When I packed my suitcase to fly home for a funeral last week, I stood staring at my bookshelf for a while looking for things to read. I chronically over pack for trips and have a child-like habit of needing to ensure I have plenty of things to do. Check my carry on and it likely has multiple issues of multiple magazines, at least two books, a phone with several TV shows and movies pre-loaded, a notebook and a pen, headphones, and very likely some sort of knick-knack or toy. If the plane were to crash and I were to find myself on a deserted island, I would be set for a while.
While trying to decide if this plane ride would be the moment I “got into” poetry (necessitating my wholly unread Dylan Thomas collection I’ve owned for a decade) a few books jumped out at me as carrying heavy sentimental value. I wanted to write out a few of them that, for one reason or another, really motivated me to change something about myself and start doing something.
Stuff that made me want to write…
I have forever been a fan of J.D. Salinger. I think it has a lot to do with his mystique. Here is a man who wrote a book that completely captured the minds of so many (as well as triggered in others disgust and rage). Then, as mysteriously as he came, he vanished – huddled away in his home never to release another story again. That mythos and archetype, the recluse artist who creates and then scuttles away, is also what drew me to the Neutral Milk Hotel (and their frontman, Jeff Mangum).
While I loved the Catcher in the Rye, it was Nine Stories that really sparked an interest in writing for me. In this collection of short stories, Salinger lays out simple, everyday life. Nothing spectacular happens. Instead of capturing our imagination with mysticism or magic, or jabbing our interest with wild twists and turns, Salinger lays out simple, elegant stories about people and the things they do. Salinger taught me to be an observer – someone who watches people with curiosity and compassion. The way he wrote showed he cared for people even when he didn’t particularly like them. I’ve gone back to Nine Stories several times, reading and re-reading short stories to try to recapture the spark I felt the first time. With Nine Stories, I first felt a sense of “I could do that…not as well as him, but I could do that.”
David Sedaris was the first author I read who wrote fantastic stories that were also funny. Prior to finding Sedaris, my mind segregated books into two categories: comedy books (by the likes of George Carlin, Tim Allen and others I grew up with) and real books. When I first read a David Sedaris collection of essays (my first being When You are Engulfed in Flames), I didn’t know what to make of it. It was my first for several things: my first collection of essays, my first memoir, my first book by an openly gay author. After reading one chapter, I returned the book to the library – utterly uncomfortably with my own confusion with all the newness. Years later, I picked the book up again after listening to David Sedaris reading on This American Life. I was older and maybe more sophisticated of a reader but I still had a wall between funny and serious.
Sedaris writes like a symphony. There are movements, emotions, real feeling that doesn’t force itself on you but, instead, coaxes you out. There are moments of melancholy that hurt to read. He pens stories about love that terrify you while, at the same time, makes you hunger for it. Throughout all these serious, heavy emotions there is brilliant humor and brutal honesty. It was the first time I laughed, out loud, while reading something. I felt like a crazy person struggling to stuffle laugher while reading on a bus.
If Salinger inspired me to pay attention to my world, Sedaris encouraged me to pay attention to my thoughts. Most of his stories, had they happened to another person, may have been summed up in a single, brief paragraph. Sedaris dives into events with such detail and witty, biting commentary that a benign trip to the store becomes an epic tome. His childish curiosity and inability to inhibit an aberrant thought also gets him into trouble and pushes him deeper into situations that most people would have navigated away from.
If Sedaris is a symphony, then Bourdain was punk rock. Anthony Bourdain wrote with blunt force and a “there it is, take it if you want” attitude. Kitchen Confidential is a fantastic collection of “essays” (more like chapters with loose ties to each other) about working in kitchens. Bourdain is a folk hero – a man who rose through the ranks, who battled addiction, who fucked up and fought back and wanted to tell people about it. I was deeply sad when Bourdain died. His death was one of the biggest factors in actually starting this blog. I had written, off and on, for years with nothing ever being read (even by me). I was always able to find excuses and to talk myself out of doing more with my writing or at least writing more consistently. After Anthony Bourdain died I listened to an interview he gave with the New Yorker Radio Hour about writing and traveling. He was so honest, so genuine and so unapologetic. He believed, and led by example, in a life of adventure and openness. He also explained his entry into writing as he just wanted to write. Then I thought, “I want to write.” And then I started writing.
Stuff that made me want to run…
This book wasn’t the spark that cause me to run but this book kept me running and has done so for years. This book also led to a mild obsession with Bart Yasso and his career as the ambassador of running. True story – in graduate school I was mildly active on twitter and one day tagged Bart Yasso in a tweet. Bart replied and then started to follow me. I told, literally, everybody who was within earshot that Bart Yasso was following me on twitter. Nobody gave a shit. Except for me – I gave a shit and I still do.
The book chronicles Bart Yasso’s life into running, his personal struggles and some of the crazy runs and races (and bike rides) he has gone on. Bart made running exciting. Runner was no longer a trip around the block for me. Running became a reason to go out and find new things and to see new places. After reading My Life on the Run, I started bringing running shoes with me everywhere; taking opportunities to explore while running. The book also inspired me to challenge myself, to find new adventures and to work on making myself stronger as a person – inside and out. My Life on the Run not only inspired me to run and to keep running but also showed me that I could write about running.
Scott Jurek is one of the greatest ultra-runners of all time. He runs farther, and faster, than most living humans and does it on a plant-based diet. It’s ridiculous. He has one book (as far as I know), which outlines his journey into running hundreds of miles at a pop. I have never done an ultra but it is a dream of mine. This book put that dream in my head.
I get turned off by most books written by fantastic athletes. A lot of them downplay the work that goes into their greatness and read like destiny. This leaves little hope for someone like who me couldn’t pull Excalibur from the stone. Jurek said something in his book that jumped out at me and made me think, “oh, maybe I could be a runner.” He described himself as a “hamburger” runner – someone who isn’t the prime cut of meat but, with the write care and expectation, can be better than the best steak. That really stuck with me. I could never be steak – I don’t have the genes, the body type, the time or the opportunity. I am hamburger. If I accept that, and learn how to cook with hamburger, I can be versatile and fantastic.
Years ago, when I was training for my first full marathon, I needed something to listen to while I ran. A friend recommended Born to Run and I was completely changed. Born to Run is half research-based writing (outlining different elements of running) and half adventure story. It chronicles a trip to the Copper Canyon in Mexico, interactions with a tribe of people who run hundreds of miles as a religion, and the efforts to stage a contest between the best runners of the Copper Canyon with the best ultra-runners of America. This book made running adventurous, almost dangerous. This book also inspired me to look more into the science of running – how to best wear my shoes, how to train more effectively, when and why should I eat while running. The model of the book, a blend of science and story, is what I wanted to model this blog after.