Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Mid-2019 book review

Photo of books on a desk

The news from this year’s book review is that I have belatedly decided I’m a fantasy fan. Even though I had read The Lord of the Rings as a teenager and the entire Song of Ice and Fire series (including the “Dunk and Egg” prequels) in my 20s, I still somehow thought of myself as “above” the glossy paperbacks with their scowling wizards and soaring pegasi. Well, the veil of self-delusion has lifted. Bring on the pegasi.

The other news is that I’m breaking 2019’s book review into two posts. There are just too many books to cover. (Famous last words! My reading velocity is going down as the summer starts to heat up.)

Quick links

Fiction

Non-fiction

Fiction

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

A haunting, beautiful book. I’d never considered myself a big fantasy fan, but somehow this one really stuck with me. I decided to read it because of this Atlantic article, and I’m glad I did.

I think what sets this one apart is that, while books like Harry Potter or the Narnia series are about childhood and its relationship with fantasy, The Last Unicorn is about growing up and growing away from fantasy. In the book, people have forgotten about unicorns or can’t see their horns. Some of them look upon the unicorn and start crying even if they don’t know why.

The book is ultimately about loss – loss of childhood, loss of innocence, loss of childish fantasies – as well as regret. It’s a very profound and moving book. Oh, and the author has a real gift for language; the book is filled with beautiful poetry to paint its fantasy world. Anyway, read it.

The Magicians Trilogy by Lev Grossman

I decided after reading The Last Unicorn that I should start taking fantasy books a bit more seriously. So I picked up The Magicians, and quickly devoured all three books in the trilogy. The whole series is great, although for slightly different reasons than Unicorn.

At first glance, Magicians comes across as a mash-up between Harry Potter and Narnia, but with some decidedly adult elements thrown in. At times I burst out laughing at the incongruity between the magical situations that the characters found themselves in and their wry commentary on it. These are fantasy novels for people who think fantasy novels are a bit silly.

In the end, though, I think Magicians is actually closest in theme and tone to The Dark Tower by Stephen King. It has the same sense of taking old fables and tropes and turning them into something gritty and believable. It’s a fantasy world seen through a dark, ironic lens. But it’s also a great piece of storytelling. Well worth the read.

On the Beach by Nevil Shute

I needed one last piece of post-apocalyptic fiction for the road, before switching over to the wizards and unicorns.

This one tells a good story, although ultimately I don’t find its depiction of a world waiting to die very believable. I just find it hard to imagine that, in the face of a nuclear dust-cloud descending inexorably towards Australia, that an entire continent would decide to go the “stiff upper lip” route and carry on as usual, pretending as if Armageddon wasn’t on its way.

Societal breakdown and anarchy seem more likely to me, although I guess that might be hindsight talking. This book was written in 1957, well before post-apocalyptic fiction had really settled into its groove and the Mad Max-style mohawked warlords had become staples of the genre. So it gets points for trying – I’m sure this book spooked a lot of people back in the days when fallout shelters and “duck and cover” drills were still a thing.

Radicalized by Cory Doctorow

I loved this book. I’ve been reading Cory Doctorow’s blog posts for years, and I’m surprised at what an effective storyteller he is. Think Black Mirror, but funnier and less bleak.

The two short stories that stood out the most to me were the first – about a toaster oven that refuses to toast “unlicensed” bread – and the third – about cancer survivors radicalized by an online forum.

The first story in particular feels plausible in a disturbing way, and it cuts to the core of some of the concerns I’ve expressed about the ways that technology can be used to take more power away from those who are already powerless. For instance, consider this (true) story about renters in Brooklyn who are unable to stop their landlord from installing face-recognizing cameras. This story shows that Doctorow’s DRM toaster isn’t so much a vision of the future as it is an extrapolation of present trends. Which is what good science fiction is all about.

Nonfiction

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

A central fact about eating meat is that it’s much easier if you forget where it comes from. With this book I forced myself to take a hard look at where it comes from, and I found the results to be disturbing and appalling.

I don’t think it’s unnatural for humans to eat meat (my incisors are proof of that), but I do think that the modern factory farming system is immoral. It’s a form of industrial cruelty, systematized and magnified on a monstrous scale. Anyone who has owned a pet wouldn’t want it to experience even one minute of what these animals have to suffer every day of their lives.

If humans still did animal husbandry the old-fashioned way, on small-scale farms where the animals could live more-or-less decent lives, then I wouldn’t have a problem with eating animal products. What bothers me isn’t the way they die – it’s the way they live. Reading about the lives of egg-laying chickens and pigs in factory farms activates all my moral instincts and says in no uncertain terms, This is wrong. In fact, I think most meat-eaters would consider it wrong too, which is why they try to push it out of their minds.

I’d love to say that, after reading this book, I went fully vegan and never looked back. The truth is that I gave it a shot for a few weeks, found it too difficult, and then settled into a quasi-vegetarian/pescetarian thing, which is what I’ve been doing for the past decade or so anyway.

The main difference is that I have a better sense now of what kinds of foods actually reduce animal suffering. For instance: less dairy, more wild-caught fish. (I know; it’s surprising. Read the book.)

My relationship with food is still complicated, but at least this book has brought some facts and numbers to inform my decisions.

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells

I’ll admit: as recently as 2010, I probably would have described myself as a “climate change skeptic.” Not because I doubted the science (the consensus was clear at this point) but because I questioned whether the economic cost of combating climate change would outweigh the benefits of preventing it. India and China were rapidly developing – who was I to say that poor people in Kerala should live without air conditioning?

Like most everybody else, though, I’ve come around to the massive challenge posed by climate change. Living through two summer forest fires in Seattle, where people wore protective masks and the sky looked like a hazy Martian sunset, certainly helped change my mind. As did this book.

Before The Uninhabitable Earth I had also started reading Carbon Ideologies by William T. Vollmann. They’re good books, but honestly they’re so long and dense and meandering that it’s hard to recommend them to anyone but the convinced climate activist. If you’re really interested in the physics, the numbers, and the nitty-gritty, then these books are for you.

Wallace-Wells’s book is different. It’s short, it’s punchy, and it encourages you to actually envision a world after global warming, and to let it hit you at a gut level. I imagine a book like this will inspire some great science fiction (cli-fi?), which might do more to get people to care about climate change than all the facts and figures in the world. So for that, it’s a book I strongly recommend.

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

Kolbert’s book is another eye-opening look at humanity’s relationship with nature and where we fit into the grand arc of geologic history. I’ve had a longstanding interest in paleontology, and I find Kolbert’s defense of the Anthropocene (which is what this book amounts to) very compelling.

One thing that always puzzled me about climate change was why one or two degrees of average temperature, or a few percentage points of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, would really be such a catastrophic event for humanity. Wasn’t the carbon dioxide level orders of magnitude higher during the Mesozoic? Why would a few percentage points be our death knell?

What this book makes clear is that it’s not so much about the absolute numbers, but instead the rate of change. Earth has adapted to rapid changes before (such as an unlucky rendez-vous with an asteroid), but the recovery always takes a long time. Like, “longer than the human species has been around” long. Are we willing to trade 300 years of indulgence in fossil fuels for hundreds of thousands of years of getting the Earth’s ecosystem back on track?

If Wallace-Wells’s book hasn’t already bummed you out too much, then you should definitely pick this one up. It certainly helps put things in (geologic) perspective.

2018 book review

In the spirit of last year’s blog post, this is an extremely belated round-up of books I read in 2018.

I read a lot of books last year. I chalk this up to many things, but quitting Twitter was probably a big one. Without Twitter, I actually run out of things to read on the internet. At some point the internet gets boring, and it’s nice to have a few books around to pick up the slack.

A photo of books on a bookshelf

A completely unstaged photo of my remarkably tidy bookshelf

To keep things simple, I’ll focus on the books I actually enjoyed, rather than the ones I thought were duds. Who wants to read about boring books, anyway?

So without further ado:

Quick links

Fiction

Non-fiction

Fiction

Life’s too short not to enjoy good fiction. I don’t read it often enough, but when I do find a good novel, it’s like a breath of fresh air. I can immerse myself in another world for a while, and try to empathize with its characters.

This year I didn’t read a lot of fiction, but what I did read was very good.

Theory of Bastards by Audrey Schulman (2018)

What a remarkable book. I read it because I got a sudden hankering for post-apocalyptic fiction last year, plus there was a review in The Economist.

This book definitely doesn’t disappoint on the post-apocalyptic front, but it’s also just a great piece of pop-science drama. It’s clear that the author did their research (about bonobos in this case) and developed the characters with a lot of care. Strongly recommended.

Three Weeks in December by Audrey Schulman (2012)

This book is a bit harder to find, but I found it’s every bit as good as Schulman’s other book. Some well-researched science, a bit of colonial history, and once again Schulman’s keen eye for character development (even if her protagonist bears a resemblance to the one from Bastards). I may just have to read everything Schulman’s ever written.

Blindness by José Saramago (1995)

Continuing the post-apocalyptic trend, this is a tightly-written drama that captures what’s best about science fiction: an understanding of how humans react when put into unfamiliar situations, for good and for evil. Also it’s written in one of the most unique styles I’ve ever read – breathless, using mostly commas, with hardly a period to stop the flow of action.

Apparently there’s a movie, but the reviews were bad so I didn’t watch it. The book is great.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. (1959)

I promise I didn’t just read post-apocalyptic fiction this year. In any case, this book is considered a classic, but I found it to be three thinly-connected novellas where only the first one is worth reading. If you get bored during the second one, I’d say skip it.

What’s great about this book is its understanding for how humans behave during a dark age. Knowledge gets lost or deliberately destroyed, history becomes myth, cult becomes religion. It’s chilling to imagine how that may happen to our own civilization.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2010)

Last post-apocalyptic fiction, I promise. This one is pretty good, although you’re better off not reading any reviews or synopses so as to not spoil the premise.

Also, if you’re expecting something like The Remains of the Day, then you should know that Never Let Me Go is not only very different thematically, but I also found it didn’t linger in my mind as much as Remains did. Still, it’s worth reading.

Once again, there’s a movie, but I haven’t seen it. I have no idea how you would adapt a book like this into a movie, but I guess that doesn’t stop people from trying.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (2013)

Marvelous book. Maybe as someone who’s studied French and Japanese, and who lives in the Pacific Northwest, and who has developed a middling interest in Buddhism, the book also seemed to speak to me in a eerily precise way.

If you’re a fan of wordplay, inventive storytelling, and Murakami-style magic realism, this is a great book to pick up.

Cherry by Nico Walker (2018)

A strange, haunting, disturbing book, but also a page-turner. Apparently this is Walker’s first book, and it’s really a virtuoso performance. I’ll be interested to see what he comes up with next.

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster (1987)

A bizarre book. You get the impression that Paul Auster had one story to tell, but he couldn’t decide how to do it, so he wrote the same story three ways. Somewhat like Canticle, you’re probably better off just reading the first one and skipping the others.

Still, it’s worth it, especially if you’re a fan of hard-boiled detective fiction and surrealism.

Non-fiction

As usual for me, I read a lot of non-fiction last year. For the purposes of this list, though, I’m skipping about half the books I read, because a lot of them didn’t have much new to say, or didn’t really stick in my mind.

So this list contains only books I would recommend. (Note: that doesn’t mean I agree with every sentence that the author has ever uttered. Which should be obvious, but hey, on the internet, you’re rarely given the benefit of the doubt these days.)

Sapiens (2014), Homo Deus (2017), and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018) by Yuval Noah Harari

I first came across Harari in this excellent Atlantic article, and I quickly devoured all three of his books. I’m not really sure what to say, except that he’s one of the most clever, funny, and innovative thinkers writing today. Sapiens in particular is a masterpiece of history, anthropology, and political science.

Harari has upset my thinking on a lot of things – in particular, how technology interacts with democracy and citizenship to potentially upend the relationship between the individual and the state in the 21st century. I also found his portrayal of factory farming as one of the biggest moral failures in modern human history to be very compelling (and not just because I’ve been an on-again off-again pescetarian for years).

But probably the best thing I can say about these books is that they’re all page-turners, despite the dense subject matter. Also, Harari isn’t afraid to veer into controversy, but he’s always clear about where he gets the facts that inform his opinions. (His conclusion in Sapiens that, scientifically, we just don’t know why humans are a patriarchal species was refreshingly honest.)

Some of the best non-fiction I’ve read in my life, and definitely worth picking up.

The Mechanical Horse by Margaret Guroff (2016)

A joyous book, a celebration of the bicycle and its impact on American society. Even if you’re not a cyclist, you may find this book interesting, just to see how much a simple two-wheeled vehicle has reshaped our culture.

If you want a preview, you can take a look at this excerpt on how bicycles did, in Susan B. Anthony’s words, “more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world.”

Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker (2018)

Everyone’s already reviewed, rebutted, and counter-rebutted this book to death during 2018, but I’ll toss my hat in the ring as well.

This is maybe the most important book I read last year.

In terms of non-fiction, I’ve spent the last few years mostly reading what my wife calls “tech is destroying the world” books. So my non-fiction diet is generally very dire and gloomy and focused on all the problems in the world (and, as a techie, how I’m partially complicit in it). Maybe it’s no surprise then that I tend to be pretty pessimistic in my outlook.

This book aims to destroy that mindset with cold-hard data. And the thing is, I can’t argue with most of his points. The world really has gotten better over the past few centuries, unless you want to refute dozens of meticulously-researched charts and graphs.

I’ve read some of the rebuttals, and most of them pick one or two points and try to skewer them to death, as if that invalidates the entire book. But the book is over 400 pages; you can’t take exception with one or two pages and then pretend that it invalidates the main sweep of his argument.

I still retain some skepticism that mankind can effectively tackle climate change, the transition away from fossil fuels, the drug epidemic (Pinker’s one graph that doesn’t slope in the good direction), or the decline of liberal values, but Pinker gives about a hundred reasons for optimism. So for that, I’m grateful.

Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen (2018)

Now here’s a truly radical book, and one that might serve as a good contrast to Pinker’s. Deneen’s argument is basically that liberalism (in the sense of “Western liberalism,” or “the Washington consensus,” or whatever you want to call it) has become a victim of its own success. It works so well to elevate the individual – as a consumer, as a liberated sexual being, etc. – that it rips apart families and communities in the process.

Deneen might look at Pinker’s book and say, “Okay, so we’ve got all the material comfort we could possibly want, but maybe the human soul needs something more than that?”

One thought that this book helped crystallize in my head, along with Identity by Francis Fukuyama (which I read and thought was just okay) and Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright (which I started but didn’t finish) is that there’s a lot of wisdom to the Buddhist idea that suffering is caused by desire, and you can’t really address your suffering without addressing your desire.

Here’s Deneen:

“[H]uman appetite is insatiable and the world is limited. For both of these reasons, we cannot be truly free in the modern sense. We can never attain satiation, and will be eternally driven by our desires rather than satisfied by their attainment. And in pursuit of the satisfaction of our limitless desires, we will very quickly exhaust the planet.” (p125, hardcover)

Some of these arguments you may even call environmentalist. Others, like his critique of free markets, you might call anticapitalist. Despite broadly coming across as something like “radical reactionary paleo-conservative,” Deneen is hard to pin down.

I can’t really do this book justice by summarizing it here, as Deneen is such an original thinker that it’s best to let him explain his arguments himself. I don’t agree with him on everything, but I think if you want to understand the recent decline in liberal values, this book (as well as Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism, which I reviewed last year) would be a good place to start.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (2011)

This might be the second most important book I read last year (after Pinker’s). It’s a good overview of all the ways that our brains can fool us, and how statistical thinking can help reshape your perception of the world.

One part that stood out to me was the story of the Israeli flight instructor who would always criticize his students after a bad flight, and praise them after a good flight. And since a bad flight is usually followed by a better one, but a good flight is usually followed by a worse one, he concluded that criticism works, but praise doesn’t.

Kahneman points out that this is really just an expression of regression to the mean. If he had been berating his students on how high of a dice roll they got (“You got a six, stupendous!” or “You got a one, try harder!”) he would get exactly the same effect. The widespread belief in things like “streaks” and “hot hands,” though, shows how far most folks are from internalizing this basic statistical concept.

I’m sure this book hasn’t totally cured me of my monkey-brain misconceptions, but hopefully I’ll be able to catch a few more of them now.

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier (2018)

Despite the snippy title, this is a well-thought-out and sobering book that puts a lot of recent social media controversies into perspective. I like how Lanier draws a line from Twitter and Facebook all the way back to old-school message boards.

This book has made me more skeptical of social media in general (even after deleting my Twitter account). If nothing else, reading this book is a good way to reflect on one own’s social media usage, and whether or not it’s a healthy relationship.

“Briefly I was one of the HuffPost’s top bloggers, always on the front page. But I found myself falling into that old problem again whenever I read the comments, and I could not get myself to ignore them. I would feel this weird low-level boiling rage inside me. Or I’d feel this absurd glow when people liked what I wrote, even if what they said didn’t indicate that they had paid much attention to it. Comment authors were mostly seeking attention for themselves.

We were all in the same stew, manipulating each other, inflating ourselves. (pp42-43, hardcover)

Atrocities by Matthew White (2011)

The funniest book about war, genocide, and famine that you’ll ever read. If it doesn’t sound like “funniest” belongs in the same sentence with those words, it’s best to pick up the book yourself to understand what I mean.

This book is not only well-researched and educational; it’s also a masterpiece of black humor that will make you gape and shake your head at the depths of human stupidity.

On Genghis Khan:

“Keep in mind that even with 16 million [living] descendants, Genghis Khan hasn’t replaced the number of people he killed.” (p115, 2013 edition)

On the Time of Troubles:

  • Location: Russia
  • Number of Dmitris: 4
  • Lesson learned: Always insist on seeing a photo ID before you proclaim someone emperor. (p207, 2013 edition)

There’s more, but I’d hate to spoil it by quoting it at length. In any case, it’s a hard book to put down, and a good conversation-starter to leave on a coffee table.

The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel (2017)

A “strange but true” story about a guy who lived alone in the woods for 27 years. Pretty fascinating story, and a good meditation on what it means to live with other people, and why some might try to escape it.

The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker (2002)

I was intrigued by Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, so I picked this one up. It’s a bit older, but its core argument is still relevant. It does a great job of unmasking a kind of lazy thinking that denies any evidence from biology that might be politically inconvenient. (On both the left and the right, but I think Pinker focuses on the left because that’s his target audience.)

Something this book helped me realize is that, if I have a core political belief, it’s that evidence and facts matter. Unfortunately there’s a growing strain of thought across the political spectrum that emphasizes lived experiences, feelings, and political expediency at the expense of evidence and a shared set of facts. It argues that science is a tool of oppression, and “facts” are only useful for information warfare.

I can appreciate the anti-elitism and distrust of authority that motivates a lot of this thinking, but I also think it’s inherently dangerous. Science, reason, and liberalism have lifted a large chunk of humanity out of poverty and misery, and we abandon them at our own risk.

The Curse of Bigness by Tim Wu (2018)

In a year conspicuously absent of “tech is destroying the world” books on my bookshelf (or at least, on this list), this one stands out. It’s short, it’s sweet, and it captures our present tech moment very well by identifying the main problem as being a political one, rather than an economic or a technical one.

Essentially, this is a history of antitrust and anti-antitrust thinking. Wu’s other books (The Master Switch and The Attention Merchants) did a great job of tying together present trends with a history lesson, and this book offers more of the same. Well worth a read.

Living with Tinnitus by Laura Cole (2017)

This is a very personal inclusion on this list, but I’ll put it here anyway.

Last year I developed tinnitus, which means that I constantly hear a low, high-pitched buzzing in my ears. It affects a large number of people (10-15% of the population according to Wikipedia), but surprisingly few talk about it.

How did I get it? Probably from listening to too many podcasts on the bus without noise-canceling headphones. Or maybe an ear infection. To be honest, I’m not sure.

When it first developed, it was scary and frustrating. I went to an audiologist, but they just ran some tests, told me my hearing was fine, and sent me on my way with a short pamphlet on tinnitus. For several months it affected my sleep, my mood, and my social life, but I wasn’t really sure what to do about it.

Almost a year later, I can say that my tinnitus doesn’t really bother me at all, and I rarely think about it, even though it’s the first thing I hear in the morning and the last thing I hear at night. This book was one of the things that helped with that.

As it turns out, tinnitus doesn’t have a lot of research. Reading internet forums can just make you more scared, as the symptoms and severity can vary wildly. This book acknowledges the lack of evidence, but offers a wide range of potential solutions, mitigations, and coping mechanisms. The author is also very clear about which ones have strong evidence and which ones don’t.

If you or one of your loved ones has tinnitus, I’d strongly recommend this book.

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.