Here is the list of books that I read (in English) during 2012, or at least those that I found interesting enough to describe in one or two sentences each.
Philip K. Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The inspiration behind the Blade Runner movie, including replicants and the Voight-Kampff test but excluding the Tannhauser Gate and C-Beams. Wonderfully coherent science fiction, both deeper and psychologically better motivated than the movie.
Andre Agassi: Open: An Autobiography. Entertaining and motivating. The inner dialogues during tennis matches are especially interesting, as is the (one-sided) description of the rivalry with Sampras. His great comeback is inspiring and fun to read, the tone becomes slightly preachy towards the end.
Jessica Livingston: Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days. Interviews with famous and obscure founders of companies. The selection is excellent, the interviewees are diverse, and each interview touches on some different aspect of startup-life, although there are many recurring themes. The book is consistently good, radiating with optimism.
Jack Kerouac: On the Road. A book that needs no introduction, obviously. Probably it means different things to different people, I just found it thoroughly entertaining and the style refreshingly sharp and concentrated. The characters in the plot seem to be searching for the ultimate experience with varying levels of success.
Wilhelm Reich: The Mass Psychology of Fascism. Unlike Reich’s later, controversial stuff, this book is lucid and coherent, the main theses are quite convincingly argued. The strictly historical account is interesting in itself, but the book also explores more general themes, like the connection between the appeal of totalitarianism, fake morality (especially around sexuality), irrational mysticism. (1933)
John Maynard Keynes: The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. As Keynes appears to be as influential as ever, this book is probably more often debated than actually read. Which is a pity, although not an easy read, the book is written with amazing clarity. The style is elegant and old-fashioned, academic and precise: Keynes is careful to delimit the range of applicability of what he says (I suppose most detractors take his ideas outside of this range). But once you accept the boundaries he sets, there is a certain inevitability to his claims: given this and that, “ceteris paribus”, this and that relation has to hold between this and that economic quantity. The book is worth reading for the precise definitions of economic terms alone. It would be foolish to claim that I fully understood (let alone retained) a large fraction of the ideas in the book, and I did skip pages in some of the chapters that I found less interesting, but overall, it was a joy following through the arguments. (1936)
F. A. Hayek: The Road to Serfdom. Just as in the case of Keynes, the debates surrounding this book seem to be much less interesting than the ideas in the book itself. First, one would assume that the advocation of “economic liberalism” would be at odds with “keynesianism”. However, Keynes himself warmly praises the book in his review. Here, the main theme is the relation between individual and state. Hayek convincingly argues that the difference between the political “far left” and “far right” is less interesting than the difference between totalitarianism and classical liberalism. Hayek derides many forms of centralized planning, and describes the harmful mechanisms set in motion by them, as well as the transition from an all-is-allowed-except-… to an all-is-forbidden-except-… society. The historical accounts, particularly about Germany, are insightful, however, his predictions seem to have been either mistaken, or at least on a different timescale than plausibly assumed. (1944)
Primo Levi: Survival in Auschwitz. Originally titled “If This Is a Man”, the book relates the arrest, incarceration and eventual liberation of the author from the Auschwitz death camp. It describes the dehumanizing experience in an understated, precise way. Despite the tragedy beyond description, the book offers a vision of hope and humanity.
Rosamund Stone Zander, Benjamin Zander: The Art of Possibility. A very nice collection of anecdotes and distilled advice, mostly about how to defuse conflicts and how to look at difficult situations from a new perspective. The authors draw from their vast experience in music, education and counselling/consulting. It does get too self-congratulatory at places, but as far as self-help-feel-good-type books go, it is surprisingly good.
Victor Pelevin: Omon Ra. Quirky, cynical, intelligent science fiction. At the surface, a satire of the Soviet space program (or rather, of its caricature), in reality, a more universal tale about aspirations, ideology, and the human condition.
George Orwell: Animal Farm. Again, a classic about which it is impossible to say anything new. Despite being intented (apparently) as a satire of events in a concrete place and time, the book is as relevant and as universally accessible today as ever. (And this isn’t something new to say about it either.)
John E. Littlewood: Littlewood’s Miscellany. “The surprising thing about this paper is that a man who could write it – would.” The book contains many similar quips, more or less connected to mathematics or the process of doing mathematics. There are also many interesting and deep mathematical puzzles (some of them have become classics since the book was written), linguistic paradoxes, short anecdotes about mathematicians, amusing mathematical errors, unintentionally funny formulations from books or papers, references to contemporary results. The book is a collection of fragments assembled by Littlewood, refreshingly lacking any serious organization. Written in 1953, it seems to have stood the test of time, the few parts that feel outdated do so only because of the attention to detail of the author that seems uncommon today.
I.M. Gelfand, Mark Saul: Trigonometry. It is often claimed that in order to effectively teach a topic, one needs to know more than what is being taught. Taking this advice to the extreme, here one of the great mathematicians of the twentieth century teaches early high-school level trig. The result is predictably pleasing: the right mix of formal clarity and informal insight, it seems to anticipate and answer any question the reader might have and provides the right level of challenge at every point. If this much thought went into every textbook, the state of math education would be quite different. Part of a series on high school math by the same author.
G-C. Rota: Indiscrete Thoughts. A wonderful collection of essays loosely related to mathematics. The first part contains anecdotes about famous mathematicians of the twentieth century, often focusing on their character flaws and amusing aspects of their life – part of the reason for “indiscrete” in the title. Most interesting – and perhaps least indiscrete – is a moving tribute to Stanislaw Ulam, mixed with nostalgic observations about pre-war Central Europe. The second part contains various essays about topics such as the philosophy of mathematics and science, mathematical discovery, philosophy of the mind, aesthetics in mathematics, etc. While less colourful and entertaining than the first half of the book, Rota manages to keep it readable and interesting for the most part. The book ends on a lighter tone, with observations about concrete mathematical fields, tips on how to do mathematics, and career advice of sorts ranging from time-management to creativity – refreshingly unconventional and thought-provoking.
G. Boltjansky, I. Gohberg: Results and Problems in Combinatorial Geometry. A beautiful small book containing three general geometric problems, which are shown to be intimately related. The discussion is entirely elementary, using only early high school level mathematics, but the book highlights deep connections between disparate fields and ends with difficult open problems.
Douglas Hofstadter: Metamagical Themas. A collection of Hofstadter’s columns for Scientific American. The essays are self-contained and easy to read. Due to the format, the author had less of a tendency of trying to tie up all loose ends, than in Gödel-Escher-Bach, maybe for this reason, I enjoyed the book much more than GEB. Some of the topics, such as the “prisoner’s dilemma” may have been new at the time Hofstadter wrote about them, but have become mainstream and have been discussed endlessly since then. Other topics include self-reference, typography, analogies, Rubik’s cube, sexism in language, consciousness, creativity, Lisp. Due to the format, the level of interestingness in the book is uneven, but I found most of the chapters stimulating and thought-provoking. The richness of ideas and the variety of topics make this my favorite book of 2012.
What was the best book you read in 2012?