Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Procrastinating 101: He Doesn't Have to Tell Me Twice!

This week's chapter from Marshall Cook's Slow Down . . . and Get More Done is entitled "Spending Time With Books."  Here, Cook tells us that, in 
. . .seeking the wisdom to be found in slowing down . . . . [t]here's a great deal to be said for regular, reflective reading.
I love it when someone gives me advice I'm already taking.  Well, mostly.  It's not so cool, for example, if a friend recommends that I get a decent haircut--when I just did, or thought I did. Or if a colleague urges me to learn how to set up a website--when I'm our organization's web designer and website manager!

But this chapter on reading books is news I've been using since I cracked the alphabetic code.  

Cook begins with a defense of books, something we've heard more and more of in the seventeen years since he wrote this book.  Cook had been exposed to arguments concerning the "death of the book," though he was writing before ebooks, Kindles and iPads.  These devices undercut, somewhat, the strength of his assertion that 
[y]ou could never, for example, cozy up on the couch or sit under a tree by the lake with a good hypertext.  You can carry a book with you and read it anywhere. . .
--but not a hypertext, in those days.  Though his point that
[y]ou can check a book out of the  library[1] for free, and you don't need  fifteen thousand dollars’ worth[2]of technological intervention to crack it
still holds up.

Although I share Cook's affection for the printed page--making me something of a troglodyte, in my  i-everything husband’s[3] view--I don't really distinguish between forms in which people might "read" books.  This more democratic position has been reinforced for me by raising a dyslexic child, and having a literature-loving father whose vision was doubled by a late-life stroke.  Listening to books, for example, although it is dependent upon technology in most instances, actually harkens back to our oral narrative roots.  It challenges us, as do text-based books whether paper or hyper, to "make mind pictures," as Cook enthuses.  Cook distinguishes reading from other forms of entertainment as being active, and depending upon a learned ability. I would argue that listening to books requires the same. 

Cook lists the following as reasons for reading:

  • Reading for knowledge
  • Reading for experience
  • Reading for fun
  • Reading for beauty

All of these, to my mind, can motivate listening to books as well.  Or reading them in electronic/digital form, for that matter.

He describes two divergent approaches to selecting what to read--either serendipitous, or planned.  Most of us probably do a little of both.  I admit that sometimes the look or feel of a book sitting on the library's discards-for-sale table calls to me, and its contents find their way into my brain in this unanticipated way.  I have been known to pick up and read books "left behind" on trains and planes.  I learned about a more "planned" version of such opportunism or happy accident from a story on NPR's Weekend Edition several years ago.  This phenomenon involves booklovers "releasing books into the wild" by leaving them in public for others to find, and then tracking them online at

However we end up "deciding" what to read, we probably all have favorites, books that have stayed with us since reading them, even "changed our lives," in some cases.  For Cook, the list includes:

The Secret Panel, a Hardy Boys mystery by Franklin W. Dixon
The Boy Scout Handbook
the Bible
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain
The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway
A Death in the Family, by James Agee
Light in August, by William Faulkner
The Human Comedy, by William Saroyan
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers
Sometimes a Great Notion, by Ken Kesey
Afro-American Literature, ed. by R. Hayden and D. J. Burrows
A Christmas Memory, by Truman Capote
A Short History of a Small Place, by T. R. Pearson
Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry
PrairyErth, by William Least Heat Moon

Cook counsels his readers to "reflect on what we read" to extend the benefits of the time we spend with books, in one of three ways:  incorporating thoughts about what we've read into journal writing; thinking about what we've read while walking or biking; and discussing what we've read with friends, colleagues and family.  For many of us, pre- and post-Oprah, this third method has taken the form of book clubs or groups.  I am currently groupless, having broken up with my last group when their lives became sane and prosperous while mine headed into a fairly deep ditch.  I miss some of our discussions, but not those where a book's plot and/or characters echoed the troubles I was living with at the time, and group members expressed disbelief that life could be like that.  Maybe later for another book group.

At the conclusion of his Chapter, Cook directs us to
  • list a few books that have made a difference in your life
  • list a few books you'd like to read
  • circle the name of the book you'd like to start with.  Go find that book and read it.
I resist his first instruction, which seems a bit too much like naming your favorite child, or having one, if you are the parent of more than one offspring.  However, the book that I can say made the greatest difference in my life was War and Peace, which I read at age thirteen, because it made me see myself as a serious reader.  I have to admit, however, that the lofty influence that led me to attempt the book was the film Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation, in which Jimmy Stewart's character lugged Tolstoy's masterpiece to the beach with him each day.  Hobbs used the book to cover his ogling of women in their bikinis, to hide from stressful family interactions, and to impress people.  I read it in the back of the family station wagon on the way to Yellowstone, for two of the same reasons. 

I am currently on the bump-into-it-at-the-library plan for filling up my reading list.  And at any given time of late, I am well into four or five books.  So I don't have to find a book to start with.  I am never without a book.  At present, I'm reading Yoga Beyond Fitness, by Tom Pilarzyk; The Sweetest Dream, by Doris Lessing; It's Easier Than You Think, by Sylvia Boorstein; and In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner, by Elizabeth George.  On my way out of the library today, Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna jumped into my hands, along with Till I End My Song:  A Gathering of Last Poems, edited by Harold Bloom.  

Thank you, Marshall Cook, for helping me to acknowledge one way in which I've been slowing things down for years.  And since today is so blustery where I live that my hair nearly blew off my head and my coffee from my cup as I walked down the sidewalk earlier, it's a good day to curl up with a book or three.  In any form.

[1] In competition with my church and the mountains for designation as my “most sacred space”

[2] I don’t know where Cook was shopping for what technology was available in 1993, but either his estimate is    
                   hyperbole, or he isn’t much of a comparison shopper.
[3] Does he think of me as his i-spouse?  Or would such an item be preferable to him?

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