I pretended like I was going to keep up with quarterly reviews. But I put off doing one for the first quarter of 2017, hoping I’d read things I wanted to talk about more in April, then didn’t get that reading done then. Fortunately, May gave me some things to talk about, if only I could figure out how I wanted to talk about them. I then wrote a draft of this post, only to decide it was way, way more 2017 than I wanted to publish. I re-wrote it, and it went from way, way too 2017 to simply way too 2017. Back to the drawing board again, and here you go.
So, what have I read? An awful lot of genre fiction, with months devoted to binge-reading. February: the mystery novels of Robert Crais. The early ones hew to the formula, the later ones suggest Crais got bored with writing the same book around the time I got bored with reading the same book. May: fantasy novelist Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings novels, particularly re-reading Farseer and Tawny Man in preparation for the recently-concluded Fitz and the Fool (it’s fantasy, so those are trilogies).
Non-genre fiction, or that which might be of interest to non-genre readers? As a historical novel, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall avoids the typical literary fiction complaint of nothing happening. Protagonist Thomas Cromwell had a bad historical reputation, but political fixer was an especially important job in a pre-modern state. Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology reminded me of the virtues of a ratiocinative mechanistic universe over a polytheistic pantheon. Also, some of my read of it overlapped with my Hobb re-read, and the Norse gods had comparatively no depth. I also re-read Pride and Prejudice in preparation for watching the acclaimed BBC mini-series (still haven’t done that), and enjoyed it nearly as much as I did the first time. Question for Austen-ites: what would a 21st century Mr. Bennet be doing to fill his days?
I did read a couple of books about football. Jeff Pearlman’s Gunslinger covered Brett Favre more comprehensively and in a more satisfying way than the Football Life episode on him did.
Jerry Barca’s Big Blue Wrecking Crew, about the 1986 New York Giants, remembered one thing I like to emphasize and re-emphasize to myself: what happened in the games is what was in some sense really real. What we are doing as writers, him there and me now as I write about the Jaguars and Titans for Football Outsiders Almanac 2017 (forthcoming in July), is condensing, expressing, and rendering stories about what happened there. Yes, it’s much harder to focus strictly on game action for a book like Pearlman’s, but that should always be the focus unless there’s a compelling reason for it not to be. Barca’s work doesn’t transcend the genre, but is a fine exemplar of it.
I also finished Bill Connelly’s The 50 Best* College Football Teams of All Time, which worked perfectly as a lunchtime read, where I could bite off a chapter or three at a time over a long period of time.
Ben Macintyre’s Rogue Heroes on the SAS during World War II is strongest on the SAS in the desert, when David Stirling was getting going. The more back-and-forth campaign, and the problems of starting up a new unit, lets the SAS be more interesting than it was in Europe, especially France after D-Day.
I really enjoyed Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog and The Hard Thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz when I read them; people who, like them and unlike me, actually run things and really manage other people should also enjoy them and will find them of more lasting value than I did.
Angus Deaton’s The Great Escape is a great book on how life, as a whole, has improved for most people. I noted on Twitter one of the more surprising things; that in Britain in the 19th century, life expectancy was greater at age 15 than it was at birth. Childhood mortality was an extremely serious problem not that long ago, even in the most advanced countries. Not as a breezy as your standard pop econ book, but still extremely accessible and not political.
I previously noted Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World; he returned to the Mongol world with Genghis Khan and the Quest for God. The thing about this is how … ecumenical the Mongols were. The Romans considered themselves pretty expansive and accommodating to other religions, letting other people keep their gods as long as they put the Roman gods above them. Obviously, this turned out to be an occasional issue with the Abrahamic religions (I refer here, obviously, to the “classic” broader Roman regime, not the later empire post-Constantine). The Mongols were apparently content to just exist at the top of the power structure and let the locals keep their silly religions as long as it didn’t pose the Mongols any problems.
Speaking of the Romans, there are some really good passages in Adrian Goldsworthy’s Pax Romana about what the Roman empire enabled due to its large geographic area of control. Getting to them requires processing a lot of material. Was it worth it? I think so, but I cannot recommend this more broadly.
In Mark Kurlansky’s Cod, he refers to some shooting between U.S. and Canadian ships in a 1970’s fight over fishing grounds as the first U.S.-Canadian shots since the French and Indian War. This neglects such minor details as the War of 1812 when THE UNITED STATES INVADED CANADA AND BURNED ITS CAPITAL CITY OF YORK (Toronto). It also neglects a minor detail such as the American Revolution when THE UNITED STATES ALSO INVADED CANADA, CAPTURED MONTREAL, AND BESIEGED QUEBEC. I only got to this point in the book because I was sufficiently amused by his previous insane claims and wanted to see what nutty thing he’d claim next. Recommended to those who delight in finding absurd claims in works of “non-fiction” and those in need of kindling.
My favorite non-fiction read to date has been Dreamland by Sam Quinones, a great and fascinating look at the opioid crisis, pill mills, and the transition to heroin delivery. More interesting on the economics of that drug cartel than Narconomics, and there’s a lot more to it than that. Very much worth a longer consideration in a different project.
Fine, the world of 2017. An Extraordinary Time by Marc Levinson gets a spot on the syllabus. Tyler Cowen’s The Complacent Class does as well, though not as big a one. Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise is fine for what it is, but gets listed under further reading. Dan Drezner’s The Ideas Industry I found better grounded and probably gets a space on the (entirely hypothetical) syllabus. I did not experience any of the four as a political book, though each obviously touches on some areas subject to intense partisan disagreement.
It probably says something about me and where I am as a sports fan that what I wanted more out of Jonathan Abrams’ Boys Among Men, on the NBA’s preps to pro era, was an in-depth look at just how aging curves worked for generally younger teenagers entering the NBA directly from high school compared to older college students. The NBA obviously has a logic all its own, in what it takes to win a championship and clearly that’s reflected in the draft itself.
Things to Read
Success: I finished off every physical book I ordered from Amazon in 2016. Still plenty of books from years prior to then to read, and a half dozen books from this year are on the “owned and unread” list. I’ll discuss most of those if and when I read them, but will note in progress right now is Jared Rubin’s Rulers, Religion & Riches. The unread list still includes, among other titles, Peter Wilson’s The Thirty Years War, Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon, Ron Chernow’s Washington (though my younger niece was happy to listen to some of it on a recent vacation after I finished off Berenstain Bears No Girls Allowed), and, yes, War and Peace. You should still read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (paperback down to just $8.95) if you have not yet done so, and, of course, de gustibus non est disputandum.