2016 Review of Books

As usual, I read a book per week this year. My resolution for 2017 is to read far less. Looking back, most of the books below, although good, were not worth reading, and I want to not waste my time like this in the future.

Instead, I’d like to focus on 10-15 *old* books and read them thoroughly, probably focussing on: (1) ancient Greeks/Romans, (2) older English prose like the King James Bible, and (3) since it’s close to the top of my mind right now, certain 20th century European authors who wrote about the world going horribly wrong, such as Primo Levi, Arthur Koestler, Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

One star means recommended, two stars means ‘one of my favourite books’. My two favourite novels this year were “The Last Samurai” by Helen DeWitt (not related to the Tom Cruise movie at all) and the Elena Ferrante books. For nonfiction, “Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees” by Lawrence Weschler was an incredible reading experience, as was “Herzog on Herzog”.

*1. Herzog on Herzog by Paul Cronin

Herzog is a crazy person and an object lesson in living a full life. This book is full of insane stories and profound thoughts. Full of wild statements like: “I personally would rather do the existentially essential things in life on foot. If you live in England and your girlfriend is in Sicily, and it is clear you want to marry her, then you should walk to Sicily to propose. For these things travel by car or aeroplane in not the right thing.”

2. Run! by Matt Fitzgerald

Promotes a more intuition-based approach to training.

*3. Curiosity Guides: The Human Genome by John Quackenbush

I wanted a concise and rich intro to the genome, and this delivered exactly what I want without the long journalistic framings you often get in popular science books (things like “On 21 September, 1955, Francis Crick was confused. He’d just made black coffee with his usual two sugars…” etc.).

4. Idea Makers: Personal Perspectives on the Lives & Ideas of Some Notable People by Stephen Wolfram

I hated this book. There are some nice nuggets/stories, but it’s massively ruined by Wolfram’s continual need to mention how great his software is and how much the people in the book would have liked his software.

5. Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

This was ok. I found that I didn’t get as much generalizable insight from it as I was hoping. Most of it seemed like it was about cashflow problems.

6. The Mind-Body Problem by Rebecca Goldstein

OK novel about a woman who marries a self-absorbed idiot. Given the plaudits I was expecting more.

7. Wilful Disregard by Lena Andersson

I didn’t like this novel. A woman spends the entire book pining over a self-absorbed idiot (again!) who is just so unbearable that I had trouble fathoming how she could bear it (is there a theme here? Going all the way back to Middlemarch…).

*8. The Feynman Lectures on Computation by Richard Feynman

Awesome. Hard to get a hold of a copy. Worth it if a bit dated by now, the chapter on Information Theory alone is worth the price.

*9. How To Solve It by George Polya

Good if slightly repetitive guide to mathematical (and perhaps general) problem solving. Recommend as a reference and worth a skim.

10. The Art of Deception by Kevin Mitnick

Despite the clickbait-y title, this is actually a book about computer security and specifically social engineering attacks. Eye-opening for how easy it is to infiltrate organizations still.

*11. The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis

I loved this. Sort of like intellectual candy, but I still loved it. Overview of Kahneman and Tversky’s lives + work. I would highly recommend it even if you think you’re familiar with the work.

12. Absolutely On Music by Murakami & Ozawa

Eh. I buy every Murakami book but I wish I hadn’t bought this one. The interviews don’t contain anything interesting.

13. Winning by Alastair Campbell

I wish I hadn’t bothered reading this, but I wanted to see the interviews of the people he profiled (Mandela etc). In the end this contains about 3 bullet points worth of insight and a lot of blather.

14. Living with a SEAL by Jesse Itzler

Entertaining.

15. A Truck Full of Money by Tracy Kidder

This was good, but curiously none of it stuck with me (unlike Mountains Beyond Mountains, which I think about all the time).

*16. Homo Deus by Yuval Hariri

Recommended, as is Sapiens, its predecessor. A slightly contrarian vision of the future built up from first principles.

17. True to Life: Conversations with David Hockney by Lawrence Weschler

Not as good as #25, but worthwhile if you are a Hockney fan. Hockney just isn’t as interesting/profound a subject as Robert Irwin, although he’s a better artist (IMO). Mainly I came away staggered by the fertility and quantity of Hockney’s output, his ability to just work and work and work.

18. Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole

I love Teju Cole and will read anything he writes. Still, most of this collection is pretty average, though worthwhile for the parts where it’s good. I felt like there were too many essays in this book also.

19. This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

I can’t say I want to read this again, but it was a fun experience doing it. Most of these stories are narrated by a sex-crazed and slightly disturbed male, and this got tiresome and same-ish after awhile. I can’t help but feel that Diaz is slightly over-hyped because he writes about a minority that’s under-represented in English literature (!). The stories were fun to read but he is not in the class of an Alice Munro, say.

20. Daily Rituals by Mason Currey

Pretty much as advertised. I can’t get enough of these things so it was a fun read.

*21. The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

Probably my favourite novel I read this year. Incredibly funny, and about a genius (and written/narrated by one) which means it’s intellectually very rewarding and oddly inspiring. Helen DeWitt is undeservedly neglected.

*22. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World by Rene Girard

Dense, profound, a good read. Full of theological exegesis. Girard is a bit like the guy with only a hammer so everything looks like nails to him, but it’s good to read someone with a definite point of view.

*23. On Mysticism by Jorge Luis Borges

Borges. What more is there to say? A nice collection.

*24. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

A reread. I reread this most years, it’s inspiring.

**25. Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees by Lawrence Weschler

Well, this came out of nowhere, but what a book. Just read the first couple of pages about the artist’s love of Coca Cola and I was hooked. A profound read if you’re even vaguely interested in modern art. (I hate Irwin’s art, but he’s a fascinating and profound human being).

26. The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

Overrated, I thought – detective story plus the usual postmodern trickery. I much preferred his non-fiction Winter Journal.

27. Spengler, Writings by David Goldman

I wanted to read more from different points of view, and Goldman is a pretty right-wing commentator who writes about things that conservatives care about, like demographics (!) and the collapse of Western civilization and such things. I wanted to understand what a smart conservative thinks like. I didn’t agree with most of the book but it was a worthwhile read, though the focus on demographics gets a bit weird/tiresome after awhile.

*28. Winter Journal by Paul Auster

Moving read, a memoir told in the second person. Hypnotic and moving prose.

29. Boeing v Airbus by John Newhouse

Disappointing – more of a series of articles about specific issues rather than a general overview, which is really what I wanted.

30. Flash Boys by Michael Lewis

Informative as to how these things actually came about (down to how the fibreoptic cables were initially drilled, the competitive dynamics in the trading markets, etc.). A fun read.

31. The Bathroom by Jean-Philippe Toussaint

I like Toussaint. Slightly disquieting read. Felt like an obscure parable about being a person in the 21st century somehow: it’s about a man who gets attached to being in the bathroom and doesn’t leave.

32. Football by Jean-Philippe Toussaint

A funny philosophical take on football. I hate watching sports but this persuaded me that there’s some merit to the practice. :)

33. Out of Sheer Rage Geoff Dyer

I liked this, though it’s essentially an extended rant on how hard it is to write a book interspersed with holiday stories. Still, I like Geoff Dyer’s ‘writing voice’, so this was a fun read, though I’m totally indifferent to DH Lawrence.

34. Notes on Suicide, Simon Critchley

Forgettable reflections on suicide.

35. Natural Born Heroes, Christopher McDougall

Should have been about 33% shorter, but aside from that an entertaining read. Good explication of the Maffetone Method for running which I liked, though the usual caveats about making extravagant scientific claims that are totally untested.

36. Feynman’s Tips on Physics, Richard Feynman

I will pretty much read everything Feynman writes.

37. The Loser by Thomas Bernhard

A long misanthropic rant, which I gather describes every Thomas Bernhard book. Sort of hypnotic but I’m not sure how many more Bernhard books I will read (aside from the Wittgenstein one).

38. After Nature by WG Sebald
39. The Naive and Sentimental Novelist by Orhan Pamuk
40. Aftermath by Rachel Cusk

*41. Genius by James Gleick

Biography of Feynman. A great book. Somehow avoids the pitfalls of most biographies.

42. The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux

Fun compliation of travel quotes. I like Thereoux’s philosophy of travel in general (travel on ground only if possible, get lost, etc)

**43. Stories of your Life by Ted Chiang

Best sci fi I’ve ever read. Excludes “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” which is a shame because I think it’s his best story, but still – cerebral, compact sci fi stories that linger long after you’ve read them, and that explore core conceptual questions in a human way.

44. The Accidental Universe by Alan Lightman
45. Originals by Adam Grant
46. Lying by Sam Harris

A good short essay. Notably, it argues that surprise parties are morally wrong, which is less absurd than it sounds.

47. The Authentic Life by Ezra Bayda
48. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Poignant. Life is short.

*49. Deep Work by Cal Newport

Recommended – improved my productivity a lot and helped me clarify a few things. The last third I thought was the best, the first two thirds go about proving things that don’t need a lot of proving, but the last third is full of excellent tactical tips.

*50. The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante
*51. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Ah, Elena Ferrante. Just a profoundly good novelist of the old school. Rare to read books with this level of insight and brilliance. The character of Lila is unforgettable. Must read.

**52. Antifragile by Nassim Taleb

I dismissed Taleb early on because his books are packaged as Gladwell-esque pop sci, but I’m increasingly convinced that he’s one of the most important ‘popular’ thinkers of today. If you ask me what book I mentally refer to the most, it’s probably this one. His style may put off some people (rambling, chaotic, not structured, full of digressions and stories and rants), but I love it because you can open it up anywhere, start reading, and gain a nugget of insight. I believe the concepts are important and underappreciated. This book is also far far better than the Black Swan.

*53. Principles by Ray Dalio

An every year reread.