Books

Tale of Two Cities (RL186)

When John was in 5th grade, they handed him A Tale of Two Cities and said: ”You are a smart kid! Here, read that!”, which sounded like a dare, like you would say ”Here, kid! Climb this ladder!” John had never heard of the French Revolution and he read the whole thing without having any actual comprehension of what he was doing, but they wanted him to write a book report on it. Obviously he wasn’t going to read Watership Down with the rest of the class because he had read that already and this was the honors program! Read Moby Dick!

John was required to report to adults who he at the time thought had not read those books. He didn’t know what he was reading, but he gave a good game and because it was a dare, he couldn’t admit that he didn’t understand those books, because then the adults would be disappointed in him and he wouldn’t be a genius. Both were written by Dickens and they basically tell the same story: A white whale fights a revolution against some kind of sun king, which was later turned into the play Les Misérables. The Sun King goes up a river, finds a white whale, and battles with himself.

Reading classic literature (RL186)

As an 8-year-old, John found Moby Dick impenetrable and when he was 20 he read it again and thought he would understand it. John is an enormous fan of Melville's other works. Merlin had to read it in college in a class called American Masterworks and they read Absalom, Absalom!, Moby Dick and The Ambassadors. He liked Absalom, Absalom! a lot, but maybe not the other two. He kept telling himself that Moby Dick was post-modern, but that didn’t make it that more interesting. John preferred Joseph Conrad in every respect. He read A Tale of Two Cities again and didn’t like it the second time either. Obviously the worst of all these books is Billy Budd.

Merlin was a big reader! There was a thing like Classics Illustrated during a push in the 1960s and 1970s to get kids to want to read real books. Obviously you should never read a comic book because it is going to rot your mind and you can only read so much Henry Huggins before you become a dullard. You can read Encyclopedia Brown, but how do you get really smart before you read those big thick European books? Merlin had a small collection of inexpensive hardback books of the classics with fun covers, but there was still A Tale of Two Cities inside and he never got past the first couple pages of that.

The Extreme Teen Bible (RL186)

At one time, Sean Nelson discovered the Extreme Teen Bible, which is The Bible updated for teens, but not just ordinary teens, but extreme teens! The book is streamlined with all the King James talk taken out of it, with certain passages in red and with sidebars, like ”Did you know that Jesus never took any shit off of nobody?” It is fantastic and they had lot of fun with it, they might even have read it aloud from stage on tour at one time. It is called Nelson’s Extreme Teen Bible, which is why Sean Nelson might have discovered it in the bookstore.

If you are trying to guide a kid to something that you know is good, timeless and cool, you can’t help but sound like an old man with a Beatle wig. Brother Gabe, a Dominican Monk who is a regular listener to this program has become Father Gabe within the scope of this podcast. Merlin met him in a bar in Portland and Father Gabe told him that they had given him a church there. He is not in Oakland anymore, but he got an upgrade. He probably is going to have a lot to say about the Extreme Teen Bible. The Bible he uses is probably still in Latin and hand-illustrated and he does a real-time translation into English.

John getting books from his friend Peter’s mom (RL299)

John had a friend Peter who’s mother was teaching college literature at the University of Alaska while Peter was pre-law somewhere. His dad was a lawyer and she was kind of eclectic and flamboyant. She wore her hair short and wore scarfs and stuff and John had a crush on her. She would give Peter all these books and he would send them through to John. It was at a time when he had zero money, no job, and was crashing on people’s couches and he was in touch with his friends through the mail.

They would send each other letters and John's friends would sent their replies to a café, like Café Roma and Café Septieme who would accept mail for him. Through Peter, John had this steady stream of really great eclectic books from this circuitous path and some of these books are still some of John’s favorite books. It just hit him at exactly the right time, because he was just laying around when these novels would show up. It was the pre-internet age and you only had what you had. Even in the 1980s and 1990s you didn’t have that much exposure. If you wanted to learn about Bob the Supermasochist or Betty Page, you had to go out and do your research on your own.

John still has a little shelf of phone books from different places. His mom used to carry a phone book in her glove box. It was such a big deal, because you could look yourself up and you could look your friends up. The first time John appeared in a phone book, his name was John Ignatius Roderick. He put that in there because he wanted people to know how special he was.

John does have some passive aggressive books, he has a great one for Merlin, it is actually a whole set of encyclopedias.

John got a couple of old research books from the time when some of his friends were really into not just vivisection photographs, but really gory crime scene suicide photos of people who killed themselves by laying on the train tracks. John didn’t really get into that and he didn’t want any John Wayne Gacy paintings, but he did have other interesting things peripheral to that, like Survival Research Laboratories.

John culling his books (RL299)

In the end of July of 2018, John was going through his books because he was planning to sell his house and move. He has room after room of books. At one point, a girl from Spain came to visit him and after she was walking around she said she thought there would be more books and she had always imagined John's house would have more books, but there are books everywhere! Mas Libros! Where would you put more books? All these walls could all be books! She thought John had 40 cats and lived in a used book store. All the people in Spain have been living in the same apartment for 400 years.

John is going to cull and he found a bunch of books he wanted to get rid of, but he can’t get rid of this, he can get rid of this and he has to get rid of this, putting them into piles. The problem is that if you take those books down to the thrift store, nobody cares and they will just sit on the shelves. This is the type of project that John doesn’t need to add to the things he is already doing: He has a bunch of these Ex Libris bookplates and he is going to put those bookplates in those books and put them places, post a picture of it in the place and then his followers can go get them if they want. Here is the autobiography of Henry Kissinger the size of a shoe box, there is a Special Forces Manual, and there is the first edition of The Gulag Archipelago in three volumes. John doesn’t want to carry these things with him anymore, but maybe somebody is going to want them.

The problem is that John will post a picture of Kissinger’s autobiography in a phone booth and there will be a bunch of people who say that they are from Australia, but they really want that and they want John do send it to them, which he won’t. It is just going to be sowing disappointment and there is probably going to be one person in Seattle who drives around and picks them all up and John could just have taken them to that person in a box instead of making it into an adventure. John doesn’t just want to get rid of stuff, but he wants there to be some kind of ceremony, because every one of these books interested John at one point. They made an impact on him and maybe they will help someone else.

Someone asked John in a tweet the other day if he could recommend a history book, which happens quite a lot. He ended up recommending Wager with the Wind, the Don Sheldon Story about an Alaskan bush pilot who was the first guy to land an airplane on Mount McKinley, not what you would think of when you ask for ”a history book”. It certainly is about history, about something that happened in the past.

John wants his books to find a good home. If you don’t want an autobiography of Henry Kissinger you don’t have to go find it. If nobody goes to find it, then it becomes an autobiography of Henry Kissinger that is in a phone booth. It is like finding porn in the woods! Maybe somebody is bopping along that day, wondering why the universe is sending him a sign and then ”Why is there still a phone booth?” Now John has 4 stacks: Must keep, can keep, should give away and phone booth.

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