My Writing Dashboard

I have three spreadsheets that I use to track different types of activities throughout the year, with creating the new sheet being part of my ritual for the new year. One tracks the books I read (in addition to tracking the books on Storygraph). One tracks my exercise habits. The third tracks my writing.

These sheets, including the manual upkeep, serve similar purposes. First and foremost, they provide accountability not only to track what I’m doing, but how. For instance, tracking different types of information about what I read has caused me to seek out and read books by a wider variety of authors than I did when I first started tracking this information. Similarly, the exercise data has evolved so that I can see my activities and I am able to hold myself accountable for a daily yoga practice. I also like entering the data manually because it means that I look at the information almost daily, and a few simple formulas can give me a snapshot of how I’m doing.

The system I developed for tracking my writing shows signs of having developed organically.

I started this spreadsheet in October 2017, several months removed from having completed my PhD and wanting something to hold myself accountable as I was starting to revise my dissertation and turn chapters or conference papers into journal articles. The core of my system developed at this point with two sets of columns. The first tracks my daily academic writing, which I defined as time with the academic work open on my computer (or printout), social media closed, and with no other distractions. This is of course not all of that goes into research, but it serves as a rough proxy for time spent in dedicated work.

The section for daily academic writing consisted of four columns, to which I added two columns a few years later. Thus, each row in this section has the date, day of week, the time that I worked, the number of minutes in that period, the project I worked on, and, if relevant, the number of words written. The last two sections also double as places where I can add notes about what I worked on that day (editing, drafted introduction, etc).

From the start I also had a second section that collected the total minutes written on a weekly basis, tracked by date, using the spreadsheet function to collect the sum from the daily section and a simple formula that converts that total into hours written. At the top of this column I keep a running tally of the total hours written and the average length of time I spent writing each week that year.

Writing spreadsheet, weekly section.

Starting in 2018, I added a third section where I track everything I produced in that year, in both the total and on a month-by-month basis. What gets tracked here has evolved over time, but generally includes everything from blog posts to reference letters to job applications to presentations. I don’t count all of these as “academic writing,” but this section serves as a snapshot of what I have done in a given year in terms of my academic and academic-adjacent work. This section thus proves useful for filling out annual reviews, for instance.

Screenshot of the monthly section of my writing dashboard.

I added the fourth and final section of this sheet in 2020. Functionally, this section is a key for the projects that I am working on, listing not only the name of the project, but also an abbreviation that I use in the daily-writing section, a due date, and a color-coding scheme that can tell me at a glance the status of each project. The color-coding is the latest addition to this sheet.

Screenshot of the “projects” section of my writing dashboard

Last week on Twitter I ended up in a conversation on Twitter about systems of tracking writing and accountability. I offered this system to someone asking how academics track their writing and one of the other participants in the conversation pushed me a little bit about whether this collected data is purely for accountability and, if so, what I’m holding myself accountable for, or whether it also has a diagnostic purpose.

To this point, I have mostly used this system for accountability, but only in the loosest of senses. My projects have largely been in various stages of revision since I started tracking this data, so word-counts are not the best way to assess progress. This is also just fine with me since raw word counts have never much worked with my process. Instead, my primary metric for tracking my writing is the time I spend doing it, and I have aspired to write for about an hour a day in the beliefs that writing a little bit every day will be better in the long run than writing in binges and that writing just a little bit most days will cause me to write for longer than the proscribed time on at least some of them. This aspiration has both been wildly successful and an utter failure. I have not averaged five hours of writing per week since the first three months that I tracked this data, at a time when I was teaching just one course, but most years I manage to average about four hours a week, albeit in more booms and busts than I’d like recently.

I don’t explicitly use this spreadsheet as a diagnostic tool. It serves this function in a passive way, in much the same way that I can get a sense of how my writing is going based on whether or not I am writing in this space. I do make notes to myself in the daily section, particularly when I have hit a wall, and I will do the same with the weekly section for weeks during which I’m sick or, for instance, if I got no writing done because I was in the middle of moving or going to a conference. The sheet for 2020 has a row that reads “NULL SET CRISIS.” In the past I have done somewhat minimal data analysis to see trends in my writing activity, but I didn’t find it that useful so I stopped.

In writing this post it has occurred to me that accountability and diagnostics would probably work better with an adjustment to the weekly section. The update I have in mind is to add two columns, one with a target for that week and the other being the time I spent writing in the week minus that target, thus giving me a snapshot of how I did relative to my expectations. These columns will also let me adjust my goals week-to-week based on what is happening with the rest of my schedule, hopefully making them more achievable (always my downfall in goal-setting) than holding to a single goal for every week.

However, as much as I started keeping this sheet because I wanted accountability and really like tinkering around with data in various aspects of my life, this system has also just served as a nice ritual around writing that reminds me that I have in fact done something even when it feels like that is not the case. I don’t know that I will ever go much beyond what I have now in terms of analysis, but it certainly helps me maintain what I hope is a healthy and productive writing practice.

What is Making Me Happy: Marcus, from The Bear

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format an intermittent feature.

This week: Marcus, from The Bear.

Marcus: My first job was McDonalds. You don’t get to be creative, you just work with robots and everything is automatic and fast and easy. I won’t make a mistake again.
Carmy: Yeah, you will. But not ’cause you’re you, but ’cause shit happens.

The Bear 1.5, “Sheridan”

Watching The Bear causes me quite a lot of stress. The show stars Jeremy Allen White as Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, a rising star of the culinary world who recently returned to Chicago to take over The Beef, an Italian beef sandwich shop after the owner, his brother, committed suicide. Carmy is working overtime just to keep the place afloat while trying to elevate the cuisine, navigating the resistance to change among the existing staff (especially Richie, played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach), tempering the ambition of his new sous chef Sydney (Ayo Edebiri), and, of course, dealing with the loss of his brother.

Something is always going wrong in the restaurant, whether in terms of interpersonal tensions at the worst possible moment or technical failures or a failed health inspection. All of this crests in the seventh episode “Review” where for twenty excruciating minutes you are taken into the absolute chaos of the restaurant. My stress watching this is a testament to the attention to detail brought to the show that brought on flashbacks to my experience managing a restaurant, which I did for a year after college. There are parts of the work that I enjoyed—I really like routines, for instance—but it can be absolute chaos.

The Bear packs an enormous amount into its eight episodes, most of which are less than half an hour long. There is no wasted space. Every moment seems to serve both as a character beat and either a callback to an earlier scene or setting up something that will happen in a later episode, while also packing in a surprising amount of comedy (particularly shout out Edwin Lee Gibson as Ebraheim).

This economy also allows for at least five different characters to carry out their own little arc. Carmy trying to unlearn the toxic lessons drilled into him by abusive chefs and embracing his family trauma is obvious, as are Richie’s gradual setting aside his bluster to acknowledge the depression of divorce and losing his best friend and Sydney’s obvious skill and ambition that push her to repeatedly overreach. But the writers also gave complete arcs to more peripheral characters like Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) who comes to appreciate what Carmy is trying to do and realize that Sydney is not out to get her.

Of course, my favorite of these stories belongs to Marcus, played by Lionel Boyce.

When we meet Marcus, he is responsible for making the rolls for The Beef, and is the first of the existing staff to take to Carmy’s vision for the restaurant. With a little bit of inspiration from Carmy’s cooking materials and some encouragement, Marcus teaches himself to bake cakes that they add to the menu. Then he wants to make doughnuts. Things go wrong, at times because that is the nature of the show (and life), but he just keeps going.

What I love about this arc is the reverence that it receives from both Lionel Boyce and the show’s creators. Marcus is given an infectious enthusiasm for baking, almost to the point of obsession. Once he asks for sous vide bags for a fermentation experiment even though he has no idea what he is doing. At the same time, while the The Beef as a whole is absolute chaos, the shots of Marcus baking are done in almost absolute silence, leaving him in this island of calm as he goes through the steps and making it that much more jarring when that calm is disrupted.

This entire season of The Bear is great and the show lands whether or not it continues for a second season, but Lionel Boyce’s performance as Marcus is particularly making me happy this week.

What the $@*! am I doing with social media?

I recently took an impromptu hiatus from Twitter. My account still posted links to the posts that went up here and I periodically dropped in, looked at a few things, retweeted something I liked, and then disappeared again.

This hiatus went on for about a month and a half until I started dipping my toes back into the Twitter stream about a week ago. During that time, the only social media I checked with any regularity was Instagram.

It is hard to pinpoint a single reason why I took this hiatus. This was around the time that Elon Musk made waves by claiming that he wanted to buy Twitter, but, in retrospect, I think something like this had been coming for a while. As I wore down last semester, I found myself spending progressively more time just idly staring as the world seemed to float by on Twitter. Around the same time, the Musk news broke and there were several rounds of outrage and anger that resulted in a lot of people I follow directly yelling or indirectly sniping at each other, all of which was just too much for me to engage with. So I stopped.

Stepping away from Twitter like this was both a relief and disorienting. For a few years now I have gotten a lot of my news from Twitter, which collates articles from far more sources than I otherwise would seek out. At its best, the site functions like an RSS feed curated and commented upon by people I know or would like to know. Not checking Twitter, therefore felt like reducing my awareness of what is happening in the world from a torrent to a trickle.

Of course, that was also why it was a relief. For a few weeks I just let my primary attention be on whatever was going on in the world around me.

However this hiatus also left me reflecting on how I use social media.

These sites allow people to present a curated version of themselves to the world. Some people, I find, do that very well. There are all sorts of people who use Twitter to great effect to share information and articulate points based on their particular areas of expertise–be it academia, politics, journalism, sports, or comedy. While I have certainly done this from time to time, I am generally reticent to assert my expertise in a space where I always feel that there are people who are more qualified on most of what I would want to say, so I usually don’t put myself in this lane. In an earlier phase of my Twitter evolution I used it as an aggregator for interesting articles I would read, but I gave that up both because a lot of the quick share links didn’t work well and because I felt that I wasn’t adding anything by doing this. In recent years I have also noticed that I largely stay away from commenting about things I am watching or (heaven forfend) sports because those things are not sufficiently “intellectual” and “academic.” After all, Twitter is a space that blurs the lines between the personal and the professional and I’m ostensibly on the job market. Should I not curate my persona accordingly?

This leaves me is with an account where I do a lot of retweeting, a decent amount of holding what might be termed water-cooler talk with people in the replies, but comparatively less tweeting of my own.

This is not the case with other sites. On Instagram, the only other site that I use regularly, by contrast, I post pictures of cats, baking experiments, books I’m reading, flowers, and travel (which happens much less frequently than I would like), while I use Instagram stories for memes, jokes, and ephemeral commentary about everything from how starting to run again feels like a psyop against my own body (tricking it into realizing that it can run that distance or speed) to whatever the latest political travesty is unfolding to minor gripes and insecurities about writing. Here, I find the ephemerality of stories, combined with the much smaller audience (I have maybe 6x the number of people who follow my Twitter account, many fewer of whom I know in person) liberating to be more polemical and sarcastic.

Every so often I think about bringing my social media presences into more alignment, which mostly means being more random and less deliberate with what I tweet. What holds me back is the sense that I ought to be curating a persona. Tweeting about all of those other things might be more authentically me, but is it good for my brand? To which the obvious answer is that I’m a person, not a brand—and, ironically, that doing more to cultivate my persona as a baker might actually be good for me down the road.

But for all of this hand-wringing about personal brands, I don’t actually know what mine is. I hope that it includes at least ancient history, books, writing, pedagogy, and bread, but is that a coherent brand? Does it need to be? Do people follow me for a particular type of my posts?

There is a reason I don’t have aspirations to pivot my career to social media management. I even have some choice words for this idea in an upcoming review of The Immortal King Rao.

I want to continue spending less time on social media in aggregate because it is not great for my anxiety and has a way of filling time that I could spend reading, but I am also toying with ways that I might be able to be a little more present on these sites, whether by employing an app that automatically deletes my old Tweets or by managing to convince myself that it is acceptable for academics to acknowledge their “uncouth” interests without losing face. If anyone has suggestions on these issues, I’m open to ideas.

In all likelihood, I will continue to trundle along much as I have, with perhaps a quicker trigger on the mute button to preserve my state of mind. But, then again, there are so many things about the world, both good and ill, that I want to talk about that the answer might be just to do it.

Anyway, have a cat picture.

Learning to Run Again

This morning I woke up before my alarm. I grabbed my phone to turn that alarm off and checked a few things before getting out of bed. Then I puttered around the house, reading a novel and stretching by turns for a little more than an hour, just long enough to steep and drink a big mug of tea.

Then I laced up my running shoes and set out.

My current bout of running came on about a month and a half ago. I have never been as serious or successful a runner as my father and brothers who for a number of years now have run marathons together, but this is not my first time running. In high school, I would go for runs with my father and ran a few local 5k races. Early in graduate school I tried running again. It was during this period that I reached my longest distances, running about five miles at least once a week and topping out at about eight miles before running into a leg injury. I tried a “run the year” challenge a few years ago and contributed 173 miles to my team’s total, including a few miles when I couldn’t sleep early in the morning while on a job interview. Then injuries. I tried again after the pandemic closed the gym where I exercised. My last attempt, shortly after moving last summer (and, in retrospect, after holding my foot on the accelerator of a moving truck for many hours), ended abruptly with sharp pain in my lower calf less than a quarter mile into a run.

I am a slow runner, particularly these days. I am also not running very far—just a little under two miles today. But this is okay. My focus right now is on form. On my gait, and trying to keep it in line with how I imagine I run barefoot since I have suffered far more injuries while running in shoes than I ever did playing ultimate barefoot, which I did into my 30s. Correlation need not be causation, but so far, so good. I am running slow and careful, and celebrating ending each run for ending uninjured rather than for reaching a particular distance or speed. Those will come, but only if I can stay healthy.

I like the idea of running more than I actually like running. Rather, I would like to like to be someone who likes running, who achieves that runner’s high, who runs an annual marathon. But I spend my runs thinking about how everything hurts and, recently, fretting about whether this footfall will be the the one when something gives out and I have to start over. I can also only compete against myself while running, and pushing myself this way is exactly what I’m trying not to do.

By contrast, I used to play basketball for hours every week. My slowness didn’t matter as much in a confined playing surface where I could change speeds and understand the space. And since I didn’t like to lose, even in a silly pick-up game, I could just lose myself in the game and not think about what hurt.

And yet, running is what I have right now, so running is what I’m doing alongside a daily yoga routine.

My return to running also prompted me to finally pull Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run off my to-read shelf. McDougall describes himself as a frequently-injured runner, so I thought it might unlock the secret to running pain-free. In a way, it might have.

The centerpiece of Born to Run is a 2006 race in Copper Canyon in the Sierra Madre Mountains between a motley crew of American ultramarathon runners, including Scott Jurek, one of the best in the world at the time, and some of the best Rarámuri (Tarahumara) arranged by a mysterious figure called Caballo Blanco (Micah True).

(The race went on to become an annual event, though its founder died in 2012.)

It is an incredible story. Rarámuri runners had made their appearance in ultra-marathon circles at the Leadville 100, a high-altitude ultramarathon in Colorado, in 1993 and 1994. A guide and race director named Rick Fisher rolled up to the race with a team of Rarámuri for whom he was the self-appointed team manager. The Rarámuri runners won both years, setting a new course record in the second race, before deciding that putting up with Fisher’s actions wasn’t worth their participation.

(An article from 1996 in Ultrarunning about a race in Copper Canyon in which True also participated acknowledges Fisher’s “antics,” but points suggests that they didn’t end his relationship with the tribe.)

However, this story is the hook. Born to Run is an extended argument for a minimalist running style that exploded in popularity following its publication. McDougall’s thesis is that modern running shoes, and the industry that is predicated on selling those shoes, causes us to run in ways that cause injuries. This argument is somewhat anecdotal, relying on personal experience and stories of incredible endurance from athletes before the advent of running shoes.

The Rarámuri, whose name means “The Running People,” are exhibit A. The Rarámuri are a tribe that lives in isolated villages deep in the Sierra Madre Occidentals, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The terrain makes long-distance travel a challenge, so they Rarámuri run. But they also run for ceremony and sport in a ceremonial ball-game called rarajipara where teams work to kick a ball an agreed upon distance, chasing it down after each kick. All the while, runners wear just a traditional sandal called huaraches.

My own experience with running makes me sympathetic to McDougall’s argument, and I am seriously considering getting a pair of zero-drop shoes and transitioning in this direction for my footwear. However, the more I read about running injuries, the more it seems that the answers might be more idiosyncratic. That is, there is a lot of conflicting evidence. While some studies suggest physiological advantages to barefoot running, others point out that not all barefoot runners run with the same gait. A number of studies suggest that barefoot running has shifted the types of injuries (aided perhaps by people transitioning too quickly) rather than reducing them. I think that barefoot running could be good for me, but all of this makes me think that I shouldn’t ditch the running shoes for every run just yet.

While I was reading Born to Run, a friend suggested that I read Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which connects my current focus on running with my ongoing obsession with writing.

In addition to being a novelist, Murakami is a marathoner and triathlete who describes how his goal is to run one marathon a year. This memoir is a collection of essays on the theme of running and training, and, unlike Born to Run, is not meant to be an argument for a particular type of training.

I think that one more condition for being a gentleman would be keeping quiet about what you do to stay healthy.

Nevertheless, I found What I Talk about When I Talk About Running to be particularly inspiring. Murakami is a more successful runner than I ever expect to be, even though I’m only three years older now than he was when he started running. And yet, I found something admirable about his approach. Running, like writing, is just something Murakami does, and he doesn’t think about a whole lot when he is on the road. His goal in running is to run to the end of the course. That’s it. He gets frustrated when he can’t run as fast as he used to, but he is not running to beat the other people, and uses the experience to turn inward.

And you start to recognize (or be resigned to the fact) that since your faults and deficiencies are well nigh infinite, you’d best figure out your good points and learn to get by with what you have.

But it should perhaps not come as a surprise that I highlighted more passages about writing than I did about running, though Murakami makes a case that the is broad overlap in a both a running temperament and a writing one. Both activities require long periods of isolation and where success is not synonymous with “winning.” Doing them is more important than being the best at them.

I don’t think we should judge the value of our lives by how efficient they are.

A useful reminder.

ΔΔΔ

I have had a hard time writing about books recently. Before these two books, I got bogged down in Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob, which I am still trying to process, and then read Ondjaki’s The Transparent City, which is a very sad story about an impoverished community in Luanda, Angola. I would like to write about these, but I’m not sure that I have anything coherent to say and June has turned much busier than I had hoped—last week I was at AP Rating in Kansas City, then I wrote a conference paper that I delivered yesterday, and now I’m staring down a book deadline and other writing obligations. By the time I have time, I might be too far removed to come back to those books. I am now reading Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind, which is a novel about adjunct labor and miscarriage in a way that highlights the lack of control in both situations.

A List of my Favorite Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels (2022 Edition)

This category is dedicated to books as standalone books that may or may not be part of a longer series. The dividing line for this list was whether I thought you could read just the one book from a series as a self-contained story. If the answer was no, then the series likely appears below. As with my list of favorite novels, this is both recommendation and not. The list is a product of personal taste and dim memory of when I read these books, which often speaks as much to who I was when I read them as to the overall quality.

A few stats:

  • Oldest: 1937 (Starmaker)
  • Newest: 2021 (A Master of Djinn)

Tier 3
34. The Redemption of Althalus, David and Leigh Eddings (2000)
33. Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (2013)
32. The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wexler (2013)
31. Old Man’s War, John Scalzi (2005)
30. Inverted World, Christopher Priest (1974)
29. Foundation, Isaac Asimov (1951)
28. Kalpa Imperial, Angélica Gorodischer (1983)
27. The Bone Shard Daughter, Andrea Stewart (2020)
26. Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed (2012)
25. The Postmortal, Drew Magary (2011)
24. Neuromancer, William Gibson (1984)
23. The Tombs of Atuan, Ursula K. Le Guin (1972)
22. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (1985)

Tier 2
21. A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E. Schwab (2015)
20. Ilium, Dan Simmons (2003)
19. The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu (2008)
18. A Master of Djinn, P. Djeli Clark (2021)
17. A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine (2019)
16. The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch (2007)
15. The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu (2015)
14. Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
13. Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson (1992)
12. Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
11. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke (2004)
10. Piranesi, Susanna Clarke (2020)
9. Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaimon (2013)
8. Starmaker, Olaf Stapledon (1937)

Tier 1
7. Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler (1993)
6. The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin (2015)
5. Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1989)
4. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
2. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaimon (1990)
1. American Gods, Neil Gaimon (2001)

Series

The following section is dedicated to fantasy books that I think of as series rather than as individual books. These series range from three to fourteen books. Not all of the series are complete and in fact my top two and four of my top ten are as-yet incomplete. Several caveats apply to this list. First, I have to have read all of the books in the series that are out, which eliminates series of books that I quite enjoyed, including some of the books on the above list. Second: where an ongoing series ranks depends in part on my estimation of the most recent books. Most notably for this iteration, Ken Liu’s series skipped past several series based largely on how much I loved last year’s release, and Arkady Martine’s books made a stunning debut in this category in large part because of A Desolation Called Peace. There is at least one first-book-in-a-series on the list above that I loved as a standalone, but was less impressed with how the series developed. The Expanse books would likely fall in Tier 3 between Tao and Shades, but I have only read half the books at the time this post went up.

Tier 3
19. Star Wars: X-Wing, various authors
18. The Three Body Problem, Cixin Liu
17. Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
16. Kushiel’s Legacy, Jacqueline Carey
15. Machineries of Empire, Yoon Ha Lee
14. Tao Trilogy, Wesley Chu
13. Shades of Magic, V.E. Schwab

Tier 2
12. Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson
11. Farseer Trilogy, Robin Hobb
10.The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson
9. The Daevabad Trilogy, Shannon Chakraborty
8. Liveship Traders, Robin Hobb
7. Stormlight Archive, Brandon Sanderson
6. Teixcalaan Series, Arkady Martine

Tier 1
5. Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
4. Dandelion Dynasty, Ken Liu
3. Broken Earth, N.K. Jemisin
2. A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin
1. Kingkiller Chronicles, Patrick Rothfuss

A List of My Favorite Novels (2022 edition)

Before getting to the list, a few preliminaries:

  • This list is a reflection of my own personal taste. I have become a more discerning reader since publishing the initial list, but I am not primarily making an aesthetic literary judgement. In at least one case, the book doesn’t hang together as a complete novel, the author thought it was a complete failure, and yet it contains some of my favorite scenes that author ever produced.
  • This list combines the experience I had when I read the book with the foggy recollection of memory. I cannot promise that were I to read the book again it would land in the same place. I rarely fiddle with the rankings from year to year other than to add new books and iron out disagreements between this list and my fantasy rankings, but sometimes it happens.
  • I have subdivided the list into tiers because some of the distinctions amount to splitting hairs.
  • This list serves both as recommendation and not. When I recommend books to a particular reader, I tailor the list to the recipient. To wit, I am moved by Hemingway’s writing and thought that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was brilliant; I rarely recommend anyone read either.
  • I once intended to make this list out to a round one hundred books, or one hundred +X, but while there are hundreds and hundreds of books in the world that I have enjoyed, not all of those made the list because I instead decided that it should serve as a collection of books that I consider all-time favorites. Once the list hits 100 or so—maybe 100+my age at the time I publish the list— books at the back end will begin to fall off.
  • I am annoyed by lists of great novels that include series and books that are not novels. To reflect this, I have created a second list of my favorite works of science fiction and fantasy that includes both stand-alone novels and series, which will appear in a subsequent post. Some works appear on both lists, hopefully in the same order.
  • The dates in parentheses are publication date, even when the publication was posthumous.
  • Since the 2021 update, I have added just two books to the list and adjusted the ranking of one book. This is mostly because the two best books I read in 2021 came before I updated the list and while I have enjoyed a lot of the books I have read since, the great ones have mostly been non-fiction or in genres that I am generally not tracking here. There is more movement on my science fiction and fantasy list, both because I have read more books in those genres and because it has been two years since my last update.

And a few stats:

  • Original Languages: 12
  • Books by women: 19
  • Oldest: 1899 (The Heart of Darkness)
  • Newest: 2021 (The Book of Form and Emptiness)

Tier 5
77. Bridge on the Drina, Ivo Adric (1945)
76. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
75. Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson (1992)
74. Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen (2006)
73. The Clergyman’s Daughter, George Orwell (1935)
72. Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco (1988)
71. Basti, Intizar Husein (1979)
70. The Samurai’s Garden, Gail Tsukiyama (1994)
69. The Time of the Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa (1963)
68. The Stranger, Albert Camus (1942)
67. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (1899)
66. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See (2005)
65. First and Last Man, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
64. Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis (1946)
63. Scoop, Evelyn Waugh (1938)
62. Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
61. The Brothers Ashkenazi, I.J. Singer (1937)

Tier 4
60. The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino (1957)
59. Siddhartha, Herman Hesse (1951)
58. White Noise, Don Delillo (1985)
57. Burmese Days, George Orwell (1934)
56. The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison (1970)
55. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke (2004)
54. Piranesi, Susanna Clarke (2020)
53. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaimon (2013)
52. The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth (1932)
51. Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017)
50. Palace Walk, Naguib Mahfouz (1956)

Tier 3
49. Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon (1937)
48. Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler (1993)
47. The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin (2015)
46. Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1989)
45. The Secret History, Donna Tartt (1992)
44. I, The Supreme, Augusto Roa Bastos (1974)
43. The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk (2008)
42. Day of the Oprichnik, Vladimir Sorokin (2006)
41. American War, Omer el-Akkad (2017)
40. The Man Who Spoke Snakish, Andrus Kivirähk (2007)
39. The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015)
38. If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin (1974)
37. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
36. The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood (2000)
35. The Book of Form and Emptiness, Ruth Ozeki (2021)

Tier 2
34. The Bad Girl, Mario Vargas Llosa (2006)
33. Good Omens, Neil Gaimon and Terry Pratchett (1990)
32. The Shadow King, Maaza Mengiste (2019)
31. A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (2013)
30. I Saw Her That Night, Drago Jančar (2010)
29. The Black Book, Orhan Pamuk (1990)
28. The Feast of the Goat, Mario Vargas Llosa (2000)
27. American Gods, Neil Gaimon (2001)
26. Catch 22, Joseph Heller (1961)
25. Creation, Gore Vidal (1981)
24. Coming Up for Air, George Orwell (1939)
23. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway (1940)
22. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
21. Snow, Orhan Pamuk (2002)
20. Stoner, John Williams (1965)
19. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)
18. The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2013)
17. Lolita, Vladimir Nobokov (1955)
16. Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann (1947)

Tier 1B
15. My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (2011)
14. We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924)
13. My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk (1998)
12. The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga (2008)
11. The Jokers, Albert Cossery (1964)
10. To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway (1937)
9. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
8. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell (1936)
7. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (1926)
6. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (1996)

Tier 1A
5. Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)
4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (1967)
3. Magister Ludi, Hermann Hesse (1943)
2. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)
1. The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis (1955)

The Cruelest Phase

I keep coming back to the same thought over the past few weeks: more than two years into a global pandemic that has likely killed more than a million people in the United States and three million worldwide, we are just now entering the cruelest phase of the this health crisis.

Now, a disclaimer. I am a historian, and an ancient historian at that. I don’t study public policy or statistics or medicine, and my observations here are supremely anecdotal. That said…

As hard as the first year of the pandemic was for many people—and it was hard—I remember at least a superficial sense of collective unity. People played politics with PPE, many places resisted installing mask mandates, and too many people lost their jobs, but amid the chaos of uncertainty there was an acknowledgement in the collective wisdom about what needed to be done and which people were already straining against the impossible.

The second year meant settling into something akin to a new normal and an optimistic sigh of relief at the flood of vaccines making their way into people’s arms. After all, the US responds to crises best when they can be solved by the blunt instrument of mass production.

But here at the start of year three, I am worried. The vaccination levels have long-since flattened and the rates of boosters lagged precipitously behind despite the appearance of two highly-contagious variants. At the same time, movements against masks and vaccines gained traction under the rhetoric of freedom. Organizations used the lulls between waves and availability of vaccines to drop remaining mitigation measures. Congress stripped Covid funding altogether from the latest funding bill. People have gradually let their guard down as they have watched their peers do so with seemingly no ill-effects.

Back in December 2020 I wrote:

COVID didn’t so much create problems as lay bare the fundamental structures of a society where public infrastructure (let alone any pretense of a social safety net) has been dismantled and sold for parts.

A year and a half later, things are worse. The changes put in place proved temporary accommodations rather than substantive reforms and the people who have been holding entire fields like, say, healthcare and education together are running on fumes. In the case of education, a field notorious for overwork and low pay, the CRT panic has made the job more challenging even beyond Covid and one recent survey found that 55% of respondents are now looking at leaving the field sooner than they had planned, up from 37% in the same survey at the start of the school year. The result is critical shortages in healthcare workers and teachers which puts more burden on those who remain and thus creating the potential for cascading failures.

A new variant (Omicron BA.2; I see we broke pattern and are delaying the arrival omega) is the dominant strain of Covid in the United States and your trend-line-of-choice is heading in the wrong direction, be it positive tests, waste water testing, or Yankee Candle reviews. Despite mendacious bloviating that the pandemic is over, it was a matter of when, not if, the next wave hit. This time, though, there isn’t even the pretense of mitigation measures, let alone federal funding for testing and treatment. And just wait until health insurers determine that Covid is a pre-existing condition.

The point here is not that everything is absolutely terrible, at least about this. I am vaccinated, boosted, and live in a region with relatively low case rates. However, I also worry that we are at a point where these same factors that will facilitate the spread of the next wave are going to leave the people who contract the virus even more alone when it comes to dealing with the consequences. I hope I’m wrong.

What is Making Me Happy: Byzantium and Friends

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular feature.

This week: Byzantium and Friends

I am a longtime listener to podcasts, so much so that I wrote one of these entries on the topic way back in 2016. I also once suggested that every history program ought to have a student-run semi-regular podcast where members of the department and alumni could talk about their their research. In addition to being outreach for the program, such a podcast would give students multiple types of experience, as producers, as interviewers, and, of course, talking about their own work. This idea came to me too late in my graduate career to put something in action, though, and I have largely resisted the urge to start a podcast of my own both because I don’t have a clear sense of what I would want the project to do and because I haven’t had time.

Several weeks ago I started listening to the Byzantium and Friends podcast hosted by Anthony Kaldellis thanks to a recommendation on Twitter from Matthew Simonton. Four episodes in, I am already prepared to say that his is what I would want it to look like were I to start a Greek history podcast.

The stated goal of the podcast is to make current research in the diversifying field of Late Antique studies accessible a wider audience such as students and teachers.

Each episode features a conversation between Kaldellis and a guest grounded in something that the guest has written, whether a book or an article, but then flows outward. Kaldellis is adept at guiding this discussion, informed by careful and generous readings of their work, as well as his own scholarship, and a curiosity about trends and different methodological approaches in historical study. Since the goal is explanatory and collaborative rather than critical, I find that the discussion transcends the limits of the specific publication and become about the process of doing history. Some of the resonance stems form the broad similarities between ancient history and Late Antiquity, but other parts are universal to the study of the past. This was particularly true in the fourth episode with Kristina Sessa about environmental approaches to ancient history, which I am going to suggest as an assignment for a World History course next fall, but it was also present in the other episodes—with George Demacopoulos about colonialism and post-colonial theory in the Fourth Crusade, Ellen Muehlberger about imagination, and Leonora Neville on gender.

As much as I love the conversations, though, it is the final question that particularly makes me happy. Kaldellis closes the show by asking the guest for two reading recommendations outside their specific field. This is a show about Late Antiquity and Byzantium, but this closing question reinforces how historians bring a wide range of influences to their work and benefit from looking beyond the narrow bounds of their research. Every time he asks this question I think about how I might answer the question. As I write this, I’m still trying to decide.

In short, this is my platonic ideal of an academic podcast and I would love to see this format proliferate. Even if I had time to take on such a project, though, I could only hope to emulate Kaldellis’ erudite and considered skill as a host so while I could could provide a lengthy list of scholars I would excitedly badger to come talk to me about their work, I will save everyone the embarrassment by just pressing play on episode five.

What is Making Me Happy: Wordle

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular feature.

This week: Wordle

I stopped posting my Wordle updates to Twitter after just one or two posts. In part this was because of people pointing out that a wall of emojis is hard on screen-readers, but the bigger part was that I don’t find these posts interesting—from me or from anyone else. The game can inspire interesting conversations, I think, but Twitter is not to the place to have them.

For the handful of people who have not been swept up in the obsession, Wordle is a simple, no-frills word game. You have six guesses to identify the day’s five-letter word. If you correctly identify a letter in its location the game gives you a green square. If the letter is correct, but in the wrong spot the square turns yellow. This mechanic allows you to go through a process of elimination until you correctly determine the day’s word.

Wordle is not the first word game to go viral on the internet recently. Spelling Bee (and analogs) was a diverting game for a time, but it couldn’t hold my attention like this one. The difference is the amount of time that each game takes. I found that Spelling Bee required quite an investment of time, making it good for long trips but not something I could do every day. Wordle, by contrast, I do in just a couple of minutes first thing in the morning.

While I am not interested in seeing how people did on each day’s Wordle in the abstract, there are two things that fascinate me about the game.

First, I have taken to using my own guesses as an internal barometer for where my head is at in the morning. I think what I am obsessed with is how I choose the words I come up with un-caffeinated and barely awake. About a week ago, for instance, I was at a loss for a word when my brain threw out “capon,” which I knew was a word but couldn’t define (it is a castrated rooster). More frequently this just amounts to a goofy reflection on the order of the words as I throw them out.

These generally aren’t bad and I like to avoid re-using words where possible, but what does it say that I go from “doubt” to “vomit” to “joint” before getting to the right answer?

Second, the competitive part of my personality is taken by the strategy in Wordle. The game does not award bonus points for fewer guesses, just whether you get it correct or not. Everything else is just a matter of pride. But pride also makes it fun.

A few weeks ago I saw some discussion of “optimal strategy” that generally involved some variation on the approach to Wheel of Fortune where you should spam the most common consonants in the early words because, statistically, those are the most likely to get you letters on the board. I suspect that this strategy increases the odds of getting the correct answer on the first or second guess, but I have developed a strategy that has worked for all 22 puzzles I have done, all in the 3rd, 4th, or 5th guess.

My strategy mostly disregards consonants when coming up my first guess. All things being equal, I’d like to use several common consonants (tnshr), but since I also enjoy coming up with odd words I don’t worry too much. What I am looking for in my first and second guess are vowels because there are fewer vowels than there are consonants and the vowels will serve as my constraints going forward. Starting with my third guess, I start to consider possible double letters (the green/yellow system won’t alert you to these and will sometimes mislead). In one instance this strategy took me from a single yellow square on my first two guesses to the correct answer on the third.

One of these days Wordle will stump me. Nevertheless, I am quite enjoying this short, simple, daily word game.

What is Making Me Happy: Best Baker in America

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular feature.

This week: Best Baker in America, Season 4

Okay, let me get something out of the way. I hate the name “Best Baker in America.” I think it is clunky and overly pretentious given that any given season will only have a few contestants, so the nominal crowning of “best baker in America” is meaningless.

What I don’t hate is this show, a reality baking competition on the Food Network that I first encountered on a recent plane flight.

If it wasn’t obvious from previous posts here, 1) I bake a lot; 2) I enjoy watching food television, particularly when it involves baking. Best Baker in America, Season 4 meets both criteria.

Anyone familiar with the Great British Baking Show should be broadly familiar with the template. Ten bakers from around the country come together to bake their way through a gauntlet of challenges set by the quirky hosts until only one remains to be crowned champion. However, there are also some significance differences, including that all of the bakers are professionals and the competition is based almost exclusively on pastry.

Each episode in this season involves two challenges. Every baker completes the first challenge, a signature dish on based on various flavors and ingredients. The judges choose a winner and some number of bakers who are safe. The two or more bakers who made the least successful dishes then compete in a bake-off, a second challenge to see who gets eliminated, at least until the finale.

Personally I found the quirkiness of the judges (Carla Hall, Jason Smith, and Gesine Prado) over the top, perhaps because they play a double role of host and judge where those jobs are separate in Great British Baking Show. Despite this, the judges exhibit my favorite thing about a lot of baking shows: they are unabashedly enthusiastic about the work that the contestants are doing. That is, they openly root for them to succeed, even while they offer critiques of the product.

In a similar vein, I like the simplicity of the format. Where the Great British Baking Show puts the contestants through three challenges over two days and then judges them holistically, this show has just two that are judged individually. If a contestant screws up that bake, they have a chance at redemption.

Other shows and, indeed, earlier seasons of this same show, use a format taken from reality competitions where the first challenge in a given episode earns immunity from elimination that happens after the second, but I found that I vastly preferred this format when I tried watching one of the others seasons. For one thing, a head-to-head competition raises the stakes and allows you to concentrate on what is happening on a smaller number of stations. For another, the other competitors remained in the kitchen, meaning both that they turned into a designated cheer-squad, much like what happened in the most recent season of Top Chef‘s Last Chance Kitchen, but also that they got to taste what the bakers made and called upon to assess the dish.

I suspect that some of the particulars of this season and its coziness were shaped by the demands of filming during a pandemic (Season 3 came out in 2019, but the show only returned for Season 4 in 2021), but I found the final product to be an excellent—if also over-the-top and frequently silly—addition to the genre.