This page is a (partial) list of books I am reading or have read. When possible, I like to make excerpts.
Inside an excerpt, text within square brackets, “”, are my words, inserted to make a clarification. If there is a square-bracketed ellipsis, “[…]” or “[…]”, I have elided or paraphrased some of the original text.
Within an excerpt, emphasized text is always that of the original. If I want to point something out, I typeset it with the mark element.
I originally did not want to do ratings, but as of 2019-07-18 I’ll try doing it for a while. Current rating scale:
- 0/5: No redeeming qualities. I’ll probably never award this score, but wanted to make sure it was documented.
- 1/5: Terrible, and not redeemed by scattered sections of higher quality or inventiveness.
- 2/5: Below the bar, i.e. poor. At this level, the piece may well be enjoyable, and have artistic merit, but its excessive flaws hold it back from a higher rating. Rarely worth re-reading unless it triggers feelings of comfort or nostalgia. Recommendable, but only to those with a strong interest in its topic or genre.
- 3/5: Above the bar, i.e. solid. I am glad to have read it. Recommendable to anyone who likes reading in general; this goes double if they’re already interested in its topic or genre. Worth making excerpts, and possibly commenting on them.
- 4/5: Good. Left a unique impression on me. Excels in some area of written composition (as of 2019-08-05, I seem most likely to award this score for strong authorial voice or characterization.) Worth taking notes on style.
- 5/5: Superb.
Reviews, Ratings, Quotations, and Commentary
This website was started some time in 2018. I may retroactively add works which I read before then, but certainly won’t do so comprehensively.
The Design of Everyday Things
(by Donald A. Norman) (read 2018) (score 4)
Life in a Medieval City
(by Joseph Gies and Frances Gies) (year 1969) (read 2018) (score 5)
A gem of a book. I can soak for hours in descriptions of historical daily life such as these.
(by Peter Watts) (read 2018) (score 3)
Garden of Marvels: Tales of Wonder from Early Medieval China
(by Various) (translator Robert Ford Campany) (read 2018) (score 3)
He Yu, byname Yanju, a native of Shanyin in Guiji, once fell ill and unconscious. Only a place beneath his heart remained warm. After three days he revived. He said that a functionary had to taken him up into the heavens to appear before a magistrate. The Magistrate’s official quarters were very imposing. He ordered Yu to be taken into a secret chamber with several shelves. On the shelves were a seal and a sword. Yu was directed to take whichever of the items he liked. He was short and could not reach the top shelf, so he took the short sword [from a lower shelf] and went out. He was asked, “Which did you choose?” Yu said, “I chose the sword.” The functionary replied, “What a pity you didn’t choose the seal. With it you may have commanded the hundred spirits. With the sword you command only local earth gods.”
After he had recovered from his illness, whenever Yu traveled about, he saw earth gods along the roadside bowing to him as if to a superior.Originally from 录异传. pg 22
In Yuhang District there lived a man named Shen Cong. His home was near the mountains. One night he and his father were on the mountain when, during the third watch, they suddenly saw a person wearing a muslin cap and a thin, crimson damask gown. The man said that he was the king of Mount Dou. (Mount Dou is in Yuhang District.)Originally from 齐谐记. pg 27
The Bonfire of the Vanities
(by Tom Wolfe) (score 3 or 4) (read 2019)
I’ve read magazine pieces by Tom Wolfe, but this is the first novel of his that I’ve read. Wolfe’s strongest skill is capturing the every-which-way rush of ideas that the average person experiences in unsure and stressful situations. He does this with a signature prose style in which descriptive prose is constantly being broken up by characters’ reactions and inner monologues. He’s also good at writing odious characters, and at simmering both the characters’ anxieties and the reader’s expectations. On the other hand, his style can come off sugary, flat, and artificial once I’ve spent enough time trekking through his verbosity.
(by Charles Murray) (read 2019) (score 3)
Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe
(by Simon Singh) (read 2019-05) (score 3)
In the Land of Israel
(by Amos Oz) (translator Maurie Goldberg-Bartura) (year 1983) (read 2019) (score 3)
This is a collection of interview articles which novelist Amos Oz conducted in October and November, 1982, while writing for the newspaper Davar. The titles given in the citations are those of the articles, which are also the titles of the collection’s chapters.
“I’ll tell you what shame is: they gave us [Mizrahi migrants to Israel] houses, they gave us the dirty work; they gave us education, and they took away our self-respect. What did they bring my parents to Israel for? I’ll tell you what for, but you [Amos Oz] won’t write this. You’ll think it’s just provocation. But wasn’t it to do your dirty work? You [non-Mizrahi Israelis] didn’t have Arabs then, so you needed our parents to do your cleaning and be your servants and your laborers. And policemen, too. You brought our parents to be your Arabs.”Unnamed resident of Bet Shemesh. Quoted in “The Insult and the Fury”, pg 36
“When you [left-wingers] were on top, you hid us away in holes, in moshavim and development towns, so the tourists wouldn’t see us; so we wouldn’t stain your image; so they’d think this was a white country. But that’s all over now, because now we’ve come out of our holes. […] Who built this country? Siegel or Bouhbout? Ashkenazi or Sephardi? A hundred years ago – they said on TV – the Alignment people came from Russia, and the first thing those Labor Party people did was bring a bunch of Yemenites from Yemen to do their dirty work. Only after that they made up all these stories.”Unnamed resident of Bet Shemesh, pg 40-41
“That’s the situation between the Jews and the Arabs here. It’s like two people standing on a roof stuck tight together: if they don’t want to fall off the roof together, they have to be careful. They have no choice – they’re stuck together very tight.”Naif, a Palestinian from Ramallah. Quoted in “Just a Peace”, pg 83
“Tell me yourself, do the bad guys really have it so bad in this world? Do they lack for anything? If anybody tries to lay a finger on them, they cut off his arms and legs. And sometimes they do the same for the people who haven’t even tried anything. If they feel like eating something, and they can catch it and kill it, that’s what they do. And they don’t suffer an upset stomach afterward or any divine retribution. So from here on in, I want Israel to be a member of this club.”“Z”, a pseudonym. Quoted in “The Tender Among You, and Very Delicate”, pg 89
“[…] we could have put all that [hypothetical violence] behind us and by now become a normal nation with prissy values, with humanistic neighborly relations with Iraq and Egypt, and with a slight criminal record – just like everybody else. Like the English and the French and the Germans and the Americans – who’ve already managed to forget what they did to the Indians – and the Australians, who almost totally eliminated the aborigines. They’ve all done it. What’s the big deal? What’s so terrible about being a civilized people, respectable, with a slight criminal past?”“Z”, pg 96
He [Z] replied calmly, “Listen, friend, if that celebrated Jewish mind had spent less time saving the world […] and instead had hurried up a bit, only ten years, and set up a tiny, Lilliputian Jewish state […] and invented in time a teeny-weeny atom bomb for the state – if they’d only done those two things – there would never have been a Hitler. Or a Holocaust. And nobody in the whole world would have dared to lay a finger on the Jews.”“Z”, pg 99
“I think that the positions of Gush Emunim1 really do constitute an irritating and alarming threat to the legitimacy of this secular, hedonistic ‘Israeli-ism.’ The existence of Gush Emunim disturbs your [secular Israelis’] experience of modern Western existence, including permissiveness and pacifism and internationalism; it interferes with your attempt to ‘adjust’ our society to fashionable Western values. You have been trapped by a multifaceted threat: first of all, in terms of Zionist fulfillment, you are no longer the pioneers. Second, you’ve been tangled up in a war you don’t really believe in. Third, what you view as injustice is being done to Arabs in your name.”Yisrael Harel, Chairman of Council of Jewish Settlements in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza [the occupied territories]. Quoted in “An Argument on Life and Death (A)”, pg 115
I have stated many times that Zionism is not a first name but a surname, a family name, and this family is divided, feuding over the question of a “master plan” for the enterprise: How shall we live here? Shall we aspire to rebuild the kingdom of David and Solomon? Shall we construct a Marxist paradise here? A Western society, a social-democratic welfare state? Or shall we create a model of the petite bourgeoisie diluted with a little Yiddishkeit?Amos Oz, in a speech given to members of the Ofra settlement. Quoted in “An Argument on Life and Death (B)”, pg 128
The controversy between “hawks” and “doves” is fundamentally not about the future of the territories. It is a controversy over the nature of Zionism and even the meaning of the Jewish destiny. The hawks maintain that there is some ancient, mysterious curse of fate because of which we are doomed to eternal conflict with an inimical, alien world, no matter what we do, and therefore we had better slough off the image of the “nice Jewish boy” and become the big bad wolves for a change – they are not going to love us anyway, but maybe they will fear us. Some wolf: with claws made in the United States and jaws donated by charity. Whereas the doves maintain that there is a certain correlation between our acts, our behavior, and the support we garner. He who shuts his eyes and sings ecstatically, “All the world’s against us” forgets, for instance, the broad, vital, and fateful support we had in  and again in , despite the oil and assorted other delicacies the Arabs had to offer anyone who would line up against us.Amos Oz, pg 146
“It was a little strange. It annoyed me. The Zionists should be soldiers! Let them be a brutal enemy! They’re not supposed to look like the old people of Nablus! And then I saw little children playing in the street. And then I saw an elderly Jewish laborer drag an ice box and load it onto his cart, which was drawn by a donkey. All of a sudden it became difficult to hate them. They looked too much like human beings. That trip caused a small crisis in me. Perhaps something similar happens to a Jew who comes to Germany for the first time and suddenly finds that the streets are not filled with uniformed Nazis with jackboots and whips, but that there are old people, poor people; that there are lovely children; that there are human beings without horns and tails. It was hard!”Ali “Abu Haled” Al-Halili2, a literature editor at Palestinian newspaper Al-Fajr. Quoted in “The Dawn”, pg 175
“Look, we’ve learned something from you. We want to be an open, pluralistic, democratic society. And that is not about to happen so soon with Jordan. We still remember King Hussein, all right. I, for one, am willing to state openly and out loud today: the Jews have a historical claim to part of Palestine. Your forefathers were here, along with our forefathers. Your suffering grants you rights, as does our suffering. I accept that. Do you know what the hardest thing for me to accept, the hardest thing for me to swallow? That we are two similar peoples. That our fate is interlocked. Am I happy about it? No, not at all. You are not happy about it, either. But nothing can be done about that any more: we are linked together. You are our destiny. We are your destiny. Our respective disasters, yours and ours, for decades in this land – these very disasters have welded us together. And that’s it. Either we will continue our stubbornness until we destroy each other completely, or we will recognize each other and recognize the tie between us, and then, maybe, there will be an end to the suffering. Perhaps. My tears in Haifa that I told you about – perhaps it was my hatred that wept then, because it was dying. My hatred is dead. Now I have only bitterness and anger, but no more hatred. There’s nothing we can do about it: here in this land we are welded together, Jews and Arabs, forever.”Ali “Abu Haled” Al-Halili, pg 177
“My dream is – before my time comes, they should give me two minutes on the television Friday night, when everybody is listening, and I will tell the young people what everybody should be saying here every morning and night, should say thanks God for everything what we got here in this country: the army, the ministers by the Knesset, the El Al, the income tax even, the streets, the kibbutzim, the factories – everything! What is this?! They forgot how we had it in this country in the beginning? There wasn’t nothing! Sand and enemies! Now, thanks God, we got the State and everybody has what to eat and clothes and education – not enough yet, the education – and we even got a lot of luxury! What did we have in the Diaspora? We had bubkes, that’s what!”Unnamed Rumanian resident of Ashdod. Quoted in “At the End of that Autumn: A Midwinter Experience”, pg 224
(by Kurt Busiek) (art Alex Ross) (reread 2019) (score 3)
(by Fredrik Pohl) (year 1976) (read 2019) (score 3)
My Promised Land
(by Ari Shavat) (read 2019) (score 2 or 3)
(by Upton Sinclair) (read 2019) (score 3 or 4)
Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets
(by David Simon) (read 2019) (score 4)
The Name of the Rose
(by Umberto Eco) (read 2019) (score 3 or 4)
This was my master’s way. He not only knew how to read the great book of nature, but also knew the way monks read the books of Scripture, and how they thought through them.pg 24-25
“Monasterium sine libris,” the abbot recited, pensively, “est sicut civitas sine opibus, castrum sine numeris, coquina sine suppellectili, mensa sine cibis, hortus sine herbis, pratum sine floribus, arbor sine foliis […]”pg 36
Then the abbot gave his benediction, the hebdomadary said the prayers, all bowed toward the altar in a moment of meditation whose sweetness no one can comprehend who has not experienced those hours of mystic ardor and intense inner peace.pg 102
Rules for Radicals
(by Saul Alinsky) (read 2019) (score 3)
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold
(by John le Carre) (read 2019) (score 3)
When I checked out this book, the library clerk said he thought the ending came too fast. Events do happen quickly in the ending sequence, but I disagree that they happen too quickly.
(by Philip Roth) (read 2019) (score 4)
Because this city, as we know, is alive with girls wholly unlike Mary Jane Reed, promising, unbroken, uncontaminated young women–healthy, in fact, as milkmaids. I know, because these were her predecessors–only they didn’t satisfy, either. They were wrong, too. Spielvogel, believe me, I’ve been there, I’ve tried: I’ve eaten their casseroles and shaved in their johns, I’ve been given duplicate keys to their police locks and shelves of my own in the medicine cabinet, I have even befriended those cats of theirs–named Spinoza and Clytemnestra and Candide and Cat–yes, yes, clever and erudite girls, fresh from successful adventures in sex and scholarship at wholesome Ivy League colleges, lively, intelligent, self-respecting, self-assured, and well-behaved young women–social workers and research assistants, schoolteachers and copy readers, girls in whose company I did not feel abject or ashamed, girls I did not have to father or mother or educate or redeem. And they didn’t work out, either!pg 215
Christ, yes, this [Kay Campbell] was one of the great shikses. I might have learned something spending the rest of my life with such a person. Yes, I might–if I could learn something! If I could somehow be torn away from this obsession with fellatio and fornication, from romance and fantasy and revenge–from the settling of scores! the pursuit of dreams! from this hopeless, senseless loyalty to the long ago!pg 219
I cannot imagine myself living out my life any other place but here. Why leave, why go, when there is everything here that I will ever want? The ridiculing, the joking, the acting-up, the pretending–anything for a laugh! I love it! And yet underneath it all, they mean it, they are dead earnest. You should see them at the end of the seven innings when that dollar has to change hands. Don’t tell me they don’t mean it! Losing and winning is not a joke … and yet it is! And that’s what charms me most of all. Fierce as the competition is, they cannot resist clowning and kibbitzing around. Putting on a show! How I am going to love growing up to be a Jewish man! Living forever in the Weequahic section, and playing softball on Chancellor Avenue from nine to one on Sundays, a perfect joining of clown and competitor, kibbitzing wiseguy and dangerous long-ball hitter.pg 243-244
(by Thomas More) (year 1516) (read 2019-07) (score 3)
If on a winter’s night a traveler
(by Italo Calvino) (translator William Weaver) (read 2019-07) (score 4 or 5)
I was skeptical about this novel’s premise, but my friend Matt guaranteed I’d like it. He was right: I adored it.
“The novel I should most like to read at this moment,” Ludmilla explains, “should have as its driving force only the desire to narrate, to pile stories upon stories, without trying to impose a philosophy of life upon you, simply allowing you to observe its own growth, like a tree, an entangling, as if of branches and leaves …”pg 92
The hill is entirely built up, and as I run I pass two-story wooden houses with yards, all different and all similar, and every so often I hear a telephone ring. This makes me nervous; instinctively I slow down; I prick up my ears to hear whether somebody is answering and I become impatient when the ringing continues. Continuing my run, I pass another house in which a telephone is ringing, and I think: There is a telephone chasing me, there is somebody looking up all the numbers on Chestnut Lane in the directory, and he is calling one house after the other to see if he can overtake me.pg 135
Nothing is hung on the rest of the wall, nor does any furniture stand against it. And the whole house is somewhat similar: bare walls here, crammed ones there, as if resulting from a need to concentrate signs into a kind of dense script, surrounded by the void in which to find repose and refreshment again.pg 144
Renouncing things is less difficult than people believe: it’s all a matter of getting started. Once you’ve succeeded in dispensing with something you thought essential, you realize you can also do without something else, then without many other things.pg 248
The gaze of the reader opposite you, instead of resting on the book open in his hands, wanders in the air. But his eyes are not absent: a fixed intensity accompanies the movements of the blue irises. Every now and then your eyes meet. At a certain point he addresses you, or, rather, he speaks as if into the void, though certainly to you:
“Don’t be amazed if you see my eyes always wandering. In fact, this is my way of reading, and it is only in this way that reading proves fruitful for me. If a book truly interests me, I cannot follow it for more than a few lines before my mind, having seized on a thought that the text suggests to it, or a feeling, or a question, or an image, goes off on a tangent and springs from thought to thought, from image to image, in an itinerary of reasonings and fantasies that I feel the need to pursue to the end, moving away from the book until I have lost sight of it. The stimulus of reading is indispensable to me, and of meaty reading, even if, of every book, I manage to read no more than a few pages. But those few pages already enclose for me whole universes, which I can never exhaust.”pg 253-254
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Part 6: Stone Ocean
(by Hirohiko Araki) (read 2019-07) (score 2)
I was introduced to JoJo through the anime adaptation, of which I’ve watched all of parts 2 through 5. After the part 5 anime concluded, I decided to try the manga, and found copies of part 6. While I liked many of the characters and Stands, overall I liked Stone Ocean less than the other parts with which I’m familiar.
I knowingly accept a baseline level of inanity in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, and the nonsense is part of what gives the franchise its charm. However, I prefer my inanity to reside in character designs, Stand powers, and fight scenarios/locations which lead to tricky or unusual fights – not in deus ex machina ass-pulls which end fights. When I read/watch JoJo, I want to see the main characters use their powers to solve ludicrous challenges with ridiculous tactics. But if the established characteristics of a Stand power are violated, the “challenge” aspect goes out of the window.
For my money, the worst sequence in part 6 is (spoilers) the resolution of Jolyne’s fight with Miu Miu/Jailhouse Rock, which effectively ends once Jolyne reveals that
Four reflections only count as one fact3. I’ll admit I don’t have a suggestion for a better end to the fight. Given that this is a serial comic; given that Jailhouse Rock has an extremely strong ability with with well-established limits; and given that the fight occurs relatively early (less than halfway through the series, IIRC); it’s perhaps inevitable that Araki had to reach into his butt to get Jolyne out of this fight alive. But it didn’t sit right with me, and it stayed at the back of my mind as I read the rest of the series.
Perhaps I’m just fickle. The sequence at the end of part 5 where (spoilers) Diavolo notices Chariot Requiem’s shadow, realizes that his soul is illuminating Chariot, and injures it by punching the area behind his own mind? That’s the perfect level of JoJo bullshit.
The Monuments Men
(by Robert M. Edsel (with Bret Witter)) (score 3)
Works of Benjamin Franklin
I’ve been looking through the Packard Humanities Institute’s online version of Ben Franklin’s papers.
The crouds of Coaches and Chairs for that Reason is not so great; Men as well as Women carry Umbrellas in their Hands, which they extend in case of Rain or two much Sun; and a Man with an Umbrella not taking up more than 3 foot square or 9 square feet of the Street, when if in a Coach he would take up 240 square feet, you can easily conceive that tho’ the Streets here are narrower they may be much less encumber’d. They are extreamly well pav’d, and the Stones being generally Cubes, when worn on one Side may be turn’d and become new.Letter to Polly Stevenson, Paris, Sep 1767. Franklin Papers 14:250
Every Night, Sundays not excepted here are Plays or Operas; and tho’ the Weather has been hot, and the Houses full, one is not incommoded by the Heat so much as with us in Winter. They must have some Way of changing the Air that we are not acquainted with. I shall enquire into it.Letter to Polly Stevenson, Paris, Sep 1767. Franklin Papers 14:250
- perruquier: a maker of wigs. (Franklin used “perruquier” to mean “wigmaker” even when writing in English, but this is probably because he was fluent in French.) “Perruque,” French for “wig,” was borrowed into English as-is, or with the Anglicized spelling “peruke.” Later, Shakespeare coined “periwig,” the word for which “wig” is short. In English, only “wig” is still in use.
Ivanhoe: A Romance
(by Walter Scott) (? (year 1820)) (read 2019) (score 3 or 4)
A Man in Full
(by Tom Wolfe) (rating 2 :unfinished)
I quit reading this after ~100 pages, because I felt it could be summed up as “The Bonfire of the Vanities, but in Atlanta.” I’d rather read something totally new than something which feels like a retread. I don’t care if that’s actually an unfair characterization; with so many other things to read, this didn’t make the cut.
What About the Rest of Your Life
(by Sung Yim) (year 2017) (read 2019-08-04) (score 4)
I’ve never read a memoir quite like this. The people, events, and choices that made Sung Yim’s life a hell of mental illness and drug addiction also made her into someone who probably would not like me, and who I would not like to spend time with – but I am glad to have spent a few hours absorbing her perspective.
(by François Rabelais) (year 1542) (score 4)
The second book in the Pantagruel and Gargantua series, which I read first (my copy of the series placed it before Pantagruel because it’s a prequel to that book.)
The introduction made me laugh hysterically, and the first several chapters made me laugh until I cried. Rabelais is a master of repetition: one of his common joke forms is describing a ludicrous number of items as being relevant to some scene. For example, one early chapter (in my opinion, the funniest) is almost entirely taken up with an enumeration of the things toddler Pantagruel has used to wipe himself.
[quotes to follow]
Lao She Short Story Collection
(by Lao She)
As of 2019-10-04, I’ve read:
- 《马裤先生》(read my English translation)
- parts of 《不成问题的问题》 and 《黑白李》
Three Men in a Boat
(by Jerome K. Jerome) (score 4)
Among my friends and associates, I have a reputation for wit. One way for a book to earn my approval is by making me laugh out loud. Three Men in a Boat accomplished that several times.
Government in Republican China
(by Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger) (score 4 or 5)
An excellent overview of the historical conditions that led to the Xinhai Revolution, the warlord period that followed, and the Nationalists’ eventual unification of the country. Outside of explaining the larger historical context, the book focuses mainly on Sun Yat-sen and his leadership.
The only criticism I have is that I found it a bit difficult to keep the timeline straight, and I believe this is a consequence of Linebarger’s decision to split the book up into conceptual sections rather than by chronology. One section will detail events up to a given time period, only for the following section to return to an earlier era.
[more details to follow - this is really a great book and there were several turns of phrase I want to copy out]
A Poetry Handbook
(by Mary Oliver) (score 2) (read 2019-10-03)
This tiny book was underwhelming, but at least it taught me some terms for kinds of metric feet, and inspired me to read some Yeats.
(by Vladimir Nabokov) (score 4) (read 2019-10-03)
This was my first time reading Nabokov. From the first page, I knew I was in for something unique. “Wordplay” usually means puns and such, but this whole novella feels like “wordplay” in the literal sense of playing with words. Now I can’t wait to read more of Nabokov. I’ve already downloaded Lolita, and I like the sound of some other works advertised in the back of Transparent Things.
(by Scott Alexander) (score 4) (read 2019-10)