inhaling books

I can read very, very quickly. In elementary school, I’d read through books quickly enough that I can remember teachers quizzing me on plot points, thinking there was no way I could have read every word and retained any details. I could and did. Most of the time when I’m reading quickly, I hit every word on the page. Sometimes (as in the case of documentation or trashy sci-fi), I’ll catch myself doing a rapid skim down the page, picking salient details out of every paragraph. I still retain a decent level of detail, even then.

Some books I either can’t read quickly or don’t want to. Infinite Jest has prose that defies any attempts to rush or scan, as well as being so rewarding to read that I haven’t wanted to hurry, both times I’ve read it. Dune (another long-held favorite) is not particularly challenging to read, prose-wise, but the characters and settings are so well-drawn that twice now I’ve forced myself to read Dune at a walking pace, sounding each word outloud in my head.

Lately I’ve noticed myself doing more and more reading online, and most of it skimming. I’ve got a jillion blog feeds which Bloglines does a great job of presenting to me in a long column, perfect for scanning the titles, and I’ve got dry documentation at work competing for my time, so when I read a news article, I always feel rushed. I don’t like feeling like the only reading I’m doing is cursory, so I’m making a deliberate effort to not read personal blogs during the work day (embarassingly harder than it sounds, since my habit of checking has become so ingrained), and to read more bound-and-printed books during the evenings.

A couple of weeks ago, Josh loaned me A Game of Thrones , by George R R Martin. He’d recommended it before, but I hadn’t taken him up on it. What little fantasy I’d read was a long time ago, and I’d discarded the genre as being so formulaic that I felt sure I wouldn’t enjoy much more of it. Even the cover worried me: a noble and craggy windswept knight on a noble and craggy horse on a noble and craggy hill, and allusions to the book being the “first book of The Song of Ice and Fire Saga” seemed pretentious. (Anyone who writes a book and pre-positions it as “the first book of the Astounding Such-and-So Saga” without having already written the rest of the saga worries me, a little. Dunno why.)

The book, though, was excellent. In the first couple of chapters, I got a little worried that the characters were going to be standard fantasy tropes going through standard fantasy motions… I was totally wrong. Martin’s written a plot with many, many moving parts, and kept all the plates spinning and fresh in my mind all the way through, much to my surprise. Characters learn and change, major characters get killed with very little warning, and while the prose isn’t super dense, the descriptions of settings and battles are strikingly clear. (despite occasionally being a little noble and craggy. Some aspects of fantasy are hard to get away from completely and still stay within the genre.)

So. 804 paperback pages in 3 days of much enjoyed inhalation (but not skimming) later, I’m ready for the next book in the series (convenient, since we’re visiting Josh and Jess and the boys this weekend). I haven’t been this caught up in a piece of fiction in quite a while; I’ll probably try to pace myself a little slower on the next book, both to enjoy the descriptions and draw out the enjoyment longer.

Also read recently:

  • Blink , by Malcom Gladwell. Non-fiction, short, dealing with the power and pitfalls of intuition and first-impressions from a psychological perspective. Some really intriguing stuff in there about how much of our perception is based on split-second first-looks. Good stuff, kinda in the vein of Oliver Sacks’ books or (less so) A General Theory of Love .

  • On Jess Hekman’s recommendation, Don’t Shoot the Dog . Read this one on our honeymoon. Another psych book, this time talking about the basis for behavioral training, sometimes called “clicker training.” Works on dogs, works on people, works on goldfish. Less a practical manual and more about the theory and history of the methods; I really liked this one, too.

  • Dave Eggers’ most recent book of short stories, “How We Are Hungry.” Excellent. I thought “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” was over-hyped, over-self-aware, and way too overly-precious, especially in the final third, but I’ve really enjoyed everything else Eggers has written. I actually wept at the end of “You Shall Know Our Velocity,” which Kate’s reading (or stalled on) currently.

  • Garrison Keillor’s “Good Poems.” Just a collection of poems Garrison Keillor (my longtime hero and clearly OUR GENERATION’S MARK TWAIN HELLO PEOPLE) likes. Good picks, most, and fun to read to Kate.

  • Keith Miller’s “The Book of Flying.” (I’m sick of doing the Amazon searches for links, so I’ve stopped.) Lyrical little book, nominally fantasy but more in the poetic Le Guin style than noble-and-craggy.) Read this on honeymoon as well. Light but fun.

Books on my to-read pile:

  • Keri Hulme’s “The Bone People.” A mystery, kinda, written by an author from Okarito, a 35-person town on New Zealand’s south island. We spent a very pleasurable afternoon paddling a two-seater kayak around Okarito’s lagoon; Kate got me the book for Christmas.

  • Chuck Palahniuk’s “Haunted.” On loan from John.

  • “The Time Traveler’s Wife.” A rare find: a book that Kate and I both want to read!

  • The next George R R Martin book, which will almost certainly vault to the top of the list once I wrest it from Josh’s bookshelf tomorrow.