Successive Approximations

Being sick and reading

The last few days have been strange. I've never caught a sore throat in the middle of summer before, so yesterday afternoon when I noticed my throat was scratchy, I figured I hadn't been drinking enough water. Working at home, I got up from my desk to get some, but drinking it didn't help.

A few hours later, a package arrived from Amazon. Becoming Superman, the autobiography of J. Michael Straczynski. Growing up, we weren't a religious family in the traditional sense, but we watched 90s Sci-fi TV religiously. That meant Star Trek, sure, but the place of honor in than pantheon was always Babylon 5. I hadn't really kept up too closely with what Joe had been up to since that, but I figured a chance to read the autobiography of someone who had a profound impact on my childhood wasn't something to pass up.

The book came while I was still working, but I opened the package anyway. Huh. It's bigger than I expected, I thought to myself, as though it was self-indulgent to spend more than an inch of linear shelf space telling the story of a 64-year life writing for four different industries. I set the book aside for the moment.

I felt the sore throat creeping up on me. Around 5, I put my computer to sleep and then laid down on the couch to do likewise. I quickly fell into that awful half-sleep you have when you're sick, and woke up an hour or two later when Steph came home. I was still groggy but she was wiped out from her day, so she took a stretch out on the couch for a nap herself.

This is where things got weird.

I wasn't feeling like doing much of anything, so I idly picked up the book and sat down in my favorite reading chair. I flipped the book open and glanced at the introduction. Kassie, my 15-year old cat (my favorite reading cat), hopped up to join me.

110 pages later, I came up for air.

Most of the books I read these days are non-fiction. Books about error-prone systems, leadership, computer hackers, and the dangers of neatness. Every page or two I stop and write a note or copy out a quote into the running reading journal I keep. For me, 110 pages would be a decent count for a week.

And it had only been a few hours.

I heard Steph moving around in the living room and I took a break. I made a little food since I realized I was hungry. I did some other things. But it was halfhearted. I wanted to get back to the book. I don't know if any autobiography has ever been described as a page-turner, but this one definitely is. There was a sense of this is important, pay attention. This was not a vanity piece. This was a story of pain and the hard decisions and how to act in circumstances a hundred times harder than anything I've ever experienced.

Around the time we normally head up to bed, she was tired (amazing, despite her nap) and I was not (predictably, due to my nap). I saw my chance. I sat up and read. And read and read and read.

I can't say if it was the sickness plus the nap throwing my sleep cycle into chaos or the quality of the writing pulling me forward but I. was. not. tired.

Eventually, 350 pages in, I said "this is crazy", put the book down and laid in bed. Maybe half an hour later I was able to drift off.

I have a hard time being sick because I'm not particularly good at being idle. When I finish working for the day I'm grocery shopping, cooking, and cleaning everything caught in the blast radius of my cooking. When that's done for the day, I'm reading, exercising, watching YouTube videos of competitive shooting, practicing competitive shooting, loading ammo for competitive shooting, doing a podcast, writing blog posts, and if there's any time left in between, doing odd projects or reading some more.

So, I don't watch a lot of TV. And when you're sick and on the couch, about all you can do is watch TV. Maybe read a good book, but the books that tend to accumulate on my to-read shelf are often a bit dense and workish. If your mind wanders off and you miss a key paragraph, the rest of the book might make sense but you missed an interesting nuance to help you better understand the world. So I tend to save those for when I'm feeling mentally sharp.

Now don't get me wrong, Joe's is a book with a great deal to teach. But it's a 450-page symphony of stories and lessons. The important ones are refrains that come up again and again. It's not vital you catch it the first time, because it will be reinforced as things progress.

In short, it was the perfect book for this situation.

Today, I got up and worked a bit from home, ended up driving in to the office for an important client meeting, and then drove home and repeated yesterday. Long, half-fitful nap on the couch. Then reading. Finishing the book. Sitting down to read and not looking at the clock because I didn't want to know.

(As an aside, I've found "not being tempted to look at your phone" is a darn good heuristic in the modern world for the activities you should do more of. The times when you're so engrossed that the distraction box can't pull your attention away is your sign that you're maximally engaged and in the right place.)

And so now it's done. Less than 30 hours after starting, I read the whole thing, not because I set out to because I couldn't stop. This has never happened before.

The book is, no doubt about it, hard to read, particularly the first third where Joe, as a child, is repeatedly mishandled and abused by those most responsible for his wellbeing. (I will admit, as an aside, two of the three times I laughed out loud reading the book came in this section. He has a way of pacing in just enough levity to keep you going.)

I've never (except once in high school, and that was to impress a girl) gone on a reading binge anything like this. Part of what went unstated in my It's bigger than I expected reaction was wondering how far back this tome would set my to-read shelf, which is already over a linear foot and growing faster than I can keep up with it.

Like Joe in his conclusion, I don't believe in divine providence. But I will admit how strikingly unlikely it is that I would come down sick, in the middle of summer, for the first time ever, at exactly the right moment to inhale this book in four or five sittings. Certainly I couldn't have planned it better.

If I could choose to do it another way I probably would. Being sick, even minorly sick, still sucks (and there is so much to be done). I like to think I would have taken my time to savor the book, but it is so tightly woven with threads from chapter one resolving late in the book, that perhaps it's better not to.

But I don't get that choice. All I know is the last few days have turned out to be a strange couple of days.

Ben Berry

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