Said and read – January 2020

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“It isn’t the risk of death and fear of danger that prevent people from rising up,” Leonel once said, “it is numbness, acquiescence, and the defeat of the mind. Resistance to oppression begins when people realize deeply within themselves that something better is possible.” He also said that what destroys a society, a state, a government, is corruption—that, and the use of force, which is always applied against those who have not been convinced or included. He was always talking about corruption: trying to prevent it, expose it, eradicate it. He was dedicated to the task of bringing the sin to the eye.” What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and ResistanceCaroline Forché

As a new year is well underway, I can’t count the things that have changed. I can’t explain how trying to care for someone ends up driving them away. How the silence that is normally a welcome comfort feels isolating as it never has before. How people can surprise you with both extremes of pettiness and kindness. How different perceptions can be – what seems insignificant to me is serious to someone else. And most of all how there are so many people in the world lacking in self-awareness, who exist as sexist, passive-aggressive bullies, and as men, plow blindly and blithely through the world despite the wreckage they leave in their wake. How is this knowledge newly and repeatedly a fresh surprise to me at my age?

Something else that surprises me is the search terms that lead people to this blog. Sometimes they are astounding. Today: “Is Phoebe Cates HIV positive?” I have no idea how they’d end up here based on that search, but that’s the fun of the internet, is it not?

I’ve gone a bit crazy on reading in January (cracking through 61 books during the month). I don’t know how to explain how I managed this either except that I felt myself crumbling underneath extraordinary stress — and just needed some outlet to forget it.

Here’s what you missed in the last nearly two years: 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for January:

Highly recommended

“But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.” –Dept. of SpeculationJenny Offill

*Magical NegroMorgan Parker

It’s poetry, and it’s powerful.

*Blue Nights Joan Didion

“On this question of fear. When I began writing these pages I believed their subject to be children, the ones we have and the ones we wish we had, the ways in which we depend on our children to depend on us, the ways in which we encourage them to remain children, the ways in which they remain more unknown to us than they do to their most casual acquaintances; the ways in which we remain equally opaque to them. The ways in which for example we write novels “just to show” each other. The ways in which our investments in each other remain too freighted ever to see the other clear.”

Good – or better than expected

*Dept. of SpeculationJenny Offill

A slight but naggingly thought-provoking wee book. Written in a distant, impersonal tone that nevertheless draws you in and makes you feel all the “fog” of never questioning until suddenly you find yourself questioning – speculating about – everything. Open your eyes. Suddenly everything seems different.

“The wife reads about something called “the wayward fog” on the Internet. The one who has the affair becomes enveloped in it. His old life and wife become unbearably irritating. His possible new life seems a shimmering dream. All of this has to do with chemicals in the brain, allegedly. An amphetamine-like mix, far more compelling than the soothing attachment one. Or so the evolutionary biologists say. It is during this period that people burn their houses down. At first the flames are beautiful to see. But later when the fog wears off, they come back to find only ashes. “What are you reading about?” the husband asks her from across the room. “Weather,” she tells him.”

*What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and ResistanceCaroline Forché

“I would try to learn from Leonel how to listen to what was said but also to what was not said, and I would also try to learn how to detect deception in others, which, he assured me, is a skill that can be acquired. I would learn to review my experiences for the missed details, and to keep in mind that while I was observing others, they were also observing me, and I would become less (how did he put it?) readable, and when necessary, I would attempt, in his words, to “manage the perceptions of others” so that, of the “five versions of the truth,” in any given situation, mine might prevail. “This place is a symphony of illusion,” Leonel often said, “and an orchestra needs a conductor.””

Poet Caroline Forché recounts her experiences in 1970s pre-civil war El Salvador in a stark memoir. As a young, and arguably naive, American woman, Leonel Gómez Vides, an activist and organizer, turned up on Forché’s doorstep demanding that she come to El Salvador to truly see what was going on there in a way that he believed only a poet could see or explain.

“So you can’t say it. You can’t write it. Even in a poem. If you had a photograph of the goddamn thing no one would believe you. As for your man in the basilica, your observations are imprecise. Next time pay closer attention. Someday you will be talking to your own people. Writing for your own people. I promise you that it is going to be difficult to get Americans to believe what is happening here. For one thing, this is outside the realm of their imaginations. For another, it isn’t in their interests to believe you. For a third, it is possible that we are not human beings to them.””

*Girl at WarSara Nović

What is one’s personal experience of war, and is it ‘war’ when it’s an indirect and mostly symbolic thing? Nović’s book begins to draw out these kinds of questions by contrasting the breakup of Yugoslavia and horrors that accompanied it with the post-9/11 war on terror (“more an idea than an experience”).

“It was now six months since the attacks, and the everyday things were returning to normal, first through an attitude of compulsory courage—fear means letting them win—then in a slow reinstating of routines, until we were again wrapped up in the mundane inconveniences of city life: knocking radiator pipes, subway construction reroutes, and the usual array of vermin. The country was at war, but for most people the war was more an idea than an experience, and I felt something between anger and shame that Americans—that I—could sometimes ignore its impact for days at a time. In Croatia, life in wartime had meant a loss of control, war holding sway over every thought and movement, even while you slept. It did not allow for forgetting. But America’s war did not constrain me; it did not cut my water or shrink my food supply. There was no threat of takeover with tanks or foot soldiers or cluster bombs, not here. What war meant in America was so incongruous with what had happened in Croatia—what must have been happening in Afghanistan—that it almost seemed a misuse of the word.”

How does one go on after war of the Yugoslav or Afghan type, how to reclaim some of the everyday that permeated life almost unnoticed before everything fell apart?

““What about a portable air conditioner?” I said. “In New York people get little window units.” But the suggestion was met unanimously with looks of horror. “Air-conditioning will give you kidney stones,” Luka said. I was gradually recalling those mundane moments—the ones that had until now given way to more traumatic memories—of a childhood governed by collective superstition: Never open two windows across from each other—the propuh draft will give you pneumonia. Don’t sit at the corner of the table; you’ll never get married. Lighting a cigarette straight off a candle kills a sailor. Don’t cut your nails on a Sunday. If it hurts, put some rakija on it. I tried to think of a singularly American superstition. I’d learned a few from the Uncles—something about not letting one’s shoes touch the kitchen table—but those were all imported from the Old World. Perhaps a country of immigrants had never gotten around to commingling the less desirable pieces of their cultures. Either that, or life there wasn’t difficult enough to warrant an adult’s belief in magic.”

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Lean Out: The Truth About Women, Power, and the WorkplaceMarissa Orr

“In the early twentieth century, employees who left their job on an assembly line didn’t take the company’s resources along with them. Their vacancy was filled with another warm body to perform the same mechanical tasks. When knowledge is the currency, however, employees who leave their job take a precious piece of supply along with them and often leave their teams scrambling to fill the gap.”

Much of Marissa Orr’s book, Lean Out, struck a nerve. The whole Lean In ‘revolution’ is predicated on the idea that all women – and all people – want to be climbing the same corporate ladder. I don’t care to climb; I don’t care to take on the responsibility and the politics that come with executive-level positions. The idea that we lack ambition, drive, passion, interest in our jobs or companies, if we are not building our lives around making this climb, is pervasive.

“I often wondered what would happen if, instead of the parade of powerful women, a lower-level manager juggling a household, kids, a husband, and a personal life took the mic and said, “Raise your hand if you’re apathetic about your job because it’s all politics and bullshit anyway.” Would the majority of us once again have our hands in the air? Perhaps. We can’t know for sure because nobody ordinary appears onstage, and it’s a question no one ever asks. The lack of authenticity wasn’t isolated to public conversations on female empowerment. It also governed the politics of our individual careers. As I discovered right away, the first rule of being a woman at work is to never tell the truth about all the reasonable feelings and concerns you have about being a woman at work. I’ve always been bad at knowing what I can and can’t say in certain situations, so I learned this painful lesson early and often. “

_____

“Indifference toward climbing the corporate ladder is treated universally as a negative. The entire goal of women’s leadership seminars and training programs is to help you advance along with your male peers. Voicing reluctance is tantamount to exposing some secret failing and is a betrayal to our identities as modern, empowered women. As a result, there’s a distinct lack of honesty in the public conversation about women at work. Dominated by a singular chorus of voices, we focus on tangential things…”

Orr has done a fine job in telling this story, and what it means for the many who do not conform to the expected desire to climb.

“Part of the reason we’ve failed to solve the gender gap is because the spotlight is on the trunk of the elephant, which we’ve mistaken for the whole animal. Do women who were born to be the boss suffer penalties for acting out of type? Absolutely. But would the majority of women say that being punished for their bossiness is the biggest obstacle to their career success? I doubt it. We’ve over-indexed our time and attention on problems that plague a smaller subset of women, while ignoring the ones that are more common and perhaps more troublesome. You can see them only if you zoom out to see the whole elephant. And that’s why it’s so important to hear various perspectives from women on all rungs of the corporate ladder.”

——–

“Imagine that we asked women, “Do you aspire to be a corporate executive or CEO?” If the majority of women answered yes, then helping them climb the corporate ladder would make sense and be a worthy endeavor. However, as previously stated, the majority of women have said no, they don’t want to be corporate executives. The leadership ambition gap works by disregarding the answers as irrelevant, suggesting that the only reason women say no is because they’re culturally conditioned to say that. Taking our thoughts, feelings, and desires into consideration is pointless, I suppose.”

She also touches on the other side of the coin: what it means for employees and companies when the wrong kinds of people are eager to – and do – ascend.

“Perhaps the biggest threat to trust and profit are bad managers. According to a Forbes article, “Regardless of one’s level in an organization, your day-to-day relationship with your direct manager is invariably crucial to your well-being.”16 If employees feel, among other things, that their supervisor takes a real interest in their development, or offers frequent praise and recognition, they’re likely to be engaged. No matter how many perks or how fancy one’s office space, they hardly compensate for a tyrannical micromanager lording over you and your work every day. It’s impossible to improve organizational trust without rethinking the scope of a manager’s authority and how companies deal with bad bosses. Management is a universal prize given without consideration to whether a person is capable of the task. Given the steep price a company pays for a bad boss, it’s astounding how little attention is paid to the matter. Being a great manager, or even just a moderately good one, requires a specific skill set.”

So, I liked this a lot because I hate the lean-in idea that we should all want the same things – that we are not valid or successful if we are not climbing the same ladder. That we should strive to do what men stereotypically do. There is a lot of good stuff here, marred only occasionally by a few too many name-dropping moments that seem almost bitter. And maybe Orr was bitter. It appears that by unshackling herself from expectation, she landed on her feet doing something that suits her better.

*All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial CrisisBethany McLean

It’s impossible when reading as much as I have been not to have all kinds of crossover and coincidence appear. No sooner had I read a Robert Coles book, Doing Documentary Work, on how the observer’s influence and perspective cannot help but drive the work, and in which he discussed Dust Bowl era photography, e.g. Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, than I was digging into something related to help a friend do research on something entirely different but which was heavily influenced by Lange and Walker.

In the case of Bethany McLean’s gripping (as all of McLean’s well-researched backstory/exposé works are) account of the chain of events that led to the 2008 financial meltdown, I ended up with a strange crossover with Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. In Mbue’s book, things fall apart for two immigrants to the US, in part, because of the unraveling of the entire financial system’s deceptions and fraudulence. I happened to read this the day after reading McLean’s opus on the crisis. Incidentally, Behold the Dreamers was a good book, too.

I’d recommend just reading the book for yourself, but one thing I took away was actually McLean’s citation of Robert Rubin‘s memoir (italics mine):

“His fear stemmed from something almost no one else in government could claim: actual experience with a derivatives meltdown. It happened in the late 1980s when a sudden, unexpected shift in interest rates – unforeseen by Goldman’s risk models, needless to say – wrecked havoc on the bond and derivatives markets. ‘Bonds are derivatives products began to move in unexpected ways relative to each other because traders hadn’t focused on how these securities might behave under the extremely unlikely market conditions that were now occurring,’ Rubin writes in his memoir. ‘’”Neither Steve nor I was an expert in this area, so our confusion was not surprising. But the people who traded these instruments did not fully understand these developments, either, and that was unsettling. You’d come to work thinking, We’ve lost a lot of money but the worst is finally behind us. Now what do we do? And then a new problem would develop. We didn’t know how to stop the process.’ He concludes: ‘What happened to us represents a seeming tendency in human nature not to give appropriate weight to what might occur under remote, but potentially very damaging, circumstances’.”

Biggest disappointment (or disliked)

I didn’t hate anything I read in January although I read a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t bother mentioning, as it had no influence one way or the other.

Said and read – December 2019

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I suppose there are traditions and tropes in stories like this. Someone is given a test to carry out. No one knows who the truth bearer is. People are not who or where we think they are. And there is someone who watches from an unknown location.WarlightMichael Ondaatje

December ends, and my reading has not been rapid or fruitful. I had some time off, and halfway tried to catch up on things… but it was halfhearted. I found myself sleeping for 16-hour stretches. There were scholastic readings and a stronger pull to do other things.

I’ve read a grand total of 210 books in 2019 (not sure the final tally is accurate; I’m relying on notoriously buggy Goodreads to keep count). Maybe by the time the day ends this will be 211 – one of my goals this year was to translate a book, and I am nearly done translating a book from Norwegian to English, which would be book 211. But, for one thing, I don’t think I will finish today, and secondly, I don’t think “reading” and “translating” are the same thing. This is only about half of what I’ve read in the last two or three years, which feels a bit like a letdown. But I try to remind myself that it’s not about volume, and life was otherwise so full of activity that reading was an enjoyable, if necessary, third or fourth priority.

Here’s what you missed in the last nearly two years: 2019 – November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for December:

Highly recommended

Remember that. Your own story is just one, and perhaps not the important one. The self is not the principal thing.” –WarlightMichael Ondaatje

*WarlightMichael Ondaatje

I did not have high expectations for this book but found it immediately engrossing. Ondaatje is kind of hit or miss for me, but I don’t know why.  I find it hard to describe my thoughts on fiction – I just know what I like. Providing plot points and describing characters defeats the purpose, so I will simply say that I enjoyed this.

*The TraditionJericho Brown

Poetry, brief and aware.

Good – or better than expected

*The Winds of WarHerman Wouk

A few months ago, thanks to the minor, but altogether modern, not-quite-imbroglio of opening the wrong book within an e-reader, I read quite a bit of The Winds of War. I grew increasingly confused as I ‘tapped’ the pages, thinking I was reading a book about faith and its role in social good for university. I’d read some commentary about the university book claiming that the writer was “not great with women”, which is probably why I kept reading longer than I should have, wondering why the writer would be commenting in the impersonal third person on how attractive someone’s wife was. I persevered, thinking there might appear some ‘moral lesson’. Finally when the prose steered itself into discussing military life, I realized that maybe – just maybe – I had (re)opened the wrong book. Lo and behold….

At first The Winds of War left me cold – not least because I really didn’t like the way its female characters were depicted and didn’t relish having spent 15 minutes during a deadline-heavy day reading its nonsense when I should have been reading something else. Nevertheless, I finally returned to Winds and found it better than I expected. Did I love it – would I recommend it? No. But I don’t feel like I wasted my time.

Oddly the book felt in places newly timely, particularly on its discussion of the history of anti-Semitism. Anti-semitism is not new, and ‘tolerance’ — especially observing what is happening in the world right now — shallow.

“He stroked his beard and spoke deliberately, the classroom note strong. “Well! Your surprise doesn’t surprise me. Young people—young Americans especially—aren’t aware that the tolerance for Jews in Europe is only fifty to a hundred years old and that it’s never gone deep. It didn’t touch Poland, where I was born. Even in the West—what about the Dreyfus case? No, no. In that respect Hitler represents only a return to normalcy for Europe, after the brief glow of liberalism. The hostility simply moved from the Church to the anti-Semitic parties, because the French Revolution changed Europe from a religious to a political continent. If Hitler does win out, the Jews will fall back to the second-class status they always had under the kings and the popes. Well, we survived seventeen centuries of that. We have a lot of wisdom and doctrine for coping with it.” –The Winds of WarHerman Wouk

Oddly I didn’t remember how or why I started reading this, but in writing this stumbled on Wouk’s obit from earlier this year. I guess I didn’t consciously realize he only died this year at 103 years old. Surely that prompted me to add this to my reading list (as well as its sequel, War and Remembrance, and Marjorie Morningstar).

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*The New Jim CrowMichelle Alexander

The stark and sobering reality is that, for reasons largely unrelated to actual crime trends, the American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history.

Nothing in this book comes as a surprise, but put together in one place, how can anyone deny that the criminal justice system is, for all intents and purposes, an extension of centuries of oppression? I can’t read books like this without getting angry, sad and feeling helpless. But such reading – and then trying to act on what is read – is absolutely essential.

EDIT

*How Late It Was, How LateJames Kelman

I forgot to mention this one when I originally wrote this post. I finished it at the last minute and refer to it now only because it’s written in profane, stream-of-consciousness Glaswegian. A strange story but quite alive in the sense that you can, if you’re familiar with Glaswegians, hear someone actually rambling along in this way. It was a controversial choice as a Booker Prize winner some years ago, and I understand why. But I think it’s deserving for the way it captures a character using this unique language. Not that I am an authority on what or who is deserving or not.

Biggest disappointment (or disliked)

*Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s FuturePete Buttigieg

Okay, so I went into this expecting not to like it, and I was not wrong.

When Pete Buttigieg appeared on the world stage a few months back, with a slow but relentless trickle of stories drip-drip-dripping like a leaky faucet about how he’d taught himself Norwegian just to read more books by Erlend Loe and appeared suddenly and quietly at a hospital to act as an interpreter, had volunteered to join the military when he didn’t have to… and so on, it was sort of refreshing at first and an antidote to the unpatriotic and linguistically and cognitively challenged rhetoric of the current US president. Sure, this Buttigieg guy has a lot going for him and appears intelligent and humble, ticking a lot of the boxes required for fresh political talent in semi-liberal America. (Of course Americans don’t care if someone learns multiple languages; in fact, I’d argue that many Americans consider this disqualifying.)

But that’s the thing: I am not the world’s biggest cynic, but my cynicism radar won’t shut off. Every drip from the leaky faucet seems like it was cynically planted just to tick these boxes, and it was done craftily. Not all at once, quieter than the self-aggrandizing bluster of a Trump or even the standard self-promotion of most Democratic Party challengers. The strategy behind the offensive is the slow drip infiltration – starting long before Buttigieg declared an interest in running for president. It comes from all fronts, in many different forms. Perhaps it is no different from how Barack Obama ran a campaign, but we are witnessing this in a different, social-media-saturated, post-Trump world. Everything looks cynical. Furthermore, this was, frankly, a dull book.

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.