Posted on Jan 4, 2020
My New Years’ Resolutions often take the form of consuming or interacting with media differently. I find it’s an easy type of habit for me to change, and often quite rewarding. For example, in 2018 I didn’t think I was listening to enough new music (often just putting familiar playlists on repeat), so I decided to listen to 100 albums I’d never heard before. That project went quite well! I exposed myself to some new genres, and listened to several classics that had somehow passed me by (I cannot believe it took me 20 years to listen to Dark Side of the Moon for the first time). Importantly, it changed the way I listen to music - I frequently seek out unfamiliar stuff to put on now.
My resolution for 2019 was to read more. I finished perhaps two books in 2018, and it didn’t feel like nearly enough. I did like reading, I just wasn’t setting aside enough time for it. So I made sure I did.
I got through 17 books in 2019, and was (and still am) reading an 18th. It’s certainly worked for me; I’ve reminded myself why I enjoy reading, and am already planning out the next few items on my reading list. Reading regularly can be a difficult habit to form – it’s quite time-consuming and hard to do on my half-hour commute by foot – but I’ve tried to make sure I get up early enough in the morning to have time to have a read with my morning coffee, before continuing with my day. And generally that’s worked, although I have gone through ten-day periods not being able to make time occasionally.
Anyway, without further ado, I want to give an overview of some of my more memorable reads this year.
To my shame, I’d never read an Asimov book. Science fiction is a genre I enjoy a lot - even though some of it is so long ago, and the predictions so far-fetched, that it may as well be modern fantasy writing. I finished four books by Asimov this year, and the book I am currently reading will be a fifth. I decided to follow a suggested reading order on the SciFi StackExchange.
I started with I, Robot, a collection of nine short stories which set up Earth’s early “history” and the Three Laws of Robotics (apparently, this phrase is the first recorded use of the word “robotics”). The scenarios that Asimov is able to set up using the Laws (which seem to the reader to be extremely constraining), are brilliant, and make for tense, engaging, and extremely thought-provoking narratives. I don’t want to spoil any of the specific plots, but pretty much every single one had me hooked. I finished this book in three days (two flights and a half-hour burst for the last story), and it’s certainly the best thing I read this year. If you want to start reading Asimov, definitely start here.
The other three books (The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, The Robots of Dawn) form the “Elijah Baley trilogy”. They are named after the protagonist, a plainclothesman on Earth at a time when Earth has settled some 50 worlds and is engaged in a bitter cultural rivalry with them. All three are murder mysteries, set on Earth and a few of the settled worlds. While I enjoyed these books a great deal, they failed to entirely live up to I, Robot.
I think the premise of a puzzle that involves the complexities of robots works extremely well in a short story. Sadly, the result of multiplying the length by ten is that some of the pacing feels a little slow, and while the plots are still extremely satisfying, generally they aren’t much richer than the short stories. Worse still, it has to be padded out with dialogue; while Asimov’s writing is generally very good, dialogue can feel extremely stilted at times. Oddly, the dialogue between robots often maintains a similar style to human dialogue, which makes the human characters seem more robotic than the other way around. My final complaint is that Asimov is quite explicit with exposition: very little is left to the interpretation of the reader and the motivations of characters are expressed clearly, with little room for doubt. It would be nice to have some character traits shown and not told.
Despite these gripes, the books are largely enjoyable; Asimov is very good at writing complex plots using robots as a device, and that doesn’t change in the Elijah Baley trilogy. The books are also able to explore the fictional conflict of two human cultures after several centuries of living apart and evolving separately, and this gives Asimov a lot more interesting material to work with. Overall I absolutely recommend the trilogy as well.
The book I am currently reading is a sequel to the Elijah Baley trilogy (called Robots and Empire). Baley has been dead for some two centuries; some robots and former acquaintances have survived him, however, and must resolve some kind of incident. I’m not quite far enough in to determine exactly what kind of incident, but I think I get the idea.
I read a handful of other fiction books. I started the year with 1984, by George Orwell. Of course it’s a classic, and I knew the outline of the plot beforehand. The torture scene and the final couple of pages both resonated a lot more than I thought they might with me. The impact of the premise of the book (and the actions of the Party) were probably a little dampened by my already being familiar with them, but on the whole this was definitely worthwhile.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro was a book I did not expect to like. Set in a dystopian 1990s England, the story follows a group of people through their schooling years and early adulthood. The catch? I’m not sure I want to reveal it, as it would spoil the beginning of the novel, but you can read a summary here if you want to. The book has been described as anything from a horror to a coming of age story. In places it’s a romance novel, it’s certainly concerned with that as much as anything else. While the story is existentially depressing, I felt unable to stop paying attention to it, and was quite emotional at the book’s resolution. Never Let Me Go has received wide critical acclaim, featuring in fourth place on a recent list of the best books of the 21st century, as compiled by The Guardian, and it deserves all the praise it gets.
Finally for this section, I’d like to mention In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami. A horror book set in modern Japan, it unfortunately failed to convince me that its premise was scary. That said, the book has its moments, especially towards the end as it begins to actually ramp up the tension and make the main antagonist seem like a credible threat. At just 120 pages long, if you have about four hours to spare then it might at least be worth a go.
I’d already listened to a serial podcast by the journalist and author Jon Ronson earlier in the year. Called The Butterfly Effect, it took a look at the impact of streaming sites on the modern pornography industry. Its sequel, The Last Days of August, chronicled the death of August Ames and the subsequent fallout. I was hugely impressed by both of these and decided to read one of his books, settling eventually on The Psychopath Test, an investigation into the study of mental health, the DSM, and what it means to be a psychopath.
The book was as great as I expected. It always surprises me that Jon Ronson is always able to score interviews with people who you’d never think would agree to be interviewed, and even ask questions during that interview that are blunt almost to the point of being rude. I suppose it’s a skill that good investigative journalists all have, Louis Theroux is much the same. While his conclusion seems quite weak, he presents a lot of food for thought. He’s candid about his thought processes as far as current suspicions and points of interest are concerned, which lets the reader think about the interviews from his perspective and helps to contextualise them.
I was on a linguistics streak towards the end of the year, reading two books about the subject. The first, The Prodigal Tongue by Lynne Murphy, talks about the differences and similarities between British and American English, and the cultural factors which determine them. The second was Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch, which tracks the linguistic features of the internet and new media (think emoji, acronyms, wEiRd capitalisation, etc). Both books are a veritable treasure trove of trivia, historical notes, and reminders not to get all judgy about how people use language. I can’t say much more about either of these without just spouting off trivia from them, apart from to say that I recommend both.
Finally, I rounded off the year by reading The Smartest Guys in the Room, by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. This book chronicles the rise and fall of the energy company Enron, 1990s America’s foremost cooker of books. It details many of the schemes that Enron used in order to essentially hide what were in some cases multi-billion dollar losses from Wall Street. The cast of relevant characters is well explored and their aptitudes and motivations are clear. Frankly, this sort of journalistic work is extremely impressive; Enron was an absolutely huge company at its height, and its financial scheming was intricate and hard to follow (obviously). To be able to parse exactly what Enron did, produce a compelling narrative, and present it clearly is no mean feat. I had never really read many books like this (What genre even is this? Corporate fraud true crime?) but I’m seeking out more now. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup is quite high on my list at the moment and seems to be rewarding in similar ways.