A neighbor of mine named Eric spends most days in front of Books, Inc. He’s a vendor of Street Sheet, a publication of the Coalition on Homelessness. (Plug: the Coalition is a non-profit that does important work. If you can afford to, please consider including them in your charitable donations.) Every time I walk by, Eric is reading a book. One day in 2018, I asked him how many books he reads, and he told me between two and four a week.
This was remarkable to me, and inspired me to see how many books I could read in 2019. Goodreads allows you to create reading challenges. The original challenge that I set for myself was 52 books for the year. I’d already read 52 by June, so I decided to increase the challenge to 100. By mid-December, I’d finished 104, or two books a week.
I was surprised at how achievable my goal was. The books ranged in length from 180 pages to 360 pages, with a typical length of around 240 pages. At a rate of one page per minute, it took me about four hours to finish a book, or eight hours each week to finish two books. This means an hour of reading every day, usually at bedtime, plus one additional hour either Saturday or Sunday.
As you’ll see, the subject matter of many of the books is pretty dark. In order to get through these, I would typically read a work of fiction in parallel with a work of non-fiction, in order to alternate between the two.
Tech Dystopia and Free Speech Issues
I saved this for my 100th book, since I’ve known Safiya for years. Safiya set out to write this book due to frustration over the results returned by Google searches for “black girls.” Recommended reading for anyone working in tech to gain an understanding of how technology can do unintended harm.
This is an expanded version of Phillips’s dissertation on troll culture. Phillips explores the topic as an anthropologist and folklore specialist. She spent years embedding herself within troll culture on 4chan and Facebook, and does a great job explaining the motivation of trolls, as well as the connection to for-profit media. It’s kind of like “Gorillas in the Mist” with trolls.
“Hate Crimes” is a scholarly exploration of hate speech on the internet. Citron, a law professor, goes into detail about the history of hate speech, various laws that regulate speech in general, and how they apply to the internet. “Hate Crimes” is a challenging read, both because of the subject matter and its thoroughness, but it is outstanding. This is a great book to read if you’re interested in the topic of “free speech.”
“Speech Police” is a great compliment to “Hate Crimes.” Kaye is United Nations special rapporteur for freedom of expression. He writes from the perspective that regulating speech can be abused by authoritarian states to harm their people.
“Post-Truth,” by Lee McIntyre
McIntyre explores the post-truth world we find ourselves in, how it happened, and what we can do about it. Among other topics, he discusses how the postmodernist movement was highjacked and weaponized by right-wing agitators. A great read for people who believe we can fact-check our way out of our current situation. (We can’t.)
“Speech and Harm: Controversies Over Free Speech,” by Ishani Maitra and Mary Kate McGowan
This is a compilation of scholarly essays on freedom of speech issues. Essays from a variety of viewpoints discuss the tradeoffs between freedom of speech and the harm that speech can do. Recommended for anyone who believes that the best response to bad speech is good speech. Because it’s heavily footnoted, it’s a great source for additional reading.
Fascism, Racism, and Extremism
“Fascism,” by Roger Griffin
Griffin is an academic in the field of comparative fascist studies. This is a very accessible treatment of the topic, including an explanation of the various frameworks for understanding fascism over the past hundred years.
“Making Sense of the Alt-Right,” by George Hawley
Hawley gives a great overview of the alt-right, its history, and who is and isn’t part of the “alt-right.” This is a good primer for anyone who wants to better understand the movement and its key players.
“Extremism,” by J.M. Berger
Berger is an authority on extremism and terrorism. This book provides a very accessible overview of extremism in general, as well as case studies of specific extremist groups. Recommended for anyone who wants to better understand extremism, especially white nationalist movements.
Very accessible exploration of what fascism is and how it happens. Stanley is a scholar and also publishes more academic work, but this is an easy read and very approachable for people who want to have a better understanding of fascism.
Jessie Daniels read hundreds of white supremacist periodicals published over a span of decades in order to compile this scholarly analysis of common themes of white supremacist propaganda. Disturbingly, many of the tropes that were previously confined to Klan newsletters have become mainstream and can be found on the internet and cable news programs.
“Is Germany Incurable?,” by Richard M. Brickner
The story of how I discovered the book is perhaps more interesting than the book itself. In 1943, Rex Stout, the author of the Nero Wolfe novels, appeared on a television panel show along with Alexander Woollcott and others to discuss Brickner’s book. During the show, Woollcott suffered a heart attack, which he died from after being taken to the hospital. A year later, Brickner’s book was briefly mentioned in Stout’s novella “Booby Trap.” The name piqued my interest, and a quick search showed that it’s been out of print for years. I was able to track down a copy online from a dealer in used books. The author attempts to psychoanalyze the population of Germany. Our understanding of psychology has changed over the years, but some of his observations have held up. For example, he refers to Germany’s persecution complex, which to this day is considered a common trait of fascist cultures.
“Language of the Third Reich,” by Victor Klemperer
Victor Klemperer was a Jewish linguist living in Germany during the Third Reich. This book is part diary, part study of the subtle changes to the German language during Hitler’s rule. Hearing about Klemperer’s life and how he barely survived the war, probably by just a day, is fascinating.
“Authority,” by Fabian Wendt
“Authority” is an exploration of the various models that are used to explain why states have the authority to make and enforce laws. The quick summary is that nobody really knows. There are a number of theories, but all of them have significant flaws.
Mystery and Noir
“The Mysterious Affair at Styles,” “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” “The A.B.C. Murders,” and “Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case,” by Agatha Christie
I’d read Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” canon, but had read very little Christie prior to this year. Although Doyle popularized the genre, Christie perfected it with Hercule Poirot. “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” and “Curtain” bookend the Poirot novels. “Styles” was actually Christie’s debut novel, which is remarkable considering the iconic character that it introduced. “Curtain” was written in the 1940s, but was kept in a bank vault until its publication in 1975. Like many in England at the time, Christie was uncertain whether she’d survive the war, and wanted to provide her readers with a proper resolution for her beloved character. I read more of her novels than these four, but “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” and “The A.B.C. Murders” are included here as two of my favorite works of hers.
“Sherlock Holmes: a Scandal in Japan,” by Keisuke Matsuoka
I’ve read a number of Sherlock Holmes pastiches over the years, and this one stands out in terms of its originality. In the Doyle canon, the years between Holmes’s apparent death in “The Reichenbach Falls” and his reappearance in “The Empty House” are largely unaccounted for. Matsuoka’s novel has Holmes spending that time in Meiji-era Japan. Not only is the novel a satisfying Holmes mystery, but it’s a work of historical fiction featuring the first Prime Minister of Japan as a major character.
“An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good,” by Helene Tursten
This one is difficult to explain without spoiling it. Just go read it. Translated from Swedish, and I’ll just say that the elderly lady really is up to no good.
“The Unsuspected,” by Charlotte Armstrong
I’d seen the film version of this book at the Noir City film festival. Because of the Hays Code, films of that era were often sanitized versions of the books they were based on. The book version of “The Unsuspected” wasn’t as sordid as Dorothy Hughes’s “In a Lonely Place,” but was still an enjoyable read.
“Pick-Up,” by Charles Willeford
I love this book in part because it’s set in post-World War II San Francisco. I found it volume two of Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s. It’s the story of a man living at the margins of society, cobbling together a life as he staggers from job to job.
“Shoot the Piano Player,” by David Goodis
Francois Truffaut’s film “Shoot the Piano Player” is an adaptation of Goodis’s book “Down There,” which has been published under both titles. In my experience, books that were adapted into noir films never disappoint, and this is no exception.
“Our Man in Havana” and “The Quiet American,” by Graham Greene
Greene wrote the screenplay for the Orson Welles film noir The Third Man. Greene is similar to Ian Fleming in some ways: both British spies who wrote about the places that they’d traveled to. Greene was a far better writer, though, and strikes me as under-appreciated.
“The Shootist,” by Glendon Swarthout
I watched a number of Lauren Bacall films this year, including “The Shootist,” John Wayne’s final movie. I read this afterwards, and enjoyed it. It’s the story of a gunfighter who’s dying of cancer, as Wayne was while shooting the film.
“They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,” by Horace McCoy
The backdrop for this story is a month-long dance marathon. I found this novel in volume one of the outstanding collection Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s. This book became a hit within existentialist society in France.
“Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers,” by Maxwell King
After seeing the Tom Hanks film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” I was interested in learning more about Fred Rogers’s life. This is a comprehensive and touching account of his life including his birth, formative years, creation of his show, retirement, death, and legacy.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger,” by Lee Israel
I read this after seeing the film adaptation that starred Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel. Even as a work of fiction it would be a remarkable. What makes it more gripping is that it really happened. This book is an account of a struggling author who begins a downward spiral into the forgery of letters from famous literary figures.
“Prince: the Last Interview and Other Conversations,” by Prince
This book contains a variety of interviews with Prince over 40 years ranging from an interview with his high school newspaper to an interview done shortly before his death. Through the interviews, I came to understand Prince, and was reminded of how far ahead of his time he was.