2019 – Reading

Jesus’ Son – Denis Johnson (1992) Ummm, perhaps shouldn’t have started a new year with a collection of short stories this disquieting. Innermost feelings of the dregs of society and all that, but oh my goodness, what luscious prose.

Saint Melissa the Mottled – Edward Gorey (2012) Well, yes, that Edward Gorey, of whom i’ve been reading for many years, but whose work i’d never read. I have now, and it’s a little jewel, a melange of the macabre and the surreal. Quite enjoyable. And still, a morsel. I must look at more of his little books.

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden – Denis Johnson (2018) Another story collection 25 years after Jesus’ Son. The characters are still mostly low lifes, but there is more humor in this later batch.

Into the Ruins – ed. Joel Caris. Fall 2018, Issue 11. Another collection dystopian short stories, but inferior to previous issues. Don’t bother.

The Mezzanine – Nicholson Baker (1986). I’d read with great pleasure Baker’s essays, but this was the first of his novels i’ve read, and oh my, did i ever love it. For some, it might be too much navel gazing since the entire 135 page work takes place on an escalator ride from the ground floor to the mezzanine, but oh what a journey it is, during which he examines in great detail a host of everyday objects in exquisite and inventive prose. I was enraptured, and tying my shoes will never be the same again. Read him.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century – Yuval Noah Harari (2018) I was so captivated by his previous two books that i snapped this one up. Oh wow. And oh dear. He holds out some promise, but it’s likely to be a very bleak future unless we change our course very soon. Still, he’s eminently readable and i recommend your working through all three of his books in order: Sapiens, Homo Deus, and this one.

Double Fold:  Libraries and the Assault on Paper – Nicholson Baker (2001) I grabbed this book in the expectation that it would include Baker’s breathtaking account of the skulduggery behind San Francisco’s new library. Alas, it didn’t, but no problem, as it was highly readable and very informative account of the replacement of printed material in our libraries with first microfilm and later digital versions using the excuse that the paper version were about to crumble to dust, which they weren’t. However, a lot of people made a lot of money pushing the transition even though the non-paper versions were often illegible.


A Terrible Country
– Keith Gessen (2018) This one literally fell into my lap. My friend Nina had some kind of brain hemorrhage, but it yielded to surgery and left her unimpaired except for one problem: she could no longer read. And of course she’d been a voracious reader. So i offered to read to her and she accepted the offer by handing me a book sitting on her table. Turns out, i’d read reviews and thought i’d enjoy it, so here was my chance to read it and do something nice simultaneously. The author is the younger brother of Masha Gessen, whose essays i’ve loved for years. Turns out he’s also a good writer, and both Nina and i thoroughly enjoyed it.

Transition – Iain Banks (2009) I’ve finally got around to reading one of Banks’ science fiction novels, having had him praised highly to me for many years. This one was so entertaining that i’ll have to go back and read his famous first one, The Wasp Factory.

USA – John Dos Passos (1938) Here, the three novels The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money are combined into one massive volume, 1240 pages. This is one of those books that i bought some years ago and that just sat on my bookcase. I took it down a couple of times and tried to read it, but couldn’t get started, but now the time was right, so i quite enjoyed this classic of American literature. An additional pleasure is the fine paper, well sewn bindings, and cloth-covered strong boards. Better yet, it has a bookmark ribbon, a feature i’d love to see more frequently.

The Uninhabitable Earth – David Wallace-Wells (2019) The first half of this copiously documented horrifying book lays out a gruesome depiction of what life is going to be like as global warming progresses when the best case scenario is awful. In the second, and much shorter part he describes how we might avoid some of the worst aspects if we cooperate and work at it. Well yes, but I can’t imagine that we will. I need to read something fluffy next.

Upheaval – Jared Diamond (2019) Fluffiness postponed because I learned that Diamond had published a new book. The subtitle is Turning Points for Nations in Crisis and he examines how Japan, Finland, Chile, Indonesia, Germany, and Australia have recovered from crises, rating each according to the following criteria: consensus that the nation is in crisis, acceptance of responsibility to act, delineating the problem, getting help from other nations, using other nations as models, national identity, honest self-appraisal, experience in previous crises, dealing with failure, flexibility, core values, and freedom from geopolitical restraints. The subtext all along is how we compare to these nations as we face our own unfolding crisis.

And then he takes a look at us, first discussing all our great advantages and then the problems threatening a breakdown of American democracy. Foremost is the accelerating deterioration of political compromise, not just in our politicians but more importantly in the general public. Fewer and fewer of us even know someone who didn’t vote for our candidates in the last election. More and more of us get all our news from sources with strong biases toward our existing views.

Secondary problems are our elections in that the percentage of us who vote is much smaller than other countries, and it is smaller not just because of voter apathy but more so because of purging of voter rolls and increasing barriers to voting. Elections are also a problem because the increased cost to win one have deleterious side effects. The next secondary problem is growing inequality and decreasing economic mobility. The last secondary problem is declining investment in human capital and and other public purposes.

Next, he examines world problems: nuclear weapons, climate change, resource depletion, and inequalities of living standards.

And finally, he offers some suggestions as to how it is possible, if not likely, that we might learn from the past and better address the crises that face us.

A fine book, but now I’m definitely ready to read something light.

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