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The Omnivorous Reader - March/April, 2018


The Omnivorous Reader

May 6 · Issue #8 · View online

Recommendations, reviews, and assorted digital flotsam and jetsam

Hi, all.
Here’s what I’ve been reading these past months.
Why You’re Getting This: This reading list is going out to old and new friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. If you’re receiving this, I thought you might appreciate it.
Feel free to unsubscribe–obligatory reading is the worst.
If you know a fellow reader who might enjoy it, please pass it along.

The G.O.A.T Report
Frankenstein was my GOAT (i.e. a work that I’ve begun multiple times but couldn’t get through) for March. Yes, I finished it, but beyond that, the less said about it, the better. Walden is the GOAT that I spent most of April staring at as it sat on various end tables. No, I couldn’t finish it. I will try again this May. 
In Praise of (Skimming?) Long Books
I did virtually everything that I could think of to first avoid reading Frankenstein and then not read Walden these past few months. And when I’m trying to avoid doing something, I typically read. 
So I spent the month re-reading some long books: It by Stephen King, World Without End and The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, and The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. That’s roughly 4,000 pages of avoidance reading. 
It was wonderful. Each time, it felt like going home. This is true for me any time that I read an old favorite, but it’s particularly true when that old favorite is a long book.  
This past Christmas at a family dinner, when one of my parents mentioned my reading habits, my brother interjected “More like his skimming habits.” He has, evidently, been skeptical that I actually read everything I claim to read since I once claimed to read James Clavell’s Shogun in a single car trip from Maine to Pennsylvania. And, to be fair, I did skim Shogun that time in the car.   
My brother makes a fair point, but his point also misses the larger enjoyment that I get from reading and then re-reading big books. 
Take Shogun. Yes, I skimmed parts of it on that car trip. But Shogun was also one of the books that I kept by my bed growing up and dipped into whenever I wanted to go back to feudal Japan. I’ve probably read Shogun 10 times at this point, and while I do sometimes skim sections that I’m not as interested in reading again, I relish revisiting the characters, scenes, and plot twists in the book that are my favorites. As I was staring down the barrel of Walden as my GOAT for April, I considered taking Shogun out of the library. 
Now I read World Without End after reading A Column of Fire because I had only read it once or twice, I was in a Ken-Follett-ish sort of mood, and I remembered it being fun. 
But I first read Pillars of the Earth in sixth grade (and then again and again in seventh, eighth, and ninth), again at least once in my 20s and now at least twice in my 30s. When I read it again this past month, yes, I skimmed certain parts in the reread the way that you might look past your end table on the way to the kitchen. It’s just ends up becoming a part of the landscape in a place as familiar and comforting as home. 
I can’t understand people who don’t reread books, actually. The claim that you “already know what happened” misses the point entirely. It’s like saying you don’t want to eat your favorite meal again because you already know how it tastes. Part of the delight in diving back into a narrative is savoring the flavors and enjoying the experience. 
But skimming is useful part of that experience because not every sentence of a 1,000 page novel is worth lingering on. You can enjoy your favorite sandwich without feeling obligated to eat the crusts.  
So go ahead: Pick up an old favorite and don’t worry if you don’t read every landscape description. It’s always good to head home for a few days. 
Many people are amazed by the fact that this work was written by a 19-year-old Mary Shelly. Not me. The overwrought style seemed precisely like what a 19-year-old would write. It felt like the whole novel was written in the passive voice with unnecessary! exclamation! points! throughout all of the thoroughly unsurprising moments. Ugh. 
The Wise Man’s Fear is Patrick Rothfuss’s sequel to The Name of the Wind, which I reread partly out of avoidance and partly because I forgot enough of the details to be able to understand the second book. Both books are completely worth your time, though: All of the fun fantasy tropes are there–an irascible genius orphan, a school of magic, a fun martial-art-training section–but done in such a way that still ends up captivating and fresh. 
The Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn, along with his newer work Thrawn, are books about Star Wars. I feel like I should confess that at the top. I’ve heard that one of the reasons that 50 Shades of Grey was so successful was because of the Kindle–that an e-reader saved people from the judgment they may have otherwise felt by toting around a BDSM-themed novel. I felt the same sort of mild embarrassment in reading each of the Thrawn novels given the pulpy covers covered with lightsabers, tie-fighters, and Mark, Harrison, and Carrie’s faces. 
But I really liked these books. Sure, they read like screenplays of unmade Star Wars movies, but these movies would have been amazing. Grand Admiral Thrawn is a fantastic character and the plots were full of terrific twists and turns. 
Conspiracy by Ryan Holiday wasn’t a book that I really expected to enjoy. I like Ryan’s writings on Stoicism and have to confess that his reading newsletter was the reason I began my own.  But a book about Peter Thiel’s quest to bring down Gawker? I only grabbed it because it was in the stacks and the library and I thought, “Well, it’s got to be better than Frankenstein.”
I tore through the book in 24 hours. The way in which Thiel methodically plotted for a decade to secretly back lawsuits brought against the media company that callously outed him was riveting. Even if you’re not particularly interested in the case itself, Holiday’s observations buttressed with plenty of classical allusions and philosophy made for a terrific read. It’s still kind of amazing that something like this actually happened. 
Other Clicks and Links
Japan’s Prisons Are a Haven for Elderly Women - Bloomberg
List of misquotations - Wikiquote
I hope you’re all doing well and that you can find (or make) the time to read whichever of these books catches your interest. And if you know of a good book that you’d recommend, please pass it along.
Take care,
Chris Cunningham
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