A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
Combat videos reminded me of Nadsat and the ultra-violence enjoyed by Alex and his droogs.
Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K. Dick
Both books very good, and both very different from the movies, which are classics.
King Rat, China Miéville
The author has an admirable convention of mentioning in the acknowledgements music used during the creation of the story, so you can set the mood for Kraken by putting on some Burial. This story, his debut effort, is set to Jungle drum & bass, citing “Glok” by A Guy Called Gerald as “still the most terrifying slab of guerrilla bass ever committed to vinyl.”
There is no Antimemetics Division, qntm
The author optimized according to Thoughts on self-publishing resulting in a very attractive and readable paperback.
Killing Pablo, Mark Bowden
Bowden proved his ability to tell a story in Black Hawk Down, and this magazine-style biography is a good balance of history, analysis, and Miami Vice. Escobar atoned for a multitude of sins with public works in Medellín, but the reader is hard-pressed to spare a tear when he is finally shot dead running barefoot over rooftops.
Rust, Jonathan Waldman
The title was used unconventionally to describe corrosion in general, but ferrous oxide is the supervillain in the struggle against infrastructure entropy.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot
HeLa is the oldest and most often used sample of human cells used in laboratory testing. Before 1951, there were no human cells that could be kept alive indefinitely outside a living body. Henrietta Lacks died at age 31 of a very aggressive cervical cancer, and a biopsy grew into a successfully commercialized cell line. Raises thorny questions of informed consent, especially at a time when patients were not very well informed.
American Sketches, Walter Isaacson
A purchase from the remainders section at the now-closed World Bank InfoShop; short versions of the author’s successful biographies.
Intellectuals, Paul Johnson
This gossipy ad-hominem survey of (mostly left-leaning) authors and thinkers makes a persuasive argument that they were awful people, but the fair reader wonders if the heroes of the right were any better. Entertainingly sensational and salacious.
Open, Andre Agassi
Agassi is not a likable narrator, but like many sports stars his childhood was consumed by athletics, which earns him some sympathy. Again and again he tells journalists he hates tennis, “But you don’t really hate tennis,” they say; he assures them he does. Two sisters and older brother Phil failed to satisfy their father’s monomaniacal retirement plan, for Andre tennis takes the place of high school, friendship and family, and finally he makes good.
With only one anchor in life, he is constantly surprised to find himself telling reporters how much he loves the sport. He is infuriated at the way sportswriters associate him with the “Image is Everything” tagline he pronounced for a Canon camera ad, yet he obsesses over his hairpiece, earrings, and the denim shorts look.
Recommended by Tyler Cowen as an example of reading the best book in any subject to expand one’s horizons. An easy and compelling read, if not always enjoyable.
Pushing the Limits, Henry Petroski
At the end it is revealed that this is a collection of columns from American Scientist magazine, explaining the lack of cohesion in a book of great disasters and achievements and some more prosaic stories.
The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson
Having heard so much about this book, I wasn’t too surprised by the contents. After Kahneman and Tversky demonstrated the unreliability of our thought processes, then many of their studies succumbed to the replication crisis, we learned not to be too sure of anything. This book argues that, not only do we deceive ourselves, it is often to our advantage to do so. Rough times for epistemology, but there is still plenty for the curious to learn.
Cycles of Life, Vaclav Smil
How the World Really Works, Vaclav Smil
The 1997 title reads like a textbook, full of sterile descriptions of flowchart diagrams depicting biological material flows: carbon through phytoplankton and animal respiration, the nitrogen cycle, the “terrestrial nitrogen cycle centered on plants,” the “modern biogeochemical sulfur cycle.” In many cases, a critical reaction keeping the living world in balance is performed by some random bacterium you never heard of. It’s a good reminder of how complex the biosphere is. Scientists can carefully measure the amount of nitrogen in the atmosphere, but soil measurements depend on sampling and extrapolating. Even more difficult is measuring flow between reservoirs. Atmospheric nitrogen must be “fixed” into compounds like ammonia to be useful for plants, and lightning is part of this process, but calculations of the flow depend on estimates of the frequency of lightning strikes, the length of their path and power, and the number of nitric oxide molecules produced.
How the World Really Works is an ambitious survey of the processes that make modern human life possible, with a focus on energy and materials, especially the “four pillars” of civilization: cement, steel, plastics, and ammonia. Claiming to be neither an optimist or a pessimist, Smil describes the fascinating processes that make these substances widely available, with sober assessments of the challenges surrounding decarbonization goals.
Endurance, Alfred Lansing
The ultimate story in the misery literature canon. The will to live enables an amazing level of heroic struggle, but the real lesson is how often the men record joy and gratitude in their diaries despite circumstances that would seem absolutely inimical to any hint of cheerfulness. The power of positive thinking has limits, though, and at some point while on the boats they were reduced to “cursing everything cursable.”
Two men stopped me in public to comment on the paperback I carried around. A month after I finished rereading this classic, the discovery of the wreck was announced.
The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes
Atom Bombs, John Coster-Mullen
Rhodes’ book won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, the National Book Award for Nonfiction, and a National Book Critics Circle Award. I found only one other title to win these three prizes, and want to see if it is half as good as Rhodes.
I deliberated over paying $50 for Atomic John’s self-published history, but was delighted when the author replied to my e-mailed thank-you note for a signed copy, forwarding a collection of additional documents and later providing tourist advice before my visit to the Navy Yard museum. In 2017 he declared my trip report on the total solar eclipse and Oak Ridge National Laboratory “Fascinating!!” and expressed a desire to see a total solar eclipse. Last year, in Tennessee again, I sent John a photo of the Norden bombsight at the new K-25 history center, and his daughter replied to say he passed away in April.
His book is not as polished as the Pulitzer Prize winner, but equally fascinating, about three-quarters photos, primary documents and footnotes. He even corrected the record in some cases, and discovered that the Little Boy bomb was a “girl.”
The Essential Hayek, The Essential Milton Friedman, The Essential Ronald Coase
More free summaries in the Essential Scholars series.
The Armchair Economist, Steven E. Landsburg
“Economic theory predicts that you are not enjoying this book as much as you thought you would.” The “economic way of thinking” is very useful in seeing how the world works, so I like entertaining Freakonomics-style presentations of theory in everyday life, but glib generalizations sometimes seem too tidy to be useful.
I don’t have much of an ear for poetry, and the story was less than compelling, mostly of interest as source material for John Gardner’s Grendel, crafted for the modern reader. But classics endure because they are worth keeping, and Beowulf is better than most books. I would have appreciated an inspiring speech or two from Hrothgar, something in the Anabasis style.
The Classics, Caroline Taggart
A cheesy dictionary of Greek and Roman trivia bought at the World Bank InfoShop.
The Grapes of Wrath
As described earlier, the book seemed to advance a dishonest case for socialism. There’s a story about the film version of the novel being criticized as un-American and socialist, so that Stalin took notice and allowed the foreign film to be shown in the USSR as anti-capitalist propaganda. The plan backfired when it became clear viewers were amazed that poor Americans could ever live in a relatively nice farmhouse and afford rifles and shotguns. When things got desperate, the Joads were still able to buy a car and drive across the country in search of a better life, a dream for Stalin’s subjects. He pulled the film.
The Wrecker, Robert Louis Stevenson (with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne)
Starts with a fantastic coming-of-age, poor-in-Paris, seafaring adventure, goes a bit off track which I blame on the collaboration. Stevenson is one of the great writers and storytellers.
Thank You, Jeeves, P. G. Wodehouse
Reliably diverting, but with less Jeeves than usual, and a ridiculous racial plot device that now seems awkward.
A Handful of Dust, Evelyn Waugh
Another satirical look at a British aristocrat, but with a bizarre plot turn that ends up in the South American jungle.
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austin
Assigned to the kid, read in sympathy. I found it very boring and was relieved to see two 2-star ratings by GoodReads friends when I finished.
Neil Gaiman: American Gods: Shadows, American Gods: My Ainsley, American Gods: The Moment of the Storm
The graphic novel was a good rendering of the novel, like a movie easy to consume while leaving a lot out.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane
A forgettable eBay paperback.
Thomas Hardy Summer Series
The Mayor of Casterbridge
Hardy lights one slow-burning fuse after another: a 21-year vow to abstain from strong liquors after a scandal, a packet of compromising correspondence, insults given unawares, a bombshell “do not open until” letter, and of course a complicated geometry of affections requited and not. Victorian English throughout: “Some folk want their luck buttered.”
Tess of the d’Urbervilles
“The Woman Pays” is a chapter heading in the table of contents and also a spoiler for the whole book. Poor Tess grew up without books, and fell for a man who took advantage of her innocence. “Why didn’t you tell me there was danger in men-folk?” she cries to her mother. “Why didn’t you warn me? Ladies know what to fend hands against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks; but I never had the chance o’ learning in that way, and you did not help me!” More Victorian vocabulary: dolorifuge, temerarious, purlieus.
Far From the Madding Crowd
Hardy’s first literary success, establishing the formula of a strong yet flawed woman navigating a harsh and male-dominated agrarian world. The hero, shepherd Gabriel Oak, is a bit too ideal a rival for the dashing but despicable Sergeant Troy. Both are drawn to the heroine’s good looks, which at the time included “something in the exact arch of her upper unbroken row of teeth”.
The Journals of Lewis and Clark
Captain Clark doesn't spell a word the same way twice; now a bedside table decoration.
The Story of My Life, Helen Keller
The story was amazing and inspiring, but much of the book is composed of her letters, which seemed like the typical correspondence of a young woman, only very interesting because they were written by hand, without assistance, with very good handwriting!
10,522 total pages read in 2022 (10,031 in 2021), 37 books (up from 32), 21% of total pages in digital form (down from 38%). $139 spent on reading material (down from $192).