Friday, March 9, 2012

2011 Book of the Year

In the last few weeks of 2011, I suffered a catastrophic hard drive crash that wiped out several years of my data; it was especially hard because, since I had generally been so diligent about backing up my information and transferring it from one computer to another, I had lots of data to lose. This is part of the reason posting has been light the last few months; the other is that I started grad school in January. So I've been quite busy. Much of my data that I still have is stuff that I've posted or saved online in various formats, though, which should itself be incentive to post more often.

Anyway: back when I lived in Japan and New York, I had gotten in the habit of reading on the train or subway; it's an hour or more with nothing else to do but sit, so it's a great time to knock out some reading. But after returning to Kentucky, I discovered that we have few to no subways here. With my most common venue for recreational reading gone, and the Internet always beckoning, I partially fell out of the habit of reading actual books.

Sometime in late 2010, I hit upon the idea of making a list of each book I read as I read it. And indeed, this led to dramatically increasing the number of books I read over the year. One of the things I lost in the hard drive crash is the detailed list of every book I completed in 2011. However, since I bought most of these books and kept them together, I remember most of the list.

From these, I'm nominating a couple of books to recommend. My "Book of the Year" is a pretty idiosyncratic "award": It's not a book that came out in 2011, just one I happened to read for the first time; it's maybe not the best book I read, just one that some folks might enjoy or draw from insight from. The nominations are pretty heavy on non-fiction, since most of the fiction was stuff I re-read: Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, Fritz Leiber's pre-1971 Nehwon books. Here are the runner-ups:
  • Linguist Arika Okrent 's "In the Land of Invented Languages" both overviews a history of constructed languages and recounts her experiences interacting with the communities that have formed around languages such as Esperanto, Lojban, and Klingon. It's an interesting popular history of philosophical and linguistic follies, and pretty funny in places, as when she's interacting with the Klingonists.

  • Piers Vitebsky's "The Reindeer People" probably has a limited appeal, although it's fascinating if you're interested in Siberian anthropology, or the beliefs and cultural history of Tungusic reindeer pastoralists in the Russian Far East, from the Soviet through the post-Soviet era. Read an excerpt at NPR.

  • I don't know how I managed to go so long without reading James McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom", a one-volume history of the American Civil War. It's been about a decade and a half since I've read any of his books, and picked this up to review for the sesquicentennial. McPherson's writing is wonderful: even over 900 pages, it's concise, fresh, and insightful.

  • Journalist Joshua Foer's "Moonwalking with Einstein" details his experiences preparing for and competing in the U.S. Memory Championships, using classical palace-of-memory techniques, and discussing the neurological underpinnings of memory, synesthesia, and similar interesting topics: wacky and amazing. Read some excerpts at Time and at the New York Times Magazine.

  • Michael Chabon's novel "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" took me about 100 pages to get into the rhythm of, but it's a fascinating instance of worldbuilding. The novel originates from the 1997 essay "A Yiddish Pale Fire", available at the Internet Archive, discussing a Yiddish phrasebook he found in a chain bookstore.

  • Matthew Kapstein's "The Tibetans" surveys the cultural, social, and political history of Tibet from the early centuries of the Common Era to the beginning of the 20th century. Tibetan history since the 1940s is well known, but it's much more difficult to find an overview of the socioeconomic history of Tibet in the 18th century and earlier. Contemporary rationalization of the Chinese takeover often refers to the tyrannical and exploitative governance in the monastic era. Among the things that Kapstein describes is the interweaving of monastic organizations and aristocratic families in a preindustrial agricultural society. Retiring to a monastery allowed aristocratic leaders to forestall succession crises while maintaining influence, and allied monasteries could provide bureaucratic and manpower support to local authorities; monasteries could also be significant landowners, IIRC. But the Tibetan state was very fragile and weak, and Chinese troops stationed in Tibet at great distance from Beijing had a great deal of autonomy. A thumbnail does Kapstein's arguments little justice; this is a dense work surveying a long period of complex history.
But my 2011 book of the year is Manly Wade Wellman's "Who Fears the Devil? The Complete Silver John", an anthology of fantasies and short stories set in postwar Appalachia. Wellman was one the few pulp writers of the mid-20th century nominated for a Pulitzer, and the Silver John tales are Americana fantasy at its best.

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