A few of my favorite books
A love affair with books
An appetizer: "Reading, meanwhile, is an activity subsequent to writing —
more resigned, more civil, more intellectual."
— Jorge Luis Borges, Buenos Aires, 1935,
from the preface to the first edition of A Universal History of Iniquity
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Ya gotta love this vision of our "utterly insignificant little blue-green planet…."
Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.
Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.
Harmony Books, New York, 1979
Iain M. Banks, Culture Series
narrated by Peter Kenny
There's nothing else quite like the stories in the Culture Series by the late Iain M. Banks. The breadth and depth of his imagination is simply astonishing, reaching to the far corners of the galaxy and to dimensions beyond. His stories are deadly serious, revolving around the greatest of clashes of cosmic cultures intertwined with the most intimate intrigues of individuals. Yet he also paints them with deft strokes of humor, especially in how he depicts his artificial intelligences, beings with capabilities far in advance of the humanoid creatures they adventure alongside, creatures they often seem fond of and at the same time just barely tolerate, often with much virtual eye rolling and apparent boredom.
Peter Kenny's performance of these stories is pitch perfect. He pulls us into this enormous tapestry with an amazing range of voices that deftly portray the wide array of colorful personalities populating the vast reaches of these space operas. There are more books in the loosely joined Culture Series, but Kenny's sublime telling of these five tales creates a series within the series, a fun 79-hour romp worth listening to as a whole: Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games, The Use of Weapons, Surface Detail, and The Hydrogen Sonata.
Hatchette Audio, 2011 – 2013
Books originally published by Macmillan and Orbit, London, 1987 - 2012
John Burdett, Bangkok 8
As with Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park and Peter Høeg's Smilla's Sense of Snow, when you read this book you have to keep in mind that you are reading the writings of an outsider to a culture who is pretending to be the most intimate of insiders. In each case, the author is able to pull it off because the insider is him or herself an outsider within their own society, and as part of their story, they cast their eyes on us, the outsiders … voyeurs even, who are trying to catch a glimpse of the secret flesh of another culture.
Keeping this in mind—in other words, understanding that the secret flesh we see is ourselves reflected in a mirror—permits us to enjoy books like this for what they are, tremendously entertaining fiction. I love rereading books like this because the mystery is gone and I can focus on the nuances of the characters. And of course in a story like this, one of the most important characters is the place itself.
Knopf, New York, 2003
Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa
The baroness looks at Africa and sees. One of the most beautifully written books I have come across in my life. This is the part of Africa not unlike the one I visited; the story has provoked a reawakening of my memories, especially those of the senses:
There were low thorn trees regularly spread over the plain, and long deep valleys with dry riverbeds of big flat stones, where you had to find a deer-path here and there to take you across. After a little while you became aware of how still it was out here. Now, looking back on my life in Africa, I feel that it might altogether be described as the experience of a person who had come from a rushed and noisy world, into a still country.
Modern Library, New York, 1983
Louise Erdrich, The Antelope Wife
A storyteller drawing from a deep well of wisdom, she tells an immense tale of challenging complexity. It is the story of us:
Cecille, she sat down for lunch with me. First thing, she gets the salt shaker. She salts before she tastes. I have read that's a habit can lose you a job in an interview lunch. This salting before tasting is supposed to indicate some kind of think-ahead deficiency. Some lack. Me, I think different. To my mind, the pre-salting indicates this notion that the world is automatically too bland for Cecille. Something has to be done, in big and little ways, to liven things up and bring out all the hidden flavors. Something has to be done to normal everyday life, time spent, to heighten and color the hours, to sprinkle interest.
As salt is to food, so lying is to experience.
Or not lying, that sounds too bald. How about sprucing up, spicing, embellishing reality? That's better.
Harper Flamingo, New York, 1998
Simon Goodwin, Hubble's Universe: A Portrait of Our Cosmos
Ah, the perspective of looking back in time billions of light years and seeing stars being born.
Penguin Studio, New York, 1997
G.I. Gurdjieff, Meetings with Remarkable Men
And so I begin, also of course for the purpose of resting, to wiseacre a little ....
E. P. Dutton, New York, 1963
Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
Siddhartha learned something new on every step of his path, for the world was transformed and he was enthralled.
New Directions, New York, 1951
Ruth Beebe Hill and Chunksa Yuha, Hanta Yo
"Hanta yo; wakanya hibu welo"—"Clear the way; in a wonderful manner I come." "Maka kin le mitawa, ca hibu welo"—"I own the earth and so I come."
Doubleday, New York, 1979
Peter Høeg, Smilla's Sense of Snow
I return to this book from time to time. The pleasure, for me, is in the details, and each time I read it more slowly, dwelling on the nuances Høeg reveals through Smilla.
I feel the same way about solitude as some people feel about the blessings of the church. It's the light of grace for me. I never close my door behind me without the awareness that I am carrying out an act of mercy toward myself.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1993
John Irving, The Cider House Rules
An intelligently compassionate and emotionally rich perusal of living in a morally complex environment, overcoming personal failures, and discovering inner strengths.
William Morrow, New York, 1985
Zeyn Joukhadar, The Map of Salt and Stars
Exquisitely read by Lara Sawalha
I'm so grateful to have come across this book.
"Like the old tales you like," she says, smiling with the good times in her eyes, the times when we had Baba. "You have to weave two stories together to tell them both right." She presses her palms together, then opens them. "Like two hands."
Zeyn Joukhadar is a tremendously talented storyteller. In his wondrous book, he vividly reveals the story of a modern-day Syrian family from the point of view of Nour, the youngest daughter, woven together with the story of Rawiya, a girl who lived 800 years previously. Both girls have recently lost their fathers.
Nour, along with her mother and her two sisters, leave New York City, where Nour was born and raised, to travel to their old home in Homs, Syria. Shortly after they arrive, war breaks out, their home is destroyed, and they are forced to become refugees. The story follows their perilous journey across an often war torn region as they attempt to make their way to Nour's uncle, who lives in Ceuta.
Rawiya leaves her impoverished mother and home, disguises herself as a boy named Rami, and strikes out on her own to find her way in the world. She finds a place as a mapmaker's apprentice, and they set out on an equally perilous journey across the region in order to map it for the first time.
In their unique ways, both girls are gifted and discover within themselves deep wells of strength and courage as they deal with the multitude of challenges they encounter during their travels.
The stories reveal the tremendous beauty of the region, and at the same time, the horrendous ways refugees are treated, as well as the gifts we stand to gain if we open our hearts enough to view them as unique individuals who deserve, at the very least, to be treated with the dignity of fellow human beings.
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2018
Ryszard Kapuściński, The Shadow of the Sun
To read Kapuściński is to touch—and feel—life.
I arrived in Kumasi with no particular goal. Having one is generally deemed a good thing, the benefit of something to strive toward. This can also blind you, however: you see only your goal, and nothing else, while this something else—wider, deeper—may be considerably more interesting and important.
And this is the way to approach a book by Kapuściński, with no particular goal, but simply allowing him to take you on a journey into the heart and soul of the land through which he is wandering. He sees where many simply look, smells where many simply breathe, experiences what many simply pass by.
Knopf, New York, 2001
William Kamkwamba, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
Co-authored by Bryan Mealer; delightfully narrated by Chike Johnson
William Kamkwamba grew up in the small, rural village of Wimbe, Malawi in a farming family that got by at a subsistence level. In 2002, when he was a young teenager, Malawi was hit by a severe drought, and he and his family came close to starving to death. Afterwards, they could no longer afford to send him to secondary school, yet his passion for learning continued to drive him, and his experience with the drought inspired him to focus his creative genius on figuring out how to create windwills from physics books he borrowed from his three-shelf local library, in order to provide his family with electricity and a way to pump water. Scraping together an assortment of parts from the local junkyard and just about anywhere else he could find them, and against all odds, he succeeded.
I read about William years ago, but hadn't come across his book until just recently. It's wonderful to read his whole story, to gain the context of what growing up in Wimbe was like, to become better acquainted with the challenges he faced: grinding poverty, a culture of superstition that often stood opposed to science and education, and a political climate that was often nefarious and corrupt. Understanding this shines a light on how truly remarkable his journey has been.
Now a recent graduate of Dartmouth, William is already an accomplished speaker, giving talks around the world, and is also doing incredible work to help improve life in his family's village and throughout the surrounding Kasungu district. He's also inspiring people everywhere to reach higher.
Related TED talk: How I harnessed the wind⩘ .
Harper Audio, 2009
Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
An incredible read, as are all of her books; I am particularly grateful for this book as it helped me to relax into a new level of understanding and acceptance of how my year in Africa still shapes my life more than two decades later.
Let me claim that Africa and I kept company for a while and then parted ways, as if we were both party to relations with a failed outcome. Or say I was afflicted with Africa like a bout of rare disease, from which I have not managed a full recovery.
Harper Flamingo, New York, 1998
Gary Larson, There's a Hair in My Dirt!
This guy is so funny, and has such a shrewd eye.
See you soon!
Harper Collins, New York, 1998
Jonathan Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn
Intense, insightful, funny, stylish, smooth. If ya don't wanna take my word for it, then put an egg in your shoe and beat it.
Doubleday, New York, 1999
Zachary Mason, Void Star
Skillfully performed by Cassandra Campbell, Tristan Morris, Sean Pratt, and Michael Braun
As I was listening to chapter 11 of this book, Theater, a couple hours into the story, I was struck by the lyrical beauty of the description of the interaction between Irina, a woman with an exceptional and risky augmented memory, and an AI.¹ I started the chapter over in order to listen more carefully, and was then struck by what an extraordinary story I was listening to.
I listen to and read a lot of books. Some are okay, others bore me, a few I don't finish, and once in awhile I come across one like this, delightfully imaginative and intelligent. Wanting to ensure that I was tuned into all of the important plot lines, I started the book over again, listening more carefully to the unfolding story. At the same time, I purchased the ebook so I could read some of the passages that particularly captivated me.
I found this a challenging book, something I appreciate. I had to work to keep up, sometimes not quite sure what was happening until it would click into place a bit further along. As I finished the book, I realized I will set it aside for a bit and then listen to it again so that I can more fully appreciate the nuances of the story having the perspective of a better understanding of the general outline of the story's journey.
This is, for me, an example of peak science fiction.² Mason is a computer scientist who works in the field of Artificial Intelligence, as well as a wonderful storyteller.³ Here, he has created the most perceptive story about AI and our near future that I've come across so far, wrapped in a riveting adventure.
Blackstone Audio, 2017
Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu
The purpose of words is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to.
New Directions, New York, 1965
Lorrie Moore, Like Life
Sometimes, I can read an entire book and—even if I thoroughly enjoy it—not come across a single golden phrase. Oftentimes, I come across just a single golden phrase in a book. And I am joyful.
Like Life overflows with them, so many that I had to buy a block of stickies to keep track.
Last year she had gone to a doctor, who had looked at her throat and a mole on her back, studying them like Rorschachs for whatever he might see in them. He removed the mole and put it floating in a pathologist's vial, a tiny marine animal. Peering in at her throat, he said, "Precancer"—like a secret or a zodiac sign. "Precancer?" she had repeated quietly, for she was a quiet woman. "Isn't that . . . like life?
Faber and Faber, London, 1990
Walter Mosley, Gone Fishin'
Although published only a few years ago, this is actually the first story in Mosley's fine series about Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, a quick-witted man with a deep soul, big heart and insightful watchfulness, struggling to get by in an often unfriendly world.
Mostly set in L.A., and surpassing Raymond Chandler in capturing the mood of that city in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, the story begins in this book in a bayou in Texas, with an intense series of experiences that help shape the direction Easy will travel through life.
I highly recommend this entire series, something I've never done before. And I suggest starting with this book.
I needed a place where life was a little easier and where nobody knew me. I knew that if I could be alone I could make it. All the people around me dancing, having a good time; they were just holding me back, wanting me to be the same old poor Easy—not a nickel in my pocket or a dream in my head.
I didn't have a thing, just like everybody around me; all the money I had was in my pocket and all the clothes I had were on my back. That's how life was back then. You couldn't hold me responsible for anything because I didn't have anything. And, realizing that, it was time for me to go.
Black Classic Press, Baltimore, 1997
Haruki Murakami, South of the Border, West of the Sun
Murakami writes with a deftness that sweeps me away and leaves me astonished.
Ben Okri, The Famished Road
Those of us who lingered in the world, seduced by the annunciation of wonderful events, went through life with beautiful and fated eyes, carrying within us the music of a lovely and tragic mythology. Our mouths utter obscure prophecies. Our minds are invaded by images of the future. We are the strange ones, with half of our beings always in the spirit world.
Being born was a shock from which I never recovered. Often, by night or day, voices spoke to me. I came to realize that they were the voices of my spirit companions.
"What are you doing here?" one of them would ask.
"Living," I would reply.
"Living for what?"
"I don't know."
Nan A. Talese, New York, 1991
Osho, The Book of Secrets
Live watchfully, whatsoever you are doing—walking, sitting, eating, or if you are not doing anything, just breathing, resting, relaxing in the grass—never forget that you are a watcher. Make it an inner process continuously…. You will be surprised how life changes its whole quality.
St. Martin's Griffin, New York, 1998
Michael Paterniti, Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain
The freshest voice I've come across since Jonathan Lethem. It's a strange, strange country we live in, peopled by weirdos who think of themselves as normal. Paterniti chronicles his journey from the east coast to the west coast with Einstein's brain in a Tupperware container in the lap of the old doctor, Harvey, who had taken it when he performed the autopsy many years before. And that's not the strange part! Paterniti speaks with humor, honesty, respect, and awareness about the folks they meet and the places they visit. Our backyards.
If we've incorporated the theory of relativity into our scientific view of the universe, as well as our literature, art, music, and culture at large, it's the great scientist's attempt to devise a kind of personal religion—an intimate spiritual and political manifesto—that still stands in stark, almost sacred contrast to the Pecksniffian systems of salvation offered by modern society. Einstein's blending of twentieth-century skepticism with nineteenth-century romanticism offers a different kind of hope.
"I am a deeply religious nonbeliever," he said. "This is a somewhat new kind of religion." Pushing further, he sought to marry science and religion by redefining their terms. "I am of the opinion that all the finer speculations in the realm of science spring from a deep religious feeling," he said. "I also believe that this kind of religiousness … is the only creative religious activity of our time."
Dial Press, New York, 2000
Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Let's consider a reevaluation of the situation in which we assume that the stuckness now occurring, the zero of consciousness, isn't the worst of all possible situations, but the best possible situation you could be in.
William Morrow, New York, 1974
Richard Powers, The Gold Bug Variations
Simply put, I'm in awe. This is nothing less than the story of life itself, life writing about itself. Richard Powers is obviously a brilliant manifestation of the code he writes about.
Scribners, London, 1992
Paul Reps, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
"What is Zen?"
One answer: Inayat Khan tells a Hindu story of a fish who went to a queen fish and asked: 'I have always heard about the sea, but what is this sea? Where it is?' The queen fish explained: 'You live, move, and have your being in the sea. The sea is within you and without you, and you are made of sea, and you will end in sea. The sea surrounds you as your own being.'
Charles E. Tuttle, Rutland, Vermont, 1957
Idries Shah, The Sufis
Most fables contain at least some truth, and they often enable people to absorb ideas which the ordinary patterns of their thinking would prevent them from digesting.
The Octagon Press, London, 1977
Martin Cruz Smith, Gorky Park
An astonishing read; Smith certainly poured his heart and soul into this story. Rich enough to be read again and again and still provide delicious surprises. As is so often the case, the movie adaptation is a wax museum caricature.
Random House, New York, 1981
Scott Turow, Presumed Innocent
There are so many books I want to read that it is the highest compliment I can pay an author to take the time to read one of his or her books a second time. I've read this book several times, and I'm pretty sure I'll read it again in the future. When I do read a book like this again, I find that my experience is richer because, after the first time, the urgency of unraveling the mystery of the story is gone, and I can instead focus on its nuances. Turow obviously reached deep into himself for this one. It is abundant with details, well researched, contains the spark of authenticity, and the main characters are complex, soul-searching individuals.
What is harder?
Knowing the truth or finding it?
Telling it or being believed?
Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 1987
Alan Watts, The Way of Zen
The only thing that tops Alan Watts' writing on Zen is to hear him laughing while he is talking Zen.
Pantheon Books, New York, 1957
Peter Watts, Blindsight
Whoa! Wow! A brilliant and somewhat insane imagining of a first contact with an alien species that is really alien. This isn't just some cute bicycle riding alternative that we can easily relate to. This isn't even some nightmare punching out of our chests whose motives we can still somewhat understand. This is a form of being that, while Watts strove for biological plausibility, is as different from us as anything I've encountered in my wanderings through the wonderfully crazed imaginations of the best science fiction writers, a being that appears not to have self consciousness, yet also seems to be much more intelligent than us.
Tor, New York, 2006
Banana Yoshimoto, Lizard
What happens to us when we hide things from others, keep them to ourselves, and then later let them go?
Grove Press, New York, 1995
Muhammad Yunus, Banker to the Poor
In just eleven years, this method of microfinance for the poor has reached 100,000,000 of the world's poorest, and helped many of them lift themselves out of poverty. This isn't charity, it is a powerful tool for unleashing the creative talents of people who previously didn't have access to this opportunity.
For more information about the Grameen Foundation, visit https://grameenfoundation.org/.
Public Affairs, New York, 1999, 2003
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
Love at first sight? With a dictionary? Yes! I've used previous editions of this dictionary and liked them very much, but the last couple of editions have taken it to another level. I like this dictionary so much that I use one copy at work and have a second copy open on a dictionary stand next to my desk at home.
I like how the definitions are crafted, I like the attitude of the editors (not in any way pretentious, they view themselves as recorders of a living language rather than as grammar-hammer cops), and I am thrilled with the color. The color? Yes! It brings the book alive, transforming it from a dictionary into a coffee table book. We always leave it open to the last word we've looked up, and I often find myself pausing over the book just to wonder about one of the illustrations.
There is an online version of the book that I use sometimes at work to email a definition to a coworker who has asked me a question, but for my personal use—at work and at home—I prefer the printed book. I really enjoy turning its pages. Kudos!
Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2011
Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style, Second Edition
Mr. Bringhurst has created a book where poetry, craftsmanship, historical perspective, and an understanding of this moment dance gracefully together. Over the years, I have read some wonderful books on design, layout, and typography; this one opens at the very pinnacle.
Hartley & Marks, Vancouver, 1999
Allen Hurlburt, Layout: the Design of the Printed Page
I am indebted to Mr. Hurlburt for introducing me to the golden mean.
Watson-Guptil, New York, 1977
Scott Landis, The Workbench Book
Truly inspiring photographs and text (well … okay, if you love woodworking the way I do).
Taunton Press, Newton, 1987
Donald A. Norman, The Psychology of Everyday Things
Anyone designing a Web site would do themselves and their eventual visitors a favor by being familiar with the worldview presented in this book. I believe the new title is The Design of Everyday Things.
Basic Books, New York,1988
Edward R. Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information
I'm not a data freak, but I really appreciate the clarity with which he discusses his passion. His dedication to essence influences my daily work.
Graphics Press, Cheshire, 1983
Colin Wheildon, Type & Layout
Maybe you don't care what font you use and how you design your communications. Then again, maybe you don't care whether people bother to read what you want to communicate, or whether they comprehend it even if they struggle through reading it, or whether you are throwing away the dollars you spend on communicating. But if you do care about these things, read this book (and weep that you didn't read it sooner).
Strathmoor Press, Berkeley, 1995
Jan V. White, Graphic Design for the Electronic Age
This guy has such class.
Watson-Guptil, New York, 1988
A few favorite snippets
These are from books I've read, but haven't posted reviews of.
I'm not sure where it's going, if it has to go anywhere. Not everything has to go somewhere. In fact it's best if it doesn't. Once it gets there, wherever there is, then it's fully defined, no longer a mystery.
—Todd Shimoda, Oh! A Mystery of Mono No Aware
He speaks in your voice, American, and there's a shine in his eye that's halfway hopeful.
It's a school day, sure, but he's nowhere near the classroom. He wants to be here instead, standing in the shadow of this old rust-hulk of a structure, and it's hard to blame him—this metropolis of steel and concrete and flaky paint and cropped grass and enormous Chesterfield packs aslant on the scoreboards, a couple of cigarettes jutting from each.
Longing on a large scale is what makes history.
—Don DeLillo, Underworld
Wait a second,
I recognize this corner...
I'm not in Hell...
I'm just at home.
—Too Much Coffee Man (Shannon Wheeler), Too Much Coffee Man's Guide for the Perplexed
In an instant, the island was as quiet and still as it had ever been. Only the rustle of the pines and the swaying grasses mocked the frailty and impermanence of mankind.
—Eiji Yoshikawa, Musashi
I do not know
I do not know
where I go
I only know
that I feel
in my heart
that I am here
a very small part
—Alice Walker, By the Light of My Father's Smile
We live in a changing universe, and few things are changing faster than our conception of it. The cosmos of our not-so-distant ancestors was small, static and Earth-centered. By the middle of the twentieth century we had discovered that we are adrift in an expanding universe so large that the light from its outer reaches takes more than twice the age of the earth to reach our telescopes. Looking ahead, we can see an emerging cosmology in which our universe turns out to be a great deal larger still, and to be but one among many sovereign universes.
—Timothy Ferris, The Whole Shebang
Inman thought about the question. He had long since decided there was little usefulness in speculating much on what a day will bring. It led a person to the equal errors of being either dreadful or hopeful.
—Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain
We drove off then and left Jimmy to make his own decisions. That's how it is. One Indian doesn't tell another what to do. We just watch things happen and then make comments.
—Sherman Alexie, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven
Crowley put the Bentley in gear. Then he remembered something. He snapped his fingers. The wheel clamps disappeared.
"Let's have lunch," he said. "I owe you one from, when was it..."
"Paris, 1793," said Aziraphale.
"Oh, yes. The Reign of Terror. Was that one of yours, or one of ours?"
"Wasn't it yours?"
"Can't recall. It was quite a good restaurant, though."
As they drove past an astonished traffic warden his notebook spontaneously combusted, to Crowley's amazement.
"I'm pretty certain I didn't mean to do that," he said.
"That was me," he said, "I had always thought your people invented them."
"Did you? We thought they were yours."
Crowley stared at the smoke in the rearview mirror.
"Come on," he said. "Let's do the Ritz."
—Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, Good Omens
The wave of emotions reached his fingers.
The emotions took control of the brush.
—Todd Shimoda, 365 Views of Mt. Fuji, Algorithms of the Floating World
The real adventure, he thought, is the flow of time; it's as much adventure as anyone could wish.
—Anne Tyler, The Accidental Tourist
Wooden chair, Jars (3, contain spices)
Metal case (contains family papers, pictures, valuables
Ladder, Wooden weights (4, used for wrestling practice)
Bed (under family, used as couch during day)
Pictures of Hindu gods (2, being held by family)
Firewood (to right of door), Bicycle (broken)
Metal pots (7), Glasses (2), Trays (4), Ceramic pots (2)
Basket of crockery (between metal and ceramic pots)
Basket (with rice), Bags of rice (3, harvested last season)
2nd bed (leaning against wall), Blankets (3, draped on 2nd bed)
(A list of all the possessions of the Yadav family, Ahraura Village, Uttar Pradesh, India, where the per capita annual income is $US 330. Their most valued possession: print of Hindu gods.)
—Peter Menzel, Material World, A Global Family Portrait