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. Ultimately, I’m not sure how much lasting emotional power the book will have over me, but from page to page, the narrative cleverness is absolutely brilliant. He infuses every sentence with astonishing cleverness and sensitivity; in my opinion it takes way more IQ to write this than a Hemingway novel. Safran Foer is easily one of my favorite novelists.
The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
Pretty enjoyable. Monte Cristo I much preferred. Making it all about the female villain was interesting and more cerebral, but prompted no big sword and gun battles at the ending. Also, a surprising amount of lead characters kick the bucket; the second half of the book was slow.
Also I never actually saw the words “all for one and one for all” so that was confusing. Fwiw, I was reading an awful 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. Look for it starring Sacha Baron Cohen in the next few years.
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 reading is that six months later, I can only remember one or two 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 boring 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 billions of people went in for this stuff.
The Last Tycoon – F. Scott Fitzgerald
(NB: 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
Lots of cleverness and yet not a page turner. All I could think reading this book was “show don’t tell.” The height of New Yorker magazine hautiness – everyone is rich and into high art. I love, love, love Steve Martin. But I did not love, love, love this book.
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. I liked it okay. I think the window for loving this book is middle school.
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. 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, Denny Flin, Lajos Egri, and Linda Seeger. 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 a creative executive tries to tell me 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 and Richard Pryor are. 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 studio executives will bother to read. And for that feat, Blake Snyder probably deserves his zillions of dollars.
Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand
Look, 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.
But for the next 1,000 pages Rand’s arguments are repetitive and often seem incomplete (e.g., the palaverous John Galt speech). It’s a thought experiment that works on paper but not in real life. Human beings are much more nuanced than they are in Ayn Rand’s fiction, where they exist simply to force her points.
The place where I really lost interest was when the female hero has relationships with three different men with no negative consequences. Ayn Rand attempted this in her real life and it didn’t work out quite as well for her.
On the whole, my libertarian side is deeply, deeply sympathetic to Ayn Rand’s message. But my understanding is that Fountainhead is the better novel. 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?