Another Year of Books and Reading

With the commencement of a brand new year, I set out once again reaching for what I’ve established as my personal baseline figure for books to read over a twelve-month period. While far from being scientific, I arrived at my number of books to read per month, and in the course of setting the bar, I learned that I’m way above the average number of books read annually by almost all other Americans. I now believe that doing so keeps me sharper (I think) than less ambitious types.

As it shakes out, my bedrock number of 36 books read is triple the U.S. average, at least according to Pew Research, my researcher of choice in this matter. The “average American” in the U.S. reads 12 books per year.  That’s a paltry number, but it’s the average. That means many of the people you work with and interact with read a lot less than that.

My wife reads a lot of books. My son once more hit a reading number that dwarfs my own 2015 total of 53 books, which exceeded my goal for the year, but fell short of last year’s total of 66.

Previous end-of-year book summaries also served as attempts at advocacy, citing the benefits of being a reader. Two would be broadening your awareness and increasing knowledge. But I have to remind myself periodically that we live in a time when ignorance trumps all else—most wouldn’t consider broadness an asset—and they wear ignorance like a coat of arms.

Not only are Americans light readers, I’d go one step further—if they do read anything at all, their tendency is towards books offering cover and validation to their views on politics, culture, and any other subject that they have an  awareness about. Or, they read simply for pleasure and escape. I get that and I’m not opposed. Miss Mary is a reading-for-pleasure kind of girl.

My 2015 reading list seems a bit more pell-mell than some of my previous ones. Scroll down and take a look back at 2013 and 2014, and you be the judge.

John Gould and a few other books from 2015.

John Gould and a few other books from 2015.

Sometimes my reading choices are dictated by research needs related to articles I’m working on. The John Gould and E.B. White selections in February were for an article I was working on for Down East Magazine that ended up being published in November. This also commemorated the 70th anniversary of Gould’s best-selling, Farmer Takes a Wife, long ago out-of-print.

Gould is a Maine treasure, and one of those “forgotten writers” that I’ve touched on before, here at the JBE. I’d never read the book before (even though I’d heard many old-timers refer to it when talking about Gould). I’m glad that it landed on my 2015 booklist. I also received a hard-to-find copy from Santa at Christmas, to add to my library.

I read my first Turgenev novel. Russian literature is often cited as having special merit. This one was also for a short-lived monthly reading club my sister and I planned in 2015 that fizzled after a mere four months. My excuse to her was that I’m not really a “book club person.” It’s probably an indication of the randomness of my reading choices, and maybe even a lack of discipline that others have that participate in monthly book clubs. A larger circle of readers might make a longer run possible.

In April, I was prompted to read one of my favorite 2015 selections. The Baffler (Baffler No. 27) featured a terrific article by a woman named Catherine Tumber, about Buffalo, New York. The article, fairly long, but very readable, touched on some intriguing ideas for economic development, especially development in places in the U.S. that have been gutted by de-industrialization.  She offered much greater detail about this in her book, Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World.

Tumber’s book became 2015’s rival to books read during prior book seasons, like George Packer’s nonfiction work in 2013 that I hyped (and harped about) to anyone that would listen. And like with Packer and the essential themes so relevant to what’s happening all around us, economically, my evangelism fell on deaf ears. Actually, most of what I talk about and blog about is ignored. It is a strange time when bloggers with little depth and breadth of knowledge acquire large followings, and bloggers (and writers) offering up important topics on a regular basis are dismissed. (insert Packer link from JBE)

There is much to commend in Tumber’s book, especially for planners and economic development types in our own state and in communities like Lewiston-Auburn, Waterville, and even Portland. Instead, economic developers that spend more time on Twitter than they do broadening their understanding of their profession think they’re doing great things, hollowing out what remains of viable local business culture, and building big-box monstrosities that will be empty in 25 years, if not sooner.

A book like Tumber’s is yet another reminder of the idiom, you can lead a horse to water….and also how common it is to encounter lesser lights (some might say, “idiots”)  claiming membership in the state’s economic development fraternity.

I don’t read  much fiction—2015 was no different in that regard. However, I did make my way through James Kunstler’s World Made By Hand trilogy last year, in May and June. Like Tumber’s ideas, Kunstler’s take on collapse should be common knowledge among the majority of people who call themselves informed about what’s going on economically. Instead, he has a cult following (albeit, a good-sized cult, I think) that laps up everything he writes, whether it’s his nonfiction work (of which I’m a fan of), or his weekly ruminations at his blog, Clusterfuck Nation.

My wife wouldn’t be considered a “true believer” in terms of collapse or post-petroleum scenarios, but she loved Kunstler’s novels after I suggested she download the first one. She ran through all three and eagerly awaits his fourth and final installment due out at some point in 2016.

Once I read the first novel (World Made By Hand), I blew through the other two. I liked The Witch of Hebron, the best (novel #2). Sometimes it’s hard to envision what a post-petroleum world might look like. I credit Kunstler for trying his fiction-writing hand and offering up a narrative of that possibility.

Politics, like religion, tends to divide people. That division is dependent on where you reside ideologically or theologically. Interestingly, people’s views on these topics often part ways with facts. Or, if facts are presented, they often are merely “proof texts” supporting preconceived ideas.

After seeking much of my own source material the past two decades from places that could be characterized as “leftist” or “progressive,” I had an ideological falling out with some of these sources last year. While I don’t plan on getting into a long treatise on specifics, let’s just say that places like Democracy Now, the aforementioned magazine, The Baffler, and other progressive websites lost their luster for me midway through the year. The controversy about the Confederate flag was one area where I grew tired of the left-wing talking points because in my opinion, they lacked a factual basis, and weren’t historically grounded.

John Coski’s excellent book centered the controversy squarely on facts and the history of the Confederacy, and its central (and currently maligned) symbol. Again, it represented personal initiative based on informing myself and understanding the issue, as well as serving as a counterpoint to the slant and framing offered by the revisionists—especially popular ones, like this guy, who gets far too much intellectual credit for regularly “stirring the shit” on race.


Coski-Confederate flagThe Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem is considered an essential book concerning the history of the flag and all the various meanings the flag has acquired over time. Coski’s effort and writing reminded me of some of my favorite Southern historians—James McPherson (who I also read in 2015), Shelby Foote, C. Vann Woodard, to name just a few—all who offer a rendering of Southern history from their unique, experiential perspective, as well as cultural understanding.

Because people don’t read, it’s pie-in-the-sky to think anyone will take on a 400-page book as a starting point in figuring out why things happen, or how we arrived at the Balkanized state of matters we find ourselves in at the moment concerning Confederate history and yes, race relations, too. It’s so much easier to lob pejoratives like “racist” and “Nazi” and be done with the matter. Personally, I think we’d live in a better and a truly more humane country if citizens brushed up on some of their history. Coski’s book would be a great starting point for elitists that consider demonizing southerners as acceptable.

In scrolling through this year’s list—especially some of my summer selections—you might notice that there are titles that tilt to the conservative side of the ideological aisle. Ann Coulter, Michael Savage—a few names that make the blood boil for progressives—even though most of them have never spent five minutes reading one of their books, or listening to someone like Savage, one of America’s most popular talk radio hosts. Again, in America, it’s accepted that you draw your line in the ideological sand and label those different than you, “the enemy.” Divide and conquer continues its legacy of effectiveness in the land of the free and home of the brave.

There are recurring threads that run through the posts I’ve put up over the past three years. One of them is my own fitness quest, including becoming a triathlete, and finding a home in the pool, as a swimmer. Health is a foundational element in these endeavors.

When my bathroom scale seemed stuck on a number that was 10-15 pounds heavier than I was pleased with, I knew I needed to look at my food intake. The paleo diet isn’t new and the idea of eating “like a caveman” has been written about by a number of people.

The book that introduced me to a regimen that I’ve been following since August was John Durant’s, The Paleo Manifesto: Ancient Wisdom for Lifelong Health. To say this book opened me up to not only a different way of eating, but also, an alternative way of approaching life, work, and fitness would be a disservice.

I’m pleased that paleo eating has delivered the hoped for weight loss. More important, it’s pointed me in a brand new direction that I believe will continue producing physical gains and benefits.

Working in and around Maine’s senior population the past couple of years has provided firsthand experience with the issues central to aging and aging in place. One part big-picture in terms of  Maine’s demographics making us the oldest state in the U.S., I’ve also come to consider my own life’s journey, which is bringing me ever closer to the place where I’ll also end up as one of those seniors.

Susan Jacoby’s exceptional and even-handed book on aging was another title that I pitched to others, especially if their aim was acquiring a handle on aging without all the “happy talk.” The best kind of nonfiction writing in my opinion is the kind that offers an alternative narrative, especially to the poppycock that ignores reality. But of course, in our culture of “experts,” professionals have a standard script and for whatever reason—and I think I could cite an extensive list of them—they can’t and/or won’t vary from what I consider an incomplete narrative on the topic.

This pattern presents itself over and over whenever anyone writes a book that “leaves the compound” on an issue, and Jacoby’s book certainly doesn’t pander towards the peanut gallery. Like most of the books that I’ve invested time in reading and understanding in past—by Kunstler, John Michael Greer, Packer, Neil Postman, or Morris Berman—just about any book that doesn’t deliver Kool-Aid and perpetuate the myriad of myths circulating east, west, north, and south will be dismissed, or read by a small subsection of those Americans who read at all—remember, that number is quite small.

For sheer enjoyment (if you can define reading about the brutality of war as  “enjoyment”) coupled with enlightenment, Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down: The Story of Modern War would be my pick in 2015.


Black Hawk Down-Bowden

Bowden’s battle-tested tour-de-force isn’t a new book—it was released in 1999 and the events recounted occurred back in 1992. I picked it off the shelves at my local library during my end-of-year quest to cut through the PC bullshit being dispensed on terrorism, Islam being a “religion of peace,” and because a blogger I read regularly mentioned the book. Sgt. Thomas Field, one of the soldiers killed in Mogadishu, was from my hometown of Lisbon Falls.

I vaguely remember the events Bowden wrote about. I also was clueless about why they took place and some of the political backstory behind them. I recall that Field was one of the U.S. Army Rangers sent to Somalia to ferret out the underlings of Mohammed Farah Aidid. They took part in an urban battle that left Field and 17 U.S. servicemen dead, and 78 wounded. Worse, the still photograph that was circulated through the media of a mutilated dead solder being dragged through Mogadishu’s streets with Somalis jeering and cheering was of Field. It caused a reassessment of our purpose in being there in the first place. However, I was too busy with my life at the time to remember much more about the battle, soldiers like Field who paid the ultimate price in laying down his life, and being reminded once again that presidents from Bill Clinton to our current one have presided over an ambivalent and some might say “failed” foreign policy. I wanted to “go back” and reconsider what had taken place. Bowden’s highly readable and vivid narrative is one of the best books I’ve tackled over the past decade.

One of my own motivations in continuing reading and reading regularly is to remain connected to the past. History matters and not considering the past often dooms us to relive it, sometimes with the same cast of characters. Think Hillary Clinton, if you must—her husband was president during the period that Bowden wrote so eloquently about.

And that my friend, is a wrap on last year’s reading.

Happy 2016!

5 thoughts on “Another Year of Books and Reading

  1. In response to a couple of requests for my “favorites” from the past year. I especially liked the “World Made by Hand” novels by James Howard Kunstler. They would be near the top of my list of books read in 2015. Catherine Tumber’s book on local economic viability and also, Susan Jacoby’s excellent book on aging were outstanding.I don’t read a lot of fiction, but Michel Houellebecq’s novel, “Platform” is an intriguing read. I’ve included links throughout the post, but you can find my entire reading list at my freelance writing site, also.

  2. I’m glad I married a reader! I read 39 books this year and listened to 45 in audio so total is 83!

  3. I am (once again) amazed and impressed at your reading discipline. Your success follows a simple formula, i.e. “I will read X number of books per month.” I think, though, the true key to your success is that reading for you is just another one of those daily acts, like brushing your teeth, sleeping, etc. It’s part of your larger process of a thriving life and not an event. Great job!

  4. Jim, it’s official. Mary kicked your butt.

    Nothing like audio books when you have a 30-40 minute commute, just long enough to digest, time flies by. A steady ten-fifteen pages a day, and a year later it’s amazing how much literary ground you have covered.

  5. @JAB I try to be as systematic as “reading X number of books per month.” Some months are more challenging than others. I do try to get out in front in January and February, good months to sit at home by the wood stove with a good book.

    @Miss Mary Ditto on being “married to a reader.”

    @LP Yes, she did. My lack of commuting has cut into my own audio book-listening that I once engaged in when I was trekking up and down I-95 on a regular basis.

    And if anyone missed it, someone slightly better known than me has a similar end-of-year list of books.

    Bill Gates is a reader, reads a similar number of books as I did this past year, and blogs about them. In the NY Times, “Bill Gates on Books and Blogging.”

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