Saturday, January 06, 2018

Reading in 2017

During 2017, I added 37 books to my LibraryThing account, which brings my total to 942. It probably is obvious that I very seldom visit my local library. I actually find it difficult to locate what books I want to read through my local library, even when using interlibrary loan.

My wife has a few hundred more books than me. We had bookshelves installed in her home office a couple of years ago. Because that amount of storage wasn’t enough, she has books stored in other rooms throughout the house, such as the living room, the bedroom, and the kitchen. We have worked on adding more of her books to LibraryThing but haven’t yet finished that task. We were up to something like 1300 when we stopped.

I prefer to keep more control over my books and want them close at hand. For that reason, most of my books are stacked or shelved in my home office. There is little extra room because of the number of books and CDs. I have hopes of adding a larger bookcase to my home office once I make the trip to Surplus Exchange in Kansas City and peruse the used business furniture that is sold at a discount. Going vertical will let me add more books to this small space.

Although I see myself as a minimalist and have gotten rid of some excess stuff and plan to rid myself of more, I cannot see myself ever giving away or selling my books. I see myself as the equivalent of a character in the movie Fahrenheit 451, that is, someone who hoards books.

Once again, during 2017, I reached my average and read 22 books during the year. I thought I might have finished the 23rd one before the new year. It will take me a few more nights of reading before I finish reading Ivan Doig’s The Bartender’s Tale.

The average 18-29 year-old American, I have discovered, reads 9 books in a year while older Americans tend to average 13 books in a year, with college graduates, according to some sources, reading as many as 17 books in a year’s time. There are, of course, exceptions because some Americans don’t read any books at all. According to Pew Research, 26% of Americans in 2016 had not read a book in the previous year. These kinds of figures are very depressing.

Despite my son’s interest in video games, he still managed to grow up as a reader, preferring mostly fantasy, science fiction, and history. He gave his parents books for Christmas in 2016. His Mom got Madam President, which I read, too, and which describes Edith Wilson’s efforts to run the country when President Wilson was bedridden after suffering from a stroke. My wife and I think that the book was commissioned in the hope of Hillary Clinton assuming the role as president. Overall, the book is repetitive and contains very little research into Edith Wilson’s role as president. There apparently isn’t much documentation of what exactly Edith Wilson did in running the country, aside from preventing members of Congress from visiting her husband.

His Dad got The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell, which described the FBI’s capture of Brian Regan, who had buried top secret government material in the hope of selling it to the Russians. It is quite a good spy story. That book led to my reading The Puzzle Palace, a detailed history of the creation and early years of the National Security Agency. I was surprised to learn that Harrogate in England contained a NSA facility. Some of the kids I knew in high school, a boarding school for American dependents whose fathers, either civilian or military, were assigned to duty in England, Scotland, Ireland, or Iceland, lived in Harrogate during vacations. We were usually ignorant of what our fathers did for a living. I also started reading Secret Sentry, a more current history of NSA, but I haven’t yet finished that book.

Some of my reading during the year involved music. For my birthday, my son gave me The Sound of the North, a book that analyzes the emergence of jazz in Norway in the 1960’s, the influence of folk music, and the growth that jazz has seen in Norway during the past five decades. My own introduction to Norwegian jazz began in the 1970’s with Bobo Stenson and Jan Garbarek’s  Dansere. Another book I read is Ashley’s Kahn’s The House that Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. My own preference for Coltrane’s music ends with Crescent (1964), which is downplayed in Kahn’s book. Kahn, on several occasions, describes Shirley Scott’s collaborations with Stanley Turrentine, and these passages led to my seeking out some of her earlier work from 1963 on the Prestige label.


My interest in issues related to the earth, the environment, and our own health led to my reading such books as Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, Caitlin Shetterly’s Modified: GMOs and the Threat to Our Food, Our Land, Our Future, and Jeff Goodell’s Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future, all of whom, as I tell my students, employ their own observations and experiences in support of their research. I also read Killer Clothes and Not Just a Pretty Face with the intention of finding research questions for my students to pursue in their essays.

As someone who frequents library sales, I usually manage to pick up one or two books at these sales. At one local book sale, I found a copy of Sentinel of the Plains: Fort Leavenworth and the American West. During the summer when I was saddled with forty student essays every two weeks, I still managed to read a few pages of the Sentinel of the Plains every night before going to sleep. That book contains the wrong month and the wrong year in which Abraham Lincoln visited Leavenworth. Even so, I wasn’t aware that Carrie Nation had died in Leavenworth in a hospital that, ironically, housed patients who were suffering from alcoholism or drug abuse. The location of that former hospital now contains Buffalo Bill Cody Park.

One book that shaped my reading for much of the year is Elliott West’s The Essential West, a collection of essays addressing such things as the experiences of children growing up on the Plains in the 19th century and the changes in the lives of the Cheyenne after their adoption of the horse. Within the essay titled "Stories," West describes the creative work written by the sons and daughters of those initial Euro-Americans drawn to the American West. Although familiar with the work of William Kittredge and Terry Tempest Williams, I hadn’t heard of Ruth McLaughlin or Ivan Doig. As a result, I quickly read Ruth McLaughlin’s memoir of growing up in eastern Montana, Bound Like Grass.

Later, when perusing the titles at a book sale sponsored by the Honor Society at the college where I teach, I discovered Ivan Doig’s novel Work Song, which is the second book of a trilogy containing the character Morrie Morgan. I also read the two other books in the trilogy, The Whistling Season and Sweet Thunder. That reading led me to Ivan Doig’s memoir This House of Sky, which introduces those images and motifs that populate his novels. My copy of Doig’s memoir was a first printing from 1978 and one that apparently had been stored in an attic because each page came loose, and left a dusting of dried glue on my chest, as I was reading the book. I am surprised that I overlooked This House of Sky when I was riding Wallace Stegner’s The Big Rock Candy Mountain and Angle of Repose, A.B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky and The Way West and William Kittredge’s collection of stories, We Are Not in This Together. I have since started reading Doig’s The Bartender’s Tale, which, as I said, I am about to finish. My son gave me a copy of Doig’s Ride with Me, Mariah Montana for Christmas in 2017. I am tempted to give him a copy of The Bartender’s Tale next Christmas. It’s described as teen fiction on the back cover and is narrated by a twelve-year-old boy who, along with his twelve-year-old friend Zoe, makes a number of observations regarding sex and the strange world in which adults live.

It isn’t like me to read three or four novels in a year. Except for occasional collections of poetry, I have mostly been reading nonfiction for about fourteen years now. The current political environment in America makes me want to lose myself in a novel, for about an hour at the end of the day, and to think about the lives of fictional characters. Maybe this return to fiction will let me get to some of the books that I have neglected to read, such as Leslie Silko’s Almanac of the Dead, Frank Waters’ The Man Who Killed the Deer, or O.E. Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth.