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. Most of 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. Recently, I'm looking
for ad-free pointers, perhaps the publisher, perhaps a good review.
My idea is to have only what I see as first-rate work here, in most
recently read order. (Someday I'll tidy up the style, but think of it as
a 1990s period piece until then.)
Unholy: How White Christian Nationalists Powered the Trump Presidency, and the
Devastating Legacy They Left Behind, Sarah Posner, 2021
I read the 2020 hardcover original borrowed from the library, subtitled
"Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump," and put
it in December 2022 context in my
blog. The story's roots go back to the 1960s; "God's Strongman"
(as chapter 2's title labels him) became the man of the hour by "loudly
and fearlessly [and sociopathically] articulat[ing the] shared
grievances" of evangelicals, "that alien anti-Christian, anti-American
ideologies have taken over the government, judiciary, media, education,
and even popular culture and forced edicts upon a besieged white
Christian majority, cowing them into submission by invoking “political
correctness” that aims to censor, silence, and oppress them." One of
several actors who had been below my radar was Paul Weyrich, co-founder
of the Heritage Foundation, and ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange
Council, deemed "the architect of the antiestablishment New Right that
rose up in the 1970s."
Is Nothing For You Here, Fiona Hill, 2021
Hill went viral (as we say) thanks to her frank, detailed testimony
before the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, and Oversight
committees, in the run-up to the first impeachment of Donald
J. Trump, in late 2019. As Julian
Borger's review for The Guardian headlines it, "more than a White
House memoir": "Trump’s former Russia adviser charts her journey from
County Durham to DC, showing how populism thrives when communities are
abandoned." Terry Gross interviewed Hill
Fresh Air, Oct. 6, 2021, when the book was just out.
Two Wheels Good;
The History and Mystery of the Bicycle, Jody Rosen, 2022
From a fellow who loves bicycling and bicycles; what's not to like?
From origin stories to trick riding, good storytelling made it an easy
roll into the chapters contemporary to my life and times, including the
1976 Bikecentennial (that helped inspired my own cross-country jaunt),
Bangladesh, China's story from the Tiananmen uprising to yet another
overthrow-by-car, to his personal story, and ending with building a
better future. Through bicycling, of course.
in Chernobyl; the Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster,
Adam Higginbotham, 2019
A masterwork of historical reporting, a book that's earned its
considerable accolades. Almost 100 pages of notes, and more than 80
"author interviews" listed in the bibliography, along with archival
materials, books, and memoirs. Higginbotham takes us inside the control
room, inside the dark corridors of the exploded and collapsed Reactor
Number Four, on top of the roof of Number Three, in the helicopters
flying through (and stirring up) the radioactive debris. Part 2 (of 2)
is "Death of an Empire," the late 1980s end of the Soviet Union that is
breezily attributed to the debacle in Afghanistan, or the apotheosis of
Ronald Reagan in the west. Reading it in early 2022 was remarkable, as
Vladimir Putin attempts to resurrect the Soviet corpse with war on
Ukraine, pushing troops through the very same territory.
Roses, Rebecca Solnit, 2021
Wonderful writing and a remarkable examination of Orwell's life and
work, perambulating through the English countryside on a
botanically-themed personal archaeology expedition. I feel like some of
my sentences run long, and can get away from me, but Solnit illustrates
the way forward to enjoy splendid complexity. She's been on my radar,
but I'm not sure from whence. There are two dozen (!) "Also by" works
listed in the frontispiece, and just reading through the titles sounds
like adventure. "A Field Guide to Getting Lost." "A Paradise Built in
Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster." "Men
Explain Things to Me." "The Mother of All Questions."
Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine, Anna Della Subin, 2021
Blogged my reading of an excerpt that ran in The Guardian, early
February 2022: Apotheosis. The
excerpt is most of the final chapter, but it won't spoil the reading of
this fascinating history of conflict, conquest, deification, and
Realists; How We Can Build the Ideal World, Rutger Bregman,
Subtitle as on my borrowed copy of the 2017 edition of the 2016
translation; another's subtitle comprises what's inside:
"The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-hour
Workweek," "a practical approach to reconstructing modern society
to promote a more productive and equitable life." Who knew Richard Nixon
had a plan for a basic income for Americans back in 1968? It was news to
TED Talk, of course, from 2017. At a moment when we really need to
be rethinking everything, informed by the experience of a two-year old
and still-raging global pandemic, we should be talking about "essential
work" and just compensation, and how we can reorient economies to
sustaining our planet rather than destroying it. Also how to break out
of the rut of rewarding capital to the detriment of labor (which is to
say, wealth over humans) that is steadily increasing
inequality. This is a good start, and a worthwhile read.
of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American
Politics, Nicole Hemmer, 2016
A history of the mid-century origins of "conservative media," beating
the drum of "liberal bias" incessantly all the while they established
themselves as an alternative, unashamedly biased to even the score, and
eventually rising to the "truthiness" of "fair and balanced" Fox
News. From the early version of conservative radio, hamstrung by
fragmented markets and the Fairness Doctrine, rarely breaking even, to
the ubiquitous profitability of what we have now, Hemmer describes the
foundation underpinning the present mayhem. There are a lot of names new
to me in the early parts, but the storytelling is good, and I stuck with
it to lows during the Reagan years (oddly enough), to the "Comeback" in
the 1990s, led by Rush Limbaugh (in her telling, which seems accurate
enough). What next?!
on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service A Year Spent
Riding Across America, James McCommons, 2009
It took me more than a decade to stumble on to this account of a
year-plus of riding on passenger trains in the US, gauging their
decline, hoping for their future, chronicalling the charm of a mostly
bygone era. Published as the Great Recession bottomed out, "gas prices
reached $4 a gallon," and it seemed a trend. Definitely wanting an
update now; I don't imagine things are much more hopeful, but either
way, his keen observations, cheerful writing, and dogged research would
be well-applied. My only complaint is that he spent too much time trying
to assure us he wasn't a foamer. (Of course he is.) With an
Amtrak-loving President coming on board next month, the future might be
brighter for passenger rail. (Except... gas is still cheap.)
The Story of Success, Malcom Gladwell, 2008
"The Tipping Point" is down the list, added many years ago, but I cooled
a bit on his work when I read "Blink." Now I'm warmer again. It has the
feeling of a series of "just so" stories, even as he's unwinding
some of the ones we've been telling ourselves. In any case, it's an
interesting read about good fortune, cultural legacies, summer vacation,
and, in his epilogue, the unexpected story of "his people."
Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States",
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, 2014
Just this spring (2020), our Attorney General answered a question about
history, regarding the Department of Justice dropping charges on someone
who had admitted his guilt—twice—in open court, by saying
"Well, history is written by the winners, so it largely depends on
who's writing the history." William Barr's self-serving and fatuous
notion notwithstanding, the truth is, as
Goldberg says Vincent Cannato told him, "Much of the historical
profession today is dedicated to recovering the voices of [formerly]
marginalized groups." Barr's cliché suits his sense of privilege, to be
sure, and is a confession from the man who pre-emptively rewrote
Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report. But he won't be having the
last word. Dunbar-Ortiz's book garners criticism in the Amazon reviews
from various winners, and historians, perhaps the most succinct of the
1-star takes puts it in one word: "Biased." (under the headline,
"Biased"). Indeed. Also, some of the statements of fact might be wrong.
Ironically. It's good exercise to (a) understand a different point of
view, and (b) assess your own biases as you measure those of
others. This is a good start on a re-overview of the last
The Weather Machine; A Journey Inside the Forecast,
Andrew Blum, 2019
As we experiment with the one and only inhabitable planet we know, it's
good that we have the capacity to make careful measurements. Blum tells
the story of how the laboriously assembled 20th century art and science
met the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, and made history—and
forecasts—more accessible to everyone, in an engaging way. For
reasons spelled out in the blog,
I'm not an impartial audience, but what I said there: I recommend the
book for its big picture view of weather forecasting, from its early
days of careful, tedious observation, to the inception of analytical
methods that were far ahead of their time (and the computing hardware to
carry them out), to the present day, in which we benefit from "the
most successful international system yet devised for global cooperation
for the common good in science or in any other field," as John
Zillman, former director of Australia's Bureau of Metrology put it.
An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology,
Lisa Margonelli, 2018
Termites always seemed to me creepy, and something to avoid, but that I
didn't had to worry about, much, because I live "up north." The clever,
"termite-eaten" dust jacket on this book caught my eye on the new books
shelf at the library, and what a lucky find! A smart and funny science
writer, an engrossing subject, and wonderful descriptions at the
frontier of our biological knowledge. These little buggers are generally
tiny, but with guts enough for a Matryoshka community that does things
we can't figure out. Yet. Her skill at explaining complexity made me
think of Michael Lewis, and the story she unfolds reminds me that I need
to finish reading David Quammen's
Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life.
And Margonelli's (ten years' older) first book sounds good too,
on the Brain: Petroleum’s Long, Strange Trip to Your Tank.
The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of
Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing, Merve Emre, 2018
Extravert or introvert? Feeling or sensing? Believer or skeptic?
There's something for everybody, no matter which one of the 17 cells you
inhabit. (#17 = It's more complicated than a 4x4 matrix.) The good news
is, you're not actually confined in one box, now and forever, never mind
what Carl or Katherine or Isabel had to say. Emre took the trouble to
sit through the training, sift through what archives she could get in
to, and assemble a fascinating and very readable biography of the mother
and daughter who concocted the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, setting it
into the context of the 20th century growth industry of personality
Gross' interview with the author for Longreads provides a more
in-depth review, and an introduction to the author to get you going.
Girl's Guide to Missiles: Growing up in America's secret desert,
Karen Piper, 2018
Smart, funny, observant, well-written, beautifully constructed,
engaging, personal, surprising, amazing, and remarkably interwoven with
the Zeitgeist of the last half-century. And yes, poignant,
especially for those of us coming of age with missiles, if not quite as
personally as she and her family did.
Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin's War on
America and the Election of Donald Trump, Michael Isikoff and David
The story is still unraveling in the summer of 2018, but this first
draft of history explains an awful lot about the 2016 U.S. presidential
campaign, from two investigative reporters who were at the leading edge
while it was happening.
Travel: a history, James Gleick, 2016
A good book to wander through at leisure, connecting one's past,
present, and future with the genre of considering how those jots and
tittles are lined up, looped through, and tangled in the telling.
Ursula K. LeGuin's quip for the Chapter 11 epigram: "Story is our only
boat for sailing on the river of time." And as Gleick wrote, so do I:
Your now is not my now. You're reading a page on the web. I'm updating
that page. You're in my future, yet I know what comes next—some of
it—and you don't. "If this seems a bit meta, it is." But it's fun
to poke around in the haunted house of the not-now.
On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger, 2016
A compact, powerful, compelling read about the attractions of war, and
how we might live better without it (or after it, at least).
Junger's a good storyteller, with life experience and journalistic skill
to make this more than just a good story. Longer response on the blog:
My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, Dan Lyons, 2016
Bleached White Male washes up into the fascinating, horrific, funny,
strange, frothy world of a tech bubble #2 startup and lives to
collect a small slice of IPO pie (and a little bottle of Brut) and
tell the tale in a most entertaining fashion. Fuller review on the blog:
Travels in the New Third World, Michael Lewis, 2011
If you've been following
Lewis' writing for Vanity Fair you might have seen some or
all of the five pieces he assembled to make this book, but 5 years on,
it might also be fun to revisit them, especially when cheered by the
fact that the global economy hasn't cratered as badly as you would have
inferred from his take of the bleak houses of April 2009 (Iceland),
October 2010 (Greece), and 2011 (Ireland, Germany, and California).
Lewis' knack for observation and storytelling make for superb, and
Land and Water Meet: A Western Landscape Transformed, Nancy
If something good can come out of the gang of Bundy-clan led idiots
occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and its expression of
inchoate rage against the government forces preventing the return of the
western glory, it could be more attention for this superb environmental
history of the Harney Basin, and by extension, the competing forces for
resource exploitation and protection in the intermountain west. The
Amazon link is to the reasonably priced paperback, rather than the $90
(!) hardcover edition (2003), which I enjoyed on loan from my library.
The quality of the writing and references make it worthy of being a
college textbook, which seems to be how the University of Washington
Press priced it. But it's eminently readable, and efficiently covers the
last century and a half, from pushing the natives out of the way, to the
age of the cattle barons, a homesteader getting away with murder (of a
cattle baron), the rise and fall of irrigation systems and lake levels,
the CCC, the chemical warfare of the mid-20th century, and the unending
battle over turf, water, and the riparian zone between them.
Things were looking up in the early 2000s, as compromises were being
found among disparate stakeholders, goaded by politics and threat of
litigation where necessary. The latest round of resource planning for
the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was the next, big step forward in
the "pragmatic, adaptive management" she describes in the concluding
chapter. And then the wingnuts showed up... (More about the book a Jan.
17, 2016 blog post,
The big picture
of Harney County's History, and lots more about the wingnuts
in the January edition.)
The Secret Lives of the Brain, David Eagleton, 2011
Prompted by the first episode of the outstanding series
narrated by neuroscientist David Eagleman
Brain which has
a presumably fine companion book,
The Brain: The Story of You),
I borrowed a library copy of this earlier book, and found it be a
fascinating, provocative, and wonderful read. Eagleman is brilliant,
entertaining, and superbly talented at explaining both the explicable
and the inexplicable. The latter remains the larger part of the story,
tidily noted "as the quip goes" at the very end of it: If our brains
were simple enough to be understood, we wouldn't be smart enough to
understand them. That doesn't mean it isn't worthwhile to give it a try,
even if, as he so persuasively shows, we are and will remain largely
incomprehensible to ourselves. (More in my Dec. 4, 2015 blog post,
Welcome to the machine.)
the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates, 2015
- Toni Morrison called it "required reading," it won the National Book
Award, and was named one of the ten best books of the year, all for good
reason. Power, personal, direct, and as Michiko Kakutani put it for
The New York Times "a searing meditation on what it means to be
black in America today." For those of us who are not black, who have
never been suspected of anything or pulled over or arrested or beaten
because of the color of our skin, it's a giant step toward
Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America,
Kevin M. Kruse, 2015
History that started just before I arrived, and the cultural milieu in
which my early childhood swam in. Public expressions of piety and
religiosity seemed like a good and decent thing in the Cold War against
godless Communism, even if ok, they ran a little roughshod over the
brilliant idea our founders had to try to keep religion and politics at
arm's length. The May, 2015 NYT Sunday Book Review
Michael Kazin includes a perfect historic image of Billy Graham and
Dick Nixon at prayer, precious for its juxtaposition with the sound
track that came out in Watergate. We were one nation, mostly united, in
willingness to provide lip-service to religiosity for all the good it
could provide. There's
author interview, and link to an excerpt
on NPR, from March, 2015.
High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, Emma Sky, 2015
The very personal, very inside look at life and work in Iraq in
the initial "direct rule" of 2003 to 2004, the "surge" in 2007, the
2008-2010 drawdown, and "Things Fall Apart" in 2012-2014. Embedded with,
but not part of, the Coalition Provision Authority in Kirkuk, and the
military in Baghdad, Sky had a unique point of view, and has written a
fascinating book. A bit longer description, and a couple brief excerpts in
my 17.Sept blog post.
Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information,
Frank Pasquale, 2015
end users (as it were) have no power for negotiation in the explicit
contracts we make for being the subjects of Big Data, data mining and
the algorithms of reputation management, search, and finance. (And oh,
there is no full-on "Cancel" to speak of, either.) I wrote
a short review of this important
I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, Mike Brown, 2010
Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life, Tom Robbins, 2014
This I Get to Experience, Norman Lear, 2014
Three memoirs from shall we say astronomically different lives, each an
entertaining adventure in its own right. A star scientist, a star
novelist, and a star director walk into a bar...
My February, 2015 blog post
gives the longer outline and motivation.
The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, Rick
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
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
in the July, 2014 edition of my
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)
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
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.
Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, Matthew B.
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.
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.
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,
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.
by William Saletan in the NYT, and plenty of other views of it in
various media, including
the author's book website,
with Bill Moyers, and one
Politifact. You can play along at
"where you can learn about your own morality, ethics, and/or values,
while also contributing to scientific research, and
"find and promote evidence-based methods for increasing political
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
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.
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
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
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.
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).
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
- 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
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
Life in Moving Fluids: The Physical Biology of Flow, Steven
- 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...