Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


Blog

Archive for the ‘On reading’ Category

Talkin’ books

Monday, June 14th, 2021

My pal Oleg Kagan writes a blog called Shelf Talks, wherein he interviews people about their bookshelves, the books on them, why they chose those books, and what they made of reading them.

As an inveterate reader, I was thrilled to be invited to be interviewed for this.

A few months ago, I sent Oleg 10 or 15 photos of various bookcases of mine. The bookcase he selected is pretty eclectic and sparked a fun conversation.

Here it is.

The end-of-the-month post

Friday, April 30th, 2021

So, no, I can’t end April with only one post. So here we are, with the end-of-the-month post.

I remember the years when I used to post here every day. Maybe I’ll get back to that. If it gives you any comfort* — because I’m sure you no doubt want comforting about what I’m up to — I will tell you that I’ve been very productive during our little global pandemic.

I wrote three full-length plays**, and one of them is headed into production now with an opening targeted for June. (More about that soon.)

I also devoted a lot of time to listening to, and interacting with, and researching even more about, the world’s greatest rock band.*** Time well-spent indeed!

I bought about eleventy-billion more glorious old moldering comic books from the 1940s through 1980s and carefully curated them right into my collection.

And I’ve been doing a lot-lot-lot of reading, and I’ve been working on some exciting projects and initiatives at my company, and I’ve even occasionally had friends over to sit in the back yard and smoke cigars and drink bourbon and talk about writing and the theatre.

And somewhere in all that, I went and got vaccinated. I hope you do that too, if you haven’t already.

And we’ve had lots of repair work done around the house and yard, even up until today, and even more scheduled, and… ugh.

I thought I’d just catch you up somewhat obliquely on some of these things before May hits us smack in the face in the morning. And at some point — perhaps this weekend? — I’ll write one of the two longish posts that have been floating around in my head for literally months now, one of which I’ve actually written notes for, and one of which I’ve taken a photo for. The former one involves the Bee Gees, while the latter one involves Philip K. Dick and Adam Strange.

Stay tuned!

* It actually gives me comfort, as someone raised very German Lutheran, and therefore tied to work. Work is my joy. My people, when we die, say, “I wish I’d worked more.”

** When asked how many of his plays were full-length, Edward Albee famously replied, “All of them.” (Even his 10-page ones.) But in this particular case, I mean a running time of 75-120 minutes.

*** Pere Ubu, of course! There’s always something great going on over here!

Good news from the WSJ

Monday, March 29th, 2021

The big news is that, according to the Wall Street Journal, “Ship Blocking Suez Canal Is Partially Freed“! This is great news for people who were actively concerned about this, and also of some note to all the rest of us who were sure it wasn’t going to take long to resolve. At the same time, I confess that I don’t know what “partially freed” means — isn’t something freed, or not? — but I’m not so animated about this to register a red alert.

In other news, ever since my post bemoaning the hit-or-miss delivery schedule to my doorstep of the WSJ Weekend edition, the paper has reliably been there on Saturdays. While I prefer to believe that after seeing my post, which I tagged them with on Twitter, they swung into action, the realist in me thinks they’re just continuing their mind games by lulling me into false reassurance.

Why is the WSJ doing this to me?

Sunday, March 21st, 2021
My tormentors


Back in the olden days, when Barack Obama was president, I decided to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal. I did that because I like to get a variety of opinions and insights, especially from people who are influential but consistently wrong. If their wrongness is going to influence my life, I’d like to know as soon as possible.

My preferred format for reading material is paper. Because I write most of the day every day, and do that on screens, I like to restrict reading, when possible, to paper. So I subscribed to the Wall Street Journal on paper, with delivery to my office.

And thus began my yearlong battle with the WSJ.

Because many days, it wouldn’t show up.

Oh, some days, it would be there. I’d arrive at my office, and there it’d be waiting for me on the doorstep, ready for perusal while I downloaded my coffee and breakfast. But then the next day, it wouldn’t be. So I’d notify people at the paper via their online customer complaint window, or whatever they call it, and someone there would cheerily notify me in return that they’d add another day to my subscription.

Except I didn’t want another day added to my subscription. I wanted the newspaper for that day. I actually wanted the news.

This may be the place where I’ll pause and state just how much I love the news. (Even when it’s terrible.) My parents always got the newspaper, and I started reading it at an early age. When I was 14, my sister noticed an ad in the Atlantic City Press (later renamed as “The Press of Atlantic City” in, I suppose, an effort to baffle people) for a part-time, after-hours classified ad agent. I called three times, with my 14-year-old squeaky boy voice, and finally persuaded the gentleman answering the phone and doing the hiring to at least see me. My mother drove me into Atlantic City to the newspaper’s offices, where I flawlessly passed a typing test, confidently fielded a couple of phone calls, typed up sample ads with aplomb, and against all odds became a 14-year-old boy hired to work alongside women in their 30s and 40s in an after-hours advertising department. All through high school, I worked 5 to 9 p.m., Monday through Friday, and thus always had plenty of money to take girls out. (Thanks, A.C. Press!)

While I was in college, I became editor of the college newspaper and also started freelancing for the newspaper chain Gannett. I wrote for the Mainland Journal, the Vineland Times-Journal, the Egg Harbor Journal, the Atlantic County Record, another paper that I can’t remember the name of, and often got distributed among the chain, so that my work appeared in the Detroit News (at the time the 7th largest newspaper in the nation) and other dailies and weeklies around the country. This was an exciting time for this 20-year-old.

After college, I was hired again by The Press of Atlantic City, this time in editorial, as a copy editor. The job entailed arriving at 4 p.m. (oh, the glory of a late shift for someone who has always hated mornings!), reading the newspaper front-to-back for a couple of hours, having dinner, and then editing copy and writing headlines for the next day’s edition. I loved that job, got promoted quickly, and only gave it up to move to Los Angeles and enter grad school. (The then-managing editor and my boss, Bob Ebener, very much in the cranky-but-lovable Lou Grant mold, was sure that I was lying and that the Philadelphia Inquirer was grabbing me up, and tried everything to keep me. Bob also never minded my ever-changing stylings, as I went from very long hair, to very long hair dyed red and me wearing blue suede shoes, to skinhead with combat boots, although he did say, “What is it with you, Wochner?”)

After moving to Los Angeles, in 1988, I started freelancing for magazines and newspapers, including the Press once again, the Los Angeles Times, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and others.

Throughout all of that, and ever since, as you may have guessed, I have read newspapers. I love newspapers. I love turning the pages, I love the comics and the puzzles and the advice columns, I love reading the letters from infuriated readers, I love admiring the captions and headlines written to fit the space (the Press used to have a weekly contest for best caption and best headline, each prize winning $25; I made it my aim to win those every week possible to supplement my income), and I even love looking at the sports section although I don’t follow sports.

So you can imagine my fury at the Wall Street Journal not delivering my newspaper. Especially given that I was paying for it and it was ungodly expensive and they weren’t delivering it.

As I said, I would complain online in the sanctioned place to do so. I also called them — more than once; more like twice weekly. I even took to reading the masthead, figuring out how email addresses were constructed, and emailing the publisher, a senior editor or two, certainly everyone named in circulation, and I think even someone with the last name of Murdoch.

Nothing worked, and delivery remained intermittent at best, as every day my chest would tighten as I approached the office and wondered if the paper would be there. Finally, I canceled my subscription. Fuck them.

(As an aside: What does the WSJ most frequently bemoan? Poor management. ‘Nuff said!)

In all the years since, the Wall Street Journal has sent me a letter almost weekly begging me to come back. But I wasn’t yet over my upset.

Finally, almost six weeks ago, they emailed me an offer: Would I like just digital access for $4/month?

You know what? I would.

Because many times, they’ve got some piece I want to read, but it’s all blockaded. And $4/month seemed a paltry sum to be able to read those pieces. So, I clicked and, yes, for the first time in more than seven years, I was a subscriber to the Wall Street Journal! It was purely digital, I was only doing it to read pieces that I’d come across that I wanted to click to read, so I didn’t need to get all worked up about a print edition they weren’t delivering, and it was only $4/month. Done!

Then they emailed me and said, pretty much, “Hey! As a digital subscriber to the Wall Street Journal, you’re entitled to our Weekend print edition — free! Do you want it?”

The Weekend print edition, I thought? That’s with their arts section, which I’d always liked — with lots of books reviewed, and pieces about architecture and museums and paintings. Sure! I’d like that! So I clicked on the little “Yes!” button.

And that Saturday, when I walked outside to pick up my freshly delivered Los Angeles Times, there it was like a leprechaun sitting on my lawn: the Wall Street Journal Weekend edition! I picked it up, took it inside, and slowly read my way through it over the next three weeks.

Three weeks because: They didn’t deliver it the next week.

Or the week after.

My wife said, “I thought you were getting the Wall Street Journal Weekend edition now.”

Determined not to gnash my teeth, I simply said, “They’re not delivering it.”

“Why not?” she asked. Knowing me, she was ready for me to swing into action on this.

“Just not,” I said. As calmly as possible, I recounted for her my previous hostage drama with the WSJ.

Having relived it for her, I was determined now to let it go. I had arrived at a place of inner peace. This time I was not paying for the delivery of the Wall Street Journal Weekend edition. I was paying for digital access. They had offered to deliver the Weekend edition for free, and while it may have been their nasty little plan to snub me yet again, I wasn’t falling for it, because I refused to feel anything about it. I was getting what I was paying for — digital access — and their playing gotcha with print delivery was not going to have any effect on me.

And that’s how it stayed. Me, reading bits of the paper here and there online, and setting aside any feelings about the Weekend edition. Pure inner peace, well in control of what I could control, which was myself.

Then, yesterday, I went out to get my L.A. Times — and there was the Wall Street Journal Weekend edition lying next to it.

I brought it inside.

My wife saw it and said, “Oh! There’s your Wall Street Journal! I thought they weren’t delivering that!”

I just looked at her.

Lissen up, Murdochs. I know when I’m being gaslighted.

Book return

Thursday, February 18th, 2021

One night last week, after about 20 years, I had a guy I know over for drinks and cigars and to talk about theatre and writing and books and music.

One thing about the pandemic: Suddenly we both had time. The social options normally available have telescoped down into almost nothing.

We already knew we had some things in common: We’re both playwrights and stage directors, we’ve both done work with Moving Arts (which is how we know each other), I’ve seen his plays and he’s seen mine, we both have wives and kids, and we both live in Burbank — within walking distance of each other. I learned the latter fact some time last year when he told me that whenever he’s at his kids’ school, he sees the fundraising tile my wife and I sponsored some years ago. More recently, he and his wife bought one too, so that’s something else we have in common.

Over the course of two-and-a-half hours in my back yard under a glowing patio heater and during half a bottle of bourbon, we took turns shooting references at each other that, yep, the other would actually get. When I compared the Stan Lee / Jack Kirby dynamic with the Edison / Tesla dynamic, both of them revolving around a genius largely unrecognized during his life, he was armed and ready with the tragic details of Tesla’s last years. We shared our admiration for the work of Ayad Akhtar. When we wandered into music, and the role of noise, and John Cage, and I inevitably brought up Pere Ubu, and he offered his love of their songs as songs, and then added Wire, I just about fell over. How often can one find someone equally capable of discussing Marvel comics, brilliant 19th century inventors, particular contemporary playwrights, semi-obscure postpunk bands, the practice of being a writer, Fran Lebowitz, and, especially dozens and dozens of books you’ve read?

What are the odds of this, and with regard to the books in particular? Not to put too fine a point on it, but it takes time to read a book. Most Americans read four books a year. In 2020, I read 33 books; my average is 26 books a year (I just checked; thank you, GoodReads), which I think is pathetic. Although it’s possible to read 100 books a year, distractions like eating and sleeping and other functions get in the way. So finding that you’ve both read Paul Auster and Joan Didion and Julian Barnes and Cormac McCarthy and Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth and some of the Russians and Fitzgerald and Hemingway and on and on while also having all those other interests in common is a bit… disconcerting. Wasn’t the final grandmaster chess tournament in “Queen’s Gambit” like this?

It did turn out, though, that there were two books I’d read and heartily endorsed that he hadn’t read, and two that he swore by that I hadn’t read. The next day, still thrilled and knocked off-kilter by the experience of having someone walk over to my house and have that sort of conversation with me over bourbon and cigars for almost three hours, I went on Amazon and sent him the two books I love that he hadn’t read: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.

He texted me two days later to thank me and to say that he’d already gobbled down the Barnes book, adding a few salient points about it. And then the other day, when I opened my front door to see why my annoying dogs were raising high holy hell this time, I found a package from Amazon on my own doorstep: He had sent me the two I hadn’t read, pictured above.

After I read these, we’ll have four more books we can discuss. And this time, we won’t wait 20 years. We’ve already set the date.

Formative experiences in English!

Sunday, February 14th, 2021
A bocadillo de jamón
  1. At a young age, I learned that the exclamation “Excelsior!” was intended for Stan Lee alone, and that the rest of us weren’t suited for it.
  2. I learned this after trying it out on my middle-school peers. Unfortunately.
  3. Also in middle school, we were assigned to write a book report of a biography. Mine was on L. Sprague deCamp’s biography of H.P. Lovecraft; a friend chose a book on Robert Goddard. I wound up reading that book, too. I learned two things from the Goddard book:  that Robert Goddard was the “father of the American rocketry program,” and that one could be both a genius and a terrible speller. Throughout his life, Robert Goddard spelled “failure” as “failor.” This is how I learned there is no correlation between good spelling and raw intelligence.
  4. This conclusion was supported in the 1990s when I was a literacy tutor, and I learned how to teach people to read. Reading is not primarily based on sounding out letters — if it were, we’d all get stopped in our tracks by words like “numb” ( which would be pronounced “noombuh”) and “phone” (“puh-hoooon-eee”). Reading is all about pattern recognition. If you’re a good speller, it’s because you’ve read enough to recognize the patterns, or you’re just naturally good at pattern recognition. 
  5. Further proof:  My wife is an intelligent woman, someone smart and capable who has saved people’s lives for 35 years as a healthcare provider. She’s also a prolific reader. But she still can’t keep two, too, and to straight. (Maybe she’s a genius, like Robert Goddard.)
  6. When I see a word misspelled, it’s like someone has jammed glass in my eye. It also hurts my inner ear. I probably outwardly cringe. If the misspelling is accompanied by certain flags and signs we’ve seen at, say, insurrections against the government, I admit to drawing an immediate conclusion. Barring that, I think the culprit is just not a good speller. A friend misspelled a word on Facebook earlier, in an exchange with me, and it took a force of will not to correct him on it — but why would I do that? He’s smart and accomplished, and maybe it was a typo.
  7. My children, on the other hand? I always correct them. That’s my job. They’re all adults now and I don’t care, it’s still my job.
  8. Although I steer away from correcting the spelling of non-offspring, except in professional settings where it’s important to get it right, I will correct a non-native English speaker on pronunciation. When I was studying French in college, my professor called that lovable rodent who torments your dogs a “SQUEE-rell.” Never known for shyness, I said, “It’s pronounced ‘squirrel.’” She said, “Thank you, Monsieur Wochner. No one ever corrects me, so I never get better.”
  9. She also told me, after much mutual effort to accomplish the opposite, “You will speak French with an accent.”
  10. Spanish being close enough to French that one should be able to make something of the same ingredients, I kept trying out Spanish last year when I was in Spain. While there, I came to learn that Spain is all about ham. So much so that their national flag should just be a flying pig, and so much so that, yes, there is a museum of ham. If you order coffee — and the coffee in Spain is incomparable, I have to tell you — you’re pretty much offered some form of pig with that coffee. Madrid is dotted with little sandwich shops that provide coffee and variations of little toasted sandwiches, all of them with varieties of bacon and ham, with or without cheese. On the first morning there, I left my daughter napping in our room while I hustled down to the streetscape and over to such a shop. I looked over the offerings, and read the signs, and very chestily ventured to the young man behind the counter, “Una pequeno bocadillo de jamon, y una mediano, y una  café  con leche, por favor.”  I was bursting with accomplishment — until he said, “Oh, American, yes?” And then conducted the rest of the transaction in flawless English.

Against self-expression

Saturday, February 13th, 2021
Painted (on commission) by Hieronymus Bosch

Today, on a Zoom call, David Thomas of Pere Ubu was saying again that “self-expression is evil.” He said it twice — once, 30 years ago, in a television interview that a couple dozen of us were now watching with him, and again, afterward, to us.  And of course many other times over the years in other interviews.

Thus the answer to why in its 45-year history Pere Ubu has recorded almost no love songs. 

This served as a reminder that this tough-mindedness is part of why I could never cozy up to the singer-songwriter movement of the 1970s, but instantly sutured myself onto Pere Ubu 35 years ago when I first heard them.

But before I go on let me be careful not to ascribe to David, whose work I admire tremendously, opinions that are mine and not his. Whatever he means by “self-expression” may not be what I mean by “self-expression.” I generally mean that baring one’s soul through art is not in and of itself interesting; a few drinks with a friend at a pub would sort that out better. Doing it through what you think is art is actually quite boring — as evidenced by the sort of poem that used to appear in Reader’s Digest, and also by countless high-school journals, including mine, in which I endlessly pined for girls in ways that still embarrass me, 40 years later, because I can’t forget my own adolescent weakness.

If you’re lucky, people will be interested in your art.  If they were primarily interested in you, you’d be a reality TV star.

And that’s the way it should be for artists. Art first. Confession and “self-expression” never.

I’ve worked with hundreds (and hundreds) of playwrights over the past 30 years. And, of course, actors and directors and scenic designers and musicians and visual artists and choreographers and so forth. I take it for granted that they’ve all had hurtful childhoods — some of them actually hurtful, some of them a hurt of their imagination (which doesn’t make it any less real). Even after all these years, while I like almost all these people and am glad to know them, I find it hard to get worked up about their personal pain. By its nature it’s so self-involving that it just can’t be interesting. How interesting can childhood trauma be, if everyone’s had some version of it? Childhood trauma isn’t unique — it’s universal.

Art, on the other hand can be profoundly interesting when people put their hurt into it in service of the work. I’m not sad to say that I can’t get moved by the early death of John Lennon’s mother — but him screaming about it on Plastic Ono Band certainly gets my attention and approval. That isn’t self-expression, that’s art that includes self-expression. (And, anyway, was Julia’s death bad luck for him — or was it what he needed to become a Beatle? We should note that Paul McCartney also lost his mother in his childhood.) We know almost nothing about Hieronymus Bosch’s life, but I know all I need to know from his paintings, and I can assume that some of him is in there, even though they were painted on commission.

That’s how it should be.

If the art is interesting, the self that comes through that art is interesting. Art that serves as self-expression is best kept with your middle-school participation trophies, forgotten in a closet filled with such clutter.

In the other practice, self-expression is presented on a platter, a la those mawkish TV romances made for dowagers. Most of the explicit self-expression I see in would-be art is handed to us as confession. Confession and sharing are antithetical to conflict, and it’s conflict that makes art powerful. What are those classic three storylines? Man versus man; man versus nature; man versus himself. Note that each of those has a “versus.” On the other hand, when a character sits down and earnestly tells another character how sad she feels, you can feel the play sink like the House of Usher. This is why for years in my writing workshop, I’ve railed against plays whose central story is this:  “Grandma’s dying, and I feel sad.” Well, that’s you. How do we in the audience feel about it?

Pere Ubu, meanwhile, has achieved 45 years of powerfully moving work that is utterly devoid of sentimentality. Is it filled with feeling? Absolutely. Does it elicit feelings in the audience? Of course. The staying power of the music, and the thrill it engenders in its adherents, provide testimony to that. So too is attending a live show and seeing the impact of the music on all those assembled; there is a charge in the air, every time. But none of it is saccharine, none of it is handed to you, and none of it asks you to crank up emotions you don’t have. Like all great art, Pere Ubu respects the work too much for that. It would be degrading to stoop to mawkishness.

Not-year in review

Sunday, December 27th, 2020

Today, the Washington Post unveiled its “humorous” 2020 year-in-review, courtesy of Dave Barry, which was even less funny than Dave Barry normally is.

Then the Los Angeles Times carrier dropped today’s edition on my front lawn, featuring its own year-in-review, which made me want to run after her car and take back the Christmas tip I’d given her.

Why would anyone want to perform a year in review on 2020? Except, perhaps, to learn what not to do.

2020 was the year in which I saw no more than one play. At least, not live on-stage — and, no, watching “theatre” on Zoom doesn’t count as theatre, so, yes, I saw only the one. Oh, I was supposed to see more, but I was out of town / out of the country for a huge swath of January, had only the one show scheduled for February, and then, well, you know what happened after that. I sure was looking forward to the revival of 1776 and also to a host of other shows, and I wish I’d liked the one I did get to see.

2020 was the year in which I wrote a full-length play, all 120ish pages of it plus notes, then realized I didn’t like it at all, then set about rewriting it from a different point of view and a different tone, then found that I needed to do research (!) and then realized that maybe this wasn’t the play for me to be writing anyway. Yes, it was that sort of year — in which one writes two versions of the same play and then isn’t satisfied with either.

2020 was also the year in which I saw one concert. Oh, I enjoyed that one tremendously (and we’ll get to that), but what might it have been like to see all the others that were scheduled? The Cruel World Festival alone (an instant sellout, but a friend and I scored great seats) promised sets from Morrissey, Bauhaus, Blondie, Devo, Echo & The Bunnymen, Psychedelic Furs, the Church, Public Image Limited, and so many more. The fest was scheduled for May, then got rescheduled to September, but sometime around June someone woke up to what wasn’t ending anytime soon and just canceled it.

Should I point out that this was the year that Comic-Con was canceled? And, no, that valiant effort of doing a virtual Comic-Con was not Comic-Con. I know, because I’ve been to Comic-Con every year since 1988. Except for one year — guess which one.

2020 was the year in which a politician I’ve always liked and rooted for finally won the presidency — except the other candidate refused to admit defeat and half of his party in the House is still going along with it.

In 2020 in the United States, more than 300,000 people and counting died from what someone (see previous paragraph) kept saying was like the flu, and not to worry about it. So much winning!

2020 was the year in which one of my favorite restaurants, Pacific Dining Car, a place of many memories for me, went out of business… one year short of its 100th anniversary. That is so 2020! Now I’m afraid thousands of other restaurants are going to follow it into oblivion, if they haven’t already, taking hundreds of thousands of jobs with them.

In 2020, many of my friends lost their jobs. Their long-time jobs. Hard-to-replace jobs.

In 2020 it cost a small fortune and a short lifetime to get a package from the U.K., thanks to changes made by our postmaster. Some delivery days, the U.S. mail didn’t arrive at all, a true first in my lifetime, and yet another achievement for the current administration.

2020 was the year in which one of my kids came home for Christmas, but the other didn’t because of our reasonable fears during the pandemic.

2020 wasn’t a total bust. As the year opened, my daughter and I went to Spain to see Pere Ubu play, and also spent time in the same room as Hieronymus Bosch paintings I’ve admired for decades, and rode high-speed rail from Madrid to Segovia, and ate in the world’s oldest restaurant, and went to a flamenco show and did some shopping and had an altogether excellent time. I sometimes think that reflecting on January is what kept me together through March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November and December.

And, y’know what? I’m healthy and alive and so are my family, the sun is shining, and I don’t own a restaurant. If 2020 has one lesson for us, it’s this: Be grateful for what you have, and do your best not to spread misery around, because many people have it far worse. If we’re going to review 2020, we should celebrate it for leaving us with that lesson.

Voltaire said — and I’m paraphrasing here — that man is essentially optimistic because he goes to bed making plans for the next day. In that spirit: 2021, I await you!

Like Sisyphus

Saturday, December 26th, 2020

A few years ago, when I was making my way through David McCullough’s biography of the Wright Brothers, I fell into a discussion about reading with a friend. I was extolling the virtues of the Goodreads app, which helps me track the books I’ve read as well as, especially, the ones I want to read. This has proved very helpful at Christmastime when family members want to know what books I want, or when I’m in a bookstore readying for travel to another city and looking for something to read on the trip.

“How many books do you have on that list?” my friend asked.

“Seventy-eight,” I said.

“Seventy-eight!” he said. “You’ll never read them all.”

I did some basic math, and even while knowing that the average page count of books varies greatly, I figured I’d get them all read in four years or so. Sure, “War and Peace” was on there — a second attempt — but I’d knock that off at some point. And this year, it turns out, I read Ron Chernow’s magnificent (in content and in length) nearly 1,000-page biography of George Washington. I wasn’t intimidated.

But just now I checked to see, four years after our discussion, how many books remain in my queue.

One hundred and three. Numerically at least, that doesn’t equal progress.

See, what happens is this: Other books come along! So that even as you’re reading your way through the list, new books line up alongside them!

Someone should have told me this. Like, decades and decades ago.

I’ve read 32 books so far this year, a good number but not a great one, and that’s with counterbalancing the Chernow doorstop with two collections of the mildly diverting The Immortal Hulk. (It seems that, almost 50 years on, no matter what he’s getting up to, life is an ordeal for the Hulk. But somehow, yes, I do want to know more.) Before the year ends in a few days, I’ll definitely finish at least one of the books I’m reading now (The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball) and probably one of the ones I was gifted for Christmas.

My Christmas haul, by the way, included: two novels ( Luster by Raven Leilani — seeing it on Barack Obama’s best-of list was not an inducement; I had read an excerpt and was drawn to the writing; and Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell); two non-fiction books (1491 by Charles C. Mann, about pre-Columbian culture in what’s now the Americas; and Uncanny Valley, an expose of sorts of Silicon Valley by a young woman who worked there); and what I can assure you was the terrifically fun “graphic novel” (we used to call them comic books) Black Hammer/Justice League:  Hammer of Justice!, which I read immediately, and which is filled with laugh-out-loud wit and clever insights and playful mockery of the history of superhero team-up comics, although — warning — you need a familiarity with the Black Hammer universe to make sense of it).

Others here got books for Christmas too: my eldest got The Ministry for the Future by the great science-fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson (also on my list, and Barack Obama’s too) and the fourth book in a fantasy series I hadn’t heard of; my youngest got a fistful of financial management and investment books and also a memoir/self-discipline book with this pugilistic title: Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds (this son of mine is an extremely determined 18-year-old); and my wife got a crime novel set in Los Angeles and also a photo book of grinning dogs with fun captions, the sort that should lift anyone’s day. To our daughter, down in Florida, we sent books exploring and depicting the inner workings of the human body, and also a book of pharmacological concoctions. She also asked for books on “murder and horror” — as though the medical books wouldn’t be enough.

A close friend also sent me three very well-selected books (and thank you again, sir!) one of them a biography of legendary stage director Alan Schneider, who worked with Beckett and Albee; the second an exploration of Tennessee Williams’ work; and the third an overview of Jack Kirby’s Silver Age work for Marvel Comics. So, no, my reading list hasn’t gotten shorter. But: Why should it? Even with a supermarket shopping list, you may buy all the food items you wrote down — but you’ll be back and buying others next week. Isn’t this like that? Who ever said one should finish one’s reading list? I doubt I’d feel a sense of satisfaction after actually reading the next 103 books and then having none on the list. Instead, I think I’d feel bereft.

This little lesson about the reading list illuminates just how right Camus was about Sisyphus when he said more or less that Sisyphus surprisingly leads a life of joy when pushing that boulder fruitlessly up the hill. Life isn’t about finishing things. It’s about doing things along the way.

My Tweet with André

Saturday, November 21st, 2020

As I mentioned in my playwriting workshop today, I’m reading André Gregory’s memoir, “This Is Not My Memoir.” I track the progress of all the books I’m reading on Goodreads. When I update the app with my reading progress twice daily (once around lunchtime, and once around midnight) it puts out a tweet about my progress on reading that particular book. (I have it set up to do this; it’s an option.)

Last night I updated the app to log my progress on reading André Gregory’s memoir… and he saw my tweet and Liked it.

It’s the tiniest little thing, but it sent a thrill shooting through me. I’ve revered this man’s work for 40 years, since discovering him through “My Dinner with André.”  (My favorite film.) Mark Hamill once liked one of my tweets, and he seems like a nice guy, and some other well-known people have too, but to me it’s not like Andre freakin’ Gregory liking one of my tweets! A friend of mine interviewed André earlier this year, but this is as close as I’m likely to get.

By the way, his book is superb. Entirely engrossing! He’s a great storyteller, sharing tales in a limpid, crystalline style that communicates a great deal simply but deeply. He’s had quite a life! From encounters with Errol Flynn and Abbot & Costello and a host of surprising celebrities of the 40s and 50s to working with such varied characters as David Bowie and Helene Wiegel and Harrison Ford and Sylvester Stallone and Martin Scorsese and, of course, Wallace Shawn and so many other colorful characters.