In my non-fiction choices, I dabbled in a variety of topics this year.
I read John McWhorter’s Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language (2001, 352p, paperback). If the title subject sounds daunting or dry, be assured that it definitely is not in McWhorter’s hands. He has an accessible style with great analogies and humorous notes. He’s not a snob about language, both in the way he explains it and in his understanding of it. He delights in how languages change and that delight rubbed off on me. Lots of cool facts and interesting language stories are contained within its pages.
Ecology / Environment
Okay, so I technically did not finish Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating by Jane Goodall (2005, 295p hardcover), which was a Christmas gift from an uncle. However, it wasn’t because I didn’t like it, because I read most of it, and it did cause me to alter my food-buying to some degree. I’m not intending to be vegetarian like the author, but I want to make better choices on what I eat and where that food comes from. And Goodall provides suggestions for eating animal products more responsibly. For instance, I like buying shrimp for stir-fry dinners and thanks to reading the book, I don’t buy the shrimp farmed in Thailand but rather I track down shrimp that have been caught in the U.S. The shrimp farms in Thailand damage the environment.
A number of the ideas presented in the book I had heard before, but it was good to see it laid out and explained in detail. I want to use farmer’s markets more frequently, buy local produce and meats. Goodall had the great suggestion of visiting farmer’s markets while traveling, to see what the local region has to offer. This year, I had the chance to go visit the Heritage Farms of Seed Savers’ Exchange, which works to preserve biodiversity by saving seeds of heritage plants and animals.
A History of the Middle East: Second Edition by Peter Mansfield (448p, paperback)
This book was first published in 1991 and then re-issued in 2004 with an update chapter written by Nicolas Pelham. I was looking for a comprehensive book on Middle East History because I wanted more context for understanding what is happening in current events. It took some serious determination to finish this history because it is written in such a dry manner. However, the book met my criteria of being comprehensive as it swept from Mesopotamia to almost the present day.
I will say of Mansfield that he is restrained in showing any bias in his history. Any bias is of the scholarly sort: I wasn’t surprised at finding out that he had written other books about Egypt because A History of the Middle East became most lively when Egypt was involved. Pelham was considerably more opinionated which was jarring and not entirely welcome.
This book was sometimes a chore to read, but it did pay off. I do feel more informed about Middle East history and will use this foundational knowledge to delve into more detailed accounts about segments of this history and region. Already, several of my fiction choices have been influenced by reading this book, including The Hakawati which I hope to review tomorrow.
The Big Switch: Our New Digital Destiny by Nicholas Carr (2008, 224p, hardcover)
This was one of Newsweek’s 50 Best Books for Our Time that was published earlier this year. I was particularly interested because it involved ‘cloud computing’, a term I had encountered a number of times but never felt like I fully understood. If you haven’t encountered that term, don’t worry. If you know enough technology to be reading this blog, you’ll be able to understand and appreciate this book. At the risk of over-simplifying, The Big Switch is talking about computing as utility, kind of like how electricity became a utility (though there are limits to that analogy that Carr points out.) Carr illuminates both the possibilities and the danger of where we’re headed with the internet. I feel like I’ve done an inadequate job of summing up here, but maybe I can make up for that by giving you a quote from the book itself:
[The Internet] stresses immediacy, simultaneity, contingency, subjectivity, disposability, and above all, speed. The Net provides no incentive to stop and think deeply about anything…It’s easier, as Kelly says, “to Google something a second or third time rather than remember it ourselves.”
The Lonely Patient: How We Experience Illness by Michael Stein (2007, 240p, hardcover)
Stein describes four feelings experienced by ill people: betrayal, terror, loneliness and loss. He uses case stories from his own experience as a doctor and also includes the story of his brother-in-law who died of cancer. It was an interesting book for me, and Stein has such a compassionate voice. However, I think it is a book really meant for a specific audience, for those who are dealing with illness, whether as a doctor, patient or caregiver. I feel that more could have been said on how best to reach out to someone in ill health, but I think the book explains why it is so difficult to do so. Illness is such a lonely state of being. When one is in pain, you can’t imagine being healthy. When one is healthy, one cannot truly imagine pain.