Starting in 9th grade I made a challenge to myself to read all of Modern Library’s list of the 100 greatest novels of all time. Before boring you with the details from high school, I just let you know that I fizzled out sometime before Halloween that year. Too many of the books were snooze-fests and I really dislike Jane Austin. I like having pride and prejudice but I certainly don’t want to read it.
For this reason, I don’t read a lot of fiction. I fall into that lower-middle class white male grouping of liking historic biographies and books about boxers. The rare piece of fiction that crosses my desk is usually something highly recommended by a friend or reviewer or something tied into a movie. Case in point, Richard Matheson’s I am Legend. I figured after having my heart ripped out by watching Will Smith kill his dog, I might as well read the original text.
Culturally, I have lashed out against fiction with the creation of pop literature: specifically, the rise of the Harry Potter and Twilight series. To be fair, I have never read any of the books and only have seen one of the Harry Potter movies. That is not to say that I am ignorant of some of the characters but I would rather spend the afternoon staring into the sun than reading about Bella and Edward. The context of these books is not about wizards and werewolves but rather the backdrop for teens to explore their world through very real relationship development. The element of fantasy opens up a larger audience and has probably served as an introduction to reading the same way The Hardy Boys did for me.
While working at The Tavernacle, I saw the importance of having introductory books for people. The weekend karaoke DJ and his wife were admittedly not big readers but discovered the Harry Potter series. Starting at the first novel, they plowed through the series and ended up in line waiting for the last book to hit the shelves. For the outside, it was exciting to observe how invested they became in the story and took ownership of Harry and his friends. My eyes might have been slot machines rolling in the back of my head but I didn’t discount their moment where they realized that books held more important information than what songs could be requested.
I was genuinely happy for them when they finished the Harry Potter books and tried other books off the library shelves.
June 16th is Bloomsday. It commemorates James Joyce’s protagonist’s day in the novel Ulysses. Ulysses is generally referenced as the greatest book in the English language and I want to agree. Once a year around Bloomsday in an effort to finish this monstrosity, I’ve started and put down Ulysses. I own about a baker’s dozen of this book. I figure around the end of April that if I buy a new copy, I’ll be more inclined to finish it. No such luck. The problem is (and this is not the part where you say, “Benny, you’re a really smart guy. I know you can do it.”) I don’t understand a fucking thing that is happening in it. It starts with him brushing his teeth in the morning and around page 63 I am ready to watch SportsCenter.
I made finishing this book one of my New Year’s resolutions. Also made losing 15-pounds a resolution and reading is a lot easier than dieting. You’d think I would throw myself into Joyce’s existential tome but I think I am more inclined to hit the gym and cut back on deep-fried foods. I actually considered thought of starting a temporary book club for the purpose of completing Joyce’s Ulysses. If you’re interested, please meet me at Sugarhouse Pub on Tuesdays around 10pm.
I was listening to podcast last week and the guest was the writer Chuck Klosterman. He was commenting that the vast majority of shows on television these days are fantastic. There seemed to be a switch that was thrown around the time The Sopranos came on television where shows became good. From Mad Men to The Walking Dead to Justified to the king daddy of them all, The Wire, premium and basic cable have started putting out programs that are better than anything I saw during the 1990s. His point is that television is overtaking books as the medium for great storytelling. Those water cooler moments that stereotypically define the workplace used to be places to discuss things we have read but recently, there is a shift in that TV is becoming our storyteller. Shows like Friday Night Lights to Homeland to The Good Wife are the rule as oppose to the exception is the quality of content.
None of this rings truer than Lost. Holy mackerel was this a good show. Trapped on an island after a plane crash, the ensemble characters tell a story of survival through flashbacks and discoveries on the mysterious island. It had elements of science fiction mixed in with melodramatic and a swashbuckling atmosphere but mostly, it was just beautiful to watch. They filmed it in the greenest parts of Hawaii, they casted it with handsome people and they had storylines that seemed to miraculously intertwine with each other. But even more important than that, it was really fun to watch. So much fun that I would regular attend a Lost party with friends and drink beer and share conspiracy stories during the weekly program.
Lost was notorious about having what I would call a “set-up” episode. It would be a slow-burning 60 minutes of the various characters talking about things that would have a big payoff in a future episode. These episodes were very unsatisfying but were accepted because there was a promise of some holy shit moment later in the season. Because Lost delivered on so many of these set-up episodes they became a necessary evil and begrudgingly recognized as a down payment for an upcoming holy mackerel moment.
The point made by Klosterman was that we totally accept having a set-up episode for television but are apt to put the book down the moment becomes dry. Pop literature doesn’t have the slow-burn necessary for a great story. They start out like a bullet fired out of a rifle and never stop moving until it hits the last page. Television, ironically, has been given the liberty to explore deeper subjects and character development where books do not. It’s funny to think that if one produced a TV show on Moby Dick and told it over 13-episodes from the perspective of the whale that it would probably be better received than a re-release of Melville’s novel.
I bring all of this up because I am about halfway through the best book that I have read in a very long time. It is Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. Without stepping on the book too much, it is about a kid who plays shortstop for a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. It is absolutely fantastic. It is light, earthy and fast paced. The characters are complex and compelling and simply wonderful. If there was ever a reason to go on the wagon for a week or two, it is to hurry home from work and read until dawn Harbach’s magnificent novel.
I bought the book as a needed break from all of the lower-middle class white male non-fiction books I have been plowing through. The only thing that I knew about The Art of Fielding is it was about baseball but much like all great stories, baseball is merely the backdrop. I forget what a great piece of modern fiction looks like and Harbach’s reminds me of being young and trying to finish the Modern Library’s 100 great novels. I don’t think it deserves a place on this list yet but it will certainly be entering my ranks as a top 100.
We are very quick to tell a friend or co-worker about a great moment on television from the night before but less likely to turn somebody on to a great book they are reading. This isn’t one of these high-horsed comments about not liking television. For the record, I love television. Because of my work schedule, starting around 5pm on Sunday, I usually watch 9-hours worth with little to no guilt. There is not a single more obnoxious person on the planet that says, “Oh, I don’t own a TV” but watches Netflix on their iPad. These hypocritical pukes are the reason why there is becoming a dividing line between watchers and readers. We are taking in our entertainment from multiple sources and whether or not you are watching Don Draper on your phone, tablet or 42’ flat screen, you are still watching TV.
This is my water cooler moment. Go buy Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. You could wait for this book to become a movie (I guarantee it has already been optioned) but I don’t think there is a person who wouldn’t get as invested in this book as I have from the first page.
Moreover, it is considerably easier than Ulyssses.
Ben Raskin bartends at Keys On Main Wednesday through Saturday. Follow him on Twitter @BennyRaskin. Check out his podcast, Salt Lake City PubCast on iTunes. Become a fan of Raskin’s Rhetoric on Facebook. He listened to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on tape during a drive from Portland to SLC.