January 2nd, 2010

Relax!  Grab a Book!

Book 35

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  1. Duffy-Korpics, Lisa — Tales from a Dog Catcher (255 pages)
  2. Laclos, Choderlos de — Dangerous Liaisons (437 pages)
  3. Sagan, Françoise — Bonjour Tristesse (100 pages)
  4. Stephenson, Neal — Snow Crash (440 pages)
  5. Ross, Alex — The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (614 pages)

Page count: 8722.

The twentieth century will no doubt be remembered as a century of upheaval, no less in the arts than in other arenas. These upheavals did not occur in a vacuum independent of each other but helped shape each other in myriad ways.

The Rest Is Noise is a survey of twentieth century music, placing it in a cultural, social, historical, and geopolitical context. Developments (and particularly one musical revolution that began in Vienna) greatly altered to musical landscape in a way unheard of in preceding eras, making the twentieth century the source of some of the most diverse and fascinating music ever composed.

Ross begins with Mahler and Strauss, who pushed the tonal envelope to its bursting point; onto Schoenberg and Stravinsky, who turned the musical world on its head, and covered every major and many minor composers right up to John Adams and the post-minimalists who are still composing today. He discusses how developments in the world of music were shaped by and helped influence world events, such as the rise of communism and the Soviet system, the Weimar Republic, the Holocaust, the New Deal, and the reactionary, avant-garde ethos of the post-War world. He discusses in depth the contributions of and to jazz and popular music. (More of a two-way streak than I ever realized—I never thought a book on "classical" music would spend so much time on Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Sonic Youth, the Velvet Underground, the Beatles, Public Enemy, and Missy Elliott, amongst others!) Really, it's as comprehensive a survey as I've ever read.

And it is, naturally, a fascinating read. The Rest Is Noise is about the movers and shakers during the most exciting era in music history, but it is also a book about the twentieth century in broader terms. Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, writes in an engaging, accessible style and includes just enough (very basic) music analysis to keep those with musical backgrounds happy, but not so much that a non-musician would lose interest. And Ross took the trouble of creating an accompanying website to The Rest Is Noise, filled with audio and video clips (including rare, archival footage), photographs, anecdotes, and links to other sites of interest. (This website is essential for understanding the book, for no amount of musical expertise would enable you to understand discussion about, say, Cage or Stockhausen or Xenakis without listening to their work.)

The Rest Is Noise is one of the best books about music I have ever read and I couldn't recommend it enough. Even if "classical" music isn't your thing — and many with preconceived notions of what classical music is wouldn't recognize a lot of twentieth century music as such — I think you would find this book and the developments discussed therein, at the very least, might force you to rethink your notions about music in the past century.

Relax!  Grab a Book!

2009 Book Summary

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Page count: 8722.


My goal for 2009 was to keep pace with the previous two years or, stated measurably, read either 36 books or 10,000 pages. I fell approximately 1300 pages short of my goal (and 1042 pages short of last year's tally) because my reading time was instead filled with learning new music for operas and recitals. (No complaints here!) I fell one book short due to poor planning: I misremembered my goal and read a longer novel in the last two weeks of the year instead of the two shorter novels I'd originally planned.

Since I began tracking my books in 2005, the number of books read each year is 28, 51, 36, 36, and 35. The average number of books I've read each of the past 5 years is 37. Take away the first two years, which are statistical outliers, and I seem to have fallen into an average of 36 books a year or 3 books per month. In the three years I've also been tracking pages, the numbers have been 9517, 9764, and 8722. The average number of pages I read is approximately 9334 per year.

My favorite books from the past year were Gilead, Fup, Clown, and The Rest Is Noise. My least were The Courage To Be Catholic and Eunoia. The most influential was probably The Rest Is Noise, which got me to explore music sub-genres I hadn't given much thought to and might shape my plan for future music engagements.

In 2009 I read works by 32 unique (listed) authors, of whom 26 were new to me. I read less speculative fiction than in recent years and more centuries-old stuff, and I read a greater variety of genres: I read more plays and I discovered graphic novels and picture books. (With the increased emphasis on visual and aural media as part of my reading, one might say this was a multimedia year for me.) The longest book I read was The Rest Is Noise at 614 pages (and really, because the pages were nearly twice as large as an average paperback, it might reasonable be considered to be a third again as long!) and the shortest was Clown at 30 pages, for an average of 249 pages per book.

I'm going to continue tracking the books I read because it is useful to me, both as a way to help me remember and think more analytically about the books and as a motivational tool. (I also hope a few people might discover new books they enjoy based on my recommendations, but such vain considerations are secondary.) However, I'm not going to set myself a target number of books for 2010. I find that the compulsion to reach x number of books for the year keeps me away from some of the big books I have on my shelves. After all, a 900-page book is roughly equivalent to three average-length books. Really, though, I'm cheating myself by avoiding these heftier books. Thus, my goal for 2010 will be page-number-based, in the hope I'll pick up a few of these massive tomes. I was going to make my goal 9000 pages: This would be about the same number of pages over what I managed in 2009 and below my three year average. But I think that's a bit of a cop-out, since (1) 2009 was a down year for total pages read and (2) a goal should push me. Thus, in honor of 2010, I will make my goal for the year to read 10,000 pages.