But first, the usual questions: are there any themes from this year? Any intellectual currents present in my reading list that I didn’t realize at the time but see now that it’s complete?
First, I read a great deal of Late Classical history, including late Rome, Byzantine, and the early years of the Arab/Muslim Empire. My reading in this area got very granular and specialized. I seemed to know, subconsciously, that I would be studying this stuff in grad school in the near future, although at the time that decision was a long way off.
Second, I read a lot of fiction this year. More so than I do most years. Going forward I am trying to keep the ratio at 3 non-fiction for every 1 fiction. I found fiction to be refreshing and also helped me to make better connections between the non-fiction works I was reading because my mind was fresh and cleared out. There is a place for reading popular fiction.
Third, I read a lot of poetry this year as well. And when I say read a lot of poetry, I mean, I bought a book of poetry and read the entire book. Not straight through, but I’d read a chapter at a time, read something else and then come back to it. This is another habit I hope sticks around. Poetry is good for the soul. It connects us to the longings and shortfalls and loves and desires of others. This remains essential to being human.
Fourth, I read a fair amount of theory and philosophy. This is something I hope to do more of as well. I’ll probably regret this comment when I buy my books for grad school this semester.
Finally, I stayed off the internet for the most part. I didn’t read any blogs, except a select few, mostly because they are all corporately owned media crap blogs now. The blogosphere of 2002-2006 is long dead or assimilated into the power structures that be. This is a shame, but a reality no one can now change. And it will affect the way people read, including books, moving forward. I also watched very little TV, except for a few series, like Justified, Grimm, The Bridge, The Walking Dead (zombies!) and The Borgias.
My target is to read a book a week, which comes out to around 52 books, more or less, for the full year. (This does not include my subscriptions to the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books and the Texas Observer. I won’t read Texas Monthly any more, but that’s a whole ‘nother story, as we say around here.)
In sum, for 2013 I completed 75 books. By far my best year ever and one I seriously doubt I’ll ever match or exceed.
The commentary format below is as follows: title, author, genre, plus date completed and then my personal comments (and any book with an asterisk* next to it is a book you really should buy and read):
So, this guy Victor Lavalle writes a book. I read it. I like it. A lot. I start looking for what else he’s read and find another of his books. I put it in my Amazon Wish List and save it for later in the year.
2. Patient Zero by Jonathan Mayberry: fiction; completed January 12, 2013
A zombie book. ‘Nuff said.
3. Lost to the West by Lars Bronworth: non-fiction; completed January 20, 2012
A enjoyable account of the main episodes in Byzantine history. Good for beginners.
4. Pym by Mat Johnson: fiction, completed January 23, 2013
An ultimately unsuccessful attempt to reinterpret Edgar Allen Poe’s sole novel from the perspective of an African-American. Just not enjoyable. The reinterpretation felt forced and heavy handed.
*5. The Odyssey by Homer: epic poetry, completed January 30, 2013
Of all the epics I have read, including Aeneid, Iliad, Divine Comedy, Beowulf and Digenes Akritas the Odyssey is the best. As a matter of fact, it is one of the ten best reads ever. Period.
6. Marco Polo, Discovery by John Larner: history, completed February 5, 2013
A somewhat specialized history of the era in which Polo traveled.
7. The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd: non-fiction, completed February 8, 2013
Lame. No center, no reason for this book to exist and little color. This surprised me because one of my favorite writers, Robert MacFarlane recommends it.
8. The Oresteia by Aeschylus: classic drama, completed February 8, 2013
Good stuff, but backstory and context are essential to the enjoyment of classical Greek drama.
The six volumes of this book deserve a post of their own and maybe someday they will get one. The first two volumes are some of the most well written narrative history of the collapse of Western Rome anyone is ever liable to encounter. Gibbon will remain the standard of excellence for a very long time to come.
That being said, it’s important to recall that Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is first and foremost an Enlightenment document, like our Constitution, John Locke, Rousseau and Voltaire. It’s filled to the brim with Enlightenment preconceptions and preoccupations. There is no textual context here. There are no examinations of how certain events of the past have been passed down to Gibbon and how their historical ‘reception’ remains unexamined by Gibbon. But that’s placing my own burdens and expectations and assumptions and preconceptions on Gibbon, which isn’t terribly fair, is it?
To this day Gibbon’s thesis on the Decline and Fall of Rome is misinterpreted by everyone and their mother, as well. Gibbon’s magnum opus covers a thousand years. And we still hear American pundits and academics who should know better talk about how America is “declining and falling like the Roman Empire!”
“Oh dear! I see chicken little!”
If they are correct then American power will be paramount for a long, long, long time.
I doubt that is the case, however, but I digress.
The final three volumes are excellent, but it’s clear Gibbon wasn’t interested in the Byzantines at all, nor did he think they had anything important to add to the Enlightenment project. Thankfully, contemporary Byzantine scholars, especially those at Dumbarton Oaks, see it differently.
10. Buddha by Karen Armstrong: biography, completed February 23, 2013
Oddly unenjoyable, which is saying something because Armstrong is a damned good writer.
11. Oedipus the King by Sophocles: classic drama, completed February 27, 2013
Good stuff, but backstory and context are so critical in the enjoyment of classical Greek drama. Yes, I said that already.
12. Fragments by Heraclitus: philosophy, completed March 4, 2013
You know who Heraclitus reminds me of? Lao Tzu. Seriously, had Heraclitus had a larger following with his short, gnomic utterances that are almost dualistic in nature, Western philosophy could have gone in a very different direction than it did. Pick up a copy of Stephen Mitchell’s Tao Te Ching and compare it with Heraclitus’ Fragments, translated by Brooks Haxton and you’ll see what I mean.
13. Jason and the Golden Fleece by Apollonius: epic poetry, completed March 9, 2013
Glad I read it, but it was clearly written by a third century BC academic for a third century BC academic audience. Way, way too many allusions and asides. Tried too hard to be Homer and instead, if it weren’t necessary to understand the subsequent tragedy of Medea, I doubt this would still be read.
*14. To Save Everything by Evgeny Morozov: criticism, completed March 10, 2013
Everyone should be compelled to read both of Morozov’s books. In 50 years people will be citing him, wondering why people didn’t listen to him. People will be citing him when they are desperately trying to unravel the totalitarian disasters they have sleepwalked into. Morozov single-handedly brings the word “ethics” back into our political discourse.
15. Decline & Fall v. 2 by Edward Gibbon: history, completed March 15, 2013
16. Decline & Fall v. 3 by Edward Gibbon: history, completed April 4, 2013
17. Great War For Civilization by Robert Fisk: history, completed April 7, 2013
The single best revisionist history of the Middle East over the last 40 years.
I devoured this first volume but 100 pages into the second volume (which is, as yet, unfinished) I realized that a lot was being left out of Ryan’s history of political philosophy on purpose. There is an air of tired conventional wisdom about this book and I doubt I will complete volume two. Why? It is as if he writes about the inevitability of liberal-democratic capitalism. Apparently Fukuyama’s thesis is alive and well. Aren’t there any competing political philosophies out there? Or are we just stuck here, like Nietzsche’s “Last Man,” wallowing in the commodified consumer soullessness of post-modernity?
19. Decline & Fall v. 4 by Edward Gibbon: history, completed April 20, 2013
20. Eminence by Jean-Vincent Blanchard: history, completed April 25, 2013
A brief, and ultimately uninspired, biography of Cardinal Richelieu. Devoid of realpolitik or anything useful.
*21. Net Delusion by Evgeny Morozov: non-fiction, completed May 6, 2013
Everyone should be compelled to read both of Morozov’s books. In 50 years people will be citing him, wondering why people didn’t listen to him. People will be citing him when they are desperately trying to unravel the totalitarian disasters they have sleepwalked into. Morozov single-handedly brings back the word “ethics” into political discourse. Yes, I said this all before. It needs repeating.
22. Empires in Collision by GW Bowersock: history, completed May 8, 2013
Bowersock writes about the collision of Byzantium, Axum, the Arabian proto-state and the Jews of Yemen during the 5th-6th centuries. Fascinating and easy to read, but not for the beginner.
23. Decline & Fall v. 5 by Edward Gibbon: history, completed May 9, 2013
24. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse: fiction, completed May 11, 2013
I did not like this book. I cannot explain why, but it was visceral, which means I need to read it again and explore my feelings towards it more.
25. Throne of Adulis by GW Bowersock: history, completed May 15, 2013
Bowersock writes about the collision of Byzantium, Axum, the Arabian proto-state and the Jews of Yemen during the 5th-6th centuries. Fascinating and easy to read, but not for the beginner. Yes, I wrote this above. Bowersock goes into more detail and explores the role of one specific massacre of Christians in Yemen by a Jewish kingdom and how it created a mess for the Byzantines and possibly got the ball rolling for religious reform in the Hejaz area. This is a good book for beginners interested in the religious ferment in the southern Arabian Peninsula in the century before the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) emerged.
26. Heraclius by Walter Kaegi: history, completed May 22, 2013
Damned good book on the life and history of Heraclius, one of the greatest of men to ever sit on the Romano-Byzantine throne. And also one of history’s most tragic figures. Someone really, really, really, needs to write a readable account of Heraclius’ life, especially in this age of Muslim-Christian tension and outright war at times.
27. Edessa, the Blessed City by JB Segal: history, completed May 25, 2013
A specialists study on the first Christian Kingdom. I got a great deal from it, especially since I have been to Edessa, now known as Sanliurfa.
28. Decline & Fall v. 6 by Edward Gibbon: history, completed June 2, 2013
See #9. Except to say this: I completed what few other people ever do, the entire text of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It was a huge task and took an enormous amount of time. It is something I am proud to say I have done.
29. Rome’s Wars in Parthia by Rose Mary Sheldon: history, completed June 5, 2013
A decent account of the conflicts between Parthia and Rome before the rise of the Sassanids.
30. Timarion by Unknown: drama, completed June 7, 2013
A very strange high-medieval Byzantine drama, not for beginners.
*31. The Devil in Silver by Victor Lavalle: fiction, completed June 8, 2013
I go to my Amazon Wish List and this book is at the top of the list. I buy it. I read it. This is Lavalle’s best book. I reviewed the book here, so go read that. I stand by it all. My favorite fiction book of the year.
32. The Crusades, vol 1 by Marshall W. Baldwin: history, completed June 19, 2013
Excellent supplemental material regarding the Crusades, which I specifically read for the Seljuk Turkish angle and the Zengids.
*33. Return of a King by William Dalrymple: history, completed June 24, 2013
Go buy the book and read it. The best history and the best readable account of the Anglo-Afghan war of 1839. Go buy the book. You will not regret it.
34. How to Write History by Lucian: classics, completed June 26, 2013
A shortish book written in early imperial Rome on the art of politically correct writing. Somethings are just timeless.
*35. The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark: history, completed July 6, 2013
Forget the “Guns of August” by Barbara Tuchman.
“The Sleepwalkers” is the history of the origins of World War One for our age. For any age. If you have any interest in how World War One began and why, this is the book to read.
Excellent in every possible way. My favorite non-fiction book of the year.
*36. Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams: fiction, completed on July 12, 2013
A fun story about an angel who is also a private detective living in the Bay Area. I think they call this genre Urban Fantasy. If so, I’m a fan and looking forward to the follow up book.
37. Sandman Slim by Robert Kadrey: fiction, completed on July 23, 2013
Another book in the emerging Urban Fantasy genre. Fun and bloody and violent. Looking forward to the next installment.
38. Post Office by Charles Bukowski: fiction, completed July 24, 2013
“It began as a mistake.” That happens to be one of the best opening lines in any novel ever written. And Bukowski’s debut novel doesn’t disappoint.
39. In the Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland: history, completed July 30, 2013
This book is Holland’s attempt (not quite successful, but not quite a failure) to unite all of Bowersock’s themes into one large book. Just how did Islam form? What role did Christianity play? Judaism? The Christian empire of Axum (Ethiopia) and the Jewish Kingdom of Yemen? And the Zoroastrian Persians? All played a part in the emergence of Islam and Holland tries to weave them all into one magnificent carpet. A slow read at times, but worth it for the many thought provoking passages it contains.
40. Later Travels by Cyriac of Ancona: belles lettres, completed August 2, 2013
One of the many i Tatti Library renaissance Latin translations. This one is of Cyriac as he wanders through the vestiges of the Byzantine Aegean in the last days of the empire. I reviewed it here.
*41. The Son by Phillip Meyer: fiction, completed August 5, 2013
The single greatest fictional treatment of Texas ever written, complete with an honest portrayal of the nasty race-war perpetrated by the Texas Rangers in the Nueces Strip during the early part of the 20th century.
42. The Long Earth by Baxter and Pratchett: fiction, completed August 9, 2013
A strange sci-fi book by one of my favorite science fiction writers (Baxter) teaming up with one of the greats of fantasy writing (Pratchett). It was a good book and I will read the sequel.
43. Chronicle of Pseudo-Joshua by Pseudo-Joshua: history, completed August 14, 2013
Terribly boring, poorly translated history of Edessa, also known as Sanliurfa. But good for my own research.
*44. Goodbye to a River by John Graves: non-fiction, completed August 15, 2013
The single greatest book about Texas ever written. I seem to read this book once a year now. Graves, the author, died on July 31, 2013: the same day I left my ex-wife. Some day I will write on the connection between this book and the dissolution of my relationship with The Brunette.
45. The Sun King by Nancy Mitford: history, completed August 21, 2013
I didn’t enjoy the book. Too gossipy and centered around court intrigue, not enough ‘big picture’ history to my liking.
46. Illusions of Postmodernism by Terry Eagleton: philosophy, completed August 25, 2013
A fairly dense and difficult read on post-modernism versus Eagleton’s own Marxism. As an intro to post-modernism it was terrible. But I persevered and read another book on it later in the year. I will probably return to Eagleton’s book in the next year.
47. The Mindful Writer by Dinty W. Moore: non-fiction, completed September 5, 2013
A kind of sappy, self-helpy, feel good about being a writer kind of book. It’s angle being for the Buddhist writer: mindfulness in all things. I needed a pep-talk, what can I say? I’d just left my ex-wife and was filled with self-doubt.
48. The Iliad by Homer: epic poetry, completed September 7, 2013
Gory. Long. Boring.
49. The History by Michael Attaleiates: history, completed September 9, 2013
If you are looking to read a first person account of the 1071 Battle of Manzikert this is the book. I’ve been to the battlefield, or at least what they believe is the place of battle. This book would have helped better picture what happened. I will probably cite this book when I get around to writing about Turkey in grad school.
Emmott is an imminent scientist and mathematician. This book discussed what will happen to the planet when we reach the population of ten billion. The last sentence of the book is this: “I think we’re fucked.”
51. Postmodernism by Jim Powell: philosophy, completed September 15, 2013
Need a non-biased intro explaining exactly what Post-Modernism is? Jim Powell’s book is the one to read.
52. Julian the Apostate by G.W. Bowersock: history, completed September 25, 2013
A brief history of Julian, the Roman emperor who tried to reverse Constantine’s decision to make the empire Christian. Gore Vidal in his novel romanticizes Julian. But Bowersock sticks to the facts. The character that emerges is a thin-skinned ass, who happens to be a pretty darn good general.
*53. The Whispering Muse by Sjon: fiction, completed October 5, 2013
Just go buy this short novel. One of the most delectable, tricky books I’ve read in a long time. It’s lovely. Trust me.
54. Complete Poems by C.P. Cavafy: poetry, completed October 6, 2013
Cavafy’s poetry is slipping into a cool river on a hot summer day and just floating under a clear blue sky.
55. Connemara, Last Pool by Tim Robinson: non-fiction, completed October 8, 2013
The deep, complete history of one small place. This is what Robinson does. This is volume two of a trilogy on Connemara. I’ve read volume one and also volume one of his history of the Aran Islands. If you like travel writing and history that stays in one place Robinson is for you. He covers it all: geology, botany, history, astronomy, politics and his prose is lovely.
Novel number four in a series about Alfred the Great of England. Historical fiction, blood, swords, vikings, pretty mindless but fun stuff.
57. Beowulf by Seamus Heaney: epic poetry, completed October 12, 2013
This was a fascinating poem, translated by a true world class pro. Worth reading twice.
58. Samarkand & Beyond by James Wellard: non-fiction, completed October 14, 2013
A strange book about desert caravans that I will probably cite in my graduate work.
*59. Season of Migration North by Tayeb Salih: fiction, completed October 16, 2013
One of the funniest novels I’ve read in a long time. A Sudanese writer’s answer to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which includes a long, frank discussion of female genital mutilation at a time when such a conversation in Arabic literature was taboo.
Great book on architecture, its purpose in the modern world, its influence and its practice.
61. Moravagine by Blaise Cendrars: fiction, completed October 20, 2013
Bizarre. The title literally means “Death by Vagina.”
*62. Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich: non-fiction, completed October 20, 2013
An essential counter-point to the bullshit American tendency to think positive about everything. Ehrenreich digs deep to show just how complicit corporate America is in this messaging and how it keeps people from forming unions and taking up other collective solutions, because after all, “how could it be someone else’s fault? I just wasn’t positive enough.” It’s about time someone called bullshit on the loathsome “power of positive thinking” and “prosperity gospel” industry. We need collective action in America, not individual’s pretending to be positive while they get laid off so their CEO can collect an extra five million bonus.
*63. The Blue Fox by Sjon: fiction, completed October 22, 2013
Another book by the Icelandic Sjon you must buy and read.
64. Mountain and Fathers by Joe Wilkins: non-fiction, completed October 24, 2013
A memoir about growing up in Montana’s “The Big Dry” without a father, a tough, loving mother and a grandfather much like Steinbeck’s Samuel Hamilton. Poetic and poignant, and well worth reading. But it will make you cry.
65. Dante’s Inferno by Mary Jo Bang: epic poetry, completed October 25, 2013
A contemporary translation of Dante’s Inferno that everyone should read in the next ten years because it’ll lose it’s charm pretty quickly due to the language she uses in the translation. But for 2013 it was delightful and very true to the spirit of Dante’s great work.
66. Lost Enlightenment by S. Frederick Starr: history, completed November 10, 2013
If you know anything at all about the intellectual climate of Medieval Islam then this is a book you must read. It’s a show-stopper. It’s revisionist in the best possible sense of the word. The years 800-1200AD in Central Asia made so very much of our modern math and science possible. Without the geniuses who inhabited places like Bukhara, Nishapur, Urgench, Samarkand and Merv we would not have the civilization we do. It’s really that simple.
Imagine a woman with Sarah Palin’s flair for self-promotion, as horny as Linda Lovelace and as greedy as Jamie Dimon running a bank in small-town Massachusetts in 1985? Chaos ensues.
68. Mountains of Mind by R. MacFarlane: non-fiction, completed November 20, 2013
A book about how the human perception of mountains has changed over the centuries. Really well done, elegant writing and worth a read.
69. Ethics by Simon Blackburn: philosophy, completed November 24, 2013
Terrible book. It’s not even about ethics, but about morals. Doesn’t anyone understand the difference anymore? Or is that why our society is so fucked?
70. The Stalin Front by Gert Ledig: fiction, completed November 27, 2013
Gruesome depiction of two days in the life of two front-line soldiers: one German and one Soviet. The “All Quiet on the Western Front” of World War Two.
71. Postmodernism by Christopher Butler: philosophy, completed November 29, 2013
A decent book of criticism against post-modernism, although it’s labeled as an introduction to it. Again, I would start with Jim Powell’s book first.
*72. Winds West by Ray Lynn Saunders: fiction, completed December 3, 2013
A lovely coming of age story about a late 19th century woman living in the west on her terms. Worth reading.
73. The Gift by Hafiz: poetry, completed December 8, 2013
Sufi love poetry. That is all.
74. How to Live, Montaigne by S. Bakewell: history, completed December 8, 2013
Not such a good book. Why? It did not make me want to read Montaigne. It got great reviews, but for me, while interesting to learn about this era of French history and the Catholic-Protestant violence, there was some essence of Montaigne she must not have captured, because what little I have read by him is utterly absorbing.
*75. Tristes Tropiques by C. Levi-Strauss: anthropology, completed December 26, 2013
Had I read this book when I was 17 or 18 and trying to decide what to do with my life I would have become an anthropologist. It is that great of a book.
Now, what did you read this year?