Armando’s Summer Reading 2010

I always look forward to this time of year, even though it’s inevitably a sprint to get to it.  I’m preparing for our annual 2-week family vacation in Cancun (with some diving in Cozumel thrown in), the one vacation per year on which I don’t bring my laptop. What I do bring is lots to read — for me it’s a deep garbage collection and intellectual replenishment.  It’s not unusual for me to finish 8 to 12 books during the two weeks. So I invest a fair amount of time researching what to read and loading up my Kindle—since I bought it about 3 years ago, my policy is not to bring any paper books or documents on a leisure trip.

Here’s what’s on the Kindle for this trip:

Nonfiction – history: I grew up in New York and have always been fascinated with its history.  So I’ll be reading 97 Orchard, about five families who occupied the tenement building at that address on New York’s Lower East Side, which has since been turned into the Tenement Museum.  The book focuses on how immigrants who otherwise plunged into assimilating themselves into American culture retained their native cooking for comfort and identity, and includes authentic period recipes that might have been prepared by those families.  I’ll also be reading Twilight at the World of Tomorrow, a dramatization of the people and events that led to (and through) the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow Park, which until then had been an ash dump, and  the juxtaposition of the culture and attempted optimism of the Fair against the gloom of the Depression and the uncertainy of the brewing Second World War (during the Fair’s 18 months, several countries’ pavilions closed down as those countries were occupied by the Nazis).

More Nonfiction – evolutionary psychology: I have always enjoyed evolutionary neuropsychology when written for the popular press in books like Music, The Brain & Ecstasy (and its lighterweight cousin This Is Your Brain on Music and the work of philosopher Dan Dennett.  I recently finished (on the recommendation of a colleague) What Science Offers the Humanities, a repudiation of the current “standard social science model” prevalent in the humanities according to which humans’ mental development can only be discussed and evaluated in terms of culture and nurture and not in any biological terms, which are taken to be arbitrary and without defensible basis.  The book makes a compelling argument against that stance, and I’ll be reading Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, which seems to take the argument further.  In a similar but lighter spirit, I’ll be reading _How We Decide (recommended by my sister-in-law and others) and maybe _Nudge  (the one about making better decisions, not the one about God something-or-other).

More nonfiction – American societal and cultural studies: I’m considering The Collapse of Complex Societies (which seems from the sample to be more tightly written than Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, which I found disappointingly hard to follow after the incredibly well written Guns, Germs & Steel), and Bowling Alone, a book about how community organizations across America are dying (more specifically, their members are dying, and new younger ones aren’t signing up) and the resulting loss of social capital—as someone who helps run a community theater that relies heavily on volunteers, this seems relevant.  (Update: Bowling Alone was written in 2001; evidently the same author, Robert Putnam, came out with a book last year called Better Together: Restoring the American Community.  We’ll see if I like the original enough to read the sequel.)

Fiction:  I’ve been rereading (for about the 3rd time now) Foucault’s Pendulum, the granddaddy of all conspiracy novels, which is to Dan Brown as the works of Tolkien are to the Harry Potter books.  If I don’t finish my dog-eared paperback before leaving, I’ll have to download it.

Besides the historico-conspiracy genre, which used to be reliably good until Dan Brown’s success spawned a myriad of “me too” books, I’ve always liked hard SF, and recently discovered Charles Stross and Richard K. Morgan.  I’m not as enthusiastic about Stross’s “Laundry Files” series as his previous work, but nonetheless I’ll be giving The Fuller Memorandum a whirl.  I also found a number of titles for under a dollar in the Kindle Store that sounded like they might at least be promising as hard SF, including David Derrico’s Right Ascension and various intriguing-sounding novellas by Christian Cantrell.  Hey, for under a dollar each, I’ll give them a try!  Maybe the next Isaac Asimov, Connie Willis or Arthur C. Clarke will get her/his start this way… Also in the “try it for under a buck” category, I’m also checking out Ancient Awakening by Matthew Bryan Laube, who’s been compared to H.P. Lovecraft in reader reviews.

Geek FictionFatal System Error: The Hunt for the New Crime Lords Who Are Bringing Down the Internet is a based-on-true-stories account of the underground economy around denial-of-service and similar attacks, the latest frontier for organized crime.  The beginning grabbed me, so I’ll be reading that.  I got that recommendation from the Bookworm column in ;login, the monthly magazine of the USENIX Association, which also recommended  The Myths of Security, which seemed really half-baked based on the intro and largely a marketing piece for McAfee.

Nonfiction: I have a strong interest in medieval history, and a somewhat weaker interest in classical history, so I’m checking out Susan Wise Bauer’s History of the Medieval World and History of the Ancient World.  I haven’t committed to buying them yet, but based on the samples, they are dense, no-nonsense “here’s what happened” narratives — perhaps not of huge interest to an historian who knows the periods well, but maybe suitable for a nonexpert like me who needs a good big-picture overview to contextualize the more detailed works, like Jean de Joinville’s first-person commentary Chronicles of the Crusades, which has been in the public domain for hundreds of years and is also going with me.

Speaking of the public domain, I’m also bringing William Lewis Manly’s classic travel journal Death Valley in ‘49 (I’m almost through my second rereading), the complete works of Mark Twain (I like to jump around), and probably the complete works of Shakespeare.

It’s a lot of fun to load up for a trip like this. Those of you family members who have Kindle devices registered to my account…maybe you’ll enjoy the above, in addition to the 60 or so books I’ve already purchased.

See you in Cancun!