2019 in Review---Books
From 2010 to 2018 I wasn’t anything close to a reader. I can think of three pockets of books I read.
I read to figure out K’s. Fanon, Heidegger, psychoanalysis, Derrida, Deleuze, Baudrillard, Marx, Agamben, etc. (rarely any primary sources, secondary sources seem to better mirror how things work in debate).
I read presidential biographies. I’m a completionist in spirit (but not actually practice) so if you give me a task that can be boiled down to a moniker like “read a biography on every president” I am interested. I think I read four or five.
I read Game of Thrones due to the TV show. Probably re-read Harry Potter.
So, for 2019 I made the unoriginal resolution to read more. I think the thing I was thinking in January was I wanted to buy a bookcase and fill it with books and say I have read all of these.
As of this writing I’ve read 48 books since January 1st.
Reading, it turns out, is very good. It refreshed my mind and spirit. It made me more aware of when I was consuming garbage on the internet when I could be reading books. I wish I could say it raised the bar for what TV shows I watch, but that would be a lie. The TV show doesn’t have to be particularly good to suck me in.
It made me sad that so many of the things one must read to excel at debate are written so poorly. It hasn’t helped me stop butchering what words mean or how to pronounce them. Maybe another 50 books will do the trick.
Audio books were something I didn’t think I could get into. They seemed like podcasts which I tried and failed to care about. That turned out to be incorrect. They too are very good. In the car, walking Ginger, treadmill, cleaning apartment, traveling, going to sleep…all times I found myself listening to audio books.
I don’t know if a lot of people do this, but it resulted in me reading two books at once (one audio, one paper, not simultaneously). This is what led to reading so many (maybe it isn’t so many? I don’t really know) despite not finishing a book in the months of September, October or November.
I don’t think I have a vocabulary to really discuss books. I never paid attention in English class. I only vaguely understand when a text is called realist. At the beginning I only thought of things as ok, good and very good.
But my appreciation started to nuance. Did the book captivate? Did it provoke? Did it surprise? Did it resonate? I can’t say a book captured my thoughts for very long after I finished reading it. Maybe because I don’t talk about them with other people that much. Maybe I moved on to the next one too quickly.
Here are the books I read this year with some of my thoughts about them. As a general scale:
A—this book was one of the best I read this year and I strongly recommend reading it.
B---this book was good, but not necessarily a must read
C---this book was only ok, bit of a slog to read
F---this book was actively bad, I think only one book I read this year would be a straight up F.
1. Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene by Adolph Reed---C
Debate has obviously saturated my mind with Adolph Reed and his arguments. The fact that he was saying similar things but in the context of controversies in the 80’s and 90’s did not resonate. I have a recency bias on my historical analysis. His book about DuBois is way cooler.
The thing I remember most about this book is it was published in 2000 or 2001 and he calls out Obama for being a neoliberal shill. Foresight!
2. God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines---B
I grew up in church and went to Liberty (not for church reasons, just debate reasons). I am a person of faith but have never dived into the controversies surrounding faith. This book was exactly what I was looking for. A gay Christian presenting the best opposing arguments and giving several deconstructions that have proven persuasive to real life people.
3. Camino Island by John Grisham---B
Why this Grisham novel? I have no idea. Why did I read it in two days? I have no idea. Was it good? Sure? When I read this, I was thinking could you give me anything in a debate context that would enthrall me like this? Grisham novels feel like a dessert. The experience of getting sucked in is just satisfying even though nothing really profound is going to happen.
4. Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller---B
Was definitely a Greek mythology kid in 6th grade. Read this book in a few days too. This firmly established that reading was good and this whole reading for fun and reading fiction business was going to work out.
5. Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin---C
This book just misfired for me. I really blame debate. I came into it reading a handful of secondary things about Baldwin. So many times with a debate thing I find the original source harder to read and care about than how it is applied by other people.
Those secondary applications of Baldwin were doing the application and pushing an argument I found thought provoking that just weren’t as present in the primary source.
6. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick---A
Incredible. It felt like it told me everything I need to know about North Korea. It is the life story of a handful of defectors from North Korea. If one were to write a fictional setting identical to the picture of North Korea you get in this book you would find the extent of totalitarianism heavy handed and unbelievable. And yet…
Also, every card about North Korea regime collapse coming is a lie.
7. Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary---C
I am technically a history major, so this is the kind of book I am most familiar with. Turns out the history of the world is too big a scope. The book tells you a bunch of names and dates you won’t remember. Was hoping for some dialectical history and mostly got a chronology of wars and listing of technological ruptures. Just too hard a task to do well.
8. Circe by Madeline Miller---A
One would think it would be hard to relate to an immortal being that learns magic. Turns out that is incorrect! This is where my vocabulary about talking about books is lacking. But I would recommend this to anyone.
9. Poppy War---R. F. Kuang---B
I am pretty new to the whole fantasy genre. This book kind of felt like a grizzly version of Harry Potter (but like in a good way). Not sure it sticks the landing. Thought the first half of the book was stronger.
10. The Millennium Series by Stieg Larsson and David Lagercrantz---A
10. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, 11. The Girl Who Played with Fire, 12. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, 14. The Girl in the Spider's Web, 15. The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, 42. The Girl Who Lived Twice
Really enjoyed all these books in audiobook form. Really helps to not get tripped up on Swedish pronunciations. I love this series. Have never seen the movies. Feels like the movies would be a letdown.
13. The Broken Earth Triology by N. K. Jemisin---A
13. The Fifth Season, 17. The Obelisk Gate, 18. The Stone Sky
Many people recommended this to me. They were not wrong. I think people are still sleeping on this series based off facebook and twitter. It is incredible. It is easy for me to say I have never read anything like it, but it is true! And I doubt that will change soon.
This is one of those series I was glad I read, so I could read the interesting discussions happening online about people in the know.
16. Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber---B
Bullshit jobs doesn’t seem like a novel concept. But this book did give me some new perspectives on the many reasons why bullshit jobs happen. But I was more interested in the solutions. And this book whiffs on that part of the story by only briefly throwing out ideas like UBI in the last chapter. Left me unsatisfied.
19. The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy---C
Never saw the movie but popular culture obviously made me aware of the basic plot. The big issue is there is so much fucking time spent describing being on boats or submarines. So. Much. Time. I don’t care. It’s a boat or it’s a sub. Let’s move on. Feels like the movie would be better because it clearly dodges that issue.
20. Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life by Jon Lee Anderson---B
I did not know anything about Che Guevara going in. Now I feel like I know everything. Mission accomplished book.
The big takeaway from this book is that the Cuban Revolution was WILD. How did it succeed? If we did it 1000 times how many times would it fail? I feel like most of them since the key players sometimes got shot in the timeline where they succeeded. Just one of those things I don’t think people appreciate…the fact that Cuba turned into a communist country is one of the most surprising things about the 20th century to me.
21. His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman---A
21. The Golden Compass, 22. The Subtle Knife, 23. The Amber Spyglass
Really good. Sucks that kids mainly get exposed to Narnia and less so this. Hope the TV show measures up. Pullman narrates the audiobooks which is cool.
24. How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories by Alex Rosenberg---F
Just total garbage. I missed the mind vs brain debate growing up. Like I saw the Ayn Rand kids but missed the brain determinist people, I guess. I read the book and thought “Holy shit, is this true?” And it turns out not really. Rosenberg is peddling the same deterministic crap based off “new evidence” he reads way too much into and doesn’t do any debating with rejoinders to why he is wrong. The one virtue of reading the book was I did some SSD on an issue that I had never visited before which is always fun.
25. Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman---C
Eh, who cares. Not that funny. Not that compelling. Probably aren’t suppose to read it for the first time at 29.
26. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon---A
Turns out the people picking the Pulitzer are pretty smart. One reviewer said, "Like a magical spider, effortlessly spinning out elaborate webs of words that ensnare the reader,"…which I agree with, but is the main reason why I am no good at reviewing books.
27. Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick---B
The twist is obvious. Haven’t seen the movie. Enthralling. Really cared about the main character Pat and how they were going to end up.
28. Janesville by Amy Goldstein---B
A good book. Heart wrenching. Provoking in the sense of, “What the fuck can be done about this?” The book doesn’t really attempt any answer. I am reaching a turning point where I am judging books more on what tools they provide readers than how good their descriptions are.
29. Beartown by Fredrik Backman---A
“In this story of a small forest town, Fredrik Backman has found the entire world.” Aggressively true. Incredible book.
30. Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods: A Conversation on Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience by Malcolm Jeeves---C
Not what I was hoping for. Felt like a dense debate read. Seemed like a reasonable thing to cite in a paper. The format is email exchanges between the author and a person asking him questions (he writes emails that are too long). Not really a central theme, just a scatter shot of topics. Meh.
31. The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb---B
31. Assassins Apprentice, 34. Royal Assassin 35. Assassin’s Quest
I read this because Game of Thrones as a book series is never going to get completed and it pissed me off. I wanted to read finished fantasy series. Fantasy series are big undertakings. This one was satisfying. A lot more indepth concerning characters and the conflicts between them compared to world building.
32. No Short cuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age by Jane F. McAlevey---A
This book kicks so much ass. This is the best book I have read all year. This is the one that has stuck with me the most. We are so fucked without direct actions. This book gives portable skills from case studies and is awesome at doing it.
33. Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo---B
This book was pretty cool. It wasn’t overly technical, but provided new ways of looking at issues and new data about why anti-poverty programs work and don’t work. Variety of contexts and methods. Very informative but didn’t feel like a drag.
36. 1984 by George Orwell---C
Never actually read this in high school. Didn’t care about it.
37. Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne by Brian Staveley---B
37. The Emperor's Blades, 39. Providence of Fire, 41. The Last Mortal Bond
I think this might have been better than Farseer because better world building but still lots of depth of characters. The stakes in this series get up pretty high pretty fast which colors a lot of the character development. Not sure I am in love with the way it ended.
40. A Time to Kill by John Grisham
Good. Was billed as one of the best Grisham novels but I didn’t think it was that much different compared to the others.
43. The Gig Academy: Mapping Labor in the Neoliberal University by Adrianna Kezar---C
Eh, long on description, short on next steps. Lots of studies, good place for references. I already accepted the premise that adjunct life and subcontracting at universities was bad. This book gave me a lot of reasons why that was true…but not seeing where that would ever come up in my life.
Adjuncts make less money than fast food workers. Woof.
44. Train Dreams by Denis Johnson---B
I started googling best books of the decade and this came up. Edgar Alan Poe said that people should only read novellas because you can consume them in one sitting. Novels you have to take breaks from and that ruins the whole experience.
This book was good, I guess. Idk. I feel like I need a smart person to explain it to me.
45. The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka---B
This book is about mail order brides and Japanese immigrants in the early 20th century. It’s written in a unique form. The last two chapters are told from the perspective of white people and something didn’t sit right with me about those perspectives. Felt too sanitized.
46. United University Professors by Nuala McGann Drescher---C
This could honestly be an F because this is a boring piece of history. It is about the higher ed union in New York. I should vet books more closely.
47. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan---A
Another Pulitzer Prize winner. This book is incredible. People refer to it as a postmodern work. Not really sure what that means. So much real shit happens in this book. Each chapter is about a different character and how they tangentially relate to the two main ones and Egan does such a good job making you care about all of it. Holy shit.
48. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie---A
Debate breaks your brain on certain subjects. When you look at something constantly through the lens of answering it or turning it…it greatly distorts your perception of an issue. This was like a tonic. I was gripped by how the narrator discussed people. So many instances of “I know what you are talking about” but have never heard someone say it like that. Incredible.
Thanks for reading about my reading.
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I am Lincoln, retired debate coach . This site's purpose is to post my ramblings about policy debate.