In order to gain a better understanding of how I choose what to read, I’ll be doing monthly recaps of the fiction and non-fiction books I finished, and why.
Realizing I read about twice as much in October as I did in September was momentarily gratifying, and then internally puzzling, as the sense of satisfaction that came from having done more dissolved and left me with a sense of not knowing what it was for. Though I indulged my curiosity with books on design, sustainable food and traveling through Russia, I didn’t feel any sense of progress, as if I was juggling too many ideas in the air while not being able to focus enough on a select few to make any solid connections. While the tangible results of pages read and books complete made it seem like I covered a lot of ground, I did not feel as in control of the reading as I should have.
Part of this uncertainty comes from enrolling in – and then dropping out – of a Coursera course on Science Fiction & Fantasy. The motivation for the course was admittedly unclear: it seemed interesting at the time. That unfocused desire waned in the face of a more compelling project, and though the two books I read for the course were worth the effort, they ultimately weren’t additive. Reading sometimes works as a kind of self-hypnosis; feeling that you’re not reading the correct book is a surefire way to snap out of that. I encountered a similar uneasiness while reading Travels in Siberia that even Frazier’s impressive writing couldn’t subdue, a realization that stemmed from a mind more interested in something else.
I’ve recently committed to taking on a sort of entrepreneurial endeavor. Having a direction should focus my recently scattered reading, as the book selection will be motivated by their potential impact on the project. This means an intentional lessening of the time devoted to books picked as morsels for a peckish curiosity. That there is still value in reading widely I have no doubt, it’s just a tendency I need to temper in order to make progress in other areas.
The point of these monthly posts is to judge the efficacy of my reading, and the past three months have showed me adept at indulging my interests. There’s little doubt in my mind how pleasurable that reading has been, and that it will have impacts in the future is assured. There must be a shift now of reading almost entirely for pleasure (to satisfy curiosity, to delve into stories, etc.) to reading as a tool for work.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – This book was recommended to me by Lauren as a similarly styled alternative to the apocalyptic California, which we read for last month’s book club. Station Eleven has an interesting narrative style that allows for a unique interplay between character development and the world’s ending, as the author chooses to focus on characters that existed before the major pandemic, some that bridged the gap between old world and new, and others who came of age after the world was ravaged by the flu.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll – It’s possible I’ve read this as much as any other story in my life, and of course and seen it in its many incarnations. If you haven’t refreshed yourself on the source material in a while, I recommend you do so. This was on the reading list for the Coursera class on Science Fiction & Fantasy.
Dracula by Bram Stoker – Another book for the Coursera course, Dracula proved itself as a powerfully structured story. The prevalence of movies based on the titular character is reason alone to familiarize yourself with the story; the reason I’d endorse is to read a story told solely through the vantage points of interwoven journal entries and correspondences between characters that manages to still create a suspense and horror that feel modern.
The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food by Dan Barber – An Ira Glass interview turned me on to this book, which Glass describes as a “surprisingly well-reported Michael Pollan-ish book written by a professional chef.” I thought it was a terrific perspective on cultivating food and how different modern communities are treating the natural world. Also, farm-to-table isn’t sustainable, so we need to stop acting like that it’s the end-all be-all of food ideas.
Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier – The New Yorker excerpts of Ian Frazier’s van ride through the great expanse of Russia have stuck with me since they were published several years ago, so memorable in their description of that curious land that I grabbed a hardcover version of his book from a used book store. My interest waned in the middle as I found my thoughts occupied with embarking on a new project, but that has little bearing on the quality of the travelogue and the way Frazier incorporates millennia of Russian history into his numerous jaunts to Russia’s many outposts. For a non-fiction companion piece of the desolate nature of life in Sibera, complete with a more thrilling narrative, try John Valliant’s The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival.
Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters by Matt Ridley – A year ago my parents sent me a box of science and technology-oriented books without a letter or a reason. Genome was one of those books, and it stayed dormant on my shelves until reading Gould’s Dinosaur in a Haystack, which sparked an interest in genetics. Though the human genome may never be one of my specializations, it’s such a controversial subject, and the writing about it contains so many nuanced connections, told from the perspective of people with experiences ranging from personal stakes to professional distance. That buffet of opinions – subjective, objective, passionate, ill-informed – is enough to keep me returning occasionally for more.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty – Our spooky October book club selection. This memoir had good insights and was told from a young mortician’s perspective, which ends up being a double-edged sword. It’s unusual, and that helps in marketing the book by giving journalists and interviewers everywhere an easy-to-grasp angle. The book feels incomplete, though, as if there just weren’t enough stories yet to expand to book length.
The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman – This book is from that same box of books described above, and I read it more out of general interest – having not read any design-specific books before – than anything else. I enjoyed the look into the design process of everyday objects, and find myself thinking about some of the points on a regular basis. The fundamental concepts are enjoyable, but the book as a whole is showing its age. References to setting VCRs are one of many now-obsolete technologies that are simultaneously amusing and distracting.
If you have any recommendations of books to read, either based on the books above, or on your own experience, please let me know.