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I Read Books, II

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At the end of December, I posted a lengthy note about the books I’d read over the previous eight months, responding to Karl Rove’s WSJ column the week before in which he described the book-reading competition he and George Bush had. (In the column, we learn about the true, intellectual Bush.) I couldn’t keep up with Bush and Rove, even though the eight month period I described was one in which I had an unusual amount of free time. In January, I returned to teaching for the first time in 7 1/2 years and my book-reading rate declined. I did read, as some of my winter posts make clear, but spring book reading was limited. Too much grading to do. And blog reading. And blog writing. And newspaper and magazine reading. But when Janet Maslin’s review in the NYT of Gone Tomorrow, the new Lee Child thriller, came out on May 14, I decided I would read it as soon as I was done teaching for the year.

Waiting wasn’t easy, but I knew I couldn’t afford to get the book before the end of the quarter, not after my experience last June. Here’s how I described it in my December post:

But most crime or suspense thrillers I ignore, and I ignore their reviews as well. But somehow I found myself reading Janet Maslin’s regular reviews of this genre in the NYT and buying some of the books she praised. I discovered a whole set of authors, previously unknown to me, who come out with new books every summer or two and whose books immediately jump to or near the top of the bestseller lists, only to fade after 2 or 3 weeks. The regular readers snap them up, and then they’re gone.

The first book I stumbled on in this category was Lee Child’s Nothing to Lose. Maslin said one couldn’t put the book down and she was right. I started it around 8:00 PM on a Friday night, June 13, and finished it the next afternoon. In retrospect, it was one of the sillier books I read this year. But it sure was gripping.

A year ago, I wouldn’t have expected to be so eager to buy another Lee Child book, but I was. I kept reading about it. For instance, someone would write an article about the new Kindle and say in passing that he read the Lee Child book on it. Two weekends ago, I was really ready to read something besides my pile of magazines. My last class was that Friday, the 5th. I would give the final exam on Monday, the 8th and I thought maybe this would be a good time to start it. I could read the book while I proctored. But what if reading got in the way of grading? I resisted buying it. (I found an alternative way to waste time while I proctored. I brought the NYT Sunday magazine with me to read the cover story, then turned to the crossword, which occupied me for over an hour, then another hour in the evening and another half hour the next morning before I finished it.) Instead, that weekend, I turned to a book of short stories that I mentioned in the post last December: “Cheating at Canasta, the William Trevor short story collection I had to have a year ago. The first story was so depressing I put the book aside.” The first story was indeed depressing, but two Saturday nights ago I read another one, and then another Sunday night and another Monday night, and so I began to think that I might keep reading it over the course of the week, in small pieces, while I did the grading for the course, putting Lee off until the grades were in.

It didn’t help that the Seattle Times featured Lee Child in the Sunday paper that weekend, in anticipation of his arrival in Seattle on his book tour. He would be signing books at a mystery bookstore downtown at noon that Tuesday, the day after the final exam, and doing a book reading downtown that evening at the Seattle Public Library. What to do? Grade the remaining homework assignment and then the final exam starting on Tuesday? Or make it Lee Child day, getting an autographed copy of the book at noon and then going to the reading after dinner?

Grading won the day. Almost. I graded homework all day. Then we went to University Village around 6:00 PM for dinner and a trip to Barnes & Noble, where I bought the book. Then I came home and began grading the final exams. After five of them, I started the book, reading about 120 pages that night. And Wednesday it was back to grading the finals. And Thursday I made course grades, along with meeting some other obligations. In fact, they were busy days, with a PhD exam to attend, a memorial service, a farewell reception for the long-time director of the School of Music, the university’s annual award ceremony and reception, and so on. I completed the grades Thursday evening when all this was done, went to school Friday for some more obligations, then raced home to read the last 90 pages of the book. It wasn’t quite the intense experience of his previous book, but as soon as I was done, I was ready for another one.

How was it? Well, I don’t really know how to judge books in the thriller genre. It was engrossing. It didn’t have the narrow, almost suffocating focus of last year’s book. That narrowness is what led me to judge the book as silly. I wouldn’t have thought to call this one silly. Implausible as the plot may be, it connects to the larger world in ways that make much more sense than last year’s. And I’m learning to like Jack Reacher, the hero. His encyclopedic knowledge of various matters, like New York subways (and guns), adds that brainy touch that complements the brawn and makes him so appealing.

I’m trying to decide which of the books to read next. The FAQ page at the Lee Child website recommends reading them in order, naturally enough, though I’m more inclined to go backwards until I get tired of them, so I can work my way through the more mature ones first. But maybe, now that I have some more free time again, I should go back to some of the books I’ve started in the last year that I’m in the middle of. Or get the book I’ve wanted to read since it came out last January, Liaquat Ahamed’s Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World. It’s long (576 pages), but it’s supposed to be superb, and is more timely than Ahamed could have imagined when he set out to write a study of the bankers who (as Paul Krugman put it in a blog post about the book in March) “made the Great Depression so great.”

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