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Picky reader

Packing up your life and moving has never been my favorite thing to do, and as I slowly whittle away at our book collection, I’m glad that we sold a lot of them to used bookstores like Half-Price. Over the years, I’ve become intensely picky about the books I buy out of necessity (lack of shelf space) and have developed a criteria which I’ve used to weed out my book collection.

1. Can you find it in the library?

The public library is one of the greatest inventions, ever. And King County has one of the better library systems in the United States. Thousands upon thousands of books available to me — for free! You can’t beat free!

Because of this, I’ve sold most of my fiction and a lot of my non-fiction that I enjoyed but didn’t make it into any of my top lists. Libraries are not going away any time soon (I hope), and maybe a reliance on the library will help motivate me to provide more support for the library systems around me. Plus, there’s no reason to try and overlap our collections — the public library ninety-nine times out of a hundred will do a better job than I will with my limited income. Better to focus our resources on building a library that really reflects who we are as a family, which leads me to my next criterion.

2. Can you buy it easily?

Because I can find most books I want in the library, I keep only keep the ones that I really like (Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, for example), and when I do go peruse the bookstore, I try to find things that are rare. Trawling through the clearance sections of used bookstores, for example, can often procure amazing treasures that you can’t find anywhere else. If you can buy a book at Barnes and Noble or Borders or Amazon easily, then you can probably find it at the library. The last few books I’ve purchased have mostly been from either academic presses or independent publishers. That way, any book I own I can genuinely justify by citing the fact that they may actually be rare someday, and by keeping them in good condition, I extend the shelf life of knowledge.

Through these two criteria, I’ve managed to whittle the book collection down by quite a bit, but apparently by not enough.

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My Favorite Children, part two

The continuation in a series of posts listing some of the books that made the rigorous process in determining which I take with me and the others that must wait in Utah until my wife and I come back for them.

6. A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon’s famous book is A Curious Incident with the Dog in the Night-time, which got a lot of press for its unique narrator – a boy with autism. However, my favorite novel by Mark Haddon is A Spot of Bother, detailing a traditional, conservative British family whose only daughter is marrying someone everyone in the family hates. Meanwhile, the son must determine whether he should bring his boyfriend (and scandalize the entire family, especially his parents, still in semi-denial) or not, the mother tries to mop up an affair, and the father slowly begins to go a little bit crazy, convinced he will die soon of horrible disease – but hopes he can hide it from everyone and contain it until after the wedding so that he doesn’t inconvenience anyone. It’s a great book on family and acceptance, but like Then We Came to the End, it’s got some graphic scenes and some good old fashioned Brit cussing, so if you’re easily offended, pass this one, too.

Excerpt:

He didn’t have a problem with homosexuality per se. Men having sex with men. One could imagine, if one was in the business of imagining such things, that there were situations where it might happen, situations in which chaps were denied the normal outlets. Military camps. Long sea voyages. One didn’t want to dwell on the plumbing but one could almost see it as a sporting activity. Letting off steam. High spirits. Handshake and a hot shower afterward.

It was the thought of men purchasing furniture together that disturbed him. Men snuggling. More disconcerting, somehow, than shenanigans in public toilets. It gave him the unpleasant feeling that there was a weakness in the very fabric of the world. Like seeing a man hit a woman in the street. Or suddenly not being able to remember the bedroom you had as a child.

Still, things changed. Mobile phones. Thai restaurants. You had to remain elastic or you turned into an angry fossil railing at litter.

7. A Leaky Tent Is a Piece of Paradise edited by Bonnie Tsui

A collection of essays about nature written by writers no older than thirty, this collection puts a new spin on “nature writing,” where young writers products of the late 20th to early 21st century write about their ways of connecting with whatever nature remains around them. The title derives from a delightful essay of a  young man who, broken hearted, decides to move into a tent like Thoreau to Walden to remove himself from his worldly woes and learns a little about himself. Another essay speaks about learning the lesson of growing up from a group of river rafting guides who refuse to do just that. Another author writes of her intense fear of lightning and her conflicting desire to venture around the world. Each essay is more than delightful and makes nature much more accessible again to one who’s grown up in the city all his life.

Excerpt:

But more surprisingly, once I could hold my despair and run a hand along its saggy, tired edges, the woe didn’t seem so boundless. The tent gradually became not a symbol of doom, but a very real refuge, my own pod of stability and control in a world that felt beyond control. Wind and rain could lash the tent and I would stay warm and cozy – as long as I held the walls up and stayed in the middle and had a towel to mop up the mess. So many years later, things really haven’t changed.

8. Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson

I first heard about this book from my friend Kimberly, who majored in communication studies. This iconoclastic book defies what conventional wisdom teaches us – that popular culture makes us really, really dumb. Popular culture won’t get you to Harvard, Steven Johnson writes, but it is making the general population smarter overall. If you want to learn how video games and even reality TV shows are helping us become a more smarter generation, I highly recommend this book.

Excerpt:

To get around these prejudices [against games], try this thought experiment. Imagine an alternate world identical to ours save one techno-historical change: video games were invented and popularized before books. In this parallel universe, kids have been playing games for centuries – and then these page-bound texts come along and suddenly they’re all the rage. What would the teachers, and the parents, and the cultural authorities have to say about this frenzy of reading? I suspect it would sound something like this:

Reading books chronically understimulates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of gameplaying – which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical soundscapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements – books are simply a barren string of words on the page. Only a small portion of the brain devoted to processing written language is activated during reading, while games engage the full range of the sensory and motor cortices.

9. The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee: Observations on Not Fitting In by Paisley Rekdal

Born of a Chinese mother and a Norwegian father, Paisley Rekdal writes painfully honest essays about being of mixed heritage, and what it means to never truly fit in. The most powerful essays for me detail her trip to South Korea, teaching English on a Fullbright contract. Having visited South Korea just a couple summers before, I could understand the almost traumatic experience of facing your Asian heritage head on and feeling crushed by the culture that should (in your mind) accept you with open arms.

Excerpt:

I’ve never seen romantic stationary in Korean. There must be some, I think to myself, and later paw through the notepads in my desk, the fresh packets sold at school supply shops. But the ones I can find are always in English, I see, or French or Latin. And suddenly it occurs to me that this is sad, but because these cards seem to be spoiling something about Korea…I don’t like the fact that, to me, these cards appear like lies imported from another culture, a cheap sentimentality that feeds off the educationally enforced separation of the sexes.

Though I have often accused Koreans of whitewashing the truth about themselves with ritualized politeness, with Joseph at Usok I suddenly do not find this much different from the romantic moves and singers America produces in huge volumes on a seemingly daily basis…Perhaps my students, seeing movies from my culture, buying stationary with my language, have been taught to believe this artificial sentimentality is all that really matters to us. And maybe that makes them sad, too.

10. Jewish Dharma: A Guide to the Practice of Judaism and Zen by Brenda Shoshanna, PhD

For the longest time (and still today), I wished I was Jewish. No joke; I always thought Hannukah was cooler than Christmas as a kid, and it wasn’t just the presents. For some reason, decorating a tree seemed silly – celebrating God’s miracles of oil extension by re-enacting it seemed more real. On my mission, I declared to my district leader and good friend that I would only marry a girl from the tribe of Judah. Sure enough, on news of my engagement, Wolfgramm asked me if I accomplished this goal. I had forgotten about that boast a long time ago, but eerily enough, my wife derived from the lineage of Judah.

On top of that, I’m Asian, and with that come a lot of Asian baggage, despite my American identity. I have a lot of attitudes and traditions my parents taught me stemming from Confucianism and Buddhism. In high school during my senior year, I took a World Religions class from Mr. Prufer, who was Zen Buddhist. During that critical year, I was very close to running away from home and joining a Buddhist monastery.

Fast forward to 2009, and I’m still a faithful, practicing Mormon, though much more mature in spirituality than I was five years ago as a senior in high school. At Sam Weller’s, this book catches my eye – a book about how to be a practicing  Ju-Bu (Jewish-Buddhist)? And if there is such a thing as a Ju-Bu, could there be a Mo-Ju-Bu? I set to find out.

In a period of my life where my religious practice seemed stale and stagnant, this book breathed new life into it. The author writes about her life experiences, of being raised Jewish and finding Buddhism and trying to reconcile her two belief systems into one. Sincerely honest without rationalization or scripture wresting, Brenda Shoshanna demonstrates President Hinckley’s request that all religions bring what’s good in theirs, and see if we can add on to it. Perhaps, my version of Mormonism is less meet-and-greets, funeral potatoes, and college ward prayer meetings, and more meditating and mitzvot observing.

Excerpt:

He [my Zen master] was right, but questions still haunted me. As zazen deepened, I could not avoid the persistent questions that rose up within – I thought about my family, my cousins, parents, sister, brother. Am I abandoning you, I wondered? Have I left my Jewish roots behind? Am I running away from who I truly am? What about all those who died to uphold the Torah? At certain times I felt that doing deep zazen, I was fulfilling the true Torah, actualizing all the commandments. Other times, dressed in my Zen robes, I felt as though I was trespassing, violating my deeper self.

…One day I said to him, “I feel I should go home.”

“Where is your true home?”

I breathed deeply for a moment.

“Your true home. Before you were born! Eshin, calm down. You have not done wrong. You are not doing wrong here.”

“According to my people I must go home.”

“Then stop coming.”

“I can’t.”

“Then sit more deeply, to the very bottom of the well. Finally, when you are ripe, you will see that we are all One.”

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My Favorite Children, part one

I recently wrote about how I’m planning on leaving a good 90% of our library behind while we move to Washington. The place we’ll be staying at is interim and cramped for space, so a lot of our library must be packed up for good and stored until the Lord seems fit to reunite my wife and I with them.

I also recently wrote about how the decision process is like being forced to choose between your children, and as fitting, my wife has part of the library that is “definitely hers” while the rest are “his books.” Thus, I am forced to sift the wheat from the okay wheat from the tares, only to bring those books whose character doth excel above all others. Or something like that.

Well, while many people look at different indicators to discover more about someone (for Polonius and Perez Hilton, it’s clothes; for nutritionists, it’s what you eat), I am a firm believer that books reveal more about a person than anything else, and so here are the first half of the 10 books I new immediately I needed to keep:

1. The Holy Bible and triple combination (The Book of Mormon, The Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price) –

Being a good, faithful Mormon boy, of course these four books top the list. Some may cry foul in combining these four volumes into one selection, but those who do obviously have never seen what many LDS members affectionately call “the quad.”

My particular volume is not a quadruple, but separated into two – The Bible and the rest of the Mormon canonical works combined into one; it’s easier to study cross references with both volumes instead of flipping back and forth with fingers in pages. My particular set is also the extra large print version, which I got during my mission for the extra wide margins for note-taking. The notes come in two layers – early-mission notes are inked with various colored pens, while late-mission (and post-mission) notes are scribbled in pencil, a habit I picked up from the mission president.

Excerpt:

I still carry them to this day and they are my principle workbook for scripture study. They also carry silly notes my wife and I pass each other during sacrament meeting, one which details a cartoon of me throwing sharks with my wife’s version of herself rendered in stick figure form swooning, “So hawt!” I am not making this up.

2. The Book of Mormon, RLDS version, circa 1955 –

This is the closest thing I have to an heirloom and prized possession. Should I become rich and famous and robbed whilst a character of a popular crime show (such as Castle, wink wink Nathan Fillion), the object of desire by said robbers would be this tome. I picked up while browsing an antique shop in Blackwell, Oklahoma on my mission. At first glance, it was just a really old edition of The Book of Mormon, more than enough excuse to buy it. Upon further examination, I realized that Alma chapter 21 is a whopping 186 verses long, and that a paper pasted in the front cover had you writing to The Council of Twelve, The Auditorium, Independence, Missouri for more information. Turns out, this was an RLDS version, and this book became that much more precious.

Excerpt:

As a bonus, included in the book was a wonderful Christian tract about how the barcode was the mark of the beast.

Apparently, Christians don't like barcodes for religious reasons

3. Digging to America by Anne Tyler –

This bittersweet novel captures all of the conflicting and intricate emotions of immigration in America. Two very different families meet at the airport, both waiting for their adopted Korean daughter. When they receive them at the same time, one family suggests an “Arrival Day,” celebrating the anniversary of the two Korean daughters entering their lives. Thus begins a story of acceptance and rejection, of inclusion and exclusion, full of laughs, cringe-worthy events, and the hilariously melancholy observations of an Iranian grandmother with a Korean grandchild, Maryam.

Excerpt:

Lou was too busy talking to keep up with them. First he talked to Sami, on his other side – boring man-talk about jobs, followed by the high price of housing once he learned that Sami sold real estate. Then it was Maryam’s turn: how long had she been in this country? and did she like it?

Maryam hated being asked such questions, partly because she had answered them so many times before but also because she preferred to imagine (unreasonable though it was) that maybe she didn’t always, instantly, come across as a foreigner. “Where are you from?” someone might ask just when she was priding herself on having navigated some particularly intricate and illogical piece of English. She longed to say, “From Baltimore. Why?” but lacked the nerve. Now she spoke so courteously that Lou could have had no inkling how she felt. “I’ve been here thirty-nine years,” she said, and, “Yes, of course. I love it.”

4. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

Then We Came to the End has been described as the novel form of the television show The Office, Catch-22 about white collar office life, or the next great American novel for the 21st century. It details in lucid prose the antics of an advertising agency on the verge of recession. As the firm lets their employees go one by one, the paranoia increases and everyone learns how to cope (or not cope) with their crumbling lives as they realize how much each co-worker means to them – and how little they know about them. The book’s unique hallmark is its narrator – 1st person plural. Ferris’ novel sucks you in as you start to feel like one of the employees, whispering over the cubicles and gossiping by the water cooler about each character’s private and public lives. This book sports one of the best endings in the history of literature (really, dead serious, best ending I’ve ever read in my life) but also sports some pretty heavy language, so avoid if you’re not into that stuff.

Excerpt:

Tom wanted to throw his computer against the window, but only if he could guarantee it would break the glass and land on the street below. He was under his desk removing cords. “that’s sixty-two stories, Tom,” Benny said. And Tom agreed it was a bad idea if he couldn’t break the glass. If glass didn’t break they would say Tom Mota couldn’t even f— up right – he didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of that, the bastards. We were the bastards he was referring to, in part. “But I don’t think it’ll break the glass,” said Benny. Tom stopped tooling around with his computer. “But I gotta do something,” he said, sitting back on his heels.

5.  A Treasury of Jewish Folklore edited by Nathan Ausubel

I picked up this gem in Seattle, during my honeymoon, at a small bookstore in Pike Place Market. The owner is a great guy who loves to talk about your purchases with great zeal and friendliness. I picked up this book for two reasons. One, it was old looking, and old books get me every single time. Two, it’s a collection of Jewish folklore! What more do you need?

I ended up lucking out since this book is actually really old – the fifth printing in November 1948 (the first printing was in June 1948), and according to my friend who went looking for a copy of his own on Amazon, has seen many a share of its editions and printings.

The first month or so, I would read a couple of pages and then read my favorite ones out loud to my wife; bless her Jewish-lineage heart, she tolerated my readings and would even pretend to laugh from time to time. I still read through this on a regular basis, and I will still read some of my favorite stories out loud to my beautiful wife.

Excerpt:

A Jew was drowning in the Dnieper River. He cried for help. Two Czarist policemen ran up. When they saw it was a Jew, they said, “Let the Jew drown!”

When the man saw his strength was ebbing he shouted with all his might, “Down with the Czar!”

Hearing such seditious words, the policemen plunged in, pulled him out, and arrested him.

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Check out that girl’s library

After our wedding, my wife and I moved into a small studio apartment located on the corner of 800 N and 100 W in Provo, Utah. Before unpacking anything else – dishes, cookware, bedding, clothes, bathroom supplies – my wife and I put together five sets of bookshelves and proceeded to shelve our combined library.

Later, I would be stopped by one of my neighbors who would proceed to tell me how envious he was of our library. This will rank somewhere in the top 25 best moments of my life.

The surprising thing about our library was that despite the capacity to fill five bookshelves, there were only two duplicates in our combined independent collections: Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and The Color Code by Taylor Hartman. I believe the fact that these two books were the only two books that overlapped in our combined libraries is one of the reasons why we have such a strong marriage.

First – the fact that we had little overlap in our libraries meant we remain sufficiently different from one another, eliminating any chance of us running out of things to talk about. My wife rambles on about fantasy and fiction, while I ramble on about the various subjects my non-fiction books elucidate on, ranging from the ingredients of a Twinkie to the biography of the man who invented the thesaurus. She keeps me grounded by reminding me that sometimes entertainment is just that – entertainment, and my wife never has to subscribe to another podcast again, since I’ll talk about basically anything under the sun (vanity, vanity, all is vanity!).

Second – our first overlap is Lord of the Rings, written by the perennial father of modern fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien. Why does this show how we’re compatible? Because Lord of the Rings is the perfect marriage between shameless escapist fantasy complete with little hobbits, orcs, a giant spider and freaking Ringwraiths, combined with erudite Old English wordplay and complex social themes written into a vast, sprawling landscape of symbols! The book represents the combination of our personalities – a closet geek accountant who reads fiction to have swashbuckling adventures you can’t find within an Excel spreadsheet (though she assures me pivot tables can be just as exciting) and an almost obsolete English major aspiring for professorship obsessed with the strangest, most trivial scholarly topics. It is only expected that both of us would own our own copies, and strangely enough, we ended up buying a third boxed edition on our honeymoon – for real (for our children, we rationalized).

Third – The Color Code by Taylor Hartman. For those not in the know, this book is basically years of personality studies in psychology distilled into a simple, easy to understand system. Upon hearing that both of us knew about the book (and read it), we could tell each other what our colors were (she’s a blue/red, I’m a yellow/blue). We rarely use it as one would a fortune teller or take it as exact science, but the fact we both owned the book and knew it well showed we found interest in personalities and relationships. A lot of relationships fail because the two parties simply didn’t understand each other and rarely strive to understand – reading books about how to understand and work with other people meant our commitments to each other weren’t backed up with hopes and wishes; we were honestly trying to learn. This means all the difference.

A mentor of mine could read you by simply listening to what you said. He would let you sit there while all the while he wouldn’t say a word; nature abhors a vacuum and when people are confronted with silence, they fill it with their own words, of which he would use to decipher your soul. I, however, hold firmly to the fact that you can also learn a lot by looking through a person’s library. So what does your library tell about you?

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