I’ve almost always kept a running list of the books I read, but this year I decided to go Full Nerd.
I used Google Sheets to log each book I’ve read since October 2016—66 books in total, spread over 384 days.
I tracked titles, authors, author genders, copyright and publish dates, genres, page counts, format, dates started and ended, days between books. Starting at this new data year, I’ll also begin tracking author race, to hold myself accountable to hearing equal voice.
Accountability is one of the main reasons I began tracking this data. For example, based on the names on my bookshelf, it was clear I wasn’t reading enough books by women. And the data don’t lie. It was only through conscious intention this past year that I read the women I did; Rebecca Solnit, Jane Goodall, Janna Levin, Hannah Arendt, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. In most cases, their work was also the most urgent and profound. My goal is to keep building up this percentage. Hearing, listening, and understanding more.
I also used a five-star ranking system for the books I read. I usually thinking rankings are bullshit, so I didn’t put much thought into the rationale. If the book affected me or prompted me to think differently, it got more stars. This helped me identify what were my “favorite” books from the past year, and which ones sucked.
In trying to make sense of our current political situation, I recently read Lewis Lapham’s Age of Folly, released last month (and currently 50% off print and digital versions at Verso). Broadly speaking, the book claims to examine the last 25 years of America’s “imperial adventure.” Narrowly speaking, it’s 400+ pages of Lapham waxing poetic about our looming dystopia, namedropping politicians and WASPs, and peppering in the occasional lucid profundity. Here are a few:
- “The settled peoples of the earth seldom recognize the American as both a chronic revolutionary and a born pilgrim. The American is always on the way to someplace else (i.e., toward some undetermined future in which all will be well), and when he meets a stranger on the road he begins at once to recite the summary of the story so far—his youth and early sorrows, the sequence of his exits and entrances, his last divorce and his next marriage, the point of his financial departure and the estimated time of his spiritual arrival, the bad news noted and accounted for, the good news still to come. Invariably it is a pilgrim’s tale, and the narrator, being American, assumes that he is addressing a fellow pilgrim. He means to exchange notes and compare maps. His newfound companion might be bound toward a completely different dream of Eden (a boat marina in Naples, Florida, instead of a garden in Vermont; a career as a Broadway dancer as opposed to the vice presidency of the Wells Fargo bank), but the destination doesn’t matter as much as the common hope of coming safely home to the land of the heart’s desire. For the time being, and until something better turns up, we find ourselves embarked on the same voyage, gazing west into the same blue distance.”
If you read anything by Peter Hessler, make it Oracle Bones. It’s about the China I one day hope to meet. Here are a few parts I liked:
In Anyang, at an archaeological site call Huanbei, a small group of men work in a field, mapping an underground city. The city dates to the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries B.C, which the Shang culture was probably approaching its peak. Nowadays,the Shang ruins lie far beneath the soil, usually at a depth of five to eight feet. Peasants have planted crops for centuries without realizing that an entire city waited beneath them.”
While waiting for one of my favorite restaurants to open on a recent Saturday in Evanston, I killed some time in Market Fresh Books, a used book store that sells by the pound.
Buried behind the travel shelf I found a battered copy of Farley Mowat’s The Siberians, which you can get for a penny + shipping on Amazon. I’d never heard of Mowat, but with “Siberia” and “travel writing” as key words, I figured it was a safe bet.
And a smart bet, too. As a Canadian, Mowat got prestige access to 1960s Siberia at a time when most U.S. writers were still locked out, left only to imagine a frozen, lifeless tundra teaming with gulags and wolves – a stereotype that still persists. But Mowat does a great job demystifying it, taking a comprehensive documentary snapshot of a world that’s largely disappeared over the past 60 years. Here are some of my favorite passages:
They called it Spirit Vilyui and I am not sure how it was made. They tell about one fellow who dropped a two-liter bottle of it on the frozen ground outside his house one cold winter night. The next morning there was a mudhole a meter in diameter and, when they tried to find how deep it was, they couldn’t get a probe long enough to reach the bottom.
Some words from David Carr’s The Night of the Gun:
“Every hangover begins with an inventory.” (8)
“I’m not obsessed with my own privates, but I’m not one to point a pistol at them, either.” (13)
“Tucked in safe suburban redoubts, kids who had it soft like me manufactured peri. When there is no edge, we make our own, reaching for something that would approximate the cliche of being fully alive because we could die at any minute. That search for sensation leads to the self divorcing from the body, a la Descartes, and a life of faux peril. Everything that brought me joy involved risk.” (19)
Some words from Harry Crews’ Florida Frenzy:
“A good editor is nothing but a good reader.” (5)
“But this was more serious than death. This was as serious as money.” (17)
“Well, like the man says, it’s two kinds of people in this world. Us that wants a drink and them that don’t want us to have one. It’s always been like that and I don’t see how it’s gone change no time soon.” (35)
I recently read Edward Abbey’s, Desert Solitaire. Here are some of my favorite parts:
“I’m a humanist; I’d rather kill a man than a snake.” (17)
“We have agreed not to drive our automobiles into cathedrals, concert halls, art museums, legislative assemblies, private bedrooms and the other sanctums of our culture; we should treat our national parks with the same deference, for they, too, are holy places.” (52)