What I read in 2015

Highlights, anyway.  Much of it listened to, rather than read.  Listed more or less in order of enjoyment.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.  An English woman takes up hawking to get over the death of her father.  She tells the story of training the hawk, interspersed with a psychobiography of T.E. White, the author of The Once and Future King.  Well, that doesn’t sound promising, does it?  But it’s glorious.  I felt like I was entering deeply into a wondrous world I never knew existed.  And Macdonald’s narration is also glorious.

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande.  This book, about how we deal with the end of life, has gotten a lot of praise, and it deserves every bit of it.

The Iliad.  Narrated by Dan Stevens.  I talk about it here.

SPQR by Mary Beard.  A history of ancient Rome up to the early 200’s.  I love this kind of book.

Middlemarch by George Eliot.  It still works.

Fore! The Best of Wodehouse on Golf.  I don’t know a mashie from a niblick, but Wodehouse on anything is great.  I was trying to read The Kreutzer Sonata by Tolstoy and kept switching back to this book so I could feel good about life.

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders.  Weird, wonderful stories about weird, wonderful people.  With a lovely afterword about how Saunders finally found his voice and his success.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks.  Finally got around to reading this.  Lovely, illuminating stories.

Adverbs by Daniel Handler.  A strange but enjoyable “novel” for adults by the author of the Lemony Snicket series.

Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillan.  Who doesn’t want to listen to 25 hours of narration about the peace conference after World War 1?  I learned a lot.

Faith vs. Fact by Jerry Coyne.  A good summary of why science works as an explanation of the world and religion doesn’t.  Fairly familiar stuff to people who read Coyne’s web site, but worth getting down on paper.  It probably won’t change many minds, alas.

Life’s Greatest Secret by Matthew Cobb.  Tells the story of the scientific discoveries about DNA, RNA, and genetics, down to the present day.  Great, although a bit too dense for someone listening to it at rush hour.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind  by Yuval Noah Harari.  Harari is a big, big picture kind of guy and has all kinds of provocative ideas, not all of which I agree with.  But I was entertained and educated nevertheless.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.  This is a novel about the world after a flu epidemic causes civilization to collapse, with lots of flashbacks to the final days of the world we knew.  It’s been a big best-seller and was nominated for the National Book Award.  I’m a big fan of dystopian novels — I’ve written a few myself!  But this one, despite being very well written, left me a bit cold.  Too many characters and too many plot strands insufficiently developed.  And I really didn’t get the Station Eleven stuff.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  This book was showered with praise and awards, but it left me rather cold.  I’ve enjoyed his shorter work more.  Partly it was the author’s narration, which I thought was rushed.  And I wished he pronounced the word “asked” rather than “axed”.  But I also found it difficult to follow his argument sometimes (if there was an argument).  The centerpiece of the book is the death of one of his college friends at the hands of an out-of-control police officer.  This is a symptom of what’s wrong with America; fair enough.  But the police officer was black, working for a black-controlled police department.  I wanted Coates to connect the dots for me better than he did. Here’s a long review that says what I thought about the book better than I can.

The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir.  More than I wanted to know about them, I guess.

I notice that several of these books came my way via BookBub.  And I notice that my Kindle is filling up with BookBub titles that I really want to read, all purchased for $1.99 or less.  Is this the future?  Do we like this future?

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Is “The Double Helix” really the seventh greatest English-language nonfiction book of the 20th century?

That’s where it ranks in the Modern Library poll, just behind T.S. Eliot’s Selected Essays and just before Nabokov’s Speak, Memory.  The 60th anniversary of the publication of the Watson-Crick hypothesis has just passed, and Simon & Schuster have published an annotated/illustrated version of Watson’s account of the discover of the genetic code.

How do you judge a work of nonfiction?  I thoroughly enjoyed the book when I read it a couple of weeks ago (the annotations and illustrations really helped).  The events Watson describes were, of course, hugely important for our understanding of how life works.  And the approach Watson takes–showing how science really works, with people worrying about their grants and competing scientists, chasing girls and complaining about the lack of heat in their flats–is refreshing and eye-opening.

On the other hand, the writing, while perfectly competent, isn’t out of the ordinary.  And Watson doesn’t make much of an effort to give the reader any context about the nature of the problem he and Crick were trying to solve, why it was so important, and why it was so amenable to solution at just that point in history.  Turns out that The Double Helix wasn’t the best science book I read that week–The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks worked better for me both as a personal narrative and as an explanation of science.

The Modern Library list seems reasonable, although arbitrary.  It seems clear that they considered the significance of a book to its time (The Silent Spring), its contribution to human thought (A Theory of Justice), as well as its literary quality (A Room of One’s Own).  As usual, there were lots of books on the list that I haven’t read, and a few that I’ve never heard of.  I was pleased to see Samuel Johnson by Walter Jackson Bate come in at number 50.  Bate’s course on Johnson and his contemporaries was one of the best I took in college, and I recall a standing-room-only audience for his lecture on the death of Johnson, which was apparently legendary at Harvard.  I also can’t quarrel with The Education of Henry Adams as number 1.  It made a huge impression on me in college, and I recall that the last paper I wrote there was a comparison of Adams’s third-person narrative style with that of Norman Mailer.  (It’s interesting that Mailer doesn’t appear on either the fiction or the nonfiction list.  History has not treated him kindly, so far.)