The Pluto Files

The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet
© 2009 Neil deGrasse Tyson
224 pages



Ordinary  citizens don’t take an interest in the fine details of scientific debate, any more than they would the fine details of debates at urban planning conferences.  And yet, when the International Astronomical Union created a formal definition for “Planet” which happened to exclude Pluto,  people lost their minds. Astrophysicist and science educator Neil deGrasse Tyson was on the front lines in 2006 of the furor, receiving thousands of letters from indignant adults and despondent children. Tyson had been the object of particular abuse because in previous years,  when he began as director of the Hayden Planetarium,  he inaugurated a new museum with an exhibit on the scales of the universe which  did not include Pluto.   In The Pluto Files, he delivers a history of Pluto’s discovery and cultural legacy, even after its demotion.  Part science, part history, and part memory, the work is a tribute to a little place with an outside importance to people’s affection, and our growing understanding of the solar system.  Although those looking for a detailed history of Pluto’s demotion would be better served by How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had it Coming, Tyson’s book works perfectly fine as the elevator version, and is  arguably worth encountering just for the cultural aspects.  I had no idea that a Holst scholar had written an addition to The Planets suite, called “Pluto the Renewer”, for instance.  Although most of Tyson’s excerpts are of scientific debate, the included letters written by those demanding  Tyson single-handedly restore Pluto to the planetary python are amusing and charming in their own rights.


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Treasure Island Game

As we headed into the weekend, a post from A Great Book Study and Marian drew my attention to a little survey or game created by Classic Reader, called “Treasure Island”.The premise is that you are stuck on a Treasure Island for a year, marooned by a parasailing accident. On the island, however, are books to spend that year with! The books are made up of the following:

8 books you have read of your choice
1 books which you have never read before.
1 ‘the complete works of’.

So, what can I come up with?

1. Eight books of my choice
Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis.   This is a twofer: my favorite Jack and the Bible.

The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius. If anyone can make me feel better about being trapped on an island  by myself, it would be the lonely stoic.

Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry.     Jayber’s tale is one I constantly refresh myself with,  either in book or audiobook form.

40 Nights to Knowing the Sky, Fred Schaaf.   I assume this treasure island will be in a dark-sky site, giving me the opportunity to stargaze – something I can never really do now, since even in the country there are blasted orange-amber lights spoiling things.

Star Trek Deep Space Nine: Millennium Trilogy the Reeves-Stevens.  Probably my favorite bit of Treklit, even counting Destiny.

11/23/63, Stephen King. My favorite King novel, and an interesting mix of historical fiction, metaphysical creeps, and a beautiful love story.

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien.   Alone on an island, I suspect I would crave adventure,  a rich world to escape in, and a reminder of the good, true, and beautiful.

The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.   I’ve loved this book since 2003,  but  I was torn, torn, torn between this and P.G. Wodehouse.  Wodehouse is funnier, more innocently joyful — but for years and years this book was the top of my “The house is burning and I can only grab one book” list, so I have to include it here for tradition’s sake. It was, prior to Wodehouse, the funniest one-volume set of stories I’d ever read.

My list of eight is very lowbrow compared to the others I’ve seen, but I figure — I’m an island by myself. I need to find what joys I can!

2. One book I’ve never read before

 The Shahnameh,  because it’s huuuuuuuuuuuuge. I’m hoping to read it this year across
several months, and had planned on kicking off on March 19 (the New Year celebration in Persian & broader Iranian culture),   but I’m also developing a Lent mini-series that it might conflict with, not to mention Read of England.

3. One “complete works of”
This one was the easiest, as I pick Isaac Asimov.  Asimov wrote hundreds of books, in a staggering variety of subjects. Mostly known for his science fiction, Asimov penned scores of science and history books, as well as books on various bits of literature, from Bible commentaries to poetry evaluation.   He also wrote mysteries a-plenty.  I’ve read almost all of his fiction, but his science essays are so great in number that I suspect I could build a nice shelter for myself just from them!

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The Five Love Languages

The 5  Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts
Older subtitle: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate
© 1992, 2010, 2015  Gary Chapman
208 pages


What is a love language?   French is one, right? And Italian? ….no?  Oh, those are Romance languages.   Love languages, argues marriage counselor Gary Chapman, are different ways that individuals express their affection for one another —and more importantly, how they unconsciously expect others to express their own affection.   If different people express their love in different ways,  a relationship can suffer. It is therefore important, write Chapman, to understand the various ways people communicate love – to reflect on our own behavior and our loved ones to determine how they give and receive affection —  in order to build healthy lives together.   Although this is intended for married couples, the basic premise has been re-framed towards children, singles, etc, and from what I’ve heard is essentially the same and applicable to anyone who wants to nurture their relationships.

So, what are the five love languages? In Chapman’s view, they are:    words of affirmation, which might be both praise and compliments, or requests that begin in appreciation;   gifts,   which are fairly self-explanatory;  physical touch,   which needn’t be as involved as PSA, but could simply be little touches in passing;   acts of service,  or doing things to make the other’s life easier without being asked;  and quality time,  or focused time spent together —  put down that phone!     Each language merits its own chapter, and Chapman uses a case study from his work to explore how a couple could be coached from being ignorant of one another’s expectations to mindful of them.  Even a couple whose members have the best of intentions can operate at cross purposes – the man who works so much to provide that he’s  never home,  undermining his relationship with a woman who needs time spent together, for instance —  if they’re not aware of the other’s needs.  A love language is not a fixed thing;  people can learn to understand, and communicate,  their spouse’s way of love. Chapman closes the book with advice on how to discern one’s own love language.

Although I have my doubts that affection can be reduced to so simply, Chapman’s  book strikes me as most useful on the whole, in reviewing different ways of expressing love, and a reminder that different individuals from varying families can approach communication from different angles.  I’m fairly certain I encountered some of this information in a book I read as a lovestruck teen, Men’s Relational Toolbox, at least the bit about being aware that when people complain about a problem, they’re often looking for sympathy and support,  not advice.  At any rate, The 5 Love Languages is certainly worth reading for those who are serious about  investing in their relationships with others.

Some quotes
“[…]the average lifespan of a romantic obsession is two years. […] We can recognize the in-love experience for what it was — a temporary emotional high — and now pursue ‘real love’ with our spouse. That kind of love is emotional in nature but not obsessive.  It is a love that unites reason and emotion. It involves an act of the will and requires discipline, and recognizes the need for personal growth. Our most basic emotional need is not to fall in love, but to be genuinely loved by another, to know a love that grows out of reason and choice, not instinct. I need to be loved by someone who chooses to love me, who sees in me something worth loving.”  –  pp. 30 – 33

“The best thing we can do with the failures of the past is let them be history. Yes, it happened. Certainly it hurt. And it may still hurt, but he has acknowledged his failure and asked your forgiveness. […] We can choose to live today free from the failures of yesterday.”   – p. 45

“Love makes requests, not demands. When I demand things from my spouse, I become a parent and she the child.”  – 35

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Favorite Nonfiction, 2010 – 2019

Okay, folks, this one hurt.  It would have been even worse were I aiming for a top ten list!    Interestingly,  history and science don’t fill the list as I expected; instead, books on society are the heavyweights, and many of my favorite authors are absent altogether.  Of course, it’s difficult to create a list like this when there’s so much good stuff to pick from — I saw quite a few fiction titles I missed in my first run-throughs for the fiction post, and was tempted to go back and edit it!

I was going to make a scatter graph to show what years contributed the most all-stars, but honestly it’s fairly boring.   2013 leads with 4;  2012 and 2017 tied for 2nd with 3;  2014 contributed two, and everyone else only had one.

  1. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Charles C. Mann
  2. The Geography of Nowhere, Jim Kunstler
  3. A Guide to the Good Life: Stoicism and the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, William Irvine
  4. The Age of Faith, Will Durant
  5. A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, Neil Chaikin
  6. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam
  7. Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser
  8. John Adams, David McCullough
  9. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs
  10. The Plain Reader: Essays on Making a Simpler Life, Scott Savage
  11. Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton
  12. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt
  13. small is beautiful: economics as if people mattered, E.F. Schumacher, and  Human Scale, Kirkpatrick Sale (I couldn’t decide between these two, and they’re so closely related I’m going to cheat and make them a single entry.)
  14. Happy City: Transforming Our Lives through Urban Design, Charles Montgomery
  15. How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had it Coming, Mike Brown
  16. Data and Goliath, Bruce Schneier
  17. In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist, Pete Jordan
  18. How to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Anthony Esolen
  19. Verbal Judo: The Art of Persuasion, George Thompson
  20. The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, Steven Novella et. al.
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Favorite Fiction, 2010 – 2019

I realize the “right” time to do this was in December, when everyone else was doing decade retrospectives,  but it takes a while to pore through ~2000 titles!    These are in rough chronological order.


  1.  Horatio Hornblower series, C.S. Forester.  Napoleonic naval action, made all the better by a fantastic series on A&E based on some of the ‘young Hornblower’ stories.
  2. Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe, Saxon Stories, and Arthur books. I praise Cornwell enough here that any readers should know his strengths!
  3. The Sea Wolf, Jack London. A fascinating tale of a soft professor  who is rescued by a Nietzschean wild man; this one is rich with philosophy, and is possibly my favorite piece by London.
  4. 11/22/63, Stephen King. A superb mix of historical fiction and character drama, with some King creepiness .
  5. Star Trek: Destiny, David Mack.    Destiny is a legend in Treklit reading circles, that’s all I can say.
  6. Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry .   My favorite novel – period.
  7. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,  Robert Heinlein .  The story of independence…on the moon!
  8. The Chosen, Chaim Potok.   Two Jewish boys’ coming of age, amid the challenges of modernity — including the Holocaust.
  9. Sphere, Michael Crichton
  10. Bertie and Wooster tales, P.G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse is my sunshine on a cloudy day;  a never-failing pick-me-up.
  11. The Circle, Dave Eggers
  12. Ancestral Shadows, Russell Kirk.  Ghostly stories with themes of revenge and redemption.
  13. Redshirts, John Scalzi . A Star Trek parody with tear-worthy codas.
  14. Ready Player One, Ernest Cline.    Oh, man, where to begin — a global community holodeck,  fully loaded with eighties nostalgia and geek culture references.
  15. Little  Brother, Cory Doctorow    An exciting YA novel in which San Francisco becomes a police state, resisted by  teenage crypto-activists.
  16. The Martian, Andy Weir. 
  17. Star Trek Disavowed/Control, David Mack. The  grand finale to the mystery and threat of Section 31.
  18. Daemon/Freedom, Daniel Suarez.   Probably my favorite techno-thrillers, one which a computer program begins building its own state.
  19. Becoming Mrs Lewis, Patti Callahan.  A novel about one of my favorite literary people, C.S. Lewis, and the unexpected love of his life.
  20. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy.


Next up:     favorite nonfiction.  That’s going to be…..a lot harder.

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The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death CleaningHow to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter
© 2018 Margaret Magnusson
128 pages


Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, for old time is still a-flying. While you’re at it, why don’t you clean the house?   The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning has nothing to do with the funerary business.  Instead, it appeals to those in their advanced years, and even to those presumably quite far from them,  urging such readers to consider the stuff that fills their homes, and to evaluate whether it’s something they truly need. If not, let it go – and if so, make plans for what’s to be done with it what’s left.  Death-cleaning, then, is minimalism meets memento mori.

I decided to read this book not because I’m eying the grave (though I do maintain a current will and life insurance, just in case), but because this is year two of my efforts to move closer towards minimalism in my own life, and I was seeking both ideas and encouragement.   Magnusson’s  text, though, proved largely redundant for me personally, having read other books on minimalism. Hers marks itself by pitching stuff-reduction as a charitable gesture, intended to make things easier on those who survive us.  If we get rid of the record collection we don’t listen to, or go ahead and destroy the files that stopped being useful fifteen years ago,  children, niblings, and other survivors won’t have to.    She also echoes the sentiment of A Life Less Throwaway: if we remove that in our lives that doesn’t constantly enrich it,  then our enjoyment of our homes, and our quality of life will improve  — no longer burdened by the stress of having to move and manage stuff, allowing us to be surrounded by joy instead of problems.

Although it didn’t do much for me,  I think for those who haven’t read anything similar it would prove useful. As it was, I learned a bit about Swedish culture.

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