Reading is a pastime I’ve come to enjoy more as I’ve grown older. And with my renewed appreciation of the medium came a goal to read more in 2020.
For me, digital mediums like film and video games are often more stimulating than books (my blog archive is proof of that). But my entire working life revolves around staring at screens, so the analogue world of books provides a welcome change of pace.
I used the “Goodreads” app to track my reading progress throughout 2020. It’s sort of like a social network for readers, allowing you to track what you’re reading, rate and organize your titles, and share updates with friends.
With Goodreads as my digital reading companion, I set a goal via the app to read 10 books in 2020. Unfortunately, I fell just short of that, hitting nine books read before January 1st, 2021 hit. If it’s fair to indict inanimate objects, I blame my failure on America Aflame: an exhaustive but enjoyable account of the American Civil War, which was easily the longest book I read all year.
I chose most of the books I read in 2020 at random. But in retrospect, I couldn’t help but notice that I definitely had a thing for the 19th century American West this year. Blood Meridian, Crazy Horse, and even America Aflame, to some extent, all revolved around that colourful era of American history.
Anyway, I thought I’d take some time to share my thoughts on these books. Some I remember better than others, particularly those that I didn’t listen to in audiobook form.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind — Yuval Noah Harari (2011)
Admittedly, I haven’t read much about early human history. But of what I have read, Sapiens stands out as one of the most approachable and invigorating books on the subject. This broad-spanning account of our species begins with the Stone Age and ends with the Scientific Revolution, exploring how the human experience has evolved, or in some cases, devolved.
Sapiens is engaging because the author isn’t concerned with simply retelling history. Instead, Harari takes welcome detours into the mechanisms of human happiness, social hierarchies, and the power of collective imagination. Harari accompanies these detours with strong assertions about the species. And while his theories certainly make for intriguing reading, they ultimately paint Sapiens as a subjective work.
As a result, many readers have taken umbrage with the book, even going as far as to discredit it entirely. But I think if you go in knowing that there’s a strong thesis behind the writing, Sapiens is still an enjoyable read.
Memorable excerpt: “Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous.”
The Rape of Nanking — Iris Chang (1997)
If you’re looking to explore the depths of human depravity, look no further than The Rape of Nanking. Chang’s 1997 account of the World War II Chinese massacre documents the power of indoctrination and dehumanization in lurid detail. It tells of how Japan turned its young soldiers into unflinching barbarians, eventually murdering, raping, and torturing their way through the Chinese city of Nanjing starting in December 1937.
But despite the book’s many disturbing moments, Chang also sheds light on the tragedy’s heroes: a handful of men and women (some allied with Imperial Japan) who took a stand against the cruelty, helping to rescue and aid the city’s victims. As a result, The Rape of Nanking serves reminders that we can find compassion in even our species’ darkest moments.
Memorable excerpt: “So sickening was the spectacle that even the Nazis in the city were horrified, one proclaiming the massacre to be the work of “bestial machinery.” “
Warcraft: The Last Guardian — Jeff Grubb (2002)
I had quite a hungering for Warcraft in 2020. Not only was World of Warcraft one of my top-played games of the year, but the franchise also managed to invade my reading time.
I don’t know that there’s much to say here. The Last Guardian is a video game book about the Warcraft game franchise, so if you’re not into that, it’s hardly compulsory reading. This particular novel tells the story of Medivh, an eccentric wizard recluse who plays a key role in humankind’s escalating war against invading demons.
There are some interesting twists and turns here, but nothing I couldn’t see coming (even as someone who managed to evade spoilers for this particular chapter of Warcraft lore).
Memorable passage: “As long as there are Guardians, there is order. And as long as there is Order, the parts are there to be played. Decisions made millennia ago set both your path and mine. It is part of the greater cycle, one that has held us all in its sway.”
Blood Meridian — Cormac McCarthy (1985)
This was easily one of my favourite reads of the year. Set in the early American west, McCarthy’s Blood Meridian employs the established history of an infamous gang of native-scalping nomads as a springboard for a dark tale of bloodshed and treachery.
The story centres around a young man who joins the gang of scalp hunters. But things take a turn when the gang begins hunting and killing peaceful natives to boost their profits, pulling “the kid” into a vicious cycle of violence.
But gripping plot aside, Blood Meridian is also stylistically intriguing. McCarthy eschews conventional grammar and punctuation standards, which often made the book difficult to read. Sentences run on and on, and characters speak to one another with no delineation. At first, these creative choices tested my patience. But as I continued reading, I found that his dry, impersonal style complimented the book’s bleak subject matter.
Like Terminator robots, Blood Meridian’s principal characters are depicted as clinical engines of destruction. Describing their evil acts via flowery prose hardly seems appropriate.
Memorable passage (context: the gang encounters Comanche riders): “A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil and some in headgear or cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.”
How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything — Rosa Brooks (2016)
This was one of the books I listened to in audiobook form while doing other things. As a result, I didn’t retain it as well as the other books I read. I like to think that I’ve learned my lesson and will probably stick to devoting my undivided attention to the printed version of most books going forward.
My disservice to the book aside, How Everything Became War… still provided an insightful glimpse into the inefficiencies of the American military, an entity that seems increasingly willing to overextend itself. It’s a world that Brooks seems to know well, with much of the book centring around her experiences advising for the United States Department of State.
Memorable passage: “If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” The old adage applies here as well. If your only functioning government institution is the military, everything looks like a war—and when everything looks like war, everything looks like a military mission.”
America Aflame — David Goldfield (2011)
I was born in the United States, but our family later emigrated to Canada when I was about 11 years old. As a result, I’m pretty sure I missed out on learning about the American Civil War (in a public school setting, anyway).
I wanted to brush-up on this critical chapter of American infighting — doubly so because of recent events — and America Aflame seemed like a solid introduction. The book’s stylish cover immediately caught my eye while visiting a used bookstore in Austin, Texas. And after I started thumbing through the pages, I was equally smitten with the author’s writing style.
Many history books seem to be written from a distant, omniscient perspective. That’s fine if you’re some kind of deity who’s accustomed to processing the sum of human experience. But I’ve always preferred media that contextualizes its events by delving into the individual accounts of its participants. I’m more likely to understand a Ulysses S. Grant or an Abraham Lincoln by learning why they did what they did, rather than purely what they did.
America Aflame succeeds in providing that perspective. It reads like an escalating, wide-lensed war-drama, with frequent third-person phrasing and injections of written/spoken material lending authenticity. It couldn’t have been easy to assemble a non-fiction book in this manner, but author-historian David Goldfield did so successfully, and the finished product is engrossing and accessible.
Memorable passage: “The senselessness of war drove men to rationalize it in religious or political terms. Those who worked in the hospitals, fought on the battlefield, and grieved at home believed they worked, fought, and grieved for a cause greater than themselves. Was there a point, or a time, when the blood would overwhelm the rationalization? Walt Whitman had reached that point by the fall of 1863. So had many other Americans.” (pg 295)
The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution — P.D. Ouspensky (1950)
This was the least enjoyable and most forgettable book I read in 2020, but my expectations are to blame for that. I went in almost completely blind expecting a psychology-backed perspective on human development. Instead, The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution is purely a philosophical and spiritual work.
It’s a collection of five lectures, none of which seem to be substantiated by citations or psychological mechanisms. Judging by online reviews, a lot of people seem to have gotten something out of it. But ultimately, it wasn’t what I was looking for.
Memorable passage: “All the absurdities and all the contradictions of people, and of human life in general, become explained when we realise that people live in sleep, do everything in sleep, and do not know that they are asleep.”
Crazy Horse: The Lakota Warrior’s Life & Legacy — Edward Clown Family/William B. Matson (2016)
In the Lakota tradition, Crazy Horse is an oral history of the legendary warrior as told by his living relatives and translated to page by author William B. Matson. The familial perspective provides fastidious insights into Crazy Horse’s lineage, with the book beginning with the stories of not one but three tribesmen who carried the Crazy Horse name.
I was motivated to read this one because I knew of Crazy Horse as a participant in the American Indian Wars, but less about his life outside that context. The book didn’t disappoint and excels at detailing his life as a man, rather than purely a warrior.
Crazy Horse introduces and continually references dozens of tribe members, which occasionally made for disorienting reading. But ultimately, Crazy Horse’s story is the story of an entire Lakota tribe, so the abundance of nouns is warranted (as is some patience if you decide to pick this one up).
Memorable passage: “He had been our greatest hope to find a way of continuing to live in our traditional way of life. He had stayed at the Agency that he so detested to try to reclaim our sacred Black Hills and burial grounds by implementing Lone Horn’s dream of an Agency that would encompass all that was Lakota. By killing him, they were about to kill this dream. They were about to kill the Lakota way of life that we had always known.” (pg 140)
The Lost City of The Monkey God — Douglas Preston (2017)
Rounding off this list is another book I disgraced by listening to in audiobook form while doing other things. It centres around attempts to find and document the ancient ruins of “La Ciudad Blanca,” or “The White City” in Honduras.
Aside from exploring the city’s speculative history, Preston also retells his own treacherous journey through the Honduras jungles in vivid detail. I picked up this book almost exclusively to get his first-hand account of the expedition, and it’s also why I’d recommend it.
From avoiding killer snakes to deadly disease, The Lost City proves that the real world can provide the archeological thrills of Indiana Jones — provided the adventurers in question are brave enough to endure them.
Memorable passage: “The snake’s body, thick as his arm, slammed against his legs, its dazzling snow‐white mouth gaping wide, unsheathing inch‐and‐a‐quarter‐long fangs that pumped out streams of pale yellow liquid. As its head lashed back and forth, straining to sink its fangs into Woody’s fist, it expelled poison all over the back of his hand, causing his skin to bubble.”