Beware the Turbooken!
Sometimes, if you're a reader like me, you put down one book to start another... and then another... and pretty soon you're lost in ... the Turbooken.
Well, hello there! It’s been a minute.
I’m pleased to say that in 2023 I’ve managed to mostly foster these habits with largely enjoyable results.
I have, however, also encountered a pitfall that I’m still struggling to negotiate. It’s a situation I’ve come to call, in a belated reference to Thanksgiving and America’s strangest foodstuff, the turbooken.
As educated aesthetes, we are all no doubt familiar with the turducken. This peculiar edible invention consists of a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey. Why would one do this? Why would one eat this? Because America!
(The turducken’s origin, anecdotally, starts with the Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme and the dish was reportedly popularized by the famously exuberant football coach and analyst John Madden. But there’s apparently a long tradition, in the UK and elsewhere, of stuffing one dead animal inside another dead animal — and maybe even a third dead animal! — and then eating it. In fact, there’s even a special word for this culinary practice: engastration. Trust me, the engastration rabbit hole is one you want to fall down — or, rather, a rabbit-inside-a-fox-inside-a-bear hole.)
The turbooken is a similar phenomenon: It’s a book-within-a-book-within-a-book.
(Technically, I guess this should be called a boobookook.)
I’m sure you’ve experienced this impulse as a reader: You cast about for something new to read, not quite sure what mood you’re in; you pick up a book, start it, maybe even get 50 or 100 pages into it — then realize it’s not quite addressing the appetites you’re looking to sate. You don’t necessarily want to abandon the book, you just don’t want it to be the meal you’re eating every single day right now.
Because if I’m not actively excited about picking up the book I’m casually reading for pleasure? I’m robbing myself of essential joy. And reading recklessly is all about joy.
And so: Turbooken. I put one book down (I’ll finish it later, really!) and begin another. Then another.
Then the trouble starts.
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Here’s a recent and typical turbooken: I started the “The Cold Six Thousand” by James Ellroy, then paused it (strong stuff!) and picked up “Life Story” by Martin Amis, only to put that down to start “The Innocent” by Ian McEwan, which I set aside to take up “Conversations with Friends” by Sally Rooney. Which I finished! (And enjoyed!)
(Upon reflection it’s a long and frankly wondrous journey from James Ellroy to Sally Rooney.)
Now I just have to read my way back out of this turbooken labyrinth of my own design. I will finish all these books — eventually. And with each one, I’ll pick it back up where I left off, like a half-digested meal.
Overall, I’ve made my peace with my own tendency to turbooken. I don’t ever want to be too tethered to any one book if it’s not fully engaging my pleasure centers.
But — I also recognize that the practice of turbookening is antithetical to one of reading’s primary joys; in fact, the very joy I am so zealously pursuing, which is the sense of being transformatively swept away by a novel. The expression, after all, is “lose yourself in a book” not “lose yourself in books.”
Put another way, the best reading experience is like a love affair: You can’t wait to see each other; you steal time to spend together; you hunker down and leave the world behind. Turbookening, by contrast, feels like trying to juggle four dates at once, like you’re Jack from Three’s Company. Fun for a night? Maybe? But no way to live.
Bang Bang Bang: Short Notes on a Big World
• I was inspired to pick up my newsletter again after a long hiatus by another delightful installment of Austin Kleon’s newsletter; it’s so full of interesting observations and useful tidbits on creativity that I kind of wish he and I were next-door neighbors.
• I’ve just started my apparently now annual December reading sprint, looking to fulfill my (totally arbitrary) reading goals by polishing off five or six (or seven) very short books in the last few weeks of the year. Just finished: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle and Female by Andrea Long Chu. Next up: Maigret in New York by Simenon, which given its subject matter, sensibility, and locale just may turn out to be my ideal novel. If you know of a great, readable novel at 150 pages or fewer, hit me up.
• The Zone of Interest is a very good movie. Go see it.
• Having watched and enjoyed The Killer, I would like to start and co-host a podcast on the subject, “Is the Killer actually good at killing?” Opinions and insights are welcome.
• As mentioned above, I had to borrow a photo of a turducken from a website that sells turduckens. Normally, I try to use Wikimedia images but the ones for turducken were just too revolting, like this one:
— which looks like a diseased bowel. (Which is probably what you end up with if you eat too much turducken.)
Even worse, I tried a free online A.I. image generator, with only the prompt “turducken.” It seemed flummoxed and spit out this monstrosity:
Apparently Substack also offers an A.I. tool that will generate an image. Let’s see what happens!
Oh boy. Whatever else our robot overlords do to us, they seem to have little interest in stuffing ducks inside of chickens inside of turkeys.