Reading List: Books I Read in 2012

As per tradition, here’s my list of books I read in the year just ended (in this case, 2012), listed alphabetically by author:

  • The Crossroads, by Niccolo Ammaniti *
  • Ed the Happy Clown, by Chester Brown (Graphic novel)
  • World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks *
  • The Red Market: On the Trail of the World’s Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers, by Scott Carney *
  • The Awakening, by Kate Chopin *
  • The Serpent and the Rainbow, by Wade Davis
  • A Partisan’s Daughter, by Louis de Bernieres
  • Ablutions, by Patrick deWitt *
  • Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Falada
  • The Confidential Agent, by Graham Greene
  • Plunder and Pillage: Atlantic Canada’s Brutal and Bloodthirsty Pirates and Privateers, by Harold Horwood
  • Eight Worlds of C.M. Kornbluth, by C.M. Kornbluth
  • The Thieves of Manhattan, by Adam Langer
  • Solar, by Ian MacEwan
  • After the Apocalypse, by Maureen McHugh *
  • Incident at Vichy, by Arthur Miller
  • Devil in a Blue Dress, by Walter Mosley

* e-book.

A few notes:

17 titles, which is an improvement over last year’s abysmal low of nine and nowhere near my 2007 high of 38. However, as with last year, I did read much, much more medium- and long-form journalism than in earlier years, thanks to my iPad and Instapaper.

I put down, unfinished, only one book last year: James Wolcott’s Lucking Out. I had bought it in hardcover, at full price, based on the rattlingly good first chapter. By half way through it had deteriorated into a dull “been there done that” and celebrity roll-call. At least that’s how it felt. I didn’t throw it across the room or anything, I just set it down one night and never picked it up again.

As usual, I read way more men than women. And as usual, I will offer no explanation for this.

Most of the books on the list are not what you’d call “current.” I’m not one to obsess over best-seller lists nor do I feel a need to read “the latest thing.” I buy and read according to what strikes my fancy as I’m browsing, and there’s generally a significant lag between my buying a book and actually reading it. For paper-based books this is, on average, about two years, but it’s not unusual for it to stretch to ten or more. Unusually, most of the books I read in 2012 were actually purchased in 2012.

Six out of the 17 were e-books. This is higher than in previous years because I obtained a Kobo e-reader this past June. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with it, and I’m considering going back to the iPad for book reading (or in this case, my new iPad Mini). I might go into detail on the problems of e-readers in a later blog post.

[Previous years’ reading lists.]

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12!

The Blork Blog turns twelve years old today. Loyal readers will have noticed that I post a lot less than I used to back in the glory days, but this sucker still has a pulse.  There are 65 half-written (and for the most part, no longer  relevant) unpublished “drafts” mouldering away in here, plus another dozen or so sketches of  posts in my various virtual scratch pads. But for reasons that likely don’t need explaining I have trouble drumming up the enthusiasm to see them through.

Perhaps this will change in 2013, or perhaps not. Personal blogs are largely irrelevant these days, with Twitter taking care of linkage and brain farts, and the dreadful Facebook taking care of pretty much everything else. But as you know, the pendulum swings in both directions, so perhaps there will be a resurgence of relevance, or at least interest, or maybe I’ll get inspired to completely change the direction of this space.

I’ll most definitely post my last-year’s reading list some time in January, as that’s been a tradition since 2003. After that, we’ll see.

In the meantime, here’s a picture of my cat:

The Mini doesn’t like the direction this blog is taking.

Talking About Books

I like talking about books. What I like even more is listening to people talk about books. Over the years I have entertained this fetish by listening to CBC Radio and by attending various book festivals around town, most notably the Blue Metropolis festival (which, while still good, was a lot better when it was smaller and less ambitious).

Top of the list on CBC Radio is Writers and Company, with Eleanor Wachtel. I’ve been listening to that show for 20 years, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a bad episode. It’s so good that I cry a little bit every week when I think about Ms. Wachtel’s long career; she’s older than me, so in my golden years, while I pass the hours in a squeaky rocking chair next to a warm Tivoli radio, my dear Eleanor will be long retired and Writers and Company will be no more.

The only strike against Writers and Company in the context of this discussion is that it isn’t really about books; it’s about writers. But since writers are more likely to talk about books than anything else, it still counts, and counts big.

CBC’s other books show is The Next Chapter, with Shelagh Rogers. I confess I’m not the hugest fan. I don’t dislike it; in fact I’ve enjoyed many an episode. But its cheery “fan” vibe is a bit much for my taste. All pens and no swords. Hugs and camomile tea. So it’s good, but it’s rarely (to me) great.

Then there’s the late, lamented Talking Books, hosted by Ian Brown. Now there was a books show. The format was a panel discussion, lead by Brown, with various grumpy and curmudgeonly guests, most of whom were regulars. The knives were long and the bouquets were florid. Lots of people talking and yelling over each other and a few times it sounded like it might come to blows but it always ended in laughter. If you told me the setting was a smoky pub on a stormy night I wouldn’t doubt you. Unfortunately, Talking Books was cancelled in 2008, after 11 years.

So what’s a guy to do if he needs a fix of grumpy book talk? He starts a book club!

Last year, while bending elbows with a few of my surliest friends, I proposed exactly that; a book club. The intention was to be as unstructured as possible. As such, we have but one rule: there are no rules. Neither are there required readings. We simply meet, every four to six weeks, and talk about books. If patterns develop, so be it, but they are not to be seen as rules or requirements.

And there does seem to be a pattern. Most of our book club meetings unfold as follows. We meet at Amelio’s on Milton at about 5:30 on a Thursday or Friday evening. Once ensconced we order our “book club special,” a large vegetarian pizza with Italian sausage. I never fail to add, while ordering, “because that’s the kind of vegetarians we are.” The waitress never fails to smile and pretend, ha ha, she’s never heard that before.

After the meal, which is accompanied by an inordinate amount of wine, we over-tip then make our way along rue Milton to The Word, a quiet, beautifully shambled tiny gem of a used bookstore. Having four burly men smelling of sausage, cheese and Sangiovese burst through the door of such an establishment is surely terrifying, but so far the police have not been called and there have been no injuries. We do eventually calm down and manage to keep things reasonably civil, and we always make amends by purchasing a few books.

Unfortunately these wine-fueled book benders have resulted in a few duplications on my bookshelf as I sometimes forget if the luscious object in my hand is one I desire because I want it or because I already own it. In one case I had a copy of Michael Frayn’s Headlong thrust upon me by one of the book club members, along with a five minute oration on its merits. So I bought it. At our next book club meeting the exact scene repeated itself, with the same book, and I bought it again. I also recently discovered that I have not two, but three copies of Brian Moore’s An Answer From Limbo. One is the paperback I bought at a church flea market in 1986 (my first Moore, and the one that turned me into very much a Brian Moore fan). Another is a first Canadian edition hardcover from 1962 that was given to me as a gift, and the third a hardcover “club edition,” that I likely bought at The Word during a book club meeting.

After The Word we usually end up in a pub downtown, often the Old Orchard on rue de la Montagne because it’s a convenient hub for our divergent exits homeward, and it’s usually not so loud as to it prohibit conversation.

So if you enjoy books, and in particular you enjoy talking about books, I highly recommend you form a book club. But if you want it to succeed I suggest you eschew the usual book club formalities of required readings. And stay away from the tea and crumpets. The most important thing is that you all be friends, and that you all really like books and talking about them. In fact, you can substitute “books” for just about any shared interest and you’ll achieve the same success. And to make it that much better, don’t put it on Facebook, and never, ever tweet about it.

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!