I admittedly don’t blog as frequently as I used to, but I do enjoy putting together the annual “Books I read” post. You’ll notice that in the past three years this post has become much lengthier and way more self-indulgent. I’m okay with that. If you are, too, presented below is a full list of the books I read in 2011 as well as my “favorites” from several categories. (Disclaimer: All book links in this post are Amazon affiliate links). Previously: 2010, 2009.
Favorite Fiction Book
For many reasons, The Pale King was one of the most anticipated releases of 2011. Released posthumously, it’s an unfinished novel pieced together by DFW’s longtime editor and friend, Michael Pietsch (who actually wrote back when I contacted him); it could even be argued that the unfinished state of the work invalidates its designation as a “novel” or even a “book”. Nevertheless, The Pale King is in many parts DFW at his best — I frequently found myself dumbfounded by his lexical acuity and virtuosic storytelling ability. It was totally bittersweet to read the “Notes and Asides” tucked in the back the book, which contain fragments of written notes and possible story arcs.
I “discovered” David Mitchell by doing a Google search along the lines of “Authors for fans of David Foster Wallace.” Somebody suggested Mitchell, so I read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet early in the year, enjoyed it, and decided to pick up Cloud Atlas for honeymoon reading. The sheer scope of this book is almost absurd, yet Mitchell manages to weave together what amounts to six mini-novels in a beautifully imaginative way. One of the ways I judge whether or not a book has truly moved me is if its characters, themes, and even individual phrases stick with me over time, and I find my mind returning often to Cloud Atlas. It’ll be interesting to see how the movie turns out.
Favorite Fiction Book, Runner-Up
The Visible Man: A Novel by Chuck Klosterman. I’ve been a fan of Klosterman’s since reading Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs back in 2007, and although I was somewhat disappointed in his first novel, Downtown Owl, I was eager to pick up The Visible Man when it released in October. I finished it in two days, which is (sadly) becoming a rarity for me anymore. A case could be made that The Visible Man‘s main character, Y___, functions merely as a fictionalized proxy for Klosterman’s pop culture rhapsodizing, but if (like me) you’re into that kind of thing, and because it’s packaged in a rather compelling narrative, The Visible Man hits all the right notes.
Favorite Non-Fiction Book
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. I was tempted to choose Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, partly because in addition to being a great book, it helped catalyze my recent interest in running. Steve Jobs ultimately wins out, however — it was just too damn interesting. Because of Jobs’ intimate ties to Apple from the company’s inception, the book functions both as a biography of Jobs, and a quasi-history of Apple itself. I made the switch to Mac in April of 2008, so it was fun to read the chronicle of how Apple progressed from the Apple I to its current lineup along with all the ups and downs in between. Additionally, the fact that Jobs himself was both a genius and at times a grade-A asshole (the book is full of funny/sad/puzzling anecdotes), made for an exceptionally satisfying read (even though some people think it’s overrated).
Favorite Short Story Collection
Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman. I picked this book up at a Border’s fire sale and read it on a single flight en route to Cancún for my honeymoon (it’s only 128 pages). Eagleman, a neuroscientist by trade, put together forty very short — 2-3 pages, usually — and wildly inventive stories/vignettes about what happens to us after we die. I distinctly recall feeling a sense of wonder after finishing every story and actual melancholy when there were no more stories to read. Libby read it immediately after me and was equally affected. I don’t do much re-reading of books, but I have a feeling I’ll be returning to Sum sometime down the road.
Mr. Funny Pants by Michael Showalter. Showalter is a comedian and actor featured most recently on Comedy Central’s Michael and Michael Have Issues, and because his style of humor is somewhat distinctive, people either think he’s hilarious or confusing. Or they don’t know who he is at all. Either way, when I heard Mr. Funny Pants was being released, I immediately submitted my pre-order. I was laughing out loud even before I received the book — Amazon’s product page features “reviews” from people like Zach Galifianakis, Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler and Ben Stiller:
“Showalter is a comic genius. This is, cover to cover, the funniest book I’ve ever read!” (Dear Mike, Haven’t had time to check it out yet. Do you want to just write a quote and put my name on it? Best, Ben) — Ben Stiller
The list of books that I would describe as “laugh out loud funny” is extremely short, and Mr. Funny Pants is easily at the top of that list.
Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman. I have a enduring fascination with cults and religious sects (even “popular” religions like Mormonism), so picking up this book was a no-brainer. Before reading Inside Scientology, I had at best a vague understanding of what Scientology is (come on — everyone knows about Tom Cruise), and reading through it left me nothing but terrified. From Scientology’s bizarre and eccentric founding father, L. Ron Hubbard, to it’s unusual recruitment methods, sci-fi theology, and us-against-the-world ethos, Reitman — in true journalistic form — leaves no stone unturned or unscrutinized. The most terrifying section of the book, however, dealt in detail with the death of Lisa McPherson, a Scientologist who died at the hands of fellow Scientologists and the ensuing legal battles over who was to blame about her death. Seriously scary stuff.
Most Disappointing Book
Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway. This past June I had the opportunity to spend two weeks in Tanzania with two students from church, and so naturally I brought along some books to read during the 15+ hour plane flights. It’s possible that my expectations for this book were too high or that I had romanticized the notion of Hemingway+Africa too much, but this book sucked. It’s essentially 200 pages of self-indulgent hunting play-by-play with maybe one or two interesting sections total. Green Hills of Africa is the only Hemingway I’ve ever read, so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But you couldn’t possibly force me to read this ridiculous excuse of a book ever again.
The Complete List
- Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
- Booked to Die: A Mystery Introducing Cliff Janeway by John Dunning
- The Bookman’s Wake by John Dunning
- Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman
- The Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliott
- Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway
- Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
- The Hypnotist: A Novel by Lars Kepler
- The Visible Man: A Novel by Chuck Klosterman
- The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
- The Postmortal: A Novel by Drew Magary
- The Mystery of the Child by Martin E. Marty
- Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall
- Cloud Atlas: A Novel by David Mitchell
- The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel by David Mitchell
- The Night Circus by Emily Morgenstern
- The Imperfectionists: A Novel by Tom Rachman
- Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman
- Mr. Funny Pants by Michael Showalter
- The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
- Before I Go To Sleep: A Novel by S. J. Watson
There were several books I started this year that I haven’t gotten around to finishing for various reasons — lack of interest, ADD (“Look, a new book!”), etc. These books include (stopping point in parentheses): Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (p. 278), The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace (p. 128), 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles Mann (p. 32), and 1Q84 (“kyew-teen-eighty-four”) by Haruki Murakami (p.352).
(N.B. Page count stats include unfinished books.)
Total pages read (compiled using the page count on Amazon’s product pages): 8549
Total pages read, adjusted for accuracy (i.e., subtracting 15% from the total page count to account for endnotes, etc. that are included in the total page count, but aren’t actually read): 7267
Average number of pages read per day: 19.9 (Not quite thirty pages per day, but not bad, either.)
Average number of days per completed book: 17.4
Estimated books purchased to books read ratio: 2.5:1
Fiction vs. Non-fiction
Books read per year
Physical books read vs. e-books read
(And Finally) Most Anticipated Book of 2012
A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava. Originally self-published in 2008, this book is being re-released by the University of Chicago Press in May 2012 (You can still find copies if you’re willing to pay $150-200). My anticipation of this book stems entirely from this review from The Quarterly Conversation (which I suggest reading in full):
A Naked Singularity [is] a postmodern, re-envisioned, linguistic assault on the standard crime/heist/legal thriller… It’s very good—one of the best and most original novels of the decade. It’s one of those fantastic, big, messy books like Darconville’s Cat or Infinite Jest or Women and Men, though it’s not really like any of those books or those writers.
Sign me up.