Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Reading As Candy

Sometimes events conspire to show we still have a sweet tooth. Of course, there’s Halloween. We typically don’t keep candy in the house, now that the kids are older. Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but it is the sweet tooth that gets totally out of control. It was Lays Potato Chips that came up with the tag line, betcha can’t eat just one. (I preferred Ruffles, which have ridges.) Actually, my downfall is Nestlé Crunch. When there’s a bunch of those hanging around, as there is apt to be after the trick or treating has concluded, I will lose the wager. With running out of candy before all the kids have rung the doorbell a total no-no, it’s the lesser of two evils.

The rest of the year offers no safe haven, though some times are worse than others, holiday weekends for example. With Thanksgiving recently concluded, I’ve come to realize the menace is right there in our ritual foods. Even though it was just us on turkey day, a bit unusual to not have any of the extended family or friends join us, we had all the fixings just the same, only a little upscale. My wife made what I thought was a new recipe for the cranberry sauce. Though we served it the traditional way, it easily could have been a dessert, a sorbet substitute of sorts. She has perfected a sweet potato dish, cooked in a frying pan and made with butter, maple syrup, and bourbon. Perhaps it could have nuts too, probably pecans. Almost pralines, and yet it counts as a vegetable dish. Yum. Leftovers don’t normally best the original, but the sweet potatoes made this way improve with age. I couldn’t get enough of this stuff.

The mindset for over indulgence already in place, I start to see other aspects of my life in this dimension. For the last several years we’ve had our Visa card with, so each purchase racks up points towards a gift certificate. When we used to have the credit card for frequent flyer miles, we’d hoard those till the family would take a trip (or I’d use on a solo trip that wasn’t work related). There needed to be a big chunk of purchases to get to a redeemable amount. And since I wasn’t a globe trotter as part of my work, I didn’t create a huge excess supply of miles. So we used what we had in a rather conservative way. I never used miles to bump up to first class, for example.

It’s different with the gift certificates. They come in $25 increments. Quite frequently, it seems we have idle certificates hanging around. So when I punch in the access codes into my account, it feels like I’ve got some mad money. For my Kindle books, which I now read on the iPad or the computer primarily, the latter when the iPad is charging or I’m taking a break from work but still sitting at the computer, though I’ve verified my original Kindle still works but doesn’t hold a charge as well as it used to, I can buy those Kindle books with 1-click, which is very convenient, essentially no transaction cost. But it still feels like a credit card purchase and I’ve been weaned to use credit responsibly. The gift certificates are a different matter. They feel a little bit like Monopoly money. And as I will be teaching a course on Behavioral Economics in the spring, I’ve had a prior disposition to be sensitized to this sort of anomaly. (We will be reading, or at least mentioning, a paper that argues the marginal propensity to consume out of income tax refunds is different (and higher) than the marginal propensity to consume out of ordinary income.)

A day or two before Thanksgiving I load two $25 certificates into my account and then start to surf the site for what it is I will purchase. I begin with the Thomas Harris page. Harris is the creator of the indelible character, Hannibal Lecter, who is even better in print providing the reader a lot of guilty pleasure than he is in movies where he terrifies, but that feeling is fleeting. The books take longer to transverse and probably with multiple sittings, so the immersion is that much greater. Harris’ first book, Black Sunday, is on a different theme, terrorism. I read it sometime in the 1990s, when the family was making a trip to Florida to see my parents. My recollection is often imperfect, but given that caveat I thought the book presaged the events of 9/11 remarkably well, and it was written more than two decades earlier. Alas, Harris doesn’t seem to be cranking them out anymore and I’ve already read the books he has written.

I become mildly annoyed with this observation and start to look for my “old standards” where I’m more confident there will be stuff available I haven’t read. Having made a recent post that mentioned John Grisham and page turner novels, I purchase two of his books, one by le Carré, and another by Dan Brown, all for the Kindle. In the back of my head I had a thought that this sort of fiction is the adult alternative to video games. In the 1990s my wife would buy me a computer game to play over the winter holidays. Most of the titles I no longer recall, though one year it was Myst and another year it was Railroad Tycoon. I don’t do that sort of thing anymore. And most of my reading in the last year has been non-fiction, the Motley Read of Dubliner’s the notable exception. My aim in an eclectic choice of reading materials is to seek out titles primarily for intellectual nourishment. With this recent batch of purchases, however, it’s needless calories I want, the type we sometimes crave.

Less than a week later, I’ve now read two of these books, and the bulk of a “serious” book, Winner-Take-All Politics, also purchased for the Kindle. I watched less than my usual quota of sports on TV, though I was by no means deprived in that category. I didn’t do much of anything socially productive, including not working on my Econ courses for the spring – another topic for that Behavioral Econ course is procrastination, which applies to the students and their teachers too. I don’t feel too bad about that; for the four days from Thursday through Sunday I believe there is a good case to be made that holidays are for relaxation and getting away from work while the rest can be argued by continuity (still a math nerd at heart), especially given that I’m officially retired. And I’ve also been having a bit of insomnia. While I find it difficult to do serious reading during the wee hours, breezy fiction is no problem whatsoever. It’s the reading breezy fiction that I’d like to discuss further. I may write a subsequent post about Winner-Take-All Politics, or let it out in drips and drabs in several future posts.

The first book I read was The Partner. Although going in my main desire was to get lost in the story, I couldn’t help myself from asking what is it that makes the book a page turner, and could I replicate that if I tried? You read a book differently if you are looking for clues about the writing craft than if you simply want a good story. I can’t multi-process on these. Instead I bounce from one to the other in an involuntary way. So my observations on the craft part are partial and far from complete.

Grisham must envision the reader as somewhere between a sleuth and a newspaper reporter, one who is making his own story, but who doesn’t have all the facts, actually none of them at all when the book begins. The lines from Ballad of a Thin Man come to mind:

You walk into the room
With your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked
And you say, “Who is that man?”
You try so hard
But you don’t understand
Just what you’ll say
When you get home

Dylan, however, is angry at this reporter for not getting the story straight. It is Grisham’s story that we readers appropriate for our own. He does get it straight, but not immediately. He lets the facts come out in a stream that first seems very rapid, but is well chosen so that we readers make the wrong picture initially. Grisham practices misdirection in the story telling. (Randy Pausch, in his last lecture, talks about misdirection as a way to draw students in to an important and difficult realization that they won’t readily come to if confronted with a more direct approach, in which case they will resist rather than acknowledge the truth.) If you’ve read several of Grisham’s books already, you anticipate the misdirection, yet you can’t see your way to the truth he is leading us to till you are well into the book. There is anticipation of a strong element of surprise till then. That, I believe, is the underlying factor which makes the book a page turner. Further the events proceed according to a complex and detailed plan, one cooked up by the protagonist. Part of the engagement with the story is to see the plan unfold, appreciate the cleverness in it, and to see the actual events correspond with the plan so closely. Indeed, we readers learn of the plan by the events. Grisham deliberately conceals the plan otherwise, for once the cat is out of the bag Grisham has lost his biggest hold on the reader.

Something else got in my way reading this book. Ten or eleven years ago I wrote about half a novel, before I ran out of steam. (Maybe I’ll come back to it someday and finish it.) That experience seemed increasingly relevant as I read further into The Partner. In particular, I became conscious of the parts with dialog and the phrases used outside the quotes to describe the mindset of the character or the circumstances under which the quoted line was uttered. Those phrases started to seem artificial to me, not necessarily contributing to the story at all, but necessary because that is how dialog is written. I began to recall in my own writing that the choice of those phrases seems somewhat arbitrary, an afterthought not part of the story plan. And then it dawned on me that Grisham had influenced me a lot in the way I constructed my novel, though the substance of the book was indirectly taken from Michael Lewis’ The New New Thing, which is a non-fiction book about Jim Clark, and which I appropriated and intermingled with my experiences about teaching and learning. I also developed a very complex plan as the centerpiece of my story, though I made that plan more overt. My experience is that events never go as planned so I couldn’t write a story, as Grisham does, where the correspondence is near perfect.

Perhaps because of my own writing experience I start to see where the Grisham story will unfold pretty early on in the reading. So I become conscious of other aspects of Grisham’s technique. He has a very good sense of pace, when to let clues out, and with that how to build a narrative behind the release of clues. In this particular story there is a friend of the protagonist whose hidden job is to serve as the eyes and ears of the reader. As he learns about the plan, the reader does too. This guy and the other real friends of the protagonist are the only pure ones in the story. The protagonist himself is a good guy, but he has done something very dark to exact his revenge. For justice to prevail, the protagonist can’t go entirely unpunished, in spite of his very clever plan. The other characters in the story are either entirely venal, they are the objects with whom the protagonist levels the score, or they are unwitting accomplices of the protagonist, part of the criminal justice system.

Grisham’s sentences and paragraphs are simple and straightforward. A reader can race through them. And the chapters are short. There are many of them (over forty). As one comes to the end of one, then another, there is the sense of making progress and that things are going by rapidly, as if staring outside through a window while riding on a bullet train. This serves as a counterpoint since, after the very beginning of the book where the landscape is set, the clues emerge rather slowly. So while things may seem a whirl, Grisham doesn’t want the picture to come into sharp focus till near the end of the book.

Here’s one last comment about Grisham. I find his endings a bit weak, though perhaps that is an occupational hazard. He wants all the loose ends to be wrapped up in a bow. The bad guys need to be punished and they are. None get away with it. This is not for them to learn that crime doesn’t pay. It’s for us readers as fans. Our team wins. No reader can be rooting for the bad guys. There remains the question of what should happen to the protagonist, a good guy, a victim in a real sense, but who has done something dark. Does he get away with it or get punished? In my way of thinking the story should end with ambiguity on that score. Instead, Grisham provides a resolution but one not motivated at all by the rest of the story. This may be fair to the character, but as a reader I felt cheated.

The next book I read is the Malacca Conspiracy and it turns out I purchased it by mistake. The author is Don Brown, not Dan Brown, though I found the book by searching for Dan Brown at I only noticed my error after reading the whole thing and then going back to the book page and reading the descriptions there. From that I learned the book would top the lists for Christian fiction, my first (and probably last) foray into that genre. I read that book entirely out of compulsion, with no real pleasure in the reading at all. Thinking this was written by the author of The Da Vinci Code, I was going to make the point that sometimes you can’t resist candy long after the sense of reward from eating it has left. But now I feel compelled to reprimand myself that I probably need to change my approach at when looking for candy. First go to the page of a book I’ve already read and liked, then surf from there. This is more likely to produce related items that I will like.

Let me turn to another question that intrigues me about reading as candy. If we do a fair amount of that and on a regular basis will we read more serious stuff too? For me, a lot of what I do depends on where I’m located. I do different things sitting at the computer than when I’m in an easy chair away from the computer. Sometimes I sit on our couch in front of the TV and read there, but I find I read more if I’m away from the TV too, in a comfortable chair. What other purpose could I have for being there? Getting into the habit of that’s where I should be, I will then read what I can get at from my iPad. The candy then serves as a lure, for good habit formation. Growing up, I had always thought of treats as rewards given after the fact for work well done. Candy as lure to encourage before the fact behavior is a new idea for me.

Maybe the big lesson is that we need to make misdirection for ourselves.

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