You can’t write if you don’t read. Unfortunately, so much of what I read are quick-hit articles tied to my trade. On my phone. On the toilet. It’s an improvement over Twitter at least.

In 2021 I was disgusted at the low number of books I’d completed. (There were some highlights, like Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, which positively rules, and the fifth of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels, a bit turgid and dense, but sprinkled zestfully with some of the more unusual prurient passages I’ve come across.)

This year, I hope, I will do better. Not that it’s a race or anything, but, as my wife can attest, I do find that reading away from a computer screen puts me in a better mood. To that end, I challenge myself to finish 52 books this year. I did this once before in my life, and succeeded. (I believe I hit 55.)

Naturally, not all books are made equally. Some are designed to be shot back in one go, others you drag around for three weeks. And then there are times when life is so chaotic you hardly have time to tie your shoes while some days there’s just you, a chair, and freedom. I am going to work under the assumption that it will all balance out, so for every slim volume, there’ll be a rich, meaty text that can only be cooked on a slow flame. Wish me luck.

JANUARY

1) Deep Blues (1981), Robert Palmer

I have had a used, paperback copy of this book in my ownership since around 1998 or 1999. It was recommended to me by a good friend who later got his PhD in ethnomusicology, so his suggestions about ethnomusicology were not to be ignored. I got it from an outdoor bookseller in Union Square Park. Three dollars? Four? Something in that ballpark.

It’s a terrifically told tale about the origins of Mississippi Delta Blues and its migration up to Chicago and, eventually, to the ears of white folk and its transformation into classic rock. Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson (both of them!), and Albert King are just some of the characters, and the locations include the broadcasting booth at Helena, Arkansas’s KFFA, the Dockery Plantation (where, this book argues, what we think of when we think of “the Blues” was created), and, yes, “The Crossroads” where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil. This book is rich with stories, but not sappy; it’s myth but also history, and I can’t say enough good things about it.

2) Between Friends (2012), Amos Oz

I got this book quite recently, in autumn 2021 in the used bookstore that makes up the basement floor of Hudson, N.Y.’s Time & Space Ltd. (TSL) arts facility made out of a converted bread factory. (Perhaps you saw this fictionalized in the motion picture A Bread Factory, shot on location.) I don’t remember the precise cost, but it was already cheap, but even cheaper if you purchased X amount of books that day, which my wife and I did.

I’ve read two of Oz’s books before this, the absolutely magnificent and sweeping A Tale of Love and Darkness, which was made into a pretty lousy movie by Natalie Portman, and a collection of his essays and reporting previously printed in the leftwing Israeli newspaper Haaretz called In The Land of Israel, in which the author visited the Levant’s version of “the sticks,” and also areas under occupation in the West Bank. The writing dates to the 1980s but swap out the names of a few politicians and activist groups (let’s use that term loosely) and it could have been written yesterday. Or ten years from now, sadly.

Between Friends is sad and also hilarious. It is set prior to 1967, at a secular, very-left kibbutz. It’s really just a series of sketches about the people who live there. Each story focuses on one person, but the all tend to pop up again later. There are fathers-and-sons, fathers-and-daughters, middle aged teachers with some of those daughters, the gardener hopelessly addicted to bad news, and, my favorite, the ancient, Wandering Jew, who has known a lifetime a suffering we can’t ever surmise, convinced that the world would be free of woe if we only just learned Esperanto.

This short book is incredible.

3) Jews and Words (2012), Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzburger

I don’t recall how this book ended up on my shelf, but I’ve had it for a few years. A whole book about the relationship between Jews and texts. “The People of the Book.” Unfortunatley, I didn’t really care for it. It wasn’t bad; it was interesting, but not that interesting, considering how great the back flap made it seem. (It has a terrific cover, too, of two reading chairs easily recognizable as father and daughter.) Much like the recent book Jewish Comedy: A History by Jeremy Daube, I think my expectations were sky high, so reality was a bit of a let down. I did learn a few things, though.

4) John Henry Days (2001), Colson Whitehead

I first heard about this book when it was published on Vin Scelsa’s radio program, Idiot’s Delight, probably close to its publication in 2001. It’s quite likely that he read an excerpt, as he did in those days. I jotted the title down, but, if the sticker on my hardcover copy is to believed, I didn’t actually buy it until after February 13, 2007. The sticker is from The Strand, which is funny, because there is a scene set in The Strand and it features people selling their review copies for cash. I did not know I was playing my part in some art-reflecting-life all those years ago.

I’ll share something else. At some point between Vin’s reading and my purchase, I have a distinct memory of going to the now-closed Barnes and Noble near Astor Place to buy this book. I couldn’t find it under “W” in fiction, so I asked someone who worked there. He said “ah, yes, I think we may have that, let’s check in African-American fiction.” Despite having heard about it on the radio, I did not know that the author was Black. Either Scelsa never mentioned it, or I didn’t hear it. I guess most people looking for that book would have known, at some point between 2001 and 2007, to look in that section. It wasn’t in stock, anyway.

So what about John Henry Days itself? It’s fucking brilliant. As a freelance writer with nearly 15 years under my belt (Lord, Lord) I am naturally interested in stories about … freelance writers. Though I was sobbing at what magazine rates were in those days, and how lush the junkets were. I’ve had my experiences on other people’s dimes (thank you forever, Battleship, a movie I have never seen, for that trip to Hawaii, and that stay in a hotel room that lists well over a grand each night) but wow I would have enjoyed the 1990s.

That aspect (plus scenes set at the thinly-veiled offices of the Village Voice, plus the East Village lit haunt KGB) were natural pleasures, but all told this is a rich and thoughtful examination of American history, pop culture through the decades, unexamined racial ghosts, and also how to drive steel through a mountain. You read a novel like this and frequently have to get out of your seat and pace around the room, flabbergasted that words on a page can transform into such divine, vivid sequences. At least I do.

FEBRUARY

5) Conversations With Elie Wiesel (2001), Elie Wiesel and Richard Heffner

I first discovered this book, in hardcover, soon after its publication at The Jewish Museum shop on 5th Avenue. I did not buy it, but not long after, when I joined through-the-mail Netflix, I was delighted to see that the episodes (independently produced sessions of Heffner’s decades-long public television program The Open Mind) was available to rent. I think it was three discs. Basically it’s Heffner lobbing Wiesel with somewhat vague questions about enormous ethical topics, warmly starting many of them with an “Elie, my friend.” A voice from behind kind eyes and a comforting mustache. Though these conversations happened before (and I mean just before) the 9/11 attacks, I remember, even though I didn’t watch this until at least two years later, this being a somewhat revelatory viewing experience for me. Elie Wiesel, not to put too fine a point on it, gives marching orders on how to live a righteous life no matter the odds.

One day it late January of this year, I realized that much of The Open Mind is available to Archive dot org. You wanna watch an hour with pretty much any public intellectual of the 20th century, it’s waiting for you. Anyway, this got me to thinking about those old discs, and I came across this book again. I bought it on that rotten website named for a South American river that can get you a used book for pennies in no time at all.

It isn’t a transcript. It’s a sculpted conversation. And it’s brilliant, of course, but I hardly need sell you on that. But what I had forgotten is just how funny it is.

There’s a recurring bit, if you can call it a bit. Basically, Heffner asks something that boils down to “are you saying we must always remain optimistic in the face of human suffering?” and Wiesel fires back “No! Of course not! But we have to try!” They volley this back 100 times. What I found myself doing was reading Elie’s lines (and he does most of the talking) not in his voice, but a voice that felt very familiar to me. A Jewish voice, but not with a Mitteleuropean accent. Eventually it hit me: I was hearing The Rabbi Nachtner, the second rabbi from A Serious Man. I could not tell if this was righteous or not, but it made for an added amusing element on the subway.

6) Pipe Dreams: The Urgent Global Quest to Transform the Toilet (2021), Chelsea Wald

I read a review of this book in an issue of Science Times, a periodical I subscribe to and usually let collect dust on my desk. (I’m strongly considering letting the subscription lapse.) It is about sanitation and health and the developing world, but, so I was told, also served as a history of the act of defecation. I am drawn to books about topics you wouldn’t think to write a book about, so I had to get ahold of this.

As advertised, this well-researched and intelligent tome is absolutely full of shit. Some sequences actually had me gagging. It’s hilarious. I know so much more about sewers and drainage than I did before, and I am agog (and aghast!) at the scientists who have a game plan for solving the world’s troubles with recycled human waste. Growing crops is just the beginning. You end up on their side, clucking your tongue at silly civilians too grossed out to join the crusade, then realize, no, I would never, ever want to live in an apartment complex powered by farts. I once stayed a week in Costa Rica at a lovely beach paradise where, after we checked in, we discovered one does not flush toilet paper, but you put it in a little bin, just out there in the open, in full view of the sink and your toothbrush. That was enough for me.

7) The Other Side of the Sky (1949-1958), Arthur C. Clarke

Another staggering collection of Clarke stories from the (mostly) pre-Sputnik era. I’ve read a different one, Tales from the White Hart, which includes a fun wraparound gimmick set at a pub based on one that no longer exists called The White Horse. (I did not know this on a recent trip to London, and got all excited when I thought I’d spotted the realWhite Hart!)

Anyway, not every one of these stories connects, but most do. “Venture To The Moon” from 1956 was probably my favorite, some typically “hard SF” getting into the mundane aspects of what a Lunar trip would be like. He got a lot wrong, but he got a lot right, too. “The Other Side of the Sky” is similarly into the nitty gritty of life on a space station, and it’s a lot less retro-future than you might think. (Some of the other stories, like the quite randy “Cosmic Casanova,” while hilarious, is, um, problematic, as they say.)

A few of the stories are barely even stories. They are just scenes. Even in his best novels, like Childhood’s End, Clarke has this recurring device of introducing you to a character, giving him (almost always a him) loads of backstory, having him accomplish one thing, then shoving him off stage never to be heard from again. (I mean, this is kinda Dr. Floyd in 2001, no?) Weirdly, I like this. The science part of Clarke wants solely to get his cosmic ideas across, but the fiction part is like “well, if I must involve pesky humans, let’s take a step and make them interesting.” His stories have this in spades.

8) Phish’s A Live One (2015), Walter Holland 

Part of the 33 1/3 series. I don’t know why it took me so long to read (nay, devour) this. Walter Holland makes a case for Pat Metheny being a bigger influence on Trey Anastasio than I’d considered before. No one wants to hear me talk about Phish, so I’ll just say this was a treat.

MARCH

9) Fuzz: When Nature Breaks The Law (2021), Mary Roach

The best way to sum up this book is to say “intensely NPR.” Whether that is a recommendation or not is up to you. The section about the U.S. Navy trying, and failing, to remove gooney birds from Midway Atoll is extremely amusing. 

10) My Michael (1968), Amos Oz

The older this book gets the less tethered it is to its political specificity (e.g. Israel in the 1950s) which only improves it. There’s not much of a plot here—a woman is sad, basically—but it’s engrossing. My mother had a copy published in 1971 that I yanked off her shelf and brought to my home a few years ago. When I finally cracked it open it didn’t just have “old book smell” it reeked and was making me ill. But I’d already read the first few pages, so I went on (sigh) Amazon and bought a used copy for $2.99 plus shipping. 

11) Memoirs of a Mangy Lover (1963), Groucho Marx

This collection of essays and musings is certainly very funny, but holy crap is it sexist. I don’t mean “from a 2022 point of view” I mean even back then it probably skeeved some people out. Anyway, if you want to hear about Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo hanging around “sporting houses,” this is your chance. (Not much talk about Gummo. Is Gummo even real? No one knows for sure.)

APRIL

12) Menasseh ben Israel: Rabbi of Amsterdam (2018), Steven Nadler

This book is a goddamn bore. And what sucks so much is that I am sure there is an interesting story to tell here. I purchased this because, after reading Rebecca Goldstein’s terrific “Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity” a few years ago, I found myself increasingly interested with the Portuguese-Jewish community in 17th century Amsterdam. (As a former New York City tour guide, I had a cursory understanding of this group’s impact in “New” Amsterdam.) Anyway, I don’t want to diss this Steven Nadler fella too much, but he’s also a highly regarded professor and, according to Wikipedia, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, so he can take what I’m about to lay down. I’ve been a freelance writer for well over a decade, not tucked away at some campus. If I ever filed a story the way this guy frames his book I’d be lucky to get a kill fee! That’s all I really want to say. Boring! 

13) The Silence (2020), Don DeLillo

Mary: (Looking at Ike, gesturing) Oh, please, you know. God, you’re so the opposite! I mean, you write that absolutely fabulous television show. It’s brilliantly funny and his view is so Scandinavian. It’s bleak, my God. I mean, all that Kierkegaard, right? Real adolescent, you know, fashionable pessimism. I mean, The Silence. God’s silence. Okay, okay, okay, I mean, I loved it when I was at Radcliffe, but, I mean, all right, you outgrow it. You absolutely outgrow it. (<—I don’t actually mean this, by the way. This book has, as I’m sure comes as no surprise, razor sharp prose. It is rather slim, though, and I don’t really know what to make of it.)

14) Live Like a Vulcan, Love Like a Wookie, Laugh Like a Hobbit: Life Lessons from Pop Culture (2021), Robb Pearlman

Robb Pearlman is a friend and creative partner, and also one of the kindest people I know. This short volume is like if Plato were obsessed with comic books and sci fi. It is an absolute good. I bought this at a Star Trek convention in Chicago, where Robb and I were signing some of our books for fans. I sometimes feel guilty because many of my friends have published work and I have not read it yet. 

15) A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance (2021), Hanif Abdurraquib

I got this the week it came out last year, at the Astoria Bookstore inches from my home, after I read some positive reviews. I also met this guy, very briefly, over the phone once, when I was researching a project. He was extremely generous with his time. Anyway, this is a marvelous collection of poetic personal essays and cultural criticism. I learned a lot about Joe Tex at the same time I learned about what it was like to grow up as a Muslim Black kid in Columbus, Ohio in the late 1980s/early 1990s. I strongly recommend this book, it’s just terrific.