Reading List, May 2012: My Last—And Next—Five Books

Here we go with the latest “reading list” post, representing the last five books I’ve read. This one took a little longer than the last installment, only because I’ve been kinda busy with work, and I got bogged down a little in the science of No. 3. Still, five books in less than four months is a lot quicker than usual for me

1) Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott. Years ago, I read and enjoyed her Bird By Bird, a book about writing. This one, however, is more about religious faith and her journey to Christianity . I liked it, but found it a little too much; everything that happened, every minor coincidence, was, for Lamott, evidence of God’s plans for her. I think there are two types of people; those who see a beautiful sunrise and see evidence of the glory of God’s creation, and those who say, “Wow, what a beautiful sunrise.” She tends toward the former, I toward the latter. Still, it was an enjoyable read.

2) To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. It’s embarrassing that I lived for more than 52 years in this country without reading this book. My kids have now all read it in high school. (I suppose it’s possible it was assigned at some point for me and I didn’t read it, but I don’t think so.) Anyway this is one to read in high school, and again in college … and maybe again every few years after that. I loved this book.

As an editor, I guess I’m sort of a picky reader; I sometimes get hung up on little language things that don’t bother other people at all. That said, I found this book just about perfect. I particularly liked the characterization; the kids were a lot smarter than average kids, of course, and yet there were still many things about the world that they didn’t understand, that were revealed to them over the course of the story, and it was all just right. Scout’s voice was pitch-perfect throughout.

3) Merchants Of Doubt: How A Handful Of Scientists Obscured The Truth On Issues From Tobacco Smoke To Global Warming, by Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes. The title here pretty much gives away the plot, but it’s definitely worth reading. It begins with the “tobacco doctors” who, at the bidding of the big tobacco companies, testified before Congress to raise doubts about whether cigarette smoking is really all that harmful. The hazards were well-known in the medical and scientific community, and were pretty much “settled science,” although, as the authors of this book point out, science is never really “settled”; the nature of the discipline is to be always asking questions, always exploring. The Tobacco Doctors exploited this by putting out very narrow studies that seemed to call the previous body of work into question; for example, other factors that could be the cause of the increased cancer rates among smokers. These studies didn’t go through the same kind of rigorous peer review that previous studies had, and therefore wouldn’t be considered “scientific,” but that didn’t stop the tobacco doctors from finding friendly media—think The Wall Street Journal—to push their propaganda. American journalism and, really, society as a whole, is always looking for “the other side of the story,” to present a “balanced” view of an issue, so the Tobacco Doctors were able to push the idea that there’s “controversy” about it. And controversy can lead to doubt, which can give industry-friendly politicians cover to avoid acting on a critical issue.

It was smoking then; later it was nuclear winter, then secondhand smoke, then the ozone hole, and now, of course, climate change. There’s no “debate” about climate change among scientists now, but a few corporate-backed faux researchers—actually some of them the same people who worked for the tobacco companies—have been able to keep alive the perception of controversy by using the same methods.

A few generations from now, after the ice caps have melted and we’ve spent trillions of dollars trying to keep the rising oceans at bay, our grandchildren will wonder why we were so gullible.

4) The Art Of Fielding, by Chad Harbach. This novel popped up on all of the “Best of the Year” lists for last year. Having read it, I can see why. It’s the story of a gifted young shortstop who plays for a small Midwestern college (cool!), and seems destined to be one of the best defensive shortstops ever. But then one day one of his throws to first base inexplicably goes awry and severely injures one of his teammates. The aftermath of that play makes up the bulk of the book, and it’s an exquisitely plotted and beautifully written story. Easy to read, too; I managed to finish this book in less than the two-week checkout from the library, a real rarity for me.

If you have read it and you have an e-reader, you can get Vanity Fair’s How A Book Is Born: The Making of The Art Of Fielding. It’s a $1.99 Kindle Single about the behind-the-scenes machinations that it takes to get a book published. It was OK, but I think it promises more than it delivers.

5) Troubled Waters: 30 Years In The Barge Business, by Jack Lambert. All right, this was as much for work as for play, as it’s all about the industry I cover in my day job, and my own magazine is getting ready to do its own memoir, celebrating 125 years in business. This little (106 pages, including almost 30 pages of photographs) book covers what are perhaps the most interesting three decades of the barge industry, including the growth in the 1960s, the booming ’70s, and the bust in the ’80s. The author ran one of the barge lines that fell victim to the bust, and spares no opinions about what went wrong. It’s an interesting little read. You won’t find this little book on Amazon, but it’s published by a small publisher called Riverwise in Winona, Minn.

Crystal Ball Time

OK, that’s the last five. Here, I traditionally offer a prospective outline of the  next five books I’ll read, but it’s all a little more up in the air this time. But, based on what’s stacked on the table next to my bed, on my iPad and on my library request list, here’s a wild guess:

•   The Submission, by Amy Waldman

•   Stan Musual: An American Life, by George Vescey.

•   Let The Great World Spin, by Colum McCann

•   The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve it, by Neal Bascomb

•   Light In August, by William Faulkner

See you at the library!

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