The new calendar year means that it is time for me to update my reading list. There is some irony in my writing about or even maintaining a reading list, when the number of books I actually finish each year is pretty low. (According to Pew Research, the typical American reads four books a year. That makes me sub-typical.)
Nonetheless, I do consume page-based material now and again and, as has been my habit, I will share a few thoughts about what I have read since my last update, and what I intend to read in the coming year. Let’s start with…
The Books I Abandoned
These forsaken texts included The Best Writing on Mathematics 2013, edited by Micrea Pitici, and Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. With respect to the former title, the innocent preposition on threw me off: I was expecting to read a book of mathematics but instead discovered that it was about mathematics, especially its teaching and practice. That’s different. And not very interesting.
Conversely, everything you need to know about Everybody Lies is contained in its title. One-third of the way through, I decided that there was enough meat here for perhaps a long essay in The Atlantic, but not a book. I become impatient with high-filler writings and I feel no guilt when I quit them.
One item of interest:
“More than half of citizens who don’t vote tell surveys immediately before an election that they intend to, skewing our estimation of turnout.” (Stephens-Davidowitz)
The Books I Finished
I finished Giant of The Senate (2017) by Al Franken. Now, Al Franken himself is finished. That said, his book was amusing. He discussed some of the poor-taste comedy writing he did before he became a Senator. He expressed his admiration for the late Paul Wellstone. He had little to say on the topic of being a jerk.
I also finished Gaming the Vote by William Poundstone (2008). He devoted most of the book to illustrating flaws in voting systems, after which he asserted that no voting system is perfect. But Poundstone could not hold himself back from proposing his own imperfect system, one which will never see the light of day. Way back when, I read another of his books, Prisoner’s Dilemma (1992). His earlier work was far more coherent, content-rich and informative than Gaming the Vote.
After a long and arduous battle, I finished Sleepwalkers (2012), a dense account of the causes for World War I by Christopher Clark. This book first appeared on my reading list in 2015. It was an exhaustive (and often exhausting) narrative. Spoiler alert: the cause for war was equal parts Russian paranoia, French insecurity, Austria-Hungary disintegration, and ineffective signaling of intentions among pompous European leaders.
I finished Arguably by Christopher Hitchens. Readers of this blog know that Hitchens is one of my favorite writers. I admire his vocabulary, his literary background, his incisive remarks, and many of his arguments and viewpoints. One of the most compelling stories was of Hitchens subjecting himself (voluntarily) to waterboarding by U.S. Special Forces. I had thought Arguably (2011) was his final book, but no, that would be Mortality (2012), which I have yet to read. Being that Mortality comprises essays that Hitchens wrote of his own fatal illness, I think I will wait a while to take on that volume.
I finished The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1983) by Edward Tufte, a work I first learned of decades ago via a full-page advertisement in Scientific American. It was too expensive for me at the time, else I would have ordered it. I forgot all about this book until last year, when I was helping my friend Eric clean out his office and we found a copy. Eric generously regifted it to me instead of tossing it in the dumpster. I enjoyed reading it, but this edition seemed dated in terms of how charts are prepared in the digital age. And I would have appreciated more guidance from Tufte on ways to present multi-dimensional data. However, as others have noted, this work was intended to be more of a style manual than an idea book, and I will have to be satisfied with that.
Finally, I finished (in two days, no less) Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This 2015 work was written as a letter to his 15-year-old son in the wake of the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and the choking death of Eric Garner. To say it is powerful is cliché — it is Coates’ unfiltered view of the stark realities that non-white people face as they navigate the streets of America. His work brought the ongoing oppression of non-whites into sharper focus for me, but it left me wanting (or despairing) for ways we might effectively address it.
Here are a few highlight-worthy excerpts from the books I finished:
“Most principles of design should be greeted with some skepticism, for word authority can dominate our vision, and we may come to see only through the lenses of word authority rather than with our own eyes.” (Tufte)
“In Vietnam, [Roy] Moore … was so unpopular that he slept with sandbags around his bunk to protect him from fragmentation grenades. At the University of Alabama law school, a professor tagged him ‘Fruit Salad’ because he was always coming up with crazy ideas. One of his crazier ideas was to become a professional karate fighter. He tried this in the early 1980s, after he resigned an assistant D.A. post and before he moved to Australia to become an outback cowboy.” (Poundstone)
‘“Pretty soon, we should be able to get electoral politics down to a basic newspeak that contains perhaps ten keywords: Dream, Fear, Hope, New, People, We, Change, America, Future, Together. Fishing exclusively from this tiny and stagnant pool of stock expressions, it ought to be possible to drive all thinking people away from the arena and leave matters in the gnarled but capable hands of the professional wordsmiths and manipulators.” (Hitchens)
“The streets transform every ordinary day into a series of trick questions, and every incorrect answer risks a beatdown, a shooting, or a pregnancy.” (Coates)
The Books I’m Reading (or Intend to Read)
I am two-thirds of the way through my re-reading of Labyrinths, the collection of short stories and essays by the Argentine fantastist-absurdist Jorge Luis Borges. My second reading has made a difference in how I interpreted and appreciated several of the stories, but for others it was like watching reruns of The Twilight Zone when you know the ending. If I don’t finish re-reading the entire collection, that will be okay.
And I am still reading New and Collected Poems: 1934-84 by Roy Fuller, a British writer admired by Christopher Hitchens. Fuller is not a light read. I pick up the book when I am on the elliptical — it keeps me from glancing at my workout time every three minutes.
On the bottom shelf of my end table, waiting their turn, are the titles The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, Horizon’s Lens by Elizabeth Dodd, Racisms by Francisco Bethencourt, The People Yes by Carl Sandburg, Them Birds Are in Your Garden and Other Vignettes by John Bush (my seventh-grade history teacher) and three issues of Topics in Recreational Mathematics edited by Charles Ashbacher. Most of these works are fiction, which I rarely read, so it should be an interesting year.
Standing upright on the bottom shelf of our bedroom bookcase is The Autobiography of Mark Twain. I embarked on this read many years ago but set it aside when the ponderous volume began to feel more scholarly than fun. I doubt that Clemens himself would have cared for such a heavy (and heavily-annotated) book, but I have not quite given up on it. This brings to mind a line from The Shape of the Sword by Jorge Luis Borges:
“…For a gentleman, only lost causes are attractive.” (Borges)
Happy New Year to all.