How To Rediscover Reading For Pleasure (While Learning About Mars)
Today’s guest post comes from John McLellan, an award-winning songwriter and lead singer of the band The Clintons.
Ramona and I have been friends since the very first millisecond we met in college, which without betraying how rapidly we’re approaching middle age, let’s just say that we’re not in our twenties anymore.
We’ve had good and bad moments, as is expected from any solid friendship that spans decades. The best part of where Ramona and I are today is: there’s literally zero bullshit. It’s rare to have a friend who’s earned your trust so when they tell you “You’re being a jackass,” instead of being defensive, you listen and shape up. That’s us, and I’m grateful for it.
That honesty from our friendship has made me more honest with myself. I’d sort of forgotten how much I like to read for pleasure, and I’d put that part of my life on hold for a long time. Ramona’s blog posts have rekindled my desire to read for pleasure.
I’m not a complete book junkie like many of you who read this blog, but I do consider myself a reader. I complete about five to ten books a year or so, which isn’t much compared to those who read a book or two a week, but it’s still more than many people.
For whatever reason, the last ten years of my life has seen me buy exclusively non-fiction books. I love gardening, and my collection of permaculture, orcharding, market gardening, and soil science books takes up half of my book shelf.
I also have an assortment of books on religion, cooking, self help, history, brewing & cider making ( ironically, I quit drinking for health reasons) among other subjects. I own a handful of fiction books, that have piled up for years under the pretense that “I’ll get to these someday.”
I can’t put my finger on when or why, but years ago I stopped reading sheerly for pleasure. Yes, sure, it’s pleasurable to read non-fiction and learn new things, especially when I implement those new things into my life. But every reader knows what I mean when I say “read for pleasure.” Utilitarian reading is simply not as pleasurable as reading a fiction book and going on an adventure where the author wants to take you.
Every post I read on this blog makes me think “Dammit, I wanna read that one now. And that book too. And that one. Dammit Ramona!” That stack of books building up in my “read this someday” pile have finally called out to me, and this blog has single handedly made me say “Screw it, I’m not gonna watch Netflix, I’ll start that book instead.”
So here a few books that have gotten me fired up about reading fiction again. They’re all about the future, all they’re all different (even though two of them are about Mars!)
The Martian by Andy Weir
This book has the best first line I’ve ever read in a book. (NOTE: If you don’t like profanity, don’t read the first line of this book.)
The story is told in the first person by a lad named Mark Watney. He is an astronaut who finds himself stranded alone on the frozen desert wasteland planet we call Mars. He has limited food, water and medical supplies, and his communication with NASA has been destroyed in a wind & dust storm. I’m guessing that even the most even keeled person would swear pretty incessantly if they found themselves in this situation.
Yes, I saw the movie. Yes, I loved the hell out of it. No, it’s not as good as the book. Weir brings Watney’s character to life. His fears, his humor, and his tenacious will to survive are all chronicled in a fantastic story that kept me awake until the wee hours of the morning. I couldn’t put it down.
Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
The story takes place in the mid 2050s, and humanity has begun colonizing Mars. Again, it’s based on the laws of physics as we know them, so there’s no magic involved: If you run out of fuel, you die. If you get exposed to the cold, you die. There’s no sugar coating reality, even if it is fiction.
To avoid the solar radiation that hits Mars, the first one hundred colonists must build an underground colony to protect themselves. The colonists are fifty men and fifty women from various countries, with the main languages spoken bring Russian and English. Conflict within the group builds as many of the colonists want to protect Mars and keep it a frozen wasteland, while the rest of the colonists want to begin the terraforming process and make the planet more hospitable to humans.
Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different settler on Mars. The time line progresses rapidly, spanning thirty or more years. In that time, more colonists arrive with better materials and technologies, but they bring their emotional baggage from Earth as well. The conflicts are inevitable, and Stanley does an incredible job of realistically painting a story that is very plausible under those conditions.
Humorous side note: As I read the book, I kept thinking “This Kim gal really knows exactly how men think.” or “Time and again, Kim opens up the male mind and expertly displays it for all to see.” At the end of the book, the last page had a little blurb about the author. Yeah, it turns out that Kim is a guy, once again proving to myself that I shouldn’t make any assumptions in my life.
Retrotopia by John Michael Greer
I was asked once “What would you do without the internet?” I replied “The same as I did in my twenties: keep living my life. But I admit I’d miss Prime delivery, no doubt.” That question lead me to this book.
Most authors who write about the future write about one of two outcomes. One, we’re headed for the stars in a techno filled fantasy existence. Two, humans have to survive the aftermath of whatever kind of apocalypse has occurred. There’s no middle ground. Pure techno narcism, or total collapse.
Retrotopia gives a very refreshing third take on what the future could be like. Greer knocked it out of the park with this one.
What if you woke up and there was no gasoline? Would you stand in your driveway with your fingers in your ears yelling “They’ll think of something, dammit!” or would you get to work building carts and buggies? Hay is cheaper than gas!
In this story, the U.S.A. has endured a second civil war. You don’t discover why that war occurred until over halfway into the book, but the explanation is so plausible, you’d think that Greer can see into the future. The political result of this war is that there are several smaller nations on the North American continent.
Peter Carr is a politician from the Atlantic Republic (eastern seaboard states) and he’s going to visit the Lakeland Republic (around the midwest & great lake states.) The border has been closed for thirty years since the civil war, so this is a fairly historic visit. As the train he’s riding crosses over into his neighboring country, he realizes his tablet is no longer connected to the internet. He sees a very agrarian set up along his train ride that include small farms that run on animal and human labor.
When he gets to where he’s going, he’s shocked to see a set up that might as well be any American town in 1880. He visits clean neighborhoods that are very walkable since there are no cars. When he needs to learn something, he hits the newspaper stand or goes to the library. The food is fresh, the clothes are made of hemp & wool since there’s no polyesters, and he listens to the radio instead of watching screens.
There’s still nasty politics, there’s still civil conflict, there’s still love and love lost, and people still do what people do. However, Lakeland has figured out how to put political policies in place that actually incentivize employment as opposed to automation with machines. These policies have lead to an incredibly stable economy and society. It’s not perfect, but in a world with little to no gasoline, it works.
And so, my sincerest thanks go to my dear friend, Ramona Mead, for letting me share my newly re-discovered love of reading for pleasure.
I’ve joked with her that someday, we’re gonna start a book store & cider house called “The Meadery” specializing in honey meads, of course. We just need a solid business plan and a good load of cash to get it off the ground, but first, we each gotta finish our respective stacks of books before we can be productive…