What I Read Since the ReadIt1st Pledge

The vlogbrothers set up this website, readit1st.com, where you can make a pledge to not see a movie until you’ve read the book that movie is based on. I felt this pledge carried two very strong advantages:

1) Whether the book is better or not, it is certainly the denser of the two versions, which means you get a more complete sense of the story and are therefore provided enough context to later enjoy the sensory overload of the movie. I’m the type of guy who finds himself enjoying movies more on the second pass, because if I’m relaxed and not focused exclusively on absorbing the plot I can notice all the other little things movies do that please me. (I’m also the type of guy who always watches DVDs with the subtitles turned on, for exactly the same reason.)

2) Peanut is always wanting to drag me to the movies, and I sort of don’t ever want to go because movie theaters are terrible places to go in a universe where waiting two months allows me to purchase the same film for an equivalent amount of money which I can then play on a theater-quality flatscreen HDTV. Also, we have better snacks. “Whoops, I haven’t read the book,” is an efficient way to get out of an otherwise unenjoyable evening.

Since that time I’ve had to spring that excuse on Peanut twice. And I read some other stuff in between, too.

Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America by Jeff Ryan

I accidentally purchased this book while trying to buy one called Game Over: How Nintendo Slaughtered America’s Youth and Drank the Wailing Souls of the Damned, or something. I had heard the book had since been re-branded with a somewhat less soul-drinking name, but couldn’t remember what it was at the office at 5am when I was hankering to read a book, so I ended up with this one instead.

I wasn’t disappointed, though. What I got was essentially a history book that tells the story of Nintendo by focusing on the birth and evolution of its biggest superstar. It’s weird to think of videogames in terms of needing a history book, but sure enough, they do. It covers Nintendo’s early forays into arcade cabinets, to its runaway success with Donkey Kong, to the company’s daring swoop into the barren landscape after the 1983 crash, to its stumbling through the years dominated by optical media, and finally to its revolutionary new console with movement-based input that amazed grandmas everywhere but left many gamers yawning. It’s all in here. Maybe not put quite so cynically. Heh.

There were a lot of interesting stories in here I had never heard before, or at least not heard in detail. Such as the details of Nintendo’s legal battles with Universal over the use of Donkey Kong. Or how Nintendo’s president wanted to market the SNES to businessmen as an online communications machine. And it reinforced some things I’ve suspected for years, but never researched. For example, it kind of blew my mind to read that the technology to build a 16-bit console actually available in 1985, and Nintendo opted not to use it because an 8-bit console would be more affordable. Remember when the Wii came under a lot of criticism for being a non-HD console, and how it sold six quadrillion units anyway? That’s been Nintendo’s business strategy all along.

Towards the end of the book the author starts getting a little misty-eyed about looking forward to the future of videogames. He fenced gamers off into three categories, defined broadly be era: the arcade stickers, who got into gaming with Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, who see games primarily as tests of skill; the d-padders, who started playing on the NES, SNES or PlayStation, who view games more as a singular experience to be absorbed and enjoyed (this would be my generation); and the waggle-o-trons, who view games as slight diversions with minimal input, made popular with motion controls or touchscreens. Mario, of course, is one of the very few videogame archetypes that works well in all three divisions. There’s a heated internet debate to be had on the subject, but it was a nice way to end the book. If nothing else, I felt whatever craving my brain had for gamer books had been fulfilled by Super Mario and didn’t immediately go back seeking Game Over. I suppose that’s a complement.

World War Z by Max Brooks

I don’t care what the jaded-ass forum monkeys say, zombies are not played out. They are not just a silly internet meme along the lines of BACON CHEESE PIRATES. Zombie stories are compelling and terrifying, and can be told a thousand different ways. I don’t think I could ever get tired of them. I think what these people are missing, these “zombies are old and cliché now” people, is that the zombie itself isn’t the climax. Nobody writes a story about zombies. Zombies are the premise. It’s like, you wouldn’t look at sci-fi and say, “Oh, those are just stories about outer space. Outer space is so played out.” No. Of course not. You start with outer space, and then you jump off and tell your story. Zombies are a genre now. It’s like, “Suddenly, ZOMBIES!!” And then, “Okay, now what?”

From there the stories deviate into a few different directions, depending on whether the story is a drama or a comedy or a horror, but they almost universally focus on a small group of people right at the flashpoint of the outbreak. There’s nothing wrong with that, and there are still a million stories to tell that start that way, but what World War Z does is pulls the camera back and tells the story of a global zombie outbreak from a macro scale. It starts with the flashpoint, works its way into the government cover-ups and the mass hysteria, moves on to humanity collecting its shit and mounting the counter-offensive, and finally describes how much different the post-zombie world is, culturally speaking.

The book is written as a series of interviews of people from all walks of life who survived the zombie apocalypse. The premise is that the author (that is, the fictional author compiling the data, not the actual author) has a lot of stories left over from a historical account of the war he was putting together which were deemed too emotionally-charged to be put in the final cut. So instead of getting the dry, matter-of-fact textbook version, we get the biased, gory, unbelievable Real Talk version. And by god was it entertaining.

I was constantly impressed by how many details got worked into this book. I mean, little things that would necessarily happen as the result of a worldwide zombie uprising which are always overlooked in zombie stories. Real bottom-of-the-closet stuff. For example, when the US army finally starts fighting back, its uniforms are these warm, practical things that resemble Civil War uniforms. And why not? Zombies don’t care about camouflage. And wouldn’t there be cases of young children losing their parents but surviving somehow themselves? Wouldn’t you have to set up some infrastructure to care for these feral children after things calmed down? The book covers that eventuality. Or, wouldn’t the cultural and political differences of countries around the world handle the outbreak in totally different ways? Of course they would. China attempts to cover the story up far past the point of practicality. Russia executes soldiers that want to desert to be with their families. South Africa implements an extremely controversial countermeasure that draws a lot of fire due to being similar in spirit to Apartheid. American celebrities huddle together in a mansion, guarded by a private para-military security force, and are the victims of their own hubris when they try to broadcast their co-existence as an internet reality show.

Finishing this book left me wanting more incredible zombie stories. Unfortunately there aren’t very many zombie novels out there, so…

The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks

…I was instead forced to re-read The Zombie Survival Guide. This would be the dry, matter-of-fact textbook stuff that World War Z doesn’t include. It is essentially just a how-to book for surviving zombies. What more can be said, really? It’s not an amazingly entertaining read — what how-to book is? — but having a fictional threat being examined in such a detailed, realistic and practical way just creates this bizarre sense of fascination that is impossible to resist.

What I’m saying is, reading these two books will leave you wondering if Max Brooks knows something the rest of us don’t.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

My sole exposure to this movie before cracking the book was the Muppets’ parody of its trailer, and a quirky news story about people calling Redbox to complain that the DVD was pirated because it’s printed to look like someone scribbled on it with Sharpie. Honestly, I thought it was going to be a kung fu epic. In any case, Peanut bought the Blu-ray and I told her I couldn’t watch it with her because I was honor-bound by an internet pledge. “That’s stupid and you’re stupid,” she said, but she dutiflly shelved the movie until I could read the book.

I’m really, really glad she did.

This novel captivated me in a way no novel has since… let me think, now. Probably Memoirs of a Geisha. Part murder mystery, part cyberpunk drama, part… I don’t know… financial war epic. The two main characters are extraordinary in that they are both very different from anyone you know, yet somehow very relatable. (Well, to me, at least.) I really, really loved reading a story where neither of the “good guys” possessed a smidge of our tiresome, boring, outdated “American values”. They are both atheists. They are both sexually promiscuous. They are both, in their own way, devoted to revealing harmful truths. They are both ruled by logic rather than emotion. These are characters who have identified their flaws, and are comfortable with them. I found that to be refreshing.

What really drew me in, though, was the novel’s tone. The story is consistently told in this very clinical style. Something like the opposite of “show, don’t tell”. As far as the book is concerned, its job is to simply describe what’s happening, full stop. It doesn’t indulge in metaphor or symbolism. If a character puts on black pants, the book says “So-and-so put on black pants.” If a character goes into a room and stays there for seven minutes, the books says “He stayed there for seven minutes.” The chapter titles are just the dates on which the action takes place. Dragon Tattoo is a long book with lots of fiddly little details, and the tone helps make it go down smooth. It wouldn’t work for every story, but it works for this one.

On a personal level, I really enjoyed seeing a complicated mystery coming together the way it did. I’ve been pondering the workings of a good mystery book ever since I stumbled my way through writing one for NaNoWriMo ’10, and I think Dragon Tattoo taught me a few things.

The movie was excellent too, of course. I knew Daniel Craig starred in it, but the whole time I read the book I imagined his character portrayed by Liam Neeson.

The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo

If you’ve ever taken a psych class, you know who Dr. Zimbardo is. He’s the man who designed and implemented the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, where a group of college students were divided into two groups of guards and prisoners to play-act a fake prison for two weeks. The experiment had to be cut short because of the extreme emotional stress the “prisoners” found themselves in, as the guards abused their power and things got way out of hand. The conclusions Zimbardo drew were that normal, everyday people can do atrocious things when put into extreme situations. He argues that, while we are always responsible for our actions, they are not always the product of purely internal factors. Our external situation can alter us as well, often without us even realizing it.

what the book does is compares the prison experiment to the real-world atrocities carried out at Abu Ghraib. The parallels are chilling. Zimbardo argues that the government’s explanation for the abuses there — having been the fault of just a few “bad apples” — is a short-sighted summary of the situation that borders on being a total miscarriage of justice.

Leaving the scientific and editorial aspects aside, the book was worth reading simply for being such a detailed analysis of these two events. From a historical standpoint, these are interesting tales that reveal something about our own culture and humanity. I do sort of wish the book had stopped there, though. Not being a psych major myself, the chapters and chapters of rote data analysis simply rolled off of me, and while I don’t disagree with Zimbardo’s findings and opinions I thought he came across as unnecessarily preachy during some of the overlong “this is what it all means” segments.

I get why the book is written the way it’s written. But I would have liked a more condensed version of the same material.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

This was the second time I turned down Peanut’s movie invitation. This one worked a little better in my favor, though, because it not only kept me out of the theater but also got Peanut to actually read a book herself. (I wouldn’t classify what she usually uses her Kindle for as “books”. More like “senseless drivel”. But that’s a complaint for another time.)

A lot of people had told me this book was exceptional, and… I don’t think I agree with them. It was short, at least. I was able to consume it in a single night. The story and the characters were great. The premise is interesting in a blatantly horrific way. The book does a good job pulling your brain in and forcing you to examine yourself in the protagonist’s situation. It’s similar to zombie stories in that regard.

And the setting was pretty much perfect. The book is set in a nonspecific future sometime after the downfall of the USA. It walks that fine line between giving you just enough information that you have a good sense of the world and how things work there, but not so much that you’re overburdened with trivia. When a setting walks that line correctly you know the world well enough to absorb the story being told, but you don’t know everything so you’re always left wanting to learn more. This works especially well when the book is the first in a series, which The Hunger Games is.

It was the tone of the book that really got to me. It was just very, very… wrong. This story is about an enslaved country whose children are forced to draw lots to see who “wins” the opportunity to fight and kill each other in gladitorial bloodsport. It’s emotionally and psychologically terrifying, both from the standpoint of being a kid whose name gets drawn and from being a member of the community who has to stand by watching it happen, year after year.

However, the book is not written in a dark, gritty, “holy shit can you imagine” kind of way. It’s written like Harry Potter. Which, I will grant you, were great books! They were at their greatest, though, when they were lighthearted stories about young kids exploring a magical world of infinite fantasy and wonder. When the books veered off into darker territory they got really uncomfortable, and virtually no one liked those parts to the exclusion of the fantasy bits. And while you could argue that kids being in situations where they have to fight for their lives should make you feel uncomfortable, understand that I mean “awkward uncomfortable” and not “writhing in your chair uncomfortable”. Like the authors themselves were uncomfortable as they were writing out the words.

Without having seen the movie yet, I’ve decided Hunger Games probably works much better on the screen than as a book. That’s not an insult in the slightest; some storytellers simply have that quality. (Two prestigious examples being Neil Gaiman and Stephen King.) I still don’t want to go to the theater, but this will be a day one Blu-ray purchase. I’m sure Peanut will be happy that we’ll be able to watch our new movie right away for a change. And though she’ll never admit it, I think she’ll be happy to have read the book first, too.

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