How I Spent My Summer Vacation

ibookshelfA few years ago, I discovered that reading on my Kindle is about 1000 times better than reading a book. This year, I discovered that reading on my iPhone is about 100 times better than reading on my Kindle. As a result (and also as a result of a lot of time spent on airplanes), I’ve been on a mad fiction-reading spree the past few months. Some mini-reviews:

The Adventures of Augie March (Saul Bellow): Not an easy read, even with the iPhone’s automatic links to dictionaries and Wikipedia. But well worth the effort, I think. Rewarding in the small and in the large — while I was reading, I kept caring what would happen next, and after I’d finished, I felt like I’d had a good workout and I was glad I’d gone to the gym. This made me want to read more Bellow (I think I will tackle Herzog next, if they ever bring out an electronic edition) but with long breaks between novels.

The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton): Extremely good. Hard-to-put-down good. And a real insight into not just a vanished way of life, but a vanished way of seeing the world. All about the blinders that people wore in that time and place (the book is set in the 1870s, but was written in 1920, after those particular blinders had come off) and a real inspiration to think about what new blinders have taken their place.

The Ambassadors (Henry James): Quit after a couple of pages; it was failing to grab me. I should come back and try again.

American Pastoral (Philip Roth): I am currently 1/3 of the way into this, but I am already sure it is a great book. I will now read everything Philip Roth ever wrote.

Anthem (Ayn Rand): The first Ayn Rand I’ve ever read. Less tendentious and a better read than I’d expected.

Barchester Towers (Anthony Trollope): Terrific fun! To paraphrase one of the Amazon reviewers—I’d never have believed you if you’d tried to tell me that I’d be utterly gripped by a story about who was going to get which of the various positions in the heirarchy of the Church of England that I have never heard of. This is the second in a six-part series. After I’d read it, I read the earlier and much shorter The Warden, which is sort of like going back to read The Hobbit after you’ve already read Lord of the Rings. The Warden was okay, but if I’d read it first, I’d probably have stopped there. I’m glad I started with this one, after Trollope had hit his stride. I remain most eager to get to the remaining four in the series, and then everything else he ever wrote, which should take me a while, since he wrote at least 50 books.

The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoevsky) (for the fourth time!). Arguably the greatest novel ever. The issue with the Brothers K is always the choice of a translation. The last time around (maybe ten years ago or so), I went with Pevear and Volokhonsky, and pronounced it by far the best. This time I went back to the classic Constance Garnett translation that I last read at age 16 — and reminded myself that this one is also great.

Man and Superman (George Bernard Shaw): Another re-read; more tedious more often than I’d remembered. I once saw the third act performed by Agnes Moorehead and the great Ricardo Montalban; even with Montalban, it seemed clear that this was a play that worked better on the page than in the theater. But even on the page, it still kind of drags.

The Man Who Changed His Skin (Harry Stephen Keeler): It was definitely weird. I’ll give it that.

Nightmare Abbey (Thomas Love Peacock): The only Peacock I’d never read before, and probably the best of them. More of a long short story than a novel, very funny in places, I was glad to be reading it, but also glad it was short. (That is, it was fun, but the kind of fun that’s best in small doses — which, since it comes in a small dose, is just fine.)

Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen): Surprisingly tedious. I was glad when it ended. The only Jane Austen I’ve ever read is Northanger Abbey, which seems considerably spritelier.

Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson): It depresses me that there’s a market for a book this bad. I slogged through the whole thing, but oh my God it was painful. What kept me going was the sprinkling of brilliant passages, and the occasional brilliant chapter — and when they were brilliant, they were very very brilliant. (Also, the vision of future technology, though dated, was clever and insightful.) But there was precious little of that, compared to the endless passages that made me feel like I was trapped in a theater, watching a really really bad movie directed by a no-talent hack who thought he could make me care about the heroine trapped in the basement by dragging the scene out for twenty minutes.

The Sunlight Dialogues (John Gardner): In my 20s, John Gardner was my favorite author and the Sunlight Dialogues was one of my favorite books. I decided to read it again, and gave up a quarter of the way through. Part of what drove me crazy was my inability to distinguish among the various characters named “Hodge”; there would be long passages about what “Hodge” was up to, and I could never figure out whether this was Hodge the father, Hodge the son, Hodge the brother, or (for all I know) Hodge the Holy Ghost. I do not remember having this problem back in my 20s, so I suspect the fault lies not in the book but in the aging brain of the reader.

Tom Jones (Henry Fielding): Loads of fun.

Young Lonigan and The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan (James T. Farrell): The first two books in the Studs Lonigan trilogy. The tone is as unlike Edith Wharton as you can get, but there’s the same sense of looking back on a time when people wore different blinders than they do today (in Wharton’s case, the upper crust WASPs in 1870′s New York; in this case the working class Irish in early 20th century Chicago). Farrell made me want desperately to jump into the action and guide these people toward a better way to be. Good enough to make me want to read the third part of the trilogy, but not good enough to make me want to read it immediately. The (clearly deliberate) choppiness of the writing kept taking me aback; sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.

Still on my iPhone waiting to be read (I am too lazy to insert links for these):
Absalom, Absalom! (William Faulkner)
An American Tragedy (Theodore Dreiser)
A Bend in the River (VS Naipaul)
The Bonfire of the Vanities (Tom Wolfe)
Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh)
Cannery Row (John Steinbeck)
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson)
The Finkler Question (Howard Jacobson)
The Ginger Man (JP Donleavy)
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell (Susanna Clark)
Lonesome Dove (Larry McMurtry)
The Magnificent Ambersons (Booth Tarkington)
Motherless Brooklyn (Jonathan Lethem)
Pale Fire (Vladimir Nabokov)
The Postman Always Rings Twice (James Cain)
Sons and Lovers (DH Lawrence)
Spooner (Pete Dexter)
Stone’s Fall (Iain Pears)
To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf)
Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe)
Under the Net (Iris Murdoch)
The Way of All Flesh (Samuel Butler)
Winesburg Ohio (Sherwood Anderson)

— and, recently added, a whole bunch of Edith Wharton, Anthony Trollope and Philip Roth.

It might take me a while to get through these.

And finally: There are a lot of very old books on this list, partly because old books are cheap (or often free) in electronic formats. In the not-so-distant past before I got my first Kindle, I leaned more toward the contemporary. The last two dead-tree books I read were The Thirteenth Tale (Diane Setterfield) (reading hint for this one: keep a list of all the little unexplained mysteries, and cross them off as they get explained) and Water for Elephants (Sara Gruen), both of which were so good and so gripping and so memorable that I couldn’t resist mentioning them even though they’re slightly off topic for this post.

What else should I read?

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33 Responses to “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”


  1. 1 1 Nick

    Not sure if I’m in the right position to advise you as:

    a) I love Snow Crash, but that may be a generational thing as I consider it “awesome”..
    b) I prefer The Hobbit to the LOTR (but still love both) for the same reasons you give for disliking Snow Crash

    HOWEVER,The Picture of Dorian Gray is always worth going back to, and definitely read it if you haven’t yet!

    Also The Windup Girl by Paolo Baciagalupi and The City & the City by China Mielville are very good reads.

  2. 2 2 Mike H

    Out of curiosity, what makes reading on an iPhone 10^5 times better than reading a book, for you?

  3. 3 3 Patrick M

    I’ll have to respectfully disagree on Snow Crash. That said, while I loved the first 2/3 of the book, the final third or so of the book had a distinct drop-off in quality.

    If you are willing to give it another go, I highly recommend Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. (I’d skip his “System of the World” trilogy, which certainly was entertaining, but dragged out too long.)

  4. 4 4 Pavel

    I am kinda with Mike H on that one. While I completely understand why Kindle is so much better than a book, why is iPhone that much better than Kindle? The iPhone screen is tiny compared to Kindle which makes reading more than slightly uncomfortable. I do most of my reading on the iPad which I assume is approximately as comfortable as Kindle.

  5. 5 5 David

    I would recommend you check out Daemon (and Freedom) by Daniel Suarez. Neither is perfect, but they’re very exciting and quick reads. I’d say they’re like a better and more modern version of Snow Crash. I also liked Snow Crash, though.

  6. 6 6 YHVH

    Middlemarch by George Elliot, “The quintessential Victorian novel”

  7. 7 7 Josh

    My guess is that part of it has to do with being able to easily hold the iPhone with one hand. ..that’s a nice feature for me at least.

  8. 8 8 Floccina

    I really like reading on IPOD too. The small pages mean you can read in smaller bits as you are always close to the end of a page.

  9. 9 9 Destin

    I’m sure you’ve read them, but the Foundation series!

  10. 10 10 Luis

    David Liss has a series of mystery books about the European trade markets in the 1600-1700′s. I’ve never read any novels dated on that period so it was very informative for me, the main character is a Jew (I’m not) which made it even more educational, a very rare opportunity to learn some history and ethnic culture. I started with “A Conspiracy of Paper” and then read everything Liss wrote.

    HOWEVER be aware of “The Ethical Assassin” in which he tries to make the point that murdering humans that mistreat animals is fine. It is almost as if PETA wrote it and paid him to use his name, awful. That being said, I’ll continue to read everything he publishes.

    I’ve also read everything Bernard Cornwell wrote with the exception of the Sharpe series. He writes fantastic stories based on historical events. I’d start with his magnificent trilogy on (king) Arthur. Yes, Genevieve and Merlin and Lancelot and the round table are all there, but believe me, Cornwell’s take is nothing we’ve seen/read before.

  11. 11 11 Will A

    An interesting question is why a person feels the need to have to finish a book they have started?

    If Pride and Prejudice was tedious, why not move onto another book or watch Bridget Jone’s Diary?

    Also, your intellectual and emotional life probably won’t suffer if you don’t read The Ambassadors.

  12. 12 12 Rahul

    Prof Landsburg,

    * Have you tried reading on the iPad with the Kindle app? Possibly another order of magnitude improvement!

    * ‘Old Man’s War’ by John Scalzi is surprisingly good modern science fiction, and probably destined for a big budget motion picture extravaganza. Has a number of very clever ideas, some which show flashes of brilliance even for a skeptical ‘science’ person like me. Besides, the story has good humor and a gripping, somewhat counter-intuitive plotline, as well as a believable description of what army life in the future could be like.

    * For me too, Ayn Rand’s fiction was better than I expected – would recommend Atlas Shrugged, for the reason that her description of the emotional life of her characters is surprisingly good, and something I was not expecting whatsoever. Having only read her essays prior, I expected something more technical, maybe a little preachy and convoluted. But it turned out to be surprisingly high quality and thought provoking regarding the nature of interpersonal and especially romantic relationships (not what you’d expect in a book about the virtues of capitalism).

    Happy reading! And thank you for your suggestions, will check some of them out.

  13. 13 13 Jon

    That’s a good list, Steve. Roth’s heyday went from Sabbath’s Theater to Everyman; I’d also recommend The Ghost Writer and “Goodbye, Columbus.”

    Coetze’s The Master of Petersburg is a good fictionalized drama about Dostoevsky.

    Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin is terrific.

    You might also like Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge and its companion novel, Mr. Bridge. You’d know within 10 pages whether or not it’s the kind of book you’ll want to finish. I think it’s great and am surprised that Connell seems to have gone under the radar, canon-wise.

  14. 14 14 Steve Landsburg

    Jon: I am a huge fan of Connell’s non-fiction, and have often thought I should give his fiction a try. I’m off to search for electronic versions, but I’m pessimistic about finding them.

  15. 15 15 Ken B

    Trollope is terrific — he has the virtue of never cheating on character. The plots can disappoint. One assumes you’ve read the supreme victorian tripledecker Middlemarch.

    Al Gore almost ruined it for me but The Red and The Black is a great book. Read Maupassant stories. One oddball book I recommend to people is Horn of Africa by Caputo. Tom Jones is my favourite novel in English.

  16. 16 16 Ken B

    Why do you prefer the gadgets to paper? Typesize? Ease of carrying? Treehugger? I like the typesize feature and if anything gets me to switch that would be it.

  17. 17 17 Ken B

    For Tom Jones fans a great read is “The Sot-weed Factor” by John Barth (the only Barth worth reading). Reactions vary. A friend liked it “up the the slander on Newton” as he put it. I found it a bit slow until “the slander on Newton” when it got hilarious.

  18. 18 18 Doctor Memory

    Dear god, if you didn’t much care for “Snow Crash”, then under no circumstances read “Cryptonomicon.” Stephenson was never well-edited to begin with, and after “The Diamond Age” his inspiration/masturbation ratio went quickly non-linear.

    That said, if you enjoyed parts of Snow Crash, you should definitely go back and read “Neuromancer”, which is its obvious predecessor and more or less the zero point of the “cyberpunk” movement.

  19. 19 19 Doctor Memory

    Also, in terms of recommendations, I’d be very curious to see what you made of China Mieville. He’s best known for the “Bas Lag” books (“Perdido Street Station”, “The Scar”, “Iron Council”), but for my money his best two — by far — are “The City and The City” and his most recent one, “Embassytown.”

  20. 20 20 nobody.really

    Landsburg might get a kick out of Anatham. If you were rebuilding society after a nuclear holocaust, what social institutions would you create to enable science and scholarship to flourish, but to limit their capacity to facilitate the construction of weapons of mass destruction? This new society, after centuries, comes to resemble our current society except that all scholarship occurs in cloistered monasteries. Economies and nations rise and fall outside the cloister’s walls, but the academy stands apart – except once every year, or decade, or century, or millennium, depending on the type of monastery, when the doors open. Lots of social norms of the academy-as-monastery (“Hmmmm… Are you perchance speaking bullshit? [Bullshit: a term of art referring to speech designed for its persuasive qualities but without strong grounding in evidence. Outside academic circles, the term can be regarded as vulgar. The Dictionary.]” Lots of discussions of epistemology, consciousness, multiverses, and some time-travel. Lots of allusions to specific philosophers, math theorems, and math puzzles. And then the book turns into an adventure story!

    Now I’m in the middle of David Brooks’ The Social Animal. It tells a story — two people grow up, get married, have careers and grow old – as an excuse to review the philosophy and science of human behavior as they apply to various stages of life, and in various contexts. The thesis is that unconscious forces control more than we imagine, and the conscious mind controls less. Yeah, there’s praise for behavior economists and condemnation for the rest. Yeah, there’s the occasional ham-fisted moralizing. But I really like the literature review, and Brooks can be a clever writer. His summary of the norms of upper-class society, or of the Aspen Ideas Institute, or of DC think tanks, is really entertaining.

  21. 21 21 Al V.

    I’m not an eBook reader, so I can’t comment on the experience there. However, I have a friend who uses a Kindle, and he has never paid more than $1 or so for a book. He only reads older, free books, and has been very happy doing so.

    A book I read this summer and highly recommend is “Bleak House”, by Dickens. A terrific multi-character, multiple perspective murder mystery. Many people consider it his best book.

    Thanks for your take on “The Sunlight Dialogues”. It was probably my favorite book from my early 20s, and I have often wondered what it would be like to reread. I’m also going to have to put “The Age of Innocence” on my list. Steve’s is the second recommendation this week. I’ve only read “Ethan Frome”, which I loved, so I’m not sure why I never went back to her.

  22. 22 22 Ken B

    @AL V: If you like Bleak House then try Uncle Silas by Sheridan LeFanu or Our Mutual Friend by Dickens (and which is even better than BH). Also The Woman in White by Collins, which is unputdownable.

  23. 23 23 Al V.

    Other book suggestions, of which you should be able to get inexpensive electronic versions:
    - “The Moviegoer”, by Walker Percy
    - “Heart of Darkness”, by Joseph Conrad
    - “The Complete Sherlock Holmes”, A.C.Doyle
    - “Eyeless in Gaza”, Aldous Huxley

    Personally, I love Orwell, but especially the non-fiction.

  24. 24 24 Al V.

    Oh, yeah. Something unique and enlightening is “The Yacoubian Building”, by Alaa Al Aswany. A novel of life in Egypt under Mubarak. Gives a great perspective into the roots of the Arab Spring.

  25. 25 25 Al V.

    @Ken B, thanks for the recommendations. I’ve actually been looking for a copy of “The Woman in White”. I tend to buy books in used book stores, as they are cheaper and I enjoy the hunt.

  26. 26 26 Ed Kless

    James Joyce’s Ulysses.

  27. 27 27 SheetWise

    You obviously weren’t on airplanes for pleasure, and even when describing pleasure you obviously chose to be somewhere else …

    My question — is there any place where you find pleasure along with an absence of anticipation?

  28. 28 28 Mario

    Good list. I think that you will find the following books interesting:

    - The Code of the Woosters (P.G. Wodehouse) – Most Books written by P.G. Wodehouse are terrific fun.
    - Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons)
    - Collected Poems (Philip Larkin)
    - The Collected Short Stories of Anton Chekhov (Anton Chekhov) – Better than Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin…
    - A Dance to the Music of Time (Anthony Powell)
    - Decline and Fall (Evelyn Waugh) – Almost any book Evelyn Waugh wrote is terrific. Brideshead is one of the exceptions.
    - Goodbye, Columbus : And Five Short Stories (Philip Roth) – The best book of Philip Roth.
    - History Man (Malcolm Bradbury)
    - Loving (Henry Green) – Almost any book Henry Green wrote is a masterpiece.
    - Memories of a Fox-Hunting Man (Siegried Sassoon)
    - The Old Devils (Kingsley Amis) – Most Books written by Kingsley are terrific.
    - Pnin (Vladimir Nabokov)
    - Ravelstein (Saul Bellow) – No long break needed
    - Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Alan Sillitoe)
    - Scenes from Provincial Life (William Cooper)
    - The Senior Commoner (Julian Hall) – I don’t think that there is an eBook version however.
    - Three Men in a Boat (Jerome K. Jerome)
    - Tristram Shandy (Laurence Sterne)
    - The Tunnel of Love (Peter De Vries) – I don’t think that there is an eBook version however.
    - Zuleika Dobson (Max Beerbohm)

  29. 29 29 Brian

    I’m with you on The Brothers Karamazov. I remember reading it at age 18 and when I finally finished thinking “Wow. Now there is no reason for anyone to write another novel.” I can also attest that the two translations I read had a very different feel to them.
    I would also mention that Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” had the most raw power of any novel my 22-year-old self had ever encountered (although the middle 150 pages or so are pretty slowly). I think I went about 30 hours without being able to sleep after I finished the book somewhere around 5am.

    I would also recommend “My name is Asher Lev” by Chaim Potok and “All the King’s Men” by Robert Penn Warren, if you haven’t read them yet.

    I thought that “Cannery Row” was surprisingly disappointing. And much slower than you’d expect from Steinbeck.

  30. 30 30 DHS

    Keep at The Ambassadors. It is one of the great comic novels; perhaps *the* great comic novel. The Master himself called it the best of his novels.

    Keep at The Ambassadors.

    James’s style in the later novels is deliberately ambiguous. You read the first 25 to 50 pages with no idea of what he’s trying to say, because your brain is wired to assume that an author is only saying one thing at a time. He’s not; every paragraph says at at least two things with one set of words. When it starts to make sense, go back and start over. It’s worth it.

    The style purposeful and, once you get used to it, exactly right. It can drive you nuts until you learn to just accept it; once you’ve accepted it, you realize that it’s a brilliant way to present the world.

    Keep at it. It is one of the most wonderful (and profoundly, sadly, optimistically funny) books ever written.

  31. 31 31 Ken B

    @DHS: I can’t speak for James but what you say applies to Thomas Mann — probably the most subtly ironic writer I know of. Death in Venice is his masterpiece.

  32. 32 32 Ken B

    I’m losing my mind. I completely forgot to mention The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford.

  33. 33 33 Shelby Cook

    ding, ding, ding!
    Ed Kless, you are the winner! Dr. Landsburg, you have some wonderful titles on your list, but I would suggest cutting to the chase and reading James Joyce. He is the last word in fiction, according to lots of people (#1 on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels in English in the 20th century). As a pretty funny guy, Dr. L., you will revel in the hilarity of Ulysses. However, start with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, an almost-autobiography of Joyce. The main character, Stephen Dedalus, is a critical character in Ulysses. The real joy is getting to know Leopold Bloom, the every day hero of Ulysses. There are several fantastic books that can guide you through your first reading. You can also get it as a radio play (RTE 1982) on MP3 – then you can read and listen at the same time (no – it’s not cheating)! Let me know if you would like further info.

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