At this time of year I read a lot of best book lists and this year I decided to create my own. At first I thought I might not have read enough books to make a list. The last few years have been consumed with trying to learn Spanish and then having an amazing daughter! Then I had the bittersweet realization that I sorta gave up on Spanish this year and that actually I read a lot of books while the baby was napping, or trying myself to get sleep (I try to avoid all blue light after 10, hence I have actually gone back to reading about an hour every night).
In fact I read rather a lot this year and some very good books. This year was the first time that I had a summer vacation in a long time and I put it to good use. Although again this year I read mostly history, there are only a few fiction books on my list, and neither of them are particularly strong examples of literature. One a historical fiction, and the other a near future science fiction. Next year I must change that. Surprisingly, in contrast to the last few years I did not have very many education or psychology books on my list this year. And the only one I read the excellent Kieran Egan work: The Educated Mind isn’t on this list as I am working on a forthcoming Book review (probably not till Spring/Summer). I also didn’t read as many economics or technology books as usual. Having a child has made me quite reflective this year so hence the hard turn to history.
The Silk Roads – Despite probably being my favorite book of the year this is actually only the second, third, or possibly even fourth best history book I read. Silk Roads is a well needed global history that focuses on the view from Central Asia. Mostly it works very well. It is so fact filled and provides and incredibly readable summary of historical and archeological findings of the last few decades. Many are somewhat mundane but important (the trade records of the Silk roads), others absolutely fascinating (e.g. the deliberate physical deformities of the Huns). This is a great book that puts Europe in it’s place—a historical backwater until it chanced upon the wealth of the America’s. Frankopan is a historian with a strong materialist bend. He relies on economic analysis of trade records for much of his claims and he does an excellent job of marshaling the evidence in support of his various theses.
I think the sections that struck me most were the detailed descriptions of the competition between the Roman/Byzantine vs. Persian Empires—and notably the importance of Christianity vs. Zorastriansim to their inhabitants (yes there were many Eastern Christians back then). It was the breakdown of those empires lead to the sudden rise of Islam, Latter his analysis of just how cosmopolitan the early Islamic world was really contrasts strongly with today’s tropes. Islam was never really medieval and through this history that comes across very clear. Sadly the book doesn’t totally deliver on it’s claims, once we hit the age of discovery it’s best scholarship tends to come from Europe and for some strange reason India is missing for much of the text, although showing up strong with the Mughals. In some ways I would have preferred a book that did a bit better job on the very early history of our world, starting with our first temple Gobekli Tepe (and probable first agriculture) then moving on to the early ancient civilizations (including the Oxus valley civilizations that we are just now discovering; see Anthony’s more academic work below). However this work was an excellent read and really did a great job with late antiquity/early medieval ages. I did think that perhaps including the last 100 years of the modern world was overly ambitious and somehow felt tacked on, although it was still quite interesting, particularly the Soviet sections.
I read The Silk Roads right after reading the spectacular Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East by former British Diplomat Gerard Russell. This work is amazing journalistic achievement. Russell investigated and interviewed the real living minorities of Central Asia, most of whom are rapidly disappearing. These people are real life living histories; the Samaritans, Zoroastrians, Manideans, Yazidis, Druze, Kalasha, Copts. It is incredibly fascinating and I learned much about peoples that I did not know much about. This was a very complimentary work to The Silk Roads as the ethnography provided some nice human context to the battling empires. I also gained a greater understanding of just how cosmopolitan and tolerant early Islam really was. As a dominant religion of the region for over a millennium it became clear was never the medieval barbarism that ISIS today represents or that Medieval Christianity often was…
Sapiens: A brief history of Mankind – Yuval Noah Harari. Every year before I begin teaching Ancient Civilizations I find myself reading a big history work on the origin of Mankind. In year’s past it was The Ascent of Man, or The story of the Human body. This year it was Harari’s absorbing history/extended essay on the rise of Homo Sapiens over other Homo species. In many ways this is the best general history work I have ever read. Weilding Occam’s razor like a Jedi knight, Harari’s analytical thinking adds great clarity to our collective narrative. From confronting the fraud of agriculture’s “progress“, to grouping all ideological thought as just another variation of religious thinking, to calling money what it is: a shared trust in an idea, to explaining the advent of economic development as result of faith in progress, or simply relabeling the scientific revolution as the “discovery of ignorance” There are no sacred cow’s in this Oxford trained historian’s ontology. There is nothing I found new in this work (save maybe the idea of a single evil deity–which was quite thought provoking) but as a summarization of important new ideas on our origin and the collective society in which we live this work is a tour de force of clarity. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Reading Sapiens not only inspired several new or revised lesson plans for me, it has also inspired me to be more forthright in calling spades, well, spades. This can be touchy with many ideologies but I think it is very important that we begin to clear the muddy thinking in social sciences. (Of course, it goes without saying that one should be respectful when doing so, we are not Dawkins-esque atheists out to pick fights). I will return to this work many times in the future. I strongly recommend this Daniel Kanehann interview with Harari on the future of human species. This is the most thought-provoking post on the internet I read this year.
Who owns the Future – Jaron Lainer. Speaking of the future iconoclastic Computer Scientist Jaron Lainer’s great essay is a work that I wish every tech policy maker would have to read. There are lots of great points in here drawn from history (e.g. giant Kodiak’s implosion) but also Lainer’s own tech consultancy work (e.g. Walmart’s supply chain). His essential–and in my view correct–point is that tech users (the people) are giving away valuable information about themselves in exchange for free services, thereby allowing firms can accrue large amounts of data–and product–at virtually no cost while we the consumers are losing our own sources of income creating that data or products. His coining of “Siren Servers” or the illusion that having the fastest most capable server computer will lead to a comparative advantage is particularly interesting and he identifies some very strong shortcomings to this illusion
These technological developments are are undermining all manner of economic structures and with them all the middle-class jobs. One only has to look at the shriveled newspaper industry to see his very valid point. But Lainer goes on to show this isn’t just impacting media content but how our new technical tools are leading this hollowing out of the middle class to happen in all sorts of industries. In many ways Lanier has a Marxian concern that the loss of the middle class will lead to widespread impoverishment and eventually destroy the profitability of the very companies doing it. .He presents a very thought provoking idea is that of a system of micro-payments where our new technology monopolies pay for the content/data that we the users generate, and then we in turn pay for the currently free services. I am not sure how plausible this would be, but if current trends hold it’s a least an attempt to generate a solution to some serious developing problems (Check out the Harari interview mentioned above for some real fearful consequences of our explosive technological development. Perhaps the Luddites were right after all, sigh).
The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy – David Graeber. I read the fascinating anthropologist Graeber’s excellent Debt the first 5000 years a few years back and loved most of it. It was overall very excellent although with a few regrettable errors, and reintroduced the powerful anthropological study of gift-giving to my world view. This fascinating essay on the history, importance—and even joys—of bureaucracy is equally excellent. There are few modern intellectuals in the world as original or profound as Mr. Graeber. There are so many great ideas that I don’t know where to start, but in particular the historian in me thanks him for introducing the Prussian mail service to my historical understanding. But regardless of all the higher order analytical work Gaeber has on offer here, If I were lucky to have a dinner conversation with Mr. Graeber I would enjoy discussing our respective theories behind the rise of comic book heros in our post-modern world. I very much enjoyed his brief parlay into this and in particular his point that Batman is a conservative icon.
The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century – Jürgen Osterhammel – Wow. This book is one of the best history books, if not the best, I have ever read. If this is implematic of German historical writing than I want more! It is simply excellent. It is also large, very large. A comprehensive history of the 19th century organized by social science theme rather than by region, empire, or temporal narrative. It is not just a social history, but also a meditative history on the massive transformations that our the nineteenth century wrought on the world. This is historiography at it’s finest. The author is incredibly erudite and very eloquent. There are tons of true gems in here from expositions on the impact of photography on communal imagination to thorough analysis of human migration causes & consequences. Mr. Osterhammel thoroughly covers nearly every social science theme in incredible detail/though and couples it with a comprehensive analysis of everything of note that happened in that century on basically the entire planet. Simply amazing. It also took much of my spring/summer.
A book I chanced upon that I absolutely devoured was Think like an Engineer by Guru Madhavan. This was a total surprise treat filled with great vignettes on the history of engineering and illustrative anecdotes from brilliant innovations drawn from both famous examples (Edison, Jobs, Wright bros, etc.) and much less known but ubiquitous examples (zip codes, atm, 24 hour time zone). Organized by engineering concept, and focusing on conceptual modular systems thinking based on analysis of structure, constraints, and tradeoffs Madhavan shows how the engineering mind learns and develops solutions. However what I really loved was his juxtaposition of his background growing up in India with these stories. He not only gives good insight into innovation but he highlights some very important Hindu contributions to the world and tells some great stories along the way.
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern – Stephen Greenblatt Ph.D. Historical Research as adventure story! This pulitzer prize winning story about the15th-century rare book hunters was utterly fascinating. Greenbaltt centered on how the sometime papal secretary Poggio Bracciolini, found the last copy of the great Roman poet Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things hidden away in a monastery. Greenblatt goes on to explain how Lucretius’s poem utterly transformed the world view of the late 15th century Florence/Italian humanists setting the stage for the profound ontological changes of the early scientific revolution/age of discovery/latter romantics, etc. He makes some very interesting points and I am not expert enough on late medieval thought to comment. However I found the papal intrigues of 15th century Florence to be the most fascinating part of the book.
The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are– We are seeing a real blossoming of regional histories of late, which is a very good thing. This book captured me with it’s map of the North Sea on the first page, with the northern orientation moved slightly to the west so that the cities of the North Sea (Amsterdam, London, Brussels, Antwerp, Oslo,) all facing one another. I realized that I hadn’t quite put together just how connected those cities and cultures really were until studying that map. This is a truly great regional history that gives the background stories of the region that through it’s institutions and mastery of the scea birthed us our modern world of English speaking post imperial global capitalism. One very poignant fact that I learned was how much of the conversion to Christianity was often a business decision on behalf of the ruling elite. I am not sure why that hadn’t really occurred to me before but the spread of Christianity into Northern Europe really made a lot more sense when I realized the advantages it gave the existing leaders. Recommended.
Closely related, at least geographically, was Michael Booth’s The Almost Nearly Perfect People on Modern Nordic society–focusing mostly on the Danes. Sadly this was a book I checked out an e-version of and only made it 40% before the library reclaimed it (So much for saving money by returning to libraries). It was an enjoyable read if the author is a little too curmudgeonly British for my taste. He does present a fairly balanced view of modern Nordic life, with all the positives of their egalitarian and open culture and the broad social welfare system, as well as the little discussed negatives (declining education/work ethic, high personal debt, taxes, and, of course, the one that most speaks to me: the terrible weather).
The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World – David W. Anthony. This is another great history book. This time an investigation into how the Indo-European languages–and the original horse riding cultures that spoke them–spread through the prehistoric world. I confess though that in many places this reads like a PHD archeological dissertation turned into book, hence I skimmed vast portions of it. However I learned much, particularly about how powerful the domestication of the horse was. I also learned about the early Oxus Valley Civilization which I was unaware of. The author should also be commended for opening the archives of Soviet archeology for the rest of us.
The Pillars of the Earth – Ken Follett. This is a truly excellent historical fiction work on building a Cathedral. I found it a very peaceful meditation that succeeded in transporting me into the life of a medieval master mason. The one time home builder in me absolutely loved it.
The Martian – Andy Weir. This book was simply awesome. Apollo 11 meets Robinson Crusoe on Mars with a charismatic botanist as the stranded lead. Rarely I have encountered such fun or exciting adventure writing centered mostly on mundane sciencey facts. I loved it, I even cried as the cheesy rescue operation was attempted. Then I watched the great Ridley Scott movie filled with beautiful landscape shots of Mars and I went ahead and cried again.
And as always I read the Best Science Writing of 2015 collection of magazine pieces. I can’t say that I was quite as wow’d by this year’s guest editor Rebecca Skoot’s choices as I have been in years past. She had a very strong focus on human interest stories, many excellent but certainly not some of the best work of some of the selected authors (particularly the NewYorker authors like Kolbert and Atul Gulwade but also classics like E.O. Wilson). However like always there are some truly excellent pieces in this work and some very fascinating stories like the Brook Jarvis’s The Deepest Dig or Lisa Hamilton’s excellent and absorbing Linux for Lettuce.
Books I was surprised that I did not like:
Seveneves: A Novel – Neal Stephenson. Strangely I have not been able to finish this Stephenson novel. Before Seveneves if you would have asked me who my favorite author was I would have told you Stephenson without a doubt. Usually I devour his works and count his classics like The Diamond Age, Cyrptomonicon, or the Baroque Cycle to be among my favorite book list ever. Even at a 1000 pages with way too much scripted action sequences I absolutely loved Anthem, it is rare that a book can so transport you to an alternative yet internally logical and very intelligent universe like it did. However Seveneves just bored me. I hated it from the beginning, perhaps I just did not like the idea of the moon exploding but I put it down after 60 pages and have not been able to make much progress since.
Another one that I read but did not really like was Hitchens’s Arguably. I normally love his writing but this collection of essays left me sort of empty, probably because the best ones in the collection I had already read when they were first written.
Looking at my list I can tell that I am a bit too serious this year. I need to get back into some good fiction. I have really been struggling to get into narratives but I know that my dreams and writing both greatly improve when I read quality fiction. If you have any recommendations, please send them along.