November 25, 2005

Did you read great books this year?

The NYT chooses 100 notable books for 2005. Can you recommend any of these? I've only read "Freakonomics" and parts of "Becoming Justice Blackmun."

I wonder if I would be a better person if the time I've spent reading various things on the web had been devoted to these books. How could I have spent a year reading so intensely, without reading books?


Internet Ronin said...

I thought that 1776 was a good read as was Mao: The Unknown Story.

Jane said...

The list makes my head hurt and exposes my literary shame spiral...oh how I'd love to discuss the latest Salmon Rushdie or other erudite authors on this list. Unfortunately, I discovered the joys of Janet Evanovich and her bounty hunter heroine, Stephanie Plum....a literary antidote to the policy and research tomes I get paid to read.

But on another note, thank you for the link to Richard Cohen...I did not know he had a blog, and a wonder it is.

Performing Bear said...

Break, Blow, Burn for sure. If you've admired anything Paglia has written, I think you'd enjoy this one. If you haven't read Paglia, I highly recommend her. Her magnum opus is Sexual Personae, a great synthesis of art and cultural history and modern trends.

The Amos Oz memoir is beautiful. A story about growing up in Palestine on the eve of Israeli independence.

Eichenwald's Enron history is terrific too. If you haven't read his Insider --the story of the Archer Daniels Midland price-fixing scandal, I highly recommend that one as well.

You might not like the Cormac McCarthy although, as you might know, he writes beautifully. This one is less a western (like most of his earlier work, e.g., All the Pretty Horses) although it is set in the west. More a modern crime thriller.

I've read 1776 but nothing he's written compares with his Truman. I'm reading 1492 now and it's pretty interesting.

Not on the list, but I think you'd like Freddy and Fredericka, Mark Helprin's satire on Princess Di and Prince charles. If you've not read Helprin's fiction, you've probably read his op eds in the WSJ.

You read for a living so it's hard to find time to read for fun. I hope you get more of a chance to read recreationally in '06

Ann Althouse said...

Oh, I spend an immense amount of time reading for fun, but it's just newspapers, magazines, and the web.

miklos rosza said...

"Saturday" by Ian McEwan is excellent, even though there's a bit of unnecessary melodrama near the end. I've tended to overrate him somewhat, but he's still earnestly trying to go more deeply with each new book.

Ismail Kadare is very good, if somewhat cold -- strongly rumored to get the next Nobel Prize for Literature. I've read three or four of his and especially liked "The Palace of Dreams."

Bret Easton Ellis and Ann Beattie (and Elmore Leonard) accomplished their best work long ago and there's no sign of any creative renaissance here. They're just brand-names now.

I once thought Haruki Murakami was my favorite living novelist, peaking with "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle." Since then he's gone gently downhill, and "Kafka On the Shore" seemed to me like it generated the same sort of atmosphere he's done before... now with less heat.

Mary Gaitskill has written some great short stories about postmodern anomie and bad sex, but I started the new novel and got stuck on page 55. It's still sitting there, in my pile, with a bookmark, awaiting my return. Which I dread.

Ann Althouse said...

"postmodern anomie and bad sex"

See, this is why I don't read novels!

Jacques Cuze said...

At work, I mainly read the dry, bloated, abundant technical specs that only a milspec project can produce. Worse, it's often written not as html or word doc, but crammed into little itty bitty excel cells.

Outside of work I mostly read online sources, the various papers, latimes, wapo, nytimes, sfgate and the respectable informative online sources, mags and blogs: mediamatters, tpm, tpmcafe, washmonthly, atrios, talkleft, the american prospect, slate, and salon.

If I find Krugman or Fallows online somewhere, that's always a must read.

So is Dahlia Lithwick. Check out this must read article here. It's about Padilla having turned out to be small potatoes, and how we've once again completely screwed over our civil protections, screwed over a citizen, and screwed over our standing in the world

Matt Brown said...

Ann: What? How can it be that you haven't read "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince?" Perhaps you're not a fan....

Anyway, I just picked up D.K. Goodwin's "Team of Rivals," so I'll see how it is and let you know if it's worth the time.

Christopher Althouse said...

performing bear: Ann has read most of Camille Paglia's published stuff before that book and she did a long post about seeing Paglia speak at Borders. From what I read, Break Blow Burn was not very impressive, though.

XWL said...

Sometimes books are best left to age for a time (like wine or cheese).

Looking at the 2000 list, how many of these books have grown in regard since 5 years ago?

(plus, a big plus with older titles is they are all likely to be more easily checked out in libraries or found in paperback or used book form)

Interestingly 3 of the books listed, Bee Season, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and The Ice Harvest are all in theatres now (at least in select cities for Bee Season).

Jacques Cuze said...

1984, The Handmaiden's Tale, Fahrenheit 451, ... All of these can be found in Dubya's non-fiction self-help collection.

XWL said...

Besides, historically speaking the privileging of novels or long form non-fiction as the main repository for serious thought is a recent phenomenon. It's really only since the late 19th century that books were read widely.

In many ways the internet brings communication full circle back to places like 17th century London where tracts and pamphlets circulated with lightning speed and authors responded to each other with arguments and counter-arguments, the difference is scale, instead of being open to tens of thousands of well educated Londoners, the internet allows this exchange amongst tens of millions, and sooner or later hundreds of millions, if not billions of folks globally.

A more important question say 50 years from now may be did you participate in the great debates of the year 2055, or did you play the great video games of 2055.

Greater interactivity has it's dangers (as evidenced by the recent dust-ups hereabouts) and books will never go away completely, despite the poor signal to noise ratio the internet really is where it's at right now, and I suspect that trend will grow.

miklos rosza said...

Ann, I'm surprised you dismiss the entertainment possibilities of "postmodern anomie and bad sex." Just think of the Todd Solondz film "Happiness."

And meanwhile, you cannot go wrong with Ian McEwan's "Saturday."

Jacques Cuze said...

Um, XWL, those were these little orange pills, right? Barrel shaped?

Okay, right, you did some orange sunshine, XWL

Alright, XWL, just listen. Everything is going to be fine. You're very high right now. You will probably be that way for about five more hours. Try taking some vitamin B complex, vitamin C complex.. if you have a beer, go ahead and drink it..

Just remember you're a living organism on this planet, and you're very safe. You've just taken a heavy drug. Relax, stay inside and listen to some music, Okay? Do you have any Allman Brothers?

You know, I'm against drug use myself, XWL, but I'm not going to lay that on you right now. Just mellow out the best you can, okay?

SippicanCottage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nick Watts said...

Have you read Charlie Wilson's War?

Excellent account of history.

Its a Tom Hanks movie next year.

steve said...

Never Let Me Go is very good...also the only book this year (or this century?) to be on Time's 100 best novels since 1923.

Hot Kid I'm reading Leonard book since Be Cool. No Country for old Men is the only Cormac McCarthy book that I've liked. I've never read Towelhead but my kids and their friends loved it.


reader_iam said...

How could I have spent a year reading so intensely, without reading books?

Well, given my sobriquet, as one would guess, that would be a complete mystery to me--since I've come to the conclusion that I'm temperamentally incapable of being in the process of reading any fewer than 4-5 books at any given time--if we were talking about me.

But I don't buy into the school of thought that reading Great Books (especially fiction) automatically makes one a better person. (That's not to say, of course, that the books on this particular list fall into the category, anyway.)

It seems to me you are engaged in the world, passionately interested in ideas, and intensely curious about the wide variety of different threads that people choose to weave into their own little section of life's great tapestry. Isn't that enough? Isn't that the point, anyway?

I'd probably have a different take if you were in your early 20s, say, and had no grounding in the great literature of humanity. I do think there is something very particular that one gets from exposure to the world of great fiction and poetry, and that without that exposure at some point, it's pretty much impossible to be a truly literate, educated person.

But that's not the case with you, now is it? I think it likely that you have already gotten what you needed, long ago, in that regard, and are now simply engaged in the riff that you are intended to pursue. I wouldn't bother worrying about the "better person" stuff (and I note that this not the first time you've brought this up in recent months). I think it's the wrong premise for you, from what I can see, and for reasons I already stated.

Now, as to your question: I have read a bunch of great books this year, but they're not necessarily from this list. Quite apart from the fact that "notable" doesn't mean "great," I tend to be bad about library books, so I generally buy rather than borrow my reading materials. And because I'm such a voracious and fast reader, I generally can't afford to buy the number of books I require in hard back. Thus, I tend to be "behind" the times (and The Times--tee hee) because I have to wait for paperback versions.

That said, I've probably read or have in queue about 10 books on the Times' list this year.

reader_iam said...

And I must just hasten to add that Dowd's book isn't one of them, as petty as that might be.

Steven said...

I though The World Is Flat made for a decent light read, but it's very much a journalist-written book, anecdotes and quotes wrapped around a thesis.

Ann Althouse said...

XWL: Interesting!

Quxxo: LOL, but I think XWL made a damned good point.

The fact is that when I go into a bookstore now, the covers all seem like webpages to me and I can see that they want to pull me in and make me spend time there, but they are asking for many hours, and in most cases, that seems absurdly unrewarding compared to the reading I'm naturally drawn into on the web. I also see a lot of the books, like Thomas Friedman's or Maureen Dowd's, as just the booklength version of stuff I've already read on the web.

Or, really, the books don't care how long you stay. They only want to be bought. But when you look at a webpage, you're not motivated to shell out $25 dollars if you somehow mystically bond with the idea of it.

I did read some book this year that aren't on the Times's list. One that I can think of is Dylan's "Chronicles," which I did a lot of posts about.

IAm: Maybe my sense that I should read books, that they are self-improving, is why I don't. Reading on the web has more of a guilty pleasure feeling.

Another thing is that I can't link to books. I want to be able to blog about things I read, so things that can't be linked lose their attraction. It's why I breeze past the TimesSelect columnists now.

tefta said...

I've been a life-long reader who has always takeen notes and made annotations while reading. I've also corresponded with the writers of books I've liked, but since discovering the internet and the give and take of comments and replies, reading print materials for information seems so antiquated and reading for pleasure not as much fun as it used to be.

XWL said...

First I make the Velvet Underground reference about Prof. Althouse and then I rephrase some thoughts that she had in an earlier podcast so that she could then agree with what I had to say.

(I guess I am a brown-nose after all)

(or I must have filed and forgotten her bookstore as web page riff, and it came back as a distant echo while thinking about what to write about why books don't matter as much as they did in the mid 20th century)

(but reader_iam, is also right, it's like with art, before you can reject the past like Picasso did you should have some mastery and knowledge of the forms of the past (again like Picasso, an accomplished representational painter by his early teens. So though books aren't primary, what's in them still needs to be known, and not just from cliff notes like summaries))

and even though quxxo managed to drag a 'Boooosh has turned AmeriKKKa into a fascist dictatorship' comment into this thread, I'm the one that needs to calm down and must be on drugs.

(a by-product of that commenter being 'reality based' while I am clearly a 'fabulist')

Matt Barr said...

The Harry Potter books now are more for finding out what's going to happen than being good reads themselves, like books three and four were. Review of Never Let Me Go (and two others) here. I read nonfiction as infrequently as you read novels, it sounds like. Prince of the City was an interesting history but kind of fanboy.

Internet Ronin said...

If we are not discussing that particular list, London, the Biography was the best book I read so far this year. I'm almost finished with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gotham, and, although it is good, it is not in the same league as Peter Ackroyd's "tapestry of labour and love." While Gotham is good historical writing about a great city, London captures the essence of neighborhoods and how they did or didn't change (and why), all the while bringing to life what it really was like being a Londoner in this or that century. It was tremendous fun and I can't begin to justice to it.

Robert Fovell said...

I didn't see John Berendt's novel about Venice, The City of Falling Angels on the NYT list. I enjoyed that one, even more than his first book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

bill said...

Interesting, I've read a couple on the list and there's a few I'd like to read, but overall I've probably read fewer new books this year than ever before. But my reading hasn't decreased, just shifted to online. I can probably go throgh a couple hundred pages a day of fascinating fiction, humorous stories, first hand nonfiction and analysis, all in a variety of voices I'd never take much of a look at in a book store.

Having just returned from the bookstore (mostly reading weird ass Barbie princess books and Sabuda popups with the daughter), there are a couple new ones I'll be picking up:

Book of Imaginary Beings by Borges, in a new hardcover edition. Speaking of looking at books as webpages, this book is a great example as done by the Department of Illustration and Art of the Book at the Vakalo School of Art and Design in Athens, Greece.

And The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood looks like an interesting read.

chuck b. said...

I read Freakanomics and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and enjoyed them both very much. I have Warped Passages and the Cormac McCarthy ready to go as soon as I finish Nathaniel Fick’s excellent One Bullet Away.

My favorite book this year was a cute Southern gothic called Four and Twenty Blackbirds by blogger Cherie Priest.

twwren said...

"Collapse" is very good; a sequel to "Guns, Germs and Steel" but better.

Shiloh said...

I just read The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. I was captivated by her story of growing up with incredibly creative, smart, and ultimately extremely lazy parents. But I always love to read about people who had worse childhoods than mine.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith is also wonderful-- it's got beautifully drawn characters. There are really two kinds of novels- those that remind you why you like to read novels, and those that make you wonder, "Why do I read novels anyway?" On Beauty is definitely among the former.

Sean said...

I only read two of these 100: Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, which I thought was very good, the best since "Prisoner of Azkaban" and "Collapse," which I thought was worthless: uninformed faculty club pontificating, which goes over fine at the faculty club mostly because it fits the political preferences of that audience. I am sort of working on the Wodehouse biography, and I believe that my wife liked the Didion book, but maybe she just read a review and thought she would like it.

BeckyJ said...

Only Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Guess that makes me unedimacated.

During the school year, I'm busy reading articles for class, my own research stuff, and papers written by classes. No time for heavy-duty reading (I read the Potter book this past summer).