Help me decide which books to read

I read many, many words every day. In addition to things I read for work, I subscribe to newsletters from The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Conversation and several more.

But at some point, I need to tackle this stack of books. I have 12 books on my “not yet read” shelf in the basement, six on my nightstand and roughly 13 (depending on how you count various samples, reference books and books of essays that from which I pick and choose).

I’ve decided to prioritize, but I’ll also crowd-source it. Suggestions?

In order of likelihood of reading/finishing it …

Vienna Stories (1950-2000) (Marie Kisner) – Great history of my town, and it relates to a Facebook group I moderate. I’m one-third of the way through it.

Generation Ecch (Jason Cohen and Michael Krugman) – A comical look at my generation, and I’ve been pitching stories along these lines.

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress (Steven Pinker) – I have to read this. It’s the underpinning of some writing I hope to do.

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life (Eric Idle) – Geez, why haven’t I started this yet?

At the Existentialist Cafe (Sarah Bakewell) – Maybe I’ve already read it but can’t prove it.

50 Philosophy Ideas (You Really Need to Know) (Ben Dupre) – I’ve already read parts of it, and it’s good. Can be browsed as needed.

The Boys in the Boat (Daniel James Brown) – It’s an Olympic story, so I should probably read it.

And Be Right ALL the Time: Solving the Riddle of Right and Wrong (Iain King) – I also have a sample of a book called Verbal Judo, both about persuasion.

The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty (Dan Ariely) – Also kind of related

A Little History of Philosophy (Nigel Warburton) – Did I read this already?

Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away (Rebecca Goldstein) – I was jealous because I had the same idea.

The Rest Is Noise: Listening in the Twentieth Century (Alex Ross) – I may still write a book on creativity these days, and I’d want to pull this in.

Bill Bryson’s African Diary (Bill Bryson) – It’s short, and it’s one of my favorite writers.

Our Endangered Values (Jimmy Carter) – I love Carter’s morality, and this seems to be the best synopsis of his thinking.

The Unfinished Presidency (Douglas Brinkley) – This one is *about* Jimmy Carter

Behind the Hedges: Big Money and Power Politics (Rich Whitt) – An investigative work on University of Georgia sports. Probably a bit dated.

10% Happier (Dan Harris) – Self-help-ish. Might depend on when I need the help.

It’s Football, Not Soccer (and Vice Versa) (Stefan Szymanski and Silke-Maria Weineck) – It’s funny how Szymanski writes such flawed stuff on blog posts and Twitter (and quit discussing it with me because he thought I was rude), but his books are essential.

How the Bible Changed Our Lives (Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor) – Yes, the Reduced Shakespeare Company guys. Started it, and it wasn’t bad.

Shredders! (Greg Prato) – Rock guitarists talking about how awesome other guitarists are. Might pick and choose a few.

Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck (Amy Alkon) – I remember being a little bleeping disappointed.

The Paradox of Choice: Why Less Is More (Barry Schwartz) – Interesting issue.

The Elizabethan Renaissance (A.L. Rowse) – How much academia can I read?

Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline (Richard Posner) – Good topic, but I have a negative impression of it.

The Prince (Nicolo Machiavelli) – I’m going to write a Machiavellian guide for something soon, so I figured I should read the original. I read enough to get the gist of it.

Journeyman: One Man’s Odyssey Through the Lower Leagues of English Football (Ben Smith) – Got partway into it. Surely a great idea that someone else can do better.

A Lawyer’s Journey: The Story of Morris Dees (Morris Dees) – I got it from the SPLC.

The Crusades: A Short History (Jonathan Riley-Smith) – It’s not short. It’s not interesting. I got it after Terry Jones’ mini-series (yes, the Monty Python guy) revved up my interest. This book did not build upon that.

Didn’t You Kill My Mother-in-Law? (Roger Wilmut, Peter Rosengard) – A history of British alternative comedy — think “The Young Ones.” It’s terrible.

Uncharted: Creativity and the Expert Drummer (Bill Bruford) – The retired drummer (Yes, King Crimson, etc.) got a Ph.D. after retiring and now writes in fluent academicese, which is not good.

Imagine: How Creativity Works (Jonah Lehrer) – It was recalled by the publisher over plagiarism issues, so … maybe not.

Conscious Capitalism: An antidote for cynicism?

I saw a few books on “Conscious Capitalism” at The Container Store yesterday, in a display next to works by like-minded CEOs. Call me naive, but I was thrilled to see it.

I’m under no illusion that such movements attract only people who will live up to these standards. I’m sure there are a few poseurs who sign on to think about the planet as we do business while destroying everything in sight.

But what this sort of things proves is that there is a market for idealism. That market plays in a role in everything from hybrid car sales to renewable energy to living wages.

Ironically, as business recognizes this market, politicians have abandoned it. Politics is all about cynicism.

In some ways, that’s to be expected. In a country of this size, politicians wield great power. Politics also can bring about powerful emotion, and cynicism is a way of building a bulkhead between oneself and that emotion. If you can convince yourself it’s all just a game, you can’t really be hurt. But you would still expect political candidates to express some sort of positive message while the business folks plunder and pillage for profit, wouldn’t you?

Maybe the business world is a better avenue for progress in the long run. CEOs turned philanthropists have responded pretty well to the Ebola crisis. Businesses are making progress on the environment. And maybe they’ll set an example for politicians. Didn’t they used to say lawmakers would be better if they would run things as a business?

When writers attack

See Alice write. See Alice get a negative though not appalling review, one that says her latest doesn’t live up to her previous work.

See Alice trash the reviewer on her Twitter feed.

See Alice post the reviewer’s phone number and e-mail address, though the latter is also available on the review itself. See Alice misspell “Verizon.”

See Alice get called out by a book critic. See Alice respond with elementary snark.

Here’s what I find funniest: “Now any idiot can be a critic. Writers used to review writers. My second novel was reviewed by Ann Tyler. So who is Roberta Silman?”

Hmmm … five-second Web search … Roberta Silman is a writer.

Not sure how to proceed from here. Do I lament the capacity of social networking to spread ignorance whenever someone’s a little angry, or do I check to make sure my phone number is unlisted?

Book reviews: "The Code," "Chess Bitch"

While writing, I’ve been seeking inspiration by reading some books I’ve long had on my wish list, trying to get a sense of what does and does not work as I move from the world of 700 words to the world of 70,000.

I got plenty from these two books.

The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL by Ross Bernstein (Amazon)

Great topic, isn’t it? Everyone who knows a little bit about hockey knows the existence of “unwritten rules,” but few fully understand them. Why not investigate and write them down?

This book doesn’t quite deliver because the author gets too close to the subject. He doesn’t seem willing to explore the areas in which the rules are unclear or disputed, and he doesn’t want to ask tough questions of his sources. The result is less of an honest examination of hockey’s physicality and more of an ode to the “enforcer” — the guy who deals out the big hits and drops the gloves.

Most hockey fans know that enforcers are rarely brutes off the ice. Paradoxically, they tend to be well-educated, charitable guys who do their jobs and shrug it off. That’s worth stating in print, but it doesn’t put their art above question. The endless fawning over the enforcer’s art ended up turning me against it — I came out of it less convinced that fighting is a necessary part of the game.

One related flaw: The book is organizationally all over the place. Each chapter diverges from its stated topic and return to the central theme: “Enforcers are great.”

This Amazon review nails it: “Most quotes read like this: ‘Blah blah positive comment about fighting in hockey. Blah blah some anecdote about respect. Blah blah one time I did this, and here’s why I beat this guy’s face. Blah blah that’s what the code means to me.’ That’s great, and I get the point. But do we need 119 quotes that all sound alike.”

Flaws aside, this is still a fun read because Bernstein gets so many great stories. My favorite: Two buddies are compelled by the code to drop the gloves. One gets a decisive upper hand. The guy getting the worst of it pipes up:

“Loser buys the pizza.”
Response: “Well, I guess you’re buying.”
“Yeah, but winner buys the beer, asshole!”

This book must have done pretty well for Bernstein, because he’s writing something similar: The Code: Baseball’s Unwritten Rules and Its Ignore-at-Your-Own-Risk Code of Conduct. Baseball’s rules are considerably dumber than hockey’s, but you have to love the cover photo of Nolan Ryan pummeling Robin Ventura.

Hockey’s code deserves a thorough examination, but at least Bernstein got a few good stories out of it.

Which is the opposite of this book …

Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport by Jennifer Shahade (Amazon)

The cover and title are misleading. This isn’t a book about the steamy, sordid stuff that happens in the chess world, like some Led Zeppelin bio heavy on the groupie exploits. It was published before the “Anna Kournikova of chess” was at the epicenter of a possible love triangle that turned into a nightclub brawl.

What we get instead is a thoughtful look at the history and sociology of women in chess, examining how different cultures and philosophies have created different approaches to gender and competition.

Sure, that sounds like a grad school class most of you would rather avoid. But even if you’re less inclined to masters-level discussion of gender roles, you’ll be interested in this question: Why do so few women appear in the ranks of the world’s top chess players?

Chess isn’t a physical activity, though Shahade digs up an old Sports Illustrated cover with a female chess player on the cover. It’s not about speed, size or strength. There’s no physical reason why men should be better at chess than women. So why are they?

Women are usually conditioned to approach competition differently than men do. Anson Dorrance, the dean of women’s soccer coaching, discovered this trait early in his career and learned how to adapt to it. Shahade gives an illuminating examination into this issue, wondering if this is something that can be or should be overcome.

She also finds herself on both sides of the issue of women using their looks to market themselves. She’s not completely comfortable with it, despite her come-hither look on the cover. But she’s not quite comfortable judging others who have no objections.

If you’re looking for tales of wild partner-swapping in luxurious hotels, you won’t find them here. If you’re not up for some intellectual exploration, you’ll find this a little tough to read, though Shahade’s writing is far livelier than the typical academic gibberish. But if you’re at all interested in culture, gender and competition, enjoy.