in the hundreds

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When 2017 began I set out to read 26 books. I thought this was ambitious because I had essentially abandoned reading for most of the previous ten years. It must have been sometime in the spring, after topping well over 100 books, that I realized I would certainly read a record number of books (record for me, that is). I didn’t consciously set out until later in the year to finish 365 books but crossed that threshold in early-mid December, meaning that I did in the end get to read somewhere between 393 and 400 books (Goodreads, which I used to keep track of the reading, was a bit fidgety and unreliable in recording dates).

I’m a bit stunned by having read so much – feeling some of the material branded on my brain permanently, fresh in my mind since early in the year, while some things were almost forgettable. But it was, as I told a former colleague, enriching. It might not be the greatest accomplishment of the year, and it is certainly the quietest, but it gave each day a new meaning, a fresh story, a new palette on which language was painted in wholly different ways, and of course made, as Firewall likes to say, every day into a school day. In a good way, of course.

I was asked to select my favorite from among these books, but this is impossible. I read from such a wide breadth of topics and disciplines, from literary and scientific materials from around the world, that it could not even be done to say that one single book stood above the others. But among those that I loved, those that I didn’t want to end, those that I learned the most from, those that confounded or stayed with me the longest – making me turn my thoughts to them again and again – here is the rough list in no particular order:

*Advice for a Young Investigator – Santiago Ramón y Cajal

*The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell
Was not sure I would include this because I had mixed feelings, although by the end I was convinced/moved.

*The Master Butchers Singing Club – Louise Erdrich
Another one I was not sure I would include. I read most of Erdrich’s books this year and most were middle of the road, but this one stood out for some reason.

*The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon
I read a bunch of Chabon and just like his style (even though it can be quite different in all his writing) and could recommend anything he has written, but this was somehow… the one I liked most.

*Time and Materials – Robert Hass
Poetry, which is not for everyone. This was superlative

*Edwin Morgan: Collected Poems – Edwin Morgan
More poetry; discovered Glaswegian Edwin Morgan this year and loved

*Reality is Not What It Seems: The Elusive Structure of the Universe and the Journey to Quantum Gravity – Carlo Rovelli

*Seven Brief Lessons on Physics – Carlo Rovelli

*Go, Went, Gone – Jenny Erpenbeck
Possibly overlooked by many; reminds me slightly of the film The Visitor. Deals with refugee crisis/asylum seekers in Germany with some interesting looks back at how things changed when Germany reunified

*Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
An old one I should have read ages ago but only got around to now. Enjoyed the hilarious absurdity

*The Noonday Demon – Andrew Solomon
A long book on depression – not sure why I started reading it but it was engrossing

*Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins – Peter S Ungar
Part of my obsession with teeth this year

*Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner
A surprising and moving book

*If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler – Italo Calvino
A strange one – but the complexity of Calvino’s style makes me want to read everything he writes (he is listed again later/below)

*Broken April – Ismail Kadare
Albanian book that deals with the Kanun/blood feuds, etc.

*Secondhand Time: An Oral history of the Fall of the Soviet Union – Svetlana Alexievich

*The Solitude of Prime Numbers – Paolo Giordano
Surprising – not sure why this book (fiction, Italian) stuck with me – perhaps the descriptions of how people fool others and themselves living a version of themselves that cannot possibly be true

*Pretty much anything by Naomi Klein, of which I read all – very timely and important

*A General Theory of Oblivion – Jose Eduardo Agualusa
An unusual one from Angola

*Tram 83 – Fiston Mwanza Mujila
An interesting one from Congo

*The Sellout – Paul Beatty
Probably one of my very favorite ones this year

*A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara
Engrossing – just when you think things cannot get worse or more heartbreaking, they do. As my colleague put it “emotional porn” – a form of blackmail

*The Revolution of Everyday Life – Raoul Vaneigem
Abstract-ish philosophy but somehow resonated when I read it

*All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
Fiction

*Before the Fall – Noah Hawley
Fiction from the guy who brought us the TV version of Fargo

*The Emperor of All Maladies – Siddhartha Mukherjee
A book on cancer – not uplifting but fascinating

*Karaoke Culture – Dubravka Ugresic
Because I pretty much love all of Ugresic’s observational essay work

*Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America – Mary Otto
More teeth!

*Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino
More Calvino, whom I have quoted to death this year

*Pretty much any poetry book of works by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer

*The Book of Disquiet – Fernando Pessoa
This is one that kept me thinking all year long and to which I will return repeatedly

*A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America – Bruce Cannon Gibney
Brewing the Baby Boomer hate…

*The Sympathizer – Viet Thanh Nguyen
Another of my favorite works of fiction this year

2018…

My goal, again, is to read 26 books. The trick this time, though, is that none of them can be in English. I can read books in English, but they won’t count toward the goal.

Lower the boom

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“The body politic rests on the slab because boomers put it there, because decades of boomerism produced the problems and disaffection of which 2016 was merely the latest expression.” –A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America by Bruce Cannon Gibney

Stinging, blistering indictment of the Baby Boomers – I ended up highlighting so much of what’s in this book that it would be foolish to try to reproduce or quote at length, but if you are curious about how the country (the United States, that is) came to be … well, the nightmare that it is now, the book makes a compelling argument (or many arguments, really) that the Boomers are to blame. In every failing segment of society, from taxation to education, from finance to regulation, from infrastructure and the environment (a Boomer himself, Al Gore* – self-appointed, once it became clear that he’d need a second act in public life, environmental ‘champion’ – describes the current state of the environment as: “…a nature hike through the Book of Revelation”, an issue which is arguably one of the most pressing and about which the Boomers have been most selfish/blind) to voting rights, Boomers have poked their fingers in virtually every pie and flung the filling everywhere once they were sated, i.e. ruined it for everyone else. Meanwhile they live out their last days – either denying that their end is coming, or, as the book describes, demanding historically unprecedented “long and pleasant retirements”.

I suppose we could point the finger to some degree at the Boomers’ parents, who reared them to be this way – gave them everything and wanted them to grow up believing that they could have everything without sacrificing or suffering real consequences. I would not relieve the parents of Boomers from responsibility as day-to-day caretakers, but the book delivers a particularly scathing review of pediatrician, Dr Benjamin Spock, whose (in)famous, best-selling 1946 book The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, guided parents of Boomers to permissive parenting that put the child(ren) at the center of family life rather than letting children orbit the family life, focusing on the Boomer children’s wants rather than needs – creating what critics have called an undisciplined, self-involved generation hell-bent on instant gratification and self-interest. (That’s boiling it down to a very simplistic understanding of course – but supports the thesis of this book.)

With each chapter prefaced by a part of the clinical definition of sociopathy according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the parallels between the sociopathic behaviors and Boomer actions are clear.

The sociopathy that characterizes the entire generation overrides the prudence of previous generations, who by and large seem to have tried to enact public policy and law that benefited the greater good (or at least aimed to). It remains to be seen what later generations will do (even if trends indicate that they are less self-involved and more civic minded than their Boomer parents and grandparents) because the Boomers, stubbornly afraid to age and not able to afford retirement, are still such a massive force in the population.

Their influence still dwarfs that of subsequent generations – not just by sheer numbers but because they have, during their ‘day in the sun’, stacked the deck in their favor. It’s going to take a long time to undo it – and the slog will be slow because the Boomers are still standing in the way. Likewise, the Boomers were/are (many of) our parents – we might not have liked their parenting styles, but did we learn to do any better? Are we any better? Will we have seen the destruction their policies and actions (or inactions) have wrought, absorb the lessons and influence things to go in a new direction?

One passage suggests that we may have gone too far in the other direction. Addressing the crumbling, unsafe state of American infrastructure, which received a “D” from the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1998, Gibney practically exclaims: “If GenX parents received a similar report card regarding their children, the whole war machine of upper-middle class Helicopter Fathering and Tiger Mothering would swing into action: money, tutors, apocalyptic lectures, pedagogical investigations, and marches on the PTA. The Boomers, devoted practitioners of latchkey parenting, simply shrug.” It’s a lot like a passage in a rather comical article I read not so long ago:

“Back when I was young, an athletic season either ended abruptly, without fanfare, or the Phys Ed staff threw some crappy banquet with paper bowls and food service-chili where the superior athletes got a lousy plaque. We had one of these banquets once for my seventh grade soccer team. I think it was the first time all season the parents actually showed up. I recall hearing a bunch of dads snort: “My kid played soccer?” And then they all laughed and stayed inside to smoke.

If you tell this story to a Millennial, they think it’s sad. “But my dad came to EVERY game,” they gasp. “AND every practice. AND he brought his zoom lens.” If you tell this to a Generation Xer, they stare and say: “You had a dad?”

(I don’t know what happens if you tell this to a Boomer. Probably: “Ahh, yes. Smoking.”)”

Side notes:

The book echoes other threads of scholarship and documentary evidence, ranging from recent documentaries like 13th about the 13th amendment to the US constitution and its effect on the US prison system, or something as seemingly benign as Al Jazeera’s presentation on the Federal Reserve. Every focal point of the author’s hypothesis is documented in the book but further borne out in other sources.

“Medicare covers any number of expensive medications consumed by Boomers, and, in the case of tax-advantaged plans, can even end up subsidizing Viagra. There is something decidedly off-putting about indebting GenXers to pay for their fathers’ erections.”

*Full video of Al Gore on how the ‘immune system of democracy” – a free media and open public discourse guided by evidence and facts – has eroded and arrived at a place where “false belief collides with physical reality” to create an “assault on reason”. Gore, too, is sufficiently gored in this book.