Tuesday, December 31, 2013

End of 2013 Reflections on Reading

I've described myself as a voracious reader. I'm not the most prolific reader, but I still read a lot and continually yearn to read more. I rarely get to read as much as I would like, especially since returning to the US. I loved commuting by bus while in China because it allowed me to devote up to an hour a day for reading. The US car culture and the busyness involved with trying to find a job have forced me to significantly curtail my reading volume. I think there will be a future post relating to that.

Nevertheless, I was able to finish 43 books this year. I was hoping to finish Sons and Lovers before New Years Day, but given that it's the morning of New Year's Eve now, my chances don't look promising.  In this post I'm going to comment on a few of the highlights that made an impression on me during 2013. Maybe you'll find something to add to your reading list.

The Shallows - Nicholas Carr
The Dumbest Generation - Mark Bauerlein
As the previous post already dealt with some of this content, I won't say too much this time. These were two of the first three books I read in 2013. Both books put into words and added research evidence to ideas I'd already been considering but only with anecdotal evidence:

  • I'd noticed that my eyes were scanning pages differently on a computer screen than when in physical form.
  • I'd noticed that my thought processes seemed more splintered than in the past.
  • I'd noticed that my students from 2003 to 2013 showed a marked decrease in desire or willingness to read.
  • I'd noticed the facebook-ization or twitter-ization of idea in conversations had with recend college grads coming from the US.
  • I'd noted that my own students seemed absolutely addicted to their devices to the point where it negatively affected their school work, their ability to socialize, and even their sense of contentment with life.

These of things I noticed by way of anecdotal evidence: observation. These two books added researched teeth to those observations. They'll make you think twice about how you spend your time online or with your devices. They'll make you rethink how much or how little you allow your children access to these devices.

The Last Chinese Chef - Nicole Mones
I don't usually read contemporary novels unless overwhelmed with life and in need of something easy. This was a contemporary novel I didn't want to put down. Mones, perhaps better known for her novel Lost in Translation, did a thorough job of researching Chinese food culture, or so say the Chinese friends and family I asked to confirm, and her descriptions are wonderfully vivid. It makes sense, as she did business in China for close to two decades.

Generally, I'm a beverage fan: teas, coffees, spirits, wines, beers, etc. Good food (gourmet or otherwise) doesn't often excite me like a good beverage will. Mones's descriptions of Chinese food -- real, traditional, painstakingly prepared Chinese food -- caused me to yearn for new culinary experiences, at whatever cost. Thankfully I have children that typically prevent me from going to such places and enough economic sense to stay away. But like Pavlov's dogs, my mouth began salivating every time I thought about reading the next chapter.

Mones's story was relatively well-crafted but predictable. Still, her descriptions of Chinese culture through the eyes of a new arrival were engaging, although some of the more subtle aspects would be lost on those who don't a have significant experience with China or Chinese culture. All said, it was a fun read and it made me excited about part of Chinese culture that had ceased intriguing me.

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto - Michael Pollan
Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us - Michael Moss
I first heard of Michael Pollan through a series of Yale MOOC-style lectures that my wife was watching. Later when a friend recommended the book, I took the bait. It's not often I read books and find myself saying, "Yes!" on every page. With these two books, I essentially did just that. Had I had a package of highlighters, they would have been worn out. The authors of these book relentlessly presented research that led to conclusions I'd intuitively reached. It gave me evidence to support the ideas I'd already been having.

I'd been heading toward more and more whole foods and raw foods over the past few years. It just seemed like the best thing to do. I mean, objectively speaking, how many of us really think it is smart to eat foods with ingredients like acesulfame potassium or sucralose? Those ingredients are found in Quaker Oats cinnamon flavored instant oatmeal, a far cry from my morning bowl of whole rolled oats with a half teaspoon of cinnamon and some dried goji berries.

As I said, these two books seemed to hit at so many points that I already intuitively knew: the necessity of eating real food, not chemistry experiments; the nutritional terror that is the huge social experiment called processed foods; added sugars, fats, and salts (not to mention chemicals) can't be what bodies, which have for millennia (up until the 1900s) eaten natural foods, really want.

I would recommend these books to anyone, whether having previously studied nutrition or not. Kate Moss once said, "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels." I don't agree with that view of life, but I like the alternate spin many have put on it: Nothing tastes as good as healthy feels. If not already convinced that your eating habits may need an overhaul, these books will give you something to chew on (pun absolutely intended).

Dad is Fat - Jim Gaffigan
When a popular comedian who has a lot of kids (and loves having a lot of kids) writes a book about parenting, a good time is bound to be had. This book was hilarious, though I may not have found it so funny if I were not a parent myself.

This may be my favorite excerpt from the book:
Occasionally, a dog will be presented as a some training method for having a baby. "My girlfriend and I got a dog. We are going to see if we can handle that before we have kids." This is a little like testing the waters of being a vegetarian by having lettuce on your burger. Okay, maybe that metaphor doesn't make sense, but neither does using a dog as a training method for having a baby.

Or maybe this one:
I used to wonder why I had hair on my legs, but now I know it's for my toddler sons and daughters to pull themselves up off the ground with as I scream in pain.

Those are lines that fit my sense of humor. If you're a parent, I'm sure you;ll find many lines that cause you to laugh out loud. I did.

The Sound and the Fury - William Faulkner
This was not an uplifting novel by any stretch of the imagination. It was dark. It was tragic. It is not for those who require happy endings.

That said, The Sound and the Fury is an amazing novel, written beautifully. Seemingly unconnected sections slowly fill in a broader picture of the Compson family. The prose is difficult but accessible. It may have seemed more accessible to me than it really is, as I had just aborted an attempt to read Ulysses. In comparison, the prose seemed much more comprehensible. This is a novel for fans of the craft, for fans of literary portraits, and for those who may want a challenge.

What's in store for 2014?
Who knows where 2014 will lead? At the beginning of 2013, I never would have guessed I'd read Darkness and Noon (Aurthur Koestler), In the Plex (Steven Levy), or Thank you for Arguing (Jay Heinrichs), but one book leads to another, and one recommendation leads to paths never before taken. Potentially on the immediate horizon for me are these, in no particular order:

  1. Sons and Lovers - D.H. Lawrence
  2. Under the Volcano - Malcolm Lowry
  3. The Way of all Flesh - Samuel Butler
  4. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength - Roy F. Baumeister & John Tierney
  5. Cooked - Michael Pollan
  6. Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India - Joseph Lelyveld

What were your literature highlights for 2013?

What's on your reading list for 2014?

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