Reading and Thinking Football

Football, including books thereon and idiosyncratic thinking thereabout

What I’ve Been Reading (Non-Football)

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Pardon the delayed nature of this post-I did the football update at the end of the calendar quarter, when I planned to do this post, then life intervened and I forgot to do this. This installment covers the books I finished in the final calendar quarter of 2013 I feel like discussing here, plus includes my 2013 favorites.

October through December was not a particularly productive reading period for me. In fact, it saw the fewest number of books I finished in a quarter since the first quarter of 2010. I managed to finish only one of the long novels I mentioned in my third quarter update, Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. Shamefully, I had pre-ordered the hardcover and yet never read it, with my earlier reading attempts deterred by the invented vocabulary. I finally made a considered effort to power through the learning curve necessary to get into the book. Once I did, I fell in love with it and made it through the 900 pages in a couple days. As with most particularly long novels, there’s a lot going on. A look at the intellectual acknowledgments page confirms this, with mathematical physics, quantum mechanics, and cognition among the areas noted. Not for everybody, but I loved it.

Significantly less difficult to get into was Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, though I suspect I would have gotten more out of it had I (a) read Hamlet in the past decade or (b) seen a live version in addition to reading the printed version. I still liked it, but I finished it feeling like I didn’t get as much out of it as I should have.

I kept waiting for Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth to abandon its potboiler status and become more of a serious novel of the literate popular fiction type. That did not happen. Were books like Eye of the Needle that much better, or was I simply that much less discerning of a reader? Probably mostly column B.

Lolita was my second Vladimir Nabokov novel, after Pale Fire, which I found quite funny at times but was mostly nonplussed by. My basic problems with Lolita were two-fold. First, I never once got over the squick factor. Three hundred-odd pages, every one of them giving me the squick feeling. Second, while the prose is well-crafted, prose without a storyline that engaged me leaves me as cold and dry as the Antarctic, and Lolita‘s story, such as it is, never once made me want to flip to the next page.

There is a fun conceit in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, and a swift pace and moderate length carried me through the rest of the book, but it ended up feeling like empty calories with an ending that didn’t make sense once I thought about it for 30 seconds. Bonus: Due to a firm sense of time and place, there’s a reasonable or better chance it will be unreadable by 2017 at the latest.

As I look back over this list of semi-notable books, all novels, I note my non-fiction reading of the quarter was concentrated on football and sport-related subjects, all of which I covered in my football update. This quarter will be different-I’ve already finished one non-sport non-fiction book more enjoyable than any such book I read last quarter 2013, and I have others on the to-read list. I have also finished Infinite Jest and may actually begin War and Peace after the Super Bowl.

Best of 2013

Brief notes, also noted in my 2012 end of year review: I try to read a balance of fiction and non-fiction. 2013 was precisely balanced, finishing the same number of fiction and non-fiction works. For my fiction reads, I tend to prefer plot-heavy narratives. Beyond minimums, literary quality is a plus but not a priority. Genre is ok-unlike some of Stephenson’s other works, Anathem is firmly, clearly, and obviously a work of science fiction. For the most part, the fiction I read suffices and clears my palate for my other reads, with few of my choices reaching or even aspiring to particularly high heights. Anathem is a clear choice as my favorite and the most interesting novel I read in 2013. Red Plenty by Francis Spufford came in second.

One of the reasons I unintentionally ended up procrastinating on this post is I had trouble coming up with a shortlist of great books I unhesitatingly recommend. There were plenty of works that came close, none of which exactly fit the bill for one reason or another. Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty was probably the best, but wasn’t quite as great as I thought it would be. The effect of the South Sea bubble on the characterization of English public debt in John Brewer’s Sinews of Power might have been the most amazing thing I read in 2013, but the book is not of sufficient general interest. Furies: War in Europe, 1450-1700 by Lauro Martines is a book I keep thinking about, always a good sign, but is better off as a complementary work. As I noted in my review, most of John Darwin’s Unfinished Empire is not strong enough conceptually for me. Objectively, perhaps Jean Edward Smith’s Grant was better than Empire of Liberty, but it never captivated me in the right way. The last two volumes of Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy, Day of Battle and The Guns at Last Light, were both quite good and probably belong in the top four with Smith and Wood. Tack on Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome, even though it was an awful slog at times, and that’s a reasonable top five. Certainly not a bad year, reading-wise, but the peaks just didn’t hit the right levels for me.

Aside from, of course, Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, my favorite football reads of the year were Dan Daly’s National Forgotten League and John Sayle Watterson’s College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy. Honorable mention to David Epstein’s The Sports Gene, not football but good enough I thought of it among the best books I read this year. The worst book I finished this year was probably the sloppiest of Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp novels, a series I finished out of sheer inertia and an ultimately futile hope they would at least achieve “late career but before he stopped actually doing the writing” Tom Clancy levels of craftsmanship. I only gave up on six books, half as many as in 2012, so I did not feel like I gave up on any particularly good books. You should still read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow if you have not already done so.

As always, de gustibus non est disputandum.

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Written by Tom Gower

January 12, 2014 at 11:32

One Response

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  1. […] over the list of books I finished this year, it was like 2013 in that there was no single book that stands out as my clear-cut favorite of the year. Rather, […]


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