Tag Archives: books

Backyard Astronomy, 1979

When did you discover the stars? When did you realize that the sun was a star that was (relatively) close by? When did you first learn that there were other planets–entire worlds, some so big that they could swallow the earth–right here in our solar system? When did you find out that the universe didn’t revolve around our little world, that the Earth was part of a solar system, and the solar system part of a galaxy, and the galaxy part of the larger universe?

For me, it was sometime in 1978, and a chance encounter with a book in the Franklin Township public library. The book was the The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley. I’ve written about this book before, but I’ll repeat myself here because it is vital to the story. Indeed, it is the germ from which the rest of the story flows.

The Nine Planets

I no longer recall what drew me to this book. Was it something I picked out on my own? Was it something my mom, who would take me to the library, picked out for me? All I knew is that I liked it so much that I read it again and again. The Nine Planets1 is where I discovered the other planets, moons, and stars. The Nine Planets led directly to the backyard astronomy that took place at our house in the spring and summer of 1979.

Voyager 2 was in the news in the spring of ’79. I was about to turn 7 and I followed the news of the space probe’s approach to Jupiter assiduously. With the help of my mom, I kept a scrapbook of clippings from the Star-Ledger with pictures that Voyager 2 beamed back from Jupiter.

From those images, I got to see, firsthand, the Great Red Spot. I memorized the names of the Galilean moons. And for my birthday that year, my parents got me a telescope.

With my dad’s help, I learned how to setup the telescope, and align the view finder. We would take the telescope out into the street during the day, and point it at a street side so far away I could barely see it. Then we’d use that sign to align the telescope.

But it was the nights in the backyard that I looked forward to most of all. We pointed that telescope up in the sky and I could Jupiter, making out its fuzzy bands as the reflected light from the planet jigged about in the atmosphere. I could see the four Galilean moons as bright pinpricks of light at various distances from the planet.

It was a propitious time to look up at the night sky. I could see Saturn with its rings angled just so, casting a shadow. The thing was I could see Saturn. It was not just a picture in a book. It was there, up above, posing for me.

We pointed the telescope at the moon and I could see the mountains and craters. We pointed the telescope at seemingly dark parts of the sky and there, in the view finder, that small disc of sky was suddenly filled with stars, many of which I could name. I began to recognize the pattern of the constellations in the sky. I was given more advanced books on astronomy, and though I couldn’t make sense of much of what they were saying, I read through them again and again anyway. If someone asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, “An astronomer.”

This adventure in backyard astronomy led to my discovery of the larger field of science. When I discovered that there were stories that involved spaceships going to other worlds, I felt as if I was in seventh-heaven. Science fiction became a passion, and while I never grew up become an astronomer, I did grow up to be a science fiction writer, at least as an avocation, selling stories to some of the very magazines I loved reading. It all traces back to a forgotten trip to the library, and the discovery of Branley’s book.

In the decades since, I’ve periodically taken to the skies again. In my 20s, I pulled out that same old telescope I’d gotten when I turned 7, and pointed it up at the hazy skies of Los Angeles. The light pollution muted the experience, but I still managed to catch glimpses of Jupiter, its moons, as well as Saturn. Older, and somewhat wiser, I sketched what I saw into a notebook.

At some point, that old telescope vanished, but I got new one, as a gift from Kelly back when we were dating, and once again, I made time to look up at the sky, this time the skies over Maryland, where the light pollution wasn’t so bad.

A few years back, we had a big family reunion at a place we rented in rural Vermont, and I brought a pair of strong binoculars and tripod with me. At night, the sky was clear, and moonless, and the stars I could see took my breath away. I setup the tripod and pointed up toward Jupiter. The binoculars were strong enough to make out the Galilean moons, but not strong enough for the gas giant to appear as much more than a fuzzy sphere. My kids, as well as my brother’s and sister’s kids were all there, and I gave them turns looking up at the planets and stars. They each took their turn, but I could tell they didn’t feel the same sense of wonder that I felt when I seven, and that I still felt when I looked up at the stars on that clear summer night in Vermont. Then again, none of them had read The Nine Planets.

Is there a book that has had a particular impact on you? This question comes up from time-to-time, and I never have to hesitate with my answer. Other books have made stronger emotional impacts, or excited my sense of wonder, but none of them have had the impact that Branley’s book had on me. I’ve often wished I thought to send Branley a letter of thanks for writing the book. He died in 2002, after writing more than 150 books on science and astronomy for youngsters. I can only imagine how many future scientists, astronomers, astronauts, doctors, artists, and science fiction writers he inspired through his writing.

Of course, I would never have discovered the book were it not in the library to begin with. I have tried, in a small way, to payback the Franklin Township library by donating to it every year. Libraries always seem to be on precarious footing, and yet they contain multitudes. They are temples of inspiration just waiting to be tapped. In my case, the library inspired a bit of backyard astronomy in 1979–and a lifetime of discovery ever since.

  1. Now, clearly dated, in not just facts, but in title; Pluto is no longer considered a planet.

Latest Addition to My Stephen King Doubleday Years Collection

My 4-volumes of Cemetery Dance's "Stephen King: The Doubleday Day Years" collection.

For several years, Cemetery Dance has been putting out a special edition of Stephen King’s book during his “Doubleday” years. This week, I received my copy of the 4th entry in that series, Night Shift. These are beautifully done editions, with limited runs (I think there are only 3,000 copies of each) and often with new art commissioned, and even new material like deleted scenes added an appendix to the book. Night Shift is no different, with some additional stories appearing at the end.

Each volume in the series is a book-lover’s book. It is a work of art. It is a delight to hold in your hand. Even the pages are thick and textured. The books come in custom slipcases, and every now and then, I’ll sit with one on my lap, flipping through just because it is a beautiful thing to see and feel.

Four books in the series have been produced thus far:

  • Carrie
  • The Shining
  • ‘Salem’s Lot
  • Night Shift

The most recent entry is King’s first collection of short stories.

Two more volumes are planning, and indeed, I have already pre-ordered both, as they sell out very quickly. (I checked my records: I pre-ordered Night Shift back in 2016!) The remaining volumes are:

  • The Stand
  • Pet Sematary

Cemetery Dance takes its time in producing these volumes, but the time is well-worth the wait. They are not producing mass-market editions, but beautiful, carefully crafted pieces of art. After eagerly opening the package with Night Shift, I immediately began wondering what the next volume would look like… and when it would arrive.

Upcoming Reading: January 2021

I spent much of December reading the first 3 books of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives series. Early this month, I started on the 4th book, but gave up mainly because I needed a break. For those not aware of the series, it is a fantasy series, and each book is over 1,000 pages long. That’s about 3 times the length of your average book. I wanted a break from fantasy anyway, and to get back to nonfiction, so I started reading Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land. So far, I’m enjoying it.

Earlier today I was thinking about what I want to read next. This is often an effort in futility for me because of the Butterfly Effect of Reading, but I went through various lists that I keep. Here, for your amusing, is the list that I came up with. These, book, in no particular order, are the books that I want to read now. We’ll see how many I get through before the butterfly flaps its wings.

  • Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder by Julia Zarankin. Attracted by “Field Notes.” I’m not a birder, but I have been fascinated by birders ever since reading “Mr. Forbush’s Friends” by E. B. White in The New Yorker.
  • Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace. This book came up in several books I read late last spring.
  • An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland by H. Paul Jerffers. I went to Cleveland High School in Reseda, California, and it would be nice to know a little more about the person for whom the school is named.
  • Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant by Ulysses S. Grant (with Mark Twain in the cheering section). This book has been on my list for a while.
  • Rogue Heroes: The History of the S.A.S. by Ben Macintyre. I thought Macinytre’s book The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War was outstanding, so I figured I’d try something else he’s written.
  • My World — and Welcome to It by James Thurber. Thurber was contemporary and friend of E. B. White. I feel like I should read some of his writing.
  • Vactionland by John Hodgeman. It’s about Maine.
  • If I Die in a Combat Zone by Tim O’Brien. I read O’Brien’s The Things They Carried back in 2014 and it was outstanding.
  • Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck by William Souder. I love Steinbeck’s writing. Looking forward to learning more about the writer.
  • The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser. This has been sitting in my ready to read list for a while, and I just haven’t gotten around to it.
  • The Presidents vs. the Press by Harold Holzer. Every president, with the possible exception of George Washington, complained about the press.
  • Land by Simon Winchester. I’m a big Winchester fan, and this new book of his comes out on Tuesday.

Have any recommendations? Let me know in the comments.

My Best Reads of 2020

I managed to finish 88 books in 2020, the first time since 2017 that I didn’t hit at least 100 books, and the first time that I didn’t hit my target (110 books). But I forgive myself, given the year we’ve all had. Here are my ten best reads for 2020, followed by a handful of honorable mentions.

10. Master of the Senate by Robert A. Caro

Among the half dozen or so long books I read this year (1,000+ pages each) was Caro’s Master of the Senate. Like the previous books, the book was a fascinating, often infuriating portrayal of the life of Lyndon B. Johnson. This book was particularly infuriating. It was one of the rare reads where I had to set the book aside for a time and read other things because I just couldn’t take Johnson’s means of attack to get what he wanted. On the one hand, he was a brilliant politician. On the other hand, he used his powers for good and for evil. Still, the depth of Caro’s research compelled me to finish the book, and I do have the fourth volume queued up for sometime in 2021.

9. The Pine Barrens by John McPhee

I started off the year re-reading some McPhee, and then sought out those books of his that I hadn’t yet read. Of those, my favorite was The Pine Barrens, a fascinating (if dated) look at the large swath of forestland in New Jersey, and the people who lived there. McPhee’s style made this book a delightful, in addition to fascinating look at the lives of people and places you don’t ordinarily catch glimpses of, and a lifestyle which probably no longer exists in those parts.

8. Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask by Jon Pessah

Baseball, like everything else, was impacted by the 2020 pandemic. Right when baseball should have been in the rising part of its season, the fields were empty, the stands quiet. It was fortunate that I picked up Pessah’s book, Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask. This was a wonderful biography and a great look at Yogi Berra’s life, and came at a time when I desperately needed some baseball.

7. The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry

I couldn’t possible go through the pandemic year without reading about the last time a global pandemic wreaked havoc across the globe. Barry’s The Great Influenza was a fascinating read, terrible in the brutality of the flu and its spread. It was fascinating to read about the response, and see the parallels to today’s pandemic. The race to develop a vaccine for the flu and the science, and scientists behind it was just as fascinating.

6. John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit by James Traub

The Adamses have fascinated me since I first read David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of John Adams in the summer of 2001. I’d read biographies of John Quincy Adams before, but Traub’s John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit was the best of them, and indeed, I’d place it among the top ten biographies I’ve ever read.

5. Citizen Reporters: S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine That Rewrote America by Stephanie Gorton

I grew fascinated with Tarbell, and McClure’s after reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent book, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism back in 2015. So when I saw that there was an entire book coming dedicated to Tarbell and McClure’s, I devoured it eagerly, and I wasn’t disappointed. Citizen Reporters by Stephanie Gorton is the story of the birth of investigative journalism–something that has become increasingly important in the era of fake news and truth decay.

4. The Ultimate Engineer: The Remarkable Life of NASA’s Visionary Leader George M. Low by Richard Jurek

Long-time readers know of my interest in NASA and human spaceflight. So when I saw this new biography of George M. Low, I was considerably excited. I was even more excited when I read The Ultimate Engineer by Richard Jurek, and found to be an excellent biography of Low, and of NASA’s evolution during his tenure, which included the Apollo program and the moon landings. It was a necessary reminder of what we can accomplish when we put our minds to it, even in these darker days.

3. Truman by David McCullough

I read this book before, in the summer of 2001, right after finishing McCullough’s biography of John Adams. But in the two intervening decades, much of it escaped my memory. So I picked up the enormous volume, Truman by David McCullough once more and devoured it. The contrast between our current political climate, and that of Truman’s days was striking, of course, but it was still a great read, and I came away with a renewed appreciation of Truman.

2. Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter by Frank Deford

With all of the bad news that 2020 brought, I needed some laughter. Sometimes, I’d just go online and watch blooper reels on YouTube. Sometimes, I’d turn to a writer like Frank Deford to supply the humor. Over Time was the first Frank Deford book I’d ever read, and it was hilarious. It was, by far, the funniest book I’d read all year, and when I finished, I found myself wanting more. Deford’s ability to lift my spirits with his humor is a big part of why this book finds a place near the top of the list for 2020.

1. Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America by James M. Fallows and Deborah Fallows

Sometimes a book comes along that hits all the right buttons. James and Deborah Fallows’s Our Towns is one of those books. It is a travelogue in the spirit of Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, or Philip Caputo’s The Longest Road. It is a book about people you meet along the way, like Charles Kuralt’s America. It has the additional dimension of being a road-trip book for pilots like Stephen Coonts’s Cannibal Queen. As a former (private) pilot, I loved the airplane part of the book. It added a unique element to the typical road trip book. I loved the descriptions of the places and people the Fallows met along the way. So it is no surprise this book made it to the number one slot for 2020.

Honorable Mentions

A few honorable mentions, without comment:

Did you read any good books in 2020? Let me hear about them in the comments.

Books I’m looking forward to – October 2020

It has been a while since I’ve written about book that I am eagerly awaiting. In fact, I’m not sure that I’ve done it this year so far. 2020, being what it is, has gotten the best of me, and I’m behind in my reading. I’d set a goal of 110 books for the year, and I’m presently about 10 books behind pace (I’ve finished 74 books as of this writing). I will likely finish my 75th book of the year later today. Here are some of the books that I am looking forward to reading over the next several weeks:

  • Is This Anything? by Jerry Seinfeld.
  • The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison’s Ten Year Road Trip by Jeff Guinn
  • The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser
  • Cubed: The Puzzle of Us All by Erno Rubik
  • The Polymath: A Cultural History from Leonardo da Vinci to Susan Sontag by Peter Burke
  • The Furious Sky: The Five Hundred Year History of America’s Hurricanes by Eric Jay Dolin
  • Presidents vs. the Press: The Endless Battle Between the White House and the Media by Harold Holtzer
  • Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck by William Souder

There are other books I’m looking forward to, but they don’t come out until early next year, including books by Simon Winchester, Stephen King, and Cal Newport. But the list is a few of the ones that I’m looking forward to for the fall.

The Adams Family

I have been fascinated by the Adams family since reading David McCullough’s biography John Adams in the summer of 2001. Adams, to me, was a remarkable man. I’ve often named him as my favorite president (careful to point out that I say my favorite president, not the best president). From time-to-time, I’ve browsed John Adam’s diaries with great delight. I enjoyed reading about Adam’s from Jefferson’s perspective in Dumas Malone’s 6-volume biography of Jefferson. The story of Adams’ and Jefferson’s tumultuous friendship–captured in Friends Divided by Gordon S. Wood–is remarkable for its time. In any case, McCullough’s biography of John Adams has for nearly twenty years now been one of my favorites, and one I’ve re-read on several occasions.

This morning, I finished reading John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit by James Traub, and have found a biography of the son that matches McCullough’s of the father. What a great read. I’ve often felt that there are two qualities that drive people to greatness: genius, or extremely hard work. John Quincy Adams is the rare result of both, and his accomplishments bear that out. JQA was a more prolific diarist than his father and I have now started to immerse myself in Vol 1 of his diaries, with Vol 2 waiting in the wings.

I read The Education of Henry Adams two years ago. Henry was the son of Charles Francis Adams and thus the grandson of JQA and the great-grandson of John Adams. The family had its share of tragedy, and yet it continued to produce some remarkable people.

A paragraph toward the end of Traub’s book sums this up as follows, astounding when you think of John Adams relatively humble beginnings 285 years ago:

The Adams name rolled on in gently ebbing waves of distinction. Charles Francis Adams III, who married the granddaughter of the secretary of the navy under President John Quincy Adams, served as Herbert Hoover’s navy secretary. (He had prepared for the role by successfully defending the America’s Cup.) His son, Charles Francis Adams IV, served as president of the aerospace firm Raytheon. The Roman numerals have marched all the way down to our own day in the form of John Quincy Adams VII, surely one of the very few “VII”s in a nation that has forsworn a hereditary aristocracy. This John Quincy Adams has a blog.

What would John Adams have thought of blogs, I wonder?

1,000 Books Finished! And It Only Took 25 Years

On Saturday, May 23, I finished reading The Reformation, Will Durant’s 1,000 page book on, well, the reformation in Europe. There was a nice symmetry to the length being about 1,000 pages since this was also the 1,000th book I finished since I started keeping a list in January 1996. That is a span of over 25 years. For those curious, here is graphical breakdown of those years:

For those unfamiliar with my list, I keep it using a few simple rules:

  1. Only a book that I finish gets on the list. Unfinished books don’t show up.
  2. I don’t rank books, but a book that I would read again, or recommend, I’ll make bold on the list.
  3. Re-reading a book counts as a finished book. Thus, the list is a list of all books I’ve finished, even those read multiple times. It is not a list of distinct titles.
  4. What constitutes a book? I use my judgement. There are a few short books (#789 The Testament of Mary is one. But I also counted the full issues of Astounding that I read for my Vacation in the Golden Age as books since they were of equivalent length.)

I finished the very first book on my list, From Earth to Heaven by Isaac Asimov, on January 13, 1996. I was in New York at the time, on vacation. I can no longer recall what possessed me to start keeping a list. It is possible that I had already come across Eric W. Leuliette’s list of what he’s read since 1974. In any case, I managed to keep the list going in various forms and mediums. Twenty five years later, I finished my 1,000th book. The canonical list has, for some time now, resided in a Leuchtturm1917 notebook. Here’s the first page with entries from 1996, and the most recent pages leading up to and including my 1,000th book:

Sometimes I’ll add some additional notes in the notebook that don’t appear on any of the other forms of my list.

So, it took me 25 years to finish 1,000 books. That’s somewhat deceptive, however. From 1996-2012, I read either paper or the occasional e-book. In that time, I completed about 500 books. That’s about 16 years or about 31 books per year, on average. In early 2013, however, I decided to give audiobooks a try as a way of allowing myself to get more reading done. Since 2013, I’ve read an additional 500 books, so that’s 500 books in 7 years or about 71 books per year on average. My page has been increasing!

In 2017, I decided to see how much I really could read, given the freedom audiobooks provided, and the fact that I had slowly been increasing the speed at which I listen to audiobooks. (Today, I usually listen to a book at somewhere between 1.5 and 1.75x normal speed, depending on the narrator). I set a record in 2017, reading 58 books that year. But that record didn’t last long. In 2018 I read 130 books; in 2019, 113 books. So far in 2020, I’m on pace to read 110. Indeed, I sort of sprinted to the 1,000th book milestone. At the beginning of May I’d read 983 books. That means I read an additional 17 books (including 2 books that were over 1,000 pages each) in the first 23 days of the month. It is, by far, a record-breaking month for me, and one that I am not likely to repeat for some time.

Given the pace I’ve set for the last 3 years, I’d predict, assuming no significant changes, that I’ll finish my 2,000th book in July 2029, a little more than 9 years from now. What took me 25 years to do the first time, should be much quicker the second time.

The books that I read run the gamut of the Dewey Decimal System. While I haven’t looked recently, I think nonfiction outpaces fiction about 60/40. In the last 3 years, it’s probably more like 70/30.

Why read so much, and why list it out? Well, I’ve said elsewhere how I look at my reading as my real education. I learned to read in grade school; I learned to think critically in high school; I learned to learn in college. Once college was over, i was finally prepared to learn–and then had to enter the workforce. So reading is my way of learning. The list acts a reminder of what I’ve read (and what I’ve learned), but also a kind of literary autobiography. I can look at the list and for nearly any book on it, I can recall where I was and what was happening in my life when I read it.

And what about before the list? I’ve often wished I started my list much earlier. I was 24 years old when I started it and 2 years out of college. Looking back over that time, and thinking about books I read in college, and high school, books I read in grade school. Books I got from Weekly Reader and checked out of the library, children’s books that I read on my own or with help from my parents, I’d estimate the total to be not more than 500 books, and probably somewhat less than that.

When I finished the final words of Will Durant’s The Reformation on Saturday, I was sitting out on the deck, enjoying sunshine. I had a quiet, private moment of achievement. Then I started on the next book. I jumped from the middle ages in Europe to the present achievements in physics with Brian Greene’s latest, Until the End of Time, which I’ll like finish today and mark down as book #1,001.

I occasionally get questions about my reading and my list. If you have any, feel free to drop them in the comments below. I’ll do my best to answer them.

Vacation in Colonial America

The news lately is unsettling. On some days, I finish the paper hoping the coronavirus pandemic is just a dream that I will wake up from. I know it isn’t, but part of me looks for ways to escape. Thank goodness for books! Opening a book is like opening the lid to an escape hatch. The rest of the world falls away. I become fully immersed in a way that I never reach with movies or television. My current escape hatch has taken me back to colonial America.

I’ve resisted reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton since it first came out. After reading David McCullough’s masterful biography of John Adams in 2001, I became a great admirer of Adams. My opinion of Hamilton (and Jefferson, for that matter), distorted through Adams’s lens, was not very high. Because of that, I read other books by Chernow, but not the Hamilton biography.

A few weeks ago, however, I read a great book called The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians by David M. Rubenstein. This was an ideal audiobook because it was Rubenstein interviewing many modern historians, among them, Ron Chernow. That book and Chernow’s interview when he talked about Hamilton was the clincher.

And so, a week ago, I set my reservations about Hamilton aside and started to read Chernow’s biography. It came at a good time. News of the coronavirus was growing increasingly grim, and I needed a mental escape. I found it in America’s colonial past. Even though I didn’t always agree with Hamilton–especially his views of Adams–I looked forward to returning to the book whenever I could, often right after finishing the newspaper.

Hamilton has impressed me in several ways. I mentally divide impressive or outstanding people into two groups: their success is based on extremely hard work; or their success derives from some innate genius. While I admire genius, it is the hard worker that impresses me most–perhaps because that is something achievable without native genius. Rarely do I find people I’d put in both categories, but Hamilton is one. Even among the many hard workers I’ve read about, Hamilton stands out. HIs energy seemed boundless. His prolific output dwarfs Asimov. Then, too, his vision for America’s economic foundation shows genius. So do his ideas on the structure of government as he describes in The Federalist Papers.

Still, McCullough introduced me to Adams and in the two decades since, my admiration for the man, and his thinking has only grown. As I read of Adams and Hamilton’s disputes, this time through a Hamiltonian lens, I kept feeling the need to jump in and defend Adams. If only Hamilton knew… I’d say to myself.

Indeed, I began to wonder how Adams, Hamilton, and Jefferson would react if they all had access to one another’s papers the way we do today. Would their opinions change? Would their feeling for one another differ?

I’m nearly finished with the book, and as I got closer to the end, I worried about my return to the real world. I’ve looked forward to my escapes to colonial America as an anodyne to the uncertainty in present-day America. After all, there is no COVID-19 in colonial America. Instead, they have yellow fever, and their idea of social distancing it to retreat from the cities. I’ve decided, therefore, to extend my vacation in colonial America for now. But I need to turn back to Adams to clear my palate of Hamilton. So I have settled on two books about Adams that I haven’t read before.

The first, just released, is called John Adams Under Fire by Dan Abrams and David Fisher. It is all about Adams’s defense of the British soldiers during the Boston Massacre. The second is Page Smith’s 2-volume biography of John Adams, written in the 1960s not long after access to Adams’s papers was made more widely available. I happened to come across a boxed edition last year at the kids’ school’s annual used book fair.

Our kids, incidentally, will be home from school for the next 5 weeks. All Virginia schools were closed for at least two weeks. Our city’s schools closed down through spring break. They will have virtual classes online. The social distancing can be a real challenge. Last night, I had a virtual happy hour with a bunch of my friends scattered across the country. But with recommendations to avoid large crowds, it makes many of the typical things we’d do out of reach. Fortunately, I am surrounded by books, each one of which is an escape hatch to some other place and time.

The Butterfly Flaps Its Wings

It isn’t easy to illustrate the Butterfly Effect of Reading with concrete examples. Too often, when I think of it, I have traversed many branches, come to many forks in the road, and am fairly lost, no longer able to recall the chain of events that led me to the current book. But a recent lull in my reading has provided an opportunity for me to illustrate the BEF in action. I figured I should take it before it flutters away.

I took a break from audiobooks for a good part of January. It wasn’t a conscious decision, just something that happened. There were three John McPhee books that I wanted to read, none of which were available in audiobook form. I read them and enjoyed them all.

When I returned to audiobooks, I started with Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America by James and Deborah Fallows. This was a fantastic book. It is a little like Travels with Charley and a little like Blue Highways. Indeed, both of these books are mentioned in Our Towns. I’d add that it was also like The Cannibal Queen by Stephen Coonts, since the Fallows traveled the country in their private airplane, instead of by car. It was also a little like The Longest Road by Philip Caputo.

Some books serve as reading hubs in the same was that some people serve at network hubs. Our Towns led me to add two other books to my “Read Soon” list:

I was a little bit worried about what to read after finishing Our Towns. The better a book is, the harder it is to follow. But browsings the New York Times Book Review section on Sunday, immediately came across two possibilities:

I raced through The American Story in about a day. It was a collection of interviews with “master historians” talking about their subjects. The historians included: David McCullough, Walter Isaacson, Ron Chernow, Cokie Roberts, Doris Kearns Goodwin, A. Scott Berg, Jean Edward Smith, Taylor Branch, Bob Woodward, Jay Winik, and H. W. Brands. Of course, a book like this is a natural hub, and the following titles were quickly added to my “Read Soon” list:

With The American Story finished, I turned to Author In Chief. It seemed to be right up my alley: U.S. history, U.S. Presidents, and their writings. At this writing, I am more than halfway through and expect to finish tonight. The last chapter is titled, “A Presidential Reading List,” and that is certain to add to my “Read Soon” list.

Meanwhile, I book I had pre-ordered months ago appeared on Tuesday: Citizen Reporters: S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine That Rewrote America by Stephanie Gorton. I was fascinated by Tarbell’s story as it was depicted in The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and I’ve been looking forward to this book for a while. Another one on the short list.

I try to read one magazine feature article a day as a way of keeping up with the world and my various subscriptions. On Monday, I read a piece in the February issue of National Geographic called “The Last Slave Ship.” That in turn led me to a book by one of the authors, Sylviane Diouf, called Dreams of Africa in Alabama. That went onto the “Read Soon” list, too. Then, last night, I read a “The Notebook” by Steven Levy in the March issue of WIRED, and now, Facebook: The Inside Story by Steven Levy is on the list, too.

By my count, that’s a dozen books added to my “Read Soon” list in the last week or so. Any one of those books can lead to a dozen others. That is the beauty of the Butterfly Effect of Reading. I’m sitting here today reading about President’s and their books. I think I will be reading about citizen reporters tomorrow. But I might be reading about 747’s. Or I might have to turn my attention to The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. I never know where one book will lead. That’s the best part.

The Long Road Home

View from our hotel room on the last full day of our vacation.

We departed our resort at Walt Disney World yesterday morning at 8:15 am and arrived home just before 11 pm, 860 miles of driving. We have driven too and from Florida more than a dozen times, but this is the first time we attempted to drive all the way home in a single day.

The first time we drove to Florida, in 2012, we made the trip over 3 days, spending nights in places like Florence, South Carolina, and Kingland, Georgia. We’d do the same on the reverse run, stopping in places like Savannah and Charleston. After several years of these trips, we slimmed them down to just one night on the road, stopping at a roughly midway point in South Carolina. We’ve done that for years, and indeed, that is what we did driving down in December.

But we visited Walt Disney World at the end of our trip this time, instead of the beginning. We are normally in southern Florida, and being three hours closer to home made it tricky to decide where to stop for the night. I suggested we try to make the run all the way through. So we left Orlando at 8:15 am, drove through some rush hour traffic on I-4, and then onto I-95 where we encountered no traffic for the entire drive.

It wasn’t that hard. It might seem like a small thing, but I am always impressed by the good state of the roads, the quality of the rest stops, and the friendliness of the people at gas stations and restaurants along the way. We stopped in Walterboro, South Carolina for a late lunch, but other than a couple of pit stops, I drove and drove and drove.

I finished 3 audiobooks on the drive: I was almost finished with Ted Chaing’s Exhilation before the drive, and finished it while we were still in Florida. Next, I turned to Chuck Palahniuk’s new book, Consider This: Moments in My Life After Which Everything Was Different. Having finished that, I was still craving more on the writing life, so I re-read John McPhee’s Draft No. 4. That audiobook came to an end as we pulled into our driveway, right around 10:50 pm.

Listening to the audiobooks made the time fly by. So did the lull of the road. I remember when we stopped for lunch, around 2 pm, thinking that it didn’t seem like we’d been driving for nearly 6 hours already.

860 miles is the most I have driven in a single day. I think the runner up is in the 500 mile range. It made sense to do this, coming home, because it gives us the entire weekend to get the house back in order, do laundry (we were gone for 21 days) and settle back into our routines before we are back to work and school on Monday. I’m not sure I’d do this driving down to Florida.

The photo is a view from our hotel room on the last full day at Walt Disney World. We stayed in two different resorts this time, but I’ll have more to say about that in a future post.

After being gone for 3 weeks, it feels good to be home. It does not feel like we just left on the trip, or that the trip flew by. 21 days is a long time by any measure. It’s nice to be back in my office surrounded by my books. It’s nice to have 2 days to settle back in before work starts again.

My Best Reads of 2019

Now that 2019 is officially in the record books, I present my list of best reads of 2019. Keep in mind that this is not a list of books published in 2019. Some of the books on my list are books published in 2019, others published decades earlier. It is, simply, a list of the books I most enjoyed in the last year.

A few stats on my reading from last year:

  • I read 113 books, for a total of 43,820 pages.
  • 80 books were nonfiction, 43 were fiction.
  • The longest book I read was 882 pages.
  • The average length of a book in 2019 was 387 pages.
  • On average, I finished one book every 3-1/4 days; that’s a little over 2 book per week on average.
  • Here is the list of everything I’ve read since 1996. What I read in 2019 begins with #849 on the list.

And now, the best books I read in 2019 in the order that I read them.

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games are Made by Jason Schreier

As someone who manages software projects, I’m occasionally interested in how it is done in the real world. I’ve always been fascinated by the construction of video games, even if I am not an avid player, so this book was a perfect mix. It portrayed an array of games and game companies, including Witcher by CD Projekt Red. It was because of this book that, in January 2019, I took the rare move of buying Witcher 3 and playing it, and moreover, winning it and its add-ons. It supplanted the Ultima games as my favorite.

The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintrye

This real life story of double-agents and spies was fascinating. It was like The Americans, but nonfiction, and like a good thriller, it kept me reading, virtually unable to put the book down.

The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King

I watched Mister Rogers as a kid, and I was delighted by this biography by Maxwell King. I read it while in Pittsburgh for work, so I had a sense of the place where Rogers grew up and where he created much of his art.

American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race by Douglas Brinkley

I’ve read most of the books about the Apollo program and the lead-up to it, so I was excited to see something new. This book took a different approach than many of the other more technical books I’ve read. Brinkley tells the political story of the moon race, with fascinating insights into all aspects of the project from the selection of James Webb to run NASA and much more.

No Cheering in the Pressbox by Jerome Holtzman

This is an old sports classic, but it was new to me, and it was probably my favorite book of 2019. Holtzman collected a kind of oral history from sportdwriters going back to the early 20th century, and published a collection of interviews with those writers that were a fascinating look at the job of sportswriting, and the evolution of that job. It was reading this book that I realized the job of sportswriter (in the 20th century) seemed like the ideal job.

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

I often enjoy books on books. I came across Hanff’s wonderful epistolary book at time when I was struggling to find what to read next. I pulled out my copy of 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die and went through it page, by page, until I came to this book. It sounded fascinating, a New York bibliophile writing to a London bookshop for recommendations and orders, and the friendship that evolved in the letters across the pond.

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

I don’t read much science fiction anymore, but I’d been hearing good things about Mary’s book, and Mary is one of those writers I trust, so I decided to give this one a try. What a treat! It is an alternate history of the space program, and it is extremely well done. First and foremost, Mary tells a great story, which is always the primary consideration for me. She narrates the audiobook, and anyone who knows Mary knows what a talented voice actor she is. This book was pure fun, and I’ve had the sequel queued up for some time now. I’m looking to read it later this year.

The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson

I enjoyed the Longmire TV series, and decided to give the original Craig Johnson novels a try. I started at the beginning and was hooked. Although I list only The Cold Dish here, I actually read all 15 books in the series, as well as the short fiction featuring Walt Longmire. I fell in love with the books, the characters, the style in which they are written. George Guidall narrates the audiobook, and he has become Walt Longmire to me, more than Robert Taylor ever was. These books redefined what a character novel could be.

The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company by Robert Iger

I forget how I became aware of Iger’s book, but I was a little skeptical when I started it. It sounded more like a self-help book, but turned out to be a rather remarkable memoir of Iger, who started in a lowly job with ABC and worked his way up to the CEO of the Walt Disney Company. As someone who has worked for the some company for 25 years, I was impressed by this, and Iger’s story was a fascinating one.


A few other notes on what I read in 2019:

The most intellectually challenging book I read was The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes. This stretched me to my limits and I’m still not sure I understood all of what Jaynes was saying in that book. But sometimes, I need to push myself, and this was one of those times.

My biggest disappointment this year was Blue Moon by Lee Child, the latest Jack Reacher installment. I’ve enjoyed all of the Reacher books to date, and had been looking forward to this one since it was announced. But the book itself fell flat for me, seeming almost a caricature of Reacher. In part, I think this was do to the extraordinary character and storytelling ability of Craig Johnson with his Longmire books. I got spoiled by Longmire in between Reacher books.

With the first half of 2020, I should finish the 1,000th book I’ve read since 1996. I wonder what that book will end up being? It’s impossible to predict, what with the butterfly effect of reading fluttering its wings.

1,000 Hours of Audiobooks in 2019

Given all of the reading that I keep track of, one thing I haven’t managed to track is how many hours of audiobooks I actually listen to in a given year. The Audible app shows only the last 5 months worth of listening metrics, and several days ago, I found myself wondering how much it might be. Today, I found out, thanks to an email from Audible. It turns out that through yesterday, I’ve listened to 936 hours of audiobooks this year.

This turns out to be about 2-1/2 hours each day on average. But the number is a bit understated for a few reasons. First, given that it has to be through yesterday, it doesn’t count today or tomorrow, which, based on the last several days, will add another 10 hours to that figure. So we have 946 hours.

Then, too, it has been a long time since I have listened to any book at normal speed. Indeed, listening to a book a normal speed makes the narrator sound drugged. I typically listen at 1.5x normal speed, with some books (depending on the narrator) at 1.75x normal speed. Call it an average of 1.6x for the year. In that case, in my 946 hours of audiobook listening this year, I’ve listened to 1,514 hours worth of audiobooks. That’s an average of 4.1 hours/day compressed down to 2-1/2 hours a day thanks to the faster listening speed.

I am currently reading (listening to) Anything You Can Imagine: Peter Jackson and the Making of Middle-Earth by Ian Nathan. I expect to finish this book tomorrow, and that will give me 114 books read this year. Of those, the vast majority, 105, are audiobooks.

I’m often chagrined thinking about how much more I might have read if I’d embraced audiobooks sooner. I friend of mine has been using Audible since the late 1990s, while I only got started with Audible in 2013. Indeed, I am on the record claiming I could never listen to an audiobook–which just goes to illustrate the folly of being closed-minded.

Some of the time I spent listening to books this year did not go into completing a book. I give up on quite a few books each year, and if I give up on a book, it doesn’t make it to my list of books I’ve read. I’ve never kept track of the books I give up on so I don’t know how many or how often it happens. I’m considering keeping track in 2020.

I’ll have more to say on the books I read this year later in the week, after the year is over. I plan on posting a list of my 12 favorite books of the year, as well as a separate post on the 10 best books I read this decade. Stay-tuned.