Reading is Dangerous

“What’s so dangerous about sitting down and reading a book?” you ask. “That’s probably one of the safest things you can do!”

Well, that depends on what you’re reading.

And no, I don’t mean that thrillers are somehow more dangerous to read than romance novels are. In fact, both those genres are relatively innocuous and predictable. Barring all plot twists, the hero will somehow prevail at the end, and the guy will get the girl (or vice versa).

Some books are inherently dangerous, though. You read them and run the risk of your whole worldview being thrown on its ear. Some are as startling as a splash of cold water in your face. Others feel more like a punch to the gut. And still others will slowly tug on your heartstrings until the tension is unbearable.

This past week, I started reading a classic called Propaganda by Edward Bernays. In it, Bernays breaks down how a very few select people can determine how the majority thinks. He uses the fashion industry as an example.

Business offers graphic examples of the effect that may be produced upon the public by interested groups, such as textile manufacturers losing their markets. This problem arose, not long ago, when the velvet manufacturers were facing ruin because their product had long been out of fashion. Analysis showed that it was impossible to revive a velvet fashion within America. Anatomical hunt for the vital spot! Paris! Obviously! But yes and no. Paris is the home of fashion. Lyons is the home of silk. The attack had to be made at the source. It was determined to substitute purpose for chance and to utilize the regular sources for fashion distribution and to influence the public from these sources. A velvet fashion service, openly supported by the manufacturers, was organized. Its first function was to establish contact with the Lyons manufactories and the Paris couturiers to discover what they were doing, to encourage them to act on behalf of velvet, and to help in the proper exploitation of their wares. An intelligent Parisian was enlisted in the work. He visited Lanvin and Worth, Agnes and Patou, and others and induced them to use velvet in their gowns and hats. It was he who arranged for the distinguished Countess This or Duchess That to wear the hat or the gown. And as for the presentation of the idea to the public, the American buyer or the American woman of fashion was simply shown the velvet creations in the atelier of the dressmaker or the milliner. She bought the velvet because she liked it and because it was in fashion. 
      The editors of the American magazines and fashion reporters of the American newspapers, likewise subjected to the actual (although created) circumstance, reflected it in their news, which, in turn, subjected the buyer and the consumer here to the same influences. The result was that what was at first a trickle of velvet became a flood. A demand was slowly, but deliberately, created in Paris and America. A big department store, aiming to be a style leader, advertised velvet gowns and hats on the authority of the French couturiers, and quoted original cables received from them. The echo of the new style note was heard from hundreds of department stores throughout the country which wanted to be style leaders too. Bulletins followed despatches. The mail followed the cables. And the American woman traveler appeared before the ship news photographers in velvet gown and hat. 
      The created circumstances had their effect. “Fickle fashion has veered to velvet,” was one newspaper comment. And the industry in the United States again kept thousands busy. 

Edward Bernays, Propaganda

Most would agree that this is a fairly harmless example. The scary realization is that people can (and have, and do) use these same tactics to manipulate public opinion in more serious areas such as politics, economics, and religion.

This begs the question: Are your opinions really your own? If not, who has dictated them to you?

This is what I call a “red pill” book.

If you’ve ever seen the movie The Matrix, you’ll recall that there is a scene in which Neo (Keanu Reeves) is offered a choice between two pills by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). Morpheus holds a red pill and a blue pill out to Neo. If Neo takes the red pill, he will be whisked away to the real reality and see things for what they actually are (and they aren’t that great). If he takes the blue pill, he will go back to “ordinary” life inside The Matrix, the computer simulation he lives within, where ignorance is bliss.

(Side note: The concept of The Matrix originates in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which you can read in his work The Republic. You owe it to yourself to at least brush up on the Allegory of the Cave.)

We have access to so much information, now more than ever before, thanks to the Internet. More and more books are published every year. And yet, so much of what’s online and in bookstores is merely meant to coddle us, reinforce our beliefs, or—at worst—blatantly deceive us.

The worst part is that most people continue to buy into this. They don’t bother to ask the “what if…” or “why…” questions. They don’t actively seek out information that could change the way they think. Ignorance truly is bliss.

When I was visiting the University of Texas at Austin campus during a high-school trip, I saw a striking inscription on the main building: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

The quote comes from John 8:32, when Jesus is talking to Jews who have believed in him. (Though as you read the full chapter, it will become clear how much the Jews actually “believe.”) In the broader context, Jesus says that people are either enslaved to sin or freed by the Son (John 8:34-36).

While the last thing I want to do is take Christ’s words—or any Bible passage—out of context, I took those words quoted on that building to mean that all truth sets us free. We are freed from the shackles of sin by Christ; we are also freed from the fetters of falsehood by truth.

Or, to put it another way: Christ is truth, and anything that is true is allied with him. All else is falsehood.

Paul has an interesting admonition in Philippians 4:8:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Philippians 4:8, English Standard Version (emphasis added)

Paul tells the Philippians that they should think about, among other things, whatever is true. How do we know what is true?

Pilate asked Jesus a similar question: “What is truth?” (John 18:38). While it’s impossible to know whether he was being honest or sarcastic, it’s ironic that he asks this while putting Truth on trial.

Do we put truth on trial? We should. I believe we owe it to ourselves and certainly to God to do so.

We should honestly and objectively examine what we hold to be true lest we spend our days living a lie.

We’re blessed to live in an era where information abounds. Truth is out there, and I believe it’s even easier to find now than it ever was before, even despite the misinformation and disinformation (propaganda?) that pervades these days.

It’s not politically correct to question. Many times it’s not even “socially acceptable.” But it is necessary.

So read dangerously. Read the Bible. Read guys like Plato and Bernays. Read about science, economics, and history. Read things that will challenge what you hold to be true. Think about these truth claims and test them for veracity.

God gave you a mind for thinking; use it! Don’t let others think for you. Don’t let long-held beliefs and assumptions hold you captive if they aren’t valid. Take the red pill.

Seek the truth, and the truth shall set you free. Seek the Truth, and He shall set you free.


Find Propaganda by Edward Bernays here on Amazon or free to read online here.


Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this, consider following my site so you can be notified whenever I write something new.

Also, if you’ve ever thought that computers are too difficult for you to understand, or you’ve ever been frustrated when faced with a technical issue (we’ve all been!), check out my new book How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t.

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It explains, in simple English, how your computer operates and what you can do when it’s not operating the way you want it to. It also teaches you how to solve many existing issues, including sluggish performance and virus infections. When computer woes happen, you’ll never have to worry again.

How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t is available on all Amazon sites for Kindle and in paperback. You can read more about it here on my website, including an excerpt. Be sure to sign up for my email list to receive free bonus content to supplement the book!

It’s Official…

Look at that shiny orange badge!

It’s official… my book is now officially ranked as the #1 New Release in the Consumer Guides category on Amazon. I’m amazed. I don’t like to brag, but I’m very proud of this accomplishment!

As you can also see in the image above, How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t also got its first review… and five stars no less! It reads:

The prose is good, it reads well. It’s factually accurate, even when it touches on matters of opinion and taste. Does a good job of defining terms. I think it could give someone dealing with their computer good guidance, and enough, but not too much, confidence; it draws a well positioned line explaining where the reader should go for expert help.

That eloquently expresses the aim of this book. I’m glad the point got across, and I’m grateful for the review!

If you haven’t grabbed a copy yet, you can do so by clicking on the buttons below. Currently, the Kindle and paperback versions aren’t linked, but this is something that usually takes a few hours (or days) to occur on Amazon. For the time being, the buttons below will take you to the respective product pages.

Enjoy! Until next time, onward and upward!

Bestseller Status!

Great news! How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t now ranks #1 in three different categories on Amazon! This is very cool and something I did not expect at all. So, if you’ve helped it here by buying it or grabbing it for free, thank you!

If you haven’t grabbed a copy yet, I have good news. First, the Kindle version is free on Amazon again through tonight. Second, it’s now available in paperback! I know many people (myself included) like to have a physical copy, so here it is.

Currently, the Kindle and paperback versions aren’t linked, but this is something that usually takes a few hours to occur on Amazon. For the time being, click either of the buttons below to go to the respective product pages. Enjoy!

One-Thousand Downloads in One Day

Wow! How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t got over one-thousand downloads on launch day. That’s pretty incredible, and way above and beyond my expectations. If you’ve downloaded a copy, thank you!

If you haven’t downloaded a copy yet, you can still get it for free today by clicking here. And please be sure to share this with your friends and family who are computer-challenged!

For those who want a paperback copy, I promise it’s coming soon! If you’d like to be notified when it’s available, follow this blog by clicking on the “Follow Matthew R. Baker” button on the right side of this page (or the bottom if you’re viewing on mobile) or join my email list, where you will also receive access to free bonus content from How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t.

Enjoy!

Want a Free Book about Computers?

It’s here! This weekend is your chance to snag a free Kindle copy of my new book How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t.

All you need to do is click the button below!

How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t will be available for free through Saturday (February 2). Be sure to claim your copy and share this deal with your friends before it expires.

You can also sign up for my email list to gain access to the book’s bonus content and stay in the loop on future books and sales (I expect both in the near future!). I promise you no spam!

For those who prefer a hard copy, I’m working on getting the paperback version published and will have it available very soon. You too can sign up for my email list to be notified when it’s available.

It’s my hope that this book will help you understand more about computers, how they work, and how to work with them when they aren’t working with you. If you have friends or family who would benefit from this book (think of the tech-challenged people in your life!), please share this with them so they too can grab their free copies.

Thank you, and enjoy!

My First Book is Going Live (and Free)!

Steve Jobs once famously said, “Real artists ship.” What he meant was that any artist, be that a painter or a writer or a software developer, must put aside perfectionism and put their work out into the world.

I have finally shipped. How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t is the product of over two months of writing, editing, and content-gathering preceded by a life of tinkering with technology.

This book is written for all users, but particularly for those who have trouble using or understanding computers. I’ve taken the technical knowledge of computers and translated it into simple English so everyone can understand what makes a computer tick. I’ve also distilled what I’ve learned from years of repairing and troubleshooting computers into The Seven Principles of Solving Problems that can be applied to any technical issue. In addition, I’ve provided guides with easy things you can do to keep your computer running smoothly and speedily, as well as things you should do if it’s not. Finally, I included a reference guide for buying a computer so that you can acquire exactly what you need without breaking the bank.

If all this sounds interesting to you, it gets better. I’m offering the Kindle version of How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t for free this weekend. When you sign up for my email list, you’ll receive an email with a link to the book on Amazon when the deal goes live.

For those who prefer a hard copy, I’m working on getting the paperback version published and will have it available very soon. You too can sign up for my email list to be notified when it’s available.

If you’d like to read more about How Computers Work and What to Do When They Don’t, head over to my book page. And be sure to sign up for my email list so you can be notified when the book goes live plus additional bonus content!

It’s my hope that this book will help you understand more about computers, how they work, and how to work with them when they aren’t working with you. If you have friends or family who would benefit from this book (think of the tech-challenged people in your life!), please share this with them so they too can grab their free copies.

Thank you, and enjoy!

How to Read More Books This Year

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I’ll admit, I underestimated the number of books I would read last year. With a full-time job and other things going on, I figured I’d be lucky if I read a book or two a month. Instead, I read forty-eight, which averages to roughly one book per American work week. One of those forty-eight was Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which can double as a doorstop (or dumbbell).

I’ve never resolved to read more books in a year. I just resolve to keep reading a little bit every day that I can. Last year, I learned a few things that, for me, improved my reading and maximized my time spent turning pages. If you have a goal to read more books this year, try these techniques out and see if they help you.

Set a Goal for the Year

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I started this year by reviewing the books I read last year and when I read them. I’ve said it before, I’m no statistician, but I do like me some data. I keep a spreadsheet in which I record all the books I’ve read and when I completed them. When I complete a book, I jot down my thoughts about it, including whether I would read it again someday.

In this spreadsheet, I also make a list of the books I’d like to read in the current year. I list them out and give them a reading order, which is like a reading priority. For example, this year one of my reading priorities is to re-read Tolkien’s works, including The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Another is to read more of Craig Johnson’s Longmire mysteries.

If you want to read more books this year, the first thing you need to do is list out some of the books you want to read. It doesn’t have to be a comprehensive list, but you should at least get something down on paper (or screen) that you can hold yourself to. As you do this, ask yourself, “Which books do I absolutely want to read this year?” Those books should come first, so number them accordingly.

In my spreadsheet, The Hobbit is currently number one, followed by Johnson’s Death Without Company and then some other books interleaved with The Lord of the Rings trilogy. As I read, I’ll cross books off the list and move on to the next ones. I give myself enough flexibility to re-order the list if I change my mind on what I want to read, but I rarely move something from the very bottom up to the top.

Break Down Your Year-Long Goal

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One problem with New Year’s Resolutions is that they’re so big. Another problem is that they’re often too generic. “I resolve to lose a lot of weight this year” is no good because it sounds too lofty and doesn’t have a measurable goal: What’s considered “a lot”? Ten pounds? Twenty? Fifty?

To combat this, regardless of goal or resolution, give a goal a measurable value and break it down into several smaller, manageable, achievable goals. In the weight-loss example, “I resolve to lose fifty pounds this year” would be a good resolution, and then “I resolve to lose four pounds per month” and perhaps even “I resolve to lose one pound per week.”

Books are a little different. Not all books are the same length. Some are harder to read than others. People have different preferences and attention spans, making a book that’s a breeze for one person to read a chore for someone else.

My solution to this is to set a daily reading goal. For some people, this may be ten pages per day. For others, it may be twenty, or thirty, or even fifty.

Think about how many books you could read if you read just ten pages per day. If you read three-hundred days out of the year, that’s three-thousand pages read in a year, which I estimate to be about ten books a year. If you read twenty pages per day, that’s six-thousand pages read in a year—twenty books.

If you give yourself a daily reading goal and carve out the time to achieve it, you’ll realize two things: One, you’ll be surprised when that pile of books to read starts shrinking; two, you’ll often read more than your daily goal, propelling yourself further down your reading list.

Vary Goals Depending on the Book

I alluded to this above because I think it’s important to remember that not all books are created equal, and therefore cannot all be read the same way. It’s going to take a lot more time to read a chemistry textbook than it is an Agatha Christie mystery.

One of the first things I do when I pick up a book is count the number of chapters or pages. If the book has a table of contents, I’ll examine the average chapter length and try to knock one or two out per day depending on the page count for each. If the book doesn’t have a table of contents, I’ll flip to the last page (without spoiling the ending!) and get the final page count. With that information, I’ll set myself a daily goal for reading that specific book.

For example, last year I read Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace for the first time. I learned two things before I even started the book: First, Tolstoy breaks the big book into smaller books; second, the whole book has 365 chapters. It was a perfect goal-setting book because I realized that I could read the whole thing in one year if I only dedicated ten minutes a day to one chapter. (You should too!)

I usually start a book with a goal in mind and, based on how quickly or slowly I can move through the text, modify my goal based on that. If it takes me fifteen minutes to read just five pages, then I’m probably not going to adhere to a ten-page-per-day rule. On the other hand, if I find that I’m breezing through the book and that I’ve covered fifty pages in thirty minutes, then I’ll probably aim to read more than just ten pages.

Read More Than One Book at a Time

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This sounds counter-intuitive, but I’ve found that it works really well for me, and others have reported the same. Reading more than one book at a time allows you to flip between books based on where you are at any particular moment, how you feel at any particular time, how much time you have to read, and any number of other factors.

I used to be a one-book-at-a-time guy and found that sometimes I just didn’t want to read the book I was working on, even if it was a really good book. I wanted to read, but wasn’t in the mood for that particular book. That’s a perfect reason to have two or three books going on at the same time: If you don’t feel like reading one, but you want to meet your daily goal, grab another!

The key to doing this is to make sure that no book gets left behind. If I were to put down The Hobbit in favor of finishing Death Without Company, I would make sure I finished (or at least made good progress on) The Hobbit before I picked up another book.

This strategy also works well because it allows you to check easy reads off your list and feel a sense of accomplishment while still working through some of the more erudite or obtuse ones. Reading should be fun, not a chore! If it’s not fun, try reading something else for a bit!

Don’t Be Afraid to Quit a Book

I know this appears to contrast what I just wrote about not leaving a book behind, but if you pick up a book and you’re just not getting into it, don’t be afraid to put it down for good and move on to something else. As I just mentioned, reading should be fun, and if you’re not enjoying it, you need to change what you’re doing so that you can.

I’ll be honest and say that I don’t quit too many books. I like to think I have a pretty good sense of whether I’ll like a book before I even pick it up. (I judge a book by both covers!) James Joyce once said, “Life is too short to read a bad book,” and I take those words to heart.

The last book I remember quitting was The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. In a German literature class in college, we had just finished reading Goethe’s play Faust and our stand-in Professorin raved about how great The Master and Margarita was because it was so similar to Faust and took the story to a deeper level (or something like that). I bought the novel out of curiosity and worked my way through several chapters before thinking, “What the heck am I reading?” I put Bulgakov’s book on the shelf and there it sits today. I may give it another go this year, but if I can’t enjoy it enough to finish it, I’ll sell it and move on to something else.

You must do the same thing whenever you’re reading for pleasure. Just because a book comes highly-recommended doesn’t mean that you’ll enjoy it, or even that it’s worth reading in the first place. If someone asks you what you thought about it, you can at least tell them, “I started it, but it just wasn’t working for me, so I stopped.” There’s no shame in that.

How to Maximize Your Reading Time

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With any goal that anyone sets out to achieve, there is always the issue of time. “I don’t have enough time to exercise!” or “I just don’t have any time to read!” are common excuses for not moving towards a goal.

The thing about time is that we’re all blessed with the same amount of time each day. Rich or poor, wise or foolish, God gives us all the same number of minutes that we must spend. Sadly, many of us squander our time on frivolous things and then look back on the day (or month, or year) with regret that we didn’t spend our time more wisely.

I could write a whole essay on time (maybe I will, so stay tuned!), but suffice it to say that you do have the time to read, but more than likely you’ll need to sacrifice something else in order to get it. This is the economic principle of opportunity cost, or “the next best alternative.”

If you have to make the choice between spending fifteen minutes on Facebook or fifteen minutes in a real book, the opportunity cost is what you lose by choosing one over the other. (And to quote the great Neil Peart, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” Remember that!) If you choose Facebook, the opportunity cost might be ten pages. If you choose the real book, the opportunity cost might be missing your friend’s engagement pictures (like I did… oops!).

While I certainly think that fifteen minutes spent reading pages is better than fifteen minutes spent reading statuses, you have to set your own priorities and determine for yourself how you’re going to manage your time if you want to meet your reading goals. You have to be somewhat ruthless: Find the little bits of extra time in nooks and crannies, store them up, and guard them like a mother bear guards her cubs! If you have a few minutes during your lunch break to read, find a quiet spot where you won’t be disturbed and escape into your book! If you have a half hour to yourself before your spouse or child gets home, seize it!

Environment also plays a role into your reading time. You might have a solid thirty minutes carved out just for reading, but you find yourself tempted to turn on the TV because you’re reading in your living room , or you start to get sleepy because you’re reading in bed. You may have the quantity of time, but you need to go someplace where you can focus and maximize the quality of your time.

I have to be someplace quiet and relatively isolated because, to me, other people are distractions when I’m reading. I can’t read in the den when my brother is playing video games or watching a movie. I also can’t read in a public place where people are constantly passing by. You might be the exact opposite and hate reading in quiet isolation, and that’s fine. You have to find an environment that works for you, and get your reading done there.

Finally, consider the handiness that an e-reader or an app like Kindle on your phone or tablet provides. You can read on-the-go without carrying a hard copy around (though there’s no replacement for physical pages).

I have several books loaded on my Kindle, which I carry with me almost wherever I go, and read when I have snatches of time. I don’t like to read on my phone, but I’ve found that it’s not too bad for reading non-fiction genres. (For fiction, I prefer a real book or the Kindle.)

A bonus of having a Kindle or the Kindle app is that there are many free or very inexpensive e-books available. Many older works (“the classics”) are in the public domain and can be downloaded for free from sites like Project Gutenberg, while many other great reads are available under $5. If you watch the deals and buy when e-books go on sale (BookBub is a great way to do this), you can build a pretty impressive digital library without breaking the bank at all!

Start Now!

What are you waiting for? Pick up that book you’ve been wanting to read and get started! Whether you take all the tips in this article or just a few (or none at all, and I’m not offended if that’s the case), just start reading. Read for pleasure and enlightenment, and figure out what works best for you.

That’s all for now. I’ve got a page-turner that’s calling my name.

On Indelible Imprints: Novels

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Last week, I wrote a post called On Indelible Imprints: Music about some of the songs that had significantly shaped me and my musical tastes, to the extent that I could remember when and where I first heard them. This week is a continuation on that theme, this time for books, specifically novels, the other art form that has entertained me, inspired me and changed the way I think.

  1. The Hardy Boys mysteries by Franklin W. Dixon — Starting in first grade, I began checking out and reading the original series of Hardy Boys mystery novels, shelved in the children’s section of my church library (which is now a thing of the past, but that’s another story). Even now that I’m older, I can hardly think of a better series of books for young boys. Though antiquated, they still provide clean, wholesome, exciting entertainment.
  2. The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis — Around the time the Disney version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe came out, Mom bought the whole Narnia series at the local Mardel and, over the coming months, Dad read them to me and Daniel every evening after supper. Great memories of a great series, complete with illustrations. What more can I say?
  3. Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne — If there was ever a man ahead of his time, it was Jules Verne. He was writing about space travel and deep-sea diving before it was cool—no, he made it cool. I remember reading this adventurous novel while cooped up at my grandmother’s house in Wichita Falls during a very unadventurous (and deathly hot) summer. I reread it last year for kicks and still enjoyed it, vowing to read more of Verne’s works.
  4. The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien — Dad told me I had to read each book before he would let me see its corresponding movie, so over one summer I checked them out from the library and read through them. I was young enough to like the visuals the movie provided more than the books, but I think now that I’m older I’d appreciate the books more. Either way, it’s an incredible story (I’m especially fond of Frodo and Samwise’s undying loyalty to each other), and it’s no surprise that it’s inspired so many other fantasy writers.
  5. Mythology by Edith Wharton — I’m not a big mythology fan, but I had to read and annotate this for my ninth-grade English class. I at least gained more appreciation for some of the epic Greek and Roman tales, though unfortunately I had to study this book on a weekend vacation to San Antonio with my family.
  6. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens — Dickens isn’t the most fun to read. In fact, he can be pretty laborious with his sentences, and that turns a lot of readers off. (You have to remember, back in the day, he was paid by number of pages and installments, so he had to make some convoluted elocutions.) While I worked my way through what was, at the time, only a marginally interesting story, to me it was the ending that hooked me. No spoilers, but one word: sacrifice.
  7. Dracula by Bram Stoker — I’m not a fan of any modern vampire tales, but I am a big fan of Stoker’s classic. Ironically, my dad, who never reads, read this one and raved about how great it was. I picked it up and immediately understood why. I don’t categorize it as a horror novel so much as a suspense novel or a thriller. Of course, you can’t have suspense without some elements of horror, but it’s not the gritty, gruesome kind of stuff you see today. I want more books like this.
  8. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas père — This is the most epic tale I’ve read to date. It has it all: adventure, romance, betrayal, prison breaks, treasure hunts, revenge, murder, theft, blackmail—mostly in that order. It’s also a great tale of good and bad, and how easy it is to slide from the good end of the spectrum down to the bad end. It’s long, but it’s completely worth the read.
  9. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie — To date, this is the only Agatha Christie novel I’ve read (yes, it’s a travesty), but am I glad I read it. I started it on the return leg of a camping trip to Laredo, and couldn’t put it down. If you only read one thriller in your whole life, read this one. It’s as simple as that.
  10. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy — I figured if I wanted to introduce myself to Russian literature, I’d might as well dive in head-first and tackle this epic work. I started it mid-December 2017, right before I graduated college, and finished it just over four months later in mid-April. My intention was to read it in a year (which could be done easily if you read just one chapter a day—there are 365 of them), but I found it hard to limit myself so I plowed ahead. This is not quite a novel, nor a history book, nor a philosophy book, but it has aspects of all three. It’s far from the easiest book to read, due to its length, number of characters, and time span (fifteen years), but if you’re interested in the Napoleonic Wars, the Russian Empire, or history told through real and imagined characters, it’s worth adding to your reading list. You can also read my writeup of War and Peace for more.

Of course there are more than these ten, and hopefully many more down the road. Maybe a part two or a list of non-fiction titles is in order. In fact, thinking as I write, I think I will compile an Indelible Imprints list of non-fiction books. Stay tuned.

The Birth of an Idea, and the Gestation of a Novel

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

— Chinese Proverb

Many months ago, an idea for a novel popped into my head, as sometimes happens. When that does happen, I usually jot a note down describing the plot, characters, and so forth, and shelve the idea for later. Sometimes, the ideas stay in the back of my mind, and make themselves known just often enough for me to remember them, even though I’ve written them down. This one idea, however, persisted, and persisted to the point that I had no choice but to flesh it out.

So, on September 17th, after stewing on the idea for a while, I called up a blank document and began outlining the story. I took the idea from fifteen-second synopsis to rough-hewn skeleton to blow-by-blow summary. Midway through this two-week process, I created some deadlines for myself. I would have my outline finished before October 1st, and have my first draft done before December 1st.

I’ve found in life that having deadlines forces me to get work done. I’m very deadline-averse. I hate working down to the wire. In school, deadlines motivated me more than grades. I was the kid who finished a project two weeks before it was due so that I had ample time to tweak it if needed, and plenty of free time if I didn’t.

It’s the same with writing. I finished my outline this past Friday the 28th (though there are still a few rough spots), and started the first draft on Saturday the 29th, two days ahead of schedule. I would have been ashamed of myself had it not happened that way.

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a great way to write that 50,000-word novel you’ve been putting off forever. Instead of waiting another month to write (the idea is demanding to be fleshed out now!), I decided to play the game by my own rules and give myself two months to write the novel. I’m not shooting for a total word count, nor am I trying to meet a daily word quota; I’m simply working on it as much as I can every day. If it’s moving forward to completion, that’s what matters.

I don’t know how long the draft will take to revise, or even what will need to be revised once I finish drafting. I’ll come up with another deadline to beat when that time rolls around. Who knows how different the story will be then from what it is right now? I’ll put on the editor’s hat later, though. What matters now is that the story needs to be written, so I will write it.

As the work progresses, I will be releasing some tidbits, and they will be delicious. Without giving too much away at first, here is the first one, a picture that may tell a little about the plot and setting:

sand dangerous weapon gun
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

This novel will be big, explosive, and entertaining, ladies and gentlemen. Stay tuned.

Nice: A Four-Letter Word

man giving jacket to woman
This isn’t a nice guy; this is a gentleman. Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Pexels.com

There are so many words in the English language, so many of which that could be used in place of the word that’s the subject of this post. All of them are more descriptive and have a more positive sound. Consider these examples:

“That was very kind of him.”

“It’s a pleasant day outside.”

“Those are some good-looking shoes!”

Instead, we English-speakers, at least in the United States, tend to use a catch-all word that comes with some negative connotations: nice. Now, consider these examples:

Nice job, Mark; that foul cost us the game.”

“She’s a nice girl, but…”

And the quintessential quote from absent-minded mothers: “Play nice, kids!”

“Nice” seems so duplicitous! It’s probably just me, but I’ve never liked the way the word sounded, with that hiss at the end that some extend. Some people use it like it’s filler when they don’t have anything else to say or don’t care about what someone is telling them. “Oh, that’s nice.”

After reading books like No More Mr. Nice Guy by Robert Glover and its Christian counterpart No More Christian Nice Guy by Paul Coughlin, my dislike for all things “nice” has only increased. Think about what’s implied when two women are talking and one says, “I think Joe is such a nice guy.” When you think of Joe in this context, what comes to mind? Is he an emotionally strong man who is comfortable in his skin and knows what he wants in life? Or is he a man who, bless him, holds the door for a beautiful woman but doesn’t have the nerve to ask her out because he doesn’t think he’s capable (or worthy) of dating her? Ladies, be honest: would you date a man you or your girlfriends called “nice?”

bench nature love people
Is this a nice (ignorant) guy? Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There’s another thing I learned about the word “nice” from reading these books. Our modern four-letter word comes from the Latin nescire (“not know”) and nescius (“ignorant”) To be “nice” was to be an idiot, to put it plainly. The Latin found its way into Old French and eventually came to its current form in Middle English, where it simply meant “stupid.” Do you understand why I don’t like the word now?

I know not everyone uses the word this way, but I can’t help but bristle when someone tells me I’m “nice” or calls me a “nice guy.” I suspect their intentions are good, but sometimes I’ll ask them why they say that, or even tell them plainly, “I’d rather you call me good or kind than nice.” That goes for everyone: call me kind, but please don’t call me nice. In a way, I think it’s like Christ telling the church of Laodicea that he would rather them be hot or cold than lukewarm (Rev. 3:14-22, and yes I know I’m taking it out of context a bit). Let me be hot or cold, but not lukewarm. Let me be good or bad, but not nice.

I’ve all but banished the word from my vocabulary. In addition to the reasons above, I find that not using the word requires me to think of more descriptive, appropriate adjectives to describe things that would ordinarily be “nice.” Instead of talking about my “nice” lunch catching up with a friend, I’ll use a word like “great,” “fantastic,” or even “superb.” More generally, I’ve found that taking a moment to use a better word does more to further a conversation with others. It wasn’t just a “nice” burger I had, but a “juicy” one, and it wasn’t just a “nice” conversation that we had, but an “edifying” one. Those words create more vivid mental pictures (you’re picturing a burger dripping with flavor, aren’t you?) and elicit more interesting responses: “Juicy? Wow, I’ll have to try that sometime!”

To put a biblical spin on this, the Book of Proverbs wisely notes that “To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!” (Prov. 15:23 ESV) and “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Prov. 25:11 ESV). Apples of gold in a setting of silver—what imagery! Why throw out a boring, banal word like “nice” when you have so many other impressive words at your disposal?

Bringing it back home, I don’t want to give people reasons to call me nice. I want to give people reasons to call me good, kind, responsible, helpful, faithful, truthful, and wise. I believe that men who exhibit these characteristics won’t be called “nice” by anyone; they will be called other names, both good and bad, but they will wear those names as badges of honor, hard-fought in the battle of life. May it be so in my life.


Post Scriptum: This post is written unashamedly from my male perspective, and though I write about “nice” guys, I want to be clear that the same applies to “nice” girls, too. Ladies, don’t be nice, either! For reference, there is a No More Christian Nice Girl for you, as well.