Yes, I Abandoned the Modern Library 100 Reading Project

Last year, I started reading all of the books on the Modern Library 100. I wanted to slog through all of the books because it:

  • Gave me a goal that would keep me focused.
  • Was a good way to learn more about the writers that influenced some of my favorite living writers.
  • Would force me to finish some of the most popularly difficult books in modernist literature.

I think I was right about these things. But I didn’t know what I was getting into.

Recent Writing Has More Value to Me

Most importantly, I hadn’t fully considered how sticking to a list would make it impossible for me to read other books. It meant that I wouldn’t read any non-fiction for two years. Over the last few months, I’ve read Black Against Empire and What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia. They reminded me that non-fiction needs to play a role in the life of anyone interested in writing accurately.

I also didn’t realize how much the bigotry discussed in modernist books would make me feel. Obviously, Heart of Darkness was going to say some things that I wouldn’t like. That’s okay, because confronting bigotted thinking and imperialism are also crucial.

Humans Are Disgusting Creatures, In Case You Didn’t Know

I might have made a mistake by reading The Sun Also Rises and The Naked and the Dead too close together. They’re probably accurate portrayals of life. They’re also depressing as hell. I came away from The Naked and the Dead wondering why the U.S. even got involved in WWII, other than being pissed off that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Most of the soldiers in that book would have happily picked up guns to patrol a concentration camp. They didn’t even pretend to hide their contempt for a Jewish soldier fighting alongside them.

Again, that’s probably accurate. But it made me dread picking up the book every night.

I have a hard time understanding why anyone really cares about The Sun Also Rises. Maybe it makes sense in a historical context. Reading it now, though, I don’t see why the writing stood out so much to people.

Then there’s the actual content. Staying as drunk as possible is an understandable reaction to a world war. A lot of the characters were living with PTSD. No faulting them there. Constantly hating on a Jewish guy, though? Yep, probably accurate. I don’t doubt that a lot of people responded like that. It’s also disgusting, and Hemingway doesn’t really address it in that way.

Plus, fuck Hemingway for making bullfighting seem like anything less than grotesque. How is it beautiful or heroic to kill a bull that’s already been stabbed multiple times? Take off your fancy clothes and go at it animal-to-animal if you want anything close to respect. I’ll allow you a knife since bulls come equipped with bulk and horns. Outside of that, it’s time for you to admit that you’re a lesser creature that must cheat to win. And you do it for pleasure instead of necessity.

Luckily, it was a short read that I could get away from quickly.

Going Forward

I don’t shy away from difficult topics. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have picked up Black Against Empire. Reading from the Modern Library 100, though, I almost always got the oppressor’s perspective. What did I expect from those writers? I should have known better.

I’ve gone back to my regular approach to reading. Pick up what seems interesting. Support living writers. Learn from the oppressed instead of the oppressor. Try to buy books from Amazon as little as possible, even though I will impulse buy used sci-fi more often than I should.

 

Nick Cave &TBS Almost Had the Best Album of 2019

Like a lot of Nick Cave fans, I could barely wait for the release of Ghosteenthe final album in a trilogy focused on synthesizers, sparse arrangements that become complex upon layering and repetition, and unbelievable loss.

I listened to Ghosteen on the day of its digital release. I waited at least a month for a physical copy to arrive from England. Its fantasy cover promising a biblical hope that one day the lamb and the lion will lie together in peace. By extension, perhaps we will all find peace. Maybe even a unicorn, which seems just as likely.

Having the two records helped solidify something I had felt since first hearing Ghosteen. Even though its emotional resonance has made me cry repeatedly over a few months; even though Cave pushes his voice into registers I didn’t think he could reach; even though creating the music must have required a physical endurance only achievable through a devotion that we can’t help but reserve for the dead. Even though all of these things, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have done better.

I don’t hesitate when I say that Skeleton Key and Push the Sky Away are better albums.

And there’s one reason that Ghosteen falls short: the band should have split the release into two completely separate albums.

Part 1 of Ghosteen doesn’t contain a bad song. Each has its own lyrical or musical significance. I’m exactly the kind of sucker with enough trust in Cave to believe that “Bright Horses” offers more than symbolism. If Part 1 falls short, it’s only in relation to Cave’s canon. He has written so many great songs that extremely good songs sound so-so in comparison. Compare your least favorite song on Part 1 to the best work of just about any other living songwriter, and you’ll realize that Cave has a work ethic, talent, and devotion to his muse that should embarrass you.

But none of those features makes Ghosteen Part 1 the best album of 2019. The songs feel too familiar. The best album of 2019 cannot sound like the best album of 2016, when NC&TBS released Skeleton Key. There are too many similarities holding it back.

Part 2 deviates so strongly that it deserves its own release. Cave pushes “Ghosteen” beyond the 12-minute mark; provides a brief interlude that I guess you could call spoken word; and returns with “Hollywood” for more than 14 minutes of sustained, marred optimism fueled by the promise of universal pain and death’s eventual relief.

With nearly half an hour of music, Cave could have justified Part 2 as an independent release. And it would have hit unprepared listeners with hard-earned maturity that makes you rethink your role in the world and tells you without reservation that you do not pour enough work into your love.

Part 1 prepped our ears for the sonic and emotional depths of Part 2. I wish it had not.

Kisa knew that her baby was going to die soon. Death rarely gives us that warning. When it does, it only prolongs suffering. Part 1 was like the palliative action of pointlessly visiting the homes of people who have also suffered from loss. I would have preferred the immediate, jarring smack of Part 2’s truth.

I want to say that Cave missed an opportunity. But if I trust that his burning horses are real, I have to also trust that Part 1 and Part 2 exist together for a reason. I have to trust the greater maturity and sensibility of Cave no matter how much I disagree with his decision today.

About Berman

I’m sad.

I think we’re lucky we got what we got from the man.

I think we’re lucky, but we needed more. Like, a whole lot more.

You were a person, I bet.

I meet so many pretend people.

I never felt like you were pretend.

I wore a friend out on American Water while driving from Louisville to San Diego. I may have ruined it for him for life.

But we needed more, and he had a lot left to give.

We were all, especially him, denied.

The-Natural-Bridge

Month 3 – The Modern Library 100 Reading Project

This is Part 3 of my Modern Library 100 Reading Project

Among my friends and relatives, it’s well known that I hate the heat. I used to break out in some kind of rash or welts or something until I was in my mid-20s. Thankfully, that period has passed.

This July, however, was a scorcher. All I wanted to do was hide indoors, play Willie Nelson quietly on my guitar, and drink beers at near-ice temps. I dream of moving my office into the basement. But who am I kidding? The window unit will have to do.

Because of my heat hatred, most of my summer energy goes toward gardening and withstanding the kitchen at Flora Kitchenette, where I cook a couple of days a week.

None of these things, particularly the beer consumption, contributes to prolific reading. And so I have what seems to me a rather pathetic stack of books for July that includes:

  • Animal Farm, George Orwell
  • 1984, George Orwell
  • Sons and Lovers, D.H. Lawrence*
  • Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
  • Deliverance, James Dickey*

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Yep. That’s them. In no particularly order, apparently.

Hey, five books ain’t so bad! You might think. Except that it takes maybe 2 hours to get through Animal Farm, which I find it difficult to call a novel. You wrote a fairly long allegory there, Mr. Blair.

Wide Sargasso Sea is <200 pages.

1984 is a breeze, too.

Give Yourself Some Credit!

To my credit, I have never read a D.H. Lawrence book. That seems impossible, but I’m 90% certain that it’s true.

The first 100ish pages of Sons and Lovers took me a long while to get through because I had to focus so much on deciphering the dialect. 19th-century colliers didn’t care about 21st-century readers. Bunch of bastards.

Once Walter became less central to the book, my reading picked up speed. His children and wife speak mostly like modern English speakers.

I almost read Women in Love immediately after finishing Sons and Lovers. Something made me pause.

Soon, though.

Biggest Surprise of July’s Reading: Deliverance

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An exceptional cover design from a 1970 (first?) print

I’ve seen the movie Deliverance a few times, so I knew what to expect going into the book.

It’s one of those odd instances when I wouldn’t say that the novel stands far above the movie. Each has its merits. That probably has something to do with Dickey writing the screenplay.

The most shocking moment didn’t come when Bobby gets raped or Drew dies or Ed climbs an insurmountable cliff to kill what I believe is probably a random guy out on an illegal deer hunt (but who knows).

Don’t give me any business about spoilers. The books 49 years old and the movie’s not much younger.

The biggest surprise was that the “Squeal like a pig” part never happens. Ole’ Bobby gets raped, but no one tells him to “Squeal like a pig,” nor does Dickey describe his screams as squealing or piglike.

I kept expecting it, but it never came.

The book and movie are equally wonderful works. We should consider them companion pieces.

I Sleep Nightly by Finnegans Wake

To my knowledge, Finnegans Wake is the most feared and looming book on the Modern Library 100 list.

I took a class that focused on Ulysses all semester long. The professor spoke knowledgeably about the book. He had built his career on taking Western novels seriously. As his last class, though, he wanted to teach Ulysses. He had thought deeply about the book, and understood it to a degree that I’ve yet to find in a reader’s guide.

He always wanted us to find joy in the book, so he didn’t give us difficult assignments. He was very much a “yes” person, or at least he inspired us to become “yes” readers.

I wrote my final paper on having dinner with a fellow student I wanted to have sex with. I justified the attempt by imitating prose styles found throughout the book and saying, basically, “Look at all of the sexual longing involved in the events of this day!”

I received an “A.”

I wish I had a copy of that story. Did the man scoff at but enjoy my attempt? Did he scribble “A” on all of the papers without reading them (perhaps while preparing a Scotch to drink whilst reading Joyce)? Did he find my writing amusing, at least? Did he find “amusing” writing odious and insincere?

Who knows? I don’t have a copy, and the man has probably died since. 

My professor dreamed of reading Finnegans Wake during his retirement. I believe he wanted to take a serious stab at it. He wanted to know the book at least as well as we know most of the books that we read.

And he waited for retirement to take the time.

Finnegans Wake sits on my bedside table. It’s one of a dozenish books. Its thickness, name, and author give it so much mental weight.

I’ve read the first few pages and I have no idea.

I plan on waiting until the end of next year, but I’m not waiting much longer than that.

What’s Left?

A whole lot!

I haven’t counted, but I think I’m 15 in. A couple of the Modern Library’s entries are series, though, and I have no idea how long they are.

I just want the days to get shorter and cooler so I can think straight and feel energetic, again.

*Indicates first time I’ve read the book.

 

Month 2 – The Modern Library 100 Reading Project

During June, I finished:

  • The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
  • Lord of the Flies, William Golding*
  • The Call of the Wild, Jack London
  • Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  • The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer*

Common Themes in a Diverse Selection of Books

Although I picked these books as randomly as possible, I noticed some common themes in them. The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, Invisible Man, and The Naked and the Dead are all, to some extent, about young men confronted with a reality that they did not expect.

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Holden gets abandoned by his mother and father, who ship him to boarding schools after his younger brother dies.

All of the children in Lord of the Flies face madness, responsibility, tribalism, threats of death, and actual death in a few cases.

The soldiers in The Naked and the Dead have been thrust into a war that has nothing to do with them. They spend most days sweating in intense heat. At night, the huddle against each other for warmth in chilling rain. Like Lord of the Flies, there’s also the responsibility, tribalism, madness, and just loads upon loads of death.

Invisible Man, I think, is primarily about change. The book’s beauty comes from Ellison’s uses every opportunity to add a new voice. You get the voice of a young black man in college; the voice of that same man as he struggles to make his way in Harlem; yet another voice from that man as he finds authority; and another voice from the man once he embraces his invisibility. He couldn’t have anticipated any of the events that happen to him, but he adjusts to the changing realities as they come.

Let’s Add the Dog, Too, Because He Deserves It

If you accept Buck as a young man instead of a dog, then you can find the same themes in Call of the Wild. I can’t imagine denying that Buck has the same level of consciousness as humans. London gives Buck such a wonderful capacity for thought, cunning, strength, and emotion that you could easily mistake the narrative as one from a person.

On to Month Three

I don’t plan to write much here about the books I read, but I will comment on some things that strike me. What I mean to say is that you shouldn’t expect any book reports from me. Then again, I don’t want post lists without any context or content.

Seeing as how we’re already a week into July, I’ve started month three’s books. So far, I’ve finished 1984 and piked up The Age of Innocense and Women in Love. More on that in a few weeks.

Until then, keep reading.

*Indicates the first time I’ve read the book.

The Modern Library100 Best Novels Reading List by Month (updated June)

Here are the books on the Modern Library’s list of 100 Best Novels that I’ve finished, by month.

Why am I telling you this? Go here to find out, because I’m not explaining it again.

2019

May

  • Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
  • Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
  • Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson*
  • The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
  • Ironweed, William Kennedy

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It’s a small stack, but it will grow quickly.

June

  • The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
  • Lord of the Flies, William Golding*
  • The Call of the Wild, Jack London
  • Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  • The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer*

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*Indicates the first time I’ve read the book.

The Modern 100 Reading Project

low angle view of tower books

Last April, I looked at the Modern Library’s list of 100 best novels and realized that I’ve only read about 30% of them. I didn’t even recognize some of the titles and authors on the list.

It feels strange to spend so much time writing when I don’t know the work of authors that have, undoubtedly even if indirectly, influenced me.

So, I got the idea in my head that I would read all 100 books. Many of the books that I’ve read, I haven’t look at since college, two decades ago. Those include some of my favorite novels like Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury, 1984, and A Clockwork Orange.

I’m including them because I’m a different reader today than I was in my teens and 20s. I want to absorb them, find out how I feel now that I’ve spent more than 20 years writing fiction and non-fiction. Who knows how it will go.

The Rules (May They Please Not Be the Death of Me)

I don’t want to walk away from newly published books for too long. And I know that they will tempt me.

To avoid becoming some kind of hermit who refuses to participate with contemporary books, I’m setting a time limit that I hope will not a) kill me or b) make me hate reading.

With that said, it’s an ambitious schedule for someone who doesn’t see the point of speed reading novels that should bring pleasure to their audiences.

Here are the basic goals that I’ve set for myself:

  1. Finish all novels by the end of May 2021 (that gives me a month’s wiggle room since I started the reading project at the beginning of this May (2019)).
  2. I can skip around and read whichever books appeal to me at the moment. I don’t agree with the Modern Library’s list order. I also think that reading some of these books in a row would kill my desire to finish the project. I need the weight of momentum to keep me going. I loved Ulysses the one time that I read it, but reading it took a lot of time and effort. Starting with it would likely end the project. If I’ve read 50% of the books on the list, though, I’ll feel obligated to get through books like The Great Gatsby (I didn’t care for it the two times I read it) or, shudder, Finnegan’s Wake (the literature professor I read Ulysses with planned to read Finnegan’s Wake in his retirement, and even he was unsure whether he could get through it).
  3. Keep a journal of my experiences reading the books. Ideally, the reading project will turn into a writing project. Standing here at the beginning, I have no idea how that will go. It could end up like Ammon Shea’s Reading the OED (I did this so you don’t have to) or Heidi Julavits’s The Folded Clock (here are the things that happened during this period of my life) or something different that I can’t foresee.
  4. At the very least, publish monthly updates on my progress right here on the blog. I’m not committing to a specific schedule because I’ll buy most of these books used when I run into them.

Read Along and Share the Joy/Misery to Come

If you care to join me, these are the books I completed in May:

  • Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
  • Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
  • Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson
  • The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
  • Ironweed, William Kennedy

Yes, I’m aware that I need to pick up speed. May is a long month. I should have finished at least six books. In my defense, I’m very near the end of The Naked and the Dead.

Wish me luck.

 

 

Going Low-Tech for More Flexible, Fulfilling Schedules

If you’re going to work as a freelance writer, you need to learn how to manage time well. I don’t have a boss who stops by my desk throughout the day to make sure I’m on task. I have to take responsibility for meeting deadlines.

I’m Done With These Disappointing Management Apps

Over the last decade-plus that I’ve managed my clients and projects, I’ve tried several productivity apps. You may have tried them, too, since many of them promise to organize your life for little or no money.

Apps that come to mind include:

  • ToDoist
  • Evernote
  • Asana

None of these have impressed me. ToDoist has a habit of rewarding me for tasks that I completed weeks ago. That’s more annoying than motivating.

Evernote made it easy to record ideas quickly, but I couldn’t access the features I wanted without paying a membership fee. It didn’t feel like it was worth $8 per month.

I recently tried to work with a client that used Asana. I hated it from the beginning because the excessive notifications only wasted my time.

Also, people often used the platform to link to Google Documents. I didn’t see the point. If I can’t add documents within the app, then why do I want to use the app at all?

Asana was the proverbial straw. After that, I decided to go low-tech. Apps weren’t helping. Maybe something basic would.

Making an Ideal Schedule (And Trying to Follow It)

Laura Vanderkam’s podcast Before Breakfast introduced me to the idea of making ideal schedules for the day, week, and month.

On Friday evening, I dutifully sat down at my desk, opened a notebook, and wrote down what I wanted to accomplish the following week. I don’t know exactly what my workload will look like next week, but I’ve been writing long enough to approximate how many projects will come my way.

My ideal weekly schedule included items for my personal goals, relationships, and career goals. Under personal goals I jotted:

  • Finish reading Blood Meridian.
  • Brew some beer with my brother.
  • Get some seedlings started for this year’s garden.
  • Go downtown to update my (already late) car registration.

Under career, I had:

  • Write fiction at a cafe with friends.
  • Volunteer at the Nature Center.
  • Communicate with new client.

After that, I had a bunch of blank pages that I could fill out as assignments came in.

The relationship section included things like:

  • Going to see a play with my wife.
  • Seeing a movie with an old friend.
  • Having dinner with my parents.

I liked the idea of creating an ideal schedule. I looked at my notebook, thinking about how I could organize my week to accomplish all of these things.

Then the week happened, and my plans went awry. My friend’s kid got sick, so we didn’t see the movie. I didn’t have the time or willpower to go downtown. Blood Meridian’s gruesomeness wore on me so much that could only slog through 20 or so pages a day.

When it came to work, I discovered that I experience more interruptions than I thought. Deadlines change; clients want to increase word counts; editors forget to confirm completed tasks.

I learned a lot by making an ideal schedule. It’s a technique that I still use. Now, though, I take a more flexible approach.

Making the Ideal More Flexible

When I write schedules in a notebook, everything turns into a mess. Looking over the pages now, I see why I stopped using the notebook. I also why I adopted a new system that made it easier for me to add flexibility to my schedule.

My new approach to time and project management consists of a metal board and magnetic stickers.

Each Friday, I arrange next week’s stickers on the metal board. As things change, I move the stickers to new positions.

Someone cancels a project? No big deal. I just wipe off the sticker.

I don’t have time to make it to the gym today? OK, then I’ll move the “gym” sticker to tomorrow morning.

Sure, I could do this with most project management apps. This way, though, I have a physical reminder of what I want to accomplish. I also have an adjustable map that shows me how to get where I want to go. It hangs on my office wall, so I can’t ignore it. It forces me to find a new time slot when I don’t finish a task.

Metal and magnets are holding me more accountable than apps ever did. And I don’t have the frustrating of trying to read a messy notebook.

I love technology, but I’m managing myself in the most low-tech way I could find. So far, it has given me great results. I might even get my car registered this week.

 

I Made a Shaker Style Coffee Table

Last Tuesday, I finished my first class at the Ted Harlan Woodworking School. I’ve never built a piece of furniture before, but Ted and his assistant Sean (Shawn, maybe) walked the class through everything from using a bandsaw to reduce tension in wood (there’s totally a joke in there that I don’t feel like making) to flattening surfaces with handplanes.

Before taking Ted’s introductory class, I didn’t even know the difference between a bandsaw and a jigsaw.

Despite not knowing much of anything, the table turned out pretty nice.

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I’m not good at taking pictures and my house is messy, but the table looks great.

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A better view of the tabletop. Also, a better view of all the crap sitting on my guitar amp.

Next, I’m going to take Ted’s jewelry box class, where he teaches how to execute a dovetail joint and further explores the use of handplanes. 

New hobby found!