Last year on my birthday, I wrote that I would spend my 33rd year on Earth reading. In fact, I set a goal for myself. I wanted to read 33 books while I was 33.
Well, Friday is my birthday again. As of midnight on September 7th, I will no longer be 33. And I will enter my 34th year on Earth having just read 33 books in one year. I reached my goal at 2:38am on September 5th. (Two days to spare!)
It was like my own personal “Julie and Julia,” except instead of de-boning a duck, I read a 700 page biography of Lyndon Johnson that only covered the years from 1958 to 1964.
Here’s how it went:
Book 1: Fire and Rain by David Browne. 392 pages. I started reading it on September 7th and finished on September 17th.
You’re going to notice a trend as we go through all the books I’ve read in the past year. There are certain topics which I’m endlessly fascinated by: the inner workings of the government, stand up comedy, the history of New York City, Sports (obviously,) and the rock scene in the 1970’s. This book is about one year, 1970, and the dawning of the singer-songwriter era which really took off during those 12 months. I liked this book so much, I lent it to my friend as soon as I finished it. It has not yet been returned.
Book 2: Divided We Stand by Eric Darton. 256 pages. I started reading it on September 17th and finished on October 9th.
I spent the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks covering the commemoration at the World Trade Center site. After a decade, we all know everything we to about the events of that day and what led to the attacks. But, I didn’t know much about the actual World Trade Center. So, I decided to read Eric Darton’s “biography” of the WTC. I was especially happy to find out that the book was originally published in 2000, so the story wasn’t colored by the eventual horrors that will forever define the Trade Center. It’s the story of commerce against neighborhood, of progress against status quo. Unfortunately, It’s also an expanded version of Eric Darton’s Grad school thesis paper and it reads like that. So, a 256 page book took me almost a month to read. One month into my 12 month mission, I was already a little bit behind.
Book 3: Hot Time in the Old Town by Edward Kohn. 304 pages. I started reading on October 10th and finished on October 28th.
I decided to stick with the history of New York City. This book is about a deadly heatwave that hit the country in 1896, but unlike most New York City heatwaves, the book was very dry. I was trying to fool myself into being interested throughout the whole thing, but deep down I knew I was lying to myself. People died because it was hot and there was no AC and they were terribly poor. Where’s the sizzle?
Book 4: West By West by Jerry West. 338 pages. I started reading on October 28th and finished on November 8th.
So, after a couple of straight forward history books, I decided to lighten things up by reading a basketball book. It didn’t work. Jerry West is a complete bummer. The guy is riddled by depression, self doubt and self hate. I wanted to read about Elgin Baylor and Magic Johnson! Stick to the basketball, guy. This was a thoroughly disappointing experience, much like Jerry West’s entire life has apparently been to him.
Book 5: The Visible Man by Chuck Klosterman. 230 pages. I started reading on November 9th and finished on November 19th.
I don’t read a lot of novels. It’s too hard to know what you’ll like and what you won’t. Generally, if I pick up a novel, it’s either suggested by someone I trust or, more often, written by someone whose non-fiction writing I enjoy. That’s the case here. I love Chuck Klosterman’s pop culture essays. So, he gets benefit of the doubt from me even though his first novel, Downtown Owl, had no plot and no story. This one was pretty much the same. At this point, my year of reading was not going very well. Of the five books I had read, only one was great and two others were decent.
Book 6: When The Garden Was Eden by Harvey Araton. 368 pages. I started reading on November 20th and finished on December 4th.
I tried to lighten things up with a basketball book again. Thank god, it actually worked this time. This one is about the Knicks of the 70’s. New York City in the 1970’s will become a recurring theme throughout this entire book reading endeavor. I think I might be fascinated by the idea of the place I now call home once being such a dark and scary place. The Knicks, of course, weren’t shooting heroin on the Bowery or stealing turntables in the Bronx. Clyde Frazier did wear crazy hats, though.
Book 7: Monday Night Mayhem by Marc Gunter and Bill Carter. 384 pages. I started reading on December 4th and finished on January 3rd.
This book has been sitting in my parent’s house for at least 20 years. My mom bought it out of a discount rack at a book store sometime in the early 90’s and, from time to time, either my brother or I has picked it up and read a couple of pages here or there. Most of that happened in the bathroom. This is the book that he or I would find sitting on the toilet tank when we went home to visit a week after the other one had been there. So, finally, I decided to actually sit down and read it. Not because I was particularly interested. More because the book I had sitting on the shelf waiting to be read was Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography and that looked long and I wasn’t sure whether or not I cared enough about Jobs to actually read a long biography of him.
Book 8: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. 630 pages. I started reading it on January 4th and finished on February 21st.
At this point, my mission to read 33 books in one year wasn’t going very well. It had been four months and I had read 7 books. I needed to go at a nearly 3 book a month pace to reach my goal. So, a 630 page biography didn’t seem like a good pick, strategically. But, I bought the book. It was sitting there on the shelf mocking me, calling me a wuss. So, I did it. It took a long time to read; 48 days in fact. That’s the most time I spent on any one book during this whole process. Ultimately, it turned out to be a pretty good book about a pretty bad guy.
Book 9: The Last Great Game by Gene Wojciechowski. 320 pages. I started reading it on February 21st and finished on March 5th.
Are you noticing a pattern? I tend to go from serious, intellectually stimulating books to books about sports. To continue the sports metaphor, its the same concept as a team firing a blustery, militaristic coach and replacing him with a players’ coach who focuses on communication and making sure everyone feels good about themselves. The reason I chose this particular book is far more simple, though. I got it for free. One of the few benefits of SportsCracklePop is that publishers send me free books so I can interview the author. Perhaps you remember the interview with Gene Wojciechowski. I think it’s pretty good.
Book 10: You’re Not Doing It Right by Michael Ian Black. 256 pages. I started reading it on March 5th and finished it on March 6th.
Yes, I read this book in one day. I sat down on the couch and absorbed it. I LOVE Michael Ian Black. I loved the show “Ed,” I like every commercial he’s in, he cracks me up whenever he’s on TV, his podcast with Tom Cavanaugh is great and he’s one of the best tweeters out there. His previous book, “My Custom Van,” was a bunch of funny essays about nothing in particular. So, I was surprised that this book is actually a pretty heartfelt memoir about his life, marriage and kids. I have neither a marriage or kids so, while I enjoyed his stories a lot, I didn’t necessarily connect with them personally. But, I suggested the book to SCP reader Bshrek, who has both a wife and kid (soon to be kids.) I think the book really hit home with him so that made me extra happy. Kudos once again, Michael Ian Black.
Book 11: A Thing of Beauty by Steve Martin. 292 pages. I started reading it on March 6th and finished on March 15th.
Steve Martin is my hero. I don’t make that pronouncement lightly. I don’t even call it a pronouncement lightly. I truly mean it. Steve Martin is the most talented person I’ve ever come across. He’s the greatest stand up comedian of all time, but is also a great actor, art collector, and, most impressively, a brilliant writer. He’s capable of using the English language in a way that I’ve never read from anyone else. When I read Steve Martin, the words are more important than what they’re saying. And “A Thing of Beauty” is the most perfect example of this. I don’t care about the New York art scene even a little bit, but I read a novel about a young woman who works in an art gallery anyway. And I liked it. A lot.
I almost met Steve Martin once. I was walking down 3rd avenue with a friend of mine and sitting alone at a table outside a restaurant was someone who looked an awful lot like Steve Martin. So I said, “Oh my god. It’s Steve Martin. I want to go say hello to him and tell him what a big fan I am.” and she said, “Don’t be stupid. That’s not Steve Martin. We’re not stopping.” And so, we didn’t. Later that night, I was watching the Jimmy Fallon show and the first guest was.. Steve Martin. He was in New York. It was definitely him sitting at that restaurant. Next time, I’ll say hi.
Book 12: Love Goes To Buildings On Fire by Will Hermes. 384 pages. I started reading it on March 18th and finished on March 31st.
Back to New York City in the 1970’s. This book tracks the New York music scene from 1972 to 1977. But not just rock. It also tracks rap, jazz, salsa, classical and avant garde music. I didn’t know this book existed until I bought it. Most of the time, the way I pick books is by just wandering around Barnes and Noble on a day off and grabbing things that look interesting. You’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but this book’s cover pulled me right in. It’s caricatures of all the people mentioned in the book. That, combined with a title taken from a Talking Heads song, was more than enough to get me interested.
Book 13: Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. 312 pages. I started it on April 4th and finished April 19th.
I love the food network. I also love watching Anthony Bourdain on the Travel Channel, though I tend to prefer watching him tour American cities that I may one day visit rather than seeing him eat through the 3rd world. I’m never going to Burundi, Anthony! Working in a restaurant sounds absolutely horrendous, by the way. But, the job hierarchy in the restaurant world seems to a match up pretty well with the hierarchy at a news radio station. The whole time I was reading this book, I was trying to make that comparison while making sure my job at the radio station was the Chef. Because I’m the center of the universe.
Book 14: Wherever I Wind Up by R.A Dickey. 352 pages. I started reading it on April 20th and finished on May 1st.
This reminded me a lot of the Jerry West book. I expected a somewhat self reflective but generally uplifting personal story about an athlete who has overcome hardships to succeed. Instead, I wanted to punch RA Dickey in the face the whole time. He spends his life making terrible choices then says it’s ok because god forgives him, plus he was molested, so what do you expect? I like to read in bed before I go to sleep. It sucks when a book makes you angry because instead of getting tired and drifting off to a blissful rest, you turn off the light and sit there and stew in the dark for a few minutes.
Book 15: Do Not Ask What Good We Do by Robert Draper. 352 pages. I started reading on May 8th and finished on May 14th.
From sports back to politics and a book about the current do-nothing congress. Draper actually managed to humanize some tea party representatives, but that only lasted until I read that a congresswoman from North Carolina was elected based almost completely on her opposition to the “Ground Zero Mosque.” Come on, southerners! Be smarter!
Book 16: The Passage of Power by Robert Caro. 736 pages. I started reading on May 14th and finished on June 11th.
At this point in the book reading mission, I was 8 months in and less than half way to my goal. I honestly didn’t think I would make it. So, I decided If I’m going to go down, I’m going to go down in style. I picked up Robert Caro’s gigantic, dense, maddeningly long chronicle of Lyndon Johnson’s life between 1958 and 1964. But then, something surprising happened. I read this book pretty quickly. It only took 28 days. Maybe the mission wasn’t a loss cause after all.
Book 17: America, You Sexy Bitch by Michael Ian Black and Meghan McCain. 309 pages. I started reading on June 11th and finished on June 15th.
Michael Ian Black is our first repeat author! Congratulations to him. I’m sure he’s very proud. This book only took four days to read, which put the mission right back on track. Michael Ian Black shares my political beliefs. Meghan McCain does not. But, even if she did, I think I would still be unimpressed by her intellect. The two of them rode cross country in an RV, having the same political argument over and over again. Then Yakov Smirnoff was a dick to them. What a Country!
Book 18: Top Of The Rock by Warren Littlefield and T.R Pearson. 325 pages. I started reading it on June 16th and finished on June 18th.
At this point, I became obsessed with finishing 33 books. I started carrying my book with me everywhere. I read on the subway. I read if I had a few quiet minutes at work. I read if there was nothing on TV. I started going to bed earlier, so I would have more time to read before I fell asleep. It’s ironic that I started turning the TV off earlier so I could read “Top of the Rock,” which is an oral history of NBC’s Must See TV era. Stories about Friends and Seinfeld are better than anything that’s actually on in the summer anyway. Plus, oral histories are always quick reads.
Book 19: A Natural Woman by Carole King. 496 pages. I started it on June 18th and finished on June 24th
This is Carole King’s memoir. I admit, it seems like an odd choice for a 33 year old man in 2012. When I was reading it on the subway, I tended to keep the cover flat on my lap so no one saw me reading. When I told my Dad I was reading this book, he made a face. I was hoping for some interesting stories about the early days of rock and roll and some more cool stuff about the singer songwriter era of the early 70’s. Some of that was there. But, it turns out, Carole King is kind of a nut case. I didn’t know that. It was a little disappointing to find out. Still, I read it in 6 days and kept on rolling.
Book 20: A Hologram For The King by Dave Eggers. 312 pages. I started reading it on June 25th and finished on July 2nd.
Dave Eggers was the first author I ever read whose actual writing impressed me. Not his story telling or his character development, but his actual writing. When I read his memoir, “A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius” when I was 22, it cemented the idea that I want to be a writer. His novels keep my attention even when nothing happens. It’s clearly what Chuck Klosterman is trying to accomplish, though he hasn’t gotten there yet. This book is about a guy who goes to Saudi Arabia to meet with the King, then waits to meet with him. That’s it. When the book was over, I thought to myself, “Oh. Nothing happened. That’s weird.” But I didn’t think that until the book was actually over. Also, the book cover is embossed faux leather. That’s not a dust cover. It feels more substantial in your hand while you’re reading it and probably impresses other people on the subway. I don’t know for sure. I never asked anyone.
Book 21: Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe. 306 pages. I started on July 2nd and finished on July 7th.
You may notice the dates are starting to overlap. At this point, I would finish one book then go to the shelf and immediately grab another one and start reading. There was no time to waste. You would think I would be as embarrassed to read Rob Lowe’s memoir as I was to read Carole King’s. You would be right. I always made sure to fold back the front cover so no one could see what I was reading. One difference, though. This book was AWESOME! Rob Lowe is like a real life Hollywood Zelig. He knew everyone and was with them when they became famous. Then he was on the greatest TV show of all time, The West Wing. I was reading this during the run up to Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom,” so I was obviously flush with feelings of West Wing nostalgia.
Book 22: Dream Team by Jack McCallum. 352 pages. I started it on July 10th and finished July 16th.
I was really excited about this book. In fact, John from 200 Miles from the Citi and I actually started doing an SCP book club about it. But, I was busy at work and he was taking his family on vacation, Cats in the Cradle and all that. It just didn’t work out. Jack McCallum is an incredible writer. Sometimes, I forget that sportswriting is writing first and foremost. Guys like McCallum are good at reminding me of that. I actually read a little slower than usual on purpose, so I could really savor the experience. Does that sound weird? I think that might sound weird.
Book 23: Out of the Blue by Victor Cruz with Peter Schrager. 304 Pages. I started reading on July 16th and finished on July 22nd.
I started reading this book by immediately turning to the last page. I had to make sure I was in the acknowledgements. I am. It’s a weird experience reading a book that is written by your own brother but done in the first person as someone else. I had a real problem not hearing Peter’s voice as I read “Victor Cruz” tell his life story. It was a lot of,”What? You were never shot at! Oh wait… never mind.” I didn’t actually say this out loud. I thought it. Are you still supposed to use quotation marks when you quote a thought? I’m not sure. First class problems.
Book 24: Over Time by Frank DeFord. 288 pages. I started on July 23rd and finished on July 30th.
I bought this book just because it was on the ten dollar table at Barnes and Noble. I never really intended to read it. But, I finished the Victor Cruz book, I walked into the living room and there was Frank DeFord, sitting on the book shelf, smiling back at me. So, I picked it up and started reading. I’m glad I did. He’s a good writer with excellent stories. And though he’s a Princeton grad with an intellectual bent, DeFord still managed to end one chapter with the sentence: “Vince McMahon: What a dick.” That’s one of my favorite sentences in literary history.
Book 25: Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll. 528 pages. I started reading it on July 30th and finished on August 8th.
This was a case of two opposing forces coming together to force me into making a decision. One one hand, if there’s a book about Bruce Springsteen, I NEED to read it as soon as possible. Of course, a book that’s 528 pages certainly does not lend itself to a quick finish. But, I figured I would devour this because of the subject matter, so I dove right in. It still took a pretty long time. It turns out, I already know most of the stories about Bruce Springsteen. So, I probably could have waited to read this. In hindsight, there was no real reason to knock myself of schedule.
Book 26: Branch Rickey by Jimmy Breslin. 147 pages. I started reading on August 8th and finished on August 13th.
This is how I got back on schedule. The ONLY reason I picked this book up was that it was 147 pages. I think you will notice, from here on out, that the lengths of the books get much shorter. I saw the finish line. I decided to sprint there. Shorter doesn’t mean bad though. This was actually a really good book about Branch Rickey, written by an American legend. It’s also another free book that I got so I could interview the author.
Book 27: Driving Mr. Yogi by Harvey Araton. 240 pages. I started reading on August 13th and finished on August 14th,
Here was another one that I picked up just because it was short. Then, I read it in one day because, it turns out, it’s a fantastic book. Everyone who likes the Yankees or has older relatives should read this. And Harvey Araton becomes the second author to make a repeat appearance on our list. He was an author I was supposed to interview. I even emailed him some good questions about this book and “When The Garden Was Eden.” He never responded. But, look what a good person I am. I read and complimented his books anyway.
Book 28: Exit Interview by David Westin. 256 pages. I started on August 14th and finished on August 19th.
At this point, I started thinking about writing this post. I became conscious of the fact that, if I read too many sports books in a row, it might lessen the intellectual heft of my endeavor. So, I picked up the former head of ABC News’ book about the lessons he learned over 14 years as the President of the department. Are you impressed? Do I seem like a brainiac?
Book 29: Sleepwalk With Me and Other Painfully True Stories by Mike Birbiglia. 191 pages. I started reading on August 19th and finished reading on August 19th.
I read this book in one sitting on a Monday afternoon. That makes it very good for reaching my goal. The book, itself, was pleasant, if not laugh out loud funny. It’s now been made into a movie which is probably the exact same way.
Book 30: Mr. Funny Pants by Michael Showalter. 288 pages. I started reading on August 19th and finished on August 23rd.
Well now, I was ahead of the game. I had about 3 weeks to read 3 books. That’s easy. So, I decided to read another book by a comedian. Michael Showalter works with Michael Ian Black. Even knowing that fact, I had a feeling this book would be annoying. The idea was a good one. Showalter writes about procrastinating while writing a book. But, just because the idea is good it doesn’t mean the execution will be. Still, It had a lot of charts and graphs and drawings, and that makes for quick reading.
Book 31: Songbook by Nick Hornby. 207 pages. I started reading on August 23rd and finished on August 26th,
I took a train to and from Connecticut while I was reading this book. That’s two solid hours of prime reading time. It certainly helped. Writing about this book in this post is a bit meta, since Hornby wrote about the experiences he’s had listening to certain songs. I’m writing about the experience I had reading about the experiences he had. I just blew your mind.
Book 32: A Moment in Time by Ralph Branca. 240 pages. I started reading it on August 26th and finished on August 31st.
Here’s another book that came from an SCP interview. Just a few weeks after reading Jimmy Breslin’s hagiography of Branch Rickey, it’s interesting to read Branca, who was employed by Rickey and HATED him. I finished it in 5 days, and then all of a sudden, I was one book shy of my goal with an entire week to go. And, I had a long weekend ahead of me. 33 books had gone from seemingly impossible, to unlikely all the way to probable. I even took a day off from reading.
Book 33: Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. 488 pages. I started reading on September 1st and finished on September 5th.
Why pick an oral history of Punk Rock to end my journey? Why not? It’s one last story about the 1970’s rock scene. It’s a book I’ve always wanted to read. Mark Maron mentioned it on WTF recently. Plus, all of a sudden, I had plenty of time to read a 488 page book. So I did. I had thought about trying to find something more significant to read as my 33rd book. I considered a biography of John Belushi, since he died when he was 33. But, I didn’t have time to order it online. I needed to read something that I had at my fingertips. Jesus also died when he was 33, but I can’t think of any books about his life off the top of my head.
I read every last word of this book. I read the afterword, the cast of characters, the author’s notes, the acknowledgments, everything. I wanted to make sure I read 33 complete books. And I did.
So, it’s done and I’m proud of myself. I should probably end this by detailing the great lessons that I learned while embarking on this personal journey. But, really, it was just reading a lot. I learned that the rock scene in the 70’s was very interesting. I learned that Branch Rickey was either great or horrible. I learned that comedians are generally pretty funny. I learned the professional athletes can be bummers.
But most importantly, after reading 33 book totalling 11,183 pages over 364 days, I learned that it’s important to have a firm pillow behind your neck when you’re reading in bed. Otherwise, you’ll wake up sore in the morning.