I am a dreamer of words, of written words. I think I am reading; a word stops me. I leave the page. The syllables of the word begin to move around. Stressed accents begin to invert. The word abandons its meaning like an overload which is too heavy and prevents dreaming. Then words take on other meanings as if they had the right to be young. And the words wander away, looking in the nooks and crannies of vocabulary for new company, bad company.
The Poetics of Reverie,
Life: A User's Manual, by Georges Perec
A knight's tour through a fictional Parisian apartment building, using each visit as a point of departure for a vignette running from a couple of paragraphs to several pages. Threaded throughout the tour is the tale of the eccentric billionaire Percival Bartlebooth and the struggle—of his own instigation—with the devious jigsaw puzzle-maker, Gaspard Winckler. Perhaps the most poignant moment is Bartlebooth's end; Perec's detached narrative style frames the solitary confusion which defines Winckler's posthumous victory.
As of this writing, I'm slowly slogging through Perec's biography; Perec: A Life in Words should make its appearance on this list within the next month or so.
Life: A User's Manual may or may not have something to do with the little strings of fixed-pitch text appearing at the bottom of almost every page on this site.
The Biographer's Tale, by A. S. Byatt
A. S. Byatt's story of a disaffected post-graduate student's tale of his attempt to uncover the life story of a mysterious, vanished biographer, based in part on his equally mysterious, fragmentary notes on three prominent historical figures. The nesting of narratives reminds me of If on a Winter's Night a Traveler. The ending is strangely dissatisfying, though.
Headlong, by Michael Frayn
A hysterical farce about a guile-impaired academic attempting to finesse what he suspects to be an extremely valuable work of art from the clutches of a financially desperate owner of a rundown estate.
The Once and Future King, by T. H. White
Le Ton Beau de Marot, by Douglas Hofstadter
A lengthy discourse on the problems and little-appreciated aspects of the process of translation from one language to another. This is my favorite Hofstadter book after GEB, which I think puts me in a minority.
Hwaet! A Little Old English Anthology of American Modernist Poetry, by Peter Glassgold
swa micel hangaþ / on / readre hweol / bearwan / glasigre of regen / wætere / be sidan þæm hwitan / cycenum.
The Baron in the Trees, by Italo Calvino
What compels a human being to take some fundamentally human activity and completely purge its practice from one's life? What makes a vegetarian, a teetotaller, or a monk? Ethical and religious reasons are typically cited. Is it possible there is some fundamental human impulse to asceticism? Is there some hidden "challenge" to the rejection of particular worldly pursuits?
The Baron in the Trees tells the tale of a young nobleman who, in a fit of parental defiance, takes to the trees, never to return to the world below. In spite of this constraint, he leads a full life, partaking of literature, diplomacy, war, love, sport and intrigue without once setting foot on the ground.
Word Freak, by Stefan Fatsis
I play Scrabble more than is strictly necessary—and probably more than is strictly healthy—and Fatsis' book is a gripping exposé on the dark, seedy underground of competitive Scrabble play. I'm a good player, good enough to the point where I scare off those not sharing my affliction, but nowhere near the level of the players profiled in this book. Word Freak may be viewed as a cautionary example to those in the early stages of this condition.
The Search for the Perfect Language, by Umberto Eco
A non-fiction work about the pursuit of an idealized human language through human history, with a focus on essentially "Western" endeavors. The notion that somehow an "ideal" language may be invented or discovered—free of the ambiguities and limitations of established languages—is a tantalizing one.
A Distant Mirror, by Barbara Tuchman
A detailed historical work describing life in Europe in the 14th century. Clergy, royalty and proletariat conditions are all examined thoroughly. Tuchman uses the life of Enguerrand de Coucy, a French nobleman, to provide narrative structure to what might otherwise be a dry analytical work.
Sometimes a Great Notion, by Ken Kesey
A sprawling epic, with a simple, slowly developed foundation atop which events spiral steadily but tragically out of control. Kesey shifts the narrator's voice inventively and effectively.
What is Worth Doing, by David Siegel
This book is out of print, and apparently underwent such a short run that not even Bibliofind has heard of it. It's a discussion about various environmental issues, such as global warming, waste, transportation and consumption. It convinced me to become a vegetarian (although Siegel was really pitching the vegan way).
Spies, by Michael Frayn
Consilience, by E. O. Wilson
A cross-disciplinary work on the relationship—and potential for symbiosis—between the sciences and the humanities.
The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, by Bill James
A very interesting decade-by-decade description of baseball's evolution, followed by nine lists of the top 100 players at each position. Frankly, the latter section is kind of tedious, and James' anti-PC ranting gets tiresome, although there are occasionally very interesting diamonds (no pun intended) buried in the rough.
Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hoftstadter
If you read only one interdisciplinary work on decidability, the limitations of algorithms, recursion, and self-reference this year, make sure it's Gödel, Escher, Bach!