I write about this every year, but it is well worth the annual mention. NPR has released its 2019 Book Concierge, and it is delightful as always. If you haven’t checked it out before and you’re a book lover you are in for a treat.
National Public Radio compiles all of the books it has reviewed throughout the year and assigns multiple categories to each. You can then view the books by category. But what is really cool about the book concierge is that you can mix and match categories. For example, you can select Staff Picks and For Music Lovers. Or you can select Book Club Ideas and Historical Fiction. With 369 books in this year’s catalog, that’s a lot reading choices for you.
My favorite category is Seriously Great Writing. What surprised me was how many books in that category I have read this year. Here’s a rundown of the books I’ve read in 2019 that NPR considers Seriously Great Writing.
- The Source of Self Regard by Toni Morrison – To me this was a sort of mixed bag. There are many genres in this collection: essays, speeches, and meditations as the subtitle indicates. I suspect that I might have chosen another Toni Morrison book to find the best of her writing, but as a memorial to someone we just recently lost The Source of Self Regard belongs in this category.
- Horizon by Barry Lopez – Lopez is, after all, the dean of living nature writers and this book is a highly readable account of his sojourns in the last couple of decades.
- The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine – This is an absolutely delightful novel about twins who were born sharing a private language, grew up loving words, and took different paths in their language journey as adults.
- Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino – I listened to the author read her own essays in the audiobook version. If you think think that millennials are not up to standard as generations go, read this book. You will change your mind.
And then there’s:
- Floating Coast by Bathsheba Demuth – I read the prologue of this history of the Bering Strait as a Kindle sample, bought the e-book, got part way through the first chapter and returned it for a refund. There was just too much about how whales and other mammals are killed for survival and for profit in the region. But, yes, the writing is seriously great.
- Nobody’s Looking at You by Janet Malcolm – I read the Kindle sample and decided that the subject matter didn’t interest me. But that’s no reflection on the writing.
Yes, that’s only a handful of books out of eighty-eight, but at least I seem to be making some good choices with regarding to my book reading.
Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (December 6, 2016), 271 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $6.99
Peter Godfrey-Smith comes from the field of philosophy, but he is also a scuba diver who has spent a lot of time in the water with octopuses. (That is the plural he uses. Both Merriam-Webster and American Heritage allow either octopuses or octopi, with the former listed first in both dictionaries.)
As a philosopher Godfrey-Smith is interested in the unique nervous systems of cephalopods, a class that also includes cuttlefish and squid. He is intrigued by how much independence the arms of the cephalopod have, often acting separately from the main cephalopod brain. He writes:
In the octopus’s case there is a conductor, the central brain. But the players it conducts are jazz players, inclined to improvisation, who will accept only so much direction. Or perhaps they are players who receive only rough, general instructions from the conductor, who trusts them to play something that works.
Godfrey-Smith describes how the octopus can behave very badly in captivity, letting its keeper know that it is not happy. In the wild a cephalopod can be wary of strangers, although he also describes leaving a remote camera near a cuttlefish den and discovering that the behavior was mostly unchanged whether or not divers were nearby.
The author does not try to hide his sadness at the fact that the octopus lives a relatively short life: just a few years. He seems to think that such and interesting and complex creature deserves better.
Having read his book I am inclined to agree.
Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do
Plume (January 29, 2013), 250 pages
Kindle edition $10.99, Amazon paperback $10.98
As one who loves reading about writers and writing I found this book absolutely delightful. Meredith Maran asked twenty writers for their reflections on the writing life. The commentaries are arranged alphabetically so as to not inadvertently imply any sort of hierarchy, and Maran includes writers of both bestsellers and literary fiction (with a few nonfiction writers thrown in as well).
Each chapter is structured the same. Maran begins with an excerpt from that author’s work, followed by a generally witty and entertaining introduction. She then provides some biographical information and a complete (as of the 2013 publication date) bibliography of each writer’s works. Next she gives us the writer’s reflections in his or her own words, and concludes with the author’s advice to aspiring writers.
The book is a bit dated, having been published in 2013. For example, Meg Wolitzer was one of the writers included. Her novel The Interestings was one of the most enjoyable and engaging novels I have ever read, but it was published in 2013, the same year as Why We Write, so that novel wasn’t part of Wolitzer’s corpus as listed in her bibliography.
Nonetheless, there is a lot of interesting stuff here. And there are many common threads. Most of the writers offered some version of “I write because I have to” or “I write because I don’t know anything else.” With respect to advice, there were a number of variations of both “If you want to write well do a lot of reading“ and “If you want to write then keep writing. Don’t worry about whether you get published.”
That last bit of advice provides me with the impetus to keep on blogging. It’s time for me to get back to writing my blog more frequently.
No Time to Spare
Ursula K. Le Guin
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, December 5, 2017
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $8.99
I have long been familiar with Ursula Le Guin. I read her Earthsea Trilogy (when it was still only a trilogy) during my year in exile in Laredo, Texas, 1977-78. I was interested to learn, then, that she maintained a blog from roughly 2010 to 2014. I’m sorry that I wasn’t aware of it when it was live, but I was happy that some of the entries were compiled in this volume.
I initially thought that the title meant that there is too much work to be done, so there is no time to spare, but early in the book Le Guin says that there is no time to spare because of her advanced age.
Le Guin covers the waterfront in this compilation. She writes about her rustic house in Oregon. She writes about her correspondences from fans, about feminism, politics, and society, and about attending concerts. In several entries she tells us about her feisty cat, Pard. When she feels strongly about something she does not mince words. We know where she stands.
I read No Time to Spare on my iPhone 8. I had a Kindle app on my old iPhone 5s, but the screen was simply too small to be practical for that purpose. The iPhone 8 screen is large enough to make a book readable. I wouldn’t recommend War and Peace, but a short book of essays like this one makes for enjoyable reading wherever I might be.
Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us
Narrated by John Lee
Random House Audio, April 16, 2019
$17.15 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit
As a classics major in college I took a semester-long Greek Tragedy course and read Greek tragedies in other classes as well. I was intrigued, then, when I read a positive review of this book.
Critchley offers some interesting insights here. He points out that in Greek tragedy the deceiver and the deceived have more insight than the non-deceiver and the non-deceived (Oedipus). He discusses how women in Greek tragedy are the polar opposite of how they were treated and expected to behave in classical Greek society (Clytemnestra, Antigone). Critchley is no elderly, doddering classicist. He makes references to social media, punk rock, and the Marx brothers. He sees Greek tragedy in the light of today’s world.
The author discusses how Greek tragedy was influenced (apparently) by the Sophists, and spends a lot of time analyzing Plato and Aristotle’s perspectives on tragedy. Plato saw no role for tragedy (or poetry) in his “just state” as set forth in The Republic. Such diversions would, Plato believed, take men’s (and only men in classical Greek society) minds away from more essential pursuits. Aristotle, on the other hand, analyzed tragedy in considerable detail and discussed what tragedy should and should not be.
The book is expertly read by John Lee, who does so in a rather declamatory manner, appropriate for both the subject matter and Critchley’s text. This was time well spent.
The Dictionary Wars: The American Fight over the English Language
Princeton University Press (May 28, 2019)
Kindle edition $9.88, Amazon Hardcover $19.03
Noah Webster is known, obviously, for his dictionary of American English. He was, however, not a skilled lexicographer, he was rather thin-skinned, and inserted his religious and moral beliefs into his dictionary entries. The Dictionary Wars describes this complex man and his lexicographical legacy.
It turns out that Webster was highly inconsistent in his original dictionary and was really bad at etymology. He also had some odd ideas about Americanizing spelling to distinguish American English from British. Some of his reforms caught on (“theater” rather than “theatre”), but many of his proposals were just weird, and were reversed in later editions.
The dictionary process became quite the family affair as he recruited his sons-in-law to assist in revisions and abridgements (he had three daughters). All of this was rather interesting, but the descriptions of ongoing battles after Webster’s death over ownership of various editions and whether competing dictionaries had plagiarized Webster became tedious while occupying something like the last third of the book. Those battles ended only with the deaths of those involved in the disputes.
There is some engaging material here, but one has to be a real language nerd to make it all the way through this book. As it was I skimmed the last several chapters.