36 Down, 14 to Go: John Weatherford’s Quest for 50 Books in 52 Weeks

23 Sep

Back in May, we asked John Weatherford about the first four months of his attempt to read 50 books in a calendar year. Our last interview covered his list, his plans, and the difficult mountain of books he faced in the final two-thirds of 2009. We asked him if we could check in when September rolled around, and here we are. John answered our questions about reading during the summer, reading about food, keeping current with the bee keeping world, comparing fiction to famous painters, exploring the world, and finishing what he started.

Dove&Snake: When we talked to you in April, you were at 16 books. Your most recent blog entry shows Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s Long Way Round as number 34. Mathematically, you picked up your pace a little over the summer. Did reading over the summer feel any different than the first four months of the year?

John Weatherford: The big thing in the summer is that there are far fewer distractions than the rest of the year. TV is not really worth watching, and it is so hot outside that I don’t feel conflicted about sitting around inside the air conditioning.

D&S: You’ve read a lot about food. Why is that a subject of interest for you?

JW: I didn’t exactly grow up with good healthy eating ideals instilled in me. Lately, I have been making some changes, so I have enjoyed reading some good, well thought-out defenses for eating the foods God put on the planet for us versus the foods we cooked up in a lab.

D&S: Your blog entry from August 23 is particularly interesting. I’ve got a few questions based on that one. First, you said reading Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire was “the first time this year, possibly in [your] entire life [you] read 2 consecutive books by the same author.” Is there any particular reason you wanted to read two books in a row by Pollan?

JW: Basically, I had two books left by Pollan. After I read the first one, I really wanted to go ahead and finish.

D&S: Also, you mentioned, as a sort of disclaimer for your thoughts on that book, that you “subscribe to several seed catalogs as well as bee keeping catalogs.” How did you find out about them? What made you so interested in them that you decided you wanted them delivered to your home on a regular basis?

JW: I grew up with seed catalogs and plant and gardening books as a fixture of my surroundings. I suppose I wouldn’t feel right without flipping through this year’s catalog each February. I don’t really have a way to put the information to use, but I figure that shouldn’t stop me. The bee keeping catalogs were just a passing fancy. I went through a phase a few years ago where I read a bunch of books about bees and bee keeping. From that came a desire to keep bees someday. It probably won’t happen, but I guess I’ll keep up on the current trends just in case.

D&S: The last question from that entry pertains to the heart of your quest. You identified August as your “late summer slump.” What do you think caused that slump? Have you come out of it yet?

JW: Yes, I am out of it. I think I just got tired of reading. It was bound to happen. When you do things out of obligation they will eventually become a chore, but even that will pass.

D&S: You read two issues of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. In your response to McSweeney’s 14, you compared the short fiction in that volume to art you saw in museums when you were a kid in a very specific way: “I could have done it. But I didn’t.” What about the fiction in McSweeney’s left you with the feeling that you could write those same kind of stories?

JW: I really meant that as a complement more than a critique, but it might not have come off that way. I suppose that there was nothing in those stories that would have been outside of my ability to write, but I was trying to say was that even if I could have written them, I didn’t. I didn’t have the inspiration to think those thoughts, I didn’t have the dedication to see them through, I didn’t have the courage to put them down on paper, and I didn’t have the tenacity to see them through to publication. Anyone could paint a Rothko with a little practice, but would you? And would you fully commit to it even if you did paint it? Probably not.

D&S: Have you ever wanted to write a short story? What has kept you from doing so?

JW: I suppose I have, but it definitely doesn’t compel me. I’m pretty visual so maybe if it was a graphic novel or a children’s book with illustrations. I’d definitely consider writing non-fiction.

D&S: You didn’t respond in that same way to the other fiction you read over the summer (two by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and one by Chip Kidd). What was the difference between these novels and the McSweeney’s fiction?

JW: With the Kidd book, I think I felt differently because the author has such a different life experience that there is no way that I could see things from the same point of view as he has. With the Garcia Marquez, I feel like he is operating on a completely different plane that other writers so I sort of feel like nobody is going to touch that stuff. I suppose if anyone could paint a Rothko, then no one could ever have painted Guernica, except Picasso himself.

D&S: You read How to Be an Explorer of the World and indicated that some might not even think it should count in your quest for fifty because it’s a light read full of 59 challenges “designed to increase your imagination, problem solving, story telling abilities, and overall hipster appeal.” Did you act on any of those challenges? What was the result?

JW: No, but I have a few planned to conquer once the year of reading is finished.

D&S: You read a book about your own faith and a book about a different faith. What did you learn about your own worldview, spirituality, and theology as a result of digging in to not only your own beliefs, but those of others?

JW: I’d say I was confronted with the lack of dedication that is expected of me by my culture. If I were a Muslim in a nation governed by an Islamic majority there would be so many more cultural expectations placed upon me. I guess being a Christian in the United States is “easy.” I don’t really like easy. It makes me uncomfortable. The thing is that with all of my cultural freedom, I have to hold myself to a high standard, and I have to live my life to my standards whether I am being called on it or not.

D&S: What do you have next on your list?

JW: I have read two more books since then, and I am almost through a third book on adoption. I am planning on reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies soon, and possibly another McSweeney’s.

D&S: By that count, you only have fourteen left to go. Do you think you’ll be able to get to fifty books by December 31?

JW: I will do it. It probably won’t be easy with the holidays coming up, but I am going to make sure it gets done.

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