Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Best Reads of 2011

I read some really excellent things in 2011. So as I did around this time last year, I thought I'd share some of them with the people who enjoy reading this blog. In my opinion, all of these books are worth owning and sharing (if you click the links to buy them from Powell's website, you'll help finance my own book habit with a small commission), but they should also be available from your local library.

And don't forget to support your hometown libraries as they sprint to the finish line with their annual fundraising drives. For my local readers, here's a link to donate to the Portland Public Library.

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick

2400 years ago in Greece, Plato made this commentary on the newly-invented technology of the written word (we know, because somebody wrote it down, and I know, because James Gleick included it in an early chapter of this book):

"The fact is that this invention [writing] will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it. They will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written, calling things to mind no longer from within themselves by their own unaided powers, but under the stimulus of external marks that are alien to themselves."

At a time when people are wringing their hands over whether the Internet might be making us stupid, it's nice to have this ancient reminder from Plato that humans have always fretted about these things. From writing, to the printing press, to wikipedia, new information technologies have changed the way humanity thinks as much as they've changed how we communicate.

Reading this book literally made me feel high: every chapter gave the distinct impression that my mind was being expanded with new insights into how humanity's information technologies have made mutable our fundamental concepts of what humanity itself is all about. Each chapter I read required several days for me to absorb and marvel at its ideas - it was a book to savor, and I found it highly accessible (although readers without much mathematics background might disagree about the book's more technical later chapters).

Reading this book also made me a more creative, curious person, and helped kick off an effort to teach myself computer programming this year.

Various short novels by Philip K. Dick, including Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, and A Maze of Death.

I started reading more Philip K. Dick after finishing The Information, since a number of themes from his novels reflect some of the more metaphysical ideas from information theory (particularly the idea that different perceptions in a human mind can have tangible effects on reality itself).

Dick's novels have a weird mood to them. They tend to have clunky dialogue and retro-futurism that betray their pulp-novel roots. But his stories are also full of ambiguity and uncertainty, with unreliable narrators, delusions, and shifts between realities and simulations. All this makes his work disorienting and a bit challenging to read through - I often feel a bit hungover after reading his work - but if you can bear that, these novels manage to blend swashbuckling sci-fi with deeper metaphysical questions of reality and sanity.

About A Mountain, by John D'Agata

An amazing long-form essay about Las Vegas, suicide, and the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. I wrote a blog post about this book last January, but wanted to mention it again here as one of my favorite reads of the past year.

Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

I spent the last four months of the year reading two big novels - this one and 1Q84 (below). It was great, and I admit I feel a bit lost, reading-wise, now that I'm done with them.

I'd long thought about reading Infinite Jest but had been intimidated by its length and a perception that it would be too intellectually complex and experimental, like Ulysses or Gravity's Rainbow.

But it's actually very engaging and fairly easy to read, and very, very funny. There are aspects of the plot that I probably lost amidst the dozens of characters and storylines, but I didn't worry too much about it and it didn't affect my enjoyment of the book.

(If you need encouragement and guidance, I was also helped along by the Infinite Summer reading guide, and particularly by the "How to Read Infinite Jest" post.)

In fact, I found this book so engaging that I began to wonder if it might be a bit unhealthy, just as drugs, alcohol, tennis, film, and other entertainments become unhealthy obsessions for the novel's various characters. Wallace draws a number of stories and plots from his own participation in and experiences from AA meetings, and I feel that reading this book made me more aware of and compassionate for the forgotten members of our society who struggle with addiction.

My wife Jess got a little jealous of Infinite Jest at times, but I hope she'll read it soon so I can enjoy it vicariously one more time.

1Q84, by Haruki Murakami

Murakami is one of my favorite authors. His new book doesn't rise to the level of Kafka on the Shore and the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, in my opinion, but it is still an amazing and extremely imaginative piece of literature.

Like Philip K. Dick, Murakami writes about strange parallel worlds where strange things happen without any explanation. Unlike Dick, though, Murakami has a style that makes these fantastic events feel a lot more natural and real. It's like the logic of a dream: it may be bizarre, but it's easy for you to take it for granted while you're inside of it.

Unfortunately, having read this novel, I find myself with no new Murakami fiction to read - at least until his next novel gets published and translated. That makes me a bit sad, like there's no new territory in his fictional worlds for me to discover, and it's made it harder for me to get into a new novel for the new year.

If you have any recommendations for me, I'd love to hear them in the comments.


Anonymous said...

Nice list. I can't tell, is UBIK in that PKD collection? That one was the most mindbending for me, to the extent that I can't even remember how it worked.

I remember having that mind-expanding feeling you described while reading I AM A STRANGE LOOP, by Douglas Hofstadter... (I've heard it's kind of a condensed and simplified version of GODEL, ESCHER, BACH, which I have never tackled) Crazy feeling thinking about consciousness and realizing you are a consciousness that's thinking about itself thinking about how it's thinking etc etc.

Tim S said...

Just finished A Visit From the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan and am really just deciding when to re-read it.

Also, if you haven't read Shadow Country, by Peter Matthiesen, it seems like it would be right up your alley: sprawling, excellent characters, and a rich portrait of the ecosystem of the Florida Gulf Coast.

C Neal said...

@ Anonymous - Ubik was another one I'd read in the past year, and it's probably my favorite of the PKD novels I've read so far. But very weird. I've been meaning to check out something by Hofstadter for a while now, thanks for the suggestion.

@ Tim - Goon Squad has also been on my radar for a while now, and I'll check out Matthiesen as well. Thanks for the recommendations!

Rathnashikamani said...

Good selection!

JKG said...

Haven't tackled "Jest" yet, but am now reading "Gravity's Rainbow." Yes, it's complex. But you read and loved Moby Dick; you'll have no problem with it.