I listened to Black Indians (1986; rev. 2012), written by William Loren Katz and narrated by Bill Andrew Quinn. It examines the intersection of Black and indigenous cultures in North America and what would become the United States.
Okay, I just looked it up and Katz died in 2019 (age 92!) so it won’t hurt his feelings if I criticize the book a little. I was hoping for more discussion of the broader themes of race and culture, but that is perhaps a contemporary bias. I shouldn’t expect much sociology in a forty-year-old history book.
A kinder perspective would be to appreciate that Katz, a white man, did scholarship about minoritized groups well before that was common in the literature, even if it does wander sometimes into the noble savage stereotype.
Katz is strongest when speaking about individuals. Of the people he describes, three stand out:
I read bell hooks’s Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981), with audiobook narration by Adenrele Ojo.
When I was an undergraduate, we learned that the first wave of feminism (focused on women’s suffrage) and the second wave of feminism (focused on women’s liberation) served middle and upper class white women to the exclusion of others. By the time I came along as a Women’s Studies major in the early 2000s, the curriculum had a strong focus on inclusivity.
Those gains are due in no small part to hooks. Though the term intersectionality wasn’t yet in the scholarly parlance, hooks anchored Ain’t I a Woman on the intersection of race and sex, with class and labor making frequent appearances.
One. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, like so many early feminists, was anti-slavery but not anti-racist. She wanted Black people free from chains on religious grounds, but she did not think of them as equals. I know we covered this when I was in college, but either they weren’t emphatic enough or I distorted the message. It would have been in character for me to tamp it down, to apologize for her (she meant well, she was doing the best she could for the time, etc.). Nope. Lady was a straight-up racist. Abolitionists can be racist.
Two. The labor forces have changed so much, so quickly. I was born in the year hooks published the book, 1981. hooks devotes ample time to the idea of women in the workforce, because that was still one of the big social questions of the time. Yet it already seemed hopelessly outdated when I was growing up, the idea of women staying at home, expecting a man to provide for them.
Capitalism was happy to assist with that social change. That sped things along. Laborers who earn less but control more of the household spending decisions? Let’s flood the workforce with them!
Final takeaway: then, as now, our social movements cannot afford to exclude people’s needs. “Let’s fix patriarchy first, and then we’ll focus on sexism. Let’s solve poverty first, and then we’ll worry about accessibility.” No. We lift up everyone or we lift up no one.
If I had the power to compel 330 million Americans to read one and only one book, it would be The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965).
When I first read it as an adult, I knew Malcolm X was a controversial figure in the civil rights movement, but like most Americans, my high school education focused on the Greensboro Woolworth’s sit-ins, Rosa Parks, and Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech—all the parts that are palatable to contemporary school boards. I did not know what to expect.
It is a vivid document of race and religion in the twentieth century, but it’s also a thumping good story.
When he is a child, Malcolm’s father is murdered, his mother hauled off to a psych ward. After some time in the Michigan foster system, he goes to Boston to live with his sister Ella, who is such a charismatic figure that she nearly outshines Malcolm in his own autobiography.
The next few years are one big party, filled with alcohol and drugs. He takes a job shining shoes at a club, where he hears Peggy Lee when she first makes it big. He hangs out with his buddy Redd Foxx. He socializes with Billie Holiday, as one does. He takes his white girlfriend out dancing. He sells drugs. He robs rich people.
Inevitably he is caught. It is in prison that he discovers the Nation of Islam. It transforms him. It is also in prison that he begins to read. He devours books, giving himself the education he never got in school.
After his release, he becomes a minister in the Nation of Islam. He teaches that white people are white devils. He opposes integration. He gains fame as a spokesman for the Nation of Islam. For seven years he devotes himself to his religion, until he has a falling out with the leader, Elijah Muhammad.
And then he travels to Mecca and has an epiphany. On seeing faithful Muslims of all colors, he realizes that white people are not devils, or at least not all of them. He returns to America and begins teaching from this new place of understanding, though he struggles to shed his old reputation.
The book was written by journalist Alex Haley, based the book on interviews he conducted with Malcolm X. I particularly enjoyed the audiobook, narrated by Laurence Fishburne.
I’m going to close with two passages:
“My greatest lack has been, I believe, that I don't have the kind of academic education I wish I had been able to get—to have been a lawyer, perhaps. I do believe that I might have made a good lawyer. I have always loved verbal battle, and challenge. You can believe me that if I had the time right now, I would not be one bit ashamed to go back into any New York City public school and start where I left off at the ninth grade, and go on through a degree.”
“I have given to this book so much of whatever time I have because I feel, and I hope, that if I honestly and fully tell my life's account, read objectively it might prove to be a testimony of some social value.”
George Saunders is the best contemporary American writer, an opinion I feel more comfortable holding following the deaths of first Toni Morrison and then Cormac McCarthy.
Unusually among successful writers, his primary medium is short fiction. He’s only got the one novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, which is so good that he should probably stop there. Pastoralia is his second collection of short stories, published in 2000.
Prose craft is different from storytelling. Being good at either one of these things is uncommon. Each Saunders sentence writes is a gem, but handled in such a lowkey way that you don’t realize you’re reading a master. You’re too focused on turning the pages because you need to know what happens next.
Though if you enjoy audiobooks, I would implore you not to turn the pages but to listen to Saunders narrate his own work. The thing about Saunders that too many reviews miss is that he’s funny. Uproarious. The man is funny in print, but I listened to the book and I was howling.
Also: when you listen, you can’t look ahead to know when a story is about to end. Three different times in this book, a story ended and I gasped out loud in shock. There are only six stories so that is a fifty percent gasp rate.
My favorite story was “Pastoralia,” about some historical reenactors, but the one I’m going to quote from is “Sea Oak,” in which an elderly aunt bullies her nephew (a sex worker) into earning more money: “Show your cock. It’s the shortest line between points.”
In now the sixteenth month of my unusually isolated lifestyle, following a general history of being not outgoing whatsoever, I find myself reading more about social connections, either why we need them or how to forge them. This led me to Lydia Denworth's 2020 book Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond, audiobook narrated by Tiffany Morgan.
Though I've read a lot of popular nonfiction about human relationships, most of those books have been more on the social science side of things. This introduced me to research I was unfamiliar with.
One finding: friends have brains that process the world the same way. It turns out that we do not all experience music in the same way, for instance. Friends are more likely to have similar brains that lead them to enjoy the same types of music. Or put another way, shared interests are more than just superficial commonalities. They speak to similar brain structures.
I find that many of these books are written by extroverts who just...don't quite get it. I like extroverts. Some of my best friends are extroverts! But I am not sure I trust the social advice of people who understand the words "dinner party" beyond the abstract.
My other frustration was that discussion of social media was shoved into one chapter, as though it were still a niche consideration in friendships. And within that chapter, the advice was that social media should supplement friendships, but that you should spend more time with people in real life. Excuse me, I am right here! Excuse me!
Of course I would prefer local friends. Spending time in the same room is valuable, even if you're just hanging out instead of talking. Also there are certain activities that cannot be managed satisfactorily without proximity.
But the author seems unaware that many friendships start online. My closest friends are people I have not met. Not met yet, rather.
I want to read one of these books written by someone who is Very Online.
These mild concerns notwithstanding, I enjoyed the book. I broadly recommend it, because social connections are so important for a healthy and happy life, for all of us, even the hermit-in-the-snowy-woods types like me.
After seventeen years, I’m rereading Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, and I hope you’ll consider joining me. These are books that will make you feel better. You will leave them knowing more about yourself and other people, and you will feel less pessimistic about everything.
I’m reading these in chronological order, which is why I’ve got Color of Magic up first, but that’s not where I recommend people dive in. With more than forty books in the series, there are a ton of great entry points, since few of the books depend on familiarity with prior entries. I do think the stand-alones are less intimidating, perhaps. Small Gods is my standard recommendation.
But let’s not sweat the details. If you’ve never read Pratchett and you were waiting for a sign, hello, here it is, the universe would like you to read a Discworld book.
The Color of Magic introduces us to the greatest city on the Disc, Ankh-Morpork, and its least talented wizard, Rincewind. Until I moved to a state with unjustly few characters allowed for license plates, my license plate read WIZZARD in homage to Rincewind. In some ways he is my favorite Discworld character, not because he is the best, but because I imprinted on him like a duck.
I’m not doing anything like a coherent plot summary, but that’s not the point. No other author’s death has affected me more than Pratchett’s. That’s what his books have meant to me, and so many other people, but I am afraid if I keep on in this vein I will sound like a religious fanatic.
Occasionally I’ll be discussing these books on Sundays (the new Day of the Week for these weekly book talks), or they might come midweek if I’ve got another book to discuss on Sunday. But I will write about each one. I intend to read a bit of Pratchett each day until I have finished the series, however many months or years that takes.
In 2023, I went into business as a fulltime editor. I worked on two dissertations, three scholarly monographs, and thirteen novels, none of which I’ll be discussing here. This \ post is about books I chose to read, not books I got paid to read.
One unforeseen drawback to editing professionally: I have less enthusiasm for pleasure reading in my off time. I’m more likely to reach for music than audiobooks these days. But I still managed more than one book per week, and I would like to take the opportunity—I would like to take every opportunity—to mention that one of those books was War and Peace.
Total books read: 78. That’s 60 books I chose to read, plus another 18 I edited or indexed professionally. For the rest of this post, we’re just going to focus on those 60.
Books that were published in 2023: 6
Fiction: 40. That feels about right, a two-to-one fiction-to-nonfiction ratio.
Genres: (as some books have more than one genre, total exceeds 60)
Best books of the year:
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders
This is a collection of Russian short stories and literary criticism. Do you understand how hard it is for me to get people to read this book? It is so good though. So good. It is the all the joy of studying writers and stories with none of the Foucault.
The Address Book, Deirdre Mask
Here’s another hard sell: a nonfiction book about street addresses! It is captivating, though. Truly. I’ve never thought so much about street names or numbers or how that influences our lives. This is sociology + data nerdery. Also, important thing to note, people in England use filthy names for their streets. They just do not care.
Best audiobook narrators:
Roger Clark, The Searcher (Tana French). Tana French remains my favorite contemporary crime writer. This was my first time enjoying one of her novels as an audiobook. Clark does authentic Irish and American accents throughout.
Frazer Douglas, Song of Achilles (Madeline Miller). The sensuality of this man’s voice needs a warning label.
Various: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (George Saunders). Saunders narrates the literary criticism part of this book, but the stories themselves are read by various actors:
K. J. Parker: Is he still the best?
I will never stop banging this drum. Tom Holt is always terrific and so is his pseudonym, K. J. Parker.
All the books I read, sorted by genre:
Cather, Karin and Dick Margulis. The Paper It's Written On, 2018
Fishman, Stephen. Deduct It! Lower Your Small Business Taxes, 2023
Pakroo, Peri H. The Small Business Start-Up Kit, 2018
Grammar and editing
Dreyer, Benjamin. Dreyer's English, 2019
Harnby, Louise. Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers, 2013
Saller, Carol Fisher. The Subversive Copyeditor, 2016
Health and wellness
Albright, Mary Beth. Eat and Flourish, 2022
Murthy, Vivek. Together, 2020
Burton-Hill, Clemency. Year of Wonder, 2017
Cleves, Rachel Hope. Charity and Sylvia, 2014
De Madariaga, Isabel. Politics and Culture in Eighteenth-Century Russia, 1998
Figes, Orlando. The Story of Russia, 2022
Hartnett, Lynne Ann. Understanding Russia, 2018
Kytle, Ethan J. and Blain Roberts. Denmark Vesey's Garden, 2018
Rosslyn, Wendy. Women and Gender in 18th-Century Russia, 2003
Sexton, Jared Yates. The Midnight Kingdom, 2023
Twitty, Michael W. The Cooking Gene, 2018
Saunders, George. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, 2021
Nhất Hạnh, Thích. The Miracle of Mindfulness, 1975
Selassie, Sebene. You Belong, 2020
Gottschall, Jonathan. The Storytelling Animal, 2012
Mask, Deirdre. The Address Book, 2020
Perry, Benjamin. Cry, Baby, 2023
Braithwaite, Oyinkan. My Sister, the Serial Killer, 2018
Christie, Agatha. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, 1926
French, Tana. The Searcher, 2020
Todd, Charles. A Test of Wills, 1996
Tudor, C. J. The Chalk Man, 2018
Winters, Ben H. The Last Policeman, 2012
Abercrombie, Joe. Half a King, 2014
Abercrombie, Joe. Half a War, 2015
Abercrombie, Joe. Half a World, 2015
Klune, T. J. Under the Whispering Door, 2021
Lee, Thomas D. Perilous Times, 2023
Nix, Garth. Sabriel, 1994
Vo, Nghi. The Empress of Salt and Fortune, 2020
Vo, Nghi. Into the Riverlands, 2022
Vo, Nghi. Mammoths at the Gates, 2023
Vo, Nghi. When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, 2020
Weeks, Brent. Beyond the Shadows, 2008
Weeks, Brent. Shadow's Edge, 2008
Weeks, Brent. The Way of Shadows, 2008
Afanasyev, Alexander Nikolaievitch. Russian Folk Tales, 1980
Barron, Laird. The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, 2018
Bradbury, Ray. The Halloween Tree, 1972
Backman, Fredrik. A Man Called Ove, 2019
Capote, Truman. Breakfast at Tiffany's, 1958
Coupland, Douglas. Life After God, 1994
Dickens, Charles. The Pickwick Papers, 1836
Haynes, Natalie. Stone Blind, 2022
Miller, Madeline. Song of Achilles, 2011
Tolstoy, Lev. War and Peace, 1867
Adams, Douglas. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, 1979
Banks, Iain M. Consider Phlebas, 1987
Delaney, Samuel R. Babel-17, 1966
Holt, Tom. When It's a Jar, 2013
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Lathe of Heaven, 1971
North, Claire. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, 2014
O'Brien, Robert C. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, 1971
Wells, Martha. System Collapse, 2023
While the rest of you are enjoying Charles Dickens the way God intended, with Muppets, I am here finishing up the first Dickens novel, The Pickwick Papers, serially published in 1836-1837. It follows the adventures of an English gentleman named Pickwick and several of his fellow gentlemen. I cannot overstate how boring these adventures are.
Forgive me. I do not typically speak ill of works by living writers, and even though Dickens is safe from my literary criticism, there are plenty of you out there who like this book, and here I am being unkind to it. I am sorry. I would like to hear what it is you like about it.
The book is a series of linked vingettes. Many of them feel frivolous. It is true there are moments of depth, but the first time I said "Ah, now we're getting somewhere" was p. 564, which is fairly late in the game for a plot to thicken
Pickwick gets himself thrown in debtors' prison, and for a few blessed pages, Dickens writes with the social consciousness that elevates him above so many other writers. That passage would be enough to radicalize anyone into becoming a prison abolitionist. Regrettably, I cannot speak with such fervor about the remaining 700ish pages.
There are also footnotes and appendixes but I have only one wild and precious life.
A couple of years back I listened to an audiobook version of The Christmas Carol. It's in the public domain, so there are quite a few voice actors to pick from, but I quite enjoyed the narration by Tim Curry, and that's what I might recommend before the Pickwick Papers.
Since January 1, I've been a mini-chapter a day from Year of Wonder, featuring a piece of classical music and an essay.
It's an accessible book for people who don't know a lot about classical music. I was a serious music student in my youth, so I know quite a lot actually, but many of the pieces and composers were unfamiliar to me. Rather than formally surveying the major works, Clemency Burton-Hill takes an organic approach, showcasing lots of lesser-known and contemporary composers. This is less Classical Music 101 and more Let's Do Shots and Listen to Some Cool Shit.
The coolest thing I learned is that Beethoven's music has been sent into space to represent the sounds of the people of earth, should any extra-terrestrials find it: String quartet no. 13 in B flat major, op. 130, 5: Cavatina: Adagio molto espressivo. It's among my favorite pieces of music. Give it a little listen if you're inclined.
I talked about Nghi Vo's fantasy series The Singing Hills Cycle a few months ago. The books follow a cleric named Chih, whose religious order focuses more on history than faith. In this third entry, Into the Riverlands, Chih is once again traveling the land, looking for stories to collect. If you haven't read the first two, that's fine. Each novella stands independently.
Vo's prose style is quite good, and her storytelling is masterful. You don't know the details of the plot, going in, but you recognize right away that you're in for a good story. It's a blend of adventure and magic with a setting that recalls the hinterlands of Imperial China, only gayer. Vo's characters express a variety of genders and sexual orientations. And while there are lots of sections with fast action and tense battles with bad guys, the book has a contemplative feel. By which I mean I cried several times.
When Covid first hit, I started doing book talks on social media as a way to keep in touch with people. I never got out of the habit. I don't discuss books by my clients, and if I don't like a book, I won't discuss it at all. While I will sometimes focus on craft or offer gentle critical perspectives, as a matter of professional courtesy, I don't trash writers. Unless they're dead. Then the gloves come off.