Issue 20. The year in reading: 2020

Reflecting on books completed during a very strange year

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For the past six years, I have kept a log of books I’ve read in Microsoft OneNote. I do this for a few reasons. First, I no longer keep all the books once finished and want to remember what I have read. Second, the list is a window into who I was that year. What was I interested in? What tangents did I follow? Third, the log tells me how much I have read. I can compare the numbers year over year to gauge how active I was, and it serves as a nudge to keep reading. 

In the year 2020, I finished 33 books, down significantly from the 46 books read in 2019. It's ironic, because never before have I had as much time to read, what with being stuck at home since March due to Covid19. I can't tell you why, but the mental space for reading was not there like I thought it would be. I suppose there was too much on my mind. Will we all get sick and die? Will America burn to the ground? Will the fascists choke democracy to death? Little musings like that.

Here is the annual tally including thumbnail reflections in approximate chronological order and indications of those books I’ve let go.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin. I stopped and started a few times with this famous title, then managed to finish the ascent in 2020. Many rate this book highly, and as a world building exercise in utopian/dystopian fiction, it is an imaginative triumph. LeGuin envisions on a wise and grand scale. While I admired the vision, I was not particularly engaged by the plot. I had the same feeling about The Left Hand of Darkness. But something keeps me coming back to LeGuin. She has substance.  Gave it away.

The Great Ideas Today 1967. The Great Ideas Today was a series of annual supplements to Encyclopedia Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World set, and it ran from 1961 to 1990. I have a complete series now and have been slowly marching upward through the years. They are intriguing time capsules into what intellectuals and artists were doing “back in the day.” You’ll find original essays, usually around a common theme, overviews in various disciplines, and additions of shorter works to the Great Books canon (which I am saving to read for another day). As seen in the table of contents below, the theme of the 1967 annual was the state of Christianity.

Should Christianity Be Secularized? A Symposium

"Why Christianity Must Be Secularized." Harvey Cox. 8-21.

"Why Christianity Should Not Be Secularized." E.L. Mascall. 22-37. 

"Does Secular Theology Have A Future?" Martin E. Marty. 38-53.

"The Need For A Theology of the World." M.D. Chenu. 54-69.

The Idea of Religion In Great Books of the Western World. Editors. 70-80.

"Music, Painting, and Sculpture, The Year's Developments In." Roy Mcmullen. 82-157.

"Physical Sciences, Technology, and Astronomy, The Year's Developments In." Stephen Toulmin 158-195.

"Biological Sciences and Medicine, The Year's Developments In." Theodore Puck 196-237.

"Philosophy, Religion, and Theology, The Year's Developments In." Langdon B. Gilkey 238-270.

"The Idea of Happiness." V. J. Mcgill. 272-308.

"Eclipse of God." Martin Buber. 310-371.

"What Is Life?" Erwin Schroedinger. 372-425.

"Sir Gawain and The Green Knight Anonymous." 426-536.

Cicero: Selected Political Speeches. This was a Penguin Classics edition, and I enjoyed reading C’s famous speeches against Catiline, which reminded me of college Latin class. While reading, I was making connections to the Trump administration: rife with rabble rousing, conspiracies, and corruption.  

SPQR by Mary Beard. This recently published general history of Rome is highly recommended. Beard does a fine job with the pacing and digesting of hundreds of years of history for you, never losing focus. She explains how the Romans mythologized their own history and deftly blends the traditional history with modern archaeological evidence and re-interpretations. Sold it on eBay.

Nickel Mountain by John Gardner. I have been wanting to read this one for years, and I’m glad I finally made the time for it. Gardner referred to it as a pastoral novel. Set in rural upstate New York, it’s a rather gentle yet hard-scrabble story about a man with a heart condition who operates a roadside diner. A young waitress gets knocked up and jilted, and the protagonist marries her and takes care of her and the child in his final years of life.

It’s a book where nothing particularly adventuresome happens, but it’s filled with the glow of life and shadow of death. I loved the setting and characters. The book cut deep.  

Dangling Man by Saul Bellow. I read this in a cheap paperback then passed it on. I believe it is Bellow’s first book. A brief novel about a guy in limbo dealing with neurosis-inducing factors in his life. He reminded me a bit of a young version of Herzog. Gave it away.

Too Far to Go by John Updike. This is a collection of Updike’s “Maples stories,” episodic slices of life about a marriage, its dissolution, and aftermath. Clearly Updike was drawing from experience, writing authoritatively. The stories exhibit a variety of styles and angles. “Separating” is the one most anthologized here, and I taught it in Spring just after the pandemic closed the university. There are other gems here as well. My edition was a cheap paperback with a 1970’s tie-in cover to a TV movie adaption. Gave it away.

Vida by Patricia Engel. I re-read this book of linked short stories for my Spring English 102 course. We follow the complicated life of Sabina, a Columbian-American from North Jersey and Florida, as she navigates from childhood traumas and relationship ups and downs into her mid 20’s. Students always respond well to this one. 

The Art of Solitude by Stephen Batchelor. I first learned of the book by way of the radio show On Being hosted by Krista Tippett. Batchelor gave a compelling interview that was very timely, given that we were in virtual lockdown through late spring. Batchelor advocates for the virtues of solitude, but the book is more of a memoir about his spiritual seeking via meditation and hallucinogenic drugs. The journey goes inward, then ultimately comes down off the mountain with Batchelor returning to secular life and compassionately sharing the wisdom he has learned. This is not a solipsistic book. It is generous and honest. Another laudable feature is the mixing of eastern and western sources. There’s a lot of talk about Montaigne, for instance, and Batchelor finds parallels between introspective authors across different traditions. I appreciated this perspective.  E-book.

The Poems of Exile by Ovid. I’ve been into Ovid a lot recently, having taught parts of his epic Metamorphoses for the past couple of years. The poems of exile come from the last ten years of his life, after Caesar Augustus mysteriously banished him from Rome for an indiscretion. Ovid saw or did something he shouldn’t have seen or done. The historians have been speculating ever since. I’ve been interested in the poems of exile in this particular Penguin Classics translation by Peter Green because it was the edition Bob Dylan cribbed lines from for songs he wrote in the early 2000’s. I wanted to see what stood out to him as “liftable” material for his own work. The Penguin edition is apparently out of print (it can now be found in a newer edition from a different publisher for about $25), and for a while I was scouting eBay to see if a cheap edition would pop up. In the meantime, I read the newer edition online via my university library. Over the summer I finally scored a cheap copy on eBay for about $4. I’m glad to have the Penguin classics edition now, because the supplemental notes are fantastic. I was not prepared for how striking this set of poems would be. Ovid’s personality becomes three-dimensional, holographic. These are deeply personal poems. You feel the pain of being removed from home, living in Tomis at the edge of empire (in modern day Romania on the Black Sea). Ovid complains, pleads innocence, appeals constantly for reprieve, and ultimately resigns himself to life in exile, finding ways to adapt to an awful situation. His lively voice feels so real and sad to me. Maybe it is because I read it during the pandemic when I too felt like an exile, when isolation was imposed on us by forces beyond our control.  

Tao te Ching by Lao Tze. I reread this Taoist classic mainly because I was getting into meditation. As is typical for Dover Thrift editions, the translation was stodgy and not particularly engaging. I am disposed towards the Taoist mindset, though Lao Tze’s politics strike me as too laissez-faire for comfort. How one can navigate from private meditative insight to the world of public service (and a progressive politics) is a tricky needle to thread.  Gave it away.

The Monadology by Leibniz. I took interest in this short title when it came up in the Jacques Barzun history book mentioned below. I can’t tell you much about it because a lot went over my head. That being said, I didn’t dislike it. I was intrigued by his theory of monads. How do you reconcile the mind/body dichotomy? Is there room for metaphysics in a rationalist universe? This was Leibniz’s attempt to answer such questions in his spare time, when he wasn’t inventing calculus. Sidebar: the word monad has always intrigued me. It even crept into a song lyric I wrote back in the 1990’s. I must have been aggravated at commercial television back then…. 

Snapcrackle Pop 

I don't need your Brady Bunch stances
I don't crave your Seinfeld circumstances
I don't need your Gunsmoke nonchalance
I'll never believe your SonnyCher romance put on

It's a stretch to behave like a Katy Couric monad
and it's no Brokawism to be saturated by the superfads
You're pinkying my brain with your simulated lather
No pepsi for me, chief, I aint no Dan Rather

I'd rather walk alone than be your Texas ranger
I'd rather sink like stone than face the nation's danger
Your Geritol kindness is too lax for me to hold
your showroom kisses are too expensive to be sold
And your Letterman manners make you look too old
You're perforated, microsofted, ready to fold

Aint no excuse for being dazed and spoon-fed
snapcrackle pop's got you by the head

Don’t ask me what a Katy Couric monad is. I just. don’t. know. Leibniz would be appalled; he’d be second-guessing whether this is the best of all possible worlds, after all.  E-book.

Zen Mind Beginners Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. I loved this book. In simple lecture-style chapters, Suzuki succinctly tells you how to sit in zazen and why it is meaningful. A concise guidebook to the art of meditation. Going to give it away.

Reveries of a Solitary Walker by Rousseau. This was my second sojourn through Rousseau’s reveries, and I got even more out of it this time, because I’m older and because the pandemic of 2020 put me in a solitary walking mode. Rousseau’s text paired nicely with the Stephen Batchelor book.  

Being and Nothingness by Sartre. I wrote about my experience with this one in Issue 10 of the substack.  Gave it away.

The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. I also covered this one pretty well in Issue 11 of the substack. I don’t know why it took so long to read it. A rollicking good read. 

Lofi Poetry Series: Poet Sounds eds. Gerry LeFemina and Christine Stroud. This was a fun concept: all poems are inspired by The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds album. It includes a poem by friend Ken Pobo. I also mined it for “found lines” and wrote a new poem “Cape Fear”, published in a previous substack issue.  

From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present by Jacques Barzun. I’m trying to downsize the book collection, and this big fat heavy book by Barzun was occupying space, so I recommitted to finishing it in 2020. I had a mixed reaction to it. Parts were captivating. Barzun has a knack for getting you interested in writers that aren’t always at the head of the table. I especially thought his chapter on Romanticism was incisive. But as the book got into the 20th century, it soured. Barzun’s biases and blind spots were revealed, and I began to doubt some of his reads on cultural history, which then made me doubt the earlier chapters. What seemed at first like a magisterial effort, the capstone of a long and rich career, ended with a curmudgeonly, wheezy gasp. Gave it away.  

The Loss of All Lost Things by Amina Gautier. Gautier was Widener’s visiting writer in the fall, so I assigned this book of finely crafted stories for my creative writing class, so we would be prepared to engage with her when she visited our class over zoom. Thematically the story collection coheres tightly. I enjoyed visualizing the few stories set in the Philadelphia area, my native ground. Gave it away. 

The Collected Poetry of Thomas Beverly Williams and Alive Beyond Blue by Thomas B. Williams. Followers of this substack are probably aware that I’ve been podcasting about the life and legacy of my high school creative writing teacher, Thom Williams on the show Podula Rasa. Thom’s widow Meg Williams has been most supportive of our efforts, and she graciously mailed these two chapbooks to me. What a lift it was to read more creative writing from such an inspirational figure in my life. Alive Beyond Blue in particular struck me as mature, beautiful poetry.  It's been ten years since TW departed planet earth. His poetry is one way to keep the memory flame burning bright. 

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler. I can’t tell you how long ago I picked up a cheap paperback copy of Koestler’s book from a library sale. You’d have to count in decades. Anyway, the book gathered dust, unread till 2020, when I stumbled across it, looking for books to discard. I thought, it looks short, let’s give it a shot. It read better than expected. Maybe I was anticipating something dated and cold-war propagandistic. I was wrong. Instead it presents a gripping account of Stalinist era incarceration and interrogation. Darkness happens when ideology runs amok. It leads you down the road to torturous insanity. Caveat MAGATS!  Gave it away.

Hippocratic Writings by Hippocrates and On the Natural Faculties by Galen. My quixotic trek through the Great Books of the Western World notched another completed volume with these two medical science texts. I talked about Hippocrates already in an early issue of the substack newsletter. Whereas Hippocrates reads like physician notes, the Galen is more polished, rhetorical, and philosophical. Galen argues why his theories are right and rival medicine men are in error. In particular, relentless shade is thrown upon Erasistratus and Asclepiades and their followers, whom Galen sees as dangerously incompetent. 

One Robe, One Bowl, The Zen Poetry of Ryokan trans. by John Stevens. This book has been in my Amazon wish list for a decade or more, and since my meditation practice picked up in 2020, shares in Buddhist and eastern literature have risen in my intellectual portfolio. It seemed a good time to try out Ryokan. I’m glad I did! These are wonderful haiku style poems. Like Ovid mentioned above, Ryokan’s character and voice leapt off the page. His vision of simple living are words to be heeded. Meditate, drink tea, write little poems, play with the children, live with few wants. That's it.  

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. I reread Beckett’s play for English 102. I’m always astounded about how well his words are crafted--lucid, pearl-like lines. Profundity comes in small packages, sometimes.  

Fiction Writers Workshop by Josip Novakovich. This was the assigned textbook for the Advanced Fiction Writing class I taught in the fall. Novakovich is an old graduate school pal from University of Texas, Austin. His craft advice is solid and witty, and the prompts are excellent. Recommended for writers out of college looking to do some self-paced instruction. The book will serve you well in that regard. 

Liber Amoris by William Hazlitt. Jacques Barzun sings the praises of Hazlitt in From Dawn to Decadence. So I found a cheap copy on eBay and took a chance. This thinly veiled epistolary autofiction is about a fraught affair Hazlitt had with a domestic worker while his marriage was disintegrating. It’s cut from the the same sturm und drang cloth as Goethe’s Sufferings of Young Werther. It reads like a work that Hazlitt HAD to get out of his heart and onto the page. Though I wouldn’t call it a classic, its crazed account of passion out of control held my attention. Going to give it away.

Countdown: Our Last Best Hope for a Future on Earth! by Alan Weisman. I liked Weisman’s The World Without Us, and in many ways this book is just as good. Depressing though!  I had to put it aside many times while I processed just how bad and dire the situation is across the world. As Weisman travels from country to country documenting nations’ mostly pathetic attempts to deal with climate change and population control, you are led to the dire conclusion that our species is, in all likelihood, intractably fucked. The reportage is well sourced and convincing. The settings are vividly painted, and Weisman’s interview subjects are characterized well. Our last best hope for a future is to follow the scientific facts and make the drastic adaptations needed to rebalance our relationship to nature. I'm not going to bet on it, though.  E-book.

How Literature Saved my Life by David Shields. This book achieved the dubious distinction of worst book I read this year. When I started it, I rather liked it. Written in a quirky memoir style, with short chapters assembled more as bricolage than linear narrative, the book pulled a bait and switch. It wasn’t really about how literature saved David Shields. It was about David Shields. And David Shields. And how great and and sexy and fascinating and humble bragging David Shields is. David Shields really thinks you'll admire the David Shields presented in this book. You'll even love all his well documented neuroses. Because, doesn't everyone want David Shields' life? He's so interesting and profound and hip. The novelty of the quirky style and organization devolved into a series of scraps that read like regurgitated blog slop that David Shields thought he could pull off and make interesting, because, well, David Shields (you had to ask?). OK, Boomer.  It's one of those books I had to finish just to see how bad it could get. And the bad just kept giving. If this was really about how literature saves your life, you can shove a hot poker in my eyes and push me off the cliff right now. E-book.

Watch the North Wind Rise by Robert Graves. I grabbed this off the shelf while looking for more books to discard. It’s a curious novel about a poet who wakes up in the far future to discover a utopian fantasy world. As is typical with this genre, there is plenty of world building and explaining. Graves is a decent enough writer to keep some interest, but over the course of the book, my attention waned as I sensed him struggling to find a plot and bring it to conclusion.   Gave it away.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. While reading the chapter on Virginia Woolf in the Arnold  Weinstein book (see below), I realized I needed to read To the Lighthouse. The novel is rather short and easy to page through, despite its modernist style. Wow, was this is a fabulous novel! A stunning artist at the height of her powers. In his appreciative critique of Woolf, Weinstein explains how good she is at detailing the microcosm, the domestic, smallish scenes that echo into the larger things. He couldn't be more right. Woolf's novels resonate like ripples in a pond, the concentric circulars spanning outward. How she takes the incidental seed (“are we going to the lighthouse today?”) and blossoms a novel (and world) from it, is masterful. It left me speechless.

Recovering Your Story by Arnold Weinstein. This work of literary criticism for general readers was published around 2006. I was a big fan of Weinstein’s A Scream Goes Through the House: What Literature Teaches Us About Life and eagerly bought this one when it was released. Weinstein is a die-hard humanist with a knack for doing what David Shields promised and never delivered: tell you why literature matters. In Recovering Your Story, Weinstein takes you on a grand tour through major works by the modernist novelists Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, and Morrison. I began the book in 2006-2007 then put it aside, because I hadn't finished reading Proust, and I didn't want any spoilers. MANY YEARS later, I made it through Remembrance of Things Past, but by then had forgotten about the Weinstein book, which rested at the bottom of a pile in the living room. I rediscovered it this year, picked up where I left off in the Proust chapter, and read through the rest of it. I have a mixed reaction. I'm very much in Weinstein's camp, how he teaches us to use literature as a means of reading the self. He heroically champions the modernist writers, explaining in clean prose why their innovations are meaningful. My problem with the book is it's too much of a good thing. It could have been condensed. It was worthwhile, though I’m not so sure how many more books of this type I need to read anymore. Going to give it away.

Drumroll please….here are my favorite books completed in 2020 (not ranked):  

  • Nickel Mountain

  • To the Lighthouse

  • Zen Mind / Beginner's Mind

  • Poems of Exile

  • The Art of Solitude

  • One Robe, One Bowl

So ends my year in reading. In the comments, let us know some of your best (and worst) 2020 titles!

Happy New Year to all and happy reading. Let's drive a cold stake through the heart of 2020 and move on. See you in January. 

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