Ben Crowder /blog

#books

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Recent reads:

Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut. My first time reading Vonnegut. Not really what I expected — I don’t know what on earth I was expecting — but I think I liked it. Weird book, though. Looking forward to reading more of him.

Ultralearning, by Scott Young. As I got into this book, I realized I was mainly mining it for ideas to help me get better at writing. And it did deliver, though there’s certainly a lot of the book that wasn’t as useful in that regard.

Educated, by Tara Westover. Whew, that was intense. And maddening. Couldn’t put it down.

The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Not my usual reading fare, but I really, really liked it. Thoughtful and bittersweet and slow, in a good way.

A Craftsman’s Legacy, by Eric Gorges. Made me want to make things with my hands. Which is why I read it.

How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method, by Randy Ingermanson. Framed as a story, which ended up not being my thing, but I do think the snowflake method has a lot of value and I’m currently trying out some variations on it in my own fiction.

Brothers in Arms, by Lois McMaster Bujold. Good as usual. I love the Vorkosigan books. Great comfort reading, kind of like Discworld for me.

The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden. A bit of a slow start for me but then it got good — and darker than I’d expected, which in this case I liked.

Becoming Superman, by J. Michael Straczynski. What an amazing, inspiring story. Plenty of content warnings, though — what a messed-up family.

The Worlds of Medieval Europe, by Clifford R. Backman. Surprisingly readable for a textbook. (Is that bad to say? Any offended textbook authors in the audience?) Learned a ton, particularly about the parts that were blanks in my mental chronology (800s, 900s, etc.).

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, by Caitlin Doughty. Great book — at least if you think about death all the time like I do. I honestly have no idea what normal people would think of it. Right after I read this book, I got an ad from a local mortuary that offers free tours, and you better believe I’m going to go check it out once the semester’s over.

Recent reads:

Good to Great, by Jim Collins. I enjoyed this much more than I thought I would (having previously had a bit of an aversion to business books). Recommended.

Atomic Habits, by James Clear. Some good ideas here, particularly the push to focus on systems and processes and identity instead of goals.

Quiet, by Susan Cain. Changed how I think about myself and others.

The Light Between Worlds, by Laura E. Weymouth. A lovely, wonderful novel. One of my favorite books ever.

Dark Money, by Jane Mayer. Fascinating book, though the material was disheartening and frustrating.

Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck. My first time reading this. Definitely darker than I expected (I hadn’t heard about the ending). Not really sure what I think about it.

Recent reads:

Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport. My favorite parts were the bits on solitude and on analog hobbies and strenuous leisure.

The Revenge of Analog, by David Sax. After reading this, I was ready to shrug off all my digital hobbies and go full analog. Still working on finding the right balance.

Range, by David Epstein. I’m cheating a little by including this since I’m still in the middle of it, but it’s good and right up my alley. The part about premodern villagers being incapable of abstract thought was fascinating.

The World as It Is, by Ben Rhodes. I didn’t vote for Obama, but now I wish I had. A good on-the-ground look at those eight years.

Isaac’s Storm, by Erik Larson. Whew.

12 Strong, by Doug Stanton. Also whew.

The Tiger, by John Vaillant. The hunt for a man-eating tiger in eastern Russia. Eye-opening.

Recent reads:

Prisoners of Geography, by Tim Marshall. This was my first foray into geopolitics, and I really liked it. Looking forward to Robert Kaplan’s Revenge of Geography as well.

Tubes, by Andrew Blum. A look into the infrastructure of the Internet. It’s easy to forget about all the wires when we live in a somewhat wireless age, so I appreciated the reminder.

Moon Shot, by Jay Barbree. The story of the early American space program, running through the end of the Apollo missions and a bit beyond. I loved it.

Word by Word, by Kory Stamper. A delightful book about lexicography at Merriam-Webster.

On ebooks

For a long time I couldn’t really get into ebooks (in spite of publishing dozens), primarily for nitpicky typographic reasons and because of availability/selection. Over the last few years, however, things changed, and my reading is now pretty much all ebooks.

For EPUBs, I use Marvin on my iPhone and couldn’t be happier with it. (Also, I’ve written a personal-use Python script that replaces f-bombs and other strong profanity in EPUBs with bullet points. Came in handy for Worm, Ra, and UNSONG, all of which I really enjoyed.) In fact, as near as I can remember, reading HPMOR on Marvin was what convinced me ebooks were great. HPMOR also convinced me that fanfiction done well can be amazing. (I liked it better than the originals.)

I’ve also been reading loads of books on Libby, and it’s been great — my public library has a fairly good selection of books on it, and the app itself is far better than the old Overdrive app.

To my surprise, I’ve also started buying books on Kindle. I used to be hesitant to do that (walled garden and all), but I’ve come to terms with it. (To the point that I’ve bought around, uh, 300 books since the beginning of the year. I may have a problem.) (Also, it’s crazy how many books go on sale for a couple dollars. I use eReaderIQ to watch for those sales.) While I do have an old Kindle, I use the app on my phone, since I always have my phone with me. Oh, and the Prime reading library usually has some interesting books, too.

Last but not least, for print books (primarily nonfiction), I tend to scan a chunk of forty to fifty pages using my camera app, turn it into a PDF with Readdle’s Scanner Pro app, and read it using Readdle’s Documents app. That way I can make an “ebook” out of pretty much any print book, letting me read it anywhere without having to lug the physical book around. This method catapulted my nonfiction reading forward, and it’s been great. The only downside is that the scanning takes time, but it’s been worth it. I estimate I’ve read at least 15,000+ pages this way over the past five years.

Overall, I love ebooks. Having them with me all the time is unbeatable. In fact, I just checked and it looks like I haven’t read a print book in over six months. I still love print, but ebooks are the future, at least for me.

Over on r/Fantasy, they recently ran a poll to rank the top self-published books. It’s admittedly limited to the books read by those who frequent r/Fantasy, but it’s still a handy guide if you’re interested in self-published fantasy fiction: the results.

(I’ve only read a couple so far, but generally I’ve liked them a lot. Right now I’m halfway through Sufficiently Advanced Magic, the first Arcane Ascension novel, and it’s great.)

Recommended: Standard Ebooks. They’re doing the same kind of thing I’ve done — making nice EPUB/Kindle editions of Project Gutenberg (though my efforts have of course been at a much smaller scale, and far more sporadic). Even better, Standard Ebooks has good typography standards and they’re proofing the books against original scans. This is a good project.

George Saunders in The Braindead Megaphone, of the news but perhaps applicable elsewhere as well:

In surrendering our mass storytelling function to entities whose first priority is profit, we make a dangerous concession: “Tell us,” we say in effect, “as much truth as you can, while still making money.” This is not the same as asking: “Tell us the truth.”

From Charles Mann’s 1491:

Almost 150 years before Columbus set sail, a Tartar army besieged the Genoese city of Kaffa. Then the Black Death visited. To the defenders’ joy, their attackers began dying off. But triumph turned to terror when the Tartar khan catapulted the dead bodies of his men over the city walls, deliberately creating an epidemic inside. The Genoese fled Kaffa, leaving it open to the Tartars. But they did not run away fast enough; their ships spread the disease to every port they visited.

Whoa.