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 in the fourth quarter of 2014. Now I will tell you about some of the more interesting of the other books I read in that quarter, but not about the uninteresting ones or the ones I don’t feel like discussing. Since that was the final quarter of 2014, this post will also cover my favorite books of 2014.

For the third consecutive year, the fourth quarter, featuring three months of the NFL season, was the least productive quarter of the year in terms of number of books read. Of course, twenty five books, fourteen novels and eleven works of non-fiction, was still a respectable total.

I am still pretending to read War and Peace, which still consists of it sitting on my coffee table while I occasionally look at it and think about reading it, rather than actually reading it. On the fiction front, I continued to progress, in my normal Kindle fits and starts, through George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series and am currently part of the way through A Storm of Swords, the fourth book in the series. Reading James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet was enough to cure me of any further desire to read Ellroy; the changes made from the book to the film version of L.A. Confidential were quite judicious and made for a more satisfying experience.

Once you take out the six football reads, that leaves just five non-fiction books in three months-not many. But the minimum quality of those works was quite high. Hampton Sides’ In the Kingdom of Ice was a fascinating tale of Arctic survival (or non-survival). Plus, it’s an excuse to link to this fascinating post on Robert Falcon Scott’s failed Antarctic expedition and scurvy.

Did I spend the entire time reading How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor geeking out about Star Wars? Is that really the sort of thing I want to admit? To the former, well, yeah. To the latter, well, I’ve previous acknowledged on the Internet I was four when Return of the Jedi came out, and Return of the Jedi in 1983 to me was, is, and always will be the greatest movie of all time, which would’ve probably answered the former question for you. Is it still an enjoyable book without such geeking out? Quite possibly, but all I can tell you is I found this an interesting and satisfying read on a subject I was interested in reading about.

I generally avoid reading business books unless I feel an obligation to do so; like self-help books in general, they range from immensely valuable to completely worthless, with a very large degree of YMMV and almost all for me falling in the latter category. Popular business books in particular I rarely find satisfying because many feel like a gem of an idea that could be expressed well in a medium or short essay padded into book size. Maybe it’s just because I know of the much larger lectures they were based on, but Peter Thiel’s Zero to One was a big exception to that general rule. It really felt like a condensation of much larger ideas, and a book that could’ve been five hundred large pages into of two hundred slim ones; that I would’ve preferred the larger product did not mean that I did not enjoy reading Zero to One. Instead, it means I should really go and actually read and think about those lecture notes. On Thiel’s ideas and points of view on various subjects, I’ll simply note I find him a very interesting thinker worthy of reading and considering and leave it at that in this forum.

That I have a bit of a weakness for well-done books about innovation definitely aided in my enjoyment of Steven Johnson’s How We Got to Now, but there was more to it than that. Johnson remains an engaging writer and effective popularizer, and this was probably my favorite of his books. Most importantly, the inventions he told were not stories that feel like they have been over-told, at least in my reading experience. Very enjoyable book. (For the curious, I have Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators on hold at the local library and should get to it at some point in the first quarter of 2015.)

That Dan Jones’ The War of the Roses was probably the weakest non-football work of non-fiction book I read in the final quarter does not mean it was a bad book. I did feel at times there was an element of that standard history critique, of “One damned thing after another,” but (a) history is made up of actual events, and (b) books that avoid that by finding the right balance between conceptualization and events are the standouts that draw superlatives, not the norm. I was looking for a solid overview of a period of history I didn’t know much about, and this book provided exactly that.

Since I keep trying to read down the stock of unread books before buying new ones, there were no major acquisitions I have no read; my only acquired books were things like Bruce Feldman’s The QB that I already read or cheap Kindle deals and library remainder sales (James Gleick’s Chaos for $1? Sure!).

Best of 2014
Brief overview notes, also noted in my past end-of-year reviews: I try to read a balance of fiction and non-fiction. 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. For the most part, the fiction I read suffices and clears my palate for other reads, with few of my choices reaching or even aspiring to particularly high heights. Andy Weir’s The Martian has drawn a lot of praise from other people, and I enjoyed it as well, even with some first-novel raggedness. Infinite Jest, though there were long stretches of it I did not particularly enjoy, may well end up my most lasting fiction first read from 2014. Re-reading Neal Stephenson’s Anathem a year and change after I first read it was not the best use of my time, and it remains Not For Everyone, but I found it a more rewarding read the second time around.

Looking 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, there was a long list of books I thought were good and really enjoyed. That included Bill Byron’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, Robert Coram’s Boyd, Tim Blanning’s The Romantic Revolution, Ken Dryden’s The Game, Ian Morris’ War! What Is It Good For?, James Gleick’s Genius, Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb, plus the Thiel and Johnson books from the fourth quarter. Forced to narrow it down to two choices, I would go with the Morris and Gleick, though they did not quite stand out in the way I want books I declare to be the best of a given year to stand out. The longer list is the better one.

Aside from, of course, Football Outsiders Almanac 2014, my favorite football reads of the year included Roy Blount’s About Three Bricks Shy of a Load … and the Load Filled Up, Dave Revsine’s The Opening Kickoff, and Bruce Feldman’s The QB. The worst book I finished might have been Daniel Flynn’s The War on Football, though it was short enough I could speed my way through it and I probably wouldn’t have finished it had been a longer book; I only finished Steve Almond’s Against Football for similar reasons. I gave up on thirteen books, including worthy titles like Robert Gates’ Duty and Martin Meredith’s The Fortunes of Africa (and some unworthy ones as well). 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.


2 thoughts on “What I’ve Been Reading (Non-Football)

  1. Tom – I always look forward to these posts. Everyone has a title I never heard of, or motivation to actually pick up one I had.

    I’ve never heard of How we Got to Now, but I just had a sample sent to my kindle.

    I’m educated as an engineer, worked as a computer scientist until I got my current job at a patent law firm (I am not a lawyer). I’ve read Hayak and Romer and other economists that write or wrote about where ideas come from. I like history. Seems like I might be the target audience.

    First I just need to finish some hilariously bad, but wonderfully entertaining, genre self-published fiction, thus continuing my cycle of reading something that will make me smarter then reading something that will make me happy.

  2. […] For the third straight year, picking my favorite non-fiction read is quite a challenge, and this feels like an even bigger challenge than it was the past two years. Looking over the list, the standouts in my memory include James Whitman’s The Verdict of Battle (though I am somewhat loath to recommend this more broadly), Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, plus the aforementioned Paul Revere’s Ride and Six Frigates. But I’d put all of them a notch below my 2014 favorites. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s