Tag: books

Best Book in the Last 125 Years

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The New York Times Book Review is celebrating its 125 anniversary. As part of the celebration, they are asking everyone to nominate the best book of the last 125 years. There is no definition of what “best” means. A recent correspondent asked me what I would pick for the best book in the last 125 years. I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer that question. I haven’t read nearly enough books to get a sense of the wide variety of what has been published in that time. Even on existing lists I am woefully under-read. Take Modern Library’s Top 100 Nonfiction Books of the 20th Century. Of the 100 books on that list, I have only read 13.

I imagine that some people would pick their favorite book, other people what they think is the “best” book. It is likely that some people will pick books that they haven’t read simply because other people think it is good, or popular. The Bible will get picked a lot but since that book has been around far longer than the last 125 years, I don’t think it will count. There are no real guidelines. Fiction and nonfiction are equally acceptable. The only stipulation is that the book must have been published in the last 125 years–that is, after 1896.

After a fair amount of thought, here is how I replied to my correspondent:

I’d probably blend my definition to include favorite and important. I don’t know if I could settle on one. I’d like to pick Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization, but that is 11 volumes and I’ve read the first six of them so far. Another might be The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams, which just makes the cut, since it was published early in the 20th century. Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson tells the story of how we got to our modern digital age. Given where the future is headed, The Double Helix by James D. Watson could be the best—if the last 50 years have been about digitalization and the hackers that created our modern digital world, the next 100 or 150 years might be about genetic hackers, the coders of the future. Then again, for pure joy, maybe Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella is the best of the last 125 years. Thing is, for every book I’ve read there are tens of thousands that I haven’t and how many of those might qualify for “best”?

My correspondent suggested Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, which has been on my list for a long time now, but which I haven’t read yet. My correspondent also suggested that maybe the best way to think about it is to play the desert island game–you are stranded and you can only pick one book: what would it be?

That makes things easier, as I have thought about that often. If I could count Will and Ariel Durant’s 11-volume Story of Civilization as one book, then that would be my pick, hands down. With those 11 volumes, I’d never really feel alone. I’d have thousands of figures from across the entire span of human civilization. I could read about their art and science, their culture and religions, their work lives and leisures. It would all be there.

If I had to be one book, however, just one, that is much more difficult. Indeed, if I reimagined the New York Times question, and asked myself “What is the best book I’ve read in the last 25 years–regardless of when it was published?” I’m not sure I could answer it. I suppose I could go through the list of books I have read since 1996–1,110 of them as of this writing, and pick out the best book from each year to get a Top 25. Even from those 25, it would be difficult to whittle the list down to one “best” book. I could make the argument for The Sweet Science by A.J. Liebling–a collection of essays on, of all things, boxing. But the writing! I could make the argument for The Library Book by Susan Orlean because libraries meant so much to me growing up, and this book is about the Los Angeles Public Library, one of which I made enormous use as a teenager. I could make the case for 11/22/63 by Stephen King, still my all-time favorite novel, even ten years after I first read it. Or The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. Or The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Any of these and a dozen others could be my “best” with equally compelling reasons.

I’m probably overthinking all of this. But I take lists like these seriously since I use lists like these for recommendations, and I want to trust the judgments that they contain within their enumerated titles.

If you want to nominate your candidate for best book, head over to the New York Times Book Review and fill out their form. And if you can manage to whittle your list down to a single best book, and care to share, let me know what it is in the comments. I am always looking for the best books to read.

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Books I Don’t Remember Well

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I saw some debate online recently about whether or not it is rude to an author not to finish a book of their that you start. I don’t think it’s rude. It’s pragmatic. Not every book works for every reader. Time is limited. So one must spend that time wisely. For me, that sometimes means quitting a book as soon as I don’t find myself drawn into it. There are too many other books waiting in the wings.

Sometimes, however, even when I do finish a book, it doesn’t stay with me. I may enjoy the book while I am reading it, but all memory of it vanishes after a time, and although I see it on the list of books I’ve read, I could give on the most vague descriptions of what the book is about. I was thinking about this today because I started reading Voyage by Stephen Baxter today, looking for a little science fiction interlude. I read this book back in September 1998, and although I remember it was some kind of alternate history, I remember almost nothing else about it. Granted, this was in the days before I started taking notes on books I read. Still, it was a little unsettling to realize that while I had read the book, I couldn’t remember it.

I decided to go through my list and see how many examples of this I could find. Here are some of the results:

I find it interesting that most of these are works of fiction. I seem to have a better recall for nonfiction than for fiction. In a way this makes sense. Fiction is more ephemeral and there is less to connect it to, while nonfiction fits in the larger mold of the world. I can always find connections of one work of nonfiction to another, often several others. Fiction can connect to other fiction, of course, and occasionally to nonfiction, but it doesn’t seem to have the same staying power in my memory.

I remember where I was or what I was doing when I read most of these books. I remember driving to the cliffs in Pacific Palisades and sitting on a bench overlooking the ocean while reading Idoru, for instance. I recall sitting in my office in Santa Monica early in the mornings (around 5:30am) reading Voyage, or sitting on the deck in from of my apartment in Studio City, chair tipped back, and feet up on the railings, reading Does America Need a Foreign Policy? I remember reading Bright Shiny Morning when Kelly and I were in the midst of planning our wedding. It’s just the content that is a blur. Of all of these, the one I most regret no remembering is East of Eden which I can recall enjoying, even if I can’t recall why I enjoyed it.

Fortunately, in a list of more than 1,100 books that I’ve read since 1996, there are only a handful that I don’t really remember at all. And in the last 10 years or so, the only one on the list that draws a blank is Tip of the Iceberg. For that one, at least, I have brief notes in my journal that I wrote at the time I finished it (something I began to do with all of the books I read when I rebooted my journal in 2017).

journal entry for tip of the iceberg

At some point, I’ll probably go back and re-read these to see what it was that I have forgotten.

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Thoughts on The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski

I finished reading The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski on Thursday. If you’re a regular reader here you’ve probably heard me mention it several times over the last week or so. The book is a collection of 100 essays, each about a player that Posnanski has rated in his own way, to form a list of the best players of all time. It is a massive book, nearly 300,000 words long, something for which I am grateful, since I enjoyed the book so much that I didn’t want it to end. It was so good, and part of what made it good is that it was not all all what I expected.

  1. As incredible as it seems, the book manages covers the entire history of baseball in 100 essays through the, story of 100 players. These are players I’d heard of, as well as players I’d never heard of. Several of the players never played Major League Baseball, but instead played for the Negro Leagues. Those were some of the most fascinating chapters, both incredible and heartbreaking. You can’t come away from reading the book without a good feel for the 150+ year history of the sport.
  2. Each essay is unique. The way Posnanski tells the story depends entirely on the player at the center of the essay. There is no standard, no formula. Each player is unique and each story is unique both in its details and how Posnanski tells the story. The one constant, besides baseball, is Joe’s voice: his passion for and delight of the game form the backbone the holds all of these stories together.
  3. The essays meander. I love that. The essays aren’t all a straight history of a player. Joe might start with a famous event, then go on to talk for half the essay about other things that eventually tie back to that famous event. He might start with another player entirely. He might discuss a statistic, or a questionable piece of folklore. This is where much fo the history of the sport happens, and much as a good historian can tie together different ties by identifying comparative elements, this is what the meandering achieves.

Then there is the sheer audacity of what Joe pulled off. Within these essays, there are many record achievements, some that will likely never be broken again. Take Di Maggio’s 56-game hitting streak. There are also examples of consistent, workhorse players, players who manage 3,000 or more career hits, which requires a kinds of consistency, skill, and discipline that is rare. Joe’s book is in this latter category. Joe wrote these 100 essays in 100 days, each originally published in The Athletic as it was finished. This meant he did his research, reading and writing and somehow came up with a brilliant, and on average, 3,000 word essay every single day for 100 days without fail. How did he manage such a feat? He gives a little insight in the final chapters, when he writes,

I spent almost every hour of every day thinking about ballplayers. I read books about them. I researched them. I watched movies and documentaries about them. Mostly, I remembered them, the ones I had seen, the ones I had spoken with, the ones I had heard so much about.

In a way, this sounds familiar. Ten years ago when I was writing my Vacation in the Golden Age posts, I remember doing something similar, pouring over every words in the issues of Astounding Science Fiction, referring to book about the writers that appeared in those issues, about the history of the magazines, reviewing notes in collections of stories, completely immersing myself in the era. And I was doing it part-time, and managed 42 essays over the space of more than a year. Joe did all of this and managed 100 magnificent essays in the 100 days. Like Di Maggio’s hitting streak, or Ted Williams’ .406 season, it seems almost inconceivable. Which, of course, makes it all the more impressive.

I recently wrote about my favorite baseball books, noting that my favorite was Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella. Well, I think I’ll have to revised that list. There is a new leader, and that leader is The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski.

As of this writing, I’ve read 62 books this year. As usual, they run the gamut, taking me wherever the butterfly effect of reading directs me to go next. Of those 62 book, this one easily jumps to the best I’ve read this year. And I’ve got say, I think it will be hard to top it. It is that good.

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My Favorite Baseball Books, For Now

With the postseason underway, and I nearly finished with The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski, I got to thinking about my favorite baseball books. I suspect that The Baseball 100 will jump toward the top–if not the top–of the list. But what are my favorites right now? My list of books I’ve read since 1996 has quite a few baseball-related books on it. Here is my selection of the best ones, in my opinion:

  1. Ball Four by Jim Bouton. A classic in the genre, and one that set the stage for the modern baseball tell-all.
  2. Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion in Baseball by Stephen Jay Gould. Gould is best known for his books and essays on paleontology and evolution in Natural History magazine. But he was a huge baseball fan, and I love the way he thinks about the game in these essays.
  3. Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty by Charles Leerhsen. Everything I knew, or thought I knew, about Ty Cobb was dispelled by this book. I read it in the offseason. Always a good time to read baseball in order to make it a year-round sport.
  4. Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask by Jon Pessah. The book made me love Yogi even more.
  5. Casey Stengel by Marty Appel. Possibly the most remarkable career in baseball ever.
  6. Red Smith: On Baseball by Red Smith. Reading this book cemented the idea that when I grow up, I want to be a baseball writer. Unfortunately, I read this book when I was 46 years old. Fortunately, I still haven’t grown up.
  7. Great Baseball Writing: Sports Illustrated 1954-2004 edited by Rob Fleder. An absolutely remarkable collection of baseball writing.
  8. Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella. The first time I’d read this book was in the aftermath of 9/11. I’d seen Field of Dreams many times before I read this book. I love Field of Dreams but this book was far and away the best thing about baseball I’d ever read.

That all said, I am enjoying The Baseball 100 so much that I suspect it will end up as #2, possibly even #1 on the list by the time that I finish.

Of course, for as many baseball books I’ve read, there are countless I have yet to read. Some that I want to read, or have been wanting to read for some time include:

And, as always, I am open to suggestions.

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Thoughts on Travels With George by Nathaniel Philbrick

One subset of travel books that I enjoy are those that mix travel with some theme of discovery. John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley is the model from which many of these books have taken their example, and Nathaniel Philbrick is quick to admit that Steinbeck served as a model for his entry in this sub-genre, Travels with George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy. I like books like these because they mix history with travelogue in a way that often makes a stark comparison between then and now.

Books in this sub-genre are often attempts at taking the temperature of the general public on some topic. In his wonderful book The Longest Road, Philip Caputo was asking the question: what held the country together? In their book Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America (my favorite book of 2020) James and Deborah Fallows travel the country by air in a single-engine plane learning how, despite problems, people are finding solutions.

Nathaniel Philbrick sets out to follow the route George Washington took just before and after his inauguration, when he visited each of the new states to get a sense of the country for which he had just fought for independence, and for which he has just been elected President. This captured my interest in colonial history, in presidential history, and in travel, and I enjoyed the book. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author and it was a delight.

Up to this point, I’d only read one full biography of George Washington, Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life. What Philbrick was doing in Travels with George was not writing a biography, but following Washington’s path through the states, and along with way, separating myth from history, and coming face-to-face with the paradox that Washington, in addition to being the first president of a republican democracy founded on the principle that all men are created equal, was also a slave owner.

Where Philbrick delves into separating the myth from the history was among my favorite parts of the book. How many places claim the label “Washington slept here”? Through careful study of source material, Philbrick was able to identify several such claims as impossible. Washington was clearly somewhere else at the time. I was also moved by Washington’s affection for his soldiers, even years afterward. Still, an important thread throughout the book is the struggle to understand Washington the slave-holder versus Washington the defender of liberty.

Philbrick makes much of his journey with his wife, and their dog, meeting interesting people along the way, and occasionally getting snarled in traffic; the routes they take avoid the interstates since those roads didn’t exist when Washington made his grand tour.

This was an enjoyable read that gave additional insight into parts of Washington’s life I hadn’t been acquainted with. But perhaps the most valuable thing I took from the book was Philbrick himself. I enjoyed his writing, his style, and his narration. He’s another writer, like Philip Caputo and James and Deborah Fallows that I can look forward to reading more from. Already, I’m eager to delve into his history of Nantucket Island, Away Offshore, as well as his book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. Sometimes, nothing is more valuable than finding a reliable writer you enjoy reading.

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A Book I’m Looking Forward To: The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski

cover of the baseball 100 by joe posnanski

Every now and then I discover a new book that really hits the sweet spot for me and I can’t wait to read it. Most recently it was The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski. I love baseball, and I have a think for the rich history of the game. Just do a search for “baseball” in the list of books I’ve read since 1996 and you’ll see just how much I’ve read on the subject. Indeed, baseball writing is an art form in its own right. There are sportswriters, and there are baseball writers. I sometimes daydream that I could be the latter. I especially love baseball essays. And this book is a collection of 100 essays about the lives of the 100 greatest players of the game, according to Joe Posnanski.

My hardcover edition of the book arrived yesterday, and I am itching to get started reading it. First, I have to finish the book I am currently read, a fascinating biography of Henry Adams, grandson of John Quincy Adams, who, though born in 1838, lived long enough to witness Babe Ruth play baseball. In addition to baseball, I have a thing for the Adams family. But once I finish the book, with should be sometime today, I am eager to start this new baseball history. Perfect timing, too, since October, in addition to being a rare month for boys1 is also magic time in the baseball world.

Anyway, if you are wondering what I am reading this weekend, now you know.

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The Power and Beauty of Slow Books

There are some books that I read quickly. I finish them off in a few hours. There are other books that take longer because they are much longer reads. In December, for instance, I began reading Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive books. Those are really big books, and even at my usual pace, it took me the better part of a week to finish just one of them. Then there are slow books.

Slow books are book that seem almost designed to be read slowly. These are not boring books; I don’t me slow in terms of pacing. Rather, these are books that I need to savor, and that, like a rich chocolate cake, I can’t take in large doses. I call these slow books because it can take months for me to finish one. Take, for instance, my current slow book, The Diaries of John Quincy Adams.

Each night, before I go to sleep, I read a few of JQA’s diary entries, making my way from the beginning and following along with Adams’ thoughts and opinions as his life progresses. Some nights, I read a single entry, which may be half a page. Other nights, I might read two, three, or more. Usually, I don’t spent more than 10 minutes, but I do think about what Adams writes, occasionally conversing with him in the margins. For instance, the other night I came across this passage in which Adams records his arguments from a debate class at Harvard. Within it he writes:

But when the Passions of the People, conscious of their Liberty and strength are raised, they hurry them into the greatest extremities; an enraged multitude, will consult, but their furry and their Ignorance serves only to increase their Obstinacy, and their Inconsistency.

“From 1787 Adams foresees 2021,” I scribbled in the margin beside this passage. But of course, this isn’t a hard prediction to make if you’ve read a lot of history, and Adams’ certainly had by this point. I’ve read quite a few presidential biographies, and in my own estimation, John Quincy Adams was probably the most intelligent person ever to serve as President of the United States. I don’t say he was the best. His father, John Adams, is my favorite president, but I also don’t consider him nearly the best either. I appreciate JQA’s intelligence and thoughtfulness, however, and also his refection and attempts at self improvement. In another passage, he writes,

I believe I should improve my reading to greater advantage, if I confined myself to one book at a time; but I never can. If a book does not interest me exceedingly it is a test to me to go through it; and I fear for this reason, I shall never get through Gibbon. Indolence, indolence I fear will be my ruin.

In the margin I wrote, “Me, too.” I know just how JQA feels. I should focus on only one book, but there are so many out there, and so little time.

Even while reading other books, each night, I dip into JQA’s diaries and read some more. It is the perfect kind of book to read before bed. It settles my mind. It narrows my focus away from all of the usual distractions of the day. JQA didn’t have constant notifications popping up on his iPhone. Other distractions, perhaps, but not that one. His eyes weren’t glued to screens for the better part of the day. This is why I try to read slow books on paper. The last few minutes before bed are spent off screens, looking at the printing page, scribbling thoughts in the margins. A slow book like this helps clear my head before bed.

How slow is a slow book like this? Well, the 2-volumes in this set (not nearly Adams’ complete diary but representative selections from it) total about 1,400 pages. Some nights I get through half a page, others two or three. Occasionally I skip a night. Call it two pages per night. At that rate, it will take about a year to get through each volume. That’s okay, though. It is something I look forward to before bed each night, and it means that I can put off trying to figure out what my next slow book will be for another two years or so.

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Thoughts on Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life by Robert Dallek

There are certain people I can read about endlessly. John Quincy Adams is one. And Franklin D. Roosevelt is another. In the former case, I’m fascinated by who I think was probably the most intelligent president the United States ever had. In the latter case, I’m amazed that a person such as Roosevelt happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right set of skills to lead the country out of dark times. I’ve read two previous biographies of FDR: Doris Kearns Goodwin’s outstanding book, No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt on the Home Front in World War II, and Jon Meacham’s Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship. The former focused on the years of the Second World War, and the latter on the extraordinary relationship between FDR and Winston Churchill.

But I still thoroughly enjoyed Robert Dallek’s Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life, which more broadly captures Roosevelt’s political gifts throughout his life, although focusing primarily on his presidency. One reason I can keep reading about FDR is that he is endlessly fascinating. Born to privilege, he aimed to help the masses. Paralyzed from the waist down due to polio, he nevertheless maintained a generally cheerful disposition. He had his darker sides: his affairs, as well as his decision to set aside the rights of Japanese American citizens during the Second World War and collect them in camps. People loved him and people hated him. In the polarizing times that we live in today, there is something reassuring that democratic politics, at least, has always been polarizing and what we are experience today is more of the same. History, as the saying goes, is doomed to repeat itself.

I’m also impressed by hard workers, and those who don’t give up. Despite his inability to use his legs, FDR won election as president in a dark time, and through will and hard work, brought about changes that pulled the nation from the brink of disaster. During the war, even as his health declined, he worked tirelessly–and to the detriment of his own well-being–to see the fight through to the end. Dallek’s book provides a view of Roosevelt as a shrewd politician, and a leader through tough times. Despite all of that, he could be self-deprecating, relating the following story:

“Eleanor was just in here after a morning appointment with her doctor. ‘So, what did he say about that big ass of yours?'” Franklin reported himself as asking. “Oh, Franklin,” she replied, “He had nothing at all to say about you.”

His relationship with Winston Churchill was well-documented in Jon Meacham’s Franklin and Winston, to say nothing of William Manchester’s outstanding 3-volume biography of Churchill. What struck me reading Dallek’s book was the sheer coincidence of two capable, and charismatic leaders rising to power at a time when the world needed these leaders. It is coincidences like this that make history so fascinating, and so arbitrary.

The biggest irony of Roosevelt’s life is that he worked himself to death to see the Allies win the war, only to die before Germany and Japan surrendered. He died 18 days before Hitler’s suicide. I’ve read several dozen biographies of U.S. Presidents and I almost always come away from them not understanding why anyone would want the job. It is a job for which there is no adequate job description, a job for which, no previous experience can truly prepare you. It is a job that visibly ages the men who have taken it. And it certainly took Roosevelt’s life. I was returning from my morning walk, listening to the audio book edition of the book when FDR died, and though I knew it was coming, it still brought tears to my eyes. I had the feeling, expressed so well by Winston Churchill on learning of Roosevelt’s death:

I felt as if I had been struck a physical blow. My relations with this shining personality had played a large part in the long, terrible years we worked together. Now they had come to an end, and I was overpowered by a sense of deep and irrepressible loss.

I didn’t want the book to be over. I didn’t want it to be over so much, that I queued up another FDR biography, H. W. Brand’s A Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which I plan to read sometime in the next couple of weeks.

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Book Smart

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Is it cheating if your experience comes from books? Say, you’re chatting with friends and during the course of the conversation, someone comments on the beauty of Westminster Abbey. You jump in and agree to its beauty, but what really astounds you is a certain place in the Nave where you find yourself standing among the final resting place of Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton and Michael Faraday and others. Your friends nod in agreement. Suppose then that one of the friends asks when you’d been to Westminster? You’d calmly say you’d never been there, never even been to London. You’d read about Westminster Abbey in a book and the picture painted with words on the page was so vivid, it was as if you had been standing among those luminaries of the ages. Does it count? Is it cheating?

I have been to Westminster Abbey, but there are plenty of places I haven’t been, and plenty of things that I haven’t seen or done for which I consider myself fairly well-versed from the reading I do. Indeed, it seems to me that nearly every conversation I engage in conjures memories of a book I read that relates to the subject at hand. Last weekend, I was chatting with a group of friends and the conversation veered into pandemics and vaccinations. I mentioned that despite being more technically advanced than we were 250 years ago, the people of Boston at the dawn of the American Revolution were extremely wary of the smallpox vaccine, despite how devestating the disease was. I knew this, not because I lived in Boston in 1776, but because I’d read about it in David McCullough’s John Adams and in Stephen Fried’s Rush: Revolution, Madness, and the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father and most recently in Rick Atkinson’s The British Are Coming.

The conversation drifted to masks, and I mentioned how prevalent masks were in San Francisco during the Spanish flu of 1918-19. One the folks turned to me and asked, “Do you know where that flu started?” and without hesitation, I said, “In Kansas.” I knew it, not because I lived in that small Kansas town 103 years ago, but because I read John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza.

I remember a time when I was very young–possibly before I could read–back when my parent’s still read to me, my mother explaining that books could take you anywhere. I took that literally back then and my attitude hasn’t changed much today. People call this “book smart.” Book smart is often seen as derogatory, as in, “that fellow is book smart, but he’s got no street sense.” Of course, there is something to that, but that doesn’t mean that street sense can’t come from a book. When I read nonfiction, I am always on the lookout for practical lessons. One example out of countless: after reading William Manchester’s massive, 3-volume biography of Sir Winston Churchill, I went through my notes and teased out 3 productivity tips from Churchill himself.

I learned why keeping a diary can be useful from Isaac Asimov (via his memoirs). I learned how to keep a diary from John Quincy Adams (reading his diaries and using them as a model). I learned about commonplace books from Thomas Jefferson I didn’t learn any of this in school. It came from reading book, after I was finished with school and my real education began.

I have written before in my belief that grade school taught me how to read well, high school taught me how to think well, and college taught me how to learn well. When I graduated, I was ready to begin learning. Since then, I’ve read 1,102 books. I could read them well because of grade school. I could think about what I was reading thanks to high school. And I’ve learned far, far more than I ever learned in my K-through-college years thanks to college. I feel like I’ve gained a wealth of practical knowledge from the books I’ve read. And so I don’t see being book smart as a bad thing. After all, books have made me smarter than I might otherwise have been. And we can use all the smarts we can get.

The question is: can reading a book ever provide the equivalent experience to doing the real thing? Can you ever know what it is like to wander the Nave of Westminster Abbey and feel the weight of all those who came before? Does it even matter? People sometimes seem offended when I tell them that my experience with some place came not from being there in person, but from reading about it in books. When this happens, I think about the countless people who don’t have the means to travel anywhere, but can walk to their local library and read about places and take pleasure from that reading. Is that experience any less for that person than actually visiting the place?

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More Enhancements to My New Reading List Page

Yesterday I introduced a beta version of my new reading list–everything I have read since 1996–hosted here on the blog as opposed to in GitHub where I’ve been keeping it the last several years. If you’ve been checking out the page, you may have noticed some changes in the last few hours. If you want to check it out, you can find it here:

What I have read since 1996

It is still in beta, still a work in progress, but here are some of the enhancements I’ve added since yesterday:

  • Switched to a different table tool, which is simpler but more functional (so the table may look a little different than it did before).
  • The table is still sortable, but I’ve fixed the date sort so that it now behaves correctly when sorting the date.
  • Removed the “Format” column from the table and replaced it with an icon ahead of each title. The legend at the top of the table provides an indicator of the format in which I read the book.
  • Fixed many problems with bad symbols in the data. I still have more to do there.
  • You can now search the list! Type anything you want into the search box above the table and if it is in the list, it should find matches. For instance, to see how many times I’ve read E.B. White’s One Man’s Meat, I just type it into the search:
  • Converted the “Format” column to a “Topic(s)” column which is useful for searching for books by topic. For instance, how many Presidential memoirs have a I read1:
  • I removed the Length/Pages column and replaced it with what I call BEq. “BEq” stands for “Book Equivalents.” I took an average of the length of all 1,100 books that I’ve read on my list, and it turned out that the average book length is 410 pages. I then degreed that for my purposes, 1 book equivalent = 410 pages. I like this number better because some years I read fewer, longer books, some years many shorter books. The BEq gives me a nice way of seeing how much more or less I read a year focused length not books. A BEq of 1.00 means a book of 410 pages. A nice side effect of this is that a BEq of 2.00 is a book of 820 pages. Have I read any books that are longer than 3 BEqs? It turns out I have read 4:

As I said this is still a work-in-progress. Here are some of the things I will working on over the weekend, so you can expect to see things change more:

  • I noticed that my data export was imperfect and some titles don’t match the authors correctly. I’ve been fixing these as I go along.
  • I still have to go through an add format icons to about 7/10th of the books on the list.
  • I still have to complete adding topics so that all of the books have topics.
  • I also need to add all of the 2021 books to the list.

Once I’ve gotten those things done, my next steps are:

  • Add related posts to relevant titles. You’ll see a handful of these in the current data, but I’ve actually written on the blog about many of the books on the list, and I plan to try to link to the posts from the list as best as I can. Here are some examples of what is there now:
  • I’m toying with the idea of having “top” page for the list which would have a table of individual lists by year along with some stats. Clicking on a year list would take you to a table like the ones above, but filtered for the year in question. There would still be a page for viewing the full list.
  • I want to add pages for things like recommended books, or themed lists.

So, those are the changes that I’ve made so far, and some of what you can expect over the next few days. The feedback I’ve gotten from those of you who have provided it has been incredibly helpful, so keep it coming. I’d like this to be as useful and fun for you as it is for me.

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  1. Note: I’ve only added topics to about 1/5th of my list so far, so these examples are incomplete.

Beta-Testing My New Reading List

ETA: I’ve made some additional enhancements since writing this post.

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I would be adding some new features here on the blog. For one of those features, I’d planned to move the list of everything I’ve read since 1996 back here to the blog. I recently began that process and now have a page ready in beta for people to take a look at:

What I Have Read Since 1996

A few notes about this initial testing phase:

  • Currently, the list includes what I have read from 1996-2020. I have not yet added the 50 or so books I have read in 2021. That will be coming shortly.
  • I have not yet enabled responsive design, so it may not look right on mobile devices, yet
  • You can sort the columns by clicking on the sorting arrows. Sorting on the Finished column doesn’t work right yet because I don’t have the date formatting correctly.
  • To get back to the default sort, sort on the first column.
  • The Related Posts column is intended to be a place where I will link to posts I’ve written about the book in question. I’ve added one example so far.
  • Want to see the longest book I’ve read? Do a descending sort on the Pages column

If you are curious to see an example without clicking on the link, here’s a screenshot:

screenshot of my new reading list page
Screenshot of my new reading list page.

My goal here is to be able to provide a single authoritative place I can point people to for a list of everything I’ve read. Ideally, I’ll be able to add links to related posts for additional context for a given book. A few things I’ve been thinking about but am on the fence on:

  • I’d like to have one big list, but I will likely break it into pages by year before rolling it out officially. This will allow me to have a “top page” with a table that lists each year, along with some stats for the year and links to other things like recommended reads, etc.
  • I’d like to add an icon in front of the title to indicate the format in which I consumed the book (paper, ebook, audio, etc.)
  • I’d like to add an indicator for books that I recommend. Maybe a star at the start of the column? Or just a bold column? I’m not really into 5-star ratings so that’s a nonstarter for me.

Finally, keep in mind that I will be tweaking this as I have time, so you may see things change or disappear. But I wanted to get the basics out there for folks to see.

If you take the time to check it out, I’d love to hear your feedback. Please, let me know what you think, good or bad. I want to make this as functional as I can manage. Leave your thoughts in the comment. Or, if you prefer to provide them directly to me, shoot me an email.

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Going on a Book Spree

Sometimes the bibliophile in me gets the better of me and I go on a book-buying spree. A big spree like this doesn’t happen often, and when it does happen, it is usually because of some sale or deal. I went on such a spree yesterday, and in this case, the deal was Audible’s “Eureka” sale. They had audio books on sale for $5-7 each. I picked up a bunch of them.

If these were physical editions, I might feel weighted down, and possibly even guilty about the decreasing amount of shelf space at my disposal. Fortunately, there were all audio books and they can all easily fit into my pocket, along with the other 1,100 or so audio books I have accumulated.

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