Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Time out: Leisure reading for the hurried

If you bought books at the Friends of the Oak Park Public Library book fair last summer (or vinyl at Reckless Records, there's a good chance you have something from my collection. When my basement library became an exercise room, I had to revise the Zero Book Growth policy that barely kept my library confined to my bookshelves.

When I did the math, the solution was to shrink the book cave to closet size. Reading a dozen or so books a year, I wasn't going to finish what waited on the basement shelves in this lifetime. Even if I went nuclear purging the excess, I could still hit the much bigger stacks at the new West Town library branch.

What do newspaper folks make time to read between morning and evening newspapers and a few dozen websites? Not much, I suspect. The proprietor of the Trib Nation blog was asking around the newsroom what people were reading. Good luck with that.

I keep track of my CTA reading at Goodreads.com. Looking over the list reminds me of my father's reading habits at my age: mysteries, short stories and plays that could be read in short bursts of spare time.

Half my reading is non-fiction but it's just as episodic in nature. Last year, Jerome Loving's Mark Twain: The Adventures of Samuel L. Clemens, a lucky find at the Harold Washington library, has a short-chapter format like one of Twain's subscription novels, which nicely fits a subway commute. Twain's crotchety late years remind me of legendary wire-service reporter Helen Thomas in this year's YouTube dustup. God knows what I'll be ranting about at age 90, but I'm sure I wouldn't want it to define my career.

Harold Evans' They Made America, which filled out my airline reading, could have been titled "Lives of the Innovation Saints." Self-help books also fit the bill as quick reads: Judy Carter's The Comedy Bible, was an unexpected recommendation from a friend in Toastmasters: a book on the mechanics of being funny. (Yes, the man needs a book to figure out funny.)

Funny-strange how my book choices read more like biopics. Fiction included Gore Vidal's JFK potboiler "Washington, D.C.", Thomas Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon", which was kind of like an art-house buddy flick, George MacDonald Fraser's "The Reavers" (same but more PBS) and A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines (two scientists meet cute).

Some great recommendations came from obscure sources. Barbara Kingsolver's "Pigs in Heaven" was listed in an Arizona guidebook. Jim Lynch's "Border Songs" was blogged by one of my ex-students at Columbia College Chicago.

And a postcard from the author sent me to the hard-luck omnibus "American Salvage." Turns out my neighbors know Bonnie Jo Cambpell. So I have high hopes in starting "The Memory of Running." Ron McLarty's book was an oblique joke on HBO's "In Treatment" – recommended reading from a self-unaware shrink. Can't get much more obscure than that.