In 2016 I read/listened to 41 books: 28 audiobooks and 13 paper books. This was 1 more than 2015’s count as a result of being extremely competitive with my past self. I’m going to try and break this trend for 2017; dangerous road to go down…
Books are listed in the order I read them. Books in bold are the ones I truly loved, and would rant and rave about until you read them. “(a)” signifies that I listened to the book as an audiobook; “(p)” signifies that I read it on paper.
1. Venture Deals, Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson (p)
I re-read this in paper form as we’re getting rumbling with fundraising at Metta. Listened to the audiobook last year. Paper >> audio, in this case.
2. Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer (a)
A little pop-science-y, but overall I got a lot from reading this. The book is about memory, and contained a few big, global insights that will affect how I live my life (at least until I forget them). In particular: we remember events by relating them in time to other events. This means that having variety in life leads you to perceive time as “taking longer” subjectively. This jives with my own personal experience, and is a great argument against getting into too many routines. This is what lies behind the great fear (which I share) of settling down into suburbia, doing your 9-to-5 job, and waking up twenty years later wondering where your life went. I’m experimenting taking this principle even further: I don’t have a set time I wake up or go to sleep, for example, to make the days as irregular as possible. And I try to walk around to random places in San Francisco at the weekend instead of camping out in the same old coffee shop. (Of course, the trade-off here is that routine and familiarity can be great sources of comfort in life: I’m not planning to ditch my morning coffee ritual, and I may get married some day.)
One other interesting principle from the book is that of “chunking”. This is a memory technique that involves reducing the length of a series by increasing the size of each unit in the series. For example, it is much easier to remember a series of 4 strings of 4 digits than to remember a string of 16 digits—which is (part of the reason) why credit card numbers are split up into 4 lots of 4 and phone numbers into 2 or 3 chunks (depending on what country you’re in). This may have some relation to language processing: chunking letters into words and chunking words into sentences is a familiar process that lets you take on more information without having to remember more units.
Foer uses this insight about chunking to defend a key, grand claim about memory (spoiler alert): expertise in any given area is constituted by having a good memory. Not in the sense that you can remember a larger numbers of things in that area than non-experts, but in the sense that you have richer chunking apparatus that lets you reach deeper insights using the same information. One example he uses: chess grandmasters have only slightly better recollection of boards with randomly assorted chess pieces on them than amateurs; yet grandmasters are much better at recollecting boards with pieces arranged in a way you might have reached while playing a game. This memory is linked to having a richer way of chunking when it comes to chess: they can look at the structure of how pieces fit together rather than just the pieces themselves, something that can only be learned through experience (through playing lots of chess).
This is vaguely stated, but I suspect that it may be gesturing at a particularly deep truth about human psychology and expertise. I’m biased though: having a richer set of chunks to break up the world is why I listen to a variety of audiobooks.
Thanks to Jess Whittlestone for the recommendation.
3. The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (p)
This ranked second on a list of the 100 most influential books under 100 pages, so I thought I should read it. Excellent. Reminded me of The Alchemist (on last year’s list), though less pretentious.
4. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, Richard Feynman (a)
I’ve been meaning to read this for ages. It’s an autobiography told through a series of scientific-prankster vignettes. One of the surprises of the book for me was the gulf between how Feynman portrays men and women in the vignettes. It’s easy to forget how much has changed in the last half-century. But overall it’s hard not to love Feynman – the archetypical lovable rogue.
5. The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal (a)
I didn’t expect to enjoy this as much as I did: the style is impressionistic, and not as factual as my regular nonfiction picks. But I found it moving and beautiful, and the book has stuck with me. I’ve also developed a mild obsession with netsuke, which is completely beside the point of the book, but hey. I won’t write anymore: read the book!
Thanks to Alasdair Phillips-Robins for the recommendation.
6. A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway (a)
Good fun – ultimately just high-end gossip, but I’m not complaining. The book is short, and consists of Ernest Hemingway recollecting what it was like to live in Paris in the 1920s, bumping into the likes of Gertrude Stein and Scott Fitzgerald. As expected, it made me want to work in dingy cafes and start drinking in the afternoon. If you listen to the audiobook version I would recommend getting the one narrated by James Naughton, as he has a gruff enough American accent that you can just about imagine it’s Hemingway speaking. The whole way through I was imagining the stories taking place with the Hemingway, Stein, and Fitzgerald characters from the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris—which, if you’re looking for literati gossip, is even better than Moveable Feast, though it’s not directly from the source.
7. Less Than Zero, Bret Easton Ellis (p)
I was in Los Angeles for a weekend and wanted to pick up a novel to give a sense of the place. This was perfect. Nice and bleak: written by Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho, when he was in college in the 1980s—about the privileged college-aged elites of Los Angeles in the 1980s. The narrator can’t make himself feel anything, and the drugs, sex, music, and horror that goes on is all background noise. I can imagine that some people would find this book annoying, but I was into it.
8. The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler (a)
Another Los Angeles pick, which I started while there then finished after leaving. Fun. There’s a lot of subtlety to Chandler’s way of telling the story, where you’re meant to infer who’s who without him saying the name and who’s done something salacious without him saying what the salacious thing is. This made it more difficult than average to listen to and I had to rewind and play parts back few times. Worth it, though.
9. Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury (a)
I listened to this last summer and re-listened now as we’re fundraising at Metta. Overall I’d forgotten less of the detail than I predicted, and the second time around was quite boring. But it’s short, so I can’t complain. See 2015 for my initial review.
10. Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates (a)
Beautifully written, and sticks with you. Would highly recommend listening on audiobook, as Coates reads it himself and his voice adds another level of power/poignance/rhythm. Listen in a quiet place: more a book for slow contemplation than for dipping in and out. The book is short and has the feel of a modern classic as you read/listen to it, so you don’t have much of an excuse not to. This review in the London Review of Books is also pretty good, and not totally gushing (rare in the case of this book).
11. Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin (p)
The first novel in the nine-volume Tales of the City series, serialised in the San Francisco Chronicle in the 1970s. The most recent book in my plan to make myself fall in love with San Francisco. Worked pretty well – I like the serialised format, since each chapter is 3 pages long and it’s very difficult to stop after any given chapter.
12. One Minute to Midnight, Michael Dobbs (a)
A terrifying book that goes through the hour-by-hour details of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. Succeeded in getting me scared about how fragile modern society and human existence as we know it are.
A core theme of the book is that the leaders of the two superpowers, Kennedy and Khrushchev, each had enough power to commit their nations to nuclear attack on the opposition, but (probably) didn’t have enough power to prevent all out nuclear war once those attacks were realised (luckily they weren’t). After the armies and navies and air forces of both powers had been mobilised, neither man could control the actions of all the hundreds of thousands of people involved. The clearest crystallisation of this is that, on one day near the end of the 13-day crisis, an American spy plane was shot down over Cuba without Khrushchev knowing about it, and a different American spy plane got lost over the North Pole, accidentally straying into Soviet territory without Kennedy knowing about it.
This seems like the sweet spot of leaders having either too much power or not enough power, and game theory kicking in to destroy everything when neither side wants that.
Three other worrying/surprising details:
(1) Communication lines were so bad between Washington and the Kremlin on a purely technological level, that messages would take a couple hours to make it from Khrushchev to Kennedy or vice versa on private lines. Since information often needed to flow quicker than this, they would instead release their letters to each other through the press, which could be published and read in minutes rather than hours.
(2) Khrushchev was informed by USSR intelligence that there was a new speech coming up from Kennedy that may announce an attack on Cuba at 5pm Russia time, so Khrushchev announced they’d take the missiles out of Cuba just before then. But it turned out ABC was just rerunning an old Kennedy speech at 5pm! I wasn’t aware of this tidbit, but wow does it hit home how much randomness is involved in the trajectory of the world.
(3) At one point when things were getting particularly scary, Kennedy allowed the Air Force to load up bombers with nuclear weapons (i) before they’d built an electronic way to lock the bombs and (ii) in the absence of a buddy system. This meant a single American riding in one of the planes could have, on a whim or out of fear, decided to drop a nuclear bomb.
13. More Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin (p)
The second novel in the nine-volume Tales of the City series. Still fun, but it got a little too silly for me. It’s essentially a soap opera in written form, and as such there are core motifs for generating shock and surprise at the end of each chapter that get a bit stale through overuse: mistaken identity, long lost relatives, murder, sex, sexuality, sex changes. Reminded me a lot of watching Coronation Street with my mum and sister when growing up. Still an extremely quick and addictive read, of course, but I’m going to attempt to hold off for a bit before volume 3…
14. The Speechwriter, Barton Swaim (a)
A short book written by the speechwriter for an ex-Governor of South Carolina. (Don’t Google who if you’re going to listen to the book, since the whole thing is anonymised to preserve suspense.) Overall a pretty dire and depressing take on how politics and politicians operate. Seems like the pessimism is warranted.
15. The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett (p)
Another one in my efforts to read novels set in San Francisco. This one had a special resonance for me since one of my favourite novels growing up was The Falcon’s Malteser by Anthony Horowitz, a parody of detective novels. The Maltese Falcon was written in 1929 so set in yet another San Francisco era to Tales of the City (1970s) – all the street names seem the same, though, which was fun.
Enjoyed it, and was surprised just how similar it was to The Big Sleep not only in style and character tropes but in some plot specifics. Little things irritate me about the writing styles of both Chandler and Hammett, but overall I’m a fan of both.
Next stop is Jack London: San Fransisco Stories, which will take me back further to the San Francisco of the 1890s and 1900s… (Thanks for the present Sam. Though it does look like quite a boring read.)
16. The Bully Pulpit, Doris Kearns Goodwin (a)
17. Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick (a)
18. Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis (p)
19. The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K. Le Guin (p)
20. Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson (a)
21. Chaos Monkeys, Antonio García Martínez (a)
22. On Managing People, Harvard Business Review (a)
23. Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo (a)
24. Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. Vance (a)
25. Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi (p)
26. The Japanese Lover, Isabel Allende (a)
27. My Forty Years with Ford, Charles Sorensen (a)
28. Traction, Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares (a)
29. SPIN Selling, Neil Rackham (a)
30. The Vegetarian, Han Kang (p)
31. Catch Me If You Can, Frank Abagnale and Stan Redding (a)
32. Detroit Resurrected, Nathan Bomey (a)
33. The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz (p)
34. The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, Amy Schumer (a)
35. Hatching Twitter, Nick Bilton (a)
36. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Raymond Carver (p)
37. The Unwinding, George Packer (a)
38. Shoe Dog, Phil Knight (a)
39. 80,000 Hours, Benjamin Todd (kindle)
40. The Way of the Sufi, Idries Shah (a)
41. Daily Rituals, Mason Currie (a)