When I was young, my grandfather lived with us on and off. One of his endearing quirks (and by “endearing quirk,” I mean “thing that most drove my mom insane”) was reading aloud anything he saw: cereal boxes (“‘Lucky Charms: Frosted Oat Cereal with Marshmallow Bits,’ yum”), newspaper headlines (“‘First Lady Visits Refugees in Hungary,’ interesting”), and, while we were driving, restaurant and store signs, which was a running commentary as we rolled along our town’s commercial strip (“‘McDonalds: Over 50 Billion Served,’ I wonder how they know,” “‘Arby’s Roast Beef Sandwich Is Delicious,’ yes it is,” “Burger King: Home of the Whopper,’ I’ll stick with McDonald’s”). Much to my lovely wife Jen’s chagrin, I have become my grandfather. I read everything aloud to her and to anyone else who is listening. Later, I’ll probably read this blog post aloud to her.
The problem is that I have a short attention span. I am not a fast reader. I lose interest quickly. I struggle to read a New Yorker cover-to-cover in one sitting (or, let’s be honest, at all). On the other hand, Jen and my kids are freaks of nature. They read books like they are going out of style. (Which they are, according to a recent study; see below.) I’ll start reading a book, recommend it to Jen, and then, the next time I open the book, find a bookmark deeper into the book than mine is. Way deeper. I’ll spend a few weeks plodding through a book; she’ll read it in a night. She has a Nook because when we go on vacation, she doesn’t want to carry 10 books; I bring 3 magazines and I’m set. (As long as there are cereal boxes and restaurant signs to read…)
The Pew Research Center keeps track of American’s reading habits, and in the January 21, 2014 issue of The Atlantic, which I just got around to reading, Jordan Weissmann reports that the average American read 5 books in 2013. Five measly books. In 1978, 8% of Americans didn’t read a book at all. In 2013, it was 23%. Yikes. The silver lining, though, is that 18- to 24-year-olds’ reading patterns are holding steady over the years. Young adults’ reading habits are, as Weissmann notes, “the same as in the pre-Facebook days of 2002.” Whew! There’s hope for us yet.
Here are my 10 faves of 2014, with brief comments (I know you don’t have time to read this because of all those books you’re plowing through). I managed to read 40 books last year. So these are the top 25%:
1. One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, B.J. Novak. This short-story collection caught me off guard and I laughed throughout. You might know Novak as Ryan from “The Office.” He’s also a writer and executive producer. He’s also funny and smart. I kept thinking of Steve Martin (in his writing, not his standup) when I read these stories. I judge how funny a book is by how much of it I read out loud to Jen; I pretty much read something on every page to her. The standout story for me was “The Something by John Grisham.” I snicker just thinking about it. Bonus: Many of these short stories are a few pages long, matching my attention span.
2. Us, David Nicholls. Douglas is a chemist who plans a European tour with his wife Connie and their teenage son before he goes off to university. Then Connie says that she is thinking of leaving him but that they should still do the trip. Hilarity ensues. Very sad and funny in dealing with what happens when a marriage takes a wrong turn and about a father’s relationship with his son.
3. Thank You, Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse. You’d think I would have read me some Jeeves and Wooster stories before this point in my life, seeing as I have always preferred funny over serious. But I was an English major in college, where we had to read serious literature and not, you know, enjoyable literature. Please find a Wodehouse book and read it. It’s “Downton Abbey” with a laugh track. (That metaphor makes no sense because it’s a book.)
4. This Is the Story of A Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett. This is actually several nonfiction pieces, not just about marriage. Patchett is a novelist (Bel Canto) and also a magazine writer. This collection of her shorter works is bravely honest and confessional. If only my writing was this deep and insightful. (Instead, I’m blathering on about cereal boxes and McDonald’s signs.) Also, she co-owns a bookstore in Nashville called Parnassus Books. Talk about supporting the cause!
5. Bad Luck and Trouble, Lee Child. This is a departure from the other books on my list, but I’m a sucker for Child’s Jack Reacher novels. Reacher is a former Army MP who roams the country and solves grisly crimes. The Reacher books remind me of John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee books from the 1960s to the 1980s. Tough man, sharp mind, not afraid to bend the law to lay a heavy dose of justice on the bad guys, and he has a way with the ladies: isn’t it obvious why I relate to Reacher? (Because I’m nothing like him. Sorry, I thought that was obvious.)
6. The Map Thief, Michael Blanding. The subtitle of this is “The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps.” In a nutshell, it’s the gripping story of…oh, forget it. True story, too.
7. Born Standing Up, Steve Martin. If you’ve read any Steve Martin books (An Object of Beauty is a good place to start) you’d think, “Wait, is this witty, serious-and-funny writing from the same comic with the arrow through his head?” Yes, same guy. This memoir traces his standup years and is not really an autobiography; it’s more an explanation of how Martin’s standup act developed; in fact, it focuses only on his childhood and adult life for how they related to his act, and it ends just as he is about to transition to his movie roles. Also, very funny. (A must for almost all the books on my list.)
8. I Must Say: My Life As A Humble Comedy Legend, Martin Short. Consider it a companion piece to the previous book. Wonderful, obviously funny, but less obvious is the fact that this is a love story about Short and his wife. You will laugh and cry. (Well, I did.)
9. Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living, Nick Offerman. Do you like the Ron Swanson character on “Parks and Recreation”? Do you like meat? Do you like woodworking? Then this might be the book for you. Warning: There are raunchy parts.
10. The Storied Life of AJ Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin. I didn’t think that I would like this book. I was wrong. Should I say it was funny and sad? Do you sense a pattern in some of my selections? AJ Fikry is a bookstore owner who was recently widowed. In rapid succession, a rare book of his is stolen and a baby gets left in his bookstore. And we go from there.
These books barely missed the cut: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson; One Plus One, Jojo Moyes; I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, Courtney Maum; In the Land of Invented Languages, Arika Okrent; Food: A Love Story, Jim Gaffigan.