2021: The Books

Another year behind us, and as I’ve done in previous years, I’m doing a recap of the books I’ve read in the year that has passed.

This year, I read a total of 27 books, which is a lower number than most years. Might have something to do with buying a house and moving to a different city; for a while during the summer, my attention might have been elsewhere. I also did read a few books that were above average length, so that can also influence it. On the other hand, I only bailed on a single book this year (a cookbook/nutrition book which was surprisingly out of step with current knowledge), so maybe I’ve been better at curating my books, and have therefor read them slower to grasp more of the content.

Anyway, here goes on the highlights of the year. I’ll end with a shorter list of some of the books that were not my favorites.

T.E. Lawrence, “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom”

I have read about T.E. Lawrence, a figure that has captivated me since I watched the movie “Lawrence of Arabia” with Peter O’Toole in the titular role. But I actually haven’t read any of his own books. A few years ago, I was in Paris, and as I always do, I headed into Shakespeare & Co., and they happened to have this book, his seminal work, on display. I picked up a copy, but it has lived a quiet, yet comfortable life on my bookshelf since. This year, I took it down and gave it a read.

The writing, the language, is amazing. Lawrence stands out as an incredibly reflective man, with a great command of the English language. He insists he didn’t do anything special, yet almost every page disproves that. Some of the desert travel passages do feel a bit long, but I suspect that’s very much in tune with the actual experience. But the action parts read like a script for a Hollywood action flick, and more than make up for it. Lawrence is best, though, when he turns his keen eye on himself, either with humor, as when he described shooting his own camel while riding it on a charge on Aqaba, or with a more judgemental gaze, as in probably the most famous quote from the book:

“All men dream, but not equal. Those who dream by night, in the dark recesses of their minds, awake in the day to find that it was vanity. But those who dream by day, are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes to make them real. This, I did.”

Eric Kurlander: “Hitler’s Monsters”

We’ve all heard the tales: Hitler was obsessed with the occult, and had thousands of agents scouring the Earth for mythical objects to help him the war effort. He also went big on extreme science, trying to create super-soldiers and super weapons. But how much is fact, and how much is fiction?

“Hitler’s Monsters” is nothing if not well-researched. More than half the book is are references to the original source texts that the author drew upon. And the result turns out to be both highly interesting, and somewhat disappointing.

Turns out, Hitler wasn’t too interested in the occult, and even passed laws against the occult salons that were highly popular in Europe in the interwar period. He was fascinated by Germanic lore, and would often use it in his speeches and other propaganda, but it is less likely that he actually believed that their used to be a race of superior, Arian beings. Instead, he propegated the myth to inspire his followers, and the German people, to war. There is very little evidence that the Nazis did any real work into the occult, much less scientifically enhanced super soldiers and super weapons, save for what we already know of the V2 rockets and the nuclear bomb.

In fact, the entire Nazi party seems to have had a conflicted relationship with border science. On one hand, they passed laws against most things occult, on the other hand, they used everything from pseudo-scientific Germanic lore research, including that of the Thule Society (which was a fringe pseudo-science group that the Nazi party partly grew from, not a department within the Nazi party). They also did their own pseudo-scientific research, including the race studies of Rudolph Steiner, who was a key player in the development of the Endlösung (the plan to terminate all Jews).

Stephen Fry: “Troy”

Over the past couple of years, I’ve read Fry’s other works based on Greek mythology, “Mythos” and “Heroes”, and I’ve greatly enjoyed all of them. “Troy” is no different. Well-written, funny, and high informative, all three books provide an excellent intro to classic Greek culture, or a great reminder and recap for those of us who have already studied it.

Apart from that certrain Fry-ness, Fry does bring a new perspective into his books that I haven’t thought of before: a split of the ancient Greek lore into three time periods: the time of Titans and gods (as depicted in “Mythos”), the time of demi-gods and men elevated to near god-like status, who in many ways cleared the world of the monsters the gods had created, making the world safe for man (as depicted in “Heroes”), and finally the world of men, men doing great things, but men nonetheless (as depicted in “Troy”).

Dan Weir: “The Martian”

I watched the film, and loved it, so I read the book. The story of a lone astronaut accidentally marooned on Mars after a mission goes awry, it is one of the most grounded sci-fi stories I’ve ever read. The format of following Watney’s story in a first-person narrative works really well, though it is probably for the best that this is intersected by a more traditional third-person narrative when focusing on the remaining crew and the people on earth (mostly NASA staff).

Lines like “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this” and “turns out duct tape is the one thing NASA couldn’t find a way to improve on” are going to stick with me well beyond 2021.

Stephanie Kelton: “The Deficit Myth”

2021, like 2020 before it, was a year where the presence of COVID was strongly felt. And one thing that was a recurring theme, in particular at the beginning of the year, was government stimulus packages and aid programs for virus-hit industries. And with them, the inevitable chorus of fiscal conservatives asking “how are we going to pay for it?”

A friend, who is an economist, recommended reading this book to understand just how. Kelton is a key economist, having worked both in Ivy League universities, and in D.C. While her politics clearly shows (she worked for Bernie Sanders), not least in the later chapters, the basic premise of the book was nothing short of mind-blowing for me: a government that makes it’s own money cannot run out of money.

That was hard to warp my head around, mostly because it almost seemed too simple, too much like childhood logic. “If the government runs out of money, why don’t they just print some more?” is a question I think most olders have asked, often to be countered with “it’s not that simple”. Turns out, it is. At least as long as you have control of your own money production. So a country like the US, the UK, and the Nordic countries are in this situation. The countries in the Eurozone are not, as they are under the fiscal control of the EU central bank. But in what Kelton calls “monetarily sovereign states”, the government decides how much money to produce, so if they need more, they can simple decide that they have more. It really is that simple. Ever wondered why the same fiscal conservatives are nowhere to be found when the US needs to fight a 1,500 billion dollar war in the Middle East? Now you know.

So are there no limites to public spending? Yes, there are. But the problem isn’t that the government might run out of money, but rather that they put so much money into the financial system that it raises inflation.

Dermot Turing: “X, Y, and Z”

I have colleagues in Poznan, Poland, and on a trip there, one of them recommended this book to me. Most people know the story of Alan Turing and his contribution to breaking the Enigma code in World War II (at least, most people who’ve seen the film “The Imitation Game” starring Benedict Cumberbatch). But as it turns out, that’s only part of the story.

This book, written by Alan Turing’s nephew Dermot, tells the rest of the story. How the Poles sensed a growing threat from both Germany and Russia in the interwar period, and subsequently created a code-breaking unit that was unparalleled at the time. How they worked with the French, who had a source in German high command who could supply them with key details and encoded messages from the Enigma machine, to figure out how to decode them. And how, when war broke out and Poland was invaded, the Poles fled to France, and ultimately handed their work over to the British, who put it to use at Bletchly Park. It was this work that was ultimately automated and sped up by Turing’s early computers.

John Volanten: “13 Lessons That Saved 13 Lives”

As a diver, I had to read this book. Written by Volanthen, one of the key divers in the Tam Luang cave rescue, and the man who actually found the boys from the Wild Hogs soccer team, the book manages to be many things at the same time. It is a first-hand account of the rescue and all the work that went into the rescue. It is also a breakdown of some of the key skills that Volanthen himself used to pull of the succesful rescue, how they were applied there, and how they can be applied in everyone’s daily lives. And, because he also writes about how and where he developed these skills, it is also somewhat of an autobiography, though a very topic-specific one.

Mark Twain: “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”

Towards the end of the year, I read these two classics. I think I’ve read them before, as a kid, but I have only the faintest memory of them.

The language is of course of the keys thing to both books. Twain wrote in an everyday language, how people actually spoke, rather than in a more idealized version. This makes the books very interesting, but also at times tricky to read.

The characters, and their adventures, are extremely charming, walking a fine line between grounded reality and fantasy. On one page, Tom Sawyer deals with early love, on another, he and Huck find thousands of dollars buried by robbers. No wonder these are classics.

A Few Books That Didn’t Impress Me

Any year, there are always a few books that aren’t quite what I expected. That’s the consequence of reading a lot of books, and taking quite a few chances, in that I’ll often read a book that I don’t really know whether is any good. Here are a few from this year.

Jim Kwik: “Limitless”

I’d heard of Jim Kwik as a productivity guru, so at some point, I picked up his book “Limitless”. I was a bit turned off by the title. I’m all for movie puns and references, but grabbing the title from a movie about a man who acheives umlimited productivity, is a bit on the nose. And while there are some good points in the books, such as thinking of productivity not just in terms of learning to read more and faster, and planning your time, but also as nutrition, sleep, and exercise, but all in all, it was just too much hype, not enough substance.

William Goldman: “The Princess Bride”

It breaks my heart a little to put it on this list. I love the movie, and have since watching it as a kid. This year, I got the chance to pick up the book in a beautiful, hard bound, illustrated version. And it is a great book, but not as good as I expected. Goldman doesn’t really tow the line between the meta-story and the actual story particularly well, and can’t seem to make up his mind if this is an homage to romantic adventure, or a parody of it. The amazing story of the movie is there, but Goldman seems too enamoured with his idea of presenting this as a (fictitious) historic account, and his (again, fictitious) research into it. I am completely open to the fact that I am also biased by my expectations from the movie. I’ll re-read it in a year or two and see if my mind is changed on it.

Kevin Roose: “Future Proof – 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation

Roose starts his book by claiming that “isn’t a luddite”, then spends the rest of the book disproving that claim. The 9 “rules” are nothing revolutionary, but he does argue them very well. Not a bad book, and a very relevant topic, but just for once, I’d like to read a book on this topic written by a techno-optimist.

So that was it, not all the books I read, but the ones that stand out to me from this year. Here’s to another great year of reading in 2022!

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