What I love most about this book—even beyond the historical factoids and masterful storytelling you can expect from any Johnson joint—is that it’s basically a murder mystery, with cholera as the microbial serial killer and an unlikely detective duo of a doctor and a priest hunting it during a deadly epidemic in the crowded, putrid London of the 1850s.
Call it an epidemiological thriller. Probably not much competition in that sub-genre, but Johnson made the most of it.
I like Johnson’s description of London at the time:
an industrial-era city with an Elizabethan-era waste-removal system as perceived by a Pleistocene-era brain.
On the topography of progress:
The river of intellectual progress is not defined purely by the steady flow of good ideas begetting better ones; it follows the topography that has been carved out for it by external factors.
On great intellectual breakthroughs:
It is rarely the isolated genius having a eureka moment alone in the lab. Nor is it merely a question of building on precedent, of standing on the shoulders of giants, in Newton’s famous phrase. Great breakthroughs are closer to what happens in a flood plain: a dozen separate tributaries converge, and the rising waters lift the genius high enough that he or she can see around the conceptual obstructions of the age.
It’s not just that the authorities of the day were wrong about miasma; it’s the tenacious, unquestioning way they went about being wrong. …
How could so many intelligent people be so grievously wrong for such an extended period of time? How could they ignore so much overwhelming evidence that contradicted their most basic theories? These questions, too, deserve their own discipline—the sociology of error.
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
According to my records I read more than ever in 2016. Partially this was due to starting as a book reviewer for two library trade journals, thus increasing the volume of pages coming my way. But I also made more time overall for reading, because I love it and I work at a library and there are too many books out there and I’ll never have this amount of free time once I have kids. So here are my top 10 books from 2016, ranked:
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
I don’t cry while reading books. I didn’t cry while reading this one, but I came close. Written in the final months of Kalanithi’s life, it’s the story of the young neurosurgeon’s career intertwined with his struggle against his lung cancer diagnosis. Kalanithi had a master’s in literature along with his medical training and it shows; linking left- and right-brain thinking, he builds upon his close familiarity with morality with a deep, probing search for meaning.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
Jahren, whose father was a scientist and mother loved literature, embodies both worlds in this memoir that contrasts her journey as a struggling biologist with the lives of the trees she studies. So much wisdom, humor, and hard-won experience in this book. I copied many sentences for future reference and inspiration. Would make a good pairing with When Breath Becomes Air.
Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
I tend to read more nonfiction than novels, so I try to make the fiction I read worth the time. This thriller certainly was. From the deadbeat Doug to the nefarious blowhard pundit Bill to the troubled Charlie to even the maybe-hero Scott (not Gus: Gus was cool), Hawley nestles illustrations of masculinity’s destructive toxicity within a well-crafted, slow-boiling whodunit that’s also a superb character study.
Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard
Another stranger than fiction historical yarn from the author of Destiny of the Republic. If you only know Winston Churchill from World War II, check out this wild chapter of his younger life when he was an ambitious, vainglorious scion of British nobility who was captured as a war correspondent in the Boer War.
Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul by James McBride
From the author of a personal favorite The Good Lord Bird comes this impressionistic portrait of the Godfather of Soul’s rise and fall. McBride eschews the typical conventions of biography in favor of a more journalistic approach, interviewing Brown’s loved ones and others who knew him well to compose a rich tapestry of a complicated man.
But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past by Chuck Klosterman
The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture by Glen Weldon
Not at all a comics person, so I appreciated this very thorough yet propulsive history of Batman since his inception in 1939. Since I listened to the audiobook I can’t speak to how Weldon’s voice comes through on the page, but in my ear it was amazing. Any listeners of Pop Culture Happy Hour will greatly enjoy this as a kind of extended, uncut Gleniana—my favorite part being his adoption of Comic Book Guy’s voice whenever he quotes the overheated prose of indignant nerds.
Good Clean Fun: Misadventures in Sawdust at Offerman Workshopby Nick Offerman
Trademark Offerman: delicious prose, self-deprecating humor, child-like glee, and a humble appreciation for just being there, so to speak. It’s a beautiful book, mixing bountiful wood-porn photos, short essays, and step-by-step instructions for a variety of projects, one or two of which I’d like to attempt. But really, it’s worth it for the “Best Way to Fell A Tree” comic alone.
Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson
Johnson is a master storyteller, weaving disparate elements together into a rich and seamless tapestry of technology and human history. That the book also has its own companion podcast of the same name is fitting, as his writing is just as pleasing to the ears as it is on the page. It’s a great book for all curious readers but especially for the history-averse, who will enjoy the fast pace, topical diversity, and abundant trivia. (See also: Johnson’s How We Got to Now.)
When We Are No More: How Digital Memory Is Shaping Our Future by Abby Smith Rumsey
One of the first books I reviewed for Library Journal, and the first starred review I gave. You know a book is good when it discusses the Sumerian cuneiform, ancient Greek mnemonics, Gutenberg’s press, Thomas Jefferson’s personal library, and the Internet Archive.
Favorite non-2016 books I read this year:
Crunchy Cons: The New Conservative Counterculture and Its Return to Roots by Rod Dreher
Amidst the remains of the modern GOP, I hope this book is salvaged from the rubble and becomes a foundational text for revival. Review here.
The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers by Tom Standage
Standage points out that a Victorian transported to the twenty-first century would not be terribly bewildered by the Internet, given how similar it is to the telegraph. (Though the space shuttle would probably blow their minds.) Though eventually eclipsed by the telephone, the telegraph was the first and arguably one of the biggest sudden technological leaps we’ve experienced. Time and space instantly shrunk; information that used to travel at the speed of the horse suddenly arrived instantaneously, and the new industry’s standards would continue to inform new technologies, including the new Internet. There are so many particular times and topics we today know little about, simply due to the steady march of time and new technology. Niche history books like this one perform a great service in looking back and illuminating what came before us in a digestible and fascinating story.
The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopiaby Michael Booth
Read this for research before visiting Scandinavia this last summer. Proud to be one-eighth Finnish and Norwegian! Booth’s baffled British perspective nevertheless finds a lot to admire in the Nordic Way. See also: Anu Partanen’s The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life and Debunking Utopia: Exposing the Myth of Nordic Socialism by Nima Sanandaji.
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migrationby Isabel Wilkerson
As good as advertised.
Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanchesby S.C. Gwynne
Excepting the unfortunate overuse of italics for emphasis, which made many lines seem like political ad narration, this book was amazing. Gwynne’s prose is so muscular it’s like every paragraph is a pushup. How does Quanah Parker not have an HBO miniseries about him yet? If all you know about the Comanche is from The Searchers, check this one out immediately, followed by Glenn Frankel’s The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend.
This week I celebrated my one-year anniversary of librarianship. In my application essay for library school I wrote that I’d been a frequent library user for most of my life, yet had never considered working in one until recent epiphanies changed my outlook. Perhaps I thought of it like working at a movie theater—another regular haunt of mine—in that the prospect of seeing movies for free belied the much less glamorous reality of terrible hours, meager pay, and lots of cleaning. I simply never imagined myself on the other side of the reference desk or at the helm of a book cart. I didn’t lack imagination; I merely had, as Steven Johnson put it in How We Got to Now, a “slow hunch” that gestated for years and then illuminated only once the conditions were ripe.
My “plan” entering college was to become a high-school history teacher. I loved history and thought I might be a good teacher, so abracadabra: that’s what I’d do. History major, education minor, future set. But that first fall semester I took a writing class and wrote a few pieces for the school newspaper. That I could write about music, film, and essentially anything else I could conjure and get it printed in ink with my name attached to it for campus-wide distribution was a stunning revelation, and a disruptive one. This new storyline challenged the vocational narrative I’d slapped together to have something to tell people who asked at my high-school graduation party what I’d do with my life. But before winter break I’d changed majors to English (with an emphasis in journalism) and bumped history down to a minor (because you can’t have just one economically unviable field on your diploma). I never regretted the decision, nor did I forget the privilege of being able to make it at all thanks to scholarships and financial aid.
And yet, four years later, clad in a black gown I’d never wear again, holding a diploma I think I maybe know the current whereabouts of, I wondered what was next. As a newly christened liberal arts degree-holding humanities major—Oh great, another one—my skills and knowledge base were just unspecific enough to ensure that my first few jobs would have little to do with what I learned in college. But long-term planning has never been my thing. I have no idea what I’m having for lunch today, let alone where I’d like to be in five years. My strategy has been akin to what Anne Lamott describes in Traveling Mercies, how when her pastor prays for direction, “one spot of illumination always appears just beyond her feet, a circle of light into which she can step.” Life has felt more like that to me than following a line or climbing a ladder: hopping from one bright spot to the next and hoping for illumination. Hop, then hope, ad infinitum.
My post-graduation bright spot appeared after I’d spent a few months abroad and came home broke. One rent check away from having literally zero dollars, I worked as a cashier for a few months, which gave me much-needed income for the price of my soul, and then started part-time at Barnes & Noble as a bookseller. (That remains an all-time favorite job.) I would’ve stayed at Barnes & Noble indefinitely had another bright spot not appeared. A college friend of mine who’d taken a job at a university had entered its library and information science program and was telling me over and over how much I’d like it, that I should look into it. Who works in a library? I thought. But I looked into the program and realized, Oh, I would work in a library. Classes in archives (where my interests strongly laid at the time) coupled with a field that emphasized organization, books, cultural fluency, and intellectual freedom? Are you kidding me? That “circle of light” was blinding, so I leapt into it with a smile.
Confirmation came quickly. Library school, in my experience at least, was where being a nerd was nearly a prerequisite, introverts were abundant, and the male-to-female ratio was very much in my favor. (Exhibit A: Meeting my future wife in my first class.) But I was starting from 000. I’m pretty sure I was the only one in class who had never worked in a library. Lucky for me this was a built-in expectation: Because there is no bachelor’s degree in library science, everyone in some sense was starting from scratch. The learning curve was steeper for me, but that made things more fun. I wasn’t that long-time library worker grudgingly returning to school to sit through classes I could teach myself to get that expensive piece of paper that shattered the glass ceiling of professional certification and magically allowed me to earn more money; I was a guy who accidentally made a great candidate for librarianship and happened to like it too. Because I loved history most of my 36 credit hours trended toward archival work, but I also enjoyed classes on storytelling, metadata, bookbinding, and digital libraries. In this new world everything I looked at was a delicious possibility. I felt like a kid with a golden ticket bouncing around Willy Wonka’s sugary wonderland, except the edible mushrooms were finding aids and the chocolate river was the archives/cultural heritage track of my MLIS.
The river brought me past a few archival internships and volunteer gigs during school, which I parlayed into a (paid!) summer internship at a large corporate archives. But after such a wonderful opportunity, and the apex of my library school adventure, in the fall of 2013 I was back in the dark. The doldrums of unemployment followed, which I dotted with odd jobs, some freelance archiving, and intermittent despair, until I got a kinda-sorta-library-related warehouse job I was, two months later, summarily laid off from.
Things were dim. But then, another circle of light: an interview, then a second, and then a job offer. Time to hop again. I was a librarian. (Part-time, anyway. Though now I’ve started another part-time librarian position so I figure that equals one full-time job, minus health care.) Yet even after I said yes, I felt ill-equipped. I’d taken the wrong classes and banked the wrong type of internships to feel fully qualified for the position. But I’d learned a valuable lesson about hiring in my previous lives as an RA and housing coordinator: credentials do not (necessarily) a qualified candidate make. The letters after your name can get you a meeting, but they aren’t magic. You gotta hope the people in charge can work a crystal ball, and can see a résumé as a blueprint to build from and not a final product. I hopped, then I hoped.
My idea of the perfect job is a role that hits the sweet spot in the middle of the Venn diagram of one’s skills, interests, and passions. Being a librarian does that for me. I’m a reader and culture omnivore; I’m good at making complicated things understandable and enjoy seeing people succeed; and I ardently believe—personally and professionally—in what libraries do. I’m also only a year into this thing. The tectonic plates beneath the crust of the library world are grinding and shifting, and I don’t know what the occupational earthquakes will do to it. But I’ll be along for the ride, probably off in the 900s looking for my next presidential biography. Jean Edward Smith’s Grant has been whispering sweet nothings to me…
I couldn’t put down How We Got To Now, Steven Johnson’s six-part book on “innovations that made the modern world.” The book is an exposition on the theory of the “hummingbird effect,” which occurs when “an innovation, or cluster of innovations, in one field ends up triggering changes that seem to belong to a different domain altogether.” The theory is so named because of how hummingbirds evolved a new way to float midair while extracting nectar from flowers, thus having one phenomena (plant reproduction) effect change in another seemingly unrelated one (bird anatomy).
Johnson illustrates this theme in six realms: Glass, Cold, Sound, Clean, Time, and Light. The book is beautifully illustrated throughout with pictures of inventors, innovators, and their creations—famous and obscure—whose intuitive leaps of imagination and engineering influenced the world in ways they could never foresee. Fifteenth-century Italian glassmakers displaced by the fall of Constantinople experimented with new kinds of glass, which found use as proto-lenses for scribes in monasteries (their lentil-like shape inspiring the name lens, from the Latin lentes for lentil), which, along with Gutenberg’s printing press allowing for cheaper and portable books, contributed to the rise in overall literacy, which exposed the farsightedness of these new readers, who suddenly realized they needed lenses to read, thus creating a new market for eyeglasses. As Johnson points out, Gutenberg didn’t set out to create a new market for eyewear: the hummingbird effect simply made it happen step by step.
It’s more complicated than that, and Johnson takes care to paint a much richer and fascinating portrait of this phenomenon in action over centuries. I had a lot of fun reading How We Got to Now because Johnson lays out a continuous string of tasty knowledge nuggets from beginning to end. On every page I learned something that I wanted to write down and share with others. We’re living in a big, beautiful, deep world that has a great story to tell. How We Got to Now helps explain why.