Why you should read books

September 20, 2022 • 12:00 pm

Writing this post seems a bit like carrying coals to Newcastle, for I know most readers here are avid, well, readers—of books, that is. I’ve gotten a lot of useful tips from readers, and the knowledge of books evinced in the comments is impressive. Nevertheless, I liked the article by Ross Barkan below, who says he reads 40-50 books a year (I estimate I read about 25—two per month).

Now we’ve all heard that the average American reads about one book a year. According to a recent Gallup poll, though, that ain’t true.  Although Americans are self-reported to be reading fewer books over the years, they still average 12.6 books per year. Below is the average plotted over the past 32 years, which reached a peak of nearly 19 books per year in 1999 and now is at a low of 12.6.

But I don’t believe the data, which I think give estimates that are too high. It’s based on self report, and of course people want to make themselves look bookish, and it includes as a “book” parts of a book!

The results are based on a Dec. 1-16 Gallup poll, which updated a trend question on book reading. The question asks Americans to say how many books they “read, either all or part of the way through” in the past year. Interviewers are instructed to include all forms of books, including printed books but also electronic books and audiobooks, when entering the respondent’s answer.

They also count audiobooks, so if you listen to a book, even part of it, it counts as a whole book. I do have friends who read a lot of books, but I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if the average American—not college students or intellectuals—reads more than a book a month.

Below are the data showing the variation. As Gallup reports:

The decline in book reading is mostly a function of how many books readers are reading, as opposed to fewer Americans reading any books. The 17% of U.S. adults who say they did not read any books in the past year is similar to the 16% to 18% measured in 2002 to 2016 surveys, though it is higher than in the 1999 to 2001 polls.

The drop is fueled by a decline in the percentage of Americans reading more than 10 books in the past year. Currently, 27% report that they read more than 10 books, down eight percentage points since 2016 and lower than every prior measure by at least four points.

It baffles me that some people can read no books. What do you do on a long plane or train ride, or in the evening if you don’t watch t.v.?

Finally, by age class, gender, and education.  College students, women, and older people are those who reduced their reading in the last 20 years.

Why the change? I would have thought that readership increased during the pandemic, but maybe people were into watching their “devices” or turning on the tube. Gallup doesn’t know, either:

The new data on book reading reinforce that the popularity of reading is waning, with Americans reading an average of three fewer books last year than they did five years ago and had typically read for the past three decades. The decline is not because fewer Americans are reading at all — a percentage that has held steady at 17% — but because Americans who do read are reading fewer books. The changes are especially pronounced among the most voracious book readers, namely, college graduates, women and older Americans.

It is unclear from these data if the declines in book readership are occurring because of a lack of interest in books, a lack of time to read books, or perhaps COVID-19-related disruptions in lifestyle activities or access to books. It is also uncertain at this point whether the declines in book reading mark a temporary change or a more permanent one.

I always find reading a great pleasure, though my time is limited given this website and, lately, insomnia, which makes it hard to concentrate after a bad night.  The reason people should read is the object of this short article on Ross Barkan’s Substack, “Political Currents”. Barkan is listed as “a contributor to the Nation and a Guardian columnist. He is the author of three books, including the novel The Night Burns Bright and The Prince: Andrew Cuomo, Coronavirus, and the Fall of New York.” And that’s all I know about him. He does mount a decent defense of reading, though, without seeming snobbish about it. Click to read:

Here’s an excerpt:

Reading can be hard, or at least it can present the sort of challenge that modern life is supposed to ease or optimize away. Reading is harder than streaming Netflix, watching a movie, listening to music, or playing video games. Hardness, on its own, is not a virtue. It does, however, matter. It matters to be a disciplined adult. It matters to sit still, to think, to escape the flotsam and be alone with yourself, with another world. It matters to grapple with language, theme, plot, and characterization. It matters that the conclusions aren’t simple, that literature—good literature—is murk. It’s the dark of the wilderness, a lighted match showing that, in fact, there is only more, a vastness you can only begin to comprehend. Reading teaches you that life is not an algorithm and that the certainty of your opinions, neatly sorted into a 2020s rubric, is very much unwarranted, with eternities stretching before and after you. Reading is meeting another consciousness that is not cable television and never will be, that exists at a complexity many lightyears beyond self-righteous pundit panels, the red versus blue, your new spin on the midterms. Reading is knowing those you would never know otherwise. It is, perhaps, the most human thing you can do.

For large stretches of the twentieth century, the educated, middle-class person was expected to read books and even stock them in their living room. The new novel or intriguing nonfiction read was a staple of adulthood, along with buying an automobile or drinking the occasional martini. Pre-internet life made demands on the imagination; somehow, time had to be filled without pocket supercomputers. There were no smartphones in the doctor’s office or in the subway car. There were none at the beach. The book, in this case, had a practical entryway into modern existence, until 2007 or so. By then, the iPhone had arrived.

Now, reading requires you to carve time, to beat back other distractions. It forces you to choose it. Many, simply, do not. Educated Americans are not expected to carry knowledge of books into conversations. They are not expected to competently discuss them. Such expectations, in the current discourse, can be dismissed as elitist. There are many other ways to learn, is one retort. Of course there are. You should partake. And have fun too. I read 40-50 books a year and still try to stay caught up on Cobra Kai and Selling Sunset. It’s plausible, I promise. I do not read books because I am smarter than you or have any particular capability; I do not absorb or retain information in a remarkable way. All I do is make reading a part of my day and week. I decide, affirmatively, to do it. And as a writer, I consider it essential to my own education and progress. If you want to be a writer or describe yourself that way, reading is non-negotiable.

But here’s a bookish reason to read books, and you probably know this one by Emily Dickinson, a shut-in:

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul –

The reasons I care why people should read books are similar to those of Barkan: they immerse you in another world, in other points of view, in other times and places—especially if you read a lot of nonfiction—and, among my friends, I love to discuss books and swap recommendations. When I walked home from work yesterday, I called my oldest friend and we spent the whole time talking about books and about the unjustifiably denigrated Thomas Wolfe, a favorite of both of us. (Note: not the more modern Tom Wolfe.)

But my friends in the literati almost uniformly denigrate Wolfe for overwriting, and yes, he did go over the top a lot. But there are wonderful things in his books. We talked about comparing Wolfe to Joyce, and I decided that while Joyce was famous for giving a running commentary on the workings of his own mind, Wolfe should be famous for giving a running commentary of what he perceived. His descriptions of how Americans lived, for instance, are among the best around. If you read one thing by Wolfe, it must be his short story The Child By Tiger, which you can access for free here.

Enough. Below is a book I’ve almost finished; it was recommended by my editor at Viking/Penguin, who happened to edit the volume. It’s very good, and especially worth reading since it’s about the 1918 flu pandemic. But it deals not just with the disease, but also with the science desperately (and usually fruitlessly) mustered to contain the virus. (They had no idea it was caused by a virus until much later; they thought the cause was a bacterium.)

My paternal grandmother died in that epidemic, leaving my infant father (six months of age) with one parent who promptly married another woman who had her own child with my grandfather. His stepmother treated him badly, and for a while put him in an orphanage. I just learned this the other day (the orphanage part, that is); my father never mentioned it. That’s my own flu-related experience.

Click to go to the Amazon site. The book is from 2005, and I recommend it highly, especially if you’re a fan of science:

And, on a reader’s recommendation, I’m about to start this, which is fiction. I just noticed the subtitle: A Novel of the Plague. I know virtually nothing about it except that a reader recommended it for its wonderful prose (I’m a sucker for prose), and it’s about Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, who died young. Again, click to go to Amazon.

So, what are you reading and what can you recommend? I take these comments quite seriously, and look at all of them.


97 thoughts on “Why you should read books

  1. I’m currently reading “The Merit Trap” by Michael Sandel. It’s a but contrarian, but its thesis is worthy of consideration: In American society, we tend to measure merit in terms of wealth and income, and that creates hubris amongst the haves and resentment among the have nots.

  2. I am an avid reader, I read a variety of books, nonfiction (history, bio, &c), fiction, poetry; in general I do not read math, romance, spy, or horror, but I’ve been known to read all of those. Admittedly some of the books are small, most are not. Sometime in 2012 I started a book review blog, mostly to help me remember what I read and finished, and some friends know what I thought was good enough to finish. If I don’t finish it, I don’t review it, consequently most of my books are in the 4 and 5 star range. Since I started my blog, I have read and reviewed 635 books. My reviews are not scholarly, if you’re interested, please visit: http://lenoragood.blogspot.com.

  3. I probably read 15 books/year. My favorite so far this year is Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table, but John Birdsall’s The Man Who Ate Too Much (about James Beard) is a close second.

  4. “Writing this post seems a bit like carrying coals to Newcastle,” In the board game British Rail (probably out of print now), one of the strategems was… actually carrying coals to Newcastle. About 30 years ago, I gave the game to a British friend.
    She and her partner took to playing it obsessively, often with me and other friends. I guess we all found it an alternative to reading books.

  5. I love to read and collect books. This is a timely post, Jerry, as I have been wondering if you have ever read Simon Wiesenthal’s ‘The Sunflower’? Having just read it I’m desperate for someone to argue with about it! I expect there could be a long thread on our responses to that short story that ends with the question: “What would you have done?”

      1. Wiesenthal, a concentration camp internee, is asked for forgiveness by a dying SS officer who oversaw the murder of 300 Jews in a building set on fire. He wants to die in peace and wants forgiveness from a Jew, maybe any Jew. Wiesenthal left without replying, and the next day the German was dead. The second half of the book consists of various worthy people weighing in with their opinion. In general, the Christians counsel forgiveness, the Jews advise against – but not because they are unforgiving, but because in the Jewish tradition one may not forgive an offense committed against someone else. Even the Jewish god does not forgive a sin against someone else, only against himself. (BTW, I’m rather enjoying the way I capitalise Jews but not their god!)
        To me, I can divide ‘forgiveness’ into two parts:
        1. Personal/psychological. You forgive whatever you feel because of the offense, even if against someone else. Essentially, you decide not to carry the burden of anger any more. It makes no actual difference to the offender.
        2. Theological. Christians are commanded to forgive, even if the offense was not against them personally. Their god also forgives rather promiscuously. Jews can only forgive offenses against themselves, Their god cannot. If the offended person has died in a fire (echoes of FtB!) there is no forgiveness possible. No wonder there is an annual occasion for repentance and no existence of hell in the Jewish tradition!
        It is a thoughtful read, and worth the little time it takes. Wiesenthal, of course, went on to become the most famous Nazi-hunter in post-war Europe. Connected? Probably not, but part of the whole picture anyway.

  6. How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett. This is a book I stopped reading a couple years ago because I was arguing with it too much in my mind. But I’ve returned to it now that the arguments had time to work their way into my brain and I’m more open to her views. It’s a powerful and mold-breaking evolutionary perspective of the brain and emotions, and it’s good science writing. (I’m guessing you’re already familiar with her and her work, but I’m sure learning a lot.)

    1. Sold. It’s on my Kindle now. I’ve been interested in the importance and function of emotions since Spinoza alerted me, and Antonio Damasio, Jonathan Haidt, and others have weighed in.

      1. I’m glad! I hope you like it and get something from it. It has the potential to be a life-changing book, or it could just be interesting, depending on what and how we think about it.

  7. I visited the Thomas Wolfe Museum in downtown Asheville in June. It was quite interesting especially for the material about Maxwell Perkins, who as is well known did a remarkable job of editing for Wolfe.
    I commented once before that I wish you would not so automatically tell people to go to Amazon to find books. You did not like my previous comment on this earlier.
    Gilbert Klapper
    Paleontologist, Northwestern University

    1. For the last month or so, wanting to support my local book store, I’ve been waiting for the store to contact me to tell me that my pre-paid copy of “Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers” has been received for pick-up. I checked in going on two weeks ago. The store informed me that the publisher told them they were in the process of printing more copies. Perhaps since then the store has simply forgotten to let me know. Or is it that publishers don’t respond to the needs of independent book sellers like they do to Barnes & Noble or Amazon?

      I just now looked at Amazon, which claims it can deliver it to me tomorrow if I order withing the next 2h 45m. Barnes & Noble says it can deliver by 9/26. I will wait it out a while longer since it’s pre-paid, and I am more patient in my Older Age.

      As I am able to get to it, I am currently reading “Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975,” by Max Hastings. Some non-trivial amount of time reading the New York Times might be better spent on the baker’s dozen books I set aside and whose siren calls I have been hearing for not a few months.

  8. I’ve just finished “Endless Forms: The Secret World of Wasps” by Seirian Sumner. I thought it was excellent for the layman, though I doubt a biologist would learn that much.

  9. My one quibble with Barkan: if you’re a person who wants to WRITE, you need to see words on a page. Listening to audiobooks is fine, but doing so, as a substitute for reading, won’t help anyone become a writer. Or so it seems to me.

    As for my current reading, I recently made a list of short novels that I want to reread. Last week I finished Ian McEwan’s gorgeous “On Chesil Beach”; just yesterday I finished “Too Long a Solitude” by Bohumil Hrabal—opening sentence: “For thirty-five years now I’ve been in wastepaper, and it’s my love story”; and now I’m reading “Home Truths” by David Lodge. Next: “A Month in the Country” by J. L. Carr and “The Fur Hat” by Vladimir Voinovich.

    As for fat novels, these beckon: “I the Supreme” by Augusto Roa Bastos (haven’t read it) and “The Corrections” by Jonathan Franzen (want to reread).

  10. I really liked Dara Horn’s “In the Image,” which I just finished this morning. After reading “People Love Dead Jews” earlier this year, I wanted to give her fiction a try. It was beautifully written and a quick read.

  11. “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” Groucho Marx

    Currently, as recommended in an earlier posting, reading “The New Puritans, How the Religion of Social Justice Captured the Western World” by Andrew Doyle.

  12. The decline in the reading of books (for pleasure or profit) is one of the saddest elements of today’s world. It has been estimated that W Gladstone (who certainly lived during a period of fewer distractions, yet did lead rather a busy and hectic public life) read more than twenty thousand books during his nearly ninety years.

  13. I get a guilty chuckle out of the “Ermehgerd berks!” meme – a girl excited about a gift of Goosebumps! books (see below). Actual, tangible books.

    Yes – books are our friends. To sit and read a real, tangible book is special. I read Feynman’s The Character of Physical Law – Modern Library edition (1994). They made the book to be pleasant to hold, the font pleasant to read – I can’t help but fall for details like that – it draws me into the ideas.

    An image of the “meme” : https://i.pinimg.com/originals/05/98/a6/0598a6f33bb1edcc3671fd647fb035e6.jpg

  14. I usually read three or four books at a time, a mix of fiction and non-fiction. On the non-fiction side, I am reading The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, from which I am learning what a partial view of history and the way different human cultures and societies have organised their political affairs I have outside the mainstream European and American history I was taught five decades ago. I’m also reading Livewired, and learning how little I know about the organ that I use to think and feel with. In fiction, I have just started The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell who, as you have been told, is a fantastic prose writer. Oh, and I am also reading Red Comet, a biography of Sylvia Plath, about whom I wrote an undergraduate dissertation some 45 years ago at Queens’ College Cambridge and whose poetry still captivates me.

  15. If anyone is curious about the little-known connections between Scotland and Poland, I recommend a short book I just read: “Wojtek the Bear, Polish War Hero” by Aileen Orr and the redoubtable Neil Ascherson.

  16. One of the questions I asked my book club is where precisely the line is between books and non-books. If audiobooks are books, are radio plays? (For younger readers, look it up! Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was a radio play first). If reading a play is reading a book, is watching a play? Is watching TV? A movie? A movie script?

    In my understanding, we’re all suffering from information overload. I cannot hope to finish my reading list, the books, videos, and games in my personal library, in the decades I have before I die. And I keep acquiring more! Add that to the fact that people are swamped by ‘content’ in general. We have more content to read than we have time to read it. People are still able to download blogs, news feeds, etc., and read them in offline mode in a long flight. Back when RSS was widely supported, I would do just that.

  17. My own decline in numbers of books read per year is tied directly to my struggles with misery to severe depression. I often use sleep to dissociate and it’s damn difficult to read while asleep. The decline in energy to read, to hike, to clean the damn house…it sucks. The piles of books (and dust, dishes, dirty clothes…) sit, forlorn and beckoning but I turn over and go back to sleep.

    I do wonder Prof, with your struggles with insomnia, do you find more time to read, or is your sleep-deprived mind unable to read as much, if that’s not too personal.

      1. Damn. different curse, similar outcomes. My sincere condolences.

        I’ve been trying to read Bao Ninh’s Sorrow of War, but have only made about 20 pages in, but did read three Ray Bradbury short stories last weekend. It took over a month and a half to read a bit of enjoyable fluff by Malachy McCourt which should have been a weekend read.

        I hope you find relief soon.

  18. I’d say I average four books a month. The pandemic actually reduced my reading, because I used to read on planes, and made three or four trips a month. I can’t understand people who don’t read. I am always struck if I walk into someone’s home and there are no books.

    I just finished the first volume of Gollancz’s two-volume omnibus of Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories, and Benjamin Quarles The Negro in the Civil War. I am reading Eaton Clement’s The Freedom-of-Thought Struggle in the Old South (1940), which is very good.

  19. I’ve just finished “Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will” by Judith Schalanasky.

    Originally published in German, you can only get the original English version secondhand, but a pocketbook version is easy to come by new.

    I read the original and it’s a beautiful book. Each two page spread contains a map of a very small remote island, a little factual information (year discovered, closest land, “ownership”) and then one (per island) anecdote. Some quite abstract, always fascinating. Shipwrecks, Magellan, Darwin, nuclear testing, false kings and tales of excess, ornithology, the supernatural, Napoleon, hereditary disease, etc., etc.

    Could be read in an evening, but I’m still down many rabbit holes I was led to by this book.

    1. That sounds fantastic. I love maps and often fantasize about life on my own private island.

      I don’t know whether it’s in the book but I have actually been to Tristan da Cunha, a very remote place in the south Atlantic. It’s very beautiful and the people are lovely.

      Gonna go track that book down now!

      1. Gordon Cooper’s very enjoyable Isles of Romance and Mystery (1949) has a chapter dedicated to Tristan da Cunha (“The Lonely Isle”).

        1. Thanks for that, I’ll check it out. I learned of the existence of this place by reading a Welsh author who answered to the name of Tristan Jones da Cunha (I think? something like that) who wrote some incredible adventure stories, including one about sailing solo around the world from the Dead Sea to Lake Titicaca.

  20. I have always loved reading and generally have several books going at the same time. My daughter sends me books for my birthday, Father’s Day, Christmas. Recently finished Made In Louisiana: The Story of the Acadian Accordion by Marc Savoy. Marc is an accordion player and maker who runs the Savoy Music Center in Eunice, Louisiana. When I visit my daughter we sometimes go down there are listen to the Cajun jam that Marc hosts on Saturday mornings. A good book, if you like Cajun music. Almost through with Monster Bones: The Discovery of T. Rex and How It Shook Our World, by David K. Randall. It is about the early days of vertebrate paleontology in the U.S. and the competition between big museums find the biggest and best dinosaur skeleton. Just for fun, I usually get the latest Stephanie Plum mysteries by Janet Evanovich and James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheau books when they come out. Have stacks of books in various rooms of the house that I have yet to get to.

  21. Has anyone read Bernoulli’s Fallacy. Statistical Illogic and the Crisis of Modern Science by Aubrey Clayton? The subtitle accurately describes the book, but high level math/statistics ability isn’t needed.

  22. That is indeed a fine book for any nisophile. Any readers interested in islands should also consider Barry Smith’s fascinating The Island in Imagination and Experience, Azzam’s The Other Exile (Saint Helena), as well as Adam Goodheart’s The Last Island, forthcoming from Godine (North Sentinel).

        1. Yes indeed! Another fine word which is seldom encountered is polypyrgous (“many-towered”) , which I recall having read, many years ago, in Mani by the great Patrick Leigh Fermor.

  23. According to my logs at goodreads, I’ve read about 3-4 books per month the last few years. That’s a bit high though, as it includes a lot of comic books with an ISBN. It’s not that hard to plow through one or two volumes of a good manga in a few hours. But I do read novels as well, and quite often more than one a month, especially if you count the stuff I’m reading loud for my son, which right now is the first Harry Potter book. And in addition I am right now in a phase where I during my commute listen to the Graphic Audio productions of Brandon Sanderson fantasy books. I’ve listened to both Warbreaker and Elantris, and I am halfway through the original Mistborn trilogy and I intend to continue with The Stormlight Archives later. These productions is absolutely amazing. I also (re-)read the Skyward series while I was at it.

  24. Patrick O’Brian’s 20.5-volume Aubrey-Maturin series, the greatest escapist fiction ever written. Impossible to overpraise. The style is reminiscent of Jane Austen but the material is far more exciting.

    I start reading at least 200 books per year and finish maybe 80%, and I like to have several going at once. If it’s something very special (Ulysses, Moby Dick, Catcher in the Rye, Gulliver’s Travels, Wise Blood, The Gift, Toilers of the Sea, Anna Karenin, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Ship of Fools, Amerika, et cetera ad nauseam) I return to it again and again.

    A special mention must go to Barbara Tuchman’s magisterial A Distant Mirror, which makes Game of Thrones look like a children’s tea party and has the benefit of being mostly true.

    1. A Distant Mirror is one of my all time favorites! Thanks for mentioning it. Gore Vidal’s Creation is a far more fictional, but expansive work. Quite worthy of a read.

  25. I’ve hardly read at all this year. I think it’s to do with my issues with concentration. I have a few health struggles and a lot of personal changes and I just don’t seem to be able to read. I do listen to podcasts and read articles.

  26. Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (recommended here?) The Fishermen and the Dragon by Kirk Wallace Johnson (author of The Feather Thief) about local stuff, and about to begin Robert Galbraith’s mystery tome The Ink Black Heart. I had to read a Georgette Heyer after the Lanier to purge the dark thoughts about politics and technology.

  27. Currently reading:
    The Year of the French – Thomas Flanagan
    The Fortune Men – Nadifa Mohamed (Booker short-list)
    Being You: a new science of consciousness – Anil Seth
    Le Côté de Guermantes – Proust
    The Goldbug Variations – Richard Powers
    (Plus working through my New Yorkers, Atlantics, Harper’s (how do you pluralize Harper’s??)
    Too many books, not enough time and wakefulness🙀

  28. I recently finished From Cold War to Hot Peace by Michael McFaul. McFaul was the ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration.
    I recommend it highly. I heard McFaul in a Munk Debate and decided to read this very good account of his time spent in Russia.

    I am currently reading The Horde by Marie Favereau about the Mongol empire. I’ve just started but am engaged. It’s about the huge influence the Mongol empire had on the world. One of the inspirations for reading this book was 23andMe. Initially, the site detected .2 % traces of Mongolian in my DNA along with .3% of Korean ancestry and
    99.7 % Ashkenazi Jew. I thought that was really funny. 23andMe changed the trace ancestry to 0% Mongolian and .3% Korean and the rest Ashkenazi Jew. What a combination.

    I’m disappointed I don’t have that teeny percent of Mongolian DNA. I wonder what my orthodox Grandma would think if she knew had .3% Korean, if that’s correct.

    Nevertheless, this book is fascinating in it’s history of the sophistication and power of the Mongol empire. I can’t believe how far these people traveled by horses.

    1. McFaul was terrific in that Munk debate! I can’t remember who the other 3 participants were?? I’ve also heard him speak a couple of times at Stanford, once in shorts with his foot in a cast. Thanks for the reminder of his books, which is sitting in one of my many piles…

  29. Oh dear me, so many more fascinating suggestions that I haven’t even heard of, let alone bookmarked!

    I must confess that most contemporary fiction turns me off. So much of it bears the suffocating stamp of the Creative Writing Course; a lot of it betrays the weeks and months of dutiful historical ‘research’; and far too many writers are unwilling or unable to talk about anything outside their own narrow experience.

    And so if I want to read some fiction, I re-read some of my favourite books from the past – some of them so far in the past that I’ve forgotten the plot, which now comes as a delightful revelation. I’m slowly working my way through my shelf-ful of Anthony Burgess’s novels, and some of them (eg ‘The Piano Players’) are really quite fun.

    But most of my new reading these days is non-fiction; and I am particularly looking forward to Richard Dawkins’s ‘Flights of Fancy’, discussed recently by our host, and Matthew Cobb’s ‘The Genetic Age’, given a laudatory review in The Times a few days ago.

    1. PS: I haven’t read Maggie O’Farrell’s book, so I’m not really qualified to comment, but her thesis, according to the reviews, is that Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ was inspired in part by the short life of his son Hamnet, and his family circumstances. To any fan of ‘Ulysses’ this bears a strong resemblance to Stephen Dedalus’s theory set out in the ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ episode. I don’t think any reviewers have mentioned this, and I’m not quite sure why.

  30. OMG. I probably read 30-40 books per year. I’m just now starting “Catherine the Great” by Robert K. Massie. I’ll let you know how it turns out. 🙂

    I have eclectic tastes and read books old and new. During the pandemic I read a great deal about the history of the Jews in America. For an excellent summary, check out Jonathan Sarna’s “American Judaism: a History.” To delve even deeper, read ”The Jewish People in America,” a five book series published in 1992 by the John’s Hopkins University Press. The entire amazing series can be purchased as a box set for around $50.00. You’ll learn a lot. I did. Reading Judaica led me to related books, including “Antisemitism Here and Now” by Deborah E. Lipstadt, and “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” by Dov Waxman. (A very practical guide to what’s going on in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Read this one if you read nothing else.)

    And that’s just *some* of the stuff on Judaism. I also took an online course called “History of Judaism in America” at my undergraduate alma mater last year, even though I was 3000 miles away. Books are awesome, but there are other ways to learn as well. Of course, the course syllabus included reading a number of books and book excerpts.

    A great source of good reading is anything written by Walter Isaacson: “Kissinger,” “Ben Franklin,” “Code Breaker,” “Jobs,” “Einstein,” “Leonardo da Vinci.” I’ve read them all and I keep going back for more. He can’t write fast enough for me.

    For a (major) change of pace, read “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory” by Caitlin Doughty. This is a fascinating, erudite, and hilarious book about, well, what it’s like to be an undertaker. Her sequel for children (not kidding): “Will the Cat Eat my Eyeballs.” Also very good!

    I can go on and on, but I want to add a shout-out to an entirely different genre, the online course. Last year my wife and I bought a Great Courses series called “The History of Eastern Europe” given by Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius. It was incredible! When I was in school we learned almost nothing about Eastern Europe. It was all Western Europe all the time. Eastern Europe was just a sub-civilized backwater that was always in disarray. Wow, did I learn a lot! Books are my go-to mode of communication, but go buy this online course for an amazing education on the history of Eastern Europe. Highly recommended.

    There’s a lot more, but I’ll spare you from having to read it. 🙂

  31. I am currently reading (I use aids to help me concentrate which include downloading the audiobook and then reading on my ipad/phone while the audiobook plays and highlights the word being read) Peter Zeihan’s book, The End of the World Is Just the Beginning and it’s really great. You can read about it on Goodreads. If anyone has been out there looking for jobs or trying to hire into positions or simply watching everyone panic with all the layoffs, you’ll find this book spot on (but not just in this area).

  32. I’ve been gravitating to fiction lately, especially from authors and genres that I have never been exposed to.

    So I picked up Sula by Toni Morrison a few weeks ago…it was superb.

  33. “So, what are you reading and what can you recommend?”

    Thanks to a generous grant from The Helen Foundation (https://thehelenfoundation.org), my collected poems and translations, The Must-Be-Admired Things, has just been published and is available for pre-order from Amazon: https://amzn.to/3RqAyT0. Unfortunately, the page doesn’t have a “Look Inside” feature yet, but you can find a selection of my poems here: http://www.garymiranda.com/about.html

    The new book contains my three previous poetry books, including one that won the Princeton Contemporary Poets Award, plus my translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies. If you read poetry, I humbly recommend this collection.

  34. A couple suggestions, “The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present” by Eric Kandel (Nobel prize winning neuroscientist). Kandel has a fascination with the art of Gustiv Klimt, one I now share. The book starts with the Zeitgeist of early 20th century Vienna to tracking neural pathways. I purchase many books based on podcasts. I especially like BBC history podcasts where I learned about
    Jack Hartnell’s “Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages.” This is a fascinating look at ancient medicine and biology. Finally, I’ve also bought a ton of books recommended by this blog. Thanks PCC!

    1. Eric Kandel’s a fascinating guy. I’ve read a couple of his books, heard him speak at McMaster U in Hamilton, Ontario, and saw him on tv a couple of years ago in some series on neuroscience. I suspect he is no longer with us.

  35. I am nearly finished Jonathan Weiner’s “The Beak of the Finch”. As a high school biology teacher (just started my 31st year), I’m sort of embarrassed it’s taken me so long to read this book after recommending it to my students over the years, as it has been on my bookshelf for much of my career. A recent read I can recommend is “Owls of the Eastern Ice” by Jonathan C. Slaght. Although I may be biased as a self-confessed bird nerd (I work as an avian biologist on weekends), I was thrilled by descriptions of his sometimes dangerous field work to study Blakiston’s Fish-Owl in eastern Russia.

  36. My current nonfiction read is The Renaissance by Will Durant, published 1953, from his world history series The Story of Civilization. I believe this series is no longer highly regarded, but I’m enjoying the older style of writing and the absence of reminders of how Eurocentric, heteronormative, patriarchal the 16th century was. (Yes, they weren’t as progressive as we are but think of how far they came from the previous centuries.).

    My current fiction read is Romola by George Eliot. It’s set in Renaissance Florence. I’m planning a trip to Italy for next year, so I’m immersing myself in the history and culture.

    My third read is Harry Potter e la Pietra Filosofale. I’m trying to learn the language for my trip!

    Both of my parents were big readers. I have an early memory of playing at another kid’s house and being surprised at the lack of grownup books. It was my first realization that there were adults who didn’t read.

    1. I remember reading one of his Ancient Rome books in the 90s. It was outdated then. It I really enjoyed his writing style.

    2. I thought you were raiding my library until you mentioned Harry Potter. I have the Durants’ full set and have read it all. I understand the lower esteem the work now enjoys, but love the confident, joyful attitude. Volume 7, The Age of Reason is my favorite.

  37. I loved Hamnet and also Jonathan Slaught’s “Owls of the Eastern Sky,” the latter for many reasons–the full reporting on field work and nature of science under difficult field conditions. The book is based on his PhD at the University of Minnesota..

    I’m currently reading what is to me the defining biography of the short life of Sylvia Plath (who was married for a while to English poet laureate Ted Hughes). Red Comet is the title written with grace and authority as well as close detailed research by Heather Clark (Professor of Poetry at the University of Huddersfield, UK whose achievement is to use selected words from the blurbs: mighty, masterful, traces her subject’s literary and and intellectual development rather than concentrating on her undoing through suicide, mesmerizing, felicitous writer, discerning…

    Tis’ these indeed and more.

  38. I think the habit of reading is inculcated at an early age. My parents weren’t highly educated but were always reading. I remember being shocked in high school when I heard another student tell a teacher that she hated reading. My partner doesn’t read much, probably because his parents didn’t either.

    Having recently been to Germany, I’m reading the stash of books in German that I bought there. I’m making my way through Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice”, which is tough going – I thought Proust’s prose was convoluted but Mann makes him look like a simpleton. While in Germany I also bought Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, which is difficult to find in French in Australia.

  39. My mind keeps returning to the idea of not being expected to carry the knowledge in books into conversations. Long before covid, even before covfefe, I realize that I had no one in my life I could carry this knowledge to. I have no outlet for sharing wonderous and exciting experiences, excepting my two d*gs. I recited a couple of pages of Ulysses to them the other day, conjuring up every last bit of ancient Irish DNA I have banging about in my genes for an attempted accent and they were not the least bit interested or amused. Neither was the cat. I have no old college pals, or close childhood friends, no convivial dinner party guests with which I might banter, no witty repartee. Do you, fellow readers, have such engaging amis? Do you meet up in cafes and coffee shops, sit about with wine glasses at after-dinner dinner tables or lounge about in lounges and converse? Where are the salubrious salons I seek? Not here, in rural ‘Murca with Walmart as the only “bookstore” and a public library not even as large as the local liquor store and far less frequented. Am I to find anyone interested in discussing anything beyond football, guns, and gawd? Of course, I could always drive an hour into the city…and be massacred for reading Charles Murray or for delighting in Darwin, Dawkins, and Dickens. Is it any wonder I wallow in weltschmerz? I hope you all fare better than I…

    1. I don’t know if there are salons where people go to congregate, talk, and share books and ideas. Probably somewhere. I used to live on Orcas Island, in far northwest Washington State, where there was a nice bookstore with a coffee shop. Some people were regulars there and did meet every morning. It would be great if there were more opportunities.

      Since you asked, I do have a few friends who are interested in interesting things—not just trucks, guns, or football—but I don’t reach out to them enough. The past few days I’ve been telling myself to do so. It would be great to be able to go to breakfast or coffee on a regular basis with a friend or two just to chew the fat.

      I know of no other way to create such engagements other than reaching out. Perhaps that’s something you could try. If it doesn’t work, try again. Sometimes it takes several tries to get something started. There are like-minded people around—you just need to find them.

    2. Try looking online! I mean there may be people who meet to talk about books. Ask the tiny library – maybe they can put up a notice, or offer to host? Also thete are undoubtedly online zoom discussions – we have people in Portland joining us at the Royal Institution Fiction Lab once a month -7pm London time.

  40. People who read a lot of books are often telling other people they should read more books. Or…at least the book *they* are currently reading. I admit there is a slight feeling of pompousness about it.

    Even if the person-in-question is not actually pompous.

    That said, yes I’ve tended to read lots of books. Though I read fewer than ever these days…distractions/attention deficit/internet/work time…which is a bummer. And usually it’s more than one at a time. I love fiction, but almost exclusively for holidays. The reason is that if I truly love a fiction book I can’t put it down. And I don’t have time to get that absorbed in a book. So lots of my reading tends to be dipping in and out of various non-fiction books.

  41. I recently watched a movie “All Is True”, written by Ben Elton and starring Judi Dench and an unrecognisable Kenneth Branagh, about the death of Hamnet and how it affected William and Anne Hathaway. It was a great movie, I highly recommend it.

    1. Should anyone be interested, here are the films we just saw at the Toronto International Film Festival, with brief comments/ratings.

      The Banshees of Inisheerin
      Directed by Martin McDonagh, with Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson
      McDonagh of In Bruges and Three Billboards fame
      5 stars, though we want to see it again with subtitles because of the fast and furious Irish dialect.

      Living – directed by Oliver Hermanus, screenplay by Ishiguro, with Bill
      Nighy and Tom Burke
      5 stars – wonderfully quiet film, like Remains of the Day. Nearly perfect.

      My Policeman – dir Michael Grandage, Harry Styles, Rupert Everett
      4 stars – challenges of gay life in early 60s England

      Carmen – Benjamin Millepied
      4 stars – almost a musical, with fantastic dancing

      Love and Mathematics – Claudia Sainte-Luce
      4 stars – quirky Mexican film

      The Fabelmans – Steven Spielberg with Paul Dano and Michelle Williams
      3.5 stars – sort of a Spielberg memoir. Dano and Williams were great, but I got kind of bored.

      Women Talking – Sarah Polley with Frances McDormand from book by
      Miriam Toews. 3 stars – meh.

      The Glass Onion – Rian Johnson with a cast of hundreds.
      2 stars. Had really looked forward to this sequel to the hilarious
      Knives Out, but found it to be really stoooooopid.

      1. Re: Banshees of Inisheeren. Perhaps the ‘fast and furious’ Irish ‘dialect ‘is rather just their accent ? Indeed it takes a lot of getting used to.
        Thankyou for strong recommendation. For 20 yrs., I have found McDonagh’s work to be quite brilliant. I remember when he had 3 plays on the West End and Broadway simultaneously.

        1. Yes, Patrick, I did really mean accent, and thought that right after I posted. I’m usually pretty good with accents (my bf is hopeless, even though he’s a Murphy), but there’s a lot of fast-talking and mumbling in this. Did catch all the “feckin’ hells”😹Not as bad as Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, which I think I had to watch three times to get it all. Of course Brad Pitt’s Irish accent WAS kind of made-up. Yes, McDonagh is brilliant! And don’t miss Bill Nighy in Living!

  42. I’m currently on a pace to read over 200 this year, but normally it is more like 120-150. But part of that is my job to read crime fiction, but then, the latest “Galbraith” Cormoran Strike novel is like 900 pages. I’ve been mining classics and not-classics on Internet Archive for a couple years, reading things that likely have been cancelled. Like S.E. Morison’s books on Columbus and Northern and Southern expolorations. And reading things like Kendi and DiAngelo (scanned, since not readable), and lots of stuff about American Indians, contemporary and historical stuff. About to finish reading everything by Robert M. Utley on the West, and some utterly wonderful and today utterly cancellable books by George E. Hyde, best writing about the Sioux I’ve found. Even got a “hall pass” from David Heski Wanbli Weiden, current author of Winter Counts, for reading the quirky Hyde.

    I mine bibliographies, and must have over 500 downloaded “treasures” to keep me busy on my iPad when I end up in confinement somewhere.

    1. Just got all the Cormoran Strike novels on kindle. Loved the tv series, and hope they’ll make one of the latest 900-pager with the wonderful Tom Burke.

  43. Podcasts have devastated my book reading. I’m down to less than one a year. As to what I now do on trains, planes and automobiles, that’s it, podcasts. When I’m washing up, gardening, shopping, walking, riding and pretty much whenever I’m awake I’m listening to podcasts.

  44. I haven’t read a book for a while, for various reasons, and there are other things to occupy me, however, I was a voracious reader all my life and cannot imagine not having books as a source of escape and pleasure and wonder and learning and all the rest. I remember Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘Through the Magic Door’ a good commentary on the positives of books.

  45. I loved Hamnet. Beautifully imagined historical story about which we know only the minimal facts. In that way similar to Hillary Mantel’s Cromwell series.
    In non-fiction, currently finishing “The Other Doctor Gilmer,” by one of the main protagonists. I’m glad I missed the episode of “This American Life,” which covered this story, as it made the book that much more suspenseful.

  46. I can hardly wait to read Hamnet. I am going to go to the library next week to look for it. This week is too busy with doctor’s visits & other appointments.

    Right now I have the following books on my desk: Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser; Visions of Cody by Jack Kerouac; Twist Your Fate by Teresa Reed; The White Princess by Phillipa Gregory (reading through the whole series); & The Reality Street Book of Sonnets.

    I stream several programs on my smart TV but the way the sun shines into my windows, there’s too many hours that I can’t see the screen so music & reading prevails. I was never a big TV watcher anyway.

  47. I have an Airbnb self catering house (the Redkettle in Beaufort West)
    It is a historic, restored house, intentionally without TV or Wifi, but it has a small but eclectic library.
    I have ordered the poster “That’s what I do, I read books, I drink wine and I know things.” that Jerry posted a few days ago, for the study or the reading room.

      1. Nothing stalky about it, I did give the name and place, no? I wanted you to have a look.
        And thank you so much, it is a lovely, artsy place, the photos don’t really do it justice.
        The small library contains several books that have become somewhat controversial, such as ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’, Huckleberry Finn’ or ‘Irreparable Damage”. And of course ‘Faith vs Fact’.

  48. I’m currently reading The Neural Basis of Free Will: Criterial Causation by Peter Tse.

    I highly recommend it for Tse’s explanation of what he calls “criterial causation”. As an electrical engineer on the autism spectrum, who has been wondering about the physical explanation for the weirdness of my brain for 34 years, it is wonderful to see the progress in neuroscience since I first started thinking about the subject. (When I first started looking into the subject, with some understanding of parallel distributed processing from an electrical engineering perspective, I was sorely disappointed in the state of neuroscience. But then, I want a complete schematic of my brain at the ‘synaptic level’, so I expect to die disappointed in the state of neuroscience.)

    I’ve only gotten to the point in the book where the focus switches from neuroscience, to philosophical consideration of the relevance of the neuroscience to free will. At this point I’m not expecting what Tse calls libertarian free will, to look substantially different from what I refer to as “interactive determinism”. Furthermore I expect most LFWists would consider what Tse calls LFW to be awfully weak tea. However, I do think Tse does philosophy a service, in pointing out important aspects of neuroscience that should be under consideration if philosophical discussion of free will is to be scientifically respectable.

    I’d put Tse’s book up there with Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, as books that elucidate key insights into the workings of our minds/brains to a fairly wide audience.

  49. I am currently reading An Immense World: how animal senses reveal the hidden realms around us, 2022, by Ed Yong. Recently finished for the second time How the Earth Turned Green: a brief 3.8 billion-year history of plants, 2014, Joseph E. Armstrong.

  50. Because I know I shall have to move to senior quarters one of these years, I’ve been going over the books in my personal library (they are legion), trying to decide what to do with them (no obvious answer). And occasionally I find one that I can’t recall ever reading, one that by reputation I know I should have read. So I read it. The payoff can be wonderful: ‘Patriotic Gore,’ by Edmund Wilson is a knock-out, especially for one such as myself who has taught mid-19th century U.S. literature. In the same vein, I’ve re-read Gore Vidal’s series of novels embodying U.S. history (from ‘Lincoln’ to WWII) with renewed pleasure and sustained admiration for this writer, who in my view should have been a Nobel laureate.

    Oddly, I’ve started reading science fiction again, after a long hiatus. This began with works by Peter F. Hamilton, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Neal Stephenson, culminating in Ada Palmer’s ‘Terra Ignota’ tetralogy* (so far), all the volumes of which just took over my being during their reading. . . and for well afterward. The latest sci-fi I’ve read is a real tour-de-force: ‘Eversion,’ by Alastair Reynolds.

    *I may have mentioned in an earlier post that Ada Palmer is a professor history at PCCE’s university, and if I’m not mistaken our host may himself have mentioned her (unfavorably, but not for her writings) on one occasion.

  51. Here are a few books I read this year that I thought were quite good:

    Speak of the Devil: How the Satanic Temple Is Changing the Way We Talk about Religion
    Laycock, Joseph

    The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914
    McCullough, David

    Neutrino Hunters: The Thrilling Chase for a Ghostly Particle to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe
    Jayawardhana, Ray

    The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery
    Kean, Sam

    The Power of One
    Courtenay, Bryce

  52. If you enjoy the skilful deployment of the English language, may I recommend reading P.G. Wodehouse. He wrote prolifically, and you could start anywhere, but why not read any (or all) of his “Jeeves and Wooster” novels. I’ve read them all multiple times and they still bring joy! In a completely different vein, may I recommend anything by Atul Gawade! Cheers!!!

  53. Thank you all for these great suggestions! I read about four books a month, mostly nonfiction, but I have some classic fiction I re read: Lolita, Love in the Time of Cholera, Orlando, Rates of Exchange ( byMalcolm Bradbury, plus his Why Come to Slaka?), Katharine Anne Porter short stories, Philip Roth’ Portnoy’s Complaint. Here are my other nonfiction favorites: Roba di Roma (W.W.Story), Peter Ackroyd bio of Shakespeare, John Sedgwick War of Two, most of Richard Dawkins, Wade Davis’ One River, In Trouble Again by Redmond O”Hanlon, Tony Judt’s Postwar, Geert Mak’s In Europe, Loren Eiseley’s The Star Thrower, Napoleon Chagnon’s Noble Savages, Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain and Gulag, John Carreyou’s Bad Blood, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, Through the Brazilian Wilderness (Teddy Roosevelt memoir of his Brazilian trip). Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent.

    1. Isn’t Redmond O’Hanlon a HOOT!!?? I’ve read most of his books. I’m graduLly wending my way through Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia. Tony Judt and Anne Applebaum also great. Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands is an excellent, if depressing read about the peoples who got murdered by both Hitler and Stalin. Speaking of Edward Abbey, we used to rent a house on Seldom Seen Road (Seldom Seen Sam lived across the road), in Moab, Utah, before it sadly burned down in a wildfire.

  54. Increasingly, books are no longer the format of choice for intellectuals who present new ideas. Publishing is a lengthy process; and since it must also be profitable, authors often pad out their ideas with dozens of unnecessary pages. And it’s not uncommon that the whole reason why they write a book is to get a pretext for touring through shows, podcasts and lecture theaters. Blog posts are often superior, despite the risk of linkrot.

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