By following the life of Hernando Columbus, the bastard son of Christopher Columbus, the book takes detours that venture beyond the well-worn paths of history that are familiar to most people.
One such detour finds Hernando in Rome on legal business:
As the Sacra Rota was not in session on All Souls’ Day (November 1) 1512, Hernando was free to go to the Apostolic Palace that day to witness the unveiling of Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, as the rest of Rome did (according to an eyewitness) “even before dust that had been raised from taking down the scaffolding had settled.”
He just happened to be in Rome and just happened to have the day off, so he was able to see the debut of one of the most famous artworks in history. Of all the gin joints in all the world…
This kind of thing is one of the many reasons I love reading history. You get to watch people cross paths with other historically significant people, places, or things before they’re historically significant. It’s like being an omniscient time traveler with Ebenezer Scrooge-like observation powers, but untethered from your own life.
In his year-end summary of reading, Seth Godin wrote: “Books are an extraordinary device, transitioning through time and space, moving from person to person and leaving behind insight and connection. I’m grateful every single day for the privilege of being able to read (and to write).”
I read 18 books in 2020. For some people that might be a lot, but for me it’s an all-time low and a continuation of a downward trend since my peak of 80 books in 2016. The global pandemic had something to do with it, as once I started working from home I lost the time I had previously spent reading during my daily commute and lunch break.
But that’s OK. Like Seth I’m grateful for the privilege of being able to read at all, let alone whatever I want. Of what I was able to read this year, here (in alphabetical order) is what stood out.
Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confusedby Melissa Maerz
While I’ve been a fan of Dazed and Confused for a while, I knew next to nothing about its making aside from Richard Linklater’s freewheeling filmmaking style. This book is a good mix of context-setting commentary from the author and contributions from everyone involved with the movie. (The funniest part is everyone dumping on one insufferable actor who thought he was the next Brando.) Rewatched the movie after reading and appreciated it anew.
Every few years, as a new crop of high schoolers graduates, new generations discover Dazed. The fact that it doesn’t really have a plot means it holds up better with repeat viewings. You aren’t watching for the story. You’re watching to hang out with the characters.
Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy! by Claire McNear
I took the online Jeopardy! test back in March after I started working from home. It… didn’t go well. But that made me appreciate the show and its contestants all the more, along with how televised trivia has managed to remain not only relevant but beloved for so long. This book digs into all of that and more with a combination of concision and panache that Alex Trebek (RIP) would appreciate.
The real Jeopardy! is not the machine. It’s the show, the thirty minutes of pleasant syndicated reassurance that the machine produces five times a week. Jeopardy! isn’t in a chilly California soundstage; it’s in your home, as you yell answers at the TV screen or furrow your brow during a tense Daily Double. … The real Jeopardy! is the illusion of simplicity: Alex Trebek, three contestants, roughly sixty answers and sixty questions. The real Jeopardy! is the magic trick.
The Bear by Andrew Krivak
Set in a dystopian future, this short novel follows a man and his daughter forging a lonely existence in the wilderness. What begins as a rugged, sparse tale soon combines with elements of magical realism, and that’s what really made it sing. Makes me eager to read more Krivak.
The wood you burn to cook your food and keep you warm? The smoke that rises was once a memory. The ashes all that is left of the story.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind by Alan Jacobs
Jacobs’s writing is very influential to me. His blog is a constant source of bemused, no-bullshit commentary about politics, religion, culture, and the life of the mind. His latest book seeks to make the case for “temporal bandwidth”—the idea of widening your understanding of the present by engaging with old books and ideas that provide an “unlikeness” to your own assumptions. This means accepting good things about the past along with its baggage. It’s a short but punchy book, the third in a trilogy (along with The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distractionand How to Think) that together puts forth a commendable vision of intellectual engagement.
If it is foolish to think that we can carry with us all the good things from the past—from our personal past or that of our culture—while leaving behind all the unwanted baggage, it is a counsel of despair and, I think, another kind of foolishness to think that if we leave behind the errors and miseries of the past, we must also leave behind everything that gave the world its savor.
Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor
Nestor’s previous book about freediving really spoke to me, so I was eager to see where he went next. His immersion journalism takes him into the surprisingly deep terrain of respiration, especially timely this year given how central breathing is to Covid-19 transmission. Obviously breathing is important to your health, right? But it’s fairly astounding how just breathing deeply through your nose can improve your overall well-being. This book taught me a lot, but mostly it made me more attentive to the aspects of our humanity we often take for granted.
Everything you or I or any other breathing thing has ever put in its mouth, or in its nose, or soaked through its skin, is hand-me-down space dust that’s been around for 13.8 billion years. This wayward matter has been split apart by sunlight, spread through the universe, and come back together again. To breathe is to absorb ourselves in what surrounds us, to take in little bits of life, understand them, and give pieces of ourselves back out. Respiration is, at its core, reciprocation.
Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre by Max Brooks
M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs and The Village meet Home Alone. Though I read Brooks’s previous book World War Z, it didn’t stick with me nearly as much as this one, which treads similar realistic sci-fi territory.Because the main event is right there in the title, the dramatic tension builds so exquisitely throughout the book. It was one of those stories that delightfully defied prediction, and managed to end on a tantalizing yet satisfying note.
They all want to live “in harmony with nature” before some of them realize, too late, that nature is anything but harmonious.
Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt by Steven Johnson
One of my favorite authors, Johnson nailed it again with this riveting historical epic that weaves together 17th-century seafaring, the surprising culture of pirate ships, the dawn of the multinational corporation, and much more. Johnson’s magic trick is being able to stuff so much fascinating information into a crisp narrative without making it seem stuffed. It really feels like a rewarding reading journey.
Ancient history is always colliding with the present in the most literal sense: our genes, our language, our culture all stamp the present moment with the imprint of the distant past.
Go to Sleep (I Miss You): Cartoons from the Fog of New Parenthood by Lucy Knisley
This laugh-out-loud hilarious cartoon collection is a short, sweet, and stunningly accurate depiction of the small moments and observations new parenthood allows. Though mostly geared toward the experience of mothers, so much of it resonated with me. Really glad to have stumbled upon this at my library’s New Graphic Novels shelf.
Dude, I love you so much… but could you *please* stop discovering the infinite wonder of the world for, like, two minutes?
Information Hunters: When Librarians, Soldiers, and Spies Banded Together in World War II Europe by Kathy Peiss (review)
The book tells two primary, interweaving stories: how the information-collecting missions of the Library of Congress, OSS, and Allied forces conflicted and aligned before, during, and after the war; and how individuals engaged with those missions on the ground. I found the parts about the people much more engaging than the broader institutional machinations. But if you share my interests in librarianship, archives, history, and World War II, you’ll dig this.
The war challenged these librarians, archivists, scholars, and bibliophiles to turn their knowledge of books and records toward new and unpredictable ends. The immediacy and intensity of their experience tested them psychologically and physically. Whether soldier or civilian, American-born or émigré, these people’s lives changed as they engaged in this unusual wartime enterprise. They stepped up to the moment, confronting shifting and perplexing circumstances armed only with vague instructions and few precedents to guide them.
Favorite non-2020 books I enjoyed
Meditations on Hunting by José Ortega y Gasset (review)
The Night Lives On: Thoughts, Theories and Revelations about the Titanic by Walter Lord
One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson
Watchmen by Alan Moore
Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books by Edward Wilson-Lee
Can’t remember how I came upon it, but I recently read Meditations on Hunting by philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, published in 1972 and apparently considered a classic in hunting literature. It isn’t really about hunting itself, but the philosophies that undergird it and the meaning it can provide.
I found great wisdom in these quotes, and not only as someone who has hunted a fair amount of duck and a little bit of deer in my life. Hunting is at once an ancient activity that fulfilled basic needs and an altogether modern one that demands one’s full attention and respect for the nature beyond ourselves.
Ortega y Gasset incisively captures this dichotomy and everything in between. Here are some quotes from the book that stood out to me.
“‘Diversion’ usually indicates only comfortable situations, to the extent that, used carelessly, it connotes ways of life completely free of hardship, free of risk, not requiring great physical effort nor a great deal of concentration. But the occupation of hunting, as carried on by a good hunter, involves precisely all of those things.”
On life’s occupations:
“The life that we are given has its minutes numbered, and in addition it is given to us empty. Whether we like it or not we have to fill it on our own; that is, we have to occupy it one way or another. Thus the essence of each life lies in its occupations.”
“The fact is that for almost all men the major part of life consists of obligatory occupations, chores which they would never do out of choice. Since this fate is so ancient and so constant, it would seem that man should have learned to adapt himself to it and consequently to find it charming. But he does not seem to have done so.”
“All this indicates that man, painfully submerged in his work or obligatory occupations, projects beyond them, imagines another kind of life consisting of very different occupations, in the execution of which he would not feel as if he were losing time, but, on the contrary, gaining it, filling it satisfactorily and as it should be filled. Opposite a life which annihilates itself and fails—a life of work—he erects the plan of a life successful in itself—a life of delight and happiness.”
“All men, in fact, feel called on to be happy, but in each individual that general call becomes concrete in the more or less singular profile in which happiness appears to him. Happiness is a life dedicated to occupations for which that individual feels a singular vocation. Immersed in them, he misses nothing; the whole present fills him completely, free from desire and nostalgia. Laborious activities are performed, not out of any esteem for them, but rather for the result that follows them, but we give ourselves to vocational occupations for the pleasure of them, without concern for the subsequent profit. For that reason we want them never to end. We would like to eternalize, to perennialize them. And, really, once absorbed in a pleasurable occupation, we catch a starry glimpse of eternity.”
On hunting’s code of ethics:
“Hunting, like all human occupations, has its different levels, and how little of the real work of hunting is suggested in words like diversion, relaxation, entertainment! … It involves a complete code of ethics of the most distinguished design; the hunter who accepts the sporting code of ethics keeps his commandments in the greatest solitude, with no witnesses or audience other than the sharp peaks of the mountain, the roaming cloud, the stern oak, the trembling juniper, and the passing animal. In this way hunting resembles the monastic rule or military order.”
On looking at past problems with today’s solutions:
“Every time man looks at a past life from his perspective of the present, he sees, alongside the problems that weighed upon it, the solutions which, for better or for worse, these problems received. And so it naturally seems that every past life was easier, less full of anguish, then the present life; it is a charade whose solution we possess beforehand.”
On the pleasure of ‘being Paleolithic’:
“This is the reason men hunt. When you are fed up with the troublesome present, with being ‘very twentieth century,’ you take your gun, whistle for your dog, go out to the mountain, and, without further ado, give yourself the pleasure during a few hours or a few days of being ‘Paleolithic.'”
“When we leave the city and go up on the mountains it is astounding how naturally and rapidly we free ourselves from the worries, temper, and ways of the real person we were, and the savage man springs anew in us. Our life seems to lose weight and the fresh and fragrant atmosphere of an adolescence circulates through it.”
On returning to nature:
“Man is a fugitive from Nature. He escaped from it and began to make history, which is trying to realize the imaginary, the improbable, perhaps the impossible. History is always made against the grain of Nature. The human being tries to rest from the enormous discomfort and all-embracing disquiet of history by “returning” transitorily, artificially, to Nature in the sport of hunting.”
On the physical senses of hunting (quoting Eduardo de Figueroa, 8th Count of Yebes):
“There is one of the hunter’s senses which must work indefatigably at all times. That is the sense of sight. Look, look, and look again; at all times, in all directions, and in all circumstances. Look as you go along; look while you are resting; look while you are eating or lighting a cigar; up, down, back over the ground you have just covered, at the hill crests, at the ledges and dells, with binoculars and the naked eye, and always be aware that if you know how to look, the beast that you have not found in eight hours of backbreaking work can appear within a hundred meters, when just at sunset, worn out and cursing your interest, you are taking off your shoes and caring for your aching feet in the door of a shelter or a tent. It’s good advice.”
On the need for attention and alertness:
“The hunter knows that he does not know what is going to happen, and this is one of the greatest attractions of his occupation. Thus he needs to prepare an attention of a different and superior style—an attention which does not consist in riveting itself on the presumed but consists precisely in not presuming anything and in avoiding inattentiveness. It is a “universal” attention, which does not inscribe itself on any point and tries to be on all points. There is a magnificent term for this, one that still conserves all its zest of vivacity and imminence: alertness. The hunter is the alert man.”
On seeing the “least foreseeable” solutions:
“The only man who truly thinks is the one who, when faced with a problem, instead of looking only straight ahead, toward what habit, tradition, the commonplace, and mental inertia would make one assume, keeps himself alert, ready to accept the fact that the solution might spring from the least foreseeable spot on the great rotundity of the horizon.”
Watchmen (TV show). This whole limited series is something special, but the three-episode stretch of “This Extraordinary Being”, “An Almost Religious Awe”, and “A God Walks Into Abar” is spectacular. I went into this basically as a Watchmen neophyte and came out a believer.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind by Alan Jacobs. “If it is foolish to think that we can carry with us all the good things from the past—from our personal past or that of our culture—while leaving behind all the unwanted baggage, it is a counsel of despair and, I think, another kind of foolishness to think that if we leave behind the errors and miseries of the past, we must also leave behind everything that gave the world its savor.”
The Vast of Night. A fairly astounding debut feature. The Twilight Zone meets Pleasantville meets Super 8. Available on Amazon Prime, and I’d recommend learning as little as possible about it before watching.
One of my favorite books of all time is Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember, a retelling of the Titanic’s demise. I finally got around to watching Roy Ward Baker’s 1958 film adaptation of the book on a beautiful Criterion Blu-ray from the library, and it got me wondering: what about the iceberg?
In both the 1958 film and James Cameron’s mega-blockbuster, we get some ominous shots of the iceberg as the ship tries to avoid it, and then some ice chunks sliding across the deck. But after that, the iceberg disappears. For how much we know about the Titanic and its passengers, there’s far less out there about what turned the Titanic story into legend.
I love this article from Gizmodo that charts the iceberg’s incredible journey, beginning as “snowfall on the western coast of Greenland somewhere around 1,000 BCE” and ending when it “likely broke off from Greenland in 1910 or 1911 and was gone forever by the end of 1912 or sometime in 1913.” In all likelihood, “the iceberg that sank the Titanic didn’t even endure to the outbreak of World War I, a lost splash of freshwater mixed in imperceptibly with the rest of the North Atlantic.”
Despite that, we have pictures of it! Not an easy feat in 1912:
In the parlance of The Rewatchables podcast, this may be one of the greatest heat-check performances by a natural formation in history. Basically comes out of nowhere, ventures far beyond where it should be, gets suddenly and violently rammed in the middle of the night by an enormous ship, then melts away within the year.
Such an improbable journey dovetails with the fate of the Titanic itself, as Lord wrote in the original book:
What troubled people especially was not just the tragedy—or even its needlessness—but the element of fate in it all. If the Titanic had heeded any of the six ice messages on Sunday . . . if ice conditions had been normal . . . if the night had been rough or moonlit . . . if she had seen the berg fifteen seconds sooner—or fifteen seconds later . . . if she had hit the ice any other way . . . if her watertight bulkheads had been one deck higher . . . if she had carried enough boats . . . if the Californian [just ten miles away] had only come. Had any one of these ifs turned out right, every life might have been saved. But they all went against her—a classic Greek tragedy.
I’m a little tardy on this, but I wanted to share what my wife got me for Father’s Day. After a great deal of secret preparations, she presented a one-of-a-kind Little Bookof Typewriters for me and our son:
The first page includes a scan of something we got from Tom Hanks in reply to one of my letters to him. It’s his “Eleven Reasons to Use a Typewriter” pamphlet, signed and with an inscription saying “Chad — they are all true”:
Then she took pictures of our typewriters and laid them out with their names. Here’s a few:
It’s become one of 18 Month Old’s favorite books. He’s even started saying “Dora!” when he sees it. Though he has his own typewriter, I have a real Royal Royalite that’s beat up enough to allow a toddler to tap and pick at. One day he’ll graduate to more quality machines. Here’s to raising the next generation of typists! ~/:::/°
In the meantime, he and I have this incredibly thoughtful and useful book to enjoy. We’re lucky guys.
Songs for Singin’ by the Okee Dokee Brothers. My eager anticipation was rewarded with this double-album’s worth of characteristically clever, catchy, and joyful tunes. I may have teared up during “Jubilation”.
The Last Temptation of Christ. Sure, there are few regrettably ’80s moments and music cues, but it’s nevertheless one of the most effective and creative reimaginings of the Jesus story I’ve encountered. (See also: Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore.)
Da 5 Bloods. It’s simultaneously: a long movie that flew by, an epic that felt intimate, a didactic history lesson that felt urgent, a legendary filmmaker’s 24th feature that felt fresh, and a movie meant for theaters that still works on Netflix.
Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhuntby Steven Johnson. My reading was already in a slowdown before COVID-19, and then it got worse. But I blew through this one, which is yet another Johnson gem and changes everything you think you know about pirates.
A Hidden Life. Back on the Terrence Malick train, baby, which I think has been wayward since 2012’s To The Wonder. Malick exhibits some uncharacteristic but welcome restraint with the camerawork and narrative structure (i.e. actually having one). Gorgeous Austrian countryside setting and soundtrack by James Newton Howard too.
Triple Frontier. Makes an accidental but fun double feature with fellow Netflix jungle action buddy drama Da 5 Bloods.
If you step back from the endless flow of social media and the internet more generally, and sit down with a book from the past that appears to have absolutely nothing to do with the affairs of the moment, something curious and rather wonderful can happen. Unexpectedly and randomly — stochastically — you begin to perceive resonances with your own moment, with the concerns that you may have turned to the past in order to escape.
how the information-collecting missions of the Library of Congress, OSS, and the Allied forces conflicted and aligned before, during, and after the war
how individuals engaged with those missions on the ground
One person’s story that stood out was Maria Josepha Meyer, employed by the Library of Congress and the publisher Hachette to collect books, documents, propaganda, and any other useful material in pre-occupation Paris. When the Nazis invaded in June 1940, she found herself trapped in Paris with no money and an expired passport. She eventually got an export permit from the Germans for her professional library, personal effects, and furniture, and at the last minute swapped her furniture for the war collection she would have been forbidden to ship.
Another was Adele Kibre, an academic who found herself spearheading a clandestine microfilming operation in Stockholm as a way to send foreign publications to OSS for intelligence gathering. Microfilm technology was in its infancy, so quality varied generally. But Kibre’s results were clear and consistent despite her limitations and the secrecy required.
A central figure in the book was Archibald MacLeish, the poet and writer who served as Librarian of Congress from 1939-1944. His work with William Donovan to develop the Research & Analysis branch of OSS helped modernize the Library of Congress and push it beyond the traditional understanding of libraries as neutral providers of books and information.
With the growing international crisis, [MacLeish] raised the stakes for books and democracy, calling upon librarians to be not merely custodians of culture but defenders of freedom. Like Donovan, he had perceived the dangers of fascism early and believed in American intervention. As an artist, intellectual, and the nation’s leading librarian, he was convinced, as he later put it, that ‘the country of the mind must also attack.’
As MacLeigh wrote in 1940, the keeping of war-related records “is itself a kind of warfare. The keepers, whether they wish so or not, cannot be neutral.”
As much as I’d like to view libraries as places that don’t discriminate or take ideological stands, the right to read is itself an ideology, as are the rights to privacy and access. Despite being taken for granted in democratic and literate societies, they must be believed in, fought for, and defended like any other ideology. (Notice too the war-like language.)
Peiss’s book examines how people and institutions reckoned with that dilemma in extraordinary situations. Overall, I found the parts about the people much more engaging than the broader institutional machinations, which often get bogged down in the acronyms and esoterica endemic to academia, government, and the military.
But if that sort of thing is your jam, Information Hunters is right on target.
(See also: The Book Thieves by Anders Rydell and When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning.)
Compared to 72 books in 2018, I read a relatively paltry 24 in 2019. Between work, a new house, and a new baby, I just didn’t have the mental bandwidth to stick with as many books for extended periods. This resulted in a little more fluff than usual, including several Queer Eye-adjacent memoirs and tons of board books I didn’t even count.
Pickings for this list were slim since most of my reads weren’t from 2019. But here’s what I liked the most:
5. The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Johnson
A strange, infuriating true crime story from the world of Victorian fly-fishing tie obsessives. The last third isn’t as compelling and propulsive as the first two, but I learned a lot about ornithology.
4. Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein
Probably could have just been a longform magazine piece, but I appreciated its evidence-based advocacy for an interdisciplinary approach to learning and life in general.
3. An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz
A kaleidoscopic narrative of a violent Chicago summer, from the perspectives of the people most affected by it. “The shooting doesn’t end. Nor does the grinding poverty. Or the deeply rooted segregation. Or the easy availability of guns. Or the shuttered schools and boarded-up homes. Or the tensions between police and residents. And yet each shooting is unlike the last, every exposed and bruised life exposed and bruised in its own way. Everything and nothing remains the same.”
2. Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport
Newport’s definition of digital minimalism is “a philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.” This certainly inspired me to ask some hard questions about how and why I use certain technologies. A key aspect of this approach is to have what Newport calls “high-quality leisure” activities ready to fill the space in your life formerly filled with mindless scrolling. Otherwise Mark Zuckerberg will win.
1. Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell
“The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.” With his trademark incisiveness and critical insight, Gladwell dives into the gray areas surrounding the cases of Amanda Knox, Jerry Sandusky, Bernie Madoff, Sandra Bland, Brock Turner, Sylvia Plath, and other events and figures of recent history you only thought you fully understood. Dovetails nicely with the most recent season of Gladwell’s excellent podcast Revisionist History.
(Also interesting to contrast with Kio Stark’s When Strangers Meet, a much more positive though less clinical take on similar territory.)
Other favorite reads
Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Michael Schumacher
Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon
What is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything by Rob Bell
All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire by Jonathan Abrams