Tuesday, December 28, 2010

2010: My Year in Books

Evidently, the 'frequent posting' aspect of blogging remains rather elusive for me.

All told, a pretty good year in the reading department. In terms of total volume, it was my second best year (second to last year's unemployment-aided 17,004 pages). The 45 books I read in 2010 ran a total of 16, 457 pages, and ran the gamut from some dense non-fiction to far lighter fare. After I started posting again (that one day in November) I had hoped to write up some brief thoughts on each title as I finished them, but as with posting anything else of any nature, that idea fell by the wayside.

With so many books, it's a challenge to recall all of the elements of each that resonated with me over the course of the year. I am still surprised by how fondly I can recall the experience of reading a certain book while failing to recall much of its plot or salient points. The idea of summarizing each was a way for me to make a note of what I gained (or not) from reading each. Perhaps this is an idea which will take better hold in the new year.

As I put together the little matrix above, it was interesting to see which of the titles still resonated months after I first read them. With that in mind, I thought I'd throw together a quick top-ten list from the year in review. Perhaps this is a better way to judge what I read; what still triggers something in my mind months after I've read it. So, in no particular order:

1. No Impact Man, Colin Beavan: I first became interested in this book after the New York Times profiled the author midway through the project that spawned the book. That article got a lot of attention, and spawned a number of media accounts that I came across around that time. (His whole media experience is engagingly covered in both the book and documentary) The conceit of the project was to live with as little environmental impact as possible for a year. Of course, to make an interesting go at this goal, the author and his family took it to the extreme eventually winnowing much out of their lives, from take-out cartons all the way through electricity. After reading the book, I Netflix-ed the accompanying No Impact Man documentary, which added to the project by presenting a more conversational take on it, and gained perspective from the involvement of his wife. My biggest take-away from this was their cool worm-box composting system, which Audrey still won't let me build. For a project that was so preconceived and often stunt-ish, I thought there was still some real insight into taking a critical view of what it really means to live with minimal impact, and what is lost and gained in the process.

2. The Big Short, Michael Lewis: Hindsight is 20/20, but it was never as interesting a read as Lewis' profile of investors with foresight. A dissection of the events of the 2008 mortgage-related financial crash could easily be another chapter in Charles McKay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds, a seminal look at what happens when capitalism gets out of balance, written of course, in 1841. Some things never change. This book offers a great take on the 2008 crash, by looking not at the events of the crash, but those who got rich by predicting it. In hindsight, the only way that these events can be viewed by 99.99% of the world, all the insanity around the real estate bubble seems so obvious, predictable, and preventable. Those who predicted the crash also happen to be some of the most interesting characters I've ever read about in any book, not just non-fiction financial history books. Lewis' understanding of the financial aspects (he's a former Salomon Brothers trader), and his ability to translate them into understandable prose surely make this the most lucid and readable look back at the financial crisis. The writing is great, the book is brisk and involving, and it lead me to read two more Lewis books over the course of the year (Liar's Poker and The New New Thing) both of which demonstrate a unique talent for telling business stories, and presenting the incredibly interesting characters that underpin them.

3. Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, Peter Hessler: In general, I try to have my reading reflect what's happening in my life: when I was working on an embassy project, I read a half a dozen books about embassies and diplomatic history. In the spring and summer of this year, I was working on a number of big new buildings in China, which led me to read a couple of books about what is happening there. To call China a dynamic and changing place is an understatement. As I saw from my desk in Chicago, whole districts were being demolished to make way for enormous shopping malls and entire cities were rising out of rice patties. Of the books I read, Hessler's gives the best impression of the wholesale changes not just in appearance, but in lifestyles and values in today's China. The book is framed around China's new infatuation with the automobile, as emblematic a shift as can be found. The author buys a car, gets a license, and tells of his experiences on a series of road trips around the country. Through the stories of a few people and places, the book manages to gives a broad impression of the country's tumultuous evolution. I learned a lot about day-to-day life in China that I don't think I could have found elsewhere.

4. Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World, Seth Stevenson: The conceit for this book is a simple one: circumnavigate the globe without taking air transportation. I'd never given a ton of thought to air transportation prior to reading this book, but a trenchant observation in the introduction served perfectly to justify the author's choice of transportation: flying is essentially teleporting yourself from one place to another. The joy and challenge of the journey is gone from most modern travel. While travelling a couple of years ago, one day I woke up in Managua, among the poorest cities in the Western hemisphere, and went to sleep in Manhattan. This is a shock, and it's amazing to consider the fact that one can now be pretty much anywhere else in the world in a matter of hours. For the author and his girlfriend, the transitions from place to place are slower, allowing more time for considering the scale and value of the change from being here to being there. The individual experiences they have make for great stories, from a transatlantic container ship voyage, to a Russian overnight ferry to Japan, to a cycling trip across Vietnam. This was a book that made me pine for a journey and dream of opportunities to take the roads less traveled.

5. The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of a City, Robert Sullivan: I always enjoyed crossing the Meadowlands on a speeding New Jersey Transit train, the spires of New York rising over expanses of tawny reeds and dark water, but like most people, I never gave much thought to the much-maligned area. Sullivan lays the eye of a historian, biologist, and anthropologist on the expanses of reeds, and considers why the area - mere minutes from New York - has never been developed like the rest of Northern New Jersey. It turns out that this result is not from a lack of effort to domesticate that landscape, but rather a complicated interplay of history and nature. Through hikes and canoe trips, Sullivan offers a series lyrical portraits of the Meadowlands today, and ties them back into their fascinating history. After reading this I thought more about the fact that every landscape has a unique history and qualities far beyond the obvious. I now have a lot more to think about on those train trips than just getting to Penn Station.

6. Freedom, Jonathan Franzen: I liked it. Much debated and in the news this year, it was an engrossing story. The part that sticks with me the most is his description of the gentrifying, organic vegetable buying, NPR-listening family early in the novel. After reading it, I listened to the Slate Audio Book Club about the book, and found that that podcast really enriched my reading experience. It was a lot like being back in a great session of English class to dissect the themes and plot turns of the book.

7. Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann: On a day when everyone in New York was looking up at Phillipe Petit, perched on a wire stretched between the World Trade Center towers, McCann pulls his eyes off of the spectacle above and looks around at the spectacle that is everyday New York. Using the tightrope walk as a connecting but tangential thread of the plot, the author pulls together a series of lives into one of those tales that makes one fascinated with the diverse and bizarre world that we live in. (In that way, this book is very similar to White Teeth) Just an all-around great read. As an aside, the film about Petit's walk, Man on Wire, is a phenomenal movie.

Hmm. After one pass through the matrix, I would say those are the seven best books I read this year, or at least the seven that stuck with me the most. Since I didn't make it to ten, here are my honorable mentions:

What the Dog Saw, Malcolm Gladwell: Whether right or wrong, Gladwell always has something interesting to proffer. I found that this collection of his New Yorker pieces made frequent and interesting appearances in my conversations throughout the year. He's kind of the RadioLab of books.

Generation Kill, Evan Wright: I read this book, then watched the HBO series it inspired, which featured a couple of the actual soldiers in their roles. The book is a truly intimate portrait of some of the men that make up our army today.

From Bauhaus to Our House, Tom Wolfe: Wolfe's critique of the evolution of modern architecture is as wonderfully-written and insightful today as when it was published almost 30 years ago.

The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of Cities, Joe Flood: A great look at New York during the tumult and crisis of the late 60's and 70's, specifically looking at the interplay of politics and economics in the Rand Corporation's work for the New York Fire Department. A truly fascinating group of characters during an equally fascinating period in the city's history.

Black Brothers, Inc. : The Violent Rise and Fall of Philadelphia's Black Mafia, Sean Patrick Griffin: While primarily about the Black Mafia in 1970's Philadelphia and its ties to local government and the Nation of Islam, the history that this tome offers about the roots of Philadelphia's racial and political dysfunctions is invaluable to understanding the city. The fact that much of the action in the book occurs in familiar territory made it especially engaging for me.

How Did You Get This Number, Sloane Crosley: Like her first book, I Was Told There'd Be Cake, Crosley writes light, deeply funny essays about growing up.

Braving Home: Dispatches from the Underwater Town, the Lava-Side Inn, and Other Extreme Locales, Jake Halpern: Wonderful portraits of people living in bizarre locales, from a lava floe in Hawaii to the isolated town of Whittier, Alaska.

Bobos In Paradise, David Brooks: Brooks makes a fascinating argument about the melding of Bohemian and the Bourgeois in American culture over the last 50-ish years. While a little dated, especially in its conclusion (it was published in early 2001), this book gave me a lot of food thought about cultural changes in the period of the book's focus (1950's through 2000), and the changes we've seen in the period since its initial publication.

Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas, Chuck Klosterman: Not sure if I'm including this just because it's fresh in my mind, but this book grew on me a lot as I read it. A collection of Klosterman's culture columns, interviews, and fiction, a lot of the music references were beyond me, but his depictions of celebrities were incisive and interesting, and much of his social commentary was simply arresting.

Here's to yet another great year of reading to come in 2011!