A reading list

I started this list of "good books I've read recently" back when the web was nearly new, and then got distracted... by the web, eh. I'm not reading books as often as in the 90s, but there are still plenty to choose from.

The titles are linked to more complete descriptions and reviews from Amazon.com. It's pretty much the only sort of advertising on my site, a reasonable quid pro quo that you're free to take or leave as you see fit. At any rate, my idea is to have only what I see as first-rate work here.

Nixonland cover Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, Rick Perlstein, 2008
Filled in and fleshed out the history from before I showed up to my teen years, the making of a president and the breaking of two countries to get the job done. Perlstein details the range and depth of lawlessness employed, from the "black bag" jobs, right up to treason and war crimes. It was worse—far worse—than I knew, or could have remembered. Longer review, links, and some pushback from one of the cast of characters in an August, 2014 blog post.
Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, cover image Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, Michael Lewis, 2014
A spell-binding tale of the varieties of human depravity capable of being spawned by greed, and about problem solving. It has a happy ending feel in that some of the problems have been identified, and maybe even solved. But solutions are conditional, and almost certainly temporary. Regulatory responses to abuse lead to modified forms of abuse; tactical gains in speed and strategy get replaced by new advantages, and new strategies. The lure of money for (next to) nothing is durable, if nothing else. A great story, well-told. (Longer version of my quick review in the July, 2014 edition of my blog)
The Filter Bubble cover image The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, Eli Pariser, 2011
A lot more has happened in technology, politics and the world since he wrote the book, but it remains timely, I think, as what he describes in process has added still more capability, engagement, and become still more pervasive. "While the Internet has the potential to decentralize knowledge and control, in practice it's concentrating control over what we see and what opportunities we've offered in the hands of fewer people than ever before." A readable and durable start toward understanding and overcoming the "personalization" aimed at us for others' pecuniary interests, and motivation at overcoming the default choices and easy distractions in today's media. (Longer bit on the blog: Outside the bubble)
Being Wrong cover
Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, Kathryn Schulz, 2011
We all had the experience of realizing we were wrong about something, but as Schulz points out, that's not quite the same as experiencing being wrong; when we're actually wrong about something, it's because we think we're right when we aren't. There are more paradoxes along the way, and she does a fine job of teasing them apart and finding interesting ways of seeing what we thought was all-too familiar. You can sample some of the good stuff in her 2011 TED Talk, although I will say her writing style is more engaging than her speaking and presenting was for me. From "Wrongology" to considering how we obtain, test (or don't test) and lose beliefs, through heartbreak and to transformation, she does a nice job of turning the pessimism of inevitable error inside out and into "the optomistic meta-induction from the history of everything," that by getting things wrong, we give ourselves the possibility of being right.
Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, Matthew B. Crawford, 2009
Waxing philosophical about working with one's hands, as that kind of occupation becomes ever less common. Crawford's an entertaining writer, with a life journey to inform a fine book. His work as an electrician, an abstracter, and a tank thinker provide contrast from the bare knuckled (and yes, also intellectual) contest of man vs. machine. You don't have to have read Zen and the Art... beforehand (or recently), but it would be a nice way to set the stage.
The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, James Gleick, 2011
From talking drums, to reeds poked in wet clay, the secret of life, making and breaking codes, words on a wire, quantum computing, the energy in forgetting, Wikipedia, overload and the sum total of information in the universe, Gleick carves up a complete history in a masterful drive from start to finish.
Above the Clearwater: Living on Stolen Land, Bette Lynch Husted, 2004
A memoir from north Idaho, connecting the land with the history of the succession of people who have lived on it and made claims against it. When I was new to this part of the world, I had a weekend adventure at a friend's ranch, riding horses in the Clearwater breaks, and reading this felt like filling in the color of my line-drawing of that distant memory. Ursula K. Le Guin's friendly blurb is featured on the cover, and having read the book, I see it's spot-on: "Like the river of its name, Bette Husted's book runs with clarity and passion. Complex, harsh, and tender, never taking the easy way out, this memoir is beautiful in its honesty. I never read anything truer to the Western land and its people."
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt, 2012
A masterpiece by a social psychologist who brings his own life experience, work, and the work of many others (ethnography, evolutionary theory and experimental psychology) together to describe and explain the important differences motivating people of opposing political views, where they came from, why they matter, and what we might do to move beyond division. His book's organization and readability demonstrate his skill as a teacher, and researcher.

An excellent review by William Saletan in the NYT, and plenty of other views of it in various media, including the author's book website, TED Talks, an interview with Bill Moyers, and one on Politifact. You can play along at YourMorals.org, "where you can learn about your own morality, ethics, and/or values, while also contributing to scientific research, and CivilPolitics.org, to "find and promote evidence-based methods for increasing political civility."
Searching for Whitopia An Improbably Journey to the Heart of White America, Rich Benjamin, 2009
An amazing cross-cultural exploration from a man with a rich background and a remarkable capacity to ignore the boundaries that most of us observe by predilection, habit or both. The author has a book website with lots of entertaining photos to make up for the unillustrated text. I knew some of the places he describes before the changes of the last two or three decades, and appreciated his descriptions of things that have changed as well as where they came from, from a unique perspective. I finished the book the same month that the U.S. Census Bureau reported that our younger-than-one population is now majority minority, foreshadowing the overall population shift forecast to arrive in 2042.
We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (American Empire Project), Peter Van Buren, 2011
The subtitle provides a succinct summary: the personal account of an experienced Foreign Service Officer's 12 month stint in Iraq, near the end of our military occupation, 2009-10. The author's first book is a collection of vignettes of his direct experience, short on embellishment, and long on punch. The mayhem is relatively limited, but one wounded and one "non-combat" killed are expressive enough, as is his account of the myriad ways we dumped money on problems in the course of doing almost nothing useful. Required reading for any leaders who think we need another preemptive war.
Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition, Michael J. Mauboussin, 2009
A generalist's summary about common errors in thinking, with a focus on business, but general applicability. Among the topics covered: confirmation bias (evidence that supports us gets our attention, evidence that contradicts us gets discounted); unrecognized bias from the environment ("How accordion music boosts sales of burgundy"); anchoring (unrelated information can create a default starting point); affect (what we expect, how we feel, how much stress we're under all modify our decision-making); the halo effect (general impressions lead to improbably correlated specific assessments); the pull of conformity (the pull of majority opinion); and the ways we resolve cognitive dissonance (self-justification, hindsight bias, etc.).

The title alludes in part to the two systems of decision making described by 2002 Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, most recently in his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow: System 1, the experiential system, is 'fast, automatic, effortless, associative, and difficult to control or modify.' System 2, the analytical system, is "slower, serial, effortful, and deliberately controlled.'"
The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, Timothy Egan, 2009
A tremendously moving account of the epic forest fire of 1910, assembled from copious research, and set in the context of the political transformation started by the first Roosevelt. A hundred years later, we're still trying to sort out the issues of resource use, conservation, fire management, and political bounders.
The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, Michael Lewis, 2010
Lewis is a great storyteller, and a strong researcher, makes a fascinating and horrific story even more so. You hardly mind that somebody's been picking your pocket the whole time.
The Art of the Start: The Time-Tested, Battle-Hardened Guide for Anyone Starting Anything, Guy Kawaskai, 2004
The time and battle testing always remains to be seen, but Kawasaki does distill his own experience of starting and funding a variety of things into a readable book and a nice collection of pithy advice, from how to design and deliver a presentation with slides ("ten slides, twenty minutes, thirty-point-font text"), to the larger picture of doing what's right ("the art of being a Mensch"). He mentions non-profits several times, and I perked up for specific advice in that realm, but didn't find much. The emphasis on making meaning (instead of, you know, money) is a useful touchstone for every human enterprise (beyond subsistence, anyway).
Fiasco, Thomas Ricks, 2006
Detailed and well-documented account of how the Iraq war was lost. The disproportionate response to what proved to be a completely non-existent threat came with almost no planning for "Phase IV," and certainly no contingency planning for anything going wrong after "major combat operations" were complete. Three years on, the one word of Ricks' title is the succinct characterization of what we have wrought.
In Pharoah's Army and This Boy's Life, two memoirs by Tobias Wolff, 1995 & 2000.
Maybe I can still remember my own essential stories this clearly (but more likely I can't), and I wish I could write about them in as interesting a way as Wolff does. Pharoah's Army is the snapshot of his experience fighting in Vietnam, newly relevant with Pharoah's Army off on another adventure.
Stupid White Men ...and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation!, Michael Moore, 2001
Even for a sympathetic reader, his attitude can get in the way at times; it's better suited to film, perhaps. This book was written before 9/11, before the latest war in Iraq, so it seems dated in some ways, but the collection of facts he had to work from into early 2001 were damning enough. Read the details of how Jeb delivered Florida to W. (it was more than just the Supremes), the Wars on intelligence, Drugs, poor people, and on and on. He doesn't spare the Democrats, or Clinton/Gore, either; the last minute barrage of Executive Orders from their administration was more of an indictment for what they didn't get done, than a grand finale. (Lest we forget, however, 3/4ths of the Clinton administration was post-"Contract with America"; they had a lot of help.) The book has a lot of funny stuff in it, but not so much funny ha ha when it's all said and done.
Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud, Robert Park, 2000
A readable journey through the hinterlands of pathological science, junk science, pseudoscience, and of course, fraudulent science. Park describes the "belief engine" that makes us think A caused B when B follows A in our experience, and how that has given life to homeopathy, perpetual motion shams and scams, cold fusion, vitamin O, scares of microwaves and powerlines, and assorted hoaxes such as X-ray lasers and magnetic cures. He's got the background to explain it all succinctly, and the personal anecdotes to make it interesting.
A Shortcut Through Time, George Johnson, 2003
Progress reports about quantum computing seem to make a big deal about a very small number of qubits. Johnson explains why that should be: a very small number of quantum computing elements would make for a very powerful computer, able to do things that are impractical or impossible with the machines we have today. It's not an easy subject to make understandable at the popular science level; Johnson does a good job of it in a short book.
The Battle for God, Karen Armstrong, 2000
An important book for understanding the historical roots, the rise, and the consequences of fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. After the horrific events of September 11, 2001, this book provides an exceptional overview of history we'd be better off not repeating.
The Inmates are Running the Asylum, Alan Cooper, 1999
Answers to the riddle of why so much software is so bad, and what can be done about it. His list of "polite" characteristics for software interactions applies to interactions in general: "Polite software is interested in me, deferential to me, forthcoming, has common sense, anticipates my needs, is responsive, taciturn about its personal problems, well informed, perceptive, self-confident, stays focused, is fudgable, gives instant gratification, and is trustworthy."
The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcom Gladwell, 2000
Epidemics are characterized by contagious behavior, little changes that have big effects, and changes that happen rapidly. That moment in the spread of an epidemic when a little change precipitates a big effect in a hurry is "the tipping point." Gladwell's very readable exploration tells us more about the way we think and the way our thoughts get transmitted in social groups. Recommended reading for anyone who wants to change the world.
My Year of Meats, Ruth L. Ozeki, 1998
Everything else on this list is non-fiction, but my sister gave me this novel for Christmas. I may not be qualified to review fiction, given how little I read, but I found this to be a gripping piece of work. Ozeki's experience with two different cultures, the technology of videography and the industry of meat are an incredible combination.
The Cluetrain Manifesto, Christopher Locke, Rick Levine, Doc Searls, David Weinberger, 2000
The Manifesto's writing is an amusing travel book for some, lightning bolts of insight for others (I don't know "them" personally), and an odd treatise in a foreign language to still others. It's sort of a midterm paper on what the web is all about, and what it's going to mean for the future of commerce. As reviewer Laurie Kalmanson wrote on Amazon, "reasonably butt kicking ... and a breath mint, too." I have an extended response to this book.
Dialogue and the art of thinking together, William Isaacs, 1999
Isaacs' principles of dialogue are participation, unfolding, awareness and coherence, and he teaches how to put these principles in action. A profound handbook for kindling the fire of conversation into a productive energy. I have an extended review of this book.
How We Know What Isn't So, Thomas Glovich, 1991
Some patterns of misbelief are predictable, and knowing about them may help us avoid them. Each chapter has multiple useful nuggets, grouped in provocative categories like "Something out of nothing," "Seeing what we want to see," and "The imagined agreement of others." Nice companion to Why People Believe Weird Things, a few items down.
Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer, 1997
The story of the 1996 Everest disaster that killed 12 people, from one of the climbers. Intense, gripping adventure into the "Death Zone" at the top of the world. Krakauer's attempt to document what happened, and who made what mistakes became a lightning rod for the pain and grief of survivors, but I understand his need to do it. The truth of it is that at these kind of altitudes, even the best humans are slow, weak and stupid; single-minded purpose is required to get there, but even with incredible mental and physical conditioning, the margin for error is tiny.
Grand Central Winter: Stories from the Street, Lee Stringer, 1999
What it was like to be a homeless crack addict in New York. A powerful story, well told, and (most likely!) an opportunity to see the world from a new perspective.
Why People Believe Weird Things: pseudoscience, superstition, and other confusions of our time, Michael Shermer, 1997
By the editor of the Skeptic Magazine, most of it is "What Weird things do people believe, and why they are wrong." Alien abduction, Creationism, the cult of Ayn Rand, Holocaust denial, transcendant Physics. I clipped and saved his 25 fallacies in thinking, grouped into scientific, pseudo-scientific, logical and pyschological problems.
The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher, Lewis Thomas, 1979
A collection of eclectic essays; just my thing. "Debating is what committees really do, not thinking. Take away the need for winning points, leading the discussion, protecting one's face, gaining applause, shouting down opposition, scaring opponents, all that kind of noisy activity, and a group of bright people can get down to quiet thought." Entertaining, witty, learned, insightful. His earlier collection, The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, won the 1974 National Book Award.
Inside the Tornado: Marketing Strategies from Silicon Valley's Cutting Edge, Geoffrey A. Moore, 1995
Some business fad books don't deserve a fad. This one does, and it's a good whack upside the head for marketing in the 90's and beyond.
Startup: A Silicon Valley Adventure, Jerry Kaplan, 1994
The rise and fall of GO Corporation, told by its founder. Some of why pen-based computing hasn't hit the big time, and a look inside IBM, AT&T and Microsoft. Not always pretty, but a real page-turner. There may be a new epilogue soon, with reports that Kaplan now has evidence of Microsoft's malfeasance.
The Edge of the Unknown: 101 Things You Don't Know About Science and No One Else Does Either, James Trefil, 1996
Artful, 3-page descriptions of the frontiers of science. Now out in paperback.
Time: The Familiar Stranger , J.T. Fraser, 1987
Did you know that not all living things age and die? Sexual reproduction introduced that little side effect, with the benefit of speeding up the pace of change. What's the connection? Time looks different when you age and die, eh? Great book.
A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia , Blaine Harden, 1996
If you want to understand the Pacific Northwest's "east side," this book is a fine start. Harden looks at the Columbia basin through the eyes of his father, who worked on Grand Coulee dam, irrigation farmers, barge pilots, windsurfers, Native Americans and more. Let's hope that we can figure out a way to keep this from being an epitaph.
Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, Marc Reisner, 1986
The definitive history of water in the West; power, politics, and dams.
The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are; The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology, Robert Wright, 1995
If we evolved, that implies quite a bit about the way we are. Wright uses biographical material about Charles Darwin to tie his exposition together in an entertaining way.
Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot: And Other Observations, Al Franken, 1999
I read the paperback, which has a few new chapters. FunNEE! He doesn't limit himself to the obvious target, either. A local author wrote "The Bum's Rush" a few years back detailing the deceptive techniques that Rush uses, but Franken makes it a lot more entertaining.
The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself, Daniel J. Boorstin, 1985
We have the paperback, but the local library now has two copies of the illustrated edition. Might be worth re-reading, I enjoyed his grasp of history so much.
Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, J Gleick, 1993
Well written biography, with 48 pgs of notes, a Feynman bibliography, index. The story of a remarkable man in the center of 20th c. particle physics.
Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition: Science Slightly over the Edge, Ed Regis, 1990
Great title, huh? You hope a title like this won't be en empty tease. It's not. Read Howard Rheingold's review for a succinct invitation to a wonderful book.
Life in Moving Fluids: The Physical Biology of Flow, Steven Vogel, 1996
Less technical than engineering texts, this gives a better introduction to fluid mechanics, by being less obsessed with mathematical analysis (and yet doesn't skip the math).
Tools for conviviality, Ivan Illich, 1973
I found this book stunning, and hard to put down. I'd like to find a copy to put in my library and go back to it again, after the ideas percolate for a while.
Things That Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine, Donald A. Norman, 1994
A proposal to have technology serve humans, rather than the current situation. Don Norman was briefly head of HP's Advanced Appliance Design Center in the Consumer Products Group, but doesn't really seem like a corporate guy.

Haven't had enough? There's more...