I just can’t get into reading my books off a screen and giving up the act of book shopping and page-turning.

I embraced technology when dealing with music because I have a huge collection and now I can bring it with me anywhere I go, and I can listen to all of it at random at the same time. I still find myself in used music stores and looking at the music every time I’m in a Barnes & Noble, however. I like the sound quality of vinyl or a CD, and I like having a physical collection, but the convenience of having all my music available to me wherever I am is great. With books, though, I only read one, maybe two books at the same time. I don’t buy massive coffee table books to read like novels and I don’t find myself bringing ten books with me when I travel, so I don’t really need the convenience of an e-reader. Plus, when I do travel, I always look for small music and book stores anyway.

At any rate, I think I’ll stick to physical books as long as I can still find them. You can keep your Nook or Kindle, or whatever else. I’ll keep spending a couple bucks extra and letting the books pile up on my shelves. I’ll keep donating my books to stores or sending them overseas when I’m done with them, to make room for others and to let someone else enjoy them, or I’ll keep them to read again later. I’ll keep digging around in boxes or on packed shelves in tiny bookstores or antique shops to see what treasures I can find. I’ll keep listening to that crinkle when I flip the pages, and I’ll keep putting my bookmark between the pages before I go to sleep every night.

 

Listening to: Van Morrison – And It Stoned Me

Me and Jack Kerouac

Two years ago, I didn’t know who Jack Kerouac was. Well, I guess I had heard of him, but I had never read a word of his. Sometime last year, when watching the PBS documentary on William S. Burroughs, A Man Within, I heard the name Jack Kerouac. I probably googled him and read his Wikipedia entry and then forgot about him. Last year I also made a commitment to read all the novels on The Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels, at least the ones on “The Readers’ List”. This list introduced, or reintroduced me to some of my new favorites like To Kill A Mockingbird, The Fountainhead, and Catch 22. Some of these I was SUPPOSED to read in high school but never actually touched them. Somewhere along the line I came to On the Road. There was that name “Jack Kerouac” again. This time I picked up a copy, and finished the book in a week, which at the time was unheard of.

There is nothing quite spectacular about On the Road, really. No beautiful sentence composition, no big words, no suspense, not much of the stuff that makes a great novel like The Great Gatsby or The Catcher in the Rye (two more I rediscovered and finally read through, loving both). But something in it captivates me. The idea of traveling all the way across the country on fifty bucks from veteran’s benefits, meeting all sorts of folks along the way and having a good time with everyone you meet. The idea of being a nomad, with no real plan other than where your destination is, and who knows what will happen when we get there. Careening across America in a jalopy with 4 friends and a bottle of booze. Even Kerouac’s peculiar, somewhat Hemingwayan short, concise sentences and straight-to-the-point language. It all draws me in. So much so that On the Road is the first book that I will have read twice. I dug it out of the box I have all my previously-read books in, for lack of storage in my 450 sq. ft. cottage (that, with any luck, I will be moved out of in the next 8 weeks), and began reading it again on Saturday.

There is part of me that wishes I could live this story, if only for a couple years. I lived a pretty crazy life for my seven years in the Army, but I was stuck in one places. This country is so big. So many places to see, so many types of people to meet, so much great country to drive. I wish I could see it all. But alas, I am 28 years old, broke is not for my veteran’s benefits (I guess Jack and I aren’t all that different), and about to graduate college. I have nothing tying me down here, no kids, no significant other, and my only family, my father, already lives 2,500 miles away. But the responsible adult in me thinks it’s time to find a steady job, buy a house, stock up the garage with tools, and meet a woman. I’m a lonely guy by nature, and by my own poor decisions, and something tells me that nowadays, life on the road is one hell of a lonely way to live. You can’t travel cross-country for $50 anymore. You’d be lucky to do it for $500. If you show up in some random town in Montana and start asking around for jobs with a 3-day beard and dirty clothes, you’re likely to get arrested. On the Road is the one method I have of living out an imaginary life with the generation I feel I’d be most natural with, the Beat generation.

 

Listening to: Wilco (live) – I’ll Fight