Some books I loved in 2020

It feels like giving up to write a post like this with a week left to go in the calendar year. But what’s so bad about giving up? Anyway, I’m in the mood for comfort reading at the moment. That means I’m flipping between Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Rob Sheffield’s Dreaming the Beatles and Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu. No reason to put those on this list, though.

I’m typically a big subway reader which … well, you know. Even this fall, when I was back teaching in-person, I became an e-bike commuter unless the weather was truly awful. Now I’m on paternity leave for a few weeks, which demands its own sort of reading habits — morsels rather than feasts, is what works for me while caring for a baby.

OK, whatever, here are some books I loved reading in the order I read them.

The Power of the Dog, Don Winslow The Power of the Dog (9781400096930): Winslow, Don: Books

I think this review nails the situation with Winslow’s flawed but wonderful writing about America’s War on Drugs. “The book is trope-heavy, stereotype-heavy, occasionally (okay, often) one-dimensional,” which is true for all of Winslow’s writing. But why is it great? “Because it is a huge, meticulously researched book that comes at the end of a series 20 years in the making. Because it is a book that eschews flowery language for precision and quick action. Because the internal monologues of quiet men are often the ways we are given to understand their internal histories.”

As an aside, when my older son was born six years ago, I was reading The Jordan Rules by Sam Smith in the waiting room. This summer I was rereading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman when we had to rush into the hospital for my son’s birth. And three and a half years ago when my daughter was born I was reading Winslow’s The Cartel, a sequel to Power of the Dog, in the hospital.

Silas Marner, George Eliot

Silas Marner by George Eliot: 9780375757495 | Books

I love moralizing fiction. What makes people bad? What makes them good? How do they get better (or worse)? I find it so easy to see myself as Silas Marner, emotionally wrapped up in myself and shut off from the concerns of others. In yeshiva we studied musar to reflect on our moral situation; Silas Marner is water drawn from the same well with a different vessel. Thanks to my wife for promising that I’d love this one.

Incidentally, this was the first book I was able to read to completion after lockdown back in March. Man, what a shitty year this has been in so many ways.

Ninth House, Leigh Bardugo

Ninth House (Alex Stern #1)

Do you hate Yale? I don’t, but maybe Leigh Bardugo does. Or maybe it’s just the moneyed elite that she hates, seeing the crimes she imagines them committing.

There are a lot of books that are “our world but magic” but this one is particularly audacious in the world it imagines. A friend who knows my enthusiasm for Stephen King lent this one to me. My advice? Make sure your friends know that you like Stephen King.

How To Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog), Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian  Tale of Jump-Started Evolution: Dugatkin, Lee Alan, Trut, Lyudmila:  9780226444185: Books

I was so annoying while reading this book. I read long passages of it aloud to my wife. I couldn’t shut up about it to anyone I saw outside. “How are you guys holding up during these challenging times?” my friends would ask, and I’d reply with a long rant about all the physical traits that domesticated animals show.

OK, how do I get you to read this book? Put it like this: what does it mean to be domesticated? There is a real biological sense in which people are simply domesticated apes. But how does domestication happen? Who kicks off the domestication process?

This book tells the story of a group of Russian scientists who set out to study this question. Their experiment: to see if the famously undomesticated fox can be domesticated simply through selection for tameness towards humans. The experiment had to be carried out in secret thanks to the Soviet Union’s adoption of Lysenkoism, which held that natural selection to be a Western lie.

Biology is so cool. Science is wonderful. Keep it up, humans.

A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures, Eric Schwitzgebel

A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures by Eric  Schwitzgebel: 9780262539593 | Books

Schwitzgebel has long been one of my favorite philosophy bloggers. His vision of philosophy is much broader than the as some grand debate between various -isms. He asks the best questions. Should we be surprised if ethicists are unethical? Is it OK to aim for moral mediocrity? What does it take for a machine to trigger our ethical impulses?

Each of the chapters is about blog-long, which feels like the perfect amount to bite off for each of these philosophical reflections. Just enough to read in one sitting and keep in the back of your mind for the rest of the day.

Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, Carl Wilson

The writing here is at times dense but it’s also lively and accessible. The question here is easy to state but hard to answer: if taste is subjective, what does it mean to have good taste?

More to the point, if Celine Dion sucks then why do so many people love her music?

I loved this book, but it’s not for everyone. You need to have a taste for theory and Wilson’s arguments are subtle and not straightforward. I think he comes out on the idea that artistic quality is always relative to a community. Within a community, there is something more or less objective that can be called “taste,” but that’s because the community has its own reference frame. Switch to another community and the rules of taste change. When a gap in taste between the critic and some other group shows up, that’s an opportunity to learn what makes that community tick such that they love the art that they love — really, a critic should do this.

This book is funny, big-hearted and big-brained. I should probably reread it in 2021.

A Series of Recently Published Famous Books that Everybody Likes that I Also Liked

Piranesi, Susanna Clarke

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

Circe, Madeline Miller

The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu

Exhalation, Ted Chiang

Station Eleven: Mandel, Emily St. John: 8601422213614: Books
Madeline Miller - Circe The Three-Body Problem (9780765382030): Liu, Cixin, Liu, Ken:  Books
Exhalation: Stories: Chiang, Ted: 9781101947883: Books

Some books that I didn’t love quite as much as the others, but still loved: The Great Secret, Jack Handey’s The Stench of Honolulu, George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, Kitchen Confidential, Small Fry, Red White and Royal Blue, Very Short Intro to the American Revolution.

It’s impossible for me to review this objectively, but my friend Dr. Chavi Karkowsky wrote a truly remarkable book about her life as a doctor helping women with their high-risk pregnancies and deliveries.

High Risk, Chavi Eve Karkowsky MD

Even though it’s not really possible to be objective … the book is objectively great! And it’s not quite as terror-inducing as you might think. Chavi focuses on the systems — systems that save lives but also take on a life of their own and can feel at times oppressive for both doctors and patients both.

And here was my favorite more technical read of the year, one that I’m still in the middle of:

Ecology, Charles J. Krebs

Ecology: The Experimental Analysis of Distribution and Abundance | 6th  edition | Pearson

Like all textbooks this one costs 7 million dollars, but you can get the international edition used for far cheaper. (And if you are a determined googler … well, the internet contains all sorts of things, let’s leave it at that.)

This text has been a bit of a revelation to me. From start to finish, it’s mathematical. Are species more abundant when the species covers more territory? What happens when species compete with each other? How do populations grow?

The math is just accessible enough for me that I don’t need to break my head over it and can just enjoy the science. I’m looking forward to reading more of it and perhaps thinking about how I can bring some of it back for students.

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