Best Novels of the Decade Lists Collected

I recently noticed sites making lists of the best novels of the decade, so I decided to see if combining the lists would show which novels were standouts and try to read them. The pictured novels above are the books I have read and loved most from the lists below. I don’t read many mainstream literary novels, just six from these five lists. Maybe I should try to expand my reading mind and try more different books. I imagine a steady diet of science fiction is warping my sense of reality.

These are the five lists:

I only used Paste’s top 20 books to keep the focus tight. It’s worth following these links to read about the various titles.

This first group, are novels on more than one list. A Visit from the Goon Squad made it to 3 of the 5 lists. I guess I really need to read that one. Life After Life was also on three lists, and I have read it. It’s quite impressive. All of these books are ones I’ve seen on many lists over the years, so the consensus of fans makes me think I should give them a try.

These books are in no order. * = read and – = bought but not read

  • A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) by Jennifer Egan (EW, LitHub, Time)
  • Life After Life (2012) by Kate Atkinson (EW, Paste, Time) *
  • The Flamethrowers (2012) by Rachel Kushner (EW, LitHub)
  • Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017) by Jesmyn Ward (EW, Time, Paste)
  • My Brilliant Friend (2011) by Elena Ferrante (Esquire, Time) –
  • The Sympathizer (2015) by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Esquire, LitHub)
  • The Underground Railroad (2016) by Colson Whitehead (LitHub, Paste)
  • Fates and Furies (2015) by Lauren Groff (EW, Paste)
  • Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) by George Saunders (Esquire, Paste) *
  • Swamplandia! (2011) by Karen Russell (Esquire, Paste)
  • The Fifth Season (2015) by N. K. Jemisin (LitHub, Paste) –
  • Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel (EW, Paste) *
  • Little Fires Everywhere (2017) Celeste Ng (Time, Paste)

These books only made it to one of the five lists. They are probably great books to some people, but I feel less of an urge to try them over the above group. However, I thought The Overstory was fantastic and wondered why it didn’t make it to more lists.

  • Exit West (2017) by Mohsin Hamid (EW)
  • Commonwealth (2016) by Ann Patchett (EW)
  • A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014) by Marlon James (EW)
  • Normal People (2019) by Sally Rooney (EW)
  • Gone Girl (2012) by Gillian Flynn (Time)
  • Americanah (2013) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Time) –
  • Tenth of December (2013) by George Saunders (Time) –
  • The Sellout (2015) by Paul Beatty (Time)
  • The Nickel Boys (2019) by Colson Whitehead (Time)
  • There There (2018) by Tommy Orange (Esquire)
  • Less (2017) by Andrew Sean Greer (Esquire)
  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet (2010) by David Mitchell (LitHub)
  • Train Dreams (2011) by Denis Johnson (LitHub)
  • The Buddha in the Attic (2011) by Julie Otsuka (LitHub)
  • The Tiger’s Wife (2011) by Téa Obreht (LitHub)
  • Salvage the Bones (2011) by Jesmyn Ward (LitHub)
  • All My Puny Sorrows (2014) by Miriam Toews (LitHub)
  • Dept. of Speculation (2014) by Jenny Offill (LitHub)
  • The Sellout (2015) by Paul Beatty (LitHub)
  • A Little Life (2015) by Hanya Yanagihara (LitHub)
  • Outline (2015) by Rachel Cusk (LitHub)
  • Imagine Me Gone (2016) by Adam Haslett (LitHub)
  • The Overstory (2018) by Richard Powers (LitHub) *
  • In the Distance (2018) by Hernan Diaz (LitHub)
  • Trust Exercise (2019) by Susan Choi (LitHub)
  • Milkman (2019) by Anna Burns (LitHub)
  • Circe (2018) by Madeline Miller (Paste)
  • Homecoming (2016) by Yaa Gyasi (Paste)
  • The Leavers (2017) by Lisa Ko (Paste)
  • The Way of Kings (2010) by Brandon Sanders (Paste)
  • Wolf in White Van (2014) by John Darnielle (Paste)
  • The Water Dancer (2019) by Ta-Nehisis Coates (Paste)
  • The Goldfinch (2013) by Donna Tartt (Paste) *
  • The Night Circus (2011) by Erin Morgenster (Paste)
  • Family Life (2014) by Akhil Sharma (Paste)
  • Swing Time (2016) by Zadie Smith (Paste) *
  • The Wise Man’s Fear (2011) by Patrick Rothfuss (Paste)

If you’ve read any of these books and can recommend them, leave a comment.

JWH

Deception, Self-Deception, Confabulation, Bullshit, Narrative Fallacy, Dunning-Kruger Effect, and Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, November 23, 2019

I’ve been studying Plato. Plato is good for the soul but hard on the ego. Humans often lack the ability to distinguish fact from fiction. Our superpower is self-deception. As children, we are told stories that we desperately cling to for the rest of our lives. We adapt to reality by making up explanations that usually end up being fictional. And when our stories clash with reality, the odds are we embrace the story. We aren’t rational. We are rationalizing creatures. We seek what we want by lying to ourselves and the people around us.

Anyone who follows the news knows this.

If a noise wakes us up in the middle of the night we don’t rush outside to investigate it. We start making up explanations trying to imagine what the noise could be. We tell ourselves its a burglar. Or if we’ve seen a raccoon lately, we’ll say to ourselves that Rocky is in the garbage can. Or its the wind, or a fallen tree limb. We can’t help ourselves. Instead of saying we don’t know we imagine that we do. Generally, we imagine wrong.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb called this tendency the narrative fallacy in his book The Black Swan. Neuroscientists call it confabulation. As children, we ask how the world was created and our parents tell us answers to the best of their abilities. How we are raised determines a lot of what we believe. If you were brought up a Southern Baptist more than likely their ideas about God are what you’ll believe for the rest of your life. However, if you were kidnapped at birth and given to a Muslim family in Saudi Arabia you’d grow up believing their local variation of the origin story.

Psychologists and philosophers talk about deception and self-deception. We like to think this problem belongs to other people. Our intuition tells us we’re right. We feel right. But are we?

We want to believe what we learn growing up is the truth. Few people are intellectual rebels that reject their upbringing. Not only will you maintain your beliefs, but you will also rationalize and lie to defend those beliefs.

A good percentage of humans learn to lie to get what they want. Conscious lying sometimes involves knowing the truth but working to suppress it. Liars are different from bullshitters. To a degree, liars are conscious of their lying. Bullshitters, as defined by Harry G. Frankfurt in his philosophical essay “On Bullshit” often don’t know they are lying, or even know what is true. Their grasp of reality is usually tenuous. They have told so many lies they don’t know what’s true anymore, but they have learned they can say anything to get what they want. Their concept of reality is so fluid that it changes from moment to moment.

The trouble is we bullshit ourselves all the time. We are especially dangerous to ourselves and others when we think we know more than we do. This is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. People who suffer from this cognitive ailment are clueless about their own lack of knowledge. They firmly believe they are smart and wise.

We have so many built-in brain functions for fooling ourselves that I have to wonder if it’s even possible to know the truth if it came up and tapped us on the shoulder.

Most people dismiss philosophy as abstract useless wordplay. I just finished reading Plato in the Googleplex by Rebecca Goldstein and I’ve developed a new respect for Plato and philosophy. Goldstein came up with a very clever gimmick for presenting Plato’s philosophy. She imagines him alive today going on a book tour in America. She has his ancient words respond to our modern conundrums by fictionalizing Plato in different settings arguing with people of varying beliefs. I really recommend listening to this book on audio because these discussions are quite dramatic and effective. When Plato goes on a conservative talk radio show it’s hilarious. But I think my favorite encounter was between Plato and a neuroscientist who was going to scan his brain. The section where he’s on a panel with two opposing authors dealing with education was also quite brilliant.

However, the gist of Plato at the Googleplex is to question what we know and think we know. I’ve been lucky to be the kind of person that’s usually gone against the current, but I realized in later years my skepticism has not always protected me from bullshit. I’m acquiring new levels of doubt as I age realizing my own persistent gullibility.

For example, as a life-long science fiction fan, I’ve had high hopes for the future. I realize now that many of my cherished science-fictional beliefs are no better than what the faithful believe about God, Heaven, angels, and life-after-death.

And there is one cherished concept I have to reevaluate. I’ve always believed that humans would one day overcome their problems with confabulation. 2,400 years ago Plato concluded that only a small percentage of humans would ever be able to tell shit from Shinola.  He felt only a few could ever understand what philosophy teaches. I’ve always wanted to assume that we’re evolving, our knowledge is growing, and our abilities to educate are improving, so eventually, that percentage would be much greater.

That belief might be self-deception. But it might not.

We have to honestly ask ourselves can philosophy be integrated into the PreK-12 educational system so the majority of the population understands their problem with confabulation? This is to assume we can be totally different from who we are now as a species. Are we hardwired so we can’t change, or are we adaptable to change if we can find the right educational path?

This experiment would require raising a generation without fiction. That includes both God and Harry Potter. No Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus. We’d have to stop lying to our children, or letting them play with lies and fiction. They’d have to grow up on nonfiction and documentaries instead of fiction, television, and movies.

Children’s entertainment would be limited to sports, games without a fictional narrative component, arts, crafts, and other hobbies. When kids ask why we can only give them answers that we know. For example, if they ask why everything is here we can only answer we don’t know. If they ask who made the world, we can only answer what we know from observable cosmology and geology.

It’s too late for me. I can’t give up fiction. I love it too much. I too addicted. I should be building my own robots and programming them instead of reading science fiction about robots. I wish I was, but it’s so much easier just to dwell in fictional worlds where intelligent robots exist, or we’re colonizing the solar system, or we’re creating utopias.

Fiction offers an infinity of virtual realities we prefer over actual reality. I believe our chronic confabulation is caused by wanting reality to be different from what it is. Buddhists call that desire. Eastern religions teach we should accept reality, whereas western philosophes promote shaping reality to our needs and wants. Western thought is active, it’s all about conquering reality. When we fail we lie to ourselves. Probably we suffer from such great confabulation because we seldom get what we want. It’s easier to have romantic fantasies or watch porn than date than to actually seek out our perfect match.

I think the path lies between the East and West. We shouldn’t be completely passive in our acceptance, but we shouldn’t want absolute control either. It would be interesting to know how people think a thousand years from now. Will they have a more honest relationship with reality? There could be a good science fiction story in that, but then it would be fiction. Maybe there’s another kind of acceptance too. Maybe we have to accept that we are amazing confabulating creatures. It will be a shame when such an imaginative species goes extinct.

And I’m not excusing myself from self-delusion either. My liberal friends and I believe Republicans are only out to reduce taxes and regulations at any cost. That they are either deluded about Trump, consciously lying to get what they want, or they are confabulated by his bullshit. Anyway, they ware willing to back Trump at any cost because Trump gets them what they want.

Like I said, I’m willing to consider this a liberal narrative fallacy. I believe its possible Republicans could be seeing a truth we liberals don’t. However, their stance on climate change suggests they are blind to science. I believe scientific consensus is as close as we ever get to the truth, and I could be wrong about that too. I also know that even though I accept what science says about climate change I don’t act on their conclusions. Oh, I do a token amount, what’s convenient for my consciousness. But if climate change is real, then none of us are doing what it takes to avoid it.

Looking in the mirror and seeing who we really are is hard. That’s what Plato was all about.

JWH

 

 

3 Reasons I Want To Be An Audiophile, and 6 Reasons I Can’t

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 18, 2019

Audiophiles are obsessive creatures who try to create Nirvana on Earth by assembling the perfect sound system but frustratingly never reach paradise because they’re always seeking another allusive component that promises to be the final Holy Grail of High Fidelity. I would love to be a genuine audiophile but I just don’t have the Right Stuff to be an audionaut. (My spelling checker suggested “audio nut” for the last word, how appropo.)

Reason To Be #1 – You Really Love Music

Now you have to love music way more than the average music listener. You have to ache to hear recorded music at its fullest fidelity. Most music fans are happy to just have music on in the background of their lives. Audiophiles listen to music like they were at the theater watching a great movie or play. They don’t want any talking. It’s all about hearing music with 100% concentration. But it’s even more than that. You also want to know everything about the music, how it was created artistically and technically, and how it fits into the history of music in general. Audiophiles become scholars of music.

Reason Not To Be #1 – Requires Loving Music Too Much

The love of how the music was made or how it could be played back becomes so obsessive that it overshadows the joy of listening to music. Audiophiles love the details to death, especially technical details. There’s nothing wrong with amassing such knowledge, but at some point, I realize it could become an all-consuming black hole of scholarship.

Reason To Be #2 – You Desire Higher Fidelity

I want to hear the music recordings played so I hear everything. The average music fan is perfectly happy with a smartphone and a pair of earbuds. Buying a pair of good headphones is the first step on the road to becoming an audiophile. Once you realize you can hear more details from your favorite songs you go on a quest to upgrade your equipment. It’s knowing when to stop that determines your sanity. As much as I enjoy listening to music on headphones, I really love hearing it played loud so the music fills the room with a soundstage and all the performers and their instruments seem separated spatially.

Reason Not To Be #3 – You Need To Hear What No One Else Can

This is where audiophiles begin spending thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands trying to recreate what they believe is what the music sounded like in the studio when it was recorded. It depresses the hell out of me when I hear an audiophile claim that an $18,000 cable made a night and day difference. I worry that I’m hearing musical sludge and don’t know it. I hate feeling like if I was only rich like Bill Gates I could hear my favorite songs as they were meant to be heard. When extreme audiophiles talk about how much better they hear music they make me want to go back to listening to AM radio.

Extreme audiophile

Recently I watched a documentary on Johnny Winter that was made just before he died. At one point he wants the film producer to hear the music he loved growing up. So he plays an old blues record on a portable stereo in his living room that looked like it came from an elementary school in the 1950s, with detachable speakers. While he was playing a scratchy old record on this crappy record player his face lit up like he was experiencing enlightenment. I remember back in 1965 listening to music on a tiny transistor radio with a single earpiece. I was so happy with Top 40 AM back then that I nostalgically consider 1965 to be the peak of popular music. Of course, over a lifetime I have bought one music system after the next seeking to hear that same music in greater high fidelity. But watching Johnny Winter, who probably had the money to own a good audiophile system looked so happy listening to his favorite music in such lo-fidelity that it made me realize that love of music isn’t about equipment.

Reason To Be #3 – The Desire to Hear New Music

Most people imprint on the music they heard growing up as teens and end up playing those same tunes over and over again for the rest of their lives. Audiophiles continue to seek out new music from all genres and historical periods until they die. Audiophiles can branch out of the generation they were born into to psychically dig music from other generations and other cultures.

Here’s a video Michael Fremer, a senior editor at Stereophile magazine, talking about his favorite 100 analog albums. Fremer is an extreme audiophile. I love watching his videos, and this one is very inspiring because of his passion for these particular albums. I’m going to play everything on his list because I want to hear what excites him so – just not from the same source. The video is also evidence of why not to become an audiophile. Pay attention to what he knows and what it would take to play what Fremer loves. This is a long video, and he doesn’t start his countdown until he first gives a lecture on LPs’ ability to last. That should have been a separate video.

Reason Not To Be #3 – The Desire to Hear New Music by Specific Recordings

Fremer is extremely knowledgable and I love learning from him. He’s not snobbish, but he is rather crusty in his opinions. He appears to really admire 45rpm double LPs, a format I didn’t even know existed until watching the video, and Google seems to know little about that format too. Fremer often claims certain reissue 45rpm LPs are by far the absolute best presentations of certain classic albums, but these editions are $50-100, or more. Fremer is an LP snob and the way he talks it makes you feel if you aren’t listening to these exact LP pressings you are wasting your time. I’m going to listen to these 100 albums, but not the actual LP.

My preferred music format is streaming music via Spotify. This horrifies audiophiles, although some audiophiles are beginning to accept Tidal because it streams at CD quality. I’ve tried getting back into LPs twice in recent years and I just don’t like messing with the turntables or LPs. This probably means I can’t be an audiophile according to the faith of most audiophiles.

Reason Not To Be #4 – Money

Some audiophiles spend huge piles of money seeking High Fidelity.  In another Fremer video, he talks about having to take out a bank loan to buy his amplifiers, and the guy doesn’t look poor. He also talks about using two $18,000 cables – but he got those on loan. Most true audiophiles spend a great deal of money on their sound systems. There are low-end audiophiles, but I expect true audiophiles consider them pretenders. On the other hand, some people consider themselves audiophiles if they merely like to tinker with sound. One German audiophile I watched recently on YouTube recommended using a $35 Raspberry Pi as a foundation for a music streamer. And I know people who build their own speakers. So it is possible to spend little, and still, claim to be an audiophile. However, I tend to think real audiophiles read audiophile magazines and buy audiophile-grade equipment.

Reason Not To Be #5 – Never Ending Quest for New Equipment

Audiophiles tend to be people who are never satisfied. One of my favorite audiophile YouTubers is Steven Guttenberg, who calls himself The Audiophiliac. In one of his videos, he was talking about “The Last DAC/AMP/Reciever/Speakers/Turntable You’ll Ever Buy/Need” type of discussions and columns. You could see Steve turning green under the gills just thinking about not wanting new equipment. The idea of finding the right sound system you’d keep for the rest of your life or even 5-10 years just goes counter to the audiophile credo of always wanting newer and better.

I just bought a new sound system for my computer room. I realize my old system was 20 years old. My new system is a Yamaha WXA-50 streamer with a built-in amplifier and Bose 301 Series V speakers. It cost me around $750 and I expect that system to last a long time. I took weeks picking it out. I wanted audiophile speakers, but all the reviews of bookshelf audiophile speakers said not to put them against the wall. Audiophiles believe bookshelf speakers should be put on stands. (Then they aren’t bookshelf speakers, are they!) I only have one place to put speakers in this room, on top of my bookshelves. The Bose speakers were designed to be real bookshelf speakers, so I bought them. I’m very happy with them too.

Reason Not To Be #6 – Buying Bose Speakers

I watched a lot of YouTube videos by audiophiles reviewing speakers and boy do they look down their noses at Bose. In fact, I set out specifically not to buy Bose speakers to replace the Bose 201 speakers I currently owned. I wanted to buy Klipsch, Elac, Wharfdale, and other speakers admired by these reviewers but they all insisted they had to be set out from the wall on stands. When I saw a video about how Bose speakers were designed to work from bookshelves I said, “Fuck it, I’m buying Bose again.”

Reason Not To Be #7 – I Don’t Hear What They Hear

Ultimately I don’t think I can be an audiophile because either my ears aren’t good enough, or my cognitive ability to discern audio details is lacking. Or maybe I just can’t see the ghosts they do.

I went back to LPs twice in recent years because audiophiles keep claiming they sounded better. Records did sound different, even a pleasant different, but I heard more details from my CDs. I bought the equipment to play SACD years ago. Yes, they sounded better, but only if I was concentrating intently. Then when high-resolution FLAC files came out I tried them on a new receiver that was supposed to decode them. I bought Moondance by Van Morrison as my test. I compared it to a remastered CD and Spotify. I thought the CD sounded best, but I was perfectly happy with Spotify if I cranked up the volume.

Time and time again I heard audiophiles claim the difference is night and day to them, but the difference to me at best is the difference between the daylight at 2:00pm and 3:00pm.

I’m happy when the music fills the room and each performer and singer stands out. I love it when I can hear the texture of each instrument. I love it when I have enough high fidelity that allows me to easily focus on just one instrument when I want to. But most of all, I love it when music just sounds good.

I want to be an audiophile within reason. I believe one problem real audiophiles have promoting optimal sound systems is they focus too much on individual components when the total sound is depended on a gestalt setup. Reviewers should review whole setups so it’s easier for buyers to acquire and set up a system that should work together. Constantly reading/watching reviews of the gadget of the moment is becoming stultifying.

JWH

Alleviating My 8-Bit Nostalgia

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, October 15, 2019

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve become obsessed with watching YouTube videos about old 8-bit computers. I’ve even been shopping on eBay looking for old machines in good condition to buy. But I think I’ve cured my 8-bit nostalgia.

October 13th was the 6th anniversary of my retirement. My dream before retiring was to use my work-free years to become a science fiction writer. That hasn’t happened. Instead, I’ve chased the siren call of nostalgia. The other day I read an article about why people stop listening to new music and it gave me a clue about the nature of nostalgia. We keep listening to the music we imprinted on as a teenager because we gave that music a lot of our time. Once we got older we didn’t have that kind of time to devote to new music.

I’m wondering if nostalgia isn’t an attraction for anything we’ve already spent the time learning to love?  Now that I have a lot of free time it’s much easier to pursue old hobbies than learn new ones. This has given me an insight into my affliction. I both delight, relish and resent nostalgia. Nostalgia feels good to indulge in but it makes me also feel guilty that I’m not learning to love new stuff.

I’m nostalgic for two kinds of things. Stuff I once loved that I bought, and stuff I once wanted to do. Writing science fiction is something I’ve wanted to do my whole life. But it is much easier to love stuff that we can buy than it is to learn to love to do new things. That article didn’t realize it was saying two things. It was much easier to buy LPs than learn to play the guitar.

That article rings true because I stopped spending time with new music after the 1980s. I believe the new songs I do love are because they sound like old songs. Nostalgia is spending time enjoying things we’ve already spent the time learning to love. And the reason nostalgia was originally considered a psychological defect is because we stop learning to love something new. Over the centuries we’ve stopped considering it a flaw and turned nostalgia into a positive trait. Especially if we’re old.

However, that fits right in with our belief that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks. If you indulge in nostalgia you aren’t learning new tricks. Maybe we can learn new stuff when we’re young because we don’t already have a backlog of things we already love to distract us with nostalgia. Of course, kids today seem to put thousands of hours into fun pursuits even before they start school. I now see nostalgia in people in their twenties.

I realize that in the past six years I’ve been cycling through the various periods of my life escaping into my past. Each period has something different I learned to love. I imprinted on TV watching in the 1950s and early 1960s before I became a bookworm. That’s how I got hooked on TV shows and old movies that I now collect. Starting around 1962 I got hooked on science fiction and rock and roll. I write about both. At the beginning of the 1970s, I got into SF fandom and fanzines, which eventually morphed into blogging. I started computer school in 1971 and got my first microcomputer in 1978. The 1980s were the time when I owned several 8-bit and 16-bit computers, and ran a BBS. I also got a job with computers and worked at it for 35 years.

From 1968 to 2013 I tried writing science fiction several times but I never put the needed hours into it. I wrote about thirty short stories, a couple novel first drafts, and attended a bunch of classes, including Clarion West. But it was just a few hundred hours, and for most of that time, I was in my fifties. Was I too old to learn a new trick, or was it because I didn’t put in my 10,000 hours?

So, why haven’t I bought an old 8-bit machine? It’s because I’ve watched dozens of videos by The 8-Bit Guy. Watching him demo all these old machines vicariously gave me all I needed. It reminded me why I owned so many 8-bit and 16-bit machines in the first place. I was always looking for a machine that could do more. My current machine, an Intel NUC with an i7 processor, 16GB of memory, 1TB SSD, and 4K monitor is completely satisfying. It does everything I want. The 8-Bit Guy inflames my nostalgia for old machines but also reminds me why I gave them all to Goodwill.

However, The 8-Bit Guy has also taught me something else, something about nostalgia that I have written here. There is nothing wrong with returning to retro tech, but I do have a choice. I could put those hours into doing something new. Or put them into an old ambition I never achieved. (Is that another kind of nostalgia? Pursuing old dreams.)

For the past six years, I’ve been mass consuming old hobbies. The question is, will I continue to consume nostalgia or learn a new trick? It’s so easy to stick with what we know, and it’s so hard to learn something new. There’s a reason why we have that saying about failing to train old dogs. And there’s something else I’ve learned in my six years of retirement. My energy is draining away. I’m guessing old dogs can learn new tricks but it’s ten times harder than when they were young. Maybe even a hundred.

I could say I’m expending all my dwindling energy on enjoying my old loves. That’s kind of nice (and normal). And maybe that’s what we’re supposed to do when we’re old. But theoretically, I wonder if we can break the nostalgic habit. Instead of watching The 8-Bit Guy before I go to bed I could be watching YouTube videos on the techniques of writing fiction and get up in the morning and apply them.

JWH

The Absolute Best Reason to Subscribe to Spotify (Besides the Obvious One!)

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 11, 2019

For the price of buying one album on CD each month, my wife and I rent millions of albums. That’s the obvious reason to subscribe to Spotify. But as an old guy afflicted with crippling nostalgia, listening to playlists assembled from Billboard’s Top 40 and Billboard’s Hot 100 charts for specific years is almost as good as owning a time machine. Lucky for me, there are other year nostalgic fans who diligently track down all the hundreds of songs that chart during a year and organize them into Spotify playlists. For example, here’s a playlist for 1965, with 626 songs.

1965 happens to be the pinnacle of pop music for me. For Spotify subscribers, just search on Billboard Top 40 or Billboard Hot 100 and the year you want. It might come up first in the search, or you might need to see all on the playlist listings. There are many members who make these by-the-year playlists. Some are more extensive than others. I pick the ones with several hundred songs.

If you have Spotify you should be able to click on the above playlist and listen to it now. If you don’t subscribe, I have found a couple of places where you can listen to limited subsets of a year in music.

I discovered Tropical Glen years and years ago. Go to its home page and click on your favorite music year. Here’s the direct link to 1965. Once you pick a year, you can also look at the Cash Box charts for each week. Here they are for 1965.

Recently I discovered a way to look at Billboard’s Top 100 charts by year. Go to Singles Chronology. The same people also have a Top 40 site. I learned this from Slice the Life. Blogger Hans Postcard writes a series of essays reviewing all the singles that charted on a particular year. He’s currently working through 1969, and here’s the beginning of that series. Hans writes a little bit about each song and often has a copy of the song to play.

There’s a psychological reason for listening to songs by year. Read: “What makes us stop listening to new music when as get older?” The article says our musical tastes crystalize around age 13/14, which was 1965 for me. The article says we stop liking new music as we grow older and have less time to listen to current music. Evidently, as we go to work and start families, and life gets busy, we don’t give new music the time it takes to bond with it.

The reason why I recommend occasionally playing by-the-year playlists is that most of us grow up only listening to a portion of the hits for that year. The Billboard Hot 100 charts cover rock, R&B, country, jazz, easy listening, and any single that made it to the chart. That can be around 600-700 songs each year. Quite often I discover songs I love but don’t remember. I probably love them because they are of the same style as the other songs I loved. Or they are lesser hits of artists I love.

I also thrill when a song plays that I haven’t heard for 54 years and it triggers memories I haven’t thought about since I made them. I often play these playlists very loud. That brings out details in the songs so they feel fresh and vibrant. In 1965 I listened to my music on a Sears clock radio which had a 3″ mono speaker. It was low-fi. I’m often shocked by how High-Fi the music was back then.

Listening by the year also reveals how much I was listening to the radio back then. I got my radio for Christmas of 1962 and played it from the time I got home from school till I went to school the next day. I often woke in the middle of the night to hear songs, and sometimes I would dream about the songs that were playing. That radio died in 1968, but by then I was mostly listening to albums. I stopped listening to AM or FM radio in the early 1970s because I couldn’t stand the disc jockeys or ads. But I can tell that I listened to more songs in 1963-1966 than I did in 1967-1972. That’s because in 1967 I got an after school job. I graduated high school in 1969, and when I play the 1969 playlist I’m amazed by how many great songs I just don’t remember hearing back then.

Finally, a really mind-blowing thing is to play the years before you were born. The Billboard charts seem to have begun in the 1950s, but there are users on Spotify that collect the music for earlier years. When I started listening to my radio in 1962, they played Golden Oldies on the weekends, so I am familiar with rock from 1955-1962. But if I play pop songs from 1947 or 1951 its a trip.

Not only do we stop learning to like new music after a while, but we seldom like old music before we grew up. However, if you listen enough it will grow on you. For decades I’ve been learning to like pop music all the way back to the 1920s. I don’t resonate with it like I do with music from the 1960s, but it is growing on me. Sometimes I feel getting older allows me to enjoy older music. I know I now enjoy TV programs my parents loved back when but that I hated.

I sometimes like to play music on headphones when I’m going to sleep. It’s great to wake up and be in a semi-conscious state of mind while hearing music. Often I dream that I’m floating in space with music all around me. It’s pretty damn cool when that happens. Evidently, my neurons like it too, because I can feel them dancing.

JWH

 

Ken Burns Chronologically – The History of the United States

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, September 24, 2019

While watching the new Ken Burns documentary, Country Music, I realized that his documentaries often cover the same time periods but through different subjects. For example, in this new series, I was enamored with how country music was spread in the early days of the radio in the 1920s and 1930s. Burns had also covered radio tangentially in his series Jazz, specifically in the film Empire of the Air, and to a lesser extent in such series as The Dust Bowl, Baseball, The Roosevelts, and other shows. We forget, and I guess for the young, they never imagined, that radio had the society changing impact of the smartphone.

This got me to thinking. Instead of watching Ken Burns films by subject, what if I watched them by time periods? I then made a Google Spreadsheet of all of Ken Burns’ films and sorted the episodes by date. (This is a crude start I hope to refine over time. I “borrowed” the descriptions from Wikipedia and Ken Burn’s websites.)

Let’s say I wanted to focus on the 1920s and get a multi-dimensional view of that decade, I could watch these episodes and films:

  • Empire of the Air
  • Jazz – “The Gift” – episode 2
  • Country Music – “The Rub” – episode 1
  • The Roosevelts – “The Storm” – episode 4
  • Baseball – “4th Inning: A National Heirloom” – episode 4
  • The National Parks – “Going Home” – episode 4
  • Jazz – “Our Language” – episode 3
  • Jazz – “The True Welcome” – episode 4 (first part)
  • The Dust Bowl – “The Great Plow-Up” – episode 1 (second part)

And then supplement those with parts of:

  • Frank Lloyd Wright
  • The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson
  • The Mayo Clinic
  • Jackie Robinson
  • Thomas Hart Benton

Now I’m thinking about all the everyday history Burns hasn’t covered. I wish he would do documentary series on:

  • Feminism – especially the first and second-wave feminists. He’s got a start with Not For Ourselves Alone about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. I wish Burns would film the book Other Powers by Barbara Goldsmith which is about the rise of feminism, abolitionists, the temperance movement, and spiritualism in America from 1848-1900. Goldsmith also covered Stanton and Anthony.
  • Science Fiction in America – how did the genre evolve. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Mark Twain wrote science fiction, as did many other Americans in the 19th century. Did cowboys discuss Frankenstein and Jules Verne out on the prairie? Show how science fiction developed in the dime novel, pulp magazines, on the radio, in movie serials, newspaper comic strips,  comic books, hardbacks, paperbacks, movies, television, and video games.
  • Books, Magazines, Newspapers, and Bookstores in America. How did we become a nation of readers?
  • Rock and roll – give it the same treatment as country music and jazz.
  • The History of High Fidelity in America. About how recorded music technologically evolved.
  • The Transcendentalists. Include Eden’s Outcasts by John Matteson.

There’s an unlimited supply of everyday history I’d love to see. That’s what I love most about Ken Burns’ films, they are so visual.

JWH

 

 

 

A Life in Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 23, 2019

I’ve always known that science fiction was an important aspect of my life, but I didn’t know how important until I read The Way the Future Was by Frederik Pohl, a memoir he wrote back in 1977 about his life in science fiction. This book isn’t in print, you’ll have to order it used, but the first three chapters are available online at Baen Books.

I got to spend a couple hours with Fred Pohl in the early 1970s. I wish I had known everything that was in his book then because I would have pestered him with a thousand questions. At the time I only knew him as the co-author of The Space Merchants with C. M. Kornbluth. I knew he had written several novels with Kornbluth and also with Jack Williamson. This was well before his famous books Man Plus (1976) and Gateway (1977). I think I had read his solo novel The Age of the Pussyfoot and owned a copy of A Plague of Pythons. I probably knew he had once edited Galaxy and If, a couple of my favorite magazines. Back when I met Pohl, along with James Gunn and John Brunner after they appeared at a conference at my university, my college roommate Greg Bridges and I got to sit with them at lunch. I knew Fred Pohl was fairly famous in science fiction, but I had no idea just how famous. I now understand why Brunner and Gunn question Pohl so intently. Years later, I was more impressed with Pohl for Gateway and his later novels, but he was never a big favorite of mine. He is now.

After reading The Way the Future Was I realized he was one of the major figures in the history of science fiction, at least or maybe more important than Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov or even John W. Campbell. Explaining why I now believe that will take some time. I will have to give a quick history of my own relationship with science fiction to connect the dots.

I started reading science fiction in 1962. My father was in the Air Force and I changed schools often. I generally always made a new best friend, but what kept me sane was science fiction. My parents were alcoholics, and I had rejected religion at age 12, so I used science fiction as my guide to life. The fiction part of SF was my mythology, and the genre’s history became my family history. Science fiction writers were the rock stars and founding fathers of my world. Over almost sixty years I’ve put together a rather detail history of science fiction in my head. It’s still constantly growing and expanding. Reading The Way the Future Was showed me that Fred Pohl was intimately active in most of it, almost as if he was a time traveler intentionally trying to experience it all.

Wonder-Stories-Quarterly-Summer-1930Hugo Gernsback began the science fiction genre by publishing Amazing Stories in April 1926, but soon lost control of the magazine, and started another magazine Science Wonder Stories in June 1929. Astounding Stories of Super-Science began it’s run in January 1930. The earliest science fiction fans, sometimes called First Fandom, all began reading science fiction about this time. Fred Pohl discovered science fiction in the Summer 1930 issue of Wonder Stories Quarterly. Pohl wrote, “I opened it up. The irremediable virus entered my veins.”

Over the decades I have read many memoirs and autobiographies of science fiction writers recounting the same experience of discovering science fiction in the 1930s. I discovered the science fiction magazine in the 1960s, and they often included short histories or biographies that recounted this knowledge. For almost sixty years I’ve been reading these chronicles, and The Way the Future Was is one of the best. Pohl begins with his discovery of science fiction and goes on to explain his adventures in the Science Fiction League (the first effort to organize SF fandom), of publishing fanzines in their earliest days, to starting the legendary science fiction club The Futurians, and the first World Science Fiction convention in 1939.

By the time Pohl was nineteen, he was editing Astonishing Stories and Super-Science Stories, and just before WWII, he became an assistant editor for Popular Publications, the largest publisher of pulp magazines. After the war, Pohl became a literary agent for most of the famous science fiction writers of the early 1950s. He was also one of the co-founders of the Hydra Club, another legendary SF club. His third wife was Judith Merril. That chapter also tells about his connections all the early book publishers of science fiction, including Doubleday, Gnome Press, and Ballantine Books. The in 1960 he became the editor of Galaxy, If, Worlds of Tomorrow, and International Science Fiction until 1969, buying some of the best science fiction of the decade and discovering many new writers that have since become famous. I don’t know why John W. Campbell gets all the attention as the great SF magazine editor of the genre, someone needs to write Pohl’s biography.

The Way the Future Was explores many territories, but actually stops before Pohl became really successful as an SF novelist. It’s a shame he didn’t update it before he died in 2013. However, Pohl was close friends and good friends with all the major and minor writers of science fiction and has tons of wonderful anecdotes to tell. He was also a successful lecturer and often appeared on TV and radio, which provided other great stories. All-in-all, Frederik Pohl was very close to most of the significant events and people in science fiction from 1930-1977.

One reason I liked The Way the Future Was is because I have met many of the people Pohl wrote about. Of course, just barely. In nearly all cases I saw these people at science fiction conventions. Sometimes I’d get to chat a few words with them and shake their hands after a lecture. One time I was selling books at a convention and Donald Wollheim stopped to look over my dealer’s table, even bought a book, and we chatted. I forgot what book he bought. I was always on the distant periphery of science fiction, but I still felt a kinship with these people. They were the clan I identified with most, and Pohl’s book reminded me how I felt about that kinship. I always daydreamed of becoming a science fiction writer and getting closer to the clan. I never did. The Way the Future Was has reminded me of what I missed. It made me sad but in a wistful kind of way.

JWH