The Constant Reader: 2018

In addition to futilely trying to keep up with the recent issues of the planet’s two best magazines, The Sun [seven monthly issues still waiting for me to read them!] and The New Yorker [over three dozen weekly issues still piled up, un-read!], I did manage to read a few books this past year.

I partly blame Randy for my having read so few books this past year compared to the number of books read before we began spending so much time together. We do occasionally spend an hour here or there reading our separate books, but the total amount of time spent doing that has so far been dwarfed by the time we’ve spent this year bingeing on NetFlix and Amazon sitcoms, documentaries, and movies.

The parts of the not-many-books-read-this-year situation that I don’t blame on Randy:

  • Spending way too much time every day this past year reading Facebook posts instead of whatever else – including reading books! – that I could be doing with that time and energy.
  • The sad but indisputable fact that I no longer can sit and read for hours at a time without wanting to stop and take a nap! No one warned me that my getting older would not only require the need for stronger lighting and stronger eyeglasses but that I’d lose the energy to affect my reading habit! Boo, hiss!

Be that as it may, here are the books (and my mini-reviews of them) that I did manage to finish this year. I’m listing them here in the approximate order of how great of an impact they made on me or how much I loved them:

Wanderlust:                                                       A History of Walking (2000)                  by Rebecca Solnit

Solnit is one of my favorite living writers, and this is the second time I’ve read this book: I read a library copy nine years ago – and, mortifyingly didn’t remember a word of it, just the fact that I remembered loving it. Late last summer, when I began taking long walks most days to build up my stamina for my then-upcoming trip to Italy, I bought a copy of Wanderlust and am so glad I did. Not only because it took me so long to finish it (I took it with me to Italy, but didn’t get around to as much reading as I’d planned to do), but because Solnit includes so many excellent quotations about walking, which I am planning to add (eventually) to the Commonplace Book posted elsewhere on my blog.  Another unusual thing about Wanderlust is how each magnificent chapter could stand alone as an essay on a particular aspect of the history or psychology of walking: one wouldn’t need to read the chapters sequentially. The angles Solnit comes at her subject from are often unexpected ones, and many of her own sentences are also definitely quoteworthy. I won’t be surprised if I decide one day to read this book again for a third time – it’s that rich, that dense with insight and information. And I will certainly track down Solnit’s more recent books, some of which are probably based on screeds on her Facebook page (and elsewhere).

At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails  (2016)        by Sarah Bakewell

If there were ever an ideal book for Calvin to read, this must be it: it’s nonfiction, features multiple historical figures who are legends in the fields of philosophy and psychology (my two college majors and the two subjects that have most enthralled me all my life), told by a master story-teller who had already written another of my favorite books (How to Live: or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer). The full subtitle of the book includes the names of the figures whose lives and works Bakewell covers: Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Bakewell’s masterpiece is a perfect blend of difficult concepts rendered understandable, meticulous historical research, fascinating backstories and spellbinding gossip, compelling speculation supported by startling insights – all of it produced in the most engaging prose imaginable. My highest praise for any book is that I know long before I finish reading it that I’m going to want to read it again, and this borrowed library book is one that I will definitely be buying my own copy of.

Emerson: The Mind on Fire (1995) by Robert D. Richardson, Jr.

A whale of a book (563 pages, excluding the notes), but completely enthralling – Richardson’s channeling of Emerson’s motivations and abiding interests are subtle and convincing. I soon got so exasperated at the number of intriguing (and obscure) book titles that Richardson mentions that Emerson read that I ended up buying a copy of the book so I can refer to it more conveniently. (Originally, I obtained my copy of this book from the library, after unearthing, late last year, a review of Richardson’s book that I’d saved from a 1995 (!) New Yorker.) I will definitely be investigating Richardson’s other books, which include a biography of Thoreau. And I am glad I at some point picked up a copy of Emerson’s selected essays, as I am now definitely going to read some of them. What an amazing mind – an authentic pioneer of the  intellect – and from now on a personal hero.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2008)                                        by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

I originally read this book ten years ago and recently re-read it after suggesting it to the book club I’m a member of. Shocking as it was to realize I’d forgotten all the details of the story, it was gratifying to find that my fond memories of its being one of those near-perfect novels were reinforced by a second reading. The fact that a former librarian (and her niece) wrote the book, and wrote it in the form of letters and journal entries made its near-perfection even sweeter. Our book club is looking forward to the movie based on the book that’s being released this year, hoping the screenwriter(s) didn’t mangle what is likely one of the most delightful novels you’ll ever read. Plus you’ll learn a lot about the five-year Nazi occupation of this British island, something I was unaware of until I stumbled upon this book.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2009) by Rebecca Skloot

If most nonfiction books were written this well, people would read fewer novels! Once I started this tale (for my book club), it was difficult to put it down until I finished it. It took ten years for Skloot to write this first book of hers; I hope I won’t have to wait that long before she writes another one, so I can read it also, regardless of what she decides to write about. Skloot is that good – and the amount of research that went into her writing is as impressive as her riveting writing style.

Tyrant: Shakespeare and Politics (2018) by Stephen Greenblatt

One of the joys of browsing the New Books shelf at my local library is discovering that one of my favorite authors has published a new book. When I recently stumbled upon Stephen Greenblatt’s latest, I instantly put aside everything else I was reading to start it. Tyrant, like his earlier The Swerve and even earlier Will in the World, is a tour de force. Very little that I’ve read since Mr. Trump was elected President has helped me better cope with this colossal blunder of the U.S. electorate (actually, the Electoral College), but Tyrant helps a lot. Greenblatt wrote it to cope with his own dismay at Trump and his allegedly widespread and numerous supporters. It’s a short book, but it is full of spot-on observations about the parallels between Mr. Trump and Shakespeare’s Richard II, Macbeth, Lear, and Coriolanus. And of course makes me even more impressed with Shakespeare’s penetrating insight into human nature, and Greenblatt’s ability to marshall those insights into such a compelling study.

Friends of Dorothy:                           Why Gay Boys and Gay Men Love  ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (2018)               by Dee Michel

It’s not just because Dee is a friend of mine that I love his book. I also love it because of the sheer thoroughness of Dee’s examination of such a specific, discrete fixture of gay male popular culture; because he is so even-handed in the way he examines the surprisingly numerous (and often complex) aspects of the topic at hand; because of his skill in researching so many relevant cultural factoids; and because of the masterful way he weaves into his arguments the personal anecdotes supplied by so many life-long Oz  enthusiasts. To render scholarly research on any topic in conversational, engaging prose is a rare accomplishment, and this book is a satisfying example of that. Not particularly a fan of the Oz phenomenon myself, I still found this study – and the marshaling of so much data (in footnotes as well as in the main text) – to be fascinating.

Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) by George Saunders 

What I liked best about this odd tale based on historical facts (Lincoln’s devastation at his young son’s unexpected death)  is the profound empathy with which Saunders’ reveals his characters, the convincing and appropriate archaic language he has them use, and Saunders’s occasional lyricism.  I’ve never read a novel structured so unusually, although by the end of the book that structure had become rather annoying.

My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues (2017) by Pamela Paul

This memoir of how an introverted book nerd became editor of the New York Times Book Review is interlaced with remarkably articulate (and often humorous) asides on the pleasures and perils of book love. Paul entertainingly captures the complete range of often difficult-to-describe experiences with reading that every lifetime reader will recognize with glee (or chagrin). I am so glad I found this writer and this book (one of several she’s written).

The Solitary Vice: Against Reading (2008) by Mikita Brottman

Brottman is a psychotherapist and literature professor, and her book is an intriguing tonic for diehard bookaholics like me. The first half of her book, before she ventures more thoroughly into her personal reading habits and history, is the most interesting section, although the entire book held my interest. The striking parallels Brottman draws between the activities (often addictions) of reading and masturbation – and the similarities between the changed social attitudes about both – are compellingly and often amusingly described. Brottman’s humble but erudite writing style is engaging regardless of the specific literary territory she’s surveying, and she surveys a lot of them (e.g., science fiction, Gothic romances, true crime, comic books, psychological case studies). Every chapter of the book contains insights and shocks of self-recognition. The author’s list of works cited and consulted is fascinating, her list of relevant Internet sites is particularly useful), and her Acknowledgements page is as hilarious as it is unusual.

Ageless Soul: The Lifelong Journey Toward Meaning and Joy (2017)  by Thomas Moore

Several of this prolific author’s previous bestselling books (The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life, The Care of the Soul, A Religion of One’s Own, A Blue Fire: Selected Writings of James Hillman) have been on my To Be Read list, so when I found his latest at the library the other day, I figured I might as well finally get around to reading him – especially since this latest one addressed one of my more recent preoccupations: books about mindful retirement. I can understand why Moore’s books have been so popular: his style is very conversational and his arguments are non-combative and often persuasive, especially when Moore’s explaining Jungian-based theories of meaning (some of which – and with the pronounced exception of dream analysis) have held a long-time fascination for me). But I was surprised to find myself disappointed in this book. Perhaps I’ve already internalized most of the insights and advice on offer here, or I find Moore too repetitive, or both. Since I’ve already bought copies of those other books of Moore’s, I will eventually get around to examining them, but maybe not as soon as I was hoping to?

On Rediscovering, in Troubling Times, an Excellent Writer

E.B. White

The book Randy chose to take along with him on our recent three-week trip to Spain was a paperback copy of one of E.B. White’s book of essays, One Man’s Meat (1942).

Several evenings during our trip, I borrowed the book and dipped into it at random. What I found there was a series of flawlessly written essays on all manner of subjects, each of them in the wry, understated voice White was so famous (and beloved) for, both before and after his stints as a staff writer at The New Yorker, and before and after he published the immensely popular children’s books Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, and before and after his and his co-author’s guide for writers, the perennial bestseller Elements of Style. 

When Randy finished his copy of One Man’s Meat, he gave it to me so I could begin reading it cover to cover, which I promptly resolved to do after discovering that some of the essays it contains were not included in the volume of White’s collected essays that (along with a copy of his collected letters) I’ve owned and chereished since the late 1970s.

In addition to re-living White’s humbly-told (and often hilarious) tales of White’s adventures as an amateur farmer who, with his wife and son, had de-camped from Manhattan to Maine, I came upon (in the form of a discursive book review) some unexpected and amazingly prescient comments of White’s about fascism.

Here’s what, seventy-eight years ago – and seventy-six years before Mr. Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency –  White had to say:

“…I think I shall go on resisting any change I disapprove of, for I do not think that change, per se, is anything much, nor that change is necessarily good….Fascism sins against Nature more grievously than anything I ever saw, because it proposes to remove (and does remove) so much of what is natural in people’s lives….[We should] resist the forces which are pledged to destroy parliaments and senates and congresses and newspapers and courts and universities.

The future…seems to be no unified dream but a mince pie, long in the baking, never quite done. The push of eager, dispossessed, frustrated people, united zealously under a bad leader, is one ingredient; the resistance of those whom this push hurts or offends or threatens is another….

…[Fascism] is just the backwash of the past and has muddied the world for centuries.…

…[Name] one new social or economic force that has been discovered by dictators. I can’t think of any that aren’t as old as the hills. The force which Hitler [employed] is the force generated by people who have stood all the hardship they intend to, and are exploding through the nearest valve and it is an ancient force, and so is the use of it by opportunists in bullet-proof vests….[I]t is a common fallacy to say that because a movement springs from deep human distress it must hold thereby the seed of a better order. The fascist ideal, however great the misery which released it and however impressive the self-denial and the burning courage which promote it, does not hold the seed of a better order but a worse one, and it always has a foul smell and a bad effect on the soil. It stank at the time or Christ and it stinks today, wherever you find it and in whatever form, big or little – even here in American, the little fascists always at their tricks, stirring up a lynching mob or flagellating the devil…. The forces are always the same – on the people’s side frustration, disaffection, on the leader’s side control of hysteria, perversion of information, abandonment of principle. There is nothing new in it and nothing good in it, and today when it is developed to a political nicety and supported by a formidable military machine the best thing to do is to defeat it as promptly as possible and in all humility….

…It is of course anybody’s privilege to believe that a good conception of humanity may be coming to birth through the horrid forms of Nazism, but it seems to me far more likely that a good conception of humanity is being promoted by the stubborn resistance to Nazism on the part of millions of people whose belief in democratic notions has been strengthened. Is my own intellectual resistance, based on a passionate belief that the ‘new order’ is basically destructive of universal health and happiness, any less promising than the force of nazism itself, merely because mine does not spring from human misery but merely from human sympathy?I don’t see why. And I do not regard it as a sin to hang fast to principles of a past which I approve of and believe are still applicable and sensible merely because they are, so to speak, ‘past’ and not ‘future.’ I think they are future too, and I think democracy…is the most futuristic thing I ever heard of, and that it holds everything hopeful there is, because ‘demos’ means people and that’s what I am for, and whatever Nazi means it doesn’t mean people, it means ‘the pure-bred people,’ which is a contemptible idea to build a new order on. …I still think [‘democracy’] a good word and a beautiful word…and I find the wave which it sets up a more agreeable wave than any other, and more promising and more buoyant and prettier to look at….I know a lot of things can start with human misery and not bring anything except more human misery….”

 – Excerpted from E.B. White’s December 1940 essay “The Wave of the Future,” reprinted in One Man’s Meat (1942).

I decided to re-read White’s essays to temper the often-horrifying news I glean daily (and numbly “Share”) from the politically-oriented posts on Facebook. I might’ve expected to find something prescient about fascism in a collection of, say, George Orwell’s essays. But E.B. White? Now I respect him – both as a writer and as a thinker –  more than ever!

Decatur Book Festival 2018!

DBF logo

Another Labor Day Weekend, another DBF for Calvin.

After examining this year’s festival schedule, I headed into the fray without being excited by any particular event on offer this year, other than the opportunity to see and hear one of my living literary (and political) heroes, Armistead Maupin.

Fortunately, I was delighted by every single one of the talks I decided to attend. Without exception, the authors and their interviewers were intelligent, informed, witty, and engaging – a lot to expect of any speaker!

Only one of the presentations (and one of the most unexpectedly enthralling) was not connected to a new or newish book: “Volumes: An Artist in the Stacks” featured, along with archivist Tamara Livingston, photographer Sara Hobbs, who described her project of examining (of all things) the marginal notes in some of the many items in the rare book collection at Kennesaw State University’s library.

Each of the other presentations featured interviews with the authors of various recently-published books. The panels I chose to attend were about books about as different from each other as one could imagine:

Frankenstein cover

Charleston book cover

Grave Landscapes cover

Lost Colony cover

Apostles of the Revolution cover

One of the panels, “Clever Resistance,” featured the authors of two different books on a related subject:

Shw Caused a Riot covere   Sings of REsistance


As much as I enjoyed all the sessions I attended, the interview with Armistead Maupin was the highlight of this year’s festival. It was conducted to a huge and enthusiastic audience that filled the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church of Decatur. The kindheartedness, perspicacity, humility, sense of humor, and generosity of this endearing man were so wonderful to be reminded of. The book festival also featured a showing of the 2017 documentary about Maupin, The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin (which Randy and I had recently seen at home via Netflix), but the interview the following day focused on Maupin’s recently-published memoir:

Armistead Maupin book cover

I can’t find the words to describe how stimulating (and hilarious) each of these presenters was – and how heartening it was to mingle with so many thousands of other book lovers – and  I came away Sunday afternoon completely convinced that I should continue to make time each year to attend the Decatur Book Festival.

Meanwhile, I can set aside more time in my life to reading books (and to posting mini-reviews of those books to “The Constant Reader” sidebar section of this blog), and to posting more frequently to my other blog, devoted to the celebration of all things bookish.



The Constant Reader, 2017

Arrow Collar Man

In addition to trying to keep up with the recent issues of the planet’s two best magazines, The Sun and the New Yorker), I read the following books this year. For inexplicable reasons, I read fewer books this past year than usual. I’m listing their titles here by type, and in the order (within each type) of how (roughly) wonderful I thought they were.


My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry (2015)
by Fredrik BackmanMy grandmother

My sister Gayle introduced me to Backman’s books, and this was her favorite. Possibly because I read it after first reading A Man Called Ove, I think Ove is my favorite of the two, but both were really good: great characters, hilarious dialog, wonderful stories, exceptionally sophisticated plotting with multiple layers of meaning and lots of serious handling of complicated issues. All this from the point of view of a main character only seven years old!

A Man Called Ove (2012) by Fredrik Backmana-man-called-ove-9781476738024_hr

I don’t read many novels translated from non-English languages, but I am so glad my sister Gayle recommended this Swedish novel to me. Backman is a fantastic writer, and it was difficult to put this book down, and even more difficult when I realized it was about to end. The curmudgeon main character is totally believable, and the plot twists took me completely by surprise. I am looking forward to seeing the movie version (hoping it will not disappoint me), and to recommending to my book group that they read this or any (all?) of Backman’s other novels.

The Improbability of Love (2015) by Hannah Rothschild

ImprobabilityRead this for a book club. Interesting concept (skullduggery involving a lost painting against the background of the contemporary art selling scene in Britain), but most of the non-major characters were unlikable and stereotypical. I learned a good deal about art history and about the business of buying and selling art, but this book was, otherwise, forgettable (or, more charitably, “optional”). The ending of the story especially seemed like a rushed job.

The Humans (2013) by Matt HaigThe Humans

Alien impersonates Earthling to accomplish a specific (murderous) mission, ends up replacing his repugnance of humanity with empathy for it. Sounds corny, but the writing is so good, the plot line works. I will definitely read some of Haig’s other books, and I can’t imagine anyone reading this one would be disappointed.

The English Disease (2003) by Joseph Skibell

English Disease(Read this for a book club.) Excellent, articulate writer. In fact, some of the best, and funniest, passages of 21st-Century American Jewish angst, that I remember reading. On the other hand, despite the exciting fact that Skibell’s main character gives voice to lots of things I obsess about myself, I somehow never felt very sympathetic with the novel’s narrator. I also felt like I was reading a screenplay of a movie written and directed by Woody Allen. I did learn a lot about Carl Jung and Gustav Mahler (none of it very flattering), so I’m glad I read the book, and I might search out Skibell’s previous novel, A Blessing on the Moon.

Memoirs or Biography

When Breath Becomes Air (2016) by Paul Kalanithi

When BreathA gorgeously written, astoundingly sobering memoir of a neurosurgeon in his mid-30s who’s diagnosed with fatal cancer. I will be very surprised if this book doesn’t end up being the most memorable one I will read this year. Kalanithi loved literature before he trained as a surgeon, and that’s very evident in his allusive and reflective writing style. Haunted by his life-long search for the meaning of life even before his years of encounters with his patients and their families battling horrific brain injuries, the author’s unique perspective as a compassionate neurosurgeon who’s suddenly another doctor’s patient lends Kalanithi’s account of his final days a wisdom and poignancy that I will long remember. The book’s introduction (by a mentor) and its epilogue (by his wife) are also excellent and equally memorable. It would be difficult to recommend too highly this heartbreakingly brief book, and I shall always be grateful to my sister Gayle for recommending it to me.

Can’t We Talk about Something More PLEASANT? A Memoir (2015)
by Roz Chast

Can't We TalkA graphic memoir – meaning that it’s told via cartoon drawings – by the justly famous and beloved New Yorker cartoonist. Chast recounts the complicated, demoralizing, and often hilarious decline of her elderly mother and father – a story made even more complicated by the fact that she needed to coordinate their care (at first at home, later in various hospitals and eldercare facilities) from a different state than the one her parents lived in. Anyone who is caring for an elderly parent would love this book. I read it in three sittings, and would gladly have read it in a single sitting had I not been visiting friends when they showed me their copy of it. Chast is a genius, and can find something humorous in even the grimmest situations. Highly recommended.

American Philosophy: A Love Story (2016) by John Kaag

American PhilosophyPart memoir, part history of philosophy (especially the philosophies of American-born philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, William James, Josiah Royce, Charles Sanders Pierce, William Ernest Hocking, and John Dewey). I loved every chapter, virtually every page and every paragraph – almost every well-crafted sentence – of this book! Instead of writing the author a fan letter, I went out and bought a copy to read again – plus I want to mine Kaag’s bibliography for some of the works he describes so intriguingly. This book reignited my usually dormant love of philosophy (along with psychology, one of my majors in college), completely transformed my obviously uninformed opinion of the contributions of philosophers born in the United States, and rekindled my respect for (and knowledge about) William James – already a longstanding hero of mine. Kaag’s willingness to discard the academic’s habit of aloofness and describe his personal foibles, doubts, and vulnerabilities is unusual. This book is an excellent (and short!) introduction to philosophy in general and to American philosophers in particular (their personalities as well as the major thrusts of their most important works), and it’s a beautifully rendered adventure story as well: in rural New England, Kaag stumbles upon the abandoned library of an important philosopher, and his discovery changes his life. This was one of those rare books I wish had been longer, I enjoyed it so much, and learned so much from it.

Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo (2013)
by Tim Parks

Italian WaysBasing a book about the Italian mindset on what one learns by using Italy’s trains doesn’t sound like a promising conceit, but Parks makes it work wonderfully. A combination memoir, travel guide, and history lesson, Parks’s weaving of the history of Italian railways with its political and cultural history is as entertaining as it is skillful. Parks is a Brit who’s made Italy his home for over 30 years; I have already read a few of his other nonfiction books and now will be sure to read them all.

Italian Pleasures (1996) by David Leavitt and Mark Mitchell

Italian PleasuresThis slim (138-page) volume of reminiscences written by two gay men who for a time lived in Italy- and whose short reflections are augmented by snippets of writings penned by previous Italophiles (Edith Wharton, D.H. Lawrence, Marguerite Yourcenar, etc.) was easy to finish in a single sitting. I liked better Leavitt’s Florence: A Delicate Case (2002), but reading this earlier book was something I’m glad to have stumbled over before an upcoming return visit to Tuscany.

Lust & Wonder (2016) by Augusten Burroughs

Lust and WonderThis is the third of Burroughs’ memoirs that I’ve read. He is an outrageously talented writer – so good it was difficult to put this book away between readings. Every time I’d decided I wish I could marry this man, within five minutes I’d be horrified by yet another recounting of how neurotic and paranoid he can be. Burroughs certainly reels you in with his pyrotechnical wordsmanship, with his excruciatingly hilarious asides, and his amazing ability to recall in vivid detail his wildly fluctuating mental states. What a privilege to be brought along for the ride on the roller-coaster of the last decade or so of this amazingly articulate (if often exasperating) writer’s life.

One Man’s Garden (1992) by Henry Mitchell

One Man's GardenI’ve been meaning to read this since finishing, nine years ago, the other two collections of Mitchell’s gardening columns for the Washington Post. How unfortunate for us amateur gardeners that Mitchell, who died in 1993, is not still alive and writing! And how lucky were the subscribers of the Post who got to enjoy his weekly gardening columns for twenty years! No other garden writer comes close to Mitchell’s unpretentious, slyly cantankerous attitudes toward the humble glories and sorrows of the urban gardener. As hilarious as he was opinionated, he never condescends. I will next read the only book of his I haven’t read already – Any Day – and in years to come will surely re-read portions of Mitchell’s other collections. Mitchell was a national treasure – and the only author who’ve I’ve not minded disparaging my hero Thomas Jefferson (albeit in Jefferson’s capacity as a gardener).

The Conversations of Dr. Johnson, Selected from the ‘Life’ by James Boswell (1930) edited by R.W. Postgate

Despairing of ever getting around to reading Boswell’s famous Life of Johnson, I was happy to have discovered, several years ago, the existence of this abridgment. What a wonderful reading experience! Despite my chagrin at finding out how politically conservative and somewhat misogynistic Johnson was, I, like countless others, found myself in thrall to Johnson’s conversations. I hadn’t realized that Johnson lived during the days of the American Revolution (of which he had some very caustic things to say). Until I could finish reading these Conversations, I put off reading more in the other books I am in the middle of – it was that compelling. As is so often the case with books published before World World II, the editor’s preface is also remarkable. (Pet theory: fans of Johnson’s end up being better writers themselves!) I especially loved Boswell’s (affectionate) remarks on Johnson’s character flaws, which are certainly obvious from some of Johnson’s remarks. What an unforgettable person, especially considering Johnson’s impoverished background.

Books about Books

Patience & Fortitude: Wherein a Colorful Cast of Determined Book Collectors, Dealers, and Librarians Go About the Quixotic Task of Preserving a Legacy (2001) by Nicholas A. Basbanes

Patience and FortitudeA now-seventeen-year-old survey of the world of books based on dozens of interviews with writers, librarians, library administrators, booksellers, and book collectors. Full of fascinating information and chock-full of anecdotes, Basbanes succeeds in making this particular world interesting for people who may know nothing about the intricacies of book collecting in all the forms that activity takes. He covers lots of bases (all the world’s most famous libraries, for example), and his narrative style is conversational and rambling in the best way. I was particularly impressed by Brisbane’s ability to accurately describe the nuances of the controversies raging in Book World at the time (and that are still important almost 20 years later). This book made me proud to have become a librarian, and I will want to read all of Brisbane’s other book-related books, both past and future.

Everything Explained That Is Explainable: On the Creation of the ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’s’ Celebrated Eleventh Edition, 1910-1911 (2016) by Denis Boyles

Everything ExplainedI read probably one-third of this book. Boyles’ obviously impressive research and his sometimes sardonic commentary, the level of detail Boyles goes into to describe the behind-the-scenes wranglings among the people who produced (and advertised) this famous reference work was too daunting for me. The dipping into the intervening chapters that I did do was full of surprises, the almost stand-alone essays that constitute Boyles’ Prologue and his final chapter (“Postscript”) are masterpieces of analysis as well as examples of sustained engaging writing.

Selected Works on the Pleasures of Reading (2008) by Robertson Davies

The Pleasures of ReadingDavies’ always-modest, disarmingly sensible, and frequently witty writing on any subject is always a pleasure, and what he wrote about his reading is no exception – despite the fact that I don’t happen to share some of Davies’ particular enthusiasms (such as reading 18th Century plays). Davies’ daughter edited this anthology of articles and speeches, and her introductory notes were also interesting. Every time I read something by this under-rated Canadian author, I get a little closer to taking up one of Davies’ novels, one of which (Fifth Business) has been on my Books Cal Wants to Read list for years now.


Cherished Objects: Living with and Collecting Victoriana (1991)
by Allison Kyle Leopold

Cherished ObjectsAlthough I own 170 books on home decorating, my browsings through them haven’t been recorded in “The Constant Reader.” Except this one. As with most of my decor books, I found this one on sale in a thrift store, but this one is more than a collection of delicious photos and minimal (and often absurdly breathless) prose. Instead, its author’s text gives a lot of interesting insights into why Victorians embellished their homes they way they did, and why some of us find at least some aspects of their domestic style so compelling. It’s nice to – finally – better understand why I am drawn to Victorian architecture and interior design, and what gave rise to them. This book explains these things more clearly and succinctly than any other book I’ve discovered.

Art & Architecture

In Ruins: A Journey Through History, Art, and Literature (2001)
by Christopher Woodward

In RuinsOne of my traveling companions on my trip to Italy this year was reading this during the trip, and he gave me his copy when he finished it. The author’s style is personal and engrossing, and the book is filled with fascinating anecdotes featuring archeologists, historians, novelists, and artists. A book I have added to my library and will enthusiastically lend to others who, like most people, find themselves drawn to the magic spell most ruins seem to radiate.

My mini-reviews of the books I read in 2016 are here.

The Constant Reader: 2016


Reading in gloriously-written books about the people, places, or activities that interest me has always been among my chief pleasures, and knowing that I’ll not being able to read more than a few thousand books in my lifetime is one of my chief regrets.

One of the unexpected ironies of being a retiree for the past few years is that even though I now have more time to devote to reading, my being a relatively older reader has resulted in my spending considerably less time reading during any single sitting! In my younger days years I could read for hours at a stretch; these days I generally find myself nodding off after a single hour.

Be that as it may, my enthusiasm for reading has never waned.  And probably never will wane, judging from the length of the ever-growing list of books I hope to read.

Below are brief comments on the the 43 books I finished this past year. Not mentioned are a half-dozen other titles that I started but didn’t, for a variety of reasons, finish. Because I borrow most of the books I read from libraries, and because I’m usually reading several titles simultaneously, some books I never finish merely because I need to return them before I get around to finishing them.

Each title mentioned is listed in the order that roughly reflects how much I enjoyed it relative to the others listed within its category. Anyone who’s glanced at my earlier annual lists will note that there are no new categories: apparently I am obsessed with a very small number of intense interests, at least when it comes to book selecting!

Despite the relative narrowness of my reading (nonfiction) interests, and the decreased time I can spend reading at any single sitting, I regard myself as a very fortunate and contented reader. After decades of reading, I continue to stumble across a lot of really fascinating books (usually, via some footnote in a book I’ve previously read); I live only two miles from a nearby university library where (as an alumni) I have borrowing privileges; my local public libraries – often via Interlibrary Loan, one of the most amazing of the many services that U.S. public libraries provide – allows me to get hold of, free of charge, virtually any book I might want to read. 

My only significant frustration in the Book Reading Department is my wishing that I had time, or would make time, to read more novels. I am mortified to report that this past year I only read two of them!



Body, Memory and Architecture (1977)
by Kent Bloomer and Charles Moore

Excellent, clear, concise review of how and why our houses and buildings and public spaces would be more beautiful if architects and developers would acknowledge that pleasure and inhabitability result from more complex -mostly psychological – factors than from merely visual or efficiency considerations.

Gardening & Gardeners



Farther Afield: A Gardener’s Excursions (1986) by Allen Lacy
In a Green Shade: Writings from ‘Homeground’ (2014) by Allen Lacy

These are the second and third collections of writings by Allen Lacy that I’ve read (the other is Home Ground: A Gardener’s Miscellany, which I read back in 2012). I had long thought that Henry Mitchell was my favorite garden writer, but I’ve decided Lacy now holds that title. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment of one of his reviewers: “Lacy’s a thoughtful, clever man, no doubt a man it would be a pleasure to know….I, for one, would be delighted to buy anything entitled Another Book by Allen Lacy.” He writes with humor and humility; his engaging prose is the opposite of stuffy or scholarly, even though Lacy is a professor of philosophy (and translator of Unamuno – something that will definitely lead to my eventually reading his introduction to that philosopher’s work). As I love garden writing even more than I love gardening, I hope Lacy never stops publishing his commentaries on our shared hobby.  Ÿ

in-my-gardenIn My Garden: The Garden Diaries of Great Dixter
(1994) by Christopher Lloyd

This book contains the unedited versions of a very small selection of hundreds of essays first published in the British magazine Country Life. Lloyd is a well-known gardener whose books (including either of his two previously-published collections) I somehow had never gotten around to reading; from now on I won’t hesitate to pick one up should I spot it in a book sale. Lloyd’s exquisitely-phrased sentences, his obviously deep (but humbly presented) knowledge of gardening, and his unflagging humility and sense of humor combine to make for almost effortless and extremely enjoyable reading. Ronan’s introduction is one of the best in any book on any subject I have ever read.          Ÿ


French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France (1991) by Richard Goodman

A very short book with very short sentences and whose 27 chapter titles are one word – usually one syllable – long. Despite the fact that I kept wondering if the author was trying to imitate Hemingway’s writing style, his enthusiasm for growing vegetables during the one precious year he and his wife spent in Provence was obvious and, considering his lack of experience, admirable. His tale certainly fed my perennial fantasy of spending a year in Provence – or, say, Tuscany or Greece.      Ÿ



Sissinghurst: Vita Sackville-West and the Creation of a Garden (2016) by Vita Sackville-West & Sarah Raven

Everything you ever might have wanted to know about this famous garden – not only how Vita and Harold came to own Sissinghurst and make its garden, but also Vita’s published commentary (from the gardening column she wrote for many years) about individual plants. Includes lots of photos. I am hoping to visit this garden one day, and having read this book (although skimming through the descriptions of individual plants) will certainly enhance the enjoyment I expect to find there. Ÿ




Gardening for a Lifetime: How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older (2010) by Sydney Eddison

It was wonderful to find that someone had written an entire book devoted to the obstinately unacknowledged fact that gardeners must change their ways (and their gardens) as they grow older. Each chapter tackles its subject area in a very personal, informal style, and is then followed by a bullet-pointed summary of the main practical points made. This deliberate redundancy was surprisingly useful.       Ÿ



The Writer in the Garden (1999)
edited by Jane Garmey

As I’ve confessed more than once, I’d rather read about gardening than do any actual garden chores, but it was being distracted by other books rather than gardening that prolonged the length of time it took me to finish this anthology. The best thing about it (besides its wonderful cover and the fact that I found it on sale at a thrift store) is that its entries are very brief, which allowed the book’s editor to include snippets from 57 different writers from different eras and countries, all of them excellent, some of them my favorite garden commentators, many of them not best known primarily for their comments on gardens, and some of them poets. The editor also includes a wide variety of subjects: practical and even about particular plants, as well as the expected – and welcome – philosophical comments on the joys of gardening.

History, Sociology, & Politics


From Dawn to Decadence:
1500 to the Present: 500 Years of
Western Cultural Life
by Jacques Barzun

If there were a single book one was allowed to take to a desert island for reading material, this one would be my choice. It took me almost a year to read this 800+-page masterpiece, but it’s certainly one of the very best books I’ve ever read. Barzun is an excellent writer, and his survey and analysis of the highlights (and byways) of Western culture puts far less emphasis than expected on wars and political figures and more emphasis on art (all of them) and on popular movements, especially those that have tended to repeat themselves. Soon I will begin reading this remarkable book again, this time with yellow highlighter in hand, hunting down the dozens and dozens of obscure-to-me authors and books Barzun mentions. And I will defintely continue my project of reading more of Barzun’s almost four dozen (!) books.           Ÿ


Lafayette in The Somewhat United States (2015) by Sarah Vowell

Vowell has one of the most distinctive writing styles I’ve come across, and she sustains her quirky voice throughout this fascinating tale of Lafayette’s journey to the colonies to help with their glorious revolt. This book was so entertaining and informative that I finished it in two or three days. Vowell’s research was extensive, and she uncovered a lot of fascinating tidbits about the behind-the-scenes personality conflicts that were going on among the leaders of the American Revolutionary period. I also enjoyed the way Vowell relates the conflicts and tensions of that era to today’s  conflicts and tensions in the United States.  Ÿ



City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World (1995)
by Witold Rybczynski

Having read two previous books by W.R. (Home: A Short History of an Idea and The Most Beautiful House in the World), I reckoned this one would also be wonderful, and it was – just as chock-full of surprising historical and statistical facts as his other books, and just as down-to-earth, personal, and engaging too. The answers to the question this book addresses – why do U.S. cities and suburbs look and feel so different than the cities and suburbs of Europe? – are more complex – and more interesting, than you’d imagine. A great read, despite the fact that his analysis is now already twenty years old.


And Yet… Essays (2015)
by Christopher Hitchens

A collection of previously uncollected articles (mostly book reviews, mostly from Vanity Fair or The Atlantic), these writings reaffirmed my opinion of Hitchens as one of the most readable polemicists of our time – and one of the most erudite as well. His premature death in 2011 was a great loss for truth-loving literate people everywhere. Fortunately, Hitchens was prolific (there are five previous collections of his essays alone, and this one has forty-eight of them), so there are many reading pleasures ahead of me as I gradually work my way through all of Hitchens’ writings. Among the unexpected excellencies of this collection is an essay about Clive James (whose own essays I’ve recently read two collections of) and a masterful discussion of George Orwell and G.K. Chesterton, two other British-born essayists whose work I worship.


Junk: Digging Through America’s Love Affair with Stuff (2016)
by Alison Stewart

An unexpectedly lively book, especially since it covers so much ground: interrviews with people who capitalized on the U.S. craze for buying stuff and not knowing how (or being unwilling) to get rid of it. Stewart’s interviews reveal the fascinating experiences and reflections of junk haul-awayers, owners of storage facilities, thrift store operators, participants in “the 100-mile garage sale,” pawn brokers, container store establishers, etc. – all leavened with non-preachy but sobering statistics and the interesting commentary of psychologists.          Ÿ




Hidden Rhythms: Schedules and Calendars in Social Life (1981)
by Eviatar Zerubavel

The psychological aspects of time have long been a recurring topic in my reading choices, but this sociological analysis of the way time is used to regulate human activities and accessibility was very interesting. (Probably especially so from the viewpoint of a reader who has recently retired from The World of Rigid Schedules.) Especially informative: the author’s sections on the invention and ramifications (for Orthodox Jews and others) of the invention of the Sabbath, the role of Christian monasteries in spreading the advantages of clock time, the French Revolutionaries’ attempt to reform the Gregorian calendar, and the invention of the notion (in the West) of “private time.” Unfortunately – because perhaps the author’s native language may not be English? – the author’s writing style is maddeningly repetitive (wish I had a nickel for every “in other words” he uses, either explicity or otherwise), frequently marred by tautological logic, and full of cliches (more wished-for nickels for every annoying instance of the phrase “within this context”). Still, I will never think about time and the pros and cons of schedules the same way again after reading this book.

Psychology & Philosophy


Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life (2012)
by Daniel Klein

A writer in his late seventies returns to the Greek island of Hydra to clarify his ideas of how best to grow old. Written in an almost diary-like format, the writing style is Informal, humble, courageous, and personal writing style. The book is a short one (only 150 pages); and it is studded with some never-seen-before quotations from some of my favorite philosophers and psychologists (Kierkegaard, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, Sartre, Camus, Bertrand Russell, William James, Eric Erikson). A real pleasure to read, and it touches on many of my own preoccupations, including how we experience time and what the wise men and women of the past have to say about the nature and pursuit of happiness.   Ÿ


The Meaning of Human Existence (2014) 
by Edward O. Wilson

I picked up this book because Wilson (winner of two Pulitzer Prizes) once wrote one of the most memorable sentences I’ve ever read. This book was interesting enough to finish, but I think I expected too much, given the title. I found Wilson’s chapter on religion the most interesting (although the least surprising), and his chapter on pheromones the next most interesting (and information totally new to me). Ÿ






On Poetic Imagination and Reverie: Selections from Gaston Bachelard  (1987) translated from the French (with a preface and introduction) by Colette Gaudin

Because I loved Bachelard’s Poetics of Space so much (enough to buy me and my friend Harvey copies to keep), I was really looking forward to this selection from his other writings. Alas, Monsieur Bachelard is rough going – too often so abstract (in that idiosyncratically French sort of way) – that I had to skip whole sections of this book. He was obviously a genius, but I found the translator’s introduction a lot easier to understand than Bachelard himself. But The Poetics of Space I will continue to treasure, and will re-read some day.    Ÿ


Practicing Death (2016) by Dennis Van Avery

Reflections on, among other things, the importance of finding community, of enjoying life’s minor ephiphanies and joys, and non-attachment. This 60-page book was self-published shortly before Dennis’s death this summer. Dennis was a recent acquaintance and his book reminds me of his gentle demeanor and wisdom.         Ÿ







How to Talk about Places You’ve Never Been (2016) by Pierre Bayard

I fought my way through this book, hoping that Bayard would eventually have something interesting to say, but that never happened – and I don’t think it was due to the book’s being translated from its original French version. I felt the same way about a previous book Bayard wrote about a similar theme (How to Talk About the Books You Haven’t Read). I won’t be reading any more of Bayard’s books.




A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts …Written and Selected from the World’s Sacred Texts (3rd ed., 1910; 1997 ed. translated by Peter Sekirin) by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy’s final book, and the one he (in my opinion, mistakenly) considered his most important. I did glean a couple dozen quotations from the wrtitings of the sages of the past that Tolstoy includes in his collection, but Tolstoy’s commentary (and his own pearls of wisdom) are excessively Christianity-centered (so many Gospel verses!) and didactic. Disappointing.


Religion & Anti-Religion



How Jesus Became God:
The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee
by Bart D. Ehrman

Although the author’s tone is engaging instead of scholarly, this is not Ehrman’s most readable book – for one thing, his others are far less repetitious. Still, this one may be the most single most important/profound of the many books Ehrman’s published – and I’m pretty sure I’ve read them all. A necessary (if rather belabored) documentation of the (rocky) history of the basically incomprehensible Christian notion of the Trinity.




The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible (2013) annotated by Steve Wells

I wish this book had been published – and that I had been allowed to read it – back in the early 1960s, when I was a teenager forced to listen to Bible-quoting (and Bible-censoring) preachers until I left for college in 1966. I didn’t actually read the 1,600+-page Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, as that project would require reading every verse of the King James Bible plus Wells’ sidebar annotations – a project that would take years to accomplish, and more stamina for Biblical nonsense than I possess. What I think is probably more valuable for anyone who can’t bear the thought of plowing through the KJV again (or even for the first time) is reading Wells’ short introductions to each Bible book plus skimming his two appendices: a 31-page list of 471 Biblical contradictions and a 135-item list of citations of verses describing “God’s Killings in the Bible.” For me, the biggest irony in my getting hold of Wells’ book is realizing how much those Baptist preachers in my past left out of their weekly Bible-quoting. The descriptions of favorably-presented cruelty, misogeny, homophobia, logical absurdities and scientific blunders that those preachers left out of their somber readings or shrill rantings of Holy Scripture are more numerous and more damning than I had imagined. I wish a copy of Wells’ book were deposited alongside all those Gideon Bibles one still finds in hotel rooms, and was given to each church-going teenager before she is brow-beaten into A.C.A.H.P.S. (Accepting Christ As Her Personal Savior). A lot of confusing nonsense and harm-producing Bibliolatry might be averted thereby. In the meantime, every thinking human of any age would benefit from even a highly selective reading of the “revelations” Wells’ annotations provide. Incidentally (and astonishingly), the entire text of the $36 printed version The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, is available for free on the Internet!

Literature, Literary Criticism & Other Bookish Delights



Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story (2015)
by Michael Rosen

Possibly the most all-around enjoyable book I’ve read this year. Definitely one of the most carefully researched – but buoyantly written – books I’ve read this year. This aside-filled romp through the history of the English alphabet is every calligrapher’s, Scrabble-player’s, and word-lover’s dream book. The fact that I discovered it while idly browsing the shelves of the newest bookstore in my city is a bit unnerving, but I am not complaining. I just wish Rosen had more than 26 symbols to write about in his diverting and informative way; I especially enjoyed the way he was able to tie so many stories about the history of letters to his personal reading experiences as a child. This book reinforces and to some extent explains how someone can actually come to love the alphabet and anything connected to it.


Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, & Living with Books (2015)
by Michael Dirda

Dirda’s collection of fifty columns originally published in The American Scholar is my favorite so far of Dirda’s many books. His enthusiasm for all things bookish is infectious, and his style is refreshingly non-scholarly and generous and hilariously self-deprecating. Dirda is also quite persuasive: I’ve garnered from Browsings seventeen (!) additional Dirda-recommended items for my list of Books Cal Wants to Read. Dirda’s musings on the life of a modern bibliophile were are a pure joy to read. (If Dirda wasn’t already married, I’d be tempted to propose that he marry me.)       Ÿ

the-year-of-reading-dangerouslyThe Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (and Two Not-so-Great Ones) Saved My Life (2014)
by Andy Miller

Better in its way than the equally wonderful Browsings by Michael Dirda, which I finished shortly before obtaining this book-about-books. Why better? Well, the Britishness of the author automatically makes his prose funnier. But the autobiographical content wedged into the descriptions of the books under discussion made the experience of reading Dangerously even more fund to read than Broswings more serious, less autobiographical treatment. If I could write like Miller, I would write books instead of (well, in addition to) reading them!

as-of-this-writing-cover latest-readings-cover

As of This Writing: The Essential Essays, 1968-2002 (2003) by Clive James
Latest Readings(2015) by Clive James

These two collections of literary criticism and book and film reviews are some of the best, and best-written, I’ve ever read. James is an Australian who lives in Britain. His witty (but not over-clever) conversational writing style and his generosity toward authors or works he finds flawed or otherwise unappealing is unusual and refreshing. For the sheer enjoyment of his down-to-earth, often humorous commentary, I will seek out any further books by James, and intend to read his other previous collections.Meanwhile, I am learning a lot about about Australian poets – a subject that I have zero interest in, but love reading about when it’s James writing about them. Ÿ


This Thing We Call Literature (2016)
by Arthur Krystal

After a lifetime of wondering myself about some of the questions addressed by Krystal, it was a revelation to read Krystal’s collection of essays, most of which originally appeared in either the Chronicle of Higher Education or the New Yorker, and most of which discuss (from various angles), the differences between good writing and great – i.e., enduring – writing. Krystal is an excellent stylist; his arguments are very persuasive to this reader, who hadn’t realized what a “traditionalist” reader I apparently am! Krystal’s essays make me unashamed of that fact. I learned so much from this book that I re-read much of it (including his excellent essay on good vs. great poetry) before returning my copy to the library.


The Battle of the Books: History and Literature
in the Augustan Age
by Joseph M. Levine

The “battle” had to do with the question of whether or not the ancient Greek and Roman writers could be surpassed – in excellence of style and/or in wisdom – by any subsequent generations of poets, historians and dramatists. The various factions weighing in on this question felt at lot was at stake – for one thing, the answer would determine the curriculum of a college education, and could have a bearing on how statesmen and others in the aristocracy are trained; for another thing, the answer had ramifications for the writing and evaluation of all post-classical history, poetry, and drama -even determine beliefs about the limits of human nature and potential. I loved this book, although I can’t imagine who else might love it – its subject is just too arcane, the nuances of the obscure story are gone into in way too much detail,  and the level of meticulous scholarship is almost too much to endure – reading even half the authors’ hundreds of footnotes would take many, many, many hours of a reader’s precious time. But the writing is lively, and the pettiness and infighting among the uber-articulate, uber-privileged British scholarly elite that Levine recounts in his sprawling story – he takes in not only the British opinion on the main debate, but French and German opinion as well – is quite marvelous for a certain type of reader (like moi).


The Golden Thread: The Story of Writing (2013) by Ewan Clayton

Not a history for the faint of heart: there is so much detail, especially with regard to pre-modern eras, that I almost gave up on finishing it. Also, the author included far too few illustrations (only 64 of them throughout 358 pages of densely-written text and analysis of particular documents, and, too often, no illustrations when one would’ve really helped). But I’m glad I did finish this book, as the final fifth of it was so interesting and informative, and as the book’s last chapter (“The Material Artefact”) is – for this amateur calligrapher, anyway – so beautifully and so lyrically written. Clayton’s scholarship as reflected in his lengthy bibliography is astonishingly thorough, and the final section of his bibliography (“Current Practice in Handwriting, Calligraphy and Lettering”) would be very useful in an inventory of the library maintained by the local calligraphy I’m a member of.    Ÿ


Samuel Johnson and The Life of Reading (1997) by Robert DeMaria, Jr.

DeMaria calls his book an “extended essay,” but the level of detail given to expounding DeMaria’s underlying premise (that there are four kinds of reading, and that Johnson practiced all four of them) made reading the book feel like reading a dissertation. I had to force myself to finish it. This despite the author’s obvious insights, erudition, humility, and sense of humor. If the subject had been anyone’s reading other than Johnson’s, I wouldn’t have even started it. But DeMaria’s book has re-confirmed my awe at Johnson’s intelligence, and reignited my resolve to read more of what Johnson himself wrote.

Biography & Memoir


Meanwhile, There are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald (2015)
edited by Suzanne Marrs &Tom Nolan

I continue to be enthralled with reading letters exchanged between writers, and this collection, which spans only a decade but contains hundreds of fascinating letters, is the saga of one of the most heartwarming literary friendships I’ve come across, as Welty and Macdonald were such amazing supports for each other’s writing. Based on what Macdonald has to say about it, I definitely now need to find some of Welty’s fiction – possibly starting with a re-reading of her story “Why I Live at the P.O.” but maybe trying out one of her novels as well.



The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (2015) by Andrea Wulf

An incredibly interesting guy, this Alexander Humboldt. So I’m glad to have read about him and glad the author wrote this book about him. However, the last third of the book, devoted to Humboldt’s “successors” (like John Muir), I lost interest in reading about, so I did not finish this book. I understand that many individuals followed in Humboldt’s footsteps as ecology pioneers, but when Humboldt disappeared from the story, I instantly – and rather surprisingly – lost interest in it.



Bettyville: A Memoir  (2014) by George Hodgman

ŸForty-something gay man leaves his editing job in New York City to take care of his ailing (and communication-challenged) mom in the tiny town in Missouri where he grew up. A well-told tale of caregiving in the teeth of the mother’s progressive dementia and her lifetime of denial of her only child’s being gay. Heartbreaking, poignant, funny, sobering, and full of loving, moving descriptions of a way of life that has largely vanished, but that formed the perspectives of both mother and son.



Dreamthorp: A Book of Essays Written in the Country (1905) by Alexander Smith [1830-1867]

Seldom have I been more sorry to have finished a book – or been as glad that such a book exists! There are only twelve essays in this now-over-a-hundred-years-old book, but every one of the essays is as engagingly written as anything you’ll ever read. The titles of the essays are almost irrelevant; even the least interesting-sounding ones end up being glorious, as Smith – like his heroes Bacon and Montaigne – is likely to spend many pages meandering off his purported subject. The delight I found in this previously-unknown-to-me collection was great enough for me to resolve to buy myself a modern copy (my conscience won’t allow me to steal the library’s antique edition). And because it’s in the public domain, the text of Dreamthorp is available on the Internet, which made it much easier for me to copy-and-paste numerous passages into my Commonplace Book. Incidentally, Dreamthorp is Smith’s fictional name for the Scottish town of Linlithgow, which (along with Smith’s grave in a cemetery in nearby Edinburgh) is now on my list of Hoped-For Literary Pilgrimages.


Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder Ÿ(2014)

Most collections of letters I’ve read (and the letters of writers have long been one of my favorite types of books to read) are written by writers who’ve died (many of them British, rather than Americans). Not so with this collection, which spans a correspondence that began in 1973 and is doubtless still going on, with the latest letter reproduced here written in 2013. Each of these two articulate writers has lived an unusual and inspiring life; the topics they write to each other about (and sometimes disagree about) make me glad to be part of their generation. Now more than ever I am resolved to eventually track down and read every scrap of Berry’s nonfiction writing. It was a joy and privilege to read these letters: so much so that I started and finished this book in a matter of days. I hope there are many more letters between these two thoughtful, erudite, and humble homesteading writers, and that those letters will also one day be published. Snyder and Berry are national living treasures, each of them devoted to the very different regions of the planet they have cultivated through long and thoughtful lives.


A Heaven of Words: Last Journals, 1956-1984 (2013) by Glenway Wescott

Another intriguing installment of the trove of biographical material produced by a circle of Manhattan-based American gay artists, writers, photographers, playwrights, etc. (and their Continental friends and lovers) that rivals the scope and interested of the biographical materials that the “Bloomsberries” generated from and about their nearly-contemporaneous lives in England. I will next need to track down Wescott’s earlier journals (Continual Lessons: 1937-1955) and Wescott’s novels. A “heaven of words” indeed.


Time Enough (1974)
by Emily Kimbrough

I re-read this hilarious account of a group of friends’ boat trip down Ireland’s Shannon River in preparation for an almost identical trip I’m planning with several of my own friends for later this year. What a treat, re-reading this book! Kimbrough is skillful at vividly capturing the telling detail that make each of her characters (i.e., her friends and their respective foibles, as well as her own), as well as their harmless but charming adventures, come alive. You feel like you’re right there with them on their rented (and fully – and interestingly – staffed) boat, and happy to be there. Anyone reading Kimbrough’s account will risk feeling compelled to book a boat in Ireland. It was my first reading of this book that triggered my own subsequent quest to successfully enlist some of my own friends to float down the waterways of three different countries (England, France, and – finally – Ireland).



The Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson (1987)
by Noble Cunningham, Jr.

ŸA competent, one-volume biography – and a perfect review of any other biographies one might have read before but (like I had) forgotten the details of. One of the most astonishing parts, especially during this rancorous election year, was rediscovering how early on the vicious factionalism in U.S. politics began.




Fifty Days of Solitude (1994) by Doris Grumbach

I wanted this to be better than it was. There are some lovely reflections (such as the one on the different varieties of silence), but this book seemed too often like a writing excercise or a set of miscellaneous remarks than a significant contribution to the literature of solitude.



a-year-by-the-sea-coverA Year by the Sea:
  Thoughts of an Unfinished Woman
by Joan Anderson

ŸHaving read Anderson’s second book several years ago without realizing she’d already written this one, I’m glad I ran across this copy in a thrift store yesterday. (Yes, dear reader, I read this book in a single day.) I think it’s better than her second book – another memoir mining the same period of her life on Cape Cod. Anderson compellingly sets down in non-self-congratulatory prose the emotional roller-coaster ride of her Year of Living Solo. Similar in its pur-pose to two books by Alice Koeller that I read years ago – An Unknown Woman: A Journey to Self-Discovery (1981) and The Stations of Solitude (1990), which Iiked better than either of Anderson’s books.




The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde

Despite all the books about Oscar Wilde I’ve read over the years, I’d never gotten around to reading his novel. Several years ago at OutWrite Bookstore’s closing sale, I bought Nicholas Frankel’s illustrated, annotated, uncensored (and coffee-table-size) edition, and this week I finally read it. Reading It took a while, as the numerous footnotes amount to an additional book themselves. Mostly, I am amazed at how absurdly repressed and class-conscious Wilde’s Victorian contemporaries were, which resulted in – among other things, including Wilde’s arrest, trial, and imprisonment – so much “coding” of sexual matters into the text of Dorian. I was also surprised at how many of Oscar’s famous maxims derive from (or were imported into) his novel. Frankel’s delineation through his footnotes of the underpinnings of the novel’s plot and characters to Wilde’s life and world (as well as his meticulous history of the novel’s career) was, for me, far more interesting than the novel’s rather florid story, characters, and writing style.


All the Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doerr

I became a fan of Doerr’s when, a few years ago, I read his memoir Four Seasons in Rome. Although I’ve not read his previous novels, All the Light is indisputably a memorable book, even a page turner. As I usually do with novels that jump back-and-forth between different time periods and alternate between different characters’ points of view, I found this structure to be somewhat annoying, but I can see why Doerr took this route to tell this particular story. The cruelties and violence and desolation of war (specifically, World War II) that Doerr describes were certainly vivid, and, as intended, very distressing. (This book could should earn a spot on anyone’s list of anti-war novels.) Doerr’s imagery is often arresting, which helped pull met through the author’s portrayals of his characters’ anxiety and deprivation and the backdrop of ubiquitous, arbitrary deaths that more than once tempted me to put aside this heartbreaking novel. I’m in a book club that’s discussing this novel soon, and look forward to how other readers responded to this absorbing book.

Magazine Subscriptions

I would be remiss if I were not to insert here an enthusiastic recommendation of the two magazines whose every issue I’ve  eagerly devoured for the zillionth consecutive year. They are the world’s two best – although very, very different – magazines, deserving of a subscription of your own if you happen to be in the market for guaranteed excellence:

  • The Sun
  • The New Yorker

If any of my reading-loving acquaintances out there have kept track of what you’ve read this past year, I would love to see your list! Feel free to email it to me at 


The Constant Reader: 2015


This year was particularly delightful in terms of the quality of the books I chose to read. Here are my comments on each of them. I’ve listed the titles in the rough order of how excellent they seemed to me within the categories displayed below. I hope you spot a few titles you decide you want to read yourself – and would love to hear from you any recommendations from your own past year’s worth of reading: type out a comment to this blogpost, or send an email to, or message me on Facebook!


Lila 2Lila (2014) by Marilynne Robinson

I was wrong to assume Robinson couldn’t possibly weave a second spell of storytelling as absorbing as she did with Gilead. Alas, trying to describe Robinson’s writing style – especially its bewitching rhythm, its characters’ language and thought patterns, the story’s breathtakingly well-constructed recursiveness – is a maddening prospect. How unflinchingly honest and far-ranging this novel is. How lucky I am to be one of Robinson’s readers, repeatedly astonished at her craft and her piercing, heartbreaking insights into human frailty and resilience. Novel writing does not get any better, any more unforgettable, than Robinson’s.



The Goldfinch (2013) by Donna Tartt

Compelling story and wonderfully realized, totally believable characters, even the unsavory ones, Not sure this book needed 700+ pages to tell its tale, but I certainly admire Tartt’s artistry and willingness to take on the task of plausibly articulating the complex, messy, and irrational aspects of human motivation, character, and behavior, and of the maddening role of chance (fateful?) events and circumstances in human affairs. I also like the way this book dramatizes the wrongheadedness of dividing the world – and our friends and families – into all-good or all-evil individuals.


Harold Fry

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012) by Rachel Joyce

Most absorbing novel I’ve read in a long time. A brilliant concept for a story: I’m amazed that no modern author had thought of it before! Two things I especially admired: the unexpected twists of the plot and the imaginative way the author slowly reveals the events that formed the personalities (and demons) of the main characters. I cannot imagine anyone not loving this novel, and I am almost certain it will eventually be made into a riveting film.



The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy (2014) by Rachel Joyce

Less satisfying than its prequel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. There are many lovely passages, but I found the plot oddly less interesting – a surprising reaction considering that   the reader finds out a lot more about Queenie’s character and history in this book than he/she ever finds out about Harold in the other book.


Famous Last WordsFamous Last Words (1982) by Timothy Findley

This dark novel (given to me by DC-based fellow booklover and blogger Thomas Otto) is set during World War II. The plot centers on a conspiracy of Nazi sympathizers who hope to install oriented government officials in various democracies after the war. A page-turner, for sure, and the sort of espionage thriller I rarely read. One of those “what if” sorts of novels that send one to Wikipedia to find out what “really” happened to the famous real-life characters Findley includes in his almost plausible – and often gruesome – yarn.


Lolly WillowesLolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman (1926) by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Having spent many happy hours in 2015 reading two collections of STW’s letters, I was curious about her fiction, so I was excited when a friend mailed this novel to me to read. I’m pleased to see that STW’s prose is as charming and offbeat as her letters are. The plot of this novel, however, takes a rather improbable turn, and I wasn’t happy in that respect. (On the other hand, now I understand better her affinity with T.H. White and his affinity with furry woodland creatures.) Still, as a proto-feminist tract, this was cleverly and artfully done. STW’s gift for nuanced portraits and her sometimes startling word choices are delightful.

Biography and Autobiography

Why Be HappyWhy Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?  (2011) by Jeanette Winterson

Seldom do I read an entire book in a single day, but this memoir is that riveting. Although the titles of Winterson’s prize-winning novels were familiar to me, I’ve not read them, but I am extremely glad my friend Blanche loaned me her copy of this. It’s not a happy tale, but Winterson tells it with excruciating honesty and, at times, with unexpected hilarity. Her prose contains many quotable sentences – and she captures beautifully the fact that access to a public library can save an otherwise hapless young person’s sanity, especially if you’re the unlucky adopted child of a fundamentalist Christian parent whose favorite reading is the Bible’s Book of Revelation.


Inside a PearlInside a Pearl: My Years in Paris (2014) by Edmund White

A relentlessly engaging, deliciously gossipy account of White’s many years of living in Paris. I hereby transfer my longstanding envy of celebrity writer Gore Vidal’s literary life to Edmund White’s.



What There Is to SayWhat There Is to Say, We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell (2011) edited by Suzanne Marrs

Of the many collections of letters exchanged between authors, this one is my favorite among the many such collections that I have read. Maxwell, an novelist himself, was Welty’s editor at the New Yorker, and they exchanged letters (and visits) for fifty years. The letters are so engaging, literate, and funny that reading them thirty years after both Welty and Maxwell died is a completely spellbinding experience. Now I must track down more of Maxwell’s novels (I’d already read and loved So Long, See You Tomorrow), Welty’s novels, and the essay collections of both these writers


Element of LavishnessThe Element of Lavishness: Letters of  Sylvia Townsend Warner and  William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (2001) edited by Michael Steinman

Once I started this book of letters between my favorite British letter-writer (STW) and one of my favorite American novelists (Maxwell was also editor of STW’s 150 stories she submitted to The New Yorker), it was almost impossible to put it down. Now I’m on the hunt for yet more of STW’s letters and for all of Maxwell’s prose – plus I’ll need to buy myself a copy of this book so I can methodically track down all the books they recommended to each other over their forty years of corresponding with each other. These letters are very likely to be the highlight of my reading pleasures this year (as were, last year, the selected letters of STW that Maxwell edited). Witty, wide-ranging, moving.


Act One 2Act One: An Autobiography (1959) by Moss Hart

Far and away the best autobiography I’ve ever read.  It makes me happy just to know someone can write – about themselves, too! – so exquisitely. I’m not surprised that my friend Blanche, who first told me about this book back in the late 1960s (!), says she’s picked it up more than once to re-read portions of it. With unusual humility (and often hilariously), Hart tells an entertaining and heartwarming story, peppered with profound insights into the psychological aspects of a theater-besotten life. I so wish Hart had written a sequel, so I could read that too!


I’ll  Stand by You: The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner & Valentine Ackland (1998)  edited by Susanna Pinney

Warner and Ackland met in 1930 and lived together for almost 40 years before Ackland’s death from breast cancer; these letters chronicle their great love story. Warner assembled the letters after Ackland’s death, and wrote several lengthy and excellent connecting narratives to fill in the blanks between the letters. These letters are mostly love letters, and as such they shine a light on the relationship that any fan of Warner’s writing or enthusiastic readers (such as moi) of Warner’s other collections of letters would naturally be interested in reading. Warners’ other collections of letters are far more evocative of the couple’s daily routines, their relationships with other people in their interesting lives, and their wide-ranging interests, but this collection is a remarkable document – probably one of a handful of published accounts of a lifelong lesbian relationship between literate British literary figures of the 20th century.


Thomas WolfeThomas Wolfe (1968) by Andrew Turnbull

A masterpiece. Wolfe’s famous first novel Look Homeward, Angel has been one of the touchstones of my internal life ever since I read it as a teenager. I don’t know why I never got around to reading a Wolfe biography (as there have been several), especially given the pilgrimages I’ve made to the house of Wolfe’s childhood and to his grave in Asheville. But I am very glad to have read this book, and am stunned by the sensitivity and diligent research of its author, and by his engaging writing style. Probably the best-written biography I’ve ever read, and one of the highlights of my reading this year.


How to LiveHow to Live: A Life of Montaigne (2010) by Sarah Bakewell

Delightful biography of the inventor of the personal essay (and a longtime philosophical/ psychological hero of mine). Bakewell organizes her book thematically instead of strictly chronologically, which is only occasionally disorienting or redundant and her approach successfully keeps the reader’s interest and emphasizes the multifaceted, contradictory nature of the man she’s writes so engagingly about. I particularly enjoyed Bakewell’s measured speculative digressions as well as her meticulous, fascinating account of the ways other authors in various places have regarded Montaigne and his famous book.


Small VictoriesSmall Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace (2014) by Anne Lamott

Yet another difficult-to-put-down account of various episodes in the life of my favorite epiphany-describer. Unflinching, hilarious, wise, compassionate – and too short. I will continue to read every word this woman writes, that’s for sure (well, her nonfiction anyway).


The Measure of My DaysThe Measure of My Days (1968) by Florida Scott-Maxwell

Unusually honest, interesting, and beautifully phrased reflections about aging, written by an American actress, playwright, and Jungian therapist when she was in her mid-80s. A short book, but full of quotable passages and uncommon insight.


End of Your LIfe Book ClubThe End of Your Life Book Club (2012) by Will Schwalbe

What an astonishing memoir – and a testament to the transformative power of books – and of individuals – to make a huge difference in the world. I wish I could give a copy of this book to everyone in my life who loves reading, or who knows someone who loves to read who is facing a terminal illness. A moving and interesting story very skillfully told, and difficult to put down.


William MorrisWilliam Morris (1989) by Christine Poulson

A straightforward, brief and wonderfully illustrated biography. Morris is someone whose work (and life) has long interested me. Morris turns out to have been even more remarkable than I’d thought. (If I’m not careful, reading more about Morris and his circle will become the sort of reading rabbit-hole that, years ago, reading multiple books about Oscar Wilde and then multiple books about the Bloomsberries – and, this year, multiple books about Sylvia Townsend Warner turned into for me: not the worst fate ever to befall a reader.) In any case, I definitely have to my Bucker List of Travel Destinations a pilgrimage to Morris’s homes, and to his work that’s on display at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.


Bloomsbury at HomeBloomsbury at Home (1999) by Pamela Todd

How wonderful to fall upon yet another history of the Bloomsberries – and one so engagingly written and illustrated! It focuses on the details of daily life in the various houses inhabited by the Woolfs, the Bells, the Stracheys, etc., Most of the reproductions of Vanessa’s or Duncan’s paintings that accompany the text I’d never seen before, despite the number of Bloomsbury books I’ve devoured and/ collected. By dsuccinctly providing intriguing domestic details about their intertwined and psychologically complicated lives. Todd weaves the usual hypnotic spell cast by this influential and unconventional group of British writers, artists, and scholars. Delicious.


Hello GorgeousHello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand (2012) by William J. Mann

Despite the author’s annoyingly breathless and sometimes ham-fisted and/or juvenile prose style (samples: “Barbra was fed up.” “Such were the dreams…of a twenty-four-year-old kid and his twenty-year-old girlfriend”), the author did keep me greedily reading until I finally finished his exhaustingly-researched 500+-page book. I’ve been a Streisand fan since her first record album appeared in the mid-Sixties, and it’s difficult for me to ignore anything written about this unusual and extraordinarily talented celebrity. Mann’s biography covers only the period from Streisand’s teenage years until she landed the lead role in the Broadway version of Funny Girl. When Streisand publishes her autobiography in 2017, I will be very interested to see in what respects she will contradict Mann’s not altogether flattering account of her early career. Although Mann’s biography is larded with huge globs of psycho-babbling speculation (not that Streisand’s account will be devoid of same), te story of Streisand’s meteoric rise to celebrity is riveting, and Mann’s scrupulous documentation makes me glad Mann’s is the one biography of Streisand’s I have thus far decided to read.


Islands of the MindIslands of the Mind:  How the Human Imagination Created the Atlantic World (2004) by John Gillis

Despite some annoying repetitions and redundancies, this book forever changed some of my notions of history and geography, not to mention the way I think about several famous literary utopias. The final chapters are the best, and the bibliography will send me on many a quest to track down and read certain titles Gillis relied on for this excellent synthesis of All Things Island-Related. Plus it was a pleasure to find that Gillis is married to the woman who wrote a touching memoir that I read a few years back about the island in Maine where she and her husband live.

Psychology and Social Commentary

The End of AbsenceThe End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection (2014) by Michael Harris

A well-written and non-elegaic essay on the implications of the fact that some of us are among the final (pre-1985) generation of people who can remember what life felt like before we allowed the Internet to infiltrate the rhythms, priorities, and habits of how we humans manage our attention, time, affection, desires, expectations, etc.


The News A User's ManualThe News: A User’s Manual (2014) by Alain de Botton

This is de Botton’s twelfth book, and I’ve read all of them with pleasure and admiration. The News is as provocatively and elegantly written as the others (I’ve posted multiple excerpts to the “Commonplace Book” section of my blog). However, de Botton’s brilliant analysis of the problem(s) with modern media is much more persuasive than his suggested solution(s), most of which I found to be unexpectedly simplistic and/or naive. Also, most of de Botton’s prescriptions for reform betray a paternal, manipulative, moralistic attitude that I would’ve expected him to deplore. Still, this brief book (and all of de Botton’s books are short ones) was worth reading, and de Botton’s vivid prose is far more engaging and digestible than other, lengthier critiques of the mass media, whose output most of us spend inordinate amounts of time and energy unreflectively attending (and reacting) to.


Religion and Anti-Religion

Religion without RevelationReligion without Revelation (1957) by Julian Huxley

The all-around best anti-organized religion book I’ve ever read – and I’ve read a lot of them in the past 30 years. Why best? Because the writing is so excellent -it’s no wonder this book is considered a classic – because the author is so sincere in acknowledging the fact that human sentiments about non-empirical phenomena are universal, and because Huxley includes his relevant personal religious experiences along with his rational arguments. Huxley’s final chapter was a bit disappointing, but all the others were completely absorbing. I’m so glad I actually own this book – not only so I can read its gorgeous prose again, but so I can easily track down several intriguing-sounding works Huxley cites in his footnotes and his bibliography.


Atheist's History of BeliefAn Atheist’s History of Belief  (2014) by Matthew Kneale

An excellent, short, and entertainingly writter debunking of religious fervor. It’s refreshingly devoid of resentment-laced polemics and disdain – and larded with humor to boot! Kneale’s treatment is also unusual in that he surveys religious movements other than the usual suspects (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). Kneale’s thesis, which he persuasively hammers home repeatedly in his wide-ranging and fascinating historical (if highly selective) romp, is that religions are founded to cope with the anxiety of specific cultural uncertainties; he shows how, again and again, charismatic prophets emerge only in times of cultural crisis, and he shows how uncannily similar their “solutions” turn out to be. (For example, almost all of them feature reactions to profound uneasiness or revulsion toward the institutions or functionaries of the religious status quo, apocalyptic visions, and the simplistic division of people into elites vs. the doomed). Because of Kneale’s breezy, engaging style, his book is the first book I’d recommend to anyone newly interested in the idea of atheism.


Bricks and MortalsBricks and Mortals: Ten Great Buildings and the People They Made (2014) by Tom Wilkinson

A wild romp of a book – and a perfect example of why I’m constantly tempted to read nonfiction instead of fiction: there are such excellent nonfiction writers being published! And if I’d passed over reading this book, I’d’ve missed all I learned from its author’s asides about (among others) Henry Ford and Richard Wagner. I especially appreciated Wilkinson’s relentless Marxist (well, at least anti-capitalist) perspective on what gets built and why, and whose interests usually get served thereby. I hope Wilkinson writes more books, as I’ll want to read them all.


Why Buildings Stand UpWhy Buildings Stand Up: The Strength of Architecture (1980; reissued 1990 and 2002) by Mario Salvadori

Understandable-by-the-layperson explanations of the numerous inescapable forces and factors (physical, environmental, and human) that constrain architects and engineers of any era, fused with engaging storiesabout some of the most famous and/or common examples of what’s been accomplished in architecture over the past several thousand years. The best book about architecture I’ve ever read, and I’ve read lots of them!


The Divine ProportionThe Divine Proportion:  A Study in Mathematical Beauty (1970) by H.E. Huntley

I am so glad I finally got around to reading this short (187-page) classic, which I’d seen so many references to in such widely disparate sources over my many years of reading. Although most of the equations examined (and, considering the book’s subject, they were perhaps unavoidable) are beyond my understanding, Huntley’s prose explanations of the unexpected and astonishing mathematical properties of a wide range of natural phenomena – everything from the shell of the nautilus to the petals of flowers to the differences between the notes of a musical octave – are fascinating. Huntley’s style is free of jargon, succinct, elegant, and marked by the understatement and drollery so characteristic of the best British writers. Paradoxically, Huntley can also write with charming enthusiasm about the wonders and uses of mathematics. I will probably never gaze upon a sunflower again without thinking of Huntley’s book.


Home A Short History of An IdeaHome: A Short History of an Idea (1987) by Witold Rybczynski

Although I first read this back in 2005, I was mortified to find that I didn’t remember a single word of it – which is doubly mortifying as this book is so wonderful! Every chapter is full of fascinating, engagingly told stories about how (and where) various factors embedded in our modern notions of “home” – privacy and comfort, to take only two examples – first came to be. Now I will want to re-read The Most Beautiful House in the World, another book of Rybczynski’s that I also liked (but not as much, if my faulty memory serves – which it obviously cannot be relied upon to do!). This book is a keeper, and I am glad I found a copy I could afford to buy.


What Are Gardens ForWhat Are Gardens For? (2012) by Rory Stuart

A primer on how to fully appreciate any garden – your own or, especially, other people’s. The Britain-based Stuart – who doesn’t limit the gardens he examines to those of England, or even to9 Europe – is especially good at explaining the non-obvious aspects of why it’s so delightful to wander through a garden (and why sometimes it’s less than delightful). The author’s opinions acknowledge (with wonderful quotations) the theories of numerous other garden experts, contemporary and otherwise.


Our Gardens OurselvesOur Gardens Ourselves: Reflections on an Ancient Art (1994) by Jennifer Bennett

It took me over a year to finish reading this book, and I needed to re-read its earlier chapters as I’d forgotten what was in them. This is a puzzlingly unlyrical (and otherwise unengaging) set of reflections, despite the author’s survey of many garden-related garden myths and scientific factoids I’d never encountered before. I wish the author had injected more extended personal opinions, and that her numerous garden-related quotations embedded throughout the text had been more compelling.


Rome and a VillaRome and a Villa (1952) by Eleanor Clark

This is the second best guidebook to Rome I’ve ever read. (The best is H.V. Morton’s A Traveller in Rome.) Clark’s meditations on a highly selective set of particular buildings, paintings, frescoes, fountains, etc. are eccentric  – and lyrical to the point of being, at times, difficult to follow. Still, Clark’s style is arresting in its images and conceits. Her book makes me want to return to Rome with a copy of it – and to definitely make a repeat pilgrimage to Hadrian’s Villa, the subject of one of the book’s longer chapters.


Slipping into ParadiseSlipping into Paradise: Why I Live in New Zealand (2004) by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson

A prolific author and his wife visit New Zealand and decide to stay. His book explains why, and the reasons are interesting and engagingly recounted. I’ve long wanted to travel to this remote place (the last place on the planet settled by Westerners), and Masson’s book has just ramped up my enthusiasm at trying to get there some day. One of the best things about the book is a chapter devoted to a suggested itinerary for a first-time visitor with at least two weeks to spend traveling around both islands by car. I’ll be taking along this book when I finally get there someday!


Confessions of a Comma QueenBetween You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (2015) by Mary Norris

You might assume that a copy editor at The New Yorker would have some interesting stories to tell, and you would be right about that. I can’t think of a book more perfectly suited to my odd interest in the vagaries of English punctuation, usage, grammar, etc. (unless it’s one of the also-humorous style guides Norris describes as having been especially helpful to her in her career). Norris is clever, funny, a great story-teller, and sensible to boot! I gobbled up her delicious book in a mere two afternoons.

Literature and Literary Criticism

The Outermost DreamThe Outermost Dream: Literary Sketches (1997)  by William Maxwell

My reading this year of Maxwell’s letters to and from Sylvia Townsend Warner and to and from Eudora Welty sent me back to this book of Maxwell’s essays, which I had read for the first time three years ago. Although I have never forgotten the wonderfulness of Maxwell’s novel So Long, See You Tomorrow, I had forgotten what a wonderful prose writer Maxwell was,  Prediction: Both the novel and this collection of essays will stay in my home library whenever I get around to purging my books so my home library will fit onto my living room shelves.


By the BookBy the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from ‘The New York Times Book Review’ (2014) edited by Pamela Paul

What-do-you-read and how-do-you-read Q’s and A’s with five dozen famous authors, most of them American. Certainly a lot of fun to read, and I easily snagged ten titles of highly recommended books for my Books Cal Wants to Read list, half of which I’d never even heard of before.


The ShelfThe Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading (2014) by Phyllis Rose

I liked this much better than Rose’s account of an earlier “reading experiment,” The Year of Reading Proust. This time, Rose committed herself to reading a randomly-selected shelf of books from a membership library in New York – the shelf having to meet certain predetermined criteria. The results are more enchanting than you might imagine, because Rose is such a curious reader – and such an engaging (and honest) writer. Rose’s forays into the nature of reading, publishing, bestsellerdom, what makes a classic, etc. are wonderful, and she makes almost all of these mostly-no-longer-read books seem worth reading!


Once Again to ZeldaOnce Again to Zelda: The Stories Behind Literature’s Most Intriguing Dedications (2008) by Marlene Wagman-Geller

Despite the hyperbole of the book’s title, the background stories to the dedications of this idiosyncratically selective group of books are, without exception, fascinating. However I wish an editor had expunged the final paragraphs the author appended to every one of her impressively researched and impressively condensed accounts: without exception, they are the most hackneyed, treacly, inexcusably sentimental – and totally unnecessary – bits of commentary I have read in a long time.


Yours EverYours, Ever: People and Their Letters (2009) by Thomas Fallon

Easily the best of the several books I’ve read over the years that celebrate the practice of letter-writing. Surprisingly, it is also the survey of letter-writing with the least number of excerpts (especially lengthier excerpts) from the letters scrutinized. Most of the book is the author’s very lively commentary on examples of letters written in several sets of common circumstances (absence, friendship, advice, war, prison, etc.). Because Mallon’s comments are so nuanced and/or clever, I will probably be seeking out his earlier book about diary-keeping.

Magazine Subscriptions

Here I insert my annual enthusiastic mention of the two magazines whose every issue I eagerly devour for the zillionth consecutive year – because, after all, they are the world’s two best (although very, very different) magazines, deserving of a subscription of your own if you happen to be in the market for guaranteed excellence:

  • The Sun
  • The New Yorker

“When shall I be tired of reading? When the moon is tired of waxing and waning, when the sea is tired of ebbing and flowing, when the grass is weary of growing, when the planets are tired of going.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson
(Journals – entry for July 31, 1835)