All the Books I Have Known
I remember as a child reading that for every minute of your life, ten pages
of reading material are published. This line upset me greatly, since I
could not imagine keeping up with such prodigious publishing. Years later,
after I lost my childish naivette, I was greatly relieved to realize that
of those 10 pages, perhaps 0.1 is worth reading. Even then, it is impossible
to keep up. I tried to do my best, though with keeping up with daily NYTimes,
weekly Book Reviews, and monthly Wireds, music mags, Physics Todays (I
had to drop Scientific American for lack of time), I have less and less
time for books.
I also read somewhere that reading interests change on the average every
4 years. This statement might be an artifact of the American educational
system which is neatly broken into 4-year blocks. In grade school (in the
former Soviet Union) my reading were from the canon of children's adventure
literature: Dickens, Scott, Dumas, Cooper (he is much more readable in
Russian), Gaidar. In junior high, when I was most interested in archaeology,
I read archeology and ancient astronaut books. In high school, when I began
to be interested in science - pop physics and science fiction. In college,
as my interests broadened, my reading horizons expanded, and I read much
worthy stuff. Now I just make sure to vary the dosage between fiction and
non-fiction, depending on whether I need relaxation or mental stimulation.
How to keep up with what's out there
My strategy of choice is to read NYTimes Book Review. The advantage is
that not only do you get a summary of the plot or the main points (that's
the only thing you remember anyway years after reading the book), you also
get some learned opinion on the merits of the particular work. (It is widely
known that a sign of a true intellectual is a Book Review in the bathroom.)
You also can't go wrong reading award winners. My favorite award is the
Booker Prize, awarded for the best British fiction of the year. Sometimes
the work is tedious, but never disappointing. National Book Award winners
are on my list. I stay away from best sellers, though, even if they are
Books to take to coffeeshops
Manfred Schroeder, Number Theory in Science and Communication
- I was never terribly interested in number theory, but I regret it now.
It is a fascinating subject, and Schroeder's book is a wonderful place
to start. He is highly readable, if prone to corny jokes, but the best
thing is his ability to show how obscure statements of mathematics can
have far-reaching effects, e.g. how fundamental theorem of arithmetic leads
to the well tempered scale, and other wonderments. His other book Chaos,
Fractals and Power Laws is a similarly engaging look at the wide ranging
manifestations of chaos, and a good non-technical, though intellectually
demanding introduction to the field.
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene - The wonderful quality
of this book is that it teaches you how to think about evolution, and many
things become clear when you apply this thinking to evolutionary problems,
both within the book and without. The cover blurbs "...makes you think
like a genius...", and that's right.
Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb - though not
terribly thought provoking this hefty volume captures the times, the impetus,
the horror of chemical warfare of WWI, the hell of fire bombings Dresden,
and of course, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many of the details of the eyewitness
accounts were new to me, as I am sure they would be to many from the victors'
Ruth Hubbard, The Politics of Women's Biology - a critique
of the gender biases that creep into the way science is practiced as well
as into science itself. Ruth Hubbard, a prefessor emeritus in biology at
Harvard, has become a perceptive critic of the gender/class related biases
in everything from behavioral to molecular biology, since her political
awakening in the 60's.
Londa Schiebinger, The Mind Has No Sex? - I never finished
this book, since it is a rigirous scholarly study and I don't have much
experience with reading historical studies. This book documents 17-18th
century attitudes towards women, women in science, and so on. One of the
things she spoke about in the talk I heard her give, was how Linnaeus came
to coin "mammals". At the end of the 18th century, in response to an increased
demand for labor force and to stem high infant mortality rates, there was
a political movement to get mothers to suckle their babies, instead of
giving them to wet nurses. Out of 7 characteristics of mammals, Linnaeus
chose breast-feeding to unite us with the animal world (as well as to underscore
the importance of breast feeding), and wisdom to separate us from it (as
in Homo Sapiens), a distinction driven by stereotypes of male/female differences.
Bram Dykstra, The Idols of Perversity - this book deals with
fin-de-siecle attituded about women and how they were expressed in art.
It has a maddening chapter on how Darwinism was used to explain women's
and other races's inferiority. A great fun to read, and I find the many
pre-Raphaelite illustrations in this book beautiful, despite their contorted
Angela Davis, Class, Gender, and Power - one of her recent
books. I like Davis for her clear and penetrating thinking, and her scathing
social commentary. She came to speak here not too long after LA riots.
I was in the overflow crowd that were forced to watch her on closed-circuit
TV. She had such a forceful personality, that we gave her a standing ovation
even though she was not physically present.
Barrow and Tippler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle
- I still have to finish this one, but how can you resist a book by physicists
which demonstrates the necessity of human existence, and derive the value
of fine structure constant from the basic principle that we are alive to
Books to relax by the fireplace with
Jostein Gaarder, Sophie's World - a book that attempts to
be an intro to the history of philosophy, a philosophical mystery, and
a fairy tale puzzle. Though Gaarder is quite engaging when discussing Greek
philosophy, he runs out of steam by the time Sophie meets her mysterious
mentor. Since I was already familiar with the elements of Greek philosophy,
what I wanted from the book was an introduction to medieval mystics, British
empiricists, German romantics, with which Gaarder was much too sketchy.
But this is a novel, after all.
Barry Unsworth, The Sacred Hunger - a Booker Prize winner
for 1992 (?). A very involving tale of a slave ship from 17th century England
and various people associated with it. It raises many deep moral questions
that we are still struggling with today. This is one of the best, most
powerful books I have ever read. Pascali's Island gives the reader
a slow start, but inexorably draws one in, with its story of intrigue and
human frailty. It is ultimately, a musing on the nature of reality. This
slim novel shows Unsworth to be a master of his craft, able to weave a
fine story and characters and at the same time focus on the big questions
of life. I bought The Stone Virgin for its beguiling cover, and
Barry Unsworth's name on it, but the book did not justify my high expectations.
It was a straighforward narrative, a pale immitation of multilayered, multithreaded
style of his other works.
Margaret Laurence, The Diviners - my boyfriend loved this
book by Canada's preeminent writer. However, I found the characters so
recognizable, the life described by Laurence so familiar, that it was almost
too emotionally draining to read it. She is a great writer, really... I
just wished she chose cheerier topics.
Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum - maybe not everyone's cup
of tea, but I just love the tales of conspiracies by occult groups. This
novel, rightfully called encyclopedic, can also be read as a primer on
medieval mystery societies. I found each page fascinating.
A.S. Byatt, The Possession - another Booker Prize Winner.
Like Eco's book, it tells a novel while filling the reader in on the particular
branch of author's knowledge, in this case Victorian poets and writers,
real and imaginary.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky - any of his works. In order of my preference:
Brothers Karamazov, Devils, The Idiot, Crime and Punishment, Notes from
the Underground. I stopped after 50 pages of The Youth, shortly
after the 2 suicides and a murder, because each time I would pick the book
up to read, I would get acutely depressed. My boyfriend, for his sanity
as well as mine, prevailed upon me to stop reading Dostoyevsky. Well, what
else can you expect from a writer who was in a group of people about to
be executed, but saved at the last moment by a pardon? A lesser mind in
that group went insane. FD drove his readers insane.
Mikhail Bulgakov, Master and Margarita - This book has everything:
farce, drama, retelling of the Faust legend, a socialist realist retelling
of the Crucifiction. It begins with a conversation between the devil and
a communist, and quickly moves to some of the more memorable characters
in contemporary Russian fiction, like Behemoth, Devil's feline gun-toting
companion. Great fun, but serious literature too. I once checked out a
slender volume from a whole shelf of volumes of literary criticisms on
this particular work. The analogies between Pontius Pilate and Stalin,
and Christ and the people, was very revealing. This is one of those books
that should be read in class, or with a volume of critical theory, but
can be enjoyed even by those who miss all the subteleties. Bulgakov's Heart
of the Dog travels similar territory - in a scientific experiment a
dog's brain is transplanted to a criminal, who proceeds to claim his proletarian
rights in hilarious ways, but it lacks the sparkling witticism and depth
Valery Bryusov, The Fiery Angel: a sixteenth century romance
- explores a love triangle (supposedly based on author's experiences) between
an earnest young man torn between Love and Good, a simple woman prone to
visions, and a knight whom she fancies to be alternately an angel or a
devil trying to seduce her. Quite instinctively (though I would be curious
to find out if he was familiar with Freud's work) Bryusov made the connection
between religious experience and sexual hysteria implicit in this novel,
which Prokofiev turned into a ballet, with shocking (fot his time) scenes
of witches' sabbath.
Alexander Kuprin - one of my childhood
favorites. I have translated some of his stories.
Colin Wilson, Mind Parasites - This one might not appeal
to you if you are not into conspiracy theories, occult powers, etc., but
again, I absolutely loved it. For this work CW was inspired by creatures
of Aleister Crowley's imagination, who live deep within the earth, and
who feed off negative emotions of humanity. It is up to our heroes, rational,
strong-willed, optimistic archaeologists, to come up with a plan to defeat
these evil vampires that sap humanities intellectual strengths, so that
we can all evolve into higher beings. Philosopher's Stone follows
adventures of another rational, strong-willed and optimistic hero in search
of the key to immortality. CW's preoccupation with sexual deviance, and
criminality, got on my nerves. The God of the Labyrinth made me
feel depressed and despondent, and put an end to my CW streak. If you like
this kind of stuff, check out The Outsider, for short accounts of
sexual exploits of cultural movers and shakers. Well, there is also the
categorization of philosophy into optimistic and pessimistic, and its consequences,
but tales of Lord Byron's promiscuity is all that remains.
I have been so frequently disappointed with contemporary fiction, which
reads more like movie scripts than literature (this list is rather long,
but I would single out Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,
Smila's Sense of Snow, Lives of the Monster Dogs, for dashing
my expectations), that I had almost resolved not to read any more contemporary
novels. I am happy to say, my faith is contemporary fiction has been restored
by back to back reading of two extraordinary novels - Margaret Atwood's
Alias Grace, and Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha.
Both went far beyond the obvious, got the reader intensely involved with
the characters, and vividly painted life in alien worlds - mid-19th century
Canada in the former case, and mid-century Japan in the latter. As with
the best of novels, reading these works was akin to an out-of-body experience
--- they presented such a complete picture of the world and its peoples,
that it was easy to forget you were simply reading.
Books for the beach
Sometimes one might catch me reading trash, that is anything in a pocket
book format, or with embossed or reflecting letters in the title, or double
covers that reveal more detail once opened. Very often these books are
time sinks like TV, but sometimes this is all your brain can take.
Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination - the space age version
of the Count of Monte Cristo, and is just as impossible to put down. Like
all good science fiction novels, it sparkles with intriguing ideas and
vividly imagined societies. Why is it that Victorian culture is frequently
imagined as our future destiny?
Anne Rice, Interview with a Vampire and Vampire Lestat
Donna Tartt, The Secret History - Tartt read like a one-novel
author. She had some interesting experiences in college that she fictionalized
for the novel, though I hope not, since murder was involved. It brought
back my college memories that were starting to go stale.
Last modified: 7/12/98
Kristina Lerman, email@example.com