What I Read in 2009

I continue my annual tradition of listing the books I’ve read in the past year, in the order I read them. Reading is part of my job, but I enjoy the busman’s holiday of reading on my own time. Some of the books I borrowed, some I bought, some were given to me and some I got from the library. Several I listened to while riding around town on errands and commuting to work. In those cases, I’ve linked to the audio version.

So here are the books of 2009:
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The 2009 Andys

You saw what I read in 2008. Which books are awarded the 2009 Andys from this list? The winners are:

Books I Most Enjoyed Reading a Second Time
The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell
Children of God, Mary Doria Russell
I almost never read books twice. At some point I expect I’ll enjoy reading these a third time. I recommend these two books constantly. Previously I blogged about Russell here.

Best Portrait of the United States in Microcosm
Friday Night Lights, H. G. Bissinger
Greed, materialism, racism and sports fanaticism are writ large in Texas, where everything is oversized. That’s why we can see them more easily in this classic, but we dare not dismiss them as being quirks of “those” people in Texas. They were true and continue to be all too true of the United States in general.

Most Underlined and Marked Up
Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, Kenneth E. Bailey
The premise behind Bailey’s project is that peasant culture changes very little over the centuries; therefore, one of the best way to understand the culture of the Gospels is to study contemporary Middle Eastern peasant culture. That approach creates a wealth of remarkable insights in every chapter. Here is just one example.

Best Book About Chicago
The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson
This bestseller weaves two stories that are quintessentially Chicago: (1) civic ambition on a massive scale and (2) murder.

Book That Best Fulfilled an Unintended Purpose
Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, Robert McKee
The subtitle tells us this is a book about how to write a screenplay. But I found it immensely helpful in understanding how to watch a movie. McKee upacks how movies are structured on both macro and micro levels. Fascinating and revealing.

Book I Blogged On the Most
Publishing for Profit, Thomas Woll
I went through this book chapter by chapter, which you can see summarized here.

Most Unexpectedly Melancholic Book
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
I’ve wanted to read this 1980s science fiction classic for some time. When I did, I was surprised at the subtle tone of sadness that wove through the book but which became most pronounced at the end, even as a galaxy-sized victory unfolds.

Most Sensational Title That Actually Fulfilled Its Hype
The Lost History of Christianity, Philip Jenkins
The twentieth century was not the first time Christianity was a world religion. Read what happened over a thousand years ago that you’ve never even heard of before. This truly “lost history” is astonishingly revealed in another Philip Jenkins triumph.

Most Flippant Book About a Serious Topic
Sin in the Second City, Karen Abbott
A book about sex trafficking in Chicago (and the United States) in the first two decades of the twentieth century shouldn’t make it all sound like great fun. But this book does just that.

Most of my reading, of course, comes at the recommendation of others. If you’d like to suggest books for consideration for the 2010 Andys, I’d be glad to hear of them.

Who Did You Hit with That Book Club?

Would you pay $250 a year to hire the services of a book-group facilitator? Apparently that’s just what some New Yorkers are doing. A New York Times article chronicles the troubles many book groups have–mostly with members who monopolize conversation or selecting books the whole group can agree to.

My wife and I have been part of a book group for over a year now. It was inspired by some friends who saw The Jane Austen Book Club and thought it would be fun. Five couples, mostly neighbors, meet five times a year. For each meeting a different couple selects the book we discuss, hosts the group and leads the discussion.

In addition, it costs us nothing. Our local library gets ten copies of each book on loan from other libraries.

In the course of our first year we read

The Sparrow

Children of God

Saturday Night Lights

Devil in the White City

Sin in the Second City

It’s been a good mix of fiction and nonfiction with a nice dose of Chicago-themed books. Interestingly, while each couple can choose one book a year, members have not taken this an an opportunity to impose their book taste on the group. Actually, the tendency has been to think quite hard about what books most everyone in the group would appreciate.

Sure, we could probably have more balanced discussions with quieter ones speaking up more and those of use happy to hear our own voices backing off more. (OK, I confess.) Maybe a facilitator could help us with that. But for $250 a year? As my colleague Gary Deddo said, “Only in New York City! Groups that are willing to pay for one and probably couldn’t function without it. Do facilitators have to be psychiatrists as well?”

“Scram, Kid. I’m Reading a Book.”

I have always been a slow reader. I’ve written here before about the anguish of trying to read a book in elementary school for a book report. Winnie-the-Pooh was simply beyond my capability. I tried to fake a report based on having read only one chapter. But I turned into an avid reader. Why?
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The Joy of Reading

Much has been made of the massive effort Scholastic, Harry Potter’s publisher in the United States, has made to keep the final book secret till it is revealed (and sold!) to all on July 21. Scholastic says it is to keep the plot from becoming known and spoiling it for all those Potter fans out there. (The cynic in me wonders if it isn’t to create more hype and sell more books. After all, on July 22, anyone can be a spoiler by putting key plot points on the web.)

Nonetheless, Time magazine’s article on Scholastic’s efforts concludes with an interesting reflection on what in fact does make reading enjoyable.
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Starting to Read

My recent blog on the need to encourage reading among youth got me thinking about my own early experience with reading. I clearly remember growing up with two older siblings who, to my mind, were book hounds. They belonged to kids’ book clubs and seemed to read all the time. Not me. I was (my coworkers and friends will no doubt find this hard to believe) as social as Paris Hilton at a party in, well, Paris.

With people I was great. Reading on my own was hard. I struggled from word to word. I would much rather be entertaining a crowd. Reading aloud was torture. I remember painfully having to give an oral book report in third grade and only being able to make it through one or two chapters of Winnie-the-Pooh and being mortified at the horribly incomplete job I did in front of the class and the teacher, hoping no one would notice I said nothing about 90 percent of the book. I’m amazed I ever picked up another book again.

But I did, and another, and another. Maybe it was the example of my brother and sister, or not wanting to be left behind. Or maybe it was the membership to that kids’ book club that seemed so cool. But by the summer after my eighth-grade year I set myself the goal of reading Moby Dick. And I did.

So when my kids were young, I had a policy. I will buy you any book you want me to buy. I don’t care if it is Calvin & Hobbes or The Far Side. You want it. You get it. And sometimes they did. We weren’t awash in money. But we made it a priority.

Now my kids are adults, and they are recommending books to me. I borrow their books. And their taste is great–from fiction to history to social commentary.

I believe in reading. It changes lives. It did mine.