What we’re reading

I decided to get back to some fiction early in the year. My reading had been slowing down, and I'd been a little overwhelmed by life in general. Fiction always provides a nice respite, which in turn lets me relax in other aspects of my life, and now I'm all relaxed and ready as spring hits here in coastal Georgia.

Some recent reads:

Doomed by Chuck Palahniuk. Madison Spencer, who beat Satan at his own game in Damned, returns to the world of the living for her annual Halloween candy collection (candy bars are currency in Hell), but through some trickery on Satan's part, gets stuck for the year (if you're not back in Hell by midnight, see ya next year).

She had previously communicated to her Hollywood do-gooder parents that the way to Heaven was through general rudeness: cussing and flatulating cheerfully. She was kidding, of course, and now she faces an Earth full of joyfully disgusting humans, all doomed to Hell for their behavior, thanks to her. And she's back to fix it.

Palahniuk is the author of Fight Club and a pile of other books I love, and while this isn't among my favorites of his, it's definitely good for a few hours of escapism.

Not a Star by Nick Hornby. What happens when you're a middle class English mum and you come home to a DVD slipped through your mail slot, and the guy on the cover looks a lot like your son? What happens when you discover it is your son? What happens when the film on the DVD is pornographic?

Hornby is another one of my favorites (High Fidelity, A Long Way Down, others), and this novella from the Open Door series is great for a rainy day with a cup of coffee.

Bad Monkeys by Mike Ruff. I'm not sure how I've never heard of Ruff before (I mean, there's a quote on the book's cover from Christopher Moore), but this book is a twisted, paranoid look at the world. I don't even want to give much away, but if you think you're being watched, you probably are — but not by the government or your ex.

I've said too much.

4 lessons from Sherlock Holmes

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I used to love mystery novels as a child. I tore through Hardy Boys books, through Agatha Christie novels, and basically whatever I could get my hands on.

I spent much of this year reading The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Complete, as in Arthur Conan Doyle's novels and serials about the detective over a course of 60 years — he wrote about Holmes, mostly from the point of view of the narrator, Watson, a young doctor back from military service in Afghanistan, from 1867 to 1927.

Here are a few lessons, good and bad.

1. Be observant. Holmes gets most of his information from just paying attention to little details — the scuff on a sleeve, the mud on a boot, the ash from a cigar, the shape of a toe on a footprint. We'd all do well to be that observant, though maybe without bragging about it.

2. Do what you love. Holmes rarely takes money, other than expenses, for handling a private case, and typically lets police take credit for crimes solved. He does the work for the love of a challenge.

3. Be better to your friends. Holmes abuses the hell out of Watson. He once let the doctor think he was dead for several years. Other times, he tricked him into playing a part in solving the crime, putting the work above his friend. I can only guess Watson sticks by Holmes because Doyle needs him, and this is fiction, after all.

4. Be better to your readers. One thing I remember loving about mysteries as a child is the whodunit aspect — I got to play along and see if I could solve it. But Holmes often has some crucial piece of information the reader only finds out at the reveal. We never really get to play along; we just get to wait and see how it ends.

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Book meme: Would you rather…

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Some light reading for a recent Thursday afternoon

Well, I don't usually respond to memes, but I like me some books, so thanks, Mitch, for the tag and getting me back to thinking about books. I think the last time I responded to a meme, it was also about books. And like that time, I'm not going to tag anyone, but if you're looking for blogging ideas, by all means...

Here we go, then.

Would you rather only read trilogies or only read standalones?

I think trilogies are lazy, either on the part of the author, or the part of the reader. I enjoy series, and I enjoy recurring characters — I'm nearly through the complete collection of Sherlock Holmes books, and I enjoy Agatha Christie's Poirot books and Anne Rice's vampire series, but a trilogy would come out to roughly 1,000 pages, usually, and I think that's a fine length for a single book.

Putting out three books of 300-ish pages instead of a single 1,000-page book says to me you're either too scared to put that much work into a single product, or you think readers can't handle that much product, or you're an intermediary making extra money off someone's else's creative output. Or you're a reader who can't stand to think about picking up a big book (in the photo above, that brown hardcover in the center comes in at 1,125 pages, and the other books are there primarily for reference).

Would you rather only read male or female authors?

No, but I tend to read more male authors, for a couple of reasons. One is that we tend, as a species, to gravitate toward people who are more like us. As a male, I would naturally gravitate toward other males, particularly in my nonfiction reading. Also, since a lot of nonfiction I'm reading is on Freemasonry and you have to be male to be a Freemason, it stands to reason most books I'm reading on the subject are authored by men.

Would you rather shop at Barnes and Noble or Amazon?

I would rather browse at Barnes & Noble and buy at Amazon; I really like the "other people bought" feature of online shopping, and Amazon does it well. I'd rather browse and shop at an independent bookshop, preferably used, but hey, when the meme hands you a dichotomy...

Would you rather books were made into TV shows or movies?

I don't care. It takes the average person more like 8 or 10 hours to read a book than the 2 or 3 hours a movie can take up, or the 23 hours or so a moderately successful TV show can cover over 2-3 seasons. So, whatever. This is about books, and I like books.

Would you rather read only five pages per day or five books per week?

I'd rather read five pages a day, think about them, discuss them and incorporate the information into my life. If I read five books a week consistently, I'd be even more of a hermit than I already am.

More: 3 places to get free books »

Would you rather be a professional author or reviewer?

They're the same thing. I've been a reviewer. You have to write stuff, and you get paid to do so. That makes you a professional author. That said, given the opportunity, I'd rather be the reviewed than the reviewer. I've come to recognize that as a reviewer, you hold the power to make someone feel really bad about themselves for putting hundreds of hours of creativity and hard work into something. It's a power that's easily abused.

Would you rather be a librarian or a bookseller?

A bookseller, maybe. I'd rather not be either, truth be told, but some people have to go to a library. People self-select to walk into a shop, and as an independent bookseller, interesting people tend to go out of their way to walk into your shop.

Would you rather read only your favorite genre, or every other genre but your favorite?

I can't handle the false dichotomy here. If you ever limited what I could read, I'd probably stop reading altogether. Part of the glory of it is the freedom to read whatever I want.

Would you rather only read ebooks or physical books?

I read both, and also listen to audiobooks. When I first read an ebook, I was surprised to have enjoyed the ebook format, but noted that I also really like the way the weight shifts from heavy in the right hand to heavy in the left hand as you move through a physical book. At this point, though, I tend to have at least one of each format going, and often more.

I go to bed late — after 3 a.m. many nights — and the light from my iPad is much less shocking to my already-sleeping wife than if I walked in and turned on my bedside lamp. I also have the benefit of being able to read a really thick book on the iPad without having to worry about dropping a 1,000-page hardcover on my face as I doze.

I'm also a big fan of audiobooks. Now that my runs are crossing the hour threshold three times a week, it's easy to work through an audiobook every couple of weeks during a time I definitely wouldn't be able to read.

Get smarter: 3 places to get free books!

I've been reading all the Sherlock Holmes books this year. A couple of pages a night, just about every night before bed. The books are easy to read, entertaining, a good transition from the day. It will take me the bulk of the year to finish. I'm sure there will be a post when I'm done.

That's not all I'm reading, of course. But rather than spending hundreds of dollars a year on books that sometimes sit on the shelf for years, I've become a fan of discovering interesting free stuff. Here are some great places to find free books.

Project Gutenberg

Project Gutenberg is named after Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of moveable type. They're approaching 50,000 ebooks available in several formats, and they have some audiobooks as well — some of which are auto-generated from the texts.

LibriVox

LibriVox, as the name suggests, is free audiobooks, read by volunteers. All the books are public domain. Some of the readings are dramatic, some are funny, and some are collective. I listened to James Joyce's Ulysses, and each chapter was read by a different volunteer. LibriVox has a mobile app, too, and offers its titles for download. I was in the car for five hours on Saturday, and listened to a bunch of Gulliver's Travels, which I'd never read.

Open Culture

Open Culture is something else entirely. The have fewer titles, and often they'll link out to other sources. But you can spend hours perusing ebooks, textbooks, language lessons, audiobooks and a variety of classes and films.

BONUS!

Did you know there's a single source to search public libraries? If you're looking for a specific title but don't have access to a good library catalog, WorldCat will find a copy near you. And if you're looking for the takeaways from great books, Maria Popova does an amazing job with Brain Pickings.

Now you just have to figure out what's next on your list!

How do you see a blank page?

Marc Maron spoke to Amber Tamblyn this week on his podcast (listen here). The actress has a new book of poetry, Dark Sparkler, out.

In the book, Tamblyn uses troubled and deceased child actresses as inspiration for poems (she herself began acting professionally as a preteen).

One notable moment in the podcast is when Maron opens the book to a poem dedicated to Lindsay Lohan, and finds nothing but a titled on an otherwise blank page. He finds it very pessimistic, but Tamblyn doesn't agree. She says she's not willing to impose anything on Lohan (though to be fair, putting her name on the page sure does impose something, it's just a bit more open to interpretation, I think).

While Maron looks at that blank page as pessimistic — empty, devoid — I feel very optimistic about it. There's still a chance to write a whole story there — and not only that, but a new story, leaving a past behind.

On the other hand, some of you will have read The Wit and Wisdom of Spiro T. Agnew or SEX after 60, which are famously blank for humorous reasons.

So, what is it? How do you see a blank page?

How to publish an ebook on Amazon

Something I did recently was this. I compiled some of my blog posts, edited them a bit, and put them together in an ebook to sell on Amazon. It's called Resolutions for the Rest of the Year, and is meant to give you the tools to set and accomplish goals now that most people have given up their New Year's resolution.

Almost as important to me as putting the book together (it's short; go ahead and give it a shot, why not?) was the process. Let me tell you how I did it, so that you can do it, too.

First, I redeemed a coupon I had for Scrivener, an amazing $40 piece of software (that's without the coupon). It makes it really easy to organize a book, and will help you compile it for pretty much any format — Kindle, iBooks, hard cover, soft cover, PDF — and provides you with a bunch of tools for proofing and organizing research and putting together keywords to embed in electronic versions.

Next, because it's such a complete piece of software, I took advantage of a special on a Udemy course on Scrivener (at this writing there's not a special, but almost 20 hours, it's still a deal at $169 for Mac or Windows).

Then I put the actual product together. If you're going to try this, be honest with your self and understand that the software's easy enough to learn, putting the product together is the hardest work.

I did some searching for royalty-free art to turn into a cover (feel free to pay for some, too), put the cover together, spelled a word wrong, went back and did the cover again, and thanked my eyes for catching that.

Next, I signed up for Kindle Direct Publishing, Amazon's Kindle publishing platform. It's a fairly simple process (it took about 15 minutes) to upload the book and cover, add some keywords, price it, confirm that I own the copyright on the book and click the submit button (which is the scariest part, but that was the goal of the whole project — pressing that submit button).

I sent that on a lunch break, about 2 a.m., and by the time I woke up about 10 a.m., I had a book on Amazon.

Your turn. Go!

The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss: Books that will change your life, and how to use them

Tim Ferriss is, by now, well-known for the 4-hour franchise. His first book, The 4-Hour Workweek, was famously rejected by dozens of publishers before becoming an overwhelming hit, having been translated into thirty-something languages (as of this writing) and sending a lot of people into entrepreneurship.

That book was basically a collection of productivity hacks for people with a product to sell, giving them the opportunity to cut down drastically on the amount of work they had to do while keeping their revenue streams up.

The message for me from The 4-Hour Workweek that sticks, though, is not the main message of the book, which is essentially how to get rich while other people handle the tough work for you. It’s that it’s an instruction manual for stuff that Ferriss tried himself, using his own business to experiment on.

And so we pick up Ferriss’ second book, The 4-Hour Body, a 600-page book about changing your body. Ferriss writes about losing fat and gaining muscle, both quickly and over the long term, including doing so while more or less ignoring every dieting “rule” you’ve ever heard. He writes about having better sex. He writes about supplementation (read: drugs). He draws from the experiments he’s performed on himself (and a few other willing subjects).

That brings us to the punchline, about how this book really does change your life.

The takeaway: It’s OK to experiment on yourself.

Sure, it’s nice to have a physician available, especially if you don’t understand the chemistry at play in your body and in certain drugs. And if you are trying new stuff for the first time, having an urgent care or emergency medical facility nearby is a good thing (and maybe you want to have a ride available, just in case). But to be honest, while the body can be a fragile thing, it’s also really resilient, and it lets you know when you’re taking it too far through pain or other reactions (like swelling, for example).

But in general, you should really learn to be comfortable trying new things, and also observing how they affect you. This applies to food, activities, sleep and pretty much any part of life you want to apply it to.

To observe correctly, however, you must measure and document. Ferriss has done pretty much all the work for you. If you want to lose 2% body fat in two weeks, he’ll give you the shortcuts. If you want to put on 18 pounds tomorrow, he’ll let you know. But he also lets you know how to measure and document your progress, so you can see for yourself, and that’s the part of The 4-Hour Body that’s most interesting to me.

Why it’s important: It makes you the expert.

You don’t need a personal trainer, or a dietitian or a scientist. You record what you eat, you record how you feel, how it changes your weight, etc., and you do it again under the same conditions at another time to see if there were any extraneous factors (that is, to see if it’s replicable).

You would be the best expert on you, if you were to pay attention. And, the punchline here, is that you can extrapolate all you learn to other parts of life. The observation, data collection and other skills certainly translate outside of eating and running.

How to use it: Ferriss himself leaves instructions for how to use the book. Pick a couple of chapters that are relevant to you, and read those first. Utilize the tips. Do your experimenting. Then read the rest of the book if it’s interesting to you.

Intuition

I've just read two books back-to-back that largely teach about intuition. This wasn't intentional; I picked one ebook up while it happened to be free, and I just happened to be reading at it the same time I visited the library and picked out another book based solely on its title.

They both happened to be about the same thing, so maybe it was the universe just telling me I need to listen to my gut more.

The first was Trialogue by Colin Wright, still a deal at $2.99, by the way. It's about a small-town guy, working a dead-end job, generally being miserable, and then one day they're filming a movie in town.

The long and short of it is this: He manages to escape from his tedious life as part of the crew, thanks to the movie star. There's something sinister afoot, too, but I'll leave that bit to your reading. The important lesson here is that our protagonist does really well in the industry by listening to an internal voice tell him how these things work.

It's his intuition that directs him, and he chooses to listen to that and it helps.

OK, so that was a novel, but the other book I read recently was Mind Reader, by Lior Suchard, that guy up at the top irritating Jay Leno and freaking out Kim Kardashian.

He writes about intuition as well, and specifically about the appearance in the video – he was looking for something to do on the show that was different from his previous appearance, and a few days before the appearance he learned he would appear with Kim Kardashian and boom! his intuition gave him the answer.

The lesson here is listen to that voice inside you. It knows something.

Lessons in relativity

Last year, I did some reading in physics, notably enjoying Einstein's plain-English explanation of his Special Theory of Relativity. I'm a little scattered in my reading this year, but one thing I've come across is Bertrand Russell's ABCs of Relativity (free: PDF - audio).

Here are a couple of take-aways we can apply to everyday life.

Touch. Watching the dog sniff around, I know that he understands his world by smell. If he doesn't recognize a smell, he'll taste or touch, and if he can't figure out the origin of the smell, he'll look around for it. I've thought, though, that in the way that he understands his world by smell, we understand by sight. I was wrong. We understand by touch. A tiger doesn't appear dangerous if you don't know what torn flesh feels like, but once you know what that the touch brought by a tiger is dangerous, you only have to perceive a tiger is present to get the hell out of Dodge. You're unlikely to stick around until it bites you to find out if it's a hologram or even just an audio recording.

Similarly, we only understand a coffee table's utility because we touch it and place something upon it; if we merely see it, it's useless to us – it could just as easily be a reflection in a mirror if we don't touch it.

Your starting point is arbitrary. You can start from wherever you want, or more accurately, you can call your starting point whatever you want to call it. We generally start counting at 1, but we could start at 496 with the same consequence. If you're walking 15 yards, you can start at 0 and get arrive at 15 yards, or you can start at 7,236 yards and arrive at 7,251 yards and have traversed the same distance.

Apply this to your life; let's say you're broke and want to make $1,000,000. You can call your zero point $1,000,000 and have the goal of reaching $2,000,000, as long as you understand your scale in relation to the scale everyone else uses. That sounds like a useful self-confidence boost.

Simplifying: A lesson in beauty from The Art of War

Sun Tzu's The Art of War has long been a manual for field battle, and, for not quite as long, a manual for management in the business world and even sales. But reading it recently, this is what stood out to me:

7. There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.

8. There are not more than five primary colors (blue, yellow, red, white, and black), yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever been seen.

9. There are not more than five cardinal tastes (sour, acrid, salt, sweet, bitter), yet combinations of them yield more flavors than can ever be tasted

We have, of course, found notes beyond the pentatonic (though not many), and now understand white and black not as primary colors but as, respectively, the combination of all colors and the absence of all color.

But take this point to heart. All of the wonderful variety in life can be drilled down to a few basic attributes. When these simple attributes are combined in various ratios, we get all the beauty in the world. Start with small pieces, and let it grow.