Books of Twenty Twelve

Posted on Dec 30th, 2012
Categories: books, stuff, lists

People who like my writing sometimes ask me how I learned to do what I do. Or they want to know how they can learn to do it too. My answer is simple and in two parts: Write more and read more. I suppose the write more part is pretty obvious, but I’m always surprised by how many people are taken aback by the read more part. Can you make good wine or even good Kool-Aid without knowing what it is supposed to taste like? So I read a lot, both because it improves my writing and because reading is one of life’s great joys.

This past year I’ve taken to keeping track of the books that I’ve read on Goodreads and below is the complete list. A couple of things about the list:

  • You will notice that I liked, or at least tolerated all of the books on the list. So didn’t I pick up any books this year that I didn’t like? Sure. Did I finish them? Heck no! Life is too short to finish a bad – or perhaps simply misdirected book – out of some bizarre sense of duty.

  • The links below are all affiliate links. If this bothers you then google is your friend.

I do recommend keeping track of what you read (and thanks to my buddy Michael Fogus for suggesting just that). Keeping a list means that you can spot patterns - for example I realized that I've always had a bias against short books and classic fiction - and this year I've tried to remedy that.

Anyway, here's my list, organized by topic.

Programming and Computers

Given what I do for a living, you would think that I read a lot of computer books. In most years that would be true, but not this one: In 2012 I went for quality over quantity. Perhaps the book that I proudest of actually finishing is Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs (MIT Electrical Engineering and Computer Science) by Abelson, Sussman and Sussman. SIOCP is one of those much admired, frequently discussed, oft purchased but rarely read classics. Well having finally finished it, I'm here to tell you that it is well worth the effort. SIOCP takes what I think of as the 50 year view of programming; by the time you are done you will have looked at imperative programming, functional programming, meta programming, lazy data structures and everything in between. Like a lot of programmers, I've started this book any number of times, only to peter out somewhere in chapter three. Two things came together this year to get me on to the end: By the opening of 2012 I had gathered enough Lisp programming mileage to be comfortable with the code in the book right out of the gate. The other thing is that this time I bought a paper copy of the book - somehow having the physical thing there in my hand propelled me forward.

Another programming book that I read this year that I think quite a lot of is Let Over Lambda by Doug Hoyte. Where Abelson et. el. try to be even handed in that dry academic way about the controversies in our little world of programmers, Hoyte marches into battle with his keyboard drawn. Mostly it works and the book is full of all sorts of interesting Lisp ideas. My beef with LOL is that Hoyte violates the "show, don't tell" rule: If I were editing this book I would have cut most of the "Lisp is indescribably wonderful" statements and leave the examples that tend to make the reader draw her own conclusion. Oh and one more thing: If LOL is only for the top 1% of the top 1% of programmers - as the book so helpfully explains - and there are something like 800,000 professional programmers in the U.S. then the target audience for this book is about 80 people. Did the publishers know?

A wonderful contrast to the somewhat preachy tone of LOL is another LOL book: Conrad Barski's Land of Lisp: Learn to Program in Lisp, One Game at a Time!. Land of Lisp is one of those 'full of cartoons and silly jokes' programming books that don't usually work for me. The thing is that Conrad is actually funny and he mixes the jokes with one of the best beginning explanations of Lisp programming that I have ever read. If you are just starting out in the Lisp world, this is definitely a book to check out.

I've also been delving into the history of programming languages this year, which explains why I read Smalltalk 80: Bits Of History, Words Of Advice by Glen Krasner as well as SmallTalk 80: The Language by Adele Goldberg. A fascinating look at a era where having an entire megabyte of RAM was something to brag about.

Science And Math

I spent much of my youth reading all of the science books that I could get my hands on, especially anything spewing out of the typewriter of Isaac Asimov. Asimov used to periodically publish collections of science oriented essays which I would consume just after the ink was dry. I thought I had read them all (Asimov died in 1992) until I happened onto Far As Human Eye Could See. If you care at all about the art of explaining, you should read Asimov. He was a brilliant explainer - and his essays are a great place to start.

One of the things that all of this list making has made me realized is how much my science reading has fallen off, so I spent a lot of this year catching up. For example, back in my heavy duty science reading days the question about extra-solar planets was Are they out there? Now the question is What time is it. Time is important here because we are are discovering new planets outside of our solar system at such a furious pace. As I write this the number, according to wikipedia, is about 850. When you read this the total will be higher. Wait a little while and it will be higher still. Strange New Worlds: The Search for Alien Planets and Life Beyond Our Solar System is Ray Jayawardhana's tour through the people and technologies that are behind this torret of discoveries. It's a fun book.

Newton's Gift: How Sir Isaac Newton Unlocked the System of the World by David Berlinski is a pretty standard biography of everyone's favorite physicist. Weaving in and out of Newton's scientific life with what passed for his personal life, Berlinski tries -- and mostly succeeds in pulling together a picture of the great scientist and very, very, ordinary man. My beef with Berlinski's books, which also include Infinite Ascent: A Short History of Mathematics is that his prose is just a little too ornate. Here's a sample:

Newton's purely mathematical passions burst into flame during sixteen months; by the time that he left Cambridge for the countryside, the plague in place at the university, he had already immersed himself in the free-flowing currents of European mathematics and discovered, no doubt to his satisfaction that his powers were bounded only by his patience.

Sharp intake of air.

I wish there were more writers like Mary Roach out there (in fact I wish I was one of them). A typical Roach book is a light-hearted romp through some scientific or technical subject, with just enough fun to keep the science interesting. This year I read both Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void and the somewhat more cringe inducing Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. Both of these books are more about how people are reacting to our modern age than about the deep insights into how the physical world works, but both are fun and informative.

There were also no great revelations in Big Ideas: 100 Modern Inventions That Have Transformed Our World by Alex Hutchinson. It's another one of those pictures plus a couple of pages of text for N things kinds of books but it did pass a pleasant hour or so on a Sunday afternoon. Much more serious was Einstein's Cosmos: How Albert Einstein's Vision Transformed Our Understanding of Space and Time by Michio Kaku. If you don't know Michio Kaku, well you do. If you are a network news producer and someone discovers water on Mars or a misplaced boson, then the good Dr. Kaku is your goto guy. With good reason - Michio Kaku is a great explainer in the Asimov tradition and he can explain Relativity with the best of them.

My wife has a term for books like Patrick Moore's Moore on Mercury: The Planet and the Missions. She calls them URBs, short for Ultimate Russ Books. You see my life partner is under the impression that I like very narrowly focused and detailed books, tomes that, in her words, will 'tell you everything about nothing'. The trouble is that Moore's book doesn't really work as a URB. It's kind of scattered, and worse there are a couple of really egregious errors. A much better candidate for URBdom is Alan Boyle's The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference. A fun book that runs through the history of Pluto all the way from discovery through planetary dethronement. Another interesting and surprisingly readable little book was Paul Strathern's Hawking and Black Holes. I've always found Hawking's writing completely incomprehensible. This book was only partially incomprehensible, which, when you are talking about black holes is a win.

Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science and What Comes Next is exactly what the title suggests: A long explanation of string theory and why it isn't even science and how it came to dominate physics thinking and why that is a bad idea. I found the science in this book interesting and the politics of physics departments less so.

The best part of Richard Panek's Seeing and Believing: A Short History of the Telescope and How we Look at the Universe is how the telescope changed astronomy not once but many times: Each new technical development led to a new vision of how the Universe is put together.

So who can resist a book from Jack Horner, who was technical advisor on the film Jurassic Park entitled How to Build a Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn't Have to Be Forever? This books covers the usual territory of what the dinosaurs are, how we know about them, what we know about them and the prospects for creating a modern day (and I'm not making this up) chickenosaursus. Fun book.

I also spent some time learning more about math, starting with Ian Stewart's Life's Other Secret: The New Mathematics Of The Living World. Mr. Steward contends that DNA ain't all there is to living things - that life is as much about the complex unfolding of dynamic systems as it is about the information encoded in your genes. Sounds plausible to me. Is Steward right? Dunno. But at least I know what the questions are, which is the first step.

I spent a lot of time studying calculus when I was in school and this year I turned back to that subject with a war and some diaries. The war came in the form of the historical dispute over who invented calculus: The Calculus Wars: Newton, Leibniz, and the Greatest Mathematical Clash of All Time by Jason Socrates Bardi. The diaries came curtesy of Jennifer Ouellette, who takes us along on her quest to figure out just what all those funny dx's are all about: The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse. If I had to choose between the two I would definitely go for the Zombie Apocalypse flavored calculus over the stuffier historical variety.

If you have some time to kill in the bunker while waiting for the zombies to dissipate, take a look at Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail. Silver is the guy who predicted the results of the recent U.S. presidential election down to the last state. Perhaps we should spend less time listening to the pundits and more time listening to people who tend to be right?

You might also want to spend some time with Michael Meyerson's Political Numeracy: Mathematical Perspectives on Our Chaotic Constitution. This book is less about predictions and more about having a coherent debate about politics. I particularly like Meyerson's idea that the arguments about things like the death penalty and abortion can be informed by modern mathematical ideas about infinity.

History

I like history a lot and since much of the US civil war was fought on my doorstep I do tend to spend a lot of time on that particular episode. This year's crop of Civil War books included Secrets of a Civil War Submarine: Solving the Mysteries of the H.L. Hunley by Sally M. Walker, which is actually aimed at kids, but was interesting nevertheless. There was also To Appomattox: Nine April Days, 1865 by Burke Davis, a book about the last days of the war, an OK book that was just obsessive enough in the details to have that I spend every weekend reenacting the Battle of Whatever feel.

As I say, I like history a lot, and I do like some decades more than others. So this year I've tried to expand out a bit and fill in those dark spaces in my historical head, with mixed results. For example, a close reading of Tuchman's The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War 1890-1914 leads me to the conclusion that life from 1890 to 1914 was tedious. At least reading this book was; perhaps those years need a better biographer. Better was The Crazy Years: Paris in the Twenties by William Wiser, which is a tour through the artist and writer infested Paris immediately after the First World War.

Speaking of that late unpleasantness, we have John Keegan's The First World War. Now this is what I look for in a history book: It's deep, it's detailed and it keeps moving.

Of course you can't talk about World War I without mentioning it bigger and uglier brother. Finest Hour : The Battle of Britain by Phil Craig is a good book on the early 'Britain stands alone' part of the war.

Along with history I love me a good caper story. Put the two of them together and you have Paul Brickhill's The Great Escape. This is the story of a a massive breakout from a German World War II POW camp, complete with tunnels, convincing disguises, cleverly faked identity papers, the works. Of course it's all fun and games until you piss off the Nazis and they start executing people.

Alan Moorehead's Eclipse is an interesting first hand account of the end of World War II. Written just months after the war ended, it is a good lesson in how different things can look when you are right up against them. Worth a read.

Rounding out my WWII collection is Eisenhower and Berlin, 1945: The Decision to Halt at the Elbe by Stephen E. Ambrose. This is as much a book about the Cold War Why didn't the western powers rush into and take more of Germany before the Soviets got there? as about the Second World War. Also another URB. As is The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis. I remember the day - I think I was 11 or 12 - when I realized that there was this other country out there, a country that was ready, and more disturbingly able, to kill me with 15 minutes notice. Gaddis' book puts all that in perspective and along the way made me feel better about the world as it is today. Think about it: for all the horrible things that are going on right now, at least we are not 15 minutes away from extinction.

If you are, as I am, a fan of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, you might be tempted to check out Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City by Nelson Johnson. Although the TV show is theoretically based on the book, be forewarned that the two have very little in common. Read the book and you will find that, as shown in the HBO series, AC was indeed a center of bootlegging during the 1920's. But keep reading and you will also learn how Atlantic City came into being, how it rose and then declined and the (maybe) rose again with the coming of casino gambling. That is a lot of dry historical fact in return for a brief flash of mob glitter.

I'm also a fan of the TV show Mad Men. The book The Real Mad Men: The Wizards of Madison Avenue and the Memorable Ads that Shaped Our World by Andrew Cracknell? Meh.

I have strong political opinions and one of them is that people should mostly keep their politics to themselves. Having said that, I do think that Rachel Maddow's Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power is worth reading. Maddow makes the case that the US military has become detached from most of the US population and that this is bad for the military, for the rest of us and for the country as a whole.

In the same spirit, with all the talk in this past US election about voters needing picture ID, I'd like to suggest an alternative: Everyone who wants to vote should need an ID or proof that they have read Maureen Harrison'd Freedom of Speech Decisions of the United States Supreme Court. This simple book, where each chapter focuses on a single Supreme Court decision, complete with a summary of the case followed by the key bits of the decision itself, makes me proud of my country.

Blind Ambition by John Dean makes me a lot less proud. Dean was one of the key figures in the 1970s political firestorm known as Watergate. If you have ever wondered how decent people sometimes end up doing really awful things, have a look at this book.

Finally we have A Travellers History of Canada by Robert Bothwell. This was a book I read at least partially out of guilt. My friend and colleague Ryan Neufeld is from Canada and, well, I didn't know a thing about that big country lurking up there at the top of the map. So I got hold of this book - admittedly a little dry and a little dated - and now I'm don't feel quite as ill informed as I did. Just mostly.

Next year I'm going to make a concerted effort to read some non-North American, non Western Europe history.

Various

Reel Culture: 50 Movies You Should Know About (So You Can Impress Your Friends) by Mimi O'Connor is another one of those N Things kind of books. Should I feel guilty? Yes. Do I actually feel guilty? No.

I certainly don't feel guilty about reading Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon. Steal Like an Artist proves that books don't have to be long and drab to be wonderful and valuable. Steal this book.

Another winning 'N Things' book is The Little Red Writing Book: 20 Powerful Principles of Structure, Style, and Readability by Brandon Royal. Being able to write well is the gift that gives in both directions: It makes you better at what you do and it enables you to make other people better. This little book is a great reminder of the basics.

Closely related are the next two books. I say they are related because being able to write is only part of the equation. The other bit is knowing something. What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy by Thomas Nagel is a very short book about how we know what we know, while Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, And Other Confusions Of Our Time is all about how we know what we do not in fact know. I know more for having read these two.

Finally, here's another personal admission: I love the Ukulele. I love playing the things, I love other people playing them, I love buying them, and I even love reading about them. Despite the fact that, as someone once said, writing about music is like dancing about architecture, I like the way Alistair Wood writes about the ukulele in Ukulele for Dummies. If you want to learn to play the uke, a) buy one b) check out youtube and c) buy this book.

Fiction

This has been a fictional year of discoveries for me. The discoveries were real enough, it's just that they involved fiction. I kicked off the year by discovering Jack McDevitt, in the form of his novel Deepsix (Engines of God, #2). Deepsix has everything that good science fiction should: Strong characters, including an actual female lead for a change, commentary on current society, and high, high tech all wrapped in an action filled plot. The only question that Deepsix leaves behind is why Hollywood insists on making crappy, story-free bits of fluff (yes Avatar, I'm talking about you) when Deepsix is lying around, just waiting to be made into a film? Best of all, Deepsix is part of a series (actually it's the second volume of the series, but I've never been known for coloring within the lines) so once you finish it you can flow right into Chindi or Cauldron or Omega. If you aren't in the mood for a long series, you can try the other McDevitt book that I read this year: Infinity Beach. Many of the same themes as Deepsix et. el. in a single tidy tome.

If you are looking for another good book with a strong female lead then try Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium, #1). This story of violence, abuse and creepy old men is not for the weak of heart nor the upsetable of stomach, but it is nevertheless an enthralling read.

On the much lighter side is Stuart Jaffe's Southern Bound (Max Porter Mysteries) and its sequel Southern Charm. So you got your modern day private eye, his feisty wife and their secret weapon, the ghost of a long dead Sam Spade knock-off. Yes, you read that right, ghost. I don't usually recommend books based on price, but I've got to say that these inexpensive novels (available on Amazon and wherever fine bytes are sold) provide a lot of fun for not a lot of bucks.

Another way to waste a lazy Sunday afternoon is to read the little gems in 50 Short Science Fiction Tales. Edited by Isaac Asimov, this book is full of 4 and 5 page mini stories. In a world full of 600 page, Part 1 of the 11 book series with maps on the end pages it's fun to read stories that come to the point.

Do comic books - sorry, graphic novels - count? They do if they are The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1 and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 2 both by Alan Moore. If you take all of the fun characters from 19th century speculative fiction, everyone from Captain Nemo to Mr Hyde and roll them into a James Bond sort of plot, well you had me at Captain Nemo.

Speaking of 19th century speculative fiction, I also read The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells this year. Creepy and bloody in ways that usually keep me out of a book, this one was good enough to propel me on to the end. I'll never look at the cat quite the same way again though.

I love John Mortimer's Rumpole stories, and knowing this my lovely wife gave me A Rumpole Christmas: Stories for (what else) Christmas. If you don't know Rumpole, he is an aging and opinionated British lawyer and sometimes writer, someone who is good at what he does and simply wants to get on with it. Substitute 'engineer' for 'lawyer' and you've pretty much nailed my career aspirations, but I wish I was half as witty as old Rumpole.

My final discovery this year was Jane Austen. Now Jane and her books have been around for a while, it's just that I could never bring myself to finish one. This year I discovered it wasn't Jane that I had a problem with, it was Emma. You know, the snotty rich girl from Austen's novel called, well, Emma. I had tried to read Emma a few years ago and it just bugged me. So early this year I had another run at Austen with Pride and Prejudice and what do you know, the girl can write. In fact I liked P&P so much that I slid right into another Austen winner Sense and Sensibility. From there I went on to Persuasion and at that point my romance with Miss Austen hit another rough patch. So Jane and I are on something of a break, reading other people and seeing how things work out. I'll let you know.

Onward to 2013!

Russ

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