Sunday, December 27, 2015

Read It, 2015

In this blog post, I will present the final tally of books that I completed in 2015. There are a few complications that arise when trying to make an accurate list.

This list is more-or-less in chronological order. I say "more-or-less" because, going back through my previous blog posts to cull the complete list, I found that in some cases I had mentioned books that I read, but then forgot to mention in subsequent blog posts that I had finished them. So I am adding two Narnia books and one Frederik Pohl novel, Heechee Rendezvous, at the end of the list. This year's blog posts were inconsistent, and about halfway through the year I started adding separate "progress report" posts and list books I completed each month. I will try to continue this format in 2016, as it makes the books easier to keep track of.

There are a couple of books I mentioned in the blog posts, but I am unable to remember whether I actually finished them, so I am not going to count them. These books are Nathaniel Philbrick's short book (an essay, really) entitled Why Read Moby Dick, and Nature Stories by Jules Renard, a book from the New York Review Books Classics series. I will dig these up -- I think they are buried somewhere in my office -- and make notes about them in 2016. I may actually have completed the Philbrick book but just don't remember at the moment.

I think that some of the David Sedaris story collections that I "read" in audiobook form are abridged versions. I believe that three of them were abridged, although it is not entirely clear; these audiobooks came as part of a boxed set and do not have the usual descriptive information include. (Note: I hate the phrase "box set" because I am not describing a set of boxes, but a set of other things that were put together into a box). So, I am assuming they are the same as the CD audiobook editions described on Amazon, which describes them as "abridged."

I will count unabridged audiobooks as complete books for the purpose of making a count, but the abridged audiobooks I will count as half a book each. (That is easier than trying to figure out exactly how abridged they are; they may actually contain more than 50% complete by word count, but I am not going to try to figure out exactly which stories were left out, or whether the individual stories were abridged). So when I get to the end of the list, I'll subtract two books, so that the four abridged audiobooks each count as half a book.

Without further ado, here is the list!

  1. Simon R. Greene, Shadows Fall
  2. Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem
  3. Peter Watts, Echopraxia
  4. Charles Stross, The Rhesus Chart
  5. Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness
  6. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale
  7. Simon R. Greene, Casino Infernale
  8. Alex Hughes, Marked
  9. Alex Hughes, Vacant
  10. Kim Stanely Robinson, 2312
  11. William Gibson, Burning Chrome
  12. Andy Weir, The Martian
  13. Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief
  14. J. G. Ballard's, Kingdom Come
  15. Harry Harrison, Bill the Galactic Hero: Planet of the Robot Slaves
  16. Richard Hughes, The Fox in the Attic
  17. Max Barry, Lexicon
  18. Alan Garner, Red Shift
  19. Jan Morris, Hav
  20. Anne Carson (translator), Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides
  21. Various Authors, Doctor Who: 12 Doctors, 12 Stories (bedtime story reading)
  22. Ernst Junger, The Glass Bees
  23. Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book 1
  24. Alastair Reynolds, Slow Bullets [novella]
  25. David Mitchell, Black Swan Green
  26. Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka, Nature's End
  27. Harry Harrison, The Stainless Steel Rat
  28. Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora
  29. Charles Stross, The Annihilation Score
  30. Terry Pratchett, Raising Steam
  31. David Foster Wallace, Both Flesh and Not (Unabridged Audiobook)
  32. David Lipsky, Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace
  33. Frederik Pohl, Jem
  34. Isaac Asimov (originally published under the pseudonym Paul French), Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus
  35. David Sedaris, When You Are Engulfed in Flames (print version)
  36. David Sedaris, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (unabridged audiobook)
  37. David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day (abridged audiobook; counting as half a book)
  38. David Sedaris, Holidays on Ice (abridged audiobook; counting as half a book)
  39. David Sedaris, Barrel Fever (abridged audiobook; counting as half a book)
  40. David Sedaris, Naked (abridged audiobook; counting as half a book)
  41. Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
  42. Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes
  43. Frans G. Bengtsson, The Long Ships
  44. William Sloane, The Rim of Morning: Two Tales of Cosmic Horror
  45. David Mendel, Proper Doctoring: a Book for Patients and Their Doctors
  46. Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul
  47. Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (bedtime story reading)
  48. Larry Niven, Ringworld
  49. Larry Niven, Ringworld Engineers
  50. Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time
  51. Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men (bedtime story reading)
  52. C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (bedtime story reading)
  53. C. S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy (bedtime story reading)
  54. Frederik Pohl, Heechee Rendezvous

That's fifty-four books, minus two accounting for the four abridged audiobooks. So, using the most accurate accounting I'm willing to try to reconstruct, I completed exactly 52 books in the calendar year 2015. That's a book a week, on average, although of course I didn't read any average books, and both the number of words per book and the rate of words read per week varied considerably.

There are a few books in the list I completed, but have not yet reviewed in the blog, and since I'm rapidly running out of days in 2015 (I'm writing the first revision of this blog post on December 28th, 2015), I'd better get to it:

Ringworld Engineers is a mixed bag, and while it feels slightly less dated than the first book, Niven's story here involves a lot of rishathra and more science-fantasy. Niven's concept of the Pak Protectors was, I thought, interesting but very unconvincing. The ending seemed to lack moral weight. The most interesting thing in this book was, I thought, the fact that as the story opens, Louis Wu is a wirehead. Again, I would have liked that to be an aspect of more importance to the story. I don't regret reading it, but I am not planning, at present, to read any more of the Ringworld books. I would like to explore some of Niven's short stories and essays, though.

The Salmon of Doubt is a book I would often pick up in a bookstore, glance at, and put back down again. I am a fan of Adams and I once saw him speak at an Apple developer conference, back in the nineties. His death at an early age was a shock to me. This collection is of interest mostly for the opportunity to experience his unique voice again, in the non-fiction pieces. His essays are always a joy. The unfinished bits of another Dirk Gently novel? Not so much. There are some funny scenes, but the unfinished work amounts to fewer than fifty pages. He had a promising start, but not much more. I miss his unique sense of humor.

Terry Pratchett's The Wee Free Men is an absolute joy. These are technically Discworld books, but publishers often segregate the "young adult" Discworld books from the "serious" Discworld books. They are also often hard to find. For example, our local Barnes and Noble carries the main series of Discworld books with fantasy and science fiction, but none of the Tiffany Aching books, of which this is the first. So one might expect to find some more Pratchett in the children's section. But it isn't there. Fortunately there is a whole new uniform edition of the whole series of Tiffany Aching books out now, and Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor stocks them all. I picked up all the paperbacks, and I'll pick up The Shepherd's Crown when the paperback version arrives.

The Wee Free Men is a sort of coming-of-age story about a young witch, Tiffany. It's a surprisingly serious story that is leavened by the recurring comic relief from a tribe of "pictsies" -- the tiny but mighty Nac Mac Feegle. It is one of the great joys of my parenting experience to attempt to read, for my children, the lines uttered by the Nac Mac Feegle in a very poor imitation of a full-on Scottish brogue. Fortunately they are not terribly critical of my performance. It is a real tribute to Pratchett's writing that just reading what is on the page will often trigger, in my children, bouts of genuine ROFLing. I plan to read them the whole Tiffany Aching sequence as their attention span allows.

So, over fifty books. I have not actually finished reading The Wee Free Men, but as I have a few vacation days, I think we'll probably do it. It would have been a little higher, I think, but during this past year, there were just too many days when I couldn't spend time reading.

Since June, I've been working in Ann Arbor four days a week, spending three nights a week there. Those nights alone in a quiet environment seem like they would be great opportunities to get some reading done. But I often found myself working late, and eating dinner late, going to bed too tired to read. On some evenings I'd bring work home in the form of a printout, or a pile of notes, or diagrams, or datasheets, and work on that stuff until I fell asleep. On some nights I'd call my wife, or read a bedtime story to my kids using FaceTime. So many of those nights didn't turn into reading time.

So, when did I find the time to read so many books? Well, I prioritize reading. I'm told that American adults spend an average of almost 3 hours of television per day. I didn't watch any "live" television (although I did watch some DVDs, and some downloaded episodes of Doctor Who on my iPad). I'm not sure how people find the time to watch that much TV.

How much reading time is reasonable and fits into a balanced life? I think ideally I'd like to spend between one and two hours a day reading. I like to read a bit immediately after waking up, and again before bedtime. I can't read much longer than an hour at a time without fatiguing my eyes. The time I actually manage to spend reading is closer to one hour than two, but even at an hour a day, I can usually manage to get through a book in a week.

I've learned some things about my reading habits by carefully logging and studying my reading for the year. I've learned that, while I often want to read serious non-fiction book or heavy work of literature, if lighter fiction is around me, I will gravitate to that. Magazines have the same effect; if I want to get through my books, I shouldn't bring any magazines or newspapers such as the New York Review of Books with me, or I will spend my reading time reading those instead. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it interferes with my goals of getting through certain books.

I have learned that I can impose a certain degree of discipline on myself just by limiting which books I bring into the room that I'm staying. If I leave most of my books in the car and only bring one book with me into the room where I'm staying, I will read the one I've got with me, because I'm too lazy to get dressed and go get another one from my car. If I bring in a lot of lighter fare, I won't stick to the one.

On the other hand, I have tried not to beat myself up when I find my mind wandering, and I allow myself to set aside a book. If it is really good and really of interest to me, I will probably come back to it, a week or a month or a year later.

And so slips by another year. I am not yet fifty, so I expect to have more years of reading ahead of me, but I have to acknowledge that the number of books I'll be able to get to, in the years remaining to me, is starting to look distressingly finite. If this really is a typical year, and I have thirty years left in which I'll still easily be able to read, then I have, perhaps, at best, 1,500 books left to be written by. And I have other things I want to do -- more music, more writing, more podcasting -- that might require giving up many of those books, leaving perhaps a far fewer number that I can get through. I would like to make them count. What books should they be?

I don't have a detailed plan for 2015, but I do know that I would like to read some work by the following authors:

  • J. G. Ballard, mostly some novels I've read before, but not for many years
  • Harlan Ellison, editor: Medea: Harlan's World
  • Harlan Ellison, editor: I'd like to re-read Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions (and, of course, The Last Dangerous Visions... that's a joke, son...)
  • Henry James (perhaps some of his lighter novels to start with)
  • Charles Dickens (I have read A Tale of Two Cities but there is, sadly, a lot of Dickens I have never read)
  • Karl Ove Knausgaard (the second and third volumes My Struggle)
  • Cixin Liu (The Dark Forest)
  • Gene Wolfe (I want to re-read or finish some of his earlier novels and stories that I either read long ago and forgot, or abandoned)
  • David Foster Wallace (especially his essays and short stories)
  • Kurt Vonnegut (some of his earlier novels, collected in volumes published by the Library of America)

I'd also like to watch some movies that are inspired by or related to the books:

  • The End of the Tour (based on Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: a Road Trip with David Foster Wallace
  • Screamers (the Peter Weller movie, based on a Philip K. Dick short story)

There are a few other books already piled up and waiting, including Hyperion, Kim Stanley Robinson's Three Californias trilogy, Call Me Burroughs, Another Roadside Attraction, Alan Turing: The Enigma, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, The Worm Ouroboros (to re-read), Involution Ocean (to-re-read), and the Gormenghast books (I think I need to re-read the first, and finish the others).

What else?

Friday, December 4, 2015

Read It, December 2015, Progress Report 1

I finished reading Ringworld by Larry Niven. It's a relatively short novel. This is considered a classic of science fiction, and won a lot of awards. I can see why. It's a novel of big ideas: the ringworld concept itself, interesting alien characters; detailed technology; interestellar statecraft and politics; and the conception of luck behind the storyline of the character Teela Brown. That was enough to win awards, when science fiction was stuck, in many cases, in a storytelling ghetto, practiced by writers who were better at the science than the fiction, and fans who weren't, perhaps, all that critical.

The book is fairly dated in its utopian vision of the future. Chemical immortality (or at least very extended good health) is readily available. Faster-than-light travel is fast and easy (although the story does center around the idea that faster technologies could give races strategic advantages, and so are worth fighting for). Certain materials and technologies are pretty much magic -- for example, the General Products spaceship hull, which is completely indestructible, and completely protects the inhabitants, no matter what happens to it. These magic items become "plot coupons," "get-out-of-jail free" cards, or MacGuffins. Niven's descriptions include enough technobabble make Ringworld seem vaguely like hard science fiction, but really it is not very "hard." The space opera aspects are not well-developed either. The universe of Ringworld, compared to a much richer work like Dune or The Lord of the Rings, feels more like a sketch than a painting.

Interstellar travel is fast and painless. Sexual politics are friction-free, but straight out of the 1960s, which sometimes manifests in disturbing ways. I'm not going to enumerate them all now, but Niven's development of Teela and Prill is troubling. So, honestly, I can't strongly recommend Ringworld. It is worth reading if you are able to appreciate some of Niven's big and interesting ideas while at the same time pointedly ignoring his sexism.

There's one more thing: the book does not end well. Niven sets up the ending and so the reader is pretty sure what is going to happen. But then he doesn't describe what happens, even briefly, or provide a coda to the story arc. It feels strangely unfinished to me. There are a number of followup books set in the same universe, but it seems that Ringworld Engineers picks up twenty years later. After this book, I'm not at all sure I want to read it.