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.
At around the time I turned 40, I went to the eye doctor, and in the silence that followed my attempt to read letters that were impractically small and blurry, I said, “Look, Doc, I’ve had perfect vision all my life. I was pilot, for crying out loud, and I could always count on my eyes never to deceive me.”
“So why are you here?” the Doc asked calmly from his stool.
“I’m having trouble reading the dosage instructions on medicine bottles,” I explained. “Why they print that stuff so small in the first place is beyond me.”
“You guys with perfect vision, you’re all alike,” Doc said. “You turn forty and suddenly you can’t see clearly. It’s the way of the world. It only goes downhill from here, my friend.” I considered that delivery poor stool-side manner.
But it was true. At first I needed a prescription for glasses that my wife scoffed at as “half a prescription” because it was so mild. The next year I needed something a little stronger. A few years later, I needed what the eye doctors today call “progressives”–because even eyeglasses require spin. That took some getting used to, but I got progressively better at look through the right part of the lens when reading and walking down stairs.
These days, although it is not medically mandated, I wear my glasses almost constantly. They are light, but a nuisance. It means taking them with me everywhere I go. My pockets are already filled with necessities. Emptying them out each evening, I find a wallet, a phone, a Field Notes notebook, a black ink pen, a blue ink pen, a mask, my AirPods, and a tube of Chap-Stik. My eyeglasses don’t fit in my pockets. Neither does the pencil that I often carry around to mark up pages in the book I am reading. The former goes into my wife’s purse, if I am with her, or folded onto the front of my shirt if I am not. The latter goes behind my right ear.
Or it used to, anyway.
Of all the problems that my aging eyesight has caused me, none has plagued me so much as the eviction of that pencil from behind my ear. The temples of the glasses prevent a standard No. 2 pencil from resting securely behind my ear. (“Temples” is the technical term for what I might call the “arms” of the glasses.) If I put the pencil there while I am wearing my glasses, it perches precariously, bouncing and bobbing at the slightest shake of my head. It simply doesn’t work with glasses occupying the space. Forty years of habit is difficult to break. I am constantly reaching up to pull the pencil from behind my ear, only to grasp at air. It must look to friends and stranger like I am chasing flies away.
Eventually, I found a place to keep the pencil, although I haven’t grown used to it yet. When sitting with a book, glasses perched on my nose, my pencil now rests comfortably in my jaw.
What about contact lenses? I don’t like things in my eyes. I can deal with wearing my glasses all the time, with carrying them around when I’m not wearing them. I can accept my increasingly blurred vision as a fact of life. But if there is anything that could make me consider the leap to contacts, it is the eviction of my pencil from its proper place.
Last week I read The Wright Brothers by David McCullough. I’ve always enjoyed McCullough’s books (his John Adams is my favorite biography and I’ve read the book 3 times). That said, I’ve avoided The Wright Brothers because I thought to myself what else could I learn about the Wright Brothers that I don’t already know?
Well, I’m glad I read the book because it turns out I knew virtually nothing about the brothers. The book centers on the 10 years that they were developing the first airplane, and I found it fascinating. But perhaps more than anything else, I found in the Wright brothers a set of characteristics that I look for and admire in people. Indeed, they have become role models for the kind of behavior I wish to emulate.
Biographies fascinate me because people surprise me. I most admire those people that appear to be hard workers, in part because hard work can offset nature (hard work can make up for lack of genius, for instance), and nurture (hard work can overcome background circumstances for which a person has little control). I also admire integrity, and the appreciation of learning and knowledge. It is no surprise, therefore, that John Adams is my favorite president: he was an incredibly hard worker, had almost unquestioned integrity, and used his accumulated learning for the benefit of the country. (Note that I don’t say I think Adams was the best president, just my favorite.)
Reading McCullough’s biography of the Wright brothers, I saw in both Orville and Wilbur, 5 traits that are among those that I most try to emulate (with admittedly mixed success):
They were hard workers. They never shied away from work, but welcomed it, preferring to perform the most menial and most difficult tasks themselves rather than have someone else do it.
They were self-starters. They found something that interested them, wondered about it, asked questions, and then proceeded to explore it without waiting for the prodding of others. They financed their work from the profits of their bicycle shop rather than look for investors elsewhere and because of that, they had complete control over their explorations.
They were methodical and detail oriented. They were not rushed. They began with small simple explorations of birds in flight, and gleaned what they could from that. They worked in slow, steady increments. They were not trying to revolutionize the world overnight. The invention of the airplane was not a race. They made mistakes frequently and learned from them. They spent time studying their subject, learning everything they could about it until they were unquestioned experts in the field.
They were self-confident without being arrogant. Even after their famous flight at Kitty Hawk, most people around the world believed their achievement a hoax. This didn’t bother the brothers. They knew it wasn’t and they had confidence in their abilities and knowledge. They didn’t complain, calmly going about improving upon their work, knowing that eventually, people would see the plane flying for themselves.
They were even-tempered and humble. They didn’t take offense easily, in part because of the confidence they had in themselves and each other. They were willing to learn from mistakes and be corrected.
There are other traits I admire, but these five are rare to find in a single person, let alone two brothers. Even John Adams lacked some of them (especially 4 and 5). They are traits that I have for decades been striving for, but falling short in various ways that occasionally frustrate me. Seeing them all in a pair of brothers, though, gave me hope. I’ll never come close the success that the Wright brothers had in terms of their inventiveness. But it would be nice to think that I have a target I can use to approach their character.
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?
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:
Only a book that I finish gets on the list. Unfinished books don’t show up.
I don’t rank books, but a book that I would read again, or recommend, I’ll make bold on the list.
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.
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.
I just finished readingSkyfaring by Mark Vanhoenacker, a wonderful book about air travel written by a 747 pilot. I came to this book via Our Townsby James and Deborah Fallows, which I read back in February. Reading books like these often make me wish I’d stuck with flying. Twenty years and a month after getting my private pilot’s license, who knows what adventures might have been tucked into the lines of my logbook?
Skyfaring had me thinking of airports, desolate places in our current time, and not my favorite places in the world in general. When I was flying, I never minded airports, and indeed, enjoyed flying into smaller airports with pilot’s lounges and the satisfaction of knowing I could grab a burger while the plane was fueled and didn’t have to pass through security on my way back out to the plane (this was in the days before 9/11, of course).
It’s easy for me to list the airports I dislike the most, LAX being at the top of the list. I flew into LAX five or six times last year and always planned my arrivals and departures to be as early in the morning as possible in order to avoid the crowds and the rush of traffic into and out of the airport. On my last trip through LAX, they’d moved the Uber pickup to distant location and things seemed rather chaotic. I wasn’t looking forward to heading back there.
I don’t mind Washington-Dulles that much. It’s pretty easy to get into and get out of. I find it odd that the underground tram system that have takes you far past the D and C gates so that you spend more time walking back toward the gates than you do on the tram itself, but I like to pretend there is a good reason for this.
I’ve always had a fondness for Van Nuys airport, and for Camarillo airport. Van Nuys was my home base back when I flew, and I often flew out to Camaillo and its luxuriously long runway. (Van Nuys has and 8,000 foot runway and a 3,000 foot runway and I can count on two hands the number of times I was able to land on the long runway.)
Some airports seems too big–Atlanta and Denver come to mind. WhenI fly somewhere, I’ve been on a plane for a while, and want to be out and on my way to my destination. I the quicker I can get from the plane and off the airport property the better. Airports that make you take shuttles and trams from one part to another slow this down and annoy me, although I’m less annoyed if I can pick up train into town directly from the airport. (I know you can do this in Denver now, but the last time I flew in there, the train was closed for some reason.)
In all of the airports I’ve flown into, both as passenger and pilot, there is one that stands out in my mind as my absolute favorite: LIH, also known as Lihue Airport on the southeastern short of the island of Kaua’i in Hawai’i. I’ve flown in and out of this airport twice. My most recent trip to this airport was in 2005, right about the time this blog got its start. But my memory of that airport has stayed with me, and I judge all other airports by it to this day.
At the time Lihue was a fairly small airport. The long runway was 6,000 feet. Much of the airport was open or outdoors, which was new for me. The single best experience I’ve ever had in an airport took place in Lihue at the end of my last trip there. My friends who I’d vacationed with had left earlier in the day. I had a red-eye to LAX and then a connecting flight to Washington Dulles–a long flight. The day before, I’d picked up a couple books in a local bookstore. One of them was Alan Alda’s Never Have Your Dog Stuffed. I got to the airport fairly early for my 10 pm flight. The United counter hadn’t opened yet. Once it did, I checked in, and then headed to the gate to make sure I knew where it was. From there, I went to the bar for one final Mai Tai.
There was an area outside the bar and some other shops that was a kind of open air sitting area. Almost no one was around. The sky was the kind of blue I’ve only ever seen in Hawai’i, and the trade winds were blowing. The air smelled amazing, and the silence was interrupted only occasionally by the rumble of jet engines. It was still something like 2 hours before my flight. It was still sunny. I found a bench, sat down, and began reading Alan Alda’s book. I was lost in words and in the feeling of the trade winds. I think if my flight had been delayed or canceled, I wouldn’t have minded in the least. I could have sat in that spot all night and been happy. It was one of the more peaceful moments I can remember, and certainly the most peaceful, relaxing time I’ve ever had in an airport.
That’s why Lihue Airport remains my favorite airport. I haven’t been back there in 15 years and I imagine it has changed some. But I’ll always remember it as it was on that day.
There was an amusing item in the New York Times on what famous people’s bookshelves reveal. Whenever I see someone with a book, I have to know what it is. I almost never ask, since I almost never know the person in question, but I usually try to get a view of what it is they are reading. Sometimes I just wonder if it is something I have read before, sometimes I wonder if it is something that will interest me down the road. This extends to movies and television. I sometimes pause a show to see if I can identify the books on the shelves (who would have thought Isaac Asimov would show up in The Wire?) The Times article refers to the bookshelves behind the famous people in their Zoom, FaceTime, and other video chats that they are doing in this time of physical distancing.
Above is the view people see of me and one corner of my office during Zoom and Team meetings. Like many of the famous people, I have bookshelves in the background. They aren’t designed to be for show, and indeed, the two that appear in the background are 2 of 10 that encircle 3 sides of my office. That said, people may wonder, as I do, what books are on these bookshelves. The two behind me are the first alphabetically in my collection. (I arrange my books alphabetically by author, and then chronologically within a given author.) 9 of the 12 shelves in these bookcases contain books by Isaac Asimov. But there are some other interesting books here as well:
A first edition history of the Civil War published in 1865.
The official 4-volume chronology of the Apollo spacecraft.
Asimov’s Annotated Don Juan
A signed copy of Asimov’s Murder at the ABA
Several signed copies of Ray Bradbury books (The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Ahmed and the Oblivion Machine, which he signed for me in December 1998.
I’ve read many, but not all of the books on these shelves.
The remaining 8 bookcases cover the C’s through Z’s. The only book I have within reach while working are Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Eleventh Edition), Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern Usage, The Concise Columbia Dictionary of Quotations (circa 1993), 2019 World Almanac (I’m due for a new one), and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.
And what am I reading while stuck at home? Yesterday I finished Camino Island by John Grisham, and today I finished The Black Echo by Michael Connelly. It’s not all light reading though. I’m currently reading The Black Ice (also by Connelly), John Adams by Page Smith, and A New Kind of Science by Stephen Wolfram.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The biggest reason that I wait until January 1 before writing my “best reads” of the year post, is because I never know what book might catch me off-guard and really surprise me. Often, in late December, I’ll read a book that turns out to be one of the better books I’ve read all year. This has happened on a number of occasions. Among the best books I read in 2018, for instance, was the second volume of Gary Giddin’s biography of Bing Crosby, which I didn’t read until late in December.
Yesterday, I needed a break from WW-II. I’d torn through the first 2-1/2 volumes of Rick Atkinson’s massive “Liberation” series of histories about the Second World War. I’d been through North Africa, and Italy and was now on the verge of crossing into Germany, but like those solider push the Germany army back, I needed a break. I had, at some point, picked up Robert Iger’s memoir, The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company, and decided to give it a try.
I couldn’t put it down, and before I went to bed last night, I’d finished the book. It was unexpectedly good, so much so that it has created what I call a reading vacuum–a period in which I feel a desperate need to read something just as good, but have difficulty finding something to fill the void.
I’m fascinated by the job of Chief Executive Officer. Like President of the United States, I don’t believe it is a job someone can properly prepare for through formal education. Iger’s moves up through the ABC structure, and his on-the-job education seemed like a model for how one trains to become a CEO. The one CEO that I know personally seems to have followed a similar path (though not in the entertainment world) and has similar qualities to what I saw in Iger’s book: a hard worker, dedicated to the mission of the company, unusually smart, a gifted communicator, a natural leader, and someone with empathy and a genuine concern for the people who work for him.
As it happens, there is a chance I’ll finish another book or two before the year is out, and in that case, there are still some opportunities to be surprised again. So anyone interesting in knowing my best reads of 2019 will have to wait a few more days.
Few things are as frustrating as not being able to fall asleep when I am tired. I toss and turn. I get up and walk around. I lay down again. I drink some milk. I debate whether or not I should take a Tylenol PM. I worry over the time, 5 hours left, now 4 hours. At some point, I am certain that sleep will never come, not just tonight, but never again. I daydream about the good sleeps I recall. I marvel at how my three year-old can sleep so quickly and soundly. No, I will never sleep again. Of course, I do sleep again, but those nights when sleep won’t come seem endless. There is almost nothing as frustrating. Almost.
One thing more frustrating than sleepless nights are days when I can’t figure out what to read next. There are similarities between sleepless nights and what I call restless reading. I start a book that I think I will like. Almost at once I can tell there is a problem. One common symptom is that I am already thinking about what I want to read next. Other symptoms include browsing my bookshelf, or skimming my Audible library for alternatives. Generally speaking, what I am reading doesn’t fit the mood of what I want to be reading.
This is never so frustrating as when I manage to dig deep into a long book, hopeful for its promise, but increasingly nervous that it isn’t going to work out between us. This is what has happened today, when I made the rare decision to give up on a book that I had managed to read more than half of. I started reading Eye of the World by Robert Jordan while in New York this past weekend. The series is so big and vast, that I’ve been fascinated by what kind of story it could tell. I stuck with it, although I could feel my disappointment growing. Finally, this morning, after having made it more than halfway through the book, I set it aside and looked for something else.
I don’t track the books I don’t finish reading. To make it onto my reading list, I have to finish the book. But I do have a pretty good memory of what I have tried and failed to finish. Recently, list includes:
Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert MacFarlane
Walt Whitman’s America by David S. Reynolds
The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien
Rarely do I give up because the book is bad. More often, it is a bad fit for what I am craving at the moment. Right now, I am not craving fiction, and it was silly for me to try Jordan’s series at a time when I know I am not craving fiction. While reading the book, though, I found it slow. I kept thinking to myself, I could re-read The Name of the Wind and A Wise Man’s Fear and have a better time.
Usually, I can identify the symptoms quicker than this, often within the first few pages, or maybe a chapter or two. That leads to a struggle of its own. I can spend hours, sometime days, unable to find something that clicks with me. I scour my physical bookshelves, my e-books, and my audiobooks. I browse my wishlists. Like those nights when it seems like sleep will never come, it seems like I will never find another book that wows me, pulls me in, and from which I don’t want to leave.
There is no cure for sleepless nights, and there is no cure for restless reading. Unlike sleepless nights, however, there are mildly effective measure I take when I fumble for what to read next. I return to my reliables. Right now, where my mind is at, those reliables consist of books by Andy Rooney and E. B. White. Though I’ve read them before, they calm my mind, and allow me to read without struggle.
I know I will eventually get through this period of restless reading. In the midst of it, it seems like it will never end, and I’ve learned that I just have to be patient and hang on. Fortunately, E. B. White has made this a bit easier for me, and Andy Rooney has made me smile through my despair.
Earlier this month, I finished reading my 100th book for the year. It is the second year in a row that I have read at least 100 books. Last year, I read 130, and I don’t think that record will fall this year. However, yesterday, I set a new reading record for myself: I finished my 16th book in a single month.
Last year, there were two occasions on which I read 15 books in a month, October and November. So far, this November, I have read 16 book. I will likely complete one more book before the month is out, but it is unlikely I will finish the book that I started to read yesterday before the end of the month: Don Quixote.
The last two pages of my reading journal contains a chart and some tables where I keep these stats. I am looking forward to inking in the final number for November on Sunday morning. (The photo was from late October before I finished the month. The count in the October 2019 box is 13 books.)
Looking at those pages gives me some sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. I note that the last month in which I read nothing was January 2015, and the last month I read fewer than 5 books was September 2017. Last year I hit double-digits in 8 out of 12 months. This year it’s half that so far.
I think the chart also demonstrates I am something of an optimist. It captures my months reading stats through 2045. In 2045 I’ll be 73 years old, which still seems like a long way of. All told, the chart covers 50 years of reading. Next year will mark 25 full years that I’ve been keeping my list/journal. It will also be the year that I surpass a total of 1,000 books read since starting my list in 1996.