Category Archives: Reading

Thoughts on Do the Work by Steven Pressfield

Do the Work by Steven PressfieldIt’s tough to write about Do the Work by Steven Pressfield without focusing on how the book was published. It’s the second release from the Domino Project, a joint effort between Amazon and Seth Godin. Their first book was Poke the Box by Godin himself, though in Do the Work Godin limits himself to the introduction.

Pressfield is also the author of a slew of successful novels, including Gates of Fire and The Legend of Bagger Vance.  In Do the Work, he revisits the advice from his wonderfully titled War of Art, offering a basic roadmap for tackling creative projects. He focuses on the concept of Resistance–yes, with a capital “R”–and how it can freeze us on the blank page. He writes mostly of writing, but the formula he lays out could equally apply to any entrepreneurial or political endeavor–anything that requires a massive effort to yank a something from the void. The central tenant is that Resistance will show its fangs each step of the way and must be bludgeoned into submission. To do this, we employ the power of stupidity and its other allies. Don’t overthink it. Banish perfectionism from the creative process.

There’s nothing profoundly new here, and the book doesn’t offer as concrete of a plan as it claims. It’s more rough outline, wrapped in a harsh–think drill sergeant–pep talk. It’s also a slim tome. I was able to read it cover to cover on the bus ride to and from work. But I’ll revisit it, once I get stuck and need a firm kick in the butt to get going again. The book reminded me of Unleash the Warrior Within by Richard J. Machowicz, which I strongly suspect Pressfield has read. His references to the Navy SEAL training program seem to have been drawn from Machowicz’s stories. Though this other book goes beyond the pep talk, and offers help with understanding and evaluating priorities.

I picked up the ebook version of Do the Work for free through a sponsorship that the Domino Project received from General Electric. (Only after reading Do the Work did I realize that this is the second book by Pressfield that I’ve read. Gates of Fire, his novel about the battle of Thermopylae in ancient Greece, was much beloved at the bookstore where I once worked.) The ebook was briefly priced at $9.99, but for now at least, is free again. It seems to have been designed with the ebook format in mind. The cover–like the first book from the Domino Project–is a single image with no text, perfect for a postage-stamp sized icon. There are chunks of super-sized text throughout the book. And whole pages dedicated to a single–white on black–word.

There’s also a signed, limited edition hardback that comes with a special metal plate–one with a 16th-century style engraving, no less–that’s available for $65. I love to see the Domino Project experimenting with new formats, taking the book beyond just pixels on a screen or bound paper. I suspect this won’t be the last offering from the Domino Project to land on my Kindle.

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High Quality Is the Future of Paper

The Woman in White by Wilkie CollinsI’ve been reading The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins for the last few weeks. It’s one of those massive tomes that’s been on my to-be-read list for years. Last Christmas, I got a copy of it in a recently re-released, and super fancy binding. I pulled it off the shelf a couple weeks ago, then got fed up with the tiny text in the paper book and switched to the free Kindle version.

Then I got tired of that, and switched back to the paper book. I went back and forth for a while, but at the halfway point through the book, paper wins. I love this binding, a solid stitch that shows no sign of tearing.  I like the rough feel of this book’s cover in my hands. The book is a bit on the heavy side at almost 700 pages, but has wonderful thick paper. Each page turn matters. I also like the extensive footnotes, and the silk bookmark. All around it’s a much more fitting experience for this 150 year old text.

One other thing: I had no idea that I have a terrible reading habit until after I started reading on Kindle. At the beginning of a chapter, I like to flip ahead to see how long that chapter will be. This works for sections of a book too. The Woman in White is broken into three massive sections, and getting to the end of one is an accomplishment to be much anticipated. This quick flip ahead, and then return to current page, is almost impossible with the Kindle. Books there are one long endless stream of text, which is a bit intimidating when reading a brick like this one. Also Collins, like many of his contemporaries, could be a bit overly verbose in his descriptions. Those sometimes require a quick scan ahead too.

This edition of The Woman in White is  part of the fantastic series of Penguin hardback classics designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith. I love these books! They’re the future of paper. Nice, clunky things with solid bindings and creamy paper. Though yes, the text would do well to be a bit bigger.

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Thoughts on Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart

For months, Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart has been hovering near the bottom of the list of the top 100 free Kindle ebooks. It’s a collection of letters from a Wyoming homesteader, dated from when she first arrived on her claim in 1909, through 1913. They’re all addressed to her friend and former employer in Denver, who seems to have seen more in the letters than their author did. Stewart emerges as a big hearted woman, who would most likely be shocked that her letters are achieving such fame a century after she wrote them.

She had no formal training as a writer, but her words–as well as her frequent book references–show that she must have been a voracious reader. She brings the old West to life, but not in the way I would have expected. The people here are wonderful characters, full of life and generous almost to a fault. She describes food so well that all opinions I had previously of bland, canned diets have been vanquished. It seems there was often a cause for a feast. Stewart bountifully describes meals piled high by the side of makeshift campfires, putting today’s fast food standards to shame.

But it’s in her descriptions of the Wyoming landscape where Stewart truly excels. It’s obvious that she fell in love with this land, reveled in all that nature had to offer. The letters are riddled with evocative descriptions:

For a distance our way lay up Henry’s Fork valley; prosperous little ranches dotted the view, ripening grain rustled pleasantly in the warn morning sunshine, and closely cut alfalfa fields made bright spots of emerald against the dun landscape. The quaking aspens were just beginning to turn yellow; everywhere purple asters were a blaze of glory except where the rabbit-bush grew in clumps, waving its feathery plumes of gold. Over it all the sky was so deeply blue, with little, airy, white clouds drifting lazily along. Every breeze brought scents of cedar, pine, and sage. At this point the road wound along the base of the cedar hills; some magpies were holding a noisy caucus among the trees, and high overhead a great black eagle soared.

The letters are often separated by months, and usually detail trips Stewart took to neighboring homesteads. A fiercely independent woman, she made a habit of bundling her young children into a wagon and heading out into the countryside, where she often would need to take an unexpected detour and spend the night camping out.  Lots of elaborate tales of weddings, pot luck dinners, and holiday get-togethers. Her tone is upbeat, if not inspirational, and there is only the slightest hint of all the work that must have happened between such festivities, little more than side references to how much labor was involved with the day-to-day life of a homesteader.

Stewart comes across as downright contemporary. One can only imagine what she would make of the connectivity that modern communications would have allowed the homesteader. Her letters are a real treasure, a wonderful portrayal of life in the not-so-old West.

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Thoughts on Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

Incarceron by Catherine Fisher fits snugly into the dystopian trend in young adult fiction. It tells the story of two people in different worlds. There’s Finn, an inmate in a futuristic prison with the same name as the book. He has no memory of his childhood, and is convinced that he did what no one else in the vast prison has done… seen outside. Then there is Claudia, daughter of the warden of Incarceron, who lives in a highly refined and aristocratic world, one where technology is artificially held back through Protocol.

The book starts with a bang, with Finn about to be run over, and doesn’t let up much through the end. Fisher has mastered the art of throwing rocks at her characters, though it’s often–perhaps as a result of so many hurled rocks–the secondary characters who feel more deftly drawn, if not outright likeable. Attia, a slave girl, was my favorite. She was unquestionably devoted to her master, yet also more than capable of taking care of herself. Lord Evian, a tireless sycophant with a secret, came a close second.

The settings of the book are wonderfully evocative, and change rapidly. Finn moves through the prison world, making his way out from the belly of the beast. Often it feels like the stage sets are the real stars of the book, and the main characters just show up to move the furniture around. Yes, this book fired on all cylinders, but it ultimately never captured me the way I hoped it would.

I did come to Incarceron with high expectations. It was the most recommended young adult fantasy at the SCBWI Weekend on the Water writer’s retreat last November. I heard more than one rave over it. And yes, the book is the work of a master wordsmith and highly skilled storyteller. But it all felt a bit like watching the latest Hollywood blockbuster. The sets were fantastic. The lighting and atmosphere spot on. The actors immensely talented. But the sum of it all somehow lacking.

There were so many opportunities where Incarceron could have offered much more than action, but it never seems to have taken aim for the profound. The story surged from one instance of mortal peril or jaw-dropping scenery to the next, never asking anything too serious of the reader. So that in the end, I wasn’t quite sure what Incarceron is about, and feel that in spite of the fine skill that Fisher displays, I’ll soon forget all about this prison and its inmates.

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How to Live on 24 Hours a Day

Arnold Bennett, British Novelist

While reading the remarkable series on changes in publishing by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, I came across her mention of Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller 1900-1999 by Michael Korda. This book deserves a whole post, but for now I’ll let the title speak for it.

This post is about one–just one of what I suspect will be many–gem that I discovered through this book of lists. In 1912, the eighth nonfiction bestseller had a fantastic title: How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett. He was one of many bestselling fiction writers that the book spotlights, though like Fannie Hurst has since fallen into relative obscurity. In addition to fiction, he made a splash with some of the first self help books. This one has just 69 short pages, and is well worth the time.

And according to the book, that is indeed saying something:

Yet it has been said that time is money. That proverb understates the case. Time is a great deal more than money — usually. But though you have the wealth of a cloak-room attendant at the Carlton Hotel, you cannot buy yourself a minute more time than I have, or the cat by the fire has.

Who knew cloak-room attendants were so well paid in 1912? Bennett may be out of time, he died in 1931, but he seems to have made good use of the years he was allotted, at least judging by his prodigious output. One of the things this little book drives home is that we’re far from the first generation to feel that life moves a bit too fast, or that things don’t make quite the same sense they did before. This guy had the industrial revolution, then a world war, then a big old depression to contend with during his lifetime. If he had been granted more time, he would have seen… well, another world war.

Our lives are insanely simple compared to all that, and yes 24 hours a day is plenty. I loved this passage:

The supply of time is truly a daily miracle, an affair genuinely astonishing when one examines it. You wake up in the morning, and lo! your purse is magically filled with twenty-four hours of the unmanufactured tissue of the universe of your life! It is yours. It is the most precious of possessions. A highly secular commodity, showered upon you in a manner as singular as the commodity itself!

For remark! No one can take it from you. It is unstealable. And no one receives either more or less than you receive.

Talk about an ideal democracy! In the realm of time there is no aristocracy of wealth, and no aristocracy of intellect. Genius is never rewarded by even an extra hour a day. And there is no punishment. Waste your infinitely precious commodity as much as you will, and the supply will never be withheld from you. No mysterious power will say: — “This man is a fool, if not a knave. He does not deserve time; he shall be cut off at the meter.” It is more certain than consols, and payment of income is not affected by Sundays. Moreover, you cannot draw on the future. Impossible to get into debt! You can only waste the passing moment. You cannot waste to-morrow; it is kept for you. You cannot waste the next hour; it is kept for you.

The book is now public domain and can be found for free on Google eBookstore and for the Amazon Kindle.

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Trawling Through Powell’s World of Books

Wow, two whole weeks since my last blog entry. How highly negligent of me, though I do have a good excuse. I got lost in Powell’s.

I made the trek to Portland from Seattle, thinking a weekend in a different city would do me some good, then pretty much spent the whole time in Powell’s. (For those who don’t know, Powell’s Books is quite likely the biggest bookstore in the world–plus there’s no sales tax.) I started in the gold room (science fiction) then hit the rose room (middle grade and young adult) and then the purple room (history) and finally ended up in the red room (travel and mythology). Looking over the handy online map, I see that I missed trawling through the classics section in the blue room. Why don’t more bookstores have a dedicated classics section?

Powell’s website claims that they get 6,000 visitors a day. Judging by how cramped many of the aisles were, I don’t doubt it. There was also a huge line at the cash registers. Between offering the most fantastic physical bookstore in the world and a great online experience, Powell’s should survive any transition to digital just fine.

There is something about a world class bookstore that can’t be replicated online. Yes, picking up the actual book and flipping through the pages is nice, but that’s just the beginning. Online it’s all about what I already know or new titles with sufficient sales velocity, but there’s nothing to record how much pulp a particular book managed to commandeer over the decades. In the real world, I can visit a section of the bookstore where I’m only vaguely familiar with what’s been printed–like US history books–and immediately zoom into Doris Kearns Goodwin. She’s got a whole shelf. That’s what makes it easy to notice a writer. A whole shelf. Some authors get there with one book that takes the world by storm, like The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. Others get there with a single title that’s been selling steadily through multiple editions, like Mythology by Edith Hamilton. And others get there with a series like the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness.

I loved looking at all the old editions of books piled up next to the new ones. It was easy to scan a section and see what the big titles are just by the sheer space that they take up. Then there’s the depth, really digging in and looking at thousands of titles in an hour. And of course, there’s peeking at what other readers have plucked off the shelf. No online bookstore comes even close to offering this type of browsing experience. And they never will.

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Suggested Reading from the Book Banners

This week is Banned Books Week, at least according to the American Library Association (ALA).

They have a great site on the phenomena of the banned book, with a statistics pages that appeals to my inner nerd. Surprisingly, total challenges brought against books seem to be trending down. Are video games stealing this piece of book thunder too? The stats also show, as expected, that Americans have a much tougher time with sex (which is covered in three categories) than they do with violence. Parents are most likely to initiate challenges to books, and the bans focus on schools and libraries. Anywhere public money is spent on books, someone will try to control what everyone else can read.

The ALA site lists the 100 most frequently challenged books from both the last decade and from the 1990s. You have to wonder why the likes of Aldous Huxley, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, and even Judy Blume are still on the list. Isn’t that stuff all terribly old school by now? Kid’s book authors make up a good chunk of what gets banned. Madeline L’Engle, Garth Nix, Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling, Lois Lowry, Louis Sachar, Maurice Sendak, R.L. Stine, and Chris Crutcher all appear for this decade. Poor Roald Dahl and Shel Silverstein (along with Stephen King) seem to have fallen back into grace.

Looking over the list, I noticed two things. First, banned books receive some notoriety before getting banned. There’s no point in banning it if no one’s heard of it. How many other far more shocking books never made the cut and instead languish silently on library shelves? Second, they deal with an issue–whether it be sexuality, racism, or religion–that some would rather not have anyone write anything about, ever. That makes for great suggested reading. Books that are well written enough to get noticed, and that deal with challenging subject matter.

Of course, bookstores saw this as a marketing opportunity long ago. Banned book displays do a remarkably good job of selling banned books. Thank you book banners! Keep up the good work of ferreting out titles worthy of lasting attention.

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