Books of 2009

I haven’t talked much about the books I’ve read recently, and having finished a slew of them recently, I thought I’d take a look back at all the books I’ve read this year. On the whole, there aren’t as many as usual; work, magazines and periodicals, and notably Infinite Jest, really took their toll.


The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World by Lewis Hyde. A beautifully-written book about why people make creative works, how they should be compensated (with reference to gift-based economies in the past), and the sources of inspiration. There was a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert doing the rounds a few months ago about nurturing creativity; it’s pretty good, but if you want to know more about the subject, Lewis Hyde’s book is absolutely the place to go. I finished this book in a couple of weeks, I think.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. An incredible novel that I’ve written about previously and took five weeks of sustained effort to get through. I probably finished this in March.


If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino. When I bought this in June 2008, I got a dozen pages in and developed a headache from the second-person narration and shamefully abandoned the book. My second attempt was much more successful and I came to appreciate the literally mysterious structure. I’ll admit that a few of the chapters dragged for me, but the rest of the book more than made up for it.


Many of these books were read on a four day cruise to Cork, Ireland.

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Much has been written about Taleb’s assertion that people fool themselves into thinking they can accurately predict and/or quantify the chances of extremely rare events occurring (e.g. stock market crashes). Several people have told me they liked the book but can’t stand it because Taleb is so full of himself; I think this is besides the point. He is full of himself, but that doesn’t stop the book from being interesting and entertaining.

I found it irritating that the Guardian condemned David Cameron for talking to Taleb, because of Taleb’s ‘wacky’ views (which were subsequently clarified by Taleb). I’m no die-hard Taleb fan myself – and I’m not a David Cameron fan either – but I think Taleb has things that politicians would be well-advised to hear, and scare-stories from the Guardian do no-one any good.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace. Much as I enjoyed Infinite Jest, like many others, I absolutely adore DFW’s essays and articles. His essay on television is incredibly foresighted for something written in 1993, although I would have been interested in his opinion of the HBO-style dramas of recent years; his coverage of the Illinois State Fair is wonderfully funny and characteristically introspective. Probably the best essay, which the book was named after, is about his trip on a cruise ship. I’d already read the essay online, but I was happy to re-read it, and I’m sure that I’ll never see the words ‘lapis lazuli’ in the same way ever again… (it also became obvious, from this book, that Neal Stephenson is a massive fan of DFW).

Five Minds for the Future by Howard Gardner. What are the minds (or ‘mindsets’) that are required to succeed and flourish in the information-rich, hyper-competitive, fast-moving, etc, etc, world of the 21st century? Gardner attempts to explain here. This was an interesting book, but not much stuck with me apart from the later sections on the ‘respectful’ mind.

Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by Margaret Atwood. If you’ve ever heard me talking about Margaret Atwood, it is normally about one of two subjects. Firstly, the fact that British people think she’s either British or American. Secondly, the fact that she strenously denies that Oryx and Crake (and the new The Year of the Flood) are not science fiction – which they plainly are – while simultaneously decrying science fiction. Having said that, I have actually read and enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale, and since I have a real interest in economics and history these days, no amount of science-fiction denial was going to get in my way here. Payback was a good look at the history of debt and the way in which it’s been treated and contorted over the centuries, although it ends on a bizarrely hard-line note (which is probably not surprising given the eco-apocalyptic nature of her novels, but there you go).


Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships by Eric Berne. Margaret Atwood mentioned this book in Payback, referring to a game called ‘Debtor’ that people (or an entire nation of people…) can fall into; the debtor is able to play the role of the persecuted as they receive ever-more threatening letters and calls, while the creditor also has a similar satisfaction. The rest of the book covers depressing games such as  ‘See What You Made Me Do’, ‘Why Don’t You – Yes, But’ and the occasionally happy game like ‘Busman’s Holiday’ and ‘Homely Sage’. Many of the book’s lessons are still valuable, although it’s clearly a product of its time (1964) through its diagrams, notation and widespread sexism.

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace. Clearly on a DFW binge by this point, Consider the Lobster edges out A Supposedly… as my favourite book of his collections (unfairly so, because I’d already read the cruise story). The essay about the porn industry is probably one of the most well-known ones, but I much preferred his essays about John McCain’s 2000 campaign and Dostoevesky. I’d already read the essay about rightwing talk radio online (with its breathtakingly interlaced footnotes) and the quiet story about the 9/11 bombings – both of which are excellent.

My favourite, however, was Authority and American Usage. The subject of the essay, Garner’s Modern American Usage (a 1000-page guide on the use of American English) refers to the DFW’s essay as “purportedly a review essay of the first edition of this book”, which puts it rather well – it’s more a essay about the use, teaching, and style of (American) English language usage. DFW grew up in a family of what he self-mockingly calls SNOOTs (either ‘syntax nudnik of our time’ or alternatively ‘Sprachegefuhl necessitates our ongoing tendance’) – i.e. a well-informed language-lover and word connoiseur, someone who “can be definied as someone who knows what dysphemism means and doesn’t mind letting you know it… a fellow SNOOT I know likes to say that listening to most people’s English feels like watching somebody use a Stradivarius to pound nails.”

Maus by Art Spiegelman. This is a rather famous graphic novel about Spielman’s father’s experiences during the Holocaust, with the Jews drawn as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs, etc. It’s a really very good way of appealing to younger audiences and doesn’t at all get in the way of the story. What I found interesting was Spiegelman’s difficulty in writing the book (mentioned in the book itself), which took him 13 years.


Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd Edition) by Bryan Garner. I bought this book based solely on DFW’s ‘purported review’. I was somewhat dubious about the claim that you can actually read this book for fun, but when it arrived, I spent half an hour at work just flipping between the different word-use definitions. If any dictionary is witty, it’s this one – but it’s also probably the premiere authority in the usage of American English in the world (and has plenty of applications for British English). The 3rd Edition has updated entries, new essays at the beginning, and the ‘Language-Change Index’, where each disputed usage falls on a five-stage continuum from nonacceptability to acceptability (to the world as a whole). An entire page is give over to 11 different ways of describing these five stages, from Literal Shorthand References (Rejected, Widely Shunned, Widespread but…, Ubiquitous but…, Fully Accepted), Olfaction Analogy (Foul, Malodorous, Smelly, Vaguely odorous, Neutral) and Moral Analogy (Mortal sin, Capital sin, Venial sin, Peccadillo, Virtue). Yes, it’s weird.

A Tranquil Star: Unpublished Stories by Primo Levi. Primo Levi is most famous for his writings on his time in a concentration camp during the war, but I first encountered him in The New Yorker, who published his short story, A Tranquil Star. I have a guilty confession to make – for all my advocacy of short stories, of the hundreds of issues of The New Yorker that I’ve read (one of the most important publishers of short stories in the world), I’ve read only two, and A Tranquil Star was one of them, mainly because the first line caught my eye:

Once upon a time, somewhere in the universe very far away from here, lived a tranquil star, which moved tranquilly in the immensity of the sky, surrounded by a crowd of tranquil planets about which we have not a thing to report. This star was very big and very hot, and its weight was enormous: and here a reporter’s difficulties begin. We have written “very far,” “big,” “hot,” “enormous”: Australia is very far, an elephant is big and a house is bigger, this morning I had a hot bath, Everest is enormous. It’s clear that something in our lexicon isn’t working.

I had to read this story, and it became one of those stories where, upon finishing, you sit back and just muse happily about the nature of the universe, our place within it, and your own relationships with your friends and family.

For whatever reason, I didn’t read any more of Primo Levi’s stories until I was browsing the Strand bookstore in New York and spotted this collection. Every time I visit the strand I have to buy something, and this (along with the next book) came home with me to England. For me, Levi’s stories stand out because of his perspective – not as a Holocaust survivor, but because he was trained as a chemist. You don’t often get that kind of mind writing these sorts of stories, and it really shows in the way he uses language, in a sort of scientific-fantastic-realist way. This is a short collection, but worth picking up.

Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges. I have long intended to read more Borges’ short stories after reading his ‘The Library of Babel’, and many other authors whose work or style is similar to Borges’ (e.g. Ted Chiang, Stanislaw Lem). At the Strand, I found a single volume that contained all of Borge’s stories. I have only made it through the first third, which comprises A Universal History of Iniquity and Fictions. The former is interesting although rather formulaic, whereas the latter contains many of his most well-known stories including Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, The Garden of Forking Paths, and The Library of Babel. It’s a massive collection of great fiction, and after the first third I had to put it down since I was just getting overloaded.


If This Is a Man/The Truce by Primo Levi. Having enjoyed A Tranquil Star and with the Holocaust on my mind, I decided to read Primo Levi’s first books (which most people think you should read together, since they cover his time in a concentration camp, and then his long trip home). Levi describes his fierce desire, at the time, to remember and recount his experiences so the rest of the world could know what happened, and I think that’s what makes this book compelling – it’s detail and accuracy. But it’s not simply a scientific retelling of the facts – each of the chapters is more like a mini-essay about the people there, and the struggles of humanity. One particular chapter, ‘The Drowned and the Saved’, about the way in which people either struggled to survive, was truly insightful and affecting.

Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson. Ever since I read KSR’s Mars Trilogy, which quite literally changed my life, I have unfailingly bought every single one of new books. Unsurprisingly, none of them have exceeded the impossibly-high bar of my ‘Red Mars’ experience (which is as much a result of my age at the time as anything else), but they’ve all been solid.

Many of KSR’s books have dealt with history and philosophy; the Mars Trilogy notoriously spent hundreds of pages on political philosophy, and The Years of Rice and Salt is an alternate-history novel about a world without Europe, and how it might develop science and something that resembles the Renaissance. Galileo’s Dream is a fictionalised look at Galileo’s development of the telescope, his discovery of the moons of Jupiter, the heliocentric universe, the Copernican heresy, etc – and also sees Galileo being transported to the future to deal with a crisis on the moons he discovered. Pretty weird, yes.

The fact that I preferred the parts of the book set in the 1600s says something about my changing literary tastes, but mostly the quality of the science-fiction sections. I can see why KSR wouldn’t want to spend too much time on the details of the futuristic sections, for fear of detracting from the ‘real’ parts, but I couldn’t make myself care about what happened in the future – those sections were altogether too abstract and dry. By contrast, I thought his treatment of Galileo’s life, work, opinions and circumstances to be excellent – the story of his life is more nuanced than many people (including myself) would have thought, and really very touching. To his credit, KSR seamlessly weaves in translations of actual correspondence and documents from the characters involved, which gives the proceedings a rock-solid foundation. Galileo’s Dream is a great way to learn about the maestro himself.

The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company by David A. Price. I love Pixar’s films – there is something truly special about how they’ve been able to consistently create such popular, successful and meaningful movies, and I really admire what they’ve done. From the outside (and to an extent, the inside – I’ve visited Pixar’s studios twice), the company seems like a well-oiled story machine that has always been perfect and never has any problems. A lot of people put this success down to the fact that Steve Jobs effectively bankrolled the company for ten loss-making years in which, we’re led to believe, they perfect their art. There’s a nugget of truth to this, but David Price reveals that the origins of Pixar are rather more interesting than that, and that Steve Jobs did a lot more than simply open his wallet (for good and bad!).

What really struck me from this book is the way in which Pixar never seemed to give up, despite many, many setbacks (e.g. consistent losses, firing of half the company, shutdown of production on Toy Story, etc.); and how they managed to keep alive their vision of making computer-animated movies even while everyone else just wanted them to sell fast computers. Of course, their success is not just down to persistance – they were possibly the most talented collection of computer graphic programmers in the world, and they had snagged John Lasseter, already an Oscar-winning animator even before he joined Pixar.

This is not an ‘authorised biography’ and so it contains some pretty useful insights, most of which are still very complimentary to the company. The only problem with the book is that it lingers rather too long on technical details that either you don’t care about, or you already know.

Coming up in September

Transition by Iain Banks; Solitude by Anthony Storr, The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman, and The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones.

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