What I’ve been reading

1. Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking, by Fuchsia Dunlop.  The other night I made a sauce with five chopped green onions, blended to a smooth paste with one tablespoon sichuan peppers (first dunked into hot water).  Add three tablespoons chicken stock, one teaspoon light soy sauce, one and one half teaspoons sesame oil.  Apply to cooked chicken.  More generally, buy Chinese cooking wine and black (Chinese) vinegar and you are almost ready to go.

2. Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, seventh edition.  This is not just a reference work, it is also the best book on jazz, period.  The main drawback is a lack of material on Norwegian jazz, a recent interest of mine.

3. This NYT article on previously-covered Dana Schutz.  Or try this article on nuns and the origins of reggae.

4. Recent books by Julian Barnes and Zadie Smith, while entertaining enough, won’t attract interest thirty years from now.  Question: What is the optimal lag time before deciding a work of fiction is worth reading?  Few novels require urgent reading, so how about fifteen years?  Why do I violate this rule so regularly?

5. Swallowing Clouds: A Playful Journey Through Chinese Culture, Language, and Cuisine, by A. Zee.  This unique book lives up to its subtitle; it teaches you how to make sense of Chinese characters, how the Chinese think about food, and how it all fits into a bigger picture.


Regarding point 4 in your post, I have recently begun a book journal (with comments about what I read and why it's interesting) which I am including in letters I write to my kids each year on their birthdays (current ages 6, 2 & 1). Granted, I'm probably deluding myself that they will ever find this of any interest, but trying to read things that both interest me and that might provide interesting fodder for my journal has proven a useful filter to help answer the questions you posed (except the one about why you violate the rule).

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Don't neglect your Swedish jazz...


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In re #4: I find that part of the value of reading books at all is the chance to discuss them with others, and the likelihood you will be able to find people who have read, or are reading, the book, and remember it well, is highest if you read it shortly after it is published (or, perhaps, reissued in paperback). If you are like me and enjoy discussing books with others, perhaps this is why you violate your rule so often.

Or maybe you're just bored and seek stimulation near at hand :).

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> What is the optimal lag time before deciding a work of fiction is worth reading?

A related question could be how to predict today tomorrow's classics. I tried to work out some numbers. I googled for "top novels" and put together a list of over 270 novels that are now considered "classics"; then I went to Wikipedia and got the list of the top 10 bestselling fiction books for each year of the 1900. I also got the list of novels that won the Pulitzer, Man Booker and National Book Awards. Finally, I compared the three lists.

My conclusions are:

- a bestseller has about a 5% probability to become a "classic", provided that enough time passes: no bestseller of the last 25 years made into the classics list, yet I think that -- for example -- at least some book of Stephen King will be considered a classic in the future, as genre novels of Flaming of Chandler are now.

- a prize-winning book has a 30% of being considered a classic, if the prize is recent enough. As the time passes, prizes tend to be forgotten, and the probability of being a classic goes down to about 20%

- over 75% classics were not bestseller nor prize-winners when they were first published (this includes such titles as "On the Road", "Fahrenheit 451" and "Lord of the Flies")

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