A Time of Gifts Patrick Leigh Fermor
In Xanadu William Dalrymple
The Lost Continent Bill Bryson
Blue Highways William Least Heat Moon
Leigh Fermor delivered as expected, hiking across 1930’s Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, with youthful carelessness. If the formula for this kind of work is to keep a detailed diary of an impoverished grand tour, lose the diary, grow up and go to war, survive, recover the diary, and then tell all the stories in a mature British style, it's little surprise that these books are so rare.
Dalrymple was four years older than Paddy when he set off from Jerusalem to Mongolia, following in the footsteps of Marco Polo. The hazards and adventures of these treks make our TSA seem tame.
I read Blue Highways in 2015 and knew a reread would provide reliable pages before the end of the year, but in November got a free digital copy of Bill Bryson's small-town road tour of North America and started it first. A map was very helpful in following progress of both road trips, and the comment on Bryson was fair: "A sneering account of this exile’s return from abroad and his re-acquaintance with his native country. Bryson seems to be reminded on almost every page of why he chose to leave it, and we of why we let him."
Blue Highways added to my memories of Paris, and I brought the ragged paperback, missing a cover, on a visit to New Orleans. It was a slower read this time with the online map and the temptations of Street View and looking up references, like a mention of First and Last Chance Liquors at 202 Brontosaurus Blvd. in Dinosaur, Colorado. He mentions Frozen Head State Park near Wartburg, Tennessee, where I accomplished my mountain run in the fall. In Portland (Oregon) he purchased "De Voto's abridged edition" of the Lewis and Clark journals, the same abridgement I found on eBay in November. "Readers who see a declining literate expression in America will find further evidence in the journals." He steps across the Mississippi River near the headwaters in Minnesota, and I traced the map unexpectedly northwards for some miles before the river bends toward Louisiana. Travels With Charlie is mentioned on the back cover as well as during the crossing of Long Island Sound, on the same ferry boat Steinbeck took at the start of his trip. The century-old houses are still visible along Ye Greate Street in Greenwich, New Jersey, not far from the bizarre clearings in the Pine Barrens near Lacey Township which are shaped like giant letters, invisible from the blue highways but unmistakable in Satellite View. "No place, in theory, is boring of itself. Boredom lies only with the traveler's limited perception and his failure to explore deeply enough."
LessWrong series: A Map that Reflects the Territory: Epistemology, Agency, Coordination, Curiosity, Alignment
Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality Eliezer Yudkowsky
The LessWrong set is attractive and compact, similar to volumes of the Loeb Classical Library, "of a size that would fit in a gentleman's pocket." The content is selected essays that appeared online during 2018, so it's not great as a rationality primer. The conversion to paper was handled about as well as could be, making blog posts about intellectual minutiae a more literary experience.
Two or three authors wrote all the more memorable contributions, and Yudkowsky jumped onto my list of thousand-pages-read authors in one bound, displacing Richard Rhodes in position 12 with his massive fan-fic. I have only read the first Rowling book, and frequently asked the kid whether some fabulous turn was invention or homage. The unexpected arch-villain was death.
The Essential Adam Smith James Otteson
The Essential John Stuart Mill Sandra J. Peart
Open Borders Bryan Caplan
The Fraser Institute published a collection of surveys of essential scholars. These won't impress the literary set, but I suppose that competent summaries of Smith's two great works provides as much familiarity with the ideas as reading the original after memory fades. John Stuart Mill is amazing and I added On Liberty to my collection.
Open Borders is notable as an argument in graphic novel form. The text content amounts to a thick brochure, repackaging the familiar points in an easily consumed format. Caplan is good about presenting and responding to objections, but he also gives the steelman version of his own position. Sometimes one side of a debate is simply easier to express and appreciate.
The Birth of Britain Winston Churchill
The New World Winston Churchill
Two titles offered free on Kindle, bait meant to hook the reader into buying the second half of the four-volume History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Full of the delicious gossipy stories that make history: the accidents and assassinations, treachery and violence, and occasional acts of great nobility. The author is not mainly known as a historian, but I found nothing to object to in his colorful writing, though pre-Internet non-fiction often seems light on the citations.
"A biped capable of slaying another with iron is evidently to modern eyes a man and a brother."
"There followed a scene upon which the eye of history has rested. The Islanders, with their chariots and horsemen, advanced into the surf to meet the invader."
"Sunderland is a baffling figure who served in turn Charles, James, and later William III. He throve by changing sides."
A Loeb Classical Library Reader Harvard University Press
Memoirs of Hadrian Marguerite Yourcenar
As Moby-Dick stood out in 2020, Anabasis was the best read of 2021. The difference is that I had never heard of it, or even the story of the ill-fated campaign of ten thousand Greek soldiers marching deep into Anatolia to settle a family dispute. The battles and determined march through desert and frozen mountains seem heroic and glorious, despite the mercenaries behaving as war criminals by modern standards, taking by force what they can't find in markets.
Seeking more of the same, I picked up my first volume from the famous Loeb library of pocket-size classics, with Latin or Greek on the facing pages opposite the English translation. A scene from Xenophon’s story was included among dozens of short excerpts from the most famous classical sources. A downside of reading a beautiful pocket-sized paperback is that I don't scribble any notes in the margins, but I remember thinking that collecting and reading through the entire library, with some modern books for context, would be a worthwhile way to spend a decade.
Hadrian's autobiography was extraordinary. The Roman emperor survived the usual bloody struggles for power, traveled across the Empire securing borders against barbarians, leaving a stone legacy of arches, walls, and tourist traps like the Pantheon. The memoirs take the form of a letter to Marcus Aurelius in which the dying emperor wistfully recalls days of glory and complains about his digestion and the inferior people around him. Sprinkled with tedious philosophical asides and imperial chest-thumping, the book was utterly absorbing in the way a two-thousand year old classic should be, and not a single paragraph felt like it was written by a Belgian professor in 1948 Connecticut. "Almost everything that men have said best has been said in Greek."
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Susanna Clarke
Piranesi Susanna Clarke
Project Hail Mary Andy Weir
Anthem Ayn Rand
Binary Michael Crichton
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold John Le Carré
Susanna Clarke came recommended, hence with expectations. The first novel, set in a magical version of 1800's England, was better than that makes it sound (or I have an unreasonable bias against fantasy). As happens with good science fiction, indulging the concept that magicians had supernatural power provides the structure for an engaging story. The book reads like a classic English novel and earned its Hugo.
Fans had to wait 16 years for Piranesi, but I got my copy a few months later. This book was very modern, or postmodern, and didn't click for me. The setting was fantastic and the narrator seemed a bit dim, lacking memories of an earlier period of life in the normal world. As the reader puts together the hints, the narrator remains clueless and not especially curious about the shiny rectangular devices other characters pull from their pockets and interact with.
Andy Weir is not a one-hit wonder, but he did set the bar high with his hit. This book has another made-for-Matt-Damon scientist using Science to figure things out. Crichton is the master of the techno-thriller, and even a mediocre early novel published under his pseudonym is readable.
Anthem, to my surprise, was on the middle school reading list, so I thought I should find out what kind of propaganda the public schools are pushing on kids these days. The deliberately blunt dystopia like that in Animal Farm set up the heroic individual for a cathartic victory. Probably best read during middle school. I am pretty sure the copy of Le Carré I downloaded was a condensed pirate version. It was clumsy and stilted and didn't read like a bestseller. I checked the first pages against a preview of a legitimate version and they matched, but what I read was shorter than 100-page books. Maybe it was a repackaged Cliff Notes study guide.
New Weird and Old
The City & The City China Miéville
The Aleph and Other Stories Jorge Luis Borges
Miéville a reread, seeking an escape to make 2021 seem less strange.
The Borges was an old edition translated by di Giovanni, made in collaboration with the author (who was fluent in English). Not as reliably masterful as Ficciones, but of all the people compared to Borges, only Borges compares.
Running Through the Wall Neal Jamison
With Bare Hands Alain Robert
Eiger Dreams Jon Krakauer
The White Spider Heinrich Harrer
The collection of running essays was mental preparation for my own events. It seems strange that I have met a number of the authors and runners mentioned in the book, despite being a casual back-of-the-pack runner myself (though I did see my name printed in UltraRunning magazine in November).
Alain Robert, the "French Spiderman," is one of those pop culture curiosities that made me want to know more, but not urgently. Eventually I picked up his book on eBay and found out his story. He is in fact an accomplished mountain climber, like other free soloists seemingly motivated by beauty and self-transcendence more than sport. A film crew persuaded him to perform in a low-budget documentary in the American southwest, with a vague concept of climbing in an urban environment for contrast. The director was unable to secure permits and Robert climbed Chicago's Citigroup Center without permission. Back in France, he saw Paris buildings in a new light, and found he could get enough publicity with unauthorized climbs to win sponsorships that would cover his legal bills. He has fallen several times (mostly in natural environments) and the introduction was written by the surgeon who keeps patching him up, saying he will never climb again.
When I read Eiger Dreams in 2003, Google Earth was in its infancy. Now I can explore the North Face in three dimensions from the comfort and safety of my chair. When Krakauer describes the Chamonix nightclub showing deathwish adventure films, I can find the video online. These are mostly magazine articles about mountaineering exploits and disasters, many set on the famous North Face of the Eiger, where Heinrich Harrer participated in the first successful ascent in 1938. Harrer's book is also episodic, each chapter recounting one of the thrilling victories, horrific tragedies, or amazing rescues on the mountain.
Good mountaineering documentaries are not very common, but drone cameras are transforming the genre, and "The Alpinist" had captivating footage.
One of a Kind
The Machinery of Life David S. Goodsell
The Road to Wigan Pier George Orwell
Goodsell paints detailed images of biochemistry structures, and his book explains them in simple terms. A painful reminder of just how much wonder and magic high school is able to drain from the subject. ATP Synthase would seem miraculous coming out of a biotech lab, pondering its role in making it possible to ponder anything is strange beyond fiction.
Wigan Pier rates a ten, on a five-point scale. Two great books in one package.
10,032 total pages read in 2021 (10,058 in 2020), 33 books (up from 29), 38% of total pages in digital form (down from 78%). $192 spent on reading material (up from $116).