Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Who doesn’t love a good Cinderella story like Jane Eyre?

I despise spineless, aimless characters like Catcher in the Rye‘s Holden Caufield; Jane Eyre is exactly the opposite. She’s stubborn, she’s principled, and in the end she gets what she wants because she’s worked hard and made the right decisions. Unlike many heroines, she’s not particularly beautiful or smart; what she has is honesty and a strong sense of justice.

The setting and many descriptive details make the book moody and atmospherically (though not thematically) dark; it’s a gothic novel complete with mysterious rooms, storms, eerie sounds and the like.

Jane Eyre is discussed throughout The Weekend Novelist Re-writes the Novel, which points out that the book has an uncommonly large number of antagonists, which means it has an uncommonly large number of subplots. The book’s complexity contributes greatly to its lasting appeal.

When and Why I Read Jane Eyre

This book was chosen by Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book club for May 2017. I read it in 2011 but I don’t mind reading it again.

Genre: fiction (English literature)
Date started / date finished:  06-May-17 to 15-May-17
Length: 467 pages
ISBN: Project Gutenberg 1260
Originally published in: 1897
Gutenberg link: Jane Eyre

How to Lie with Maps by Mark Monmonier

How to Lie with Maps gives readers a glimpse into an arcane field whose ubiquitous products we tend to take for granted: cartography. I’ve read a lot of books, but never one with this particular focus.

You can tell the author loves maps; he wants readers to appreciate the good ones, scorn the poor ones, and be wary of those created with specific agendas in mind. His goal is to raise awareness.

Mission accomplished.

More about this fascinating subject and the author’s take on it below.

Continue reading How to Lie with Maps by Mark Monmonier

How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff

How to Lie with Statistics is both dated and timeless. First published in 1954 but reprinted in 1993, it contains salary and other economic dollar amounts that make no sense in today’s context, but nonetheless explains why we should be skeptical of numbers and charts in the media. (That’s right, fake news is nothing new.)

Even if you have had statistical training, and you already know, for example, that “average” could mean “mean”, “median”, or “mode”, this accessible will raise your awareness of the slipperiness of “facts”.

The style of the illustrations and some of the historical and cultural phenomena and prominent personages mentioned in the text as well as the economic data give the book a pleasantly old-timey feel, like 125 Ways to Make Money with Your Typewriter, though not to the same extent.

When and Why I Read
How to Lie with Statistics

After reading three books about visual displays of data, I thought I’d read a related book about data.

Genre: non-fiction (applied mathematics)
Date started / date finished:  28-Apr-17 to 30-Apr-17
Length: 142 pages
ISBN: 0393310728 (paperback)
Originally published in: 1954
Amazon link: How to Lie with Statistics

Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks

Musicophilia is a collection of neurological anecdotes all dealing with music.

It never ceases to amaze me how much we can learn a lot about brains from by studying those with damaged or otherwise unusual ones, and I’m very grateful that Oliver Sacks not only dedicated so much of his own ample brainpower to that very task, but also chose to transform his professional experience into reasonably accessible stories for non-experts. Not being anything like as musical as Dr. Sacks, however, I found it a bit difficult to relate to him as a narrator of tales specifically about music.

Sometimes he used the word “music” to refer to “serious Western classical music” in a way that seemed to indicate that pop songs obviously didn’t count. I think I would have felt the book was several degrees more approachable if he had started out with some acknowledgement of the wide variety of music in the world, and then explicitly characterized some of  it as being more cognitively challenging or worthwhile to produce and consume, and therefore more relevant to many of his case studies and much of his discussion of them, rather than leaving such things implied but largely unsaid.

All in all, not one of the better Oliver Sacks books, but still, like all eight of the other Oliver Sacks books I’ve read so far, undoubtedly worth reading.

When and Why I Read Musicophilia

Whatever Oliver Sacks writes about, he approaches it in an educated, thoughtful way. With footnotes. I especially enjoy reading what he has to say about brains.

Genre: non-fiction (neurology, music)
Date started / date finished:  12-Apr-17 to 24-Apr-17
Length: 391 pages
ISBN: 9781447222705 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2007
Amazon link: Musicophilia

The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam

The Back of the Napkin was disappointing, perhaps because I’m not in the target audience. As far as I can tell, the target audience is people who work in a consulting firm or a big corporate environment, don’t like drawing, and don’t know what a Venn diagram is.

In the service of better business meetings, the book brings together basic visual displays, superficial insights from cognitive science, and the five w’s of journalism, wrapping it all in a nicely designed but gimmicky napkin-shaped book printed in black and red.

The author sets out some good principles and good examples, but at the end of the day, I just felt like he was showing off the successes of his own career; none of it seemed particularly likely to help me, and somehow it didn’t make for compelling reading.

When and Why I Read The Back of the Napkin

Bought it in Atlanta in 2014. It’s been waiting its turn long enough.

Genre: non-fiction (business)
Date started / date finished:  26-Mar-17 to 20-Apr-17
Length: 276 pages
ISBN: 9781591843061 (hardcover)
Originally published in: 2008
Amazon link: The Back of the Napkin

Airframe by Michael Crichton

When I read Airframe, what struck me most, apart from the author’s finely honed ability to build and sustain tension, was how outdated 90s communication technology seemed. Beepers, CD players, video recorders that use tape, faxes, landline telephones, television screens that aren’t flat… and what the heck is a telex, anyway?

More thoughts on this un-put-down-able techno-thriller below.

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Travels by Michael Crichton

I have mixed feelings about Travels, Michael Crichton’s collection of autobiographical anecdotes.

On the one hand, Crichton is an intelligent, educated and interesting person with stories to tell that are exotic and absorbing, and he’s a good storyteller. On the other hand, a third of the material is about his rocky medical career, and another third of it relates to paranormal stuff, and in a couple of the non-medical, non-paranormal chapters, Crichton relates some nearly lethal experiences of the kind that involve water and thus cause me disproportionate anxiety.

In short, I like how he writes, but I didn’t like much of what he wrote about in this book.

For more on what stood out for me as well as more on Crichton’s oddly unscientific treatment of paranormal phenomena, see below.

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Visual Explanations by Edward R. Tufte

Edward Tufte was a byword among the publishing professionals I worked with in 2004–2008. If you had anything whatsoever to do with the design or illustration of serious books, you had at least one of his four giant tomes on your shelf, if not all of them:

  • The Visual Display of Quantitative Information
  • Envisioning Information
  • Visual Explanations
  • Beautiful Evidence

Visual Explanations is the only one that’s made it onto my shelves so far, but at least now I’ve read it. Now I know what all the fuss is about.

Tufte’s lovely, informative book shows readers how data has been displayed throughout history in a variety of fields and how it is clarified or obscured by the manner in which it is displayed. He shows you illustrations of magic tricks and data from the Challenger disaster as well as 17th century book frontispieces; snapshots from computer interfaces as well as images from works of art history and natural history.

When and Why I Read Visual Explanations

On the to-read list since June 2012. Ties in with The Back of the Napkin because it’s about visual thinking.

Genre: non-fiction (information design)
Date started / date finished:  30-Mar-17 to 08-Apr-17
Length: 151 pages
ISBN: 0961392126 (hardcover)
Originally published in: 1997
Amazon link: Visual Explanations

China in Ten Words by Yu Hua

China in Ten Words offers an astonishing look under the shiny veneer of modern China. Yu Hua’s life experiences make for fascinating, if sometimes gruesome, sad, absurd, or horrifying stories. The essays don’t pull punches.

Yu Hua isn’t technically a Chinese dissident, since in China he enjoys fame as a respected novelist, yet this book was not, could not have been published on the mainland because he talks about the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, still a taboo (censored) subject in the PRC.

I’m so glad I read China in Ten Words, because it seems that almost all the other nonfiction books I’ve read about China were written by outsiders. An exception (the exception?) is a book I read in 2013 called Life and Death in Shanghai, a powerful memoir by a woman named Nien Cheng who lived through the Cultural Revolution. She was older and much more privileged than Yu Hua, whose upbringing was rural and far less comfortable, but she suffered more as a result of her special status.

Yu Hua’s book is organized around ten words, but the essays aren’t about the words themselves. The words just serve as concise labels.

More on the ten essays below.

Continue reading China in Ten Words by Yu Hua