2018

This year I listened to 5 audiobooks and read 19 paper/kindle books. That makes the totals from the last 5 years 22, 40, 41, 25, and 24. The big shift this year was listening to many fewer audiobooks (5 vs 21.5 historical average), which meant less non-fiction (12 vs 23.5 average). A good chunk of this is because I listened to lots of episodes of the 80,000 Hours podcast this year, which are fun but so damned long.

I read more articles/papers/summaries and watched more video lectures this year than previous. I also spent more time on Twitter… Overall I think my information ingestion is healthier now, and I’m glad that I’ve become less obsessive about counting books finished as privileged above all else. Of course I’m still 9.5/10 obsessed.

One notable attempt from this year that hasn’t made the list: I went on a 6 day vacation to New York to read Robert Caro’s 1,200-page New York parks epic The Power Broker, which has been taunting me for years. I walked around many parks, but only made it halfway through the book. I will likely attempt another run in 2019, and I will with certainty defeat Caro one day.

“a” means I listened on audiobook; “p” means I read on paper.

1. California Driver Handbook (2017) (p)

I’d feel awkward about counting anything under 100 pages as a book. Luckily this is 101 pages so I’m off to a flying start on 2018 reading. Driver Knowledge test coming up.

2. Algorithms to Live By, Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths (a)

Each chapter of this book outlines how an area of computer science can be applied to human decision-making – e.g. how you can use optimal stopping to choose an apartment, and how you should stop trying to prioritise tasks when you have an impossibly long to-do list (thrashing) and just perform them in a random order. I found almost everything in this book interesting. It also gave me formal way to rationalise things I already believe, which is always handy – e.g. that being optimistic is the best approach to life when you’re young (optimism -> trying lots of things -> minimises lifetime regret; see ch.2).

I sort of don’t approve of the book, though, for two reasons. Firstly, the title of the book tells me I should live by these algorithms, but I think in most cases where a human’s decision conflicts with what an algorithm tells them to do, the human decision is better. This is because they’re usually doing something complex involving tacit information that is hard to integrate into a simple model. The book is much better as a descriptive set of algorithmic explanations for why humans do certain things than as prescriptions.

Secondly, it’s currently in vogue to think of human brains as machines implementing algorithms, partly due to increasing comparisons between machine learning performance and human performance. This is true to a degree, in that it’s a useful way to describe human brains in some contexts. But it can be a bit of a conceptual trap, I think – I have some friends interested in AI who speak as if humans are literally machines and forget it’s an analogy. Brains are not literally machines, and the analogy blocks out some other useful ways to think about brains. E.g. they can think, and imagine, in ways unrelated to information, processing, or storage.

None of this is the book’s fault, and overall I got a lot from it.

3. Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, David Ulin (a)

This is a book about walking around Los Angeles (heretical, as you’re meant to drive), and I listened to it while walking around Los Angeles. I found parts of the book evocative, and it helped me get to know the urban planning of the city a little better, but overall I found the style too wishy washy and equivocal.

4. Product Management in Practice, Matt LeMay (p)

5. Call Me by Your Name, André Aciman (p)

I saw the film, and it tore me apart. Then I saw the film again, then I read the book and it tore me apart more. Incredible, beautiful, highly resonant.

6. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Benjamin Alire Sáenz (p)

7. The True Believer, Eric Hoffer (p)

8. Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin (p)

9. Stoner, John Williams (p)

10. A Worthy Man, Robert Standish (p)

This was a random pulp fiction book from the ’50s I found in a bookstore — quite fun, though an unsatisfying ending. It’s the first book I’ve read with the distinction of having no Goodreads entry(!). Until I finished it, that is. If you’re wondering who the 3 star vote from is, now you know.

11. Lima: A Cultural History, James Higgins (p)

I’m visiting Lima for a couple of weeks and was lent this book by a friend (thanks Romulo!). My funnest fact from the book is that this guy rode his horse off a cliff while carrying the Peruvian flag, to stop it from being captured by the Chileans in the War of the Pacific (1879-83).

12. The Book of Illusions, Paul Auster (p)

I love Paul Auster.

13. The Lessons of History, Will Durant and Ariel Durant (a)

I found this mostly interesting on a meta level, hearing how two Americans in the 1960s thought of the grand sweep of history. The audiobook version of the book is interspersed with mini-interviews with Will Durant (and occasionally Ariel Durant), and I’m glad I listened rather than read: Will D opines on history and culture in a way that undermined my trust in the “objective truth of human nature” vibe of the book. E.g. it becomes fairly clear from interviews that his instinct is to view the history of humanity as the history of male people, “youth” = young men, and so on. He claims that both conservative forces and forces for change are useful in the cycles of history, but has some strangely dominating conservatisms around parental authority, social mores, aristocracies, etc. To quote a reviewer, “Durant looked at history and found his own prejudices; and this book is merely a collection of them.” I would change “merely” to “mostly”, but otherwise agree.

14. The End of Eddy, Édouard Louis (Author), Michael Lucey (Translator) (p – well, kindle)

Thanks to Simon for the recommendation.

15. The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (p – k)

This is actually under 100 pages, violating my 100 page condition for books at the top of this page. But conventionally people think of this as a book, I feel, so bear with my hypocrisy. In other news, thank you for reading the most bourgeois review of The Communist Manifesto yet.

16. Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinsky (p)

I got more from this that I expected. Actually pretty great, I think, though dangerous if the tactics Alinsky talks about are used by people with nefarious goals.

17. Hyperion, Dan Simmons, (p – k)

I can’t find a way of writing my thoughts on this book without giving spoilers. So, a couple vague tidbits: it’s ambitious and grand, which I love; a bit gratingly male in characters/outlook for me; and I had a particular frustration with it I can’t say spoilerlessly.

18. Shielding the Flame, Hanna Krall (p – k)

A striking, short book, based on interviews with one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. As with most writing about the Holocaust, the scale of awfulness is so large it’s hard to fully engage with. I was visiting Poland when I read this, but worth reading anywhere. Thanks Karolina for the recommendation.

19. Siddartha, Herman Hesse (p – k)

What a fantastic, wonderful, beautiful book. It felt very close to flawless while reading.

20. On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder (p)

A short book written after the 2016 US presidential election on what we can learn from the 20th century to avoid messing up the 21st century. There are 20 chapters, each with a lesson/piece of advice. All excellent reminders worth hearing and rehearing. Most of all, be an agent: fight for things, take responsibility, and think independently. Don’t take democracy and liberalism for granted.

21. Winners Take All, Anand Giridharadas (a)

I have thoughts. Wait until I finish Just Giving by Rob Reich and I’ll write a thing about both… maybe.

22. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (p)

I loved it. Great and subtle wit. And made me oh-so happy I don’t live in 1800s Hertfordshire. I’ve read remarkably few of the books you’re meant to read growing up, so maybe this means I should hit that list harder.

23. Politics, Aristotle (a)

I will admit, I did not pay attention to all of this. Near the end he says that children shouldn’t learn the flute, which means people in 2018 and -350 had flutes and discussed whether to force their kids to learn instruments. So there’s some constancy to human experience.

24. Tin Man, Sarah Winman (p)

I keep oscillating between thinking I was affected by this and thinking it’s trashy, which probably means both are true. It’s set in Oxford, in the area where I grew up and went to school, and I resonated with some of the emotions in it.