Why read? That seems to be the question at hand since I’m once more at the end of a calendar year with another assortment of books read over the course of the past 12 months. With a list like this comes some sort of requirement to justify the time I invested in making my way through these books. Hence, I report back to you, dear reader.
The rediscovery of reading transformed my life back in 1997. I say “rediscovery” because like so many, I’d found other second rate substitutes for books and reading in the course of leaving school and entering the realm of work. Now I’ve come back to an even more essential task—reading broadly. I wish a few more of you would begin wrestling with this task.
I still don’t fully understand why I made the fateful decision to begin reading a wide assortment of books at that time. It may have had something to do with a desire for a better understanding of my world. Perhaps I was merely looking to tamp down the frustration I was feeling at that time in my life, with my job, and in my personal psyche. Maybe I decided it was time to erect an intellectual hedge against seeking the latest flavor of the month, or hewing someone else’s ideological timber. Possibly I awoke to the fact that I’d wasted too many hours toiling for others—people that generally were narcissistic and happy to leverage my talent and creativity—and decided to maximize the time left by staking out my own ground. It’s possible that it was less high-minded than that, but who really cares—I started down an important road that I’ve been traveling ever since.
The name Neil Postman pops up regularly in my conversations and in my writing. That’s because it was Postman that piqued in me a curiosity that I haven’t been able to sate since I first discovered his writing.
The summer of 1997 was a fateful one for me. I chose to take some time off while looking for a new job. It was a period of change and after years of working for the same company, I would experience a period of career dissonance that would eventually deposit me at the entrance to a path pointing towards reinvention.
I read voraciously that summer, mainly in the areas of sociology, philosophy, and theology. A handful of writers changed the way I saw the world and became the basis of what I now consider my core beliefs about life and the world that I inhabit.
Shortly I will begin walking readers through my reading highlights for the year, but I want to touch on a couple of things before I do. First, this is less a rote listing of books with summaries (like I put together last year) and more a narrative of 2012 with the books I read during the year serving as guideposts.
My second point is that the kind of reading I’ve embarked upon over the past 15 years has been done mainly to develop what I consider a more holistic understanding of the world that I’m living in. The more I read, the less I accept the standard explanations that come from people that have a more extensive formal education, but to hear them go on and reveal what they know (or don’t) is at times painful, and worse, a fucking joke. With all the colleges and other institutions of higher ed cranking out graduates, one rationale might be that we’re more educated than ever before. In fact, we have organizations and leaders in our state that believe that if we can just get to some standard level of degree attainment, then all our economic problems will be solved.
I can tell you unequivocally that more degrees won’t fill the void that our industrial model of education has created. History teaches us that there were more successful approaches from earlier periods—a time when education was less formulaic, but turned out citizens with a much broader scope of knowledge and a capacity for critical thought than what passes for being “educated” at the moment. This was a time of autodidacts and middle-brow Americans, although anyone familiar with Richard Hofstadter will tell you that America’s never been a nation with a proud intellectual tradition.
I really like this quote from John Taylor Gatto on what education should be (but usually isn’t, even the higher ed variety):
“Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your road map through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important: how to live and how to die.”
Lastly, my list of books resides at the end of my post, with author, name of the book, and number of pages. I’ve grouped these under the month when they were read.
This list represents the books that were read from front to back (or in some manner that allowed me to work my way through the entire book) and doesn’t represent the sum total of my reading for 2012. I also spend time each week working my way through the longer form narrative essays characteristic of The New Yorker. This longstanding literary magazine, along with my assortment of books read each subsequent year has become the best education and method for broadening my worldview that I’ve found.
Without any further ado, here is my 2012 reading year in review.
I mentioned Neil Postman earlier. It was Postman who pointed me in the direction of Lewis Mumford. Postman had a way of dropping names and citing other writers who when you took the time to seek them out, always delivered additional depth and breadth to the points he was making.
When I read Mumford’s The Culture of Cities during the summer of 1997, it was unlike any book I’d read up to that point. Published in 1938, Mumford’s tour de force on the development of the modern city—what Plato referred to as “the polis”—is arguably Mumford’s greatest work. This was the work of Mumford’s that propelled him into the international spotlight that he’d occupy for the remainder of his days. This was the book that also landed him on the cover of Time magazine.
Later, he’d revise and greatly expand the work in what became The City in History, published in 1961, the year before I was born. I now own a used copy of the book, purchased a year ago and I refer to it regularly.
Mumford’s writing about cities and their development has helped me immeasurably in understanding what constitutes a workable and beneficial urban environment. His ideas are no longer followed by most of today’s urban planners and he took issue with much of what passed for 1960s urban renewal, which was an absolute disaster. We know this now, in hindsight, but at the time, the so-called urban “experts”—men like Robert Moses, who Mumford was regularly at loggerheads with—insisted in designing and overseeing urban build outs and the modern car culture that contributed to much of the pathology represented and perpetuated in most urban environments.
I tackled Donald Miller’s biography because I wanted to know about the man behind the writing, someone who arguably was one of the 20th century’s great humanists and one of our last men of letters. All told, Mumford penned 30 books over his lifetime, completing his final book at the age of 86, in 1981.
Additionally, he wrote over 1,000 essays and reviews, many of them for The New Yorker, beginning in the 1930s and later, served as the prominent literary magazine’s architecture critic through the 1950s. This was the period when Mumford became an increasingly vocal critic of Moses, considered New York City’s “master builder,” and the man most responsible for the city’s current maze of roadways and high rises. Mumford, with his extensive canon on the urban environment, took issue with Moses and his development theories for cities.
Miller, a gifted writer in his own right, covered the history and the life of Mumford in a fashion that reads more like a novel than a rote recitation of dates and events of a major American figure.
I was reading Mumford‘s biography in January when my wife surprised me for my 50th birthday and we ended up in New York City for five days in what became the “Nifty Fifty” adventure. Being in New York City, the place that was the basis of who Mumford became was invigorating, especially seeing much of what he wrote about, and then, understanding his early years (courtesy of Miller’s biography) made it especially interesting and it brought the book to life for me.
While Miller’s sprawling biography required nearly a month’s investment of reading time, I’m glad I tackled this book.
The bar was now set exceptionally high for the rest of the year. At times I’d approach the loftiness of Mumford (via Miller), and at other times, I wasted time and energy on books that did little for me other than to serve as a placeholder until something better came along.
Let me say a bit about the categories of books I read in 2012. Mumford’s life was one of three biographies I read during the year. The others included Ron Chernow’s thorough work on the life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr, and I also read D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace (more to come on that one).
Mumford’s purview was history, filtered through the lens of sociology. I tend towards history and sociology in the nonfiction that I read. In fact, I read nonfiction almost exclusively. There are a few works of fiction dusted in among my nonfiction, including Stephen King’s latest, along with one of the best books of fiction I’ve read in ages.
In addition to history and sociology, I took some interest in economics this year, mainly via blogs and other publications like The Baffler. I did work my way through an excellent economics primer that I’d recommend to anyone, which I touched on in my post the other day. Jared Bernstein’s book was an excellent read and one that only took me a few days to complete. A quick read doesn’t equate to shallow. This book packed a real wallop and it was a nice end-of-the-year capstone on what was really a diverse group of nonfiction (primarily) choices.
I usually work my way through a handful of self-help/personal growth titles each 12-month reading cycle. This year was no exception and the three titles I read were all excellent. The trifecta of Godin, Pink, and Kawasaki really enhanced my understanding of reinvention touched upon regularly here at the JBE.
Seth Godin’s Poke the Box was the shortest book I read all year. I read it in two nights in March, but boy, what an effect it had on me the rest of the year. It came along at a perfect time because March was when I was forced to scramble to pick up additional work as a freelancer due to my hours being cut in half at work.
If I learned anything from Godin, it was that nothing’s guaranteed in life. Success (in whatever way you define it) comes from accepting risk as a factor and being willing to fail. In fact, Godin writes that success actually begins with failure. Minimizing risk is a bad thing and ultimately, success requires that you ship. How’s that for summarizing 83 pages? There’s more, of course, but reading Godin and more important—actually embracing Godin and moving forward helped me immeasurably this past year.
Daniel Pink was another familiar personal growth guru. His latest book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” pushed me towards greater awareness and understanding. Pink recognizes the seismic paradigm shift that’s occurred and why the 21st century world of work is so different from the previous century’s paradigm. In a word, it comes down to “motivation.” What I love about Pink is that he gets it in a way that few others do, even summarizing his 272 pages via a tweet, or Twitter summary. Here it is:
“Carrots and sticks are so last century. Drive says for 21st century work, we need to upgrade to autonomy, mastery & purpose.”
Motivation and personal growth guy #3? That would be Guy Kawasaki. I knew of him, but I’d never read anything by him. 2012 was the year I changed that.
The Art of the Start: The Time-Tested, Battle-Hardened Guide for Anyone Starting Anything is exactly what the title implies. Kawasaki builds on what Godin posits—it’s all about getting started. And that’s where most people miss it.
You don’t need another degree, or even one more class—you need to get some momentum rolling forward by getting started. Is that profound enough for you?
I’m absolutely dumbstruck by how few people get this concept. Maybe it’s because I spent most of the past seven years in the nonprofit realm that makes me so sensitive to this. This world is riddled with over-educated directors who can’t get out of their own way. They are ringed by boards that meet regularly, generate a roomful of hot air, and do little else. I’m convinced that they’ll continue to act in that same manner because they don’t know anything else and refuse to embrace the 21st century requirements for success. Most are becoming irrelevant dinosaurs. If they don’t adapt, they’ll disappear.
My own transitional period between March and June taught me a lot, and made me especially thankful that I’m already headed down the right corridor of taking risks, shipping, starting new things, and understanding the new motivation.
Not all of my reading was motivated by learning new things, at least in the context of reinvention. Some of it was rooted in understanding the human condition. Death, tragedy—these things are always among us.
I picked up Joan Didion’s Blue Nights mainly because I’ve long been a fan of Didion as a writer and I saw her latest book on the shelves at the Maine State Library (a place where I scored many of my 2012 reads).
Didion is an essayist and as a writer of essays myself, I try to read other writers working in a similar vein.
An article in New York Magazine on Didion describes her as possibly “the best living American essayist and probably the most influential.” What does it mean to be an influential essayist in a land devoted to tweets and reality TV? Too often it means mentioning Joan Didion’s name to others and describing this deep and telling book about life, aging, and loss, and drawing blank stares.
Didion is an essayist of amazing talent and depth; one of the members of what was referred to as “new journalism,” a sub-genre of journalism that sought to communicate facts through narrative storytelling and literary techniques. What it did was revolutionize the essay in the 1970s and still carries some cache today. Didion was a member of the vanguard and is still producing meaningful material well into her late 70s.
Blue Nights (like The Year of Magical Thinking) is a memoir of grief. Didion must grapple with the grief that comes with losing a daughter who has just begun finding herself after struggling with depression most of her life. Didion takes this on with her characteristic remote style, detached, but the reader still senses the pain and heartbreak affecting her.
Didion’s book followed Mumford’s sprawling life and was read in late February, a period when I was desiring sun and there was little light shining outside, or inside for me.
As a parent, you never think you’ve done an adequate job. It’s a task that comes with little or no preparation and you don’t get a second chance.
This book was about many things—mental illness, fate, and our overgrown faith in medical technology. Eventually her daughter died and you walk the landscape of despair with Didion in her writing.
Nothing that we do is done without ramification and echoes. Didion bears this out in her latest book, one worth reading if you care at all about the human condition.
My reading in April and May was nothing worth noting, really. I read a lousy memoir by Bernd Heinrich that I considered a waste of time. Another book written by the other Donald Miller (the not so bright one, I guess) was about the pain and suffering that comes when you write a best-selling memoir and then, find yourself in a rut. Bore-ing!
Two books about musicians that I had some interest in were better than I thought they’d be. They kept me reading and adding books to my growing list. Then Pink rounded out May with premonitions of better days with his excellent book.
June and July were given over to fiction. First there was a wonderful first novel by Chad Harbach about college baseball. Since I knew something about college baseball, especially the small college variety he tackled, I found his book a real joy to read and banged it out over Father’s Day weekend.
Harbach spent over nine years writing his novel. During the course of writing came the struggles of keeping income trickling in while attending grad school. Towards the tail end of that period, he apparently landed a job tutoring for the family of a billionaire living in Virginia. The family headed to Florida every year for the Winter Equestrian Festival.
Their youngest daughter, a serious equestrienne was forced to leave school for three months. This allowed Harbach time in the Sunshine State and he ended up being in Florida around the time that countless northern, small-college baseball teams go down to Florida for their spring training.
All of those teams (like Wheaton College, where our son, Mark played) get a dozen games or so on their trip south and Harbach ended up completing his research watching a bunch of Division III college games, which lent a realism to his book that I really appreciated. His characters were multi-dimensional and not cardboard cutouts. I also thought he did a good job capturing small college life beyond the diamond.
Next up for fiction was Stephen King’s latest, 11/22/63. I have a NOOK reader and I downloaded this one and enjoyed reading it this way.
I’m not a King groupie and haven’t read a wealth of his bestselling fiction. I wanted to read this one, however, because Lisbon Falls was prominently featured in the book, including a section on The Moxie Store, or Kennebec Fruit Company (or simply, Kennebec’s as locals know it) and a very young Frank Anicetti, the Mayor of Moxietown.
It was obvious that King did some herculean research to get the history and setting right for his book on the Kennedy assassination. That historical connection, the Lisbon Falls thread, and elements of time travel all made this an enjoyable read.
A few quibbles. The book seemed a bit too long. I guess when you reach the heights that King has scaled, editors don’t tell you to pare back. That and the fact that the ending was weaker than I expected tarnished the experience slightly.
The release of Monica Wood’s new book When We Were the Kennedys : A Memoir from Mexico, Maine was an event worth celebrating. I’d put this one in my top five reads for 2012. I had a brief preview of it back in late April when I joined Monica at a fun literacy event in Bath.
We had been invited along with local writer Henry Bird to be part of World Book night on April 26 at Patten Free Library. It was an honor to be on the dais with a writer of Monica’s reputation. We had a chance to chat and I shared the story of attending a book reading she did back in 2002 when I was just getting started as a serious writer. She had offered encouragement and 10 years later, my third book had just been released and we were trading notes about writing.
Monica read the prologue to the book that she said would be released that summer. I was enthralled by what she read and made a note to pick it up as soon as it was released.
This has been Wood’s coming out book. Her other works, all fiction, are stellar. This one captures the period, the people, and life lived in small working-class communities like Mexico, and by extension countless other places across the American landscape. It’s no surprise then that the book’s been a huge hit and has received favorable reviews ranging from The New Yorker Online to Oprah Magazine, especially given her talent with words coupled with her firsthand understanding of how people and place intersect.
2012 has been a challenging year. Back in January, I knew that changes were afoot. The nonprofit where I’d been since 2006 had undergone a shift in leadership. Things had been going south for more than a year after the director who hired me—a wonderful man with a keen mind and intellectual pedigree—retired partly due to health reasons and because of one questionable decision he made that got him in a ton of hot water. None of us are perfect. Once he left, the organization that allowed me to channel my passion and skills towards the development of meaningful workforce development initiatives was no longer the same. I was forced to report to someone I had no respect for at all, someone that probably hasn’t read 10 books in his life—but that’s an entirely different story.
Why is reading important? There is no single one reason. I do think that reading across a wider spectrum and outside the usual parameters of popularity sets you apart from the masses in how you make decisions and frame and perceive events. If nonreaders have narrow perspectives and a framework provided by others like the popular media, then cultivating the ability to think broadly and move beyond the national scourge that tilts towards narrowness offers you beneficial separation from the national drumbeat coming from a myriad of channels.
This carries me back to Postman again and another name, like Mumford that I discovered in Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death.
Morris Berman is a historian and a cultural critic. He’s also the author of an important trilogy of books, which included the release late in 2011 of his final installment, Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline. I read this in early January, following on the heels of Ted Conover’s book detailing going undercover as a prison guard at Sing Sing.
Berman is working in the realm of writing that some label “doomer-ism.” I think this is unfair because it connotes a pejorative labeling of honest scholarship and research. Keep in mind that in America, ideas out of the mainstream are often marginalized in this exact manner.
Why America Failed is the book that all Americans should be reading. It would help them understand the nation that they proudly hail is actually a far different place than they realize. A national period of self-reflection might actually cleanse our culture of its hubris. Now I know I’m delusional for even thinking what I just wrote. One can dream, however, right?
Berman ends the book with what I think is a very honest assessment. He again mentions what led him to leave the country (he lives in Mexico as an ex pat). He also discusses how most writers, when completing a critique like this one, contradict everything they’ve written by pulling a “rabbit out of the hat” at the eleventh hour and providing some cockamamie solution and a way out of whatever the dilemma might be. Berman does no such thing and he discusses why he doesn’t offer false solutions.
I’m also going to lump the late Joe Bageant in with Berman. Both of these writers were mining elements of the same geography, although Bageant’s analysis and critique is much more class-based than Bermans.
I read this book because an old friend from high school mentioned he was in the midst of reading it and I thought it might provide us with fodder for discussion. We interpreted Bageant’s points differently, which doesn’t surprise me now—it was frustrating at the time.
In “Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War,” Bageant made a point about the intelligence of Americans, citing numbers as high as 89 to 94 million adults that are functionally illiterate, with another 17 to 20 percent of those being able to read a little, but not enough to discern nuance and see through the lies perpetrated by manipulative media and corporate communiques. Truly frightening.
Bageant mentions the Scots Irish and their influence on the part of the country (Greater Appalachia) where he was from. I was familiar with their cultural influence, from reading Colin Woodard’s book, American Nations in 2011. Bageant mentions David Hackett Fischer’s book, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, a book that Woodard drew heavily upon in writing his book, in developing 11 distinct regions in North America. Really interesting material and not what one ever hears from the mainstream media.
David Foster Wallace is a writer that I was really taken with when I first discovered his writing. While he’s cited for his sprawling work of fiction, Infinite Jest, of course it was Wallace’s nonfiction that first attracted me to his writing.
I read all 1,104 pages of Infinite Jest during the summer of 2009. Some of the online reading group tackling the book referred to the book as “claustrophobic.” While tough to get into (the recommendation was that you had to slog through the first 200 pages and then, the reading got “easier”), claustrophobic seemed harsh. Difficult, certainly, but unlike the books that get passed off for today’s best-selling novels—books that are a cinch to read on your lunch break, the subway, standing in line at the supermarket, or between innings during commercial breaks, watching Red Sox games—Infinite Jest requires heavy lifting—mentally, physically, and metaphorically. Strong arms and a healthy back are also helpful, with this chock-a-block of a novel.
If you know the story of DFW, you know he committed suicide in 2008. As a fan, I wanted to know more about the “why” of this, as if you ever can know “why” anyone takes their own life.
The D. T. Max biography was my choice for reading while traveling to Orlando for a work conference in early October. I loaded it on my NOOK and read it going to and coming home (finishing it on the flight from JFK back to Portland).
To say I “liked” the book would do it an injustice. It was, along with the Mumford biography, my favorite read of the year.
I think Max wrote an honest book. It showed Wallace as a person, warts and all. He struggled with demons, especially depression. He was riddled with insecurities, he was a notorious womanizer—all things that could have tarnished how I viewed him posthumously—it didn’t. It actually humanized him for me.
There is this ongoing idea that great thinkers (like Mumford) and writers (like Stephen King, Wallace, Didion) are somehow different that the rest of us. That somehow they’ve transcended the human experience that the rest of us remain shackled to.
When the unexpected or horrific happens, we’re stunned. I mean, how could an amazingly talented writer like Wallace take his own life? Because he was depressed and struggled with mental illness, that’s how.
Just the other day I pulled his book of essays down off the shelf and was reading through portions of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and his essay on television. I was amazed anew at his talent and ability to use words in a unique manner.
Rereading the essay offered fresh insights because I had invested the time with Max’s biography on Wallace. I’m thankful for that investment.
Whenever the subject comes up about books read, the canned response is always, “I don’t have time to read.” Yes, watching five to six hours of Tee Vee per day, coupled with time spent on other digital devices robs all of us of valuable time to devote to solitary (and I’d argue, essential) pursuits like reading.
Interestingly, the last quarter of the year was my most challenging as I began my assignment at an anonymous call center north of Boston, working evenings during this period, and yet, it was my most prolific period for reading. I managed to log 10 books over that span, getting in just under the wire with Durant’s great synthesis of history’s shining lights. December was my best month for books read.
Being aware that I was short of my goal of 30 books certainly spurred me on, but I also watched very little television during this period of time. I also blogged more during the last quarter of the year, too; I think it has something to do with priorities.
Looking back over the past 15 years of my life, I now recognize is that many of the writers/thinkers that have become my intellectual foundation were discovered through reading. What most of them tend to have in common, especially Postman, Wendell Berry, and because of Postman—Lewis Mumford and Morris Berman—is that they share a similitude of being masters at synthesizing complex ideas across multiple disciplines. Rather than specializing in just one subject or idea, they open up multiple anterooms of thought—a veritable feast of ideas for serious readers. We used to call them generalists, a term that was once a compliment of the highest order.
I have no idea what I’ll be reading next year, but I’m sure it will be primarily nonfiction with a smattering of fiction stirred in for some variance. There are bound to be books about history, sociology, economics, and cultural criticism.
Reading is a habit and one that I’m glad to have cultivated.
Total Books Read: 30
- Ted Conover New Jack: Guarding Sing Sing (352 pages)-additional material from old blog.
- Morris Berman Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline (256 pages)-book review.
- Donald Miller Lewis Mumford: A Life (628 pages)
- Joan Didion Blue Nights (188 pages)
- Seth Godin Poke the Box (88 pages)-more on PTB (sort of a review)
- Bob Mould See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody (416 pages)
- Duff McKagan It’s So Easy (and other lies) (366 pages)
- Guy Kawasaki The Art of the Start: The Time-Tested, Battle-Hardened, Guide for Anyone Starting Anything (226 pages)
- Bernd Heinrich A Year in the Maine Woods (258 pages)
- Donald Miller A Million Miles in a Thousand Years (288 pages)
- Daniel Pink Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (272 pages)
- Chad Harbach The Art of Fielding (528 pages)
- Stephen King 11/22/63 (849 pages)
- Monica Wood When We Were the Kennedys : A Memoir from Mexico, Maine (261 pages)
- Ron Chernow Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr (832 pages)
- Edward Behr Kiss the Hand You Cannot Bite: The Rise and Fall of the Ceausescus (293 pages)
- Aaron Bobrow-Strain White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf (272 pages)-my review.
- Joe Bageant Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches From America’s Class War (285 pages)
- Mark Salzman True Notebooks (330 pages)
- Michelle Goldberg Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (272 pages)
- D. T. Max Every Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace (368 pages)
- John Heilemann & Mark Halperin Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, the Race of a Lifetime (464 pages)
- Bill Press The Obama Hate Machine: The Lies, Distortions, and Personal Attacks of The President—And Who Is Behind Them (320 pages)
- Tom Perrotta The Leftovers (355 pages)
- John McPhee A Sense of Where You Are (240 pages)
- Gina Pera (and Russell Barkley) Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D. D.? Stopping the Rollercoaster When Someone You Love Has Attention Deficit Disorder (369 pages)
- Jared Bernstein Crunch: Why Do I Feel So Squeezed? (And Other Unsolved Economic Mysteries) (225 pages)-JBE post on “Crunch.”
- Arthur Goldwag The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing On The Populist Right (368 pages)
- Donald Barthelme 40 Stories (256 pages)
- Will Durant Heroes of History: A Brief History of Civilization From Ancient Times to the Dawn of the Modern Age (347 pages)