The Written Word

Having no TV, no stereo and currently no sound on my laptop, my entertainment options on the boat as of late fall neatly into four categories.  On cold, rainy December nights, I can:

  • play Nintendo DS,
  • make music with my guitar, mandolin, harmonica and/or voice,
  • derp around on the internet, or
  • read books.

With the weather being mostly lousy and Christmas (ie: Visa bills) right around the corner, I’ve been hitting all four pretty hard lately, although some a bit more than others.  My Nintendo games collection is quickly growing stale and I’m already on the internet for at least eight hours a day for work, so I’ve been spending a lot more time making music (more on this soon), and I picked up a few more books at the used bookstore the other day.

I’ve just finished reading the first of them, Michael Swanwick’s “Bones of the Earth”, which was entertaining; kind of another take on the whole ‘Jurassic Park’ genre but with a clever take on time-travel.  I didn’t think it was quite up to the level of sheer brilliance of his other novels, specifically “Stations of the Tide” and “The Iron Dragon’s Daughter“, but it was a fun light read and I finished it over two quiet nights on the boat.

In the wall cubby beside my berth – which no longer leaks and destroys books! – I’ve got Neal Stephenson’s “Quicksilver”, the first installment of his ‘Baroque Cycle’ trilogy.  In the past two years I’ve started this book three times, but the previous two attempts I didn’t manage to push through the slow first few chapters enough to develop a relationship with the characters.  His phenomenal book “Snowcrash” was lean, fast-paced and exciting, but then his next novel, “Cryptonomicon“, was much larger and lumbering, coming in at almost three times the length of “Snowcrash”.  So far the Baroque Cycle books are following that trend, with each book of the trilogy being at least the length of “Cryptonomicon” – and as I understand it they’re all one story, split into three chapters because of the sheer size of the body of work.  But hey, I’ve got some hours to kill at night, so maybe this third attempt I’ll actually get through it.

When I mentioned that I was catching up on past fiction that I hadn’t ever gotten around to reading – in particular, I’ve been poring over lists of past winners of the ‘Hugo’ and ‘Nebula’ awards for exceptional science fiction writing – Trent loaned me a short stack of books that I had shamefully confessed to not having previously read.  In the past month I caught up on “Fight Club” (different enough from the movie to warrant a reading) and “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” (significantly different from “Bladerunner”, the movie based on the book).  And, since I had mentioned reading and seriously enjoying Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle”, he loaned me Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions“, a bizarre story of American crazy, and “Welcome To The Monkey House“, a collection of short stories.  I really need to return those four, and hopefully sign out a few new titles from the Library of Trent.

Waiting up on the shelf, I’ve got a couple of pulpy Heinlein novels.  I really, really enjoyed the copy of “Time Enough For Love” that Tom loaned to me, to the point that I read it twice in the span of a year – but I have to admit that a lot of his other works can be pretty campy.  I have a soft spot for cheesy escapist sci-fi, but I can only take so much before I really need a book to challenge me, or to present a new situation or idea other than “…but our hero escapes peril and wins the girl yet again, because he is a brilliant scientist who is also an amazing warrior, and attractive to boot!”.

Lastly, I picked up a copy of Captain Joshua Slocum’s “Sailing Alone Around The World”, a hundred-year-old story of a solo sailing adventure in the days before diesel engines that was apparently required reading in many a junior high english class.  I’ve also got my eye out for a copy of Robin L. Graham’s “Dove”, the story of how the author set out on a solo ’round-the-world sailing voyage in 1965, at the age of sixteen, and returned five years later with a wife and a daughter.  Oh – and I’ve been told that I need to pick up a copy of Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden”.

Reading back through the past few paragraphs, I’m realizing that it only covers a fraction of the books I’ve actually consumed in the past two or three months, books that I’ve mostly already forgotten about and gotten rid of.  The difficult part about being a book-junkie while living on a sailboat is that books take up a fair bit of room, and if you leave a book collection to itself the books tend to multiply spontaneously.  Worse yet, they absorb the moisture in the air, first wrinkling, then discoloring and finally succombing to mildew or mold!

Getting rid of most of my books was one of the hardest parts of slimming down my possessions in order to move onboard – one of the sailing forums had a really good bit of advice though, and I took it to heart; they said (as I remember):

If a book on your shelf does not have intrinsic value (ie, it’s valuable because it is a first edition, or a family heirloom, or a signed copy), or if it doesn’t have reference value (ie, it contains knowledge that you will regularly refer to), or if you are not absolutely certain that you will re-read the book in the next year, then it is just a trophy.  The book remains on your shelf merely out of vanity or laziness.  It can be easily replaced should you ever wish to read it again.  Get rid of it.

That part really helped, and I brought three large boxes of books down to the used bookstore, and traded them in for a few sailing reference books that I’d needed, saving myself a few hundred dollars in the process.  I am now a huge fan of the used bookstore – I would be a bigger fan of the public library instead, but alas, I am a slacker and do not tend to return things in a timely fashion, and I am very hard on my books.  The used bookstore is the perfect match; if I think a book that I’ve liked would be enjoyed by a friend, I can just give him or her my copy.  If not, I can return a box of used books and pick out some new ones.  Either way, I currently have a large stack of books on my kitchen table, and today I will sort them into three piles; one pile going into storage, one pile of books to be returned to their rightful owners and one pile going to the used bookstore, to be exchanged for fresh meat.

I don’t often call out questions on this blog, but I’m curious to see if many readers here are… well, readers.  What have you read lately that was excellent?  What titles would you recommend I look for at the used bookstore?  Please comment, or if you prefer not to be public you can always just email me at drew (@) this domain.

8 thoughts on “The Written Word”

  1. Anything by Tom Robbins. I’ve read three of his books and keep meaning to pick up others. They are rather odd, slightly twisted stories. He even put out his first kids book last year, B is for Beer. Yup a kids bedtime story about beer.

  2. I’ve been reading so much these days that I zone in on friend’s bookshelf’s, frequent the used book store and will pretty much read anything I can get my hands on. This has led to some utter crap but also widened the styles of books I read.

    I agree, Tom Robbins is fantastic. When I first tried one of his books, I didn’t like the style. I had to get used to it. My favorite of his is Jitterbug perfume. I will reread that one many times. I love how Pan seems to show up in many of his books.

    Christopher Moore is lots of fun too. All of his books are great, but You suck is especially good.

    Canadian writer Will Ferguson is one of my favorites. Hitching Rides with Buddha is a great story about when he was in Japan and he decided to hitch from South to North Japan following the Sakura.

    Max Brooks wrote two books, Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z. Imagine if the world had to deal with a war against zombies. Sounds cheesy and lame but the way he dealt with the subject is brilliant.

    I also am a fan of Orson Scott Card. I’m sure you are well aware of this author but I love his books. Not just the Ender series but all of them.

    Hope that helps, I’m going to check out some of the books you mentioned. I’ve read Stephenson but I really hate the way he ends his books. I get lost in his books but then he ends them like he got bored and just wants it over with. His book, In the beginning was the command line was awesome though!

  3. One of my favourite in the Sci-fi genre is a trilogy written by Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy it’s pretty dark and creepy The author sorta built his life around the semi-surreal he did some interesting illustrations for Alice in Wonderland, his books, the first two fit together smoothly but he was slowly dying as he wrote the trilogy and I think the last book was put together by his partner and it’s kinda a stand alone book but it’s good too.
    Other sci-fi…. hmm… Ursula LeGuin has written a couple of good books The Disposed, The left hand of darkness. Dorris Lessing also some good books mainly thinking of Mara and Dan which is a post apocalypse thingy.
    Sailing books…. I found Slocum’s book very hard to get into and have yet to continue reading the last 3/4s I liked The Wind is Free by Frank Wightman (Wylo)
    One Sci-fi author I’ve always enjoyed is Isaac Asimov, although I have yet to read any of his fiction his essays are awesome tidbits of use-full/less knowledge that are one of those easy to find anywhere and always worth a read type of books he’s written some crazy amount o books something like 500 or so.

  4. Don’t forget “The Diamond Age”, which Stephenson wrote between “Snowcrash” and “Cryptonomicon” (and also happens to be between them in length). Philip K. Dick is great – “The Man in the High Castle” practically invented alternative history, and reading the “VALIS” trilogy was frighteningly close to a psychotropic experience.

    “Cat’s Cradle” and “Welcome to the Monkey House” are great introductions to Vonnegut, but I’m surprised Trent gave you “Breakfast of Champions”. Strictly speaking, it’s not a sequel, but it brings back a number of characters from earlier novels, and I think having those under your belt makes it more digestible.

    My favorite authors include Dick and Vonnegut, but also Martin Amis, and Graham Greene (those two are pretty far outside the SF genre). Neal Gaiman is also great. And I really enjoyed “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” by Susanna Clarke.

    To move away from fiction a bit, “Gödel, Escher, Bach” by Douglas Hofstadter (as well as some of his other books, like “Le Ton beau de Marot”) and “The Fabric of Reality” by David Deutsch are just mind-blowing.

    As far as getting rid of books, I went through the same thing when I moved east (and really, I’m still culling). The Kindle (DX – need to be able to read technical PDFs) has helped a lot with preventing further book accumulation. Also, using a site like to rate and keep track of what I’ve read/want to read have made it possible for me to stop storing those lists in bulky paperback form. I have one additional category of books I keep – those I’m likely to lend. But I can see how that doesn’t make the grade when you live on a boat.

  5. Oh how could I forget, not exactly reading material but definitely an answer your how to survive False Creek in the winter dilemma: Podcasts and Audiobooks their free and take very little power to run even less than books (at night anyway) I highly recommend the radiolab podcast.

  6. This Summer I read Motherless Brooklyn, it was quite good.

    I also read a couple of Graham Greene novels, The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana. Timothy Findley’s collection of short stories Dinner Along the Amazon was another good read.

    Snowcrash was awesome, I should read the others, but my to-read list is pretty long right now.

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