Identifying the Best Books from 2021 to Read in 2022

by James Wallace Harris, 12/18/21

December is the time when we get loads of best-books-of-the-year lists. I enjoy looking at all those lists because I love finding the books that are the most recommended. I can’t read everything. I can’t even read everything that’s great.

I’m lucky to read 4-6 new books as they come out during the year, and sometimes they are among the ones critics have loved. That’s satisfying. For any given year I probably read 10-12 of its best books, that’s including fiction and nonfiction. That’s out of thousands of books published each year, so I get a microscopic sampling of books published. That’s why I work to find the best books, and by best, I mean the most talked about, the most recommended, the most newsworthy books.

I read on average one book a week, or 52 books a year. Most of them are older books, usually from the 20th century, sometimes from the 19th, and on rare occasions even older. I don’t want my head stuck completely in the past, so I try to read 10-12 books each year from the most recent two years. I usually discover a handful of books as they appear during the year, and then identify several more to read in the following year from the end-of-the-year lists.

Over time I’m discovering the most useful best-of-the-year lists. Here are the lists I’m using this year:

Books We Love – NPR. NPR lists over 2,800 books, but they provide a filtering system to help you zero in on the ones you might prefer. Their site has yearly lists back through 2013. Just the button for Staff Picks lists 179 books, that’s way too many. What I do is study the covers. And then go on to other best-of-the-year lists. It’s like the old TV quiz show Concentration, I try to spot covers again from memory. But instead of finding the pair, I try to find covers that are shown on the most lists.

Of their Staff Picks I’ve already discovered the following during 2021:

New York Times Critics’ Top Books of 2021. This is another very long list. But they also offer another shorter list, The 10 Best Books of 2021. Sadly, the long list doesn’t include cover photos, so it’s harder to play my Concentration cover game, so reading the short paragraphs about them is important. And The New York Times even offers an even longer list, 100 Notable Books of 2021, this time with covers. The critics at the Times picked many of the books the NPR critics picked, and many books I’ve already heard some word of mouth. These are the ones I want to try so far:

Vogue, Vulture, and Time have recommendations that are often similar to NPR and The New York Times. Time also recommends another book I’ve already read: The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson. That makes me feel I did pretty good finding books coming out during 2021. And they recommend Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe that’s been on most of these lists. I’m just not interested in that subject, but with so many recommendations I feel maybe I should try it. These lists also reinforce the books I list above that I already want to read.

Publishers Weekly has a website system like NPR that recommends way too many books to consider but has a filter system to narrow things down by genre and interest. Their database goes back to 2010, and their lists have links to the original reviews. Once again I’m seeing the same covers of books I’ve been wanting to read, but I’ve spotted two additional books to add to my list from their Top Ten List: All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake by Tiya Miles and The War For Gloria by Atticus Lish. I’ve been remembering those two covers from the lists I’ve been seeing, and their descriptions are enticing.

I believe I’ve found a total of 23 books from 2021 that interested me most, and I’ve already read 7 of them. That leaves 16. I doubt I’ll get all 23 books read in the coming year. It depends on how many 2022 books attract my attention first, or how mired in the past I become. If I read all 23 that will double my normal current book consumption habit.

There is one last list to mention, Goodreads Choice Awards 2021. These are voted by members of Goodreads. Sometimes the bookworms pick the same books as the critics, and sometimes not. However, this list at Goodreads uncovers a lot more fun genre titles.

Lastly, I’ve discovered that if I keep these recommended novels in mind, sometimes they appear in sales at Bookbub, or in the Kindle Daily Deal, or on Audible. Also, many of them come to Scribd, a book subscription library. I think of Scridb as Netflix for books. Five of the sixteen books I want to read are already available at Scribd. It’s a bargain at $9.99 a month.

JWH

Can We Build Tornado-Proof Houses?

by James Wallace Harris, 12/15/21

The recent tornado in Mayfield, Kentucky has me worried. I’m old, retired, and have health issues, so having my home destroyed would be immensely stressful. I feel so sorry for people in disasters like this, but especially when I see old people having to be helped because they are so helpless. I fear being helpless.

One thing I noticed in the pictures from Mayfield is some buildings survived the devastation. My friend Connell told me after Hurricane Andrew hit Miami they realized how houses were poorly constructed and made changes to the building codes. The newer homes are much more hurricane-resistant. I’m wondering if the same kind of codes can be applied to protect homes from tornadoes.

However, I don’t want to wait for new building codes or move to a new house. I doubt there are practical retrofit possibilities. One of the things that trouble me about tornadoes and other forms of weather damage is having to leave my home. If the house is a complete loss, there’s no choice, but what if there’s only some damage? Say a tree crushes one side of the house. I’d want to rebuild, and I wouldn’t want to leave my partially good house either.

So I’ve been thinking of something else. People use to have storm cellars. What if I could have a tiny home or a mother-in-law wing addition to my house that was built to strict specifications, could it survive a tornado? Something that Susan, the cats, and I could live in while our house was being rebuilt, or when storms are about to happen. Would this be practical? And how much would such a building cost?

Is Tornado Alley Shifting to the Southeast?

I’m starting to see reports that Tornado Alley is shifting to the east, with some maps putting it where I live in Memphis, Tennessee. Other people are saying it’s not shifting with widening.

This article says tornado alley is an outdated concept and suggests a new shape.

Then I saw this article about high winds. Now that’s pretty scary.

How big would a lifeboat house or addition have to be? Should it be partially underground? Or could it be built with concrete blocks and a steel frame to withstand most weather-related disasters? It would need to have a bathroom and shower, but otherwise, everything could be in one room, including a kitchenette. Should we assume water and sewer systems survive most disasters? What about gas lines? Or should it be totally self-sufficient?

This is something to think about. Maybe it’s a business opportunity for a new industry. Could a prebuilt pod be designed and mass-produced to reduce the cost of such a need? Basically, a tank-like RV or small house trailer that could be partially buried might be a good design.

Remember the bomb shelter craze of the 1950s and 1960s? Maybe we’ll have a new climate change shelter craze?

JWH

What Am I Hearing?

by James Wallace Harris, 12/4/21

I got the new Adele album on CD on the day it came out. It’s called 30, but evidently, her face is so famous she needs neither her name nor the album title on the cover. The songs are beautiful, different, and produced and engineered with tremendous sound quality. 30 is not 25, or 19. Adele is exploring new musical territory.

However, this isn’t a review of Adele’s new album. Nor is it a review of the four audio systems I used to play that album. It’s about a quest to hear everything possible in a sound recording. And I mean more than just frequency response. I struggle to pull everything I possibly can out of this album.

We think we listen with our ears. Audiophiles are on a never-ending quest to improve their playback systems. In this regard, I’m only a cheap-ass audiophile. The Holy Grail for audiophiles seems to be reproducing the sound the producers heard when making the record. Is that even possible? Didn’t the producers and sound engineers add magic we’d never hear live in the studio?

I’ve been watching Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back on Apple TV+. It’s a 3-part, 468 minute documentary about watching the Beatles create music. My takeaway is the Fab Four sound a lot different from what we hear on their albums. What I’m hearing when listening to 30 is probably a far cry from what it would be like to stand in the studio and listen to Adele sing.

I’m also listening to at least four works of art at once. We have Adele’s voice, we have the musicians, we have the producer’s creation of those two works, and we have the lyrics that we decode with our experience and emotions. And this album is full of emotion, especially about the breakdown of her marriage.

All your expectations of my love are impossible
Surely, you know that I'm not easy to hold
It's so sad how incapable of learning to grow I am
My heart speaks in puzzle and codes
I've been trying my whole life to solve
God only knows how I've cried
I can't take another defeat
A next time would be the ending of me
Now that I see
   --- "Love is a Game"

I'm having a bad day, I'm having a very anxious day
I feel very paranoid, I feel very stressed
Um, I have a hangover, which never helps, but
I feel like today is the first day since I left him that I feel lonely
And I never feel lonely, I love being on my own
I always preferred being on my own than being with people
And I feel like maybe I've been, like, overcompensating
And being out and stuff like that to keep my mind off of him
And I feel like today, I'm home and I wanna be at home
I just wanna watch TV and curl up in a ball and
Be in my sweats and stuff like that, but I just feel really lonely
I feel a bit frightened that I might feel like this a lot
   --- "My Little Love"

When I play 30 on my four different systems the songs sound slightly different, and each makes me feel different. 30 also makes me feel different depending on which room I’m listening in, and how loud I’m playing it. If I play “My Little Love” in the den, my largest listening room, on my Bluesound Powernode 2i with Klipsch RP-5000F speakers at a loud volume I feel surrounded by music and singing. It feels closest to what I imagine hearing Adele in a small club might sound like. It also has the greatest emotional impact. And this is just streaming the song via Spotify. I believe part of this experience is due to the acoustics of the room and partly due to the Klipsch speakers, which seem particularly good for vocals.

When I play the CD in my computer room, which is probably 12×20, using the Bose 301-V speakers connected to a Yamaha WXA-50 amplifier/DAC and Pioneer DV-563A CD player it sounds almost as good, but has a much less emotional impact. The soundstage is good, but I have to keep the speakers up high on top of Billy bookcases from Ikea. I hear more bass, probably because of the 8″ woofers, and the speakers being close to the wall. It’s a really good sound, and I hear different things in the recordings that I don’t notice in the den.

I also have another system in the computer room, an Arylic A50+ streaming amplifier with Sony SSCS-5 speakers. It has a brighter sound, still surprisingly pleasing for such a low-cost system and 30 makes me feel different listening to it. Finally, I have two paired Echo Studios in my bedroom. If I play them loud enough, I hear a slightly different sound, where I notice even other details, especially since I listen to these speakers as I fall to sleep and often wake up hearing music in a dreamy state.

In all four systems, I sometimes focus on the music, sometimes on Adele’s voice, and sometimes on Adele’s words. Sometimes I even think about how the song sounds compared to other music eras.

When I listen to music I concentrate on it with the same intensity I concentrate on a movie at the theater. If I’m in the right mood, I achieve a kind of reverie where I forget my body and that heightens my thoughts and senses. I can’t get any of my friends to listen to music with me. They all like listening to music when they are doing something, and think it’s weird I want to zone out. I remember when I was young, I’d listen with other people and we’d all space out like we were in an opium den. Of course, we were smoking dope back then. (I remember getting one older guy high who loved music and he claimed he heard things he never noticed before. But wasn’t it always there? Isn’t it just a matter of paying attention?)

I’m sure we all hear music differently. But I keep wanting to hear more as if my current equipment is leaving out sounds I should be hearing. Listening to audiophile reviewers makes me wonder how much I’m missing. I keep thinking my experience would be greater if I only bought more expensive equipment. But that might be me fooling myself.

I keep telling myself I will find more if I just listen with a greater focus on the equipment I already have. I keep telling myself I will hear more if I read and study how the music was put together. I keep telling myself I will hear more if I keep asking “What am I hearing?” I spend too much time watching reviewers of stereo equipment when I should be watching videos or reading books by people who study the music. That what I hear will be improved by upgrading my brain with training. That what I’m hearing is mostly determined in my brain.

(Yet, I yearn for a Cambridge EVO 150 and Klipsch Cornwall IV speakers.)

JWH

The End of Civilization – Again

by James Wallace Harris, 11/29/21

When I was growing up in the 1950s annihilation by atomic war was a common worry. Kids were taught duck and cover drills, people built fallout shelters, we routinely heard Conalrad tests on the radio, and popular culture was full of stories about WWIII. The famous Doomsday Clock stayed set just minutes from doomsday.

Over the decades there has always been the world is ending forecasts. Some chicken little is always yelling the sky is falling. The new vogue is to claim civilization is collapsing. Routinely following the news makes it hard to ignore such fears.

What if civilization is collapsing? What should we do? The science is quite solid on climate change, and we’ve been warned for decades, but for decades we’ve done nothing significant. A fair number of folks are buying rural plots of land and AR15s but that hardly seems to be a practical solution for everyone.

My guess is most people are ignoring all the gloom and doom, or else going crazy in their own quiet squirrely way. I don’t think there is much we can do. The reason why many analyzed trends lead to possible apocalypses is that the natural thing for everyone to do is to keep doing what we’re always been doing. Humans aren’t big on intentionally making drastic changes to their lives.

If we’re not going to do anything to avert the forecasted catastrophes, then what are we going to do instead? Anxiety and depression are so self-destructive. It’s much too early to panic. We could party like it’s 1999, but the end isn’t that close yet. Enduring resignation will probably be a common plan, but that’s emotionally draining. Taking up Zen Buddhism or meditation might be useful. Enjoying the simple pleasures of life has always been an excellent choice. Ditto for pursuing creative hobbies.

Developing a positive perspective should be helpful. Civilizations always collapse, but often over decades or centuries. There will be a rush to hoard or consume everything left. The well-to-do will grab what they want, which is always more than they need. The practical will learn to live with less without agonizing over what they no longer have. For most citizens the collapse of civilization will be in such slow motion they will hardly notice it. It’s only the unfortunate who become refugees from random catastrophes that will feel the harshest impacts. So knowing how to relocate will be a valuable skill. There are certain preparedness precautions to take, but since nothing is certain, it’s not practical to go overboard with such measures.

Probably most useful is the ability for understanding the true reality of things. Don’t get caught up in delusions, fears, panics, but also avoid over-optimism and Pollyanish thinking.

I bring all this up because of some videos I’ve been watching. I have no idea how valid they are, but I consider the increase of such thinking as a kind of pulse-taking. What do you think of these videos? These three accept doom but try to find a positive perspective with dealing with such doom. They offer wisdom.

If you are a routine YouTube watcher and are signed in, watching these three videos will cause YouTube to offer you more of the same. There are quite a lot of these videos, so be careful. Don’t get overwhelmed.

JWH

On the First Day of My Seventies

by James Wallace Harris, 11/25/21

When I left the work world back in 2013 I thought I’d apply myself toward writing science fiction short stories in my retirement years. For some reason, I’ve hit a barrier that hasn’t allowed me to do that. Very few people succeed at new creative pursuits in old age. I still hope to beat that statistic.

I’ve decided to attack the problem with a different approach. For my seventies, my goal is to write a nonfiction book. This is kind of an absurd goal since I’m starting to have trouble cranking out blog posts. But I have an idea — aim low, but be persistent. I seriously doubt I can produce a commercially successful work of nonfiction, so my ambition is to write a book I wouldn’t be embarrassed to self-publish on Amazon.

Two things make me think this is possible. I’ve written thousands of blog posts. All I’ve got to do is write fifty 1,000-word essays on the same topic that ties together in a coherent readable way. I already have several ideas that interest me, but can I make them interesting to other people?

At seventy, focus, concentration, and discipline are hard to come by. This week I’ve been watching videos on the Zettlekasten method of taking notes. Those videos have inspired me because they use an external system to organize ideas and build connections. This might let me overcome my cognitive limitations.

The older I get the harder it is to hold a thought in my head, much less juggle several thoughts at once to show how they connect. I’m encouraged I might overcome this limitation with the software Obsidian. That software is designed to help retain what you study and build a knowledge base. To help me remember what I find while researching on the web I’ll use Raindrop.io. I’ve already been using the mind-mapping software Xmind to organize ideas visually. Combing all of these programs might let me construct a large coherent collection of related thoughts and ideas.

I need tools that map where I’ve been and hopefully reveal where I want to go. These tools need to quickly show what I’ve already thought through. I just can’t do that in my head anymore.

Of course, I could be deluding myself. I used to wait until I felt good to work on my hobbies, which is a terrible approach. Now, I never feel good, so I’ll have to push myself to work anyway. That should be good for me. I’m usually drained of all psychic energy by mid-afternoon. I’ve even quit going out at night because I’m no longer functional by late afternoon. Working on this goal feels like I’m rolling a rock up the hill.

I just don’t want to give up, at least not yet. I just don’t want to become a passive consumer of other people’s creative efforts. There’s nothing wrong with that. Consuming creative works still gives me a lot of pleasure. I’m just an old dog that wants to learn one last new trick.

JWH

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