So whoever thought this would be our 2020? Everyone stuck inside their house with no toilet paper and a serial killing germ taking over the world. What a nice surprise (not).
But: It could be worse.
I’ve learned as well as anybody this past year the silver linings of struggles, and I know in this new coronavirus world we will find some blessings as well.
With all this extra downtime (assuming you’re getting downtime!), it’s the perfect opportunity to do all those things you never had time to do. And it’s also really easy to get caught just sitting around doing nothing. If we’re going to be locked in our houses for a few months, it will be nice to have something to show for it. Time to set some challenges.
Challenge #1: Read one whole book in a day
Ever since the nightmare with my skin started last year, I’ve been trying to sit in the sun after I wake up and read. The sun is good for my skin, and the reading wakes up my brain.
But I never manage more than 20-30 pages before my brain switches off and I’m just looking at the words.
So I told my Mum the other morning, “Today I’m going to try and read one whole book in one day.”
I decided it would need to be a short book, and also a paper book. Normally I read on Kindle, but with a paper book you can visually see progress as the fat half gets thinner and thinner. That’s the kind of thing that gets me through something like this. Luckily I’ve got a decent stack of books at home that I haven’t touched.
The book I ended up choosing was The Perks Of Being A Wallflower. Not a clue what it was about, but it was short – around 200 pages. Plus the cover didn’t look terrible.
So it’s around lunchtime and I start reading. I work out if I can read 20 pages, then I just need to do that 10 times to finish the book. So I sit in the sun and read 20 pages, and then actually manage to read another 20. How’s that for a head start.
I’ve got some writing to do, so I go take care of that. Do some stretches. An hour later I come back, and read another 20.
Then I get on my bike and do my workout for the day. Finally I eat. Then back in the sun for another 20. But I tell myself read a few more and just get to 100. Then you’re halfway. I realise these are all the same mind tricks I use during a marathon.
Later in the evening I pick the book up again and pretty much read right through to the end, pausing now and then for food and sometimes fluffing around on my phone. The brain is a little tired, but I finish the book just before midnight.
It’s the first time I’ve ever read a whole book in a day. Surprise, it wasn’t actually that hard!
Mini review of Perks Of Being A Wallflower:
The book revolves around the typical “secret life of a teen”, who befriends a couple of “cool” seniors at high school after his only friend dies. It illuminates many real life issues like drugs, sexuality, abuse, family dysfunction, high school anxiety etc. The writing is stylish and many scenes draw you in and bring smiles at the clever one liners. I actually loved it, it’s easily my favourite of the ones I read during this challenge.
“I love my mom so much. I don’t care if that’s corny to say. I think on my next birthday, I’m going to buy her a present. I think that should be a tradition. The kid gets gifts from everybody, and he buys one present for his mom since she was there, too. I think that would be nice.”
After reading Perks, I found myself thinking #onedayonebook wasn’t actually that hard. And it felt so good to have ticked off another book on my list. I decided to do it again.
For Book #2 I chose Off The Rails In Phnom Penh.
I bought this book many years ago, when I kept hearing about it on the backpacker trail. I actually ordered it second hand from Amazon, because it was impossible to find anywhere. There is a lot of exposé in it about the UN, Cambodian and US governments, and some other high-up people, so that may have something to do with it. It’s been out of print for a while.
The book is by a journalist living in Vietnam who takes a trip to Cambodia and decides Cambodia is much more interesting to write about. This was during the lawlessness of the nineties in Cambodia, which was renowned for political instability, widespread child prostitution and all the drugs you could think of. One of the oft-told stories about Cambodia in hostel lounges was of the “happy pizza”, where you could go into a regular-looking pizza joint in Phnom Penh, ask for your pizza to be made “happy” and they would sprinkle it generously with marijuana before popping it in the oven (indeed it is talked about in the book).
This book is also 200 pages, and I tackled it in much the same way as Perks. However it was deceptively thin and I left a good chunk until quite late. I found myself reading this one well into the night, finishing at around 2am.
I also skipped ten or so pages in the opening history chapter, because I was pretty well versed on the country’s history after reading When Broken Glass Floats during my visit in 2014. Plus he just kept talking about corrupt politician after corrupt politician and how many people they assassinated and it all just blended together after a while.
Mini review of Off The Rails In Phnom Penh:
I was initially disappointed as I thought it would be more immersive style journalism, when in fact it’s (mostly) the author just talking about other people he met in Phnom Penh and all their stories. It revolves around a guesthouse called The Majestic – which houses many foreign English teachers working in Phnom Penh. He soon finds out they really just use those jobs to fund their escapades in all the city’s brothels, drugs and other crime. If you’ve backpacked Southeast Asia you probably have heard these kinds of stories before and may even be sick of them, but for a non-traveller I suspect the book will blow some minds. There’s also a few stories that will surprise even hardened Asia backpackers. Plus a lot of hush hush political stuff that many certainly haven’t heard before, and highlights at a “daily life” level the amount of pain and abuse Cambodia has gone through. Disturbing for sure but page-turning stuff.
“UNTAC personnel (UN taskforce overseeing Cambodia’s elections) were given $145 per day for living expenses, in a country where the average income is about $120 per year. The worst were the Bulgarians, or as they were known, the Vulgarians. Even with their huge allowances, they had a habit of bringing whores to the hotel and not paying them in the morning. The managers used to get really pissed off having to deal with these angry taxi-girls. It got so bad that headquarters issued a directive asking UNTAC personnel to stop parking the UN vehicles in front of brothels all the time. Even as peacekeepers, the UNTAC personnel couldn’t keep themselves under control. There were so many brawls at Champagne (an upmarket brothel) between the Americans and French, eventually the bar just banned all American servicemen.”
Book #3: Challenge Updated! 1 Book A Day, Every Day, for 7 Days
At book number three I decided I was going to push this challenge for 7 days. Two books hadn’t been that hard, so I knew 7 was doable.
Book number three was a book I bought recently at a second hand bookshop in Chiang Mai.
“One of the greatest American novels of the 20th century.”
If you want to learn to be a novelist, what better book to read than that?
To be fair it turned out to be the kind of book I would pick up off the shelf, read five pages and then put it back down again because it didn’t hook me at all. But in the spirit of completing the challenge, I kept going (also it’s not like I had that many books to choose from).
Luckily the book is thin, but the English in these older books is hard to read with any kind of flow. I really need to stop and read paragraphs three or four times before I understand what the author is saying. Even then, there are times when I still have no idea.
Ended up plodding through it over the day, chapter by chapter. But even though it was only Day 3, it started feeling normal to be reading so often. Any time I was waiting for bread to toast, or the pan to heat, I’d pick it up and knock off one or two pages. Often I time-out during the day and just lie in bed and scroll Instagram for a bit, but now it was normal to spend this time reading instead. The last thing I wanted was to be stuck with 100 pages left to read at 2 in the morning.
There were sprinklings of exciting scenes which made things easier to finish chunks of it at a time, but overall I didn’t love it and was relieved when it was over.
Mini review of The Great Gatsby:
The book is from the point-of-view of a narrator who moves into a lakeside neighbourhood. Gatsby is a rich playboy character who lives in the mansion next door. The narrator has an (apparently very pretty) cousin who lives across the lake, with a lost connection to Gatsby, and is married to some rich guy. So all their paths eventually intertwine and drama ensues. Each character also has their own collection of secrets which are revealed as the story goes on.
Supposedly a masterpiece, but in terms of raw entertainment value it was a bit laboursome to get through. I’m sure literature nerds see many things I don’t but not a book I’d ever think to read again. Story has some twists though so maybe one of the movies is good 🙂
“I was thirty. Before me stretched the portentous menacing road of a new decade…Thirty – the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning brief-case of enthusiasm, thinning hair. But there was Jordan beside me who, unlike Daisy, was too wise ever to carry well-forgotten dreams from age to age.”
Book number four was another classic, this time a British one: The Lord Of The Flies.
This book is referenced so often in modern culture, I already knew the basics of the story before I opened the first page. It’s around 220 pages and with tiny writing, so I knew I had to start the day strong to get through this one.
This one is kind of intense and every scene is full of action, so it was hard to read it for any extended time. It was mostly in sets of 20 or 30 pages, and many of them were hard to get through, not because it was boring but just because of the way it’s written.
But by now spending most of the day reading was totally normal. I always had it in the back of my mind, that I should get to halfway before a certain time, that I should only have fifty pages left by a certain time. It’s quite surprising, that reading a whole book in a day went from being something super difficult to something normal in just four days.
It was also more enjoyable than Gatsby, so I didn’t mind spending the whole day reading. I hadn’t really cared what was going to happen to Jay Gatsby, but I was interested in what would happen to Piggy and Ralph! Some super slow parts in the middle, and took a long time. But wasn’t difficult to get to the end.
Mini review of Lord Of The Flies:
The book is about a bunch of schoolkids whose plane crashes on a secluded island. The oldest is 14 and the youngest is 6. They are forced to survive on the island on their own and come up with a way to find rescue. It’s almost like an experiment of how kids respond to sudden lawlessness and what evil they are capable of. While doubly disturbing because they’re kids, there’s a good serving of murder, deceipt, betrayal, thievery, mob justice etc. Pretty cool book.
“They were dirty, not with the spectacular dirt of boys who had fallen into mud or been brought down hard on a rainy day. Not one of them was an obvious subject for a shower, and yet – hair, much too long, tangled here and there, knotted round a dead leaf or a twig; faces cleaned fairly well by the process of eating and sweating but marked in less accessible angles with a kind of shadow; clothes, worn away, stiff like his own with sweat, put on, not for decorum or comfort but out of custom; the skin of the body, scurfy with brine – He discovered with a little fall of the heart that these were the conditions he took as normal now and that he did not mind.”
Book number five was a non-fiction book, finally! The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.
I enjoy Gladwell’s books so doing this one in a single day wasn’t too intimidating. Books like this don’t require the same brainpower as something like Gatsby or Lord Of The Flies. Those books you need your imagination working and need to recreate a world in your head. Reading non fiction is more like someone just explaining something to you in everyday English.
At 260 pages, this one was a little longer than the others. I started it strong and was able to do 50 or 60 pages at a time. The morning read was good and I figured I’d finish this one comfortably with plenty of time to spare.
Then I slacked off and once again, found myself reading way into the early morning hours. Seemed that was becoming a tradition for the week.
Also in terms of Gladwell books, this kind of fell flat through the middle and toward the end. I’ve read all of his books now except his newest one Talking To Strangers. Tipping point falls somewhere in the middle.
Mini Review of The Tipping Point:
The theory of The Tipping Point is that all big results start in tiny increments, until they reach a point where things “tip”, and suddenly there’s an avalanche. The opening example he uses is of the shoe brand Hush Puppies. They were initially a nothing brand, but then some retro kids in New York started wearing them since they were rare and hard to find (think hipsters of the 80s). Eventually a few people starting wearing them in New York clubs and parties, and they started getting more popular. Eventually so many people wanted them that they “tipped” and were selling 2 million pairs a season.
What he tries to theorise in the book is what makes things “tip” and how we can intentionally make those tiny changes that will help us go from selling 20,000 pairs to 2 million pairs. I can’t summarise the whole theory but it comes down to the following parts: Connectors (people who know a lot of people), Mavens (people who know everything about a specific topic), Salesmen (self explanatory), Stickiness (message must be memorable) and Context (must happen in the right place and time). When some or all of those things come together, it’s likely that things will move far and quick enough to the point that they tip.
“Horchow’s daughter, Sally, told me a story of how she once took her father to a new Japanese restaurant where a friend of hers was a chef. Horchow liked the food, and so when he went home he turned on his computer, pulled up the names of acquaintances who lived nearby, and faxed them notes telling them of a wonderful new restaurant he had discovered and that they should try it. This is, in a nutshell, what word of mouth is. It’s not me telling you about a new restaurant with great food, and you telling a friend and that friend telling a friend. Word of mouth begins when somewhere along that chain, someone tells a person like Roger Horchow.”
280 pages of the tiniest writing imaginable, I knew this one would be tough as soon as I started. The first 20 pages felt like forever. But, I had several laugh out loud moments in that first 20 pages, which books rarely do for me. So I figured it would be a long but fun day of reading.
The Adventures Of HuckleBerry Finn is a slow read. The English is not even English, it’s littered with deliberate spelling ‘mistakes’ (I assume to illustrate accents and/or colloquialisms) and so each chapter requires a slow pace if you want to understand what’s actually going on.
The slave character Jimmy also talks in broken and slurred English, so reading his words are near impossible to understand sometimes.
At around page ~100 I was guessing I might not finish, because it was already dark outside, I felt like I’d been reading all day and wasn’t even half way. Luckily the story picked up around there and it was full on action until the final 50 pages or so.
As an avid traveller himself, Mark Twain has been on my list for years. Was glad to finally experience some of his work. Still, I was up until about 4am trying to get this one done. Lots of laughs but a huge relief when I hit the final page and turned in to sleep. Phew!
Mini Review of The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn:
The book starts with Huckleberry Finn describing his life with his abusive father. Then one day he finds an abandoned canoe, fakes his death and runs away down the river. Early in the journey he finds a runaway slave from his village who he befriends and they start travelling together. The book follows them through several towns and cities as they enjoy endless mischief and adventure.
It is hilariously funny and imaginative, and I now have a thorough understanding of the American phrase “Mark Twain adventure”.
“We catched fish, and talked, and we took a swim now and then to keep off sleepiness. It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn’t ever feel like talking loud, and it warn’t often that we laughed, only a kind of low chuckle. We had mighty good weather, as a general thing, and nothing ever happened to us at all, that night, nor the next, nor the next.”
The final book! For this one I chose an old classic, Freakonomics. I’ve had this on my shelf a while and now seemed as good a time as any to get it done. Also I didn’t have the brainpower left to bring another novel to life.
This one was close to 300 pages, but I was game. It was the last day; even if I had to stay up all night, I didn’t have to read tomorrow!
Started the day strong and put away the first 50 pages comfortably, but for some reason I lulled in the middle of the day and didn’t read much. I can’t remember what I was doing, playing computer games or something.
It got to about 8pm at night and I still hadn’t hit the halfway mark. Eventually last minute instinct kicked in and I thought what a shame it would be if I failed this challenge here on the final day. I went to lay in bed and started doing some serious reading time.
At around 2am, just as I was about to take another break, I had a happy accident. The chapter I was reading sounded oddly like a conclusion, even though I still had half an inch of book left. Turns out that final chunk was just a bunch of “extras” like some newspaper columns and glossary etc. I’d been prepared to put in another 2 hours, but I was already done.
Mini review of Freakonomics:
I’m sure you’ve guessed the title of the book is a play on the words “freaky” and “economics”. It is in fact written by an economist who makes it a point to approach the subject in unorthodox ways.
The book aims to find causal links between societal changes and unexpected levers that cause them. Some of the interesting theories are whether parenting methods matter (they argue no, it only matters that the parents are “good” people), if drug dealers actually earn a lot of money (they don’t) and why, and if, given the incentive to, teachers cheat as much as students (they do).
They dive a bit too deep at times – they literally published and picked apart upwards of 20 lists of the “richest and poorest” names over about 20 pages just for a minor segment of the parenting question, but it’s a cool read for anyone interested in sociological type questions.
“As incentives go, commissions are tricky. First of all, a 6 percent real-estate commission is typically split between the seller’s agent and the buyer’s. Each agent then kicks back roughly half of her take to the agency. Which means that only 1.5 percent of the purchase price goes directly into your agent’s pocket. So on the sale of your $300,000 house, her personal take of the $18,000 commission is $4,500. Still not bad, you say. But what if the house was actually worth more than $300,000? What if, with a little more effort and patience and a few more newspaper ads, she could have sold it for $310,000? After the commission, that puts an additional $9,400 in your pocket. But the agent’s additional share—her personal 1.5 percent of the extra $10,000—is a mere $150. If you earn $9,400 while she earns only $150, maybe your incentives aren’t aligned after all….turns out that a real-estate agent keeps her own home on the market an average of ten days longer and sells it for an extra 3-plus percent, or $10,000 on a $300,000 house.”
For someone who usually struggles to finish a book a month, when I finally closed Freakonomics I was a new man; 7 books in 7 days. It might not seem like a huge feat, but it’s significant for me. If there’s a book I really need to read, it doesn’t need to take me several weeks anymore. Now I know I can just set aside a day and nuke it in one hit.
When I first started running last year, 10km seemed like the most impossible thing in the world. When I finally did run 10km some months later during marathon training, I took three cheat days in a row because I felt like I had just achieved the impossible. And then during Ironman training, I wasn’t even allowed 10km runs anymore. My shortest run day was 12km, and that day was my favourite because it’s the easy/recovery day!
I guess that’s been the coolest thing about this challenge – it just reaffirmed what I’ve already learned; that your comfort zone can shift, and if you push hard enough, what once seemed impossible will become your new comfort zone. That’s the basic formula of how we get better at the things we do.
All the mind tricks I used during run training worked just as well with reading too. When you head out for a 20km run, you’re not thinking about the full 20km in your head. You tell yourself, just run the first 2km, okay now do another 2km, okay now get to 10km, until you finally reach the last few kilometres up to 20. Reading was the same – 20 pages, another 20 pages, before you know it, you’re already past 100.
Around Day 3/4, reading a whole book in a day didn’t seem hard anymore. It felt like my normal daily routine, and it’s not like I had to spend my entire day reading either. Huck Finn probably took me over 6 hours, but the rest were closer to 4 or 5. That’s still a lot of reading for a day, but I didn’t have to give up any of my usual daily schedule. That showed me that most days I probably spend 4 or 5 hours just doing nothing. The day after the challenge ended, I woke up and it felt weird not having anything to read! I felt like I had all the free time in the world.
How much further could it go? 30 books in 30 days? 60 books in 60 days? 2 books in one day? 2 books a day for a week? Those aren’t challenges I’m going to pursue any time soon, but now I’m at least confident I could do them!
But, it’s time for something new. Quarantine Challenge #2 is already underway. Will post about it in a few days 🙂