Yes, it’s that time of year again: my annual “what has Jason read in the last year?” post! As I wrote when I began a few years ago,
[In 2014] I gave myself a challenge: read a thousand books in my lifetime. I decided to start counting books I’d read since November 14, 2014 (although I’d read many books before this, I really only wanted to start counting then, so I could better catalogue them).
Last year I had a bit of extra reading time on my hands (yay unexpected employment loss!) and read 33 books. This year, I had a bit less reading time but still managed to get through 29 books, which I feel pretty happy about. For those keeping score, I’m now 86 books down out of my 1000 book challenge. Still a ways to go, but I’m really looking forward to breaking the 10% mark this year.
What a year it’s been (I assume, for all of us). Looking over what I’ve read in the last year, I again see some definite themes (because like all humans, I find patterns everywhere and also I was the one who chose the books in the first place, so). We’ve got a bit of a doomsday / dystopia / destruction-via-media theme going on, systems, play, and cities (which this year I’ve connected thanks to what I’ve read) and as always some solid books on learning and education.
This was also the year I feel like I’ve sort of discovered fiction. Of course fiction’s always been great, but I think I haven’t really clicked with it in a long time, most likely because I’ve been reading the wrong-for-me kind, and because I’ve been focusing on a backlog of mostly non-fiction.
What follows is everything I’ve read in the last year, and notes accompanying the standouts.
Watchmen, by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins.
Easily one of the best graphic novels I’ve ever read. It’s gritty, sure, but more importantly it explores its characters and world as integrated and complex systems. That, and the just outstanding use of the comic form make this pretty much a masterpiece.
The Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang.
Bought this short story at the Strand bookstore immediately after seeing (and loving) the film it inspired, Arrival. It goes in a slightly different, but enjoyable, direction than the movie.
The Meaning of the Body, by Mark Johnson.
By one of the authors of Metaphors We Live By, which I read and loved last year. This book contends, roughly, that human meaning is grounded in our physical bodies, with the argument beginning all the way “down” at our physical movement / flexibility.
It was a heady read to say the least, but has given me a new sense when thinking about cognition and bodies (especially when thinking about computer intelligence).
Congratulations, By the Way, by George Saunders.
Bridget Jones’s Diary, by Helen Fielding.
OK. Let’s first take a few minutes to bask in how fantastically laugh-your-arse-off funny this book is from start to finish. It’s good. It’s very good.
And at a deeper level, it’s even better. I think it’s important for men to read this book, not just because it’s enjoyable, but also because it explores the kinds of things our society puts women through (from calorie counting, to self help books, through to male fuckwittage). Yeah the book’s kind of absurd (like all satire), but that’s kind of the point. (I’ll also add I think it’s even better than the fantastic movie that it inspired)
Teaching as a Subversive Activity, by Neil Postman.
Originally read this book in two days after a personal recommendation from one of Postman’s friends and loved it, but decided to re-read a little slower this time.
It’s easy to read this book and think “Jeez, the author sure hates teachers.” but the better way to read is as “Jeez, the author sure loves students.” and I think that’s kind of the point. It introduces the need to develop in children rock-solid crap detectors: children should grow up fully equipped to make meaning about their world and their surroundings, and should be immune to all flavours and aromas of bullshit.
This book has inspired my views on education more than any other book save Mindstorms. Not necessarily the particular views it espouses, but on the dire need for children to grow up as meaning makers, as epistemologists.
Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell.
Read for no reason in particular.
How to Watch TV News, by Neil Postman.
Read for no reason in particular.
The Systems Bible, by John Gall.
Play Design, by Chaim Gingold.
A thoroughly researched and well written thesis on play and its implications for game design, education, city building, and playgrounds. Completely mind opening.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by JK Rowling.
Street Fight, by Janette Sadik-Khan.
This book explores city and traffic design, and the relentless effort required to grow (or slow) it. This is my favourite kind of book, because it makes you see things which were previously invisible to you.
Ghost in the Shell, by Masamune Shirow.
Pokémon Red, by Nintendo.
You caught me. This is not a book but a video game. But you know what, I’ve decided to include some video games in my quest because what is a video game like this if not a story, fleshed out with characters, and exploring themes?
While Pokémon Red is kind of childish at times (duh), it also holds up pretty well after all these years (minus the whole dogfighting thing). It’s a great case study on keeping a learner (player) engaged and feeling confident — yet challenged — basically at all times.
Mindset, by Carol Dweck.
I should have read this book a decade or two ago, but I’m glad I’ve at least read it now.
Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari.
- A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki.
Proust and the Squid, by Maryanne Wolf.
Fascinating book about the history of reading and writing systems, how the brain reads and how it learns to read (with supreme difficulty), and also explores a bit on what causes struggles for those learning to read.
I absolutely loved this book, and it’s given me a newfound appreciation for reading and fluency.
The One Device, by Brian Merchant.
- Landscape as Urbansim, by Charles Waldheim.
Mike Meyers’ Canada, by Mike Myers.
I’m having so many feelings about Canada this year but they’ll have to wait for future blog posts. Very charming book though.
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs.
- Stories of Your Life, by Ted Chiang.
Contact, by Carl Sagan.
A few things:
This book shook me to my core, so deeply and so completely it took me a few days to recover after reading it. I loved it.
It’s easily become my favourite fiction book I’ve read, and is a pretty high contender for favourite book, too.
I’ve tried to write a few blog posts about the book and my love for it since reading, but have struggled to put it quite into words.
Picked up a copy of this book at Ottawa’s Black Squirrel Books, a used bookstore + café that’s quickly become one of my favourite places in the world. A used bookstore is nice because it’s kind of like “this is what your community reads.”
You may already be kind of familiar with Contact, as it inspired a movie with the same name and roughly the same story, starring Jodie Foster. It’s a brilliant (and I think, subtly under appreciated) movie, one I’ve enjoyed for many years. Both the book and the movie do a wonderful job conveying their stories, using their medium to the best of its abilities (I don’t think it makes sense to say which is “better” but if you enjoyed the movie, there’s even more to love about the book).
The story is optimistic because it sees the best in its characters, often even its antagonists (you see, a message from a distant star has caused quite a stir in the religious community, but Sagan presents the religious leaders not as brainless deniers of Science, but as people viewing the world through a different lens). It’s optimistic that Science is a guiding philosophy that breaks down international borders and undergirds a deeper human understanding.
You might say it’s a bit “optimistic” in a naive sense, that there’s no way humans can all work together to solve global crises or challenges together, and you might be right. But Contact illustrates what if, what if we maybe could do that? What if the nature of the universe is so profound that we can all rally behind it? Contact asks not simply “Wouldn’t it be nice?” but “Shouldn’t we strive for this?“
And if you’re struggling to find hope these days, what better way to find than to reach out to a universe that surrounds us on all sides, beckoning us?
But What If We’re Wrong?, by Chuck Klosterman.
- Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer.
- Maus 1, by Art Speigelman.
Maus 2, by Art Speigelman.
Maus was a hard read for good reason. It’s a biography of a Holocaust survivor, so naturally some of it is pretty fucking heavy. But the story is beautifully and artfully told (and not just because it’s a graphic novel). Speigelman makes good use of levity throughout the story to calm your nerves as you read it, which I really appreciated.
The Holocaust is never not absolutely, heartwrenchingly shocking to me. It’s hard to grasp the magnitude of it some times, and I think a lot of media does it a disservice (i.e., most movies about it seem to focus on (American) heroism during the war, about “good vs evil,” but rarely are stories told of the institutional antisemitism and other bigotry).
Bridget Jones’s Diary 2: The Edge of Reason, by Helen Fielding.
Here’s to the next 914!