Reflecting on some books I actually finished this summer

All of you, dear readers, know how terrible I am at finishing books. This has only been exacerbated since I started reading on my Kindle DX (and on the Kindle app on the Mac and on the Galaxy Tab).

And yet, I did manage to read a few to the end recently. One was James Gleick’s The Information: A Theory, a History, a Flood. I started reading this on the Kindle, and it was handy on a train trip in April to have it along with a few other things without carrying a heavy book bag. (It was also handy to have it at the car dealership while waiting for a multi-hour repair to be done.)

But the book was so excellent, so engaging, that I could not stand the idea of reading the rest of it in the Amazon-enforced one font and with substandard graphics. Halfway through, I bought it again as a hardback and finished it the old-fashioned way, holding a nicely produced book in my hands.

What was so good about the book? The same qualities that distinguished the other book by Gleick I read (several years ago, that one), Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman. Gleick’s books, on the evidence of this two-point data set, are deeply researched but written with novelistic pace. You just know that the limpid explanations you are reading get the science correctly. You also can’t wait to continue reading, because the next amazing thing is lurking in the next page (or screen). The Information, for example, starts with a disquisition on the language of African drums. Not what I expected, and I couldn’t have expected it anyway, as I was totally unaware of everything about African drums as communication media except the bare fact that they exist.

The more I kept reading, the more I realized how much Gleick was teaching me about aspects of information theory that I had absorbed (badly) by osmosis in my general restless reading over the years. This continued throughout the book. Revelation was followed by revelation: a much clearer understanding of what entropy has to do with information transmission (along with a nice mini-biography of Claude Shannon); how Turing’s revolutionary work fits in; the amazing telegraph networks built in Europe in the late 1700s and early 1800s; the story of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage and the famous Babbage adding machine; and much more (it’s telling that I can remember these examples without consulting the book now, some two or three months after I finished reading it).

Having given this glowing recommendation to The Information, I turn now to a novel I finished exclusively on the Kindle and various Kindle apps: Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife. I had some trepidation to start this one, even though I read good reviews, because it is about the Balkans and would stir up old resentments in me. So it did. It reminded me of the huge backwardness of the culture there, especially outside major cities. It reminded me of the unbelievable small-mindedness of nationalism and war-making. It… but enough about the bad reminders.

The book rose above all the negatives. I kept turning the virtual pages. I was even undeterred by a certain fabulistic (“magic realistic”) element. I just wanted to finish. So I did. And many of the book’s scenes got engraved in my mind almost as though I saw a movie (I bet one will be made soon, but I don’t know if I will see it; I think I would rather keep the memory of the movie that formed in my own mind as I was reading). Everything Obreht wrote (how can she write so well, so vividly, at such a young age?) rang true to what I remember from growing up in the Balkans and hearing stories from elders who grew up in villages. I am glad for Obreht that she did not stay stuck in that part of the world and I am glad for English readers like me who have more books from her to look forward to.

Finally, for now, I want to talk a little about Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall. I got this one from one of the Atlantic bookstores that serve the New Jersey shore resort towns during our shore vacation this July. I just finished it a few days ago. I bought it in the first place because I had really loved Cunningham’s The Hours, another book I read some years ago. By Nightfall starts well and builds up the story even better. It also makes a movie in one’s mind, maybe less vivid than Obreht’s but a movie still. The main characters are a couple in their mid-forties living a fine second-rung existence in the art community in New York City and the wife’s much younger brother. I liked the ruminations about life in general and the allusions to other books and works of art (I am sure I missed many of these, too).

On the topic of allusions, I accidentally read a scathing review of By Nightfall in The Guardian that laid into Cunningham for overdoing the allusions, especially in the last chapter. After some thought on this, I decided to take Cunningham’s side. The narrator lives in his mind among worlds of different arts; he gives meaning to his life this way, and it is entirely in character that he would go off the rails and overdo it in the emotionally charged end of the novel.

At the end, I came away from By Nightfall with not quite the great impression that The Hours left me with. I just could not really identify with the growing obsession of the main character. Of the three books I talked about in this post, this would rank third but it still was one I liked. Of course I did, you will say: I finished it!

Now let’s see how long it will take me before I write another post here. I keep vowing I will make it a habit to write at least a little something at short intervals. All I can say now is, we’ll see. Meanwhile, O Gentle Reader who read all the way through to the end of this mammoth post, thank you.