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
He’s rich because all of Bedford Falls is dumping a veritable fortune on his table. He’s also rich—richer, I’d say—because of who is doing the dumping and why they’re doing it.
George had been offered a similar financial windfall earlier in the film when Potter tried to hire him, but he rebuffed it. Had he decided otherwise, he would have gained wealth of a kind, but also a kind of poverty that no amount of money could cure. He wouldn’t have had the same relationships with all the friends and family and townsfolk who filled his house with a different kind of windfall.
George was rich in the end because he remembered. He remembered the barrenness of his ghostly alternate life where he was never born. And he remembered—suddenly, when he wanted to live again—the meaning of all his family and friends and frustrating failures and small victories that had accumulated into something like a wonderful life.
Clarence Odbody (Angel Second Class) gets the last word in the movie with his book inspiration to George: “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.” Remember these friends, he’s saying, not because they’re currently making you rich, but because they already have.
Me and Little Man gathering snowballs, here at the end of all things 2020:
A lot of bad things happened in the world this year, but in my own little world there was mostly just good. Chiefly because I’m blessed to have a COVID-proof job that has let me work from home since mid-March.
This has also meant doing lockdown and social distancing with a toddler, which was simultaneously easy (he doesn’t know what COVID-19 is nor what he’s missing because of it) and challenging (*random shrieking and tantrums*).
Still, life continued to happen in spite of everything, as it is wont to do. Here’s what that looked like for me:
Made several home improvements, including adding can lights, getting a new front door, remodeling our house’s original 1956 kitchen (shout-out to soft-close cabinets and drawers!), and opening up a wall between the kitchen and living room
Grumpy Old Men has become one of the few movies I return to every Christmastime, along with The Family Stone and It’s A Wonderful Life. Though (or maybe because), like those other movies, it’s only partially about Christmas.
It’s schmaltzy to a fault, but also an hilarious showcase for the legendary comedic chemistry between Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, forged over decades of working together.
Matthau was open about taking the role only for mercenary purposes. His co-star Kevin Pollak talked about chatting with Matthau on the set before their first scene together:
I said, “So, Walter, script’s pretty good, huh?” And he said, “The script sucks, kid. I owe my bookie $2 million.”
You’d never know it though. Matthau and Lemmon fully commit to their acerbic, chops-busting banter, which is the core strength of the movie.
The movie also stumbles upon a few bits of wisdom that have stuck with me, most of which comes not from the titular men but from the people around them. Like Ariel, the free-spirited neighbor turned love interest played by Ann-Margret. Here’s what she said to acknowledge the death of a mutual friend:
“We can be thankful that we had the privilege of knowing him while he was still here.”
She also drops this doozy during an argument with Lemmon’s John Gustafson, whom she accuses of being too stuck in his ways:
“The only things in life that you regret are the risks you don’t take.”
Finally, Burgess Meredith—absolutely slaying in a supporting role as Gustafson’s horny, incorrigible father—lends this uncharacteristically reflective bit:
The first ninety years go by fast. Then one day you wake up and realize you’re not 81 anymore. You begin to count the minutes rather than the days. And you realize that pretty soon you’ll be gone. And that all you have is the experiences. That’s all there is. Everything! The experiences!
The experience of watching the movie’s combination of sincerity, silliness, and un-Christmaslike shenanigans (along with its wondrously snowy northern Minnesota setting) is what keeps me coming back every year.
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.”
Listening to the latest episode of the On Being podcast, with evolutionary anthropologist Agustín Fuentes, and I heard the host Krista Tippett say something while quoting Fuentes that gave me pause. From the transcript:
And even filling out the picture — this is from your Gifford Lectures — “meaning, imagination, and hope are essential to the human story, as are bones, genes, and ecologies.” And that’s kind of what we’ve looked at when we’ve told this human story of who we are, who we deeply are.
When I first heard that last part, I thought Tippett said “we are who we deeply are.” When I jumped back to listen to it again, I realized that wasn’t what she meant exactly. But I think that mondegreen is an intriguing idea to ponder. We are who we deeply are.
Which then begs the question: who am I—who are you—deeply?
Watching this little wanderer discover the wilds of Pure Michigan™:
Caught some nice evening light in our local playground’s jungle gym:
Technically this will be Mr. 22 Month Old’s third winter (he was born during a blizzard), but the first he remembers and appreciates. Hence his major surprise and excitement when waking up to the first snow of the season:
In his post on the emotional intelligence of long experience, Alan Jacobs spotlights a letter from the great 18th century writer and lexicographer Samuel Johnson to his younger friend, who at one point thought he had said something to offend Johnson:
You are not to imagine that my friendship is light enough to be blown away by the first cross blast, or that my regard or kindness hangs by so slender a hair, as to be broken off by the unfelt weight of a petty offence. I love you, and hope to love you long. You have hitherto done nothing to diminish my goodwill, and though you had done much more than you have supposed imputed to you my goodwill would not have been diminished.
I write thus largely on this suspicion which you have suffered to enter your mind, because in youth we are apt to be too rigorous in our expectations, and to suppose that the duties of life are to be performed with unfailing exactness and regularity, but in our progress through life we are forced to abate much of our demands, and to take friends such as we can find them, not as we would make them. …
When therefore it shall happen, as happen it will, that you or I have disappointed the expectation of the other, you are not to suppose that you have lost me or that I intended to lose you; nothing will remain but to repair the fault, and to go on as if it never had been committed.
This is great advice for life generally, but also during election season specifically. I saw stories of people breaking off relationships with their family members and friends based on their politics—which is, in my humble opinion, a completely asinine thing to do.
Ideologies ebb and flow. Elections come and go. Relationships that matter should endure beyond all of that. If that means making certain discussion topics off limits, all the better. To act otherwise means the terrorists win. (I’m only half joking.)