Reading Log

Sun 07 June 2015

I've decided to start logging the books I read and to write brief book reports about them. I think maintaining a log will confer a lot of the same benefits of maintaining a personal library (reflecting on previous reads, showing off) except without the trouble of buying, storing and organizing tons of books. Public libraries can take care of that for me!

Without further ado here's the book's I've read recently:

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men - David Foster Wallace

This is a collection of short stories (each story is a fictional interview). The stories are generally depressing and cynical but some of them are humorous too. The writing is very good and this is a very good introduction to David Foster Wallace's fiction, these stories convey his style well without being thousands of pages long.

This is worth rereading.

One of the interviews is available to read online. Warning! This story contains scary rape stuff.

Consider the Lobster and other Essay - David Foster Wallaces

This collection of essays features articles originally published in long form magazines like Rolling Stone. The essays are nonfiction and are about interesting topics. The titular essay, Consider the Lobster, is fun and worth reading. You can find it online too. The rest of the essays are worth reading if you like DFW's writing style, it's fun to see how he varies his style to be more approachable to readers who wouldn't read his novels, and it's also fun to compare his fiction to his nonfiction.

Thank you Jesse for recommending this to me :)

Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace

This is an enormously huge novel (1079 pages) consisting of very dense prose. Many pages have footnotes, some of the footnotes are many pages long, some of the footnotes have their own footnotes, and one of the footnotes is over 30 pages long. Also the footnotes are printed in tiny type so the 1079 page figure underrepresents the true length of the book.

If you can tolerate that though the book is pretty neat. You can (and people do) argue that the book could accomplish the same narrative and artistic objectives without being so long, but I think the length is justified. One of the emotional themes of the book is a sense of crushing, pervasive, futility that exists in an enormously complex society composed of myriad participants who are individually and collectively insignificant. An enormous, sprawling novel is a pretty good way to express that. I'm sure the book could have been a bit shorter (one chapter in particular seemed pointless to me) but it's great the way it is.

Wallace did bunches of research and planning when writing the novel and that contributes a lot to the story but there are some rough edges that made me question his credibility. In particular some of his descriptions of psychedelic drugs were a bit ridiculous; it felt like he was piecing together knowledge gleaned from stories related to him by acquaintances and stories from This doesn't undermine the narrative or the themes of the book, but it did force me to question Wallace's knowledge of the other plot elements. Maybe the parts about tennis, Canada, and rape would also seem dubious if I were more familiar with those topics.

If you enjoy angst and don't plan on reading anything else for the next few months this a great book for you.

Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain

I really liked this. The book is a memoir (with some of Twain's signature exaggeration) about Mark Twain's experiences on the Mississippi River. The topics covered include:

  • America's westward expansion (when "the west" referred to things west of the Mississippi).
  • The ins and outs of steamboat commerce. This includes piloting, the effect of geography on commerce, the effects of commerce on society, etc.
  • What New Orleans was like.
  • What life was like during the Civil War (this includes one battle, but the parts about the effects on society and commerce were more interesting to me).
  • Many other fascinating things

I feel like I have a much better understanding of the United States in the middle of the 19th century after reading the book. It isn't a history book, and it wasn't intended as one, but it is very informative while also being a fun and easy read.

I recommend the book, but I'm not likely not read it again.

Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain

A lot has been written about this book and I don't have much to add. It's very good and if you're a literate American you should probably read it.

Puddn' Head Wilson - Mark Twain

This book is less well known so I'll spend more time describing it. It's one of Twain's later novels and it isn't as timeless as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. It was a fun read though, it's a murder mystery set in a small town on the Mississippi River. The book is very clever and tidy but there are two facets that stand out. First: I think Twain got increasingly cynical over his career and he didn't really try to filter that. The book is as humorous and witty as anything else he wrote, but it's kind of depressing too. That's not a flaw, but it is very noticeable. The book does have an actual flaw though, it's obvious from very early on how the mystery will be resolved. I don't know if this is intentional or if I as a modern reader am more familiar with crime tropes than readers in the late 19th century were.

Also, if you've ever read your Unix fortune file and wondered what Puddn' Head Wilson's Calendar is, this book has the answer!

Altogether the book was worth reading, but is not worth a reread.

Cannery Row - John Steinbeck

This book is fantastic. It's a short novel/novella set in Monterey California sometime between world wars one and two. The book has a plot but that's not really the point, it's like an extended prose poem. It's just page after page of beautiful imagery and euphony. If you like the English language and the craft of writing this is a great book to read.

The book also conveys a very nice, and particularly Californian, sense of freedom. I could describe the plot further (there's a marine biologist, a truck and a puppy for instance) but since that's all ancillary to what the book is about I won't bother.

Highly recommended, and worth rereading.

Heretics of Dune - Frank Herbert

This book was fun but also ridiculous and somewhat stupid. If you haven't read Dune read it. If you're still reading the sequels by the time you get to Heretics of Dune you may as well keep reading.

Weakly recommended, not worth rereading.

The Intelligent Asset Allocator - William J. Bernstein

This is an overview of index investing, asset allocation, and diversification. It isn't a how-to book but it isn't a textbook either; maybe it's like an readable, somewhat opinionated text book. Anyways the book does a very good job of explaining what it means to optimize an asset allocation, how you can measure that sort of thing, and the choices you make when allocating assets. As I said this isn't a how-to book, but now that I've read it I can confidently handle my own asset allocation in a confident and informed sort of way.

Highly recommended, maybe worth rereading.

A Random Walk Down Wall Street - Burton Malkiel

An introduction to how stock markets move and the efficient market hypothesis. This book is helpful for becoming an unemotional investor and for understanding why diversification and indexing are worthwhile. The book is still completely applicable 42 years after it was written which is pretty impressive considering that most personal finance books are garbage from the day they're published.

Highly recommended

Your Money or Your Life - Vicki Robin, Joe Dominguez

This is book is much more emotional and much less technical than the previous two. It explains the mindset necessary to have functional personal finances. I thought it was pretty boring and basic so I skimmed through it. The book did have a nice, happy, wholesome, environmentally conscious, hippy, self actualization vibe to it which I liked.

Recommended if you're new to personal finance, if you have no idea what you're doing, or if you're still figuring out how to be an adult. If you're already good at saving money and have long term financial goals you should pass.

One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest - Ken Kesey

A lot has been written about this book and I don't have much to add. One particular thing I liked about this book is that it was written nearby to where I live (I read the book shortly after moving to the SF peninsula) and that made learning about Kesey more fun and relatable. The book is very good and if you're a literate American you should probably read it.

Here's a good interview of Ken Kesey. It is fascinating.

Thank you Carson for recommending this to me :)

Highly recommended

The Fractal Geometry of Nature - Benoit Mandelbrot

This is basically a coffee table book, leave it laying out to impress your friends! The pictures are pretty but the text is pretty worthless in my opinion. Mandelbrot explained that the book wasn't meant to be read straight through, but I think that's just an excuse for writing a badly organized book with no clearly defined audience. Fractals are awesome but there are better ways to learn about them.

Not recommended.