2012: My Year in Books

2012 was by far the worst year of my adult life for total number of books read: I only finished 17 books the whole year; my next worst year was 2001, when I finished 19.  Clearly, I need to tackle my problem with distraction.

Or, in terms of quality over quantity, it wasn’t bad at all: I gave five books a perfect ten for enjoyment; my worst year for that was 2008, which only had 2 perfect tens.

Below is the list, with dates finished, my 1-10 score for much I liked reading it, and either a brief comment or link to my review.


1. Comstock Lode, Louis L’amour (1/18, Western)–7.  Good, but no different from others of his I’ve read.

2. Cloak, James Goff (2/7, fantasy, young adult)–8.

3.  Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (4/6, literature)–10.  I can’t believe I never finished my review of this!  I made some notes: I jotted down my two favorite quotes:

“I always imagine divine mercy giving us back to ourselves and letting us laugh at what we became, laugh at the preposterous disguises of crouch and squint and limp and lour we all do put on.”

“There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”

I also wrote down that I loved her usage of Numbers 6:24-26.

4.  Mozart: His Life and Music, Jeremy Siepmann (4/14, biography)–9.  Innovative biography mixed life story with music appreciation to the benefit of both.

5.  Maphead, Ken Jennings (5/11, memoir, humor)–9.

6.  The Year of Living Biblically, A.J. Jacobs (5/23, memoir, humor, religion)–9.  Fun and genuinely insightful for any reader.  I made a list of especially weird Bible passages he riffed on, and then made those a topic of study.  Truly interesting!

7.  Drop Dead Healthy, A.J. Jacobs (6/22, memoir, humor, health)–8.  Just slightly less “fun and genuinely insightful” than his Bible project.

8.  Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry (7/4, Western)–10.  A majestic, absorbing achievement.  A perfect work at every level.  No further comment is possible or necessary.

9.  Paradise Lost, John Milton (7/16, poetry, literature)–10.  Loved reading this.  Surprised that the general understanding of this work–that it’s the story of the Fall from Satan’s point of view–is very wrong; Adam is clearly the hero here.  My notes for a full review that I never finished included these two quotes:

From book V (angel to Adam):

Son of Heav’n and Earth,
Attend: That thou art happie, owe to God; [ 520 ]
That thou continu’st such, owe to thy self,
That is, to thy obedience; therein stand.
This was that caution giv’n thee; be advis’d.
God made thee perfet, not immutable;
And good he made thee, but to persevere [ 525 ]
He left it in thy power, ordaind thy will
By nature free, not over-rul’d by Fate
Inextricable, or strict necessity;
Our voluntarie service he requires,
Not our necessitated, such with him [ 530 ]
Finds no acceptance, nor can find, for how
Can hearts, not free, be tri’d whether they serve
Willing or no, who will but what they must
By Destinie, and can no other choose?

From book XII:

Whereto thus Adam fatherly displeas’d.
O execrable Son so to aspire
Above his Brethren, to himself assuming [ 65 ]
Authoritie usurpt, from God not giv’n:
He gave us onely over Beast, Fish, Fowl
Dominion absolute; that right we hold
By his donation; but Man over men
He made not Lord; such title to himself [ 70 ]
Reserving, human left from human free.

10. Kayaks Down the Nile, John Goddard (8/9, memoir, travel, adventure)–8.  I’ve always been inspired by Goddard, and I’ve long wanted to finish this.  I had to order a copy off Ebay.  I still want to go back and review how all of his little comments about African politics, people, and society are either still relevant or were prophetic (especially about the Darfur region of Sudan!)  Aside from that, a competently told adventure tale.

11.  Six Easy Pieces, Richard Feynman (8/17, science)–7.

12.  Ashfall, Mike Mullins (9/11, young adult)–8.  An entertaining apocalyptic tale for teens.  Recommended by my 13-year-old son.

13.  Drawing Lessons From the Great Masters, Robert Beverly Hale (11/1, art)–9.

14.  Elric of Melniboné, Michael Moorcock (11/12, fantasy)–10.

15.  One For the Books, Joe Queenan (11/17, memoir, reading, humor)–10.  Another one I can’t believe I never finished reviewing.  His stories of things that can happen with books and bookstores–but not with Kindles–were downright powerful.  His few lame jokes are more than excused by all the great ones.  This book inspired me to read the complete works of James Joyce–in order of composition–this year.  Here are the quotes I copied down:

  • Writers say things I never would have thought of saying, and in a way I would never have thought of saying them. (20)
  • Certain things are perfect the way they are and need no improvement.  The sky, the Pacific Ocean, procreation, and the Goldberg Variations all fit this bill, and so do books.  Books are sublime, but books are also visceral.  They are physically appealing, emotionally evocative objects that constitute a perfect delivery system. (27)
  • The case can be made that it is better to read drivel than to read nothing, on the theory that people will eventually tire of garbage and move on to something more meaty, like trash….Adults do not suddenly tire of reading Nora Roberts and jump up and exclaim, “Screw this crap; by God, I’m going to give Marcus Aurelius a rip!” (51)
  • I suspect that every single book in stock was heartbreaking, that the owner or manager or whoever was in charge deliberately refused to order any cheerful reading material like Little Women or My Friend Flicka because he feared that the store would lose its dyspeptic mojo.  (105)
  • And you will discover, as Samuel Johnson observed, that not all wisdom is to be found in books.  But an awful lot of it is.  (107)
  • Nobody gets to Balzac and Proust without first going through Camus; nobody gets to Moby-Dick without first making the acquaintance of The Old Man and the Sea….It’s possible that minor books can lure readers to major ones, functioning as a cultural Venus flytrap, but crummy books only lead to more crummy books.  There is a direct line from Slaughterhouse-Five to War and Peace, from The Red Pony to The Red and the Black.  Sister Carrie might pave the way for Anna Karenina, but Carrie would only pave the way for Cujo.  (196-197)
  • For me and for all those like me, books are sacred vessels….Books possess alchemical powers, imbued with the ability to turn ennui into ecstasy, a drab, predictable life behind the Iron Curtain into something stealthily euphoric.  (239)

Anyone who can make a phrase like “dyspeptic mojo” is OK in my book.  Mr. Queenan, if I ever met you, I will buy you a drink.

16.  Maigret and the Saturday Caller, Georges Simenon (11/21, mystery)—8. A recommended series from Joe Queenan.  Short and simple, I’ll try a couple others from this series before passing more judgment.  I’d like to set aside a year and just read the books Queenan praised that I’ve never read.

17.  The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce, Derek Attridge, ed. (12/30, lit crit)—8.  Some study to prepare me for my year of reading Joyce, inspired, as noted above, by Queenan.  Thanks, Joe!