Everything I Read in December
2017 was a relatively good reading year for me - I got through 160 books which was fewer than usual, but I part read around 100 others while researching for work. I also made an effort to be more selective with my reading and to take better notes on each book. Here's what I read in December.
Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work - Matthew B. Crawford. This may be one of the most important books I've read this year (and the perfect complement to Zen & The Art Of Motorbike Maintenance which I also read in December.) The author is both a philosopher and a mechanic and manages to merge together the two very different disciplines. It's a book about work - why we do it, how we derive meaning from it, the contrast between mental and manual work, and the psychological value of getting your hands dirty.
Crawford points out that manual work has been unnecessarily labeled as inferior, or as the domain of unintelligent people. His argument is that working with your hands and seeing a physical manifestation of your efforts, can be truly fulfilling. His perspective is fascinating. I read this book feverishly, scribbling notes all over the margins as I went. Also, I recommend reading the notes section at the end (it is full of interesting tidbits and suggestions for further reading.)
Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury. I have read chunks of this book in the past, but only just finished the entire thing this month. Reviewing (if that's what I'm doing in my reading roundups) classics like this one always feels unwieldy. I always feel guilty for taking so long to get to them, and there's very little to say which hasn't been said a million times. So I'll just say: it's extraordinary and everyone should read it. Bradbury's portrayal of the media in a dystopian future is becoming truer each day.
To dive a little deeper, Bradbury points out at one point that there's no difference between people burning books and people just not reading them. That's why I started writing about books in the first place - it scared me to see a growing preference for clipped, bitesize nuggets of information. I strongly believe that reading makes us human. It's what allows us to see perspectives beyond our own, trains us for life, and grow as individuals. Bradbury's portrayal of a future where books are banned just hits that home.
Warren Buffett's Ground Rules - Jeremy Miller. While I'm not particularly interested in Warren Buffett's investing style (I stick to passive investing), I am intrigued by the way he thinks. However, reading some of his letters on compounding is what pushed me to start investing while still in my teens.
This book uses the letters Buffett wrote to his partners between 1956 and 1970 to extrapolate his guiding principles and fundamentals. It probably shouldn't be treated as a guidebook, but Miller offers some valuable insights into Buffett's approach to rational thinking.
Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe - Nancy Goldstone. One of the most extraordinary history books I've read this year. Four Queens is a dense, obsessively researched account of the lives of four Provencal sisters who all became queens and go on to influence the trajectory of their kingdoms. The book follows one of the sisters at a time, covering their life over the course of several years. Battles, conquests, weddings, funerals, and coronations blend together in an intoxicating mix.
What stood out to me the most is how badass and in control the women are in this book. I expected that 13th-century queens would have very little power, but the opposite is true. One of them gets enraged by some guests her husband invites over, so she throws everything they touched out the window and locks her husband out of the castle for a week. On numerous occasions, one or the other takes the reins while her husband is occupied. Sometimes history - with its medley of revenge, passion, hatred, and jealousy - is wilder than fiction. The main downside is that there must be about a hundred characters, many of them with the same names, and keeping track gets exhausting.
The Bridge Over The River Kwai - Pierre Boulle. Tricia refers to the film of this book in Benedict's Brother, and I wanted to dive a little deeper into the topic. I found a copy in a bookshop run by nuns in Mdina - I love stumbling across a copy of a book I've been meaning to read. It's a fast-paced, somewhat tense story about British POWs working to build a bridge for the Japanese in the early 1940s.
The Half-Life of Facts - Samuel Arbesman. Most of us have a tendency to forget that facts are not set in stone. We are predisposed to ignore anything that contradicts our prior beliefs, and to stay beholden to whatever we learned at school. For that reason, I think this is an important book. Arbesman covers the ever-changing nature of facts, how everything we know is always in flux, and how disciplines develop over time.
Epic of Gilgamesh - translated by NK Sanders. Reread. For the uninitiated, the epic of Gilgamesh is humanity's oldest story. For that reason, it's worth reading and rereading. It is also a genuinely beautiful book about friendship and facing up to your mortality. When I read history, it's often hard to see it as 'real' - it can be so remote that it feels like fiction. Something about reading ancient stories makes me feel more connected to the people who lived thousands of years ago.
The storyline is simple. Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, is driving his people crazy with his boundless energy and strength. The gods create Enkidu as an equal, but instead of fighting, the two become close friends. Together, they travel to the cedar forest to kill the giant Humbaba. Shortly after, Enkidu dies and Gilgamesh has a meltdown at the realization that he too is mortal. Gilgamesh then goes on an epic journey in search of eternal life.
Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert M. Pirsig. Another one I've been intending to read for years. There are two ways to view it: as a book about philosophy, or a book about a journey. I took the latter view which results in a different experience of Pirsig's writing. Yes, some of the monologues are a bit too long and the ending feels rushed. The endless discussions of what 'quality' means don't strike me as particular inspired - if you dismantle the definition of any word, you'll find that its meaning falls apart. But the book remains a magnificent journey through the author's mind, as he synthesizes his past and works on his relationship with his son.
An Unquiet Mind - Kay Redfield Jamison. I've read a lot of mental illness memoirs. Probably too many. As I've said before, most are overtly sensationalist and with saccharine sweet endings.
This book manages to avoid the usual pitfalls. It's impeccably written and Jamison knows what she's talking about - she's spent her life studying, teaching about, and treating manic depression, all the while suffering from it herself. She doesn't end it with a false claim of a miraculous recovery. Instead, Jamison shows that for most people, these issues don't go away. But managed well, they also don't prevent you from living a full, vibrant life.
Why Most Things Fail (And How To Avoid It) - Paul Ormerod. I did force myself to finish this one despite not enjoying it (which I otherwise avoid doing) because biology and economics are two of my favorite topics, and it's about both. The title is wildly misleading. It's a book about why companies fail, without any serious discussion of how that can be changed.
Over Christmas, I went to visit family and didn't bring enough books. So I decided to try reading some ebooks for the first time- and went for two which aren't available in print, but which I've wanted to read for a while. The first was Purposeful Productivity by Taylor Pearson, an adaptation of some of his blog posts. While I'm pretty sure I've already read all the posts covered, having them in a cohesive format helped clarify some of the ideas. I read Your Move by Ramit Sethi which basically rehashes other stuff he's done and reads like an extended advert for his courses. Still, I've found a lot of value in his other writing.
Happy new year. As always, feel free to let me know what you've been reading and what you'd reccommend.