Inspired by Aaron Clauset’s annual catalogue of his productivity and spurred by my forgetfulness, this post is the first of what I hope will be many that catalogue my leisure reading of the previous year.
In no particular order, I read:
- The Autobiography of Malcolm X – As good as you’ve heard. Though dictated, it felt like the voice I’ve heard in speeches. I also learned a lot about American popular culture from the ’30s through ’50s. I particularly found his frequent rants about Jewish merchants interesting, as that’s what a large part of the first generation of my family did.
- The Feminine Mystique – Happy that I read it (and I may have read it in 2016), but not as invigorating as TAoMX. Too verbose too often, reading whole sections gave me time to notice the very particular slice of America to whom this book was written. The most interesting aspect to me was learning about the women’s publishing world postwar; it was dominated by men dominated by Freud, which pretty much explains all you need to know.
- Scale – This book may count as work, but I guess the fact that work books are often also interesting is part of the job. Enjoyable overall and good for figuring out which of his (and his colleagues’) academic work to pursue more. I enjoyed learning about growing up in post-World War II Britain.
- Foucault’s Pendulum – Biggest disappointment of the year. Name of the Rose is one of those books, and Umberto Eco one of those authors, that I first heard about freshman year of college. That means the two hold outsize weight in my imagination, a weight that only grew heavier each year I still had not read either. I was ecstatic, therefore, to find a colleague giving away Foucault’s Pendulum. Many endorsements even said it was as good as, , or better (!) than, Name of the Rose. After having read it, I have determined that Name of the Rose is either horrible or I do not like Umberto Eco or this book was horrible. (Yes, I use either…or incorrectly.) Foucault’s Pendulum is the only fiction book I have ever skimmed, and all I know is that it’s about the occult, there may have been an Argentina interlude, and one person dies. At parts, the writing was very good, but I could not keep any characters, historical allusions, or settings straight. I still want to read Name of the Rose.
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being – As good as I wanted Foucault’s Pendulum to be. It is another book that imprints itself on most people, myself included, early in college, and it is another that I had never found time for. Fortunately, I married a cool girl, and she had this sitting around our house. I had no idea it was an existential book also about life in Soviet Eastern Europe; if only it also discussed basketball analytics, the book would have scored a topic trifecta. I was so inspired by its emphasis on the irrepeatability of life that I quoted from it in the first session of the statistics class I teach. I think I appreciated it more than the students did. Anyway, a very interesting book that I will reread one day and recommend to others.
- The Accusation – Given our country’s obsession with North Korea, it surprises me that this book has not received wider notice. A collection of short stories written around the early to mid-1990s and slowly smuggled out, the stories give me most insight into life in North Korea. The author lives in Pyongyang, so this is also the view of an elite or near elite, making its critique all the more damning. The eventual collapse of the North Korean regime will seem like the biggest surprise of all, but this book makes it clear that no one should be surprised.
- Chimpanzee Politics – Perhaps revelatory when it came out, I could not get very invested in the book. The lesson: chimpanzees have shifting social alliances.
- Gullah Culture in America – My mom has returned to live in her childhood home of Charleston, South Carolina, given me new opportunities to engage with a very interesting part of American history and culture. I bought this book at the Old Slave Mart Museum hoping to learn more about the history, and impact, of Gullah culture. (“Gullah” appears to be one of those words that most people only know as shorthand for soul food.) I learned that the slaves of the Low Country can be traced to Sierra Leone and Liberia based on the words and structure of Geechee, the creole language that is slowly disappearing, as well as certain religious practices. I wish the book interrogated modern “soul food” more, as it seems to be like the food that American thinks of with that term – fried chicken, collard greens, okra, biscuits, etc. – is Gullah food. I could be totally wrong, but I would have liked to see Gullah food explored more. Overall, an interesting book, but I feel like there must be a better one out there.
- How to Win Friends and Influence People – It is sort of embarrassing to disclose that I have read this book, but it is also a good book. The message is to be nice to people – remember their name, make them feel important, maximize their strengths, and so on – and things will work out. First published in 1936, the problems Dale Carnegie answers have not changed. I find it very calming to read old books that address problems that sound modern with answers that sound eternal. When you see that, you see wisdom.
- Consilience – I hope to be in position, some decades from now, to write a grand book as a career capstone. This is E.O. Wilson’s capstone book, though I think you could say that about a few for him. Well-written, which is par for the course for him, but the basic message – “Human knowledge expands as the hard sciences subsume disciplines ” – is not particularly novel.
- Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies – My first foray into learning about my new home, this book was interesting but not as interesting as the hype told me. I suppose it was revelatory in the 1970s to hear something positive about Los Angeles, but two parts felt anachronistic. First, Banham raves about the beaches from Malibu to somewhere in Orange County. As a former resident of San Diego County, I find the coastline here to be underwhelming. The scenery isn’t interesting, and my pocketbook isn’t big enough to enjoy it regularly. I suppose that the sand compares well to similar areas in global cities. Second, he loves the freedom the freeway system enables. Cute, as the freeways are now prisons, and the political movement is away from them and to mass transit. I don’t regret reading it, but his typology did not change how I see LA, maybe because I lived in San Diego for 6 years. Banham is a great writer.
- The Reluctant Metropolis – This book has sat on my shelf since I TAed a class that used it many years ago, and I think I read it in 2016. Interesting at first but eventually too ranty. Some interesting tidbits on the fight for preservation, but I do not remember much otherwise.