What I’ve Been Reading, July 2006

Books Bought/Checked Out:
The Red Pony – John Steinbeck (checked out)
Cannery Row – John Steinbeck (checked out)
Freakonomics – Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner
The Wages of Wins – David Berri, Martin Schmidt, Stacey Brook (checked out)
The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka (checked out)
Travels with Charley: In Search of America – John Steinbeck

Books Read:
Cannery Row – John Steinbeck
Freakonomics – Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner
The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka
The Wages of Wins – David Berri, Martin Schmidt, Stacey Brook
Gilead – Marilynne Robinson

It’s not often that I actually get five books read in one month. It hasn’t happened in a long time. But there’s a reason for that – it’s hard to read five long books, and it’s rare that I find five short books. So while three is my ultimate goal, five is a record setting month.

Of course, if I said I had read five books, I’d be lying. I didn’t finish one of them. I’ll get to that later. I’m sorry I lied.

I started off the month on a Steinbeck kick, thinking I would devote the entire month to the author that I named my iPod after. So I ran to the library and checked out two of the shorter classics: The Red Pony and Cannery Row. And from there, I set onto reading these while vacationing – a feat that never seems to work out the way I’d like.

Cannery Row was good, almost a more noble version of Tortilla Flat. Tortilla Flat set off by glamorizing the rugged lives of a group of never-do-wells in California. Cannery Row does the same. Except this time, Steinbeck gives the outlaws a little more nobility. And a little less jail time. It’s still a long essay on living life to it’s fullest; not caring about the monetary shackles of life and just subsiding with what you’ve got – friendship, a great dog, an abandoned house, and lots of wine.

Friendship is the main key – everyone tries to do something for everyone else, and that nobility carries through to the rest of the town. Nobody really trusts the castaways that make up the Cannery Row crew, but nobody dislikes them either. They’re just there, ready to help out when needed, but ready to drink when the time is right. Forgetting the wealth acquired through work is easy when you think of the wealth acquired through friendship.

And with that, vacation was over. I managed to pick up a copy of Freakonomics – a book I’d always wanted to read — and promptly forgot about my “John Steinbeck Month.” Instead, I went on a short and not particularly memorable trip down “mainstream economics trail.”

Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t have any problem with Freakonomics, or for that case, The Wages of Wins (featuring Sioux Falls economist and University of Sioux Falls professor Stacey Brook), it’s just that, well, economics can get boring. The two books on their own, with months in between them, would have been good. But reading them back-to-back was a mistake.

Freakonomics take random things and puts them together in an economic sense. What does a bagel tell us about honesty? Why do drug dealers still live with their parents? What really stopped the rising crime wave in the 90s? It’s actually quite brilliant, and you’ve heard a thousand things before about it, so I’ll leave it there.

On the other hand, The Wages of Wins, which came directly after my reading Freakonomics and itself is a Freakonomics-esque novel on sports statistics and economics, is a little too technical. By this, I don’t mean it’s too hard to read. I mean it assumes the reader knows absolutely nothing about anything. It explains itself way too much, I guess. And for this reason I couldn’t even bother to finish it – no offense to any Sioux Falls economists who might be reading.

I had really looked forward to reading it as well. And it was well written. So what turned me away? Aside from the over-explaining, most of the subjects (do teams with larger payrolls win more, which basketball players are actually the best, etc.) deal with things that most hardcore sports fans already know the answer to. Those of us who pay attention to sports radio, or follow our sport religiously, know that the Yankees have a great advantage when it comes to winning, but they don’t always do it. We know that Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett are better all around players than Allen Iverson and Antoine Walker. This is a book geared towards sports nuts. But the sports nuts have already figured this stuff out. Now we just have the economics to prove it.

I also read Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, which is a must read and, at 50-some pages, an inexcusable omission from anyone’s knowledge. It’s well written, and it’s an interesting story, and it certainly would have been a New Yorker choice if the New Yorker magazine was around back in the day. So you should read it. The guy turns into a bug (on the first page, so you don’t have to worry about my spoiling it) and he struggles with life and acceptance and finds out who is real friends are, etc. There’s symbolism, and themes, and lots of book report-type things in it. I would have hated it in school. I liked it as leisure reading.

Finally (speaking of book reports) I had one more book to read. This September, downtown Sioux Falls will be hosting the Fourth Annual South Dakota Festival of Books in. Which means South Dakota will be heading full swing into a grand display of oneness as we join together to read this year’s One Book South Dakota: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. And so I had to read it now in order to make the deadline for the September issue of Prime. See, I’m all about promoting for the greater good.

What this means is that by the end of September, there’s a good chance that many of us South Dakotans will be sitting stunned, not by any grand force of action, but by the wordplay Robinson engages in her story of an elderly priest coming to terms with his age, his son, and his vocation.

Gilead is a basic story with an inventive style, employing an old pastor’s journal to dictate the pace and breadth. In doing this, Robinson is able to dive into the feelings of a man, John Ames, who was raised to be as pious as life will allow. Inner struggles with his own interpretations of faith and the differences between his father and grandfather’s views on sin serve as a primer to theological thinking, while the prospect of explaining himself – his legacy and theology included – seems daunting, yet necessary.

Robinson presents Ames as a man who has won and lost so many times in his life that he’s filled with a melancholy happiness, one that grasps the failure of life and holds it up as triumph. He celebrates everything as a grand experiment in “experience,” and his narrative serves a double track; he’s both telling the reader about his life and preparing his son – a seven-year-old boy from a second marriage – for the death of a father.

There is a certain sadness in reading someone’s final words. Ames uses this narrative to connect with his son from beyond the grave, to try to make up for years of unwanted separation. Through his comments, he reveals the frustration in becoming a father with so few years left to give. In fact, Ames has already conceded that he will have little chance to watch his boy grow up. And from this stems an incredible outpouring of experience; pages after pages of his life story, his thoughts, and his feelings.

Robinson’s writing brilliantly captures every desire of Ames’ life, though there is an incredible solemn nature floating just below the surface. It punctuates the idea that we all die, but that we cannot forget to live. There’s no reason to fear the end. We should still try to live what’s left of our storied and vast existence.

Ultimately, Gilead presents itself as an incredibly heartbreaking masterpiece, pitting the laws of time against the power of hope and the sheer wall of nostalgic history, forcing each of us to take a long time in thinking about what it takes to be remembered. It underlines the thought process in throwing life away a sliver at a time and remembering the cold, calculated truth: we’re all mortal, and regardless of how important we are, we’re all destined to be swept away in the throes of time.

September isn’t just a month. It’s a bridge between the life-bearing summer and the slow decline of fall, when animals and plants disappear, leaving the trees bare and the ground piled with dead leaves. We all feel a little bit more mortal in the fall, and though we celebrate the past summer with gusto on Labor Day, we all know what we’re in for as the coming months begin to freeze over and become stagnant.

With that in mind, a certain bit of parallelism can be found in autumn’s return and Gilead. We all need to celebrate our lives while they’re still in bloom. But the ultimate freedom might be found when we realize we’re merely here for a short amount of time, in knowing someday we’ll be gone, and that our thoughts and actions dictate a great deal about what we’ll be remembered for. In John Ames’ case, we’re left with a picture of a grand man; a caring father who took great pains to strengthen his son’s life before it was too late.

Life’s too short to live in the past. Preparing for the future might be the only way to really live forever. In Gilead, that might be the most important piece of advice to remember.

This was lovingly handwritten on August 3rd, 2006