Monday, July 29, 2013

How to Buy a Book

Part of a series of Lists of Cool Things.

Aww yeah, look at those sweet, sweet books.
Words, words...
—"Words (Between the Lines of Age)," Neil Young

I buy a lot of books.

There are books everywhere in my apartment: on my desk, in piles on the floor next to my desk, scattered across the various tables and other surfaces in my living room, and (of course) sitting on my bookshelves (my current bookshelf count: 6).

Once, I organized a bookshelf by color.

And, while some of them are gifts or things I've found in free book boxes, I own most of my books because I bought them.

Like most people, I love buying new things. I love the feeling of satisfaction that comes with new ownership, the surge of joy I feel when I hand the cashier my money and the desired thing becomes mine. I love this feeling so much that I routinely forget how quickly it fades, and so I sometimes get stuck with a book that seemed great in the store (or on the internet) but which, in reality, I don't have for, I'm not actually that interested in, or just isn't going to make me happy for whatever other reason.

To try avoid the state of unhappy book ownership, I've developed some techniques to help me get through the process successfully whenever I get the urge to go book shopping:  

1. Go to a real bookstore. 

My go-to: the neighborhood used bookstore, Myopic Books.
  • This is a tradeoff: while I find it much easier to avoid actually buying something if I'm just browsing on the internet, it is much more likely that I'm going to find something that will actually make me happy if I'm browsing in meatspace
  • In a bookstore, I can pick up the actual object and check whether I enjoy its physical qualities before making a purchase (...yes, I smell books before buying. Also at other times).  Here, I can generally get a much stronger sense of whether the book will be something that I will actually enjoy owning than I would when buying electronically.  
  • Also, the experience of browsing for books in person is actually fun and enjoyable in a way that internet browsing just can't really match. 

2. Think about books that I already know I want.

Display tables like this one at the Sem Co-op are dangerous.
  • For me, the best book to own is one I've already read or, failing that, one that I definitely know I want to own for some reason. 
  • If I check a book out from the library and really enjoy reading it, I'll look for it at the bookstore and consider buying it, to read again and lend to friends.
  • If I can't think of or find a book that I've read and enjoyed already, I try to look for books written by authors I trust (like Alastair Reynolds or Patrick O'Brian) or on subjects I know I'm passionate about (like Biblical scholarship or linguistics). 
  • I also try to look for books that friends or written reviews have recommended.

3. Sit down and read.

I wish more bookstores had places to do this.
  • Whether I was able to comply with 2 or especially if I wasn't (sometimes, a book just catches my eye and I just want it, okay?), I take a moment to read parts of the book, while sitting if at all possible.
  • I like to read the first page and then skip to page 99, just to get a feel for the quality of the language  and whether I'm really going to enjoy it, both at the start and after the real meat of the book has begun. 
  • Contrarily, I never read the blurb on a book's back cover or dust jacket if I can help it. Book blurbs can be fine, but they often give away major plot points or distort the actual essence of the book. If I don't know enough about the book to feel comfortable buying it yet, I'll skim the introduction if there is one; blurbs are a last resort for me.
  • While I'm doing this, I also check the physical quality of the book itself, especially if I'm buying used (and I usually am). Is the cover ripped? Pages stained? Can I live with any physical defects the book may have, or is there something that's going to actively decrease my enjoyment of the book itself? 

4. Ask a few final questions. 

These may include "How do I get out of here?"
  • My dad recently shared with me how he sees the process of starting a new book: it's a matter of trusting yourself to the author's care, giving yourself over to their power for a time. The wrong book can waste your time, bore you, or leave a bad taste in your mouth. When buying a new book, he needs to take a moment to consider that hours of his life will be spent in the author's care, so he needs to do everything he can to discern whether the author is trustworthy. 
  • My final book-buying thoughts tend in a slightly different direction; before buying, I try to ask: 
    • Do I have the time to give to this book, or will it languish on a shelf for five years after I buy it because it won't ever fit into my schedule? 
    • Do I have a good reason to own this (will I read it multiple times? will I lend it out?) or am I just in the mood to buy something? 
    • Can I pay for this without feeling guilty about it?

5. Read my purchase as soon as possible.

Yeah, read that book, past self!
  • I find that if I don't read a book pretty soon after purchasing it, it often won't get read for years. I have the bad habit of buying new books while unread ones sit on my shelves. 
  • I often get distracted by something else on my reading list if I don't read a book soon after purchase. It's best to read books right away for another reason, though: there's always a chance I'll lose interest in the book altogether, for one reason or another, later on down the line. Best to get the joy I can out of my books before that happens!

Good books are among my life's chief joys. I love finding a new piece of fiction that presents me with a fully realized world and shapes the way I think about my own world. And I love working through a good non-fiction text, learning things, teasing out arguments, and debating whether I agree with the book's thesis. I feel like these joys are my reward for putting the real work into acquiring a new book, which is why creating a good process has been so important and useful to me. It doesn't work every time, and I don't always remember to follow it, but when it does work, the results are like nothing else I know.

Photo sources:
Photo 1:
Photo 3:
Photo 4:
Photo 5:
Photo 6:
Photos 2 and 7: me

Monday, July 22, 2013

Death, Grief, and Facebook

This lion is sad, and so are parts of this post.

"Well, what is this that I can't see,
With ice-cold hands takin' hold of me?"

"Well I am Death, none can excel;
I'll open the door to heaven or hell."

"Whoa, Death," someone would pray,
"Could you wait to call me another day?"

—"O Death," Ralph Stanley

A year ago today, I got a surprise phone call from my uncle. I was pleased to see his name come up on my phone, as I don't often get to talk to him and I think he's a cool guy. I picked up the phone and said hello. "James," he said, "Grandma Jackie was out on a bike ride this afternoon and she collapsed. She passed away. I'm trying to get a hold of your dad; will you tell your sisters while I try and call him again?" I agreed, and after asking him how he was handling the death of his (and my father's) mother—he hadn't really processed it yet; neither had I—I hung up and called my sisters to let them know the bad news.

Grandma Jackie was gone out of the world; she had been the lynchpin of my family since before I was born, the foundational dispenser of grace, wisdom, and love to two generations of Davisson children, and suddenly she was no more. I was sad she was gone; I was sad I hadn't been able to say goodbye. I was sad because I hadn't called on her birthday the week before, and now I would never get the chance tell her happy birthday or anything else, ever again.

I took a day off work just to sit in my room and cry, wrapped in a blanket and sitting on the floor.

A few days passed; the family gathered in Indiana. There was a wake, a funeral, and a graveside service. We grieved together and started to move on with our lives.

These death rites were undeniably helpful for me and my family. I've written a little before about growing up without a lot of religious ritual in my life. While the ritual of the wake, funeral, and graveside service were extremely helpful in moving on from the feeling of total loss and absolute grief, there were times I wished I had a more individual, public, and performative method for dealing with my grief. I didn't necessarily want to wait until the funeral to start to process my feelings, for one thing, but more than that, I wanted something more concrete and personal than passively viewing the grave or saying a few words to those gathered at the service. Like Jacob grieving for Joseph, part of me wanted to tear my clothes and walk around in special mourning garments.

But I'm not Jacob, nor am I a member of any other culture with individualized mourning traditions. If I put ashes on my head or shave off my beard or hair, I'm more likely to confuse people than to appropriately and successfully convey my state of grief and bereavement to those around me. Instead, I turned to Facebook. In fact, most of my family did.

Our reactions on Facebook varied; some posted memories of Grandma's life, while others simply expressed sadness and loss. There were pictures of Grandma posted on walls; many changed their profile pictures to pictures of Grandma, or pictures with Grandma. People asked for prayer and thanked others for their support. A few went directly to Grandma's wall and wrote something there, addressing their words directly to her. I, meanwhile, attempted to fulfill my desire to connect to a ritualistic past by blacking out my profile picture and posting KJV Bible passages that I felt reflected my anguish. To each their own. 

Cousins with grandparent(s). I'm the bowl-cut kid glowering in the middle left of the first picture.

It is popular and very possibly quite valid to claim that social media in general and Facebook in particular are not primarily about forming genuine connections with others, but instead are about feeding our egos. I often feel this way myself: when I'm being rational, I can see that my motivation for posting a link or writing a joke is always at least partially driven by how good it feels to get "likes." And even as I was putting up my blacked out pictures and quoting ancient Near Eastern meditations on mortality ad nauseam, I started asking myself: where does this "Facebook grief" fit into this notion, that participating in social media equals narcissism?

Actually, Facebook isn't all about me or you; it's all about this guy.

While there's certainly an argument to be made for Facebook grief being just another example of social media feeding the ego (those old pictures of Jackie as a teenager and Grandma and the grandkids in the 1990s got a lot of likes, after all!), I really think there's more to it than that. In fact, I'd like to argue that Facebook grief is a compelling substitute for the kind of individualized grief rituals I spoke about earlier.

Here's the argument: there are lots of different rituals people use to mourn publicly, but they all tend to include people altering both their outward appearance and behavior, with the combined goal of (1) expressing the feeling of extreme sadness at the loss of a loved one through concrete means and (2) informing others of the reason for this behavior without having to go through the painful process of telling everyone in conversation.

Facebook grief also fulfills these functions: (1) Through posting pictures and creating apprpriate statuses, Facebook users can (semi-)publicly express and work through their feelings in an open and concrete way, instead of bottling up emotions and trying to process them internally. What's more, this Facebook grief allows people to grieve in their own way, which a more formalized public ritual might not. (2) Unless they are expressing their grief very cryptically ( me, sigh), the bereaved can quickly inform their Facebook friends of what has happened and they will not have to engage their friends in conversation in order to explain their behavior and emotional state.

We all gotta die. And that's weird.

I didn't have a time-honored way to publicly and personally mourn my grandmother's death. But I did have social media, which served as an outlet for my emotions and as a way (eventually) to inform others of why I was feeling bad. It was a really good thing for me, and I believe that it can be good for others, too.

Photo sources: 
Photo 1 (modified)
Photo 2
Photo 4
Photo 5

Monday, July 15, 2013

Why So Emcerious?: On Emceeing A Wedding Reception

I see in this picture a man nervous about speaking in public. Or maybe it's just a crooning Elvis and I'm weird.

Don't take any lip, stay in line, 
Everybody's talking at the same time. 
—"Everybody's Talking at the Same Time," Tom Waits

A couple months back, I went to a friend's wedding. The wedding itself was a slightly loopy affair, taking place in two languages (English and Spanish), with original content in both and little translation from one to the other. My favorite part: the Spanish-only duet from the bride's aunt and mother, sung entirely in unison and with earth-shaking intensity. Seriously, it was nuts. Also: two separate wedding sermons and two sets of vows. Whoa.*

The real spectacle, though, was the reception. It was a many-tabled affair, a vast and frenetic smorgasbord, packed with hungry and talkative people, and Jarritos and bags of coffee on every table.** Yet it was all being run like a well-oiled machine by one man: the bride's brother, who served as the reception's emcee. This man was not only keeping the ceremonies moving, but he was also doing it with style, tossing off little jokes and comments at appropriate moments and with just the right tone, engaging people's interest but still staying out of the way of their good time. "Wow," I thought at one point that evening, "I never gave it much thought before, but being an emcee at a big wedding reception seems really tough. I would probably suck at that."

This guy looks pretty capable. He's got suspenders.

So a few weeks later, when a friend struck up a conversation with me by saying, "Hey James, would you be the emcee at my wedding?" my natural response was "Of course I will, man! I'd love to do that. I'm sure I would do a great job. WAIT, I'm sorry, are you being serious?" I had such a boundlessly low opinion of my ability to perform this critical wedding function that I naturally assumed my friend was joking when he suggested I perform it. But technically I had already said yes, so when I found out he was serious, I agreed to do it anyway. 

Flash forward to the week of the wedding: I'd largely forgotten about my impending emceeing responsibilities, and suddenly I got a Facebook message listing them out, complete with numbers and sub-headings. It started with the following:
1. Dress to impress.
    a. Duh!
    b. You got that under control 
2. You will do a welcome
3. Lead in table games
    a. mad lib
    b. activity...
Regarding "dress to impress:" I have it under control sometimes. And sometimes I look like a sloppy goof.

It got more involved after that, but you get the idea. Lighthearted in tone but not exactly brief. I was a little intimidated, as well as annoyed at myself for not having done some mental prep before now.

Even though I am an acknowledged introvert, I've done some public speaking, and have even occasionally gone out of my way to do so. The trouble is, when I go out of my way to talk to an audience, it's typically because I want to tell them a story, a story I've thought long and hard about, and they're usually there to listen to me. Being the emcee at a wedding is pretty much the opposite: it's not a story—it's who's going to the buffet line next and announcing that the cake is getting cut—and you need to make up what you're going to say on the spot, and no one really wants to listen to you all that much. You need to speak slowly and clearly, or people won't know what's going on and they will be annoyed. But you can’t take too long about it, or people will stop paying attention, and then they won't know what's going and they will be annoyed. It's a tough gig. "Good luck making it funny or entertaining on top of it all," I thought.

Dude will probably be more prepared than I was for the reception. He might be taking it a bit far.

Fortunately, things turned out to be much easier than my worries allowed for. When I got to the wedding, I was handed a piece of paper with a list of things I needed to announce, and told who to talk to if I wasn't sure what to do next. This eased my burden from "MAKE IT ALL UP ON THE SPOT" to "make up what you're going to say about these thing in this order," which was a considerable relief. Then the wedding happened, it was lovely, and we moved into the reception hall, which was a huge gymnasium full of tables and food and party favors and activities, with hundreds of people to corral.

I got on the mic and told people what they needed to do to get started. And then they did those things. I started to feel less nervous as I realized folks were actually going to listen to me. Maybe it was just because I was loud (super good sound system in that gym), but it took surprisingly little effort to get people to pay attention.

 At all events, when the wedding party arrived, I announced them in my biggest most sports stadium announcer-like voice and got the crowd to give the bride and groom a standing ovation. I started feeling comfortable with my role; I dismissed tables, announced found cell phones, and introduced toasts, all with greater ease and enjoyment than I'd expected. I even got in a few jokes, like this one:
"And now it's time for the couple's first dance! Folks, this is, in fact, the first time these two have ever danced with each other."
[look of panic from the couple]
"No, not really, I just made that up."
[look of relief from the couple and laughter from the guests]  
At the end of the wedding, my newlywed friends came and thanked me. "You were definitely the right man for the job," I was told, which made my heart glow. I think I'm ready to try it again sometime.

* I mentioned to a friend that I'd been at this wedding and he remarked that hadn't made it, but that he'd heard it was super traditional. "There were ... traditions," I replied, unable to articulate in any way how unusual the thoroughly bilingual experience had seemed at the time.
** These were from the bride’s family farm in Guatemala. They just might be my favorite party favor ever—in concept if not in reality, as I don’t drink coffee for similar but not exactly the same reasons as Hank Venture (i.e., it will make me jittery and unable to sleep but it won't make me stay up all night building Murphy beds, nor, alas, will it turn me into Jungle Batman).
† I don't think we need to go into detail about my internal debate over whether to spell this word "MC" or "emcee." Suffice it to say my choice was made based on how easy it would be to make the spelling fit into a pun for the title of this post, which is both a reference to a The Dark Knight and a tribute to the emcee in question, who I remember being obsessed with the movie before it came out.

Photo sources:
Photo 1:
Photo 2:
Photo 4:

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Podcast Episode 12: The Other Side of the Hedge

The Other Side of the Hedge, by E.M. Forster

This is a story I read in high school in my Honors Mythology class, though how it was tied in with the other themes in the class, I no longer remember. It is either about the futility of the pursuit of progress, the importance of enjoying the simple pleasures in life, or the nature of life and death. Or some other thing. It's a beautiful, weird little story.

At last, no more introductions! I swear I thought I'd abandoned them long before this. To be fair, there are lots of other episodes (which are readings of material that is more or less obviously still copyrighted) that I produced besides the twelve I've archived here on the blog, many of which came after this point and likely had no introductions, but still. My memory of having abandoned introductions earlier certainly proved unfounded.

Okay, so it's got a tiny introduction, where I refer to myself in the third person like I'm reading you an audiobook you bought off a rack in the gas station. I thought I was so cool.

I'm fond of the things the narrator lists as examples of human advancement: radium, the Transvaal War, and Christian Science. I wonder how many of these Forster thought of as a joke. Probably all of them.

The music in the middle sounds really tossed off, like I felt like I'd established that my podcasts have music, but I didn't feel inspired to create something that actually worked in the story. I think that's the case in a number of places. I'm still very fond of the music in the other E.M. Forster story I recorded.

Photo Source

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Podcast Episode 11: Tobermory

Tobermory, by Saki

This one is also by Saki, who wrote Sredni Vashtar; the tone on this one is similarly biting and funny. It concerns a cat who is taught to speak, and then proceeds to embarrass his owner and her friends.

Ha ha! This is from my radio show; I actually read this on air. I should write a post about being on the radio sometime. I sound so different from the other podcasts; I'm clearly nervous but also apparently enjoying myself. The fact that it's on the radio live means that any mistakes I made were stuck in the recording. Maybe I should try to edit this to cut a few out; there are a lot.

Things that made me nervous while I was on the radio: worrying about making reading mistakes; the idea of broadcasting my voice, live, to other human beings, with no filter, and whatever the unimaginable consequences of screwing up might have been; and especially the constant worry someone would call the studio, which I had no great plan for addressing (occasionally in the radio recordings you will hear me just put on some music at a random point because I had to answer the phone; I think that's what the music at 10:40 and again at 11:30 or so is about) and which was never for me anyway.

Answering the phone at WHPK was always at least moderately infuriating, because the person on the phone always wanted something I couldn't give them, like a song request or contact info for a DJ I didn't know. I never really knew anyone else working at the station. The way things worked was, you came to the station, rang the bell (which flashed a light in the booth, rather than making a sound that might get on the air) and waited for the DJ to let you in. They left after their show was done, and you performed the same service for the next DJ. This process probably accounts for at least some of the random music stops in the episode.

This story would be better if I weren't reading so quickly and poorly. I did manage to make up on the spot a bunch of different weird voices for different characters that seem to work all right. I'm surprised that I didn't really try any British accents. Maybe I was worn out from reading a Sherlock Holmes story earlier, during which I found out what it is like to attempt a voice with a foreign accent for a sustained half hour or more.

Photo Source

Monday, July 8, 2013

Podcast Episode 10: Hearts and Hands

Hearts and Hands, by O. Henry

This short, fun piece is by the old master of the short form, O. Henry. It's about a chance encounter between old friends on a train. O. Henry's work is all about the crazy twist ending, sometimes to a fault. At his best, in stories like this one and perhaps the well-known Gift of the Magi, he's able to make you feel some human depth and soul in his characters as he propels you toward the "gotcha" moment. Like many of my podcast episodes, I first encountered this particular piece in a high school English class, where I thankfully had a teacher who was willing to challenge his students with a broad variety of material.

Yay, it's the shortest podcast episode ever! I like the voices here. Of course, it's easy to distinguish characters when there's only three of them; here it's my regular voice, a low voice, and a slightly higher, breathier lady voice. Thank goodness I knew better than to try to use falsetto voice for women when I recorded them.  I think the music works better for this episode than it does on a lot of them; a nice, light, fun tone and pretty unintrusive.

Photo Source

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Podcast Episode 9: Sredni Vashtar

Sredni Vashtar, by Saki

This is a brief story by British author Saki. Saki was a brilliant satirist, and this piece is particularly fun; it reminds me of Roald Dahl, mixed with some of the Screwtape Letters' sense of British life and attitudes. It's also, ah, pretty weird. Be prepared for a bizarre personal religion and some slightly strange narration.

Hah! Again I'm faking it in my introduction: talking as if I'd read a bunch of Saki. Seriously, I've read two stories: this one and the other one I read for episode 11.

I'm really hit or miss with regard to music on these podcasts. I always wanted to have some music, but I wasn't always able to produce the right moods with my limited musical abilities and materials. I feel the wall-to-wall soundtrack is a poor choice for any podcast, but it doesn't help that here it seems utterly disconnected from the tone of the story.

I think the line "He did not pretend to have the remotest knowledge as to what an Anabaptist was, but he privately hoped that it was dashing and not very respectable" is my favorite moment in the story. This kind of thing is something I remember well from childhood: latching on to a word whose real-world meaning is less important than what it personally might mean or do for me. Also, doing or thinking something to irk someone who has no idea what you're doing or thinking and thus can't actually be irked by it.

Small detail, but the "chanting" at 8:40 or so would have been a lot more effective if I'd actually tried to chant it. I wonder if I even read this all the way through before recording. I was and am a lazy young man.

I don't know if it's just the podcast medium or simply that I delivered it poorly, but the ending has no impact at all. (If you missed it like me: the kid's ferret attacks his cousin, whom he dislikes, and he's indifferent about it, so he eats some toast.)

previous episodepodcast home next episode→

Photo Source

Monday, July 1, 2013

Podcast Episode 8: A Dream of Armageddon

A Dream of Armageddon, by H.G. Wells

As part of my fascination with ways for the world to end and what people do about it, I present this excellent work by H.G. Wells, prolific science fiction author and prophetic genius. This work is shot through with problems of illusion, dream, and reality.

Wells's work is pretty cool stuff, all things considered: he invented tons of the basic concepts involved in science fiction (The Time Machine is pretty much the first story about time travel as we conceive of it today) but it doesn't always make for the best read-aloud material; the language is old-fashioned and often unwieldy. Still, this story was interesting enough to take the chance on the occasional awkward sentence or outdated turn of phrase; it's got some haunting, moving imagery and ideas in it.  

When are these embarrassing introductions going to die already? I thought I gave up on them long before this. I'm getting sick of listening to my rather facile, ill-prepared, poorly thought-out remarks at the start of each of these. Ah, well, I suppose there have been worse ones than this one.

I like the narrator's total resignation (at ~5:30) when he decides to listen to his traveling companion's dream. Like, "What the heck, I'm going to be totally bored no matter what. Might as well listen to this crazy guy." I know I'm not a huge fan of listening to people's dreams either. As a rule I try to describe my own in 2 sentences or less when I do. I suppose if this character had followed the rule, we'd have a much shorter story.

Photo Source