What & how I read this year

The biggest change to my reading habits this year is Whispersync. The name sounds like some kind of vacuum cleaner or AC window unit from the 1950’s — “Frigidaire dishwashers, now with Whispersync.” Or “with Whispersync” written in a chrome and stylized cursive beneath “Ford Falcon” on the trunk. But it’s really Amazon’s new service syncing books on multiple devices, including audiobooks from Audible. I’ve gotten a lot of free Kindle books and gotten the excellent Audible recordings paired with them for 99 cents each. I can listen to C.K. Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World on my walk to school, and I can pick up where I left off listening when I read it during our silent reading time in class.

I find that, by combining my reading and listening times, I get immersed in a book. The reading-listening combination also gets me through some daunting books I’ve always wanted to read, such as All the King’s Men, which I’ve read twice now. I’m a consummate notetaker, and Whispersync satisfies there, too, pretty much. The notes I speak into my iPhone while listening to the book show up transcribed on my computer when I return to reading to the book. Nothing beats scribbling in a book, but for finding your notes short of building your own index in a book (which I’ve done many times), nothing beats digital books.

I used Whispersync for weeks for just 99 cents a classic. I didn’t buy a Kindle since I was satisfied reading the books on my computer. The complete 99-cent collection is here, along with a link to whatever free Kindle-Audible book combination Amazon is offering during a given month. (The wording on the linked page suggests that you can get only one Kindle-Audible book combination for 99 cents, but in fact you can get as many of the 104 combinations offered on that page as you’d like. I’ve gotten fifteen so far.

Once you’re hooked, you’ll find some other, newer books in the Kindle format for pretty good prices compared to print, and the Audio version will be for like $3.99 more. I remember the days online when you’d spend over $50 — sometimes over $100 — for good audiobooks.

I like the Whispersync combination so much that a month ago I bought my first e-reader, a Kindle Paperwhite. Because the screen is side-lit, I read it at night without having to worry that my lamp will keep Victoria up.

I have only a few complaints. First, you have to re-sync the last read page to keep the Whispersync coordinated if you access the footnotes on the Kindle app (but not the Kindle itself). Second, all the free books I get on archive.org in Kindle’s format won’t sync from my computer’s and phone’s Kindle apps to my Kindle.  And third, electronic versions, Kindle or otherwise, don’t exist for most of the books I read, as the list below might suggest. A lot of the books I read are out of print, anyway — an occurrence that should be progressively rarer in a century with growing percentages of print-on-demand publishing and digital books.

But, still, Whispersync’s a steal so far.

This spring I’m teaching Macbeth, a play I haven’t read in several years. I’m planning on reading and watching the WordPlay version, where “half the page is a stage,” as the WordPlay people say — a dramatization of the portion of the script opposite it. This innovation is in the spirit of Whispersync, I think.

So on to my reading this year. I think I’m posting a list of what books I’ve read this year for three reasons: (1) I like to think my books show part of where my head’s been this year. (2) It’ll be fun to learn if anyone else has recently picked up any of the books I’ve been reading. (3) I like looking back at 2012’s post by the same name and comparing my years in books.

My reading in 2012 was about as eclectic: a lot of good fiction, some political science and Chinese philosophy, a single bio, and a smattering of other books. I read a lot of books I hadn’t read since college. I love reading books I read in college. It’s like reincarnation.

This year’s books are weighted more to political science. I gave myself a crash course in natural law in preparing my video series and its annotated transcript this summer. I also had to read portions of a lot of old-friend books that aren’t listed below, so if you’re a teacher, give me credit for that, too. (I must be thoroughly institutionalized.)

My proudest moments as a reader? In 2012, Audible finally got me through Bleak House. This year, Whispersync finally got me through Don Quixote. It felt like it was over before it had done much more than start. “Reading” these luggers by listening to unabridged recordings of them is the only way to go. If you haven’t tried Peter Barker’s performance of Tristram Shandy, for instance, you’re in for a treat. At times, I had to stop lifting weights so I wouldn’t kill myself laughing.

The most beautiful thing I heard this year — more beautiful than music — is Bill Wallis’s performance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Simon Armitage translation. Wallis and his wonderful cadences and accent are from Northern England, where the poem is supposed to have originated. Sir Gawain, you may know, is part of an alliterative revival that occurred in the late Middle Ages. The translation’s first-rate listening and a triumph of poetry over literality. Armitage’s introduction is also excellent. The second half of the recording is the poem in its original Middle English. You might listen to some of that to immerse yourself in our linguistic forebears’ cadences or just for the thrill of recognizing some Modern English words and phrases.

I’m using the same seven classifications below that I used last year to pigeonhole my reading. I’m counting lecture series from The Great Courses this year for the first time. (If you can put up with audio only and don’t mind not having even a written outline, you can now download almost any Great Courses lecture series for one credit ($15) if you’re an Audible member.)

1. I read it – the whole thing – either in print, through an audio performance, or both:

Jane Austen, Persuasion (second read)

Tinguely Museum Basel, Robert Lax

Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country

The Book of Job (umpteenth read)

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (second read)

Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World

Teju Cole, Open City (second read)

Sonail Deraniyagala, Wave

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (second read)

E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime

William Faulkner, The Mansion

William Faulkner, The Reivers (second read)

William Faulkner, The Town (second read)

David Hackett Fischer, Champlain’s Dream

Everett Fox, Give Us a King! (translation of I and II Samuel)

Adam Goodheart, 1861: The Civil War Awakening

Ruth Grant, John Locke’s Liberalism (second read)

Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing

Alan C. Guelzo, The American Mind (The Great Courses)

Arthur Herman, The Cave and The Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization

Davie Johnson, John Randolph of Roanoke

Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers

C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet

Walter Lippmann, The Public Philosophy

John Locke, The Reasonable of Christianity, as Delivered in the Scriptures

John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education

Thomas Paine, Common Sense

Paul’s Epistles (the umpteenth read)

The Pearl Poet, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Plato, Meno

Richard Rohr, Falling Upward

David Roochnik, An Introduction to Greek Philosophy (The Great Courses)

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (umpteenth read)

E. M. Standing, Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

George Steiner, The Death of Tragedy

Peter Stephens, The Nature of Government: Lockean Liberalism for Our Next Civil Crisis (at least a dozen times, and I still found typos)

Morton White, The Philosophy of the American Revolution

Thomas Williams, Reason and Faith: Philosophy in the Middle Ages (The Great Courses)

Colin Woodard, Eleven Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America

2. Reading currently, with an aim to finishing:

G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Knew Too Much

David Hackett Fischer, Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas

Charles de Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws

Kurt Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan

3. Read a good chunk of it before giving it a rest, though I liked what I read:

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England

Alan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students

Allan Bloom, Shakespeare’s Politics

Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

E. L. Doctorow, Creationists: Selected Essays 1993 – 2006

Robert Lax, Circus Days and Nights

Ronald Steel, Walter Lippmann and the American Century

4. Skimmed, bought, and hope to read next year:

Joyce Appleby, Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination

Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution

Robert Lowry Clinton, God and Man in the Law: The Foundation of American Constitutionalism

Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom

Rienhold Niebuhr, Selected Essays and Addresses

Rienhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History

David Roochnick, Retrieving the Ancients: An Introduction to Greek Philosophy

Gary Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence

I’m not counting three other categories. They include (5) books I returned to for inspiration, reference, pleasure, or for a page or two’s read before conking out and (6) books I started but gave up on. I couldn’t keep track of books from either of these two categories anyway. (The former category is my favorite reading; the latter is my least favorite.) Of course, there are (7) non-books – mostly the Internet, print periodicals, and student essays – which probably made up a plurality of my reading.


On the Platform, Reading” by Mo Riza. Used by Permission.