1. And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts (a). A detailed history of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S., written by one of the main (and first) journalists to cover it. I’ve lived in San Francisco for five years, and just moved to the Castro district where much of the story takes place. Halfway through reading (listening), I found out from a friend that Shilts died of AIDS, which made it all the more wrenching. Much of the arc focuses on the slowness to act and lack of funding for AIDS research and education under Reagan. Fauci was already head of NIAID in the ’80s – he isn’t a main character, but doesn’t come off as a good public health communicator, after he gives an interview saying you might get infected by living with someone with AIDS (video). Bill Foege, who I’d had in my head as the smallpox guy, was head of the CDC and comes off mixed: he testified to Congress that the CDC didn’t need more funding for AIDS when the opposite was true, perhaps to keep his job since he was worried a Reagan replacement would cut the budgets. I was not aware of much of the local politics that drove continued spread too: bathhouses not closing due to concerns about civil freedoms and from owners that they’d lose money; New York as more closeted than San Francisco, so less effective at organising (the President of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis didn’t want it to be known he was gay!); NY Mayor Ed Koch not helping much since he was a bachelor so was worried the association would make voters think we was gay. After finishing, I watched the new TV series It’s a Sin, about AIDS in London – also great. Not recommended reading (or watching) if you’re trying to stop thinking about epidemics.
  2. Long Bright River, Liz Moore (p). Novel set in Kensington, Philadelphia, about policing and the opioid crisis. I stayed up late reading, which is usually a good sign. In parts pretty harrowing. The photographer Jeffrey Stockbridge is credited in the acknowledgements for introducing Moore to Kensington. His portraits are striking.
  3. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot (a). A book about the family of Henrietta Lacks, who HeLa cells are derived from. Perhaps more famous for the movie, which I haven’t seen. Cells were taken from Lacks’ cervical tumor without her consent (or indeed knowledge) in 1951, and have become ubiquitous in labs around the world since then. Informed consent has become more central in medical practice since, but, similarly to And the Band Played On, the book had me musing on the importance of scientists being able to explain their work to non-scientists. Science has a lot of privileges in society, and to earn that position and trust you have to bring non-experts along.
  4. Jump-Starting America, Jonathan Gruber and Simon Johnson (a). The book that’s part of the intellectual backbone of the Endless Frontier Act in committee in the Senate right now. A lot of the beginning half or so is history about midcentury US science that’s familiar if you’ve read about the Manhattan Project, early computers, etc. Almost no one in the private sector could afford the enormous early computers, and I was glad to be reminded of some of the economic details of that. The book claims that in the 1950s, more than half of IBM’s revenue from domestic electronic data processing (does that still mean punched cards? The book probably said; I forget) came from two programs: a guidance computer in the B-52 bomber, and air defense. So the US government was a major customer and paid for 35% of R&D at IBM in 1963 (grants). Then to the future: Gruber and Johnson propose a public innovation commission to pick American cities to put new research parks/technology hubs in, similar to how Amazon got cities to bid for their HQ2 (a politically awkward framing example, if you ask me). They suggest ~100 cities that might be contenders. The winners would be required to zone cities in a permissive way that encourages agglomeration. They propose an innovation dividend, financed by rents from rising real estate prices in the chosen locations – a specific and neat idea I’d never heard before. They say research parks have worked in Taiwan (mostly led by semiconductors), Toronto (MaRS), Singapore (Biopolis, with support of government agency A*STAR), and China (eg Zhongguancun; apparently 50% of R&D happens in research parks). I’m into the overall message of the book, that the federal government should spend more on R&D again, and set up new institutions to do that. I have the feeling research parks in particular can turn out bleh – e.g. Gruber and Johnson mention a prominent failure in Malaysia, and Josh Lerner writes about some others.
  5. Winning the Green New Deal, ed. Varshini Prakash and Guido Girgenti (a). Series of essays from the Sunrise Movement.
  6. Under a White Sky, Elizabeth Kolbert (a). Kolbert’s new book about “people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems”. E.g. introducing a gene drive to kill off cane toads in Australia, after cane toads were introduced to kill off sugarcane pests. This gets at the heart of tensions between techno-optimists and -pessimists, and how it’s hard to feel good about being either. The narrative style was effective at flipping my reactions from dawning horror to practiced neutrality in the face of incremental innovation, sometimes when describing the same innovation. I personally find Kolbert’s writing style a bit tough (like being trapped in a book-length New Yorker article), but preferred this to her previous book, The Sixth Extinction. I’d recommend her interview on Ezra Klein’s podcast about the book.
  7. Blockbuster Drugs, Jie Jack Li (a). Blockbuster drugs are drugs that generate sales of over $1 billion per year for the company that makes them. This book runs through how many were discovered – Tagamet for peptic ulcers, followed by Zantac that you could take once instead of four times a day with fewer side effects; Benadryl; heparin. Li has other similar books that run through the inventions of other drugs. I listened to this one because it was available on audiobook and the others aren’t. Overall it’s similar to Ten Drugs that I read last year. In fact, after typing that sentence I just checked my review of Ten Drugs (#28), and it looks like I mention Li’s Laughing Gas, Viagra, and Lipitor.
  8. How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, Bill Gates (a)
  9. Fake Accounts, Lauren Oyler (p)
  10. Felix Ever After, Kacen Callender (p)
  11. The New One Minute Manager, Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson (a). Very short, still not worth the time.
  12. Multipliers, Liz Wiseman (a). Another management book. This one had a couple good ideas, but hit and miss for me.
  13. The Scout Mindset, Julia Galef (a). As I have aged I’ve experienced how rare it is to change your mind about something on the basis of an argument. Sometimes this fact overwhelms me with distress. It’s much easier to form beliefs than to change beliefs, at least for me. This book gives a gentle vision of a brighter world where you can spend more time in an inquiring state of mind (“scout mindset”) than reflexively defending your beliefs (“soldier mindset”). I don’t think scout mindset is without its own problems. I’ve experienced different circumstances, mainly professional, where a collective attempt at it can favour people who are able to talk in certain ways and aren’t necessarily more right. But overall a world without a shared reality we’re all trying to learn about is so destabilising that I came in as a partisan for more scout mindset in public discourse, and left as a partisan. Read into that what you may.
  14. What Tech Calls Thinking, Adrian Daub (p). Didn’t quite land the punch for me, but it’s a fun read of seven chapter-length arguments about the history of ideas like “disruption” and “dropping out”, and how the tech industry uses them today without much reflection on their baggage or implications.
  15. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Olga Tokarczuk (p). Slow in the first half, excellent by the end and stuck with me afterwards. Similarly to how Dostoevsky hit a cherished belief of mine around measuring what’s valuable to people last year (#19), this did a good job of attacking my hopes for ethical progress/agreement. The main character has a perfectly coherent set of values that are hard to argue against, but are incompatible with other defensible sets of values. Roughly, she believes that any cruelty toward an animal (boar, insect, etc.) is irreparably unjust, and as such punishment for perpetrators can be severe (boundless?). The first half sounds true to me, but is difficult to live by. Last month we blocked scurrying entrances to the alley that runs under our apartment, and with discomfort laid traps that would kill any rats who happened to be in the alley at the wrong time. (Here’s a post from a friend about a decision on ants.) Luckily none ended up getting trapped, but we chose to enact that horrible reality. We’re more powerful than the rats, and used technology to support our selfish interests and the interests of neighbours over theirs. I don’t have an argument against that horror, other than those that appeal to practicality. I do think there are other worldviews where giving too much attention to those rats’ interests is morally bad, because other things matter too. But that incompatibility is ultimately practical – their interests matter!
  16. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, Alice Munro (p). How has no one told me to read Alice Munro before? These are short stories, mostly set in mid-20th century Canada. The characters are so complete and believable. I particularly like the way Munro writes about longing and restraint. The title story is fantastic, and the whole book could be bolded even if that were the only good one. This was a gift from a friend (thank you Phoebe).
  17. The Easy Way to Stop Smoking, Allen Carr (a). I’ve never smoked, but this was recommended by a friend as an interesting listen for its application to other habits and addictions too. The author repeats simple reasoning to you that ties to what you want and don’t want – a sort of hypnosis by repeated simple reasoning. Basically, if you’re reading the book, you don’t want to smoke, but you do feel nicotine withdrawal in the short term if you stop. So just be aware of those two facts, and you don’t actually have to be scared about giving up smoking, because you’re not missing out on anything, because you don’t want to smoke. Once the nicotine withdrawal is over you’re not missing out on anything, because you don’t want to smoke. Etc. Pretty good! I’ve applied a similar-ish tactic with previous minor addictions (e.g. online chess), though more to do with shifting my values/orientation towards the activity than repeating a particular simple line of reasoning about it. The trick is to get bored by it rather than think I can’t stop because it’s just so tempting. It’s not tempting, because it’s not fun!
  18. At Night All Blood Is Black, David Diop (p). A short novel about a Senegalese soldier fighting with the French army in World War I.
  19. Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill (p). I liked it. The form fit the structure. Also, it depressed me. I had thought my friend Anya recommended the book to me, but after seeing a previous version of this sentence that thanked her she pointed out she hasn’t read it. Maybe we’d been talking about Jenny Offill in general, and I recommended this book to myself. Thanks Jacob.
  20. The Fifth Season, N. K. Jemisin (p). I basically liked this a lot, but it’s hard to say what I liked about it and didn’t like about it without giving spoilers. So, somewhat cryptically: I liked the structure, and the thing that annoyed me is the same thing that annoyed me with Hyperion (#17 in 2018), so I guess this is just a feature of science fiction/fantasy I always forget about and get duped by.
  21. Scientific Freedom, Donald Braben (a). If you’re on this site because you’re interested in my work, then my review of this book is the most relevant of 2021 to your interests (I work on science grantmaking). So I plead forgiveness for not writing a longer and fairer summary here! The short story is that I thought it was a good statement of a particular approach to grantmaking that suits many forms of scientific inquiry well. But I wanted more from the book in terms of analysis, self-scrutiny of grant performance, and comparison to performance of other funders and funding approaches. The driving emotional premise of the book, as I read it (though I’m writing this 6 months after reading, so am wary of misrepresentation), is that the most important scientific discoveries require freedom for individual scientists and small groups to follow their curiosities without having to justify them to conventional grantmaking agencies and peers, and the modern science funding system doesn’t enable much of that. A flavour of the language: “the bureaucrats, backed up by the politically correct…”, “new knowledge usually comes from maverick loners”. These slides summarise the book pretty well. That emotional premise partly matches, but mostly doesn’t match, the world I see. When I look at the existing ways science is funded, it seems much more curiosity-driven and individual-/small group-oriented than most other funded human activities already, and indeed ~fully captured by scientists’ interests in many countries (e.g. the Haldane Principle is now enshrined in law in the UK). (I’m not saying Braben would be a fan of the Haldane Principle per se; in practice it leans on types of peer review that he critiques well.) I probably agree that more of e.g. NIH funding should move away from funding projects that receive a score averaged from peers, and towards general support for scientists who have a track record or look particularly promising (à la MIRA grants, and how most of HHMI works), so I guess that means I agree with the direction Braben is pushing. I don’t agree enough that I’m persuaded freedom to pursue one’s scientific interests is a better use of philanthropic money than neglected scientific goals that are more “obvious” – where’s my 70%+ effective tuberculosis vaccine? Anyways, I’d benefit from more books like this being written, that make the case for different funding models, so I was glad Stripe Press republished this one.
  22. Bluets, Maggie Nelson (p). I assumed I’d find Bluets gimmicky (it’s sort of about falling in love with the colour blue), but actually I loved it, and it made me see the world around me differently for a few days.
  23. The Dry Heart, Natalia Ginzburg (p). Like Mrs Bridge, horrifying. Slightly Jenny Offill-ish horrifying, but more blunt about it. On the first page, the main character shoots her husband between the eyes. The rest of the book goes back through their awful, awful marriage. It’s becoming increasingly clear I refuse to get married in the 20th century.
  24. Another Day of Life, Ryszard Kapuściński (p). Reporting from the Angolan Civil War in 1975.
  25. The Gatekeepers, Chris Whipple (a).
  26. Several People Are Typing, Calvin Kasulke (p).
  27. The Obelisk Gate, N. K. Jemisin (p). I liked this considerably less than the first book in the series, The Fifth Season, because the writing often didn’t seem as believable to me. Too many dawning realisations and emotional surprises, in particular for the main character.
  28. Beautiful World, Where Are You, Sally Rooney (p).
  29. The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante (p). This was the best novel I’ve read in a while. It was so horrible I had to put it down many times. There’s a claustrophobic scene in the middle I felt would never end, and I’m still glad to be out of. In the last two years I’ve read a series of books that make the case that marriage is impossible, and the last two TV shows I watched were Couples Therapy (fantastic) and the remake of Scenes from a Marriage. This novel was the final in that series, i.e. I’m ready for a change of theme, and in particular the new theme is books about/containing happy marriages (taking recommendations). Then, separately: I dodged reading Ferrante when everyone was obsessed with her in 2014, and I was wrong, and everyone was right. I’m looking forward to the Neapolitan novels.
  30. The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner (p).
  31. So Far So Good, Ursula K. Le Guin (p). Ursula Le Guin’s final poems, submitted for copyediting a week before she died. I found them more accessible (i.e. enjoyable on first read) than most poetry I try. My favourites so far (scroll around) are ‘Words for the Dead’, ‘On Second Hill’, ‘Lesser Senses’, ‘How it Seems to Me’, and ‘The Old Novelist’s Lament’. Since I must always find one poem that reminds me of Robert Frost’s ‘The Sound of Trees’, this time it’s ‘Walking the Maze’.
  32. Home, Marilynne Robinson (p). The sequel to Gilead, my favourite novel. I’d been saving this for a long time. So long, I’m pretty sure I missed some plot connections that the reader’s meant to get, but I didn’t mind since neither book has much in the way of plot. Home was lovely, and had some great passages, though the experience of reading it was not as intense for me as Gilead. (Apart from at the end. Oof.) Now I think about it, I feel the same way about the last two sequels I read – Transit and The Obelisk Gate – so the problem is probably with me. In any case, a quotation that stuck with me: “Nobody deserves anything, good or bad. It’s all grace.”
  33. Kudos, Rachel Cusk (p). Well, I either just disproved my sequel theory or it’s a sandwich situation where I love firsts and thirds. Kudos is the third in the Outline series. As with the previous two books, there’s ~no plot, just people chatting – mostly the main character being chatted at, actually. This one seemed to me more brutal than the other two, in its characters’ voices on divorce, feminism, The Modern Novel… Some quotations – unrelated to the brutality point, just ones I liked: (about a dress) “I’ve worn it so many times it’s become like my apartment.” In my opinion this feeling is common and explains a lot of behaviour: “driven into extremity by the suspicion that some knowledge was being withheld from me whose revelation would make everything clear”. Next: “All I knew was that [suffering] carried a kind of honour, if you survived, and left you in a relationship to the truth that seemed closer”. Next: “In a way we recognised one another: we liked one another as a way of liking ourselves”.