I was fortunate to read quite a few good books in 2013. Here is the list of them except for those that I couldn’t finish or which I thoroughly disliked. Initially I wanted to write just a one-sentence blurb about each, but I couldn’t resist expanding them into short summaries/reviews in some cases. (Here was my 2012 reading list.)
If you have read any of these books and came away with an opinion totally different from mine, I would love to hear about it.
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Steven Callahan: Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea. This short book tells the story of Steve Callahan, who suffered a sailing accident a few hundred miles off the coast of the Canary Islands, then floated on an inflatable liferaft for 76 days, until reaching Guadeloupe on the other side of the Atlantic, together with the small ecosystem that developed around the raft. The book is fascinating, both the descriptions of concrete events (the obtaining of water and food for survival, maintenance of the various systems on the boat) and the philosophical commentary about hope and despair, solitude, man’s place in nature, etc. are amazingly well-written. One of the best books I read in 2013.
Eric Weiner: The Geography of Bliss. The admittedly light-hearted question that the book explores is what makes people in different parts of the world happy – the answer could have been simply “it depends on the person” – but what we get instead is a travelogue of sorts through a number of faraway places, where the author meets and interviews people, sharing with us his own observations intermixed with “a new study has found…”-type of pop science and with tired stereotypes about each place. I wanted to like the book, the text has a nice flow and the author does make some amusing and occasionally some insightful observations – but for the most part I found it shallow and didactic, lacking any real curiosity or reflection, the author trying too hard in some parts to sound cute, in other places writing in an annoyingly defensive style – overall, a somewhat entertaining read, but quite pointless, unfortunately.
Albert Hofmann: LSD: My Problem Child. This is a leftover from 2012 which I forgot to write about last time. The book is a short autobiography of the chemist who inadvertently invented LSD – an interesting story well told, and an exceptionally clear and objective look at the effects of the invention, its potential, its dangers, and the ramifications to society. We meet interesting characters, including Timothy Leary, Ernst Jünger, and Aldous Huxley, and we follow the author and others on trips into to the mountains of Central America where they go through various psychedelic experiences.
Richard P. Feynman: The Meaning of It All. The book contains the transcripts of three public lectures given by Feynman in 1963 for a non-specialist audience. In his usual entertaining, anecdotal style, he discusses many loosely related topics, such as the scientific method, the value of science to society, religion, pseudoscience, dictatorships, conspiracy theories, and so on. Overall, a nice and accessible read, but less deep and original than his “Surely you are joking..” book, and apparently published against Feynman’s stated intentions.
Karen Pryor: Don’t Shoot the Dog! The book talks about techniques for getting dogs, cats, dolphins, and other animals to do (or not do) various things. The methods are gentle, they are mostly based on well timed reinforcement signals and rewards, and the research and philosophy behind them seems sound. As the author points out through many examples, some of the techniques are no doubt useful when trying to influence human behaviour too (our own or of others) – for example when teaching children, or when trying to (un)learn some habit. There are also insightful observations about certain behaviors and phenomena, such as e.g. superstitions – overall, however, I found the method slightly oversold – and some of the case-studies involving human situations seemed a bit manipulative.
Maria Tatar: The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales. After recently re-reading some of Grimm’s fairytales in original, I was curious to read Tatar’s analysis, as she appears to be a leading expert on the work. While it is interesting, the book also disappoints slightly: by “hard facts” she really means just that – we learn a bit (too much) about the biography of the brothers, the author dispels many myths about the way the tales were collected and edited, and she gives a detailed catalog of all the types of characters, heroes, villains, beasts, magical items, as well as the different turns of plot appearing in the tales. Few comments are made on deeper psychological symbolism of the tales, when such interpretations are mentioned, it is usually only to ridicule them. In large parts of the book, the author convincingly proves what the tales aren’t, without giving alternatives as to what they are instead. All in all, I found the book to be a well researched scholarly work, but (a bit) less colourful than expected.
Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. The autobiography of Nelson Mandela, his personal life and the anti-Apartheid struggle: detailed, inspiring, written in an understated, no-nonsense tone and with exceptional clarity, radiating with optimism and strength on every page – one of the best non-fiction books I read in 2013.
Antal Szerb: Journey by Moonlight. I cheated here and I read this in the original Hungarian, but according to reviews, the English translation isn’t too shabby either. This is one of just about three or four novels written by Antal Szerb, who died tragically in 1945 and who was also an exceptionally erudite scholar and historian of literature. From such an author one might expect a “scientifically” written novel, but contrary to expectations, the novel is accessible and playful – it has subtle twists of plot, it shows deep understanding of character, and it never seems to take itself too seriously. This was by far the best fiction I have read in 2013.
John Maynard Keynes: The Economic Consequences of the Peace. It is a rare opportunity to have one of the decisive historical moments witnessed and narrated by one of its sharpest and most eloquent contemporaries. In this case, this is exactly what happens, as Keynes gives a detailed account of the Paris Peace Treaty, an opinionated description that has more or less become the canonical interpretation of the historical event. He mixes keen observations on the characters (and character flaws) of the main participants, Clemenceau, Lloyd George, Wilson, and others, with a detailed analysis of the economic contents of the treaty and its projected consequences. The description is interesting for the back-of-the-envelope estimates Keynes makes, and for the detailed snapshot of how the world economy looked around the time of the first world war. The predictions about the untenability of the treaty and the ensuing catastrophes have mostly stood the test of time, further cementing Keynes’ reputation.
Richard Brautigan: Trout Fishing in America. An amusing short novel written with dry humour, containing small vignettes about various characters in rural (and occasionally in urban) America. One source of the humour is the usage of “trout fishing in America” in several ways: in its original meaning referring to the act itself, as the name of a person, as an adjective, etc.. Some reviewers compare Brautigan to Hemingway – which seems accurate – but the sensation one gets from this small book is that of an angrier, less focused but sometimes more imaginative author.
Richard P. Feynman: Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track. This is a selection of Feynman’s personal correspondence, lovingly compiled by his daughter Michelle. We can follow through Feynman’s career and personal life, learn about his working style, travels, everyday routine, opinions on science, education, politics, etc. Some of the letters contain advice to colleagues or strangers, others are replies to fans, dispelling misunderstandings in physics, with patient and crystal clear explanations, some are diary-like accounts of events, others concern official business. Especially funny are the letters that show Feynman’s ambivalence towards accolades such as honorary degrees, academy membership and the Nobel prize. Also interesting are Feynman’s big picture explanations of theoretical physics and science in general, as well as his reviews of elementary textbooks – particularly his poignant criticism of the “New Math” of the 60s. The text is obviously less polished than his work written for a general audience, but nevertheless, it gives a glimpse into Feynman’s amazing (and amusing) personality, sharp mind and intellectual honesty, and occasional goofiness. The collection is worth a read even just as an example of a no-nonsense, precise style of letter-writing.
E. F. Schumacher: Small Is Beautiful. Schumacher’s 1973 book was ahead of its time in many ways, bringing up topics which today are known as sustainable development, environmentalism, anti-consumerism, simple living, organic movement, “go local” movement, regional development, decentralisation, etc. Some of the predictions in the book proved to be slightly inaccurate, and some of the statements might be overly general, but these detract only marginally from the overall message, which seems as relevant as ever and at a large scale as ignored as ever. The author’s main point is a criticism of global economy which he sees to be on a collision course and of prevalent economic philosophies that can be summed up as a pursuit of growth at all costs and an “idolatry of gigantism”. In Schumacher’s words “the most striking thing about modern industry is that it requires so much and accomplishes so little”. He sees as illusory the desire to create, in Gandhi’s words “systems so perfect that no-one will need to be good”. He exposes many inherent contradictions of mainstream economics and proposes sensible (if sometimes naive) alternatives. Memorable concepts of the book include: small scale operations, meta-economics, Buddhist economics, appropriate technology, intermediate technology. An inspiring and timely short book.
Imre Lakatos: Proofs and Refutations. This acclaimed book contains a series of Socratic dialogues on the nature of mathematical discovery and proof, using Euler’s polyhedron theorem as a running example. The dialogues explore how definitions and theorems co-evolve, the role of formal and informal arguments, and most importantly, of local and global counterexamples. The dialogue format makes the book a pleasant read and also allows the author to present differing historical and modern views of mathematics.
Jean-Dominique Bauby: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. A short memoir whose text was composed by selecting letters one-by-one, the author only being able to use his eyelids, as he suffered from locked-in-syndrome caused by a massive stroke, and died shortly after finishing the book. Some of the chapters depict small episodes from his earlier life, others explain his situation after the accident and his strategies for dealing with it. Tragic, hopeful, poetic, occasionally humorous, humbling. One of the most powerful books I’ve read.
Keith Johnstone: Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre. Impro seems to be the classic book on improvisation theatre, but it is a very enjoyable read for someone with little knowledge (and perhaps interest) in theatre too. Firstly it offers a glimpse into the mechanisms of a strange but beautiful microcosm (that of improv theatre) – it is always fun to learn about the concerns, the “rules of the game”, the system of values of some subculture totally different from our own. Furthermore, any field of human activity has its own metaphors, it influences thinking in its own way, and it spills over its boundaries, giving a toolset for its practitioner to tackle problems in other domains of life – thus taking a shot at becoming a “theory of everything”. This book is improv’s attempt at doing so, and not an unsuccessful one at that. We find insights about improvisation, acting, status, spontaneity, creativity, storytelling, concepts that are relevant to any human interaction, and the author has interesting things to say about all of them. The last part is a bit different, as the author discusses his experiences about teaching improvisation with masks, and relates it to trance-like states and hallucinations – slightly bizarre, but powerful and interesting nevertheless.
Werner Herzog: Conquest of the Useless. Herzog’s very entertaining diary from the time of production of the movie Fitzcarraldo. Mirroring the plot of the movie itself, the production is an endless ordeal in the Peruvian rainforest, apparently dragging on from failure to failure until the eventual completion. Besides the forces of nature and the bureaucratic obstacles, the erratic behavior of lead actor Kinski sets the tone for the book. Herzog gives a detailed account of the over-the-top everyday events of the production, as well as his own equally over-the-top commentary and reflections.
Douglas R. Hofstadter: Fluid Concepts And Creative Analogies. In this book Hofstadter describes the research projects of his group, on attempting to model human thinking and problem solving. Rather than looking at the full messiness of the real world, the projects concern abstract microworlds, such as arithmetic puzzles of a certain kind or anagrams of words. Some of the studied problems are interesting in their own right – starting from a simple puzzle in recreational mathematics, deeper concepts are reached, others are thought-provoking due to their open-endedness, such as the analogies between strings in the CopyCat project. The approaches appear original and unconventional compared to mainstream AI or machine learning research – although they mostly fall short of efficiently solving the given problems. Hofstadter insists that his main goal was not efficiency (he doesn’t have much praise for world champion chess programs) – but rather to approach the problems in psychologically realistic ways. This might explain why there is no mention of computational complexity or other central concepts of computer science – however, without this connection, the study of heuristics seems a bit naive. This shortcoming is less apparent in the domains where the objective itself is ill-defined – for example when looking for a “reasonable” or “nice” continuation of a sequence of numbers. Here I think that it would have been beneficial to relate to other classical concepts, such as Kolmogorov complexity.
The most interesting parts of the book are those in which the author speculates about the workings of the mind, analyzing the way humans might approach and solve certain puzzles. Hofstadter has a knack for introspection, deconstructing a thought process into small explicit steps that seem entirely plausible on reading but which would be performed mostly unconsciously. These parts have a similar feel to Pólya’s “worked problems” in his books about problem solving. However, when the insights are translated into programs something is lost – while Hofstadter sees intelligence as an emergent phenomenon, the programs still appear to have his high level ideas for the particular domain “baked in” – something he vigorously criticizes in other projects. Taking all this into account, the results produced by the programs are rarely surprising.
The book is accessible and slightly more focused in scope than other books of Hofstadter, although there are some loosely related digressions. Some chapters are devoted to criticism of other research projects of the time – these seem to be mostly of historical value only. The “letter spirit” concept in the last chapter is fascinating on its own, but again, it tells more about the creativity of Hofstadter and his colleagues than about creativity or intelligence in general.
Seymour A. Papert: Mindstorms: Children, Computers, And Powerful Ideas. The book describes Papert’s vision of learning and the profound change that computers can bring about in education, especially at an early age. Inspired by Piaget’s theories and starting from his own experience of “constructively” learning mathematical concepts while playing with gears as a child, Papert presents a set of loosely connected ideas about curriculum-free, explorative learning and creativity, particularly related to mathematics. One of these ideas is to avoid a complete separation of the abstract thinking from physical, sensory-motor experiences. Another idea is that of a participatory, spontaneous, almost unconscious learning. As a concrete embodiment of these concepts, Papert advocates the use of his Logo system (turtle geometry) as an instrument for exploration. Such a use of computers by children is markedly different both from playing videogames and from using educational software that are little more than glorified textbooks: Logo lets children discover geometry in a natural, “local” way, it also effortlessly teaches modular, procedural thinking, and other algorithmic concepts. Papert’s vision is compelling, and a certain aspect of it has become reality: computers have indeed become powerful and widely available to children. However, the sweeping transformation in education that Papert envisioned has not been realized. While there are many options available to individuals, the mainstream trend has hardly been towards experimentation and imaginative tinkering, and more towards passive consumption and endless distractions. The “angry birds” of today seem to have far less potential than the turtle geometry of the 60s. Having already been fond of Logo, I still learned a great amount from the book, and I found it both informative and inspiring.
Marc Kac, Gian-Carlo Rota, Jacob T. Schwartz: Discrete Thoughts: Essays on Mathematics, Science and Philosophy. A beautiful collection of essays on the nature of mathematics and the state of its various subfields. A recurring theme is the interplay between experimental mathematics, applied fields, and the mathematical problems they inspire on one hand, and abstract, internal development of mathematics on the other – unsurprisingly, the debate on the relative merits of the two sides goes back to the ancient Greeks. The book is indeed less indiscreet than its companion, the quality of the writing and the depth of the essays is slightly uneven, but most parts of the book are interesting and stimulating.
Richard Branson: Losing My Virginity. The autobiography of Virgin Group founder Richard Branson – the story of his childhood and youth, his first business ventures, the early days of Virgin Music and Virgin Records, mainstream success after discovering Mike Oldfield: the ups and downs of building his business empire, personal life events, his sailing, ballooning and other stunts, the different domains into which his group expands and his philantropic initiatives. Overall, very entertaining and well written, interesting to learn about his approach to business, and the particularities of different businesses, as well as about his everyday life – a book filled with optimism and energy.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb: Antifragile. After having thoroughly enjoyed Fooled by Randomness and Black Swan, I was eagerly awaiting the latest installment from Taleb – this time on the concept that is the opposite of fragility, which is, as he insists, not just robustness, i.e. resistance to damage, but antifragility, i.e. the capacity to actually improve in the face of mild stress, or of random perturbations. Taleb explores this deceptively simple concept in depth, bringing examples from economics, biology, medicine, ethics, and everything in between.
When it comes to Taleb’s three main books, many (though not all) of his critics admit the sharpness and originality of his ideas. Many are put off, however, by the strongly stated opinions and the aggressive, often self-congratulatory tone. On the contrary, I actually found these traits contributing to the charm of the book, it is enjoyable to read how commonly held beliefs are plain wrong and how everyone is stupid (as long as we imagine a “those present excluded” fineprint while reading, of course) – however, I was slightly annoyed by some of the repetition, and some of the case studies which seem more shaky than the others. The book gets much better towards the second half – Taleb is at his best in his philosophical asides and anecdotes involving Fat Tony, Socrates, and other characters.
One memorable concept in Taleb’s overall work is “domain dependence”, the failure to transfer competence from one domain to another – there is the story of the businessman paying the porter to lift his luggage, only to lift weights in the hotel gym ten minutes later. Taleb doesn’t suffer from domain dependence, in fact he has the opposite, which (in the spirit of his book) is not the ability to see connections between related fields, but the compulsion to draw analogies between any two things, sometimes even when there aren’t any or when they are obvious. Overall, I think the book contains many deep and counterintuitive observations, it gives a powerful perspective of looking at phenomena in terms of convexity or concavity of payoff, as well as excellent and usable practical philosophy. As all of Taleb’s writing, it challenges assumptions and provokes thinking – the fact that some parts are thought through less than others reduces its value only marginally.
Lucian Boia: History and Myth in Romanian Consciousness. This review refers to the Romanian original, “Mit şi istorie în conştiinţa românească”, which has been a bestseller in Romania and is credited with starting a current of “demythologization” of historiography. It has provoked heated debates and prompted adjectives ranging from the “courageous” and “first-of-its-kind” to the “unscientific” and “unpatriotic”. Considering its reputation, the book does relatively little myth-busting. The author finds questions such as “what really happened eight hundred years ago” less interesting than those of the type: “what did people a hundred years ago think about what really happened eight hundred years ago”. Questions of the second kind are easier to answer, and as Boia argues, they often hold more relevance to who we are and how we think today than questions of the first type.
As such, the book is not so much a Romanian history, but rather a “metahistory”, a history of Romanian historiography, which might sound like a dry topic, but the book is anything but – Boia describes in an entertaining, often subtly ironical style the mechanisms of myth-making, and traces how the dominant views of historical events evolved throughout the ages. These views were influenced partly by the intellectual currents of the time, partly by the political realities and necessities of each era. Especially interesting is the study of how the perceived significance of historical figures fluctuated throughout the ages.
The mythologization of history is not unique to Romania of course, but Romanian history does seem to offer a combination of a scarcity of resources for certain periods (resulting in a relative lack of consensus among historians), and a tendency (especially during the later part of the communist era) of considering historiography a tool for “nation-building”, legitimization of the regime, and a means of diverting attention from everyday (economic, social) problems. As Boia vigorously points out (and as some of the reactions to the book illustrate), the legacy of these trends largely lives on today. Boia’s book thus makes the important step of presenting historical myths for what they are, and treating them unemotionally, as prime objects of study. Due to the fine observations, intimate knowledge and sympathy towards the sources, and intellectual honesty displayed, the book is an excellent read, although possibly slightly confusing for someone not immersed in Romanian history.
Tony Hsieh: Delivering Happiness. An autobiography of sorts of successful web entrepreneur, Tony Hsieh. The first part of the book is more personal, telling the story of the founding of his companies, different business decisions, ups and downs of running the businesses and some personal life events. The tone is lighthearted and the stories are funny. The second part focuses more on the approaches in managing zappos.com, and includes a codified “company culture” document with ample discussion on its margin. While the ideas about fanatical customer support and encouraging group cohesion within the company are interesting and probably of practical value to entrepreneurs, as the book progresses, the tone becomes disturbingly cult-like – despite claiming the opposite, the text steers into a pretentious and generic business mumbo-jumbo.
Avinash K. Dixit, Barry J. Nalebuff: Thinking Strategically. The book sets itself the goal of analysing elements of strategy in the abstract with illustrative examples from history, politics, business, sports, movies, or parenting. This might sound like a lofty approach, but the book is in fact excellent, and the examples are analysed with insight and humour. The book can be read as an introduction into elementary game theory, and it is one of the most engaging attempts at this that I have seen. It explains with clarity concepts such as sequential and simultaneous games, mixed strategies, the basics of voting systems, bargaining theory, and incentive schemes. While the book is readable for a wide audience, it doesn’t shy away from including some mathematical details when describing the structure of certain systems.
Alternatively, the book can be read as a collection of practically useful tactics and tricks one can employ in diverse situations. I find it hard to imagine how one could memorize all such “patterns”, but some simple concepts, such as that of “brinkmanship” are certainly memorable.
Johan Huizinga: The Waning of the Middle Ages. (originally written in 1919)
This beautiful and influential book paints a broad picture of the Late Middle Ages, describing a world of contrasts and extreme passions, in which a feeling of decadence and insecurity, a “sombre melancholy” permeates everything. In Huizinga’s Middle Ages religious excess, solemn rituals, ceremony and pompousness are omnipresent but slowly becoming superficial, turning into parodies of themselves. In Huizinga’s words, the culture of the era is “overripe”, about to be fundamentally transformed (although Huizinga sees the transition to Renaissance differently from many other authors). Behind the carefully maintained idealized facade, we get occasional glimpses into the violent realities of life in the Middle Ages – often irrational, sometimes grotesque or comical.
The main premise of the book is that contrary to popular imagination, people in the Middle Ages had a worldview and a set of ideals and aspirations vastly different from ours. The book explores many aspects of this worldview, pertaining to love, religion, politics, art, life and death. After convincingly arguing and illustrating this thesis, in the end, the book still leaves us with the feeling that at a deeper level, or at least in its fragments, the mentality of the Middle Ages was not so alien afterall. The book is insightful and opinionated, the descriptions are vivid, they rely on ample documentation, and the arguments are compelling. The author is at his best when interpreting works of art. However, given the goal of capturing something as fuzzy as the general mood of an era six hundred years ago, the book is perhaps closer to an extended literary essay than to a precise scholarly work. Many of the passages are thought-provoking, although many of the ideas have long become part of the mainstream narrative about the Middle Ages in the time since the book was written.
Andrew S. Grove: Only the paranoid survive. The author shares his insights about the IT industry and about working in technology, drawn from his successful career as CEO of Intel. Interesting topics include the story of the pentium bug, the decision of Intel to focus on microprocessors instead of memories, the transformation of the computer industry from vertical to horizontal stratification (although, arguably, later the opposite has also been happening). The recurring theme is that of “inflection points” in technology, periods of fundamental change, in which, well, “only the paranoid survive”. The author describes subtle signals that hint at an impending change and describes strategies for dealing with it. Drawbacks of the book include the slight repetitiveness, and somewhat self-congratulatory tone, but overall I found the book insightful and also prescient for a work written almost twenty years ago.
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: The Harmless People. We get a glimpse into the life of the Bushmen (also known as San people) in the Kalahari Desert during the 50s, when the author spent long periods of time living among them. The book describes in a simple, sympathetic manner the Bushmen’s everyday life, their hunting-gathering activities, their family life and customs, their music and celebrations, as well as their views of life and the world. There’d be little to be unsympathetic, observing the simplicity, gentleness and naivety, as well as the extensive practical knowledge about the surrounding natural world of these people. The book is beautifully written, the author avoids any trace of condescension or stereotypical portrayal – she observes the characters respectfully and lovingly and describes them in a precise and vivid way. In the last chapter the author revisits the places and people thirty years later, to find the world she earlier described in an irrevocably transformed state. She finds this transformation to be mostly for the worse: the lives of most of the characters have taken tragic turns, the traditional way of life has proven powerless against the encroaching modern society, and the implicit social order previously observed has broken down. Despite the sobering analysis, the book ends on a note of optimism about the future.
Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos H. Papadimitriou, Alecos Papadatos, Annie Di Donna: Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth. A writer, a computer scientist, and two illustrators make a comic about the foundations of mathemathics, telling embellished stories about the lives of Bertrand Russel, Georg Cantor, Kurt Gödel and other great logicians, with cameo appearances by the authors themselves. How can the end result be? The answer is: surprisingly (or predictably) good.
Did you read some of these books and have a different opinion? Let me know in the comments.
What was the best book you read in 2013?