books


Thunderstruck by Erik Larson
I’d read Erik Larson’s Devil In The White City a couple years ago and found it to be one of those light little books that went down quickly, so when I ran across Thunderstruck at a thrift store one day, I decided to pick it up. Written in a similar style (nonfiction pulled from historical records and then flourished with a touch of imagination), it’s another breezy sort of read that again follows a man trying to achieve a scientific breakthrough (in this case Guglielmo Marconi) and another who was a murderer (Hawley Harvey Crippen).

That description might not sound breezy, and although the book is definitely a quick read, perhaps that’s not quite the right description of the book. “Pulpy” is probably more apt, as it moves with a sort of brisk thriller feel that you could easily imagine being made into a movie (think something along the lines of The Illusionist). At any rate, Larson once again pulls intertwines the two stories in a way that at first doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense, but finally reveals the connection later on. The bulk of the book is alternately spent describing triumphs, setbacks, murder, marital breakdowns, a getaway, breakthroughs, capture (for Crippen), and ultimately a brief bit of success (for Marconi).

It’s one of those nonfiction titles that reads like a work of fiction, largely for the sometimes-flowery language that Larson uses. Definitely different than most recent nonfiction titles that I’ve read lately (in that it felt a lot more like entertainment than anything of real learning value), it was nonetheless a fun, quick read that I’d recommend to those looking for a good little potboiler (with a few nice historical references thrown in).

Economic Naturalist by Robert H. Frank
I stumbled across mentions of this book many moons ago after reading Freakonomics, but had it land in my lap as yet another Christmas present retrieved from my wishlist. In truth, it’s a little bit different that the aforementioned book, but somewhat similar in style. It’s certainly not a straightforward textbook, but instead Frank uses everyday examples of questions (most of which came from his students) to teach different concepts of economics.

Basically, it’s an excuse to learn a lot of random trivia while at the same time learning about how that applies to different economics principles. For example, in the supply and demand section of the book, a question is:

Why do new cars costing $20,000 rent for $40 a day, while tuxedos costing only $500 rent for about $90?

It’s all pretty basic stuff, and while some of the information in the book is certainly more enlightening than the aforementioned quote and answer, a lot of the knowledge in the book is sort of common-sense type of information paired with basic economic theory. At just over 200 pages, it’s a quick read, though, and if you liked Freakonomics, this might be worth a couple hours of your time.

World War Z by Max BrooksIt had been almost two years since I’d read a work of fiction, so at the beginning of the year I figured I’d break that drought as soon as I could. People who know me probably realize (and sometimes wonder why) I have a rather odd obsession with zombies, and I figured that a fine way to get back into fiction was through a book about the undead. As luck would have it, I’d received Max Brooks’ World War Z off my wishlist as a Christmas gift (which made for some funny looks), so it made the decision easy.

In short, this was the perfect first book for me to read this year. A quick read, it’s broken into short interview passages (almost identical to the style of Studs Terkel) with survivors of a massive global zombie outbreak that was somehow quelled. It hops all around the world, from a doctor who encountered “patient zero” to soldiers who fought in various battles to civilians that did their best to survive it all.

As with any zombie tale, one obviously has to overlook the scientific leaps of faith, but once you do World War Z actually reveals itself to be a well-researched book that touches on political, social, and environment concerns that have their own parallels with real-life situations (which is really the measure of any great zombie-story). Having recently read several books on different epidemics, the whole spread-of-infection angle seemed fairly plausible, and the book is not only funny at times, but downright creepy in places as well. Supposedly, the book is already being made into a film, and I honestly have to say I’m pretty stoked about that.

There are some things in my life that I’m oddly obsessive about, and one of them is writing down every book that I read; including the author, title, and number of pages. I keep a completely outdated list hidden away online, but also write things down in a little book that’s also caught scribbles, random thoughts, and other ephemera for some time now.

While writing down information for the most recent book I finished, I noticed that I’ve been keeping this data on books that I’ve read for ten years now, and so the small part of my brain that thinks it’s fun to write down these things also thought it would be a good idea to do a little retrospective to try and parse some of the data within.

In looking at the list, there were trends that seemed obvious at first, but upon further examination revealed themselves to be not quite so. When I first started the list, I was fresh out of college and barely knew anyone in the city that I was living in, and I spent a lot of time by myself with my head buried in a book. In the time since then, I met my future wife, joined a band, got a house, got married, gained a couple pets, and changed jobs. Like I said above, though, the data doesn’t completely add up all the time.

Without further ado, here are the first couple charts…

Chart 1: Books read per year

Books read in the past decade
Chart 2: Pages read per year

Pages read in the past 10 years

These first two charts are fairly uneventful, and largely represent the same sorts of trends (duh).

First off, it’s interesting to note that the very first year I started keeping track is also the largest number. As I mentioned above, 1998 was the first full year that I was out of college and on my own. Although I had a very small group of friends, I didn’t have a lot of people that I spent huge amounts of time with. During this year, I also had surgery, and I specifically remember reading not only one, but sometimes two and three books during a single day when I was in recovery.

From there, the trends largely stay fairly similar, although the years 2000 and 2003 show significant dips. The former was the year that I met my future wife, but it doesn’t explain the dip in reading, as I didn’t meet her until later in the year. The lack of reading in that year was probably more explained by finally having a larger group of friends in the town where I was living, as well as more of my time being spent working on photography (I had an independent show that year and often shot 3 rolls of film a week or more). The dip in 2003 is more obvious, as that was the year that we both bought a house and got our first dog (Zoey!).

I have a hard time explaining the spike in reading for 2005, other than knowing that Marianas dissolved in the first half of that year. Most likely, I spent more time reading on many nights rather than practicing music.

Because of my current infatuation with non-fiction titles, I also decided to go back and chart every title that I’ve read over the past 10 years and see how my tastes have evolved in that time as well. In some ways, this information is also the most interesting.

Chart 3: Fiction / Non-fiction titles in the past 10 years

Fiction and Non-fiction in the past decade

The complete disparity in fiction vs non-fiction in 1998 is easy to explain, as I not only tried to read a good portion of the fiction titles that I’d never been assigned in school (but felt were somewhat essential), but I also got stuck on certain authors (like Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and Kurt Vonnegut) and then plowed through a good batch of their books in a row.

A trend that holds true with this chart is that in the years where I read a lot more books were also the years that I read a bit more fiction. I’ll be the first to admit that I can read fiction titles a great deal faster than non-fiction, and it makes perfect sense that I’ve slowed down on number of titles the past couple of years (when I haven’t included a single fiction book).

I will also admit that I simply haven’t been as interested in fiction titles the past couple years, mainly because I feel like I gain a bit more from reading non-fiction titles in terms of knowledge. That said, my creative instincts may have suffered a smidgen by cutting out fiction work, and I plan to at least incorporate a couple fiction titles each year from here out.

If I dig a little deeper, I’m sure that there’s some more interesting stuff I can find here, but for now I will simply end with the aggregate numbers.

Books read 1998-2007: 175 (fiction: 80 / non-fiction: 95)

Pages read 1998-2007: 51490

The Great Influenza by John M. BarryMy wife (and others) have been poking fun at me for some time now about my reading selection, but it wasn’t until I got about halfway through this latest tome when I realized just how weird my book selection has been the past half year or so. I’ve read books about what would happen to the world if humans disappeared, a poison gas attack, the assassination of a president, and a cholera epidemic. Needless to say, following it up with a book on the one of the worst pandemics in recorded human history seemed like a painful frosting on a depressing cake, but The Great Influenza was nonetheless next on my reading list.

As it turns out, this book by John M. Barry was a fascinating and often completely heartbreaking read. In terms of numbers killed, the estimates range from 40 all the way up to 100 million, and this damage was done in the incredibly short time period of roughly 18 months between the years of 1918 and 1919. The scale and scope of this particular flu was pretty much unprecedented, and due to bad decisions made by several different layers of both government and local officials, it spread completely out of control in a country that was trying desperately to maintain a patriotic fortitude while going into battle of the first world war.

Obviously, with so many people affected, this influenza wasn’t strictly limited to the United States, and while this book focuses in on domestic efforts to both combat (and seemingly ignore at the same time) the outbreak, it also spends a great deal of time talking about how it affected and spread around the world as well.

In leading up to the actual discussion of the pandemic itself, the book devotes entire chapters to the advancement of science and medicine in both Europe and the United States during the time period, giving a good background of how much progress was made in a short time. It’s this type of information that really makes the book an excellent read, capturing just how much progress was made in a short time (and under some fairly constricted circumstances in some cases).
Although it doesn’t go into great detail, the book touches on the fact that a pandemic flu could happen again at some point, and how we would be both better equipped (the evolution of science and industry to manufacture vaccines at a higher pace) and worse off (the greater prevalence of national and even world travel aiding the spread of the virus) in the event that it did.

In the end, the book was equal parts depressing and enlightening, with enough data and historical information to inform. With terms like “HN51″ and “bird flu” being thrown around every six months or so with sometimes panicked overtones, this is a good book for historical reference.

The World Without Us by Alan WeismanWhen I first read about the concept of The World Without Us, I was intrigued immediately. For some reason or another, I’ve had a strange sort of obsession with everything from the apocalypse to zombie films the past couple of years. Throw in a bit of true treehugger-style guilt about my (and the rest of humankind’s) footprint on the world itself, and this book by Alan Weisman shot to the top of my wish list when I read about it being released.

Essentially, the title tells the tale, as the book basically takes on all the different angles of what would happen to the world if humans were to completely disappear. Weisman doesn’t specify how this would happen (to keep everyone happy he mentions everything from the Christian description of Rapture to a virus that wipes out humankind), but that’s not really the point. Instead, he focuses on the decay of human-built infrastructures, chemical compounds that we’ve created and how long it takes for them to break down, animals we’ve displaced (and pushed to near extinction), and ecosystems we’ve changed and/or destroyed.

While there are a few hypotheticals, the great thing about the book is that Weisman has really done his research. In many cases, he’s had the ability to study different things firsthand, as in the Exclusion Zone of Chernobyl, which includes several cities that were basically left completely abandoned by humans and the humans took over. He also takes a look at the demilitarized zone in Korea, and in these places one can see the steady advance of nature as it reclaims space slowly at first but then with wide flourishes that are sometimes hard to imagine. One of the most fascinating sections of the book deals with what would happen to a city like New York, New York, which is built largely upon marshlands that require non-stop water pumps to function lest basements fill with water and support beams buckle and surrender to corrosion.

Of course, there is a lot to be depressed about in the book as well. In a chapter titled “Polymers Are Forever,” Weisman describes a state-sized (Texas, to be nearly exact) swirling mass of constantly breaking-down discarded plastic in the Pacific ocean that is not only threatening aquatic life in that particular area, but slowly filtering into the microscopic level as the plastic breaks down to such a small level that algae can ingest it (which then in turn moves up the food chain and eventually could cause what is essentially a bottom-up choking-off of the food chain).

Like many books I’ve read lately, The World Without Us made me think about how I live my life personally, and the changes I can make to affect at least the small part of the world around me. It’s not a book that speaks specifically to the individual footprint of a single person in this world, but it makes you feel like a vital cog in the larger scheme of things, and for that I would definitely recommend it.

Underworld by Haruki MurakamiTo some, it would probably be a bit odd that the first book I’ve read by Haruki Murakami is his only non-fiction work, but that’s exactly the route I’ve now taken. While my wife has managed to read a good portion of his fiction work, I’ve continued on my non-fiction binge that started last year and shows no sign of letting up. Oddly enough, Underground was at least partially inspired by the work of Studs Terkel, and finds Murakami interviewing survivors of the Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks that took place in 1995.

At the time that the attacks took place, I was in my spring semester of college. I remember reading about them quite a bit at the time (on the fledging internet and in newspapers), but didn’t have any real personal stake in them other than wondering how large the Aum cult was within the Japanese society and whether there would be more attacks like it.

Because the context of the book was so specific and horrific, it seemed like an interesting (and probably quite sad) book to read, but I was nonetheless drawn to it. Although the different accounts get a bit repetitive at times, Underground is an absolutely fascinating book in terms of a look at a society. There are people who have survivor guilt, others who seem to have forgiven all the perpetrators, and others who obviously (and for good reason) still harbor a lot of hard feelings about the attack. In an odd way, I also felt like I got a slightly better idea for at least a small slice of Japanese society.

Although he adds his own thoughts in places, Murakami largely stays in the background, allowing the victims (and even a few members of the Aum cult, who had no direct ties to the subway plot) tell their stories. As mentioned above, it’s not exactly an uplifting read, but at the same time is one of those books that gives you a bit of hope for humankind.

American Dreams: Lost And Found by Studs TerkelAs is probably completely apparent by now, I’m a really big fan of Studs Terkel. Over the course of the past couple years, I’ve read just about every book of his collected interviews that he has released to date. Of these, I would have to say that Working, Race, and The Good War were easily my favorites, although there were certainly inspiring and even essential parts to everything else he’s written as well.

Unfortunately, American Dreams: Lost And Found is probably the weakest volume of Terkel’s that I’ve read to date. As with his other books, there were a lot of individual stories that were worth reading, and a couple quotes or observations that made me feel like I wasn’t wasting my time, but at the same time it was really the only book of his that I’ve read that felt like a chore at times. Perhaps it’s because the guiding principle of the book itself is a little more subjective than some of his others, but other than some of the more historical stories I didn’t feel like I was getting as much substance as I usually do out of one of his books.

The most interesting part of the book were interviews with two people, both of whom have taken completely different routes over the course of the past nearly three decades; Arnold Schwarzeneggar and Dennis Kucinich. The interviews were conducted in 1979, and in the former you can picture a star-struck young immigrant still enamored with his new country and the possiblities that it holds for him, while the latter finds a young politician close to the end of his first term as mayor of Cleveland (he wasn’t re-elected, but it’s easy to glimpse the ideas that he’s become known for today).

Even the Terkel books that don’t hold my interest quite as much still have some noteworthy stuff in them. Really, that’s more than you can say for most.

Manhunt by James L. SwansonI’m not even sure where I stumbled across this book, but for some reason it seemed really intriguing and I ended up purchasing it on a whim and deciding that it would be the next book that I’d read. As I’ve mentioned many, many times before on this site, I’m kind of an idiot when it comes to history, so I figured this book would help to fill in a few more gaps in knowledge for me.

Using an absolutely heaping amount of transcribed witness events both from the event and the ensuing chase, James L. Swanson has put together an incredibly interesting read with Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer. The writing style is fairly loose, but doesn’t seem to contain quite as much “guessed” perception as a book like The Devil In The White City by Erik Larson. To me, it felt like it had a nice balance of doling out a lot of very specific historical information alongside a lot of the aforementioned personal recollections of the time.

Because of the above, it was an informative book that was also quite entertaining. Over the course of high school and college I’d read little bits here and there about the murder of Lincoln, but had never really gotten the full background. This book gave me just what I was interested in, and also provided me with a bit of a nudge to possibly start the massive (3 volumes, 3000 pages) set on the Civil War by Shelby Foote that’s still sitting shrinkwrapped on my bookshelf.

A Technique for Producing Ideas by James YoungI’m not sure where I stumbled across reading about this book, but somewhere along the way during the past two months it found its way onto my Amazon wishlist and finally into my personal library. Originally written back in the 1940s, A Technique for Producing Ideas is basically exactly what the title states. James Young put it together at the time as a way to lay out the creative process for advertisers, but it really pretty much applies to any discipline.

I bought the book because I was feeling like I was stuck in somewhat of a creative rut and thought it might provide a slightly different perspective on things, but after spinning through the short book (in about thirty minutes), I realized that the process layed out on the pages within was actually remarkably similar to the one that I already use.

The basic gist of it is to work on your idea by throwing out any and all related thoughts during the first part, then trying to visualize ways to bring these (sometimes somewhat disparate) pieces together. If you run into a figurative wall, clear your head with something unrelated, then try things from a different angle.

That’s the basic framework of the book, and it’s better stated within, but I guess I was hoping for a slightly different angle. Fortunately, I feel like I broke free a bit from my slump since before I even read it. My solution was about the same cost as the book itself; a bottle of wine.

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