Updated: March 28, 2020
A new year means new books (or old books I took a long time to finish).
Right now, I’m going through The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past by Yale Cold War historian John Gaddis. I’d love a historian to tell me if it’s crazy or not.
In case you want to follow along, here’s a list of the things that I’ve completed in the recent past.
The streets of Cambridge are a constant Christmas. A few weeks ago my friends A and M gave me gave me a book they found on the sidewalk. They were sure I’d like it because, first, it was about the Boston, and better than that, about the Boston harbor islands; and second, because they already owned a copy themselves.
They gave me Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands by Christopher Klein. I thank them for it. The book delivers exactly what it promises: a guide to the city’s hidden shores. Klein takes you on a tour of the islands, one at a time, starting with the big ones closest to the city, moving along Hingham Bay, out to the lighthouses staring out onto the open ocean, and back to the mainland again. Along the way you get a brief history that took place on each island—usually it’s about landfills, quarantine and internment camps, summer estates of the wealthy from the fin de siècle, or the military. But mostly it’s about trash.
Each entry beings with access, activities, local sights, and park services found on the island. Groups that are centered around the care and use of the park are sprinkled throughout the text and collected in a useful index at the very end. I’m particularly excited to go sea kayaking with the Wild Turkeys and camp on the islands. I just need to get a boat. And a car. And for a global health crisis to subside. Warmer weather would be good, too. Wash your hands.
Yes, I am on an Old English kick right now. Desolation, obligation, and the sea figured prominently in Old English life. A thousand years later, desolation, obligation, and the sea figure prominently in New English life, too. #relatablecontent.
Donoghue’s book is equally for scholars new to the field and for those of us who are simply curious about our linguistic heritage. The text is friendly, conversational at times, well-sourced, and well explained. Donoghue takes you through the mist, through woods, through the darkness and the shadows, and brings you back home safely without even the slightest Viking-inflicted flesh wound.
The book itself doesn’t contain much in the way of primary sources. But that is a strength, not a weakness. Illustrative excerpts accompanied by modern English translations dot the pages to provide color and detail, and to fill out the historical picture Donoghue is painting. But this book isn’t a foreign language text. If you want to learn to read the originals, check out A Guide to Old English by Mitchell and Robinson. Or if you want to go old-school Old English, download An Anglo-Saxon Primer by the master himself Henry Sweet from Project Gutenberg for free.
Old English Literature is split into five chapters, each covering one of five themes: the vow, the hall, the miracle, the pulpit, and the scholar. Donoghue made these groups up. He could have substituted just about any other five words—coldness, dragons, loneliness, the afterlife, and the ocean—and things would have been just fine. At your next house party, pick a word and then try to relate as many examples of Anglo-Saxon literature you can with it. I promise you it’s fun! This system felt more natural (if arbitrary) than going at it by genre or chronology or author.
At just about 130 pages or so, you can finish it over a lazy (uninterrupted) weekend. Grab a cup of tea, sit down, and travel back in time—to the last time the Millennium Clock’s bells predicted the end of the world.
Okay, so I didn’t finish this one. But I read as many chapters as made sense for me in my position. And this is exactly what the author suggests. This book is a list of stereotyped roles and responsibilities you might encounter at a tech company from rank-and-file engineer all the way up to CTO. Fournier’s role descriptions are jam-packed with operational detail, check against the reality of my experience, illustrated with anecdotes from folks in the field and useful gotchas to look out for, and can be read in chunks rather than straight through. It’s for managers and managees alike.
I found this book while puttering around the local Good Will. The illustrations are gorgeous. If I were to get a tattoo, I’d try to get Chuck Eckart to design it. Careful ink drawings immerse you in New England woodlands. The quality of writing matches the quality of the art. The text is simple but mature.
The book guides the reader through the life stages of a typical hardwood forest. Starting with clear farmland in 19th-century Massachusetts, we first meet pioneer white pines. Journey over a hundred years later to a forest that has climaxed with sugar maples, chipmunks, porcupines, and beech trees. While beginning readers are the target audience, I learned a thing or two about forest ecology and evolution, too. Follow up with Changes in the Land and a walk in the woods.
In college a few friends and I took a class on Old English poetry. Somehow I thought there would be lots of “ye olde this” and “ye olde that”. Nope. Old English is an entirely foreign language. Hwæt! Our course began with the Great Vowel Shift and other wonders of philology and continued with the fun stuff: translation, translation, translation. We made our rounds of the greatest hits from the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries. But we only got an excerpt of this epic poem. This version is bilingual: the original on the left, and modern verse on the right. Heaney somehow makes it feel like you’re reading the original, even when you’re not.
By the way, it’s a lot more talking and a lot less action than you would expect. And the dragon is kind of lame. But I’m here for it when Wīġlāf reads the coward thanes to filth.
I. Love. This. Book.
It is the platonic ideal of a children’s book. The story is about friendship, togetherness, abandonment identity, and subtractive color mixing rules—but also so much more. The plot and accompanying illustration couldn’t be simpler or more effective. I well up reading about these thinking, feeling, living little blobs of color. Lionni’s books are for children, but they sting with a pang of yearning. They’re both happy and sad; it’s good to be comfortable navigating both ends of the emotional spectrum.
Also, I happen to love the author’s take on the creative process (it’s a little crotchety albeit true):
And so, to the question “How do you get your ideas?” I am tempted to answer, unromantic though it may sound, “Hard work.”
Lionni was prolific. You may know his well-known classics like Frederick the Mouse and Swimmy. Check out his lesser-known titles, too. Pezzittino is abstract and self-affirming. Basically Moana but without people.
Reads well in any language.
Noë cobbled together a bunch of loosely related blog posts in a few chapters, slapped an introduction in front of them, and called it a book. At best this book is lazy1. More realistically, it’s also bad.
The author is guilty of the same writing crime I committed over and over again in freshman expository writing: he mistakes an observation for a thesis. He notes early and often that baseball is a “foresenic” practice—that is, a practice of figuring out who did what and whether it was good or bad; e.g., is a pitch a ball or a strike? But an observation isn’t itself a philosophy. He did eventually touch on a philosophy of judgment, after 93 pages, in a footnote, of a well-known baseball parable, from someone else’s book.
The story goes something like this:
Three umpires are chatting after a game about how to score a pitch. “I call’em as I see’em”, says the first umpire. To that, the second one retorts, “I call’em as they are.” The third umpire sits back, chuckles to himself, shakes his head slowly, and smiles before saying, “Well, in my games, they ain’t nothing ‘til I say so.”
But enough philosophy. Back to a shallow observation: baseball is a process of interpretation. He points out that the law is like this, too, but without the force of any real example. It’s the same with music. Give two identical scores to two different musicians to play and you’ll get something that sounds similar but is also different. Why? Because each musician can’t help but put their personal spin on it, despite the notes in each score being absolutely the same. Except that he never gave that example or explained it as clearly.
The entire time I wanted to know how to apply the fact that baseball is about interpretation to make decisions about baseball or anything else in life, really. What are some consequences of this observation? Here Noë let me down.2,3 He spent several pages discussing whether “Huh?” is a universal word (because you need communication to play baseball and words are used sometimes to communicate) and something about his son’s being disappointed when the Giants lost once.
Short blog entries comprise each chapter and don’t really build on one another. So you can breeze through this book at a pretty fair clip. But why would you want to?
Try to guess why the title has the word “infinite”, for example. I’ll give you a clue. It refers to a framework by about infinite and finite games by religious scholar James Carse, which Noë doesn’t ever really discuss outside of the introduction or in depth ever. I think he just liked the sound of “infinite baseball”. After all, infinite-finite-finite-finite. ↩
Possible topics include law enforcement and courtroom automation by artificial intelligence, what it means for computers to read stories (or read at all), and whether robot soccer with its robot referees counts as soccer. ↩
To his credit, Noë did apply his forensic description of baseball once, to defend the use of performance enhancing drugs in the major leagues. And that was pretty persuasive. More of that, please. ↩