Like a lot of people this year, I've availed myself of a few different excellent library systems and gotten a lot of reading done. I thought for an end-of-year treat, I'd share the books I'd recommend and what makes them worth reading. And wouldn't you know it, my reading just happens to sort of self-sift into twelve different subject areas, so it's twelve days of reading! Each day's recommendations newsletter will clock in at 600 words or less, so you can gulp this quick bite when you need a minute to yourself. Enjoy giving your Libby app a vigorous workout or making some independent bookseller very happy.
WHY ARE YOU LOOKING AT THAT?
I've recommended more than sixty books over the last two weeks. I've also zipped my lip about the couple dozen I either skimmed, bailed out on, or finished and disliked.
That was a last-minute decision; I had initially written about these books too, and then decided that nobody needed anti-recommendations. It's far more constructive to direct attention toward deserving books than it is to point and scream, "THAT IS BAD AND IT SHOULD FEEL BAD -- WAIT, WHY ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION TO IT?" at things that don't merit mention.
As irritated as I get by bad research, or bad reporting, or bad reasoning, or bad writing … I'm kind of glad I still can be irritated. Reading a bad book makes me appreciate reading better books. And I don't mean "the canon" or award-winning books as better books. A better book is one that expands and clarifies an understanding of the world, stokes and rewards curiosity, delights with how it's structured or written just as much as what it writes about.
THREE BOOKS I READ AND RECOMMEND, BUT HAVE NO THEME FOR BECAUSE LIFE IS STILL UNFOLDING:
Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui is objectively a very well-reported book but I read it while three months into a six month stretch away from swimming -- my longest time away from the pool in nearly 40 years -- and I had to put down the book for a few days after I read this, “For many swimmers, the act of swimming is a tonic, in that old-fashioned sense of the word: it is a restorative, a stimulant, undertaken for a feeling of vigor and well-being. The word tonic comes from the Greek tonikos, “of or for stretching.”
The irony of being unable to do something that was so fundamental to my own well-being in the middle of a global sickness was too much. I needed a few days to regain equilibrium and the rest of the book only made me feel acutely unwell. But I'm back in the water at least four days a week now, and I'm looking forward to a reread in a more receptive frame of mind.
A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman, which has me thinking that it might be time to revisit his entire body of work in tandem with a reread of Lawrence Lessig's Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. There's something to be said about Gaiman's deft literary remixing but I need to read more to know how to say it.
A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman very nearly made it into a few earlier newsletters but I think her take on the Black Death -- “Once people envisioned the possibility of change in a fixed order, the end of an age of submission came in sight; the turn to individual conscience lay ahead. To that extent the Black Death may have been the unrecognized beginning of modern man.” -- is something that deserves a little rumination as we move into a new stage of pandemic-shaped society. I want to see what the next new beginnings look like.
Better books let me be grateful for librarians and libraries this year. If you're an American, it's understandable to feel rage and despair at all the ways our government failed us in 2020. But every time a reserve came in for pick up, or a library catalogue expanded, it was a reminder that there are people in the government who were showing up and doing their work under extraordinary circumstances, and being unappreciated while doing their best. If the people who make our communities run could show up for us, we could and should show up for each other too.
And I'm grateful to everyone who keeps showing up to read this newsletter. Thank you. I'll see you next year.