A Life of Book Reports

Hello, this is Kole.

Book reports paralyzed me when I was in school. I hated reading for assignment. I would have much rather have spent my time thumbing through shitty fantasy and sci-fi novels. The act of reading didn't bother me, but the act of reading mindfully did.

The worst part was sitting down at the end of the experience and trying to organize my thoughts. How much detail should I go into? What happened when? How did that quote go? The index cards came out, and I did what amounted to reading the book over again, trying to piece something coherent together. Something that, ultimately, would be more detailed and thorough than it had to be. Middle and high school teachers aren't looking for much more than broad strokes.

This is probably why I fixate on my note taking process so much in these blogs. The most consistent compliments we get from our fans regard the thoroughness of our approach and critique. I can't take credit for all of that, but I take pride in creating the outlines we work from. I've streamlined the note creation process a great deal, even since I started writing these entries. For example, I don't use notebooks for show notes that much anymore. No, I write them directly into my laptop if I can. Transcription just takes way too much time.

But this approach was thwarted by the recent season of Bonfireside Chat when we started branching out into looking at books and short stories (particularly, those of H.P. Lovecraft). The idea of reading a book at my desk and stopping to take copious notes as I read is revolting. I like to read in bed, or on the couch. It's an act that requires a lot of physical and mental comfort for me to be in a receptive state.

So the question is, how should I go about leaving a breadcrumb trail of thoughts and ideas to retrace so I can create a show outline that's as useful as the ones I make for games and movies? That's the purpose of this article, but it turns out that it's very simple. Almost idiotic. The kind of "hack" that augments common sense with technology. So I've added a bonus at the end.

Turns out that Kindles are your friend when you're trying to take notes on long passages. Other e-readers might offer similar tool sets, but the Kindle has a leg up which I will explain.

I picked up a Kindle Paperwhite on sale last fall, and it's been a great friend (much better than the already great Kindle 3 I used to have). This is the model that usually runs about $120, and features only a touch screen and an on/off button. Also, it's back lit... and that's cool. You could also use the Kindle app on another tablet, but I enjoy the e-ink display... especially before bed.

As I read, I try and pay attention for passages that match one of two criteria:

  • Does this snippet provide valuable information about the action, characters, dialogue, or plot... especially the order in which things happen?
  • Does this snippet contain a turn of phrase, a detail, or other nugget that I know I'll want to bring up in conversation... even if it doesn't move the conversation forward?

If something sticks out as matching one of these two criteria, I highlight it. You accomplish this on a touch screen Kindle by dragging a highlight box along the text... an act that's altogether way too finicky for my taste, but it gets the job done.

That's right: I highlight what I would otherwise highlight if I was reading something on paper. But there's a little bit more to it.

When it comes time to review my notes, I want to do so at my computer... with a full keyboard... so I can compose my outline as I go. This is why I like the Kindle, because it has the Kindle Cloud reader. I pull open the book in my web browser, and this is the screen I see.

The Cloud Reader will present you with a complete list of your annotations (note: I don't use the note-taking feature on the Kindle because typing on that screen is a nightmare). You can click on these list items to navigate directly to particular snippets.

Combining this list view with good ol' fashioned skimming back over sections or chapters, I compose my outline on the fly. Then I go back through and eliminate unnecessary details, make sure the formatting is good, and then I publish the outline so we can record the show.

I got self-conscious about this entry about halfway through writing it, because I feel like it's pretty basic stuff. But I can't imagine trying to do this in a more analog way. This particular setup lets me unconsciously compose my outlines on the fly without breaking my stride. It doesn't pull me out of the act of reading, and I can enjoy the story on a higher level... leaving it to Future Kole to fixate on the details.

Branching out into other forms of media has been very rewarding. We've gotten a lot of mileage out of video game coverage. It's a medium I'm passionate about, and it's drawn in some passionate fans. We're never going to stop talking about games. But the idea of applying our approach to different narrative forms is very, very tempting. And being the kind of person I am, it's comforting to develop systems to make that kind of adventure easier, and more possible.

I promised an extra gift, so here's the complete show outline from our H.P. Lovecraft special of Bonfireside Chat from last fall. Thanks for reading!

BSC: Lovecraft

  • Information about who HP Lovecraft is.
  • What kind of stories did he write?
  • What's his mark on modern literature and storytelling?

  • Before each story: What's the history of this story?

  • After each story: How does this relate to Bloodborne and Souls?
  • Has this influenced anything else we're interested in?

From Beyond (Written 1920, Published 1934)

  • Begins with the narrator talking about his friend, Crawfort Tillinghast, and his misguided pursuit of science. If you fail, you get depressed. If you succeed, you go mad. The narrator doesn't support his friend.
  • The narrator recalls a ranting of Tillhinghast's, talking about how we as humans are limited by five feeble senses. His research aims to activate vestigial sense organs and improve our insight into the world around us. "What do cats and dogs start at?"
  • A letter summons the narrator to Tillinghast's house... Where he finds his friend emaciated and yellowed. He won't turn the lights on.
  • He explains his discovery: By awakening the pineal gland you can see the reality that overlaps with our own. (Pineal gland actually regulates sleep... Descartes referred to it as the principal seat of the soul, and the third eye).
  • Narrator sees horrible, jellyfish-like beings... he alternates between a grand, giant tomb and a yawning black void. Tillinghast tells him to stay still, because the beasts can see us when we can see them.
  • Narrator pulls out his Chekhov's Gun in fright.
  • Tillinghast tells a story about some house servants who accidentally turned on a light, and were warped out of their clothes into the other world by the resonance.
  • The overlap becomes too great, and Tillinghast delights at torturing his unsupportive friend, and raves about finally being able to see beyond the veil. He says a beast is ready to attack... The narrator fires his gun.
  • The police investigate. The narrator doesn't reveal much, but the bullet only deactivated the machine. Tillinghast died of a stroke (apoplexy).
  • The narrator can no longer take any peace, because he knows his clean air and clear skies are polluted by these unseen and unfelt forces.

CALL OF CTHULHU (Written 1926, Published 1928)

  • Famous opening. The kindness that we cannot correlate all the world's contents, and how he doesn't intend to contribute to doing so.
  • Narrator is called to Providence to attend to a dead relative's affairs, grand-uncle George Gammel Angell... and finds a box with a bas relief and a manuscript about the occult.
  • The bas relief was brought to the professor by an odd, "psychically hypersensitive" boy. Wilcox. "Dreams are older than brooding Tyre, or the contemplative sphynx, or the garden-girdled Babylon."
  • Notes tell of Wilcox falling into a delusional state for several weeks, which was a "proper fever".
  • Angell polled his correspondence: Differing levels of sensitivity depending on profession. Clippings indicate tons of strange events around the world in this time.
  • The story then moves to Inspector Legrasse, who brought a Cthulhu idol to an Archaeologist conference. He tells a story of raiding a voodoo cult that was sacrificing people to the idol... He offers a chant, which lines up with an archaeologist's account of an Eskimo tribe that was doing something very similar in Greenland.
  • People of mixed race are more likely to be cultists I guess?
  • Legrasse interviewed a local named Old Castro who knows about the cult... Tells of the Old Ones who came to earth, and their bodies still lie hidden. Cthulhu is both dead and asleep at the same time, in the city of R'lyeh.
  • The city has sunk beneath the waves, but when the stars are right the city will rise, and the buffer stopping Cthulhu's psychic attack will go away.
  • There's a cult of people worshipping the old ones, and working hard to suppress anyone outside their ranks who has knowledge of their ways.
  • Narrator accidentally sees a newspaper clipping from Australia, detailing an excursion onto a "new" island, and the fates of the men who were on the ship. Ventures to New Zealand, where the captain of that ship, Johansen, has died of mysterious circumstances.
  • His diary details the encounter with Ryl'yeh and Cthulhu. His ship was caught in the earthquake, and overtaken by a ship filled with cultists.
  • Landing on the rock, describing its otherworldly properties. (Massive staircases, geometry that changed at each glance). Our assumptions no longer hold true.
  • They found a massive door into the ground, with an image of Cthulhu carved into it. Cthulhu himself emerged after a cloud of darkness. 2 of the 6 men who died, died of fright. In the flight, one sailor was swallowed up by an angle that was acute, but behaved as if it was obtuse.
  • "The stars were right again, and what an age-old cult had failed to do by design, a band of innocent sailors had done by accident. After vigintillions of years great Cthulhu was loose again, and ravening for delight."
  • Johansen makes his way onto the ship, and attempts to flee, but Cthulhu follows. Then rams his ship into Cthulhu, and breaks him apart temporarily before he reforms.
  • Johansen is plagued by horrible dreams and the chattering of the Old Ones for the rest of his short life. He dies in a similar manner to Angell.
  • The island has sunk, and it can only be assumed that Cthulhu is alive and dreaming again.
  • The author fears for his life, and wishes that the executors of his estate destroy the manuscript before it reaches a broader audience. Whoops!

The Colour Out of Space (Written and Published 1927)

  • The main character is called out to survey for a reservoir west of Arkham, but discovers that the region contains the "blasted heath." Nobody wants to talk about the heath, or the "strange days", except for a hermit named Ammi. Hearing the story makes the main character quit his job and swear never to drink the water in Arkham.
  • Flashback to 40 years ago, in a tale told by Ammi. A meteor fell, and wouldn't cool. The citizens did a number of tests on it, ultimately finding it riddled with hollow shells.
  • The pieces of the rock slowly disappeared, especially when in contact with silica (i.e. glass)
  • The incident brought some fame to Arkham, and the harvest appeared to be great... but all of the fruit around the meteor was big and bitter, making people sick. The animals started acting strange during the winter.
  • Snow melts faster around the meteor, and all kinds of grass and plants grew abnormally large around the thawed woods. The entire farm started blooming in strange, alien colors. The trees moved even without wind. Everything started to glow.
  • Mrs. Gardner started going mad, talking about unseen things draining something for her. They locked her in the attic until she took to all fours, and started glowing.
  • All vegetation lost its color, and turned grey and brittle.
  • The water went bad, but the whole family was used to it by now. "drinking it listlessly and mechanically".
  • A son, Thaddeus, went mad, talking about the colours in the well... So he was locked in the attic too. Thaddeus died like the chickens did.
  • The chickens turned grey and dry, the hogs fattened up so much the meat was useless.
  • The youngest son, Merwin, could only stare and obey... until he disappeared going for water.
  • Ammi goes to visit Nahum, who is bedridden in the kitchen... calling orders to Zenas, who wasn't there. "He lives in the well".
  • Ammi goes up to see Mrs. Gardner, and in the attic room he sees only a shriveled monstrosity in the corner, emanating the same colored mist as the meteorite. It's implied that Ammi killed Mrs. Gardner to put her out of her misery.
  • Heading back down, the entire house had changed, overwhelmed by the presence. He hears suction noises. Nahum is transformed. Brittle, gray, dry... A parody of a face. He describes what it was, and explains how the corrupting force of the meteor took his family. Dialect.
  • The authorities come out and examine the well. It contains bones of the family, and a muck of indeterminate depth.
  • The well started to glow as the trees threw fits. "the watchers saw wriggling at that tree top height a thousand tiny points of faint and unhallowed radiance." "It was a monstrous constellation of unnatural light, like a glutted swarm of corpse-fed fireflies dancing hellish sarabands over an accursed marsh, and its color was that same nameless intrusion which Ammi had come to recognize and dread."
  • Only foreigners would live in the region after that. "They could not stay, though; and one wonders what insight beyond ours their wild, weird stories of whispered magic have given them."
  • The country folk say the blight creeps an inch a year, and the narrator worries that Ammi has been touched by the colour.
  • "It came from beyond, whar things ain't like they be here -- now it's goin' home."
  • The glow inside the house became stronger. The group decided to flee. The house was consumed by the light as whatever was in the well shot upwards through the clouds.
  • Ammi got the worst of the psychological effects.