Thursday, May 1, 2014

Five Books: I Thought Would Be Boring…But Weren’t

I’m kind of a busy person, and like many of you I really treasure my reading time. As such, I must admit that I’ve become a little bit of a snob in terms of what I’m willing to dig into. Most times I’m pretty mercenary about what I’m willing to read, and it’s very rare that I’ll take a flyer on something that’s not in my wheelhouse. But variety is the spice of life, and I do from time to time find things through serendipity. Here are a few pleasant surprises.

Henry Petroski, The Toothpick: Technology and Culture, Call # 674.88 Petroski
I like books about history, but I have to admit that the toothpick struck me as an unprepossessing topic. Petroski makes the subject quite interesting, showing how little things fit into the big picture. Who’d have thought the history of the lowly toothpick went back to the Roman Empire? Not I, certainly. Petroski has an eye for good stories and he tells them in ways that make it easy to stay interested.

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
I actually don’t read too much fiction, and the prospect of plowing through a Victorian novel running to more than 400 pages was not one I found very appetizing. Still, I when I happened upon a copy of this at a moment when I had nothing else on I decided to give it a try. As it happened, I went through it like a shot. Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities (and many of his other books) in weekly magazines, and it shows. Practically every chapter has some sort of cliffhanger and the plot has more twists and turns than a hedge maze.

Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Call # 330.153 S642i 1994
Ok, I know what you’re thinking: it’s really, really long and it’s about economics. Those are fair points. They don’t call it the dismal science for nothing. But Smith has a folksier style than a lot of people writing in the field and he uses lots of examples, so it’s easier than you’d expect to follow what he’s saying. Perhaps most importantly, it’s one of those books that’s referenced a lot more than it’s read. Poor old Adam Smith is probably rolling in his grave as some of the things for which his work is cited as support. The more people who actually read this book, the better off we’ll all be.

Charles Stross, Neptune’s Brood
I’ve liked a lot of other things by Stross, particularly his Laundry Files novels, but this was a horse of a different color. The main character is basically a forensic accountant and the central plot line is the search for a financial instrument whose owner could rule the galaxy. Finally, it was recommended to me by an economist, which really should have been the kiss of death. Still, I dug in and ended up reading it in two sittings. Stross has a talent for punchy-dialog and high energy story lines. This, combined with some really interesting speculation about how life might be lived when we head out to the stars, makes for a quite compelling read.

Simon Winder, Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe, Call# 943.603 Winder
You mightn’t think that the history of Austria-Hungary could be the source of all that many laughs, but you’d be wrong. What makes this story interesting is that the Habsbury family was well-supplied with assorted nuts, cranks, and kooks. Winder does a marvelous job of bringing out just how weird a bunch they all were. There are lots of bodies in the streets and skeletons in the closet to keep the whole thing interesting, and Winder’s prose a light and airy. This is perhaps the most entertaining history book of the year so far.

What books did you think would be boring, but weren't?

~John F.

1 comment:

  1. I've long been a fan of Petroski, his books are always worthwhile reading.
    And I couldn't agree more on Adam Smith.