Is It Reading?

As I often quip, I’ve received much accusation that I was never a reader, by my mother, owner of a library of double-stacked bookshelves containing romance novels, which totally isn’t pornography, unlike, apparently, my father’s collection of annual Sport’s Illustrated: Swimsuit Edition magazines (she HATED those). I guess if it isn’t visual stimulation then it doesn’t count, which is good news considering my personal enjoyment of all those Literottica stories from the good ol’ days of the Internet. Had I stopped there, I might have been able to go to heaven after all.

And I’m not so arrogantly boastful that I’ll post my résumé as evidence of a contrarian opinion, but I don’t exactly maintain my socioeconomic position from my original read-free occupations: bagging dirt at a greenhouse and bussing tables; so normally I shrug off this odd perception of illiteracy. But naturally success, however moderate, will attract hate. Haters gonna hate hate hate, right? So it is that my Family of Origin* must find merit negations.

*(I discovered this term recently. It’s used to differentiate one’s family they spent childhood with from their current one. I like it, because I don’t consider the former group to be my family anymore, as it’s essentially been disbanded, and I’ve since started my own. Oh, and I found the term through reading, incidentally.)

So it was that my father joked about my presumed lack of mathematical skills. Or he did, until he caught on that I was taking a tally and timestamp every time he brought it up. Pity. I was going to use that in a Quantitative Philosophy post: Time to Math. Oh well.

And so it is that certain other members of my FOO bring up the reading bit, and it’s not just my mother. I overheard a snide comment from a phone conversation recently that made just this particular snipe at me again (it’s not wonder my daughter hesitates to answer calls when the caller inevitably insults her own father). But unlike the math bit, which has a base in actual personal struggles, I never quite got the illiteracy dig. Surely my FOO knows that I read to some extent or I wouldn’t be able to function in my daily occupation, but apparently that doesn’t qualify as reading? I was therefore determined to build a logic tree that determines what is considered reading, which in their minds I’m not doing, based upon all the reading they’re apparently doing that actually counts as reading. Here goes:

  1. Is the medium paper? If yes, then proceed to question 2. If no, proceed to question 4.
  2. Is the content in novel form (printouts/PDFs don’t count)? If yes, then proceed to question 3. If no, then proceed to question 6.
  3. Is the content technical in nature? If no, then this counts as reading. If yes, then this does not count as reading.
  4. Was the content in its original form paper (e.g. now in ebook format)? If no (e.g. news articles, blogs), proceed to question 5. If yes, then go to question 2.
  5. Is the content related to your occupation? If no, then this does not count as reading. If yes then go to question 6.
  6. Is your job academia or are you working a job based on an advanced STEM degree? If yes, then this counts as reading. If no, then this does not count as reading.

After thinking it through, I found it’s easily distilled down to 2 scenarios. Reading is only reading if the text is:

  • On paper in novel form, but the content cannot be related to knowledge gain unless your job is in academia or are you working a job based on an advanced STEM degree. Or…
  • In any other form of media besides paper, but only if the original text was in novel form or if your job is in academia or you are working a job based on an advanced STEM degree.

Observant readers will have noticed some implications. Here’s my psychological take on how my FOO defines reading:

  • My job is more important than yours and more difficult, I’m sure, so any reading I do is important, unlike yours, and therefore qualifies as reading while whatever it is that you “read” doesn’t.
  • I have an insecurity and when I can’t justify the importance of my own existence I turn a leisure activity into an intellectual one in my own mind.
  • Either or both of the above.

So what’s the answer? Well, in my case, it’s to have fewer conversations with my FOO and answer the phone less. But in a broader sense, it does raise some societal questions. Intellectual snobbery aside, what is “reading” in that the consumed content is literature or “higher” information? That’s a question that warrants significant debate beyond individual opinion. It’s a question that needs the involvement of educators and policy-makers alike.

As a final outtake, here’s a related article I stumbled upon after writing this. I wanted to know how others have thought this through. Excluding the personal irritations with family, I’m certainly not alone in the pursuit of discovering what true reading actually is (even though reading this article isn’t true reading as per the above outlined criteria):

(I know, it’s Medium. But that also betrays my own prejudice against defining sources whose content consumption qualifies as reading.)

Myself, I’ll just talk to family less.


John Cheever

I do read, despite my mother’s oft-mentioned false memories which indicate a contrarian stance.  I am, however, bad at committing to novels, for which this blog’s section is dedicated.  So while I might not be consistent with chronicling verbose prose, I spend a good deal of time learning to fix things around the house, or…studying contemporary male psychology and the implications of its general neglect.  I could easily explain why mass shootings occur in America, and it has little to do with gun control.  But where’s the fun in an Occam’s Razor thesis?

I jest, naturally, at my own parent, whose escapist romance-themed decade-long reading preference created a self-deluded elevation of the genera to great literary status.  In the artistic form, I might enjoy a photo of a beautiful naked woman, and while I might tell myself that it’s an appreciation for the perfection of human evolution and an esthetic experience, no one’s going to buy that explanation when they find my adult media stash.

Or they wouldn’t, anyway, when I was young enough to have one.  Such is age.

But back to the subject at hand: I read a novel!  Or rather, a collection of short stories: The Stories of John Cheever.  I chose this work as I’m attracted to Americana, so “Great American Novelists” pull me in.  Specifically, I wanted to read his short story, The Swimmer.  Now, as a product of the American school system, I’ve read The Jungle and Heart of Darkness, but 5 or so short stories into this collection and I was ready to kill myself.  Good lord was this guy negative.  Here are the core themes of everything he’s ever wrote:

  1. Capitalism is exploitative (cue Upton Sinclair here).
  2. Nothing you ever do will get you ahead in life.
  3. Being rich disconnects you from the rest of the world around you.
  4. Class divisions will always undermine an attempt to understand one another.
  5. Self-delusion is a powerful coping mechanism (see above).

When I did finally reach The Swimmer, it proved to be a decent story in its own right, but by that point the above themes were so hammered into me that I set the book aside. The story itself is about a once-wealthy socialite who takes a literal and metaphorical journey through his past and back to a home that will never exist again how he remembers it because of his own actions. Sort of a “you can’t go home again” thing going on, but it’s all the protagonist’s fault. And self-delusion. And with a heavy dose of how badly people speak about each other behind their backs. And wealthy people are terrible.

So, not light-hearted by any means. But it’s telling of the time period – the dying social divisions of the Guilded Age, and the lack of unity in the country following The Great Depression. It’s definitely Americana, but with none of the warm fuzzy postwar bit.

(Also no nighttime lovemaking to the backdrop of a rainstorm, lightening flashes briefly illuminating masculine bulges and such.)


The Road

It’s February.

I call this, somewhat unsubtley, the suicide month.

So what better time to pick up a classic post-apocalyptic novel that’s been on my list?  That’s right, go all in!

In short, it’s the story of a man and his son.  The man tries to keep his son alive by scavenging in a nuclear-ravaged wasteland while traveling south in a bid to survive the oncoming winter.  In so doing, he attempts to maintain certain higher standards of conduct which most have abandoned for the sake of basic survival, and instill them in his charge.

The book’s been around for a while now, so there’s reviews a plenty if you want to delve into the discussion.  And like all renowned creations, there’s volumes of criticisms.  To save you time, I’ll reduce them down to the top two complaints and comment on each:

  1. It’s repetitive.  Yes, it does tend to touch on the same topics and events, but that’s because the same problems keep arising and don’t go away.  Each victory is minor and fleeting, without permanently fixing anything.  It’s a narrative of how things just don’t get better.
  2. The writing style is juvenile.  I don’t think this is a fair assessment, because it’s essentially the running monologue in the man’s mind.  I don’t know about anyone else, but my internal thought train is just that–an ongoing collection of observations, conversations, analyses, decisions, and memories; all devoid of punctuation or grammatical syntax.  And that was clearly intentional by the author.

It does ultimately end with a glimmer of hope, that the ethical codes are not extinct.  It’s a depressing journey, but a good one for the heart of winter.  Keep the fire.


With the Old Breed

This book has been on my read list for long time.  And perhaps due to my old man mannerisms, I finally sat down to read this war memoir.

And it is just that.  The author, Eugene Sledge, having researched and compiled the historical errata to accurate specifics, and having completed this work much later in life, created a perfect balance of fact and personal observation.  He never strays too far into emotional content, but through his directness (indicative of the academic he later became), one can clearly extrapolate how he felt at the time.

It is a story of the Peleliu and Okinawa campaigns of World War II.  A historian myself, if I can so make the claim, it was not the first time I had read about these particular conflicts.  It was, however, the first time I had read them through a firsthand account.  And as I’ve stated, I believe it is these records of the common man that provide significant historical value.

The nature of this work renders it beyond my rights to critique, so I will leave it at that.  If you want a primary source account of the two arguably most bloody Second World War campaigns, free from political asides and excessive loaded personal annotations, I have yet to encounter a finer example.


Rainbow Six

I’ve always been a fan of the Rainbow Six franchise, mostly because it’s an unforgiving tactical shooter, and rather unique as a result.  The player can’t absorb bullets, gasp for a bit, and then recover like so many other shooters.  Instead, body armor may provide some buffer (in which case there is some pained gasping), but it’s not a guarantee, and errant rounds to the head are always instantly fatal.  Perfect planning is no guarantee in the face of random chance, and failures can even be quite humorous.

But the stories were iffy and unremarkable–and my presumed explanation was that they were an afterthought.  I bought the book for a few reasons: 1) Plain curiosity, 2) It had been recommended to me years ago, 3) I had never read a Tom Clancy book before, 4) It would be a completely new genre of reading for me.

The book arrived from Amazon with the unsurprising promo for being a Jack Ryan novel–amusing, since the book never mentioned the character that I recall.  But I once bought a recent edition of Asimov’s I, Robot and its cover showed Will Smith with the line “One man saw it coming”–the movie adaptation of which had absolutely no similarity to the novel, so apparently media marketing simply just isn’t concerned with trivialities such as basic relevance.  But that wasn’t why I bought either book anyway.


Taking into account the view of terrorism in the 90s, the book begins with a failed airplane hijacking, also serving to provide the exciting hook prologue that so many lengthy novels have, and to set the theme: an international anti-terrorism death squad with multi-national sanctions is born (Rainbow).  It has the classic array of black ops obfuscation: hidden funding, highest-level executive support, clandestine to all outside a circle of “need-to-knows”; that sort of thing.

Oh, and it’s naturally comprised of the best of the best.  Clancy takes many literary asides to point this out.  They are as conditioned as any of the best athletes in the world, extremely experienced, and with no short mention of how many degrees the group possesses.  I knew what I was getting into, but it’s the sort of painful eye-rolling right wing propaganda that politicians and recruiters would like us to believe is the standard for any career soldier.

So who, naturally, should turn out to be their ultimate nemesis?  Why, environmental terrorists of course–the very embodiment of left-wing extremism, especially in the 90s.  Jokes are made about El Niño and the ozone layer, precursor evidence to what we now refer to ubiquitously as climate change.  But oh how it was viewed as such nonsense back then!  Mere consequences of progress, and a couple degrees of average temperature increase surely didn’t mean anything significant.  Oh, and of course the environmentalists are arrogant and unlikable.

Ultimately the environmentalists’ Armageddon plans fail and they flee to Brazil, because you know–rainforests.  Ah the holy grail for tree-huggers.  Rainbow calls in favors to all manner of intelligence and military personnel, because we know how well they always cooperate, and illegally pursues them (Brazil is not one of the Rainbow-sanctioning countries).

Using fancy tech, Rainbow murders many of them before coercing a surrender, detonates the base of operations, and leaves them stranded in the jungle (can’t extradite during an illegal raid of course).  I guess that’s supposed to be poetic justice, but to a rational non far-right citizen, I found it somewhat disconcerting to hear the justification for a police state acting with impunity.  (They also strip them naked first.  Why do military personnel always use sexual humiliation?)  The argument, no doubt, is that some threats supersede our normal judicial processes and need to be countered head-on without the hindrance of red tape, and that most people won’t understand or agree with this need (because they’re not as smart, remember?), and so need to be kept in the dark.

In summary, the story was less than compelling, but the battle scenes were fun.  So essentially, the video games are exactly like the original novel.

At least they kept the theme consistent?