Monday, September 26, 2011

Book Note: Ben & Me

I had mixed feelings about Borders closing recently. On the one hand, it's always sad to see a book store have to admit that there isn't enough interest in purchasing good ol' ink on paper to justify their existence. On the other hand, liquidation sales! My general rule of thumb is that a clearance/liquidation sale is not truly in the clearance/liquidation category until the discount goes beyond 50% off so we browsed early on and purchased a few books. When I saw signs that suggested 60-75% off my heart raced fast, my pupils dialated for intense shopping and my daughter's stroller was qualifying for the Daytona 500.

Now, obviously this is a risk/reward situation. It's a much higher risk that you won't find something that you want when you wait until everything's been picked through; if you do though, it's at an awesome price. That day I purchased three books for about $20. None of them were books I would have taken the time to find before, but when there are significant gaps in the shelves its much easier to browse. All of them were nonfiction, and I was looking forward to reading published others in a genre I hoped to one day be a part of. I'm sure if I ever reach author status I'll have a much different feeling about bookstores closing.

Ben & Me, by Cameron Gunn, was one of the books that caught my eye and eventually went home with me. It's not a new premise for a book: the author embarks on a project and chronicles his success, failures and lessons learned. This type of nonfiction has a range of contributions from King Solomon in the writings of Ecclesiastes to an author who lived biblically for a year to a woman who committed to doing one thing that made her happy each day for a year. This book was less ambitious in its timeframe, but more compelling in its content. Gunn resolved to live out one week of each of Ben Franklin’s virtues for thirteen weeks total. In the process, we receive a glimpse into his life, family, interests, successes and shortcomings.

From a content perspective, I was curious, but if the book had been full-price I likely would not have chosen it from a full selection. Still, my interest was piqued to better know Ben Franklin and his thoughts on Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity and Humility.

From a style perspective I was surprised by how much Gunn’s writing style mirrored my own – and particularly in respect to the parenthetical aside. Sarcastic or informative, I rely on parentheses in my writing fairly regularly. Gunn took it to a whole new level, and I found myself mildly annoyed through each chapter. Some were well-placed additions that contributed to the humor, but when they were then combined with several unnecessary parentheses, I hit my limit quickly. As a reader-aspiring-writer, it was a good lesson for me to learn – but probably not the one that Gunn had in mind.

So, we have a Canadian lawyer modeling an English-turned-American inventor in a series of thirteen weeks or so. Cue skepticism. Not that it couldn't be done. I was fairly certain that the challenge had been met or the book would not have been written. I scoffed a bit at the idea of a lawyer practicing Sincerity, Justice or Silence - though only from my own preconceived stereotypes, not from any personal insight I have into lawyers. And in just 13 weeks? These are some weighty values to be employing habitually at the end of a few months.

In many cases my skepticism was merited - Gunn admits at the end that moral perfection is a long way away - but it was a worthwhile glimpse into a life (and writing style) that was wholly different and completely familiar. Gunn's efforts are 24/7 so his colleagues, friends and family inadvertently get caught up in the fray. His court cases (and fellow lawyers) become both challenges and inspiration for his virtues, watercooler chit-chat produces temptations we could all learn to avoid, his family supports him while firmly reminding him that they didn't sign up for "no TV" so he could please go not watch TV downstairs and a weekend basketball game with middle-aged buddies inspires more reflection than most athletes would admit to these days. All very common activities and responses. All added into his quest to give the book an approachable and likable quality.

From the beginning I wanted him to succeed. I just wasn't sure what that would look like. In the end, he had made it through a week on each virtue, but even in his final analysis he acknowledged not much had changed. And I felt like I had made it through the book but not much inspired. It was fleetingly funny, honest to a fault (if honesty can be a fault is debated in Sincerity) and occasionally enlightening (there's a Ben Franklin pun in that final point somewhere). Still, my pleasure was not as a reader but more from what it taught me as a writer.

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