Thursday, January 6, 2011


So in order to categorize and make sense of the 100 books I read in 2010, I started to go through my reviews one by one over the last month. I took that long because I needed a break from this blog, and reporting on my reading. I've read 4 books since New Year's Day, which is happily off my pace enough that I'll not be reading anything close to 100 books this year. It's more than I usually read though, which is just swell.

Anyhow, going through the reviews was a humbling and exciting experience. There were books I'd forgotten about. There are books I think about every week. There were books I'll always remember hating and loving. And each one will come to mind when the more important subjects I absorbed from them appear in my everyday life. I'll always think about the Black Swan when dealing with the limitations of statistics, even if I didn't love the book. When people talk about Ulysses or Irish literature, I have a very specific experience and pool of knowledge in my head from reading that classic. The next time I read about Common Sense or The Prince, I'll have my own opinion about what those treatises actually say, separate from what the journalist/blogger/Tea Partier/relative thinks they say. Could I benefit from reading more about these subjects? Of course. Will I re-read some of these as the specifics drain out of my head through memory loss, other priorities, and time? I think so. Is there a point to reading these books if I am just going to forget 90% of what's in them?

Definitely. That's what being literate is, in my humble opinion. It's a process. Of keeping your brain, heart, soul, personality, memory - whatever - on its toes. And challenged. And informed. And in shape so that you can deal with the rapid-response day-to-day in a more intelligent, compassionate, worldly, empathetically, more literate way. You're never going to get to be fully literate. You're never going to get to be healthy/happy/satisfied/perfect. It's the process that makes you closer to those things, and it needs upkeep. Like a relationship or marriage or profession. The diploma doesn't mean anything if you neglect everything you've learned, or could STILL learn, about your degree. You've got to keep pushing your mind to open more, be ready for the unexpected, be able to learn something new.

I don't understand people - and I meet them all the time - that can't be told anything they don't know. At least, that's the facade some folks portray in conversation, and it drives me crazy. I love learning new things from people, and always try to stay open to new ideas and arguments - I hope I never answer everything that's told to me with some variation of "oh of course, I knew that."

Anyhow, enough ruminating - here's the list, divided by category, of everything I read last year. I'll be starting up the blog again and seeing where things go - perhaps providing some new voices and new directions. Even if no one reads it, it's still helpful to me to provide to structure to my experience.


I started the year by reading one of the first stories, Gilgamesh, on New Year's Day; Faulkner enervated me with The Sound And The Fury; Toni Morrison's writing made me smile despite depressing subject matter with The Bluest Eye; Jane Austen's wit, sarcasm, and self-awareness of the absurdity of Victorian courtship really impressed me in Pride and Prejudice;The Stranger didn't do much more for me than a bad Ford Prefect metaphor; I'm glad to have finally read The Giver; Flannery O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge was a wonderful experience in loathing; Catch-22 was 100 pages too long but otherwise lived up to its reputation; The Log Of The S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine should be required reading for married couples, even if they don't like weird books; Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle could be in sci-fi but I'll arbitrarily stick it in classics - it was what I was hoping Catch-22 would be; well, and, I'm glad I finally read The Good Earth; Updike's Rabbit, Run was written exceedingly well though you can't stand the protagonist; I wished Things Fall Apart was better than it was; and Ulysses exists in its own category - my review will explain my impression of it.

Science Fiction

Ringworld was a classic novel-as-thought-experiment that managed to pace itself well; Blooodchild and Other Stories is a collection of Octavia Butler short stories I enjoyed quite a bit; Parable Of The Sower almost doesn't belong in science fiction - it's more believable post-apocalyptic than fantastical; Snow Crash was one of the better books that I'd delayed reading for years for no discernible reason; I finished a book on the Kindle for the first time with On Basilisk Station and quite enjoyed both the medium and the content; despite The Hunger Games' status as a couldn't-put-it-down young adult dystopian book lampooning reality TV, I didn't dislike it, though I think young adult editors should be meaner; Asimov's Foundation should be in "Classics" but I'll claim it in sci-fi; it was bittersweet to read a new Douglas Adams book, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency; and Ursula K LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness was a thought experiment about gender that I enjoyed on the whole.


George R. R. Martin's A Game Of Thrones remains an excellent gritty/realistic/adult addition to the genre; Neil Gaiman's short stories collection Fragile Things was on the whole very fun; Stardust, Gaiman's odd and grown-up take on fantasy was better than the movie; after enjoying American Gods, I checked out the sequel, Anansi Boys, and didn't dislike it; I finally read the buzz-worthy The Name Of The Wind and can't wait until the sequel comes out on March; and Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson's Towers of Midnight made the penultimate book in the Wheel of Time series into a solid standalone experience.


Richard Matheson's classic I Am Legend was much better than the Will Smith movie; I only read the not-really-horror Dead Until Dark because I enjoyed the first season of True Blood, but couldn't imagine that the writing would be so terrible (though I'm thinking of reading the sequel, barf); and I picked up Stephen King's short story collection Nightmares And Dreamscapes in the library because the audiobook was narrated by fun celebrities, and managed to rather enjoy his writing and storytelling.

Contemporary Fiction

Dave Eggers' What Is The What blew me out of the water with a near-biographical account of a Lost Boy of Sudan, combining Sudanese history with an honest look at American culture; The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao is one of the best books I've read all year; The Yiddish Policeman's Union was a spectacular counter-historical look at what an Israel located in Alaska would have been like, cloaked in a fascinating detective story; Chabon's short book The Gentlemen Of The Road was also very fun - a historical fiction novel looking at two guys in the real-life Jewish nation of Khazaria; you should go read The City And The City right now; Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine was as good as I had hoped it would be; The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears helped illuminate African immigrants' experiences in 1980s DC; The Kite Runner was shockingly worse than the movie it spawned; I almost finished the Chuck Palahniuk canon by enjoying Invisible Monsters; the curious incident of the dog in the night-time. managed to rise above high expectations and blow me out of the water; I fell in love with Barbara Kingsolver's writing with The Poisonwood Bible; after loving Wao, I had to try Drown, Diaz's short story collection about the DR and immigration; and Murakami's After Dark was a literary version of Lost In Translation.

Graphic Novels

Maus I & Maus II deserved the Pulitzer; I adored the too-short Bigfoot autobiography In Me Own Words (and didn't realize it was a graphic novel until it arrived in the mail); and I understood why Neil Gaiman has so many fanboys and fangirls after finishing the mammoth The Sandman.


Jonathan Livingston Seagull confused me (inspirational or Christ-figure? why doesn't he eat?), while Khalil Gibran's The Prophet was as good as the hype - a decent how-to-be-a-good-person manual.


I tried out my first book of poetry with Selected Poems Of Langston Hughes and enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.


I wanted to like Jon Stewart's fiction essay collection Naked Pictures Of Famous People more than I did but I probably read it 10 years too late, while Barbara Kingsolver's Small Wonder was largely very good and made me want to read her other essay collection.


I got blown away with knowledge in From Colony To Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776; it felt very appropriate to read Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels while away at a raucous bachelor party in frigid Northern Maine; half personal reflection and half history of libraries, The Library At Night made me smile; Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation was a lot more fun and interesting than I thought it would be; The Victorian Internet should be required reading for anyone who uses the internet; I expected to like Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates more than I did; I suppose The Know-It-All is a history book, about a really annoying whiny guy who reads the encyclopedia A to Z and loves awful jokes, but I had to read it this year because I was doing something similar and can sometimes be whiny, annoying, and prone to telling stupid jokes; and Noam Chomsky's 9-11 was annoying to read but I'm glad he's writing.


David Plouffe's take on the Obama campaign made me scratch my head a bit in The Audacity to Win; The Nine is the best book about the Supreme Court I've ever read - okay it's the only one, but that doesn't mean it's not a fun and informative read; I unknowingly read about a friend's run-in with the Bush White House in Ron Suskind's The Way Of The World; I'm glad I read Paine's Common Sense so I can be sure that he wouldn't have been a Tea Partier; and The Prince was The Prince.


I'd recommend The First 90 Days to anyone starting a new job, and those who want to take a new look at their current job would also benefit; Ask The Pilot is exactly what it sounds - an interesting if slightly out-of-date Q&A with a pilot, about airlines and the airline industry.


I understood the value of efficient, close-together living in Green Metropolis; I found The Climate War to be a very helpful introduction to the current state of climate policy in the U.S.; Silent Spring should be required reading for people who eat food or work in the environmental community, though you may not like it; and Merchants of Doubt was a slog to get through, but informative.


I absolutely loved A History Of The World In Six Glasses and if you've ever drank beer, ate bread, lived in civilization, drank wine, drank hard alcohol, traded with anyone, drank tea, drank coffee, thought about something new, drank Coke, or lived in the last 60 years, you will too; Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma was eye-opening and interesting; Salt was everything I hoped it'd be, plus an extra 100 pages; Eating Animals was a very good rationale for vegetarianism, though I thought it would have been a better argument had reductionism been the goal and not absolute omission of meat from the diet; and after reading The Elements Of Cooking, I used the Thankgiving dinner turkey carcass to make delicious stock - I rest my case.

Social Science

My understanding of statistics was shaken with The Black Swan; Nickel And Dimed is almost a classic by now, of what working at the poverty line means in America; Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker story collection What The Dog Saw was engaging, fun, and informative; I betray social scientists by putting the atrocity Why We Buy into this category, but that's what he claims to be; and Made To Stick was a lot better than expected and actually helped me a lot for work.


Barack Obama's narration of the abridged audiobook of Dreams From My Father was pretty amazing; True Compass provided an honest and intelligent look back from Ted Kennedy; talk show host Craig Ferguson's American On Purpose was one of the better books I've read all year; and Steve Martin's Born Standing Up was really, really good, and not even that funny.


Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World was a fun, informative read on the value of science and skepticism in a world of irrationality; Proust Was A Neuroscientist was a fun summary of the senses and how disciplines other than science inform research about the mind; and The Well-Dressed Ape was a fun almost-complete owner's manual for the human body.


Most of my reading in this category was to prepare for trips to France and Australia. Talk To The Snail was a terrible book about the French; The Story Of French managed to be interesting and informative prior to my trip, though the last few chapters dragged in a way that suggested they should have been an appendix; Paris To The Moon was a really fun autobiographical collection of short stories by a New Yorker writer who had moved to Paris to protect his infant son from the worst of America; Bill Bryson's Neither Here Nor There was a really fun romp through Europe; Salman Rushdie's The Jaguar Smile was an interesting look at Nicaragua; Cold Beer & Crocodiles was a fun look at small-town coastal Australia from a bicyclist's perspective, though I was sad at the lack of crocs; African environmental policy got a thorough and thoughtful treatment in The Challenge For Africa; I had a tough time getting through the definitive history of Australia's penal past, The Fatal Shore, but am glad I did; I tried to remember if I'd read Bryson's A Sunburned Country or not; and Sydney: The Story Of A City was an informative if slightly frustrating introduction to an amazing city.

And fortunately, I had a longer list of books I loved than books I didn't like. I didn't hate a single book on my list, but there were definitely some duds. If I were picking books at random at a bookstore, I would certainly have a longer "Bottom" list:

Top 23

A History Of The World In Six Glasses

The Bluest Eye

Pride and Prejudice

Dreams From My Father

What Is The What

The Nine

The Omnivore's Dilemma

The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao

The City And The City

American On Purpose

Snow Crash

The Mezzanine

the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.

The Victorian Internet

Born Standing Up

What The Dog Saw

The Poisonwood Bible

The Log Of The S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine

Cat's Cradle

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

Made To Stick

Rabbit, Run

The Sandman

Bottom 10

The Sound And The Fury

The Black Swan

Green Metropolis

The Stranger

Talk To The Snail

The Kite Runner

The Know-It-All

Naked Pictures Of Famous People

Why We Buy