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Books, glorious books

by Michael Nielsen on November 26, 2003

Kevin Drum recently posted a list of Bill Clinton’s purported “Twenty-One Favourite Books”. (Yes, Hillary makes it.) Reading the comments reminded me how much fun such lists can be.

Here’s a few of my favourites, by category. Suggestions appreciated in all categories.

History

Norman Davies’ Europe is a heck of a fun book: big, bold, and opinionated. Jen and I have been reading it aloud together, on and off for a couple of years. Endless food for thought.

Biographies

Walter Isaacson’s Ben Franklin inspires emulation and admiration of a great man, without ever making one feel smaller.

James Gleick’s Genius, a biography of Richard Feynman, gives you a sense of contact with an unusual mind.

Science fiction

Most scientists seem to read a lot of science fiction, especially in their teens. Except for a little Asimov, I missed out, and discovered it in my twenties. I’ve made up a fair amount of ground since. On my admittedly scant evidence I’m inclined to agree with Marvin Minsky’s assessment that science fiction will contribute a disproportionate share of the twentieth (and 21st?) century fiction that anybody remembers in 200 years.

Among current writers, Vernor Vinge is, in my opinion, the best. His last three books (A Deepnees in the Sky, A Fire Upon the Deep, and Across Realtime) are extraordinary “sense-of-wonder” stories.

Carolyn Cherryh’s Cyteen is a superb story about individual identity, politics, and paranoia. Cherryh is, apparently, a trained archaelogist, and her professional insight shows.

It’s an odd fact that Lois Bujold is one of the best-selling science fiction authors today. It’s odd because, while large parts of her books are genre fiction (usually mystery, military, or romance) there’s little science fiction in them, except as window-dressing.

It doesn’t matter. The genre parts of her fiction are usually fun, fast, and well-done. Even when they’re not particularly memorable, they’re rarely less than enjoyable and easy-to-read.

And when Bujold is writing about things that matter to her – motherhood, hardship, integrity, love – she can sometimes write very well indeed, in ways that transcend genre.

In rough order, her best work is, in my opinion, A Civil Campaign, Memory, Mirror Dance, The Mountains of Mourning (a short story), and both Cordelia books (I forget the titles). Opinions vary as to the best order to read things in, and I won’t even try to offer an opinion.

On the covers: just hold your nose. I don’t know what her publisher is thinking.

Mainstream literature

I have a poor batting average with contemporary mainstream literature.

I’ve dipped into quite a few well-known contemporary or near-contemporary authors. To pick a few names at random, Nabakov, DeLillo, Fitzgerald, Salinger, Kafka, Eco, Hemingway, not to mention dozens of others. Some of the work is excellent – from that list, Lolita and The Old Man and the Sea bring back fond memories.

But a lot of extremely well-regarded works just seem plain dull to me. To pick two other works from that list, the only reason I finished The Catcher in the Rye or The Great Gatsby is because they were short, and even then it was a close thing. If that’s great literature, I’ll take the trash.

I will mention two classics that I love.

Hugo’s Les Miserables combines an enormous scope and sense-of-wonder with up-close individual stories better than anything else I’ve read. Wonderful.

Parts of Hamlet infuriate me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get goosebumps at the best parts of a good production.

Funnily enough, much of the contemporary mainstream literature I’ve enjoyed most is genre fiction in disguise. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Borges’ are good examples of science fiction attaining a measure of respectability by masquerading as mainstream fiction. I don’t enjoy these quite as much as Les Mis or a good production of Hamlet, but I’m certainly glad they’re reaching the wider audience that seems denied to works stuck in the science fiction ghetto.

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