TWO thousand eleven is the same as 2010 and the year before that.
That’s as far as the number of books I’ve read is concerned.
For the past three years, I’ve read 28 books annually, failing to meet my goal of finishing 30 books a year. My record year still is 2008, when I read 30++ books, including comics, short novels, and a New Yorker issue cover to cover.
Despite being unable to exceed expectations this year, I’m not about to complain.
Two thousand eleven has been such a good reading year that I’ve considered writing about my top ten books, instead of five, of the year.
Except that the number is already more than a third of the total books I’ve read and I don’t want to give undue advantage to them, even though some of them were written by my favorite authors.*
Of the 28 books I read this year, 17 were non-fiction, seven were fiction, and three were anthologies which featured a sampling of both—two Granta issues and a collection of pieces by Jonathan Ames, The Double Life is Twice as Good, which I happened to have finished early morning of New Year’s Eve. Meanwhile, “A Sampling of This Season’s Top Shelf Comics,” is unfortunately the only comic book I read this year.
Interestingly enough, all ten of my best reads are non-fiction and of the top five, one is a biography and the other, an autobiography.
But enough of blather.
Here are my top five reads of the year in order of rank. [See: My top five for 2010]
1) Chino and his time by Vergel Santos
If you care about this country—and not just because it issues the passport you’re fated to carry for the rest of your traveling life—then read this book about a funny, committed, and humble man.
Despite his wealth and foreign education, the late Manila Times publisher Chino Roces gave up cigar and pipe smoking because he thought these would keep people at a distance and ate at carinderias, all the while helping the protest movement against the Marcos dictatorship.
How many media moguls, let alone reporters themselves, can do that?
At the peak of his popularity, he was something of a pop star, Vergel Santos writes in the biography.
A constant companion and self-assigned bodyguard, Joe Velez, himself recalls: “Where he appeared, a protest crowed automatically gathered. People called out to him, followed him, touched him. He was like a pop star.” He remembers in particular a twelve-year-old who pushed through the crowd pleading for a moment’s closeness to her idol: “Patabi naman ke Don Chino.”
Once, at the announcement that Chino was feeling feint demonstrating bare-pated in the torrid noonday sun and could use a hat, all manner of hat rained toward him.
“That’s how he got that,” says Pete Morato, the announcer, pointing to a picture of Chino in the wide-brimmed farmer’s straw hat he would be seen often wearing, with the peasanty form of address “Tatang” painted on its crown in red.”
My only trouble with this book?
It’s too short.
But a revised, expanded edition is on the way, according to a person who resembles Alan Robles. Seriously, if you’re going to read just one book for this year, make it this one. [See: Five things to remember about Chino Roces, Alan Robles]
2) The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
The Black Swan was the first book I read for 2011. It may also be the first book I’ll be reading for 2012.
I was prompted to read it again after I saw all the paragraphs and quotes I took note of.
It doesn’t hurt that Taleb, who refuses to have to do anything with people who don’t read, is a good writer himself because he’s well-read.
But that’s just icing on the cake.
One of his book’s main arguments is that experts, so-called, and cabdrivers have about the same chances of predicting the future because there is such a thing as luck and that experts overlook silent pieces of evidence, which, simply put, is evidence that is not there.
He cites the characteristics of millionaires to prove his point.
“The graveyard of failed persons will be full of people who shared the following traits: courage, risk-taking, optimism, et cetera. Just like the population of millionaires. There may be some differences in skills, but what truly separates the two is for the most part a single factor: luck. Plain luck.
The fund management industry claims that some people are extremely skilled, since year after year they have outperformed the market. They will identify these “genuises” and convince you of their abilities. My approach has been to manufacture cohorts of purely random investors and, by simple computer simulation, show how it would be impossible not to have these genuises produced just by luck. Every year, you fire the losers, leaving only the winners, and thus end up with long-term steady winners. Since you do not observe the cemetery of failed investors, you will think that it is a good business, and that some operators are considerably better than others. Of course an explanation will be readily provided for the success of the lucky survivors: “He eats tofu,” “She works late; just the other day I called her office at eight P.M….” Of course, “She is naturally lazy. People with that type of laziness can see things clearly.” By the mechanism of retrospective determinism, we will find the “cause”—actually we need to see the cause. I call these simulations of hypothetical cohorts, often done by computer, an engine of computational epistemology. Your thought experiments can be run on a computer. You just simulate an alternative world, plain random, and verify that it looks similar to the one in which we live. Not getting lucky billionaires in these experiments would be the exception.”
Taleb, a trader, is also big on respect.
“Most people engaged in the pursuits that I call “concentrated” spend most of their time waiting for the big day that (usually) never comes.
True, this takes your mind away from the pettiness of life—the cappuccino that is too warm or too cold, the waiter too slow or too intrusive, the food too spicy or not enough, the overpriced hotel room that does not quite resemble the advertised picture—all these considerations disappear because you have your mind on much bigger and better things. But this does not mean that the person insulated from materialistic pursuits becomes impervious to other pains, those issuing from disrespect. Often these Black Swan hunters feel shame, or are made to feel shame, at not contributing. “You betrayed those who had high hopse for you,” they are told, increasing their feeling of guilt. The problem of lumpy payoffs is not so much in the lack of income they entail, but the pecking order, the loss of dignity, the subtle humiliations near the watercooler.
It is my great hope someday to see science and decision makers rediscover what the ancients have always known, namely that the highest currency is respect.”
3) Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches from The Dumb Season by Matt Taibbi
Rolling Stone magazine reporter Matt Taibbi is just like P. J. O’Rourke, only younger and left-leaning. He may also be similar to Luis Teodoro but with snappier prose and pointed humor. [See: Luis Teodoro]
Like any right-thinking rabble-rouser, he criticizes reporters especially when they become meek and unassertive in the face of power.
“Reporters argue that they have no choice. They’ll say they can’t protest or boycott the staged format, because they risk being stripped of their seats in the press pool. For the same reason, they can’t write anything too negative…They can’t write what they think, and can’t ask real questions. What the hell are they doing there? If the answer is “their jobs,” it’s about time we started wondering what that means.”
Taibbi, who says that he’s the love child of Rupert Murdoch and Imelda Marcos, also commented on the media’s coverage of the US 2004 elections, a description that may also be close to home.
“If there’s one criticism of the campaign press that has really held true all across the board throughout this race, it’s this tendency to kid-glove politicians, make excuses for them, make them seem more legitimate than they really are. It is important for the public to remember that a campaign reporter who would call the campaign a bogus, shallow, farce—who would say for instance that the campaign is a mindless exercise in mudslinging diversion held between a pair of toothy millionaires with nearly identical plans for the management of this country—is also saying his own job is bogus. Therefore the opposite instinct is usually in evidence in campaign coverage. The race is described as something profound, a true clash of ideals, led by two worthy men of unfathomable depth of character.”
4) Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide by various authors
Too bad I don’t have a copy of this book myself—which would have allowed me to quote and thereby comment on it extensively—it was lent to me and I was almost unwilling to return it.
Well-written examples of long-form journalism are accompanied by a page or two, more often even less, of how the writer produced the piece and covered his subject. Even before I finished the first chapter, I knew it was a winner. Thanks, Jonathan de Santos for lending it to me. [See: de Santos]
5) The Last Editor by Jim Bellows
Too bad my copy has been lent out—therefore I can’t quote it directly as of this posting—and runs the risk of not being returned.
The autobiography shows proof that the newsroom—despite being filled with tension—can also be filled with fun.
Because that’s the way Jim Bellows ran his newsroom.
As editor, he helped promote the writing careers of Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe. In 1965, he assigned Wolfe to cover and write about the New Yorker and its editor William Shawn, which didn’t go well with the subject who tried to prevent or otherwise delay publication.
Bellows only smiled, sat back as if he was made vice president**, and refused to cave.
The decision, besides boosting the New York Tribune, a far second to the New York Times, also helped usher in New Journalism. Or so according to Wolfe himself in a tribute published by Time Magazine. [See: Wolfe on Bellows]
*The remaining five which didn’t make my list this year are as follows:
On Writing Well: 25th Anniversary Edition by William Zinnser (Read every edition of this book and loved each one); Say Everything by Scott Rosenberg (And he means that literally, even if it means getting fired from your job, emphasizing the freedom offered by the internet); How Proust Can Change your Life by Alain de Botton (De Botton is always a pleasure to read because he provides edification and enjoyment); Drive Like Crazy by P. J. O’Rourke (This will drive you crazy with laughter. And about time too—his last two or three books were only worth a few chuckles); Chapman’s Car Compedium: The Essential Book of Car Facts and Trivia by Giles Chapman (All minutiae regarding cars written in an amusing style).
**From the Give Credit Where It Is Due Dept.
That phrase was from The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.