Yearly Archives: 2012


After an hour disassembling & reassembling my back wheel, figured out why the rear tyre won’t inflate. My bike pump is broken. Not a total loss: that folksy anecdote will serve me well when I become a motivational speaker. #isyourpumpbroken #mynextbook • Hot Jew Buns are like hot cross buns, but with a star of David. You leave one of each batch undecorated, for Elijah. The irony of course is that Hot Jew Buns are leavened. • “She estimated the owl was about 61cm in length.” i.e. two feet. Imperial measurements offend newspapers more than swearing. “Spurious metric” = the idiotic result of converting rough Imperial measurements to precise SI units without the use of common sense. • If you don’t spell “w00t” with two zeroes you are not taking the internet SERIOUSLY enough. • Word 2011 now has six different styles of underlining available right in the toolbar. Finally, my underlining needs are being met. • I once joked about combining murder mysteries and handcrafts, to create a book series that would be guaranteed to sell. But someone has beaten me to it. Maggie Sefton’s Knitting Mysteries: Knit One, Kill Two · Dropped Dead Stitch · Dyer Consequences. The world is surely then crying out for the Crochet Mysteries: Telltale Slip Knot · Double Treble Trouble · The Last Corsage · By Hook or By Crook • At El Bulli they tried and failed, for two weeks, to make risotto out of sunflower seeds. God damn that’s a metaphor for something. • “Nice costume!” I said to the passing hipster. #oops • @adzebill

July Reading

Books Acquired

  • Just So Stories | Rudyard Kipling
  • Rambo Goes to Idaho | Scott Abels
  • The Stranger’s Child | Alan Hollinghurst
  • Riddley Walker | Russell Hoban
  • The War Against Cliche | Martin Amis
  • Middlesex | Jeffrey Eugenides
  • A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush | Eric Newby

Books Read

  • Listen to This | Alex Ross
  • Wulf | Hamish Clayton
  • The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating | Elisabeth Bailey
  • Sacred Hunger | Barry Unsworth
  • Coming of Age in Samoa | Margaret Mead
  • Skios | Michael Frayn
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy | John Le Carré

One of the best things about a holiday somewhere remote is reading solidly for days. D and I took a stack of books to Samoa for a week, and whole afternoons were spent ploughing through them. Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger was one I’d been meaning to get to for years, but I was always put off by its length, so having days to devote to it was a blessing. For some reason I had the impression it was a dense philosophical work, but it turned out to be a fine historical novel, in the Patrick O’Brien mould, on the malleability of human nature. Samoa also seemed the ideal place to finally read Margaret Mead, and her lyrical descriptions of village life did have extra resonance in that setting. The rampant sexuality she claims to have found apparently needs to be taken with a grain of salt, and her grand conclusions about reforming the entire American educational system (based on interviews with 50 girls in Samoa) can be safely skimmed.

Another read that would be good for an island holiday is Skios, a charmingly-written frothy entertainment. It’s a farce of shuffled suitcases and mistaken identity which works through all the expected permutations right up to the final dénouement, when it suddenly loses patience with itself and its genre conventions. Transcending the genre is probably what got Skios onto this year’s Man Booker longlist, where it sits somewhat awkwardly, but Frayn is really a splendid playwright, a sublime humourist, and an accomplished novelist on a good day, so the recognition’s deserved.

Wulf picked up the NZ Society of Authors Best First Book award this year, and it really is something different from a standard NZ historical novel, more CK Stead than Maurice Shadbolt. My only quibble is biological anachronism: it mentions moa stories and giant eagle bones years before they were actually unearthed, and describes pohutakawa flowering along the Kapiti coast when their normal range is north of Kawhia.

The Bailey was a pleasant light read, but for some reason didn’t grab me. I guess I was expecting some sort of larger payoff than the book intended to deliver. The faintest of faint praise I can give is that it will encourage someone to keep a snail in a terrarium and learn to watch more closely. The Le Carré was likewise a filler; casting no aspersions on a fine spy novel from an author I love, but my memory of the film was still too fresh, and I couldn’t reconcile Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch with the middle-aged warhorses on the page.

This month my best reading was the Alex Ross. This collection of essays is mixed but full of great music journalism, from Brahms to Björk. He has a refreshing eclectic tone of voice, so I’m very much looking forward to spending a month working my way through The Rest is Noise, his history of 20th century classical music. Both are best read in conjunction with his website, which, I discovered afterwards, has numerous audio clips: sometimes it’s a bit frustrating to read a musical analysis of a Schubert song cycle you’ve never heard. The best I can say is his writing even made me want to try listening to Bob Dylan. And that is not faint praise.


Love love love the wind turbine sentinels of the Manawatu Gorge. Protecting Woodville from the hordes of Mordor. • Ground zero for the Psocoptera (Psocidae) infestation in my pantry: dried porcini. Going in the freezer from now on. Psocopterans pseriously psuck. • Walking home in the dark through Hagley Park the trees shook, the Avon sloshed, and the shelducks wheeped and honked in alarm. • Ferns are like sexless Barbie/Ken dolls, shedding doll-dandruff that turns into thousands of tiny detached genitals. The scattered genitals seek out each other, have sex, and sprout tiny sexless Barbies. The ferny life cycle is truly odd. • My moisturiser is supposedly “anti-fatigue”. It says on the label. But I’m puzzled: how exactly is my face getting tired? I can only think it’s some sort of Yiddish invective. “When I look at you, my face gets tired.” • E.O. Wilson had a Nature-cover paper denying kin selection is a factor in eusociality. Suspect Nature only accepted it because of his rep. He’s been quoted as saying, “I think that’d be a pretty poor scientist, who couldn’t reverse his view from new evidence.” Which is true. At my count Wilson was wrong about island biogeography models, biophilia, & consilience. Looking forward to the retractions. • Bought my first issue of NZ food mag Dish. The writing is definitely low-calorie and gluten-free. Nuggets of rich advertising embedded in a frothy matrix of sugary photography, artificially-enhanced opinion, and Wikipedia. • Pre-decimal English currency was so ludicrous it parodied itself: half-crown, guinea, florin, farthing, & tuppence-ha’penny. £2.3s.6½d. • The West Australian coat of arms features kangaroos holding boomerangs, so I presume it was focus-grouped. • @adzebill

June Reading

Books Acquired

  • No Country For Old Men | Cormac McCarthy
  • Tasman’s Lay | Peter Hawes
  • Not Her Real Name and Other Stories | Emily Perkins
  • The Moon’s a Balloon | David Niven
  • Bring On the Empty Horses | David Niven
  • The Great Railway Bazaar | Paul Theroux
  • The Wind in the Willows | Kenneth Grahame
  • It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken | Seth
  • Trees for the New Zealand Countryside | John & Bunny Mortimer
  • The Complete Book of Baskets and Basketry | Dorothy Wright
  • The Loved One | Evelyn Waugh
  • Meetings with Remarkable Trees | Thomas Pakenham
  • The Owl That Fell From the Sky | Brian Gill

Books Read

  • The Wind in the Willows | Kenneth Grahame
  • It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken | Seth
  • The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction | Alan Jacobs [again]
  • Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down | Rosecrans Baldwin
  • Are you My Mother? | Alison Bechdel [abandoned]
  • Galileo’s Dream | Kim Stanley Robinson
I still buy books faster than I can read them. But this feels completely normal: how weird it would be to have around you only as many books as you have time to read in the rest of your life. —Julian Barnes

Although Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 The Wind in the Willows (TWITW) is usually viewed as fantasy literature, it is in fact science fiction in the style of H.G. Wells. The difference between fantasy and science fiction lies in the violation, or not, of physical laws; fantasy always contains some form of “magic”, whereas SF is a realistic portrayal of a society where one or more plausible conditions have been changed, either by setting it in the future, or in the present or past under different historical circumstances. Thus Watership Down is fantasy; The Wind in the Willows, with its internally-consistent materialist setting, is SF.

witw2It is science fiction because Grahame describes a society mirroring 1908 England, with one notable exception—the presence of human-animal hybrids living alongside, and aping in their dress and customs, human beings. The hybrids closely resemble those described in Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), monstrous creatures produced by vivisection, and book explores how these creatures assimilate into Edwardian Britain, presumably after being relocated from their island prison. Toad’s rich “father”, described by Badger as “my old friend”, may even be Moreau himself.

It is important to mention at this point that the familiar illustrations of the characters, created by Ernest H. Shepard in 1931, are somewhat inaccurate. Their apparent size, for example, varies enormously from page to page: in one depiction, three tiny animals are trying to subdue a horse, and are obvously no taller than the hub of a caravan wheel; in another, one is driving a full-sized motor car with little difficulty. Shepard is obviously not aware of their human-animal hybrid nature; for example, toads are hairless in life and in his illustrations, but Toad is twice described as hirsute (“He shook himself and combed the dry leaves out of his hair with his fingers…”, “[Toad] parted his hair in the middle, and plastered it down very straight and sleek on each side of his face…”). We should see past misleading visuals and rely on a closer reading of the text for clues to what these creatures represent.

One valid reading, for example, is that Grahame is satirising British attitudes to race and class at a time when money was turning old social distinctions topsy turvy. All four main human-animal characters are independently wealthy (from inheritance and property), and are fully accepted by neighbouring humans as a consequence, much as the pigs in Animal Farm are when they become capitalist bosses. In contrast, the hybrids who reject human society—implicitly, Western civilisation—are naked savages, living a marginal Hobbesian existence in the Wild Wood.

witw1A more interesting reading of TWITW, though, is as an allegory of gay life in Edwardian Britain. The idea of homosexuality as repressed animal nature is implicit in Stevenson’s 1896 The Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde. For a gay reading of Stevenson, see Colm Tóibín, LRB 34(9):3–8; in an early draft Hyde’s bestial urges included soliciting men in the street. Homoeroticism in English boarding schools was, indeed, commonly described as “beastliness”. The animal/human protagonists of TWITW are all male, the plot revolves around Toad’s skill as a “female impersonator” (in early 20th century British English, a drag queen), and Ratty and Mole’s “particular friendship”, complete with hand-holding, is the love that dare not speak its name—at least not in a book ostensibly for children.

Grahame’s satirical point seems to be that no matter how hard the protagonists try to “pass”—meticulously observing the trappings of English custom and class—they are plainly and obviously not human, condemned forever to be the Other, and able to exist only thanks an English social milieu too polite to mention their “monstrosity”. Thus we can view The Wind in the Willows, for decades mistaken for an innocent children’s story, as a science fiction allegory (and an important early influence on Animal Farm) satirising the closeted gay subculture of Edwardian Britain.

May Reading

Books Acquired

  • Out of Sheer Rage | Geoff Dyer

Books Read

  • Made by Hand | Mark Fauenfelder
  • The Origins of Sex | Faramerz Dabhoiwala
  • Wood Engraving: How to Do It | Simon Brett
  • Salvage the Bones | Jesmyn Ward
  • Otherwise Known As the Human Condition: Selected Essays 1989–2010 | Geoff Dyer
  • Great Expectations | Charles Dickens
  • Out of Sheer Rage | Geoff Dyer
  • Believing is Seeing | Errol Morris
  • Home Fires | Gene Wolfe
  • Uncle | J. P. Martin
  • Uncle Cleans Up | J. P. Martin
  • Uncle and the Battle for Badgertown | J. P. Martin
You cannot draw a figure; you can only draw something about the figure. If this sounds a difficult idea, substitute ‘say’ for “draw’.
—Simon Brett, in Wood Engraving: How To Do It.

Western sexuality was, until the Enlightenment, more or less Talibanic, with execution of homosexuals and adulterers and no notion of individual privacy. Most histories of sexuality get started around 1800, but in The Origins of Sex Dabhoiwala catalogues the fundamental change between 1650 and 1800 that created modern sexuality: the idea that sex was benign, that it was a private secular matter, that men not women had the greater sexual appetite, that prostitutes were to be pitied not feared, and many other assumptions that largely shaped Victorian sexuality and weren’t re-examined until the late 20th century. It’s a bit discursive, with more than strictly necessary on the economics of prostitute reform, or the trade in plagiarised pictures of notorious courtesans. Rather than telling a chronological story, chapters are on range of topics in parallel over the same time period, which does cover the same ground several times.

The sexual universe Dabhoiwala outlines is sometimes shockingly foreign: prior to the Enlightenment, it was “common knowledge” that women needed to have an orgasm to conceive. Which all sounds very jolly. But if a woman became pregnant after being raped she must necessarily have enjoyed it, so the sex was therefore consensual. Not so jolly now, eh? But the saddest words I read were “…shortly before his execution for blasphemy…”, referring to Edinburgh student Thomas Aikenhead in 1697. It’s currently fashionable in academic circles to knock the Enlightenment, but we don’t execute many people for blasphemy these days.

In May, Auckland hosted a Writers and Readers Festival, which is always a blast and the highlight of the literary/intellectual calendar. One auditorium was packed out by an audience who paid $20 each to hear two writers talking for an hour about Derrida. (And yet we apparently can’t support a public-service TV station in New Zealand. Go figure.) I read Jesmyn Ward’s harrowing Salvage the Bones in preparation; she recounted her tour of Duke University and how she found it too segregated to attend.

The high point for me was hearing Geoff Dyer. He’s almost uncategorisable, writing whatever he fancies—novels, history, criticism, autobiography—while cultivating a rather charming air of being a flailing amateur at all times: Out of Sheer Rage is a hilarious book about not being able to write a book about DH Lawrence. He’s also very quotable.

  • “Whatever people might think about my books, the epigraphs are fantastic.”
  • “The book was going great! Except it had gone from being a book about tennis to a book about Tarkovsky.”
  • “A career writer is someone who finishes a book on Friday, takes the weekend off, and starts a new book on Monday.”

When the Uncle books were published in the USA, the dottiness of British coinage needed explaining.

When the Uncle books were published in the USA, the dottiness of British coinage needed explaining.

Finally, a quick rundown of all the other reading I got through this month. Made By Hand was a huge disappointment. It’s intended to recount the author’s journey towards a more hands-on hand-made life; while the klutzy rambling of the book is endearing, and it’s good to be reminded that a fear of making mistakes is what stifles so much DYI, the reader wishes Frauenfelder would just RTFM. Home Fires was also terrible, from an author I have huge respect for, but this was lazy, dull, and flat. Dutifully plodded through Great Expectations but Dickens still holds no charms for me, and it wasn’t helped by the whole story hinging on improbable coincidences. The Errol Morris is a fascinating exploration of historical documentary photography through amazing close readings. And the Uncle books were a rediscovered childish enthusiasm, charming inventive anarchy, great fun to read out loud, and topped off by Quentin Blake illustrations. Is there a literary work that Quentin Blake would not enhance? I think I could get through 120 Days of Sodom if he’d illustrated it.

April Reading

Books Acquired

  • Listen to This | Alex Ross
  • Home Fires | Gene Wolfe

Books Read

  • Anathem | Neal Stephenson
  • Embassytown | China Miéville
  • Look at Me | Jennifer Egan
  • The Tragedy of Arthur | Arthur Phillips
  • The Ukulele Entertainer | Ralph Shaw

I read Anathem in a 982-page mass-market paperback edition, which halfway through began to fall apart under its own philosophical strain, shedding leaves autumnally. This should have been a warning. Anathem is a dense science-fiction novel with a rich setting and its own invented vocabulary, and you’re thrown into the middle of it all, which was really quite enjoyable until I hit the 100-page section where the author summarises the entirety of 20th century physics in pidgin English. Ugh. Stephenson has always needed a fearless editor: everything he’s written since Zodiac has been, more or less, a sprawling mess, sometimes interesting, sometimes infuriating. At best you skip lightly past the talky sections where he’s trying to invent a new philosophy of language or teach you predicate logic. But it’s hard to skip 100 pages without worrying you’ll miss something of critical importance to the plot. Don’t worry—you won’t.

Embassytown is far more satisfying, and instead of philosophical discourse we’re thrown into the middle of a thought experiment, the way SF does so well: what would it be like to not have metaphor or be able to tell lies? What if, in language, the signifier and signified were always the same? Miéville does a nice job exploring this, rather as he took on a different thought experiment in the wonderful The City and the City. I’m really enjoying the new direction his writing is taking, as the baroque and gritty world of his New Crozubon novels never really grabbed me.

Another experiment, this time in form rather than ideas, is The Tragedy of Arthur. The book includes an entire Shakespeare play, The Tragedy of Arthur (in case you were wondering), with an argument conducted in the footnotes between an Shakespeare scholar and author Arthur Phillips, whose father, also called Arthur Phillips, discovered this hitherto-unknown play between prison stints for, oops, forgery. Arthur Junior thinks the play is bogus, but he’s contractually obliged to write an introduction for Random House, which turns into a 256-page family history of his and his father’s tragedy. Shades of Pale Fire. It’s all postmodern as hell: just before the title page is a list of four titles “Also by Arthur Phillips”, beside a much longer list “Also by William Shakespeare”. Phillips is obviously mixing his real biography with a somewhat—we don’t know how much—fictionalised version of his family.

Finally, in the wake of Goon Squad I tackled Look At Me, an engaging read, and rather prescient in its deep-cover terrorist character, given it was written before 9/11. An exploration of identity in modern America, especially in the age of the internet, it has some of the best depictions of loss of identity, or the transition from one to another, that I’ve read. If it weren’t for the Listener book club I wouldn’t have tried it, so I’ll keep an eye on what’s coming up.

Film Crew Visits a Science Lab

The traditional lab graveyard for outdated software manuals.

The traditional lab graveyard for outdated software manuals.

Safety glasses on. Our blood-red lab coats mark us as visitors, and also as dangerous. Warning! Journalist! Film crew! Venomous! Do not touch! • I can tell the director is not happy with the equipment, which looks too old and battered. We turn a few whizzing and shaking devices on, but they’re so noisy they interfere with recording. The lab tech doesn’t seem keen to turn the noisy incubator off for some reason. • Sadly there are no bubbling beakers of copper sulphate solution, but I’m told we can add those in lab coat • Everybody looks very uncomfortable trying to pipette in crisp white lab coats and ties. The reason scientists normally don’t wear ties is the danger of getting too close to a centrifuge and having your head yanked off. • We’re now posing a bearded middle-aged scientist with a Bunsen burner, because if we collect the full set of science clichés we can send away for a prize. • Real scientist action shots would involve Track Changes, tweaking PowerPoint, and emailing. • The scientist had to switch to light blue latex gloves, because they look prettier in the shot. If we’re setting up a shot with two scientists no power in the ’verse will stop me trying to get them both wearing blue gloves.

March Reading

Books Acquired

  • Lucky Jim | Kingsley Amis
  • The Most of S. J. Perelman | S. J. Perelman (duh)
  • Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall | Spike Milligan
  • Reliable Essays | Clive James
  • Great Bus Journeys of the World | Alexei Sayle
  • So Shall We Reap | Colin Tudge
  • Otherwise Knows As the Human Condition | Geoff Dyer
  • Home Fires | Gene Wolfe
  • Agent Zigzag | Ben Macintyre
  • Manhood for Amateurs | Michael Chabon
  • The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction | Alan Jacobs
  • Fahrenheit 451 | Ray Bradbury
  • Travels With Charley | John Steinbeck
  • I Capture the Castle | Dodie Smith

Books Read

  • How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer | Sarah Bakewell
  • The Yiddish Policemen’s Union | Michael Chabon
  • Manhood for Amateurs | Michael Chabon
  • Man Alone | John Mulgan
  • Moominpappa at Sea | Tove Jansson
  • Momminvalley in November | Tove Jansson
  • Room | Emma Donoghue
  • I Capture the Castle | Dodie Smith

Did you know Gonzalo’s description of Utopia in The Tempest (“No occupation; all men idle, all;”) is plagiarised from Montaigne’s 1580 essay “On Cannibals”, in praise of Tupinambá Indian society? Nor did I. The Tempest/Tupinambá connection is one of many gems from Sarah Bakewell’s approachable and quirky Montaigne biography, How To Live. This is more than the De Botton-ish summary its title suggests: Montaigne’s philosophy is interwoven with both his life, and his writing’s “afterlife”. The three strands run concurrently, not in chronological sequence, a slightly postmodern device you end up wishing more biographers used.

Two good hauls of books this month, the first six from one of my favourite bookstores, Hard To Find in Onehunga (the Alexei Sayle I grabbed solely because it contains a very funny song about Doris Lessing), and the last three from a farewell visit to the Christchurch Book Fridge, a take-one-leave-one book repository created by the Gap Filler project. The best score was certainly I Capture the Castle: a book several women of my acquaintance have rhapsodised about, so expectations were fairly high. I got very excited towards the end, as various textual clues suggested the novel was in fact a cunning metafiction, with an unreliable narrator busily constructing and editing the story she complains about being unable to “capture”. My expectations built to such a point I was hoping the last chapter would reveal an alternative reading of the entire book, like Life of Pi or Atonement. But—alas—it did not.

capturecastle(My old hardcover copy of I Capture The Castle revealed a 1950s cigarette wrapper being used as a bookmark. I love discoveries like this: I’ve found antique library cards, a shopping list, an old parking ticket and similar bric-à-brac in used books, and one of the first things I do when I get a purchase home is give it a good shake and then leaf through every page.)

I Capture the Castle seems to be a comfort read for many people, something to return to in times of stress. My post-earthquake move to Auckland felt like it qualified, and as Bruce Sterling’s Distraction was in storage I chose my other comfort read, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union; I seem to get through this book about once a year. I followed it up with Chabon’s memoir Manhood for Beginners, a collection of non-linear vignettes funny, self-deprecating, and engagingly nerdy.

Part of my comfort reading as a child was Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, and re-visiting the later ones after 30 years I was amazed by her savvy and craft. Moominpappa at Sea in particular I remember as a child finding eerie and puzzling, but with adult eyes it revealed whole new layers dealing with loneliness, middle age, and the difficulties of solving one’s problems with radical life changes. So that was apposite. Mercifully Hollywood has yet to get its hands on the Moomin books and ruin them the way it’s busily doing to Dr Seuss.

Man Alone is one of those New Zealand classics we were supposed to have read in high school—though at my (sports-obsessed) school English classes were non-canonical and we read Alistair Maclean, Frederick Forsyth, and Ian Fleming. In fact Man Alone‘s muscular Hemingwayesque prose, mostly about being the virtues of being stoic and a farmer, would possibly have worked for bored teenage boys. I found it noteworthy that in 1938 Mulgan was writing whare and pa, untranslated but italicised, for an English audience, but “bush hen” and “native owl” instead of weka and morepork. Also, smart young Māori men in 1935 apparently wore “wide purple flannel trousers and broad-brimmed hats with coloured feathers in the band.” I definitely don’t remember learning that in high school.

† “Doris Lessing, Doris Lessing / She’s a writer who knows all there is about trucks…”


I’m looking forward to Sex and the City III, where the Revolution comes and our heroines are sent off to a re-education camp. Many men would pay money to watch them scratch lice from the seams of their overalls with broken DKNY lenses and fight over stale bread. • Blood is only thicker than fresh water: marine fishes leach water to the sea, but river fishes are constantly being diluted. • My most entertaining haircut was in Berlin. I contemplated the result solemnly, said “Fantastische”, and all the hairdressers cracked up. • Pitting a kilo of cherries is surprisingly gruesome. Spatters, stains, a bowl of glistening entrails. Cleanup felt like Dexter. • This morning’s baking has been sorted into Eccles Cakes and Unsucceccles Cakes. • An owl’s eye is as big as a human’s, an ostrich’s much bigger. Some bird eyes are so big they nearly touch, behind the scenes. • Your eyeball is about an inch in diameter. This is perhaps the least-useful rule-of-thumb measure I know. • Science isn’t everything, but we know the universe is 13.75 billion years old and 930 yottametres wide no thanks to astrology. • A thesis is Death By Chocolate: eaten slowly in one go, by an unlucky few, who usually feel a bit ill afterwards. • We were going to call our band The Boston Molasses Disaster, but were pre-empted by a band actually from Boston. • Swans: avian hydrangeas. Discuss. • In the midst of chaos and destruction, there’s no reason a gentleman can’t keep his beard neatly trimmed. • @adzebill

What, if anything, is a Maui’s dolphin?

Maui’s dolphin | © WWF & Will Rayment

Everyone wants to save the Maui’s dolphin. It’s either the world’s smallest dolphin or smallest marine mammal (depending who you read), and supposedly the most endangered: there are only about 55 left. A petition is doing the rounds to save the “most critically endangered marine species in the world” from extinction, partly by stopping iron ore mining on the seabed.

There’s one big problem, though. Maui’s dolphins don’t really exist, not in the same way that takahe or kakapo or short-tailed bats do. They’re not a distinct species, just a subspecies of Hector’s dolphins—in fact, it would be perfectly accurate to call them “North Island Hector’s dolphins”. And this has implications for their conservation.

Part of the problem is that people who should know better use technical terms like subspecies and species as if they were the the same thing, but there’s a world of difference. A subspecies is a population of animals or plants that looks a bit different from its relatives nearby. Critically, members of the subspecies are still perfectly-well able to breed with other members of their species. If a subspecies is isolated for long enough and become so different they it can’t interbreed any more, we call it, by definition, a different species. A species is a real thing, reproductively isolated and distinct from its nearest relative; a subspecies is just a formally-named variety, and what counts as a subspecies can be a matter of personal taste, reflecting how picky a biologist is. Some biologists refuse to even countenance subspecies and say, with some justification, that they’re not real.

Because biologists, like everyone else, are fond of large charismatic animals, it’s mostly mammals and birds that get fussily sorted into subspecies. This whole debate would be a non-issue if we were talking about an insect, or reptile, or fungus. The problem is if you split something into multiple subspecies you are almost guaranteed to create at least one rare, localised population, which then becomes in urgent need of conservation, and it’s problematic if ever-decreasing conservation funds have to be allocated to saving something that doesn’t really exist.

So what sort of thing is a Maui’s dolphin, then? Alan Baker and two colleagues measured bones of a dozen or so Hector’s dolphins from the North Island and few dozen from the South, and also compared their genetics. North Island Hector’s dolphins are a bit bigger, have a longer snout, and show some differences in their DNA—the sort of differences you would see if they’d been evolving separately from the southern dolphins for a few thousand years. (Thousands of years sounds like a lot, but it’s really nothing in evolutionary time.) Baker et al. (2002) named the northern population Cephalorhynchus hectori maui, and decided it would henceforth be called Maui’s dolphin, with the South Island population, confusingly, remaining Hector’s dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori hectori). Notice the triple-barrelled Latin names, which indicate both forms are just subspecies of Cephalorhynchus hectori.

(Maui’s dolphin is actually a pretty terrible name, as Maui didn’t identify, know about, or even see them, being, as he was, mythical. Baker et al. were naming them after the North Island, Maui’s fish—Te Ika a Maui—as that’s where they live, but the South Island is Maui’s canoe, and they live there too; it would be more appropriate, but a bad idea, to call them fish dolphins, or ika dolphins. Personally I think we should go back to cumbersome-but-accurate North Island and South Island Hector’s dolphins.)

Does all this pickiness about the difference between species and subspecies matter? Yes. Cephalorhynchus hectori are distinctive, unique beasts, not very much like other dolphins, and they’re only found here in New Zealand. Losing them would be a tragedy, because there’s no way to get them back. Maui’s dolphins are just those slightly-bigger Hector’s dolphins that live in the North Island, and if they died out the species would be be a little less varied, but, critically, it would still be here. It’s awful to lose a subspecies, but it doesn’t even compare to an actual species extinction; we’ve had plenty of those in New Zealand, and will be hard-pressed to prevent more.

It’s also important to look at these subspecies on a longer, evolutionary, timescale. The north/south split is, as you would guess, caused by Cook Strait; it isn’t a complete barrier, but Hector’s dolphins are coastal animals that prefer water less than 100 m deep, and most of the Strait is deeper. They can and do cross it, though, as the 2010 DoC survey found some South Island dolphins along the North Island coast. This species prefers cool water, so Maui’s dolphins are currently living close to the edge of their comfortable range, and population numbers might never have been very high.

But the North Island/South Island split is quite recent, and only temporary. Over the last couple of million years, New Zealand has been through about 20 ice ages, in which the world sea level dropped dramatically and our three main islands were joined into a single land mass. Back then, Hector’s dolphins would have lived as one continuous population in the cool waters around the entire coastline of that big island. Twenty times there has been a comparatively short warm period, called an interglacial (we’re in one right now), when the waters have risen, the islands have separated, and the North Island dolphins have been isolated from their kin and begun to evolve slightly differently. Twenty times they’ve been reabsorbed back into the fold. Maui’s dolphins have appeared and disappeared repeatedly for millions of years.

The species Cephalorhynchus hectori is in trouble: it’s been classified as Endangered since 2000 (IUCN 2011), and the population has dropped by 75% in the last 40 years, down to about 7000, largely from accidental bycatch in fishing nets. The response has been to ban commercial gillnetting in much of the dolphin’s habitat—coastal waters less than 100 m deep—though numbers continue to drop. I think it’s more important to stabilise the dolphin population than worry about whether or not they persist in the North Island. Most whales and dolphins, as their numbers recover, can recolonise their former range without assistance, and the fact that South Island Hector’s dolphins are still crossing Cook Strait suggests that would happen here too. Rather than worrying about seabed mining near Raglan, which is surely a comparatively minor threat, we should be fighting for Liz Slooten’s proposal: a gillnet and trawling ban across Cook Strait shallow waters so dolphins can get to the North Island unhindered.

Hector’s dolphin in Akaroa Harbour | Harald Selke / Tewahipounamu

Hector’s dolphins do need protection, but conservation organisations, journalists, and even the Department of Conservation are treating the North Island dolphins as if they were a distinct species about to go extinct, even comparing them to the moa. That’s irresponsible, and plays fast and loose with the facts at a time when we need to have those facts on our side.


Baker, Alan N., Smith, Adam N. H., and Pichler, Franz B. 2002. Geographical variation in Hector’s dolphin: recognition of new subspecies of Cephalorhynchus hectori. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 32(4): 713–727

IUCN. 2011. Cephalorhynchus hectori. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Accessed 20 March 2012.

The Science Media Centre provides a good overview of recent stories on Maui’s dolphin, and the WWF has a series of fact sheets that are informative although they don’t agree with my argument above.

And for journalists who claim Cephalorhynchus hectori is the “smallest” or “rarest”:

  • Smallest marine mammal: the sea otter (Enhydra lutris), up to 45 kg.
  • Smallest cetacean: probably the vaquita (Phocoena sinus), from the Gulf of California, 40–55 kg.
  • Rarest cetacean species: the vaquita again (100–300 left).
  • Rarest other marine mammals: the Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi), 1100 remaining, and the Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus), less than 600.

February Reading

Books Acquired

  • A Visit from the Goon Squad | Jennifer Egan
  • Anathem | Neil Stephenson
  • The Unconsoled | Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Robbing the Bees: a Biography of Honey | Holley Bishop
  • Voice of the Violin | Andrea Camilleri
  • How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer | Sarah Bakewell
  • A handful of remaindered gardening and natural history books, which I’ll just pass right by
  • Bird by Bird | Anne Lamott

Books Read

  • Riddley Walker | Russell Hoban
  • Pulp Fiction (screenplay) | Quentin Tarantino
  • Farm Anatomy | Julia Rothman
  • The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction | Alan Jacobs
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad | Jennifer Egan
  • Zoo City | Lauren Beukes
  • Bird by Bird | Anne Lamott
  • Cognitive Surplus | Clay Shirky

A book most relevant to this year’s reading project, Alan Jacobs’ was an endearing stroll through the nature of reading: why we do it, and why we should, with digressions into the popularity of Harry Potter, and the stultifying nature of “to read” lists. I read it first as an e-book on my computer monitor—it was available instantly and for free from the university library, but for a maximum of 4 days, so slow readers were out of luck. In a discussion of marginalia, Jacobs mentions that Renaissance scholars often just cut out good passages from manuscripts they were reading. “I have been thankful, in the writing of my recent books, to have recourse to the digital version of this practice, which allows metaphorical pasting without literal cutting—how admirably nondestructive.” pleasuresofreadingThe irony is that I had to type that quote out, because the e-book was DRM protected to disable the Copy command.

Call me juvenile, but one of the highlights was Jacobs’s discussion of counterfeit Chinese editions of Harry Potter books, chronicling his further adventures: Harry Potter and the Hiking Dragon, Harry Potter and the Big Funnel, and Harry Potter and the Waterproof Pearl. These actually sound more interesting than the legitimate ones.

All through Cognitive Surplus I was compulsively underlining and marking key paragraphs in an approved Jacobsean manner. Shirky elegantly illustrates how participatory culture—like Wikipedia or YouTube—changes the nature of media, and gives names to many of the phenomena we’re peripherally aware of as users. He attempts to draw up guidelines for successful harnessing of cognitive surplus at the end, although I didn’t find that as successful as his catalogue of examples. But the man is amazingly quotable, and you feel like he actually understands where media is going (his online writing on the state of newspapers has been the best analysis of their woes I’ve read).

“You don’t always have to chop with the sword of truth. You can point with it too.” —Anne Lamott

There was a plenty of light reading too: Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City is an urban fantasy novel, chiefly interesting for its South African setting; Bird by Bird, the funniest book on writing I’ve read; and a sort of hipster farming manual in comic form—the sort of thing that would make an Ideal Gift. A Visit From the Goon Squad was the most fun read of the month, and I flew through it in preparation for the NZ Listener Book Club selection Look At Me, in the queue for March. I have to point out the saddest thing, for a typography nerd, in Visit from the Goon Squad is that a decade hence the default PowerPoint font will still be Times New Roman. But it’s pretty implausible that kids in the 2020s will still type double spaces after full stops.

Goon Squad has an asynchronous narrative that begs to be turned into a chronological timeline or narrative timeline. Egan in interviews has mentioned how influenced these interweaving stories were by the movie Pulp Fiction—there’s even a character called Jules. As often happens, one book led to another, and I dug out the playscript for Pulp Fiction, which in turn reminded me of my long-time ambition to stage some of the dialogues from the movie using Punch and Judy puppets (the project would, of course, be called Punch Fiction). I noticed that in the last Wellington Arts Festival someone did this already with marionettes, but I maintain hand puppets would be far superior. They lend themselves much better to violence.

And coincidentally, Punch plays an important part in the post-apocalyptic Riddley Walker: puppet shows are both a religious ritual and a kind of news media in Russell Hoban’s far-future Britain. The book’s famous for its invented language—a degraded English—and this makes it a slow read, but what’s engrossing about is the unreal touches, which verge on magic realism, of which Mr Punch is just one. Riddley Walker is of course science fiction, but it’s almost a fable. I’m loath to use that word, though, as Michael Chabon (in a review of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) memorably described reviewers bandying about the word “fable”, when a mainstream writer slums it with some SF, as “warming the author’s bathwater a little”.

The Road was certainly the highlight of my month’s reading: a stunning book. We’re emotionally invested in the survival of the two main characters and their privations and triumphs, but constantly confronted with the horrifyingly dead and final state of the world. McCarthy conveys apocalyptic doom through the smallest asides or observations; cows and crows are extinct, fish bones line the beach. Every day that the protagonists stave off death, we wonder how long before they give up. So I agree with Chabon’s contention that althought this looks like science fiction, it’s actually literate, highly-skilled horror writing, which seeks to induce dread, and succeeds such that we’re riveted and compelled to read on.

January Reading

Books Acquired

  • The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating | Elisabeth Bailey
  • The Mouse and His Child | Russell Hoban
  • Tales from Moominvalley | Tove Jansson
  • Moominvalley in November | Tove Jansson
  • Moominpappa at Sea | Tove Jansson
  • The Ukulele Entertainer | Ralph Shaw
  • Wulf | Hamish Clayton
  • The Birthday Boys | Beryl Bainbridge
  • Great Expectations | Charles Dickens
  • The Flower Beneath the Foot | Ronald Firbank
  • Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women | Ricky Jay
  • Ravens in Winter | Bernd Heinrich
  • Far From the Madding Crowd | Thomas Hardy
  • The Mayor of Casterbridge | Thomas Hardy
  • Yesterdays in Maoriland | Andreas Reischek
  • The Voyage of the Narwhal | Andrea Barrett
  • Oryx and Crake | Margaret Atwood
  • The Penguin Modern Poets: Mersey Sound | Adrian Henri, Roger McGough, Brian Patten

Books Read

  • The Sense of an Ending | Julian Barnes
  • The Sisters Brothers | Patrick de Witt
  • The Mouse and His Child | Russell Hoban
  • Tales From Moominvalley | Tove Jansson
  • The Third Policeman | Flann O’Brien
  • The Road | Cormac McCarthy
Every time I go into town I accidentally buy two or three books.
—Philip Pullman, “Unpacking My Library”

Well. I’m obviously buying far more than I’m reading and I think we all know who’s to blame. The bookstores. Principal offenders this month were Hard To Find Books in Onehunga, where I picked up the long-sought Ricky Jay volume, and Time Out in Mt Eden, my favourite bookshop in Auckland and indeed all of New Zealand. From Smiths to Scorpio, all the fine bookstores of Christchurch were trashed in the earthquake, but they’ve sprouted again in shipping 1305827801-the_sisters_brotherscontainers, or in the suburbs. Even amidst the devastation of Lyttelton, its used-book shop popped up again in a back room, and I found a nice clean 1950s edition of Reischeck’s 19th century wanderings around New Zealand. Prominently displayed in Time Out was The Sisters Brothers, frontrunner in the Best Cover Design of 2012 for me. The voice of the shlumpy psychopath Eli Sisters carried me through this parade of memorable vignettes and eccentric characters, and I could almost see how the Coen brothers would shoot some of the scenes.

Revisiting favourite childhood books is always a risk. I suspect the Willard Price zoo-collector stories that enthralled me in my youth would not bear up well today. The teenage protagonists were ignorant of CITES and animal ethics guidelines, and the fawning devotion of their various brown-skinned native guides would be a bit sickening. Plus having been a teenage boy at one point I would not trust one to organise a DVD rental, let alone an animal-collecting expedition to New Guinea.

So it was a relief to find The Mouse and His Child has lost none of its charm. I remember having it read to 10-year-old me, sitting on the mat in Burwood Primary School—now in the Red Zone and doomed, I think—but I couldn’t remember how it ended; a perfect reason to read it again, 33 years later, spurred by Russell Hoban’s death last December (which also prompted me to add Riddley Walker to the reading list). Surprisingly sophisticated and moving, with metaphorical depth lost on me the first time around, along with the Samuel Beckett parody. Hoban was adventurous and had no qualms about including, in what was supposedly a children’s book, words like chthonic, demiurge, capstan, and mansard.

I also grabbed re-issues of the last three Tove Jansson moomin books, and realised I’d never actually read Tales From Moominvalley, which was like finding $20 in my coat pocket. Gorgeous stories for kids that have deep resonance for adults—I’m working my way up to the darkest one, Moominpappa At Sea, which freaked me out as a child.

Michael Dirda’s review collection Classics for Pleasure inspired me to track down some authors I’d only vaguely heard of: Firbank was one, and Flann O’Brien another. I eventually figured out The Third Policemen was in the same vein as “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and The Man Who Was Thursday, but the ending was even neater than I anticipated. A fabulous piece of absurdism, both funny and unsettling, told in a dry and elliptical tone in a distinctly roundabout Irish way.

The latest Julian Barnes was read almost entirely in one sitting on the Cook Strait ferry. Barnes likes to make you gradually re-examine both the narrator’s motives and the theme of the whole book. He did it in Flaubert’s Parrot and A History of the World, and tries it again here. It wasn’t completely successful for me, but the biting observations of the unreliable narrator are fun, and it’s a beautifully-crafted examination of the nature of history (explicitly so) and memory.

I’ll save The Road until I can compare it with Riddley Walker, next in the queue. This grand reading scheme seems to be working, in one sense: I’m making time in the evenings to open a book, not just aimlessly cruise the Internet. The next step will be to throttle back the acquisitions. Which might be harder.


World Sweet World magazine suggested wrapping paper is unsustainable and we should all give each other biscotti for Xmas. They gave a sample biscotti recipe. Every ingredient is imported, except for four eggs. And the flour they forgot to include. • The best idea I heard today: arrange the entire score of The Sound of Music for a costumed ukulele ensemble. Bearded uking nuns = sublime. I hope @justinethinks’s Sound of Ukulele Music plan doesn’t include dancing, because crossdressing ukulele nuns DANCING is just silly. • Wouldn’t The Sound of Music be better without all those Nazis? They don’t even get any songs. Alternative staging: keep the Nazis, add chorus of Austrian jews gradually led offstage through show. “So long, farewell…” What the world needs is a mashup of The Sound of Music and its contemporary, West Side Story, pivoting on Maria. With those classic songs “I’ve Just Met a Problem Like Maria”, “Climb Evr’y Mountain Tonight”, and “Gee, Gauleiter Krupke”. It’s a shame “Ich liebe leben in Österreich” isn’t grammatical, because it scans better than the English. • If you think science removes our “sense of wonder”, compare the Tuwharetoa account of Taupo’s origin (guy threw a tree) with the real one. Namely, a gigantic explosion heard round the world, and the skies turning blood red over China and Rome. • Eat Pray Love listed as someone’s favourite book raises a red flag; Eat Love Pray raises a whole fluttering regiment. • If you want me to open your spammy attachment, my good sir, you’ll need to choose a more trustworthy name than Mr Milosevic. • @adzebill

One Year On

(Appeared in a modified form in the NZ Herald Online)

“Have you signed the Pledge?”, people kept asking me in the months after February. The Pledge was a register of people who were committed to staying in Christchurch; copies were made available for signing in public places, and the whole thing was to be bound and presented to the mayor. Curiously, all the people badgering me seemed not to be in a position to leave: trapped by dependents, job, unresolved insurance, or an unsellable house. One should only pledge to stay if one is free to go; I was, and didn’t pledge, because I don’t like loyalty oaths. This was before the June 13 quakes. And the December 23. And the thousands in between. You don’t hear much about the Pledge any more.

After the first quake shock had worn off, there was an unexpected elation in the air. People were itching to reclaim the rubble and turn destruction into a fresh start. The Gap Filler project screened outdoor movies in an empty lot, and made a book exchange out of an old fridge; Greening The Rubble built parks where there used to be buildings. The urge to help – to do something – filled community meetings and swamped the City Council with suggestions for the rebuild, giving rise to that utopian document the Central City Plan, which painted a picture of tree-lined cycleways, green markets, and inner-city apartments. Not only would the quake damage be fixed, so would decades of urban sprawl and central city neglect. Ponies for everybody. Ponies with free wireless.

Cashel St Victory GardenAfire with the spirit of the Revolution, I approached the owner of the neighbouring empty lot. It was going to be sitting unused for a year or two; could we turn it into a community garden? The Cashel St Victory Garden began with a working bee, adults and kids sowing seeds and planting a bed of lettuces edged with recycled bricks. The quake had uncapped an artesian well, so we had a pond and a trench for growing watercress; our digging unearthed fragments of Victorian crockery. There were grand plans: creating garden beds for all the neighbours, seeking sponsorship, even building a team to help create more gardens around the city.

Three days later it had been paved and turned into a Wilson Parking lot.

Apart from a fortnight when I was barred from my apartment by a police cordon, I’ve been living in the central city since the February quake, watching earthquake tourists circle the Red Zone on sunny weekends, and seeing buildings gradually disappear week by week. I’ve watched the crack in my wall get slowly wider, and energy and optimism leak away, replaced by frustration, cynicism, and a dawning realisation that bringing a heart and life back to the city will take a decade or longer. And that the only people who can speed that up are politicians and insurance companies, not citizens.

We’ve said our piece, and now we wait.

The favoured dismissal for those leaving was “doing a runner”. Cowards fled; they probably never loved Christchurch anyway, or so said people who seemed to be trying to convince themselves to stay. An All Black recently claimed we’re scared and should harden up instead of running. Nobody’s had the guts to tell me that to my face. Those praising us for our supposed “resilience”, or accusing us of cowardice, seem to be projecting their own fears and needs onto ordinary people who aren’t exemplars of anything.

The funny part is, I was planning on quitting Christchurch two years ago, and suspect I’ve only stuck around through bloody-mindedness. I’ve watched my friends and neighbours leave in ones and twos, to Wellington and Auckland, and finally decided I was going too. Who wants to live for a decade in a wasteland, where we’re told we should be excited about shopping malls? The signs on the back of the buses implore us, with a big red heart, to love Christchurch—love it or leave it, I guess. But this is a city without a heart, and I no longer have it in me to stay.

The Reading List

pile-of-booksFor a while now I’ve been buying more books than I read. Reading is slow, but buying books is so quick sometimes the sensible bits of your brain cannot intervene fast enough. Having all my books in LibraryThing for a while, though, makes the mathematics of the problem clear. Acquiring 50–100 books a year and reading one only every week or two means, through the application of pitiless Malthusian logic, that I’ll die with over 1000 unread books in an enormous teetering pile beside my bed. This is a good argument for investing in ample shelving, or moving to a remote island and reading for three years, or perhaps even for frittering away less time on the Internet. Something had to be done.

To exert some control over the problem, and I am admitting it’s a problem, I decided to monitor my incomings and outgoings over this year (humiliatingly like a Weight Watchers food diary) and to come up with a plan: a reading list I could consciously work my way through. Like a shopping list for someone who only hits the supermarket when they’re hungry. Compiling such a list, picked by the Listener Best Books of 2011 and suggestions from my well-read partner D, was the easy part.

  • Atwood, Margaret | Cat’s Eye
  • Atwood, Margaret | Oryx and Crake
  • Bailey, Elisabeth | The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating
  • Bakewell, Sarah | How to Live: a Life of Montaigne
  • Barnes, Julian | The Sense of an Ending
  • Burke, James Lee | Feast Day of Fools
  • Clayton, Hamish | Wulf
  • DeWitt, Patrick | The Sisters Brothers
  • Dickens, Charles | Great Expectations
  • Druett, Joan | Tupaia
  • Duncan, Glen | The Last Werewolf
  • Dyer, Geoff | Otherwise Known as the Human Condition
  • Egan, Jennifer | A Visit from the Goon Squad
  • Eugenides, Jeffrey | Middlesex
  • Eugenides, Jeffrey | The Marriage Plot
  • Farrell, Fiona | The Broken Book
  • Firbank, Ronald | The Flower Beneath the Foot
  • Grimshaw, Charlotte | Opportunity
  • Hardy, Thomas | The Mayor of Casterbridge
  • Hitchens, Christopher | Arguably
  • Hoban, Russell | Riddley Walker
  • Hollinghurst, Alan | The Stranger’s Child
  • Kelly, Kevin | What Technology Wants
  • Lanier, Jaron | You Are Not a Gadget
  • McCarthy, Cormac | All the Pretty Horses
  • McCarthy, Cormac | The Road
  • Mukherjee, Siddhartha | The Emperor of All Maladies
  • O’Brien, Flann | The Third Policeman
  • Phillips, Arthur | The Tragedy of Arthur
  • Quigley, Sarah | The Conductor
  • Redniss, Laura | Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie—a Tale of Love and Fallout
  • Ross, Alex | Listen to This
  • Ross, Alex | The Rest is Noise
  • Shirky, Clay | Cognitive Surplus
  • Smiley, Jane | A Thousand Acres
  • Smith, Jennie Erin | Stolen World: a Tale of Reptiles, Smugglers, and Skullduggery
  • St Aubyn, Edward | At Last
  • Stephenson, Neal | Anathem
  • Stewart, Rory | The Places In Between
  • Tremain, Rose | Music and Silence
  • Trevor-Roper, Hugh | The Last Days of Hitler
  • Unsworth, Barry | Sacred Hunger
  • Unsworth, Barry | The Quality of Mercy
  • Vann, David | Caribou Island
  • Wallace, Alfred Russell | The Malay Archipelago
  • Wells, Peter | The Hungry Heart
  • Wilson, Tim | The Desolation Angel

Though this looks a little like one of those Great Books One Must Read lists, it’s anything but. I’ll still be compulsively reading randomly, but this should cut down on the impulse purchases. And having a deliberate goal will surely help me set aside more reading time—something that I’ve noticed has been declining every year, with the competition from Twitter, Facebook, ukulele practice, movies, DVDs from Fatso that must be watched, and all the other demands on my free time. In part, this is an experiment to see if reading can be as important as I remember it being in my youth, or even in graduate school.

So the question then occurred to me: how long should it take to read this list? Am I being unrealistic? Once again, LibraryThing to the rescue (seriously, if you love your books I can’t recommend this site enough). The list adds up to just over 16,000 pages. That’s 307 pages a week, or 44 pages a day. I tested my reading speed with The Road, and seem to cruise along at 20 pages every 15 minutes. So if I can read half an hour a day, perhaps an hour a day on weekends, I should get through them all. He said blithely. Let’s see.