I only read 26 books in 2011, but on the plus side, this year had the highest overall quality of any year yet–by far the most perfect tens. And in my own defense, some of these were pretty long. Mostly, this makes me realize how little I’ve blogged about my reading this year–I used to write more reviews. I’ll try to do better.
This year I read in entirety some books I’d only picked away at in part before (Bleak House, Zen), and some that have been on my to-do list for years (Flatland, Neverwhere, Speaker). Before this year, I’d read Shakespeare’s Henry V, so I wanted to read the rest of the Henriad tetralogy–Richard II, and Henry IV, I and II. Time well spent.
As with the movies, there was a sharp drop off at the end of August, when school started. The last four months have really been quite demanding. Hopefully this Spring semester will be a little easier.
1. Richard II, William Shakespeare (2/5, drama, literature)–10 As good as any of the tragedies, a study in self-magnified flaws leading to ruin.
2. Bleak House, Charles Dickens (3/9, literature)–10 A tour de force of detective mystery, atmosphere and style, four dimensional characters, and withering social commentary (every law school student should be required to read chapter 1, at least). Also, spontaneous human combution. Seriously. I’ve wanted to read this since PBS first aired the Masterpiece Theater serial in 2005 which, now that I’ve finally finished reading the book, I really need to see.
3. Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus (3/12, drama, literature)–10 Surprising how compelling a story can be where there is literally no action–the protagonist is chained to a rock, center stage, the whole time. And yet it works.
4. Teacher Man, Frank McCourt (3/19, memoir)–8 This was a gift from a student’s mother a couple of years ago. It was enjoyable, and I often related, but…Angela’s Ashes was still better.
5. Henry IV, Part I, William Shakespeare (4/4, drama, literature)–10 Perfect portrait of contrasts.
6. The Clouds, Aristophanes (4/18, drama, comedy)–9
7. The Revolution, Ron Paul (4/21, politics)–8 Worthwhile ideas to consider, but often poorly articulated, as in foreign policy. Best point was this: both parties seek to augment power for their own ends, as if the other party won’t ever get to use that same power for their own ends, and augment it further. A scary cycle. Very good point.
8. A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin (5/7, fantasy)–10
9. Everyman, Philip Roth (5/25, literature)–8 Excellent, but not as good as it could have been–the insights, such as they were, were pretty pedestrian. Sorry to be a prude, but some of the sex seemed needlessly excessive, too. Still, very worthwhile.
10. Seize the Day, Saul Bellow (5/28, literature)–7 Very surprised this was only a seven. I love Bellow, but this “slice of life epiphany” story wasn’t even as good as Roth’s.
11. Carry On, Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse (6/14, humor)–10
12. The Secret Knowledge, David Mamet (6/20, politics)–10
13. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein (6/28, science fiction)–8 The first of two ideas-instead-of-action sci-fi classics I read this year (Speaker was the other). Very clever libertarian exegesis, and I learned a lot about organizing underground cells in a rebellion. The computer seemed too conveniently perfect, though. The weight training required to return to Earth was a nice touch.
14. The Alchemist, Paolo Coelho (6/31, fiction)–6 Almost worthwhile, but the ideas were so bland that it could have been a feel-good episode of Oprah.
15. Henry IV, Part II, William Shakespeare (7/7, drama, literature)–8 Still very good, but after Richard II and Henry IV, Part I, this was a little weaker.
16. Noble House, James Clavell (7/14, fiction)–10
17. Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor (7/19, literature)–9 Nobody does dark Southern gothic better, with religious overtones that are harder to find today. Religion and violence? Sign me up.
18. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig (8/6, literature / philosophy)–8 I liked how the ideas were organized very smoothly over the course of the narrative, and how the simple style never got in the way. Sometimes stories that exist solely as a soapbox get on my nerves, but this one worked out quite well. I admit, some of the ideas towards the end went a little over my head, but it’s hard not to like the narrator and his journey in all its dimensions–physical, social, emotional, and mental. A thinking man’s Catcher in the Rye, perhaps?
19. Flatland, Edwin Abbott (8/9, science fiction/satire)–10 Yes, this is great satire, but the sheer inventiveness of this world is impossible to resist. Charming!
20. The Iliad, Homer, Robert Fagles trans. (9/11, poetry, literature)–9 Achilles is really quite a jerk, isn’t he?
21. Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman (10/22, fantasy / horror)–8 Cute. Reminded me of Clive Barker’s Thief of Always.
22. Foretold and Found, B. Keith Christensen (10/27, religion)–5 The only true dud of the whole year. I’ve tried writing a review of all its weaknesses, but I can’t finish–it just irritates me. The worst part is, some of the ideas may have some merit, but it’s too hard to tell for sure. A sloppy waste of time.
23. Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card (11/26, science fiction)–9 My favorite part was the whole murder mystery aspect. Detective Ender is on the case!
24. Truth Barriers, Tomas Transtromer (12/2, poetry)–8
25. Jesus the Christ, James E. Talmage (12/19, religion)–8 I need to write a whole post about this, but in short: while very useful and often engaging, this text–which celebrates its centennial in just a few more years–is outdated and needs to be replaced. I’d like to make the case that Jeffrey R. Holland should write a new, standard, one-volume comprehensive biography of Christ.
26. Born to Run, Christopher McDougall (12/23, memoir, sports, living well)–10 This book will have a huge effect on how I live next year. All of you runners, go out and get this, and read chapter 25 right now.