As I set out to review my year on Goodreads, I find myself thinking about what a wonderful place this site is. Really, compared to so much of the internet—which so often seems to be the digitized version of a very dim teenager’s brain—Goodreads is almost miraculous. How else can you have intelligent discussion with people all over the world about subjects ranging from quantum physics to Medieval love poetry, from political philosophy to Babylonian astronomy? Every time you find yourself thinking about how technology is ruining our culture and impoverishing thought, remind yourself of Goodreads. So to all of the people who read my reviews or who write great reviews for me to read, I’d like to say, Thanks!
This year I had resolved to read bigger books. In 2014 I managed to make it through 172 books, but the majority of those were rather short. So this year, I decided that I would read a smaller number of heftier tomes. I don’t think I’ll even make it to my goal of 120 books this year, but that’s just as well. In fairness, probably I would have reached this goal had I not moved to Spain, which upset my carefully worked-out reading schedule I had developed in New York—not that I’m complaining.
One of the most persistent feelings of my past few years has been the nagging sense that I am hopelessly ignorant. This led me to read mostly science and history, as I attempted to banish this self-doubt. But unfortunately this venture feels an awful lot like trying to fill the Grand Canyon one pebble at a time. There’s just too much I don’t know; and every new fact or new theory just makes me more acutely aware of how much further I have to go. But I suppose I should be thankful for this. Learning, after all, is one of the most wonderful feelings there is; and life would be intolerably dull if there wasn’t more out there to wrap my mind around, or at least to try.
In this spirit, I managed to slog my way through three textbooks this year: Fundamentals of Physics by R. Shankar, Economics by Paul A. Samuelson, and General Chemistry by Linus Pauling. I didn’t put in enough effort to master any of the books, though I think some knowledge nonetheless managed to sink in. One can only hope. The best of the lot was easily Samuelson’s book, which I read in the original 1948 edition.
With more hope than success, I also tried to teach myself something about the mathematics behind quantum mechanics and relativity. This led me to read Leonard Susskind’s Theoretical Minimum book on quantum mechanics, and Peter Collier’s A Most Incomprehensible Thing, a self-published book about general relativity. Both books were designed to teach neophytes like me something about the mathematics behind the ideas. Susskind’s was certainly the better book, since he has a much deeper understanding of the subject matter. Whether some of his understanding rubbed off on me is an open question.
But the real hero of my science reading this year has been Richard Feynman. I made my way through six of his books, all of them excellent. First were his Six Easy Pieces and Six Not-So-Easy Pieces, excerpts from his landmark Lectures in Physics. The latter was especially good, giving a fantastic account of special relativity. I followed this up with The Character of Physical Law, another slim book where we see Feynman at his most philosophical. But the real gem of the lot was QED, the best work of popular physics I’ve ever read; it’s a masterpiece.
And this is not to mention the two volumes of Feynman’s quasi-autobiography I read, Surely You’re Joking and Why Do You Care What Other People Think? Though the second was good, I loved the first. Feynman had a personality of Dickensian proportions; and even now I often hear his voice in my head, among the chorus of authors who occasionally give me advice. (Doesn’t this happen to you?) I made my girlfriend and my brother read it, and I’d make you read it if I could.
The second star of my year in reading has been Will Durant, from whose pen I consumed six books. I feel much more ambivalent about Durant than about Feynman. As a thinker and a writer, he has many faults; and of his six books, I gave bad reviews to three of them. But his Story of Civilization series is simply splendid. I’m rather addicted, in truth. This year I read his books on Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages, and I just started his book on the Renaissance. I plan on continuing through the entire series; and considering that each volume is at least 700 pages long, this is no small compliment to pay to an author.
To supplement my reading in science and my reading in history, I tackled a few books about the history of science. I began early on with Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, a book part botany, part geology, and part adventure story; don’t miss it. Galileo came next, whose Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems combines sharp thinking with sharp prose. After I was done pondering the earth’s orbit, Newton showed me some of his experiments and theories on light in his Opticks. And Otto Neugebauer, a frightening mix of intelligence and erudition, then lectured me on Babylonian astronomy and Egyptian mathematics in his Exact Sciences of Antiquity, a great little book which Manny recommended to me. In this category I might also mention Richard Oerter’s The Theory of Almost Everything, a book which managed to compress both a history and an explanation of the Standard Model of physics into 300 pages.
A mini-project I engaged in was to read more drama. I began with Molière, who quickly became one of my favorite authors. His plays are laughter on paper; few experiences are so effortlessly joyful. Ibsen was next, a much darker sort of master; and then came Shaw, who is not worth describing if you haven’t already read him. Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, and William Congreve also made brief but memorable appearances, and I hope the future brings us together again. A second mini-project was to read more poetry. To this effect, I read John Donne, William Blake, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But for all this, I remain an uncultured buffoon.
One more project was to educate myself about the political and intellectual history of the United States. This first led me to Montesquieu, whose Spirit of the Laws effectively laid out the basic plan of the U.S. constitution; then I was led naturally to The Federalist Papers, and finally to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. I found the first two, if informative and interesting, a bit of a slog to get through. But Tocqueville’s was perhaps the best book I read all year. Read and be amazed; it’s magnificent. In the literary realm of Americana, I read Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Adams. The first is an extraordinary writer, but not much of a thinker; and the second is not much of either.
My readings in philosophy have been a bit light. I began with George Santayana, whose Life of Reason ushered me into 2015. I loved the book, though I’m still unsure whether it was great philosophy or just great writing. Heidegger made another appearance into my reading life this year, after Being and Time defeated me in 2014, though this time I think I understood him better; and then came Plotinus, who was equally as mystical. Oh, and I shouldn’t neglect to mention Ayer, Kripke, and Russell. The philosophic highlight of the year, however, was definitely St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine. I read both of their major works, though in abridged versions, and I found both to be richly rewarding.
In the realm of literature, I also managed to cross some big names off my list. I read and fell in love with David Copperfield; and then I did the same with Tom Jones. Both Dickens and Fielding are filled with such exuberance and good will that I smiled constantly through their books. Lawrence Sterne and Rabelais then exploded into my reading life, in the form of Tristram Shandy and Gargantua and Pantagruel, leaving the inside of my skull dripping with ink and littered with allusions and puns. I recommend each of them with all my heart.
The book which has most affected my life outside of Goodreads has been David Burns’s Feeling Good, a self-help book which, indeed, helped me help myself. I was feeling rather depressed and anxious for a while, and Burns helped me get out of it. The change in my mood was almost immediate; and I’ve been feeling good ever since. Also in this category might be placed the books I’ve read on the history and culture of Spain, which helped me to get accommodated in my new environment. The New Spaniards was the best of this lot, though Ghosts of Spain was close.
This “review” has already grown monstrously long and dreadfully dull; and still I have passed over most of the wonderful books who were my companions through the passing days and months of another year. Yes, another year has gone, and hopefully I have grown that much more knowledgeable and perhaps just an iota more wise. What is beyond doubt is that I have grown happier, partly thanks to these books, and also thanks to you, who serve as a constant reminder to me that, despite all the ugliness and stupidity we so often meet with, the world is full of thoughtful, intelligent, and kind people. If 2016 is as good as this year has been, I will count myself enormously lucky.