I recently looked into the work of Austin Kleon. This Ohio-born young man writes, speaks and pontificates, and he seems to be effective in doing so. He has written three books that found favor with the New York Times, gets up on stage at conferences and urges his listeners and readers to be bold and creative—kind of like Austin Kleon. He’s a forward and innovative thinker. The top of his Twitter page (93,000 followers) features a banner with the repeated scrawl of a student who has written on a blackboard: “I will not finish books I don’t like.”
(Of course, there is a difference between Kleon’s snappy and rebellious line and what remorseful students had to do in my day. Chalk in hand, we were told by our teachers to write 50 or 100 times on the board that we would henceforth do something good [pay attention in class, turn our homework in on time] or no longer do something bad [throw spitballs, pull Suzy’s pigtails]).
A love of reading
A reader at heart, I found Kleon’s message compelling. He seems to say there are some books he begins and discards before reaching the end. For one reason or another, he decides he “doesn’t like” a book and out it goes. I have done the same a few times. Before proceeding, I must posit that I am careful and perhaps picky when it comes to buying books. This is done in two ways—electronically at Amazon.com and in person at Half Price Books in Austin and Dallas, Texas. Either way, I rudely scoff at most of what I see. One may pass initial muster but still fall short; that book is not going into RAP’s library.
Like the tobacco-chewing Nellie Fox, I do make mistakes. You surely remember that Fox, who had more than 9,200 at-bats in 19 seasons with the Philadelphia A’s, Chicago White Sox and Houston Astros, struck out just 216 times. I whiff, too. Sometimes I buy a book, start reading, struggle and/or get bored. In such cases, I concede defeat—or at least that I have made a poor choice—and unceremoniously toss it. I can think of three books in the last few years that went into the trash can: (1) a biography of Lafcadio Hearne (1850−1904), who wrote extensively about Japan and New Orleans, (2) a book on the Delphic Oracle of ancient Greece and (3) one on the so-called black legend, a body of historiography characterizing Spain and the Spanish empire as even more cruel and bigoted than their English, French and Dutch counterparts. In all three cases, I made a genuine, good-faith effort. But they were either too dense or too badly written or too biased or too specialized to hold my attention. I have read enough to know that not all books are thrilling from start to finish. I sometimes go more than 100 pages before finding myself in agreement with Kleon. If the author/editor/publisher is going to bore or frustrate me to such an extent, I have no obligation to mulishly plow on.
Most of the things I read take some degree of effort. I don’t mind embarking on a challenging eruditory project. Norman Davies’ 1,100-page book on European history certainly required fortitude, and the same can be said about Completely Queer / The Gay and Lesbian Encyclopedia (670 pages), one on Cambodian mega-killer Pol Pot, a biography of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, one on the history of Charleston, South Carolina, a tome on world slavery and more. For each of those, I had moments of wondering whether to continue. Kleon and I probably have different standards when it comes to deciding that we don’t like a book and are ready to chuck it.
Let me mention another three—biographies of Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman. All of these scientists were Jewish, far smarter and better educated than me. The books I read on them were for a general audience (yours truly) and considerably dumbed down. And yet I still could not begin to grasp much of what was being conveyed. Even vastly simplified and condensed descriptions of quantum physics, the behavior of subatomic particles, nanotechnology and the beginnings of the universe are well beyond my capabilities. I read those sections, but I admit I scanned them. I retained virtually nothing, even as I realized I should have a rudimentary grasp of such challenging matters. Remember, these were first and foremost biographies.
I am currently reading A People’s History of the Supreme Court (484 pages) by Peter Irons. Slow going, with all sorts of legal doctrines, concepts and terminology—defeasibility, common law, substantive vs. procedural due process, immune sovereignty and so forth. Try though I might, I cannot understand such stuff.
Murder mysteries and comic books
I have no regrets about reading books, parts of which go over my head. I’m a generalist, for goodness sake! I seek no one’s admiration or approval just because I do so; if anything, I am admitting my limitations. I refuse to think badly of a long-ago female friend in Austin who restricted her reading to murder mysteries or two Korean guys who have not the slightest interest in history and read only comic books. Both are intelligent people whom I truly respect, and the only thing they read is comic books.
Each, I suppose, to her or his own.