070.92 THO Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Some time after college, I realized that drunk and stoned people were not all that fun or interesting to be around. This, in the end is the big problem with Hunter S. Thompson’s book. On the flip side, the narrative voice here is so compelling that it’s hard not to read on. The second part of the book, where Duke and Gonzo are covering the National District Attorney’s conference, is by far the stronger part of the book, with some genuinely entertaining commentary on how the “straights” viewed the drug culture.

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051 GRO The Receptionist

When the current craze for memoirs struck, I kept finding myself wondering who these people were and why we should care about their lives? It seemed to me that having done something notable with one’s life was a prerequisite for a memoir being worth writing, let alone being read.

Janet Groth falls on the edge of this classification in my mind. Her life seems to be largely notable because she’s lived her life on the margins of the lives of other notable people. In particular, she happened to work at The New Yorker in the midst of the William Shawn era, which to my mind, was when the best writing was published in the magazine (please don’t get me started on the Tina Brown period which is when I stopped reading the magazine).

Being on the margins means Groth’s own story is marginal. At times she’s wonderfully informative, for example, when writing about her experiences freelancing for Muriel Spark (who is inexplicably identified by the jacket copy as a playwright). At times she is a bit gossipy and some of her attempts at disguising the identities of the people she writes about are laughable in their failure.

There’s almost a good book here, but I feel like for that to happen, it would have needed to have less Groth and more of her environment in the telling.

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069.5 OLD The Secret Museum

As a child, one of the treats of the year was members’ night at the Field Museum. We’d get to go to the top floor of the museum where the researchers worked and see the stuff that wasn’t on display, that was being actively used in research. More than anything else, what remains in my mind was cabinets filled with drawer upon drawer of beetles on pins from around the world. The idea of beetles inches long with monstrous horns was such a bizarre and wonderful thing, it’s a wonder that I never became an entomologist. This was the first hint I had that a museum is much more than the objects in the glass display cases in the public areas of the building.

Molly Oldfield sets out to write about some of the artifacts at assorted museums (mostly in England, but a handful in Brazil, the United States, Canada and continental Europe) that are not on display. The cover promises “some treasures are too precious to display…” but that’s not always the case of the items she discusses here. Some are just too big to display (a flag from the Battle of Trafalgar, a whale skeleton), in some cases, the items will be on display as soon as the museum reopens or the rubble of a statue is reassembled from its World War II damage.

The library’s copy was previously read by someone who seemed to have an ever-growing distaste for Oldfield, starting out by pointing out apparent contradictions with the anonymous reader’s apex of disgust reached with the pencilled note, “It’s all about you, all the time, isn’t it Molly?” Some of the apparent contradictions this reader found are, in fact, not contradictions at all (for example, that the field at Wimbledon could be seen from every seat yet a hundred seats had partially obstructed views). Still, it became a challenge to read this book without the sense of the previous reader looking over my shoulder, one of the curious effects of reading a public library copy of a book.

I would have liked there to be more of a narrative constructed from the disparate items in the book. At times, Oldfield refers back to other objects she had seen in her research, but it feels as if there could have been even more of this done, creating the sense that one discovery inspired the journey to make the next, something which could have made this a more compelling read rather than an anthology of short pieces on the parts of the museum’s collection that aren’t on display.

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031.02 MAT The Concise Guide to Sounding Smart at Parties

Here’s a rule: If you’re going to put together a humorous collection of facts, it should be (a) humorous and (b) not contain unintentional mistakes. Matalon and Woolsey manage to miss the mark on many fronts, with factual errors that were unintended (e.g., saying that Bohemia became part of modern-day Austria) and having humor which is juvenile, repetitive and just plain unfunny. The jokes struck me as the sort of second-rate humor that you might find in a college paper desperate to fill the column inches. What the book had going for it was residing in the 030 shelves, designated “Encyclopedias and Books of Facts” in which category this seemed the most likely candidate for a cover-to-cover reading. I’m beginning to think that the So–Sz volume of the World Book Encyclopedia might have been a better choice.

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The Big Countdown

In this year’s edition of my countdown to death, I drop from 90 years to 84 years. My biggest source of additional life expectancy would be diet and exercise. Losing six years of life is a bit sobering. I knew this last year, but it’s even more important now, especially that I have progeny to raise that I’d like to see further my genetic line which means I might want more than 38 years before I die. Not to mention all the reading and writing I would like to do. On the flip side, retirement saving has become a bit more manageable. 

We got more or less diverse poets (depending on how you look at it)

In the aftermath of some of the discussion about diversity in publishing, I thought I’d check how this year’s Best American Poetry stacked up against last year’s for diversity.

There were 73 poets in the 2014 anthology compared to 76 in the 2013. In 2014, 31.5% of the poets had appeared in the three previous anthologies. This compares with 25% in the year before, which signals a bit of a retraction to the safe here (although perennials Billy Collins and Terrance Hayes didn’t make the cut this year, the latter no doubt since he was the guest editor, I’m guessing the former because he’s in the anthology so often it’s nearing cliche status).

What about gender? 41.1% of this year’s authors were female compared to 50% last year. Perhaps a consequence of the difference between having a male and female guest editor? I’m reluctant to spend the time checking more than two year’s worth of BAP so I can’t really say how strong a pattern this is.

Breakdown by race: 2014 has 2.7% Asian, 28.8% African-American, 1.4% Latino, 2.7% Native American and 63% white. 2013 had 7.9% Asian, 9.2% African-American, 1.3% Latino, 1.3% Native American and 78.9% white.

And one more category I’ve been tracking (actually my original category), what percent have creative writing graduate degrees? 68.5–75.8% in the 2014 anthology vs 68.4–71.2% in the 2013 anthology (the range is because there are a handful of poets whose graduate education I wasn’t able to determine through diligent web searches), again bringing us into “safe” territory.

On Goodreads, the average rating for 2014 is 3.42 stars compared to 2013’s 3.38 stars.

So having thrown out a large pile of raw data, what conclusions can we draw? I’m guessing that a big part of the spike in African-American authors in this year’s anthology is from Mr Hayes’s influence. Yet, there was a bit of timidity in their selection. It seemed while I was doing this that most were Cave Canem fellows and only two or at most five) lacked an MFA or other creative writing graduate degree. The choice of these poets didn’t really impact readers’ reactions to the anthology for better or for worse. I haven’t read this year’s anthology yet, but I found last year’s far less satisfying than the 2012 which was when I started reading the series (the collective opinion on Goodreads concurs having given the 2012 anthology, edited by Mark Doty, 3.52 stars. My overall impression is that we have racial diversity at the cost of being more daring with the choice of poets to appear in the anthology.

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022 MAN: The Library at Night

A series of meditations on libraries, public and private, personal and universal. Manguel’s writing meanders on occasion, but even in meandering it has a light poetic tone. As an Argentine living in France, he could reasonably be expected to write in any language but English, but as near as I can tell, this is the original language and the language of a writer for whom English is a second (or third?) language.

Manguel spends a great deal of time speaking about his own personal library (which appears alongside other better-known libraries in the illustrations that are generously scattered through the book), using it as a touchstone for his explorations into broader themes of memory, architecture, and the difficulty of containing the entirety of written literature let alone actually reading it. Overall, a great read and a delight for lovers of libraries.

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011.62 ROL: Read to Me

I knew that there would be decades in the Dewey Decimal System like this one. Where the books are nearly all dry reference materials forbidding linear reading. I hope that when I reach dictionaries, it will not be restricted to dictionaries in its span of the shelf.

01x is bibliographies and most of the books here are precisely that: Lists of books. There were a couple You Must Read This books on the shelf that were on possibility, but being the father of a pair of 4-month olds, a book about books to read to children seemed a better option.

Being in the bibliography section, nearly every chapter ends with a list of books with brief descriptions. Books that reappear in different chapter lists retain their descriptions rather than allowing their relevance to that chapter’s theme to be highlighted. Overall, the lists seemed as much distraction as value in the book since the books were often Australia-specific (the author is Australian) and the more appropriate thing was to think about the goals of the book in selecting works at the local bookshop. 

The non-list sections of the book, however were wonderful. I realized that some of the books I’d been reading to the kids (or planning to) were not developmentally appropriate (and I’m not just talking about the Shakespeare here). They still have value in allowing the kids to hear spoken words and to begin to connect the physical objects of books to the idea that they contain words and stories but choosing more appropriate books will allow the reading to be more enriching.

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001 FRE: Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us and How to Know When not to Trust Them

There’s an almost nihilistic undercurrent in David H. Freeman’s book, the idea that experts are often wrong (perhaps more often than not), and there’s really no good way to tell which is the case. Certainly the contradictory nature of expertise is obvious to anyone who has done a deep dive into anything beyond the hard sciences of math, physics and chemistry (and even these are not as immune to the problems raised by Freeman’s thesis as we would like). Dealing with the advice from various parenting books I’ve read when faced with the arrival of my progeny, it was easy to find clearly contradictory recommendations on nearly every aspect of caring for our children. Going online only makes things worse as most of the results from a given search result are parents relaying their experiences to other parents, very much a case of the blind leading the blind. I was ready to call out some of Freeman’s egregious cases of bolstering his arguments in his catalog of contradictory experts: For example, he confuses the “nice guy” with a man being nice (the former being, in many ways, a rather obsequious approach to relationships with women that borders on passive aggressive behavior and is often justly rewarded with rejection) and then later on the same page he points to different success rates for in vitro fertilization and fertility treatments not realizing that these are very different things, but in the final appendix, as an innoculation against precisely these sorts of criticisms, Freeman acknowledges that these sorts of biases are likely to have crept into his work as he seeks examples to bolster his argument while ignoring those which do not. 

Having said that, the appendix reflects a humility about the argument which is absent from the rest of the book, perhaps dangerously so. This sort of argument against expertise bolsters one of the concerns that he raises himself, that ignorance will tend to reinforce itself, creating a situation where the informed and educated can continue to be informed and educated while the ignorant become more ignorant.

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The Dewey Decimal Project

The Dewey Decimal System consisted, in part, of Miss Caroline waving cards at us on which were printed ‘the’, ‘cat’, ‘rat’, ‘man’, and ‘you’. No comment seemed to be expected of us, and the class received these impressionistic reve­lations in silence. I was bored, so I began a letter to Dill. Miss Caroline caught me writing and told me to tell my father to stop teaching me. ‘Besides,’ she said, ‘we don’t write in the first grade, we print. You won’t learn to write until you’re in the third grade.’ —To Kill a Mockingbird

I’ve decided to start a new reading project: I’m going to read my way through the Dewey Decimal system. The plan is to read one book from each decade of the catalog. This will end up being a bit less than 100 books courtesy of some gaps in the system. Other than the beginning and end of the system where I’ll read the first and last books on the shelf respectively, I’ll give myself leeway to pick whatever title in the range sounds interesting.