Books Read in 2018

Compared to previous years, I read a lot more fiction and reread a lot more books. I read more in general than last year, though it is a mix of short, easy stuff like the Amber series and the Wayward Pines trilogy, and meatier stuff that took up a lot more time. I self-consciously tried to fill in some major gaps in my knowledge by reading Homer and Milton, and while this felt like homework, I think it was worth the effort.

Fiction (18)

Declare was easily the best fiction I read this year, and right now I’m thinking of it as one of my top 10 books of all time. True Grit was worth reading despite being so faithfully represented in both movie versions because the writing is so unique. The Wayward Pines trilogy was like popcorn. Probably the least likable book on this list is The Pesthouse, but I liked that one well enough. A good crop of books, all in all.

  • The Peripheral by Gibson, William
  • Declare by Powers, Tim
  • The White Cottage Mystery by Allingham, Margery
  • The Fall of Hyperion by Simmons, Dan
  • Green Magic by Vance, Jack
  • The Last Town by Crouch, Blake
  • Paradise Lost by Milton, John
  • Wayward by Crouch, Blake
  • Pines by Crouch, Blake
  • The Wolves of Paris by Mannix, Daniel P.
  • The Devil in a Forest by Wolfe, Gene
  • True Grit by Portis, Charles
  • Casino Royale by Fleming, Ian
  • The Pesthouse by Crace, Jim
  • Murder On Monday by Purser, Ann
  • Island Nights’ Entertainments by Stevenson, Robert Louis
  • All the Pretty Horses by McCarthy, Cormac
  • The Iliad by Homer

Non-Fiction(31)

More of a mixed bag, as usual. Dark Territory and The Jungle Grows Back were both revelations for me, two alien perspectives on the world that will leave their marks. Fooled by Randomness was much better than The Black Swan, but Taleb is a good thinker and writer whom I will continue with. Same with Pierre Bayard: a fun new thinker worth more exploration in the next year.

  • Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong by Bayard, Pierre
  • The Black Swan by Taleb, Nassim Nicholas
  • Do Anything Volume 1 by Ellis, Warren
  • The Jungle Grows Back by Kagan, Robert
  • Dark Star Safari by Theroux, Paul
  • The Unwinding by Packer, George
  • How to Talk to Anyone by Lowndes, Leil
  • 1453 by Crowley, Roger
  • Do Humankind’s Best Days Lie Ahead?by Pinker, Steven
  • Literary Feuds by Arthur, Anthony
  • Dark Territory by Kaplan, Fred
  • Graphic Design Visionaries by Roberts, Caroline
  • The Road to Somewhere by Goodhart, David
  • Ghosts of the Tsunami by Parry, Richard Lloyd
  • The Greek Myths by Graves, Robert
  • Elbert Hubbard’s Scrapbook by Hubbard, Elbert
  • Everybody Lies by Stephens-Davidowitz, Seth
  • Design As Art by Munari, Bruno
  • Fooled by Randomness by Taleb, Nassim Nicholas
  • The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Booth, Michael
  • A Gentleman Publisher’s Commonplace Book by Murray, John G.
  • The Possessed by Batuman, Elif
  • The Red Atlas by Davies, John
  • How to Make Sense of Any Mess by Covert, Abby
  • Adventures in the Screen Trade by Goldman, William
  • Soonish by Weinersmith, Kelly
  • The Shallows by Carr, Nicholas
  • Paul Valery: An Anthology by Valéry, Paul
  • How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Bayard, Pierre
  • The Secret Lives of Color by St Clair, Kassia
  • What I Learned Losing a Million Dollarsby Paul, Jim

Rereads (13)

This is the fourth time I’ve reread the entire Amber series, and there are some books in it that I’ve read ten times at least. I read Beowulf in high school English, but thought it was worth another shot as an adult (it was fine). Herbert and Banks were reread as part of a book club

  • Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Heaney, Seamus
  • Consider Phlebas by Banks, Iain M.
  • This Immortal by Zelazny, Roger
  • Hyperion by Simmons, Dan
  • Prince of Chaos by Zelazny, Roger
  • Knight of Shadows by Zelazny, Roger
  • Sign of Chaos by Zelazny, Roger
  • Dune by Herbert, Frank
  • Blood of Amberby Zelazny, Roger
  • Trumps of Doom by Zelazny, Roger
  • The Courts of Chaosby Zelazny, Roger
  • The Hand of Oberon by Zelazny, Roger
  • Sign of the Unicorn by Zelazny, Roger

The Jungle

People today ask what threatens the present order, but that is the wrong question. The order is an artificial creation subject to the forces of geopolitical inertia. Deeply etched patterns of history, interrupted these past seven decades, remain and exert their pull. The question is not what will bring down the liberal order but what can possibly hold it up? If the liberal order is like a garden, artificial and forever threatened by the forces of nature, preserving it requires a persistent, unending struggle against the vines and weeds that are constantly working to undermine it from within and overwhelm it from without. 

Robert Kagan, The Jungle Grows Back

This is the thesis statement for Kagan’s book, which was an easy read but a hard problem to contend with. I’m typically not an interventionist, but he makes a pretty strong case which has nudged my thinking a little bit. The thought of a world in which the U.S. bankrolls an unending hot-and-cold war against the rhyme scheme of history is frightening. Anything that never ends and gets riskier every day is bound to fail. What’s the alternative? 

The Eye of the Beholder

The epithet beautiful is used by surgeons to describe operations which their patients describe as ghastly, by physicists to describe methods of measurement which leave sentimentalists cold, by lawyers to describe cases which ruin all the parties to them, and by lovers to describe the objects of their infatuation, however unattractive they may appear to the unaffected spectator.

— George Bernard Shaw

How to kill a djinn

“I read the oldest fragments of the Hezar Efsan, which was the core of the Thousand Nights and One Night; and in the Midian mountains of the Hejaz I found communities of Magians, fire-worshippers, and traded gold and medical-supply whole blood and thermite bombs for the privilege of witnesses their distressing mountain-top liturgies. In all the very oldest records, djinn are described as being killed by … trivial-seeming things: someone carelessly throwing a date-stone at one of them, or accidentally hitting with with a misaimed fowling arrow, or even by taking a sparrow out of a hidden nest. Eventually I decided that the way to kill a djinn was to change the shape of its animated substance in a particular way.”

[…]

“I decided that a Shihab meteorite would comprise the death of a djinn —not in the stone’s internal structure, but in its melted and re-hardened shape. The meteorites are always pitted with round holes, like bubbles, uniform in their dimensions but of all sizes, even down to microscopic; I concluded that the concavities in the surface of the meteorite are the imprint of a djinn’s death, repeated at every possible scale, and that if I could summon the djinn down from the mountain peak to the stone in the gorge, and then explode it in the midst of them, the pieces would be propelled into the substances of the creatures, forcing their stuff to assume the complementary convex shape.”

[…]

“The djinn are supposed to have existed before mankind…and in many ways they are a more primitive sort of life, more crude. Their thoughts are kinetic macroscopic events, wind and fire and sandstorms, gross and literal. What the djinn imagine is done: for them to imagine it is to have done it, and for them to be reminded of it is for them to do it again. Their thoughts are things, things in motion, and their memories are literal things too, preserved for potential reference—wedding rings and gold teeth looted from graves, and bones in the sand, and scorch marks on floors, all ready to spring into renewed activity again at a reminder […] To impose a memory-shape onto their physical makeup is to forcibly impose an experience—which, in the case of a Shihab meteorite’s imprint, is death.”

Tim Powers, Declare

Broad shoulders

Someone said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.” Precisely, and they are that which we know.

— T.S. Eliot

Water

The physiologists who specialize in thirst seem never to have experienced it. This surprises me. You would think that someone interested in thirst would want to stop drinking for a while. It is easy to arrange, and can be done safely. But the physiologists pursue knowledge, not experience. They use words based in Greek, which soften the subject. For instance, they would describe the Sahara — the burning sand, the fierce, relentless sky — as dipsogenic, meaning”thirst-provoking.” In discussing Lag Lag’s case, they might say he progressed from eudipsia, meaning “ordinary thirst,” through bouts of hyperdipsia, meaning”temporary intense thirst,” to polydipsia, by which they mean “sustained,excessive thirst.” We can define it more precisely: since poly means “many,”polydipsia means “the kind of thirst that drives you to drink anything. ” There are specialized terms for such behavior, including uriposia, “the drinking of urine,” and hemoposia, “the drinking of blood.” For word enthusiasts, this is heady stuff. Nonetheless, the lexicon has not kept up with technology. Blame the ancients for not driving cars. I have tried, and cannot coin a suitable word for “the drinking of radiator coolant.”

This is what Lag Lag and his assistant started drinking. They had been under the truck for several weeks. They wrote good-bye letters to their families and stuck them up in the cab. The assistant cried. Lag Lag was annoyed and said,”When you die, you die.” He was a good Muslim. He lay calm.

Finally, the two of them having drunk most of the coolant, Lag Lag had an inspiration. He drained oil from the engine and poured it into the fuel tank.The assistant had given up hope, and wanted no part in the experiment. Lag Lag figured the oil would combine with the dregs of diesel fuel, and the mixture might ignite. He climbed into the cab, cycled the glow plug, and pressed the starter. The engine turned over and rumbled to life. The astonished assistant scrambled aboard. Spewing dense blue smoke, the truck rolled forward. After some miles they came to a track. With no idea where they were, or where the track led, they followed it. Allah was with them. A refrigerated van appeared,with water, meats, and vegetables. It was driven by a friend. They broke the seal on the back, built a fire, drank, and feasted. As the specialists say, they rehydrated.

William Langewiesche, The World in Its Extreme (specifically, part two)

Observation

I wonder what day I shall die on —
One passes year by year over one’s death day,
As one might pass over one’s grave.

— Cardinal Newman

The act of recollection

There was no blood on the flat board of the saddle; only, caught in the folds of the blanket and on the saddlebag flap buckles, a scatter of jewelry. Hale stepped across from the camel’s neck onto the small Oman saddle, and he knelt swayingly up there as he scraped and picked up a handful of the jewelry.

It was tiny sticks, some curved and some straight, made of glass and bone and bright gold: and not until he found a knobby round piece of gold as big as a marble and held it up to the light, and saw that it was a tiny scale model of a human skull, did he realize that the sticks were probably miniature sculptures of human bones.

He had heard Salim bin Jalawi’s footsteps approaching, and now bin Jalawi was up on the saddle of another of the returned camels, and Hale glanced over to see that he too was gathering up scattered jewelry.

Bin Jalawi had climbed down with more dignity, but he was breathing fast as he led the camel forward toward the camp in the basin. “Djinn,” he panted, “duplicate things. If they ponder a thing, sometimes a copy of that thing appears, made of whatever is at hand. In the desert the copies are generally made of glass, which is melted sand, or gold, which is in the sand. Somewhere up near the Um al-Hadid wells I know there is right now a stretch of sand that is not cold. And hot bare bones too, though they will have shaved some to make their models of others.”

Hale was leading the camel he had jumped off of, and the two others were following placidly. “In miniature,” he said.

“In all sizes, bin Sikkah! Djinn cannot comprehend differences in size, only shapes. These small copies stayed on the saddles, caught in folds—but by the Um al-Hadid wells there are now certainly bones as big as cannon barrels, made of glass—aye, and skulls as big as chairs, made of gold. We are lucky these camels weren’t crushed.”

Tim Powers, Declare

This is the haunting scene in the Empty Quarter, just before Hale and bin Jalawi come up the ruins of Wabar.