Archive for December, 2019

2019 end-year book review

After reviewing books for a couple of years, one thing that stood out to me is just how few of them were written by women. Well this year, I tried to buck that trend – of the 8 books on this list, 4 were written by women.

Happy new year!

Quick links




How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell (2019)

A beautiful, moving book that’s hard to summarize or draw a “conclusion” from. You just have to read it.

This book impressed upon me the power of quiet, contemplative moments and of art. And it did so by being a great piece of art itself. That’s pretty rare for a nonfiction book, so it deserves a place on my must-read list of 2019.

Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino (2019)

A collection of essays on various topics, hilariously written and full of unexpected conclusions. Tolentino is one of those writers who can craft a sentence in just such a way that it makes you laugh out loud at the mere phrasing, but she’s also incredibly insightful, especially when writing about narcissism and self-delusion in the context of modern media.

Here she is on trolling in social media:

My column about trolling would, of course, attract an influx of trolling. Then, having proven my point, maybe I’d go on TV and talk about the situation, and then I would get trolled even more, and then I could go on defining myself in reference to trolls forever, positioning them as inexorable and monstrous, and they would return the favor in the interest of their own ideological advancement, and this whole situation could continue until we all died.

Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities by Eric Kaufmann (2019)

After the 2016 election, I read a lot of commentary like The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward Luce, which argued that the rise of populism in Western democracies is fundamentally an economic phenomenon. (Luce’s book begins with the famous elephant chart). This was a common trope among political commentators at the time, as was the image of the out-of-work coal miner in West Virginia. (Think: Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance.)

Eventually, though, a different picture started to emerge. Books like Identity Crisis pointed out that, according to the polling data, the most important factor in the 2016 election was actually ethnicity and immigration, not economics. This idea shocked me, but I didn’t really have a framework for understanding why anyone would be upset about demographic changes.

Whiteshift helps put this situation into perspective. Kaufmann compares our current moment to the anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish immigrant backlashes of the 19th and early 20th century, which caused political and social turmoil before these groups eventually became subsumed into the “white” majority. He makes a good case that the same thing will happen with current demographic trends, as long as we can craft a unifying narrative for the new majority.

I appreciate that this book is high on statistics and academic rigor, and low on emotional reasoning. I hope that the author’s optimistic outlook ends up being correct.

Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch

A really fun read. I enjoyed the historical outlook on how different groups became absorbed into internet culture at different points of time, and how their first contact point (be it Usenet, AIM, or Facebook) influenced the way they communicate on the internet.

I also appreciate that this book was written by a linguist, and that she takes the study of internet language as seriously as any other language. One of the more interesting arguments in this book is that emoji are more analogous to hand gestures than to anything we can identify in written language (hieroglyphs, ideograms, etc.).

Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart D. Ehrman (2005)

This book is a great read if you’re looking for a historical perspective on early Christianity: how it spread from the Gospels through Paul the Apostle, and how different scholars clashed with one another in their interpretations.

I was especially interested in how many different sects there were among early Christians – such as the Marcionists, who believed that the God of the Old Testament was distinct from the God of the New Testament. It’s interesting to imagine how differently world religions might have turned out if one or another interpretation had happened to survive.

Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis by Jared Diamond (2019)

A great book, just as engrossing as Guns, Germs, and Steel or Collapse. Even though we may live in “interesting times,” I appreciate the historical perspective, because it helps you realize that history tends to be cyclical, and you can learn a lot about the present by studying the past. I found the chapters on Finland’s Winter War and Chile’s Pinochet regime to be especially interesting.


The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley (1982)

This is a massive book, so it’s difficult to only say one or two things about it. I didn’t really know much about the Arthurian legend before reading it, so to me this is less of a “retelling” and more of the foundational way I’ll now look at the story of Arthur, Guinevere, the Holy Grail, etc.

What I found most interesting was the story of King Arthur as a kind of clash of civilizations – between the indigenous Druidic Celtic people and the conquering Romans (and later Saxons). The author paints a vivid picture of a population slowly shifting from largely pagan to largely Christian, and the conflict between those who either stubbornly hold to the old ways, eagerly embrace the new ones, or try to find some common ground between the two.

Fire and Blood by George R. R. Martin (2019)

I’ve been an avid Song of Ice and Fire reader since 2011, so I’ve been eagerly awaiting the sequel to A Dance with Dragons since what feels like forever.

A prequel is not what I would have wished for, but (like the Dunk and Egg novellas) this one will have to hold me over. Ultimately I think Fire and Blood is a great read, full of intriguing characters and richly-imagined world-building. If you’ve already read The World of Ice and Fire, though, you may find it a bit repetitive. (Although personally, I prefer the more novel-like format of Fire and Blood.)