My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

by James Wallace Harris, October 3, 2014

Is there one novel that defines your life?  Have you return to it decade after decade throughout your life?  Has the author spoken to you across time, space and the gulf between life and death?  Does the narrative commentary resonate with your heart and mind?  Do lines of dialog feel like they are speaking to events in your life like you’re listening to a Greek oracle, or studying hexagrams from the I Ching?  For Rebecca Mead, Middlemarch by George Elliot is one such book, and she’s written My Life in Middlemarch to explain her literary touchstone.

my-life-in-middlemarch

A year and a month ago I wrote “The Ghosts That Haunt Me” about such writers.  Most of us have many such books and writers that haunt us, but Mead focuses on one novel, and one writer, and writes a whole book about how that one story haunts her life.  If you read the reviews at Goodreads you’ll see that most readers give her four stars out of five, with few rating it a full five stars, and with some giving far fewer.  How much you like this book will depend on whether or not you’ve read Middlemarch, how much English lit professor you have in you, and how much more you’d want from Mead.

Mead does a fair amount of travel and research to give us background on George Elliot and her most famous novel, but not nearly as much as a definitive biography.  Nor is her tale of book-love a proper memoir.  Personally, I was quite taken with her story as is, and it makes me want to reread Middlemarch for closer study.  However, it doesn’t really live up to its promise either.  And I’d really like to see someone pull off such a memoir.  It would have to be far more personal, far more detailed, far more psychological.  Not detailed in biography or close reading of the text, which I’m satisfied with Mead’s work here, but in giving us intimate personal reading details that make us feel true reading obsession.

Two books that come closer to mind of what I’d like to read is Among Others by Jo Walton, a novel about a lonely girl growing up reading science fiction, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, a nonfiction novel that integrates Plato into a man’s life.  The passion I’d like to see is such biblio-memoirs is what I found in Possession by A. S. Byatt.

Even though I feel My Life in Middlemarch is a very worthy book, I longed to read Mead’s deep personal details about each time she read Middlemarch.  I ached to know how a 20th century woman could find so much love and understanding in a 19th century woman.  I wonder if I could do what I want with my favorite childhood novel, Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein.

JWH

What To Read Before I Die

Most folks think growing up is the time to learn, and that the rest of life is for coasting on that education.  But as you age, you realize that every phase of life has its required coursework.  At sixty-two I’ve already forgotten most of what I learned in my K-12 years, and now that I’m retired, I’m quickly forgetting all the things I learned during my work years.  The knowledge I acquired in the first third of life prepared me for the second third, and what I learned in the second third, got me ready for the final third, but now that I’m living in the final third of life, I feel like I need to study hard for a next phase.  If I was a religious man, that would be a spiritual quest, but I’m not.  I’m studying for nonexistence, and that is changing my reading habits.

book tombstone

Most people talk about having a bucket list of activities they want to accomplish before leaving this planet, but I don’t think along those lines.  As a lifelong bookworm, all I want to do is read more books before I die.  I find reading in the final third of life has affected what books I want to read.  Strangely, I want read more nonfiction, as if facts are more comforting to dying, like fantasy was more inspiring to growing.  It appears that leaving reality makes you want to take more notice of what you’re leaving.  Most of us grow up hoping our childhood ambitions will come true as adults, but then settle for something more realistic.  Instead of becoming an astronaut I became a database programmer, and even then I continued to read science fiction all during my adult life.  Now that it’s pretty obvious that I’m never going to travel in space, Earth has become far more fascinating.

Even when I read novels now, I admire the details I can connect to reality.  This morning I started listening to Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote, and his prose dazzles me with details, fictional facts that feel so authenticate, I’m sure Truman was acting as a recorder of reality.  Before that, I read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, a literary fantasy based on 19th century life in the Caribbean, long before Rhys was born, yet it felt real.  Rhys was born on Dominica, in 1890, and lived there for her first 16 years.  My hope is knowledge Rhys gained growing up in the West Indies distilled into her 1966 novel.  Before that was Factory Man by Beth Macy, a nonfiction book that was jam-packed with juicy realistic details, but told in a narrative form that was as exciting as any novel.

I crave details about reality, but I can’t just read Wikipedia all day long, even though that is very tempting.  And in the coming years, as I get closer to winking out of reality, it might come to that.   I still crave fiction, but it has to have a tight connection to reality.  Last night I watched The Crusades, an old Cecil B. DeMille epic, that made me hunger to read a nonfiction book on the subject the whole time I was watching.  At one time, all that mattered for a novel or movie to enchant me, was a great story and characters.  Now,  my critical and entertainment reaction needs to know how close the story, setting and characters models reality.  This age related transformation is changing my love of science fiction, making me crave more realistic science fiction, and that has philosophical implications too.  Driving into this world the future seemed full of fantastic possibilities, and now that I’m on the road leading out of town, the future seems far more restricted than the sense of wonder probabilities of youth.

And that’s another thing about how age is changing my reading habits.  In the 20th century I read mostly about the 21st century and beyond, but now that I’m living in the 21st century I mostly read about the 19th century and earlier.   I wonder if that’s true of other aging bookworms who grew up reading science fiction?

JWH – 8/27/14

Intergenerational Book Sharing

I got the idea for this essay after reading John Scalzi’s blog post “An Anecdotal Observation, Relating to Robert Heinlein and the Youth of Today.”  Scalzi is a successful young science fiction writer who gave his daughter a Heinlein novel to read that was a favorite from when he was her age.  The novel was Starman Jones, and it was a favorite of mine too.  His daughter didn’t care for the Heinlein book.  My wife and I don’t have kids, but over the decades I’ve known an lot of parents who have tried to get their kids to read books they enjoyed as a kid.  Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.  What’s great about this article is the hundreds of responses Scalzi got that provides a wealth of examples.

There’s a lot going on here.  For example, many people claim books become dated.  Well, that’s true if the child has grown up enough to know the book is dated.  Many readers said they read their favorite books to their kids when they were quite little and their kids loved the stories.  If you are seven years-old, do you know the difference between Treasure Island and Starman Jones?  Do pirates and space explorers have any context to date?

Many other people pointed out that young readers have much better books to read today.  If I could time travel back to 1964 and give my younger self a set of Harry Potter books, which would I prefer:  Heinlein or Rowling?  I’m thinking the 1958 Have Space Suit-Will Travel was the perfect book for me to love at age 12 in 1964, but it probably won’t mean much to many 12 year-olds today.  Even the Harry Potter loving kids might have a hard time getting their kids to read the Rowling classics.

If you’re thirteen years-old and discover The Beatles, does it matter if it’s 1964 or 2014?  Teen love doesn’t seem much different today than it did then, and today’s pop music isn’t that much more sophisticated except for the four-letter words and explicit sexual references.  Sure a teen in 2014 can tell there’s a major pop-culture difference between The Dick Van Dyke Show and Breaking Bad.  So some books might be timeless like a Beatle song.

kiss me deadly

When I was twelve, my dad read westerns and Mickey Spillane type thrillers, and my mother loved mysteries.  They didn’t try to get me to read what they liked.  And of the books they read as a kid, they were pretty silent.  My dad once mentioned The Hobbit, which came out around the time he graduated high school, and my mother always talked about Little Women, but I’m not sure at what age either of them read these books, but I’d guess in the 1930s.  Neither meant much to me in the early late 1950s and early 1960s when I started reading, and when I read them both when I was older, they were good, but not defining.

Now my parents hated rock music, and tried to get me to like their favorites like Perry Como and Dean Martin, but I declined.  And my sister and I were always at war with my parents over what to watch on TV.  I’m afraid we were selfish little shits.  My dad loved Bonanza, but we’d throw teenage tantrums if we couldn’t watch The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.  We were probably too self-centered to take reading recommendations.

What’s weird is now that I’m 62 I’d be cool with listening to Frank Sinatra and reading Kiss Me, Deadly.  My dad died when he was 49 and I was 18, and like I said, we never had kids.  So I’m an island in the intergenerational pop-culture sea.  I’ve always loved the Heinlein juveniles, and wished they had become classics that all kids love—but that’s a silly sentimental desire on my part.  I’m not sure if they deserved to be read by all kids.  Of course, I’m not sure if all kids need to read the College Board Recommended Novels either.

Why do we want our kids to read the books we loved?  To make them like us?  To share what we liked?  To give them a leg up on finding the good stuff?  Most of the people who posted replies to the Scalzi blog listed books they discovered and loved as kids.  Are our literary first loves so important?  If you look at the College Board list of recommended novels below these are evidently what society thinks kids should read and know.  I’m skeptical.  I can’t believe these are the absolute best 100 novels everyone should experience as cultural literacy.  Maybe these are the ones easy to teach.  I’d do a lot of arguing over these titles.  I’m an atheist, but even I would expect The Bible to be on the list.

I’m not sure the College Board list is any more valid than Scalzi and I wanting kids to read Heinlein.  I’m fond of Heinlein for sappy nostalgic reasons.  What would be the real reason to make a kid read a book?  I’m a life long bookworm in my social security years and have only read 42 of the College Board books.  Let’s get real.  How many classic books should a kid read before he gets out of high school?  This is only a recommended list anyway, so few people actually expect kids to read them all.  But how many books should a well educated kid read that represents a well rounded cultural education?

I’d cut the list down to 24, and make sure those 24 are books everyone should know as adults and would speak from one generation to the next.  But that’s me playing king of the book world.  There’s only one book from the list below that I’d claim should definitely be on the list of 24 – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. 

When I think about it, there’s damn few books I think we should make kids read, and what they would be would be hard to decide.  My second book for the list would be Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, and it’s not even on the College Board list.  My two would be it for 19th century English novels.  Picking two 19th century American novels would be very hard and inspire me to write a very verbose essay.

Is there a minimum number of books everyone should read?  That’s getting too much into common core thinking.  Are there books so good we should try to get everyone to read them?  Are there books we loved that define our childhood that we should expect our kids to read? 

I do find that I feel closer to people who have read and loved the books I loved.  My friend Charisse has read most of the books on the College Board list, so we have lots to talk about.   I feel Charisse and I have a stronger connection than I do with people I know that we share no books in common.

Maybe society is putting too much hope in specific books, and what’s important is we all read a lot of books and then try to find out the books we’ve each read that connect us.     

Beowulf
Achebe, Chinua Things Fall Apart
Agee, James A Death in the Family
Austen, Jane Pride and Prejudice
Baldwin, James Go Tell It on the Mountain
Beckett, Samuel Waiting for Godot
Bellow, Saul The Adventures of Augie March
Brontë, Charlotte Jane Eyre
Brontë, Emily Wuthering Heights
Camus, Albert The Stranger
Cather, Willa Death Comes for the Archbishop
Chaucer, Geoffrey The Canterbury Tales
Chekhov, Anton The Cherry Orchard
Chopin, Kate The Awakening
Conrad, Joseph Heart of Darkness
Cooper, James Fenimore The Last of the Mohicans
Crane, Stephen The Red Badge of Courage
Dante Inferno
de Cervantes, Miguel Don Quixote
Defoe, Daniel Robinson Crusoe
Dickens, Charles A Tale of Two Cities
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor Crime and Punishment
Douglass, Frederick Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Dreiser, Theodore An American Tragedy
Dumas, Alexandre The Three Musketeers
Eliot, George The Mill on the Floss
Ellison, Ralph Invisible Man
Emerson, Ralph Waldo Selected Essays
Faulkner, William As I Lay Dying
Faulkner, William The Sound and the Fury
Fielding, Henry Tom Jones
Fitzgerald, F. Scott The Great Gatsby
Flaubert, Gustave Madame Bovary
Ford, Ford Madox The Good Soldier
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von Faust
Golding, William Lord of the Flies
Hardy, Thomas Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Hawthorne, Nathaniel The Scarlet Letter
Heller, Joseph Catch-22
Hemingway, Ernest A Farewell to Arms
Homer The Iliad
Homer The Odyssey
Hugo, Victor The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Hurston, Zora Neale Their Eyes Were Watching God
Huxley, Aldous Brave New World
Ibsen, Henrik A Doll’s House
James, Henry The Portrait of a Lady
James, Henry The Turn of the Screw
Joyce, James A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Kafka, Franz The Metamorphosis
Kingston, Maxine Hong The Woman Warrior
Lee, Harper To Kill a Mockingbird
Lewis, Sinclair Babbitt
London, Jack The Call of the Wild
Mann, Thomas The Magic Mountain
Marquez, Gabriel García One Hundred Years of Solitude
Melville, Herman Bartleby the Scrivener
Melville, Herman Moby Dick
Miller, Arthur The Crucible
Morrison, Toni Beloved
O’Connor, Flannery A Good Man Is Hard to Find
O’Neill, Eugene Long Day’s Journey into Night
Orwell, George Animal Farm
Pasternak, Boris Doctor Zhivago
Plath, Sylvia The Bell Jar
Poe, Edgar Allan Selected Tales
Proust, Marcel Swann’s Way
Pynchon, Thomas The Crying of Lot 49
Remarque, Erich Maria All Quiet on the Western Front
Rostand, Edmond Cyrano de Bergerac
Roth, Henry Call It Sleep
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye
Shakespeare, William Hamlet
Shakespeare, William Macbeth
Shakespeare, William A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Shakespeare, William Romeo and Juliet
Shaw, George Bernard Pygmalion
Shelley, Mary Frankenstein
Silko, Leslie Marmon Ceremony
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Sophocles Antigone
Sophocles Oedipus Rex
Steinbeck, John The Grapes of Wrath
Stevenson, Robert Louis Treasure Island
Stowe, Harriet Beecher Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Swift, Jonathan Gulliver’s Travels
Thackeray, William Vanity Fair
Thoreau, Henry David Walden
Tolstoy, Leo War and Peace
Turgenev, Ivan Fathers and Sons
Twain, Mark The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Voltaire Candide
Vonnegut, Kurt Jr. Slaughterhouse-Five
Walker, Alice The Color Purple
Wharton, Edith The House of Mirth
Welty, Eudora Collected Stories
Whitman, Walt Leaves of Grass
Wilde, Oscar The Picture of Dorian Gray
Williams, Tennessee The Glass Menagerie
Woolf, Virginia To the Lighthouse
Wright, Richard Native Son

JWH – 7/21/14

Reading: A Compulsion, An Addiction, Or Obsession?

Is it possible to read too much?  Can words, like calories, be over consumed?

Like the little robot, Johnny Five, in the film Short Circuit, I constantly crave more input.  I’m not as bad as Teddy Roosevelt, who would grab a few words while waiting for a person to walk across the room to meet him, but I’m close.

The Bully Pulpit 

That anecdote I got from reading The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin, an epic volume where she profiles presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, their parents and wives, and the famous muck raking reporters from McClure’s Magazine they knew during the Progressive Era.  It seems like in every case, for both men and women, they all credit books as the defining influence of their lives.  Roosevelt was a very compulsive reader and claimed he read a book before breakfast each day.

We educate ourselves by reading.  We evolve empathetically by reading.  We nourish our souls by reading.  So, can there be too much reading?  I ask this because here are the books and magazines I’m currently reading, or trying to read.

keep the aspidistra flying

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell.  I got the Kindle and Audible edition on sale recently.  I first read this book back in the 1970s, it’s about a young man, Gordon Comstock, in 1934 England, struggling to be a poet and refusing to worship the God of money.  I’m at the six hour mark, out of nine, but switched over to The Bully Pulpit to get ready for the non-fiction book club discussion in February.  I’m now 12 hours into its 35 hours.  I keep meaning to jump back and finish those last three hours but The Bully Pulpit is absolutely captivating.

Our-Mathematical-Universe

I saw Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark at the bookstore Sunday and just had to have it, so I ordered it from Amazon when I got home, and it was here Tuesday.  I’ve only just started it, but wished I could give up everything else to read it. I’m on a physics kick at the moment, so I crave it’s words and charts.

short night of the shadow catcher

I’m reading Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan for my local potluck supper book club.  I’m just up to chapter 3.

NYRofB 

Reading The New York Review of Books is like having a heroin pusher for a best friend.  I’m on the third article, “A New Populism?” which reviews Social Democratic America by Lane Kenworthy, which would be a wonderful book to read after The Bully Pulpit, because Bully mentions 19th century populists as well as reformers and progressives.  Instead I went to the library and got two books reviewed in the second article, “Beneath the Stars.”

ava gardnerBarbara-Stanwyck-cover

I haven’t started either, but I’ve been itching to take the time to jump into both because I’ve been watching Gardner and Stanwyck movies on Warner Archive Instant lately.  I have a thing for old movies, and even though it’s not as relevant as physics or history, it does obsess me.

charles-dickens-a-life-by-claire-tomalin

Everything makes me want to read books.  I saw the recent biofilm The Invisible Woman about Charles Dickens’ affair with actress Nelly Ternan, which made me go out and buy, Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin.  Time and again I return to the 19th century.  Growing up I was crazy in love with science fiction and the future, but now that I’m living in the 21st century, I spend a lot of time exploring the 19th century.  But I still read a lot of science fiction.  This week, I’ve been reading short stories, hoping they will inspire me to write short stories.

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The Classic Science Fiction Book Club is reading one story a week from The Science Fiction Hall of Fame.  Of course, I also need to get started on the March book for them too, The Robots of Dawn by Isaac Asimov.  Science fiction has always been fun and addictive to me, but as I’ve gotten older, reading non-fiction has become more addictive.

the robots of dawn 

I’m also rereading and studying The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin to write a comprehensive review.  I just finished it a few days ago, but it was so exciting that it’s thrown me into a science reading jag.  I listened to it first, but now I’m reading the Kindle edition trying to outline all it’s points.

The_Trouble_with_Physics_by_Lee_Smolin_Book-Cover

I keep How To Read Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster by my TV chair to read during commercials.  Each chapter makes me want to read another classic book.

How to Read Like a Professor

And this might be TMI, but I keep On Writing Well by William Zinsser on my oldest Kindle in the bathroom for study while I’m occupied.

On Writing Well

I also read a lot of magazines, and these have came in the mail in just this past week.  If halfway through the Scientific American, and read the short pieces in The Rolling Stone.  As soon as I finish this essay I’m going to read more from these magazines as I listen to music.  That’s become my late afternoon habit now that I’ve retired.

sci-am-2014-03sci-am-mind-2014-03

Harpers-1403-302x410Atlantic-March-2014-225x300

smithsonianMusic-Drake-Rolling Stones

And this doesn’t count the dozens of magazines I try to keep up with at Next Issue.  I pay $15 a month for 130 titles for tablet reading.  Nor does this count the many books I’ve started last week and haven’t gotten back to yet.  I try hard to get to The New Yorker, Wired, Entertainment Weekly, Popular Science, Consumer’s Reports, Shutterbug, Popular Photography and Vanity Fair – but I’d like to read even more.  I seldom finish any of them.  I find most magazines, even the ones that I’d never buy like Vogue and Field and Stream often have one great article.

Nor does this list of reading material cover the daily consumption of websites I visit.

Do you see why I’m wondering if I have a reading problem?  If brains could get fat on words, I’d have a head the size of Texas.

When I write these blogs, I partly write them for writing practice.  Each day I attempt to find a topic and make it interesting.  But I also write because it’s therapeutic, like talking with an analyst.  I’m thinking out loud, trying to put two and two together.  This essay is my way of asking myself:  Do I read too much.  And if I read too much, what’s a reasonable amount of daily reading?

On one hand I feel I’m retired and should read as much as I want, or as little as I want.  But on the other hand, I feel all this reading should go towards a purpose.  While struggling to review The Trouble With Physics I realize how little I retain.  It’s a damn shame that all this good information should go in one ear and out the other.

Doris Kearns Goodwin spent seven years writing The Bully Pulpit and it reflects a massive amount of reading for research.  I wonder if I should focus my reading addiction on a single subject and try to write a nonfiction book?  Before I retired I dreamed of writing a novel, but I just don’t have the daily urge to write fiction.  I do love to write blogs and nonfiction essays.  That’s why I’m experimenting with my review of The Trouble With Physics – I’m actually doing a lot of research to write a longer essay.

Right now my daily reading feels like I’m just gobbling down M&Ms – it’s a compulsive craving.  And although I feel any reading is good for me, because new ideas provides fertilizer for my neurons, I can’t help but want all my data input to be put to some constructive use.  I’d like to think of good reading as healthy food, and writing as healthy exercise, for my mind.  If I just read books and didn’t blog, I don’t think I’d be anywhere near as happy as I am now.  And I think I’d be happier if my reading was more focused.

JWH – 2/27/14

2013 Year in Reading

The older I get, the more I feel my reading life is fading away.  I was born to read.  Reading has shaped and defined my existence.  So it’s scary to think that I’m running out of reading time.  Even if I live another 20 years, that’s only 1,040 books at this year’s pace.  That seems like a lot, but it’s a finite number.  Picture an hour-glass, but instead of grains of sand, imagine tiny little books falling through the narrow waist of the time.

confessions-of-a-crap-artist-5

I retired this year on October 22nd, and assumed I’d start reading books like crazy.  When I worked, I read about one book a week.  I hoped after retiring, to read two books a week – instead it’s one book every two weeks.  Damn.  That’s not what I planned at all!  I’ve only been able to catch up to my yearly average by quickly finishing off several half-read books.

As 2013 closes out, I contemplate the power of less, both having less time, but also wanting and owning less, so I can focus clearly on my goals, and I realize I need to change my attitude toward reading.  More than ever, I want to make every book count.  This might sound contradictory, but I’m thinking I need to read less too.  Instead of consuming books in great numbers, I should savor and study them.  But what if that means I have 300 books left?

In 2012 I read 49 books and I wrote in my 2012 Year in Reading that I wanted to read 12 novels, 12 science books, 12 history/other non-fiction books in 2013, and hopefully 12 of those would be published during 2013.  Well, I didn’t do so good, especially with science books – I didn’t read any science books at all!   I did read one math book.  Plus, I only read just seven 2013 books (I did read eleven 2012 books, so I’m close).  I read 24 fiction books, twice what I wanted.

When I look at the list below I realize that some books were definitely worth my reading time, but others, even ones I really enjoyed, weren’t.  I’ll rate the books I felt added much to my life with up to 5 pluses (+), but any book I didn’t rate means I could have skipped without impact.  Some of these were lots of fun, but I need more than just fun.

Books Read in 2013

Favorite Fiction

  1. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
  2. The Short Stories Volume 1 by Ernest Hemingway
  3. Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick
  4. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  5. The Long Tomorrow  by Leigh Brackett

Favorite Nonfiction

  1. Half-the-Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
  2. The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond
  3. The Unwinding by George Packer
  4. The Voice is All by Joyce Johnson
  5. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull by Barbara Goldsmith

Order of Reading

  1. Confessions of a Crap Artist (1959) – Philip K. Dick (+++++)
  2. Half-the-Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (2009) – Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (+++++)
  3. Beautiful Ruins (2012) – Jess Walters (+++)
  4. The World Until Yesterday (2012) – Jared Diamond (+++++)
  5. At Home (2010) – Bill Bryson (+++)
  6. Redshirts (2012) – John Scalzi 
  7. The Wrecking Crew (2012) – Kent Hartman (+++)
  8. The Sheltering Sky  (1949) – Paul Bowles (+++)
  9. Hull Zero Three (2010) – Greg Bear
  10. Wishin’ and Hopin’(2009) – Wally Lamb
  11. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012) – Susan Cain (++++)
  12. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull (1999) – Barbara Goldsmith (++++)
  13. The Searchers (2013) – Glenn Frankel (+++)
  14. Heaven is for Real (2010) – Todd Burpo
  15. Darwinia (1999) – Robert Charles Wilson
  16. Society’s Child (2008) – Janis Ian
  17. We Can Build You (1972) – Philip K. Dick
  18. Oz Reimagined (2013) – edited by John Joseph Adams
  19. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (2009) – Daniel Pink (+)
  20. Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triump, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive SCRABBLE Players (2001) – Stefan Fatsis (++)
  21. The End of the Affair (1951) – Graham Greene (++)
  22. Mrs. Dalloway (1925) – Virginia Woolf (+)
  23. The Fault in Our Stars (2012) – John Green (++++)
  24. The Sense of an Ending (2011) – Julian Barnes (++)
  25. Why Are You Atheists So Angry: 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless (2012) – Greta Christina
  26. The Next 100 Years:  A Forecast for the 21st Century (2009) – George Friedman
  27. The Heart of Darkness (1899) – Joseph Conrad (+)
  28. Life As We Knew It (2006) – Susan Beth Pfeffer (+)
  29. The Ballad of Bob Dylan (2011) – Daniel Mark Epstein (+++)
  30. 2312 (2012) – Kim Stanley Robinson
  31. The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) – Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)
  32. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls (2013) – David Sedaris
  33. Door Wide Open (2001) – Joyce Johnson
  34. The Unwinding – (2013) George Packer (+++++)
  35. The Year’s Top-Ten Tales of Science Fiction 5 (2013) – edited by Allan Kaster
  36. Euclid’s Window (2001) – Leonard Mlodinow (++)
  37. The World Jones Made (1956) – Philip K.  Dick
  38. The Long Tomorrow (1955) – Leigh Brackett (++)
  39. Lightspeed Year One (2011) – edited by John Joseph Adams
  40. One and Only (2011) – Gerald Nicosia and Anne Marie Santos
  41. Po-boy Contraband (2012) – Patrice Melnick
  42. The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac (2012) – by Joyce Johnson (++++)
  43. The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) – Joan Didion (++++)
  44. Boys Adrift (2005) – Dr. Leonard Sax (++++)
  45. One Summer: America 1927 (2013) – Bill Bryson (++++)
  46. The Power of Less (2008) – Leo Babauta (+)
  47. Wheat Belly (2011) – William Davis MD (+++)
  48. The Short Stories Volume 1 (2002) – Ernest Hemingway (+++++)
  49. Distrust That Particular Flavor (2012) – William Gibson (++)
  50. Pulphead (2011) – John Jeremiah Sullivan (+++)
  51. Leviathan Wakes (2011) – James S. A. Corey
  52. Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) – George Orwell (+++++)

Reading Plans for 2014

Once again I want to read less science fiction and more science, fewer fiction titles and more nonfiction.  Of course I’d like to read all +++++ books, even if I only read half as many books total.  I find it tragic that I forget what I read so quickly.  What a crying shame it is to take in so many fascinating facts that flee my mind in just minutes and hours.  Shouldn’t I be doing more rereading than reading, studying, rather than rushing by all those scenic words?

Going through my bulging bookcases, here’s what I’m pulling down to pile beside my reading chair, hoping to read in 2014.

  • On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (2013) – Alexandra Horowitz
  • Grain Brain (2013) – David Perlmutter, MD
  • Time Reborn (2013) – Lee Smolin
  • The Goldfinch (2013) – Donna Tartt
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) – Daniel Kahneman
  • The Beginning of Infinity (2011) – David Deutsch
  • Darwin’s Armada (2009) – Iain McCalman
  • The Best Writing on Mathematics (2013) – Mircea Pitici, Editor
  • The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe is Not Designed for Us (2011) – Victor J. Stenger
  • Waging Heavy Peace (2012) – Neil Young
  • Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin
  • Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty by Morris Kline
  • Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness by John M. Hull
  • The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson
  • Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life by Daniel C. Dennett
  • Euclid in the Rainforest: Discovering Universal Truth in Logic and Mathematics by Joseph Mazur

JWH – 12/27/13

2012 Year in Reading

By the way, just to be upfront about things, when I say “read” I often mean “listen” – but I consider consuming books with eyes, ears or fingertips to be reading.

This is the 5th year I’ve done these annual reading summaries.  Writing about reading is turning into an enlightening subject because over time I can see my reading habits evolving and showing trends.  I’ve been logging what I’ve read since 1983, and I’ve often wish I had started recording which books I read right from my very first book.  (Just some advice to any bookworm tykes reading this.)

I kept a reading log once before, in the early 1970s when I was in college and had a lot more free time, and I read 452 books in 18 months.  I hate that I lost that list.  That epic reading period was mostly short science fiction paperbacks.  I’ve always read mostly science fiction, a smattering of science, a handful of history books, and a few odds and ends.  Since I’ve started these yearly summaries I always end up wishing I’d try more variety.  I slowly have.

In 2012 I read 49 books.

I again read too much science fiction this year, but then I’m in the Classic Science Fiction Book Club.  I’m also addicted to audiobooks and love to listen to all the old science fiction novels I first discovered back in the 1960s.  I ended up reading to 22 science fiction books, way more than I should because I only read three actual science books.  I’d be a lot more impressed with myself if I had read 22 science books and only 3 science fiction titles.  Resolutions for next year:  read only one SF book a month and read at least one science book a month.

Of course that brings up the whole fiction versus nonfiction guilt that I have.  For me fiction is more fun, but nonfiction is more rewarding.  Fiction can be deeply philosophical and observant of reality, but usually it’s just escapism.  Science fiction is known for its sense of wonder, but none of the SF books I read this year could touch A Universe From Nothing, From Eternity to Here and The Mind’s Eye for their overwhelming sense of wonder.

Regarding the quality of fiction, the most thought provoking novels I read in 2012 were:  Anna Karenina, A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, Freeman, On the Beach, The English Patient, The Age of MiraclesFrankenstein, Ready Player One and The Windup Girl.   If I was honest with myself, I’d stop reading so much old science fiction because it’s just not that worthwhile.  However, nostalgia often overwhelms my to read impulses.  Science fiction imprinted on me at that impressionable age of 12 and I’ve never been able to give it up the habit.

I did read eight history books this year and they were so rewarding that I feel I need to up their number next year.  My yearly averages for books read usually runs around four a month.  See my past years 2011 (58), 2010 (53), 2009 (40), and 2008 (45).

For 2013 I’d like to aim for a monthly mix of:

  • 1 novel
  • 1 science book
  • 1 history/other nonfiction book
  • 1 new (2012/2013) title per month.

I’d also like to read one big classic novel during the year.  This year was Anna Karenina.  I’m thinking about Les Misérables for 2013.

Besides loving audiobooks, I love reading new books that just came out. It’s great fun to discover books published during the year and promote them with your friends and then have those books validated at the end of the year by showing up on Best Books of the Year lists. This year’s discoveries was Full Body Burden by Kristen Iverson and The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, but sadly they were only on a couple best of lists. I didn’t read Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo until after I saw it on a zillion lists this month, so it doesn’t count.

FullBodyBurdenthe-age-of-miracles

Every year when I write this summary of books read, I also think about which books I want to read for the next year.  Since I have over 500 unread books sitting on my physical bookshelf, and over a 100 unread audiobooks sitting in my digital bookshelf, I should be concentrating on clearing out my backlog, but that doesn’t happen.  Many of the books on my list below were bought just before I read them.  I’m in three online and one local book club that discusses 5 books a month.  That’s dictating too many of my reads – 19 this year.  Obviously I didn’t read all 60 discussed books.

I would like to participate more in the book clubs, read more books off my to be read pile, as well as read as many new books as possible.  That’s only possible if I read more books.  I could give up television, but I’m not sure I can digest more than a book a week anyway.

In a perfect world, every book I read should be thought about for hours, researched, studied, discussed in a book club, and reviewed for my blog.  To do all that would require 10-30 hours each week depending on the size of the book.  Most books are 10-20 hours of listening time.  Anna Karenina was 42 hours long, and it took me three weeks to finish.  As a hobby I’m pushing my limits as a bookworm.  I know bloggers who read 100+, 200+ and even 300+ books a year and write reviews.  There are some real super-bookworms out there.  I’m just not one of them.  I can accept my smallish total if I read 52 great books each year.  My goal is not to read more books, but better books.

Most of the books I “read” every year are books I listened too.  I just don’t have much time for eyeball reading anymore.  Theoretically, I might average two books a week, one listening and one reading, but I’d need to find more La-Z-Boy reading time, and that’s hard.  I do watch a lot of TV and listen to a lot of music, so I suppose I could sacrifice some of that time.  But do I want to be more of a bookworm?  Sometimes I think I should be less of a bookworm, and do more active things.  Or instead of reading books I should be writing them.  I’m happy with the book a week pace.  It would be nice to actually hit 52 books a year though.

Here are my favorite books I’ve read this year.  Only the first was actually published in 2012.

Novel of the Year

   The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

Nonfiction Book of the Year

   Eden’s Outcasts by John Matteson

Classic Science Fiction Book of the Year

   The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

Modern Science Fiction Book of the Year

   Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Most Recommended Book This Year

   The Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Orekes and Erik Conway

Books Read in 2012

  1. The Gnostic Gospels (1979) – Elaine Pagels
  2. Tunnel in the Sky (1955) – Robert A. Heinlein
  3. Ready Player One (2011) – Ernest Cline
  4. 1959 (2009) – Fred Kaplan
  5. The Ecstasy of Influence (2011) – Jonathan Lethem
  6. Midnight Rising (2011) – Tony Horowitz
  7. The Forge of God (1987) – Greg Bear
  8. A Universe from Nothing (2012) – Lawrence M. Krauss
  9. Life (2010) – Keith Richards
  10. The Swerve (2011) – Stephen Greenblatt
  11. Pushing Ice (2005) – Alastair Reynolds
  12. Anna Karenina (1877) – Leo Tolstoy
  13. The Year of the Quiet Sun (1970) – Wilson Tucker
  14. Embassytown (2011) – China Miéville
  15. Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (2012) – Jenny Lawson
  16. The Last Starship From Earth (1968) – John Boyd
  17. Little Women (1868) – Louisa May Alcott
  18. Beyond This Horizon (1948) – Robert A. Heinlein
  19. The Day of the Triffids (1951) – John Wyndham
  20. Glory Road (1963) – Robert A. Heinlein
  21. Assignment in Eternity (1953) – Robert A. Heinlein
  22. Merchants of Doubt (2010) – Naomi Orekes and Erik Conway
  23. A For Andromeda (1962) – Fred Hoyle and John Elliot
  24. Imagine (2012) – Jonah Lehrer
  25. The Age of Miracles (2012) – Karen Thompson Walker
  26. The Listeners (1972) – James E. Gunn
  27. The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction (2009) – edited by Allan Kaster
  28. Full Body Burden (2012) – Kristen Iversen
  29. The Black Cloud (1957) – Fred Hoyle
  30. Freeman (2012) – Leonard Pitts, Jr.
  31. The Mind’s Eye (2010) – Oliver Sacks
  32. Horseman, Pass By (1961) – Larry McMurtry
  33. From Eternity to Here (2010) – Sean Carroll
  34. Ubik (1969) – Philip K. Dick
  35. A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (1916) – James Joyce
  36. The Dog Stars (2012) – Peter Heller
  37. Eden’s Outcasts (2007) – John Matteson
  38. Aftershock (2010) – Robert B. Reich
  39. Frankenstein (1818) – Mary Shelley
  40. Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace (2012) – Kate Summerscale
  41. The Windup Girl (2009) – Paolo Bacigalupi
  42. The English Patient (1992) – Michael Ondaatje
  43. Space Cadet (1948) – Robert A. Heinlein
  44. The Worst Hard Times (2006) – Timothy Egan
  45. On the Beach (1957) – Nevil Shute
  46. Jumper (1992) – Steven Gould
  47. Behind The Beautiful Forevers (2012) – Katherine Boo
  48. Revelations  (2012) – Elaine Pagels
  49. The Wizard of Oz (1900) – L. Brank Baum

I’ve annotated this list with links to my reviews.

The last book I read in 2012 was The Wizard of Oz in anticipation of Oz the Great and Powerful that comes out in Spring 2013.

JWH – 12/19/12

Why Do I Read Science Fiction?

My friend Laurie called me today to ask, “Why do you read science fiction?”  Laurie is a professor of reading education at the university where I work and she’s writing an article on book clubs and reading.  She told me about an essay she read on why women read romance novels and she thought about me and my love of science fiction.

american-science-fiction2

That’s a good question I told her.  Why do any of us do the things we do?  If you’re a college football fanatic can you explain why?  If you’re a CPA, can you tell us about the path you took to get into that profession?

I am a lifelong science fiction fan.  I don’t like mysteries.  I don’t like thrillers.  I don’t like romance novels.  I love movie westerns but seldom read western novels.  I like science fiction movies, but they aren’t my favorite movies.  I think literary novels are the most rewarding books to read, yet I still spend most of my reading time consuming science fiction novels.  Why?

Discovering the Science Fiction Genre

I assume, as a professor that specializes in reading, Laurie wants to know how to get kids and adults involved with reading.  Maybe she assumes if she knew why bookworms want to read she could help non-readers find the books they will like.  There is some truth to this.  When I was in the third grade my teacher and parents sent me to summer school because they claimed I couldn’t read well.  My problem wasn’t reading, but what to read.

I remember going to my first summer school reading class.  It was cramped wedge shaped room, that was really a storage closet for books.  There were few places to sit.  The teacher told me to pick out a book from a twirling rack of paperbacks.  I took my time and carefully selected Up Periscope that, if I remember right, was a Scholastic paperback for kids, meaning it was probably abridged.  I started reading it.  I got into it.  As far as I can remember, the summer school teacher never gave me any lessons in reading – he just provided fun books to read.  Hell, I knew how to read.  Up till then I didn’t have anything worth reading.

up-periscope

So, starting in the fourth grade I began prowling the school library at Lake Forest Elementary in Hollywood, Florida for interesting books.  Then we moved to Homestead Air Force Base in 1961, while I was in middle of 5th grade, and my dad took me to the base library.  That’s where I discovered proto science fiction books.  During these years Alan Shepard and John Glenn made their historic flights into space.

At this time I didn’t know there was a category of books called science fiction.  As a kid growing up with television in the 1950s I saw a lot of science fiction movies and television shows.  I’d watch The Wizard of Oz every year on television.  I watched Topper and other fantasy and SF shows.  They weren’t a special genre yet.  I also loved cartoons, westerns, sitcoms and everything on TV pretty much.

patchwork girl of oz

The first books I remember discovering at the Air Force Base Library were the Oz books, and one of my favorites was The Patchwork Girl of Oz.  I read all the Baum titles, but didn’t like the Thompson books that were written after Baum died.  I then switched to Danny Dunn, Tom Swift, Tom Swift, Jr. and Hardy Boys books.  I still didn’t know there was a genre called science fiction.  My reading was unguided, but it was shaped by the books in the library.  I guess access to books is a big factor.

dannydunn

In the sixth grade, my teacher Mrs. Saunders read us books after lunch, and she got me hooked on A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.  I think that got me to realize that there were far out books that weren’t part of a children’s book series.  I remember going up and down the shelves at school looking for books that had space ships on the cover.  There weren’t that many.  I found Jules Verne and H. G. Wells this way though, but still didn’t realize there was a category of books called science fiction.

I suppose if Laurie knew exactly what book to give a potential reader she could capture them for life.  But how does she know what book?  Maybe that’s what her article will be about.

a-wrinkle-in-time

When I wasn’t reading I was watching TV shows like The Twilight Zone.  It was wonderful.  Beginning in the fall of 1963, when I was starting the 7th grade, and still only 12, The Outer Limits came on.  I was addicted to it right from the start.  We moved temporarily back to Hollywood, Florida, right around the time JFK was killed, and then to rural South Carolina, where we lived out in the country and I had a 35 mile school bus trip twice a day.  During this time I got out of the reading habit.  Playing in the woods every day was more exciting, but I still discovered Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Time Machine and Dolphin Island by Arthur C. Clarke that year.

This is another clue.  I’ve always read less when I had more exciting things to do.  If you want to hook people on books, get them to read when there’s not much to do.

Then in the second half of 1964 we returned to Florida, and I started 8th grade at Homestead Junior High where I had a very special English teacher.  I wish I could remember her name, but she had one teaching technique that changed my life.  She offered to raise any student’s grade one letter if they’d read 6 books, 6 magazine articles and 6 newspaper articles each 6 week period and write a report on them.  And she provided a list of approved authors.  On that list was Robert A. Heinlein, so I read The Red Planet for the first of many times.  I wanted more Heinlein and rode my bicycle over to the Air Base Library and asked the librarian about Heinlein.  The airman took me to the adult side of the library and showed me the science fiction section, which contained dozens of Heinlein novels.

This is when it all fell into place and I finally discovered a category of novels called science fiction.  I had finally found my genre.  Some people will read anything, and other people like to stick to what they like.  How can you interview a person and quickly determine their genre?

The Importance of Teachers and Libraries

You will notice in the above narrative that three teachers played a very important role in helping me to discover science fiction.  First, the summer school reading teacher, second Mrs. Saunders my 6th grade English teacher, and finally my name forgotten 8th grade English teacher.  Later on my 12th grade English would turn me onto literary books like A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, The Stranger, Catcher in the Rye,  etc.  None of these teachers told me to read science fiction.  They just presented a selection of great books and I responded to the ones that resonated with my soul.

Another factor in this narrative is libraries.  I have very fond memories of libraries, especially the Homestead Air Force Base Library – it’s legendary in my memories.  I needed libraries until I could earn my own money and go to bookstores.  When I got my first punch the clock job at 16, I bought the 12 Heinlein juveniles directly from the publishers with my first paycheck.  I was so hooked on reading at a young age that books were my primary form of entertainment.  I’m not sure that can be quickly instilled in a grown person.

But Does This Answer Laurie’s Question?

My history so far explains how I discovered certain books, but it doesn’t explain why I wanted to read them in the first place.  I loved my childhood, and I’m very nostalgic about growing up, but I had alcoholic parents and we moved around an awful lot.  I went to a lot of different schools.  If we play the home shrink self-examination game I have to figure I read books to escape a stressful environment.   So why science fiction?

I was born in 1951, and Sputnik was launched when I was in 1st grade.  We landed on the Moon the summer I finished the 12th grade.  Alan Shepard took his 15 minute flight into history when I was in the 4th grade.  I grew up with NASA and my formative school years covered Project Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.  I was influenced by NASA, rock and roll, television and movies.  The undercurrent of the 1960s was all about the future and revolutionary social change.  How science fiction is that?

As a little kid I couldn’t buy into religion.  I didn’t believe in heaven, but wished to go to outer space.  I didn’t believe in God, but thought wise aliens might come down from the skies.  I didn’t believe in life after death, but life extension might be possible.  Science fiction promised a future reality that seemed far more real than the religion of the older generations.

Making Friends with Other Science Fiction Fans

Because my family moved around so much I got good at making friends, and I always found a best friend quickly.  The quality I looked for most in a friend was the love of science fiction.  I told Laurie if she wanted to understand this aspect of becoming a science fiction bookworm then all she needed to do was read Among Others by Jo Walton.  There’s a reason why Among Others has won all the science fiction and fantasy awards – it speaks to my kind.  Laurie, maybe you can hook people on books if you can find what books friends will read together?

among others

Why Do I Continue to Read Science Fiction?

To be honest, I can easily find books I like better than science fiction, but I often stick to the genre because growing up programmed me to love science fiction.  I keep reading science fiction hoping to find books that have the same sense of wonder I discovered in childhood.  I don’t often find it, but sometimes I do, like with Ready Player One by Ernest Cline or Spin by Robert Charles Wilson.

Laurie, among science fiction fans we talk about a quality that makes science fiction great:  sense of wonder.  I grew up in an age of wonders, and science fiction just happened to have more wonder than any other form of literature.  But I think science fiction represents a deeper desire.  At least for me, science fiction promised travel to far out places, to greener pastures.  It hasn’t delivered though.

To understand this very deep driving force Laurie, you’ll have to read a novella, “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany.  Follow the link to my review.  It’s a story about people facing limitations.  We’re all fish in an aquarium, poking our heads into a glass wall hoping to swim further.   It was written by a young black gay man in the middle of the 1960s and he knew about limitations and used science fiction as a metaphor to explain the crush of living with barriers.

I think “The Star Pit” is the key to understanding how to find books that people will love – it requires finding stories people will identify with at a deep emotional level.  “The Star Pit” is about a father who lost contact with his children due to alcoholism and wild living.  Years of regret later, the man hires an older teenager who is wild and unmanageable, and tries to be his mentor.  That kid is envious of an even younger teenager who is wilder still.  All three characters are tortured by what they can’t have in life.  I read this story when I was 16 and wanted far more from life than I could ever have, and “The Star Pit” made a lasting impression.

“The Star Pit” meant so much to me because I had an alcoholic father who couldn’t communicate with me, and I was a teenager who did drugs to go to far out places.  I imagined my dad as a boy wanting to be a pilot, and I was a son that wanted to go into space, and neither one of us could ever get off the ground.

What readers want is emotional, intellectual and psychological resonance.

Starting with my earliest books I picked out stories about characters going on amazing fantastic adventures.  Oz and Outer Space are otherworldly destinations that I can never reach.  The reason why I loved “The Star Pit” at 16 is it helped me realize I’ll never get where I want to go and I have to learn to accept that.  I knew my father, because of his drinking, failed to learn that.

Science fiction is a substitute for all the places I’ll never reach in this life.

JWH – 11/13/12