The blog of Chicago-based freelance writer David Johnsen.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Book Challenge 2009 Wrap-Up
Being a compulsive data compiler, I couldn't resist analyzing last year's book project.

Hardcover: 39
Paperback: 62

This is a bit of a surprise because I rarely buy new hardcover editions, but many of them were clearance items at Half Price Books that only cost me $1-2.

Books finished by month, based on the month reviewed (usually but not always the same as month read):

Jan: 10
Feb: 8
Mar: 6
Apr: 11
May: 9
Jun: 9
Jul: 8
Aug: 5
Sep: 9
Oct: 7
Nov: 8
Dec: 11 (including one book reviewed 01/01/2010)

Months don't really illustrate the distribution very well. Reviewing a bunch of books at the end of one month can make the next look bad, or reviewing several books at the beginning of a month can make the previous look bad. I should have recorded the day I finished each book, but it's not a big deal. From the above data, I also calculated that I finished 53 books in the first half of the year and 48 in the second half.

Books by subject/genre. I categorized each book myself, and many books are in multiple categories. For example, Harry Caray's book counts as a sports book and as a memoir.

Memoir: 22
Humor: 20
Music: 14
History: 9
Sports (football, pro cycling, baseball): 9
Political Science: 8
Current Events: 6
Trivia/Q&A: 6
Travel: 5
Science: 5
Weight Training: 5
Essays: 4
Writing: 4
Energy, Water, Chicago, Crime, Journalism, Pop Culture Criticism: 3 each
Movies, TV, Psychology, Language, Biography, Advertising, Transportation, Drugs: 2 each

I didn't realize I read so many memoirs. I got on a rock & roll kick for a while and read more about music than I would have predicted. I would have expected more history and less sports, too.

And finally, here are my ten favorite books read in 2009 (no particular order):

What about 2010? That's a question for another blog entry...


Friday, January 01, 2010
2009 Resolutions in Review
This is the first time I've ever seriously attempted to make and keep New Years resolutions. Before I think about 2010, I should review 2009.
All in all, I guess I didn't do too badly. I succeeded at the resolutions where I made the greatest effort and commitment. Throwing away my gains from weight training by blowing it off for the last few months of the year was a big mistake, though. Why did I stop lifting when I was making progress and enjoying it? Who the Hell knows?

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Thursday, December 31, 2009
Number 100!
I wanted my 100th book of Book Challenge 2009 to be something special. I thought about doing something out of character, like reading fiction for once (Chuck Klosterman's Downtown Owl). Many thick volumes called to me (such as James Loewen's Sundown Towns), but I only had a few days until the end of the year so those were out of the question. I didn't want to be reading feverishly at 11:30 PM on December 31, and I really didn't want to set myself up to fail by picking a long or complicated book.

I looked through the five two-foot stacks of books in our dining room, selecting half a dozen prospects. I could have read any of them, but none were particularly special. Then I went into our library and scanned eight more two-foot stacks of unread books (remember, I haven't been winning this battle by much, so I still have almost as many books to read as I had on January 1). I picked out a few that I've been meaning to read for a long time, but again, nothing set them apart. Then I saw a book I got for Christmas a few years ago... In Life, First You Kick Ass: Reflections on the 1985 Bears and Wisdom from Da Coach by Mike Ditka with Rick Telander.

I've written before about the 1985 Bears. I was 15, old enough to appreciate football but not yet jaded like I am now. Mike Ditka is my favorite coach of all time, in any sport. Ditka wore his heart on his sleeve and said what was on his mind (I don't like Lovie Smith because he's the anti-Ditka). He wasn't perfect, but he didn't try to hide that either.

Needless to say, I absolutely loved reading this book. Every page was a treat, reliving that fantastic season. I laughed and cried, turning page after page. Ditka has so many great stories, like about contract negotiations with George Halas. After Ditka had a spectacular rookie season (as a player), Halas actually tried to sign him for less money the following year! I found out a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff from the 1985 season, and I also was reminded of so many great moments. Any Bears fan should enjoy this book almost as much as I did.

Current tally: 100 books finished, 96 books acquired

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Thursday, September 10, 2009
Labor Day Anniversaries
Two notable past Labor Day weekends:

This Labor Day weekend, I intended to have a big "Chicago weekend" and do a bunch of things in the city to celebrate my 15 years here. At the same time, Half Price Books had another 20% off storewide sale.

For better or worse, I didn't do much of anything last weekend. Rather than focus on how lame I am for not really celebrating my Chicagoversary, I'll take pride in announcing that not only did I sit out the Half Price Books sale, but I also resisted the urge to redeem a Borders coupon good for 40% off one book. Instead, I devoted several hours to increasing my six-book margin, still chipping away at that pile of books amassed a year ago. While cleaning, I also found my receipt from Powell's Books in 2007, a truly epic shopping experience.

Current tally: 68 books finished, 62 books acquired

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Friday, May 01, 2009
Buy Indie Day!
I happened to be walking along Lincoln Avenue today when I heard the siren song of The Book Cellar. Their chalkboard sign was in the foyer because of the rain, but I noticed it said today is Buy Indie Day, a celebration of independent booksellers.

Well, shoot. I wasn't going to buy anything, but how could I walk out empty-handed on Buy Indie Day? Besides, I already feel like a schmuck for annually missing Record Store Day.

I always find interesting things on the front tables at The Book Cellar, and today was no exception. With two paperbacks in hand, I rushed toward the register before my brain could rationalize just a peek at the shelves, which would have wiped out the slim margin I built last month in Book Challenge 2009. As a bonus, I got to say hi to owner Suzy T for the first time in many months.

Current tally: 35 books finished, 31 books acquired

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009
Resolution Reflections
Now that the first quarter of 2009 has passed, this is a good time to evaluate "Book Challenge 2009." My resolution was to finish reading more books than I acquire. This challenge has been about as difficult as I expected, a series of regular gains wiped out by occasional shopping sprees. Unfortunately, I was behind by one book as of March 31st, although I've since begun to rebuild a positive balance.

In the process of trying to keep this resolution, I've discovered a few things:
  1. I am learning that it will be almost as big a challenge to review every book I finish. I should have expected that since I have at least 30 books piled up around my computer from last year that I never got around to reviewing online (and probably never will). Although I could cop out with one-line reviews, I'll try to continue writing at least a paragraph about each book.
  2. The public nature of my resolution has influenced my shopping. I have rejected several books because I really didn't want the world to know I had spent (wasted) money and time on them. I guess that's a positive thing since it kept me from buying books.
  3. I've never tracked my reading statistics before. After finished 24 books in the first quarter, I've decided to shoot for 100 books for the year (and I hope to buy fewer than 100!).
  4. Reviewing the back-and-forth of the finished/acquired counts, it has become clear to me that I will never come anywhere near "catching up." I'm not terribly surprised, but it is disheartening. I feel like Sisyphus.

Okay, enough navel-gazing -- I've got reading to do!


Sunday, February 15, 2009
A Book-Buying Bender
I did pretty well with my resolution in January, and I made it through almost half of February, too. I was up by six books. But this weekend, circumstances conspired to ruin me. First, Half Price Books sent an e-mail offering 20% off their entire stock for Valentine's Day weekend. Then my wife went somewhere with her mom and left me the car.

Had I stopped after Friday night's visit to Half Price Books in Bloomingdale, I would have been okay. My worst crime was purchasing a thick book that I may never read from cover to cover. I've decided not to count anything that is purely for reference like dictionaries, the World Almanac, price guides, etc. since virtually no one would read such a book from cover to cover, but this book didn't quite fit that definition. Anyway, I bought four books, but I was still ahead by two for the year.

But then came Saturday morning. My wife was still asleep, the car was available, and I hadn't been to Half Price Books in Highland Park in a couple of months. Soon I was speeding north on the Edens Expressway. I only found one book there, and although it didn't justify the drive, at least I still had a positive balance with one more book finished than acquired. On the way home, I stopped at the Corner Bakery for a bacon & cheddar (& scrambled egg) breakfast panini, just minutes before they switched to the lunch menu. But the Corner Bakery is in the same mall complex as... another Half Price Books location. There I bought four more books and put myself deep in the hole resolution-wise.

Gotta go, I've got some reading to do...

Current tally: 15 books finished, 18 books acquired


Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Catching Up
Book Challenge 2009 has been going well so far. Even though I ordered two books from Daedalus last week, I'm still ahead in the game.

(Not that You Asked) is a funny and thoughtful collection of non-fiction essays by Steve Almond. I had read Almond's Candyfreak on a recommendation from someone at The Book Cellar (one of those little handwritten cards on the shelf). Even though the subject -- famous regional sweet treats -- didn't excite me that much, I enjoyed his writing style. I bought (Not that You Asked) at the same store.

The book gets off to a rough start with a series of letters written to Oprah which aren't as funny as Almond probably intended. The next section about Kurt Vonnegut is fascinating even though I've never read his work. The essays about sex are hilarious, and "Red Sox Anti-Christ" is a thoughtful tale about what makes us baseball fans as well as the perils of being a hometown fan outside your hometown. The next few essays are a mixed bag, but I really enjoyed the "In Tribute to My Republican Homeys" section. This includes the story of how he quit his adjunct professorship at Boston College because they invited Condoleezza Rice to give a commencement speech. Then he describes his experiences within the right wing noise machine, which he calls the Hateocracy, culminating in an appearance on the always fair and balanced Hannity & Colmes show. The final essays about having a baby are pretty good, too.

This week, I also finished George Plimpton's Out of My League: The Classic Hilarious Account of an Amateur's Ordeal in Professional Baseball. I first knew Plimpton as the TV spokesman for the Intellivision video game system, which I owned and loved (everyone else I knew had Atari 2600s) and later as the author of a Sports Illustrated April Fool's Day 1985 story about pitcher Sidd Finch.

Out of My League takes place in 1960, the first of a series of regular-guy-plays-with-pros adventures that Plimpton documented in Sports Illustrated articles and books. The author pitches against top hitters in Yankee Stadium prior to a post-season all-star game. I was surprised that he didn't practice more for his big day, but he didn't have much time. The most amazing thing to the modern reader is the part where Plimpton is told that if he wants to interest the major leaguers, he has to get Sports Illustrated to put some money on the line. How much? Well, this is 1960, so it takes $1,000 to be divided among the eight hitters (pitchers didn't bat) on the team that gets the most hits off Plimpton. These days, you couldn't get a pro baseball player into the on-deck circle for $125!

I'm always skeptical of books that use "hilarious" in their subtitles, but Out of My League is pretty amusing. It's also a quick read that should entertain any baseball fan, especially one familiar with the stars of the time. However, I can't help thinking it may have been better in its original, more concise magazine form. Also, the $12.95 list price is a bit steep for such a thin volume, but I found it at Half Price Books for $1.00.

Current tally: 10 books finished, 9 books acquired

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009
The Challenge's First Challenge
Everything was going well as of January 4. I had finished three books and managed to stay out of bookstores. Then I got an e-mail from After-Words, one of my favorite used bookstores, announcing that any book that has been sitting on their shelves since 2006 or earlier is 50% off in January and February. I had a dentist appointment near the store last Monday, and I couldn't imagine missing a 50% off sale. As an additional incentive, $31 in store credit was waiting for me at After-Words from books I sold there last year.

To make a long story short, I bought seven books, which put me four books behind for 2009. I decided there was a little wiggle room in my resolution -- I don't strictly have to maintain a positive balance every day of the year. I limited myself to few enough books that I can catch up soon, and I didn't buy books that weren't part of the sale.

On Wednesday, I finished Them: Adventures With Extremists by Jon Ronson. This was one of my Powell's purchases from June 2007, and I don't know why I took so long getting around to it. After all, I thoroughly enjoyed Ronson's The Men Who Stare at Goats (which investigates secret government/military experiments). In Them, the author hangs out with a colorful cast of people who fervently believe that an international conspiracy (Bilderberg Group, Illuminati, et al., though surprisingly Freemasonry isn't mentioned) controls the world from a secret room. Among these "extremists" are a Ku Klux Klan leader, a Muslim who calls himself Bin Laden's man in Britain, Randy Weaver and his daughter (of the infamous Ruby Ridge incident), a paranoid but determined magazine editor, and a radio talk show host who raised money to rebuild the Branch Davidian compound. Ronson shows that these people aren't necessarily evil or insane, despite how the mainstream media often portray them, but he also has some downright weird experiences along the way. An intriguing undercurrent is that Ronson is Jewish, and many of these people/groups are notoriously Anti-Semitic. He also finds that the Anti-Semite label has been used to smear extremists regardless of their actual feelings about Jews.

Overall, Them is an entertaining and insightful book. Ronson uses lots of dialogue and humor to put a human face on people that we tend to blindly label. While he expresses his doubts, he doesn't harshly judge these people. I got the feeling Ronson may have a similar position to mine: I'm not quite paranoid enough to believe it, but I'm not so naïve that I'd be surprised to find out it's true.

I bought Fired! Tales of the Canned, Canceled, Downsized, & Dismissed by Annabelle Gurwitch last year after my dad got fired from his job of 35 years. I thought I'd read it and pass it along to cheer him up. Alas, the book is mostly about Hollywood people who got fired from crappy jobs and went on to fame and fortune, so I don't think it would provide much solace to someone like my dad. I left it half-finished a few months ago and read the last 100 pages this weekend. As one might expect, this collection of termination stories is a mixed bag. Some tales are hilarious, others okay, and many forgettable. I would have enjoyed this book more if it had included more stories from "regular" people and fewer tales from Hollywood screenwriters. Gurwitch also made a documentary called Fired!, which is available on Netflix (I haven't seen it).

Current tally: 5 books finished, 7 books acquired

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Thursday, January 08, 2009
The Challenge Begins
I bought Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed after hearing Al Franken interview author Jared Diamond on his Air America radio show in early 2005. My wife read a couple of chapters, but then it sat in one of many piles of books for years. Last October, a friend pointed it out in a bookstore and recommended it. I sheepishly admitted that I owned it but hadn't read it.

It took me a while to read this 500+ page monster, and I made finishing it my final goal of 2008. Alas, although I got within 25 pages of the end over dinner on New Year's Eve, I frittered away the rest of the night on the computer. Instead, Collapse became the first book I finished in 2009 on New Year's Day.*

This fascinating book examines past societies to determine what factors affected their success or failure and then analyzes the challenges facing contemporary societies. Despite differences in technology and other factors, the past and present are remarkably similar. Although Diamond is quick to say it isn't all about the environment (for example, warring or trading with other societies can be critical), it's clear that how a society manages its limited resources is often the difference between life and death. Anyone curious about past societies like the Easter Islanders, the Mayans, the Anasazi, and the Norse Greenlanders would enjoy this book. Diamond also looks at recent events in Rwanda and China and includes chapters about American "societies" in Montana and Los Angeles. He ends with a discussion of good and bad practices by extractive industries like oil, mining, and logging.

As yet another example of my compulsive book shopping, I bought a big stack of books for my wife to give me for Christmas last year. One of them was Greasy Rider: Two Dudes, One Fry-Oil-Powered Car, and a Cross-Country Search for a Greener Future by Greg Melville. This is a combination road trip and environmental book. The author and a friend drive a 1985 Mercedes diesel station wagon converted to run on restaurants' waste oil from Vermont to California. After spending a small fortune driving from Chicago to Portland, Oregon and back in 2007, I can appreciate the author's goal of crossing the country without paying for fuel (actually, I did that once, but it took longer). Along the way and in "errands" afterward, they visit renewable energy sites ranging from wind to ethanol to geothermal. It's a quick, entertaining read that covers some important energy trends without getting too deep into the details.

The Great American Road Trip by Eric Peterson is a small-format photo book of unique roadside attractions, most of them man-made. It is packed with color photos of odd museums, folk art creations, and roadside vernacular architecture (i.e., a hot dog stand shaped like a giant hot dog). It's light on text, but it offers a lot of travel ideas. I have a stack of books like this one that I reference once I have a destination in mind to make sure I don't miss something interesting along the way.

For some reason, I abandoned The Great American Road Trip with 50 pages to go a few months ago. When I found it amidst a pile of clothes next to the bed last weekend (along with several other unfinished books), I saw an easy way to get ahead on the Book Challenge. By January 4, I had finished three books and purchased none.

* I must mention that I didn't come up with my resolution until New Year's Day -- I did not deliberately put off finishing Collapse just to help my resolution. But since I need all the help I can get, it counts!

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Book Challenge 2009
Normally, I scoff at New Year's resolutions, but for some reason, I made a ton of them for 2009. In retrospect, it's more like a to-do list, but if turning tasks into resolutions motivates me, I guess that's good. Anyway, the toughest resolution I made this year that I intend to keep (as opposed to merely "good intentions" like weight loss) regards books.

My book habit is out of control, as ridiculous and pathetic as heroin addiction, albeit not as unhealthy. It's been growing for a while (recall my 30-book purchase at Powell's in Portland in June 2007), but last year was just insane. Anytime I went somewhere, whether downtown or in the suburbs, I stopped at a bookstore or two on the way home. I began buying groceries in Niles so I could visit two bookstores in the process (this also fed another addiction, smoked bacon and cheddar panini at the Corner Bakery). When I finished a book, I often celebrated by buying several more. I hit every sale at Half Price Books, including a whirlwind tour of every store in the Chicago area for the "20% off everything" Labor Day sale. I bought so many books that weekend that I hid several bags full from my wife out of embarrassment (if that isn't a "cry for help," I don't know what is!). Plus I used an endless stream of e-mail coupons at Borders and Barnes & Noble. I was completely out of control.

Now I have piles upon piles of unread books. You'd think I was starting a library.

Ideally, I would stop buying books cold turkey, but I know that's unrealistic. Besides, I love a deal, and when Borders sends me a 40% off coupon (as opposed to the usual 20-30% offers), it would kill me not to use it. But I have to rein in this compulsive behavior somehow.

So here's my resolution:
To finish reading more books than I acquire.
Note the specific wording. I say finish reading instead of just reading. Finishing a book is more important than strictly reading the entire thing during 2009. That gives me an incentive to plow through my stack of half-read books. Since finish works in my favor, I counter it with acquire rather than purchase. That way I can't indulge my addiction by asking for a bunch of books for my birthday or Christmas.

My wife's first reaction was utter disbelief, so I know I'm in for a challenge!

This blog has been courting death for several months, but I hope to repurpose it for my resolution. That means it will be mostly about books (maybe I should rename it DJReader?). I'll list every book I finish and try to write at least a brief review, along with updates on my positive or negative balance for the year.


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