RHC 2018: Leonard by William Shatner and Vacationland by John Hodgman

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a celebrity memoir.

This is my second year doing this challenge, and I’m off to a great start. I’m only two months late getting started (compared to four last year), and I accidentally read and thoroughly enjoyed two books that fit the task I was least excited about. It’s gonna be a great year.

Leonard by William Shatner (chosen for the book club I facilitate at work) made me finally feel like I have a handle on Star Trek. I hate to admit this, but I have only the barest cultural-consciousness-level understanding of Star Trek. I mean, I like the idea of Star Trek, but Star Wars wins out for me on the technicality that I’ve actually watched the original Star Wars trilogy. Star Trek felt like a project on the level of learning Tagalog–the kind of thing that would require substantial dedication, time, and repetition to get a true handle on.

And so I just sort of know character names, that there were whales in one of the movies, and that I have to be careful to remember that Patrick Stewart and William Shatner are different people (I KNOW, stop throwing things at me!).

Anyway, this book was very much written by Shatner, and it’s very much Shatner’s side of the story. He’s a pretty unreliable narrator, with lots of instances of him admitting that his memory of something he said or did is less, um, awful than the version someone else remembers. Leonard Nimoy was practically estranged from Shatner at the time of his death, apparently due to Shatner filming him without his permission for use in a documentary. Shatner didn’t go to his funeral, because he was scheduled at a Red Cross charity event. The whole thing is…weird.

So, I don’t know what to make of this. It has its moments, and it’s especially good at giving a pleb like me a sense of what fame does to a person (Shatner doesn’t pull punches there and happily admits that fame, while scarring and family-destroying, is also quite a bit of fun). I like origin stories, and reading about early network television and the extent to which the original cast had no idea that they working on one of the most culturally significant television properties in the United States was fun for me. There were some shocking depictions of Gene Roddenberry being a complete jerk, and some charming anecdotes about Nimoy’s demand that a pint of Haagen Dazs coffee ice cream be waiting in every dressing room.

Overall I enjoyed Leonard a bit more than I expected to. It also made Star Trek feel a bit less intimidating, and I’m going to try to at least get through the original series and thus be a more worthy member of society.

AND here’s a bonus read!

I hate that I’m about to talk about Vacationland by John Hodgman after copping to my Star Trek ignorance, because one of my most cherished celebrity fantasies involves a warm friendship between John Hodgman and me, and my total Star Trek ignorance is just not going to help that cause.

I’m a huge fan of the Judge John Hodgman podcast. Hodgman’s humor is a bit baroque, a bit distancing, sometimes beautiful, and frequently profound. Vacationland is him at his finest. Technically the book is a collection of personal vignettes. In one of my favorite moments, Hodgman and Jonathan Colton stack stones into cairns (while hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh as all get out). Another chapter recounts a bizarre party and overnight friendship surrounding a Mark Twain event at a small college that ends in some incredibly touching anecdotes about male friendship and parenthood.

But ultimately the self-deprecating stabs and almost overly polished turns of phrase are delightfully amusing, until all of a sudden you realize that you’ve been reading a deeply felt portrait of grief and knowledge of one’s own mortality the whole damn time, and by then you’re in far too deep to bail out or get out of the way of the emotional gut punch.

I also appreciated Hodgman’s honest confrontation of his own considerable privilege. Hodgman knows that he is white, and that he is rich, and he doesn’t pretend like either of those things aren’t significant. It’s nice to hear someone with money honestly and unambiguously state that economic security makes life better. He isn’t gloating; he’s suggesting we owe it to the other human beings around us to raise the bar of what we consider an acceptable baseline of existence.

I listened Vacationland, and I highly recommend the audio version of this one. John Hodgman is a seasoned spoken word entertainer, and he’s one of my favorite voices to listen to.

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