How to Succeed at Comps Without Really Trying, Week 4

Something is happening.

I was at the grocery store when a wave of thankfulness and love hit me. I loved the old ladies who park their carts in front of everything I need. I loved the smell of the seafood counter. I loved cart boy who was mopping isle 6 because he was whipping that thing.

I especially loved that I was doing something other than staring at book, at the written word, at scribbles on dead trees or darkened pixels on a screen. I loved that I was using my legs rather than sitting on my ass. Even if this was just walking through a grocery store a block from my house. Even then.

In the parking lot I smelled the sunset and thought, this is what it is to be illiterate. Just for a moment, to see the world as it is rather than the representation of characters as they shop for groceries and maneuver around old ladies’ carts and smell the seafood isle.

This euphoria is still echoing in my calves as I type this (yes, back in front of the screen) because behind my monitor I can see pink and purple clouds over the mountains. Not even the screeching of the neighborhood cat in heat can ruin this (Oh. We will discuss this cat. This fucking cat. In. Depth.)Image

This is what happens when you read a novel a day for three weeks and then, suddenly, find yourself doing something, anything, anything at all, other than reading. It feels like one big orgasm by absence (of reading) and presence (of god damn everything else).

Even as I’m starting to feel the accumulated exhaustion not just in my brain, but my body, I am, at this moment, in love with this Colorado summer because it links back to every other Colorado summer I’ve ever had where reading was something I did when I wasn’t chasing snakes in a creek bed or dip-shitting it up at some mall or standing so utterly bored in the outfield of a little league game.

Sometimes it’s good to remember that I wasn’t always doing this.

The other day I read a novel without reading it. My eyes passed over the words. When I finished I had copious notes. I thought, good job. I thought, another one down. Then I realized I couldn’t recall the main characters name 30 seconds after finishing the book. (The character’s name is Abel if anyone wants to guess what it is. And no, it’s not the Bible).

The other day I became aware of the other cars on the highway. I mean really aware, to the point I felt the panic of a 16 year old. There are so many. So fast. What if. What if.

The other day on the frisbee field I lined up one of my oldest friends. I looked at him dead center, let the frisbee fly, and then called him the completely wrong name.

The day I learned that caffeine isn’t nearly as effective as a nap.

The other day I saw a kid at the park and felt so happy for him because he can’t even read yet.

The exhaustion is worrying. Yes, I am just a bit over a third done with my time in comps. And, according to my very rough calculations, I’m about a third done with my primary sources. Here’s the bad news, those calculations don’t include the secondary sources (we may go into this math in more depth another time). So this euphoria, through absence, through exhaustion. Yeah, it’s going to muddy.

How to Succeed at Comps Without Really Trying, Week 3

Let me tell you about pages per day (we’ll talk about pages per sitting, pages per hour, pages per drink, and pages per nap another time). I figure that I can read up to 300 pages in one day. This is pushing it. Really pushing it. A more comfortable range for me is something like 200 to 250. So far I’ve maintained this pace, reading a novel a day. It should be noted that this is novel reading, not secondary text reading. Theory is usually so dense that my pace falls off a cliff. I am only mortal after all.

However, it’s not so simple as looking at page count as not all 300 pagers are created equal.

There seems to be some rule in publishing that says that if a book is short (say 200 pages or less) that it needs to be padded by large margins, spacing, and font. This figures as no one wants to spend $20 bucks on something that has the approximate weight of a paper airplane. We want to feel that we’ve got our money’s worth. To quote Boris the Blade in Snatch, “Heavy is good. Heavy is reliable.” Heavy books double as self-defense weapons. This is why we like them.

However, on the other side of the spectrum, say anything over 350, publishers start borrowing their spacing techniques from a contortion artist in a glass box. They take every element that the short book tries to expand, and shrink it like a scrotum hitting ice water. The font, spacing, and margins all get so crammed that they have no sense of personal space. This is because huge books intimidate people. When the reading public tends towards magazines and newspapers, a book that weighs the same as a two year old isn’t going to fly off the shelves. Plus, a 700 page is so heavy you’ll probably only pull a muscle if you try to throw it at someone.

So, this makes 300 pages (or so, hell if I’m being scientific here) the sweet spot towards which all texts migrate with gravitational-like regularity. So I’ll say it again, not all 300 page books are created equally.

I can tell within five seconds of flipping through a book how my day’s going to go. There are the obvious signs, the text’s girth, heft, length, etc. (size matters) but nothing makes my ass spasm with grief more than seeing that a 350 pager is really a 450 pager or with joy at seeing a 200 pager that’s really a 125er.

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Zombie Bake-Off

Look (don’t read. Just look) at the picture of Stephen Graham Jones’ Zombie Bake-Off: the font’s larger, this pagination screams relax! Relax mo-fo! My eyes can breathe this white space. The section breaks are ample and have an awesome graphic of a doughnut on above each. I flip through this book and say, cake. I can rock this in a day. Cake.

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Plague of Doves

Now look at Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves (right). Look at this thing. It’s like a black hole rests just inside the fourth chapter and everything is being crammed towards some event horizon. The section breaks look like they’re under tectonic pressure. Just seeing this wall of text makes my eyes deflate into my skull. I know that when I open this book, that if I’m going to keep my pace up, I’ve got to make it through this thing in one day, which is akin to realizing that the marathon you thought was in San Diego is really in Nepal.

(Of course, both are excellent reads (in wildly different ways) but god damn.)

Part of me says this doesn’t matter. The same part says that it all has to be read anyway. And another part of me wants to murder that first part.

How to Succeed at Comps Without Really Trying, Week 2

One week into comps and I’ve given up on pants. Apparently, if I’m going to hack my way through this jungle of words, I’m going to do it in basketball shorts. I don’t see any reason to wear anything else. I can do all my required activities in them: read, sleep, run. My reading schedule by and large keeps me clear of any social event that might require something with a belt. So far I’ve managed to put a shirt on each day, but this practice may to go by the wayside.

Classes, finals, my papers, my students papers all seem like they are part of another world, a world in which I had things to do other than stay awake and flip pages. Because of this, I feel my social skills atrophying at an alarming rate. I’m a social person. I often joke that a person’s abilities to write are closely tied to their ability to bullshit. I love to shoot the shit, sling lies, crack wise, make dubious statements just to see if I can make ‘em stand up in an argument. But all this reading numbs my brain so that I have the wit and social grace of a dying slug.

For instance, my sister had a birthday bbq a few days ago. I like her friends, mostly in the medical field or businessmen and women, but I don’t especially know them. These are, by definition, the people which you are required to bullshit. But that evening my conversations were all a distorted version of this one:

Sister’s Blond Friend: How are you?

Me: Good. You?

SBF: Good. What have you been doing?

Me: Comps.

SBF: (stares blankly.)

Me: Reading my ass off.

SBF: (searches over my shoulder.)

Me: Read some Blake Butler today. It was awesome.

SBF: (finishes drink) I need a refill.

The little, day-to-day things that fill our lives (getting a flat, staying at work late, finding $20 bucks in a shoe, seeing an ex at a restaurant, wandering into the wonder that is the outdoors) are the very bits of ammo that we fire off when making small talk while sucking beer at a barbecue. The exquisite bullshitters are the ones who are able to spin these pieces of info in an interesting/amusing/charming/flirtatious/unexpected way. So unless I’m talking with someone about the intricacies of Elisabeth Sheffield’s Gone (fantastic), I’m shit out of luck. And considering the reading habits of the public at large, I’m not hopeful that this situation will present itself anytime soon (unless I’m talking to my classmates, but considering they’re in the same mental state I’m in, the conversation isn’t going to be grand anyway).

Thus, I’ve developed two strategies to compensate with my lack of everyday actions:

Strategy 1: Really make the few things I’ve been doing besides reading seem epic in scope. Everyone’s been getting an earful of my grocery shopping excursions (the sale price of peanut butter, the old lady who parked her cart so I couldn’t get at the taco seasoning, the length of the checkout line) and ultimate frisbee experiences (I have discovered in myself the ability to give complete play-by-plays of entire games).

Strategy 2: Flat out make things up (Climbed Mount Elbert today, yeah, it was pretty bad ass).

If I get really desperate to keep a conversation from trickling into silence I’ll resort to peppering my companion with questions. I don’t mean polite, soft-pitch questions, but aggressive, in your face, Barbara-Walters-fuck-yeah kind of questions (What’d you do last night? Where’d you go? Was it a date? What was his name? He has slicked-back hair doesn’t he? Did you guys practice making babies? At your place?  His place?  The car? What’s he drive? Was it good? Hypothetically, was it good? You going to have his babies? Are you guys a thing? Why not? Who said his mother mattered anyway? How would you like it if she disappeared? What do you mean you need another drink? Is that a lie?).

Thankfully most people really like to talk about themselves.