What I Read, 2020 Edition

  1. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan.  After reading this 505 page history, I hereby firmly resolve to not judge a book by its cover.  Had I spent 10-15 minutes skimming chapters, I would have realized that this book is not in fact about “silk roads”, whatever that means to Frankopan.  The book is pitched in the Prologue and on the back cover as being a history of the world told from a non-traditional perspective, which I interpreted as non-Western.  I even had the temerity to think it would be about Central Asia, helped by the beautiful mosque-ceiling cover image.  I in fact loved the first 80-100 pages, as there was information about very early empires in the Middle East and North Africa.  But I felt that as soon as the Roman empire came about, the book became, at least, Mediterranean focused.  Once the Crusades arose, I started to wonder if this book was secretly about Western Europe.  Once contact with the New World was made, the book was firmly in the Western Europe history camp.  I learned very little about trade in Central Asia, despite annoying oblique references, tacked on at the end of long sections or chapters, about how in fact whatever I had just read about battles or successions was actually about resources in the Middle East, which I think is what the author means by “Silk Road”.  That said, the book is well-written and researched, so it could very well be that the publisher chose this irrelevant name.  And the publisher was right – Another History of the West: You’ve Basically Read This Before would not have earned my dollars.
    1. Grade: B
    2. Fun fact: Ukraine is the world’s 3rd largest wheat exporter.
  2. Invisible Countries: Journeys to the Edge of Nationhood by Joshua Keating is a 426 page journey that surprised and disappointed.  It opens on the 2016 World Football Cup, a tournament of teams from entities not recognized by FIBA, in Abkhazia.  Every year there are articles on the CONIFA World Cup  because it is a fun spectacle, and I thought this book would be a profile of entities those teams represent.  But it isn’t really.  Instead, it is closer to an undergraduate textbook on sovereignty.  I mean that sentence as a compliment: if you have never thought about what sovereignty means or have not heard of the Treaty of Westphalia, then this book is great.  I learned some interesting tidbits and do not regret reading it, it was just a bit more academic, less voyeuristic, than expected.  Recommended.
    1. Grade: B
    2. Fun fact: Senegal and Gambia merged from 1982 to 1989.
    3. Fun fact: You could be an e-resident of Estonia, giving you the ability to conduct business as a legal entity in Europe.
    4. Fun fact: Liberland is an approximately 2.7 mi^2 piece of land between Croatia and Serbia that neither country wants.
  3. Printed in North Korea: The Art of Everyday Life in the DPRK by Nichols Bonner is a 231 page coffee table book of prints from North Korean artists.  I found it at a bookstore in Echo Park one night with Jessica and did not think twice about the $40 price point since I try to learn as much as possible about North Korea.  It was money well spent, and this is what money is for.  All the pieces are propaganda because it is North Korea and, if there is a private market for art, it certainly is not established enough to appear in books.  Each page contains 1-2 prints and a few sentences explaining the significance of each.  Between the captions, preface, and acknowledgements, I learned more about North Korea from this book than from anything else I’ve consumed.  It is also hard not to get swept away by the joy and energy the prints depict, which is of course their point.  Sitting on a comfortable couch in a rich country, I could be convinced that the pieces are even more persuasive in situ.
    1. Grade: A
    2. Fun fact: South Koreans are depicted wearing Western t-shirts and protesting against their government.  Japanese are shadowy and wear round glasses.
  4. Fantasyland: How American Went Haywire, a 500-Year History* by Kurt Anderson.  I have not provided a link to this book because you should not read it, and the asterisk indicates that I did not finish it.  In fact, I stopped at page 42, and it was one of the best decisions I made this year.  My first warning should have been that the two featured endorsements, Lawrence O’Donnell and Tom Brokaw, are not from writers.  My second warning should have been that the subtitle has a subtitle.  My third warning should have been realizing that the contradiction in the two subtitles: if America has been haywire its entire history, then it never went haywire, it always was.  Such disregard for basic logic, disgust at myself for having missed that fault, and describing Protestantism as “viral” was enough to make me cut my losses.
    1. Grade: F.
    2. Fun fact: Virginia was sold as a paradisiacal land, causing one historian, Daniel Boorstin, to suggest that America is shaped by a selection effect of people susceptible to advertisement.
  5. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles by Mike Davis.  When you ask people, or at least the people I know, for a general book to read about Los Angeles, they almost always recommend this one.  First published in 1990, this book is 7 chapters analyzing different facets of Southern California history, from subversive culture to the fault lines of political power, the rise of the NIMBY movement to “fortress architecture” and Fontana, an Inland Empire city.  I found the chapter on the Catholic Church very forgettable because it felt the most like academic history, but I could see how many would like it.  I gained an appreciation for the subversiveness of noir, early battles for the political soul of the city, the kooky spirituality that permeates LA, and the relationship of the early elite to downtown.
    1. Grade: B+
    2. Fun Fact: The Kaiser of Kaiser Permanente is Henry J. Kaiser, a major industrialist who was famous for reconciling the free market with a social safety net.  His company is responsible for the SoCal (maybe even West Coast) steel industry and therefore the military-industrial complex of the region.  He was incredibly popular and rumored to be FDR’s choice for Vice-President for his fourth term.
    3. Fun Fact 2: Fontana is the birthplace of the Hell’s Angels.
  6. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Harari.  A sequel and printed on thick, glossy stock more suited for a fancy magazine, this 402 page contextualization of our generation’s data revolution pleasantly surprised.  I really did not want to buy into the Harari hype, but this book was a pleasure to read, save the parts suggesting humanity is on the cusp of an immortality revolution.  His ability to cut through noise and identify signal across millenia is impressive and feels right, which I have to believe derives from his intense meditation practice.  Even if wrong, the confidence of the assertions, and the clear amounts of learning on which they are based, impresses.  The book is at its weakest, however, when it pursues its subtitle, humanity’s future.  Here, when he discusses how powerful machine learning is or how AI will make wide swathes of humanity disposable, I feel he has spent too much time in Silicon Valley and Tel Aviv.  In these sections, fortunately pushed to the book’s end and thoroughly introduced by Harari saying these visions are almost certainly wrong, the book feels most like a sequel.
    1. Grade: A-
    2. Fun fact 1: That the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizen came contemporaneously with the military draft is not a coincidence.
    3. Fun fact 2: Large green spaces, like lawns and quads, have cultural appeal because the ability to water large tracts of land with no economic purpose was a huge status symbol – have to have tons of money you do not need to do that – starting in Early Modern Europe.
  7. Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything by James Gleick.  I hate finished this 281 unfocused collection of unfocused compendia of unfocused paragraphs just so I could give it an F.  (The short chapters, which I’m sure struck Gleick and his editor as a genius representation of Modernity.)  Instead of dignifying this collection of “Whoah technology changes!” essays that could never have been published by a non-famous author, let me instead provide the following verbatim paragraph from page 269:
    1. Example paragraph: “Light is good.  Yet in the dark the stars come out.  You have to wait long enough for your eyes to adjust to the darkness.  The human eye is an instrument capable of resolving a very large range of intensities, but not all at once.  The very bright and the very faint cannot be seen together.  Finally, accustomed to the dark, you see what was invisible in the light.”  My marginalia comment: “A freshman wrote this.”
    2. Grade: F
    3. Fun fact: Sensory deprivation tanks existed when this book was written; they are not just a fad from 2013-2015.  Personal time management was not a book category until the 1980s (seems too good to be true).
  8. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang.  This 223 page graphic novel is classified as teen literature because it is about learning to accept who you are, but I do not see why any age should not read it.  This reading was actually the second, but I forgot to add it to my list last year.  I have only read a few graphic novels and all except for those of Guy Delise are purchased by my wife, so I am on less sure footing here than when reviewing traditional books.  That said, it received a lot of awards, and I very much enjoyed it.  The second read was better than the first because I could pay more attention to the illustrations and keep track of the overlapping storylines.
    1. Grade: A
  9. Gödel’s Proof by Ernest Nagel and James R. Newman – I discovered this 102 page treatise, written in 1958, at Alias Books East, a wonderfully intellectual used bookstore in Atwater Village.  (I don’t want to live further east in Los Angeles than we do, but if I had could live within walking distance of this store I would consider it.)  Though I never got beyond Linear Algebra, I have always wanted to understand Gödel’s theorem beyond just “no system is internally consistent”, so I knew this book was my chance.  It is dense and merits another read, but I am very happy I purchased it.  My slightly deeper understanding of the theorem now is that Gödel created a system to convert metamathematics, statements about math, into numbers that encoded those statements and the solving of which produced logically true statements within the system.   However, this encoding would also produce contradictory statements, so therefore no system of arithmetic – the author’s use that word, so I am not sure if the theorem applies to parts of math that are not arithmetic or even if there are parts of math that are not reduced to arithmetic – is internally consistent.  I cannot say I fully understand why making metamathematical statements arithmetic means the produced contradictions are different than contradictions produced within arithmetic itself, though I suspect a second read would clarify.  Also, the book is crisply written, there is no waste of words here; good academic writing.
    1. Grade: A
    2. Fun fact: Gödel was a professor at the University of Vienna, wrote his proof at 25, and ended up at the Institute of Advanced Study by 1938 (probably because of the looming war).
  10. Legends of the Condor Heroes I: A Hero Born by Jin Yong (Louis Cha) – This 383 page Hong Kong novel was a fast, exciting read.  Set around 1200 A.D., I was slightly disappointed when I later learned it was written in 1959.  That fact does not take away from the book’s quality, but it means details that I thought were “true”, like the rise of Genghis Khan, may be modern imaginations of the past.  The writing is economical, but the scenes felt very vivid, perhaps because the action – kung fu, horseback riding, and steppe battles – is new to me.  Apparently many people call it the “Chinese Lord of the Rings”, especially because it is a trilogy.  I think “novel version of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is more accurate.  I would like to finish the trilogy one day, but since we do not own the other two, it will have to wait.
    1. Grade: A-
    2. Fun fact: My stereotyped impression of kung fu move names – “Push the Moon”, “The Wilting Flower Dies”, “Reverse the Autumn Cold”, whatever – is not far off.  It turns out they really are that mixture of poetic and descriptive.
  11. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler – Oh man this 231 page novel was very stylish.  I felt like I was reading a classic Hollywood noir film – everyone is shifty and quick to anger, there is lots of night and rain, women are bad news, and there are lots of twist.  I was especially taken with how rainy it was; it’s hilarious that darkness and rain are so associated with noir since SoCal has so little of both.  I had trouble following the plot.  There were lots of characters, new ones in almost every chapter, and they all seemed the same: no one trusted anyone and women were either cagey or too available.  Despite the confusion, I could follow the main points, which boil down to one guy doing all the good things and kissing all the women.  The writing style is very straight-forward, but unlike Hemingway it was not boring, perhaps because the plot clearly was not autobiographical.  It was also fun because there were a lot of quick phrases and bon mots that I did not understand because the writing is 80 years old. I will read more Chandler and noir.
    1. Grade: B+.
    2. Fun fact: Old convertible roofs had rain soak through them really easily.
    3. Fun fact 2: You used to have to buy pornography from backrooms in bookstores.
  12. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion – This 238 page essay collection was uneven but overall well worth the read.  I learned a little about John Wayne, a good amount about suburban melodrama in the San Gabriel Valley, a lot about Haight Ashbury in the early 1960s, and even more about Didion’s anxiety and neuroses.  It is actually that last bit, the essays in Part II (Personals), that I enjoyed the most.  Though Didion is a WASP from Sacramento, this Jew from Connecticut saw a lot of his thoughts in her worries.  I always thought she was a liberal New Yorker, but I’m not sure from where that idea came.  Aside from an 8 year sojourn there in her 20s, she is a Californian through and through.  I believe she is more a conservative inland California though, a middle-class Christian of the Central Valley who felt that her titular essay captured the start of the ripping of America’s cultural fabric.
    1. Grade: B
    2. Fun fact: I don’t have any here because this was Jessica’s copy and I don’t get to annotate her books.
  13. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James Cain – This 116 page 1934 novel is the second noir fiction in a row I read.  I prefer it to The Big Sleep because I could actually follow the plot.  Upon publication, its sadomasochism and violence caused Boston to ban it.  I found the former weird: the female character is aroused multiple times upon the male’s hitting of her.  The latter did not seem particularly bad.  The characters are also working class and the setting Glendale and east, in contrast to Chandler’s luxury settings and places.  I enjoyed it but do not understand why it is a classic; none of the characters are particularly kind, and only a lawyer provides some levity.
    1. Grade: B
    2. Fun fact 1: Cars used to have a gauge telling you the engine temperature, and you had to pay close attention so it would not overheat.  You could then use the required cooling down period to kill your lover’s husband.
  14. Bitwise: A L1fe 1n C0de by David Auerbach.  This 259 page memoir is the surprise of the year.  I do not remember when I bought it and no one claims to have gifted it to me, which I suppose is the ultimate gift of the anti-library.  The author explains his lifelong attraction to the certainty and order of software engineering and the uncertainty and chaos of the human condition.  While Auerbach is a better coder than I ever will be, I relate intimately to this tension.  I studied economics (order) and anthropology (infinite uniqueness) as an undergraduate and oscillate between believing my statistical models (certainty) and feeling like an astrologer (humanities).  Part 2, the chapters about the difficulty of categorizing humans with numbers, was the highlight, and I am going to assign it in my statistics class.
    1. Grade: A
    2. Fun fact: To compete with AIM, Microsoft built Messenger so that its users could chat with AIM users.  AOL did not like this and consistently updated its software to break this compatibility.
  15. The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler.  This 379 page novel by Raymond Chandler is exceedingly bbbboooooorrrrrrrriiiiiinnnnnnnngggggg.  The same way I could have shortened that word with fewer letters, Chandler could’ve shorted the book.  Marlowe meanders through every scene, goes down dead ends, and spends lots of time sitting and thinking.  These features would be fine if he was a sympathetic character or had interesting things to say (“There is nothing emptier than an empty swimming pool” or “There is nothing happier than a happy Mexican” are not interesting).  Instead, we get the same lack of character development, just with more characters and places.  Since misogyny in noir was not offensive enough, Chandler made sure to add a generous dollop of racism (the Chilean housekeeper he keeps calling Mexican).  I could tolerate these faults in The Big Sleep because the action was brisk.  The only reason I stuck with the book is because I liked reading about old Los Angeles; I can’t imagine why anyone outside of this city liked it.
    1. Grade: C-
    2. Fun fact: The U.S. Government once printed a $5,000 bill.
    3. Fun fact 2: Encino has always been rich.
    4. Fun fact 3: There used to exist a world in which you could be rich as an author.  Now, it feels like writing books is a much less viable path to a nice home with a lake view and a fancy car.


16. On the Shortness of Life by Seneca. This 106 page essay collection – there are 3 – is the first Stoicism I have read in at least a decade, probably longer. I enjoyed reading it as an historical document. Seneca refers to the Ancients, famous individuals (lawyers, politicians, philosophers, etc.) lost to history, and old tribes long since absorbed into other groups. I did not enjoy the inconsistent use of line breaks. Reading these reminded me of reading bad student essays: for long sections, paragraphs are formatted with modern breaks, but for most of the letters paragraphs seem to be randomly decided. This collection was most enjoyable because it focuses on the mental health of his audience, and the modern relevance of much of the advice comforts. Live in the present moment; give yourself alone time; and do not be seduced by material comfort, for example, are still true, which suggest these nuggets are Truth. 1. Grade: B 2. Fun fact: There has always been a rural-urban divide. Page 40: “Absolutely every type of person has hastened into the city which offers high rewards for both virtues and vices.”

17. The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance by Josh Waitzkin. This 262 page memoir consists of a wunderkind not telling you that the secret to high performance is to be a wunderkind. If you’ve heard of the book Searching for Bobby Fischer, or its movie adaptation, you know Josh; Josh is the child chess prodigy whose father wrote that book. After burning out on chess, which he picked up around the age of 6 in Washington Square Park, Josh switched to Tai Chi Push Hands, the martial form of the moving meditation. To become literally one of the top 3 to 5 performers in two fields, all you need is time and money: first, upper middle class parents; later, some other source of financial support (probably chess winnings and income from being a minor celebrity) to commit several hours a day every day. Once you have time and money, repetition means the moves become second nature, you can get in the zone, and you understand principles. I enjoy reading these books to remind me to focus on my career, and I specifically learned a lot here about competitive chess and Tai Chi. – Grade: B- – Fun fact: Tai Chi Push Hands competition is culturally very important in Taiwan and Mainland China. They see winning the World Tournaments as essential, like the USA with men’s basketball.

18. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami. This 314 page novel was my first by Murakami. I felt like I was reading a Muji store: all scenes and descriptions were economical but beautiful. (I hope that comparison isn’t offensive.) I am not sure what I was expecting, but I do feel like I learned a bit about Japanese culture. I feel bad for the main character and especially for how his friends treated him. I had heard Murakami has a bit of surrealism in his novels, and this one sort of did, I think. A sequence that may or may not have been a dream and spirits affecting a character are what still come to mind. The ending was unsatisfactory because I have no idea if Tsukuru ends up with the girl. – Grade: B+ – Favorite line: “The fresh smell of coffee soon wafted through the apartment, the smell that separates night from day.”

19. Southern California: An Island on the Land by Care McWilliams. This 378 page cultural history of Southern California is described, on its back, as the “best non-fiction book written about Southern California for the period 1920s through the 1950s.” I think that blurb means written during that time, not about California during that time, as most of the book is about California before 1920, and the book was first published in 1946. I thought it was slow at parts, but I do feel like I learned a lot about the horrible Mission system, the long mistreatment of non-Whites, and the speculative nature of Los Angles from 1870-1920. I especially enjoyed the book around its last 100 pages, as it finally talked about a California I could squint at and recognize: home construction at the turn of the century, utopian populist movements into the ’20s, spirituality movements, race, and the rise of Hollywood. McWilliams’ epilogue is lyrical and perhaps my favorite chapter. – Grade: A – Fun fact: “Mission Architecture” is a style native to Southern California. That is, it was invented by developers at the turn of the century as a local alternative to Craftsman homes. Actual Missions were much more utilitarian, and there is no equivalent in Mexico or Spain.

20. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. This 386 page novel, Murakami’s breakout, felt very similar to Colorless, though I guess really the latter is derivative of this novel. Boy who sees himself as bland has many girls who like him. He finally realizes which of the three he likes, but the novel ends without clarity as to whether she will take him back. A sudden event drives about 70% of the plot, just like the friend who accused the protagonist of rape in Colorless. There is a close male friend who also disappears quickly, like in Colorless. I enjoyed the book and am finishing a third by Murakami just to get a better feel for his ouevre. I guess authors have themes and styles just like directors, though I find it a little boring. – Grade: A- – Fun fact: The Beatles and student activism were well-known in Tokyo in 1968 as well.

21. The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle. This 229 page … guide was much different than I expected, largely for the better. I first learned of Tolle from 10% Happier, and I saw the used version I bought at a shop in my neighborhood. I passed it over the first time, but on the second pass it was still there, so I knew I had to buy it now. I’m always suspicious of any book Deepak Chopra or Oprah endorse, much less both, but this one is actually deep. His exposition is very similar to Sam Harris’ Waking Up app, but with a large dollop of spirituality thrown on top. The book is the first time I’ve seen how meditation can morph into religion, and religion is the right word because you have to take Tolle’s account of Being (also called Consciousness) on faith, until you experience it yourself. But very few people, by Tolle’s account, are truly awake, so it is likely the reader will only ever get glimpses of what he has described. Yet the peace and sense of energy he describes does describe what I occasionally feel for a couple of seconds during meditation sessions, so I do not disbelieve him. The book also refers to Christian Scripture a lot as a way to argue for the universal principles underlying meditation and religion. (He means all religion but is clearly more comfortable discussing Christianity.) It was my first exposure to mystic Christianity, and I felt like I could understand monasticsim better. – Grade: A – Fun fact: This book isn’t really about facts. There was a weird few page digression about women, Consciousness, and menses that should have been edited out.

22. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. I stopped reading around page 96. I could not follow anything going on, except something happened at Harvard, a watch store, and earlier on a golf course. Maybe if I read it on in the morning with caffeine, not at night before bed, I would appreciate it. I don’t understand why stream of consciousness has to mean nearly unintelligible. It sounds like an excuse for lazy writing to me. – Grade: F

23. Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami. This 288 page collection of short stories was nice. I realize I have trouble understanding a lot of the characters’ motivations. Something happens, they feel things, and everything is severe for some reason. – Grade: B

24. Devil in the Blue Dress by Walter Mosley. This 263 page noir novel is the best one I’ve read yet, clearly better than Chandlers’ and Cain’s. Easy Rawlins is a sympathetic protagonist just trying to get by in the world, unlike the Chandler character (just hates everyone) and Cain’s guy (a grifter). Rawlins is not helped by being black, despite being a veteran and having killed Germans. There were two angles to the book I liked. The most obvious is that it is told from a Black man’s perspective, which means there is a lot more detail about police brutality and parts of Los Angeles not treated by white authors. The book was written in 1990 and set in the early 50s. I did find the plot a little confusing – I sort of understand who was looking for the femme fatale and liked her backstory being developed towards the end of the book, but it felt like there were 3 sets of bad actors with their own motives, and I couldn’t quite follow that. – Grade: A

25. How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. I should not have read this 241 page memoir because the author is a professor only 4 years older than me and so now I’m like what I have done with my life. Oh well. I enjoyed this book much more than I thought I would because it is really a memoir that Kendi uses to illuminate how racism permeates every crevice of America. It also turns out that being an antiracist is very straightforward: just do not treat people differently based on their skin color (or any trait for that matter). It’s basically the golden rule for 2020, which is fine; wisdom is wisdom and people need reminding from time to time. I also really enjoyed the writing style. It was sometimes too staccato for me, but I like he would string sentences together while only changing the same words but creating much different meaning. – Grade: A

26. The Biggest Bluff: How I learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win by Maria Konnikova. I learned about this 326 page pop science memoir from its media campaign. I then got a free copy because it sounded relevant to a class I teach. I was right, and it is also an interesting read. I think I learned more about the culture of poker than anything else, and I am sure I would have appreciated the cameos if I followed no-limit Texas Hold’em at all. A psychology PhD, Konnikova is able to condense academic research and folk wisdom equally well. I also enjoyed the little window into Russian immigrant families. Other than giving me an urge to play poker, I cannot say the book changed my life in any way, but it was a fun read. Solid. – Grade: B+

27. The Crack-Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I forget how I heard about this 347 page collection of essays and correspondence of Fitzgerald. I had to persevere through the first 100 pages until the Notebook section, but I am glad I did. Most of the book is a collection of these random thoughts and notes, the reading of which feels like an analog Twitter; it is perfect for the bathroom or late night reading. I cannot say there was anything meaningful there, though there were often beautiful turns of phrase. The eponymous essays were also interesting, but I could not appreciate them until learning later, from other sources, that he wrote them as a poor, sickly man soon to die of a heart attack. I though those two essays were about losing professional motivation, but now I see they are about losing the joie de vivre. I also enjoyed the included correspondence from other famous people such as Edmund Wilson, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and John Dos Passos. – Grade: B+ – Fun fact 1: So much casual racism to anyone who is not Christian and male. – Fun fact 2: Fitzgerald was an alcoholic, very mad with money, and always insecure about his social status. – Fun fact 3: Princeton Princeton Princeton Princeton football football football football. Perhaps he drank because he never got over those two.

28. The World Atlas of Coffee: From Beans to Brewing — Coffees Explored, Explained and Enjoyed by James Hoffman. My wife brought this 272 page coffee table book back from a give away pile she found when walking the dog. It is the single best resource I have found to learn about coffee. The first half reviews agriculture practices, the middleman industry, roasting and brewing, and history. The second half is a very very thorough overview of the countries and regions within them where coffee is grown. Throughout, the photos are beautiful, the writing clear, and it is obvious that the author knows his material. If you do not like coffee, you will hate this book. If you like it, you will love it. Grade: A+

29. Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It has been twelve years since I read this 368 page memoir cum statistics primer. I was a 21 or 22 year old recent college graduate living alone in Minneapolis and trying to understand the Great Recession, and Taleb came to widespread attention as a result of it. This book was the first I read that caused me to really try to understand randomness and the effect of big events. It was very fun to reread. Now that I have a PhD and use statistics everyday and study fat-tailed outcomes (protests), the book is not as edifying the second time. That’s not Taleb’s fault, and I would love to assign this book to students, though I am concerned they would just hear, “Statistics are bad.” There was not as much personal reflection as I remember, though the stuff I did learn stuck out more – Taleb is risk averse, loves randomness but understands you have to compartmentalize it, and probably owes this view to the effect the Lebanese civil war had on his family. Grade: A.

30. The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. I have known about this 292 page self-help memoir since at least my early 20s, and I have consumed plenty of Ferriss’ other material but never his breakout hit. So when a neighbor’s take-one-leave-one library had it, it was a no brainer. While the book has aged about as well as you would expect a 13 year old book about the internet to age, I enjoyed it because it make me realize that a lot of friends’ behavior and thoughts derive from this book. He is probably the first drop shipping was made widely known as a strategy for passive income. He also has to be one of the earliest popular people to recommend reducing e-mail use and meeting time. I have also long fantasized about hiring a virtual assistant to do basic work for me, and I now realize that I must have learned about it from him or someone who learned from him. An easy, often fun book to read, but I would only ever quickly skim it again. Grade: B-.

31. you are not a gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier. This 207 page ramble intensely disappointed. The preface and first chapter were great, but the other chapters did not hang together for me. Like Ferriss in 2007, this book in 2010 was certainly prescient about the dangers of surrendering so much of our lives to digital technology. And like Taleb, the paragraphs are short and do not always follow a logical pattern to this reader. I found it hard to tell when an argument was supported by evidence or just by another argument. I also wanted more discussion about hardware and software, similar to Auerbach’s book. While Lanier has certainly always been right to warn about our digital overlords, I do not agree with that argument because of this book. Grade: C.

32. When the Plums Are Ripe by Patrice Nganang. Holy amazeballs this 337 page novel is the best one I have read in several years. The second in a trilogy – I have not read the first – this provocative story follows an aspiring poet who also works for the French colonial administration, his illiterate star boxer cousin, and their friends and family at the start of World War II. Not only is the book exquisitely written (hats off to Amy B. Reid, the translator), it’s educational: I had no idea Cameroon, where I studied abroad as an undergrad, was the first Vichy government to fall to the Free French forces. The campaign of LeClerc, the Free French commander, is the main narrative force of the story, and the reader sees World War II from an entirely new, decidedly not glamorous, perspective. I especially loved reading about towns and groups I remembered from studying there, which certainly caused the novel to resonate with me more than it might for most people. Nonetheless, it is very well-reviewed. I will buy the first and third now. Grade: A+.

33. A New York Life: Of Friends & Others by Brendan Gill. I grabbed this 337 page collection of reminiscences from the give away table a hippie couple in our neighborhood maintains. I had never heard of Brendan before this book, but apparently he was apparently a well-known writer at The New Yorker for decades. A collection of over 40 profiles of friends, from the still famous (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eleanor Roosevelt) to the no longer well known, Gill has the breezy yet sophisticated writing style that makes my wife and I love The New Yorker. If I had not read Gill’s Wikipedia biography before writing this review, I would have guessed he was old line WASP, that’s how Ivy, New England heavy so many of the stories are. Reading the profiles is like a stepping stone to mainstream East Coast cultural elites from the turn of the century through the postwar world. I loved learning about the Algonquin, how cheap townhouses were, early days of commercial airfare, international travel when it was hard, the economics of writing and Broadway shows, and especially George Simenon and Buster Keaton (Dianne’s father). Quarantining reading has taught me I really enjoy reading historical books, fiction and non-fiction, as a window into how previous generations lived. Turns out they were a lot like us. Grade: A.

34. Cable Cowboy: John Malone and the rise of the modern cable business by Mark Robichaux. This 288 page borderline hagiography was given to me by a mutual fund that I have some Roth IRA money in. I had heard of John Malone because the fund owns Liberty Media stock, but I did not understand his importance in American corporate history. Robichaux is a Wall Street Journal reporter who interviewed Malone 23 times, so Malone always came out of stories looking good and never making morally questionable decisions. It was not until reading Malone’s Wikipedia entry did I learn how political he is; I am not saying he is a bad person, but he certainly is more flawed than this book allows. I nonetheless am happy I read it because I learned a lot about the rise of the cable industry, and seeing how many of those companies created massive shareholder wealth has helped me think about the type of stocks I want to own. Aside from editorial independence, the book also needed another close proofread; there were a lot of typos and mangled sentences resulting from moving around text. Grade: B-.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.