800 Books

Sunday, 17 July 2011

I went into the public library last week and decided to check out some random books. After having read so much for college, book reviews, and my son, I decided it was time for me to read some stuff that didn’t require me taking notes for subsequent tests or reviews, and that didn’t require me to read out loud to a six-year old.

I left with three books: The Little Book of String Theory, by Steven S. Gubser; Ice, by Karal Marling, and Billy Joel, by Mark Bego.

I quickly dispensed with the first book; too much of it was stuff I had read before.

Ice appealed to me because, well, I like reading books that take one single thing and expand on the history of it. I read an entire book on pi, for example. Also, the author is from Minnesota, and a quick flip through the book revealed that she sprinkled her prose with local flavor (ice fishing, the winter carnival, Fargo).

It’s a really poorly written book, unfortunately. The author jumps from one topic to the next with seemingly little background information. She spends far too much time on things that are not ice-related (why six pages about Uncle Tom’s Cabin?) and never bothers getting into some of the more fascinating facts about ice. The narrative is often interrupted with indented paragraphs of no relevance to the topic at hand (I guess they’re supposed to be ‘fun facts,’ but they’re just annoying) and it reads in fits and starts on several topics. It ends with a glossary of words the author never used in the text. The glossary is not alphabetical, either, which just seems strange. And either the index is useless, or I just wanted to find obscure facts, because the five times I referenced to index, the topic I wanted to find was not in there.

Here’s a grievance I want to spell out in particular, though:

On page 156, Marling, a professor at the U of M, says: “in the autumn, President McKinley was assassinated at the Buffalo fair…”


McKinley was assassinate in the summer. I suppose Marling could mount the argument that early September is essentially autumn, but that would be a lousy argument. At any rate, why even say ‘autumn’? Why not just begin the sentence by saying, “In September…”?

In the very next paragraph, Professor Marling notes that St. Louis geared up for a World’s Fair in 1904, “honoring the Louisiana Purchase of 1804.” I’m sorry, but since when do professors not check their facts? I mean, aren’t they the ones who insist that students backĀ  up their facts with credible sources? I’m glad I attend Hamline, because if Marling is the kind of person teaching at the U of M, I shudder to think what kind of misinformation the students leave with.

My source for both McKinley’s assassination and the date of the Louisiana Purchase is my brain. However, since I (unlike Marling) recognize that my brain might be incorrect, I will now type a few key words into Google and try to find a more reputable source (something U of M professors evidently can’t be bothered to do).

McKinley was assassinated in the summer.

The Louisiana Purchase occurred in 1803.

And while we’re on the subject of Americans-who-don’t-know-their-own-history, let’s take a look at Bego’s biography of Billy Joel.

This is another half-assed book. Bego repeats the same facts – the same lines, even – several times. His sentences are terrible. Maybe I’ll start noting the worst offenders for a future post (assuming I finish the book). In chapter two, for example, we are told at least three times that Billy Joel did not have a TV while growing up. That was certainly interesting the first time, but by the third mention, I felt like Bego was insulting me, as if I’ couldn’t be trusted to hold onto the fact that Joel didn’t watch TV all evening like his peers.

Anyway, Bego’s snafu is both more understandable (he’s not a professor, after all) and less understandable (his error is from a more recent event – an event that occurred during his lifetime). On page 28, Bego states “And then on November 21, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.”

Come on, you say. This is just one mistake. One little mistake in a big book.

To that, I say: Yes, but if I caught this one mistake, who knows how many others I didn’t catch. Bego says that Billy has an older sister, is he right? I don’t know. I can’t trust him.

And getting Kenndy’s assassination date wrong is so grievous – after all, it would require the research efforts akin to asking anyone you meet on the street if they know when Kennedy was killed – that it just smacks of lazy writing. It’s not a daily blog, Bego, it’s a fucking book. Get it right.

I wouldn’t be surprised if, later in Bego’s book, he mentions that 9/11 took place on 9/12.

I would, at least, appreciate the consistency.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Today I finished reading Ice (see above). This less-than-mediocre book gets one more mention on my blog for one reason only: It represents the 800th book I have read.

“Wait!” you scream, “Surely you have already read 800 book by now!”

“Yes,” I say, adding, “calm down.”

Allow me to explain.

I maintain a list of books that I’ve read. Since 1989, I have kept and updated this list with the express goal of reading 1,000 books.

The tricky thing is…what is a book?

It’s a tougher question than you might think. For one thing, what’s the minimum number of pages a text must have before it becomes a book? My daughter, for example, has several board books. Surely they’re books, yet most of them have less than 10 pages and not more than two dozen words.

And what about periodicals such as Life and National Geographic. They’re not called books, yet they have more pages than many things that are called books.

So, I had to set some ground rules.

1) I had to have read the book cover-to-cover.

Okay, so I allow myself some leeway by stipulating that I don’t need to read the acknowledgments, index, or bibliography. But I do have to read everything else. In college this past spring, for example, I probably read about 300 pages out of a book, yet I did not add it to my list because I didn’t read the whole thing.

2) The book has to have at least 40 pages.

I’ve upped this twice. When I first made the list back in 1989 (with about 100 books listed), I didn’t care how few pages a book had; if it was a book, I counted it. Then, sometime in the mid-1990s, I decided the book had to have 32 pages. This forced me to remove dozens of books that are just too easy. I don’t think a book that has fewer pages than a phone bill and fewer words than this sentence should rightly count towards my goal. Then, just a few months ago, I upped the minimum to 40 pages as, once again, I felt there were too many easy books on the list. Also, I had read several brochures that were 32 pages, and I didn’t think they shouldn’t count, either.

3) No books for little kids.

As I’ve stated, this includes not just super-easy board books, but other books for the very young, too, such as nearly all titles by Dr. Seuss, and books like Where the Wild Things Are and Harold and the Purple Crayon. They’re great books, don’t get me wrong, they’re just too simple. I wish this wasn’t such an arbitrary rule, but I don’t know how to improve it. I mean, Owen and I just finished reading Henry and Ribsy, and I counted that book. After all, it had over 200 pages and thousands of words…but where do I draw the line? It’s tough.

4) Don’t count any book more than once

Of course, there are several books I’ve read two, three, or more times. But no book can count more than once. If I read an updated version of a book, I do amend the title and number of pages on my list as appropriate, but it still only counts as one book.

So, yeah, anyways…I’m at 800 now. If I keep up my current pace of approximately 45 books a year, I should meet my ultimate goal sometime in 2016.

Unless I change the page number rule again.

And finally, I am in favor of using the Oxford comma. It seems natural, logical. When I was in elementary school, I just assumed everyone used it and I had to unlearn using it. I’m pleased to see it’s making a comeback.

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2 Responses to 800 Books

  1. David says:

    I may have already mentioned this, but I know a guy who doesn’t own a TV. I admit this is somewhat remarkable, but what makes his case stand out is that he mentions it every time we talk (on a personal level — we’ve had work conversations that didn’t include this fact). What’s more, this guy touts a pretty good memory, yet he introduces this little tidbit each time as if he hadn’t already said it twenty or so times before. Your partial review of the Billy Joel book reminded me of him. :)

    I like it when you point out these errors in print books. While it’s not always the argument, it seems that many discussions about the accuracy of internet sources (such as Wikipedia) treat print books as if they are, somehow, immune from error.

    I wonder, though, are there different definitions for autumn? I, for one, don’t find the calendar dates for the seasons to be very useful at all. St. Patrick’s Day a winter holiday? Come on. School starts in the Summer? No way!

  2. James says:

    Good point about the print vs. electronic sources. I have a 40-page list that substantiates your claim.

    There must be different definitions for “autumn.” It seems to me that going by the equinoxes and solstices puts each season’s commencement approximately one month after it seems like it ‘should’ have started. My birthday, for example, is on June 11th, yet I don’t think of it as a spring birthday. And no one thinks of mid-December when talking about fall weather. To me, the statement in the book isn’t so much wrong as it’s just plain lazy. Since early September is often treated as if it is autumn, even though it’s technically summer, Marling should have been more discerning in her word choice.

    I hadn’t heard your story of the non-TV co-worker before. He must wear it like a badge of honor, kind of how I mention I own a Chevy Cavalier every chance I get.

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