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LitMonkey – April 2013

May 1, 2013

LitMonkey is a monthly series where I discuss the books I’ve read over the past month in a highly personal way.  It is in no way an exact clone of Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading.”  This is the sixth installment.  Enjoy!

Books I Purchased:

Books I Borrowed from the Library:

Books I Read:

 

The first book I read this month was Nate Silver’s book about prediction models, The Signal and the Noise. Even before completing it, I knew that Silver’s book fell somewhere among my favorite social science reads of all time, in the pantheon with books like Freakonomics and Blink. I couldn’t wait until the end of the month to write about it, so I covered it here, in “What’s Making Me Happy This Week” for the week ending April 12. Go read that post to find out why The Signal and the Noise is “Making Me Happy,” or just take my word for it –this book is an excellent read for anyone who is smart, curious, and has a little taste for statistics.

I very rarely read self-help books. If I ever did, it would be targeted to something very specific I wanted to improve and I would make sure that it was written by an expert and contained proven or accepted wisdom. Thus, you should feel as shocked as I am that I read a generalist book about “how to come out on top” written by Chris Hardwick. He’s a podcast founder, television show host and self-proclaimed member of the “Nerd Herd”; i.e. not an expert at anything except maybe D&D. I picked up The Nerdist Way because I recognized Hardwick’s name, I like certain Nerdist podcasts (especially Mike and Tom Eat Snacks) and, critically, I didn’t realize that this was a self-help book! I thought it would be a funny book about how to successfully live life as a nerd, which at that moment I feared I might be.[1] So what you’re about to read is essentially a review a self-help book by someone who wasn’t actually in the market for self-help. Take it for whatever that’s worth.

The book is divided into three parts – mind, body and time. The advice is generally very basic, which means that in the section about the mind, I learned very little. I’ve read and learned enough about how the mind works to be well beyond anything that Hardwick has to offer. On the other hand, I know virtually nothing about getting the body in order. Workout regimens and proper diet are like a foreign language to me. So even though the information was clearly just as basic – things like “hire a personal trainer and you’ll feel motivated to work out” or “there are good fats and bad fats” – this was an education for me. If you need a refresher on how to live a healthy lifestyle, either mentally or physically, I suppose you could do worse than take Hardwick’s advice. (Ironically, I found the section on time management to be a waste of time.)

As a writer, Hardwick is a bit of a train wreck. He uses ALL CAPS FREQUENTLY. Most of his jokes are about RPG[2] and Dr. Who and other stereotypical nerd loves that I know nothing about. He pokes fun at jocks, but then comes off as an arrogant jock-type himself with his “look at how awesome I am” attitude. (Just look at that book cover.) And except when he’s drawing on his real-world life experience, he just isn’t that funny.

And yet the book wasn’t all bad. There are a number of bits of advice that I took from it that make a lot of sense and are worth keeping in mind, even if most of it is just common sense.[3] There are the occasional very funny sections, notably the story about how Jon Stewart and Jenny McCarthy inadvertently triggered Hardwick’s decision to turn his life around, one the funniest anecdotes I’ve ever read. It’s easy enough to read the book quickly and glean the good stuff while skipping the parts that are uninteresting / not relevant to you the reader / bad RPG jokes. Best of all, I’ve now read books written by each original host of MTV’s Singled Out[4], which I’m sure only a handful of people can say and even fewer would admit to.

Game of My Life is an underrated book that any Yankees fan would enjoy tremendously. I say it is underrated because somehow, despite the fact that it was first published in 2004 and I rarely miss the release of a good Yankees book, I’d never heard of it before randomly stumbling upon it at the library. I never would have found it all had it not been substantially rewritten[5] and republished earlier this year. Buscema interviewed a number of Yankee legends and asked them one question: “What was the game of your life?” Each player chose a single game and talked about what they remembered, what it meant to them, why it stood above all others. Buscema then writes a chapter about each player, with a focus on the game he chose but also describing the player’s upbringing, career, legacy as a Yankee and other fun anecdotes that show Buscema’s intimate knowledge of the team.

Buscema is somehow able to get interviews with virtually every living Yankee worth talking to, from Don Larsen and Yogi Berra talking about their roles in the 1956 World Series victory over Brooklyn, to Derek Jeter talking about the 2000 Subway Series against the Mets, the first Subway Series since that one in ’56. Nearly every major moment in Yankee history is covered – Bucky “Bleepin’” Dent’s home run, Reggie Jackson’s 3-home run game in the 1977 World Series, and David Wells’ perfect game[6], just to name a few. These are first-person accounts about each of these legendary moments, with great detail and insight provided by Buscema. It’s a shame that more people aren’t aware of or reading this book.[7]

If there’s a theme across the books I read this month, it’s that each (except for Silver’s) is written by someone whose primary responsibility is interviewing famous people. Hardwick’s book isn’t about that, but his new fame and second career act is as the host of the Nerdist podcast, where each week he interviews someone from the world of comedy or “nerd culture” such as Judd Apatow, Will Ferrell and Marc Maron (full list here). Buscema’s book is built entirely around the interviews of the famous Yankees he’s spoken to over the years, from captain and shortstop-for-life Derek Jeter to backup second baseman Brian Doyle. Finally, Marc Spitz’s book Poseur isn’t based on his interviews, but is a memoir of the writer’s life, whereupon he finally made his name as a rock writer for Spin magazine, interviewing the likes of Julian Casablancas, Kim Deal and Trent Reznor, among many others.

My feelings about Poseur are difficult to reconcile. I had the mistaken impression that it would recount years of brushes with fame, drinking and drugging in the New York City scene, and how a kid from Long Island faked his way into the inner circle of rock and roll life. Consider this excerpt from the publisher’s book description and you’ll see where I was coming from:

Part profane, confidential tell-all and part sweetly frank coming-of-age tale, this dirty, witty memoir finds Spitz careening through the scene, meeting and sometimes clashing with cultural icons like Courtney Love, Jeff Buckley, Rivers Cuomo of Weezer, Chloë Sevigny, Kim Deal, The Dandy Warhols, Guns N’ Roses, Ryan Adams, Paul Rudd, Coldplay, Pavement, Peter Dinklage, Julie Bowen, The Strokes, Trent Reznor, Chuck Klosterman, Interpol, and Franz Ferdinand, as well as meeting heroes like Allen Ginsberg, Shirley Clarke, Joe Strummer, and Morrissey. Along the way he finds literary guru Gordon Lish is a long-lost relative, and erstwhile pal and sensation JT LeRoy is an even bigger poseur.

Spitz refuses to give up the romantic ghost until a post–9/11 breakdown and an improbable new love (fellow music writer Lizzy Goodman) finally help him strike the hardest pose of all: his true self.

Imagine then what a shock it was to get halfway through this 360 page tale and have Spitz not engage with anyone on that list other than Julie Bowen, Allen Ginsberg and Gordon Lish. Spitz eventually lands his job at Spin – which is not at all what his career was building to; he often references music, but he was a novelist/playwright/junkie – and that’s when the fun begins. Unfortunately, this is not until page 220! The post-9/11 breakdown and new love don’t actually happen until the very last chapter! Everything until the Spin job was a painful slog of a read – hearing Spitz complain about being a junkie, about not being a junkie, about wanting a big writing career, about being afraid of having a writing career. He goes from Long Island to Bennington to Manhattan to Brooklyn to Hollywood and back to Long Island. (There’s a neat post over at The Awl listing “The Best New York Stories From Marc Spitz’s ‘Poseur,’ Mapped”, all of which take place within a very small radius inside lower Manhattan. This should have been the entire book.) There are girlfriends and pets and odd jobs but it’s all just the diary of a lost boy. If not for the promise of the book jacket, I don’t know that I would have persevered.

TMBG-Academy (5)Like Spitz I persevered and it was well worth it. The last third of the book – everything from around 1994 on, and especially after he got the Spin job in 1997 – is fascinating. Of course he meets celebrities from the world of music – that’s his job.  Very few of his encounters are truly by chance, as implied by the jacket. It didn’t matter. Having grown up in Brooklyn/NYC myself, about 8 years behind Spitz but traversing a lot of the same ground as he did, I was enthralled by the pattern of coincidences and parallels between his life and mine. I will never be a junkie rock journalist hanging out with the Strokes and dancing with Chloë Sevigny (for which I am both thankful and wistful) but that doesn’t mean I didn’t feel a certain kinship with Spitz, right from the start. In fact, there it was on page 1, sentence 1, Spitz opening his book by quoting a They Might Be Giants lyric from “Don’t Lets Start,” the single off their debut self-titled album. Two months ago I purchased both the “Don’t Lets Start” 12” LP and the debut album at the Collect-I-Bowl Record Show, and while in the middle of reading Poseur I had both signed by the band. The coincidences didn’t stop there:

  • Spitz talks about “event records,”[8] citing Dinosaur Jr.’s You’re Living All over Me as an example. My first post on this site was about the 20th anniversary concert for that show.
  • Spitz missed out on seeing Nirvana live, an experience he’ll never be able to have and a regret he’ll always live with no matter how many shows he sees. Recently, I was asked what bands are on my live-show-bucket-list (i.e. haven’t seen yet and must see before I (or they) die) and I said none. Not because there aren’t bands I haven’t seen that I’d like to – there are many – but because I missed Nirvana. Since I can never complete my list, as I can never cross off the band right at the top of it, I don’t bother having one. Me and Marc Spitz – been to many dozens of shows, but not the one that mattered most.[9]
  •  In the mid-‘90s the coincidences start to get stronger. Spitz worked in retail at Shakespeare & Co. bookstore on Broadway near NYU from 1994 through 1997; Shakespeare was my bookstore of choice when I attended NYU from 1995 through 1998, so its possible, if not likely, that Spitz and/or his “friends” at Shakespeare (including Suchi Asano, wife of Iggy Pop) actually sold me those Kerouac, Burroughs and Vonnegut books I plowed through! Meanwhile, in 1996, I was working just down up the block[10] and probably helped a lot of the same customers that Spitz did.
  • After Shakespeare & Co., Spitz went to work at NaNa, a punk rock shoe and consignment store in SoHo. He mentioned his bosses – Bonnie and Yolanda – and one or two other co-workers. NaNa was a strange place, where the manager Yolanda would disappear during the work days for auditions, and I know this not only because Spitz says so, but because one of my closest friends at the time worked there as well. I remember the tales of Yolanda all too well. It is too bad my friend wasn’t one of the NaNa employees mentioned in Poseur; she could have had her name in the same publication as one of her heroes, Courtney Love.
  • Spitz finally got his first proper job – a writing job – working for SpinOnline as a music blogger, before such a term even existed. While he was holed up at the Spin offices on 18th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, toiling for an old media company in a new media job, I was earning a paycheck right around the corner, on 5th Avenue between 18th and 19th Streets, also breaking new ground for an old media company in a new media job. At this point I’d been “following” Spitz for more than half a decade, probably seeing him at Pronto Pizza on 5th now and again. If I’d only known then what I know now … well I’d at least ask him some tips about music blogging!

There are many more I can mention –  like how one night I read the chapter where Spitz interviews Kim Deal during the Pixies 2004 reunion tour and just two nights prior to that I happened to watch “loudQUIETloud”, the documentary about the Pixies 2004 reunion tour – but how much more can I bore you with my own personal experiences, my poor reader? I’m dragging you through the same pain that Spitz dragged me, with minutiae about my/his everyday life that only I/he could possibly care about. I hope you let it pass because you like my site, just like I did because I like his book. In fact, I’m going to add his novel, How Soon Is Never?, to my “to read” list.

Like Hardwick and Spitz – who each wrote books I really enjoyed this month – I may need an editor to keep my word count in line. 3,000 words on just 3 books! If you made it this far, give yourself another gold star.


[1] I no longer think so. But I could be persuaded either way. Collecting vinyl records and otherwise obsessing about music is right on the borderline of nerd-dom.

[2] According to Hardwick, I cannot possibly be a nerd. This is because I know nothing about RPG. What’s RPG you ask? Role-player games. Yup, I didn’t know that either. Had to look it up. Hardwick never explains.

[3] Here’s a list of six that I grabbed just because they were pertinent to me and I’d like to remember them long after I’ve forgotten who Hardwick is:

  1. If you want to create, then create. Even when you don’t feel creative, create something. Don’t over-think it. It’s very possible that something good will emerge from the process.
  2. Never text/ email/tweet someone while you’re feeling a negative emotion.
  3. Don’t be so self-critical.
  4. Pursuing happiness – as defined by external goods or circumstances – is the wrong approach to achieving happiness. You just need to be happy in the present (or as Hardwick says, “BE happy”) and if you’re not, then figure out why not and fix it.
  5. Incremental change is better than no change. No matter what aspect of you you’re working on.
  6. Use commuting time wisely. You can learn while stuck in traffic or on a train. You don’t need to mindlessly listen to the same music over and over. (Listening to new music counts as learning, as far as I’m concerned.)

[4] If you’re not familiar with Singled Out, then you’re either too young to remember a time before the Internet or too old to be nostalgic for the time when MTV first started programming shows other than music videos. Either way, there’s something you should know: the ‘90s were great. Sorry you missed it.

[5] A major update of the book was a good idea; after all, a lot has happened in Yankee land post-2003.

[6] I was there.

[7] On both Goodreads and Amazon there hasn’t been a single rating given on the 2013 version of the book. Even the 2004 version has only 2 reviews (and 8 ratings) on Goodreads and 5 on Amazon.

[8] I love this concept and am shocked I’ve never come across it before. I’m not sure whether you can still have “event records” in this day and age, though had I known about the concept I would have used it in this piece. Any new album by the Strokes, the National, Vampire Weekend or Arcade Fire is an “event record” as far as I’m concerned.

[9] Spitz adds, “I’ve learned over the years, having been given the opportunity to attend dozens and dozens of rock shows, that you have to get yourself there, no matter how depressed or lazy you feel or how big the zit on your forehead is. If the rock show feels momentous, whether it’s the final LCD Soundsystem show or a Yaz reunion, rally, because you will regret it forever if you don’t. Get to the shows!” I love this advice. It’s an attitude I’ve lived by for the past several years. And it’s the reason why, despite having lousy expensive seats at MSG, I was at that final LCD Soundsystem show. And I’m happy I was.

[10] At the Sunglass Hut. Really.

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