When you’re not dealing in gas cards and chocolate-covered pretzels, holiday gift giving requires an intimate understanding of the passions and interests that constitute your loved ones. Because of this, shopping for books can quickly become a fool’s errand in bookshelf decoration if that tome’s contents don’t equal its pretty cover art.
Best-selling science writer James Gleick may have inadvertandly solved this Christmas quandry by publishing a book on perhaps the most universal subject: information itself. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood is far from a dry romp through raw data; it’s an insightful history of how humans have attempted to capture and catalog the thoughts and expressions that constitute our very lives, leading up to the present moment where information saturation has become an inescapable facet of society.
Facebook, of course, has been one of the primary forums for info addicts. Author Lou Beach approached the social networking site as a type of artistic opportunity, though, using his profile as an outlet for flash fiction. 420 Characters is a collection of the miniature narratives he posted to his wall, interspersed with gorgeous collages. A byproduct of the pace at which all this text is moving around us these days is, paradoxically, chronic boredom. Who among you hasn’t compulsively refreshed a website (say, Facebook) only to find that the world hasn’t generated any novelty in the last 30 seconds? Boredom is at the heart of David Foster Wallace’s unfinished, posthumous novel The Pale King. While its rough structure (even for DFW) makes this one most suitable to the author’s committed fans, the ideas Wallace was working on at the time of his unfortunate death were incredibly salient and arguably optomistic. Through the work-a-day lives of IRS employees, he seems to suggest that boredom and data overload can actually be a window to joy and transcendence.
Another big, ambitious novel worth considering for a reader so-inclined is Japanese best-seller Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. The title is a sly riff on the year George Orwell immortalized as the dawn of a new age. The question Murakami inserts is in the mind of a woman named Aomame, who begins to notice mundane evidence that the Tokyo in which she lives is actually a parallel reality. In the style of Murakami’s great surrealist mysteries, 1Q84 features enough twists of logic to make you start questioning the concrete nature of your own world. You’d probably pinch yourself in an attempt to wake up if you found thousands of rubber duckies washed up on the beach. This isn’t an episode from Murakami, though; it’s the event that tips off Donovan Hohn’s journalistic odyssey Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them. That title alone probably wouldn’t fit in a Facebook post but will give the most creative fiction writers a run for their money.
Of those fiction writers, a number of them have new books this year. Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides explores a triangle of college students obsessing over the romance of a Jane Austen novel, while the ironic world of the early ’80s swirls around them in The Marriage Plot. A 1950s ocean liner bound for England is the setting for Michael Ondaatje’s latest, The Cat’s Table, as an 11-year-old boy embarks on a coming-of-age journey that mirrors that of the vessel he explores. Ava Bigtree faces some of these same themes, only at her parents’ gator-wrestling Everglades theme park in Karen Russell’s celebrated debut novel Swamplandia! Colson Whitehead has received plenty of press (not to mention sales) for his popular, if unlikely, zombie novel Zone One. There’s a reason for this. Post-apocalypse is explored in a different, slightly ambivalent way in Tom Perrotta’s novel The Leftovers. A sort of rapture has struck a small American town, spiriting some of the virtuous and criminal away with an equal hand, leaving the leftovers to make sense of it all.
He doesn’t use the term post-apocalypse, but author Michael Lewis does attempt to make sense of our new fallen society in Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World. With global economies in collapse, Lewis begins his analysis of formerly wealthy nations (like our own) from the financial perspective but hones in on the cultural dimension of this shift. Yes, the outlook is bleak, but humorists have always been our saving grace in such times. And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life is Charles Shields’ authoritative biography of one of our culture’s greatest. Funny and insightful, this one also scores local points, as Vonnegut may be Glenville’s most famous former resident.