Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Reading Highlights of 2009

I read a lot. My entertainment time is dedicated to reading. I watch almost no television. I seldom play computer games, just a few ancient ones now and then. It has been well over a year since I've watched a movie. My primary use for the Net is to find things to read (and occasional T&A). Furthermore, I'm omnivorous in my reading. I believe even honest crap (as opposed to bullshit) has interesting things to say about humanity and that so-called Great Books are often pernicious nonsense (often, certainly not always).

The second half of this year, I made the conscious decision to read more books (including digital books) and fewer articles. Consequently, I will easily average more than one book read per week this year. There are tradeoffs in this decision. Reading fewer articles implies less knowledge of current events. Books, on the other hand, provide more context, but it's easier for me, at least, to wallow in light fiction without really intending to do so. Light fiction isn't bad; it is a window into popular consciousness, but a steady diet of it tends to become somewhat nauseating, analogous to eating too much sugar.

The fiction book of the year is Jonathan Strange & Mr Morrell by Susanna Clarke. This is what literary fantastic fiction should be. To hell with the "magical realists." If you like fantasy at all and haven't yet given it a try, I urge you to do so.

The most delightful book of the year is Life With Father by Clarence Day Jr. It's a memoir about the author's parents, especially his eccentric father. Most of the stories in the book take place near the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Besides being one of the funniest things I have ever read, it is informative about life in the upper middle class of that era. I give it my highest recommendation. (It can be found online at the Project Gutenberg Australia site.)

The most enlightening book of the year is The 10,000 Year Explosion by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending. It makes a strong argument that not only is human evolution ongoing, it has greatly accelerated since the invention of agriculture. If you want to understand what is going on with the human race, you need to understand the information in this book.

The most disappointing novel of the year is The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton. I suspect that the book makes sense if one can crack the code of the symbolism, but I couldn't, so it made little sense to me. I suppose I failed because Chesterton was a Catholic apologist and I'm not religious. I find symbolism enriching if it fits the context and is also meaningful on a mundane level, but the symbols in this book had to carry most of the weight of the narrative. Ultimately, I found the novel annoying and over the top. (It is easily available online.)

The most disappointing nonfiction of the year is Greek Religion by Walter Burkert. The subject has interested me since sixth grade, on and off, and the information in the book wasn't disappointing. Much of it was new, and the book provided deeper context for things I had already known. Burkert, furthermore, appears to be the living expert on the subject. The writing itself, though, was dry and difficult. (The book is a translation, so it might not be all Burkert's fault.) A glossary of persons and of the many Greek terms he throws around would have made the reader's task much easier, too. I can only recommend the book to those with a large amount of background knowledge or who are willing to work hard. Google and Wikipedia, most likely, will be your friends if you tackle this one.

The best long Web fiction of 2009 are the continuing serial Tales of MU by Alexandra Erin and the ongoing series of novels about newly teenaged Bec by the pseudonymous BarBar. Both projects have been going on for multiple years. Also recommended is the written "television series" Shadow Unit. (In reality, it's a series of novellas or novelettes.) The project is led by Emma Bull and Elizabeth Bear, two fairly well known names in speculative fiction.

Finally, the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris and the Stephanie Plum novels by Janet Evanovich are both a lot of fun. I prefer the Sookie Stackhouse books. I like the protagonist and the genre better. Ms. Stackhouse works at her full capacity more often than does Ms. Plum, so she is a more engaging character. The Stephanie Plum novels are more comedy oriented, if one is looking for a laugh.