Suited Up

IMG_0448A pair of tights. A skin-tight shirt made of wicking material. Another shirt, also wicking, with long sleeves and an extended neck. A pair of running pants, or “loose tights” as some call them. A nylon windbreaker jacket. A pair of thick gloves. On my head, a thin knit balaclava as well as a running cap.

That’s my garb when the temperature dips below 20 degrees and I need to head out for a run. Today, the temperature was right at 20—not as cold as the 15 from a week or so ago—but there was a breeze, so the wind chill was reportedly down into the single digits.

And to be honest, I was plenty warm in this two-layers-on-bottom-and-three-layers-on-top getup. I probably could have gone without the inside layers, but it’s always better to have too much than too little, especially when you’re just out there to log three miles and call it good.

That’s my game these days, to run three miles, at least every other day. By most serious runners’ standards, that’s not much, but it’s all I aspire to in these winter months. Come spring, when racing season rolls around, I’ll probably up it a little, if my knees are willing, but for now, I’m satisfied with just doing the minimum. I’m not planning to run a marathon this year. Ever, actually, but that could change.

Speaking of serious runners, for some of them, 20 degrees is the point where they actually put something on their legs. I saw a guy last week on one of those 15-degree days running in shorts. Not me. I’ll take the risk that I’m going to sweat during the last half of the run, over the risk of going numb from the cold.

A Bookless Library?

Bexar County, Texas, is developing a completely bookless library system.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff is an unabashed book lover with 1,000 first editions in his private collection, but even he sees the writing on the wall.

Paper books have lost their allure, and future generations may have little use for them, Wolff contends.

So when he embarked on a mission to create a countywide library system, he decided it should be bookless from the start.

Personally, I like digital books as much as paper books. A rough count of my last 20 or so recent reads reveals that about a third of them have been e-books, and I won’t pretend that I have strong feelings one way or another on that question.

But I do love physical books on shelves.

In 2012 I was able to attend grand openings of two brand-new or newly renovated libraries in my area (Rock Hill and Webster Groves), and I’m looking forward to visiting the newly reopened downtown branch of the St. Louis Public Library sometime soon. There’s nothing like the feeling of walking around between library shelves, the sense of wonder, of possibilities. All of the unread books calling out to be explored.

Digital books have their advantages, but there’s no substitute in the digital world for browsing in a real library, full of real books.

Tumbling Through The Year

On Christmas day, I began a new blog. It’s a picture-a-day project on Tumblr; I’m going to try taking and posting one picture every single day for a year. You can find it here. I can’t promise I’ll be able to keep up with it every single day. And I certainly won’t imply that every picture I post there will be worth looking at. But hopefully one or two, over the course of 365 days, will put a smile on your face.  If so, click that little heart at the top; that’ll put a smile on my face. For future reference, the link will also be available by clicking on “Picture-A-Day” above.

Questions For The Author

Author Jonathan Franzen, in the essay “On Autobiographical Fiction,” part of his 2012 collection Farther Away, writes that whenever a novelist gives a public talk or reading, he or she is invariably asked four “unpleasant questions.” They are, he writes “apparently the price we have to pay for the pleasure of appearing in public.”

The four questions are:

1) Who are your influences?

2) What time of day do you work, and what do you write on?

3) I read an interview with an author who says that at a certain point in writing a novel, the characters “take over” and tell him what to do. Does this happen to you, too?

4) Is your fiction autobiographical?

I’ve been to a few readings/book signings over the years (not my own … but with real authors), and I can verify that yes, these four questions or close approximations are usually asked. And I can see why an author wouldn’t like them, particularly when repeated night after night.

But I’m going to confess that at one time or another, I probably would have asked the same questions, had I gotten up the nerve to stand up and ask something. I’ll go even further to say that the one that authors probably find the most banal is the question I’m most interested in. That would be No 2, about the author’s working hours and habits. Of the four questions, Franzen gave the least amount of space—one paragraph—to dispatch that one, although his answer does include one of the best lines I’ve ever read about the work of writing:

When I’m working, I don’t want anybody else in the room, including myself.

OK, I don’t really care what time an author works, and I don’t care if he writes longhand which word processor he uses (although years ago, I was fascinated by the choice-of-word-processor questions). But what I’m curious about is the process of writing: how the author can get himself into the frame of mind in which he can create characters and stories out of nothing. Because I’ve dabbled in that a little bit myself once or twice over the years, and man, is it tough. When one is leading a real-world life, it’s hard to imagine being able to create fictional lives.

So there must be some secret to it, and we wannabes have to show up at all the readings to try and get the authors to give it up.

As for the time-of-day question, I think this author probably has the right idea. She jumps in to writing the first thing in the morning, after only breakfast and coffee, and without letting any newspapers, television or Internet to get between her and the words. I’ve not read any of Roxana Robinson’s fiction, but I think I’ll give her a try this year.

(Too-) Good Reads

good-readsI’ve taken what I guess is a quintessentially New-Year’s step and added the “Goodreads” widget to the sidebar of this blog’s home page. (It’s down there at the bottom of the right column of blog stuff.) By clicking on it, you can see what I’m currently reading, and what I’ve been reading and what I’m planning to read. (Although the widget doesn’t seem to be accurately updating page numbers, but perhaps that will work itself out.)

I know you probably don’t care about any of that, but it’s now right there for you in case you’re ever excruciatingly bored.

Goodreads is a sort of social network for book readers. Besides sharing all of the information above, you can get book recommendations, review books, read others’ reviews, etc. All great stuff if you’re a reader: kind of like the comments section of an Amazon listing, but without the stray “I’m only giving one star because I ordered this but never received it!!!” comments.

I first joined Goodreads about three years ago, and promptly lost interest. I have a couple of problems with Goodreads. One  is that my tastes, at least in fiction, tend toward what I guess would be called “literary” books, while it seems most of the community there likes “genre” fiction—romance, crime, etc.

Also, to be a productive Goodreads member, you need to write reviews of books and rate them on a 1–5 scale. OK, I can force myself to write capsule reviews (although I hate the idea of summarizing a 100,000-word book in 100 words), and I guess I sort of do so on my blog in my five-books lists.

But to rate a book on five-star scale? That’s a tough one. And here’s the reason. I’m a pretty slow reader, and a book requires of me a pretty substantial commitment, often a multi-week commitment. I’m not going to take that kind of commitment lightly. This means I’m not going to casually jump into a book I won’t like, but I’m more apt to like every book I jump into, if that makes sense. If a book’s just not right for me, I’ll bail out and not finish it, but that’s actually a surprisingly rare occurrence. I have enough respect for authors and the amount of work I know they put into a book to not give up if it doesn’t sing to me in the first half of the story. I’ll make myself like it, if necessary.

So if I’ve made that kind of commitment to a book, and I stick with it to the end, it’s highly unlikely that I’m going to give it anything but a four- or five-star rating. If I’ve finished a book, you can pretty well infer that I liked it. So the rating system doesn’t make much sense for me.

With the new year, I’m giving Goodreads another try. If nothing else, it will spur me a little to keep reading, and maybe I’ll pick up a good recommendation or two along the way.

So ignore the stars, but you’re welcome to look over my shoulder and see what I’m reading. And if you’re so inclined, consider joining Goodreads and “friending” me and posting your own book lists.