What I’ve Been Reading: January 2006

Chronicles: Volume One Like Life The Know-It-All

Books bought:

The White Indian Boy and Return of the White Indian Boy – Elijah Nick Wilson and Charles Wilson
The Know-It-All — A.J. Jacobs
Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer
The Accidental Tourist – Anne Tyler

Books read

The Pocket Penguin 70th Anniversary Collection: books #31-33
Forgetting Things — Sigmund Freud
King Arthur in the East Riding — Simon Armitage
Happy Birthday, Jack Nicholson — Hunter S Thompson
Chronicles: Volume One — Bob Dylan (not finished)
The Know-It-All — A.J. Jacobs
Like Life — Lorrie Moore

I have a feeling that I’m not going to be making friends with Bob Dylan fans this month.

First, though, the stuff I bought. I spent a lot of time in January browsing through out of town bookstores and airport newsstands, enough that I actually began thinking about purchasing books from Terminal B instead of spending my Barnes and Noble gift card upon returning home – a move that would have been fiscally irresponsible and would have set my personal purchasing habits back by a few months.

I held back, though, and bought all of my non-gift card books from independent bookstores in the Jackson Hole/Teton Valley area. From the Valley Bookstore in Jackson, Wyoming, I picked up The Know It All (a book drooled over in a number of airport bookstores) and Dark Horse Books in Driggs, Idaho, sold me a book that plays a big part in my own family history — The White Indian Boy by Elijah Wilson, a Pony Express veteren who also happened to be my great-great-great-grandfather.

Finding this book – the story of Wilson’s life, from being raised by the Shoshone tribe to riding on the Pony Express – wasn’t a surprise. I knew they were re-releasing it (along with it’s sequel, The Return of the White Indian Boy, by Nick’s son Charles). I also knew that it would be in heavy supply in the area since just over the mountain range lies Wilson, Wyoming, the town named after “Uncle” Nick Wilson, and the entire valley owes a lot to the skills of Wilson and his group of settlers.

Still, I was pretty excited to see it up close. The White Indian Boy is apparently a great testament to a man that helped settle the valley that now teems with skiers and hippies. I’ve been told that The Return is a pile of crap, though. Many in the family were quite upset with it’s release, to say the least. I don’t’ know the exact reasons for everyone being so upset, but at least I can rest assured I’ve got a great piece of familial pride wrapped up in the first half of the collection.

Finally, I spent a good chunk of my Barnes and Noble gift card on a book for Kerrie and a book for me. I grabbed Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated (which I found without having to endure the horrible movie-based cover art, a pet peeve which I will delve into in the future) and Kerrie picked up Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist. Both seem like very good books, and I’m incredibly excited to broaden my experiences with Foer’s original style of writing.

I guess I should probably also update you on my grand experiment. Well, I guess it’s a failed experiment at this point: my quest to finish the entire Pocket Penguin 70th Anniversary Collection (see the December 2005 What I’ve Been Reading for the review). I had initially attempted to force my way through the entire set of 70 pocket-sized books in an effort to become the most well-read American since, well, A.J. Jacobs, author of The Know-It-All (more later), but found myself giving up the fight after reading just three of the books this month.

Here’s what happened: I had other books I wanted to read. Seriously – that’s the only reason I gave up.

In fact, if you want to get specific, I gave up the Penguin Pocket quest for Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One. Here’s where I get lambasted by “Bobaholics” – I wasn’t really that impressed with the book; in fact, I didn’t even finish it.

For those who are looking at Chronicles for the history of Dylan, look elsewhere. This isn’t a straightforward biography. Instead, we’re presented with a handful of Dylan’s experiences. In the book, Dylan recounts moving to New York to get started in the folk scene as a kid, green as they get, and unsure of his place in the city. Next, Dylan describes the scene itself – the bars, the acts and the managers that helped him get started.

The next chapter skips ahead to 1968, around the time of his motorcycle accident that forced him to retire for the first time, and then it skips again to 1987, a time when his popularity was waning and his songwriting skills were faltering.

Many things about the book, I like. I enjoyed the idea of collecting a handful of stories instead of writing a straightforward chronological history. I was amazed to hear about Dylan’s reluctance to become the voice of a generation, and his even further reluctance to continue playing at all once he had been “tapped out” in the mid-80s. I would venture to say that this is the only way that Dylan could present his life – a fractured collection of personal experiences, each one representing a different time in the life of one of music’s most important people.

What I didn’t like was the way it was written. I appreciate a healthy diatribe once in a while, but Dylan’s writing gets a little long-winded at times. It wasn’t uncommon to completely forget what a story was about, simply because Dylan wound his way to some completely different point. His prophesizing gets a little tedious at times; sounding more like a love-and-drugs-era hippie than the musical pioneer he is. He tends to ramble, and for that reason the book can be difficult to pay attention to.

The overall themes range from his own insecurities about being able to write anything worthwhile to the struggles of begrudgingly becoming a generation’s spokesman. There A handful of predictable cameos – Most notably Woody Guthrie, John Lee Hooker and Richard Pryor during Dylan’s New York years – place Dylan in a rare air. Dylan’s climb from the very bottom, something that many of today’s musical prodigies never have to do, certainly deserves respect.

Let’s get that straight right now: I love Dylan’s music, and I appreciate the life that he has lived. I couldn’t get excited when I was reading about it. Chronicles just didn’t capture the excitement of an important time in music or the brilliance of the man behind the resurgence of folk music, and ultimately popular music.

However, I did enjoy reading about another man’s life – another man that felt just as insecure about his own perceived lack of skills. In fact, he felt so insecure about what he considered a lack of knowledge that he set out to do the impossible: read the Encyclopædia Britannica.

A.J. Jacobs, an editor for Esquire, takes on the Britannica because he wants to be more intelligent. He has a dad, a brother-in-law and a handful of colleagues to catch up with, and his years of writing for Entertainment Weekly had forced all of the pertinent information out of his head, replacing it with Jennifer Lopez rumors and reality television memories.

As would be expected, there is a great amount of difficulty in reading the entire 33,000 pages (that’s 44 million words) of the Encyclopædia Britannica, a difficulty that Jacobs spends a lot of time outlining. First, that much information has got to be difficult to retain – I’ve read three separate books on English history (Roy Strong’s The Story of Britain, Michael Wood’s In Search for England and Jeremy Black’s A History of the British Isles) and I still can’t remember but a few key items well enough to confidently speak up. I can’t imagine trying to keep 65,000 articles fresh in my mind.

The format is awesome, set up as if it was a condensed version of the Britannica itself. He brings up hilarious concepts and entries from within the 32 volumes. He discusses his interview with Alex Trebec, his fight to be on Jeopardy!, his Mensa test and his stint on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. He talks at length about what the Britannica is doing to his personal life. There are also a handful of personal sub-stories: He and his wife’s attempts to get pregnant, his brother-in-laws superiority in everything knowledge-based and his desire to become smarter than is father, a man that writes law books as a hobby.

In the end, Jacobs’ quest was misled – a search for a more complete knowledge failed when he realized he wasn’t properly taking everything in. Though he came to the conclusion that he was smarter after reading Britannica, it wasn’t the act of reading the books that gave him knowledge, but it was the self-esteem and comprehension of certain concepts that made him more at ease with his own intelligence.

I’d like to think that my quest, the Penguin Pockets quest, would have ended up similarly to that. I guess we’ll never know.

Finally, I managed to squeeze Lorrie Moore’s Like Life into the mix this month. Boy, am I thankful that I did.

Moore is known primarily for her short stories, and Like Life fits that mold – a collection of experiences, each one illuminating the minutiae of common place relationships. Lorrie Moore is an exceptional writer, penning words that are rarely seen together but seem as though they’ve been meant to be connected. There’s a surprise in every story, not just in the content – it’s in the writing style. It’s nothing unconventional, but it’s brilliant all the same.

Like Life is the kind of book that would appeal to the Sex in the City crowd, but without the shopping. Relationships, complicated feelings, and New York City itself serve as the back bone of each selection. Still, it’s not something that should be kept for women alone – the strength of the composition and the harshness and weirdness of Moore’s writing makes it appealing to everyone. Once the unnecessary stigma of reading a “female writer” wears off, even the manliest man should enjoy Moore’s stories.

After reading two books chock full of insecurities, it was refreshing to end with something so full of confidence. Moore is the type of author who does great things with simple concepts. Like Life helped me realize that a person can create great works of literature without having the largest vocabulary or the longest sentence structure, without being pretentious or self-deprecating.

Maybe, instead of attempting a feat of longevity or complete immersion, I should take up perfecting the simple. I’d probably get more out of it.

This was lovingly handwritten on February 4th, 2006