everything I read in October
October has gone by in a blur of work and dealing with the boring stuff that comes with being an adult (I still can't believe I'm twenty now.) I'm moving again in two weeks and am looking forward to getting a bigger bookshelf and building my library.
Obliquity: Why Our Best Goals Are Achieved Indirectly - John Kay. I bought this book after Charles Chu referenced it in a blog post. Kay uses the word 'obliquity' to refer to processes that achieve goals in an indirect way (the whole book borrows heavily from Charles Lindblom's work.) It's a lovely book, if you can ignore the repetitive nature and Kay's blatantly incorrect assertion that oblique approaches are the ONLY way to get anything done. Still, certainly worth reading for the unusual perspective.
Filters Against Folly - Garrett Hardin. Having read Hardin's work on the Tragedy of the Commons, it was time to start reading his books. Hardin outlines three filters - numeracy, literacy, and ecolacy- that we can use to understand reality and process complex issues. Filters Against Folly is best described as a guide to cutting through the crap and getting to the core of a topic. Although it was written thirty years ago, the guidelines for rational, clear thinking are as valuable as ever. Essential reading for anyone looking to broaden their mental models.
Tweak: Growing Up On Methamphetamines - Nic Sheff. I decided to stop reading addiction/mental health memoirs a while back. Most are sensationalized accounts that do little more than hammer home just how unique and serious the author considers their experiences to be. Someone recommended this one to me though, and I am glad to have read it. Books like this - honest, frank, unflinching accounts of the struggles many people hide - are important. They need to be written. Nic Sheff does a wonderful job of conveying the destruction his drug addiction caused for him and his family, the tedium of cycling through rehab programs, the struggle of committing to recovery, and the guilt of relapse. My only criticism is that the diary style is a bit dull in places, and there's no attempt to look beyond his personal experiences
Boomerang: The Meltdown Tour - Michael Lewis. I got into Michael Lewis pretty late, so I'm now catching up on his back catalog. As with everything he writes, it's a masterful work of journalism with a sensitivity to the idiosyncrasies of individuals and nations. Boomerang looks at the reality of financial meltdowns, as Lewis visits different areas affected by economic disaster. In a way, it is a look at how the character of people in each place led to its predicament, a search for the human causes. There is some disconnect between chapters, although that reflects the space between the events described.
Einstein's Dreams - Alan Lightman. I don't think I've ever read anything like this. Lightman imagines what Albert Einstein might have dreamed of in the nights preceding the completion of his theory of relativity. Each chapter covers a different dream, each set in a different world, each with its own version of time. They make for provocative thought experiments. What would our lives be like if we knew when the world would end? What if time ran at a varying speed in each place? What if effects preceeded causes? The resulting book is dreamy and a little disorienting.
The Roman Empire: A Short Introduction - Christopher Kelly. A very dense introduction to the history of the Roman Empire - basically pure facts with any fluff cut out. This is an ideal place to start if you want to get some context for original Roman works.
How To Fall in Love - Katherine Baldwin. I was given this book by the author (thanks, Katherine!) who I share a coworking space with. It's a very warm, non-condescending book about what it takes to fall in love. But it's much more than plain relationship advice. I've struggled with relationships for a while (something I haven't written about although I intend to) so it was a timely read, and practical enough to make a real difference to my attitudes.
Benedict's Brother - Tricia Walker. This book was also a gift from the author (thanks, Tricia) who I also met through coworking. It's a beautiful, moving book. Where to begin? There's the setting, so vividly described. The unexpected turns of phrase. The characters who have real depth, whose individual journeys are poignant and full of significance. The closest thing I could compare it to is a mixture of Graham Greene and Pico Iyer, but Tricia is an undeniably original and unique writer, with an incredible sensitivity to human relationships. It's also wonderful to learn about untold stories from history. I'm looking forward to the film, which is now in production.
Emergence: From Chaos To Order - John Holland. A book with an excellent premise and skilled author that unfortunately fell flat in places. The first few chapters are well crafted and engaging, but after that, it lapses into the academic writing style that the author claims in the introduction to have worked hard to avoid. I have read perhaps a hundred papers and articles on the topic of emergence over the last month so I could grasp a portion of the technical parts. Even so, I felt that Holland could have better conveyed his expertise through a more concise, accessible writing style. The best popular science writers are those who can make their work simple without dumbing it down. This isn't the place to start if you are looking for an introduction to the topic of emergence, although it's worth reading for those more familiar with the area.
The Epic of Gilgamesh - translated by NK Sanders. I first heard about the story of Gilgamesh on the Myths and Legends podcast (which I listen to before bed every single night.) After replaying the episode on it a dozen times, I was delighted to find a copy of the original story in a bookstore in London. Some historical context: the epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest surviving texts, and perhaps the first serious work of literature. It is a testament to human creativity and the power of oral tradition. The story was written over the course of a millennium, with countless unknown authors chipping in. Tablets recording the story began to be found a century ago, and scholars have since been working to translate them and compile them into a coherent narrative. For its history and cultural significance alone, The Epic of Gilgamesh is worth reading. Yet it's not just a historical curiosity - it is a vivid, poetic work that offers us a glimpse into the minds of people living four or five thousand years ago. The themes - fear of death, friendship, power- are timeless. This is an astonishing book.
Where Good Ideas Come From - Steven Johnson. Gah, this one was brilliant. It seeks to answer a simple, fascinating question: where exactly do ideas come from? Johnson breaks down the patterns of innovation into seven types, from the adjacent possible to serendipity. A lot of interesting material is succinctly summarised, with intuitive links drawn between disparate areas.
As always, I'd love to hear about what you have been reading and what you reccommend. Shoot me an email here and let me know.