The end of 2021 marks five years since I began logging my reading. Normally I would have posted this list right at the beginning of the new year, but, as they say, I had some “life” come up and didn’t have time or inclination to post.
Going back through my reading logs always brings me up short by demonstrating how much of my life I don’t really remember. I’ve written before (in last year’s post) about using my reading log as a kind of mnemonic, and going back through this year’s reading really brought that back. Since January 01, 2021, much has changed in my life. M and I moved to a new state, I started a new graduate program, we leased an apartment sight-unseen then bought a house. Not to mention things like the January 06 invasion of the US capitol, the ongoing pandemic and its vicissitudes and mismanagement, etc. I like to wonder what some latter-day archaeologist or archivist would make of my reading habits. I have no idea if I read more eclectically than others, but looking back over my lists makes me wonder just what the hell my deal “is.”
For example. I started 2021 reading Star Bridge by James E. Gunn and Jack Williamson. I remember getting a copy of this book as a gift for (I think?) Easter one year, at about age 10. I re-read it several times, but hadn’t revisited it since middle-school, or thereabouts. Though published in the mid-twentieth century, the novel now reads like something substantially older, almost archaic. The science fiction genre has changed quite a bit since Gunn and Williamson wrote, and some bits of Star Bridge would no doubt bar it from publication today (plenty of casual sexism, stereotyping of Chinese Americans, kisses (and more) without explicit positive consent, etc.) A straightforward action story with a gruff but honest protagonist against a sprawling empire, it hits all the old-school Silver Age notes of individualism, violent rejection of bureaucracy, and the assertion of a tough masculinity too fundamentally decent for one to describe simply as “too horny for his own good.”
But despite all this, Star Bridge still does something that I find very interesting: it tells a story in an original way, with the assumption of a reading public, a literary/literate audience. The genre tropes it reproduces sometimes obscure what I consider a genuinely well-written novel. An action hero novel, sure, a space Western definitely, but nonetheless a novel that assumes readers capable of reading well.
Several other books I read in 2021 make these same assumptions. Robert Sheckley’s stories tend less toward the horny action hero, but nonetheless assume the same kind of literate public that Star Bridge does. Since Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (which I loved) came out this year, I re-read the original series and found the same assumptions in Frank Herbert. These pieces have a density, a kind of seriousness and exactitude that might strike one as strange in science fiction until one remembers that these authors took their readers seriously, as literate adults. Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series operates in a similar vein. In On Writing, King describes his poverty-stricken childhood in Maine. His family didn’t have a TV until King had reached school age, so he had to learn to read pretty quick to have something to do. As much as it makes me sound like a fuddy-duddy or a (pseudo) Luddite, I cringe whenever I see little kids engrossed in their parents’ smartphones today.
My companions for 2021 also includes a number of books on “kook” stuff. I’ve wanted to write about “kooks” for a while, but haven’t quite found the angle I want to pursue yet. That said, I found John Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies very interesting. I haven’t seen the movie, but the book struck me as, like the writers I mentioned above, taking its readership and its subject seriously, but without lapsing into the sort of performative emoting that seems de rigeur for contemporary writing, at least on the internet. Steve Volk’s Fringe-ology also takes a serious look at various “unexplained” phenomena like lucid dreaming. Starting from a position of scientistic skepticism, Volk eventually finds that actually taking these ideas seriously makes them much more difficult to simply cast aside. I approve of this position (as John Keel wrote, “belief is the enemy”), and of Volk’s willingness to take out-there ideas seriously. In these cases, and in the case of Avi Loeb’s Extraterrestrial, the writer takes their subject and their audience seriously, and respects the reader enough not to descend into pleading and thence to strident, self-righteous anger in an attempt to head off critique.
[Loeb presents an interesting case. A big-deal astronomer at Harvard, his book claims that ‘Oumuamua, a celestial object briefly detected by radio satellite in 2019 actually represents a piece of space debris from an extraterrestrial civilization, namely, a piece of a solar sail. As a thoroughly non-astronomer, I can’t follow the math (not much – the book has a general readership) that Loeb uses to support his claim. However, I do find it fascinating and maybe even a bit of a relief that big-deal scientist types still allow flights of fancy and out-there ideas into their heads.]
I’ve also learned something important from 2021’s reading. I don’t read as well as I would like to. In 2020, I decided on a goal of fifty books that year. I met the goal, but in so doing failed to realize that I had prioritized quantity over quality. What good does reading widely do me if I don’t remember what I read or have no way of applying it in my life and thinking about it? (Incidentally, one does not only think with one’s brain. Thinking takes many forms, including bodily movements, the state of one’s surroundings, and so on.) In 2021 I read sever books that, while I remember reading them, don’t call up anything much beyond that. Social Inquiry After Wittgenstein and Kuhn by John G. Gunnell, for example. I read it, but don’t remember it. Ethan Mills’s Three Pillars of Skepticism in Classical India likewise only reminds me of the day I spent in the copy room at my old substitute teaching job reading it.
Of course, one need not read deeply every single thing one reads. Barbara Demick’s Eat the Buddha and Nothing to Envy, for example, stand out as fascinating travelogues, but I don’t feel bad about not taking notes on them. I read them for fun (if by “fun” I mean learning about famine in North Korea and violence against Tibetans in Western China.) Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life Connie Barlow’s The Ghosts of Evolution, and Robert MacFarlane’s Underworld, however, I should have read more carefully. Oh well, I guess now I have an excuse to revisit them.
That said, this year I want to read better. I’ve started by going back to paper codices, the good stuff. I don’t mind reading on a screen when I can’t help it, but deep down I want the physical object in my hands. My books all have a place on their shelves now, which I love. When I worked as a teacher, I used to say “do less, better” to focus on the hard work of actually making sure my students understood and could independently apply what we went over in class. A good foundation helps make the other stuff easier. Seems I’ve forgotten to take my own advice.
I won’t describe the specific steps I intend to take towards this goal of reading better here. That will probably make its way into a stand-alone essay.
Anyway, below you’ll find the complete list of my reading for 2021. It doesn’t include chapters of books or essays/papers I read for grad school. For one thing that would make the list way longer. For another, I like to that my incompleteness will, by turns, infuriate and relieve whatever hypothetical graduate fellow ends up having to process my “papers” after I die. (Godspeed, friend.)
|Title||Authors||Started Reading||Finished Reading|
|The Ghosts Of Evolution: Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners, and Other Ecological Anachronisms||Barlow, Connie||2021-12-26||2021-12-26|
|Hunters of Dune||Herbert, Brian; Anderson, Kevin J.||2021-12-24|
|Chapterhouse: Dune||Herbert, Frank||2021-12-18||2021-12-22|
|Heretics of Dune||Herbert, Frank||2021-12-13||2021-12-18|
|Heart of the Shin Buddhist Path: A Life of Awakening||Shigaraki, Takamaro; Matsumoto, David||2021-12-03||2021-12-13|
|Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age||Newitz, Annalee||2021-11-29||2021-12-08|
|The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters||Myers, B.R.||2021-11-28||2021-11-28|
|Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town||Demick, Barbara||2021-11-25||2021-11-28|
|Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea||Demick, Barbara||2021-11-24||2021-11-25|
|God Emperor of Dune||Herbert, Frank||2021-11-21||2021-12-13|
|Children of Dune||Herbert, Frank||2021-11-11||2021-11-19|
|Dune Messiah||Herbert, Frank||2021-11-02||2021-11-05|
|On the Genealogy of Morals||Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm||2021-10-29||2021-11-21|
|Pious Nietzsche: Decadence and Dionysian Faith||Benson, Bruce Ellis||2021-10-20||2021-11-24|
|Beneath the Wheel: A Novel||Hesse, Hermann||2021-10-10||2021-10-22|
|Lila: An Inquiry into Morals||Pirsig, Robert M.||2021-10-03||2021-10-10|
|A Time of Changes||Silverberg, Robert||2021-09-25||2021-09-28|
|A, B, C: Three Short Novels||Delany, Samuel R.||2021-09-06||2021-09-13|
|Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures||Sheldrake, Merlin||2021-08-25||2021-09-04|
|Tower of Glass||Silverberg, Robert||2021-08-02||2021-08-03|
|Sphere: A Novel||Crichton, Michael||2021-07-27||2021-08-01|
|Song of Susannah||King, Stephen||2021-07-20||2021-07-22|
|Wolves of the Calla||King, Stephen||2021-07-07||2021-07-19|
|The Wind Through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel||King, Stephen||2021-07-03||2021-07-06|
|Wizard and Glass||King, Stephen||2021-06-29||2021-07-02|
|The Waste Lands||King, Stephen||2021-06-02||2021-06-07|
|The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World||Wulf, Andrea||2021-05-29||2021-08-11|
|Wittgenstein and Psychoanalysis||Heaton, John M.||2021-05-26||2021-05-27|
|Underland: A Deep Time Journey||Macfarlane, Robert||2021-05-19||2021-05-25|
|The Drawing of the Three||King, Stephen||2021-05-02||2021-05-08|
|The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger||King, Stephen||2021-04-26||2021-05-02|
|On Being With Others: Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Derrida||Glendinning, Simon||2021-04-22||2021-05-13|
|Three Pillars of Skepticism in Classical India: Nagarjuna, Jayarasi, and Sri Harsa||Mills, Ethan||2021-04-20||2021-04-29|
|Victim Prime||Sheckley, Robert||2021-04-20||2021-04-20|
|The 10th Victim||Sheckley, Robert||2021-04-17||2021-04-17|
|On Violence||Arendt, Hannah||2021-04-11||2021-04-11|
|Applying Wittgenstein||Read, Rupert||2021-04-05||2021-04-17|
|The Mothman Prophecies: A True Story||Keel, John A.||2021-03-29||2021-04-03|
|Social Inquiry After Wittgenstein and Kuhn: Leaving Everything as It Is||Gunnell, John G.||2021-03-04||2021-04-04|
|Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Unexplainable-And Couldn’t||Volk, Steve||2021-02-26||2021-03-04|
|The Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained||Kripal, Jeffrey J.; Strieber, Whitley||2021-02-18||2021-02-24|
|Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles||Derrida, Jacques||2021-02-13||2021-02-23|
|The Codex||Preston, Douglas||2021-02-08||2021-02-11|
|Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth||Loeb, Avi||2021-02-02||2021-02-05|
|Store of the Worlds: The Stories of Robert Sheckley||Sheckley, Robert||2021-01-29||2021-03-04|
|Star Bridge||Gunn, James E.; Williamson, Jack||2021-01-27||2021-02-16|