2017 Year in Reading

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, December 30, 2017

This is my year of reading less. I only read 36 books in 2017, down from 55 last year. Two factors came into play causing me to read less. One is related to aging, and that was totally unexpected. I just can’t read for hours and hours like I used to when I was young. Partly, I have other things I want to do more, and partly because of a diminished ability to concentrate. I also read less because I chose to read less in 2017. I made the conscious decision to stop reading any book where I lost interest. I use to power through so I could add the title to my books read list. (See “Year in Reading” for my past summaries.)

I decided it’s silly to judge my reading by quantity. For decades I’ve loved increasing my yearly books read count like some folks love to brag about how many miles per gallon their car gets. At one point this year I got within 15 pages of finishing a 300-page book when I decided to quit reading. I realized I was pushing myself through the book just so I could add it to the year’s books read count. I returned it to the library.

Book of the Year 2017

Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen

I read some impressive books this year, both fiction and nonfiction, but Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen stood out. Of course, 2017 was the year of Donald Trump and Fantasyland did more than anything I read to explain that insanity. Just that fact pushed Andersen’s book to the top of my list. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg also worked well to explain the nastiness of 2017.

Two other nonfiction books stood out as powerful reads, An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back by Elisabeth Rosenthal and In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi. I couldn’t get any of my friends interested in a book about healthcare costs, but it was fascinating. The Faludi book was a memoir about her learning her estranged father had become a woman and had moved to Budapest. On the surface, the book appears to be about transgenderism, but I found it fascinating because it was about identity in general. It also compared right-wing politics in Hungary to alt-right America, and that was very revealing for 2017.

Best Novel Read This Year

Love-in-the-Time-of-Cholera

I read Love in the Time of Cholera for a book club. I’ve owned it for years. It was one of those books I’ve always thought I should read. I’m still not sure what to make of it. It’s large and complex and I will probably need to read it a couple more times before I start to understand Gabriel García Márquez intent for his story.

My 19th-century novel this year was Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy. Even though this story was mostly philosophizing about how to turn the United States into a utopia it was a compelling read. I can understand why it was the #3 bestseller in America for the 1800s. It’s a shame that science fiction and society has given up on utopias, favoring dystopias instead. Pessimism prevails.

I only read 15 novels this year (and a few short story collections). I’m slowly switching to reading more nonfiction. My goal in recent years for fiction is to go for quality over quantity. I can’t say that most of the novels I read this year were great literary works, but they meant something to me. Anne of Green Gables was a pleasant surprise. I read it because I enjoyed Anne With An E so much on Netflix. I reread Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg and I’m still very impressed. I believe it’s a forgotten classic of science fiction. I read two novels by John Wyndham this year, both were entertaining. They made me realize I like cozy science fiction.

The two most well known 2017 science fiction novels I read, New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson and Artemis by Andy Weir, were sharp contrasts in speculation. Both were page-turners, but I admired Robinson for his extrapolation and I was horrified by what Weir imagined for a lunar colony. I hated that Weir’s protagonist was a smuggler and saboteur. Jazz deserved to be thrown out the airlock without a spacesuit for her deeds. Basically, my reaction to Artemis was the revulsion of Republican cut-throat capitalism would be replicated on the Moon. Weir might be realistic, but I hope we can design better societies the Moon and Mars than we what have on Earth. If we’re just going to spread our cancerous ways to other planets I’d rather let robots have the final frontier.

I started the Bobiverse trilogy with great enthusiasm, but once again I learned that I just don’t like trilogies. We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor is a really fun science fiction story, full of recursive science fiction referencing. And even though the second and third books in the series continued to be fun, the novelty of the story wore off. I know trilogies are loved by SF fans, but I love science fiction for its ideas. Trilogies and series generally take the same idea and work it to death. (Personally, I think trilogies and series are the Big Macs and Fries of publishing.)

Best Science Fiction Read This Year

Arcadia by Iain Pears

Arcadia by Iain Pears is a 2015 novel that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. I don’t want to say too much about the story because I don’t want to spoil any of its cleverness. Let’s just say Pears combined fantasy, science fiction, meta-fiction, philosophy, religion, myths, and literary allusions into one complex plot. There’s even an app version which allows readers to choose their path through the plot. Arcadia would make a terrific movie. Arcadia is a very British novel about novel writing. If you loved The Golden Compass or Cloud Atlas I’d think you’ll love Arcadia. However, Arcadia is weak when it comes to psychological substance. It’s fun but not deep.

Books Read 2017

Leslie M. M. Blume Everybody Behaved Badly 2017-01-07 Audible 2016
Margot Lee Shetterly Hidden Figures 2017-01-27 Kindle ebook 2016
Nancy Isenberg White Trash 2017-01-27 Audible 2016
Mary Karr The Art of Memoir 2017-02-02 Audible 2015
Angela Duckworth Grit 2017-02-08 Library hardback 2016
Joshua Becker The More of Less 2017-02-11 Audible 2016
Bernd Heinrich One Wild Bird at a Time 2017-02-18 Audible 2016
H. Beam Piper Little Fuzzy 2017-02-19 Kindle ebook 1962
Fredrik Backman A Man Called Ove 2017-02-28 Audible 2013
Charles Wohlforth, Amanda Hendrix Beyond Earth 2017-03-07 Audible 2016
Kim Stanley Robinson New York 2140 2017-03-30 Audible 2017
Robert A. Heinlein Have Space Suit – Will Travel 2017-04-30 Audible 1958
John Wyndham The Chrysalids 2017-05-12 Audible 1955
Kathleen Tessaro The Perfume Collector 2017-05-18 Trade paper 2013
Olaf Stapledon Star Maker 2017-06-22 Audible 1937
Yuval Noah Harari Homo Deus 2017-06-30 Audible 2017
Philip K. Dick The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick Volume 2 2017-07-17 Audible 1983
Dennis E. Taylor We Are Legion (We Are Bob) 2017-07-21 Audible 2016
Dennis E. Taylor For We Are Many 2017-07-27 Audible 2017
L. M. Montgomery Anne of Green Gables 2017-08-10 Audible 1908
Gabriel García Márquez Love in the Time of Cholera 2017-08-17 Audible 1985
Robert Silverberg Downward to the Earth 2017-08-26 Downpour 1970
Susan Faludi In the Darkroom 2017-08-30 Kindle ebook 2016
Robert Sheckley Untouched by Human Hands 2017-09-15 Downpour 1954
Mark O’Connell To Be A Machine 2017-09-22 Hardback 2017
Elisabeth Rosenthal An American Sickness 2017-10-04 Kindle ebook 2017
Allan Kaster The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 2017-10-04 Audible 2017
Al Franken Giant of the Senate 2017-10-11 Audible 2017
Michael Sims editor Frankenstein Dreams 2017-10-23 Audible 2017
John Wyndham Chocky 2017-10-25 Audible 1968
Robert A. Heinlein Expanded Universe 2017-10-26 Downpour 1980
Kurt Andersen Fantasyland 2017-11-08 Audible 2017
Edward Bellamy Looking Backward 2017-11-15 Audible 1888
Andy Weir Artemis 2017-11-24 Audible 2017
Dennis E. Taylor All These Worlds 2017-11-30 Audible 2017
Iain Pears Arcadia 2017-12-31 Audible 2015

Reading Goals for 2018

I really enjoy discovering relevant nonfiction books like Fantasyland or An American Sickness that explain contemporary issues, so I want to keep reading more new books as they come out during the year. I read eleven 2017 books in 2017. I think I’ll aim for one new book a month.

I also want to read more quality literary novels. I’m not sure how many I can handle though, so let’s aim for three to six next year.

Even though I feel like I read too much science fiction I still enjoy it. I like discovering both new and old SF novels. But I hope to keep my obsession in check and read only six to twelve of them in 2018. One science fiction book a month at most is enough I think.

This is what I wrote for my goal last year: “My goal for 2017 is to try and read more nonfiction, especially new books. I’m not going to worry about how many works of fiction I read, but I do want to work harder at finding the best fiction possible. I also want to stop reading mediocre books.” I think I’ve done fairly well. I probably should have quit the Taylor trilogy after the first book, and stopped reading Artemis after I realized I disliked it. I kept reading hoping Weir would redeem Jazz in some way, but he just kept making her a worse person.

My reading goals for 2018 is to read with more conscious intent and to get more out of what I read. I also hope to buy far fewer books. I have a nasty book-buying habit. I tend to buy 10-15 for every one I read. I want to stop that.

JWH

 

 

Looking Forwards v. Looking Backwards

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Do you read books about the past, or about now, or the future?

Our Nig by Harriet WilsonThis morning I started work on an essay about African-American fiction in the 19th century. It began with a question that had popped into my head: “Who was the first black novelist in our country?” This kind of fun sleuthing on the internet inspires me to write essays. I quickly came across articles about how Henry Louis Gates, Jr. had discovered a long forgotten book in the early 1980s called Our Nig; or, Sketches From the Life of a Free Black (1859) by Harriet Wilson. That made me want to research a number of other things. Have earlier novels been uncovered since? What were the second, third, fourth, fifth novels? What about short stories? Were any bestsellers in their day. Before long I realized I could spend weeks on this project.

Men-Into-SpaceI usually think of several ideas a day for researching and writing. I start work on just a fraction of these ideas, and complete work on damn few. Another idea I got yesterday was to write about Men Into Space, a one-season TV show of 38-episodes (1959-60) that worked to be very realistic about space flight. A lady in my online book club mentioned it and I was surprised I hadn’t known about it before now. It’s not available on DVD except as DVD-R sales through places like eBay (because it’s in the public domain). It is available to watch online at YouTube. However, I did find a book, Men Into Space by John C. Fredriksen that extensively writes about the series. I’d love to write a book like this – if I could focus my mind for a year or two.

The Spacesuit Film - A History 1918-1969 by Gary WestfahlWhile researching Men Into Space I came across another book The Spacesuit Film: A History 1918-1969 by Gary Westfahl that covered Men Into Space as well as other movies and television shows that prefigured the space age. Hell, this exactly the kind of book I’d love to write too. But can you imagine the time it would take? But wouldn’t it be fun to watch all those old movies and television shows analyzing them for how they imagined the future? However, how many people read such books? I want to, but the $39.95 price for the paperback stops me. Even the $19.99 price for the Kindle edition is making me think long and hard.

This suggests another idea for researching. How many people buy and read these esoteric kinds of history books? How many people love to study tiny segments of forgotten history? I have this nagging desire to write something longer than blog essays. This month was supposed to be the month I began a book-length project. And I did start on an idea, but once again got side-tracked by too many distractions. But I’m back to focusing my mind on the project.

I have to ask myself, who is going to read what I write and why? Why spend a year, or several, writing something few people will want to read? It occurred to me this morning I could divide books into three categories: about the past, about the present, about the future. This is true for both fiction and nonfiction.

To Be A Machine by Mark O'ConnellI’ve always loved science fiction, which is future-oriented. But when I think about writing about science fiction, that’s past-oriented. Because I write for Book Riot, I can also write about contemporary publishing. I even think about writing books like To Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death by Mark O’Connell, which is essentially about how science fiction is affecting our world today.

I also came across this pledge drive for Farah Mendlesohn yesterday. She is writing a book about Robert A. Heinlein and is looking for backers. She’s gotten 143 supportors so far. This is also exactly the kind of book I’d love to write – but is that the rough number of people who would be interested in reading it?

I’m now worrying that I’m spending too much time thinking about the past. Is that because I’m getting older and it’s natural for aging folks to analyze yesterday? I assume that many people who like my blog do so because they are somewhat like me – they are older and thinking about when they grew up, and we all loved some of the same things.

I believe my less popular essays at Book Riot are due to writing about topics that bore their demographic readership, which tilts young and female. This makes me wonder if I should accept that I like to write about things that appeal to a subset of aging baby boomers, or if I should work to write about topics that have a wider appeal across different age groups.

My guess is writing about contemporary subjects or about the future has more universal appeal. I wonder if writing about today or tomorrow isn’t more psychologically positive for both me and readers. But I’m so fascinated by the past, especially esoteric subjects.

I’m currently reading The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman about Paul Erdős, a brilliant mathematician, and The Five Gospels, about the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who work to figure out what the historical Jesus actually said. Both of these books are intensely fascinating. Both of these books are about the past and have little relevance to today or tomorrow.

I have to wonder if I’ve given up on tomorrow because I don’t have much hope for the future, either for myself, or the planet, and I’m finding pleasure and meaning by exploring the past.

I’ve always loved science fiction but when I read science fiction today I’m usually very critical of works that are based on unrealistic ideas. I don’t believe in all those far out futures like I used to. As a writing challenge maybe I should work to write about positive futures that could be realistic, ones we can hope to find. Yet, my most popular essay ever is, “50 Reasons Why Humans Are Too Stupid To Survive.” Gloom and doom does sell. Hell, the TV shows my friends and I binge-watch focus on awful people and horrible events.

Writing is about focus. Writing a book is about intense focus over a great time span. I’m wondering if choosing to write about the past isn’t a way of escaping the present or future? I also wonder if writing about the future isn’t a way to give myself hope for tomorrow?

Maybe you can’t relate to this topic because it’s about writing. Think of it this way. Do you love watching old movies and television shows, or new ones? Do you listen to old music or new music? If you’re mentally young, no matter what your age is, you’ll be enjoying whatever is new.

I’m being more and more drawn into the past. 1950s movie westerns, mid-20th-century written science fiction, 1960s romantic movie comedies, 19th-century novels, 1950s jazz, 1940s film noir, 1920s modernistic literature, Victorian scientific romances, etc. Growing up, I always thought about the future…

JWH

 

Books To Read To Save The World

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 15, 2015

  • We will destroy civilization before the end of the century.
  • Denying science is denying reality.
  • Denying evidence for personal gain is treason to our species
  • Greed is destroying all the species on this planet including our own.
  • Self-interest is leading to species suicide.
  • We have the knowledge and technology to solve our problems.
  • We must change the way we live to save the planet.
  • Human nature is too stupid to survive free market capitalism.
  • We will not save the world just by buying LED light bulbs and driving electric cars.
  • Reading books will not save the Earth, but it will help understand the complexity of the problems we face.
  • Reading these books can be depressing.
  • Not reading these books only makes our problems worse.
  • Read and recommend books that help us understand the reality of your actions.
  • We can only divert the collapse of civilization if we find a new sustainable way to live.
  • Read ten books before deciding if I’m wrong.
  • Read another ten to begin to find hope.

If you know of other good books, recommend them in the comment section.

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? by Alan Weisman

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene by Roy Scranton

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty

The Rise and Fall of American Growth by Robert J. Gordon

Energy and Civilization: A History by Vaclav Smil

How Will Capitalism End? by Wolfgang Streeck

EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet by The Worldwatch Institute

Climate of Hope by Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope

The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea by Jack E. Davis

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan

Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild

White Trash: The 400-Year Untol History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisis Coaste

Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein

Sex Object by Jessica Valenti

Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few by Robert B. Reich

Dark Money by Jane Mayer

Getting to Green: Saving Nature – A Bipartisan Solution by Frederic C. Rich

The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World by Paul Gilding

Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean

Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life by David R. Montgomery

The Carbon Farming Solution by Eric Toensmeier

Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans De Waal

Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life by Edward O. Wilson

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

No Is Not Enough by Naomi Klein

The Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea by Callum Roberts

Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization by Steven Solomon

Climate Change and the Health of Nations by Anthony J. McMichael

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by by Jared Diamond

JWH

How Much Can We Learn About the World Traveling by Books?

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, February 21, 2015

Ann Morgan has a new book out in England, Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer, due out in America May 4th, as The World Between Two Covers: Reading The Globe. Her book is based on her blog, A Year of Reading the World, where she created a reading challenge to read one book from each of the 196 countries. Here are the books she read. Now, don’t expect her book to be a retelling of the web posts, as she points out in her blog. It’s about the experience of the project.

worldbetweentwocoversreading-the-world

I’ve often thought of doing something like this. Like Ann Morgan, 99.9% of my reading comes from The United States, Canada, Australia or Great Britain. I’ve encountered this project before, over at A Striped Armchair, where super-bookworm Eva routinely reads books from around the world. It’s an inherently fascinating reading challenge, but as the review at the Telegraph points out, it’s full of flaws. How much would non-English speaking people learn about America from reading Jonathan Franzen or Philip Roth? Of course, Morgan wasn’t seeking a course in geography, but getting a sampling of the global literary landscape.

But what if we were trying to get a big picture of what life on planet Earth was like? What if you read 196 nonfiction books about all the countries of the world, wouldn’t that be a fascinating education? I just read Deep Down Dark by Héctor Tobar, about the Chilean mining disaster, but I really didn’t learn much about Chile. Some, but not much. I know lots of travelers who believe you have to visit a country to know it, but I’m not sure if that’s true either, not in the complete sense I’m talking about. Seeing the airport, a few tourist destinations, hotels and restaurants, doesn’t really tell you about the history, politics, social structures, economics, and on on. What about the news? I’ve been seeing a lot about Egypt in the news for the last couple of years, but hasn’t taught me much about the country either.

Ann Morgan set aside a year to learn about the world by reading novels. That’s very impressive, but more work than I want to commit to. I don’t even want to read 196 nonfiction books about the countries of the world. However, I wonder if I could tour the world in a year by watching documentaries? I’d have to watch four a week for a year, and that’s fairly reasonable. I wonder if Netflix has one on every country? Or would I even need to do that? What if I just read the Wikipedia entry for a country each night? Look at this one for Afghanistan. It’s incredibly informative. It’s so interesting, it makes me want to read a book about the country and watch documentaries, especially about its Paleolithic and Neolithic times. Of course, this makes me think I should just become a regular reader of National Geographic.

This concept of getting to know the world through books, either fiction or nonfiction, is a wonderful idea to think about. Here’s a list of countries at Wikipedia, it will give you the scope of the project. Even if you don’t start reading books, reading a Wikipedia article about a country now and then off your smartphone could be an excellent way to virtually travel the world.

JWH

The Best Nonfiction of 2014–Collected Lists

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, February 10, 2015

I’m in two nonfiction book clubs. One is online, and one is face-to-face. Between the two, I’m introduced to twenty-four books I would not normally read, and my reading life has become much more exciting over the last few years. Both book clubs have a nomination process where recommended titles must jockey for votes. Both clubs have about a dozen or so members, and it’s rather hard to find books that will appeal to so many people, and even more, get that many people to actually read. Every once in a while, we’ll pick a book everyone absolutely loves, like The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. On average, if we’re lucky, we’ll pick books that at least half the people like.

It’s easy to find books to nominate, but hard to find willing agreement. I generally try to nominate books that have least a 100 reviews at Amazon. The Warmth of Other Suns has 1,297 reviews, with an average rating of 4.7. It turned out to be the highest rated book at my online book club.

One technique I use to scout for possible nominations is to read all the best-of-the-year booklists. If I see a book that’s on many of the lists, I figure it’s a book that’s both good and appealing to wide range of readers. Here are the lists for 2014:

I wished these sites would make a nice printable version of their yearly recommendations so it would be easy to take to the book club and pass around. Even better, I wish some enterprising web site would collate all the lists and make a meta-list of the most recommended books. I could do that, but it’s just too much work. What I end up doing is eyeballing the lists and going from memory which books I see over and over again. These nineteen books were the ones I saw the most, and were on at least 5-10 lists.

Age of AmbitionsBook Review-Bad FeministBeing Mortal

Capital_in_the_Twenty-First_Century_(front_cover)Deep Down Dark - Hector TobarFactory Man - Beth Macy

How_We_Got_to_Nowin the kingdom of iceinnovators

Little FailureMan Alive McBeeOn Immunity.JPG

Sixth-extinction-nonfiction-book-kobertSoldier GirlsThe Empathy Exams

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace - Jeff HobbsThe True AmericanThirteen Days in September

This-Changes-Everything-Capitalism-vs.-The-Climate

JWH

The Shelf Life of Nonfiction

I buy books faster than I can read them, and some books go stale before I get around to consuming them.  Fiction is often timeless, but for nonfiction, most books have a shelf life.  A ten to twenty year old science book is usually not worth reading.  Books about politics and economics go bad even quicker.  And books about current events and pop culture have practically no shelf life at all.

Yesterday I started reading Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas From the Computer Age by Paul Graham, published in 2004.  When this book came out, the back of the dust cover had seven high praising blurbs, but I think time has tarnished the luster of its big ideas.  I’m not singling out Paul Graham for criticism, but using his book as an example of what time does to nonfiction, and to compare it to how fiction holds up better over time.

Hackers_&_Painters

For example Graham writes about nerds and geeks and speculates on the nature of popularity and how it appears that being smart is a good thing before and after high school, but not during.  Eight years later, this essay seems dated because the topic has been well covered since.  However, when I think of great stories about nerds and geeks, I think of King Dork, a 2006 book by Frank Portman, Sixteen Candles, a John Hughes film from 1984, and Freaks and Geeks, a TV show from the 1999-2000 season.  Graham’s nonfiction essay has few reporting details, other than some vague personal memories.  Graham was abstractly talking about the reputation of being smart among high school students, and if you were clued into his message it might have felt insightful in 2004.  It doesn’t in 2013.

Most of the essays are still somewhat appealing, but were probably much fresher as blog or magazine pieces at the time.  You can read them here, and in particular, “Why Nerds are Unpopular.”  I think the fictional accounts I mention above clearly show why nerds are unpopular, and these art forms have lasting power.  Now, this isn’t meant to criticize Graham’s essays.  I write the same kind of essays myself for this blog, and I often wonder if my ideas wouldn’t be better presented as fiction.  Social commentary often works better shown not told.

I wonder if 1981’s The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder would hold up to rereading today?  It won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize in 1982.  Tracy used an abundance of actual details, and reported on the lives of engineers designing the Data General Eclipse MV/8000 minicomputer.  No one cares about that minicomputer today.  I found the book riveting at the time, but would I now?  Readers today might care about the history of the subculture that built it, but it would be an esoteric read.  I need to get a copy of The Soul of a New Machine and reread it to see how well it holds up 30+ years later.   Few people will ever read The Soul of a New Machine today, but many will keep watching movies like The Social Network (2010) long into the future.

Sure, some nonfiction books do have lasting power.  People still read On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin from 1859 and Walden; or, Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau from 1854.  Would more people understand these books if they were made into movies?

When I pulled Hackers & Painters off the shelf to read last week, I also pulled Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America’s Soul (2007) by Edward Humes, Off the Planet: Surviving Five Perilous Months Aboard the Space Station Mir (1999) by Jerry M. Linenger, and Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930 (1931) by Edmund Wilson.  The Wilson book is the most famous, but only known to literary theory historians probably.

These books are all worth reading, but do they really hold up?  Off the Planet offers the gritty details of being an astronaut and is far more realistic than any science fiction book.  And think about that.  Few people read about real space travel, and millions embrace highly unbelievable space opera in books, comics and movies.  For the most part people just prefer fiction to fact.

Monkey Girl is a serious book.  It’s an important book.  It’s about the teaching of evolution in schools and the legal actions against it.  A subject always in the news.  Monkey Girl is brilliant reporting on reality, with thousands of details and ideas to chew on.  I think that’s a clue to the success of nonfiction lasting.  Nonfiction must report details, not speculation.  A book like Eden’s Outcast, John Matteson’s 2007 biography of Louisa May Alcott and her father Bronson Alcott is timeless – until another biographer puts in more work that overshadows it.

I’m slowly moving from being a fiction bookworm to a nonfiction bookworm.  We’ve always cherished and judged great novels as art, but I think we need to apply the same attention to nonfiction.  Most nonfiction published is no more lasting than a newspaper, but some nonfiction books do have a long shelf life and we need to consider them as art too.

Yet, why does fiction have so much more lasting power than nonfiction?  I’m reading South Wind by Paul Douglas, a fictionalize account of British expats living on the island of Capri published in 1971.  Would a nonfiction travel book written at the time be more informative?  Before that I read Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick, a fictionalize account of 1959 life in Marin County, California.  I found it totally compelling.

What does fiction have that nonfiction doesn’t to make it enduring?  How is it we often find fiction more educational about the past than nonfiction books?

Writing nonfiction that’s powerful and lasting, should contain an abundance of facts that our collective soul won’t want to forget.  Either from research or reporting, nonfiction that’s as powerful as fiction must contain an overwhelming collection of vivid details about life in another time.  Strangely enough, it’s the accumulation of significant creative details that make fiction powerful.  Fiction can be lies that last for centuries.  Few nonfiction books last very long.  They are always superseded by books with better facts, but some nonfiction books do last.  We need to identify and think about them.

Here is Modern Library’s 100 Best Nonfiction Books.  There are many wonderful books on this list, but most of them just don’t convey the concept of classics to me.  I’ve only read nine of them, and read parts of a few others.  I often reread great fictional novels, but rarely reread a nonfiction book.  Why?

That’s another kind of shelf life.  I keep my favorite novels, but I give away the nonfiction I admire.

JWH – 1/22/13