Enjoyable Reads of 2010

03 Jan 2011 // books

This year was my year of reading historically. If I had to pick the best book, it would be Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall". As some critic once said, a literary classic is a book that conjures up new worlds, which in this case, is a bloody incantation of England in the late 16th century. The prose is a technical marvel, chiseled in pointillist present tense, it's a free-floating monologue of the ecunuemical mind of Thomas Cromwell, the double-dealing, book-reading, Chancellor of England who engineered the break with the Roman Catholic Church. The novel wears its historicity lightly and the dialogue is poetically concise. It was the finest read of the year.

I also fell in love with Robert Harris' trilogy on the life of Cicero (Imperium & Conspirata). Harris is an accomplished thriller writer, and uses all his skills to bring out the political genius of Cicero, not as a beacon of future rationalism, but as an inveterate gambler, in full command of his skills as orator and politician, but working in a terribly unreliable world. It's Plutarch meets Aaron Sorkin.

The most fascinating book I read was David Hockney's "Secret Knowledge". It's a feast for any reader with a visual sense. David Hockney makes a belter of an argument that the invention of certain optical instruments was the substantive cause of the realist turn in paiting that happened in the Renaissance, sometime in the early 15th century. The argument is visual in nature, and I spent many delightful hours pouring over masterpieces to verify the brunt of Hockney's argument.

This was also the year that I embraced eBooks. I found that 46 out of my 100 books were read on my iPhone. That's almost 50%. I believe it will be ever higher in 2011. Reading eBooks was a real space saver, and reflects the fact that 2010 was also the year I discovered the minimalism movement (Zen Habits; Minimalist Freedom; Four hour work week). It was invigorating like someone ripping off your skin. These guys talk about reducing your possessions to less than 100; living a mobile connected lifestyle; creating small businesses entirely online. I've heard many traditional writers complaining how digital publishing is destroying their livelihoods. Instead the minimalists are to a man and woman, making a comfortable living selling eBooks directly to their readers.

Every year, I try to read contemporary literary fiction. It's never easy, and finally I found an essay that explains why. In an n+1 essay that got reprinted in slate, MFA vs. NYC, the argument is made that the world of American letters has bifurcated, leading to either 1) the traditional bust-your gut-with-a-second-job to whore yourself to a NYC publishing house, or 2) get hired as an academic in an MFA program. The economic imperative of MFA programs leads to the coronation of short stories as the ideal literary form, such as those by the reigning monarch of MFA Alice Munro (Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage). Whilst MFA graduates seems to find depths and subtleties in this literary form, all I seem to get are boring people doing boring things in a very boring way. The criticism of style over content gets hurled at this kind of writing, and I'm tempted to agree. Still I got to read Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom", the blockbuster literary novel of 2010 (if the the millions is to believed, though that honor seems to be a poisoned chalice, giving the backhanded compliments that the writers in the million's year in reading series seems to give). I enjoyed it because Franzen has that easy-to-read slightly cynical third person patter down pat, but ultimately, it's just another addition to the staple of MFA writing classed under "suburban malaise". An exception to the rule was Colum McCann's stunning "Let the Great World Spin". Ostensibly a collection of short stories, everything does get tied together at the end, and the cacophony of characters is truly diverse, and things happen. It helps that instead of being set in another nameless rural town, it is plonked right in the middle of the greatest city on earth.

The book that made me cry most was Kathryn Stockett's "The Help". It's an instant American classic, another in a long line that charts the fault lines of race. Stockett has an uncanny ear, and creates one of the most realized ensemble of characters in any book I read this year. Despite the broad appeal of its Oprah-friendly grand emotional arc, it is a truly affecting novel.

I read a bunch of vaguely economic books where the best one was also the oldest, Adam Smith's "the Wealth of nations". Admittedly the book was pretty slow in such chapsters as the the one that explains differences in excise duty across Europe. Still the man was a fucking genius and explained, amongst other things, the economic infrastructure that allowed the nomadic sheepherding Mongols to overrun agrarian medieval Europe. Michael Lewis provided the cheekiest dissection of the Great Financial Crisis by focusing on those who actually profited from it (the Big Short) proving him to be still America's finest financial writer. But the one that got me thinking the most was David Owen's "Green Metropolis", a 21st century update on Jane Jacobs' studies on the nature of cities, by providing a critical analysis of sustainability of human habitats – proving that, yes, NYC is the greenest city in the USA.

The most uncategorizable read was Red Pine, or Bill Porter's "Zen Baggage". It is a gloriously sprawling memoir, at once a travelogue, gastronomy guide, exploration of Chinese Zen, survey of Chinese history, and one man's grapple with the slippage of time. His musings about tea is almost worth the entire price of the book. Unlike virtually every other book I've read on Zen, it places the theology of the early Zen masters in their biography and unique place in the history and geography of old world China, whilst surveying the fragments that remain in the modern world China.

It was also the year I plugged several gaping holes in my scientific reading, from cellular replication (Principles of Nuclear Function), to first year computer science (Algorithms) to elementary statistics (Probabilities: a Concise Intro). My eyes were ripped open to the systematic cancer in the academic sector in the sober assessment of "Higher Education" by Richard Hacker. The pop-sci book that surprised me the most was Stanlislas Dehaene's "Reading in the Brain", which appropriately enough, provided a detailed glimpse into what happens inside our skulls when we read, and how, evolutionarily speaking, we came to become such capacious readers.