Trimming Book-Fat #2

Searching for the end of the bookshelf and the belt line with K.M. Zahrt

In case you missed it, in the last installment of Trimming Book-Fat, I explained how it was time for me to clean out my bookshelves, and I’ve resolved to get to the point at which any book kept there has been read. Naturally I selected titles that were gifted to me over the holidays to help me launch this quest with energy and interest. Since then, I was approached by a reader with questions, “What about books you know you don’t have any interest in reading? Will you read them or throw them out?” I’m not going to cop out and toss every book that isn’t of interest. What kind of challenge would that be? Part of this quest is to look for value in the books I’ve neglected thus far.

However, books I won’t be reading for this challenge or won’t be reading again should indeed be trimmed, which gave me an idea. I should either relocate them to homes with more attentive readers, or donate them, or recycle them (so you can rest at ease, my tree-hugging friends, but remember: a tree that has been harvested to become a book has secured an eternal place in tree heaven.) At any rate, below you’ll find a new section this month, “Books That Need New Homes.” They will be available for you to adopt, free of charge. I’ll add two selections every month until I’ve achieved my goal of a lean library.

Now, onward…

My reading habits often include more than one book at a time. I’ll usually read a novel while I chip away one chapter at a time from a nonfiction book. Some books are paired because they share themes or topics, but that’s not always the case. When the books accidentally inform one another in some way, that’s when magic happens; dots connect and new ideas form. Although the two books featured here–To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (2014) by Joshua Ferris and How We Got to Now (2014) by Steven Johnson–didn’t have obvious overlaps from the outset, they do complement each other well.

Rise Again at a Decent HourLet me start with the macro-plot for To Rise Again at a Decent Hour: Ferris’ novel follows a loner dentist in New York City who appears to be the victim of an Internet-based, identity-theft scheme by a fringe group whose members call themselves Ulms and define themselves as being similar to Jews only more persecuted and more oppressed. The leader of the group, Grant Arthur, claims the protagonist, Paul O’Rourke, is ethnically an Ulm and tries to lure O’Rourke to the group’s compound in Israel.

I would’ve been remiss not to mention that, being the crux of the story that it is. I’ll admit, there were probably many nuances of the book I would’ve been better able to appreciate if I was more informed about Jewish history and traditions, but I was raised in the Christian Reformed capital of the world. (Need I type more?) Regardless, there’s much the lay-reader, such as myself, can appreciate.

There are two particularly interesting ideas I want to discuss that Ferris expertly brings to fruition by the end of the book. The first is that there becomes a point in a middle-class, middle-aged American’s life in which experience becomes redundant, particularly in regard to consumerism: “Nowhere in America,” O’Rourke laments, “would I find that one thing I had not yet purchased at least once in my life” (Ferris, p. 140). At one point, O’Rourke remembers the catharsis he felt when he bought and listened to The Beatles’ album Rubber Soul for the first time. Wanting to relive that experience vicariously, he buys the CD again and offers it to “a rotund teenager in a wheelchair looking longingly into a GameStop window, [who declines it] on the principle that he would rather have cash” (p. 201).

The second idea is about the cult of the underdog. All of O’Rourke’s passions, however temporary, involve attempts to assimilate into groups that have historically been underdogs–Red Sox fans, Jews, eventually the Ulms. “[The Red Sox] were in first place ahead of the Yankees,” O’Rourke explains, “and then they let the Yankees take the lead just when it mattered most. Now that’s actually a time-honored tradition, which you probably know all about if you follow baseball. It’s not the end of the world, and in fact, I don’t mind it personally, because the only way I like to beat the Yankees is when we’re the underdogs” (p. 325). Even his profession, dentistry, is dedicated to the somewhat futile resistance of inevitable decay. From O’Rourke’s perspective being an underdog is a privileged position because only the underdog has the right to hope. “Most men live their lives vacillating between hope and fear,” Grant Arthur tells O’Rourke. “Hope for heaven, on the one hand, fear of nothingness on the other” (p. 333). The Yankee fan, to complete the analogy, only has fear–the fear of failure, the fear of not winning the World Series every year.

Ferris marries these two ideas in a brilliant scene in which O’Rourke, in a moment of triumph, buys a Chicago Cubs hat for the first time in his life and, by doing so, effectively joins baseball’s greatest, longest-running cult of underdogs.

How We Got to NowPaul O’Rourke would appreciate Steven Johnson’s book How We Got to Now. In fact, the question “How did we get to now?” could be said to be the central question that O’Rourke faces.

Johnson tracks six innovations–glass, cold, sound, clean, time, and light–tracing not only their histories, but also their greater impacts. “Innovations usually begin life,” Johnson states, “with an attempt to solve a specific problem, but once they get into circulation, they end up triggering other changes that would have been extremely difficult to predict” (p. 3). He calls this greater impact the “hummingbird effect.” This is similar to the butterfly effect, but it is less direct, “triggering changes that seem to belong to a different domain altogether” (p. 5). For example, he examines how the development of glass would lead to the kind of fiber-optic technologies that are essential building blocks for computers or the Internet (or what O’Rourke refers to as his “me-machine”), or how the development of air conditioning would lead to global population shifts to mega cities in tropical climates, or how the need for a sewage system in Chicago would lead to a vast network of subways.

In the chapter on time, Johnson explores both the historical and sociological changes caused by standardizing time–how being able to measure time changes the work day and how time suddenly comes a commodity. Phrases like “spending time” become staples of our language.

That verbiage, “spending time,” has always rubbed me the wrong way. There’s something about obscuring the human experience and tying it to this abstract, man-made grid to such a degree that feels wrong, but it’s hard to argue with all the efficiencies and conveniences of modern life, including this very thing I’m typing this into, that would be impossible without the constant measuring of time by the nanosecond. For example: “When your phone tries to figure out its location,” Johnson writes, “it pulls down at least three of these time stamps from satellites, each reporting a slightly different time thanks to the duration it takes the signal to travel from satellite to the GPS receiver in your hand” (p. 189). That’s incredible.

Since Johnson takes what he calls a “long-zoom” view of these innovations, the book ends up resembling a required textbook for a survey course on science history–something that serious science readers might call “science light.” However, for the recreational admirer of scientific innovations, How We Got to Now is a great entry point. And, as someone who moonlights as a fiction writer, Johnson’s book will be a handy resource for finding quick, science-related information that may be helpful for character or narrative development. I suspect it’ll find a home on one of my reference-book shelves right next to my desk.

Books Read: 2
Books Given Away: 1
Pounds Lost: 2

Scoreboard Explained
I gave away one book this month. For Christmas, I received two copies of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 2, 1923-1925, so I gave one copy to a co-worker who shares my affinity for all things Hemingway. I intend to pass along Joshua Ferris’ To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, but I have yet to do so. That will likely be added to the scoreboard next month. As for that last metric, I’ll make no excuses. My hope is that this embarrassment and shame will be a sufficient motivator.

Next Month’s Reading Selections
The Train to Crystal City (2015) by Jan Jarboe Russell
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (2009) by Jamie Ford

Until next time…

Books That Need New Homes
(To adopt your next free read, send an email to with the subject line: “Trimming Book-Fat, Title of Book.” First come, first served.)
The Lowland (2013) by Jhumpa Lahiri
Transatlantic (2013) by Colum McCann


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