Books I read this year.
These are roughly in the order I read them. They include books with hard covers, paperbacks, and audio recordings.
1. By Hand and Eye, by Geo. R. Walker and Jim Tolpin (2013)
This book is about proportions in classical design. It explains this nearly lost art in a way that makes a lot of sense to this industrial age boy. I learned an enormous amount from reading it.
So much knowledge and skill about building things with hand tools was lost with the advent of industrialization. The very process of building things such as houses and furniture is conceived of differently when the process is industrial, that is, when it is oriented towards construction of many identical multiple copies using electrically powered machine tools.
I’m not being a luddite, decrying the loss of the old ways and moaning over the rise of the machine. I very much enjoy working with modern machine tools — I have a workshop filled with them — nor am I ignorant of the great benefits to our world of the capabilities of industrialization. It’s just that some babies got tossed out with the bathwater.
There’s a fascinating gap in the historical record, or so it might seem. European and American furniture built in the 17th and 18th centuries are well-represented in museums and dealer’s shops, but there is very little in the way of written plans, working drawings, measured cut lists, and other documentation typical of furniture manufactured in the 19th and 20th centuries. You might suspect that paper records from that time simply didn’t survive the vicissitudes of the years. But there is actually a very rich written record from that era, including detailed lists and descriptions of the contents and provenance of such furniture.
Those missing documents aren’t really missing. They never existed. Not only was the furniture built differently in pre-industrial times, it was designed differently as well. Architects and craftsmen laid out their work proportionally, using dividers, squares, and sectors, instead of with rulers and T-squares. Once you know the basics of proportional design, you can see how complex and beautiful pieces were created by knowing just a few simple rules. What’s more, the objects could be built in virtually any size, because proportion scales so easily and retains it beauty as it does so. Those working drawings, so necessary in the industrial world, never needed to exist in the old ways.
Understanding the basic principles of proportional design will change the way you look at things in the world. It has certainly changed me.
This book is another superb presentation of The Lost Art Press, Christopher Schwarz’ remarkable effort in Fort Mitchell Kentucky.
2. By Hound and Eye, by Geo. R. Walker and Jim Tolpin, illustrated by Andrea Love
The authors of By Hand and Eye created a workbook filled with easy exercises that help to teach proportional design.
3. Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed
I just couldn’t get into this book. Can’t really say why.
4. Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City, by Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez
Every year I read another illustrated novel and find that it just isn’t my thing. Moses is one of the topics I find endlessly fascinating, as he was an archetype for institutionalized racism through machinations of our built environment. Even so.
5. Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, by Matt Gallagher and Roy Scranton (2013)
A disparate series of short stories written by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans about their experiences in combat and out of it. Some quite excellent.
6. Mr Midshipman Hornblower, by C. S. Forester (1950)
7. Lieutenant Hornblower, by C. S. Forester (1952)
8. Hornblower and the Atropos, by C. S. Forester (1953)
9. Beat to Quarters, by C. S. Forester (1937)
10. Ship of the Line, by C. S. Forester (1938)
11. Flying Colours, by C. S. Forester (1938)
12. Commodore Hornblower, by C. S. Forester (1945)
13. Lord Hornblower, by C. S. Forester (1946)
14. Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies, by C. S. Forester (1958)
15. Hornblower and the Hotspur, by C. S. Forester (1962)
16. Hornblower During the Crisis, by C. S. Forester (1967)
I first read C. S. Forester’s series of novels about the age of fighting sail when I was just in my twenties. It’s great to reacquaint myself with Hornblower after many years. He’s not the complex literary beast created by Patrick O’Brian, but still fun to read. This time through, I read all eleven novels in chronological order as opposed to the order in which they were written.
17. Young Men with Unlimited Capital: The Inside Story of the Legendary Woodstock Festival Told By The Two People Who Paid for It, by John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, and Robert Pilpel (1974)
The story of the 1969 Woodstock Festival has been told many times from many different points of view. This book was written by the two aspiring young venture capitalists who financed the event. Very funny, dry sense of self-deprecating humor. As usual with any memoir, what is not said is as telling as what is told.
18. Our Kind of Traitor, by John LeCarré (2010)
LeCarré is always worth reading, even when the book isn’t one of his strongest, as is the case here.
19. Sir Nigel, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1906)
Doyle, while justifiably famous for his Sherlock Holmes stories, never much cared for the consulting detective. Doyle himself considered his great work to be The White Company, a coming-of-age novel set during the endless wars with France in the 15th Century. The whitewashing and unabashed Britannic cheerleading have not held up over the years, and the critics don’t agree with Doyle’s assessment. But I have always enjoyed the unembarrassed storytelling of The White Company. Some years after he wrote it, Doyle penned a prequel called Sir Nigel. The White Company tells the story of a young squire, Alleyne Edricson, as he comes of age in battle to become a knight. Sir Nigel tells the story of the heroic knight Edricson is esquired to. This book is more roughly written than The White Company, and probably not worth the trouble unless you are a devoted fan of chivalry or of Sir Arthur.
20. Thinking in Systems: A Primer, by Donella H. Meadows (2008)
Always worth rereading, as complex systems are what we have to deal with in this world.
21. The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi (2015)
Yet another page turner of a novel by my favorite science fiction author. No fantasy here, but strict adherence to the rules. What happens when water is more valuable than gasoline? What happens in Phoenix out in the dry Arizona desert?
22. Strategy Without Design: The Silent Efficacy of Indirect Action, by Robert C. H. Chia and Robin Holt (2011)
This is an excellent book that I simply must finish reading. How is it that every day all of the food needed in a giant metropolis like, for example, London, arrives on time, is distributed around the city, and yet there is no central authority making this happen?
23. The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom, by Simon Winchester (2008)
Everything Winchester writes is a simple delight to read. You can hear the author smiling as he relates stories about his subjects that are remarkably unlikely and fascinatingly true.
24. The Complete Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
I’ve read the canon twice before, but many years ago. I thought I’d give it another whirl. There are 57 short stories and four novels all told, written beginning in 1887 through to the last one penned in 1927.
I have to say that this reading brought me closer to Doyle’s own assessment of Holmes as not worthy of all of that praise. The stories seem overwrought and the mechanisms of perfidy somewhat — no, highly — unlikely. But still, that’s what fun fiction is all about.
As a young man I re-read books quite a lot. I’m not sure why, but if I found a book I liked I might read it three or even more times. I don’t do that much anymore, as I seem to be awash in new books that need to be read for the first time. But recently, through the convenience of recorded audiobooks, I find it amusing and easy to re-read titles I first read in the distant past.
25. The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business, by Christopher Leonard (2014)
America has sold so much of its soul to men with money, including our entire food chain. What isn’t necessarily clear from that assertion is that when you sell an entire industry, you change the very nature of it. The stuff we put in our mouths is simply not the same as the stuff our grandparents ate, and the “farmers” and “ranchers” who grow that food are not who they once were. It will be a long and difficult job to bring life back to a wrecked industry.
26. The Road to Woodstock, by Michael Lang, with Holly George-Warren (2009)
For some reason, the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival in upstate New York has caught my fancy, and I’ve read at least three books about it recently. All of the books have been memoirs, written by the participants, some soon after the events, others after many years of reflection. This book was written by Michael Lang, the one man who — more than any other — could be said to be its creator. Lang was assisted by a ghost writer, and the two of them solicited contributions from dozens of others, including promoters, workers, musicians, and even some remarkable stories from attendees. While the other books were most fascinating when they spoke of the behind-the-scenes machinations of the production, this book really takes off halfway through when it gives a minute-by-minute account of the actual three-day festival. I didn’t expect that from this source, but he really paints a great picture of the event.
In 2009, one of the minor figures in the creation of Woodstock, Elliot Tiber, wrote Taking Woodstock, a modest memoir of his experiences. Later that same year, however, the great director Ang Lee made a delightful movie of the book. Unfortunately, it was a financial flop, but I recommend it highly on many levels, not the least of which was the performance by Jonathan Groff as Michael Lang. All the while I was reading Lang’s memoir, I kept visualizing Lang’s elfin face, penumbra of hippie hair, and imperturbable manner so accurately captured by Director Lee.
27. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carré (1974)
I watched the 2011 English movie directed by Tomas Alfredson based on this classic le Carré novel. The movie very accurately portrayed the events in the book, which is not necessarily a good thing, as le Carré’s novels are far too dense and introverted for that. Frustrated, I re-read the novel and felt better about both.
28. The Egg and I, by Betty MacDonald (1945)
I remember my parents reading this book when I was a little boy, but it’s taken me a long time to get around to read it myself for the first time. It’s a remarkable memoir by a gifted writer, filled with delightful stories of living on a farm in the remote mountains of Western Washington state. The book was a huge success when first published. Not only did MacDonald become something of a celebrity, but her book was made into a movie, and two of the supporting characters became classic media characters and spun off for eight more movies and a TV show.
29. Dark Star, by Alan Furst (1991)
Sometimes I put a new book on the shelf and simply enjoy the anticipation of reading it. Sometimes it sits on the shelf for far too long. Dark Star has been awaiting my pleasure for more than two decades. I bought it shortly after I first discovered this wonderful author’s work with The World at Night (1996). Now I may have to re-read, in order, Furst’s first four books, as they form something of loosely-coupled quadratych.
This is certainly one of Furst’s meatier efforts, with his telltale atmosphere of impending doom in Central Europe as the shadow of fascism descends.
30. Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science, by Alice Dreger (2015)
I expected this book to be about rebellious scientists throughout history, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that instead it was a personal memoir of the author’s struggle against conventional thinking, ennui, and prejudice in the scientific community relating to her own work on gender. This book changed the way I think about gender and gender roles in our world. As a straight, white, middle-aged, suburban guy, the ignorance I brought to the subject matter was mountainous. Dreger certainly educated me, at least enough to not be an idiot about the subject.
This is a really important book, and well-written, too.
31. The Cloudspotter’s Guide: The Science, History, and Culture of Clouds, by Gavin Pretor-Pinney (2006)
There was lots of interesting information about clouds here.
32. Bloody Jack: Being an Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary “Jacky” Faber, Ship’s Boy, by L. A. Meyer (2010)
An amusing trifle. The first in a series that I will probably not pursue.
33. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, by William L. Shirer (1960)
An exhaustively detailed and factual account of the growth of Hitler’s fascism in Germany after the First World War, and continuing through its self-immolation in the wreckage of Europe 30 years later. I read this book concurrently with Donald Trump’s bid for the U.S. Presidency becoming serious. The parallels, of course, are numerous and frightening.
This remains an important book and a landmark of historical reporting.
34. Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity, by Douglas Rushkoff (2016)
A cogent and timely analysis of why our society is degrading due to extreme inequality by one of the better observers of the technical world.
35. Onions in the Stew, by Betty MacDonald (1955)
A natural follow-up to The Egg and I. This book describes the author’s life on Vashon Island in Puget Sound. In the 50s, that was pretty isolated living, even if not as isolated as her living situation was during her first book.
36. The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home, by Dan Ariely (2011)
More stories of systemically irrational behavior by humans as told by one of the more skilled and accomplished researchers on the subject. In this book, as in his first, the author often draws on his own rather blood-chilling experiences as a serious burn victim. In many ways, the stories of his stoicism in the face of colossal pain and loss are the most affecting passages.
37. Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
I gave up on this one after about 30 pages. Show, don’t tell.
38. Michael Palin, Diaries, 1969–1979, The Python Years, by Michael Palin (2007)
My brother-in-law gave me this intimidating book when he downsized his library. I don’t think Dave ever read it. Frankly, I never expected to read it. The book is about 4 inches thick, and, well, it’s a diary of a guy, and didn’t look very inviting at all. But what the hell? I asked myself, and started to read it, fully intending to put it down quickly. I kept it by my bedside and read something from it every night, and I never wanted to let go of this modern-day Pepys.
Palin, of course, is one of the founders of Monty Python, the English comedy troupe that changed the course of television and humor in the 1970s. Palin’s writing is beguiling, and the stories he tells are entrancing. He’s a gentle man, devoted to his family, both his parents and his own wife and expanding brood. He’s such a nice guy, and I learned so much about his connections and friendships and fascinating tours, studios, and projects that he was involved with.
I understand he has since published another couple of volumes covering the 80s and 90s.
39. Edge of Eternity, by Ken Follett (2014)
I finally finished reading Follett’s Century Trilogy, where he tells the story of war and peace in the 20th Century. I first became a Follett fan when I read The Eye of the Needle in the late 70s. His work today is a pale shadow of his earlier great novels.
40. The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries from a Secret World, by Peter Wohlleben (2016)
This is a fascinating little book, very well researched, and gently written. It’s kind of obvious that trees grow when there is sunlight and water, but if you look at this phenomenon from a slightly different point of view, you can couch it in a way that trees are remembering the state of moisture and light, and communicating that to their brethren in the forest. The author makes a canny case for looking at trees and forests differently.
41. Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, by Elvis Costello (2016)
I’ve been a huge fan of Costello’s music ever since his first album, My Aim Is True, debuted in America in 1977. I’m a sucker for clever song lyrics and Costello ranks with the best. By the time of his third record, Armed Forces, the lyrics to Green Shirt had me swooning:
Cause somewhere in the Quisling Clinic
There’s a shorthand typist taking seconds over minutes
She’s listening in to the Venus line
She’s picking out names
I hope none of them are mine
Over the years Costello has dabbled with an awesome variety of musical genres, some of which were to my liking, while others not so much.
I was anticipating purchasing this new memoir in hardcover when I saw that he had recorded the audiobook himself. As a professional voice entertainer, that promised to be a good listen, and it delivered fully on that promise. It’s full of surprising stories of how his songs came to be, and how his father influenced him so much. It tells of his friendships, loves, and collaborations with a huge breadth of talented musicians.
When I got to the end of the audiobook, I started right in listening again at the beginning. The anecdotes he related early in the book were worth hearing a second time after I had learned more about the full arc of his career.
42. Sloop: Restoring My Family’s Wooden Sailboat — An Adventure in Old-Fashioned Values, by Daniel Robb (2009)
People recommend books to me, and sometimes I buy the book but forget who first named it to me. I wish I could recall who told me about this little gem. It’s a personal account of a project that lasted a year and a half, where the author rebuilds and refurbishes a small wooden sailboat. The boat is a classic Herreshoff design dating from the first decades of the twentieth century, a perfect boat for Buzzard’s Bay, the inland sound southwest of Cape Cod, where the author resides. There’s nothing that stands out about this book except that every detail in it has been touched lovingly and respectfully by the author, just like that lovely little wooden sloop.
43. Great Small Things, by Jodi Picoult (2016)
Picoult is my wife’s favorite writer, and she gave this book to me for Christmas. Having contracted a nasty flu bug over the holidays, I spent much of it in bed with this book. I’ve been haranguing Sue lately with my recent outrage as I recognize new examples of institutionalized racism in America. That’s pretty much what this book is for Picoult, in novel form.
The book was soundly written, and the story well told. It’s a good primer on how deeply the tiny levers of inequality reach in our world, and how invisible they can be to those of us who have benefitted from it.