50 for 50 – A Bookworm Odyssey.

I’m always around screens. Computer screens for work. iPhone screens for distraction. TV screens for binging, ( as a substitute for good communication).

As streaming networks trip over themselves to shovel out content, and as we get inundated with news and opinions from every smartphone around the planet, some of us are pining for simpler, more focused time.

On our shelves sit dusty row upon row of books, destined for oblivion.

Much as any other valued object in your possession, physical books represent a journey. Their near-demise to the internet may represent a corner humans are to turn.

For some things it made sense. Textbooks, manuals. Self-help tomes. Catalogues of car parts. Those were all about recall and info bits. Not the adventure. Good riddance.

But what about the classics? What about fiction? Those storybooks you read as a child. Famous authors, independent storytellers, big press, small press. The occasional discovery you would recommend to only your closest friends. In times of solitude you’d pull out that small paperback, (even the one you bought just because of the cool Frazetta cover.)

I used to plow through books like a bull. A good book was like a religious experience. My mind would ignite with new adventures and new worlds. And even with the advent of home video,  it took some effort to view moving pictures. That’s why we valued that stuff. It wasn’t 24 -7 at your fingertips and it took energy. It was a reward, not a right.

Enter Smart Phones and Binge Streaming.  Brain matter starts turning to mush, cocooned in a passive alpha state, receiving someone else’s impression of what a good visual should be. Not only the new stuff, but all the old stuff too, revamped, streaming. All the bad campy crap left to your childhood memory, now revealed for what it actually is. The naked emperor, no less.

I’d like to say I wanted to be a source for change in the world. Part of the solution. But really it was about not losing myself into the ether.

Framing it as a public challenge (on social media,  ironically) would mean shaming myself by not meeting the goal. For those that care about reputation, shame is a good motivator, even at the risk of looking like a virtue-signaling dork.  ‘Hey I read books!”   – Oh Yeah? Big deal. I like soup. So what?

The secondary reason was to get everyone thinking about reading again. And not just the latest self-help thing. No man. Read the real deal. Read Fiction.

A good story engages the mind AND the soul. We love the stories with meaning, that titillate, inspire, shock, illustrate, teach, and so forth. Because our lives run like stories too. Not the silly things on Instagram. An actual story, with ups and downs and people yelling at you and stuff. A story that hopefully continues, maybe into legend…

There was a third interest. There exists this cultural paradigm about a book being ‘good enough’ to become a play or a film. As if that suddenly makes it all worthwhile. Maybe that kind of makes sense. If thousands of people are going to spend millions over the course of so many years, if some nervous executive was green-lighting the adaptation, then it had to be good, right?  Some of the books on my list were made into films ages ago, or were about to be. I wanted my mind’s camera to experience it first hand.

So in one sense, after 50 years of tiptoeing around the planet (half of that in Entertainment), enough was enough. It was time. Initiate Combat Protocol.  Run Program.

My Rules of Engagement:

A) Fiction.

B) Manageable Length (leave Tolstoi for another time).

C) Fictionalized, (if biographical).

D) Graphic Novels are okay, only if they represent a complete serious thought ( for example, compiled  issues #133 to 145 of Superman would be disqualified.)

And it had to be an organic process. The methods could and would evolve. This was an exploration. I made a list on Amazon, one sure way of putting together a visual reminder. And also a calculation of what it would cost to buy all those books.

Hence the public library system. They’ve got it now so you can find it online and reserve it, then pick it up at the branch of your choice. The books they don’t have, you either borrow, or buy. While no, they did not have Logan’s Run (the original), they had The Terror by Dan Simmons. They had Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby. Do some planning.  And don’t shy away from asking your peeps to recommend stuff.

(You’d be surprised at the number of people still taking pleasure in an actual book).

FIRST, THE ROAD MAP.

The road map broke down into a few categories: The Wild Cards, The Legacy Reads, The Hot Topics. Wild Cards are the outliers and graphic novels, the organic finds. The Legacy Reads are books like Logan’s Run, The Little Prince, or even the translated Awakening Epic. Hot Topics are more recent awesome books, the Gone Girls, Ready Player One, The Sandcastle Girls, and so forth.

Look, you may have your own categories when you do this. There’s no one way. But I recommend some semblance of planning, a path that runs A to Z but can swerve here and there. I had a huge list of books on Amazon, and number more reserved from the library. Depending on mood, I would frequently delete or return items. Bottom line, read what you WANT to read, not what you feel you HAVE to read. That’s the point of this. Give yourself a theme for direction (Fiction, etc) and make sure you can escape into that world.  Also, you’ll have to ditch all that Netflix Binging for a while. And you will want to. Trust me. Your brain’s movie camera is much more adept and has a limitless budget. The only prick director on set is you. You get to decide pretty much everything.

BE REAL ABOUT WHAT SPEAKS TO YOU.

I did not like reading everything. And I was surprised often by what seemed like it would play well for me but didn’t, and vice versa. Don’t feel guilty about it, and in fact rearrange your list if you find yourself resenting a certain brand of experience. Why be miserable? Try to have some fun while you learn something. If you read the first few pages and your intuition tells you it’s not for you, put it down. No harm no foul. Maybe it’s a book for your future self, or not at all. Who cares.

Look, if people get mad enough for wasting two plus hours watching a bad film, imagine what it’s like reading a dud for days. If no one is paying or grading you for grinding through that sloppy narrative. Put it down and move on.

TOTAL RECALL

I posted each book in a special album on Facebook as it was a good way to visually denote the journey. In the beginning I would post when starting the read, but soon discovered I felt better posting once done. There was also this desire to see what would be remembered from each reading experience, what stayed with the ‘playlist’ in the mind, so I kept from reviewing each fresh read on the spot. What I recalled from each book would tell me more about myself. (Insert your “I am an open book” pun here as I walked into that one.)

My life has not been without its own seemingly impossible causes, why not add another? For my first book, I chose story of St. Rita of Cascia (Auth. Fr. Joseph Siccardo). She’s the Patron Saint of Impossible Causes. And she’s often depicted with a thorn pushed into her forehead. What intrigued me was reading between the lines, hidden underneath the religious fervor and the book’s quite dated narrative was a woman who finally prevailed after all these duties and obligations had been forced upon her. (And did I mention the giant thorn in her forehead?). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rita_of_Cascia

The next three volumes comprised The Awakening (Auth. Malkhas, 1933), a Dr. Zhivago type sweeping epic about people caught within history, and facing difficult choices. A fictionalized account of real persons and events the author encountered during his days of revolution at the end of the Ottoman Empire. It is easy to see why longer books were to be savored and enjoyed in the days before TV and short attention spans. However, it boasts of sequences that are fast paced and exciting, and it’s characters are formidably rendered. A very satisfying read.

I had seen the film of The Little Prince (by Saint-Exupéry) and embarrassingly enough had never read the book. That may have been a mistake in this case. The masterfully crafted film version definitely overshadowed my reading experience. I went on to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (loved the non-linear nature of this), Adam’s Watership Down (they’re bunnies, people! Bunnies!), then a book I picked out of the YMCA donated reads shelf by W.E.B.Griffiths about the war in Korea called Brotherhood of War, followed by Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Just to illustrate a pattern, Saint-Exupéry, Vonnegut and Adams are Legacy Reads, Griffiths is a Wild Card, and Chabon is a Hot Topic read. Adam’s book was the most satisfying read of this bunch, at least to me. The Legacy books in this list were all made into films.

I like Ben Bova’s Grand Tour series so I picked up  Mercury. Then came When Worlds Collide (Wylie and Balmer, which was adapted one of my favorite films produced by George Pal). Minus the dated sentimentality and tech, some apocalyptic sequences made my jaw drop.

Then came Logan’s Run (Nolan and Johnson). True, many of us have seen the film that featured among other things, Farrah Fawcett-Majors. But the book had this real Star Wars meets Mad Max feel to it (with speeder bikes and raucous adventure across N. America, no less). Although the novel was much broader in scope, some of the decisions made in the film version helped tighten the focus of the story. Notable differences? Here’s one: There indeed is a Sanctuary.

Next was a graphic novel by Berberian and Kebbi called The Structure is Rotten, Comrade exploring the theme of architecture and memory, and the tyranny of architects to shape our existence. Fun word: Brutalist.  Ready Player One by Cline is a film now, by Spielberg no less, so who gives a toss about my opinion? Anyway, Player is undeniably good yarn but I was damaged by the fanboy hype around it, and it felt like a Comic con Wet Dream at times. But maybe that comes with the territory for a story about an immersive VR universe with all our 80’s icons programmed into it.

Books to movies follows up with the surprisingly enthralling Maze Runner by Dashner( though I felt a bit of a let down at the very end) and the House of the Scorpion by Farmer. Scorpion was unique in its setting and consistent in its beats. I’ve never seen any Maze Runner films but did watch a trailer to see what they did with some of the creatures in the book.

Space: 1999 Breakaway (E.C.Tubb) is a guilty read. I grew up loving the usually mediocre but ambitiously designed TV show. This one combines two of the episodes into one novella with some added insight.

#18 – Boulle’s The Planet of the Apes. If like me you’ve seen the films, the TV series, more films, then you can see almost everything in Boulle’s novel in some form. Each filmmaker used a different emphasis. It’s like an Ape Bible.

# 19 – The Lost Child of Tir na Nog was my friend Katarina Bethel’s first book effort and darn good for it.  I hope she continues the series.

In Levin’s brilliantly detailed yet breezy The Boys from Brazil, Hitler has clones. And they’re gonna grow up before you know it so enjoy every moment, Foster Parents.

Norwegian by Night (Miller) tells of an old American Marine, who shelters a young lad after the rest of the kid’s family gets killed by the mob. Satirical and Witty.

Congo (Chrichton) was way better than the film. Like way better. Seriously better. I mean…

Kite Runner (Hosseini) is about a war torn Afghanistan. And heroism, bleeding hands, and revenge.

Gifune’s Savages. More than just Gilligan’s island meets Lost meets World War 2 Japanese Medical Experiments, it evokes a profound sense of suspense and dread. And a truly unique monster.

My  halfway point was noted with a twin read by Selznick. The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonder Struck are graphic novels I’d put in the same category as Berberian’s The Structure is Rotten, unique and genre-bending between what appears to be a kid’s storybook and deep underlying themes.

Jumped back to Legacy reads with Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon, and Chandler’s The Big Sleep. One is struck with how contemporary the language and pacing are. Book 29 was Bohjalian’s The Sandcastle Girls (the efficiency of storytelling in stark contrast to the longer-winded style of Malkhas). Both are about the same time period in Ottoman Turkish History. Both deal with a variety of cultures and characters around the events (again based on real archetypes. There’s a whole discussion to be had about comparing these two reading experiences.)

On to some Sci Fi action with P.K.Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. If like me you have seen Blade Runner innumerable times, the source text vs. changes made for the cinema are informative, if not deeply illuminating. Scott made the right decisions in what he chose to leave out and put in, although a longer, more drawn out miniseries would do some of PKD’s concepts justice.

Now Joseph Conrad is very influential and I had no idea that ( total coincidence) the previously mentioned Ridley Scott had named his spaceship in Alien after the main character in this book. I wanted to like Nostromo more. I did. But it was tough to get through. Densely descriptive and heralding to another age of readership.

Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz came highly recommended as well and I enjoyed it for the most part, though this too succumbed to the hype. Notice a pattern? The more hyped a book, the less I am prone to enjoy it. PK Dick’s The Man in the High Castle was intriguing for not only its setting but it’s attention to detail, drawn from PKD’s own obsessions.  Day of the Jackal (Forsythe) kept your interest from page one till the end, both with its suspense and eye to detail. I had to read Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye just so I could respect myself. I mean, everyone else had.

#36 the splendid Hyperion (Simmons), #37 the immortal Dr. Jeckyll and Mr Hyde (Stevenson), followed by Ellis’ Ministry of Space. It wasn’t until I read the whole graphic novel I realized I had read it before. But memory being what it is, forgetfulness is its own exciting gift. I’m allowed a flub. And this was it.

I’ve got to stop here and interject something. Bouncing back and forth between old and new writing styles (anything before the 1940’s vs. after) and even between a straight up novel vs. a Graphic Novel proved a jolt to the brain camera. Especially given the reading pace . When doing a challenge of 20 or 50 or 100 books, best to keep it within a given genre and period for pacing, take a break, digest, then switch genres as you like.

#39 was Vonnegut’s apocalyptic though underwhelming Galåpagos, #40 was Weir’s tremendously enjoyable The Marian, #41 Gardner’s fascinating the Grendel (which turned the Beowulf story on its head, and was banned for a while), Flynn’s darkly entertaining Gone Girl (Oh, how she gets in both their heads. Genius!) and #43, Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. All these years I knew the backstory, I love Kubrick’s film, but had never read it.  But there’s that extra tone-changing chapter American publishers and Kubrick as well omitted. #44 Shafak’s bold The Bastard of Istanbul (the Turkish Government went after her for this one), and #45 the Terror by Simmons.

Just shut up and read The Terror already.

#46 –  The story within the story of Goldman’s The Princess Bride definitely made a better film, but taken another way, the outside narrative, the story outside the story, was superior (one of the producers of the film actually gave me one of my real breaks in the film biz – true story).

#47 : the Graduate, by Mrs. Robinson, ah.. erm, I mean, Mr. Webb, is almost an exact blueprint for the film, both text and film locked into a symbiotic embrace. I followed this with Levin’s darkly enjoyable Rosemary’s Baby , and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods which kept itself from being too obvious. Finally, I went for the source text for that classic dystopian film, Soylent Green – Harrison’s Make Room Make Room. The novel explores a wider range of characters, but ultimately doesn’t tie into as nice a knot with that one-two punch the film gives you.

That was 50.

Being ahead of schedule, and a glutton for punishment, I went into the Bonus Round (yes, I get to make the rules up as I go along.)

My bonus reads were:

-the graphic novel HUM (splendidly written by multi-faceted scribe and producer Scott Marcano),

-Carreré’s flowing bio of Phillip K Dick  I am alive and you are dead (which shed light on so much),

-Snyder and Murphy’s Brilliant Graphic Novel Wake,

-the first comic issue of  of Dan Panosian’s highly entertaining creation Slots, (trade paperback of the whole coming soon)…

-Charles Burns’  brilliantly inked Black Hole graphic novel,

-Catching Hell, a twilight-zone-esque novella by G. Gifune about a soul trap,

The Incal, an  epic collaboration by Filmmaker/writer Jodorowsky and legendary artist Moebius . The Incal is the film Dune wanted to be.

And for the grand finale, Robert Crumb’s Genesis, a sequential art exploration of the entire first book of the Old Testament. A lot has been written and surmised about what kind of effect he was after, and Crumb is after all, controversial. Beyond some risque details in the art (tame for him), the text is pretty much straight from the book of  Genesis. Perhaps owing to the power of the book and its primeval meanings,  Crumb’s is an intensely readable graphic novel treatment (surpassing even the film adaptations) of the source. His grunge style at once feels earthy and primal.  Not a comic book for kids, though Crumb would argue that most children’s book versions of Genesis stories are very sanitized to begin with.

I will stop here.  I’ll admit, at times I felt pressured, and marathon reading is always a danger. The point is to enjoy it. But the point is also to retrain one’s mind, which I felt it did in my case. You get sharper.

Here’s to hearing of your book journey. Don’t wait too long.. who knows how long we’ll still have books!

Herein and Forthwith are special thanks to they that helped guide my reading: Daniel Thron, Ludwig Barska, Shahe Makerian, and ages ago, Jeff Levine. And thereafter, to one Gregory Aslan Chopoorian for sending extra reading matter. Finally, I tip my hat to the Los Angeles County Public Library system and its employees, for saving me a buck or two.

The photo album of all the book covers is here

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