On My Bookshelf

     One of my bad habits is that I buy books faster than I read them. I tend to read based on what I’m interested in that particular week. When I’m really into a book I can crank it out in a matter of days. However, sometimes my interest flags halfway through the book and I start reading something else, and never come back to the original book. And then sometimes I’ll never get started at all, I just buy it because I know I’ll want to read it at some point. So I’ve set a goal of knocking out my all the books on my bookshelf that I haven’t read.

     To help myself, I’ve decided to rank them. If any of you are looking for a random book to read, you’ve come to the right place. I buy random yet interesting books. I’ve imposed a moratorium on buying any new books until I’ve read all the ones on this list, which is like cutting smoking cold turkey except more educational (probably). Of course, all this starts after I’ve finished my current book. Like everyone else in the world I’m reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.

1) The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring

     This book is first because its a library book, and I’m sick of checking things out from the library and never reading them. Anyway, by the time I read this my last two books will have been broad, modern, anthropological works examining humanity’s currents habits in regards to, respectively, eating and crapping. That will be Dilemma and The Big Necessity (which will probably be the subject of my next post). I need a smaller story after those two, something close to fiction.

     Wild Trees is perfect. The book is about tall treeclimbers in the wilds of California (didn’t realize California still had wilds). From the synopsis:

     Richard Preston unfolds the spellbinding story of Steve Sillett, Marie Antoine, and the tiny group of daring botanists and amateur naturalists that found a lost world above California, a world that is dangerous, hauntingly beautiful, and unexplored.  The canopy voyagers are young–just college students when they start their quest–and they share a passion for these trees, persevering in spite of sometimes crushing personal obstacles and failings. They take big risks, they ignore common wisdom (such as the notion that there’s nothing left to discover in North America), and they even make love in hammocks stretched between branches three hundred feet in the air.

     The New York Times describes it as a “swashbuckling reading.” Any book with that description is bound to be one of my favorites.


2) Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution and How It Can Renew America

     There are a couple of books on this list that I first heard about when their authors appeared on The Daily Show. This is one of them. I generally like Friedman’s columns for the New York Times. Friedman’s book argues that America needs to take the global lead in a “green revolution” much like we took the lead in the Industrial and Information Revolutions (“But the puppy was a dog…”). If we don’t someone else is going to take the lead for us. On the back cover Friedman says that America needs “to get its ‘groove’ back.” That America needs a green revolution is something that’s been pretty painfully obvious for a couple decades but the movement is only now catching on, what with Barack Obama promising to wave a magic wand (of cash) and generate millions of green jobs. A timely book, in my opinion.


3) Einstein

      I love reading about history, I love biographies and I love reading about science. I got this book for Christmas from my G-ma. It’s the first of two Isaacson biographies on this list, and the first of four. Isaccson is a pretty prolific biographer, but I’ve never read any of his stuff. Looking forward to this one.







4) Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World

     I bought Banana some months ago. I had seen it in B&N weeks before and made up my mind immediately that I wanted it. I mean, my family had always been a banana family. But how much do you really know about bananas? Anyway after looking forward to it for all those weeks I bought it, and started reading it only to false start. I just wasn’t feeling it for some reason. The interest is still there, though. Some of the interesting things I learned while reading the first 20 pages or so: the banana plant is actually one of the world’s largest weeds,  Americans eat more bananas than apples and oranges combined (even though they’re not grown in America), 40-year-old Americans have eaten roughly 10,000 of them on average, and a disease is currently threatening the world’s banana crops.


5) Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town

     Because after a broad sociological work, an exhaustive biography, and a very detailed book about bananas I’ll need the literary equivalent of a Law and Order episode. That title says it all. 








6) Five Past Midnight in Bhopal

     I got this book from my grandfather several years back. I read the first couple of chapters but never more.  As the years have gone by and I look at it on my bookshelf, I have always regretted not finishing it. I remember that the 20th Anniversary of the Dow chemical spill in Bhopal was when I was in college. There were some displays on campus and one of my very intelligent friends admitted that he had never heard of the disaster, which some estimate killed over 10,000 people. It’s one of those disasters that Americans tend to forget because it happened on the other side of the world. I mean, 10,000 people. God. The first of three disaster books on this list.


7) Three Cups of Tea

     After five and six, I’ll need a lighter fair. Three Cups is the story of Greg Mortenson, a Minnesota-born mountaineer, and his quest to build schools (primarily for girls) in rural Afghanistan and Pakistan, the heart of the War on Terror. Mortenson is the founder of the Central Asian Institute. Should make for an entertaining, feel-good reading full of hopeyness. I’ll need it before diving into the next one on my list.





8 ) Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

     This is the book Obama was touting before he nominated a White House full of Clintonistas and Robert Gates. Oh well. An in depth look at the politics of Civil War. Essentially answers the question, what’s the big deal about Abraham Lincoln. I really dig Doris Kearns Goodwin. She’s got a Diane Keaton-in-Something’s Gotta Give-except-smart thing going on. I could club an elk to death with this book. It might take me as long as a month to crank this one out, and that’s if I don’t put it down and come back to it.




9) Charlemagne’s Tablecloth: A Piquant History of Feasting

     I’ll need something piquant after Rivals. I read some of this book in college but inexplicably never finished it. Then I found it last year at BookPeople in Austin for only $8. This book gave me one of my favorite food anecdotes, about the medieval feast tradition of taking a peacock or swan, skinning it and removing the feathers in one piece, roasting the bird, reinserting it into the body and feathers, gilding the beak in gold, placing a ball of cloth soaked in alcohol in the beak and lighting it. Then you put the whole thing on a platter and bring it into the hall. The bird looks like it’s breathing fire. I ought to do that sometime.


10) The Audacity of Hope

     I bought three books during the campaign. Obama’s two books and McCain’s Faith of My Fathers. I only got around to reading one of them, Obama’s memoir, Dreams From My Father. That’s the one where he talks about his struggle for dealing with his racial identity. Hope is drier, but now that’s he’s president it’s even more important. I mean the guy basically lays out all his plans and viewpoints in this book. He’s having a rough transition in Washington. I think he needs to do a better job in standing up to his own party. Especially Pelosi, who’s the mirror image of everything that was wrong about Republicans like Tom Delay.


11) Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq

     Iraq is a war fought by my generation. I really want to understand more about how the war got started and what went so wrong with it. Now I’m not as virulent a critic of George W. Bush as some of my friends, but I don’t think anyone can argue that the war wasn’t mismanaged. We didn’t support our troops. Fortunately, they turned the tide and Iraqis are safer and have a chance at a free country. I like that Obama is being reasonable about this and committing to continued troop presence even after the majority of combat troops come home, or head to Afghanistan. Ricks is Pulitzer Prize winner, but I found this book in the Bargain section at B&N for less that $7. Go figure.


12) Fork it Over: The Intrepid Adventures of a Professional Eater

     Another fun book about food to refresh the palate (groan). Alan Richman is a sportswriter turned food critic at GQ. This is a collection of his best work.








13) Krakatoa: The Day The World Exploded: August 27, 1883

     This is the first of two books on my list by Simon Winchester. Hot damn, the man gets amazing titles. I mean, “The Day the World Exploded.” HOW can you NOT want to read that?!! Krakatoa was an island in Indonesia that got destroyed in 1883 by one of the most powerful volcanic explosions in the geological history of the world. I can only imagine if (when) something like this happened (happens) in the Information Age. The explosion was heard in Australia. The tsunami killed 40,000 and affected tides as far away as France. Barometers in Washington D.C. went nuts. 


14) Benjamin Franklin

     “Ben Freakin Franklin,” as George Washington often referred to him. I’m even more excited to read this book after seeing the entertaining portrayal of him in the HBO series John Adams.






15) Reading Lolita in Tehran

     Tehran is a popular book club book, mainly because it deals with women’s lib in often oppressive Iran. Despite its popularity, I found this book for three bucks at Half Price in Austin. Seems like a poignant work. I had originally intended to read it in companion to Three Cups, but I need this here to break up the biographies. I bet this book will shine a light on my inadequacies when it comes to classic works of literature.





16) LBJ: Arhitect of American Ambition

     LBJ was many things, almost all of them contrasting. A crude man from rural Texas who was a master of politics. If he’s half as entertaining as Billy Lee Bramer’s parody of him in The Gay Place this book will be plenty entertaining. Randall Woods’ biography is one of the most thorough and accurate portraits of one of the most complex individuals in recent American political history.





17) The Crack In The Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906

     Seriously. Simon Winchester. Best titles EVER.


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