Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

The Year in Books: 2018

Jerry Stratton, January 2, 2019

Temple Public Library sale haul 2018

This was a very nice, and small, haul from nearby Temple’s Public Library sale—plus one book from McWha Books and one from Amazon. I still have three of these to read, and am currently halfway through Kip Thorne’s book, which I fully expect to be on next year’s recommendations.

According to Goodreads, I read 133 books last year; according to my own databases, I bought 134. That’s teetering on the edge of sustainability. The latter number also includes reference books downloaded to my tablet that I don’t need to read per se, and instruction manuals that I have read but that don’t get counted on Goodreads.

Which means I am making a dent in my to-read shelf/ves, albeit slowly.

According to Goodreads, the shortest book I read was Lawrence W. Reed’s Great Myths of the Great Depression. At only twenty pages, it’s a good overview of the period as seen through the eyes of the people who lived it.

The longest book was The Essential Ellison, which, unless you want to know more about Ellison’s work, I don’t recommend. Unfortunately, when I read Ellison I tend to find his introductions more interesting than his works, and this book contains other people’s introductions, not his.

The most popular book I read this year was Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, which I highly recommend, preferably before you see the movie if you haven’t yet. I saw the movie and still thoroughly enjoyed the book. The sequel, Speaker for the Dead was very different and just as enjoyable.

The least popular book, not surprisingly, is a guide to a computer that was discontinued long before Goodreads was founded. Goodreads was launched at the very end of 2006, and the Tandy 200 was a 1985-era computer1. So it’s not surprising that I needed to request an update of the bibliographic data and cover for Lien’s books.

As you can tell from my other recent entries, I’ve been dabbling in BASIC again, mainly because of the TRS-80 Model 100/200. The first BASIC book I read was David Lien’s instruction manual for the TRS-80 Model I—it came with the used Model I that I purchased in high school. It was so readable it made all subsequent BASIC books over the years a disappointment. So when I saw, at Tandy Assembly, that he’d written a book for the Model 100 and 200, I snapped them up. This book lived up to the reputation I’d built up for Lien, and I am now comfortable writing useful—and not-so-useful—BASIC software for the 100/200 line.

The highest-rated book was The Deplorable Gourmet, which has a 5.00 average. This is undoubtedly because of its dedicated clientele. But truly, if you need a book of diverse cooking views, The Deplorable Gourmet is your book.

S.W. Welch Bookstore

S.W. Welch’s in Montréal is a small—and expensive—bookstore, but packed with great books.

I began the year with Chesterton and ended it with Machen, both eBooks downloaded from Gutenberg, and I recommend them both for similar reasons. In The New Jerusalem Chesterton describes “the Jewish Question” from a British viewpoint after Balfour and and before World War II. Arthur Machen wrote about the angels of Mons in a not-particularly-convincing manner, but in the desolation of the First World War people were geared to believe in supernatural assistance. If you’re interested in phenomena such as Orson Welles’s more famous Martian invasion, read Machen’s collection of related short stories, The Angels of Mons.

By far the most fascinating book I read this year was Philip Van Doren Stern’s collection of President Abraham Lincoln’s writings. It collects and excerpts Lincoln’s writings from before he got into politics and up through his presidency. It is amazing, reading these works just before the Civil War, not how much Lincoln shared the prejudices of his colleagues, but how much his principles allowed him to rise above his prejudices. He could write or say something just as horribly prejudiced as anyone else of his era, apply what we would now call conservative principles, and then end his speech or letter with something so unequivocally un-prejudiced and right as to astound.

His colleagues, such as Stephen Douglas, started from much more compassionate ideas, but their compassion was rooted in principles that we would now call elitist, that they knew better what other people ought to do. That they needed to force other people to act in their own best interests, because they were too stupid to do so without coercion. And so their principles reinforced their prejudices and made them worse.

In fiction, I have finally read a book that has been recommended to me forever, and it was well worth the read. “There,” wrote Annie Proulx in The Shipping News, “are still old knots that are unrecorded, and so long as there are new purposes for rope, there will always be new knots to discover.” Proulx’s tale of a man dragged to Newfoundland by an aunt combined with circumstances is impossible to describe without giving away the little things that make it an amazing read.

Similarly, “Knowledge was never simply born in the human mind,” wrote Salman Rushdie in The Enchantress of Florence, “it was always reborn. The relaying of wisdom from one age to the next, this cycle of rebirths: this was wisdom. All else was barbarity.”. Rushdie’s fantasy about a foreigner showing up in “the Emperor’s City” is filled with subtle magic, bravery, and the deception of storytelling in a world as shifting as the desert sands.

Study writing bookshelf

Of course, new books means building new bookcases.

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). — Vladimir Nabokov (Speak, Memory)

If, on the other hand, you’re looking for books about writing, I haven’t found much better than Nabokov’s memoir or A.S. Byatt’s musings on why historical novels appeal so much as stories.

I think the fact that we have in some sense been forbidden to think about history is one reason why so many novelists have taken to it. — A. S. Byatt (On Histories and Stories)

It may also explain why novels about the future appeal so much. Two of the most fun reads I had this year were Niven and Pournelle’s Oath of Fealty and Ken Follett’s On Wings of Eagles. The former is a few non-dystopic months in the life of an arcology. Massive housing complexes get short shrift in science fiction, but Todos Santos is presented with both drawbacks and benefits. It shows us why people are willing to house themselves in giant communities cut off from the rest of the world—and why it sometimes might be a good thing.

Follett, on the other hand, is writing historical fiction, albeit a history from only a few years before he wrote it. A young global computer company finds its employees kidnapped by the state, in a turbulent country overrun by religious fanatics. Some of the employees are imprisoned in prisons, and all are imprisoned in the country—they are not allowed to leave. I read it a couple of decades ago when the events it portrays were much closer, but it’s just as exciting now.

The two stories also have something else in common which I won’t spoil.

In response to The Case for Books in 2015: In 2015, I read a lot of books… and bought a lot more. That’s not a sustainable market plan.

  1. I can’t find any reference to when the Model 102/200 line was discontinued, but I have a vague memory it was some time in the nineties.