Some Books I Read In 2019
It didn't occur to me to start tracking this until late November. However, I think that, between my library record and what's on my shelf, this is a good portion of the books I opened in the year. I thought about splitting these into categories, but some of them don't fall cleanly, so they're roughly chronological instead.
Homage to Catalonia (George Orwell)
An account of Orwell's time in the Spanish Civil War. Interesting both for providing a more complete picture Orwell's views than 1984 as well as a firsthand account of important history I definitely didn't cover in school. The tangle of party alignments and beliefs is difficult to follow, but I think this is more a reflection on the situation itself and Orwell's understanding at the time of conflict than a ding on the book.
Side note: this is far and away the worst layout job of any book I own - clearly the text was set out in a different font than it landed at the printers with. The line breaks feel arbitrary, and it makes the whole thing surprisingly difficult to read. This is the last book I ever bought from Amazon.
Breakfast of Champions (Kurt Vonnegut)
This one hasn't aged as well as some of Vonnegut's works, so it's not a great place to start with him. Nonetheless, the concept of purging meshes well with the capitalist junk retention the title alludes to, and it's very well put together (as is his custom).
The Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien)
The Fellowship of the Ring (J.R.R. Tolkien)
The Two Towers (J.R.R. Tolkien)
Return of the King (J.R.R. Tolkien)
I reread these four again. While it's probably visually a mess to give three entries with no text, I read all of them so they go on the list like that. It probably surprises no one that I've read these several times. It's still an engaging story, and a very well-built world. It's an adventure story, and does nothing to engage with the issues of its time, so no matter how many times I reread it, Eowyn will never have more than a couple spoken lines.
A Rough Guide to Lithuanian Beer (Lars Marius Garshol)
Garshol is a Norwegian blogger and beer enthusiast / historian. He's done a large amount of recording traditional brewing processes as they survive in Europe. I really like that the brewing community doesn't really keep secrets and instead tries to share information (because then everyone gets better beer; free software people take note), and this extends to us literally mailing yeast cultures to each other. Garshol's research has brought attention to traditional farmhouse yeasts, seven cultures of which are currently in my fridge. This book is a compilation of the blog posts from his early expeditions in search of the Lithuanian farmhouse tradition, ostensibly presented as a guidebook. A short read, it serves mainly as a fundraiser for his other work (which I'm looking forward to English translations of).
Viking Age Brew (Mika Laitinen)
More weird European brewing here. This is focused on Finland - specifically, the Finnish tradition of making rye-heavy ale called sahti. The author explores both the tradition and culture as it exists today, and then dives into production. The process descriptions are very detailed yet approachable (he avoids most fancy brewing terms), and are accompanied by gorgeous photographs. He's even compiled several recipes from "sahti masters" (as he calls the respected sahti brewers), and in an unexpected but really nice touch, provides instructions for those who have never brewed before requiring only equipment found in most kitchens. The author's thesis (if it can be said to be such) is that Scandanavian farmhouse brewing tradition (like sahti) is the closest approximation surviving today of what Vikings would have drunk. To that end, he provides pre-hop and gruit-style recipe ideas as well. Several ideas went onto my "brewing ideas" list as a result.
The Homebrewers Almanac (Marika Josephson, Aaron Kleidon, & Ryan Tockstein)
Even with the subtitle ("A Seasonal Guide to Making Your Own Beer from Scratch"), this is somewhat deceptively named. Scratch Brewing Company is a farm, taproom, and brewery in southern Illinois. They brew (and cook) from locally foraged and farmed ingredients. This is a seasonally-grouped guide to foraging with the intent of brewing. It includes advice on handling classes and parts of plants as well as recipe ideas and thoughts on being present in a place in the natural world. Not designed to be read cover-to-cover, I did so anyway because it's hard for me to not do that.
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)
Reread this mostly because I have a friend who references it frequently. The lack of non-male characters is impossible for me to look away from (Trillian is not a character and I don't think ever even has a spoken line). I don't recommend against reading it particularly, but I wouldn't bother if you're not after the cultural touchstones.
Because Internet (Gretchen McCullough)
The foundation of this book is that Twitter conversations are an accurate (or accurate enough) representation of informal/spoken language. This is an important linguistic idea because it means we can observe the evolution of language much more readily than we have in the past. While this is an interesting idea, I do wish the book had done anything with it. And here I want to blame the marketing and presentation more than the author: the book's summary, for instance, claims "it's the perfect book for understanding how the internet is changing the English language". But that's not what's in here. This is a basic linguistic analysis of internet speech. It shows and provides evidence for the "what" of change, but merely speculates on the "why". To pick another example, the identification of emoji with gestures is important to linguistics because "gesture" is a formal idea with research around it, but it's (I feel) obvious to anyone who's ever said "shrug" in conversation instead of shrugging, or sent a smiley face on its own in text chat. And while this connection is important, the implications are not explored. I'm left wondering who the target audience actually is, because it wasn't me.
The Conspiracy against the Human Race (Thomas Ligotti)
I think this is the first book I have finished reading and immediately reread. (Maybe I should put it on the list twice...) Ligotti is a respected horror author, but this is nonfiction: it's an examination of what horror (and our preoccupation with the macabre) reveal about us. Ligotti draws on many different horror fiction authors (and there's some philosophy in here too), but familiarity with them is not required (he provides sufficient context that I didn't feel disadvantaged reading about the ones I lacked familiarity with). I'm extremely jealous of his writing style as well; the best description I can give is that he combines precision with an immaculate understanding of how words feel to articulate. It's really good.
Grilled (Leah Garcés)
This presents as an account of a prominent farmed animal activist finding solidarity with a chicken farmer, though they of course don't use "solidarity" to describe that relationship. The book contains a detailed account of how chicken farmers are exploited and held hostage by meat processing companies in a feudal/capitalist trap. While the account is interesting on its own, the story doesn't end with the book. Garcés, with the backing of MFA, has since started the Transfarmation Project with the goal of breaking this cycle for the farmers. Clearly we need to be growing food; just as clearly, the relationship that these companies have with their farmers is exploitative. So: help the farmers convert to producing different food which isn't reliant on feudalism but is nonetheless in demand - examples they give include hemp, yellow peas, and other crops for which there is new demand. Reading about the problem is easier when it's accompanied by a possible solution.
Buddhism without Beliefs (Stephen Batchelor)
Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist (Stephen Batchelor)
Grouping these two because they're by the same author and in a similar vein. The first (Buddhism without Beliefs) is a brief introduction to the core tenets shared across the Buddhist flavors. It's short and approachable, but functions more as an appetizer than a standalone piece. I expect to read more into this area, but so far the second has made a good main dish.
Confessions combines three independently interesting accounts into a single work. The first is the autobiographical account the author promises: taking the Hippie Trail, meeting the Dalai Lama, becoming a monk in two different Buddhist schools, and disrobing. It's interesting on its own, and what I was looking for from the book. The second is what follows Batchelor's disrobing: his quest for the historical Buddha. This is a bit tenuous, due to the age and degradation of the source material, but to put it in perspective, the evidence for a historical Buddha is far stronger than that for a historical Jesus. His reflections on place and context during this search are interesting as well. In the final part, he uses his experience and search to lay out an atheistic Buddhism (which would probably better be called Buddhism without Beliefs, except that he already used that title, or agnostic Buddhism since that's the actual position he takes).
Buddhist texts can be daunting (especially since I don't speak Hindi, Tibetan, Pali, ...) so the approachability of these is very refreshing. Seems like a good place to start for understanding what Buddhism's about.
The Complete Fiction (H.P. Lovecraft)
Lovecraft was amazingly racist and bigoted. That shouldn't be new to anyone, but that simple statement doesn't capture how integral it was to his plots. It's not the kind of thing that can cut from the story, or easily revised - like naming a pet a racial slur ("The Rats in the Walls"). It goes beyond motivations for individual actors (since he doesn't do characters), like having a desire to inhabit a "superior" body ("The Thing on the Doorstep"). Rather, it's what gives his ideas their power over him. He simultaneously believes that everyone unlike him in appearance is inferior but that they also know dark and terrible secrets about the nature of the universe. Not having either belief not only distances the reader from the story but also removes any suspension of disbelief that may have occurred. It's akin to the result of a blunder in a movie about a historical subject with which one is intimately familiar: a jarring shock, disengagement with the media, and loss of any spellbinding power it might have had.
I've come to think of it as racist fanfic. The world is neat, and some of the plot ideas are intriguing, but the protagonist or framing is always one step further removed from the plot than they/it should be (often, for instance, writing a letter recounting some events rather than narrating the events as they occur - thereby removing all notion of danger). The lack of characters that feel human, and believable relationships between them, seriously hampers his ability to deliver anything truly horrifying. The particular edition I'm using preserves an archaic, likely derogatory misspelling of "Hindu" that's frankly childish. But just shy of a century later, there's plenty of writing on the internet very similar to this.
I did in fact read every word of fiction Lovecraft wrote (bizarrely, bound into one immense paperback volume that was very cumbersome to work with). It's full of tales of "madness", of authors losing their grip on existence, and blurring the line between the real and the imagined. But I think the real "madness" lies in reading everything Lovecraft wrote. Read "The Nameless City" and "The Music of Erich Zann". Consider reading "At the Mountains of Madness" and "The Dunwich Horror". You probably can't be dissuaded from reading "The Call of Cthulu" or "The Shadow over Innsmouth", which show more of the world he built. "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" is interesting both as a novel and one of his works that relies the least on cosmic horror. But skip the rest.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Yuval Noah Harari)
Moved to the end is this thing, which I did not finish. This is abject trash, and save for the prominence of the pull quotes used on the cover, I'd wonder if I'd somehow tried to read the wrong book. It amazes me not only that people liked this book, but that it was widely circulated, translated, and won awards. It's really difficult to not have a lowered opinion of those publications which sung its praises.
But I should speak to the contents. Ostensibly, this is "a brief history" of our species - given it's popularity and lengthiness, my expectations are not set very high. Indeed, the author wastes little time in establishing that he really does mean species in a biological sense, and proceeds into a discussion of pre-homo sapiens humans. The speciesism (in both senses of the term!) displayed toward early and proto-humans was shocking and unnecessary, especially coming from another vegan. To immediately follow that with an inept summary of the question/controversy about the eventual fate of Neanderthals and their genetic material is... well, tactless at best. His presented understanding of ethnicity within species lacks the depth to discuss the implications of Neanderthal ancestry without racism, though he does attempt some gymnastics to keep the quiet part from being loud.
And that's within the first five pages. He follows that with definitions for language and culture terminology that give a minimal nod to non-Western thought while covering himself sufficiently that he can ignore them entirely. And it's downhill from there. (At about this point I stopped reading and looked up a summary online - again, all this within the first few pages.)
The core disagreement I have is, I think, that he's blindly a humanist. He views history as a straight line of progress: conditions now are better than they were in the past, which is better than they were before them, and so on. While there's nothing inherently wrong with this view (though it's exceptionally Western), he takes it to problematic extremes, and seems to earnestly believe that every part of modern life is superior to what we've had in the past. To him, this is the best we've ever been. Given what the country I live in (United States) has been like recently, and moreover what the area of the world he lives in has been like recently (he's a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem), this claim is patently false. Moreover, he's vegan, and meat consumption is the highest it's ever been - but still he believes that capitalist empire has solved the world's problems.
It's so wrong that's it's hard to criticize because there's no stable platform on which to stand. The very basis for argumentation is contradictory. Were the author a bit older, this would warrant little more than an "Okay Boomer" as I move on my merry way.
Anyway, the book is bad and I do the opposite of recommending it.