My Very Own Polysyllabic Spree: July 2005

July 2005

Books bought/borrowed:
A Long Way Down: Nick Hornby
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: J.K. Rowling
Birds of the Dakotas: Stan Tekiela

Books read:
Moneyball: Michael Lewis
A Long Way Down: Nick Hornby
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: J.K. Rowling
Beowulf: Seamus Heaney

Yes. I’ve read the new Harry Potter. Yes. I enjoyed it. No. I didn’t expect that ending.

J.K. Rowling has done it again, writing a great addition to an already wonderful story. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is everything I could have hoped it to be. I guess I’m still feeling a little bit guilty, though. After all, I have forsaken a book that I started six weeks ago, and with a vacation planned and other literary commitments made I may not finish it until the end of August.

Here’s what happened:

At the end of May I created a list of “to-be-held” books on our Main Library website. Each book I selected had a various length of queue – some were 14-day loans that had many people waiting, others were ready to be picked up as soon as I clicked “HOLD.” I thought that these books would help me fill in the spaces between the books I purchased for summer reading.

Instead, they took over my summer reading. I could hardly finish one library hold before I was sent to grab another. It started with Garlic and Sapphires (14-day hold), then Moneyball, then A Long Way Down (14-day hold). I couldn’t check them out and not read them, or fail to pick them up at all, lest I be sent to the back of the queue again – and who knows how long it would take for me to get a hold of the book again?

So The Book of the Film of the Story of my Life sat on my shelf, a quarter of the way read but sitting idle, like an airplane stuck on the tarmac during the morning rush. I absolutely had to read Garlic and Sapphires last month, and then I was practically forced to read Moneyball, and the final 14-day loan left me no choice – I’d have to finish William Brandt’s book at the end of the month.

Then Harry Potter showed up, and who am I to resist the allure of Harry and company?

So you see, I can’t help but feel a little guilty.

Next month, my friend. Next month.

I began July on vacation, and I read Moneyball during what turned out to be a handful of extremely long car trips. I came to a conclusion while reading this book: Living in Minnesota made me like baseball a little bit. Moving away and not being in the midst of Twins-fever every day made me love it.

I like going behind the scenes of professional sports. It’s probably a bit of residue left over from my days of being a complete dork with no sports skills – I now feel so included in everyone’s lives that I can’t help but be part of the team. Over the past few years I’ve found myself easing into baseball by listening to sports talk radio. Moneyball took it a step further, making me want to quit my job and watch the Twins full time.

Ultimately, Moneyball explains the game itself. It boils 25 living, breathing players into a set of numbers, turning the field into a spreadsheet. It shows how batting average and ERA are not the lifeblood of a successful statistical line (as was once believed), and it explains how a General Manager with no money can build a contender to compete at the 255-million dollar level of the New York Yankees.

The Oakland A’s, General Manager Billy Beane’s team of cast-aways, have even perfected the second half comeback. Routinely the A’s are in second or third place in their division with little to no chance of making the playoffs. Just as routinely the A’s seem to end up going on a ridiculous run that caps off the year with the team at the top, or near the top, of the standings. This is because the A’s are a second-half team by nature, grabbing trade-deadline bargains like a group of elderly cotton-tops at a flea market. Just to prove Lewis’ point: even four years after the book was published, the A’s, who were 17-32 as of May 29th, have gone 38-14 since then and are only 3.5 games out of first place.

I fancy myself an amateur General Manager, of sorts, so I enjoyed reading another GM’s take on building a successful team. In fact after reading Moneyball I feel like I actually understand baseball. I’m privy to its intricacies now. I feel like I can do more than just build a twelve-man simulated professional basketball team – now I can reverse the fortunes of a lot of horrible baseball teams.

I sped through Moneyball. I felt bad about doing it – I found it to be much more engrossing than I had imagined a book about baseball numbers could be – but I had other things to work on. I had another 14-day loan staring me in the face, and this one was by Nick Hornby, the very author I ape every month in this column.

Believe it or not, there’s actually some hard parts in reading and reviewing every month: at times I find myself too busy thinking about the book I was going to read next to fully enjoy the book I was reading at the time. For example, Moneyball became “the book before A Long Way Down,” and the same reasoning made A Long Way Down “the book that was holding me back from the new Harry Potter.” There’s a side effect to all of this – I have little tolerance for a boring book anymore. If I spend longer than a week on a particular reading, I feel like it’s completely dragging on, pulling my productivity down to depths not known since high school study hall.

Still, my horrible problems aside, I began A Long Way Down without thinking too hard about my previous reading crimes. I found this book at Target last month, but refrained from buying it because I didn’t want to break the book budget. Thankfully the library came through.

The story’s simple: four people head to the most popular suicide spot in London on the most popular suicide night – New Year’s Eve. The four people, who each narrate portions of the story in their own voices (a very clever writing technique that I wish I would have thought of and perfected) decide to stay alive and try to help each other through whatever hard times may come.

The reason I find it so clever is because everyone who reads it will identify with one voice or another. I stuck with JJ, the American ex-musician, while others might find solace in Maureen (the mother caring for a vegetable of a child) or Martin (the aging TV-personality mired in horrible tabloid controversy.) The narrative twists and turns and keeps itself fresh by switching up to a new voice every page or so.

Ultimately, though, what I appreciated about A Long Way Down was the handful of great thoughts that are scattered throughout. Jess, a hyperactive teenager with a brash attitude, contemplates her future and her inability to choose and embrace a track in life by saying:

And that’s me: I suffer from a failure of imagination. I could do what I wanted, every day of my life, and what I want to do, apparently, is to get walloped out of my head and pick fights. Telling me I can do anything I want is like pulling the plug out of the bath and then telling the water it can go anywhere it wants. Try it, and see what happens.

In another example, Hornby takes a gentle poke at society’s fear of reading in the voice of JJ, who is contemplating his numerous breakups (band and relationship):

She was right about me, though, kind of. How could she not be? I’ve spent my entire life with people who don’t read – my folks, my sister, most of the band, especially the rhythm section – and it makes you really defensive, after a while. How many times can you be called a fag before you snap? Not that I mind being called a fag, blah-blah-blah, and some of my best friends, blah-blah, but to me, being a fag is about whether you like guys, not whether you like Don DeLillo – who is a guy, admittedly, but it’s his books I like, not his ass. Why does reading freak people out so much? Sure, I could be pretty antisocial when we were on the road, but if I was playing a Game Boy hour after hour, no one would be on my case. In my social circle, blowing up fucking space monsters is socially acceptable in a way that American Pastoral isn’t?

I spent a lifetime similar to this, except my parents nurtured me into a caring reader. I find it incredulous, though, that there isn’t any sort of support for reading books – as opposed to watching TV or reading tabloid journalism.

Yes, A Long Way Down was very good, but with a segue like that I can’t help but move along. Obviously reading is important to me, and for that reason I have a lot of respect for J.K. Rowling. She has not only introduced reading to millions of children who might not otherwise care, but has also introduced it to millions of adults – parents, college students, etc – who are captivated by her great storytelling and the pure popularity of the series.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a very good book, and if you’re a fan of the series you already know that. If you’re not a fan of the series, or have not read any of the Harry Potter books, don’t worry. There will be no need to skim these paragraphs (if you haven’t been already, I fear) because I’m not going to waste breath saying what most fans already know.

Instead, I’d like to touch upon the mystique of Harry Potter, at least it’s mystique in my eyes. I’m not sure if it’s just my mind reverting back to my grade school days, but I find myself reading Rowling’s books voraciously, devouring each novel almost without tasting it. I experience every emotion that the characters experience, and during suspenseful times I find my mind has shut itself off to everything but the book – the subconscious equivalent of peeking through the hands during a frightening movie.

Harry Potter books are more intriguing, suspenseful and clever than any “literary masterpiece” I’ve ever read. Aside from Potter, I’ve never read books where I’ve been so wrapped up in the subjects, so aware of their past and current lives that I practically feel they’re part of my own family. I guess, for a little while every two years they are. Sure it’s a marketing mass hysteria for a few weeks every time one of the books comes out. Who cares? They’re brilliant.

I fought the urge to begin The Half-Blood Prince until I was finished with Hornby’s novel, and jumped into it on the 21st, giving myself at least a week before I needed to finish it and hand it over to Kerrie for her vacation reading. Instead, I finished it on the 24th. Three days—660 pages. Not bad. I love it, obviously, and I was floating through literary euphoria long enough to realize that I still had four days before we left to go to Idaho, and I needed something to read.

Then I remembered Beowulf.

I was a little scared, I’ll admit.

I learned about Beowulf in my middle school humanities class, where it was referred to as the first English epic poem. In high school I actually read it – well, I skimmed it while I consulted my Cliff’s Notes version. Now, realizing how important a work it is as a part both English history and literary history (and with the publication of a cool looking version in 2001) I forced myself into the epic world of Beowulf and Hrothgar.

It didn’t take long to read – only two days of hour-long sessions – and I was pleased to find that I actually enjoyed it. Very much. Additionally, I enjoyed reading the version I had, translated by Seamus Heaney, which features the original text on the left page and the translated text on the right. It’s amazing to see how this text:

gūđ-billa nān grētan nolde,
ac hē sige-wæpnum

translates into:

He had conjured the harm from the cutting edge
of every weapon.

Amazingly, both passages are from the same language – with thousands of years of change and adaptation separating them.

To summarize: Beowulf is the story of a great hero who kills ruthless monsters, becomes king, and kills a dragon fifty years into his rule, dying in the process. He’s an honest, modest, and great warrior, and he’s surrounded by some great character names. I mean, really — how could you not like a poem that featured people named Hrothgar, Ongentheow, and Ecgtheow?

It harkened back to my days in British Literature class, where we delved into the great works that shaped the English language. For a second, I even considered continuing along the path I’ve just started, reading Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Orwell – the span of English Literature.

But that’s a bit too heavy for me right now. I’ll just content myself with trying to finish The Book of the Film of the Story of my Life.

Until next time, don’t lose your bookmark.

This was lovingly handwritten on August 1st, 2005