2017 book review

This is a first, but I decided to jot down some thoughts on a few of the books I read this year. Enjoy!

Quick links:

Nonfiction

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia by Peter Pomerantsev (2014)

One of my favorite books I read this year. Surprising, funny, and engaging in a way that few nonfiction books ever are.

Pomerantsev’s view of modern Russia is of a cynical society, where little matters except celebrity, riches, and maybe catching something juicy on reality TV. The prevailing mood seems to be: democracy is a joke, nothing any leader says is to be believed, but who cares as long as we’re being entertained?

My favorite quote from the book is this one:

“The new Kremlin won’t make the same mistake the old Soviet Union did: it will never let TV become dull. The task is to synthesize Soviet control with Western entertainment.”

The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward Luce (2017)

If you felt blindsided by the political upheavals of 2016, this book may be the sober and unflinching “explainer” to make sense of the whole mess. It’s so good that I may even need to re-read it.

My main takeaway is that recent populist anger at “globalist” policies (neoliberalism, neoconservatism, etc.) can be largely traced back to the “elephant chart”. The chart basically shows how the working class of the developed world hasn’t seen a wage increase in several decades, whereas everybody else is doing pretty well in comparison. Once you understand the elephant chart, everything else kind of flows from that.

My second main takeaway is that American pre-eminence in geopolitics is not something we should take for granted, and that maybe the US should find a way to slide gracefully into a more modest role on the world stage. The question is whether we can manage to keep faith with liberal democracy in the process, or if instead 2016 is just the harbinger of worse things to come, like 1932 before it.

The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu (2016)

A masterful book that ties our current media landscape into a history of advertising, as far back as posters in 19th-century Paris and snake-oil ads in early 20th-century America. After reading this and The Master Switch by the same author, it’s hard to look at the tech industry the same way again. Unfortunately, the conclusions from both are supremely pessimistic.

#Republic by Cass Sunstein (2017)

2017 was a year with a lot of pontificating about what’s wrong with the tech industry. (I indulged in a bit myself.) But this is the rare book that actually backs up its criticisms with some hard evidence and scientific data. The results aren’t always encouraging, but they’re often surprising. (For instance, artificial upvotes in a Reddit-like social media site do impact outcomes, but artificial downvotes don’t.)

Sunstein also approaches the problem as a policy advocate. Many of his arguments boil down to the idea that, even if social media is giving us what we want as consumers, maybe it’s not giving us what we want as citizens.

We used to have shared public spaces, where one was free to protest or hand out flyers in support of a cause. Now we have Facebook pages and Google search results, which don’t have any of the same guarantees. We also used to have a shared national media, i.e. three TV channels that everyone in the country tuned in to. Now every individual crafts their own media.

What does it mean for American democracy when our new media landscape is both balkanized and privatized? It’s an interesting question, and Sunstein does a thorough job of exploring it.

Black Ops Advertising by Mara Einstein (2016)

A pretty terrifying look at how advertising actually works in the age of social media. Once you read this book, you might never look the same way again at an artfully-placed bottle of Mountain Dew in some Instagram celebrity’s “candid” photos.

One thing this book impressed upon me is that the line between “content” and “advertising” has become so blurred that it’s almost impossible to tell the difference anymore. Tim Wu describes it well:

“Jimmy Fallon’s opening monologue began hilariously enough, when abruptly he pivoted to a series of inexplicably weak jokes centered on a forthcoming football game. It slowly dawned on me that I was watching a commercial for NBC’s ‘Sunday Night Football,’ albeit one baked right into the opening monologue and delivered by Fallon himself.”

This is one of the reasons I’ve become hesitant to talk about Microsoft-related stuff on social media (even Minecraft! a game I genuinely enjoy), because I’m worried it’ll come across as mere schilling for the company’s products. Then again, are any of us immune to our own biases?

Islamic Exceptionalism by Shadi Hamid (2016)

A great, thought-provoking book about the Arab Spring and the role of Islamism in world politics. It makes the case that Islam is unique among religions in that its adherents tend to seek political systems that intertwine with their religious lives, and that maybe that’s something the West just needs to learn to accept.

This book may need to be re-evaluated given the decline of IS in 2017 and rising secularism in the Islamic world, but it’s an interesting read to help understand modern Islamist movements.

Radical Technologies by Adam Greenfield (2017)

A fascinating, if somewhat dry and academic read. My favorite part is the first chapter describing the strange impact the smartphone has had on the daily hum of the modern city. The first paragraph is gripping:

“The smartphone is the signature artifact of our age. Less than a decade old, this protean object has become the universal, all-but-indispensable mediator of everyday life. Very few manufactured objects have ever been as ubiquitous as these glowing slabs of polycarbonate.”

The rest doesn’t disappoint either. And incidentally, I learned a lot about how the blockchain and smart contracts (are supposed to) work.

The Great Crash, 1929 by John Kenneth Galbraith (1955)

Although Galbraith doesn’t use the phrase “animal spirits” once in the nearly 200-page book, this is clearly what the book is about. A pretty interesting look at how speculative bubbles can warp society as well as the market.

One takeaway for our modern age: you can probably find some parallels in the way housewives of the 1920’s might have taken a sudden interest in Wright Aero or in Steel, and the way non-techies of today are suddenly becoming interested in cryptocurrencies:

“To the typical female plunger the association of Steel was not with a corporation, and certainly not with mines, ships, railroads, blast furnaces, and open hearths. Rather it was with symbols on a tape and lines on a chart and a price that went up. She spoke of Steel with the familiarity of an old friend, when in fact she knew nothing of it whatever.”

Dream Hoarders by Richard V. Reeves (2017)

After reading this book, you might stop saying, “We are the 99%!” and start saying, “Oh crap, I am the 20%…”

It turns out that some of the most insidious forms of inequality (leading to a crisis of liberal democracy as described by Luce above) can be traced back to the gap between the so-called “upper middle class” and everybody else. It’s also not lost on the author that most of his readership probably counts themselves in that lucky 20%.

This is also a good segue into the next book:

Bobos in Paradise by David Brooks (2001)

The first time I heard the word “bobo” was when one of my French relatives was trying to explain who all those preppy-looking kids were hanging out on the lawn at Montmartre in Paris. I asked what “bobo” meant in English (I thought it was a French word), and the best translation we could come up with was “yuppie.” As Brooks explains, though, “yuppie” is really only half the story.

I found a lot to identify with and laugh at in this book, most probably because I am firmly in the “bobo” camp myself: a bourgeois by birthright, but a bohemian by disposition. We bobos may have achieved success in our chosen industries, but we find talking about money too distasteful, too gauche, and so we instead try to exude granola hippie values like you might find in the local REI store, on sale for $199.

The bobos are a ruling class that finds a way to combine Reaganite yuppiedom with 60’s hedonism, and in the process we’ve got none of the noblesse oblige that the previous ruling class, with their Elks and Rotary Clubs, ever had. Lord knows what we’re going to do with the world we inherit.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson (2016)

A book about tech that somehow doesn’t set out to be a book about tech. A pretty fascinating look into the history of public shaming, from the colonial era to the social media era.

A scary takeaway from this book is to realize how effective public shaming is as a punishment, and how cavalier we are nowadays to employ it merely as a remedy for boredom on Twitter. Some choice quotes:

“The people who mattered were the people on Twitter. On Twitter we make our own decisions about who deserves obliteration. We form our own consensus, and we aren’t being influenced by the criminal justice system or the media. This makes us formidable.”

“‘I’d never had the opportunity to be the object of hate before. The hard part isn’t the hate. It’s the object.'”

“On social media we’d had the chance to do everything better, but instead of curiosity we were constantly lurching toward cold, hard judgment.”

I read this book well after my own breakup with Twitter, but a lot of what I wrote in those three blog posts is echoed in this book. It’s a sobering read, and it’s made me a lot more ambivalent about all the high drama and escalations that seem to be an ongoing part of the social media experience.

Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil (2016)

I got my master’s degree in Computational Linguistics, and I worked for a time on building machine learning models (what we called “feature engineering”). Everything described in this book about how machine learning can effectively become a reflection of society’s preexisting biases rings absolutely true to me.

A lot of laypeople seem to have this hardened faith that computers are smarter than they are, and if the computer says something is true, well then it must be true. Unfortunately the reality of most machine learning is that it’s like a calculator: garbage in, garbage out. Sometimes you can build interesting systems by feeding it enough garbage that it starts to find signals in the noise, but even those signals can be a form of garbage if they just reinforce a society’s existing prejudices.

This book is a bit dry and overly long, but the sections on the criminal justice system, and how the “AI” used there to predict recidivism rates has just created an unaccountable feedback loop, are absolutely worth reading.

Fiction

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay By Michael Chabon (2000)

What a great book. It has some of the most inventive language you’ll ever read, and the characters are so vivid that you’ll almost miss them after you turn the last page.

I loved the portrait of Josef Kavalier as a man who practically invents the “comic-book superhero beats up on Nazis” trope, and yet with every comic he writes, it only underscores his own impotence to save his family from German-occupied Czechoslovakia.

At times, it’s also a hilarious book. The scene where Josef and Sammy spitball a half-dozen superhero ideas had me roaring with laughter:

Sammy shook his head. “Ice,” He said. “I don’t see a lot of stories in ice.”
“He turns into electricity?” Joe tried. “He turns into acid?”
“He turns into gravy. He turns into an enormous hat. Look, stop. Stop. Just stop.”

Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski (1982)

Possibly the best book I’ve ever read about toxic masculinity. Growing up in poverty during the Great Depression, being abused by his alcoholic father, feeling like he constantly has to pick fights with the biggest guy in the room to look tough… although I can’t identify with all the details, I strongly identify with the constant feelings of inadequacy associated with being a hormone-addled teenage boy.

Bukowski also seems to remember childhood in a way that few writers can, with all its confusion and logical leaps and dreamlike muddiness. A great book, and certainly the best in the Henry Chinaski trilogy.

Post Office by Charles Bukowski (1971)

The worst book in the Henry Chinaski trilogy. Henry gets a job at the post office, drinks a lot, sexually abuses a woman, drinks some more, is terrible at his job, and keeps drinking. Skip this one.

Women by Charles Bukowski (1978)

Charles Bukowski explains that, if you’re a famous writer, you can abuse, insult, and take advantage of women and get away with it. And all the while, you can believe yourself to be a misunderstood Casanova whose revolving harem of lovers just can’t heal the deep wounds in his deep poet’s soul. If I had read this book as a 17 year-old during my Jack Kerouac phase, it would have ruined me.

Ask the Dust by John Fante (1939)

A strange, haunting book. Fante, like Bukowski, is able to tap into the confusion of youth, telling a story about a guy who can think tender thoughts about the woman he loves, but in person can only manage to be coarse and callous to her. This book is about a love triangle where you half-believe all three participants actively despise each other, and that somehow that’s what drives the whole crazy thing forward. But it all rings true because human courtship is so inherently messed up.

The only part that didn’t ring true to me was the description of marijuana use, which reads as fairly antiquated given our modern understanding of the drug. In one scene, the protagonist buys a fridge full of food, and his poor lover is unable to eat any because she’s sick from smoking too much pot. (Fante, did you ever know any potheads?) The fact that the woman loses her mind because of marijuana (“reefer madness!”), and that this is a crucial plot point, is the only blemish that mars an otherwise excellent book.

Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson (1997-2002)

This is a weird series of graphic novels. It imagines a future that’s not so much dystopian or utopian as just… what-the-fuck-topian. People modifying their DNA to look like aliens, religious zealots being reborn as sex-crazed clouds of gas, laboratories growing human flesh so that it can be sold for food… It’s as if they took all the griminess of 1970’s New York (ala Taxi Driver), added some Blade Runner sci-fi, and then dialed it up to 11.

The main message I got from this book is that one of the most unsettling aspects of the future might be its downright progressivism. It’s easy to look at the arc of history as bending toward justice, with a steady progression in the twentieth century toward greater freedoms and greater tolerance for a widening circle of people and behaviors. In short, social conservatives have been on the losing side of history for most of the past hundred years. But this book takes that idea to the extreme, to a future where absolutely nothing feels off-limits, and in the process it probes at some fundamental human concepts of the taboo, the sacred, the inhuman, and the profane. It’s disturbing in the same way that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was probably disturbing to 19th-century readers.

Another weird aspect of these books is how violent they are. Much of this violence also feels gratuitous and completely unnecessary, serving to punctuate conversations in the same way that Calvin and Hobbes’ sleigh rides punctuated theirs. (I.e., the drawings have nothing to do with the text, but it gives you something interesting to look at.)

Overall it’s an interesting read, although I wouldn’t recommend it to the queasy or faint-of-heart. It also lost my interest about halfway through, when it became less of a sci-fi cabinet of curiosities and more straightforward action thriller.

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992)

This is one of those books that’s supposedly “required reading” for nerds, along with The Lord of the Rings and Neuromancer, so I decided I should get around to reading it this year.

I found it pretty riveting for the first few chapters – lots of whiz-bang action and weirdness and excitement – but it sort of lost me about halfway through when the plot got too convoluted for me to follow. (Incidentally I felt the same way about Neuromancer.) Still, it’s interesting to understand where the concept of an online “avatar” came from, as well as lots of the ideas for things like MMORPGs, MUDs, and Second Life.

If nothing else, I can now use the phrase “That sounds like Snow Crash” to capture a certain feeling about virtual reality, and also to buy me some cred in nerd circles.

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by george on January 12, 2018 at 9:50 AM

    Hi Nolan ,
    Thank you for this reviews. I was able to buy some books that you’ve reviews. However some are really hard to find. I barely find some of them on a website. I hope i can leave a link here http://www.goreadabook.org . Maybe it will help others find and buy those books. Thank you again and keep up the good work. Cheers.
    George

    Reply

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