What I'm Reading (No. 44): a trio of slim and spectacular books
The last few books I finished all came in at under 200 pages. It wasn't really planned, but it's a nice boost to my "books read" list, and they were all fantastic. Slim books in general are underrated. In some ways it takes more skill to put an impactful and complete story or idea into less than 200 pages. These three did it superbly:
The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
We of course all know this story thanks to the classic movie. A few decades before Judy Garland wowed us all, though, it was a slim novel for kids. And while many chapters are scene-for-scene replicated, there were of course some that weren't depicted at all on screen, and some that were way more badass in the book (like the Tinman lopping off heads with his ax).
While adults want to put lessons into the story (myself included), Baum in fact wrote in the introduction that he just wanted to write a story of pure whimsy, with no agenda or moral theme at all. And what he ended up creating was probably the most enduring and original fairytale to ever come out of American letters. (Some will cite the Alice in Wonderland books, but those were a hard "meh" for me.)
Though written primarily for kids, it's a story that can captivate adult readers too. It's written simply, but not so much as to be boring or one-dimensional. And of course, as briefly mentioned above, you're sure to find some lesson-type nuggets to chew on — even if Baum himself wouldn't approve. Particularly, I was intrigued by the non-human creatures desiring character traits (courage, a heart, brains) while Dorothy herself, fully human, only wanted to go home. There's something to learn there, perhaps.
Waiting for Eden by Elliot Ackerman
"We may have burned and bled, but we were never asked to wait. She's waited, they all have. They're trapped by us and they wait."
In some writers, the horror of war has a way of bringing out their best in the midst of humanity's worst. Hemingway. Tim O'Brien. Erich Maria Remarque. These authors found ways to convey the fields of battle to the rest of us. Add Elliot Ackerman to that list. That's how good — and affecting — this book was. And I'm not alone in that assessment: the Washington Post called Ackerman "one of the best soldier-writers of his generation."
At the very start, we learn that the narrator is dead. He's telling the story of his best friend — a soldier named Eden, who survived the blast that killed our narrator. He's not really surviving though; he's lost multiple limbs, and is one of the worst burn victims the doctors have ever seen alive. But he's just comatose in a hospital room. And that's how it's been for years.
Until, that is, Eden regains some semblance of consciousness on Christmas. What remains, though, is a fractured and scattered mind. It turns out that more time isn't necessarily the best prognosis.
In the midst of all this, we see the grief of his wife, Mary. She's just waiting . . . waiting for him to come back, waiting for him to die, waiting for anything. Waiting for Eden.
It's real. It's raw. It's a gut punch. Waiting for Eden is a story that's devastating but also beautifully written, composed, and structured. This is an important addition to the literature of the ongoing, seemingly never-ending wars in the Middle East.
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs
This book. My siren song, you guys. It was published in 2011, and I'm annoyed it took me seven years to discover it (through the recommendation of my boss, no less). While the title makes it seem like it's more about the travails of distraction, it's really a love letter to — and philosophy of — reading.
Jacobs observes that the number of obsessive readers in the world is really not as many as one would think. And that's okay. Those of us who truly love books and the experience — and yes, pleasure — of reading are actually in the minority. Many people read some, not very many people read a lot.
I get a lot of questions about how I read so much. Honestly, the answer is that I just really enjoy it. I would legitimately rather read than sleep — hence getting up at 5:30am as a work-from-home employee. I read when I should probably be playing with kids. I read at every stupid little chance I get. And that's truly not to pat myself on the back; there are plenty of times that doing other things would be a better use of my time. Books just have a tight hold over me. As they do for Alan Jacobs.
For him, reading is one of the foremost pleasures of life. The Pleasures of Reading is his ode to that hobby/obsession/compulsion. I can't recommend it enough if you're someone who deeply loves books and reading and would find a philosophy of the topic to be immensely enjoyable.
What are you all reading and enjoying this week? I'd love to hear.