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’ve read 27 books, which is apparently the new par for the course. And as always, it’s been a combination of classic fiction, topical books, and books related to my profession. I’ve been kind of looking for a some modern entertainment fiction for relaxing to. As an alternative to streaming or being online, but something that isn’t a classic, great novel or a work-related book, as both can be a harder to read. Previously, I’ve had a tradition of reading one of Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt books every summer. I’d buy one cheap, read it as part of my holiday reading and then typically leave it where I was (there’s usually been one of those leave-one-take-one bookshelves where I’ve travelled). But I’m getting a little bored with the formulaic nature of them, and the borderline misogynism doesn’t sit well with me. So I’m up for recommendations.
Let’s dive in to the highlighs reel.
Annie Duke: “How To Decide – Simple Tools for Making Better Choices”
I started the year out with “How To Decide”, a non-fiction book about making beter decisions. The main approach of the book is not something I’d call “simple”, as it is really a heavily built-out pros and cons list. But there’s a lot of great insight into how we decide, and perhaps even more importantly, how we evaluate our decisions after the fact, and how that influences our perception of our ability to make decisions. In essence, we have a tendency to see the quality of our decisions in the light of their outcomes. If a quarterback throws a hail Mary at the last minute, rather than trying for a running pass, and misses, the media and pundits will call that a bad decision. If it results in a game and championship winning touch down, it will be hailed as pure brilliance. But the outcome does not determine if we made a good decision (unless we know the outcome, in which case it’s not really a decision). That sort of stuff is great, but the self-help part of the book I could do without.
Rudyard Kipling: “The Jungle Book”
A classic. And a great story, part fable, part of adventure. I was surprised by how early in the book the movie(s) end. When Mowgli enters the village, we’re only about half-way through the book. It’s also darker, and the ending more violent. Unlike the movie, which is basically a parallel to growing up, which Mowgli having to leave his adopted family and childhood friends to join the village and the girl that is hinted to be his future wife. But it’s an amazing book, and easy to see why it’s a classic.
Yuval Noah Hariri: “Homo Deus – A Brief History about Tomorrow”
I love the title, in particular the subtitle, it would make a great title for a sci-fi movie. And I was looking forward to reading the book, as I’d heard to gushed over quite a few times. But I was disappointed. After a reasonably optimistic start, it dives into more “everything was better in the past” territory, and his grasp of the technologies he covers are dubious at best.
Ryan Holiday: “The Obstacle is The Way”
I figured that 2022 would be a year where I’d read all of Holiday’s stoicism books. It didn’t pan out that way, because I was, frankly, disappointed. Less of an introduction to stoicism (save for one, definitely the book’s best) more of a self-help book (ab)using stoic principles to lend some old worldliness to it. So while I finished it, I decided to not read the rest of the series.
Delia Owens: “Where The Crawdads Sing”
Picked this up based on the media coverage that came with the launch of the movie, and I really enjoyed it. The mix of southern disposition and crime story gives off almost a To Kill A Mockingbird vibe. And it’s a great read, even if does stretch the suspension of disbelief. I mean, she’s a marsh girl, a wild child who has grown up unsurpervised and with no education, but she grows up to be an amazing artist, a student of nature that turns the academic world on its head, and she becomes rich by the books she publishes (that’s arguably the least likely one – who has ever become rich by publishing academic books?!) about the animal and plant life of the marsh. But it works, once you accept the fantasy element of it.
Mark Twain: “A Connecticut Yank at the Court of King Arthur”
I had heard this descibed as a laught-out-loud funny book about time travel and Arthurian legend. And while it does contain those elements, it’s hardly funny, going out of its way to showcase the depravity, violence, and backwardness of the middle ages. It seems to have been written almost as a counterpoint to the fascination of Arthurian legend that a lot of American writers had in Twain’s age, to show just how bad it actually would have been.
Matt Fraction: “Hawkeye – My Life as a Weapon”
Having watched, and enjoyed, the Renner/Steinfeld show “Hawkeye”, I decided to read the graphic novel it was based on. Fun to see the source of many of the best scenes in the show, and it is well-drawn and well-told. But as I’ve experienced a few times, the movie was actually better. As is often the case with Marvel comics (and other publishers as well), it feels a little unstructured, and more philosophical than an actual story, like small story tableaus set against a backdrop, rather than the somewhat more stringent, connected story that the movie or TV show is. But still one of the best Marvel publications in recent years.
Ezra Klein: “Why We’re Polarized”
Following the last few years’ political and societal development in the US (and elsewhere), I was keen to read this. It is opinionated, sure, but it also offers some solid analysis and serious hypotheses on where America diverged from the “different, but united” of the post-World War II era, to today’s entrenched political sphere and society. Demographics, political strategy, and the mixing of political attitude and personal identity are the main drivers. The book also contains a few hard-hitters from some of the experts interviewed, such as the point that, as one puts it, “America is not a democracy” (as in, the people don’t elect their representatives, but rather appoint those that will), and the fact that, of all the countries where the US has toppled governments and installed others, they have never once copied their own model. And neither has anyone else.
Shoshana Zuboff: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism
Another book I picked up due to its popularity, but unlike “Crawdads”, this one was a disappointment. While I do agree with her basic sentiment, that tech giants, like all other industries, need to be regulated to ensure their actions do not encroach on the interests of societies and individuals, the book is largely hyperbole. The main criticism is more ideological and semantical than factual; Zuboff seems appalled that the tech companies make (a lot of) money based on her (and others’) data, and demand they stop. Period. She uses terms like the title’s “survaillance capitalism” and “digital robber barons” a lot, which makes for great sound bites, but her indignation rarely goes beyond that. While she is obviously well-informed on business developments involving the tech giants, and she’s right when she says that many governments were late to the game in terms of regulation, she never gets beyond the “data bad” argument, and seems oblivious to concepts like aggregated data. There’s also a lack of scope and detail in the premise. Is any collection of any kind of data for commercial purposes wrong? In that case, wait ’till she learns about banking. There are real questions, real discussions, and real criticism we need to face as we continue to shape a more digital society and economy, but none of them make it in to this book.
Thomas Telving: Killing Sofia
A book the philosophy and ethics of killing AI and AI-driven robots. But not quite what I had expected. It delves more into the problems that humans’ feeling of connection to AI-driven robots when they end-of-life approaches, rather than, as I had hoped, a discussion of when and if we need to consider whether it is ethical to turn off (essentially “kill”) AI if and when we manage to create something akin to AGI. While the book is good, it obviously takes the point of view that humans are unique and AI, no matter how advanced, can never be considered worthy of ethical consideration.
Yvons Chouinard: Let My People Go Surfing
The biography/management manifesto of legendary Patagonia founder Yvons Chouinard. The story of how Patagonia came to be, and how deeply rooted in the original climbing/extreme sports community of the American Pacific region, including the original Yosemite Dirtbags, is very interesting, if you’re a bit fascinated by that era (which I am). The management bit is interesting, but definitely marked by two things: 1) it was a different time. When Chouinard lanuched his Let My People Go Surfing management style, it was revolutionary, but he did so in the 1980s. Things have changed, Still, intetesting to read the OG thoughts on it. And 2) Patagonia is a producer of physical goods, and derived from basically a blacksmith operation (the companary started out making hand-forged pitons for climbing), so a lot of the management manifesto reflects that, and needs some mental transformation to be applied in e.g. a digital services company.
Quincy Jones: 12 Notes
Again, a part biography, part manifesto, but this time on creativity, from the master of music production, Quincy Jones. Interweaves the anecdotes with the lessons really well, and while it at times falls into a trap of a bit too much jazz lingo (he only gets away with referring to everyone as “cats” because he is Quincy Jones), and some of the insights can seem a bit banal, the man’s credibility shines through and helps the points take hold.