📚 Dubliners

I read James Joyce’s classic short story collection, Dubliners, while I was on my vacation. I read it as part of my presswork for tackling Ulysses, which I am slowly navigating now.

I don’t normally enjoy short stories because they usually seem incomplete—cut off just before they got interesting. Short story collections are usually disjointed; I prefer collections that have common characters or plot threads that run through all the stories. I have been reading more this year than in the past, including Olive Kitteridge and Olive, Again which I enjoyed very much. (They are called “novels,” but are in fact short story collections.)

The stories in Dubliners, of course, compose one of the archetypical collections of short stories. They are famous for the epiphanies that characters arrive at toward the end of each tale, and are devastating for the reader because those characters who recognize their personal failings or their poor lot end up doing nothing to fix things. Over and over again throughout the collection, his characters live rigid, bleak, repetitive lives, and choose comfort—and not even much comfort at all—and certainly over fulfillment and uncertainty.

I see the same themes in my own life. Everyone I know, including and especially myself—lives inside a rigid, repetitive routine: school, work, cooking, cleaning, a little leisure, maybe a vacation once or twice a year. Furthermore, I know that I, like some of Joyce’s characters, have chosen comfort over fulfillment—at least in terms of my career choices, and in some respects in terms of vacation travel as well. If I had taken more risks, perhaps I would have more money or status, and I might have made more of an impact on the world. My life, however, is nowhere near as bleak as the Dubliners Joyce writes about. I have a great family, a great home, and have done some great things I can be proud of. But it is chilling to think how repetitive everyday life is, and how much drudgery it entails; like Joyce’s characters in Dubliners each of us is stuck in a loop.

📚 A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

I read James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man this week. I approached it in nearly the same way I approached books that I studied in college when I was an English major: I read some background about the book and where it fit into the literary cannon. I read it closely, and re-read parts that didn’t quite make sense at first. Lastly, after I finished the book, I read essays about it to make sure I didn’t miss too much of its meaning.

Because I did this on vacation, for fun, I held myself to a far lower standard than I did as an undergraduate. I think I understood much of what Joyce was getting at in the book, though I will admit that some of the Irish politics stuff flew over my head because I was not familiar with it. I found it fascinating that Joyce made his hero, Stephen Dedalus (a fictionalized version of himself), both a brilliant and thoughtful young man and an anxious, neurotic, and occasionally hubristic stuffed shirt.

I suppose Joyce’s loss of faith was both freeing and incredibly troubling for him, because it pervades the entire novel. The amount of religiosity in the book was a bit overwhelming to me, and far afield of what I normally encounter in the fiction I read. The oppressive superimposition of catholicism over everything reflects the oppressive superimposition of Irish identify politics over everything, too. The two are inseparable in this book: intimately entwined, and one in the same. Joyce left both behind in his real life, and as the book ends, Joyce’s stand-in, Dedalus does too.

Joyce’s Dublin-centered body of work, written while in self-imposed exile, leads me to believe that it impossible to cleave off certain aspects of yourself that developed you, even if you have learned to reject them and have come to resent them. Leave your home, go where you want to: you can never escape who you are.

📚 Going back to the classics

I have been having a lot of trouble finding books that excite me lately. Over the past month, I read through the first Grishaverse novels trilogy (staring with Shadow and Bone) and found it only OK. (It could have been a single, much faster-moving novel, I think.) I started Leviathan Wakes, the first novel in The Expanse series, and couldn’t get into it. Most recently, I started Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse and, after reading a few chapters, concluded that it is not for me.

This blah feeling about well-regarded sci-fi and fantasy books surprises me. I used to love those genres. Now, when reading them, I find myself distracted by details that don’t make sense, like: If the planet the story takes place on is much larger than Earth, then it would have much a stronger gravity field, and all life on it would have evolved differently (i.e., be sturdier and stronger), and humans wouldn’t be able to move as easily on its surface. I can suspend my disbelief to quite a big extent to accommodate an alternate history, a magic system, or a populated exoplanet. However, for the story to be satisfying, the secondary effects of these fantastical elements have to make sense and properly serve (rather than work against) the story.

As a young adult—after earning my English degree, and until I had kids—I only read classics. Back then, I was looking for books I could get or borrow for free, and for novels that made me feel like I was continuing my studies in literature. I strayed from that path after a while, as my professional life became more technically-oriented (I read books about programming and systems design) and as I went through business school (I read about business, economics, sociology, and so on, to understand how the world worked). I started reading for escapism (mostly) and for learning (sometimes) several years back, but I am finding it hard to get interested in anything any more.

I think that means that I am now ready to go back to reading classics. To that end, I started James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man last night. I love it so far. It is formally challenging, full of ideas, and grounded in the real world. I know how to tackle difficult books, and plan, at this point, to read Dubliners after I finish Portrait. I’m looking forward to it.

📚 I am enjoying Dan Moren’s latest book, The Aleph Extraction.

📚 I finished reading another novel to my daughter tonight, the fourth Emily Windsnap book. My daughter loves reading time, and I do too. It is the best thing I do all day.

📚 Based on the prologue I read last night, which was a lot of fun, I think the next novel I’m going to read is Dan Moren’s The Caledonian Gambit. I hope I can stick with it. Lately, I have been starting books and dropping them well before finishing them.

📚 Most of my “social isolation” reading has been the Kenzie-Gennaro series of detective novels by Dennis Lehane. I had read the fourth, “Gone Baby Gone”, back in 2007, the year its movie adaptation came out, without realizing it was part of a series. In my opinion, the first one is pretty good, the second is a lot better, and the third is starting out even better than the second.

📚 Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

Earlier this year, I completed reading Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. It was the first novel that I had read in a while, as I have been reading mostly nonfiction in recent years. I discovered the book from an episode of the “Triangulation” podcast in which Leo Laporte interviewed author Andy Weir, who enthusiastically recommended the book.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. The prose is efficient and the pacing is swift. I thought it started out strong, and I liked the world building and the build-up of suspense in the early chapters. After a while, though, I tired of all the 1980s video game and movie references, and wanted the book to end. While I was about three quarters through the book, I referred to it as “the reading equivalent to watching somebody else play video games”. For me, the stakes felt too low, and the characterizations were too thin, to make a lasting impression. Still, I had fun reading it, at least most of the way through.

📚 How We Got To Now

I recently finished reading Steen Johnson’s How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World. It was a breezy and pleasurable read, full of interesting information. Johnson’s writing is clear, concise, and engaging throughout.

As a huge nerd who spent a lot of time in childhood perusing a science and technology encyclopedia, and a lot of time in my teens watching tech-related documentaries on Discovery and TLC (before those networks drifted to reality TV), I already knew a lot of the material. Still, it’s a wonderful read to anyone who loves the “history of ideas course” way of looking at disparate, seemingly unrelated things in everyday life, and drawing a through line that connects them all. Plus I learned new phrases that describe these unintended and intended technological and cultural developments—“hummingbird effects” and “the adjacent possible”—that I particularly like.

📚 At long last, I have finished reading Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It (the last chapter and epilogue especially) has overwhelmed me with a sense of love and sadness, which is why it took me so long to read their whole thing. The book is a monumental achievement.

📚 I resumed reading Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln last night. It’s an incredibly well-written and well-researched book. I had stopped reading it because I thought its subject matter—the break-up of the United States due to intractable racial prejudice—hit a little too close to home for 2017-18. Regardless, I am now continuing.

📚 Ready Player One

I just finished Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. It was light and enjoyable the whole way through. I’m not sure just how much I liked it, as reading it was a little like watching somebody else play video games, which is not really my thing, but I did like it. I’m glad the author addressed the isolation of all the main characters in real life, at least a little. It could have had more depth in that area, but that might have diminished its charm.

📚 “Ready Player One” looks promising. I’m one chapter in, and it’s fun.

The 2017 news cycle has worn me out. I am looking for something purely escapist to read. I’m considering “Ready Player One” and “The Last Unicorn”.