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Curse of the Summer Reading List

He wondered why there was no Ernest Hemingway on the summer reading list (image via wikimedia)

He wondered why there was no Ernest Hemingway on the summer reading list (image via wikimedia)

My oldest daughter received her school’s summer reading list yesterday, and she was not happy about it.  Her idea of summer is sitting around the house doing nothing until we take our vacation.  I don’t blame her.  I had lots of summer vacations where I sat around and did nothing, and that was before cable and the internet.  It’s a lot more fun to sit around and do nothing than it was 35 years ago.  But this summer, my daughter has another reading list.

“It’s my summer break,” she fumed.  “What is it about ‘break’ that they don’t understand?”

I laughed, not at her words, but at her level of outrage.  She has to read and complete book reports for a grand total of… two books.  Students are supposed to choose one from a list of classics that include Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  The other list consists of more contemporary stuff like The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, or The Lightning Thief.   My daughter has read most of the contemporary books, so she plans on doing her “contemporary” project on a book that she has already read.

I have mixed feelings about this.  Part of me thinks she should read a book she hasn’t read before because she has almost three months to do it and it never hurts to read a new book, even if it’s assigned.  On the other hand, if she already has read most of those books willingly, she should reap the benefits of reading on her own.  I’m a believer in taking advantage of your advantages.  But if she chooses a book she’s already read, I’ll require her to reread the book rather than going from memory.  There’s nothing wrong with reading a book more than once.

My daughter is acting like this summer reading list will ruin her summer.  I can think of other things that would ruin a summer, more serious things, but I don’t want to jinx anybody.  Her reaction is pretty typical of people who don’t want to do things they have to do.  If anything, I’ve been a bad role model for how to handle unpleasant tasks.  When I get a surprise list of activities I don’t want to do, I can overreact too, as if a couple chores will ruin a day.  But I’m not sure a reading list can ruin a summer, unless the list is really long.  Two books?  Not really long.

Last summer, when my daughter had a reading list, we bought the books in June, and she read them in August.  My wife was annoyed she waited so long.  I was just glad my daughter didn’t lose them between June and August.  A lot of stuff happened (we moved… that was the “lot of stuff”) where she could have lost them.

I’ve never been a fan of summer reading lists for adults either, even when the lists are optional.   Summer is that time of year when magazines and websites come up with their own lists of what people should read.   I used to check out the lists to see what I’ve read and what I haven’t read, but after a while, most of the lists seemed a lot alike.  Almost everything had To Kill a Mockingbird on it.  I don’t know why summer reading is such a big deal.  Most of us have to work just as much in the summer as we do during the rest of the year.  At least, I do.  I’ll take a week-long vacation with my family, but I won’t get much reading done, except in the airport before the (legal) drugs kick in.

I don’t have a pre-planned summer reading list anymore.  Years ago when I did, I’d quit most of the books and feel like a failure (except when I lied and told everybody that I’d actually finished them, and their admiration temporarily made me feel better).  It was as if every book I put on the list was cursed.  Now, I don’t make my summer reading list until September, when I go back and chronicle all the books I read over the summer.  This time, I only include books that I finished.  The others go on the NON-reading list. I hope the reading list is longer than the NON-reading list, but it doesn’t really matter.  You usually know after a few pages if you’re going to like a book or not.

My daughter also has to complete a math packet over the summer, but this doesn’t bug her as much, even though she likes reading more than she likes math.  The math is more like a refresher to keep students from forgetting the basics.  Between reading the books and completing the reports, the reading list will take much longer.  Even as I write this, she’s cursing the summer reading list (but she doesn’t know I can hear her).  I don’t blame her.  I don’t like summer reading lists either.

*****

What do you think?  Should my daughter read a book she hasn’t read?  Or should she be allowed to select a book she’s already read?  Should I tell my daughter to watch her language in the house, even when she doesn’t think I can hear her?  Do you (or your children) have to complete a summer reading list?  How do you (or your kids) react to a summer reading list?

5 Topics Every Author MUST Write About

If Ernest Hemingway said that you MUST write about these five topics, you'd take him seriously. (image via wikimedia)

If Ernest Hemingway said that you MUST write about these five topics, you’d probably take him seriously. (image via wikimedia)

Writers don’t like being told what to do.  That’s part of what makes us writers.  We like to write about what we want to write about, and if somebody tells us what to write about, a lot of us will struggle.

Just like most people, I don’t like being told what to do, but I also don’t like telling others what to do.  This puts me in a bad position.  If I don’t like being told what to do and I don’t like telling others what to do, then I’m in a social no-man’s land.  Maybe that’s why I like being a writer; I have complete control without really having to make decisions for anybody else.

I don’t like being told what to read either.  As a reader, I constantly see lists about what books I should read, must read, have to read.    The best thing about not being in school anymore is that nobody tells me what to read, and if somebody does tell me what to read, I’m usually getting paid for it.

Even though I’ve seen plenty of online lists telling readers what to read, I’ve never seen a list of what writers have to write about.  If there are certain books we must read, then there must be certain topics that we should have to write about.  It just makes sense.

But I don’t like telling others what to do, and I feel awkward telling other writers what they have to write about.  It goes against my nature.  Then again, I’m not the one who decided what authors have to write about.  It just is.  If you’re going to write, these are topics that you have to write about.  These aren’t the only topics you have to cover, but you have to write about these.  There’s no way around it.

A lot of writing advice sounds pompous.  I don’t want to give any examples because I don’t want to offend any advice-givers by calling them pompous, but you probably know what I mean.  Nothing sounds more pompous than saying MUST really loudly.  If I’m going to give writing advice, I might as well go all out and sound pompous, so you MUST write about these topics if you want to be an author.

Maybe the contrarian writer will look at the following list and say, “Screw you, Dysfunctional Literacy!  You can’t tell me what to write!”  The contrarian writer might go out of his/her way to deliberately avoid writing about the following topics just to prove to it can be done, just to demonstrate that a writer doesn’t have to MUST write about any particular topic.

While I respect the contrarian author, I’m not sure he or she would be able to write without ever focusing on one of the following topics:

1.  Relationships

Most stories about one individual are kind of dull.  Even stories about one person include relationships of some kind.  Robinson Crusoe had Wilson.  Or was it Friday?  I get them confused.

2. Emotions

Honestly, I try to avoid emotions as much as I can in my personal life because they can distract me from reading and writing, but writing without emotions can be boring.  I like boring in my life, but I don’t like boring in my reading and writing, so I write about emotions whenever I can fit them into my stories.

3. Yourself

If you can’t write about yourself, who can you write about?  Every character you create is an extension of yourself in some way.  Or maybe not.  But some character in every story is probably an extension of yourself.  I have no evidence to back that up, but it sounds good, so it must be true.

4. What you know

Of course, you have to write about what you know.  It’s probably impossible to write if you don’t know anything about everything that you’re writing about.  Then again, I’ve never tried it, but I’ve never heard of anybody who has, so it has to be impossible.

5. What you don’t know

If I only wrote about what I knew, my writing would be pretty limited.  Luckily, I have the internet.  With the internet, I can find out about stuff that I didn’t know about and then pretend I knew it all along.  Nobody knows what I know and don’t know, except maybe Google, but I hope Google is too busy selling information in bulk to look individually into what I know and don’t know.  I wonder how writers wrote about what they didn’t know about before the internet.  I guess they just made stuff up.

As much as I enjoy a challenge while writing, I’m not sure I would ever try to not write about these five topics.  On the other hand, I don’t like being told what to do either.  This stinks.  I’ve just told myself that I MUST write about these topics, and I have a tough time writing when I’m told what to write about, and now my mind has gone blank.

Great.  I’ve just given myself writer’s block, and I know exactly what I MUST write about.

*****

What do you think?  What is worse, being told what to read or told what to write?  What other topics MUST authors write about?  Do you like to focus more on what you know or don’t know?  What do you do when you accidentally give yourself writer’s block?

Writer’s Block vs. Reader’s Block

The author completely lost his train of thought as soon as he put his manuscript on the writer's block. (image via wikimedia)

The author completely lost his train of thought as soon as he put his manuscript on the writer’s block. (image via wikimedia)

Most people don’t understand how frustrating reader’s block and writer’s block can be.  When I have reader’s block, I can waste an entire day wandering down aisles of book stores looking for something interesting to read. When I have writer’s block, I just stare like I’ve witnessed something traumatic.

A co-worker of mine doesn’t even believe that reader’s block exists.  He thinks it’s something that I made up.  In this day and age, I can’t believe I work with a reader’s block denier, but that’s the world we live in.  After he loudly proclaimed that reader’s block was all in my head (which kind of proved my point), he admitted that he doesn’t read books.  Typical denier, I thought.  Maybe it was my fault for trying to explain reader’s block to him.

To me, reader’s block is more frustrating than writer’s block.  Reader’s block isn’t supposed to happen.  If I want to read, I can just read. Logically, writer’s block should be more difficult to beat because it’s tougher to force yourself to be creative than it is to force yourself to read.  Over the years, I’ve figured out how to beat writer’s block.  If I’m struggling, I just go to James Patterson’s website, and I get mad, and that usually inspires me to write.  Sometimes I even write about James Patterson.  Pretty soon you’ll see a post on Dysfunctional Literacy called “Best James Patterson Jokes Ever!”  When you see that, you’ll know that I just had writer’s block.

Some people can drink themselves into writing.  Ernest Hemingway said “Write drunk; edit sober.”  I can’t even write drunk.  I can’t type when I’m intoxicated, and I can’t handwrite while I’m inebriated.  In fact, I can’t do anything very well when I’m drunk.  Unlike most drunks, I’m aware that I’m not good at anything when I’m drunk.  I’ll even give my car keys to other drunks when I’m drunk, but that’s not smart because they don’t know how drunk they are.  I don’t hand over my car keys anymore because now I’m too much of a control freak to get drunk.

Ernest Hemingway also said: “There is nothing to writing; all you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”  I think “bleed” is just a euphemism for “drink.”  Since Hemingway claimed to drink while writing, I don’t think he bled too.  Bleeding and drinking at the same time seems like a bad idea.  The next time you get stuck with writer’s block, try bleeding, drinking, and writing at the same time, and then let us read what you wrote.  That’s the kind of experiment I’d rather not do myself.

Even though I’ve had both reader and writer’s block, I’ve never had both at the same time.  That would be frustrating, wanting to read and write but being unable to do either (or both).  Maybe all those people who just watch TV all day have both reader’s block and writer’s block all the time and don’t even know it.  Maybe we’re the lucky ones, because our blocks are temporary.

I’ve always thought that writer’s block was like getting the wind knocked out you; you hate it when it happens, but you know it’s temporary.  Except now I think there are people who have it permanently, and I don’t want to become like them.

Maybe I get reader’s block more often now because I’m getting older, and nothing seems new anymore.  If every new novel that I read feels like some other novel that I’ve already read, why shouldn’t I just reread the older, better book?  Too many of the newer novels are no longer self-contained.  I don’t feel like reading trilogies or any multiple-book series.  I don’t feel like reading novels that are 500+ pages anymore.  Maybe I’m getting more impatient.  Maybe I’ve just read too many multiple-book series and trilogies.

Just like some writers have to write to break out of writer’s block, some readers have to read their way out of reader’s block.  If I really want to read some good fiction and don’t want to take chances with a new book, I’ll read The Godfather by Mario Puzo or The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett or Different Seasons by Stephen King (the first two stories, at least).  They’re not the best books in the world, and I’m not necessarily recommending them, but they’re easy to read.  And when I’m stuck with reader’s block, I need something easy to read.

Maybe I should try drinking and reading at the same time whenever I get reader’s block.  Maybe reading is the one thing that I can do really well when I’m drunk.  I’ve never tried it before, and if I can’t read while drunk, then I’m not really hurting anyone else.  I can give the book to somebody else to read for me, but most drunks would probably look at me funny, but everybody looks at me funny when I get drunk.  Or they look annoyed.  I’ve been told that I’m a jerk when I’m drunk.  Even people who are jerks when they are sober have told me that I’m a jerk when I’m drunk.

If I thought writing drunk would make me a great writer, I’d consider doing it (under certain conditions).  But I’m not willing to drink just to be a great reader.  I’m not willing to bleed either.  When I look at it from that perspective, I guess writer’s block is worse than reader’s block.  But… that might not be the best perspective.

*****

What do you think?  Which block is worse for you, writer’s block or reader’s block?  What’s your best method to get out of writer’s block?  What books do you read to break out of reader’s block? Do you even believe in reader’s block?

The History of “Thug”

Ugh!  Now I have to go back and change every "thug" to "ruffian."   (image via Wikimedia)

Ugh! Now I have to go back and change every “thug” to “ruffian.” (image via Wikimedia)

I might have to stop using the word “thug” in my writing.  Over the last few days, several television commentators on several cable news stations have stated that “thug” is the new code for the “N-word.” I have to take their opinions seriously because cable news commentators are known for carefully thinking about what they say before they say it.

I admit, I use the word “thug” when I write.  I’ve used the word “thug” in a story that I’ve written recently.   In that story, the word “thug” is racially ambiguous, but that might not come across to the reader.  In today’s hostile cultural climate, a reader might see the word “thug” and assume certain attributes in my character that I hadn’t meant, and then that reader might assume that I am a racist.

I don’t want to be thought of as or accused of being a racist.  I don’t want to say the “N-word.”  I don’t even want to say words that rhyme with the “N-word.”  I always use the word “larger.”  I always say “that little lever your finger pulls to fire a gun.”  I don’t like to be misinterpreted when I speak, so I speak carefully, even more carefully than cable news commentators.

Being accused of racism is serious.  When I was in school, the worst thing to be accused of was passing gas.  Once a kid got called a farter, his/her reputation was destroyed, even if the accusation wasn’t true.  The same fear exists with racism.  Once you’re accused, that’s it; your reputation is destroyed.  Nowadays, the only thing worse than a racist is a farting racist because they spread both hate and nauseating smells, and that’s a bad combination.

Even though I don’t want to be accused of racism, it’s tough for me to let go of the word “thug.”  I like the way it sounds.  It’s short, so it’s tough to misspell.  It sounds much better than “ruffian.”  I really don’t want to use the word “ruffian” in place of “thug.”  Nobody really gets scared of “ruffians.”

If “thug” replaces the “N-word,” I’ll blame the British.  According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the British took the word “thug” from India in the 1800s.  In its original form, it was “thag,” meaning thief.  Then when the word “thug” found its way to Britain, it began to mean anybody who engaged in rough criminal behavior.  I usually don’t mind blaming others for my own problems, so I blame the British for “thug.”  I like the British, but this is all their fault.

Since “thug” originally meant “thief,” anybody who steals something is technically a thug.  So when looters clean out a store, they technically would be “thugs.”  When football player Richard Sherman was called a thug for trash talking after a football game a couple seasons ago, he had just intercepted an opponent’s pass, in effect stealing it, so technically, he was a “thug.” If he hadn’t just been a “thug,” his trash talking wouldn’t have made any sense.

If “thug” is the new “N-word,” and I can’t say it anymore, that’s going to cause problems because several common words rhyme with “thug.”  I will have to “embrace” my daughters, and they’ll look at me weird when I say that.  I’ll have to walk on the “small, thick carpets” in my house.  I’ll have to drink coffee from my “oversized cup.”  It’s annoying, but it’s a small price to pay in order not to be called racist.

If “thug” is the new “N-word,” then how are we going to refer to it when we’re talking about it?  We could call it the “T-word,” but there’s already another “T-word,” and that’s going to get confusing.  One “T-word” is a female body part and the other “T-word” would be considered a racial slur.  In the hierarchy of culturally insensitive words, racial slurs are usually worse than body parts, so the “T-word” would be understood to mean “thug,” unless the communicator makes it clear that a female body part is being discussed instead.

One of the television commentators said that “thug” is a new code word for racists, but I haven’t been able to verify that.  I’m afraid to.  I’d search for the new racist code words online, but I don’t want Google to have records of me researching “racist code words.”  I have enough problems (none of them racial) without Google notifying everybody that I was searching for racist code words.

I don’t want to speak in racist code, I promise.  The only reason I’d search for racist code words is to make sure I wasn’t accidentally speaking in a racist code.  I even looked up the word “thug” with a real dictionary so that nobody would have permanent digital proof that I looked up a word that might soon be considered racist.

Yes, I opened up a real dictionary and turned the pages and squinted my eyes.  I’ll do anything to NOT be accused of being a racist.

*****

What do you think?  Do you use the word “thug” in your writing?  What other questionable words or phrases do you use in your writing?  What other words rhyme with “thug” that I need to avoid saying?  Does anything rhyme with “ruffian”?  How can I research racist code words (so that I can avoid saying them) without somebody believing that I’m a racist?

How to Overcome Family Distractions While Writing

Another perfectly-worded phrase was shattered by the children's ruckus in the other room. (image via wikimedia)

Another perfectly-worded phrase was shattered by the children’s ruckus in the other room. (image via wikimedia)

“There is no such thing as 110% effort,” a colleague ranted at work last week.

He’d been watching an athlete’s interview online after our local sports team won an important victory.  The athlete had given credit to his team’s efforts, saying that they’d given 110%.  Of all the things going on at work, this was what had set off my colleague.

“I hate it when they say that,” he continued.  “You can’t give 110% effort!”

“At least he didn’t say they ‘literally’ gave 110%,” I said.  Everybody likes to complain about the incorrect usage of “literally” nowadays, but I have a monotone voice, and nobody in the office could tell if I was joking or serious, so they pretended I hadn’t said anything.

110% is a great concept, but it’s limiting.  If you’re going to make a statistically impossible claim, why limit yourself to 10% over the possible?  If I’m going to overstate my effort, I want to overstate it by more than 10%.  I’m going for it all.  I’m giving 1,000,000% effort.  If I think I can get away with it, I’ll go for infinity% effort.

As I thought about how much effort a person can give, I realized that I haven’t been giving 100% to my writing recently.  When you have a family and a full-time job, you can’t give 100% to writing all the time.

For example, I started my most recent writing project in January with a goal to finish by August, just before the new football season begins.  That gave me about seven months.  Four months have passed and I’m less than ½ of the way done, and that’s not including formatting and last-second panic edits.  If I’m going to finish, I’ll have to pick up the pace.  I’m going to have to become obsessed.  I’m going to have to give at least 110% effort, maybe even 150%.

When I put anything more than 75% effort into my writing, though, my personality changes.  I become obsessed and cranky.  My family gets annoyed with me.  If I were making money from my writing, they’d be more likely to put up with it, but I’m not.  At the same time, I’ll never reach my writing potential if I don’t occasionally give myself the chance to put 150%, maybe even 200%, effort into my writing.  As I returned home that night, I decided I was going to change the way I did things.

I gathered my family into the living room to tell them the news.  My two daughters knew it was important when I muted the TV and told them to put their phones away.  When I explained to them that I wanted to have my writing project finished by August, my daughters exchanged a knowing expression.  It’s tough to describe their knowing expression because it’s just eye contact and no visible change in their faces, but I’m their dad, and I can see the change that’s invisible to everybody else.  If I accused them of exchanging a knowing look, however, they’d probably deny it.

I explained that when I announced that I was writing, I was to be left alone.  If the two daughters got into an argument while I was writing, they had to wait until I was done for me to settle things.  If they needed help with anything, they had to wait.  If anybody came to the door, I wasn’t available.  With an imperious tone, I asked if my rules were clear.  They said yes.

Since everything was set straight, I announced that it was time for me to write.  I stepped into the den and closed the door.

Five minutes into my writing session, my youngest daughter stormed into the den.

“I need help with my math,” she said, plopping a bunch of worksheets on top of the keyboard.

“I’m writing now,” I said irritably.  Christ, I couldn’t even get five minutes, I thought.  I probably shouldn’t have thought the word “Christ,” but at least I didn’t say it.  You can’t help what you think.

“You take too long,” my daughter said.  “I don’t want to wait.”

I huffed, but I still followed her into the living room where my oldest was watching TV.

“Why aren’t you helping her with her homework?” I asked.

My oldest daughter shrugged, not even making eye contact with me.  Annoyed, I sat down on the couch, explained a math concept, talked my youngest through a couple practice problems, and told her I’d check her work when I was done.  When I got up to leave, I turned around to make sure she was working, and I spotted it, the knowing look between my two daughters.

This time there were even traces of grinning.  I’d been had.  I’d been made the chump, the fool.  I knew they had been messing with me with this whole homework thing, but I could never prove it.  They’d just deny it.  I don’t want to be like a television dad where the kids get away with everything.  If I was going to finish this writing project by August, I thought, I needed to make an example now.  As my own dad used to say, it’s better to punish the innocent than let the guilty get away.

“The floor’s dirty,” I said.  “You two need to sweep and vacuum.”

Then I looked around.  “Wash the dishes.  Clean the kitchens and the bathrooms.  Fold the laundry.  Clean the litter box and walk the dog.”

Their mouths hung open, eyes flashing with anger, but at least they weren’t giving each other knowing looks.

“And when you finish,” I said, grabbing the television remote and their phones, “read a book.”

I completed the remainder of my writing session uninterrupted.  I can’t say I gave it a complete 1,000,000% effort, but it was productive.  I was proud.  I’d figured out how to keep the kids from distracting me while I wrote.  The next challenge in distraction, I knew, would be more difficult:

My wife.

*****

But enough about me!  What do you have to do to establish a productive writing environment?  How much effort do you have to give to your writing in order to be productive?  Is it 50%?  100%?  200%?  What are your most challenging distractions?  How do you deal with distractions when you write?  Is it better to give 1,000,000% or infinity%?

The Fake Word

If Lewis Carroll can make up “vorpal,” “brillig,” and “uffish,” then I can make up words like… (image via wikimedia)

If Lewis Carroll can make up “vorpal,” “brillig,” and “uffish,” then I can make up words like… (image via wikimedia)

I accidentally created a fake word a few days ago.  It happened because of my new boss, a younger Ivy League guy who likes to talk a lot and think of new acronyms for old ideas.   Anyway, after a meeting, I was ticked off and quietly muttered to a co-worker who (I hope) agrees with me:

“This new guy is way too damnbitious.”

I had meant to say “too damn ambitious” but I ran the words together.  It was an accident.

“You came up with a new word,” my co-worker said.  “If he fires you for complaining, at least you have that.”

I don’t like new words, especially if they’re fake.  The English language has enough words, so many that we don’t need many fake ones.  Last year, I used the fake word “nit-prickety” in a blog post about The Great Gatsby .  “Nit-prickety” is a combination of being nit-picky and a prick.  I don’t like being either, but sometimes I feel like I’m both, and that’s how I felt when I was writing about The Great Gatsby.  It wasn’t F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fault; it was mine.  Anyway, I liked the sound of “nit-prickety” the first time I used it, but I haven’t used it since.

After my verbal slip-up a few days ago, I couldn’t believe that I would be the first person to say or think of “dambitious,” so I checked online and found several versions of dambition/damnbitious already in use.  I was a little disappointed because there was a part of me that was proud to have created something new, even if it was a fake word.

It makes sense that somebody else thought of it first because I’m usually a few years behind the trends.  I started watching Game of Thrones last summer after season 4 was already done.  I started using Twitter a few months before that.  I didn’t start blogging until four years ago.  I’ll probably start making YouTube videos in a couple years when it won’t matter anymore.  I still rent DVDs.  The way things are going, I won’t start streaming movies for another five years.

I’m glad I found out ahead of time that I wasn’t the first person to think of “dambitious.”  As litigious as people are nowadays, somebody else would have accused me of stealing the word and sued me.  I would have felt guilty, even if I hadn’t officially “stolen” the word.  I could understand the creator of “damnbitious” for being protective.  It’s nearly impossible to think of original stuff anymore.  A lot of people have original thoughts, but now with the internet we can easily find out if somebody else had that same original thought before we did.

I haven’t found proof that anybody else has used “nit-prickety” yet.  Maybe that one is original.  Or maybe it’s so stupid that the millions of people who thought of it first didn’t want to claim it.  I’d hate to be the guy who claims the bad idea that millions others have thought of first but discarded.  That’s embarrassing.

Sometimes fake words can have a good purpose.  Lewis Carroll used a lot of fake words, especially in “Jabborwocky.”  When I was in high school, the fake words confused us students so much that we were certain Lewis Carroll had been high when he wrote Jabberwocky.  Those fake words like “vorpal” or “brillig” are useful because they confuse kids, and kids should be confused as much as possible.  It keeps them from thinking that they know everything.

A few weeks ago when my daughter rolled her eyes at me like I was an idiot, I just said, “You don’t even know what ‘vorpal’ means.”  That shut her up (and made her keep her eyes in one place).

Even if I don’t like most fake words, I appreciate new words for old concepts that English doesn’t have a word for yet.  For example, the Japanese language has the word “tsundoku” which means the act of buying books and not finishing them, letting them pile up until they take up the whole house.  Maybe English should have a word for that.  But why create a new word in English when the Japanese already have one?  The English language can simply adopt the word.  For example: “I just tsondokued the guest room in my house.”

Yeah, that sounds like a fake word (and kind of vulgar), but that’s never stopped a word from becoming part of the lexicon before.   Right now, nobody knows what “tsondoku” means, but we bibliophiles love knowing novelty words, especially words that apply to us.  We can proudly declare ourselves as “tsundokus,” and nobody will know what we mean at first.  It can be our smug code word until it becomes so popular that it is used widely in English.  Then, in a few generations, “tsundoku” (or some form of it) will be so familiar that English speakers will forget that the word even originated in Japan.

Stealing a word from another language is much better than making up unnecessary fake words.    Now that I’ve stolen a word from another language and created a couple fake words, it’s time for me to think of an acronym for my boss.  If I’m lucky, it will spell out a real word and not a fake one.  Acronyms that spell out fake words are the worst.

*****

But enough about me!  Have you ever accidentally (or intentionally) created a fake word?   What other concepts does English NOT have a word for?  Have you ever created an acronym?  What trends are you behind on?  When your kid talks back, what’s your best comeback line?

Book Titles That Get Mispronounced: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Maybe I should have listened to the audio.

Maybe I should have listened to the audio.

Before reading a novel, it’s good to know how to pronounce the title. That can be a problem with Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.  If you don’t know French, it’s easy to mispronounce the title as “Less Miserables.” For example:

I am “less miserable” than that guy over there trying to read Les Miserables.

You sound kind of silly if you mispronounce Les Miserables as “Less Miserable” in front of educated readers.  I should know.  I mispronounced Les Miserables in college in front of a bunch of other students in my ________Literature class almost 30 years ago.  I don’t remember how or why, but I remember mispronouncing it.  It shouldn’t have been a big deal.   Back then, Les was a common name.  I knew a couple guys named Les, and there was even a character named Les on a popular television show.  There was every logical reason to believe that the Les in Les Miserables was pronounced “less.”  Except for that French language thing, I guess.

It didn’t end there.  In college, I also pronounced Jean Valjean as “Gene Val-Gene”.”  I’m pretty sure I’m not the first person to ever do that, but my literary friends looked at me with such contempt that I had to find new literary friends.  It’s not easy to find new literary friends when the old ones keep telling everybody that you mispronounced Les Miserables and Jean Valjean.  I know a book has it in for me when I mispronounce the title and a main character.  At least I knew how to pronounce “Cosette.”

If I’m mispronouncing “Cosette,” nobody has told me yet.

I really wish this had come with an audio.

I really wish this had come with an audio.

Despite my own linguistic issues, Les Miserables should be one of the best classics ever.  It has a great story, a great protagonist, a great antagonist (kind of).  I know this because I read the Classic Comics version over and over again as a kid.  Les Miserables was probably my second favorite Classic Comics book, surpassed only by The Three Musketeers.  The Les Miserables comic book was so great that I was going to read the novel on my own in junior high right after I had finished The Three Musketeers, a novel which was pretty readable for a 7th grader.

When I found Les Miserables at the used book store, I was horrified.  It was much longer than The Three Musketeers.  That was okay, I told myself.  I was accustomed to walking around with huge books at school.  I took pride in walking around with huge books at school.  When I carried Shogun by James Clavell, I had been the boy with the biggest book in school.

“Biggest book in the whole school” is not a euphemism.  I was actually proud that I literally carried the biggest book.  Looking back, I probably should have been beaten up.

Even though I didn’t read Les Miserables, I should have talked about it to somebody.  If I had talked about Les Miserables to one of my junior high teachers or to a book store clerk, I might have learned how to pronounce it correctly.  Everybody will forgive a kid who mispronounces Les Miserables.  At least the dumb kid who mispronounces it is trying.  But a college guy majoring in English (for a while)?  It’s humiliating!

It was so bad that I considered reading Les Miserables, actually reading it, the unabridged version.  Reading it word-for-word would redeem me for mispronouncing it as an adult.  Yes, it’s been almost 30 years since I mispronounced Les Miserables.  I blocked out the memory for a while, but it’s coming back, gnawing at me.  Maybe if I read it, the memory of mispronouncing it will go away.  Reading Les Miserables outweighs mispronouncing it.  I’m pretty sure that’s how it works.

*****

Every once in a while, I get a little cocky and start thinking that I’m smarter than I really am.  I write a sentence that people think is clever, or I solve a problem that has been bugging me for a while.  This week, I solved a major problem at work, and co-workers praised me, suggesting that I could be the next boss.  They weren’t even being sarcastic.  For a quiet guy, that kind of attention doesn’t happen often.  I started daydreaming about promotions, raises, new projects, and then…

I remembered that I mispronounced Les Miserables when I was in college.

Stuff like that really ticks me off.

*****

Would reading Les Miserables redeem me for mispronouncing it?  What is the statute of limitations for mispronouncing the title of a classic novel?  Have you ever mispronounced a book title or character’s name?  What astonishing gap have you discovered in your own knowledge?  What mistake do you keep beating yourself up over?

The Wardrobe Malfunction

(image via wikimedia)

(image via wikimedia)

I had heard about women’s wardrobe malfunctions before, but I’d never actually seen one, except the ones on television, and they didn’t count because they had probably been publicity stunts.  Yesterday, however, I saw my first real wardrobe malfunction.  A woman was standing waist deep in the water when a portion of her bikini slipped.

I was reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace at a beach-like environment (it wasn’t quite a beach, but it was similar in a lot of ways, and it was pretty crowded) while my wife and daughters were on water slides on the other side of the park.  I had found a wall and had placed my chair next to it so that nobody could sneak up behind me while I was reading and conk me on the head.  Maybe I’d still get conked.  No position to prevent getting conked on the head is foolproof, but at least if I got conked on the head, it wouldn’t have been from behind.

I normally wouldn’t read a book like Infinite Jest.  I don’t read books if they’re over 500 pages anymore (especially if they’re small print), but people keep saying Infinite Jest is great, I have to read it.  The problem is that if I don’t enjoy it or don’t finish it, then I’ll be accused of not getting it, and that pisses me off.  I can “get” a book and not want to finish it.  I haven’t read enough of Infinite Jest to know if I “get” it, but I’m sure I’ll “get” it either way.

Knowing I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on Infinite Jest at a beach-like environment (or almost any other environment), I also had a Bernard Cornwell novel about Saxons and Danes slaughtering each other.  I’m not sure what the title is because there are about ten of these books, and the author writes one or two of them a year.  I’m jealous because I’d like to rewrite the same book every year and have people just like me still read it.

I know I’m getting old when I start thinking about books when I should be discussing a wardrobe malfunction.

For some reason, I looked up just in time to see the malfunction.  The top strap of the woman’s bikini had slipped enough for lots of a forbidden body part to be seen.  I had time to avert my eyes, but I chose not to.  Surprisingly, I didn’t feel guilty watching.  I often feel guilt for things that aren’t my fault, but I didn’t feel any negative emotions about watching this.  She was in public wearing a tiny garment in a place where a malfunction was possible/likely.  I know, maybe I’m rationalizing, but I don’t feel guilt.

The woman with the malfunction didn’t seem concerned either.  She adjusted the string (or whatever it was), secured it, and then even started the whole process again, pulling the strap down so that the forbidden body part(s) could be seen again, seemingly unconcerned that anybody might be watching, and then she secured it again.  It was like she rewound the whole incident for me, and nobody else noticed.  Her friends didn’t squeal at her and point.  No guys yelled at each other to look.

I never should have seen this malfunction.  I was over 100 feet away with dozens of people between me and the wardrobe malfunction.  There was no way I should have had a clear shot of what happened.  The odds of me looking up at the time it happened without anybody walking or standing between me and the malfunction are impossibly small.

A part of me thinks I was meant to see this malfunction.  I have a recently deceased relative who (when he was alive) would have noticed a malfunction like this.  He then would have nudged me (or done whatever what was necessary) to get my attention.  The more I think about this, the more I believe this recently departed relative noticed this malfunction from wherever he is, and he went out of his way to arrange things so that I would see it.  He made me look up at the right time (“Hey, Jimmy, you gotta check this out!”), and he parted the crowds so that I could see.  It’s the only possible logical explanation.  This kind of luck just doesn’t happen.

I know I should be more appreciative.  I was taught to never criticize a gift or favor, and I hope I don’t sound ungrateful.  I’m glad my recently deceased relative thinks enough of me to come back down(?) and point out a wardrobe malfunction for me.  That was very thoughtful of him.  I’m just surprised that out of all things the recently deceased relative could point out to me, THAT was what motivated him to get my attention.  I mean, that’s what he would have done had he been alive, so I guess he’s consistent.  The woman with the malfunction is lucky because if my relative hadn’t been recently deceased, he would have videoed the malfunction and shared it.  I don’t condone that kind of behavior.  I’m glad he couldn’t do that (but that doesn’t mean I’m glad he’s deceased.).

If there was something wrong with me watching the malfunction, I’ve already been pre-punished.  My wardrobe malfunctions have been worse than what this woman experienced.  One day at work, I had dots on an inconvenient location of my light khakis and I didn’t notice until it was too late.  Nobody said anything, but I could tell from my co-workers’ eye contact and facial expressions that the dots in the inconvenient location had been noticed.  I wanted to proclaim, “It’s water.  I just washed my hands!”  But since my co-workers hadn’t said anything, it would have seemed too defensive of me to state my innocence when I hadn’t been officially accused of anything.

So yeah, maybe I shouldn’t have looked at the woman while she struggled with her wardrobe malfunction.  But those co-workers shouldn’t have stared at mine either.  At least the woman in the bikini could immediately fix her wardrobe malfunction when she noticed it.  Me?  I had to wait for the water to dry.

I promise, it was water.

*****

What do you think?  Is Infinite Jest a must-read book?  Do you think there is such a thing as a must-read book? Have any deceased relatives ever come back and done you a favor? Are wardrobe malfunctions so common now that people don’t care about them anymore?  Is it wrong to watch a wardrobe malfunction from far away?  What kind of malfunction is worse, the bikini strip slip or dots on the khakis?

*****

Ugh, I should be using this space to advertise my own books instead of somebody else’s.

Infinite_jest_cover

Is This Self-Help Book Still Relevant? How To Win Friends And Influence People

If the cover says it's "the only book you need to lead you to success," that's good enough for me!

If the cover says it’s “the only book you need to lead you to success,” that’s good enough for me!

Just so you know, I didn’t decide to read How to Win Friends and Influence People  by Dale Carnegie because I needed some self-help.  Well, I might need help, but if I ever read a self-help book because I actually need help, I’m not going to admit that to anybody.

When I was a kid in the 1970s, the big self-help book was called I’m Okay-You’re Okay.  That title rubbed me the wrong way because it implied that everybody was okay and even then I knew a lot of people who weren’t okay.  I wasn’t even sure I was okay.  Maybe the author and I disagree about what “okay” means.  I’ve never read the book to find out.  Sometimes I think I’m better off if my opinion is uninformed.

When I review a book, I usually start with the title, and How To Win Friends And Influence People is a little misleading.  If I’m going to read a book about how to win something, it won’t be for friends.  To me, friends are something that you either have or don’t have; you can’t win them.  If I’m going to win something, I’d like to know how to win the lottery or maybe learn how to win at blackjack or how to win in court.  Maybe I’m being too literal, but How To Win Friends And Influence People is a very literal book.  There’s not a lot of figurative language in HTWFAIP.

Even though HTWFAIP was written in 1936, it might still have some relevant advice.  The chapter that most interested me was “An Easy Way to Become a Great Conversationalist.”  If there’s one thing I’m bad at, it’s talking to people I don’t know.  To be fair, I’m bad at a lot of things, but making small talk is one my worst.  I was looking forward to great insightful advice, and all I got was “Be a good listener.”  That kind of ticked me off.  I’m already a good listener.

I need advice to get me to the stage where people will talk to me enough so that I can demonstrate my great listening skills.  After “Hi, how are you?” I’m accustomed to long awkward silences, especially if I’m talking to somebody else who is a great listener.  Two great listeners put together alone in a room can make a bad conversation.  When I was younger, I could have used a chapter about how to get the other person to start talking so that I can be a good listener. Instead, I had to figure it out for myself.

Advice you won’t find in How To Win Friends And Influence People:

 If you know about football and reality shows, you can start a conversation with almost anyone.

Back when HTWFAIP was first published, “be a good listener” was probably new advice.  Maybe very few people thought that being a good listener was important back then.  I don’t know.  I wasn’t around.  But maybe HTWFAIP seems irrelevant because the advice that was brand-new in 1936 has become so commonplace.  Again, I don’t know.  I haven’t read any pre-1936 self-help books.  Maybe pre-1936 self-help books suggested that you talk loudly and shout over people to get them to do what you want.  I’ve never read a self-help book that says shout people down, but it has to be in a lot of self-help books because I see people do it all the time.

One problem with HTWFAIP is that a lot of the references are old.  There are a lot of traveling salesman stories and lots of references to companies that no longer exist.  When I was a kid, traveling salesman stories usually ended up involving a farmer’s daughter.  If a story was really good, it involved more than one daughter and maybe some of her friends.  None of the traveling salesman anecdotes in HTWFAIP have any farmer’s daughters (or any kind of daughter) in them.  Having at least one would have made the anecdotes more realistic to me.

I’m also concerned that most of the companies and businesses that are mentioned in HTWFAIP don’t exist anymore.  I’m not sure what that means.  Did they stop following the advice given in the book and then fail because of that?  Or did they follow the advice in the book and still fail?  Maybe the stories and testimonials given in the book were all lies.  We know people lie in their books now.  I’m pretty sure people lied in their books back then too.  Maybe all of Carnegie’s anecdotes were fake too.  I have no proof, but it makes me wonder.

Is HTWFAIP still relevant?   Probably.  It’s not the book’s fault if most of the advice is commonplace now.  Is The Adventures of Tom Sawyer irrelevant just because everybody knows the white picket fence trick?  Heck no!  HTWFAIP is still relevant because it’s the first of its kind (at least that’s what one of the many book covers says), and people still read (and argue about) it today.  As long as people willingly read it, then HTWFAIP is still relevant.  And at least it didn’t destroy a generation like I’m Okay, You’re Okay.

*****

What do you think?  Is HTWFAIP still relevant?  What self-help books have you read?  Is “be a good listener” practical advice in the new millennium?  Have you read I’m Okay, You’re Okay, and is it as bad as it sounds?  If you’re reluctant to talk about self-help books, it’s okay.  Having an opinion about a self-help book is not an admission that you really need help.

I Found An Old Letter A Famous Author Wrote To Me

If I'd received a letter from THIS famous author, I'd have had it framed!

If I’d received a letter from the famous author who wrote THIS book, I’d have had the letter framed!

I was a bit suspicious of these stories the first time I heard about them.  First, a woman last summer found an old letter written by JRR Tolkien where the famous author described how much teaching depressed him.  Then a few weeks ago, some guy found an old letter that Roald Dahl had written him decades ago, giving him some advice about describing a woman’s features.

As I mentioned, I thought these stories were suspicious.  If I had ever received a letter from a famous author, especially authors of The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I would have kept track of those letters.  I would’ve had them framed.  I would have shown them off to every visitor who stepped into my house/apartment.  How do you lose a letter written to you by JRR Tolkien or Roald Dahl?

After I thought about it, though, I remembered that these kind of things usually happen in threes.  I figured if anybody should be the third person who finds a letter from a famous author, it ought to be me (or I).  Maybe, just maybe, I had an old letter that I had forgotten about from a famous author.  I went through my boxes of old stuff, including letters, musty books, and outdated bills.  I found a birthday check that my grandma had given me 25 years ago (I didn’t cash it back then because she really didn’t have the money to write me checks, but grandmas do stuff like that).  After hours of digging and reminiscing, I found something that I had forgotten existed.

About 20 years ago, James Patterson wrote Along Came a Spider, and it was actually a pretty good book.  At the time, I was trying to write my own serial killer mystery where a fake psychic had to figure out who the murderer was to save his own reputation.  No, the protagonist wasn’t really psychic (I wasn’t going to cop-out on my one mystery novel), and I wrote James Patterson for some advice.  My older brother had given me some ideas that I was using in my book, so I was thinking about giving my brother co-author credit.

The problem was that there was a scene involving intimacy (I guess it’s okay to call it a sex scene now), and my brother wanted me to use the phrase “twin cones of pleasure.”  I was trying to write a high-brow mystery, and there was no way I was going to use that phrase.  I told my brother that I might use that euphemism in another book, but I wasn’t going to use it in my high-brow mystery.  My brother called me a hack, which is funny because I’d never published anything and I had a job that had nothing to do with writing.  But the argument upset me so much that I never wrote the sex scene.

At any rate, when I wrote my fan letter to James Patterson, I asked him if “twin cones of pleasure” was any good and I wanted to know if it was wise for a writer to work with somebody else on a novel.  I didn’t keep a copy of my letter.  Back then, people didn’t keep their own letters.  Instead, we just kept the letters we received (and in some cases found them decades later).  I was surprised when I read his response for the first time in (probably) 20 years:

Dear Jimmy,

Thank you for your letter.  Without fans like you, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do.

I don’t think it’s a good idea to work with other writers on a novel.  It could cause legal issues, and some authors might try to take too much credit for books they didn’t really spend much time with.

Also, whatever you do, don’t use the phrase “twin cones of pleasure.”  It’s tacky, and tacky sex scenes can ruin an otherwise good novel.

Good luck with your writing career.

Sincerely,

James Patterson

After I found the letter, I remembered why I had forgotten it.  It had taken James Patterson a long time to write back to me.  That’s not a complaint; I’m impressed that he wrote back at all.  By the time I received it, though, I had already given up on the novel, and my older brother no longer cared about the phrase “twin cones of pleasure.”  There was no use showing my brother the letter and opening an old wound.  I’m not the type of person who will bring up an old dispute just to prove that I’d been right a long time ago.

Even so, I can’t believe I didn’t take better care of that letter.  I should have had it framed.  I appreciate a celebrity author who takes time to write a personal letter to a fan.  I mean, yeah, James Patterson wasn’t writing 20 books a year back then, but still, he took time that he didn’t have to take, and that means a lot to me.  And I shouldn’t have been so critical of those other guys who lost their letters from famous writers.

In the meantime, I’ve written JK Rowling, asking her if she would pretend to be me like she did with Robert Galbraith.  Robert Galbraith’s Corcoran Strike book sales weren’t all that high until JK Rowling said she was him (or he).  If she could pretend to be him (or he), then maybe she would consider pretending to be me (or I).  It doesn’t hurt to ask.  I’d love for my book sales to go up.

So if my ebook sales suddenly skyrocket, and JK Rowling pretends to be disappointed that her lawyers can’t keep secrets, then you’ll know what really happened.  I’m not holding my breath, though.  E-mail can move very slowly nowadays.

*****

DISCLAIMER! Despite how far-fetched everything sounds, the above story is true, except for the part about me writing a letter to James Patterson and receiving a response.

*****

What do you think?  Have you ever received a letter from a famous author (or any celebrity)?  If you did, did you forget where you put it?  What famous author would you like to get a letter from?  What advice would you ask for from a famous author?  Would you ever use the phrase “twin cones of pleasure” in a sex scene, and if you do, would you please let me know so I could tell my brother?

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