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Reviewing a Decade of 'Book Notes'

Interview by Lenny Giteck

MikeFarleyVeteran readers of WaterShapes will recognize the name Mike Farley as the author of "Book Notes," the magazine's long-running and highly popular book review column. For the past decade, Mike has brought a world of useful material to the attention of watershapers who want to broaden their vision and expand their knowledge.

A landscape designer for more than 20 years, Mike is currently a designer/project manager for Claffey Pools in Southlake, Texas. He holds a degree in landscape architecture from Texas Tech University and is a graduate of Genesis 3's Level 1 Design School. He has worked as a watershaper in both California and Texas.

Recently, we spoke with Mike about his passion for reading and his career as a book reviewer.

Were you always a voracious reader? Did you love books when you were a kid?

Yes, it goes all the way back. I remember that in third grade we had a contest to see who could read the most books. After a month or so, the teacher took me out of the contest because I wasn't exactly creating a competitive situation for the rest of the class. I was reading two and three books a night, and since no one else could come close, they all quit. That wasn't what the teacher had in mind.

To what do you attribute your love of reading?

We didn't really have much to do at home other than read. We had one TV in the house, and that was on when Dad was watching. In fact, there were several times when I was growing up that we didn't have a TV at all. I would say we were encouraged to read — although it wasn't something my parents forced on us kids.

How long does it take you to read a book you're going to review?

I'm a pretty fast reader, so I go through them fairly quickly. It's hard to say exactly, because I've always got seven or eight titles going at one time. I have them stashed all over the place — two or three at home, a couple in the car, and so forth. If I'm out at an appointment and have some time to kill, I'll pull out a book. But I never read just one book at a time, finish it and then pick up the next one.

So you squeeze your reading in between everything else you do?

I don't like to have downtime where I'm just sitting around and doing nothing; instead, I fill that time with reading. Sometimes if I'm not eating lunch with anyone, I'll take out a book at the restaurant and read.

However, I also tend to get up pretty early in the morning, and that's when I try to read at least 30 minutes to an hour every day. It's very quiet and I can really focus on the material. I also read in the evening. My wife likes to read then, so often I'll grab a book and join her.

Over the years that you've been writing your column, you have had to come up with an enormous number of titles to review. How do you manage to find so many relevant books?

I'm old-school in a lot of ways — I still love bookstores. And certain bookstores cater more to what I'm looking for than others. There are several Barnes & Nobles around here, but I go to the one in Dallas near Southern Methodist University. I don't know if it's because of the store's proximity to SMU, but this particular Barnes & Noble has a much better architectural section than the other ones in the Metroplex.

Any other ways you find books?

I read a lot of different magazines, and many of them have lists of recommended books. And sometimes you run into a gold mine. I was reading an interior design magazine the other day, and they had interviewed three designers and a couple of architects. One of the questions was about their favorite books, and the people who were interviewed recommended 20 or so titles I'd never heard of. It was great!

I use the Internet as well. I'll jump on the computer and look for books that seem interesting. I keep a file of the titles I come across, and whenever I get to a point that I don't' have something good to read, I'll pull the file out.

Since a lot of people know you write your column, some must give you recommendations.

I bounce ideas off certain individuals I know all the time. When I run into them, the first thing I'll say is, "Hey, have you read any good books lately?" A few people e-mail me when they come across books that look promising. I'd guess that at least two or three reviews every year result from recommendations other people have made.

What criteria do you use when picking specific titles to review?

It really depends on what I'm running into in my life. I figure if I run into a topic or situation that I don't know much about and need more information, other people might be interested in that information as well.

For example, last year I wrote a column on barbecuing, a topic that more and more of my clients were asking me about. Personally, I don't cook out that much, but I was sure I could find information on the subject for my clients — and also work it into my column.

In one of your more surprising reviews you discussed a weight-loss book. As topics go, did that seem rather out there to you?

Not really. I'm a salesman — among other things — and quite frankly your physical appearance is important in how you're going to be received. That's especially true considering the swimming pool industry is identified with fitness. So I wrote in my column that, yeah, I'm fat and I need to lose weight. And I did lose weight.

I once wrote a column on tree houses, which many people thought was kind of out there. But I had designed a project with a tree house, where you went down a slide and into the pool — so that topic was relevant, too.

You seem to be able to make a logical connection between wateshaping and many different types of subject matter, where the relationship might not be that readily apparent.

I look at topics such as business, sales, marketing, architecture, art, landscape architecture, personal development — all of them can be tied in to the watershaping industry. I think you've got to go outside the industry to get a complete education. Again, if a book helps me personally, my assumption is that it might help others as well.

You really don't write negative reviews. Do you read books you don't like and as a result don't review them?

Yes. Eric [WaterShapes editor Eric Herman] and I decided early on that my column should focus on books that are good, books that can help people. Of course, I have reviewed books where certain parts are extremely useful for watershapers and the rest is not. You take what you can get from the relevant parts. Generally, though, I try to find titles where the entire book is helpful. I especially like finding books that really stretch your mind and make you think.

How have all the books you've read expanded your vision as a watershaper?

If I had the budget and time to travel around the world, travel probably would be even better than reading books. It's all about understanding different cultures and their design philosophies, the different materials they use and so forth. The only way you can gain that understating other than by traveling is through books.

In this age of the Internet, with a great deal of reading material coming in short bites — and bytes — what would you say to people who don't read books?

I would tell them they're missing out on a huge source of valuable information. The Internet is a valuable tool, no doubt about it. But if you want to explore any subject really in depth, you're probably going to need to read books.

Also, photographs are very important to me, and the main thing about photos is the detail. I get much of my inspiration from small details in photographs. You can't get that level of detail on a computer screen — at least not yet.

Do you read other types of books in your spare time strictly for enjoyment? If so, what do you like to read?

As a kid I read a lot of escapist material just for the sheer enjoyment. At this point in my life I don't have that kind of time. I've got a wife and three kids, my work, plus a lot of other stuff to do. So I don't read much for pleasure these days; most of the reading I do is to acquire knowledge. Of course, that certainly can be pleasurable.

Any favorite authors?

When I do read for pleasure, it's hard to find anything better than the works of [Western fiction writer] Louis L'Amour. He was amazing!

Lenny Giteck is a consulting Web writer and editor for WaterShapes.com.

The opinions expressed in the WaterShapes Interviews series are solely those of the interview subjects and do not necessarily reflect the views of WaterShapes or its staff.

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