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.

Reading

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“There are many sages, but on the other hand, not one stupid tree.

After writing the most difficult thing is reading.” -from “The Short Year”, Paavo Haavikko

“History is written by the victors. Traditions are woven by the people. Writers fantasize. Only death is certain.” –The Encyclopedia of the Dead, Danilo Kiš

“A knowledge of different literatures is the best way to free one’s self from the tyranny of any of them.” -from On Oscar Wilde, José Martí

…I often claim not to understand addiction (and it’s a subject, much like – inexplicably – teeth – that I am abnormally interested in), but extreme behavior, even of the sort that is not self-destructive, is a kind of addiction. This year, my extreme has found its niche in reading. As I’ve written about numerous times, I dropped reading for many years. When I did not want to think or feel, or manage the fatigue that comes from either, I pushed my passion for reading into dormancy, letting other obsessions take hold (incessant television droning around me, baking industrial amounts of cakes and cookies, working to the point of excessive exhaustion). It’s odd that one can just ignore a passion, pushing it aside as though it were never there, as though it were never something that clutched at the heart and pushed at the back to make one continue to indulge. But it can happen.

As 2016 was coming to a close, many things converged – feeling the new, if deceptive, bloom of love, the influence of accidents, injuries, near or sudden death, the letting go of the grip of all-consuming grief – that made me feel less afraid of feeling again. (Perhaps counterintuitively, it took a handful of new ‘bad’ things to sweep away the persistent influence of old ‘bad’ things, as if the new and old could balance each other out.)

“Sometimes it takes a book to jolt you out of where you are. It doesn’t have to be a great book. Just the right book at the right moment, one that opens something up or exposes you to something new or somehow forces you to reexamine your life.” –My Life with Bob, Pamela Paul

And so the books re-opened. And none too soon. Reading does, after all, inform how we see and interpret the world we live in – seeing the patterns repeat, and new patterns form, we can almost feel hope even in the darkest of circumstances. It feels, in fact, as though the literature of the world chronicles the darkness in order to shine a light, however dim. It sounds glib – I don’t much feel like delving more deeply into it than that. But it’s powerful and moving to the degree that I can see every single day why I stopped reading for such a long time (even if I kick myself in regret over all that wasted, lost time). Looking at the world in late 2016, it would be easy to fall into a sense of complete despair: only literature, recounting past tragedies and triumphs, seems to keep despair at bay and illustrate the way toward sanity.

We live in times when, for example, we can see reflections of the kinds of mania and near-repression Azar Nafisi describes in Reading Lolita in Tehran:

“We lived in a culture that denied any merit to literary works, considering them important only when they were handmaidens to something seemingly more urgent—namely ideology.”

We live in times in which we should feel protective of books and the freedom of consuming information and diverse viewpoints, stories and narratives. We cannot take for granted the availability of this abundance:

“You can’t guarantee things like that! After all, when we had all the books we needed, we still insisted on finding the highest cliff to jump off.” –Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

After all, these riches could be taken from us, lost to our own indifference, confidence in broken systems or traditions and lack of care.

“This is the paradox of the power of literature: it seems that only when it is persecuted does it show its true powers, challenging authority, whereas in our permissive society it feels that it is being used merely to create the occasional pleasing contrast to the general ballooning of verbiage. (And yet, should we be so mad as to complain about it?” –The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino

“Literature is one of a society’s instruments of self-awareness—certainly not the only one, but nonetheless an essential instrument, because its origins are connected with the origins of various types of knowledge, various codes, various forms of critical thought.” –The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino

And yet books are often the only way most of us will experience so much of the world and the only way we can experience history:

“Most of us can’t rush around, talk to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven’t time, money or that many friends. The things you’re looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine percent of them is in a book.”-Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

Even if we had endless disposable means and could travel to every place in the entire world, we cannot experience life through the eyes of someone else. The way a writer has perceived, lived and described something is necessarily, forcefully, different from our own experience, even if at the same time as being eye-opening, the experiences s/he describes is relatable to us as individuals in some way. I cannot feel the same outrage as someone experiencing the injustice of another time in history any more than I can feel the same outrage as someone experiencing an injustice that is not perpetrated on me today. As a human I can feel it, feel some form of associated pain, hurt, confusion and anger, but I am not a black man in America; I am not a Jew in 1940 in Europe (or any time); I am not a woman of color or even a woman who lives in most of the places of the world where being a woman is perilous (sure, it’s kind of perilous everywhere, but least of all in Scandinavia); I am not a Native American or First Nations person; I am not yet elderly; I do not have any debilitating handicaps… you get the picture.

Whether visible or not, there are so many ways of being in the world that I cannot – you cannot – no one but the individual can – understand from the inside. No matter how sensitive or tuned in or intellectually astute we are, we cannot experience anything beyond the projection of empathy.

And even empathy seems in short supply. Almost everything I read is an evidentiary chronicle of all the ways in which we are terrible to each other and ourselves. Whether it’s the grinding poverty that kills, mass discrimination, hidden prejudice, self-abuse… it’s brutal to be human.

To read offers the beauty of the big picture, to know all the details as they unfold, to reflect on from a distance. And yet reading offers the opportunity to dissect, to examine, to analyze – and revisit and do it all again later. Books are a window on the world in a macroscopic, cultural and linguistic way but also microscopically, almost scientifically:

“It was beyond that screen of fickle humors that his gaze wished to arrive: the form of things can be discerned better at a distance.” –Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

“As with many beauties of nature, the enchantment of human works can only be retained when viewed from a distance. Analysis is the microscope that brings objects close to us and reveals the coarse weave of their tapestry. The illusion dissolves when the artificial nature of the embroidery and presence of design flaws become apparent to the eyes.” –Advice for a Young Investigator, Santiago Ramón y Cajal

“This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more ‘literary’ you are. That’s my definition, anyway. Telling detail. Fresh detail. The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies. “So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life.” –Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

Reading can be a form of resistance. It can also be a form of acceptance.

Reading is a form of forgetting – and remembering:

“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” -from “When we read a book for the first time”, Vladimir Nabokov

It is a process, according to Nabokov: you may know how to read, but are you a careful reader – have you read and reread and viewed it through the aforementioned microscope? Have you asked the right questions of it?

Italo Calvino posits something similar – less about the rigors of reading and rereading and more about the need to read backed by age and experience:

“In fact, reading in youth can be rather unfruitful, due to impatience, distraction, inexperience with the product’s “instructions for use,” and inexperience in life itself. Books read then can be (possibly at one and the same time) formative, in the sense that they give a form to future experiences, providing models, terms of comparison, schemes for classification, scales of value, exemplars of beauty—all things that continue to operate even if a book read in one’s youth is almost or totally forgotten. If we reread the book at a mature age, we are likely to rediscover these constants, which by this time are part of our inner mechanisms, but whose origins we have long forgotten.” –The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino

Informed, careful reading is rarely done in a vacuum – brought to bear is the human experience, emotion and individual history and perspective. Also, there is the triangle Calvino describes, and which other disciplines, particularly the sciences, confirm/highlight.

“What I have described in terms of a twin-bed marriage must be seen as a ménage à trois: philosophy, literature, and science. Science is faced with problems not too dissimilar from those of literature. It makes patterns of the world that are immediately called in question, it swings between the inductive and the deductive methods, and it must always be on its guard lest it mistake its own linguistic conventions for objective laws. We will not have a culture equal to the challenge until we compare against one another the basic problematics of science, philosophy, and literature, in order to call them all into question.” –The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino

Scientific investigation, too, is its own form of storytelling, which relies on finding data and then interpreting it, which is not always well understood.

“The confusion between these two diverse human activities — inventing stories and following traces in order to find something — is the origin of the incomprehension and distrust of science shown by a significant part of our contemporary culture.”  “The border is porous. Myths nourish science, and science nourishes myth. But the value of knowledge remains.” -from Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rovelli

These disorganized ramblings do not begin to cover everything. In fact, they cover nothing. They touch microscopically on the everything that is reading. The everything that has taken up residence and occupied my every waking moment this year. It can no more be contained in the confines of a blog post than a series of evocative or mind-altering sentences can truly be contained within just one book. Just ramblings, random thoughts, on my revived and enthusiastic appreciation of reading.

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

“To anthropomorphize was his genius”

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“He imagined neurons as protagonists in an intense cerebral drama. Their fibers “groped to find another.” Their aching contacts became “protoplasmic kisses”—“the final ecstasy of an epic love story.””

How beautiful is this? And how timely, given how the US government wants to cut all funding to the arts. But literature and new ways of seeing and imagining drives innovation in all kinds of disciplines. How else to untether our thinking and the well-worn tracks and near-brainwashing we get in formal schooling? Drawing from as broad a range as possible engenders new ways of seeing, being and realizing.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, “the father of modern neuroscience”, defied the punishments of his strict, scientific father to devour innumerable works of fiction – all of which eventually informed his work: “Reading novels primed his mind to explore more invisible realms.” Benjamin Ehrlich’s article in The Paris Review opens the door to this remarkable story as a kind of introduction to Ehrlich’s book, The Dreams of Santiago Ramón y Cajal. (I haven’t read it yet.)

“Though it had emerged decades earlier, cell theory was revolutionizing—or scandalizing—the field then. Reading about it, Cajal encountered literary metaphors that drew him in, such as the famous line from the German pathologist Rudolf Virchow: “The body is a state in which every cell is a citizen.” Cajal’s first look through a microscope confirmed this idea, showing him, in his own words, “captivating scenes from life of the infinitely small.” For twenty continuous hours—or so he claimed—he watched the movement of a leucocyte away from a capillary, akin, in his vivid imagination, to high-stakes escape. He even wrote and illustrated a novel about a miniature man—about the size of a cell—traveling through bodies of gargantuan beings on Jupiter.”

Photo (c) 2011 Anders Sandberg used under Creative Commons license.