Reading List of a Plague Year

If there was an upside to spending the better part of 2020 sheltering in place, it was that I had plenty of time to read. I generally had two books going at any given time, one audio and one text, with the text usually on my Kindle but occasionally buried in glyphs on wafer-thin chunks of dead tree.

I’ve grown so used to the Kindle that when I read an actual book I often reach out to click on words I don’t know the meaning of to look them up in the dictionary. I love that about the Kindle. Words I used to glide over and take in context I now look up and study a bit. And I love having enough books on it that I could probably spend the next year or three reading without adding anything else, especially given all the public domain titles I’ve downloaded from Project Gutenberg and Internet Archive. But it’s definitely been a love-hate relationship. I was using a 7-year-old Paperwhite that was slow and littered with ads. Just solved that by upgrading to a new, ad-free Oasis. It’s awesome. I love having page turn buttons, and the only downside I’m seeing is the battery life is more like 20 hours instead of a couple weeks.

The Oasis upgrade also made note taking easier. Between the crappy notes software on the Kindle and the slow speed of my Paperwhite, I’d pretty much given up. The Oasis is still saddled with Kindle’s crappy notes software, but it’s so much faster that it’s at least usable. Bring on 2021.

But first, a look back. What did I read? More than I’d realized, to be honest. I read a lot when I was in Costa Rica a few years ago, but that was concentrated in 3 months. This was pretty much year-long.

The List

Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World,” Paul Stamets
My impressions.

The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins
My impressions.

Men and Steel, Mary Heaton Vorse
My impressions.

The Overstory: A Novel, Richard Powers

One of my tree obsession books. Very much enjoyed this. Great story well told.

“Pawpaw! The only tropical fruit ever to escape the tropics. Biggest, best, weirdest, wildest native fruit this continent ever made. Growing native, right here in Ohio. And nobody knows!”

The Practice of the Wild: With a New Preface by the Author, Gary Snyder

Snyder is one of my favorite poets. This is a series of meditations on wildness, wilderness, freedom, all that good stuff. This is where I heard about Cabeza de Vaca’s work (see below), which I promptly downloaded free from public domain sources.

The word wild is like a gray fox trotting off through the forest, ducking behind bushes, going in and out of sight.

And because it’s Snyder, one of my heroes, another quote:

Although the Chinese and Japanese have long given lip service to nature, only the early Daoists might have thought that wisdom could come of wildness.

The Narrative of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca

Astounding. The arrogance of the Spaniards. The trials and tribulations of their journey along the Gulf Coast of what is now Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas. Cabeza de Vaca is enslaved at one point. Just insane reading. Worth a gander at the Wikipedia entry if you want an abridged version.

Days in a Mad-House; / or, Nellie Bly’s Experience on Blackwell’s Island

My impressions.

Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes (translated by Edith Grossman)

Is it by chance frivolous, or is the time wasted that is spent wandering the world, not seeking its rewards but the asperities by which the virtuous rise to the seat of immortality?

This was my Big Book for the year. I’ve always wanted to read it. Bounced off once previously and hoped the Grossman translation would be worth the effort. It was. But I did struggle with it and almost abandoned it near the end of book one. I’m glad I persevered though. I’ve heard a lot of people say they think the second part, which was written about a decade after the first, is inferior, but I liked it more. It often drifted into metafiction and featured strange narrative framing that I found fascinating, but the “adventures” do plod on at times and become repetitive. I love the Blackadder/Baldric dynamic of Don Quixote/Sancho Panza … their verbal jousting is as amusing as their runs at windmills.

After Bread, Henryk Sienkiewicz

Part of my background reading for The Novel, which has been pretty much moribund since I returned from Costa Rica. Plotting a return to it, though …

This is an account of Polish immigrants in New York City. Very dark, naturalistic approach. Downloaded it from Archive.net, I think …

Fifty-Two Stories, Anton Chekhov

When George Saunders said he was working on a series of meditations on Chekhov’s sort stories, I figured I better get off my ass and read Chekhov’s short stories. They’re incredible. Minimalist at times, even imagist, but it’s not the spare writing of someone with nothing to say. Perhaps wading through Saunders’ book will be my Big Book for 2021. Still deciding …

Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America, Christopher Wylie

Horrifying look at what happens when fascists figure out how to use social media — and the data they learn about people one social media — to enrage sections of the public to do their dark bidding. Facebook’s culpability in all this convinced me to use that platform as little as possible for the rest of my days …

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, Merlin Sheldrake

Another great book on mushrooms. Nice complement to Stamets’ Mycelium Running.

The Devil All the Time, Donald Ray Pollock

Local guy from my neck of Appalachia who didn’t start writing till he was in his 50s. Pollock is a literary descendant of Flannery O’Connor minus the Catholic transcendence her work turns on. I’d already read Knockemstiff by him, which was incredible. Loved this book, but I couldn’t even finish the Netflix version of it.

The General and the Jaguar: Pershing’s Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge, Eileen Welcome

This was fantastic and written by a friend who won a Pulitzer for her work uncovering horrific plutonium experiments conducted on unsuspecting U.S. citizens. I was an editor on that story when it ran in the 1990s. I read Katz’s brick of a bio on Pancho Villa last year. Eileen does a brilliant job of breathing life into each character in the Mexican rebel’s strange attack on a remote U.S. town. A tale well told and definitely worth reading.

The Heavenly Table: A Novel, Donald Ray Pollock

Probably the weakest of the three books I’ve read by Pollock, but certainly not a waste of time.

Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson

I’d read rave reviews of this, but I honestly remember little of it and recall it mostly as another junky’s ode. Just don’t care that much anymore.

Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner

Perfect read for these times of rising white supremacy. A meditation on race, identity, and the South from the perspective of a brilliant, drunken White boy. It’s easy to get lost in the roiling flow of Faulkner’s writing and miss the incredible storyline’s he’s weaving.

The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, Herman Melville

I think I picked this up based on a recommendation on one of the literature podcasts I listen to, but I don’t recall which one. (perhaps Marlon and Jake Read Dead People, which I highly recommend and wish they would resurrect; Marlon James is one of my favorite contemporary writers — and he’s fucking hilarious.) They were discussing Moby Dick when this was recommended. It’s a reminder of what an incredible talent Melville was and a chance to see how deeply rooted Trumpism is in American culture.

Narrative of My Captivity Among the Sioux Indians, Fanny Kelly

Don’t remember how I stumbled across this but I’m glad I did. It’s a fascinating story.

The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles

Another recommendation I picked up on a literary podcast, in this case Should You Read Before You Die? by Josh Anish. It’s become one of my favorite podcasts. I’d circled Bowles’ book several times sensing it was something in my wheelhouse. I dove in based on Anish’s recommendation and wasn’t disappointed.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

My companion at the press drank every day a pint before breakfast, a pint at breakfast with his bread and cheese, a pint between breakfast and dinner, a pint at dinner, a pint in the afternoon about six o’clock, and another when he had done his day’s work. I thought it a detestable custom; but it was necessary, he suppos’d, to drink strong beer, that he might be strong to labor.

The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, Rainer Maria Rilke, Stephen Mitchell, and Robert Hass

Duino Elegies, Rilke

I started reading Rilke based on a Twitter prank I tried to pull on Ray Wylie Hubbard that he either didn’t see or he (justifiably) wasn’t willing to dignify with his attention. It’s why my Twitter handle is still Ghost of Rilke. In the process of scheming, I realized I’d never actually read Rilke. Time to fix that. I found it dense but not impenetrable, and the intro by Hass was invaluable. I’m working on a Rilke post, but for now, here’s my shot across Ray’s bow:

Oh, Darling, James A. Jones Jr.
Loved this. It was written by one of my first bosses. Jim was in charge at the Clewiston News when I arrived way back in 1984. This is the story of his Vietnam experience and, more specifically, how he met his wife while there. It’s the story of a normal guy’s experiences in turbulent times, and it’s also an inspiring love story.

Resurrection of the Wild: Meditations on Ohio’s Natural Landscape, Deborah Fleming

It’s not exactly in my neck of the woods, but I learned a lot reading this and particularly appreciate Fleming’s pragmatic approach to managing natural areas, accommodating a variety of uses and interests.

Audio Books

Colonel Roosevelt, Edmund Morris (Narrated by Mark Deakins) (started 12/19, completed 1/20)

Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris (Narrated by Jonathan Marosz)

Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (Narrated b: Robin Field)

Mythos, Stephen Fry (Narrated by Stephen Fry)

The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square, Ned Sublette (Narrated by: Sean Crisden)

Tales from the Ant World, Edward O. Wilson (Narrated by: Jonathan Hogan )

Beowulf: A New Translation, Maria Dahvana Headley, (Narrated by: JD Jackson, Maria Dahvana Headley)

Perhaps the best version of Beowulf I’ve read. A daring, contemporary, thrilling, and yes, feminist take. I highly recommend this.

Beowulf, Translation by Seamus Heaney

One of my top two favorite translations.

The Mere Wife, Maria Dahvana Headley (Narrated by Susan Bennett)

As I commented on Reddit, I loved this until I didn’t. But it’s a still a great book and definitely worth reading. Maria Dahvana Headley is someone I’d love to talk literature with over a bottle of mead.

Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl, Jonathan C. Slaght (Narrated by author)

Wow. This is about owls. Strange owls. But it’s also about the strangeness of remote Russia. Great book.

The Dead, James Joyce (Narrated by Michael Orenstein)

I read this every year at Christmas. Decided to listen to it this year. Great move. The narrator was fantastic and it was nice to sit back, close my eyes and let Joyce’s language filter down on me like the Dublin snow. It’s been called the greatest short story in the English language. I’ve yet to encounter one better.