Cosmicomics

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The Best of The Millions: 2014

The Millions is going to be very quiet this week, a great opportunity for readers to catch up on some of the most notable pieces from the site during the year. To start, we’ll divide the most popular posts on The Millions into two categories, beginning with the 20 most popular pieces published on the site in 2014: 1. Sam Anderson and David Rees decided, for science, to do a deep dive on Dan Brown's thriller Inferno. The result was Dumbest Thing Ever: Scribbling in the Margins of Dan Brown’s Inferno and some of the funniest marginalia you'll ever read. 2. Oh, The Favorites You’ll Give: Literary Twitter’s Best Tweets: Many readers are well aware of the many charms that literary Twitter has to offer. We looked at the most "popular" tweets of some of the most well-known literary personalities on Twitter. 3. Style Sheet: A Conversation with My Copyeditor: Our own Edan Lepucki's made waves this year with her bestselling novel California, and as the book hit shelves, she took the opportunity to show us how the sausage is made. Among several behind-the-scenes interviews, Edan's visit with her copyeditor proved to be the most fascinating for our readers. 4. Read Me! Please!: Book Titles Rewritten to Get More Clicks: 2014 was the year of clickbait, snippets of twisted English pumped full of hyperbole and lacking in specificity, a concoction designed to wring maximum clicks from readers. Our own Janet Potter and Nick Moran pondered how some literary classics might have employed this same strategy. The results are hilarious... and terrifying. 5. 28 Books You Should Read If You Want To: Leery of proliferating lists exhorting us to read these 100 books (or those 100 completely different books) before we die, Janet Potter concocted her own reading list, one that feels more true to how we find the books that shape our lives. It begins: "You should read the book that you hear two booksellers arguing about at the registers while you’re browsing in a bookstore." 6. Our pair of Most Anticipated posts were popular among readers looking for something new to read. Our 2015 book preview is coming soon. 7. Commercial Grammar: It's easy to shrug off bad grammar in a logorrheic age, but Fiona Maazel outlined the danger of letting our language be manhandled by marketers. 8. 55 Thoughts for English Teachers: "All of a sudden, I have been teaching public school English for a decade." Our own Nick Ripatrazone with some powerful reflections on teaching high school English. 9. Italo Calvino’s Science Fiction Masterpiece: Calvino is beloved for his unique brand of literary fiction, but Ted Gioia argued persuasively that more attention should be paid to Calvino's "science fiction masterpiece" Cosmicomics. 10. Our star-studded Year in Reading was a big hit across the internet. 11. Only at The Millions could a review -- albeit an undeniably persuasive one -- of a 1,200-page work of literary criticism be one of the most popular pieces of the year. Jonathan Russell Clark painted a compelling picture of Michael Schmidt’s mammoth The Novel: A Biography 12. The Common Core Vs. Books: When Teachers Are Unable to Foster a Love of Reading in Students: The debate over Common Core standards raged across the U.S. in 2014. Alex Kalamaroff urged readers to reflect on what these standards might mean for the next generation of readers. 13. Shakespeare’s Greatest Play? 5 Experts Share Their Opinions: For the Latest in his series of roundtables, our own Kevin Hartnett asked five experts to name the greatest of Shakespeare's plays. 14. There Are Two Kinds of Novelists…: Let's be honest. Our own Matt Seidel is right. When you boil it down, there are really only two kinds of novelists... 15. We Cast The Goldfinch Movie so Hollywood Doesn’t Have To: Word of a film adaptation gave us all the excuse we needed to keep talking about Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch. Our own Janet Potter and Edan Lepucki saved everyone a lot of trouble and went ahead and put together a cast for the movie. 16. Judging Books by Their Covers 2014: U.S. Vs. U.K.: This unscientific look at book covers had readers taking sides in a trans-Atlantic design debate. 17: Thug: A Life of Caravaggio in Sixty-Nine Paragraphs: Pimp, brawler, Old Master. Stephen Akey introduced us to the epic life of Caravaggio. 18. Here Come the Americans: The 2014 Booker Prize Longlist: Readers love playing along during the annual literary prize season, but the addition of Americans to this year's Booker Prize was cause for heightened curiosity (and consternation). 19: How to be James Joyce, or the Habits of Great Writers: It's tempting to think that by copying the habits of the greats, you can become one. Elizabeth Winkler looked at some books about how history's greatest writers wrote and found habits as widely varied as the books they produced. 20: Cooking with Hemingway: Maybe it's easier then to simply eat like the greats? Stephanie Bernhard tried cooking like Hemingway and came away sated, if sometimes perplexed. There are also a number of older pieces that Millions readers return to again and again. This list of top “evergreens” comprises pieces that went up before 2014 but continued to find new readers. 1. The Weird 1969 New Wave Sci-Fi Novel that Correctly Predicted the Current Day: Ted Gioia profiled John Brunner's uncanny novel Stand on Zanzibar, which included, way back in 1969, a President Obomi and visionary ideas like satellite TV and the mainstreaming of gay lifestyles. 2. Dickens’s Best Novel? Six Experts Share Their Opinions: Kevin Hartnett polled the experts to discover the best on offer from the prolific 19th century master. 3. The Ultimate List: 25 Gifts That Writers Will Actually Use: For the picky writers in your life, Hannah Gerson delivered an array of ideas that will keep the creative juices flowing. 4. The Greatest American Novel? 9 Experts Share Their Opinions: Kevin Hartnett convened a panel of experts to offer their answers on a high-stakes literary question, What is the Great American Novel? The answers he received are thought-provoking, enlightening, and, of course, controversial. 5. The Best of the Millennium (So Far): Our late-2009 series invited a distinguished panel of writers and thinkers to nominate the best books of the decade. The ensuing list stoked controversy and interest that has lingered. The write-ups of the "winner" and runners-up have also remained popular. We also invited our readers to compile a "best of the decade" list. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the readers' list seemed to receive a warmer reception. 6. Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? 8 Experts on Who’s Greater: Readers also returned to Kevin Hartnett's Russian lit throwdown, for which he asked eight scholars and avid lay readers to present their cases for Tolstoy or Dostoevsky as the king of Russian literature. 7. A Year in Reading 2013: 2013’s series stayed popular in 2014. 8. Hard to Pronounce Literary Names Redux: the Definitive Edition: Seven years on, our “definitive” literary pronunciation guide is still a favorite at The Millions. There must be a lot of people name-dropping Goethe out there. 9. Ask the Writing Teacher: The MFA Debate: Writers pondering "To MFA or not to MFA" keep finding Edan Lepucki's thoughtful advice from her popular Ask the Writing Teacher column. 10. How Many Novelists are at Work in America? At the end of 2013, Dominic Smith pondered a scary question. The answer? More than you think. Where did all these readers come from? Google (and Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Reddit) sent quite a few of course, but many Millions readers came from other sites too. These were the top 10 sites to send us traffic in 2014: 1. Flavorwire 2. Arts & Letters Daily 3. MetaFilter 4. The Paris Review 5. BookRiot 6. Longform.org 7. The Hairpin 8. The Rumpus 9. NPR 10. New York Times

The Millions Top Ten: November 2014

  We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for November. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Bone Clocks 3 months 2. 6. Station Eleven 2 months 3. 3. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 5 months 4. 4. The Novel: A Biography 2 months 5. 5. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage 4 months 6. 7. Reading Like a Writer 5 months 7. 10. The Narrow Road to the Deep North 2 months 8. 9. My Struggle: Book 1 5 months 9. 8. Cosmicomics 4 months 10. - All the Light We Cannot See 1 month   Let it be known that Millions readers are nothing if not prescient: right as Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See enters our Top Ten, he submits a Year in Reading post to our annual series. Not only that, but the series also received an entry from Karen Joy Fowler, whose novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has been a fixture on the Top Ten for five months now. Y'all were on to something, weren't you? Meanwhile, two books graduated out of the Top Ten this month. After appearing on last year's Most Anticipated round-up, Rachel Cantor's A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World sustained its dominance of the Top Ten for six straight months. It now joins Samantha Hahn's Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines — back on the list after a month-long absence — as the 85th and 86th entries to our Hall of Fame. As an update to past lists, on the other hand, it should be pointed out that we recently ran a review of Richard Flanagan's Booker-winning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which now enters its second month on our Top Ten. "There is an endearing overabundance of almost everything in this book, which in its enthusiasm, becomes part of the pleasure," Anna Heyward wrote. "Readers of this book should do away with all suspicions, and get ready for an avalanche of feeling and sincerity." Further down, Karl Ove Knausgaard holds fast in the Top Ten with My Struggle, which advances from the ninth position to eighth on the list. If you haven't yet seen it, we ran a nice little "Quick Hit" by the Norwegian author a few weeks ago. "I love repetition," he wrote. "I love doing the same thing at the same time and in the same place, day in and day out." When it comes to being listed on our Top Ten, who wouldn't? Near Misses: The Round House, The Laughing Monsters, The Children Act, 10:04, and Not That Kind of a Girl. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: October 2014

  We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Bone Clocks 2 months 2. 2. A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World 6 months 3. 3. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 4 months 4. - The Novel: A Biography 1 month 5. 4. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage 3 months 6. - Station Eleven 1 month 7. 9. Reading Like a Writer 4 months 8. 5. Cosmicomics 3 months 9. 8. My Struggle: Book 1 4 months 10. - The Narrow Road to the Deep North 1 month   Oh, hello there, Emily St. John Mandel! How nice it is to see you on our latest Top Ten, and on the heels of your appearance on an even loftier list, at that! Since 2010, Emily's thoughtful reviews and essays have highlighted dozens of novels for Millions readers, and made them aware of both un(der)heralded classics and new releases alike. So in a karmic sense, it's about time we turn our attention toward Emily's own fiction. In the words of fellow Millions staffer Bill Morris, "her fourth novel, Station Eleven, [is] a highly literary work set in the near future that focuses on a Shakespearean troupe that travels the Great Lakes region performing for survivors of a flu pandemic that wiped out most of mankind and ended civilization." (It's a premise that by Emily's own admission was made possible at least in part by the success of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.) Looking at it more generally, though, Morris notes that Station Eleven's near-future setting affords Emily with some luxuries not typically available to writers focused on the past, or even present, state of the world: The near future is an alluring time to set fiction because it frees the writer’s imagination in ways that writing about the past does not. Fiction set in the near future frees the writer to build a plausible and coherent world on a known foundation – in a sense, to extrapolate where today’s world is going. It’s a liberating strategy since the future is so patently unknowable; and it’s a timely strategy since people in an anxious age like ours are especially eager to know – or imagine – where we’re headed. Sounds pretty enticing, if I do say so myself. But, decide on your own. You can whet your appetite by reading the book's first chapter over here. Moving along, I turn my attention toward the debut of another newcomer on the Top Ten: The Novel: A Biography. If I'm being honest, I must admit that I feel a distinct sense of pride for being affiliated with a book site whose readers are purchasing enough copies of a 1,200-page history of "the novel" that the tome ranks among our bestsellers. Be proud of yourselves, fellow nerds. The hefty book was tackled by Jonathan Russell Clark in an engaging review in September. Rounding out this month's list, we welcome Richard Flanagan's Booker-winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North to the party (we reviewed the book here), and we bid adieu — probably only for a short time — to Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines, which has fallen out of the rankings after a strong six-month showing, and as a result has missed our Hall of Fame by the skin of its teeth. Near Misses: The Round House, Well-Read Women, The Children Act, 10:04, and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: September 2014

  We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. - The Bone Clocks 1 month 2. 1. A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World 5 months 3. 9. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 3 months 4. 2. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage 2 months 5. 7. Cosmicomics 2 months 6. 4. The Round House 3 months 7. 5. Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines 6 months 8. 10. My Struggle: Book 1 3 months 9. 8. Reading Like a Writer 3 months 10. 6. The Son 6 months   Welcome to the party, David Mitchell! Or, perhaps it's more accurate to say, "Welcome back to the party." Mitchell's no stranger to our Top Ten, you see. Back in May, I observed that Mitchell is part of an elite group of eight authors who have reached our Hall of Fame on two separate occasions. Will this be number three? Every indication so far tells me that, yes, The Bone Clocks will follow in the footsteps of its predecessors — Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet — straight to the Millions record books. (No author has made it to our Hall of Fame for three separate books.) Why, exactly, is The Bone Clocks so individually appealing, though? Well, as Brian Ted Jones put it in his review for our site, the book serves as a pivot point in Mitchell's canon: The Bone Clocks marks such a change of attitude in Mitchell, a turn toward something grimmer. He’s always been drawn to elements of darkness, of course. Predacity — the animal way humans have of making prey out of each other — has been his primary theme throughout the five novels that came before this. And those novels, to be sure, are all full of monsters. In The Bone Clocks, though, Mitchell explores a new theme:  regret. And, aside from what's different, the book also displays some of Mitchell's best writing to date. As Jones explains: There is a moment in the very last pages — you will definitely know it when you get there — where Mitchell reaches right into your chest, puts his fingers on your heart, and presses down. The kind of moment you would choose to live inside for all eternity, if you had to pick just one. I predict we'll be seeing Mitchell's name atop our Top Ten for many months to come. Meanwhile, with the addition of one work comes the graduation of another. At long last, Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins has ascended to our Hall of Fame. Walter's novel represents the first addition to our Hall of Fame since last June. Near Misses: The Children Act, To Rise Again at a Decent HourAmericanah, 10:04, and The Secret Place. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: August 2014

  We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World 4 months 2. - Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage 1 month 3. 2. Beautiful Ruins 6 months 4. 3. The Round House 2 months 5. 4. Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines 5 months 6. 5. The Son 5 months 7. - Cosmicomics 1 month 8. 6. Reading Like a Writer 2 months 9. 9. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 2 months 10. 10. My Struggle: Book 1 2 months   When it comes to literary fiction bestseller lists, is there a more reliable fixture than Haruki Murakami? Not only is the author prolific — having published thirteen novels (including a 1,000+ pager!) over his career — but he's also incredibly popular. It was reported last year that in his native Japan, copies of his latest book, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, were flying off shelves to the tune of a million copies per week. And his reach is increasing, if you can believe it. A recent poll indicated that the author's popularity is growing in Korea, and his work has been adapted for the screen in Vietnam. (His 2011 doorstopper, 1Q84, was banned from China, but that could be viewed as a mark of success depending on who you ask.) So of course it should come as no surprise to see his latest novel break into our latest Top Ten, even despite Woody Brown's fairly tepid review of the work for our site. “All of the hallmarks of Murakami’s style are present in Colorless Tsukuru,” Brown wrote back in August. “But for perhaps the first time ... they seem flat and uninteresting, almost overused, as if the novel is a parody of his earlier work.” Ultimately, Brown notes, it's a novel that, like Franz Liszt’s “Le mal du pays” (which figures prominently in the book), is “aloof, quiet, and finally, dissonant.” Here's hoping his next effort — due before the end of the year — is stronger, although it seems like no matter what, it'll sell plenty of copies. Meanwhile, the Top Ten saw the emergence this month of Italo Calvino's classic work of "scientific" fiction, Cosmicomics. Undoubtedly Millions readers have Ted Gioia's tantalizing review ("Italo Calvino’s Science Fiction Masterpiece") to thank for putting the under-appreciated gem onto their radars: Imagine a brilliant work of science fiction that wins the National Book Award and is written by a contender for the Nobel Prize in literature. Imagine that it is filled with dazzling leaps of the imagination, stylish prose, unique characters, philosophical insights, and unexpected twists and turns, but also draws on scientific concepts at every juncture. Imagine that it ranks among the finest works in the sci-fi genre. And then imagine that almost no science fiction fan has read it, or even heard about it. Rounding out this month's list, we see the continued dominance of Rachel Cantor's A Highly Unlikely Scenario and Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins. Both Well-Read Women and The Son remain popular mainstays as well. The list is due for a major shake-up in two months, as all four will likely be gracing our Hall of Fame by October and November. Will Knausgaard hang on to the last spot of the list by then? Will it have moved up? Will Book 2 have cracked the rankings? Only time will tell. Near Misses: Americanah, Jesus' Son, Bark, and Just Kids. See Also: Last month's list.

Italo Calvino’s Science Fiction Masterpiece

Imagine a brilliant work of science fiction that wins the National Book Award and is written by a contender for the Nobel Prize in literature. Imagine that it is filled with dazzling leaps of the imagination, stylish prose, unique characters, philosophical insights, and unexpected twists and turns, but also draws on scientific concepts at every juncture. Imagine that it ranks among the finest works in the sci-fi genre. And then imagine that almost no science fiction fan has read it, or even heard about it. Implausible? Hardly! Such is precisely the case with Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, published in Italian in 1965 and translated into English three years later. (William Weaver’s excellent translation won the National Book Award in 1969, back when it had a translation category.) Today, the book is mostly remembered for its postmodern experimentalism or its fanciful narrative devices. But for readers coming to Calvino for the first time, Cosmicomics often takes a back seat to If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, or perhaps Invisible Cities. But Cosmicomics is my favorite Calvino book, just as ingenious and well-written as those better-known works, and even more delightful. Many absurdist and postmodern narratives achieve their finest effects by frustrating the reader -- indeed Calvino’s most famous novel stands out as the classic example of literary frustration, which is both its subject and effect. Cosmicomics, in contrast, is that rarity among progressive texts: its premises are absurd and almost incoherent, yet the plot lines are filled with romance, drama, and conflicts that draw the readers deeper and deeper into the text. I hesitate before telling you about the specific tales in this collection of intertwined science stories. If I tell you, you will refuse to read the book. You won’t want to read, for example, a love story about a mollusk -- one, moreover, who has never even seen his beloved. I know that this sounds somewhat less romantic than Pride and Prejudice, but trust me, even mollusks (at least those envisioned by Italo Calvino) are capable of great passions. By the same token, a story in which the only action is looking at distant stars through a telescope must sound more boring than a Brady Bunch rerun marathon. But I assure you that you’re wrong. Calvino extracts Dostoevskian pathos from his starwatcher, and you will feel his pain and humiliation as he searches for personal redemption among the cosmos. Each story in Cosmicomics begins with a scientific premise, which serves as a springboard for a story. The protagonists might be mollusks or dinosaurs or even physical or mathematical constructs, but Calvino infuses them will all the foibles and fancies of humans. Here we encounter unfettered ambition, pride and envy, jealousy and desire -- all the same ingredients that we cherish in ancient Greek tragedy or Elizabethan drama, but now translated into an extravagant scientific framework. None of the science here really adds up, but you won’t complain, because Calvino compensates with fancy for his abuses of the rules of physics. Consider the end result a kind of Einsteinian magical realism. The opening story, “The Distance of the Moon,” is a case in point. The scientific premise for this tale is a simple one: “At one time, according to Sir George H. Darwin, the Moon was very close to the Earth.” Ask a hundred authors to turn this concept into a story -- I doubt one of them will even approach the beautiful, fabulist tale Calvino serves up. “Climb up on the moon?” he asks. “Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up.” From this absurdist stance, Calvino constructs a love triangle filled with pathos and longing, a rich psychological tapestry in which the experimental aspects of the tale, breathtaking in their own way, do not distract from the inherent appeal of the storyline. Yes, this is one of the great science fiction stories -- and you could even read it as a critique of the sci-fi genre -- yet it will never get acknowledged as such. Calvino is deemed too “respectable” to show up anywhere near Heinlein and Asimov on a bookshelf. In another story, Calvino constructs a much different love triangle, complicated by the unpleasant fact that each individual is falling through empty space in parallel lines. How do you consummate a love affair if your line never intersects with the beloved’s? Leave it to Calvino to find inspiration in such a strange premise. In “How Much Should We Bet?”, I am reminded again of Dostoevsky -- this time of his short novel The Gambler -- but here the wagers involve the evolution of the cosmos and the unfolding of history. In “The Aquatic Uncle,” an amphibian is embarrassed by his great-uncle, still living as a fish after the rest of the species has evolved into land-dwellers. He needs to introduce his fiancée to his family, and is ashamed at the prospect of her meeting his fishy forbear. Can you imagine what happens? Trust me, you can’t...but Calvino can. In describing these stories, I find myself dwelling again and again on the human interest angle. How peculiar that must sound, when humans really never appear in this book. As such, Cosmicomics ranks among a tiny number of major works of fiction that can dispense with people and still embrace humanity -- I’m thinking of books such as Flatland or Watership Down or Animal Farm. Each of these novels is better known than Cosmicomics, but Calvino’s stunning work deserves mention in the same breath. Science fiction readers owe it to themselves to track it down. And those who hate sci-fi might be surprised, too, by how much literary panache can be found among the outer cosmos and sub-atomic particles, at least after they have been magically transformed by Italo Calvino.

A Year in Reading: Helen Dewitt

Helen Dewitt's novel, The Last Samurai was published in 2000 by Talk Miramax Books in the US and in many other countries. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2006 to work on a novel using information design to represent mathematical ways of thinking about chance. She collaborated recently with the Australian journalist, Ilya Gridneff, on Your Name Here, a novel about a) the impossibility of writing a novel with an Australian journalist or b) the impossibility of writing a novel with an American writer who thinks it's about the impossibility of writing a novel with an Australian journalist. An extract has appeared in n+1.This was unexpectedly hard to answer; casting my mind back over my reading in 2008, books were not what first sprang to mind. I realised suddenly: it's not that I'd read no good books, but for me 2008 was the year of the blog, the year I discovered various bloggers whose writing was so addictive I have, well, moved into an apartment with no Internet access for five months so I can get some work done. The guiltiest parties were three blogs on language (Language Log, Languagehat.com and Bremer Sprachblog) and Mithridates' Nighthauling. (xkcd.com, while also a favourite, does not interfere with work in the same way.) Rafe Donahue's Fundamental Statistical Concepts in Presenting Data: Principles for Constructing Better Graphics - a 102-page PDF handout available on his website - held me transfixed, laughing out loud, for hours, on yet another day which had been optimistically allocated to work.Two books reminded me of what can be accomplished using the resources of the printed page: Edward Tufte's Beautiful Evidence and Claude Abromont's Guide de la théorie de la Musique (Fayard, 2001). Beautiful Evidence, the most recent of Tufte's pioneering books on information design, discusses the cognitive defects of Powerpoint in characteristically tendentious style; introduces Tufte's latest invention, sparklines (small, information-intense word-sized graphics), and shows what can be done with them; and, like all Tufte's work, makes the reader wonder why all books don't look like this. (A: He publishes them himself.) The Guide de la théorie de la Musique includes chapters on silence, on nuances, on the history of ornamentation, on jazz, an overview of post-tonal music (and, of course, much much more); the exceptionally intelligent use of graphic design enables the reader to take in at a glance the relationship between intervals, the relationship between the keys, in short the many aspects of music which require intellectual apprehension. One turns to a random page and exclaims: But this is fabulous!Two books on political science reminded me of how essential a book is for getting to grips with sustained argument, if one is the sort of reader who underlines, writes in the margin, sticks tabs on pages and constantly flips back and forth (and no, highlighting a PDF is not remotely the same): John Zaller's The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion and Andrew Gelman's Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do.Zaller argues that we need a new model of what public opinion actually is; given that most people (or most Americans, at any rate) pay little attention to politics, what exactly is the "opinion" that is elicited in surveys and the like? And what is the relationship between changes in the political views of the political elite (those who follow politics and are well-informed) and the views of those with little political engagement? Most people, Zaller argues, don't have fixed, preformed opinions on a wide range of specific issues that that can be looked up like documents in a filing cabinet; they often form views when asked for them, drawing on whatever considerations happen to be uppermost in their mind at the time... The model has profound implications not just for politics but for our view of the self. A book, in short, which leads one to do violence to the notional word count of the round-up and still be conscious of doing gross injustice to its power, importance, and originality.In Red State Blue State Gelman, or rather, Gelman, Park, Shor, Bafumi and Cortina, look at various myths relating to the 'red' and 'blue' states and offer a wealth of statistics to show the more complex reality. Is it really true, for instance, that the rich vote on economic issues, the poor on 'cultural (God, gun control and so on)? Is there a split between working class 'red America' and rich 'blue America'? According to RSBS, church attendance predicts Republican voting much better among rich than poor; within any state, more rich people vote Republican, while there is a significant difference between rich voters in 'red' and 'blue' states... PUP has permitted Gelman & colleagues 8 pages of colour plates to display properly the remarkable difference in 'winners' when states are classed by rich voters only, middle-income only and poor voters only, as well as an enlightening map showing counties as red, blue or purple. This was, naturally, gripping reading in the run-up to the presidential election; a number of posts on Gelman's blog offer analysis of more recent results in terms of the area of inquiry set out by this remarkable book.And finally... Reminiscent of the Ficciones of Borges and Calvino's Cosmicomics, Bernardo Moraes' Minimundo offers a succession of brief takes on a world where the narrator plays Playstation with God, outwits zombies, is offered three wishes by the Demon of Coca Cola. Minimundo is currently available only in extremely witty Portuguese, but anyone familiar with French, Italian, Spanish, Catalan or Romanian could probably understand enough to see why this is a wonderful book. Hillary Raphael's I Love Lord Buddha, the story of an American girl who founds the Japanese terrorist cult Neo-Geisha, had a savage deadpan humour which stayed with me months after I put it down.More from A Year in Reading 2008
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