During the 2019 holidays, I had a conversation with my sister about our reading habits. At this time I didn’t feel like I read all that much. More than the average American, surely, but probably right around the “one book per month” goal she was considering. Consequently, I decided to spend time this year (2020) keeping track of what I read. My intent was a non-judgmental record of what I’d read, and when I read it.
This was born from my own curiosity about my habits. Yet, I thought it may be interesting to share with others—at the very least, if you share similar tastes with me, you may find a book or two to explore. The end lesson is that I read quite a lot more than my instinct guessed. I’m usually reading two books at once: typically one fiction, and one non-fiction, one at home, and one at my workplace. Usually I chip away at a book over time, but infrequently power through one in just a few sittings.
I’ll proceed chronologically, noting roughly how long I was reading through a particular book, and sharing what I recollect of it (if anything, for what I was reading about this time last year). There’s about thirty entries, although a few I never finished. I think the main impact keeping this list had on my reading habits was that I finished more books, rather than grazing incompletely.
Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre, trans Hazel Barnes. November 2019-April 2020.
This is almost certainly the most difficult book I’ve read over the last several years. I read it in some way out of a sense of obligation; I feel I ought to read something once in a while which gives me a migraine trying to puzzle out its meaning. It was good mental exercise—and a good excuse to stretch my philosophy muscles—but I’m not going to try summarizing Sartre’s argument here.
For me, the strongest take-away from Being and Nothingness was an understanding of how totally isolated academic philosophy has grown from non-specialist access. While I’d not call myself a specialist, this field is my academic background. The complexity of Sartre’s book doesn’t just come from jargon—though there’s plenty—but because the whole topic he’s interested in is nestled within the greater conversation taking place in Western philosophy since Rene Descartes.
In the Land of Time and other Fantasy Stories by Lord Dunsany, ed. S.T. Joshi. December 2019-January 2020.
I’d read The King of Elfland’s Daughter before, but was unfamiliar with Lord Dunsany’s short fiction. This collection was a delight. In particular, I loved his early work The Gods of Pegana for its strangeness. Throughout Lord Dunsany writes with a real sense of rhythm in his prose (something I recall Neil Gaiman described as like a ‘twang of the King James Bible’ in his introduction to my edition of The King of Elfland’s Daughter, to paraphrase). I found the stories later in the work typically less memorable, although I got to transform “The Shop of Little Evils” into a wonderful improv tabletop scenario, which I’ve still not yet written up.
Pueblo Children of the Earth Mother, Volume One by Thomas Mails. December 2019-March 2020.
This book, I think, was responsible for sending me off on an archaeology kick throughout this year. Written by a non-specialist for non-specialists and filled with illustrations of artifacts and sites, I found this book surprisingly engaging. This is the type of book I read as research for art design as well as to try creating a sense of “realness” in my worldbuilding. Although this work is several decades out of date, it still seemed to give a “good enough” overview of Ancient Puebloan archaeology for someone who doesn’t need rigorous accuracy.
The Aztec, Inca, & Maya Empires by Martin Dougherty. December 2019-January 2020.
This book was an impulse purchase in the bookstore, because it was cheap and heavily illustrated. I picked it up really as an art reference work when doing art direction (you can see an example of this influence in the item “Comb of Akihasina” in Treasures of Glorantha). It was a fairly quick and pleasant read. I found myself wanting more information, but that the quantity and quality was about what I’d expected of the book.
Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston. January.
Another impulse purchase—bookshops are so dangerous, aren’t they?—upon the strength of Preston’s previous writing. I remember reading this one in a two-sitting flash, yet ultimately feeling like it was sort of a “nothing stew.” Preston’s writing is very engaging, a masterclass in thriller pacing for non-fiction work, but without the book being able to provide substantial information about the discovered ruins, I found myself wanting more.
Life and ADventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel DeFoe. March-april.
Intentionally controversial take: Robinson Crusoe is the oldest isekai novel. The protagonist is, through events beyond his control, swept into a strange and hostile land where he magically succeeds at everything he tries and is self-sufficient and generally awesome.
Architecture in Ancient Egypt and the NEar East by Alexander Badawy. March.
I recall finding this book very engaging once again due to its use of illustrations. It’s on my “get this” list because of them (I borrowed a library copy). Being able to visualize ancient sites is useful when I’m writing worldbuilding and setting design for my gaming material, because it makes the game more realistic. Plus, I’ve just grown to find it interesting.
If you’re interested in doing similar research, I’d recommend this one. While aimed at college students, I didn’t find Badawy’s writing to be a difficult read.
Cities of the Biblical World by LaMoine DeVries. Pages 1-237, March-April.
This book provides short summaries of most of the cities mentioned in the Bible. I read just the Old Testament portion, as that’s more addressed to my interests. I found the book didn’t have enough information of the sort I was looking for—in particular, anthropological speculation about the societies—and ultimately wasn’t useful for me as a general historical survey.
The Books of Earthsea anthology by Ursula K. LeGuin. April-May.
I’ve read A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan several times, and love those books, but I hadn’t read the rest of LeGuin’s Earthsea stories. They’re interesting. I ultimately enjoyed and felt engaged with the series as a whole, reading it from beginning to end. Written over nearly 40 years, I think, the books are embodied by the same spirit, manifesting in a variety of ways. I feel its this variety of manifestation which has made the latter works mildly controversial.
If you like fantasy, these are definitely worth reading—Wizard is a classic of the genre and worth reading for historical reasons, although Tombs is my favorite due to its slow pacing. LeGuin’s pacing and characterization are very engaging, and her prose is hard to beat.
Ancient Syria by Trevor Bryce. April-June.
I enjoyed Bryce’s history Kingdom of the Hittites, so I read this to learn more about the ancient world at large. I found this work less engaging than Kingdom. As I recall, it basically frames Syria as the crossroads of the ancient world, and then spends a large portion of its page count summarizing ancient history rather than actually talking about what’s happening in Syria. The latter section about the Seleucids, the Roman period, and Palmyra was very interesting, but only about a third of the book.
The Rough Guide to Glamour by Nick Brooke Et. al. May-June (and a re-read).
This book describes the fabulous city of Glamour, in the Lunar Empire of the fantasy world Glorantha. I read it twice in this time frame, because I wanted to write a review. You can see my thoughts on Glamour over here.
The Pegasus Plateau & Other Stories published by Chaosium. May.
This is a collection of adventures for the tabletop game RuneQuest, set in the world of Glorantha. It’s quite good. I wrote up a “first impressions” article around when it came out. I’m intending to write a full review, but as I haven’t had the opportunity to actually play the material, I’m waiting. I don’t believe I can properly review a game if I haven’t played it!
The Shores of Korantia published by Design Mechanism. May-June.
Another gaming book, this time set in the world of Thennla, for the game Mythras (which is related to, but distinct from, RuneQuest). I found this setting engaging because it’s very Hellenic. It’s structured around city-states—like those of Classical Greece—and felt like an interesting remix of history and fantasy. I’d previously read Sorandib for the same setting, but Korantia‘s scope is more extensive. Both serve as good examples, in my opinion, of how to explore ancient cities in a roleplaying game.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead trans. Coleman et. al. June-July.
Another book I read as research, and found fascinating. I think what I find so interesting about Buddhism, generally, is that it’s a religion which claims it can be empirically verified if anyone engages in certain practices. This book describes various religious practices, and what they’re meant to achieve. It’s a book about dying and death, and doing so with dignity.
I don’t think I can really do the work justice by blathering on further.
The Arabian Nights trans. Dalziel, Dulcken, et. al. Introduced by Muhsin al-Musawi. June-September.
I read The Arabian Nights in hopes of exposing myself to non-European folktale traditions, to give my subconscious access to an ongoing diversity of plots and ideas. This book was a slog. There’s a couple different reasons for that. The most significant is that al-Musawi’s introduction does not correlate well with the actual text—it discusses various abridgments and excisions made due to Victorian sensibilities. Yet the translation is one of those same bowdlerized versions from the 19th century! (Probably, because it’s free.)
Beyond a mismanagement of expectations, I found some of the latter stories repetitive when they grew long. The formula of The Arabian Nights worked well when the stories were relatively short and you could get lost in the stories as they nested one within another. Yet, the longer tales—such as that of Sinbad—were less engaging the longer they fixated upon a theme.
I think another element is that the impact of a “wonder tale” is weaker on modern readers. Just being told “this thing happened, and was a remarkable occurrence!” isn’t engaging.
Sun County published Avalon Hill / Chaosium. July.
I picked up a copy of Sun County because it’s the core setting for Jonathan Webb’s excellent Sandheart books on the Jonstown Compendium (the Glorantha community content storefront), and because I hear it regularly cited as kickstarting the “RuneQuest Renaissance” of the 1990’s. Honestly? It didn’t disappoint. There’s odd hiccups here and there due to 20-odd years of change in gaming norms and design improvements. I still found the book to be an engaging and interesting read.
If you’re a RuneQuest gamer, this is worth tracking down on Ebay or elsewhere on the secondary market.
The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison. Re-read, July-August.
The Worm Ouroboros probably remains my all-time favorite novel. It’s just so spectacularly strange. A tale about great heroes overwhelmed by their passions, couched in lush, over-verbose prose. I can never actually recommend this book—it’s too weird, too dense—but I love it. I spent some time re-reading it this past summer simply for the joy of Eddison’s language.
India: A History by John Keay. August-October.
I chose to read Keay’s book on India based on the strength of his similar book on China, which I found quite engaging. His Indian history was less engaging, unfortunately. However, I do think he put the case well that this is, in large part, due to the nature of Indian history and archaeology—there’s just less information surviving, in particular of written sources. He also spends rather more time on modern history in India than he did in China. This was unsurprising, as Keay’s British, but nonetheless of less interest to myself.
Goddesses & Gods of Old Europe by Marija Gimbutas. July-October.
This book’s another I read for the sake of both setting research and art design. At some times I struggled to fully engage with Gimbutas’s conjecture about the depicted artifacts, but overall I found the book interesting. I don’t think I can highly recommend it for general research, but it’s illustrated enough to be useful for getting visuals of the Neolithic.
Voices of the Winds by Edmonds and Clark. September-October.
Voices of the Winds is a collection of short stories gathered by the authors from Native Americans of North America. It’s organized regionally, but there is some overlap, which helps the reader see points of cultural contact. I found the stories generally engaging, but not spectacular. In many cases, they read more like summaries than stories. I think that, with a little editing—like cutting facets into a jewel—this collection could really shine.
The Queen’s Heir by John Boyle. October.
For a world about gods and monsters, heroes and dragons, it’s absolutely stunning that a majority of the Gloranthan fiction I’ve read is so mediocre.
The Queen’s Heir is set in not-Glorantha; the story is mapped loosely onto Earth’s Bronze Age after it wasn’t published for the original setting. I can’t defend it. The book just plain isn’t good. The re-mapped geography is poorly done, the story’s pacing is bad, the book is littered with simple grammar/editing errors, and every time a character leaves the narrative it does this ridiculous thing along the lines of “I never saw X again, but here’s what happened after…”
Seriously, why is there no Gloranthan Dragonlance equivalent, or the heroic fantasy of R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt Do’Urden? Don’t bother reading this book. It is not worth your time.
Life & Society in the Hittite World by Trevor Bryce. October.
As previously mentioned, I really enjoyed Bryce’s book on the history of the Hittites. Life & Society is its companion volume, describing the Hittites anthropologically, based upon what we can derive from their writings and the sites they left behind.
This is a book I’ll need to revisit. I did find myself wanting more after I finished it, but there’s still a density of information here worth reading and spending more time with. In particular, I want to note that Bryce’s writing is very readable, even when the material is dense—it’s why I chose to track down more of his work after reading Kingdom.
Mythic Odysseys of Theros published by Wizards of the Coast. October-December.
I used to play a lot of the card game Magic: the Gathering. As a Greek nerd, the “Theros” sets were among my favorite setting for the game, even if the card designs themselves weren’t spectacular. So, when Wizards published a book for Dungeons & Dragons set in Theros, I knew I would need to pick it up.
It’s good. I don’t know that I’d call it overwhelming, but I think it’s good. My metric here is that, while I was reading it, I found myself generating ideas for a game, and getting excited to play in the setting. Highlights for me are how the book tries framing the gods of Theros, really putting them at the center of the world and at the center of a game’s plot. If you’re coming from Glorantha (like myself), an important distinction here: the gods are very active. They are willing to step in and change the world, if necessary.
Ultimately, Theros has some cool riffs on magic and myth. If you’re into Dungeons & Dragons, I think you’ll probably like it too.
BEanworld Omnibus, Volume One by Larry Marder. October.
God, how do I summarize Beanworld?
It’s a comic book—maybe even a “graphic novel” despite how much I dislike that phrase’s condescension—which tells the story of almost-stick-figure creatures, called Beans. I think what’s so engaging for me about Beanworld is that it tells a complex story in a simple way. The grand story is about the world itself, a sort of ecology following its own rules and laws. This is the sort of thing that appeals to me as someone who loves worldbuilding—the Beanworld’s “normal” is utterly alien to what we think of as “normal.” But there’s a number of individual stories which carry each chapter or issue’s narrative. So you sort of end up very close-nosed to the Beans, while only seeing the larger story as an out-of-focus background.
It’s very interesting, and very relaxing to read. It’s a feel-good story for me in the same way that The Worm Ouroboros is (although for very different reasons!). I think the highest praise I can give the work is that I read it for six hours straight one day.
Complete Temples of Egypt by Richard Wilkinson. October-December.
Another research work, and another one which is well-illustrated. The first third was most significant for me; the latter sections were intermittently interesting. It advertises itself as a complete survey of all temple sites, but many of those sites are given one paragraph: “We don’t know much about this place.” So, the book’s marketing copy is somewhat disingenuous, but the general material at the start of the volume was still worth my time and energy.
The Stormlight ARchive by Brandon Sanderson. Re-read, November.
In November, I pounded through The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, and Oathbringer in preparation for volume four of Sanderson’s mega-series, The Stormlight Archive.
Volume four, Rhythm of War, is good. Compared to the first two books, books three and four feel faster-paced. This isn’t necessarily to their betterment, because there’s less time to ruminate with the characters. The Way of Kings certainly doesn’t have a dragging plot, but it’s surprisingly-short list of major characters (considering the thing’s 1,000 pages) allows you to spend a lot of time with the ones who matter most.
In contrast, Oathbringer and Rhythm of War are less intimate. I enjoyed four more than three, because it focuses more on my favorite character—and the one I consider the “main protagonist” of the series, if there were to be only one—Kaladin. What Sanderson does really well in Stormlight is focusing on internal drama and mental trauma, and then entangling that in the worldbuilding and the plot development. A character overcoming their internal struggles can directly lead to magical power, and motion of the plot. And it’s explained how that works.
The series’ pace has picked up, because otherwise there won’t be a way to tell a story this size. Sometimes I do find myself wishing it’d be more intimate, like in the first book, but that’s a path which leads to situations like the Wheel of Time—where the series drags and drags through books filled with side details, and the series feeling as though it’ll never end. Four books in, I feel like Sanderson’s got real odds of finishing his series.
And yes, that’s intended as a snark at George R.R. Martin.
The Wayfinders by Wade Davis. November.
I picked this up as part of the Literati digital book club, because they had a club curating works by the Joseph Campbell Foundation. The book club isn’t worth it, in my opinion; that opinion mostly rests on their weak “notes” on the book, which are presented as a major benefit. Rather than even a couple-thousand word essay, it’s literally just a few paragraphs saying the scholar liked the book. That isn’t providing additional value.
The book itself was interesting, but not spectacular. I share a similar curiosity about non-Western cultures with Davis. However, his premise seems to be “we can avoid ecological disaster if we do what these people do!” and I’m not sure I buy that. Nonetheless, a values-focused approach to addressing climate change is interesting.
Trollpak, published by Chaosium. December 2020-Ongoing.
I picked this up along with a number of other RuneQuest Classic titles when they became available Print on Demand sometime in late autumn. For Trollpak, my interest was largely historical. Some background is in order.
After this tumultuous summer, Wizards of the Coast—and other publishers of game content, fiction, movies, etc.—came under increased scrutiny for their treatment of race in fantasy stories. In particular, orcs, or other “savage” races. At that time there was some snide comments from the RuneQuest community along the lines of “we’ve had non-humans without caricature since the 80’s!” So, a major motive for me in reading Trollpak was to see an alternative—supposedly superior—treatment of race.
First off, the book is a creative delight. It does a great job sparking loads of ideas for game content in my mind (mostly involving weird bug stuff with the Uz, as the trolls call themselves). It retells the history of the world from the Uz perspective, and only uses a dash of weird slapstick humor when describing their culture. In particular, I’m thinking of the Uz restaurant menu provided near the back. Although the work needs some editing and proofreading, a majority of “errors” are forgivable as a natural consequence of the book’s age—no one was publishing high-fidelity game content at that time.
If you’re a modern player of RuneQuest, this is probably worth reading. I’m not certain if I’d bother with the scenarios in the second half of the book—the earlier sections on religion and culture are strong, but the adventures thus far have been a bit too open-ended for my taste. Again, I think this is largely an example of changes in game design principles, rather than strictly “flaws” in the work.
Finally, how does it hold up as a depiction of race? Uz culture is brutish and nasty, but my opinion is that it presents such a culture in a complex and interesting way. I think this judgment will ultimately come down to each person’s opinions. Part of what Wizards of the Coast received flak for in their depiction of race, was inherent morality, and inherent intellectual capacity. The Uz are not depicted, I think, as being any more or less evil inherently than their contemporaneous human cultures. I’d call their culture “more evil”—I mean, they eat sentient creatures, that’s evil by basically any definition—but it’s the inherentness of these attitudes I’m unsure about. This is further complicated by the entangling realness of Uz religion: in a sense, to be an Uz means being a worshiper of Kyger Litor, a goddess who demands her most devout worshipers ritually eat their relatives (and not just as part of the Uz funeral rite).
The only issue I can point toward regarding inherent intelligence is that RuneQuest characteristics define various descriptive qualities of a species as absolute, based upon a given dice pool for the characteristic. Meaning, that all great trolls are less intelligent than dark trolls, and even the smartest great troll is only about as smart as an average dark troll. To me this looks similar to the type of species-defining characteristic adjustment Wizards was chastised for—but then again, these sorts of issues are rather far outside my zone of competence.
The Cambridge Companion to the Aegean BRonze Age, ed. Cynthia Shelmerdine. December.
Reading this was something of a personal triumph for me. I’d picked it up a few years ago while trying to research for a novel idea about Perseus, a sort of historical fantasy using Mycenaean culture to retell the Greek myths for a modern audience. I tried skimming this book for information, and found it very difficult.
It was still difficult this time around, but I found I could parse the information more successfully. As usual, my best solution to this sort of problem is to just read the damn thing cover to cover. It’s more time consuming than skimming chapters for information, but it’s also more effective at getting information into my skull.
This is the sort of “deep” research I do knowing that it won’t probably emerge on the surface-level, but that it may show up here and there as I write settings and sketch out art design. In particular, I find description of ancient archaeological sites interesting because it gives me ideas on how to plan out cities, towns, dungeons, ruins, etc. in fiction based on the ancient world. Artifacts lead way to magic items, and social inferences lead to interesting scenarios for players or characters.
There’s also this sense that, when I read for research, I’m filling up to a critical mass of information. Eventually this spills out and becomes something, though I don’t yet often have much control what that is.
Beanworld Omnibus, Volume Two by Larry Marder. December 2020-January 2021.
The second volume of Beanworld, as above. My reflections remain much the same. It’s a wonderful series, and very much a “feel-good” relaxation for me. I anticipate I’ll be re-reading these in the near future.
Originally, my goal was to do one “end of the year” post, but this has already become quite long. So, I’m calling it here for today. I’m intending to return to Akhelas in the near future—hopefully before the end of January—with a recap on what I’ve published in 2020, what I’ve been working on unpublished, and what I’d like to spend some time on in 2021.
Until next time, then.
Want to keep up-to-date on what Austin’s working on through Akhelas? Go ahead and sign up to the email list below. You’ll get a notification whenever a new post goes online.