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Book report for September 2023

Book report for September 2023
"At a Book," Marie Bashkirtseff

Includes mentions of a happy musician, a pissed-off musician, and a character with a pseudonym Elon Musk probably wants to trademark.

A productive month from a reading standpoint, meaning a not-so-productive month for writing. Dr Essai pleads nolo contendre to occasionally ducking out of prose composition because he’d rather read. He occasionally ducks out of both through Yukon solitaire on his iPad. He is not proud of this but hopes you will find his human shortcoming charming.


  • Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. What a disappointment. Vonnegut’s next book after the brilliant Slaughterhouse-Five, this one has been called “a dense yet intensely amusing insight into the madness of mankind.” No, it isn’t. It’s a mannered, puerile, self-conscious wreck. It feels like Vonnegut felt some strange need to write bad Vonnegut. A mystery, but these things happen. No doubt being Kurt Vonnegut was a complicated business.
  • Devotion, Patti Smith. I have come around to wanting to read anything written by Patti Smith. This volume is a short story enclosed by a diary of its creation and a brief meditation on why writers do what they do. “Why do we write?” she asks. “A chorus erupts. Because we cannot simply live.” Indeed.
  • The Book of Concord: Thoreau’s Life as a Writer, William Howarth. Thoughtful biography of Thoreau centered on his immense journal, which Howarth sees as his central literary work. Perhaps more fascinating to writers than non-scribbling readers, but worthwhile if you care about Thoreau and the Transcendentalists.
  • This Wheel’s On Fire, Levon Helm. If you are as enamored of The Band’s music as I am, you will enjoy this. Helm, one of the ensemble’s two drummers and three singers, has toothsome stories to tell. But the last third of the book is poisoned by his bitterness toward Robbie Robertson. Nobody does vicious infighting like a successful band.
  • Biography of X, Catherine Lacey. Striking, masterful novel that’s part counterfactual historical fiction, part mystery, part faux scholarly biography, part unintended fictional autobiography, part clever social commentary. I can’t imagine how much work it must have been to write. A very smart performance by an original artist.
  • Reading: A Very Short Introduction, Belinda Jack. Brief history of reading. Not very interesting, save the bits about how people in the Middle Ages read differently from how we do it. Read for an essay that, at the doctor’s present pace, should be done around 2029. Don’t quote him on that.

In progress

  • The Best American Essays 1999, Edward Hoagland (ed.)

Under consideration

  • Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, Nick Bostrom
  • How to Think Like a Graphic Designer, Debbie Millman
  • The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation, Cory Doctorow
  • The MANIAC, Benjamín Labatut
  • Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America, Heather Cox Richardson
  • Bartleby and Me, Gay Talese


  • The Analog Sea Review, Vol. 4
  • Notes on Complexity, Neil Theise