A book, or just a thicker magazine?

When it’s hot outside, and my brain needs some rest, I sometimes think I need to read a magazine. And often I do – a few weeks ago, for example, I read the May 21st issue of the New Yorker, which was particularly jam-packed. I was especially fascinated and touched by the story in that issue about the career and death of the Kenyan Marathon runner Samuel Wanjiru.

But often, I have to say, I don’t find magazines very satisfying. Too many ads, too few articles, too much of same-old, same-old. Although I have to say that I almost always buy the Oprah Magazine before going on long trips, I am getting sick and tired of being told by Dr. Oz how anti-oxidants will change my life, and Oprah’s mixed messages are annoying: am I supposed to be content with what I have, or am I supposed to buy more stuff?

(Note to self: I should probably read Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk)

So, what to do when you’re too hot and tired to read anything longer than 20 pages, but you can’t stand to buy a magazine? Short stories work for some (and I can recommend The Penguin Book of Summer Stories as a start). But this weekend, I read non-fiction instead: A.J. Jacobs’ Guinea Pig Diaries, which is a compilation of humorous essays about various experiments the author has tried on himself. The experiments include

  • being as rational as possible for a month (which Jacobs defines as avoiding cognitive biases)
  • acting like George Washington for a month (by following the list of 110 Rules of Civility, compiled by Jesuit instructors, on which Washington was known to model his behavior
  • outsourcing tasks in both his personal and professional life to two women working for companies in Bangalore (Jacobs  notes that his article on the subject preceded the enormous popularity of the 4-Hour Workweek craze
  • posing nude for a magazine
  • doing everything his wife desires for one month
  • “living as a woman” – or so the book cover claims
  • uni-tasking for one month, while musing on Nicholas Carr’s article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

Of all of these tasks (and I’m sure I’ve missed a few), the only one which failed to either make me laugh and think a little (mainly because I was too annoyed) was Jacobs’ quest to “live like a woman.” This is misleading – Jacobs simply spent a month collaborating with his single, 27-year old babysitter (who, he reminds us repeatedly in a way that even he acknowledges might be a little creepy, is very attractive) in her quest to find a boyfriend through online dating. Sorry, A.J., or more likely, A.J.’s publisher, if all that “living like a woman” entails is a stream of mild rejection, some embarrassment and a whole lot of complimentary emails from men, sign me up. It’s a bit more complicated than that.

Jacobs does get into a few more of these complications, in fact, in the essay for which he did everything his wife desired for a month. He acknowledges (as does his wife, in an interesting coda), that the most eye-opening moment of this experiment came when the couple sat down, and Jacobs’ wife simply wrote down every household task she completed every week. Surprise! She was working the second shift. As a person who is lucky enough to read reference books and talk about information behavior for a living, I also found Jacobs’ chapter on multitasking, or the avoidance thereof, to be both funny and extremely interesting. Mostly, though, it just made me feel incredibly focused. I don’t, for example

  • watch TV while eating dinner
  • listen to the radio in the shower
  • do anything except knit or surf the web while talking on the phone (my husband and I, to the shock of some of our friends, own a landline phone, just one, that plugs into the wall, without a portable handset, as our primary phone, and rarely use our (one) cellphone)

That being said, I could connect to, and laugh at, Jacobs’ essay on multitasking because I have struggled with focusing my attention and with decisions about where work begins and “not-work” begins (I am, after all, a librarian writing a book blog “for fun”). The themes examined in all of these essays, whether superficially or occasionally a little more deeply, are ones that will interest most readers: how do I work? how do I relate to my family? how do I treat my spouse? what makes me unique? how do I feel about my body? am I a good parent? how do I think? how do I present myself to the world?*

Some might claim that this book is disjointed; the quality of the essays is certainly uneven. But for the price of 3 magazines (or none, if you get this book from the library!), you’ll get a satisfying reading experience. I should say, though, that if you haven’t read anything by A.J. Jacobs, I wouldn’t start with this book, and I would opt instead for The Year of Living Biblically, which, to my mind, is a much better book, because it allows Jacobs to explore one particular experiment (to follow biblical rules strictly for one year) at much greater depth, with deeper research and a more interesting personal transformation.

*(tip: George Washington presented himself to the world with his shapely right foot and calf extended, and never, never, never, wiped his nose on the tablecloth)


Waiting for pickup


For some reason, I’ve found that I haven’t been doing much new reading in the past few months. Instead, I did a lot of rereading of old favourites, and quite frankly, I spent a lot of time reading online when I was really in the mood to be reading something on paper, just because I didn’t have any new books on hand. The solution? Place some holds at the library. And because my my local library uses the lovely and convenient Bibliocommons catalogue system, it was ridiculously easy to find some new books, and to put them on hold.

So here I am, sitting at home on a cosy grey day, waiting for the email message that the following books are ready for pickup:

Slipstream, a Memoir by Elizabeth Jane Howard – Looking forward to curling up under a blanket and reading some juicy gossip in this one!

Aran Knitting and Fisherman’s Sweatersby Alice Starmore – I’m knitting a simple Aran sweater for myself right now, and I think I’m ready to kick it up a notch with something even more complicated.

Roadfood by Jane and Michael Stern – I found Roadfood Sandwiches to be excellent (and hunger-inducing) Saturday-afternoon reading, so I’m looking forward to more of the same

The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks – I didn’t even know he had a new book until I saw this mentioned on Martin Levin’s list of 10 books you have to read in Fall 2010. This one’s about six people with vision problems and changes, including Sacks, who suffered a tumour in his eye.

And now, I just wait!!

I ate this book

Not really, but I did read it in less than two days, and it’s a fat book in more ways than one.

It’s Spilling the Beans, by Clarissa Dickson Wright, who is best known for being the Fat Lady that is still alive.

I have to admit that I am committing a cardinal sin of book-blogging (bibliologging?), and I don’t have the book in front of me. It’s back at the library already! But that doesn’t prevent me from recommending this book, with some reservations. It’s probably best as a book to read quickly rather than a book to be savoured over several weeks.

Why read this book quickly? First, because it’s morbidly fascinating and gripping to read about the author’s childhood as the daughter of a famous surgeon who was also an abusive alcoholic, about her sprees drinking away her £2.8 million inheritance, and finally her recovery from alcoholism. Secondly, because the writing itself is not a thing to be savoured; the book was obviously written very quickly, albeit by a very smart and articulate person who has a massive vocabulary. I couldn’t help thinking at several points while reading that Dickson Wright could have used an editor to tone down the spewing nature of her prose.

Incidentally, I had the same reaction to the massive wordiness of Infinite Jest. The two books were strangely complementary in their descriptions of addiction, and in the way that both draw the reader into a world with totally foreign rules and social mores. In Infinite Jest that world is the world of the elite tennis academy (and, you know, the world of the Quebecois wheelchair terrorist squad) and in this book it is the world of the “horsey set” of British society, and, to a lesser extent, that of Rumpole of the Bailey. For Clarissa Dickson Wright is not only one of the Two Fat Ladies, she was also the youngest woman ever to be called to the English bar. There’s your strange fact for the day!

So, read this book, but read it quickly, and do not be surprised if by the end, the novelty is beginning to wear off, especially since Dickson Wright spends much of the last hundred pages on a rant against the British ban on fox hunting. Still, a good one for the bathtub!