Great Books I Read in 2008

In 2008 I made yet another attempt to read 52 books in one year.  Again, I have fallen short, this time with 44.  However, this beats last year’s attempt.

In my defense, I read some doozies this year.  “Das Capital” isn’t exactly a page turner, and you have to turn 1,300 of them.  Regardless, here are some books I read in 2008 that I think are worth a mention.

For 2009, I am particularly looking forward to fewer books about holocausts.  And more books under 1,000 pages.

The Communist Manifesto – Marx & Engels

Last year I read Harpo Marx and Groucho Marx.  This year, I switched to Karl.

“Working men of the world unite!”  Terrifying, and rigorously rhetorically effective.  Tremendous logical fallacies throughout.  Probably helps that the working men of Russia and Asia didn’t have high school educations.

Notes From Underground – Dostoyevsky

Very ahead of its time!  The first literary anti-hero I can think of…  A century before Holden Caufield!

Riveting arguments on Free Will.  Very, very first person.  Forerunner of existential thought.  Memorable quotations and really ground-breaking in every way.

For Dostoyevsky, this is a quick read.  And well worth it.

Five Essays on Philosophy – Mao Tse-tung

A historically fascinating albeit nearly philosophically useless collection of essays.  Probably Mao’s attempt to equal Lenin and Stalin in adding to the communist cannon.

“Where do correct ideas come from” was written three years before the Great Famine that killed 60 million Chinese through Mao’s insipid agricultural policies.  Mao expounds on his philosophy of “Let 100 flowers bloom, let 100 points of view collide,” while outlining how dissidents must be eliminated by the state.  Very eerie.

Almost all the logic of this book is confident but absurd, much like Marx.  The only interest I found is the symmetry between Yin/Yang Chinese philosophy and dialectical materialism, not that Mao was very explicit in this analogy.  A disturbing man.

I Wake Up Screening – John Anderson and Laura Kim

Really a terrific source of information on the independent film market as told by the community of buyers, filmmakers, producer’s reps, publicists, and press.

The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas

WONDERFUL.  Swashbuckling, romance, betrayal, vengeance, smuggling, pirating, dueling – just great.  And with serious themes of God and Free Will.  A fantastic adventure story with a great main character trapped in impossible situations.  Tore through this book in just over 24 hours.  Brilliant dramatic situations – every chapter is a self-contained adventure, forcing you to turn every page.

Musicophilia – Oliver Sacks

Interesting info and anecdotes about music and the brain; basically, music is really good for you.  This is the psychiatrist who wrote “Awakenings” and “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat.”

Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious – Sigmund Freud

The first 200 pages are like Aristotle’s Poetics – dryly defining categories of wit.  Then, at page 200, it gets interesting.  Freud asserts that jokes occur in the unconscious from conscious stimuli just like dreams.  And therefore wit – in its puns and absurdity – speaks the language of dreams.  And is therefore a direct window into the unconscious.  Pretty impressive book.

The Painted Bird – Jerzy Kosinski

Devastating portrayal of the decay of human decency in WWII.  Gut-wrenching display of Polish peasant life in all its cruelty, bigotry, and superstition.  Makes it easy to understand how the holocaust happened.  Really gripping writing.  All that said, the story is more than a little fantastical, and of course is not the true autobiography Kosinski claimed it to be.  Still, eminently readable; a good (albeit disturbing and nihilistic) book.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer

Virtuosic brilliance.  The narrative cleverness is absolutely breath-taking.  Safran Foer infuses every sentence with astonishing wit and sensitivity; this level of writing requires a high IQ indeed.  Safran Foer is easily one of my favorite novelists.

The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas

Monte Cristo I much preferred, but this is still a great treat.  Making it all about the female villain was interesting and more cerebral, but prompted no big sword and gun battles at the finale.  Also, a surprising amount of lead characters kick the bucket.

I never actually saw the words “all for one and one for all” so that was confusing.  Fwiw, I was not reading a perfect translation.

Iron Jack – Johnny Rosenthal

This is a screenplay that sold this year for $1.25 against $2 million.  I mention it only because of all the million dollar scripts that have sold in recent years, this one really made me laugh.  The first act is truly inspired – as good as anything I’ve read.

Aspects of the Masculine – Carl Jung

Some neat, albeit heavy ideas.  For instance, the belief that women become more masculine as they age, while men become more feminine.  The trouble with this sort of dense reading is that six months later, I can only remember a few sentences about the book.

Walden – Thoreau

Some great moments of inspired prose.  Some fireworks close to the end.  A revolutionary and inspiring piece of work.  Like Moby Dick, many parts are pure naturalism.  But many passages are transcendent (Well, I guess, “transcendental”), even when he’s simply describing the formation of bubbles in ice.

Das Capital – Karl Marx

Interesting from a historical perspective.  The vivid descriptions of the mistreatment of factory workers in the industrial revolution make it easier to understand why communism arose, and why it took the form that it did.

I was particularly intrigued by his idea of “fetishization of the commodity.”  Only a commodity’s function is relevant.  Helps explain why communists aren’t much for aesthetics.

Nevertheless, all of Marx’s economic assertions here are just wrong, wrong, wrong.  From his first premises (e.g., equating a commodity’s value to the labor required to produce it), to the irrational math he derives from those first premises (I’m talking Wittgensteinian levels of post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacies).

His narrational voice is surprisingly whiny for an economic treatise, often resorting to ad hominem, and taking it at face value that anyone in power must be resented.  From page one, this book is a shell game of faulty reasoning.  It’s too bad hundreds of millions of people went in for this stuff.

The Last Tycoon – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald is one of my all time favorite authors.  In his defense, he died before he could finish The Last Tycoon.  If I knew people were going to run around publishing my unfinished drafts, I would probably die, too.

Shopgirl – Steve Martin

Clever.  Possibly the only piece of Steve Martin’s entire oeuvre that I did not rabidly love.

Born Standing Up – Steve Martin

Read in one sitting.  Very fun and interesting.  It takes ten years to make an overnight success.

Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card

This has been recommended to me for years.  Zillions of people on Facebook list Ender’s Game among their favorites.

Money – Martin Amis

Pretty much a masterpiece.  If I ever get OCD enough to compile a 100 best list for books, I will put this on it.

The anti-hero and subject matter are in the gutter, as with most Amis!  But Martin Amis’s command of language is nothing short of astonishing.

The Kid Stays in the Picture – Robert Evans

Truly amazing life.  A very fun read.

Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut

Lots of neat ideas in a constantly evolving story.  Ultimately, for me the message of the book was a one-sided argument that religion is a joke and war is stupid, without really discussing alternatives, or real-world ramifications.  I think we all understand that war is bad; the interesting question is what do we do about it?

Nevertheless, an entertaining read.

The World’s Worst Book – Justin Heimberg

My roommate Justin has written a slew of coffee-table comedy books that you can find in the humor section of Borders or Barnes and Noble.  They’re all worth a read, starting with the “Would You Rather…” series.  Very clever stuff.

Save the Cat Goes to the Movies – Blake Snyder

Snyder has a lot of slap-yourself-on-the-forehead good ideas.  He’s the kind of writer I would give anything to sit down and have a cup of coffee with.  But I’m going to come right out and say I have a beef with some of his readers.

The sort of people I shake hands with in creative meetings who’ve never read a story structure book in their lives – until they read Save The Cat – and now they think they’re structure mavens.  It’s the exact same species of disdain I have for adults who haven’t finished a book since high school, and then start gushing to me about Harry Potter.  I think it’s great that you read a book, but it doesn’t make you Ravelstein.

Like any good theorist worth his salt, Snyder is standing on the shoulders of giants.  Joseph Campbell, Christopher Vogler, Syd Field, and Georges Polti leap to mind.  Also Carl Jung, Aristotle, Robert McKee, Terry Rossio & Ted Elliot, Michael Hauge, Lajos Egri, and Linda Seger.  Snyder is not the first story structure theorist to discuss these ideas and he won’t be the last.

This is why I get annoyed when entertainment industry friends try to talk about “Blake Snyder’s +/- midpoint,” when Syd Field used that exact terminology thirty years ago.  It’s like loving Chris Tucker and having no idea who Eddie Murphy is.  Note, my ire here is not directed at Blake Snyder – who has great new ideas – it’s directed at many of his fans – who often don’t.

I suppose the good news is that someone has finally written a story structure book that everyone will read.  And for that feat, Blake Snyder probably deserves his zillions of dollars!

Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand

The first 100 pages I absolutely loved – the battle between the competent people and the incompetent.  The idea of telling all the incompetent people to go shove it deeply appealed to me.  Like, cathartically so.  My relationship with this book in week one was borderline anaclitic.

The next 1,000 pages required a bit of effort (e.g., the palaverous 100 page John Galt speech).  On the whole, my libertarian side is deeply sympathetic to Ayn Rand’s message.  But my understanding is that Fountainhead is the better piece of fiction.  It’s on the list for 2009.

The Princess Bride – William Goldman  (Also Buttercup’s Baby)

Really a delightful book.  There should be more books like this.  This is definitely one of my favorite books of the year.

Foundation – Isaac Asimov

Clever solutions to unsolvable situations; the only weak point for me is the story takes place over 300 years.  So everyone dies off every fifty pages and you have to learn all new characters.

Also, Asimov writes, “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent” about seven times.  I have never understood this quote.  Wouldn’t violence be the first refuge of the incompetent?

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