Top 100 Novel Review: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, John Le Carré (1963)

Basic But Solid Spy Thriller.

The perfect rebound book after my last reading failure.

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Click here for TIME Magazine’s list. 
My Rating: cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586

The last fiction novel I read? Infinite Jest, an opaque dithering post-modern nightmare. I needed something wholesome to regain my confidence. My mind wasn’t ready to take on a challenge or the avant-garde, so I flipped through TIME’s Top 100 novels trying to find the best book for my palate. The Spy Who Came in form the Cold is a meat and potatoes book — exactly what I needed.

Mind you, this book isn’t exceptionally stellar. I’m not sure why it’s a top 100 novel; there is nothing that separates it from any other entry in the spy thriller genre. Maybe it’s because it was one of the firsts. Either way, it does succeed in completing the checklist you expect from fiction. Sometimes it is nice to read something that just does the basics and does them well.

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Top 100 Non-Fiction Book: #89 – The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe (1968)

The Hippie Ethos.

An intimate exploration of the 60s counter-culture with some of my favorite Authors to boot. 

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The Greatest Book’s Ranking: #51/100
My Rating: cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586

I haven’t been shy about expressing my distaste for the hippie artistic cannon. Thanksgiving is where I expect a little substance is needed to enjoy it, not entire movies. Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider are prototypical examples: the storyline’s a mess; the themes are simply for the sake of preaching to the choir; there is no evolution of purpose. It’s as if everyone was sky high during the production.

Well, most likely they were.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test explores the beginning of the psychedelic counter culture, and it centers on an unlikely person: Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I say unlikely because I had no idea. Unbeknownst to me, Kesey used his LSD trips as inspiration to write the perspective of the book from the Chief instead of the main protagonist. Larry McMurtry, who writes westerns for God’s sake, is even present as a tertiary character. Who knew!

Reading about Hippies is way more interesting than their artistic expression. While the book sometimes goes too far in trying to imitate the subject matter (“let’s make the narration FEEL like an acid trip” gets tedious), it was a riveting, in-the-trenches insight into a world I understand so much better now. Well, as much as I can understand it.

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Top 100 Novel Review: Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (1996)

The Jokes On Us.

People proudly wear a masochistic badge of honor when they successfully complete this book. Unfortunately, I will not be eligible. 

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My Rating: cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586

I have some bad news for all of you: one day, your body will begin to fail and you will reflect on how you spent your time. All the day-to-day trifling matters that soaked up our energy will be revisited with regret as this new found perspective will rightfully quarantine them as meaningless distractions. The things that made our spirits soar, people we knew, things we felt, the experience of life, will come gushing forth in a bittersweet nostalgia.

This book was destined to be a trifling matter, and I refuse to spend anymore time with this meaningless distraction. If reading is permissible in an infinite afterlife, Infinite Jest still doesn’t make the list.

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Top 100 Non-Fiction Book: #51 – In Cold Blood, Truman Capote (1966)

A Superb Non-Fiction Novel.

The mostly true account with occasional machination is high-level storytelling. 

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The Greatest Book’s Ranking: #51/100
My Rating: cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586

I tend to enjoy works that have multiple different angles. It allows you to soak up a little bit of everything with a discursive interest, never being bored. When the whole is made greater by the intertwining, distinct parts is when things become a work of art; In Cold Blood is that kind of book.

Capote is a masterful story teller when describing the abstract human psyche. He finds such concrete and relatable descriptions that the ineffable becomes intelligible. The setting of Kansas, with its isolation and bucolic life, bursts forth from the pages. The horrendous crime captivates even though we know the killers and the outcome. A switching narrative, between victims, perpetrators, and community, creates a complete 360 of immersion.

This is as close as you can get to a lived experience from a book.

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Top 100 Non-Fiction Book – #99 – Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington (1901)

Absolutely Fascinating.

The perspective of a slave turned influential spokesman is ripe with thoughts on identity, labor, and education. 
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The Greatest Book’s Ranking: #99/100
My Rating: cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586

I read this book during a slight downslope of life. I am finishing up my final clinical rotation with my hand in several side projects wondering — what’s the point? This bit of nihilism is due to the amount of sacrifice with the reward being only a cloudy possibility in the future. I want to create a better way to do clinical education for physical therapy, but thoughts of self-doubt have crept in.

Enter Booker Taliaferro Washington, a name he gave himself upon freedom.

Reading his journey begin with absolutely nothing but his inexorable desire to do better, it reignited some old-fashion values in me: the joy of work should not be in the reward, but in knowing that you did it to the best of your ability. The dignity of labor is an intrinsic sense of satisfaction. This, and other lessons, I heeded during this opaque time in my life.

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Top 100 Non-Fiction Book: #36 – The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides (431BCE)

Too Much To Sift Through.

Even for a philhellene, the copious list of places long gone became too much. 
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The Greatest Book’s Ranking: #36/100
My Rating: cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586

During the last summer off for the rest of my working life, I consumed about thirty books, more than half of which were about Ancient Greece. Just like previous descendants of western civilization, I became enamored with the mythology, culture, and philosophy from the peninsula that changed everything. These books were mostly interpretations and commentaries, so reading the actual source code was quite the change.

Within the first chapter, it is clear to see why this book is so important. Thucydides leads with several big ideas, the most important one being that history can actually be accounted for and objective. The rest of the book is his personal attempt at doing this. I don’t care about whether he actually succeeded — it’s more his aim and scope that I applaud.

The big ideas stop early, however, and the book is mostly a long list of people and places long gone from existence. Running to Wikipedia every other sentence soon grows tiresome. Past his bold opening proclamations, historical accounts based on his work narrate a much more focused and interesting story.

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Top 100 Non-Fiction Book: #98 – The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith (1776)

Capitalism 101.

Adam Smith is to economics as Isaac Newton is to physics, but there are problems.

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The Greatest Book’s Ranking: #98/100
My Rating: cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586

I made a deal with myself: when reading a book, it was okay not to finish and acceptable to skip less intriguing parts. I’m a drill master with much of my life as I timely complete things, seeing them through till the end. I was worried if I would feel satisfied taking this nonchalant attitude towards reading and whether it would effect what I could imbibe from it.

Consider me converted! Maybe I should be more shiftless with the other parts of my life (except my social life — I got that down).

The Wealth of Nations is one of those seminal books that as you read it, images of others pop into your head: founding fathers, economic professors, entrepreneurs. This book is endless, edifying prose explaining the basics of capitalism.  It lays out the foundations for many principles that, just through observation, Adam Smith was able to uncover. With that said, he was someone writing in 1700s; I think he got a few things “wrong,” and he occasionally speaks out of both sides of his mouth.

And yes, you can skip many of the 700 pages and still be alright.

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