Well the year has come and gone. Last year I inaugurated a hopefully annual “books I liked” list. The list is not based on new books, but rather those that I actually read that year and liked. Last year I was pleasantly surprised by how many books I managed to squeeze in while also having a newborn. Rocking a baby still leaves your eyes free, and often even a hand free.
This year though Finley blossomed into a full blown kid. Playing with toys, talking up a storm, and running around everywhere. She is so much fun, but personal time has declined. I still managed to read a few good books, but less of the big history narratives that I had somehow managed to finish last year. Instead I found myself reading a lot of popular science works filled with short vignettes that allowed for lots of starting and stopping over weeks or even months. I also was super happy that I met last year’s goal by adding some fiction novels back in to my rotation!
I also finally—albeit begrudgingly—embraced audio books. I have found that using a bluetooth headphone with one earbud in while doing chores, or driving has allowed me to steal a few minutes more of reading time. (Although this competes with my podcast addiction). I still have a hard time listening to several hours at a time. I normally read a bit faster than the speaker, and at 1.25x speed I find a decent match but it often requires more concentration than I always want to give. While at normal speed I often lose interest quickly. I also just love the aesthetics of words on a page. Anyway I think I will have to work on this now that I will have two toddlers soon and I do want to be present when I am with them.
I think the most notable change in my reading diet this year is that biological non-fiction seems to have supplanted social science as my goto. This is one part novelty seeking—biology is most definitely the most dynamic of the sciences right now, with incredibly rapid rate of discoveries; and one part reflection of my own frustration with social sciences right now. Currently publishers seem to be putting out more works explaining how our current bipartisan mindsets are locked in (think Jonathon Haidt’s work on tribal thinking), which although relevant is a little depressing for someone who strongly believes in the ideals of our civic institutions. While the works on technology and the internet have taken a bit of an Orwellian turn (See Back Box Society below), while in life it is certainly on the path of Huxley. I have no idea when a social backlash will happen but I think things might get worse before they get better. The most popular education book last year was “grit”— I’m as big a fan of grit as anyone, but it’s current popularity seems to be as much a reflection of the exhaustion of good ideas in education reform as it is anything else. (And is it really that much of an upgrade from the infamous marshmallow test?)
Anyway enough ranting! …On to the books!
The single best book I read this year was Alfred Lansing’s classic Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage. WOW. That is pretty much all i can say. This is the reconstructed narrative of the nearly disastrous Trans-Antarctic polar expedition of Earnest Shackleton. His ship Endurance, became trapped in the ice in the Antarctic seas in 1914 and they were forced to find a way back to civilization. This was before radio or REI existed so needless to say it was a difficult and adventurous return. I found the descriptions of the men’s daily lives to be absolutely absorbing. And the food, all I can say is wow. If I were to offer any criticism it would be that at times the book seemed a bit high-handed in it’s deification of Shackleton. Although it was reconstructed through the first hand accounts of survivors who owed their lives to him, so whom am I to know. Good on them. Frankly, I don’t understand how this hasn’t been made into a movie yet. It is one of the most riveting narratives I have ever read. There are parts in this book that are simply unbelievable. Except they really happened. And in the end, when the worst is about to unfold, the men do the incredible. Read it!
The most edifying book I read this year was this great historical work, a geographical approach to American history. I remember reading coming across journalist Joel Garreau‘s Nine Nations of North America in the mid 90s and being blown away. It totally changed my understanding of American politics. The geographical approach gave me a framework for understanding how regions have different interests and that will shape their politics. I learned much from that work. Colin Woodard’s excellent new work expands from that framework and traces the history of American “nations,” largely through migration patterns and explorations of cultural value systems. Some of this material (e.g. the Scots-Irish in Appalachia) I had encountered in earlier books on race/ethnicity by Tomas Sowell, while others like his borrowing from Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America were completely new to me and absolutely fascinating. I had no idea about the individual migration patterns from Britain settled the early Colonies and defined their regional characters in very specific ways (in particular “Tidewater” was a new and incredibly insightful regional concept for me). Woodard synthesizes these works and much more to put together a tour-de-force of American political history. I gained a complete new understanding of the constitutional convention negotiations and why certain places have such distinct philosophical beliefs on liberty and individualism.
I also learned something totally new about my own state of Oregon; whose cities were settled by utopian New Englanders, while the rest of the state was settled by tough borderlanders setting us up for stark political contrasts. This certainly put our semi-schizophrenic political history into much sharper relief . Overall I can’t think of a better book on American history or for deeper understanding our current red/blue political map. Anyway, you should read it. Highly recommended.
American Nations also inspired me to finally read Railroaded., a history of the transcontinental railroad companies. In Woodard’s book the “nation” he labeled “the far west” was the least developed of his nations. Much like Garreau’s region “the Empty Quarter” Woodard basically states that the cultural identity of the region/nation was largely defined by resource extracting industry. The region never had enough water for yeoman farmers to develop so it was only larger industry…like mining, giant agriculture (requiring water management) and railroads. Of course there were a lot of tough individual libertarians–who were often dependent on the very government their later generations bemoaned–in the mix as well. I found railroaded to be an excellent historical work. It is well documented and quite enlightening regarding the corrupt growth of the Railroads. Overall it is a powerful indictment of the industry; documenting well the damage it did to the American west, the settlers they cheated, and the corrupt government officials that both supported and repeatedly bailed them out. (In all it gives good ammunition to those libertarians that condemn the government).
The other major history work I read this year was Norman Davies Vanished Kingdoms. This one has been on my bookshelf for awhile and I finally pulled it down this year and took a stab at it. I have read a few of Davie’s works (Europe, his histories of England and Poland) and was eagerly looking forward to this one. I thought the premise was brilliant, an exploration of lost political entities of Europe. The ephemerality of most political organizations is a major theme of history, but a difficult one to translate to many in the proud often jingoistic country of the US.
I find the European Union the most important political experiment in the world today and the renaissance of smaller nations like the Basque, the Welsh, Galicians, etc is a very interesting development. Can a truly pluralist cosmopolitan yet united political state succeed? Despite our distinct regional national identities that Woodard documents so well the US shares a single language and has a dominant culture, although as we grow this will change. Overall I am optimistic, but I wanted to read about some of the lost entities that Davies chronicles.
I enjoyed the work but I did find it unbalanced. Some of the stories were almost enthralling, such as those of British Alt Clud, or Savoy which I knew very little about. They were so important in their day and now are largely forgotten. Where as others, particularly Burgandia, were somewhat tired and in my view lacked cohesiveness. Although this could be as much a statement on my own deficiencies of knowledge of Medieval Europe. His chapters on the Soviet Union I found particularly compelling as 1989 occurred right as I was gaining international consciousness. The unraveling of Communism was the single most important geopolitical event in my lifetime yet so few seem to recall it today, or the lessons of how transient the seemingly political permanence really can be. That should prompt our own peoples to reflect more and save what institutions we have.
Next up was a science-y historical work The Invention of Nature. – I really enjoyed Andrea Wulf’s fast paced biography. I was largely familiar with Humboldt and his natural expeditions, but i had not quite realized the extent of his fame or how groundbreaking some of his findings were. Nor did I know of his close friendship with Goethe—the author of the poem that continues to haunt my understanding of modernity, Faust. Humboldt was very influential on Goethe and served as an inspiration. The book intrigued me with it’s central thesis that Humboldt invented our modern idea of nature. Sort of a proto-gaia idea, where all life makes a super-organism that is…Nature. She makes a very good case for his early environmental consciousness and understanding of our connectedness. I’m not knowledgable enough about18th century philology to really assess the veracity of her largely claim, but I was not convinced by her assertions.
In my view the argument needed much more evidence of what else was going on at the time; that is what other particular views on nature were out there. My own sense is that as the 19th century shifted from a agriculture world to an industrial one, world views and understandings that were more organic and based in the land gradually lost out to our more modern reductionist views. Hence Humboldt’s writings strike a strong cord to our modern audience, but back then it would have been less revolutionary. Towards the latter half of the book Wulf seems to shift in a similar direction by presenting Humboldt as the last of his kind, a generalist in science, rather than the detail oriented specialists that came to define scientists that followed. Here I felt she was on more solid ground.
Overall the book smacked much like a book I read last year, The Swerve, which hypothesized something similar about the rediscovery of Ovid’s Metamorphosis as inventing the idea of modernity. In both cases they were very entertaining learned works full of thought-provoking insights, but ultimately they both smacked of trying too hard to prove an argument that I am not sure is actually provable. Still I greatly enjoyed them both and highly recommend them.
Next on the the Science list would come my perennial favorite: 2016 the best American Science and Nature writing. This year more than two thirds of the selections were new to me. I continue to find these pieces to be among the most engrossing I read all year. I look forward to the publication every year and buy it the moment it comes out.
Two other good science works I would recommend were the excellent if longwindedly titled The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History and the uneven but in parts worth it: A New History of Life: The Radical New Discoveries About The Origins and Evolutions of Life on Earth. Actually they are both mouthfuls.
Thor Hanson’s passion for seeds pervades every page in the book. I really enjoyed many of his vignettes but did put it down often. I learned much about something I knew very little about. Sometimes he ventures a bit more down personal stories than I would have liked, but it was worth it for what I learned about the Avocado. There is much going on in botany that I look forward to reading in the coming year.
Ward and Kirshvink’s New History of Life was invaluable to me for filling in several black holes in my knowledge of the development of life, from basic geochemistry, to abiogenesis, to the evolution of the all important Photosynthesis. However the book was very uneven, it lurched from lucidly written explanations to jargon-filled text that read like old science papers cut and pasted verbatim into the book. I also grew tired of the author’s self congratulating themselves for discovering the snowball earth hypothesis. This will not be a definitive work in science but for explaining some basics of a rapidly developing field I found it worthy.
Next up was a very difficult work for me to complete but I felt compelled to based on my work last year on ITGS. Frank Pasquale’s The Black Box society. This work is about our modern data society and the privately controlled algorithms that are coming to rule our lives. I find it so disheartening how little control we have over our data; the numbers that define us. More than ever our world resembles WH Auden’s famous poem, The Unknown Citizen, but today it is far more persuasive than Auden anticipated, with the computing power and machine learning tools available to private firms they are becoming able to know us even better than our own friends and family. (Perhaps that is one reason I even started my website-a statement to the world that this is me.) And of course the ubiquitous and all important credit score which determines your fate in our modern society–and where your incentives are not aligned with the businesses or lenders.
Pasquale marshals a strong argument against the most dangerous aspect of these algorithms–their secrecy and proprietary nature. These essentially renders them immune to our existing social controls against discrimination or unfair bias. Pasquale presents some legal steps that we could in theory take, but the complete lack of public discussion doesn’t look promising. Regardless this is an incredibly important topic and needs more attention.
Finally some fiction works! Last year I lamented that my list was entirely non-fiction, which I really wanted to remedy this year. Fortunately two of my favorite authors had new books (at least to me) out. Jonathon Safran Foer, Kim Stanley Robinson, and future noble prize winner Murakami. I don’t know what it is about Murakami that is entrancing. His works tend to have a slow burn with similar themes and characters–but I always love them. Perhaps it is the slight tinge of dreamy weirdness on hyper modern Japan, or the hint of mystery. I’m not sure. Well, work beckons… hopefully I will be back to finish this post soon. I still have the Frankfurt school to discuss!