Books of 2020

Last year I got myself into the habit of writing down the names of books as I finished them, because I was curious to know how much (or how little) I actually read in a given year. I was completely satisfied with the answer, which I posted somewhere around here, but the habit stuck with me and I have another index card filled up with book titles. So I figured I’d take another snapshot of my psyche and fire it into the aether:

Year of the Manuscript: Sons of the Scythe

I cheated a little bit this year. The plinth under that statue is a book I wrote rather than read. After four years of toil, Sons of the Scythe (Volume One) is finally a functioning manuscript. It took me much longer than I anticipated to complete it – and the tale itself is only half told – but in the end I did in fact complete it. I don’t care what else 2020 was; for me it will only ever be the year in which I printed the first volume of Sons of the Scythe.

If you’re curious what such a manuscript might look like:

I was tempted to carry those pictures out to the hundredth slide, but I think I would have been the only one in on the joke. I’m sure I’ll be posting more about Sons of the Scythe in the future – hopefully to inform the aether that I’ve been published – but in the meantime here’s the upshot.

  • 188,000 words
  • alternate history/ literary fiction
  • set in an alternate version of Imperial Russia – in a land called Scythia
  • based loosely (very loosely) on the Romanov dynasty
  • a long cold book about death
  • an absurd epic

I haven’t decided whether or not to post any excerpts from it, or whether to make it available in part or in its entirety as downloadable content . . . I only know for certain that I won’t be self-publishing through Amazon again. I have nothing against Amazon or self-publishing, but I put too much blood into this particular book to watch it sink into that abyss. If I continue to utterly fail with traditional publishing, maybe I’ll host it here and sell it myself. I have no idea. Right now I’m just happy to have birthed the fucking thing.

As for the Books I Didn’t Write

Manufacturing Consent was by far the most important and impactful book I read this year. I sort of “knew” what I would find in there – an indictment of mass media as a willing tool of governments and corporations – but it’s nevertheless devastating to see the case laid out so clearly, viciously, and irrevocably. It’s one of those books that changes more than your opinion, but it actually alters the way you construct that opinion. It sharpened my bullshit machete – that’s a better way to put it.

Left Hand of Darkness and Kafka’s Complete Stories were the books I enjoyed the most. The former is a sci-fi adventure through an otherworldly communist dystopia; the latter is Kafka. Of Kafka’s stories I recommend The Penal Colony, The Hunger Artist, The Burrow, and The Metamorphosis.

Don Quixote and Lord of the Rings – the books I read again. Old favorites to get through quarantine.

Varieties of Religious Experience wins the Worst-Book-of-the-Year Award. I appreciate that it’s author, William James, was breaking new ground – namely, he was proposing to study religion scientifically, as a psychological and anthropological phenomenon – but this stuff is as dry as the paper it’s written on. It’s a book I really want to like but can’t. I suspect it was brilliant in its day and has aged poorly.

Quotes to Carry into 2021

In every venture the bold man comes off best, / even the wanderer, bound from distant shores.

Suspicious we are, we men who walk the earth.

I’d rather die at sea, with one deep gulp of death, / than die by inches on this desolate island here!

Homer – The Odyssey

Of all that is written I love only what a man has written with his blood.

The tragic artist is no pessimist: he is precisely the one who says Yes to everything questionable, even to the terrible – he is Dionysian.

What was formerly just sick is today indecent – it is indecent to be a Christian today. And here begins my nausea.

Nietzsche – from Zarathustra, Twilight of the Idols, and Antichrist

The lunatic’s visions of horror are all drawn from the material of daily fact. Our civilization is founded on the shambles, and every individual existence goes out in a lonely spasm of helpless agony.

William James – Varieties of Religious Experience

Compromise and common sense are habits of mind, and cannot be established in a written constitution.

Men are born ignorant, not stupid; they are made stupid by education.

In all this I feel a grave danger, the danger of what might be called cosmic impiety. The concept of “truth” as something dependent upon facts largely outside of human control has been one of the way in which philosophy hitherto has inculcated the necessary element of humility. When this check upon pride is removed, a further step is taken on the road towards a certain kind of madness . . .

Bertrand Russell – History of Western Philosophy

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time . . . when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide almost without noticing back into superstition and darkness.

Carl Sagan – The Demon-Haunted World

“How little you know about it! . . . Why, I have yet to tear my garments, scatter my armor about, and bang my head against these rocks – and other similar things that will amaze you.”

Cervantes – Don Quixote

And a Resolution

I hereby resolve to post more than two posts this year.

How Many Books Does A Real Person Read In One Year?

I always stumble across these reading challenges online – where the participants pretend to read a book every week for a year, or sometimes they go even further and count each unruffled page – and it always makes me wonder how much an honest reader actually reads.  Because no morally decent person counts the words as he reads them, nor does he boast about the number of pages greased up by his fingers, nor does he remember reading half of the books that he’s read.  That leaves us in a bit of a conundrum if we want to know how much a real person reads: the counters are depraved liars and the readers can’t be bothered to count.

That’s why, in 2019, I decided to write down the name of each book as I finished it.  I had no special ambition, no one to impress, no reason to do it beyond mild curiosity.  And this is the unassuming pile of books I ended up with:


The answer to the riddle?  23 books.  That’s one book short of two books per month.  A respectably boring answer.  But since I’ve come this far I might as well go just a bit farther.  Let’s see how many pages have my finger grease on them:

  • Something Wicked This Way Comes (Bradbury) – 293
  • Infidel (Ali) – 350
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (Clarke) – 297
  • The Rationalists (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz) – 471
  • Mythology (Hamilton) – 336
  • Neuromancer (Gibson) – 271
  • Candide (Voltaire) – 146
  • In Our Time (Hemingway) – 156
  • Le Morte d’Arthur (Malory) – 512
  • Guns, Germs, and Steel (Diamond) – 490
  • The Oresteia (Aeschylus) – 330
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Jackson) – 146
  • The Histories (Herodotus) – 584
  • The Iliad (Homer) – 683
  • Foundation (Asimov) – 296
  • Gulag Archipelago Parts 1 and 2 (Solzhenitsyn) – 660
  • Stalingrad (Beevor) – 493
  • Robot Visions (Asimov) – 482
  • Foundation and Empire (Asimov) – 282
  • Fear and Trembling (Kierkegaard) – 165
  • The Time Machine (Wells) – 118
  • Childhood’s End (Clarke) – 212
  • The Empiricists (Locke, Berkeley, Hume) – 517
  •  = 8,290 pages

As a real person I read 8,290 pages in 2019, which comes out to 22 pages per day.  That sounds about right.  If you figure an average of 400 words per page and an average reading speed of 200 words per minute (both numbers grabbed from a quick google search) you end up reading about a ½ page per minute.  So in 2019 I spent 16,580 minutes, or 276 hours, with my nose in a book.  That’s 11 full days, or about 34 8-hour shifts.  It sounds like a lot, but spread out over the whole year it only amounts to 44 minutes per day – a relatively sane number.

As for the contents of those pages, that involves a more advanced calculus and I don’t really feel like going into it.  Infidel was pretty good, though.