Jan 10, 2018

A Year of Reading in Review, Vol. 3

It's time for the annual year of reading review.  There's a number of books on the list this year that really deserve a longer blurb than I'm going to give here. Hopefully this year I'll do a better job of actually writing in depth reviews of books I've read.

On the face of it, I read far less books this year than in the past two years.  In 2016 I read 52 books, roughly one book per week. This year I reported reading just over half that many, 29.  There's a few reasons for this discrepancy. The first is that I simply read less books.

Secondly, in 2016 I counted books that I decided not to read.  I did this because "deciding not to" was a theme of 2016 and I wanted to celebrate the books that I chose to put aside.  I took several books off of my reading list in 2017, but it felt so natural it doesn't seem worth counting.

According to Goodreads, these 29 books contained 10,289 pages. The oldest book was Eric Hoffer's True Believers; the newest, Phillip Pullman's first installment of his new Book of Dust series, was published in Octobe of 2017.  Believe it or not 3 of the books that I read were published in 2017.  Talk about quick turn around time!

Looking at the histogram of when the books I read were published, I feel that I did a pretty good job of reading a mix of older books while keeping up on new works.

On a whole, I feel like the quality of the books I read this year was higher than last year's. I really enjoyed the majority of the books that I read in 2017, and found a few new favorite authors!

Authors I'd Love to Read More of in 2018

Hannah Arendt.  Hannah's writing and clarity of insight is boss level good. Her book The Human Condition is, at least on Wikipedia, quoted as being one of the best books of the 21st century.  I do not think that they are exaggerating. In terms of depth and quality of analysis of real world phenomena, I'd put her on par with if not better than Jane Jacobs.  I'm really looking forward to reading more of her work in 2018, particularly Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Michael Lewis. Lewis is a master storyteller.  His books paint the most vivid pictures of the people involved, in a really concise and clear way.  He does such a great job of contextualizing everything; it's really inspiring. If I could write like anyone, I would want to write like Lewis does.  I wasn't expecting to enjoy his books as much as I did.


Stories about the way the world works, the people that work inside of it; books that inquired into the nature of human work and trade and thought; I tried out a few new fiction series, none of them really stuck. I read my first ever Chinese fiction and realized what an enormous super power Asia will be for the 21st century.  I read books about urban structures and power systems within them.  I learned a lot about the specific history of some niche industries and phenomena.

Top Picks

Usually my top picks for books are the ones that contain vital human truths that everyone must know.  This year's a bit different -- instead I picked books that I really enjoyed reading.  Vital truths aren't always the most enjoyable!

The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt
Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan
Fortune's Formula, William Poundstone

Book Synopses / Hot Takes

Stories of Your Life and Others, Ted Chiang

This is a collection of short works of speculative fiction.  I found the central conceit of the stories to be incredibly good, but the actual prosic execution lacking in spark.  More than anything, the tone and pacing of the stories didn't feel very natural.  Worth reading for the brilliant story lines alone, however.

Creativity, Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

I'm rating this book low because I found it lacking in rigor and insight; the writing was just plain boring.  However!  Csikszentmihalyi attempts to find commonalities between people that he terms Creatives with a capital C -- the difference being that a Creative has an impact on a community; whereas a normal creative doesn't necessarily build a practice around their work.  Another thing that Csikszentmihallyi points out, but without much extrapolation or further exploration, is that most of the individuals his team marked out as 'Creative' lost one or both parents at an early age.  I personally can't stop thinking about this; in particular what does it say about the parent child relationship? How has a rising age limit on people changed our ability to build independence; what is the relationship then between independence and creativity?  These questions are not addressed in this book, but I find them incredibly relevant; our politicians are on average older than ever.  On a personal note, all of my grandparents and parents are still alive (and I just turned 30!).  Is it normal for humans to live for 30 years without a close personal loss?  Has this affected my own independence/creativity?  Hard to say.

The Princess Diarist, Carrie Fisher

This is the tell-all novel of Fisher's 3 month affair with co-star Harrison Ford during the filming of the first Star Wars film.  This book convinced me that Star Wars owes its success to both George Lucas's genius and Carrie Fisher's wonderful love for life.  Fisher passed in Dec 2016; I'm glad she got this book out before she went.

A Manual For Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin

In isolation, I think Lucia Berlin writes amazing stories.  As a collection of work, however, the themes and situations that her characters find themselves in struck me as incredibly repetitive. Make no mistake, Berlin is a masterful storyteller, but I got burnt out.

Fortune's Formula: The Untold Story of the Scientific Betting System That Beat the Casinos and Wall Street, William Poundstone

I love books that tell stories about people in real life, while teaching you something about the world. This book does that; it clearly shows how the Martingale betting strategy works while telling the story of the men who created and refined it.  I know considerably more about the world of bet making now, with the historical context to understand it.  So good.

City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, Mike Davis

This book is weird. It doesn't really fit into any category outside of a certain genre of woke literature. It tells the history of L.A. through various aspects of the city's geography. It's incredibly good and also incredibly dense; it took me forever to read this book. More than anything, I blame this book for slowing down my reading progress in 2017.  Definitely worth a read if you're interested in urban spaces and the political power of space.  Also, being new to California, it was an AMAZING primer into the history of land use and speculation in Cali, and more than anything really drove home why the rent is so goddamn expensive here.  History matters yo!

La frantumaglia, Elena Ferrante

This English translation of Elena Ferrante's was released in Oct 2016; I didn't get around to reading it until early 2017.  I was absolutely floored by Ferrant'es Neopolitano series; Frantumaglia is a collection of Ferrante's letters writing about her writing process, her relationship to her readers, and some further context for the inspiration for her work.  Ferrante is well-known for her secretiveness -- Elena Ferrante is in fact a pseudonym; no one knows for certain who the actual author is.  I enjoyed reading her personal correspondences and interviews but eventually found them to be a bit repetitive.

Liar's Poker, Michael Lewis

This is such a good book. Lewis is a masterful storyteller.  In Liar's Poker, he walks us through the politics and personalities of the Salomon Brother's trading firm in the 80's, when the mortgage credit derivative desks were getting their start.  It's a must read for anyone who wants to better understand how trading desks actually work, and why the Sarbanes Oxley act was so incredibly necessary.  More than anything, this outlines the history of mortgage backed securities, more or less foreshadowing the crash of '08.

The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape, James Howard Kunstler

This is embarrassing. I honestly don't remember much about this book.  I think I read it too close in time to Organization Man; they both largely trace the same phenomenon but through different lenses.  Org Man focuses very acutely on a single neighborhood and the psychology of large organizations; Geography of Nowhere focuses more on the built environment and the impact of a car based culture.  Good but apparently not incredibly memorable.

Milk and Honey, Rupi Kaur

A collection of very personal poems. A good, quick read.  Honestly I think I would have enjoyed these a lot more had I read them 6 years ago.

The Organization Man, William Whyte

I found out about Whyte's book through a biography of Jane Jacobs; I believe that Whyte was an editor or peer of Jane at the Architectural Forum, but don't quote me on this.  I loved the close, psychological profile that Whyte paints of the type of individual that does well in corporate environments. In a large way, it echoed the guardian syndrome that Jane spells out in Systems of Survival.  His comparison of organization men to socialist societies is A+; as well as his in depth dive into the communal aspects of early suburban living.  My favorite thing about this book is the appendix where he tells you how to beat personality tests that are given to you by corporations. It would have come in handy back in high school -- I failed the first one I ever took, for a job working as a cashier at a suburban grocery store chain.

 Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, Jessa Crispin

All I remember from this book is thinking how terribly written it was.  It was one of two books published in 2017 that I read and is a stark reminder of why Nicholas Nassim Taleb recommends reading older books as they've mostly already been weeded out for you.  While it might have had good points based on my recollection of the terrible writing, I don't recommend this book.

The Existential Pleasures of Engineering, Samuel Florman

This book is an older but incredibly relevant collection of essays and thoughts on the ethical responsibility of engineers and the communities that engineers work in.  He's got a great, early essay in the appendix on why getting more women into technical careers is important for the robustness of engineering solutions and the societal impact of engineering innovations.

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, Michael Lewis

When Moneyball came out, I was an undergrad at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin.  A lot of my professors and fellow classmates were incredibly enamored with this book; for that reason alone I stayed away from it. That was a mistake. This book is pure bloody genius. If anything, its a great story of how the commerce mindset disrupts a traditionally guardian industry of picking ball players.  I'm glad Michael Lewis chose to tell this story.

Crazy Rich Asians, #1 #2 & #3  Kevin Kwan

This fictional series of books about a rich family in Singapore is pure beach reading material. It's wonderful and satisfying and witty in all the right ways. I'm actually looking forward to the movies, if nothing else for the sets and clothing.  I loved this book because it changed the way that I think about Asia and Asian wealth.  There's a fuck ton of money in Asia; it's no wonder American companies are all into breaking into the Asian market.  It was also really interesting to see what wealthy people care about: not just fancy clothes but having the most exclusive clothes that money can buy.  Rarity, exclusivity, difficulty in procuring a thing, big events where you could showcase your ability to get the rare thing -- these are the conceits that rich people spend their time with.  Well, some rich fictional people, at any rate.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion

It felt appropriate to read Joan Didion during my first year in California, a transplant from New York City. I connected with the stories in this book on a really personal level.  Joan's writing is wonderful and her perspective and clarity of vision very refreshing.

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1), George R.R. Martin

Guys, I hate to break it to you but George Martin is never finishing Game of Thrones. At least we have that in common. I picked this one up because my roommate was giving up this gorgeous set of the first (and only) five books; I really enjoyed it, especially getting to know the backstory that the TV show largely leaves out. I feel no real pressure to finish them though, so while I enjoyed them I really enjoy reading other books more.

Reflections on the Human Condition, Eric Hoffer

A collection of quips from Eric Hoffer's writings. I found it punchy, but overall harder to understand without the complete context that Hoffer wrote them in.  If you're gong to read Hoffer, I wouldn't recommend this one.

The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth’s Past, #1), Cixin Liu

A sci-fi novel about aliens and physics in a post-Cultural Revolution China.  Good but not a super fun read; I think the flow of the narrative suffered a lot in translation.  I don't necessarily mean in word choice, but also probably in narrative style that doesn't translate culturally. Or maybe not.  The degree to which this book expressed novel and compelling uses of technology in a fantastical/futuristic setting radically changed the way that I think about China's capacity for technological innovation. I expect to see a lot of really amazing new technological advances coming from purely Chinese innovators in the next decade.  That being said, I don't feel any pressing need to read the sequels to this book.

A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic, #1), V.E. Schwab

I've had this book on my reading list for a long time now, mostly based on the cover art alone. Guilty.  It was a good novel, but not the best fantasy novel I've ever read. Chalk up another one in the Series I Enjoyed The First Book of But Probably Won't Read The Rest column.

Astronomical Algorithms, Jean Meeus

Once I figured out what Meeus was talking about, this book is good fun.  This is hands down the best book for computational astronomy.  The preliminary chapter on debugging computer programs quaint and also incredibly useful.  The equations in it are what power the Moon Clock project I did last year too.  I still find the amount of human observation that must have gone into compiling the equations for this book downright baffling. It's a textbook, so I'm not sure I'd suggest reading straight through it, but if you need to figure out some planetary movement shit, this is the book you need.  At least, for the next few hundred years before all of our equations are outdated.  Those planets be moving, yo!

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values, Robert Pirsig

If there was an Honorable Mention for favorite books of 2017, this would get one. This book is hands down the best reconciliation between Western and 'Eastern' philosophy that I've ever seen. It's also incredibly relevant. Pirsig gives the best definition of art that I've ever seen, and explains in words that I would have never been able to find what's wrong with pure, Aristotelian logic.  This is the kind of logic that I see men in power use to the detriment of my women friends (and myself) all the goddamn time, and it felt so good to see this clear, logical yet firm and absolute rebuttal of the nature of pure logic.  Robert Pirsig passed away in April 2017.

Art is anything you can do well. Anything you can do with Quality.

Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, Peter Frase

I picked this book up on a recommendation; it's an attempt to depict four different futures of humanity, if you were to hold a few general trends steady. I found the framework superficially interesting but lacking in any clear or original conclusive, analytical thought.  I'd pass.

The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Eric Hoffer

Eric Hoffer has a dim view of mankind, especially movements of mankind. In this book, he traces the forces and personalities that play into mass movements, for better or for worse.  His points felt uber-relevant reading for the first year of Trump's presidency, especially the part about how traitors and staunch loyalists have this strange tendency of being one and the same person.  Belief in a cause sometimes can lead you to undermine the integrity of what you're fighting for...

The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt

There is no other book like this one.  It is dense, rich in revelation, and highly applicable and understandable. It was also incredibly slow reading, but so incredibly rewarding for the effort.  This book is hard to summarize because it covers so goddman much material in so little pages.  But, I'll try anyway.  Hannah's Human Condition takes us on a journey through the history of the modes of human activity: labor, work and action.  This is philosophy though, so she ties in the history of Greecian slave society; what the absolute truth of an unknowable future means, truly, for human interactions; the impact of Galilean astronomical revelations on the scope of philosophic thought; and more.  This book is goddamn great. Read it, and reconsider everything you know about your life.

Salt: A World History, Mark Kurlansky

This book is a compendium of the history of salt.  I picked it up for two reasons. One is that Jane Jacobs mentions salt making in her fanciful description of an ancient city's economical growth (The Economy of Cities) and I was curious in what ways salt served as a backing for ancient economies. The other is that, considering the breakdown of modern survival systems, I was curious what value salt might have.  In other words, should I stockpile a 25-lbs bag of salt from Amazon now, and hope that I can use it to barter for goods in some bleak future scenario where the global trade network has temporarily collapsed?  The answer, it seems, is a bit complicated, but in case you're wondering, salt is pretty key in two ways for 'pre-modern' humans: food preservation and anti-bacterial properties.  If global trade breaks down, it'd probably be handy to have around; in case you're wondering Morton's Salt is a privately owned company.

La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust #1), Philip Pullman

I love Philip Pullman's narrative style. Even though I could tell this was written for a younger audience in mind, I still really enjoyed reading Philip's prose.  This is the first book in a new series (trilogy?) about Dust, the magical property that featured prominently in his first trilogy, His Dark Materials.  La Belle Sauvage tells the early story of Lyra came to live at Oxford.  A really fast paced a good read; of all the series I started and did not finish in 2017, The Book of Dust is the one most likely to find it's way onto my reading list in the future (the other books haven't been published yet!).

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