Cardboard Books: The Year in Reading

December 29, 2008

When I’m not working or sleeping or staring at baseball cards or the television, I’m reading or walking to the library to get some more books. I guess there are a couple other miscellaneous activities I engage in now and then, but that’s pretty much what my life boils down to.

This year, for the first time in my life, I kept track of what I read. Good thing, too, because if I hadn’t done that I’d have surely forgotten most of the books that passed through my brain. I forget most things that happen to me. Whole years go by in a blur.  But at least this year I know what I read.

I’d like to keep this brief, just pass along a few titles that stood out to me and turn it over to you all for thoughts on any books you’ve read this past year that stood out. I’ve already got a stack of books waiting for me in 2009, but I always like hearing suggestions on what I should add to the pile. (I have an annoying habit of not getting around to following people’s suggestions for years, but a few baseball books mentioned by readers in comments on this site—The Celebrant, False Spring, The Greatest Slump of All Time—did make their way into my reading list for 2008.)

One thing my list-keeping told me was that my reading basically breaks down into four major groups: fiction, sports, music, and the rereading of favorites. So here are my 2008 highlights from each category.

Favorite Revisitation of a Personal Favorite
On the Road: the Original Scroll, by Jack Kerouac

This 2007 publication may not actually qualify for this category. The scroll, in fact, is an altogether different book from the previously published classic, one of my all-time favorites and maybe the most important book, personally speaking, that I’ve ever read. The scroll is more direct, more honest, wilder. Allen Ginsberg got it right in his first reaction to the scroll years ago, when he called it “dewy.” The real question for me is, when I go to revisit On the Road again in a year or two, which version will I turn to? I think I might go for the Scroll.

Honorable mention in this category goes to Bruce Jay Freidman, one of my all-time favorite guys. A year would not be complete without a dip into one of his classic novels from the 1960s and early 1970s. This year’s selection was About Harry Towns, a sad and hilarious novel about a middle-aged man adrift in the coke-addled early stages of the Me Decade.

Favorite Music Book
This year I read and enjoyed an oral history of the Replacements, a short book on the greatest album of the 1980s, a bio of Townes Van Zandt, and two books on Dylan (one about the making of my favorite Dylan album, another a song by song analysis), but the one that stood above the others was a biography of Iggy Pop called Open Up and Bleed. I timed the reading of the book perfectly, finishing it just in time to diverge briefly from my daily rituals to see The Stooges in concert for the first time in my life.

Favorite Sports Book
I mostly read baseball books this year, and my thoughts on a few of those books have shown up on this site (if you’re interested in seeing those appreciations, type “Cardboard Books” into the Google search window on the right-hand sidebar and they should all come up), but the top book for me was one about soccer, of all things: Fever Pitch, by Nick Hornby. It’s probably pretty obvious to anyone who reads this site that I’m interested in tracing the connections between sports and personal life. Hornby did a great job of doing just that for his own life, and while his season-ticket-holding version of being a fan is a lot different than my own perpetually-distant, fantasy-glutted, past-haunted version, his story shed a lot of light on my own, giving me more conviction than ever in my belief that a life on the sidelines is not a completely worthless life after all.

Favorite Fiction Book
OK, before I get to my favorite fiction book of the year, which in any given year is going to be my favorite book of the year, a couple honorable mentions.

First, a salute to Australian writer Tim Winton. He was my favorite “discovery” of the year. It’s pretty silly to consider him a discovery, since it’s not exactly a secret that he’s one of the best fiction writers in the world, but the sad fact is I hadn’t heard of him before this year. I read a couple of his books this year, The Turning and Breath, and loved them both. The first is a book of interconnected short stories about working class people in a somewhat desolate coastal region in Australia; the second is a coming of age novel in the same setting.

Second, some shout-outs to the novels that yanked me all the way out of this world and into that other world behind the page: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Netherland (the only book I read all year that actually came out in 2008), and The Road. I read a lot of good books this year, but these were the ones that stood out in their ability to pull me into their worlds, which after all is what I’m most looking for when I read. It sounds like I’m looking for escapism, but why would I want to escape, for example, to The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s horrifically convincing gaze into the apocalypse?

I’m not sure why, but maybe there’s something in all us readers that wants to connect with a wider, deeper current of meaning than the one that we’re connected to for most of our waking hours. I know I’m always feeling better about things if there’s a good book bouncing around in my knapsack.

Anyway, my favorite book that I read this year was actually the first book I read in 2008: Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson. I’ve already mentioned this book at some length during my long Born in the USA series, so I guess I’ll just wrap things up, finally, and turn it over to you.

So how about it, what were some of your favorite reads this year?


  1. 1.  I was hoping this post was about an upcoming Cardboard Gods book.

    My favorite read this year was “The Soul of the Game” by Joe Posnanski, even though it wasn’t released in 2008.

    I also finally got around to “Manhunt,” about the Lincoln assassination and the Booth aftermath. That book had me on the very edge of my figurative seat, even though the ending wasn’t exactly in doubt.

  2. 2.  1 : I read the Posnanski book last year and liked it a lot.

  3. 3.  This soul of my reading year belonged to the late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolano this year: after initially avoiding him because of the hype surrounding The Savage Detectives, I gave in and was so glad I did. I read all eight of his books that have been translated into English, capped off by his final novel, 2666, and months later I remain overwhelmed by the experience and astonished at his talent.

    The other best discover of the year for me was Gary Indiana’s Do Everything in the Dark, a beautifully written, mordant novel about decaying artist types in millennial New York city.

    Happy new year, Josh; keep up the good work here in 2009!

  4. 4.  I read that Iggy Pop book. Thought it was very interesting. I was most curious about the early days with the Stooges, luckily the first half of the book seems to be about that. David Bowie was a lot more involved with Iggy than I had previously thought. Cool book.

  5. 5.  The standout for me was The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. Michael Chabon is a damned genius. But for whatever reason, I can’t get myself to enjoy the Yiddish Policeman’s Union.

    Greatest random discovery was the The Celebrant by Eric Rolfe Greenberg in the dollar rack at my local used bookstore. Oddly, the next day you wrote about it on here.

    Best political book I read was Primary Colors, and the best non-greatest hits poetry book was Richard Kenney’s the One-Strand River (which did come out in 2008).

    Lastly, because why not, the only books I finished in one sitting were American Skin by Don De Grazia and The History of Love by Nicole Krauss.

  6. 6.  I’ve been saving the emails that I get from the library, so I can probably come up with a list of what I’ve read this year. Maybe I’ll do it later. I have an awful habit of reading parts of books and never finishing. Books that I’m in the middle of right now include: The Power Broker (This is taking me forever), The Veracruz Blues (baseball fiction about 1946 and the Mexican League), and the Blues Brothers (some cat named Miami Mitch novelized the screenplay. I wanted to write something with a car chase and they have a couple in here. Maybe I can get some ideas from it.)

    I wound up reading a lot of stuff about the business of baseball and sports during the 1970s. Stuff like Sportsworld by Robert Lipsyte, Hardball by Bowie Kuhn, Marvin Miller’s book, Lords of The Realm by Helyar, Rozelle by Jeff Davis, First Down and A Billion by Gene Klein. This was all for an ongoing research project, so it wasn’t as fun as it could be.

    I wish that there were a few eight day weeks so that I could catch up with my reading, but I find myself reading less ever since the internet came around. I’m more apt to surf than read. In a way, I’m less informed thanks to the net.

  7. 7.  3 : I’ve been meaning to check out Bolano.

    5 : Kavalier and Clay is my favorite Chabon book.

    6 : The Veracruz Blues sounds promising.

  8. 8.  Oh, I did read a trilogy of books by Chris Knopf about Sam Acquillo. He’s a hard drinking engineer who left his bigtime job under less than ideal circumstances and now slums in a shack in the Hamptons, drinks tons of vodka and solves murders. Those were enjoyable reads.

  9. 9.  Other then baseball statistical books I read nothing new this year. When I’m in the mood to read I always go back to something I’ve already read. It is time to start turning some new pages.

  10. 10.  If Blood on the Tracks is your favorite Dylan album, then I hope you have the bootleg CD from those recording sessions, with acoustic versions of that finished tracks. I believe Dylan recorded the album in NYC and then went to Minnesota to record it again, and the rejects are on the bootleg. Some of the rejects are great, though, and the acoustic version of Idiot Wind in my view is much better than the electric version. The bootleg is called Blood on the Tapes.

  11. 11.  10 : That’s funny, the one song I have ever downloaded from I-Tunes (I got a free song somehow, maybe after buying some tickets) was the NY version of Idiot Wind. I first heard it in the movie I’m Not There. I like that version better, too, but I can also see why Dylan decided the faster Minnesota version fit better on the album, which already had a lot of slow ones. (Similarly, though I absolutely love the song Up To Me, I can understand why he decided to omit it from the album, where it would have echoed Shelter from the Storm.)

    I don’t have Blood on the Tapes, but I seem to recall hearing some other of the NY songs. I may be misremembering this, but Tangled Up in Blue was one song that definitely benefitted from the Minnesota revamp.

  12. 12.  I took a year off reading baseball nonfiction to read nonfiction about food (Kitchen Confidential, Salt, Heat — all pretty good, liked Salt the best) and soccer (Bloody Confused, Brilliant Orange — I’d read Fever Pitch years back). ‘Orange’ is very good as the writer, an English guy, explores his own fascination with the Dutch national team from so many angles.

    The best soccer book ever btw is called Soccer in Sun in Shadow, by Eduardo Galeano, beautifully written.

    Thanks for the recomendations above, I hope to do more reading in ’09.

  13. 13.  11 True, Tangled Up in Blue sounds better on Blood on the Tracks than Blood on the Tapes. I think he re-recorded some of the songs because the acoustic versions were all in the same key and there was a certain sameness to it all. The electrified versions gave the official release more variety. If I had your address or a PO Box I’d send you a copy of Blood on the Tapes.

  14. 14.  12 : I’ll have to check out Soccer in Sun in Shadow, and also that book about the Dutch squad, always my favorite international team. Does Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink get a mention? He’s my favorite footballer because he scored three goals in the only Premier League game I’ve ever attended. I don’t think he saw a ton of action for the Dutch national squad, however.

    13 : Hey, that’s very kind of you to offer. Drop me an email if you get the chance. (My email address is in the about the author sidebar.) Thanks!

  15. 15.  D’oh, The title is Soccer in Sun AND Shadow, but anyway. It tells the entire history of world soccer is tiny poetic chunks, a real work of art and economy. Not sure offhand if Hasselbaink gets in ‘Orange’ — most of the book is about the 70s era with Cruyff, Johnny Rep, etc. though he does cover up until the most recent WC.

  16. 16.  The Veracruz Blues is pretty good so far, Josh. I found a review of in on the NYT site that pretty much summed it up well.

  17. 17.  I gotta read that Minutemen Book. I agree that Double Nickels on the Dime may be the best album of the 80’s. It’s easily one of the best.

  18. 18.  Books I’ve read this year that I’d recommend.

    Now I Can Die In Peace – Bill Simmons – A full four years after the championship that changed my life, Simmons’ columns with the footnotes reopens the feelings from the years leading up to and including 2004.

    Soul of Baseball – Joe Posnanski – His travels and storytelling with Buck O’Neill are tremendous.

    Yes Man – Danny Wallace – In reality, the events involve a british guy, not Jim Carrey. If I recasted the movie(I havent seen it yet), I’d put the guy from Shaun of The Dead as the main character. Hilarious book.

    The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffennegger – She first met him when he was in his late 30s and she was 6, and they’d end up marrying only 8 years apart in age. 🙂 Solid story!

  19. 19.  I read the Blood On The Tracks book about two summers ago, and enjoyed it a lot.
    As for this year, I recommend:
    FIASCO by Thomas Ricks.
    LUCKIEST MAN about Gehrig.
    THE LAST GREAT SEASON the moves leading up to the Dodgers heading west.
    THE COAST OF SUMMER by Anthony Bailey
    THE LOOMING TOWER the 40 years leading up to 9-11
    THE DEFINING MOMENT by Jonathan Alter about FDRs first 100 days
    MY OLD MAN AND THE SEA by David Hays

  20. 20.  17 I just watched We Jam Econo on the Sundance Channel. I haven’t read the book, but it was definitely one of the better punk documentaries I’ve seen.

  21. 21.  I wish I had tracked what I read.

    Highlights for me include:

    Rob Neyer’s Baseball Legends
    Living on the Black-John Feinstein
    Bill James’ Gold Mine

    I have read dozens more, but didn’t have the foresight to record them.

    Ah, well.

  22. 22.  One of my favorite books of the year also was Joseph O’Neill’s NETHERLAND, about a British dude who gets transferred to NYC and hooks up with this cricket league and its strange leader.

  23. 23.  22 : The book made me want to try to understand the probably forever completely incomprehensible game of cricket. (Note: the protagonist came to NYC from London, but he was actually a Dutch dude.)

  24. 24.  The best sports-related book I read in 2008 is Dave Fromm’s Expatriate Games.


  25. 25.  22 Whoops. Right you are, of course.

    4 I don’t want to crush more of your memories, Josh, but this just in from EW online:

    Ron Asheton, the guitarist for the influential punk rock band The Stooges, was found dead this morning, police tell the Detroit Free Press.

    The 60-year-old’s deceased body was found in his Ann Arbor, Michigan, home after a caller phoned police saying they hadn’t heard from him in a few days. Authorities are investigating the cause of death, but foul play is not suspected.

    The Stooges are nominated for induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with inductees set to be announced later this month.

  26. 26.  I forget most things that happen to me.

    That’s a coping mechanism for lots of us. As Job said, “Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery?” Too much of it is (he writes in a blog comment while still at the office).

    I don’t get to read nearly as much as I would like, but I also read The Road this year and was astonished at how caught up I was in all the bleakness and not wanting to put the book down. (Was this a good introduction to McCarthy? I haven’t read him before, strangely enough.)

    18 I surprisingly found the movie “Yes Man” to be reasonably entertaining and watchable. Casting the ever-enchanting Zooey Deschanel doesn’t hurt.

  27. 27.  Hey Josh,

    Thanks for writing up this post; after reading it I thought ‘The Road’ sounded good so I checked it out from the library and took it along on a recent vacation as reading material. The book was fantastic. It was also quite surreal reading it since the vacation I was on last week was a cruise in the Caribbean; you can’t get much more polar opposite in terms of setting and situation. I’ll have to check out some of your other recommendations as time permits…

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