Books of 2020
As in previous years, here are the books I read this year, in order of completion.
Nature’s Building Blocks - John Emsley
Re-read of a very fun book, talking about all the elements and interesting facts about each one.
My Affairs - Nathan J. Robison
Oh boy, this didn’t age well.
A future memoir, from the alternate reality where Bernie Sanders won. At the time, it was kind of hard to read, because it felt like I was reading about a great future that we might have, but so clearly might not happen…
Now, I don’t think I’d be able to read it at all. Or maybe it’d be easier, since it’s just “what might have been”, instead of “ooh, this could actually happen”.
Emotional Currency - Kate Levinson
Recommended by my partner, discussing women’s relationship with money.
Made me think a lot of things from books I had read last year, in particular Capital and A Room of One’s Own.
The Sciences of the Artificial - Herbert A. Simon
Wide-ranging discussion as to what intelligence is, how we deal with it, and how we create it.
The Aesthetic Dimension - Herbert Marcuse
Like the other Marcuse books I’ve read, it was a short but very challenging read.
This book was about what art is vis-a-vis Marxist and other ideologies.
Somewhat related to his book I read last year, Eros and Civilization, which discussed how the opposing forces of “eros” – life, desire for growth & love – conflicts with thanatos – death, desire to destroy, conflict. This is about how art relates to the dominant ideology in which it is created.
Ancient Egypt: A Social History
I bought this book years ago in school, for an elective I took on ancient Egyptian history.
I had only read bits of it for that class, so I decided to actually read the whole thing.
It’s a pretty academic text, lots of references to other things that it somewhat assumes you’ll understand & be able to track down. Regardless though, it paints a really interesting picture of what we know about the society of ancient Egypt, beyond just the big monuments & tombs.
There were two aspects of the book that I found particularly thought provoking. Firstly, how much the author mentions that we just don’t know enough yet, as digs just haven’t been done yet. Just makes me reflect upon how much of what the past was like we just have no idea about. Secondly, the time scales involved are kind of mind-blowing. The Egyptian empire spanned thousands of years, even short dynasties are hundreds of years long. Given how much of the modern world is barely hundreds of years long, it really gives some perspective (this feeling of time scales has been especially exacerbated by the work I’ve been doing with my friend’s upcoming app).
Lampedusa - Steven Price
Sad novel about a dying Sicilian prince writing a novel.
Realized after finishing it that the main character was a real person & his book is also real. Put it on hold at the library; curious to see what it’s like.
Theory - Dionne Brand
Picked this up while cleaning & couldn’t put it down.
The story of a philospher reminiscing about her past lovers and how they affected the development of her dissertation.
I found it really interesting to see how a philosopher applies their theories to their lives. Probably also helped that I was reading Marcuse at the same time – a lot of overlap.
Soviet Marxism: A Critical Analysis - Herbert Marcuse
A very good follow-up to The Aesthetic Dimension. It discusses the ideology of the Soviet Union through a Marxist sort of lens.
It was very interesting, a really good read. Did a good job of illuminating the underlying ideologies and comparing & contrasting with Western ideologies, as well as looking at the differences between socialism, Marxist-Leninsm, and Stalinism.
Something I wrote to a friend, trying to summarize the ideas of The Aesthetic Dimension & Soviet Marxism:
The big thing is, since the revolution succeeded, it resolved the contradiction that separated the proletariat from the power of the state, so now the desires of the individuals and the desires of the state are synonymous.
Therefore, any action of disagreement with the political system is also going against the personal values of everyone.
Furthermore, because non-representational art imagines an idealized world that is not this one, then – since the best possible world has been realized by the Soviet Union – the world it envisions must, by definition, be a less-than-perfect one & by idealizing/encouraging it, you’re trying to make the world a worse place.
Dune - Frank Herbert
Re-read, for the millionth time.
I very regret first reading the prequels, which really coloured my perception of the book.
Trying to read it from a fresh start, ignoring all the stuff from those books.
Enjoyable as always.
The Craft of Prolog - Richard O’Keefe
Great intermediate Prolog book. Lots of neat insights into some of the practical issues with writing Prolog code.
I found it very enjoyable and interesting. Definitely not a beginner book, but a great middle ground – I wish there were more books in this niche for programming.
Moby Dick - Herman Melville
Wanted to read a classic.
I found it really fun – lots of interesting digressions, told in an entertaining way. Some novels are classics for a reason!
Reproduction - Ian Williams
Some neat experiments with the form in a few places – sort of House of Leaves-esque – but mostly very depressing.
I wish there’d been more of the neat twists with the style and less of just awful things happening to young women.
The Art of Computer Programming: Volume 1: Fundamental Algorithms - Donald E. Knuth
I got the books ages ago, but only skimmed them. I decided that I wanted to actually just read all of them cover-to-cover.
This first volume was good. This one was an introduction to the mathematical techniques, coding style used in the book, and the basic data structures.
It felt good to do more math, since I don’t really do a lot of that anymore.
The data structure stuff was familiar, but always good to have more depth as to all the variants & implementation details.
Knuth is also surprisingly funny!
Mona Lisa Overdrive - William Gibson
One-evening read when I was tired & just wanted a fun, light read.
I had read it previously, but it must have been quite a while ago, since I didn’t remember much.
Enjoyable as Gibson always is though!
King James Bible
Another big challenge read.
After reading Moby Dick and enjoying the elevated language, I decided I wanted to go to the source.
A long read, but rewarding – at the very least, I definitely feel like I recognize a lot more references in classical literature now!
It was really interesting being familiar with the “highlights” of the whole story and then actually perusing the whole thing. A mixture of “hey, I know this part” and “woah, didn’t know about this”.
Sapiens - Yuval Noah Harari
Notes I jotted down while reading it:
Off the bat, quotes by Bill Gates & Barack Obama make me distrust it. Some of the initial stuff is interesting, particularly when talking about how multiple homind species existed contemporaneously. A few lines that jump out at me as prima facie ridiculous – “according to the American [Founding Fathers] all people are equal”, but then mentions slavery (in the context of abolition) a few sentences later. Also said how “the French Revolution was spearheaded by affluent lawyers, not peasants”, when arguing that the material conditions aren’t sufficient to explain social upheaval – ignoring that bread crises fomented the revolution, which was originally peasant-driven and only later co-opted by lawyers – who were the sans-culottes then?
Okay, did return to the Americans example and points out the hypocrisy. Also said some dumb things about binary though, so maybe a wash.
Some decent stuff about how wealth-based hierarchies are also made up & largely accidents of birth, but still seems to really ignore/downplay material conditions.
Ugh, another weird assertion – saying how because science is saying we don’t have souls, secular humanism is also going to need to change? As if all the other things human do are based on rationally-derived conclusions…
After a whole chapter on the depredations of capitalism, the only mention of alternatives is that “Communism was so much worse in every conceivable way”. Really?! I’d at least like some supporting facts…
Finished the book. Somewhat mixed feelings…some stuff interesting, but enough unfounded assertions confidently stated about how things are, or what does & doesn’t affect human culture to make me a little leery of accepting its conclusions.
Fundamentally, the liberal idea that ideals are the cornerstone of development & progress, despite the materialist beginning.
The Art of Computer Programming: Volume 2: Semi-Numerical Algorithms - Donald E. Knuth
The section of random number generation was great. Really interesting overview of all the different algorithms and, even more interesting, how to assess the quality of a random number generator.
The sections of floating-point numbers and different radices was interesting, in a more abstract way (since it predates IEEE floating-point, it’s not as directly applicable).
The final sections on evaluating polynomials was…challenging.
Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science - Daniel P. Todes
Extremely in-depth biography of the famous physiologist.
The stuff on all his research was well-written and informative, but the part I fonud most interesting was the overall picture life in Russia as it passed through its revolution.
It was also kind of wild to realize how young the modern era actually is – Pavlov, who I thought of as a pretty modern researcher (died in 1934) was taught in school by Mendelev, the inventor of the periodic table!
Foucault’s Pendulum - Umberto Eco
Explains the conspiracy theory mindset very well; that particular mindset where everything is part of The Plan and no fact can disprove it, it just becomes part of the plan as well.
Envisioning Real Utopias - Erik Olin Wright
Fantastic read, exactly what I needed.
This book is both a very cogent explaination on the problems with a captalist system vis-a-vis a desire for justice and egalatarian social relations as well as a good, realistic evaluation of what we can do to fix things. It’s both sober and optimistic, describing possible pathways towards a world that is neither a capitalist hell-hole nor a totalitarian statist regime.
Grundrisse - Karl Marx
I wanted to read read some of the primary texts and not just commentaries on Marx, but Capital seemed a little too much, so I went with this.
Much more approachable, as it’s a compilation of his notebooks, ranging over a bunch of money and captital-related topics. Mostly, it’s him railing against other economists of the day and explaining the deficiencies in their thinking. Fun stuff.
Really fascinating to read about capitalism from the perspective of a very thoughtful & knowledgeable person who’s actually writing from the time of its birth.d
The Leopard - Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
The actual book that is written in Lampedusa. I really enjoyed this book; absolutely beautiful, made me nostalgic for a time and a place I’d never experienced.
The Body: A Guide for Occupants - Bill Bryson
Fun book, nice light read for the most part. Very good summary of a bunch of information from a very well-informed layman.
Enjoyable, although the bits at the end were pretty grim.
Blood Meridian - Cormac McCarthy
Beautiful book about horrible people and things. Unrelenting brutality, but written in a way both poetic and direct.
I really loved this book, I think it may be one of my favourites.
A shower thought a few days after finishing it, about how perfect a description of America Blood Meridian is: The story of desperately poor people, using the only bit of power they have to casually destroy those with less than they have. The one person with the intelligence and power to do something better is a monomaniacal monster who lives a life of complete solipsism, justifying his monstrous actions by a warped personal philosophy.
The Occult Roots of Nazism - Nicholas Goodrick Clarke
Interesting history, much less fanciful than the title might suggest.
Explaining Technical Change - Jon Elster
A fairly technical book, from a collection of textbooks that a friend lent me. It attempts an analysis of how technical & technological change happens. Somewhat an economics book, somewhat a philosophy book. Short, but I enjoyed it; made me think, can’t ask for more than that from a book.
The Art of Computer Programming: Volume 3: Searching and Sorting - Donald E. Knuth
Very fun entry in the series. Lots of really interesting algorithms and analysis. I found the bits on optimal sorting and sorting networks in particular fascinating.
The sections on external sorting and searching are obviously a bit dated now, with the focus on tape drives, but the general algorithms are still relevant and the methods of analysis of course are evergreen.
Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder - Arnold Schwarzenegger & Douglas Kent Hall
A Christmas gift – fun, light reading. Interesting probably more historically than practically; much of the specific bodybuilding advice is pretty dated. The first biographical section is definitely the most interesting, although very hagiographic. I would be very interested to read another perspective of the same time period by a more neutral party.