Christmas is always a super-stressful time of year for me, but not for any of the normal reasons that plague sane people. My problem is that the people who know and love me tend to get me books–which makes sense, because books and bicycles are basically the twin obsessions of my sad life. The trouble comes when I get a bunch of books during the last week of the year. Receiving and opening them is pure joy. My friends and family like me! They get me!
But this elation soon descends into pure terror. The piles of books feel usher in the creeping dread of unfinished homework over a holiday break. Tim Urban pops up in my subconscious to remind me that I’ll probably die before finishing them. Carrie somehow finds more books in the laundry room that she meant to give me. I panic. I stop reading.
Anyway, here’s what I got through before my most recent meltdown:
Levels of the Game by John McPhee. Sporty McPhee is the best McPhee. I’ve long harbored suspicions that half his books result from weird bets with coworkers. This one was somebody at The New Yorker challenging him to write a 150-page play-by-play of the 1968 U.S. Open semifinal between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner that explains class and race in America. If he lost he’d be exiled to Alaska.
I Wear the Black Hat by Chuck Klostner. Absolutely wonderful. The villain is the person who knows the most and cares the least (with one notable exception).
Animal Liberation Now by Peter Singer. He’s not wrong.
Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem–and What We Should Do About It by Noah Feldman. Great summary of the development of law on this topic through 2005 or so.
For Profit: A History of Corporations by William Magnuson. Not precisely what the title promises–it’s more a series of historical anecdotes illuminating particular aspects of the modern corporate form–but still terrific, and marvelously executed.
Exodus from the Alamo: The Anatomy of the Last-Stand Myth by Phillip Thomas Tucker. A great idea–a history of the Alamo crediting Mexican and Tejano sources, which reads as revisionist history in our tradition–poorly executed. Repetitive and speculative, but the underlying stuff is worth it.
Democracy and Distrust: A Theory of Judicial Review by John Hart Ely. A friend gave me this. Loved it. Ely is more convincing in his critiques of rival theories than his defense of his own, but the same could be said of literally any legal academic writing.
The Exorcist Legacy: 50 Years of Fear by Nat Setaloff. Don’t judge me. It’s a fascinating movie. Still a miracle that they pulled it off.
The Thomas Sowell Reader by Thomas Sowell. Based on what I’d heard of Sowell from smart people I disagree with I thought this would be more persuasive? Seventy-five percent of it reads like an uncharitable, bitter rant. (I suspect these were newspaper columns that haven’t aged that well?) The other 25% is thought-provoking, though.
The Killing Floor by Lee Child. Smart people seem to love Jack Reacher. WaPo ran a terrific piece on the series a few months back, which made it seem commercial almost to the point of being cynical. After reading this first entry in the series, I see the point. But it’s also a brilliantly executed piece of commercial fiction. The craft that went into it is impressive, with one exception: The British spelling, locating, and punctuation, all of which is hopelessly distracting. In no universe does Jack Reacher ‘take a decision’ about how to handle goons in a neighbouring jail cell or talk smack inside single quotation marks.