What I’ve Been Reading (Non-Football)
I read some about football. I read more about other things. I told you about the football books I read the first quarter of 2014. Now I will tell you about the more interesting of the other books I read, but not about the uninteresting ones.
I finally slogged my way through all of Infinite Jest. Despite some absolutely brilliant passages, my final verdict ended up pretty similar to the reaction I had about 50 pages into the book, namely that I got how smart David Foster Wallace was, so there was no need for him to keep showing over and over just how smart he was. I would also be more impressed with the unusual, non-chronological order if he actually wrote the book that way, which I kind of doubt. I don’t regret having read it, but good editing could have made it a much more palatable book for me.
Stuart Goldman’s Nomonhan, 1939 is a nice concise book of a little-known but perhaps very important part of twentieth century history, namely the Japanese-Soviet clashes in Mongolia leading up to the titular August 1939 battle (called Khalkin Gol by the Soviets). Adadpted from Goldman’s master’s thesis, I believe, so perhaps a touch dry for some readers, but I liked it.
I read Candide my junior year of high school and enjoyed it, but was curious about how it held up. With a free Kindle version of reasonable quality, that was easy enough to check. The footnotes helped me catch some of the eighteenth century references I would have missed otherwise, and I found I still enjoyed Voltaire’s dark satire.
If I had to pick a word to describe Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, it would be “twee.” That I read it the same month I finished Infinite Jest probably did not help; Wallace’s aggravation was at times brilliant and very funny. Hamid never reached the same heights for me. I can see why people liked this book, but I concur heartily with the Amazon reviewer who called it “too contrived for its own good.”
Reading a book you have seen other people describe as their favorite or one of their favorites is an interesting exercise. Some books, notably Catcher in the Rye, made me really wonder what about the time and place and mental state in which they read the book. Others are actually good. In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson takes some potentially great material, namely the history of science, and produced a fantastically entertaining book with it. I read the first hardcover edition, which unsurprisingly has some scientific errors that made it through the editing process. I recommend picking up a later edition, as I’d assume most of those were corrected.
Robert Coram’s Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War is another book I’ve seen on other people’s favorites shortlist. It’s easy to see why, as I found it a very engaging example of that classic tale, the genius who fought against the system. Boyd’s Energy-Maneuverability Theory, which I understand systematized and quantitized what had previously been analyzed largely through anecdata, is even a useful example for us analytics types. Unfortunately, the book is as much hagiography as biography, though. In Coram’s telling, Boyd has personal flaws, but not professional ones. I would read more of an academic, rather than journalistic, explication of Boyd’s work, which I’m sure is out there.
I have enjoyed several of P.J. O’Rourke’s prior books. His latest, The Baby Boom, started off reasonably amusing, but I rarely even chuckled over the last half-plus of the book. Members of the Baby Boom generation may find it more to their liking. I recommend his conversation with Dave Barry and Eat the Rich, plus On the Wealth of Nations as an alternative to reading Smith’s masterwork (which I have not done).
Persuasion was the latest stop in my extremely slow read of Jane Austen’s works. It was pretty straightforward and predictable, but I liked it. Not as much as Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, but more than Emma.
I enjoyed Eric Jager’s Blood Royal, on the assassination of Louis of Orleans in 1407. The denouement is less satisfying than that I remember from his The Last Duel, but that’s history and the way of the powerful in Middle Ages France for you (and other times and places, but this is not the time and place for that conversation).
My recent non-football acquisitions of note included Tim Blanning’s The Romantic Revolution and Adam Zamoyski’s Rites of Peace. The first couple weeks of April has left me in a bit of a light fiction rut. Once I get out of that, I will get to those and other related reads. Plus, maybe I will actually get to War and Peace.