Here’s a sprinkling of my favourite shorter things from the year that aren’t books: Chapter 1 of Energy and Civilization by Vaclov Smil, ‘Scheherazade‘ by Richard Siken (poem), ‘Forests and Climate Change‘ by Gordon Bonan (paper), ‘24 Hours at the Golden Apple‘ by This American Life (podcast episode).

Onto the books. Looking back, I was oddly extremist this year: 11 non-fiction books in a row, 8.5 of which on audiobook (“a”), then 7 novels in a row over the summer, all on paper (“p”). A more measured mix after that.

  1. Just Giving, Rob Reich (p). The second book on my recent philanthropy kick, since I now work in the field. I agree with most of the book’s punchlines.
  2. Becoming, Michelle Obama (a). Yes, I teared up on public transport.
  3. Decolonizing Wealth, Edgar Villanueva (p). #3 on the philanthropy kick.
  4. The Givers, David Callahan (a). #4. Mainly gossip about rich people, which in this case serves a useful purpose.
  5. Why Philanthropy Matters, Zoltan Acs (a). #5.
  6. Reinventing Discovery, Michael Nielsen (a). Part of a recenter kick on scientific progress and how to speed it up. Nielsen talks through examples of how the internet (of 2011) can help science by redirecting expert attention to the areas each expert can most help, and by harnessing collective energy/ideas: Polymath ProjectKasparov vs the WorldMathWorks Challenge. Galaxy Zoo. A fun anecdote I learned from the book: Galileo discovered what later turned out to be the rings of Saturn through a blurry telescope, then sent letters to his friends and competitor Kepler announcing what he’d found — in the form of an anagram. This bought him time to look into it further alone, while ensuring he could claim initial discovery if someone else found the rings too. Kepler decoded the anagram incorrectly, leaving one letter to spare, and took it to signify that Mars had two moons — also, incidentally, true, though not known for a couple more centuries.
  7. The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity, Toby Ord (p+a)
  8. Stubborn Attachments, Tyler Cowen (a). Book #2 on my innovation/economic growth kick. It’s short and easily summarisable: we should care about the long term future, and thus do all that we can to increase economic growth, without violating human rights. There’s something compelling about that worldview, but I thought the arguments were kind of fluffy and wasn’t sold. Cowen also prevaricates on a crucial (though admittedly vexed) question: do interventions to increase economic growth increase the growth rate of the economy — incredibly important due to compounding — or just temporarily increase the level of GDP until it gets back onto its original growth trajectory? He says we don’t know which it is, and since there’s a chance it’s the former, that’s worth shooting for — which, to be fair, is a structure of argument I use all the time so touché… but it’s still intellectually frustrating given the book hinges on the question.
  9. Working, Robert Caro (a). I have an intense one-sided love/hate relationship with Caro. His books are long and are always forcing me to read them. E.g. see the third paragraph of my 2018. This new short book about Caro’s process for researching and interviewing made me fall so firmly on the love side that I’m probably, disastrously, going to renew an attempt on the previous books. His meticulousness in pursuit of understanding — moving to the Texas Hill Country for 3 years to understand LBJ’s upbringing; tracking forgotten political actors across countries to discover a private manuscript proving LBJ stole the 1948 Texas Senate election; reading buried correspondence to discover a $10,000 bribe paid from Otto Kahn to Robert Moses in 1926 that unraveled Moses’ public image as incorruptible decades later — makes me hope for a better, truthier world.
  10. The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells (a)
  11. The Moment of Lift, Melinda Gates (a)
  12. The Book of Hours, Alex Borger (p). It would have been cool to see the Bibliotheca Corviniana.
  13. American Indian Stories, Zitkála-Šá (p). A book collecting short stories and poems written in the late 19th/early 20th century. The short stories are available for free here, but I like the poems as well so it’s worth getting a print copy that has them. I particularly liked ‘The Widespread Enigma Concerning Blue-Star Woman‘ and ‘A Ballad’. The first three short stories about Zitkála-Šá’s childhood are also heartbreaking.
  14. Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, Peter Cameron (p)
  15. Outline, Rachel Cusk (p). When I finished this I didn’t bold it because the first 2 pages of the book are so annoying. But they’re unrelated to the rest of the book, everything else is great, and several parts have stuck with me, meaning that in all honesty I must bold it. Just skip ahead to paragraph 3, “On the tarmac at Heathrow…”. Here’s what I wrote initially: I liked this novel and found myself underlining paragraphs and dogearing pages at an increasing rate. There’s ~no plot, and it consists of people telling stories that compress their lives and relationships into narratives that are often unreliable or unstable when prodded. I’ve been interested for a long time in the power/danger of narratives, so it was an addictive read. Without particular spoilers, I thought the last character who gets introduced is especially well placed in the novel since her narratives are the most reductive – see the page-long spiel she gives about this on page 232 (in my edition). Another highlight was the 7-page mini-story that starts on page 214: excellent suburban horror that gets brushed away immediately. A lot of the rest of the book has underlying “mundane horror” from the idea that someone, usually an ex-wife or -husband, isn’t listening to your stories (anymore). Or that the story you were building together no longer exists, so in a way you have stopped existing. One of the saddest passages is a brief aside, where two young brothers stop committing to a shared story and the world they’d created disappears. I want to talk about this book with more people, so please read it.
  16. Pachinko, Min Jin Lee (p). I’m a fan of epic novels that span multiple generations of one family (see Homegoing from 2016). Oddly I’ve never read One Hundred Years of Solitude. I own a copy though, maybe that’s next on the indulgence list. Following my friend Sarah’s recommendation, I took a run at Pachinko, which spans four generations in Korea and Japan through the 20th century. I liked it, in part for getting to inhabit the minds of characters with very different priorities and constraints than 21st century Westerners, and in part for the history. I couldn’t have told you that Japan occupied Korea for so long (1910-1945) and knew nothing about how poorly Koreans were (are?) treated in Japan, even 3rd/4th generation immigrants. The novel was repetitive in parts, and had one scene that seemed a bit too staged / shoehorned in, but overall I found it affecting.
  17. The Word is Murder, Anthony Horowitz (p). I read many Horowitz books growing up – the Alex Rider series, the Diamond Brothers series – and he made a memorable visit to my primary school. So this new murder mystery was mainly a nostalgic treat after I happened across it in a bookstore in Napa, California. It has an ambitious premise: the main character is Anthony Horowitz himself. The novel ultimately didn’t hit the levels of weirdness I’d want from that premise. But it was a fun Agathy Christie-esque romp and I left work early to finish it so I can’t complain.
  18. Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney (p). I’ve been bullied for a year by multiple friends to read Sally Rooney, so this was a defeat. It was exactly what I expected and (of course) enjoyable, though I felt mildly guilty throughout.
  19. Feeding Everyone No Matter What, David Denkenberger and Joshua Pearce (p). A fun technical analysis of a morbid question.
  20. Less, Andrew Sean Greer (p). I read this book all wrong. I started out overexcited and went to the upstairs of Bon Voyage! on Valencia Street on a weekend afternoon to read with a gin martini, and thought about how I would become a writer in my later years. Then I started losing steam when the main character hits Italy, and switched into the “how did this win a Pulitzer?” + “do I need to spend time with this character?” camp. I stopped for good on page 98, feeling proud that I don’t force myself to finish books any more. Then a few months later a friend told me it has a good ending (thanks, Tim), and I finished the rest in a couple hour burst. And of course now I’ve repainted the whole thing as lovely — but I was missing some of the recurring themes and breadcrumbs from pages 1-98! You don’t have to read this book, but if you do, go for one gulp.
  21. The Knowledge, Lewis Dartnell (a). This book is framed as a “civilization starter kit” if a small group of people need to rebuild civilization after a massive disaster, but I found it more fun as a primer on the engineering behind what modern society most basically relies on (agriculture, medicine, transport, etc). For example, back in the day ploughing was used to break up soil to put seeds in (aka what I thought it was for), but in most of the world today its main purpose is to kill weeds and turn the top soil so they’re blocked from the sun and can’t grow back. Buttons for fastening clothes weren’t invented until the 13th century in Europe (why?) and were never invented in Asia (why??). And you can make cars that run on wood as fuel that get 3 miles/kg, which upended my simple stories about why coal and oil changed the world. Ford T cars were originally designed to run on gas or ethanol! What the heck!
  22. Beloved, Toni Morrison (p). Chosen for our inaugural book club meeting at Open Phil. I’ve never read Toni Morrison and was glad for the excuse to. It’s a tough read.
  23. Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Josh Lerner (a). This book covers government attempts at providing or stimulating venture capital investment. I found it useful particularly for pointers to programs from different national/state governments that have given it a shot (e.g. SBICs, SBIR, ATP, In-Q-Tel, CAPCO in Louisiana, Yozma in Israel 1993-98, New Zealand Venture Investment Fund). I took quite comprehensive notes that I can’t be bothered to clean up/condense, so here they are in a 2-page googledoc.
  24. Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata, Ginny Tapley Takemori (Translator) (p). Short and sweet and weird and made me think. Especially one paragraph where the main character realises that her sister (and society as a whole) is more comfortable interpreting her as an unhappy person with normal desires than as a person with different/incomprehensible values who’s perfectly happy on her own terms. Sometimes I can feel myself trying to make people conform to glib narratives of how their life is going, or projecting trodden-path narratives of how mine is going, for the ease of mutual comprehension. I’m going to try and do that less.
  25. The Emperor, Ryszard Kapuściński (p). This book was insane. It’s an account of the reign and fall of Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930-74, based on interviews with people who worked for him. I was lucky enough to go to Ethiopia for two weeks this year, and I read the book just after walking around the recently reopened immaculate palace in Addis Ababa where it’s set. You will enjoy it from anywhere, though, as an exploration of the bizarre ways that concentrated power, hard and soft, can shape millions of people’s lives. I don’t want to give more context, and just urge you to read it (it’s short).
    1. Incidentally, I had no idea before visiting how ridiculously epic Ethiopian history is. Home of the ~earliest discovered humans, and the ~earliest discovered hominids! According to legend founded 3,000 years ago by the son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon! Home of the ancient Kingdom of Aksum! Carved whole churches into stone over decades! Defeated the Italians in 1896 and were never colonised! I dipped into and enjoyed A History of Modern Ethiopia, 1855-1991 by Bahru Zewde while I was there, but I didn’t read it all so I don’t get to count it on this list… urgh.
  26. Sourdough, Robin Sloan (p). This book felt hollow to me and I’m surprised it got such good reviews. I’m biased since it’s about tech in San Francisco, and when I read about worlds I’m familiar with I have a higher bar on originality/new perspectives. Both this and Less (above) fit into the category “satire set in San Francisco that seems mostly empty to me but other people are rating highly so maybe I don’t understand satire”. Less was romantic so ultimately tricked me into not being mad, but with Sourdough I was basically just mad.
  27. How Asia Works, Joe Studwell (a). I feel irresponsible giving a verdict on this sweeping theory of global development without reading other conflicting ones. However… I thought it painted a particular worldview well and argued for it persuasively. Studwell’s 3 point tl;dr argument is (1) poor countries should distribute land ownership as equally as possible among farmers to incentivise higher crop yields, then (2) nurture an export-driven manufacturing sector where you build up your country’s human capital at a loss for a while, then (3) finance development activities in a fairly government controlled way so you don’t get mugged by private interests. I zoned out a bit for #3. #1 seems kind of obvious — who likes feudalism? — and hard to implement quickly — who likes unpredictable expropriation? #2 was interesting, as a well argued anti-free market take on industrial policy. Key questions I’m left with: does the theory around agriculture extend to the poorest countries in Asia and Africa today? Does the manufacturing story apply to lower-middle income countries today, or has the global economy changed since the Asian success stories? Here’s a good Gates Notes review of the book.
  28. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, Charlie Mackesy (p). I feel dodgy for counting this on the list since it’s so brief, but it is shaped like a book so I must. You have to be in the right mood for these: beautiful artwork with one-liners that are sweet or saccharine depending.
  29. Trials of the State, Jonathan Sumption (p). Nice and short, and makes me want to read more about public law. Sumption was on the Supreme Court (UK, not US) until the end of 2018, but makes the case (well) that courts should have limited power and representative democracy should have more. If I’m getting the dates right, this was published just before the Supreme Court’s decision that Boris Johnson’s prorogation was unlawful, which was the most significant intervention of the court on the executive/parliament in recent British history. I found the book interesting in that context, but also as a distillation of how the UK’s political system, where parliament can basically do whatever it wants, is so different than the US’s, where everything goes to court and has to match the written constitution. He makes the case (in other phrasing) that parliaments are characterised by positive sum negotiation whereas courts give zero sum adjudications (negative sum after fees!), and the UK approach is better. Plus an elegantly critical section on the European Court of Human Rights that I’m not sure I believe yet but I got a lot from.
  30. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong (p). I have thoughts and feelings.