These are presented roughly in the order I read them. They include books with hard covers, paperbacks, and audio recordings.
1. A Gentleman In Moscow, by Amor Towle (2016)
What a delightful novel. The writing reflects the story. It is courtly, mannerly, and totally gripping. Set in the wake of the Russian revolution, the main character is a count in the Russian monarchy. For most entitled Russians, that was a death sentence. Due to a happy accident, our hero, rather than facing a firing squad, is condemned to house arrest. He can never leave the premises of the Hotel Metropol in central Moscow, and the entire novel takes place within its walls. Wonderfully, though, the breadth of the action and quirkiness of the characters who inhabit the Count’s world are intriguing and delightful.
This was a very enjoyable novel and I recommend it without reservation.
2. A Hero of France, by Alan Furst (2016)
Paris in 1941, ordinary French citizens taking whatever action they can to subvert the occupying Nazi forces. There was great risk and little upside. These fighters were heroes. Once again, Alan Furst brings this fraught episode in the eternal fight against fascism to life.
As the years go by, more and more stories of the real resistance fighters come to light, and we learn just how true-to-life Furst’s fictional, sometimes unbelievable, stories are.
3. Great Trains Freight: Moving Goods in the Golden Age of Railroading, by Classic Trains Magazine (2017)
This is a perfect-bound, softcover, magazine-format book published by the railroad experts, Kalmbach Publishing in Waukesha, Wisconsin. It’s a spinoff from Classic Trains magazine, a quarterly that I’ve subscribed to since they began publishing it years ago. I’m quite fascinated by the American freight rail system of the 19th and 20th centuries. It was a marvel of craft and efficiency. The system was only made possible by capitalism, and of course, that was also the root cause of its demise. Freight rail in America today is nothing like it was in its heyday during and immediately after World War II. This book is for train history geeks only, but it’s consistent with Kalmbach’s usual thorough, well-researched, white-washed standards. Excellent clear explanations, diagrams, maps, sidebars, and superb photos with detailed captions.
4. decommunized: ukrainian soviet mosaics, by Yevgen Nikiforov (2017)
In the winter of 2017 I traveled to Kiev, Ukraine, to give a speech to a large group of interaction designers. It was both enjoyable and educational to visit this still embattled former Soviet state. Upon departure, my hosts presented me with this beautiful coffee-table book. Normally, it would be shelved and forgotten, but the first images really grabbed my attention, and I ended up reading the whole book cover to cover.
Since the 1950s up through the end of the Soviet Untion in the late 80s, nearly every Ukrainian city was decorated with a huge mosaic mural. They were mostly Soviet propaganda, and as such are condemned to eventual destruction. They are gaudy, kitschy, and monumental, but they are symbols of — and witnesses to — a singular era in Central European history. The images are bold, enormous, and striking. Some are garish and ugly, while others are subtle and beautiful. Together, they comprise a cultural selfie: a composed, edited, self-conscious, image one likes to think is representative, but that the bright light of day reveals to be a propped-up delusion.
5. The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes: The Art of Alan Aldridge, by Alan Aldridge (2009)
Aldridge was an iconic illustrator of the psychedelic 1960s and 1970s. A sort of British version of Peter Max or Milton Glaser, he had enormous influence over the English pop scene. He painted album covers for The Who, Cream, and Elton John. He created TV shows and motion pictures, and influenced the likes of Terence Conran, Yoko Ono, and Steve McQueen. Aldridge’s work is characteristically complex, colorful, airbrushed fantasies of people, animals, and objects in dense profusion, often acting out stories or allegories. This book is his memoir, telling fascinating stories of his life and work. He relates his adventures getting started as an illustrator in London, dancing with Princess Margaret, meeting the constellation of European graphic art stars, then getting his big break as the art director for Penguin Books, where he created dozens of iconic paperback book covers.
6. Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green (2017)
John Green is more like a hero than an author to a certain kind of young person, a person struggling to overcome some tragic affliction like cancer or mental illness. The book was recommended to me by such a young person who had a troubled youth. I’m certainly no expert on this area, but it appears that Green’s reputation comes from his treatment of such afflictions as normal challenges of daily life, and not a world-stopping, empathy-demanding stigmata. I think the appeal is that we are all humans trying to get through this life regardless of the issues we wrestle with. There’s a lot of attraction in being normal.
7. The Four; The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, by Scott Galloway (2017)
If you’ve ever seen one of Scott Galloway’s video presentations or YouTube interviews you know that he is an entertaining and bold firebrand who calls bullshit on the captains of the tech industry with delightful erudition and a great depth of knowledge. In this, his first book, he presents four raw and revealing portraits of the dominant commercial giants of our era. Galloway is a rogue brand strategist, an experienced entrepreneur, and a trained business person with a clear eye for the forces of the market and the economy. He sees the breakdown of our traditional protections coinciding with the rise of the giant four tech companies.
I strongly recommend that you read this book. It will scare you and enlighten you to the danger we face from these corporate giants, armed as they are with unlimited money, unrestricted by laws, unrestrained by antitrust, and having full knowledge of everything you say, do, like, dislike, associate with, want to know about, browse for, and buy.
8. What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, and Open Mike Night at a Time, by Dar Williams (2017)
Well, this was an easy read, but I don’t think it’s a useful blueprint for how to fix America’s malaise. Admittedly, Williams has seen a lot of small towns in America, and she has carefully observed what makes them work well or ill. But all of her prescriptions are simple variations of her theme, which is that making community on the individual level builds community on the town level. That is true, but it can also create a racist, isolated community. Besides, if the economy is shit and justice is scarce, not much will raise it up. Everything she praises is fine, but I can’t shake the feeling that we need reform at a level somewhat higher up than the town.
9. Mortise & Tenon, Volume 1, edited by Joshua A. Klein (2016)
Since about the 1970s there has been a renewal of interest in building wooden furniture using pre-industrial tools and techniques. Those ways were time and labor intensive, but they produced artifacts of great beauty and sturdiness that industrial methods cannot match (industrial methods have other — different — benefits). Over the last 50 years, the wave of interest has gotten bigger, yes, but it has gotten a lot better, too. Yes, it’s mostly a hobby, yet a few people make their living at it. Museums have conservators and re-enactors, magazines have curious editors, and in a smattering of towns across the country and Western Europe reside crafts people who have small but devoted followers who will pay for extremely high quality original furniture. And, of course, there are the trainers and educators in the field of anachronistic making. Blogs, websites, and YouTube have given these historian-makers a path to market that, while they won’t get rich, they can at least make a living. Mortise & Tenon is a quarterly magazine, perfect-bound and magazine sized, and well over 120 pages of very high quality photos, drawings, and text, that caters to this crowd. While the new makers are facile with digital technology, they still love dead tree publications.
The magazine is filled with grist for wonks. It’s one thing to appreciate a 200-year-old chest of drawers, but if you were to build an exact replica of that chest, using only the tools and techniques of its original creator, you’d find yourself banging against a wall of unknowns. How did they do that? Why did they do it that way? What tool did they use to get that particular joint? Why not use another style of joinery? The articles in the magazine address these questions directly, sometimes with knowledge, sometimes with guesses, sometimes with an enigmatic shrug. As they say in the magazine, “All those who know why are dead.”
The fact that this book-like magazine is filled to bursting with relevant content four times a year shows just how much wisdom we’ve lost in the industrial age. As a lightweight hobbyist in this field, I doubt that I’ll have the interest or stamina to read every issue, but occasionally the deep dive it provides is vastly interesting.
10. Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech, by Sara Wachter-Boettcher (2017)
Something has gone terribly wrong in the digital age. Our bright, shiny new electronic toys, with their touch screens and vast digital powers were supposed to make everything wonderful with instant, egalitarian access to information, crowd-sourced wisdom, and benevolent service providers. Sadly, after a brief honeymoon, the reality that emerged is brokered by billionaires, skewed by algorithmic bias, and empowering of bad people.
In light of this surprise turn of events, several excellent books have appeared on the market in the last year or two that describe in detail the transgressions of digital products and the people and companies that create them. This is one of them.
11. Autonomous: A Novel, by Annalee Newitz (2017)
Yet another unbearably bad science fiction story. Did not finish.
12. The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America’s Enemies, by Jason Fagone (2017)
Frankly, I’m surprised that this book was written by a man. While it tells the story of a remarkable woman, Elizabeth Smith Friedman, it boldly describes how her groundbreaking and important work was forgotten, overlooked, hidden, and frequently usurped by men.
Friedman was a code breaker, and her work grew in sophistication and capability until it finally became the basis for the establishment of the modern National Security Agency. It’s an intriguing historical tale that’s also very relevant to our current digital world and how women are carving out professional roles for themselves today. I recommend this very well-written biography.
13. Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968, by Ryan H. Walsh (2018)
For so many people of my generation, the folky-jazzy-rock-and-pop music of Van Morrison was part of our soundtrack growing up. His hugely successful 1970 album, Moondance, is a classic and has been called one of the greatest albums of all time. But for a smaller subset of us, the true classic Van Morrison album was his earlier, more jazz-influenced, 1968 album, Astral Weeks. Astral Weeks wasn’t a commercial success and is nowhere near as well known or widely heard as the easier Moondance. Yet many other successful musicians, artists, thinkers, and creative people cite Astral Weeks as a vital link in their cultural chain.
I was 16 in 1968, but I hung out with older kids who introduced me to the record. One song from the album, “Madame George,” was talked about with great reverence, and I listened to it over and over. I played my original vinyl copy of the album so much I wore it out and had to buy another. In 1972, I spent a half year in a hippie house in London. I clearly recall playing the album on endless repeat. Few other albums got that treatment.
The author of this book, Ryan Walsh, is a musician and journalist, so he’s qualified to write either a story of the creation of the album, or a biography of Van Morrison, but this book isn’t exactly either of those. Walsh is from Boston, and lives there now, and this book is really a detailed sketch of the music scene in Boston in 1968, the cradle of Astral Weeks.
The story is convoluted, confused, and sadly under-documented but Walsh pieces it together from tiny clues. It’s filled with gangsters, death, cults, music, hucksters, and hipsters. There is far more in these pages about the contemporaneous Boston counter-culture: the hippies, the cults, the communes, and the politics than there is about Morrison. Still, it’s a look into the germination of an important cultural artifact.
One curious thing revealed in this book is that the songs on both Astral Weeks and Moondance were all written and performed by Morrison in Boston at the same time. And while those two albums are dramatically different in style and tone, they remain by far Van Morrison’s best and most beloved work, head and shoulders above anything he has recorded in his long and illustrious career.
14. 52 Boxes in 52 Weeks: Improve Your Design Skills One Box at a Time, by Matt Kenney (2018)
Like most woodworkers, I enjoy making small, wooden boxes. It’s a good way to make gifts for friends and family and to also use up scraps of hardwood that are too small for furniture yet too beautiful to throw away.
Kenney’s boxes are very attractive, but very subtle. Maybe too subtle for a hacker like me. Still, it’s always valuable to see how someone else does it.
15. The Use of Weapons, by Iain M. Banks (1990)
For a long time I’ve been looking for a good science fiction novel. I’ve struck out many times in the last few years, but Iain M. Banks really delivered the goods on this one. Because it’s been out for decades, more devoted scifi fans than I certainly already know this book and its series, but it was new to me.
Banks calls this a “Culture” novel. The Culture is a society…a race…a cult…of evolved humans that try to improve the citizens of the galaxy by subtle-not-subtle means. The three protagonists in the novel are agents of the Culture, one a member, one a mercenary, and the other a very smart robot. I won’t go into the details of it here except to say that this is an excellent novel, gripping, fascinating, deeply intelligent, with scenes and characters and ideas as challenging and beguiling as anything else I’ve read, scifi or not. I’m looking forward to reading more of the late author’s work.
16. Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, by Cathy O’Neil (2016)
The recent widespread perversion of digital technology from a helpful, friendly, empowering egalitarian information platform into an evil big-brother-panopticon that invades our lives and tattles on us to sociopathic corporations has, not surprisingly, given rise to a spate of new books on the subject. This one is — so far — the best of a pretty decent bunch, and I expect it to stay that way for awhile.
O’Neil’s insider role makes her uniquely qualified to write this book. Her “journey of disillusionment” began with a job as a quant at a hedge fund after teaching math and researching at Barnard. At the hedge fund, she was successful at finding anomalies in the market to exploit, but she realized that she was really taking money out of the hands of unsuspecting widows and orphans. In the mid-80s she witnessed all of the amoral excesses of Wall Street firsthand. After the crash of ’08, she took a job at one of those institutions set up to corral the excesses of the financiers who wrecked the economy. When she discovered that they were just rubber stamping the bad behavior, she decided to move on. By putting the magic words, “Data Scientist,” on her resume, she landed a job in the Internet economy, where she designed mathematical algorithms to maximize clicks. It was here that her journey was complete and she realized that there was no difference between weaponizing sub-prime loans and weaponizing online purchase statistics. Her beloved mathematics were being used for anti-social and quasi-legal purposes.
O’Neil is a logical scientist, so her book, while filled with fascinating anecdotes, also builds a coherent argument for understanding the pathology of big data. Her three-part definition of a Weapon of Math Destruction is clear and understandable.
- WMDs are opaque: their inner workings are hidden inside algorithms that are invisible to their victims, and often to their authors, too.
- WMDs have impact: they affect large groups of people who have much to lose but nothing to gain from their operation.
- WMDs have no feedback mechanism: if an algorithm hurts its creator, it gets fixed, but if it hurts someone else, little note is taken and the error never gets fixed.
This book is short and easy-to-read. Its prose is clear and understandable. Its logic is irrefutable and its arguments are profound. Everyone in the tech world should read this book.
17. Out On the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio, by Jessica Abel (2015)
To my surprise, when Amazon delivered this book to me I discovered that it was a graphic book. That is, it’s presented like a graphic novel or comic book. It consists mostly of interviews and stories of the more recent practitioners of audio storytelling. This kind of storytelling is delivered in rough form on podcasts, and in far more refined form on radio.
The book was interesting, but I’m not convinced that the graphic form helped it any.
18. Campaign Furniture, by Christopher Schwarz (2014)
I’ve written about Christopher Schwarz before. He has followed his passion for pre-industrial woodworking well-beyond the line of reason, and in doing so he has created a broad and supportive network of fans — like me — who adore his work. He ventured so deep down the rabbit hole of hand-tool woodworking that he quit his day job to focus entirely on finding authors who write about this stuff, both contemporary and ancient, and publishing their work. His publishing enterprise, Lost Art Press, not only brings long-forgotten experts like André Roubo and Charles Hayward back into the light, but he brings the work of contemporary designers and makers like George Walker and Christian Becksvoort forward in more thoughtful, longer form books. Also, his standards of publishing quality are high enough to make any true bibliophile swoon. Just holding a Lost Art Press book is a delight.
And Schwarz himself makes furniture and writes about it. As he confesses in the preface to this book, he has had a lifelong attraction to the mostly-forgotten genre of campaign furniture. In this volume he tells the story of this fascinating style of wooden accoutrements alongside his experience in re-creating them, and plans and advice so you can do the same.
Simply put, campaign furniture is furniture built to travel. It is lightweight, yet sturdy, protective against both the elements in foreign lands, and the knocks of extended shipboard travel. Much of it folds and collapses, or can be reconfigured to suit varied conditions. Because they are moved, they have handles, but they are recessed so that the handles don’t interfere with tight packing in the holds of sailing ships. Their corners are often reinforced with brass fittings.
The origin of campaign furniture is debated, but it clearly had its heyday in Victorian England, when more than half of the world globe was colored pink. British militarists fighting abroad or occupying foreign possessions were said to be on campaign, and thus the name of the style. Many thousands of other British diplomats, tradesmen, and statesmen used campaign furniture.
As Schwarz relates, the influence of campaign furniture design is more omnipresent than you might imagine. Every time you see a contemporary piece with recessed or brass fittings, that folds or is held together with leather strapping, you are seeing the lasting influence of the genre.
19. My Chickens and I, by Isabella Rossellini (2017)
The author is a retired celebrity. She has discovered the joy of owning chickens, and has written a short, photo-rich book extolling the virtues of having chickens in your life. Being retired and an owner of chickens myself, I totally understand and agree with her point of view.
Some people regard their chickens as pets. I don’t. I have a cat who is like part of the family. He’s getting on in years and will probably die in the next decade. It will break my heart, and I will morn Monkey’s passing like that of a family member. But when one of my chickens dies, I respectfully bury the carcass in the compost heap and go on with my business. I like them and treat them well, but they are not pets. This seems to me to be a good and appropriate relationship.
Having chickens is a joy, and like Rossellini, I recommend that you have some chickens, too.
20. Heirloom Beans, by Steve Sando and Vanessa Barrington
Steve Sando just loves beans. He is the founder of a California company that grows, imports, and sells high-quality dried beans. Rancho Gordo Beans is famous for their delicious, fresh-dried, oddball heirloom beans that Sando finds on his travels around the world. This is a book of his favorite bean recipes.
21. Crash Test Girl: An Unlikely Experiment In Using the Scientific Method to Answer Life’s Toughest Questions, by Kari Byron (2018)
The Mythbusters TV show was a wonderful thing. It changed our thinking about educational television, about science, and about the role of making and modifying things in our “No User Serviceable Parts Inside” world.
After the first season, founding hosts, Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage realized that their workload was unacceptably high. They recruited a squad of three bright, young, telegenic people to help out, who made a big contribution to the remarkable success of the show. From the beginning, one of the three, Kari Byron, showed the infectious enthusiasm that made the show so watchable.
Kari Byron’s story is fascinating and there are some commonalities between her journey and my own. Both of us are driven by our passions, rather than by any kind of planning or logic. And our passions have taken us to precisely the places we needed to be, when we needed to be there, to do the work we needed to do.
Kari is a great role model for young women, and for young men, too. I’m really pleased that she continues in this role in a post-Mythbuster world.
22. The German Aces Speak: World War II Through the Eyes of Four of the Luftwaffe’s Most Important Commanders, by Colin D. Heaton and Anne-Marie Lewis (2011)
Very fascinating first person accounts of what it was like to be a rock star fighter pilot in the Luftwaffe in the spectacular early days of World War II.
The authors spend way too much time and effort claiming the actions of these men were merely those of noble warriors and trying to separate them from the immorality of the Nazi regime. I don’t buy any of it for a second, particularly when the pilots describe how they were honored by Adolf Hitler or fêted by Hermann Goering. I can appreciate their skill as militarists and pilots without having to excuse them as complicit murderers.
23. War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century, by David Patrikarakos (2017)
This book has a good premise: that social media is as important a battle field as any other in modern warfare. But it soon became repetitive and shallow.
24. Bullshit Jobs, by David Graeber (2018)
This was one of my favorite books of the year. It made me think about so much.
Don’t let the glib title put you off. This is an important book that puts forward significant ideas. Admittedly, our means of quantifying these ideas is challenging, but this is true of all important human things.
Graeber begins bydefining what a bullshit job is and is not. Cleaning toilets may be a “shitty” job, but it’s not a bullshit job. That is, toilets need to be cleaned. A bullshit job is one that “if the position were eliminated, it would make no discernible difference in the world.” Much of the work that many people do is just attending to things that don’t need attending to, or making sure that such pointless work gets done without any joy or intellectual stimulation, for no good reason whatsoever.
But this book is so much bigger than a complaint about bullshit jobs. It’s more of an examination of the role of work in human history, and how it has evolved over time. There is a lot of scholarly depth here, and much to be learned.
We need to move our out-of-balance society to a new, more sustainable and more equitable level. The ideas and observations put forward in this book are important foundational thinking for making that move.
25. Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor, by Virginia Eubanks, (2017)
We have always wrestled with two approaches to dealing with people who, for one reason or another, cannot cope in everyday society: we punish and exclude them, or we help and accommodate them.
Today, in the digital era, we use computer software to implement these two approaches. As Eubanks makes clear in this book, software and its masters favors the “punish and exclude” way.
There’s plenty of good stuff in this book if you want to understand how bias creeps so easily and invisibly into our tech artifacts and our civic systems.
26. Tin Can Titans: The Heroic Men and Ships of World War II’s Most Decorated Navy Destroyer Squadron, by John Wukovits (2017)
During the 1930s and early 1940s, the United States’ official position was “this is not our war” even as horrific, widespread fighting spread across China, Europe, Africa, and Asia. As a consequence of this isolationist thinking, our army and navy were relatively small and weak, when, on 7 December, 1941, the Japanese bombed our naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Four days later, in solidarity with Japan, Germany unilaterally declared war on the US. America found itself going from a no-war stance to a two-war stance in a matter of days. The country was ill-prepared for military action on this scale. President Roosevelt, in consultation with his military leaders, decided on a “Europe first” policy. That is, the bulk of the country’s soldiers and sailors and equipment would head for Europe to stop the Nazis. Only after that job was completed would we lean in to the war in the Pacific.
So the Americans in the Pacific Theatre were responsible for keeping the rampaging Japanese at bay only with what they had on hand when the war broke out. There were certainly some fleet-sized naval actions, but much of the heavy lifting in the Pacific was done by the smallest of the capital ships in the inventory, the Fletcher-class destroyers. Extant doctrine at the time relegated the destroyer to support roles in combat, but by the end of the war it was clear that destroyers were far more flexible, capable, and valuable in open ocean warfare than had heretofore been thought. A lot of young lives were lost learning that lesson.
The most active squadron in the Pacific was Destroyer Squadron 21, or DesRon 21. It was awarded a combined total of 118 battle stars, three Presidential Unit Citations, and one Navy Unit Commendation. The squadron saw action from Guadalcanal to Okinawa. It was involved in most of the significant operations in the Pacific Theatre. Three of the DesRon 21 destroyers were given the honor of leading the US Navy into Tokyo Bay to accept the Japanese surrender in 1945.
This book is an excellent and readable history of the workhorses of the Pacific War.
27. The Common Good, by Robert B. Reich (2018)
Reich is a prolific author and has served in three national administrations. In this brief, small book he brings the reader’s focus back to the principles upon which our country was founded. The United States of America is based on the concept that we create a great society for ourselves when we create a great society for everyone. Reich spends a chapter establishing that point. He then devotes a chapter to showing how the principle has been systematically attacked by unscrupulous politicians and business people dating back to LBJ and Nixon. He then goes on to talk about various ways to bring us back to our founding ideals.
This is an excellent book to clear your head of the anger, resentment, arguments, flying-accusations, and lies that dominate our public discourse. It brings us back to a clear understanding of who we really are, and how we should really act.
28. The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World, by Simon Winchester (2018)
Reading Simon Winchester is a joy, and this latest work from him doesn’t disappoint. He is a literary treasure. I listened to this book and it was — as usual — a double delight because the author does his own reading. His measured pace, precise articulation, clipped Mid-Atlantic accent, and his use of British colloquialisms create an ensemble that sounds as soothing and definitive as it really is.
It was, of course, industrialization that demanded precision. So the march of industrial technology is accompanied in lockstep by the march of our ability to measure things to ever finer gradations. The digital world has taken us from the range of thousands of a inch to trillions of one. With fabulous examples and stories, Winchester explores every step of this journey to the extreme.
29. The 3D Printing Handbook: Technologies, Design and Applications, by Ben Redwood, Filemon Schöffer, and Brian Garret (2017)
This is a textbook for what I assume is a hands-on curriculum in 3D printing. As such, the book is dry as dust, but I did learn a few things, including the complete taxonomy of 3D printing. I recently purchased a 3D printer and I’m trying to learn. So far, YouTube has been the best resource.
30. Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis, by George Monbiot (2017)
Monbiot is a keen observer of the current slide of governments from enlightened social democracies towards authoritarian nationalism. In this brief but excellent book he lays out the history of how we got here and what we might do to correct things.
The author gives the most cogent description I’ve read of what neoliberalism is, how it came to be, and why it is an existential threat to the modern world. He also introduces some radical/not radical ideas about where the value in our world really comes from.
Monbiot’s central point is that although the neoliberals are lying, their lies are couched as believable and beguiling stories, and if we wish to vanquish their destructive power, facts alone are not enough. We need a believable and beguiling story, too. One that grips people by the heart instead of by the brain.
I see this as a kind of companion volume to both “The Common Good” and “Doughnut Economics.” All three books tell the story, from their respective points of view, of how we got in such a pickle, the philosophical basis for thinking about it, and a framework for solving the dilemma. Common Good is best at starkly showing how far we have fallen and the steps we’ve taken on the descent. This book gives us a narrative framing for how to think about creating a better world. Doughnut gets into the nuts and bolts of a new economy.
31. The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts, by Gary Chapman (2015)
This past summer, my wife and I drove from our Ranch home in Northern California to Los Angeles to visit our son who lives there. It’s a 7 or 8 hour drive, so we decided to listen to an audiobook on the monotonous journey. A friend of Sue’s had recommended this book, so we tuned it in.
At first, it was difficult not to switch it off. Chapman reads his own manuscript, and he spends the opening chapter telling us how wonderful his methods are and how grateful we are going to be after we learn his secrets. The marketing slime was thick, and not helped by his deep southern accent which — to my California ears — sounded disingenuous. I left it running out of respect for my wife (Sue later confessed that she felt the same way and left it running out of respect for me!). I kept thinking, “Maybe it will get better.”
Much to our astonishment, it did get better. Chapman’s concept of “love languages” turns out to be remarkably useful and effective. There is a lot I don’t like about this book, not the least of which are his starry-eyed-christianity, his staunchly vanilla heterosexuality, and his middle of the middle class middleness. And yet, this book has forever changed and improved my marriage, and Sue agrees.
His insight about “love languages” is fundamentally simple, but a good one. You must express your love in a way — a “language” — that your partner needs to have it expressed. Different people interpret the actions of their partner in different ways. That is, your partner might tell you they love you, but what you really want is a hug. Chapman’s five love languages are:
Words of affirmation
Acts of service
Oftentimes, as Chapman relates in one folksy anecdote after another, someone who regards, say, receiving gifts as true indicators of love, will shower their partner with gifts. But if their partner’s love language is quality time, all the gifts in the world won’t be interpreted as love. All they really need is to spend some time together, alone. In story after story, when someone finally realizes what his partner’s love language is, everyone lives happily ever after.
You might think that giving your loved one gifts or spending quality time with them is a normal part of expressing love, but that is not the point. One can invest a lot of effort into any of these things without effect unless it is the particular one (or more) that truly means love to your particular partner.
It’s a simple rubric, but it’s true. By the end of our journey, Sue and I were reflecting not just on our own love languages, but those of our family and friends. It all made a lot of sense.
To my surprise, I realized that words of affirmation are most important to me. Not in the way that I need be told “I love you,” but that verbal criticism cuts me deeply. Sue, on the other hand, regards acts of service as expressions of love. I’m a logical guy proud of my efficient ways, and I loathe doing things that lack sufficient purpose. Sue is always asking me to do little things, and if I agree that the little thing is worth doing, I’ll do it. But now I’ve learned that’s not the proper assessment. When I do the little things she sees me affirming my love for her. So I’ve started just doing the things she asks for without evaluating the task’s intrinsic merit. Their value comes from the way Sue regards them. In fact, I find myself looking for things that she might like me to do, and try to do them before she asks. This is something new — and very positive — in our relationship.
For some people, this might seem obvious and simple, but it isn’t, and lots of folks need help with the basics of communicating their love. Frankly, I’m embarrassed to be recommending this author and this book, but pragmatically speaking, it’s worth it.
Chapman really is a relentless marketeer, and, checking Amazon, I see that he has different versions of The Five Love Languages for Men, for Children, for Singles, for Teenagers, and for Small Groups.
32. The Last Black Unicorn, by Tiffany Haddish (2017)
In Los Angeles (see the previous entry), we hung out with our 31-year-old son and his friends. We talked about “The Five Love Languages” and asked for recommendations for a book for the return trip. I stressed that I would prefer women authors. One of Marty’s young friends suggested this book. I had never heard of it before, or of the author. I’m glad I listened.
What a wild ride listening to this young comedienne’s memoir, written as she crosses the threshold into Hollywood success. Haddish grew up with everything in the world stacked against her, not the least of which were her illiteracy, her insane mother, and some really messed up ideas of how men and women should relate to each other. Her drive and her passions pushed her through her myriad challenges and she has emerged as a successful stand-up comic and a movie star.
I was astonished to hear some of her stories of growing up, her family, and her relationships. Everything was so foreign to this straight, white, affluent, middle-aged, tech geek. I’m glad Haddish gave me this glimpse into a different world. She knew that her stories were crazy, so she turned them into successful comedy routines, and with them, she pulled herself into a new life.
33. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, by Michael Pollan (2001)
I have trained my cat, Monkey, to use his little cat door to let himself in and out of the house. It’s a labor saving device for me. But from another point of view, Monkey, through his soft fur, his gopher-catching prowess, and his sheer catitude, has trained me to alter my house so that he can sleep warm by the fire every night.
Basically, that’s the idea behind this remarkable book. Not only do our pets train us humans, but our plants do, too. Some plants are as much a benefactor of our efforts in cultivating them as we are as connoisseurs of their appearance or taste. In this book, Pollan examines four very different plants that have long-established symbiotic relationships with humans: apples, tulips, potatoes, and cannabis. We prize apples for their nourishing versatility, tulips for their beauty, potatoes for their caloric consistency, and cannabis for its intoxication.
The author, in the spirit of John McPhee or Simon Winchester, probes not only the main channel, but its intriguing tributaries, which convey a fully rounded vision of these plants. This was a very enjoyable read.
34. Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, by Richard Rhodes (2011)
Here is the full story of a remarkable woman. This workmanlike biography tells her story from her not-so-humble beginnings to her slide from the spotlight.
While the motion picture studio she was contracted to was promoting her as “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World” to sell tickets to her movies, Hedy was inventing things. Her biggest invention was the technical underpinning for spread-spectrum, frequency-hopping radio. This was during World War II, and was a good security tool for spoofing the nazis. During the digital era, Qualcomm became one of the largest producers of cellular telephones based on their proprietary technology, CDMA, or code-division multiple access, which is directly based on Lamarr’s invention. So is wifi and Bluetooth. They could have called her, “The Smartest Woman in the World,” too.
35. The Saboteur: The Aristocrat Who Became France’s Most Daring Anti-Nazi Commando, by Paul Kix (2017)
This is one of the most remarkable stories of World War II I have ever read.
I grew up on the James Bond myth of the secret agent as sophisticated, larger-than-life, polymath, playboy gentleman. While it makes for good action movies, in the cold light of day it is clearly just a wild fiction. Or is it? Now that all of the participants are in their graves, some of the stories researchers are digging up are telling tales that rival fiction, populated with characters that would strain our credulity if they weren’t true.
This book tells the story of Robert de La Rochefoucauld, a French aristocrat with a three-hundred-year old pedigree, who joins the resistance and spends the war bombing the nazis. Wow.
36. The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class — and What We Can Do About It, by Richard Florida (2017)
There is a lot of fascinating information and speculation in this book. It’s strongly based on statistical evidence, but statistics can be troubling things. It’s not a fun book to read, but it shines a light on the big shifts in American demographics, economics, and the influence of digital tech on these things.
37. The Wives of Los Alamos: A Novel, by TaraShea Nesbit (2014)
Author Nesbit tells us a familiar story in an unfamiliar way. During World War II, many of the smartest scientists in America were recruited to join the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb. The effort was centered on a remote desert location: Los Alamos, New Mexico. Thousands of families all around the country had to pull up roots and move to the middle of nowhere, under the strictest secrecy. They couldn’t tell their families where they were going or what they were doing or when they would return. Many of these families were young and growing. Pregnant wives could not have their mothers at their side for births or birthdays. Going to the corner store was not an option. Everything was Army.
This is a novel, but it is clearly based on solid research by the author.
Nesbit not only tells this story through the eyes of the wives (some of whom were the scientists themselves), but tells it through multiple sets of eyes simultaneously. It’s a shocking storytelling effect when you first encounter it, but it’s comfortable and familiar by the time you finish the book.
I really enjoyed this tenderly told story of sacrifice and community, of hardship and friendship. The tiny details of their lives give it fullness and life. It’s a very fresh glimpse into an easy-to-overlook aspect of the war.
38. Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist, by Kate Raworth (2017)
This is an important and good book. It’s clear that the USA is beset with systemic problems. It’s not enough to just itemize those problems, we need a coherent story that clarifies what those problems are, how they got there, and how to fix them. Surprise, surprise! The answer comes from diagrams of economic systems.
The author is an economist, but as she relates, from the beginning of her formal education in the subject, she encountered assumptions masquerading as facts. And each of those assumptions had a canonical diagram to describe it. Once those diagrams get into the heads of young scholars, they become remarkably difficult to dislodge. So, learning the power of the basic diagrams, she has created one of her own, and it’s shaped like a doughnut.
As she clearly states, the central notion of the book is to re-imagine the economic system we want. The current one is not sustainable and doesn’t protect us from a myriad of bad effects. She says, “We have an economy that needs to grow, whether or not it makes us thrive. We need an economy that makes us thrive, whether or not it grows.”
Please read this book.
39. The Second World War, by Antony James Beevor (2012)
After all the books I’ve read on the topic it’s hard to imagine that I would be learning new things about World War II from a single volume history, but Beevor is no ordinary historian. He brings a fresh new viewpoint and scholarly clarity to the topic. In particular, he describes the fate of civilians and how they are devastated by war. He also highlights the personalities and rivalries between generals, statesmen, and other famous people whose reputation often hides their real character. He is unsparing of incompetence.
Beevor also researches heretofore little known arenas of this truly global conflict. World War II was not just a fight between fascists and anti-fascists, but it was a time of global upheaval in ideology, accompanied by vicious, bloody fighting in every corner of the world. The era witnessed the struggles of communism, the collapse of imperialism, the growth of nationalism, and the sunset of monarchism. The concomitant industrialization of weaponry also ushered in dramatic changes in warfare, including mechanized combat, mobile warfare, the maturation of combined arms, cryptography, the decline of the battleship and the ascent of the airplane.
Beevor gives attention to aspects of the war that are often ignored. His coverage of Japan’s war against the Koreans and the Chinese is covered in far greater detail than in any other general history I’ve read. He pays close attention to the complex relationships between the French, British, Americans, and Germans. The French made a separate peace with the invading Germans, and were then divided into Vichy and Gaullist sides, the former collaborating with the nazis and the latter resisting. The interplay between the British and Americans with the Gaullists, and that between the Vichy and the Germans are fascinating. The fate of the French Navy and French possessions in North Africa create interesting subtopics.
Beevor also describes in detail the pitched battles on the Eastern Front, including the prolonged, agonizing siege of Leningrad, the grinding battle of Stalingrad and the encirclement of the German’s 6th Army, and the enormous armored battle of Kursk.
Each time I read Beevor’s work, I am impressed with his ability to tell complex stories both economically and compellingly, all while revealing new scholarship and fresh points of view.
I maintain a list of the names of books I read throughout the year so as not to forget any, but I add my comments to them at the end of the year. It’s a kind of retrospective for me: a chance to remember and reflect on what I’ve read.
I read lots of magazines and blog posts, too. More and more, I watch videos on YouTube.