Tag Archives: books


This is like a really minor pet peeve of mine, something I’ve noticed just kind of peripherally for a while now. When I think about even trying to describe it, I feel crazy, because it’s so minor. I’m talking about when writers use the word “devour” in terms of reading. I just read some blog post somewhere, and the author was making the case that she’s an avid reader. And she said it, that she devours books.


And it just kind of sets me off, because, in my mind anyway, there’s so much going on in that choice of vocabulary. The first time I became aware of this weird figure of speech was while I was reading Team of Rivals, the Lincoln biography by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Obviously I’m not going to go through it and check how many times exactly, but she wrote about Lincoln devouring books and newspapers often enough that it stood out in my memory.

Wow, I thought to myself, she really likes using that word to describe Lincoln’s voracious appetite for the written word. And that was it, I finished the book, eventually. It was a really big book. Definitely top five biggest books I’ve ever read in my life. Although, if you pressed me to name four other books in that top five list, I don’t think I’d be able to name anything. Maybe it’s the top one.

Maybe that’s one of my annoying figures of speech that I overuse, top five, top whatever. I’m aware of some of them. I hope that I’m somewhat conscious of phrases or words that I maybe rely on too heavily in my writing. I don’t know where any of it comes from, really, the words that I use, the way in which I speak or write.

Like here’s a little example. The other night I was watching an episode of Parks and Recreation on Netflix, and one of the characters used the word “innocuous.” And for some reason it popped in my head, it stood out amongst all the other dialogue. In the sentence that the word was spoken, I was able to kind of piece together through context what it meant. But I thought about it a little more. Did I know what the word innocuous meant before I’d seen the show?

I have no idea. I can’t think of any previous instances in which I’d used or heard or read the word innocuous. And since then, I keep finding myself wanting to slip it into conversation, or writing. The thing is, I’m not even sure I know how to use it, really. I could look it up, but I’m afraid that if I do, I’m just going to be all about innocuous, like look at this big word I’m using, and I’ll get to the point where I’m using it too much.

I feel like a word like innocuous is probably best used maybe once a year. Anything more, well, I don’t know, it sounds weird. And that’s kind of the feeling that I get when I see somebody writing about how they devour books. I definitely noticed it being used more than once in that Lincoln book, and now I’m hyper conscious of it whenever I see it in the wild.

It’s too original to be used more than, I’d say, once in a lifetime. That’s it. If you’re a writer, you should only be allowed to use it once. Definitely not twice in the same book. And you know what? I take it back, it shouldn’t be used at all. And never in reference to your own reading habits, like that blog post I was talking about earlier. Because even if you’re only using it that one time, it’s like, OK, we get it, you read a lot of books. Congratulations.

Does this bother anybody else? Am I the only person in the world that gets all bent out of shape about trivial crap like this? Because I would never be able to talk about it in real life. I wouldn’t know how to explain it to anybody else. I’m not even sure that I’m doing a good job of articulating what I mean right now.

And I’m not trying to nitpick, because like I said, everybody’s got their own quirks and styles and traps that they fail to notice themselves continually falling into. And maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m seeing a trend or a pattern where there’s nothing there at all. Maybe it’s like innocuous. I notice a word for the first time and after that I find that I’m seeing it everywhere.

This happened a while back when I “discovered” the word zeitgeist in some newspaper article. I’d never seen it before, so I looked it up, I found out what it meant, and then I felt like I saw it being used in every other piece of writing I read. Was I going crazy? Were people all of the sudden using these novel words? Or was it simply the fact that I’d noticed it, and now I was more aware of their occasional use?

Like what other weird words are out there in use that have yet to make an appearance on my radar? When I’m reading a book, am I just glossing over the occasional word or phrase that doesn’t make sense to me? As long as I get the general context of a paragraph or a page, am I missing out on material, a word, a line, that I’m simply not aware that I’m unaware of?

I have no idea, and the more I try to think about it, I’m just getting dizzy, my chain of thought processes is starting to unravel. I don’t know how I got here based on writing about a pet peeve, that it annoys me when people use the word devour in the context of reading. But it does annoy me. It’s like a little verbal trick that’s, in my view anyway, beyond overused. It’s like fondue. The first time you have fondue, you’re like, wow, that’s pretty cool, really interesting. But after that, do you really want fondue again? No, once in a lifetime is enough. Both for devour and for fondue.

Don’t put it back

I never go to bookstores. I never read books. I mean, I read, just not books, not physical books. It’s always either on my Kindle, or something on my phone. But, and I don’t even know why I was here, I think I had an hour or so to kill before my wife finished class, but I found myself downtown at this really cramped bookstore.


“Can I help you with anything?” that was the lady behind the desk, which, it wasn’t even a desk, really, it was just another stack of books, only it didn’t go all the way up to the ceiling, so it looked like a desk. Nothing looked like anything. Every inch of wall space, it was just books. And there were milk crates on the floor overflowing with more books. It’s like, I could imagine people moving, changing apartments, they’ve cleaned out their closets, they have this really weird collection of old textbooks and random paperbacks.

“See if you can sell it to the bookstore,” someone might say, and of course they’re not going to pay anything for it, I mean, if I owned a small bookstore, I mean really small, I mean this place, I was getting uncomfortable just standing inside, but if it was my shop, and some guys brought a crate of books, I’d just motion to the wall, “Leave them over there boys.” And they’d be like, “Well, is this stuff worth anything?” And I’d just repeat, “Over there, by the other milk crates.”

It’s like, could there be something valuable buried under all of those unused cookbooks and twenty-fifth edition Lord of the Rings trilogies? Maybe. Probably not. So when the lady asked me if I needed any help, I almost wanted to throw it right back at her, I wanted to be like, “Me? Do I need any help? Looks like you’re the one who needs some help, organizing these books, getting rid of that really old book smell.”

Of course I wouldn’t say that, “Just browsing,” I told her. And I started browsing, in the fullest definition of the word. I couldn’t tell if the books in the bookcases were organized by author name or if there was some sort of a category in which everything was supposed to fall, but, I looked, I don’t think there was any system, it was just a bunch of books, wherever they fit, one book comes out, grab another from the milk crate, one that fits really tight.

I knew that my chances of finding something cool were pretty slim. There wasn’t really enough time to read the jacket covers of every book that I selected at random from the shelves. Mostly I was looking to kill some time, I nudged worn-out spines out from the collection and looked at the cover art. It’s interesting, most book covers, they fall into three categories: there are photographs, usually a memoir or a biography, there are cool artistic illustrations, these may or may not have something to do with whatever’s written inside.

And then there are the covers that don’t mess around, a solid color with the title printed in bold text. Don’t Put it Back caught my eye not because of what was on it, but rather what wasn’t. It was a plain blue jacket, the copy itself looked maybe thirty years old or so, and the title was written in a very simple yellow Helvetica.

It drew me in. I flipped through the yellowed pages, opened to somewhere just past the middle. I started reading at a paragraph on the center of the left page:

“Rob opened the book to a random spot and started reading. He still had twenty minutes or so until he was supposed to meet his wife, but that’s not a lot of time to be able to do anything, nothing meaningful, not really. Why was he in this old bookstore? He questioned his surroundings, but a background part of his mind calculated what it would feel like to be waiting somewhere else, outside, that would have been too cold, maybe for five minutes or so, but twenty, no, he would have started playing with his phone, gloves off, his fingers would be freezing. Starbucks? Coffee? Too crowded, he’d have to buy something. No, this was nice. Not nice, not exactly, but no pressure, he could just stand, look at stuff, maybe read something, he was always open to the long shot possibility that something might pop out, a good story. He’d buy it …”

This was crazy. This paragraph was describing exactly what I was doing at that very second, down to the thought process. It was uncanny. Like, my heart actually skipped a beat, like you notice someone staring at you from across a room, you think, is this for real? Is that person really staring at me? And you play it off like it’s not weird, like this is just another mundane moment, I can’t really compute such a dramatic turn of events.

I put the book back. I thought, was this a joke? Like some sort of a hidden camera thing? They have shows like that, they’ll put unsuspecting people in weird situations and film the reactions. That kind of made sense. Were all of the books like this? All of the paragraphs identical? I started picking out other random books.

There was a fiction collection, some nonfiction Civil War book, something with a painting of a seashell on the cover. I looked through all of them. Nothing. Regular words. I had to see the other book. Did it call me by name, Rob, or was that my imagination? What was the rest of the book about? But I couldn’t find it. It was right here but now I couldn’t find where I had slid it back.

“Excuse me,” I think I startled the lady behind the book desk. “I was just reading this book, it was blue, I think it was called Don’t Put it Back. Do you know what I’m talking about?”

“Well let’s see,” she stepped into the aisle and started looking at the titles printed on the spines. “Do you know the author? Maybe I could look it up online.”

This wasn’t going to be any help. “No,” I said, “It was right here, I was just reading it.”

She could tell I was getting impatient. She said, “Well, maybe you shouldn’t of put it back,” adding extra emphasis on the last three words, like, haha, that was funny right?

It wasn’t funny. I needed to know what was in that book. But my wife called. She told me she was ready. I tried telling her what was going on but she was all, “Yeah, yeah, I’m freezing, let’s go.” And I had to go.

I don’t even remember where that bookstore was. I was just wandering around. I made an attempt to go back a few days later and I swear, I couldn’t find it. It was crazy. Was that like the universe giving me a chance at some sort of important wisdom, something right there on the cover, Rob, don’t put this book back. And I’m just like, hold on, this is crazy. And I put it back.

I put it right back.

Getting philosophical

A couple of years ago I tried to be all smart and sophisticated so I downloaded all of the works of Plato onto my Kindle. And I sat there and read for a little while, and I tried really hard, to furrow my brow, to give off the image of a man thinking, really thinking, like a deep serious thinking. After a while I realized that I didn’t need to try that hard, because the text was so complicated that I really didn’t have to put any effort into looking confused, my brow was actually furrowing naturally. This went on for like twenty minutes, and then I started getting bored. I really wanted somebody to come in the room and be like, “Wow, Rob, you really look like you’re working on something pretty tough, what is it?” and I’d say, “Oh, you know, just Plato, just brushing up on some Plato.”

But nobody saw me. My wife walked by, but she didn’t ask what I was reading. And after her sitting across from me for like five minutes, I finally said, “Hey, don’t you want to know what I’m reading?” and she said, “No, not really.”

And then I told myself I’d take a five minute break, let all of that philosophy sink in. But that was it. That was the last time I opened that. I read for like twenty minutes and the progress bar at the bottom of the Kindle hadn’t even moved up one percent. There’s no way I was going to get through any of that.

I took some philosophy classes in college. All prerequisite stuff. It was all really tough, not the class, but the assignments. “Go home from class, ignore all of your friends playing Super Smash Brothers down the hall, close the door to your room and read seventy-five pages of Descartes.” Actually, that was pretty much my entire college education, choosing between going to the library or staying in and watching The Boondock Saints with everybody in the dorm. No thanks. I’ll just take a B please.

Every once in a while I’ll read an article or book about a famous person, a writer, Abraham Lincoln, somebody accomplished. When writing about how smart somebody is, the word to use is devour. This person devoured books and newspapers. They devoured Plato.

Besides being an overused word, devour never connected with me. I like reading, but devouring the classics? Being able to not only read an old book, but to sit there and be unable to pull myself away from the page? That’s something that I don’t have inside. One time a couple of years ago I downloaded a bunch of old books. I started with Crime and Punishment. After spending an hour just trying to get through the first ten pages, I realized the enormity of the challenge ahead. Still, I pressed on. I wanted to prove to myself that I could finish one giant old book. It took me forever, but finally I did it.

And then I looked at all of the other giant books I had downloaded, War and Peace, Moby Dick, Infinite Jest, not to mention all of that unread Plato. There’s no way. I just can’t get myself to be engaged. And these are all recognized masterpieces, right? What’s missing from my life, what does somebody else have inside of them, to be so engaged in a book that, right now, I can’t sit through for even ten minutes? I want to be able to feel like that too.

I’d probably have to have no electricity, I’d have to live by myself somewhere with nothing else to do. But that can’t be all of it. There are people out there who study this stuff. They have to like it. What are they getting that I’m not? What am I doing wrong?

And then I think about the word devour again. And the only thing I can think of that comes close to applying in my life are comic books. For a good eight years, from high school through college and a couple of years after, I read comic books religiously. I would buy basically every single comic book that came out each Wednesday. And yeah, I guess you could say I devoured them.

I had to stop eventually. My collection grew to be way to big, like I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do with all of my old comics. They’re taking up space. Everybody thinks that comics have some sort of collectible value, but I don’t buy that at all. If I go to a comic store and buy an issue, it’s going to be the same copy of the same issue that you can find numerous printings of in any comic store across the country. It’s simple supply and demand. All of the old comics are valuable simply because, at the time, nobody hung on to their old books. And so the first appearance of Superman is really valuable just because there are only like ten copies left.

But modern books? Every fanboy in the world keeps his or her comics sealed away in plastic bags. There’s no chance of anything becoming rare or vintage, unless the publishers decide to restrict the supply. And why would they? They’d sell less comics.

I don’t even know what I’m talking about. It’s probably because I never paid attention during philosophy class. It hurts too much to really think about what all of those old Greek guys were talking about. Like Plato comparing the soul to a charioteer trying to handle two horses. Or Nietzsche imagining staring into the abyss. Please. I don’t even know what any of that stuff means. When somebody writes my biography, it’s just going to be photocopied reprints, the Infinity Gauntlet and the Squadron Supreme and the Secret Wars and Maximum Clonage and the Age of Apocalypse and the Crisis on Infinite Earths. And nobody’s going to buy it. Or even write it. They’re all already written.