Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Best of 2008

At the close of last year, I reflected on the previous years' reading and commented on some of the most memorable books. Now that another year has passed, I find myself doing the same again. The amount of commentary to reflect on has more than doubled, though, so I will not use the same approach as last time: in my first draft of this, I only got to September before realizing my review post was excessively long. Before I begin to write about the books, though, I want to say a few words about the blog itself. When I began this in summer 2007, it was a very informal affair: I wrote about my physical trip to the library in journal form, including thoughts to myself as I drove through town. As the year wore on, though, I began to make it more ordered and it eventually arrived at the form you see it now: I begin and end each entry with a bulleted list of reading, for instance, to keep things organized. Back in October I made a major format change when I started writing individual comments on the books I read, instead of having to cram everything into a weekly review post. I still write the weekly review posts, but they are only really for my MySpace readers. All in all, I'm satisfied with the way this blog has developed. I want to make my individual comments more thoughtful and more like informal reviews, but all in all, it seems my effort here has 'matured'. I am unsure as to how many people read this: I began this because I have a circle of friends with whom I exchange book recommendations, and they read it it and talk about the books with me on IM and in person. I receive many views on MySpace entries as well. For those who visit periodically, I would welcome feedback as to how you have received these changes in format and organization. Do you have any suggestions?

And, so, to the books. I begin with Harry Turtledove's so-called "Southern Victory" series, an extended alternate history series beginning in 1863 (with the confederacy winning the American Civil War) and going to 1946. This series was my reading for the early part of the year. In it, Turtledove develops the history of the world as it might happen had the confederacy won. It changes how Americans deal with one another and how they deal with European powers, which has consequences. Turtledove covers economic, social, military, and governmental changes, letting them shape the others -- it's a grand story. The series is both interesting and entertaining, and lead to me reading even more Turtledove (The Two Georges, the Worldwar series, and the Colonization series I've yet to finish).

In unrelated fiction, one fantastic book was The Confessions of Max Tivoli, by Andrew Sean Greer. This book is the most tragic and most beautifully written book I've ever read, I think. The title character, born in 1871, has a problem: he ages in reverse. While born a baby, he was born a very old baby, and as he grows "up" the oldness of him becomes more clear. He eventually reaches adult height in late childhood. Tivoli will throughout his life age in reverse, becoming more youthful in appearance as he grows in maturity. What dominates Tivoli is his love for Alice, with whom he falls in love as a child. Since he, as a child, looks like an adult, you can imagine the difficulty. Charles Dickins' A Christmas Carol, which I read during Thanksgiving, was one of the most captivating reads I've ever had. I love the story: not only is it written well, with humor and passion, but it's tremendously inspirational to me. Yet another captivating fiction book was The Blood of Flowers, by Anita Amirrezvani. The author wrote the book as a memorial to the people who wove the world's most beautiful rugs -- the Persian artisans of the 17th century. Good stuff.

Some notable science books I read this year were Darwin's Ghost, a 21st century version of Darwin's Origin of Species. I also read Darwin's original, with commentary by biologist Richard Leakey. Darwin, while writing in the 19th century, is a good writer and a remarkable methodical scientist. I also read two biographies of Darwin, who comes across as inspirational: he loved life, was entranced by the mysteries of nature, and was devoted to his family and his discipline. Of the two biographies, I recommend either. Two other science books of note were Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, which introduced me to the gene-centered view of evolution and at the same time gave culture a biological treatment, and Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate, which might be his contribution to the nature/nurture argument. His argument is more gene-centered than I am comfortable with (being aware of the power of ideas), but very provocative. I can't very well comment on science books without mentioning Spangenburg and Moser's two History of Science series, both of which I read straight through -- mostly during the summer. The books made me interested in the history of science. They write well and very clearly. Thanks to them, I have more scientific literacy now that I ever have before.

Speaking of provocation, there were a couple of books that completely changed my thinking. Neil Postman's Technopoly was the most important. Fully titled, it is Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology. It is a work of social criticism, as Postman examines the way technology has changed the way we think about things. He examines technology's role in human societies throughout history, labeling the current period as becoming a technopoly, where people are monopolized by ideas that have come about thanks to our reliance on machines. One is an obsession with efficiency. This book really changed my thinking and made me something of a cynic about technology and consumption when I began considering his arguments.

In a similar vein was Sharon Lebell's The Art of Living, a modern translation of Epictetus' Discourses and Manual for Living. Epictetus' practical philosophy of Stoicism has become part of my own worldview. Another book that was not quite as provocative was Frances and Joseph Gies' Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel, which promotes the idea that the medieval era was not a prolonged period of complete intellectual stagnation, but that in fact that technology did continue to develop, albeit slowly, in this period. Another book is the biography of Emilie Carles, a French peasant woman who lived in the opening years of the 20th century. From her origins as a farm girl discouraged against going to school, we see her mature into a thoughtful intellectual who comments on the historically and socially busy opening decades of the 20th century. Through her eyes ,we see agrarianism give way to industrialism: we see the two world wars and their consequences. I thought it was fantastic. Also, I should mention Marx's The Communist Manifesto and Richard Pipes' Communism, both of which were helpful in understanding one of the big ideas of the 20th century.

Finally, 2008 was the Year of Asimov. Holy wow, did I read a lot of Asimov this year. I began with a a book of short stories during spring break, and I returned to them when the summer began. A lot of the short stories were science fiction, but my favorites were the Black Widower stories. After I exhausted my library's complement of Asimovian short stories, I began the Foundation series, which was tremendously good story-telling, in my opinion. Asimov does write in a grandiose style: his emphasis is on the story, not his vocabulary. The Foundation series is a political, historical, and sociological epic set in deep space. Foundation, Foundation's Edge, Foundation and Earth, Prelude to Foundation, and Forward the Foundation were some of my favorites from this series. I also read Asimovian nonfiction, most notably his Asimov's Guide to the Bible. I only read the first volume, but I am trying to find the second volume. In 2008, Isaac Asimov became my favorite author. I read two of his biographies (It's Been a Good Life and I, Asimov) and have loved knowing the man through his works and interviews. When speaking of Asimov's Mysteries, I wrote "My only complaint is that the book ended. If I’m wrong about the existence of the gods and I die to find myself at the Elysian Fields, I hope they have a library stocked with Asimov’s complete works. Anyway, in conclusion, Asimov rocks my socks off."

It was quite a year for reading -- over a hundred and fifty books. I probably read more this year than I ever have or ever will.

Honorable Mentions:


  1. 2008 was certainly an impressive reading year. I hope that 2009 proves as interesting - you've certainly given me some very good ideas for books.

  2. Care to mention any particular ideas? :)