Kevin's Reading List
A diary about my readings – the non-economic ones, or at least the non-specific-interest ones.
June 2008. Javier Marías, Your Face Tomorrow, vol.
I Fever and Spear. A superb novel! I rushed out to get vol. II when I finished
the first book. It's languid and
careful; not a great deal actually happens.
My daughter asked what the book was about, when I had read about the
first 150 pages, and I had to answer 'A man goes to a dinner party' because, by
then, that was just about all of the plot. It sped up toward the end, but mostly because
the author had done so much of the foundational work. It ends up as a digressive novel about human
interactions: the title, Your Face
Tomorrow, refers to the question of how people change over time, how a
friend one day can turn on you the next, and whether those changes can be
perceived – or could be, if only our perceptions were keen enough. So the narrator is recruited to a group of
analysts who are all perceptive enough (or believe themselves to be) to offer
themselves as consultants. But the backstory, or perhaps the actual most important part (for
which the perception consultancy is mere proscenium), is the story of the
Spanish Civil War and the experiences of the narrator's father. So the Spanish-English axis continues,
whether referring to George Orwell's tales in
The opening lines of Marías' novel are terrifying:
One should never tell anyone anything or give information or pass on stories or make people remember beings who have never existed or trodden the earth or traversed the world, or who, having done so, are now almost safe in uncertain, one-eyed oblivion. Telling is almost always done as a gift, even when the story contains and injects some poison, it is also a bond, a granting of trust, and rare is the trust or confidence that is not sooner or later betrayed, rare is the close bond that does not grow twisted or knotted and, in the end, become so tangled that a razor or knife is needed to cut it.
May 2008. Anthony Everitt, Augustus. A very interesting history; I have never felt sufficiently educated about Roman history. And it's fascinating to see that, while subsequent historians have preserved so much about the feuds within the Triumvirate that launched him to power, the historical record is much scanter about how he administered the empire. Everitt notes that the boundaries of the empire which Augustus established were very little changed for the next half-millennium. The system was remarkably stable!
The book was particularly useful to me since I, an ill-informed amateur, am the target demographic – it's not written for the experts, it doesn't assume very much prior knowledge.
My one criticism is that Everitt seemed to try to paint Augustus' motives in a good light, to whitewash his constant maneuvers, double-crosses, and failings. It's understandable that a biographer likes his subject but Everitt sometimes goes too far. We should be able to recognize that Augustus was a genius as an administrator but often a coward in battle. He liked to get the knife in, once the back was turned.
Feb – 2008. Leo Tolstoy War and Peace, the new Pevear and Volokhonsky translation.
Wow! Fantastic! I can't remember when was the last time I was
head-over-heels for a novel! Facing all
of those words I'm left without any. I
can only gawk in astonishment. I'd read
it a long time ago in a prehistoric translation [the Maude's, said to be good,
although they felt it necessary to make one of the main characters Prince
"Andrew" Bolkonsky!]. Now I'm reading it out loud and that helps a
lot, too. It would be a bit much to say
that every word is necessary – the old line about cutting every word that
doesn't directly help the plot. Some
scenes, even, are probably superfluous from the most efficiency-centered point
of view – yet they're wonderful! They're
a joy to read, to just play in, to try to see and
understand how a mid-nineteenth-century aristocrat wants to show off the world
of the early-nineteenth-century aristocracy.
So actually every scene is a delight, since each one is nonetheless
packed full of action and subtle feeling.
Each character seems real, seems fully rounded, like they continue to
live even once the cover of the book is closed.
An early scene where Prince Andrei says goodbye to his father is
particularly moving just the way it's packed with repressed emotion and
unstated (but still clearly communicated) love.
The book is so long and yet some sentences are so understated, like when
the 'results' of
There's a set piece at the end, of the Russian army soldiers making camp in the frozen cold as they follow the French retreat out of the country, ending with:
"Ohh! Lord, Lord! What an awful lot of stars! It'll be freezing cold…" And everything became still.
The stars, as if knowing that no one could see them now, frolicked in the black sky. Now flaring up, now going out, now quivering, they busily whispered among themselves about something joyful but mysterious.
"O Lord, O Lord! How starry it is! Tremendous! That means a hard frost…"
They all grew silent. The stars, as if knowing that no one was looking at them, began to disport themselves in the dark sky: now flaring up, now vanishing, now trembling, they were busy whispering something gladsome and mysterious to one another. ]
Other parts are marvels of double meaning such as the scenes
about the role of the sovereign emperor.
He is presented in godlike glory from the perspective of Nicholai Rostov (the naïve boy) at
The book is also much the better because I read it aloud. When Millie is up in the night I read to her. Donna reads kids books but I have decided that the value to Millie is in the sonorous voice not the content, so I read for me. It means that I chew each sentence carefully and pay attention to each word, I don't read as fast as usual.
I like slow reading. I learned to read very fast; it was a useful skill in college! And certainly there are many collections of words on paper that should only be read fast. Anything in "memo" style ought to be bolted down like a pelican eating a fish, as with anything written by committee. But literature can be savored. Maybe it's more like people used to read. Nowadays I realize that Anna, just in kindergarten, is already sight-reading many words – she's been exposed to writing from the moment her baby eyes could see. But a century ago many people hardly ever saw print, even the ones who qualified as 'literate'. So a typical reader might read more slowly than nowadays.
However reading aloud also means that my lack of knowledge
of Russian names hurts; I've got to learn better! I fear that I'm butchering the pronunciations
terribly. There are some, like
More seriously… I've also read the NYTimes blog about the new translation, which has helped raise interesting questions. I was surprised that many of the commentators, even some of the 'experts', disliked the fact that Pevear & Volokhonsky kept most of the French phrases. Tolstoy wrote it with those long French phrases, trying to show how the nobility of the time actually spoke. It's unlikely that many of his readers had an easy time with those sections, so why should the modern reader? After all, I read Vanity Fair to learn about how people used to speak, shouldn't I get a similar education from Tolstoy?
They particularly take on the scene where Kutuzov and Andrei take their (final) leave, where Kutuzov gives his views on war (III, 2, XVI):
[from the Maudes:] "but everything came at the right time. Tout vient à point à celui qui sait attendre. And there were as many advisers there as
here…" he went on, returning to the subject of "advisers" which
evidently occupied him. "Ah, those
advisers!" said he. "If we had
listened to them all we should not have made peace with
[from Pevear & Volokokhonsky:] "but
everything came at the right time. Tout vient à point
à celui qui sait attendre. And
there, too, there were no fewer advisers than here…" he went on, returning
to the advisers, who were clearly on his mind.
"Ah, advisers, advisers," he said. "If we'd listened to everybody there in
"But won't we have to accept battle?" said Prince Andrei.
"We'll have to if everybody wants it, there's no way around it… And yet, my dear boy, there's nothing stronger than those two warriors, patience and time; they'd do it all, but the advisers n'entendent pas de cette oreille, voilà le mal. Some want it, others don't. What can we do?" he asked, evidently expecting an answer. "Yes, what would you have us do?" he repeated, and his eyes shone with a profound, intelligent expression. "I'll tell you what to do," he went on, since Prince Andrei still gave no answer. "I'll tell you what to do, and what I do. Dans le doute, mon cher," he paused, "abstiens-toi," he pronounced measuredly.
The Times bloggers didn't like the way that Pevear & Volokhonsky kept the French from the original, but it seems obvious to me. Tolstoy tells exactly why in the Kutuzov scene: he wants to show the oddness of this paragon of the Russian soul who nonetheless is as westernized as could be, particularly as Francophone as anyone else in his class. Andrei thinks:
[Maudes] "one believes in him because he's Russian, despite the novel by Genlis and the French proverbs, and because his voice shook when he said: 'What they have brought us to!' and had a sob in it when he said he would 'make them eat horseflesh!' "
[P&V] "And the main reason why one believes him," thought Prince Andrei, "is that he's Russian, despite the Genlis novel and the French proverbs; it's that his voice trembled when he said, 'See what they've brought us to!" and had a catch in it when he said he'd 'make them eat horseflesh.' "
There was much arguing on the blog about the translation. I think of the analogy with Vanity Fair, which I finished before
this. (I didn't realize the parallels,
but they are there – certainly W&P is much finer literature while VF is a
comedy of manners, but both are lengthy stories about the lives of characters
wrapped around the Napoleonic wars. Could make many analogies: George Osborne & Nicolas
Perhaps, if I'm on a 19th-century-novels-about-the-Napoleonic-Wars jag, I should toss in Les Miserables?
Finally I remember reading an essay about reading great
novels when we are at different ages, so we sympathize with different
characters. I remember when I last read W&P
Jan 2008 William Makepeace Thackeray Vanity Fair. Very entertaining, a cross between a Dickens sort of style (written for serialization so each chapter must sustain interest) but with the point of view of Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary. Good people fail and the wicked prosper. It bills itself as a novel without a hero and sure enough the main characters are treated like family: an overture protesting love and affection followed by a compendium of the character's faults and failings. Also takes pains to point out all of the turning-points where only chance determined whether a character would succeed or not – the exact opposite of the ancient Greek idea that character determines the outcome, this is back to the medieval idea of the wheel of chance.
Dec 2007 Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars. The good stuff! Why are our history classes so bad? How can anybody complain that history is boring, when actually it is much more the case that mediocre historians are boring and our school classes are stuffed with textbooks by mediocre historians.
Dec 2007 Javier Marías, Written Lives. These are extremely compact summaries of the lives of great authors, sprinkled heavily with fun details that bring the author to life. I admit that many (too many!) of the books are unread by me, so some were enjoyable summaries of authors I've enjoyed reading, others made me want to go read new books.
Nov 2007 Beowulf,
translated by Seamus Heaney. Ever since
this translation came out, I've meant to get to it – and wow! Much of my reading is done as I get Millie to
sleep, rocking her in my lap and reading aloud.
That reading aloud really helps in a tale like this. There are some things that are meant to be
read silently (for instance, on occasion I've tried to read one of the kids to
sleep with that week's Economist – lousy results for all) and others that could
go either way. Many great novels can go
in either category: if we want to plough through to get the plot or the overall
impression then silent reading is best, but then we can go through again
reading aloud, enjoying each phrase.
Nov 2007 Jose Saramago, Seeing. It's unclear how to read this book. It's not quite a novel since it has few real characters; it tells the story of people of an unnamed capital city who vote but mostly leave the ballots blank. It is in no way realistic in its depiction of popular movements that rise up without leaders or demands or even an agenda. But yet it has a certain pull, it's almost like a fable where you're not supposed to believe that it ever could happen, not supposed to think of the character as in any way realistic – just enjoy the tale! Yet unlike a fable it's not clear if there is a lesson to impart (which perhaps assures the reader's enjoyment for who wants to be preached to?). I've been thinking that it's odd to have main characters (about the only ones that stay constant throughout the book) being politicians. I don't usually think of politicians as being human or having personalities.
Sept 2007 Yann Martel, Life of Pi. A crazy notion, that begins slowly until it gets to the central conceit, a boy stranded on a life raft with just a tiger. It leans against the curtain of reality, pushing and pushing against the reader's idea of what might be possible. It works, up until the very last chapters. At the end it goes too far, when the author just gives the point-by-point map of how the story is just one big allegory, just bangs the reader over the head with a mallet, "See? Here? This figure corresponds to this one." I wondered how I could have missed the transition from novel to cliff notes. Really, it was a good book except for the last chapters.
Sept 2007 Gary Shteyngart,
Absurdistan. This was like a South Park episode: it begins
with a rush, then inevitably slows down in the middle until it almost gets lost
(on the notion that such a book must have a plot rather than just be a series
of jokes) before the end brings it home.
It's also like
August 2007 Fyodor Dostoevsky, Demons (The Possessed). I'd been meaning to read this book since Pamuk's Snow reminded me of it. It's a terrific book: both a funny sly satire of the Russian intelligentsia as well as a more serious inquiry into how reformers turn to violence. Some classic characters: Pyotr Verkhovensky, poor Kirillov with his dreams of godhead, Shatov trying to get out of the group …
August 2007 Anthony Everitt, Cicero. A very good book about one of my brother's favorites, "Tully". I learned a lot and really enjoyed the history since it was told to maximize the narrative and explain all of the relevant details so that even someone who doesn't know much (like me) doesn't get lost in the maze of titles and historical threads (Caesar vs Sulla, for example).
July 2007 Charles Rangel, And I Haven't Had a Bad Day Since.
Donna got me this for Father's Day, since I've been working on course
proposals for the college's new Rangel Center in Public Policy – she figured I
ought to know more about the Congressman.
His autobiography was actually better than I expected: the first
two-thirds were about his early years, service in
June 2007 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. I hadn't read this in years, since I was an undergraduate I think, and I decided I wanted to re-visit this author (I mentioned in some of the previous book musings). It's interesting how our interpretations can change; I can remember once reading it and being very engaged with Alyosha, the mystic brother, while not really getting the others. This time I'm more convinced that Alyosha is an oddball, such a man-child, while I like the other characters. And I certainly appreciate more all of the humorous asides, all of the subsidiary characters who get the good lines – some are laugh-out-loud funny (sometimes because they remind me of people I know). I guess that, now that I'm older and I've met more people, I can better appreciate how he has created and populated an entire world of full characters. Most of them are multi-dimensional, sometimes just in for laughs until without warning the text suddenly breathes life into them.
May 2007 Alice Munro, Runaway. Her latest collection of stories is terrific as ever. She has the astounding gift of making it all look easy, just telling stories as if these words were the first ones to tumble out, as if it were real life being narrated.
April 2007 Victor Davis Hanson, A War Like No Other. This can be seen as a modern-day reader's guide to Thucydides – Hanson goes through the Peloponnesian War and explains some of the things that Thucydides took for granted. He is enormously well-informed but also can make analogies to more modern conflicts, whether the current events of terrorism or other wars of US and European history. I was also a bit relieved to find out that even the experts have a tough time understanding quite all the details of Thucydides – Hanson explains that just figuring out what the heck is a trireme was quite a major discovery of recent classical studies! But it's not just a war history, it's an interesting study of (the world's first) democracy at war -- for example, he points out that some of the heartbreaking dramas and comedies that have come down to us were written and performed during some of the most savage fighting – so Euripides wrote about the tragedy of mass punishment while Athens had the Mytilenian debate and Aristophanes wrote the anti-war Lysistrata then as well. It's tough to imagine modern-day analogues.
Mar. 2007 Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loanna. I'm a fan so I'll read basically anything that Eco writes; this one was a fascinating experiment but, ultimately, a miss. He tried to mix words and pictures throughout the book, which was mostly about a stroke patient trying to resurrect his memories from during and after WWII. Most of the cultural references were doubly lost on me (I'm too young and not Italian) so, while they were interesting intellectually, they didn't connect emotionally. It should have – I, too, was a kid who grew up reading books, who took out stacks and stacks from the library. But this book about a book guy trying to remember his own childhood reading just didn't do it.
Feb. 2007 Marilyn Robinson,
Jan. 2007 Orhan Pamuk, Snow. A beautiful novel; it seemed more like a
Russian novel from a hundred years ago.
Since I don't know much about
Nov. 2006 Debby Applegate, The Most Famous Man in
5.20.06 Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Memories of my Melancholy Whores. I was able to read this book in one sitting – while my 3 lovely women were napping. I rarely get the pleasure of having more than a couple of minutes back-to-back and have been falling behind (my list of want-to-read grows much faster than my list of been-read). This book was tremendous: a mediation on a particular sort of love and how it can transform someone's life. The narrator is a 90-year-old man who falls in love with a woman he's never talked with or known anything about. It shows the strangeness of love: giving oneself to another brings joy to your own heart, regardless of what the other does or does not do. A person can be transformed by love even if that object of love is ephemeral, insubstantial, a will-o-wisp. It's odd how selfish an unselfish love can be.
3.1.06 Tim Harford, The Undercover Economist. Another book that was appealing to me, as a geek, but I believe it could also be useful or interesting to civilians, too. It starts slow, I have to admit – the first chapter on trade is pretty textbook-y. But the later chapters really pick up and give some great examples of how far you can go with just some basic economic theory.
1.10.06 Zadie Smith, On Beauty. I thought this was terrific – not only is it densely plotted with tangles of inter-relations among earlier novels (E M Forster, of course, as Smith notes at the beginning) and artworks, but most importantly it's a joy to read – I had a hard time putting it down. Of course Smith can be quite funny sometimes but, unlike White Teeth, this is not so zany. It is much more serious, creating a huge number of characters that seem real, who we get to know and understand. Perhaps it's me – the book is set in a college so of course many of the character types are familiar. But it really seems like the characters are living, breathing people who interact in a variety of ways. The end of the book leaves many threads hanging for exactly that reason – the characters are still going, somewhere, living the remainder of their lives in some far universe.
12.31.05 David Salsburg, Lady Tasting Tea. Like the book below, this is a collection of essays on the history of statistics, although this one concentrates on the 20th century and has more short biographies. This is lighter on the formulas which is sometimes a disappointment. But many of the stories are fascinating -- although they are generally so upbeat and positive, even the dirt is dished out with cleansing codicils (for instance the influence of many early statisticians on eugenics is washed away). But maybe there's another book to be written, about the Skeletons of Statistics!?
10.15.05 Stephen Stigler, Statistics on the Table. This is a collection of essays about the history of statistics, providing interesting glimpses of the short intellectual history of the field and a reminder that it is quite young – even into the beginning of the 1900s much of the basic principles were still being settled.
8.20.05 JRR Tolkien – volume XII of the collected writings. I am usually in the midst of several books at any one time; over the years when I read to Anna before bed, I have been reading through Tolkien's books. (Mostly; occasionally also Shakespeare, Italo Calvino, or other books.) We've read the Hobbit, the trilogy, Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, then the 12 volumes of Lost Tales and other collected writings. Now I'm starting on his correspondence. I find that reading aloud is so vastly different from reading normally! And now (Sept.5) it turns out that the reading is all wrong – his letters lack the handsome cadences of his tales; they're staccato and sharp. Where the tales are written to be read aloud – the words are like worn river-stones eroded to gentle globes, the letters are meant to be read. It certainly doesn't much help the kid get to sleep.
8.2.05 Tufte, Graphical Display of Information and Visual Display of Quantitative Information. These are classics; again I've been loaning them out and suggesting them to students – the Visual Display book is a work of art in itself (the Graphical Display is less cohesive – it's a collection of essays; of course so is VDQI but that seems to hang together better). Seriously, Tufte's first one, along with Graphic Discovery: A Trout in the Milk and Other Visual Adventures by Howard Wainer, are good enough to keep me awake late into the night because I can't put down the book! I know, that sounds sick, and you're wondering whether that says more about me or the book. But really, I've fallen asleep on top of plenty of stats books, with my head opening the leaves of the text, drooling over some pdf formula. These are really interesting and really great fun; entirely different!
7.20.05 Freakonomics, Steve Leavitt & Stephen Dubner. I've been recommending this to all of my students – it's a hilarious and greatly entertaining book about economics (I know, that's not a phrase that you hear very often). It's mostly scattershot – there's no real theme or big picture, it's just a great entry-level description of Leavitt's research (along with background that some of the academic papers don't have, like how Venktash got the info on the drug gang's finances). If you like economics, you'll enjoy reading this book.
6.11.05 LambicLand/Lambikland by Tim Webb, Chris Pollard, & Joris Pattyn
(http://www.booksaboutbeer.com/) is in both English and Flemish. It's a terrific guide to the best cafes in Payottenland, the area near
I finished Living to Tell
the Tale by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, his autobiography. I don't know whether to call it fiction or
non-fiction, although I guess that problem is common to all autobiography. He describes the world he grew up in, that
sounds very much like the world he's been describing. He describes the day that several of his
grandfather's illegitimate sons showed up at the house in Aracataca
on Ash Wednesday with black crosses on their foreheads; the store-room with
seventy chamber-pots. Did Garcia Marquez
write his novels just because he had the gift of living a novelistic life; or
did he have the gift of interpreting the quotidian facts of life in a
novelistic way? I'm guessing that the
gift is the latter, that he saw ordinary things in an extraordinary way. (That says that this book is about the same
combination of fiction and nonfiction as his others.) But the book was also as much a pleasure to
read as any of his novels, and that is more important
than any worry about fiction. It also
taught me a bit more about
Previously I had read The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance, by Anthony Gottlieb. He's a writer for The Economist, and writes very well. He shows that you can write wittily about serious topics rather than most philosophy that writes ponderously about dead-serious topics… I have already loaned it out; my brother Eric originally got it for me but I was dilatory in getting to read it.