Books I Read in 2011 (…and a few notes about my iPad)

A as per new-year tradition, here is the list of books I read in the year just ended, with commentary to follow:

  • Stet, by Diana Athill*
  • A Long Way Gone, by Ishmael Beah
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
  • Homo Evolutis, by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans*
  • Headlong, by Michael Frayne
  • On Being a Photographer, by Bill Jay and David Hurn*
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John Le Carré
  • The Happiness Manifesto, by Nic Marks*
  • Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War, by Peter Maas

Yes, that’s a whopping nine books, two of which (Homo Evolutus and The Happiness Manifesto) are “Kindle Shorts,” meaning they are very quick reads. Clearly the trend is downward, as 2010’s list contained 23 items and 2009’s contained 32. My high point since starting this tradition in 2004 was 38 books read in 2007.

The list is so short I’ll dispense with the usual breakdown of author by gender, fiction vs. non-fiction, etc., as you can see all that at a glance. One thing that is worth mentioning is the ratio of electronic books (“ebooks”) to paper ones; in this case 4:5. (The titles in the list marked with an asterisk were e-books that I read on my iPad.)

There are two factors that I can blame for this decline in book ingestion:

  • A significant change in my daily routine. Since early June of 2011 I have stopped commuting, so I no longer spend 150+ minutes a day crammed into a stinking and overcrowded subterranean tube with only my books to save me;
  • My iPad.

I won’t go into details on that first point, as the new paradigm (working from home) is still a work in progress. I’ll need at least another six months before I can say anything definitive about that.

As to the iPad, it’s both a blessing and a curse. The blessing part is easy; just watch the iPad commercials on TV. The curse is that the iPad is so full of instantaneous endorphin-jacking delights that I fear my brain is being trained away from the kind of pleasures one typically hopes for from a long and solitary reading experience, such as:

  • Deep immersion into a another world. It could be a world with a bunch of different characters, locations, and situations, but if it’s all in the same book then those things are unified by the author’s voice and intentions. Falling into that for extended periods (read: more than 140 characters at a time) is a pleasure and maybe even an acquired skill. In either case I fear our ability to go there, or to even know there is a there to go to, is rapidly disappearing.
  • Deep focus on the characters, locations, and situations within the world of the book. This isn’t quite the same as simply being immersed. When you achieve focus it puts that immersion on a whole other level.
  • Relaxation and mindfulness that come from the above mentioned immersion and focus. It can be meditative and good for the mind. From what I’ve read, studies have shown (and my personal experience bears this out) that spending time on Twitter of Facebook before going to bed can cause problems falling asleep. The oversimplified explanation is that those rapidly-firing tweets and posts and links cause your brain to fire rapidly too, putting it into an uneasy and unrestful state and making it harder to relax and go to sleep. You don’t get that with a book.

On The Other Hand…

Lest you think I’ve only been reading in multiple doses of 140 characters, let me put that idea to rest. One of the joys of the iPad is the easy access it gives me to long-form magazine writing. In 2011 I read far more long articles in The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Economist, Slate, Salon, Al-jazeera, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and various other newspapers and magazines, than I have in any other year in recent memory. Most of it comes via Twitter, where I follow a lot of those rags as well as people who link to them. For me, that’s the best thing about Twitter: endless linkage to great articles.

I use Twitter together with Instapaper to make it a more comfortable experience. Twitter provides the link, and if the article seems worth reading I’ll shoot it over to Instapaper where it is trimmed of all extraneous clutter and ads. It then sits there patiently, waiting for me to read it at my convenience (I don’t even have to be connected to the internets). I’ll describe this in detail in a later post. To many of you it’s probably second nature, but for people who don’t have iPads and who don’t use Twitter, you gotta see this stuff to believe it.

So I’m still not sure if the iPad is more blessing or more curse. I love the on-board dictionary that you can call up any time by just touching a word. I love that I can highlight and write margin notes on any ebook and many online articles. But I am short attention-spanned by nature, so it is hard to spend time simply reading a long piece without slipping out for a Twitter or email break every few minutes, which inevitably breaks the flow of the immersive experience.

I hope to read more books in 2012. I already have half a dozen on “standby” on the iPad, and my frequent trips to The Word on Milton, S.W. Welch, and Drawn & Quarterly mean my ever-expanding pile of unread paper books remains ever-expanding. Here are a few that I pulled out yesterday and put on a dedicated shelf in an attempt to force a commitment to read them this year:

Books I will read in 2012

Wish me luck!

Jack Kerouac and Poutine

Recently, on Twitter, @Audrey_Sprenger tweeted that Jack Kerouac’s favorite snack was “Med rare cheeseburg on Engl muf w mayo & fried onions” because “it reminded him of poutine.” My bullshit detector immediately sounded, and I replied saying so. After a bit of back-and-forth, I backed down, deferring to Sprenger’s expertise, because, as it turns out, she’s a Kerouac scholar and therefore knows a thousand times more about Jack Kerouac than I ever will.

However, my doubt persists. Unfortunately, Twitter only allows 140 characters per post, so there’s no way for @Audrey_Sprenger to provide much evidence, and conversely there’s no room for me to present my counter-argument. Hello Blork Blog!

This really should be a discussion in a hazy bar over several beers, but since it’s 2011 we have to hash this stuff out over the internet. Thus, here in brief, without malice, is why I doubt that Jack Kerouac had much – if any – nostalgia for poutine: the timing simply doesn’t add up.

Before we get into the details let’s take a quick overview. According to Wikipedia, poutine was invented in the late 1950s. As we all know, Jack Kerouac died in 1969. That leaves a ten or twelve year window for him to (a) find out about poutine, (b) get to like it, (c) get nostalgic about it. And that’s assuming he made the statement about his favorite burger in the year he died. What if he (supposedly) said that in 1964? Or 1960?

Let’s drill down a bit. First let’s look at Kerouac and his timing. To begin with, Jack Kerouac was not a French Canadian. His parents were French Canadians. Kerouac himself was born and raised in the United States. Although he spoke Joual before he spoke English, the majority of his cultural influences growing up would likely have been of the red, white, and blue variety. Even if French Canadian culture was very present in the Kerouac home, it would have been the culture of his parents’ generation. His parents moved to Massachusetts before Jack was born in 1922 – his birth being some 35 years before poutine was supposedly invented. Their nostalgia for Quebec would have been for things as they knew it in the first few years of the 20th century, a good 50 or more years before poutine arrived.

Anyone with a map will tell you that Massachusetts is not far from Quebec, and no doubt the Kerouacs maintained ties as close as they could. But there was no internet then. Long distance telephone calls were expensive and working-class people usually restricted them to emergencies or brief exchanges of news. I doubt there were any French Canadian newspapers or magazines in Lowell, and very likely no French Canadian radio. More importantly, by the time poutine was invented, Jack was long gone from the household, living at various times in the 1950s in New York, California, and Florida. How would word of the invention of poutine ever have reached him?

Now lets consider the timing of poutine. If Wikipedia is correct and it was invented (in the form and by the name we now know it) in the late 1950s, how long would it have taken for it to become a Quebec-wide cultural phenomenon? There was no internet in the 1960s. Whereas today a phenomenon can go global in a matter of hours, poutine had no Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to hurry its popularity. It would have spread slowly, one grease bath at a time, fanning out from Drummondville.

From its invention in the late 1950s, it probably wasn’t before the mid-1960s that it became a regular feature at casse-croutes across Quebec. Maybe longer, but let’s say it was that soon. In the meantime, Kerouac was enjoying literary and pop cultural success, living the “high” life, strung out, drinking, and doing the bo-ho-beatnik lifestyle. Where, in that haze of opium and hash smoke, booze, and poetry, would he have had the time and inclination to find out about an obscure snack in the home of his parents, and to not only know of it, but to try it, like it, and become nostalgic about it?

But then, I’m not a Kerouac scholar. I’m basing this all on logic, a sense of timing, and a pretty clear understanding of how rumours, folklore, and magical thinking spread.

On Twitter I made the mistake of thinking that Audrey Sprenger was just a random Kerouac fan who easily fell for a line of bull (as we all do when we’re fans of something). So perhaps I’m also mistaken with my counter-hypothesis. If someone is able to prove so (or even present compelling evidence) I’ll gladly accept it and will be grateful for the knowledge. But until then, I’m sticking with my gut feeling on this.

To reiterate, my gut feeling is that Jack Kerouac was never nostalgic for poutine.

I will leave room for the following possibility: I know that towards the end of his young life Kerouac was suffering from a number of problems, including an identity crisis of sorts. That identity crisis might have lead him to investigate his French Canadian heritage (I think I’ve read something to that effect, but I can’t cite it) and in doing so he might have heard of this new-fangled poutine thing. He might even have taken a road trip to Quebec in order to try it. And he might have mentioned it a few times, which under the circumstances would not qualify as true nostalgia but as a type of cloak-wearing, not unlike what we saw in that famous episode of The Sopranos when Tony and the boys go to Italy to attend to some business, and Paulie Walnuts finds himself being more Italian than the Italians even though he gets it all wrong and can’t even speak the language.

But that’s all just speculation based on how things go when people start questioning who they are and look to their heritage for answers. I have no idea if Jack Kerouac did that, but it would provide an explanation for a poutine reference, if indeed one exists.

Books read in 2010

As I’ve done every January since 2004, I present here a list of the books I’ve read in the previous year, with commentary.

  • Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe
  • The Stranger, by Albert Camus (translated by Matthew Ward)
  • My Antonia, by Willa Cather
  • Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon
  • Utz, by Bruce Chatwin
  • Enemy at the Gates, by William Craig
  • The Story So Far…, by Sheldon Currie
  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion
  • Little Man, What Now, by Hans Fallada
  • The Garden of Eden, by Ernest Hemingway
  • Island, by Alistair MacLeod
  • Broken Glass, by Arthur Miller
  • Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller
  • Homely Girl, A Life; and Other Stories, by Arthur Miller
  • Murder over Dorval, by David Montrose
  • Judith Hearne, by Brian Moore
  • In the Lake of the Woods, by Tim O’Brien
  • The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien
  • A Day in Our Lives, by Seán O’Crohan
  • The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, by Sloan Wilson *
  • Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín
  • Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. *
  • Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, by Carl Wilson

* Read electronically.

That’s 23 books, significantly fewer than usual (my all-time high since I started logging was 38 books in 2007). That said, I do not feel that I read noticeably less last year. The difference is that I read more long form journalism than usual, and for that I thank my iPad and Instapaper, a combination that turns a slab of metal and glass into an amazing library of long articles curated by none other than yourself. While the same can be said of any Web-enabled device (such as a desktop computer or a laptop), the iPad/Instapaper combination puts the experience on a whole other level of portability, which I will talk more about in a future blog post.

In contrast with that very contemporary note, I seem to be continuing my fascination with mid-20th century prose. 12 of the titles (just under half) were published between the 1920s and the early 1960s. Six were published in the mid-60s to the mid-80s, and only five are “contemporary.” To my shame, only two were written by women.

Highlighted titles are the ones that really stood out for me. I’ll spare you the long reviews, largely because I’m an unreliable reviewer. A positive response does not always line up with a sober critical analysis, and that’s OK with me. Sometimes a book just bores into you and rubs up against something in your mind that triggers emotions and memories so strongly that almost make you feel high on chemicals. That’s purely subjective and has little to do with style or even story.

For example, The Garden of Eden is widely acknowledged to not be among Hemingway’s finest (it was incomplete upon his death and published posthumously) yet it had me reeling for balance and feeling knocked outside of myself for the couple weeks during which I read it. This kind of response is highly personal and has more to do with evocation and yearnings that with strict formal precision. In my case I have a real soft spot for the south of France (where most of the novel is set) and a hard-wired, knee-jerk romantic response to Hemingway’s time and the struggles of his characters.

And it doesn’t hurt that Hem was a master stylist.

The only book I put down unfinished in 2010 was The Liar’s Club, by Mary Karr. The book received a lot of attention when it came out in 1995, and was on the New York Times‘ Best Sellers list for over a year. That was 15 years ago, so I figured it was about time for me to give it a look. (If you haven’t noticed, I am completely unmoved by any sense of urgency when it comes to buying and reading books. They exist outside of time for me.) I can’t say for sure what made me put it down – that was more than six months ago and I took no notes – but I recall feeling bored and unmoved by the prose.

That’s surprising given the topic – a memoir of growing up in a small industrial town replete with various abuses of the mind and body. Gritty stuff, and something I can relate to. But it just didn’t seem very interesting. It felt like she was telling us instead of showing us, and I recall there being sweeping and expository comments about “society” that were written as if the author thought that everyone on Earth lives in the United States. To be fair, I didn’t get very far in, and perhaps it gets better further on. I should also note that I didn’t throw the book across the room, I just sort of put it down and never picked it up again.

Reading List: Books I Read in 2009

As is my annual tradition since 2004, I present to you the list of books I read in the previous year (in this case, 2009). They are listed by author, in decending alphabetical order. The ones that really stuck with me are highlighted.

  • House of Meetings, by Martin Amis
  • The Wasted Vigil, by Nadeem Aslam
  • Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin
  • Let it Come Down, by Paul Bowles
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain
  • That Summer in Paris, by Morely Callaghan
  • The Loved and the Lost, by Morley Callaghan
  • A Month in the Country, by J. L. Carr
  • The Favorite Game, by Leonard Cohen
  • Coffee with Hemingway, by Kirk Curnutt
  • Burma Chronicles, by Guy Delisle
  • Shenzhen, by Guy Delisle
  • Ministry of Fear, by Graham Greene
  • The Tenth Man, by Graham Greene
  • A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway
  • The Fifth Column and Four Stories of the Spanish Civil War, by Ernest Hemingway
  • The Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill
  • Crow Lake, by Mary Lawson
  • Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis
  • The Razor’s Edge, by W. Somerset Maugham
  • Breakable You, by Brian Morton
  • Coming Up for Air, by George Orwell
  • Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell
  • Lush Life, by Richard Price
  • Paul in the Country, by Michel Rabagliati
  • Everyman, by Philip Roth
  • Gomorrah, by Roberto Saviano (translated by Virginia Jewiss)
  • My Dinner with Andre (screenplay), by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory
  • Chef, by Jaspreet Singh
  • Night Train to Turkistan, by Stuart Stevens
  • Consider the Lobster, by David Foster Wallace
  • Young Hearts Crying, by Richard Yates

That’s 32 books, 23 of which are categorized as fiction, three memoirs, three “other” non-fiction, and three “graphic” novels (all of which are fiction/memoir hybrids). The alarming thing is that only one of them was written by a woman.

I don’t plan my reading with any particular agenda in mind, but I do like to keep things varied; to read authors I haven’t read before, to mix up fiction and non-fiction, and to get different perspectives. But this is my worst male to female ratio yet. I’m not alone in this; it’s been a bad decade for women writers, according to this recent editorial in the Washington Post and this follow-up analysis on Maisonneuve.org.

Another notable thing about my reading list — and this was not intentional — is the number of older books. It was something of a 20th century retrospective:

  • Three books from the 1920s.*
  • Four books from the 1930s.**
  • Three books from the 1940s.
  • Three books from the 1950s.
  • One book from the 1960s.*
  • Four books from the 1980s.
  • One book from the 1990s.**
  • 13 books from the 2000s.

* Morely Callaghan’s That Summer in Paris was published in 1963, but it’s a memoir of the 1920s and is entirely “of” the 1920s. The same can be said of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which was published posthumously in 1964. Interestingly, both books cover the same basic ground, with Callaghan’s memoir being, essentially, a memoir of knowing Hemingway in Paris in the 1920s.

** Hemingway’s The Fifth Column and Four Stories of the Spanish Civil War was published in 1998 but the stories were written in the 1930s and possibly the 1940s. Graham Greene’s The Tenth Man was written in 1942 and then forgotten about. It was found, and published, in 1985.

If you think that’s a lot of reading and you wish you could keep up, consider Julien Smith of In Over Your Head; he read more than a book a week in 2009, and managed to co-write and publish one too! He has thoughtfully written this blog post that explains how you too can read a book a week in 2010 (but he left out the part about writing one).