My girlfriend is on a mission to read 100 books in four years. Since she got a strong start in 2016, she was motivated to read at least 25 books in 2017. Her enthusiasm was infectious, so I decided to take on a similar challenge. I committed to reading 24 books in 2017. At two books a month, that seemed like a reasonable goal for the year.
I have always considered myself an avid reader, but apparently I have not been a frequent reader for a long time. Reading 24 books in 2017 proved to be more of a challenge than I expected. I achieved my goal, but I definitely had to work at maintaining a good pace. In the end, I read 9396 pages over 25 books in twelve months.
Mixing both challenging and difficult books with fun, light reads proved to be a successful strategy for me. Two things helped out. First, I started the year with some short books, including John Scalzi’s Miniatures which clocked in at a whopping 104 pages. Starting with short books allowed me to tally some early “wins”, thereby building confidence that I might actually pull of this goal. Second, August proved to be an important month. In the preceding three months my reading rate had dropped to an average of one book per month. In August, I made up for that lackluster reading rate by finishing four books. Admittedly, one of those books was an audiobook (the entertaining Born a Crime read by the author, Trevor Noah), but that counts from my perspective. A weeklong road trip in August was a perfect time for an audiobook.
To people who know me well, my choice of books might be predictable, although I think I have a few surprises in the list. There are 13 science fiction books (I am not counting REAMDE, though that’s debatable) , which make up the bulk of my fiction reading. The other two fiction books were Neal Stephenson’s REAMDE and Don Winslow’s The Cartel, both of which I enjoyed immensely. Of the remaining 10 nonfiction books, two were science books, two were philosophically-oriented books, five were memoirs of sorts (including one of the science books), one was an essay, and one was a history (the wonderful Hidden Figures). If I had to guess the book that would most surprise my friends, it’s Megyn Kelly’s Settle for More. But who knows what really surprises people?
Overall I enjoyed every book I read in 2017. They each entertained me and provoked me in their own way. For some of the books, I even wrote short book reviews, which I share below. These reviews were fashioned, in tone and length, for a Goodreads audience.
The Currents of Space by Isaac Asimov
The Currents of Space by Isaac Asimov is one of Asimov’s older works, where you can see him working out what eventually will be his Foundation universe. This is one of the rare books where Asimov attempts to tackle issues of race while still providing one of his classic yarns, complete with a plot twist at the end. The story fails both to be exciting and to really challenge race issues in his fictional universe. As well, this novel continues the paper-thin portrayals of women that are so evident in early Asimov novels.
I read this book because Asimov “retconned” this book, and the other two in the Galactic Empire series, into his larger Federation universe. However, the connections to the Foundation books are inconsistent, since he did not originally plan out how the various stories would connect. I enjoyed reading this book in connection to the Foundation series, but it does not stand alone very well.
Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi
The title does not lie: these are very short pieces of fiction by John Scalzi. Despite their diminutive size, however, the stories are packed full with jokes and clever observations. Best of all, this is a quick read — perfect for the reading commitment-phobe!
On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt
This short book, an essay really, is a surprisingly thought-provoking discussion of the definition of bullshit. As often happens with philosophy, I began the book in disbelief that I needed a definition of such an obvious word, but in the end the process of exploring the definition was well worth it. At a minimum, Frankfurt’s discussions of the differences between telling the truth, telling a lie, and bullshitting are worth consideration. Throughout history, humans have benefited from understanding these differences and identifying their occurrence.
The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi
If you are looking for an action packed read with space battles, palace intrigue, and a foul-mouthed heroine, this is your book! If you are looking for another classic Scalzi sci-fi then this is also your book. In The Collapsing Empire, Scalzi introduces a new universe on the edge of change where the people with solutions aren’t the people with power. The story is told in typical Scalzi style, with humor and fun. It’s the first of a series, so I eagerly await the sequel to see where this story is going.
The Cartel by Don Winslow
In The Cartel by Don Winslow, we follow DEA agent Art Keller as he hunts down a Mexican cartel leader, ostensibly as part of the war on drugs but in actuality as revenge for the death of a DEA agent. Although this book is a sequel to Winslow’s The Power of the Dog, the death of the DEA agent is the only key piece of information needed from the previous book, and Winslow makes sure that you know all about it, with frequent reminders of Keller’s motivations as he hunts the cartel leader. This book is an exciting read because it’s one long, continuous chase, with plenty of action and just a little bit of romance and character development. What makes this book a disturbing read is the level of historically accurate detail that Winslow brings to the book. The characters are fictional, but many of the cartels and the activities of the cartels are drawn from real life, particularly the violence and corruption. Winslow has plumbed the tragedy of the war on drugs and its affects on the Mexican people to provide a disturbingly realistic crime story. As you follow Keller on the hunt for revenge, you are also challenged by the author to understand the consequences of the war on drugs and to empathize with its victims in Mexico. This book is worth reading, both for the story and the challenging issues for the reader.
The Joy of x by Steven Strogatz
In the The Joy of x Steven Strogatz introduces us to the wonders of mathematics. The book is based on a long running blog, so each chapter is a short, stand-alone essay discussing a particular feature of math. The essays are organized thematically but you can also enjoy them in isolation. I read the book over the course of a year, reading each essay and then letting the topic settle in my brain for awhile. Strogatz succeeded in writing about math topics both practical and esoteric in a manner that should be accessible to readers regardless of their prior background in math. I wish I had a book like this assigned along with the textbook during my high school math classes.
Trespassing in Einstein’s Lawn by Amanda Gefter
Hidden in the memoir about a woman and her father is a popular science story about reality. Or is it, hidden in this popular science story about reality is a memoir about a woman and her father? Either way, this is a wonderful book by Amanda Gefter. Gefter’s father has shared his love of physics and cosmology with his daughter. Together they have led their own investigation into the nature of reality. Inspired by their investigation, Gefter started a career in journalism that allowed her to ask the leading physicists questions about reality. With this book, Gefter brings us on this journey, teaching us about fundamental physics while showing us the process by which questions lead to ideas which lead to discoveries. This is a challenging book to read, filled with abstract and mind-bending concepts, but the journey is worth the work.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a long letter from Coates to his son. Coates is sharing his experiences and knowledge of life as a black man in America. His intent is to guide his teenage son as the young man enters adulthood in America. For the rest of us, Coates provides an intimate view of life as a black man in America, a view that more non-black people need to read and see. We need this knowledge in order to have more compassion and sympathy, for all people. This was a powerful and challenging book that has not left me.